Teams to watch

Joe Glorioso | All-Pro Reels — from Washington Football Team at Arizona Cardinals, State Farm Stadium, Glendale, Arizona, September 20, 2020

The NFL had an unprecedented season this year with the impact of COVID-19. Many more players and stars were injured. COVID cases shut teams down for days and weeks on end. Schedules had to be moved around at the last minute. The Denver Broncos had to play a game without a quarterback. Fans were limited in all stadiums.

However, there was still one constant this year: quality football. Once again, the NFL had a very interesting season with teams and players that flopped and surprised, and quality football from many teams throughout the season.

This season, the biggest storyline was the teams that surprised everyone with their success this season, being the Browns, Colts, Dolphins and Bills. What is even more important is the teams to look at for next season:

Browns: The Browns surprised everyone this year with their playoff run and blowout upset over the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, there is no reason to think that they will not improve. With many of their key players still under contract for the 2021 season, the Browns can use the free agency and draft to strengthen their few weak spots on their team. With the correct moves, the Browns can address their needs in the secondary and at linebacker. Another storyline to watch is what the Brown will do with Odell Beckham Jr. Beckham is coming off a season-ending ACL injury, and has underperformed the expectations of many since joining the Browns. It is possible that the team would explore trading him for draft capital or strengthening the position they need, and would open up the chance to sign, trade for or draft another wide receiver. Doing so would poise the Browns for an amazing season, and possible Super Bowl one.

Cardinals: The Cardinals already surged during the 2020 season, as they outperformed their expectations as a team, narrowly missing the playoffs. They have found franchise players in Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins to lead their offense, and breakout stars Hasaan Reddick, Isaiah Simmons, Budda Baker and Chandler Jones to lead their defense. However, there are some major offseason issues to address. The Cardinals have to evaluate whether or not to re-sign key free agents Hasaan Reddick, Larry Fitzgerald, Kenyan Drake and Patrick Peterson. Then they have to address the holes and potential holes at linebacker, cornerback, offensive line, tight end and running back. This team is still a year or two removed from a Super Bowl run or win, but expect them to be better and much more dangerous with the recent signing of J.J. Watt, a defensive game changer. Expect the Cardinals to make a strong regular season, playoff run and potentially pull off a major playoff upset.

Chargers: The Chargers, slightly unsurprisingly, found their franchise quarterback in Justin Herbert. However, nobody expected the rookie to have the strong season he played this year. Herbert ended up outperforming his wildest expectation and ended up winning the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. The Chargers put together a much better season than their 7-9 record suggests. Especially with a fully healthy defense and Austin Ekeler returning, this team looks ready to make at least a playoff run this season. Their biggest questions are at the tight end and offensive line positions. At tight end, the team must decide whether or not they are going to re-sign breakout player Hunter Henry. At offensive line, it is less of a question and more of a need, as multiple positions on the line could use a bolster. Watch the Chargers this free agency to see if they can make the changes needed to strengthen the team.

Colts: The Colts were already a 10-6 playoff team this season, but the room for growth is still strong. With the Wentz trade, they solved their biggest offseason question, which was at the quarterback position. The Colts also have almost their entire offense set for next season. The biggest remaining question, and the one that may determine their fate, is what to do at wide receiver. Their current WR1, T.Y. Hilton, is entering free agency after the team could not reach a deal to re-sign him. Whether the Colts re-sign Hilton, sign another free agent WR or draft a future WR1 this year, their activity around the position may determine how far they run in the playoffs. The Colts are still a team to watch, not because they look to have a significant improvement from their position last year, but because they already have strong players at most positions, other than their WR1.

Dolphins: The Dolphins were arguably the biggest surprise of the 2020 NFL season, besides maybe the Browns. A team that had a dismal start to 2020 and a dismal 2019 season, had a turnaround halfway through the year. Their defense, led by breakout lineman Emmanuel Ogbah and breakout cornerback Xavien Howard. They seemed to have found their answer at quarterback in Tua Tagovailoa, and are already making offseason moves to strengthen the cast around him, with their trade for Tennessee’s young offensive tackle. The Dolphins have lots of draft capital within the next couple of years, so they will be able to boost their team with more young core players, or strong veterans that have draft pick value.

Panthers: The Panthers were a team in an unfortunate situation. They faced two of the toughest NFC teams twice this season, the Saints and the Buccaneers, are in-between quarterbacks, dealt with a first-year coach and saw star running back Christian McCaffery suffer two significant, long-term injuries that derailed his season. However, the Panthers also found some great long-term players this year. Wide receivers DJ Moore and Robby Anderson had breakout seasons, backup RB Mike Davis had a star-level year, and rookies Jeremy Chinn and Derrick Brown look to be focal points for the defense moving forward. The team still has some questions to answer, mainly at quarterback, but with the team returning to full health and the NFC South becoming weaker, the Panthers have a strong chance to surprise us all.

Rams: Putting a playoff team, just like the Colts, in this list does not seem to make sense. However, like the Colts, the Rams have a chance to become a legitimate Super Bowl contender this year. Most of this is attributed to their NFL-shaking quarterback swap with the Lions, acquiring Matthew Stafford in exchange for Jared Goff and a couple of draft picks. The Rams seem to be set at many other positions. Their biggest remaining question is which of their defensive free agents they will attempt to re-sign. After that, the Rams will be important to watch in the free agency and draft, as no position is currently hurting them too much, but some could still use improvement.

Washington: Washington is a team that ended up in a unique situation this year. They finished 7-9, and yet still went to the playoffs and won their division. They were a team full of surprises this year, from their win over Pittsburgh to snap their 11-game win streak, to their four different starting quarterbacks, to the young players that broke out in running back Antonio Gibson. Not to mention wide receiver Terry McLaurin and defensive end Chase Young, to the injury comeback of fan-favorite QB, Alex Smith. Washington has the potential to be perennial division champions, but will have to battle with the Cowboys, who just re-signed franchise QB Prescott for four years, and with the Giants, who have star RB Saquon Barkley back from injury. If Washington solves their question at quarterback, whether it is from the draft, free agency or in-house, and somewhat strengthens their defense, they will be in very good shape to win their division title and compete for their conference title.

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