NFL

Bills, Browns, 49ers and Rams among Super Bowl contenders after NFL offseason

By Sports Desk May 04, 2021

With free agency in the rear-view mirror and the 2021 draft all wrapped up, NFL teams can now draw breath and start to reflect on what has unfolded during the offseason.

Ideally, all teams will hope they sit in a better position to challenge than they did a few months back, but the reality is some are just starting from further back than others.

When it comes to Super Bowl challengers, undoubtedly the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs remain strong favourites to get back to the big game. The Bucs have got the band back together after hoisting aloft the Vince Lombardi Trophy on home turf, while the Chiefs have responded to a harrowing loss by rebuilding the offensive line in front of Patrick Mahomes.

But what about the chasing pack? Stats Perform picks out some of the leading contenders for glory while reflecting on what has happened since they last played.

Buffalo Bills

An appearance in the AFC Championship Game inspired by the improved play of quarterback Josh Allen left Buffalo rightly believing they needed minor tweaks, rather than dramatic alterations, to challenge once again in 2021. They kept the offensive line together, then added depth at a key area in the draft when selecting Spencer Brown in round three.

However, the Bills – who ranked 15th in opponent yards per play allowed (5.5) last term but were a lowly 26th versus the run (4.62) – used first and second-round selections to help their defense, with Greg Rousseau and Carlos Basham Jr firming up a pass rush that tied 15th for sacks. Add in Emmanuel Sanders to the receiving group and Buffalo appears to be in rude health as they aim to go one better than last season.

Los Angeles Rams

The Rams are swinging for the fences as they bid to get back to the Super Bowl. Jared Goff was the starter when they lost to the New England Patriots in February 2019, but his time with the franchise is over. The blockbuster deal to get Matthew Stafford from Detroit has ramped up the pressure to get results on the field – and not just in the regular season either.

Leonard Floyd remained thanks to a bumper contract, but John Johnson and Troy Hill are gone from the secondary. They will continue to lean heavily on Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey to lead a defense that allowed the fewest passing yards per play (5.08) and the third-least rushing yards per play (3.76). While trades have seen the Rams become accustomed to watching on as teams are on the clock in round one, it was notable they added three wide receivers with their picks as they aim for a fifth successive winning season under head coach Sean McVay.

San Francisco 49ers

Yes, a team who finished the 2020 regular season with a 6-10 record should be considered as genuine contenders. The 49ers went so close to Super Bowl glory 15 months ago, while a roster ravaged by injuries last season will hope for better fortune when it comes to keeping key personnel healthy. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has jetted off to New York, but Nick Bosa should be back.

In truth, it will be the offense that defines San Francisco's chances. Jimmy Garoppolo failed to inspire in his limited appearances, throwing seven touchdowns to five interceptions, so getting a quarterback in the draft – even if trading up to number three came at a high cost – made sense. Trey Lance was their choice, a high-upside selection who showed plenty of promise in 19 games for North Dakota State. The run game remains pivotal, though, which explains why they splashed out to make sure Trent Williams and Kyle Juszczyk stuck around.

Cleveland Browns

Having made the playoffs for the first time since 2002, the Browns knocked out divisional rivals Pittsburgh and then came close to upsetting Kansas City on the road. The defense was bolstered up front with the signings of Jadeveon Clowney and Malik Jackson. However, having given up 31 passing touchdowns, the secondary has rightly been the focus. After snapping up former Rams duo Johnson and Hill, Cleveland selected cornerback Greg Newsome II and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in the first two rounds of the draft.

Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski built the offense around the rushing tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt – the team averaged 4.8 yards per rush – easing the pressure on Baker Mayfield to move the sticks. Still, he ranked sixth in passer rating (118.4) on throws of 21 air yards or more among quarterbacks with at least 25 such attempts, showing teams cannot fill the box and focus solely on stopping the run. If they can get out of a highly competitive AFC North again, the Browns will believe they can build on a Divisional Round appearance.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens' hopes will once again rest with Lamar Jackson, their dual-threat quarterback who is on course for a significant pay rise when an agreement is reached over a long-term extension. His ability to run helped Baltimore finish first in rushing yards per play with 5.53, while the passing game has a little extra help now after receiver Rashod Bateman was taken with the 27th pick. Still, there was no flashy free-agency signing at the position, despite links with JuJu Smith-Schuster and T.Y. Hilton. Kevin Zeitler did pen a deal, securing an experienced guard to bolster the offensive line.

