Ideally, they would have liked more of one of the NFL's most tortured fanbases in the stadium to see it, but the Cleveland Browns will forever reflect on 2020 as the year the drought finally ended.

Kevin Stefanski's first season as head coach resulted in a first playoff berth since the 2002 season, with long-awaited revenge for a Wild Card defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers 18 years earlier coming as the Browns trounced Pittsburgh in their own back yard to clinch their first postseason win since Bill Belichick was head coach.

Little went right for the Browns following their trip to the Divisional Round in the 1994 season, Belichick enduring a losing final year in charge before the team spent three years out of the league following a controversial relocation to Baltimore.

But every sign points to the Browns writing more positive chapters in the history books in the coming years after Stefanski helped a deep roster realise its potential.

What do the Browns need to do to take the next step towards Super Bowl contention? We used Stats Perform data to reflect on a memorable 2020 campaign, analyse their offseason moves so far and look at what should still be on their to-do list heading towards the draft.

Offense

Any doubts around Stefanski's ability to get consistent production out of the Browns' offense were put to bed in his first season at the helm.

The Browns narrowly missed out on finishing top 10 in yards per play in 2020, their average of 5.79 putting them 11th.

Unsurprisingly for a coach experienced in running the Shanahan-Kubiak type offense that is en vogue in the NFL, the Browns' success was built around an extremely efficient run game.

Cleveland's yards per rush average of 4.8 was fifth in the league, with the Browns' offensive line doing an excellent job in opening holes for two elite running back talents in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.

Chubb (34) and Hunt (29), each finished in the top 10 in rushes of 10 or more yards, with each excelling at picking up yards after first contact by a defender.

Indeed, Chubb's average of 2.5 yards after contact per attempt was tied-second among running backs with at least 50 carries, just behind J.K. Dobbins of the Baltimore Ravens (2.6).

Hunt (2.2) was 10th in the same category, and they each ranked in the top three in broken tackles. Chubb was tied for first with Dalvin Cook on 14, just ahead of Hunt on 13.

The passing game ranked in the top half of the league in yards per play (11th with 6.72), with starting quarterback Baker Mayfield making obvious progress in protecting the football.

Having thrown 21 interceptions in 2019, Mayfield was picked off only eight times in 2020, his touchdown to interception ratio of 3.25 good enough for ninth in the NFL.

Yet the upside of Cleveland's passing game still appeared limited. Mayfield was a disappointing tied for 17th with 43 completions of 20 yards or more.

However, with the Browns' signal-caller ranking sixth in the NFL in passer rating (118.4) on throws of 21 air yards or more among quarterbacks with at least 25 such attempts, there is reason to believe that Cleveland's offense could offer a significantly greater downfield threat if Mayfield and Stefankski are willing to be more aggressive in 2021.

That change in approach may only come if the offense gets better support from the defense.

Defense

A defense blessed with one of the premier pass rushers in the NFL should be better at stopping opposing aerial attacks.

Despite the best efforts of Myles Garrett, named a first-team All-Pro for the first time in his career, quarterbacks had it too easy against the Browns in 2021.

Garrett racked up 12 sacks, sixth-most in the NFL, 18 quarterback hits and four forced fumbles. He was fifth in combined knockdowns and hurries with a total of 70.

But the Browns failed to properly capitalise on the pressure he created across the course of the season.

They allowed 31 passing touchdowns, the eighth-most in the league, with 11 of those scores coming on throws of at least 20 yards. Only five teams gave up more passing touchdowns of that distance.

Injuries in the secondary did not help the Browns' cause - rookie safety Grant Delpit did not play a snap in his rookie year and a nerve injury in his shoulder robbed Greedy Williams of his 2020 campaign.

That meant a stellar season from former fourth overall pick Denzel Ward was somewhat undermined by the lack of talent around him in the secondary, Ward tied second in the NFL with 18 pass breakups.

Where the Browns did excel was in preventing big plays from opposing rushing attacks.

They were tied seventh for the fewest opponent running plays of 10 or more yards, giving up 43, with the average distance of those carries (14.8), the fourth-lowest in the league.

Even with their efforts in keeping running backs in check, the Browns were a lowly 26th in opponent touchdown efficiency, allowing teams to find the endzone on 48 of 165 defensive drives.

The Browns will not legitimately threaten the AFC's elite without an improvement in pass defense, and their offseason to this point suggests they recognise that.

Offseason

Cleveland made one of the best signings of free agency when they inked safety John Johnson to a three-year, $33.75milion deal.

The price may have been slightly rich in a safety market that was predictably slow, but Johnson certainly justified it over the course of his four years with the Rams.

Johnson had 32 pass breakups between 2017 and 2020, tied for the eighth-most among safeties, and that total would almost certainly have been higher had he not missed 10 games through injury in 2019.

Joining Johnson in Cleveland is former Rams team-mate Troy Hill, the cornerback arriving on a two-year deal, while the Browns also took a flier on edge rusher Takkarist McKinley on a one-year deal.

The secondary and the pass rush could still use reinforcement, especially with interior defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi leaving for the Cincinnati Bengals, but it is the middle of the defense that stands out as the most pressing area of concern for the Browns.

Signing Anthony Walker Jr. to a one-year deal and retaining Malcolm Smith and Elijah Lee should not prohibit the Browns from targeting a linebacker in the draft, with a lack of athleticism at that position coming to the fore as Chiefs backup Chad Henne's fourth-quarter scramble effectively sealed their playoff elimination.

Athletic linebackers who can excel in coverage and play sideline to sideline against the run are a must in the modern NFL. The Browns have a deficiency there but, beyond that position, they have few obvious holes and their performance in Kansas City was reflective of a team ready to become a consistent contender in the AFC.

Years of struggle and stockpiling draft picks are finally beginning to bear fruit and, if the Browns can add the final piece of the puzzle on defense and give Mayfield more licence to go downfield in 2021, there is no reason they cannot threaten to go deeper into the playoffs next season.

Opening Day.

A term synonymous with baseball across the United States and the globe. For fans, it is nothing short of a national holiday.

The highly anticipated start to the season on April 1 is an occasion steeped in history, with tradition front and centre.

This year's Opening Day means more than most. It is the latest signal of American life and sport returning to normal amid the COVID-19 crisis.

The coronavirus pandemic led to an enforced break and a reduced 60-game regular season schedule behind closed doors, with a limited number of fans allowed to attend the playoffs as the Los Angeles Dodgers went on to end their 32-year World Series drought.

But 2021 will see the return of the usual 162-game calendar and more importantly, spectators in the stands. All but one of the 30 teams will start at reduced capacity – the Texas Rangers hosting a full house for their home opener against the Toronto Blue Jays.

As America's pastime begins anew, we preview the upcoming season, in which the Dodgers look to defend their World Series crown, using Stats Perform data.
 

Kershaw gears up for a franchise-record start

Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw – entering the final season of his three-year, $93million deal – will be on the mound when the Dodgers open their title defence against the Colorado Rockies.

It will be Kershaw's ninth Opening Day start – the most in franchise history – after injuries prevented him from beginning the 2019 and 2020 campaigns, the eight-time All-Star getting the nod ahead of Walker Buehler and high-profile recruit Trevor Bauer, the reigning National League (NL) Cy Young winner.

Future Hall of Famer Kershaw boasts a 5-1 record on Opening Day, with a 1.05 ERA (6/51.2), 59 strikeouts and eight walks. The 2014 NL MVP's only loss came in his previous start in 2018 as he allowed eight hits and one earned run, while tallying seven strikeouts in six innings against the San Francisco Giants.

Since 1913, when ERA became an official stat, Kershaw has managed the lowest Opening Day figure among pitchers with six starts – 1.05. The 32-year-old's ERA is ahead of Bob Feller (1.21), Jim Palmer (1.40), Hal Newhouser (1.41) and Walter Johnson (1.51).

As for the star-studded Dodgers, they are 74-62 (.544) all-time on Opening Day, winning nine of their 10 season openers since 2011, losing only in 2018.

Their 9-1 (.900) Opening Day record over this stretch is the best in the league, ahead of the Houston Astros (8-2), Baltimore Orioles (8-2), Seattle Mariners (7-3), Detroit Tigers (7-3) and New York Mets (7-3).
 

All eyes on Tatis and Padres

Fernando Tatis Jr. heads into the 2021 season fresh off signing his eye-popping 14-year, $340m contract with the San Diego Padres.

The Padres – winners of two NL pennants – are pinning their hopes on MLB's new poster boy delivering a first World Series to San Diego.

Tatis won a Silver Slugger award last year, having hit .277 with 17 home runs and 45 RBIs in the coronavirus-shortened 2020 season.

The powerful 22-year-old is the first player in MLB history to have at least 35 home runs and 25 stolen bases within the first 150 games of his career.

Tatis – the youngest Padres player to debut on Opening Day (20 years and 85 days) in 2019 – became the fastest player in franchise history (24 team games) to reach the double-digit home run mark in a season in 2020 after hitting his 10th and 11th homers in August.

