The coronavirus pandemic is still impacting how the NFL goes about its business, but the important thing is that the start of the 2021 season is upon us. And with the NFL expanding to 17 games during the regular season, that means there's even more football for fans to look forward to. And what might the 2021 season have in store for us? Here are some storylines that could shape the upcoming campaign.
1. Keeping the band together
The Buccaneers won the Super Bowl for the first time since 2002, giving Tom Brady his seventh Super Bowl ring. And Brady and the Bucs aren’t done.
Brady, who turns 44 in August, agreed to a one-year extension through 2022. He is back for more, and so are his teammates.
The Bucs began the offseason with only 31 players under contract. Yet, despite the salary cap decrease, Tampa Bay was able to retain receiver Chris Godwin, tight end Rob Gronkowski, defensive end Shaq Barrett, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, running back Leonard Fournette and kicker Ryan Succop, and offensive tackle Donovan Smith signed a long-term extension.
For the first time since 1979, the Super Bowl champion is returning all 22 starters for a chance to repeat. No team has repeated as Super Bowl champion since Brady’s Patriots in 2003-04.
The Bucs went 7-9 in 2003, the year after their first championship. They did not win a playoff game again until last season, going 107-165 with two postseason appearances from 2003-19.
These Bucs aren’t those Bucs. They have Brady, who began preparing for 2021 the morning after the Super Bowl.
2. Dysfunction in Houston
The city of Houston has seen James Harden, Russell Westbrook, George Springer, Gerrit Cole, DeAndre Hopkins and J.J. Watt leave town since December 2019. Deshaun Watson isn’t far behind.
Only a year ago, the Texans were coming off a divisional playoff loss to the Chiefs in a game they led 24-0. They had star power with Hopkins, Watt and Watson. Now, the Texans are in a full-blown rebuild. They have a new general manager in Nick Caserio and a new head coach in David Culley, and soon they will have a new starting quarterback.
The Texans added more than 30 players from outside the organization. They signed so many unrestricted free agents that fans will need a scorecard this season to sort through them all.
Tyrod Taylor will start at quarterback for the Texans, the 17th starting quarterback in franchise history, though the Texans drafted Davis Mills as a possible long-term option.
Houston thought it had found its franchise quarterback in Watson, whom the Texans drafted with the 12th overall choice in 2017 and signed to a four-year, $156 million deal last September. But Watson’s future is in doubt. He requested a trade before his legal issues mounted with dozens of women filing sexual assault lawsuits against him. The Texans are expected to trade him, but his trade value isn’t what it once was and maybe will never be again.
The Texans aren’t what they were only a year ago, and now they face a long reconstruction project.
3. Return of the home-field advantage
NFL teams had no home-field advantage in 2020. Home teams were 127-128-1 in the regular season, the worst cumulative record for home teams in NFL history. They went 6-6 in the postseason, not counting Super Bowl LV. (The Super Bowl is considered a neutral site, even though the Buccaneers became the first team in NFL history to play the Super Bowl in its own stadium.)
The COVID-19 pandemic, which limited fan attendance, is the obvious reason. The league had only 109 games played with fans in attendance, drawing a total of only 1.2 million spectators. That was a huge drop from the more than 16 million fans who attended NFL games in 2019. The Cowboys far outpaced the rest of the league in 2020, drawing 197,313 fans to their eight home games for an average of 28,187.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell expressed optimism at having full-capacity stadiums safely in 2021.
“We are also discussing our plans to welcome back all of our fans for the 2021 season across the country at all NFL stadiums,” Goodell said unprompted after the league’s annual spring meeting. “All of us in the NFL want to see every one of our fans back. Football is simply not the same without fans, and we expect to have full stadiums in the upcoming season.”
4. Broken records
For the first time since 1978, the league is expanding its regular season, moving from 16 to 17 regular-season games. While helping the league’s bottom line after billions in lost revenue due to the pandemic, the extra game also will affect the record book. For a running back or a receiver, 1,000 yards will no longer remain the gold standard considering that would only amount to 58.8 yards per game. Derrick Henry averaged 126.7 yards per game last season, which, in a 17-game season, would have worked out to 2,154 yards. Eric Dickerson owns the rushing record with the 2,105 yards he gained in 1984.
