NFL 2021 staff previews: Bold predictions, breakout candidates, greatest questions

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The 2021 NFL season is almost right here, with groups taking over a 17-week slate of video games for the primary time in historical past. The season opener is Thursday night time, when the reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers host the Dallas Cowboys. Our NFL Nation reporters have you ever lined with intel and projections on all 32 groups forward of kickoff.

We have massive questions: What has to occur for the New England Patriots to get again on prime within the AFC East?

We have daring predictions: The Seattle Seahawks had been seventh in sacks final season, however we’re predicting they lead the league in 2021.

We have breakout gamers: Expect to see nice issues from Green Bay Packers operating again AJ Dillon this yr.

We even have depth charts, schedules and rosters. This is what it is advisable know for the season, which concludes in February at Super Bowl LVI in Inglewood, California.

The ESPN Football Power Index (FPI) ranked each staff from 1-32 primarily based on the way it tasks the season to play out. Click the hyperlinks beneath to learn extra about every staff.

Jump to a staff:
ARI | ATL | BAL | BUF | CAR | CHI | CIN
CLE | DAL | DEN | DET | GB | HOU | IND
JAX | KC | LAC | LAR | LV | MIA | MIN
NE | NO | NYG | NYJ | PHI | PIT | SF
SEA | TB | TEN | WSH

The Chiefs will make it to a 3rd consecutive Super Bowl and win it for the second time in three years if …

… their offensive line rebuild is as profitable because the Chiefs hope. That’s the place any development within the offense is more likely to come from because the Chiefs declined so as to add a big ability participant for the primary time in years. Kansas City needs to be higher in not solely defending QB Patrick Mahomes however within the run sport as effectively. They will doubtless begin 5 new linemen from final season, together with two rookies, one other first-year participant and a left deal with in Orlando Brown Jr. who’s making an attempt to ascertain himself at a brand new place.

Breakout candidate: Willie Gay, LB

Gay did not have a lot of an affect as a second-round decide in 2020, however judging from his play at coaching camp, the place he was one of many Chiefs’ higher defensive gamers, that ought to change this season. Gay ought to assist the Chiefs with one among their defensive weaknesses, which has been in masking backs out of the backfield. He confirmed good instincts and vary in breaking apart a lot of passes at camp.

Bold prediction: DL Chris Jones will prime his profession excessive in sacks (15.5).

Jones is taking effectively to his place change to defensive finish, however he’ll doubtless nonetheless get a big variety of snaps at his former place on the inside of the road. This ought to play to his strengths as a pass-rusher. Jones predicted he would lead the NFL in sacks earlier than the 2018 season, and whereas he fell quick, his 15.5 made for a breakout season. Jones is making no comparable predictions this yr, however search for him to get comparable outcomes. — Adam Teicher

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


The Bucs will repeat as Super Bowl champions if …

… they keep wholesome. They are returning all 22 starters on offense and protection after their Super Bowl season, however TEs O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate are nonetheless getting back from accidents. Their vast receiving corps was additionally decimated by accidents final season. That’s solely half the battle. A significant motive the Bucs received Super Bowl LV was as a result of, as coach Bruce Arians put it, they “beat the virus.” Last season, simply 4 starters — RB Ronald Jones II, LT Donovan Smith, OLB Shaquil Barrett and ILB Devin White — missed a mixed six video games between the common season and postseason due to being positioned on the reserve/COVID-19 checklist.

Breakout candidate: Giovani Bernard, RB

This was really a toss-up between Bernard and rookie OLB Joe Tryon-Shoyinka. Bernard’s function is extra clearly outlined proper now. Considering how badly the Buccaneers wanted a real pass-catching operating again final season — they led the NFL with a staggering 15 drops from the operating again place — Bernard’s been a breath of recent air for QB Tom Brady and the Bucs’ display screen sport. Those two will thrive collectively, even when 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 quite a lot of mouths to feed on this Bucs’ offense, together with two Pro Bowl vast receivers who occur to make more cash than Brown — Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. One yr in the past, it appeared like Brown was executed with soccer after a number of off-field incidents. But since checking out most of his authorized points and present process a knee scope this offseason, Brown has appeared unstoppable in follow — apart from a fistfight within the joint practices with the Titans. Keeping his composure shall be key. “This is the healthiest he’s been in years,” Arians mentioned. “He’s playing at a speed I saw four or five years ago.” — Jenna Laine

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


QB Josh Allen will enhance upon his MVP runner-up season in 2020 if …

… the Bills’ offensive line stays wholesome. Last season, Allen turned in a profession yr regardless of a patchwork line that could not get the run sport going. With improved offensive line play and the specter of not less than a reliable run sport, Allen and Buffalo’s passing offense will soar in 2021.

Breakout candidate: AJ Epenesa, DE

The 2020 second-round decide has been practically unblockable all through the preseason.

If he can deliver constant stress this season, will probably be an enormous increase for a line of defense that was revamped this offseason. Paired with promising rookie Greg Rousseau, Epenesa might be a drive shifting ahead.

Bold prediction: The Bills will win the AFC.

No, that is not an incomplete sentence — the Bills will win the AFC East and the convention in 2021. Continuity is vital within the NFL, and the Bills return 21 starters from final season’s staff that was one win from the Super Bowl, in addition to the identical head coach and coordinators for a fourth straight yr. With the sting from final season’s loss to the Kansas City Chiefs nonetheless recent of their minds, the Bills will make a Super Bowl look for the primary time because the 1993 season. — Marcel Louis-Jacques

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


The Ravens passing sport will make the leap from the NFL’s worst if …

… the vast receivers keep wholesome, which has been an issue this summer season. QB Lamar Jackson‘s prime three targets on the surface — Marquise Brown, Rashod Bateman and Sammy Watkins — missed a mixed 38 practices through the staff’s five-week coaching camp. Bateman, the No. 27 total draft decide in 2021, had groin surgical procedure throughout camp and will miss the primary month of the season. When taking part in, they’ve all stretched the sector this summer season. The Ravens are banking on Brown, Bateman and Watkins to make defenses pay for stacking the field to decelerate their dominant run sport.

