It didn't take long for the Arizona Cardinals to make their first big offseason splash.

For the second year running, the Cardinals took advantage of the dysfunction enveloping the Houston Texans to land a star player whom they hope will push them towards the playoffs.

J.J. Watt has linked up with former Texans team-mate DeAndre Hopkins, signing a two-year deal to provide a significant boost to the Cardinals' defense.

While Watt should unquestionably improve the Cardinals' odds of stopping opposing attacks, Arizona will need to take several other steps this offseason to have a chance of emerging from a hyper-competitive NFC West and progressing to the playoffs.

The Cardinals looked ready to make such a leap in 2020 in the second year of the Kliff Kingsbury-Kyler Murray experience.

But an ugly finish to an 8-8 season suggested this is still a team some way from true championship contention.

Using Stats Perform data, we look at what was learned from that campaign and what the Cardinals must do in 2021 to ensure they have a winning record and are playing postseason football next season.

Offense

The Arizona offense was in the top half of the NFL in terms of yards per play, their average of 5.68 putting them 14th.

However, the lack of progression from the passing game, even after the addition of Hopkins, held the Cardinals back from becoming one of the league's elite offenses.

Arizona finished the year 18th in pass yards per play (6.48) but were ninth in rushing average (4.67).

The Cardinals' underperformance in the passing game was not for lack of effort on Murray's part.

Indeed, his completion percentage jumped from 64.4 in 2019 to 67.2, his passing yardage improved from 3,722 to 3,971 and he threw 26 touchdowns compared to 20 a year earlier.

Yet his yards per attempt average of 7.12 was still only good enough for 22nd in the NFL, while his interception percentage of 2.2 was the third-most among quarterbacks to have started all 16 games.

Given Kingsbury's expertise in the Air Raid offense, a system renowned for its reliance on downfield passing concepts, Murray's tally of 44 completions of 20 yards or more - tied for 15th in the NFL - was disappointing.

But the Cardinals should continue to be excited about the offense's potential when they fully harness Murray's upside as a deep-ball thrower. Among the quarterbacks with at least 25 attempts of 21 or more air yards, his passer rating of 127.4 on such throws was the third-best.

One of the most exciting dual-threat quarterbacks in the NFL, Murray again added significant value as a runner, rushing for 819 yards and 11 touchdowns. With 419 of those yards on scrambles, Murray continues to be one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the league when the pocket breaks down.

Hopkins enjoyed a monster first season in Arizona - his 1,407 receiving yards were the third-most in the NFL - but the numbers suggest he could use more help.

Deep threat Christian Kirk had six touchdowns but esteemed veteran Larry Fitzgerald's yards per catch average of 7.6 was the lowest of his remarkable career, indicating he may be reaching the limits of his longevity and that a more dynamic third option is required.

Defense

Watt joins a defense that performed at a high level in 2020.

The Cardinals allowed 5.34 yards per play, the eighth-least in the NFL, while their average of 5.86 yards per pass play allowed ranked sixth in the league.

Their success in that regard came despite losing star edge rusher Chandler Jones to a torn bicep, the three-time Pro Bowler denied the chance to maintain his streak of having double-digit sacks in every season of his Cardinals career.

Stepping up in Jones' absence was Haason Reddick, who posted a career-high 12.5 sacks - including five in one game against the New York Giants - and 15 tackles for loss along with 16 quarterback hits.

His contributions down the stretch helped the Cardinals produce 109 negative plays from their opponents for a total of minus 477 yards, the fourth-best mark in the league.

Taking that into account, their takeaway tally of 21 may be seen as disappointing, though it was in line with the league average.

Arizona's inability to trouble the upper echelon in terms of takeaways could be partially attributed to the play of veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson.

Peterson had a burn percentage of 64.1 in 2020. A burn occurs when a receiver is open for a number of yards that take up a certain percentage of yards to go for a first down, depending on the down. The yardage is attributed to the defender regardless of whether the receiver catches the pass.

He gave up 590 burn yards and had six burns for touchdowns, both team highs.

