Five NFL Teams Due For Regression in 2021

The New Orleans Saints will be worse in 2021

By Calvin K (Twitter: @Calvin_SGF)

The 2021 NFL season is quickly approaching, and as usual, there are lots of storylines about how teams are expected to do next year. Most NFL fans have hope that their favorite team will perform well (or at least better) this year, but the obvious reality is that some teams will not live up to their hopes. Other teams that were good last year will see a decrease in performance as well. Below are the five teams due for the most regression this year.

New Orleans Saints (2020 Record: 12-4)

The Saints are an obvious pick for regression this year, as, for the first time since 2005, New Orleans has major uncertainty about who deserves the starting quarterback role. The competition will be between gunslinger Jameis Winston and dual-threat Taysom Hill, but whoever wins will never be able to fill the massive void left when Brees retired after the 2020 season.

The Saints’ last four season records of 11-5, 13-3, 13-3, and 12-4 will likely not be matched without Brees in 2021. The recent news surrounding star WR Michael Thomas likely means that he will be out until at least mid-October, a heavy blow to an offense that desperately will need someone to step up this year. New Orleans’ defense is largely the same heading into this season, but if the offense can’t be productive, they’ll have trouble winning games, and this team will be hard-pressed to repeat a 12-4 record in 2021.

Las Vegas Raiders (2020 Record: 8-8)

Las Vegas could be destined for a top-five pick in next year’s NFL draft after an atrocious offseason that led to many questioning the job security of prominent front-office executives. The losses of center Rodney Hudson and right guard Gabe Jackson were huge blows to this offensive line, and the Raiders’ offseason little to address the issue, other than their first-round selection of offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood, which was considered by many to be a reach.

The signing of RB Kenyan Drake was also mind-boggling, as the Raiders essentially gave Drake $7.25 million a year to back up Josh Jacobs at a position, running back, that teams statistically shouldn’t pay a premium for in free agency and the draft. The signings of Yannick Ngakoue and Casey Heyward could push true rock bottom further down the road for this team, but they also didn’t make much sense for a squad that needs a total overhaul and rebuild. QB Derek Carr still likely won’t be consistent enough to lead this team on a playoff run, and the wide receiving corps doesn’t help matters, as Carr still doesn’t have a true #1 option in this offense. The additional star power is a plus, but it won’t be able to fully mask the dysfunction on the defense, which is still thin at most positions. Overall, the Raiders appear to have nowhere to go but down in 2021, and because the Chiefs, Chargers, and Broncos all made impactful improvements, they could easily be headed for last place in the AFC West.

Seattle Seahawks (2020 Record: 12-4)

The Seahawks should still have plenty of offensive firepower in 2021, but this regression pick is mainly due to the competition they’ll face in the NFC West. All three teams in the division are trending upward, which isn’t a good sign for Seattle’s hopes of continued divisional dominance.

The Los Angeles Rams, who were 10-6 last year, have elevated themselves to borderline Super Bowl contender status with the addition of veteran QB Matthew Stafford. Stafford will fill a void at the Rams’ biggest position of need, and with an elite defense and plenty of offensive weapons, they’ll have a shot at a deep playoff push in 2021. The Arizona Cardinals signed J.J. Watt to join Chandler Jones in a fearsome pass-rushing duo, and Kyler Murray will be back healthy and ready to lead a high-powered offense, one that was bolstered by the selection of speedy WR Rondale Moore in Round 2 of the draft. The 49ers finished last in the division in 2020 with a record of 6-10, but they dealt with a slew of injuries last year, and this defense, if healthy, could return to the levels of the one they had during their 2019 Super Bowl run. Overall, Seattle will be facing some tough competition in 2021, and you can say what you will about their talent, but it’ll be difficult to go 12-4 again in what is arguably now the toughest division in the NFL.

Pittsburgh Steelers (2020 Record: 12-4)

Pittsburgh could still be a very solid team in 2021, but they aren’t likely to live up to their 2020 performance simply because they lost four out of their final five games after an 11-0 start to the year. Ben Roethlisberger is now 39 years old, and he is becoming less and less willing to push the ball downfield on deep throws, posting the quickest average snap-to-throw time among qualifying QBs last year (2.3 seconds).

