NFLTR Review: Who’s In & Who’s Out – 2021 Edition

One football game is in the books, with many more to come. In this week of NFLTR Review, we:

  • Look ahead to the playoffs to forecast newcomers in 2021
  • Dig into questions about Cam Akers’ NFL future, which is currently on life support
  • Recap the past week of training camp action

Who’s In & Who’s Out

The NFL touts parity as one of the characteristics that sets it apart from other sports leagues. And it’s not wrong. Year to year, about half of the playoff field tends to turn over. Last year, aided in part by the expansion to 14 teams, there were seven newcomers — including the eventual Super Bowl champion Buccaneers who were just a 5 seed. 

Tampa Bay was one of the teams I was the highest on when doing this exercise last year, along with the Colts, Steelers and Browns. I nailed drop-offs from the Texans, Vikings and Eagles while whiffing on prognoses for the Titans, Cowboys and Falcons, both good and bad. 

This year, there are some obvious candidates that jump out again to both take a step forward and to take a step back. But beyond that, it’s hard to predict beyond five or so teams, unless injuries strike one team in particular like they did the 49ers last year. 

2020 Playoff Field
Seed Team Record Seed Team Record
1 Chiefs 14-2 1 Packers 13-3
2 Bills 13-3 2 Saints 12-4
3 Steelers 12-4 3 Seahawks 12-4
4 Titans 11-5 4 Washington 7-9
5 Ravens 11-5 5 Buccaneers 11-5
6 Browns 11-5 6 Rams 10-6
7 Colts 11-5 7 Bears 8-8

In the AFC, the Steelers have been a trendy pick to take a step back by a number of analysts. It’s for good reason. The way last season ended left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth and Pittsburgh did not get better. They have five new starters on the offensive line and their depth on defense took a major hit. Ben Roethlisberger is also another year older, and we’ve seen the cliff come fast for some quarterbacks in the past. There’s a chance we already saw him go over it at the end of last year. 

Mike Tomlin is an excellent coach but there’s a distinct chance that things could get ugly. Pittsburgh hasn’t had a losing season since 2003 and its pick hasn’t fallen in the top 10 since 2000. Both streaks are in real jeopardy in 2021. 

Things also aren’t looking good early for the Colts. Losing both QB Carson Wentz and G Quenton Nelson to the same foot injury is incredibly unlucky, but C Ryan Kelly is also dealing with an elbow injury. That’s three blows to an offense that already was somewhat of a question mark. 

And while the 5-12 week timeline technically leaves the door open to both Wentz and Nelson being back by Week 1, it also could have them missing up to seven games. Indianapolis doesn’t have an easy schedule to start, either. They open with back-to-back home games against the Seahawks and Rams, then go on the road for three straight weeks against the Titans, Dolphins and Ravens. 

That would have been a tough stretch even with a healthy Wentz and Nelson. If Jacob Eason is starting games, 0-5 is very much on the table. While it’s possible a 17-game season changes the math slightly, history has not been kind to teams who start the season slowly. The Colts did rebound from a 1-5 start in HC Frank Reich’s first year in 2018 but I’d bet against that repeating itself. 

There are a number of other teams in the AFC who have put themselves into contention to return to the playoffs, including the Chargers, Dolphins and Patriots. Others like the Raiders or Broncos could make a run if everything breaks right. It’s shaping up to be a crowded race for the last couple of wildcard spots, but I like the Dolphins and the Patriots to ultimately emerge. 

For one, the Chargers will always let you down if you bet on them. Always. New HC Brandon Staley is known for his defensive expertise and QB Justin Herbert looks like a budding franchise cornerstone. But I’ve seen the Chargers underwhelm too often to buy in completely. I’m not sure the personnel is completely there on defense for Staley and on offense, Herbert is a candidate to regress statistically

There are a number of reasons I like New England and Miami to make it three AFC East teams in the postseason. Both have strong defenses with elite secondaries — especially if contract situations get resolved with shutdown corners Xavien Howard and Stephon Gilmore, which seems more likely than not. Both also have stout defensive fronts loaded with players who can rush the passer from anywhere. 

On offense, both teams sport quarterbacks with their fair share of doubters, whether it’s Cam Newton and Mac Jones in New England or Tua Tagovailoa in Miami. Perhaps this is a personal blind spot, but I’m not so sure Newton is completely finished. At the very least, he should have one of the best offensive lines in football to work behind, along with a much-improved supporting cast. 

