Sam Darnold was confirmed as the Carolina Panthers' starting quarterback for 2022, although offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo quickly clarified his comments.

Former third overall pick Darnold joined the Panthers from the New York Jets ahead of last season but again struggled.

In 12 games, he completed just 59.9 per cent of his passes for 2,527 passing yards, only nine touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

Darnold did just about beat out competition from the returning Cam Newton to end the year as the starter, but the Panthers have the sixth pick in the first round of the upcoming NFL Draft – and a second return for Newton has not been ruled out.

However, incoming OC McAdoo seemingly announced Darnold's role for 2022 when he answered "yes" to a query as to whether he would be the starter – the sort of question other Panthers have skirted around.

The former New York Giants head coach revealed a big part of his decision to come to Carolina was to work with Darnold, yet he then acknowledged the situation could still change.

Coach Matt Rhule still has a say, McAdoo explained, but: "The way it is in the building right now, Sam is our starting quarterback."

McAdoo added: "One of the things I've been working on is being better talking to you people [media], so announcing the starting quarterback here I just put my foot in my mouth.

"That wasn't something I should have said."

Sam Darnold has insisted he can still be a starting quarterback in the NFL, despite the Carolina Panthers' seeming distrust.

Darnold was traded to the Panthers from the New York Jets ahead of the 2021 season, yet Carolina are potentially eyeing a quarterback in the NFL Draft and have not ruled out another return for Cam Newton.

The 24-year-old Darnold played 12 times for Carolina last season (11 starts), recording 2,527 passing yards for nine touchdowns, along with five rushing scores.

Over the past two seasons, Darnold has thrown for only 18 touchdowns but 24 interceptions, while being sacked 70 times.

But despite the Panthers perhaps wanting to upgrade, Darnold is sure of his own ability.

He told the Bussin' with the Boys podcast: "It truly is like whatever happens happens, because at the end of the day, it's out of my control, and I know that.

"I have enough security in myself to where I can be like: 'I know I'm a good quarterback. I know I can be a good quarterback in this league. I've proved it.'

"I know there's a team, if something happens, that would want me."

Darnold was drafted by the Jets as the third overall pick in 2018 but struggled to live up to his billing in New York.

He completed just 57.7 per cent of his pass attempts in his rookie season before improving slightly in a 2019 campaign in which he threw 19 TD passes and 13 interceptions.

A tough final season with the Jets was followed by Darnold being traded to the Panthers for three draft picks, including a second-round selection in 2022.

Last year, form and fitness continued to evade Darnold, who has never played more than 13 games in a season. His passer rating of 71.9 represented a miserable career low.

He did at least beat out the returning Newton for the starting job, but the former MVP could yet sign for the Panthers again.

Scott Fitterer says Sam Darnold is "in the lead" to be the Carolina Panthers starting quarterback for the 2022 NFL season but the "door's still open" for Cam Newton to land the role.

Panthers general manager Fitterer on Friday revealed Darnold is the frontrunner to start under center when the new campaign gets under way.

Carolina missed out on Deshaun Watson, who was traded to the Cleveland Browns last week.

That leaves Darnold and P.J. Walker as the only quarterbacks on the roster, with the 24-year-old set to get the nod.

"Sam's on the roster as I sit here right now," Fitterer said. "He's in the lead for that job. We want him to take it and run with it.

"But we're gonna add a lot of competition to that room. The whole emphasis is to stabilise the quarterback position to play winning football."

That competition could come in the form of Newton, who rejoined the Panthers last November after Darnold sustained a shoulder injury.

A former number one overall pick, Newton's return did not go to plan as Carolina lost all five games he started.

The 32-year-old threw for 684 yards and had five interceptions, but Fitterer says he is being considered by the Panthers.

"The thing with Cam, it's got to be a fit for us and it’s got to be a fit for him just as well," Fitterer said.

"He’s looking for a certain opportunity. The door's still open for us. We're very open to Cam. We'll see where it goes. He knows where we stand."

