The 2021 NFL season is nearly here, with teams taking on a 17-week slate of games for the first time in history. The season opener is Thursday night, when the reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers host the Dallas Cowboys. Our NFL Nation reporters have you covered with intel and projections on all 32 teams ahead of kickoff.
We have big questions: What has to happen for the New England Patriots to get back on top in the AFC East?
We have bold predictions: The Seattle Seahawks were seventh in sacks last season, but we’re predicting they lead the league in 2021.
We also have depth charts, schedules and rosters. This is what you need to know for the season, which concludes in February at Super Bowl LVI in Inglewood, California.
The ESPN Football Power Index (FPI) ranked every team from 1-32 based on how it projects the season to play out. Click the links below to read more about each team.
The Chiefs will make it to a third consecutive Super Bowl and win it for the second time in three years if …
… their offensive line rebuild is as successful as the Chiefs hope. That’s where any growth in the offense is likely to come from as the Chiefs declined to add a significant skill player for the first time in years. Kansas City has to be better in not only protecting QB Patrick Mahomes but in the run game as well. They will likely start five new linemen from last season, including two rookies, another first-year player and a left tackle in Orlando Brown Jr. who is trying to establish himself at a new position.
Breakout candidate: Willie Gay, LB
Gay didn’t have much of an impact as a second-round pick in 2020, but judging from his play at training camp, where he was one of the Chiefs’ better defensive players, that should change this season. Gay should help the Chiefs with one of their defensive weaknesses, which has been in covering backs out of the backfield. He showed good instincts and range in breaking up a number of passes at camp.
Bold prediction: DL Chris Jones will top his career high in sacks (15.5).
Jones is taking well to his position change to defensive end, but he will likely still get a significant number of snaps at his former position on the interior of the line. This should play to his strengths as a pass-rusher. Jones predicted he would lead the NFL in sacks before the 2018 season, and while he fell short, his 15.5 made for a breakout season. Jones is making no similar predictions this year, but look for him to get similar results. — Adam Teicher
The Bucs will repeat as Super Bowl champions if …
… they stay healthy. They are returning all 22 starters on offense and defense after their Super Bowl season, but TEs O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate are still coming back from injuries. Their wide receiving corps was also decimated by injuries last season. That’s only half the battle. A major reason the Bucs won Super Bowl LV was because, as coach Bruce Arians put it, they “beat the virus.” Last season, just four starters — RB Ronald Jones II, LT Donovan Smith, OLB Shaquil Barrett and ILB Devin White — missed a combined six games between the regular season and postseason because of being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Breakout candidate: Giovani Bernard, RB
This was actually a toss-up between Bernard and rookie OLB Joe Tryon-Shoyinka. Bernard’s role is more clearly defined right now. Considering how badly the Buccaneers needed a true pass-catching running back last season — they led the NFL with a staggering 15 drops from the running back position — Bernard’s been a breath of fresh air for QB Tom Brady and the Bucs’ screen game. Those two will thrive together, even if Jones and Leonard Fournette are sharing the load on first and second downs.
Bold prediction: WR Antonio Brown will lead the Bucs in receiving yards.
There are a lot of mouths to feed on this Bucs’ offense, including two Pro Bowl wide receivers who happen to make more money than Brown — Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. One year ago, it looked like Brown was done with football after multiple off-field incidents. But since sorting out most of his legal issues and undergoing a knee scope this offseason, Brown has looked unstoppable in practice — aside from a fistfight in the joint practices with the Titans. Keeping his composure will be key. “This is the healthiest he’s been in years,” Arians said. “He’s playing at a speed I saw four or five years ago.” — Jenna Laine
QB Josh Allen will improve upon his MVP runner-up season in 2020 if …
… the Bills’ offensive line stays healthy. Last season, Allen turned in a career year despite a patchwork line that couldn’t get the run game going. With improved offensive line play and the threat of at least a competent run game, Allen and Buffalo’s passing offense will soar in 2021.
Breakout candidate: AJ Epenesa, DE
The 2020 second-round pick has been nearly unblockable throughout the preseason.
If he can bring consistent pressure this season, it will be a huge boost for a defensive line that was revamped this offseason. Paired with promising rookie Greg Rousseau, Epenesa could be a force moving forward.
Bold prediction: The Bills will win the AFC.
No, that’s not an incomplete sentence — the Bills will win the AFC East and the conference in 2021. Continuity is key in the NFL, and the Bills return 21 starters from last season’s team that was one win from the Super Bowl, as well as the same head coach and coordinators for a fourth straight year. With the sting from last season’s loss to the Kansas City Chiefs still fresh in their minds, the Bills will make a Super Bowl appearance for the first time since the 1993 season. — Marcel Louis-Jacques
The Ravens passing game will make the leap from the NFL’s worst if …
… the wide receivers stay healthy, which has been a problem this summer. QB Lamar Jackson‘s top three targets on the outside — Marquise Brown, Rashod Bateman and Sammy Watkins — missed a combined 38 practices during the team’s five-week training camp. Bateman, the No. 27 overall draft pick in 2021, had groin surgery during camp and could miss the first month of the season. When playing, they have all stretched the field this summer. The Ravens are banking on Brown, Bateman and Watkins to make defenses pay for stacking the box to slow down their dominant run game.
Breakout candidate: Gus Edwards, RB
The Ravens’ prime breakout candidate was RB J.K. Dobbins before he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the preseason finale. Now, Edwards steps up to get his first chance to become an NFL featured back at the start of a season. He has been among the most consistent runners in the league, averaging over five yards per carry in each of his first three seasons. With the increased role, Edwards has a chance to produce 1,100 yards and close to double-digit touchdowns in the NFL’s most dominant rushing attack.
