Trey Lance threw his first NFL touchdown and Jimmy Garoppolo excelled but the San Francisco 49ers were forced to hold off a near-miraculous rally from the Detroit Lions in a 41-33 thriller.

Rookie third overall pick Lance was not able to win the starting quarterback job from Garoppolo, yet he still made his regular-season debut at Ford Field on Sunday, and he took his first snap with the Niners on the Detroit 16-yard line on their second drive of the day.

His second snap saw him hit Trent Sherfield for a five-yard touchdown pass and, though Detroit responded with Jared Goff connecting with tight end T.J. Hockenson, Garoppolo's 314-yard performance, which included a 79-yard touchdown throw to Deebo Samuel, scores on the ground from rookie Elijah Mitchell and JaMycal Hasty and a Dre Greenlaw pick-six appeared to have put the game beyond all doubt.

San Francisco led 41-17 with under five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, but a Jamaal Williams short-yardage plunge followed by a two-point conversion provided Detroit a glimmer of hope that grew brighter when George Kittle was unable to field an onside kick.

The Lions subsequently drove down the field and Goff found Quintez Cephus for a two-yard touchdown and another two-point conversion. They then had a chance to tie the game following a fumble from Samuel, but Detroit could not complete an incredible comeback to force overtime.

Samson Ebukam's pressure forced Goff into an errant throw, allowing the Niners to breathe a huge sigh of relief.

It was, however, a pyrrhic victory for San Francisco, who lost cornerback Jason Verrett to what head coach Kyle Shanahan believes is a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Though the 49ers took defensive starters out of the game following Verrett's injury with what eventually proved an insurmountable lead, the ease with which the Lions moved the ball late in the game should be of concern to San Francisco, especially with two of their NFC West rivals enjoying excellent days.

The Arizona Cardinals and the Seattle Seahawks each won comfortably. Kyler Murray threw for four touchdowns and ran for another while defensive end Chandler Jones had five sacks in the Cardinals' easy 38-13 win over the Tennessee Titans, while Russell Wilson had four touchdown passes for the Seahawks as they saw off the Indianapolis Colts 28-16.

Steelers stun Bills

While not quite as dramatic as events in Detroit, the Pittsburgh Steelers' win over the Buffalo Bills at Orchard Park was certainly unexpected.

The Bills led 10-0 at the end of the first half, but Josh Allen was sacked three times as the Steelers held a usually explosive offense in check.

And, after a pair of field goals from Chris Boswell, Diontae Johnson's spectacular catch at the back of the endzone in the fourth quarter gave them a lead they would not relinquish.

Ulysees Gilbert III recovered a blocked punt to make it 19-10 Steelers, Mike Tomlin's men going on to close out a 23-16 win that deals an early blow to a Bills team seen as Super Bowl contenders.

Burrow makes winning return

Last year's number one overall pick Joe Burrow made his return from a serious knee injury in the Cincinnati Bengals' clash with the Minnesota Vikings, and it proved a successful one in a thriller at Paul Brown Stadium.

He connected with college team-mate Ja'Marr Chase, the fifth overall pick by the Bengals this year, for a 50-yard touchdown in the first quarter to give Cincinnati a lead that they eventually let slip late in the fourth quarter when Vikings kicker Greg Joseph tied matters at 24-24 with a 53-yard field goal.

That forced overtime, but a Dalvin Cook fumble in Bengals territory handed Burrow and the Bengals the chance to clinch it, and he did just that with a drive that set up Evan McPherson's 33-yard field goal and sealed a 27-24 success.

This year's number one overall pick, Trevor Lawrence, endured a very different day. He threw for 332 yards and three touchdowns with three interceptions as the Jacksonville Jaguars were beaten 37-21 by the Houston Texans.

The NFL returned in spectacular fashion on Thursday as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers edged the Dallas Cowboys in a thriller.

It is a remarkable appetiser to the main course of Week 1, which sees 14 more games on Sunday and another on Monday between the Baltimore Ravens and Las Vegas Raiders.

There is a mouth-watering playoff rematch to behold at Arrowhead Stadium, while a clutch of rookie quarterbacks will attempt to make sure their first steps in the league are successful ones.

Ahead of what should be an enthralling opening week, Stats Perform looks at some of the most interesting facts from Sunday's biggest games.

Cleveland Browns @ Kansas City Chiefs

Revenge will be on the minds of the Browns in the most enticing matchup of the opening week, Cleveland aiming to upset the odds after falling short against the Chiefs in the Divisional Round of last season's playoffs.

History, though, is firmly against Cleveland. The Chiefs have won three straight games against the Browns dating back to 2013, while Andy Reid is 7-0 in his career as a head coach versus the Browns, one of three teams he is undefeated against. The others are the Chiefs (3-0) and his former team the Philadelphia Eagles (2-0).

Kevin Stefanski led the Browns to an 11-5 record in 2020, his first year as an NFL head coach. It was the most wins in a season by the Browns since 1994 (also 11 wins). The last time the Browns won at least 10 games in back-to-back seasons was 1986 to 1988 (three straight).

The Chiefs set a franchise record with 14 wins in 2020 and played in the Super Bowl for the second straight season, with Kansas City the favourites to be the AFC's representative in the February showpiece yet again. Only three teams have ever made the Super Bowl in three straight seasons – the Buffalo Bills (four, 1990-93), New England Patriots (three, 2016-18) and Miami Dolphins (three, 1971-73).

Pittsburgh Steelers @ Buffalo Bills

The Bills were a game away from the Super Bowl last season and enter this clash between a new AFC heavyweight and a seemingly fading force on a regular-season winning streak.

In a campaign that saw them go 13-3 and post their best record since 1991, the Bills finished the regular season with six straight wins averaging an NFL-best 38.2 points during that span.

Pittsburgh began last season 11-0, then dropped four of their last five games, finishing with an opening-round exit to the Browns in the playoffs. The Steelers were the first team to start 11-0 since the 2015 Carolina Panthers.

And the Steelers will be looking to avoid a third straight defeat to the Bills, who made it two successive wins over Pittsburgh with last season's 26-15 victory in Week 14. The Steelers had won nine of the previous 10 meetings dating back to 1993. 

Green Bay Packers @ New Orleans Saints

The Drew Brees era is over for the Saints, who have selected Jameis Winston as his successor at quarterback. The Packers have a talented defense but the often-erratic Winston's past form suggests he should move the ball against them. Winston has averaged 12.62 yards per completion over his career, the highest mark by any QB who has debuted in the past 30 years (minimum 1,500 completions).

Two perennial NFC powers, games between New Orleans and Green Bay have been consistently high-scoring affairs. The Saints and Packers have combined to average 52.0 points per game in their 26 all-time meetings, the highest average between any two NFL teams who have met at least 20 times.

Green Bay won 13 games in each of the last two seasons but failed to make the Super Bowl in either one. The Packers joined the 2018-19 Saints as the only teams in the Super Bowl era to win 13+ games in back-to-back seasons but miss the Super Bowl in both.

Elsewhere...

It will be a season partially defined by the performance of the rookie quarterbacks, with four of the five drafted in the first round seemingly set to feature in Week 1.

The Jacksonville Jaguars drafted Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence with their first-ever number one overall pick. When he lines up against the Houston Texans, Lawrence will be the eighth different QB to start a season opener for the Jaguars since 2010, tied for second most in the NFL behind the Browns (nine). 

Second overall pick Zach Wilson is set to become the 49th starting quarterback in New York Jets history when they face the Carolina Panthers and his predecessor Sam Darnold. No Jets quarterback has started every game of a season since Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2015, which happens to be the last time the Jets had a winning record (10-6).

