The Biggest Question for Every NFL Team Coming Out of 2021 OTAs
Football season may only last from September to February, but there's always something going on in the NFL. The Super Bowl gives way to the combine, which gives way to free agency, which gives way to the draft, which gives way to rookie minicamps, which gives way to organized team activities.
And that's where we are now: OTAs.
There usually aren't many earth-shaking revelations during OTAs. The workouts are voluntary, so quite a few veterans don't even show up. There's no contact involved, and there's only so much that can be gleaned from players in shorts and shells.
But that's not to say there's nothing to be learned. OTAs can offer a glimpse at players returning from injury and how position battles are shaking out. Or they could be a harbinger of trouble on the horizon, whether it's an impending holdout or a glaring area of weakness.
This time of year often raises more questions than it answers—said answers often don't come until training camp and the preseason. And some of the questions listed in this piece predate OTAs by weeks. Months, even.
But as OTAs wind down and we move closer to mandatory workouts, here's a look at some of the biggest questions hanging over every NFL team.
Will Arizona's Young Inside Linebackers be Ready?
In each of the last two drafts, the Arizona Cardinals have used their first draft pick on an off-ball linebacker: Isaiah Simmons in 2020 and Zaven Collins in 2021.
From all indications, the future is now in the desert. Before OTAs had even begun, reports surfaced that veteran Jordan Hicks was given permission to seek a trade, opening the door for Simmons and Collins to serve as Arizona's starters at inside linebacker in 2021.
The physical talents of the duo aren't in question. Simmons was considered the best defensive player in last year's class by some, a wildly rangy and versatile player capable of lining up all over the defense. Collins is a 6'5", 260-pounder who has drawn comparisons to Brian Urlacher. Per Darren Urban of the team's website, head coach Kliff Kingsbury is already raving about the pair.
"They'll win the prettiest linebacker duo award when they line up side-by-side," Kingsbury said. "Those are two big, long, athletic cats."
But Simmons' rookie season wasn't especially impressive, Collins' next NFL snap will be his first, and while Hicks might not be a world-beater, he has led the Redbirds in stops each of the last two years.
Arizona was 22nd in the league against the run in 2020, allowing over 125 yards per game. If the Cardinals are going to take the next step this year and make the playoffs, that number has to improve.
Collins and Simmons are the key to that happening.
Will Julio Jones be Traded?
For a handful of NFL teams, the biggest question coming out of OTAs has nothing to do with what went on in workouts.
The Atlanta Falcons are one of those teams.
There have been grumblings throughout much of the offseason that given Atlanta's precarious salary-cap situation and his age and salary, the Falcons could look to deal veteran wideout Julio Jones.
Those grumblings became a roar when Jones quipped "I'm outta there" during a live phone call with FS1's Shannon Sharpe.
However, while there are no shortage of teams that would like to add a player of Jones' caliber, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk reported recently that the compensation Atlanta is seeking in a Jones trade and what teams are willing to offer isn't close.
"The asking price continues to be a first-round pick and full assumption by the new team of his $15.3 million guaranteed salary in 2021," Florio wrote. "Along with another $2 million in guaranteed pay for 2022."
That's an awful lot for a 32-year-old coming off an injury-marred season.
And so long as this drags on, it's the only thing anyone is going to talk about when it comes to the Falcons.
How Does Baltimore's Pass Rush Look?
For a team that is considered by some to be the front-runners in the AFC North and a legitimate Super Bowl contender, the Ravens have a few questions. There are new starters along the offensive line. Baltimore's wide receiver corps remains a work in progress. And after losing Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue in free agency, the pass rush is a potential question mark.
The Ravens took steps to answer that question by adding Penn State's Odafe Oweh with the second of their two first-rounders in this year's draft, and as Ryan Mink reported for the team's website from OTAs, Oweh and third-year pro Jaylon Ferguson impressed:
"It's good work for rookie first-round pick Odafe Oweh to be going against an experienced pass-pro veteran like [Alejandro] Villanueva. That's going to help push the rookie, who is off to a good start. It's also notable that third-year edge Jaylon Ferguson looks like he's toned up his body more this offseason, echoing comments from defensive coordiantor Wink Martindale. Ferguson was kicking himself after getting beat for a long completion down the middle, but that's a tough play for a player like him to make."
Fifth-year veteran Tyus Bowser and veteran Pernell McPhee will factor in as well, and to their credit, the Ravens have a track record of successfully replacing edge-rushers who depart in free agency.
But if Baltimore is going to hold off the Browns and Steelers in what may be the AFC's toughest division, the team needs a couple of pass-rushers to step in as at least capable starters.
When Will Star Lotulelei Return?
Given that the Bills tied a franchise record with 13 wins and made it to the AFC Championship Game last year, there wasn't a lot that didn't go right for the team. However, the Bills run defense was only average, allowing just under 120 yards per game.
Part of that could be attributed to the absence of defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who opted out of the season over concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. The return of the 315-pound lane-clogger would be a welcome addition to Buffalo's defensive line.
However, the ninth-year pro hasn't returned—at least not yet.
Per Matt Parrino of NY Upstate, Lotulelei wasn't present at Buffalo's first set of OTAs, although video did recently surface of him working out in Utah. Based on comments head coach Sean McDermott made in April, he knows exactly how important the big man is to the team.
"First of all, the person. He brings a lot to our locker room in terms of his presence and experience," McDermott said of Lotulelei's 2020 absence. "Not only the locker room but also in the defensive line room itself. And then that obviously impacts our defense. It's really his size, the early down ability to factor in at the line of scrimmage. I would say that's the first thing that comes to mind."
