Heading into training camp, I think there are a few NFL teams that are clearly underrated at this point in time. They merit a closer look:
The Chargers are a clear underrated team for me heading into 2021. I am not certain Justin Herbert will play as well as he did last season, but I would be shocked if he did not at least play well. He is coming off a season in which he set an NFL rookie record with 29 touchdown passes and finished behind only Andrew Luck for most passing yards in a season by a rookie. With an improved offensive line, I fully expect another big year from him.
I actually think the Chargers have had a really talented team for years, but they have not had a strong offensive line and they felt they needed to make changes to their coaching staff. This season, I think they finally put the resources into a line that should be much improved. After dealing with numerous injuries to Mike Pouncey over the past few seasons, they signed Corey Linsley from Green Bay, making him the highest paid center in the NFL at the time. They continued to bolster their line in free agency by signing Matt Feiler from Pittsburgh, who will provide them good versatility and depth. They concluded their offensive line overhaul by drafting Rashawn Slater in the first round to man the other tackle spot opposite Bryan Bulaga, who they signed last offseason from Green Bay as well. I think this was one of their main weaknesses a season ago, and — at least on paper — this unit should be much improved heading into 2021.
The Chargers also made significant changes to their coaching staff after letting go of Anthony Lynn and bringing in Brandon Staley to lead the team. I was a fan of what Staley did while in charge of the Rams’ defense last season, and I think he is an excellent coordinator. Switching from coordinator to head coach is not always a seamless transition, but I am at least optimistic that he will be able to make a successful jump.
The final thing with L.A. is that they have been absolutely battered by injuries over the past few seasons. I do not know if that is the result of something they have been doing or if it is just cyclical, but they have certainly experienced more than most teams over the past few seasons. With a new staff, it is at least likely they experience less injuries than they have in the past.
With the changes along the offensive line, a new coach and the expectancy that they will be dealing with fewer injuries, I think this team could be much improved. I do not exactly think they will compete with Kansas City to win the AFC West, but I certainly consider them a likely playoff team that will be a tough out in the playoffs.
Indianapolis has really built a strong team that has been somewhat hampered by inconsistent quarterback play after Andrew Luck retired unexpectedly before 2019. I think it is reasonable to assume that new quarterback Carson Wentz will have an improved year from last season and be a meaningful upgrade from what they have gotten from the position over the last few seasons.
I also think their offensive weapons are a lot better than what people are giving them credit for. They have a very strong backfield led by Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines. I know their receiving corps has not totally proven themselves, but I think that unit is also really talented. Parris Campbell has not had a ton of production, but I think he is a really promising player, if he can stay healthy. I also think 2020 second-round pick Michael Pittman can develop into a really dynamic receiver for Wentz in that offense. They also were able to bring back T.Y Hilton on a one-year deal to be a true veteran in that receiving room. Overall, there are question marks about their receivers, but I think they have clear talent at the position. That is why I think it would have been a mistake for them to go after Julio Jones this offseason. They have guys at the position, they just need them to stay healthy and develop a rapport with Wentz.
The Colts are also another team that I think will be really tough to face because of their offensive line. Ryan Kelly at center is a very good player they have under contract through 2024. They also have Quenton Nelson at guard and Braden Smith at right tackle, both drafted in 2018, that could be on the horizon of new deals. They brought in Eric Fisher from K.C. to help give them stability at left tackle after Anthony Castonzo retired after 10 years in Indy.
A lot of the potential success for the Colts will fall on how Wentz plays. I am almost certain he will perform better than he did last season. We know he is a really talented player and a guy of high character. That does not mean there are not different nuances of why he could struggle, but he should have a really strong year with that offensive line and my perception of how good his weapons actually are. I would be surprised if that offense is not massively better than what it was a year ago.
Overall, they have a very strong coaching staff, the character on the team is good, and I think they have a really talented general manager in Chris Ballard. I actually think they win the AFC South and will be a team a lot of coaches do not want to face in the playoffs.
Jack Wolov contributed to this story