Five NFL teams most likely to unravel in 2021
Ben Roethlisberger's Steelers unraveled at the end of the 2020 season. That trend is likely to continue into 2021. Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Some NFL teams seem destined to fail during the 2021 season, and while there are some obvious, probable horror stories like the Houston Texans, there should be some surprise franchises that implode in spectacular fashion.

It happens every year. Whether it’s a playoff team from the prior season, a seemingly stable organization that takes a bad turn, or a team that collapses under high expectations, plenty of fan bases end up baffled at how bad their team fared.

Let’s look at the most notable NFL teams that seem the most likely to unravel in 2021 based on limited cap space, personnel deficiencies, uncertain quarterback situations and a variety of other key factors.

Las Vegas Raiders

Jon Gruden's Raiders were held back by their defense in 2020. Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It’s unclear how much personnel say head coach Jon Gruden has. Mike Mayock doesn’t seem like the type of personality who would back down, and would probably insist on having final say on such matters as the general manager.

Whatever’s going on in Las Vegas’ front office, it’s not working. Mayock is going to take the hit, because he’s the GM after all, but let’s call it like it is: The Raiders are on one of the worst runs of personnel decisions in recent NFL history.

That started prior to Mayock landing with the team, when the decision was made to trade star pass-rusher Khalil Mack. However, it was Mayock who made the draft picks from the massive haul the franchise got in the Mack deal, and he appears to have whiffed on just about all of them.

Unless Clelin Ferrell pops in Year 3, or Trayvon Mullen and Damon Arnette transform into above-average, not poor cornerbacks, it’s going to look bad. If tailback Josh Jacobs doesn’t recover from a full yard-per-carry drop from his rookie season, it’ll look worse. And if Johnathan Abram doesn’t rebound in a big way from being Pro Football Focus’ worst-graded safety in 2020, well, you can imagine how Silver and Black fans will feel.

It’ll feel more like a black hole of despair. Frankly, Gruden is doing just fine with the offense, and Derek Carr, despite not getting strong endorsements from Mayock previously, is playing like a top-10 quarterback — and at a bargain rate.

Mayock and the Raiders’ team of scouts must figure out how to transform the defense in 2021. There’s no indication thus far that there’s an adequate plan in place to do that. As a result, Las Vegas will be ill-equipped to take on Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert for a quarter of its schedule. That’s an almost-guaranteed four losses right there.

Even with a comparatively easier schedule outside the division, the defense as it stands doesn’t even have the means to stop average quarterbacks from thriving. This has all the makings of a disaster, a power struggle between Gruden and Mayock that the coach will win, and it should lead to a necessary shakeup in the Raiders front office.

Chicago Bears

Matt Nagy's Bears continue to struggle as they look for a solution at QB. Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

Hi, Ryan Pace. What’s your quarterback plan? Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles aren’t going to cut it. Barring a miraculous trade for Deshaun Watson — the Bears have reportedly offered the most for him — or Russell Wilson — whom Chicago is said to be focused on — this organization is stuck at the game’s most important position.

Had Pace just not drafted Trubisky and gone with Watson instead, this wouldn’t be a problem. Now, it might take trading Khalil Mack and other star players, along with several first-round picks, to either Houston or Seattle in order to solve the biggest issue that’s held the Bears back for years.

Chicago head coach Matt Nagy would love to work with anyone who’s an upgrade over Trubisky and Foles. The problem is, the Bears don’t pick until 20th overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, so they’ll miss out on all the top QB prospects unless they swing a huge trade.

Any of these scenarios feel more like pipe dreams at this point. The reality is, Pace will have to settle on a mediocre option, and once again Chicago will be at a huge disadvantage in the NFC North going up against the likes of reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. Heck, even Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins and new Lions QB Jared Goff are way better than what the Bears have had at QB.

The defense can be as good as it wants to be. It won’t matter until a new field general floats into the Windy City to save the day. That may mean Pace and Nagy have to lose their jobs first, and that the 2021 team needs to lose a lot to set up the chance to draft a signal-caller high in 2022.

You can bet Mack and the defense are fed up with scrapping to stay in every game while their low-scoring offense flounders. Chicago made the playoffs at 8-8 in 2020, but expect the Bears to be one of the NFL teams to unravel this coming year.

New Orleans Saints

Who will start under center for Sean Payton's Saints? Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Speaking of teams without a great QB plan, let’s look at New Orleans. To recap: the legendary Drew Brees is probably retiring; the only incumbent option, Taysom Hill, lines up more at tight end than under center; and Jameis Winston, a hopeful free-agent returnee, last started in 2019 and threw 30 interceptions that year.

Winston’s former team was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who defeated the Saints in the playoffs and wound up winning Super Bowl LV led by Tom Brady.

New Orleans is having to make a dizzying number of salary-cap maneuvers just to return most of its core from last season. It’s probably impossible to bring everyone back, and even with all that, the most vital position on the field remains very much unsettled.

