The Carolina Panthers have placed star running back Christian McCaffrey on injured reserve as he continues to struggle with a hamstring issue.

The medical team's decision means the 25-year-old will be out for a minimum of three weeks, returning no sooner than Week 9, when the Panthers face the New England Patriots.

McCaffrey picked up the injury in the 24-9 victory over the Houston Texans and missed the subsequent defeats against the Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles and had been ruled out of the upcoming game against the Minnesota Vikings.

Rookie guard Deonte Brown has also been placed on injured reserve after sustaining a knee injury in practice on Friday, with Michael Jordan replacing him from the practice squad to make up a 52-man active roster.

Running back Spencer Brown and punter Ryan Winslow will also make the step up to replace McCaffrey and Joseph Charlton, who was also placed on injured reserve.

Christian McCaffrey appears likely to return to the Carolina Panthers' line-up against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.

Though McCaffrey was limited in practice for the second consecutive day, the running back said he "definitely" believes he has a chance to play after leaving Carolina's Week 3 win over the Houston Texans with a hamstring injury. 

Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said Carolina will likely wait until Sunday to make the final call but McCaffrey is eager to return after missing 13 games last season with multiple injuries. 

"Yeah, definitely," McCaffrey told reporters. "We'll take it to Sunday and see how it goes from there. But I feel really good."

The Panthers rushed for 113 yards in McCaffrey's absence last week, slightly above their season average going in, but suffered their first loss of the season to the Dallas Cowboys. 

If McCaffrey is ruled out for Sunday, the men who replaced him against the Cowboys – Chuba Hubbard, Royce Freeman and Rodney Smith – will be ready to carry the load again. 

But getting McCaffrey back as an all-around weapon for quarterback Sam Darnold would be a significant boost. 

"Any time you have the opportunity to have 22 on the field, that changes a lot of things," said offensive co-ordinator Joe Brady.

The 2019 All-Pro selection kept his remarks about his status brief, but McCaffrey did have some thoughts when asked about being injured in a Thursday night game. 

"It's extremely frustrating," he said. "I don't prefer Thursday night games. You go through a lot in a football game. And you really get two days to recover, and one of those days is a travel day.

"You get two days to recover; you get on a plane, you go to a hotel, you're playing a football game. It's tough, but it is what it is.

"It's part of the game, but obviously frustrating."

The Carolina Panthers have moved quickly to sign four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Stephon Gilmore in a trade with the New England Patriots, according to widespread reports.

It was said on Wednesday that the Patriots were releasing Gilmore, although that move was not to be made official until 16:00 EST.

And the Panthers swiftly stepped in to secure a bargain trade, sending a 2023 sixth-round pick to New England in return for a star in the secondary, who failed to come to terms on a restructured contract in Foxborough.

Gilmore, who was born in Rock Hill, South Carolina, spent four seasons with the Pats before being kept on the sidelines so far this year with a quad injury.

He was eligible to come off the Physically Unable to Perform list in Week 6 and is expected to recover in the coming weeks.

Gilmore brings proven quality to the 3-1 Panthers, having been the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2019 when he co-led the league in interceptions with six, including two pick sixes.

However, the highlight of his Pats career, having left the Buffalo Bills where he was the 10th overall pick in 2012, was the interception of Jared Goff that clinched New England's 13-3 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII at the end of the 2018 campaign.

Carolina have had only three total takeaways so far this year, although first-round pick Jaycee Horn is on injured reserve after suffering a broken foot.

Horn, whose place Gilmore will take, has a single interception through three games in his rookie season, having had two in seven games at South Carolina last year.

Sam Darnold may never develop into the kind of quarterback who can truly carry a team, but he has been exactly what the Carolina Panthers needed so far this season.  

Despite losing his top offensive weapon early in the second quarter, Darnold turned in yet another efficient if unspectacular performance on Thursday, helping the Panthers defeat the Houston Texans 24-9 to remain unbeaten.  

Darnold did not throw a touchdown pass, but he ran for two TDs and avoided turning the ball over as Carolina remade their game plan on the fly after Christian McCaffrey left the game with a hamstring injury.  

"It's always hard playing without one of your best players, but Sam stepped up and did a tremendous job tonight," tackle Cameron Erving told reporters. 

Panthers head coach Matt Rhule did not speculate on how long McCaffrey might be sidelined, but the Panthers had plenty of experience playing without him last year as he missed all but three games due to ankle and shoulder injuries.  

Darnold was not around for that, and like everyone else in the locker room will be hoping for a speedy return by the All-Pro running back.  

McCaffrey's departure during Thursday’s game just put more responsibility on Darnold's shoulders, but he handled it calmly.  

"We're starting to find our identity as an offence," Darnold said. "I've just got to, whatever play is called, we've got to execute that play. That's my job, is to get us in the right play and make sure we're hitting on all cylinders, and the offence is moving in the right direction." 

According to Stats Perform, Darnold is the second quarterback in the Super Bowl era (since 1966) to throw for at least 250 yards and win in each of his first three games with a team. Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs is the only other QB to do it.  

Darnold is a different kind of quarterback to Mahomes, but he suddenly has one hallmark of the Kansas City star's game: confidence.  

