Training camp and the return of preseason football from its one-year hiatus will answer plenty of questions entering the 2021 season, but other answers have already begun to surface through offseason reports surrounding minicamps and OTAs. The updates to these projections from our initial piece in May reflect some of those reports, with different players gaining or losing ground in various positional battles.
As in the first attempt, these projections are a combination of information from beat writers covering each team alongside intuition from PFF’s data on who will likely come out on top in various positional battles. Twelve players are covered for each side of the ball, adding room for an extra running back or tight end on offense and covering both base and nickel starters on defense (in most cases).
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Player to watch who isn’t listed: WR Rondale Moore
Arizona has thrown a screen on 17.7% of its pass attempts over the past two seasons, nearly three percentage points more than any other NFL offense. Moore’s dynamism is well suited to be on the receiving end of those screen passes in 2021. He broke 37 tackles after the catch in his freshman season alone at Purdue. His ceiling is higher than simply a gadget receiver, though. Moore's route running and ball skills could lead to him becoming a well-rounded threat from the slot, pushing Green and Kirk for playing time alongside Hopkins.
Player to watch who isn’t listed: S Richie Grant
Grant’s versatility, processing speed and strong play against the run all bode well for his chances to eventually win one of the starting safety jobs from the veterans, Harmon and Harris.
Grant was a three-year starter at UCF, seeing plenty of action deep, in the box and in the slot. He consistently got his hands on passes from those various alignments, recording 10 interceptions and 19 pass breakups over the course of his college career. Atlanta’s secondary would certainly benefit from Grant cracking the rotation early and proving he deserves a starting job.
Player to watch who isn’t listed: WR Rashod Bateman
Expect plenty of heavy personnel groupings again in Baltimore next season, limiting the playing time for what has suddenly become a crowded receiving corps. Bateman is listed behind both Brown and Watkins here, but he could very well end up as the No. 1 wide receiver on a roster that has no clear incumbent. Bateman showed he could win both in the slot and out wide while at Minnesota, earning 80.0-plus PFF grades in each role over the past two seasons.
PFF’s fantasy projections currently project Brown for 82 targets, Bateman for 72 targets and Watkins for 72 targets next season.
Player to watch who isn’t listed: WR Gabriel Davis
John Brown‘s injury last year opened the door for Davis, a fourth-round rookie out of UCF, to contribute. Davis responded with a solid season in which he was the offense’s primary deep threat, averaging over 17 yards per reception and leading the team's wide receivers in receptions (10), receiving yards (338) and receiving touchdowns (five) on passes 20 or more yards downfield.
Even after Brown’s departure, Davis will be competing for snaps in three-receiver sets with the newcomer Sanders, who has ranked in the 70th percentile of qualifying wide receivers in receiving grade over the past two seasons.
Player to watch who isn’t listed: OL Brady Christensen
In a July interview with the Charlotte Observer, Christensen said of the positions he’s currently practicing at: “I’ve played mostly on the right side, played a little guard and tackle.”
That’s interesting given that the weakest links on the Panthers’ offensive line currently reside on the left side, where Erving and Elflein project as starters. Christensen had an intriguing profile coming out of BYU, earning a 95.9 PFF grade last season and testing well at his pro day. There’s a good chance he deserves to be starting somewhere as a rookie, but it remains to be seen where that opportunity comes.
Player to watch who isn’t listed: CB Kindle Vildor
“He’s definitely flashing. Every play you get, every rep you get, you get a little bit more experience, a little bit more confidence and you can play faster,” head coach Matt Nagy said of Vildor in June, per Bears team reporter Larry Mayer.
The 2020 fifth-round pick played just over 200 defensive snaps as a rookie last season, earning a 47.1 PFF grade. From an experience standpoint, Trufant should be the favorite to replace Kyle Fuller outside next season, but Vildor has generated plenty of buzz as a candidate to earn the job.
Player to watch who isn’t listed: EDGE Cameron Sample
The Bengals lost Carl Lawson in free agency, but the additions they made at the edge defender position provide room for growth entering next season. Hendrickson was the big-name acquisition to start opposite Hubbard, with Sample and Joseph Ossai looking to provide a rotational spark as rookies. Sample’s versatility and ability to play with leverage could allow for more potential paths to the field than Ossai early on. He is coming off an impressive 2020 season at Tulane in which he earned an 89.9 PFF grade.
Player to watch who isn’t listed: DI Jordan Elliott
Defensive tackle stands out as a weak link on what has quickly become one of the league’s strongest rosters. Young players such as Elliott could change that perception, though. Elliott was relatively quiet in his 2020 rookie season (51.3 PFF grade on 350 defensive snaps), but PFF had him higher on the board than where he ended up being drafted — in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Elliott earned overall grades of 86.5 and 92.4 in his final two seasons at Missouri. He could push Jackson for playing time on the interior with a strong training camp.