Bold prediction: Ravens will finish No. 1 in defense.
There’s plenty of buzz about how good the defenses in Pittsburgh and Cleveland will be this season, but the Ravens look primed to have the best defense in the NFL. In three seasons with Don “Wink” Martindale as defensive coordinator, Baltimore has allowed the fewest yards (307.8) and points (18.2) in the league. The biggest question mark surrounding this defense had been the pass rush. But the Ravens signed Justin Houston (97.5 career sacks) and used a first-round pick on Odafe Oweh, who could be the fastest edge rusher in franchise history. This defense has the potential to be scary. — Jamison Hensley
Aaron Rodgers will be back as the Packers’ quarterback in 2022 if …
… hell freezes over. OK, that might be a tad strong, but everything about this season is setting up as a last hurrah. The Packers voided the 2023 season on Rodgers contract specifically to appease his desire to control where he plays in 2022. It is now an easy out for both parties. Also, the Packers are in a brutal salary-cap situation for next year and moving on from Rodgers would alleviate some of the problem.
Breakout candidate: AJ Dillon, RB
Cue up the Week 16 film from last season against the Titans when Dillon rushed 21 times for 124 yards and two touchdowns. That accounted for more than half of Dillon’s rushing yards for his entire rookie season. With Jamaal Williams gone, Dillon steps into the RB2 role. The Packers have always tried to keep Aaron Jones fresh, so Dillon should get plenty more chances in year two.
Field Yates and Stephania Bell weigh up AJ Dillon’s fantasy value as he competes with Aaron Jones for run options.
Bold prediction: Rodgers will go out on top with a Super Bowl victory.
After two straight NFC title game losses the last two seasons, Rodgers will finally play well in a conference championship game, and get the Packers back to the Super Bowl. And when they win it, it will be the perfect end for Rodgers’ time in Green Bay. He can then pull a Tom Brady and try to do it again somewhere else. — Rob Demovsky
The Browns’ defense will be one of the AFC’s best if …
… DE Jadeveon Clowney stays healthy and plays up to his potential. Clowney has always had the talent, but the 2014 No. 1 overall pick has continually struggled with injuries. Clowney seems healthy again and starred early on in training camp. The Browns already boast one elite pass-rusher in DE Myles Garrett. If Clowney gives them another, the Browns defense will be among the AFC’s best.
Breakout candidate: Donovan Peoples-Jones, WR
The Browns have plenty of firepower at wide receiver, headlined by Pro Bowlers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. Peoples-Jones was the MVP of training camp, flashing a strong rapport with QB Baker Mayfield. Because of Cleveland’s powerful running game, its impressive array of tight ends and the star power of OBJ and Landry, Peoples-Jones probably won’t put up big numbers this season. But the 2020 sixth-round pick out of Michigan could emerge into a key option for Mayfield in Cleveland’s underrated passing attack.
Field Yates and Matthew Berry break down Donovan Peoples-Jones’ numbers and if he is a fantasy sleeper.
Bold prediction: Cleveland’s defense will be among the league’s most improved.
With eight new defensive starters, the Browns might struggle defensively for the first month or so of the season. But down the stretch, Cleveland will boast one the five best defenses in the league, elevating the Browns into a legitimate Super Bowl contender. — Jake Trotter
DT Aaron Donald becomes the third defensive player to win MVP if …
… he breaks Hall of Fame defensive end Michael Strahan’s single-season sacks record of 22.5, the Rams’ defense ranks among the best in the NFL and the Rams make a dominant run to Super Bowl LVI. Yes, Donald and the Rams must achieve all of that for the three-time Defensive Player of the Year to win MVP. Look at it this way, the last non-quarterback to win MVP was Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson in 2012. To find the last defensive player who won MVP, you must go back 34 years to when New York Giants outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor won the award. In 2018, Donald had 20.5 sacks, the most ever by an interior lineman, as the Rams went 13-3 and made a Super Bowl run — and still didn’t win the award.
Breakout candidate: Van Jefferson, WR
Jefferson flashed and appeared mature beyond his years as a rookie throughout training camp last season, but he made minimal impact on the offense with 19 receptions for 220 yards and a touchdown. Jefferson admitted his head was spinning last season, but he now has a firm grasp on the playbook and feels more comfortable in his Season 2. With a consistent connection established throughout camp with new QB Matthew Stafford, coupled with the Rams’ plan to monitor veteran WR DeSean Jackson‘s workload, watch for Jefferson to make a splash in an offense that’s preparing to put up big numbers.
Bold prediction: The Rams will appear in Super Bowl LVI.
With three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Donald and All-Pro CB Jalen Ramsey anchoring the defending top-ranked defense — plus the acquisition of Stafford in a gutsy offseason trade that sent former No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff, two first-round picks and a third-round pick to the Detroit Lions — the Rams are ready to make their second Super Bowl run over the past four seasons. And what better time to do it than 2021, with the Super Bowl being played inside SoFi Stadium — Rams owner Stan Kroenke’s $5 billion masterpiece — on Feb. 13. — Lindsey Thiry
Trey Lance is the starting quarterback by Week …
… 11. It could easily happen sooner, but this feels about right. Predicting the health of starter Jimmy Garoppolo is difficult, so let’s operate under the assumption that Garoppolo stays healthy and plays well enough to hold the job through the Week 6 bye. A change for Week 7 is plausible, but the Niners should have a winning record going into that game. Out of the bye week, the Niners play the Colts, Bears, Cardinals and Rams, which could bring some bumps and bruises — setting the stage for Lance to take over. Lance will have played plenty situationally by then, and things should have slowed down enough for him to take the controls for what the Niners hope is a stretch run to the postseason.
