Every NFL Team's Biggest Reason to Look Forward to 2021 Season
Even with the NFL's expanded playoff field, not every team can realistically consider itself a title contender. Only a handful of teams are of that caliber, and more than half of the league will still miss the playoffs.
Yet every NFL team can have hope, especially at this point in the offseason. The Chicago Bears made the playoffs at 8-8 last year, while the Washington Football Team won the NFC East at 7-9. Every team is currently 0-0 and loaded with free-agent and draft potential.
Likewise, every NFL fanbase has at least one reason to be excited about the 2021 season, even if the Super Bowl is a pipe dream. Whether it is indeed a realistic shot at the title, an exciting and innovative new coaching staff, a look at some high-profile additions or a glimpse of the franchise's future, every team has something to look forward to heading into the regular season.
Arizona Cardinals: A Very Murray Offense
When the Arizona Cardinals hired head coach Kliff Kingsbury two years ago and paired him with quarterback Kyler Murray, their vision appeared to be building one of the most unstoppable offenses in the NFL. The Cardinals aren't there just yet, but Murray has developed into one of the most exciting young players in the league.
The NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2019, Murray was even better in Year 2. His passer rating jumped from 87.4 to 94.3, he threw six more touchdown passes, and he rushed for an impressive 819 yards with 11 touchdowns.
The Cardinals should be excited about Year 3 of the Murray-centric offense because the pieces are in place for it to be electric.
This offseason, Arizona added veteran wideout A.J. Green and drafted Purdue receiver Rondale Moore to complement DeAndre Hopkins, Christian Kirk and Andy Isabella. They also added James Conner to pair with running back Chase Edmonds. There's a chance that the ageless Larry Fitzgerald will be back as well.
"If he tells us at some point that he's ready to go, we'll have a spot for him," general manager Steve Keim told Mad Dog Radio's Adam Schein (h/t Arizona Sports).
With a loaded cadre of pass-catchers at his disposal, Murray could be in line for the sort of third-year jump the NFL world saw from Buffalo's Josh Allen last season. If nothing else, this offense will be a heck of a lot of fun to watch.
Atlanta Falcons: A Fresh Start and a Fantastic New Weapon
The infamous 28-3 Super Bowl is a piece of Atlanta Falcons history. So too is the head coach who was a part of it. Dan Quinn was let go in October and replaced by former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith earlier this offseason.
The hiring of Smith—who helped orchestrate a top-10 scoring offense in back-to-back seasons—represents a fresh start for the Falcons franchise. Atlanta has not had a winning season in any of the past three years.
Make no mistake, though; Atlanta's identity will still be built around an explosive passing attack. Quarterback Matt Ryan is still here. So are wideouts Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, though the Falcons are open to trading Jones.
Atlanta also has a new weapon that could make its passing attack better than it has been since that Super Bowl season in 2016. The Falcons made former Florida tight end Kyle Pitts the first non-quarterback off the board in the NFL draft and will immediately partner him with Jones, Ridley and tight end Hayden Hurst.
The Falcons had the league's fifth-ranked passing attack last season, despite missing Jones for seven games. With Jones healthy and Pitts in the fold, Atlanta could easily have the league's top passing offense in 2021. And with Smith and new GM Terry Fontenot in the front office, the Falcons have an opportunity to blow by the lingering stench of Super Bowl collapse.
Baltimore Ravens: Lamar Jackson's New Top Target
The Baltimore Ravens have not missed the playoffs with Lamar Jackson under center. However, they have seen some ups and downs from their franchise quarterback.
Jackson was a unanimous MVP in 2019 but regressed statistically in 2020. He has also failed to develop into an upper-echelon passer, though he shouldn't shoulder all of the blame. The Ravens have not provided Jackson with a legitimate No. 1 perimeter receiver, but they may have remedied that issue in this year's draft.
With the 27th overall pick, Baltimore selected former Minnesota wideout Rashod Bateman, a prospect with the tools to be a true No. 1 target.
"Bateman has a high floor and can contribute to any offense on Day 1," Nate Tice of the B/R Scouting Department wrote. "He also has the high ceiling of being a top-tier X-WR in the NFL, with the ability to also line up in the slot for whichever play-caller wants to highlight him."
Jackson is a two-time 1,000-yard rusher who reads defenses well and possesses more than enough arm talent to keep opposing secondaries honest. If Bateman can be the No. 1 receiver that Baltimore has lacked, Jackson could be even more dangerous.
That's a scary thought for other teams in the AFC, but one that should get Ravens fans excited.
Buffalo Bills: The Rise of Josh Allen
We've already touched on the 2020 jump made by Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, but it is remarkable. The former Wyoming product was a borderline MVP candidate a year after being one of the more inconsistent signal-callers in the league.