Breakout candidate: Gus Edwards, RB

The Ravens’ prime breakout candidate was RB J.K. Dobbins earlier than he suffered a season-ending knee damage within the preseason finale. Now, Edwards steps as much as get his first probability to change into an NFL featured again initially of a season. He has been among the many most constant runners within the league, averaging over 5 yards per carry in every of his first three seasons. With the elevated function, Edwards has an opportunity to supply 1,100 yards and near double-digit touchdowns within the NFL’s most dominant dashing assault.

Bold prediction: Ravens will end No. 1 in protection.

There’s loads of buzz about how good the defenses in Pittsburgh and Cleveland shall be this season, however the Ravens look primed to have the perfect protection within the NFL. In three seasons with Don “Wink” Martindale as defensive coordinator, Baltimore has allowed the fewest yards (307.8) and factors (18.2) within the league. The greatest query mark surrounding this protection had been the cross rush. But the Ravens signed Justin Houston (97.5 profession sacks) and used a first-round decide on Odafe Oweh, who might be the quickest edge rusher in franchise historical past. This protection has the potential to be scary. — Jamison Hensley

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


Aaron Rodgers shall be again because the Packers’ quarterback in 2022 if …

… hell freezes over. OK, that may be a tad robust, however all the things about this season is establishing as a final hurrah. The Packers voided the 2023 season on Rodgers contract particularly to appease his need to regulate the place he performs in 2022. It is now a simple out for each events. Also, the Packers are in a brutal salary-cap scenario for subsequent yr and shifting on from Rodgers would alleviate a number of the drawback.

Breakout candidate: AJ Dillon, RB

Cue up the Week 16 movie from final season in opposition to the Titans when Dillon rushed 21 instances for 124 yards and two touchdowns. That accounted for greater than half of Dillon’s dashing yards for his total rookie season. With Jamaal Williams gone, Dillon steps into the RB2 function. The Packers have at all times tried to maintain Aaron Jones recent, so Dillon ought to get loads extra probabilities in yr two.

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Field Yates and Stephania Bell weigh up AJ Dillon’s fantasy worth as he competes with Aaron Jones for run choices.

Bold prediction: Rodgers will exit on prime with a Super Bowl victory.

After two straight NFC title sport losses the final two seasons, Rodgers will lastly play effectively in a convention championship sport, and get the Packers again to the Super Bowl. And once they win it, will probably be the right finish for Rodgers’ time in Green Bay. He can then pull a Tom Brady and attempt to do it once more some place else. — Rob Demovsky

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The Browns’ protection shall be one of many AFC’s greatest if …

… DE Jadeveon Clowney stays wholesome and performs as much as his potential. Clowney has at all times had the expertise, however the 2014 No. 1 total decide has frequently struggled with accidents. Clowney appears wholesome once more and starred early on in coaching camp. The Browns already boast one elite pass-rusher in DE Myles Garrett. If Clowney offers them one other, the Browns protection shall be among the many AFC’s greatest.

Breakout candidate: Donovan Peoples-Jones, WR

The Browns have loads of firepower at vast receiver, headlined by Pro Bowlers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. Peoples-Jones was the MVP of coaching camp, flashing a powerful rapport with QB Baker Mayfield. Because of Cleveland’s highly effective operating sport, its spectacular array of tight ends and the star energy of OBJ and Landry, Peoples-Jones in all probability will not put up massive numbers this season. But the 2020 sixth-round select of Michigan may emerge right into a key choice for Mayfield in Cleveland’s underrated passing assault.

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Field Yates and Matthew Berry break down Donovan Peoples-Jones’ numbers and if he’s a fantasy sleeper.

Bold prediction: Cleveland’s protection shall be among the many league’s most improved.

With eight new defensive starters, the Browns may wrestle defensively for the primary month or so of the season. But down the stretch, Cleveland will boast one the 5 greatest defenses within the league, elevating the Browns right into a official Super Bowl contender. — Jake Trotter

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DT Aaron Donald turns into the third defensive participant to win MVP if …

… he breaks Hall of Fame defensive finish Michael Strahan’s single-season sacks file of twenty-two.5, the Rams’ protection ranks among the many greatest within the NFL and the Rams make a dominant run to Super Bowl LVI. Yes, Donald and the Rams should obtain all of that for the three-time Defensive Player of the Year to win MVP. Look at it this manner, the final non-quarterback to win MVP was Minnesota Vikings operating again Adrian Peterson in 2012. To discover the final defensive participant who received MVP, you should return 34 years to when New York Giants outdoors linebacker Lawrence Taylor received the award. In 2018, Donald had 20.5 sacks, probably the most ever by an inside lineman, because the Rams went 13-3 and made a Super Bowl run — and nonetheless did not win the award.

Breakout candidate: Van Jefferson, WR

Jefferson flashed and appeared mature past his years as a rookie all through coaching camp final season, however he made minimal affect on the offense with 19 receptions for 220 yards and a landing. Jefferson admitted his head was spinning final season, however he now has a agency grasp on the playbook and feels extra snug in his Season 2. With a constant connection established all through camp with new QB Matthew Stafford, coupled with the Rams’ plan to observe veteran WR DeSean Jackson‘s workload, look ahead to Jefferson to make a splash in an offense that is getting ready to place up massive numbers.

Bold prediction: The Rams will seem 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 protection — plus the acquisition of Stafford in a gutsy offseason commerce that despatched former No. 1 total decide Jared Goff, two first-round picks and a third-round decide to the Detroit Lions — the Rams are able to make their second Super Bowl run over the previous 4 seasons. And what higher time to do it than 2021, with the Super Bowl being performed inside SoFi Stadium — Rams proprietor Stan Kroenke’s $5 billion masterpiece — on Feb. 13. — Lindsey Thiry

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


Trey Lance is the beginning quarterback by Week …

… 11. It may simply occur sooner, however this feels about proper. Predicting the well being of starter Jimmy Garoppolo is tough, so let’s function beneath the idea that Garoppolo stays wholesome and performs effectively sufficient to carry the job by means of the Week 6 bye. A change for Week 7 is believable, however the Niners ought to have a profitable file going into that sport. Out of the bye week, the Niners play the Colts, Bears, Cardinals and Rams, which may deliver some bumps and bruises — setting the stage for Lance to take over. Lance may have performed loads situationally by then, and issues ought to have slowed down sufficient 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 loads of potential as a rookie, however he performed in solely 12 video games due to an early hamstring damage and a late stint on the COVID-19 checklist. A bulked-up Aiyuk established himself as a favourite goal of all San Francisco quarterbacks throughout camp, catching nearly all the things thrown his method — save for a few hiccups in preseason video games. With a full offseason beneath his belt, Aiyuk has all of the substances to change into the Niners’ No. 1 wideout.