Trey Lance will likely see sporadic action for the San Francisco 49ers versus the Detroit Lions. However, if Jimmy Garoppolo's spotty injury history continues in 2021, Lance could soon become the undisputed starter. Garoppolo was limited to six games last season. In three of the games, Garoppolo passed for multiple touchdowns with no interceptions. In the other three, Garoppolo had no touchdown passes and at least one interception.

The New England Patriots have used just four starting quarterbacks in their season openers since 2000, with Mac Jones poised to be the fifth as he looks to become the long-term successor to Tom Brady. Only the Packers (two) and Saints (three) have had fewer season-opening starters in that span – the NFL average in that time is 7.5 quarterbacks.

It's a passing league. You hear it said so often these days about how the NFL has become all about throwing the ball, rather than running it.  

Quarterbacks have dominated the MVP award in recent years, with the last player from another position to scoop the honour coming back in 2012. 

In the 2020 regular season, 18 players topped 1,000 receiving yards. That was actually a decrease from the previous campaign, when no fewer than 29 achieved the feat, but does not necessarily reflect a reverse on recent trends.  

Stefon Diggs led the way in the previous campaign with 1,535 yards. The Buffalo Bills receiver will be expected to be a key component for his team on offense again in 2021, yet no individual has topped the list for two straight years since Calvin Johnson, who managed to do so in 2011 and again in 2012.  

So who are the top contenders to lead the way this time around? Stats Perform takes a look... 

 

Stefon Diggs 

Acquired by the Bills through a trade with the Minnesota Vikings, Diggs enjoyed an outstanding first campaign in Buffalo. He not only led the way for receiving yards but also catches (127) and targets (166), aided by him playing in all 16 games in a year where COVID-19 impacted so many rosters. His 95.9 yards per game ranked second, even though he had just seven plays that went for 25 yards or more. Emmanuel Sanders has arrived during free agency to bolster the receiving group in Buffalo, yet the former Maryland Terrapin undoubtedly remains top of the depth chart and has established a rapport with starting quarterback Josh Allen.  

Calvin Ridley 

Ridley's third year as an Atlanta Falcon saw him emerge as a pass-catching superstar. The 26-year-old had 90 catches from 143 targets, resulting in 1,374 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. According to Stats Perform data, Ridley recorded a big play of 45.1 per cent of his targets, the fifth-highest rate in the NFL among wide receivers. New head coach Arthur Smith got his chance at a top job after impressing in charge of a run-heavy Tennessee Titans offense, but by no means does that mean a receiver cannot prosper in his system. The main reason for Ridley hoping to improve on his previous numbers is the departure of Julio Jones, the franchise legend who did miss games through injury in 2020 but still had 51 catches.   

Justin Jefferson 

Rookie receivers are not meant to settle into NFL life as quickly as Jefferson did with the Minnesota Vikings. The first-round pick selected with the intention of replacing the departed Diggs had 88 receptions for 1,400 yards - surpassing the single-season record by a rookie in the Super Bowl era, set by Anquan Boldin (1,377) back in 2003. That is a particularly impressive achievement when you consider he had just 70 yards combined in his first two games, yet he made up for lost time with seven 100-yard outings in the weeks that followed. Yards after the catch (YAC) will likely need to rise for him to surpass those numbers, considering he averaged 4.6 yards per reception in 2020, putting him down at 27th among receivers. 

Davante Adams 

A contract year, plus a quarterback with a point to prove (again) are potentially the added ingredients required for Adams to have a record-breaking year in what could potentially be his last for the Green Bay Packers. Aaron Rodgers is still around after an offseason full of intrigue - and the reigning MVP already fed his top option relentlessly in 2020. Indeed, Adams' average of 10.6 targets and 8.2 receptions per game were the best for any receiver in the NFL, as well as leading the way with 18 touchdown catches and 98.1 yards per outing. His total yardage of 1,374 was tied for fifth, but it should be remembered he played in only 14 games. He recorded a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup on a play where he is targeted regardless of whether the pass is catchable, 70.1 per cent of the time and led all receivers with 3.9 burn yards per route. With the benefit of three more games than he had in 2020, Adams is perhaps the favourite to usurp Diggs at the top of the leaderboard.   

Tyreek Hill 

Hill averaged a healthy 14.7 yards per catch and 9.0 receptions a game as part of a high-powered Kansas City Chiefs offense. His final total of 87 catches came from 135 targets, showing how he remains a prominent option for quarterback Patrick Mahomes, helping him top 1,000 receiving yards for a third time in four years (he had 860 while playing in 12 games in 2019) and average 3.3 burn yards per route. The Chiefs are coming off a painful Super Bowl loss and may feel they have a point to prove, yet the main concern for Hill's hopes is the presence of a dominant tight end on the roster (more on him to come...). 

DeAndre Hopkins 

In his first year with the Arizona Cardinals, Hopkins set a franchise record for receptions in a season, finishing up with 115 (matching his best season with the Houston Texans, by the way) for a total of 1,407 yards. His 7.2 catches per game ranked third behind only Adams and Diggs, aided by 13 plays that went for 25 yards or more. His YAC number (510) also ranked in the top 10 for all positions, helping him secure a fifth trip to the Pro Bowl. The 29-year-old has missed just two games in his entire career and while he is set to head into his ninth season, there has been little sign of him slowing up in terms of overall output.  

DK Metcalf 

Having gradually emerged in 2019 before making having a noticeable impact in the postseason, Metcalf made a further leap in his second year with the Seattle Seahawks. His big-play ability was demonstrated by his 15.7 yards per catch – Jefferson (15.9) was the only receiver to be targeted at least 120 times and finish with a higher average. Likewise, the Vikings rookie had 16 receptions that went for 25 or more yards, one more than Metcalf managed while working with Russell Wilson. His offseason included a spell on the track, he clocked 10.36 seconds in his 100m heat at the Golden Games and Distance Open in California, but now the focus is back to football, and Metcalf will hope to use that speed to help him improve on his gaudy average of 13.31 burn yards per target from 2020 and take the Seattle offense to the next level.

Best of the rest 

Who else could emerge from the pack? Michael Thomas led the league for receiving yards in 2019 with the help of Drew Brees, only to then endure an unexpected down year last time out. His early trip to the PUP list has likely ended his hopes of regaining the crown before Week 1 has even kicked off. Terry McLaurin had similar numbers to Hill (87 receptions on 134 targets), as well as 486 yards after the catch – a number only topped by four receivers. 

Meanwhile, A. J. Brown topped 1,000 yards for a second straight season with the Titans and trailed only Adams with 3.6 burn yards per route, though he now has former Falcon Jones for company on the roster. Allen Robinson should not be dismissed after having 151 targets on a struggling Chicago Bears offense, while Justin Herbert's emergence with the Los Angeles Chargers helped Keenan Allen average 10.5 targets per outing, second most in the NFL. If a long shot is more your fancy, Diontae Johnson had 88 receptions for 923 yards, but those figures came on 144 targets and Johnson's big-play percentage was a disappointing 21.3.  

Dak Prescott's return to fitness should help the Dallas Cowboys' plethora of receiving options, including Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb, while Matthew Stafford's move to Los Angeles will be expected to pad the numbers for Rams duo Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp.  

The year of the tight end? 

Blocking is still part of the job but catching balls has become a key aspect of life as an NFL tight end: Travis Kelce had the second-most receiving yards (1,416) and Darren Waller (1,196) also made the top 10. Waller actually had more targets out of the pair, while his 576 yards after the catch put him second behind only running back Alvin Kamara in the entire league. George Kittle made it to four figures in 2018 and 2019, only to then see injury ruin his fourth campaign with the San Francisco 49ers, one in which he was open on 90.5 per cent of targets and led all tight ends with 3.9 burn yards per route. Expect him to try and make up for lost time. 

