NFL training camp for the 2021 season opened last week for the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers, who will play in the Hall of Fame Game on Aug. 5. The reigning champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers opened camp Sunday, while the rest of the league followed Tuesday.
The NFL got back to a semi-normal offseason schedule with seven new head coaches taking over for the Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Los Angeles Chargers, New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles.
The league will also have its first 17-game regular season schedule. It opens Sept. 9 with the the Bucs playing host to the Cowboys.
NFL Nation reporters have put together camp previews and 53-man roster projections for every team, which are linked below. The roster projections are ESPN+ content.
How does quarterback Josh Allen take another step forward after his MVP runner-up season in 2020?
Buffalo’s quarterback set franchise records in passing yards (4,544) and touchdowns (37) and finished second in the MVP voting to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. With all but one of his wide receivers returning, along with his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, the pieces are in place for more progress in 2021. He said he wants to improve his decision-making and accuracy on in-breaking routes and throws to his left — where eight of his 10 interceptions occurred last season. Though he is dynamic as a runner, Allen can also work on his ball security this offseason, as his 23 fumbles over the past two seasons rank third behind Daniel Jones (New York Giants) and Carson Wentz (Indianapolis Colts) for the most in the NFL over that span.
Will quarterback Tua Tagovailoa make the much-hyped Year 2 jump?
In early glimpses of Tagovailoa this spring, he looked stronger physically with more zip on his throws. His wide receivers also noticed better footwork, mechanics, comfort and chemistry with them. The truth will come in training camp. Tagovailoa’s rookie season was up and down. Lasting memories are of him getting replaced by Ryan Fitzpatrick twice in the fourth quarter of games. Tagovailoa is the unquestioned starter in 2021, and he is fully healthy after a year removed from a devastating hip injury while at Alabama.
New England Patriots
Jones impressed players and coaches in spring practices, when the focus was more on teaching than evaluation, by keeping pace mentally and seldom making the same mistake twice. He’s established a solid foundation to compete for the top job in training camp, when it’s more about evaluation and the pace at which the team moves increases significantly. Once Jones takes the reins, it’s hard to imagine the Patriots turning back to Newton. They’re all-in at that point. So one would think if it’s close between Newton and Jones, it will tilt the needle more toward Newton.
Are the Jets rushing rookie quarterback Zach Wilson into the lineup?
Yes, but it’s not like the Jets are the outliers. Four of the past eight quarterbacks drafted in the top five, dating to 2016, were opening-day starters as rookies. At this point, the Jets have no choice, as they opted not to bring in competition for Wilson. Despite a ton of first-team reps in the spring, Wilson needs seasoning. He faced a weak schedule at BYU and saw a lot of plain coverages. The coaches say he’s a sponge, and they will do everything possible to put him in quarterback-friendly situations (a run-first, play-action pass mentality), but it still amounts to on-the-job training. It will get bumpy, but the Jets are prepared to ride it out in what looms as a transition year. With low outside expectations, Wilson and the offense can grow together in 2021, setting up a long runway into 2022.
How much will quarterback Lamar Jackson improve as a passer?
The Ravens are hoping for a significant improvement, especially when you consider the offseason investment. Baltimore added receivers Rashod Bateman and Sammy Watkins. It’s more than growth in passing numbers for Jackson. It’s expanding where he throws the ball — horizontally and vertically. With Bateman and Watkins, Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman said defenses will have to defend from sideline to sideline. Jackson has proven he’s a winner, leading Baltimore to the postseason in each of his three seasons. Now, surrounded by his most talented supporting cast, he needs to prove he can consistently make defenses pay for trying to stop him running.
How will quarterback Joe Burrow look after the knee injury?
