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Saints complete trade for CB Roby, sources say

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The New Orleans Saints have finalized their trade for cornerback Bradley Roby, sending a 2022 third-round draft pick and a 2023 conditional pick to the Houston Texans, sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

In order to facilitate a trade to the Saints, the Texans converted $7.6 million of Roby’s base salary into a signing bonus, a source told ESPN’s Field Yates. When Roby officially gets traded to New Orleans, his base salary for 2021 is now $1,862,645, which fits into the Saints’ salary-cap space.

Roby was a first-round draft pick of the Denver Broncos in 2014. He spent the past two years in Houston and has started 49 career games with 10 interceptions.

The 29-year-old Roby is entering the second year of a three-year, $31.5 million extension that he signed with the Texans last year. He will miss the first game of the season, however, as part of a six-game suspension that began in 2020 for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.

The Saints have identified cornerback as a “must-fill” position ever since they released former starter Janoris Jenkins in March as part of a massive salary-cap purge and then lost one potential starting contender, Patrick Robinson, to a surprise retirement early in training camp. They even attempted to trade up nearly 20 spots in the NFL draft to land top prospects Jaycee Horn or Pat Surtain II.

New Orleans signed veteran Desmond Trufant on Monday to compete with Ken Crawley and rookie Paulson Adebo for the No. 2 starting cornerback job across from Pro Bowler Marshon Lattimore. However, Roby now becomes the front-runner to lock down that job following his suspension.

ESPN’s Mike Triplett contributed to this report.

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Source: Saints working on trade for Texans’ Roby

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The New Orleans Saints are finally making the splash move at cornerback that they have been hinting at all offseason, as they are in the process of trading for Houston Texans veteran Bradley Roby, a source confirmed to ESPN.

Terms of the deal, which was first reported by NFL Network, have not been disclosed.

Roby is a former first-round draft pick of the Denver Broncos who spent the past two years in Houston and has started 49 career games with 10 interceptions.

The 29-year-old Roby is due to make $10 million in salary and bonuses this season in the second year of a three-year, $31.5 million extension that he signed with the Texans last year. He will miss the first game of the season, however, as part of a six-game suspension that began in 2020 for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.

The Saints have identified cornerback as a “must-fill” position ever since they released former starter Janoris Jenkins in March as part of a massive salary-cap purge and then lost one potential starting contender, Patrick Robinson, to a surprise retirement early in training camp. They even attempted to trade up nearly 20 spots in the NFL draft to land top prospects Jaycee Horn or Pat Surtain II.

New Orleans signed experienced veteran Desmond Trufant on Monday to compete with Ken Crawley and rookie Paulson Adebo for the No. 2 starting cornerback job across from Pro Bowler Marshon Lattimore. However, Roby now becomes the front-runner to lock down that job following his suspension.

Roby, listed at 5-foot-11, 194 pounds, began his career in a rotation with the Broncos for four seasons before becoming a full-time starter in 2018. He signed a one-year, $10 million contract with the Texans in 2019 that was described as a “prove-it” deal before re-signing with them in 2020.

In 99 career games, Roby has 10 interceptions, 75 passes defensed, eight forced fumbles, four sacks and 311 tackles.

Roby now joins Lattimore, safety Malcolm Jenkins, wide receiver Michael Thomas and others in the Ohio State-to-New Orleans pipeline that has been prominent over the past decade.

As for Houston, Roby was the Texans’ clear No. 1 cornerback entering the season, despite the suspension. After trading Roby, the Texans have six cornerbacks on their roster: Desmond King, Terrance Mitchell, Vernon Hargreaves, Tremon Smith, Tavierre Thomas and the newly acquired Jimmy Moreland.

ESPN’s Sarah Barshop contributed to this report.

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Your one-stop shop to the NFL season: Previews and predictions for all 32 teams

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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.

We have breakout players: Expect to see great things from Green Bay Packers running back AJ Dillon this year.

We also have depth charts, schedules and rosters. This is what you need to know for the season, which concludes in February at Super Bowl LVI in Inglewood, California.

The ESPN Football Power Index (FPI) ranked every team from 1-32 based on how it projects the season to play out. Click the links below to read more about each team.

Jump to a team:
ARI | ATL | BAL | BUF | CAR | CHI | CIN
CLE | DAL | DEN | DET | GB | HOU | IND
JAX | KC | LAC | LAR | LV | MIA | MIN
NE | NO | NYG | NYJ | PHI | PIT | SF
SEA | TB | TEN | WSH

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.

Breakout candidate: Willie Gay, LB

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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


The Bucs will repeat as Super Bowl champions if …

… 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.

Breakout candidate: Giovani Bernard, RB

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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


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.

Breakout candidate: AJ Epenesa, DE

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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


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.

Breakout candidate: Gus Edwards, RB

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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


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.

Breakout candidate: AJ Dillon, RB

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.

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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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


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.

Breakout candidate: Donovan Peoples-Jones, WR

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.

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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

Full schedule | Roster| Depth chart


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.

Breakout candidate: Van Jefferson, WR

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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


Trey Lance is the starting quarterback by Week …

… 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.

Breakout candidate: Brandon Aiyuk, WR

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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


QB Russell Wilson will finish the season happy to be a Seahawk if …

… 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.

Breakout candidate: Jordyn Brooks, LB

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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


The Patriots will win the AFC East if …

… 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.

Breakout candidate: Josh Uche, OLB

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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


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.

Breakout candidate: Mike Gesicki, TE

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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


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.

Breakout candidate: Amani Hooker, S

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.

Bold prediction: WRs A.J. Brown and Julio Jones will each reach 1,000 receiving yards and RB Derrick Henry will rush for more than 1,500 yards.

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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


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.

Breakout Candidate: Marquez Callaway, WR

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.

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Stephania Bell expects Michael Thomas to be available for the Saints in Week 7.

Bold prediction: DLs Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport will get at least 10 sacks each.

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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


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.

Breakout candidate: CeeDee Lamb, WR

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.

Bold prediction: RB Ezekiel Elliott will lead the NFL in rushing.

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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


Coach Mike Zimmer keeps his job if the Vikings …

… 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.

Breakout candidate: Tyler Conklin, TE

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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


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.

Breakout candidate: Michael Pittman Jr, WR

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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


QB Ben Roethlisberger will return to his 2018 form if …

… 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.

Breakout candidate: Pat Freiermuth, TE

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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


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.

Breakout candidate: Jerry Tillery, DT

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.

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1:37

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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


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.

Breakout candidate: Jerry Jeudy, WR

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.

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2:07

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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


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.

Breakout candidate: Montez Sweat, DE

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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


QB Kyler Murray will be a serious MVP candidate if …

… 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

Breakout candidate: Rondale Moore, WR

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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


Justin Fields will be the starting quarterback by Week …

… 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.

Breakout candidate: Darnell Mooney, WR

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.

Bold prediction: RB David Montgomery will rush for 1,400 yards.

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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


The Panthers will make the playoffs with QB Sam Darnold if …

… LT Cameron Erving holds up and the defense plays to a top-15 level. Protection by Erving is key for Darnold, so he can take advantage of big-time weapons such as RB Christian McCaffrey and WRs DJ Moore, Robby Anderson and Terrace Marshall Jr. The defense also needs to play at a high level so there’s less pressure on Darnold to outscore opponents.

Breakout candidate: Brian Burns, DE/OLB

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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


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.

Breakout candidate: A.J. Terrell, CB

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.

Bold prediction: Dante Fowler Jr. will have double-digit sacks.

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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


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.

Breakout candidate: Henry Ruggs III, WR

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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


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.

Breakout candidate: Xavier McKinney, S

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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


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.

