8 NFL Teams That Will Take a Step Backward in 2021
Mark Brown/Getty Images. Pictured: Too Tagovailoa.
It's kickoff week for the 2021 NFL season, and every team is 0-0. Fans across the nation have Super Bowl hopes — but not all hope is created equal.
Every year heading into the new season, I separate all 32 teams into four buckets of eight. Eight teams are legitimate Super Bowl contenders. Eight others are at the bottom, contending for nothing but the No. 1 pick.
The teams in the middle are split by trajectory. None of them are teams I consider true contenders, but eight of them are trending upward while eight others are headed in the wrong direction. Today, we're looking at that last group, the teams that expect to contend but might take a step back in 2021.
Remember, this is NOT a power ranking. We started with the eight teams at the bottom, but the teams I detail below aren't necessarily the next eight worst teams; far from it. Some of them will make the playoffs or even win their division. Still, they're ultimately in a worse spot now than they were a season ago.
We'll consider teams in increasing order of Vegas win total, previewing and analyzing each team and choosing whether to pass, lean, or play the over/under. Along the way you'll find offensive and defensive unit ranks for each team, plus other bets worth considering.
Check out the entire four-part season preview:
- The 8 Worst Teams
- The 8 Teams Taking a Step Backward
- The 8 Sleepers Trending Up
- The 8 Super Bowl Contenders
NOTE: Team totals in headings are from DraftKings, with each pick recommendation listing the book with the best available line as of writing.
Cardinals Over/Under 8.5 Wins
The Arizona Cardinals are what happens when a team is less than the sum of its parts.
Arizona shouldn't be this much of an afterthought. Kyler Murray is a former Heisman winner and No. 1 draft pick, one of the league's bright young talents at its most important position. DeAndre Hopkins may be the best receiver in the game. The receiving corps is deep, after the addition of A.J. Green, and the defense is dotted with talent.
But when the whole is less than the sum of its parts, it's a coaching problem. Kliff Kingsbury's crew rank second to last in my coaching rankings. Kingsbury was supposed to innovate this offense, but there are too many bubble screens and curls forcing the ball to Hopkins and far too much reliance on Kyler's legs to save the day. It shouldn't be this frustrating to watch an offense with Kyler and Nuk, and Kingsbury is a horrendous game manager too.
The front office isn't much better. Arizona brought in Green, J.J. Watt, Malcolm Butler, Rodney Hudson, and James Conner — a past-its-prime docket that reeks of a team making splashy moves to sell a fan base on recognizable names.
It's ironic that Hopkins got himself traded to Arizona because this team is reminiscent of Houston. The Texans- were a poorly constructed team with holes everywhere and bad coaching, but Hopkins and an elite QB covered many sins. The difference is that the Cards don't play in the AFC South. They're in the toughest division in football instead, where all three opponents have serious Super Bowl hopes.
I'm out on these Cardinals — way out. They have by far the worst coaching and management in the division, and that's just too big a hurdle to overcome when things are so tight.
I'm playing Arizona to finish last in its division at +110 and under 2.5 division wins at -110, both at FanDuel. I might even sprinkle a little on the Cardinals starting 0-6 at +2000 at DraftKings, and if you can find a way to bet on Kingsbury being the first coach fired, I'd consider that too.
- Win Total Verdict: Pass
- Other Bets: Arizona last in its division +110; under 2.5 division wins -110 (FanDuel)
Steelers- Over/Under 8.5 Wins
The Steelers are a proud franchise with a storied history. They've had only three head coaches since the 60s and haven't had a losing season since 2003. But if you ignore the laundry and the pedigree, doesn't this look like a team that's about to collapse before a complete rebuild?
Pittsburgh may be the most disimproved team in football. A once terrific offensive line is in shambles, second to last in my line rankings, and the running game has been bottom-three in Football Outsiders' DVOA in consecutive seasons. First-round RB Najee Harris can't change that on his own, and Ben Roethlisberger has looked a shell of himself the past two seasons and might not have anything left in the tank.
The Steelers started 11-0 last year with a Charmin-soft schedule but lost five of their final six games. Now they lose their second best pass rusher in Bud Dupree, plus two of their top three corners, leaving behind a defense that's over-reliant on T.J. Watt and maybe more good than great.
Last year's team had good health and one of the league's easiest schedules and went 7-2 in one-score games. This year the schedule is much tougher, especially against QBs, and it feels like things could swing hard in the other direction. Pittsburgh is +250 at FanDuel to win under 2.5 division games. The Steelers could get swept by the Browns- and Ravens-, and lose either Cincinnati game and it's a wrap. Even the Colts- had to bottom out one season to get the Andrew Luck pick. It might be time in Pittsburgh.
