2021 NFL season: One storyline to track for all 32 teams

You cannot encounter new Jets coach Robert Saleh and not be impressed. He is thoughtful, passionate and engaging. He will seek to turn a negative into a positive, as he did recently with Albert Breer of The MMQB when discussing the challenges his team will face this season.

“I’m genuinely excited for adversity. Because a lot of different things are going to pop up,” he said. “There are coaches that are going to find out about themselves. There’s the scouts and the GM, there’s myself, the players, the training staff. Everybody’s going to find out a little more about themselves when adversity hits.

“I think that’s when teams have their greatest amount of growth — it’s through adversity. And so with training camp, that’s what I’m most excited for. I wanna see how people respond.”

Just as every team has hope entering a new season, they also face challenges, and here are the ones that stand out to me (clubs are listed based on their divisional finish in 2020):

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AFC EAST

How will Buffalo handle being the hunted instead of the hunter? It would be easy to focus on QB Josh Allen and whether he can build on the remarkable improvements he made in Year 3 last season, but the bigger question for me is this: How will Buffalo handle success after ending the Patriots’ 11-year run as AFC East champions? Staying on top is a different challenge than climbing the mountain, which is what makes the Bills’ situation so intriguing — and that’s not even taking into account the improvement of others in the division.

Will Tua Tagovailoa take steps toward fulfilling the potential that made him the fifth overall pick in 2020? Tagovailoa has acknowledged his shortcomings from a year ago, but the quarterback’s rookie struggles weren’t all about him. Former coordinator Chan Gailey was a supporter of veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, who started seven games in 2020 and is now in Washington, and Gailey called a more conservative game for Tagovailoa than he did for Fitzpatrick. Also, coach Brian Flores didn’t help the matter with his late-game benchings some weeks (either he’s your guy or he’s not). As Tagovailoa goes, so go the Dolphins, who have upgraded the receiving corps in hopes of helping his development.

Can Cam Newton approach his previous Pro Bowl form? We’ve not seen it from Newton since the first half of the 2018 season with Carolina, after which shoulder issues and surgery led to a steep decline. He played well in the opener for New England last season but was never the same after a positive COVID-19 test. New England has upgraded the personnel around the 32-year-old this season with a flurry of moves, including the addition of two dominant pass-catching tight ends. If Newton struggles early, the storyline quickly will shift to: When will rookie first-round pick Mac Jones take over?

Was Saleh underselling the amount of adversity he will face this season? Yes. It will take time to wash away the dysfunction that has permeated an organization that ranked last in wins, points per game, point differential and turnover differential over the past five seasons. Heck, just last season, the offense ranked last in total yards, scoring, third-down offense, red-zone offense and yards per play. That’s a lot for a new staff to overcome in a short time, even with several upgrades on offense and the addition of highly-touted rookie QB Zach Wilson.

AFC NORTH

Can Ben Roethlisberger rebound from his drop-off last season? After an elbow injury that required surgery cost him most of 2019, Roethlisberger returned last season and posted career lows (setting aside 2019, in which he made just two starts) in average depth per target (7.4, per Pro Football Focus) and yards per attempt (6.3). There are legitimate questions about whether the 39-year-old can still effectively push the ball down the field. He admitted this offseason that his surgery impacted his ability to throw deep. One positive for him appears to be that he is another year removed from that surgery; another is that the offense will lean heavily on rookie running back Najee Harris. If Harris and the ground game are effective, that could help Roethlisberger be more efficient with downfield shots. Pittsburgh ranked last in rushing in 2020.

Will attempts to upgrade the wideout corps work out? Baltimore tied for the third-fewest receptions of 20 yards or longer last season. The Ravens are surely hoping the addition of Sammy Watkins via free agency and Rashod Bateman through the draft will change that. But a word of caution: The last time coordinator Greg Roman attempted to open up his run-centric offense was during his tenure in San Francisco with Colin Kaepernick at QB, and that did not end well.

