NFL projections and unit grades for 2021: Mike Clay’s best, worst offenses and defenses, plus ranking all 32 teams

NFL projections and unit grades for 2021: Mike Clay’s best, worst offenses and defenses, plus ranking all 32 teams

Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season is just around the corner. What better way to raise (or temper) expectations than with a complete breakdown of predictions and projections?

Below is a guide of what to expect from every team once the season kicks off Thursday — from power rankings, to teams that will score the most points and defenses that will allow the least, to the easiest and toughest schedules — as well as predictions for the playoffs and, of course, Super Bowl LVI. Will we have a repeat Super Bowl champion?

I used to kick this thing off with a look at the best and worst positional units across the league, but I did an expanded version of that in August, so be sure to also check that out. Let’s start with who has the easiest slate of games on the calendar this season.

Jump ahead to:
 Easiest | Hardest
Offense projections: Best | Worst
Defense projections: Best | Worst
Power Rankings | Super Bowl pick
Offensive, defensive unit rankings


Easiest schedules

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The defending champions have the easiest schedule. That might not seem fair, but remember that the schedule is a predetermined formula. Tom Brady & Co. will benefit from six divisional games against the Drew Brees-less Saints, plus the underwhelming Falcons and Panthers rosters. The Bucs will also face the AFC and NFC East divisions, which means games against the Giants, Eagles and Jets. As for unique games, remember that the Buccaneers did not win the NFC South last season. That means they will face three second-place teams, as opposed to three defending division champs — the Rams, Bears and Colts instead of the Seahawks, Packers and Titans.

2. Buffalo Bills

Buffalo is set up well for another AFC East title run, and a light schedule only helps their odds. The Bills’ divisional foes aren’t overly scary — six games against the Patriots, Dolphins and Jets — and they also take on the NFC South and AFC South. Buffalo’s unique games aren’t easy — Titans, Chiefs, Steelers — but that is offset by the rest of the slate.

Hardest schedules

1. Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers started last season with 11 consecutive wins, but the streak was criticized because of the extremely easy slate. That won’t be the situation in 2021. Pittsburgh has the toughest schedule, headlined by four games against two of league’s best teams — Ravens and Browns — as well as showdowns with fellow 2020 division champions Kansas City, Buffalo, Tennessee and Seattle. Pittsburgh’s slow finish to 2020, a shaky offseason and a very tough slate certainly puts a return trip to the playoffs in jeopardy.

2. Chicago Bears

Chicago’s schedule has the unique appeal of no back-to-back road games, but that is where the positives end. The Bears’ slate is overloaded with tough opponents, and they have the NFC’s hardest projected schedule despite two games against the rebuilding Lions. Chicago will face the Packers and improved Vikings twice, and nearly half of its schedule is made up of tough NFC West and AFC North teams. The Raiders and Giants aren’t overly intimidating unique games, but the Buccaneers are. Chicago will have its hands full finding the way to a wild card in 2021.

3. Detroit Lions

The Lions are in the middle of a rebuild after overhauling the front office, coaching staff and even the quarterback position during the offseason. The schedule won’t be doing them any favors with the NFC North teams set to face the AFC North and NFC West divisions this season. Their unique games aren’t overly scary — Eagles, Falcons and Broncos — though it is possible all three, especially Denver, will be better in 2021.

Projected highest-scoring teams

Kansas City Chiefs: 477 points

The Chiefs top this category for the third consecutive season. In 2019, they were projected for 469 and scored 451. Last season, they were projected for 470 and scored 473. Offensive line turnover and a lack of wide receiver depth are concerns, but when you have Patrick Mahomes under center — not to mention Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill as targets — you are going to score a ton of points.


Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 469 points

The Buccaneers ranked third in this category last season and went on to win the Super Bowl. Of the 16 Bucs who played at least 220 offensive snaps (12,802 combined) for that team, all 16 remain on the roster. That is an unheard-of lack of turnover and sets up Tom Brady and Tampa Bay for another high-scoring season.

Green Bay Packers: 454 points

The Packers paced the NFL in this category last season, and the return of Aaron Rodgers locks them in as one of the favorites again in 2021. Rodgers’ supporting cast remains solid, and the additions of Randall Cobb and rookie Amari Rodgers should help the cause.

Projected lowest-scoring teams

Houston Texans: 333 points

Houston finished 18th in this category last season, and that was with Deshaun Watson and Will Fuller V. Fuller is gone and Watson is unlikely to play this season, leaving the likes of Tyrod Taylor and Brandin Cooks to carry an offense devoid of playmakers. This is the league’s shakiest offense, and it might not be close.

Carolina Panthers: 337 points

The Panthers finished 25th in offensive touchdowns last season, and their new quarterback, Sam Darnold, was under center for the team that finished dead last. Christian McCaffrey is back, but Curtis Samuel is gone and the offensive line isn’t very good. Perhaps Darnold will make a leap in his fourth season, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Detroit Lions: 339 points

Detroit finished 20th in points last season and promptly downgraded from Matthew Stafford to Jared Goff at quarterback while also wiping out nearly its entire wide receiver room. With Tyrell WilliamsKalif Raymond and fourth-round rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown leading the WR depth chart, Detroit will have its hands full scoring points this season.