How is Sam Darnold Settling in?
There are a few major question marks facing the Panthers this summer. The health of star running back Christian McCaffrey is one after he missed 13 games last year, but Carolina's offensive engine was on the field at OTAs and looks to be at full strength.
"I feel good," McCaffrey said, via ESPN's David Newton. "I feel really good. I’m back to 100 percent and feel healthy and ready to roll."
Of course, the biggest question is the team's new starting quarterback.
Sam Darnold got the opportunity to work out with many of his new teammates for the first time at OTAs. But he and McCaffrey have already spent time working out together in California, and the running back said the pair are already clicking.
"I've gotten to know him really well in the last few months," McCaffrey said, via Darin Gantt of the team's website. "Just getting together throwing with him and hanging out off the field. He's an incredible talent and incredible teammate already, so I'm super excited for him. I think he'll fit in great. Already fits in great."
Darnold's struggles in New York weren't entirely on him. The supporting cast around him was less than stellar, and the players around him in Charlotte may well be the best of his career.
It can only help for the 23-year-old to get as much offseason work with his new teammates as possible, especially with a Week 1 date against his old team looming large on the schedule.
Can Justin Fields Unseat Andy Dalton as the Starting Quarterback?
Despite the Bears moving up in Round 1 to draft Ohio State's Justin Fields, general manager Ryan Pace insisted in April that the veteran free-agent acquisition remains the team's starter under center.
"Matt [Nagy] has spoken to Andy Dalton tonight; that communication and clarity for us is really important," Pace said, via the Chicago Sun-Times. "Andy is our starter, and we're gonna have a really good plan in place to develop Justin and do what's best for our organization and win games."
Well, the Bears have now gotten a look at their new QB in rookie camp and OTAs, and while appearing on ESPN's Get Up, Dan Graziano said (via Bleacher Report's Tyler Conway) that the franchise could soon be singing a different tune.
"If Fields is just undeniable over the next three to four months in training camp, they're not going to just sit him just for fun or posterity just to play the veteran. So they're going to give him the best chance, but they're OK sitting Fields if Dalton has a good grasp on the job and they feel like they can win with him. So, they believe they're going to be better regardless. It just depends on whether Fields is ready Week 1."
As Patrick Finley reported for the Sun-Times, it was Dalton who got the first-team reps when the Bears opened OTAs. And this isn't a battle that will be decided by a handful of non-contact workouts.
But it certainly sounds like Fields will be afforded a legitimate opportunity to show he should be Chicago's starter against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 1.
Can Cincinnati's New Offensive Line Keep Joe Burrow Upright?
The Cincinnati Bengals appear to have their franchise quarterback after taking Joe Burrow first overall in 2020.
In 2021, the team needs to shift its priority to keeping Burrow in one piece, He was sacked 32 times as a rookie before his season was ended after 10 games by an ACL tear.
Per Geoff Hobson of the team's website, Burrow looked good throwing the ball at OTAs, with head coach Zac Taylor remarking that "watching him throw the football, it's the same old Joe."
The team's biggest offseason acquisition (tackle Riley Reiff) also impressed at OTAs, with offensive line coach Frank Pollack exclaiming, per Hobson, "Look at that, 10-year guy and he's the first one out here. That's why he's been in the league so long."
There's also a new guard in town in rookie Jackson Carman, but Taylor said that rookies and veterans alike need to earn both practice reps and starting spots.
"None of that stuff matters during these OTAs. Everyone needs to be able to play a couple of different positions on the line," Taylor said. "Some of those rookies get in there and have earned their opportunities. We have a lot of veterans that have done things the right way and they're going to get opportunities to play as well. Day one you saw a lot of those young linemen, they're rotating in there and they're going to get their chances. Again, they've got to continue to earn their way up there."
What Will the Browns Get from Grant Delpit and Greedy Williams?
Saying that the Browns overhauled the defense in the offseason doesn't really do what Cleveland did justice. Whether it was Jadeveon Clowney and Malik Jackson up front, Anthony Walker and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah at linebacker or John Johnson and Troy Hill in the secondary, there are new starters all over the place.
However, the team's biggest questions on that side of the ball lie with a pair of youngsters who were already on the team.
In 2019 and 2020, the Browns used second-round picks on a pair of defensive backs from LSU: cornerback Greedy Williams and safety Grant Delpit. So far, the return on that investment has been nonexistent; neither player saw the field at all last year due to a nerve injury and an Achilles tear, respectively.
Per Anthony Poisal of the team's website, Delpit said he expects to be a full go for training camp in July.
"[The ankle] feels better and better every day," he said. "It's a long process, long journey to get fully healthy, but the plan is to be fully healthy by training camp."
As Mary Kay Cabot reported for Cleveland.com, Williams was told the nerve in his shoulder will never be 100 percent again. But he doesn't plan to let that stop him from making an impact in the NFL.
"I'll be the better Greedy," he said. "[The injury] gave me time to have more knowledge of the game, so it wasn't all bad. I was sitting down taking notes, doing what I do, getting ready for 2021 and shock the world."
Cleveland drafted some insurance at corner this year in Greg Newsome, but given all the three-safety looks the Browns used a year ago and the fact there is no such thing as too much depth at cornerback, getting significant contributions from Delpit and Williams could play a big part in Cleveland's playoff push.
Who Will be the Odd Man Out at Linebacker in Dallas?
As Curtis Crabtree reported for Pro Football Talk, seeing quarterback Dak Prescott back on the practice field at OTAs was a welcome sight for Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy.
