We're at the point of the season where clear opinions can be formed of NFL teams, whether they be real life or fantasy.

Much can change in the coming weeks but, with four weeks in the books, a divide between the contenders and pretenders is starting to emerge in the NFL, and that will also be the case in fantasy leagues around the globe.

But whether you're looking to maintain a strong start or recover from an underwhelming one, the need to make the right lineup decisions remains. This is no time to get complacent or to get too downhearted and take picking your starters more lightly.

With that in mind, Stats Perform has picked four offensive players and a defense who should be starting in Week 5.

 

Quarterback: Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens vs. Indianapolis Colts

Having thrown for over 300 yards and a touchdown against a stout Denver Broncos defense last week, Jackson now gets to come home to face a Colts defense allowing 7.35 yards per pass play.

With the turnover-prone Carson Wentz quarterbacking the Colts' offense, Jackson should find plenty of opportunities to pad his stats. Always a must-start, this is a week to be especially excited about owning Jackson in fantasy.

Running Back: Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings vs. Detroit Lions

Held to 34 yards on nine carries on his return from injury last week against the Cleveland Browns, Cook gets a much more inviting matchup in Week 5.

Only two teams, the Houston Texans and the Kansas City Chiefs, have allowed more rushing touchdowns than the winless Lions. Don't hesitate if Cook is on your roster, slot him into a starting role and back him to return to the endzone.

Wide Receiver: Deebo Samuel, San Francisco 49ers @ Arizona Cardinals

There may be some reluctance to start Samuel given the uncertain situation surrounding the 49ers at quarterback and their Week 5 opponent, the unbeaten Cardinals. However, it is not merited.

Samuel leads the NFL in receiving yards with 490, putting him on pace for over 2,000. Maintaining that is unlikely but, averaging 10.5 targets per game, Samuel stands as the clear number one target in the Niners' offense regardless of who is under center.

Each of Trey Lance's touchdowns last week in relief of Jimmy Garoppolo were thrown to Samuel. His target share and the challenge the Niners will likely face in having to keep up with an extremely potent Cardinals offense means any concerns over the quarterback and the matchup should be ignored.

Tight End: Hunter Henry, New England Patriots @ Houston Texans

Henry and Jonnu Smith have yet to deliver on the lucrative contracts they signed with New England in the offseason, but a trip to face the lowly Texans should be just the tonic they need.

Former Los Angeles Charger Henry found the endzone for the first time as a Patriot against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week.

Now he gets the chance to face a Texans defense allowing the second-most fantasy points in the league to opposing tight ends. It's time for the Patriots' investment in him to start paying dividends.

Defense: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Denver Broncos

Not much is going right for the 1-3 Steelers, but their defense, while not at its 2020 levels, is still a tough one to crack and is tied fourth with 29 opponent plays for negative yardage.

With Teddy Bridgewater in the concussion protocol, the likelihood is Drew Lock will get the start at quarterback for Denver. Lock was tied for the league lead with 15 interceptions last season and threw his first of this year in relief of Bridgewater last week versus the Ravens. 

Long story short, start the Steelers' defense.

Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer felt Greg Joseph's missed field goal in their 34-33 loss to the Arizona Cardinals should have been an "easy one".

The Vikings dropped to 0-2 in heartbreaking fashion as Joseph sent a potential game-winning kick wide of the right upright from 37 yards at the end of a captivating see-saw encounter at State Farm Stadium.

Joseph also missed an extra point in a one-point defeat and Zimmer did not hold back in airing his thoughts on his kicker.

"I felt good about that kick," said Zimmer. "I knew he had missed the extra point earlier, but he has been kicking good, we are indoors, perfect surface.

"I am thinking this should be an easy one here. He just has to continue to be more consistent."

Asked in his post-game media conference if he was willing to stick with Joseph, Zimmer replied: "I don't think you should make a decision today on things like that."

The Cardinals are 2-0 following another spectacular showing from Kyler Murray, who threw for 400 yards and three touchdowns while adding a further score on the ground.

Having tossed four touchdown passes and scored on the ground in Week 1, Murray became the first player with at least three passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown in each of his team's first two games of a season in NFL history.

He also has 12 career games with both a passing and a rushing touchdown, the fourth-most by a quarterback in his first three seasons behind Cam Newton (20), Josh Allen (16) and Dak Prescott (13).

Yet Murray was also intercepted twice, with one of those picks returned for a touchdown, and head coach Kliff Kingsbury accepted the Cardinals were fortunate to prevail.

"I've got to tip my hat to Minnesota," Kingsbury said. "We knew we would get their best shot and they were awesome. Offensively, defensively, I thought they played their tails off and we just got fortunate at the end.

"We lost the turnover margin, throw one pick going in, throw a pick-six and then rough the punter on a fourth down that extends the drive and still find a way to win, that's hard to do in this league.

"I was proud of their fight. We have a lot we've got to clean up; it wasn't nearly good enough. But they fought hard."

Kyler Murray's magic touch and a stunning field goal miss at the death gave the Arizona Cardinals a 34-33 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.

While Murray's latest series of highlight-reel plays were the talk of the game, the Vikings had a chance to win it on the final play as Greg Joseph set up for a 37-yard field goal. 

But Joseph, who had hit twice from 52 yards earlier in the game, sent his kick wide right to set off a wild celebration in Arizona as the Cardinals remained unbeaten. 

Arizona had trailed 20-7 midway through the second quarter after three Kirk Cousins touchdown passes, but Murray took control of the game with his legs and his arm. 

The quarterback started the rally with a 12-yard touchdown run, then delivered a scrambling, 77-yard bomb to a wide-open Rondale Moore less than two minutes later to give the Cardinals the lead. 

Nick Vigil picked off Murray on the second play of the second half and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown, but the Cardinals star marched his team right back down the field and hit A.J. Green as Arizona went back on top. 

After the teams traded field goals in the fourth quarter, the Vikings had a chance to win it on Joseph's leg, but it was not to be.

Murray completed 29 of 36 passes for 400 yards and three touchdowns as he got the better of Kirk Cousins, who was 22 of 32 for 244 yards and three TDs. Minnesota's Dalvin Cook had 22 carries for 131 yards. 

 

Cowboys edge Chargers on last-second field goal

Greg Zuerlein's 56-yard field goal as time expired gave the Dallas Cowboys a 20-17 victory at the Los Angeles Chargers. 

It was a welcome bounceback for the Cowboys after their season-opening defeat at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and it came with a starring role for a surprising player. 

