The Chicago Bears played both quarterbacks in their season-opening loss to the Los Angeles Rams, but Justin Fields was the only one to score a touchdown in a game that will increase calls to start him over Andy Dalton.

Dalton saw the vast majority of the snaps as the Bears were swept aside 34-14 by the Rams on Sunday, throwing for 206 yards and an interception.

However, Bears fans saw an exciting glimpse of their future as Fields scampered in for a three-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. He also completed a pair of passes for 10 yards.

Head coach Matt Nagy confirmed using both quarterbacks was always in their plans, despite him having declared Dalton the starter, but did not offer any hint as to whether Fields will see more game time in the coming weeks after his intriguing cameo.

"We had the plan and we stuck to our plan," Nagy said. "We knew where and when we were going to use him and we stuck to that.

"And so, we'll see where that goes and how we do it. But I think we all understand that for us, strategically, we'll see where we go with that — without giving anything away.

"Really, the very first play when he went out there and was able to make a throw — and that was an RPO. So he made a decision to throw the ball off of a look that we had.

"So right there to start the game, I thought that was great. And then he was involved on the sideline. And then when we got down into the red zone at times, we had a couple things in for him that worked and some that didn't work. But when he got down in the red zone, he did some great things there, too.

"So we've just got to keep having him grow and keep staying positive. But he's certainly a weapon."

Sean McVay "loved everything" Matthew Stafford did in his spectacular debut for the Los Angeles Rams as he led them to a 34-14 win over the Chicago Bears.

In the first regular-season game with fans at SoFi Stadium, Stafford delighted a packed house with a display of why the Rams traded two first-round picks to acquire him from the Detroit Lions.

Stafford completed 20 of 26 passes for 321 yards and three touchdowns, posting a passer rating of 156.1, the highest ever by a player in his debut with a new team. 

And McVay could hardly have been more effusive in his praise of his new quarterback.

"I think it was just his steady demeanour throughout the course of the game," McVay said. "Just like you had seen in practice and seen from afar, but I think the first drive of the second half I thought was most impressive.

"But then I'm thinking about what an unbelievable job he did progressing, finding Robert Woods on the last touchdown, so there were multiple things but I think the overall game management and I think the expectation. You could just see there was a look in his eye. He had confidence in his team-mates.

"He expected to play well and he did a great job. It's hard to say there was one thing. I loved everything he did tonight."

Stafford's second throw of the game saw him hit Van Jefferson on a 67-yard touchdown throw on which he booted to his left off the play-fake, flipped his hips back to the right sideline and unfurled a perfect ball to find the second-year receiver on a deep post route.

"I think it was a great job by him being able to flip his hips and make an unbelievable throw," McVay added.

"I think that's kind of one of those things – he's gifted. He's got a great ability to be able to change his arm slot and make all types of throws, whether it be short, intermediate or down the field.

"You're not limited in anything you can do in the pass game. Hopefully, we'll continue to build on options and opportunities that we have moving forward."

Matthew Stafford did his part in his Los Angeles Rams debut, leading his new team to a 34-14 win over the Chicago Bears.

After a dozen seasons with the hapless Detroit Lions, Stafford guided the Rams past the Bears in their season opener on Sunday.

It was exactly the type of performance the Rams had hoped for from the veteran quarterback, who completed 20 of 26 passes for 321 yards and three touchdowns. 

The 33-year-old Stafford appeared in complete control from the beginning, hitting Van Jefferson for a 67-yard touchdown on the Rams' third play from scrimmage. 

After field goals on their next two drives, Los Angeles answered a David Montgomery touchdown for the Bears late in the first half with another bomb from Stafford to open the second – this one a 56-yard TD to Cooper Kupp. 

Stafford's last touchdown came on a two-yard pass to Robert Woods with 3:17 remaining after a 12-play drive that ate up nearly half the fourth quarter. 

The other veteran quarterback getting a fresh start with a new team did not fare so well. 

Andy Dalton got the start for Chicago despite a persistent clamour for rookie Justin Fields throughout training camp and went 27-for-38 passing with 206 yards. 

Dalton was intercepted in the end zone on the Bears' first drive of the game, failed to convert a fourth down on the second drive and fumbled after being sacked the next time Chicago had the ball. 

Fields did get some snaps, rushing for a three-yard touchdown that briefly cut the lead to 20-14 late in the third quarter, but all that did was further inflame the quarterback controversy that will continue to be the talk of the Windy City. 

If the opener is any evidence, the 2021 NFL season is set to be a rollercoaster ride.

Defending champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers emerged victorious from a frenetic encounter with the Dallas Cowboys, raising their Super Bowl LV title banner and then prevailing 31-29.

No team has won the Super Bowl in successive years since Tom Brady and the New England Patriots did so in the 2004 season. He will aim to repeat the feat having led the Bucs to glory last year, but do they deserve their status as favourites to retain the Lombardi Trophy, or will the Kansas City Chiefs or another of their potential challengers stand triumphant in Los Angeles come February?

With a jam-packed first Sunday of the campaign on the horizon, Stats Perform's panel of experts make their predictions for what promises to be a fascinating season.

Nicholas McGee: Shanahan puts his Super Bowl curse to bed

AFC Champion: Cleveland Browns
NFC Champion: San Francisco 49ers
Super Bowl Champion: San Francisco 49ers
MVP: Tom Brady

San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan has endured his fair share of Super Bowl heartbreak, receiving criticism after the Atlanta Falcons blew a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI when he was the offensive coordinator and in the wake of the Niners' fourth-quarter collapse against the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV two seasons ago.

But the roster Shanahan has at his disposal is one primed to contend to go deep into the postseason again. Nick Bosa leads an extremely deep defensive line that has the talent to take over games while the offense is flush with playmakers. The question is when dual-threat quarterback Trey Lance, the third overall pick in the draft, will be ready to win the starting quarterback job from Jimmy Garoppolo.