"One thing about Sam: he has some moxie, man," Rhule said. "I mean, it's him just playing within the system but also I think he has a courageousness, but he's not crossing the line and going over the top. He's protecting the football." 

Turnovers have always been a key concern around Darnold – he had 39 interceptions and lost nine fumbles in 38 games with the New York Jets – but he has only two turnovers this season, just one of them an interception.  

That improved ball security has prompted the Panthers' coaching staff to give Darnold a bit more leeway.  

"If you watch the way we called the game, it means we trust him," Rhule said. "Even in that last drive, we were throwing four verticals with him. 

"I just think in my mind, I say to myself all the time, these are professional football players. Let them go play. Don't try to over-manage the game. Let them go make plays." 

Of course, the season is only three games old, and the Week 4 matchup against the Dallas Cowboys will provide the most difficult test yet – particularly if McCaffrey is unavailable.  

But the much-maligned 24-year-old has earned some respect with his performance so far.  

"Sam, he's a gamer," said Panthers linebacker Haason Reddick. "Guy's a flat-out baller right now." 

The Carolina Panthers lost key players on both sides of the ball to injury Thursday but managed to maintain their perfect record to start the season with a 24-9 defeat of the Houston Texans. 

The win was some consolation for Carolina on a night when they saw All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey depart in the second quarter with a hamstring injury and their top draft pick, cornerback Jaycee Horn, leave in the third with a reported broken foot. 

Carolina entered the game as the only NFL team not to trail in a game this season, and the Panthers once again struck first, with Sam Darnold capping a 10-play drive in the opening quarter by running it in himself for a five-yard touchdown. 

Their defence did surrender its first points in the first half this year, as Texans rookie quarterback Davis Mills hit Anthony Miller for a one-yard TD with 29 seconds left in the opening half, but Joey Slye missed the extra point to leave Carolina in the lead entering half-time. 

Darnold had decent numbers, completing 23 of 34 passes for 304 yards, and DJ Moore caught eight passes for 126 yards, but the Panthers could not find the end zone with their passing game. 

That led to some creativity, as rookie tight end Tommy Tremble ran the ball in from seven yards out to give Carolina a 14-6 lead in the third quarter.

After the teams traded field goals in the fourth, the Panthers put the game away when Darnold ran it in from one yard out with 4:07 remaining. 

This marks the fifth time in Panthers history they have started 3-0. They made the playoffs three of the previous four times, most recently their 2015 team that went 15-1 and lost to the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. 

Carolina Panthers star Christian McCaffrey was forced to leave Thursday's game against the Houston Texans in the first half. 

McCaffrey entered the medical tent on the sidelines after a two-yard carry rush in the second quarter, and the Panthers later announced he was out for the game with a hamstring injury. 

Carolina felt his absence immediately, as backup running back Chubba Hubbard was stopped short on a fourth-and-one deep in Texans territory on a carry that in any other circumstance would have gone to McCaffrey. 

The 25-year-old had seven carries for 34 yards and two receptions for nine yards before departing. 

He led the NFL with 324 total yards through the first two weeks of this season. 

The Panthers will not want to contemplate another extended stretch without their versatile playmaker, who missed most of last year with a pair of injuries. 

McCaffrey suffered a high ankle sprain in Week 2 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and went on injured reserve before returning in Week 9. 

That game saw the 2019 All-Pro selection go down with a shoulder injury that would cost him the rest of the season. 

Those setbacks came on the heels of McCaffrey playing in every game in each of his first three NFL seasons. 

 

Is it Week 3 already? The advent of a 17th game means the regular season will stretch further into January, but the NFL campaign always seems to fly by at breakneck speed.

In the world of fantasy football, plenty of managers may be seeing things spiral out of control in a hurry after an 0-2 start.

Or maybe you're on the other end of things, with at least one win on the board and feeling satisfied that your draft-day decisions were the right ones.

Either way, it's important to remember that fantasy is a weekly game, and success hinges on the selection calls made each weekend.

Stats Perform is here to try to help you make the correct calls. Here's this week's look at four players and a defense in strong spots to produce matchup-winning fantasy scores.

Quarterback: Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers @ Kansas City Chiefs

Herbert was frustrated in Week 2 as the Chargers let opportunities go begging in their defeat to the Dallas Cowboys, with two interceptions undermining an otherwise impressive display that saw him throw for 338 yards and a touchdown.

However, Herbert should be enticed by a matchup with a Chiefs defense that has produced turnovers but has proved extremely hospitable to opposing offenses.

Indeed, the Chiefs are allowing a league-worst 7.56 yards per play through two games. Only the Detroit Lions (9.44) are allowing more yards per pass play than the Chiefs (9.37).

Going against a porous defense and with Patrick Mahomes a near-certainty to deliver points on the other side, Herbert has a clear opportunity to record his third successive 300-yard game to start the season and put up a massive fantasy performance in a potential shootout.

Running Back: Ty'Son Williams, Baltimore Ravens @ Detroit Lions

Despite seeing their running back depth decimated by injuries, the Ravens saw their backfield get going in a huge way in their stunning Week 2 win over the Chiefs.