The Cardinals have added a veteran presence to the front seven in Watt but, as with Fitzgerald in the receiving corps, a more youthful talent may be required to take on Peterson's role and help Arizona make key improvements in the secondary.

Offseason

Fitzgerald and Peterson make up two of Arizona's 23 unrestricted free agents this offseason, though if the former is not back it will likely be because he has decided to hang up the cleats.

Peterson appears set to play his football elsewhere, with the Cardinals lacking the resources and perhaps the appetite to re-sign him based on his 2020 performance.

The Cardinals are projected to have a little over $17.5million in cap space, assuming a salary cap of $185m, just above the league average.

Arizona's addition of Watt to bolster the pass rush may mean Reddick and Markus Golden, who also helped fill the void in Jones' 2020 absence, are allowed to walk in free agency. Running back Kenyan Drake appears another likely departure.

The draft is the likely avenue on which the Cardinals will focus most of their attention as they attempt to further supplement a roster that fell just shy of the postseason.

Picking 16th in the first round, Arizona will be in a decent spot to address the cornerback position and find a replacement for Peterson who can help them better defend three NFC West rivals who all possess explosive offenses when at their best.

Watt's arrival should improve their odds of keeping their division rivals in check but, after a strong showing on defense last year, this Cardinals offseason is one that will also be defined by what they do in terms of making life easier for Murray.

Stronger depth at receiver and more dynamism at tight end, something which the Cardinals have long since lacked, should be on Arizona's wishlist.

If they can check off those items and put a support system around Murray that allows him to have a breakout year three, the Cardinals will be in a good spot to celebrate a first playoff berth since the 2015 season. Should they fail, Kingsbury and general manager Steve Keim's jobs may come under severe scrutiny.

Unfortunately for Houston Texans fans, their team's offseason business has been more noteworthy than their performances on the field over the past 12 months.

The Texans stunningly traded All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins last March and three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt has already departed this year.

But the biggest move might be yet to come.

Quarterback Deshaun Watson wants out and, although Houston insist they will not facilitate a move, the current impasse – with the 25-year-old seemingly prepared to sit if not granted an exit – suits nobody.

Watson's lack of input in the team's search for head coach Bill O'Brien's successor was said to be the largest contributing factor when he first pushed for a trade in January.

But the Texans had issues last year beyond the process that eventually led to the hiring of David Culley, crashing to 4-12 in 2020 as results on the field accurately depicted the overall direction of the franchise.

A study of Stats Perform data shows the vast work to be done whether Watson stays or goes.

Offense

Hopkins had been Houston's leading receiver in each of the five seasons prior to his departure, including 104 catches for 1,165 yards and seven touchdowns in 2019.

His shock trade to the Arizona Cardinals - which came under a year after the franchise had given up a boatload of draft capital to acquire star tackle Laremy Tunsil - meant a rethink.

Will Fuller, second on that list with 49 receptions, was the obvious candidate to step up and he had 53 catches for 879 yards and eight touchdowns through 11 games.

But a six-game suspension – one week of which remains – for breaching the NFL's drug policy ended his season early. Former Green Bay stalwart Randall Cobb, who started only two games, also missed the end of the year due to a toe injury.

Meanwhile, the running game – led by David Johnson, who made up part of the Hopkins trade – scarcely registered.

Houston ranked 31st for rushing yards per game (91.6), 26th for rushing plays of 10 yards or more (38) and tied-30th for plays of 20 yards or more (five).

And yet despite losing Hopkins, leaving Brandin Cooks as his top target, having no run game to turn to and playing behind a bad offensive line – he was sacked 49 times, second-most among all QBs – Watson remained one of the league's best.

He topped the charts for overall passing yards (4,823), yards per attempt (8.87) and big plays of 25 yards or more (42). His passer rating of 112.4 trailed only MVP Aaron Rodgers.

Defense

Unfortunately, as Watson did all he could on offense to almost singlehandedly keep the Texans competitive, the defense also let him down.

Houston ranked 30th for opponent yards per game (416.8) and per play (6.24).

