This week marks the first official action of the 2021 NFL season, as all 32 teams will have begun training camp by Tuesday. Football is back.
The season got off to an exciting (or unceremonious, depending on your point of view) start, as Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers put their differences aside to agree on a new deal that will serve as the QB’s “last dance.” The question of where Rodgers will play is finally solved, but there are several others that remain unanswered as NFL teams reconvene. Here are 10 pressing questions whose answers could come into focus in the next few weeks.
How will NFL teams navigate COVID-19 protocols?
The NFL lost an estimated $3 billion to $4 billion in revenue during the 2020 season because of the pandemic, as only a small number of fans were able to attend regular-season games. The league is determined to prevent a similar financial catastrophe from happening this season.
Last week, the NFL informed teams that if a game can’t be rescheduled due to a COVID outbreak among unvaccinated players, the team responsible for the outbreak will forfeit the game. Furthermore, players from neither team will be paid if a game is canceled.
The policy should strongly incentivize more players to get vaccinated, despite pushback from some players on social media. Fringe roster players or potential free-agent or practice-squad additions could have a more difficult time landing jobs if they’re unvaccinated. The NFL has made its stance clear, and the numbers suggest that players are following through. As of July 23, 80 percent of NFL players were in the vaccination process and nine NFL teams had 90 percent or more of their players who had gotten at least one shot.
Who will win the Saints QB battle?
Jameis Winston vs. Taysom Hill. After 15 seasons of Hall of Fame–level play from Drew Brees, the Saints turn to their backup duo from last season for an answer at QB. Last season, Hill started each of the four games Brees missed, which was somewhat of a surprise considering Winston is a traditional passer and Hill has been used mostly as a gadget player during his four-year career.
Instead of adding a veteran starter or using a premium draft pick on a rookie passer, the Saints are running it back. Sean Payton is one of the top offensive innovators of his time, but he faces a challenge in either constructing game plans that can effectively use Hill’s rushing ability without hindering the offense’s explosiveness or maximizing Winston’s passing traits without putting the ball in jeopardy. The Saints have the luxury of a top defense, which finished no. 2 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA last year and returns a majority of its starters. Payton knows the window for competing at a championship level is closing with this current roster as the Saints’ salary cap maneuvering finally begins to catch up with the franchise.
“I think there’s that challenge of winning each year and especially with our current roster,” Payton told NFL Network earlier this month. “It’s important to get good, solid play out of [the quarterback].”
Per The Boston Globe’s Ben Volin, the competition may not be “truly open” and Hill is likely to have the edge for the starting role. Hill’s advantage seems especially clear to anyone who follows the money. This offseason, he signed an extension worth $12.2 million guaranteed that runs through this season. (Reminder: His ridiculous $140 million extension includes four voidable years.) Winston re-signed on a one-year deal with $5.5 million guaranteed and a max value of $12.5 million.
Who will win the Broncos QB battle with Rodgers off the market?
Perhaps no one was more disappointed by Monday’s Aaron Rodgers offseason drama finale than the Denver Broncos. On draft day, when the news broke that Rodgers wanted out of Green Bay, the Broncos assembled their assets and were ready to pounce. But Rodgers never left. And Denver enters the new season with Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock in a training camp battle for the starting role. It’s less than ideal for a franchise that boasts a talented squad but seems to be missing only an upper-tier signal-caller.
Bridgewater is an average starter, but he’s steady. Lock, entering a pivotal third season, has proved the opposite—he committed at least one turnover in seven consecutive games in 2020 and led the league in interceptions with 15 in just 13 games.
The Broncos were an exciting team entering last season before linebacker Von Miller and receiver Courtland Sutton each went down with season-ending injuries that canceled the party before it got started. Can either Bridgewater or Lock ensure that won’t be the case in 2021?
What will happen with the Texans?
According to NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero, the Texans “are now willing to listen—and have been for some time—to trade offers” for QB Deshaun Watson, who requested a trade in January. Watson was expected to have a robust trade market, but faces 22 separate sexual assault and sexual misconduct lawsuits.
The Houston Police Department’s and the NFL’s investigations are ongoing, and the league has yet to place Watson on the commissioner’s exempt list because it has not yet concluded that a major violation occurred, per Pelissero. Watson reported to training camp Sunday and still seeks to be traded. Watson, who signed a four-year, $156 million extension last September, has a no-trade clause, meaning he’ll be able to greenlight a trade should an interested team emerge. The Texans are reportedly seeking at least three first-round picks in exchange for the quarterback.
Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, told ESPN’s John Barr on Monday that 10 women have filed criminal complaints with Houston police about Watson, including two women who have not filed lawsuits against him. Hardin added that depositions for plaintiffs will open in September, but Watson won’t be deposed until February 2022.
“Teams are ready to jump now if the Texans would trade with them, even while all this is pending,” Hardin told ESPN. “There’s no question that teams, numerous teams, are still interested. The ball is in the Texans’ court.”
First-year general manager Nick Caserio and the Texans have prepared to move on from Watson by signing veteran QBs Tyrod Taylor and Jeff Driskel and drafting Stanford’s Davis Mills in the third round.
Will Zach Ertz, Chandler Jones, or Stephon Gilmore get traded?
The offseason trade market was active, featuring deals that saw Julio Jones, Orlando Brown, and Matthew Stafford relocate to new teams. However, some players haven’t found as much success moving on or finding resolutions—and thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement, they don’t have much leverage in forcing their way out.