Cam Newton said he is "still floating" following his return to the Carolina Panthers.

Newton was released by the New England Patriots in August but earned a chance with the Panthers after a shoulder injury to starting quarterback Sam Darnold.

Veteran QB Newton spent nine years with the Panthers from 2011 to 2019, winning the 2015 NFL MVP and earning three Pro-Bowl selections.

"Honestly, I'm still floating," Newton told reporters on Friday, after signing a one-year deal worth up to $10million.

He added: "This ain't for no ploy. This ain't for no ticket sales. This ain't for no Cinderella story. It's to win football games. That's pretty much what's on my heart, and that's how I'm going about it."

The Panthers released Newton in 2019 after giving him permission to seek a trade, eventually joining the Patriots as a free agent. Newton insisted there were no hard feelings from that.

"Were there disconnects in the past? It's irrelevant," Newton said. "The fact that we're able to make what may seem a lot of wrongs or some wrongs right, that's the most exciting thing about it.

"To hell with feelings. It would be the biggest right and wrong by just winning football games."

The Panthers, who are 4-5, placed Darnold on injured reserve on Friday with his shoulder injury expected to take four to six weeks to heal.

P.J. Walker will start at quarterback for Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals, although Newton is expected to come into starting calculations for the following week's game against the Washington Football Team.

The Carolina Panthers have re-signed former number one overall pick Cam Newton after first-choice quarterback Sam Darnold suffered a shoulder injury.

Darnold was placed on injured reserve on Wednesday, leaving the 4-5 Panthers short under center with P.J. Walker set for his second NFL start against the Arizona Cardinals.

However, the Panthers moved quickly on Thursday to agree a deal for a free agent they know well.

Newton was released by the New England Patriots in training camp this year as Bill Belichick instead went with rookie QB Mac Jones in Foxborough.

The dual-threat QB had also been released by Carolina following the 2019 season, moving on under new coach Matt Rhule following an injury-hit year.

Newton played only two games in 2019 due to a Lisfranc fracture in Week 2, having only returned from a shoulder issue at the start of the season.

Having been the league MVP in 2015 with the Panthers, throwing 35 touchdown passes and rushing for a further 10 scores, Newton's performances with New England were rather more ordinary.

Still retaining that same athleticism, the 32-year-old had 12 rushing TDs in 2020, his most in any season since his rookie year.

But Newton was poor through the air, tossing eight TDs to 10 interceptions and moving the ball just 7.07 air yards per attempt as the Pats ranked 23rd for yards per passing play (6.06).

That might still represent an upgrade on Darnold, though, who has the Panthers 30th by the same metric this year with 5.42 yards per play.

Like Newton, Darnold has provided a threat with his legs, scoring five rushing TDs, but he has thrown only seven scores to 11 picks.

Carolina exercised Darnold's fifth-year option following his trade from the New York Jets but will now be paying former favourite Newton up to $10million to potentially fill his boots this year, according to reports. That includes $4.5m guaranteed and a $1.5m roster bonus.

The Carolina Panthers have placed quarterback Sam Darnold on injured reserve due to a shoulder issue that could keep him out for a minimum of four weeks.

Darnold is thought to have sustained the injury last Sunday as the Panthers were beaten 24-6 by the New England Patriots.

The 24-year-old picked up a shoulder problem - believed to be separate from his latest issue - and sustained a concussion against the Atlanta Falcons the previous week, but was passed fit to face the Patriots.

An MRI scan revealed an incomplete fracture on the scapula of the quarterback's right shoulder, but he played through the injury in the eventual defeat.

"You look at the second half, he obviously was playing with something," Panthers coach Matt Rhule said earlier this week.

Darnold will now be replaced by P.J. Walker, who joined the Panthers last year and is set for his second NFL start against the Arizona Cardinals.

Walker played college football at Temple and was coached by Rhule, who insisted that the 26-year-old is where he is on merit and because of the ability he has shown.