The Steelers also incurred major losses from the offensive line (Maurkice Pouncey, Alejandro Villanueva, David DeCastro) and linebacking corps (Vince Williams, Bud Dupree), and while they did make some effort to patch up those areas, the depth for them just isn’t the same as it was last year. The addition of RB Najee Harris from the draft should help boost the offense as a whole, but overall, this team doesn’t feel complete enough to post another elite season. Pittsburgh should still be in the playoff hunt in 2021, but this year’s record should more closely resemble the ones of 2019 (8-8) and 2018 (9-6-1) than that of last year.

Green Bay Packers (2020 Record: 13-3)

The Packers could very well perform at the same level that they did in 2020, but this pick just comes down to the fact that I don’t expect QB Aaron Rodgers to play a full season – or at all – this year. According to Adam Schefter, Rodgers declined a two-year extension this offseason that would’ve made him the highest-paid player in football. The contract, which would’ve carried north of $45 million in annual value, is an insane offer to turn down, which is why the player/team relationship appears fractured beyond repair.

The Packers will return most of their full lineup in 2021, as superstar center Corey Linsley was their only major loss in free agency this offseason. The selections of CB Eric Stokes and WR Amari Rodgers will only bolster a team that already has a strong roster all around. However, despite the supporting cast, this team will not be able to have success on the same level without Rodgers. QB Jordan Love is clearly not ready to take over the starting role despite the first-round capital used on him in 2020, and that fact was emphasized by the gigantic offer that Green Bay extended to Rodgers. It’s possible that if this team doesn’t have competent quarterback play, it could still potentially have some success. However, if Rodgers holds out or is traded, it removes any chance for the Packers to be a Super Bowl contender, which is a clear step down from their status in recent years.

Three reasons why the Steelers could repeat as AFC North champs

The Pittsburgh Steelers offseason needs high goals

By: Noah Nichols

Everyone knows the story. The Steelers began the 2020 NFL season with an impressive 11-0 record. They would then go 1-4 and be eliminated in the first round the by the Cleveland Browns. However, that first round loss has really brought down people’s expectations for the Steelers. It is a popular opinion to believe that the Steelers will not make the playoffs in 2021. To be sure, the end of 2020 left a bad taste in the mouth of both fans and critics. The Steelers flaws really came to the surface at the end of the season.

But that does not mean that the Steelers won’t win the division, like they did last year. Even when they were predicted to finish third in the division. Yeah, the Steelers did not look good at the end of the season. But they have changed some things to fix the flaws that were apparent at the end of the 2020. Like their running backs and offensive line.

The AFC North is not so different from 2020. Some new players here, same players there, talent lost, and talent gained. That’s what happens in free agency and the draft. And while the critics are quick to point out the Steelers flaws, and praise the rest of the division for players acquired, they forget the Steelers. They have everything that they need to win the division. And they plan to. They wont say it, but they don’t have to, they will let their play do the talking, and let the rest of the division take the spotlight. Like the Browns, who are now expected to win the division, something that they have not done since 2002.

The Steelers have a running game

It is not early to say that the Steelers will have a better run game in 2021 than in 2020, where they finished dead last in the NFL in rushing yards per game.

Najee Harris will make sure that doesn’t happen again.

After being drafted in the first round at 24 overall, he instantly improves the Steelers run game from worst, to average. At least. I can’t say, well he improves the running game, here, here, and here. Oh wait, I can. He’s smarter, bigger, more fluid, a better pass catcher, stronger, and more athletic than any other running back on the Steelers roster. By far.

It’s not just the influx of talent, it’s the amount of times that he will touch the football. 300 times this season is probably too low of a mark. 340 is closer. And that threat, will force the division to do something that they have not had to do in a long time.

Focus on stopping the run against the Steelers. The division has been able to key in on the pass for the past two-three years and largely ignore the running game except when James Conner was playing, when he was healthy. Now, they cannot ignore Harris. A great example is the second Bengals game from 2020 where JuJu Smith-Schuster caught a dump-off pass over the middle and was clocked by Vonn Bell. Bell knew that the Steelers weren’t going to run the ball, because they were so bad at it, so he keyed in on JuJu.