Tony Pollard carried just three times for 14 yards in the opener but exploded for 109 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries against the Chargers. 

Ezekiel Elliott added 71 yards and a score on the ground while Dak Prescott completed 23 of 27 passes for 237 yards. 

Trey Lance threw his first NFL touchdown and Jimmy Garoppolo excelled but the San Francisco 49ers were forced to hold off a near-miraculous rally from the Detroit Lions in a 41-33 thriller.

Rookie third overall pick Lance was not able to win the starting quarterback job from Garoppolo, yet he still made his regular-season debut at Ford Field on Sunday, and he took his first snap with the Niners on the Detroit 16-yard line on their second drive of the day.

His second snap saw him hit Trent Sherfield for a five-yard touchdown pass and, though Detroit responded with Jared Goff connecting with tight end T.J. Hockenson, Garoppolo's 314-yard performance, which included a 79-yard touchdown throw to Deebo Samuel, scores on the ground from rookie Elijah Mitchell and JaMycal Hasty and a Dre Greenlaw pick-six appeared to have put the game beyond all doubt.

San Francisco led 41-17 with under five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, but a Jamaal Williams short-yardage plunge followed by a two-point conversion provided Detroit a glimmer of hope that grew brighter when George Kittle was unable to field an onside kick.

The Lions subsequently drove down the field and Goff found Quintez Cephus for a two-yard touchdown and another two-point conversion. They then had a chance to tie the game following a fumble from Samuel, but Detroit could not complete an incredible comeback to force overtime.

Samson Ebukam's pressure forced Goff into an errant throw, allowing the Niners to breathe a huge sigh of relief.

It was, however, a pyrrhic victory for San Francisco, who lost cornerback Jason Verrett to what head coach Kyle Shanahan believes is a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Though the 49ers took defensive starters out of the game following Verrett's injury with what eventually proved an insurmountable lead, the ease with which the Lions moved the ball late in the game should be of concern to San Francisco, especially with two of their NFC West rivals enjoying excellent days.

The Arizona Cardinals and the Seattle Seahawks each won comfortably. Kyler Murray threw for four touchdowns and ran for another while defensive end Chandler Jones had five sacks in the Cardinals' easy 38-13 win over the Tennessee Titans, while Russell Wilson had four touchdown passes for the Seahawks as they saw off the Indianapolis Colts 28-16.

Steelers stun Bills

While not quite as dramatic as events in Detroit, the Pittsburgh Steelers' win over the Buffalo Bills at Orchard Park was certainly unexpected.

The Bills led 10-0 at the end of the first half, but Josh Allen was sacked three times as the Steelers held a usually explosive offense in check.

And, after a pair of field goals from Chris Boswell, Diontae Johnson's spectacular catch at the back of the endzone in the fourth quarter gave them a lead they would not relinquish.

Ulysees Gilbert III recovered a blocked punt to make it 19-10 Steelers, Mike Tomlin's men going on to close out a 23-16 win that deals an early blow to a Bills team seen as Super Bowl contenders.

Burrow makes winning return

Last year's number one overall pick Joe Burrow made his return from a serious knee injury in the Cincinnati Bengals' clash with the Minnesota Vikings, and it proved a successful one in a thriller at Paul Brown Stadium.

He connected with college team-mate Ja'Marr Chase, the fifth overall pick by the Bengals this year, for a 50-yard touchdown in the first quarter to give Cincinnati a lead that they eventually let slip late in the fourth quarter when Vikings kicker Greg Joseph tied matters at 24-24 with a 53-yard field goal.

That forced overtime, but a Dalvin Cook fumble in Bengals territory handed Burrow and the Bengals the chance to clinch it, and he did just that with a drive that set up Evan McPherson's 33-yard field goal and sealed a 27-24 success.

This year's number one overall pick, Trevor Lawrence, endured a very different day. He threw for 332 yards and three touchdowns with three interceptions as the Jacksonville Jaguars were beaten 37-21 by the Houston Texans.

It's a passing league. You hear it said so often these days about how the NFL has become all about throwing the ball, rather than running it.  

Quarterbacks have dominated the MVP award in recent years, with the last player from another position to scoop the honour coming back in 2012. 

In the 2020 regular season, 18 players topped 1,000 receiving yards. That was actually a decrease from the previous campaign, when no fewer than 29 achieved the feat, but does not necessarily reflect a reverse on recent trends.  

Stefon Diggs led the way in the previous campaign with 1,535 yards. The Buffalo Bills receiver will be expected to be a key component for his team on offense again in 2021, yet no individual has topped the list for two straight years since Calvin Johnson, who managed to do so in 2011 and again in 2012.  

So who are the top contenders to lead the way this time around? Stats Perform takes a look... 

 

Stefon Diggs 

Acquired by the Bills through a trade with the Minnesota Vikings, Diggs enjoyed an outstanding first campaign in Buffalo. He not only led the way for receiving yards but also catches (127) and targets (166), aided by him playing in all 16 games in a year where COVID-19 impacted so many rosters. His 95.9 yards per game ranked second, even though he had just seven plays that went for 25 yards or more. Emmanuel Sanders has arrived during free agency to bolster the receiving group in Buffalo, yet the former Maryland Terrapin undoubtedly remains top of the depth chart and has established a rapport with starting quarterback Josh Allen.  

Calvin Ridley 

Ridley's third year as an Atlanta Falcon saw him emerge as a pass-catching superstar. The 26-year-old had 90 catches from 143 targets, resulting in 1,374 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. According to Stats Perform data, Ridley recorded a big play of 45.1 per cent of his targets, the fifth-highest rate in the NFL among wide receivers. New head coach Arthur Smith got his chance at a top job after impressing in charge of a run-heavy Tennessee Titans offense, but by no means does that mean a receiver cannot prosper in his system. The main reason for Ridley hoping to improve on his previous numbers is the departure of Julio Jones, the franchise legend who did miss games through injury in 2020 but still had 51 catches.   

Justin Jefferson 

Rookie receivers are not meant to settle into NFL life as quickly as Jefferson did with the Minnesota Vikings. The first-round pick selected with the intention of replacing the departed Diggs had 88 receptions for 1,400 yards - surpassing the single-season record by a rookie in the Super Bowl era, set by Anquan Boldin (1,377) back in 2003. That is a particularly impressive achievement when you consider he had just 70 yards combined in his first two games, yet he made up for lost time with seven 100-yard outings in the weeks that followed. Yards after the catch (YAC) will likely need to rise for him to surpass those numbers, considering he averaged 4.6 yards per reception in 2020, putting him down at 27th among receivers. 