Then there is Kyle Pitts, the rookie selected fourth overall by the Falcons. Despite playing only eight games, he led the FBS in receiving yards (770) as he racked up 96.3 yards per game, averaging 17.9 yards per catch. If he can translate those ridiculous numbers to the pro game, Pitts will become immediately become prominent in Atlanta's offense, potentially taking away some opportunities that could go to Ridley. 

Josh Allen has agreed a six-year contract extension with the Buffalo Bills reportedly worth $258million with $150m guaranteed.

The deal will keep Allen tied to the Bills through the 2028 season and will see him average an annual salary of $43m.

Buffalo traded up to select Allen with the seventh overall pick in the 2018 draft, making the bet that his outstanding athletic gifts would translate to NFL success despite concerns over his accuracy.

That looked a questionable move over the first two years of his career, despite a playoff appearance in the 2019 season.

However, Allen took a spectacular leap forward in 2020, leading the Bills on a run to the AFC Championship Game, where they lost to the Kansas City Chiefs.

Having failed to complete 60 per cent of his passes in 2018 or 2019, Allen posted a completion percentage of 69.2 in 2020, throwing for 4,544 yards, 37 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Allen's completion percentage, passing yardage and passing touchdowns all marked single-season records for the Bills. He also set franchise records for 300-yard games (8) and total touchdowns (46).

Per Stats Perform data, Allen was the seventh-best quarterback in the NFL when it came to delivering an accurate, well-thrown ball. He recorded a well-thrown percentage of 80.5 and was ninth in air yards per attempt among quarterbacks with at least 200 passes, averaging 8.92.

Yet the Bills were ultimately second-best to the Chiefs by a wide margin, losing 38-24 in the AFC title game. Buffalo start their campaign to go one better in 2021 with a Week 1 encounter against the Pittsburgh Steelers on September 12.

As the passing offense has developed to become the dominant and most critical aspect of NFL attacks, the need for a secondary with the talent to regularly withstand aerial assaults led by a deep crop of quarterbacks has become an increasingly pressing one.

In a league where the deck is stacked heavily in favour of offenses, there is only so much even the best cornerbacks and safeties can do to keep the burgeoning ranks of exceptional athletes at quarterback in check.

Going into the 2021 season, several teams stand out as being best prepared to do that with the talent they possess in the defensive backfield.

Using advanced data, Stats Perform has ranked every secondary in the NFL by their performance in pass coverage. The rankings were produced by multiplying each player's coverage baseline by a projected target share for 2021, which is dependent on their position on the depth chart, with the results then aggregated at team level to produce that defense's coverage grade.

To look exclusively at the secondary, the results for defenders who spend their playing time almost exclusively in the box have been filtered out.

The results are very favourable for one NFC West team, though two franchises from that division are at the wrong end of the rankings, while a couple of surprise names feature among those secondaries who look ready to take a leap in 2021.

THE ELITE

1. Los Angeles Rams

Graded DBs: Jalen Ramsey, Darious Williams, David Long Jr, Taylor Rapp, Jordan Fuller

The Rams may have lost key pieces in the secondary in the form of safety John Johnson and cornerback Troy Hill but, even with the departure of defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, moving the ball on Los Angeles through the air will be an imposing challenge in 2021.

Their defensive backs' aggregate coverage grade tops the league and is 17 percentage points above average, with two-time first-team All-Pro Jalen Ramsey (20.45 per cent) and the underrated Darious Williams (21.60 per cent) each in the top 15 among cornerbacks in adjusted open percentage allowed, which looks at how often a defender allows an opponent to get open when in coverage against them, adjusted for the position they play.

Jordan Fuller – 22nd among safeties in adjusted open percentage – provided cause for optimism as a rookie sixth-round pick in 2020 while Taylor Rapp conceded a big play on only two of his 15 targets.

More progress from that duo could lessen the impact of Johnson's exit but, following highly rated defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant's switch to Detroit, maintaining their status as the gold standard is far from a given for Ramsey and Co. in 2021.

2. Buffalo Bills

Graded DBs: Tre'Davious White, Levi Wallace, Taron Johnson, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer

Buffalo's offense carried the load last season as the Bills progressed to the AFC Championship Game, though the talent in the secondary is such that they can afford to have confidence in putting more of the burden on their pass coverage in 2021.

The Bills' defensive backs rank 15 per cent above the average in aggregate coverage grading. Tre'Davious White's continuing success is a reason for that, the two-time Pro Bowler first among all cornerbacks in adjusted open percentage allowed (16.20 per cent) in 2020.

A cause for concern may come across from White after a mediocre year for Levi Wallace, whose adjusted open percentage (30.85) was close to double that of White, but the Bills have to be impressed by the progress of nickel Taron Johnson, who allowed a big play on only 14 of his 74 targets at inside corner last year.

The safety pairing of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer may also be hoping for a bounce-back year, the latter having allowed a burn on 13 of his 28 targets at free safety in 2020. However, in White, the Bills have a shutdown corner who can lift the play of those around him. As long as that remains the case, Buffalo's secondary should stay among the best in the league even with only marginal improvements made by his team-mates.

3. Denver Broncos

Graded DBs: Kyle Fuller, Patrick Surtain II, Ronald Darby, Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson

The Broncos head into 2021 with questions still abounding over their quarterbacks, but there is no doubt they have a championship-caliber defense, of which the secondary looks to be the strength, their defensive backs possessing an aggregate coverage grade 14 percentage points above average.

Justin Simmons was the best defender in the NFL in terms of adjusted open percentage in 2020, leading the way by allowing pass-catchers to get open against his coverage just 14.99 per cent of the time.

The Pro Bowl free safety will have an exciting mix of experience and youth alongside him. Strong safety Kareem Jackson was ninth among all players at the position in burn yards per target allowed with 7.76. Nickel Ronald Darby (37.8) and free agent signing Kyle Fuller (40.3), inexplicably released by the Chicago Bears, each ranked in the top seven in burn percentage allowed for corners with at least 200 coverage snaps.

That pairing will be joined by arguably the premier corner from this year's draft class, Patrick Surtain II, who makes the step up to the league after a stellar college career with Alabama, which he ended by helping the Crimson Tide to a National Championship and allowing 0.93 burn yards per snap. Only three Power 5 defenders gave up fewer.

Having added Fuller and the most pro-ready corner in the draft, the Broncos' secondary could soon mount a challenge to take the crown from the Rams.

THE BOTTOM

30. Seattle Seahawks

Graded DBs: Ahkello Witherspoon, Tre Flowers, Ugo Amadi, Jamal Adams, Quandre Diggs

NFC West teams gained even more firepower at the quarterback position in a dramatic offseason, magnifying the issues for a Seattle secondary that is a long way from the Legion of Boom.

Having let Shaquill Griffin walk in free agency, the Seahawks are somewhat short on proven players in the defensive backfield, with that scarcity reflected by an aggregate coverage grade 16 percentage points below average.

The Seahawks appear to be banking on Ahkello Witherspoon making a leap he never managed with the San Francisco 49ers. Witherspoon allowed a burn on half of his 28 targets last season.

Tre Flowers' open percentage of 85.7 was the fifth-worst of all corners in the NFL, though the play of another former Niner, D.J. Reed, provided some grounds for optimism as his burn yards per target average of 8.21 put him 15th among corners with at least 200 coverage snaps.

Only three inside corners gave up fewer burn yards per snap than Ugo Amadi (1.14) in 2020 while safety Jamal Adams was not the coverage liability many cast him as, the Seahawks sack leader last season giving up a big play on 10 of his 41 targets.

