Justin Fields will start for the Chicago Bears in Week 3 against the Cleveland Browns, though head coach Matt Nagy remains committed to Andy Dalton when healthy. 

Dalton suffered a knee injury during the Bears' 20-17 Week 2 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. 

Fields stepped in and the 11th overall pick in the draft produced an underwhelming display, completing six of his 13 passes for 60 yards and an interception. He also had 10 rushes for 31 yards. 

And, with Dalton unavailable due to what has been diagnosed as a bone bruise, he will get the start at quarterback on the road this week. 

"Andy is still battling through his injury. We're not expecting him to practice today or have him available this week," Nagy told a media conference on Wednesday. 

"He'll be week to week. Justin's going to be our starter. He's looking forward to it, it's a great opportunity for Justin and for all of us as a staff to be able to take this thing and see where he goes with this. 

"When Andy is healthy our plan continues for him to be the starter." 

Yet calls to start Fields long term will only grow should he excel against a playoff-calibre opponent in the Browns. 

Just 73.3 per cent of Fields' 15 passes this season have been accurate, well-thrown balls compared to 87.5 per cent for Dalton. 

However, Fields is third among quarterbacks to have attempted at least 10 throws with an air yards per attempt average of 10.33. Dalton has averaged just 4.33 per attempt, highlighting the downfield upside Fields could add. 

Fields' sole touchdown through the first two games came on the ground in the season-opening defeat to the Los Angeles Rams and his mobility adds another dimension to the Bears' offense that Dalton cannot provide. 

Across his two seasons as a starter at Ohio State, Fields' 15 rushing touchdowns were tied for the seventh-most among FBS quarterbacks.

That kind of production will be tough to replicate at the NFL level but, if he rises to the challenge in Week 3, Nagy's public backing of Dalton could well prove to be lip service. 

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 Chicago Bears played both quarterbacks in their season-opening loss to the Los Angeles Rams, but Justin Fields was the only one to score a touchdown in a game that will increase calls to start him over Andy Dalton.

Dalton saw the vast majority of the snaps as the Bears were swept aside 34-14 by the Rams on Sunday, throwing for 206 yards and an interception.

However, Bears fans saw an exciting glimpse of their future as Fields scampered in for a three-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. He also completed a pair of passes for 10 yards.

Head coach Matt Nagy confirmed using both quarterbacks was always in their plans, despite him having declared Dalton the starter, but did not offer any hint as to whether Fields will see more game time in the coming weeks after his intriguing cameo.

"We had the plan and we stuck to our plan," Nagy said. "We knew where and when we were going to use him and we stuck to that.

"And so, we'll see where that goes and how we do it. But I think we all understand that for us, strategically, we'll see where we go with that — without giving anything away.

"Really, the very first play when he went out there and was able to make a throw — and that was an RPO. So he made a decision to throw the ball off of a look that we had.

"So right there to start the game, I thought that was great. And then he was involved on the sideline. And then when we got down into the red zone at times, we had a couple things in for him that worked and some that didn't work. But when he got down in the red zone, he did some great things there, too.

"So we've just got to keep having him grow and keep staying positive. But he's certainly a weapon."

Sean McVay "loved everything" Matthew Stafford did in his spectacular debut for the Los Angeles Rams as he led them to a 34-14 win over the Chicago Bears.

In the first regular-season game with fans at SoFi Stadium, Stafford delighted a packed house with a display of why the Rams traded two first-round picks to acquire him from the Detroit Lions.

Stafford completed 20 of 26 passes for 321 yards and three touchdowns, posting a passer rating of 156.1, the highest ever by a player in his debut with a new team. 

And McVay could hardly have been more effusive in his praise of his new quarterback.

"I think it was just his steady demeanour throughout the course of the game," McVay said. "Just like you had seen in practice and seen from afar, but I think the first drive of the second half I thought was most impressive.

"But then I'm thinking about what an unbelievable job he did progressing, finding Robert Woods on the last touchdown, so there were multiple things but I think the overall game management and I think the expectation. You could just see there was a look in his eye. He had confidence in his team-mates.

"He expected to play well and he did a great job. It's hard to say there was one thing. I loved everything he did tonight."

Stafford's second throw of the game saw him hit Van Jefferson on a 67-yard touchdown throw on which he booted to his left off the play-fake, flipped his hips back to the right sideline and unfurled a perfect ball to find the second-year receiver on a deep post route.

"I think it was a great job by him being able to flip his hips and make an unbelievable throw," McVay added.

"I think that's kind of one of those things – he's gifted. He's got a great ability to be able to change his arm slot and make all types of throws, whether it be short, intermediate or down the field.

"You're not limited in anything you can do in the pass game. Hopefully, we'll continue to build on options and opportunities that we have moving forward."

Matthew Stafford did his part in his Los Angeles Rams debut, leading his new team to a 34-14 win over the Chicago Bears.

After a dozen seasons with the hapless Detroit Lions, Stafford guided the Rams past the Bears in their season opener on Sunday.

It was exactly the type of performance the Rams had hoped for from the veteran quarterback, who completed 20 of 26 passes for 321 yards and three touchdowns. 

The 33-year-old Stafford appeared in complete control from the beginning, hitting Van Jefferson for a 67-yard touchdown on the Rams' third play from scrimmage. 

After field goals on their next two drives, Los Angeles answered a David Montgomery touchdown for the Bears late in the first half with another bomb from Stafford to open the second – this one a 56-yard TD to Cooper Kupp. 

Stafford's last touchdown came on a two-yard pass to Robert Woods with 3:17 remaining after a 12-play drive that ate up nearly half the fourth quarter. 

The other veteran quarterback getting a fresh start with a new team did not fare so well. 

Andy Dalton got the start for Chicago despite a persistent clamour for rookie Justin Fields throughout training camp and went 27-for-38 passing with 206 yards. 

Dalton was intercepted in the end zone on the Bears' first drive of the game, failed to convert a fourth down on the second drive and fumbled after being sacked the next time Chicago had the ball. 

Fields did get some snaps, rushing for a three-yard touchdown that briefly cut the lead to 20-14 late in the third quarter, but all that did was further inflame the quarterback controversy that will continue to be the talk of the Windy City. 