With Lance adding another element to the rushing offense, a ground attack that ranked second in yards per game in 2019 has the potential to become a near-unstoppable force and lay the foundation for Shanahan to finally get his hands on the Lombardi Trophy.

In Tampa, Brady looks to be somehow getting stronger with age and, if that continues throughout the campaign and the Bucs are contending to repeat as champions, it will be difficult to look past him for MVP. With pass rushers that can overwhelm opponents and a diverse rushing attack, the 49ers have a potential formula to dictate a game against Tampa and end Brady's hopes of an eighth title.

The Browns have a strong case for the top running game in the NFL going into the season. An excellent supporting cast for Baker Mayfield and a superb offensive line means the 2018 number one overall pick has everything he needs to push Cleveland to a deep postseason run. On defense, the Browns have made astute additions at linebacker and in the secondary and boast one of the most well-rounded rosters in the league. Yet in a matchup between their head coach Kevin Stefanski and Shanahan, the nod has to go to the league's pre-eminent play-caller.

Rob Lancaster: Dak is back, and so are the Cowboys as an NFC force!

AFC Champion: Kansas City Chiefs
NFC Champion: Dallas Cowboys
Super Bowl Champion: Kansas City Chiefs
MVP: Dak Prescott

How 'bout them Cowboys! The call may be brave, but the NFC has not seen a back-to-back champion since the Seahawks in 2014 and Dallas' performance in the opener was one of a team that should not only be favourite for their NFC East division but also contend for a conference title they will see as long overdue.

The Cowboys piled up points when Dak Prescott was healthy, though they didn't equate to wins. His 403 passing yards and three touchdowns were also not enough against the Bucs, but they should serve to allay concerns over the ankle injury that ended his 2020 season or the shoulder issue that overshadowed his preseason and boost hopes he can perform at a level that helped Dallas average 509.5 net yards per game in the first four weeks of the previous campaign.

The key to Dallas realising their potential is the defense, where the Cowboys hope the presence of Dan Quinn as coordinator should help see vast improvements. The early signs were promising against Tampa Bay as a team that allowed 2,541 rushing yards last year gave up only 52 to the Buccaneers on Thursday. If they can become even an average defense this season and get the best out of Prescott, that is a recipe for a Super Bowl challenge. 

As for the Chiefs, a Super Bowl defeat is one thing, but they were embarrassed by the Bucs. The response has been to improve the offensive line, making sure Patrick Mahomes has time to work his magic. Not only will they get back to the big game, this time they will triumph, dashing Jerry Jones' dream of hosting a title parade in Texas.

Chris Myson: Never bet against Brady

AFC champion: Cleveland Browns
NFC champion: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Super Bowl champion: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
MVP: Tom Brady

The Buccaneers took time to find their groove last season, understandably given Brady moved to a new offense after 20 years in New England as the team coped with a disrupted preseason. A roster with few obvious holes put it all together down the stretch, a feat that became more remarkable when it later emerged the ageless Brady – whose 40 passing touchdowns was the second-highest total of his remarkable career – played the whole season with a torn MCL.

After the Bucs incredibly found a way to ensure they will return all 22 starters, their head coach and both coordinators, it would be brave to bet against them at least coming close to a repeat with a fit and firing Brady showing just how comfortable he now he is in Tampa by throwing for 379 yards and four touchdowns, albeit with two interceptions, and leading a game-winning drive against the Cowboys.

The Browns, in their second year with impressive offensive mind Stefanski, continue to draft and recruit wisely under GM Andrew Berry. With star wideout Odell Beckham Jr returning from injury with a point to prove, Mayfield poised for a career year and a formidable rushing attack already in place, they will relish another shot at the Chiefs after pushing them all the way in a 22-17 Divisional Round defeat.

Ben Spratt: Watch out, Peyton – Mahomes is coming for your record!

AFC champion: Kansas City Chiefs
NFC champion: Los Angeles Rams
Super Bowl champion: Kansas City Chiefs
MVP: Patrick Mahomes

The Chiefs may well have been entering this season as two-time reigning champions if not for an awful Super Bowl showing from their offensive line, which allowed superstar quarterback Mahomes to be pressured 33 times by the Buccaneers.

Kansas City addressed that issue in the offseason and will hope they have now found a fix. Effective pass protection should take the Chiefs all the way and mean an outstanding regular season for Mahomes, who might even fancy a shot at Peyton Manning's single-season record of 55 touchdowns with a 17th game to play with.

That O-Line would face the ultimate test if the Rams also made the big game, however, tasked with keeping Aaron Donald away from Mahomes. It is an improvement to the Rams' own weakest element – their QB, with Matthew Stafford in for Jared Goff – that figures to bring them into contention to emerge from the NFC as they did in the 2018 season.

The consensus in recent years has become that the very best in the NFL predominantly reside in the AFC. It is a claim that is difficult to argue, given the Kansas City Chiefs' emergence as the most explosive team in the league, the rise of the Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns and the consistency of the Baltimore Ravens with their dynamic running game.

Yet, in terms of sheer depth, the NFC might have the edge. It may be tough to look beyond the reigning champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and too many find teams that can legitimately hope to be lifting the Lombardi Trophy come February, but this is a conference swimming with playoff calibre competitors.

That plethora of contenders will all be hoping to topple Tom Brady and the Buccaneers after they crushed the Chiefs 31-9 in Super Bowl LV to claim their second title in franchise history.

The Bucs are still the unquestioned class of the conference, but who are teams with the best shot of usurping them and playing in Super Bowl LVI in February? Stats Perform attempts to answer that question as we preview the NFC ahead of Tampa Bay's season opener against the Dallas Cowboys.