Related: Records are Made to Be Broken
It also seems likely that 5,000 passing yards in a season will become more common, with 6,000 perhaps now even a possibility — a quarterback would need to average 352.9 yards per game to reach that benchmark. Only eight players in NFL history have ever passed for 5,000 yards. Peyton Manning set the single-season record with 5,477 passing yards in 2013, and his passing touchdowns record (55) from that same season also could be in danger.
Calvin Johnson set the receiving yards record in 2012 with 1,964. A player needs to average 117.6 yards per game in a 17-game season to reach 2,000. Over the past decade, Johnson in 2012, Josh Gordon in 2013 and Julio Jones in 2013 and 2015 averaged at least 115 yards per game in a single season.
It seems certain, with an extra game every season from now on and likely an eventual 18th game, that players are going to rewrite the record book.
5. Big Ben's last chance
Ben Roethlisberger won his first Super Bowl in 2005 and his second three years later. Thirteen seasons later, Roethlisberger still is seeking his third title, and he is running out of time. Since a loss to the Packers in the Super Bowl to end the 2010 season, the Steelers are 3-6 in the postseason. That includes a 48-37 loss to Cleveland in the wild-card round last season, a disappointing end to a Steelers season that began with an 11-game winning streak.
Roethlisberger sat out the Week 17 loss to the Browns, but in his final five starts, including the postseason, he threw for 1,504 yards with 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions. The Steelers were 1-4 in those five games.
He remained on the Steelers’ bench, alongside center Maurkice Pouncey, long after the playoff loss. It was obvious that both were contemplating their futures; Pouncey ended up calling it quits shortly thereafter.
Roethlisberger’s future was in doubt until he agreed to a pay cut. His compensation for 2021 went from $19 million to $14 million, freeing up $15 million in cap space for the Steelers.
Roethlisberger turned 39 in the offseason and is two years removed from an elbow injury that ended his 2019 season after only two games. He has not made the Pro Bowl since 2017 and has not won a playoff game since 2016. Does he have one more championship run left in him?
6. Rams go all-in
It became obvious even before the end of last season that the Rams had lost all confidence in Jared Goff to lead them to a Super Bowl title. Goff’s final start for the Rams came Jan. 16, a 32-18 loss to the Packers in the divisional round. Two weeks later, the Rams shipped Goff, along with three draft choices, to the Lions for Matthew Stafford.
Stafford called Detroit home for 12 years after the Lions made him the No. 1 overall selection. Now, the one-time Pro Bowl quarterback has a new home, a new team and a new outlook. Perhaps no player in the NFL faces more pressure than Stafford, who is in Los Angeles to do what Goff couldn’t do. Stafford, who has never won a playoff game, is charged with winning a Super Bowl.
Rams head coach Sean McVay has a new toy who can get the ball down the field. On passes downfield of 20 yards or more, Stafford threw 13 touchdowns and six interceptions last season, while Goff had four TDs and six interceptions on such throws, according to Pro Football Focus.
Stafford, who has passed for 45,109 yards with 282 touchdowns and 144 interceptions in his career, has a corps of receivers that is as good as any in the NFL on paper with Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, DeSean Jackson, Van Jefferson and draft picks Tutu Atwell and Jacob Harris. Tight end Tyler Higbee and running back Darrell Henderson Jr. give Stafford even more weapons, although the team will miss Cam Akers. The team's leading rusher as a rookie last season, Akers tore his Achilles working out prior to the start of training camp and will miss the 2021 season.
Akers' unfortunate injury aside, Stafford is out of excuses. His future is now.
7. Dak Prescott's return
Candidates for Comeback Player of the Year abound — Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, Carson Wentz, Odell Beckham Jr. and Nick Bosa among them. But Dak Prescott should be the odds-on favorite.
