It is time for the Jacksonville Jaguars to turn this thing around.

Losing suited the Jags last season as their miserable 1-15 record, combined with the New York Jets' inexplicable late rally to 2-14, secured the first overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Jacksonville are expected to take quarterback Trevor Lawrence to join new head coach Urban Meyer and general manager Trent Baalke. Then they must find a way of competing once more after a year of accepting defeat.

Yet this was not merely a 12-month slump; the Jags have had a winning record just once since 2007, losing the AFC Championship Game to the New England Patriots in 2017.

There is lots of work to do, but Lawrence - tipped as a generational talent - gives them a fantastic platform to build from at the most important position.

We use Stats Perform data to review the 2020 season and identify how Lawrence might be able to lead this team to success.

Offense

It is not quite as simple as Lawrence alone re-energising an offense that scored just 306 points last year, ranking 30th in the league.

The Jaguars need not have been quite as bad under center as that statistic suggests, having benched Gardner Minshew II, their best QB, after seven weeks.

He had led the team to their sole Week 1 win over the Indianapolis Colts, throwing three touchdowns, and was a relatively solid performer in a poor team. Minshew averaged 251 yards per game.

But Lawrence will be expected to find wide receivers Laviska Shenault Jr. and D.J. Chark Jr. on a more regular basis. Along with Keelan Cole Sr., they led Jacksonville with five receiving TDs but Shenault's 58 catches represented a very low team high.

The new QB will want better protection as he aims to improve the team's passing offense, with the Jags' 2020 passers collectively sacked on 44 occasions, tied for just the 25th best rate in the NFL.

There will certainly be pressure on Lawrence, who threw for 3,153 yards in 10 games for Clemson in 2020, to deliver the goods through the air, with no team in the league turning to their running game less often than Jacksonville.

A meagre 33.8 per cent of their plays went on the ground, where they found an impressive rookie in running back James Robinson (240 rushes for 1,070 yards and three TDs) but not much else.

Defense

If Lawrence provides a big boost on offense, what is the fix on defense?

Because no amount of talent at QB can drag the Jaguars into contention if they continue to perform so poorly out of possession.

While Jacksonville were reluctant to run the ball on offense, they faced rushes on defense more often than any other team (on 48.4 per cent of plays).

In truth, though, their opponents' play selection mattered little as they found a route through regardless. The Jags gave up 417.7 total yards per game, fewer only than the Detroit Lions.

There was a clear lack of talent on defense in 2020, and even Dawuane Smoot, their sack leader with 5.5, could now be on the way out in free agency.

Cornerback C.J. Henderson will at least be back after injury cut short a rookie season in which he showed signs of promise, recording 27 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble across eight games.

But new defensive coordinator Joe Cullen needs help if he is to recreate the aggressive approach used by the Baltimore Ravens, where he was defensive line coach for the past four years.

Offseason

The roster that ended the 2020 season provided little cause for optimism. Fortunately for the Jaguars, they now have the number one pick and a huge amount of cap space to work with.

Assuming a $185million cap, Jacksonville still have around $86m to spend. They will need it, even if Lawrence, in the draft, provides the most straightforward first fix.

Offensive depth is required to assist the exciting new QB, with slot receiver Cole set for free agency while the tight end unit scored a combined two TDs last season – both supplied by 31-year-old Tyler Eifert – and still needs a blocking option.

In Shenault, Chark and Robinson, they at least have starters secured at WR and RB, especially given there are greater priorities elsewhere.

Investment at offensive tackle to protect Lawrence would boost the rookie, but those priorities lie mainly on defense.

They will need more than Henderson alone at corner and major improvement at safety is a must, as is finding a way to somehow slow their opponents' running offense.

The Jags have some exciting opportunities this offseason, but they are starting from a low base and Lawrence should only be the first of many talented new faces as the team eye a quick turnaround.

The Champions League round-of-16 second legs get underway on Tuesday, with Porto and Borussia Dortmund holding the upper hand over Juventus and Sevilla respectively.

Juve's latest bid to bring their domestic dominance to bear on the European stage is hanging by a thread, with Sergio Conceicao's robust side arriving in Turin 2-1 to the good.

If that tie is on a knife edge, Dortmund's task looks slightly more straightforward on paper – their 3-2 first-leg win having come on the road at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.

However, Edin Terzic's side might be wounded by their sapping Klassiker loss to Bayern Munich at the weekend and Sevilla boast formidable European pedigree. Stranger things have definitely happened.

So, to help you navigate the potential madness, we take a closer look at both matches using Opta data.

 

Juventus (1) v (2) Porto: Ronaldo aiming to break the shackles

On his return to his homeland, Juventus superstar Cristiano Ronaldo found himself unusually frustrated during the first leg.

The five-time Ballon d'Or winner managed just one shot – his lowest return in a Champions League knockout match since he failed to register a shot on goal during the second leg of the 2010-11 semi-final between Real Madrid and Barcelona.

However, Federico Chiesa's crucial late away goal at the Estadio do Dragao snapped a run of five consecutive clean sheets in this season's competition for Porto, who are looking to achieve three consecutive shutouts on the road for the first time since November 2012.

Nevertheless, history is still weighted against the Primeira Liga club finishing the job.

Porto are winless in their previous 13 away games in the Champions League knockout stages, drawing four and losing nine.

You have to go back to a 3-2 win over Milan in 1996 for their most recent victory in Italy, with five defeats on the spin since then.

On the other hand, Juventus have been eliminated on five of the past six occasions they lost the first leg of a Champions League tie.

The exception came when a Ronaldo hat-trick wiped out Atletico Madrid's 2-0 advantage two seasons ago.

Once again, the 36-year-old looks their most likely hero. Ronaldo has 10 goals in 10 Champions League games for Juve at the Allianz Stadium. Only Lionel Messi (14) has more home goals over the period from the start of the 2018-19 campaign onwards.

 

Borussia Dortmund (3) v (2) Sevilla: Haaland at the double again?

Erling Haaland is at the opposite end of his Champions League journey to Ronaldo but certainly seems to have designs on emulating some of the veteran's great deeds and might even breach new ground this week.

The Dortmund striker has scored a brace in each of his past three Champions League appearances. If he nets another double against Sevilla, he will become the first player in the history of the competition to score twice in four consecutive appearances.

Haaland has 18 goals in 13 Champions League outings overall and appears certain to surpass Harry Kane as the quickest man to 20 in terms of games. The England captain reached the landmark in his 24th appearance.

Dortmund are aiming to reach the quarter-finals for the first time since 2017 and are unbeaten in seven Champions League matches at Signal Iduna Park (W5 D2).

Sevilla have never gone through in Europe's top competition after losing the first leg of a knockout tie, going down to Real Madrid in 1957-58, Fenerbahce in 2007-08 and Bayern Munich in 2017-18.

Since beating Borussia Monchengladbach 3-0 in 2015, the Andalusian club have lost three out of four against Bundesliga opponents.

Head coach Julen Lopetegui has similarly unhelpful memories of Germany, having lost his only previous Champions League away match in the country 6-1 when he led Porto against Bayern Munich.

All good things must come to an end, and that proved the case for Manchester City on Sunday.

Their remarkable winning run of 21 games in all competitions came to an end with a 2-0 defeat to Manchester United in the derby.

City hold an 11-point lead over their neighbours at the top of the Premier League, however, and the real battle seems set to be for Champions League places.

Tottenham boosted their hopes with a 4-1 thrashing of Crystal Palace, with Harry Kane and Son Heung-min combining for a record-setting goal, while Liverpool's dismal form continued as they suffered a sixth successive home defeat. Fortress Anfield is well and truly a thing of the past.

At the bottom, West Brom and Newcastle United played out a goalless draw. We take a look at the best Opta facts from Sunday's games.

 

Manchester City 0-2 Manchester United: Winning streak grinds to a halt

If there was one team City did not want their incredible run of wins to come to an end against, it would have been United.

It was the first time City have lost since November, when they went down 2-0 at home to Spurs, ending a run of 28 games without a defeat across all competitions. Pep Guardiola's team had won their last 21 in total, including 15 in the league, though Ole Gunnar Solskjaer seems to have the better of his counterpart.

United have won three consecutive away games in all competitions at City for the first time since a run of four between November 1993 and November 2000, and among the managers Guardiola has faced more than three times across all competitions as a top-flight boss, Solskjaer is the only one to have beaten the Spaniard (four) more often than he has lost to him.

Solskjaer is also the first manager in United's history to win each of his first three away meetings in all competitions with City. Since the start of the 2019-20 season, three of City's five home defeats in all competitions have come against United.