Favourites

With Brady's arm seemingly somehow getting stronger in his mid-40s – he averaged 9.5 air yards per attempt, the fourth-most in the NFL, in 2020 – and the Bucs doing an excellent job of retaining a host of free agents that formed the core of their championship roster, Tampa Bay stand as the clear favourites to be the NFC's Super Bowl representative.

Yet it is important to remember the Green Bay Packers and MVP Aaron Rodgers were perhaps just a fourth-down conversion in the red zone away from knocking off Brady and the Bucs in last year's NFC title game. Save for departed center Corey Linsley and injured left tackle David Bakhtiari – not insignificant absentees – Rodgers will have predominantly the same supporting cast as he had last year, including Davante Adams, who led the NFL in receiving touchdowns (18) last term.

The pressure is on defense that forced only 72 negative plays (tied 26th) last term to provide assistance reflective of the talent the Packers have on that side of the ball.

Sean McVay's Los Angeles Rams have rarely had to worry about getting impactful defensive contributions. Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald is coming off a year that saw him post a monstrous pressure rate of 28.2 per cent while Jalen Ramsey is still one of the most feared cornerbacks in the league.

If the defense can continue to thrive without coordinator Brandon Staley – who will coach in the same stadium but as the head man with the Chargers – and the marriage of new quarterback Matthew Stafford and innovative play-caller McVay proves successful, the Rams could be the team that defies Brady having failed to do so against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.

In the mix

The San Francisco 49ers were seven minutes away from ending the 2019 season with triumph in Super Bowl LIV, only to be undone by a stunning late barrage from Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.

Their hopes of going one better were decimated by a relentless wave of injuries, however, the Niners are healthy going into this season and offer one of the deepest rosters in the NFL along with the league's most compelling quarterback situation.

It is unclear when rookie third overall pick Trey Lance – an exciting dual-threat quarterback who tallied 42 total touchdowns and no interceptions in his only full season of college football at North Dakota State – will be ready to take over from Jimmy Garoppolo. Yet, as long as one of their quarterbacks can elevate a talented cast of skill-position players and an extremely well-stocked defense that gets edge rusher Nick Bosa – 28.3 per cent pressure rate in 2019 – back from a torn ACL can stay in the league's top 10, San Francisco will be a threat.

The Niners do have the inconvenience of being in the same division as the Rams and the Seattle Seahawks, whose head coach Pete Carroll may be starting to feel the pressure to deliver with his team having consistently reached the playoffs but failed to go beyond the Divisional Round since their Super Bowl loss at the end of 2014 season.

Seattle do not possess a roster as well-rounded as that of the Niners, yet quarterback Russell Wilson is one who can keep them in any game. Wilson, and therefore the Seahawks, cannot be counted out.

The Dallas Cowboys are more of a longshot and their defense is one ill-prepared to go deep into the postseason. Still, in a league where offense is king, the Cowboys have the attack – provided Dak Prescott is healthy – to outduel opponents having put up 509.5 net yards per game before their quarterback's 2020 season was ended by injury in Week 5.

Sleeper team to watch – Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons appear to be a franchise resisting the reality staring them in the face. Having replaced Dan Quinn with former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, the Falcons had the chance to get a jump-start on a rebuild by taking a quarterback with the fourth overall pick in the draft as the successor to the 36-year-old Matt Ryan.

Instead, the Falcons settled on Florida's stud tight end Kyle Pitts, a move more in keeping with a team ready to win now. With Pitts, who won his matchup with a defender on 70.1 per cent of targets in 2020, joining Ryan and an already talented cast of pass-catchers, the Falcons arguably have an offense that can score at a rate to keep them in the mix.

Wide receiver Calvin Ridley is one of the most dynamic weapons in the conference who racked up 1,374 receiving yards (tied fifth in the NFL) last year. Having to defend both Ridley and Pitts will present a massive dilemma for opposing defenders and, if blitz-heavy new Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees can improve a unit that was tied-20th in the NFL last year with 29 sacks for negative yardage, Atlanta could have the ingredients for a successful season.

The Falcons are stuck in a void between wanting to contend and needing to rebuild. Should the success Smith had as a play-caller in Tennessee continue in Atlanta, their dreams of contention could be realised.

Best Division – NFC West

The biggest barrier to the Rams, Seahawks and 49ers posting a record to put themselves in the conversation for the number one seed in the conference is that they all reside in the same division, one which also contains an Arizona Cardinals team that was 6-3 at one point last campaign before collapsing to an 8-8 record.

With the Cardinals possessing one of the most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in the league in the form of Kyler Murray and an All-Pro wide receiver in DeAndre Hopkins, the NFC West is a division that houses four playoff calibre teams as well as arguably the two best play-callers in the game in McVay and 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan.

Blowouts in the division are rare and all four have proven in recent times that they can deal damaging blows to each other. As this quartet feels the pressure to make the postseason, they promise to produce some of the most fascinating matchups of 2021.

Worst Division – NFC East

The East is the antithesis of the West, with four flawed teams and questionable quarterback situations for every team except Dallas.

Prescott's injury helped the Washington Football Team reach the playoffs with a 7-9 record in 2020, illustrating just how far what was once seen as the league's glamour division has fallen.

Washington will have the entertaining but erratic Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback while New York Giants signal-caller Daniel Jones and his offensive line look ill-prepared to propel them to the playoffs. Jalen Hurts brings dual-threat intrigue for the Philadelphia Eagles, yet theirs is a roster that likely has too many holes for him to overcome.

This is a division that will likely hinge on Prescott's ability to stay healthy and the performance of Washington's young and talented defense, but do not expect it to be an entertaining battle.

MVP Candidates

His offseason staring contest with the Packers in the rearview mirror, Rodgers will be in the running for his fourth MVP award should Green Bay again go deep into the playoffs and he replicates a 2020 campaign that saw him deliver an accurate well-thrown ball on 82.4 per cent of attempts, the third-highest ratio in the league.