On Sunday, four of the five quarterbacks selected in the first round of this year's NFL Draft will take the field for their debuts.

A quintet of franchises capitalised on what many considered to be an historic class at the position to select the prospects they hope will prove to be the long-term future of their respective teams.

However, so much of a quarterback's success is dependent on situation and it is likely the quarterback from this crop of rookies that initially stands out will be the one with the best supporting cast around them.

The consensus is that Trey Lance, the third overall pick of the San Francisco 49ers, is in the best spot. For now, he will have to play second fiddle to Jimmy Garoppolo and settle for only sporadic action as the Niners look to make use of his running threat.

When Lance does take over full-time, he will be playing the most important position on a roster that was seven minutes from Super Bowl glory two seasons ago.

While he may have landed in the most favourable scenario, 11th overall pick Justin Fields appears to have been dealt the worst hand, with the Chicago Bears unwilling to risk putting him out there in Week 1 with a talent-poor offense against the Los Angeles Rams despite a strong preseason.

Do the numbers back up the statements that Lance is in the best situation with Fields in the worst? And where do Trevor Lawrence, first overall pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets rookie Zach Wilson and New England Patriots starter Mac Jones stack up in terms of supporting cast?

Stats Perform analysed its advanced metrics to find out.

RUNNING GAME

1. Patriots 2. 49ers 3. Jaguars 4. Jets 5. Bears

The running game can be an excellent safety net that takes the pressure off a quarterback's shoulders.

Rushing the ball effectively is contingent on an offensive line that can open the holes and a back that can not only take advantage of those lanes but also create for himself.

In terms of run blocking, the Patriots are the standouts among the teams to select a signal-caller. Second in Stats Perform's projected offensive line rankings, put together using combined run blocking and pass protection data over the past three seasons, only two offensive lines league begin the season better prepared to provide the foundation for a successful ground game than that of New England.

Led by center David Andrews - whose run disruption rate allowed of 5.3 per cent was the best in the NFL at his position - and right guard Shaq Mason (6.3%), the Patriots' O-Line is one that should continue to excel at creating running lanes.

Damien Harris showed his ability to take advantage of those lanes last season when he averaged 3.11 yards before contact from a defender, 10th in the NFL, while making things happen for himself with 3.15 yards per carry on attempts where there was a run disruption from a defender.

When Jones makes his first start against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, he should have full confidence in being able to lean on Harris and the line to make his life easier.

The 49ers, whose starting running back Raheem Mostert averaged 3.28 yards before contact last season, might have a strong case for having the top running game should Lance's dual-threat ability take their ground attack to the next level.

Third-round pick Trey Sermon (4.85 yards before contact, 2.77 yards after contact for Ohio State in 2020) could prove an astute selection, though an offensive line 18th in run blocking in Stats Perform's rankings will need to take a step forward.

Still, their position is significantly more favourable than that of the Bears, who rank last in run blocking, making David Montgomery's 1,000-yard 2020 season all the more surprising.

Yet Montgomery was below the league average in yards before contact (2.54 per attempt) and after contact (1.84), hardly inspiring confidence that he can lighten the load on Fields when the Bears finally commit to him as the starter.

PASS CATCHERS

1. 49ers 2. Patriots 3. Jets 4. Bears 5. Jaguars

There isn't much use investing in a potential franchise quarterback if you cannot put weapons around him upon whom he can rely.

In terms of players he can target and trust, Lance has the edge over his fellow rookies, though no team to take a quarterback in the first round landed in the top half of Stats Perform's rankings by collective open percentage.

The Niners landed 18th on that list but conventional wisdom says they will be much higher should tight end George Kittle and top wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk stay healthy.

All three endured injury-hindered 2020 seasons, though Kittle still led all tight ends in adjusted open percentage (45.03%). He was first among tight ends with 3.9 burn yards per route (a burn is a target where the receiver wins his matchup with a defender).

Samuel's burn yards per route rate of 3.0 was particularly eye-catching because his average depth of target of 2.3 was the lowest in the NFL, the former second-round pick showing his skills with ball in hand with 12.1 yards after the catch per reception, best in the NFL.

Aiyuk, meanwhile, produced a big play on 33.1 per cent of his targets, third among rookie receivers with at least 50 targets, a breakout year appears on the horizon for the second-year wideout.

With an elite tight end and two promising wideouts, the Niners' situation is substantially better than Jacksonville's. The Jaguars' pass-catchers ranked last by collective open percentage.

Late free-agent addition Tyron Johnson is the sole wide receiver on the Jaguars' roster to have posted a burn percentage above the average of 62.5 per cent last year.

Johnson did so on 69.2 per cent of his targets and was first in burn yards per target (19.89) and second in burn yards per route (3.6) with an average depth of target of 20 yards.

This evidently skilled deep separator will be tasked with stretching opposing defenses while D.J. Chark (30.33% adjusted open) and Laviska Shenault (27.44%) must do a better job of beating coverage and taking advantage of the stress Johnson can put on opponents to lift this group from the cellar and give Lawrence more to work with.

PASS BLOCKING

1. Patriots 2. Jets 3. Jaguars 4. 49ers 5. Bears

Though most accept Fields is the most exciting quarterback on the Bears' roster, Matt Nagy's decision to not start him and protect him from an offensive line that can hardly protect anyone may be an astute one with Chicago facing Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and the Rams Week 1.

Eventually, Fields will have to take his lumps. There are good defensive players across the NFL by which he will one day be confronted, but a reticence to put him out there behind a line ranked 30th in pass protection by Stats Perform is understandable.

Starting left tackle Jason Peters is 39 and allowed a pressure rate of 12.4 per cent last term, the 10th-worst in the league. The interior of the line is also a substantial concern.

Right guard James Daniels is coming off a year where he gave up a pressure on 11.3 per cent of pass protection snaps. Cody Whitehair is at left guard having played center in 2020, when only three players at his former position allowed a higher adjusted sack rate than his 1.9 per cent. One of those players was this year's starting center Sam Mustipher (2.3%).

While Fields would have the NFL equivalent of a turnstile in front of him. Jones will head on the Gillette Stadium field with an O-Line that is the definition of solidity.

Though not quite the brick wall he had the benefit of at Alabama, the Patriots' line should provide Jones with excellent protection, ranking fifth in pass blocking.