Harris will force teams to respect the running game, which also opens up the passing game even more. Essentially, Harris ensures that the division cannot focus on one aspect of the Steelers offense. And that’s something that they are not used to doing, not since the days of Le’veon Bell.

The Steelers defense is still elite

The offseason losses to the Steelers defense are a little overblown. First, Bud Dupree is a big loss. But Alex Highsmith, who took his place last year when Dupree tore his ACL, proved that he is a worthy starter. Highsmith will ease the loss of Dupree. The loss of Mike Hilton is more of a pass rush loss than a coverage loss. Hilton, being 5″8 and never the fastest player on the field, was never great in coverage. His bread and butter was defending the run and blitzing.

While Hilton was great at what he did, it’s not that hard to find someone who can blitz. And the Steelers are replacing Hilton with Cameron Sutton, who was much, much better in coverage. And even though Steven Nelson is no longer on the team, he was cut. Clearly the Steelers are confident in what they have behind him.

The Steelers still have an insane pass rush, probably the best interior defensive line in the NFL. They have the best edge rusher in the NFL to pair alongside that defensive line. And they have arguably the best safety tandem in the league. The defense is not going anywhere, and will be a pain to play against for the division.

The Steelers know the division, and how to win it

I wanted to put these statistics in the above column, but it made more sense here. Lamar Jackson has played the Steelers as a starting quarterback twice. He has been sacked nine times, thrown five interceptions, thrown 24 incompletions, compared to three touchdowns and 369 yards passing in two games. Not so great. Jackson lost both those games. (Fun fact, Jackson has never beaten the Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger as the opposing quarterback.)

Baker Mayfield has a passer rating of 80.4 with 884 yards, 7 touchdowns and 4 interceptions in 5 games versus the Steelers in his career, much better than Lamar. However, Mayfield has been sacked 16 times in those five games. And one of those games was against the Steelers backups to end the 2020 season. Joe Burrow has not fared much better, going 21 of 40 for 213 yards, one touchdown, 4 sacks, and a passer rating of 76.4. Burrow has only played on game though, so that information cannot be taken as 100% accurate.

However, the division clearly struggles at quarterback when playing the Steelers defense. Ben Roethlisberger is 63-20 versus the AFC North, and half of those losses belong to the Ravens. Eight belong the the Bengals. Ben Roethlisberger has lost to the Browns only twice in his 18-year career. He knows how to beat the rest of the division. The Steelers know how to win the division. Yeah, the division got a little tougher in some areas, but it got weaker in others. Like the pass rush, outside of Myles Garret, not a single player on the rest of the division’s front seven would start on the Steelers front seven. And that’s not even because of how good their front seven is, but how bad the rest of the division’s is.

Bill Cowher said it best in a interview on First Take.

“I think they will, they’ll be the hunt,” Bill Cowher said when asked on First Take recently if the Steelers will make the playoffs in 2021. “When you look at them, yes the division’s got tougher, but I love the pick of Najee Harris…” “Defensively they get Devin Bush back and that’s a top-tier defense. So, yes the division’s gotten better, but they’ve got a lot of veterans in that locker room that know how to win close games. And that’s what it’s going to come down to, and they got a great kicker in (the) kicking game. So, I think they’ll be in the hunt, and yes, I will say they will make the playoffs.”

The Steelers have a running game, they have a great defense, and they know how to win the division. Oh, and their receivers are still pretty darn good. They have everything they need to win the division. Just because no one in the national media is predicting it, does not mean it won’t happen. Don’t be surprised when it does. Don’t sleep on the Steelers. I guarantee the rest of the division isn’t.

Which 2022 College Quarterback Prospect Best Fits the Steelers?

Who will be the Steelers QB of the future?

By: Noah Nichols

The Steelers are entering an interesting point in time. In the very near future Ben Roethlisberger is going to retire. The Steelers know that. What the Steelers don’t know, as of right now, is who their franchise quarterback is going to be. After almost two decades of play from the future first-ballot hall of famer, Roethlisberger will be hanging it up for good, mostly likely at the end of this year.