Aaron Donald perennially loses out to quarterbacks, and it is tough to see what else the Rams' All-Pro defensive tackle can do to put himself over the top. Donald led the league with a remarkable pressure rate of 28.2 per cent in 2020 as he took home Defensive Player of Year honours.

His new team-mate Stafford could be in the mix if the former Detroit Lion proves the major upgrade on Jared Goff many expect him to be while Wilson will surely have a compelling claim if the Seahawks offense can sustain the level that saw Seattle lead the league with 298.1 net passing yards per game last year from Week 1 to Week 9 in 2020 for the entire season.

The elephant looming over the conference, though, is Brady and the Bucs, whose offense took over the league in the final four weeks of last season season, Brady enjoying a deep-ball renaissance that, if it carries into 2021 and Tampa remain best in the NFC class, will make him a tough candidate to beat.

The NFL is back and, for so many across the globe, that means it's time to examine the matchup data and prepare fantasy rosters for Week 1.

Unless you've left it remarkably late, fantasy drafts are in the rear-view mirror and it's time to set the best line-up to deliver an opening-week win.

But which players are ideally positioned to help fantasy managers start the year with a victory?

Here, Stats Perform looks at four players and a defense poised to deliver big fantasy points.

Quarterback – Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals @ Tennessee Titans

The pressure is firmly on Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury and Murray to deliver in year three of their partnership after they collapsed from 6-3 to miss the playoffs.

But if the Cardinals make a disappointing start to 2021, it is more likely to be because of their defense than Murray, who can do great damage against a Tennessee defense vulnerable to the ground game and to what the Arizona quarterback can do with his legs.

Tennessee gave up the fourth-most fantasy points per game to opposing quarterbacks last season. The Titans' 6.84 yards per pass play allowed was the 11th-worst rate in the NFL, while they were tied for the 10th-most rushing touchdowns conceded with 18.

Murray, who had 31 passing plays of 25 yards or more, ninth-most in the league, and averaged the second-most yards per carry (6.15) last season, is ideally equipped to take advantage of those vulnerabilities and put together a substantially productive fantasy day.

Running Back – James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars @ Houston Texans

Robinson's stock looked to have been dealt a major blow when the Jaguars drafted Travis Etienne in the first round having selected his former Clemson team-mate Trevor Lawrence first overall.

But a season-ending foot injury to Etienne ruled him out for the year, meaning Robinson will get the bulk of the carries in the Jacksonville backfield.

He is coming off a tremendous rookie year that saw him rack up 1,070 rushing yards while averaging 2.34 yards after contact per attempt, the sixth-best rate in the NFL.

And he has the perfect matchup to carry that momentum into the new season, facing a Texans team in disarray amid the Deshaun Watson saga that gave up a league-worst 5.2 yards per rush last season.

If you have Robinson, start him.

Wide Receiver – Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco 49ers @ Detroit Lions

Week 1 often delivers some weirdness but, on paper, the Niners could not have asked for a better matchup than the rebuilding Lions.

The Lions gave up 7.85 yards per pass play, the most in the NFL last season, and their young secondary is one San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan should have little trouble exploiting.

Jeff Okudah, the Lions' first-round pick from 2020 and starting cornerback, gave up a burn – when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted – on 68.2 per cent of his targets. He conceded 15.28 burn yards per target, the third-most in the NFL.

As the 49ers' top wideout, Aiyuk will be frequently matched up with Okudah and, after producing a big play on 33.1 per cent of his targets – the third-most among rookie wideouts with at least 50 targets – in his first season, this extremely gifted route-runner has a clear opportunity to make a hot start to a potential breakout year.

Tight End – Dallas Goedert, Philadelphia Eagles @ Atlanta Falcons

It's difficult to get too excited about the Eagles offense, given it averaged 224 net passing yards per game since Jalen Hurts took over as the starting quarterback in Week 14 last year, 21st in the NFL.

But the two players who averaged the most targets per game for the Eagles in that time were their tight ends, Zach Ertz and Goedert. Ertz averaged 5.8 targets and Goedert 5.7 while playing a game fewer.

Goedert is the younger and more explosive of that pair and should command a higher share of the targets going forward. Facing a Falcons team that gave up 7.18 yards per pass play last year and conceded the third-most fantasy points per game to tight ends, Goedert's role in the offense is a recipe for him opening the season in stunning fashion.

Defense – Los Angeles Rams vs. Chicago Bears

Justin Fields will not be starting for the Bears against the Rams, and the first-round rookie might consider himself fortunate given the discrepancy between the talent on the Rams' defensive front and the Bears' offensive line.

The Chicago O-Line is 30th in Stats Perform's rankings, which is a poor position to be in at any point of the season but is especially troubling ahead of a matchup with a Los Angeles team that tallied 50 sacks for negative yardage in 2020.

Chicago allowed 23.8 per cent of points on giveaways last season and, with their O-Line facing reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, who beat a pass protector on 94 of his 103 pressures last term, the Bears appear poised to concede more points in that manner and reward fantasy players who invested in the Rams' defense.

With every NFL season, new stars emerge, thrusting themselves to the forefront of the consciousness with breakout campaigns that put them firmly in the conversation as one of the best players at their position.

Often such years come as a significant surprise, as was the case in 2020 when Justin Jefferson broke the record for receiving yards by a rookie, topping 1,400 having only posted 70 through his opening two games.

But frequently it is possible to project breakout seasons before they happen by looking at the numbers from previous years and the situation a player finds himself in heading into the campaign.

Using its advanced metrics, Stats Perform looks at five players poised to emerge with stellar performances in the 2021 season.

Joe Burrow – Cincinnati Bengals

The fate of the Bengals' season, and perhaps that of head coach Zac Taylor, rests predominantly on how Burrow fares on his return to regular-season action after a serious knee ligament injury curtailed his rookie year.

