NFL fans, rejoice. After a long seven months, we have finally reached the beginning of the season. With a new season comes new opportunities for some teams, and new hope for others. Every team starts out even, so even the Dallas Cowboys fans who think this year is finally the year can remain hopeful.
Every year, the NFL season consists of drama and storylines, but following a COVID-19-filled 2020 season, 2021 may be one of the most intriguing seasons yet. Here are some of the storylines I will personally be following very closely.
- Rookie QBs
If the 2021 NFL Draft had a strong suit, it would be the quarterbacks. While some rookie quarterbacks have already locked up their starting roles, others have yet to claim theirs.
Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence and New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones, the first and 15th picks in the draft, respectively, secured the starting spot after successful preseason showings. New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson secured the starting spot almost immediately after leaving Brigham Young University, as the Jets simply lack any other quarterback talent. But other first-round talents are starting the season as backups.
Trey Lance is in an interesting spot in San Francisco, where the team already has their starter in Jimmy Garoppolo. Unfortunately, injuries have derailed Garoppolo’s time with the 49ers, forcing the hand of management to take Lance out of North Dakota State University with the third overall pick. Garoppolo has the starting role for now, but if he falters or gets hurt, Lance will be more than ready, as evidenced by his strong preseason.
Justin Fields, who was drafted 11th by the Chicago Bears, is in an even weirder situation. Last year’s starter, Nick Foles, is still on the roster, and the team also signed journeyman Andy Dalton, who started nine games for Dallas last year. Fields is clearly the most talented out of the three, but whether he’ll get the chance to show that this year is still up in the air. If the Bears start the season flat, expect Fields to get thrown in to provide a much-needed boost to a middling Chicago offense.
- The effect of the 17-game schedule
The 2021 season will be unique in many ways, but one of the most glaring is the introduction of an 18th week. Teams will now be playing 17 games rather than the typical 16, with still just one bye week. In turn, the preseason was shortened by one week.
With one extra game per season, we could see longtime NFL season records be broken. Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson has held the record for most rushing yards in a season — 2,105 — since 1984, but just last year we saw Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry rush for 2,027 yards. Could Henry break the once-impossible record with an extra game under his belt?
Another aspect of the extra game is the added fatigue and injuries it could cause for players. We have already seen a few star players go down in the preseason with season-ending injuries, and the 2020 season was littered with injuries. Will an extra game only add to the NFL’s biggest problem? Sure, the extra game adds a ton of revenue in the short term, but if the players are experiencing more wear and tear, does the change catch up to the league?
- Star players returning from injury
As previously mentioned, many key players went down in the 2020 season. Headlined by quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Saquon Barkley, and defensive end Nick Bosa, the list of notable names to miss games in 2020 was concerning. A lot of that can be attributed to the players not having training camp or preseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but heading into 2021, it will be interesting to see how these players bounce back from their injuries.
Both Prescott and Bosa are practicing fully and seem ready to go for the season, whereas Barkley only began to practice recently.
As a football fan, you hate to see any players go down with injuries, but even more so when it’s a star player. All three of the players I mentioned impact their team so much to the point that their absence completely changes the team’s game plan.
The San Francisco 49ers had 48 sacks – tied for fifth-best in the NFL – with Bosa in the lineup in 2019 but fell to just 30 in 2020 with his absence. The Dallas Cowboys scored 32.6 points per game with Prescott in 2020 but had just 21.1 points per game without him. The New York Giants scored 23.1 points per game in 2018, Barkley’s last completely healthy season, but scored just 17.5 per game in 2020 with Barkley gone.
These star players have such an immense impact on their teams and fan engagement with the sport. Having them fully healthy in 2021 would be huge for not only their teams but for the sport in general.