Yet with Quandre Diggs coming off a year in which he conceded a disappointing 13.82 burn yards per target, this is a group with more questions than answers.

31. Arizona Cardinals

Graded DBs: Malcolm Butler, Robert Alford, Byron Murphy, Isaiah Simmons, Budda Baker

The Cardinals are under pressure to produce a playoff campaign in the third year of Kliff Kingsbury as head coach and Kyler Murray as quarterback - a look at their depth chart in the secondary indicates the offense may have to carry this team to a first postseason appearance since the 2015 campaign.

Should Malcolm Butler and Robert Alford earn starting roles, they will provide veteran presences at outside corner, yet theirs is experience that should not inspire much confidence.

Butler allowed the 10th-most burn yards per snap among corners with at least 200 coverage snaps (2.42) while Alford has not played since the 2018 season.

The strength of this group comes from two former Washington Huskies. Nickel Byron Murphy's burn yards per target average of 7.50 was the fifth-best among inside corners in 2020 and Budda Baker has established himself as one of the premier safeties in the NFL, his adjusted open percentage of 16.38 trailing only three defenders in the previous campaign.

After an offseason in which Arizona did little to address the cornerback position, the onus may again be on that pair to elevate those around them, unless Butler and Alford unexpectedly recapture their form of old.

32. Detroit Lions

Graded DBs: Quinton Dunbar, Jeff Okudah, Amani Oruwariye, Tracy Walker, Will Harris

The Lions' rebuild under Dan Campbell is likely to be slow and painful, with his first season at the helm set to be one in which Detroit give up a lot of points if the secondary cannot improve.

Detroit's defensive backs' aggregate coverage grade is 27 percentage points below average. Key to the Lions improving in that regard will be Jeff Okudah's ability to shake off a difficult rookie season and justify his status as the third overall pick in 2020.

Only two cornerbacks gave up a big play in coverage more regularly than Okudah, who did so on 43.9 per cent of his targets. Unfortunately for Detroit, one of those corners is now on their roster, Quinton Dunbar (44.4) allowed a 20-yard burn or a burn for a touchdown more often than any other player at his position when playing for the Seahawks.

Projected starter Amani Oruwariye (36.9) did not fare much better, and it would be no surprise to see rookie Ifeatu Melifonwu thrust into a prominent role early on. Melifonwu was tied-ninth for the fewest burn yards per snap (1.23) allowed among Power 5 corners in his final season with Syracuse.

Will Harris at least had an admirable 2020 at strong safety, finishing third among all safeties in burn yards per target (7.0) but free safety Tracy Walker (12.85) offered little to suggest he can help Detroit turn the ship around quickly on defense. The Lions have done a disappointing job of drafting and developing talent under previous regimes. Changing that and successfully developing Okudah and Melifonwu will be crucial to this secondary climbing out of the cellar.

ON THE RISE

Minnesota Vikings

Graded DBs: Cameron Dantzler, Patrick Peterson, Mackensie Alexander, Xavier Woods, Harrison Smith

The Vikings invested heavily in the secondary in recent times and the numbers suggest that decision could pay dividends in the coming season.

Minnesota's defensive backs rank 10th in aggregate coverage rating, performing five points better than average. They will be looking for a step forward from last year's third-round pick Cameron Dantzler, who was above average in burn yards per target (9.4) and open percentage allowed (62.3) as a rookie.

But two underrated additions could see them catapult into the top five. Patrick Peterson was considered to have endured a down year last season but his open percentage of 51.9 when playing outside corner was seventh among players to have taken snaps at that spot. Meanwhile, Bashaud Breeland, another free agency signing, was tied fifth in open percentage (52.7) among corners to have played at least 200 coverage snaps.

The presence of Breeland, who is expected to compete with Dantzler for a starting job, and Peterson gives the Vikings strong depth at corner and should mitigate the potential loss of 2020 first-round pick Jeff Gladney, whose future is in doubt amid off-field troubles.

Mackenzie Alexander's return after a year with the Cincinnati Bengals may see him start at nickel, and he will need to improve after allowing 11.16 burn yards per target from the slot last season. Safeties Harrison Smith (13.13) and Xavier Woods (16.33 at free safety) also struggled in that metric in 2020, but the pressure will be taken off that pair should their top three corners live up to expectations.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Graded DBs: Jamel Dean, Carlton Davis III, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jordan Whitehead, Antoine Winfield Jr.

Tampa's secondary arguably already took a step forward as the Buccaneers claimed their second Super Bowl title last season. However, their defensive backfield is only 15th in aggregate coverage rating, Tampa coming in three per cent better than average.

Yet there were signs this group is primed to make further progress in 2021, most of which came from starting corner Jamel Dean.

Dean allowed a burn on 30 of his 64 targets, his percentage of 46.9 comfortably better than the average of 52.8 for corners with at least 200 coverage snaps, while he was 10th in the NFL at his position in adjusted open percentage (21.58).

Carlton Davis III was less impressive, giving up a burn on exactly half of his 92 targets, though the fact he conceded a big play on 25 per cent of his targets (the average was 26 among all corners) leaves room for encouragement.

Nickel corner Sean Murphy-Bunting also did a decent job at preventing big plays, conceding eight on 44 targets on the inside. Yet, despite praise for Antoine Winfield Jr's rookie year, both he and fellow starting safety Jordan Whitehead will hope to make improvements in coverage having given up 11.33 and 12.32 burn yards per target respectively.

However, with a full offseason under their belt to coalesce further, the arrow is pointing up for a young and clearly talented secondary that will again be playing behind one of the best front sevens in football after the Bucs kept the band together for another run in 2021.

Las Vegas Raiders

Graded DBs: Casey Hayward, Trayvon Mullen, Damon Arnette, Johnathan Abram, Trevon Moehrig

The Raiders secondary has received its fair share of criticism in the Jon Gruden-Mike Mayock years, with doubts cast over the merits of selecting Trayvon Mullen in the second round in 2019 and Damon Arnette in the first last year.

But Las Vegas can afford to have confidence in the secondary going into 2021. The Raiders' defensive backs ranking seventh for aggregate coverage, rating 10 per cent better than the average.

Much of the Raiders' presence in the top 10 is tied to the astute acquisition of veteran corner Casey Hayward, whose adjusted open percentage of 17.3 was the fifth-best in the NFL among players at all defensive positions, though a less impressive burn yards per target average of 11.20 reflects how often he was left on an island for the Los Angeles Chargers last year.

Las Vegas will hope Hayward can accelerate the development of Mullen, who was an encouraging 15th in burn yards per target (8.67) among outside corners with at least 200 snaps. Arnette's average of 11.69 suggests he has further to go, and he may face a competition with Hayward for the starting role across from Mullen.

Yet between Mullen's progress, the arrival of Hayward and the selection of free safety Trevon Moehrig in the second round of this year's draft, the Raiders secondary is one that looks primed to establish itself as one of the better groups in the NFL.

Moehrig allowed a big play on 20.3 per cent of his targets in 2020, giving them up at the sixth-fewest rate of all Power 5 safeties with at least 25 targets. His burn yards per target average of 6.71 was the best among Power 5 players at his position. If he can replicate that impact as a rookie, the Raiders should be in extremely good shape in the defensive backfield.

The 2021 NFL season may still be months away, but fans can begin eagerly circling their calendars in anticipation of some truly mouth-watering fixtures after Wednesday's schedule release.

There are some obvious standouts. The Week 4 meeting of Tom Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Bill Belichick's New England Patriots should capture the entire league's attention as Brady returns to Foxborough for the first time since saying a shock farewell to his home of 20 seasons last offseason, and then going on to win a seventh Super Bowl ring in his maiden season with the Bucs.