Breakout candidate: Brandon Aiyuk, WR
Aiyuk flashed plenty of potential as a rookie, but he played in only 12 games because of an early hamstring injury and a late stint on the COVID-19 list. A bulked-up Aiyuk established himself as a favorite target of all San Francisco quarterbacks during camp, catching almost everything thrown his way — save for a couple of hiccups in preseason games. With a full offseason under his belt, Aiyuk has all the ingredients to become the Niners’ No. 1 wideout.
Bold prediction: DE Dee Ford will have at least eight sacks.
The 49ers aren’t counting on Ford for anything after he missed all but one game last season because of a back injury. But Ford has slowly been rounding back into form in training camp, and showed his usual burst off the edge. If Ford is healthy, he won’t be asked to play more than roughly 20 snaps per game, but those should put him in position to do what he does best and get after the quarterback. — Nick Wagoner
QB Russell Wilson will finish the season happy to be a Seahawk if …
… three things happen: 1. His pass protection improves; 2. He likes the way he fits in Seattle’s new offense; 3. The Seahawks make it to at least the NFC Championship Game. Otherwise, Wilson might have a hard time believing that the arrow is pointing up for himself and for the team, which hasn’t gotten past the divisional round in its last five playoff appearances. Wilson likes the fast tempo of new coordinator Shane Waldron’s offense and should take fewer hits with more of an emphasis on short and intermediate throws. He also likes having newcomer Gabe Jackson at right guard. But his pass protection will suffer if LT Duane Brown misses games amid his contract dispute.
Breakout candidate: Jordyn Brooks, LB
Last year’s first-round pick quietly had a strong rookie season, even though it didn’t include as many splash plays as fellow rookie Patrick Queen of the Ravens. The Seahawks took Brooks over Queen at No. 27 because they felt he was better built and just as fast. But even when he became a starter early in the year, Brooks didn’t get enough of a chance to show that speed. He regularly came off the field on third down because Seattle’s coaching staff preferred K.J. Wright‘s experience. With Wright gone, more playing time for Brooks will mean more of an opportunity to break out in 2021.
Bold prediction: The Seahawks will lead the NFL in sacks.
They led the league in sacks over the final 12 weeks of last season and return all but one of their top pass-rushers from that group. The addition of DE Kerry Hyder Jr. in free agency, and DE Darrell Taylor‘s return from his lost rookie season, should be more than enough to make up for Jarran Reed‘s departure. With Taylor taking over at strongside linebacker and a scheme adjustment to their defensive front, the Seahawks will have an extra pass-rushing threat on the field most of the time. — Brady Henderson
The Patriots will win the AFC East if …
… the defense — which has been stocked with a decisive upgrade in talent — finishes among the NFL’s top five in points allowed. For all the focus that was on the team’s QB competition, the defense has the potential to be the backbone of the team — assuming a lack of depth in the secondary doesn’t come back to haunt it.
Breakout candidate: Josh Uche, OLB
There have been times in training camp and preseason when Uche was the most disruptive player on the field, such as one day against the Giants in late August when he was consistently creating pressure. The 2020 second-round pick from Michigan has some experienced linebackers around him in Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Ja’Whaun Bentley and Matt Judon, and that should help him key in on a specific role that allows him to create havoc.
Bold prediction: QB Mac Jones will win Offensive Rookie of the Year.
The No. 15 overall pick has come a long way in a short time. The things he is doing as a rookie running the Patriots’ traditional system — such as setting protections and calling audibles — are next-level stuff. One excellent preseason practice against the New York Giants, in particular, stood out as a preview of what could be coming. — Mike Reiss
Tua Tagovailoa keeps his job as the Dolphins’ starting quarterback if …
… his play from the preseason carries into the regular season. Tagovailoa has looked confident, decisive and comfortable entering his second year in the league, something the Dolphins will need if they are to make the playoffs in a loaded AFC. Tagovailoa needs to remain aggressive and display the ability to win games with his arm when needed. The Dolphins will be sitting at home again in January if he is a game manager in 2021.
Breakout candidate: Mike Gesicki, TE
Although last season was a breakout of sorts for Gesicki, the chemistry he built with Tagovailoa this preseason has been palpable. Even after a 700-yard, six-touchdown performance in 2020, Gesicki officially breaks out as one of the league’s best receiving tight ends in 2021.
Bold prediction: The Dolphins will win a playoff game.
Miami hasn’t made the playoffs since 2015 and came one win short last season. The franchise has not won a playoff game since 2000. But the Dolphins’ defense features an elite secondary that could make life trouble for opposing quarterbacks on any given week. And that, combined with Tagovailoa leading an upstart offense, helps Miami break both playoff streaks in 2021. — Marcel Louis-Jacques
The Titans can rise above other AFC title contenders if …
… the defense can show improvement in third-down conversions allowed, red zone defense and sacks. S Kevin Byard said the defensive backs are focused on being aggressive challenging receivers at the line of scrimmage. The additions of LB Bud Dupree, DE Denico Autry and LB Rashad Weaver should improve the pass rush and allow the Titans to get pressure with the front four. Defensive coordinator Shane Bowen seems willing to blitz a lot more as well. The three words that are consistently mentioned as an area of focus for the defense are confidence, communication and urgency.
Breakout candidate: Amani Hooker, S
Hooker is coming off a season in which he posted four interceptions as a reserve safety. The third-year veteran enters as a starter along with Byard. Defensive backs coach Scott Booker said he has seen Hooker become more comfortable within the defense and he has shown he is capable of being a leader on the team. Hooker’s ball skills have been on display throughout training camp, including his interception of Buccaneers QB Tom Brady during joint practices.