Eagles tight end Ertz has been angling to leave Philadelphia since the end of the 2020 campaign. Even though the Eagles gave the veteran permission to seek a trade, months have passed with no progress toward a deal. The 30-year-old recorded only 335 yards and one touchdown (both career lows) across 11 appearances last season. Ertz is scheduled to make $8.5 million this year before becoming a free agent in 2022.
Patriots star cornerback Gilmore—whom New England considered dealing midseason ahead of the trade deadline—told reporter Josina Anderson earlier this month that he’s not seeking a trade, but wants to get paid “what I’m worth, however that plays out.” Gilmore, 30, is scheduled to earn $7 million in base salary—outside of the top-20 highest-paid cornerbacks this season, per Over the Cap.
According to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, Cardinals pass rusher Jones requested a trade this offseason. The 31-year-old is coming off a season-ending biceps injury and is scheduled to make $15.5 million in the final year of a five-year deal he signed in 2017.
All three players are expected to report to training camp despite being unhappy with their situations. Holdouts are essentially no longer an option under the new CBA, which runs until 2030. According to Article 8, Section 1(b): “A player shall not receive an Accrued Season for any League Year in which the player is under contract to a Club and in which (i) he failed to report to the Club’s preseason training camp on that player’s mandatory reporting date; or (ii) the player thereafter failed to perform his contract services for the Club for a material period of time, unless he demonstrates to the Impartial Arbitrator extreme personal hardship causing such failure to report or perform, such as severe illness or death in the family.”
This leaves players seeking new teams with no choice but to report. The training camp holdout is now a thing of the past, and the success or failure of these three to find new homes will show how much leverage players have (or don’t have) when they’re unhappy.
How soon will Trey Lance, Justin Fields, and Mac Jones get their shots?
The Jaguars’ Trevor Lawrence and the Jets’ Zach Wilson will open the season as starting quarterbacks. The other three first-round rookie QBs don’t have as clear a future.
Lance—who’s played one competitive game in the past calendar year—must outduel Jimmy Garoppolo in San Francisco. Fields has to beat Andy Dalton in Chicago. Jones has to battle Cam Newton in New England. Action Network’s current consensus odds gives Fields and Lance (both +647) the second-highest odds for winning Offensive Rookie of the Year behind Lawrence (+300), suggesting bettors believe the pair will assume starting jobs relatively quickly this season. Jones’s longer odds (+1100) point toward the Alabama rookie spending more time holding a clipboard.
It’s become increasingly rare for first-round QBs to sit their entire rookie season. The Bears, 49ers, and Patriots are constructed to compete now, so their new QBs will have a tangible impact on whether contention windows widen or shut. If any of these players impresses in camp, they could find themselves taking their first in-game snaps much more quickly than scheduled.
Who will start along the Steelers offensive line?
The news that Ben Roethlisberger has slimmed down and freshened his arm will certainly be welcomed by Steelers fans, as is the addition of rookie RB Najee Harris. But for Pittsburgh’s offense to find any success in 2021, its front five will have to jell despite significant overhaul.
Stalwarts David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, and Alejandro Villanueva are gone. Zach Banner returns after missing 15 games with a torn ACL. Five-time Pro Bowler Trai Turner joins the fold. Chukwuma Okorafor, Kevin Dotson, and J.C. Hassenauer could round out the rest of the starting group. The Steelers finished last in rushing yards per carry last season (3.6) while tying for 25th in ESPN’s pass-block win rate (51 percent) and tying for 23rd in run-block win rate (69 percent). Eyes will absolutely be on Roethlisberger after his underwhelming play through the end of last season, but the Steelers’ offensive performances can improve only if their offensive line proves itself as a capable unit.
Will any members of the 2018 QB class get extended before the season?
Three of the NFL’s brightest stars await big paydays: Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, and Baker Mayfield.
The Bills and Allen appear to be headed in the right direction, with Buffalo coach Sean McDermott telling NFL Network earlier this month that “these things handle themselves … when you got two parties that want to be together and have the same end goal in mind.”
The same can be said of the Ravens and Jackson, as NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo reported in June that Baltimore considers extending Jackson as its top priority. The Ravens reportedly wanted to complete a deal before training camp. Last month, coach John Harbaugh went as far as to describe reaching an extension as “a done deal.”
That leaves the Browns and Mayfield. Per NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, Cleveland is taking a “wait-and-see approach” in re-signing Mayfield and will prioritize locking up stars Nick Chubb and Denzel Ward.
Will more top free agents get signed?
Several veterans remain on the market, including OT Mitchell Schwartz, LB K.J. Wright, LB Justin Houston, OT Russell Okung, CB Richard Sherman, DL Olivier Vernon, and RB Le’Veon Bell.
As training camps get underway and teams have better ideas of their needs, some of these names will come off the board. Wright’s availability is especially surprising. The 32-year-old finished as Pro Football Focus’s seventh-highest-graded linebacker (75.7) last season, posting the seventh-highest coverage grade (79.2) among his position.
How will Joe Burrow and Dak Prescott look?
Prescott (broken ankle) and Burrow (torn ACL and MCL) each return from season-ending injuries that abruptly halted what looked to be record-setting campaigns. Their returns give their respective franchises plenty of reason for hope.
The Cowboys handed Prescott a massive extension this offseason with the assumption that with him in charge, Dallas can push for playoff contention and more. The Bengals affirmed their belief in Burrow by using the no. 5 pick on receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who was Burrow’s leading receiver during his breakout Heisman campaign at LSU. The performance of each passer in camp will hint at how successful their teams will be in 2021.