Each of the top three wide receivers taken in the 2021 NFL Draft entered Week 1 of the season facing pertinent questions. Could Ja'Marr Chase shake off his drop-laden preseason and revive his rapport with Joe Burrow? Can DeVonta Smith excel despite his slender frame? Will Jaylen Waddle be able to mesh with Tua Tagovailoa again amid concerns over his college quarterback's arm strength?

It is important not to be a prisoner of the Week 1 moment. With the opening slate of games notorious for enticing observers into mistaken conclusions.

However, after all three played major roles in wins for the Cincinnati Bengals, Philadelphia Eagles and Miami Dolphins, respectively, the answer to each of those queries is, for now, a confident yes.

The trio all found the endzone in their NFL debuts, making league history in the process.

Indeed, the 2021 season is the first in common-draft era in which three rookie wideouts that were each selected in the first round scored on a touchdown reception in Week 1.

And their performances provided plenty of encouragement they will each vindicate their lofty draft statuses.

Chase the ace

The highlight of Chase's 101-yard showing in Cincinnati's win over the Minnesota Vikings was a 50-yard touchdown catch from college team-mate Burrow on a perfectly thrown ball on which the fifth overall pick took advantage of soft coverage from Bashaud Breeland.

But a receiver whose ability to separate was questioned prior to the draft also excelled at getting free from coverage on third down. Registering a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup on a play where he is targeted, on four of his seven targets, Chase finished the game with 14.43 burn yards per target -- ninth among receivers who were thrown to at least five times -- with an average depth of target of 15.7 yards.

His debut effort and the numbers he produced should raise hopes he can rely more on his route-running to beat defenders rather than the physical approach that defined his success at LSU.

Crimson Tide connection returns

Separating from defenders was never an issue for Waddle at the college level, with preseason concerns aimed more at his quarterback than the former Alabama star.

As a rookie, Tagovailoa did not produce much to suggest he would gel with a speedster who won his matchup with a defender on 78.1 per cent of his 2020 targets and averaged 19.96 burn yards per target to lead the Power 5 in his final year with the Crimson Tide.

Yet this pair of college team-mates also had their connection from 2019 cooking again as the Dolphins knocked off the New England Patriots in Foxborough.

They did so largely through intelligently adapting Waddle's traits to the short passing game, giving him chances to run after the catch and using him in motion to stretch and deceive the Patriots' defense, as they did on his touchdown that eventually proved the game-winner.

There was also a play that could have been plucked straight from Waddle's Alabama tape as he got a step on a defender while running vertically and worked his way back to the ball, leaping over the covering cornerback for a 36-yard reception.

With a burn on four of his six targets and 13.09 burn yards per target, Waddle's numbers did not quite match up to those of Chase but, if he continues to stress defenses working horizontally and vertically, he will be a substantial asset to the Miami passing game. 

Smith shreds Falcons

Waddle will have hot competition for the title of best Alabama receiver from this draft, though, at least if Smith continues on his early trajectory from the Eagles' 32-6 defeat of the Atlanta Falcons.

Open on six of his eight targets, Smith's six-catch, 71-yard showing was not one in which he relied on his excellent route-running ability, instead finding holes in the Falcons' zone coverage in a game where he was a favoured receiver for Jalen Hurts, who was second among quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts with a well-thrown ball percentage of 87.5.

Yet his 19-yard touchdown offered a snapshot of what he can do in that regard as he patiently released to the outside against man coverage, sending his defender into a pick play from tight end Zach Ertz. With open space now at his disposal, Smith accelerated before expertly tracking the ball into his grasp in the corner of the endzone.

For both Smith and Waddle, their early success was a continuation of how they performed in college, while Chase demonstrated encouraging progress in an area of the game considered to be a weakness.

Selecting a wide receiver in the top 10 is considered a gamble by many but the early payout from this trio suggests they may prove worth the risk.

Just when the Cleveland Browns thought they were in position to open the NFL season with a statement win, Patrick Mahomes did what Patrick Mahomes does. 

The Kansas City Chiefs star threw for a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter as the reigning AFC champions edged the Browns 33-29 on Sunday.

Mahomes completed 27 of his 36 passes for 337 yards and three interceptions as the former MVP made more NFL history.

The 25-year-old broke the record for most passing yards in NFL history through first 50 games, while he also boasts the most passing touchdowns ever through the same amount of appearances.

Cleveland had built a 22-10 half-time lead, with Baker Mayfield directing three scoring drives that led to Nick Chubb finding the end zone twice and Jarvis Landry running in another touchdown before the break. 

Mayfield finished 21 of 28 passing for 321 yards, but had one critical mistake late. With the Browns near midfield and just over a minute to play, the Chicago quarterback scrambled to avoid pressure before throwing a pass up for grabs to the left sideline. Mike Hughes leaped to intercept the ball and the Chiefs ran out the clock from there. 

Mahomes, meanwhile, was poised as ever as he led the Chiefs to their ninth win in the last 11 games in which they trailed by double digits. 

It started with a 14-play drive to open the second half, capped by an 11-yard TD pass to his favourite target Travis Kelce. 

The signature moment, though, was a stunning 75-yard deep strike to Tyreek Hill that brought the Chiefs within two early in the fourth quarter. 

The Browns botched a punt deep in their own territory on the ensuing drive and Mahomes hit Kelce for the go-ahead touchdown three plays later. 

It was the kind of turnaround Cleveland fans have grown all too accustomed to over the years, particularly in season openers. 

The Browns have not won in Week 1 since 2004 and are now 0-16-1 since. 

Winston, Saints crush Packers

Aaron Rodgers dominated the headlines throughout the NFL offseason but he was upstaged in a big way as the season began. 

Jameis Winston threw for five touchdowns as Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers were kept from the end zone altogether in a 38-3 New Orleans Saints rout. 