Burrow, the first overall pick in 2020, being back at his best is far from a guarantee. However, the former LSU star has seemingly grown in confidence in the preseason after some initial struggles in training camp and demonstrated enough in his 10 games last campaign to suggest he can justify his draft status and lift the Bengals from the AFC North cellar.

The primary issue facing Burrow is the lack of talent on the offensive line protecting him, which is a lowly 28th in the NFL per Stats Perform's rankings, with Cincinnati bemusing many by selecting wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase instead of tackle Penei Sewell with the fifth pick in this year's draft.

Yet Burrow does an excellent job of moving in the pocket and finding lanes out of it to escape pressure. He reads the field well and delivers his throws with consistently accurate placement. Burrow ranked sixth in the NFL among quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts with a well-thrown percentage of 80.6.

That number dipped to 69.8 when under pressure, but still gave him the best mark of any quarterback in the AFC North, reflecting his poise when the pocket breaks down.

With Chase joining Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd in an impressive wide receiver room, Burrow has the weapons to make a huge leap in year two providing he stays healthy and the offensive line can produce even a slight improvement.

Damien Harris – New England Patriots

While the New England offense disappointed for the most part last year, their running game was efficient, and Harris played a significant role.

He averaged five yards a carry in recording 691 rushing yards and two touchdowns in 10 games. Those latter two numbers may be slightly underwhelming, yet Harris was one of the premier backs in the league when it came to getting to the second level of the defense in a hurry.

A patient back who reads his blocks intelligently, Harris' decisiveness and burst when he identified the running lane to hit allowed him to average 3.11 yards before contact by a defender per attempt, putting him 10th in the NFL.

His rate of 2.05 yards after contact was less impressive but still above the average of 1.91, while Harris was 11th in the NFL with 3.15 yards per carry on rush attempts where there was a run disruption by a defender.

The Patriots possess the third-best run-blocking line in the NFL, according to Stats Perform's rankings, and – though Cam Newton's exit may make their ground game less diverse – Harris could reap the benefits of facing lighter boxes if Mac Jones' impressive preseason translates into the regular season and gives New England's passing attack a much-needed jump.

Brandon Aiyuk – San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers' second first-round pick of 2020 was in a difficult situation as he dealt with sub-par quarterback play between the struggles of the oft-injured Jimmy Garoppolo and backup Nick Mullens before they finished the season with C.J. Beathard.

However, the former Arizona State receiver still excelled in defeating coverage with his route-running ability and showed his potential with the ball in his hands after the catch.

Aiyuk caught 60 passes for 748 yards and five touchdowns in 12 games as a rookie. He added a further two scores on the ground.

His big-play percentage of 33.1 was third among rookies with at least 50 targets behind Gabriel Davis and Tee Higgins. Davis has Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley and Emmanuel Sanders as competition for targets with the Buffalo Bills while Higgins will have to share the receiving workload with Chase and Boyd.

George Kittle and Deebo Samuel will command a significant number of targets for San Francisco but Aiyuk holds an undisputed position at the top of the wide receiver depth chart, meaning he will likely see enough passes thrown his way in 2021 for him to outperform both Davis and Higgins.

With Garoppolo healthy and Trey Lance lurking as a high-upside successor, Aiyuk is in a much better spot in 2021 to surpass 1,000 yards and establish himself as one of the league's brightest young stars at the receiver position.

Marcus Davenport – New Orleans Saints

Davenport has yet to justify the trade up the Saints struck to draft him in 2018 despite flashes of the brilliance that convinced New Orleans to make such a dramatic move up the board.

His influence was limited by a series of injury issues in 2020 but Davenport still registered a pressure rate of 21.3 per cent that was 11th among edge rushers. His run disruption rate of 15.7 per cent was 12th.

The Saints did spend a first-round pick on an edge rusher in Payton Turner, whose stock rose dramatically late in the process. However, with Trey Hendrickson, who had 13.5 sacks last year, having departed for a lucrative payday with the Bengals, Davenport is in line for a clear uptick on the 374 defensive snaps he played in 2020.

At his best, Davenport is an explosive pass rusher blessed with tremendous power who can drive blockers back with the bull rush but also bend around the edge and flatten to the quarterback with excellent closing speed.

The Saints have not seen his best often enough, yet if he can stay healthy, Davenport can play a crucial role for the New Orleans defense as part of a front that has enough talent to ensure he will regularly have the benefit of one-on-one matchups to help him significantly pad his career total of 12 sacks.

Darious Williams – Los Angeles Rams

There is a strong argument that Williams has already enjoyed his breakout campaign, having racked up 14 passes deflected and four interceptions for the Rams last year.

Despite his superb 2020, Williams is not a player talked about as one of the premier cornerbacks in the NFL. Should he back up last season's efforts with a similarly productive 2021 for a Rams team many expect to contend for the Super Bowl following Matthew Stafford's arrival, that may change.

Williams excels at reading the eyes of the quarterback to break on the football and make plays at the catch point, with his ball skills reflected by his gaudy press breakup and interception numbers.

Only K'Waun Williams of the San Francisco 49ers allowed a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on plays where he is targeted regardless of whether the ball is catchable, at a lower rate than Williams, who did so on 30.3 per cent of balls thrown in his direction.

Williams' big-play percentage allowed of 16 was the 12th-best among all cornerbacks and, though his on-ball production may be a product of playing across from Jalen Ramsey, the fact he so frequently stood up to the test when challenged by opposing passing games indicates he is a player who can continue his ascent in his fourth year.

The Los Angeles Rams had one of the better rushing attacks in the NFL last season, but their odds of improving the ground game in 2021 suffered a blow on Tuesday.

Running back Cam Akers, whom the Rams selected in the second round of the 2020 draft, will miss his second year in the league with a torn Achilles.

It was a case of extremely unfortunate timing for Akers, who sustained the injury a week before the Rams were due to start training camp.