Bold prediction: DE Dee Ford may have not less than eight sacks.

The 49ers aren’t relying on Ford for something after he missed all however one sport final season due to a again damage. But Ford has slowly been rounding again into kind in coaching camp, and confirmed his typical go off the sting. If Ford is wholesome, he will not be requested to play greater than roughly 20 snaps per sport, however these ought to put him in place to do what he does greatest and get after the quarterback. — Nick Wagoner

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


QB Russell Wilson will end the season blissful to be a Seahawk if …

… three issues occur: 1. His cross safety improves; 2. He likes the best way he matches in Seattle’s new offense; 3. The Seahawks make it to not less than the NFC Championship Game. Otherwise, Wilson might need a tough time believing that the arrow is pointing up for himself and for the staff, which hasn’t gotten previous the divisional spherical in its final 5 playoff appearances. Wilson likes the quick tempo of recent coordinator Shane Waldron’s offense and will take fewer hits with extra of an emphasis on quick and intermediate throws. He additionally likes having newcomer Gabe Jackson at proper guard. But his cross safety will undergo if LT Duane Brown misses video games amid his contract dispute.

Breakout candidate: Jordyn Brooks, LB

Last yr’s first-round decide quietly had a powerful rookie season, though it did not embody as many splash performs as fellow rookie Patrick Queen of the Ravens. The Seahawks took Brooks over Queen at No. 27 as a result of they felt he was higher constructed and simply as quick. But even when he turned a starter early within the yr, Brooks did not get sufficient of an opportunity to point out that velocity. He frequently got here off the sector on third down as a result of Seattle’s teaching workers most popular K.J. Wright‘s expertise. With Wright gone, extra taking part in time for Brooks will imply extra of a chance to interrupt out in 2021.

Bold prediction: The Seahawks will lead the NFL in sacks.

They led the league in sacks over the ultimate 12 weeks of final season and return all however one among their prime pass-rushers from that group. The addition of DE Kerry Hyder Jr. in free company, and DE Darrell Taylor‘s return from his misplaced rookie season, needs to be greater than sufficient to make up for Jarran Reed‘s departure. With Taylor taking on at strongside linebacker and a scheme adjustment to their defensive entrance, the Seahawks may have an additional pass-rushing menace on the sector more often than not. — Brady Henderson

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The Patriots will win the AFC East if …

… the protection — which has been stocked with a decisive improve in expertise — finishes among the many NFL’s prime 5 in factors allowed. For all the main focus that was on the staff’s QB competitors, the protection has the potential to be the spine of the staff — assuming an absence of depth within the secondary would not come again to hang-out it.

Breakout candidate: Josh Uche, OLB

There have been instances in coaching camp and preseason when Uche was probably the most disruptive participant on the sector, resembling sooner or later in opposition to the Giants in late August when he was constantly creating stress. The 2020 second-round decide from Michigan has some skilled linebackers round him in Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Ja’Whaun Bentley and Matt Judon, and that ought to assist him key in on a particular function that enables him to create havoc.

Bold prediction: QB Mac Jones will win Offensive Rookie of the Year.

The No. 15 total decide has come a great distance in a short while. The issues he’s doing as a rookie operating the Patriots’ conventional system — resembling setting protections and calling audibles — are next-level stuff. One glorious preseason follow in opposition to the New York Giants, specifically, stood out as a preview of what might be coming. — Mike Reiss

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Tua Tagovailoa retains his job because the Dolphins’ beginning quarterback if …

… his play from the preseason carries into the common season. Tagovailoa has appeared assured, decisive and comfy getting into his second yr within the league, one thing the Dolphins will want if they’re to make the playoffs in a loaded AFC. Tagovailoa wants to stay aggressive and show the power to win video games along with his arm when wanted. The Dolphins shall be sitting at residence once more in January if he’s a sport supervisor in 2021.

Breakout candidate: Mike Gesicki, TE

Although final season was a breakout of kinds for Gesicki, the chemistry he constructed with Tagovailoa this preseason has been palpable. Even after a 700-yard, six-touchdown efficiency in 2020, Gesicki formally breaks out as one of many league’s greatest receiving tight ends in 2021.

Bold prediction: The Dolphins will win a playoff sport.

Miami hasn’t made the playoffs since 2015 and got here one win quick final season. The franchise has not received a playoff sport since 2000. But the Dolphins’ protection options an elite secondary that would make life hassle for opposing quarterbacks on any given week. And that, mixed with Tagovailoa main an upstart offense, helps Miami break each playoff streaks in 2021. — Marcel Louis-Jacques

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


The Titans can rise above different AFC title contenders if …

… the protection can present enchancment in third-down conversions allowed, crimson zone protection and sacks. S Kevin Byard mentioned the defensive backs are centered on being aggressive difficult receivers on the line of scrimmage. The additions of LB Bud Dupree, DE Denico Autry and LB Rashad Weaver ought to enhance the cross rush and permit the Titans to get stress with the entrance 4. Defensive coordinator Shane Bowen appears prepared to blitz much more as effectively. The three phrases which are constantly talked about as an space of focus for the protection are confidence, communication and urgency.

Breakout candidate: Amani Hooker, S

Hooker is coming off a season through which he posted 4 interceptions as a reserve security. The third-year veteran enters as a starter together with Byard. Defensive backs coach Scott Booker mentioned he has seen Hooker change into extra snug throughout the protection and he has proven he’s able to being a frontrunner on the staff. Hooker’s ball expertise have been on show all through coaching camp, together with his interception of Buccaneers QB Tom Brady throughout joint practices.