Baltimore gashed Kansas City for 251 yards on the ground at an average of 6.1 yards per carry. The complexity that quarterback Lamar Jackson's running threat brings to their rushing attack played a significant role, but the Ravens will have been extremely encouraged by Williams' performance.

Williams averaged 5.9 yards per carry as he put up 77 yards on 13 carries, and he now gets the opportunity to go against a Lions defense that has been relatively stout against the run but has given up a league-high nine offensive touchdowns.

For fantasy managers light at running back, Williams could be an intriguing option.

Wide Receiver: D.J. Moore, Carolina Panthers @ Houston Texans

On the surface, there is not much intrigue in Thursday's primetime clash between the Panthers and Texans.

However, with Sam Darnold showing signs of improvement in Carolina following his departure from the New York Jets, potential fantasy matchup winners can be found among their passing game options.

Aside from Christian McCaffrey, Moore is the top threat on the Panthers' offense. He had eight catches for 79 yards and a touchdown last week against a New Orleans Saints defense that is superior to that of the Texans, which allowed Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield to complete 90 per cent of his passes in Week 2.

Targeted 19 times across his first two games, if Moore gets a double-digit share as he did versus New Orleans, he will be set up perfectly to deliver another productive performance.

Tight End: T.J. Hockenson, Detroit Lions vs. Baltimore Ravens

While the Lions may be in a rebuilding year, Hockenson is constructing an excellent case for him to be considered among the NFL's premier players at the tight end position.

He has 163 yards and two touchdowns in his first two games and now gets to face a Ravens defense giving up the most fantasy points per game in the league to opposing tight ends.

Shredded for 109 yards and a touchdown by Travis Kelce in Week 2 and for 105 yards and a score by Darren Waller in Week 1, the odds of the Ravens preventing Hockenson from producing a similar statline appear slim.

Defense: Arizona Cardinals @ Jacksonville Jaguars

Backing a defense to excel after a game in which that unit gave up 26 points in a 34-33 shootout win may seem foolhardy.

While the Cardinals' defense is certainly vulnerable, as the Minnesota Vikings proved last week, Arizona could hardly ask for a better matchup in which to bounce back on that side of the ball.

Rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence is tied for the league lead in interceptions having tossed five already this season. His air yards per attempt average of 10.49 is second among quarterbacks with at least 10 passes, but he is delivering an accurate, well-thrown ball just 66.3 per cent of the time.

That combination of aggressiveness and inaccuracy is a recipe for a bounce-back performance from the Arizona defense.

Houston Texans quarterback Tyrod Taylor has been ruled out of Thursday's clash with the Carolina Panthers due to a hamstring injury, with rookie David Mills confirmed to step in as starter.

Texans head coach David Culley announced on Tuesday that 32-year-old Taylor will not face the Panthers, having suffered the injury in the 31-21 loss to the Cleveland Browns in Week 2.

Taylor will be placed on injured reserve, meaning he will miss three weeks at a minimum.

Culley said veteran Jeff Driskel may be called up to back up 22-year-old Mills, who was a third-round pick in the 2021 Draft.

"He is ready," Culley said about Mills, who came off the bench against the Browns. "He's been exactly what you want your backup quarterback to be."

Mills went eight from 18 for 102 yards, including one touchdown pass against the Browns.

"When he went in the game this past week it had nothing to do with other than the one time that they got him on a blitz, he executed very well, he was sharp, he did exactly what we needed to do, even in the run game," Culley said.

"I just think he'll be a lot more comfortable now, simply because he has been out there and against a very good defensive football team."

He added: "We'll actually have the same playbook, obviously there's some things that he is a little different than Tyrod, but we actually have the same kind of plays.

"But we'll use the things that fit him more so than what we did with Tyrod. Some of the things we did with Tyrod we may not do with him in the run game, but as far as the pass game it will basically be the same thing."

Culley declined to offer up any timeframes on Taylor's likely return from injury, stating he was "not sure what the timetable is right now".

The Buffalo Bills got their 2021 NFL season up and running with a sixth straight win over the Miami Dolphins, who lost Tua Tagovailoa to a rib injury.

Tipped by many to make the Super Bowl this year, the Bills endured an underwhelming start in defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers, but a 35-0 success in Miami got them back on track.

Buffalo benefited from Tagovailoa's departure early in the game, as he had to be carted back to the locker room after a hit from A.J. Epenesa when he attempted a short-range pass on fourth down.

By that point, the second-year Dolphins quarterback had been sacked twice on a three-and-out opening drive before seeing Devin Singletary run 46 yards for the Bills' first touchdown.

Josh Allen threw to Stefon Diggs for a second score, but Buffalo failed to add to their advantage in the remainder of a chaotic first half, epitomised by Levi Wallace's pick from back-up Miami QB Jacoby Brissett moments after receiving a penalty for taunting.

Allen found his range again at the start of the third quarter as Dawson Knox made a low catch in the end zone – this the QB's seventh consecutive start against the Dolphins with multiple TD passes. Only Philip Rivers (against the Houston Texans) had previously enjoyed such a run against a single team.

