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    21 Questions Ahead of the 2021 NFL Season – The Ringer

    Society has decided that 21 is the maximum number of questions required to glean all the information someone may need on a given topic. Sure, the famous childhood game was 20 questions, but 50 Cent needed an extra one to figure out whether you would love him if he was down (and out), so let’s just defer to him. That number also serves as a solid gimmick ahead of the 2021 NFL season. So here are the 21 questions that will shape the league this year.


    1. Have the Chiefs fixed their offensive line?

    You don’t need an advanced degree in film grinding to figure out why the Chiefs lost Super Bowl LV. They simply could not protect Patrick Mahomes and allowed him to be pressured on 55.4 percent of his dropbacks.

    The front office spent the offseason doing its best to avoid a similar fate in 2021. The Chiefs completely rebuilt the offensive line, replacing every starter from that Super Bowl. They sent a first-round pick to Baltimore for left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. They made free-agent guard Joe Thuney the highest-paid player at his position. They drafted Oklahoma center Creed Humphrey and immediately penciled him into the lineup. To round things out, they took a flyer on Kyle Long and welcomed back Laurent Duvernay-Tardif after he opted out in 2020.

    Protecting Mahomes was likely the main motivation for the Chiefs’ O-line overhaul, but the additions could also signal a schematic shift for Kansas City’s run game. During Andy Reid’s tenure, the Chiefs have mostly preferred a straightforward zone blocking scheme; but in recent years, defenses have learned to defend those plays without overcommitting numbers to the box. College offenses have countered that by running more man-blocking concepts with guards pulling across the formation. Reid, who famously studies the college game for new ideas, may want to follow suit. That could explain why the Chiefs went after Brown, Thuney, and Humphrey—all three players come from offenses that majored in man-blocking run schemes, and if Reid wants to run this stuff, he now has the personnel to do so.

    2. Have the Browns upgraded their defense enough to contend?

    Let’s just assume that Kevin Stefanski and Baker Mayfield will take another step forward in year two of their partnership. If that’s the case, the validity of the Browns’ Super Bowl aspirations will come down to the defense, which got some upgrades this offseason. Cleveland brought in free-agent safety John Johnson III in the hopes that he can do what he did for the Rams (read: everything) and shore up a secondary that finished 25th in pass defense DVOA last season. Johnson is joined by fellow newcomers Troy Hill, who will man the slot, and first-round pick Greg Newsome II, who could challenge 2019 second-round pick Greedy Williams for snaps at corner. Safety Grant Delpit, a favorite of Draft Twitter, also returns after missing his rookie campaign with an Achilles injury. The secondary should have a far easier job in 2021 with Jadeveon Clowney and Malik Jackson joining Myles Garrett in the pass rush.

    Barring another season of awful injury luck, the defense should be better than it was a year ago. How much better it is will determine Cleveland’s ceiling.

    3. Can the Buccaneers stay healthy (again)?

    The reigning Super Bowl champs managed to get through the offseason without losing a single starter, and the only real contributor not returning—reserve tackle Joe Haeg—played only 191 snaps in 2020. But while the Bucs’ roster currently looks awfully similar to the one we saw win a Lombardi Trophy, that doesn’t mean it will look similar by the end of the season. Not if we see Tampa Bay’s injury luck regress toward the mean.

    According to Football Outsiders, the Bucs weren’t just the NFL’s healthiest team during the 2020 season. They were the healthiest team by a wide margin.

    Adjusted Games Lost, 2020 NFL Season

    Rank Team Adjusted Games Lost
    Rank Team Adjusted Games Lost
    1 Buccaneers 30.6
    2 Rams 45.6
    3 Falcons 48
    4 Saints 49.2
    5 Steelers 55.2

    Data via Football Outsiders

    Tampa Bay has a pretty top-heavy roster: The Bucs are thin at most positions outside of receiver, and they’re counting on a number of players on the wrong side of 30, including the 44-year-old quarterback. Depth might be the only weak point for the defending champs, and if they experience a rash of injuries, that could spell the end of any dreams of back-to-back titles.