As for Tagovailoa, he’s been dinged a lot for a rookie season that wasn’t really that bad — especially when you factor in that he was less than a year removed from a cataclysmic hip injury. A healthy Tagovailoa is turning heads and ripping the ball deep with a juiced-up cast of receiving weapons so far in training camp. If he takes a step forward with that defense across from him, Miami will be tough to deal with. 

Out: Steelers, Colts

In: Dolphins, Patriots

Flipping over to the NFC, once again there are obvious regression candidates that pop out largely due to relative instability at quarterback. Go down the list of 2021 projected starters for last year’s NFL playoff field, and Jameis Winston, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Andy Dalton stick out like a former D-II athlete running pickup. 

The Saints and Bears could also obviously have different starters at quarterback at some point in the season. Neither Taysom Hill nor Justin Fields should inspire that much more confidence in a playoff run, however. Both teams have other questions. The Saints have a massive void in their receiving corps as long as Michael Thomas is out, as well as holes at key spots on defense like No. 2 corner, edge rusher, defensive tackle and linebacker. 2021 has the makings of a bumpy transition year in New Orleans. 

As for the Bears, it’s worth noting how their defense has slipped a little each of the past two seasons after being the NFL’s best unit in 2018. They have a brand-new first-time defensive coordinator in Sean Desai, plus potential holes at No. 2 corner, linebacker and on the edge across from Khalil Mack. It just seems like they’re going to struggle all season to get all three phases of the game clicking at the same time. 

I can’t help but believe in Washington, though. The defense could be a top-three unit in the entire league, with perhaps the NFL’s best defensive line, a reinforced and deep secondary and a linebacking corps that just added first-round rookie Jamin Davis. Add in HC Ron Rivera and there’s a lot of reasons for optimism on that side of the ball. 

But that extends to the offense, too. Washington has added talent to both its offensive line and skill positions, which were once weak points and now are looking solid. At the wheel will be the cagey Fitzpatrick, who has gotten better with age and has shown the ability to put up some prolific stats. The wins have been harder to come by, though. Fitzpatrick has never made the playoffs in his 16 seasons as the quintessential journeyman.

Still, with this defense and these weapons, it’s hard not to think that Fitzpatrick couldn’t muster up the kind of late-career breakout we’ve seen from guys like Rich Gannon in the past. I’m on the Football Team bandwagon in 2021. 

On the newcomers’ side, last year I thought the Cowboys and Cardinals were poised for big years. That prediction went belly-up even before Dak Prescott fractured his ankle and the Cardinals ran out of gas by the end of the season. I’ve learned my lesson with the Cardinals. While I think they added a lot of talent to an already talented team, I’m not sure they have the leadership or intangibles to get it to all come together,  though I also wouldn’t be totally surprised if they do. 

The Cowboys have also been chronic underachievers but I do think the defense will be better than last year, even if it’s not “good” per se. As long as it’s not horrendous, it won’t be as much of an anchor on Prescott and what should again be an incendiary offense. 

With the third wildcard spot, it’s now possible for all four teams from a division to make the postseason. There’s a chance the NFC West hits that milestone in just the second year of the expanded playoffs with Arizona and San Francisco vying to return to the playoffs. For the 49ers, it’s as simple as being healthy, as they’ll get stars like DE Nick Bosa and TE George Kittle back in the lineup. First-round QB Trey Lance is a wildcard, but one with potentially massive upside if he enters the starting lineup and plays as well as he has during camp. 