"He's been here working out the whole time so you've been able to watch him go through the rehab process and through the footwork and quarterback drills throughout that,” McCarthy said on Cris Collinsworth's podcast, via RJ Ochoa of Blogging the Boys. "But to see him throw behind the offensive line, I know he was excited about it.”
With the question of the health of Prescott's surgically repaired ankle apparently answered, the next looming issue for Dallas is fixing a defense that allowed yardage and points in bunches last year.
The Cowboys took a number of steps toward doing so in the offseason. Dan Quinn was brought in as defensive coordinator. Quinn brought a pair of safeties with him from Atlanta in Damontae Kazee and Keanu Neal, stating that the latter will make the move to linebacker in 2021. Dallas also used its first pick in 2021 on an off-ball linebacker, selecting Penn State standout Micah Parsons.
Dallas already had a pair of linebackers on the roster in Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, who each have a Pro Bowl nod on their NFL resume. But Vander Esch has missed 13 games over the past two seasons, while Smith's play has fallen off considerably.
Will Parsons carve out an every-down role right off the bat? And if he does, who will join him as the Cowboys' other nickel linebacker?
This is setting up to be one of the more heated position battles in the NFC East this year, and maybe the entire league.
Who Will Start at Quarterback?
Like most of the questions in this piece, the matter of who will start at quarterback for the Denver Broncos in 2021 wasn't about to be settled in OTAs. It probably won't be settled in camp, either. We could be well into the preseason before Vic Fangio decides whether 2020 starter Drew Lock or the recently acquired Teddy Bridgewater will be under center when Denver faces the Giants in New York in Week 1.
Lock admittedly has the edge where knowledge of the offense is concerned, but Fangio told reporters (via Ryan O'Halloran of the Denver Post) that Bridgewater has made strides since joining the team.
"Teddy has been in all of the meetings from the day we got him," Fangio said. "He just got here last week physically but I saw an improvement in him. I thought he did better than last week. We're trying to give [the quarterbacks] as much as we can so when we get to training camp, it's not the first time they've heard something."
Most pundits, including Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com, expect that it will eventually be Bridgewater who wins out.
"Bridgewater over Drew Lock makes sense," he said. "Vic Fangio is a defensive coach with a prospective top-five defense who wants his quarterback to limit turnovers. Bridgewater may not be exciting, but he makes fewer mistakes than Lock and has performed at a far higher level as a pro."
However, had Bridgewater been a plus starter in 2020 he'd still be in Carolina, so it's not a foregone conclusion he'll win the job.
How is Detroit's New-Look WR Corps Shaking Out?
It's rebuild time in Detroit—again.
There's a new head coach in Dan Campbell. A new general manager in Brad Holmes. A new quarterback in Jared Goff. And after both Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones left the Lions in free agency, a completely retooled wide receiver corps.
The Lions signed Breshad Perriman and Tyrell Williams to serve as the top two wideouts in Motown this year, but the third spot is less clear. Second-year pro Quintez Cephus is penciled into the spot, but as Nick Baumgardner and Chris Burke reported for The Athletic, Kalif and rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown are hot on his heels.
"Cephus' combine 40 time was 4.73 seconds. That isn't everything, but it's not irrelevant when we're talking fit here. Perriman and Williams are long and they can fly. Raymond is a 4.3 receiver. St. Brown is not a burner, but he's a technician. And that'll have to be Cephus' niche, too. No drops. No missteps on a route. He plays much faster than his straight-line time thanks in part to good short-area quickness at the top of his routes. But when you see a nice ball over the middle from Goff sail through Cephus' hands in the middle of 7-on-7 drills … you wonder about the margin for error."
The Lions also have tight end T.J. Hockenson, who may well wind up leading the team in targets this season. But Goff and the Lions are going to need to get some production out of the slot in 2021.
This is a team that will more than likely be playing catch-up with some regularity.
Green Bay Packers
Is Jordan Love Ready to Start?
There has been just a little written about the standoff between the Green Bay Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers reportedly wants no part of playing in Green Bay in 2021. The Packers reportedly have no desire to trade the reigning MVP.
It's a mess. And with neither side seemingly close to blinking, it's a mess that will likely drag on for a while.
There's a flip side to the Rodgers saga. If he's not (for whatever reason) under center in 2021, then that means the player whose selection in the 2020 draft some think helped start this tiff in Titletown likely will be.
Jordan Love didn't have Green Bay's top wide receivers in OTAs; like Rodgers, Davante Adams was a no-show. But running back Aaron Jones told ESPN's Rob Demovsky that he was impressed by the improvement he saw from Love relative to his rookie season,
“You can tell he's just a lot more comfortable out there, even from communicating in the huddle to the command of the huddle to just everything. He's had a year under his belt, he's had time to watch and learn, so you can tell it's a little bit different from what it was before. He's going to continue to grow, and I'm happy to be here working with him."
Love was drafted in the first round for a reason (and no, that reason wasn't to make Rodgers angry). But there's a difference between throwing passes in shorts in May and live game action in October.
Especially for a quarterback who has yet to attempt a pass in a game that counts.
Who the Heck Will be Houston's QB in Week 1?
There isn't a more depressing quarterback room in the NFL than the mess in Houston.
It's still at least remotely possible that Deshaun Watson could start at quarterback for the Texans in 2021. But it's just that: a remote possibility. Watson's trade demands haven't wavered, and with almost two dozen women suing the 25-year-old for sexual misconduct and assault (accusations that the NFL is investigating), Watson's playing status for the upcoming season remains uncertain at best.