Miami were never in the game thereafter and Zack Moss added a pair of rushing scores with two bruising runs, the second after Allen was called just short.

Super Cooper rescues Rams

NFC West rivals the Los Angeles Rams and the San Francisco 49ers survived scares against the Indianapolis Colts and the Philadelphia Eagles respectively, each coming through to move to 2-0.

The Rams were grateful to Cooper Kupp for his nine catches for 163 yards and two TDs – following 108 yards and a score last week – after a botched snap for a punt had gifted the Colts their first lead early in the fourth quarter. Carson Wentz ended the game on the sideline.

Wilson woeful for Jets

Zach Wilson's home debut for the New York Jets was a miserable one as he threw four interceptions in a defeat to the New England Patriots.

Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Bengals paid the price for Joe Burrow's three interceptions from three consecutive passes – including a pick six – against the Chicago Bears, who were not punished for a shaky Justin Fields display after Andy Dalton's injury.

Wilson's Jets predecessor Sam Darnold threw for 305 yards, two TDs and a pick in the Carolina Panthers' win over the New Orleans Saints.

The 2021 NFL season began on Thursday as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers started their quest for a second straight Super Bowlw title with a thrilling victory over the Dallas Cowboys.

Having won his seventh ring in his first season with the Bucs playing in front of at best sparsely populated crowds amid the coronavirus pandemic, Brady and Tampa Bay claimed a 31-29 victory in front of a packed house at Raymond James Stadium.

While the return of fans and full stadiums will give this season a different look, once more it is the Bucs and the Kansas City Chiefs who go into the year as the teams to beat.

However, there are a host of other high-profile teams who could be set to improve on their 2020 win-loss records, as well as those who could be poised to decline from postseason contention.

With the help of Stats Perform data, here are some of the more intriguing teams to keep eye on as the NFL makes its much anticipated return.

With Dak back, Cowboys hope to contend

A gruesome ankle injury suffered by Dak Prescott in Week 5 ended Dallas' hopes of challenging last season.

As it turned out, further injuries on the offensive line and a miserable defense would have made it tough for the Cowboys to contend even if Prescott had been on the field to lead the offense, as their wait for a first Super Bowl since 1995 goes on.

But Prescott is back with the security of a lucrative new contract as Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup remain part of an explosive supporting cast and he delivered a compelling reminder of his upside in defeat to Tampa Bay, throwing for 403 yards, three touchdowns and an interception off the hands of Lamb.

Prescott has averaged 8.26 yards per attempt over the last two seasons, third best among NFL QBs, and there are huge hopes for the offense, particularly if the highly rated Lamb (74 catches for 935 yards in 2020) can kick on from a fine rookie season. Despite Lamb's drop leading to a turnover, the early signs were good as he caught seven passes for 104 yards and a touchdown, helping Prescott average 6.95 yards per attempt and post a 101.4 passer rating.

If new Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn can get the defense – which allowed 158.8 rushing yards per game last season (31st in the NFL) but just 52 against the Bucs - somewhere towards the middle of the pack, the Cowboys should soar well clear of their 6-10 mark from 2020 and will be justified favourites to win the NFC East.

Pats look to pressure Bills in AFC East

The Bills and Josh Allen were so good last season that they may decline from their 13-3 mark even without doing too much wrong.

Allen made an astonishing leap from year two to three – posting career highs in passing yards (3,089 to 4,544), passing touchdowns (20 to 37) and completion percentage (58.8 to 69.2), plus eight rushing scores - and was rewarded with a huge offseason contract extension.

Allen's numbers and rate of improvement are hard to sustain, and even a marginal decline could lead to a worse record in a competitive division.

Stefon Diggs was incredible with league-leading figures of 127 catches and 1,535 receiving yards, while Cole Beasley (82 catches for 967 yards) was a crucial complementary piece.

Allen and Diggs played all 16 games last season while Beasley only missed one, so there was good fortune on the health front, while the Bills were able to win close games last season – boasting a 5-1 record in one-score contests – a metric that often reverts to the mean.

Their divisional rivals, meanwhile, look threatening. The New England Patriots have spent big in free agency to revamp the supporting cast for rookie QB Mac Jones.

New England's tight end situation has been among the league's worst since the departure of Rob Gronkowski, but they doubled down at the position to land Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith.

Henry ranks sixth among tight ends with 1,265 yards since the start of the 2019 season, while only five TEs have more than the 11 TDs grabbed by the athletic Smith over that period.

Wide receiver Nelson Agholor arrived after a career year (896 yards) for the Las Vegas Raiders as the pass-catching options were significantly boosted.

A down year for the Patriots – in which their offensive weapons looked woeful and several defensive players opted out - still produced a not disastrous 7-9 record, with four of those losses coming by eight points or fewer.

The Miami Dolphins (3-4 in one score games) are another ascending team in the division after going 10-6 and allowing only 21.1 points per game (ried-fifth in the NFL).

Even the New York Jets, buoyed after selecting BYU QB Zach Wilson at number two overall, look poised to be more competitive than their 2-14 misery a season ago.

From worst to (somewhere nearer) first?

