The Ravens believe Edwards and Peters tore their ACLs during Thursday’s practice, sources tell Schefter. Both players are undergoing testing to confirm the initial diagnosis.
This continues a horrid run of injuries for Baltimore and delivers a major blow to the Ravens’ Super Bowl aspirations.
Edwards becomes the third running back to suffer a season-ending injury in a span of 12 days. J.K. Dobbins tore the ACL in his left knee the preseason finale Aug. 28, and Justice Hill hurt an Achilles tendon Sept. 9.
Ty’Son Williams, a practice player from a year ago who doesn’t have an NFL carry, becomes the Ravens’ lead back. The other two running backs on the roster — Trenton Cannon and Le’Veon Bell (practice squad) — only started practicing with the Ravens on Wednesday.
The loss of Peters would represent the most significant injury to the defense this year. The Ravens have depth at cornerback, but it will be difficult to replace Peters’ playmaking ability. His 31 interceptions leads the NFL since he entered the league in 2015.
Clinton Portis was among three former NFL players who have pleaded guilty for their roles in a nationwide scheme to defraud a healthcare program for retired NFL players, the U.S. Justice Department said Tuesday.
The 40-year-old Portis, a former running back who was drafted by the Broncos in 2002 and spent the bulk of his career with Washington, faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 6.
The alleged scheme targeted the Gene Upshaw NFL Player Health Reimbursement Account Plan, which was set up in 2006 to help retired players cover medical expenses.
According to court documents, Portis caused the submission of false and fraudulent claims to the plan on his behalf over a two-month period, obtaining $99,264 in benefits for medical equipment that was not actually provided.
Portis, who earned two Pro Bowl selections during an NFL career that spanned 2002-2010, and former wide receiver Tamarick Vanover pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud on Friday, two days after their trial resulted in a hung jury. Both Portis and Vanover agreed to pay full restitution to the Upshaw Plan.
The 47-year-old Vanover, who played for the Chiefs and Chargers from 1995-2002, obtained $159,510 in benefits for medical equipment that was not actually provided and also faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 22.
A retrial for Portis and Vanover had been scheduled to begin on Tuesday.
Former NFL linebacker Robert McCune, the third defendant in that trial who played for Washington and the Ravens from 2005-08, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and healthcare fraud, 13 counts of healthcare fraud, 11 counts of wire fraud, and three counts of aggravated identity theft on the second day of the trial.
According to the Justice Department, the 40-year-old McCune orchestrated the nationwide scheme, which submitted $2.9 million in fraudulent claims being submitted to the Upshaw Plan with $2.5 million being paid out. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Nov. 19 and faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison for conspiracy to commit wire fraud and health care fraud, 10 years for each count of health care fraud, 20 years for each count of wire fraud and two years for each count of aggravated identity theft.
Portis was one of 10 former NFL players charged in December 2019 with allegedly defrauding the a healthcare program of more than $3.4 million by filing false claims for hyperbaric oxygen chambers and other expensive medical equipment.
A total of 15 people have pleaded guilty in connection with the scheme.
A source told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler that the deal is worth $56 million.
At $14 million per season, that makes Andrews the third-highest-paid tight end in the league, trailing only George Kittle ($15 million per season) and Travis Kelce ($14.3 million).
Andrews, who was scheduled to be a free agent at the end of the season, will receive $37.6 million in guaranteed money for 63% of the deal, the source told Fowler. He will be paid $26.6 million by March 2022.
The new deal was a timely birthday present for Andrews, who turned 26 on Monday.
“Mark is exactly the type of player we wish to keep as a Raven long term,” Baltimore general manager Eric DeCosta said. “He’s competitive, passionate, talented and a leader. We are so excited to have him in Baltimore for the next five years. Congratulations to Mark and his family — and happy birthday.”
A third-round pick in 2018, Andrews quickly became a favorite target for Lamar Jackson. Andrews’ 17 touchdowns over the past two seasons top all tight ends and rank No. 8 in the NFL overall.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Baltimore Ravens lost their second running back to a season-ending injury in a five-day span, when Justice Hill suffered a lower leg injury at Thursday’s practice, a source said Monday.
NFL Network reported that Hill tore an Achilles tendon.
Hill, Baltimore’s No. 3 running back, was hurt shortly after the Ravens lost starter J.K. Dobbins, who suffered a torn ACL in the preseason finale on Aug. 28.
The 2021 NFL season is nearly here, with teams taking on a 17-week slate of games for the first time in history. The season opener is Thursday night, when the reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers host the Dallas Cowboys. Our NFL Nation reporters have you covered with intel and projections on all 32 teams ahead of kickoff.
We have big questions: What has to happen for the New England Patriots to get back on top in the AFC East?
We have bold predictions: The Seattle Seahawks were seventh in sacks last season, but we’re predicting they lead the league in 2021.
The Chiefs will make it to a third consecutive Super Bowl and win it for the second time in three years if …
… their offensive line rebuild is as successful as the Chiefs hope. That’s where any growth in the offense is likely to come from as the Chiefs declined to add a significant skill player for the first time in years. Kansas City has to be better in not only protecting QB Patrick Mahomes but in the run game as well. They will likely start five new linemen from last season, including two rookies, another first-year player and a left tackle in Orlando Brown Jr. who is trying to establish himself at a new position.
Gay didn’t have much of an impact as a second-round pick in 2020, but judging from his play at training camp, where he was one of the Chiefs’ better defensive players, that should change this season. Gay should help the Chiefs with one of their defensive weaknesses, which has been in covering backs out of the backfield. He showed good instincts and range in breaking up a number of passes at camp.
Bold prediction: DL Chris Jones will top his career high in sacks (15.5).
Jones is taking well to his position change to defensive end, but he will likely still get a significant number of snaps at his former position on the interior of the line. This should play to his strengths as a pass-rusher. Jones predicted he would lead the NFL in sacks before the 2018 season, and while he fell short, his 15.5 made for a breakout season. Jones is making no similar predictions this year, but look for him to get similar results. — Adam Teicher
… they stay healthy. They are returning all 22 starters on offense and defense after their Super Bowl season, but TEs O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate are still coming back from injuries. Their wide receiving corps was also decimated by injuries last season. That’s only half the battle. A major reason the Bucs won Super Bowl LV was because, as coach Bruce Arians put it, they “beat the virus.” Last season, just four starters — RB Ronald Jones II, LT Donovan Smith, OLB Shaquil Barrett and ILB Devin White — missed a combined six games between the regular season and postseason because of being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
This was actually a toss-up between Bernard and rookie OLB Joe Tryon-Shoyinka. Bernard’s role is more clearly defined right now. Considering how badly the Buccaneers needed a true pass-catching running back last season — they led the NFL with a staggering 15 drops from the running back position — Bernard’s been a breath of fresh air for QB Tom Brady and the Bucs’ screen game. Those two will thrive together, even if Jones and Leonard Fournette are sharing the load on first and second downs.
Bold prediction: WR Antonio Brown will lead the Bucs in receiving yards.
There are a lot of mouths to feed on this Bucs’ offense, including two Pro Bowl wide receivers who happen to make more money than Brown — Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. One year ago, it looked like Brown was done with football after multiple off-field incidents. But since sorting out most of his legal issues and undergoing a knee scope this offseason, Brown has looked unstoppable in practice — aside from a fistfight in the joint practices with the Titans. Keeping his composure will be key. “This is the healthiest he’s been in years,” Arians said. “He’s playing at a speed I saw four or five years ago.” — Jenna Laine
QB Josh Allen will improve upon his MVP runner-up season in 2020 if …
… the Bills’ offensive line stays healthy. Last season, Allen turned in a career year despite a patchwork line that couldn’t get the run game going. With improved offensive line play and the threat of at least a competent run game, Allen and Buffalo’s passing offense will soar in 2021.
The 2020 second-round pick has been nearly unblockable throughout the preseason.
If he can bring consistent pressure this season, it will be a huge boost for a defensive line that was revamped this offseason. Paired with promising rookie Greg Rousseau, Epenesa could be a force moving forward.
Bold prediction: The Bills will win the AFC.
No, that’s not an incomplete sentence — the Bills will win the AFC East and the conference in 2021. Continuity is key in the NFL, and the Bills return 21 starters from last season’s team that was one win from the Super Bowl, as well as the same head coach and coordinators for a fourth straight year. With the sting from last season’s loss to the Kansas City Chiefs still fresh in their minds, the Bills will make a Super Bowl appearance for the first time since the 1993 season. — Marcel Louis-Jacques
The Ravens passing game will make the leap from the NFL’s worst if …
… the wide receivers stay healthy, which has been a problem this summer. QB Lamar Jackson‘s top three targets on the outside — Marquise Brown, Rashod Bateman and Sammy Watkins — missed a combined 38 practices during the team’s five-week training camp. Bateman, the No. 27 overall draft pick in 2021, had groin surgery during camp and could miss the first month of the season. When playing, they have all stretched the field this summer. The Ravens are banking on Brown, Bateman and Watkins to make defenses pay for stacking the box to slow down their dominant run game.
The Ravens’ prime breakout candidate was RB J.K. Dobbins before he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the preseason finale. Now, Edwards steps up to get his first chance to become an NFL featured back at the start of a season. He has been among the most consistent runners in the league, averaging over five yards per carry in each of his first three seasons. With the increased role, Edwards has a chance to produce 1,100 yards and close to double-digit touchdowns in the NFL’s most dominant rushing attack.
Bold prediction: Ravens will finish No. 1 in defense.
There’s plenty of buzz about how good the defenses in Pittsburgh and Cleveland will be this season, but the Ravens look primed to have the best defense in the NFL. In three seasons with Don “Wink” Martindale as defensive coordinator, Baltimore has allowed the fewest yards (307.8) and points (18.2) in the league. The biggest question mark surrounding this defense had been the pass rush. But the Ravens signed Justin Houston (97.5 career sacks) and used a first-round pick on Odafe Oweh, who could be the fastest edge rusher in franchise history. This defense has the potential to be scary. — Jamison Hensley
Aaron Rodgers will be back as the Packers’ quarterback in 2022 if …
… hell freezes over. OK, that might be a tad strong, but everything about this season is setting up as a last hurrah. The Packers voided the 2023 season on Rodgers contract specifically to appease his desire to control where he plays in 2022. It is now an easy out for both parties. Also, the Packers are in a brutal salary-cap situation for next year and moving on from Rodgers would alleviate some of the problem.
Cue up the Week 16 film from last season against the Titans when Dillon rushed 21 times for 124 yards and two touchdowns. That accounted for more than half of Dillon’s rushing yards for his entire rookie season. With Jamaal Williams gone, Dillon steps into the RB2 role. The Packers have always tried to keep Aaron Jones fresh, so Dillon should get plenty more chances in year two.