The NFL hasn’t had a team with two 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,500-yard rusher since the 2006 St. Louis Rams. But defenses have to pick their poison against the Titans. If they focus on stopping the run, Jones and Brown will see a lot of single coverage. The Titans haven’t had two 1,000-yard receivers since Derrick Mason (1,168 yards) and Drew Bennett (1,247) in 2004. Conversely, committing extra defenders to stop the passing game means fewer players in the box, which makes it easier for the offensive line to open up rushing lanes for Henry. — Turron Davenport
The Saints will commit to QB Jameis Winston as their starter beyond this season if …
… he reminds everyone what made him so special in the first place. The former No. 1 pick and Heisman Trophy winner is still just 27 years old. He has a great opportunity for a Ryan Tannehill-like renaissance now that he is surrounded by one of the NFL’s best offensive minds, offensive lines and defenses. Turnovers obviously derailed Winston’s career in Tampa, but he and coach Sean Payton have insisted he will play a smarter brand of football this time around.
Breakout Candidate: Marquez Callaway, WR
There is some risk of overhype here, since Callaway could go back to a No. 2 or 3 WR role once Michael Thomas and Tre’Quan Smith are healthy. But the second-year pro has taken full advantage of his temp job as a WR1 on a consistent basis throughout the summer — highlighted by two incredible deep TD catches from Winston in the Saints’ second preseason game. The 6-2, 204-pounder is clearly poised for a big role after showing flashes as an undrafted rookie in 2020.
Stephania Bell expects Michael Thomas to be available for the Saints in Week 7.
The Saints let DE Trey Hendrickson go in free agency after his unexpected 13.5-sack breakout last season. But Jordan and Davenport should make up for the loss. Davenport, a first-round pick in 2018, looks poised for a breakout season if he can finally stay healthy. And Jordan, a six-time Pro Bowler, should be able to bounce back from a surprisingly quiet 7.5 sacks in 2020. — Mike Triplett
Coordinator Dan Quinn gets the Cowboys’ defense back to respectability if …
… LB Micah Parsons can handle all the Cowboys are asking of him. The 2021 No. 12 overall pick is lining up at middle linebacker, making the calls and checks, while also being used as an edge rusher. His versatility could free up others on defense, such as edge rushers DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, and Leighton Vander Esch or Keanu Neal at linebacker. That’s a lot of responsibility to put on a rookie, but he has shown he can be that player. Of course, having a high-scoring offense will make it easier for the Cowboys’ defense to climb back to respectability, too.
Breakout candidate: CeeDee Lamb, WR
Would Lamb really qualify as a breakout star? He had 74 catches for 935 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie, and he is a first-round draft pick, so people should know him. But he could do so much more, especially in a full season with QB Dak Prescott. He caught at least five passes in all of Prescott’s five starts and had two 100-yard games. The duo’s lack of work in training camp together isn’t that concerning because of how well they clicked last season without any real offseason or preseason games.
Bold prediction: RB Ezekiel Elliott will lead the NFL in rushing.
If that’s not bold, especially after Elliott ran for 979 yards last season, what is? Many assume he is on the downside of his career after he signed his $90 million contract, and has been passed on the list of best running backs by guys such as Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook or others. With Prescott missing a lot of training camp and four preseason games with a latissimus strain, Elliott needs to be a featured part of the attack. And with the returns of Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and La’el Collins, the offensive line is on a mission to reclaim its spot as one of the best in the NFL, too. In their first six games, the Cowboys face four run defenses that ranked outside the top half of the league in 2020. — Todd Archer
Coach Mike Zimmer keeps his job if the Vikings …
… make the postseason. Minnesota has not missed the playoffs in back-to-back years since Zimmer was hired in 2014, so it’s critical for the head coach’s job security that the Vikings are playing well into January. It doesn’t matter how they get there — whether Zimmer’s defense bounces back after they poured millions into overhauling the roster this offseason or QB Kirk Cousins and the offense lead the way. All that matters for Zimmer’s future in Minnesota is getting to the postseason.
Breakout candidate: Tyler Conklin, TE
With Irv Smith Jr. expected to miss the entire 2021 season while recovering from knee surgery, his tight end counterpart will have even more opportunities to stand out. Conklin, who is entering a contract year, caught 15 of 21 targets in the final four games last season, showing promise beyond his role as a blocker. The Vikings utilize sets with two tight ends often, so expect Conklin to be consistently involved in the offense. Even coach Mike Zimmer sees an expanded role for the former fifth-round pick. “He’s kind of emerged as a guy that’s moving upward,” Zimmer said this offseason.
Bold prediction: WR Adam Thielen will lead the Vikings in receiving touchdowns.
Justin Jefferson put the NFL on notice as a rookie, so you can expect even more attention geared toward the second-year wide receiver in 2021. The more teams key in on Jefferson, the more opportunities Thielen will have to shine as Cousins’ No. 1 target. Thielen had a career-best 14 touchdowns last season. He will top that number in 2021, given how few receiving options the Vikings have outside of their top two receivers, and how comfortable Cousins is finding Thielen in the red zone. — Courtney Cronin
… the unit forces a lot of turnovers to give the offense, which would be led by QBs Jacob Eason or Sam Ehlinger (currently injured), a short field to work with because the Colts will be missing two of their three most important offensive players. The defense has a goal of forcing at least 40 turnovers this season. There is no better time to try to reach that goal than facing offenses led by QBs Russell Wilson (Seahawks), Matthew Stafford (Rams), Ryan Tannehill (Titans), Tua Tagovailoa (Dolphins) and Lamar Jackson (Ravens). The Colts finished fifth in the NFL in takeaways last season with 25.
