NFL Power Rankings: Bears, 49ers on the rise after 2021 draft

Truth serum time: The NFL draft and the Power Rankings don’t mix.

The draft is all about hope. Optimism. Rebirth. Fans come out of the weekend believing they’re rooting for a team of destiny. GMs float through press conferences dumbfounded by their luck. How did all of these functionally perfect football players fall right into my lap?

The Power Rankings are, by design, cold-blooded and clinical. I’m the Turk. An assassin of hope. The executioner of excitement. I take your half-full glass … and I smash it on the ground. I’m on a mission to extinguish any good cheer you’ve accumulated over the course of draft weekend.

It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. Check your fairytales at the door. Welcome to reality.

NOTE: Up/down arrows below reflect team movement from the post-free agency Power Rankings, filed in March.

Previous rank: No. 1

We’re sure there’ve been other years where the reigning Super Bowl champ used its offseason to aggressively pursue keeping the entire core in place for a title defense, but we don’t know if there’s ever been a team that was this successful. With Antonio Brown back in the fold, every relevant contributor returns for an encore, and it will be fascinating to watch this simple strategy play out. Meanwhile, second-round pick Kyle Trask becomes the latest QB prospect selected to eventually replace a retiring Tom Brady. Get comfortable, kid.

Previous rank: No. 2

The Chiefs couldn’t protect Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl, and they’ve spent this offseason determined never to let that happen again. They gave huge money to guard Joe Thuney, then pulled off a brilliant trade in the lead-up to the draft to land Orlando Brown Jr., who has the potential to be Mahomes’ sturdy blind-side protector for a decade. Kansas City continued to invest up front through the draft, selecting Oklahoma center Creed Humphrey with the 63rd overall pick. Last year, the Chiefs paid Mahomes. This year, they protected him. Smart team does smart things.

Previous rank: No. 4

If the Bills had a discernible weakness they needed to address entering the offseason it was their pass rush. No Buffalo defender had more than five sacks during the team’s 13-3 campaign, so the Bills used the draft to add some firepower. The team gobbled up Miami edge Gregory Rousseau in the first round (No. 30 overall), then doubled down by selecting Carlos Basham Jr. one round later (No. 61). Both prospects will get the opportunity to contribute as rookies, and the Bills need at least one of them to hit in an offseason where the AFC-best Chiefs have fortified their offensive line.

Previous rank: No. 3

It’s 2008 all over again, as the Packers find themselves ensnared in a nasty little soap opera centered on the playing future of their iconic quarterback. Aaron Rodgers is apparently still mad that Green Bay picked a QB in the first round last year, so mad that he doesn’t want to play another down for the only NFL team he’s ever known. Publicly, the Packers are saying all the right things in an attempt to keep this brush fire from turning into an inferno, but Rodgers seems like the type of guy who might not settle for a compromise that keeps him in the building. It’s funny — you would have thought winning MVP would be enough to stick it to the Packers for their Jordan Love decision. Rodgers is a different dude.

Previous rank: No. 5

Free agency wasn’t kind to the Ravens in the realm of wide receiver, as Baltimore was repeatedly rebuffed in its attempts to find new options around Lamar Jackson. The draft provided control to the process, and the Ravens made a pair of excellent moves with the selection of Minnesota wideout Rashod Bateman (27th overall) and Tylan Wallace (131st, Round 4). Bateman is a born playmaker with star potential, while Wallace was viewed as one of the draft’s steals in the middle rounds. The Ravens accumulated a league-low 1,729 yards on passes to wide receivers in 2020 — addressing this position is absolutely vital as Baltimore attempts to get over the hump in the AFC.

Previous rank: No. 7

This is how far the Browns have come in a couple of years: By the middle of the draft, they were taking a swing tackle for offensive line depth. Yes, the Browns have built out one of the most impressively balanced rosters in football, and it allowed GM Andrew Berry and company to use the draft to zero in on specific areas of need. They did it, too — fortifying the secondary with first-round pick Greg Newsome II (No. 26), then using their second-rounder to land inside linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (No. 52), a do-it-all defender widely seen as one of the draft’s best bargains. Near the end of NFL Network’s draft coverage, Daniel Jeremiah imagined the Browns as “a 13-4 type team.” This is not a drill.