In 2019, Allen completed 58.8 percent of his passes while posting a quarterback rating of 85.3. Last season, he completed 69.2 percent of his passes and had a rating of 107.2. Allen's touchdown passes rose from 20 to 37, and he tossed just one more interception.
Allen benefited from the addition of wideout Stefon Diggs tremendously, but his growth as a signal-caller was nonetheless impressive. The idea that he could be even better in 2021 should have the Bills and their fans absolutely pumped.
After all, Allen is still learning how to be a franchise quarterback in the NFL. If he hasn't hit his ceiling just yet, he could join the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers in the ranks of the elite this season.
The Bills have Super Bowl aspirations, to be sure. At least, they should after reaching the AFC title game in 2020. However, it's Allen's potential that should be the most fun to watch. Regardless of how Buffalo finishes the season, its 24-year-old quarterback should be around for a long, long time.
Carolina Panthers: The Sam Darnold Experiment
The Carolina Panthers pulled the plug on Teddy Bridgewater this offseason, sending him to the Denver Broncos in a predraft trade. However, that move was only made after the Panthers acquired quarterback Sam Darnold from the New York Jets.
The Darnold experiment in Carolina will begin in training camp.
While the 2018 third overall pick didn't work out in New York, there are reasons to believe he can be successful with the Panthers. The first is that he has a strong supporting cast with weapons like D.J. Moore, Christian McCaffrey, Robby Anderson and rookie Terrace Marshall Jr.
The second is that Darnold will work with a bright offensive mind in coordinator Joe Brady, the same offensive guru who helped develop Joe Burrow into a Heisman winner and No. 1 overall pick.
Also, Darnold still possesses the same physical traits that made him a top-three pick to begin with.
"I think he caught some backlash this year because of the preseason hype and the interceptions. He's still the most complete quarterback in this draft with the best makeup to be a good pro," one AFC executive said of Darnold in 2018, per NFL Media's Lance Zierlein.
The Panthers have Darnold for two more years on his rookie contract, meaning they have two years to unlock the upside that the Jets could not. There's no guarantee this will be a success, of course, but if it is, Carolina could have its franchise quarterback for the next decade-plus.
Chicago Bears: The Start of the Justin Fields Era
Sorry, Chicago Bears, but hyping "QB1" Andy Dalton isn't going to generate much excitement among the fanbase. Dalton may be a good-to-very good quarterback when he's at his best, but he isn't the future of the franchise.
The guy Chicago traded up for, on the other hand, might be.
The Bears moved up in the first round to nab Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields 11th overall. While Fields was the fourth quarterback taken in Round 1, he has the tools and upside of a future franchise quarterback.
"Fields is a dynamic quarterback prospect who would get No. 1 pick consideration in any other draft class," Tice wrote. "He displays excellent accuracy and throw power at all three levels. Fields is able to change arm slots and throw off-platform while maintaining accuracy."
While the Bears aren't going to rush Fields into game action, it feels virtually inevitable that the former Buckeye will start at some point in 2021. He's a higher-upside option than Dalton for a playoff-caliber team. He'll certainly get playing time if the Bears fall out of contention at any point in the 17-game season.
Fields has the potential to be the offensive savior Chicago has long lacked under center. The anticipation of seeing the franchise's future in action should be a massive draw for the Chicago faithful.
Cincinnati Bengals: Joe Burrow, Act II
The Cincinnati Bengals saw more than enough from Joe Burrow as a rookie to be excited about his future. The LSU product threw for 2,688 yards with 13 touchdowns and five interceptions in 10 games while posting a passer rating of 89.8.
Unfortunately, Burrow's inaugural campaign was cut short after those 10 games by a brutal knee injury that involved multiple torn ligaments.
The good news is that Burrow is expected to be ready to go by Week 1. This means that Cincinnati's quarterback of the future should pick up right where he left off—with a supporting cast that has the potential to be even stronger.
Cincinnati added offensive tackle Riley Reiff and rookie guard Jackson Carman this offseason while using the fifth overall pick on Burrow's former teammate, Ja'Marr Chase. Widely regarded as the best receiver prospect in this class, Chase should be an upgrade over departed veteran A.J. Green.
With Burrow throwing to him at LSU in 2019, Chase racked up 1,780 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns.
The Bengals may not be a playoff team just yet, but they have their quarterback of the future. Just seeing him healthy and on the field in Week 1 will electrify the fanbase, and there's a very good chance that Burrow will be even better than he was as a rookie.
Cleveland Browns: Super Bowl Expectations
The Cleveland Browns won 11 games during the 2020 regular season and notched a postseason victory over the rival Pittsburgh Steelers. Cleveland's offense, led by running back Nick Chubb and quarterback Baker Mayfield, was a dangerous unit, but the Browns defense left plenty to be desired.