Davante Adams 

A contract year, plus a quarterback with a point to prove (again) are potentially the added ingredients required for Adams to have a record-breaking year in what could potentially be his last for the Green Bay Packers. Aaron Rodgers is still around after an offseason full of intrigue - and the reigning MVP already fed his top option relentlessly in 2020. Indeed, Adams' average of 10.6 targets and 8.2 receptions per game were the best for any receiver in the NFL, as well as leading the way with 18 touchdown catches and 98.1 yards per outing. His total yardage of 1,374 was tied for fifth, but it should be remembered he played in only 14 games. He recorded a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup on a play where he is targeted regardless of whether the pass is catchable, 70.1 per cent of the time and led all receivers with 3.9 burn yards per route. With the benefit of three more games than he had in 2020, Adams is perhaps the favourite to usurp Diggs at the top of the leaderboard.   

Tyreek Hill 

Hill averaged a healthy 14.7 yards per catch and 9.0 receptions a game as part of a high-powered Kansas City Chiefs offense. His final total of 87 catches came from 135 targets, showing how he remains a prominent option for quarterback Patrick Mahomes, helping him top 1,000 receiving yards for a third time in four years (he had 860 while playing in 12 games in 2019) and average 3.3 burn yards per route. The Chiefs are coming off a painful Super Bowl loss and may feel they have a point to prove, yet the main concern for Hill's hopes is the presence of a dominant tight end on the roster (more on him to come...). 

DeAndre Hopkins 

In his first year with the Arizona Cardinals, Hopkins set a franchise record for receptions in a season, finishing up with 115 (matching his best season with the Houston Texans, by the way) for a total of 1,407 yards. His 7.2 catches per game ranked third behind only Adams and Diggs, aided by 13 plays that went for 25 yards or more. His YAC number (510) also ranked in the top 10 for all positions, helping him secure a fifth trip to the Pro Bowl. The 29-year-old has missed just two games in his entire career and while he is set to head into his ninth season, there has been little sign of him slowing up in terms of overall output.  

DK Metcalf 

Having gradually emerged in 2019 before making having a noticeable impact in the postseason, Metcalf made a further leap in his second year with the Seattle Seahawks. His big-play ability was demonstrated by his 15.7 yards per catch – Jefferson (15.9) was the only receiver to be targeted at least 120 times and finish with a higher average. Likewise, the Vikings rookie had 16 receptions that went for 25 or more yards, one more than Metcalf managed while working with Russell Wilson. His offseason included a spell on the track, he clocked 10.36 seconds in his 100m heat at the Golden Games and Distance Open in California, but now the focus is back to football, and Metcalf will hope to use that speed to help him improve on his gaudy average of 13.31 burn yards per target from 2020 and take the Seattle offense to the next level.

Best of the rest 

Who else could emerge from the pack? Michael Thomas led the league for receiving yards in 2019 with the help of Drew Brees, only to then endure an unexpected down year last time out. His early trip to the PUP list has likely ended his hopes of regaining the crown before Week 1 has even kicked off. Terry McLaurin had similar numbers to Hill (87 receptions on 134 targets), as well as 486 yards after the catch – a number only topped by four receivers. 

Meanwhile, A. J. Brown topped 1,000 yards for a second straight season with the Titans and trailed only Adams with 3.6 burn yards per route, though he now has former Falcon Jones for company on the roster. Allen Robinson should not be dismissed after having 151 targets on a struggling Chicago Bears offense, while Justin Herbert's emergence with the Los Angeles Chargers helped Keenan Allen average 10.5 targets per outing, second most in the NFL. If a long shot is more your fancy, Diontae Johnson had 88 receptions for 923 yards, but those figures came on 144 targets and Johnson's big-play percentage was a disappointing 21.3.  

Dak Prescott's return to fitness should help the Dallas Cowboys' plethora of receiving options, including Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb, while Matthew Stafford's move to Los Angeles will be expected to pad the numbers for Rams duo Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp.  

The year of the tight end? 

Blocking is still part of the job but catching balls has become a key aspect of life as an NFL tight end: Travis Kelce had the second-most receiving yards (1,416) and Darren Waller (1,196) also made the top 10. Waller actually had more targets out of the pair, while his 576 yards after the catch put him second behind only running back Alvin Kamara in the entire league. George Kittle made it to four figures in 2018 and 2019, only to then see injury ruin his fourth campaign with the San Francisco 49ers, one in which he was open on 90.5 per cent of targets and led all tight ends with 3.9 burn yards per route. Expect him to try and make up for lost time. 

Then there is Kyle Pitts, the rookie selected fourth overall by the Falcons. Despite playing only eight games, he led the FBS in receiving yards (770) as he racked up 96.3 yards per game, averaging 17.9 yards per catch. If he can translate those ridiculous numbers to the pro game, Pitts will become immediately become prominent in Atlanta's offense, potentially taking away some opportunities that could go to Ridley. 

Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith agreed to a four-year contract extension, the NFL franchise announced.

Smith – preparing for his 10th season in Minnesota – reportedly signed a new deal worth $64million, which is understood to be the highest for a safety in NFL history.

The five-time Pro Bowler is the Vikings' longest-tenured player but has become one of their most consistent and reliable members, having not missed a game since 2016.

Smith tied a career-high for interceptions (five) last season, along with 89 tackles and five quarterback hits.

The 32-year-old is Minnesota's franchise leader with four interception returns for touchdowns, and his 28 interceptions rank seventh all-time and third among Minnesota safeties in team history.

Minnesota finished with a 7-9 record in 2020, missing the postseason.

The Vikings will open their 2021 season against the Cincinnati Bengals on September 12.

The Minnesota Vikings have signed pass rusher Everson Griffen, bringing him back for a second spell to bolster Mike Zimmer's defense.

Griffen was drafted as a fourth-round pick by the Vikings in 2010 and the defensive end went on to rack up 74.5 sacks in 10 seasons for Minnesota.

That number puts him fourth on the all-time list for the Vikings, though sacks as a stat have only been counted since 1982. Including players who began their careers before that season, Griffen ranks seventh.

He had six last season playing for the Dallas Cowboys and the Detroit Lions but is back with the Vikings to try to help Minnesota turn around their defensive fortunes after a disappointing 2020.

Minnesota allowed 6.07 yards per play last season, ranking 27th in the NFL, while the Vikings registered 19 sacks for negative yardage. Only two teams – the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cincinnati Bengals – posted fewer.