Breakout candidate: Tee Higgins, WR

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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


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.

Breakout candidate: Quez Watkins, WR

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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


QB Trevor Lawrence will have a successful rookie season if …

… 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.

Breakout candidate: DaVon Hamilton, NT

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.

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2:08

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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


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.

Breakout candidate: Elijah Moore, WR

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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


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.

Breakout candidate: Jeff Okudah, CB

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.

Bold prediction: TE T.J. Hockenson will have 1,000 receiving yards.

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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


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.

Breakout candidate: Charles Omenihu, DL

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

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart

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Texans officially name veteran Taylor starting QB

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Tyrod Taylor was officially named the Houston Texans‘ starting quarterback for Sunday’s Week 1 matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

It was assumed Taylor would get the start but coach David Culley didn’t make the announcement until Monday.

Rookie Davis Mills will be Taylor’s backup.

Deshaun Watson is also on the 53-man roster but is not expected to play for the Texans in 2021 and will likely be a healthy scratch on game days. Watson, who requested a trade in the offseason, faces 22 active civil lawsuits with allegations of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior, but has not been restricted from taking part in team activities by the NFL.

Taylor, 32, signed a one-year contract with the Texans in the offseason. The 10-year-veteran has made 47 starts in his career. He has passed for 9,770 yards with 54 touchdowns and 20 interceptions and rushed for 1,850 yards and 16 touchdowns in 72 games overall.

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Watson included on Texans’ initial 53-man roster

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HOUSTON — The Texans have cut their active roster down to 53 players and quarterback Deshaun Watson remains on it.

Watson, who is not expected to play for the Texans in 2021, will likely be a healthy scratch on gamedays if he stays on Houston’s 53-man roster. The Texans are prepared to keep Watson on its roster for the rest of the season, a source told ESPN.

Watson currently faces 22 active civil lawsuits with allegations of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior, but has not been restricted from taking part in team activities by the NFL. The quarterback also requested a trade in January because he was not happy with the direction of the franchise and the process used to hire general manager Nick Caserio.

To avoid being fined $50,000 a day during training camp, Watson reported to training camp in July. He was in and out of practice during August, sometimes working out and stretching on one of the side fields with a trainer. Head coach David Culley said Watson is not injured and doing “what we ask him to do” while he’s at the team facility.

Watson did not travel to either of the Texans’ preseason games and was not on the sideline for the preseason finale at home.

As long as Watson is on the roster, the Texans will pay his $10.5 million salary in 2021.

The Texans also have quarterbacks Tyrod Taylor and rookie Davis Mills on their roster.

“I’ve said from Day 1 that Deshaun is a part of this team and we’ll continue to handle business accordingly,” Taylor said recently. “Like I said, he’s a friend of mine. He’s a teammate of mine. And we’re all in it to put our best foot forward and to do whatever it takes to help the team win. And that shows and that comes in different roles on this team and we’ll all do our part to make sure that everyone’s on board.”

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Preseason NFL Power Rankings: 1-32 poll, plus who’s on the hot seat for every team

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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.

Jump to:
ARI | ATL | BAL | BUF | CAR | CHI | CIN
CLE | DAL | DEN | DET | GB | HOU | IND
JAX | KC | LV | LAC | LAR | MIA | MIN
NE | NO | NYG | NYJ | PHI | PIT | SF
SEA | TB | TEN | WSH

Post-draft ranking: 1

Person on the hot seat: WR Mecole Hardman

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


Post-draft ranking: 2

Person on the hot seat: QB Ryan Griffin

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


Post-draft ranking: 3

Person on the hot seat: TE Dawson Knox

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


Post-draft ranking: 5

Person on the hot seat: QB Aaron Rodgers

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


Post-draft ranking: 4

Person on the hot seat: C Brian Allen

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


Post-draft ranking: 6

Person on the hot seat: C Bradley Bozeman

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

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Field Yates gives his analysis of Baltimore TE Mark Andrews for fantasy.


Post-draft ranking: 7

Person on the hot seat: WR Odell Beckham Jr.

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


Post-draft ranking: 8

Person on the hot seat: RB Rashaad Penny

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


Post-draft ranking: 10

Person on the hot seat: OLB Harold Landry III

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


Post-draft ranking: 9

Person on the hot seat: QB Jimmy Garoppolo

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


Post-draft ranking: 15

Person on the hot seat: TE Eric Ebron

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


Post-draft ranking: 16

Person on the hot seat: LB Jaylon Smith

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

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1:19

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


Post-draft ranking: 12

Person on the hot seat: K Rodrigo Blankenship

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


Post-draft ranking: 17

Person on the hot seat: RB Justin Jackson

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


Post-draft ranking: 14

Person on the hot seat: QB Tua Tagovailoa

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


Post-draft ranking: 19

Person on the hot seat: QB Cam Newton

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


Post-draft ranking: 18

People on the hot seat: QBs Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill

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

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1:32

Field Yates and Matthew Berry examine Taysom Hill’s propensity to run the ball and how it could affect Alvin Kamara.


Post-draft ranking: 20

Person on the hot seat: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick

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


Post-draft ranking: 24

Person on the hot seat: OLB Robert Quinn

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


Post-draft ranking: 21

Person on the hot seat: QB Matt Ryan

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


Post-draft ranking: 25

Person on the hot seat: QB Sam Darnold

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


Post-draft ranking: 27

Person on the hot seat: QB Jalen Hurts

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

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1:01

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


Post-draft ranking: 30

People on the hot seat: OTs Cam Robinson and Jawaan Taylor

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


Post-draft ranking: 28

Person on the hot seat: TE Chris Herndon

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


Post-draft ranking: 31

Person on the hot seat: WR Breshad Perriman

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


Post-draft ranking: 32

Person on the hot seat: RB David Johnson

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

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Introducing the ESPN NFL QB Council: Ranking the top 10 quarterbacks in 12 different skills

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Today’s NFL quarterbacks do so many different things extremely well, and picking out the best of the best is no easy task. Every Sunday, we are treated to incredible highlight-reel plays across the league, from 60-yard deep balls to huge gains on designed rushes to inconceivable pinpoint throws outside the pocket. To get a sense of how these talented passers stack up right now, we broke their games down by different skills.

To do so, we asked NFL analysts — Matt Bowen, Tim Hasselbeck, Mina Kimes, Booger McFarland, Louis Riddick, Mike Tannenbaum, Seth Walder, Field Yates, Pro Football Focus‘ Sam Monson and Football Outsiders‘ team of Aaron Schatz and Derrik Klassen — to rank their personal top 10 NFL quarterbacks entering the 2021 season in 12 distinct categories, from arm strength to field vision. We then combined those lists with a point-based system to generate a final ranking in each area, all 12 of which are below.

Our analysts then reacted to each list, explaining why the signal-callers at or near the top of each group belong there and what surprised them most about the final top 10s. We also gave a big stat to know for each category and spun it forward with a rising QB to watch for each trait. Finally, we pointed out snubs who probably should have cracked each ranking.

Let’s start with the best downfield throwers in the NFL, but you can also jump to each category to see how the top quarterbacks align in the other 11 skills.

Jump to:
Arm strength | Accuracy | Touch
Mechanics | Field vision | Decision-making
Compete level | Toughness | In the pocket
Scrambling | Rushing | Second-reaction

Arm strength

This category is all about the biggest arms in the NFL. Pass velocity and the amount of zip a QB can put on a pass were factors in the ranking, as was the ability to hit the deep ball. Who are the best quarterbacks throwing the ball vertically and driving it into windows with authority?

1. Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
2. Josh Allen, Bills
3. Aaron Rodgers, Packers
4. Matthew Stafford, Rams
5. Russell Wilson, Seahawks
6. Justin Herbert, Chargers
7. Deshaun Watson, Texans*
8. Ryan Tannehill, Titans
9. Kyler Murray, Cardinals
10. Baker Mayfield, Browns

Best of the best: There is an effortlessness to the way in which Mahomes can seemingly flick the football 50 yards down the field without setting his feet or coming to balance. But arm strength without accuracy is fools gold. Mahomes not only can throw the football about as far as he’d like, but he can throw it where he’d like it to go. The Chiefs’ signal-caller ranks third all-time in NFL history in passing yards per attempt. — Yates

Biggest surprise: I’m surprised that Allen didn’t end up No. 1 here. Sure, Mahomes throws the prettier deep ball, but if we’re just assessing arm strength, Allen’s cannon is indisputable. — Kimes

Stat to know: At the end of the first half of Week 14’s Monday Night Football game last season, Mayfield tried throwing a bomb deep to receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones. The pass went incomplete near the back of the end zone, but it was still notable: It was the farthest-thrown football in terms of actual distance thrown by any quarterback on any play in the regular or postseason over the past four years. The pass traveled 68.1 yards in the air, per NFL Next Gen Stats. — Walder

Riser to watch: Jacksonville’s Trevor Lawrence didn’t make the top 10 because we haven’t yet seen him take an NFL snap. But there’s a reason that this kid was the consensus No. 1 prospect for the 2021 class since he was a freshman at Clemson — he has some of the best arm talent we’ve seen in the past 20 years. And there’s no question that Lawrence will make this list next season. The real question is just how high he’ll be ranked. — McFarland

Snubbed: New England’s Cam Newton feels like an odd omission given his reputation, but a relentless string of injuries, including shoulder issues, have sapped him of the arm strength of his youth. But a pair of rookies — Lawrence and the 49ers’ Trey Lance — have a good case for at least the No. 10 spot, if not higher. Lance, in particular, has a special blend of velocity and downfield distance that comes out of his hand with ease, not unlike Herbert. — Schatz/Klassen

Others who received at least one vote: Dak Prescott, Cam Newton, Trey Lance, Drew Lock, Carson Wentz, Trevor Lawrence, Matt Ryan, Jameis Winston, Kirk Cousins, Tom Brady and Derek Carr

Accuracy

Arm strength doesn’t mean much if you can’t perfectly put the ball where it needs to go. Who can hit the tightest windows? Who locates their passes in the perfect spots? And who is never off-target with their throws, displaying pinpoint precision?

1. Aaron Rodgers, Packers
2. Tom Brady, Buccaneers
3. Russell Wilson, Seahawks
4. Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
5. Deshaun Watson, Texans*
6. Kirk Cousins, Vikings
7. Ryan Tannehill, Titans
8. Dak Prescott, Cowboys
9. Josh Allen, Bills
10. Justin Herbert, Chargers

Best of the best: Rodgers and Wilson are two of the very best when it comes to hitting tight-window throws that seemingly are impossible completions, in addition to showing great touch on the deep ball. When you need a big throw to be made under challenging circumstances, these two are who you want slinging it. — Riddick

Biggest surprise: Allen has to be higher on the list given his noticeable development as a pocket thrower. In 2019, Allen completed just 58.8% of his passes, but that number jumped to 69.2% this past season, which was good for fourth in the NFL. Paired with his rare physical traits at the position, Allen can throw with both accuracy and location, putting him in the upper tier of the NFL’s quarterbacks. — Bowen

Stat to know: There’s no perfect measure of accuracy, but Rodgers had the lowest interception per dropback rate and second-lowest off-target rate in the league last season. He also ranked third in completion percentage over expectation (CPOE), per NFL Next Gen Stats. Those are pretty strong signs that Rodgers’ throws are on the money. — Walder

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Domonique Foxworth and Kimberley Martin debate Aaron Rodgers’ chances of throwing more than 35 touchdowns this season.

Riser to watch: Allen making this list is an incredible tribute to his work ethic and Brian Daboll’s coaching in Buffalo. His completion percentage has dramatically increased since his college days at Wyoming. Based on last season, I would expect his improvement to continue. But Herbert will also continue to climb the rankings, and Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow — if healthy — should work into the top 10 in this category soon. — Tannenbaum

Snubbed: The NFL Next Gen Stats’ model for CPOE ranks the Raiders’ Derek Carr seventh in the league over the past two seasons, completing 2.6% more passes than expected. And Football Outsiders’ model suggests that Carr has 56 more completions than expected since 2018, which ranks fifth over that three-year period. Carr scores high in accuracy stats despite a Raiders wide receiver corps that is far from one of the league’s most consistent. — Schatz/Klassen

Others who received at least one vote: Derek Carr, Joe Burrow, Matthew Stafford, Teddy Bridgewater, Matt Ryan, Kyler Murray, Baker Mayfield and Jimmy Garoppolo

Touch

It’s not only about pass velocity or placement. How it gets there is also key. Successful quarterbacks need to master trajectory, whether it be fitting the ball in a tight spot with zip or softly dropping it in over a receiver’s shoulder. They also need to throw with anticipation, leading a receiver into the catch and navigating defensive coverages.

T1. Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
T1. Tom Brady, Buccaneers
3. Russell Wilson, Seahawks
4. Aaron Rodgers, Packers
5. Dak Prescott, Cowboys
6. Deshaun Watson, Texans*
7. Matt Ryan, Falcons
T8. Justin Herbert, Chargers
T8. Kirk Cousins, Vikings
10. Derek Carr, Raiders

Best of the best: While Brady may not have the cannon arm down the field that his counterparts possess, it has not hindered his production a bit. Every detail counts for the best to ever do it, and he knows the difference that every inch makes on ball placement. Not every throw needs to be a fastball, and Brady has a mastery of the throws that win with touch. — Yates

Biggest surprise: Carr isn’t a gunslinger, but he throws one of the most catchable balls in the NFL. I think he could’ve easily been ranked higher on this list. — Kimes

Stat to know: Over the last three seasons, Wilson leads all quarterbacks in completion percentage over expectation on passes with 20-plus air yards — often via his famous rainbow-arc deep balls — per NFL Next Gen Stats. But the quarterback who ranked No. 2 in that stat didn’t make the top 10 here: Washington’s Ryan Fitzpatrick. — Walder

Riser to watch: Coming out of Wyoming, Josh Allen had a habit of just trying to throw the ball hard. If he was unsure or late, he would just step on the gas with his passes. But as his pre-snap command at the line of scrimmage has grown, his tendency to play with more anticipation has grown with it. — Hasselbeck

Snubbed: Joe Burrow does not have the raw arm strength to fit the ball into tight windows. He makes up for it with careful ball placement and wonderful touch, doing his best to mimic the success that players such as Drew Brees and Phillip Rivers experienced in the second half of their careers. Burrow’s placement consistently enables yards-after-the-catch opportunities, which is necessary for maximizing his skill set as a passer. — Schatz/Klassen

Others who received at least one vote: Josh Allen, Matthew Stafford, Ryan Tannehill, Kyler Murray, Joe Burrow, Jimmy Garoppolo, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ben Roethlisberger and Baker Mayfield

Mechanics

In today’s NFL, quarterbacks have so many different throwing motions. But mechanics are still a big part of having success. That includes a QB’s throwing motion, arm slot, release, follow through and footwork, among other traits. Who are the most technically sound signal-callers in the league?

