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Gail Burton/Associated Press
Talent alone won’t win football games, but it certainly can set NFL squads up for success.
A lot can and will happen between now and the end of the 2020 regular season, so picking which teams are the absolute best is largely guesswork. However, we can judge which teams have the most talent by examining their current rosters.
That’s precisely what we’re going to do here. We’ll be examining factors like proven production, Pro Bowl representation, roster depth, roster balance and the potential of incoming rookies. All three phases of the game will be scrutinized, and injury concerns will be considered where applicable.
We’ll be examining rosters in a bubble here, so while coaching and scheme fit most definitely matter, they will not be considered in our rankings.
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The Pittsburgh Steelers are at the bottom of our list for one primary reason: Their status as a top-talent team hinges heavily on the health of returning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
If Roethlisberger doesn’t return to Pro Bowl form, Pittsburgh doesn’t even sniff a list like this. The quarterback tandem of Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges was woefully inadequate last season, and with a lackluster passing game, 2018 Pro Bowl running back James Conner was incredibly ineffective.
That said, if Big Ben is back, the Steelers should be title contenders. They have a defense that ranked fifth in both points and yards allowed last season to go with a potent crop of wide receivers, which includes JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, James Washington and promising rookie Chase Claypool.
Roethlisberger topped the 5,000-yard mark the last time he was healthy, and the Steelers can field a top-five passing offense if he is at 100 percent. That combined with an elite defense, six returning Pro Bowlers and a once-again reliable kicker in Chris Boswell makes the Steelers one of the most dangerous teams in the AFC.
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Chris O’Meara/Associated Press
In terms of pure talent, there might not be a better receiving corps in the NFL than that of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Chris Godwin and Mike Evans are two of the most potent pass-catchers in the league, and Tampa boasts a bountiful tight end collection headlined by Rob Gronkowski, Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard.
Adding six-time champion Tom Brady as the trigger man of this passing attack should make the Buccaneers an instant contender.
However, that’s not the only reason the Bucs make the list. They also feature the league’s reigning sack leader in Shaquil Barrett and a run defense that ranked first in the NFL last season. Toss in some intriguing running backs—including the recently added Leonard Fournette—and a pair of bright young cornerbacks in Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean, and the Buccaneers are serious business.
Tampa sits just a tier below our top five, however, because Evans, Godwin and Barrett are the only returning Pro Bowlers.
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Plenty of folks won’t consider the Dallas Cowboys an elite team because of their 8-8 record in 2019. However, from a talent standpoint, the Cowboys should be able to go toe-to-toe with any team in the NFC.
Dallas features an elite quarterback in Dak Prescott, an elite running back in Ezekiel Elliott, two 1,000-yard receivers, one of the league’s best offensive lines and an impressive defensive front seven headlined by DeMarcus Lawrence, Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee.
Five Pro Bowlers return from 2019, including Elliott, Smith, guard Zack Martin and wideout Amari Cooper. Prescott didn’t make the Pro Bowl despite passing for 4,902 yards and 30 touchdowns.
What really puts the Cowboys on this list, however, is the moves they made this offseason. They addressed some key weaknesses by adding pass-rusher Everson Griffen and defensive tackle Dontari Poe. They also drafted former Oklahoma wideout CeeDee Lamb, which could potentially give the Cowboys three 1,000-yard receivers in 2020.
Dallas also added kicker Greg Zuerlein, who was a Pro Bowler in 2017 but has had his field-goal percentage drop in each of the past two seasons.
If Dallas can get some consistency out of Zuerlein and find adequate replacements for cornerback Byron Jones and tight end Jason Witten, they should have a legitimate shot at reaching the Super Bowl.
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Gregory Payan/Associated Press
The San Francisco 49ers represented the NFC in Super Bowl LIV, and you might be wondering why they aren’t the top NFC squad on this list. Well, there are a couple of reasons. For one, two key players departed in the offseason: defensive tackle DeForest Buckner was traded, and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders signed with the New Orleans Saints.
Secondly, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, while an above-average signal-caller, isn’t as proven as Saints QB Drew Brees. Thirdly, the 49ers are dealing with a rash of injuries at the receiver position and along the defensive line.