Projected defenses to allow the fewest points

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 352 points

Seven teams allowed fewer points than Tampa Bay last season, but it is fair to think the Bucs will be even better in 2021. Consider last season, 19 Buccaneers played at least 59 defensive snaps — 13,908 combined. All 19 remain on the roster. Same as with the offense, the lack of turnover — as well as the addition of 32nd overall pick Joe Tryon-Shoyinka — suggests a loaded defense, which also includes Vita VeaShaquil BarrettLavonte DavidDevin White and Carlton Davis, will be one of the league’s best in 2021.

Denver Broncos: 364 points

Denver’s defense was projected in this same spot one year ago and was a major disappointment. Of course, Von Miller missed the entire season, and the Broncos now have what is arguably the league’s best secondary after adding Kyle FullerRonald Darby and first-round pick Pat Surtain II to a room that also includes Justin SimmonsKareem Jackson and Bryce Callahan. Vic Fangio is one of the best defensive minds in the business and has the personnel to field a unit that rivals his elite 2018 Chicago squad.

Minnesota Vikings: 366 points

Minnesota’s defense was a major bust last season, but it is fair to expect a rebound in 2021. Patrick PetersonDalvin TomlinsonSheldon RichardsonMackensie AlexanderEverson GriffenBashaud Breeland and Xavier Woods were added to a unit that will have Michael PierceDanielle Hunter and Anthony Barr back after the trio missed all or most of 2020. Add Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith to the mix and Minnesota’s defense looks outstanding on paper.

Projected defenses to allow the most points

Detroit Lions: 463 points

Detroit allowed 519 points last season, which was 27 more than any other team. With all due respect to Trey Flowers, the Lions’ defense is extremely short on star power. Leaving them with a few solid players (Michael BrockersRomeo OkwaraJamie Collins Sr.) and major question marks otherwise. That is especially the case in a secondary that badly needs Tracy Walker III and 2020 first-round pick Jeff Okudah to bounce back in a big way.

Houston Texans: 453 points

Same as Detroit, Houston is dangerously short on impact defensive players. J.J. Watt is no longer here to save the day, putting major pressure on recent Day 3 draft picks and a lengthy cast of replacement-level free-agent signings to hold down the fort. It’s hard to see a bright future for this group as it includes zero recent first-round picks and only three Day 2 selections from the past three drafts — Ross BlacklockJonathan Greenard and Lonnie Johnson Jr.

Las Vegas Raiders: 431 points

The Raiders finished in this same spot last season, and it’s hard to see much of an improvement barring a major leap from recent draft picks Clelin FerrellTanner MuseTrayvon Mullen Jr.Damon Arnette and Johnathan AbramYannick Ngakoue was a strong free-agent add, but while Gerald McCoy (33 years old), Denzel Perryman (27, and dumped by Carolina) and Casey Hayward (31) are big names, it is fair to wonder if their best days are behind them.

My preseason Power Rankings (* indicates projected playoff team)

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers*

As discussed earlier, the Buccaneers had an unprecedented lack of roster turnover during the offseason, which leaves them without any glaring weaknesses. In fact, the roster might be even better with a young defense one year older, and with the additions of Giovani Bernard and impressive first-round pick Joe Tryon-Shoyinka. Tampa Bay is also set up nicely with the league’s easiest projected schedule.

Loaded with talent at nearly every level, we should expect Tom Brady‘s team to be in the mix for yet another Lombardi Trophy.

2. Cleveland Browns*

The Browns were one of the league’s breakout teams last season and — after a strong offseason — I suspect they’ll make another big leap in 2021. I wrote at length about why I feel the Browns are legitimate Super Bowl contenders, but, in a nutshell, this is a well-coached team with an ascending quarterback, elite offensive line and a defense that was transformed from a weakness to a strength after an aggressive offseason.

Top to bottom, the Browns have arguably the AFC’s best roster on paper, which is saying a lot with the Ravens, Chiefs and Bills also in the conference.

3. Green Bay Packers*

Aaron Rodgers is back, making the Packers automatically strong contenders in the NFC. Of course, he has a pretty darn good supporting cast, too. This team is 26-6 in the regular season over the past two years. Losing superstar left tackle David Bakhtiari for at least six weeks is a tough blow, but Green Bay’s offensive line is solid, as is Rodgers’ arsenal of targets, led by Davante Adams and Aaron Jones.

The defense remains strong with Jaire AlexanderKenny ClarkAdrian Amos and Za’Darius Smith among the best at their position and with the only notable void at off-ball linebacker.

4. Kansas City Chiefs*

With Patrick Mahomes under center and Andy Reid calling the shots, the defending AFC champions are primed for a run at their third consecutive trip to the Super Bowl. The path won’t be without roadblocks, however. The offseason saw a near-complete offensive line overhaul — including the additions of stars Orlando Brown Jr. and Joe Thuney — but also a move to three projected starters with a combined zero regular-season snaps.

Depth at the offensive skill positions is a concern, and the defense is arguably bottom 10 in the league on paper. The team finished 22nd in Football Outsiders’ DVOA last season and didn’t improve much on paper during the offseason.

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