5 teams who could surprise in 2021, you’d expect to see those teams who were poor last year and have restocked. If I am honest that low hanging fruit is just to easy. Yes, we all expect the Jags, Jets and Bengals to improve, they have to! With this article I want to focus more on those middle of the pack teams who can break through this year.
I realise that one of the teams below has not been considered a ‘middle of the pack’ team for quite some time. Last year though that is exactly what they were. I have been blowing the trumpet for a couple of these teams all offseason so they’ll be no surprise.
As always I am sure that not everyone will agree but that’s the fun, discussion. Let me know if you think I am totally off. If all 5 of the teams below make the playoffs I’d take that as win number 1. Should any of them progress to the Superbowl that would be win 2. If they win it then obviously I am the oracle and you can thank me next offseason for putting you ahead of the curve.
So is your team one of the one’s to watch out for? Let’s see…
1. Minnesota Vikings
This is the team that I have said all offseason shouldn’t be underestimated. Yes, last year they were dreadful on Defence. Mike Zimmer won’t let that happen two years running if he can help it. With at least 4 predicted day 1 starters who did not play for this Defence last year it will look very different. Getting Danielle Hunter and Michael Pierce back is going to be huge for the front 4. Both can be game changers on their day so expect immediate improvement. Don’t overlook the signing of Sheldon Richardson or the return of Everson Griffen either.
The secondary has a new leader in Patrick Peterson. With Bashaud Breeland also coming in there should be some steadying of a very unsteady ship back there. As a result I also expect Cameron Dantzler to rediscover his end of year from from a year ago. Along with Mackenzie Alexander that’s a much better Cornerback room. It’s worth remembering that Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks both had injury affected seasons last year. Those two back fit, mentoring 4th round draft pick Chaz Surratt offer a solid core.
And On Offence?
On Offense skill positions were not the problem last year. Thielen, Jefferson and Cook walk into most starting line-ups around the league. I maintain that Kirk Cousins is a top 10-15 QB when properly protected. The Offensive line is the big question mark here. One bright spot from last year was the emergence of Ezra Cleveland who has seemingly slotted in at Left Guard. 1st round pick Christian Darrisaw should be the future at Left Tackle, even if a core muscle injury delays his introduction to the line. Aside form that questions abound. Garrett Bradbury was supposed to be the answer at Centre. It’s safe to say he probably hasn’t lived up to his 1st round billing yet. The right side of the line is still a work in progress but I believe that once the left side is sorted the right will come along with it.
If the Offensive line can sort itself out then Cousins will have enough time to progress through reads. If this happens I firmly believe that the interception numbers will fall. I have said before that when he is able to manage a game well he is one of the best in the league. Once he is chasing and feels the weight of the team on his shoulders it goes to pot. Ok, elite Quarterbacks don’t have this problem, but these guys are few and far between in the league.Vikings fans, be glad of what you have, the grass really isn’t always greener.
What Can They Do?
With Rodgers hanging about in Green Bay it’s a tall order for the Vikings to win the division. It’s not out of the question but it’ll be tough. There is no reason to think they cannot get to 10 or 11 wins. In the NFC that is likely enough to make the playoffs. For this Vikings team that would be huge progress.
It would show progression on Defence as well as that they are keeping up with Green Bay and holding off Chicago. In 2 or 3 years this Division will look very different. Rodgers will likely be gone and Fields established. The Vikings need to be planing for now as well as the future. That needs to start this year.
2. New York Giants
The NFC East was a dumpster fire of epic proportions last year. There isn’t really another way to put it. In a Division that is up for grabs any of the 4 teams could be the one to grab the opportunity. Whilst Washington have the consensus top defensive front, the Giants actually have the better overall Defence.