How long will it take the revamped defense to jell? The offense is set and should reach an even higher level with the return of Odell Beckham Jr. from injury. But the newcomers on defense, which was upgraded on paper after struggling at times last season, will need time to develop chemistry and cohesion. There’s no guarantee Jadeveon Clowney, Takk McKinley and Malik Jackson will give the pass rush a needed boost, but the secondary should definitely benefit from the arrival of safety John Johnson and cornerback Troy Hill, who were part of the Rams’ top-ranked defense last season.

Did they make the right decision by taking a wideout over an offensive tackle in the first round? There’s no question wideout Ja’Marr Chase is a potential star in the making and was a go-to for QB Joe Burrow during their time together at LSU. But it’s tough to throw for touchdowns if you’re constantly under duress, which is why it might have made more sense for Cincinnati to use the fifth overall pick on tackle Penei Sewell, who was widely regarded as the top offensive lineman in the draft. The Bengals did add three O-linemen in later rounds — and they had better hit on some or all of them, with Burrow returning from knee surgery that prematurely ended his rookie season.

AFC SOUTH

Will the defense be able to balance a talented offense that includes newcomer Julio Jones? Tennessee ranked in the bottom 10 in points allowed, total yards allowed and passing yards allowed last season, causing it to jettison a number of familiar names. The Titans now figure to lean on newcomers Bud Dupree (free-agent linebacker, arriving from Pittsburgh), Caleb Farley (rookie cornerback) and Janoris Jenkins (free-agent cornerback, arriving from New Orleans) to upgrade the unit. As the saying goes, it’s better to try something than nothing at all.

Can Frank Reich reinvent QB Carson Wentz? The sixth-year pro had his greatest success in 2017, when Reich was his offensive coordinator with the Eagles. A couple of solid seasons followed, but last year, Wentz was benched by Philly and subsequently traded to Indy. If Wentz can regain his form from 2017, the Colts should be among the front-runners for a trip to the Super Bowl. If not, back to the drawing board.

Will they win a single game? When your best player is nowhere to be found, when your head coach is a first-timer entering an incomprehensibly challenging situation, when you lack young talent and proven veterans at key positions, it is a question that begs asking, as disrespectful as it might seem.

How will new coach Urban Meyer handle losing? Meyer never had a losing season in 17 years (with four teams) on the collegiate level, and he lost four or more games just twice. That’s important because the Jaguars won only one game last season and have had just one winning season in the previous 13 seasons. Losing four games (or more) before reaching their Week 7 bye is not out of the question. How Meyer handles what figures to be a difficult campaign — yes, even if Trevor Lawrence was selected first overall, he still is a rookie quarterback — could go a long way toward shaping what type of culture we’re likely to see in Jacksonville in the next few years.

AFC WEST

How quickly can their rebuilt offensive line come together? When your franchise quarterback is under constant stress, as Patrick Mahomes was in last season’s Super Bowl loss, you act quickly. The Chiefs did that in a major way, trading for tackle Orlando Brown Jr., signing guards Joe Thuney and Kyle Long and center Austin Blythe, drafting center Creed Humphrey in the second round and welcoming back guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who opted out last season. If Mahomes is well-protected, a trip to a third consecutive Super Bowl is not only plausible, but likely.

Will Las Vegas fade again down the stretch? In each of the past two seasons, the Raiders were poised for a potential playoff run, riding three-game win streaks into mid-November. And yet, in both years, they collapsed from that point forward, going 2-5 last season and 1-5 the previous year. The Raiders have the talent to make another push, but will they?

How will Justin Herbert respond to the new coaching staff? The quarterback had a dazzling rookie season in 2020, breaking a couple of noteworthy league records for first-year players and capturing the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. However new coach Brandon Staley chose not to bring back offensive coordinator Shane Steichen or quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton. That puts the spotlight squarely on new OC Joe Lombardi, because Herbert’s continued progress will likely determine just how far the Chargers and their talented defense can go in 2021.