Rodgers completed just 15 of 28 passes for 133 yards and threw two interceptions. He had only five interceptions all of last season on the way to being named NFL MVP for the third time.

Winston took over the starting role in New Orleans from another future Hall of Famer, the retired Drew Brees, and was brilliant at the Superdome. He completed 14 of 20 passes for 148 yards without an interception or a sack. 

In a matchup of two young quarterbacks, Tua Tagovailoa got the better of his former Alabama team-mate Mac Jones as the Miami Dolphins edged the New England Patriots 17-16 on the road.

While the rookie Jones had the better numbers of the two with 29 of 39 passing, 281 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions, the Patriots repeatedly had to settle for field goals. 

Tagovailoa, meanwhile, ran one touchdown in himself and threw for another in the third quarter that provided the eventual winning margin.

The Miami Dolphins have long been tipped as a potential landing spot for Deshaun Watson, but head coach Brian Flores seemingly called into question the viability of a deal for the Houston Texans quarterback after insisting he wants "high character" people around the team.  

Watson is the subject of investigations by Houston police and the NFL and faces 22 civil lawsuits after a series of women accused him of assault or sexual misconduct. Watson has strenuously denied the accusations, and no charges have been filed against him.

The 25-year-old QB made it clear following last season that he wanted out of Houston, but the emergence of the allegations against him beginning in March threw his future into doubt mere months after he signed a four-year, $156million contract extension. 

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Flores did not directly address speculation about Watson, but he was asked about acquiring players who might bring off-the-field concerns. 

"There are a lot of things we weigh when we're making decisions – fit on the team, overall talent, salary cap," Flores said. "When we're talking about a player or players, we're always trying to do what is best for the Miami Dolphins.

"There are a lot of variables. We want a group that is tough, smart, competitive, loves to play and is team-first. Those are the types of guys we're looking for.

"We have a high standard for the people we have in the organisation. We want people with high character throughout the building."

Watson has mostly practiced on his own throughout Texans camp and has not appeared in any preseason games, but Tuesday's NFL deadline to reduce rosters from 80 to 53 players could spur action. 

That could mean allowing him to keep a precious roster spot and pay him his $10.5m salary even while he remains on the sidelines in hopes his legal issues are resolved, or Houston could trade him and let another team figure it out.

The Texans reportedly have sought a package that includes three first-round picks in any deal for Watson but are seen as unlikely to net a huge return given the questions surrounding his status. 

Watson is coming off a dominant season for a team that finished 4-12, as he led the NFL with 4,823 passing yards while compiling a career-best 70.2 completion percentage and 33 touchdowns against just seven interceptions. 

He also ran for 444 yards and three more touchdowns as he made the Pro Bowl for the third successive season. 

Topping 4,000 yards for the second time in his career as he racked up 4,823 to lead the league, Watson threw for 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season.

Fifth in the NFL in air yards per attempt (9.27), according to Stats Perform data, Watson did an excellent job of balancing his aggressiveness with smart decision-making.

Indeed, he threw a pickable pass on just 2.28 per cent of his attempts, the fourth-lowest rate in the NFL.

Considering the opener against the New England Patriots looms less than two weeks away, Tua Tagovailoa figures to begin the season as Miami's starting quarterback regardless of any other moves the Dolphins might make. 

Flores is trying to keep his team's focus on the task at hand in the meantime. 

"There are always rumours, there's always speculation, there's always some form of distraction," he said. "As a team we've got to block that stuff out and play."

Xavien Howard will be staying with the Miami Dolphins after the two parties agreed to a restructure of his contract.

The All-Pro cornerback last month requested a trade, saying he did not feel "valued or respected" by the team.

The 28-year-old signed a five-year, $76.5million extension in 2019, which at the time made him the highest-paid corner in the NFL.

However, Howard was seemingly irritated by not even being the highest-paid corner on his team, with Byron Jones signed to a five-year $82.5m deal to lure him from the Dallas Cowboys last year.

Jones' contract carries an average annual value of $16.5m compared to $15.05m for Howard.

Howard's 2021 base salary of $12m sees him paid over $2m less than Jones.

But the Dolphins have satiated the 2020 first-team All-Pro, who led the league in interceptions (10) last year, increasing his fully guaranteed money for this year to $12.78m and his maximum with added incentives to $16.28m.

Howard has also seen his 2022 base salary of $12.97m guaranteed against injury. It will become fully guaranteed on the first day of the 2022 league year. Additionally, it has been reported Howard has received assurances the Dolphins will revisit his deal next year should he stay healthy and perform at a productive level again in 2021.

On top of his league-leading interceptions tally, Howard recorded a career-high of 20 passes defended in 2020.

Per Stats Perform advanced data, Howard's adjusted open percentage – which measures how frequently an opponent got open against a defender's coverage, adjusted for position – was 25.19, almost a full percentage point better than that of Jones (26.16) in 2020.

His efforts last season helped the Dolphins lead the NFL in takeaways (29), though that did not translate to a playoff berth as Brian Flores' team finished 10-6.

The Dolphins have not reached the postseason since the 2016 campaign and have not won a playoff game since their Wild Card victory over the Indianapolis Colts in the 2000 season.

They begin their quest to end those droughts at the New England Patriots on September 12.

Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard has requested a trade, saying he does not feel "valued or respected" by the team.

Two-time Pro Bowler Howard reported to training camp on Tuesday but is unhappy that his contract has not been reworked.

The 28-year-old is just two years into the five-year, $75million extension that he signed in 2019. 

At the time that made him the highest-paid NFL corner but he is due a salary of $12m this year, $2m less than his fellow Miami corner Byron Jones.

Jones was signed in a big free agent deal last year, agreeing terms on a five-year, $82.5m pact to lure him from the Dallas Cowboys.

Howard does not feel the difference is fair after his recent performances which included a fine 2020 season.