They were dead last for opponent rushing yards per game (160.3), where the failure to slow opponents over the ground could be attributed to D.J. Reader's departure in free agency and a shoulder injury to Benardrick McKinney that restricted him to four games and 19 tackles.

Meanwhile, the Texans were 24th for opponent net passing yards per game (256.5). Whitney Mercilus and Watt were each another year older and saw their numbers decline as a result, although the latter still led the team in sacks (5.0), QB hits (17) and defensive TDs (one).

And so with Watt's exit, the defense continues to lose talent just as it has in years past with Jadeveon Clowney and Tyrann Mathieu, both of whom left after a 2018 season in which Houston finished 11-5 and had six Pro Bowlers – including three on defense.

Offseason

Despite this grave picture, the Texans' reluctance to deal Watson suggests they have not given up just yet.

But with so much to fix – arguably every aspect of the team besides the outstanding QB – the offer of a substantial trade package for an unhappy player might start to appeal.

In another offseason in which a number of teams are looking for a new star under center, Watson, at 25, is the most valuable option on the table.

Perhaps a franchise like the Chicago Bears – potentially a Watson away from being a major contender – would make sense as a trade partner, desperate enough to give Houston the sort of assets that could allow for a rebuild.

But it may only be a team like the Miami Dolphins or New York Jets - with extra draft picks and young QB options to throw into the mix - who can come close to providing the sort of offer Houston would contemplate.

The Texans are projected to have around $33million in cap space, assuming a $185m cap, but there simply appears to be too much to do even if they can convince Watson to stay and play.

Moving on prematurely from the four-year, $156m deal Watson signed last year would provide room to manoeuvre in the years to come, too.

Houston's decision is unlikely to prove popular whichever way they go.

News of Watson's trade request prompted plans for a protest that the player himself had to call off.

But keeping their talisman might condemn the Texans to many more years like 2020, without a talented roster to support one of the NFL's most valuable assets.

Despite boasting one of the best QBs in the game, they are in an unenviable position of their own making.  

Philadelphia Eagles All-Pro center and Super Bowl champion Jason Kelce will return for an 11th season with the NFL franchise.

Kelce ended speculation over his future on Friday, the 33-year-old star putting retirement on hold for another season.

A vital member of Philadelphia's championship run in 2017, Kelce has reportedly reconstructed his contract to offer the Eagles cap relief.

"I'm really fired up to be able to come back and play for the Eagles again," Kelce said on Friday.

"I've always said I'm playing until I'm not and I still have a very strong desire to play the game of football. I still want to do it. I still want to be around the guys. I want to be around the building, around the coaches. I still enjoy that aspect of it and I'm not ready to stop doing it yet.

"I'm excited with a lot of the energy going around right now and, also, I didn't want to end my career on a season like we had last year. It wouldn't feel right.

"I want to leave the Eagles knowing that I left it in good hands."

Kelce was selected by the Eagles in the sixth round of the 2011 NFL Draft.

He is a four-time Pro Bowler, while Kelce has been named an All-Pro on three occasions.

Kelce's return is a big boost for new head coach Nick Sirianni, who has replaced Doug Pederson, after the Eagles went 4-11-1 in a forgettable season.

"I'm having fun and as long as I'm having fun and I feel I'm playing at a level I want to play at, I'm going to keep doing it," Kelce said. "I'm looking forward to what's ahead for us."

The Denver Broncos have placed the franchise tag on Justin Simmons as they aim to work out a long-term deal with the Pro Bowl safety. 

A third-round pick by Denver in the 2016 draft, Simmons has made 279 tackles and recorded 16 interceptions and two sacks in 74 games in his NFL career.

The 27-year-old has been an ever-present in the Broncos' defense for the past three seasons, playing all 16 games in those campaigns, while he was voted second-team All-Pro in 2019. 

It is the second successive year where Simmons has received the tag, a move that stops him from becoming an unrestricted free agent. 

However, Broncos general manager George Paton has made clear his determination to agree terms on an extension that will keep the player with the team "for many years to come". 

