Plenty of data suggests the preseason actually teaches us very little about an NFL team. That lone, giant disclaimer is attached to every observation, and it’s the argument used to bring down every positive take gleaned from preseason action.
“Yes, but it came against second- and third-stringers.”
Even if the preseason doesn’t provide us with a wealth of actionable information, it does offer new storylines to dissect. This piece is a collection of those headlines in the form of one preseason takeaway for all 32 NFL teams as we get ready to head into the 2021 NFL regular season.
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Marco Wilson needs to be a key contributor in 2021
The Cardinals ran man coverage on 46% of their defensive snaps in 2020 — a lower rate than only Miami and Detroit. Their ability to operate that style of defense was already under question entering next season before Malcolm Butler’s retirement. And Butler's recent departure only adds more fuel to that fire.
Suddenly, fourth-round rookie cornerback Marco Wilson is a favorite to start alongside Byron Murphy and Robert Alford or Luq Barcoo. He has the physical profile of a man-coverage cornerback, but recklessness in coverage led to a 53.8 PFF grade in his final season at Florida. Wilson did impress this preseason, forcing incompletions on three of the six passes thrown his way.
The offensive line could be a problem
Atlanta shied away from giving any key starter reps in the preseason. The expected starters up front combined for just 42 offensive snaps, and left tackle Jake Matthews didn’t play at all. Even with that caveat, it was still a disappointing effort for the unit. The Falcons’ offensive line combined for a 46.4 PFF grade (31st), and Atlanta quarterbacks were under pressure on a league-high 57% of their dropbacks.
The starters playing together should help matters. But there are still questions that need answers at three of the five starting positions — left guard, center and right tackle — entering 2021.
The secondary was too deep to keep a promising prospect
Baltimore’s decision to trade Shaun Wade to the Patriots is a reflection of just how deep the team is at cornerback. Wade was stuck behind Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, Tavon Young, Jimmy Smith and Anthony Averett on the depth chart. That’s why Baltimore opted to flip the rookie for future picks, despite Wade intercepting the only pass thrown his way on 25 preseason coverage snaps. Too much quality depth at one position isn’t the worst problem to have.
Defensive line depth is in a better spot heading into 2021
Through eight games of the 2020 season, the Bills’ 39.9% pressure rate ranked third in the league. Yet, it dropped to 32.8% (14th) over the second half of the year. Additional depth in the form of Gregory Rousseau and Boogie Basham should help keep veterans Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison fresh throughout the season.
Rousseau highlighted over the past month that he could provide a spark as a pass-rusher, showing few signs of rust after his 2020 opt-out. His 26.9% pressure rate led all rookies with at least 25 pass-rushing snaps this preseason.
Terrace Marshall Jr. will have a significant role
The only wide receiver with more receiving yards than Marshall this preseason (181) was Malik Turner (185). That may fall under the category of preseason statistics that don’t count for much, but Marshall (the 28th-ranked prospect on PFF’s 2021 NFL Draft Big Board) looks the part of the latest in a long line of recent rookie wide receivers who flourished in their first NFL season.
Marshall ran 30 of 46 routes this preseason from the slot, and quarterback Sam Darnold targeted receivers lined up in the slot on 13 of his 25 targeted attempts this preseason.
Justin Fields is the better option at quarterback, but the offense around him remains far from ideal
Fields finished the preseason ranked 27th in PFF grade out of 88 quarterbacks with at least 30 snaps. Dalton finished just 77th. Fields gives the Bears a better chance at competing when factoring in both preseason performance and his prospect profile coming out of Ohio State.
However, the situation around the Bears' starting quarterback position is far from optimal, namely an offensive line that ranked 25th as a unit in PFF grade this preseason. Fields’ style of play — always looking to extend and make plays downfield — puts a microscope on that weakness up front. He was under pressure on 47% of his dropbacks (second-highest) with an average time to throw of 3.5 seconds (highest).
Several Bengals’ rookies likely won’t be as big of contributors as hoped for
The first name that comes to mind under this umbrella is first-round wideout Ja’Marr Chase. The LSU standout dropped four of the five passes thrown his way this preseason. While far from an ideal start to his NFL career, those drop issues aren’t yet a reason for panic. Chase could very well still contribute at a high level in 2021.
It’s less likely that the Bengals’ next two picks will. Joseph Ossai was an unfortunate preseason injury loss (knee), particularly following his seven-pressure showing against Tampa Bay. And Jackson Carman wasn’t able to win a wide-open battle for the starting job at right guard. It wasn’t an ideal start for Cincinnati’s top draft picks.
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah can have success as a traditional box linebacker
Owusu-Koramoah did not have a typical linebacker role in Notre Dame’s defense. He lined up in the slot on 670 defensive snaps over the past two seasons for the Fighting Irish in his “Rover” role, more than any other FBS linebacker during that stretch.