Last year he was named a first-team All-Pro after recording 10 interceptions for the improving Dolphins, who finished 10-6 for their joint-best record since they last won the AFC East in 2008.

While Howard is not seeking a new deal, he has requested changes to the existing contract that he says have not been agreed by Miami.

"I don't feel valued, or respected, by the Dolphins," Howard, who has recently changed agents, said in a statement. 

"I've played on that deal for two seasons and didn't complain, but everyone knows I completely outperformed that deal.

"I'm one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, and the tape backs up that claim. Yet, I'm the second highest paid cornerback on my own team, and it's not even close.

"We wanted to work things out with the Dolphins and brought solutions to the table – like guaranteeing more money – that we felt were win-wins for both sides.

"But the Dolphins refused everything we proposed.

"Just like they can take a business-first approach, so can I. That's why I want to make it clear I'm not happy and have requested a trade.

"Until that trade happens I am just here so I don't get fined, and will handle myself like professionals do."

Howard has spent his whole career with Miami since being drafted in the second round back in 2016.

He was a second-team All Pro in 2018, which was a year where – like in 2020 – he led the NFL in interceptions and made the Pro Bowl.

A memorable season

With 10 interceptions and 20 passes defended, Howard recorded two career highs in those headline statistics.

Per Stats Perform advanced data, Howard's adjusted open percentage – which measures how frequently an opponent got open against a defender's coverage, adjusted for position – was 25.19, almost a full percentage point better than that of Jones (26.16) in 2020.

When it comes to burns – when a receiver wins his matchup on a play where he is targeted regardless of whether the pass is catchable – Howard also had a significant edge in burn yards per target.

Though Howard was not exactly impressive in that category either, giving up an average of 11.12 while playing on the outside, that number is likely more reflective of how often the Dolphins left him in single coverage.

Indeed, Howard's average depth of target of 14.5 yards speaks to the frequency with which he was given the task of staying in tight coverage with a receiver downfield.

The Dolphins are not flush with cap room but, in a year where the team will be expected to make a year-three leap under head coach Brian Flores, Howard was expected to be key.

With a league-leading 18 interceptions over the past three seasons, Howard is a playmaker the Dolphins need on the field and motivated if they are to challenge in the AFC, so the team's response will be closely watched.

It wouldn't be an NFL offseason without some contract controversies.

Though the two most recent collective bargaining agreements have made it more difficult for players to hold out, several teams are still approaching the start of training camp needing to resolve issues surrounding players unhappy with the terms of their current deal.

Aaron Rodgers' continued self-enforced exile has cast a shadow over the offseason, but his staring contest with the Green Bay Packers is not tied to his level of remuneration.

For four big-name defenders who skipped mandatory minicamp – though Jamal Adams was permitted to do so due to personal reasons – it is indeed about the money.

New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore said recently to ESPN: "I just want what I'm worth, however that plays out. Every player should be paid what they're worth. That's just how it is."

But what is the worth of Gilmore and the three other high-profile defensive players? And should the teams in question make the effort to sign them to more lucrative deals?

Stats Perform looked at the advanced metrics surrounding each player to assess the best course of action for their respective franchises.

Stephon Gilmore, CB, New England Patriots

Gilmore's demand to be paid what he is worth may strike some as bemusing from a player who carries the highest salary cap hit among cornerbacks ($16.27million) and missed five games in a down year.

However, his wish is more likely related to his base salary rather than his overall cap number. Gilmore is due $7m in base salary in 2021, half of what Byron Jones of the Miami Dolphins, whose $14m base salary is the most among corners, is scheduled to receive next season.

Though 2020 was a disappointing year for Gilmore and the entire Patriots defense, he has a strong case for narrowing that gap to Jones.

While he only managed one interception and three pass breakups, Gilmore still had the edge over Jones in several metrics.

His adjusted open percentage, which measures how frequently an opponent got open against a defender's coverage, adjusted for position, was 24.18 compared to 26.16 for Jones.

 

Though both spent time playing as inside corners, both Gilmore and Jones are primarily outside defenders and there was a contrast between the two when they lined up at that spot in 2020. Gilmore allowed a burn – when a receiver wins his matchup on a play where he is targeted regardless of whether the pass is catchable – on 50 per cent of his targets, compared to 60.4 for Jones.

Gilmore was also superior in terms of burn yards per target (10.08 to Jones' 14.08), while his burn yards per snap average of 1.36 was 12th among corners with at least 200 pass coverage snaps on the outside. Jones struggled by comparison, allowing 1.92 burn yards per snap.

The Patriots used a lot of their salary cap space on a free-agency splurge they hope will get them back in contention. However, given Gilmore's past level of performance – since signing with New England in 2017, he has racked up 52 pass breakups, tied for sixth-most in the NFL, and 11 interceptions – they might well be wise to find a way to negotiate a contract with an increased base salary for a player whose unadjusted open percentage of 46.6 was fourth among outside corners in his last full season in 2019.

Xavien Howard, CB, Miami Dolphins

Like Gilmore, Howard may also be comparing his contract to that of Dolphins team-mate Jones, whom Miami made the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL with a five-year $82.5m deal in March 2020.

Howard still has four years left on a deal paying him over $15m a year, but the All-Pro will have his eyes on a contract closer to Jones' average annual value of $16.5m.

Such compensation would unquestionably be deserved given Howard led the league in interceptions for the second time in three seasons in 2020 by picking off 10 passes.

His adjusted open percentage of 25.19 was almost a full percentage point better than that of Jones, and he had a significant edge in burn yards per target, though Howard was not exactly impressive in that category, giving up an average of 11.12 while playing on the outside.

 

Yet that number is likely more reflective of how often the Dolphins left Howard in single coverage. Indeed, Howard's average depth of target of 14.5 yards speaks to the frequency with which he was given the task of staying in tight coverage with a receiver downfield.