"Designating Justin with the franchise tag is a procedural move that allows us to continue working on a long-term deal," Paton said in a statement released on Friday.  

"We are completely focused on making sure Justin remains a big part of the Denver Broncos for many years to come." 

Denver finished last season with a 5-11 record, not aided by the absence of edge rusher Von Miller for the entire campaign due to injury. 

Their defense under head coach Vic Fangio gave up 6.54 yards per play, though they ranked 13th in the league against the pass. 

The Denver Broncos enter the offseason surely casting envious glances at the rest of the AFC West.

Still searching for the solution at quarterback, an uneven season for Drew Lock did not provide satisfactory answers about their second-round pick from 2019.

Denver endured a 5-11 season with Lock in and out of the line-up as Patrick Mahomes led the Kansas City Chiefs to another Super Bowl appearance, Justin Herbert surged to Offensive Rookie of the Year honours with the Los Angeles Chargers and Derek Carr made strides for the Las Vegas Raiders.

This offseason will therefore be defined by what the Broncos decide to do at quarterback, with the heat set to turn up on head coach Vic Fangio as he heads into year three after two successive seasons without a playoff berth.

Using Stats Perform data we look back at another year of disappointment in Denver and assess what they can do this offseason to ensure a five-season exile from the postseason comes to an end in 2021.

Offense

A switch at offensive coordinator from Rich Scangarello to Pat Shurmur did not yield the desired results for the Broncos, who ran one of the least efficient offenses in football.

Denver averaged 5.21 yards per play, putting the Broncos 25th in the NFL. The Broncos' paltry 5.87 yards per pass play illustrated the lack of progress made by Lock, who missed three games last season, with Denver also ranking 25th in that metric.

For a player who came out of college with a reputation for having an elite arm, Lock's tally of 38 completions of 20 yards or more was disappointing. He ranked 19th in that regard but his average distance on such completions of 32.9 yards was ninth among quarterbacks to have completed at least 10.

More worrying for Denver were Lock's numbers on throws of at least 21 air yards. He completed 15 of 63 such attempts for 597 yards, three touchdowns and five interceptions for a passer rating of 49.4 that ranked second last among quarterbacks with at least 25 attempts of 21 air yards or more.

Lock did not provide the downfield upside some expected of him when he was drafted in 2019 and a tendency to commit turnovers that was all too evident in college has remained in the NFL. His 15 interceptions in 2020 were tied for the most in the NFL.

The absence of Courtland Sutton, who suffered a torn ACL in Week 1, did not help Lock's cause, with first-round rookie Jerry Jeudy committing the second-most drops (nine) in the NFL.

However, 23 incomplete targets thrown Jeudy's way were deemed poor throws - only three receivers were on the end of more - that number pointing to below-par play under center as the primary reason for Denver's passing game struggles.

Denver's running game fared slightly better, finishing the year tied-14th for rushes of 10 yards or more with 51. The Broncos were tied for sixth with 13 runs of at least 20 yards.

Melvin Gordon proved a useful addition as he contributed 26 rushes of at least 10 yards. Philip Lindsay had 13, with six of those going for 20 yards or more.

Defense

The Broncos' talent on defense paired with Fangio's acumen on that side of the ball should have theoretically produced a strong season on defense.

However, Denver finished the year a disappointing 20th in the NFL with 5.64 yards per play allowed.

They were 13th against the pass (6.25) but 29th against the run (4.79), with their efforts in stopping opposing attacks not helped by Lock's propensity for turnovers.

A freak injury to Von Miller before the season robbed Denver of one of the most dominant pass rushers of his generation, but the Broncos still finished tied-10th in sacks (39) and 10th in total negative pass plays forced (50).

By contrast, they only forced 83 negative run plays, that total putting them 23rd in the NFL.

The pressure the Broncos created last season did not translate to takeaways, with just three teams producing fewer than Denver's 16.

A lack of a settled line-up at cornerback was a significant reason for their struggles stopping the pass and taking away the football.