In the postseason, Tatis homered twice against the St Louis Cardinals in October, becoming the youngest Padre to ever homer in a playoff game (21 years and 273 days) and the third-youngest player in MLB history to homer twice in a postseason match, behind Carlos Correa (21 and 20 days old) and Andruw Jones (19 years, 180 days old).

When it comes to on-base plus slugging, Tatis stacks up well. Since 1920, Tatis (150.8) is only behind Juan Soto (153.9 – 2018-20), Albert Pujols (159.3 – 2001), Jimmie Foxx (160.0 – 1925-29), Ted Williams (161.5 – 1939-40) and Trout (165.0 – 2011-13) for highest OPS-plus up until the age of 21.

Across his two Opening Day appearances, Tatis has three hits in seven at-bats and two runs while slugging at .571. The Padres will be hoping he can improve on that when they host face the Arizona Diamondbacks.

By comparison, Philadelphia Phillies star Bryce Harper and New York Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton love Opening Day.

Harper – the 2015 NL MVP and six-time All-Star – has nine hits, five homers and six runs in eight appearances, while 2017 NL MVP Stanton has 13 hits, four homers, 10 runs and 12 RBIs through 10 games.

Blue Jays recruit George Springer, a World Series winner with the Astros, has also impressed on Opening Day following five hits, three homers and six RBIs in six games.
 

Can Abreu and Freeman go back-to-back?

Chicago White Sox star Jose Abreu was crowned the American League's best in 2020.

Becoming the 28th player to win both the MVP and Rookie of the Year in his career, Abreu beat Jose Ramirez of the Cleveland Indians and Yankees star DJ LeMahieu.

Abreu – the fourth White Sox player to win the award – was second in MLB with 19 home runs and fourth in the AL with a .317 batting average.

Freddie Freeman of the Atlanta Braves trumped Dodgers star Mookie Betts and Padres sensation Manny Machado to the NL honour.

Freeman's 1.102 OPS was the second highest in MLB, trailing only Washington Nationals outfielder Juan Soto, while he led the majors with 51 runs scored and was second in the NL in batting average (.341), on-base percentage (.462) and slugging percentage (.640).

Does it bode well for the pair in 2020?

In a season after winning the MVP award, a player averages 135.9 hits, 21.5 homers, 80.5 runs and 79.5 RBIs with a slugging percentage of .516.

There have been 13 players to win back-to-back MVPs; 11-time All-Star Miguel Cabrera (AL) was the last to do so in 2012 and 2013. The most recent player in the NL was Albert Pujols (2008-09).
 

The end of Cleveland as we know them

After 106 years, this will be the last season the franchise will be known as the Indians, following the example of the NFL's Washington Football Team, who dropped their Redskins nickname in 2020 amid a long-time controversy.

Since 1915, Cleveland have won two World Series – in 1920 and 1948 – with their current streak of 71 seasons without a World Series title the longest active run in the majors.

In 1954, Cleveland went 111-43 (.721) in the regular season, before being swept in the World Series by the Giants. It stands as the highest single-season win percentage in AL history, and the best by any MLB team in the past 100 years.

Cleveland have had a winning record in each of the past eight seasons (2013-20), making them one of four MLB teams with an active streak of eight-plus (also Yankees 28, Cardinals 13, Dodgers 10). It is tied for the second-longest streak of winning seasons in franchise history (10 straight 1947-56; eight in a row 1994-2001).

Three Cleveland players have won the AL MVP Award – George Burns (1926), Lou Boudreau (1948) and Al Rosen (1953) – while five have claimed the AL Cy Young Award: Gaylord Perry (1972), C.C. Sabathia (2007), Cliff Lee (2008), Corey Kluber (2014 and 2017) and Shane Bieber (2020).

The Buffalo Bills will look back on the 2020 season as one in which the 2018 gamble they took on Josh Allen began paying the dividends they expected.

After signs of improvement in 2019, one of the most volatile quarterbacks in the NFL took a gigantic third-year leap, the Bills' faith in his remarkable athletic gifts paying off as he blossomed into one of the most prolific and devastating signal-callers in the league.

But Allen's jump to the league's elite at the game's most important position was still not enough to propel the Bills to their first Super Bowl title.

The Bills, like so many teams before them, were undone by the brilliance of the Kansas City Chiefs, losing 38-24 at Arrowhead Stadium as their quest for the Lombardi Trophy ended in an AFC Championship Game defeat.

What do the Bills need to do to finally get over the hump in 2021? We look at the key Stats Perform data from the 2020 campaign and their offseason moves to this point to determine what Buffalo's next steps should be ahead of another run at a maiden title.

Offense

The impact of Allen's development on Buffalo's offense is illustrated by the efficiency the Bills demonstrated in 2020.

Having finished 22nd in yards per play in 2019 with an average of 5.19, they improved to sixth with a jump to 6.13.

They were fourth in yards per passing play (7.42), while only the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers put up more touchdowns through the air than Buffalo's 40.

Buffalo's surge as a passing attack was fuelled by a huge uptick in accuracy from Allen.

Going into the 2020 season, Allen's highest completion percentage in his NFL career was 58.8, set in 2019.

Last year, Allen completed 69.2 per cent of his pass attempts, trailing only Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Deshaun Watson.

He was sixth in the league in touchdown to interception ratio, throwing 37 scores to 10 picks, and was fourth in completions of 20 yards or more with 62.

His passer rating of 107.4 on pass attempts of 21 air yards or more was ninth among quarterbacks to have at least 25 such attempts, with Allen's success on deep balls aided by the trade acquisition of Stefon Diggs.

Diggs led the NFL with 1,535 receiving yards after arriving from the Minnesota Vikings, becoming Allen's go-to target as he caught 73 receptions for a first down, a tally bettered by only Travis Kelce (79) and DeAndre Hopkins (75).

What the Bills offense lacked was balance. The running game struggled to get going throughout the year, with Buffalo finishing the year ranked 20th in yards per rush with 4.19.

Devin Singletary's 18 rushes for negative yards was the joint-ninth-highest number in the league, and while the Bills were 13th with 53 rushes of 10 yards or more, 16 of those came from Allen, with rookie third-round pick Zack Moss contributing only 12.

The Bills would have been in the league's bottom five in that category if not for Allen's contributions. While the emphasis was more on what their dual-threat signal-caller can do with his arm in 2020, he also did his best to elevate a running game that will hope to be much more efficient in 2021.

Defense

The Bills were far from the first team to fail to stop the Chiefs and they will not be the last.

But the porous nature of their defensive performance was reflective of a mediocre year on that side of the ball for Buffalo.

The Bills ranked 15th in opponent yards per play allowed (5.5). They were ninth against the pass (6.1) but a lowly 26th versus the run (4.62).

Opponents ran successful plays against the Bills' defense 51.8 per cent of the time, putting them 22nd in the NFL, while Buffalo were middle of the road (15th) in terms of opponent scoring efficiency, giving up either a field goal or a touchdown on 67 of 170 opponent drives.

Tied for 15th in sacks with 38, the Bills were underwhelming in converting their pressures. They had 163 quarterback hurries (17th) and 90 knockdowns (tied for 13th), indicating a need to find a pass rusher who can consistently finish his pass rushes in the offseason.

Where the Bills did excel was in taking the ball away. Their 26 turnovers ranked tied for third while they scored 90 points off takeaways, good for seventh in the NFL.

Cornerback Tre'Davious White led the way for Buffalo with five of those takeaways, three of which were interceptions, in another stellar season for the two-time Pro Bowler.

Buffalo possess talent at every level of the defense and, even though the Bills fell short at Arrowhead Stadium, there is plenty of reason to believe the addition of a game-changer up front can spark an upturn in defensive fortunes and put them over the top in 2021.

Offseason

The Bills have quietly enjoyed a productive and impressive offseason. Matt Milano signed a four-year, $41.5million contract that will likely look a bargain if and when Fred Warner signs his extension with the San Francisco 49ers later in the year.

Wide receiver John Brown and tight end Tyler Kroft both departed in free agency but were replaced by Emmanuel Sanders and Jacob Hollister respectively. 

Sanders should provide Allen with a dependable third-down option, as he moved the chains on 61.1 per cent of his third-down targets for the New Orleans Saints last year, putting him 10th among receivers with at least 10 such targets.

Buffalo also landed a capable backup for Allen at a palatable price, former second overall pick Mitchell Trubisky arriving on a one-year deal worth $2.5m.

Yet they head into the draft still with obvious needs to address.

The Bills brought back cornerback Levi Wallace on a one-year deal. However, he has been burnt for eight touchdowns over the last two seasons, meaning Buffalo could certainly benefit from an infusion of competition at the starting spot across from White.

However, secondary play is not what limited the ceiling of the Bills' defense in 2020. A lack of a dominant presence at edge rusher is what held Leslie Frazier's group back last year, and adding one should be their priority with the 30th pick in the first round.

The deadline is closed. Trade season is over in the NBA, with the buyout market now the focus for contending teams as they look to add to their rosters.

Meanwhile, amid the constant rumours and rumblings off the court, the 2020-21 season has continued at a pace, with the playoff battle heating up.

The Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings have all been helped over the past week by the form of key players, as they aim to make sure they squeeze into a postseason spot in the ever-competitive Western Conference.

But whose production has dipped during the games staged between March 22 and 28? Time to take a look at the numbers, provided by Stats Perform, to find out...


RUNNING HOT…

Kristaps Porzingis

Porzingis set season highs for minutes played (37) and shots attempted (28) against the Indiana Pacers, scoring 31 points, though the Dallas Mavericks still slipped to defeat at home. The Latvian had also recorded 29 points in his team's previous outing, while he averaged 13.50 rebounds (up from 8.58 entering the week) across the two games.

While he did not feature on Saturday - the Mavs opted to rest him against the New Orleans Pelicans, rather than put him out on the court in the second game of a back-to-back run – Porzingis has undoubtedly become a bigger factor at both ends of the court for Dallas since the resumption of the regular season after the All-Star break.

Zion Williamson

Like Shaquille O'Neal, but with skills comparable to a point guard. That was Mavs coach Rick Carlisle's assessment after he had watched Williamson dominate down the stretch against his Dallas team. The first overall pick in the 2019 draft either scored or assisted on the final 14 points for the Pelicans, who sensibly turned the offense over to their All-Star with the result on the line.

Williamson had posted a career-high 39 points while going 16-for-19 from the field in a defeat to the Denver Nuggets beforehand, too. It was his fifth game this season with at least 15 field goals attempted and an 80 per cent success rate, the most by any NBA player since Charles Barkley also had five in the 1988-89 campaign.

De'Aaron Fox

Fox is on an impressive scoring run, managing 147 points in his past four outings for the Sacramento Kings, an average of 36.75 per game. The guard had 44 – a new career best, no less – in a big win over the Golden State Warriors, helping streaking Sacramento close the gap to their opponents in the West standings.

There was also a demonstration of his passing skills – albeit perhaps more usually seen on a football field than the basketball court – when Fox aired the ball out to set up Harrison Barnes' dramatic game-winning shot against the Cleveland Cavaliers. "QB1," Fox tweeted about the assist... is it too late for him to enter the NFL Draft?


GOING COLD…

Lauri Markkanen

The Bulls did trade a big man before the deadline – but it was not Markkanen who they moved. Despite the rumours the Finn could be involved in a deal, instead it was Wendell Carter who was part of the package that led to center Nikola Vucevic arriving in Chicago.

So what next for Markkanen? He had averaged 18.19 points per game heading into the previous week, but his production dipped to 11.67. His issues with outside shooting did not help, making just two of his 13 three-point attempts as the Bulls suffered three straight defeats. Even with those recent struggles, though, he is making a career-high 38.2 per cent from deep in 2020-21.

Damian Lillard

Lillard scored 22 points in each of his three outings over the past week, while the six-time All-Star sat out Portland's road win over the Orlando Magic due to a knee issue. His dip in points is, in part, down to some struggles from long range. Lillard has averaged just 2.33 three-pointers made during the recent stretch, down from his 4.29 successful attempts from beyond the arc beforehand.

Still, there has been a slight rise in terms of his assists, including 11 against the Toronto Raptors upon his return to action on Sunday. The Trail Blazers won, too, improving to 7-3 through their past 10 outings.

Bradley Beal

Make no mistake, Beal is having an outstanding season for the Washington Wizards, averaging 31.3 points despite a downturn in his long-range production (33.8 per cent, compared to 37.7 per cent for his career).

Yet the 27-year-old has cooled off a touch. He managed a combined total of 48 points in successive games against the New York Knicks this past week, while his outing against the Detroit Pistons on Saturday was cut short at 17 points and six assists due to a hip injury. It meant his average for the week still sat at a respectable 21.67, though comfortably below his usual lofty standards.

It is safe to say LaMelo Ball has hit the ground running in the NBA.

The hype has long followed Ball and his rise in the basketball world, dating back to his high school days. His outspoken father tipped him to be a future number one draft pick – LaVar talking up his son at every turn.

While he was not the first name called on Draft night last year, LaMelo – the younger brother of New Orleans Pelicans guard Lonzo – has lived up to his billing since the Charlotte Hornets used the third pick on the 19-year-old sensation.

Prior to suffering a wrist fracture in March, Rookie of the Year favourite Ball ranked first in assists and steals among rookies, second in scoring and is tied for second in rebounds.

The face of an emerging and exciting franchise boasting Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier, DeVonte Graham and Miles Bridges, Ball was the only player over the last 60 years to lead all rookies in total points, rebounds, assists and steals at the All-Star break.

Last month, Ball joined Stephen Curry (2010) and Jason Kidd (1995) as the only rookies with seven-plus threes and 10-plus assists in a game and was the youngest to do so. He also became the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double in January.

"I'm really pleased for LaMelo that, not only has he gone to a situation that allows him to showcase what he can do, but the people around him from top to bottom really care about his development as a player and a person," Matt Flinn, who coached Ball during his time with the Illawarra Hawks in Australia's NBL prior to the draft, told Stats Perform News.

"We keep forgetting he's only 19. Can you imagine in three years when he's 22? Doing what he's doing now is quite special. In three or four years' time, he's going to be a superstar of the NBA."

Ball's playmaking ability has been on show throughout the 2020-21 campaign, right up until he hurt his wrist against the Los Angeles Clippers and underwent surgery – the fracture was reported to be potentially season-ending, though the Hornets have not ruled out a return.

By March 25, he had featured in the top 20 for assist percentage (33.4), a list including experienced stars, champions and former MVPs like Russell Westbrook, Luka Doncic, James Harden, Trae Young, LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, John Wall, DeMar DeRozan, Curry, Ben Simmons and Kyle Lowry.

His assists/turnover ratio stands at 2.18 – better than Los Angeles Lakers legend James.

"You just look at his numbers – possessions plus assists, if you look at the guys with more than 800 possessions, he's sitting in the top 25 in the NBA. When you go through the list, the guys on that list, it's quite incredible for a 19-year-old," Flinn said, having tipped Ball to flourish in the NBA during a pre-draft interview with Stats Perform News.

"When we recruit guys, we look at assist/turnover ratio. Again, that's testament he's hitting the positive column for his usage rate. The ride for LaMelo is just beginning."

Through 41 games, Ball is averaging 15.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 6.1 assists this season in just 28.6 minutes per game. He would be the first player in NBA history to average 15/5/5 in less than 30 minutes per game in a season (minimum 40 games played), per Stats Perform.

When you compare his first 41 games to some of the past and current greats at the same stage, Ball ranks well.

His points-per-game average is better than five-time champion and Lakers great Kobe Bryant (7.0 in 1996-97), former MVP Harden (9.8 in 2009-10), Curry (13.4 in 2009-10), Steve Nash (4.5 in 1996-97) and Jason Kidd (9.4 in 1994-95).

When it comes to his assists numbers, Hall of Famer Michael Jordan (5.1 in 1984-85) – the owner of the Hornets – Nash (2.9), Dwyane Wade (4.3), Harden (2.1), Curry (4.6) and Kyrie Irving (5.7 in 2011-12) did not fare as good as Ball.

Highlighting his versatility, Ball's rebound average is better than Irving (3.8), Curry (3.8), Harden (3.2), Wade (4.4), Bryant (2.0), Nash (1.3), Kidd (5.7) and Allen Iversen (4.2 in 1996-97).

"It really doesn't surprise me," Flinn said when asked about some of the record-breaking numbers. "I'm not just saying it because the level of belief is probably the first thing that struck me about LaMelo.

"This kid was just born to play. You get a lot of players who are manufactured and they do an incredible amount of work, we put them in boxes in their roles they fulfill in teams. LaMelo really has no ceiling. You just have to look at him in transition and some of the passes he executes in the game.

"In transition, to be able to thread a needle and put the exact amount of spin on it so it holds up to hit a guy running at speed, you can't coach or teach that. Prior to him coming to me and going to Charlotte, he copped a lot of criticism, his family copped a lot of criticism for the show, whatever he did within his journey etc, but they've done an incredible job in the point leading up to me.

"Having allowed him to fail at times in some of the games he played. You look at the old mainstream coaching, 'Well we put accountability on our players and if you turn it over or don't stick to the system, we're dragging you'. That never happened with him during his pathway.

"They're certainly seeing the benefits of that now because when you strip it back now, he is a disciplined, great kid, who genuinely cares about his team-mates and makes people better around him. I'm so happy that he appears to have found his feet."

Flinn – who believes the Jordan-led Hornets have the potential to be a powerhouse in the next five years – added: "What I tried to do with him and what [Charlotte head coach] James [Borrego] is doing as well, even though you might be in a half-court situation, you try to get him downhill.

"When he gets downhill, he has so many escape routes when he commits. He will contest at the rim, he will leave his feet and have three escape routes. For me, that's the real special nature of his play.

"Always the question mark was his ability to shoot the ball [Ball is shooting at 45.1 per cent]. He will continue to get better shooting the ball no question. That will bring in a whole new dimension on how you defend him out of the pick and roll. He's still good enough to work in tight spaces.