This preseason, 46 of his 59 defensive snaps for the Browns came in the box, and he showed the explosiveness to excel in a more traditional role. Owusu-Koramoah's 72.3 PFF grade ranked 20th out of 130 off-ball linebackers to record at least 50 defensive snaps.
The Cowboys’ new linebackers are going to see a lot of the field
Cowboys LB preseason overview
|Player||Snaps played||PFF grade|
|Leighton Vander Esch||27||75.4|
Parsons and Neal both ended the preseason with 90.0-plus PFF grades, and it’s difficult to see defensive coordinator Dan Quinn keeping them off the field for extended stretches in favor of the incumbent starters. The position should be the strength of Dallas’ defense, particularly if one or both of Smith and Vander Esch bounce back.
All of a sudden, Denver has one of the NFL's deepest secondaries
All four of the defensive backs Denver selected in the 2021 NFL Draft who played this preseason — Patrick Surtain II, Caden Sterns, Jamar Johnson and Kary Vincent Jr. — earned PFF grades of 73.0 or higher. Those rookie newcomers are joined by proven cornerback starters Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby in the Broncos’ new-look secondary.
Denver has to feel significantly better about the starting options at cornerback and depth throughout the secondary entering this season than it did in 2020, especially in a division that includes Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert.
Penei Sewell isn’t a plug-and-play starter at right tackle like expected
Sewell’s early struggles are evidence that switching from left to right tackle isn’t an inconsequential move. He hasn’t looked fully comfortable at his new position. Sewell’s 27.0 pass-blocking grade ranked dead last among 47 right tackles with at least 50 offensive snaps this preseason.
He should improve with time, but time isn’t exactly a luxury that Sewell has right now with the regular season nearing. Expectations may need to be tempered for him and Detroit’s offensive line in 2021 — an expected strength of this roster.
Offensive line concerns are eased with strong preseason performance
Corey Linsley is now a Los Angeles Charger, and David Bakhtiari will begin the season on the PUP list. Those are two major holes Green Bay must fill early in the season. Naturally, questions will arise as to how the unit will evolve and continue to perform at a high level.
Elgton Jenkins, and his ability to fill in at every position along the offensive line, is one catch-all answer to those questions. He’ll likely be asked to play left tackle until Bakhtiari returns. Multiple offensive linemen beyond Jenkins stood out for Green Bay this preseason, though. Rookie Royce Newman (91.8 PFF grade) was one of them.
Davis Mills provided little reason to put him on the field early
The prevailing thought entering this season was that Mills would need to take over at some point so that Houston could get a look at him before making another quarterback decision next offseason. That is still likely the case, but Mills didn’t provide much reason for optimism with his preseason performance.
Highest uncatchable pass rate | 2021 preseason
|Player||Uncatchable pass rate|
His 43.7 passing grade was the third-lowest mark among qualifying quarterbacks, and his 41% uncatchable pass rate led all players at the position.
Depth at quarterback, left tackle and wide receiver is keeping Colts afloat
Between injuries and COVID-19 related absences, Indianapolis’ offensive depth is being tested. Sam Tevi’s ACL injury takes away another tackle option until Eric Fisher is able to work his way back from injury at left tackle. And T.Y. Hilton’s injury reduces the number of options for Carson Wentz, or whichever quarterback fills in for Wentz, to start the season.
The “next men up” did deliver solid performances this preseason, though. Jacob Eason (81.5), Dezmon Patton (76.3), Michael Strachan (73.0) and Julie’n Davenport (69.9) were among Indianapolis’ highest-graded offensive players.
Jacksonville shouldn’t be trying to deal C.J. Henderson
If this preseason is any indication, new Jaguars defensive coordinator Joe Cullen is carrying over the man-coverage tendencies of Baltimore’s defenses. The Jaguars ranked among the top 10 defenses in Cover 1 usage and among the top five defenses in Cover 0 usage this preseason.
Henderson’s ability to stick with receivers in man coverage was a selling point coming out of Florida, and he delivered a team-high 76.4 coverage grade during the preseason, forcing an incompletion on three of his nine targets. The reports from earlier this offseason that Henderson is available via trade would be a mistake for the new regime in Jacksonville.
Young right side of offensive line looks strong
Inserting proven veterans Orlando Brown Jr. and Joe Thuney into the lineup is one thing. Slotting three first-year players into place next to each other on the offensive line is another entirely. That is what Kansas City plans to do with Creed Humphrey, Trey Smith and 2020 rookie opt-out Lucas Niang from center to right tackle.
It’s natural to assume there will be growing pains from that group, but those didn’t show up in the preseason. All three first-year starters recorded PFF grades above 70.0 on their 67 snaps. They combined to allow just one pressure.
