NFL Teams That Have the Most Work to Do Before 2021 Season Starts

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJuly 25, 2021

NFL Teams That Have the Most Work to Do Before 2021 Season Starts

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    A palpable sense of excitement envelopes the NFL as the league returns to something close to normal operating procedure. 

    The start of training camp is two days away for 29 squads since the Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers got going early. 

    But each team must face at least a little uncertainty as it returns to the field for its first padded practices of the year. 

    "I think that's when teams have their greatest amount of growth—it's through adversity," New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh told Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer. "And so with training camp, that's what I'm most excited for. I wanna see how people respond."

    In certain situations, teams can project where adversity will strikewhether through position battles, schematic changes, roster inefficiencies, etc. With those possibilities in mind, the following five squads have plenty of work to do to be fully prepared for the 2021 campaign. 

Green Bay Packers

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    Will he or won't he? 

    Many different variations of the previous question dominated the NFL offseason, as the league's reigning MVP, Aaron Rodgers, expressed his displeasure—directly or indirectly—with the Green Bay Packers organization. 

    The Packers are a Super Bowl contender with Rodgers. After all, the team made two consecutive NFC Championship Game appearances. Green Bay is counted among the best its conference has to offer. 

    But an asterisk exists until everyone knows whether Rodgers will end his holdout and join the team for training camp. Until then, the Packers must work on mending fences and getting the face of the franchise into the building to prepare for yet another season. 

    "But ask me what I think, and I'll tell you that Rodgers will probably get some sort of contract extension, and things will wind up being fine in the short term (with some of the long-term remaining a 'beautiful mystery')," Breer wrote. "As of right now, maybe he'd still like to play elsewhere. But from a football standpoint, it's hard to see where he'd be in a better situation to win another MVP or another Super Bowl." 

    Earlier this month, Rodgers discussed how he improved his mental health with some time away from everything. 

    "I've just really been trying to think about what puts me in the best frame of mind," the 37-year-old said, per ESPN's Ben Baby. "What habits can I form that allows me to feel most in my body, most present, happiest? And that's what I've been doing."

    If the Packers can't bridge the gap, the organization has an entirely different scenario to work with. With sky-high expectations among cheeseheads, Jordan Love must show he's capable of taking over the offense and not be a hindrance. Head coach Matt LaFleur is in a difficult situation because Rodgers is one of the greatest of all time, while the staff may be trying to figure out how to adjust the offense and take advantage of Love's skill set. 

Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Steelers may be the reigning AFC North champions, but the team is undergoing significant personnel, coaching and schematic changes. 

    The organization is known for its consistency and continuity, yet 39-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will play behind a reworked offensive line and for a new offensive coordinator, Matt Canada. 

    Canada, who served as Pittsburgh's quarterbacks coach last season, is expected to shake things up quite a bit. 

    "I think this offense is going to be completely different. You'll see nothing that you've ever seen in the past. We are going to try and throw literally everything at everybody so that way we won't be predictable," he told reporters with tongue firmly planted in cheek. 

    "But in all seriousness, there is a lot of 'new' for someone who has kind of had a very similar offense for a long time … it has taken some extra studying, but it's a fun new challenge, and guys are getting it and hopefully it translates into winning football."

    New systems take time to learn. Training camp and preseason reps are crucial to hitting the ground running for the start of the regular season. Furthermore, the group will be set on an unsteady foundation. The Steelers' front five will feature five new full-time starters.

    Chukwuma Okorafor, who didn't even win the right tackle job in camp last season, will shift from the strong to the blind side. Zach Banner returns after winning the job but played in only one game because of a season-ending torn ACL. Trai Turner signed as a free agent a month ago. Kevin Dotson will take over on a full-time basis after a promising rookie campaign. Center remains up in the air with an ongoing competition between J.C. Hassenauer and third-round rookie Kendrick Green. 

    On top of those potential issues, the unit will work first-round running back Najee Harris into the mix as he becomes a focal point of the offensive attack.

    Pittsburgh's defense should continue its excellence, especially with Melvin Ingram III's recent signing. But the Steelers must make significant strides on the other side of the ball. 

Los Angeles Chargers

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    Seven franchises named new head coaches this season. All of them will go through a similar transition as they attempt to put their stamp on the organization. 

    Some have a little bigger hill to climb than others. 

    The Los Angeles Chargers' Brandon Staley has an excellent opportunity in front of him to succeed early. At the same time, he must lay the groundwork to reach those expectations. 

