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The 1 Move These NFL Teams Need to Make to Become 2021 Contenders

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    Leon Halip/Associated Press

    The NFL playoff race is in full swing, and a handful of teams that are out of the hunt this year are just a move away from becoming postseason contenders.

    Whether it’s a coaching change, a new quarterback or an upgrade at a certain position, the right move by an NFL team can change the future of the franchise. The Arizona Cardinals are a great example, going from a 5-10-1 season in 2019 to a potential playoff spot after trading for All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins.

    One move won’t turn a struggling team into a Super Bowl contender overnight, but the right move could change a franchise’s fortunes in 2021.

    Let’s take a look at these teams and the moves they could make.

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    Danny Karnik/Associated Press

    Defensively, the Atlanta Falcons will look different in 2021 after the firing of head coach Dan Quinn in October. One priority regardless of the defensive scheme will be finding another pass-rusher.

    The Falcons are 19th in the NFL with just 25 sacks. That’s disappointing considering they signed 2015 first-round pick Dante Fowler Jr. to a three-year, $45 million deal to help with rushing the passer. Fowler has done little to live up to that deal, generating just two sacks.

    Fortunately for the Falcons, they’re in good position to find another pass-rusher in the NFL draft. With a 4-9 record, they’re in contention to pick in the top 10, which will give them an opportunity to draft a top-tier prospect.

    Miami’s Gregory Rousseau could be an appealing option, coming in at 6’7″ and 265 pounds. He had 15.5 sacks in his first year as a full-time starter in 2019 before opting out this season. He’s a long and explosive rusher with sky-high potential.

    Despite their struggles rushing the passer, the Falcons are only allowing 24.8 points per game. If they can find some help on the edge and the defense can improve, then Atlanta could make some noise out of the NFC South in 2021.

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    Susan Walsh/Associated Press

    They may have one of the worst records in the league, but if the Cincinnati Bengals can improve their offensive line and protect Joe Burrow in 2021, they could find themselves in much better shape.

    The Bengals have gone just 2-10-1 in a season that hasn’t gone according to plan. Burrow, the No. 1 overall pick, suffered a season-ending ACL injury in November after being knocked around all season.

    Protecting Burrow will be a top priority this offseason. In 13 games, the Bengals have allowed their quarterbacks to be sacked 46 times, second only to the Philadelphia Eagles. Unlike the Eagles, the Bengals don’t have the excuse of dealing with countless injuries on their offensive line.

    Fortunately for the Bengals, they’ll have the resources to upgrade across the line. They have a projected $41.5 million in cap space for 2021, along with what’s sure to be one of the first few picks in the 2021 NFL draft.

    Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell will likely be their top target. The 6’6″ All-American gave up just one sack in 1,376 snaps in the previous two seasons, making him an easy choice if he’s on the board.

    With a healthy Burrow and a revamped offensive line, the Bengals will have the tools to fight for a playoff spot in the AFC.

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    David Becker/Associated Press

    Justin Simmons and Bryce Callahan have become key members of the Denver Broncos defense. However, Denver will need more help in the secondary if it wants to join the AFC playoff picture next year.

    The pass defense has been strong for the Broncos despite being without Von Miller all year, ranking 10th with just 220.7 passing yards allowed per game. However, some liabilities in the secondary need to be addressed.

    A.J. Bouye hasn’t lived up to expectations after the Broncos traded a fourth-round pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars to acquire him. According to Pro Football Reference, opposing quarterbacks have posted a 108.4 passer rating when targeting him. To make matters worse, the NFL has suspended him for six games for violating its policy on performance-enhancing drugs.

    The good news is that the Broncos can cut Bouye this offseason without any dead-cap issues. Assuming that’s the path that the team takes, it can look to the draft to find his replacement.

    Another talented cornerback taken in the earlier rounds could be a nice addition to a solid pass defense. With a defensive-minded head coach in Vic Fangio, a healthy Miller and a loaded secondary, the Broncos could have a strong enough defense in 2021 to make a playoff push.

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    The Detroit Lions have plenty of talent on both sides of the ball, but if they want to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2016, they’re going to need to find the right fit at head coach.

    The Lions fired Matt Patricia in his third season, and he went just 13-29-1. General manager Bob Quinn was also let go, but the culture fit with Patricia was a serious problem. The team even held a mimosa party after the 2018 season to celebrate getting away from Patricia for the offseason, according to Bleacher Report’s Kalyn Kahler.

    The right head coach in 2021 could get the Lions quickly back on track, and it would benefit the team to find one with an offensive background. Detroit has talented playmakers around veteran quarterback Matthew Stafford, including rookie running back D’Andre Swift, tight end T.J. Hockenson and potentially wide receiver Kenny Golladay if they’re able to re-sign him.

    An offensive-minded coach could improve the offense and elevate Stafford’s game, much like Matt LaFleur has done with Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.

    A new GM will need to fill out a defense that has some solid pieces like Jeff Okudah and Jamie Collins Sr., but the biggest thing the Lions need is a head coach who can inspire them to compete in the NFC North next year.

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    Rich Schultz/Associated Press

    Although they’re technically still in the hunt for the NFC East title, the Philadelphia Eagles will need a much better performance in 2021 if they want to be considered serious playoff contenders.

    Injuries on the offensive line and at wide receiver have hurt the Eagles, but so has the quarterback play. The good news is that Jalen Hurts might be the answer under center. He rushed for over 100 yards in a win over a strong New Orleans Saints team. Beyond his play, Hurts impressed his teammates with the leadership he displayed in the 24-21 win.

    Assuming that Hurts remains the starter, the offense should be in better shape next season. Rookie wide receiver Jalen Reagor will have a full offseason to get better acclimated to the offense, while players currently on injured reserve like Lane Johnson and Andre Dillard should be fully healthy to start the 2021 season. On top of that, another talented receiver in Marquise Goodwin, who opted out of the 2020 season, should return to give the offense another much-needed weapon.

    If the offense is at full strength in 2021, then leadership on defense will be a top priority, particularly at linebacker. Alex Singleton and T.J. Edwards have done a decent job of holding things down in the middle of the defense, but the Eagles need a true impact player at the position to help turn things around defensively.

    An early draft pick could allow the Eagles to select the perfect option at linebacker in Penn State’s Micah Parsons. The in-state prospect has the instincts and athleticism displayed on film to make plays all over the field, whether it’s rushing the passer, dropping into coverage or stopping the run.

    With a second-year quarterback, a healthy offense and a star rookie linebacker, the Eagles could have the talent and leadership they need in 2021 to bring them back into playoff contention.

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