Win Total Verdict: Lean Under 8.5 (-114) at DraftKings
Saints- Over/Under 9 Wins
If Pittsburgh isn't the most deteriorated roster in the NFL, it might be the Saints.
The Drew Brees era is finally over, and it was time, but Jameis Winston leaves more than a few question marks under center. Emmanuel Sanders and Jared Cook are gone too, and so is star WR Michael Thomas until proven healthy. The defense loses Trey Hendrickson, Janoris Jenkins, Sheldon Rankins, and Malcolm Brown, four key starters from one of the league's best units.
And who did the Saints add to replace all that lost talent?
The Saints won 49 games the last four seasons, but the bill has finally come due. There's no more cap machinations left to save the day. The team is much worse and far thinner this season, though it could still have a high floor with a stout defense, superb line, and terrific coaching.
Maybe Sean Payton can redeem Winston, but QB isn't the only problem on this team. The Saints are -130 to miss the playoffs at FanDuel, and they might be the ninth or 10th best team in the NFC. It's time to pay the piper.
Win Total Verdict: Lean Under 9 (-117) at DraftKings
Dolphins- Over/Under 9 Wins
It's easy to forget, but we thought of the 2019 Dolphins like this year's Texans. Miami lost its first three games by 49, 43, and 25 and looked in full-on tank mode, starting 0-7. But the Dolphins surprised everyone by winning five of their final nine, then got even better last year with a 10-6 playoff push.
Brian Flores has had the magic touch, and this team's rise has been amazing, but growth is not linear. Miami's defense was terrific last year but relied on unsustainable numbers. The Fins led the NFL in third down stops at 31.2% conversion, best in the league by an outlandish margin, and they had an outlier number of interceptions. Xavien Howard and Byron Jones are great, but history tells us those numbers should regress to the mean, and Miami may not catch so many turnover and special teams breaks in 2021.
If they don't, the onus will be on the offense to make up the difference, and they may not be up to the task. Tua Tagovailoa remains unproven, and the Ryan Fitzpatrick safety net is gone. The line is one of the league's worst, and those talented Dolphins receivers struggle to stay healthy and produce.
On paper, Miami might have the worst offense in the NFL outside of Houston, and that's saying something. This team feels badly overpriced, and this is my favorite over/under on the board. I'm looking at Miami to finish bottom of the AFC East at +500 on FanDuel, and I'm definitely playing the under and might even play a lower alternate line.
Other than the now-irrelevant 10-6 record from a year ago, I'm not totally sure why everyone thinks this team is good.
Win Total Verdict: Play Under 9 (+123) at DraftKings
Seahawks- Over/Under 9.5 Wins
The Seahawks continue to play with guardian angels, seemingly unable to lose a close game. Seattle went 8-3 in one-score games last year, meaning a full 75% of its schedule came down to the final drive and that the Seahawks won 73% of those games anyway.
Normally, one-score results are almost entirely random, even among the most elite quarterbacks. But Seattle went 10-2 in one-score games in 2019 and finished 4-1 over the back half of 2018. That makes Seattle an absurd 22-6 in its last 28 one-score affairs, winning 78.6% of almost two season's worth of games in a stat that's typically random.
It turns out Russell Wilson is pretty good.
It was a weird season for Wilson and this offense. For eight games, Seattle let Russ cook and he put up MVP numbers, a pace of 56 passing TDs and over 5,000 yards. But then defenses adjusted to take away the deep ball and the Seahawks lost their way over the second half. Now OC Shane Waldron, formerly the Rams- passing game coordinator, has been brought in to rejuvenate the offense.
But the offensive line still isn't very good, and the Legion of Boom days on defense are long gone. Outside of Bobby Wagner and the always-injured Jamal Adams, the defense is worryingly bare. It's just not a particularly good or deep roster. Take Wilson away and they might be a five- or six-win team.
But Wilson hasn't missed a game in any of his nine seasons as a pro, and he's never finished worst than 9-7. This feels like one of the best lines on the board. Wilson is just enough to keep the Seahawks vaguely in the mix.
Win Total Verdict: Pass
Titans- Over/Under 9.5 Wins
Someone has to win the AFC South, and someone will probably be the Titans or the Colts. The Titans have won at least nine games in five straight seasons — good one to win a bet at bar trivia — but never inspire much confidence.