Field Yates and Stephania Bell weigh up AJ Dillon’s fantasy value as he competes with Aaron Jones for run options.
Bold prediction: Rodgers will go out on top with a Super Bowl victory.
After two straight NFC title game losses the last two seasons, Rodgers will finally play well in a conference championship game, and get the Packers back to the Super Bowl. And when they win it, it will be the perfect end for Rodgers’ time in Green Bay. He can then pull a Tom Brady and try to do it again somewhere else. — Rob Demovsky
The Browns’ defense will be one of the AFC’s best if …
… DE Jadeveon Clowney stays healthy and plays up to his potential. Clowney has always had the talent, but the 2014 No. 1 overall pick has continually struggled with injuries. Clowney seems healthy again and starred early on in training camp. The Browns already boast one elite pass-rusher in DE Myles Garrett. If Clowney gives them another, the Browns defense will be among the AFC’s best.
The Browns have plenty of firepower at wide receiver, headlined by Pro Bowlers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. Peoples-Jones was the MVP of training camp, flashing a strong rapport with QB Baker Mayfield. Because of Cleveland’s powerful running game, its impressive array of tight ends and the star power of OBJ and Landry, Peoples-Jones probably won’t put up big numbers this season. But the 2020 sixth-round pick out of Michigan could emerge into a key option for Mayfield in Cleveland’s underrated passing attack.
Field Yates and Matthew Berry break down Donovan Peoples-Jones’ numbers and if he is a fantasy sleeper.
Bold prediction: Cleveland’s defense will be among the league’s most improved.
With eight new defensive starters, the Browns might struggle defensively for the first month or so of the season. But down the stretch, Cleveland will boast one the five best defenses in the league, elevating the Browns into a legitimate Super Bowl contender. — Jake Trotter
DT Aaron Donald becomes the third defensive player to win MVP if …
… he breaks Hall of Fame defensive end Michael Strahan’s single-season sacks record of 22.5, the Rams’ defense ranks among the best in the NFL and the Rams make a dominant run to Super Bowl LVI. Yes, Donald and the Rams must achieve all of that for the three-time Defensive Player of the Year to win MVP. Look at it this way, the last non-quarterback to win MVP was Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson in 2012. To find the last defensive player who won MVP, you must go back 34 years to when New York Giants outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor won the award. In 2018, Donald had 20.5 sacks, the most ever by an interior lineman, as the Rams went 13-3 and made a Super Bowl run — and still didn’t win the award.
Jefferson flashed and appeared mature beyond his years as a rookie throughout training camp last season, but he made minimal impact on the offense with 19 receptions for 220 yards and a touchdown. Jefferson admitted his head was spinning last season, but he now has a firm grasp on the playbook and feels more comfortable in his Season 2. With a consistent connection established throughout camp with new QB Matthew Stafford, coupled with the Rams’ plan to monitor veteran WR DeSean Jackson‘s workload, watch for Jefferson to make a splash in an offense that’s preparing to put up big numbers.
Bold prediction: The Rams will appear in Super Bowl LVI.
With three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Donald and All-Pro CB Jalen Ramsey anchoring the defending top-ranked defense — plus the acquisition of Stafford in a gutsy offseason trade that sent former No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff, two first-round picks and a third-round pick to the Detroit Lions — the Rams are ready to make their second Super Bowl run over the past four seasons. And what better time to do it than 2021, with the Super Bowl being played inside SoFi Stadium — Rams owner Stan Kroenke’s $5 billion masterpiece — on Feb. 13. — Lindsey Thiry
… 11. It could easily happen sooner, but this feels about right. Predicting the health of starter Jimmy Garoppolo is difficult, so let’s operate under the assumption that Garoppolo stays healthy and plays well enough to hold the job through the Week 6 bye. A change for Week 7 is plausible, but the Niners should have a winning record going into that game. Out of the bye week, the Niners play the Colts, Bears, Cardinals and Rams, which could bring some bumps and bruises — setting the stage for Lance to take over. Lance will have played plenty situationally by then, and things should have slowed down enough for him to take the controls for what the Niners hope is a stretch run to the postseason.
Aiyuk flashed plenty of potential as a rookie, but he played in only 12 games because of an early hamstring injury and a late stint on the COVID-19 list. A bulked-up Aiyuk established himself as a favorite target of all San Francisco quarterbacks during camp, catching almost everything thrown his way — save for a couple of hiccups in preseason games. With a full offseason under his belt, Aiyuk has all the ingredients to become the Niners’ No. 1 wideout.
Bold prediction: DE Dee Ford will have at least eight sacks.
The 49ers aren’t counting on Ford for anything after he missed all but one game last season because of a back injury. But Ford has slowly been rounding back into form in training camp, and showed his usual burst off the edge. If Ford is healthy, he won’t be asked to play more than roughly 20 snaps per game, but those should put him in position to do what he does best and get after the quarterback. — Nick Wagoner
… three things happen: 1. His pass protection improves; 2. He likes the way he fits in Seattle’s new offense; 3. The Seahawks make it to at least the NFC Championship Game. Otherwise, Wilson might have a hard time believing that the arrow is pointing up for himself and for the team, which hasn’t gotten past the divisional round in its last five playoff appearances. Wilson likes the fast tempo of new coordinator Shane Waldron’s offense and should take fewer hits with more of an emphasis on short and intermediate throws. He also likes having newcomer Gabe Jackson at right guard. But his pass protection will suffer if LT Duane Brown misses games amid his contract dispute.
Last year’s first-round pick quietly had a strong rookie season, even though it didn’t include as many splash plays as fellow rookie Patrick Queen of the Ravens. The Seahawks took Brooks over Queen at No. 27 because they felt he was better built and just as fast. But even when he became a starter early in the year, Brooks didn’t get enough of a chance to show that speed. He regularly came off the field on third down because Seattle’s coaching staff preferred K.J. Wright‘s experience. With Wright gone, more playing time for Brooks will mean more of an opportunity to break out in 2021.
Bold prediction: The Seahawks will lead the NFL in sacks.
They led the league in sacks over the final 12 weeks of last season and return all but one of their top pass-rushers from that group. The addition of DE Kerry Hyder Jr. in free agency, and DE Darrell Taylor‘s return from his lost rookie season, should be more than enough to make up for Jarran Reed‘s departure. With Taylor taking over at strongside linebacker and a scheme adjustment to their defensive front, the Seahawks will have an extra pass-rushing threat on the field most of the time. — Brady Henderson
… the defense — which has been stocked with a decisive upgrade in talent — finishes among the NFL’s top five in points allowed. For all the focus that was on the team’s QB competition, the defense has the potential to be the backbone of the team — assuming a lack of depth in the secondary doesn’t come back to haunt it.
There have been times in training camp and preseason when Uche was the most disruptive player on the field, such as one day against the Giants in late August when he was consistently creating pressure. The 2020 second-round pick from Michigan has some experienced linebackers around him in Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Ja’Whaun Bentley and Matt Judon, and that should help him key in on a specific role that allows him to create havoc.
Bold prediction: QB Mac Jones will win Offensive Rookie of the Year.
The No. 15 overall pick has come a long way in a short time. The things he is doing as a rookie running the Patriots’ traditional system — such as setting protections and calling audibles — are next-level stuff. One excellent preseason practice against the New York Giants, in particular, stood out as a preview of what could be coming. — Mike Reiss
Tua Tagovailoa keeps his job as the Dolphins’ starting quarterback if …
… his play from the preseason carries into the regular season. Tagovailoa has looked confident, decisive and comfortable entering his second year in the league, something the Dolphins will need if they are to make the playoffs in a loaded AFC. Tagovailoa needs to remain aggressive and display the ability to win games with his arm when needed. The Dolphins will be sitting at home again in January if he is a game manager in 2021.
Although last season was a breakout of sorts for Gesicki, the chemistry he built with Tagovailoa this preseason has been palpable. Even after a 700-yard, six-touchdown performance in 2020, Gesicki officially breaks out as one of the league’s best receiving tight ends in 2021.
Bold prediction: The Dolphins will win a playoff game.
Miami hasn’t made the playoffs since 2015 and came one win short last season. The franchise has not won a playoff game since 2000. But the Dolphins’ defense features an elite secondary that could make life trouble for opposing quarterbacks on any given week. And that, combined with Tagovailoa leading an upstart offense, helps Miami break both playoff streaks in 2021. — Marcel Louis-Jacques
The Titans can rise above other AFC title contenders if …
… the defense can show improvement in third-down conversions allowed, red zone defense and sacks. S Kevin Byard said the defensive backs are focused on being aggressive challenging receivers at the line of scrimmage. The additions of LB Bud Dupree, DE Denico Autry and LB Rashad Weaver should improve the pass rush and allow the Titans to get pressure with the front four. Defensive coordinator Shane Bowen seems willing to blitz a lot more as well. The three words that are consistently mentioned as an area of focus for the defense are confidence, communication and urgency.
Hooker is coming off a season in which he posted four interceptions as a reserve safety. The third-year veteran enters as a starter along with Byard. Defensive backs coach Scott Booker said he has seen Hooker become more comfortable within the defense and he has shown he is capable of being a leader on the team. Hooker’s ball skills have been on display throughout training camp, including his interception of Buccaneers QB Tom Brady during joint practices.
The NFL hasn’t had a team with two 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,500-yard rusher since the 2006 St. Louis Rams. But defenses have to pick their poison against the Titans. If they focus on stopping the run, Jones and Brown will see a lot of single coverage. The Titans haven’t had two 1,000-yard receivers since Derrick Mason (1,168 yards) and Drew Bennett (1,247) in 2004. Conversely, committing extra defenders to stop the passing game means fewer players in the box, which makes it easier for the offensive line to open up rushing lanes for Henry. — Turron Davenport
The Saints will commit to QB Jameis Winston as their starter beyond this season if …
… he reminds everyone what made him so special in the first place. The former No. 1 pick and Heisman Trophy winner is still just 27 years old. He has a great opportunity for a Ryan Tannehill-like renaissance now that he is surrounded by one of the NFL’s best offensive minds, offensive lines and defenses. Turnovers obviously derailed Winston’s career in Tampa, but he and coach Sean Payton have insisted he will play a smarter brand of football this time around.
There is some risk of overhype here, since Callaway could go back to a No. 2 or 3 WR role once Michael Thomas and Tre’Quan Smith are healthy. But the second-year pro has taken full advantage of his temp job as a WR1 on a consistent basis throughout the summer — highlighted by two incredible deep TD catches from Winston in the Saints’ second preseason game. The 6-2, 204-pounder is clearly poised for a big role after showing flashes as an undrafted rookie in 2020.
Stephania Bell expects Michael Thomas to be available for the Saints in Week 7.