Things rapidly go downhill from there.
Veteran Tyrod Taylor (who is widely expected to open the season as the starter assuming Watson isn't around) is a 31-year-old journeyman with four starts over the past three years who has barely completed half his passes over that span. Jeff Driskel is on his fourth team in as many seasons and has made nine starts in his career, winning just one.
Then there's rookie Davis Mills, who was selected in the third round of the 2021 draft. Yes, Mills has some arm talent. But he made all of 11 starts at Stanford and has an injury history.
Despite that who's who of "who?" Houston chairman Cal McNair said the team will be ready to go against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 1.
"I'd hate to speak for [GM] Nick [Caserio] or coach [David] Culley, but I think what they would probably say is they'll take whoever they have and they'll go play wherever it is," McNair said, via Charean Williams of Pro Football Talk. "If it's in the parking lot, if it's out here on the golf course, if it's in the stadium, they're going to take that team and go try to win."
If there's a bright side, at least Bill O'Brien isn't around to trade away Houston's first-round pick in 2022, because it's going to be a high one.
Can Carson Wentz Get "It" Back?
Back in the long-ago days of 2017, Carson Wentz looked like a sure-fire superstar in the making. Playing under the tutelage of then-Eagles OC Frank Reich, Wentz was an MVP front-runner before tearing his ACL, throwing for almost 3,300 yards and 33 touchdowns against just seven interceptions while winning 11 of 13 starts.
Fast-forward a few years, and Wentz fell off a cliff. After a decent 2019 campaign in which he played in all 16 games and topped 4,000 passing yards for the first time, Wentz's 2020 numbers were abysmal—a career-low completion percentage of 57.4 percent, just 16 touchdowns and a league-leading 15 picks. Wentz was benched in favor of Jalen Hurts and eventually traded to the Indianapolis Colts.
Wentz is reunited with Reich (the head coach of the Colts) in Indianapolis, and the QB told JJ Stankevitz of the team's website that he's impressed by the passing-game talent around him on his new team.
"There is just a lot of talent," Wentz said. "There's a lot of—I see it from watching the film from last year on how they really spread the ball around and get everybody involved. I see that completely being the same way again this year and that excites me because it's never just a one-man show out there."
Wentz wasn't a cheap acquisition; if he plays more than 75 percent of the team's snaps in 2021, Indy's first-rounder belongs to the Eagles the following year.
For it to have been worth it, he needs to turn back the clock and get the Colts in the playoffs.
How Will the Jaguars Backfield Touches be Divvied Up?
It surprised exactly zero people when the Jacksonville Jaguars selected quarterback Trevor Lawrence with the first overall pick in the 2021 draft. However, some eyebrows were raised when the Jags used their second pick in Round 1 to select Lawrence's Clemson teammate Travis Etienne.
After all, the Jaguars already had James Robinson on the roster, who just last year set a record for scrimmage yards by an undrafted rookie.
In rookie minicamp, Etienne spent his practice time lined up as a receiver, and Jags head coach Urban Meyer believes that both backs (and veteran Carlos Hyde) can all complement one another, per Zach Lentz of All Clemson:
"I think you need complements. I just love great backs. And at Ohio State, we had Zeke Elliott, Carlos Hyde. And right now, we have James Robinson — who is a stud and Carlos Hyde, who I have a great history with. So we have two big, downhill backs—and they can do other things, too—but I think Travis is, he's that dual. He's the Percy [Harvin]—we're hoping. I mean, those are big shoes, when you say something like that. But you've got Parris Campbell, you've got Curtis Samuel, those types of players. Offensive coordinators love those kind of guys who can do multiple things."
Of course, there are also pundits like Bucky Brooks of NFL.com who believe that the more the Jaguars see of their new rookie back, the less they will want to take him off the field.
"Travis Etienne is going to be the RB1," Brooks said on the NFL Network, via Jaylon Thompson of 247Sports. "Too dynamic, too explosive, too versatile to be left on the sideline. I think it's only a matter of time before Travis Etienne gets the job and we see him put up big numbers."
Kansas City Chiefs
Will Kansas City's Revamped O-Line Get the Chiefs Back to the Super Bowl?
If you watched Patrick Mahomes spend most of Super Bowl LV fleeing for his life, then you know that improving the protection in front of the team's star quarterback was priority No. 1 in the offseason.
The Chiefs attacked that priority with a vengeance. It's entirely possible (probable, even) that when the Chiefs host the Cleveland Browns in Week 1, four starters along the offensive line will be different than the unit that was pushed around by the Buccaneers in the Super Bowl.
The centerpiece of that new-look line is left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., who was acquired in a trade with the Baltimore Ravens. The two-time Pro Bowler told Herbie Teope of the Kansas City Star that OTAs offer all the new faces a chance to develop some cohesion.
"Very important, very important," Brown said of this early work alongside his new teammates. "To me, especially up front and maybe for quarterbacks as well, it's important to get that live timing against a real body, get that live timing against a real defensive end, the rusher, the time of the snap count, the system, all of those different things."
In addition to Brown, the Chiefs re-upped right tackle Mike Remmers, signed a new left guard in Joe Thuney and added a new center in Austin Blythe.
On paper, it's an improvement over last year's unit, which Pro Football Focus ranked 11th in the NFL in 2020.
Las Vegas Raiders
Will the Raiders Finally Generate a Pass Rush?
For most of the Jon Gruden 2.0 era with the Raiders, the team has been active in trying to upgrade the pass rush. While there have been some successes (Maxx Crosby was a find on Day 3 of the 2019 draft), for the most part, it hasn't worked. Last year, the Raiders managed just 21 sacks, fourth-fewest in the NFL.
