The NFL season is a few months away, the schedule has finally been released, and teams are beginning OTA's. With this said, many rookies are beginning to get a taste of the NFL and the veterans are gearing back up for another year. Obviously there are some teams that are clear Super Bowl contenders, while others are in the middle or beginning of a rebuild period. Either way the front offices of both the contenders and those rebuilding are looking forward to building a competitive team for not just this season, but years to come. I decided to highlight five teams that I believe have the brightest future in the NFL and go into further detail about what makes the future so bright for these teams. However, this list is in no specific order or ranking system. These teams are just five teams that came to my mind when considering the teams who are poised to contend now, are building to contend in the near future, or are doing both. I'll be releasing another article soon featuring five teams with the darkest future in the NFL. But for now, let's get into the teams who have the brightest futures.
1) Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers have already found their new franchise QB just a season after the departure of sixteen year starting Quarterback Philip Rivers and this new franchise QB proved in year one that he’s here to stay. Herbert had one of the best seasons’s a rookie Quarterback has ever had as he won offensive rookie of the year by totaling over 4,300 yards and thirty-six total touchdowns. Herbert set a new record for most completions in a season for a rookie (396) and touchdown passes (31). It also cannot be unnoticed that Herbert put these numbers up with an inconsistent backfield that faced multiple injuries all season long and Herbert had one of the weakest offensive lines in the league last year as he was sacked thirty-two times last year, tied for eleventh in the NFL. Thankfully for Herbert, the offensive line was an issue that was heavily addressed through free agency and the NFL draft. The Chargers brought in arguably the best center in the league, Corey Linsley this past offseason along with new starting Left Guard Matt Feiler. The haul on offensive linemen continued as Los Angeles selected Rashawn Slater thirteenth overall in the 2021 draft, an immediate impact player and day one starter on Justin Herbert’s blindside. With the three additions to the offensive line, this unit instantly improved from one of the league’s worst, to one of the best. Another upside for the offense of the Chargers is its youth. Nine total starters for this offense are under the age of thirty, including all of the receiving weapons for Herbert, outside of Jared Cook. Moving on to the defensive side of the ball for the Chargers, this is a unit that will have to improve and stay healthy if the Chargers want to be contenders anytime soon. The Chargers allowed an average of 26.6 points per game last year which ranked twenty-third in the NFL while ranking twenty-second in takeaways per game with only 1.2. This defensive unit has a plethora of talent, the issue is they continue to get hit with injuries. Starting with star safety Derwin James Jr. James had an outstanding rookie year in 2018 but hasn’t been the same since. He played just five games in 2019 after fracturing his foot early on in the preseason and did not play at all last year after suffering a torn meniscus during training camp. James can be a game wrecker and will be a big-time player for this team, but he must stay healthy. The Chargers also have an extremely talented young edge rusher in Joey Bosa. However, Bosa has also had his issues staying healthy as was seen last season and in 2018. Thus said, when Bosa stays healthy, he’s a beast off the edge and carries this team’s pass rush. Even if Bosa can stay healthy though, the Chargers need more help getting to the Quarterback. Los Angeles ranked twenty-fifth last year in sacks per game with only 1.7. No matter if it's with or without Bosa, that number must increase. The Chargers also have a rising star in the middle of their defense with linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. Murray led this team in tackles a season ago as a rookie, with 107 and was also able to add three passes defended to his stats. Murray shined last year, as he was one of the names often thrown around in conversations about defensive rookie of the year. Considering the injuries and inconsistencies the Chargers faced last year, their fans should be confident about their 7-9 record and even more confident this season due to the upgrades this team made. The Chargers have a few more improvements to be made defensively and they must stay healthy, but with Justin Herbert going into only his second season the Chargers are a young team with great potential.