The Norwegian is now the only manager to have won three away games against sides managed by Guardiola.

Bruno Fernandes scored the opener from the penalty spot inside two minutes. Since his Premier League debut in February 2020, he has scored 12 of the 13 penalties he has taken in the competition. 

After just 101 seconds, Fernandes' penalty was the earliest goal that City have ever conceded in a Premier League match at the Etihad Stadium, and the first they have conceded within two minutes at home in the competition since Steed Malbranque's strike for Fulham at Maine Road in January 2003.

Liverpool 0-1 Fulham: Reds' Merseyside misery rolls on

It is hard to believe that before their defeat to Burnley on January 21, Liverpool had not lost a league match at Anfield since April 2017. 

Liverpool have now lost six home games in a row, their longest ever such streak, while they are the first side to lose six in a row on home soil in the Premier League since Huddersfield Town in February 2019 (seven).

The Reds' six league defeats at Anfield this season is their most in a single campaign since 1953-54 (also six), when the Reds finished bottom of the top-flight, with Fulham the first promoted team to win away at Liverpool in the top flight since Blackpool Town in October 2010.

Jurgen Klopp's side are winless in their last eight league home matches, only embarking on a longer winless top-flight run at Anfield once before – 10 games between October 1951 and March 1952. They have won just one of their last seven matches in the competition.

Fulham, on the other hand, are unbeaten in their last eight Premier League away games (W2 D6) – their longest run without defeat on the road in their top-flight history – and are now level on 26 points with 17th-placed Brighton and Hove Albion.

Excluding penalties and own goals, Liverpool have failed to score with each of their last 115 shots at Anfield in the Premier League (including 16 against Fulham). This is the longest such scoreless run of shots on home soil by any side.

Tottenham 4-1 Crystal Palace: Bale and Kane rampant as Spurs boost top-four hopes

Only leaders City (35) have earned more points at home in this season's Premier League than Tottenham (24), and Jose Mourinho's men were in fine form against Palace.

Gareth Bale scored either side of Christian Benteke's equaliser – since the 2012-13 season, only Olivier Giroud (32) has more headed goals in the competition than the Belgian – with both of the Welshman's goals teed up by the brilliant Kane.

Bale has scored in each of his last three home appearances in all competitions, the first time he has done so since September 2018 for Real Madrid (four in a row), and first time for Spurs since May 2013.

Kane then curled in a sensational third goal, before he headed home a fourth from Son Heung-min's cushioned cutback.

Son and Kane have now assisted one another for 14 Premier League goals this season, breaking Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton's all-time competition record of 13 set in 1994-95 for Blackburn.

Kane's second goal was also Spurs' 100th strike in all competitions this season, seeing them become the second club in Europe's "top five" leagues to reach that tally in 2020-21, after Bayern Munich (106).

Spurs talisman Kane is the first Tottenham player since Jurgen Klinsmann in May 1998 to score twice and provide two assists in a Premier League match, while he has been directly involved in 40 goals in 36 games in all competitions this season (24 goals and 16 assists), the most of any player for a top-flight club.

West Brom 0-0 Newcastle United: Bore draw does little for survival hopes

There was not so much in the way of entertainment in the day's early kick-off, as strugglers West Brom and Newcastle shared the spoils.

West Brom are unbeaten in three home league games against Newcastle (W1 D2) for the first time since January 2005, while only Southampton (seven) have gained fewer Premier League points in 2021 than the Baggies (10) and Newcastle (nine).

Newcastle have won just one of their last nine Premier League away games (D1 L7), failing to score in six of those matches.

West Brom had 13 shots at goal in the match, their joint-most attempts without scoring in a Premier League game this season (also 13 v Burnley in October).

Arsenal were dealt a blow by Granit Xhaka's dreadful mistake against Burnley, while Southampton ended a nine-match Premier League winless streak on Saturday.

Xhaka hit an attempted clearance straight at Chris Wood in the early kick-off at Turf Moor, ultimately costing Mikel Arteta's side a point.

Ralph Hasenhuttl's team then dispatched lowly Sheffield United 2-0 to finally rediscover some form, with Aston Villa and Wolves later playing out a goalless draw.

Leicester City beat Brighton and Hove Albion 2-1 in the late kick-off, and we took a look at the best Opta facts from Saturday's action.
 

Burnley 1-1 Arsenal: X-rated error costs Arteta

Arsenal could have closed the gap between themselves and Tottenham to just two points ahead of next week's north London derby, yet had to settle for a point against Burnley, who have now won just one game in 10 in all competitions.

The Gunners took the lead through Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the sixth minute. Arsenal's captain has scored more Premier League goals against Burnley (eight) than against any other club, while he only has a better record against Hamburg (nine) in Europe's 'top five' leagues.

However, they were hindered by Xhaka's error. The midfielder attempted to play his way out of a tight spot in Arsenal's area, only for his clearance to strike Chris Wood and bobble in.

Since the start of 2016-17, Xhaka has made eight errors leading to goals in the top flight, which is more than any other outfield Premier League player.

Arsenal have now kept only one clean sheet in their past 11 games in all competitions (0-0 v Manchester United in January), after keeping five in a row directly before that.

Burnley, on the other hand, have drawn five consecutive home league games for the third time in their history, after a run of six games ending in April 1936 and a run of five ending in October 1997.

Sheffield United 0-2 Southampton: Adams blunts his former club as Saints buck the trend

Che Adams scored a stunning goal to condemn his former team Sheffield United to another defeat, while simultaneously helping Southampton end their dismal run of form.

Southampton had lost eight of their past nine league matches heading into Saturday's meeting at Bramall Lane, having not won since beating Liverpool on January 4.

Captain James Ward-Prowse opened the scoring from the penalty spot; he has been directly involved in 26 Premier League goals under Hasenhuttl (18 goals, eight assists), twice as many as under any other Southampton manager.

It also moved Ward-Prowse onto seven goals in all competitions, his joint-best return in a single campaign. Six of these seven goals have come from dead ball situations (five direct free-kicks, one penalty).

Southampton had been hit by an early injury to Danny Ings, yet his replacement Adams stepped up, slamming in a spectacular half-volley to make it 2-0 shortly after half-time.

Adams has scored four goals in his four Premier League appearances against the Blades, accounting for 44 per cent of his total goals in the competition, while Chris Wilder's men have become only the second English top-flight team to lose 22 of their first 28 games in a season after Sunderland in 2005-06.

Aston Villa 0-0 Wolves: Grealish absence continues to hit home

There was no winner in Saturday's local derby as Wolves extended their unbeaten run in the Premier League at Villa Park to five matches (W2 D3).

Villa have failed to score in each of their past four home Premier League games against Wolves – only against Chelsea (a run of five between October 1995 and January 2000) and Manchester United (a run of five between March 2003 and December 2006) have they had a longer run of games without scoring against a specific opponent at Villa Park in the competition.

Jack Grealish was again absent through injury and, under Dean Smith, Villa have won just two of their 12 home league games without the playmaker (D5 L5).

On the plus side for Villa, they have kept 14 clean sheets in the Premier League this season, their highest tally in a single top-flight campaign since 2009-10 (15), with only Manchester City (15) having kept more this term.

Wolves, meanwhile, have won just one of their past 10 away Premier League games (D4 L5), with that victory coming at Southampton in February.

Brighton and Hove Albion 1-2 Leicester City: Amartey late show gets Foxes back on track

Daniel Amartey proved the unlikely hero for Leicester as they got back on track in their bid to consolidate their place in the top four with a last-gasp 2-1 win over Brighton.

Graham Potter's side took the lead through Adam Lallana's maiden Brighton goal, and his first in 503 days and 32 appearances in the competition since netting for Liverpool against Manchester United in October 2019.

However, Brighton have now dropped 17 points from winning positions in the Premier League this season, their most in a single campaign in the competition. Only Southampton (18) have dropped more than the Seagulls in 2020-21.

Kelechi Iheanacho restored parity and has scored in each of his past two Premier League appearances, having netted in just one of his previous 17 in the competition.

Brighton thought they might come away with a point when Jamie Vardy had a penalty appeal turned down, but Amartey popped up with the winner from the following corner.

It was just his second Premier League goal, and his first since he scored against Stoke City in December 2016.

It didn't take long for the Arizona Cardinals to make their first big offseason splash.

For the second year running, the Cardinals took advantage of the dysfunction enveloping the Houston Texans to land a star player whom they hope will push them towards the playoffs.

J.J. Watt has linked up with former Texans team-mate DeAndre Hopkins, signing a two-year deal to provide a significant boost to the Cardinals' defense.