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.
The Raiders were once again active in free agency along the defensive front in 2021, bringing in several players, highlighted by edge-rusher Yannick Ngakoue. Ngakoue has tallied at least eight sacks in all five of his NFL seasons, and Crosby said he's looking forward to getting after it with the 26-year-old.
"I can't wait to go out there and play with him," Crosby said this week, via Vinny Bonsignore of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "He's a great player. I've been watching him from afar. … So I'm really excited and looking forward to playing with him. He's a stud."
In addition to Crosby and Ngakoue, the Raiders now have a pair of D-linemen who were drafted in the top five in end Clelin Ferrell and tackle Solomon Thomas and a pair of proven lane-cloggers in the middle of the line in veterans Johnathan Hankins and Quinton Jefferson.
If the Raiders have any hope of competing in a division that includes Patrick Mahomes and 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert, Vegas has to do a better job of pressuring opposing quarterbacks.
Los Angeles Chargers
What Does the New Defense Mean for the Bolts?
The offseason has been filled with speculation and proclamations about what Justin Herbert might accomplish in his second professional season. And as Chris Hayre reported for the team's website, Herbert has already made an impression on offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi.
"He's very smart," Lombardi said. "He's very competitive. He's a perfectionist. You can see why he was so successful last year. He wants to be great and he wants to do everything perfectly. I'm excited to keep moving forward in the process with him. He's fun to be around."
But given Herbert and the offensive firepower around him, it's not hard to imagine the Bolts putting up quite a few points in 2021. The bigger question is what the arrival of new head coach Brandon Staley and his 3-4 defensive concepts means for LA's 10th-ranked defense.
In OTA's, the Chargers ran a lot more three-man fronts in the base defense, just as Staley's defense with the Rams did. Linebacker Kenneth Murray told Daniel Popper of the Athletic he's stoked to play in the new scheme.
“The big emphasis from him was getting me to play more downhill. A lot of things in the scheme last year didn’t allow for me to play as downhill as I wanted to play. In college, that’s pretty much what I did. Every down was played downhill, so when he told me he wanted me to play downhill, it’s kind of like music to my ears. That’s what I’m really excited about: playing downhill, blitzing a lot more and being aggressive.”
It's going to be very interesting to see how the defense develops—especially once edge-rusher Joey Bosa gets on the practice field.
Los Angeles Rams
Is Matthew Stafford the Missing Piece to a Super Bowl Puzzle?
The Los Angeles Rams gave up a lot to get out from under Jared Goff's abomination of a contract and upgrade to Matthew Stafford under center, sending Goff and first-round picks in 2022 and 2023 to Detroit. Given that lofty price tag, it's clear that theirs is exactly one acceptable outcome for Stafford's first season on the west coast.
The Rams playing in Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium.
Veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth will protect Stafford's blind side in 2021, just as he did Goff's back in Super Bowl LIII. He told Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times that you can tell Stafford has been around the block a few times.
"He understands all of the little nuances of things that, there's just no way you can have those without the time in the game and without the experience," Whitworth said.
Few will question that Stafford is an upgrade on Goff. ESPN's Mike Clay went so far as to call it the second-biggest upgrade made by any team in the league this offseason.
But it's worth pointing out that for all Stafford has accomplished over a dozen years in the NFL (including over 45,000 passing yards and 282 passing touchdowns) he has been to just a single Pro Bowl and has yet to win a postseason game. In three tries.
In other words, that Super Bowl trip is far from guaranteed.
Is Tua Tagovailoa "The Guy" for the Dolphins?
As Adam Beasley reported for the Miami Herald, second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa recently made a rather startling revelation about his rookie season.
“I wasn’t as comfortable just in general. I wasn’t comfortable calling plays. I think the guys that were here last year were phenomenal. I just didn’t have the comfortability of checking plays, alerting plays and doing that. I just rode with the play, even if I knew it wasn’t going to work. I was going to try to make it work still. I didn’t actually know the playbook necessarily really, really good and that’s no one else fault but my fault. Our play calls were simple when I was in. I didn’t have alerts and checks. Where now, I feel comfortable and I can maneuver my way through these things now.”
On some level, Tagovailoa's candor is admirable. But a team's starting quarterback admitting that he didn't have a firm grasp on the playbook is most assuredly not a good look, even as a rookie.
However, Tagovailoa's teammates still have his back. Wide receiver Lynn Bowden told Go Long with Tyler Dunne that he still believes Tagovailoa is more than capable of making NFL defenses look silly.
“When he lets it loose and he’s being himself, we’ll win every game,” Bowden said. “When he’s feeling himself and he’s moving and doing his thing, Tua is one of the best quarterbacks, literally, around. And people don’t know that yet.”
Per Kyle Crabbs of Dolphins Wire, Tagovailoa's trainer also indicated that he's much further along in his recovery from the hip injury that ended his collegiate career and closer to the two-way force who was so effective as a runner and a passer at Miami.
With improved passing-game weapons around him and an NFL season under his belt, it's time for Tagovailoa to show that he's ready to lead the Dolphins.
In short, it's Tua time.
Can the Vikings Reverse Last Year's Defensive Struggles?
The Minnesota Vikings suffered through a rotten 2020 season, largely because the team backslid from 14th in the league defensively in 2019 to 27th a season ago.
Per Andrew Krammer of the Star Tribune, the Vikings defense had the edge on the offense in early practice sessions. But that defense still faces some major questions as we move into the summer.
