What's in store for the 2021 NFL season?
As we look around the league and ahead to the 17 games awaiting each franchise this year, we see QB battles and second chances, new league rules and records waiting to be broken, eras opening and chapters coming to a close. And questions -- lots of questions.
Here are 21 questions we're asking ahead of the 2021 NFL campaign.
1. Can Brady’s Buccaneers run it back?
Back in February, fresh off a dominant victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, a victorious Tom Brady stood atop the winner’s podium to claim his seventh Super Bowl and make clear his intentions for the future.
“Yeah,” he declared. “We’re coming back.”
By “we,” he clearly meant everyone. The Buccaneers are the first franchise in the NFL’s salary cap era (est. 1994) to bring back all 22 starters after winning the Super Bowl.
2. Might Father Time actually be … defeated?
Brady’s got seven Super Bowl rings, five Super Bowl MVP nods, and is football’s undisputed Greatest Of All Time. Fresh off his 44th birthday, he’s just 1,154 yards shy of Drew Brees’s all-time career passing yards record and it would surprise absolutely no one to see him back on the champion’s stage in February. Let’s all keep enjoying this remarkable ride.
3. How will the Chiefs’ overhauled offensive line hold up?
It’s a massive credit to Patrick Mahomes that the weakness of his injury-riddled, patched-together-with-tape offensive line went mostly unnoticed through much of 2020 — the QB does some of his best, most highlight-worthy work under pressure, after all. But on football’s biggest stage, Mahomes was running for his life while dealing with a significant toe injury against Tampa Bay, making Kansas City’s top off-season priority crystal clear: Fix that o-line.
That’s exactly what they did, releasing Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz, landing veterans Joe Thuney and Orlando Brown Jr. in free agency and via trade, welcoming back Canadian Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and 2020 rookie Lucas Niang after they opted out of last season, and drafting Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith this past spring. There’s a whole lot of pressure on this group – but as long as they can keep it off of Mahomes, Kansas City’s in championship shape once again.
Another renovated offensive line we’re watching: The Bengals, who saw first-hand last season what happens when you don’t protect your QB, as franchise face Joe Burrow was carted off the field 10 games into what was a remarkable rookie campaign.
4. Can Josh Allen take the Bills to the promised land?
Speaking of high ceilings … at the top of most AFC East predictions is Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills. After winning their first division title since 1995 last year and falling just one game shy of the Super Bowl, all the pieces are in place for a long-awaited championship win.
5. Will a team be forced to forfeit a game due to a COVID-19 outbreak?
It’s clear that being vaccinated gives clubs a real competitive advantage. So far, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons are the only two clubs to reach a vaccinated rate of 100 per cent, while many more teams are getting closer to that mark.
6. How long must da Bears wait for Fields’s NFL debut?
Trevor Lawrence’s Week 1 fate was never in doubt in Jacksonville; Zach Wilson is the future of the Jets; and we’re all expecting some Shanahan shenanigans on offence with Trey Lance featured heavily in a one-two QB punch. The Patriots are so confident in Mac Jones that they cut Cam Newton.
And then there are the Bears:
Head coach Matt Nagy has shown he isn’t shy about making a mid-game QB switch — you’ll recall the quarterback carousel of 2020 — and with all due respect to veteran Andy Dalton, he is not in the long-term plans. The clock is already ticking, and Bears fans aren’t exactly patient. Can you blame them?
7. Is Tony Romo right about Zach Wilson?
There will surely be lots of focus on 2021's top pick, Trevor Lawrence, but QB-turned-CBS-clairvoyant Tony Romo is focused on the second player taken in April -- and he sees a really strong future in store:
“It’s rare for me to say someone has the ability to get in the stratosphere of a Mahomes, but I think this kid actually has that ability,” Romo said of Wilson during a recent CBS Sports conference call. “When you have a quarterback like that, I think there’s no telling how good you can be. He can make up for a lot of weaknesses in a lot of areas for a football team.
“I think Zach Wilson is going to be in the discussion as one of the top three to five quarterbacks [in the NFL] very quickly. Within the next couple of years, I think you’re going to see him rise. I think he’s unbelievable. His ceiling is so high.”
8. Is the AFC ready for a new king in the North?
The Big Ben era is nearing its end in Pittsburgh, but can this strong Steelers defence and a refreshed run game propel the club further than Ben Roethlisberger’s arm will allow? The Ravens brought in offensive help for Lamar Jackson, but early injuries show the quick-footed QB might be on his own again.
So ... cue the Cleveland Browns. After finally jumping into the playoffs last year, Baker Mayfield's Browns have all the same offensive weapons in place, plus the return of coach-of-the-year Kevin Stefanski. New faces on defence make this club the division’s most complete roster. Can they capitalize on this opportunity and build on 2020’s success for their first division title since 1989?
9. Is this the year Myles Garrett gets DPOY?
Last year, Rams defensive end and all-around superhuman Aaron Donald won the award for the third time, tying fellow DE J.J. Watt and former Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor for most DPOY titles in league history. Can he make it four? Browns DE Myles Garrett will surely have something to say about that – he was having his best season in 2020 before being sidelined with COVID, and struggling with the virus’s lingering effects upon his return.
10. Can Dak Prescott stay healthy and lead Dallas back into the playoffs?
The NFC East is just begging for someone to grab hold of it – Washington won the division last year with a 7-9 record (yikes).
After suffering a gruesome ankle injury just five games into 2020, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott is back and ready to show what $160 million looks like on the field.