Cleveland ranked 14th in points scored but just 17th in total defense last season and 21st in points allowed. Unsurprisingly, the team's focus this offseason was almost exclusively on improving the defense
The Browns added safety John Johnson III, cornerback Troy Hill and pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney in free agency. They then used their first two draft picks on cornerback Greg Newsome II and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.
While the Browns defense may not be elite, it should be vastly improved over its 2020 incarnation. Pro Football Focus ranked Cleveland's roster as the second-best in the NFL before the selections of Newsome and Owusu-Koramoah.
With an improved defense, reigning NFL Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski and three-time Pro Bowl recevier Odell Beckham Jr. set to return from injury, the Browns don't have any glaring weaknesses on their roster. This means that for the first time this century, Cleveland must be considered a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
And yes, we can say that without stifling laughter, which must be a tremendous feeling for the Cleveland faithful.
Dallas Cowboys: Return of the Dak
The Dallas Cowboys saw their 2020 season derailed by a Week 5 injury to quarterback Dak Prescott. The two-time Pro Bowler was leading the NFL with 1,856 passing yards when he suffered a fractured and dislocated ankle against the New York Giants.
The good news is that Prescott should be healthy and ready by Week 1 this season. Head coach Mike McCarthy expects the Mississippi State product to be an active participant in organized team activities (OTAs).
"I know he feels really good. He's really had some excellent workouts the last couple weeks," McCarthy told reporters. "I see him doing most of the work."
The prospect of getting Prescott back under center should excite Dallas in a big way. Even with their franchise quarterback sidelined for most of the season, the Cowboys managed to rank 14th in total offense.
With weapons like CeeDee Lamb, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and Dalton Schultz on the roster, the Cowboys have the makings of one of the most prolific and balanced offenses in the NFL. With Prescott pulling the trigger, Dallas should be able to go toe-to-toe with any team —and it should be right back in the thick of the NFC East race.
Denver Broncos: QB Competition or Bust
The Denver Broncos didn't use a top-10 pick on a quarterback as many might have expected. They also didn't swing a trade for a top-tier quarterback, though they are reportedly monitoring the status of Packers signal-caller Aaron Rodgers.
"Denver is a team that's buzzing in league circles. I was told by a source that Denver is 'monitoring' that situation right now," ESPN's Jeremy Fowler said on SportsCenter (h/t Bleacher Report's Tyler Conway).
What Denver did do is acquire veteran quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to compete with and/or push third-year man Drew Lock.
Lock flashed some promise as a rookie, going 4-1 as a starter over the final five weeks. However, he struggled with consistency and decision-making last year, finishing tied for the league lead with 15 interceptions.
Either Bridgewater will supplant Lock and provide an upgrade at quarterback, or he'll use his experience to help make the young gunslinger better.
"I'm just in there motivating him, teaching him—while we're competing—it's all going to help the [quarterback] room," Bridgewater said on the All Things Covered podcast (h/t Jon Heath of Broncos Wire).
Regardless of who emerges as the starter, the Broncos should be looking at an improved quarterback situation in 2021, which is exciting. And if they don't, it'll likely mean the end of the Lock experiment and a focus on the 2022 draft and finding the quarterback of the future.
One way or another, the Broncos should emerge from this season with some answers about Lock's future.
Detroit Lions: A Kneecap-Biting Mentality
The Matthew Stafford era is over for the Detroit Lions, who traded their former franchise quarterback in the offseason. They got former Super Bowl participant Jared Goff as part of the deal, but the Lions' new identity is going to be more about physicality than it is about quarterback play.
For years, Detroit was a middling team with a great quarterback and no postseason success. Under new head coach Dan Campbell, the Lions will strive to be gridiron fighters.
"This team is going to take on the identity of this city and this city has been down and it found a way to get up," Campbell said in his introductory press conference. "When you knock us down, we're going to get up and on the way up, we're going to bite a kneecap off. All right?"
Detroit should be excited about the Lions embracing a throwback NFC North "Black and Blue" mentality—and the Lions are embracing it. Their first two picks in the draft were offensive tackle Penei Sewell and defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike, two powerful linemen who will help control the trenches.
Campbell's Lions are not going to be a finesse team. They'll be looking to dominate with smashmouth football. It'll be a thrilling transition for a team that needs to shed its identity as an also-ran.
Green Bay Packers: It's Rodgers or a Move to the Future
Uncertainty generally isn't fun, and there's plenty of it surrounding the Green Bay Packers heading into the 2021 season. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers wants out of Green Bay, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, though at least one former teammate believes that things have been overblown.