"I just want to thank any and every person sending prayers my way and wishing me well," Akers posted on Twitter. 

"I hate this happened but I'm in great spirits and I understand God makes no mistakes. I'll be back better than ever in no time I'm a soldier. Again, thank you."

And it leaves the Rams without a player who came on extremely strong down the stretch in his rookie year.

Indeed, Akers racked up 424 of his 625 rushing yards from Week 12 to Week 17, with that tally the 10th-most among running backs in that period.

His efforts helped the Rams finish 10th in average rush yards per game with 126.1, while his four rushes of 10 yards or more in Los Angeles' two playoff games trailed only Nick Chubb, Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams (all five).

Akers was tied for 19th in yards after contact per attempt, according to Stats Perform data, gaining an average of 2.05 yards following first contact by a defender. The league-wide average for running backs was 1.91.

In other words, Akers was a difficult back to bring down quickly and was very much finding his feet in the league before the Rams' 2020 season was brought to an end by the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Round.

He had been expected to form a one-two punch with Darrell Henderson, who may now instead have to take on the burden of being the lead back.

Henderson produced a mediocre yards after contact average of 1.94 in 2020, though his yards per carry average of 4.52 was superior to that of Akers (4.31).

Selected in the third round in 2019 after amassing 4,303 yards and 44 touchdowns from scrimmage in his college career at Memphis, where Henderson has a significant edge over Akers is as a receiver.

In the passing game, Henderson produced a big play, defined as plays where the receiver wins his matchup for a gain of 20 yards or for a touchdown, on 25.4 per cent of his targets, putting him sixth among all running backs and fullbacks last year.

Yet passes to running backs are unlikely to be as significant of a feature of the Rams' attack in 2021. With the arrival of Matthew Stafford at quarterback, theirs is an offense that should be much more aggressive in going downfield and the onus will be on Henderson to take advantage of the running opportunities that the threat of the deep pass will open.

Henderson is the most versatile running back the Rams have and, with the four backs below him having never taken an offensive snap at the NFL level, he must use that well-rounded skill set to excel as the undisputed lead back and ensure the Los Angeles ground game remains among the elite.

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.

The Los Angeles Rams have never been afraid to take big swings, and they will be hoping the one they took back in late January will get them over the hump.

Los Angeles handed the keys to an offense that can be one of the most explosive in football to Matthew Stafford, parting ways with Jared Goff and some significant draft capital to acquire him from the Detroit Lions.

Stafford joins a team that was two wins away from the Super Bowl last season, the Rams undone by league MVP Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.

The Rams are gambling that Stafford's arrival gets them back to the sport's grandest stage.

However, the financial pressures facing Los Angeles mean the Rams' roster is likely to look very different in 2021.

What will their remodelled group need to do to realise their ambitions next season?

Here we try to answer that question by looking back at the Rams' 2020 campaign using Stats Perform data.

Offense

It is not difficult to see why Sean McVay lost patience with Goff, the number one overall pick of the Rams in the 2016 draft.

The Rams finished the season 18th in yards per play with 5.54, their second successive year outside the top 10 in that regard having been second in 2018 (6.36) when they reached the Super Bowl.

Goff's inability to hang on to the football played a contributing role in their struggles to move the ball more efficiently.

His 17 giveaways were tied for the fourth-most in the NFL while 73 of his 182 incompletions were down to poor throws. Only nine quarterbacks delivered more poor throws in 2020.

Just 14 of Goff's incompletions were drops, tied for 20th among quarterbacks with at least 50 attempts, indicating his receivers were relatively reliable.

Goff had decent success going downfield. His passer rating of 103.4 on throws of 21 or more air yards ranked 10th among quarterbacks to have attempted 25 such throws.

Stafford, however, ranked fifth with a rating of 118.5 and attempted 57 such passes to Goff's 36 at a better completion percentage (35.1 to 33.3), illustrating his greater willingness to push the ball deep and his superior prowess as a downfield thrower.

The Rams will want to give Stafford more support than Goff received from the running game, which averaged 4.27 yards per attempt last year, putting them 17th in the NFL.

Cam Akers' progress could be key in that regard. The 2020 second-round pick came on strong down the stretch and proved himself a big-play threat.

He had four rushes of at least 20 yards with his average distance of 41.8 yards on those carries the most among rookie running backs to have more than one such attempt.

But any progress the offense makes may be cancelled out if the defense takes a step back from its position among the league's elite.

Defense

By many measures, the Rams had the best defense in football last season.

Los Angeles ranked first in opponent yards per play allowed (4.56) in 2020, with their dominance encompassing both the passing game and the run game.

Indeed, the Rams allowed the least passing yards per play (5.08) and the third-least rushing yards per play (3.76).

Just 46.8 per cent of offensive plays run against them were successful, with only three defenses performing better by that measure. The Rams were the third-best team in the league at stopping teams on the critical third and fourth downs, allowing a success rate of 35.9 per cent.

Their numbers in terms of takeaways were not quite as impressive, the Rams finishing with 22, seven shy of the league-high 29 set by the Miami Dolphins.

Though the Rams perhaps did not take the ball away as much as they would have liked, Los Angeles still excelled at preventing opponents from scoring.

Los Angeles finished the year first in opponent scoring efficiency, allowing scores on 51 of 183 opponent drives.

The Rams' defense was led by another Defensive Player of Year effort from star defensive lineman Aaron Donald.

Donald's sack total of 13.5 was a low number by his lofty standards, but he was the clear leader in knockdowns and hurries, his combined total of 94.5 comfortably outstripping the man he beat to the DPOY award, T.J. Watt (83).

There is little to suggest Donald will not continue to dominate but, for the Rams to remain the league's best on defense, they will need to adapt to the loss of coordinator Brandon Staley - who was replaced by Raheem Morris - and the likely departures of several key pieces.

Offseason

The Rams' move to land Stafford came at a high price, leaving them with a distinct lack of capital with which to furnish the roster around him.