Bold prediction: WRs A.J. Brown and Julio Jones will every attain 1,000 receiving yards and RB Derrick Henry will rush for greater than 1,500 yards.

The NFL hasn’t had a staff with two 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,500-yard rusher because the 2006 St. Louis Rams. But defenses have to select their poison in opposition to the Titans. If they deal with stopping the run, Jones and Brown will see quite a lot of single protection. The Titans have not had two 1,000-yard receivers since Derrick Mason (1,168 yards) and Drew Bennett (1,247) in 2004. Conversely, committing additional defenders to cease the passing sport means fewer gamers within the field, which makes it simpler for the offensive line to open up dashing lanes for Henry. — Turron Davenport

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


The Saints will decide to QB Jameis Winston as their starter past this season if …

… he reminds everybody what made him so particular within the first place. The former No. 1 decide and Heisman Trophy winner continues to be simply 27 years outdated. He has an amazing alternative for a Ryan Tannehill-like renaissance now that he’s surrounded by one of many NFL’s greatest offensive minds, offensive strains and defenses. Turnovers clearly derailed Winston’s profession in Tampa, however he and coach Sean Payton have insisted he’ll play a wiser model of soccer this time round.

Breakout Candidate: Marquez Callaway, WR

There is a few danger of overhype right here, since Callaway may return to a No. 2 or 3 WR function as soon as Michael Thomas and Tre’Quan Smith are wholesome. But the second-year professional has taken full benefit of his temp job as a WR1 on a constant foundation all through the summer season — highlighted by two unbelievable deep TD catches from Winston within the Saints’ second preseason sport. The 6-2, 204-pounder is clearly poised for an enormous function after exhibiting flashes as an undrafted rookie in 2020.

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Stephania Bell expects Michael Thomas to be obtainable for the Saints in Week 7.

Bold prediction: DLs Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport will get not less than 10 sacks every.

The Saints let DE Trey Hendrickson go in free company after his surprising 13.5-sack breakout final season. But Jordan and Davenport ought to make up for the loss. Davenport, a first-round decide in 2018, seems to be poised for a breakout season if he can lastly keep wholesome. And Jordan, a six-time Pro Bowler, ought to be capable of bounce again from a surprisingly quiet 7.5 sacks in 2020. — Mike Triplett

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Coordinator Dan Quinn will get the Cowboys’ protection again to respectability if …

… LB Micah Parsons can deal with all of the Cowboys are asking of him. The 2021 No. 12 total decide is lining up at center linebacker, making the calls and checks, whereas additionally getting used as an edge rusher. His versatility may liberate others on protection, resembling edge rushers DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, and Leighton Vander Esch or Keanu Neal at linebacker. That’s quite a lot of accountability to placed on a rookie, however he has proven he might be that participant. Of course, having a high-scoring offense will make it simpler for the Cowboys’ protection to climb again to respectability, too.

Breakout candidate: CeeDee Lamb, WR

Would Lamb actually qualify as a breakout star? He had 74 catches for 935 yards and 5 touchdowns as a rookie, and he’s a first-round draft decide, so folks ought to know him. But he may achieve this far more, particularly in a full season with QB Dak Prescott. He caught not less than 5 passes in all of Prescott’s 5 begins and had two 100-yard video games. The duo’s lack of labor in coaching camp collectively is not that regarding due to how effectively they clicked final season with none actual offseason or preseason video games.

Bold prediction: RB Ezekiel Elliott will lead the NFL in dashing.

If that is not daring, particularly after Elliott ran for 979 yards final season, what’s? Many assume he’s on the draw back of his profession after he signed his $90 million contract, and has been handed on the checklist of greatest operating backs by guys resembling Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook or others. With Prescott lacking quite a lot of coaching camp and 4 preseason video games with a latissimus pressure, Elliott must be a featured a part of the assault. 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 among the best within the NFL, too. In their first six video games, the Cowboys face 4 run defenses that ranked outdoors the highest half of the league in 2020. — Todd Archer

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


Coach Mike Zimmer retains his job if the Vikings …

… make the postseason. Minnesota has not missed the playoffs in back-to-back years since Zimmer was employed in 2014, so it is vital for the pinnacle coach’s job safety that the Vikings are taking part in effectively into January. It would not matter how they get there — whether or not Zimmer’s protection bounces again after they poured thousands and thousands into overhauling the roster this offseason or QB Kirk Cousins and the offense paved the way. All that issues for Zimmer’s future in Minnesota is attending to the postseason.

Breakout candidate: Tyler Conklin, TE

With Irv Smith Jr. anticipated to overlook the complete 2021 season whereas recovering from knee surgical procedure, his tight finish counterpart may have much more alternatives to face out. Conklin, who’s getting into a contract yr, caught 15 of 21 targets within the remaining 4 video games final season, exhibiting promise past his function as a blocker. The Vikings make the most of units with two tight ends usually, so count on Conklin to be constantly concerned within the offense. Even coach Mike Zimmer sees an expanded function for the previous fifth-round decide. “He’s kind of emerged as a guy that’s moving upward,” Zimmer mentioned this offseason.

Bold prediction: WR Adam Thielen will lead the Vikings in receiving touchdowns.

Justin Jefferson put the NFL on discover as a rookie, so you may count on much more consideration geared towards the second-year vast receiver in 2021. The extra groups key in on Jefferson, the extra alternatives Thielen must shine as Cousins’ No. 1 goal. Thielen had a career-best 14 touchdowns final season. He will prime that quantity in 2021, given how few receiving choices the Vikings have outdoors of their prime two receivers, and the way snug Cousins is discovering Thielen within the crimson zone. — Courtney Cronin

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


Even if QB Carson Wentz and G Quenton Nelson miss video games attributable to accidents, the protection is robust sufficient to hold the Colts to a profitable file if …

… the unit forces quite a lot of turnovers to present the offense, which might be led by QBs Jacob Eason or Sam Ehlinger (at present injured), a brief subject to work with as a result of the Colts shall be lacking two of their three most necessary offensive gamers. The protection has a objective of forcing not less than 40 turnovers this season. There isn’t any higher time to attempt to attain that objective than going through offenses led by QBs Russell Wilson (Seahawks), Matthew Stafford (Rams), Ryan Tannehill (Titans), Tua Tagovailoa (Dolphins) and Lamar Jackson (Ravens). The Colts completed fifth within the NFL in takeaways final season with 25.