Mike Onwenu ranked as the best pass-protecting left guard in the NFL and in Trent Brown, credited with one adjusted sack allowed on 162 pass-block snaps in his final season with the Las Vegas Raiders, and Isaiah Wynn, the Patriots have a solid pair of tackles to give Jones the time to prove his pre-draft doubters wrong.

The left side of the Jets' line could rival that of the Patriots. Mekhi Becton's pressure rate allowed of 5.5 per cent was ninth among left tackles in 2020. On his inside shoulder, rookie left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker conceded only five pressures on 387 pass protection snaps the last time he played that spot for USC in 2019. Wilson can afford to have great faith in that duo.

DEFENSE

1. 49ers 2. Bears 3. Patriots 4. Jets 5. Jaguars

Defense is often neglected when it comes to talking about a quarterback's supporting cast but, if a team has one that can stifle opposing attacks, it leaves more wiggle room for a young quarterback to endure the 'rookie mistakes' and not sink his team's chances of competing.

Lance's performances during the preseason, while exciting, indicated he is a quarterback who could be a little turnover-prone as he adapts to reading defenses at the NFL level.

San Francisco's is a defense that is strong up front and better than given credit for in the secondary. The 49ers ranked eighth in pass coverage grade, which was produced by multiplying each player's coverage baseline by a projected target share for 2021 with the results then aggregated at the team level.

On the front, Stats Perform projected the average Niners defender to produce a pressure on 11.5 per cent of pass rush attempts, putting them fourth in the NFL.

Though there is great depth on the defensive line, much of that projection is built on Nick Bosa, getting back to his Defensive Rookie of the Year levels of 2019, when he had a pressure rate of 28.3 per cent, after suffering a torn ACL in Week 2 last year. With Bosa healthy and Fred Warner the premier all-round linebacker in the NFL, the Niners have a defense that could help them contend amid bumps in the road for Lance.

The Bears don't have many areas where they can be considered to be the best in the NFL, yet their front seven has a strong claim. The average Chicago pass rusher is projected to produce a pressure on 11.4% of pass rush attempts and the average run defender is forecast to cause a run disruption 10.2% of the time.

While Chicago's front may be well-rounded, their secondary looks extremely shaky, as illustrated by the Bears' ranking of 22nd in pass coverage grade. Jaylon Johnson enjoyed an encouraging rookie season at corner yet, with Kindle Vildor set to start across from him having only started one game in his brief career, there is clear a potential weakness for opponents to target.

The Patriots have no such problems on the back end, at least when the absent Stephon Gilmore is on the field. New England are seventh in coverage grade, and with linebacker D'Onta Hightower returning and the addition of edge rusher Matthew Judon, they will hope their front seven can dramatically outperform the projection of a pressure from a defender on just 9.51% of attempts.

New York's pass rush suffered a substantial blow when free agent signing Carl Lawson, who had a pressure rate of 22.3% that was seventh in the NFL last season, was lost for the year due to a ruptured Achilles. Without him, the average Jets defender is predicted to cause pressure 10.34% of the time, and there is an even greater onus on defensive tackle Quinnen Williams to carry his 2020 emergence into this year.

The Jets' hopes of the defense offering support to Wilson may be dashed should the front prove unable to lift a secondary bereft of talent beyond safety Marcus Maye, New York entering the season 23rd in pass coverage grade.

A lack of pass-rushing options beyond Josh Allen, who took a step back in an injury-affected 2020, contributed to the Jaguars' mediocre projected pressure rate of 10.18% and, with Jacksonville just above the Jets and Bears in 21st in coverage grade, they need cornerback Shaquill Griffin to live up to his lucrative free agency pricetag to elevate the play in the defensive backfield and ensure Lawrence is not tasked with coming through a shootout every week.

OVERALL

1. Patriots 2. 49ers 3. Jets 4. Bears 5. Jaguars

Aided by an offensive line that excels in both facets, a running back seemingly primed for a breakout year and a defense restocked with players returning from opt-outs and quality free agents, Jones will head into his NFL debut with the top supporting cast of any of the rookies.

The most important thing in Jones' favour, though, is his head coach, as he will benefit from playing for the greatest coach of all-time in Bill Belichick, whose incredible expertise on the defensive side of the ball should prove a significant help to the former Alabama star as he adapts to different looks from opponents.

Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan's play-calling acumen will give Lance an advantage most quarterbacks in the league do not enjoy when he hits the field, with the weapons they boast on both sides of the ball meaning he will likely take over a team headed for the playoffs when he eventually displaces Garoppolo.

Wilson has the luxury of playing for two Shanahan disciples in head coach Robert Saleh and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur. The early signs have been promising in terms of him settling into LaFleur's offense but Saleh will need to do a particularly impressive coaching job on defense to turn them into a unit capable of making Wilson's life easier.

Fields may get help in that respect from the defensive front and will have one of the most underrated wide receivers in the NFL in Allen Robinson. He and Lawrence were deemed by many to be the best quarterbacks in the 2021 class, however, due to the holes on both sides of their respective rosters, it is they who have the most obstacles to immediate success in front of them.

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.

Drama has not been in short supply among the NFL quarterbacks this offseason.

There have been new names, new deals, new feuds, old feuds...

Now the 2021 season is on the horizon, but not every situation at the sport's most important position has reached a satisfactory conclusion.

There are intriguing QB scenarios to keep an eye on for plenty of teams this season, as Stats Perform explores.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Let's start with a rookie. While fellow first-round picks Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Mac Jones are set for starting roles, Trey Lance has a fight on his hands with the 49ers.

Lance is raw, having played just 19 college games in the FCS, and is set to begin the season behind Jimmy Garoppolo – fit again after becoming one of a remarkable number San Francisco players to suffer with injuries last year, unable to follow up their Super Bowl run.

But Lance's dual-threat ability gives Kyle Shanahan a new dynamic, as evidenced by his 14 rushing touchdowns in 2019 with North Dakota State. Garoppolo has only two career rushing scores.

That is likely to initially put the ball in Lance's hands in the red zone, where his legs should help improve a red zone efficiency of 53.2 per cent from the 2019 season, when a fully fit Niners team ranked 21st in the NFL.