The Cowboys quarterback was leading the league in passing yards when his season ended in Week 5. The two-time Pro Bowler finished his fifth season with 1,856 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions.
Prescott started the first 72 games of his career, including the postseason, before a compound dislocation and fracture of his right ankle against the Giants last season. He underwent immediate surgery Oct. 11 and required a second surgery in December to strengthen the ankle.
Prescott promised he would “be more than healthy and better than I was before.” The Cowboys believe that or they wouldn’t have signed him to the richest contract in NFL history.
Prescott signed a four-year, $160 million deal with an NFL-record $126 million in guaranteed money in March.
He has something to prove, as do the Cowboys.
The Cowboys have not reached an NFC Championship Game since 1995, and for everyone who points to Prescott’s injury as the reason the Cowboys finished 2020 with a losing record, the team was 2-3 in the games Prescott started and only 1-3 in the games he started and finished.
8. J.J. Watt joins the Red Sea
When the Texans released J.J. Watt on Feb. 12 after 10 seasons, the edge rusher said he wanted to play for a contender. He then signed with the Cardinals.
Cardinals GM Steve Keim put a full-court press on Watt, using celebrities Frank Caliendo and Blake Shelton to woo him. It also didn’t hurt that Arizona made the biggest offer, as Watt signed a two-year, $31 million deal.
Are the Cardinals a contender? They have not made the postseason since 2015, which was the last time they had a winning record. They have not made a Super Bowl since 2008. They have never won a Super Bowl.
Watt, 32, has never played in an AFC Championship Game, and the Texans wasted another one of his chances last season. How much longer does Watt have to add a title to his résumé? The three-time Defensive Player of the Year has totaled 101 sacks, 172 tackles for a loss, 282 quarterback hits, 25 forced fumbles and 16 fumble recoveries in his career. But in the past five seasons, Watt has only 26.5 sacks and has missed 32 games due to injuries.
Besides Watt, the Cardinals also added veterans Malcolm Butler, A.J. Green, Rodney Hudson and Matt Prater this offseason. All are over 30, and all have Pro Bowls on their résumés. In an important year for head coach Kliff Kingsbury and quarterback Kyler Murray, maybe the veteran additions are what turn the Cardinals into contenders.
9. Russell Wilson's future
Russell Wilson will spend a 10th season in Seattle, but the question remains: Is 2021 the quarterback’s final season with the Seahawks? Wilson made it known after the 2020 season that he wasn’t happy, and his discontent isn’t something new.
Wilson has a no-trade clause, and his agent informed the Seahawks in the offseason that if they were to trade him, he would accept a deal only to the Cowboys, Saints, Raiders or Bears. The Bears reportedly made an aggressive pursuit of a deal for Wilson before signing Andy Dalton and then drafting Justin Fields. So, No. 3 remains under center for the Seahawks this season.
Wilson wants more say in personnel and in the offense. He wants the unit to run through him, which is the motivation that drove the #LetRussCook phenomenon last season before Wilson’s turnover-fest in back-to-back games against the Bills and Rams. Wilson has made it clear he is tired of getting hit. He has taken 394 sacks in his career, including 47 last season.
Short of an MVP award for Wilson and/or a second Super Bowl title for the Seahawks, all signs point to Wilson’s exit from Seattle sooner than later. Wilson, who has never received an MVP vote, went 6-2 in the postseason in his first three seasons, including a Super Bowl championship. The Seahawks are 3-5 in the playoffs since.
10. Jaguars rebuild
Jacksonville has not been this excited about its team since the Jaguars reached the AFC Championship Game in 2017. The Jaguars went 12-36 the past three seasons, including a 2020 season that began with an upset of the Colts and ended with 15 consecutive losses.
But it wasn’t all bad. The 1-15 record won the Jaguars the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 draft. It also resulted in the firing of Doug Marrone and in the hiring of Urban Meyer. Meyer never played or coached in the NFL before taking the Jaguars job on Jan. 14.
