Going into the 2021 NFL season, there are a litany of quarterbacks facing significant pressure. We look at which have the heat cranked up most.
Every quarterback faces pressure in the NFL. Both from the oncoming rush, and from outside noise.
Heading into 2021, that remains true. Yes, there are a lucky few without much concern. There are either great players with a long track record and lengthy contracts, or men readying for retirement.
Yet for most, there are varying levels of heat. For some, it’s holding onto their jobs. For others, it’s getting another payday. For a few, it’s being a rookie in a league where draft hype elevates in April but can crush a man in September.
Here’s a glance at five signal-callers who face the most intense scrutiny as training camp approaches.
Tua Tagoviloa, Miami Dolphins:
Tagovailoa struggled as a rookie in Miami. The Alabama product started nine games, was benched twice, and in a must-win Week 17 game threw three interceptions in a 56-26 loss to the Buffalo Bills. After averaging 6.26 YPA with 11 touchdowns and five picks, there’s vast room to improve.
With Ryan Fitzpatrick now in Washington, Tagovailoa is the unquestioned starter. And with a playoff-caliber roster around him, the Heisman Trophy winner needs to make a major jump to keep Miami from potentially looking into Deshaun Watson or Aaron Rodgers next offseason. With three first-round picks over the next two seasons, the Dolphins have the ammunition.
Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens:
Jackson is a fascinating study. He was the unanimous NFL MVP in 2019, has two division titles in three seasons, and a pair of 1,000-yard rushing campaigns. However, the Ravens are 1-3 in his postseason starts and Jackson has never thrown for 3,200 yards in any year.
Entering the fourth year of his rookie deal, Baltimore has loaded up on receivers. General manager Eric DeCosta signed Sammy Watkins and drafted Rashod Bateman in the first round. It’s clear the Ravens want to see how Jackson plays in a more pass-friendly offense. If he flops, does Baltimore lay out $40 million annually in an extension?
Daniel Jones, New York Giants:
Jones has been mediocre over his first two seasons with Big Blue. This offseason, the front office gave him myriad new weapons in receivers Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney, the latter a first-round pick out of Florida. With the return of All-Pro running back Saquon Barkley, the Giants have some of the best skill-position talent in football.
If Jones doesn’t take huge strides, general manager Dave Gettleman will likely try to make a big move next winter. New York has a pair of first-round picks to either dangle for a quality veteran, or to move up in the draft. It’s time for jones to become a star.
Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns:
Similar to Jackson, Mayfield comes into his fourth season with fans, but also questions. The Browns have massive expectations after winning their first playoff game since 1994, and Mayfield’s ascension is at the heart of whether they stall or soar.
After throwing for 3,563 yards and 26 touchdowns in his first year under head coach Kevin Stefanski, how good can Mayfield get? Pro Bowl, All-Pro, world champ? Also, the Oklahoma product is angling for a lucrative extension. After two good years and one terrible campaign, his fate largely rides on 2021.
Matthew Stafford, Los Angeles Rams:
Stafford is a different case than any other quarterback in the league. At age 32, the former Detroit Lions star has been statistically productive with an empty trophy case. The narrative has long been talented but for what? On the best team of his career, with an elite coaching staff, Stafford gets his chance to rewrite his story.
If Stafford takes the Rams on a deep playoff run, he could be looking at a huge extension and the opportunity to finish his career with a ring or two. If things go poorly, maybe Stafford plays out his current deal and ends up being a journeyman, a classic case of what-could-have-beenism.
Top 10 wide receivers entering the 2021 season
1. Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs
2. DeAndre Hopkins, Arizona Cardinals
3. Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers
4. D.K. Metcalf, Seattle Seahawks
5. Stefon Diggs, Buffalo Bills
6. Julio Jones, Tennessee Titans
7. Odell Beckham Jr., Cleveland Browns
8. Allen Robinson, Chicago Bears
9. Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
10. Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints
“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.”
– New England Patriots corner Stephon Gilmore on his contract status heading into 2021
Gilmore is entering the final season of a five-year, $65 million deal in New England. Throughout the pact, the Patriots won two Super Bowls and reached three, while Gilmore was named the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year.
Essentially, head coach Bill Belichick has three options. He can extend the 30-year-old Gilmore, trade him before the season starts for a draft pick package, or let 2021 play out and either allow him to leave in free agency or tag him.
Belichick, never one for sentimentality, would appear far more likely to choose one of the latter two routes, especially with star corner J.C. Jackson entering his prime.
The Oakland Raiders reached six AFC/AFL Championship Games between 1968-75 yet somehow never reached the Super Bowl.
