Contenders and Pretenders: Optimism Season Edition

I like to call this chapter of the year, “Optimism Season.” The big free agent signings have come and gone, teams are starting to sign their draftees, and the schedule has been released. Fans all over the world are rationalizing upsets, predicting collapses, and pretending any of us have any clue what the NFL landscape will look like this year, so I thought I’d get in on the fun.

Based on Dan Hanzus’s power rankings on NFL.com, I’ve taken a look at his top ten teams and tried to determine who I believe is a legitimate contender… and who’s smoke and mirrors.

Disclaimer– Nobody is even pretending my Las Vegas Raiders are a contender, and surprisingly, they weren’t in Dan Hanzus’s top ten… so if I say your team is a pretender, understand that I still believe they’re handily better than my favorite team.

Contenders and Pretenders: Optimism Season Edition

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Contenders

The last time American football was played, Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers were mercilessly dominating the defending Super Bowl champions in the championship game. They made Patrick Mahomes look mediocre and Tom Brady went Benjamin Button and dominated. They returned all 22 starters and then added pieces in free agency and through the draft. The Bucs are the safest repeat bet in recent memory, and are absolutely contenders.

2. Kansas City Chiefs: Contenders

As long as Patrick Mahomes is under center and Andy Reid is the head coach, the Chiefs should be considered contenders. Even before Mahomes took over, Andy Reid’s Chiefs recorded a winning record in five straight seasons, making the playoffs four times. Since Mahomes took over, they’ve gone to overtime in the AFC Championship game, won the Super Bowl, and then made it back to the Super Bowl. “They can’t keep everybody” hasn’t proven to be true yet, so they’re still a credible contender in 2021.

3. Buffalo Bills: Pretenders

I want to believe in the Buffalo Bills. They’re so young, hungry, and talented on both sides of the ball. They have a MVP-caliber quarterback, a legit number one receiver, and some real pieces on defense. They went 13-3 last year and made it all the way to the AFC Championship… where they were promptly boatraced by the Chiefs. It’s hard not to look at the 2020 Buffalo Bills and think, “yeah, but who did they really beat?” They took advantage of an AFC East experiencing a Tom Brady hangover and padded the W column with games against 10 teams that didn’t make the playoffs. If the Bills can straighten out on defense and learn how to run the ball, they can flip this, but in the meantime, the New York Jets, New England Patriots, and Miami Dolphins all got dramatically better this off-season.

4. Green Bay Packers: Pretenders

I mean… if Aaron Rodgers leaves… is this even a question? If Aaron Rodgers says “trade me or I’ll go host Jeopardy,” the Green Bay Packers are dead in the water. This becomes Justin Fields’ division in a heartbeat. How does a locker room respond to their best player leaving, and leaving on such bad terms? Do we really think Jordan Love is good ready to take over for the reigning MVP? And even if he stays, he still has a point. The Packers front office has not done enough to put talent around Rodgers, and it’s hard to imagine them getting over the hump on his ability alone.

5. Baltimore Ravens: Pretenders

This is going to rub some people the wrong way, but 2021 is a make-or-break year for Lamar Jackson. Lamar Jackson has proven to be an explosive, dynamic, one-of-a-kind talent at the quarterback position. He has all the tools, the right work ethic, and gives even the best defensive coordinators nightmares. But… when are we going to see him take that next step up as a passer?

Everyone loves to trample the “not bad for a running back” argument when Jackson succeeds, but he’s not an elite passer. He was 18th in yards per attempt, 27th in completion percentage, and 32nd in yards per game this season. Despite having 25 fewer attempts, he threw three more interceptions in 2021 than he did during his MVP campaign. As long as he can stay healthy, Lamar is going to win plenty of championships… for fantasy football players. But until he can become a more complete player at the position, he’s going to hold the team back.

On Lamar Jackson’s last 65 post-season passing attempts, he’s compiled 437 yards, zero touchdowns, and two interceptions. When you get to the playoffs, you’re not facing off against Cleveland or Cincinnati anymore, you’re playing good teams, and those good teams usually have good defenses that are capable of taking away the run game.

