Predicting the Biggest Flops of the 2021 NFL Season
We're at the point in the NFL preseason where hope begins to fade into reality.
Every team is undefeated at the start of training camp, and all 32 teams are surrounded by positivity. Now that we've gotten an early look at how teams are coming together, though, it's becoming clearer that some players and teams are going to disappoint this season.
Here, we'll examine seven players and teams who appear likely to fall short of their high offseason expectations. We'll use all available information—including preseason performances, camp updates and injury reports—to determine our choices.
The term "flop" is relative here. For example, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson still took his team to the playoffs last season. However, after being the unanimous MVP in 2019 and among the 2020 MVP favorites, his failure to even get a Pro Bowl nod could be viewed as a major disappointment.
Players/teams are listed in alphabetical order.
Ja'Marr Chase, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
Expectations are undoubtedly high for Cincinnati Bengals wideout Ja'Marr Chase, the first receiver taken in the 2021 draft. When he played at LSU with current Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow in 2019, he racked up 84 receptions for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Reuniting Chase with Burrow will eventually pay dividends, but the rookie receiver isn't likely to have the same fast start we've seen from wideouts like DK Metcalf and Justin Jefferson. Chase opted out of the 2020 season amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and he has been plagued by drops in the preseason.
The Bengals know that time is running short to get Chase regular-season ready.
"You feel the urgency," offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said, per The Athletic's Paul Dehner Jr. "This is happening for real, really fast. It's not April anymore. We are playing in a short amount of time and it counts. You only get so many opportunities. So you do feel that."
Other factors will come into play here. Burrow is returning from a left knee injury that included a torn ACL and MCL. There's no guarantee that the second-year signal-caller will be at 100 percent at any point this season.
Cincinnati also isn't short on receiving talent. The presence of receivers Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins will prevent Chase from having the dominant target share needed to be an instant star.
That doesn't mean the Bengals made a mistake by drafting Chase fifth overall, but the early returns aren't likely to be what Cincinnati fans are hoping to see.
The Dallas Cowboys are set to have quarterback Dak Prescott in the fold after playing the bulk of the 2020 season without him. Prescott was leading the NFL with 1,856 passing yards through five games when he suffered a fractured and dislocated right ankle.
Prescott's return has raised the bar in Dallas, as the over/under for regular-season wins stands at nine, according to DraftKings Sportsbook.
Unfortunately, Prescott has also been dealing with an injury to his throwing shoulder. There's no guarantee that he'll be at 100 percent this season.
"He's not fully back. He may not be back all season long," ESPN's Adam Schefter said during a preseason broadcast (h/t Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk).
If Prescott cannot carry the Cowboys, they could be in serious trouble. Their defense ranked 28th in points allowed last season, and there are lingering questions about head coach Mike McCarthy and his staff.
"They don't teach. They don't have any sense of adjusting on the fly," one unnamed player said of the Cowboys staff last season, per ESPN's Jane Slater.
While the Cowboys could be a contender in the relatively weak NFC East, they might struggle to get to .500 this season.
Bud Dupree, Edge, Tennessee Titans
However, Dupree is coming off a right ACL tear that he suffered in December. He also began training camp on the reserve/COVID-19 list and only recently made his training camp debut.
Dupree believes he is ready to go, though.
"I'm going to be ready whenever they call me. If they tell me to go out tomorrow, I can go do it," he said, per David Boclair of All Titans.
However, there's a big difference between being on the field and returning to his pre-injury form. There's no guarantee when or if Dupree can be the same player he was in Pittsburgh.
The other thing to consider is that Dupree was never a premier pass-rusher for the Steelers. He was a solid No. 2 option alongside T.J. Watt, but he had only one double-digit-sack season and averaged five sacks per season before his breakout 2019 campaign.
Tennessee does not have an elite edge-rusher like Watt opposite Dupree. Harold Landry led the team with 5.5 sacks in 2020, while free-agent addition Denico Autry had 7.5 sacks for the Indianapolis Colts.
The situation is not right for Dupree to live up to his sizable contract, at least not this season.
Jared Goff, QB, Detroit Lions
No one is expecting Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff to be Matthew Stafford this season. When the Lions traded Stafford for Goff and a bundle of draft picks—including two first-rounders—it was clear that a drop-off in quarterback production was likely.
However, the Lions believed in Goff enough to pass on a signal-caller with the seventh overall pick in the 2021 draft. It's a decision they may come to regret.
The two-time Pro Bowler likely won't even be an above-average starter in Detroit this season. He looked like a game manager at best during his preseason debut, and he continues to struggle in training camp.