Few coaches in the modern era have ever gotten a head-coaching job with no prior NFL experience. Jimmy Johnson was the gold standard, winning two Super Bowls with the Cowboys in a Hall of Fame career, while Chip Kelly was far less successful, going 28-35 with the Eagles and 49ers.
The addition of Meyer makes the Jaguars relevant for the first time in years. He never had a losing season in 17 seasons as a college coach, going 187-32 and winning three national championships. The Jaguars would gladly take one championship.
Their new quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, brings a track record from the college ranks, too. He won a national title at Clemson in 2018. Lawrence is perhaps the safest quarterback choice with the No. 1 overall pick since Andrew Luck in 2012.
The Jaguars were active in the offseason, keeping left tackle Cam Robinson on the franchise tag while signing 14 free agents from other teams, including receiver Marvin Jones Jr. and cornerbacks Jamal Agnew and Shaquill Griffin.
The Jaguars will be better in 2021. How much better remains to be seen.
11. Patriots' spending spree
The Patriots missed Tom Brady in 2020. They plumbed depths that hadn’t been seen in New England since the year Brady arrived as a sixth-round draft pick to back up Drew Bledsoe. The Patriots’ 7-9 record was the team’s worst since a 5-11 finish in 2000, and the 2020 Patriots missed the postseason for the first time since 2008.
Brady wouldn’t have won a seventh Super Bowl last season for the Patriots. The roster wasn’t good enough. That’s why Brady left for the Buccaneers after the 2019 season and why the Patriots spent the second-most guaranteed money ever in free agency.
Receiver Nelson Agholor, linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Matt Judon, defensive back Jalen Mills, tight end Jonnu Smith, tight end Hunter Henry and receiver Kendrick Bourne were among the big-name free agents to land with the Patriots. They also reacquired offensive tackle Trent Brown in a trade.
If the Patriots are to get back to the playoffs, they will do so with rookie Mac Jones at quarterback. The first quarterback Bill Belichick has ever selected in the first round, Jones showed enough during training camp and the preseason that New England cut ties with Cam Newton.
12. Aaron Rodgers' MVP encore
In 2020, Aaron Rodgers won his third MVP award, two short of Peyton Manning’s record of five. Even Rodgers conceded that if he hadn’t had an MVP season, the Packers might have moved on from their starting quarterback.
So how many more years does Rodgers have in Green Bay?
The Packers traded up to draft Rodgers’ heir apparent, Jordan Love, in the first round in 2020. They have Rodgers on a year-to-year arrangement. Rodgers perhaps changed the team’s timeline after completing 70.7 percent of his passes, throwing 48 touchdowns and leading the league with a 121.5 passer rating. Rodgers played like he had a chip on his shoulder with his replacement breathing down his neck.
The Packers haven’t restructured Rodgers’ contract to give him the job security he covets, and his future beyond 2021 remains in doubt. Rodgers repeatedly said this offseason that his future was out of his hands with a contract that runs through 2023, and news broke on draft night that he was demanding a trade.
But after watching the Packers do little in free agency to improve the roster, Rodgers' future with the team has become the hot-button topic around the league. He watched Tom Brady win the Super Bowl in his first season as the Buccaneers’ quarterback, reaching Super Bowl LV after beating the Packers in the NFC Championship Game.
Rodgers, 37, and the Packers haven’t won the Super Bowl since 2010.
13,. Chiefs' rebound?
After the Chiefs won Super Bowl LIV, they began talking of bigger and better things. Chiefs defensive lineman Chris Jones predicted the team would win “five-plus” rings. His teammate, receiver Tyreek Hill, upped the ante in predicting seven titles. Hill called the Chiefs’ quest “chasing [Michael] Jordan.”
Jordan won six titles with the NBA’s Chicago Bulls. Only two NFL franchises have won six Super Bowls — the Steelers and Patriots — though Tom Brady won his seventh ring in 2020 in his first year with the Buccaneers.
The Chiefs found out in losing to the Bucs that, as hard as it is to win the Super Bowl, it’s harder to repeat. Only eight teams have gone back to back, and only one this century.