2) Cincinnati Bengals
Another team with an outstanding Quarterback, unlike the Chargers, the Bengals still need to find protection for their young franchise QB. Burrow appeared in only ten games his rookie year, as he suffered a torn ACL, MCL, and other structural damage to his knee. If that isn’t alarming enough, Burrow was tied for being sacked the eleventh most times among all other QB’s last year… and he didn’t play in the last six games of the season. The Bengals will have to make protecting Burrow their number one priority until it is no longer an issue. As far as the rest of their offense goes, the Bengals have great weapons for Burrow, starting with running back Joe Mixon. Mixon had a frustrating season a year ago, as he only appeared in six games and battled injuries all season long. However, before last season Mixon had back-to-back seasons in which he totaled over one thousand rushing yards and just under ten total touchdowns. At just twenty-four years old, Mixon is one of the game’s best young backs. As far as receiving goes for the Bengals, this could be the best unit on this roster. The receiving core is led by Tyler Boyd, but second-rounder Tee Higgins came in as a rookie last year and had an outstanding season for a rookie, even without the presence of Joe Burrow. The Bengals decided to further add to their receiving core in the draft by selecting Burrow’s former LSU teammate, Ja’Marr Chase, fifth overall. Burrow and Chase were an unstoppable duo during their one year together at LSU, as Chase put up 84 receptions for 1,780 yards and 20 TDs from Burrow in their national championship run. This Bengals offense will be exciting to watch for years to come, especially if Chase and Burrow can carry their connection over to the NFL level. Although the Bengals have such an electric offense, they were abysmal defensively a season ago. Ranking towards the bottom or in the middle of nearly every defensive statistic, that side of the ball has to improve. Ranking dead last in sacks per game (1.1) Cincinnati made some moves to improve their pass rush in free agency by bringing in Trey Hendrickson on a big contract, who’s coming off a season when he had a career-high in sacks with 13.5. They also continued to add to their pass rush through the draft by using a third-round pick on the defensive end, Joseph Ossai. While the pass rush and run defense for Cincinnati was dreadful, their pass defense was mediocre, if you consider that any better. The Bengals ranked in the top ten in the NFL in opponents completion percentage, but that's where the success began and ended for the Bengals' pass defense. Once again ranking close to the bottom, or in the middle of the pack for passing defense statistics, the Bengals have to improve the secondary as well. The good news though, is that even with the horrible numbers their secondary gave up, safeties Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell had tremendous seasons and will provide stability in the back end of the secondary for the Bengals for years to come. The Bengals also made a haul on defensive backs in free agency by adding players like Chidobe Awuzie, Mike Hilton, and Ricardo Allen who should improve in their pass defense this upcoming season. The number one priority for Cincinnati is providing stable protection for former number one overall pick Joe Burrow, then Cincinnati should go all-in on upgrading their defense.
3) Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins are a team that surprised everyone last year as they quickly went from one of the worst teams in the league to a team that has the potential to win their division. Their success was largely due to their much-improved defense and the success of then Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. The addition of Byron Jones to play opposite of Xavien Howard is one that so far has been worth every penny. Miami averaged a league-best 1.8 takeaways per game a season ago, most of those coming from interceptions made by Xavien Howard. Looking furthermore at the Dolphins defense, it's impossible not to notice how young this group is. The oldest starter on this defense is safety Eric Rowe, who is only twenty-eight years old. Miami overall had a very solid defense a season ago and the additions through the draft and free agency will help boost this defense even more. Combine that with the youth that side of the ball has for Miami and you realize this defense could be scary good in the near future. However, there is some concern with the Dolphins' offense. Tua Tagovailoa took over as a rookie last year halfway through the season and although he didn’t perform horribly, he didn’t perform necessarily as well as Miami would have hoped. It also seems that those in the building for Miami don’t seem convinced that Tua is the guy just yet. However, it must be kept in mind that, after all, Tua was a rookie and didn’t have the best offense surrounding him. The front office of Miami realized that, so they got Tua some help in this draft by selecting his former teammate, receiver Jaylen Waddle. Waddle was arguably the best deep threat receiver in this draft and should be a day one starter. Waddle will also boost the special teams of the Dolphins as he was electric as a return man at Alabama, but that’s if Miami decides to use him that way. The weakest area for this team has to be the offensive line. Quarterbacks for the dolphins were sacked an average 2.1 times per game last season, which is about in the middle of the pack in comparison with the other thirty-one teams in the NFL. The bright side of the Dolphins offensive line is that many of the players in this unit are young. Two of their projected starters are going into only their second season in the NFL. The Dolphins know their biggest needs as they addressed them early on in the draft. The next step for this team is developing Tua Tagovailoa and making sure that he truly is the future of this franchise. Because if he isn’t, then nothing else about the talent of this team will matter until they find their QB.