Defensively, Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue have moved on to the Patriots and Raiders respectively, though the Ravens have a reputation for building a pass rush no matter who is on the roster. Tyus Bowser can expect an increased role, plus outside linebacker Odafe Oweh was chosen with the late first-round pick acquired in the trade that sent offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr to the Chiefs.

Honourable mentions

The Green Bay Packers would have made the list were it not for the uncertainty surrounding the future of reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers. For all their quarterback's undoubted qualities on the field, they have not made a Super Bowl in 11 years. And what is going on in Seattle too? Rumours relating to Russell Wilson's future have dominated the offseason for the Seahawks.

The Indianapolis Colts will hope they can get the best out of signal-caller Carson Wentz and the Pittsburgh Steelers seem set for one last ride with Ben Roethlisberger. As for a trendy pick who missed out on the playoffs last season, look no further than the Los Angeles Chargers, complete with a revamped offensive line to help keep QB Justin Herbert safe.

Related items

  • Macarthur 3-1 Melbourne Victory: Derbyshire at the double Macarthur 3-1 Melbourne Victory: Derbyshire at the double

    Matt Derbyshire bagged a brace as Macarthur climbed up to second in the A-League with a 3-1 win over Melbourne Victory.

    Veteran striker Derbyshire seized upon a slack pass to dink home a cheeky finish in the fourth minute – the earliest goal by any Macarthur player in the A-League.

    The hosts were indebted to a magnificent point-blank save by Adam Federici from Rudy Gestede that preserved their lead – an advantage that was doubled in the 39th minute when wing-back James Meredith headed home Jake McGing's cross to crown a fine team move.

    Elvis Kamsoba reduced the deficit for second-bottom Victory after substitute Lleyton Brooks sprung the offside trap and his shot came back off the post.

    But Derbyshire was played in by Michael Ruhs to coolly slot home his 13th goal of the season, strengthening Macarthur's grip on a finals berth and moving them nine points behind runaway leaders Melbourne City.

  • Rudi can't fail - Rudiger's rise from Lampard outcast to Tuchel's defensive rock at Chelsea Rudi can't fail - Rudiger's rise from Lampard outcast to Tuchel's defensive rock at Chelsea

    Antonio Rudiger is no stranger to putting himself in difficult and painful situations for the cause, as evidenced by the defensive lynchpin of Thomas Tuchel's Chelsea revival sporting a protective face mask during matches over recent weeks.

    Nevertheless, even as a player who appears to relish a challenge and refuse to back down from a confrontation, Chelsea playing behind closed doors might have done Rudiger a favour earlier in the year.

    The Stamford Bridge faithful, for all the success lapped up during the Roman Abramovich era, are certainly not shy when it comes to voicing their displeasure over an unpopular change in the dugout, of which there have been plenty.

    There was the vocal backing for Roberto Di Matteo weeks after his sacking in 2012. Interim boss Rafael Benitez was the villain in that situation but calling out any perceived culprits among a squad often noted for wielding player power has also marked times of tumult.

    When Jose Mourinho's second spell at Chelsea ended with the then-reigning Premier League champions lurching close to the relegation zone in December 2015, he was backed by plenty of fans amid accusations of player betrayal. One banner in the ground famously branded Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa to be "The 3 Rats".

    Had stadiums been full around the time of Frank Lampard's January demise, it is possible Rudiger would have faced similar scrutiny.

    "There have been so many nonsense rumours around about me since last week," he told The Athletic in February, following speculation that urged the Chelsea board to dispense with Lampard. "I've never talked with the board about the situation of the coach or on any other topics."

    In a separate interview with Sky Sports, Rudiger explained he suffered "immense" racist abuse online after Lampard's sacking, both an indication of the levels of toxicity at play and a deplorable sign of our times.

    It certainly did not feel plausible that, in the space of four months, Rudiger would be arguably the form defender in European football and leading Chelsea's charge under Tuchel for a pair of major honours, starting in Saturday's FA Cup final against Leicester.

    Indeed, the most remarkable element of Rudiger being singled out as a man responsible for so many of the ills at Chelsea around the fall of Lampard was how little he had been involved in the first team.

    He started two of their first 17 Premier League fixtures before being recalled in the wake of a 3-1 defeat by Manchester City to start back-to-back games against Fulham and Leicester – the latter of which was a 2-0 defeat that effectively sealed Lampard's fate.