What happens next? Do the Steelers turn to Mason Rudolph? If that is the case, they would probably only do so for a year. They would give Rudolph a chance to prove himself, and while I like Rudolph as much as the next guy, he just does not have the physical tools necessary to bring the team forward. The Steelers will almost certainly turn to the 2022 draft to find their next franchise quarterback. What quarterback best fits the Steelers in 2022? It depends on what the Steelers are looking for.

And while the Steelers are not going to have their pick of the litter, so to speak, in 2022, there are a few quarterbacks that the Steelers could be eyeing in 2022, and one in particular is a great fit for them. As a disclaimer, I will not discuss Spencer Rattler or Sam Howell. Both are projected to be top five picks, and unless they fall off a literal cliff, that is where they are going to go. Instead I will be looking at some quarterbacks that the Steelers have a reasonable chance of nabbing. The probability of these quarterbacks being available when the Steelers pick will factor in when determining which quarterback best fits the Steelers.

Malik Willis

Probably the most talented quarterback in the draft aside from Rattler, Willis brings a lot to the table. At 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, Willis is not a small quarterback that will be easily injured. Averaging 8.7 yards a carry for his career, his biggest problem is not turning the ball over. According to PFF he had one more big-time throw than turnover-worthy play last year, 20 and 19 respectively. That could be concerning, trying to do too much could result in some bad plays that kill the team, and he cannot run for his entire career.

However, he has a year to improve. And the Steelers are (mostly) fine with a quarterback who turns the ball over, as long as he makes big time plays too. That was Ben Roethlisberger for most of his career. Willis provides something that the Steelers have not had at quarterback since Kordell “Slash” Stewart, a quarterback in the mold of Michael Vick. Stewart rushed for over 2,100 yards in his career as a Steeler, so the concept would not be new to the organization. Big arm, big play legs are Malik Willis in a nutshell, and the Steelers would love to have that. The turnovers won’t really concern the Steelers too much, considering Ben has thrown 201 in his career.

KEDON SLOVIS

Almost the opposite of Willis, Slovis is an accuracy-first type player. With an adjusted completion percentage of 80.6% for his career, Willis is not going to put the ball in harms way very often. His biggest problem, and why the Steelers will not draft him, is his arm strength. He has never completed a pass over 50 yards in his career, and has the weakest arm in the 2022 quarterback class. The NFL is not trending in that direction, but the biggest problem is how Slovis does not fit Pittsburgh. Windy, rainy games are regular trend in Pittsburgh, especially later into the season. The Steelers will not take a quarterback who cannot regularly complete passes in bad weather. The AFC North is too brutal for that. If they played in a dome, the answer might be different. But they don’t, and Slovis wont play for the Steelers.

Desmond Ridder

Ridder resembles Lamar Jackson more than anyone else in this class. At 6-foot-4, 215-pounds, Ridder is two inches taller and three pounds heavier than Jackson. Ridder is very similar on the ground with insane speed and a start-stop ability that throws defenders in the opposite direction. It was reported that Mike Tomlin had wanted to draft Lamar Jackson when he came out. The validity of that report is up in the air, but if its true, Tomlin has a second chance right here. Ridder looks like a carbon copy, excelling on the ground, and even struggling in the air with accuracy. Ridder does not lack for a strong arm, his accuracy is his biggest weakness.

And while he grew in that area in 2020, only 53.5% of his passes targeted past the line of scrimmage last year were deemed accurate, according to PFF. However, Ridder has all of 2021 to grow in that area, and should improve in that area. If Ridder becomes more accurate, and it does not have to be a Drew Brees level of accuracy, than he could certainly be the Steelers first round pick in 2022. His athleticism paired with Najee Harris would be a nightmare for defenses to prepare for, and that is not taking into account Chase Claypool or Dionte Johnson. The Steelers offense could be beyond electric with Ridder at quarterback. It really depends on how well Ridder improves his accuracy.