By the end of the year, though, the 21-year-old will undoubtedly be keen for a bigger role, increasing pressure on Garoppolo while the team try to maintain a title challenge.

CHICAGO BEARS

Justin Fields is the second first-round selection starting the year behind an established NFL QB in Andy Dalton.

"There's no need for us to rush Justin," said Bears general manager Ryan Pace last week, explaining they were "very confident" in Dalton. "I just think the more time [Fields] has to learn that and observe, the better off for him," Pace added.

But Fields, who threw for 63 TDs and rushed for a further 15 in two years at Ohio State, is undoubtedly a more realistic long-term solution than Dalton, on his third team in three years.

Fields, like Lance, can run, ranking fifth in the Power 5 among quarterbacks with 7.42 yards per carry last year, but the Bears also need improvement through the air, having ranked 22nd with 228.4 net passing yards per game in 2020.

While the departed Mitchell Trubisky neither threw nor ran the ball well – delivering an accurate, well-thrown ball on just 71.6 per cent of passes and averaging 1.81 yards per carry – Fields (80.18 well-thrown percentage) can do both if given the opportunity.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

It is not only the teams who have spent first-round picks on passers who have a battle under center, with the Saints able to consider two options to replace the great Drew Brees.

Jameis Winston threw only 11 passes in New Orleans last season after leaving the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with the versatile Taysom Hill preferred when Brees was out injured, making four starts at QB.

But Winston has been confirmed as the starter for the new campaign – at least for now. Whether Sean Payton is willing to stick with an entertaining yet erratic QB for a full season remains to be seen.

The 27-year-old became the first player ever to throw 30 TD passes and 30 interceptions in the same NFL season as the Bucs went 7-9 in 2019.

Winston's 10.70 air yards ranked second, yet his pickable pass percentage of 7.69 was second-worst among those with 100 attempts or more.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

While some teams have multiple reliable options at QB, the Eagles scarcely have one. Having moved on from Carson Wentz, Jalen Hurts is their starter.

Last time out, in his rookie year, Hurts completed just 52.0 per cent of his passes – the worst rate of any QB with 100 or more attempts – and still could not quite keep up with the league's elite running QBs, averaging 6.00 yards per carry.

Yet Philadelphia's response was to trade out of the number six pick in this year's draft and then opt against taking either Fields or Jones, who remained on the board after they moved back up to 10.

Joe Flacco, now 36, is in as the back-up, while a "fired up" Gardner Minshew has arrived from the Jacksonville Jaguars after 37 TDs in two years but is set for a role as a third-stringer.

Unless Hurts makes significant strides, it is difficult to see how the Eagles will not again be in position to take one of the top college QBs in 2022.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers was at the centre of the most compelling offseason speculation surrounding a quarterback this offseason. However, the Green Bay Packers star was not the only former champion at the centre of offseason speculation this year, with Russell Wilson's agent informing ESPN of four trade destinations that would interest the Seahawks stalwart.

Seattle kept their man in the end, but Wilson will be looking for progress from last season, when he complained of "getting hit too much" – "a pretty normal reaction," according to coach Pete Carroll.

Wilson was in the MVP conversation for the first half of the year but was soon left exposed behind a poor offensive line, sacked 47 times to swell his career total to 394 – the most of any QB since he entered the league.

Although left tackle Duane Brown has missed practice as he waits on a contract extension – another development that has frustrated Wilson – the Seahawks have at least traded for guard Gabe Jackson. That move needs to work.

Wilson last year averaged 8.70 air yards while throwing a pickable pass at the sixth-lowest ratio in the NFL (2.64%), but he has to have help if Seattle are to succeed.

Trevor Lawrence felt "comfortable and poised" in his NFL debut while Trey Lance enjoyed a dream moment on his San Francisco 49ers bow.

Lawrence, Lance and fellow first-round rookie quarterbacks Zach Wilson and Justin Fields all took the field for the first time on Saturday.

Long seen as a generational quarterback prospect, the pressure is on Lawrence to inspire a turnaround for a Jacksonville Jaguars team that went 1-15 in 2020.

The early signs were positive for Lawrence, who completed six of his nine passes for 71 yards in the Jaguars' preseason opener against the Cleveland Browns, the former Clemson star bouncing back after he fumbled after being sacked on his first play.

"I feel like the first time out there, I felt comfortable, felt poised," Lawrence said. "Obviously, the first play's not kind of what you want for the first play, but after that, I thought we did a good job.

"We communicated well up front. They did a really good job of protection. At least one of those sacks was on me, for sure, just holding the ball too long. That's something I'll work on.

"Just manoeuvring in the pocket is something I've always got to work on. Other than that, I missed an easy one to Marvin [Jones], a little quick out I wish I would have hit.

"But other than that, I felt good out there. I think we were seeing it, all on the same page. There's obviously things to clean up, but I thought it was a pretty good day."

Lance didn't complete as many passes, going five of 14, but he had the most spectacular play of the four rookie quarterbacks, hitting Niners wide receiver Trent Sherfield for an 80-yard touchdown throw in their meeting with the Kansas City Chiefs.

The third overall pick, whom San Francisco selected after trading three first-round picks to move up in the draft, said: "It was super exciting. Kind of the moment you dream of scoring your first touchdown.

"Even though it's preseason, it's pretty cool. With my team-mates, the guys in that locker room, that they were so excited for me and for Trent making that play. It was for sure a special moment and I wish I could've capitalised on the opportunities that came after that."

Former 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is now head coach of the New York Jets and witnessed an encouraging performance from Wilson.

Wilson went six of nine for 63 yards as the Jets beat the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium.

"I thought it was good," said Wilson of his showing. "Of course, still things to clean up. It was a great experience. I really enjoyed having that game-like setting.

"The introduction to kind of like the NFL, the whole game, it's great for everybody, no matter how much football you've played, it was awesome to get out there."

Fields fell to the 11th pick in the draft, with the Chicago Bears trading up to select him, and they will be more confident in that decision after he threw for one touchdown and ran for another against the Miami Dolphins.

An uneven opening gave way to a performance that will increase calls for him to start over veteran Andy Dalton and afterwards Fields said of the speed of the game: "It was actually kind of slow to me, to be honest.

