9 Bold Predictions for the 2021 NFL Season

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    A bold offseason prediction can become a realistic outcome midway through an NFL campaign.

    Last summer, if someone told you Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen would break out in 2020, you might’ve laughed in their face. He went into the season with 30 career passing touchdowns, 21 interceptions and a 56.3 percent completion rate.

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    By the end of Week 9, Allen had already thrown for 19 touchdowns and only five interceptions on a 7-2 squad. At that point, those who snickered may have changed their perspective.

    Don’t fall into the trap of thinking everything that happened last year will continue in 2021. Some players build momentum, others lose steam and rosters change during the spring and summer.

    Two weeks before a majority of teams start training camp, let’s discuss nine bold but plausible predictions for the 2021 NFL season.

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    Will a new team represent the AFC in Super Bowl 56? Who’s going to break out for a big year? What could we see unfold at the trade deadline?

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    After breaking out last season, Josh Allen will make another leap along with the Buffalo Bills. He’ll put an end to any talk about a fluke 2020 season with an MVP year in 2021.

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    The Athletic’s Matthew Fairburn noted that Allen looked sharp on the first day of mandatory minicamp.

    “As one would expect, Allen looks a lot more locked in and efficient with Diggs and Emmanuel Sanders on the field,” Buscaglia wrote. “And Diggs looks as quick as ever, gaining separation with ease.”

    The addition of Sanders opposite of Diggs should give Allen two dependable targets in the passing game. But the Bills got better on the other side of the ball this offseason, too.

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    They addressed their inconsistent pass rush by selecting defensive linemen Greg Rousseau and Boogie Basham with their first- and second-round picks, respectively. Those two will join Mario Addison and Jerry Hughes to form a solid edge-rushing unit. Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei will also return after he opted out of the 2020 season.

    The Bills extended their best second-level coverage defender in Matt Milano, who lines up alongside Tremaine Edmunds to form a strong linebacker duo. All-Pro cornerback Tre’Davious White mans the secondary with two playmaking safeties, Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, both of whom have at least 15 career interceptions. 

    The Bills have a stacked squad that can go score-for-score with the Kansas City Chiefs and make some critical stops. They should make a run at the AFC’s No. 1 seed and be a tough team to beat at home in the playoffs, which will lead to their first Super Bowl appearance since the 1993 season.

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Before he went down with a season-ending ankle injury in Week 5 last year, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott was on pace to throw for 5,939 yards. 

    No one should expect Prescott to average 371 passing yards per game across an entire season. But with an extra game now on the schedule and one of the best wide receiver trios in the league, he should be able to eclipse the 5,300-yard mark. 

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    During a press conference in June, Prescott said he had “buried the injury.” Head coach Mike McCarthy expects him to participate in full at training camp. 

    Wideout Amari Cooper’s status for training camp is far more uncertain following offseason ankle/foot surgery, per CowboysSI.com’s Mike Fisher. However, the team doesn’t have long-term concerns about his recovery.

    If Cooper has to miss a little bit of time, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb can soak up extra targets and produce big numbers. Both wideouts eclipsed 800 receiving yards and hauled in five touchdowns last season. The latter can become a breakout star in his second year with more opportunities in the passing game.

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    Prescott also has a solid pass-catching tight end in Dalton Schultz, who caught 63 passes for 615 yards and four touchdowns as a starting replacement for Blake Jarwin (torn ACL) last year.

    Prescott has the playmakers to etch his name into the third spot on the single-season passing yards list, become the single-season franchise leader in the category and win Comeback Player of the Year.

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    When you check the temperature on Vic Fangio’s hot seat, the thermometer might burst.

    He’s gone 12-20 over his first two seasons as the Denver Broncos head coach. They now have a new general manager in George Paton and must sort out a quarterback battle between Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater. 

    Though the Broncos should field a top-10 defense with high-end playmakers such as Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, Kyle Fuller and Justin Simmons, they might struggle to maximize their offensive talent.

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    In his 18 career starts, Lock has thrown 23 touchdowns to 18 interceptions and lost four fumbles. Meanwhile, Bridgewater averaged fewer than 250 passing yards and mustered only 15 touchdowns to 11 interceptions in 15 starts with the Carolina Panthers last year.

    With a new front-office executive who may want to hire a head coach of his choosing and two uninspiring quarterbacks vying for the starting role, Fangio could lose his job if Denver falls out of playoff contention by December.