Out: Saints, Bears

In: Cowboys, 49ers

This Week In Football

  • With one unhappy star quarterback mollified for the time being, the focus in the NFL shifted to Houston and QB Deshaun Watson in what is all-around an awkward, uncomfortable situation. Watson reported to camp to avoid being fined $50,000 per day but hasn’t repaired any other bridges with the organization. He worked with the scout team and since the pads came on he hasn’t been spotted. Trade speculation continues to swirl, with the Eagles and to a lesser degree the Panthers still coming up, but the reality is until his legal situation — 22 accusations of sexual impropriety in civil court, 10 criminal complaints, 24 women in total saying they felt victimized by Watson — is resolved, Watson isn’t going anywhere. There’s some thought that maybe that’s what Houston wants in the end, as their asking price remains astronomical. 
  • Packers QB Aaron Rodgers is on board for the 2021 season. The answers to the biggest questions about his future will come after this season but one detail regarding his reworked contract is worth noting. Jay Glazer of Fox Sports — who has a superb track record as a breaking news reporter — says the Packers have told Rodgers they will trade him if he still wants out after this season. Just my sense of things, but unless the Packers are willing to commit to Rodgers with a major extension, including multiple seasons of guaranteed money, the veteran will be ready to pull up his roots and go elsewhere. 
  • For a team with a horseshoe on its helmet, the Indianapolis Colts have had quite the spate of bad luck recently. Andrew Luck’s retirement was one of the rawest deals in sports, and this past week not only did they lose QB Carson Wentz to a rare, freak foot injury, they lost All-Pro G Quenton Nelson to nearly the same exact issue. Both had surgery within about 24 hours of each other, and now it’s a waiting game in Indy for the next couple of weeks. The rehab timeline is a gaping 5-12 weeks, reflecting just how much depends on how each athlete’s foot responds to treatment. 
  • The Browns, darlings of the analytics community, signed RB Nick Chubb to a three-year, $36.6 million extension. While that $12 million APY did not endear the Browns to the spreadsheet community, it’s about the going rate for a top running back, which there’s no doubt is a description that fits Chubb. He should challenge to lead the league in rushing this year. 
  • This has been a perfect match for just about the entire offseason, but the Ravens and veteran edge rusher Justin Houston were finally able to work out contract terms. Houston gets a chance to chase a ring with Baltimore while the Ravens get the veteran pass rusher they really needed to shore up one of the few weak spots on their defense. 
  • The Raiders are also showing some activity in the veteran free-agent market, signing DT Gerald McCoy and hosting LB K.J. Wright for a visit. Wright left without a deal but his market has been so cold this offseason that the Raiders might truly be his only option, even if inexplicably. Both players have gas left in the tank if healthy and fill needs for Las Vegas, but both are also examples of how the team brass continues to scramble to fix past mistakes. The Raiders surprisingly cut DT Maurice Hurst, ostensibly because free-agent pickups Quinton Jefferson and Solomon Thomas were going to play the three-technique and were ahead of Hurst. Now, the Raiders beat indicates the team is having second thoughts about Thomas, as he’d be light for a three-tech at 280 pounds. As for Wright, he’s a great fit having played for DC Gus Bradley in the past. Linebacker is still a need for the Raiders, too. The problem is they handed out $35 million in guarantees to Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski last year which was supposed to fix that issue. Add this to a host of other things, including 2020 first-round CB Damon Arnette, panned as a reach at the time, being buried on the depth chart, and it looks like the Raiders brain trust of HC Jon Gruden and GM Mike Mayock are just shooting from the hip. 
  • Former Vikings CB Jeff Gladney, a first-round pick just last year, was cut by Minnesota after being indicted on a felony domestic violence charge. The details from the case are disturbing, and it’s worth mentioning that strangulation is a major predictor in these cases of future violence that can escalate into attempted homicide and worse. That helps explain why the Vikings felt it appropriate to cut a first-round pick after just a year. 

Fantasy Corner: What To Do With Akers?

Injuries are always a brutal part of the NFL game but Rams RB Cam Akers’ torn Achilles was particularly crushing given the abysmal history of running backs and Achilles injuries. Medical science has improved dramatically and created a much higher positive rate of outcomes for injuries like ACL’s and Achilles that used to be career-killers, particularly for receivers and edge rushers. 

That hasn’t been the case for running backs, though. Achilles injuries for backs are still really, really bad news. 

The decade prior was even more bleak. We’re conditioned to expect players to rebound and come back just as good as before after injuries, partially because of things like Madden video games where injuries are just an inconvenience that can be measured in terms of weeks. That’s especially true with young players. But if Akers comes back and becomes a productive starter post-Achilles injury, he’ll be the first running back to do so. 

So what makes Achilles injuries such a death blow to running backs? The Achilles tendon is the largest tendon in the body, located in the heel and connecting to the calf. It’s incredibly strong and can withstand forces of up to 1,100 pounds, but because it gets less blood flow it’s more predisposed to wear and tear that can cause ruptures. And once torn, that lack of blood flow makes the healing process longer and arduous. 

Because the tendon is crucial for everything an athlete does with their legs — running, jumping, cutting, lifting, etc — any loss of function is magnified. Traditionally it’s taken six months for athletes to recover from the surgery and return to sports and another six months or more to rebuild the power they had before. 