"I think I was expecting it to be a little bit faster but practicing game speed, going at it with my team-mates every day, of course, you know, we have a great defense so, me going against them every day, it definitely slowed the game up a little bit for me. So, I felt comfortable out there.

"Of course, I have room to grow, so I'm just gonna try to get better each and every day."

Nick Foles made it clear he has not had any talks with Frank Reich about a trade to the Indianapolis Colts, but he sounded distinctly like a man making his pitch for such a move on Monday.

The Colts are in a perilous situation at quarterback after Reich confirmed Carson Wentz, whom they traded for in the offseason to be their starter, would undergo foot surgery and miss five to 12 weeks.

Wentz is therefore in danger of missing the opening two months of the 2021 season, leaving the Colts facing up to the prospect of starting Jacob Eason, a fourth-round pick in the 2020 draft, under center.

Reich was the Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator when Wentz was in the MVP conversation in 2017 before he suffered a season-ending injury and was replaced by Foles, who spectacularly guided the Eagles to Super Bowl glory.

It was hoped the reunion between Reich and Wentz could revive the latter's career after his dismal final season with the Eagles but his injury has led to talk of the Colts bringing Foles, now the third-string quarterback with the Chicago Bears, into the mix.

Asked about that possibility, Foles told a media conference: "Frank Reich is one of my favourite if not favourite coaches of all time, he understands me as a player, he understands me as a person.

"I haven't had any talks with him. I'm a Chicago Bear right now. You all watched the 2017 season in the playoffs where he changed the offense and built it around me and y'all saw what happened, he understood my mentality as a player and he was able to build it around me and put me in a successful position.

"That being said they have Carson, and Carson and I have a lot of history. I have a lot of respect for Carson, he's a tremendous player, he's going through adversity once again but he'll bounce back. He might miss a few games but I know he'll be back out there, but we haven't had any talks.

"Right now I'm a Chicago Bear and I'm going to keep slinging it with these third-stringers and we're going to dice 'em up."

On talks with other teams, Foles added: "There was a couple of opportunities that came to me this offseason with a couple of teams but it wasn't the right time.

"It wasn't the right time or the situation with what was going on in my life. You don't just want to go somewhere to go somewhere, you want to go somewhere where you know the people somewhat or you know someone who knows the people that can vouch for the people so you can succeed.

"Listen, I feel great. The version of me right now is much better than the version of me that played in the Super Bowl, I'll tell you that and I'm confident in that, so put that through your mind, I know that.

"I know what this game's about, you have to have the whole package as a team, you have to have everyone in there. Top-down has to be great, if it's not great you're going to be mediocre. I've seen it and I've been a part of it, and unfortunately when you're a quarterback you've got to go through a lot of the baloney.

"That's part of it, that's why we play this position because at the end of the day there might be some kid that's watching this press conference and they say Nick Foles is a three quarterback and he's going out there and his mentality is to dice up that defense and help his team-mates and that's what I will continue to do until I lace up the cleats for the last time."

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 2021 NFL season may still be months away, but fans can begin eagerly circling their calendars in anticipation of some truly mouth-watering fixtures after Wednesday's schedule release.

There are some obvious standouts. The Week 4 meeting of Tom Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Bill Belichick's New England Patriots should capture the entire league's attention as Brady returns to Foxborough for the first time since saying a shock farewell to his home of 20 seasons last offseason, and then going on to win a seventh Super Bowl ring in his maiden season with the Bucs.

A potential duel between Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs and Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in Week 9 hinges on Rodgers blinking in his staring contest with the Packers' brass and returning for the season.

Should he do so, it will pit the reigning MVP against the 2018 MVP and Super Bowl LIV MVP in a matchup of two quarterbacks who have each recently finished in the top five in well-thrown ball percentage. Rodgers was third in the NFL with 82.4 per cent last season while Mahomes was fourth with 81.1 per cent in 2019 as he led the Chiefs to the Lombardi Trophy.

But the games with the best narratives on the surface do not always produce the best matchups. Here, using Stats Perform data, we look at five other games on the schedule that are in the mix to be among the most exciting games of the 2021 campaign.

 

Packers @ 49ers - Week 3

The Packers trounced a 49ers team decimated by injuries last season, though that was probably hollow revenge for Green Bay's NFC Championship Game humbling at the hands of San Francisco in the 2019 season.

Typically, when Rodgers has visited the team he idolised in his youth, things have gone poorly for the Packers. He has won two of his four regular-season meetings with the Niners in the Bay Area but has lost to San Francisco on each of the three occasions he has faced them in the playoffs, with two of those defeats on the road.

Still, if Rodgers acquiesces in his stand-off with Packers management and plays for Green Bay in 2021, it promises to be a fascinating duel of NFC contenders, with the Niners potentially starting a rookie quarterback in dual-threat Trey Lance.

Should Rodgers remain with the Packers, the key matchup in this one could well be the reigning MVP against a Niners defensive line that should get back edge rusher Nick Bosa after he missed most of the 2020 season with a torn ACL.

Rodgers' well-thrown percentage under pressure was 71.0 per cent in 2020, the ninth-best in the NFL, and he will likely have to maintain that accuracy under duress if Bosa is back to his best. The 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year had a pressure rate of 28.3 per cent in his first season in the league, trailing only Adrian Clayborn and elder brother Joey, and sacked Rodgers in the regular season and the NFC title game.

Buccaneers @ Rams - Week 3

Yes, Brady v Belichick is the game everybody in Tampa will be most excited for, and the season opener between the Super Bowl champions and the Dallas Cowboys will be a primetime ratings monster, but perhaps the best duel involving the only player with seven Super Bowl rings will take place when Tampa head west.

The Rams edged the Buccaneers 27-24 in Tampa last season and should provide a stern test again at SoFi Stadium with Matthew Stafford set to be under center for Los Angeles.

But Stafford is not the person Brady will be concerned with when it comes to the Rams. Instead, it will be three-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.

Brady was phenomenal when it came to avoiding interceptable passes last season.

He threw a pickable pass on just 13 of 590 pass attempts in 2020, a percentage of 2.20 that only Alex Smith (2.12) could better. When under pressure, it increased to 3.45 per cent, but that was still the fourth-lowest pickable pass rate in the NFL under duress.