    4. Will the Fangio-Staley defensive system take over the NFL?

    Before the NFL became obsessed with hiring clones of Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan, Pete Carroll’s defensive assistants were the hot trend in coaching searches. Seattle’s Legion of Boom defense dominated the league, and the NFL lived up to its reputation as a copycat entity with teams trying to install similar schemes. As those Cover 3–based defenses spread, the McVays and Shanahans of the world figured out how to beat them. But they hadn’t quite been able to crack Vic Fangio’s defense—until last season, when McVay hired away one of Fangio’s top assistants. Brandon Staley turned the Rams defense into the league’s best, thanks mostly to his ability to stop the run with minimal numbers in the box, which allowed the Rams to defend deep passes with more players.

    Once again, the NFL wasted little time jumping on the new trend. The Chargers hired Staley as their head coach this offseason; the Packers hired Staley’s top assistant, Joe Barry, to run their defense; and the Bears promoted Fangio’s old linebackers coach Sean Desai to defensive coordinator. Now, these hires have to work out before we can declare the Fangio-Staley system as the dominant scheme in the NFL. But given that NFL offenses are headed in a pass-heavy direction, that looks like a forgone conclusion.

    5. Can Todd Downing maximize the Titans’ offensive talent?

    Trading for Julio Jones may have offset free-agency losses like Jonnu Smith and Corey Davis. But new offensive coordinator Todd Downing is hardly a like-for-like replacement for Arthur Smith.

    The new Falcons head coach was a big proponent of play-action passing, and the Titans had great success with it: Ryan Tannehill led all qualified quarterbacks in play-action rate and averaged 9.7 yards per attempt on those plays last season, per Pro Football Focus. But that could change now that Downing is calling the shots. In Downing’s lone season as Raiders coordinator in 2017, Derek Carr finished 27th in play-action rate, per PFF. Downing must adjust to get the most out of Tannehill.

    Simply calling more play-action won’t be enough, though. Smith also had a knack for calling downfield shots at the right time, and he didn’t get nearly enough credit for scheming things up in the run game to make things easier on Derrick Henry.

    Derrick Henry Took Off in Arthur Smith’s Offense

    Split Games Yards/Attempt Yards/Game Touchdowns
    Split Games Yards/Attempt Yards/Game Touchdowns
    Before Smith 47 4.6 48.8 22
    With Smith 31 5.2 115.1 33

    Downing served as Smith’s tight ends coach for the past two years, so he knows how this offense works. Whether he learned the right lessons, though, will determine whether the Titans become a legit threat in the AFC.

    6. Is Urban Meyer cut out for this?

    How will Urban Meyer handle all the losing that’s sure to come as he tries to rebuild the Jaguars? The former Ohio State coach looked stressed during Jacksonvile’s exhibition games, and it’s not like he has a ton of experience with his teams playing poorly. Since 2011, Meyer has lost only nine games, a total he could match by the holiday season. The terms of his contract with the Jaguars were not made public, but after he hired a strength and conditioning coach who left Iowa after former players said he was racist and demeaning and sparked an NFLPA investigation by admitting that a player’s vaccination status went into roster decisions, it wouldn’t be surprising if a bad season would lead to him tapping out. I’d be less interested in Meyer’s fate—he wouldn’t be the first college coach to fail in the NFL—if he wasn’t leading Trevor Lawrence’s development.

    7. How washed is Ben Roethlisberger?

    Plenty of factors contributed to the Steelers’ offensive decline in 2020, but Ben Roethlisberger’s refusal to push the ball downfield was the most prominent. He finished with the fifth-lowest average depth of target in the league last year (7.4) and the lowest average time to throw at 2.17 seconds. He didn’t seem too interested in actually playing the QB position. Instead, he just wanted to get the ball out as quickly as possible and let his teammates do the rest.

    Even when Roethlisberger did throw it downfield last year, he wasn’t very effective. On throws of 10-plus air yards, Roethlisberger finished 32nd in completion percentage and 31st in “catchable” throw rate, per Sports Info Solutions. Most of those deep attempts were toward the sidelines, which are difficult throws for any quarterback, but especially for those with weaker arms. The deep middle of the field has been fertile ground for NFL passers, but it was completely closed off to Roethlisberger last year. Here’s how his 2020 passing heat map (left) compares to the previous three seasons (right), via RBSDM.com:

    Pittsburgh thinks it has solved its O-line and run-game issues, and maybe it has. But that won’t matter—at least in any meaningful way—if Roethlisberger can’t make throws downfield and opposing defenses are able to sit on the short stuff, as they were down the stretch in 2020.