"The first time I saw him throw a full-court baseball pass to hit a guy straight in the chest, I'll be honest, I thought 'what are you doing?'. But he rarely fails with those kinds of plays. He just has that unwavering belief. I said to him one time, 'if you weren't playing basketball, you'd probably be a quarterback given your arm and ability to read a player'. It's unique."

Ball was the favourite to be crowned the 2020-21 Rookie of the Year before he was struck down by injury. Does he still deserve the award?

"I might be biased but I really hope so. He is a once-in-a-generation player for the NBA," added Flinn, who said Ball would be devastated following the wrist injury as he "lives, eats and sleeps basketball".

"I believe he'd take winning over anything, but it would be something he'd deserve given the body of work he's been able to produce so far. I don't think you'd have too many arguments."

It was not sealed in the fashion they would have hoped for, but Wales could belatedly celebrate Six Nations glory on Friday.

Wayne Pivac's side had missed the chance to claim a Grand Slam triumph last week in a heartbreaking last-gasp defeat to France.

But with France needing a bonus-point win by a 21-point margin in Friday's rearranged clash with Scotland - delayed due to an earlier COVID-19 outbreak - to deny Wales again, Les Bleus' loss in Paris handed them the title.

"It's a real emotional rollercoaster, the last seven days really," Wales head coach Pivac said on Saturday.

He added: "It was just different and that's what we've come to expect from this pandemic really.

"It was evident that we had to go and do something different and that was to watch us win a championship from our living room."

That was far from the only first in a tournament with its fair share of twists and turns, though, as Opta data shows.
 

MORE TRIES, MORE DRAMA

There were six tries in Friday's frantic affair at the Stade de France and that contributed to a new Six Nations record.

A total of 86 tries were scored across the 15 matches, the most in a single edition of the tournament in its history.

And Scotland's dramatic 27-23 success, sealed with an 80th-minute Duhan van der Merwe score, was a fitting end to the competition.

Eight of the 15 games were decided by margins of five points or fewer, another new benchmark.

"There were some great games," Pivac said. "It was just a shame we didn't have crowds. You can imagine how much of an atmosphere would have been generated.

"It was a good advertisement for the game and a lot of nations are heading in the right direction. It's exciting."

Van der Merwe beat two defenders in the decisive fixture and in doing so set a new tournament high of 31, surpassing Brian O'Driscoll's 30 defenders beaten in 2000.

The wing's brace also saw him become the first Scotland player to finish a Six Nations campaign as the outright leading try scorer (five).

France needed to score at least one more try in order to have a chance of snatching the championship, but they still matched their best haul of 18 from 2006.

Not all the records were quite so impressive.

Italy conceded 239 points, 34 tries and had a points difference of -184, the worst such tallies for any team in an edition of the Six Nations.
 

CHANGING OF THE GUARD

Wales' title was their sixth since Italy were introduced to the tournament to form the Six Nations in 2000.

Four of their previous five had been Grand Slam successes, a record over this period they could not extend thanks to France's epic win last week.

But Wales are now only one Six Nations crown behind England's seven.

"It gives us a lot of confidence to feel like we're on the right track," the title-winning coach said. "We can't get ahead of ourselves."

This was not a tournament England will reflect on fondly, even as captain Owen Farrell became only the third man - after Ronan O'Gara and Jonny Wilkinson - to reach 500 points in the Five/Six Nations.

Eddie Jones' outfit came in as defending champions but slumped to their joint-worst Six Nations finish, coming fifth as they had in 2018.

England also lost against Ireland, Wales and Scotland in the same Five/Six Nations campaign for the first time since 1976.

At the bottom of the table, though, there was no change.

Italy have picked up the Wooden Spoon in each of the past six years, this after finishing bottom of the championship just once in the prior four seasons.

For the first time in a long time, the new MotoGP season promises a wide-open title race.

Marc Marquez's standing at the top of the sport has long been undisputed, but injury robbed him of his 2020 campaign and allowed Joan Mir to profit.

A response from Marquez this year has to be expected, but he will not be fit in time for the Qatar double-header that begins the season.

The first of the two Losail International Circuit races comes on Sunday, when Marquez's rivals will be looking to send a message to the absent superstar ahead of another intriguing title tussle.
 

MIR A THREAT TO MARQUEZ?

The 2020 championship would typically make Mir the man to beat in 2021, but Marquez is the bookmakers' favourite, even as he prepares to sit out the start of the season.

Prior to last season, when he appeared in only the first grand prix, Marquez had six titles in seven years.

The Repsol Honda rider will be confident, too, that his delayed recovery will not negatively impact his challenge. This will be the 14th time the campaign has started in Qatar but only four of the previous 13 race winners – most recently Marquez in 2013 – have gone on to top the standings at the end of the year.

Indeed, it is not an event Marquez will mind missing too much, with just one win in seven appearances at the Qatar Grand Prix.

If he can return swiftly afterwards, however, his rivals will have reason to fear. Excluding four abandonments, Marquez has finished first (16 times) or second (eight) in his past 24 races.

Mir's sole previous appearance at Qatar does not suggest he will be able to forge an early lead either, having finished eighth in 2018.

But the defending champion made the podium in seven of his final 11 races in 2020 to clinch the title, Suzuki Ecstar's first riders' championship since 2000.
 

CHALLENGERS TO THE CHAMPIONS

Mir was the man who went away with the title as Marquez missed out, but he was not alone in pursuit of the six-time champion's crown.

Petronas Yamaha's Franco Morbidelli was second last year, just 13 points back, and finished the campaign with two wins in four races, as well as consecutive podiums to end the season.

Jack Miller, now of the factory Ducati team, joined Morbidelli on the podium on both occasions and is being counted among the contenders despite never finishing higher than seventh over the course of a season in this category.

Morbidelli's team-mate last year Fabio Quartararo has moved to the Yamaha factory team after a disappointing 2020, but he has shown just what a threat he can be early in the year, starting with back-to-back victories last time out.

And while Marquez and Mir at least do not have to worry about Andrea Dovizioso, taking a one-year sabbatical, the Honda man might find competition a little closer to home.

New team-mate Pol Espargaro earned his move with five podiums in his past 10 races after only one in the previous 109.
 

THE OLD AND THE NEW

Marquez could join Valentino Rossi on seven titles, behind only Giacomo Agostini (eight) in the 500cc class, with another championship – and the Italian is highly unlikely to play any part in stopping him.

With Marquez out of the picture, veteran Rossi slumped to a career-worst 15th place in the standings last season, with only a single podium – his lowest return since 2011.

That disappointing campaign brought an end to the 42-year-old's second stint with the Yamaha factory team.

Rossi will instead ride for Petronas Yamaha, where he needs just one more podium to become the first 500cc/MotoGP rider to the 500 mark.

At the other end of the spectrum, Luca Marini, Enea Bastianini and Jorge Martin are debutants.

There were three new men in 2020, too, although with Esponsorama Racing pair Marini and Bastianini, this is the first year since 2013 (Andrea Ianone and Claudio Corti) there will be two Italians making their bow in the same year.

It's been some time since the Phoenix Suns finished a season above .500, and even longer since they last appeared in the playoffs. While both droughts will end this season, the question remains whether they are a legitimate title contender in a stacked Western Conference. 

Ask around as to which teams are most likely to win a championship and the Lakers, Clippers, Nets and maybe the Jazz, Bucks and 76ers would garner the most responses. That is somewhat curious since only Utah and Philadelphia currently have better records than Phoenix, who are an NBA-best 21-6 since January 28. 

The Suns showed signs of what they could become when they went 8-0 in the seeding games in the NBA 'bubble' last season, though they still missed out on the play-in in the West. The biggest reason behind that success was the otherworldly play of Devin Booker, who averaged 30.5 points on 50.3 per cent from the field with 6.0 assists and 4.9 rebounds. 

Sensing the Suns were on the verge of reversing their recent fortunes, general manager James Jones made the offseason move to acquire Chris Paul from Oklahoma City in the hopes of building on that success. Paul, an 11-time All-Star who recently became the sixth player to reach 10,000 assists, has accumulated all kinds of accolades during his 16-year career but, most importantly, is still playing at a very high level.  

Paul has twice helped guide a team to their most wins in a season in franchise history, doing so with the Hornets/Pelicans in 2007 and the Rockets in 2017-18. Though they won't reach that lofty standard in this abbreviated season, the Suns' current .674 winning percentage (29-14) would be their best since 2006-07. 

Paul's acquisition instantly made Phoenix better both on and off court and gave the franchise a measure of respect that only players of his calibre can bring. His ability to run an offense combined with Booker's continued ascent to stardom has the Suns in unfamiliar territory. 

Phoenix haven't had a winning season since going 48-34 in 2013-14 and only Sacramento (14) and New York (seven) have longer active stretches without finishing over .500. The Suns last reached the postseason in 2009-10, when current Nets coach Steve Nash was manning the point. The 10-season drought is the league's second-longest, trailing only Sacramento (14).  