He was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Indianapolis Colts in 2017 but did not feature for them before eventually joining the Houston Roughnecks in the XFL two years later, before moving to Carolina in 2020.

"P.J. is here because I believe in him," Rhule said.

Sam Darnold has a partial fracture of his scapula and is expected to miss at least a few weeks, leaving the Carolina Panthers in need of a new starting quarterback. 

NFL Network first reported the injury Tuesday, and The Athletic said the team believes Darnold was hurt during the second quarter of Sunday's 24-6 home loss to the New England Patriots. 

Darnold threw three interceptions in the game, though two of them occurred in the second half – potentially after he already was injured. 

That showing continued a run of poor performances by Darnold in his first season with the team that have prompted questions about whether the 24-year-old would remain the starter. 

To that point, Panthers head coach Matt Rhule told reporters Monday that his first priority was determining whether Darnold was healthy, as the quarterback was set to have an MRI after complaining of soreness in his shoulder following the game. 

Now the Panthers have their answer, and Darnold's backup P.J. Walker should get the start Sunday at the Arizona Cardinals. 

Darnold has started all nine games this season for the Panthers (4-5) after arriving in an off-season trade from the New York Jets. 

He has completed 59.5 per cent of his passes for 1,986 yards with seven touchdowns and 11 interceptions, which is tied with Cincinnati's Joe Burrow for the most in the league. 

Darnold's 71.3 quarterback rating is third-worst among NFL starters, with only rookies Justin Fields of the Chicago Bears (69.4) and Zach Wilson of the Jets (63.5) below him. 

Multiple outlets reported earlier Tuesday that Carolina plans to sign veteran quarterback Matt Barkley off the Tennessee Titans' practice squad. 

The 31-year-old served as the backup for the Buffalo Bills the last three seasons, appearing in eight games over that span. 

 

Baker Mayfield threw a 60-yard touchdown to Donovan Peoples-Jones as the Cleveland Browns won without Odell Beckham Jr in Week 9, although Joe Burrow contributed to the Cincinnati Bengals' 41-16 defeat.

The Browns made the short trip to Cincinnati with Peoples-Jones back from a groin injury and in the lineup after fellow receiver Beckham was released at the end of a week that began with his father criticising quarterback Mayfield.

Beckham had underwhelmed this year since his return to fitness and his absence certainly was not felt on Sunday as Cleveland moved to 5-4 in a big AFC North matchup.

Before Mayfield came to the fore, though, Burrow endured a miserable start. Moments after a penalty reprieve when he was sacked on third and goal, the Bengals QB threw straight to Browns cornerback Denzel Ward on the goal line, covering Ja'Marr Chase and racing away for a 99-yard defensive TD.

Joe Mixon replied with the first of his two rushing scores, but Nick Chubb battled through contact to finish Cleveland's first drive with a TD, which Peoples-Jones added to as he caught Mayfield's first target to a wideout.

Long scores were the name of the day for the Browns, as Chubb's second saw him go 70 yards to score in the third quarter.

Burrow, who had scored three TDs in each of his previous three games, tying a Bengals record, was then picked off again throwing to Chase – this time by John Johnson III. Chase had earlier fumbled for a turnover of his own on a miserable day for two of Cincinnati's offensive stars.

Mayfield finished with 218 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions on 14-of-21 passing. His second TD pass to David Njoku was set up by another throw to Peoples-Jones, who had 86 yards on just two catches.

Big upsets for Boys and Bills

The Dallas Cowboys had not lost since Week 1 but have a miserable record against the Denver Broncos, who had won the teams' past six meetings – their best ever run against a single opponent and the Cowboys' worst such streak. And six became seven as the Broncos won 30-16 in Dallas, holding their hosts scoreless until the fourth quarter despite Dak Prescott's return.

The Buffalo Bills also suffered a shock defeat as they went down 9-6 to the Jacksonville Jaguars in a game of zero touchdowns. Jaguars defensive end Josh Allen picked, sacked and recovered a fumble from his namesake, Bills QB Josh Allen.

