By: Reese Nasser
Will the new receivers help change the offense?
The Ravens addressed arguably their biggest weakness in both the draft and free agency: the wide receiver position. The Ravens drafted two high profile receivers in Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace and also signed veteran Sammy Watkins.
Last season Lamar Jackson threw 26 touchdowns with more than half of them going to wide receiver Marquise Brown and tight end Mark Andrews. Brown hauled in eight and Andrews hauled in seven.
There was a clear lack of receiving threat in Baltimore. While Brown has played well since he entered the NFL, he has not lived up to the expectations that were placed on him when he came into the league.
With the addition of three new receivers, it may give Brown an opportunity to slide into the slot and showcase his game-changing speed, which could be incredible for his career.
Bateman will be looked at to be the wide receiver one for the Ravens. He is a deep field threat that can go up and secure the ball and proved to be a true problem for secondaries during his time at the University of Minnesota. Lamar is yet to have a receiver of Batemans caliber.
The addition of Wallace will also impact this offense heavily. The Oklahoma State receiver grabbed 26 touchdowns in his four years of college and also racked up over 3,000 receiving yards.
The offense will rely heavily on these receivers and they will play a big factor in how the Ravens perform this season. But will they be up for the challenge? If they are, Lamar could be in for another MVP type season.
Will a running back become elite?
Quarterback Josh Allen led the Bills in rushing touchdowns last season with eight. While that sounds great, it could also be seen as a problem.
The duo of Devin Singletary and Zack Moss, who ran the ball 268 times, combined for just six rushing touchdowns even though they appeared in 29 combined games.
Even though the game has evolved to the point where many quarterbacks are scoring with their legs, do you really want your quarterback to be your leading rusher? If I am the Bills, I need to see one of my lead backs step up. The threat of a running game, from someone other than the quarterback, could make this offense even more explosive.
Allen threw 37 touchdowns yet only one of the two main running backs caught one. The Bills are missing out on a crucial part of offense by not having a back that can help stretch the defense.
Even while missing out on a prolific run game, this team has still proven to be dangerous. The Bills nearly made it to the Super Bowl and finished 13-3. If one of these running backs can step up and play at a high caliber, this team could be Super Bowl bound.
Can the defensive line be elite?
In recent years the Bengals have begun investing in their defensive line but this off-season, they decided to go all in.
After letting defensive end Carl Lawson walk in free agency, Cincinnati signed his replacement in Trey Hendrickson. Hendricksom is coming off of a career season with the New Orleans Saints where he recorded 13.5 sacks. He was rewarded with a 4-year, $60 million contract, making him the 10th highest paid defensive end in football.
The Bengals also signed former Browns defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi to a one-year deal. Ogunjobi will play alongside D.J. Reader. Reader was limited to just five games last season after suffering a quad injury.
Sam Hubbard will play opposite Hendrickson. Hubbard will have a lot to prove this season after coming off of a somewhat lackluster third-year.
Cincinnati also spent four picks on the defensive line in this year’s draft. Maybe the most notable of all selections was defensive end Joseph Ossai out of Texas. Ossai played well in his final two seasons at Texas where he recorded 29 tackles for loss.
The other defensive line players drafted will also be expected to make an impact. Cameron Sample from Tulane and Tyler Shelvin from LSU were both selected in the fourth round. Both should find their way into this defensive line rotation. Wyatt Hubert was selected in the seventh-round and also has a very good shot at making this team.
The Bengals have invested in this defense line and results will be expected. But can they become elite? We will see.
Will the rebuilt defense work
The Browns will be sending out a practically new defense in 2021. With young players coming off of injury, new players drafted, and high profile players added through free agency, this defense, at least on paper, looks as if it can be the best in the NFL. But will it work?
Greedy Williams and Grant Delpit, the Browns second round picks in the 2019 and 2020 draft will both be slated to return to the field this season. Delpit was forced to miss the entirety of his rookie season due to injury. Williams missed all of the 2020 season as well due to injury. Even with both of these players set to return, the Browns still spent heavily on the secondary.