"Whoever leaked this or whoever's coming out saying that, as a friend of Aaron Rodgers, I can say that it's not him," former Packers wideout and current NFL Network analyst James Jones said, per Nick Shook of NFL.com.
Still, there's no guarantee that Rodgers will be happy in Green Bay in 2021.
Still, for Packers fans, one of two things is going to happen: Either Rodgers suits up in a Green Bay uniform and the Packers make a run at the Super Bowl, or Rodgers won't play for Green Bay, and fans will get a long look at their future.
The reality is that this is a playoff-caliber roster with or without Rodgers. While having either Jordan Love or Blake Bortles under center would be an obvious downgrade, this is still a team with a top-10 defense, an elite receiver in Davante Adams and a vastly underrated rushing attack.
If Rodgers isn't with the Packers, fans will get to see what an offense centered around Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon looks like—and perhaps how ready Love is to take the reins. That's not the worst consolation prize for a fanbase that will eventually say goodbye to Rodgers anyway.
And if Rodgers is back? Green Bay will be considered one of the biggest favorites in the NFC.
Houston Texans: Moving Forward
Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson is facing multiple allegations of sexual assault and misconduct. If they are proven true, he might never play in the NFL again.
Watson's departure from Houston was likely inevitable even before the allegations emerged, though. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Watson had officially requested a trade back in January.
Would the Texans prefer to have the three-time Pro Bowler under center this season? Undoubtedly. That isn't likely to happen, though, and Houston is probably looking at some combination of Tyrod Taylor and rookie Davis Mills at quarterback in 2021.
Taylor and/or Mills probably won't make the Texans a playoff team in 2021. Houston won only four games with Watson playing at a near-MVP level last season.
But once the season gets underway, the Texans will be able to focus on rebuilding, moving forward and winning football games. They have a new head coach in David Culley and some new weapons in running back Mark Ingram II, rookie tight end Brevin Jordan and rookie wideout Nico Collins.
The 2021 season was always going to be a bit of a transition year for Houston. Getting it underway will help the Texans to move forward and to put Watson in the past.
Indianapolis Colts: The Carson Wentz Experiment
The Indianapolis Colts were able to make a one-year run with aging vet Philip Rivers at quarterback in 2020. After Rivers retired in the offseason, Indianapolis will take a different approach to making the playoffs in 2021.
The Colts took a flier on former Philadelphia Eagles franchise quarterback Carson Wentz and will try to return him to Pro Bowl form. It should help that head coach Frank Reich previously worked with Wentz—and won a Super Bowl with him—and fully believes in him.
"I love sticking my neck out for people I believe in," Reich said, per Kevin Patra of NFL.com. "I'm willing to put it on the line for players that you believe in. I believe in this team, I believe in Carson. I feel good about it."
While the Eagles stopped believing in Wentz, the Colts do. And if Wentz can return to the MVP-caliber player he was in 2017, he could guide them on a deep playoff run.
The Colts have a top-10 defense, a powerful running game and a seasoned and successful coaching staff. They won 11 games and made the playoffs with the 39-year-old Rivers under center.
If they get the best version of Wentz to return, they can be legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Trying with Trevor
While no one will openly admit it, "Tanking for Trevor" was a phenomenon last season. Bad teams tried to be worse to land the No. 1 overall pick, which they would use on Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
The Jacksonville Jaguars successfully pulled off the tank job, and they did indeed take Lawrence No. 1 overall. They'll now try to get back to relevance with Lawrence under center and standout college coach Urban Meyer running the show.
There's no guarantee that the marriage will work, especially since Meyer has no NFL coaching experience. But there's plenty of reason to believe that Lawrence is the future of the Jaguars.
"Lawrence has all the tools and makeup to live up to the expectations of a generational franchise quarterback," Nate Tice of the B/R Scouting Department wrote. "Lawrence is the complete package of size, arm talent, athleticism and intangibles."
Lawrence is regarded as the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck, and while the Colts didn't always surround Luck with a high-end supporting cast, he kept them competitive more often than not. Indy missed the playoffs only once during seasons in which Luck played at least eight games.
Can Lawrence have a similar impact on the Jaguars? That remains to be seen, but the hope is there.
Kansas City Chiefs: The 2021 Revenge Tour
While the Kansas City Chiefs ultimately fell short in Super Bowl LV against the New England Patriots, their banged-up offensive line was partially to blame. They retooled that line in the offseason, adding Joe Thuney, Kyle Long, Austin Blythe and Orlando Brown Jr.
Much of Kansas City's roster remains the same. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Patrick Mahomes are all back for another go, and the Chiefs have yet to miss the AFC title game with Mahomes as their starting quarterback.