However, the Baltimore Ravens survived a scare, as Lamar Jackson led them back from 17-3 down to make overtime, where Justin Tucker clinched a 34-31 win. Jackson is now 12-0 as a starter against NFC opponents.

Darnold spooked again

Sam Darnold said he was "seeing ghosts" when he threw four interceptions for the New York Jets against the New England Patriots in 2019, and Bill Belichick's defense has continued to spook the quarterback. He had three picks with the Carolina Panthers on Sunday and now has nine in just four career starts against New England, all four of which the Pats have won.

New England are hot on the heels of the Bills now, while AFC East rivals the Miami Dolphins snapped their seven-game losing run against the Houston Texans despite Tua Tagovailoa sitting out with a finger issue.

The Carolina Panthers activated star running back Christian McCaffrey from injured reserve, the NFL franchise announced on Saturday.

McCaffrey has missed five games, sidelined since Week 3 due to a hamstring injury.

The 2019 first-team All-Pro, who was designated to return earlier this week, is eligible for Sunday's showdown with the New England Patriots.

However, McCaffrey is no guarantee to play as the Panthers prepare to evaluate the 25-year-old on the day of the game.

McCaffrey has 201 yards and a touchdown in three appearances for the Panthers (4-4) this season.

Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold was also cleared from concussion protocol, though he continues to deal with a shoulder injury.

The Panthers are 4-2 in six regular-season games against the Patriots (including wins in the last two games, in 2013 and 2017), but New England beat Carolina 32-29 in Super Bowl XXXVIII (February 2004) – the only postseason game between these teams.

Carolina had 47 rushing attempts (for 203 yards) in their win against the Atlanta Falcons last week. It was the fourth-highest single-game total in Panthers history and their highest since 2009, per Stats Perform.

Darnold has lost each of his three career starts against the Patriots (one in each of the past three seasons), all with the New York Jets. The aggregate score for those three games is 99-17. He threw six interceptions with one touchdown pass in those games.

Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule vowed to stick with Sam Darnold as his starting quarterback, despite benching the team's top offseason acquisition in a 25-3 defeat to the New York Giants. 

Darnold completed 16 of 25 passes for 111 yards with no touchdowns and an interception and also was sacked three times in the NFL on Sunday.

His intentional grounding penalty in the end zone gave the Giants a safety for their first score of the game. 

Rhule handed the reins to backup P.J. Walker in search of a "spark" early in the fourth quarter, but he was even less effective, connecting on just three of 14 attempts for 33 yards. 

With the NFL's trade deadline looming on November 2, The Athletic reported following the game that the Panthers are expected to engage the Houston Texans in talks about acquiring Deshaun Watson. 

Watson requested a trade following last season and has not played this year after accusations of sexual misconduct surfaced during the offseason.

The 26-year-old quarterback has denied the allegations and remains on Houston's 53-man roster but has been inactive for every game. 

Reports last week said the Miami Dolphins and Philadelphia Eagles also were potentially interested in Watson, who has the right to veto any deal. 

Rhule was asked directly about potential interest in Watson on a conference call last week and responded that Darnold was his focus and "I'm not looking anywhere else". 

He maintained his line after the loss to the Giants, despite the Panthers dropping their fourth straight game following a 3-0 start – a slump that has coincided with star running back Christian McCaffrey being out of the line-up due to a hamstring injury. 

"Sam will be our quarterback next week," Rhule said. "He will be our quarterback moving forward.

"We're not winning right now. It's going to take all of us. [Darnold] just needs a lot of help from a lot of guys right now that he's not getting. I see the good moments, too. We're going to keep coaching him."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Super Cooper rescues Rams

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

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

Wilson woeful for Jets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With Dak back, Cowboys hope to contend

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

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

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

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

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

Pats look to pressure Bills in AFC East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From worst to (somewhere nearer) first?

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

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

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

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

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

Other teams who could rise and fall

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

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

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

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

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