Trevor Lawrence has been billed as a generational talent at QB and there were few questions he would be selected at number one overall in the draft.

With Lawrence being paired with college coaching great Urban Meyer and an intriguing array of pass-catchers including Laviska Shenault (691 scrimmage yards, five TDs last year) and D. J. Chark (1,714 receiving yards since 2019), the Jags could be set for rapid improvement.

Even in their awful season that led to the chance to select Lawrence at the top of the draft, the Jags were 1-6 in one score games and slightly better than their 1-15 record suggested.

By the same metric, divisional rivals the Indianapolis Colts (5-2) and the Tennessee Titans (7-2) claimed many of their victories in close games.

With the Colts negotiating some uncertainty at QB as they look to revive the career of Carson Wentz – who is dealing with a foot injury – and the Houston Texans in disarray and full rebuild mode, the Jags could emerge as surprise challengers to the Titans.

Other teams who could rise and fall

Other teams who look likely to ascend include the San Francisco 49ers (6-10), who were ravaged with injuries last season and now have two viable options at QB with Jimmy Garoppolo and exciting draft pick Trey Lance. Five of their losses last season came by one score or less despite a depleted roster. 

The Denver Broncos (5-11)  have a stacked roster with their only concerns coming at the QB position, where they hope Teddy Bridgewater can provide more stability than the volatile Drew Lock (16 TDs and 15 INTs in 2020), despite coming off a poor season with the Carolina Panthers, who opted to replace him with Sam Darnold.

The New Orleans Saints (12-4) could be trending in the opposite direction, though. While Drew Brees was not at his peak in his final NFL season, a combination of Jameis Wilson and Taysom Hill must now try to replace the future Hall of Famer while keeping pace with the formidable Bucs and an Atlanta Falcons team that has added dynamic tight end Kyle Pitts.

New Orleans' offseason was defined by a roster overhaul enforced by the Saints' salary cap woe, leaving them with a wide receiver depth chart that looks alarming with Michael Thomas (missed nine games in 2020) starting the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list.

There will be plenty of nerves around NFL locker rooms this week, with career-altering seasons lying ahead.

Many players will get second chances if the coming year does not go as planned, but some will not.

In a league where there are only 32 starting berths for quarterbacks and a further 32 openings for head coaches, the competition is brutal.

Coming off testing campaigns, Stats Perform picks out the QBs and coaches who cannot afford another slip-up in a make-or-break 2021.

Sam Darnold

New Carolina Panthers QB Darnold is still just 24, but so poor were the former third overall pick's performances across three years in New York that the Jets moved him on to take Zach Wilson with the second selection in 2021.

In Darnold's third and final miserable season with the Jets, he threw just nine touchdowns to 11 interceptions – numbers that could have been even worse as he threw 22 pickable passes, his pickable pass percentage of 6.51 the fifth-worst among QBs with 100 or more attempts.

Only the run-heavy Baltimore Ravens averaged fewer net passing yards than the Jets last year (174.8 per game), a metric in which the Panthers ranked a mediocre 18th led by Teddy Bridgewater.

If Darnold cannot even reach those standards, his career as a leading man could be over already. Of course, Carolina start against Wilson and the Jets.

Daniel Jones

Playing in the same city as Darnold, Jones might have got off a little lightly. He is after all eight days older than Darnold, albeit he came into the league a year later.

There were signs of promise for the New York Giants in 2019, but Jones has not progressed as hoped. The clock is ticking, with opportunities elsewhere likely to be scarce given he was a surprise pick at number six two years ago.

Sacked 45 times in 2020, Jones might argue he has lacked protection from a poor Giants offensive line.

Sadly, the QB has looked best running for his life, averaging a league-leading 9.70 yards when the designated ball-carrier – and a slightly above average 4.62 when scrambling – but still scoring only a single rushing TD last year.

Kliff Kingsbury

Appointed in 2019 and handed first overall pick Kyler Murray, Kingsbury's first task in Arizona was to make the Cardinals more effective and exciting on offense – something he achieved by delivering the second-highest season-to-season improvement in total net yards in franchise history (+1,602).

But the Cards still finished last in the NFC West with only five wins, missing the playoffs for the fourth successive season. A further year down the line, that drought is ongoing thanks to a desperate 2020 collapse from 6-3 to finish 8-8.

With the talent on this team, 2021 needs to bring tangible results. Failure to deliver again could spell trouble for Kingsbury or general manager Steve Keim – an unenviable position to be in at the helm of still the worst team in football's best division.

Carson Wentz

Wentz is slightly different to the other names on this list in that he has enjoyed success in the NFL already. A Week 14 ACL tear in 2017 meant he watched the Philadelphia Eagles' Super Bowl win from the sidelines, but his 33 passing TDs had already set a franchise record.

Those performances felt a long way away in an awful 2020 campaign, though. Statistically, he could hardly have been worse.

Wentz threw a joint-high 15 picks and led the way with 28 pickable passes, making up 6.78 per cent of his attempts while just 68.8 per cent were accurate, well-thrown balls – a league low among QBs with 100 or more passes. Given he also lost 326 yards to his NFL-leading 50 sacks, there was very little that went well when Wentz had the ball in his hands.

