Week 1 has arrived! And with the season’s first games on the horizon, it’s time to settle in and throw some predictions out there to laugh at later. Here’s what our writers are predicting for the 2021 season.
Tex Western: The single-season passing yardage record goes down, but no other yardage marks fall
Drew Brees, who owns four of the top six single-season passing yardage marks in history, is officially gone. But with 17 games in the regular season now, there’s an extra opportunity for a quarterback to surpass Brees’ marks and Peyton Manning’s 5,477-yard record from the 2013 season.
Between the 2018 and 2019 seasons, three quarterbacks cracked the 5,000-yard mark and would have closely approached Manning’s record had they played in 17 games instead of 16. Ben Roethlisberger in 2018 would have been the closest, with his 320.6 yards/game extrapolating out to 5,450 yards, while Jameis Winston in 2019 (5,428) and Patrick Mahomes’ 2018 (5,415) both coming close as well. Mahomes will be a possible challenger for the all-time mark again, but look for Josh Allen to make a run as well — the Bills have a particularly strong and deep receiving corps (for now, assuming COVID doesn’t ravage that room), an offensive coordinator who throws a ton, knowing that his team has a terrible running game, and a tough schedule that should allow for few blowout wins.
However, I don’t see Eric Dickerson’s rushing yardage record of 2,105 falling, even though Derrick Henry came within sniffing distance at 2,027 a year ago. Henry is coming off back-to-back 300-carry seasons, both at over 5 yards per carry; I have trouble believing he does that for a third straight year, and I don’t see any other running back coming close. And receiving? Nobody has come within 200 yards of Calvin Johnson’s 1,964-yard record since 2015 and the good passing teams have too many receiving options for anyone to approach that number.
Tyler Brooke: Trey Lance wins Offensive Rookie of the Year
I know there’s a good chance that the San Francisco 49ers roll with Jimmy Garoppolo to start the year, especially while rookie quarterback Trey Lance deals with a finger injury. However, the impact Lance will have will make him the runaway favorite to win Rookie of the Year.
Lance brings such a dynamic wrinkle to Kyle Shanahan’s offense that the 49ers head coach will have no choice but to get him on the field. We have already seen some of the concepts the 49ers want to run with Lance, including some creative QB-designed runs and options. With a healthy and speedy Raheem Mostert to account for, defenses will struggle stacking the box against Lance and will be forced to respect the outside speed threat at running back.
That rushing ability, along with a strong arm and ability to read defenses, should help Lance become the face of the 49ers at some point early this season.
Jon Meerdink: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah wins Defensive Rookie of the Year
Defensive Rookie of the Year often comes down to name recognition on a popular team. The Browns are as trendy as any team in the NFL this year, and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah has about as much name recognition as you could hope for, mostly because of how unwieldy his name is. But shorten it to the “JOK” you see on social media? Well, you might have yourself a stew going.
If Owusu-Koramoah doesn’t get the nod, it’ll probably land with someone like Micah Parsons. He has the benefit of playing for the Dallas Cowboys, who are popular regardless of their on-field success. But if JOK can come up with a couple of splashy plays in the right games, he’ll likely be on the way to collecting some hardware.
Paul Noonan: The sack record goes down
Sacks are a funny thing. Funny because they weren’t kept as a statistic before 1982, and because they’re not even really a pass rusher stat in the grand scheme of things. As it turns out, sacks correlate much more with the quarterback being sacked than with the guy doing the sacking, and as a result, sacks as an individual stat fluctuate wildly from year to year. Just look at Reggie White bopping between 8 and 21, and every number in between over the course of his career.
Pass rushers are better measured by hurries, and while it’s nice to have sacks, the difference between a hurry and a sack is mostly determined by what the quarterback decides to do in the split second before he is crushed.
Here’s the thing. Since it is primarily quarterbacks who determine whether or not sacks happen, you can expect the number of sacks in the league to spike this season, for a few reasons.
1 - The influx of young quarterbacks
It takes awhile for any quarterback to develop pocket awareness at the next level, and young quarterbacks tend to be less adept at throwing the ball away. Trey Lance was sacked four times in his first preseason start against Kansas City, for instance. Between Lance, Zach Wilson, Mac Jones, Trevor Lawrence, and eventually Justin Fields, pass rushers are going to have some fun.
2 - More running quarterbacks
While running quarterbacks can run themselves out of sacks, their tendency to buy time can also result in more sack opportunities, and more sacks overall. We have more running quarterbacks now than any time in the modern era of football.
3 - The retirement of some of the least-sacked quarterbacks in the league.
Last season, Drew Brees was sacked on just 3.2% of his dropbacks, the second-best mark in the league after Tom Brady. Philip Rivers was sacked on just 3.4%, good for 4th. Denver’s Drew Lock was also very good at just 4.1%. Replacing Rivers is Carson Wentz, who was sacked on over 10% of his dropbacks last season. Wentz will be replaced in Philly by a combination of Jalen Hurts and Gardner Minshew, and it’s unlikely the duo will be in the ballpark of the departing Rivers.
Since sacks are going up, it’s more likely someone can finally approach Michael Strahan’s record, and erase that particular ill-gotten mark from the record book. Thanks to a slew of research conducted by John Turney and Nick Webster, we now know the true single-season sack record is held by Al Baker of the Lions, even if it is unofficial. I’m still looking forward to the Strahan/Favre record officially going down, hopefully in 2021.