Every year, each team has a key overarching storyline entering the season. Typically, it surrounds a new quarterback or coaching staff situation. And while that holds true this year, many franchises will have unique plots unfolding. Beginning with the AFC, we examine the top storylines for all 32 teams entering the 2021 NFL season.
Top storylines for all 32 NFL teams in 2021 | AFC
What are the top storylines to watch for in the AFC?
Baltimore Ravens: Who is WR1?
The Ravens have not had a 1,000-yard receiver since Mike Wallace (1,017) in 2016. Only Mark Andrews has broken the 800-yard mark (852 in 2019) and he is a tight end! Part of the reason is Baltimore’s run-heavy scheme. Yet, maybe if they possessed a true No. 1 receiver, they wouldn’t be so run-heavy? Newly acquired wide receiver Sammy Watkins is not the answer, but first-round selection Rashod Bateman might be.
Buffalo Bills: Can Josh Allen maintain success from 2020?
Josh Allen’s meteoric improvement as a passer from 2019 to 2020 is well-documented. Still, can he maintain his newfound success next season? Allen raised his completion rate by 10%, yards per attempt by 1.1, touchdown rate by 2.2%, and lowered his interception rate by 0.3%. That development from one season to another is unprecedented. If his accuracy was no fluke, expect the Bills to make yet another deep playoff run in 2021.
Cincinnati Bengals: Will Joe Burrow and the offense take the next step?
Joe Burrow suffered a torn ACL and MCL against Washington in Week 11 of last season. According to recent reports, he is “all systems go” heading into training camp. Due to his injury, many draft pundits thought the Bengals should protect their signal-caller and select Penei Sewell in the 2021 NFL Draft. However, Cincinnati opted for Burrow’s favorite collegiate target Ja’Marr Chase with the No. 5 pick.
I agree with the decision and believe Chase offers more value than Sewell. Regardless, it will be on Burrow to prove the investment was worthwhile.
Cleveland Browns: Are the Browns and Baker Mayfield legitimate contenders?
On paper, the Browns own arguably the best roster in the NFL. Seriously, top to bottom, it looks like a team you would create in Madden’s franchise mode. Yet, looks can be deceiving, and there have been plenty of cases where a star-studded roster missed the playoffs (2018 Pittsburgh Steelers). It will also be a make-it-or-break-it year for Baker Mayfield — he has all the weapons necessary to succeed around him.
Denver Broncos: Is Drew Lock the next Josh Allen?
This is one of the more talked about top storylines entering the 2021 NFL season. Many people make the lazy comparison between Drew Lock and Josh Allen due to their light complexion and perceived arm talent. As such, fans expect Lock to make the same meteoric improvement that Allen enjoyed last season. Even being optimistic, that is an unlikely outcome. That doesn’t mean Lock can not develop with the immense talent surrounding him.
The return of Courtland Sutton should not be overlooked, as well as a full offseason to build a rapport with second-year wideout Jerry Jeudy. The physical tools and arsenal are there, but can Lock piece it together?
Houston Texans: Who will they select at No. 1 in the 2022 NFL Draft?
Whether or not Deshaun Watson sees the field in 2021, Houston’s front office should already have their eyes set on 2022. There are underrated players on the roster, but the overall talent is among the league’s worst. That being said, Houston is the odds-on favorite to hold the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Who will they pick? It is way too early to speculate, but we at PFN have already done so in our recent 2022 NFL Mock Drafts.
Indianapolis Colts: Will Carson Wentz rebound in Indianapolis?
The Philadelphia Eagles decided the Carson Wentz experiment was over and shipped him to Indianapolis this offseason. Frank Reich, who helped lead Philly to a 2017 Super Bowl victory as offensive coordinator, is entering his fourth season as the Colts head coach. He believes in Wentz, and although the receiving corps is unimpressive, the roster is playoff-caliber.
New scenery with an old OC may be exactly what the doctor ordered for the 28-year-old QB.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Are Urban Meyer and Trevor Lawrence the real deal?
It seems like decades ago, but the Jaguars were first in the AFC South and made it to the conference championship in 2017. Since then, they have placed last in the division each season, and their offense has ranked 20th or lower in points and yards. Can Urban Meyer (who has never coached in the NFL) and rookie QB Trevor Lawrence right the ship? Jacksonville fans hope so, but I anticipate plenty of growing pains.