The Chiefs, though, have quarterback Patrick Mahomes under contract through 2031, so they have hope, and they have time to do what Jones and Hill predicted.
Kansas City is the betting favorite to win Super Bowl LVI despite an offseason in which the Chiefs cut their starting tackles and failed to entice free agents like tackle Trent Williams and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to town. The Chiefs did sign former Patriots guard Joe Thuney and former Rams center Austin Blythe.
14. Drew Brees' replacement
Drew Brees is gone. The future Hall of Famer called it quits 15 years to the day after he initially signed with the Saints as a free agent. He now works for NBC. So, who is the next man up?
Jameis Winston signed a one-year deal with the team to compete with Taysom Hill for the top spot on the depth chart. After a strong preseason, Winston was named the starter by head coach Sean Payton, but expect to see plenty of the versatile Hill.
Winston, 27, was the No. 1 overall draft choice of the Bucs in 2015, and he made the Pro Bowl as a rookie. In his final season in Tampa in 2019, Winston passed for a league-leading 5,109 yards and 33 touchdowns. But he also threw 30 interceptions, and the Bucs upgraded at the position by signing Tom Brady.
Winston spent last season as an understudy, playing only 55 snaps in five games, including the postseason. He did throw a 56-yard touchdown in the divisional round against his former team in his only postseason snap.
He and the Saints want to see him become more of a game manager and less of a gunslinger.
Hill, 30, is a former undrafted free agent who has become the team’s slash player — a fullback/quarterback/receiver/tight end/special teamer. He has 94 completions in 134 career attempts, with 1,047 passing yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions.
The Saints want to see him develop into a franchise quarterback.
The defending NFC South champions have won at least 11 games in each of the past four seasons. They don’t have Brees, but they still have Payton pulling the strings for a team with stars. Running back Alvin Kamara figures to be the focal point of the offense, receiver Michael Thomas (who is expected to miss the start of the season after undergoing surgery in June to repair ligaments in his ankle) is looking to bounce back after an injury-plagued 2020 season, left tackle Terron Armstead and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk anchor the offensive line, and defensive end Cameron Jordan leads the defense.
There are three types of teams in the NFL: 1. Those that have a franchise quarterback; 2. Those that believe they might have a franchise quarterback; and 3. Those that are looking for a franchise quarterback. Only a handful of teams fall in the first category.
At least 11 teams will have a new starting quarterback in 2021, and the 49ers, who drafted Trey Lance but still have Jimmy Garoppolo, could make a change.
The Lions and Rams swapped starters, with Detroit getting Jared Goff and Los Angeles getting Matthew Stafford. Washington inquired about a trade for Stafford but ended up signing Ryan Fitzpatrick to a one-year deal.
The Eagles traded Carson Wentz to the Colts, who will have their fourth different starting quarterback in five years and are trusting Frank Reich to help Wentz regain his confidence. Philadelphia will find out if it has a franchise quarterback in Jalen Hurts, a second-round choice last year.
Andy Dalton wasn’t the Bears’ first choice, but he will fill the job to start this year after signing a one-year deal before he inevitably relinquishes the job to rookie Justin Fields.
The Panthers traded with the Jets for Sam Darnold, a former third overall choice, but will resume their search in 2022 if Darnold doesn’t show them something this season. The Jets used the second overall choice on BYU quarterback Zach Wilson.
The Jaguars handed their job to No. 1 overall choice Trevor Lawrence.
The Texans signed Tyrod Taylor to replace Deshaun Watson, who is unlikely ever to play for Houston again, and drafted Davis Mills.
The Saints have tabbed Jameis Winston as Drew Brees' replacement but Taysom Hill will get his chances under center as well.
The Broncos traded for Teddy Bridgewater, who beat out Drew Lock for the job.
That means almost half of the teams in the NFL will have a new starting quarterback this season, and that followed the 2020 offseason when big names Tom Brady, Cam Newton, and Philip Rivers were among those that changed teams.