But no defender in the league strikes fear into the heart of quarterbacks quite like Donald, who led all defensive tackles in 2020 with a pressure rate of 27.7 per cent and an adjusted sack rate of 5.5 per cent.

Donald can destroy the best-laid plans of any offense, and surviving the challenge he and the Rams will pose will be one of the biggest tests for Brady and the Bucs in their bid to repeat as champions

Bills @ Chiefs - Week 5

This is a rematch of last season's AFC Championship Game in which the Bills did not produce an effort reflective of their outstanding 2020, and Buffalo look like the team best placed to challenge Kansas City again in the AFC in 2021.

The headline act of this clash is the battle of the quarterbacks, with Mahomes and Josh Allen leading the revolution of athletic, cannon-armed quarterbacks who have taken the league by storm.

But an underrated aspect of this game will be Stefon Diggs' performance against a Chiefs secondary that does not get the credit it deserves.

Diggs was held to six catches for 77 yards in the playoff matchup but recently revealed he played through the postseason with an oblique tear.

When healthy, Diggs has the ability to do significantly greater damage. He led the NFL with 1,535 receiving yards in his first season in Buffalo and trailed only Davante Adams (3.9) in burn yards per route as he averaged 3.6.

However, the Chiefs' projected starting cornerbacks have the means to slow him down. L'Jarius Sneed was fifth among all corners in preventing big plays, allowing a play of 20 yards or more on just 14.5 per cent of his targets. 

Meanwhile, Charvarius Ward was fourth among corners in burns allowed, giving up a burn on 32.7 per cent of his targets.

Bears @ Seahawks - Week 16

The Bears have rarely been high on the list of teams to look out for when it comes to intrigue in recent years, but that all changed when they traded up to draft Justin Fields 11th overall.

Once Chicago ends the charade of committing to Andy Dalton as starting quarterback and goes with the high-upside rookie, the Bears have the potential to be an extremely interesting watch.

That will certainly be the case if Fields is under center when they travel to Seattle's Lumen Field, with the Bears set to face the quarterback they reportedly pursued before picking Fields, Seahawks star Russell Wilson.

A quarterback battle between Fields and Wilson has the potential to be an absorbing encounter featuring two signal-callers who each excel with their accuracy throwing the deep ball.

Of quarterbacks with at least 25 throws of 25 or more air yards, only three players (Ryan Tannehill, Philip Rivers and Derek Carr) had a higher well-thrown percentage than Wilson's 63.0 per cent on those attempts last season.

Fields was similarly proficient attacking downfield in his final year for Ohio State, posting a well-thrown percentage of 76.47 per cent on throws of 15 or more air yards that was superior to that of Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Mac Jones.

If his success in that regard quickly translates to the NFL, the Bears' trip to the Pacific Northwest could turn into a scintillating showcase of the deep passing game. For the first time in a while, the Bears have the potential to be must-see TV.

Ravens @ Browns - Week 14

The balance of power in the AFC North is shifting towards the Ravens and Browns and their Monday Night game in Cleveland last year was among the most entertaining of the 2020 campaign.

In the end, the Browns' inability to stop Lamar Jackson, even after his apparent 'comfort break', from making the big plays in Baltimore's thrilling comeback was the decisive factor in the Ravens' 47-42 triumph.

Cleveland took steps to stop such a scenario from playing out again, using their first-round pick on a cornerback in Greg Newsome II who allowed a big play on just 4.2 per cent of his 36 targets in an abbreviated final season at Northwestern.

His addition, and that of versatile second-round linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who allowed a big-play percentage of 11.0 when covering from the slot and had an overall pressure rate of 25.0 per cent, should help the Browns do a better job of slowing down opponents.

But whether those arrivals are enough to make the difference against Jackson and the Ravens is another matter.

An underrated downfield thrower whose well-thrown percentage of 60.0 on throws of 25 or more air yards was seventh in the NFL last year, Jackson has another dynamic weapon to target in the form of first-round receiver Rashod Bateman.

Sixth among Power 5 wideouts with at least 50 targets in burn yards per target (16.15) in his stellar 2019 season, Bateman can be the number one receiver Jackson has long since lacked.

Bateman excelled at creating separation two years ago while having an average depth of target of 16.2. With him and speedster Marquise Brown in the mix, Jackson does not lack big-play weapons, and Cleveland's ability to keep them under wraps could be critical in deciding an ultra-competitive division in 2021.

Judging draft picks in the immediate aftermath of their selection can be a foolhardy endeavour, as the success of rookies that enter the league depends on several factors including situation, opportunity and luck.

While it is tough to dole out grades for players who have not even hit the practice field for their new teams, it is possible to assess the totality of a franchise's moves in a draft and determine who has been impacted, positively and negatively, by those player selections.

In a draft dominated by a historic level of talent at the position, it is the classes of teams that made changes at quarterback that will likely have the most significant influence on the league.

After five quarterbacks went in the first round, we use Stats Perform data to determine the winners and losers from a draft that should go on to be remembered as one of the most important in NFL history.


Winners

Chicago Bears fans

Who knows whether the Justin Fields-era in Chicago will be a success? The weight of history surrounding Bears quarterbacks suggests it has a very good chance of being a failure.

But by trading up to land the Ohio State quarterback instead of committing to a year of purgatory with Andy Dalton, the Bears ensured they should be significantly more watchable in 2021, assuming post-draft talk about wanting to sit Fields behind Dalton proves false.

Fields is an exciting downfield thrower who averaged 10.10 air yards per attempt in the 2020 college season. It is an imperfect comparison given the difference in the level of competition but the two Bears starters in 2019, Mitchell Trubisky (7.94) and Nick Foles (7.92), each averaged under eight air yards per attempt.

And Fields was accurate when he pushed the ball downfield. On throws of 15 air yards or more, 76.47 per cent were well thrown, compared to 71.43 for Lawrence, 69.41 for Wilson and 67.39 for 15th overall pick Mac Jones.

His aggressive style should mesh well with number one receiver Allen Robinson, who was fifth in the NFL with 908 of his receiving yards coming at the point of reception.

Fields will also have the benefit of improved protection from a nasty offensive tackle in the form of second-round pick Teven Jenkins.