"It was a practice to forget for Jared Goff and the first-team offense," Pride of Detroit's Jeremy Reisman wrote after last Thursday's practice. "During team periods, Goff threw two interceptions, two passes that were nearly intercepted, and failed to find the end zone even once."
Goff doesn't have an offensive guru like Sean McVay guiding him in Detroit, and he has a lackluster collection of receivers. While T.J. Hockenson is emerging as a capable young tight end, wideouts Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman aren't exactly superstars.
In L.A., Goff had a nearly ideal situation with an offensive-minded coach in McVay and a great supporting cast. Things will be different for him this year, as the Lions have an underwhelming roster.
A few years removed from a Super Bowl appearance, Goff might now anchor one of the NFL's worst teams.
Kenny Golladay, WR, New York Giants
Matthew Stafford wasn't the only key player to leave Detroit this offseason. Wideout Kenny Golladay also departed to sign a four-year, $72 million deal with the New York Giants.
Unfortunately for the Giants, Golladay won't live up to that contract this season.
The 27-year-old has been hampered by a hamstring injury in training camp. He hasn't had the opportunity to develop chemistry with quarterback Daniel Jones, who isn't on the same level as Stafford as a passer.
As Tom Rock of Newsday recently noted, Golladay and rookie first-round pick Kadarius Toney figure to start the season slowly.
"They filled the offseason with optimism," Rock wrote. "They have filled the preseason with trepidation, frustration and anxiety. What they fill the regular season with, especially in the early stages, likely will not be close to what was expected."
While Toney is a raw prospect whom the Giants shouldn't count on to make an instant impact, Golladay was supposed to pay immediate dividends. However, even once he's up to speed, he likely isn't going to be the same Pro Bowl receiver he was with Stafford.
Detroit's passing offense essentially ran through Golladay in 2018 and 2019. The Giants have several capable pass-catchers, including Sterling Shepard, Darius Slayton, Evan Engram and Kyle Rudolph.
Golladay isn't going to lead the NFL in touchdown receptions like he did in 2019. He might not even reach 1,000 receiving yards in his inaugural New York campaign.
New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints have won at least 10 games and the NFC South crown in each of the past four seasons. While expectations are a little lower this year—their over/under is set at nine wins—the Saints will still struggle to meet them.
The biggest obstacle is their search for a new quarterback. Drew Brees retired in the offseason, and New Orleans has yet to choose between Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill as the Week 1 starter.
"I don't have a timeframe," head coach Sean Payton told reporters. "When we know what direction we are going, we will let you guys know."
The Saints will also be without No. 1 receiver Michael Thomas for a large chunk of the early season following June ankle surgery. The Saints also lost a bevy of notable contributors this offseason, including Trey Hendrickson, Janoris Jenkins, Emmanuel Sanders, Jared Cook and Sheldon Rankins.
In short, we aren't going to see the same Saints squad that went 12-4 a year ago.
New Orleans must also contend with a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that found its way late in 2020. The Saints notched two wins against their divisional foes during the regular season, but the Bucs didn't lose a game after their Week 13 bye.
New Orleans is now the second-best team in the division. While fans have become accustomed to seeing the Saints in the playoffs, there's a real chance that they miss the postseason this year.
Kyle Pitts, TE, Atlanta Falcons
The Atlanta Falcons selected tight end Kyle Pitts with the fourth overall pick in April, making him the first non-quarterback to be drafted. The former Florida pass-catcher now enters the 2021 season amid some lofty expectations.
"I've covered Pitts pre- and post-draft, we talked about him on the podcast, and the fact is that Pitts is ready to create history," The Athletic's Jake Ciely wrote.
While Pitts should develop into a great pro and could have a fine rookie season, he won't be the most productive pass-catcher in this draft class. Even with Julio Jones now in Tennessee, Pitts will have heavy competition for targets.
Calvin Ridley will be Matt Ryan's top target after breaking out with a 1,374-yard, nine-touchdown season in 2020. The Falcons also have a quality complementary receiver in Russell Gage and another standout tight end in Hayden Hurst.
Atlanta isn't likely to be as pass-heavy as it has been in recent years, either.
The Falcons ranked fourth in pass attempts and 20th in rushing attempts last year, but new head coach Arthur Smith is aiming to address that imbalance. While the offense doesn't feature an elite running back, Smith plans on committing to the ground game.
"The reality is that we'll get multiple backs in here, and we'll have the way we trust our schemes and the way we teach the details of it, and we'll commit to it," Smith said, per D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Pitts should play a big role in Atlanta's offense, but he isn't going to be the centerpiece.
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