Breakout candidate: Michael Pittman Jr, WR

Depth is not a difficulty at receiver for the Colts, however Pittman is the one who stands out probably the most at that place. Pittman had a strong rookie season in 2020 — 503 receiving yards in 13 video games. Now, he is able to take the following step of passing veteran T.Y. Hilton because the staff’s No. 1 receiver, particularly with Hilton at present sidelined by a neck damage. Pittman’s mixture of velocity, power and measurement (6-foot-4) makes him a tricky cowl for smaller defensive backs. He was probably the most constant receiver throughout coaching camp for the Colts.

Boutdated prediction: Wentz will play all 17 regular-season video games and have a career-high completion proportion.

Yes, Wentz has performed each regular-season sport solely twice, and he is recovering from foot surgical procedure, and he was benched after taking part in 12 video games final season in Philadelphia. But Wentz and Colts coach Frank Reich know this can be a prove-it level within the quarterback’s profession after flaming out with the Eagles. Wentz’s highest season completion proportion was in 2018, when he accomplished 69.6% of his passes. Andrew Luck and Jacoby Brissett each had their greatest completion seasons beneath Reich. Philip Rivers had the second-highest proportion of his 17-year profession final season. Now it is Wentz’s flip to do it beneath Reich. — Mike Wells

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QB Ben Roethlisberger will return to his 2018 kind if …

… the offensive line improves from final season. With an nearly all-new forged — or not less than totally different gamers in several roles — the Steelers are attempting to enhance a line that was one of many worst within the league a season in the past. But accidents at deal with and left guard and a two-practice absence at heart stored the beginning group from absolutely practising as a unit till the week earlier than the third preseason sport in opposition to Detroit. The line carried out effectively in that sport, and if they will maintain up and defend Roethlisberger all through the season, the 39-year-old can proceed to show again the clock.

Breakout candidate: Pat Freiermuth, TE

The Steelers may begin three offensive rookies in Week 1: Freiermuth, RB Najee Harris and C Kendrick Green. While Harris is an apparent breakout candidate, Freiermuth is not far behind. He had a two-touchdown efficiency in opposition to the Lions, and afterward, Roethlisberger jokingly instructed the media to cease speaking about him so he may keep beneath wraps slightly bit longer. Good luck with that.

Freiermuth drew comparisons to TE Rob Gronkowski in highschool and faculty, however he reminds Roethlisberger and the Steelers trustworthy of one other dominant tight finish: Heath Miller. Freiermuth earned accolades for his blocking, however he is also a fierce crimson zone menace. In a Matt Canada offense that closely makes use of tight ends, Freiermuth is poised for an enormous rookie season.

Bold prediction: The Steelers will win a playoff sport.

Hear me out. Yes, the Steelers have the hardest schedule within the NFL, and so they’re taking part in in a division that has solely grown stronger since final season. But they’ve executed effectively to fill the holes on the roster — including LB Melvin Ingram III and OL Trai Turner earlier than camp and buying and selling for LB Joe Schobert through the preseason. Winning their first playoff sport since 2016 is doable if the offensive line retains Roethlisberger upright and opens holes for Harris, and the protection, led by T.J. Watt, returns to the dominating kind it had previous to ACL accidents to LBs Bud Dupree and Devin Bush. — Brooke Pryor

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The Chargers lastly achieve a foothold within the Los Angeles market if …

… QB Justin Herbert stays wholesome and expands on his NFL rookie-record 31 landing passes. It will assist if he is stored upright by an offensive line that went by means of an overhaul this offseason and the protection holds leads higher. The Chargers misplaced 4 video games final season through which they held double-digit leads, and have 16 one-score losses over the previous two seasons.

Breakout candidate: Jerry Tillery, DT

Tillery, a first-round decide of the Chargers in 2019, says he is in the perfect form of his life. He ought to excel in coach Brandon Staley’s new defensive scheme. He spent the summer season understanding with a coach in Hawaii and has taken off some weight. Tillery, who had 5 sacks mixed in his first two seasons, mentioned he labored on footwork and getting sooner at all the things.

With the lack of LB Melvin Ingram III, the Chargers want one other pass-rush menace to enrich LB Joey Bosa — Tillery, who had 14 quarterback hits final season, might be it.

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Field Yates calls Chargers QB Justin Herbert a “phenomenal value” for fantasy managers.

Bold prediction: The Chargers will make the playoffs — and perhaps win the division title.

Staley has reenergized this group, which enters the season wholesome. Major accidents have struck the Chargers in coaching camp prior to now, so improved well being, a maturing Herbert at quarterback and the addition of a coach who led the Rams to the NFL’s No. 1 protection final season will pave the best way for a Chargers breakthrough. — Shelley Smith

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The Broncos is not going to be quarterback procuring this offseason if …

… they win a playoff sport. But even when they do not, there’s a caveat: They will not add simply anybody. They’ll take a protracted have a look at who is definitely obtainable in the marketplace (What say you, Packers and Aaron Rodgers?) and the draft earlier than committing to maneuver on.

Breakout candidate: Jerry Jeudy, WR

There is a few hesitation in declaring Jeudy a breakout candidate as a result of his rookie season was already excellent (52 catches for 856 yards). He did have one actually dangerous afternoon in opposition to the Chargers (5 drops), however was hampered by poor quarterback play, considerably uneven playcalling and receiver Courtland Sutton‘s knee damage, which allowed defenses to place some No. 1 corners in entrance of him. His routes are too good, his work ethic too robust; 2021 goes to be an enormous yr.

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2:07

Field Yates and Stephania Bell element what it is going to take for Jerry Jeudy to search out success in Denver this season.

Bold prediction: The Broncos will make the playoffs — barely.