Breakout candidate: Michael Pittman Jr, WR
Depth isn’t an issue at receiver for the Colts, but Pittman is the one who stands out the most at that position. Pittman had a solid rookie season in 2020 — 503 receiving yards in 13 games. Now, he is ready to take the next step of passing veteran T.Y. Hilton as the team’s No. 1 receiver, especially with Hilton currently sidelined by a neck injury. Pittman’s combination of speed, strength and size (6-foot-4) makes him a tough cover for smaller defensive backs. He was the most consistent receiver during training camp for the Colts.
Bold prediction: Wentz will play all 17 regular-season games and have a career-high completion percentage.
Yes, Wentz has played every regular-season game only twice, and he’s recovering from foot surgery, and he was benched after playing 12 games last season in Philadelphia. But Wentz and Colts coach Frank Reich know this is a prove-it point in the quarterback’s career after flaming out with the Eagles. Wentz’s highest season completion percentage was in 2018, when he completed 69.6% of his passes. Andrew Luck and Jacoby Brissett both had their best completion seasons under Reich. Philip Rivers had the second-highest percentage of his 17-year career last season. Now it’s Wentz’s turn to do it under Reich. — Mike Wells
QB Ben Roethlisberger will return to his 2018 form if …
… the offensive line improves from last season. With an almost all-new cast — or at least different players in different roles — the Steelers are trying to improve a line that was one of the worst in the league a season ago. But injuries at tackle and left guard and a two-practice absence at center kept the starting group from fully practicing as a unit until the week before the third preseason game against Detroit. The line performed well in that game, and if they can hold up and protect Roethlisberger throughout the season, the 39-year-old can continue to turn back the clock.
Breakout candidate: Pat Freiermuth, TE
The Steelers could start three offensive rookies in Week 1: Freiermuth, RB Najee Harris and C Kendrick Green. While Harris is an obvious breakout candidate, Freiermuth isn’t far behind. He had a two-touchdown performance against the Lions, and afterward, Roethlisberger jokingly told the media to stop talking about him so he could stay under wraps a little bit longer. Good luck with that.
Freiermuth drew comparisons to TE Rob Gronkowski in high school and college, but he reminds Roethlisberger and the Steelers faithful of another dominant tight end: Heath Miller. Freiermuth earned accolades for his blocking, but he could also be a fierce red zone threat. In a Matt Canada offense that heavily utilizes tight ends, Freiermuth is poised for a big rookie season.
Bold prediction: The Steelers will win a playoff game.
Hear me out. Yes, the Steelers have the toughest schedule in the NFL, and they’re playing in a division that has only grown stronger since last season. But they’ve done well to fill the holes on the roster — adding LB Melvin Ingram III and OL Trai Turner before camp and trading for LB Joe Schobert during the preseason. Winning their first playoff game since 2016 is doable if the offensive line keeps Roethlisberger upright and opens holes for Harris, and the defense, led by T.J. Watt, returns to the dominating form it had prior to ACL injuries to LBs Bud Dupree and Devin Bush. — Brooke Pryor
The Chargers finally gain a foothold in the Los Angeles market if …
… QB Justin Herbert stays healthy and expands on his NFL rookie-record 31 touchdown passes. It will help if he’s kept upright by an offensive line that went through an overhaul this offseason and the defense holds leads better. The Chargers lost four games last season in which they held double-digit leads, and have 16 one-score losses over the past two seasons.
Breakout candidate: Jerry Tillery, DT
Tillery, a first-round pick of the Chargers in 2019, says he’s in the best shape of his life. He should excel in coach Brandon Staley’s new defensive scheme. He spent the summer working out with a trainer in Hawaii and has taken off some weight. Tillery, who had five sacks combined in his first two seasons, said he worked on footwork and getting faster at everything.
Field Yates calls Chargers QB Justin Herbert a “phenomenal value” for fantasy managers.
Bold prediction: The Chargers will make the playoffs — and maybe win the division title.
Staley has reenergized this group, which enters the season healthy. Major injuries have struck the Chargers in training camp in the past, so improved health, a maturing Herbert at quarterback and the addition of a coach who led the Rams to the NFL’s No. 1 defense last season will pave the way for a Chargers breakthrough. — Shelley Smith
The Broncos will not be quarterback shopping this offseason if …
… they win a playoff game. But even if they don’t, there is a caveat: They won’t add just anyone. They’ll take a long look at who is actually available on the market (What say you, Packers and Aaron Rodgers?) and the draft before committing to move on.
Breakout candidate: Jerry Jeudy, WR
There is some hesitation in declaring Jeudy a breakout candidate because his rookie season was already very good (52 catches for 856 yards). He did have one really bad afternoon against the Chargers (five drops), but was hampered by poor quarterback play, somewhat choppy playcalling and receiver Courtland Sutton‘s knee injury, which allowed defenses to put some No. 1 corners in front of him. His routes are too good, his work ethic too strong; 2021 is going to be a big year.
Field Yates and Stephania Bell detail what it will take for Jerry Jeudy to find success in Denver this season.
Bold prediction: The Broncos will make the playoffs — barely.
If they have the injuries or turnovers they had last season (they led the league in giveaways), this ain’t happening. But quietly, under the cover of a quarterback competition that has attracted all the attention, they have assembled a talented roster with some depth, much better team speed and, potentially, a hellacious defense. That has been a playoff recipe for the Broncos in the past. — Jeff Legwold
DE Chase Young becomes one of the league’s top five edge rushers if …
… his game matures faster than anticipated. Young is healthier entering the season than he was in 2020, when his hip bothered him for half his rookie year. He also has a lot of talent around him, including fellow end Montez Sweat, who could take some sacks away but should also help Young get some favorable matchups.