The biggest is the status of star edge-rusher Danielle Hunter, who was a no-show at OTAs. As Chad Graff wrote for the Athletic back in March, after missing all of 2020 with a neck injury, Hunter is a candidate to hold out of camp over unhappiness with his contract.
"Hunter is exploring all of his options. If he’s not given a new contract, he could potentially hold out, he could publicly demand a trade or he could even seek new representation with the hope that a new agent could help him navigate a path out of Minnesota. Shortly after this story was initially posted, Hunter pledged loyalty to his current representation, Elite Athlete Management, but didn’t refute his unhappiness with his current situation."
There's a new-look secondary led by veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson, who also has yet to make his debut in purple and gold. The uncertain status of young corner Jeff Gladney, who was arrested in April for felony family violence/assault after allegedly hitting and strangling his girlfriend. The return of outside linebacker Anthony Barr from his own season-ending injury. The departure of Eric Wilson and Anthony Harris in free agency.
The Vikings should be a potent offensive team in 2021. But if the defense is awful again, it's not going to matter.
New England Patriots
Can Mac Jones Really Win the Starting Job Under Center?
As Myles Simmons reported for Pro Football Talk, while speaking to reporters New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick praised the work that veteran quarterback Cam Newton has put in this offseason.
“Cam’s been here all the way through. He was here at the beginning and has been a consistent participant, continues to give us the usual leadership and energy that he brings to the field and to the workouts and to practice. So Cam’s very professional and I’m sure that he’ll continue to work hard and do his best out there like he’s always done for us. It’s never been anything but that from the day he got here.”
However, it appears that if Newton wants to be the starter against the Dolphins in Week 1, he won't have much margin for error—not with rookie Mac Jones already pushing him.
"Jones is putting himself in position to possibly compete for the starting job come training camp in July because he's keeping up with the challenging mental aspect of the Patriots' playbook," ESPN's Mike Reiss wrote. "This is uncommon for rookie Patriots quarterbacks who are adjusting to the volume of information, and also the fast pace in which coaches teach it. It's a lot to process, and that doesn't even factor in how a simple shift by the defense can require a reaction from the quarterback that changes everything in an instant."
The Patriots have never publicly wavered in their belief that Newton can still play at a high level. But in drafting Jones 15th overall, the Pats made a commitment to him as the future at quarterback.
The only question in when that future begins. And with Newton hurting his hand in OTAs, Jones will get at least a few more first-team practice reps.
New Orleans Saints
Who Will the Saints Starting QB Be?
There is one question in the Big Easy this summer that towers above all others—will it be Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill that replaces the retired Drew Brees as the starting quarterback for the Saints.
Of course, as Hill told Rod Walker of the New Orleans Advocate, there really is no replacing one of the all-time greats under center.
"I think the thing that I realize first and foremost is there is no replacing a Drew Brees. He's one of the greatest to ever do it. But I think as I got ready to enter the NFL, my goal and my mindset was to just do everything I can to have an opportunity to be a guy. Because there are only 32 starters in the NFL. So as I look forward into this year and training camp and OTAs and the season, I'm really just excited about having that opportunity. That has been the goal and the mindset since I was a rookie in 2017 first entering the NFL. So it's definitely something that I'm not taking lightly and I'm going to give it everything I've got."
There has been no shortage of speculation about the QB duel, with many pundits giving an edge to Winston thanks to his experience as a starter in Tampa. But while appearing on NFL Live, ESPN's Diana Russini said the competition is wide-open.
"We know Taysom wants to be a quarterback and the New Orleans Saints’ team; they know this is what he wants to do,” Russini said, via Riley Gates of 247 Sports. "He’s had an opportunity to show just that. Anyone I talk to in that Saints building has shared with me — and even when I talk to players about this — that this is going to be a classic quarterback competition come August. Training camp in New Orleans is going to be the most exciting training camp of, I think, any team in the league right now because of this competition.”
New York Giants
How Much Better (or Worse) is New York's Woeful O-Line?
The New York Giants have one of the deeper pass-catching corps in the league after signing wideout Kenny Golladay in free agency. If he's healthy, Saquon Barkley is arguably the NFL's most dangerous running back. Daniel Jones regressed in 2020, but he has shown flashes as a passer in his two pro seasons.
None of that will matter even a little if the NFC's worst offensive line (per PFF) from a year ago isn't significantly better in 2021.
Andrew Thomas was a mess as a rookie, especially earlier in the season. But long-time O-line trainer and coach Duke Maryweather expects much better play from the first tackle taken in 2020 in his second season.
"I think you’ll see mass improvement from Andrew Thomas,” Manyweather said on FanSided’s The Matt Lombardo Show. "I think Andrew Thomas down the stretch in the second half last year found his way and got into groove. That Giants’ offensive line, and team dealt with some adversity last year with injuries and what went on with the coaching change midway through the year, and all the drama that went with that. You add in a coach like Rob Sale, a no-nonsense type of guy, I think with not only Thomas but that entire line will improve.”
Thomas isn't the only concern though. Nate Solder was awful when last he played in 2019, allowing 11 sacks. That's the same number given up last year by veteran guard Zach Fulton, who was signed to replace the departed Kevin Zeitler.
That's three starters who allowed double-digit sacks in their last season.
New York Jets
Who Will Lead the Jets Backfield?
The focus in OTAs (and training camp, and the preseason) for the New York Jets will undoubtedly be rookie quarterback Zach Wilson. But there's also absolutely no doubt that when the Jets open the season against the Carolina Panthers, Wilson will be under center—whether he's ready or not.
