2021 B/R NFL Season Staff Predictions

NFL StaffContributor ISeptember 6, 2021

2021 B/R NFL Season Staff Predictions

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    For the first time in seven months, we can say there are NFL games that matter this week. 

    With that, it's time to make some predictions regarding the expanded and highly anticipated 2021 NFL campaign. 

    Here's how Bleacher Report NFL correspondents Gary Davenport, Brad Gagnon and Brent Sobleski and editors Ian Kenyon and Wes O'Donnell see things playing out over the course of the next five months. 

Coach of the Year

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    Sean McDermott, Buffalo Bills (2 votes)

    Consider this foreshadowing (if not a full-on spoiler) for what's to come. Our panel is rather high on the Bills, who won their first playoff game of the 21st century in 2020 and look tuned up for another competitive season with franchise quarterback Josh Allen coming off an MVP runner-up campaign. 

    McDermott was last year's runner-up to Kevin Stefanski of the Cleveland Browns, but Davenport and O'Donnell believe he'll take the next step in 2021.

    "I thoroughly enjoy watching an organization build to a championship over a couple of seasons," O'Donnell said. "Buffalo is in a prime position to be that team in 2021. While they technically broke out last season with a 13-3 record, this year they have to contend with massive expectations both for Allen and the team as a whole. To keep that all in check, McDermott will have to put together his best coaching performance yet, and I do not have a hard time seeing him accomplish that."

    And yet at DraftKings, eight coaches have better Coach of the Year odds than McDermott. That could have to do with the fact that he has so much talent with which to work. How does he overachieve? And the reality is overachievement is often a big part of this award. 

    Others receiving votes: Kliff Kingsbury, Arizona Cardinals; Matt LaFleur, Green Bay Packers; Brandon Staley, Los Angeles Chargers

Offensive Player of the Year

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes (2 votes)

    We once again nearly had five different winners here, but Gagnon and Kenyon both picked Mahomes to live up to oddsmakers' expectations and secure his second career Offensive Player of the Year award.

    "Mahomes wasn't quite himself in 2019, and his offensive line let him down in 2020, but he's healthy now and that retooled line is better than it's ever been for him," Gagnon said. "It's time for the best player on the best team in pro football to get back into the award flow. With Orlando Brown Jr. and Joe Thuney leading the way in protection, the best quarterback in the game is going to have a field day with Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman."

    Nobody else received multiple votes, but reigning OPOY Derrick Henry is considered a co-favorite to win it again at DraftKings and can't be disregarded. 

    Others receiving votes: Buffalo Bills QB Josh Allen, Tennessee Titans RB Derrick Henry, Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott

Defensive Player of the Year

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Cleveland Browns edge Myles Garrett and Washington Football Team edge Chase Young (tie)

    Aaron Donald has won this thing three of the last four years but is merely the co-favorite alongside Garrett this time, and our panel actually hands Garrett the split with the rising Young. That leaves Donald on the outside looking in with just a single vote from O'Donnell, which is quite a risk considering the Rams defensive lineman's dominance in recent seasons. 

    Still, Donald is 30 now, and there's never been a four-time DPOY winner. It might be smart to bet on a younger player with a less established career trajectory. 

    That certainly describes Garrett (a 25-year-old coming off three consecutive double-digit-sack seasons) and Young (a 22-year-old second-year No. 2 overall pick who recorded 7.5 sacks and four forced fumbles despite injury issues as a rookie). 

    Somewhat surprisingly, there was no love from our panel for Pittsburgh Steelers edge T.J. Watt, who led the league with 15 sacks and 41 quarterback hits in 2020. 

    Others receiving votes: Los Angeles Rams DL Aaron Donald

Offensive Rookie of the Year

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Jacksonville Jaguars QB Trevor Lawrence (2 votes)

    Just as they did with Mahomes for OPOY, Gagnon and Kenyon teamed up here to give an edge to the odds-on favorite at DraftKings and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 draft. Lawrence is one of five rookie quarterbacks coming out of Round 1, and two of the other four received one vote each along with the only healthy first-round rookie running back, Najee Harris. 