While Watt should unquestionably improve the Cardinals' odds of stopping opposing attacks, Arizona will need to take several other steps this offseason to have a chance of emerging from a hyper-competitive NFC West and progressing to the playoffs.

The Cardinals looked ready to make such a leap in 2020 in the second year of the Kliff Kingsbury-Kyler Murray experience.

But an ugly finish to an 8-8 season suggested this is still a team some way from true championship contention.

Using Stats Perform data, we look at what was learned from that campaign and what the Cardinals must do in 2021 to ensure they have a winning record and are playing postseason football next season.

Offense

The Arizona offense was in the top half of the NFL in terms of yards per play, their average of 5.68 putting them 14th.

However, the lack of progression from the passing game, even after the addition of Hopkins, held the Cardinals back from becoming one of the league's elite offenses.

Arizona finished the year 18th in pass yards per play (6.48) but were ninth in rushing average (4.67).

The Cardinals' underperformance in the passing game was not for lack of effort on Murray's part.

Indeed, his completion percentage jumped from 64.4 in 2019 to 67.2, his passing yardage improved from 3,722 to 3,971 and he threw 26 touchdowns compared to 20 a year earlier.

Yet his yards per attempt average of 7.12 was still only good enough for 22nd in the NFL, while his interception percentage of 2.2 was the third-most among quarterbacks to have started all 16 games.

Given Kingsbury's expertise in the Air Raid offense, a system renowned for its reliance on downfield passing concepts, Murray's tally of 44 completions of 20 yards or more - tied for 15th in the NFL - was disappointing.

But the Cardinals should continue to be excited about the offense's potential when they fully harness Murray's upside as a deep-ball thrower. Among the quarterbacks with at least 25 attempts of 21 or more air yards, his passer rating of 127.4 on such throws was the third-best.

One of the most exciting dual-threat quarterbacks in the NFL, Murray again added significant value as a runner, rushing for 819 yards and 11 touchdowns. With 419 of those yards on scrambles, Murray continues to be one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the league when the pocket breaks down.

Hopkins enjoyed a monster first season in Arizona - his 1,407 receiving yards were the third-most in the NFL - but the numbers suggest he could use more help.

Deep threat Christian Kirk had six touchdowns but esteemed veteran Larry Fitzgerald's yards per catch average of 7.6 was the lowest of his remarkable career, indicating he may be reaching the limits of his longevity and that a more dynamic third option is required.

Defense

Watt joins a defense that performed at a high level in 2020.

The Cardinals allowed 5.34 yards per play, the eighth-least in the NFL, while their average of 5.86 yards per pass play allowed ranked sixth in the league.

Their success in that regard came despite losing star edge rusher Chandler Jones to a torn bicep, the three-time Pro Bowler denied the chance to maintain his streak of having double-digit sacks in every season of his Cardinals career.

Stepping up in Jones' absence was Haason Reddick, who posted a career-high 12.5 sacks - including five in one game against the New York Giants - and 15 tackles for loss along with 16 quarterback hits.

His contributions down the stretch helped the Cardinals produce 109 negative plays from their opponents for a total of minus 477 yards, the fourth-best mark in the league.

Taking that into account, their takeaway tally of 21 may be seen as disappointing, though it was in line with the league average.

Arizona's inability to trouble the upper echelon in terms of takeaways could be partially attributed to the play of veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson.

Peterson had a burn percentage of 64.1 in 2020. A burn occurs when a receiver is open for a number of yards that take up a certain percentage of yards to go for a first down, depending on the down. The yardage is attributed to the defender regardless of whether the receiver catches the pass.

He gave up 590 burn yards and had six burns for touchdowns, both team highs.

The Cardinals have added a veteran presence to the front seven in Watt but, as with Fitzgerald in the receiving corps, a more youthful talent may be required to take on Peterson's role and help Arizona make key improvements in the secondary.

Offseason

Fitzgerald and Peterson make up two of Arizona's 23 unrestricted free agents this offseason, though if the former is not back it will likely be because he has decided to hang up the cleats.

Peterson appears set to play his football elsewhere, with the Cardinals lacking the resources and perhaps the appetite to re-sign him based on his 2020 performance.

The Cardinals are projected to have a little over $17.5million in cap space, assuming a salary cap of $185m, just above the league average.

Arizona's addition of Watt to bolster the pass rush may mean Reddick and Markus Golden, who also helped fill the void in Jones' 2020 absence, are allowed to walk in free agency. Running back Kenyan Drake appears another likely departure.

The draft is the likely avenue on which the Cardinals will focus most of their attention as they attempt to further supplement a roster that fell just shy of the postseason.

Picking 16th in the first round, Arizona will be in a decent spot to address the cornerback position and find a replacement for Peterson who can help them better defend three NFC West rivals who all possess explosive offenses when at their best.

Watt's arrival should improve their odds of keeping their division rivals in check but, after a strong showing on defense last year, this Cardinals offseason is one that will also be defined by what they do in terms of making life easier for Murray.

Stronger depth at receiver and more dynamism at tight end, something which the Cardinals have long since lacked, should be on Arizona's wishlist.

If they can check off those items and put a support system around Murray that allows him to have a breakout year three, the Cardinals will be in a good spot to celebrate a first playoff berth since the 2015 season. Should they fail, Kingsbury and general manager Steve Keim's jobs may come under severe scrutiny.

Unfortunately for Houston Texans fans, their team's offseason business has been more noteworthy than their performances on the field over the past 12 months.

The Texans stunningly traded All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins last March and three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt has already departed this year.

But the biggest move might be yet to come.

Quarterback Deshaun Watson wants out and, although Houston insist they will not facilitate a move, the current impasse – with the 25-year-old seemingly prepared to sit if not granted an exit – suits nobody.

Watson's lack of input in the team's search for head coach Bill O'Brien's successor was said to be the largest contributing factor when he first pushed for a trade in January.

But the Texans had issues last year beyond the process that eventually led to the hiring of David Culley, crashing to 4-12 in 2020 as results on the field accurately depicted the overall direction of the franchise.

A study of Stats Perform data shows the vast work to be done whether Watson stays or goes.

Offense

Hopkins had been Houston's leading receiver in each of the five seasons prior to his departure, including 104 catches for 1,165 yards and seven touchdowns in 2019.

His shock trade to the Arizona Cardinals - which came under a year after the franchise had given up a boatload of draft capital to acquire star tackle Laremy Tunsil - meant a rethink.

Will Fuller, second on that list with 49 receptions, was the obvious candidate to step up and he had 53 catches for 879 yards and eight touchdowns through 11 games.

But a six-game suspension – one week of which remains – for breaching the NFL's drug policy ended his season early. Former Green Bay stalwart Randall Cobb, who started only two games, also missed the end of the year due to a toe injury.

Meanwhile, the running game – led by David Johnson, who made up part of the Hopkins trade – scarcely registered.

Houston ranked 31st for rushing yards per game (91.6), 26th for rushing plays of 10 yards or more (38) and tied-30th for plays of 20 yards or more (five).

And yet despite losing Hopkins, leaving Brandin Cooks as his top target, having no run game to turn to and playing behind a bad offensive line – he was sacked 49 times, second-most among all QBs – Watson remained one of the league's best.

He topped the charts for overall passing yards (4,823), yards per attempt (8.87) and big plays of 25 yards or more (42). His passer rating of 112.4 trailed only MVP Aaron Rodgers.

Defense

Unfortunately, as Watson did all he could on offense to almost singlehandedly keep the Texans competitive, the defense also let him down.

Houston ranked 30th for opponent yards per game (416.8) and per play (6.24).

They were dead last for opponent rushing yards per game (160.3), where the failure to slow opponents over the ground could be attributed to D.J. Reader's departure in free agency and a shoulder injury to Benardrick McKinney that restricted him to four games and 19 tackles.

Meanwhile, the Texans were 24th for opponent net passing yards per game (256.5). Whitney Mercilus and Watt were each another year older and saw their numbers decline as a result, although the latter still led the team in sacks (5.0), QB hits (17) and defensive TDs (one).

And so with Watt's exit, the defense continues to lose talent just as it has in years past with Jadeveon Clowney and Tyrann Mathieu, both of whom left after a 2018 season in which Houston finished 11-5 and had six Pro Bowlers – including three on defense.

Offseason

Despite this grave picture, the Texans' reluctance to deal Watson suggests they have not given up just yet.

But with so much to fix – arguably every aspect of the team besides the outstanding QB – the offer of a substantial trade package for an unhappy player might start to appeal.

In another offseason in which a number of teams are looking for a new star under center, Watson, at 25, is the most valuable option on the table.