Kansas City is likely to spend the 2021 season trying to prove it's better than it played in Super Bowl LV. That's a scary thought for opponents considering this is one of the NFL's most talented teams.
According to Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk, the Chiefs opened as favorites in 16 of their 17 games at Westgate.
Teams with championship aspirations generally don't need extra motivation. However, the Chiefs' embarrassing loss in the Super Bowl may provide just that.
Expect Kansas City to do a lot of winning in 2021.
Las Vegas Raiders: A Complementary Pass Rush
The Las Vegas Raiders were close to being a playoff team in 2020. They managed to win eight games and ranked in the top 10 in both yards gained and points scored.
However, an underwhelming defense proved to be the fatal flaw that kept Las Vegas out of the postseason. Specifically, the Raiders struggled to pressure opposing quarterbacks.
Las Vegas had only 21 sacks as a team, which ranked 29th in the NFL. In a division with Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert, that's nowhere near good enough.
The Raiders should look forward to what their new-look pass rush can provide this season. They added Yannick Ngakoue and Solomon Thomas in free agency and used a third-round pick on Malcolm Koonce.
While Koonce is a developmental prospect, he has the physical tools to contribute as a rotational rusher.
"Should he work on the valleys of his game enough in the first few years of his career, the peaks of his play could warrant him consistently making his way on NFL rosters as a rotational player on the edge," Justis Mosqueda of the B/R Scouting Department wrote.
The Raiders already have one quality pass-rusher in Maxx Crosby, who had 17 sacks over the past two seasons. With the new trio on board and a top-10 offense still in place, Las Vegas should have enough talent on both sides of the ball to earn its first playoff berth since 2016.
Los Angeles Chargers: Justin Herbert, Season 2
The Los Angeles Chargers must be ecstatic about the first year of the Justin Herbert era.
Even before Burrow suffered his injury, one could argue that Herbert was the more impressive rookie quarterback. He passed for 4,336 yards and a rookie-record 31 touchdowns while logging a passer rating of 98.3 in 15 games, and he went on to win NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year as a result.
Herbert could be even better in 2021.
He was sacked 32 times as a rookie, but the Chargers improved the offensive line in front of him. They added All-Pro center Corey Linsley in free agency and drafted blue-chip tackle prospect Rashawn Slater with their first-round pick.
Some even believe that Herbert could be a dark-horse MVP candidate.
"We have two recent examples of sophomore signal-callers making the MVP jump: Patrick Mahomes in 2018 and Lamar Jackson in 2019," Adam Schein wrote for NFL.com. "Don't be surprised if Herbert joins the club after leading the Bolts to just their third playoff bid in a dozen years."
Herbert will have to learn a new system under first-year head coach Brandon Staley. However, he was shoved into the deep end last year when Tyrod Taylor suffered a punctured lung, and he didn't sink.
The future is bright for both Herbert and the Chargers.
Los Angeles Rams: All-In with Matthew Stafford
The Rams made it to the Super Bowl in 2018 and have been to the playoffs in three of the past four years. However, they weren't going to go any further with the inconsistent Jared Goff at quarterback.
So this offseason, the Rams sent Goff and a handful of valuable draft picks to Detroit for quarterback Matthew Stafford.
While Stafford has never won a playoff game, he has consistently been among the league's best quarterbacks in the regular season. The prolific passer has racked up 45,109 passing yards and 282 passing touchdowns in 12 career seasons.
Pairing Stafford with Los Angeles' playoff-ready roster should yield success both in the short and long term.
"Based on his age, you can legitimately think five to seven, eight years if you look at what Drew [Brees] has done," Rams general manager Les Snead said, per Jourdan Rodrigue of The Athletic.
Head coach Sean McVay has earned a reputation as a creative and innovative play-caller. It's going to be a lot of fun watching him work with the 2009 No. 1 overall pick.
If Stafford lives up to expectations, the Rams should be right back in the Super Bowl mix.
Miami Dolphins: The Return of the Tagovailoa-Waddle Connection
The Miami Dolphins had an amazing turnaround in 2020, going 10-6 after finishing 5-11 in 2019. They'll look to build on that success while developing 2020 fifth overall pick Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback.
Tagovailoa showed flashes as a rookie, throwing 11 touchdowns to only five interceptions and going 6-3 as a starter. However, he also struggled to push the ball down the field at times and was pulled for journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick on more than one occasion.
On paper, Tagovailoa's downfield passing is about to get a big boost in the form of rookie wideout Jaylen Waddle. The Dolphins grabbed Tagovailoa's former teammate with the sixth pick in the draft, reuniting two of Alabama's biggest recent playmakers.