The early returns for Cincinnati’s franchise quarterback were nothing but positive. Six months after Burrow had reconstructive left knee surgery to repair multiple ligaments, he participated in every OTA and the one-day minicamp. Burrow wore a brace, but he looked comfortable in limited participation. However, the Bengals minimized any chance of contact, and Burrow didn’t face a pass rush during offseason workouts. The true test for the 2020 top overall pick will come when he gets pressured in the pocket for the first time. And once the health questions are answered, there’s another big unknown looming over Burrow: Can he continue to make progress in Year 2 and unlock a more explosive vertical passing attack that was absent in 2020?
Will quarterback Baker Mayfield make another leap beyond last year’s bounce-back season?
Last season, Mayfield finished in the top 10 in QBR while quarterbacking the Browns to their first playoff victory in 26 years and improving throughout the season. In fact, from Week 7 to Week 15, only Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers, the last two MVPs, ranked ahead of Mayfield in QBR. Mayfield now seems primed to build off the breakout campaign. This was the first offseason he didn’t have to learn a new playbook or adjust to a different head coach. He has a scheme that fits his skill set. He and coach Kevin Stefanski share a tremendous rapport. And the entire offense around him from last season returns. That continuity is a big reason why he could take another big leap.
The Steelers found at least one of those answers just days before the start of training camp, signing former Pro Bowl edge rusher Melvin Ingram to a one-year deal. He should be expected to compete with Alex Highsmith for the starting job opposite of T.J. Watt, and there’s also the option to use him as a part of a three-man rotation at outside linebacker. His signing goes a long way to solve the depth problem presented by Dupree’s departure, giving the Steelers more flexibility at a position that also includes journeyman Cassius Marsh and sixth-round pick Quincy Roche.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson reported to training camp. What does that mean for his future with the Texans?
Watson’s camp is waiting to hear from the NFL about his status for the 2021 season after 22 lawsuits alleging sexual assault and inappropriate behavior were filed during the offseason. Even though he has reported to training camp, he could still be placed on the commissioner’s exempt list, which would mean he could not play but would be paid. Although Watson showed up to the facility to avoid the $50,000 per day fine, it probably doesn’t change much about his future with the Texans. For the majority of the offseason, Houston has had to operate as if Watson would not be their starting quarterback in 2021. They signed Tyrod Taylor and Jeff Driskel and drafted Davis Mills to plan for a future without Watson. Watson’s desire for a trade has not changed, a source told ESPN, and the Texans are willing to field offers.
Can Colts coach Frank Reich fix quarterback Carson Wentz?
All eyes will be on Wentz, who was traded from the Philadelphia Eagles in the offseason. Reich, as he did with Philip Rivers in 2020, went out on a limb for the Colts to acquire Wentz. He had an MVP-caliber season before tearing his ACL in December 2017 with Reich as his offensive coordinator. Wentz is coming off a 2020 season where he was sacked 50 times, threw 16 interceptions and was benched in favor of Jalen Hurts. Wentz doesn’t have to throw for 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns for 2021 to be considered successful. He simply has to be effective, and that’s something each of the Colts past three starting quarterbacks have done in their first season under Reich, who emphasizes quick throws. Andrew Luck (67.3) and Jacoby Brissett (60.9) had their highest-completion percentages under Reich, while Rivers (68.0) had the second highest of his career.
Since receiver is the Jaguars’ best position group on offense, Lawrence should at least threaten the 4,000-yard mark, but whether he becomes the fifth rookie QB in NFL history to surpass it will depend on the defense. Last season’s unit gave up the most yards and points in franchise history, and while coach Urban Meyer and GM Trent Baalke did a very good job rebuilding the secondary, there are still major questions about the defensive line and pass rush. If the Jaguars again find themselves trailing by double digits in the second half of games, they’ll have to rely on Lawrence pretty heavily. The TD mark seems more reachable, even if the Jaguars aren’t always chasing points, because of the addition of WR Marvin Jones Jr. and RB Travis Etienne to a group of playmakers.
