NFL Preview: Ferro’s contenders, pretenders

AP Photo | Newly-acquired Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, entering his 21st NFL season, will look to lead Tampa Bay through a tough NFC South.

Dom Ferro | Staff Writer

Sept. 17, 2020

The NFL is finally back, meaning it’s time to give way-too-early predictions for the upcoming season.

The 2020 season brings many new storylines and a lot of unpredictability. DeAndre Hopkins is a Cardinal, the Raiders are in Las Vegas and Tom Brady is not in New England. Not only are there new faces in new places — and new places altogether — but beginning this year, the NFL playoffs will be expanded to now include 14 teams.

After half a year of uncertainty in our world, one thing is certain: We need football. Here are the teams you should and shouldn’t be paying attention to this year.

Don’t Bother:

Here is the bottom of the bottom in professional football this season. These are the teams you should only watch when they’re playing your favorite team, or you have nothing better to do on a Thursday night.

32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. Washington Football Team
30. New York Jets
29. Chicago Bears
28. Miami Dolphins
27. Detroit Lions

There isn’t much to note about these six teams other than the fact you shouldn’t expect much. Jacksonville seems to be in full tank mode for QB prodigy Trevor Lawrence. Releasing the 2017 No. 4 overall pick, Leonard Fournette, and trading veterans in Calais Campbell and A.J. Bouye, the Jaguars do not look equipped to compete with the best this season.

The Miami Dolphins could be intriguing to watch if Tua Tagovailoa reaches his full potential in his rookie year. He doesn’t have much elite talent surrounding him, but if he performs half as well as he did at Alabama, he will be one of the league’s next superstars.

Unless Mitch Trubisky is using steroids or something, the Bears won’t go very far. Their best chance may lie in their newly-acquired quarterback, Super Bowl champ Nick Foles. Their defense has potential to be one of the best, but their offense will struggle to put points on the board. Chicago believes in head coach Matt Nagy, but he may be missing the ever-important franchise quarterback. If only there were better quarterbacks available when they drafted Trubisky…

Watch the Stars:

These are the teams who may be in the hunt toward the end of the season, but most likely will be watching the playoffs from their couch. They have potential if they surround their star(s) with the right pieces.

26. Las Vegas Raiders
25. Cincinnati Bengals
24. New York Giants
23. Carolina Panthers

Any time Saquon Barkley is on the field, you should be paying attention. The Giants’ young running back is looking to grow even more in the upcoming season. He has potential to change the game and be one of the greatest athletes to bless the gridiron if he continues the pace of advancement he is on. Unfortunately for Barkley, the rest of the Giants roster is below average with the exception of a few players.

The Carolina Panthers will be an interesting team to watch with Teddy Bridgewater taking the reins as starting quarterback to begin the season. He showed flashes of brilliance in 2019 when he replaced Drew Brees while the Saints QB was injured. The Panthers also have one of the best running backs in the league in Christian McCaffrey, who’s widely considered the consensus first overall pick in fantasy football this year and will most likely be the reason whether this team wins or loses this season.

The Bengals have the previous first overall pick Joe Burrow, the Heisman winner and national champion from LSU. Burrow’s senior year is forever immortalized in college football history, but only time will tell if he is successful professionally for Cincinnati, a franchise who has not won a playoff game since 1991.

Burrow has a great wide receiver duo in Tyler Boyd and AJ Green. Green missed all of last season but has been one of the best receivers consistently in the NFL since he arrived. Nevertheless, their defense is downright bad, and their head coach has not made a name for himself yet. Burrow could be in for a rude awakening in the AFC North, one of the toughest divisions in football.

Disappointments:

The “experts” may say these teams are locks but I’m here to tell you to not be fooled. They look good on paper, but won’t amount to too much.

22. Los Angeles Chargers
21. Philadelphia Eagles
20. Indianapolis Colts
19. Cleveland Browns
18. Atlanta Falcons
17. Los Angeles Rams
16. Tennessee Titans
15. Minnesota Vikings
14. Houston Texans

The Tennessee Titans were the league’s late season surprise in 2019, with Derrick Henry leading the way as a bulldozer of a running back. Ryan Tannehill surprised many as he replaced Marcus Mariota at quarterback, and led the Titans to several late-season wins to clinch the last Wild Card playoff spot. Tannehill & Co. even marched into Baltimore to shock the No. 1 seed Ravens and advance in the playoffs.

Don’t expect Tannehill to look anywhere near as good as he did last season. His career has consisted of lackluster performances for the Miami Dolphins and a great stretch of games for the Titans, so it would not be surprising to see him resort back to his old ways. Henry should continue his dominance, and stiff-arming defenders through the ground and all. Wide receiver A.J. Brown is also an exciting young player who should garner more attention in 2020.