1. Tom Brady, Buccaneers
2. Aaron Rodgers, Packers
3. Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
4. Russell Wilson, Seahawks
5. Deshaun Watson, Texans*
6. Matt Ryan, Falcons
T7. Dak Prescott, Cowboys
T7. Josh Allen, Bills
9. Matthew Stafford, Rams
T10. Derek Carr, Raiders
T10. Justin Herbert, Chargers

Best of the best: Nobody has worked to fine-tune the marriage between the lower body and the upper body as it relates to throwing the football as much as Brady has. He is the classic pocket passer in terms of footwork from under center, play-action fakes, subtle movement within the pocket, keeping two hands on the ball, release and follow through. You name it, he does it perfectly. He is the standard. — Riddick

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0:59

Adam Schefter reports on the Bucs’ mindset coming off a Super Bowl-winning season.

Biggest surprise: I would have bumped Prescott into the top five here, given his consistent ability to sync his upper- and lower-body mechanics together as a thrower. You can see the strong base, footwork and shoulder/hip rotation on the release to extend through his target. From a pure mechanics standpoint, you could make an argument that Prescott could jump in front of Mahomes and even Rodgers, who both lean more on their natural throwing ability. — Bowen

Stat to know: Short of accessing biomechanical data on the throwing motion of quarterbacks, anything I’d come up with here would be grasping at straws. While we can quantify plenty in football, sometimes it’s important to know when to just trust the qualitative experts. This is one of those cases, as mechanics come down to the eye test more than anything else. — Walder

Riser to watch: This is another list dominated by veteran guys because it takes years to develop great mechanics and adjust those mechanics to the NFL. However, Justin Herbert‘s rookie campaign was so incredible that he was able to sneak into the top 10 after just one season. His ability to stand in the pocket, face pressure and hit tight windows without sacrificing his throwing motion was impressive to watch. He will vault to the top of this list over the next couple of years. — McFarland

Snubbed: Joe Burrow‘s lack of arm strength necessitates that he be as efficient as possible with his mechanics. He does not have any margin for error to make up time with his velocity. Burrow does an excellent job playing light on his toes and taking shortcuts to accelerate his progression from one read to the next, playing with an eerily similar style of footwork to Prescott. Burrow also does well to keep his hips free and allow his arm to come through cleanly without getting himself hunched over a tight base. Purely on mechanics, Burrow should not be any lower than Allen (tied for seventh) here. — Schatz/Klassen

Others who received at least one vote: Ryan Tannehill, Joe Burrow, Kirk Cousins, Jimmy Garoppolo, Kyler Murray, Teddy Bridgewater, Baker Mayfield and Zach Wilson

Field vision

This looks at the ability to read the field. Included in that are awareness and recognition when it comes to seeing defensive schemes or coverages, along with the fast eyes to identify blitzers, breaking defensive backs and open targets. Will a QB audible out when he needs to, diagnosing and understanding different defensive looks? And how quickly can he get through his progressions? Does he get stuck on his first read too often and stare down receivers, making it easy for the defense? Or can he scan the field, make the defense bite with his eyes and then find the open receiver?

1. Tom Brady, Buccaneers
2. Aaron Rodgers, Packers
3. Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
T4. Russell Wilson, Seahawks
T4. Deshaun Watson, Texans*
6. Dak Prescott, Cowboys
7. Matthew Stafford, Rams
8. Matt Ryan, Falcons
9. Derek Carr, Raiders
10. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers

Best of the best: Brady’s lack of mobility has never been an issue because his processing and understanding of what’s going to happen before it actually happens is unparalleled. Be it situational awareness, identifying pressure, adjusting protections or anticipating the unforeseen, he sets the bar. — Yates

Biggest surprise: Wilson at No. 4 is higher than I would have expected. Yes, he’s a good processor, but this isn’t a category where I’d rank him over the likes of, say, Ryan. — Kimes

Stat to know: The Chiefs, as a team, have led the league in each of the last two seasons in separation over expectation on targets (an ESPN stat using NFL Next Gen Stats data). Receivers like Tyreek Hill and an offensive mind like Andy Reid’s are surely factors there. But so, too, is Mahomes under center. If Mahomes’ receivers consistently have more separation when targeted, that speaks to his ability to see and target the correct option more often. — Walder

Riser to watch: Justin Herbert should continue to improve in his awareness as he continues to develop in an offense much more diverse than the one he played in at Oregon. And Baker Mayfield has clearly benefited from playing in Kevin Stefanski’s scheme with Cleveland; he should be in the top 10 in this category next year. — Tannenbaum

Snubbed: The Ravens’ Lamar Jackson may never get the credit he deserves as a processor, but few handle the quick game the way he does. Not only does Jackson excel with general vision and decision-making specifically to that area, but he understands defenders’ leverage in such a way that helps him locate the ball away from them, which is the same thing veterans such as Brady and (in years past) Philip Rivers get credit for. The clunkiness of Baltimore’s passing game last season is much more a product of the lackluster receiving talent and Greg Roman’s stale concepts than Jackson’s inability to see the field. — Schatz/Klassen

Others who received at least one vote: Ryan Tannehill, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Joe Burrow, Kirk Cousins, Jimmy Garoppolo, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Justin Herbert and Baker Mayfield

Decision-making with the football

This one is pretty straightforward. Avoiding turnovers, protecting the football, not taking unnecessary risks and keeping an offense out of harm’s way lead to better efficiency. Forcing a pass into double coverage or attempting too many low-percentage plays can get you into trouble in a hurry. Strong decision-making means less opportunities for the other team — and likely more points for yours.

1. Aaron Rodgers, Packers
2. Tom Brady, Buccaneers
3. Russell Wilson, Seahawks
4. Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
5. Deshaun Watson, Texans*
6. Ryan Tannehill, Titans
7. Dak Prescott, Cowboys
8. Derek Carr, Raiders
9. Justin Herbert, Chargers
10. Kyler Murray, Cardinals

Best of the best: Protecting the football and not giving it to the other team via bad decision-making is priority No. 1 for a QB, and nobody was better at making sure the opposition didn’t receive extra possessions in 2020 than Rodgers. His 48 passing touchdowns led the NFL, and his 1.0% interception rate (five all season) was tied for the best in the NFL with Mahomes. — Riddick

Biggest surprise: I personally had Carr at No. 3 here, given his ability to play within the structure of Jon Gruden’s system in Las Vegas. With the amount of defined reads there, Carr can be smart with the football and attack the windows that Gruden dials up. Plus, Carr was much more willing to cut it loose on schemed verticals last season, registering a QBR of 99.6 on passes of 20 or more air yards, with 11 touchdowns and only one interception. — Bowen

Stat to know: Mahomes had the second-lowest interception per dropback rate and fourth-lowest sack rate last season. And he ranked first in third-down pass attempts beyond the sticks at 70%, so he didn’t have too many empty completions on third down, a sign he is being smart with the football. — Walder

Riser to watch: A lot is asked of Murray, including nearly 560 pass attempts and more than 130 rushes last season. He’s an aggressive player. That’s certainly true for him as a runner, but it’s also true with his willingness to make tight-window throws, push the ball down the field or throw a receiver open. I see a player who is learning what he can get away with and when, and I think that shows itself during this upcoming season and beyond. — Hasselbeck

Snubbed: Though Matt Ryan‘s arm strength and mobility have waned, he remains among the sharpest decision-makers in the league, particularly with his shot selection over the middle. Few quarterbacks toe the line with “risky” throws without actually putting the ball in danger as effectively as Ryan. Hopefully some new guidance under coach Arthur Smith unlocks Ryan for a late-career surge. — Schatz/Klassen

Others who received at least one vote: Ben Roethlisberger, Lamar Jackson, Matt Ryan, Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, Kirk Cousins, Matthew Stafford, Baker Mayfield, Andy Dalton and Jimmy Garoppolo

Compete level

The words that come to mind with this category are competitiveness and leadership. Who has the most desire to win? It also speaks to a quarterback’s command of his offense and his ability to deliver in the clutch. You can never count out the players who made this top 10.