Whether it’s Hill or Winston, there are serious drawbacks to either option. Both are far worse than Brady and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, who are two of the other star passers in the NFC South. The Carolina Panthers actually have cap space and the higher draft picks to either acquire a veteran upgrade or move up in the draft for a new young stud.

If the Falcons show even a modicum of improvement on defense, Carolina gets its expected boost at QB and the Bucs keep their championship nucleus in place, the Saints are in trouble. All those outcomes seem more probable than New Orleans getting a Pro Bowl-caliber 2021 out of Hill or Winston.

It wouldn’t take much to go wrong as the Saints’ current quarterback situation stands for the team to fall from 12-4 division champs to 6-10 non-playoff contender.

Check out some of New Orleans’ 2020 wins: a 27-13 victory over San Francisco in which Brees threw for 76 yards. A 31-3 romp over Denver wherein Hill was the game’s leading passer with 78 yards and the Broncos completed just one throw with practice squad receiver Kendall Hinton pressed into duty.

We’ll keep going: one-possession W’s in Weeks 4 and 5 over Detroit and the Los Angeles Chargers, both of whom fired their coaches, and consecutive three-point triumphs over Carolina and Chicago off a Week 6 bye.

Credit is due in part to the Saints for taking care of business against teams they were supposed to beat. However, there are enough red flags there to suggest this thing could go south in a hurry.

Seattle Seahawks

The Pete Carroll-Russell Wilson feud has the potential to derail the Seahawks' 2021 season. Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

That’s right: two of the top three playoff seeds in the NFC that posted 12-4 records in 2020 (the Saints and Seahawks) are going down in a big way.

While it’s easier to say the Texans will be bad as they continue to botch the situation with Watson, Seattle has its own disgruntled superstar quarterback in Wilson who’s submitted a list of trade destinations to the Seahawks brass.

No matter what the haul is in a prospective Wilson trade, if it happens, this Seattle team is sunk for 2021. If he isn’t traded, doesn’t now seem like as good a time as ever, with tensions high and a new offensive coordinator in the fold, to bet on the Seahawks posting their first losing record since Wilson took over under center in 2012?

Look at all the factors working against the Seahawks. They have limited salary cap, shaky depth on the defensive line, a lackluster pass rush, could lose No. 1 cornerback Shaquill Griffin in free agency and have an offensive line that still isn’t up to snuff.

Tensions are at an all-time high between Wilson and head coach Pete Carroll. It doesn’t look like either man is going to budge at this point, which will either lead to Wilson holding out, forcing a trade or probably causing enough turmoil in the locker room for Seattle to take a huge step back in the highly competitive NFC West division.

Think about it: Arizona is all-in on winning after signing J.J. Watt. The 49ers are eager to bounce back from their Super Bowl hangover. Then, of course, we have the Los Angeles Rams, who pulled off a blockbuster trade to get a huge upgrade at quarterback in Matthew Stafford.

Yes, the Seahawks appear to be doomed unless they somehow repair their relationship with Wilson — and even then, that may not be enough to avert disaster during the 2021 campaign.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Ben Roethlisberger's Steelers lost four of five after their 11-0 start to end the 2020 regular season. Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Even with Ben Roethlisberger restructuring his contract to return for 2021, the Steelers quarterback showed signs of serious regression toward the end of last season. It led to Pittsburgh losing four of five after its 11-0 start. The Steelers' season ended with a wild-card playoff loss to the Cleveland Browns.

Big Ben also got saddled with the NFL’s worst rushing offense, which must improve if the Steelers are to have any hope of defending their AFC North crown. The likelier outcome is that Cleveland and Baltimore continue to improve around their quarterbacks, Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson, while they’re still on rookie contracts, while Pittsburgh fades into oblivion with Roethlisberger operating the offense.

There’s no denying the Steelers have a strong defense. However, they’re having to let dynamic edge-rusher Bud Dupree walk in free agency due to limited cap room. He’s coming off a torn ACL anyway, so he wasn’t bound to be as dynamic as he was in 2020 even if he did return. That means T.J. Watt must carry even more of the load going forward.

Cornerbacks Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton are both free agents, and Joe Haden is entering his age-32 season, so the team’s personnel at that key spot is a big question mark.

Pittsburgh’s D should keep the team at least somewhat competitive, but the offense is a major concern. The depth chart behind Roethlisberger isn’t great either, with 2019 first-round bust Dwayne Haskins and career backup Mason Rudolph battling it out for the No. 2 spot.

It’s fair to say that between Mayfield, Jackson, Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow and Roethlisberger at this point in his career, that the Steelers will easily have the worst QB in their division this year. No matter what the situation is, that’s never a great spot to be in.

This article first appeared on Sportsnaut and was syndicated with permission.

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