Perhaps a franchise like the Chicago Bears – potentially a Watson away from being a major contender – would make sense as a trade partner, desperate enough to give Houston the sort of assets that could allow for a rebuild.

But it may only be a team like the Miami Dolphins or New York Jets - with extra draft picks and young QB options to throw into the mix - who can come close to providing the sort of offer Houston would contemplate.

The Texans are projected to have around $33million in cap space, assuming a $185m cap, but there simply appears to be too much to do even if they can convince Watson to stay and play.

Moving on prematurely from the four-year, $156m deal Watson signed last year would provide room to manoeuvre in the years to come, too.

Houston's decision is unlikely to prove popular whichever way they go.

News of Watson's trade request prompted plans for a protest that the player himself had to call off.

But keeping their talisman might condemn the Texans to many more years like 2020, without a talented roster to support one of the NFL's most valuable assets.

Despite boasting one of the best QBs in the game, they are in an unenviable position of their own making.  

The last derby was a rare off-day for Atletico Madrid – and for Luis Suarez.

On a run of seven wins in a row and two goals conceded, with no LaLiga defeats all season, Diego Simeone's men were second best in a 2-0 defeat last December. As for Suarez, his 73 minutes on the pitch yielded a single, wayward shot.

Still, that result turned out to be an aberration. Three months on, Atleti head into Sunday's game at the Wanda Metropolitano with a five-point lead over Real Madrid and Barca at the top of the table, and with a game in hand. Suarez, meanwhile, has scored 11 of his 16 LaLiga goals this term since that chastening day at Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano.

Suarez's form for Atleti has made a complete mockery of Barca's decision to cast him aside last year, the suggestion the striker was "too old" to be relied upon looking more foolish by the week as he spearheads their charge for a first league title since 2014.

Indeed, given his record against Madrid and the state of the league table, this weekend could be the moment Suarez tips the balance of the title race inexorably in Atletico's favour.

 

OLD HABITS

It wasn't simply being told to leave by Barca that left Suarez so incensed; it was being made to feel he was no longer good enough for "a great team".

"That's what I did not like," he told France Football. "If I hadn't done anything at a club like Barca for three or four seasons, I would have understood.

"But, every year at Barca, I scored more than 20 goals per season. I have always had good statistics, just behind Leo [Messi]."

So he is again. Suarez's 16 goals in 21 league games this term puts him second in the top-scorer standings, three behind Messi. Add in assists, and only his old team-mate (23) has had more direct goal involvements than Suarez (18) in LaLiga this season.

While Suarez is no longer as explosive as he was at Liverpool and in his earlier Barca years, he has lost little of his ruthlessness. Discounting the two penalties he has converted this term, Suarez has scored 14 times from an expected goals value of just 9.6. That differential of 4.4 is the biggest in the division, save for that of 'El Comandante', Levante's 33-year-old star striker Jose Luis Morales (5.0).

It follows that Suarez has a shot conversion rate (including blocked shots) of 23.9, the fourth-highest figure for any LaLiga player with at least 10 goals this season, the best being Roger Marti with 31.3.

The Uruguayan also boasts a big chance conversion rate of 63.2 per cent, having scored 12 out of 19 this term. No player to have scored from at least 10 big chances can match that success rate. That cutting edge in a team that has conceded just 16 league goals in 24 matches is a potent combination.

 

CAN SUAREZ STOP THE DERBY ROT?

Atleti followed December's derby defeat by winning 10 of their next 12 games, the only slip-ups being a Copa del Rey shock at Cornella and a 2-2 home draw with Celta Vigo on February 8 (in which Suarez scored twice).

However, including that result, they have won only twice in their past five league matches, a run that has emboldened Barca and Madrid's title hopes and left fans wondering whether 'Hay Liga' after all.

A dip in form before a derby is never positive, but Atleti in particular need no extra pessimism. They have not won any of the most recent nine league meetings with Madrid, their longest run without a victory under Diego Simeone, and they have not even scored in the previous three. Only once in their history have they gone four league derbies without a goal.

Madrid are also the only team to play a league match at the Wanda Metropolitano without ever losing (one win, two draws), with Simeone having won only 12.5 per cent of league games against opposite number Zinedine Zidane, his worst return against any coach from at least four meetings.

But Suarez has happy memories of facing Los Blancos. Although he's gone two games without scoring against them, his goal record overall reads nine scored in 12 league appearances versus Madrid, the most of any player since his first season in Spain in 2014-15.

What's more, he has an all-important side-kick back in form.

 

JOAO, THAT'S IMPRESSIVE

Joao Felix's sublime strike against Villarreal secured a valuable three points for Atleti last time out and ended his own month-long goal drought. He responded with a stony-faced 'shushing' celebration, to which a delighted Simeone responded: "I love it when players rebel."

Simeone will be desperate to see his €126m man in a similar mood come Sunday. Not only is he Atleti's most exciting individual talent, but he's also the man who has brought the best out of Suarez this season.

Joao Felix has created eight chances for Suarez in LaLiga in 2020-21, more than any other Atleti player. Of his four assists, three have been for the former Ajax man; only Marcos Llorente has provided as many for Atleti's number nine.

Perhaps Suarez has found a kindred spirit in Joao Felix: supremely talented, decisive, and "rebellious". What better double act to deploy in the Atleti's most important LaLiga derby in seven years?

The Denver Broncos enter the offseason surely casting envious glances at the rest of the AFC West.

Still searching for the solution at quarterback, an uneven season for Drew Lock did not provide satisfactory answers about their second-round pick from 2019.

Denver endured a 5-11 season with Lock in and out of the line-up as Patrick Mahomes led the Kansas City Chiefs to another Super Bowl appearance, Justin Herbert surged to Offensive Rookie of the Year honours with the Los Angeles Chargers and Derek Carr made strides for the Las Vegas Raiders.

This offseason will therefore be defined by what the Broncos decide to do at quarterback, with the heat set to turn up on head coach Vic Fangio as he heads into year three after two successive seasons without a playoff berth.

Using Stats Perform data we look back at another year of disappointment in Denver and assess what they can do this offseason to ensure a five-season exile from the postseason comes to an end in 2021.

Offense

A switch at offensive coordinator from Rich Scangarello to Pat Shurmur did not yield the desired results for the Broncos, who ran one of the least efficient offenses in football.

Denver averaged 5.21 yards per play, putting the Broncos 25th in the NFL. The Broncos' paltry 5.87 yards per pass play illustrated the lack of progress made by Lock, who missed three games last season, with Denver also ranking 25th in that metric.

For a player who came out of college with a reputation for having an elite arm, Lock's tally of 38 completions of 20 yards or more was disappointing. He ranked 19th in that regard but his average distance on such completions of 32.9 yards was ninth among quarterbacks to have completed at least 10.

More worrying for Denver were Lock's numbers on throws of at least 21 air yards. He completed 15 of 63 such attempts for 597 yards, three touchdowns and five interceptions for a passer rating of 49.4 that ranked second last among quarterbacks with at least 25 attempts of 21 air yards or more.

Lock did not provide the downfield upside some expected of him when he was drafted in 2019 and a tendency to commit turnovers that was all too evident in college has remained in the NFL. His 15 interceptions in 2020 were tied for the most in the NFL.

The absence of Courtland Sutton, who suffered a torn ACL in Week 1, did not help Lock's cause, with first-round rookie Jerry Jeudy committing the second-most drops (nine) in the NFL.

However, 23 incomplete targets thrown Jeudy's way were deemed poor throws - only three receivers were on the end of more - that number pointing to below-par play under center as the primary reason for Denver's passing game struggles.

Denver's running game fared slightly better, finishing the year tied-14th for rushes of 10 yards or more with 51. The Broncos were tied for sixth with 13 runs of at least 20 yards.

Melvin Gordon proved a useful addition as he contributed 26 rushes of at least 10 yards. Philip Lindsay had 13, with six of those going for 20 yards or more.

Defense

The Broncos' talent on defense paired with Fangio's acumen on that side of the ball should have theoretically produced a strong season on defense.

However, Denver finished the year a disappointing 20th in the NFL with 5.64 yards per play allowed.

They were 13th against the pass (6.25) but 29th against the run (4.79), with their efforts in stopping opposing attacks not helped by Lock's propensity for turnovers.

A freak injury to Von Miller before the season robbed Denver of one of the most dominant pass rushers of his generation, but the Broncos still finished tied-10th in sacks (39) and 10th in total negative pass plays forced (50).

By contrast, they only forced 83 negative run plays, that total putting them 23rd in the NFL.