The Dolphins aren't flush with cap room – Miami sit just over $5.5m under the 2021 cap – but, in a year where the team will be expected to make a year-three leap under head coach Brian Flores, identifying a method by which to keep Howard happy is the smart move.

With a league-leading 18 interceptions in the past three seasons, Howard is a playmaker the Dolphins need on the field and motivated if they are to challenge in the AFC.

Jamal Adams, S, Seattle Seahawks

Having long since angled for a lucrative extension even before his blockbuster trade to the Seahawks last offseason, Adams is finally in line for his payday at some point this year.

Still playing on his rookie contract and due to earn close to $10m in 2021, Adams will have designs on becoming one of the highest-paid safeties in the NFL.

Justin Simmons of the Denver Broncos is the safety with the top contract, his average annual salary coming in at over $15m, but a better comparison for Adams may be division rival Budda Baker of the Arizona Cardinals ($14.75m).

Baker and Adams each spend a significant amount of time in the box and down near the line of scrimmage and the latter's reprsentatives will base much of their argument in negotiations around him leading the Seahawks in sacks with 9.5 last year.

 

Yet they may struggle to make a compelling case when the discussion turns to his skills in pass coverage.

Adams finished the 2020 season with an adjusted open percentage of 24.94, comfortably below that of Baker, who set the fourth-best mark among all NFL defenders with 16.38 per cent.

Such a disparity would on the surface appear to make it tough to justify Seattle giving Adams a deal akin to that of Baker.

Yet after surrendering two first-round picks to prise Adams from the Jets, the Seahawks have locked themselves into a situation where they have no choice but to pay him. Though he has proven himself a playmaker near the line of scrimmage, his performance in coverage should lead Seattle to try to ink Adams to a deal with eye-catching headline numbers but a team-friendly structure.

Chandler Jones, EDGE, Arizona Cardinals

Due to earn $15.5m in base salary and carry a $20.8m cap hit in the final year of his contract in 2021, Jones' desire to receive the compensation he believes he is due before his deal expires is likely motivated by the Cardinals' decision to sign J.J. Watt to a two-year, $28m deal this offseason.

Watt remains an ominous presence on the defensive line, but – now 32, with a checkered injury history, and having posted nine sacks in 24 games over the past two seasons – his signing is a gamble by the Cardinals, and Jones may be wondering why they did not instead invest in keeping him around.

Jones has been the picture of consistency for the Cardinals, posting double-digit sacks in each of his first four seasons with Arizona before a torn bicep cut his 2020 campaign short after five ineffective games.

The Cardinals' reticence to pay the 31-year-old now is understandable given that recent injury, but Jones will feel he has already proven himself dependable heading into 2021 and is more deserving of a new deal than several of his fellow edge rushers who have already received paydays this offseason.

 

In his last full season in 2019, only one edge rusher, Cameron Jordan (70), had more pressures where he beat a pass protector than the 69 Jones produced.

Watt had 51 such pressures in 2020, Shaquil Barrett received a $17m-a-year contract from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after producing 53, while Leonard Floyd was paid $16m a year by the Los Angeles Rams after beating a man on 39 pressures.

Those deals complicate matters for the Cardinals, who might have to choose between paying a player they may not trust to stay healthy and potentially shipping out the most productive pass rusher in their recent history.

The obvious solution is a new deal laden with playing-time incentives that reward Jones for staying healthy. If that cannot be done, then the Cardinals could possibly soften the blow of losing him by getting a clutch of 2022 draft picks to help them restock their defense in return via trade.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will kick off the new NFL season against the Dallas Cowboys on September 9, while Sam Darnold is to be quickly reunited with the New York Jets.

Ahead of the full schedule release later on Wednesday, the Week 1 slate was confirmed with Tom Brady's Bucs the highlight.

After winning the Super Bowl against the Kansas City Chiefs last season, seven-time champion Brady is in the Thursday night game against the Cowboys in Tampa.

The Bucs have brought back the entirety of their title-winning team and face a Dallas outfit aiming to improve on an awful 2020 after signing Dak Prescott to a long-term contract.

Elsewhere, quarterback Darnold will make his Carolina Panthers debut against the Jets team he left this offseason.

In three miserable years in New York, Darnold threw for 45 touchdowns and 39 interceptions across 38 games with a 59.8 completion percentage – the third-worst rate in the league over this period.

The former third overall pick was traded to the Panthers last month for a sixth-round pick this year and a second and fourth-rounders in 2022, with the Jets then using the second selection in 2021 to take Zach Wilson.

Among Wilson's fellow first-round QBs, Mac Jones could potentially make his bow against the man he succeeded at Alabama.

Jones, who is competing for the starting spot on the New England Patriots with Cam Newton, will hope to face Tua Tagovailoa and the Miami Dolphins in a big AFC East matchup.

Trevor Lawrence is likely to go straight into the Jacksonville Jaguars team against the Houston Texans, while Trey Lance will hope to get his chance under center for the San Francisco 49ers at the Detroit Lions and Justin Fields for the Chicago Bears at the Los Angeles Rams in the late Sunday game.

The NFL also confirmed Wilson and Lawrence would be in line for appearances in the London games in October, with the Jets facing the Atlanta Falcons and the Jaguars taking on the Dolphins on consecutive weekends.

Another of the more intriguing Week 1 games sees the Green Bay Packers travel to the New Orleans Saints.

As the Saints begin the post-Drew Brees era, the Packers will hope wantaway MVP Aaron Rodgers is still on the team and able to improve his 3-2 career record as a starter against New Orleans.

The Seattle Seahawks, who have kept hold of Russell Wilson, face the Indianapolis Colts, and Patrick Mahomes' latest title tilt sees the Kansas City Chiefs host the Cleveland Browns.