The 28-year-old is now on the Indianapolis Colts, reunited with the man who helped inspire his superb 2017 campaign in Frank Reich, but has already suffered with a foot injury and a COVID bout. With Reich as his head coach, Wentz has to return a better player or his days as a starter in this league are done.

Matt Nagy

The mood music around Chicago is not great heading into the new season. The arrival of Justin Fields in the 2021 draft should provide cause for optimism, but it appears unlikely the rookie will play right away to the frustration of fans.

Mitchell Trubisky is at least gone after a dismal run as the Bears' QB – last year comparable to Wentz by a number of advanced metrics but also averaging a below-par 7.94 air yards – but coach Nagy is starting with Andy Dalton, rather than Fields.

Nagy is also calling plays again, having given up that duty as the offense failed last year.

There has been plenty wrong on that side of the ball for the Bears in recent years, but Nagy is running out of excuses. Either his approach has to work or he must adapt fast.

Jameis Winston

Nobody on this list can be as motivated as Winston, who must have feared he had already used up his NFL lives as he watched the versatile Taysom Hill fill in for Drew Brees last season. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Winston's former team, won the Super Bowl.

But the erratic deep passer has won the New Orleans Saints' starting job ahead of Hill this year. His haphazard style might have to change if he is to keep the role, however.

Winston threw 33 TD passes in 2019, but he also had 30 interceptions – that combination a league first. His 10.70 air yards ranked second, yet 46 pickable passes led the NFL by some distance.

His play is at complete odds to the safer approach from the retired Brees, who last year threw to an open target with 81.8 per cent of his attempts and dispatched an accurate, well-thrown ball 81.0 per cent of the time but only averaged 6.41 air yards.

As in Tampa, Winston should be fun to watch. As in Tampa, he will do well to stick around... and a third chance feels unlikely.

The Carolina Panthers have signed tackle Taylor Moton to a four-year, $72million extension.

Moton was franchise tagged by the Panthers back in March, with Carolina set a deadline of 16:00 EST on July 15 to sign him to a long-term deal.

And they achieved that goal on Thursday, inking him to a contract that will net him $43m in guaranteed money.

The standout on a largely underwhelming Panthers offensive line last year, starting right tackle Moton allowed 32 pressures on 412 pass protection snaps.

His pressure rate of 7.8 per cent was the eighth-best among right tackles with 200 or more pass protection snaps in 2020.

Moton was the only franchise player who headed into Thursday without a long-term deal to sign one before the deadline.

He joined Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, New York Giants defensive lineman Leonard Williams and Denver Broncos safety Justin Simmons in getting new contracts.

Marcus Williams of the New Orleans Saints will play on the franchise tag, along with fellow safety Marcus Maye, whose negotiations with the New York Jets came to nothing.

Wide receiver Chris Godwin is set to cash in next year in free agency after he failed to come to terms with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Cam Robinson of the Jacksonville Jaguars will play on the tag for the first time, but for Washington Football Team guard Brandon Scherff it is the second year he will have that franchise designation for the entire season.

 

With offseason programs in the books, NFL teams will next month turn their attention to training camp as preparations for the 2021 season ramp up.

Every coaching staff in the league knows that having a reliable offensive line will be crucial to their hopes of success in the coming campaign.

Too many holes in the trenches can doom a team's chances in a hurry regardless of the talent at quarterback and the offensive skill positions.

Reflecting the importance of strong play up front, five offensive linemen were taken in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

And, using combined run block and pass protection data over the past three seasons, Stats Perform has produced projected offensive line rankings to see how each team stacks up in the trenches.

Here we look at which teams are in the best shape, which O-Lines could cause problems for their quarterback and which appear to ready to make the leap to the league's best in 2021.


THE ELITE

1. Dallas Cowboys

LT – Tyron Smith, LG – Connor Williams, C – Tyler Biadasz, RG – Zack Martin, RT – La'el Collins

Injuries decimated the Dallas O-Line in 2020 but, when healthy, it is tough to see another unit in the league that can match this group for overall talent.

That may be a substantial caveat but, should the Cowboys keep their starters in the line-up in 2021, Dak Prescott will have the benefit of excellent protection from several spots up front.

Tyron Smith missed all but two games last season but remains the top pass protecting left tackle in our projected ranks. Zack Martin is second in pass protection among right guards and, if he can return to his best after missing six games in 2020 and right tackle La'el Collins can stay on the field and play at a high level, a stacked Cowboys offense will be in an excellent spot to produce at an historic pace as they did last year before Prescott went down.

2. New England Patriots

LT – Isaiah Wynn, LG – Mike Onwenu, C – David Andrews, RG – Shaq Mason, RT – Trent Brown

The Patriots lost Joe Thuney in free agency but, despite the departure of one of the most dependable guards in football, New England heads into 2021 with an elite group hoping to help the offense bounce back from a dismal 2020.

Trent Brown's return should fortify the right side of the line while left tackle Isaiah Wynn shouldn't have to worry much about his inside shoulder with Mike Onwenu ranking as the second-best pass protecting left guard in the NFL after an excellent rookie season.