    That's fitting when you consider that it's been seven years since a non-quarterback/running back won this award. Each of the last three winners were also top-10 picks, including 2019 No. 1 overall selection Kyler Murray of the Arizona Cardinals. 

    "I was a little worried about Lawrence two weeks into the preseason," Gagnon admitted. "But he redeemed himself with a very strong preseason finale. He's one of the best quarterback prospects we've seen in years, he should be ready, and he should do plenty of damage as he establishes more chemistry with DJ Chark Jr. and Laviska Shenault Jr."

    Others receiving votes: Chicago Bears QB Justin Fields, Pittsburgh Steelers RB Najee Harris, New England Patriots QB Mac Jones

Defensive Rookie of the Year

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    Cleveland Browns LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (3 votes)

    If not for Darius Leonard, there'd be almost no precedent for this. 

    Leonard won Defensive Rookie of the Year as a second-round pick at linebacker in 2018. The other 13 DROY winners dating back to 2007 were all first-round picks.

    Still, votes from Ohio natives Davenport and Sobleski (along with one from O'Donnell) gave him the edge here over a pair of first-round front-seven defenders. 

    "Sure, Owusu-Koramoah isn't even in the starting lineup for the Browns yet," Davenport said. "But make no mistake: He will be. Soon. And once the second-round pick with the skill set tailor-made for Joe Woods' 4-2-5 defense does get out there, look out. The versatile youngster from Notre Dame is going to be a key component of the Cleveland defense in 2021. He's going to lead all rookies in total tackles in 2021. And he's going to be named Defensive Rookie of the Year."

    Five players enter the regular season with better DROY odds than JOK at DraftKings.

    Others receiving votes: Dallas Cowboys LB Micah Parsons, Miami Dolphins edge Jaelan Phillips

Comeback Player of the Year

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott (3 votes)

    Prescott is the overwhelming favorite to win Comeback Player of the Year after missing all but five games because of a severe ankle injury in 2020. Prior to that, he was leading the NFL in passing yardage by a significant margin, and on Friday, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport called the 28-year-old two-time Pro Bowler a  "full go" for the Cowboys' season opener Thursday night against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

    He's loaded with support in that offense and should be a Pro Bowler again if he can remain healthy in 2021.

    Only Gagnon and O'Donnell went in different directions, taking young stars coming off torn ACLs who should also be in the mix alongside sophomore No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow and oft-banged-up star back Christian McCaffrey. 

    And before you start thinking about Carson Wentz or Jameis Winston in new or semi-new settings for this one, keep in mind that each of the last seven players to win this award was coming off a major injury or health issue. 

    Others receiving votes: New York Giants RB Saquon Barkley, San Francisco 49ers edge Nick Bosa

Fantasy Player of the Year

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Arizona Cardinals QB Kyler Murray (2 votes)

    Only Josh Allen and Aaron Rodgers compiled more fantasy points in 2020 than Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray. Now, Gagnon and Kenyon envision the third-year No. 1 overall pick becoming the biggest difference-maker in fantasy football in 2021. 

    It's not far-fetched because a quarterback with wheels who can score consistently with both his arm and his legs can be invaluable, especially if he separates himself from the pack at that position. That's exactly what Lamar Jackson did during a dominant 2019 fantasy season, and Murray has that in him after passing for nearly 4,000 yards and 26 touchdowns and rushing for more than 800 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2020. 

    If he can build on that (especially his passing touchdown total) in his third pro season (and quarterbacks often do take off in year three), Murray could certainly beat out Allen, Rodgers and a wide-ranging pool of potentially dominant running backs to become the ultimate fantasy ace in 2021. Keep in mind that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he's only now coming off the first full and proper offseason of his NFL career.

    Others receiving votes: New York Giants RB Saquon Barkley, Minnesota Vikings RB Dalvin Cook, Washington Football Team RB Antonio Gibson

Breakout Player of the Year

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Washington Football Team RB Antonio Gibson (2 votes)

    Once again, Gagnon and Kenyon save us from a potential five-way tie with their agreement that Gibson should be in for an explosion as a sophomore with the WFT in 2021. 