The outlook for the Titans’ passing game was uncertain before they acquired superstar wide receiver Julio Jones. Losing Davis and Smith took a total of 106 receptions, 1,432 yards, and 13 touchdowns from the offense. On the surface, those numbers seem like an insurmountable obstacle to overcome. But adding Jones to the mix provides an impact player who can really make opposing defenses pay if they decide to focus on stopping budding star receiver A.J. Brown. Like Brown, Jones is capable of breaking tackles to gain yards after the catch (Jones had 127 yards after first contact in 2019 in 15 games, tied for 18th in the NFL). That brings physicality to the passing game. Tennessee also added 6-foot-3 Josh Reynolds, giving them three big receivers who can easily play on the inside or outside depending on what matchups offensive coordinator Todd Downing wants to create.
Kansas City Chiefs
Who’s the No. 2 wide receiver after the Chiefs lost Sammy Watkins to free agency?
The Chiefs had added a significant offensive threat each season since quarterback Patrick Mahomes became their starter, beginning with Watkins in 2018 and followed by Mecole Hardman and Clyde Edwards-Helaire. But that streak ended this year and at a curious time, since the Chiefs have nobody proven to replace Watkins as the No. 2 receiver behind Tyreek Hill. Hardman is the leading candidate, but it takes a leap of faith to believe he can handle the job. The Chiefs have largely resisted giving him more playing time the past two seasons when Watkins has been out of the lineup with injuries. Mahomes has seemed frustrated with Hardman at times, particularly during last year’s Super Bowl.
Las Vegas Raiders
Is it a make-or-break season for quarterback Derek Carr?
To be fair, Carr has never publicly complained about his station with the Raiders. He claimed he would “probably quit football” than play for another team, saying he’d “rather go down with the ship” if he had to. He torpedoed his own trade value with the decree, but with his contract situation, Carr, in search of another extension, might be entering a make-or-break season, even if he is coming off career highs in passing yards (4,103), passer rating (101.4) and Total QBR (71.0). The guaranteed money in the five-year, $125 million extension he signed in 2017 is all paid out, and he is entering the penultimate year of the deal. And a reimagined offensive line, in the wake of center Rodney Hudson, right guard Gabe Jackson and right tackle Trent Brown all being traded away, offers a hint of apprehension.
Los Angeles Chargers
What does quarterback Justin Herbert need to do to build on his rookie success?
I’ve been told Herbert has been working extremely hard in his first real offseason after the COVID-19 pandemic made last offseason completely virtual. He’s exceptionally smart (was an academic Heisman winner) and dedicated to becoming great after setting an NFL rookie record with 31 touchdown passes last season. Herbert is learning another new system after the Chargers’ coaching change, but a lot of it remains from last year, and new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi has been impressed. Herbert needs to have this system down, to the footwork and the calls, to the release of the ball. He didn’t have an in-person offseason last year, so he is hungry and ready to build on his 4,336 yards, in which he completed 66.6% of his passes.
Will running back Ezekiel Elliott rebound from a subpar season?
There is no way to sugarcoat Elliott’s 2020 season. It was far from what was expected and made worse by a high-priced contract. He had a career-low 979 yards and lost a career-high five fumbles. He had two 100-yard games. It’s too easy to count him out. The five games he played with Prescott last season might be proof, although the fumbles were troubling. He was on pace for a 1,165-yard season with Prescott on the field. In the spring, Elliott looked to be moving well. Teammates said he is in great shape and eager to show he has a lot of high-level play left in his career.
New York Giants
What should we expect from running back Saquon Barkley after his knee injury?
Speaking to people around the league and with the Giants, there doesn’t seem to be much concern about Barkley returning as a dominant player. As one general manager said at the time of his injury, “He is a Adrian Peterson-like freak.” But that doesn’t mean he will have an Adrian Peterson-like comeback season after he tore his ACL. Peterson rushed for more than 2,000 yards in 2012, and was back at 100% usage by Week 1. The Giants are going to bring Barkley along slowly. It’s possible he is not back by Week 1 or not handling anywhere near a full workload. The Giants want him to be part of the organization long term, and he has his eyes on a new contract. Rushing him back would be irresponsible. Everyone seems incentivized to play this slowly and cautiously.