With Waddle and free-agent addition William Fuller V, Miami is adding a ton of speed to its offense.
"Fuller, a first-round pick by the Texans in 2016, ran a 4.32 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, tied for the ninth fastest official time among active NFL players. And, guess what? Waddle might be even faster," ESPN's Cameron Wolfe wrote. "NFL teams received data that Waddle had the fastest GPS time of all college football players last season."
Waddle and Tagovailoa have preexisting chemistry, and their partnership should add a new element to Miami's offense. Dolphins fans should be looking forward to how it all plays out.
Minnesota Vikings: Justin Jefferson and Dalvin Cook
We might be looking at the last days of the Kirk Cousins era in Minnesota.
The Vikings used a third-round pick on Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond, and Cousins' contract expires after the 2022 season. However, Mond isn't likely to supplant Cousins this season, and the Vikings should be far more interested in what they have in two of their skill-position players.
In wideout Justin Jefferson and running back Dalvin Cook, Minnesota has two viable candidates for Offensive Player of the Year.
Cook has been nearly unstoppable when healthy. He missed two games last season and still finished with a career-high 1,557 rushing yards, 361 receiving yards and 17 total touchdowns. Jefferson had a rookie season for the ages, catching 88 passes for 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns.
Only Bill Groman has had more receiving yards as a rookie. He had 1,473 for the Houston Oilers back in 1960. Randy Moss had previously held the Vikings rookie record of 1,313 yards, which he set back in 1998.
There's little reason to think that Jefferson and Cook won't be just as good or better in 2021. As long as both remain healthy, the Vikings should remain in the playoff conversation throughout the season.
New England Patriots: Unleashing the Mac Attack
The New England Patriots have a few reasons to look forward to the 2021 season. An offseason spending spree netted them players like Matt Judon, Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith and Nelson Agholor. On paper, they should be more talented than last year's 7-9 squad.
However, the Patriots' selection of Alabama quarterback Mac Jones is what should have them the most pumped about starting the regular season.
The Patriots landed the former Crimson Tide star with the 15th overall pick. While he may not immediately bump Cam Newton from the starting spot, Jones is clearly the future of the franchise.
Newton did help deliver seven wins last year while rushing for an impressive 592 yards and 12 scores. However, he threw for only 2,657 yards with eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions. More importantly, he struggled with consistency and with making the most of New England's minimal receiving talent.
With an improved receiving corps, Newton can be better in 2021. However, Jones has the tools needed to be the superior long-term option in Josh McDaniels' offense.
"Overall, Jones has the mental processing, accuracy, toughness and enough athleticism to be an above-average-to-good starter at the NFL level, and he can be a contributor early," Nate Tice of the B/R Scouting Department wrote.
Unless Newton takes a big leap in his second Patriots season, we're likely to see Jones at some point in 2021. He is, after all, the heir to Tom Brady that New England has been waiting for.
New Orleans Saints: Life After Drew Brees
Every NFL franchise has to pass the torch at quarterback at some point. That time has come for the New Orleans Saints, who lost Drew Brees to retirement this offseason.
While losing the first-ballot Hall of Famer isn't something to celebrate, it gives the Saints an opportunity to reinvent themselves.
Will they be better with the tandem of Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill at quarterback? The two can do things that Brees couldn't do late in his career, so it's possible.
Bress was a quarterback in his early 40s who missed time due to injury in both 2019 and 2020. Meanwhile, Hill possesses the athleticism ad straight-line speed needed to run a more modern NFL offense, and Winston has the big arm and the downfield accuracy that seemed to elude Brees last season.
'His arm strength has steadily declined in recent seasons, and last year, his passes traveled shorter distances than any other NFL quarterback," The Ringer's Rodger Sherman wrote back in September.
While it may seem blasphemous, Brees' departure may allow coach Sean Payton to be even more creative offensively. This is still a playoff team, one with a top-five defense and offensive weapons like Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. The Saints also went 8-1 without Brees over the last two years.
It's sad to see Brees walk off into the sunset, but the future is still very bright in New Orleans.
New York Giants: New Weapons, a Healthy Barkley
The New York Giants came close to winning the NFC East last season thanks to the strength of their defense. Patrick Graham's unit ranked 12th overall and ninth in points allowed.
New York's downfall was its lack of offense, with star running back Saquon Barkley out for most of the year with a torn ACL. The unit ranked 31st in both yards and points and failed to reach 20 points in nine games.
The Giants should be in store for an offensive resurgence, though, and you can bet that the front office and fans alike are looking forward to it.
Barkley's impending return should boost both the ground and passing game. The fourth-year back has averaged 75.6 rushing yards and 39.3 receiving yards per contest as a pro. The Giants also added free-agent receiver Kenny Golladay and rookie wideout Kadarius Toney this offseason.