    8. Is this Kirk Cousins’s last season in Minnesota?

    FORTY. FIVE. MILLION. DOLLARS.

    That’s Kirk Cousins’s cap hit for the 2022 season, which will mark the last year of his current contract in Minnesota. Barring a deep postseason run, the Vikings likely won’t want to continue this partnership any longer than they have to, and they might even trade him for pennies on the dollar to end it a year early. Cutting him would result in a $45 million cap hit.

    While the playoffs aren’t out of reach for this team—especially if the defense rebounds after a poor 2020 campaign—it might be in Minnesota’s best long-term interest to lose and not create false hope for a front office that’s still chasing the high of 2017. The organization would have a hard time building a playoff-caliber roster around Cousins’s monster cap number next season. And restructuring Cousins’s deal to engineer a contender last year served to only lock Minnesota in for more of the Kirk experience. If it takes another down year to avoid that again, the Vikings might take it.

    9. Is Sean Payton still an offensive genius without Drew Brees?

    For the first time in his head coaching career, Sean Payton will open the season without a Hall of Fame quarterback in the huddle. Drew Brees has been replaced by Jameis Winston, who had no problem winning the starting job over Taysom Hill. Helping Winston find consistency will be Payton’s top priority, but that may prove difficult with Michael Thomas on the PUP list and Marquez Callaway looking to be the Saints’ no. 1 receiving option.

    Brees’s ruthless efficiency allowed Payton to construct an offense around the quarterback’s weakening arm in the past few years. But the Saints coach won’t have that crutch in 2021. With Winston under center, expect a return to the early days of the Payton-Brees partnership when the Saints were chucking the ball all over the field. If Payton can turn these spare parts he’s working with into a functional offense, just put him in the Hall of Fame right now.

    10. Can Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray take the next step?

    After a hot start to the 2020 season, the Cardinals offense cooled off down the stretch and fell to 19th in offensive DVOA—a disappointing finish for a unit that was adding DeAndre Hopkins to a group that ranked 13th in DVOA the previous year. I’d put most of the blame for that on Kliff Kingsbury, who failed to adjust after defenses figured out how to keep Murray in the pocket. Without his quarterback making plays, Kinsgbury’s passing scheme was exposed for what it is: a painfully horizontal attack that doesn’t threaten defenses vertically. Only four quarterbacks attempted more passes short of the first-down marker than Murray last season, and only two attempted more passes behind the line of scrimmage, per Sports Info Solutions.

    Kingsbury could solve a lot of his problems by easing up on the bubble screens, but Murray shares some of the blame. He’s a small dude who understandably has trouble seeing over his blockers and reading the middle of the field. Murray’s issues in the pocket become more apparent when he’s forced to take deeper drops, which are typically paired with deeper routes. On five- to seven-step dropbacks, Murray ranked last in total EPA at -26.3, per Sports Info Solutions.

    Arizona added an aging AJ Green and rookie Rondale Moore to the receiving corps this offseason, but a lack of options in the pass game wasn’t the issue last season. Kliff and Kyler have to be better.

    11. Are the Bengals failing Joe Burrow?

    The Bengals really watched Joe Burrow scramble for his life during a rookie season that was cut short by a gruesome knee injury and decided to draft a receiver with the no. 5 pick. It’s been four months and that decision still doesn’t make sense. I’d be more optimistic about things if Ja’Marr Chase hadn’t dropped a billion passes in preseason, or if anybody but Zac Taylor—whose teams have never averaged more than 20 points in his play-calling career—was in charge of the offense. But here we are: Burrow enters his second year playing behind another bad offensive line, and I’m not sure the receiving corps is significantly improved. It’s a bit too early to really ask if Cincinnati is already failing its young quarterback, but check back in a month or two.

    12. Can Dan Quinn make the Cowboys defense passable?

    The Cowboys defense wasn’t as bad last year as you probably remember. The first month of the season was brutal, with Dallas ranking 29th in EPA allowed heading into October. But after that coordinator Mike Nolan simplified his scheme, and the defense played like a league-average unit.