Cornerbacks Nate Hobbs and Amik Robertson raise stock
The Raiders were one of the teams most resistant to giving any preseason reps to entrenched starters, as evidenced by Nathan Peterman’s 109 preseason dropbacks. That opened the door for players like Hobbs and Robertson to show what they could do in an extended run of action.
Hobbs has seemingly locked down the starting slot cornerback job after earning a 90.7 PFF grade on his 57 defensive snaps, and Robertson secured his spot on the 53-man roster with a 78.0 PFF grade this preseason. They allowed a combined 42.7 passer rating into their coverage on 16 targets.
Josh Palmer will have a role as the team’s WR3
The likes of Andre Patton and Jalen Guyton have largely been non-factors for the Chargers in a WR3 role over the past several seasons. Palmer, a third-round rookie out of Tennessee, has an opportunity to change that.
Justin Herbert represents a sizable step up in quarterback play from what Palmer worked with at Tennessee, and the rookie receiver is a sudden route-runner who can both win vertically and create separation underneath. He was targeted 12 times on 46 routes this preseason, potentially setting the scene for a complementary role in the regular season.
Shift back to 11 personnel in 2021
The Rams lined up in 11 personnel — one tight end, one running back and three wide receivers — on 81% of their offensive snaps in Sean McVay’s first three seasons as head coach. That was comfortably the highest rate in the NFL. That trend started to shift in 2020, dropping to 64% (13th) with a related spike in 12 personnel.
This preseason saw another move, as the Rams led all teams in 11 personnel — with 89% of their offensive snaps coming in the grouping. Yes, it’s just the preseason, but the additions of Desean Jackson and Tutu Atwell at wide receiver paired with the loss of Gerald Everett could lead to Los Angeles moving back to more three-receiver sets.
Tua Tagovailoa looks much more comfortable in his second season
No offense averaged more yards per pass play this preseason than the Dolphins (7.7), and that number was a half-yard higher when Tagovailoa was at quarterback (8.2 yards per pass play). His uncatchable pass rate this preseason of 12.9% was fifth-lowest among quarterbacks with at least 25 attempts. And he put up those numbers without DeVante Parker and Will Fuller V, who project to be two of Tagovailoa’s top targets during the regular season.
The Deshaun Watson-to-Miami links resurfaced this week, but Tagovailoa looks like a young quarterback who deserves a chance in his first full season back from the major injury that ended his Alabama career.
It’s difficult to rely on rookie offensive linemen to elevate a unit
The Christian Darrisaw and Wyatt Davis selections in the 2021 NFL Draft were supposed to elevate an offensive line that has been a thorn in the side of Minnesota’s offense for years. But so were the Garrett Bradbury and Ezra Cleveland selections, neither of which paid immediate dividends.
Darrisaw isn’t expected to be ready to start the season following a second groin surgery, and Davis (40.3 preseason pass-blocking grade) was unable to win the right guard job. It’s another reminder that relying on rookie offensive linemen is a dangerous game.
Mac Jones gave every reason to believe he is a starting-caliber quarterback
Cam Newton didn’t lose the starting job (and his spot on the 53-man roster) with his preseason performance. Jones won the job. His 92.2 PFF grade this preseason ranked second among qualifying quarterbacks, and he was one of just three passers to deliver an accurate ball on over 70% of his attempts, per PFF’s ball-charting data.
First-round rookie quarterbacks | 2021 preseason
|Player||PFF grade||Accurate pass %||Big-time throw %|
|Trevor Lawrence||78.3 (10th)||58.5% (22nd)||4.5% (t-22nd)|
|Zach Wilson||85.7 (N/A)||64.7% (N/A)||9.1% (N/A)|
|Trey Lance||56.7 (46th)||47.4% (48th)||4.5% (t-22nd)|
|Justin Fields||67.6 (20th)||38.3% (59th)||5.7% (t-13th)|
|Mac Jones||92.2 (2nd)||70.8% (3rd)||6.9% (7th)|
He represented a better option to run an offense resembling what had worked for so many years under Tom Brady, and he made it difficult for head coach Bill Belichick and company to keep him from starting against Miami in Week 1.
The Saints’ passing game might be in better shape than initially anticipated
Both Winston (92.3 PFF grade) and Callaway (95.9 PFF grade) excelled on limited reps, connecting on all five of their targets for 104 yards and two touchdowns. That duo will need to carry over their momentum into the regular season on a larger sample and against better competition if the Saints plan on making the postseason for the fifth straight year.
The offensive line didn’t look much better in pass protection compared to 2020
Last season, the Giants' offensive line earned the lowest PFF pass-blocking grade in the NFL, and it joined the Jets as one of two offenses to allow pressure on at least 40% of dropbacks. Despite those troubles, the Giants largely ignored the offensive line this offseason, banking on development from several of their young starters. A 42% pressure rate allowed this preseason (30th) shows the unit will once again be a concern in 2021.