Kansas City Chiefs: Will the Chiefs reach their third-straight Super Bowl?
Not only will the Chiefs be aiming for their third-straight Super Bowl appearance, but they will be looking to capture their sixth- straight (!!!) AFC West title. Following Andy Reid’s hiring in 2013, Kansas City has been perennial contenders with Alex Smith and Patrick Mahomes at the helm.
Now, with a revamped offensive line, can the offense continue its dominance and cement the Chiefs in NFL history as the third team (Dolphins 1971-1973 and Patriots 2016-2018) to reach the Super Bowl in three consecutive seasons?
Las Vegas Raiders: Will it be Mike Mayock’s final season?
Even if the Raiders finish the season at 0-17, they can not fire Jon Gruden due to his enormous contract. Do you know who they can fire? General manager Mike Mayock. Las Vegas needs a change, with disappointment every year under the regime. There have already been rumblings of Mayock being ousted, succeeding the curious selection of Alex Leatherwood in Round 1.
If the Raiders fail to meet expectations once again in 2021, there will be major changes in the front office.
Los Angeles Chargers: How will Justin Herbert fare with a new coach?
Justin Herbert took home Rookie of the Year after breaking multiple rookie QB records. Still, Los Angeles finished 7-9, resulting in the firing of head coach Anthony Lynn. The Chargers decided to stay in the same city for their new HC, hiring former Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley. Saints quarterback coach Joe Lombardi followed shortly after, landing his first OC job.
How the coaching changes will affect Herbert remains to be seen. Drafting Rashawn Slater and signing Corey Linsley bolsters the offensive line. And Staley, along with a healthy Derwin James and new acquisitions, should revamp the defense. Will Herbert build on his award-winning rookie campaign, or will he endure the dreaded sophomore slump?
Miami Dolphins: Will Tua Tagovailoa make a leap in Year 2?
Yes, we have all heard Tua telling the media he did not know the playbook last year. But in all actuality, he should not have played a snap as a rookie. Ryan Fitzpatrick was playing well, and Tua was still healing from his catastrophic hip injury. Nonetheless, with Fitzpatrick on to Washington and the Dolphins upgrading in all the right areas, it is Tua’s time to shine in 2021.
New England Patriots: Will Cam Newton stave off Mac Jones?
Mac Jones should receive most, if not all, first-team reps during OTAs in light of Cam Newton‘s recent hand injury. Reports point to New England shutting down Newton until training camp in late July. Now, unless his injury lingers for much longer, Newton will remain the starter in 2021.
The veteran QB’s arm seemed shot last year, but his rushing ability was still on display. With the additions of Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Kendrick Bourne, and Nelson Agholor, can Newton play well enough to keep the Jones chants from echoing throughout Gillette Stadium?
New York Jets: Is Zach Wilson the savior in The Big Apple?
The longest postseason drought in the NFL belongs to the Jets (10 years). The next closest are the Cardinals, Broncos, and Bengals at five years. With Robert Saleh taking over head coaching duties and second-overall pick Zach Wilson holding the reigns of the offense, will the Jets end their drought sooner rather than later? No one expects New York to reach the playoffs in their current state, but there needs to be a visible improvement over previous campaigns.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Can Ben Roethlisberger still be productive?
One of the top NFL storylines last season was the performance of Ben Roethlisberger. Returning from season-ending elbow surgery, it became apparent we were not watching the Big Ben of old. His 6.9 average throw depth was the lowest of his career, as were his 6.3 yards per attempt. While on the wrong side of 30 (39), it is safe to assume we see some positive regression from Roethlisberger and the offense another year removed from his surgery.
Tennessee Titans: Will the Titans overcome offseason losses?
The Titans underwent turnover all over the franchise this offseason. OC Arthur Smith joined the Falcons as their new HC, and WR Corey Davis, TE Jonnu Smith, and CB Adoree’ Jackson are on new rosters. Although promoting former TE coach Todd Downing to OC offers continuity in offensive schemes and calling plays, that is a great deal of talent walking out the door.
Landing Julio Jones for basically a second-round selection is highway robbery, especially when considering the Patriots gave up the same compensation for Mohamed Sanu just two years ago. Nonetheless, will the acquisition be enough to make Tennessee contenders in the AFC?