Jenkins allowed a pressure rate of 2.9 per cent in 2020, third among tackles with at least 100 pass protection snaps. The top tackle in that regard was Larry Borom of Missouri (1.8%), whom Chicago drafted in the fifth round.

Chicago also further helped Fields' cause by drafting Virginia Tech running back Khalil Herbert, who was second in the Power 5 in yards per carry (7.63) among running backs with at least 100 carries and Dazz Newsome, the North Carolina wideout who was 11th in burn percentage (71) among receivers with at least 25 slot targets. 

The Bears have been a chore to watch in recent years. It isn't clear whether the move up for Fields will work and it is debatable whether general manager Ryan Pace should have been allowed to make it given his track record, but there is finally reason for a passionate fanbase to be genuinely excited about their team.

Zach Wilson

Wilson going second overall to the Jets was no secret, but New York did an excellent job of taking steps to ensure concerns over his one season of elite production against non-Power 5 opposition do not prove prescient by surrounding him with talent.

A trade up for guard Alijah Vera-Tucker raised eyebrows but his pressure rate allowed of 1.3 per cent when playing left guard for USC in 2019 was the best in the Power 5 and suggests he can lock down that spot for the next decade for the Jets.

Wide receiver Elijah Moore brings inside-out versatility and should have gone in the first round. Instead, the Ole Miss star went 34th overall to the Jets, adding a wideout who led the FBS in receiving yards per game (149.1) last season to an intriguing group that includes Denzel Mims, Corey Davis and Jamison Crowder.

Third-round running back Michael Carter will give offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur a versatile skill set to utilise.

The North Carolina back led Power 5 runners with 100 carries or more in yards per carry (7.98) and yards before contact per rush (5.36) in 2020.

As a receiver, Carter was eighth among those Power 5 backs, who also had a minimum of 10 targets, in burn yards per target (10.86).

Carter should, therefore, be able to have a substantial impact in the zone-running scheme the Jets will employ in 2021 and influence the passing game significantly.

Growing pains are to be expected in Wilson's rookie season in New York but this was a draft in which the Jets went to great lengths to make his adaptation to the pros as smooth as possible.

Lamar Jackson

Every year, the Baltimore Ravens do an excellent job of letting the draft board come to them and reaping the rewards.

In 2020, they stole linebacker Patrick Queen in the back end of the first round. This year they grabbed arguably the most well-refined receiver in the draft, Minnesota's Rashod Bateman, with the 27th overall pick.

A truncated 2020 season in which he played just five games following a bout of coronavirus may not have helped Bateman's stock, but his 2019 tape showed a receiver who can develop into a number one target for Lamar Jackson.

Bateman can excel at all levels of the field and his downfield upside shone through in 2019, when he was open on 70.8 per cent of his targets in 2019 with an average depth of target of 16.2 yards.

His burn yards per target average of 16.15 was sixth among all Power 5 receivers with at least 50 targets two seasons ago, with Henry Ruggs III and Chris Olave the only players in the same group to produce a superior big-play percentage to Bateman's 50.4.

Big plays in the passing game have not been consistent for the Ravens. Jackson (25) had fewer passing plays of 25 yards or more than Teddy Bridgewater (27) and Drew Lock (28) in 2020.

Bateman has the talent to greatly increase that tally of explosive plays while the addition of Tylan Wallace, who was eighth among Power 5 receivers with a minimum of 50 targets last season with a burn yards per route average of 4.33, should further boost Jackson's hopes of bouncing back as a passer in 2021.

Having also addressed the interior of the offensive line by drafting Ben Cleveland, whose pressure rate allowed of 2.7 per cent was seventh among Power 5 guards last season, in the third round, Jackson goes into 2021 in an excellent position to take the passing game to levels that escaped the 2019 MVP in 2020.

In the coming season, Jackson will have much better weapons and should have improved protection. If the Ravens' offense falls short again in the playoffs in 2021, he won't have much room for excuses.

Losers

Ben Roethlisberger

Pittsburgh lost left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and the versatile Matt Feiler in free agency but did nothing to fill either of the voids left by that duo until the third round when they picked up athletic Illinois guard Kendrick Green. Tackle Dan Moore was picked in the fourth round.

Instead, they spent their first two picks on a running back and a tight end in Alabama's Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth of Penn State, stacking the offense with further weapons for Ben Roethlisberger in what will likely be his last season in the NFL.

But, beyond running back, weapons were not the need for the Steelers. Harris is an upgrade in the backfield but he averaged only 2.14 yards after contact per rush last season, below the Power 5 average of 2.21, and typically the offensive line has just as much of an impact on running game production as the back.

A failure to prioritise the trenches could result in Harris struggling to evade defenders that the O-Line has allowed into the backfield. More worryingly for Roethlisberger, the lack of a dependable replacement at left tackle could leave a quarterback who missed 14 games as recently as 2019 open to punishment from opposing pass rushers.

Roethlisberger completed 50.7 per cent of his passes when under pressure in 2020, the fifth-worst number of all quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts. If this is to be his swansong, the Steelers are not setting him up for a successful one.

Trevor Lawrence

Ok, so Trevor Lawrence is a winner. He's the number one overall pick and is set to be paid millions to take his talents to the highest level.

But, in terms of the situation he is going into in Jacksonville, the Jaguars did little to help him.

With the 25th pick, they passed up the chance to boost their pass-catching options in favour of drafting his Clemson team-mate, running back Travis Etienne, following a 2020 season in which undrafted rookie James Robinson finished the year sixth in yards after contact per attempt (2.34). 

Simply put, Etienne was the definition of an unnecessary luxury pick.

Tyson Campbell was a decent value pick at 33rd overall in the second round but Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke, who developed a reputation during his time running the San Francisco 49ers for taking ill-advised risks on players with bad injury histories, picked a safety in Andre Cisco who tore his ACL in September and offensive tackle Walker Little, who has not played a game since 2019, when he featured in just one before suffering a knee injury.

The only pass-catching additions came in the form of a 29-year-old tight end, Luke Farrell, in the fifth round and wide receiver Jalen Camp in the sixth. 

Between D.J. Chark, Marvin Jones and Laviska Shenault, Lawrence does have reasonable weapons, but the Jags did not do much to add to his arsenal.