1. Tom Brady, Buccaneers
2. Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
3. Aaron Rodgers, Packers
4. Russell Wilson, Seahawks
5. Josh Allen, Bills
6. Lamar Jackson, Ravens
7. Matthew Stafford, Rams
8. Dak Prescott, Cowboys
9. Ryan Tannehill, Titans
10. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Washington

Best of the best: For someone who could have retired a few years ago and still had a strong case as the greatest ever, Brady refuses to ever lose his edge. He’s famous for his mentality that his favorite Super Bowl win is “the next one,” as he has dedicated nearly every facet of his life to prolonging the prime years of his career. While Brady’s demeanor in front of the camera is collected and measured, he is ferocious on the field and has a short memory on the rare occasions that he does make an error. He never lets a defense feel like it has him figured out. — Yates

Biggest surprise: I would’ve put Baker Mayfield in the top ten here. It’s a bit cliche at this point to talk about his moxie, but his competitive spirit is undeniable — and it has powered some pretty strong performances late in games, especially of late. — Kimes

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Mike Greenberg explains why Baker Mayfield deserves credit for turning the Browns into a Super Bowl contender.

Stat to know: It has to say something that Brady has not missed a game due to injury since 2008, right? There’s luck involved there, but it’s still remarkable and partly why he takes this category. But how about a shoutout for someone who didn’t make the cut: Guess who has the most wins over the last five seasons in games in which they at some point had less than a 10% chance of winning? It’s Derek Carr, with nine. Now, there’s something to be said for avoiding those situations in the first place, but the Raiders fight back. — Walder

Riser to watch: What Allen did last season to elevate the Bills to the AFC Championship for the first time in nearly 30 years was remarkable. He could easily find himself at the top of this list in the next few seasons. This is also a big season for Miami’s second-year QB Tua Tagovailoa. He absolutely has all the intangibles to be the leader of the Dolphins and can definitely command a huddle and a locker room, but the only real way to completely win over your teammates is to go out and do it on Sundays. A strong on-field performance this season will have him joining and moving up this list quickly next year. — McFarland

Snubbed: Carr may not be known as one of the great leaders in the modern NFL, but his performance in late and close situations speaks for itself. Over the last three seasons, Carr has eight fourth-quarter comebacks (tied for third) and 11 game-winning drives (tied for fourth). Since 2018, the Raiders rank eighth in passing DVOA when the score is within a touchdown in the fourth quarter or overtime. — Schatz/Klassen

Others who received at least one vote: Deshaun Watson*, Joe Burrow, Kyler Murray, Derek Carr, Ben Roethlisberger, Baker Mayfield, Justin Herbert, Matt Ryan, Tua Tagovailoa and Kirk Cousins

Toughness

Toughness rolls into compete level a bit, but our analysts looked at a quarterback’s bounce-back and resilience here, along with how well he can take a hit. Physicality is the big trait in this section.

1. Josh Allen, Bills
2. Russell Wilson, Seahawks
3. Lamar Jackson, Ravens
T4. Deshaun Watson, Texans*
T4. Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
6. Matthew Stafford, Rams
7. Aaron Rodgers, Packers
8. Dak Prescott, Cowboys
9. Tom Brady, Buccaneers
10. Cam Newton, Patriots

Best of the best: Every QB on this list is worthy of being at the top of this category, as they will all stand in the pocket and keep firing in the face of pressure, big hits or sacks. Allen, with his physical size, strength and ability as both a runner and thrower, separates himself slightly from the group for me as the one guy who would scare me the most if I had to line up and defend him for a full 60 minutes. — Riddick

Biggest surprise: Herbert needed to make the cut here. Not only does he bring a physical element to the position, both inside and outside of the pocket, but we can also point to multiple plays on the tape where he had to make a big-time throw with location in the face of pressure. An ascending talent with upper-tier traits, Herbert’s toughness is a key part of his game. — Bowen

Stat to know: No quarterback was contacted on more plays than Jackson last season (180). That was actually substantially higher than the winner of this category, Allen, who was contacted 123 times. Going back two seasons, Allen was also contacted the second-most times in 2019 — again behind Jackson. — Walder

Riser to watch: Mahomes is incredibly tough and will be even higher in this category in the future. Looking at the rookies, Trey Lance might be the toughest of the bunch; he’ll be rising in this ranking by next year. He doesn’t shy away from contact. — Tannenbaum

Snubbed: One could argue nothing has been more critical to Ryan Fitzpatrick‘s success than how tough he is in the pocket. His aggressive downfield style requires him to hold the ball a bit longer and take some hits, more so than many other quarterbacks. And after 16 years of taking those beatings, he’s still finding starting jobs. Fitzmagic is indestructible. — Schatz/Klassen

Others who received at least one vote: Ryan Tannehill, Taysom Hill, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Justin Herbert, Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, Trey Lance, Baker Mayfield, Kirk Cousins, Jameis Winston, Joe Burrow, Tyrod Taylor and Kyler Murray

Pocket presence

Pocket presence refers to how a quarterback operates in the pocket. Some things our analysts looked at here include: ability to sense and avoid pressure, command and mobility within the pocket, calmness under duress and how a QB gets it done from both under center and shotgun formations.

1. Aaron Rodgers, Packers
2. Tom Brady, Buccaneers
3. Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
4. Russell Wilson, Seahawks
5. Josh Allen, Bills
6. Deshaun Watson, Texans*
7. Lamar Jackson, Ravens
8. Dak Prescott, Cowboys
9. Kyler Murray, Cardinals
10. Matthew Stafford, Rams

Best of the best: What makes Rodgers such a mad scientist in the pocket is understanding when to break it and when to buy himself time. His ability to pirouette out of pressure, avoid oncoming rushers and side-step a would-be sack turns nothing plays into possible scoring opportunities. On top of his nimble footwork, Rodgers has the arm strength and ability to throw from so many angles that he doesn’t need a whole bunch of space to launch the ball downfield. No play should be presumed over with this guy. — Yates

Biggest surprise: I was surprised, in a good way, to see Jackson at No. 7. He doesn’t receive much credit for this attribute, but he’s very steady in a clean pocket. — Kimes

Stat to know: How does one quantify pocket presence? One aspect is sacks taken relative to pressures faced. No one had a lower ratio of sacks to pressures than Mahomes (0.10). That’s lower than the top two players on this list; Rodgers and Brady clocked in at 0.17 and 0.19, respectively. — Walder

Riser to watch: Jackson has clearly proven himself to already be one of the best in the league at avoiding pressure by escaping out of the pocket, and his mobility is unmatched. He also possesses a nice ability to throw with people around him, find throwing lanes with adjusted arm angles and create ways to get the ball out of his hand. As Baltimore explores ways to develop him as a passer from inside the pocket, there is room for growth that I would anticipate Jackson meeting. — Hasselbeck

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1:55

Kimberley Martin and Tim Hasselbeck examine the keys to success for Ravens QB Lamar Jackson this season.

Snubbed: Not wanting to put rookies in this category is fair, but Trevor Lawrence‘s pocket management at Clemson was something to behold. He has a sixth sense for anticipating pass-rushers, knowing exactly how and where it affects the pocket and which areas are safe to move to — all before the pass rush can get to him. That takes a special blend of understanding protections and defenses, as well as some innate instinct and athletic traits. — Schatz/Klassen

Others who received at least one vote: Justin Herbert, Ben Roethlisberger, Derek Carr, Ryan Tannehill, Joe Burrow, Matt Ryan, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Daniel Jones, Kirk Cousins, Trevor Lawrence, Jared Goff, Baker Mayfield, Teddy Bridgewater and Tua Tagovailoa

Scrambling

They might not be scripted, but plenty of successful plays happen when a quarterback sees open field and scrambles for a big chunk. And sometimes that includes a forced scramble, when pressure or a broken play leave the quarterback no option but to tuck and run. Creating outside the pocket — including making some throws on scramble runs — can be the difference between eventual points on the board and a stalled drive.

