New England Patriots
The Patriots have been getting a lot of hype this offseason and it's well deserved - the organization signed a slew of free agents and improved at practically every position of need this offseason. Tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith headline New England's free agent acquisitions and give the team one of the best tight end groups in the league after having one of the worst the past two years, wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne can be solid contributors, and all the fresh faces on the defensive side of the ball - Kyle Van Noy, Matthew Judon, Raekwon McMilan, Davon Godchaux, Henry Anderson, and Jalen Mills - are welcome additions to a defense that was ranked 19th by Pro Football Focus in 2020 after bring ranked within the top three in 2019 and 2018. Van Noy has previously played for New England from 2016 to 2019 so he isn't as fresh of a face as the other additions but he isn't the only former Patriot brought in this offseason, as the organization swapped fifth round picks with the Las Vegas Raiders to acquire offensive tackle Trent Williams who was a part of that Super Bowl 53 winning team. The only big loss for the Pats in all of this was offensive guard Joe Thuney but last year's star rookie Michael Onwenu should be able to fill that hole giving New England a starting offensive line consisting of Williams, Onwenu, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, and Isaiah Wynn. The excitement of the offseason has overshadowed the fact that New England will also be getting back one of the most underrated linebackers in the league in Dont'a Hightower, who opted out of the 2020 season. The Patriots should have a top 10 defense and a top 10 offensive line so as long as Cam Newton or Mac Jones can be a competent game manager New England should be very competitive. After having the toughest strength of schedule in 2020, New England will be facing some weaker competition in 2021 with a strength of schedule that is tied for 19th in 2021. If a Patriots team with no offensive weapons and a depleted defense can go 7-9 with the toughest schedule in the league last year then I can't see why a vastly improved Patriots team with a much easier schedule can't win at least 10 or 11 games and snag a wild card spot this season.
Los Angeles Chargers
Justin Herbert's offensive rookie of the year campaign was one of the bigger and better surprises of the 2020 NFL season and with the significant improvements the Chargers made to their offensive line in the offseason the young signal caller could lead them to the postseason. The Bolts added Corey Linsley, Pro Football Focus' highest graded center in 2020, and Matt Feiler in free agency and took Rashawn Slater in the draft after he fell to them at 13 to beef up an offensive line that ranked 30th in pass blocking and dead last in run blocking according to PFF. Although Linsley and Slater were the only major additions to the roster - sorry Jared Cook - it's not entirely their offseason moves which are indicative of a potential postseason appearance in 2021, rather how close they were last season. Los Angeles finished the season 7-9 but lost a whopping seven one possession games, three of which were decided by three points or less and two were overtime losses. Had the Chargers won four of these games they'd have finished the season 11-5 and could have made the playoffs as the seventh seed rather than the Indianapolis Colts. On top of this, LA finished the season on a four game win streak in which Herbert threw for seven touchdowns and just one interception, rushed for two scores, and had an average passer rating of 111.95. If the Bolts can get this success to rollover into the 2021 season early on they very well may be in competition with the Chiefs for the division. Ultimately I don't think Los Angeles dethrones Patrick Mahomes and company to clinch the AFC West title, but the Chargers have the pieces they need to be successful, most importantly a young stud QB, and if they're able to put them together they have a real shot at the playoffs.
Although Jacksonville finished with the worst record in the league last season they are not that far off from being competitive. Sure, Urban Meyer has made some questionable player and personnel decisions but there is no denying that the Jaguars have improved substantially this offseason. Selecting the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck in the draft will do that to a roster but the Jags also drafted players like Travis Etienne, Tyson Campbell, Walker Little, Andre Cisco, and Jay Tufele - all of whom should be contributors from day one. Jacksonville's offseason activity prior to the draft was a little underwhelming considering the number of high profile free agents like Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Curtis Samuel, and Leonard Williams that fans theorized the organization should try and bring in and general speculation and hype in what the team with the most cap space would do with that cap space but the Jaguars made some solid under the radar free agent signings. Defensive lineman Tyson Alualu and Roy Robertson-Harris add depth to group that allowed the third most rushing yards per game in the league last season and Marvin Jones Jr is a solid second option and can serve as a veteran presence for DJ Chark and Laviska Shenault. Jacksonville did make a one big splash in free agency by signing cornerback Shaquill Griffin who is not only a massive improvement to the secondary but can help with Campbell and last year's first round pick CJ Henderson's development. The Jags also traded for defensive tackle Malcom Brown who figures to be a starter alongside Alualu. Both d-lineman earned high grades from Pro Football Focus last season. While Jacksonville's linebacking core remains the same the improvement on the defensive line should mean improvement for the position group as well: Joe Schobert and Myles Jack can actually do their jobs rather instead of having to clean up after the d-line. Edge is still a position of need but Josh Allen and K'lavon Chaisson are still young and a change of scheme could be just what they need to have a breakout season. This case for how Jacksonville could make the playoffs in 2021 is also strengthened by how weak their division could be. The Titans lost a lot in the offseason and their defense may be one of the league's worst, much of the Colts success will depend on what version of Carson Wentz shows up, and Houston will be several shades of awful so the Jaguars could easily come away with four or five wins against divisional opponents. They also will have winnable games against the Bengals, Broncos, Jets, Cardinals, Falcons, and Dolphins. A record of 10-7 isn't that hard to imagine and it could be good enough to snag a wild card spot. There is a lot to look forward to in Jacksonville's future with their young talent and wealth of draft picks but that future could come sooner than expected if young players are able to take the next step and the AFC South struggles.