The pressure the Broncos created last season did not translate to takeaways, with just three teams producing fewer than Denver's 16.

A lack of a settled line-up at cornerback was a significant reason for their struggles stopping the pass and taking away the football.

Kareem Jackson and Michael Ojemudia were the only Broncos cornerbacks to play in all 16 games, with the latter enduring a difficult rookie year.

Ojemudia had a burn percentage of 63 in 2020. A burn occurs when the receiver is open for a number of yards that take up a certain percentage of yards to go for a first down, depending on the down, with the defender credited with giving up burn yardage regardless of whether the ball is caught.

No Denver cornerback allowed more yards per burn than Ojemudia's 18.1, with corner featuring prominently on a long list of offseason issues the Broncos must fix.

Offseason

New general manager George Paton has a lot of significant decisions to make to try to inspire a turnaround in fortunes.

The Broncos' future at quarterback casts a large shadow over their plans for the rest of the roster. Picking ninth in the draft, they are in a decent spot to land one of Justin Fields, Zach Wilson or Trey Lance, the three quarterbacks seen as the cream of the crop after presumptive number one overall pick Trevor Lawrence.

Denver must decide whether to stick with Lock or cut him loose in favour of one of that trio, with a possible trade for Deshaun Watson appearing unlikely at this point.

There is a similarly significant decision to make concerning Miller, who will be 32 come the 2021 season and has a contract option the Broncos could decline, eschewing a salary cap hit of $22.25million and making him a free agent.

The Broncos are projected to have $48m in cap space, assuming a cap of $185m, even with Miller on the roster, and a large portion of that may go towards re-signing Pro Bowl free safety Justin Simmons, who played on the franchise tag in 2020.

If they can keep hold of Simmons and find dependable reinforcements at corner, the Broncos defense will be well-placed to make a return to the top half of the league in 2021.

Yet the fate of next season's Broncos likely rests on Paton's ability to succeed where predecessor John Elway consistently failed, and come to a definitive and correct answer under center.

There's a new era in Atlanta and, following the hiring of Arthur Smith as head coach, there is plenty of cause for Falcons fans to be hopeful of better days ahead. 

Things can hardly get much worse than in 2020, when the Falcons slumped to a 4-12 record, with head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff fired after an 0-5 start. 

Smith's arrival will foster optimism the offense can scale new heights in 2021, the former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator having played a pivotal role in revitalising Ryan Tannehill's career.  

But he and new GM Terry Fontenot have some significant decisions to make in a challenging offseason if their partnership is to hit the ground running in 2021. 

Using Stats Perform data, we reflect on the year that was for the Falcons and look at what they will need to do to improve on a rather forgettable campaign. 

Offense 

You will find few quarterbacks who experienced more frustrating seasons than Matt Ryan, who continued to serve as one of the most productive signal-callers in the NFL in 2020. 

He was fourth in the NFL in passing yards with 4,581 and was tied seventh in big plays, delivering 32 completions of 25 yards or more. 

The big-play element that was clearly present in the Falcons' offense contributed to them finishing the year ninth in scoring efficiency. 

Despite Ryan's performances in leading a prolific group, the Falcons never threatened to contend. 

On the offensive side of the ball, the running game should take a large portion of the blame for that failure.

The Falcons were not a balanced offense, with Atlanta averaging just 3.75 yards per run play. The Pittsburgh Steelers (3.62) were the sole team to fare worse on the ground.

Atlanta's 34 rushes of 10 yards or more were tied for 30th in the NFL, the production from running backs Todd Gurley and Brian Hill not living up to that of Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones in the passing game.

Ridley was tied-fifth in the NFL in receiving yards with 1,374 while no pass-catcher had more than his 23 receptions of 20 yards or more.

While the running game needs to improve, the primary reason for the stellar efforts of Ryan and Ridley being wasted was the dismal play of a porous defense.

Defense

Worryingly for a Falcons franchise that invested a great deal in the defense in last year's draft, opponents moved the ball and scored on Atlanta at will in 2020. 

Atlanta ranked 23rd in offensive points allowed, giving up 414, with opposing passing games racking up 7.18 yards per play against the Falcons. 

Just three teams - the Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings - were more susceptible to the pass by that measure. 

The Falcons will hope for better out of last year's first-round pick A.J. Terrell, who was consistently exploited by quarterbacks and receivers in a trying rookie season. 

Terrell was targeted 95 times, the fourth-most of any player in the league, and gave up the third-most receptions (64) and joint-most yards (848).

In addition to the secondary struggling, the defensive front did not produce the desired pressure on opposing signal-callers, Atlanta finishing tied-23rd with 29 sacks.

The run defense was a little more of a bright spot, the Falcons 14th in yards per rush allowed with 4.41.

But the fact they still gave up 49 touchdown drives, the joint-eighth most in the league, despite their relative strength against the run, is indicative of the ground game's decreasing influence on offensive production and the issues in the secondary.

Simply put, for the Falcons to have a chance of even challenging the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints in the NFC South, the pass defense must make significant strides. The problem, however, is that the Falcons do not have a great deal of resources with which to make sure it does that.

Offseason

There is increasing talk of the Falcons using the fourth overall pick in this year's draft to select Ryan's successor, with Ohio State's Justin Fields, a native of Georgia, a popular choice for them in mock drafts.

Having the option to rid themselves of Ryan's contract, which will see him carry cap hits of over $40million in 2021 and 2022, and instead start a rookie on a significantly cheaper deal, is something that should appeal to the Falcons.

But, regardless of the merits of Smith as a play-caller and the talent the Falcons have on offense, Fields or any other eventual replacement for Ryan will not be set up for success until the Falcons fix the defense.

The issue in that regard is the Falcons are set to be over $12m above an assumed salary cap of $185m.

That may prohibit them from keeping many of the 11 unrestricted free agents they have on defense, or aggressively pursuing potential signings on that side of the ball.

Compensatory picks are still to be revealed, but the Falcons are at present set to have just six selections in the 2021 NFL Draft.

If they do go with a quarterback in the first round, 2021 will likely be Ryan's last as a Falcon. And, should Atlanta prove unable to use their remaining capital to sufficiently improve the defense, the smart money will be on it being another of frustration for the quarterback who came agonisingly close to delivering the franchise its first Super Bowl crown.

Manchester City will be looking to set a new club record for games unbeaten in all competitions when they welcome rivals Manchester United to the Etihad Stadium on Sunday.

Pep Guardiola's men have gone 28 matches since last tasting defeat and have won the last 21 of those, including 15 wins from their last 15 in the Premier League.

The Manchester derby undoubtedly headlines this weekend's fixtures in the English top flight, but there are plenty of other intriguing games at both ends of the division.

Players from six different clubs feature among our Opta-fuelled fantasy picks for what could be a defining few days.

EDOUARD MENDY

Mendy was the busier of the two goalkeepers in Chelsea's goalless draw with Manchester United last weekend as he notched another clean sheet.

He now has six shutouts in his first 10 home Premier League starts, which is the most of any goalkeeper after that number of games in the competition since Alisson's seven for Liverpool at Anfield in 2018.

The only Chelsea keeper with a better return after their first 10 league starts at Stamford Bridge is Petr Cech with eight.


JOHN STONES

City may have conceded in three of their last four league games but their defence remains the strongest in the division, largely thanks to the form of a resurgent Stones.

The league leaders have conceded just four goals in the 1,440 minutes Stones has been on the field in the Premier League this term - one goal every 360 minutes.

That is the joint-best ratio among defenders with more than 300 minutes of involvement in the competition this season, level with Aston Villa's Kortney Hause (one goal conceded across his 360 minutes on the field).

LUKE SHAW

Left-back Shaw is continuing to enjoy his best season for Manchester United, even if the Red Devils are badly struggling for any sort of consistency.

The England international has four Premier League assists to his name in 2021 - more than any other defender - having set up goals for Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Bruno Fernandes, Edinson Cavani and Scott McTominay.

He also leads the way this calendar year for chances created by defenders with 34.

 

PIERRE-EMERICK AUBAMEYANG

Arsenal skipper Aubameyang appears to be returning to his best form after scoring eight goals in his last 10 matches in all competitions.

The Gabon international may have fired a blank as a late substitute against Leicester City last time out, but he will fancy his chances of finding the net in Saturday's trip to Burnley.

That is because Aubameyang has scored seven goals in his six previous Premier League meetings with the Clarets, the most he has netted against any team in the competition.

 

SON HEUNG-MIN

Crystal Palace have recorded back-to-back clean sheets in the Premier League, but if they are to extend that run they will need to keep Son quiet in Sunday's showdown with Tottenham.