The team finally broke through in ’76, winning it all with a Super Bowl victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
Info learned this week
1. Franchise tag deadline looms, but are deals there for making?
Seven players sit on their respective franchise tags. With the July 15 deadline looming, who gets paid?
As a refresher, here are the men looking for a multi-year deal:
- Marcus Williams, S, New Orleans Saints
- Marcus Maye, S, New York Jets
- Taylor Moton, RT, Carolina Panthers
- Brandon Scherff, G, Washington Football Team
- Chris Godwin, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Cam Robinson, LT, Jacksonville Jaguars
- Allen Robinson, WR, Chicago Bears
Typically, contract talks for these seven will pick up considerably starting today and going right to 4 p.m. ET on Thursday. Teams and agents now face a time crunch, and so with little other pressing business, there’s opportunity for a quick breakthrough.
In Moton’s case, for example, FanSided is told conversations will begin in earnest this week. For Carolina, Moton is a pillar on the offensive line and at 26 years old, should play at a high level throughout his next deal. Looking at the other half-dozen names on the list, the same holds true across the board.
It’s already been reported by NFL Network that Allen Robinson and the Bears likely don’t get a deal done, which would be a folly by Chicago general manager Ryan Pace. Robinson has been brilliant over three years with the Bears, despite being saddled with Nick Foles, Mitchell Trubisky and no other true weapon to take coverage away.
Of course, things can change rapidly. In less than 100 hours, we’ll know many fates — and some of next year’s best free agents.
2. Frank Clark’s situation creates tough, but manageable, spot for Chiefs
Last week, Frank Clark’s legal snafu got uglier with a felony gun charge brought against him.
While the NFL will undoubtedly review the matter and quite possibly suspend him — with or without a guilty verdict — the Chiefs find themselves in an interesting spot. They can either sign a veteran edge rusher to help cushion any loss of Clark’s availability, or they can bide time with in-house talent.
Should they go the former route, ex-Chief Justin Houston remains on the market after two solid years with the Indianapolis Colts. Houston played every game over that span with 19 sacks, and before that, spent nine years in Kansas City. Then there’s Melvin Ingram, who was limited to seven games in 2020. However, Ingram was a three-time Pro Bowler from 2017-19, and had what FanSided learned was a good visit back in March.
In the immediate aftermath of Clark’s latest arrest, it was my understanding Kansas City was more likely to take the wait-and-see approach. Now, with a felony charge, maybe the Chiefs are prompted to at least reevaluate.
3. Aaron Rodgers sounds accepting of his plight with Packers
It was always ending this way. Always. Now Aaron Rodgers knows it too.
For weeks in April and May, we heard about how Rodgers was going to get out of Green Bay. It was talked about in some corners like a near-certainty. Of course, that was conjecture during the NFL’s dead period.
The Packers had no reason to deal the grumpy quarterback, especially once the draft was over. Ultimately, Green Bay gets a far larger return if it waits until next winter to trade Rodgers. Doing so anytime before then made no sense, and still doesn’t.
Which leads us to Rodgers’ latest comments during the American Century Championship at Lake Tahoe. When asked of his future plans, the reigning MVP said “I’m going to enjoy the hell out of this week, and then I’m going to get back to working out, and figure things out in a couple weeks.”
Doesn’t sound like a guy expecting a trade, or a long, protracted holdout.
Now, will he roll into training camp before August and downplay the offseason? Impossible to say, although it’s hard to imagine. The Packers probably get a good look at Jordan Love for a few weeks, and then No. 12 strolls in.
Regardless, it certainly appears the Packers and Rodgers are going to have one more run together.
4. Falcons release Barkevious Mingo’s contract after heinous allegation
The Atlanta Falcons are distancing themselves from Barkevious Mingo. Quickly.
Over the weekend, Mingo was released by Atlanta. This followed his arrest in Texas on Thursday on a charge of indecency with a child, sexual contact from an incident alleged to have happened in 2019. After initially waiting for more details to emerge, the Falcons dispensed of their edge rusher despite Mingo’s representation terming the charge “completely baseless.”
At 30 years old, this might be a horrible ending to a disappointing career. Drafted No. 6 overall in 2013 by the Browns, Mingo played for six teams (not including Atlanta) and notched 12.5 sacks.
5. N’Keal Harry suitors will be limited after failing with Patriots
If things don’t go well with Bill Belichick, they seldom go swimmingly elsewhere.
After two disappointing seasons with New England, N’Keal Harry wants a fresh start. Last week, he requested a trade through his agent, believing his big-play ability could be better utilized elsewhere. Perhaps the third-year receiver is right, or maybe he’s simply been a big-bodied receiver who struggles to create separation both in routes and off the line.
