Breakdowns

Key Questions Going Into Start of the 2021 NFL Season

With the NFL’s preseason in the rearview mirror, here are some key questions I have heading into Week 1:

Cincinnati’s Offensive Line & Joe Burrow 

Generally not paying a lot of attention to the offensive line is historical for Cincinnati under Mike Brown. It goes back to why Marvin Lewis consistently made the playoffs but never was able to advance. In 2016, they compounded that by losing Andrew Whitworth to the Rams for a reasonable price after 11 seasons. He was an important piece for Cincinnati and one of the reasons they would make the playoffs, and they have not recovered since he went to Los Angeles. They still seem to have a big problem in that spot, with a young quarterback that is working his way back from a knee injury, and they do not seem overly concerned about it. 

Going into this year, they were in a familiar position and paid OT Riley Reiff $7.5 million for the season. This is all an out-growth of the same philosophical approach to team building. If that approach is not prioritizing the offensive line, you are going to end up piecing it together with players who are not totally desirable anymore. They have never seemed to be totally oriented in this area. In the end, if everyone can stay healthy, their offense will be productive because of Joe Burrow and some of the weapons they have (Joe Mixon, Tee Higgins, Ja’Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd), but they are still going to run into the same problem they have faced. When they play better teams, with more aggressive defenses, they are going to struggle to protect Burrow, who still needs that half-a-second longer in the pocket. Being in that division, they are going to struggle to win games.

Mac Jones and Cam Newton 

It is clear to me that Mac Jones proved he was the better quarterback in New England, and Bill Belichick can win football games with Jones. For Cam Newton, I am unsure about his future. He was a really good player in his day and deserves a lot of credit for winning with not a ton of talent around him, but he has not been that player in three years. I think it would actually be a mistake for a team to bring him in as a backup. I do not trust he can stay healthy anymore, and he was never the best leader or hardest worker. He did have unique skills and wanted to win, so he deserves a lot of credit for that, but his skills and personality do not really translate to being a backup quarterback. 

Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock

I actually like the Bridgewater move more than most and definitely favor him over Lock, but I certainly do not think he is the long-term starter for Denver. If Mac Jones or Justin Fields turns out to be really good, it is an inexcusable mistake that the Broncos passed on them. They publicized the reason they did not pick either of them, and it was totally ignorant. Denver is also the team that could be a quarterback away from being really good. I know they have struggled the past few years, but I think John Elway left them with a very solid roster.

After this season, the Broncos could be the team that is impacted the most with the pending quarterback movement of Deshaun Watson or Aaron Rodgers. For now, I think they are committed to Bridgewater unless something substantial shifts with Watson.

Houston and Deshaun Watson 

Houston is entertaining trade offers for Watson, but the compensation they are looking for is so far apart from what teams are willing to offer. I would be shocked if anything happened even remotely. I do think there are some teams that are real possibilities, but it would have to include substantial contingencies, and the Texans do not want to do that. I have remained adamant that Houston should hold onto him for a full season before they should consider trading him. It is almost unprecedented that a 25-year-old, top-five quarterback with five years left under contract could be available, so it is an active topic but I think it is far from imminent. 

For now, it seems like Texans GM Nick Caserio is content leaving Watson on the inactive roster until someone meets his offer. He is wisely waiting; there are too many factors at play, including Watson changing his mind about Houston or the pending legal cases. It also only takes one team willing to take the risk for Watson, so he should continue to play hardball. 

The Ravens Injury Concerns 

Baltimore has usually prioritized the offensive line but they have some questions this year. Ronnie Stanley spent the offseason working his way back from injury, and they brought in Alejandro Villanueva to replace Orlando Brown. They also have questions in the interior with some younger, inexperienced guys. In the backfield, they had good depth but J.K. Dobbins is out for the year, leaving the majority of the carries for Gus Edwards. At receiver, free agent addition Sammy Watkins and first-round pick Rashod Bateman are already battling injuries. 

Most good teams are built to withstand injuries because they are inevitable. What teams are not built to do is withstand multiple injuries in the same group or have a lot of injuries early in the season. Having already dipped in the injury bucket, the percentage that one of these problems occurs goes up drastically. That is when teams totally change identities from what they originally were. It will be interesting to see how Baltimore weathers the beginning of the season. 

A Look at the Other QB Situations: 

Jalen Hurts: The question for Hurts has always been the same: How quick can he process information and deliver accurate balls down field? No one doubts his athleticism, but in the end, this is why he fell into the second round. We have a small snippet, and to me, it seems like those problems are still worth being concerned about. The Eagles are really counting on some older offensive linemen, but if they stay healthy, they have surrounded him with skill players that give him an opportunity to be successful. His running skills also give Nick Sirianni and his staff some ability to sort of scheme first downs that other teams cannot do. It does at least appear Philly is committed to giving him the full year, but looking at the big picture, Hurts needs to improve on his decision making and accuracy to be a quarterback that can lead a team to a Super Bowl.

Jimmy Garoppolo/Trey Lance: The 49ers are really in an interesting situation. Kyle Shanahan, in my mind, is one of the top play designers in the NFL. I was with him in Cleveland before he went on to Atlanta and helped lead them to the Super Bowl. I am very interested to see what sort of things he is able to scheme up with his quarterbacks. They do not seem worried about using $25 million in additional cap dollars to keep Jimmy Garoppolo for one more year. Shanahan is a really smart guy, and he has a plan on how to integrate two quarterbacks if he thinks both guys can provide value. That is a defensive nightmare, especially with one of the guys as mobile as Trey Lance is. It has the chance to be something we have not really seen in a long time. 

Justin Fields: I was not as high as some on Fields during the draft, and I still think there are some warning signs. He is good enough athletically, where you can scheme things around him, but I wonder if he is good enough to win games on days when the rest of the team plays badly. I do not totally see that. For someone that was low on him during the draft, I actually thought he showed more than I expected in the preseason, but I am far from sold.  

Jack Wolov contributed to this story

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