The South Korea international tends to enjoy playing against the Eagles, having scored five times and assisted once in seven top-flight starts in this head-to-head.

Son's five goals against Palace is bettered only by the eight he has managed against Southampton.

CHE ADAMS

Southampton's slump continued with defeat to Everton last time out and Ralph Hasenhuttl will know the importance of bringing an end to his side's nine-game winless streak in the league.

The stuttering Saints head to bottom side Sheffield United on Saturday and that could mean a return to scoring ways for out-of-form Adams, who has scored three goals in three appearances against his former employers.

The 24-year-old, who spent two full seasons at Bramall Lane earlier in his career, has not scored more than once again any other Premier League opponent.

 

OLLIE WATKINS

Watkins has gone four matches without scoring in the league, but the statistics suggest you should not lose faith in the Aston Villa striker just yet.

He has netted seven times at home in the Premier League this season - Christian Benteke, with 11 in 2012-13, was the last Villa player to score more in a single top-flight campaign.

The last English player to net more times at Villa Park in a Premier League season, meanwhile, was Darius Vassell in 2001-02 with eight goals.

When Borussia Dortmund parted with a reported €20million to sign Erling Haaland from Salzburg a little over a year ago, they'll have been acutely aware of the coup they'd just struck – but whether they expected him to be quite this good is another matter entirely.

Those explosive first few months of the 2019-20 season at Salzburg left most of Europe's biggest clubs clamouring for the Norwegian, but Bayern were seemingly not among them. At least, not in the final straight.

While you can't necessarily have too many great players, few at the time or since have decried Bayern's lack of interest in the striking sensation, and that purely comes down to the presence of Robert Lewandowski.

Eleven months on from Haaland's Dortmund debut, Lewandowski won the FIFA Best Men's Player award having scored 60 goals across the qualifying period and led Bayern to a treble.

But the fact Haaland - named the Golden Boy soon after - was seen as unfortunate not to be nominated for the major gong ultimately won by Lewandowski is testament to the former Molde youngster's frightening potential.

Saturday's Der Klassiker is unlikely to have much bearing on Dortmund's Bundesliga title hopes given they'll still be 10 points behind Bayern even if they win, but the game does provide the opportunity to see the two sharp-shooters pitted against each other, like gunslingers in an old Western movie.

Haaland, along with Kylian Mbappe, is being outlined as the world's next great number nine, but is he already ahead of even Lewandowski?

LEWY'S LONG ROAD

It's easy to forget Lewandowski's backstory and route to the top, simply because he has been one of Europe's most-feared strikers for so long.

But Lewandowski's tale is one of rejection, perseverance and mastery – to say he always looked destined to reach the level he has would be revisionist. After all, the early years of his career in Poland were impacted by the death of his father, being cast aside by Legia Warsaw, a serious injury and failed transfers.

Sporting Gijon turned him down and the 2010 eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull resulted in the collapse of a move from Lech Poznan to Blackburn Rovers.

 

He joined Dortmund in June of that year, a couple of months before his 22nd birthday – by comparison, Haaland was still six months from turning 20 when he signed for BVB.

On top of that, Haaland's early impact on the Bundesliga has been far superior to that of Lewandowski, whose first season yielded only nine goals in 42 games across all competitions. The Norwegian managed 24 in 27 matches.

Looking at that alone, it's easy to make the assumption that Haaland is destined for even greater things than Lewandowski, but it's worth pointing out the Pole was played out of position a lot in his first campaign.

"I was annoyed having to play as a number 10 instead of playing up front as the number nine," Lewandowski told the Daily Mail in 2016. "I played the whole season as number 10. The following season I thought about why I was in that position, then I realised my game had improved. I learned a lot and, when I played up top again, I realised playing as a number 10 had made me a better player."

The data backs him up as well. Not only did his overall productivity in front of goal improve from nine goals to 30, he was proving more consistent generally in those decisive moments, his conversion rate increasing from 8.5 per cent to 19.5.

DIFFERENT BEASTS

When looking at – or comparing – any player in relation to Lewandowski, you have to consider the two different versions of him; pre-26 and post-26.

It was around this age that Lewandowski began to harness the fitness and nutrition expertise of his wife Anna, and it's quite easy to spot when that appeared to start paying dividends, as his goals haul rocketed from 25 to 42 in 2015-16.

He has not gone below 40 in any full season since then and already has 34 to his name in 2020-21 (32 appearances) – he is also just four behind Klaus Fischer (268), the second most-prolific player in Bundesliga history.

Haaland's long-term future isn't at Dortmund and, by extension, doesn't appear to be in the Bundesliga, so matching Lewandowski's record in Germany's top-flight looks unlikely.

But what's clear is he has found this 'world-class' level much earlier than Lewandowski – Haaland has more goals (55) across all competitions than any other current under-21 player in Europe's top five leagues despite playing just 57 games. Jadon Sancho is his closest rival with 46 in 130 appearances.

 

Haaland's first Bundesliga season with Dortmund saw him score 13 times, outperforming his expected goals (xG) by 4.2 – that's a greater differential than Lewandowski has recorded since 2016-17 (7.8), though the youngster's figure here has dropped to 2.5 in 2020-21.

While that is 0.7 less than Lewandowski's 3.2 xG differential, either way he's scoring a lot of goals and more than he would ordinarily be expected to over a long period of time, which speaks for his clinical nature.

Further to that, Haaland – who earlier this term became the youngest player to net four in one Bundesliga game (20 years, 123 days) – boasts a stunning conversion rate at Dortmund. Last season's 41.4 per cent (all competitions) is better than Lewandowski has ever managed, though it was of course limited to half a season.

In 2020-21 he hasn't quite found the same standard, yet his 29.7 conversion rate in all competitions is still better than any other Bundesliga player with 10 goals or more. By comparison, Lewandowski's 28.3 per cent will be a career-high for a single season if he maintains it.

BRILLIANCE IN LONGEVITY

At the very least, Haaland is already a contemporary of Lewandowski's – his effectiveness in front of goal is utterly devastating and, as demonstrated, seemingly a level above that of the Bayern talisman during his early Bundesliga days.

But the challenge for Haaland is to maintain that level and keep kicking on, as Lewandowski clearly did around the age of 26 when analysing what he could do better, taking himself from an excellent number nine to arguably the best of his generation.

Haaland is building from a higher platform than Lewandowski ever was, therefore one has to suspect he has the potential to surpass his exploits.

Maybe he could be this generation's standard-bearer. If he has half the amount of perseverance as Lewandowski, that'd be a good start.

As for whether he's already better than Lewandowski – well, part of the Bayern man's brilliance is his longevity and consistency, how he seems to be getting better with age. But for Haaland to be rivalling the world's best before he's even 21 is an achievement in itself.

The Los Angeles Lakers are still the defending NBA champions, but they are not without their weaknesses. Ones that the league's other premier teams are beginning to exploit.

The NBA's oldest team wheezes into the All-Star break with losses in six of their last eight games and looking up at the Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns – and possibly cross-town rivals the Los Angeles Clippers – in the Western Conference standings. And although that entire rough stretch has come with Anthony Davis sidelined by an Achilles' strain, the difference-making forward's absence does not solely explain the Lakers' slump.

There is no debate that the Lakers are a far better team with Davis on the floor, but the offensive struggles that have been exposed during the team's recent descent into mediocrity were in reality present even when the perennial All-Star was healthy. In 21 games since January 30, the Purple and Gold rank 22nd in the NBA in points per game, 24th in offensive rating, and dead last in three-point percentage with a 31.0 percent success rate from beyond the arc.

Granted, the Lakers were not a prolific perimeter shooting team during last year's championship run. Their ratio of points from three-pointers to total points stood at 29.1 percent, which ranked 25th in the NBA. That was 2019-20, however. This is 2020-21, a season in which triples are being taken and made at historic levels, and it is no coincidence that the teams that currently rank in the top four in three-point percentage (Clippers, Brooklyn Nets, Jazz, Milwaukee Bucks) also happen to own four of the top seven winning percentages.

The Jazz seemingly provided the blueprint on how to attack the Lakers when they knocked down 22 threes in handing the Los Angeles franchise their most lopsided loss of the season, a 114-89 defeat on February 24. The Suns followed the plan to a T when they drained 16 triples in a win earlier this week.

Truth is, those teams' methods were more of a trend than a discovery. The Lakers have allowed 14 or more three-pointers only 10 times in 37 games thus far, but they have lost eight of those contests. Just six teams have a lower winning percentage than the Lakers when permitting that many treys in a game, and none of them would be headed to the playoffs right now (for the record, those teams are the Minnesota Timberwolves, Sacramento Kings, Orlando Magic, Houston Rockets, Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks).