Player to watch who isn’t listed: LB Keanu Neal
There’s no reason Dallas shouldn’t have one of the best linebacking corps in the NFL given how much the team has invested in the position. Beyond the three projected starters listed above — Parsons (2021 first-round pick), Vander Esch (2018 first-round pick) and Smith (2016 second-round pick) — Neal and rookie Jabril Cox will be competing for snaps.
Neal has earned a 76.0 PFF grade across three healthy seasons at safety, but reports indicate that the Cowboys plan to use him at linebacker. He could end up seeing plenty of playing time if either Smith or Vander Esch continues to disappoint.
Player to watch who isn’t listed: CB Patrick Surtain II
In one offseason, the Broncos improved their cornerback group from a clear area of need to a unit that will force one of Fuller, Darby or Surtain to start the year on the bench, with Callahan expected to start in the slot. In this projection, Surtain draws the short straw based on experience and Denver's notable investment in Fuller and Darby for 2021.
There’s no reason Surtain couldn’t have success in Vic Fangio’s defense immediately. He was arguably the most consistent cornerback in the 2021 class technically, seeing more coverage snaps than any cornerback in college football over the past three seasons.
Player to watch who isn’t listed: LB Derrick Barnes
The rookie Barnes is expected to fall behind Collins and Anzalone on the depth chart, but it’s not difficult to see him having a role defensively. It will likely be an early-down role that allows the former edge defender to play close to the line of scrimmage, taking advantage of his power against the run and as a blitz weapon. Barnes is a surehanded tackler — it was one of his biggest strengths coming out of Purdue. He missed just 22 tackles on 245 career attempts at the college level.
Player to watch who isn’t listed: CB Eric Stokes
King enters the 2021 season as the favorite to maintain his job on the outside alongside Alexander, but the last memory everyone has of him is a poor performance in Green Bay’s NFC Championship game loss to the Buccaneers. Stokes was drafted in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft to eventually replace King outside. It just remains to be seen how long it takes for that transition to begin.
Stokes earned PFF grades of at least 70.0 on 400 or more defensive snaps in each of the past three seasons at Georgia, but his reliance on contact could stand as a barrier to thrive in the NFL, much as it was for former Georgia cornerback DeAndre Baker as a rookie.
Player to watch who isn’t listed: T Marcus Cannon
Texans offensive line coach James Campen recently said that Cannon won’t move inside to guard, per The Athletic’s Aaron Reiss. Cannon was once considered a candidate to start at right guard, but he now figures to be in competition with only Howard at right tackle. The 33-year-old earned PFF grades of at least 70.0 in each of his last four seasons with Patriots and carries a nearly $7 million cap hit in 2021, making him a somewhat overqualified swing tackle if that’s the role he ends up in for Houston.
Player to watch who isn’t listed: LT Sam Tevi
Tevi and Julie’n Davenport don’t pose much of a challenge to a healthy Fisher for the starting left tackle job. But there’s no certainty that Fisher will be fully healthy after suffering an Achilles injury at the end of the 2020 season, nor that he’ll be 100% when he does come back. That makes Tevi, the likely No. 2 option at left tackle behind Fisher, one of the more important players on the Colts next season. Tevi has earned PFF grades below 60.0 in each of the past three seasons in Los Angeles.
Player to watch who isn’t listed: DI Taven Bryan
Offseason acquisitions Robertson-Harris and Brown should have two of the three starting defensive line positions secured in Jacksonville’s 3-4 base defense. The other spot should be more of an open competition, one that the rookie Tufele has a legitimate chance to win.
The 2021 season is a last chance of sorts for Bryan — a first-round pick by the Jaguars back in 2018. He appeared to be trending up following a 75.5 overall grade in 2019 before taking a clear step back last season (59.0 PFF grade). The opportunity is there for Bryan to bounce back if he can earn a role early in the season.
Player to watch who isn’t listed: OG Trey Smith
The sixth-round rookie out of Tennessee started training camp drawing first-team reps at right guard, per ESPN’s Adam Teicher. Medical red flags centered on a history of blood clots and inconsistency during his collegiate career led to his slide down draft boards, but there's plenty of talent there for Kansas City to work with. Smith, earned PFF grades of 78.6 and 73.4 in his final two seasons with the Volunteers, flashing on tape with a number of impressive blocks. If early training camp reports are any indication, the former five-star recruit is a legitimate challenger to Duvernay-Tardiff at right guard.