The Saints let DE Trey Hendrickson go in free agency after his unexpected 13.5-sack breakout last season. But Jordan and Davenport should make up for the loss. Davenport, a first-round pick in 2018, looks poised for a breakout season if he can finally stay healthy. And Jordan, a six-time Pro Bowler, should be able to bounce back from a surprisingly quiet 7.5 sacks in 2020. — Mike Triplett
Coordinator Dan Quinn gets the Cowboys’ defense back to respectability if …
… LB Micah Parsons can handle all the Cowboys are asking of him. The 2021 No. 12 overall pick is lining up at middle linebacker, making the calls and checks, while also being used as an edge rusher. His versatility could free up others on defense, such as edge rushers DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, and Leighton Vander Esch or Keanu Neal at linebacker. That’s a lot of responsibility to put on a rookie, but he has shown he can be that player. Of course, having a high-scoring offense will make it easier for the Cowboys’ defense to climb back to respectability, too.
Would Lamb really qualify as a breakout star? He had 74 catches for 935 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie, and he is a first-round draft pick, so people should know him. But he could do so much more, especially in a full season with QB Dak Prescott. He caught at least five passes in all of Prescott’s five starts and had two 100-yard games. The duo’s lack of work in training camp together isn’t that concerning because of how well they clicked last season without any real offseason or preseason games.
If that’s not bold, especially after Elliott ran for 979 yards last season, what is? Many assume he is on the downside of his career after he signed his $90 million contract, and has been passed on the list of best running backs by guys such as Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook or others. With Prescott missing a lot of training camp and four preseason games with a latissimus strain, Elliott needs to be a featured part of the attack. And with the returns of Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and La’el Collins, the offensive line is on a mission to reclaim its spot as one of the best in the NFL, too. In their first six games, the Cowboys face four run defenses that ranked outside the top half of the league in 2020. — Todd Archer
… make the postseason. Minnesota has not missed the playoffs in back-to-back years since Zimmer was hired in 2014, so it’s critical for the head coach’s job security that the Vikings are playing well into January. It doesn’t matter how they get there — whether Zimmer’s defense bounces back after they poured millions into overhauling the roster this offseason or QB Kirk Cousins and the offense lead the way. All that matters for Zimmer’s future in Minnesota is getting to the postseason.
With Irv Smith Jr. expected to miss the entire 2021 season while recovering from knee surgery, his tight end counterpart will have even more opportunities to stand out. Conklin, who is entering a contract year, caught 15 of 21 targets in the final four games last season, showing promise beyond his role as a blocker. The Vikings utilize sets with two tight ends often, so expect Conklin to be consistently involved in the offense. Even coach Mike Zimmer sees an expanded role for the former fifth-round pick. “He’s kind of emerged as a guy that’s moving upward,” Zimmer said this offseason.
Bold prediction: WR Adam Thielen will lead the Vikings in receiving touchdowns.
Justin Jefferson put the NFL on notice as a rookie, so you can expect even more attention geared toward the second-year wide receiver in 2021. The more teams key in on Jefferson, the more opportunities Thielen will have to shine as Cousins’ No. 1 target. Thielen had a career-best 14 touchdowns last season. He will top that number in 2021, given how few receiving options the Vikings have outside of their top two receivers, and how comfortable Cousins is finding Thielen in the red zone. — Courtney Cronin
Even if QB Carson Wentz and G Quenton Nelson miss games due to injuries, the defense is strong enough to carry the Colts to a winning record if …
… the unit forces a lot of turnovers to give the offense, which would be led by QBs Jacob Eason or Sam Ehlinger (currently injured), a short field to work with because the Colts will be missing two of their three most important offensive players. The defense has a goal of forcing at least 40 turnovers this season. There is no better time to try to reach that goal than facing offenses led by QBs Russell Wilson (Seahawks), Matthew Stafford (Rams), Ryan Tannehill (Titans), Tua Tagovailoa (Dolphins) and Lamar Jackson (Ravens). The Colts finished fifth in the NFL in takeaways last season with 25.
Depth isn’t an issue at receiver for the Colts, but Pittman is the one who stands out the most at that position. Pittman had a solid rookie season in 2020 — 503 receiving yards in 13 games. Now, he is ready to take the next step of passing veteran T.Y. Hilton as the team’s No. 1 receiver, especially with Hilton currently sidelined by a neck injury. Pittman’s combination of speed, strength and size (6-foot-4) makes him a tough cover for smaller defensive backs. He was the most consistent receiver during training camp for the Colts.
Bold prediction: Wentz will play all 17 regular-season games and have a career-high completion percentage.
Yes, Wentz has played every regular-season game only twice, and he’s recovering from foot surgery, and he was benched after playing 12 games last season in Philadelphia. But Wentz and Colts coach Frank Reich know this is a prove-it point in the quarterback’s career after flaming out with the Eagles. Wentz’s highest season completion percentage was in 2018, when he completed 69.6% of his passes. Andrew Luck and Jacoby Brissett both had their best completion seasons under Reich. Philip Rivers had the second-highest percentage of his 17-year career last season. Now it’s Wentz’s turn to do it under Reich. — Mike Wells
… the offensive line improves from last season. With an almost all-new cast — or at least different players in different roles — the Steelers are trying to improve a line that was one of the worst in the league a season ago. But injuries at tackle and left guard and a two-practice absence at center kept the starting group from fully practicing as a unit until the week before the third preseason game against Detroit. The line performed well in that game, and if they can hold up and protect Roethlisberger throughout the season, the 39-year-old can continue to turn back the clock.
The Steelers could start three offensive rookies in Week 1: Freiermuth, RB Najee Harris and C Kendrick Green. While Harris is an obvious breakout candidate, Freiermuth isn’t far behind. He had a two-touchdown performance against the Lions, and afterward, Roethlisberger jokingly told the media to stop talking about him so he could stay under wraps a little bit longer. Good luck with that.
Freiermuth drew comparisons to TE Rob Gronkowski in high school and college, but he reminds Roethlisberger and the Steelers faithful of another dominant tight end: Heath Miller. Freiermuth earned accolades for his blocking, but he could also be a fierce red zone threat. In a Matt Canada offense that heavily utilizes tight ends, Freiermuth is poised for a big rookie season.
Bold prediction: The Steelers will win a playoff game.
Hear me out. Yes, the Steelers have the toughest schedule in the NFL, and they’re playing in a division that has only grown stronger since last season. But they’ve done well to fill the holes on the roster — adding LB Melvin Ingram III and OL Trai Turner before camp and trading for LB Joe Schobert during the preseason. Winning their first playoff game since 2016 is doable if the offensive line keeps Roethlisberger upright and opens holes for Harris, and the defense, led by T.J. Watt, returns to the dominating form it had prior to ACL injuries to LBs Bud Dupree and Devin Bush. — Brooke Pryor
The Chargers finally gain a foothold in the Los Angeles market if …
… QB Justin Herbert stays healthy and expands on his NFL rookie-record 31 touchdown passes. It will help if he’s kept upright by an offensive line that went through an overhaul this offseason and the defense holds leads better. The Chargers lost four games last season in which they held double-digit leads, and have 16 one-score losses over the past two seasons.
Tillery, a first-round pick of the Chargers in 2019, says he’s in the best shape of his life. He should excel in coach Brandon Staley’s new defensive scheme. He spent the summer working out with a trainer in Hawaii and has taken off some weight. Tillery, who had five sacks combined in his first two seasons, said he worked on footwork and getting faster at everything.
With the loss of LB Melvin Ingram III, the Chargers need another pass-rush threat to complement LB Joey Bosa — Tillery, who had 14 quarterback hits last season, could be it.
Field Yates calls Chargers QB Justin Herbert a “phenomenal value” for fantasy managers.
Bold prediction: The Chargers will make the playoffs — and maybe win the division title.
Staley has reenergized this group, which enters the season healthy. Major injuries have struck the Chargers in training camp in the past, so improved health, a maturing Herbert at quarterback and the addition of a coach who led the Rams to the NFL’s No. 1 defense last season will pave the way for a Chargers breakthrough. — Shelley Smith
The Broncos will not be quarterback shopping this offseason if …
… they win a playoff game. But even if they don’t, there is a caveat: They won’t add just anyone. They’ll take a long look at who is actually available on the market (What say you, Packers and Aaron Rodgers?) and the draft before committing to move on.
There is some hesitation in declaring Jeudy a breakout candidate because his rookie season was already very good (52 catches for 856 yards). He did have one really bad afternoon against the Chargers (five drops), but was hampered by poor quarterback play, somewhat choppy playcalling and receiver Courtland Sutton‘s knee injury, which allowed defenses to put some No. 1 corners in front of him. His routes are too good, his work ethic too strong; 2021 is going to be a big year.
Field Yates and Stephania Bell detail what it will take for Jerry Jeudy to find success in Denver this season.
Bold prediction: The Broncos will make the playoffs — barely.
If they have the injuries or turnovers they had last season (they led the league in giveaways), this ain’t happening. But quietly, under the cover of a quarterback competition that has attracted all the attention, they have assembled a talented roster with some depth, much better team speed and, potentially, a hellacious defense. That has been a playoff recipe for the Broncos in the past. — Jeff Legwold
DE Chase Young becomes one of the league’s top five edge rushers if …
… his game matures faster than anticipated. Young is healthier entering the season than he was in 2020, when his hip bothered him for half his rookie year. He also has a lot of talent around him, including fellow end Montez Sweat, who could take some sacks away but should also help Young get some favorable matchups.
Why not? Young is the obvious breakout candidate, but Sweat gets a bit lost in the attention paid to Young, and that will change. Sweat has had a terrific camp and continues to mature as a pass-rusher. He went from seven sacks as a rookie to nine last season and should reside in that 12-15 range this season.
Bold prediction: Washington will repeat as NFC East champs.
Nobody has done this since 2004, but why not now? Washington improved its offense in the offseason with QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, who might not be great, but he’s an upgrade. But it was more than just him as the team added multiple weapons at receiver, including Curtis Samuel. Defensively, Washington will be challenged by a much tougher slate of opposing quarterbacks (six finished among the top 11 in Total QBR last season). But it has one of the best lines in football and added speed and more diverse coverage — notably CB William Jackson III — in the back seven. More importantly, the players have bought into this coaching staff and what it’s trying to build. — John Keim
… the Cardinals are a serious playoff contender. That could mean 4,000 passing yards and 700-plus rushing yards while accounting for 45 or more touchdowns — at the minimum. Murray must also find a way to stay healthy
The rookie out of Purdue has shown signs of brilliance during training camp, but that doesn’t mean his success will translate to the regular season. There’s something different about Moore, though. He seems to have the total package: speed, quickness, hands, strength and IQ. With so much defensive attention on Murray and WRs DeAndre Hopkins and A.J. Green, Moore could be the guy who surprises everyone.
Bold prediction: Green will reach 1,000 receiving yards.
