Analysis

Three teams ready to make playoff run in '21 after missing out in '20

While some issues remain outstanding -- like whether Aaron Rodgers will be traded (don't see it) and which team will land Julio Jones (New England) -- many of the league's 32 clubs have locked in their rosters for training camp. Hence, we have a more complete landscape when trying to predict how the 2021 season will play out.

Truth is, we may think we know what's going to happen, but we don't really know, and that's the beauty of this time of year. You can be bold, because the answers to the test are months away. For now, everyone is right, and no one is wrong.

Rather than attempt to select my favorites to win the Super Bowl, I'm going to identify three teams that, I believe, will make deep postseason runs after missing the playoffs last season. A lot of factors will ultimately come into play, the health of these squads being No. 1, but rather than provide a bunch of disclaimers, let's just play the game without reading the rules. Makes it more interesting, no?

In reverse order:

Rank
3
Los Angeles Chargers
Los Angeles Chargers

REASONS TO BE BULLISH: I know some of you will remind me that I say this every year, but the fact remains that few rosters are as talented as the Chargers'. There simply are no glaring holes. Quarterback Justin Herbert is coming off one of the best rookie seasons ever; the receiving corps is talented, featuring veterans Keenan Allen and Mike Williams and rookie Josh Palmer; the offensive line was upgraded with the addition of first-round draft pick Rashawn Slater and the signing of center Corey Linsley; and the defense has playmakers on every level, from end Joey Bosa to inside linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. to safety Derwin James. Cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. could also end up being a steal as a second-round pick, as some teams had a first-round grade on him. Also, seven of the Chargers' nine losses last season were by one score, including five by five points or less, with two of those coming in overtime. They won their final four games after a 3-9 start, which reflects a roster filled with character and leadership. 


REASONS TO BE SKITTISH: This team often can't get out of its own way. Whether it's dubious game management, breakdowns in execution or injuries to the stars, something always seems to prevent the Chargers from fulfilling their potential. James was voted All-Pro as a rookie in 2018 but has played only five games the past two seasons because of injury. Bosa has played full seasons just twice in five years and has missed 13 games over the past three seasons because of injury. And offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga, the Chargers' priority free-agent signing last year, missed six games with an injury after missing only two in his final two seasons in Green Bay.


So, injury concerns are always front and center with this team. But another unknown is how Brandon Staley will handle his first opportunity as a head coach. He had a fantastic showing last year in his only NFL season as a coordinator, overseeing the Rams' No. 1-ranked defense. But he also is just five years removed from being a coordinator at Division III John Carroll University. The 38-year-old Ohio native might be the next Boy Wonder, but he also might not. It remains to be seen whether it was wise to not bring back key members of the offensive staff, particularly considering the success Herbert had en route to winning Offensive Rookie of the Year. 

Rank
2
Arizona Cardinals
Arizona Cardinals

REASONS TO BE BULLISH: No team intrigues me more than the Cardinals, who appear to have gone all-in. They needed a versatile defensive lineman who could complement Chandler Jones, so they signed free agent J.J. Watt, a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. They needed a receiver who could complement DeAndre Hopkins, so they signed free agent A.J. Green, a seven-time Pro Bowler whose 65 career touchdown receptions rank sixth among active players. They needed to solidify the interior of their offensive line, so they traded for center Rodney Hudson, a three-time Pro Bowler whom Pro Football Focus graded as its top pass-blocking center in five of the last six seasons. They needed a dependable kicker, so they signed Matt Prater, who is perfect on 22 game-winning field-goal attempts with two minutes or less remaining in the fourth quarter and overtime, going 16-for-16 in regulation and six-for-six in overtime.


REASONS TO BE SKITTISH: Each of the aforementioned moves involves veterans who are past their primes and coming off down seasons. Watt, 32, has only nine sacks over the past two seasons; Green, 32, had career-lows in receiving yards and touchdowns last year; Hudson, 31, slipped to ninth among pass blockers last year in the PFF grading; and Prater was only four-of-seven on attempts from 40-49 yards last season, his worst percentage since 2012. Still, I remain bullish on them for these reasons: Watt should get more one-on-one opportunities with Jones on the field; Green will no longer face a team's No. 1 corner or double coverage; and Prater remains one of the game's best long-range kickers, which should bode well for an Arizona offense that figures to move the ball effectively with the dynamic Kyler Murray at quarterback.

Rank
1
San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers

REASONS TO BE BULLISH: The 49ers were in the Super Bowl two seasons ago and still have one of the league's best rosters, not to mention one of the game's top play-callers and play designers in coach Kyle Shanahan. Injuries decimated them in 2020, but Nick Bosa, one of the game's top pass rushers, is expected to return healthy from a torn ACL, and the young players who got experience last season should be that much better. Lastly, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo knows he is on borrowed time after the team made the blockbuster trade to move up and draft Trey Lance third overall. For all of his faults, Garoppolo did lead the team to Super Bowl LIV, and he figures to be extremely motivated, because he knows he is playing not only for a shot at a title, but a new contract with his next employer. 


REASONS TO BE SKITTISH: There's no real reason to be concerned beyond injury, so let's manufacture a couple, just for the sake of discussion:


  1. The team is breaking in a new defensive coordinator, with DeMeco Ryans taking over for Robert Saleh, who left to become the Jets' new coach. (This really isn't an issue for me because Ryans is smart, detailed and able to connect with players, having been one himself.)
  2. The 49ers play in one of the league's toughest divisions, if not the toughest. The Seahawks and Rams both made the playoffs last season, and the Cardinals were in a position to do so before losing their final two games.
  3. If Garoppolo gets hurt, the team might have to turn to the unproven Lance. And as talented as Lance appears to be, you never know until a guy is actually in the heat of the battle. (This, to me, also is not an issue, because Shanahan understands how to protect a quarterback; also, the defense figures to be one of the game's best, with a stout front and experience on the back end.)


There you have it. I know none of you -- particularly Dolphins fans -- will throw this back in my face next January, so I thank you in advance.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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