Can Drew Lock be the guy? The only thing consistent about the young QB through his first two pro seasons has been his inconsistency. Denver has offensive weapons, but none will reach their true potential if Lock does not improve his play. A positive for him is that he will be working from the same playbook for the first time since college, with coordinator Pat Shurmur returning for a second season. A positive for the Broncos as a whole is that veteran QB Teddy Bridgewater was acquired this offseason as insurance.

NFC WEST

How will Russell Wilson and the offense fare under new coordinator Shane Waldron? Questions about Wilson’s unhappiness with the offense dominated the offseason in Seattle, prompting speculation about whether it would result in the star being traded. Wilson may still be in Seattle, but the questions haven’t gone anywhere; they’re simply whispers now instead of shouts, as everyone waits to see how the Wilson-Waldron collaboration works out. One thing about Wilson: It seems he cares deeply about how he is perceived, and that he wants to be regarded as one of the all-time greats. To him, that seems to mean competing for titles, and he has not been back on the Super Bowl stage since his third pro season.

Did Jared Goff hold back the Rams? Coach Sean McVay essentially said he did without actually saying those words when he traded Goff to the Lions for Matthew Stafford. It’s clear McVay believes Stafford is an upgrade, and I find it hard to disagree. The Rams were hurt by the season-ending Achilles injury suffered by running back Cam Akers, but if there’s one QB who can cope with it, it’s Stafford, who, in his first 12 seasons, only worked with two backs who ran for more than 800 yards in any given season.

Is age merely a number? The Cardinals are hoping so, considering much of their fortune will hinge on over-30 newcomers like defensive lineman J.J. Watt (32), center Rodney Hudson (32) and wide receiver A.J. Green (32). All are past their primes yet still have the ability to be difference-makers — if they can stay healthy.

What will be the impact of losing defensive coordinator Robert Saleh? Actually, San Francisco lost both of its coordinators, with OC Mike LaFleur joining Saleh’s staff with the Jets. But losing LaFleur isn’t a major deal, considering coach Kyle Shanahan handles the offensive play-calling and play design. The same cannot be said of defense, where DeMeco Ryans replaces Saleh. Ryans is respected within the building and by his players as someone who is smart, studious and possessing strong leadership qualities. A former player himself, he understands how to reach his group. The expectation is that the unit, which is stacked with talent, will be more aggressive under him. If so, there is reason to envision the team making its second trip to the Super Bowl since 2019.

NFC SOUTH

Has their defensive line gone from being a position of strength to a source of uncertainty? While many might focus on the battle to replace Drew Brees at quarterback as the top storyline for New Orleans, I have confidence that it won’t be as much of an issue as some might want to believe. The situation along the defensive line is more pressing to me. Tackle David Onyemata, one of their top players, will miss the first six games while serving a league suspension; end Trey Hendrickson, the lone pass rusher to reach double-digit sacks in New Orleans last year, left in free agency; Malcom Brown was traded; and Sheldon Rankins signed with the Jets. Coordinator Dennis Allen loves to rotate his linemen to keep them fresh, and the losses of the aforementioned players could compromise that.

Can they defeat history — and 31 other clubs? Tampa Bay impressively returns all 32 starters from its Super Bowl-winning team, which is the reason many will pick the Bucs to repeat as champions. I’m not one of them. There is a reason that no team has repeated since the 2003 and ’04 seasons: The crown weighs heavily on the heads of those who wear it. Instead of playing in one Super Bowl, it will be as if Tampa is playing in 17 during the expanded regular season.

Can Sam Darnold live up to expectations? The Jets didn’t believe so and traded him to Carolina this offseason. Now he gets a fresh start and, hopefully, a sense of stability. But will that be enough? The Panthers initially hoped to acquire Deshaun Watson if the Texans moved him, so the perception is they settled for Darnold, the No. 3 overall draft pick in 2018. Regardless, he has better weapons, an upgraded line, and more organizational stability in Carolina than he had in New York. Everything is in place for him to succeed — but will he?