Carson Strong

If any quarterback looks like Ben Roethlisberger in this draft class, its Carson Strong. At 6″4 214-pounds, Strong has all the arm strength in the world. His mechanics are great too, and his deep ball matches his arm strength and mechanics. According to PFF “No quarterback in the country targeted more passes 50-plus yards past the line of scrimmage last season than Strong. His 10 such attempts were double that of anyone in the 2021 quarterback class, and his four such completions were double that of anyone else in the country.”

There is no worry here that Strong might struggle in cold weather. There is not much to dislike here with Strong. Questions arise about benefiting from Romeo Doubbs, his star wide receiver, but otherwise, he shows little room for error. His pocket awareness needs to improve, but he does not play like he is blind to defenders. 2021 will certainly be the year for Strong to improve his draft stock and he has the potential to be a top-15 pick.

Best Fit

The Steelers don’t have a chance at Rattler or Slovis. And they certainly wont take Slovis due to the probability that he struggles in games with strong weather. Ridder brings a lot to the table, especially on the ground. He has the arm to make big plays downfield too. If his accuracy improves, he could certainly be the Steelers pick. Malik Willis has the most talent out of this group, but that’s the downside too. He probably wont be available when the Steelers pick, unless they trade up. Carson Strong is the most Roethlisberger like, and could certainly be available when they pick, but offers less as a runner.

So, who fits the best? It really depends on the scenario. However, I do believe that if Willis is available when the Steelers pick, they will take him over the other three quarterbacks. He offers everything Ridder has on the ground, and has the arm talent of Strong. If he’s there, he’s the pick. Will the Steelers trade up for him? That all depends on positioning in the draft, and while it could happen, its impossible to predict right now.

If Willis is not available, and Strong and Ridder are available, the Steelers probably will take Strong. Strong just offers more through the air, and the Steelers don’t NEED a running quarterback. However, if Ridder takes a leap and becomes a average-to above-average passer, then Ridder is the pick. Ultimately, I would put my money on Strong. He has the tools, his play style is similar to Big Ben in that he’s a big, strong armed quarterback, and he has the best chance to be available when the Steelers make their pick in 2022.

Ben Roethlisberger’s ceiling and floor for 2021

By: Noah Nichols

“I didn’t play well enough at the end of the season,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s no secret, and I’ll be the first to point the finger at myself. When the ball is in your hand every play, you have to make plays and play better football. I just felt like I had more in the tank and felt disappointed about the way the season ended. I wanted to let (the Steelers) know that if they wanted me back, I felt like I could give them everything I’ve got.”

Entering into the 2020 NFL season and coming off of major arm surgery, expectations for Ben Roethlisberger were not very high. Throughout most of 2020, Roethlisberger exceeded those expectations, but he did struggle towards the end of the season. Passing the football over 600 times might have had something to do with that, but the fledgling finish to the season raised some doubts about Ben. Can he still do it? Were the failings at the end of the year an indicator of someone who was throwing the ball too much, or of someone who just cannot throw the ball as well anymore?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. But Ben is not preparing like it.

“I’m going to approach this like I do every season like it’s my last,” Roethlisberger said. “Every single play in the game of football could be your last … every game could be your last. I’ve never looked toward the future. I’ve always looked toward the right here and now. I’m going to give it everything I have to win a Super Bowl this year because it’s the most important year for any of us.”

Ben is approaching the 2021 NFL season the right way. If everything goes well, where does that place him? Top 10 quarterback? And if it does not go well, bottom 25? The answer is more in between.

Ben Roethlisberger’s Ceiling

“Ben Roethlisberger says he expects more from his arm this year, a full extra year off of surgery. Said not having to rehab also affected his approach this winter: “I took a lot of time off from throwing this off-season. I really hope and pray it will pay dividends.” — Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) June 1, 2021

Ben struggled at the end of 2020. There is no way around that. But it does make sense that he might. He was coming off major elbow surgery in his throwing arm. And the offense required him to pass the ball over 600 times, which was the most in the league. The reason for that was twofold. One, the Steelers were the worst team in the NFL at running the ball. So instead of running the ball, the Steelers would rely on short, quick, passes and after the catch yards. Second, the now-without-a-job Randy Fichtner, the Steelers offensive coordinator in 2020, did not exactly help Ben by limiting his passes. Fichtner would keep calling those short passes, only continuing to wear down Ben’s freshly reconstructed elbow.