While NFL teams will inquire with minimal draft pick compensation as a top offer, Harry isn’t an attractive add for most. He’s amassed 45 catches for 414 yards and four touchdowns in the NFL, including one season with Tom Brady as his quarterback. The plus side? He was a first-round pick and only turns 24 years old in December.
The obvious buyers for Harry would be franchises with major needs at receiver who can afford to wait on his development.
Houston comes to mind as a candidate, needing depth behind Brandin Cooks and having ties to the Patriots, with general manager Nick Caserio coming from Foxborough.
The Philadelphia Eagles have the pieces for a terrific future, or a horrific descent.
Clearly in a rebuild, the Eagles hired first-time head coach Nick Sirianni to pair with second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts. The duo could last 15 years together if both work out. However, Hurts could be a short-lived experiment with the team having a limited investment in him as a second-round choice. As for Sirianni, the team has never fired a coach after one season, but should things go poorly with its limited roster, could he become the first?
Holding two 2022 first-round picks and maybe three, depending on the conditions of the Carson Wentz trade, the Eagles can make a move to replace Hurts should they desire. If Philadelphia goes that direction, does Sirianni get another chance with a new face of the franchise?
Of course, it could all work out for the Eagles. Sirianni could be a terrific hire, Hurts could light it up, and Philadelphia could make a surprise run in the lousy NFC East. If that happens, the Eagles are a good team with an excellent, young coach which has a litany of high-end draft capital.
For Philadelphia, the range of outcomes for 2021 are seemingly limitless.
Inside the league
The East-West Shrine Bowl has long been a secondary showcase for NFL hopefuls.
Last week, an announcement came from its organizers, stating the game will be held in Las Vegas on Feb. 3 with NFL Network broadcasting the event. Furthermore, the two teams will be coached by NFL staffs.
However, the big news is in the details. Typically held prior to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., the Shrine Bowl is now sharing the same week. Essentially, teams must figure out how to divide resources while agents have a tough decision for some of their clients.
Talking to multiple league sources on the matter, all said the Senior Bowl remains their top priority. One source texted “The Shrine will gain eyeballs because scouts and coaches love Vegas. Brilliant move. It was (definitely) gain more credibility but the Senior Bowl is the still the leader (for now).”
Another veteran agent texted “it’s all about the talent that goes and where the most NFL decision makers will be. You can call it the Soup Bowl and hold it on the moon, so long as you get the top talent and decisions makers.”
Additionally, a longtime personnel executive relayed his thoughts, saying “the best players will still go to the Senior Bowl. It was affect the late add ins or guys that had a good week at East-West.”
Finally, Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy provided the following statement to FanSided:
Our main goal is the same as it is every year—to host the nation’s premiere college all-star game. The Reese’s Senior Bowl in Mobile is one of the last great traditions in pro football and we appreciate all the support we receive from the NFL league office and the 32 member clubs. As this past year proved, we will always work creatively and diligently to provide the best possible experience for the players, coaches, scouts, fans, and media. We are excited about partnering with the NFL on the inaugural HBCU Combine and look forward to a sold-out Hancock Whitney Stadium on February 5, 2022.
All told, not a single league source FanSided spoke with indicated the Senior Bowl would take a hit in their eyes, but each believed the Shrine Bowl elevated its status.
Something to watch in the coming years.
Johnny Unitas was cut by his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers in 1955 after being a ninth-round draft choice that spring. A year later, he was signed by the Baltimore Colts and proceeded to play 17 stellar seasons in Charm City, winning three titles, a trio of NFL MVP awards and many people’s vote as the greatest quarterback to ever live.
Oddly enough, Unitas never got revenge against his old team on its own turf. It wasn’t until Week 4 of 1973 when he started a game at Pittsburgh, and that came in his only year — and final professionally — with the San Diego Chargers.
Incredibly, the Pittsburgh return would be Unitas’ final NFL start, a 38-21 loss where the legend went 2-of-9 for 19 yards and two interceptions.
I watch a ton of football documentaries. Can’t get enough. I have two worth watching repeatedly for you to consider.
Produced by HBO in 2001, The Game of Their Lives chronicles pro football in the 1950s. It covers travel, rough play, the small-town feel and how a sport of roughnecks gave way to Madison Avenue by decade’s end. The story is told through interviews with players of the period, along with tremendous color footage. It’s an absolute must-watch.
Second, a five-part documentary from Showtime entitled Full Color Football: The History of the American Football League. It was produced by the late, great Steve Sabol, and stitches together the beginnings of a rebel league and how within 10 years, it was beating the NFL on the game’s grandest stage. Again, we see old players, classic shots and get stories rarely told in the mainstream.
Each summer, I have an annual period where I fall in love with the game again, waiting for it to return. Those two docs certainly helped me do so this time around.