Green has never been a No. 2 receiver in his career — always a No. 1. That means he has always been the focal point of the defense, always was double-teamed, always had the coverage rolled to him. That’s not the case this season playing alongside Hopkins. Green will benefit from that, and a big season could be in his future. — Josh Weinfuss
… 7, at the absolute latest. The writing is on the wall. Fields will eventually take the starting job from Andy Dalton, who probably does not have a very long leash. The Bears are making the correct decision by keeping Fields on the bench to begin the year, but they will soon have no choice but to start the rookie. The switch is inevitable.
Mooney finished fifth among NFL rookie wide receivers with 61 catches last season. The bar is set even higher in 2021. Mooney is now the unquestioned No. 2 receiver after Allen Robinson II and will be counted on to have even better numbers in Year 2. Mooney’s blazing speed is a dangerous threat that Chicago quarterbacks can utilize all season.
Coach Matt Nagy wants Montgomery to carry the football 20 times per game. I’m taking Nagy at his word, even though Chicago has occasionally abandoned the run in recent years. Montgomery is too good to ignore — the Bears have to feed him. If the Bears once again become one-dimensional on offense, forget about it. There is too much at stake for that to happen. — Jeff Dickerson
Burns led the Panthers in sacks last season with nine, but he came oh-so-close to many more. With the addition of edge rusher Haason Reddick — Burns didn’t have a potent rusher opposite him last season — teams won’t be able to shift the protection to his side as easily. As Burns has said repeatedly this preseason, opponents will need to “pick your poison.” Don’t be surprised to see him get 13-15 sacks and show off his patented “Spider-Man” pose even more.
Bold prediction: Darnold will have a winning record.
Darnold is a dreadful 13-25 as a starter in his career — including 2-10 in 2020. He has the talent around him to make the Panthers a playoff contender if he plays slightly above average. That likely won’t result in a record much higher than .500, but at this point, that would be like winning the Super Bowl for the third pick of the 2018 draft. — David Newton
First-year coach Arthur Smith will field a top-10 offense if …
… the offensive line doesn’t stink. The Falcons have the skill-position players to be dynamic offensively, but if QB Matt Ryan doesn’t have protection and holes can’t stay open more than microseconds for RB Mike Davis, the Falcons will struggle to move the ball. They have four legitimate receiving options and two mismatch nightmares in WR Calvin Ridley and TE Kyle Pitts, but if Ryan is under pressure too often, they won’t be nearly as effective.
The jump for cornerbacks from their rookie year to second season is always a fairly large one, but Terrell has all the makings of a top-end cover corner. He has fantastic instincts, good speed and strong recovery skills. On an Atlanta defense needing playmakers beyond Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones, Terrell has the chance to be special and give the Falcons a future Pro Bowl corner. The potential is that strong.
Fowler has reached this milestone only once in his career (11.5 sacks in 2019 with the Rams), but he has the benefit now of playing in a pressure-happy defense run by Dean Pees. And if opponents can’t predict where pressure is coming from, that could leave more solo matchups for Fowler, who is the most explosive off-the-ball pass-rusher Atlanta has. Plus, there’s motivation here. Fowler took a pay cut this offseason after a subpar 2020 (three sacks) in which he played at least part of the season hurt. Pride plus incentives could lead to a strong year. — Mike Rothstein
Coach Jon Gruden ends the year on the hot seat if …
… Las Vegas pulls another fold job down the stretch. The Raiders started 6-4 in 2019, only to finish 7-9, and were 6-3 last season before ending up 8-8. Gruden might have the most job security in the league with a 10-year contract signed in 2018, but another pratfall would raise more than eyebrows and hackles. Counting his time in Tampa Bay, Gruden’s teams are just 31-45 in December and January (15-23 with the Raiders), and that’s counting the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl run in 2002.
As the first wideout drafted in a historically deep 2020 class for receivers, Ruggs should have already made his imprint, no? Well, injury and ineffectiveness limited him to 26 catches for 452 yards and two touchdowns in 13 games as a rookie. Now, he has gained muscle without losing any of his speed and has, perhaps most importantly, gained the trust of QB Derek Carr. Expect more than the occasional deep ball, then, as well as slants and plays in space to let Ruggs create.
Bold prediction: The Raiders will get into the playoffs.
The Raiders’ offense will cook, as expected, with skill-position weapons all around for Carr as the rebuilt offensive line gives him enough protection to stay clean and comfortable. The returning defense, meanwhile, will mature and be just good enough to prevent another late-season collapse. And Las Vegas, buoyed by a raucous home-field advantage (two of the Raiders’ last three games are at home against division rivals Denver and L.A.), will win more December and January games than it loses. Hence, a wild-card berth that will mark only the franchise’s second postseason appearance since 2002. — Paul Gutierrez
Daniel Jones cements his role as the Giants’ long-term quarterback if …
… he has RB Saquon Barkley and WR Kenny Golladay playing alongside him the entire season. All the tools are there for Jones to be successful. His teammates, coaches and the front office are convinced he’s going to be a quality starting quarterback. All he needs is the support. A star running back who keeps defensive coordinators up at night and a big wide receiver who can go up and get the football are exactly what Jones needs.
His rookie year was stunted by foot surgery that forced him to miss the first 10 games of the season. But when he returned, McKinney flashed the talent that made him a second-round pick. Now healthy in his second season, expect him to play a significant role as the third safety on a good defense. The Giants are going to find ways to get him on the field, and it will result in a handful of interceptions.
Bold prediction: Jones will throw for more than 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns.
This is the year the polarizing quarterback cements himself as a high-end starter. He will need to nearly triple the 11 touchdown passes he threw last season to make this prediction hold up. Jones will also cut down on his turnovers with the help of Barkley, receivers Golladay and Sterling Shepard and TE Evan Engram. It’s not the MVP-worthy leap Josh Allen (Buffalo Bills) pulled off last season in his third year, but Jones’ version would nonetheless thrill Giants fans. — Jordan Raanan
This season will be considered a success for the Bengals if …
… they are in the playoff hunt at the start of December. The Bengals’ final stretch of games in each of the past two seasons have had zero bearing on the AFC North standings. Cincinnati suffered losses that ended up laying the foundation for key parts of the rebuilding process: first-round QB Joe Burrow (2019) and first-round WR Ja’Marr Chase (2020). This is the third year of the rebuilding process. It’s time to see whether the Bengals have truly done enough to overhaul the roster. At this point, there’s no reason the Bengals shouldn’t be in the playoff discussion when December begins.
It’s hard to call the team’s leading receiver from 2020 (67 catches, 908 yards) a breakout candidate, but Higgins has a very high ceiling. The team’s second-round pick in 2020 battled a hamstring injury throughout the season and, after declaring for the NFL a year early, an adjustment to the pros during a pandemic. Now, as a second-year player, Higgins looks like a true outside receiver and has the potential to lead Cincinnati in key receiving categories again.
Bold prediction: Burrow will have over 5,000 passing yards.
In each of the past three offseasons, Cincinnati has added a key piece to its passing attack. Now healthy and with (hopefully for his sake) a better offensive line, Burrow has three wide receivers who arguably could be top options on other NFL rosters. Between that, coach Zac Taylor’s offensive ideology and RB Joe Mixon‘s effectiveness in the passing game, it’s not unreasonable to predict Burrow will hit the 5,000-yard mark in a 17-game season. — Ben Baby
QB Jalen Hurts will be the Eagles’ starter for all of the regular season if …
… he stays healthy. Hurts took all the first-team reps during training camp and is the clear No. 1 ahead of Joe Flacco and Gardner Minshew II. His teammates have taken notice of his leadership, work ethic and steady improvement, and are buying in. The Eagles will have as many as three first-round picks in next year’s draft, resources they can use to acquire their QB of the future in case they’re not sold on Hurts, but he should have the 2021 season to prove he’s the player for the job.
Watkins, a sixth-round draft pick out of Southern Miss in 2020, was the Eagles’ best wide receiver this summer by a healthy margin. His 4.35-second 40-yard dash time was on full display during his 79-yard catch-and-run touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the preseason opener. He showed similar playmaking skills during training camp and in the joint practices against the New England Patriots and New York Jets, where he proved to be a tough cover. Watkins figures to be one of the division’s more electric players this season and will shoot well past his 2020 rookie stat line (seven catches, 106 yards, 1 TD).
Bold prediction: DE Josh Sweat will be among the NFL sack leaders.
Sweat, 24, believes he is on the verge of a career season. His play this summer suggests he’s right. Sweat had one of the best training camps of anyone on the Eagles, routinely knifing into the backfield to get after the quarterback. There were questions about longevity when Sweat was drafted in 2018 because of a brutal left knee injury in high school, but he looks healthy entering Year 4 and has added strength to go along with improved technique. He posted a personal-best six sacks last season and could soar into double digits in 2021 if all goes well. — Tim McManus
… offensive tackles Cam Robinson and Jawaan Taylor play better than they did in 2020. The two combined to give up 27 sacks last year, including an NFL-high 18 by Taylor, per ESPN Stats & Information. Lawrence has the arm strength, moxie and football IQ to be a standout quarterback, but it’ll be a rough season if he’s having to run for his life every week.
The second-year player is bigger and stronger than he was as a rookie, and that has been evident throughout camp and the preseason. Hamilton has been hard to move and has consistently gotten into the backfield during camp, and people inside the organization believe he’s on the verge of becoming one of the league’s better nose tackles.
Field Yates breaks down Trevor Lawrence’s fantasy value for the upcoming season.
Bold prediction: Trevor Lawrence will set the rookie TD passing record.
Chargers QB Justin Herbert holds the mark with 31 last season, but Lawrence will surpass that mainly because the Jaguars are going to be playing catch-up in a lot of games. Even with the loss of Travis Etienne Jr. to a Lisfranc injury, the Jaguars have a good group of pass-catchers that includes Marvin Jones Jr. and DJ Chark Jr., so Lawrence has enough weapons to become just the second rookie quarterback in NFL history to surpass 30 touchdowns. — Michael DiRocco
Coach Robert Saleh’s first season with the Jets will be considered a success if …
… Zach Wilson establishes himself as the long-term answer at quarterback. Sure, wins are important, especially when the team is trying to rebuild a losing culture, but this season is all about the rookie and his development. Wilson has a better chance to succeed than predecessor Sam Darnold. Not only does Wilson have better talent around him, but he will have a chance to grow with a new coaching staff and new program. That wasn’t the case with Darnold.
Former Ole Miss teammate and current Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown said recently he would “bet all my game checks” that Moore wins Offensive Rookie of the Year. Farfetched? Maybe a little, but Moore has a chance to be really good as a rookie. He’s an advanced route runner with terrific acceleration and an uncommon feel for the game. Coaches and teammates talk about him as if he has been around for a few years. Moore, more than a slot receiver, will be used in a variety of ways and will see significant playing time.
Bold prediction: Wilson will become the franchise’s first quarterback since Joe Namath (1967) to throw for 4,000 yards.