Is Jalen Hurts the answer at quarterback?
Teammates often describe Hurts as a “natural leader,” and responded positively when he took the reins for the final quarter of the 2020 season in place of Carson Wentz. He had some good moments amid trying circumstances, highlighted by his performance in an upset Week 14 win against the New Orleans Saints in his first professional start. Management felt good enough about his ability to part with Wentz and set him up as the QB1 for this season. But with upwards of three first-round picks in the 2022 NFL draft, the Eagles are hedging their bets. If Hurts doesn’t bump up his passing numbers (52% completion rate, 6 TDs, 4 INT) and provide sufficient evidence he is the guy, Philadelphia is in position to use those picks to either trade for a veteran QB or move up and take one in next year’s draft.
Washington Football Team
Will Chase Young become a top-five edge rusher?
Perhaps not this season, but he will come close. To do so, Young must surpass players such as the 49ers’ Nick Bosa, the Chargers’ Joey Bosa, Browns’ Myles Garrett, Bulls’ Khalil Mack and Steelers’ T.J. Watt, among others. That’s asking quite a bit in his second season. Young finished with 7.5 sacks last season, including four in his last six games. But here’s what some elite pass-rushers did in their first two years: Mack (four sacks to 15); T.J. Watt (seven to 13); J.J. Watt (5.5 to 20.5); Denver’s Von Miller (11.5 to 18.5). Young played through a hip injury last season while developing as a pass-rusher. He made big plays with four forced fumbles and three recoveries, including one he returned for a touchdown. He’s a driven player. Washington’s best interior pass-rusher, Matt Ioannidis, missed most of last season, so his return helps.
Can D’Andre Swift become a three-down back who breaks the Lions drought of 1,000-yard rushers?
As a rookie, Swift had to pay his dues. He played behind veteran Adrian Peterson, who led the team in 2020 with 604 rushing yards, but Swift was actually the more effective option. But now, all signs point to Swift as being “the guy” in Detroit. Swift spent much of this offseason training with Mo Wells at the House of Athlete training facility in Florida, where he focused on full-body strength and conditioning, with hopes of showing his versatility in the passing game as well. Lions running backs coach Duce Staley has also worked with the second-year back to understand coverages. Swift would become the Lions’ first 1,000-yard rusher since Reggie Bush in 2013.
Green Bay Packers
Now that it appears Aaron Rodgers will be back for at least one more year, how successful would a ‘Last Dance’ season be?
That all depends on how Rodgers is received. Surely, coach Matt LaFleur and his offensive staff — who were put in the unenviable position of trying to develop Jordan Love while hoping for a Rodgers return — will be thrilled. But what about the players? Will there be any locker-room backlash from other players who may feel like Rodgers has put himself above the team? And given Rodgers’ read-between-the-lines comments this offseason, it became fairly clear his beef was with upper management. So what happens when Rodgers passes GM Brian Gutekunst in the hallway or bumps into team president Mark Murphy while boarding the team charter for a road game? At best, it’s an awkward situation. At worst, it creates an uneasiness throughout the team. If all of that can be blocked out, then there’s no reason to think the Packers can’t make one more run at it with Rodgers.
Cousins is not at risk of losing his starting status this season after the Vikings drafted Mond 66th overall. Mond, a four-year Texas A&M starter, has a long way to go before Minnesota could think about making a change at quarterback, which is why he ended up in the perfect spot given the time he’ll have to develop. Nonetheless, the Vikings have the building blocks of a contingency plan should Cousins, 32, underperform in 2021. That makes this a make-or-break season for Cousins, who has two years remaining on the $66 million extension he signed in March 2020, most of which is fully guaranteed.
What type of role will No. 4 overall pick Kyle Pitts have within the offense?