Golladay is a two-time 1,000-yard receiver who led the NFL with 11 touchdown receptions in 2019. Toney is likely to be a gadget player early in his career but boasts the sort of game-breaking speed (4.39 40-yard dash) that the Giants have lacked.
"Essentially, you're betting on the flash with Toney and hoping he develops into a consistent superweapon creating yards from across the formation for a creative play-caller," Nate Tice of the B/R Scouting Department wrote.
New York will still want to see more consistency out of quarterback Daniel Jones, who had a passer rating of just 80.4 last season, but this should be a far more balanced team than it was a year ago.
New York Jets: The Team Has Its Quarterback...Again
Over the last decade-plus, the Jets have repeatedly tried to draft their quarterback of the future.
Mark Sanchez (2009) helped New York make back-to-back AFC title-game appearances. Geno Smith (2013) and Sam Darnold (2018) were largely disasters. The Jets rolled the proverbial dice in this year's draft, taking BYU quarterback Zach Wilson second overall.
Will this time be the charm for the Jets? There's reason to think it could be. Many analysts, including Pro Football Talk's Chris Simms, viewed Wilson as a better pro prospect than Trevor Lawrence.
A lot will depend on Wilson's supporting cast, of course, but the Jets have done well in that department. They hired a bright offensive play-caller in coordinator Mike LaFleur, signed wideout Corey Davis and drafted three potential offensive impact players: guard Alijah Vera-Tucker, wideout Elijah Moore and running back Michael Carter.
Wilson should be in a better situation than Darnold was three years ago. Whether he finds early success or not, the Jets should be looking forward to seeing their latest quarterback on the field.
Philadelphia Eagles: Jalen Hurts' Team
The Philadelphia Eagles' 2020 campaign fell apart along with quarterback Carson Wentz. An injured and shaky offensive line—which allowed a league-high 65 sacks on the season—certainly played a role. However, Wentz appeared to lose his confidence and reportedly clashed with head coach Doug Pederson.
The Eagles replaced Pederson with Nick Sirianni this offseason, and they traded Wentz, handing his job to second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts.
The move to Hurts could be a successful one. Offensive tackles Lane Johnson and Andre Dillard should both be back. And the team—which has long lacked a true No. 1 receiver—drafted one of Hurts' former Alabama teammates in DeVonta Smith, who can be that top target.
"He has the polish, athleticism and competitiveness to contribute on Day 1 as an outside-WR option who has the upside of being one of the best WRs in the NFL," Nate Tice of the B/R Scouting Department wrote.
Though he only made four starts in 2020, Hurts showed a lot of promise. He threw for six touchdowns with four interceptions and rushed for 354 yards and three more scores. With a healthy offensive line and an elite receiver on the perimeter, Hurts could develop into one of 2021's better dual-threat quarterbacks.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger's Last Stand
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is set to play on a restructured one-year contract, and there's a real chance that this will be his final season. General manager Kevin Colbert told Mike Florio on PFT PM that no one within the Steelers organization is sure of what the quarterback's future holds.
If this is the last ride for Big Ben, Pittsburgh is helping to ensure that it can be a successful one. The Steelers re-signed wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster and added an impact running back in rookie Najee Harris.
Harris, whom the Steelers took in Round 1, is a high-end dual-threat back. He produced 1,466 rushing yards, 425 receiving yards and 30 total touchdowns last season at Alabama. He should immediately give Pittsburgh its best running back since the prime days of Le'Veon Bell.
The Steelers also used a second-round pick on tight end Pat Freiermuth and a third-round pick on interior offensive lineman Kendrick Green, who will presumably help replace retired center Maurkice Pouncey.
With an improved running game and a defense that ranked third in yards and points allowed last season, Roethlisberger should not be asked to carry this team in 2021. The pieces are in place for him to go out on a high note.
The future without Roethlisberger is murky, but Pittsburgh is a Super Bowl-caliber team.
San Francisco 49ers: A Healthy Roster
The San Francisco 49ers should be thrilled about their future with quarterback Trey Lance. However, the No. 3 overall pick isn't expected to see the field early in 2021.
"It's going to be very hard for a rookie to come in and beat Jimmy Garoppolo out," head coach Kyle Shanahan told ESPN (h/t Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk).
In 2021, San Francisco should be most excited about getting healthy. Key contributors like Garoppolo, George Kittle, Nick Bosa and Deebo Samuel all missed time in 2020.
Bosa, who had nine sacks as a rookie, missed all but two games. Kittle, Samuel and Garoppolo sat out a combined 27 contests, which had a major impact on the offense. The unit ranked just 21st in point scored. In 2019, it ranked second in points scored.