    Overall, Rudiger made nine appearances in all competitions under the former England midfielder this season, with eight of those starts. His 742 minutes on the pitch were dwarfed by first-choice duo Kurt Zouma (1,999) and Thiago Silva (1,552).

    Tuchel's decision to switch Chelsea into a 3-4-2-1 shape obviously did Rudiger and his fellow centre-backs a favour in the most basic terms of one more slot in the team being available, but the Germany international has repaid his countryman's faith emphatically.

    In 21 appearances since, he has been involved in a remarkable 14 clean sheets. No defender in the Premier League, or elsewhere in Europe's top five leagues for that matter, can boast more in this time.

    The six goals conceded with him on the field is also the lowest across the continent's elite divisions for any defender to have started 15 or more games from January 27 onwards, which was the date of Tuchel's first game in charge – a 0-0 draw with Wolves.

    Rudiger rested up for Wembley in midweek when Chelsea went down to a lacklustre 1-0 home loss to Arsenal. He was an unused substitute for the only other league defeat of Tuchel's tenure, an unhinged 5-2 collapse versus West Brom after Silva was sent off.

    In the 19 Premier League games Rudiger has not started in 2020-21, Chelsea have conceded 26 goals at a rate of 1.4 per game. With the ex-Roma man in the first XI, this plummets to seven in 17 (0.4 per game).

    Those seven goals have arrived over the course of 1,530 minutes on the field, meaning Rudiger has seen a goal conceded every 218.6 minutes. This is the best ratio in the Premier League for any defender to have played 1,000 minutes or more this term, with Manchester City pairing John Stones (194.9) and Ruben Dias (148.1) next on the list – suggesting the Champions League final in two weeks' time could be something of a cagey affair.

    When set alongside his Chelsea central defensive colleagues Zouma, Silva and Andreas Christensen, Rudiger's imposing qualities are evident. He has made 29 tackles in the Premier League this season, an average of 1.7 per 90 minutes, with no other member of the quartet averaging above one.

    His 7.1 duels per 90 is bettered by Zouma (7.6), although both have the same return when it comes to duels won (4.8).

    Of course, Rudiger has starred within a collective recalibration. In the Premier League, Tuchel's Chelsea have faced an average of 7.8 shots per game at an expected goals (xG) value of 0.6, down from 10.1 and 1 under Lampard.

    Adjustments beyond the defence have also made the Blues harder to play against. They control matches far more effectively, with an average of 663.6 passes per game up from 612.7 at a slightly better accuracy (87.7 per cent from 86.3).

    Chelsea are also pressing opponents more effectively, allowing an average of 10.1 passes per defensive action (PPDA) under Tuchel, behind only FA Cup final foes Leicester and Leeds United across the period in question. This season with Lampard in charge, they averaged 11 PPDA, which was fourth among all Premier League teams.

    The improvements have made life a little easier for defenders, but when Chelsea step out at Wembley there will be no mystery over the identity of their standout performer at centre-back – even if he is wearing a mask. Rudiger has lifted himself off the scrapheap to become Tuchel's talisman.

  • Giannis toning down flex celebrations to save energy Giannis toning down flex celebrations to save energy

    The sight of Giannis Antetokounmpo flexing his muscles has become all too familiar for the Milwaukee Bucks' opponents but the two-time NBA MVP has toned down his celebrations.

    Antetokounmpo produced yet another outstanding performance for the Bucks on Thursday in a 142-133 victory over the Indiana Pacers.

    The Greek forward scored 40 points, with 15 rebounds and six assists as the Bucks closed in on the second-placed Brooklyn Nets (46-24), improving their record to 45-25.

    He became the first player to finish with at least 40 points, 15 rebounds and shoot at higher than 75 per cent since the great Charles Barkley back in November 1988.

    Antetokounmpo revealed he has had to cut back on tensing his muscles after slam dunks in order to save his energy.

    When asked about turning into "superhero" after a dunk, he said: "I just feel so much adrenaline, I've got to let it out.

    "But what I've felt is after I scream or flex, then I'm tired! I flex for two or three seconds, then I'm running down the court thinking damn, I shouldn't have done that. This year after a dunk I usually just walk back. I'm trying to save as much energy as I can."

    Next up for the Bucks is the visit of the Miami Heat on Saturday but Antetokounmpo is not studying the schedule.

    "I don't know who we play next. After the game I have to ask the guys 'what do we play next?' Miami at home, okay great, then I get ready for it." he added.

    "I don't like to think we have Miami, Chicago and all that. I just take it day by day."

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.