The initial reaction may be to believe that this is some sort of defensive issue, but it is not. The Lakers still lead the league in defensive rating and rank in the top 10 in three-point percentage defense. But it is become more than apparent that they have had trouble keeping up against opponents that can bomb away from long range with high proficiency, a real potential problem down the road should they meet the Jazz or Clippers in the playoffs, or the Nets in a possible Finals scenario.

The Lakers have one player, the streaky Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who is shooting 38 percent or better from beyond the arc while taking at least three three-pointers per game. The Clippers have seven such players, the Jazz six. The Nets have five, as do the Denver Nuggets, who have battled inconsistency and injuries but showed in a dominant win over the Lakers last month that they are still plenty dangerous.

Getting Davis back will surely help matters, as the chart below illustrates the offensive impact he brings when on the floor.

LAKERS, WITH/WITHOUT ANTHONY DAVIS ON COURT, 2020-21

(/100 = per 100 possessions)

With/Without

Points/100 – 112.8/106.4

FG Pct – .498/.469

Three-Pt Pct – .371/.338

Turnovers/100 – 13.9/15.5

 

The difference Davis makes, particularly from a shooting efficiency perspective, is more than evident. But is that enough, especially with there being no guarantee he will remain healthy throughout the postseason grind?

In hindsight, the contributions Danny Green made to last year's title run as a floor stretcher and perimeter defender may have been seriously undervalued. Wesley Matthews was supposed to fill that role following Green's initial trade to the Oklahoma City Thunder (before joining the Philadelphia 76ers) for Dennis Schroder, but he is shooting a career-worst 33.7 percent on threes and has been a complete non-factor offensively during the Lakers' current rut.

Caldwell-Pope's shot has gone south of late as well. In fact, he has had one of the steepest individual drop-offs from the perimeter over the last month-plus.

LARGEST DECREASE IN THREE-POINT PCT, PRE-FEBRUARY VS. REST OF SEASON – 2020-21

(min, 3.0 3PA/individual game)

Pre-Feb Since 2/1 Diff.

Tobias Harris, Phi – .464/.279/-.185

Wayne Ellington, Det – .505/.333/-.172

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, LAL – .478/.317/-.161

Garrett Temple, Chi – .408/.255/-.153

Desmond Bane, Mem – .520/.377/-.143

 

To summarise, the Lakers do not necessarily need another shooter if they are operating at full strength, though bringing one in surely would not hurt. That brings us to the next question – who could or should general manager Rob Pelinka be targeting at the trade deadline for some added reinforcements?

In a perfect world, the answer would be Bradley Beal should the Washington Wizards be open to parting with the league's current leading scorer. That is also a complete fantasy since the Lakers have neither the assets nor cap flexibility to pull off such a blockbuster. Even a less pricey option like JJ Redick is not realistic. Pelinka will need to do some bargain-hunting if he wants to buy.

Here are a few likely available options that seem to fit the Lakers' needs and price range:

Wayne Ellington, Pistons

Though he has been off the mark lately (see above), the 33-year-old journeyman is still hitting at an over 43 percent clip on three-pointers, is on a cheap contract and can likely be had for minimal cost with Detroit in the midst of a massive rebuild. Ellington would be a liability on the defensive end, but those deficiencies could be mitigated by the Lakers' strong supporting cast.

Ben McLemore, Rockets

McLemore is having a terrible year for a terrible Rockets team, but he shot 40 percent or better from three-point range in each of the previous two seasons and may benefit from a change of scenery. Team-mate Sterling Brown does not have McLemore's overall track record, but he is shooting above 40 percent on threes this season and could be a target as well.

George Hill, Thunder

A onetime team-mate of LeBron James in Cleveland, Hill would be an excellent fit as a sharp-shooting, savvy veteran who can alleviate some ball-handling duties from the King and Schroder. Though clearly not part of the Thunder's long-term plans, Hill's value and $9.6million salary still may be a tad too costly for the Lakers, who might have to part with a young asset like Kyle Kuzma to get a deal done.

The Lakers will not be making major moves at the deadline, nor should they have to with a roster that is deep, experienced and sports two of the game's best players. But in a season that is unveiled several legitimate challengers to their throne, playing it safe may just be the greatest risk.

Rebuilds require patience and a willingness to accept growing pains and, initially, quite a lot of losing.

The Carolina Panthers experienced a lot of that in 2020 but, such was their competitiveness in their first year under Matt Rhule, the franchise now appears ready to accelerate the timeline.

Carolina went 5-11 but a 3-2 start and a lack of blowout defeats fostered hope they can soon be back in postseason contention.

Where do they need to improve to make that ambition a reality?

We reflect on their campaign using Stats Perform data and looked ahead to a pivotal offseason that will go a long way to determining whether they will be back in the playoff mix in 2021.


Offense

After ending the Cam Newton era, the Panthers signed Teddy Bridgewater to be a placeholder at the quarterback position. 

Reports suggest the Panthers may view his job as the bridge quarterback as being completed, as they are seemingly looking to a potentially more exciting future under center. 

That is not surprising given how limited the Panthers' passing attack was in 2020. 

Only two teams had fewer touchdown passes than Carolina's 16, with Bridgewater completing only 41 per cent of his attempts of 21 air yards or more for three touchdowns and five interceptions. 

Bridgewater was a quarterback more reliant on his receivers' abilities after the catch than his arm strength. The Panthers had 4,129 gross passing yards and 50.7 per cent of that tally was made up of yardage after the catch, well above the league average of 45.6. 

That is not necessarily a criticism in an NFL where several teams rely heavily on short passing games that focus on the strengths of their receivers in the open field, but it is evident through the lack of downfield success that the Panthers need a more dynamic quarterback if they are to contend. 

Carolina lost eight games by one score in 2020, with Bridgewater failing to author a single game-winning drive. 

He threw one touchdown to three interceptions in the fourth quarter last season, further illustrating the need for the Panthers to find a more physically gifted quarterback who can make the clutch throws in the waning moments. 

Of course, the Panthers might have been more successful in that regard had Christian McCaffrey been available for more than three games. 

Bereft of the talents of a running back who led the league in scrimmage yards and touchdowns in 2019, the Panthers were 21st in rushing yards per game. 

They actually slightly improved in terms of rushes of 10 yards or more, recording 47 to the 45 they registered in 2019. However, with Carolina's 64 scoring drives ranked 23rd in the NFL, the Panthers evidently gave defenses little to fear in 2020. 

That has to change if they are to make the second-year leap under Rhule.

Defense

The Panthers spent every pick of the 2020 NFL Draft on defense and, at least in terms of their pass defense, that decision paid dividends. 

Carolina allowed 6.23 yards per pass play, the 12th-best average in the NFL, but the Panthers were dragged down by a below-par run defense. 

Indeed, the Panthers gave up 4.75 yards per rush, with just four teams faring worse than Carolina in that regard. 

And, while teams did not move the ball efficiently through the air against Carolina, the Panthers struggled to keep opponents out of the endzone. 

Of the 161 opponent drives versus the Panthers, 74 resulted in either a touchdown or a field goal, giving Carolina an opponent scoring efficiency of 46.0 that ranked 27th in the NFL. 

Yet this youthful unit still showed enough for Rhule and the Panthers to be encouraged going into 2021. 

Carolina finished 2020 tied-10th in takeaways with 22, third-round pick Jeremy Chinn contributing three of those in an impressive rookie season from the versatile safety. 

The expected development from him and first-round defensive tackle Derrick Brown provides reason for optimism, though the onus will be on Brown and edge rusher Brian Burns to do more to pressure the quarterback after the Panthers recorded 29 sacks in 2020, only good enough for tied-23rd in the NFL. 

This inexperienced group was asked to do too much by the offense last season but, if the likes of Chinn, Brown and Burns make the anticipated strides, the defense will have a much better chance of winning games for the Panthers in 2021.

Offseason

It's all about the quarterback in Carolina. After reportedly making an offer to the Detroit Lions for Matthew Stafford before he was traded to the Rams, the Panthers are expected to aggressively pursue a deal with the Houston Texans to acquire Deshaun Watson. 

With the young core they have, the Panthers would instantly become playoff contenders with Watson under center. Failing that, Carolina stands out as a likely destination for one of Zach Wilson, Justin Fields or Trey Lance in the draft. 

Regardless of whether it is Watson or one of that group of rookies under center in 2021, the Panthers will also need to reinforce their offensive line. 

Both starting tackles from last season, Russell Okung and Taylor Moton, are scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency. 