Previous rank: No. 9

As you undoubtedly know, the Rams are obsessed with trading top draft assets for established veterans, and no amount of oceanfront square footage at a Malibu Airbnb will make them a buzzy team this time of year. Still, we found some intrigue in their first pick at 57 overall: Tutu Atwell, the 155-pound Louisville receiver who became the lightest draft pick to enter the league since at least 2006, per ESPN. Atwell’s diminutive build feels like it could be a problem at the next level, but he also adds another element to a solid receiver room that already includes Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, Van Jefferson and DeSean Jackson

Previous rank: No. 8

The Seahawks made just three picks in the entire draft. According to ESPN, just five teams have made three or fewer picks in a draft since 1967 (2009 Jets were the most recent). This is dangerous business in the NFL, but Seattle decided the best path to building a championship-caliber roster was auctioning off picks for premium established talent (hi, Jamal Adams). Seattle used its first pick at 56th overall on standout Western Michigan receiver D’Wayne Eskridge. The move fills an area of need for a team that was thin at the position behind the dynamic 1-2 punch of DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. But would the ‘Hawks have been better off putting top-of-board focus on the offensive line? We think we know what Russell Wilson would have preferred.

Previous rank: No. 12

We’re still not entirely sure who was the target of the smokescreen, but the Niners were ultimately successful in masking their intentions before selecting Trey Lance with the third overall pick. Lance is a bit of a mystery prospect due to his sparsity of college reps, but the upside — which factors in his physical and mental tools and the QB-friendly system he enters into — is enormous. What this means for Jimmy Garoppolo is unknown: He still makes sense as a trade candidate, but he also cuts the profile of a fine insurance policy for a Niners team that can rightfully say it has Super Bowl aspirations despite last season’s 6-10 clunker.

Previous rank: No. 6

We kept waiting for Sean Payton to pull a rabbit out of his hat and come out of this offseason with a blockbuster QB successor to Drew Brees … but no. It now appears all but certain that it will be Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill battling for the QB1 gig come training camp. It feels like a huge roll of the dice for a win-now organization, especially coming in an offseason where there were numerous free-agent, trade and draft options to reset the position. New Orleans used the first three picks of its draft class on defenders, but the 2021 season feels like it will ultimately come down to whether Payton was right to put his faith in his in-house options at QB.

Previous rank: No. 10

Selecting dynamic Alabama running back Najee Harris with the 24th overall pick filled a clear area need for a Steelers team that plodded at that position in 2020. Pittsburgh added more offense in the second round with the selection of Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth, who profiles as an excellent counterpart to Eric Ebron. Even with these reinforcements, the Steelers feel vulnerable on offense as we enter a new season. Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins aren’t the most reassuring insurance plans behind a fading Ben Roethlisberger, and the offensive line continues to loom as a concern at a time when division rivals in Baltimore and Cleveland have bolstered their pass rush.

Previous rank: No. 11

Should there be concern with the Titans on offense? Tennessee has been a juggernaut on that side of the ball in recent years, but that was before offensive coordinator Arthur Smith left for a big chair in Atlanta and No. 2 wideout Corey Davis got the bag from the Jets. Any offense that has Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown will enjoy dynamic days, but it’s fair to wonder if the unit will take a step back considering the loss of personnel. General manager Jon Robinson didn’t seem too concerned during the draft: He didn’t use a pick on an offensive skill player until he snagged Louisville wide receiver Dez Fitzpatrick in the fourth round.