Breakout candidate: Montez Sweat, DE
Why not? Young is the obvious breakout candidate, but Sweat gets a bit lost in the attention paid to Young, and that will change. Sweat has had a terrific camp and continues to mature as a pass-rusher. He went from seven sacks as a rookie to nine last season and should reside in that 12-15 range this season.
Bold prediction: Washington will repeat as NFC East champs.
Nobody has done this since 2004, but why not now? Washington improved its offense in the offseason with QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, who might not be great, but he’s an upgrade. But it was more than just him as the team added multiple weapons at receiver, including Curtis Samuel. Defensively, Washington will be challenged by a much tougher slate of opposing quarterbacks (six finished among the top 11 in Total QBR last season). But it has one of the best lines in football and added speed and more diverse coverage — notably CB William Jackson III — in the back seven. More importantly, the players have bought into this coaching staff and what it’s trying to build. — John Keim
QB Kyler Murray will be a serious MVP candidate if …
… the Cardinals are a serious playoff contender. That could mean 4,000 passing yards and 700-plus rushing yards while accounting for 45 or more touchdowns — at the minimum. Murray must also find a way to stay healthy
Breakout candidate: Rondale Moore, WR
The rookie out of Purdue has shown signs of brilliance during training camp, but that doesn’t mean his success will translate to the regular season. There’s something different about Moore, though. He seems to have the total package: speed, quickness, hands, strength and IQ. With so much defensive attention on Murray and WRs DeAndre Hopkins and A.J. Green, Moore could be the guy who surprises everyone.
Bold prediction: Green will reach 1,000 receiving yards.
Green has never been a No. 2 receiver in his career — always a No. 1. That means he has always been the focal point of the defense, always was double-teamed, always had the coverage rolled to him. That’s not the case this season playing alongside Hopkins. Green will benefit from that, and a big season could be in his future. — Josh Weinfuss
Justin Fields will be the starting quarterback by Week …
… 7, at the absolute latest. The writing is on the wall. Fields will eventually take the starting job from Andy Dalton, who probably does not have a very long leash. The Bears are making the correct decision by keeping Fields on the bench to begin the year, but they will soon have no choice but to start the rookie. The switch is inevitable.
Breakout candidate: Darnell Mooney, WR
Mooney finished fifth among NFL rookie wide receivers with 61 catches last season. The bar is set even higher in 2021. Mooney is now the unquestioned No. 2 receiver after Allen Robinson II and will be counted on to have even better numbers in Year 2. Mooney’s blazing speed is a dangerous threat that Chicago quarterbacks can utilize all season.
Bold prediction: RB David Montgomery will rush for 1,400 yards.
Coach Matt Nagy wants Montgomery to carry the football 20 times per game. I’m taking Nagy at his word, even though Chicago has occasionally abandoned the run in recent years. Montgomery is too good to ignore — the Bears have to feed him. If the Bears once again become one-dimensional on offense, forget about it. There is too much at stake for that to happen. — Jeff Dickerson
The Panthers will make the playoffs with QB Sam Darnold if …
… LT Cameron Erving holds up and the defense plays to a top-15 level. Protection by Erving is key for Darnold, so he can take advantage of big-time weapons such as RB Christian McCaffrey and WRs DJ Moore, Robby Anderson and Terrace Marshall Jr. The defense also needs to play at a high level so there’s less pressure on Darnold to outscore opponents.
Breakout candidate: Brian Burns, DE/OLB
Burns led the Panthers in sacks last season with nine, but he came oh-so-close to many more. With the addition of edge rusher Haason Reddick — Burns didn’t have a potent rusher opposite him last season — teams won’t be able to shift the protection to his side as easily. As Burns has said repeatedly this preseason, opponents will need to “pick your poison.” Don’t be surprised to see him get 13-15 sacks and show off his patented “Spider-Man” pose even more.
Bold prediction: Darnold will have a winning record.
Darnold is a dreadful 13-25 as a starter in his career — including 2-10 in 2020. He has the talent around him to make the Panthers a playoff contender if he plays slightly above average. That likely won’t result in a record much higher than .500, but at this point, that would be like winning the Super Bowl for the third pick of the 2018 draft. — David Newton
First-year coach Arthur Smith will field a top-10 offense if …
… the offensive line doesn’t stink. The Falcons have the skill-position players to be dynamic offensively, but if QB Matt Ryan doesn’t have protection and holes can’t stay open more than microseconds for RB Mike Davis, the Falcons will struggle to move the ball. They have four legitimate receiving options and two mismatch nightmares in WR Calvin Ridley and TE Kyle Pitts, but if Ryan is under pressure too often, they won’t be nearly as effective.
Breakout candidate: A.J. Terrell, CB
The jump for cornerbacks from their rookie year to second season is always a fairly large one, but Terrell has all the makings of a top-end cover corner. He has fantastic instincts, good speed and strong recovery skills. On an Atlanta defense needing playmakers beyond Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones, Terrell has the chance to be special and give the Falcons a future Pro Bowl corner. The potential is that strong.
Bold prediction: Dante Fowler Jr. will have double-digit sacks.
Fowler has reached this milestone only once in his career (11.5 sacks in 2019 with the Rams), but he has the benefit now of playing in a pressure-happy defense run by Dean Pees. And if opponents can’t predict where pressure is coming from, that could leave more solo matchups for Fowler, who is the most explosive off-the-ball pass-rusher Atlanta has. Plus, there’s motivation here. Fowler took a pay cut this offseason after a subpar 2020 (three sacks) in which he played at least part of the season hurt. Pride plus incentives could lead to a strong year. — Mike Rothstein
Coach Jon Gruden ends the year on the hot seat if …
… Las Vegas pulls another fold job down the stretch. The Raiders started 6-4 in 2019, only to finish 7-9, and were 6-3 last season before ending up 8-8. Gruden might have the most job security in the league with a 10-year contract signed in 2018, but another pratfall would raise more than eyebrows and hackles. Counting his time in Tampa Bay, Gruden’s teams are just 31-45 in December and January (15-23 with the Raiders), and that’s counting the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl run in 2002.