Los Angeles traded a third-round pick this year along with first-rounders in 2022 and 2023 to acquire Stafford, leaving them without a first-round selection until 2024.

With Donald and Jalen Ramsey in place for the long term, the defense looks in pretty good hands, but it may be a little top-heavy given the talent the Rams look likely to lose on that side of the ball.

Safety John Jonson, cornerbacks Darious Williams and Troy Hill, and edge rusher Leonard Floyd are all set to hit the market in a year where the Rams are projected to be nearly $30million over an assumed salary cap of $185m.

Replenishing those positions, and sourcing a replacement for unrestricted free agent guard Austin Blythe, will be priorities for the Rams, along with finding a deep threat who can help them harness the most of Stafford's upside throwing the deep ball.

The problem is that the Rams, as it stands, only have three picks in the 2021 NFL Draft with which to add to their group.

That number will go up when compensatory selections are factored into the equation, but the reality is that the Rams will not be as deep as in previous years.

Los Angeles will need to get creative to bolster the roster this offseason, yet the fate of the Rams' 2021 campaign rests predominantly on the success of their bet on Stafford to be a significant upgrade on the quarterback they were so eager to ship out.

Matthew Stafford is excited to join the Los Angeles Rams, but he expected to end up playing with the Indianapolis Colts, San Francisco 49ers or Washington Football Team in 2021.

The 33-year-old quarterback left the Detroit Lions in a trade after representing the team for 12 years, with the Rams sending QB Jared Goff and a package of draft picks that contained two first-round selections in the other direction.

Stafford and the Lions agreed it was the best move as the team embarked on a rebuild after firing head coach Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn towards the end of a 5-11 season in 2020.

The number one overall pick in 2009, Stafford leaves the Lions without having won a playoff game.

He hopes the chance to represent the Rams, who were in the Super Bowl at the end of the 2018 season, will give him a chance to play in the biggest NFL games.

Stafford should upgrade the QB position for Rams coach Sean McVay, but he was not expecting to join the likes of Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey in LA when his offseason began.

"I've always wanted to play in those big games," Stafford said to the Detroit Free Press. "I feel like I will excel in those situations. I wanted to shoot my shot.

"I thought [I would go to] all the places that everybody else thought. Indianapolis. San Francisco - although you didn't know what was gonna happen with Jimmy [Garoppolo] - Washington.

"But we obviously didn't know what was gonna happen there. I just didn't know how they [the Rams] would ever be able to [pull it off]. You know, I'm not a salary cap guru. It kind of got to a point where I'm like, 'OK, I can't sit there and go crazy'. I just tried to let it happen and LA aggressively jumped into it.

"I'm excited about their roster, their coaching staff, what they can bring to the table and their recent success."

Stafford initially thought he would never leave Detroit, but he came to realise a rebuild could be on the cards if the 2020 season did not meet expectations as the pressure grew on Patricia.

"To be honest, [my wife] Kelly and I probably started talking about it before last season," he said. "It was one of those where we were hoping, 'Golly, let's go, I hope this thing takes off and we play great'.

"But if it doesn't, you just knew what was going to happen. They were going to tear it down and rebuild.

"Anytime you switch GMs and a head coach, you know that they're going to want to bring their own people in, and that's going to take time. Frankly, I didn't feel like I was the appropriate person to oversee that time."

Stafford thought his ability would hinder the Lions' rebuild as he would win too many games to prevent them from topping the draft order.

He leaves with 45,109 passing yards, 282 touchdowns, 144 interceptions and 74 wins – all franchise QB records.

Stafford finishes with a record of 74-90-1, though, and with no NFC North titles after enduring three consecutive losing seasons between 2018 and 2020.

He added: "Sometimes it's not the perfect storybook ending in the same place, but I can leave here knowing that I gave this team every damn thing I had."

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been crowned the NFL's MVP for a third time.

Rodgers was honoured during Saturday's awards – on the eve of Super Bowl LV between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers – as he added to his 2011 and 2014 MVPs.

The 37-year-old is now level with Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, Packers great Brett Favre, Johnny Unitas and Jim Brown with three Most Valuable Player honours – only Peyton Manning (five) has more in NFL history.

The Packers fell short in the NFC Conference Game, beaten by Super Bowl finalists the Buccaneers, but Rodgers still enjoyed a memorable campaign.

Packers star Rodgers amassed 48 touchdowns, five interceptions and a completion rate of 70.7 per cent this season.

His quarterback rating of 121.5 puts him second on the all-time list among qualifiers, behind only his 2011 campaign (122.5).

In total, Rodgers completed 372 of 526 attempts for 4,299 yards as the Packers topped the NFC North with a 13-3 record to clinch home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs for the first time since 2011.

Rodgers – a Super Bowl champion during the 2010 season – featured in his first NFC title decider at Lambeau Field, but the Packers fell to Brady's Buccaneers 31-26.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles Rams star Aaron Donald won the Defensive Player of the Year for a third time.

Pittsburgh Steelers pass rusher T.J. Watt had been tipped to win the award, but Donald maintained his dominance, having also reigned supreme in 2017 and 2018.

Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski claimed the Coach of the Year award after leading the franchise to their first postseason victory in 25 years.

Not since the 1994 season had the Browns won a playoff matchup, until upstaging the Steelers before losing to the Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round.

 

List of NFL Honors

Rookie of the Year: Los Angeles Chargers QB Justin Herbert
Defensive Player of the Year: Los Angeles Rams DL Aaron Donald
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Los Angeles Chargers QB Justin Herbert
Offensive Player of the Year: Tennessee Titans RB Derrick Henry
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Washington DE Chase Young
Comeback Player of the Year: Washington QB Alex Smith
Coach of the Year: Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski
Most Valuable Player: Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers

The Los Angeles Rams' brass didn't say much when pressed on the future of Jared Goff in the wake of their season coming to an end in the Divisional Round.