The Titans acted like a team that thought it was missing one key piece for a Super Bowl run on both sides of the ball. They went out and traded for Julio Jones and added Bud Dupree to rush the passer. But they lost a ton of talent to get there. Jadeveon Clowney, Corey Davis, Adoree Jackson, Malcolm Butler, Jonnu Smith, and Kenny Vaccaro are among the long-time Titans missing.
Perhaps more importantly, so too is departed OC Arthur Smith. Smith rejuvenated Ryan Tannehill's career, put Derrick Henry in a starring role, and opened up the deadly playaction deep ball on this offense, and it's fair to wonder how things will hold up without him. Henry is also at a perilous age and workload combo. The Titans went 7-2 in one-score games last year and were one of the league's healthiest teams. They're an obvious regression candidate.
Win Total Verdict: Lean Under 9.5 (+100) at PointsBet
Colts Over/Under 10 Wins
Will anyone in the AFC South be any good? Maybe not.
The Colts have the deepest and most rounded roster in the division. The defense is not sexy, but it should be pretty solid. That's the hope for the offense too, assuming the offensive line can get healthy and return to top form and that Carson Wentz can stay on the field and look at least passable.
The Colts benefited from the league's easiest schedule last year, and they were one of the lowest variance teams in the league. They're a high floor team. Run the ball, play solid defense, make a few throws, and you'll be in most games. In this division, that may well be enough.
But it's easier to see things going awry than trending in the right direction. Wentz can't stay on the field, and he was one of the worst quarterbacks in the league in 2020. If Frank Reich can't right the ship, this might be the end of the road for him. It doesn't help that both Wentz and stud LG Quenton Nelson — the best player on the team — are injured and playing through pain before the season even starts, and the Colts will be without LT Eric Fisher for the foreseeable future too.
Indy has a tough opening schedule, and it's been a murky preseason. They just need to stay afloat early and get to the division games, but this could definitely go south. If you believe in the Colts and Titans floor but can't figure out which one to play, you can take the easy way out and bet on the duo to finish top-two in the AFC South in either order at -200 at FanDuel. That's a bet against Jacksonville and Houston more than anything else, and it makes a lot of sense.
Win Total Verdict: Lean Under 10 (-127) at DraftKings
Bills- Over/Under 11 Wins
The Bills were the last cut from my eight Super Bowl contenders tier, and I've got some explaining to do.
After all, this team went 13-3 a year ago and they return 21 of 22 starters. The only one missing, John Brown, has been upgraded to Emmanuel Sanders. All the key coaches are back too, including stud OC Brian Daboll, who helped Josh Allen to a shocking breakout campaign in 2020. Daboll and Allen were the most aggressive early-down team, catching opponents off guard by passing early and utilizing Allen's big arm to attack deep with Stefon Diggs.
The concern here comes in two parts: Allen and the rest of the roster.
The roster outside of Allen is… fine? Diggs is a stud but the rest of the offense isn't scaring anyone. The line is decent, the run game tepid. Buffalo has a terrific secondary and a balanced D but lacks stars and playmakers on that end. The roster certainly isn't bad, but it definitely doesn't scream Super Bowl.
That means this is all on Daboll and Allen, and that's worrisome. Allen made an historic leap of improvement last season. He leapt from 35th of 39 qualifying quarterbacks in completion percentage above expectation all the way to 2nd in the NFL, per RBSDM. Against the blitz, he improved from 25th to 3rd. Football Outsiders ranked Allen first on passing success rate at 57.9%, up from 44.3% in 2019. That percentage would've ranked him below Daniel Jones and Alex Smith last year, and just ahead of Carson Wentz and Drew Lock.
There's no doubt Allen is a vastly different quarterback now than he was two years ago, but did he really go from questionable starter to MVP literally overnight? Allen still ranks second most in fumbles the last three years with 31, and he still makes a few boneheaded throws every game. It feels like a Bills run rests almost entirely upon Allen's shoulders, and I'm just not ready to trust him at that level yet.
Still, another soft schedule will help. The Bills face an especially weak QB schedule. They get six games against the unproven division trio of Tagovailoa, Zach Wilson and Mac Jones, plus six more against Trevor Lawrence, Sam Darnold, Tyrod Taylor, Jameis Winston, Carson Wentz, and Ryan Fitzpatrick.
A year ago at this time, Allen felt like he belonged squarely in that group. It's clear now that he doesn't, but he might need to play like Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers to carry the Bills to a title. I'm gonna have to see it to believe it.
Win Total Verdict: Pass