A potential duel between Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs and Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in Week 9 hinges on Rodgers blinking in his staring contest with the Packers' brass and returning for the season.

Should he do so, it will pit the reigning MVP against the 2018 MVP and Super Bowl LIV MVP in a matchup of two quarterbacks who have each recently finished in the top five in well-thrown ball percentage. Rodgers was third in the NFL with 82.4 per cent last season while Mahomes was fourth with 81.1 per cent in 2019 as he led the Chiefs to the Lombardi Trophy.

But the games with the best narratives on the surface do not always produce the best matchups. Here, using Stats Perform data, we look at five other games on the schedule that are in the mix to be among the most exciting games of the 2021 campaign.

 

Packers @ 49ers - Week 3

The Packers trounced a 49ers team decimated by injuries last season, though that was probably hollow revenge for Green Bay's NFC Championship Game humbling at the hands of San Francisco in the 2019 season.

Typically, when Rodgers has visited the team he idolised in his youth, things have gone poorly for the Packers. He has won two of his four regular-season meetings with the Niners in the Bay Area but has lost to San Francisco on each of the three occasions he has faced them in the playoffs, with two of those defeats on the road.

Still, if Rodgers acquiesces in his stand-off with Packers management and plays for Green Bay in 2021, it promises to be a fascinating duel of NFC contenders, with the Niners potentially starting a rookie quarterback in dual-threat Trey Lance.

Should Rodgers remain with the Packers, the key matchup in this one could well be the reigning MVP against a Niners defensive line that should get back edge rusher Nick Bosa after he missed most of the 2020 season with a torn ACL.

Rodgers' well-thrown percentage under pressure was 71.0 per cent in 2020, the ninth-best in the NFL, and he will likely have to maintain that accuracy under duress if Bosa is back to his best. The 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year had a pressure rate of 28.3 per cent in his first season in the league, trailing only Adrian Clayborn and elder brother Joey, and sacked Rodgers in the regular season and the NFC title game.

Buccaneers @ Rams - Week 3

Yes, Brady v Belichick is the game everybody in Tampa will be most excited for, and the season opener between the Super Bowl champions and the Dallas Cowboys will be a primetime ratings monster, but perhaps the best duel involving the only player with seven Super Bowl rings will take place when Tampa head west.

The Rams edged the Buccaneers 27-24 in Tampa last season and should provide a stern test again at SoFi Stadium with Matthew Stafford set to be under center for Los Angeles.

But Stafford is not the person Brady will be concerned with when it comes to the Rams. Instead, it will be three-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.

Brady was phenomenal when it came to avoiding interceptable passes last season.

He threw a pickable pass on just 13 of 590 pass attempts in 2020, a percentage of 2.20 that only Alex Smith (2.12) could better. When under pressure, it increased to 3.45 per cent, but that was still the fourth-lowest pickable pass rate in the NFL under duress.

But no defender in the league strikes fear into the heart of quarterbacks quite like Donald, who led all defensive tackles in 2020 with a pressure rate of 27.7 per cent and an adjusted sack rate of 5.5 per cent.

Donald can destroy the best-laid plans of any offense, and surviving the challenge he and the Rams will pose will be one of the biggest tests for Brady and the Bucs in their bid to repeat as champions

Bills @ Chiefs - Week 5

This is a rematch of last season's AFC Championship Game in which the Bills did not produce an effort reflective of their outstanding 2020, and Buffalo look like the team best placed to challenge Kansas City again in the AFC in 2021.

The headline act of this clash is the battle of the quarterbacks, with Mahomes and Josh Allen leading the revolution of athletic, cannon-armed quarterbacks who have taken the league by storm.

But an underrated aspect of this game will be Stefon Diggs' performance against a Chiefs secondary that does not get the credit it deserves.

Diggs was held to six catches for 77 yards in the playoff matchup but recently revealed he played through the postseason with an oblique tear.

When healthy, Diggs has the ability to do significantly greater damage. He led the NFL with 1,535 receiving yards in his first season in Buffalo and trailed only Davante Adams (3.9) in burn yards per route as he averaged 3.6.

However, the Chiefs' projected starting cornerbacks have the means to slow him down. L'Jarius Sneed was fifth among all corners in preventing big plays, allowing a play of 20 yards or more on just 14.5 per cent of his targets. 

Meanwhile, Charvarius Ward was fourth among corners in burns allowed, giving up a burn on 32.7 per cent of his targets.

Bears @ Seahawks - Week 16

The Bears have rarely been high on the list of teams to look out for when it comes to intrigue in recent years, but that all changed when they traded up to draft Justin Fields 11th overall.

Once Chicago ends the charade of committing to Andy Dalton as starting quarterback and goes with the high-upside rookie, the Bears have the potential to be an extremely interesting watch.

That will certainly be the case if Fields is under center when they travel to Seattle's Lumen Field, with the Bears set to face the quarterback they reportedly pursued before picking Fields, Seahawks star Russell Wilson.

A quarterback battle between Fields and Wilson has the potential to be an absorbing encounter featuring two signal-callers who each excel with their accuracy throwing the deep ball.

Of quarterbacks with at least 25 throws of 25 or more air yards, only three players (Ryan Tannehill, Philip Rivers and Derek Carr) had a higher well-thrown percentage than Wilson's 63.0 per cent on those attempts last season.

Fields was similarly proficient attacking downfield in his final year for Ohio State, posting a well-thrown percentage of 76.47 per cent on throws of 15 or more air yards that was superior to that of Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Mac Jones.

If his success in that regard quickly translates to the NFL, the Bears' trip to the Pacific Northwest could turn into a scintillating showcase of the deep passing game. For the first time in a while, the Bears have the potential to be must-see TV.

Ravens @ Browns - Week 14

The balance of power in the AFC North is shifting towards the Ravens and Browns and their Monday Night game in Cleveland last year was among the most entertaining of the 2020 campaign.

In the end, the Browns' inability to stop Lamar Jackson, even after his apparent 'comfort break', from making the big plays in Baltimore's thrilling comeback was the decisive factor in the Ravens' 47-42 triumph.

Cleveland took steps to stop such a scenario from playing out again, using their first-round pick on a cornerback in Greg Newsome II who allowed a big play on just 4.2 per cent of his 36 targets in an abbreviated final season at Northwestern.

His addition, and that of versatile second-round linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who allowed a big-play percentage of 11.0 when covering from the slot and had an overall pressure rate of 25.0 per cent, should help the Browns do a better job of slowing down opponents.

But whether those arrivals are enough to make the difference against Jackson and the Ravens is another matter.

An underrated downfield thrower whose well-thrown percentage of 60.0 on throws of 25 or more air yards was seventh in the NFL last year, Jackson has another dynamic weapon to target in the form of first-round receiver Rashod Bateman.

Sixth among Power 5 wideouts with at least 50 targets in burn yards per target (16.15) in his stellar 2019 season, Bateman can be the number one receiver Jackson has long since lacked.

Bateman excelled at creating separation two years ago while having an average depth of target of 16.2. With him and speedster Marquise Brown in the mix, Jackson does not lack big-play weapons, and Cleveland's ability to keep them under wraps could be critical in deciding an ultra-competitive division in 2021.

With free agency in the rear-view mirror and the 2021 draft all wrapped up, NFL teams can now draw breath and start to reflect on what has unfolded during the offseason.

Ideally, all teams will hope they sit in a better position to challenge than they did a few months back, but the reality is some are just starting from further back than others.