Kareem Jackson and Michael Ojemudia were the only Broncos cornerbacks to play in all 16 games, with the latter enduring a difficult rookie year.

Ojemudia had a burn percentage of 63 in 2020. A burn occurs when the receiver is open for a number of yards that take up a certain percentage of yards to go for a first down, depending on the down, with the defender credited with giving up burn yardage regardless of whether the ball is caught.

No Denver cornerback allowed more yards per burn than Ojemudia's 18.1, with corner featuring prominently on a long list of offseason issues the Broncos must fix.

Offseason

New general manager George Paton has a lot of significant decisions to make to try to inspire a turnaround in fortunes.

The Broncos' future at quarterback casts a large shadow over their plans for the rest of the roster. Picking ninth in the draft, they are in a decent spot to land one of Justin Fields, Zach Wilson or Trey Lance, the three quarterbacks seen as the cream of the crop after presumptive number one overall pick Trevor Lawrence.

Denver must decide whether to stick with Lock or cut him loose in favour of one of that trio, with a possible trade for Deshaun Watson appearing unlikely at this point.

There is a similarly significant decision to make concerning Miller, who will be 32 come the 2021 season and has a contract option the Broncos could decline, eschewing a salary cap hit of $22.25million and making him a free agent.

The Broncos are projected to have $48m in cap space, assuming a cap of $185m, even with Miller on the roster, and a large portion of that may go towards re-signing Pro Bowl free safety Justin Simmons, who played on the franchise tag in 2020.

If they can keep hold of Simmons and find dependable reinforcements at corner, the Broncos defense will be well-placed to make a return to the top half of the league in 2021.

Yet the fate of next season's Broncos likely rests on Paton's ability to succeed where predecessor John Elway consistently failed, and come to a definitive and correct answer under center.

Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera praised Alex Smith for his impact on a young roster after the franchise confirmed the departure of the veteran quarterback.

Friday's announcement came as no surprise, considering there had been widespread reports of Smith's impending release at the start of the week.

The 36-year-old was pivotal in helping Washington rally from a 2-7 record to win the NFC East and qualify for the playoffs, throwing for 1,582 yards, six touchdowns and eight interceptions after stepping in to take over as starter from Kyle Allen.

However, the former number one overall pick was sidelined by a calf issue for the Wild Card loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Taylor Heinicke started instead and, having done well in his limited opportunities at the back end of the season, was handed a new two-year contract in February. 

Smith was voted as the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year by the Associated Press having recovered from a career-threatening leg injury to resume his career, though he is now looking for a new home after Washington agreed to cut him.

"I had a chance to meet with Alex Smith this week and we had a very honest and real discussion," Rivera said in a statement released by Washington. "We had the chance to reflect on the 2020 season and talk about moving forward into the next year. 

"After the conclusion of that meeting, we decided that it would be best for both parties to move on, and we will be granting Alex his request to be released. 

"I want to thank Alex for his contributions this past year. He made such an impact on our young roster and his leadership was one of the key factors in our late-season success, and in making the playoffs for the first time since 2015. 

"Everyone here in Washington wishes Alex and his family the best going forward and appreciates all that he gave to our organisation."

Smith, who previously played for the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs, made clear in an interview with GQ last month that he intends to carry on playing in 2021, insisting he had "got more left" following his long road to recovery.

He underwent 17 operations and overcame sepsis after suffering a compound fracture injury to his right leg in a game against the Houston Texans in November 2018.

There's a new era in Atlanta and, following the hiring of Arthur Smith as head coach, there is plenty of cause for Falcons fans to be hopeful of better days ahead. 

Things can hardly get much worse than in 2020, when the Falcons slumped to a 4-12 record, with head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff fired after an 0-5 start. 

Smith's arrival will foster optimism the offense can scale new heights in 2021, the former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator having played a pivotal role in revitalising Ryan Tannehill's career.  

But he and new GM Terry Fontenot have some significant decisions to make in a challenging offseason if their partnership is to hit the ground running in 2021. 

Using Stats Perform data, we reflect on the year that was for the Falcons and look at what they will need to do to improve on a rather forgettable campaign. 