This started to show towards the back end of last year. Despite having a Coordinator with only 1 prior year’s experience the Giants finished 12th in average yards allowed per game. With leaders at each level in Leonard Williams, Blake Martinez and James Bradberry expect more of the same this year. To top it off Jabrill Peppers finally looks to be fulfilling his promise alongside Logan Ryan. Additions in the form of Adoree’ Jackson and Azeez Ojulari (a steal in the 2nd round of the Draft) will only further strengthen the Defence. Lastly on the Defence are two guys to watch. Xavier McKinney is being groomed to take over from Ryan and this year he could be great. Finally, the pick up of Quincy Roche is a low risk move that could pay off in a big way if he can find his NFL feet.
The Big Question – Daniel Jones
The big question for this team is Daniel Jones. Is he really a franchise QB who can take the Offense forwards alongside the Defence? For the Giants to win this Division he will have to. The problem for Jones is that his Offensive Line has issues. Andrew Thomas is close to being a complete bust. That said let’s give him the year to prove us wrong. Bringing in Billy Price at Centre at least gives Nick Gates some competition. Perhaps this produces a starting quality Centre from the two. If the Offensive Line can hold up and give Jones time then it is on him to make use of this. It is a big if and one that even Giants fans know is going to require some faith and luck alongside a lot of hard work.
Weapons on the outside were required. Man did the giants do what they could to help here. Bringing in Kenny Golladay (even if he is slightly overpaid) means they now have the big bodied Number 1 Jones has been crying out for. Injury concerns exist but if his body holds up Golladay will command attention from opposition Defences. This should then provide space for 1st round draftee Kadarius Toney and returning franchise RB Saquon Barkley to operate in.
Toney was a do it all player for the Florida Gators in his final year in college. He has the potential to be a Tyreek Hill kind of a player underneath for the Giants. We all know what Saquon has done, whether he can do it again remains to be seen but I have no reason to think he won’t be able to. Depth additions such as John Ross and Devontae Booker will help and Collin Johnson could show the Jaguars why they shouldn’t have let him go.
What Can They Do?
If everything clicks for the Giants then Division Champions is not out of the question. Yes the Cowboys and Football Team will have something to say about this but in such a close Division there has to be one who pulls away. This team has the potential to click and take off, all the pieces are there. Players need to start living up to the billings that made the team invest in them.
I don’t know if I see them winning a Divisional Round matchup but being there would show progress for a team that started the 2020 season looking awful. All fans want is to see their team progressing, if the Giants can keep doing this then why cant they rule this Division for a few years?
3. Denver Broncos
If ever there was a team that had all the pieces but just needed the spark to ignite them surely this Broncos team is it. I cant help but get excited when I look at this roster. Then I look at the Quarterback spot, but I will come on to this in a minute. This is a team that has been dormant since it’s 2016 Super Bowl triumph. Drew Lock has certainly not been the answer, that guy is the Detroit of Quarterbacks. Gross. The further away from this franchise he can get the better.
But first to the Defence. Yes, the Broncos were in prime position to take a Quarterback in the first round of this years Draft. However, rather than selecting Justin Fields or Mac Jones they decided to take the top Defensive player in the Draft in my view. Patrick Surtain II joins an already loaded secondary but provides immediate cover and certainty for the future. He will start the season behind Kyle Fuller, Bryce Callahan and Ronald Darby but will still see plenty of reps. Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons make up one of the top safety pairings in the league. No worries back here.
Von Miller and Bradley Chubb should still terrorise off the edge and the rest of the front 7 are as solid a group of players as you could ask for. I really like the pick up of Baron Browning out of Ohio State as well. This year he is depth but has the skills to be a player who makes an impact for this team for many years.
..And To The Quarterback Position
This team is loaded on Offence. Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton on the outside, ably supported by KJ Hamler and Tim Patrick are a great group of receivers. Melvin Gordon, Javonte Williams and the undrafted Nate McCrary offer danger and variety out of the backfield. For those of you who haven’t heard of Nate McCrary, I urge you to go and watch the preseason he put in with Baltimore, you won’t be disappointed. There is a reason Royce Freeman was allowed to leave. Noah Fant and Albert O have the Tight End position down.
