After anything but a boring offseason, the NFL’s 102nd year is set to kick off this Thursday with the defending champion Buccaneers’ hosting the Cowboys. Since last season ended, there have been a slew of moves by teams across the league to try to get an edge with plenty of drama mixed in as well. That being said, here are the top 20 story lines going into the 2021 NFL season.
1. Second year with COVID-19 in the NFL
The NFL’s first year in a COVID-19 world saw the season end on schedule, but not without some speed bumps in the form of multiple rescheduled games. Since the massive national vaccine rollout, a major story line has been some players’ hesitancy to take the vaccine, as well as possible repercussions teams could face because of outbreaks. This year’s newest testing protocols will include mandatory daily testing for unvaccinated players, while vaccinated players and staff will be tested weekly, per NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero. Following teams week-to-week to see which players are placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list will be a priority if you're invested in a specific squad.
2. Will the Bucs repeat?
It was a storybook ending for the 2020 Buccaneers, after Tom Brady led them to their first Super Bowl win since ’03. It was also his first Super Bowl win without the Patriots, and he did it in front of the home crowd in Tampa. After the team was able to retain all 22 starters from its Super Bowl run, Tampa Bay is among the favorites for Super Bowl LVI. Brady, now 44, could very well raise his eighth Lombardi Trophy, but this year they’ll have a target on their back as the reigning champs try going back-to-back. But the Bucs are better positioned than most to be the last team standing in February.
3. Three-headed Titan
The June acquisition of Julio Jones immediately made the Titans’ offense even more of a force to be feared throughout the NFL. It’s not like the league’s rushing leader Derrick Henry and Pro Bowl wideout A.J. Brown weren’t already threats, but the addition of Jones gives quarterback Ryan Tannehill a playmaker in every direction he looks. Although Jones, 32, is on the back end of his career and missed seven games due to injury in 2020, he’s poised for a bounce-back year if healthy and can expect less double coverage than he’s ever seen before. The Titans were already the third-best offense in the league in yards per game, so expect this year’s offense to take the leap and lead the entire NFL.
4. Are the Rams Super Bowl–bound?
The Rams boasted the best defense in the NFL in 2020 and traded for quarterback Matthew Stafford after they were eliminated in the divisional round by the Packers. Los Angeles traded former first-round pick Jared Goff in the process and fully committed to Stafford, who threw for 4,084 yards and 26 touchdowns last year. Now, with receiving weapons in Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods, and a defense led by generational-great Aaron Donald along with star cornerback Jalen Ramsey, the NFC may have a new champion this year.
5. Trevor Lawrence and Urban Meyer in the NFL
Ever since he led Clemson to a national championship as a freshman in 2018, Trevor Lawrence has been swooned over by every fan base in the NFL. But the Jaguars were the ones with the No. 1 pick in the ’21 draft to take the would-be great. Alongside another college great in coach Urban Meyer, the duo could be the ones to lead Duval back to relevance. The two are without a doubt accomplished collegiately—having four national championships between the two of them—but will that translate to the pros? Their first season in the NFL could give us a glimpse of what’s to come.
6. Green Bay drama
The Packers were embroiled in a cold war with their franchise quarterback and reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers for much of the offseason, but they managed to agree to a deal that will bring him back to Lambeau for 2021. During that standoff, many thought there was a chance that Rodgers was going to retire rather than play for the Green Bay again due to differences in philosophy and personnel that started when the Packers drafted Jordan Love in ’20. Playing football after an entire offseason of a silent standoff will be interesting to watch, given Green Bay’s last two seasons ended in the NFC championship game. And if that’s not enough, the Packers and star wide receiver Davante Adams were unable to agree on a contract extension. Adams, who led the NFL in receiving touchdowns (18) in just 14 games, could depart after the ’21 season in free agency. All eyes on Lambeau this season.
7. Is Dak back?
The Cowboys’ 2020 season went up in smoke the second their star quarterback suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 5. Almost a year of rehab and one $160 million deal later, Dak Prescott is set to make his return for Dallas in the season opener Thursday night. Much has been made of Prescott’s return. Will he be the two-time Pro Bowl leader we remember and take the Cowboys back atop the NFC East? Or have we already seen the best from the 28-year-old? The last time Prescott had a full season, he threw for career highs in yards (4,902) and touchdowns (30) in ’19. If Prescott can return to anything similar after suffering as gruesome of an injury as the one he’s recovered from, Comeback Player of the Year may very well be his to lose.