The Cleveland Browns should have a very similar season as last. They have great players but the organization is forever cursed and Baker Mayfield has proven to all that he is not one of the league’s best. Furthermore, the Browns are in an extremely tough division and would be lucky to win even one game against the Steelers or Ravens.

The Eagles are an almost completely different team compared to their Super Bowl winning squad in 2018. Carson Wentz is a stud — that is no debate, but what is up to debate is his reliability. Wentz seems to get hurt at the worst moments, and he doesn’t have the greatest clutch ability. The Eagles are in a tough division, as well, but should be able to slip into the playoffs if a few things go their way.

Sleepers:

These teams shouldn’t be slept on. Whether they have new improvements or look the same, these teams could shake things up in the league this season.

13. Denver Broncos
12. Arizona Cardinals
11. Green Bay Packers
10. New England Patriots
9. Dallas Cowboys
8. Buffalo Bills
7. Pittsburgh Steelers

Veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returns for the Pittsburgh Steelers this season after only appearing in two games last year. Roethlisberger has fully recovered from his elbow surgery and looks to reunite with his young core of wide receivers, including JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and first-round pick, Chase Claypool. Their offense may be questionable at the moment, but their defense is one of the best. Minkah Fitzpatrick was an instant playmaker after joining in 2019. T.J. Watt is looking to match his production in 2019 and post another Defensive Player of the Year-worthy season. If the Steelers do not return to the playoffs in 2020, it will be a major disappointment with the expanded playoffs.

The city of Buffalo has not been as excited for Bills football since a young man from the University of Michigan arrived in Foxborough 20 years ago — that young man being Tom Brady, the most accomplished football player of all time.

Of course, Brady has taken his talents to Tampa Bay, leaving his career-long coach in Bill Belichick. Belichick and Brady have won six Super Bowls together, preventing even the thought of another team winning the AFC East since 2003. The Bills acquired Stefon Diggs over the off-season and have now put quarterback Josh Allen in the driver’s seat. With a competent coach in Sean McDermott and a solid defense, the pressure is all on Allen.

The Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals will be competing with the best for the first time in a few years. Their teams’ success lies in the hands of their young, unproven quarterbacks. Drew Lock seems like a natural leader for the Broncos and has some great surrounding pieces, including Melvin Gordon, Philip Lindsay, Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy. This is a very young and exciting team who could surprise a lot of people this season.

The Arizona Cardinals have the speedy Kyler Murray behind center, and added DeAndre Hopkins, one of the league’s best receivers. The Cardinals’ division is loaded but with a little bit of luck, they could secure a Wild Card spot.

The Real Deal:

These teams are locks to either win their division or make the playoffs. If all goes as planned, these teams will win ten-plus games in 2020. Stellar offenses, terrifying defenses and genius coaching abound; beware of these teams.

6. New Orleans Saints
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
4. San Francisco 49ers
3. Seattle Seahawks
2. Baltimore Ravens
1. Kansas City Chiefs

This is not a very controversial final six. The Super Bowl 54 champion Kansas City Chiefs bring back almost the exact same starting lineup. The Chiefs could even be better with the draft selection of Clyde Edwards-Helaire from LSU to help Patrick Mahomes in the backfield.

Andy Reid is one of the best minds in football, and he has a squad that can do serious damage to the scoreboard. Tyreek Hill is one of the most electric receivers in the NFL and he’s got other extremely athletic receivers behind him to share the load. Don’t bet against the Chiefs; this could be football’s next dynasty as Mahomes is signed for the next ten years (and not for cheap either). Mahomes will make over half a billion (!) dollars in the next ten years; it goes to show how much the Chiefs see in their franchise quarterback.

On paper, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers look like they could go 19-0. Star receivers in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are set to go along with a familiar face for Tom Brady, tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Gronkowski is coming off a year of retirement, which for many players would be a red flag. For Gronkowski, this isn’t much of a worry. ‘Gronk’ is what some would call this freak of nature; standing at 6-foot-6 and weighing in at 265 pounds, he is a hard man for defenses to cover.

Another red flag for many analysts is age. Tom Brady is starting the season at 43 years old, but the GOAT does not abide by the laws of time. Of course age catches up to everyone, and you can expect him to not be at his peak, but with the players around him and a proven coach in Bruce Arians, the Buccaneers should be considered among the top contenders in the league.

The 49ers and Seahawks will be competing for the top spot in the NFC West this season, and it should be a thrilling chase to watch. Both teams have top coaches with stars on both sides of the ball, so it should be interesting to see who ends up on top.

The Seahawks are just ahead of the 49ers in this edition of NFL power rankings because of their recent acquisition of strong safety Jamal Adams. He seems like the missing piece on the Seahawks defense and expect him to show up on highlights a lot this year. The 49ers, of course, have one of the league’s top rosters with an exceptional defense backed by veteran Richard Sherman and blooming star Nick Bosa. This division will come down to the wire, but both should easily be appearing in the playoffs.