Mahomes went down with a toe injury and then a concussion in an epic Chiefs win over the Browns in the 2020 postseason, with 35-year-old backup Chad Henne making his playoff debut and having a pick and a sack but completing six of eight passes to complete the job.

In the first Monday Night Football of the season, Lamar Jackson's Baltimore Ravens will go to the Las Vegas Raiders.


Week 1 schedule in full:

Dallas Cowboys at Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Sep 9, 8:20pm ET
Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
New York Jets at Carolina Panthers – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Seattle Seahawks at Indianapolis Colts – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Los Angeles Chargers at Washington Football Team – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
San Francisco 49ers at Detroit Lions – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Arizona Cardinals at Tennessee Titans – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Philadelphia Eagles at Atlanta Falcons – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Minnesota Vikings at Cincinnati Bengals – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs – Sep 12, 4:25pm ET
Green Bay Packers at New Orleans Saints – Sep 12, 4:25pm ET
Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots – Sep 12, 4:25pm ET
Denver Broncos at New York Giants – Sep 12, 4:25pm ET
Chicago Bears at Los Angeles Rams – Sep 12, 8:20pm ET
Baltimore Ravens at Las Vegas Raiders – Sep 13, 8:15pm ET

Highly touted quarterbacks? Check. Oversized stage? Check. Raucous Fans? Check.

A year after holding a virtual NFL Draft in Commissioner Roger Goodell’s basement due to concerns over the coronavirus, the 2021 draft descended on Cleveland, Ohio on Thursday, with Goodell once again sharing bro-hugs with the prospects on stage in front of thousands of vaccinated and mask-wearing fans.

Although the easy chair from Goodell’s basement did make the trip to the stage, this year’s edition of the draft felt much more normal than a year ago – and it began exactly as nearly everyone expected.

The Jacksonville Jaguars chose Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence first overall and the New York Jets went with BYU quarterback Zach Wilson at number two.

Considered to be the most polished QB prospect in years, Lawrence threw for 10,098 yards in his collegiate career, while going 34-2 as a starter with the Tigers and winning the 2018 National Championship.

Wilson had been linked to the Jets for months after throwing for 3,692 yards with 33 touchdown passes to only three interceptions last season, and New York hopes he can be the franchise’s answer at QB and lead the team to the playoffs for the first time since 2010 after the recently traded and 2018 No. 3 pick Sam Darnold never lived up to expectations.

A quarterback had also been projected to go third overall ever since the San Francisco 49ers traded up to that position weeks ago, the only question was who – Trey Lance out of FCS powerhouse North Dakota State, two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Justin Fields from Ohio State or Alabama national champion Mac Jones.

The tight-lipped 49ers ended weeks of suspense by drafting Lance, who has only played in one game since the 2019 season but led the Bison to the FCS title that year while accounting for 42 total touchdowns without an interception.

With the surprising Lance going to San Francisco, this became just the third time in the common draft era that started in 1967 – and first time since 1999 – quarterbacks went 1-2-3 in the NFL draft.

The consensus top five QBs - Lawrence, Wilson, Lance, Fields and Jones – had been slated to all get drafted in the top 10, but Fields and Jones were still on the board after 10 picks.

The Chicago Bears decided not to sit on their hands, trading up nine spots with the New York Giants to grab Fields, a dual-threat QB who finished his collegiate career with 5,701 passing yards and 67 TDs through the air.

The Patriots were more patient, selecting Jones with the 15th pick – a spot few believed he would still be available. Jones threw for 4,500 yards with 41 touchdowns to just four picks in leading Alabama last season, and became the first quarterback selected in the first round during Bill Belichick’s 21-year tenure in New England.

Jones also became the final QB selected in the first round, making this only the fourth time at least five QBs were drafted in round number one, along with 2018, 1999 and the famous 1983 draft, when six were selected.

Not only were QBs a hot commodity, so were their targets.

The Atlanta Falcons made Florida’s Kyle Pitts the highest drafted tight end in history when they picked him fourth overall after he had 43 catches for 770 yards and 12 TDs in 2020.

The Cincinnati Bengals and Miami Dolphins drafted who they hope will be their franchise quarterbacks in the 2020 first round, and this year they each focused on providing them with a playmaker they were familiar with.

Cincinnati selected LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase with the fifth pick, teaming him 2020 No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow, the quarterback who led the Tigers to the 2019 FBS title. In 26 games played together in 2018 and 2019, Burrow targeted Chase 162 times, resulting in 107 receptions for 2,093 yards and 23 touchdowns.

One pick later, the Dolphins chose Alabama receiver Jaylen Waddle, reuniting him with college quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, last year’s fifth pick. Waddle only appeared in six games last season because of a broken left ankle, but he left Alabama with 106 receptions for 1,999 yards and 17 touchdowns over three years.

The reunions continued with the 10th pick, when the Philadelphia Eagles traded up to select 2020 Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith to get him back with former Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, the 53rd overall pick a year ago. Smith, who put up eye-popping numbers in 2020 with 117 receptions for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns, was a teammate of Hurts in 2017 and 2018.

While the Bengals, Dolphins and Eagles reunited former teammates, the Jaguars decided to go ahead and just bring aboard one of Lawrence’s teammates from this past season, selecting Clemson running back Travis Etienne with the 25th pick, making this the first time in the common draft era a quarterback and running back from the same school were drafted by the same team in the first round.

Etienne was a workhorse for the past four years with the Tigers, racking up 4,952 rushing yards and 70 touchdowns on the ground while averaging 7.2 yards per carry.

Etienne became the second running back selected in the first round after the Pittsburgh Steelers took Alabama’s Najee Harris one pick earlier.

With the Denver Broncos nabbing Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II ninth overall and the Las Vegas Raiders drafting Crimson Tide offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood at No. 17, Harris became the sixth player from Alabama drafted in the first round, matching the University of Miami from 2004 for the most players selected from one school in the first round.