With a healthy roster, the 49ers can look forward to being a title contender once again. They dealt with few key injuries two years ago, finished the season 13-3 and fell just short of victory in Super Bowl LIV.
Yes, the future with Lance seems promising, but the present looks pretty darn good too.
Seattle Seahawks: Russell Wilson's Still Here
There was plenty of trade buzz surrounding Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson early in the offseason. Wilson was reportedly unhappy with his protection, and the Seahawks were not pleased with Wilson's approach to the situation.
"A source told me that the Seahawks management is not happy with Russell Wilson and his camp for taking this to the media," Dan Patrick said on The Dan Patrick Show (h/t Rob Staton of BBC Sports). "... The current situation is unsustainable."
Free agency and the draft have come and gone, however, and Wilson remains a Seahawk. While there's no guarantee that he won't be traded in the future, Seattle should look forward to having him under center in 2021.
When Wilson is playing at his best, the Seahawks offense is one of the most unstoppable forces in the NFL. The team put a couple of new pieces around him in the offseason, trading for guard Gabe Jackson and drafting wideout D'Wayne Eskridge. We should see Wilson at his best in 2021, which bodes well for the Seahawks' playoff chances.
Since taking Wilson in the third round in 2012, Seattle has missed the postseason just one time. Don't expect it to miss out this season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Deja Vu
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the reigning Super Bowl champions. They're also returning all 22 offensive and defensive starters from a year ago. This alone should have the Bucs excited about what's in store for 2021.
The scary part is that this team may be even better than it was a year ago.
Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Tristan Wirfs, Antonio Brown and Leonard Fournette were all key Super Bowl contributors who joined the Buccaneers last offseason. They all had to adjust without the benefit of a preseason and with a largely virtual offseason.
Brady has revealed that he didn't have a grasp of the offense until late in the 2020 campaign.
"Midway through the year, I was still trying to figure out how to call the plays," Brady told Hodinkee Radio (h/t JoeBucsFan.com). "I just read [the plays] off my wristband and tried to visualize what was going to happen."
As we all know, things eventually clicked, and the Buccaneers went on a run that ended with Brady's seventh championship. Tampa can realistically expect this season to end just like the last one did: with a championship.
Tennessee Titans: A Wide-Open AFC South
The Titans have made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons and have won 20 games over the last two years. While Tennessee did lose wideout Corey Davis in the offseason, quarterback Ryan Tannehill and two-time rushing champ Derrick Henry remain. The Titans also bolstered their 28th-ranked defense by signing Bud Dupree and drafting Caleb Farley, Monty Rice and Elijah Molden.
There's a chance that Tennessee will be able to run through the AFC South the way Henry runs through arm tackles.
A lot will hinge on how Carson Wentz performs in Indianapolis. The Colts were a playoff team last year, but if Wentz plays like he did in Philadelphia last season—he tied for a league-high with 15 interceptions in 12 games—Indy could struggle.
The Jaguars and Texans, meanwhile, are both entering transition years.
Houston will almost certainly play without quarterback Deshaun Watson, whose NFL future is uncertain after 22 different women filed civil lawsuits against him alleging sexual assault and misconduct.
Meanwhile, the Jaguars are starting over with rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
Houston and Jacksonville won a combined five games in 2020.
Yes, the Titans could still get some tough competition from the Colts, but barring an unexpected resurgence by the Jags or the Texans, Indy will be the only divisional foe Tennessee will need to worry about. The Titans should feel good about their chances of repeating as AFC South champions.
Washington Football Team: Fitzmagic
A team rarely looks forward to starting a 38-year-old journeyman quarterback, but this year should be an exception with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center.
Washington only won seven games in 2020, but it did claim the NFC East. This was largely because of the team's second-ranked defense. Washington ranked just 30th in offensive yards and 25th in points scored. The addition of Fitzpatrick, though, should change the dynamic.
He has proved over the last two seasons that he can be an above-average starter. He threw for 3,529 yards, 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 15 games two years ago, and last season, he made seven starts and finished with a passer rating of 95.6. He doesn't believe he will slow down anytime soon.
"I have a lot of great football ahead of me. ... After last season I was sitting with my wife and saying, 'I think I'm playing better than I ever have, and I still love playing this game,'" he said, per ESPN's John Keim.
Inconsistent quarterback play plagued the Football Team early last season, and while Alex Smith performed well once given the starting job, he battled injuries and retired this offseason. In Fitzpatrick, Washington should have a reliable signal-caller from day one.
With new addition Curtis Samuel and rookie Dyami Brown also boosting the passing attack, Washington should have a far more balanced roster in 2021, and the WFT should again be a playoff squad.
Contract information via Spotrac.