    "Gibson was a hybrid RB/WR at Memphis where he scored 14 touchdowns on 77 career touches," Kenyon said. "In his first season as a full-time running back in Washington, he surpassed all immediate expectations by accumulating 1,042 scrimmage yards and 11 touchdowns in 14 games in 2020 while splitting time with J.D. McKissic.

    "He's a big play waiting to happen with one of the most impressive size-speed combinations to come out of the college ranks in recent years. Gibson's 4.39 40-yard-dash at 229 pounds gave him a 99th percentile speed score among running backs coming into the 2020 draft. The Washington backfield should be fully his in 2021, and there's been speculation this summer that he could play the Christian McCaffrey role in Ron Rivera's offense. If that comes to fruition, Gibson will become a household name as the NFL's next great dual-threat running back."

    It's hard to argue against that, but there is a lot of hype surrounding the solo vote-getters, all of whom should benefit from a significant uptick in looks in 2021. 

    Others receiving votes: New Orleans Saints WR Marquez Callaway, Baltimore Ravens RB Gus Edwards, Dallas Cowboys WR CeeDee Lamb

Most Touchdown Passes

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes (3 votes)

    Same names again here, with Mahomes and last year's top two MVP vote-getters coming up as potential touchdown pass leaders in 2021. 

    Rodgers led the league with 48 touchdown strikes last year but is 37 and could potentially fall off a cliff at any time. Still, nobody else had more than 40 touchdown passes in 2020, so it's surprising Mahomes grabbed 60 percent of the votes. He settled for 38 in a somewhat disjointed season by his standards, while Allen threw 37. 

    That said, Mahomes did toss a league-high 50 touchdown throws in his 2018 MVP season, and it's clear our panel feels strongly about the highest-rated passer in NFL history putting it all back together in 2021. 

    Oddsmakers agree, as Mahomes is the clear fave to lead the league in this category. However, there's no love for a 44-year-old Tom Brady, who was tied for second last year with 40 despite starting the season slowly. 

    Others receiving votes: Buffalo Bills QB Josh Allen, Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers

Most Rushing Yards

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Cleveland Browns RB Nick Chubb (4 votes)

    This may be another case in which our panelists are doing their best to predict that a trend will be curbed in 2021. Derrick Henry may have led the league in rushing yardage in each of the last two seasons, but that might mean we're due for a change at the top after the Titans back racked up 681 carries as a bruiser over those two campaigns.

    Is it Chubb's turn? Everybody except O'Donnell believes so. 

    "Chubb is the game's best pure runner," Sobleski said. "'But...but, Derrick Henry.' Yes, Henry is a true workhorse and a two-time rushing champion. Yet Chubb led the NFL last season in rushing yards over expectation per attempt. The Browns ball-carrier averaged an impressive 5.2 yards per carry over the last three seasons (Henry sat at 5.1). His 4.1 yards after contact per attempt led the league.

    "In Cleveland, Chubb should greatly benefit from the game's best offensive line, continued improvement from quarterback Baker Mayfield and the easiest running back strength of schedule. If Henry shows any regression whatsoever, Chubb should easily surpass the reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year."

    There you have it. But, for what it's worth, both Henry and Dalvin Cook have better odds at DraftKings.

    Others receiving votes: Tennessee Titans RB Derrick Henry

Most Receptions

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    Green Bay Packers WR Davante Adams (2 votes)

    Adams is the narrow favorite for this accolade at DraftKings and the narrow winner in this exercise. 

    "It's a contract season for Davante, who is an unrestricted free agent in 2022," Kenyon said. "With Aaron Rodgers back for their version of The Last Dance, Davante should get peppered with targets in Green Bay's offense that still lacks a true threat opposite him. Adams averaged 8.2 receptions per game last year, which would be a 17-game pace of 140 catches. If he can keep up anywhere near that pace, he should be the NFL's best bet to lead the league in receptions."