Offense 

You will find few quarterbacks who experienced more frustrating seasons than Matt Ryan, who continued to serve as one of the most productive signal-callers in the NFL in 2020. 

He was fourth in the NFL in passing yards with 4,581 and was tied seventh in big plays, delivering 32 completions of 25 yards or more. 

The big-play element that was clearly present in the Falcons' offense contributed to them finishing the year ninth in scoring efficiency. 

Despite Ryan's performances in leading a prolific group, the Falcons never threatened to contend. 

On the offensive side of the ball, the running game should take a large portion of the blame for that failure.

The Falcons were not a balanced offense, with Atlanta averaging just 3.75 yards per run play. The Pittsburgh Steelers (3.62) were the sole team to fare worse on the ground.

Atlanta's 34 rushes of 10 yards or more were tied for 30th in the NFL, the production from running backs Todd Gurley and Brian Hill not living up to that of Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones in the passing game.

Ridley was tied-fifth in the NFL in receiving yards with 1,374 while no pass-catcher had more than his 23 receptions of 20 yards or more.

While the running game needs to improve, the primary reason for the stellar efforts of Ryan and Ridley being wasted was the dismal play of a porous defense.

Defense

Worryingly for a Falcons franchise that invested a great deal in the defense in last year's draft, opponents moved the ball and scored on Atlanta at will in 2020. 

Atlanta ranked 23rd in offensive points allowed, giving up 414, with opposing passing games racking up 7.18 yards per play against the Falcons. 

Just three teams - the Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings - were more susceptible to the pass by that measure. 

The Falcons will hope for better out of last year's first-round pick A.J. Terrell, who was consistently exploited by quarterbacks and receivers in a trying rookie season. 

Terrell was targeted 95 times, the fourth-most of any player in the league, and gave up the third-most receptions (64) and joint-most yards (848).

In addition to the secondary struggling, the defensive front did not produce the desired pressure on opposing signal-callers, Atlanta finishing tied-23rd with 29 sacks.

The run defense was a little more of a bright spot, the Falcons 14th in yards per rush allowed with 4.41.

But the fact they still gave up 49 touchdown drives, the joint-eighth most in the league, despite their relative strength against the run, is indicative of the ground game's decreasing influence on offensive production and the issues in the secondary.

Simply put, for the Falcons to have a chance of even challenging the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints in the NFC South, the pass defense must make significant strides. The problem, however, is that the Falcons do not have a great deal of resources with which to make sure it does that.

Offseason

There is increasing talk of the Falcons using the fourth overall pick in this year's draft to select Ryan's successor, with Ohio State's Justin Fields, a native of Georgia, a popular choice for them in mock drafts.

Having the option to rid themselves of Ryan's contract, which will see him carry cap hits of over $40million in 2021 and 2022, and instead start a rookie on a significantly cheaper deal, is something that should appeal to the Falcons.

But, regardless of the merits of Smith as a play-caller and the talent the Falcons have on offense, Fields or any other eventual replacement for Ryan will not be set up for success until the Falcons fix the defense.

The issue in that regard is the Falcons are set to be over $12m above an assumed salary cap of $185m.

That may prohibit them from keeping many of the 11 unrestricted free agents they have on defense, or aggressively pursuing potential signings on that side of the ball.

Compensatory picks are still to be revealed, but the Falcons are at present set to have just six selections in the 2021 NFL Draft.

If they do go with a quarterback in the first round, 2021 will likely be Ryan's last as a Falcon. And, should Atlanta prove unable to use their remaining capital to sufficiently improve the defense, the smart money will be on it being another of frustration for the quarterback who came agonisingly close to delivering the franchise its first Super Bowl crown.

Denver Broncos general manager George Paton said the NFL franchise want eight-time Pro Bowler Von Miller back for the 2021 season.

Broncos star Miller, 31, missed the entire 2020 campaign due to an ankle injury, while he has a contract option guaranteeing $7million of his $18m salary for 2021.