John Johnson III, former Rams safety, was signed in free agency. The Browns also brought in Johnson teammate, cornerback Troy Hill. Both players will be starters on this defense.The Browns still weren’t done improving the secondary or the defense as a whole.
They drafted Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome II with the 26th overall pick. They then selected Notre Dame linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah with their second round selection. Both of these players will be expected to make an instant impact on defense. All eyes will be on Owusu-Koramoah as he will more than likely be thrown into a starting linebacker position.
To finish this defeisnove rebuild, the Browns addressed the defensive line. Star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and veteran end Takkarist McKinley were both signed. Clowney will look to revitalize his career while playing alongside Myles Garret.
This unit has every level of the defense taken care of and it will largely come down to how they are all able to mesh together.
Who will be the starting quarterback?
There is still no indication of who will be the starting quarterback in Denver. Both Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater are engaged in a clear battle for the number one spot. But what if neither is the starter come training camp?
In recent days there has been a QB controversy after current Broncos Safety Kareem Jackson claimed that Texans QB Deshaun Watson wants to head to Denver.
There were also rumours during the draft that a deal was in place to send Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to Denver. While that trade clearly didn’t happen, there is still an opportunity for such, especially with how things are looking in Green Bay right now.
The Broncos have a clear issue at the quarterback position right now. This roster is extremely talented but if there is not a reliable QB1, it could all come crashing down.
How will the running backs share the ball?
Houston has gone all in with their running backs adding multiple this off-season. They have signed former starters in Phillip Linsday, Mark Ingram, and Rex Burkehead. These three backs will join David Johnson in the backfield.
There is still no clear lead back in Houston and the Texans have given no inclination of how they will divide carries. The trio of Lindsaym Inrgam, and Jhnson all had down years last season.
Ingram recorded just two touchdowns last season after having 15 in 2019. Lindsay was forced into a lesser role when the Broncos brought in Melvin Gordon III. Lindsay only reached the end zone once in 2020.
Johnson was the lead back in Houston last season and scored eight times. So it would make sense to approach the season with him as the key rusher but age may not be on his side. Lindsay is nearly three years younger than Johnson and is coming off of a season where he touched the ball just over 100 times.
He can still be an effective back and could help be a central figure on an otherwise poor Texans team.
The Texans will have to figure out how they want to approach their backfield, especially with how many that they have on the roster. Don’t be shocked if one is traded at some point during the season.
What will be the expectations for Kwity Paye?
The Colts selected Michigan defensive end Kwity Paye with the 21st pick in the draft. Paye excelled at Michigan, making big plays on a constant basis. The same will be expected of Paye as he enters the NFL. But what will the expectations be for the rookie?
Paye will be joining a defense that has high quality players such as Darius Leonard and DeForest Buckner. Paye will be put into a position where he will be able to contribute instantly. He will also be playing right next to Buckner who will have a majority of the attention on himself.
During Payes time at Michigan, he made his way to the backfield through both speed and strength.
He is an all-around athlete who could play well in his rookie season. But the Colts will have to move him along properly and make sure that he is up for the challenge.
Who will be the lead back?
Even after the success that James Robinson found in his rookie season, the Jaguars still selected Clemson running back Travis Etienne with their second selection in the first round of the 2021 draft.
It is still unknown how Jacksonville wll address their backfield. Etienne has been working alongside the wide receivers and has been catching passes. Robinson is still working out of the backfield. But does this mean that Etienne will only be seen in a receiving role? Or will he join his college quarterback Trevor Lawence in the backfield?
Etienne scored 70 rushing touchdowns during his four seasons at Clemson. He also ran for just under 5,000 yards.
Robinson on the other hand played well in his rookie season. He reached the end zone 10 times and had over 1,400 yards from scrimmage.