If they’ve the accidents or turnovers they’d final season (they led the league in giveaways), this ain’t occurring. But quietly, beneath the duvet of a quarterback competitors that has attracted all the eye, they’ve assembled a proficient roster with some depth, significantly better staff velocity and, doubtlessly, a hellacious protection. That has been a playoff recipe for the Broncos prior to now. — Jeff Legwold

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


DE Chase Young turns into one of many league’s prime 5 edge rushers if …

… his sport matures sooner than anticipated. Young is more healthy getting into the season than he was in 2020, when his hip bothered him for half his rookie yr. He additionally has quite a lot of expertise round him, together with fellow finish Montez Sweat, who may take some sacks away however also needs to assist Young get some favorable matchups.

Breakout candidate: Montez Sweat, DE

Why not? Young is the plain breakout candidate, however Sweat will get a bit misplaced within the consideration paid to Young, and that may change. Sweat has had a terrific camp and continues to mature as a pass-rusher. He went from seven sacks as a rookie to 9 final season and will reside in that 12-15 vary this season.

Bold prediction: Washington will repeat as NFC East champs.

Nobody has executed this since 2004, however why not now? Washington improved its offense within the offseason with QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, who may not be nice, however he is an improve. But it was extra than simply him because the staff added a number of weapons at receiver, together with Curtis Samuel. Defensively, Washington shall be challenged by a a lot harder slate of opposing quarterbacks (six completed among the many prime 11 in Total QBR final season). But it has among the best strains in soccer and added velocity and extra various protection — notably CB William Jackson III — within the again seven. More importantly, the gamers have purchased into this teaching workers and what it is making an attempt to construct. — John Keim

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QB Kyler Murray shall be a severe MVP candidate if …

… the Cardinals are a severe playoff contender. That may imply 4,000 passing yards and 700-plus dashing yards whereas accounting for 45 or extra touchdowns — on the minimal. Murray should additionally discover a method to keep wholesome

Breakout candidate: Rondale Moore, WR

The rookie out of Purdue has proven indicators of brilliance throughout coaching camp, however that does not imply his success will translate to the common season. There’s one thing totally different about Moore, although. He appears to have the entire bundle: velocity, quickness, arms, power and IQ. With a lot defensive consideration on Murray and WRs DeAndre Hopkins and A.J. Green, Moore might be the man who surprises everybody.

Bold prediction: Green will attain 1,000 receiving yards.

Green has by no means been a No. 2 receiver in his profession — at all times a No. 1. That means he has at all times been the focus of the protection, at all times was double-teamed, at all times had the protection rolled to him. That’s not the case this season taking part in alongside Hopkins. Green will profit from that, and an enormous season might be in his future. — Josh Weinfuss

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Justin Fields would be the beginning quarterback by Week …

… 7, on the absolute newest. The writing is on the wall. Fields will ultimately take the beginning job from Andy Dalton, who in all probability doesn’t have a really lengthy leash. The Bears are making the proper choice by holding Fields on the bench to start the yr, however they’ll quickly don’t have any alternative however to begin the rookie. The swap is inevitable.

Breakout candidate: Darnell Mooney, WR

Mooney completed fifth amongst NFL rookie vast receivers with 61 catches final season. The bar is ready even greater in 2021. Mooney is now the unquestioned No. 2 receiver after Allen Robinson II and shall be counted on to have even higher numbers in Year 2. Mooney’s blazing velocity is a harmful menace that Chicago quarterbacks can make the most of all season.

Bold prediction: RB David Montgomery will rush for 1,400 yards.

Coach Matt Nagy desires Montgomery to hold the soccer 20 instances per sport. I’m taking Nagy at his phrase, though Chicago has sometimes deserted the run lately. Montgomery is just too good to disregard — the Bears must feed him. If the Bears as soon as once more change into one-dimensional on offense, overlook about it. There is an excessive amount of at stake for that to occur. — Jeff Dickerson

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The Panthers will make the playoffs with QB Sam Darnold if …

… LT Cameron Erving holds up and the protection performs to a top-15 degree. Protection by Erving is vital for Darnold, so he can reap the benefits of big-time weapons resembling RB Christian McCaffrey and WRs DJ Moore, Robby Anderson and Terrace Marshall Jr. The protection additionally must play at a excessive degree so there’s much less stress on Darnold to outscore opponents.

Breakout candidate: Brian Burns, DE/OLB

Burns led the Panthers in sacks final season with 9, however he got here oh-so-close to many extra. With the addition of edge rusher Haason Reddick — Burns did not have a potent rusher reverse him final season — groups will not be capable of shift the safety to his facet as simply. As Burns has mentioned repeatedly this preseason, opponents might want to “pick your poison.” Don’t be stunned to see him get 13-15 sacks and exhibit his patented “Spider-Man” pose much more.

Bold prediction: Darnold may have a profitable file.

Darnold is a dreadful 13-25 as a starter in his profession — together with 2-10 in 2020. He has the expertise round him to make the Panthers a playoff contender if he performs barely above common. That doubtless will not end in a file a lot greater than .500, however at this level, that might be like profitable the Super Bowl for the third decide of the 2018 draft. — David Newton

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First-year coach Arthur Smith will subject a top-10 offense if …

… the offensive line would not stink. The Falcons have the skill-position gamers to be dynamic offensively, but when QB Matt Ryan would not have safety and holes cannot keep open greater than microseconds for RB Mike Davis, the Falcons will wrestle to maneuver the ball. They have 4 official receiving choices and two mismatch nightmares in WR Calvin Ridley and TE Kyle Pitts, but when Ryan is beneath stress too usually, they will not be practically as efficient.

Breakout candidate: A.J. Terrell, CB

The soar for cornerbacks from their rookie yr to second season is at all times a reasonably large one, however Terrell has all of the makings of a top-end cowl nook. He has improbable instincts, good velocity and robust restoration expertise. On an Atlanta protection needing playmakers past Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones, Terrell has the prospect to be particular and provides the Falcons a future Pro Bowl nook. The potential is that robust.

Bold prediction: Dante Fowler Jr. may have double-digit sacks.