Where that improvement has come from is maybe the most surprising aspect of Phoenix's success.  

Long known as a free-wheeling, offensive-minded team, the Suns are winning mainly with defense this season. Phoenix have finished 20th or worse in scoring defense in each of the last 17 seasons and ranked dead-last as recently as 2017-18.  

That’s no longer the case as Phoenix are allowing 107.4 points per game, third-best in the NBA. It's been nearly 40 years since the Suns finished a season in the top five of that category (102.0 in 1982-83, ranking third).

That's quite a turnaround from last season, when the Suns ranked 20th in the league in scoring defence, an improvement of 6.0 points.

There's no denying that strong defensive teams are geared for postseason success, and the Suns' depth should also be an advantage in the playoffs. While Booker is Phoenix's undisputed star and focus of the offense, there are plenty of other pieces capable of driving the offense.  

The Suns have seven players averaging in double figures, which is tied for the league lead (minimum 20 games played). They also have four players with at least 100 assists, a total bettered only by the Hornets, Nuggets, Kings and Bucks. 

Phoenix also have proven to be a stellar road team with a league-best 14-6 mark. That bodes well if they need to win playoff games at Utah, Los Angeles or Denver.  

After Booker and Paul, Phoenix’s third-leading scorer is DeAndre Ayton. The third-year center hasn't put up monster offensive numbers (14.7 ppg) that often are expected of a number one overall pick, but he ranks among the league leaders in rebounding (11.0) and his defensive versatility is a huge reason for the Suns' success.  

Ayton has also shown a knack for raising his play in the second half, shooting 65.1 per cent from the field after half-time - the third-best such rate among players with 150 attempts. 

Mikal Bridges (13.5), Jae Crowder (10.3), Cameron Johnson (10.3) and Dario Saric (10.0) also are scoring in double figures for the Suns. Bridges has made a huge leap this season, going from 9.1 points and 3.1 rebounds last season to 13.5 and 4.8 this season. He's also shooting 52.6 per cent from the field and ranks second on the team with 79 three-pointers.  

After Paul (10 straight playoff appearances) and Crowder (eight straight), this group does not boast extensive playoff experience and that includes coach Monty Williams. But Paul is among the game's great leaders and will be counted on heavily to guide the Suns through the postseason. 

Unlike several other top contenders, Phoenix have been extremely fortunate with injuries. The team's top six rotation players (Booker, Paul, Ayton, Bridges, Crowder and Johnson) have combined to miss only 19 games and Phoenix have used just five different starting lineups. Only Utah have used fewer (three).  

The Suns have fared well against some of the league's best teams with a 5-2 mark against the Lakers, Clippers, Jazz, Nets, Bucks and 76ers, but some of those wins have come against clubs missing top players due to injuries.  

That makes it difficult to get a read on how the Suns might perform in the postseason but considering the franchise has never won a championship in its 53-year history or even been in the playoffs for over a decade, the time for accomplishment is certainly now. 

Gareth Southgate is set to bring up 50 games in charge when England start their qualifying campaign for the 2022 World Cup.

San Marino are the visitors to Wembley Stadium for the milestone match, with Southgate the seventh to make it to a half-century at the helm for England.

His record so far is impressive: 29 wins, 10 draws and 10 defeats. He has also introduced some notable names to international football, many of which will form the backbone for the Three Lions in this year's delayed Euro 2020 tournament. 

In total, 42 players have made their senior debuts under the current boss. Plenty have made an impact, though some have fallen by the wayside since getting a taste of the senior team. 

HITS 

Jesse Lingard 

Lingard is the only member of the current England squad to have made his debut in Southgate's first match in charge, a 2-0 win over Malta in October 2016. The 28-year-old was a key member of the 2018 World Cup squad but has not featured for his country since the Nations League Finals nearly two years ago, having struggled for minutes at Manchester United. 

However, a January loan move to West Ham has paid off. No player has been involved in more goals – Lingard has scored five while also providing two assists – since his debut for the Hammers in February. Southgate – who advised the player to remain in the Premier League – has duly taken note, handing him a recall. 

Harry Maguire 

Maguire made his first England appearance against Lithuania in October 2017, when he was playing for Leicester City. The centre-back quickly established himself in Southgate's side for the World Cup semi-final run, while he has continued to be a mainstay since for the national side.  

Indeed, the Manchester United defender has missed just 14 possible outings for club and country since that maiden outing, starting 28 out of England's 30 matches. 

Kieran Trippier 

Paris was the setting for Trippier's bow, the full-back handed a chance in a 3-2 friendly defeat against France that saw him start alongside then-Tottenham team-mates Eric Dier, Dele Alli and Harry Kane. 

Now playing his club football in Spain with Atletico Madrid, the 30-year-old continues to be a key attacking outlet for Southgate's teams. His total of 55 chances created since June 2017 is comfortably the highest for England, with striker Kane second on the list with 37. 

Jordan Pickford 

No player has both played and started more games for England under Southgate than Pickford, whose debut came in November 2017.  With 30 appearances, he sits one ahead of Maguire.

The Everton goalkeeper will not be involved as his manager celebrates his 50th match at the helm, though, as an abdominal muscle injury sees him missing for March's World Cup qualifiers. His absence also offers some of his rivals for the starting job an opportunity to stake their claim to be considered number one, with Pickford's form having been somewhat unconvincing for a while.

Declan Rice 

Rice's introduction to action for England came via a substitute appearance during a 5-0 win over the Czech Republic two years ago, replacing Alli just after the hour mark. 

The midfielder started all six of the Nations League qualifiers in 2020-21, including scoring his first international goal in a 4-0 triumph over Iceland. As for his club career, only Rio Ferdinand and Joe Cole played more minutes in the Premier League for West Ham than Rice before the age of 22.


MISSES 

Nathaniel Chalobah 

Having represented England through the youth levels from under-16s upwards, Chalobah has so far played one solitary minute for the senior team, with his late, late opportunity coming against Spain in October 2018.  

Since then, the former Chelsea midfielder has started just 42 league games for Watford. This season he is plying his trade in the Championship, contributing three goals and an assist as the Hornets aim for an immediate return to the top flight. 

Dominic Solanke 

Solanke was part of the England squad that won the 2014 European Under-17 Championship, including scoring in a final against the Netherlands that was eventually settled by a penalty shoot-out. 

His senior debut came against Brazil in November 2017, but he has not been involved since. The striker signed for Bournemouth in January 2019 but failed to score in his first 38 Premier League appearances for the club, a barren run finally ended with a brace against Leicester in July 2020. He has been far more prolific in the Championship, getting 11 goals.

Lewis Cook 

Cook had success with England at youth level, captaining the squad that went all the way at the Under-20 World Cup. Solanke was also involved in that tournament, along with full internationals Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Dean Henderson - who was not first choice in goal - and Fikayo Tomori. 

The midfielder's maiden appearance for the senior side earned his grandfather a tidy windfall through a winning bet, but that outing as a substitute against Italy at Wembley remains his only cap. Since then, he has started 58 games for Bournemouth, scoring once. 

Jack Cork 

Another to be handed a late cameo by Southgate, Cork featured for all of four minutes in a friendly with Germany in November 2017. A young line-up that included new faces Pickford and Ruben Loftus-Cheek managed a 0-0 draw at Wembley. 

The midfielder – who was part of the Great Britain squad coached by Stuart Pearce at the 2012 Olympic Games in London – was a regular at Burnley before injuries hampered him in the current season, restricting him to just nine league outings for Sean Dyche's team in the 2020-21 campaign. 

Lewis Dunk 

Dunk has helped Brighton and Hove Albion rise from League One to the Premier League, with his performances earning him an England opportunity against the United States in November 2018. He started in a 3-0 win that saw Wayne Rooney make his 120th and final appearance for the Three Lions. 

The centre-back has not featured since, however, despite remaining a mainstay for his club. Since August 2018, Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk (10) is the only defender to have scored more Premier League goals than Dunk's impressive total of nine.  

Mason Mount is relishing the battle for places in the England team, particularly with Jack Grealish and Phil Foden in the long term. 

England manager Gareth Southgate has something of an embarrassment of riches in the attacking positions at the moment, with a host of players thriving at club level. 

Mount has been a key man for Chelsea this term, playing more minutes (2,231) than any of his team-mates, while his 69 chances created is 41 more than anyone else. 

He has been a creative pillar for the Blues, as further evidenced by his 168 passes into the box being by far the most among Chelsea players, while the fact he quickly won his place back after being left out for Thomas Tuchel's first game in charge speaks to his impressive mentality. 

That attitude will surely stand him in good stead not only at club level but also for England, whose creative options seem to be improving with each international window.

 

The advantage that Mount believes he has, however, is his versatility. 

"I am always trying to improve," he told reporters ahead of England's opening 2022 World Cup qualifier against San Marino on Thursday. "I feel like I am versatile and can play in a deeper role and obviously in a more forward role. I'm always learning. I'm still young and I'm still learning. 

"In terms of the formation, we are versatile as a team. In the modern game, you have to be ready to change if the other team are tactically different to what you have prepared for. 