David Andrews grades out as the top run-blocking center in football -- he allowed a run disruption on only 5.3 per cent of his snaps in 2020, with Corey Linsley well adrift in second on 6.2 per cent -- while Shaq Mason is in the top three in that area at right guard.

Regardless of whether it's Cam Newton or Mac Jones under center in 2021, the O-Line is constructed in a way where the quarterback and a replenished set of skill-position players should have every chance to succeed.

3. Baltimore Ravens

LT – Ronnie Stanley, LG – Bradley Bozeman, C – Patrick Mekari, RG – Kevin Zeitler, RT – Alejandro Villanueva

Baltimore's presence in the top three may raise a few eyebrows given they traded right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. to the Kansas City Chiefs.

However, their lofty position is largely a testament to the play of Ronnie Stanley, the left tackle who will be looking to bounce back after seeing his 2020 season ended by an ankle injury.

Stanley ranks tied-fourth among left tackles and was stellar in pass protection prior to getting hurt, with his pressure rate allowed of 4.4 per cent bettered only by David Bakhtiari and Andrew Whitworth at his position.

Having given up a pressure rate of 11.9 per cent at left tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers last season, Alejandro Villanueva will have a challenge replacing Brown, who allowed pressures on just 5.8 per cent of his right tackle snaps in 2020.

But the interior was the main issue for the Ravens last season and, with fourth-ranked right guard Kevin Zeitler arriving from the New York Giants, Baltimore should be confident of a noticeable improvement in the middle of their line.

THE STRUGGLERS

30. Chicago Bears

LT – Teven Jenkins, LG – Cody Whitehair, C – Sam Mustipher, RG – Germain Ifedi, RT – Elijah Wilkinson

After surprisingly allowing Charles Leno to leave, the Bears are banking on Teven Jenkins successfully making the switch from college right tackle to NFL left tackle as a rookie. That he will do so successfully is a dubious presumption to make and there is little to rely on at any spot on the trenches for Chicago.

Cody Whitehair at least provided a solid presence at left guard but the interior protection for Andy Dalton, or rookie first-round pick Justin Fields, will be suspect if Sam Mustipher cannot make strides at center.

Tied as the third-worst center in the NFL in the projected rankings, only Hroniss Grasu (2.8%) fared worse than Mustipher (2.3%) in terms of adjusted sack rate allowed in 2020.

31. Carolina Panthers

LT – Greg Little, LG – Dennis Daley, C – Matt Paradis, RG – John Miller, RT – Taylor Moton

Carolina looks set at right tackle, with Taylor Moton ranking as the fifth-best player at the position, but they have little in the way of solutions elsewhere up front.

The left side looms as a massive issue for the Panthers. Greg Little grades out as the worst left tackle in football and Dennis Daley is 30th among left guards in the projected rankings.

It is far from an ideal scenario for Sam Darnold to step into as quarterback, and he will hope center Matt Paradis can do a significantly better job snapping the football. Paradis' bad snap percentage of 3.49 was fourth-worst in the NFL in 2020.

32. Minnesota Vikings

LT – Christian Darrisaw, LG – Dru Samia, C – Garrett Bradbury, RG – Ezra Cleveland, RT – Brian O'Neill

Offensive line issues have long since plagued the Vikings, who invested a premium pick in a new left tackle by using their first-round selection on Christian Darrisaw of Virginia Tech.

Darrisaw named Trent Williams and Laremy Tunsil as his favourite linemen to watch prior to the draft. If he replicates their impact, he will be a success, but there are substantial problems on the interior.

Dru Samia is the worst left guard in the NFL in the projected rankings, and center Garrett Bradbury allowed pressure on 8.1 per cent of his pass protection snaps. Only two players to take snaps center had worse pressure rates in 2020.

READY TO MAKE THE LEAP

Kansas City Chiefs

LT – Orlando Brown Jr, LG – Joe Thuney, C – Austin Blythe, RG – Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, RT – Mike Remmers

The Chiefs completely remodelled their offensive line in the wake of giving up 33 pressures in the Super Bowl LV, and there is little doubt they head into 2021 with a much-improved group as they attempt to win back the Lombardi Trophy.

Kansas City will need an improvement from Brown following his trade from Baltimore. In his 221 pass protection snaps at left tackle after Stanley's injury, Brown gave up a pressure rate of 10.9 per cent. Having campaigned to play on the left side, Brown's performance figures to come under significant scrutiny.

He will be helped by the presence of Thuney, second among all left guards in the projected rankings after allowing pressure on just 4.3 per cent of his snaps in his final season in New England.

With Laurent Duvernay-Tardif returning to man the right guard spot, the Chiefs' line has an air of solidity about it. Eleventh in the projected ranks, the Chiefs could jump into the top 10 if not the top five should their additions perform to their potential.

Los Angeles Chargers

LT – Rashawn Slater, LG – Matt Feiler, C – Corey Linsley, RG – Oday Aboushi, RT – Bryan Bulaga

Staying in the AFC West with a Chargers team many will be backing to surge towards postseason contention after an Offensive Rookie of the Year season from Justin Herbert, for Los Angeles much hinges on the performance of rookie left tackle Rashawn Slater in his first season in the league.