While the draft started with offensive players being selected with the first seven picks for the first time ever, the final five picks of the opening round were all defensive players, concluding with the defending Super Bowl champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selecting linebacker Joe Tryon out of Washington with the 32nd pick.

The Miami Dolphins threw the NFL Draft into further chaos on Friday, trading back up to the sixth overall pick on the same day they moved down from three to 12.

Miami earlier sent the number three pick to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for number 12, a third-rounder and first-round picks in 2022 and 2023 according to multiple reports.

Shortly after, it was reported the Dolphins had struck a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles to go back up to number six.

To do so, Miami parted with number 12, a fourth-round pick and a 2022 first-rounder, while also receiving a fifth-round selection in return from the Eagles.

Having moved back from a prime spot with which to take one of the top quarterbacks in the class, the Dolphins' moves are a show of faith in Tua Tagovailoa, whom they selected with the fifth overall pick last year.

Tagovailoa was much criticised after a three-interception performance in the Dolphins' Week 17 blowout loss to the Buffalo Bills, which saw them miss out on a place in the playoffs.

The former Alabama star underwhelmed in his first season in the NFL but the belief is the Dolphins have made this pair of moves with an eye towards getting a top wide receiver prospect to make his life easier while netting capital for future drafts.

Philadelphia's decision to move back likely locks in Jalen Hurts, a second-round pick last year, as their starter for 2021.

However, a report from NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, in which he claims the Eagles had tried to move up to number three before the Niners did, suggests they may not fully believe in Hurts.

But they could not come to a deal to move up and have instead decided to drop back and build around Hurts, who went 1-3 after replacing Carson Wentz last year but provided a spark for an Eagles team that finished the year 4-11-1.

The San Francisco 49ers have struck a blockbuster trade with the Miami Dolphins to move into the third overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

San Francisco had been scheduled to pick 12th overall in next month's draft, but parted with that selection, a third-rounder and their first-round picks in 2022 and 2023 to move up to number three, according to multiple reports.

It throws the future of current starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo into serious doubt following an injury-riddled 2020 season in which he struggled to silence doubters who questioned his ability to keep the 49ers in contention in the wake of their fourth-quarter collapse in Super Bowl LIV.

Indeed, with the third pick, the Niners are now in a prime position to select one of the top quarterbacks in a loaded class at the position.

Trevor Lawrence will almost certainly be selected first overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars, while the New York Jets are also thought by many to be eyeing a quarterback at number two.

Zach Wilson of BYU is widely regarded as the most likely option for the Jets. Niners general manager John Lynch was in attendance at Wilson's pro day in Utah on Friday.

North Dakota State's Trey Lance and Justin Fields of Ohio State will also be in the mix for the 49ers. Lance had his pro day earlier this month while Fields is scheduled to throw for NFL scouts and front office personnel on March 30.

NFL Network's Steve Wyche reported Lynch told him at Wilson's pro day that Garoppolo is still in their plans but, after making such a dramatic move up the board, the Niners appear ready to find his successor.

What shaped up to be a year of enormous positivity ended in disappointment and a dilemma for the Miami Dolphins.

The Dolphins were 5-11 at the bottom of the AFC East in 2019 before turning their fortunes around to finish 10-6 last year. That was not quite enough to make the playoffs, though.

Victory over the Buffalo Bills in Week 17 would have clinched a postseason berth, as indeed would defeats for any of three AFC rivals. Every result went against Miami.

Worse than just being edged out of the postseason picture, they were beaten by 30 points in Buffalo as Tua Tagovailoa – the fifth overall pick supposed to be the Dolphins’ franchise quarterback – endured a dismal end to his rookie season.

The signs had been there prior to that desperate three-interception showing, which actually included a career-high 361 passing yards, but the costly defeat firmly formed Miami’s big offseason question: Do they need to make a move at QB?

There have been and continue to be interesting options, but the front office looks to be taking its time in making the right calls to turn this team into contenders.

Stats Perform data shows how far away they are right now.

Offense

Tagovailoa would likely have been given some respite in that fateful Bills game had backup Ryan Fitzpatrick not been ruled out after testing positive for coronavirus.

The Dolphins had turned to Fitzpatrick in Week 16 against the Las Vegas Raiders and he duly rescued a 26-25 comeback win, completing nine of 13 passes for 182 yards and a touchdown.

The change was evidence of coach Brian Flores’ faltering faith in Tagovailoa. The result was justification.

Among players to throw 200 attempts in 2020, only Washington pair Alex Smith and Dwayne Haskins Jr. trailed Tagovailoa’s 1,814 yards. Even when he put up big numbers in the Buffalo defeat, his 6.22 yards per attempt were 0.04 yards down on his extremely modest year average.

This plodding pace was the reason for Flores turning so often to Fitzpatrick, who was picked on eight of 267 passes (3.0 per cent) but gained 7.83 yards per attempt.

Neither quarterback was helped by the limited receiving options, with only wide receiver DeVante Parker (63 catches for 793 yards and four TDs) and tight end Mike Gesicki (53 catches for 703 yards and six TDs) offering any real quality in that sense.

The rushing offense was no better. Perhaps again partly due to a reluctance to trust Tagovailoa, they ran on 41.9 per cent of plays (14th-most in the league) but registered only 105.5 rushing yards per game (22nd-most).

Criticism of Tagovailoa was understandable, but the entire offense was shaky last year.

Defense

With the deficiencies on the other side of the ball, Miami’s defense had to be shoulder much of the burden in 2020. 

Although opponents racked up 251.5 passing yards per game, the Dolphins allowed just 315 points across the season, the fourth-fewest in the NFL.

The cornerback duo of Xavien Howard and Byron Jones were particularly effective. Howard had 10 interceptions after managing 12 across the first four years of his career.