As long as taking away the run game is a death sentence for the Ravens, they can’t be considered legitimate rivals for Kansas City.

6. Cleveland Browns: Pretenders

The Browns are my “sweetheart” team. Maybe it’s because my Raiders have been so terrible for so long, and we’ve had a bit of a shared misery, maybe it’s because I just can’t stand the other teams in the AFC North, but I’ve always had a soft spot for them. When they finally got it together last year, I was so excited. I like Kevin Stefanski, I like Baker Mayfield, and I love Myles Garrett, Cleveland plays football the way I like football to be played.

But I’m a little worried about the hype they’ve picked up this off-season. It’s very similar to the hype the 2019 Browns had, right before they promptly fell on their faces. They went head-to-head with Kansas City and came up short, which makes some people optimistic… but everyone seems to be forgetting they came up short against Chad Henne… not Patrick Mahomes.

I still have a lot of concerns about where Mayfield’s ceiling is, whether or not the defense can slow down the AFC’s elite teams, and as cliche as it is, how Odell Beckham Jr.’s return will change the team’s dynamic. I like the Browns, and I root for them against every team not named Las Vegas, but until I see something that proves otherwise, I think they’re a wild-card team that will fall short against the AFC’s elites.

7. Los Angeles Rams: Contenders

The Los Angeles Rams are dangerous this year, and I don’t think enough people are talking about them. They dramatically upgraded at quarterback by trading for Matt Stafford, they have incredible depth at receiver, talent at tailback, a solid offensive line, an then arguably the best pass rusher AND the best cornerback in football. The NFC West is going to be a blast to watch this year, and I suspect the Rams will be in the hunt until the very end, if they don’t end up winning the whole thing.

8. Seattle Seahawks: Pretenders

I’ve been to more Seattle Seahawks games than any other team. I was there in 2014 when they won the NFC Championship game. I have two Seahawks jerseys (Wilson and Sherman), and gleefully devoured their Denver domination in the Super Bowl. But those Seahawks are long, long gone. As of this writing, staples of the Legion of Boom, Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman, are both free agents, well past the part of the off-season dedicated to finding new homes for league standouts. Much like Aaron Rodgers, Wilson has expressed frustration with his surrounding talent, and entertained trade rumors of his own in the spring.

They have some pieces on offense, but that’s just about it. Their best defensive player is a defensive back with fewer career interceptions than Vince Wilfork, and they gave up over 6,000 yards last year. Russell Wilson is fantastic, but his championship window is only going to be open for so long, and getting out of the NFC West alive will be hard enough, without also considering the likes of Tampa Bay.

9. San Francisco 49ers: Contenders

The 49ers weren’t bitten by the injury bug last year, they were swallowed whole. I’m not sure I can name a 49er’s player that didn’t miss time with an injury in 2020. Half the team fell apart in a trip to Meadowlands alone. Even with some departures in the coaching staff and on the field, a healthy 49ers team is going to cause problems for the NFC West in 2021. The sooner that Trey Lance relieves Jimmy Garoppolo the better, and I think they can remind people who won the NFC handily in 2019.

10. New Orleans Saints: Pretenders

In Tom Brady’s NFC South, I’m supposed to be intimidated by New Orleans with either Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill at quarterback? Sean Payton is a good coach, and they’ve got some pieces, but it was generous of Mr. Hanzus to pretend they’re a top ten team in the NFL. Drew Brees was a shadow of himself last season, and they still swept the Bucs during the regular season, but I just don’t buy it. A team like Tennessee or Pittsburgh would’ve been far, far more capable of contending in 2021. If everyone in Atlanta can stay healthy and Sam Darnold has the anticipated renaissance in Carolina, the Saints might not even make the playoffs…

And if I end up being wrong, please don’t @ me on twitter. Definitely don’t @ Cold Takes Exposed. I’d really hate for this article to get a spike in views in eight months, that would be dreadful.

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