They will hope the return of Griffen, along with defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, will help dramatically increase that number. The Vikings will also be able to call on Danielle Hunter again after he missed the entire 2020 season through injury.

Hunter ranked ninth among edge rushers with a pressure rate of 26.4 per cent in 2019. Griffen's 21.7 per cent was still above the average of 18.2 for players with at least 200 edge snaps.

Richardson's pressure rate of 14.4 for the Cleveland Browns last season was more decidedly more mediocre but still above the average of 13.2 for the defensive tackle position.

The Vikings could see instant dividends on the return of that trio in their season opener on September 12, which sees them face a Cincinnati Bengals offensive line that gave up 45 sacks for negative yards last year, tied for fourth-most in the NFL.

Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer expressed his disappointment and frustration with unvaccinated players Saturday after three of his team's four quarterbacks missed practice due to COVID-19 protocols. 

Starting quarterback Kirk Cousins and backups Kellen Mond and Nate Stanley had to sit out the evening workout, leaving Jake Browning to take all of the reps under center. Offensive lineman Wyatt Davis, who played center Friday, also missed Saturday's practice. 

The Vikings released a statement prior to the workout that read: "Due to the NFL-NFLPA COVID-19 protocols, multiple players will be held out of tonight's practice inside TCO Stadium."

Zimmer met with reporters before the workout and did not address the missing quarterbacks by name. 

He did, however, make a plea to his players and everyone else. 

"It’s why people should get vaccinated,’’ Zimmer said. "[If] something like this happens a day before a game that has a chance to get you to the playoffs or something like that, [it could hamper a team].

"This Delta variant is rough. You can see the cases going up every single day now. That’s why, for the sake of everybody’s health, I think it’s important. But some people don’t understand, I guess.

"I am disappointed that this happened. I’m frustrated with, not just with my football players who won’t get vaccinated, I’m frustrated with everybody [who won’t]."

It was not clear when the players who sat out Saturday's practice would be able to return. 

In the meantime, Browning will be the star of the show for the Vikings.

"Jake’s really smart," Zimmer said. "He’s vaccinated. That helps to be the backup. So as we move forward here, he’s going to get a ton of reps.

"I don’t know about saying 'it’s going to go a long way' because we’ve still a lot of camp to go. But we’ll see.

"He’s out there, he’s available, that’s important. It’s important to be available when you’re playing football, a team sport."

As the passing offense has developed to become the dominant and most critical aspect of NFL attacks, the need for a secondary with the talent to regularly withstand aerial assaults led by a deep crop of quarterbacks has become an increasingly pressing one.

In a league where the deck is stacked heavily in favour of offenses, there is only so much even the best cornerbacks and safeties can do to keep the burgeoning ranks of exceptional athletes at quarterback in check.

Going into the 2021 season, several teams stand out as being best prepared to do that with the talent they possess in the defensive backfield.

Using advanced data, Stats Perform has ranked every secondary in the NFL by their performance in pass coverage. The rankings were produced by multiplying each player's coverage baseline by a projected target share for 2021, which is dependent on their position on the depth chart, with the results then aggregated at team level to produce that defense's coverage grade.

To look exclusively at the secondary, the results for defenders who spend their playing time almost exclusively in the box have been filtered out.

The results are very favourable for one NFC West team, though two franchises from that division are at the wrong end of the rankings, while a couple of surprise names feature among those secondaries who look ready to take a leap in 2021.

THE ELITE

1. Los Angeles Rams

Graded DBs: Jalen Ramsey, Darious Williams, David Long Jr, Taylor Rapp, Jordan Fuller

The Rams may have lost key pieces in the secondary in the form of safety John Johnson and cornerback Troy Hill but, even with the departure of defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, moving the ball on Los Angeles through the air will be an imposing challenge in 2021.

Their defensive backs' aggregate coverage grade tops the league and is 17 percentage points above average, with two-time first-team All-Pro Jalen Ramsey (20.45 per cent) and the underrated Darious Williams (21.60 per cent) each in the top 15 among cornerbacks in adjusted open percentage allowed, which looks at how often a defender allows an opponent to get open when in coverage against them, adjusted for the position they play.

Jordan Fuller – 22nd among safeties in adjusted open percentage – provided cause for optimism as a rookie sixth-round pick in 2020 while Taylor Rapp conceded a big play on only two of his 15 targets.

More progress from that duo could lessen the impact of Johnson's exit but, following highly rated defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant's switch to Detroit, maintaining their status as the gold standard is far from a given for Ramsey and Co. in 2021.

2. Buffalo Bills

Graded DBs: Tre'Davious White, Levi Wallace, Taron Johnson, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer

Buffalo's offense carried the load last season as the Bills progressed to the AFC Championship Game, though the talent in the secondary is such that they can afford to have confidence in putting more of the burden on their pass coverage in 2021.

The Bills' defensive backs rank 15 per cent above the average in aggregate coverage grading. Tre'Davious White's continuing success is a reason for that, the two-time Pro Bowler first among all cornerbacks in adjusted open percentage allowed (16.20 per cent) in 2020.

A cause for concern may come across from White after a mediocre year for Levi Wallace, whose adjusted open percentage (30.85) was close to double that of White, but the Bills have to be impressed by the progress of nickel Taron Johnson, who allowed a big play on only 14 of his 74 targets at inside corner last year.

The safety pairing of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer may also be hoping for a bounce-back year, the latter having allowed a burn on 13 of his 28 targets at free safety in 2020. However, in White, the Bills have a shutdown corner who can lift the play of those around him. As long as that remains the case, Buffalo's secondary should stay among the best in the league even with only marginal improvements made by his team-mates.

3. Denver Broncos

Graded DBs: Kyle Fuller, Patrick Surtain II, Ronald Darby, Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson

The Broncos head into 2021 with questions still abounding over their quarterbacks, but there is no doubt they have a championship-caliber defense, of which the secondary looks to be the strength, their defensive backs possessing an aggregate coverage grade 14 percentage points above average.

Justin Simmons was the best defender in the NFL in terms of adjusted open percentage in 2020, leading the way by allowing pass-catchers to get open against his coverage just 14.99 per cent of the time.

The Pro Bowl free safety will have an exciting mix of experience and youth alongside him. Strong safety Kareem Jackson was ninth among all players at the position in burn yards per target allowed with 7.76. Nickel Ronald Darby (37.8) and free agent signing Kyle Fuller (40.3), inexplicably released by the Chicago Bears, each ranked in the top seven in burn percentage allowed for corners with at least 200 coverage snaps.