Disclaimer: Namath had 4,007 yards in a 14-game season, Wilson will have 17 games. Yes, he’s a rookie, and rookies tend to struggle, but it’s not unreasonable to think he can end the 53-year drought. All it takes is 235 yards per game, close to the 2020 league average (240). The plan is to be balanced on offense, leaning on the running game more than most, but the Jets figure to be in a lot of late-game, catch-up situations. The kid can definitely sling it. If he stays upright and healthy, he will join Broadway Joe as the only two quarterbacks in team history to reach the elusive 4,000-yard milestone. — Rich Cimini
Coach Dan Campbell’s first season as coach will be considered a success if …
… the team wins five or more games. For many other franchises, this may seem like a joke, but Campbell is tasked with taking over an organization that showed little life last season. If he can recharge this bunch and at least begin to shift the culture with a competitive squad, it’ll be a success. Nobody is expecting him to come in and reach the playoffs this year — or even next year — but he has to get the franchise moving in the right direction, and that’ll start with at least matching last season’s win total and possibly surpassing it.
It’s no secret that Okudah didn’t live up to expectations after being taken with the third overall pick in 2020. But the new coaching staff, notably DBs coach Aubrey Pleasant, is looking to get the most out of him, not only physically but mentally as well. Okudah was put in a tough situation last season, being placed primarily in man-to-man coverage, but he has studied his strengths and weaknesses this offseason and is ready for a breakout.
The receiving corps in Detroit this season is very much unproven. One guy who isn’t is Hockenson, who made the Pro Bowl for the first time last season. New quarterback Jared Goff is already building great chemistry with Hockenson, who put in a ton of work this offseason. Hockenson trained in Nashville, Tennessee, alongside his close friend and former Iowa teammate George Kittle to prep for a bigger role. Last season, Hockenson finished with 67 catches for 723 yards. Barring injuries, he should easily top that mark. — Eric Woodyard
The first season under coach David Culley will be a success if …
… the Texans get the No. 1 overall pick. The Texans’ realistic goal for this season isn’t to win a Super Bowl, and the moves made by GM Nick Caserio reflect that. The focus of the franchise over the next year needs to be finding its quarterback of the future and adding as many draft picks and young players as it can to build around that player.
The Texans need to replace J.J. Watt’s production and find someone who can get to the quarterback. That might be Omenihu, who is entering his third season. Playing just 19 snaps in the Texans’ second preseason game, he had two sacks and recovered a fumble. Omenihu is moving around the defensive line and should be a difference-maker in 2021.
Bold prediction: WR Brandin Cooks will have 1,000 receiving yards.
Sure, Cooks has hit that mark five times in his seven NFL seasons. But this time he’s being asked to do it without QB Deshaun Watson throwing him the ball and without another top receiver to take attention away from him. This will be the hardest season for Cooks to eclipse 1,000 yards, but he does it while catching passes from QBs Tyrod Taylor and Davis Mills. — Sarah Barshop
Combined, those 20,000 simulations — which, in the preseason, use expected starting quarterbacks, past performance, returning starters and projected win totals to generate a strength rating for every team — give us a good idea of what we think will happen, but nothing ever goes to plan. Surprises happen every year, and every team can win on any given Sunday. So we’re running from the safe haven of our projections and looking at just one of the simulations.
We played out every single game of that simulation to give us one plausible outcome for the 2021 season. That means projected winners and losers for every regular-season game, potential division-race storylines, surprise contenders and a look at how the 13 playoff games might play out. From it all, we get a drought-ending Super Bowl LVI winner and a top-five draft order for 2022 that comes with a bit of a shocker.
Will it all happen this way? It could. But again, this is just one single simulation. To put some context on the results, we applied some creative license, detailing potential breakout stars, quarterback controversies and more. Let’s dive in, with 12 big takeaways from how it all went down.
Jacksonville Jaguars rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence kicked off his NFL career in a way that resembled his college career: winning. Coach Urban Meyer’s team took advantage of a soft schedule out of the gate, beating Houston, Denver and Arizona to start the season before dropping a game to the Bengals. Then it rebounded with its best win of the group, a 31-14 victory over Tennessee. A 4-1 start is nothing to sneer at, no matter the opponents.
And even though the Jaguars cooled off after their quick start — Jacksonville went 3-5 over its next eight games — their early-season work got the job done. Lawrence’s solid rookie year was bolstered by an immediate connection with receiver Laviska Shenault Jr., who recorded 90 receptions, helping earn Jacksonville a 9-8 record and a wild-card berth in the AFC.
And the Jaguars’ story didn’t end there: They went on to win a playoff game, too. More on that later, but not a bad start for the Lawrence-Meyer duo in Jacksonville.
Are the Chicago Bears making a mistake starting the season with Andy Dalton at quarterback? Well, in Simulation No. 13,330, they did.
Chicago started the season ugly, going 1-3 before pulling the plug on Dalton and inserting Fields. Initially, the move didn’t look like it made much of a difference. Fields dropped his debut against the Raiders and then had brutal back-to-back games against the Packers and Buccaneers, taking a combined 11 sacks and guiding the offense to just 10 total points in the pair of losses. Sitting at 1-6, Chicago fans began turning their eyes to 2022. And then the version of Fields that Ohio State fans have enjoyed over the past few years emerged, and the winds shifted at Soldier Field.
Ryan Clark explains why No. 11 pick Justin Fields has what it takes to be the standout player from the 2021 draft class.
First, it was a surprise win at home against the 49ers. Then came a road victory at Heinz Field against the Steelers. Next was an upset over Lamar Jackson and the Ravens, followed by a brushing aside of the Lions. And the Bears weren’t done just yet.
Entering Week 18, the 7-9 Bears headed to Minneapolis to take on the 8-8 Vikings, with both teams still in the running for a wild-card spot. It was receiver Darnell Mooney (two touchdowns) and safety Eddie Jackson (one interception off Vikings QB Kirk Cousins) who stole the show, and in the end, the Bears won 20-16, pulling off an incredible season turnaround that yielded a playoff berth despite a sub-.500 record. But a playoff berth is a playoff berth.
Seahawks fall apart
Coach Pete Carroll and new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron tried it all. They tried to “let Russ cook.” They tried to run the ball. They tried everything in between. It didn’t matter. The Seattle Seahawks couldn’t recapture the magic of their early 2020 offense, while a questionable pass rush and a lacking secondary betrayed them on defense.
In this simulation, Seattle started the year with a loss … then another loss … and then another. By midseason, the team was the shock of the league, staring at an 0-8 record. Six of those losses were by one score, though the Seahawks were pummeled in Week 6 by the Steelers in a 29-point loss. As the season passed its midway point, no other team stood winless.
Seattle lost again in Week 10 to drop to 0-9, ensuring a losing season for the first time since 2011, before finally getting a 26-20 win in Week 11 against Arizona.
In some ways, things only got worse as they got better. The ball started bouncing the Seahawks’ way down the stretch, and Seattle ultimately closed the book on the season at 5-12. But it wasn’t enough to avoid major shakeup on the coaching staff and the roster — and it was enough to lose out on a top-two draft pick.
Panthers earn the No. 1 overall pick
There was a moment, early in the season, when it looked like the Sam Darnold experiment was going to work out and that offensive coordinator Joe Brady had fixed the mess that Adam Gase (Darnold’s former coach in New York) had made. The Carolina Panthers opened the season 4-1, first beating Darnold’s old Jets team in Week 1 and then going on to earn wins against the Saints, Texans and Eagles (with a loss to the Cowboys). But those opponents were not that tough, and the 4-1 record was a mirage.
Coach Matt Rhule’s team would win just one more game the rest of the way (against the Falcons) and end the season at 5-12 and in a dramatic five-way tie for the NFL’s worst record. Carolina needed to lose in its final week to win the strength-of-schedule tiebreaker and earn the No. 1 overall pick — and it did, as the Bucs beat Carolina 33-7.
As it turned out, the league did figure out quarterback Lamar Jackson. Or at least it figured out Jackson when he is without any receiving weapons and his starting running back J.K. Dobbins. The injury woes that plagued the Baltimore Ravens‘ receiving corps in the preseason continued all through the year, as the team scuffled to a 2-5 start and couldn’t recover to save the season.
A 7-10 lost season means GM Eric DeCosta enters the 2022 offseason with the same mission he had entering this past one: Get Jackson more receiving weapons, and keep them healthy.
Epic closing stretch from Jameis Winston pushes Saints into postseason
Through 12 weeks of the season, the New Orleans Saints sat at 5-6 and in third place in the NFC South. There were rumbles of quarterback controversy, as some fans wondered if coach Sean Payton should make the switch to Taysom Hill for the stretch run. Eight NFC teams had a better record than New Orleans at that point.
But Payton stuck by Winston — and it paid off. The interceptions that plagued Winston both in Tampa Bay and during the early half of the season dissipated — though they never left entirely, let’s be real — and Winston’s downfield throwing to a healthy Michael Thomas set the New Orleans offense alight. The result? A six-game winning streak to close the season, including an epic 48-37 victory over Tom Brady and the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay. The Saints would make the playoffs at 11-6 in their first year since Drew Brees retired.
The Buccaneers still won the division, but the Saints went into the wild-card round as a road favorite and won their first matchup, beating the Cowboys.
Late push from Cowboys wins them the NFC East
Through Week 13, it appeared as though Washington would win the NFC East. The Dallas Cowboys scuffled to a 6-6 start, while Washington had a two-game lead at 8-4.
But in Week 14, the tide turned as Dallas beat Washington in Landover, 27-20, then took care of business in East Rutherford a week later with a 17-10 win over the Giants. The Cowboys headed home and beat Washington for the second time in three weeks in a 38-10 rout before finishing off the four-game win streak with a 27-24 win over the Cardinals, sealing the division. Washington, for its part, closed out the year with six straight losses.
But as mentioned above, Dallas’ comeback and playoff berth yielded no postseason success, as it lost 24-16 at home to the Saints.
Marcus Spears and Sam Acho debate who is facing more pressure this year between Mike McCarthy and Dak Prescott.
Colts dominate in the regular season, stumble in postseason
The Carson Wentz rebound experiment? Oh yeah, it happened. And then some. This was Wentz and Frank Reich — who would win Coach of the Year — doing work like it was 2017 again. The Indianapolis Colts ripped off wins in their first six games and won nine of its first 10 overall.
But it wasn’t only Wentz who impressed; the defense shined bright for most of the year, too. Indy held five different opponents — the Titans, Ravens, Jets, Jaguars and Raiders — to single-digit points. Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner was a driving force for the unit, recording a career-high 14 sacks. Indy’s defense allowed just 17.3 points per game during the regular season, No. 1 in the NFL and slightly better than the Buccaneers, Browns and Rams. The Colts ultimately went 13-4 and won the AFC South.