NFC West run defenses

Teams trying to stop the 49ers' ground game have had a hard time since Kyle Shanahan became head coach in 2017.

Their 224 rushes of 10 yards or more are tied sixth in the NFL in that time, and that tally looks set to increase after San Francisco drafted a franchise quarterback in Trey Lance who boasts a devastating mix of speed and power in the open field.

Lance's 14 touchdowns in 2019 were bettered by just four quarterbacks across the FBS and FCS, his rushing average of 6.5 yards fifth among signal-callers with at least 100 rushes.

San Francisco then added further to their ground game by picking Trey Sermon in the third round and Elijah Mitchell in the sixth.

In the Power 5 and Group of Five, just four running backs with a minimum of 100 attempts had a better yards per carry average than Sermon's 7.50 last season.

Burst to the second level is a key trait for Sermon, who was fourth in average yards before contact per attempt with 4.85.

The electric Mitchell, meanwhile, averaged the third-most yards after contact per attempt, putting up 3.23 per rush, a rate beaten by Javonte Williams (4.59) and Jaret Patterson (3.25).

Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. are each free agents in 2022 but, by drafting Lance, Sermon and Mitchell, the Niners ensured their run game is about to get more diverse and potentially more destructive.

For the three NFC West teams that face them twice a year, that is simply terrible news.

Highly touted quarterbacks? Check. Oversized stage? Check. Raucous Fans? Check.

A year after holding a virtual NFL Draft in Commissioner Roger Goodell’s basement due to concerns over the coronavirus, the 2021 draft descended on Cleveland, Ohio on Thursday, with Goodell once again sharing bro-hugs with the prospects on stage in front of thousands of vaccinated and mask-wearing fans.

Although the easy chair from Goodell’s basement did make the trip to the stage, this year’s edition of the draft felt much more normal than a year ago – and it began exactly as nearly everyone expected.

The Jacksonville Jaguars chose Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence first overall and the New York Jets went with BYU quarterback Zach Wilson at number two.

Considered to be the most polished QB prospect in years, Lawrence threw for 10,098 yards in his collegiate career, while going 34-2 as a starter with the Tigers and winning the 2018 National Championship.

Wilson had been linked to the Jets for months after throwing for 3,692 yards with 33 touchdown passes to only three interceptions last season, and New York hopes he can be the franchise’s answer at QB and lead the team to the playoffs for the first time since 2010 after the recently traded and 2018 No. 3 pick Sam Darnold never lived up to expectations.

A quarterback had also been projected to go third overall ever since the San Francisco 49ers traded up to that position weeks ago, the only question was who – Trey Lance out of FCS powerhouse North Dakota State, two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Justin Fields from Ohio State or Alabama national champion Mac Jones.

The tight-lipped 49ers ended weeks of suspense by drafting Lance, who has only played in one game since the 2019 season but led the Bison to the FCS title that year while accounting for 42 total touchdowns without an interception.

With the surprising Lance going to San Francisco, this became just the third time in the common draft era that started in 1967 – and first time since 1999 – quarterbacks went 1-2-3 in the NFL draft.

The consensus top five QBs - Lawrence, Wilson, Lance, Fields and Jones – had been slated to all get drafted in the top 10, but Fields and Jones were still on the board after 10 picks.

The Chicago Bears decided not to sit on their hands, trading up nine spots with the New York Giants to grab Fields, a dual-threat QB who finished his collegiate career with 5,701 passing yards and 67 TDs through the air.

The Patriots were more patient, selecting Jones with the 15th pick – a spot few believed he would still be available. Jones threw for 4,500 yards with 41 touchdowns to just four picks in leading Alabama last season, and became the first quarterback selected in the first round during Bill Belichick’s 21-year tenure in New England.

Jones also became the final QB selected in the first round, making this only the fourth time at least five QBs were drafted in round number one, along with 2018, 1999 and the famous 1983 draft, when six were selected.

Not only were QBs a hot commodity, so were their targets.

The Atlanta Falcons made Florida’s Kyle Pitts the highest drafted tight end in history when they picked him fourth overall after he had 43 catches for 770 yards and 12 TDs in 2020.

The Cincinnati Bengals and Miami Dolphins drafted who they hope will be their franchise quarterbacks in the 2020 first round, and this year they each focused on providing them with a playmaker they were familiar with.

Cincinnati selected LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase with the fifth pick, teaming him 2020 No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow, the quarterback who led the Tigers to the 2019 FBS title. In 26 games played together in 2018 and 2019, Burrow targeted Chase 162 times, resulting in 107 receptions for 2,093 yards and 23 touchdowns.

One pick later, the Dolphins chose Alabama receiver Jaylen Waddle, reuniting him with college quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, last year’s fifth pick. Waddle only appeared in six games last season because of a broken left ankle, but he left Alabama with 106 receptions for 1,999 yards and 17 touchdowns over three years.

The reunions continued with the 10th pick, when the Philadelphia Eagles traded up to select 2020 Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith to get him back with former Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, the 53rd overall pick a year ago. Smith, who put up eye-popping numbers in 2020 with 117 receptions for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns, was a teammate of Hurts in 2017 and 2018.

While the Bengals, Dolphins and Eagles reunited former teammates, the Jaguars decided to go ahead and just bring aboard one of Lawrence’s teammates from this past season, selecting Clemson running back Travis Etienne with the 25th pick, making this the first time in the common draft era a quarterback and running back from the same school were drafted by the same team in the first round.

Etienne was a workhorse for the past four years with the Tigers, racking up 4,952 rushing yards and 70 touchdowns on the ground while averaging 7.2 yards per carry.

Etienne became the second running back selected in the first round after the Pittsburgh Steelers took Alabama’s Najee Harris one pick earlier.

With the Denver Broncos nabbing Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II ninth overall and the Las Vegas Raiders drafting Crimson Tide offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood at No. 17, Harris became the sixth player from Alabama drafted in the first round, matching the University of Miami from 2004 for the most players selected from one school in the first round.

While the draft started with offensive players being selected with the first seven picks for the first time ever, the final five picks of the opening round were all defensive players, concluding with the defending Super Bowl champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selecting linebacker Joe Tryon out of Washington with the 32nd pick.

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