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The 2021 NFL season will be a launching pad for several teams.
Last season was much of the same for a few lucky franchises. Whether it was a key addition like Tom Brady joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or a critical player making a massive leap—think Josh Allen in Buffalo—the prominent examples from 2020 aren’t hard to find.
Projecting 2021 reveals a handful of teams set to see a similar jump. Maybe not Super Bowl jumps, but big gains in the win column as the roster-building and developmental plan comes to fruition and/or key players get back from injuries. Sprinkle in offseason additions too, of course.
These are the teams set to take off in 2021.
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The Los Angeles Chargers took an A-plus approach to roster building this offseason, which boiled down to one thing.
Enable Justin Herbert.
Herbert, the sixth pick last year, broke onto the scene seemingly earlier than the Chargers wanted but did just fine, to say the very least. Over 15 games, he completed 66.6 percent of his passes with 4,336 yards and 31 touchdowns against 10 interceptions, all while suffering 32 sacks.
Los Angeles saw to that deficiency by adding two starting-caliber linemen in free agency with Matt Feiler and Corey Linsley, the latter a first-team All-Pro last year who posted an 89.9 Pro Football Focus grade. Later in the draft at 13th overall, the team added Rashawn Slater out of Northwestern, one of the consensus top linemen who happens to be capable of starting at guard or tackle.
And sometimes this is all it takes. The Chargers already won seven games last year while Herbert learned behind a rough offensive line after an unorthodox rookie onboarding process. Given the booming upside he flashed last year, Herbert will keep ascending as his surroundings improve under the supervision of new head coach Brandon Staley.
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Ashley Landis/Associated Press
The Arizona Cardinals won more games than any other team on this list in 2020, yet still couldn’t crack above 8-8 in the brutal NFC West.
But an ascending quarterback has a way of making the ceiling look so much higher.
In his second season, Kyler Murray’s numbers essentially jumped across the board as he completed 67.2 percent of his passes with 3,971 yards and 26 touchdowns. He added another 819 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground while averaging 6.2 yards per carry.
Like others here, Arizona built around that budding top-10 upside in a smart manner. An already strong front seven added J.J. Watt in free agency and A.J. Green will join DeAndre Hopkins and rookie Rondale Moore as potent targets in a big-upside passing attack.
Add on the ideas Murray should only continue on his upward trajectory toward massive upside while head coach Kliff Kingsbury does the same, and that 8-8 record could be so much more in 2021.
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Susan Walsh/Associated Press
The Cincinnati Bengals didn’t earn unanimous praise for their offseason after not selecting Penei Sewell at fifth overall in the draft, which made for poor optics considering Joe Burrow suffered a season-ending knee injury last year.
But optics aside, adding Ja’Marr Chase was still a superb idea. He was arguably the best wideout in the class and has a pre-established rapport with Burrow given he erupted for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns during the march to a national title at LSU in 2019.
Cincinnati felt comfortable enough to make Chase the pick despite offensive line issues due to other factors. One was selecting Jackson Carman in the second round, who will start at guard. The other was signing veteran right tackle Riley Reiff, who allowed just one sack over 1,003 snaps, according to PFF.
Those who watched the Bengals at all over the last two or three years know how terrible the guard and tackle spots were, so the line should be dramatically improved, especially after swapping out positional coach Jim Turner for Frank Pollack.
All this is really about Burrow though. He lived up to every possible expectation last year despite the strange summer, lack of a preseason and miserable surroundings. Now he’ll come back in a potent-looking passing attack with Chase, Joe Mixon, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, making for a high-upside team that should be able to get well past last year’s four-win mark.
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Frank Franklin II/Associated Press
Notice a trend? It’s all about the quarterbacks these days—and how their teams build around them.
In the case of the Dallas Cowboys, the front office just needed to fix that historically inept defense from a year ago that had established players looking lost in the complexities of a new scheme.
To that end, Dallas added Dan Quinn as defensive coordinator and added a host of veteran free agents to reinforce the scheme. All that came before using the 12th pick on Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons, an instant fix of a prospect who Lance Zierlein of NFL.com compares to Myles Jack.
Talent additions and simplifying what the coaches ask of players should only help Dak Prescott, who last season before his season-ending injury, completed 68 percent of his passes with 1,856 yards and nine touchdowns against four interceptions with a trio of 400-plus yards games over just 222 attempts.
Which is to say Prescott was on an amazing pace, something he should easily resume in 2021 while flanked by Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup and Ezekiel Elliott, never mind an improved defense.
After winning just six games last year in an NFC East that sent a team with a losing record to the playoffs, the Cowboys are the best shot here to go from a torrid position to a deep postseason run.