1. Lamar Jackson, Ravens
2. Kyler Murray, Cardinals
3. Josh Allen, Bills
4. Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
5. Russell Wilson, Seahawks
6. Deshaun Watson, Texans*
7. Aaron Rodgers, Packers
8. Dak Prescott, Cowboys
9. Ryan Tannehill, Titans
10. Daniel Jones, Giants

Best of the best: Jackson is mesmerizing with his elusiveness and big-play speed, making NFL defenses have to defend him in a way that they haven’t had to defend quarterbacks maybe ever. — Riddick

Biggest surprise: I’d actually put Mahomes at No. 1 here. While Jackson is the NFL’s most dynamic player when he breaks contain, Mahomes’ ability to threaten defenses in scramble situations, both as a runner and a thrower, puts him at the top of my list. Last season, Mahomes converted 66.7% of his third-down scrambles (12 of 18) while also registering QBR of 82.2, with eight touchdown passes, on scramble-attempt throws. He can pick up the sticks and find open throwing windows when forced to leave the pocket. — Bowen

Stat to know: Eleven percent of Jackson’s dropbacks resulted in him scrambling last season, the highest rate in the league. But among players with at least 20 scrambles last year, Tannehill was actually the most efficient in terms of expected points added per scramble. — Walder

Riser to watch: A lot of people were worried about Murray’s size coming out of college. Would he really be able to scramble around an NFL field and avoid injury? But in two seasons, he has yet to miss a game. Why? Because he has outstanding football instincts and knows how to avoid taking the big hit. Half the battle with being a great scrambler is having the athletic traits, but the other half is knowing your limits. Murray is winning the battle with both. — McFarland

Snubbed: There are a lot of areas in which Bills backup Mitchell Trubisky hasn’t excelled, but he makes things happen when he uses his legs. Last year with Chicago, Trubisky scrambled 17 times for 166 yards. He scored once and moved the sticks another seven times. In 2018 and 2019, he added another 58 scrambles for 441 yards. And NFL Next Gen Stats clocked his maximum speed last season at 19.5 miles per hour. Buffalo fans can be confident that if Allen gets hurt, Trubisky can at least create on the ground in the same impressive fashion. — Schatz/Klassen

Others who received at least one vote: Justin Herbert, Jalen Hurts, Cam Newton, Justin Fields, Trey Lance, Mitchell Trubisky, Sam Darnold, Gardner Minshew II, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Baker Mayfield, Marcus Mariota and Jacoby Brissett

Designed-run ability

Many modern NFL quarterbacks have the ability to contribute in the run game, and offensive coordinators are looking to their QBs for designed runs and option reads more often. So whose speed, instincts, vision, elusiveness and physicality as a runner are the most impressive?

1. Lamar Jackson, Ravens
2. Kyler Murray, Cardinals
3. Josh Allen, Bills
4. Cam Newton, Patriots
5. Taysom Hill, Saints
6. Jalen Hurts, Eagles
7. Deshaun Watson, Texans*
8. Daniel Jones, Giants
9. Dak Prescott, Cowboys
10. Trey Lance, 49ers

Best of the best: Jackson’s career is just getting started, but his trajectory as a runner is obvious: He’s on his way to becoming the best rushing quarterback of all time. He already ranks 13th in rushing yards just three seasons into his career and could realistically catapult all the way up to fourth by the end of this upcoming season. His acceleration mirrors a sportscar; he has uncanny agility, and he slithers past tackles as though defenders have butterfingers. While defensive coaches can work tirelessly all week to devise a plan to slow Jackson down, here’s the reality: When it’s Jackson versus a defender in open space, he comes out on top. — Yates

Biggest surprise: I know they’re unproven, but I think rookies Justin Fields (Bears) and Lance could’ve been ranked higher — and in the case of Fields, ranked at all. They’re both incredibly explosive and are probably more dangerous in the open field at this point than Newton, who checked in at No. 4. — Kimes

play

0:58

Domonique Foxworth explains why Trey Lance needs to take over for Jimmy Garoppolo sooner rather than later.

Stat to know: Jackson blew away the field in expected points added on designed rushes in 2019. In 2020, he had a challenger in the form of Murray but still took the crown. The Ravens’ QB remains the clear top choice on designed carries. — Walder

Riser to watch: Lance will be in the top three next year if he plays this season. He is a dynamic player who is big, fast and tough. And Justin Herbert is faster than he appears and should be in the top 10 next year, too. — Tannenbaum

Snubbed: Herbert’s rushing defense-adjusted yards above replacement was third worst in the league last year, but that should be chalked up to a horrific Chargers offensive line. He is a long-strider, which makes him better on the edge and in space rather than dodging defenders at the second level, but he has similar tools to Allen. An improved offensive line should help Herbert better showcase his rushing talent. — Schatz/Klassen

Others who received at least one vote: Russell Wilson, Justin Herbert, Justin Fields, Ryan Tannehill, Mitchell Trubisky, Sam Darnold, Derek Carr and Patrick Mahomes

Second-reaction ability

To close, we looked at a trait that leads to so many highlights throughout an NFL season. Quarterbacks won’t always be able to sit in the pocket and throw darts. With pressure coming off the edge or up the middle, getting outside the pocket and making off-schedule throws on the run is important in today’s game. Those are the off-platform passes from different arm angles and body positions, often on the move.

1. Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
2. Aaron Rodgers, Packers
3. Russell Wilson, Seahawks
4. Josh Allen, Bills
5. Deshaun Watson, Texans*
6. Lamar Jackson, Ravens
7. Dak Prescott, Cowboys
8. Justin Herbert, Chargers
9. Kyler Murray, Cardinals
10. Matthew Stafford, Rams

Best of the best: Mahomes has made off-platform throws look routine since the very first practice he had as a Chiefs rookie, and he is only going to get better there as his confidence continues to grow. Right below Mahomes, it sometimes appears at though every throw from Rodgers is off-platform, as he rarely has his feet set and can deliver the ball however and wherever he needs with a flick of the wrist. But the guy who is going to get his overdue credit in this category in 2021 is Stafford. Watch and see. — Riddick

Biggest surprise: Sam Darnold needs to see it faster as a pocket thrower, and if he can improve there, he will have an opportunity to deliver the ball with more rhythm in Joe Brady’s heavily schemed pass game for the Panthers this season. But in terms of creating outside of structure, I already have Darnold in my personal top 10. The former Jets quarterback has the ability to escape the pocket, extend plays and make second-reaction throws from multiple platforms and arm angles. And that goes back to his tape at USC. — Bowen

Stat to know: Over the last three seasons combined, Mahomes had the highest total expected points added on throws on the run. But according to NFL Next Gen Stats, another quarterback led the league in expected points added per play and completion percentage over expectation on throws on the run over that span: the Saints’ Jameis Winston, who missed our top 10. — Walder

Riser to watch: Herbert has as much raw talent as nearly anyone in the league. As his command and confidence grow, I see his willingness to create also increasing. Very few players have the ability to break a 50-plus-yard TD run as well as attack most areas on the field while on the move. Herbert can do both, and I anticipate us seeing that more going forward. — Hasselbeck

Snubbed: Just because Tom Brady does not often put himself in position to need a second-reaction throw, it does not mean he can no longer do it. Even at 44 years old, he still has a knack for being able to take his feet out of the equation when necessary and make a tough throw with only his upper body, and often with defenders in his face. Brady’s second-reaction throws look nothing like those of the younger guys in the league, but he is still among the best at problem-solving when pressured. — Schatz/Klassen

Others who received at least one vote: Baker Mayfield, Jameis Winston, Derek Carr, Carson Wentz, Cam Newton, Tom Brady, Ryan Tannehill, Sam Darnold, Matt Ryan, Joe Burrow, Zach Wilson, Trevor Lawrence, Jared Goff, Ben Roethlisberger and Ryan Fitzpatrick

* This ballot was completed by our panel earlier this summer, and it includes Deshaun Watson, who faces allegations of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior in 22 active lawsuits. Watson didn’t practice with the Texans last week and didn’t travel for their game on Saturday against the Cowboys. Watson’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, said last week that the allegations are being investigated by the FBI. Tony Buzbee, who represents the women suing Watson, told the League of Justice website last week that the FBI met with him to discuss Watson and spoke with several plaintiffs.