"We are ready for that, definitely. I feel like I can play in any position and I just want to understand, more and more, different positions." 

Elaborating on England's strength in depth, Mount added: "There are so many good players in this team. 

"I've seen Jack and Phil do brilliant things. It motivates me to want to do the same. We all have ambitions to win major trophies, at England and at club level we're all competing to want to do that." 

Of course, Mount's comments help pose the question: can he line up alongside Grealish and Foden in the same team? 

Well, they have done once already – against Iceland in November 2020, as all three started and England won 4-0. 

Mount, occupying a deeper role, did catch the eye as he got the Three Lions' second goal, though Foden and Grealish were arguably more impressive. 

 

Playing from the left, Grealish – whose 75 key passes in the Premier League this season is bettered by only Bruno Fernandes – was lively and created three chances, while also winning 81.8 per cent of his 11 duels. 

Of those involved in three duels or more, only Harry Maguire (15, 86.7 per cent) produced a stronger display, highlighting Grealish's competitive streak in the final third. 

Foden's performance had a similar relentlessness to it, his record in duels identical to the numbers for Grealish, though he was more decisive in attack when on the ball. 

The Manchester City talent scored twice, got an assist and laid on three chances, behind only Harry Kane on four. 

As such, Mount's display could be considered a little less impactful for England going forward. Sure, his 87.8 per cent pass completion rate in the opposing half was good, but none were considered key passes. 

It suggests that, while certainly possible to get all three into the line-up, if Southgate is to persist with his 3-4-3 formation, Mount will be the one shoe-horned into the team. 

With that in mind, it seems likely Mount's greatest strength – his creativity – could become stifled. 

However, with Grealish absent through injury, Mount has another opportunity to stake his claim as a key player in this team – succeeding in that respect will surely be reflected by an elevated status, with England's central midfield often crying out for more creativity in recent years. 

England's best hopes for a trophy in 2021 might just be their Under-21 squad.

Aidy Boothroyd's youngsters head into the group stage of the Euro Under-21 finals as legitimate contenders for the trophy, despite being placed in a seriously tough group with Croatia, Portugal and Switzerland.

History is against England, too. They have reached the finals for eight consecutive tournaments but have only progressed from the group stages three times in that sequence. Since winning the trophy in 1984, they have reached the final only once, in 2009, where they lost to Germany.

Still, Boothroyd is undoubtedly blessed with a rich pool of talent, despite leaving out stars such as Phil Foden, Reece James and Jude Bellingham, who will all be involved in the senior side's World Cup qualifiers this month. There is a strength in depth to the Young Lions that should give them real hope of going all the way.

Perhaps the current crop can also buck the trend when it comes to breaking into the senior fold. Only 17 of the 48 players from the previous two Euro Under-21 squads have gone on to play for the full England side, and only Jordan Pickford could consider himself a regular there.

In short, this undoubtedly talented group has plenty to play for…

 

Max-imum opportunity

In front of keeper Aaron Ramsdale, who was in goal for all but one of their qualifiers, sits an encouraging defence.

Norwich City full-back Max Aarons has not only kept 15 clean sheets with the Championship leaders, but his attacking threat has been marked this season. Aarons has created 51 chances from open play and completed 52 dribbles, both the second-best figures among defenders in the competition. At the same time, Aarons has only been beaten by an opponent's dribble 13 times, the lowest number among the top nine of that particular group of attack-minded defenders. Little wonder he is a reported target for Bayern Munich and Everton, among others.

Japhet Tanganga of Tottenham is untested at this level but Jose Mourinho's young protege will not have far to look for a (relatively) experienced guide. Spurs' Ryan Sessegnon, one of just two England players who also played at the 2019 finals, has enjoyed an impressive loan spell at Hoffenheim this season, winning more tackles per 90 minutes (1.7) than anyone else for the Bundesliga side. He has also contributed two goals and two assists – only five Bundesliga defenders have had more direct goal involvements.

There's Rowe stopping him

Arguably England's most in-form young midfielder outside the senior squad has amazingly never played before for the Under-21s.

Emile Smith Rowe has been the big success story of Mikel Arteta's time in charge of Arsenal. Since the start of last season, as well as scoring twice and registering six assists, he has created 1.5 chances from open play per 90 minutes in all competitions, the best number among Gunners midfielders to start at least 10 matches in that time.

 

In 2020-21, Smith Rowe (nine) is second only to Mason Mount (14) for players 23 and under in the Premier League when it comes to multi-chance involvements – the number of unique shot-ending sequences in open play where a player both creates the chance and is involved in the build-up.

Exactly how Boothroyd deploys Smith Rowe remains to be seen, but he could offer a potent combination with rising Liverpool star Curtis Jones, a major plus in an otherwise troubled Premier League title defence for Jurgen Klopp.

Jones, the youngest Liverpool player to score in the Premier League away from Anfield in seven years, averages the most successful final-third passes (22.5) this season of any Reds player to feature in at least half of their league games.

Among Premier League midfielders in this age group this season, only Mount (nine) has been involved in more sequences that ended in them taking a shot at goal than Jones (seven) – and the Liverpool man has played fewer than half the minutes of the Chelsea star.

On the wings, Callum Hudson-Odoi might have experience of playing for England at the highest level, but a strong performance at these championships could be just what he needs as he begins to build up the trust of Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel. Since the German took charge on January 26, no Blues player has played more games (13) than Hudson-Odoi and only two have created more chances per 90 minutes (1.71). His directness down the wing could be a major asset: among players 23 or under in the Premier League, only Ferran Torres (0.59) has a better rating than Hudson-Odoi (0.55) when it comes to Expected Assists from a take-on.

Madueke's chance to shine

With Mason Greenwood having withdrawn due to injury, much of the goalscoring burden may fall on the Under-21s' all-time top marksman, Eddie Nketiah.

 

Arsenal's young striker has one goal in three league starts this season and three in six in the Europa League, but the international stage is where he really shines: 13 goals in nine qualifying games helped him become the Young Lions' record goalscorer, surpassing Alan Shearer.

If Nketiah should struggle for form, Boothroyd can turn to Noni Madueke. An unknown at this level on the international scene, Ruud van Nistelrooy's PSV pupil has 11 direct goal involvements in the Eredivisie this season – no teenager has more – with his seven goals coming in just six starts in the Dutch top flight, at an average of just over one for every four non-penalty shots.

It was another disappointing season for the New York Giants in 2020, despite the arrival of new head coach Joe Judge.

The Giants endured a fourth consecutive losing campaign and have not tasted victory in a playoff game since winning the Super Bowl to conclude the 2011 season.

However, after going 1-7 in the first half of the year, the Giants went 5-3 down the stretch to finish 6-10.

That decent finish, which was helped by a competitive defense, coupled with some high-profile moves in free agency, has at least given Giants fans some reasons for optimism going into 2021.

We have looked at the best Stats Perform data to get a good look at what they need to do to become competitive again.
 

Offense

The offense was a key weakness for Big Blue in 2020, with Judge and new offensive coordinator Jason Garrett struggling to find a solution.

But while it is fair to suggest Daniel Jones does not look like an elite quarterback, it is hard to place much of the blame on his shoulders.

The Giants' offensive line was among the worst in the NFL once more, with number four overall pick Andrew Thomas enduring a rough rookie season as veteran Nate Solder opted out amid the coronavirus pandemic.

While they had a varied group of skillsets at wider receiver, the unit lacked a true number one option.

A succession of injuries also meant the Giants rarely had all their key pass-catchers on the field at the same time. To make matters worse, star running back Saquon Barkley was lost for the season with a torn ACL in Week 2.

Jones played better than his headline statistics - 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions from 14 games, an 80.4 passer rating and 29th-ranked passing offense (189.1 net passing yards per game) - would suggest. 

The lack of a top supporting cast is highlighted by a total of 751 yards proving enough for Darius Slayton to be Jones' leading target, while with 423 yards on the ground, the QB was the team's second-highest rusher.

The Giants had just 36 passing plays of 20-plus yards, the second-lowest in the NFL.

But Jones thrived when they did open the offense up, providing hope for when he has better receivers to throw to and some more aggressive play-calling.

In passing attempts with 21-plus air yards, Jones had a passer rating of 135.4 – best in the NFL – completing 19 of 38 for five touchdowns and zero interceptions.

Despite his success in that category, there were 21 other QBs who threw more deep passes, with Tom Brady topping the list with 86 attempts, statistics that should give Garrett food for thought.

Without Barkley as the O-line often struggled, the Giants had 46 runs of 10-plus yards and averaged 110.5 YPG, both figures which were below the league average.

Defense

The Giants' defense, though, was a surprising positive for the season.

Despite going into the year with concerns over a lack of star power and talent, defensive coordinator Patrick Graham put together a competitive unit.

Cornerback James Bradberry was a Pro Bowl selection after signing in free agency, while Leonard Williams enjoyed a strong season on the defensive line.

The Giants were ninth in points allowed (357) over the whole season. Even more impressively, they allowed just 138 points over the final eight games, the best total in the NFL over that span.