Who will line up behind him as the Jets starting running back is another story.
As Connor Hughes wrote for the Athletic, veteran Tevin Coleman worked as New York's first-team tailback I OTAs. But rookie fourth-round pick Michael Carter is already opening eyes.
"Carter might not start the season as the lead back, but it won’t be long before the job is his. He received the first rep in each of the individual drills, and rotated in after Coleman in team work. He, like Moore, is so elusive after he gets the ball in his hands. He does this little jump-cut in the open field that is fun to watch. The big thing with him is patience. He needs to learn when to wait, and when to take the opening. That comes in time, but there is undeniable physical talent there."
Per B/R's own Brent Sobleski, the former North Carolina standout believes his athleiticism and short-area quickness is a great fit for Mike LaFleur's new offense in New York.
"I think my change of direction and my stop-start ability, I think it compliments this system well," Carter said. "I've been running pretty much wide zone since I was born. So it's something that really comes naturally to me. We read a lot of it in college, even in high school I did, even in youth football I did. So I’m very familiar with it. I’m just excited to get in the system."
Given Coleman's injury history of late and the uncertain depth chart behind him, Carter will have ample opportunity to impress in camp.
Can Jalen Reagor Shake off His Disappointing Rookie Season?
There's quite a bit of hype surrounding Philadelphia's first-round pick in 2021. It's with good reason—wide receiver DeVonta Smith is a wildly talented young player coming off a Heisman trophy-winning season at Alabama.
However, there's at least a touch of trepidation as well. Because this is the second straight year that Philly has gone wide receiver in Round 1, and the last time didn't work out so well.
It's not bad enough that Jalen Reagor managed just 31 catches for 396 yards and one score as a rookie. One pick after the Eagles took him, the Minnesota Vikings drafted Justin Jefferson, who just net a new single-season record for receiving by a first-year player.
However, with a new head coach in Philadelphia in Nick Sirianni who used to coach receivers, Reagor told Mike Kaye of NJ.com that he's ready to show the doubters that Philadelphia's confidence in him was not misplaced.
However, with a new head coach in Philadelphia in Nick Sirianni who used to coach receivers, Reagor told Mike Kaye of NJ.com that he's ready to show the doubters that Philadelphia's confidence in him was not misplaced.
"Having coaches that love wide receivers, that’s kind of a like a dream,” Reagor said Tuesday. "The energy around the building, the way those guys are, from the day they got hired or whenever the coaching change happened, they’ve had a lot of communication. I love it and it has me in great spirits.”
In OTA's, Reagor spent more time in the slot than he did as a rookie, a move that should help him avoid bigger corners and hopefully allow him to use more of his speed.
"I love how (the coaches) do everything with intent,” Reagor said. "They tell you why you’re doing it. ... It’s appreciated on my end, for sure.”
Does Ben Roethlisberger Have One More Run In Him?
The biggest question facing the Steelers as we move through the summer is a player who may well not do much during it. After 17 seasons in the National Football League, Ben Roethlisberger knows as much about playing quarterback as anyone in the Steel City ever has.
The question is whether the 39-year-old has enough left in the tank to lead the Steelers on one last deep playoff run.
Per ESPN's Brooke Pryor, Roethlisberger didn't shirk from taking responsibility for last season's late swoon that culminated in getting blasted at home by the Browns in the playoffs.
"I didn't play well enough at the end of the season," he said. "It's not a secret, and I'll be the first to point the thumb at myself. When the ball is in your hand every play, you have to make plays and play better football. If the quarterback, myself, isn't playing good football, that -- especially late in the season -- is related to winning and losing."
The reason for the poor play? According to Big Ben, the elbow injury that wiped out most of his 2019 campaign was more severe than many believed.
"I had total reconstruction on my elbow, that might have something to do with it," he said. "But no excuses. ... My arm was healed, obviously, I played. It was healthy. But I think anybody that has a big surgery, it almost takes -- like that first year back, you are back but are you really back and feeling great?"
However, Roethlisberger insisted that his arm is in better shape heading into Year 18, although he's not making any early predictions about whether it will stay that way.
"My arm feels great, though," he said. "I would like to wait to answer that question until we get into more of this season and see how it feels. Right now, it feels really good."
San Francisco 49ers
How Long Until Trey Sermon is the Top Running Back?
Most of the eyes at OTAs for the San Francisco 49ers were firmly cast toward the quarterback competition between veteran Jimmy Garoppolo and third overall pick Trey Lance. But there's been nothing to indicate (yet) that Garoppolo is in any danger of losing the job in the short-term, and as Chris Biderman wrote for the Sacramento Bee, Garoppolo was entrenched with the first-team offense in early workouts.
However, there's another rookie who could already be making a move up the depth chart.
With Jeff Wilson already out with a knee injury that could sideline him well into the regular season and Raheem Mostert sidelined by a knee issue as well, third-round pick Trey Sermon is already garnering first-team reps. As Jennifer Lee Chan wrote for NBC Sports Bay Area, Sermon was actually already familiar with some of San Fran's offensive concepts as he watched film of the Niners while transitioning from Oklahoma to Ohio State.
"When I was making the transition to Ohio State, I was looking at a lot of outside zone," Sermon said. "The 49ers were definitely one of the teams that I looked at. Just going through the progressions and the reads because I knew when I got to Ohio State we were going to run a lot of that."