Enter Najee Harris and a completely remolded offensive line. Ben will not have to rely on those quick passes anymore. Najee Harris will tote the ball, and he will get the ball, a lot. 325 touches is not an unreasonable figure, and he could very well go over that number. So, with Roethlisberger no longer relying on his arm as a substitute for the run game, his arm will get more rest. And like I indicate earlier, he is already resting his arm.

Ben will have more passes with zip, and less throws that float in the air as a result of this. His arm strength is not something to be worried about, and that is not what he struggled with in 2021. He struggled with downfield accuracy. However, for someone who has to get used to basically a new elbow, that might be expected. And with a year to regain his familiarity with that elbow, to get used to throwing downfield again, it’s reasonable to expect that he might throw the ball better downfield in 2021.

The run game will help him with that, he will be able to use play-action effectively because defenses will be keying in on the run. His arm will be fresh and well-rested. Something that it was not entering into the 2020 season. So, what his ceiling? Taking into account his weapons, a new offensive coordinator, and a new running back, it’s pretty high. I expect Chase Claypool to take a second-year jump that Mike Tomlin expects from his players. Najee Harris is also a great pass-catching back, so he will receive more dump-off passes than his predecessors used to. The new offensive coordinator, Matt Canada has already said: “We’re gonna do what Ben wants to do and how Ben wants to do it,” Canada said Tuesday. “Our job is getting every player in position to make plays. There are changes with terminology. That’s an adjustment for Ben. He’s been great in learning it. Doing really well with it. He has adapted easily as we all knew we would.”

Canada is going to put Ben in a position to win. I think it’s reasonable to expect that Ben will pass for over 4,700 yards and 33 touchdowns. And his interception’s will probably come in around seven. Passing the ball less, but more effectively is going to be the name of the game for Ben in 2021. He won’t fall off at the end, either. No, he wont win MVP. But he will do more than enough for the Steelers. If I had to place him on a tier for 2021, I would say 10-12th best.

Ben Roethlisberger’s Floor

“Matchups are how you win football games,” Canada continued. “It starts with the quarterback. What does he do well? What does he like? What does he see? What is good to his eye in the passing game? Then we build off of that. That’s what we are gonna do. His voice. His vision. What he sees will be what we’ll do.”

Like I noted earlier, the offense in 2021 for Ben Roethlisberger is going to be tailored for him, and to fit his strengths and weaknesses. More runs, fewer short passes, and designed plays to keep Ben upright, but not passes that are predictable. Roethlisberger notes that he has already started practicing this new offense that Canada is implementing.

“We have gone under center,” Roethlisberger said during organized team activities on June 1. “We have shotgun. He has more motion. But I feel like that is where the NFL is going right now, a lot of the jet sweep motions and stuff. I can go under center. I never said I didn’t like it. We will be in the gun, we will move. We will throw a lot of different looks and schemes and things at people and see what works.”

So, how does this pertain to Roethlisberger’s floor? Well, if the offense is tailored to fit him, he can only be so bad. He is surrounded by talent around him at skill positions. Najee Harris can do anything and everything that Ben will need. Harris will be like Le’veon Bell for Roethlisberger, someone that he can rely on whenever things go south. That ensures that Ben won’t be throwing the ball into triple coverage, trying to make a play. And his offensive line has the talent and potential to make sure that he does not get killed in the backfield.

Roethlisberger won’t have to get the ball out at the fastest pace in the NFL either. Those basic things, a new offense tailored to him, and a new running back who he can rely on, will ensure that he always has some options, and won’t be trying to do too much.

As a result, his floor for 2021 comes in at 4,00 yards, and 25 touchdown passes. Maybe he throws more interceptions than usual, like 13 in this prediction. That would not be unreasonable to expect from him, he has thrown for more than that in a season not a few times.

In either scenario, Ben is at worst a top 20 quarterback, and at best, fringe top-10 quarterback. Now, maybe he could crack the top eight. If he does, than he would really be exceeding expectations. But that is not a reasonable ceiling. Still, Ben will be more than good enough for the Steelers in 2021. Perhaps even great.

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