Here’s a quick look at how the final regular-season standings played out for all 32 teams:
But a shocker awaited Indy in the playoffs. The Colts tied for the best record in the NFL but lost out on the No. 1 overall seed via a tiebreaker, meaning they’d host division-rival Jacksonville in the wild-card round as a double-digit favorite. Indianapolis had previously shut out the Jags in Week 10. But Trevor Lawrence gave Indianapolis a preview of what the years to come might look like, downing the Colts 23-17. (The Jaguars would lose the following week to the Bills, 31-14.)
Jimmy Garoppolo hung on to the starting QB job for longer than you might have thought, as the San Francisco 49ers played well for most of the season. That is, until a three-game losing streak to the Vikings, Seahawks and Bengals from Weeks 12 to 14. San Francisco scored just 14 points in each of the latter two games, and coach Kyle Shanahan decided to make a change.
He went with Lance full-time, and the switch paid dividends instantly. The 49ers rattled off four-straight wins to close the season, finished at 12-5 and easily won an NFC West division that turned out to be less competitive than most figured in the preseason. The Niners’ 27.7 points scored per game during the regular season were second to only the Bills’ average (30.9).
Lance narrowly outdueled his draft classmate Justin Fields in the wild-card round, winning 20-17. But the 49ers ran into a juggernaut in Green Bay, the NFC North champs. Packers running back Aaron Jones caught two touchdowns in a 28-23 win for Green Bay.
Browns best Chiefs in postseason
The Cleveland Browns lived up to the hype. They didn’t go all the way, but they delivered a successful season and a knockout punch to the best team in football. Cleveland took advantage of a soft start to their schedule, winning six straight games between Weeks 2 and 7 against the Texans, Bears, Vikings, Chargers, Cardinals and Broncos. The Browns finished 12-5, with QB Baker Mayfield having his best season yet as a pro and finishing fifth in QBR. Plus, a rejuvenated Odell Beckham Jr. led the team in receiving.
It was that Mayfield-OBJ connection that drove a 35-30 barn-burner victory over the Steelers in the wild-card round, but it was the rebuilt defense that earned the surprising 20-12 victory over the Chiefs in the divisional round and punched the Browns’ ticket to the AFC Championship Game. Cornerback Greedy Williams hauled in a big interception off Patrick Mahomes, and edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney forced a crucial fumble. Kansas City, for what it’s worth, went 11-6 and won the AFC West, just like we all expected.
The Browns’ story, ultimately, ended in defeat. Facing the AFC’s No. 1-seeded Bills, the offense crumbled trying to keep up with Josh Allen, as Mayfield threw two picks in a 27-13 loss. Buffalo was off to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1993.
Green Bay knocks out defending champs
It was not a given that Aaron Rodgers‘ 2020 MVP campaign would translate to another stellar season, but it did. The Packers finished 11-6 and ended up exactly where they were last year: facing Tom Brady in the NFC Championship Game. Only this time, Rodgers outdueled Brady and the NFC’s No. 1-ranked Buccaneers.
Rodgers threw four touchdown passes — two to receiver Davante Adams, and two to tight end Robert Tonyan — as Green Bay beat the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay, 39-26. The win put Rodgers back in the Super Bowl with a chance to earn another ring. Here’s a quick snapshot of how the first three rounds of the playoffs played out:
They did it! The Buffalo Bills won their first-ever Super Bowl, capping an incredible season in which they looked like serious contenders from beginning to end. Buffalo finished 13-4 in the regular season, and QB Josh Allen beat out Patrick Mahomes for the league’s MVP award.
Buffalo lost a crazy 45-42 game to the Patriots in Week 13 (Patriots QB Mac Jones‘ future is bright!) and then never lost again. In the Super Bowl, Allen opened the game with a touchdown to receiver Stefon Diggs, and running back Devin Singletary ran for two more scores. Cornerback Tre’Davious White jumped an interception with four minutes left in the fourth quarter to seal the deal. Final score: 27-17.
But the most important stat of all? Buffalo-area grocery stores sold out of every folding table in stock, as fans descended on the Orchard Park parking lot the night of the victory, even in the dead of Western New York winter.
Will the Bills win it all in real life? Well, we can’t guarantee that. According to our 20,000 FPI simulations, they have a 9.4% chance of taking home the Lombardi Trophy, the third-best odds in the NFL behind the Chiefs (19.2%) and Buccaneers (14.1%). But no matter what, Buffalo will always have Simulation No. 13,330.
With less than a week to go until the start of the 2021 NFL season, we’re taking an early look at how the new 17-game schedule will play out, projecting stats leaders and making predictions.
Which quarterback will lead the league in touchdown passes? What about interceptions? Which rookie wide receiver will have the most yards? What about the defender who will rank first in sacks?
We asked ESPN NFL front office insider Mike Tannenbaum to answer 28 questions, making his picks for stats leaders, the biggest surprises and disappointments and more. He’ll also give his Super Bowl LVI pick. Check out the answers below, which also include Mike Clay’s projections (as of Sept. 3) for each stat category:
Which QB will have the most passing yards?
Tannenbaum’s take:Russell Wilson, Seahawks. With new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron — who previously worked under Sean McVay in Los Angeles and Washington — and a true No. 1 wide receiver in DK Metcalf, Wilson is primed to have the best season of what has already been a Hall of Fame career.
Tannenbaum’s take: Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs. With a rebuilt offense line — and Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill still around — Mahomes could put up another MVP season. He had 50 touchdown passes in his tremendous 2018 MVP run.
Tannenbaum’s take:Ryan Fitzpatrick, Washington. Since 2015, Fitzpatrick has thrown 68 interceptions in 68 games, with the Jets, Bucs and Dolphins. As a full-time starter, he will keep both Washington and its opponents in the game.
Tannenbaum’s take:Ryan Tannehill, Titans. With star receiver Julio Jones added to an offense that already includes A.J. Brown and Derrick Henry, this offense will be extraordinarily hard to defend. What do defenses take away? Tannehill has been one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the league the past two seasons, and he could star again.
Tannenbaum’s take:Derrick Henry, Titans. He has done it in 2019 (1,540) and 2020 (2,027), so let’s make this back-to-back-to-back titles. Henry is going to get a heavy workload, and he plays for a defensive-minded coach, which is the perfect dynamic for outstanding production.
Tannenbaum’s take:Derrick Henry, Titans. I have to stick with Henry here. He won’t get much work in the passing game — only 37 catches the past two seasons — but his 682 carries since the start of the 2019 season are 119 more than No. 2 on the list (Dalvin Cook). He’s going to get a lot of opportunities to score.
Tannenbaum’s take:Najee Harris, Steelers. The No. 24 overall pick’s ability allows Pittsburgh to mask the deficiency in its offensive line. I don’t see another rookie who will get his volume of work each week.
Tannenbaum’s take:Lamar Jackson, QB, Ravens. Jackson had 43 in his 2019 MVP season, with 36 through the air and seven more on the ground. With top back J.K. Dobbins is out for the year, look for Jackson to pick up even more of the slack in the running game near the goal line.
Tannenbaum’s take:DeAndre Hopkins, Cardinals. Hopkins ranked No. 2 in catches (115) and yards (1,407) last season, his first in Arizona. He could take another leap in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense with Kyler Murray throwing him the ball.
Tannenbaum’s take:Mike Evans, Buccaneers. Evans had 13 TDs on 109 targets last season even while dealing with hamstring and knee issues, and he’s elite in the red zone. Another season of Tom Brady throwing him passes could see him on top here.
Which TE will be the most productive, factoring in yards, catches and touchdowns?
Tannenbaum’s take:Travis Kelce, Chiefs. There’s a reason Kelce is a consensus top-10 fantasy pick. After putting up 105 catches for 1,416 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, Kelce is in for another tremendous year.
Tannenbaum’s take:Joey Bosa, DE, Chargers. If this team stays healthy for all 17 games, it should have a lot of leads, which will lead to sack opportunities for Bosa. He had 7.5 in 12 games last season.
Which defender will lead the league in total tackles?
Tannenbaum’s take:Bobby Wagner, Seahawks. Wagner finished seventh here last season (138), but he has incredible range and is a true three-down linebacker. He’s one of the most underappreciated defenders in the league.
Which defender will lead the league in interceptions?
Tannenbaum’s take:Jalen Ramsey, CB, Rams. Ramsey is the best corner in the league, even if he doesn’t match the 10 interceptions Xavien Howard had last season. I think he’ll pick off a lot of passes in 2021.
Which rookie defender will make the biggest impact?
Tannenbaum’s take:Kwity Paye, DE, Colts. Paye is already entrenched as a starter and could put up double digit sacks. He has bend off the edge that most elite pass-rushers have.
Eight quick-hitting predictions
Which new head coach will win the most games in Year 1?
Brandon Staley, Chargers. If Justin Herbert continues from his rookie year, the Chargers are a sneaky playoff team. More on that below.
Which team will be the biggest (positive) surprise this season?
Chargers. I predicted them to go 12-5. With an improved offense and a coach who will fix the defense, the Chargers have a great foundation and could surprise teams in the AFC.
Which team will be the biggest disappointment this season, and what will its record be?
Steelers. I predicted the opposite record here — 5-12. Pittsburgh has three new starters along the offensive line and a declining, 39-year-old quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger. This is going to be the first losing season of Mike Tomlin’s head-coaching career.
Field Yates and Stephania Bell discuss how Jameis Winston’s lack of consistency could affect his fantasy value.
Next offseason, when we look back upon the 2021 season, which free-agent signing will be considered the biggest steal?
Jameis Winston, QB, Saints. I think he’ll have a resurgent year in New Orleans, cutting down on his interceptions and showing that he is once again a bonafide NFL starter. And then New Orleans will have to pay him in 2022.
Next offseason, when we look back upon the 2021 season, which free-agent signing will be considered the biggest bust?
Cam Robinson, OT, Jaguars. Robinson was a franchise tag, but he’s a marginal starter at best. Jacksonville needs to revamp its offensive line to give Trevor Lawrence a chance to be a star.
LANDOVER, Md. — Baltimore Ravens starting running back J.K. Dobbins was ruled out for the rest of the preseason finale after suffering a left knee injury on the opening drive Saturday night.
Dobbins lay on the ground clutching his left knee after being tackled on a screen pass on the ninth play of the game. He was sandwiched on the play, and his left knee took a direct hit from the shoulder of Washington cornerback Jimmy Moreland.
Dobbins needed help to get to the sideline and had his arms draped on the shoulders of trainers because he couldn’t put any weight on his left leg. He was soon carted off to the locker room.
A second-round pick from a year ago, Dobbins was entering his first season as Baltimore’s featured back. Last season, Dobbins was pivotal in the Ravens’ late-season push to reach the playoffs, gaining 425 yards (eighth most in the NFL) and scoring six touchdowns in the final five regular-season games.