That pairing will be joined by arguably the premier corner from this year's draft class, Patrick Surtain II, who makes the step up to the league after a stellar college career with Alabama, which he ended by helping the Crimson Tide to a National Championship and allowing 0.93 burn yards per snap. Only three Power 5 defenders gave up fewer.

Having added Fuller and the most pro-ready corner in the draft, the Broncos' secondary could soon mount a challenge to take the crown from the Rams.

THE BOTTOM

30. Seattle Seahawks

Graded DBs: Ahkello Witherspoon, Tre Flowers, Ugo Amadi, Jamal Adams, Quandre Diggs

NFC West teams gained even more firepower at the quarterback position in a dramatic offseason, magnifying the issues for a Seattle secondary that is a long way from the Legion of Boom.

Having let Shaquill Griffin walk in free agency, the Seahawks are somewhat short on proven players in the defensive backfield, with that scarcity reflected by an aggregate coverage grade 16 percentage points below average.

The Seahawks appear to be banking on Ahkello Witherspoon making a leap he never managed with the San Francisco 49ers. Witherspoon allowed a burn on half of his 28 targets last season.

Tre Flowers' open percentage of 85.7 was the fifth-worst of all corners in the NFL, though the play of another former Niner, D.J. Reed, provided some grounds for optimism as his burn yards per target average of 8.21 put him 15th among corners with at least 200 coverage snaps.

Only three inside corners gave up fewer burn yards per snap than Ugo Amadi (1.14) in 2020 while safety Jamal Adams was not the coverage liability many cast him as, the Seahawks sack leader last season giving up a big play on 10 of his 41 targets.

Yet with Quandre Diggs coming off a year in which he conceded a disappointing 13.82 burn yards per target, this is a group with more questions than answers.

31. Arizona Cardinals

Graded DBs: Malcolm Butler, Robert Alford, Byron Murphy, Isaiah Simmons, Budda Baker

The Cardinals are under pressure to produce a playoff campaign in the third year of Kliff Kingsbury as head coach and Kyler Murray as quarterback - a look at their depth chart in the secondary indicates the offense may have to carry this team to a first postseason appearance since the 2015 campaign.

Should Malcolm Butler and Robert Alford earn starting roles, they will provide veteran presences at outside corner, yet theirs is experience that should not inspire much confidence.

Butler allowed the 10th-most burn yards per snap among corners with at least 200 coverage snaps (2.42) while Alford has not played since the 2018 season.

The strength of this group comes from two former Washington Huskies. Nickel Byron Murphy's burn yards per target average of 7.50 was the fifth-best among inside corners in 2020 and Budda Baker has established himself as one of the premier safeties in the NFL, his adjusted open percentage of 16.38 trailing only three defenders in the previous campaign.

After an offseason in which Arizona did little to address the cornerback position, the onus may again be on that pair to elevate those around them, unless Butler and Alford unexpectedly recapture their form of old.

32. Detroit Lions

Graded DBs: Quinton Dunbar, Jeff Okudah, Amani Oruwariye, Tracy Walker, Will Harris

The Lions' rebuild under Dan Campbell is likely to be slow and painful, with his first season at the helm set to be one in which Detroit give up a lot of points if the secondary cannot improve.

Detroit's defensive backs' aggregate coverage grade is 27 percentage points below average. Key to the Lions improving in that regard will be Jeff Okudah's ability to shake off a difficult rookie season and justify his status as the third overall pick in 2020.

Only two cornerbacks gave up a big play in coverage more regularly than Okudah, who did so on 43.9 per cent of his targets. Unfortunately for Detroit, one of those corners is now on their roster, Quinton Dunbar (44.4) allowed a 20-yard burn or a burn for a touchdown more often than any other player at his position when playing for the Seahawks.

Projected starter Amani Oruwariye (36.9) did not fare much better, and it would be no surprise to see rookie Ifeatu Melifonwu thrust into a prominent role early on. Melifonwu was tied-ninth for the fewest burn yards per snap (1.23) allowed among Power 5 corners in his final season with Syracuse.

Will Harris at least had an admirable 2020 at strong safety, finishing third among all safeties in burn yards per target (7.0) but free safety Tracy Walker (12.85) offered little to suggest he can help Detroit turn the ship around quickly on defense. The Lions have done a disappointing job of drafting and developing talent under previous regimes. Changing that and successfully developing Okudah and Melifonwu will be crucial to this secondary climbing out of the cellar.

ON THE RISE

Minnesota Vikings

Graded DBs: Cameron Dantzler, Patrick Peterson, Mackensie Alexander, Xavier Woods, Harrison Smith

The Vikings invested heavily in the secondary in recent times and the numbers suggest that decision could pay dividends in the coming season.

Minnesota's defensive backs rank 10th in aggregate coverage rating, performing five points better than average. They will be looking for a step forward from last year's third-round pick Cameron Dantzler, who was above average in burn yards per target (9.4) and open percentage allowed (62.3) as a rookie.

But two underrated additions could see them catapult into the top five. Patrick Peterson was considered to have endured a down year last season but his open percentage of 51.9 when playing outside corner was seventh among players to have taken snaps at that spot. Meanwhile, Bashaud Breeland, another free agency signing, was tied fifth in open percentage (52.7) among corners to have played at least 200 coverage snaps.

The presence of Breeland, who is expected to compete with Dantzler for a starting job, and Peterson gives the Vikings strong depth at corner and should mitigate the potential loss of 2020 first-round pick Jeff Gladney, whose future is in doubt amid off-field troubles.

Mackenzie Alexander's return after a year with the Cincinnati Bengals may see him start at nickel, and he will need to improve after allowing 11.16 burn yards per target from the slot last season. Safeties Harrison Smith (13.13) and Xavier Woods (16.33 at free safety) also struggled in that metric in 2020, but the pressure will be taken off that pair should their top three corners live up to expectations.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Graded DBs: Jamel Dean, Carlton Davis III, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jordan Whitehead, Antoine Winfield Jr.

Tampa's secondary arguably already took a step forward as the Buccaneers claimed their second Super Bowl title last season. However, their defensive backfield is only 15th in aggregate coverage rating, Tampa coming in three per cent better than average.

Yet there were signs this group is primed to make further progress in 2021, most of which came from starting corner Jamel Dean.

Dean allowed a burn on 30 of his 64 targets, his percentage of 46.9 comfortably better than the average of 52.8 for corners with at least 200 coverage snaps, while he was 10th in the NFL at his position in adjusted open percentage (21.58).