They were 12th in yards allowed per game (349.3) while 5.34 yards allowed per play was ninth in the NFL.

New York allowed only 52 big plays of 20-plus yards (ranked 6th) and just six of those went for touchdowns (equal 3rd).

They were better than league average with 22 takeaways and 40 sacks too – 11.5 of which went to Williams, who was playing on the franchise tag and also had 30 QB hits and 14 TFL.

Offseason

All of that meant the Giants went into the offseason with improving on offense as a priority and plenty to build from on the defense.

That defense got even stronger with the addition of former first-round pick Adoree' Jackson after his release from the Tennessee Titans, giving the team what looks like a strong cornerback pairing with Bradberry.

With Jabrill Peppers and last year's highly rated second-round selection Xavier McKinney at safety, the secondary looks strong.

Linebacker is a weakness, though the Giants are still looking good up front after Williams was retained on a three-year, $63million deal.

While that looks like a huge overpay, it does at least ensure the defensive line is well placed despite the departure of Dalvin Tomlinson, with Dexter Lawrence, their first-round pick in 2019 still in place. 

An elite edge rusher would complement those big bodies well and may well be an area of focus in the draft.

Offensively, the big splash was Kenny Golladay, seen as the top wide receiver to hit the open market, on a four-year, $72m deal. 

A low-cost flier was taken on speedster John Ross after the release of Golden Tate, while veteran Kyle Rudolph joined Evan Engram in the tight end room.

The offensive line remains a concern, particularly with guard Kevin Zeitler released, though Solder is back for 2021 on a restructured deal and there will be hopes of an improved sophomore year from Thomas.

With the number 11 pick in the draft, and many of the other teams near the top of the order eyeing a QB, the Giants are in a good position to land a key contributor at a position of need. 

If the Giants go receiver and bring in either Ja'Marr Chase, DeVonta Smith or Jaylen Waddle to pair with Golladay and possession receiver Sterling Shephard, Jones will surely greet the move with delight.

Gregory Rousseau is among the options if the Giants look to fill their need at edge in the first round, while tackle Rashawn Slater could prove tempting if the Giants try to swing again for an offensive lineman.

Regardless of the route they go down, Jones' supporting cast has already been significantly improved. 

It is fair to say he has not had a great situation either during his college career at Duke or in his first two years as an NFL quarterback.

But going into his third season, Jones now has a platform to succeed and must show enough this year to prove he can be the man who is capable of bringing the Giants back to the top. 

If he cannot, both he and general manager Dave Gettleman will be facing an uncertain future.

Winning the NFC East in 2020 is unlikely to take pride of place on many CVs.

The Washington Football Team came through the worst division in football with a 7-9 record before falling at the first hurdle in the playoffs, battling hard before being beaten by eventual Super Bowl champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But as well as scraping together the most wins, a strange season provided Washington with greater cause for optimism than their divisional rivals.

Ron Rivera's team were particularly strong on defense, as a lack of top-level production at the quarterback position prevented them from being anything more than the best of a bad bunch.

That is evidenced by Stats Perform data, but Washington's offseason moves to date suggest they should get better in 2021.

Offense

Washington had three different starters at quarterback last year, rarely the sign of an effective offensive unit.

And none of Dwayne Haskins (six starts), Alex Smith (six) or Kyle Allen (four) are set to line up under center in the coming campaign following the recruitment of Ryan Fitzpatrick. The new QB ended 2020 as a backup on a non-playoff team in Miami but still undoubtedly offers an upgrade, having played some of the best football of his career in recent seasons.

 

Washington ranked 25th for net passing yards per game (216.6), albeit that still had them second in the division in that regard.

Haskins, a first-round pick in 2019, was released in December after he was pictured partying without a mask at a strip club following a defeat to the Seattle Seahawks and then completed just 50.0 per cent of 28 passes, with no touchdowns and two interceptions, against the Carolina Panthers, earning a wretched passer rating of 36.9.

Among qualifying QBs - 224 attempts for the season - only Nick Foles (5.94) trailed Haskins in yards per attempt (5.97), while his passer rating of 73.0 was third-worst behind Sam Darnold (72.7) and Carson Wentz (72.8).

Haskins was only playing against Seattle and Carolina because Smith, back from his awful, life-threatening leg injury, was out again. Smith won his final five starts of 2020 but finished the year close behind Haskins, with a seventh-worst 6.28 yards per attempt and fifth-worst 78.5 passer rating, and has since been cut.

For Fitzpatrick, this is a low bar to clear.

But the former Dolphins QB should also have the benefit of greater talent on the end of his passes, with wide receiver Teddy McLaurin carrying the load for Washington in 2020 with 87 catches on 134 targets for 1,118 yards and four touchdowns.

McLaurin ranked 14th in the league for receiving yards per game (74.5), with Logan Thomas the team's next best performer in 64th (41.9).

On the ground, Antonio Gibson found more help, effectively protected by his offensive line as he rushed for 170 carries, 795 yards and 11 TDs.

But Washington's total offense put up just 317.3 yards per game and 4.83 per play, ranking 30th and 31st. Improvement should come easy but is desperately required.

Defense

If those offensive yardage numbers effectively sum up Washington's woes on that side of the ball, the figures going the other way do a similar job.

Washington allowed a meagre 304.6 yards per game and 4.85 per play, totals only undercut by the Los Angeles Rams' outstanding defensive unit. Opponents scored just 329 points, the fourth-fewest in the NFL.

Blessed with the star performers that were absent elsewhere in the team, the defense made light work of the other similarly poor NFC East offenses.

Washington have found incredible value up front, where defensive ends Montez Sweat and Chase Young and defensive tackles Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen are all still on their rookie contracts.

Sweat led the team in sacks (9.5 for 83.0 yards), QB hits (20) and tackles for loss (12) and scored a defensive TD on his only pick, while Young was not far behind (7.5 sacks, 12 QB hits, 10 TFL, four forced fumbles and three recovered). Payne had 3.0 sacks, eight QB hits and seven TFL, as Allen had 2.0, 14 and three.

Sweat, Young and Payne also combined to stuff 16.0 runs, contributing to Washington's impressive record in forcing stoppages. Only Pittsburgh's defense (25.0) allowed a lower percentage of conversions on fourth down (37.5).

These players will have to be paid eventually if a talented quartet of the future is to stay together, but these are not worries for this year.

The big defensive offseason questions instead lay elsewhere, notably how would Washington replace cornerback Ronald Darby's production with 16 passes defensed? The signing of William Jackson III has already answered that query.

Offseason

Jackson's three-year, $40.5million signing has been Washington's biggest outlay in free agency, his 11 passes defensed ensuring they should again have a top performer at corner.

The team clearly recognised they could not afford to weaken the strongest area of their roster.

Another safety could yet be of use, although Kamren Curl (63 tackles, three interceptions and a defensive TD) and Landon Collins, recovering from a torn Achilles, are both on the books.

On the offense, Fitzpatrick's one-year, $10m deal showed exactly how Washington see his signing. The 39-year-old is neither a long-term solution nor a game-changer but should instead do enough to keep his new team at the top of the division.

To help the veteran - and McLaurin - the team made a big pick-up at receiver in the form of Curtis Samuel, a second-round draft pick during Rivera's time with the Panthers.

He arrives for three years and $34.5m, having posted a career-high 1,051 yards (851 receiving, 200 rushing) in 2020, along with five TDs.

But Washington still have not quite gone all in - not that they need to.

Even if they do not look a genuine contender at this stage, the team's defense will keep them in most games.

With $20.9m of cap space remaining and their first-round pick at 19, Washington are instead well positioned to seize on any unexpected opportunities that come their way.

It might only take a crazy trade from a team in turmoil or a lucky bounce in a big game to bring the NFC East champions to the fore.

It's entirely possible the staging of the 2021 European Under-21 Championship will have passed many people by, given the fact it's taken on a somewhat peculiar format of a mid-season group stage with the knockout phase following two months later.

Originally due to take place solely in June, organisers were forced into a re-think following last year's postponement of the senior competition. It was decided to split the Under-21s' event in two, therefore avoiding a clash.

Despite the rather unconventional format, the competition will see many of the continent's most-promising prodigies on display.

The tournament, based in Hungary and Slovenia, begins on Wednesday with the Magyars hosting Germany, and we have identified some high-potential talents to keep an eye on.

Alban Lafont, France – Goalkeeper

Lafont has been a regular at this age-group level with France for many years, but a brief stint at Fiorentina in 2018-19 did not go to plan, with the Toulouse youth product freely admitting his performances "were not the best" as he secured to a loan move to Nantes ahead of last season.

Only Andrea Consigli (six) made more than Lafont's four errors leading to shots in Serie A two seasons ago, but his dependability appears to have improved considerably since returning to France, with no shots occurring because of errors by him in 57 Ligue 1 matches.

He also produced a particularly strong performance in the shock 2-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain earlier this month, making four saves including a couple of eye-catching stops to thwart Angel Di Maria.