Last year, Dobbins averaged 6.0 yards per carry, the second-highest by a rookie running back over the past 20 seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Only the Saints’ Alvin Kamara (6.1) had a higher average as a rookie.
Baltimore’s Gus Edwards is among the top backup running backs in the NFL. He was signed to a two-year, $10 million extension this offseason after being one of two players in NFL history to produce at least 700 yards rushing and average 5-plus yards per carry in the first three seasons of a career, according to research by the Elias Sports Bureau. The other is two-time Pro Bowl back Nick Chubb of the Cleveland Browns.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It was Aug. 11, 2016, and the Baltimore Ravens captured their first of 19 straight preseason wins with a 22-19 victory over the Carolina Panthers. And the most memorable moment had nothing to do with football.
Late in the fourth quarter, the Ravens players and fans celebrated after watching hometown hero Michael Phelps win his 22nd Olympic gold medal on the M&T Bank Stadium video board. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton raised both arms in the air, and Ravens safety Eric Weddle talked about how he would share this story with his children 20 years later.
“I remember [Phelps] winning, and that’s maybe the loudest applause of the night,” Ravens kicker Justin Tucker said this week.
Like Phelps, the Ravens have dominated the summer games, winning every time in the preseason over the last six years. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Ravens’ preseason streak is the longest in at least 26 years, but Elias’ preseason records don’t go beyond 1995.
Long-time NFL reporter Rick Gosselin reported the Packers won 19 consecutive exhibition games 59 years ago. With a victory at Washington on Saturday, Baltimore can surpass Vince Lombardi’s teams for the unofficial mark of the most consecutive wins in the preseason.
The Ravens have heard others chide them for embracing a streak that isn’t recognized by the NFL record books and has occurred during a part of the league calendar where games technically don’t count. But, for players and team officials, this August dynasty represents a culture of winning, a track record for finding talent and a system for developing players.
How meaningful is this to the Ravens? Asked about the streak, quarterback Lamar Jackson crossed fingers on both hands and told the reporter to not jinx it.
“We want to win,” said Jackson, who was a freshman at Louisville the last time Baltimore lost a preseason game. “We don’t care what it is; we want to win. This is a very competitive team.”
It’s well-documented that Baltimore has the league’s best record (30-7) since Jackson took over as the starting quarterback midway through the 2018 season. What many don’t know is the Ravens try to one-up each other on the practice field.
There is a scoreboard that keeps track of whether the offense or defense wins the practice. Jackson and linebacker-safety Anthony Levine Jr. are always going at it with trash talk.
“Winning is winning,” said Levine, the third-longest tenured player on the Ravens. “If the score is being kept, we want to win. That’s the Raven way. That’s how we teach it.”
The Ravens have dominated teams during this torrid preseason stretch, winning by an average margin of 11.7 points. But Baltimore isn’t trying to win at all costs.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh traditionally doesn’t play his starters much in the preseason, especially the quarterbacks. During the streak, Jackson and Joe Flacco have only thrown 20% of the Ravens’ passes. Ryan Mallett, Josh Woodrum, Robert Griffin III and Trace McSorley have delivered the most touchdown strikes.
The real stars of the preseason have been the third-day draft prospects (and undrafted ones) who later became coveted players. In 2016, outside linebacker Matthew Judon led Baltimore in tackles and sacks as a rookie, outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith recorded a sack and Darren Waller produced 84 yards receiving as a wide receiver. In the finale that year, nose tackle Michael Pierce won one of the final spots on the roster with a strip-sack that he recovered for a touchdown.
Those four players — Judon, Smith, Waller and Pierce — have since totaled five Pro Bowls and received $80.6 million in guaranteed money on their second contracts.
“It’s something we’re proud of,” Tucker said. “It’s not Joe Flacco, Steve Smith and Terrell Suggs and all the other big-name starters that are a part of that. It’s everybody who has been on that 90-man roster for the Baltimore Ravens since 2016. That’s a lot of people who go into those wins.”
In 2017, Woodrum hit Tim White for a 33-yard touchdown against Washington. Woodrum played for the Alliance of American Football’s Salt Lake Stallions a year later before joining Washington, where he tore a pectoral muscle and never suited up again.
In 2018, running back De’Lance Turner broke free for a 65-yard touchdown in Miami. Turner went on to have 10 career rushing yards in 12 games for the Ravens and Dolphins.
This year, Huntley capped a fourth-quarter comeback with a 7-yard touchdown run against the New Orleans Saints with 6:35 remaining.
The Ravens’ most dramatic play of the preseason came in 2016 after the Indianapolis Colts jumped ahead 18-17 with 3:54 left in the game. Then, Levine intercepted the two-point conversion and returned it 95 yards for the winning score.
As soon as Levine reached the Lucas Oil Stadium end zone, he twice held up two fingers and then his entire hand to the crowd. It signified “25,” the jersey number of cornerback Tray Walker, who died five months earlier of injuries sustained in a motorbike accident.
Don’t tell Levine that memories like these in the preseason are meaningless.
“Making that play and honoring him, I will say that’s probably one of my top plays of all time,” Levine said.
Baltimore has become a city of streaks lately. The Orioles have lost 19 in a row, which gives Baltimore sports fans even more reason to rally around the Ravens’ remarkable preseason perfection.
In the NFL, the next longest current winning streak in the preseason belongs to the Buffalo Bills, who have won seven in a row. In order to surpass the Ravens’ current mark, Buffalo would have to win every preseason game through 2025.
But Harbaugh isn’t worried about preseason records. The priority at this time of the season is to evaluate players.
“It’s not even a conversation,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve never approached any of these games any differently than we ever have.
“What’s the best way to say it? It means something to the people that over the years have been a part of it. There are other aspects of it that are valuable, but we’ll approach it the same way we always do and let the chips fly.”
Preseason is a time for looking ahead, but as we unleash the latest version of the 2021 NFL Power Rankings, we’re looking way ahead. That means looking into the future to see whose status could be in jeopardy if they don’t step it up this season. Whether it’s judging who might be looking for a new team next year, who might be in danger of a demotion or who might lose their NFL employment for good, we’re breaking out the hot seat.
We’re not just talking about players, though there are plenty who qualify to be on the hot seat — especially at quarterback. (There are 11 QBs listed below, including a certain defending league MVP.) The hot seat is an across-the-board phenomenon that involves coaches (young and old) who need to win to keep their jobs and general managers who need to see some of their draft picks start to pan out so they can make more in the future.
How we rank: Our power panel — a group of more than 80 writers, editors and TV personalities — evaluates how teams stack up throughout the season.
The Chiefs showed a lot of faith in the third-year player, declining to bring in a veteran receiver or draft one in an early round to replace Sammy Watkins. Hardman is first in line to replace Watkins and needs to justify that faith. If he doesn’t respond with a consistent season, one without all the highs and lows of the past two seasons, look for the Chiefs to acquire a receiver next year to join Tyreek Hill as a regular. — Adam Teicher
The writing was already on the wall when the Bucs selected Kyle Trask in the second round of the 2021 NFL draft, but Griffin had still maintained his spot as the third-best quarterback on the team in terms of rep hierarchy. However, Griffin threw two interceptions in the Bucs’ preseason opener against the Bengals. Others who have been in Bruce Arians’ doghouse include running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn and wide receiver Tyler Johnson, but both have responded with strong performances since getting called out. — Jenna Laine
The Bills are undeniably high on Knox after a pedestrian 2020 season, declining to make major moves for a starting tight end outside of signing Jacob Hollister. But GM Brandon Beane said this offseason that the team needs more out of its tight ends, and Knox, the leader of the bunch, has the talent to provide it. He has struggled with drops over the past two seasons but worked with a “hand-eye” trainer this offseason to alleviate the issue. — Marcel Louis-Jacques
As absurd as it might seem on the surface, yes, the reigning NFL MVP is on the hot seat. He put himself there — perhaps unwittingly — with the way he approached this offseason and essentially tried to leverage control over his future. If he wants this to be his last dance with the Packers, then it would help his legacy to go out a winner. Anything short of a Super Bowl might tarnish his legacy, at least among some Packers loyalists. — Rob Demovsky
When the Rams opened training camp, Allen appeared to be second in a competition with Austin Corbett to earn the starting job at center. But midway through camp, coach Sean McVay bumped Allen to starter, and now the fourth-year pro must prove he can excel on a team that has Super Bowl aspirations. A fourth-round pick in 2018, Allen is entering the final season of his rookie contract and does not have an extension in place. He started at center in 2019 and had uneven results in nine games before suffering a season-ending knee injury, and he did not play in 2020. — Lindsey Thiry
Bozeman is the new starter at center, which was the hottest seat on the team last year. The Ravens struggled with two centers last season — Matt Skura and Patrick Mekari — with poor snaps to Lamar Jackson in the pistol formation. Now Bozeman tries to stabilize that position in a contract year. After starting the past two years at left guard, Bozeman feels center is his natural position because he played there at Alabama. How well Bozeman plays this season will likely determine his future in Baltimore. — Jamison Hensley
Field Yates gives his analysis of Baltimore TE Mark Andrews for fantasy.
The Browns proved last season they can move the ball — and win — without OBJ. Now the pressure is on Beckham to prove he can elevate Cleveland’s ceiling — and its offense — to another level. Beckham has struggled to find a chemistry with QB Baker Mayfield since arriving two years ago. He has been limited by injuries as well, including 2020’s season-ending ACL tear. But OBJ appears healthy again. And all eyes will be watching to see if the three-time Pro Bowler can make his mark in what figures to be a make-or-break season for his Cleveland tenure. — Jake Trotter
It’s now or never for Penny in Seattle as the No. 27 overall pick in 2018 enters the last year of his rookie deal. The Seahawks declined to pick up his fifth-year option this spring because of his underwhelming production in three injury-plagued seasons. While the talk entering camp was about how fit Penny looked and the one-two punch he could form with Chris Carson, Penny has since missed time with a thigh injury. Carson just signed a two-year deal, but his own injury history means Penny could have chances to showcase himself to potential suitors. He’ll have to stay healthy to capitalize on those opportunities. — Brady Henderson
The Titans expected last season to be a breakout year for Landry after he finished with nine sacks in 2019. Landry worked to add a complementary move to his speed rush, but it didn’t get results and his production decreased to 5.5 sacks. New outside linebackers coach Ryan Crow isn’t allowing Landry to use his patented speed rush in camp, which is challenging him to develop another way to get to the QB. This is a contract year for Landry, so he needs to prove himself worthy of an extension. — Turron Davenport
Realistically, this decision was made once the Niners traded up to No. 3 and drafted QB Trey Lance. But Garoppolo is still clinging to his starting job, and the longer he does that — and stays healthy — the better it will bode for his future. It’s unlikely he could do enough to stay beyond this year, but either way, this is a huge season from a career standpoint. Garoppolo is under contract for just one more season after this, but a big year would undoubtedly increase his trade value and could put him in position to land another sizable contract as a starter somewhere else. — Nick Wagoner
Signed in free agency a year ago, Ebron was brought in to be a red zone threat. But he struggled with drops last season, he wasn’t a significant help as a blocker and his production — five touchdowns and 558 yards — didn’t meet expectations. The Steelers took Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth in the second round, and he has been a standout in camp as a receiver and a blocker. Ebron has been sidelined with elbow soreness, giving Freiermuth more first-team reps. The rookie could not only push Ebron, an unrestricted free agent after this season, for a starting job but also could bump him off the roster. — Brooke Pryor
Smith led the Cowboys in tackles the past two seasons but didn’t make many impactful plays. His $7.2 million base salary is guaranteed for this season, but his playing time is not. The Cowboys know they need to get 2021 No. 12 overall pick Micah Parsons on the field a ton. Leighton Vander Esch has had a productive training camp and is back at his preferred weakside spot. Free-agent pickup Keanu Neal has performed well, too. All of it could leave Smith out in the cold. If Smith does not regain his form of a few seasons ago, this could be his last year with the Cowboys. — Todd Archer
Ryan Clark says that the pressure is on Ezekiel Elliott to produce for the Cowboys this season.