4) Baltimore Ravens
The last two seasons have been very exciting for the Ravens and their fans, especially when you consider how fast Lamar Jackson has developed. Lamar is going into just his third season as a full-time starter yet he has already accomplished one of the highest awards in the NFL, by winning league MVP in 2019. Jackson is the perfect example of a modern-day QB, He’s lethal when he drops back to pass and is deadly when he takes off and runs. However, Lamar could still make some slight improvements to his throwing abilities, it would be a lot easier if the Ravens would get him some more weapons in the receiving game. Jackson, along with the multiple running backs Baltimore has used in the past two seasons, has had one of the league’s best rushing offenses, yet their passing game has been up-and-down. However, the Ravens are aware of this as they brought in two receivers this off-season to boost this passing offense and make things easier for Lamar Jackson. This Ravens offense has the perfect blend of speed with players like Hollywood Brown and Lamar Jackson and power through players like J.K. Dobbins and Mark Andrews. The offensive line of the Ravens is one of the best in the league and their rushing numbers reflect that. The only real challenge for this offensive line is going to be staying healthy, as we already saw Left Tackle Ronnie Stanley go down last year with a major injury. Other than remaining healthy, the only improvements to be made for this offense are in the receiving corps. Now for the Baltimore defense. The case can be made that this is the best defense in the league, as they allowed a league-best 18.5 points per game a season ago. The success for this defense starts in the secondary, as they have one of the best secondaries in the league, led by corners Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey. The Ravens have two shut-down corners on the field at all times, which is a rarity in the NFL. The talent at corner for the Ravens makes it extremely difficult for opposing offenses to move the ball through the air. The Ravens then have a rising star in the middle of their defense in Middle Linebacker, Patrick Queen. Queen led the team in tackles a season ago as a rookie and was in the conversation for defensive rookie of the year all season long. Queen has the potential to be one of the best linebackers in the league soon, however, the Ravens could use some help at their outside linebacker positions. Moving to the defensive line, the Ravens again have a plethora of talent there but could use a boost to their pass rush. They used their first-round pick in this year's draft on edge rusher Jayson Oweh, so he could be the solution to some of their pass rush struggles. The Ravens also should be looking to add more youth to their defensive front in upcoming drafts and free agency as all three of their starting defensive linemen are thirty-one or older. Lastly, the Ravens also have the best kicker in the league. Typically I wouldn’t spend time highlighting a team’s kicker, but when it’s someone as good as Justin Tucker, it’s worth the time. Tucker made nearly 90% of his field goals a season ago (89.7%) and missed just one extra point. Another season filled with excellence from Tucker, nothing less than expected.
5) Cleveland Browns
After what felt like hundreds of different Quarterbacks for the Browns, they seem to have finally found their guy in Baker Mayfield. The former number one overall pick had possibly the best season of his young career last year even though he recorded a career-low in passing yards. Although Baker’s passing yards weren’t incredible, his Quarterback rating and the low number of interceptions thrown were. Baker was top ten in both of those categories and threw only eight interceptions, which is remarkable considering he threw twenty-one in his 2019 campaign. It should also be noted that he recorded these numbers while not having Odell Beckham Jr for most of the season. Mayfield is surrounded by one of the most talented offenses in the NFL, starting with potentially the best running back duo in the league of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. The Browns then have explosive playmakers at the receiver position with former Pro-Bowler Odell Beckham Jr and his college teammate Jarvis Landry. The Browns made an upgrade at the tight end position before last season as well by making former Falcon Austin Hooper the highest-paid tight end in the NFL at the time of his signing. Although Hooper didn’t have the success he did in his final season with Atlanta in 2019, Hooper could see a larger role in the passing game this season, especially if the receiving corps is hit with injuries again. The Browns offensive line is another unit that has seen massive upgrades compared to recent years. In the past, this unit featured Joe Thomas but was subpar outside of the future hall of fame tackle. The Browns now hold one of the best offensive lines in the NFL as they made multiple free-agent signings, trades, and used multiple draft picks on upgrading their offensive line. If Cleveland can add one more receiving threat and stay healthy, this could be one of the league’s best offenses for years to come. The scary part about facing the Browns is the defense is just as good, and maybe even better than their offense. Former number one overall pick and defensive end Myles Garrett had the best year of his career last year as he earned All-Pro honors and was sixth in the league in sacks with twelve total. But the Browns needed someone alongside Garrett to get after the Quarterback and to boost their run defense and they got that someone in Jadeveon Clowney. Although Clowney’s sack numbers have been underwhelming for a former number one overall pick, Clowney is easily one of the best defensive ends in the NFL in stopping the run which makes what is already a top ten run defense even better. Even better news for the Browns and their fans is that Cleveland had the best draft class this year in my eyes and too many other analysts. Cleveland got an absolute steal in round two by trading up for Linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who was a consensus first-round pick by most but saw his stock fall on draft day for whatever reason. Cleveland’s defense continues to get better and will enable them to truly compete in arguably the NFL’s toughest division, the AFC North.
*All stats used were found from ESPN Stats and Info. Department and TeamRankings.com