The new offense looked sharp
There is a lot of positive buzz around the Jets' future, particularly on offense with Mike LaFleur at offensive coordinator and Zach Wilson at quarterback. Wilson earned an 83.9 passing grade this preseason on limited work, showing nice control of the offense.
It’s clear that Corey Davis is going to be a big part of this passing attack after seeing 10 targets on his 13 routes, as well. With key rookies Alijah Vera-Tucker and Elijah Moore slated to return to action, New York’s offense should be much easier to watch in 2021.
The Eagles are going to run a lot more two-high, zone coverages in 2021
The Eagles ran man coverage at a top-five rate in the NFL during the 2020 season, but it looks like that’s changing under new defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon. Philadelphia led all defenses this preseason in Cover 2 rate (39%) and number of snaps with two-high safeties post-snap. On the flip side, no defense ran less Cover 1 than the Eagles over the past month (7%). It’s a trend that should carry over into the regular season, given Gannon’s tendencies while with the Colts.
Kevin Dotson is in line for a big season amid Pittsburgh’s larger offensive line concerns
Dotson entered the preseason behind Rashaad Coward at left guard, but he quickly reclaimed the starting job with his performance. His 91.1 overall grade across 120 snaps ranked second among qualifying guards, trailing only Royce Newman in Green Bay. Dotson allowed just one hurry on 65 pass-blocking snaps.
Dotson pressure rate allowed | Ranks at guard
|Season||Pressure rate allowed|
|2020 season||0.5% (1st / 80)|
|2021 preseason||1.5% (19th / 108)|
The problem for Pittsburgh is the other four spots. Projected starting right tackle Zach Banner was recently placed on injured reserve, meaning he will miss at least the first three games of the season. The Steelers will also introduce new starters at center (Kendrick Green) and right guard (Trai Turner), and Chukwuma Okorafor was set to move from right to left tackle. Any hope for cohesion from the unit requires some projection.
Little clarity was gained regarding the starting quarterback situation
San Francisco has yet to officially name a starting quarterback heading into the 2021 regular season, and neither Jimmy Garoppolo nor Trey Lance went out and won the job like Mac Jones did in New England this preseason. Garoppolo comes away with the slight edge in PFF grade (60.2), but it’s not enough of a gap over Lance (56.7) to disregard the benefits of Lance’s talent for an offense with Kyle Shanahan as the play caller.
The issue for Lance throughout the preseason has been the big mistakes. Some 32% of his passes were charted as uncatchable, and his five turnover-worthy plays were tied for the most of any quarterback this preseason.
Jordyn Brooks looks ready to take on larger role in 2021
K.J. Wright’s departure opens the door for a larger role for Seattle’s 2020 first-round selection alongside Bobby Wagner in sub packages. PFF’s Seth Galina highlighted Brooks as a second-year breakout candidate entering the season. An 81.7 overall grade across 65 preseason snaps points to the idea that Brooks is on that trajectory.
His 50.0 PFF grade as a rookie was dragged down by poor marks in coverage, but first-year linebackers notably struggle to acclimate to the NFL early on. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see that grade trend up this season.
Joe Tryon-Shoyinka can add immediate pass-rush depth as a rookie
Tryon-Shoyinka doesn’t have to carry an already loaded Buccaneers front seven. He simply needs to provide some juice in a rotational capacity, and he showed he can certainly do that this preseason after refining his body and his craft during his 2020 opt-out.
Tampa Bay’s first-round selection registered a 79.4 pass-rushing grade and six quarterback pressures in three preseason contests. He looks the part of an NFL edge rusher, giving the Buccaneers insurance if Jason Pierre-Paul takes a step back at 32 years old.
Several under-the-radar, young players can elevate the defense this season
Even with some of the losses Tennessee suffered on offense, the defense remains the Titans’ bigger area of concern entering next season. However, a quick look at their highest-graded defenders this preseason provides reason for optimism.
Titans highest-graded defenders | 2021 preseason
Sam Cosmi’s biggest contribution early will likely be in the run game
Cosmi looks to be the favorite to start the season at right tackle for Washington following an impressive 81.8 PFF grade this preseason. That grade was boosted by a 92.5 run-blocking grade, though. Cosmi still has some issues to work through in pass protection, where he was charged with a sack and a hit allowed on his 39 pass-blocking snaps, in addition to four additional pass-blocking losses that didn’t result in pressure.
Journeyman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is no stranger to working behind porous offensive lines, but the Football Team would like to see Cosmi bring his play in pass protection up to what he flashed as a run blocker over the past few weeks.