Player to watch who isn’t listed: CB Damon Arnette
Things are not trending in the right direction for Las Vegas’ 2020 first-round selection. The Athletic’s Vic Tafur discussed Arnette’s situation in June:
“Well, after watching minicamp practices Tuesday and Wednesday and talking to people in the building, Arnette has become almost an after-thought. The Raiders signed veteran Casey Hayward in May and all but handed him Arnette’s starting job opposite Trayvon Mullen. There was some speculation that one might move to slot corner but neither has practiced there yet.”
Despite his first-round pedigree, Arnette (41.7 PFF grade as a rookie last season) may already be on the hot seat in Gus Bradley’s defense, with Hayward and Mullen expected to get the first chance at starting roles outside.
Player to watch who isn’t listed: WR Tyron Johnson
There is no clear answer to the battle for the No. 3 wide receiver spot behind Allen and Williams. It could be the rookie Palmer, or it could be Jalen Guyton or Johnson if the Chargers are more interested in speed.
At first glance, Johnson’s 20 receptions during the 2020 regular season aren’t overly impressive. However, those catches came on just 163 routes run and led to nearly 400 receiving yards. Johnson was remarkably efficient on his opportunities and could break out as a deep threat for Herbert if he manages to earn more playing time this offseason.
Player to watch who isn’t listed: EDGE Terrell Lewis
The Rams are viewed as a defensive juggernaut entering the 2021 season because that’s exactly what they were with Brandon Staley at the helm in 2020. But a look at their defensive depth chart quickly gives way to questions, one of which is the starting edge spot opposite Floyd.
Lewis, a 2020 third-round pick, is likely the most talented candidate for that role, but health has not become any less of a concern for the Alabama product in the NFL. Lewis managed just 132 defensive snaps as a rookie, earning a 71.4 PFF grade on those snaps while battling various and lingering knee issues.
Player to watch who isn’t listed: S Brandon Jones
One has to imagine the Dolphins want Jones and Holland to be the team’s future starting safety tandem when looking at the draft resources invested across the past two NFL drafts. Jones would likely represent a downgrade in coverage over the returning starter at strong safety (Rowe) in 2021, but his size, athleticism and physicality closer to the line of scrimmage are intriguing. Jones’ player comparison in the 2020 PFF Draft Guide was former Patriots safety Patrick Chung. Head coach Brian Flores would certainly like to see Jones develop into that kind of player.
Player to watch who isn’t listed: DI Sheldon Richardson
Richardson may not be listed as a starter here, but he still fills an area of need for Minnesota’s defensive line after notching at least 600 defensive snaps in each of his first eight NFL seasons.
“It's really early right now to talk too much about roles. We anticipate that he's going to be the pass-rushing guy in there,” head coach Mike Zimmer said of Richardson, via Vikings’ team reporter Eric Smith. “Not that Dalvin [Tomlinson] and Michael [Pierce] can't do that, but that's kind of where we see him being worked in.”
Neither Pierce nor Tomlinson profile as a disruptive pass-rushing three technique — a role the team will look for Richardson to fill. His 127 pressures since his first stint with Minnesota in 2018 rank 11th among interior defensive linemen.
Player to watch who isn’t listed: WR Kendrick Bourne
The Patriots didn’t pay Henry and Smith over $55 million in guaranteed money this offseason for either to warm the bench. That means New England should have one of the highest rates of plays with two or fewer wide receivers on the field of any team in the NFL.
Agholor and Meyers received the starting designations in this case, but Bourne will have an opportunity to carve out a larger role than he ever saw in San Francisco, with no true No. 1 wide receiver on the depth chart. Bourne’s PFF grade has improved every season of his career, headlined by a 72.0 in 2020.
Player to watch who isn’t listed: ED Payton Turner
New Orleans’ defensive line depth took a hit this offseason due to both Trey Hendrickson and Sheldon Rankins departing in free agency. Davenport, the expected starter opposite Jordan, has consistently battled injuries throughout his NFL career, as well. And Onyemata is facing a potential suspension. That opens the door for Turner to see more playing time than he may have otherwise.
Turner possesses the size and athleticism to contribute both inside and outside. He came away from his four starts last season at Houston with a career-best 90.0 pass-rushing grade to complement solid play against the run throughout his college career.
Player to watch who isn’t listed: WR Kadarius Toney
Toney’s skill set fills a need for the Giants’ offense. New York’s wide receiver group ranked dead last in yards after the catch per reception during the 2020 season (3.0 yards). That becomes even more of an issue because of how Jones has shied away from downfield passes early in his NFL career.
Enter, Toney. As the PFF Draft Guide put it, you can’t teach what Toney can do with the ball in his hands. It’s been a slow start to the offseason due to minor injuries and three weeks of missed voluntary workouts, but it’s hard to imagine the Giants won’t have a package in place for him offensively.