They didn't need to. The brevity head coach Sean McVay and Les Snead displayed and their unwillingness to express confidence in Goff as the long-term starter at quarterback spoke volumes.

Indeed, their reluctance to offer vociferous support for the quarterback proved a harbinger of an offseason blockbuster, which was agreed with the final chapter of the 2020 NFL season still to be written in Tampa.

Los Angeles paid a steep price to move on from Goff, sending him to the Detroit Lions along with a third-round pick in this year's draft and first-rounders in 2022 and 2023 to acquire Matthew Stafford. The Rams have not made a first-round pick since selecting Goff in 2016 and, through this latest aggressive move, are not scheduled to do so until 2024.

It is a move made with the intention of realising the potential of a championship calibre offense that has too often operated with the handbrake applied during Goff's time with the team.

"I'm just excited to be somewhere that I know wants me and appreciates me," Goff told NFL.com of his trade to Detroit.

But were Goff's contributions underappreciated in Los Angeles? And will Stafford, himself one of the more underrated quarterbacks in football, unlock McVay's offense in a way Goff couldn't?

Goff prolific under McVay

There are raw numbers that would indicate Goff at least being Stafford's equal. 

Since McVay took over from Jeff Fisher in 2017, Goff has thrown 102 touchdowns, seven more than Stafford and 10th in the NFL in that span.

His yards per attempt average of 7.71 is also superior to Stafford over the past four seasons, albeit by a narrow margin, Stafford having gained 7.64 yards per pass in the same period.

In the 2018 season, when the Rams were defeated by the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII, Goff was third in yards per attempt with 8.36 compared to Stafford's 6.81.

Only Patrick Mahomes (52) managed more passing plays of 25 yards or more than the 40 produced that year by Goff, who was third in the NFL in percentage of throws that went for a first down (41.5).

Yet those statistics must be looked at through the prism of him operating in one of the most quarterback-friendly offenses in football.

Set up for success

Though the two attacks have their differences, a useful way to judge Goff's performance in McVay's offense is to compare his performance to the San Francisco 49ers quarterbacks in Kyle Shanahan's system.

Both offenses are based heavily on play-action and passing concepts designed to maximise their receivers' ability to pick up yardage after the catch.

The 2018 season, in which the 49ers played without starter Jimmy Garoppolo for 13 games, saw then third-stringer Nick Mullens feature for eight weeks of the season and average 8.31 yards per attempt.

That negligible difference between Goff and Mullens is reflective of the assistance schemes such as those of McVay and Shanahan give to quarterbacks.

Stafford has had no such help in recent times in Detroit and yet, over the last four seasons, he comes out as the superior signal-caller in a series of categories.

Stafford's downfield dynamism

While Stafford has been recognised as more of a gunslinger than Goff, he has done a superior job of taking care of the football.

Since 2017, Goff has a touchdown to interception ratio of 2.13, putting him 21st in the NFL. Stafford, meanwhile, is 12th with a TD-INT ratio of 2.64.

Stafford has also been the more accurate thrower in that timeframe, completing 65.2 per cent of his passes compared to 64.3 per cent for Goff, while his greater aggressiveness as a downfield thrower is reflected by their respective air yards per attempt averages across the past four seasons.

Goff has averaged 7.4 air yards per attempt, as opposed to 8.4 for Stafford, who has been substantially more successful when pushing the ball downfield.

Indeed, Stafford has completed 40.8 per cent of throws of 20 air yards or more since 2017, putting up 3,449 yards, 27 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, resulting in a passer rating of 106.7.

Those numbers are in stark contrast to Goff, who has connected on 35.8 per cent of such passes for 2,639 yards, 16 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a passer rating of 89.3.

Stafford has also fared better in an area of the game this is pivotal to the Rams' offense under McVay.

Play-action production

Goff attempted 768 play-action passes during his time working under McVay, completing 65.1 per cent of them for 6,861 yards, 38 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and a 103.0 passer rating.

Those are excellent numbers but they are inferior to those of Stafford. In a smaller sample size of 470 play-action throws since 2017, Stafford has a completion percentage of 69.4, passing for 4,364 yards and 25 touchdowns with only six interceptions, giving him a passer rating of 111.0.

Play-action is a tremendous tool for slowing down aggressive defenses and negating pressure, but the Rams can afford to have more confidence in Stafford's ability to handle pressure than they did with Goff.

Goff made his first NFL start in Week 11 of the 2016 season. Since then he has completed 46 per cent of his passes when under pressure - compared to 72.5 when the pocket is kept clean - for 4,907 yards, 26 touchdowns and 24 interceptions.

Over the same span, Stafford's completion percentage dropped to 51.7 when pressured as opposed to 70.8 from clean pockets. He threw for 4,777 yards, 30 touchdowns and 14 interceptions when under duress, his passer rating of 65.6 well above Goff's 55.3.

There is no question Goff has previously flourished in McVay's offense. The numbers and the playoff wins speak to that, but the fact he ranks fifth in the NFL in yards after catch per reception (6.0) since 2017 is evidence of him being aided by a play-action heavy system that can keep pressure off him and puts the onus on receivers to make plays in the open field.

Stafford, who got an average of 5.5 YAC per reception in the last four seasons, has not enjoyed the perks of playing in one of the most innovative offenses in football, yet the data paints a clear picture of why the Rams made the trade.

He can add a downfield element to the passing game that has been sorely lacking with Goff and improve the Rams' play-action game while giving them the option of leaning more on straight dropback passes without as much fear of what will happen when the pocket breaks down.

Goff is worthy of credit and, yes, appreciation for his early success in McVay's scheme. However, in recent times he has drastically limited the ceiling of the Rams' offense. Stafford can remove those limits and help the Rams finally cash in after years of throwing their chips to the middle of the table.

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