Previous rank: No. 13

The Colts lost 15.5 sacks of 2020 production when they moved on from Denico Autry and Justin Houston, so general manager Chris Ballard used the top of his draft to fortify the pass rush. Indy used the 21st overall pick on Michigan defensive end Kwity Paye, a popular pick as the best edge rusher in this class. In the second round, the Colts grabbed another high-upside pass rusher in Dayo Odeyingbo, who’s currently rehabbing an Achilles injury. The Colts have received some criticism over their failure to adequately address the offensive line following the retirement of left tackle Anthony Castonzo, and we get it: Indy waited until the seventh round to take an O-lineman. Quite a roll of the dice with a skittish Carson Wentz behind center.

Previous rank: No. 15

Tua Tagovailoa has to wake up feeling great these days. The Dolphins have used this offseason to reaffirm their faith in the 2020 first-round pick in multiple ways. They let Ryan Fitzpatrick, the team’s popular and productive backup QB, walk in free agency. They stayed out of the QB derby as veteran stars and draft prospects danced all around them. They signed a proven playmaker at wide receiver in Will Fuller. Then, on draft night, they used the No. 6 overall pick on Jaylen Waddle, an electric slot presence who further bolsters an offense that lacked explosiveness last season. Want to find out if your young quarterback can play at this level? Surround him with legit talent and see what happens.

Previous rank: No. 14

We liked the sensible nature of the Chargers’ draft. The team used its first-round pick, 13th overall, on Northwestern tackle Rashawn Slater, considered by some to be the best offensive lineman in this class. The team’s second-round selection, cornerback Asante Samuel Jr., addresses another major area of need. The team’s next two picks — wide receiver Josh Palmer and tight end Tre’ McKitty in Round 3 — provide more weapons for Justin Herbert as he looks to build off his record-breaking rookie season. The Bolts got better this offseason.

Previous rank: No. 16

The Cards were splashy in free agency, landing name-brand players like J.J. Watt, A.J. Green and James Conner. The draft, by comparison, was more of meat-and-potatoes exercise for the team. First-round pick Zaven Collins will line up alongside Isaiah Simmons (last year’s first-round pick at linebacker) as Arizona attempts to build a dangerous and versatile core in the middle of their defense. The second-round selection of Purdue wide receiver Rondale Moore seems to further cement the reality that Larry Fitzgerald has played his final down in the NFL. The Cardinals still feel a step behind their counterparts in the NFC West.

Previous rank: No. 17

RGIII got his shots off at Kirk Cousins’ expense, but we don’t imagine the oft-maligned (and perpetually productive) quarterback will lose snaps to third-round pick Kellen Mond in 2021. In fact, this draft went quite well for Cousins, who witnessed a significant talent infusion at pass protection with the arrival of tackle Christian Darrisaw (23rd overall) and interior lineman Wyatt Davis (third round). Minnesota traded down in the first round, gaining a pair of third-round picks from the Jets to move back nine spots in the draft. Coming out of Thursday night with extra picks and a potential stud at tackle in Darrisaw counts as a big win.

Previous rank: No. 20

Sure, the Patriots would have “won” the draft had Justin Fields ended up in Foxborough, but that ultimately doesn’t matter. Fields is in Chicago, and the Pats will move forward with Mac Jones, the Alabama star who was purportedly pegged as the third pick in the draft for weeks before the Niners pulled their rope-a-dope routine in Cleveland. Jones is known for his accuracy and decision-making, cherished traits in a Josh McDaniels offense. The question is, how long it will take Jones to crack the starting lineup? Jarrett Stidham becomes a franchise afterthought, but a camp battle between Jones and Cam Newton promises some of the best theater of the summer.

Previous rank: No. 23

Man, did the Bears need that. Hope! Excitement! The promise of a more compelling tomorrow! That’s what came back to Chicago when Ryan Pace made the bold move to trade up and acquire Justin Fields with the 11th overall pick on Thursday night. Fields figures to push Andy Dalton for the starting job on a Bears team that can contend in the NFC North with legitimate quarterback play. Should we mention here that the Chicago Bears suddenly have one of the best QB rooms in the league? A hugely compelling rookie in Fields and the best veteran backup in football in Dalton? Even Nick Foles is still on hand to tell Super Bowl LII stories. What in the name of Sid Luckman is going on around here?