    It helps Adams that 2018 and 2019 league receptions leader Michael Thomas is starting the season on the PUP list, and he might not be as much of a factor now that Drew Brees has retired anyway. Stefon Diggs led the league in that category in 2020 and is right there with DeAndre Hopkins when it comes to the odds, but it's possible Diggs' 2020 campaign was an aberration considering his resume and the 29-year-old Hopkins has never led the league in catches. 

    Others receiving votes: Buffalo Bills WR Stefon Diggs, Arizona Cardinals WR DeAndre Hopkins, Atlanta Falcons WR Calvin Ridley

Most Sacks

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    Washington Football Team edge Chase Young (3 votes)

    Garrett and Young split the Defensive Player of the Year vote and nearly did the same here. O'Donnell had Aaron Donald as his DPOY but figures Young will actually lead the league in sacks. That is entirely plausible considering his dominance despite being rarely fully healthy as a rookie and that Donald isn't an edge defender. 

    And this is another reminder that the entire rookie class might have been hindered by an extremely limited offseason and no preseason at all in 2020. Now, the No. 2 overall pick is healthy after still managing to win Defensive Rookie of the Year with a strong showing down the stretch.

    The sky is the limit in 2021, especially if opposing offensive lines aren't able to focus entirely on shutting down Young because the rest of Washington's stacked defensive front is wreaking too much havoc. The presence of Montez Sweat, Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne could put Young over the top in sacks in 2021. 

    That said, our gang is on a limb here. Donald, Garrett and seven other players have better odds than Young at DraftKings

    Others receiving votes: Cleveland Browns edge Myles Garrett

Most Tackles

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    Tampa Bay Buccaneers LB Devin White (3 votes)

    White ranked fifth in the NFL in tackles in 2020, but the 2019 No. 5 overall pick was just 22 years old, and his 140 total tackles represented more than a 50 percent increase over his rookie campaign. He was also a tackle machine with 38 of 'em in three playoff games. 

    That trajectory is tough to deny, which is why he took home 60 percent of the votes cast for this distinction. 

    And if you feel the same way, his DraftKings odds to lead the league in this metric are quite tempting at +1400. Six players, including 2020 leader Zach Cunningham and single vote-getter Darius Leonard, have better odds to accomplish this feat than White. 

    Others receiving votes: Houston Texans LB Zach Cunningham, Indianapolis Colts LB Darius Leonard

Most Interceptions

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    Denver Broncos S Justin Simmons (2 votes)

    In 2020, Xavien Howard became the first player in over a decade to intercept 10-plus passes in a single NFL season. But there's a lot of randomness that goes into the interception game, so it's not too shocking that none of our voters are backing Howard to lead the league in that category once again in 2021. 

    Instead, a small edge goes to Simmons, who ranked tied for fourth in that category with a career-high five picks last season and has seen his interception total rise in three consecutive campaigns. 

    "Simmons is already one of the game's best safeties," Sobleski said. "In fact, he graded better than anyone else at his position over the last two years and tied with Tyrann Mathieu for the most interceptions by a safety (12) over the last three. A difference lies in Simmons' surrounding cast, though. The Broncos invested heavily in their secondary by adding cornerbacks Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby and this year's ninth overall draft pick, Patrick Surtain II. A great safety will take advantage of added mistakes his teammates should force."

    Others receiving votes: Tampa Bay Buccaneers CB Carlton Davis, Kansas City Chiefs S Tyrann Mathieu, Los Angeles Rams CB Jalen Ramsey

Worst Team (and Record)

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    Houston Texans (2-15)

    Nobody on our panel had the Texans winning more than four games, and all but Gagnon had them winning two games or fewer following a horrendous offseason. 

    "To say that the Texans are a mess is an understatement," Davenport said. "Without Deshaun Watson, the offense will all but certainly be a hot mess. The defense could be even worse. There are essentially three games on Houston's schedule where a Texans win wouldn't be a big upset—the team's two matchups with the Jaguars and a Week 12 home date with the Jets. Going 0-17 is going to be even more difficult than 0-16 was, so I'll give Houston either the Week 1 matchup in Texas against the Jags or that Jets game. But that's it. It's losses the rest of the way on the way to the No. 1 pick in 2022."

