If Thursday’s opening-night barnburner between the Buccaneers and Cowboys is any indication of what the 2021 NFL season has in store, then fans can expect an incredible year.
A 44-year-old Tom Brady had nearly 400 yards, threw for four touchdowns and began his 22nd NFL season with yet another dramatic game-winning drive.
That’s good news for the defending Super Bowl champions.
Dak Prescott looked relatively sharp in his first game back from injury even though Dallas couldn’t hold on for the upset win. He threw the ball a whopping 58 times, which isn’t what you want to see from him every week, yet Cowboys fans should feel encouraged by what they saw – at least on the offensive side of the ball.
That Thursday nighter was just the appetizer. One down, another 15 games to go.
Trevor Lawrence was the consensus best quarterback prospect to come out of college since Andrew Luck. The Clemson product and his Jacksonville Jaguars got about as lucky as you could get when the schedule dropped in terms of a Week 1 opponent. Last season, opposing QBs feasted on a Texans team that allowed 256.5 passing yards per game and only had three interceptions all season. They no longer have J.J. Watt which hurts the pass rush and just traded one of their better defenders in Bradley Roby which weakens the secondary.
On paper, it’s an ideal matchup for Lawrence to get his first taste of the NFL at regular-season pace, however consider this: the last QB to be drafted first overall, start in Week 1 as a rookie and win was Alex Smith all the way back in 2005. The past seven No. 1 picks to start in Week 1 have gone 0-6-1. Lawrence is hoping to snap that streak.
No. 2 pick Zach Wilson of the Jets and No. 15 pick Mac Jones of the Patriots were the other two rookie pivots named starters in camp. There’s plenty of buzz around Wilson and his potential as he prepares for the Panthers, while it seems a safe bet that Jones will fit well into New England’s system even though he’ll be in tough Sunday against Miami’s defence.
We’ll likely have to wait some weeks to see what No. 3 pick Trey Lance looks like with the 49ers and it feels like it’s only a matter of time before we see No. 11 pick Justin Fields take over as Chicago’s starter. Heck, Andy Dalton is playing in prime time, so we might even see Fields by the second half of the Sunday nighter when the Bears visit the Rams.
Is Kyle Pitts the generational tight end talent some tout him to be? His potential target share and ceiling are sky-high in Atlanta and his Week 1 matchup with the Eagles could be an early showcase of his skill set.
A new class of rookies also means a handful of notable school reunions. Joe Burrow can start throwing to Ja'Marr Chase again, this time in Bengals black and orange instead of LSU purple and gold. They’ll have a mini-reunion with their ex-LSU teammate Justin Jefferson and the Vikings.
Meanwhile, Jones will be on the opposite sidelines as his former Alabama teammates Jaylen Waddle and Tua Tagovailoa.
Chargers first-round left tackle Rashawn Slater went up against Washington’s Chase Young twice when they were both in college -- Slater at Northwestern and Young at Ohio State -- and Young was held without a sack. Will we see Slater repeat that type of success or will Young get his revenge and teach the rookie a lesson? Either way, it’s one of the more intriguing positional battles of opening week.
Eleven of the 32 teams have a new starting QB for Week 1, a handful of which are embarking on new journeys with their second-ever team.
Carson Wentz was awful with the Eagles in 2020, leading the NFL with 15 interceptions despite only playing 12 games. He debuts for the Colts in a tough home matchup against the Seahawks.
Jameis Winston backed up in New Orleans last year but he gets his first start with the Saints under rather rough circumstances. The game is being played at a neutral site in Jacksonville because of Hurricane Ida and he’s without Michael Thomas against an imposing Green Bay team.
Previous No. 1 overall picks Matthew Stafford and Jared Goff swapped roles following an off-season trade. There are lofty expectations for Stafford and the Rams this season. The same is not true for Goff and the Lions who are expected to get blown out by the 49ers.
Perhaps the most interesting storyline involving a QB debuting with a new team is Sam Darnold facing his former team. Darnold’s Panthers host the Jets after the 2018 third-overall selection spent three underwhelming seasons at MetLife Stadium. We’ll see if Darnold can take his game to new heights playing under Matt Rhule in Joe Brady's offence.
The Cardinals-Titans matchup is expected to be a shootout and it may take fans a couple quarters to adjust their eyes when the Titans have the ball. That’s because Julio Jones will be lined up out wide for Tennessee and J.J. Watt will be along the Arizona defensive line after a decade spent with the Falcons and Texans, respectively.
The Ravens were bitten hard by the injury bug this week when starting running back Gus Edwards and veteran defensive back Marcus Peters both went down with torn ACLs. Running backs J.K. Dobbins and Justice Hill and linebacker L.J. Fort were already done for the year, while rookie receiver Rashod Bateman remains out and isn’t ready to make his debut for a Baltimore team now in dire need of some new offensive weapons. Lamar Jackson has his work cut out for him. The Ravens are still favoured to beat the Raiders by more than a field goal despite those injuries.
Unfortunately, there’s a high probability Edwards and Peters won’t be the only notable players to go down in Week 1. Bucs DB Sean Murphy-Bunting suffered a gruesome dislocated elbow against the Cowboys and undoubtedly there will be more.
Here’s hoping the injury reports early next week are brief and benign all across the league.