NFL: 20 questions to kick off the 2021 season
Which teams should benefit the most from a return to something approaching normalcy after a COVID-19 season? Which rookies will make the biggest impact? Who'll be MVP?
There is no shortage of storylines and questions as the 2021 NFL season gets underway. Here’s a look at some of the biggest things to watch for this fall.
Which teams should benefit the most from a return to something approaching normalcy after a COVID-19 season?
We’ll start with the Raiders, Chargers and Rams, who will welcome fans into Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas and SoFi Stadium in Inglewood for the first time. Having an empty stadium appeared to impact the Raiders the most, as they went 2-6 at their new digs en route to an 8-8 record. The Chargers were 4-4 and finished 7-9, while the Rams actually fared well in an environment of fake crowd noise, going 6-2.
Can the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ championship success be duplicated in a copycat league?
Sure. Just find a 43-year-old quarterback like Tom Brady primed to throw 40 touchdown passes and defy the laws of sports and the aging process on his way to his seventh Super Bowl championship. Brady, incredibly, is showing no signs of slippage. By the end of the season, he’ll have more passing yards than Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas combined.
Did the Patriots’ Bill Belichick lose the magic touch the moment Brady walked out the door?
The last time New England had a losing record was 2000, when Belichick was 5-11 in his first season, and Brady was a rookie sixth-round pick sitting behind Drew Bledsoe. Bledsoe got hurt the next season, and the Patriots had 19 consecutive winning seasons with Brady as the starter for 18 of them, as well as 17 division titles and six Super Bowl championships. So does Belichick have something to prove? Actually, he does.
With the Brady-Belichick dynamic in mind, will the New Orleans Saints under Sean Payton still be a playoff contender following the retirement of Drew Brees?
It’s a big dropoff to go from a quarterback with 80,358 yards passing and 571 touchdowns to opening a season with some combination of Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill. Hill had some success, going 3-1, but as a gadget player. Winston, a former No. 1 overall pick by Tampa Bay, couldn’t stop turning it over with the Bucs. We’ll find out if Payton weaned Winston off the interceptions during his one year behind Brees and Hill.
Which first-round draft picks from 2020 need to step up their game in their second season?
We’ll start with Detroit cornerback Jeff Okudah, who was taken No. 3 out of Ohio State and looked nothing like the shutdown corner he was reputed to be. Tua Tagovailoa (No. 5 out of Alabama) was handed the starting job in-season over Ryan Fitzpatrick, and it’s still not clear if it was the right move by coach Brian Flores. Finally, Raiders wideout Henry Ruggs (No. 12, Alabama) was less productive than four other wideouts taken after him in the first round.
Which new head coach has the best chance to win right away?
Los Angeles Chargers coach Brandon Staley has a foundation quarterback in Justin Herbert and inherits a team that has been a disaster in terms of in-game strategy and mistakes for years. Last season the Chargers set an NFL record by losing four games when they led by 10 or more points in the second half. If Staley can coach, he’s got a shot to win.
Which coach will be the first to be fired?
Denver’s Vic Fangio is 12-20 in two seasons and so far looks like a quality assistant coach who should have remained a quality assistant coach. Should the Broncos struggle again, John Elway’s patience will run out. Chicago’s Matt Nagy is another contender if the Bears can’t produce a representative offense and make the postseason.
Which rookie faces the biggest expectations?
No. 1 overall draft pick Trevor Lawrence has been compared with Andrew Luck as a can’t-miss rookie prospect. But will Jacksonville be an environment conducive to winning? Coach Urban Meyer is making the jump from college to the NFL, and the Jaguars have three other times drafted a quarterback in the first round (Blake Bortles in 2014, Blaine Gabbert in 2011, Byron Leftwich in 2003) and come up empty.
Which team had the best offseason?