8. New generation of wide receivers
Justin Jefferson led the way for the new crop of wide receivers in 2020, in his rookie-record-breaking year that saw him rack up 1,400 receiving yards. D.K. Metcalf also broke out and was named Second-Team All-Pro in his second season, and they are just two of the talented young receivers spread throughout the league. Now one of the most promising rookie classes of receivers in memory will make its debut in Week 1. Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith were all taken within the first 10 picks of the draft and will be expected to contribute right away. Chase struggled this preseason with drops, but the Bengals brass still expect him and his former LSU teammate Joe Burrow to form a franchise-leading tandem in years to come. Waddle will have plenty to prove after missing the ’20 season with an ankle injury, and Smith is expected to be the savior of one of the league’s weakest receiving corps in Philadelphia.
9. Chiefs’ revamped offensive line
The Chiefs were the premier offense in the NFL last year, but it didn’t mean a thing when Patrick Mahomes was running for his life from the Buccaneers’ pass rush during Super Bowl LV. Injuries played a part, but the loss showed the world a glaring issue that Kansas City needed to address in order to return to championship glory, and the team did just that in the offseason. They traded for Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Brown Jr.; and before that they added left guard Joe Thuney, center Austin Blythe and right tackle/right guard Kyle Long. The Chiefs also drafted center Creed Humphrey and guard Trey Smith, and will get second-year tackle Lucas Niang back after he opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who opted out to serve on the front lines of the pandemic. Kansas City may have nullified its one offensive weakness and could break some records in the NFL’s first 17-game regular season.
10. Rookie QBs
This year’s class of rookie signal-callers gives us three Week 1 starters and five interesting situations. Lawrence has the highest expectations in Jacksonville, while Zach Wilson will try to prove himself worthy of the No. 2 pick while starting for a Jets offense that ranked last in 2020. Mac Jones won the job in Foxboro, leading the Patriots to cut former MVP Cam Newton. Trey Lance is out with a broken finger for now but appears ready to take meaningful snaps away from Jimmy Garoppolo even before he takes over the job full-time. And maybe the most interesting case is in Chicago with Justin Fields, the Ohio State QB who dropped all the way to No. 11 after a standout collegiate career. Andy Dalton has been named the Week 1 starter for the Bears, but the rookie had an impressive preseason and, assuming Dalton struggles at some point, it will be must-watch football if and when Fields makes his regular-season debut.
11. No Fun League crackdown on taunting
In a bizarre offseason move, the NFL stressed that enforcing the rule against taunting will be a point of emphasis among NFL referees this upcoming season, which could already be seen in the preseason. It’s not exactly clear what brought this on, but in the league’s annual video that highlighted rule changes and points of emphasis, it used examples of taunting and said it saw “an increase of actions that are clearly not within the spirit and intent of this rule and not representative of the respect to opponents and others on the field.” Naturally, there’s a fine line between taunting and a well-earned celebration, but it will be interesting to see how NFL officials toe that line and how players respond.
12. Can Jameis Winston lead the Saints back to the playoffs?
Jameis Winston is the heir apparent to Drew Brees, after the Saints legend called it a career, and is set to start Week 1 against the Packers. Although it’s fair to say Winston isn’t the Hall of Fame quarterback that Brees was, it’s a valid question to ask whether he can keep New Orleans in the postseason. The Saints have won the NFC South the last four seasons not just because of Brees but largely because of a strong defense and high-level skill position players surrounding their quarterback. But they will be without Michael Thomas for at least the first five games of the season after placing him on the PUP list, so Alvin Kamara will be heavily leaned on. The Saints had the fifth-best defense in the NFL last season in points allowed and could make their fifth postseason in a row if Winston can lead them.
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13. First-year head coaches
Meyer landed one of the most coveted NFL coaching gigs in Jacksonville, and some rookie head coaches find themselves in better situations than others. David Culley was thrown into the fire for his first head coaching job, as the Texans continue to try to deal Deshaun Watson and are projected to be one of the worst teams in the NFL. Arthur Smith took the job in Atlanta and has Matt Ryan, Kyle Pitts and Calvin Ridley at his disposal on offense. The Chargers found their man in Brandon Staley, and with 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert under center they could be in for a postseason run. Robert Saleh with the Jets and Nick Sirianni for the Eagles will both be calling the shots with young quarterbacks starting in Wilson and Jalen Hurts, respectively. All in all, their first years could show a glimpse of what’s to come for their respective franchises.