When it comes to Super Bowl challengers, undoubtedly the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs remain strong favourites to get back to the big game. The Bucs have got the band back together after hoisting aloft the Vince Lombardi Trophy on home turf, while the Chiefs have responded to a harrowing loss by rebuilding the offensive line in front of Patrick Mahomes.

But what about the chasing pack? Stats Perform picks out some of the leading contenders for glory while reflecting on what has happened since they last played.

Buffalo Bills

An appearance in the AFC Championship Game inspired by the improved play of quarterback Josh Allen left Buffalo rightly believing they needed minor tweaks, rather than dramatic alterations, to challenge once again in 2021. They kept the offensive line together, then added depth at a key area in the draft when selecting Spencer Brown in round three.

However, the Bills – who ranked 15th in opponent yards per play allowed (5.5) last term but were a lowly 26th versus the run (4.62) – used first and second-round selections to help their defense, with Greg Rousseau and Carlos Basham Jr firming up a pass rush that tied 15th for sacks. Add in Emmanuel Sanders to the receiving group and Buffalo appears to be in rude health as they aim to go one better than last season.

Los Angeles Rams

The Rams are swinging for the fences as they bid to get back to the Super Bowl. Jared Goff was the starter when they lost to the New England Patriots in February 2019, but his time with the franchise is over. The blockbuster deal to get Matthew Stafford from Detroit has ramped up the pressure to get results on the field – and not just in the regular season either.

Leonard Floyd remained thanks to a bumper contract, but John Johnson and Troy Hill are gone from the secondary. They will continue to lean heavily on Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey to lead a defense that allowed the fewest passing yards per play (5.08) and the third-least rushing yards per play (3.76). While trades have seen the Rams become accustomed to watching on as teams are on the clock in round one, it was notable they added three wide receivers with their picks as they aim for a fifth successive winning season under head coach Sean McVay.

San Francisco 49ers

Yes, a team who finished the 2020 regular season with a 6-10 record should be considered as genuine contenders. The 49ers went so close to Super Bowl glory 15 months ago, while a roster ravaged by injuries last season will hope for better fortune when it comes to keeping key personnel healthy. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has jetted off to New York, but Nick Bosa should be back.

In truth, it will be the offense that defines San Francisco's chances. Jimmy Garoppolo failed to inspire in his limited appearances, throwing seven touchdowns to five interceptions, so getting a quarterback in the draft – even if trading up to number three came at a high cost – made sense. Trey Lance was their choice, a high-upside selection who showed plenty of promise in 19 games for North Dakota State. The run game remains pivotal, though, which explains why they splashed out to make sure Trent Williams and Kyle Juszczyk stuck around.

Cleveland Browns

Having made the playoffs for the first time since 2002, the Browns knocked out divisional rivals Pittsburgh and then came close to upsetting Kansas City on the road. The defense was bolstered up front with the signings of Jadeveon Clowney and Malik Jackson. However, having given up 31 passing touchdowns, the secondary has rightly been the focus. After snapping up former Rams duo Johnson and Hill, Cleveland selected cornerback Greg Newsome II and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in the first two rounds of the draft.

Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski built the offense around the rushing tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt – the team averaged 4.8 yards per rush – easing the pressure on Baker Mayfield to move the sticks. Still, he ranked sixth in passer rating (118.4) on throws of 21 air yards or more among quarterbacks with at least 25 such attempts, showing teams cannot fill the box and focus solely on stopping the run. If they can get out of a highly competitive AFC North again, the Browns will believe they can build on a Divisional Round appearance.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens' hopes will once again rest with Lamar Jackson, their dual-threat quarterback who is on course for a significant pay rise when an agreement is reached over a long-term extension. His ability to run helped Baltimore finish first in rushing yards per play with 5.53, while the passing game has a little extra help now after receiver Rashod Bateman was taken with the 27th pick. Still, there was no flashy free-agency signing at the position, despite links with JuJu Smith-Schuster and T.Y. Hilton. Kevin Zeitler did pen a deal, securing an experienced guard to bolster the offensive line.

Defensively, Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue have moved on to the Patriots and Raiders respectively, though the Ravens have a reputation for building a pass rush no matter who is on the roster. Tyus Bowser can expect an increased role, plus outside linebacker Odafe Oweh was chosen with the late first-round pick acquired in the trade that sent offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr to the Chiefs.

Honourable mentions

The Green Bay Packers would have made the list were it not for the uncertainty surrounding the future of reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers. For all their quarterback's undoubted qualities on the field, they have not made a Super Bowl in 11 years. And what is going on in Seattle too? Rumours relating to Russell Wilson's future have dominated the offseason for the Seahawks.

The Indianapolis Colts will hope they can get the best out of signal-caller Carson Wentz and the Pittsburgh Steelers seem set for one last ride with Ben Roethlisberger. As for a trendy pick who missed out on the playoffs last season, look no further than the Los Angeles Chargers, complete with a revamped offensive line to help keep QB Justin Herbert safe.

Josh Allen will be under contract with the Buffalo Bills through 2022 after the team exercised their fifth-year option.

The quarterback was drafted by the Bills in 2018 and has since established himself as one of the NFL's outstanding dual-threats.

Allen has thrown for 9,707 yards, 67 touchdowns and 31 interceptions across 44 games and 43 starts, although the bulk of his yards (4,544) and scores (37) came last season.

The former seventh overall pick, who also has 25 career rushing TDs, led Buffalo to the AFC Championship Game in 2020 where they were beaten by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Allen's completion percentage of 72.8 ranked fourth in the league last year, while he led the NFL at 80.2 when throwing without pressure.

The option in his rookie deal would see Allen earn around $23million in 2022 before becoming an unrestricted free agent – a situation the franchise will be desperate to avoid.

The Bills have also agreed to pay middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, another 2018 first-round selection.

Edmunds is set for $12.7m in 2022, although Buffalo will be expected to negotiate a contract extension before that option kicks in.

The Bills traded up six places to take Edmunds in 2018 after he had 10.0 sacks across his final two college seasons with Virginia Tech.

Although Edmunds has been a Pro Bowl selection in each of the past two years, he has contributed to a defense that has struggled to disrupt opposing passers.

Edmunds only successfully pressured QBs on 7.7 per cent of pass rush attempts last season – the fourth-worst pressure rate among linebackers with 10 or more attempts – and Buffalo's failure to get to grips with Patrick Mahomes led to their playoff exit.

The team spent their first and second-round 2021 draft picks on edge rushers Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham Jr.

The NFL Draft looms large on the horizon as rosters continue to take shape ahead of the 2021 season.

Some big offseason moves have already threatened to alter the landscape of the league, even boosting the championship hopes of teams who missed out on the playoffs in 2020.

Most notably, the San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins will each feel they won a trade that saw the number three overall pick sent to the NFC West team in exchange for assets including multiple future first-rounders.

The Niners will get a look at one of the top quarterbacks in an exciting class as they aim to challenge again following an injury ravaged campaign, while the Dolphins can now surround starter Tua Tagovailoa with talent in year two and beyond.

But what of the teams who were already Super Bowl contenders?

When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Green Bay Packers reached the NFC Championship Game and the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills advanced in the AFC, pre-game predictions could scarcely separate the four.

It was the Bucs who ultimately prevailed, progressing past Green Bay before beating the Chiefs at Super Bowl LV, but their rivals will expect to be in the mix again.

Although chaos higher up in the draft could see plans quickly go out the window, we assess where the Bucs, Packers, Chiefs and Bills might be looking next week - with the help of Stats Perform data.
 

Green Bay Packers

All four of these teams will have interesting options in the first round as the early rush for quarterbacks leaves great depth at several other positions across the board. But the Packers, picking 29th, would be wise to think about how they might help Aaron Rodgers.