    "We ended up installing [the entire playbook during the spring]. But what it did was it introduced our players to what we do and why we do it," Staley told The Athletic's Jourdan Rodrigue

    The coach added, "We were able to establish our way of playing, and our guys are going to feel very confident in operating our systems in all three phases because we put a lot of stuff in. It wasn't smothering or overwhelming because the physical part wasn't a part of the equation. I felt like I got really good feedback from the players because we engineered this as a coaching staff first and then went to our (player) leadership council (about it)."

    A significant difference exists between the schematic approach previously seen under previous defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and the current one the Chargers plan to employ. In particular, Staley's system looks to disguise coverages far more. Los Angeles defenders must grow accustomed to the new approach and not make mental errors. 

    Offensively, general manager Tom Telesco did an excellent job overhauling the front five. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga will be the lone holdover among the team's projected starting five. The organization signed All-Pro center Corey Linsley to serve as the unit's anchor. Veteran guards Matt Feiler and Oday Aboushi should solidify the interior. First-round rookie Rashawn Slater is now in place to secure the blind side. 

    But the unit must coalesce rather quickly to build upon Justin Herbert's record-setting Offensive Rookie of the Year performance. Reps together are the only way to make what looks good on paper translate to the field. 

Jacksonville Jaguars

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Urban Meyer hasn't made a smooth transition from National Championship-winning collegiate coach to NFL head coach. 

    "He's a little frustrated right now because he's spent so little time with the players," Hall of Fame head coach and Fox Sports analyst Jimmy Johnson said, per USA Today's Nate Davis

    "He's accustomed to being around the players all the time, and they weren't able to do that because of COVID-19."

    Johnson's comments came two weeks after the NFL penalized the Jaguars organization for violating the collective bargaining agreement's rules governing offseason work.

    Meyer's adjustment to the professional ranks is only part of the equation. Ultimately, the coach has been successful wherever he's gone. Yet he takes over the NFL's worst team. The Jaguars finished 1-15 last season, which allowed them to pick No. 1 overall in April's draft. 

    The selection of Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence will help expedite the franchise's rebuild, but it won't be automatic. Lawrence was viewed as the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck. Even so, the new face of the franchise knows he must work extremely hard to reach those lofty standards. 

    "I want to just master the offense," Lawrence told reporters. "I want to have complete control and know everything and be comfortable. You can't really play free and play really well if you don't know what you're doing.

    "That's the plan and it starts with the quarterback. Obviously, I have to be ready and I'm going to do everything I can to ensure that that is the case. I'm excited to get started."

    Meyer and Lawrence may be the biggest parts of the Jaguars' potential turnaround, but plenty more question marks exist with this roster. 

    Will Travis Etienne or Laviska Shenault Jr. emerge as the offense's H-back? Can left tackle Cam Robinson elevate his performance after receiving the franchise tag? Will D.J. Chark become a more physical target? How will the defensive line rotation shake out? And so on and so forth. 

    Plenty will be worked out in the coming weeks. 

Houston Texans

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    A starting point for the Houston Texans is difficult to discern after an offseason of upheaval. 

    Uncertainty swirling around the quarterback position makes the entire situation undesirable and uncomfortable. 

    Deshaun Watson currently faces 22 lawsuits alleging sexual assault and misconduct. The Texans plan to make a decision regarding their starting quarterback before the onset of training camp. 

    "I think we're respectful of what's happening, respectful of the process and everybody that's involved. The most important thing is for all of us, the coaches and players and myself included, is to focus on the things we can control," general manager Nick Caserio said during an interview on Sports Radio 610. "As we get more information, as we get closer to training camp, we'll try to make the best decision for the Houston Texans, whatever that entails."

    Whatever the case, Texans personnel must prepare for a backlash. By committing to Watson, the team will face heavy scrutiny until his legal matters are concluded. By trading the quarterback, the franchise will have moved its best player and all but secured what already looks like a lost season. 

    Veteran backup Tyrod Taylor took all of the first-team reps during offseason activities and helped provide a steady hand in the locker room and on the field. Something different occurs if/when he becomes the guy to lead the franchise. The coaching staff can't operate as if they have one of the league's better signal-callers behind center. It must create ways to get the ball in the hands of the Texans' playmakers, including wide receivers Brandin Cooks, Randall Cobb and third-round rookie Nico Collins. 

    Maybe a run-dominant offense emerges since Taylor protects the ball instead of taking riskier downfield shots. 

    Furthermore, Caserio flipped the roster on its head with 32 free-agent signings, four more veteran additions via trade and five draft picks. 

    The Texans have a staggering amount of work to get done in a short period. Much like a student with a late-night cram session, the franchise is more likely to fail than anything else.


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