14. The Deshaun Watson saga
Speaking of the Texans, Watson was the headline of the early offseason when he requested a trade from the team that drafted him in 2017, but the story took a turn when more than 20 women accused him of sexual misconduct. As it stands, there are a total of 22 women suing Watson and 10 criminal complaints. Despite the lawsuits, Houston is still shopping Watson and the Dolphins have emerged as front-runners to make a deal, per Yahoo Sports’ Charles Robinson.
15. Are the 49ers poised for a bounce-back?
The 49ers were the team to beat in the NFC during the 2019 season. They finished 13–3 and capped it off with a Super Bowl berth. But last year was catastrophic from an injury perspective and they finished the season at the bottom of the ultracompetitive NFC West at 6–10. But San Francisco will be getting back ’19 Defensive Rookie of the Year Nick Bosa, who tore his ACL in Week 2, and Garoppolo who suffered an ankle injury that sidelined him for 10 games last year. Star tight end George Kittle will look to be back to his All-Pro self after missing half of last season due to an ankle injury and later a broken bone in his foot. Defensive end Dee Ford, running back Raheem Mostert and wide receiver Deebo Samuel all missed significant time as well and will hopefully be able to stay on the field this go-around—for their team’s sake.
16. Top 2022 free agents to watch
Besides Adams, there are a handful of big names to look out for who will be free agents next year. Von Miller’s monster 6-year $114.5 million deal will be up and he could very well leave the Broncos next year—the only NFL team he’s ever known. First-Team All Pro guard Brandon Scherff will be a free agent along with wide receiver Allen Robinson. Robinson was franchise tagged by the Bears back in March, but after back-to-back seasons of at least 1,100 receiving yards, he’ll cash in next offseason so long as he produces for Chicago for one more season. Outside linebacker Chandler Jones, wide receiver Chris Godwin and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger round out next year’s names to watch in free agency, though Big Ben may also decide to retire.
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17. The longest regular season in NFL history
For the first time since 1978, the NFL season will not consist of 16 regular-season games. This upcoming season will be the longest in the league’s history after the NFL approved the 18-week, 17-game season in March. Playing an extra regular-season game could have serious ramifications like a larger chance of players getting injured and fatigue playing a bigger role in the postseason. On the other hand, it could be a gateway to records being shattered left and right. With the extra game, players and teams will have four more quarters to break regular-season marks across the board.
18. NFC East quarterbacks
Including Prescott, the NFC East may have the most to prove in terms of quarterback production as a division that’s consistently been one of the worst in the NFL. In his two years on the Giants, Daniel Jones leads all players with 29 fumbles, and last year he threw for just 2,943 yards, 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. But with the return of Saquon Barkley and the acquisition of Kenny Golladay, Jones has the weapons around him to take a big step in 2021. Hurts has earned the starting spot in Philadelphia after starting just four games last year, and now the former Oklahoma star can prove he’s worthy of leading the Eagles back to playoff contention. The reigning division champion Washington Football Team will start Ryan Fitzpatrick Week 1. This will be the ninth NFL team he’s played for.
19. Seattle’s defense resurgence
The Seahawks are far removed from the Legion of Boom era, but even by anyone’s standards their ability to slow teams down in the first half of last season left much to be desired. In its first nine games of 2020, Seattle allowed more than 350 passing yards and nearly 30 points per game. But in their final seven games, the Seahawks allowed just 197 passing yards and 15 points per game. During that final stretch, no NFL team had more sacks than Seattle. With a healthy Jamal Adams, and Carlos Dunlap now there for a full season, the Seahawks could be a dark horse candidate for breakout defense of the year.
20. Fans return to stadiums
After a year of artificial stadium noise and cardboard cut-out fans, all 32 NFL stadiums are expected to be at full-fan capacity this season. We did see larger crowds in some cities by the playoffs last year, but it’ll still be a strange sight to see packed NFL stadiums again. But one story to watch will be how long it lasts. If there is an outbreak or state guidelines change for whatever reason, we could see some NFL teams restrict attendance again. And so far only two teams, the Saints and Raiders, are requiring fans to show proof of vaccination to attend games (though the Saints won't play in New Orleans right away). The NFL is leaving that decision up to each NFL team, so keeping an eye on how long full-fan capacity lasts and each club’s vaccine protocols is a must.
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