Thankfully, the Panthers are in a decent position to re-sign free agents and pursue those from other teams. They will be nearly $40million under an assumed salary cap of $185m. 

Having gotten little production from the position last season, tight end should be an area the Panthers look to address. Ian Thomas led Carolina tight ends with just 145 receiving yards in 2020. 

The defense is not the finished article but, after focusing on that side of the ball last year, this offseason is one in which Carolina needs to load up on offense to help the Panthers make the next step.

The New Orleans Saints are in limbo.

Until Drew Brees reveals whether his playing career will continue into a 21st season, New Orleans will not be able to finalise a plan of attack for an extremely challenging offseason.

With or without Brees, the Saints need to make some significant changes, New Orleans left facing a balancing act between staying competitive and getting under a shrinking salary cap.

They are under that pressure after one of most talented rosters in the NFL again came up short in the postseason, their playoff hopes ended in the Wild Card round by their NFC South rivals and eventual Super Bowl champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The lessons learned from that failure will dictate how the Saints attack free agency and the draft this year.

What can be gleaned from another season in which the Saints excelled but ultimately fell short of expectations? We reflect on their 2020 using Stats Perform data.

Offense

The numbers tell a very clear story. In 2020, the Saints' passing offense was not the force it has been in previous years.

After finishing seventh in net passing yards per game (265.3) in 2019, the Saints finished 19th (234.9) in the same category in 2020.

They also had nine fewer passing plays of 25 yards or more, recording just 24 having put up 33 in 2019.

Indeed, this was a season in which the increasing limitations of Brees' arm restricted the upside of the New Orleans attack.

Brees was 14th in passing yards gained per attempt (7.54) in 2020 but his impact as a downfield thrower was minimal.

He attempted just 21 passes of 21 air yards or more in his 12 games and completed only nine of them, though five went for touchdowns.

Should Brees retire, head coach Sean Payton may be tempted to go with Taysom Hill as his replacement in 2021 after he filled in for the 42-year-old in four games in 2020.

Utility man Hill attempted nine passes of 21 air yards or more and completed five of them for 170 yards and two touchdowns with a passer rating of 140.0, offering hope he could be an upgrade on Brees in that area.

Though there are concerns over the explosiveness of the passing game, there should be no such worries about their ground attack.

The Saints ranked eighth in the NFL in rushes of 10 yards or more (60), with 27 of those coming from Alvin Kamara.

Kamara finished fourth among running backs in scrimmage yards per game with (112.5).

With or without Brees, the Saints need to find a way to maximise the potency of their passing game so not to waste the prime years of one of the top running backs in the league and ensure they have the firepower to compete in the NFC.

Defense

One of the main reasons the Saints were able to contend despite the conservative nature of the passing offense was the strength of their defense.

The Saints were one of the premier defensive teams in football, allowing opposing offenses to move the ball at a rate of 5.01 yards per play, with only three teams bettering them in that regard.

New Orleans also had one of the most opportunistic defenses in the league, their 26 takeaways tied for third in the NFL.

The 92 points scored off those turnovers provided a substantial boost to Brees and the offense, with that resulting in the league's sixth-best tally.

The Los Angeles Rams (2) were the only team to allow fewer touchdowns of 20 yards or more than the five the Saints conceded, while New Orleans was exceptional at keeping opposing run games in check.

New Orleans forced 50 negative run plays in 2020, the negative yardage total of minus 121 fourth in the NFL behind the New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers.

Between their ability to limit big plays, take away the football and make offenses one dimensional through shutting down the run game, the Saints boasted an elite defense last season.

With uncertainty at the quarterback position, keeping that group together is likely to be pivotal to the Saints' hopes of staying in contention in 2021.

But for a team whose salary cap situation is the worst in the NFL, that will be easier said than done.

Offseason

Assuming the most optimistic estimate of the salary cap being $185million, the Saints are set to be $65m over it as things stand.

New Orleans look set to suffer after years of stretching the cap to its extreme, and that pain is coming in a year where they have 22 unrestricted free agents.

Brees has restructured his contract in advance of his expected retirement, helping the Saints significantly, yet their odds of keeping around defenders such as Marcus Williams, P.J. Williams and pass rusher Trey Hendrickson - who was third in the NFL with 13.5 sacks in 2020 - still look slim.

Linebacker Kwon Alexander and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who carry a combined cap hit of over $23m and can be released for a dead cap charge of just $4m, stand out as obvious potential casualties of the financial issues facing the Saints.

Should Brees indeed ride off into the sunset, New Orleans will need to decide whether to gamble on Hill or bring back Jameis Winston on an affordable deal and make him the successor.

The draft could also be an avenue by which the Saints could find Brees' heir, however, it seems more likely they will use their draft capital to reinforce a defense that could lose talent at all three levels.

Their decision-making in resolving the issue at quarterback and minimising the impact of the potential departures on defense will define whether the Saints stay at the sharp end of the NFC in 2021.

Manchester United became the best "school" in Nani's life once he learned how to work with Alex Ferguson – but crossing that bridge was not easy for the former Portugal star.

Nani's United career was a curious one, for he constantly had to contend with comparisons to compatriot and fellow Sporting CP product Cristiano Ronaldo, and that seemingly impacted fan expectations of him at the start.

His first season had some memorable highs, as he highlighted his penchant for a spectacular goal or two with long-range strikes against Middlesbrough and Tottenham, while also helping United to a Premier League and Champions League double, scoring in the penalty shootout that secured European glory.

Yet, despite his 12 Premier League goal involvements that term, Nani was regularly decried for a lack of consistency in his performances – a talented winger who seemed to frustrate as much as he did delight, with a man-of-the-match display in a 4-0 FA Cup win over Arsenal in February 2008 evidence of the devastating ability that perhaps was not shown enough.

After playing only 13 games – partly due to injuries – in his second domestic season, some fans might have expected United to cut their losses with Nani, but the penny seemed to drop, as he had a hand in 10 goals (six assists and four goals) in 23 appearances in the subsequent campaign and that proved the launchpad he needed.

Nani's best individual season followed in 2010-11 as he claimed 14 assists and nine goals to earn himself a place in the Professional Footballers' Association's (PFA) Team of the Year and win United's Players' Player of the Season award. The key for him? Finally understanding what made Ferguson tick.

Speaking to Stats Perform News, Nani said of his time working with Ferguson: "I think the best moment is all the trophies we won together, because I think when you play for a coach like that, the way he managed the team and always continued to win, we are privileged, no?

"But obviously, I learned to understand how to work with Alex Ferguson, because at the beginning, I was not understanding very well, because I was too emotional.

"My background, you know, you need some lessons of life, and I was learning so fast with all my team-mates and the coaches helping in that way, and I was happy at the end because they made me mature so fast.

"I learned how to play the game with them and how to behave in a big club like Man United, and that's why today when I look back, I have so great memories.

"That was my best school in all my life because what I learned from the time I had, seven years in Man United, they gave me today the capacity to be who I am and to understand things the way I understand them."

Across his time in the Premier League, only five players made more assists than Nani (43), though that figure may have been even more impressive were he not restricted by injuries to just 11 league games each in Ferguson's final season and David Moyes' solitary campaign.

Louis van Gaal subsequently decided his time at Old Trafford was up, but Nani looks back fondly on his time in Manchester, and particularly under Ferguson, whom he shared a touching moment with as he walked down the steps of the Stade de France having helped Portugal to Euro 2016 glory.

"Nani!" came the shout from Ferguson.

"Boss!" replied a visibly shocked but joyous Nani, still seeing the Scot as a person of authority despite being out of the game for three years at this point. The pair hugged and exchanged a few words before Ferguson sent his former player on his way.

And it was this personable character – rather than the authoritative figure Ferguson is often perceived to be – that Nani remembers most, yet still took some time to get used to.

"I understood that he would always like the players to go and talk with him," Nani said. "But he appreciated more when the players opened up to him and were honest, and told him whatever the truth was or whatever you needed.

"If you had any problem, he would like to have this opportunity to hear from the players, and as soon as you do that one or two times, you are more confident to talk with him, and then you feel you closer to the manager.

"You understand and you feel like, 'Oh, now he understands me, it doesn't matter if I'm happy or not'.

"So, I knew I could count on him if I needed to talk or if I needed anything, or if I wasn't in good shape or good form, it doesn't matter because he sees me as part of the team."

Now 34 and in MLS with Orlando City as he approaches the end of an illustrious career, Nani may feel he could have achieved even more on a personal level at United.

But being shaped by a man as revered as Ferguson is a claim to fame in itself.

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