Up front, Emmanuel Ogbah (9.0 sacks and 21 QB hits), Kyle Van Noy (6.0 sacks and 10 QB hits) and Shaq Lawson (4.0 sacks and 18 QB hits) were productive in pressuring the quarterback.

Firmly in the middle of the pack when it came to stopping the run, the Dolphins allowed 116.4 rushing yards per game, but theirs was a stingy defense that proved its upside by forcing a league-leading 29 total takeaways.

Offseason

Although the Dolphins have been busy in free agency already, their spending has been unexceptional.

Van Noy was released and re-joined the New England Patriots, with whom they swapped defensive linemen as Davon Godchaux and Adam Butler traded places.

Butler's contract with the Dolphins cost half as much as Godchaux's in New England, but the new acquisition had four sacks in 2020, more than the man he is replacing managed in his entire Miami career.

Those deals are indicative of what so far appears to be a cost-cutting one-in, one-out approach. Fitzpatrick left for the Washington Football Team, where he will collect $10million, while Jacoby Brissett – a new backup quarterback – arrived from the Indianapolis Colts on a contract worth $5m.

The biggest splash to date saw Will Fuller arrive after a career year catching Deshaun Watson passes, including eight touchdowns, in Houston.

The most significant development of the offseason is yet to play out, though, as the identity of the man throwing the ball to Fuller this year remains far from certain.

Fuller could serve as a pivotal boost to Tagovailoa's options and enable him to develop his game in year two, but the Dolphins also have the ability to put together a very enticing package for a prospective trade, as they possess the third and 18th picks in the first round of this year's draft.

Fuller’s wantaway former team-mate Watson is the most obvious possible target in a move that would change the complexion of the AFC.

The arrival of one of the league's elite quarterbacks could quickly turn Miami into contenders, but it would depend on the Texans taking back their own draft pick, sent to the Dolphins in return for Laremy Tunsil in 2019.

Whether they stick with Tagovailoa, make a blockbuster move for Watson or unexpectedly take one of the draft's top signal-callers, an intriguing offseason in Miami will be defined by a crucial decision at the game's most important position.

The Chicago Bears have signed quarterback Andy Dalton, potentially providing him the chance to start under center in 2021.

According to multiple reports, Dalton will join the Bears on a contract worth $10million, with the chance to earn another $3m in incentives.

Chicago had reportedly made a "very aggressive pursuit" of Russell Wilson, who has been the subject of trade talk, but saw their efforts rebuffed by the Seattle Seahawks.

Dalton presents something of an uninspiring alternative. The three-time Pro Bowler was backup to Dak Prescott with the Dallas Cowboys last year but ended up starting nine games after Prescott's season-ending ankle injury.

He completed 64.9 per cent of his passes for 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions and enters a quarterback room featuring former Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles, with 2017 second overall pick Mitchell Trubisky allowed to hit the open market after failing to live up to expectations.

Trubisky and Foles alternated at starting quarterback last season, each providing unconvincing performances but doing enough between them to help the Bears sneak into the playoffs, where they suffered a dour Wild Card Round loss to the New Orleans Saints.

Beyond Wilson, the other elite quarterback whose name has been continually mentioned in relation to a trade is Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans.

And the Texans landed some insurance in case the disgruntled star gets his trade wish granted, signing journeyman Tyrod Taylor to a one-year deal.

The Miami Dolphins added a backup to Tua Tagovailoa, bringing in Jacoby Brissett on a one-year deal that sees him reunite with head coach Brian Flores, who was on the New England Patriots' staff when Brissett was there in 2016.

Another offseason sees another scramble for quarterbacks in the NFL.

Last year, Tom Brady was among those on the move and he ended the 2020 season with his first Super Bowl title in Tampa Bay and seventh in total.

Already in 2021 there have been significant deals at the position again, including the Los Angeles Rams' big play for Matthew Stafford, deeming him a significant upgrade on the expensive, underperforming Jared Goff.

There are big names remaining on the board, though, and we take a look at the state of play.

 

DESHAUN WATSON

It is not every day a QB of Watson's quality becomes available – and the Houston Texans might still argue he is not. But the 25-year-old was bogged down by a poor team last year, finishing 4-12 despite leading the league in overall passing yards (4,823).

Watson wants out, and the Texans would be well advised to listen to any serious offers if the alternative is to let one of the league's top talents sit on a massive contract.

The asking price will surely be high. Stafford, 33, threw for 4,084 yards, 26 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 2020 – beaten by Watson across the board – and set a precedent when he went to the Rams for Goff, two first-round picks and a third.

What does that make Watson worth? Well, his desire to depart might bring the value down slightly, but Houston would surely expect picks as well as a QB prospect.

TUA TAGOVAILOA

Tagovailoa was the fifth pick just a year ago, but the Miami Dolphins might already be interested in moving on, especially if that means a trade for Watson.

Although there were signs of Tagovailoa's promise as he won his first three NFL starts, 2020 ended with his benching in a Week 16 comeback win and then three costly picks in a Week 17 defeat that saw the Dolphins miss the playoffs.

Miami might feel a move for Watson would make them contenders, while the Texans could use a talent like Tagovailoa in their rebuild.

There is a complication, however. The draft picks Houston would receive alongside Tagovailoa in return for Watson would be the same selections they spent themselves in a deal for offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil. In order to save face, an alternative package might appeal.

SAM DARNOLD

Such an offer may well materialise elsewhere in the AFC East. The New York Jets are likely to have an interest in Watson if they move on from Darnold and do not want to try again in the draft with the second pick.

That would have been the first selection had the Jets not inexplicably rallied to two wins, gifting Trevor Lawrence to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The signing of Watson would significantly soften that blow, but it would most likely mean the Texans taking on Darnold, who has played for two more years than Tagovailoa and is still to show he is really up to the task. A career tally of 45 TDs and 39 interceptions for a passer rating of 78.6 does not compare favourably.

