With the preseason winding down, the 2021 NFL Season is set to kick off in short order. Between now and opening night, teams will have to make tough decisions regarding cuts, trades, and roster construction in general. There is, however, no shortage of storylines to watch as the 2021 season begins. This includes whether or not Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can repeat as Super Bowl champs and how well Matthew Stafford plays with a playoff-caliber surrounding cast in L.A. So let’s dive into the six most important questions as the 2021 season gets underway.
1) Will Brady and the Bucs Repeat?
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, after winning Super Bowl LV, are now looking to repeat. They have brought back almost everyone from their championship season, including the franchise-tagged Chris Godwin. Also returning are standout linebacker Shaquille Barrett and running back Leonard Fournette, two integral pieces on last season’s title squad. Tom Brady, for his part, is returning for his second season with the Bucs at 44 years old. Brady actually played the entire 2020 season with a torn MCL, so expectations will be even higher this year.
Brady had a relatively consistent season in 2020, passing for 4,633 yards and 40 touchdowns while only throwing 12 interceptions. The biggest question for Brady and perhaps even the Bucs is will #12 be able to repeat his 2020 performance. Additionally, will Tampa Bay avoid a Super Bowl hangover and be able to go deep into the playoffs once again. Only time will tell, but with the NFC South looking wide open thanks to the retirement of Drew Brees, the time for the Bucs to win is now.
2) How will the Aaron Rodgers Situation Evolve?
Throughout the entire offseason, rumors swirled that longtime Packers franchise quarterback Aaron Rodgers was unhappy. After the NFC Championship Game which included Packers coach Matt LaFleur making a baffling decision to kick a field goal instead of going for a touchdown near the end of the game, Rodgers’ anger seemed to boil over. He expressed doubt over his future in Green Bay, saying it is a “beautiful mystery”.
The Packers attempted to placate Rodgers by reworking his contract and trading for former Green Bay receiver Randall Cobb. This seems to have appeased Rodgers for the time being, but his future is still up in the air. The quarterback’s 2022 cap hit will balloon to $46 million, a figure that is untenable for the Packers’ salary cap. It seems that this is a do-or-die season for Rodgers and the Packers, as success likely means a contract extension for the Hall of Famer. On the other hand, if Green Bay comes up short yet again, Rodgers may demand a trade and the Packers will have little choice but to oblige.
3) Where will Deshaun Watson End Up?
Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson has had an eventful offseason, and not in a good way. He has been accused of sexual assault by multiple women, and his immediate future in the NFL is unclear. There is a possibility that Watson is suspended or placed on the commissioner’s exempt list for the entire 2021 season. Houston is in full-scale rebuild mode and seems to have little interest in keeping the embattled quarterback around. The only thing holding back a trade now is Watson’s legal uncertainties.
If he is allowed to play this year, one would wager that the Texans will receive a king’s ransom for the talented passer. Watson is young (25), accomplished (2 playoff appearances in 4 seasons), and under contract (through 2025). So far, several teams have expressed interest, including the Washington Football Team, Miami Dolphins, and Philadelphia Eagles. It’s probably safe to say that none of these teams will make a trade before Watson’s future is apparent. So for now, it seems that Houston will be holding on to #4.
4) Will Matt Stafford Get the Rams Over the Hump?
Earlier this year, the L.A. Rams decided to mortgage their future and trade for Lion’s franchise quarterback Matt Stafford. In the deal, which was finalized in March, the Rams traded a pair of first-round picks and a compensatory third-round pick with quarterback Jared Goff for Stafford. At the time, it seemed like a lot to give up for a 33-year-old QB, but the Rams deemed it necessary to truly compete for a Super Bowl. The question now is will it be enough to get Los Angeles over the top? Well, it seems quite possible since the Rams have made the playoffs in three of the last four seasons including a Super Bowl appearance. This was all done with the talented but flawed Goff at the helm.
With Stafford onboard, the Rams may finally be able to really make some noise in the NFC. It will not come easy though, as the Seahawks still have Russell Wilson and the recently resigned Jamal Adams. And the San Francisco 49ers lurk as a dark horse playoff contender. Not to mention the Arizona Cardinals, who themselves are looking to compete with Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins, and co. Stafford and the sheer talent of L.A.’s roster should be enough to make the playoffs if not win the division, but how much further they go is as of yet undetermined.
5) How will the 2021 Quarterback Class Fare?
Five quarterbacks were taken in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. This includes Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson, who will both likely start Week 1. The Jaguars and Jets don’t seem to be competitive this year, so it should be a relatively low pressure and low expectations experience for the young signal-callers. Their performance in 2021 will likely dictate how aggressive each team is in upgrading their roster ahead of 2022. Also drafted in the first round were quarterbacks Trey Lance (49ers), Justin Fields (Bears), and Mac Jones (Patriots).
All three should see abundant playing time in 2021, with Fields standing out as a possible Week 1 starter. The 49ers, Bears, and Patriots all have veteran QBs currently holding the starting job, but all have limits. It is just a matter of time before all five quarterbacks in this class are starting for their respective teams. It is likely that at least one of these quarterbacks will contribute to a playoff run, similar to Lamar Jackson’s first year as a full-time starter. Who that may be is firmly up in the air.
6) Will the NFC East Repeat as the NFC Least?
One year ago, there were legitimately three NFC East teams that were in playoff contention. Those would be the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, and New York Giants. The Washington Football Team was also lurking as a darkhorse playoff contender. As it turned out, the only team that made the playoffs in 2020 was in fact the Football Team, led by Alex Smith playing on one leg. Since that time, the Eagles have fired their head coach and traded franchise quarterback Carson Wentz to the Indianapolis Colts. The Giants have stuck with struggling quarterback Daniel Jones but added new weapons to their offense.
This includes Kenny Golladay and first-round pick Kadarius Toney. This, coupled with the return of star-running back Saquon Barkley, may be enough to propel the Giants into the playoffs if Jones plays better. Washington moved on from both Dwayne Haskins and Alex Smith since last season and signed veteran journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Cowboys, with the return of Dak Prescott, are probably the early favorite for the division. Dallas’ defense may decide who wins the division, as it was terrible last year, but has since been upgraded. The NFC East should be markedly better this year than last, but a repeat is certainly possible if not likely.
The NFL clearly has plenty of storylines to watch as the 2021 season approaches. What teams will improve upon their 2020 performances and what teams will decline? Which quarterbacks will be content and which ones will request trades? How will each division shake out and what teams should we consider the favorites? All of this may not be apparent until the conclusion of the season, but one thing remains certain. Whichever teams perform better than expectations will inevitably be in a better position to make the playoffs or legitimately compete in 2022.
Main Photo from Getty.