Previous rank: No. 18

Dunking on the Raiders’ first-round selection has become a new tradition during draft season. This year, it was Mike Mayock and Jon Gruden’s decision to select Alex Leatherwood with the 17th overall pick. You know you made a surprising move when Daniel Jeremiah’s immediate response is, “This one’s a little bit of a … it’s an interesting pick.” Right tackle was a position of need for the Raiders, but Leatherwood was widely labeled as a reach. We heard similar things about Clelin Ferrell in 2019 and Damon Arnette in 2020. Public perception ultimately doesn’t matter a lick, but Vegas needs to start hitting on some of these unorthodox moves if the franchise is to move forward.

Previous rank: No. 21

The Cowboys were historically bad on defense last season, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that America’s Team used its first six draft selections on that side of the ball. Dallas was expected to target a top cornerback with its first overall pick, so you can imagine Jerry Jones’ frustration when the Panthers and Broncos took Jaycee Horn and Patrick Surtain II off the board in successive picks right in front of them. The pivot to trade back (with the Eagles!) underlined Dallas’ original intentions. Of course, once upon a time, Jerrah badly wanted Paxton Lynch and ended up with Dak Prescott, so maybe this all works out for the best.

Previous rank: No. 22

The Giants traded out of each of their first two picks — unprecedented draft maneuvering for “Trader” Dave Gettleman, who had famously never traded back in his career before this past weekend. The Giants came out of the wheeling and dealing with multiple picks in the first, third and fourth rounds of the 2022 draft. Kadarius Toney, selected 20th overall after Gettleman’s blockbuster deal with the Bears, gives Daniel Jones another high-upside playmaker. Jones will have no shortage of options in a make-or-break third year: Toney joins an offense that already boasts Saquon Barkley, Kenny Golladay, Evan Engram, Darius Slayton and Sterling Shepard.

Previous rank: No. 25

Matt Ryan won. The Falcons could have tried to trade him. They could have drafted his replacement. They could have stripped the organization down to studs around him and went into a rebuild. Instead, Ryan will enter the 2021 season with no in-house competition at quarterback, a new offensive-minded head coach with pelts on the wall in Arthur Smith, and a dynamic new weapon in fourth overall pick Kyle Pitts, a tight end who profiles as a superstar-in-waiting. Adding Pitts to an offense that already includes Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley is legitimately scary. Yes … Matt Ryan won.

Previous rank: No. 19

Ron Rivera knows the strength of his team is defense, and he set out to make that side of the ball even stronger with the first-round selection of Kentucky linebacker Jamin Davis. The heart of Washington’s D is in the front four, and Davis addresses an area of need — a speedy and versatile linebacker who can go sideline-to-sideline and cover. Meanwhile, Ryan Fitzpatrick dodged any fresh competition entering the QB room, and appears to be locked and loaded as the starting quarterback. That hasn’t happened for Fitzmagic since his final season with the Jets in 2016. What a fun career.

Previous rank: No. 27

To land Alabama stud DeVonta Smith in the first round? Beautiful. To trade in front of the hated Giants, who also coveted the Heisman Trophy winner? Well … that’s ecstasy. The Eagles have struggled to identify talent at wideout in recent years, but Smith profiles close to a can’t-miss, and he fills a significant area of need as the Eagles look to see what they have in second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts. We also love the Day 2 pick of Landon Dickerson, an All-American center at Alabama who fell out of the first round because of medical red flags. Philly is going to love Dickerson if he can stay healthy.