His team even failed when apparently tanking. Houston would hope a Darnold-led rebuild would fare better.

JIMMY GAROPPOLO

This busy market might have piqued the interest of San Francisco 49ers fans looking for a more reliable option at QB, where Garoppolo has started only 30 games in four years. It could be time for him to move on.

The landing spot for the 29-year-old would seemingly be New England, a place he knows well having previously served as Brady's understudy on the Patriots.

Brady stuck around longer than expected, so Garoppolo moved to San Francisco and performed well in 2019, starting all 16 games for the only time in his career and throwing 27 TDs before making the Super Bowl.

That proved the peak, however, with defeat in the big game, although the Pats look to be interested again having failed to properly replace - yes – Brady.

CAM NEWTON

Newton was the man Bill Belichick initially turned to, agreeing a one-year deal with the former MVP that makes him a free agent again this year.

A return to New England cannot be entirely ruled out, although a team and coach used to Brady's brilliance never really adjusted to a QB who threw only eight TDs.

Newton might have other options. Washington head coach Ron Rivera knows the player well from their time together with the Carolina Panthers and could be more appreciative of his other talents, notably a running game that brought 592 yards and 12 TDs on 137 carries in 2020.

JAMEIS WINSTON

Winston, once a number one overall pick, is another man heading for free agency. He spent last season with the New Orleans Saints but found himself third choice, behind utility player Taysom Hill, and participated in only 51 plays.

It was a far cry from the previous year when Winston was Tampa Bay's starter and involved in just about everything, remarkably throwing 33 TDs and 30 interceptions.

That 2019 campaign encapsulated how chaotic the 27-year-old can be, but he would argue he deserves to at least be competing for a start somewhere. If not back to New Orleans, Winston could be headed for somewhere like Washington and a team looking to change things on the cheap.

RUSSELL WILSON

Wilson certainly would not come cheap. And it seems improbable he would come at all, regardless of the suitor.

But noises of unhappiness in Seattle, where the Seahawks failed to give their superstar quarterback the help he needed, were followed by Wilson's agent saying only moves to the Saints, Dallas Cowboys, Las Vegas Raiders or Chicago Bears would appeal.

Dak Prescott's new deal in Dallas closed that avenue, while the Saints and Bears are already set to be way over the cap. Any blockbuster move for Seattle's most prized asset could change the entire complexion of this offseason, though.

Miami Dolphins veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick said the franchise believe in quarterback Tua Tagovailoa as he predicted an improved 2021 season amid doubts over his future.

Tagovailoa – selected with the fifth overall pick in the 2020 draft – experienced a challenging rookie season in the NFL, headlined by a costly letdown in the regular-season finale.

The 22-year-old completed 35 of 58 passes for 361 yards, an average of 6.2 yards per attempt, for a touchdown and three interceptions as Miami's playoff hopes were dashed by the Buffalo Bills.

That performance came after Tagovailoa was benched for Fitzpatrick the week prior against the Las Vegas Raiders.

There have been reports claiming the Dolphins could part with Tagovailoa in a bid to acquire disgruntled Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.

But Fitzpatrick anticipates a much improved Tagovailoa in his second season with the Dolphins in Miami.

"Everything is going to be a little more comfortable this year," Fitzpatrick told ESPN on Thursday. "Playing in the league is going to be a little more familiar, your routine through the week and on road games.

"He's no longer trying to figure out where the grocery store is, where he's going to live or what car he's going to drive. All that stuff is figured out. He can solely focus on being an NFL QB.

"To have an offseason, to have repetitions, to have some sense of continuity with [co-offensive coordinators] George Godsey and Eric Studesville in his ear calling the plays and working with him.

"All that stuff points to him having a much better season this year and continuing to progress as a quarterback. That's the most important thing for him -- progression.

"They drafted him in the top five for a reason, with his skill set and what he can do. There are very few people on this planet who can do that. For them to be fully bought in and believe in him, he's going to do the same thing.

"He's going to buy into what they're coaching and I think good results are going to come from it."

In 10 appearances in the 2020 season, Tagovailoa had 186 completions for 1,814 yards at 64.14 per cent, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions.

Miami Dolphins offensive coordinator Chan Gailey has resigned, the team announced on Wednesday.

Gailey, previously a head coach with the Dallas Cowboys and the Buffalo Bills, was hired as an assistant to Brian Flores in January 2020.

It gave Gailey the opportunity to work with former Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in his rookie NFL season.

The Dolphins missed out on the playoffs thanks to their heavy defeat to the Bills in Week 17, but Flores suggested earlier this week his entire coaching staff would return next year.

A subsequent statement confirmed Gailey's departure, however, and Flores said: "I want to thank Chan for all of his hard work and dedication in what was a unique year.

"He played an important role on the staff and in the development of our young roster. I wish him all the best."

Tagovailoa, the fifth overall pick in the 2020 draft, had seen his college career ended prematurely due to a dislocated hip and started the year as backup to Ryan Fitzpatrick.

The QB made his debut off the bench against the New York Jets in Week 6 before starting for the first time in the Week 8 win over the Los Angeles Rams.

There was a particularly impressive showing at the Arizona Cardinals, throwing 20-of-28 for 248 yards and two touchdowns, and Tagovailoa did not taste defeat until his fourth start.

He finished the year with a 6-3 record as a starter, but his three interceptions in the humbling 56-26 loss to the Bills on Sunday proved costly.

Those were three of only five picks for the season, alongside 11 passing TDs. The Bills game saw Tagovailoa post a career-high 361 passing yards but a career-low 62.5 QB rating.

He had been benched against the Las Vegas Raiders the previous week, too, although the Dolphins then had Fitzpatrick – missing against Buffalo due to coronavirus – on hand to rescue a win.

Dolphins general manager Chris Grier has said the team are "very happy" with Tagovailoa as their starter.

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