We're still five months away from the 2021 NFL season, but with all the offseason wheeling and dealing, I can't help but think forward to the coming campaign.
Extra games. Extra pressure. Extra spicy Schein Nine.
Here is my list of make-or-break players for 2021:
The Kenny Golladay signing was flat-out great. He gives the Giants a legit No. 1 receiver. Saquon Barkley is on the road to recovery. Joe Judge did a heck of a job as a first-time head coach, squeezing six wins out of last year's roster.
Daniel Jones is out of excuses -- if, that is, you foolishly gave him a pass in the first place. Jones was a reach at No. 6 overall in the 2019 draft and has displayed an unfortunate knack for turning the ball over as the Giants' quarterback (SEE: 22 interceptions and 17 lost fumbles in 27 career games). I love how he got the band together to work out this offseason. But I think it is foolish of John Mara to believe, as he told Ian O'Connor of the New York Post, that Jones can get you to the Super Bowl. I don't think he's capable of a logging winning season or becoming entrenched as Big Blue's QB1 for years to come.
If Jones can't get it together in Year 3, the Giants will have to move on from the quarterback -- and the man who drafted him.
I love Darnold's talent. I think the Panthers made a sensational deal. They gave the Jets three picks (including just one of legit value, a 2022 second-rounder) for a talented quarterback who still doesn't even turn 24 until June. Darnold will thrive under head coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady, with Christian McCaffrey flanking him in the backfield, plus old friend Robby Anderson and D.J. Moore out wide. It's dreamy, especially compared to the hand he was dealt in New York. The Jets' offensive line, receivers, tight ends and running backs were bottom of the barrel for the bulk of Darnold's tenure. And the coaching he received clearly left something to be desired. I think the Jets would've kept him if Joe Douglas weren't smitten with BYU's Zach Wilson. And that's saying something, because Douglas didn't draft Darnold, so there was no attachment.
The flip side, of course, is that it better happen for Darnold in 2021, with the great coaching and surrounding talent. The former No. 3 overall pick didn't show much in his first three years as an NFL quarterback. While I have no problem laying much of the blame on the Jets' ineptitude and Darnold's bad luck -- remember "Out Indefinitely: Mononucleosis"? -- it needs to click in Charlotte.
This was between a reach and a gamble when Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock made the "WHOA!" pick of the 2019 draft, taking Ferrell at No. 4 overall. The defensive end followed up his pedestrian (at best) rookie season with an invisible 2020 campaign.
This cat was a consensus All-American and the ACC Defensive Player of the Year at Clemson. There's talent here somewhere. The Raiders need to see it pronto, with a defense that finished last season at 30th in points allowed and 29th in sacks. Ferrell had just two sacks himself over 11 starts in 2020. In a division with Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert, the Raiders must get after opposing quarterbacks.
So we are clear: I am guilty of loving Zeke's rare skill set. I've long defended his talent, versatility and worth. I've consistently pumped up his ranking on the pecking order of the Cowboys' roster. I've touted his superiority over most other backs in the league.
For 2020, I was dead wrong. Elliott let me and the Cowboys down, with career lows in rushing yards per game (65.3), yards per carry (4.0) and total touchdowns (eight). It was a complete dud of a season a total failure to live up to his filthy-rich contract. But I think Zeke bounces back this fall.
In five NFL seasons, Elliott's eclipsed 1,350 yards three times, leading the league in rushing twice. He's a terrific receiver out of the backfield, and Dak Prescott's return to the lineup will be a boon for the back.
But expectations for the Cowboys are annually sky high. And the pressure is always next level -- especially for Elliott, following last year's underachievement.
It's important to note here that the Browns' current GM, Andrew Berry, didn't trade for Odell. Neither did head coach Kevin Stefanski. It's also important to note that Berry and Stefanski are gems, fantastic at their respective jobs.
The Browns are coming. They just snapped an 18-year playoff drought and won a postseason road game, making expectations quite high in 2021. It's also not hyperbole to say that Cleveland -- and specifically Baker Mayfield -- played its best in 2020 without Odell. Whether this is a coincidence or not, the NFL is a results-oriented business. In his first three pro seasons, Beckham averaged 96 catches for 1,374 yards and 12 touchdowns. Over the last four injury-riddled campaigns, those averages have plummeted to this uninspiring line: 50/677/4.
It's Cleveland's time to shine. And Beckham will be an ex-Brown if his presence doesn't foster more wins for the team and increased growth from Baker.
I'm not giving up on Oliver, but he took a step back in 2020 after a solid rookie season. And the Bills need the No. 9 overall pick from the 2019 draft to take a gigantic step forward in 2021.
As proven by last year's 13-3 regular season and ensuing trip to the AFC title game, the Bills are legit. They are ready for prime time. But they need Oliver to become the monster he's capable of being, the kind of game wrecker up front who can disrupt someone like Patrick Mahomes in the playoffs.
I know Wentz can be a star. We saw it in 2017, when he was squarely in the MVP mix before tearing his ACL in Week 14. We saw it in 2019, when he carried a no-name receiving corps to the playoffs by going 4-0 against the division in December to make the playoffs. I know 2020 was circumstantial, but it doesn't matter what I know -- it only matters what we see in 2021.
Yes, I feel that Wentz had legit reasons for failure last season, but there's no need to recap the excuses. Not after Wentz's offseason relocation to a plum position in Indy, where he's reunited with Frank Reich, who was his offensive coordinator in that stellar '17 campaign. The Colts provide the 28-year-old signal-caller with a fine, Quenton Nelson-led O-line. Wentz will be handing the ball off to Jonathan Taylor, who just rushed for 1,169 yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie. Another 2020 rookie, Michael Pittman, flashed promising potential out wide, and T.Y. Hilton's staying put on a one-year deal. Not to mention, Matt Eberflus' defense finished top 10 in points and yards allowed.
Indy's the type of team that could take the division, and then win a playoff game or two. This is that kind of roster. The pressure's on for Wentz to deliver the goods. I think he will. (And he better.)
Turns out aspiring TikTok stardom just doesn't command a whole lot of interest on the open market. JuJu was great as Antonio Brown's wingman. But after AB's departure, his performance didn't produce multi-year money to his liking, which is why he found his way back to Pittsburgh on a one-year, $8 million deal.
When JuJu's mind is right -- and his priorities are in order -- the guy is tough and fun to watch. Even next to Brown, you don't clear 1,400 yards just by showing up. This guy's skilled -- and he's still just 24! Time to prove last year's meager yards-per-catch figure (8.6) was just a bump in the road.
Brown sure wants to be the man, and I think he has the potential to be a No. 1, but we need to see it. During the 2020 regular season, we heard nothing from Brown but a remix of Keyshawn Johnson's "Just Give Me the Damn Ball!." Key always delivered. Brown has not -- except, to his credit, during the playoffs. In three career postseason games, Brown has caught 18 passes for 322 yards (17.89 yards per catch). But this just kind of adds to the tease of this former first-rounder. Where's that dominance in the first four months of the season? Baltimore needs it!
The Ravens added Sammy Watkins to the receiving corps in free agency and tight end Mark Andrews has become a major factor over the past two seasons, but the Ravens need Brown to truly realize his play-making potential. Baltimore ranked dead last in passing offense this past season. Time for "Hollywood" to show out.