Previous rank: No. 24

The Broncos improved their roster with a strong draft. Cornerback Patrick Surtain II could end up being the best defensive player to come out of his class, while second-round pick Javonte Williams is a running back with star potential who profiles as a significant upgrade over Melvin Gordon. Quarterback remains the mystery position here, however. Trading for Teddy Bridgewater gave Denver much-needed Drew Lock insurance. But is that it? Perhaps the rumors about a pursuit of Aaron Rodgers ends with a seismic move a la Peyton Manning’s arrival in 2012. Rodgers would make Denver a Super Bowl contender. The current personnel keeps this team in the mid-20s.

Previous rank: No. 29

The Jets opted for a reboot of the quarterback position, and the future of the organization now hangs on whether BYU wunderkind Zach Wilson can be a star. Three years ago, New York drafted Sam Darnold third overall, then failed the USC star by failing to build a team around him. GM Joe Douglas appears intent on not repeating that history. After selecting Wilson, the Jets traded up to the middle of the first round to land guard Alijah Vera-Tucker. With the 34th overall pick, Douglas selected Elijah Moore, a shifty wideout with star potential. In the fourth round, New York snagged a versatile RB with fine pass-catching skills in Michael Carter. Add in improved coaching, and Wilson is in a better place now than Darnold was at any point in his Jets tenure.

Previous rank: No. 26

Sam Darnold has spent most of this year buckled into an emotional roller coaster he wanted nothing to do with. The former USC star escaped the purgatory that came to define the final months of his doomed time with the Jets only to enter into a similar state of uncertainty in Charlotte. Would the Panthers make a big move at quarterback in the draft? Would Teddy Bridgewater remain in the mix? Was Darnold really going to get his chance? When the dust settled, Bridgewater was traded, the Panthers didn’t use any of their 11 draft picks on a QB, and the team officially picked up Darnold’s fifth-year option. That’s a nice weekend.

Previous rank: No. 30

Prized offensive lineman Penei Sewell still profiled as the sensible choice for a Bengals team that failed to adequately protect Joe Burrow in a rookie year that ended with a horrible knee injury. But it’s hard to get too down on Cincinnati when it came out of Thursday night with LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who could put up video game numbers for the next decade with a healthy Burrow. The Bengals played a much more entertaining brand of football in 2020 before Burrow went down, but big plays were noticeably absent; according to Next Gen Stats, Cincinnati had just 15 completions of 20 or more air yards, ranking 26th in the NFL. That’s about to change with Chase in the building.

Previous rank: No. 32

So, really now: How much better does Trevor Lawrence make the Jaguars? This was a team that lost its final 15 games last season to secure the No. 1 overall pick and the right to select Lawrence, the most hyped prospect to come out of college since Andrew Luck. If Lawrence really is the next Luck, the Jags are ready to take a massive leap. The Colts went from 2-14 to 11-5 in Luck’s rookie season. Other factors played a role in Indianapolis’ rapid ascent, but it all centered around a huge leap in play at the game’s most important position. It is not crazy to think Jacksonville could be competing for a playoff spot come December. We have to see it happen first, but Lawrence could change everything.

Previous rank: No. 28

The Texans are floating in space. Talent poor and asset deficient, with an unhappy superstar quarterback who demanded a trade before serious legal troubles changed the conversation around him in a disturbing way. Given that uncertainty, you can understand why Houston used its first draft pick — 67th overall — on Stanford quarterback Davis Mills. No matter how Deshaun Watson’s off-the-field issues play out, the Texans understand they have to plan for life without their best player. The fact that they have to use their highest draft pick on the only position they had figured out … well that’s just the cherry on top of a melted sundae.

Previous rank: No. 31

The Lions are playing for tomorrow, so it’s best to look at the team’s 2021 draft as a foundation-building exercise. It started with a franchise left tackle in Oregon stud Penei Sewell, followed by three picks that addressed defense in the second and third rounds. That’s not going to help Jared Goff complete more passes this fall, but that’s not really the point. Goff feels more like a placeholder until 2022, when the Lions can use another premium draft asset on their future at QB. Unless, I suppose, Goff goes full Aaron Rodgers and sticks it to all his doubters in a profound way. Crazier things have happened!

Follow Dan Hanzus on Twitter.

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