“With the Achilles … once the ball is snapped, it is full speed. And that split second puts a tremendous stress on these athletes’ bodies,” said Dr. Jan Szatkowski, an orthopedic surgeon based in Indianapolis who spoke with Stephen Holder of the Athletic earlier this year about Achilles injuries. “So, I think the rehab is harder because it’s not only about the range of motion of the ankle. It’s also the strength of those muscles. I’ve noticed in my career and the way I was taught from my mentors, the amount of atrophy in the leg after an Achilles tendon rupture is just remarkable. Your calf becomes much, much smaller than the uninjured side. You can see the difference within a week or two, even. That’s what takes a long time to come back. And it’s not only the calf muscle. They tend to lose a lot of their quad muscle, too. I think the rehab is just harder.”

Recently, the outcomes for Achilles tendons have been far better. Notable NFL players like former Ravens OLB Terrell Suggs, Ravens CB Jimmy Smith, Bills WR Emmanuel Sanders and Eagles G Brandon Brooks have made speedy recoveries and continued to be just as productive as they were pre-injury. Achilles injuries were almost as bad for NBA players as NFL running backs, but Kevin Durant just completed a successful return, albeit after a lengthy absence, after injuring his Achilles in the NBA Finals.

We have yet to see a similar success story at running back, though. 

“It’s not only the sport-specific. It’s position-specific. I get very concerned when a running back has this type of injury because of the amount of cutting they do, the quick moves that they need to do,” Szatkowski said. “That’s what the research has shown. Players like linebackers and running backs, though they can still return to the sport, they tend to not be the same as they were prior to the injury.”

Colts RB Marlon Mack will be an interesting test case to monitor. Mack tore his Achilles in Week 1 last season but was reportedly 100 percent to open training camp this year. If he still has his big-play ability as a runner, that could be an encouraging sign for Akers. 

There might also be more hope if we look to the college game Vikings fourth-round RB Kene Nwangwu tore his Achilles in 2017 and rebounded to tear up Iowa State’s pro day, earning him a pick early on Day 3 despite limited college production. Ohio State’s Master Teague suffered an Achilles injury in March but recovered in an astonishing six months. He had 104 carries in seven games for the Buckeyes, with 514 yards and eight touchdowns — although his yards per carry dropped a full yard from the previous two seasons. 

Perhaps Akers’ combination of youth (22 years old) and talent helps set him apart from the other names in the running back Achilles graveyard like Arian Foster or Beanie Wells. Then again, neither Isaiah Crowell nor D’Onta Foreman were schlubs and Achilles injuries essentially derailed their careers. 

If you’ve got Akers in any kind of dynasty or keeper league, it’s probably worth exploring what you can get in a trade. If it’s halfway decent, it’s probably worth accepting. He’s easy to root for and might have as good a shot as any back we’ve seen to beat his prognosis. But there’s no getting around the fact he’d have to do something we haven’t seen yet. 

Check This Out

  • Though I bust on football analytics folks’ chops earlier in this piece, there are some really cool things folks are doing with data to test beliefs we have about the sport. For instance, the success rates for players taken in the first round versus the second versus the fifth and so on are well known. They drop exponentially, which would make sense if we assume NFL talent evaluators are generally good at picking the better players over the worse ones. However, there’s a case to be made that draft picks are a self-fulfilling prophecy. Higher draft picks get more reps, more attention and more chances to succeed. They basically have to prove they can’t play, while late picks and UDFAs have to prove time and time again that they can play
  • Pro Football Focus did a study that quantified that exact phenomenon, showing how players with better draft pedigree saw that bias reflected in the contracts they signed later at the point where there should already be years of tape as an indicator one way or another who the better players are. 
  • Analytics are still in their relative infancy in football compared to other sports like baseball and basketball, but we’re getting there with stuff like this, using player tracking data to model specific route concepts across the entire league and chart effectiveness, courtesy of Mark Schofield, Bud Davis, Keegan Abdoo and @NFLDraftJoey. This is the type of stuff that can give sharp NFL teams a real edge if they have the capabilities to execute it. 
  • Earlier in the week, Aaron Rodgers referred to his current relationship with GM Brian Gutekunst as a “work in progress.” Clearly, there are issues between Rodgers and Green Bay that they’re attempting to work through on some level, but this is a departure from how Rodgers spoke about Gutekunst and the job he had done in the post-game presser following the NFC title game loss to the 49ers before Green Bay drafted Jordan Love. Despite the drubbing, Rodgers was in decent spirits, and he said not once, but twice, that he had full confidence in Gutekunst and the front office. My, how much has changed. It’s a clear indicator that no matter how much Rodgers tries to downplay it for the sake of a young quarterback who didn’t ask to be put in this position, all of his and the Packers’ problems can be traced back to that decision.

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