The veteran QB was understandably surprised last year when, rather than recruiting help, Green Bay drafted another passer in the first round. Jordan Love did not take a single snap all season long.

Packers wide receiver Davante Adams led the league in receiving touchdowns (18) and ranked fourth for targets (149), joint-second for catches (115) and joint-fifth for receiving yards (1,374), despite playing only 14 games. However, Rodgers clearly lacked a second WR option, with tight end Robert Tonyan's 11 TDs coming on just 59 targets.

There should be no shortage of prospects available to Green Bay, with Elijah Moore - ranked first in the FBS with 149.1 yards per game for Ole Miss - a good fit in the slot.

Yet the team have not selected a receiver in the first round since before Rodgers was drafted, while Adams, in 2014, was the last WR taken higher than the fourth round.

Defensive reinforcements may be more likely over the first two days of the draft. A linebacker like Zaven Collins - four interceptions last season for Tulsa - or a cornerback such as Caleb Farley - falling following back surgery - could be called in the first round, with a later punt on a potential WR project following.
 

Buffalo Bills

Buffalo's needs are two-fold as they aim to give QB Josh Allen the platform to contend with Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady again.

The Bills ranked fourth in the NFL in 2020 for yards per attempt but 20th for rushing average (4.19). Allen contributed 421 of their 1,723 total rushing yards and half of their 16 rushing TDs.

Neither Devin Singletary (156 carries for 687 yards and two TDs) nor Zack Moss (112 carries for 481 yards and four TDs) look capable of being a game-changer on the ground, while the best running backs in the class may well still be on the board at number 30.

Alabama's Najee Harris, who led the FBS with 26 rushing scores, is an obvious standout.

Yet Buffalo's issues against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game came as they failed to disrupt Mahomes, who was sacked only once and threw three TDs and no interceptions.

The Bills were in the middle of the pack for sacks (38, tied 15th) and hurries (163, 17th) and could use someone on the edge, particularly with Jerry Hughes - the man who sacked Mahomes - turning 33 in August.
 

Kansas City Chiefs

If the playoffs made the shortcomings for Buffalo clear, Kansas City's flaws were even more blatant. The best QB in football was helpless in the Super Bowl.

Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher, the Chiefs' starting tackles, missed the big game through injury and Mahomes was sacked three times, throwing two picks and no TDs. The pair have each since been released, too, increasing the team's need at the position.

Arrivals Joe Thuney, who allowed 0.5 sacks last season, and Kyle Long, back out of retirement, are not best suited to playing outside. Kansas City would ideally find both a right and left tackle in this draft.

They should have no shortage of options, with a number of prospects mooted as potential picks. Teven Jenkins, out of Oklahoma State, can play either side and would be a popular signing.
 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Bucs are in a truly unenviable position in that they have no positions of major need.

Some defensive end depth would be nice, but this unit pressured Mahomes into submission. The team ranked second for both hurries (182) and knockdowns (115). Linebacker Shaquil Barrett alone had 13 Super Bowl pressures.

Or how about a receiver to deliver the late-season impact provided by Antonio Brown? He had only four starts yet scored a touchdown in the Super Bowl triumph. Of course, he could also still return.

The rest of the title-winning roster from last year is back, meaning Tampa Bay remain in 'win now' mode and can simply look to pick up the best player left on the board at pick 32.

That might mean a RB like Harris, while the Bucs would have little to lose in taking a flier on Farley, despite his fitness concerns, if he falls to them.

The Buffalo Bills will look back on the 2020 season as one in which the 2018 gamble they took on Josh Allen began paying the dividends they expected.

After signs of improvement in 2019, one of the most volatile quarterbacks in the NFL took a gigantic third-year leap, the Bills' faith in his remarkable athletic gifts paying off as he blossomed into one of the most prolific and devastating signal-callers in the league.

But Allen's jump to the league's elite at the game's most important position was still not enough to propel the Bills to their first Super Bowl title.

The Bills, like so many teams before them, were undone by the brilliance of the Kansas City Chiefs, losing 38-24 at Arrowhead Stadium as their quest for the Lombardi Trophy ended in an AFC Championship Game defeat.

What do the Bills need to do to finally get over the hump in 2021? We look at the key Stats Perform data from the 2020 campaign and their offseason moves to this point to determine what Buffalo's next steps should be ahead of another run at a maiden title.

Offense

The impact of Allen's development on Buffalo's offense is illustrated by the efficiency the Bills demonstrated in 2020.

Having finished 22nd in yards per play in 2019 with an average of 5.19, they improved to sixth with a jump to 6.13.

They were fourth in yards per passing play (7.42), while only the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers put up more touchdowns through the air than Buffalo's 40.

Buffalo's surge as a passing attack was fuelled by a huge uptick in accuracy from Allen.

Going into the 2020 season, Allen's highest completion percentage in his NFL career was 58.8, set in 2019.

Last year, Allen completed 69.2 per cent of his pass attempts, trailing only Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Deshaun Watson.

He was sixth in the league in touchdown to interception ratio, throwing 37 scores to 10 picks, and was fourth in completions of 20 yards or more with 62.

His passer rating of 107.4 on pass attempts of 21 air yards or more was ninth among quarterbacks to have at least 25 such attempts, with Allen's success on deep balls aided by the trade acquisition of Stefon Diggs.

Diggs led the NFL with 1,535 receiving yards after arriving from the Minnesota Vikings, becoming Allen's go-to target as he caught 73 receptions for a first down, a tally bettered by only Travis Kelce (79) and DeAndre Hopkins (75).

What the Bills offense lacked was balance. The running game struggled to get going throughout the year, with Buffalo finishing the year ranked 20th in yards per rush with 4.19.

Devin Singletary's 18 rushes for negative yards was the joint-ninth-highest number in the league, and while the Bills were 13th with 53 rushes of 10 yards or more, 16 of those came from Allen, with rookie third-round pick Zack Moss contributing only 12.

The Bills would have been in the league's bottom five in that category if not for Allen's contributions. While the emphasis was more on what their dual-threat signal-caller can do with his arm in 2020, he also did his best to elevate a running game that will hope to be much more efficient in 2021.

Defense

The Bills were far from the first team to fail to stop the Chiefs and they will not be the last.

But the porous nature of their defensive performance was reflective of a mediocre year on that side of the ball for Buffalo.

The Bills ranked 15th in opponent yards per play allowed (5.5). They were ninth against the pass (6.1) but a lowly 26th versus the run (4.62).

Opponents ran successful plays against the Bills' defense 51.8 per cent of the time, putting them 22nd in the NFL, while Buffalo were middle of the road (15th) in terms of opponent scoring efficiency, giving up either a field goal or a touchdown on 67 of 170 opponent drives.

Tied for 15th in sacks with 38, the Bills were underwhelming in converting their pressures. They had 163 quarterback hurries (17th) and 90 knockdowns (tied for 13th), indicating a need to find a pass rusher who can consistently finish his pass rushes in the offseason.

Where the Bills did excel was in taking the ball away. Their 26 turnovers ranked tied for third while they scored 90 points off takeaways, good for seventh in the NFL.

Cornerback Tre'Davious White led the way for Buffalo with five of those takeaways, three of which were interceptions, in another stellar season for the two-time Pro Bowler.

Buffalo possess talent at every level of the defense and, even though the Bills fell short at Arrowhead Stadium, there is plenty of reason to believe the addition of a game-changer up front can spark an upturn in defensive fortunes and put them over the top in 2021.

Offseason

The Bills have quietly enjoyed a productive and impressive offseason. Matt Milano signed a four-year, $41.5million contract that will likely look a bargain if and when Fred Warner signs his extension with the San Francisco 49ers later in the year.