Breakout candidate: Henry Ruggs III, WR
As the first wideout drafted in a historically deep 2020 class for receivers, Ruggs should have already made his imprint, no? Well, injury and ineffectiveness limited him to 26 catches for 452 yards and two touchdowns in 13 games as a rookie. Now, he has gained muscle without losing any of his speed and has, perhaps most importantly, gained the trust of QB Derek Carr. Expect more than the occasional deep ball, then, as well as slants and plays in space to let Ruggs create.
Bold prediction: The Raiders will get into the playoffs.
The Raiders’ offense will cook, as expected, with skill-position weapons all around for Carr as the rebuilt offensive line gives him enough protection to stay clean and comfortable. The returning defense, meanwhile, will mature and be just good enough to prevent another late-season collapse. And Las Vegas, buoyed by a raucous home-field advantage (two of the Raiders’ last three games are at home against division rivals Denver and L.A.), will win more December and January games than it loses. Hence, a wild-card berth that will mark only the franchise’s second postseason appearance since 2002. — Paul Gutierrez
Daniel Jones cements his role as the Giants’ long-term quarterback if …
… he has RB Saquon Barkley and WR Kenny Golladay playing alongside him the entire season. All the tools are there for Jones to be successful. His teammates, coaches and the front office are convinced he’s going to be a quality starting quarterback. All he needs is the support. A star running back who keeps defensive coordinators up at night and a big wide receiver who can go up and get the football are exactly what Jones needs.
Breakout candidate: Xavier McKinney, S
His rookie year was stunted by foot surgery that forced him to miss the first 10 games of the season. But when he returned, McKinney flashed the talent that made him a second-round pick. Now healthy in his second season, expect him to play a significant role as the third safety on a good defense. The Giants are going to find ways to get him on the field, and it will result in a handful of interceptions.
Bold prediction: Jones will throw for more than 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns.
This is the year the polarizing quarterback cements himself as a high-end starter. He will need to nearly triple the 11 touchdown passes he threw last season to make this prediction hold up. Jones will also cut down on his turnovers with the help of Barkley, receivers Golladay and Sterling Shepard and TE Evan Engram. It’s not the MVP-worthy leap Josh Allen (Buffalo Bills) pulled off last season in his third year, but Jones’ version would nonetheless thrill Giants fans. — Jordan Raanan
This season will be considered a success for the Bengals if …
… they are in the playoff hunt at the start of December. The Bengals’ final stretch of games in each of the past two seasons have had zero bearing on the AFC North standings. Cincinnati suffered losses that ended up laying the foundation for key parts of the rebuilding process: first-round QB Joe Burrow (2019) and first-round WR Ja’Marr Chase (2020). This is the third year of the rebuilding process. It’s time to see whether the Bengals have truly done enough to overhaul the roster. At this point, there’s no reason the Bengals shouldn’t be in the playoff discussion when December begins.
Breakout candidate: Tee Higgins, WR
It’s hard to call the team’s leading receiver from 2020 (67 catches, 908 yards) a breakout candidate, but Higgins has a very high ceiling. The team’s second-round pick in 2020 battled a hamstring injury throughout the season and, after declaring for the NFL a year early, an adjustment to the pros during a pandemic. Now, as a second-year player, Higgins looks like a true outside receiver and has the potential to lead Cincinnati in key receiving categories again.
Bold prediction: Burrow will have over 5,000 passing yards.
In each of the past three offseasons, Cincinnati has added a key piece to its passing attack. Now healthy and with (hopefully for his sake) a better offensive line, Burrow has three wide receivers who arguably could be top options on other NFL rosters. Between that, coach Zac Taylor’s offensive ideology and RB Joe Mixon‘s effectiveness in the passing game, it’s not unreasonable to predict Burrow will hit the 5,000-yard mark in a 17-game season. — Ben Baby
QB Jalen Hurts will be the Eagles’ starter for all of the regular season if …
… he stays healthy. Hurts took all the first-team reps during training camp and is the clear No. 1 ahead of Joe Flacco and Gardner Minshew II. His teammates have taken notice of his leadership, work ethic and steady improvement, and are buying in. The Eagles will have as many as three first-round picks in next year’s draft, resources they can use to acquire their QB of the future in case they’re not sold on Hurts, but he should have the 2021 season to prove he’s the player for the job.
Breakout candidate: Quez Watkins, WR
Watkins, a sixth-round draft pick out of Southern Miss in 2020, was the Eagles’ best wide receiver this summer by a healthy margin. His 4.35-second 40-yard dash time was on full display during his 79-yard catch-and-run touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the preseason opener. He showed similar playmaking skills during training camp and in the joint practices against the New England Patriots and New York Jets, where he proved to be a tough cover. Watkins figures to be one of the division’s more electric players this season and will shoot well past his 2020 rookie stat line (seven catches, 106 yards, 1 TD).
Bold prediction: DE Josh Sweat will be among the NFL sack leaders.