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99 to 9: Why NFL stars Jaylon Smith, Jalen Ramsey and others paid thousands to switch to single-digit numbers

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Minnesota Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson, Los Angeles Rams corner Jalen Ramsey and Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith are among the many NFL stars who have switched this season to numbers that are nontraditional for their positions.

The league relaxed its restrictions on positional numbering earlier this year, opening the door for players from nearly every position group to swap their old number for a single digit (sorry, linemen).

The new numerals symbolize many things: a fresh start after a disappointing season, a way to pay homage to family or a tribute to pee wee, high school and college glory days.

In the cases of players who joined new teams, the exchange cost nothing. But for those remaining with their clubs, NFL rules required a player to buy out inventory of his existing jersey in order to make an immediate change — a payout that reached six figures for some.

ESPN’s NFL Nation became intrigued not only by the changes in numbers, but the reasons behind them. Here is what we found out.

No. in 2020: 32
2021 change: 3

Baker wore No. 32 in college at Washington, started his NFL career in No. 36 and then switched back to No. 32. But the allure of No. 3 was too great. “I can have my own legacy in a sense and have my own number,” Baker said. “I really liked 3 growing up.” It wasn’t cheap to buy out his inventory, though. Baker said it cost him “a pretty penny.” — Josh Weinfuss


No. in 2020: 12
2021 change: 1

Callaway wore No. 1 in high school and in college at Tennessee. Saints safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson — a former rival at Florida — also said he wanted No. 1 at first, and Callaway said he “thought we were going to have a wide receiver-DB match” for it. But fortunately Gardner-Johnson changed his mind. — Mike Triplett


No. in 2020: 43
2021 change: 8

Dunlap wore No. 43 after being traded last October because No. 96, which he wore with the Bengals, is retired by the Seahawks. Now, he has switched back to his number at Florida. “I felt like it was a sign, that it was an opportunity in Year 12 with the 12s. Twelve years earlier I was No. 8, so it just felt right to me.” — Brady Henderson


No. in 2020: 23
2021 change: 3

Farley said No. 3 was his mother’s favorite number. “I had to pray for it. It’s my favorite number and my mother’s favorite number so there’s a lot of meaning behind it for me,” said Farley, whose mother, Robin, died of cancer in 2018. Farley wearing No. 3 as a rookie is also of interest because head coach Mike Vrabel makes rookies earn their keep. He lists them lower on the depth chart, for example. Farley wore the number at Virginia Tech as well. — Turron Davenport


No. in 2020: 28
2021 change: 7

Fournette is from the 7th Ward in New Orleans. “That’s where I’m born and raised,” Fournette said. “That’s just me. That’s what I represent. I’m so big on giving back to where I’m from and it really represents how special that place is to me. … It was a special number to me in college, so I’m like why not wear it again?” — Jenna Laine


No. in 2020: 13
2021 change: 1

For Hamler, it was a throwback to his Penn State days. He flashed his game-changing speed as a Broncos rookie in 2020 but spent much of last season dealing with a persistent hamstring issue. He’s hoping the switch to No. 1 is the start of a much better Year 2. — Jeff Legwold


No. in 2020: 54
2021 change: 8

Ingram wanted a fresh start when he arrived in Pittsburgh, and the No. 8 has a dual meaning. “New place, new start,” he said. “Still the same me, though. First time I ever played football, my number was 44 — 4 plus 4 is 8, and Kobe [Bryant] is one of my favorite athletes.” — Brooke Pryor


No. in 2020: 39
2021 change: 4

Jackson switched because he wore No. 4 as a standout at Alabama. When asked whether the new number makes him feel younger, Jackson, 27, smiled and replied: “Most definitely.” — Jeff Dickerson


No. in 2020: 32
2021 change: 1

Johnson Jr. said he was looking for a “fresh start” with a new number and wanted to be part of NFL and Houston pro football history. “[I] wanted to be one of the first ones to [wear No. 1] here besides Warren Moon,” he said. — Sarah Barshop


No. in 2020: 12
2021 change: 7

Jones, who wore No. 7 in high school and college, said it was his favorite number. But when he asked Raiders coach Jon Gruden about switching, Gruden told him: “No good receivers wear low-digit numbers.” Jones then countered with Raiders legends Fred Biletnikoff (No. 25) and Cliff Branch (No. 21). “He was kind of stunned,” Jones said. Shortly thereafter, No. 7 was his. — Paul Gutierrez


No. in 2020: 99
2021 change: 9

Going back to the number he wore at Grand Valley State, Judon chose No. 9 for another reason, too. “I have nine siblings. Every time I go out there, I represent them. That’s one of the reasons I rock it. Ninety-nine was taken, so I chose to use the new rule.” — Mike Reiss


No. in 2020: 28
2021 change: 1

McKinnon is in his first season with the Chiefs, but he wore No. 28 for the 49ers in 2020. He is the only Chiefs player with a nontraditional number for his position group. He wore No. 1 in college at Georgia Southern. — Adam Teicher


Jalen Mills, CB, New England Patriots

No. in 2020: 21
2021 change: 2

Mills is honoring his late uncle with the switch. “That was my uncle’s favorite number. He wasn’t a real big sports fan, but any time I did play, he did watch me. I just wanted to represent him with that.” — Mike Reiss


No. in 2020: 12
2021 change: 2

Moore’s switch goes back to his little league days, when he won a championship wearing the number as a 5-year-old. He also thinks it looks good on him, and thus is worth the financial investment required. — David Newton


No. in 2020: 41
2021 change: 4

Moseley said the number is a family tradition. “No. 4 is like my family number. In high school, I wore No. 4. My cousin wore No. 4, brothers wore 4. So when that number became available, I had to take it.” — Nick Wagoner


Patrick Peterson, CB, Minnesota Vikings

No. in 2020: 21
2021 change: 7

Peterson wore No. 7 in college and in high school, and the number has sentimental value. “I always wanted to rock No. 7. I felt like 7 was my number. Like 21 is Deion’s [Sanders] number, you know what I mean? I just felt like in high school and in college, I made 7 known. You can tell. When I went to LSU, guys wanted to wear No. 7 … I felt like that’s my number.” — Courtney Cronin


Jalen Ramsey, CB, Los Angeles Rams

No. in 2020: 20
2021 change: 5

Ramsey wanted No. 2, a number he said provided a reminder that he’s second in life. But he yielded it to teammate Robert Woods. “If you look at 5 in the mirror, [it] comes back as 2,” Ramsey explained. “Then, 5 is like a number of balance, like in the Bible there are five commandments towards God and there are five commandments towards people.” — Lindsey Thiry


