A year ago, almost to the day, Tom Brady was booted from a park in Tampa. The newly minted Bucs quarterback was tsk-tsked by a Parks and Rec staffer for attempting to work out during Coronatime. We giggled at the infraction, but also wondered if Brady was engaged in a fool's errand: Leaving New England to start all over again with a brand new team, an unfamiliar playbook and a coach not named Bill Belichick. Ten months later, Brady's Bucs were landing body blows on a Kansas City outfit previously viewed as unstoppable. Another lesson on the unpredictable nature of pro football and the unsinkable spirit of Earth's greatest quarterback. Do we dare doubt Brady's ability to do it all over again?
After three months of firings and hirings, cuts and signings, let's break down the NFC hierarchy heading into the 2021 NFL Draft.
The new kings
A troubling possibility for everyone else in the NFC: The Bucs are just warming up.
Last year's campaign was imbued with early growing pains. An ugly loss to the Bears, twin whippings by the Saints and back-to-back stumblings against the Rams and Chiefs left Tampa at 7-5 and laced with questions. They never lost again. From Week 15 through the Super Bowl, nobody held the Bucs to under 30 points as Brady and the offense meshed into a gnarly buzzsaw. Atypical for Super Bowl winners, the gang is back for 2021. Chris Godwin was smartly tagged, while Rob Gronkowski was inked to a one-year deal. Giovani Bernard was recruited by Brady to hit the town as a proven pass-catching option out of the backfield. I'm guessing Antonio Brown will be next.
I place the Bucs in a tier of their own, though, because they own one of the few NFL defenses you can count on. Todd Bowles flamed out with the Jets, but he's a wonderful coordinator who makes the most out of a unit that brings back Shaquil Barrett, Ndamukong Suh and Lavonte David. The road to January -- on paper -- is wide and inviting.
Postseason or bust
Matt LaFleur doesn't earn enough kudos for posting a 26-6 record over his first two campaigns. Frustrating playoff dismissals at the hands of San Francisco and Tampa left a stink on those seasons, but the Super Bowl remains viable if Aaron Rodgers can double down on last year's magic act. The Packers snoozed through free agency, though, doing little more than re-signing runner Aaron Jones. Losing reliable center Corey Linsley was no help. Green Bay can't afford to get too cute in this year's draft after trading up last April for a raw signal-caller in Jordan Love who didn't throw a pass all season. Adding a wideout and fortifying the line would go a long way to telling Rodgers: We're in this together.
The Rams and Niners are under considerable pressure to light up the skies after earth-shaking moves to improve the quarterback position. Los Angeles is without a first-round pick until 2024 after pulling off a deal for Matthew Stafford that also saw Jared Goff shipped to Detroit. The Niners handed three first-rounders to Miami for the chance to grab their new signal-caller with the No. 3 overall pick.
Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay are correctly regarded as wizards. With Stafford roaming Hollywood and a quarterback to be named later in The Bay, two of the game's top coaches will boast hand-picked franchise dudes. Excuses no longer exist. Nothing but a Lombardi will do.
Had Seattle accepted Chicago's trade offer for Russell Wilson, we'd be staring at the end of an era. My gut says that comes next offseason. In days of old, it was easy to brush off low-level Seahawks chaos and ticket the club for a playoff berth. Bringing back Carlos Dunlap, retaining hurly-burly runner Chris Carson and trading for guard Gabe Jackson double as messages to Wilson: We hear you. A playoff run is a reasonable goal, but Seattle is doused in odd energies.
I put the Saints in this category based squarely on my trust in Sean Payton. The team's hellish salary cap issues triggered the departure of multiple starters and key role players -- especially on defense -- but 2021 boils down to how Jameis Winston and/or Taysom Hill fare in replacing the retired Drew Brees. Payton adores the challenge, but life without a starry passer gets old in a hurry. Just ask Belichick.
Arizona's roster has the feel of a Vegas act littered with former household names. J.J. Watt and A.J. Green will sell tickets, but don't expect the world. James Conner rounds out the backfield, but he was a tough watch in Pittsburgh last season. There's talent here, though, and a next-level third campaign from quarterback Kyler Murray could pave the way for a Kliff Kingsbury club under pressure to thrive in a rough-and-tumble NFC West.
The Cowboys have the pieces in place to ride as one of the game's top attacks. Inking Dak Prescott to a monster four-year, $160 million deal was the right move. The fate of Dallas boils down to defense, though, where new coordinator Dan Quinn is being asked to do what Mike Nolan couldn't: Produce a unit operating as something other than a wide-open prairie land for enemies to glide across. Newly added linebacker Keanu Neal knows the system and should help. More bodies are needed through the draft.
The Football Team made strides last season under Ron Rivera. A nasty defense and just enough offense flipped the switch in a bad division. Washington should be fun to watch with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center and versatile Curtis Samuel added to the mix. Will Fitzy have competition? Whispers suggest Rivera and friends might be ready to swing for the fences come draft day.
Work in progress
Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Detroit Lions, Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons
Perhaps I'm being unfair to Mike Zimmer's Vikings. Last year's 7-9 outing was marked by transition on defense. I see a team that crumbled against the Bucs, Bears and Saints down the stretch and ask: How have they improved? A quiet foray into free agency brought cornerback Patrick Peterson, but also the departure of productive safety Anthony Harris. I like the Vikings' situation better than Chicago's, though, after the Bears whiffed on Wilson to wind up with Andy Dalton at quarterback. Franchised (trapped) wideout Allen Robinson can't catch a break on a club mired in a confusing team-building process.
Kenny Golladay's arrival in New York sets the stage for a spicy Giants offense featuring Saquon Barkley, Sterling Shepard, Darius Slayton and Evan Engram. Joe Judge coached up a defense that allowed the ninth-fewest points in 2020. Now it's up to Daniel Jones to show, as colleague Dan Hanzus would say, that he can play the guitar. Nick Sirianni takes over a rebuilding Eagles team that waved farewell to Carson Wentz. Will tight end Zach Ertz be the next to go? Pray that Jalen Hurts can keep this cap-hugging club afloat. If not, we could be staring at long Sundays with Joe Flacco doing Joe Flacco things in Philly.
The Lions are an easy target, but I like what they're up to. Gathering first-round picks in the Stafford trade sets the table for crafty new general manager Brad Holmes to find his franchise passer down the line. For now, Jared Goff finds himself in a tough spot with Golladay out the door and inside a weapons-bereft attack.
Will the Falcons become the next team to accept a monster deal for their prized fourth overall pick? Atlanta rests barely under the cap with a league-low 55 players on the roster. The franchise will need to make moves in order to sign the incoming draft class. It could be a challenging first season for coach Arthur Smith. If the Falcons stay home at No. 4 and grab electric tight end Kyle Pitts, you could see Matt Ryan and friends making things interesting.
I hold high hopes for Matt Rhule's journey in Carolina, but the Panthers have to be viewed as losers in the quest for a quarterback. Carolina failed to acquire Stafford, while Deshaun Watson's murky future nixed the chance for a trade. The swap for Sam Darnold comes with unknown upside but an equally concerning floor. I like the addition of tight end Dan Arnold to an offense with plenty of skill-position talent. Franchising tackle Taylor Moton was wise, but the team arguably overpaid for fellow linemen Pat Elflein and Cameron Erving.
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