 

A closer at Lafont’s performances for a struggling Nantes side in 2020-21 reveals he has not had the greatest campaign. When discounting own goals and penalties by the opposition, Lafont has allowed 3.5 goals more than the ‘average’ goalkeeper would have been expected to concede in Ligue 1 this season (37 conceded, 33.5 xG on target).

The metric ‘Goals Prevented Rate’ can account for different goalkeepers facing a different volume of shots through a period of time. An example of this is that PSG goalkeeper Keylor Navas has a goals prevented rate of 1.37 this season, meaning for every non-penalty goal that Navas has conceded (excluding own goals), the average goalkeeper would be expected to concede 1.37. Lafont’s rate of 0.91 this season is 10th out of 17 goalkeepers to have played 1800 minutes of French top-flight football in 2020-21.

 

Additionally, France's regular at this level knows he has a very capable understudy in Illan Meslier breathing down his neck.

Prior to his 21st birthday earlier in the month, Meslier broke the record for the most clean sheets by an under-21 goalkeeper in a single Premier League season (eight) and has since added another to that figure.

That means he has three times as many shutouts as Lafont, which is intriguing because it raises the question of why then has Meslier not conceded fewer goals?

For starters, it suggests Lafont is more consistent but also highlights that when Leeds concede, the floodgates can really burst open. With those 46 goals spread across 19 matches, it means Meslier is conceding on average 2.5 goals per game when he doesn't get a clean sheet – this drops to 1.7 for Lafont.

 

On top of that, Meslier's seven errors leading to shots is more than any other player in the Premier League this term, perhaps showing he's still in the inexperienced, nervous phase that Lafont has seemingly left behind.

Meslier's superior save percentage of 71.1 compared to 65.7 speaks to the former Lorient youngster's shot-stopping abilities, though for the time being Lafont's greater consistency looks set to keep him first-choice.

Sven Botman, Netherlands – Central Defender

A promising loan spell with Heerenveen last season alerted Lille to the talents of Ajax-owned Botman and he has been a real hit for Les Dogues since a reported €8m move, helping them to mount a serious Ligue 1 title challenge.

Lille's 19 goals conceded is the fewest in France's top tier and, while not necessarily entirely down to Botman, there's no doubt he's made his presence known as a reliable powerhouse at the back.

 

Of the 856 players across Europe's top five leagues to have engaged in at least 150 duels, Botman's 71.4 per cent success rate is the best, and that competitiveness is also reflected in his aerial prowess.

Only four of the 157 players in the continent's elite divisions to have been involved in 100+ aerial duels have a better success rate than the Dutch youngster (72.5 per cent).

While his impressive physical attributes might lead to certain assumptions about his style of play, Botman is more than a brutish centre-back, as proven by the fact his 452 ball carries – defined as a player moving five metres or more with the ball – is the fourth highest among Ligue 1 central defenders.

 

Of course, there is likely to be a glaring absence from the senior Dutch side at Euro 2020. with Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp not expecting Virgil van Dijk to be ready for the tournament.

That means there is potentially a spot up for grabs in the centre of the Netherlands defence, and Botman's combination of power and elegance suggests he could be a good fit as Van Dijk's deputy.

Granted, the young defender – who hasn't been capped at senior level yet – still has a way to go to match up to the Reds star, but in the context of young defenders of a similar ilk, Botman certainly compares well and his strengths are similar to those of Van Dijk.

His aerial stats prove he's an excellent physical specimen, and his effectiveness in duels reflects the fact he's a difficult defender to beat. A strong showing here might just help convince Frank de Boer that Botman's ready to step up later this year.

Jules Kounde, France – Central Defender

Les Bleus are blessed with an embarrassment of riches in most areas, but the fact Kounde is turning out for the Under-21s in this tournament instead of the senior side exemplifies their depth in quality at the heart of the defence.

In his second full season with Sevilla, Kounde has kicked on following a hugely encouraging second half to 2019-20, so much so that he's arguably the first name on the team sheet for Julen Lopetegui.

 

His forward-thinking nature has made him key to the coach's 'Lavolpiana build-up' defensive structure, a setup attributed to Argentinian coach Ricardo La Volpe that essentially demands centre-backs carry the ball forward from a three-man backline.

Only two central defenders in La Liga have bettered Kounde's rate of 19.2 carries per 90, while there are just three who have covered more distance carrying the ball further up field than the Frenchman this term (2,774 metres).

This positivity is generally offset by Fernando dropping in to form a faux back three, while Kounde's movement up the right can often create overloads as he teams up with Jesus Navas, Sevilla's biggest chance creator (44).

 

But evidence of his progressive mentality doesn't stop there. While possessional stats can often be skewed for centre-backs, given the sheer number of simple short balls played between defensive colleagues, Kounde is clearly looking ahead, and often.

No defender has been successful with more forward passes in open play than Kounde this season in LaLiga (507), with the 22-year-old completing an impressive 79 per cent of these. Therefore, perhaps it's not surprising to learn no Sevilla player has been involved in more shot-ending build-up sequences than he has (53), demonstrating his value to their forays forward, despite not attempting the shots or making the final pass in that move.

Kounde is a prime example of how centre-backs can be just as satisfying to see in possession as your classic playmakers – in fact, that is essentially what he is developing into, a defensive playmaker of the ilk who would have looked at home in the great Barcelona teams of the past 14 years.

Pedro Goncalves, Portugal – Attacking Midfielder

It's fair to say that, when Sporting CP set out to replace Bruno Fernandes, never in their wildest dreams would they have expected what they got. Pedro Goncalves had been a key figure for Famalicao in 2019-20, but to say he's surpassed expectations in Lisbon would be an understatement.

Goncalves operates in similar spaces to Fernandes, albeit drifting towards the right a little more, and his hot streak in front of goal has helped put Sporting on course for a first league title since 2001-02.

 

In 22 Primeira Liga matches, the attacking midfielder has scored 15 goals – none of which were penalties. The 22-year-old's xG total is just 6.9, meaning his over-performance of 8.1 is the biggest across Europe's top six leagues, aside from the phenomenal Robert Lewandowski (9.3).

Of course, the chances of him being able to sustain such a run in the long-term are low, but it still highlights what a danger the former Wolves youngster poses in his current form.

 

Comparisons with Fernandes have been rife, for obvious reasons, but they show many different traits to their game.

In Fernandes' final 50 league games for Sporting, he averaged 3.4 shots per 90 minutes and 2.3 of those non-penalty shots came from outside the box – Goncalves attempts 2.6 on average each game, with only 1.1 coming from beyond the penalty area.

As such, the average quality of Fernandes' shots in his final 50 games for Sporting weren't outstanding, with his xG per non-penalty shot equating to 0.07. Goncalves' is almost double that at 0.13, suggesting he picks his moments more selectively while also taking fewer attempts.

Nevertheless, despite Fernandes' penchant for a long-range effort, he only scored four times from outside the box in his final 50 league matches for Sporting – Goncalves already has three this term from 28 fewer games.

 

The biggest difference between the pair is assists. Fernandes' 20 in his final 50 outings for Sporting dwarfs Goncalves' three in 2020-21, but interestingly their expected assists per 90 minutes isn't hugely dissimilar. Fernandes is ahead 0.29 to 0.20 in this area, but a potential explanation for this potentially lies in the respective teams they've played in.

 

The next highest-scorer for Sporting this season after Goncalves himself is Nuno Santos with six – they don't have a prolific centre-forward, whereas Fernandes was supplying Bas Dost, who netted 76 times in 84 league games for the club between 2016 and 2019.

As we all know now, Fernandes was on the trajectory of an elite-level player. He's proven this at Manchester United, though there were certainly those who were sceptical about him prior to his move.

It'll be a tough ask, but why can't Goncalves continue to defy expectations?

Fedor Chalov, Russia - Forward

Russian striker Fedor Chalov is undoubtedly one of the most experienced players involved at the tournament, with the 22-year-old having already played 115 Russian Premier League matches in addition to his 11 UEFA Champions League appearances.

Chalov burst on to the scene in Russia with CSKA Moscow at 18 years old back in November 2016 and scored in just his fifth top-flight appearance for the club versus Ural a month later.

After scoring six goals in each of his opening two league seasons at CSKA, 2018-19 was when he really began to make a name for himself in Russia - winning the league's top scorer award with 15 goals, while also posting his best-ever season tally for assists (7).

But Chalov's career hasn't kicked on as expected since then, scoring just 13 goals in 50 top-flight appearances over the past two seasons, but his performances have been stirring enough to attract the attentions of multiple Premier League clubs during the January transfer window.

 

Despite this, Chalov's numbers domestically at top-tier level are mightily impressive for a player so early in his career. Despite only being 22, Chalov's tally of 60 goal involvements since his Russian Premier League debut are the third most by a player in the competition.

Russia are certainly one of the underdogs for the 2021 Under-21 European Championship and are unlikely to top their group, having been drawn alongside favourites France. However, if Chalov can find form in the first stage of the tournament then he could be the linchpin to Russian hopes of qualifying for the knockout stages in May.

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