    The club must find an upgrade at the most important position and perhaps an offensive-minded head coach to get the best out of wideouts Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and Tim Patrick and tight end Noah Fant.

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    Denver will be starting its search for a new lead skipper at the end of another sub-.500 season.

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    Despite his frustration with the organization, star quarterback Aaron Rodgers will ultimately rejoin the Green Bay Packers in the coming weeks.

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    In April, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Rodgers was “so disgruntled” with the Packers that he “told some within the organization that he does not want to return to the team.” The 37-year-old didn’t attend OTAs or mandatory minicamp this offseason, leading to more speculation about his future. 

    When asked last week about the possibility of coming back to Green Bay, Rodgers said, “I don’t know. We’ll see.” That doesn’t sound like someone with his mind set on going elsewhere.

    Rodgers also talked about his focus on mental health this offseason, per ESPN’s Ben Baby:

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    I haven’t dealt with bouts of depression or anything, that I think for whatever reason, are OK to talk about if you’re talking about mental health. I’ve just really been trying to think about what puts me in the best frame of mind. What habits can I form that allow me to feel most in my body, most present, happiest? And that’s what I’ve been doing.”

    Perhaps Rodgers just needed to clear his mind. Nevertheless, he hasn’t outright shut the door on Green Bay, which means the team could still convince him to stay.

    General manager Brian Gutekunst should sign him to a lucrative new deal and see what he thinks about acquiring tight end Zach Ertz or any other offensive player available to bolster the pass-catching unit. 

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    With a new contract and some input on personnel, Rodgers may feel more appreciated and involved in the process of maintaining a Super Bowl-caliber roster.  

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    Houston Texans wide receiver Brandin Cooks

    Houston Texans wide receiver Brandin CooksCarmen Mandato/Getty Images

    The Houston Texans are heading into the 2021 NFL season with a ton of uncertainty.

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    Quarterback Deshaun Watson is facing 22 lawsuits accusing him of sexual assault and misconduct. Even if he plays this season, it might not be for the Texans, as he reportedly requested a trade in January, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

    Journeyman quarterback Tyrod Taylor is a stopgap option, but he’s thrown only three touchdowns and two interceptions across four starts over the past three seasons. Houston will also have multiple battles across the offensive line, which could increase the pressure on whomever starts under center.

    Though the Texans have decent receivers in Brandin Cooks, Randall Cobb, Chris Conley and Keke Coutee along with a veteran backfield that includes David Johnson, Phillip Lindsay and Mark Ingram II, they aren’t going to win many games with a quarterback on his fifth team and an unsettled offensive line.

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    Houston also hemorrhaged talent on defense this offseason, cutting star defensive end J.J. Watt and trading inside linebacker Benardrick McKinney to the Miami Dolphins for edge-rusher Shaq Lawson. Watt led the Texans with five sacks last year, while Lawson has yet to top seven sacks in any of his five NFL seasons.

    The Texans don’t have a reliable starting cornerback on the boundary, either. Bradley Roby will miss Week 1 because of a six-game performance-enhancing drug suspension, while Vernon Hargreaves III hasn’t played up to his first-round draft pedigree. Since 2019, he’s allowed 13 touchdowns and a completion rate above 68 percent in coverage.

    Houston plays in a division with two teams that made the playoffs in 2020. The Jacksonville Jaguars will have this year’s No. 1 overall pick, Trevor Lawrence, under center.

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    The Texans may be able to split their season series with a young Jaguars squad, but that’s about it for them in the win column.

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    Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Maxx Crosby

    Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Maxx CrosbyJohn Locher/Associated Press

    For the first time since Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin combined for 18.5 sacks during the 2017 season, the Las Vegas Raiders will have a dynamic edge-rushing duo. Yannick Ngakoue and Maxx Crosby can fill a void that’s existed since the team traded Mack to the Chicago Bears in September 2018.

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    The Raiders have ranked 24th or worse in sacks for each of the last three seasons, but that trend will change with Ngakoue and Crosby on the same defensive line. The former believes they’re the best duo in the NFL. 

    Ngakoue already has a solid resume with a Pro Bowl campaign (2017) and at least eight sacks in all five of his seasons. As a rookie, he played under new Raiders defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who served as the Jacksonville Jaguars head coach between 2013 and 2016.