    Watson's future is of course up in the air as he faces 22 lawsuits and 10 criminal complaints from women accusing him of sexual assault or sexual misconduct committed while receiving massages (allegations he denies). All signs point to him being inactive for most if not all of the 2021 season if he's even on the Texans roster.

    But this Texans squad won just four games with Watson (and Will Fuller V, J.J. Watt and Benardrick McKinney) on the roster in 2020. It could indeed get really ugly in 2021. 

    This was unanimous.

Super Bowl LVI Matchup

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    Buffalo Bills (2 votes) vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Green Bay Packers (2 votes each)

    We didn't get a single answer twice here. The Bills were the only AFC team to receive two votes while the Bucs and Packers split votes in the NFC, with the leftover going to the Los Angeles Rams.

    Davenport: Bills-Packers
    Gagnon: Chiefs-Buccaneers
    Kenyon: Chargers-Buccaneers
    O'Donnell: Bills-Rams
    Sobleski: Browns-Packers

    The McDermott/Allen-led Bills are trending up. They went from six wins in 2018 to 10 in 2019 to 13 in 2020, and they look as strong as ever ahead of Allen's age-25 season. 

    That said, the Chiefs and Browns are arguably even more talented than Buffalo. Kansas City is looking to become the fourth team in NFL history to make three consecutive Super Bowls, and the oddsmakers have them and the Buccaneers at the top entering 2021. The defending champion Bucs have brought back every key player from last season, but it's been more than a decade-and-a-half since an NFL team repeated, and you never know when Father Time will catch up with Tom Brady. 

    For what it's worth regarding Gagnon's call, the same two teams have met in back-to-back Super Bowls just once. So he's going out on a limb along with O'Donnell (the Rams are +1400 at Draftkings), Sobleski (the Browns are at +1600) and Kenyon (the Bolts sit at +3000). 

Super Bowl LVI Winner

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    Buffalo Bills (2 votes)

    Davenport and O'Donnell don't just see the Bills making their first Super Bowl since 1993—they see them finally winning their first Vince Lombardi Trophy. 

    "We know it is very difficult to repeat as Super Bowl champion," O'Donnell said. "It's only happened eight times in Super Bowl history, with the last coming courtesy of the 2003-04 Patriots. And while Tom Brady's Bucs are reasonably one of the top two favorites for this season in a potential repeat bid after bringing back a historic number of starters, Patrick Mahomes' Chiefs, the odds-on champion favorites, face an even more daunting task of reaching the big game in three consecutive years. That's only happened three times in league history.

    "I do not see either team defying the numbers this season, and there is a team that could eliminate both clubs en route to its franchise's first-ever title: the Bills. Yes, they're a popular pick, but they also have my choices for Coach of the Year and MVP, so this is an easy choice for me in the end."

    Still, Gagnon has the favored Chiefs winning their second title in a three-year span, Kenyon has the defending champs bringing an end to that repeat drought, and Sobleski has Rodgers and the Packers delivering after going more than a decade without Super Bowl glory. 

    Those four teams have the highest Super Bowl odds at DraftKings.

    Others receiving votes: Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Most Valuable Player

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    Buffalo Bills QB Josh Allen and Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes (tie)

    It's fitting that Mahomes and Allen split this because this exercise has centered on the Bills and their quarterback as well as the highest-rated passer in league history. Rodgers held off Allen for MVP last year, but the odds are slightly out of his favor considering how tough it is to repeat (it hasn't happened since 2009), especially at 37.

    That leaves Allen and the consistently dominant Mahomes, who won this thing in 2018 and has been a Pro Bowler the last three seasons. Davenport and O'Donnell went with the former, Gagnon and Kenyon backed the latter, and Sobleski went with a flier in Prescott.

    Mahomes is the favorite at DraftKings, with Allen third but in Rodgers' range. Seven players (all quarterbacks) have better MVP odds than Dak. 

    Let the games begin.

    Others receiving votes: Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott

         

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