The Kansas City Chiefs may have lost the Super Bowl to the Bucs, but they put themselves in good position for a return by keeping their most important players and upgrading their offensive line with guard Joe Thuney and tackle Orlando Brown. That should keep quarterback Patrick Mahomes upright long enough to light up the scoreboard on a weekly basis.
What is the toughest division?
Jimmy Garoppolo has won 22 of 30 games with the 49ers but ranks as the fourth-best starter in a division with Russell Wilson (Seattle), Matt Stafford (Los Angeles Rams) and Kyler Murray (Arizona). There are no off-days against NFC West opponents, and you can make a case for all four being valid playoff contenders.
What will be the worst division?
Staying with the quarterback theme, it has to be the NFC East. Starting QBs are: Dallas’ Dak Prescott, who is coming off a serious ankle injury; Washington’s Ryan Fitzpatrick, a solid career backup; the Giants’ Daniel Jones, whose potential as an upper-tier starter remains up in the air entering year three; and the Eagles’ Jalen Hurts, who had mixed success after the Carson Wentz flameout. Washington won the division last season at 7-9 and everyone else lost in double digits.
Who will be the MVP?
Look for the Chiefs’ Mahomes to reclaim the award he captured in 2019 (Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers won it in 2020). Quarterbacks need only apply, so Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Wilson of the Seahawks are also in the running. Keep an eye on Stafford in a Rams system designed by Sean McVay after a dozen years in Detroit purgatory.
How much longer can Derek Carr and Jon Gruden co-exist with the Raiders?
The whole Carr-Gruden saga is more myth than reality. Gruden hasn’t thought seriously about replacing him at any time during the last three years. But it’s getting serious now, with Carr’s contract two years from expiring, and the Raiders nose-diving with late-season fades each of the last two years.
Who will be the Defensive Player of the Year?
They may as well name the award after defensive tackle Aaron Donald of the Rams, an interior presence who is a slam-dunk, first-ballot Hall of Fame player and will go down as one of the best players ever to play the position.
Who will be the Offensive Rookie of the Year?
The Pittsburgh Steelers would love to return to the days of having a balanced offense to take some pressure off Ben Roethlisberger. And coach Mike Tomlin may have drafted just the guy to do it in Najee Harris, the bruising running back from Alabama by way of Antioch High School.
Who will be the Defensive Rookie of the Year?
Without a sure-fire edge threat, the guess here is linebacker Micah Parsons of the Cowboys makes enough plays as a sideline-to-sideline linebacker. It helps that he plays for Dallas, and his every move will be watched closely and inflated in terms of importance.
Who is in the best position to be the Comeback Player of the Year?
Carson Wentz had a crash so spectacular with the Eagles, they incurred a $33.8 million salary-cap charge in 2021 just to send him out of town. He arrives via trade in Indianapolis with a solid organization and as the step-in starter for the retired Philip Rivers.
Which five players who changed teams either through free agency or trade are the biggest difference-makers?
1) Wide receiver Julio Jones, Tennessee (traded from Atlanta)
2) Quarterback Matt Stafford, L.A. Rams (traded from Detroit)
3) Edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue, Raiders (free agent from Minnesota)
4) Quarterback Sam Darnold, Carolina (traded from New York Jets)
5) Tackle Orlando Brown, Kansas City (traded from Baltimore).
What will be the impact of Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib becoming the first active NFL player to come out as gay?
Hopefully, not much. Nassib will get plenty of outward support, and those in the league who object will likely keep their mouths shut. The harsh reality is that teammates will be accepting of just about anybody who produces on the field, and in that regard, the hope is that Nassib finds a comfort level he didn’t have in a poor 2020 season.
After years of more and more passing, will more teams get serious about running the ball?
Even in the pass-first era, nearly every NFL team aspires to run the ball to close out games if they’re capable — witness the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with more rushing plays than passing plays while leading Kansas City in the Super Bowl. The Ravens, Raiders and the Titans love nothing better than being run-heavy if the score dictates.