Sermon is a decisive, angry runner who doesn't dawdle in the backfield. Once he picks a seam, he hits it with authority. It's a great fit for what Kyle Shanahan does offensively, and if Mostert's knee issues (issues that have dogged him throughout his career) linger into training camp by the time San Francisco opens the regular season against the Lions Sermon could well have wrested away the No. 1 role altogether.
Are Seattle's Cornerbacks Good Enough After Losing Shaquill Griffin?
For years, the Seattle Seahawks have been a team that favored bigger cornerbacks on the outside. At just 5'9" and 188 pounds, D.J. Reed doesn't exactly fit that mold.
But the fourth-year pro is being counted on in 2021 to lead a position group that lost its most proven commodity to the Jacksonville Jaguars in free agency.
Reed was a pleasant surprise for Seattle a year ago, making eight starts and allowing a highly respectable passer rating against of just 75.8. But now, as Brandon Gustafson wrote for 710 Radio in Seattle, as colleague Jake Heaps remarked now the pressure is higher on the 24-year-old.
Now he's expected to be a No. 1 corner.
"D.J. Reed flashed last year and it was exciting to see him play with the type of energy, the type of swag, the type of confidence and the play-making ability that he displayed in the second half of the season," Heaps said. "But D.J. Reed is going to have to show and prove to the Seahawks that it was a smart move to walk away from Shaquill Griffin and that he can hold down one of the cornerback spots and let the competition play out on the other side of the ball."
Things aren't any clearer behind him. Ahkello Witherspoon had a passer rating against of 82.4 last year in San Francisco, but he has missed at least four games in three of four seasons. Pierre Desir is a veteran journeyman who has played for three teams the past two years. Tre Flowers has allowed a passer rating against north of 105 two of the past three seasons.
In an NFC West stacked from top to bottom with wide receiver talent, it's a potentially glaring weakness.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Is the Lack of Veterans at OTAs Any Cause for Concern?
What? Had to find something to talk about with a team that is returning all 22 starters from the squad that stomped a mudhole in the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV. It was either this or "is Tom Brady a vampire or a sorcerer?"
Everyone knows it's the second one.
Many of the more established veterans on Tampa's roster were no-shows at OTAs, with many instead electing to work out with Brady instead.
Head coach Bruce Arians probably isn't irked by his quarterback, but as Jeff Kerr reported for CBS Sports, Arians would have liked to have seen better turnout for workouts.
"(I wanted to see) about 10 more players (at minicamp)," Arians said on a conference call. "These guys out here are working their a--es off, but I'd like to see about 10 more of them out there fighting for jobs that they don't know they're fighting for."
Now, this is more likely than not much ado about nothing. Mo more than a coach sending a message to the players who aren't Tom Brady or Lavonte David that they had better be squared away for training camp in July.
But there hasn't been a repeat champion in almost two decades, and even the smallest of dustups has at least some potential to become the issue that derails that pursuit.
What Will Tennessee's New Passing Attack Look Like?
The Tennessee Titans have made the playoffs the last two years in no small part because running back Derrick Henry has won the last two rushing titles.
But there's a reason the Titans are getting a lot of run as potential trade partner for Julio Jones. The passing game features as many questions as answers.
The Titans still have a star wide receiver in A.J. Brown. But after losing wide receiver Corey Davis and tight end Jonnu Smith in free agency, there's quite a bit of uncertainty on the depth chart behind Brown. The team added a veteran slot receiver in Josh Reynolds and drafted help at wide receiver in Dez Fitzpatrick, but the uncertainty is still there.
However, offensive coordinator Todd Downing said that even if Tennessee can't land Jones, he's still excited about what the Titans passing game could be capable of in 2021.
"I'm excited about the competition we have at the different spots on offense," he said, via the team's website. "My job is to coach the guys that are here, and I'm doing that to the best of my abilities each day. I think you're going to see some growth from some of these guys, and I'm excited to see where they end up. … I am very comfortable with the level of competition we have there – I think we have a wide variety of skills sets, and I am excited to see these guys take opportunities to step in and get some extended reps. I am fired up to see where it goes."
Of course, it's easier to be excited in June than in October if the team struggles to move the ball through the air once games start to count.
Washington Football Team
Will Ryan Fitzpatrick Live Up to Expectations?
On paper at least, Washington has the makings of a formidable football team.
On offense, Washington added Curtis Samuel in free agency to complement Terry McLaurin at wide receiver. The offensive line ranked inside the top-10 last year per Pro Football Focus. Per JP Finlay of NBC Sports Washington, head coach Ron Rivera anticipates a big 2021 season from young running back Antonio Gibson.
"The expectation for him is to take another big step, Rivera said."
Defensively, Washington sports quite possibly the best defensive line in the game led by the reigning DROY in Chase Young. A linebacker corps that added a first-round talent in Kentucky's Jamin Davis. A secondary that brought in a quality starter at cornerback in William Jackson.
It's a team without many weaknesses—and a new quarterback.
Ryan Fitzpatrick may be new to Washington, but he's hardly new. The WFT marks the 38-year-old's ninth NFL stop, and he told ESPN's John Keim that he's already working on building a rapport with this latest group of teammates.
"Communication is a huge thing," Fitzpatrick said. "When that communication gets crisp, you can play faster and that puts a lot of pressure on the defense. I have a lot of discussion with the guys up front. I'm the one having to catch up right now with what they're doing."
Of all the team's Fitzpatrick has played for, this is all but certainly the best supporting cast that has ever been put around him. But with that improved cast comes increased expectations.
This year, Fitzpatrick isn't just a stopgap. Or a bridge to a younger player under center.
In 2021, Fitzpatrick is expected to lead his team to the postseason and beyond.