    If former Falcons coach Dan Quinn can replicate those results over a full season—and Dak Prescott can rebound from a compound fracture and a nagging training camp injury to his shoulder—the Cowboys should win the NFC East. And the Quinn part of that equation seems pretty reasonable. Quinn doesn’t run an overly complex defense; he largely relies on the athleticism and playmaking instincts of his roster; and while the back end of Dallas’ defense is shaky, there’s plenty of talent for Quinn to work with along the front seven.


    13. Is Matthew Stafford really Sean McVay’s missing piece?

    Jared Goff is somebody else’s problem now. After years of propping up the young QB, McVay now has a passer he can lean on when his play-calling falls short.

    Goff’s limitations forced the Rams to rely on deep shots off play-action and intricately designed screen passes to create chunk plays. The dropback passing game was kept behind “break in case of emergency” glass and used only in obvious pass situations. After the team’s Super Bowl run in the 2018 season, the efficacy of those schemed-up passes waned and the run game fell off, which led to more of those obvious passing situations for Goff. The results were bad:

    With Stafford around, those passing downs aren’t nearly as scary. And now that McVay won’t have to worry about avoiding them, there should be fewer early-down runs designed just to pick up yardage. For the first time since he’s arrived in Los Angeles, McVay can tap into any section of his playbook at any time—and with Stafford getting a fresh start away from Detroit, this mutually beneficial partnership figures to be one of the stronger ones in the league.

    14. Have the Ravens surrounded Lamar Jackson with enough talent?

    The most impressive part about Lamar Jackson’s MVP season in 2019 was probably the fact that his top receiver target was a 157-pound rookie. The fact that the Ravens receiving corps was somehow worse last year might be the most depressing thing about Jackon’s 2020 campaign.

    Once again, the Ravens will enter a season with the tiny Marquise Brown at the top of their receiver depth chart. But Lamar should have more help in 2021. Baltimore signed Sammy Watkins to a modest deal this offseason and drafted Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman in the first round. Both ended up missing most of camp with injuries, and Bateman is out for at least another month, so we’ll have to wait to see this improved Ravens receiving corps in action. But it should be at full strength by the second half of the season. If that happens, this might be the best group of targets Lamar has had to work with since his Heisman-winning season in 2016.

    15. Which first-round QB will have the best rookie season?

    Trevor Lawrence is the most talented. Mac Jones has the best coaching staff. Zach Wilson has the lowest bar to clear. Trey Lance and Justin Fields will both start the season on the bench but might have the best shots at making the playoffs. I would not be surprised if any of the five first-round quarterbacks won Offensive Rookie of the Year. Jones is the preseason betting favorite, but he also has the steepest learning curve ahead of him in the Patriots’ robust offense. Plus, unlike the others, he doesn’t have the athleticism to fall back on when he gets fooled by a defense. That will happen a lot, as it does for all rookies. So I’m going with Lawrence as my pick to win the award and … [lowers voice to a whisper] maybe even lead the Jaguars to a playoff berth.

    16. Is Tua the guy in Miami?

    Typically, the goal for any team with a highly drafted quarterback is to not put too much pressure on him right away. The Dolphins failed to do that for Tua Tagovailoa, whom they thrust into the starting role in 2020 in the heat of a playoff race. Tua was replacing Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was playing good football when he was banished to the bench, and that turned the pressure up a bit more. The Dolphins would go on to miss the playoffs after a lopsided Week 17 loss to the Bills backups, and Tua did not play particularly well in that game.

    That was the lasting image of his rookie campaign, which led to a warped evaluation of what was otherwise a fairly average season for a first-year quarterback. Per Football Outsiders, Tagovailoa ranked 30th in DVOA among 81 qualified rookie passers since 1983. Given the circumstances surrounding his 2020 season—rehabbing a major hip injury during a pandemic does not sound fun—that’s not a bad result. Tua has looked good this preseason, and if he can carry that over into the games that count, Miami’s search for a franchise QB might be over.

    17. How will Russ cook in his new kitchen?

    Russell Wilson has a new play-caller. After spending nearly a decade running offenses more in line with Pete Carroll’s dated offensive philosophy, Wilson will get to run one he personally signed off on. Shane Waldron, who comes from the McVay pipeline, will call the plays in Seattle this year, and the reviews have so far been glowing. The new themes seem to be a quicker tempo with quicker passes, and if the offense looks anything like the Rams’, there should be a lot of play-action and bootleg concepts as well. In theory, such a system should offer Wilson schematic guardrails that will mitigate his issues seeing the middle of the field from the pocket and holding onto the ball too long. If Waldron is able to trim that fat from Wilson’s game, this will be the QB’s best season yet.