Wideouts Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk are dealing with injuries, as are pass-rushers Dee Ford and Nick Bosa. However, all four could be back for the season opener.
“I expect them, I’ll be very surprised if they’re not ready to go for Week 1,” coach Kyle Shanahan said of Ford and Bosa, per Kyle Madson of Niners Wire.
Even with these issues, San Francisco is a team with a top-tier rushing attack, an elite pass rush, a defense that ranked second overall in 2019 and arguably the best tight end in the game in George Kittle. The addition of offensive tackle Trent Williams helps replace the retired Joe Staley, while the drafting of Javon Kinlaw and Aiyuk should help mitigate the losses of Buckner and Sanders, respectively.
If the 49ers aren’t as competitive as they were a year ago, when they went 13-3, it will come as a significant surprise.
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David Grunfeld/Associated Press
From top to bottom, the Saints might be the most complete team in the NFL. They have a first-ballot Hall of Famer at quarterback in Drew Brees, an elite receiver in Michael Thomas, one of the top dual-threat running backs in Alvin Kamara, a Pro Bowl tight end in Jared Cook, a Pro Bowl kicker in Wil Lutz and a defense that ranked 11th in yards allowed last season.
In all, the Saints had 11 players named to the Pro Bowl last season. Guard Larry Warford is the only one of them not slated to return in 2020.
Additionally, the Saints added a legitimate No. 2 wideout by signing Sanders away from San Francisco and bolstered their secondary by bringing back safety Malcolm Jenkins.
New Orleans also boasts some impressive depth at a couple of key positions. New backup quarterback Jameis Winston has 70 pro starts on his resume. Complementary running back Latavius Murray racked up nearly 900 scrimmage yards and scored six touchdowns in 2019.
The Saints are firmly in win-now mode for what could be Brees’ final year in the NFL. The sheer amount of talent they’ve compiled on the roster reflects this, and New Orleans should be considered one of the true few favorites in the NFC.
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Gail Burton/Associated Press
The Baltimore Ravens finished with a 14-2 record last season for a reason: They had one of the most talented rosters in the NFL.
This should be the case again in 2020, and the scary part is that Baltimore might be an even more complete team. Reigning league MVP Lamar Jackson is back at quarterback, as are 11 of the team’s other 13 Pro Bowlers from 2019, including running back Mark Ingram II, tight end Mark Andrews and kicker Justin Tucker.
Guard Marshal Yanda retired in the offseason, and safety Earl Thomas was recently released. Still, the fact that Baltimore brings back 11 Pro Bowlers is quite impressive.
However, the talent level isn’t limited to last year’s squad. The Ravens addressed perhaps their only two real weaknesses—a lackluster pass rush and a run defense that broke down in the postseason—by trading for Calais Campbell and drafting versatile linebacker Patrick Queen. Additionally, they added to their first-ranked rushing attack by taking Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins in the second round.
This is a team that ranked second in total offense, first in points scored, fourth in total defense and third in points allowed last season—and it’s just as talented, if not more so, this year.
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David J. Phillip/Associated Press
In terms of Pro Bowl representation (six players) and raw statistics, the Kansas City Chiefs take a back seat to the Ravens, and it’s not outlandish to feel that the two teams should be flipped at the top of this list. However, the Chiefs are reigning Super Bowl champions because of the talent they have—and virtually all of it returns for 2020.
The two notable losses are running back Damien Williams and guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, both of whom opted out of the 2020 season.
Still, the Chiefs have truly elite players at some of the game’s most important positions. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who has won NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP in his two seasons as a starter, tops the list. Wideout Tyreek Hill, tight end Travis Kelce and defensive tackle Chris Jones are also among the best in the league at their respective positions.
Kansas City has a Pro Bowl return specialist in Mecole Hardman and a quality kicker in Harrison Butker.
The Chiefs are built to overwhelm opponents offensively and then rely on their pass rush defensively. The addition of rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire only further equips the Chiefs to employ this strategy. He’s unproven but has potential galore.
“I say he’ll be a stud, a prime candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year,” NBC Sports’ Peter King wrote of the former LSU back.
It’s a testament to the Chiefs’ talent level that they were able to overcome double-digit deficits in all three of their playoff games. There’s a good chance they never face such a deficit in 2020.