Grading 2021 NFL offenses: Tom Brady-led Buccaneers join elite status, but Chiefs rule supreme once again


As you surely know by now, offense is king in the modern NFL. More and more in recent years, what determines whether or not your team is successful in a given season is how your offense holds up over the course of the year. 

Who is your quarterback? Who is protecting him? Who does he throw to? Who does he have next to him in the backfield? Who’s scheming those players open? Are there injury or depth issues at any or all of those positions? All the pieces matter. The degree to which they matter varies greatly, of course, but each plays a role in making an offense hum at peak efficiency. 

Welcome to our second annual offensive infrastructure rankings. A few important notes before we begin:

  • We used a weighted grading system where each team was given a 1-5 ranking (1 = terrible, 3 = average, 5 = elite) in the following areas: Quarterback, Play-Caller (head coach or offensive coordinator), Offensive Line, Pass-Catchers (WR/TE), and Running Backs. 
  • Those scores were then weighted so that the quarterback was the most important component of the offense, followed by play-caller, offensive line, and pass-catchers, and then finally running backs, so that the weights reflected as closely as possible the reality of the way modern NFL offenses work.
  • In the event that teams ended up with the same weighted score, the first tiebreaker was the quarterback ranking. The second tiebreaker was the combined rankings of the play-caller and offensive line.
  • These are not rankings of how we expect these offenses to perform during the 2021 season. They’re an attempt to capture which offenses are best positioned for success based on the quality of their quarterback and the talent the organization has chosen to surround them. There is, of course, the possibility that players elevate their games (like Josh Allen did in 2020) or transcend their supporting cast (as Russell Wilson does almost every year), or that a quarterback’s subpar performance undermines an otherwise strong offensive unit (like Jimmy Garoppolo and his backups did in 2020).
  • Just as I did last year, I compiled an initial draft of these rankings, which I then ran by the rest of the writers, editors, and podcasters on the CBSSports.com NFL staff. I incorporated their feedback to create the version of the rankings you’ll see below. The commentary in each section is mine.

Got all that? OK, great. Here we go…

Tier 5: 32-26

Because of the way we weight these rankings, this tier is populated exclusively by teams that are generally lacking in the quarterback, offensive line, and/or play-calling department. None of the seven teams in this tier graded higher than 3.5 in any of those three categories, which obviously weighs down the overall score. 

You’ll notice a new section at the end of each chart, with the weighted ranking of the team’s non-quarterback infrastructure. I wanted to include that this year to show which of these teams are being propped up or held back by their quarterback play. The Giants, Dolphins, and Broncos stand out as teams that could take a sizable step forward if their quarterback plays at an above-average level, due to the surrounding talent they have at the skill positions. Your degree of confidence in Daniel Jones, Tua Tagovailoa, and Drew Lock may lead you to agree or disagree with their placement here. 

The same would be true of the Texans, but with the uncertainty surrounding whether or not Deshaun Watson will play this season, we had to split the difference on their quarterback ranking and assume Tyrod Taylor will be under center for at least some of the season. 

Also note that rookie quarterbacks not named Trevor Lawrence were given a below-average ranking as a default, since most rookie quarterbacks are pretty bad. (Lawrence, a generational prospect, was given an average ranking.) It doesn’t mean we expect Justin Fields and/or Zach Wilson to be bad forever. The Bears’ ranking also assumes that Andy Dalton will play for at least a few weeks, and as we saw last year in Dallas, he’s not particularly close to being an above-average starter at this point. 


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Tier 4: 25-19

This is the most eclectic group of teams in this exercise. They’re all below-average for different reasons, ranging from their offensive line (Bengals, Steelers) to their weapons (Raiders), to their quarterback (Panthers, Patriots). 

Team

QB

PC

OL

WR/TE

RB

Total

Weighted

Non-QB

25. Cincinnati Bengals

3

3

2

4

4

16

3.07

3.10

24. Carolina Panthers

2

4

2.5

4

5

17.5

3.10

3.65

23. Jacksonville Jaguars

3

3

3

3.5

4

16.5

3.17

3.00

22. Pittsburgh Steelers

3.5

3

2

4

3

15.5

3.17

3.25

21. New England Patriots

2.5

4

4

3

3

16.5

3.23

3.60

20. Las Vegas Raiders

4

3.5

3

2

4

16.5

3.30

2.95

19. Philadelphia Eagles

3

3

4.5

3

4

17.5

3.37

3.55

The Bengals notably passed on a chance to improve one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines with a high draft pick, electing to take Ja’Marr Chase rather than Penei Sewell. It gives them one of the most explosive wide receiver corps in the league, but Joe Burrow essentially redoing his rookie season behind another subpar line, while often operating out of empty formations, may not be as sure a recipe for success as they think. The Panthers have all the pieces to put Sam Darnold in position to succeed, as evidenced by their significantly higher non-QB rating here. Joe Brady had an excellent first season as offensive coordinator, they replaced the departed Curtis Samuel with Terrace Marshall Jr., and Christian McCaffrey should be healthier this year. It’s too bad we can’t necessarily count on high-level protection for Darnold. 

I’m in wait-and-see mode with the Jaguars. This could be great or it could be a disaster. Ben Roethlisberger looked just about cooked last year, so our 3.5 rating for him might be a bit kind. We’re leaning a bit heavily on track record for a player working with a new play-caller and the worst offensive line he’s had in years. New England upgraded its pass-catching corps a great deal, but that only got the Pats to about average. They have Josh McDaniels and a good O-line, but we can’t really be sure what this offense will look like, because it’ll depend largely on whether Cam Newton or Mac Jones is under center. 