Carlton Davis III was less impressive, giving up a burn on exactly half of his 92 targets, though the fact he conceded a big play on 25 per cent of his targets (the average was 26 among all corners) leaves room for encouragement.

Nickel corner Sean Murphy-Bunting also did a decent job at preventing big plays, conceding eight on 44 targets on the inside. Yet, despite praise for Antoine Winfield Jr's rookie year, both he and fellow starting safety Jordan Whitehead will hope to make improvements in coverage having given up 11.33 and 12.32 burn yards per target respectively.

However, with a full offseason under their belt to coalesce further, the arrow is pointing up for a young and clearly talented secondary that will again be playing behind one of the best front sevens in football after the Bucs kept the band together for another run in 2021.

Las Vegas Raiders

Graded DBs: Casey Hayward, Trayvon Mullen, Damon Arnette, Johnathan Abram, Trevon Moehrig

The Raiders secondary has received its fair share of criticism in the Jon Gruden-Mike Mayock years, with doubts cast over the merits of selecting Trayvon Mullen in the second round in 2019 and Damon Arnette in the first last year.

But Las Vegas can afford to have confidence in the secondary going into 2021. The Raiders' defensive backs ranking seventh for aggregate coverage, rating 10 per cent better than the average.

Much of the Raiders' presence in the top 10 is tied to the astute acquisition of veteran corner Casey Hayward, whose adjusted open percentage of 17.3 was the fifth-best in the NFL among players at all defensive positions, though a less impressive burn yards per target average of 11.20 reflects how often he was left on an island for the Los Angeles Chargers last year.

Las Vegas will hope Hayward can accelerate the development of Mullen, who was an encouraging 15th in burn yards per target (8.67) among outside corners with at least 200 snaps. Arnette's average of 11.69 suggests he has further to go, and he may face a competition with Hayward for the starting role across from Mullen.

Yet between Mullen's progress, the arrival of Hayward and the selection of free safety Trevon Moehrig in the second round of this year's draft, the Raiders secondary is one that looks primed to establish itself as one of the better groups in the NFL.

Moehrig allowed a big play on 20.3 per cent of his targets in 2020, giving them up at the sixth-fewest rate of all Power 5 safeties with at least 25 targets. His burn yards per target average of 6.71 was the best among Power 5 players at his position. If he can replicate that impact as a rookie, the Raiders should be in extremely good shape in the defensive backfield.

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

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

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

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

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

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


THE ELITE

1. Dallas Cowboys

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

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

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

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

2. New England Patriots

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

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

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

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

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

3. Baltimore Ravens

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE STRUGGLERS

30. Chicago Bears

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

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

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

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

31. Carolina Panthers

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

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

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

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

32. Minnesota Vikings

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

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

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

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

READY TO MAKE THE LEAP

Kansas City Chiefs

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

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

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

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

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

Los Angeles Chargers

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

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

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

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

Arizona Cardinals

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

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

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

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

Danielle Hunter has reportedly secured favourable new terms with the Minnesota Vikings ahead of attending for mandatory minicamp this week.

NFL Network, having earlier revealed Hunter would report on Tuesday despite his desire for a better deal, outlined the agreement on Monday.

Hunter, who missed the entirety of the 2020 season following neck surgery, will receive $5.6million of the money owed to him in the coming season as a signing bonus.

Crucially, there is then an $18m roster bonus in 2022, meaning the Vikings would have a big call to make, potentially paying $20m to keep him on the team next year.

On the evidence of the past season, though, it might be a price worth paying.

Minnesota gave up 393.3 yards per game in 2020, ranking 27th in the NFL. They had been 14th with 341.6 opponent yards per game the previous year when Hunter started all 16 games.

 

That was the second consecutive season in which Hunter had 14.5 sacks – tied-fourth in the league – while he also had a career-high 22 quarterback hits.

Hunter pressured the passer 95 times, including 88 from the edge – the third-most in that position.

Ifeadi Odenigbo underwhelmed in Hunter's place in 2020, with 3.5 sacks, 15 QB hits and 40 pressures (31 from the edge).

The 2020 NFL Draft was unlike any other as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic forced the league to make necessary changes.

With all public events cancelled due to COVID-19, the 85th edition of the annual meeting went remote. Commissioner Roger Goodell announced picks from his own home and, with facilities closed, online communication became the only way to do business for all 32 teams.

With the 2021 event fast approaching, it seems an appropriate time to assess the first round from a year ago with the help of Stats Perform data.

While still early in their NFL careers, it is already clear some made franchise-chasing picks. Others, however, will hope there is still much more to come from their opening-day selections.

TOP OF THE CLASS...

Chase Young

Nick Bosa was right: Young is the "real deal", for sure.

San Francisco 49ers defensive end Bosa predicted big things for his former Ohio State teammate prior to the draft having seen up close his capabilities, and NFL offensive linemen quickly grew to realise the problems the second overall pick will cause them for years to come.

With Joe Burrow going to the Cincinnati Bengals, Washington had the chance to take the top defensive prospect. Young delivered on his potential, with his total of 7.5 sacks ranked first among all rookies. He also led the way for quarterback hurries (37), knockdowns (12.5) and hits (12), as well as total pressures (55).

Unsurprisingly, Young – who forced four fumbles, recovering three of them himself - was named Defensive Rookie of the Year (as Bosa had predicted, by the way) after helping Washington win the NFC East.

Justin Herbert

Herbert was selected at number six by the Los Angeles Chargers, who had a plan to let their new quarterback initially sit behind Tyrod Taylor. The development curve suddenly changed trajectory when the starter suffered an injury just before facing the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 2, meaning the rookie got an unexpected first opportunity to play.

The Oregon product quickly made clear there was no need to keep him waiting in the wings any longer, with Herbert going on to become just the second quarterback in NFL history to threw for over 4,000 yards in a season having not started in the opening game.

He set records for completions (396), passing yards per game (289.1) and passing touchdowns (31) for a first-year quarterback, unsurprisingly resulting in him being named Offensive Rookie of the Year. Herbert's outstanding numbers were not enough for the Chargers to make the playoffs - or keep head coach Anthony Lynn in his job - but have given the franchise a key building block at a discount price.

Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa – taken by the Miami Dolphins at five – had testing times in year one, but Herbert's debut season has raised the bar considerably high for his quarterback contemporaries.

Tristan Wirfs

Wirfs was the fourth offensive lineman to come off the board when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were lucky enough to get him at 13, having traded up one spot to do so.

Andrew Thomas (New York Giants), Jedrick Wills (Cleveland Browns) and Mekhi Becton (New York Jets) went ahead of the former Iowa Hawkeye, who would end up being an ever present for the Bucs on their journey to Super Bowl glory.