Pitts should have a dynamic role in the offense from the first game of the season. Top 5 draft picks usually see playing time early on, and in his spring workouts Pitts looked like he fit in pretty smoothly. Quarterback Matt Ryan was throwing to him often, and they were developing a rapport. He’s also a player that coach Arthur Smith is going to line up all over the field to create mismatches. That’s a staple of a Smith offense and a tenet of his entire philosophy. Having the ability to almost be positionless — Pitts is listed as a tight end but can play any tight end role, can be a fullback/H-back if need, as well as a receiver outside or in the slot — is going to be huge for what Smith wants to create.
What will a healthy Christian McCaffrey do for the offense?
New Orleans Saints
Will wide reciever Michael Thomas return to form?
No matter who’s playing quarterback, this question might be even more important to the Saints’ prognosis. Thomas missed nine games last season with a nagging ankle injury that he suffered in Week 1 and never fully returned to form while catching his only touchdown pass in the playoffs. The Saints have huge question marks in the passing game after releasing veteran receiver Emmanuel Sanders and tight ends Jared Cook and Josh Hill during a salary-cap purge this offseason. So they desperately need Thomas to get back as close as possible to the form that earned him the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year award in 2019, when he shattered the league record with 149 receptions. The Saints didn’t hold any traditional practice sessions in the spring, so we have to wait for camp to see how healthy he looks.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
How is Tom Brady‘s surgically repaired knee progressing? Will he have any limitations in camp?
Brady showed no signs of injury during the Bucs’ three-day mandatory minicamp and participated in everything except blitz periods, as coach Bruce Arians didn’t want an overzealous defender turning the corner and inadvertently bumping into him. But teammates have said they don’t even notice the injury. “It’s a little weird because you hear about it in the media and stuff like that, but as far as day-to-day, any time we’re throwing with him it doesn’t feel like a thing that he recently had, like an operation or whatever,” wide receiver Chris Godwin said. “We don’t think about it. If we see him out there then he’s physically able to go and he does a really good job, which is being a professional coming ready to bring his A-game.” Brady’s wearing the knee sleeve, his footwork looks pristine, and he’s taking a ton of reps. We’ll know he’s fully healed though when he stays in for blitz periods and is throwing a bit more on the move.
How effective will J.J. Watt be in the Cardinals’ defense?
Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph’s scheme will give Watt — signed as a free agent this offseason — opportunities to blitz and rush the passer. That’s the way Watt prefers to play. Plus, Watt will have Chandler Jones on the opposite side, which will open up one-on-one opportunities. Jones is coming off a biceps injury that ended his season in Week 5, and he’s focused on returning to 2019 form, when he had 19 sacks. He’s been posting his workouts on social media and looks like he’s in some of the best shape of his career. If that translates to the field, then his production will force teams to decide who to double team: him or Jones.
Los Angeles Rams
Is Matthew Stafford the quarterback that coach Sean McVay needs to make his offense go?
The Rams’ offense has been in steady decline following a 13-3 loss to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII, and the hope is Stafford will be the catalyst in turning it around with his leadership, throwing ability and experience. Through 12 seasons in Detroit, Stafford became the all-time leader in every meaningful Lions passing category but did not win a playoff game in three appearances. In L.A., Stafford will not only be able to rely on his own talent, but his arrival has injected energy into McVay as a playcaller. Stafford will be surrounded by playmakers, including receivers Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and DeSean Jackson and tight end Tyler Higbee, but there could be depth issues in the backfield.
San Francisco 49ers
The Niners have no timeline for Lance to start, and there’s no need to do it any time soon. Coach Kyle Shanahan said if Lance turns it into a competition with Garoppolo then he’s OK letting that play out to a natural conclusion. In other words, San Francisco is prepared to have Garoppolo as the starter and allow Lance time to get settled in before asking too much of him. But there are signs Lance can be ready sooner than expected. Lance had a lot of responsibilities at North Dakota State, which runs a pro-style offense with some concepts similar to what Shanahan does. That should help him adapt. Make no mistake, Shanahan’s playbook is a different animal, but Lance has proved a fast learner and capable of making a run at the starting job.
Does Seahawks GM John Schneider have another big summer trade up his sleeve?
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