That is a lot of expectation to place on a player who did not feature in the 2020 college season, but the optimism should come from Slater's 2019 performance for Northwestern, which saw him give up just six pressures on 220 pass protection snaps.

Yet the most important addition for Herbert may be that of center Corey Linsley, who arrived from the Green Bay Packers. Just three centers graded above Linsley in the projected ranks and his ability to quickly develop a rapport with Herbert will be pivotal to the Chargers realising their potential. History suggests the 2020 first-team All-Pro should succeed in doing so.

Arizona Cardinals

LT – D.J. Humphries, LG – Justin Pugh, C – Rodney Hudson, RG – Brian Winters, RT – Kelvin Beachum

The Cardinals must be strong up front if Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury are to have a chance of inspiring Arizona to a successful season in an NFC West loaded with pass-rushing talent, and they made an astute addition on the interior this offseason in a trade with the Las Vegas Raiders that saw them acquire three-time Pro Bowl center Rodney Hudson.

Tied for fourth with Linsley among centers in the projected rankings, Hudson's experience will be a valuable asset to Murray as he looks to take a step forward in year three, the former Kansas City Chief recording a pressure rate allowed of 1.7 per cent that was the second-best in the league at his position.

Kelvin Beachum is a substantial asset to the ground game. His run disruption percentage of 5.9 per cent was third among right tackles in 2020 and, with D.J. Humphries allowing only 28 pressures on 450 pass protection snaps last season, Murray will have three dependable players at the most important positions on the line in a year where another underwhelming campaign will not be acceptable.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will kick off the new NFL season against the Dallas Cowboys on September 9, while Sam Darnold is to be quickly reunited with the New York Jets.

Ahead of the full schedule release later on Wednesday, the Week 1 slate was confirmed with Tom Brady's Bucs the highlight.

After winning the Super Bowl against the Kansas City Chiefs last season, seven-time champion Brady is in the Thursday night game against the Cowboys in Tampa.

The Bucs have brought back the entirety of their title-winning team and face a Dallas outfit aiming to improve on an awful 2020 after signing Dak Prescott to a long-term contract.

Elsewhere, quarterback Darnold will make his Carolina Panthers debut against the Jets team he left this offseason.

In three miserable years in New York, Darnold threw for 45 touchdowns and 39 interceptions across 38 games with a 59.8 completion percentage – the third-worst rate in the league over this period.

The former third overall pick was traded to the Panthers last month for a sixth-round pick this year and a second and fourth-rounders in 2022, with the Jets then using the second selection in 2021 to take Zach Wilson.

Among Wilson's fellow first-round QBs, Mac Jones could potentially make his bow against the man he succeeded at Alabama.

Jones, who is competing for the starting spot on the New England Patriots with Cam Newton, will hope to face Tua Tagovailoa and the Miami Dolphins in a big AFC East matchup.

Trevor Lawrence is likely to go straight into the Jacksonville Jaguars team against the Houston Texans, while Trey Lance will hope to get his chance under center for the San Francisco 49ers at the Detroit Lions and Justin Fields for the Chicago Bears at the Los Angeles Rams in the late Sunday game.

The NFL also confirmed Wilson and Lawrence would be in line for appearances in the London games in October, with the Jets facing the Atlanta Falcons and the Jaguars taking on the Dolphins on consecutive weekends.

Another of the more intriguing Week 1 games sees the Green Bay Packers travel to the New Orleans Saints.

As the Saints begin the post-Drew Brees era, the Packers will hope wantaway MVP Aaron Rodgers is still on the team and able to improve his 3-2 career record as a starter against New Orleans.

The Seattle Seahawks, who have kept hold of Russell Wilson, face the Indianapolis Colts, and Patrick Mahomes' latest title tilt sees the Kansas City Chiefs host the Cleveland Browns.

Mahomes went down with a toe injury and then a concussion in an epic Chiefs win over the Browns in the 2020 postseason, with 35-year-old backup Chad Henne making his playoff debut and having a pick and a sack but completing six of eight passes to complete the job.

In the first Monday Night Football of the season, Lamar Jackson's Baltimore Ravens will go to the Las Vegas Raiders.


Week 1 schedule in full:

Dallas Cowboys at Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Sep 9, 8:20pm ET
Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
New York Jets at Carolina Panthers – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Seattle Seahawks at Indianapolis Colts – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Los Angeles Chargers at Washington Football Team – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
San Francisco 49ers at Detroit Lions – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Arizona Cardinals at Tennessee Titans – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Philadelphia Eagles at Atlanta Falcons – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Minnesota Vikings at Cincinnati Bengals – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs – Sep 12, 4:25pm ET
Green Bay Packers at New Orleans Saints – Sep 12, 4:25pm ET
Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots – Sep 12, 4:25pm ET
Denver Broncos at New York Giants – Sep 12, 4:25pm ET
Chicago Bears at Los Angeles Rams – Sep 12, 8:20pm ET
Baltimore Ravens at Las Vegas Raiders – Sep 13, 8:15pm ET

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