Fowler has reached this milestone solely as soon as in his profession (11.5 sacks in 2019 with the Rams), however he has the profit now of taking part in in a pressure-happy protection run by Dean Pees. And if opponents cannot predict the place stress is coming from, that would go away extra solo matchups for Fowler, who’s probably the most explosive off-the-ball pass-rusher Atlanta has. Plus, there’s motivation right here. Fowler took a pay minimize this offseason after a subpar 2020 (three sacks) through which he performed not less than a part of the season damage. Pride plus incentives may result in a powerful yr. — Mike Rothstein

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Coach Jon Gruden ends the yr on the recent seat if …

… Las Vegas pulls one other fold job down the stretch. The Raiders began 6-4 in 2019, solely to complete 7-9, and had been 6-3 final season earlier than ending up 8-8. Gruden might need probably the most job safety within the league with a 10-year contract signed in 2018, however one other pratfall would increase greater than eyebrows and hackles. Counting his time in Tampa Bay, Gruden’s groups are simply 31-45 in December and January (15-23 with the Raiders), and that is counting the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl run in 2002.

Breakout candidate: Henry Ruggs III, WR

As the primary wideout drafted in a traditionally deep 2020 class for receivers, Ruggs ought to have already made his imprint, no? Well, damage and ineffectiveness restricted him to 26 catches for 452 yards and two touchdowns in 13 video games as a rookie. Now, he has gained muscle with out shedding any of his velocity and has, maybe most significantly, gained the belief of QB Derek Carr. Expect greater than the occasional deep ball, then, in addition to slants and performs in area to let Ruggs create.

Bold prediction: The Raiders will get into the playoffs.

The Raiders’ offense will prepare dinner, as anticipated, with skill-position weapons throughout for Carr because the rebuilt offensive line offers him sufficient safety to remain clear and comfy. The returning protection, in the meantime, will mature and be simply adequate to stop one other late-season collapse. And Las Vegas, buoyed by a raucous home-field benefit (two of the Raiders’ final three video games are at residence in opposition to division rivals Denver and L.A.), will win extra December and January video games than it loses. Hence, a wild-card berth that may mark solely the franchise’s second postseason look since 2002. — Paul Gutierrez

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Daniel Jones cements his function because the Giants’ long-term quarterback if …

… he has RB Saquon Barkley and WR Kenny Golladay taking part in alongside him the complete season. All the instruments are there for Jones to achieve success. His teammates, coaches and the entrance workplace are satisfied he’ll be a top quality beginning quarterback. All he wants is the help. A star operating again who retains defensive coordinators up at night time and an enormous vast receiver who can go up and get the soccer are precisely what Jones wants.

Breakout candidate: Xavier McKinney, S

His rookie yr was stunted by foot surgical procedure that compelled him to overlook the primary 10 video games of the season. But when he returned, McKinney flashed the expertise that made him a second-round decide. Now wholesome in his second season, count on him to play a big function because the third security on a great protection. The Giants are going to search out methods to get him on the sector, and it’ll end in a handful of interceptions.

Bold prediction: Jones will throw for greater than 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns.

This is the yr the polarizing quarterback cements himself as a high-end starter. He might want to practically triple the 11 landing passes he threw final season to make this prediction maintain up. Jones may also minimize down on his turnovers with the assistance of Barkley, receivers Golladay and Sterling Shepard and TE Evan Engram. It’s not the MVP-worthy leap Josh Allen (Buffalo Bills) pulled off final season in his third yr, however Jones’ model would nonetheless thrill Giants followers. — Jordan Raanan

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This season shall be thought-about a hit for the Bengals if …

… they’re within the playoff hunt initially of December. The Bengals’ remaining stretch of video games in every of the previous two seasons have had zero bearing on the AFC North standings. Cincinnati suffered losses that ended up laying the inspiration for key elements of the rebuilding course of: first-round QB Joe Burrow (2019) and first-round WR Ja’Marr Chase (2020). This is the third yr of the rebuilding course of. It’s time to see whether or not the Bengals have actually executed sufficient to overtake the roster. At this level, there is no motive the Bengals should not be within the playoff dialogue when December begins.

Breakout candidate: Tee Higgins, WR

It’s arduous to name the staff’s main receiver from 2020 (67 catches, 908 yards) a breakout candidate, however Higgins has a really excessive ceiling. The staff’s second-round decide in 2020 battled a hamstring damage all through the season and, after declaring for the NFL a yr early, an adjustment to the professionals throughout a pandemic. Now, as a second-year participant, Higgins seems to be like a real outdoors receiver and has the potential to guide Cincinnati in key receiving classes once more.

Bold prediction: Burrow may have over 5,000 passing yards.

In every of the previous three offseasons, Cincinnati has added a key piece to its passing assault. Now wholesome and with (hopefully for his sake) a greater offensive line, Burrow has three vast receivers who arguably might be prime choices on different NFL rosters. Between that, coach Zac Taylor’s offensive ideology and RB Joe Mixon‘s effectiveness within the passing sport, it is not unreasonable to foretell Burrow will hit the 5,000-yard mark in a 17-game season. — Ben Baby

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QB Jalen Hurts would be the Eagles’ starter for all the common season if …

… he stays wholesome. Hurts took all of the first-team reps throughout coaching camp and is the clear No. 1 forward of Joe Flacco and Gardner Minshew II. His teammates have taken discover of his management, work ethic and regular enchancment, and are shopping for in. The Eagles may have as many as three first-round picks in subsequent yr’s draft, assets they will use to accumulate their QB of the long run in case they don’t seem to be bought on Hurts, however he ought to have the 2021 season to show he is the participant for the job.

Breakout candidate: Quez Watkins, WR

Watkins, a sixth-round draft select of Southern Miss in 2020, was the Eagles’ greatest vast receiver this summer season by a wholesome margin. His 4.35-second 40-yard sprint time was on full show throughout his 79-yard catch-and-run landing in opposition to the Pittsburgh Steelers within the preseason opener. He confirmed comparable playmaking expertise throughout coaching camp and within the joint practices in opposition to the New England Patriots and New York Jets, the place he proved to be a tricky cowl. Watkins figures to be one of many division’s extra electrical gamers this season and can shoot effectively previous his 2020 rookie stat line (seven catches, 106 yards, 1 TD).

Bold prediction: DE Josh Sweat shall be among the many NFL sack leaders.