The Jaguars will have to decide who will be the lead back. Or will they have a backfield that splits carries? This will have to be decided prior to the start of the season.
Kansas City Chiefs
Will Clyde Edwards-Helaire get more usage?
The Chiefs used their 2020 first round pick on LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. While the Chiefs added Edwards-Helaire to their prolific offense, he didn’t always appear to be seen as a major playmaker.
His usage varied and he never seemed to catch his footing after he started the season off extremely hot. In week one, he carried the ball 25 times and rushed for 138 yards and reached the end zone.
This was only one of three games where he had more than 20 attempts. He also only surpassed 100 rushing yards twice.
Edwards-Helaires lack of production can’t only fall on his shoulders. The Chiefs did not always utilize him as a lead back as seen with the discrepancy in carries. He also was able to only find the end zone six times throughout both the regular season and playoffs.
The Chiefs will have to evaluate how they use their starting running back. Will he get more of a workload after ranking just 17th in rushing attempts and 19th in rushing yards? The Chiefs will have to think about this.
Las Vegas Raiders
Will the young secondary hold up?
The Raiders will be sending out a particularly young secondary. Outside of veteran cornerback Casey Hayward Jr, much of the secondary has been in the NFL for less than three seasons.
Starting safety Johnathon Abram and starting cornerback Trayvon Mullen were both selected in the first and second rounds of the 2019 draft.
Abram is still somewhat inexperienced. Even after being in the league for two seasons, he has only appeared in 14 games.
Mullen has appeared in all 32 games and has played well up to this point. He has started 26 of his 32 games and has become a quality corner. Mullens already racked up 114 tackles in his time with the team.
The Raiders also added two new key players to their secondary in this year’s draft. They selected two safeties in Trevon Moehrig and Tyree Gillespie. Both players will be expected to play large roles in their rookie seasons and will instantly be inserted into this defense.
The young secondary will face their challenges, especially playing in a division with teams such as the Chiefs and Chargers. They will be up for a challenge as soon as the season starts.
Los Angeles Chargers
Will Derwin James finally reach stardom?
Safety Derwin James was headed straight for stardom after his rookie season. The Florida State safety had a historic rookie season, racking up over 100 tackles and had three interceptions along with 113 defended passes. He looked as if he was on the way to being one of the top safeties in the league and even earned all-pro honors.
But then injuries began. James appeared in only five games in his second season due to a stress fracture in his foot. He then missed all of the following season due to a torn meniscus that he suffered in the preseason.
James hasn’t appeared in a game since 2019 and the Chargers have felt his absence. But now he is set to return and should be all systems go. He should be all set to return back to the form that he was playing at during his rookie season.
It almost seems necessary to have a star safety on your defense. Every high quality defense has one and that is exactly what James is for the Chargers. The game is better when he is a part of it and his return will be more than good for Los Angeles.
Are they set at running back?
With so many questions directed towards the quarterback position in Miami, other positions on the offense have been somewhat glossed over. After signing Rams running back Malcolm Brown to play alongside Myles Gaskin, the Dolphins will seemingly take a two-running back approach. But will these two backs be enough?
Gaskin is still very young at just 24 years old. He also has just 178 career carries. But he still hasn’t played a full season uet. He appeared in seven games his rookie season and 10 last season. When healthy he has played well but he hasn’t proven just yet that he can stay on the field.
Brown appeared in all 16 games for the Rams last season but had just over 100 carries. He did manage to score five times. He took a smaller role as rookie running back Cam Akers began to take a majority of the workload.
Is this duo of running backs enough? Or could the addition of another veteran running back be what this backfield needs? Todd Gurley could be an interesting possibility, especially as training camp comes closer to starting.
New England Patriots
Who will win the quarterback job?
The Patriots did not spend a first-round pick on Mac Jones for no reason. There are plans for this to be his team, sooner or later. But Cam Newton will have a lot to prove this season and will be playing with a chip on his shoulder.
