Seeing teams go from worst-to-first has become the norm in the NFL. We are likely to see that happen again in 2021. There will be many top teams that sink to the bottom while others rise up and surprise the football world.
We’re not here to predict which team will go from worst-to-first, but we are here to examine five teams that could surprise in 2021.
Let’s take a look.
5. Carolina Panthers
It almost feels like a fresh reset in Carolina after Matt Rhule’s first season as head coach was marred by injury, inconsistency, and personnel issues. They now have former first-round pick Sam Darnold under center, will see the return of running back Christian McCaffrey, and they added top-end talent like cornerback Jaycee Horn and wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. through the draft. They also made a hefty investment into their offensive line, which should pay immediate dividends. Yes, it will still be tough sledding against the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but with both the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints potentially in no man’s land, there is a path to the playoffs for Carolina if they can just stay healthy.
4. Minnesota Vikings
After five consecutive seasons of .500 or better, the Vikings slipped a bit in 2020 and finished with a record of 7-9. That largely came due to a poor defense and struggles at home. In an effort to combat that, Minnesota went out and added several big-ticket defenders. They added cornerback Patrick Peterson and defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, quality depth in cornerback Xavier Woods, and a familiar face in defensive end Stephen Weatherly. They didn’t slow down during the draft, either, selecting defensive end Patrick Jones II and linebacker Chazz Surratt to go along with offensive lineman Christian Darrisaw. Their weaknesses appear to be shored up. Provided the Vikings’ defense can make a quick leap, they should be back to competing for the NFC North title.
3. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers fell back down to earth in 2020 and landed with a thud. They finished 6-10 a year removed from making the Super Bowl, leading many to wonder if that had just been an anomaly mixed in among years of sub-.500 play. And maybe it was, but every season is different, and Kyle Shanahan’s group isn’t exactly low on talent. Yes, they lost some quality assistant coaches this offseason, but they also gained rookie quarterback Trey Lance, who will start sooner rather than later, and beefed up other areas of their roster with some underrated free agent signings. It’s also worth pointing out that they were 3-3 against a very tough division, with two of those losses coming by a combined seven points. So long as the 49ers can stay tough in the NFC West and improve their home record, they absolutely have a chance to surprise.
2. New York Giants
It feels like the Giants have been awaiting their sudden turnaround for about a decade now because, well… they have been. But perhaps more than at any other point over the past 10 years, there is optimism rising in East Rutherford. The Giants appear to have finally found their rock at head coach in Joe Judge, while the team’s personnel has vastly improved over the previous two seasons. Provided quarterback Daniel Jones can make the much-needed third-year leap, the stars may be aligning in New Jersey. The Giants very nearly stole the horrid NFC East a season ago thanks to a strong finish. If that can carry over, Big Blue could find themselves once again competing for a playoff spot, and potentially even a division title with the Washington Football Team and Dallas Cowboys.
1. New England Patriots
Some may argue against New England’s inclusion on this list because they’ve been one of the league’s most dominant teams over the past two decades, but nothing lasts forever. Without Tom Brady a season ago, Bill Belichick’s squad came crashing down to earth in dramatic fashion, and he wasn’t happy about it. In response, the Patriots went out and spent $159.6 million over the course of nine days to revamp their roster and return optimism to Foxborough. They also drafted well, and may have their QB of the future in Mac Jones. But the surprise in New England may not come via return to the playoffs. Rather, the Pats may surprise by being little more than average despite their desperate attempts to prove Brady wasn’t the driving force behind their previous success.