Can you rebuild without rebuilding? The Falcons are hoping so. Once the new staff and front office made the decision to retain veteran quarterback Matt Ryan, it was clear they were not in rebuild mode. Then they drafted ultra-versatile tight end Kyle Pitts No. 4 overall instead of adding a high-profile QB prospect. Then they traded Julio Jones, one of the game’s top wideouts. There is no credible way to say they are better today without Jones than they would have been with him, so we are back to the question of whether this is a rebuild or a reload.

NFC NORTH

Will Aaron Rodgers return? Is there any greater intrigue heading into camp, besides possibly what is going to happen with Deshaun Watson, whose status with the Texans and the league remains in doubt? Rodgers, the reigning league MVP, is unhappy in Green Bay. However, the Packers have said they’re not interested in trading him. Which side will blink first? We might not get an answer until after seeing how Jordan Love, who was drafted in 2020 as Rodgers’ eventual replacement, performs in the preseason.

How long until Justin Fields takes over? Coach Matt Nagy has said veteran newcomer Andy Dalton is the starter, but he hasn’t specified for how long. If the Bears struggle offensively, and Fields continues to live up to hype-filled offseason observations, it could be a matter of time before the former Ohio State star sees the field. Chicago has serious questions at the tackle positions after parting ways with both starters, and with a tough schedule early in the season, it’s not implausible that it could be sitting at 3-6 come the bye week.

Where is the pass rush? Minnesota, which had a franchise-low 23 sacks last season, is hoping that Danielle Hunter is fully healthy after missing all of last season with a neck injury. If he’s not, it could mean trouble for coach Mike Zimmer’s defense, which is thin on the edges, where there is not a double-digit sack performer other than Hunter.

Who are the core players for tomorrow? Detroit is not willing to call this a rebuilding year, but with a new coaching staff and front office, it’s reasonable to assume they will use this season to identify players they believe they can build around going forward, as coach Dan Campbell establishes what he hopes is a culture of competition and winning.

NFC EAST

Is Ryan Fitzpatrick the answer? The bearded QB with the fun personality and disarming sense of humor has been beloved by teammates and coaches everywhere he has gone, and it figures to be no different in Washington. But the team signed him to help make a playoff run, and Fitzpatrick, despite his flashes of brilliance, has never taken a team to the postseason. That’s during stays with eight teams over 16 seasons, not including Washington. If the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, Washington could be in for a disappointment.

Will QB Daniel Jones finally make the leap in Year 3? General manager Dave Gettleman surprised many when he drafted Jones sixth overall in 2019, but the former Duke standout showed enough to quiet critics. That said, Jones still has not reached a level of performance worthy of his draft position. Most concerning is that he has led the league in fumbles in each of the past two seasons. The table appears to be set for his best season, with the return of running back Saquon Barkley from injury and the additions of receivers Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney and tight end Kyle Rudolph.

Is it all about the defense? Yes. Many will focus on the return of QB Dak Prescott from season-ending ankle surgery as the key to the season, but the reality is, Prescott was putting up MVP-type numbers through the first month of last season, and the Cowboys were still 1-3. I expect Prescott to perform well, just as he always has; the key for Dallas will be whether a sometimes historically bad defense can make strides under new coordinator Dan Quinn, the former Falcons coach who replaces Mike Nolan. If that happens, Dallas will be in the hunt for the division title. If not …

Is there a way to fast-forward to 2022? Unfortunately for the Eagles, there is not. This will be a rebuilding year in the most painful way, with the team carrying a hit of nearly $34 million in dead money on the cap following the trade of Carson Wentz. Will they be better off for it in future seasons? Theoretically, yes. But that assumes they are wise with their draft picks and contracts, and that you should have faith in GM Howie Roseman.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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