CeeDee Lamb with Dak Prescott (Weeks 1-5):
433 yards (6th among all WRs)
395 yards from the slot (1st)
86.6 yards per game pic.twitter.com/ejzAoWyROH
— PFF (@PFF) September 7, 2021
11. Danny Dimes or Danny Drops: Who is the real Daniel Jones?
The clock of contention starts ticking as soon as you draft your QB: You’ve basically got five years of his rookie deal to build a winner around him — but just three to really determine whether you’ve got your guy, or if you need to head back to the drawing board. That’s where the Giants and 2019 sixth-overall pick Daniel Jones are this season. Jones has shown promise, but indecision under pressure and too many fumbles through his first two seasons bring doubts about his future in New York. This year should hold the answers.
12. Did Miami miss its window to overtake New England?
The Miami Dolphins are just entering Year Two of Tua Tagovailoa, but face similar questions to those being asked in New York when it comes to whether or not they’ve got the right guy to lead the team into the future. Adding to the Dolphins’ urgency here is — who else? — their longtime foe Bill Belichick.
After two decades living in the shadow of the dynastic New England Patriots, the Dolphins finally saw sunnier skies in the summer of 2020 when Tom Brady took his talents to Tampa Bay. Only, it was the Bills who moved into the top spot. One year later, Belichick’s fresh off a free agency shopping spree and has his Brady-lite in rookie Mac Jones while Miami’s still wondering whether their rebuild can take off with Tua at the helm.
13. Will the Texans trade Deshaun Watson?
Should the Texans trade him is a different question altogether. Let’s be clear: When we talk about Watson, we’re not just talking about football, or his long and public spat with Texans management. Watson is currently under investigation, facing more than 20 civil lawsuits and 10 criminal complaints of sexual misconduct and sexual assault, per reports. These serious allegations haven’t stopped teams from digging around to see about acquiring the QB, however, and until the NFL makes a ruling on his eligibility to play, he’ll likely stay buried on Houston’s depth chart to allow the legal process to play out as it should.
14. How long until we (and the players) get used to the league’s new jersey-number rules?
Last spring, the league introduced a rule change loosening restrictions on which numbers can be worn by which positions, straying from the long-standing structure. This could cause more than just a little confusion on the playing field, with offensive players forced to work much harder to identify opposing defences’ roles. Tom Brady is not a fan of this change, and explained why:
“The number rule is crazy,” Brady told Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times earlier this week. “Literally, guys changed their numbers today. I’m playing two guys who had different numbers in the pre-season. So, yeah, you’ve got to watch film and know who you’re studying, but so do running backs. They’ve got to know who to block. So does the offensive line. So do the receivers who are adjusting their routes based on blitzes.
“So one guy has got a 6, one guy has 11, one guy has got a 9. And they change every play when you break your routes and get to your spot. It’s going to be a very challenging thing. It’s a good advantage for the defence, which that’s what it is.”
15. Who’s the best in the NFC West?
There are endless combinations here, and none of them feel wrong. We’re gonna need all 17 games to figure out football’s strongest division.
16. How far can Matthew Stafford take the Rams?
This off-season’s biggest winner? That’s Matthew Stafford by a mile – or, 2,295 miles, to be exact. After 12 years in the on-again, off-again rebuilding project in Detroit, the QB1 finally has an opportunity to win his first division title, his first playoff game, his first conference crown … and L.A.’s first Super Bowl.
The MVP chatter is loud, and rightly so – Sean McVay finally has the ideal arm to execute his dynamic offensive schemes, and all the right weapons and defensive pieces are in place for this franchise to finally reach the top.
As Peter King suggested in his latest Football Morning in America column, “A healthy Stafford, in a 17-game season and with that Rams backfield, could be the first quarterback to throw for 6,000 yards in a year.”
This could be really, really fun — just not if you’re the Seahawks, 49ers or Cardinals, of course.
17. What are the implications of a 17th game?
Let’s talk records first. As in, a lot of broken ones. For example: Last season, Titans running back Derrick Henry won his second straight league rushing title and became the eighth player in the elite 2,000-yard club with his 2,027-yard campaign. With an extra game, Henry could be the first player to hit that mark twice.
With the extra game, how will teams navigate the playoff stretch – particularly when it comes to resting veterans? Might we, unfortunately, see a rise in late-season injuries? Or, conversely, might the extra week be enough to bring injured players back in time for the playoffs? How will the actual matchups themselves sway the standings? We’ll soon find out what a difference a single game can make.
18. As the post-Brees era begins in New Orleans, is Winston the answer?
Replacing the steady hand of future hall-of-famer Drew Brees is the feast-or-famine Jameis Winston, who spent 2020 soaking up his surroundings on the Saints’ sidelines. We’ll soon see if he can put those lessons to good use as he attempts to lead the Saints — and his own career — forward. If he can't, we all know the answer: Taysom time.
Speaking of second chances...
19. Is a Wentz comeback in store?
It wasn’t so long ago that Carson Wentz was deep in the MVP conversation in Philadelphia. Now reunited with former coach Frank Reich in Indianapolis, the pieces are certainly in place for him to revive his career after having it derailed by injuries. Keep in mind the Colts are just one solid QB away from making some noise in the playoffs.
Another comeback campaign to watch: Jared Goff in Detroit.
20. Will things be different in Detroit this time?
The Lions’ ever-lasting rebuild has embarked on another tear-down – this time, it’s pretty drastic. After watching just about every offensive weapon walk out the door this off-season, it’s up to new GM Brad Holmes and his head coach Dan Campbell to make sure this time, things are done right.
21. Is this really Aaron Rodgers’s final year in Green Bay?
The off-season saga is over … and the swan song begins. With his restructured contract basically opening the door for the reigning MVP and his longtime team to part ways after this year, are we about to watch a chapter end at Lambeau and in the league overall? It’s Super Bowl or bust in Green Bay — what an ending that would be.