Sweat, 24, believes he is on the verge of a career season. His play this summer suggests he’s right. Sweat had one of the best training camps of anyone on the Eagles, routinely knifing into the backfield to get after the quarterback. There were questions about longevity when Sweat was drafted in 2018 because of a brutal left knee injury in high school, but he looks healthy entering Year 4 and has added strength to go along with improved technique. He posted a personal-best six sacks last season and could soar into double digits in 2021 if all goes well. — Tim McManus
QB Trevor Lawrence will have a successful rookie season if …
… offensive tackles Cam Robinson and Jawaan Taylor play better than they did in 2020. The two combined to give up 27 sacks last year, including an NFL-high 18 by Taylor, per ESPN Stats & Information. Lawrence has the arm strength, moxie and football IQ to be a standout quarterback, but it’ll be a rough season if he’s having to run for his life every week.
Breakout candidate: DaVon Hamilton, NT
The second-year player is bigger and stronger than he was as a rookie, and that has been evident throughout camp and the preseason. Hamilton has been hard to move and has consistently gotten into the backfield during camp, and people inside the organization believe he’s on the verge of becoming one of the league’s better nose tackles.
Field Yates breaks down Trevor Lawrence’s fantasy value for the upcoming season.
Bold prediction: Trevor Lawrence will set the rookie TD passing record.
Chargers QB Justin Herbert holds the mark with 31 last season, but Lawrence will surpass that mainly because the Jaguars are going to be playing catch-up in a lot of games. Even with the loss of Travis Etienne Jr. to a Lisfranc injury, the Jaguars have a good group of pass-catchers that includes Marvin Jones Jr. and DJ Chark Jr., so Lawrence has enough weapons to become just the second rookie quarterback in NFL history to surpass 30 touchdowns. — Michael DiRocco
Coach Robert Saleh’s first season with the Jets will be considered a success if …
… Zach Wilson establishes himself as the long-term answer at quarterback. Sure, wins are important, especially when the team is trying to rebuild a losing culture, but this season is all about the rookie and his development. Wilson has a better chance to succeed than predecessor Sam Darnold. Not only does Wilson have better talent around him, but he will have a chance to grow with a new coaching staff and new program. That wasn’t the case with Darnold.
Breakout candidate: Elijah Moore, WR
Former Ole Miss teammate and current Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown said recently he would “bet all my game checks” that Moore wins Offensive Rookie of the Year. Farfetched? Maybe a little, but Moore has a chance to be really good as a rookie. He’s an advanced route runner with terrific acceleration and an uncommon feel for the game. Coaches and teammates talk about him as if he has been around for a few years. Moore, more than a slot receiver, will be used in a variety of ways and will see significant playing time.
Bold prediction: Wilson will become the franchise’s first quarterback since Joe Namath (1967) to throw for 4,000 yards.
Disclaimer: Namath had 4,007 yards in a 14-game season, Wilson will have 17 games. Yes, he’s a rookie, and rookies tend to struggle, but it’s not unreasonable to think he can end the 53-year drought. All it takes is 235 yards per game, close to the 2020 league average (240). The plan is to be balanced on offense, leaning on the running game more than most, but the Jets figure to be in a lot of late-game, catch-up situations. The kid can definitely sling it. If he stays upright and healthy, he will join Broadway Joe as the only two quarterbacks in team history to reach the elusive 4,000-yard milestone. — Rich Cimini
Coach Dan Campbell’s first season as coach will be considered a success if …
… the team wins five or more games. For many other franchises, this may seem like a joke, but Campbell is tasked with taking over an organization that showed little life last season. If he can recharge this bunch and at least begin to shift the culture with a competitive squad, it’ll be a success. Nobody is expecting him to come in and reach the playoffs this year — or even next year — but he has to get the franchise moving in the right direction, and that’ll start with at least matching last season’s win total and possibly surpassing it.
Breakout candidate: Jeff Okudah, CB
It’s no secret that Okudah didn’t live up to expectations after being taken with the third overall pick in 2020. But the new coaching staff, notably DBs coach Aubrey Pleasant, is looking to get the most out of him, not only physically but mentally as well. Okudah was put in a tough situation last season, being placed primarily in man-to-man coverage, but he has studied his strengths and weaknesses this offseason and is ready for a breakout.
Bold prediction: TE T.J. Hockenson will have 1,000 receiving yards.
The receiving corps in Detroit this season is very much unproven. One guy who isn’t is Hockenson, who made the Pro Bowl for the first time last season. New quarterback Jared Goff is already building great chemistry with Hockenson, who put in a ton of work this offseason. Hockenson trained in Nashville, Tennessee, alongside his close friend and former Iowa teammate George Kittle to prep for a bigger role. Last season, Hockenson finished with 67 catches for 723 yards. Barring injuries, he should easily top that mark. — Eric Woodyard
The first season under coach David Culley will be a success if …
… the Texans get the No. 1 overall pick. The Texans’ realistic goal for this season isn’t to win a Super Bowl, and the moves made by GM Nick Caserio reflect that. The focus of the franchise over the next year needs to be finding its quarterback of the future and adding as many draft picks and young players as it can to build around that player.
Breakout candidate: Charles Omenihu, DL
The Texans need to replace J.J. Watt’s production and find someone who can get to the quarterback. That might be Omenihu, who is entering his third season. Playing just 19 snaps in the Texans’ second preseason game, he had two sacks and recovered a fumble. Omenihu is moving around the defensive line and should be a difference-maker in 2021.
Bold prediction: WR Brandin Cooks will have 1,000 receiving yards.
Sure, Cooks has hit that mark five times in his seven NFL seasons. But this time he’s being asked to do it without QB Deshaun Watson throwing him the ball and without another top receiver to take attention away from him. This will be the hardest season for Cooks to eclipse 1,000 yards, but he does it while catching passes from QBs Tyrod Taylor and Davis Mills. — Sarah Barshop