The 22-year-old provided excellent protection for Tom Brady at right tackle. In 476 pass protection snaps, he allowed just 25 quarterback pressures. That pressure rate of 5.3 per cent sits third across the league among right tackles, behind only Lane Johnson and Mike Onwenu, while 10th overall among all tackles.

Tampa Bay certainly did not whiff when taking Wirfs, who established himself as a foundational piece on a title-winning roster.

Justin Jefferson

Minnesota should be thankful to those teams who opted to take alternative receivers prior to them grabbing Jefferson at 22. The Vikings had secured the pick as part of the trade that sent Stefon Diggs to Buffalo – then used it to take the departed wideout's replacement.

Diggs did lead the league with 1,535 receiving yards, yet Jefferson was not too far behind, ranking fourth in the category with 1,400. That total set a new record for a rookie in the Super Bowl era, aided by seven 100-yard games.

No receiver had more catches of 25 yards or more than the former LSU star's total of 16, while he averaged 15.9 yards per reception. A year on, that trade with the Bills was a rare occasion when both teams benefited.

What makes Jefferson's output even more impressive is he had just five receptions for 70 yards through his first two NFL games. The breakout game came in Week 3 against the Tennessee Titans, as a seven-catch, 175-yard outing ignited what would become a phenomenal first year.

MUST DO BETTER...

Jeff Okudah

Okudah became the first cornerback to go inside the first three picks since the Seattle Seahawks selected Shawn Springs in 1997.

Ohio State has a strong recent tradition of providing opening-round selections at the position, including Marshon Lattimore and Denzel Ward in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

Injuries, however, hampered Okudah in year one. A hamstring issue in training camp delayed his debut until Week 2, while surgery on a core muscle in mid-December saw him placed on injured reserve, ending his involvement for a Lions team who ended up with a 5-11 record.

When on the field, Okudah allowed receivers to get open on 88.6 per cent of his targets when having an expected open percentage of 63.7. He allowed a 'big play' on 43.9 per cent of his coverage snaps, ranking him third on an unwanted list for defensive backs. The Lions will hope he can not only stay healthy in 2021 but also play a greater role in shoring up their secondary.

Jalen Reagor

The transition to pass-heavy offensive schemes has placed a greater premium on receivers in the draft. In 2020, six were taken in the opening 32 picks, while a draft record 13 went across the first two rounds.

Henry Ruggs was the first off the board, taken by the Las Vegas Raiders at 12. Jerry Jeudy followed three picks later to the Denver Broncos, then CeeDee Lamb at 17 by the Dallas Cowboys.

There was much talk that the Philadelphia Eagles had Lamb in their sights. Instead, Jalen Reagor was their choice at 21 - one slot ahead of Jefferson. The former missed time due to a torn ligament in his thumb, while the team transitioning from Carson Wentz to Jalen Hurts at quarterback hardly aided his development.

Reagor finished with 31 catches for 396 yards and a solitary touchdown (there was also a score on a punt return, too) for an anaemic passing attack. Philadelphia averaged just 207.9 yards per game through the air, finishing with 22 touchdowns to 20 interceptions. All still involved will hope for an improvement under a new regime this year.

Isaiah Wilson

Wilson's rookie season included two stints on the reserve/COVID-19 list, a suspension due to a violation of team rules and just the one game. It remains to be seen how many more appearances he makes in the NFL, considering he is currently a free agent.

In taking the offensive tackle at 29, the Tennessee Titans hoped they had a player able to compete for a starting spot after impressing for Georgia, including being named second-team All-SEC following his final season with the Bulldogs.

His solitary outing came in Week 11 against the Indianapolis Colts, during which he was on the field for 4.2 per cent of the team's offensive snaps (plus one on special teams, too).

Traded to the Miami Dolphins in March, Wilson was waived three days after the deal having turned up late for his physical and then skipped multiple optional workouts he had originally agreed to attend.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire

The rich had seemingly got even richer when the Kansas City Chiefs rounded out the opening round in 2020 by taking a tailback, one who had demonstrated his abilities as both a runner and a pass-catcher while helping LSU win the 2020 National Championship Game.

There was a promising start in Week 1 as he had 138 yards on 25 carries, but that was one of just two games where he made it to three figures in terms of rushing. Edwards-Helaire saw his involvement in the regular season cut short by injury, finishing with 803 yards at an average of 4.4 per carry.

That average rose to 4.7 yards during a postseason that included 11 touches in a Super Bowl defeat for the Chiefs. Edwards-Helaire was steady, but the pre-draft hype suggested a more spectacular impact on an offensive juggernaut.

Then there is also the question over whether the franchise needed to take a running back at 32. There were five more taken in the second round, so Kansas City perhaps realised Edwards-Helaire was unlikely to still be available by the time they picked again.

The 2021 season cannot play out like the last one did for the Minnesota Vikings.

A team that had gone 10-6 in 2019 was looking to return to the playoffs for a second straight year, led by an impressive array of offensive talent.

Those stars certainly were not the issue.

"I do believe, offensively, we've got to the point where we have a chance to be a really, really good football team," head coach Mike Zimmer said at the end of last season.

"For the first time in my seven years, I thought we had a very, very explosive offense."

Unfortunately, as Stats Perform data shows, an awful defensive unit left Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook and Co. high and dry.

There is work to do to ensure the coming campaign is not another wasted year.

Offense

The numbers back up Zimmer's comments, making it all the more frustrating for the Vikings' offensive players that they limped to a 7-9 record.

Minnesota ranked fourth for yards per game (393.3) and fifth for yards per play (6.15). Only the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tennessee Titans were ahead of them in both categories.

Quarterback Cousins showed signs of progress as he produced a career-high 35 passing touchdowns and increased his passing yards per attempt to 8.3 from 8.1, albeit while throwing 13 interceptions, as many as in his final year in Washington.

Cousins was aided by the success of rookie Justin Jefferson, who provided an effective deep passing option. Four of the wide receiver's seven touchdowns came on passes of 20 yards or more, as he tied Travis Kelce and Calvin Ridley for the most 20-yard catches in the league (23) and led the way in 25-yard receptions (16). Jefferson's receiving average of 15.9 yards ranked eighth.

The ever-consistent Adam Thielen provided substantial support to Cousins and his less-experienced team-mate, posting 74 catches for 925 yards and 14 TDs.