Post-draft ranking: 11
Person on the hot seat: Coach Kliff Kingsbury
This is a make-or-break season for Kingsbury. Arizona has made steady improvement the past two seasons, going from three wins to five in 2019 — Kingsbury’s first season — and from five to eight last season. But Arizona didn’t make the playoffs last season for the fifth straight year, going into a tailspin after starting 5-2, thanks in part to an injury to quarterback Kyler Murray. If Arizona doesn’t make the playoffs in 2021 for any reason besides major injuries, it is hard to think that Kingsbury will be the coach in 2022. — Josh Weinfuss
Blankenship’s seat has been warm since he missed a field goal in a three-point playoff loss to Buffalo to cap off a rookie season in which he lacked consistency — five missed field goals and two missed extra points. The Colts made it clear that Blankenship didn’t have the job locked up when they signed veteran Eddy Pineiro to compete with him during the offseason. — Mike Wells
Jackson is the Chargers’ No. 4 running back at the moment, and few see the team keeping all four. He has been productive when healthy in his first three seasons but finds himself fighting for time with starter Austin Ekeler, second-year man Joshua Kelley and rookie Larry Rountree III. Jackson’s future with the Chargers looks uncertain, and he could be the victim of a numbers game. — Shelley Smith
This is low-hanging fruit, sure, but Tagovailoa is absolutely under pressure to perform in his second NFL season. The team around him is built for success, and although Miami’s offensive line still has room for improvement, the Dolphins expect to see a more confident, aggressive quarterback in 2021. He gets somewhat of a pass for last season, coming off a debilitating hip injury and entering the league in a pandemic-ravaged offseason. But in a year when the Dolphins should expect to make the playoffs, Tagovailoa must rise to the occasion. — Marcel Louis-Jacques
Since the Patriots selected Mac Jones No. 15 overall, it has been more a matter of when rather than if Jones becomes the starting QB. If Newton can turn a full offseason in the Patriots’ system into better on-field results during the regular season, he could hold off the passing of the torch until 2022. The pressure is on. — Mike Reiss
Post-draft ranking: 13
People on the hot seat: GM Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer
Both Spielman and Zimmer are in the first year of three-year contract extensions, but that job security could wane if the Vikings don’t make the playoffs. The team has not missed the postseason in back-to-back years since Zimmer arrived in 2014, and the head coach’s influence was apparent with the defensive additions the team made this offseason. Right now, the outlook for the 2021 draft class isn’t great. Of the 11 players Spielman drafted, only one — fourth-round running back/kickoff returner Kene Nwangwu — looks to make a considerable contribution early on. That doesn’t bode well for Spielman, who needs linemen Christian Darrisaw (first round) and Wyatt Davis (third round) to pan out. — Courtney Cronin
Both QBs have a great opportunity to inherit a playoff offense in the wake of Drew Brees’ retirement. And both have shown enough growth through three weeks of training camp to prove they deserve a legitimate shot at an NFL starting gig. But the runner-up in this battle will face a very uncertain future. Both are scheduled to be free agents after this season, and it’s hard to imagine either one of them will find an opportunity this good on the open market next year. — Mike Triplett
Field Yates and Matthew Berry examine Taysom Hill’s propensity to run the ball and how it could affect Alvin Kamara.
He’s the clear starter ahead of Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen, but Fitzpatrick — with his ninth franchise — remains a quarterback with much to prove. Washington harbors playoff aspirations, and he has never led a team to the postseason in 16 seasons. Fitzpatrick is on a one-year contract, so if it doesn’t work out, he’ll be gone — but if it does, Washington can re-sign him, draft a quarterback to groom and be set for 2022 and beyond. Fitzpatrick has impressed new teammates with his knowledge and communication skills, and the receivers like that he’ll be aggressive. Turnovers have been his nemesis, but if he limits them, then he’ll jump off the hot seat — until next year. — John Keim
Post-draft ranking: 22
Person on the hot seat: GM Mike Mayock
If it’s true that draft classes cannot be fairly judged for three years, the same should be said for first-time general managers who used to be on TV as a draft expert, yes? Yes. Mayock may not have final say on personnel decisions — that’s coach Jon Gruden’s department — but his fingerprints are all over the past three draft classes, which have yielded more head-scratching picks at their draft spots (Clelin Ferrell, Johnathan Abram, Henry Ruggs III, Damon Arnette, Lynn Bowden Jr., Alex Leatherwood) than bona fide Pro Bowlers (Josh Jacobs). Fair or not, the spotlight is on Mayock in his third season as Raiders GM. — Paul Gutierrez
The Bears badly need Quinn to have an impactful year rushing the passer opposite Khalil Mack. Quinn’s first season in Chicago was forgettable. After signing a big free-agent deal that included $30 million in guarantees, the veteran had just two sacks. The Bears want to see a return on their investment from Quinn. So far, not so good. Quinn has been sidelined with back issues for a good portion of training camp. — Jeff Dickerson
This is a transitional year for everyone in the organization. Head coach Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot are in their first seasons and will have time to construct the team in their images. The biggest question is what to do at quarterback. If Ryan leads the Falcons to success, he is probably around until the end of his contract in 2023. But if things falter, Smith and Fontenot might elect to start anew. It’s a tricky line to walk, but the 2021 season could dictate the path of the Falcons for the next four to six seasons. — Michael Rothstein
Post-draft ranking: 23
Person on the hot seat: GM Dave Gettleman
Fifteen wins in three seasons since he took over says it all. The Giants need to win some games in order for Gettleman to feel safe. A fourth straight losing year would not reflect well on the 70-year-old general manager, especially if the offensive line and/or quarterback were among the primary reasons for the team’s failure. Gettleman’s legacy ultimately rests on the success of Daniel Jones and an O-line that was supposed to be his top priority when he took the job four years ago. Both remain massive question marks for this organization. — Jordan Raanan
The hot seat could have belonged to coach Matt Rhule, who put his faith in Darnold after the quarterback’s three failed seasons with the Jets when he could have taken Justin Fields or Mac Jones with the eighth pick. The belief was that Darnold and corner Jaycee Horn — the Panthers’ pick at No. 8 — offered more value. Fortunately for Rhule, he’s in the second season of a seven-year deal, so he isn’t likely to be fired if Darnold turns out to be mistake. But if Darnold fails in 2021, Carolina will be in the quarterback market again — even though it picked up Darnold’s fifth-year option. — David Newton
Post-draft ranking: 26
Person on the hot seat: Coach Vic Fangio
The third-year coach is respected throughout the league, and defensive coordinators routinely say how much they use what he does in certain matchup situations. His players respect him, but Fangio needs wins. He’s 0-for-7 in September with the Broncos, and the team has not been able to recover from those starts. Yes, 2020 cratered with a long list of injuries to some of the team’s best players, and the Broncos famously lost all their quarterbacks for a game last season due to COVID-19 protocols, but the roster has been upgraded. With first-year general manager George Paton in firm control, Fangio has to win now. — Jeff Legwold
This isn’t exactly fair to the 23-year-old Hurts, who is entering his second season and has shown promise as a player and leader during his brief time as the front man in Philadelphia. But the Eagles are in a transition period and have upward of three first-round picks in the 2022 NFL draft, assets they can use to acquire their QB of the future if they’re not sold on Hurts. In other words, he’s already facing a prove-it year. — Tim McManus
Matthew Berry and Field Yates examine the final four games of the rookie seasons for Lamar Jackson and Jalen Hurts.
Post-draft ranking: 29
Person on the hot seat: Coach Zac Taylor
All the pressure is on Taylor, who has just six wins in his first two seasons. He entered at the bottom of the rebuilding project, but now the roster has been retooled through the draft and an unprecedented spending spree for the franchise. That leaves it up to Taylor to make the most of those resources, as the front office has acknowledged the urgency needed to find more wins. It’s time for the Bengals to see if the rebuild is finally complete. — Ben Baby
Second-round pick Walker Little has had a very good training camp, and the Jaguars have been training him at both tackle spots, though he has mainly been working at left tackle. Robinson and Taylor struggled last year, combining to give up 27 sacks (including a league-high 18 by Taylor), per ESPN Stats & Information. The Jaguars opted to franchise Robinson and not pursue a veteran in free agency, but Little is pushing him. Right now, the plan is for Little to be the swing tackle, but if either Robinson or Taylor falters, Little could move quickly into the starting lineup. — Michael DiRocco
The fourth-year tight end has regressed since showing promise as a rookie in 2018. He’s off to a slow start in his third offensive system in four years, raising questions about his role. In the preseason opener, he got only seven reps with the starters, compared with 15 for fellow tight end Tyler Kroft. Herndon would be in serious jeopardy if the Jets were stacked at tight end, but that is hardly the case. Still, with a new coaching staff, anything is possible. — Rich Cimini
The 2021 season will be huge for Perriman, who agreed to a one-year deal in the offseason with the same franchise for which his father, Brett, starred in the 1990s. There is a big opportunity for Breshad, but he must seize the moment as a former first-round pick. He isn’t necessarily in jeopardy of not making the team, but his long-term future could be at stake depending on how this year pans out. — Eric Woodyard
Johnson’s spot on the Texans’ roster is safe for this season, but his future in the NFL likely hinges on having a productive year. The Texans clearly want Johnson on the team in 2021, as they doubled his guaranteed money when they restructured his contract this offseason, but going into the season, they don’t expect him to play nearly as much as he did in 2020. Johnson, who is making $4.7 million in 2021, is a free agent after this season. — Sarah Barshop