With that being said, the Patriots did spend a healthy amount of money to rebuild the offense. And it seems as if New England built this offense with Newton in mind. They signed big tight ends in Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. They can both block and be extremely effective in the passing game.
Newton did struggle at points last season. After recovering from Covid-19, he did not play to the typical level that he is known to be at. Was the poor season due to covid? Potentially. And this season will show exactly what the Pats will get out of Newton, if he is the starter.
Mac Jones, albeit surrounded by extreme talent, played very well during his time at Alabama. He finished 3rd in Heisman voting due to his 41 passing touchdowns and 4,500 passing yards. He could also fit into this offense, given some adjustments. It could be his job to earn heading into training camp.
New York Jets
Will Elijah Moore earn a starting job?
The Jets clearly wanted to improve their wide receiver core as they head into this upcoming season. Surrounding rookie quarterback Zach Wilson with weapons was a priority for this team. So that’s exactly what they did.
The Jets signed Corey Davis who is set to be the WR1. They also added Jaguars wide receiver Keelen Cole to a group that already has Jamison Crowder and last year’s second-round pick Denzel Mims.
But the biggest addition outside of Cole may be Ole Miss receiver Elijah Moore. Moore was a monster in the slot while at Ole Miss, recording over 1,000 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in his final season. The Jets will look to have Moore play a big role in this offense.
It has been no secret that Zach Wilson and Moore have formed a nice little partnership. The duo has clicked and they have started to move the ball well between each other. If Moore can help Wilson ease into the NFL game, he should be on the field as much as he can.
Who is the future at QB?
The Steelers seem to only be focused on what’s happening right now when it comes to the quarterback position. Ben Roethlisberger is only getting older and the Stelers are yet to invest in the position.
Mason Rudolph has been on the roster since being drafted in 2018 but when asked to perform, has not looked like the quarterback of the future. He has a starting record of 5-4 and has thrown 15 touchdowns. He has also been responsible for 14 turnovers. Rudolph may be a quality backup but hasn’t earned the job as the next man up in Pittsburgh.
The next option may be more intriguing. The Steelers signed former first-round pick Dwayne Haskins this off-season. Haskins has had a lackluster career up to this point. With a career record of 3-10 and being released from Washington due to maturity concerns, he will look to restart his career in Pittsburgh and it could be the perfect place for him. The Steelers have a history of being a place where players can go to revive their career and Haskins could be the next player to do it.
If the future of the Steelers is not already on the roster, then they must figure out how to approach finding him. This team that they have assembled is too talented to earn a top-10 pick. This takes them out of the conversation of any of the top quarterbacks in the draft. They will have to take a look at what they have and see what the next steps will be.
Will the defense be ready?
The Titans had a clear goal of improving their defense before the start of the 2021 season. They spent heavily in free agency and also addressed it in the draft. After being one of the worst groups in the NFLlast season, they will hope that this rebuilt unit will perform at a higher level. But can they?
Tennessee added linebacker Bud Dupree, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, and defensive tackle Denico Autry.
Dupree appeared in 11 games last season for the Titans and racked up eight sacks. The Titans will hope that he can bring this level of play to their defense, a group that struggled with getting to the quarterback last season.
When looking at the draft, the Titans went heavy on defensive talent. Five of the seven selections were defensive players.
Cornerback Caleb Farley fell to the Titans at pick number 22 after his injury history saw him drop in the draft. There is potential that he could end up being the steal of the draft considering how well he played during his time at Virginia Tech.
Defenses activaley avoiced Farley which resulted in him having only 20 tackles. When they did throw in his direction, it ended back for them. He defended 12 passes and also grabbed four interceptions. If all goes to plan, he could end up being the focal point of this defense.
This defense is full of moving parts and it is very unclear how it will look next season. Tennessee will have to make sure that this defense is all systems go. With the offense that they have built, this defense could be the only thing holding them back.