And yet Cousins looked for wide receivers with just 55.2 per cent of his passes. Although Kyle Rudolph's final season with the team was surely his most forgetful - recording just 28 receptions before a foot injury - second-year tight end Irv Smith Jr. chipped in with five receiving touchdowns, while there was a single score through the air for Cook.

Of course, the running back's best work came on the ground, where he trailed only Derrick Henry for carries (312), total rushing yards (1,557) and rushing TDs (16), almost singlehandedly giving the Vikings the fifth-best running game in football.

Defense

So how did that offense finish the year with only seven wins?

Unfortunately, the defense gave up 433 offensive points to finish 2020 with the sixth-worst such record.

It was a unit hamstrung by departures and then injuries, with a host of young prospects left to hold the fort.

Minnesota certainly could not have planned for an entire year without Danielle Hunter and Michael Pierce. Hunter, who had 14.5 sacks and 22 QB hits in 2019, was placed on injured reserve going into Week 1, while new signing Pierce opted out of the year due to COVID-19.

They were always likely to be short at cornerback after losing Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander, but Mike Hughes and Holton Hill each played just four games to exacerbate the issue.

Even star linebacker pairing Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr played together for only two weeks before the latter suffered a shoulder injury.

Simply getting these players back on the field again will go a long way to improving the Vikings' hopes.

It will also come as welcome relief to Cousins and his offensive colleagues, as the quarterback should expect to have the ball in his hands more often, having seen the defensive class of 2020 struggle to get stoppages.

Minnesota's opponents converted 70.8 per cent of their fourth downs and 86.7 per cent from fourth and short (four yards or less).

Offseason

Scarred by 2020, the Vikings have focused their efforts on defensive stars in free agency, boosting their depth even further as a host of injured stars prepare to return.

Defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson has arrived on a two-year, $21million contract having posted 3.5 sacks for the New York Giants last year, as many as any Minnesota player besides Yannick Ngakoue (5.0), who left less than halfway through the season.

Patrick Peterson boosts the cornerback ranks, meanwhile, after his three interceptions and eight passes defensed with the Arizona Cardinals in 2020.

The need to recruit a pass rusher was outlined by Zimmer and the first move on that front brought Stephen Weatherly back to Minnesota following a single season in Carolina.

But considering this team missed the playoffs, other areas of need are relatively scarce, although free safety Anthony Harris has left for the Philadelphia Eagles and will be a miss.

They have just over $3million in cap space and the 14th pick in the draft, but the Vikings look to be in a solid position to contend for the postseason – so long as that injury curse does not strike again.

The Minnesota Vikings terminated the contract of two-time NFL Pro Bowler Kyle Rudolph after 10 seasons.

Minnesota released veteran tight end Rudolph, who was selected in the 2011 NFL Draft, on Tuesday.

The 31-year-old was set for the second season of a four-year, $36million deal, but Rudolph is headed for free agency for the first time in his career as the Vikings save more than $5m in cap space.

"I got so lucky, because -- I didn't just get drafted by some team who 'had a need at tight end,' Rudolph wrote in a story published by The Players' Tribune.

"I didn't just get drafted as, like, the nameless, faceless '#1 tight end on the board.' I got drafted by a team that was all set in terms of need ... but then drafted me anyway.

"I'll always remember that: how the Minnesota Vikings wanted me -- and wanted to bet on my potential."

In his time with the Vikings, Rudolph started 132 of 140 games, tallying 453 catches for 4,488 yards and 48 touchdowns – all those numbers in the top 10 in franchise history.

Rudolph's touchdowns are the most for a Vikings tight end in their history, while his catches and yards only trail Steve Jordan.

A Pro Bowler in 2012 and 2017, Rudolph had 28 receptions, 334 yards and a touchdown for the Vikings last season.

"Kyle has been a leader and mentor for us on and off the field from the first day I arrived in Minnesota," Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said in a statement.

"He has been such an important part of this team and community throughout his career and it has been an honour to coach him the last seven seasons. He will be missed, and we wish him and his family nothing but the best."

As the NFL's regular season was coming to a frantic finale in Week 17, in a virtually empty Ford Field, history was being made in a game with no playoff implications.

Despite its high-scoring nature, the shootout between the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings probably won't live long in memory of most NFL fans.

But it is likely to be a game that will forever stick in the mind of Vikings' star receiver Justin Jefferson, who put the finishing touches on one of the great rookie wideout seasons in Minnesota's 37-35 victory.

Jefferson finished the game with nine catches for 133 yards, taking his tally to 1,400 for the year, surpassing the single-season record for receiving yards by a rookie in the Super Bowl era set by Anquan Boldin (1,377) in 2003.

It was the seventh 100-yard game for Jefferson in a season where he proved he deserved to be in the conversation to be the first receiver off the board in the 2020 draft, rather than the fifth.

He was regarded as a polished route-runner coming out of college, having helped LSU to a National Championship in his final season.

Yet the manner in which his abilities in that regard have translated to the pro game surpassed all expectations.

Jefferson has made a habit of embarrassing defenders with his agility and fluidity in changing direction, while he has demonstrated tremendous concentration and body control at the catch point.

The result of that combination of traits was a rookie season that saw him lead all wide receivers in plays of 25 yards or more, finishing the year with 16.

His receiving yards per game average of 87.5 was topped by just four players, with Jefferson eighth in yards per reception. Jerry Jeudy (16.5) and Gabriel Davis (17.1) were the only rookies to finish ahead of him in that category.

Twelfth in average yards at the catch point with 11.3, where Jefferson may look to improve is in yards after the catch. His average of 4.6 yards after catch per reception was 27th among all receivers.

Jefferson will probably also have eyes on a more prolific year in 2021, having found the endzone half as many times as team-mate Adam Thielen (14 touchdowns) did in the 2020 regular season.

However, in terms of all-round production, few receivers can match up to what Jefferson produced in his maiden campaign as he set the standard for another exceptional class of receivers in the 2021 draft.

There are many who believe the 2021 class of wideouts is even better than that of 2020 and the expectations on that group are likely to be huge.

Jefferson's former LSU teammate Ja'Marr Chase opted out of the 2020 college football season but is still regarded as arguably the most complete wideout in the draft.

That status has been challenged by Alabama's Devonta Smith, now the favourite to become the first receiver since Desmond Howard in 1991 to win the prestigious Heisman Trophy after an incredible season for the Crimson Tide.

For all their exploits in college, however, Chase, Smith and others will have a huge task to come anywhere close to replicating Jefferson's rookie year. The bar has been set for the incoming influx of exciting young pass-catchers, and it has been set absurdly high.

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