    18. Will the Patriots defense bounce back to its 2019 form?

    As bad as the Patriots offense was in the first year of the post-Brady era, it was the defense that declined the most from 2019. After leading the league in defensive DVOA that year, New England fell to 26th last season. The decline didn’t come out of nowhere. The Patriots were hit hard by COVID opt-outs and lost some key contributors in free agency. The talent, especially in the front seven, just wasn’t there.

    But Bill Belichick has restocked his defense in the past few months. Dont’a Hightower is back after his COVID opt-out; Kyle Van Noy returns after a year in Miami; and Matthew Judon joined in free agency. New England also signed Davon Godchaux and drafted Christian Barmore to beef up the run defense, which finished last in DVOA in 2020. If the run defense is better, Belichick should be able to get back to the aggressive brand of defense New England played in 2019 when it blitzed the hell out of opposing quarterbacks and dared them to beat the secondary’s tight man coverage.

    The Patriots D Was Far Less Aggressive in 2020

    Year Blitz Rate 3-Man Rush Rate Man Coverage Rate Zone Coverage Rate
    Year Blitz Rate 3-Man Rush Rate Man Coverage Rate Zone Coverage Rate
    2019 30% 16% 55% 36%
    2020 21% 23% 40% 50%

    Data via Sports Info Solutions

    The expectations for the offense, now led by rookie QB Mac Jones, are a bit too high headed into the season, but this defense—assuming Stephon Gilmore returns to the field—might just be good enough to end New England’s unbearable yearlong playoff drought.

    19. Where does Cam Newton land?

    We’re just days out from the start of the season, and Cam Newton doesn’t have a job. But that doesn’t mean he can’t have a major impact on the 2021 playoff race. Teams with postseason aspirations and questionable quarterback situations will surely be keeping tabs on the free agent.

    Of the potential landing spots being thrown around, Washington makes the most sense. Newton played for both Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Scott Turner in Carolina, which should flatten the learning curve he might face in a new system. Miami is another possibility if Tagovailoa doesn’t improve or gets hurt. Denver is certainly a playoff contender with questions at quarterback, but Newton would have to overtake both Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock to get a shot. In all likelihood, the 32-year-old will have to take a backup job if he will play in 2021. But the league would be far more interesting if he got a chance to start for a playoff contender.

    20. Can the Bills rush the passer?

    The Bills have long had a pass-rush problem, and the front office has spent the past two drafts trying to fix it. A year after taking A.J. Epenesa in the second round, Buffalo used its first two picks on edge rushers Greg Rousseau and Boogie Basham. That investment should help a unit that finished 24th in pressure rate on four-man rushes in 2020, per Sports Info Solutions, but how much help that adds remains to be seen. In the past, with a standard rush failing to get home, Sean McDermott had to dial up the pressure. And the Bills were quite good when sending an extra rusher or two. But that’s not a strategy you want to live by when blitz killers like Mahomes, Brady, and Rodgers are standing in the way of a Super Bowl. The Bills need to get after the quarterback with just four rushers if the defense is going to bounce back to its pre-2020 form. The good news: Epenesa has been unblockable in preseason, and the two rookies have held their own.

    21. Who’s getting Spencer Rattler?

    The QB-needy teams that passed on a deep 2021 draft class won’t feel any better about their decision after a preseason when all five first-round quarterbacks impressed. Nor will they feel better looking at the relatively bare cupboard that is the 2022 class. Sure there’s Spencer Rattler, who should have no problem staying at the top of the prospect hierarchy in Oklahoma’s offense. But outside of him? North Carolina’s Sam Howell plays in a stat-inflating offense and lacks top-shelf physical tools. Liberty’s Malik Willis is the most intriguing prospect of the class, but the intrigue comes from his unrefined game in the pocket. Kedon Slovis, JT Daniels, Brock Purdy, and Carson Strong are Day 2 picks in most drafts. This isn’t a great time to be in need of a young quarterback. With only one clear top-10 prospect in the class, the stakes are high in the race for the no.1 pick.

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