Player to watch who isn’t listed: DI Folorunso Fatukasi
The Jets' defensive line is likely the strength of the roster entering the 2021 season. Fatukasi is listed behind both Williams and the free agent acquisition Rankins above, but he’ll have a clear role as an early-down run stuffer in the middle of New York’s defensive line. Fatukasi has quietly been one of the league’s best in that role over the past two seasons. The only interior defenders to earn a higher run-defense grade than Fatukasi since 2019 (90.4) are Aaron Donald (91.3) and Cameron Heyward (90.6).
Player to watch who isn’t listed: iOL Landon Dickerson
The Eagles’ offensive line is a strength, but the roster as a whole is heading in the wrong direction. And the offensive line is also one of the older position groups on Philadelphia’s roster. Kelce will turn 34 years old this season, and Brooks will turn 32 in August as he works his way back from an Achilles injury that held him out of the 2020 season.
Dickerson is a clear succession plan on the interior, and he also provides insurance should injuries hit again. There’s a chance he could compete with Seumalo at left guard, as well. Dickerson earned a 91.3 grade as Alabama’s starting center last season.
Player to watch who isn’t listed: CB James Pierre
The Steelers re-signed Sutton this offseason over Mike Hilton because Sutton has the versatility to potentially move outside, where he has started several games over the course of his NFL career. Ideally, that’s where he will start in 2021, with Brooks reportedly standing out as the current favorite to be the starting nickel, per The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly.
However, Pittsburgh could always move Sutton back inside, where he ranks in the 97th percentile of qualifying cornerbacks in slot coverage grade since 2019, if the team isn't happy with the other slot options. That would open the door for Pierre (38 defensive snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2020) to start opposite Haden.
Player to watch who isn’t listed: EDGE Dee Ford
Two offseasons ago, San Francisco traded a second-round pick for Ford, who then signed a five-year, $87.5 million contract following a career year in Kansas City. Ford has played a total of 368 defensive snaps since that trade, missing much of the past two seasons with injury.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan said the following of Ford in a June press conference: “But he made a lot of progress in the months that he was rehabbing here. We knew we weren’t going to put him through OTAs because we don’t want his back to act up. So I’m just keeping my fingers crossed and I’m hoping he can come ready to go in training camp and hopefully he can help us out this year.”
Ford was effective when on the field in 2019, ending the regular season with a 15.3% pressure rate (second on team) on 163 pass-rushing snaps.
Player to watch who isn’t listed: EDGE Alton Robinson
It gets lost a little bit in the bigger picture of Seattle’s pass-rushing woes last season, but Robinson was just about as impressive in his rookie year as anyone could have expected from a fifth-round edge defender.
He finished the year with grades of at least 65.0 both as a run defender and a pass rusher on 344 defensive snaps. Dunlap, Benson Mayowa and Aldon Smith (potentially) all stand in the way of Robinson earning a starting job, but look for the second-year man to challenge that group, all of whom will be 30 years old by the start of the season.
Player to watch who isn’t listed: RB Giovani Bernard
The 2020 Buccaneers offense had nothing close to James White as a receiving outlet for Brady out of the backfield. Tampa Bay running backs combined to drop 15 passes, three more than any other running back unit during the regular season.
That receiving back role is one Bernard filled throughout his eight-year career in Cincinnati, and he should quickly become the team’s best option on passing downs. White and Le’Veon Bell are the only two running backs with more receptions than Bernard since 2013.
Player to watch who isn’t listed: DB Elijah Molden
Tennessee has overhauled its cornerback room this offseason. Malcolm Butler and Adoree’ Jackson are out, while Jenkins, Farley and Molden are in. Jenkins seems to be a lock at one of the outside spots, with Farley the presumptive second starter if healthy. Titans’ team reporter Jim Wyatt recently reported that he doesn’t expect Farley to be available on Day 1 of training camp, though he does expect him to appear at some point. Farley not making the necessary strides to start the season could open the door for Fulton to move outside and Molden to challenge for the starting slot job.
Molden earned a 90.8 PFF grade in that role for Washington back in 2019 — his last full season of action. He’s a relatively safe bet to translate well into that spot in the NFL.
Player to watch who isn’t listed: DI Matt Ioannidis
It’s easy for a player like Ioannidis to get lost in the shuffle on a defensive line as talented as Washington’s. That doesn’t mean we should lose sight of what he can do when healthy, though. He returns from injury in 2021, becoming yet another player who opposing offensive lines must worry about on passing downs. Ioannidis ranks in the 89th percentile of all qualifying interior defenders in pass-rushing grade since 2017.
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