    Crosby isn’t a household name yet, but he’s clearly one of the Raiders’ best draft picks under the Jon Gruden-Mike Mayock regime. The 2019 fourth-rounder has recorded 17 sacks in two seasons. While playing with a broken metal plate in his hand and torn labrum, he ranked among the top 20 in quarterback pressures (32) and finished with seven sacks last year.

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    As the defensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Chargers, Bradley had a top-tier pass-rushing tandem with Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram III. He might have another productive pair in Vegas.

    Look for Ngakoue and Crosby each to record double-digit sacks in 2021.

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas already has the NFL’s all-time single-season receptions record (149).

    Though Thomas went into the record books with now-retired Drew Brees as his quarterback, he could also have a big year with Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill under center.

    In an injury-riddled 2020 campaign, Thomas racked up 100-plus receiving yards in two games with Hill leading the huddle. They have some familiarity with each other, so they should hook up early and often if the dynamic signal-caller wins the Saints’ quarterback battle. 

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    Meanwhile, Winston has an aggressive style of play that results in chunk yardage. He led the league in passing yards (5,109) with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2019, averaging 319.3 yards per contest.

    Wideout Emmanuel Sanders and tight end Jared Cook signed with the Buffalo Bills and Los Angeles Chargers this offseason, respectively, which should open up even more targets for Thomas.

    In the same year that he broke the record for catches, he accumulated 1,725 receiving yards, which is the seventh-best mark of all time.

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    With the potential for more targets and two quarterbacks capable of delivering the ball to him, Thomas will top Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson’s single-season record of 1,964 receiving yards.

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Azeez Ojulari is a fluid, compact defender (6’2″, 249 lbs) who slips blocks and frees himself with a blend of quickness and strength near the line of scrimmage. He showed the ability to collapse the pocket with technical savvy and burst out of his stance, logging 9.5 sacks in his final season at Georgia.

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    Chris Pettit, the New York Giants’ director of college scouting, specifically talked about Ojulari’s instincts and hands, per Paul Schwartz of the New York Post.

    “The thing that separated Azeez from others was he’s pro-ready with his hands,” Pettit said. “He’s instinctive. The guy has the ability to make big plays in big spots. He’s ultra-competitive. He has good instincts.”

    However, teams had some reservations about Ojulari’s knee because of a past injury from his high school days, per The Athletic’s Dan Duggan. Going into the 2021 season, Ojulari will play with a chip on his shoulder after he slipped behind fellow pass-rushers in his class.

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    “I was like, ‘Wow! Are you serious?'” Ojulari said, per Duggan. “Edge-rusher, edge-rusher, edge-rusher — I was like, ‘Dang, and I wasn’t one of them?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, OK. Time to go back to work and do what I do and show everybody what I do, how I play the game and just surprise some folks this season.”

    Ojulari’s skill set and motivation could push him over the top for a standout rookie campaign. He also has defensive linemen Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence to keep the pass-rushing lanes clear on the interior.

    Williams led the Giants in sacks (11.5) last year. With so much attention on him, Ojulari could find clear pathways to the quarterback. Because of his bend, he’s a tough one-on-one assignment as well.

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    Don’t be surprised to see him win Defensive Rookie of the Year with double-digit sack numbers.

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    Josie Lepe/Associated Press

    San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan should start the clock with rookie quarterback Trey Lance sooner than later. If the Niners build around him while he’s on his cheap first contract, they can plug holes and aggressively pursue other roster upgrades where needed. 

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    Jimmy Garoppolo, who’s missed 23 outings over the last three seasons, is on the books for $26.4 million this year. In six out of his seven NFL seasons between the New England Patriots and 49ers, he’s served as a backup or played fewer than six games because of injuries. 

    Given the questions about the 29-year-old’s durability, the 49ers should look to move off his expensive contract and see what they have in Lance, the third overall pick in this year’s draft.

    Unless the 49ers get out to a commanding lead in the tough NFC West, general manager John Lynch should call playoff-caliber teams that may have interest in acquiring Garoppolo as their potential long-term starter.

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    The Washington Football Team could replace Ryan Fitzpatrick, who turns 39 years old in November, with Garoppolo. They may not have a draft pick high enough to select a top prospect at the position in 2022.

    The 49ers could dump a big contract, take a look at their potential quarterback of the future and receive compensation in return for a player who isn’t in their long-term plans. Meanwhile, the WFT would have a competent signal-caller who can help them win a wide-open division and remain a starter beyond 2021.

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