Wide receiver John Brown and tight end Tyler Kroft both departed in free agency but were replaced by Emmanuel Sanders and Jacob Hollister respectively. 

Sanders should provide Allen with a dependable third-down option, as he moved the chains on 61.1 per cent of his third-down targets for the New Orleans Saints last year, putting him 10th among receivers with at least 10 such targets.

Buffalo also landed a capable backup for Allen at a palatable price, former second overall pick Mitchell Trubisky arriving on a one-year deal worth $2.5m.

Yet they head into the draft still with obvious needs to address.

The Bills brought back cornerback Levi Wallace on a one-year deal. However, he has been burnt for eight touchdowns over the last two seasons, meaning Buffalo could certainly benefit from an infusion of competition at the starting spot across from White.

However, secondary play is not what limited the ceiling of the Bills' defense in 2020. A lack of a dominant presence at edge rusher is what held Leslie Frazier's group back last year, and adding one should be their priority with the 30th pick in the first round.

Rob Gronkowski confirmed he held talks with rival teams in free agency before committing to Super Bowl champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for another year.

Five-time Pro Bowler Gronkowski returned to the NFL last season, a year on from his retirement with the New England Patriots.

The tight end was traded to the Bucs, where he joined fellow Pats great Tom Brady for a successful title challenge.

According to reports, Gronkowski agreed to return to Tampa on the same terms as in 2020, signing a one-year, $10million pact.

But the four-time champion had earlier told The Ringer he wanted "just to see what's out there" in free agency.

As his new deal was formally announced on Monday, Gronkowski met the media and was asked about speculation he discussed a potential move to the Buffalo Bills.

"There was a little extent to that," said Gronkowski, who started all 20 regular season and playoff games last year and was targeted 91 times for 53 catches, 733 yards and nine touchdowns.

"I was a free agent, so as a free agent, you're allowed to talk to other teams. There were a couple of other teams, also.

"But just overall I wanted to be back with the Buccaneers organisation. Just the set-up here is just unbelievable. Just the chemistry that I've built over the last season is just fantastic.

"So just overall I wanted to come back to the Buccaneers.

"You know, it's football, you never know how things are going to play out. So it's just good to listen to what else is out there, and there was something to a little extent.

"I knew I wanted to be here."

The Bills were 13-3 last season, two wins better off than the Bucs, but lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game.

The Chiefs were subsequently blown away by Tampa, as Gronkowski scored two touchdowns in a dominant 31-9 win.

Of his 14 postseason scores - all of which have come from Brady passes, a playoff record - five have now come in Super Bowls.

Bucs GM Jason Licht said in a statement on Monday: "In addition to his contributions on the field, Gronk has quickly become one of the most beloved guys in our locker room.

"His ability to perform at a championship-calibre level week after week, while also uplifting everyone around him, makes him an invaluable presence in our building.

"Rob's accomplishments speak for themselves and make him one of the greatest to ever play the game at his position.

"We are thrilled to have him back with us as we pursue another title in Tampa."

Tampa have worked hard to reassemble their successful 2020 team.

Brady signed an extension, keeping him with the Bucs through 2022, while Chris Godwin was franchise-tagged and Lavonte David signed a new deal ahead of free agency.

Once the negotiating period began, Shaquil Barrett and Gronkowski also came back.

The Buffalo Bills have announced the signing of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky on a one-year deal.  

Trubisky arrives in Buffalo after four years with the Chicago Bears, who selected him with the second overall pick in the 2017 draft.  

The 26-year-old was the first quarterback taken that year, the Bears trading up one spot to grab Trubisky ahead of fellow prospects Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, who went 10th and 12th respectively.  

His rookie season saw him finish with a 4-8 record after claiming the starting role from Mike Glennon, while the following year he made the Pro Bowl after Chicago won the AFC North, though they lost in the Wild Card round to the Philadelphia Eagles. 

However, Trubisky struggled to build on a campaign where he threw for a career-high 3,223 yards, with 24 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Last season he was benched in Week 3 in favour of Nick Foles, only to reclaim the job by Week 12.

Overall, Trubisky started in nine games in 2020, completing 199 of his 297 pass attempts for 2,055 yards. He had a completion percentage of 67 per cent as he threw for 16 scores and eight interceptions. 

The move to the Bills will see him serve as back-up to starter Josh Allen, who steered the franchise to the AFC Championship Game in his third season in the league. 

The Buffalo Bills have re-signed star linebacker Matt Milano as they eye another run at the Super Bowl, the NFL team announced on Thursday.

There were concerns the Bills could lose Milano in free agency due to cap pressure following Buffalo's AFC Championship Game appearance last season.

But Milano has signed a four-year contract extension reportedly worth $44million in Buffalo.

Milano missed six games in 2020 as the Bills eventually fell to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC title decider.

The 26-year-old has started 39 of 55 games with Buffalo and produced 265 tackles, 6.0 sacks and five interceptions in his career.

Milano – drafted by Buffalo in 2017 – tallied 100 tackles in the 2019 regular season, joining Tremaine Edmunds and Jordan Poyer as the only Bills with 100-plus tackles.

He finished the 2018 campaign as the only player in the NFL with 75-plus tackles, three-plus interceptions and three-plus fumble recoveries.

Josh Allen "didn't perform well enough" for the Buffalo Bills as they missed out on a place in the Super Bowl with a 38-24 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday.

Bills quarterback Allen completed 28 of 48 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns in the AFC Championship Game, while he rushed for 88 yards on seven carries.

However, an interception at the start of the fourth quarter preceded a Kansas City touchdown on the next drive to put the Chiefs out of sight.

Allen felt he forced things at times and was frustrated the Bills twice settled for field goals despite being within the Chiefs' 10-yard line.

"We didn't execute how we should've. I didn't perform well enough for this team. You're going against the reigning Super Bowl champs, who were 15-1, the number one seed at Arrowhead, if you're not going to have your A game, you're not going to win the game. That's what it was," he said.

"A couple of decisions early on, trying to press in the second half, I got things going a little bit better, but our red zone efficiency settled for field goals and you've got to score touchdowns against these guys. That's basically it.

"In the first half, I thought we moved the ball well, or well enough. We got down into the red zone and couldn't get the ball into the endzone.

"We got down there, threw an interception, a couple of bad decisions on my part. Just the communication aspect of it too. They did a good job of being able to check out their blitzes, not really allow us any time to get back to what we were originally going to run.

"Again, it comes down to decision making and putting the ball where it needed to be and I didn't do that well enough tonight."

Asked if he was pushing to go for touchdowns on the fourth downs inside the Chief's 10-yard line, he added: "I mean, that's the coach's decision. We had three downs to get in there prior and we didn't do our job.

"Like I said, lack of communication, lack of execution down there and it falls on our shoulders."

Buffalo head coach Sean McDermott admitted with the benefit of hindsight that he might have tried his luck in one of those instances.

"I thought about it in both occasions really. Maybe if I had to do it all over again, I would have maybe went for one of them," he said.

"The one before the half for sure. I wanted to get points. We were having trouble coming up with points and I wanted to have something to show for it going into the half, especially knowing they were getting the ball after half.

"I will look back at that and I will re-evaluate, especially the one after the half there. As a team, we will learn from this experience."

There were several confrontations towards the end of the game, with Allen sparking one by throwing the ball at the head of Alex Okafor.

Allen regretted letting his emotions get to him but feels confident Buffalo will not have to experience another 27-year wait to reach this stage again.

"It's going to fuel us, I have no doubt in my mind that we will be back. This is a team that fought hard to the end, a team that loves each other," he said.

"We're still young and we're only going to get better. That's one thing I got from this. We're close."

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