Sweat, 24, believes he’s on the verge of a profession season. His play this summer season suggests he is proper. Sweat had among the best coaching camps of anybody on the Eagles, routinely knifing into the backfield to get after the quarterback. There had been questions on longevity when Sweat was drafted in 2018 due to a brutal left knee damage in highschool, however he seems to be wholesome getting into Year 4 and has added power to associate with improved approach. He posted a personal-best six sacks final season and will soar into double digits in 2021 if all goes effectively. — Tim McManus

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QB Trevor Lawrence may have a profitable rookie season if …

… offensive tackles Cam Robinson and Jawaan Taylor play higher than they did in 2020. The two mixed to surrender 27 sacks final yr, together with an NFL-high 18 by Taylor, per ESPN Stats & Information. Lawrence has the arm power, moxie and soccer IQ to be a standout quarterback, however it’ll be a tough season if he is having to run for his life each week.

Breakout candidate: DaVon Hamilton, NT

The second-year participant is larger and stronger than he was as a rookie, and that has been evident all through camp and the preseason. Hamilton has been arduous to maneuver and has constantly gotten into the backfield throughout camp, and folks contained in the group imagine he is on the verge of turning into one of many league’s higher nostril tackles.

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2:08

Field Yates breaks down Trevor Lawrence’s fantasy worth for the upcoming season.

Bold prediction: Trevor Lawrence will set the rookie TD passing file.

Chargers QB Justin Herbert holds the mark with 31 final season, however Lawrence will surpass that primarily as a result of the Jaguars are going to be taking part in catch-up in quite a lot of video games. Even with the lack of Travis Etienne Jr. to a Lisfranc damage, the Jaguars have a great group of pass-catchers that features Marvin Jones Jr. and DJ Chark Jr., so Lawrence has sufficient weapons to change into simply the second rookie quarterback in NFL historical past to surpass 30 touchdowns. — Michael DiRocco

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Coach Robert Saleh’s first season with the Jets shall be thought-about a hit if …

Zach Wilson establishes himself because the long-term reply at quarterback. Sure, wins are necessary, particularly when the staff is making an attempt to rebuild a shedding tradition, however this season is all concerning the rookie and his growth. Wilson has a greater probability to succeed than predecessor Sam Darnold. Not solely does Wilson have higher expertise round him, however he may have an opportunity to develop with a brand new teaching workers and new program. That wasn’t the case with Darnold.

Breakout candidate: Elijah Moore, WR

Former Ole Miss teammate and present Titans vast receiver A.J. Brown mentioned not too long ago he would “bet all my game checks” that Moore wins Offensive Rookie of the Year. Farfetched? Maybe slightly, however Moore has an opportunity to be actually good as a rookie. He’s a sophisticated route runner with terrific acceleration and an unusual really feel for the sport. Coaches and teammates discuss him as if he has been round for a number of years. Moore, greater than a slot receiver, shall be utilized in a wide range of methods and can see important taking part in time.

Bold prediction: Wilson will change into 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 may have 17 video games. Yes, he is a rookie, and rookies are likely to wrestle, however it’s not unreasonable to assume he can finish the 53-year drought. All it takes is 235 yards per sport, near the 2020 league common (240). The plan is to be balanced on offense, leaning on the operating sport greater than most, however the Jets determine to be in quite a lot of late-game, catch-up conditions. The child can positively sling it. If he stays upright and wholesome, he’ll be part of Broadway Joe as the one two quarterbacks in staff historical past to succeed in the elusive 4,000-yard milestone. — Rich Cimini

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


Coach Dan Campbell’s first season as coach shall be thought-about a hit if …

… the staff wins 5 or extra video games. For many different franchises, this will look like a joke, however Campbell is tasked with taking on a company that confirmed little life final season. If he can recharge this bunch and not less than start to shift the tradition with a aggressive squad, it will be a hit. Nobody is anticipating him to return in and attain the playoffs this yr — and even subsequent yr — however he has to get the franchise shifting in the best route, and that’ll begin with not less than matching final season’s win complete and probably surpassing it.

Breakout candidate: Jeff Okudah, CB

It’s no secret that Okudah did not stay as much as expectations after being taken with the third total decide in 2020. But the brand new teaching workers, notably DBs coach Aubrey Pleasant, is trying to get probably the most out of him, not solely bodily however mentally as effectively. Okudah was put in a tricky scenario final season, being positioned primarily in man-to-man protection, however he has studied his strengths and weaknesses this offseason and is prepared for a breakout.

Bold prediction: TE T.J. Hockenson may have 1,000 receiving yards.

The receiving corps in Detroit this season may be very a lot unproven. One man who is not is Hockenson, who made the Pro Bowl for the primary time final season. New quarterback Jared Goff is already constructing nice chemistry with Hockenson, who put in a ton of labor this offseason. Hockenson educated in Nashville, Tennessee, alongside his shut good friend and former Iowa teammate George Kittle to prep for a much bigger function. Last season, Hockenson completed with 67 catches for 723 yards. Barring accidents, he ought to simply prime that mark. — Eric Woodyard

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


The first season beneath coach David Culley shall be a hit if …

… the Texans get the No. 1 total decide. The Texans’ life like objective for this season is not to win a Super Bowl, and the strikes made by GM Nick Caserio replicate that. The focus of the franchise over the following yr must be discovering its quarterback of the long run and including as many draft picks and younger gamers as it may to construct round that participant.

Breakout candidate: Charles Omenihu, DL

The Texans want to exchange J.J. Watt’s manufacturing and discover somebody who can get to the quarterback. That may be Omenihu, who’s getting into his third season. Playing simply 19 snaps within the Texans’ second preseason sport, he had two sacks and recovered a fumble. Omenihu is shifting across the line of defense and needs to be a difference-maker in 2021.

Bold prediction: WR Brandin Cooks may have 1,000 receiving yards.

Sure, Cooks has hit that mark 5 instances in his seven NFL seasons. But this time he is being requested to do it with out QB Deshaun Watson throwing him the ball and with out one other prime receiver to take consideration away from him. This would be the hardest season for Cooks to eclipse 1,000 yards, however he does it whereas catching passes from QBs Tyrod Taylor and Davis Mills. — Sarah Barshop

Full schedule | Roster | Depth chart


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