No. in 2020: 48
2021 change: 9

Simmons wanted a fresh start after his rocky rookie season. He thought a new number would be the way to go. He said he didn’t have an attachment to No. 48, which he selected after the Cardinals picked him in the first round of the 2020 draft. — Josh Weinfuss


Jaylon Smith, LB, Dallas Cowboys

No. in 2020: 54
2021 change: 9

Smith, who wore No. 9 in high school and at Notre Dame, has an attachment to the number, which is why he chose No. 54 — 5 plus 4 equals 9 — initially. He paid six figures to buy out the remaining inventory of No. 54 jerseys and T-shirts even though 9 would have been free next season. “No. 9 is a part of me,” Smith said. — Todd Archer


No. in 2020: 54
2021 change: 4

Walker, who wore 54 most recently with the Indianapolis Colts, changed his number to 4 over the summer. That was his number when, as a quarterback, he led his pee wee team to a championship. — Jake Trotter


Robert Woods, WR, Los Angeles Rams

No. in 2020: 17
2021 change: 2

Woods jumped at the opportunity to wear No. 2, which is the number he wore playing youth and high school football in the Los Angeles area, and later at USC. “Having a chance to wear it at this NFL level is super special here in L.A., here in the hometown. It just brings just memories back for a lot of people, even myself.” — Lindsey Thiry

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Best of Wednesday at NFL training camps: Latest buzz on Teven Jenkins, Antonio Gibson, Lamar Jackson, Tua Tagovailoa

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While there has been no shortage of talk during 2021 NFL training camps about whether veteran Andy Dalton or rookie Justin Fields should start for the Chicago Bears in Week 1 (click “More” below to see what Dalton had to say about that today), both quarterbacks felt a big loss Wednesday, as it was announced that offensive tackle Teven Jenkins, the No. 39 overall pick in this year’s draft underwent back surgery, which could cost him the entire season.

Meanwhile, NFL Nation reporters have plenty of buzz on players like potential breakout fantasy star Antonio Gibson, 2018 NFL draft mates Lamar Jackson and Sam Darnold in a joint practice, and Miami Dolphins tight ends making plays for Tua Tagovailoa.

Here’s what you need to know from camps across the league:

Jump to the best of the day:
Photos | Videos | NFL Nation | More

Top NFL news of the day

Chicago Bears OT Teven Jenkins to have back surgery; team hopes he can return this season
Chicago Bears rookie offensive tackle Teven Jenkins will undergo back surgery on Wednesday, coach Matt Nagy announced. Nagy said he hopes Jenkins, whom the Bears traded up to draft 39th overall in the second round, will be able to return this season.

Dallas Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy says ‘good chance’ Dak Prescott won’t play in preseason
The likelihood of Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott seeing any live action in the preseason before the Sept. 9 opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is growing dimmer and dimmer. “There’s a good chance he probably won’t play. Yes, that’s fair,” coach Mike McCarthy said.

FBI investigating allegations against Houston Texans QB Deshaun Watson, possible extortion
The allegations of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior against Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson are being investigated by the FBI, Watson’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, said Wednesday. Hardin also said that Watson spoke to the FBI about allegations of extortion regarding one of the 23 lawsuits filed against the quarterback, of which 22 are still active.

More:


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What our NFL Nation reporters saw today

Washington wants to increase the role of running back Antonio Gibson, but both he and the coaches say he’s still adjusting to being a full-time back. Gibson continues to learn lessons. After practice today — which was mostly scout-team work — Gibson said he is still learning when to slam through the hole and when to cut back. Against New England, for example, on a second-and-4 run he should have plowed forward and picked up at least four yards, but he instead tried to spin out and create a bigger play. He ended up gaining just two yards. It served as a reminder to him to sometimes just hit the hole and create the yards. He still should see an enhanced role in the pass game, but they want more consistency from him in the run game. That comes from continuing to learn. — John Keim

Joint practices with the Buccaneers gave the Titans defense a chance to go against Tom Brady‘s intense, tempo offense. Kevin Byard said it tested their communication because the offense lined up quickly and snapped the ball. After a slow start the defense got interceptions from Amani Hooker and Jackrabbit Jenkins coming against Brady. Overall, the defense seemed to get the best of Brady and the Bucs offense but they were helped by a series of drops by the receivers. — Turron Davenport

Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold and Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson entered the NFL as first-round picks in 2018, Darnold the No. 3 overall pick by the Jets and Jackson No. 32 to Baltimore. But in Wednesday’s joint practice between the teams, Jackson looked sharper. Perhaps it was that Darnold’s receivers had trouble getting open and making catches, as coach Matt Rhule said. Perhaps it was that Jackson completed his first four passes in team drills and was steady all day. Regardless, for Panthers’ first-round pick Jaycee Horn, being on the same field with Jackson was big. “He’s like a human highlight drill, so seeing him in person, it was pretty cool,” the cornerback said. But did he see any highlights today? “Nah, I didn’t even see none,” Horn said. — David Newton

The Falcons’ offensive line has been a question through most of training camp — but work against the Miami Dolphins on Wednesday in the first of two joint practices gave a better look at what Atlanta might have. While left guard might still be a question — potential starter Josh Andrews left with a cramp and was replaced by two rookies at different points, Jalen Mayfield and Drew Dalman — the rest looked better than expected. That’s progress in the first real look at the team’s offensive line all preseason, considering only Andrews played in the preseason opener. — Michael Rothstein

Miami’s tight ends had a bit of a day against Atlanta’s defense — no matter if it was the first, second or third team on the field. In particular, tight end Adam Shaheen had a strong day, including one play in 7-on-7 work, where he basically ran through the entire Atlanta defense to get open for a touchdown from Tua Tagovailoa. Shaheen had multiple catches Wednesday. — Michael Rothstein

Veteran Mike Remmers, who opened training camp as the starting right tackle, returned to practice this week after missing time because of back spasms, but he played as the backup left tackle instead. That doesn’t mean the Chiefs have yet given the starting right tackle job to rookie Lucas Niang, but it’s a sign the Chiefs are happy with Niang’s play and that it may be difficult for Remmers to get the job back. If Niang winds up starting when the regular season begins, the Chiefs would have three rookies on their offensive line, also including center Creed Humphrey and right guard Trey Smith. — Adam Teicher


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FBI joins investigation into Watson allegations

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HOUSTON — The allegations of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior against Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson are being investigated by the FBI, Watson’s lawyer Rusty Hardin said Wednesday.

Hardin also said Watson spoke to the FBI about allegations of extortion regarding one of the 23 civil lawsuits filed against the quarterback, of which 22 are still active.

“In April, the FBI came to us and told us they were investigating a matter as to whether one of Mr. [Tony] Buzbee’s clients had committed extortion in the way they were demanding money from Deshaun or what they would do if they didn’t pay it,” Hardin said in a news conference.

On Friday, Buzbee, who represents the women suing Watson, told the League of Justice website that the FBI met with him to discuss Watson and spoke with several plaintiffs.

“I don’t think they’re investigating Deshaun,” Hardin said. “What they’re investigating is the allegations Buzbee has made in his lawsuits. I didn’t know about that until yesterday, and then I checked it out and it’s true. They are.”

Last month, Hardin told ESPN’s John Barr that 10 women have filed complaints about Watson with the Houston Police Department. Eight of the women, according to Hardin, are among the 22 plaintiffs who have filed lawsuits against Watson.

Hardin said Watson has not spoken to the NFL as part of its investigation into the lawsuits.

“The NFL regularly tries to not reach out to the defendant and his lawyers and seek evidence from them until the criminal investigation is over,” Hardin said. “Historically, they want to make sure they don’t interfere with the criminal investigation. I have had no contact with the NFL except to call initially and say, whenever the time is appropriate, we will fully cooperate.”

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