I started out by saying that this team needs a spark to ignite and they could go interstellar. I am certain that they started the offseason with all eyes on DeShaun Watson, it explains their skipping of the rookie QBs and the signing of the journeyman Teddy Bridgewater. Denver fans, I still think Watson is your QB of the future, legal issues allowing. This year however you need to be hoping that Bridgewater can game manage them to success.
Drew Lock is done, forget about him. Bridgewater has shown in Minnesota and then New York that he is capable. In New Orleans he showed what you need to hope he can be this year. With a quality team around him he can win games. 5-0 in that Saints team was a great result for them. In Denver Teddy can go for 10 wins at least. If he can split games with the Chargers then second in the Division should be theirs.
What Can They Do?
This team is my super dark horse for Super Bowl champions. The team is built to win now and in the future. Teddy has the ability to take them there, albeit they will need a bit of fortune along the way. This Broncos team excites me, as a Ravens fan that annoys me but Broncos fans this year and the next few could be special.
Playing in a Division with Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert means that the whole team need to be able to compete and to perform well on a regular basis. There can be no weeks off. Put DeShaun Watson on this team and they can certainly do that. With Teddy in town there is a chance. Whether the Broncos can pull it altogether is a different matter but it’s going to be fun watching to see if they can.
4. New England Patriots
Watching a Dynasty fall is always a cause of amusement for those fans of other teams. I hate to say it though, rumours of the Patriots demise have been greatly exaggerated. Last year saw the Patriots lose a league high number of players to opt-outs as a result of Covid. These weren’t second string guys either. 7-9 last year is not a true reflection of the state of the franchise, the pendulum is going to swing back this year.
Dont’a Hightower offers a presence in the middle of the field that was not replaced last year. In fact last year there were some major elements of a traditional Patriots defence that were missing. Sacks were the biggest fall off. Last year they managed only 24, only just over half of their 2019 total (47). The team has attempted to remedy this in Free Agency by picking up Matt Judon, bringing back Kyle Van Noy from the Dolphins and drafting Ronnie Perkins. Picking up interior Defensive Lineman Christian Barmore in the 2nd round of the draft could also prove to be a steal.
The starting secondary on paper looks great, JC Jackson is coming off a 9 interception season and Jalen Mills opposite him is no slouch. Rookie wise, the Patriots have acquired Shaun Wade from the Ravens and must be hoping he can rediscover his 2019 college form. Early signs aren’t promising but he has time to work on things. Overall though, this is a top level defence and one which, when sprinkled with some Belichick magic, will show up far more often than not this year.
It’s a New Era In New England
When Mac Jones was drafted with the 15th pick by New England everyone thought it was with eyes on the 2022 season. Let him sit for a year, develop and unleash him on the league after this. Mac Jones had other ideas. His performance this preseason has been the most surprising of any of the 1st round QBs. He has looked poised, in command and most of all, has been effective. Cutting Cam Newton was the biggest indicator of just how good Jones has been. Belichick doesn’t want a second lost season. The fact he has put all of his eggs in the Alabama rookie’s hands is huge. The next Brady? Who knows, but it’s a good start.
The rest of the Offense is much a regular Patriots Offense. This has regularly been a team where they have been greater than the sum of their parts. Former 1st round selection Nelson Agholor heads a group of backups. Effective backups, but backups nonetheless. Jakobi Meyers is the one to watch here. Last year he hinted and something so lets see whether this year he can show us what he has to offer.
The big news is at the Tight End position where the Patriots went heavy and hard at Free Agency. Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry may well be the best 1-2 punch at the position in the league from a hands point of view. I expect one of the two to pull away in the race for targets, especially in the Redzone. My money would be on Jonnu Smith but should it be Henry I wouldn’t be shocked. At Running Back Damien Harris has shown enough for Sony Michel to be shown the door. Rhamondre Stevenson, drafted out of Oklahoma this offseason, has exploded into his pro career. Without a doubt he has been my number 1 rookie of the preseason, followed closely by Mac Jones.