The Raiders have one of the worst pass-catching corps in the league, with Darren Waller surrounded by a bunch of huge question marks. Their saving grace these past few years has been Jon Gruden dialing up strong concepts for a well-protected Derek Carr, but after they let go of half their offensive line this offseason, we can’t count on that anymore. The Eagles should be healthier than a year ago and thankfully added some speed and run-after-catch ability with Devonta Smith, but we need to see Jalen Hurts have more passing success than he did as a rookie to put a higher grade on him. Is Nick Sirianni the guy to get him there?

Tier 3: 18-12

This group of teams is seemingly one piece away from joining the ranks of the easily above-average offenses. 

Ryan Fitzpatrick has a very high ceiling… and a very low floor. Washington’s decision to cut Morgan Moses and insert Samuel Cosmi directly into the starting lineup knocked the offensive line grade down a bit, while picking up Curtis Samuel in free agency gave the Football Team a much needed upgrade in the pass-catching department. The 49ers might be the team most held back by their current quarterback situation. (Check the difference between their weighted score and non-QB score above.) If Trey Lance becomes as good as they think he can be, look out. For now, we’re assuming Jimmy Garoppolo and his low-risk style of play prevents the unit from consistently reaching its true ceiling. 

Somewhat similarly, the Colts are well-positioned for a good deal of success if Carson Wentz can rediscover anything resembling his 2017 form. Then again, we’ve been saying that about Wentz for a while now, and it hasn’t happened. The Vikings adding Christian Darrisaw to the offensive line was a strong move, but not enough to give them an above-average unit just yet. We’ve got some questions about Kliff Kingsbury, as well as Arizona’s offensive line and strange commitment to conservative decision-making in short-yardage situations, where Kyler Murray should be (but has not yet been) one of the most efficient players in the league. 

The Titans losing Arthur Smith and Corey Davis is a big blow in the infrastructure rankings. It’ll be fascinating to see this year if Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, and A.J. Brown can make up for it. Wilson has consistently been held back by his situation for years now in Seattle. The Seahawks switched out their offensive coordinator this year, but there’s no telling how Kevin Waldron will change things up from the Brian Schottenheimer era, they still have a meh-at-best offensive line, and they’re still far too committed to a run-oriented style. Ah, what could be if they just “Let Russ Cook”. 


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Tier 2: 11-4

These teams should all have very good offenses in 2021. We’d expect them to be in or around the top 10 in scoring, yardage, efficiency. There’s just a little something holding us back from putting them in the truly elite tier. 

What a huge upgrade for the Chargers, huh? Justin Herbert looks like a stud. New offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi should call a more modern game than Anthony Lynn. They have perhaps the most-upgraded offensive line in the league. Things are looking up. The Saints, as usual, have an excellent roster. The questions here are at quarterback (Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill?) and a curious lack of wide receiver depth beyond Michael Thomas. Maybe tight end Adam Trautman makes up for that somehow, but we can’t just assume it. 

The Falcons offense should be back to cooking with gas this year, especially after adding Kyle Pitts. Smith knows what he’s doing, and Matt Ryan has a ton of firepower at his disposal on the outside. A supposed disaster year for the Ravens wasn’t actually all that bad by the numbers. They reshuffled the offensive line and added a bunch of speed and playmaking at wide receiver, which should help diversify the passing game, which was sorely needed last year. We don’t want to double-credit Kevin Stefanski for getting the best out of Baker Mayfield last year, so he remains a 3.5 (slight above-average) for now. Cleveland is also lacking depth at wide receiver, where Odell Beckham has health questions and there isn’t much else beyond Jarvis Landry and Rashard Higgins and the tight ends are solid but unspectacular. The Browns might have the best running back duo in the league, but that only means so much here. 

The Bills, Rams, and Cowboys are all in somewhat similar situations. They have talented quarterbacks, good play-callers, good offensive lines (with some age- and health-related questions for the Rams and Cowboys), and good weapons. Allen was the most improved player in the NFL last season, and with Brian Daboll returning for another year and the Bills bringing in Emmanuel Sanders to replace John Brown, they should remain extremely explosive. The only thing keeping them from overtaking Dallas and L.A. is a relative lack of playmaking in the backfield. It’s incredibly close, though. 

We’re extremely bullish on Matthew Stafford in the most talent-laden offense he’s probably ever played in, accounting for Sean McVay as his play-caller. The Rams should remain extremely dangerous. The Cowboys should get a full-strength Dak Prescott this year, but we’ve bumped down the grades for the offensive line and running back groups a bit, to account for Tyron Smith, La’el Collins, and Zack Martin’s injury issues, and Ezekiel Elliott’s clear lack of explosion for most of last year. Still, the Cowboys have all the pieces to be a top-five offense. 

Tier 1: 3-1

The three elite offenses with no real weaknesses. 

We’re assuming Aaron Rodgers is still in Green Bay in this scenario, obviously. Losing Corey Linsley at center hurts, but the Packers have shown over the years that they can lose Pro Bowlers on the line and just keep things moving. Davante Adams and Robert Tonyan elevate an otherwise pedestrian pass-catching corps, while Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon should be electric on the ground. (And maybe Jones will finally get the lion’s share of the passing-down work, making him a more dangerous threat.) 

We, uh, may have underrated Tampa’s offense a bit last year. Don’t look it up. I’m never coming close to “maybe Tom Brady is on the downslope” ever again. At least until he retires. Probably. After dramatically reshaping their offensive line this offseason (Orlando Brown, Joe Thuney, Austin Blythe, Kyle Long, and Creed Humphrey now join Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Mike Remmers up front), the Chiefs retain the top spot in our rankings. Honestly, they’ll probably have it as long as Andy Reid is the coach and Patrick Mahomes is the quarterback. They’ll definitely have it as long as they have those two guys, plus Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill





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