The NFL offseason is a time of hope, promise, and expectation. Blockbuster deals in free agency turn heads, the NFL draft puts the next generation of stars on show, and training camp provides an initial look at the progress a team has made since the previous season. It is also, however, frustrating for fans as each bit of news from the league reminds them that they are still months away from meaningful NFL action. Luckily, that time is almost up, as this Thursday, September 9, fans will finally get to witness the inaugural kickoff of the 2021-22 season.
The season opens in Tampa, as the reigning Super Bowl champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, host “America’s Team,” the Dallas Cowboys. The two teams are coming off of drastically different results from 2020, with the Bucs overcoming early scrutiny to secure their second ring in franchise history, and the Cowboys losing quarterback Dak Prescott and promptly limping to a 6-10 record. Incredibly, they still somehow managed to compete for a division title in the NFC East.
Looking ahead to the beginning of the fall season, there are enough storylines to make any fan’s head spin. Here are some of the most important:
Stars Returning from Injury: Many of the league’s top stars missed significant time last year, and the league suffered for it. All-World running backs Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley, who played a total of five games between the two of them in 2020, will be itching to get back on the field. Prescott and Bengals QB, Joe Burrow, both had to go onto the Injured Reserve unexpectedly in the middle of their seasons, and their fan bases will be ecstatic to have them back. Additionally, one can’t ignore the San Francisco 49ers, who one year after making it to the Super Bowl in the 2019-2020 season, lost the majority of their best players to injury the following season and never recovered.
Rookie QBs: A rookie quarterback class headlined by Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Trey Lance, and Mac Jones is gearing up for a first taste of NFL action this fall (pre-season never counts). Lawrence and Jones have already been named the starters for their teams, with the Jacksonville Jaguars subsequently trading Gardner Minshew and the New England Patriots cutting former MVP Cam Newton. Lance, on the other hand, finds himself in the middle of a position battle in San Francisco, as signs point to Jimmy Garoppolo getting the nod in week one. Fields has officially been named backup to Andy Dalton for the Chicago Bears despite a strong offseason. However, with the skill set Fields possesses and Dalton’s obvious limitations, it is only a matter of time before we see Ohio State’s product grace Soldier Field.
Sophomore Standouts: In addition to the rookies named above, the league looks forward to a crop of signal-callers that are looking to take the next step towards the elite of the NFL in their second seasons. Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts hope to demonstrate to their teams that they are ready to become the faces of their respective franchises, while Burrow will hope to put last season’s painful end behind him and build on a promising start. Justin Herbert set the NFL world alight in his first season with the Los Angeles Chargers, setting the league record for passing touchdowns by a rookie and finishing second all time in passing yards, behind only Andrew Luck’s 2012 debut campaign. Expectations are sky high for him in year two, and a talented Chargers roster hopes to put it all together.
Best Division in the NFL, pt. 1: The NFC West is the most competitive division in the league coming into the season. There is an elite (or potentially elite) QB on every roster: the dual threat QBs Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray, the recently-traded Matthew Stafford in LA, and Lance, one of the rookie quarterbacks with the highest ceilings in the draft. Elite skill position players DeAndre Hopkins and DK Metcalf, defensive players Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, and Nick Bosa, and arguably the two most innovative offensive head coaches in Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan round out this group of all-star contributors. It will be a pleasure to watch these teams duel for supremacy.
Best Division in the NFL, pt. 2: Over in the AFC North, fans will be treated to similar delights. The #1 and #32 overall picks in the 2018 draft, Baker Bayfield and Lamar Jackson, hope to lead the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens to glory in 2021. The Browns have finally delivered on their version of the 76ers’ “Process,” looking strong when they bounced Pittsburgh from the playoffs in January. One should also expect the Ravens to change their offense up a bit, after an increased emphasis on the passing attack in the offseason, and the loss of RBs J.K. Dobbins and Justice Hill for the upcoming year to injuries. The Pittsburgh Steelers will also look to get in on the fun with a smothering defense helmed by T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick. The only question is whether Ben Roethlisberger will be able to throw together one more solid season behind a weakened offensive line. If this is the case, then there will be a riveting three-team battle for the division. Finally, while the Bengals may not yet seem ready to contend, with Burrow back under center alongside one of the two or three best wide receiver trios in the league, expect fireworks from the passing attack of Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, and rookie Ja’Marr Chase.
Vaccines on the Gridiron: Vaccination against COVID-19 within the NFL has received considerable attention this offseason. While the league is doing well, with 93% of players and over 99% of all coaches and staff members vaccinated, there are notable cases of pushback, and the words “personal issue” have become quite common throughout NFL media sessions. Starting quarterbacks Carson Wentz and Kirk Cousins are both unvaccinated, and Jackson has stated that he is undecided about getting it despite testing positive twice in under a year. Most infamously, Bills WR Cole Beasley has been very active on Twitter, campaigning against the league’s attitudes towards unvaccinated players and even threatening retirement if the rules do not change. Unvaccinated players risk missing time if they test positive or are found to be in close contact with someone who does, and these situations could quickly derail a team’s season.
Crazy plays, controversy, competition and more await us on Thursday night and the subsequent eighteen weeks of regular season football. The expanded seventeen-game schedule will mean more opportunities to watch the development of these and more storylines across the league. As Archie from “Riverdale” might say, “The triumphs and defeats, the epic highs and lows of [professional] football” await us.