What Can They Do?
What they can do is upset the apple cart in the AFC East. The consensus winners of the Division are the Bills, I don’t see that changing. The Dolphins are the darlings of the Division and I can well see the Patriots blocking them from the Playoffs. Week 1 is a huge game. If Jones can hit the ground running and Belichick plans a perfect game then the Dolphins could well start 0-1. This gives the upper hand immediately to Belichick and you never want to do that.
A run to the Divisional round of the playoffs would constitute a successful season for this team at their current position. Yes they have spent a lot of money but until we know just what they have in Jones I wouldn’t want to say with any certainty they could go further. That said, it’s not out of the realms of possibility that the Patriots find their golden touch again sooner than we all expected.
5. Carolina Panthers
In a Division with the reigning Champions and a team as consistently successful as the Saints it’s hard to be the third team. When you have two of the greatest Quarterbacks to ever play the game on your opposition you need some help to catch up. The Panthers got that this year with the retirement of Drew Brees. Suddenly they have a legitimate shot to be the number 2 team in this Division. If they plan well and execute that plan effectively they could be a force for years to come.
The Panthers fielded a young Defence last year. It may have been young but it showed real signs of promise. Hitting on a guy who was nearly the Defensive Rookie of the Year helps there. Jeremy Chinn was as advertised and so much more for this young secondary. Adding in Jaycee Horn almost feels unfair. The acquisition of Haason Reddick after a career year in Arizona where he produced 13 sacks fills out a sneaky solid LB core. Jermaine Carter isn’t well known at the moment but he has taken up the reigns since Kuechly left. Don’t be surprised if he is a household name by the end of the season.
This Defence is going to give the Offense chances to win games. Who doesn’t love hoping that a new QB can get the team over the line.
…Is This Freedom?
Sam Darnold was supposed to be the answer when the Jets drafted him out of USC in 2018. Who knows, maybe he was but Adam Gase was just to incompetent to work out how. The Panthers will be hoping that a change of scenery is what Darnold needs to realise the potential we heard about for the whole of 2017 in the lead up to his draft. If Matt Rhule and co can unlock that then who knows how far the Panthers can go.
They have built an offense that rivals most in the league. It all starts with Christian McCaffrey, without doubt the best Running Back in the league currently. He offers game breaking ability and is not one of those players who disappears for games at a time. If he isn’t injured then you expect him to go off more often than not. The Receiver group of DJ Moore, Robby Anderson and the newly drafted Terrace Marshall Jr is exciting. You have everything you need in there, speed, hands, route running ability and the ability in the players to all go over 1,000 yards if needed. Of course they won’t all get there, with the touches McCaffrey is going to get there just isn’t enough opportunities for that but having three guys with the ability to is a good place to be in.
The Tight End position is a little up in the air. Currently Dan Arnold is the expected TE1 when it comes to yardage and scoring. Whilst he had a nice year last year in Arizona I don’t know if I see him as one of those guys who is going to get 60-70 yards a game and 8-10 touchdowns a year. With the receivers available to the Panthers he may not need to though.
What Can They Do?
For the Panthers this is the year that they need to start making moves forwards. Tom Brady will not be around forever and James Winston in New Orleans is not sure thing as far as continuing the Saints recent years of success. If Matt Rhule can find a way to get this team to 8-10 wins this year that would be a good season. With their schedule outside of the Division it’s possible but they will need to take a game or two from the Bucs and Saints probably to get there.
I’d pencil in the home game against the Saints as the game they’re most likely to take. Prior to the last 4 games of the regular season I have the Panthers down for 8 wins. If they can find that surprise win or two at the end of the season then the playoffs is not out of the realms of possibilities.
Want more Panthers content? Alex has detailed exactly why they hit a home run in the draft this year:
One of these teams will achieve far more than we expect this season. Maybe they all will. That is the joy of this sport. Everything can change in one offseason and it will constantly keep us guessing.
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