The Broncos have until March 16 to exercise the option on Super Bowl champion Miller, who signed a six-year, $114.5m deal in 2016.

New Broncos GM Paton said the team are working with Miller's agent amid suggestions of a potential contract re-structure.

"We want to bring Von back; we're still working through that," Paton told reporters on Thursday.

"I don't want to get into everything, but we want to bring him back."

There is also a legal issue involving veteran linebacker Miller, with Paton insisting he would let the process "play out" and would not discuss the topic.

"Obviously the legal process, what he's going through, it's a serious situation obviously," Paton said.

"I don't know all the details, but we respect what's going on. We do want Von back."

The Broncos finished bottom of the AFC West Conference in 2020, with a 5-11 record.

Ben Roethlisberger has agreed a new restructured contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers to keep him as the team's starting quarterback for 2021.

A $41.25million cap hit on Roethlisberger's previous contract meant his future with the team was in doubt as the offseason began.

After a meeting with the QB last month, Steelers president Art Rooney II issued a statement indicating the team's desire to have Roethlisberger back for an 18th season with the franchise.

Roethlisberger had also said he was willing to have his cap hit lowered and the two teams confirmed on Thursday – under two weeks before the start of free agency – that a deal had been done.

"It is my greatest honor to be a Pittsburgh Steeler and give my all for this organization," Roethlisberger said after the new contract was confirmed. 

"I am grateful to be at this stage of my career and more than happy to adjust my contract in a way that best helps the team to address other players who are so vital to our success. 

"I love this game and love to compete, and I believe in this team and my ability to deliver when called upon. 

"It all starts with great preparation and I am ready to go."

Roethlisberger helped Pittsburgh – who have one of the best defenses in the NFL - to an incredible 11-0 start last season.

But they ran out of steam badly down the stretch, losing four of their last five to finish 12-4 before a stunning 48-37 Wild Card playoff defeat to divisional rivals the Cleveland Browns.

Roethlisberger, 39, was coming back from a serious elbow injury which saw him miss all but two games of the 2019 campaign.

His play was steady but unspectacular, leading a Steelers offense that averaged 250.5 net passing yards per game, 15th best in the NFL.

Roethlisberger threw for 3,803 yards, 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 15 games, with a 94.1 passer rating (19th among qualifying QBs).

At 9.65 yards per completion – the lowest rate in the league – the veteran was more of a game manager than the downfield threat of old.

But despite fellow 2004 draftee Philip Rivers joining Eli Manning in retirement, Roethlisberger will play on in pursuit of a third Super Bowl.

"We are excited we were able to come to an agreement with Ben Roethlisberger on a new contract for him to return to the Steelers in 2021," said general manager Kevin Colbert. 

"We know that Ben can still play at a high level and do special things for this team. 

"Our goal remains the same – to put together a roster that will compete for another championship. 

"We are happy that Ben will be one of our leaders to help us accomplish that goal."

Rebuilds require patience and a willingness to accept growing pains and, initially, quite a lot of losing.

The Carolina Panthers experienced a lot of that in 2020 but, such was their competitiveness in their first year under Matt Rhule, the franchise now appears ready to accelerate the timeline.

Carolina went 5-11 but a 3-2 start and a lack of blowout defeats fostered hope they can soon be back in postseason contention.

Where do they need to improve to make that ambition a reality?

We reflect on their campaign using Stats Perform data and looked ahead to a pivotal offseason that will go a long way to determining whether they will be back in the playoff mix in 2021.


Offense

After ending the Cam Newton era, the Panthers signed Teddy Bridgewater to be a placeholder at the quarterback position. 

Reports suggest the Panthers may view his job as the bridge quarterback as being completed, as they are seemingly looking to a potentially more exciting future under center. 

That is not surprising given how limited the Panthers' passing attack was in 2020. 

Only two teams had fewer touchdown passes than Carolina's 16, with Bridgewater completing only 41 per cent of his attempts of 21 air yards or more for three touchdowns and five interceptions. 

Bridgewater was a quarterback more reliant on his receivers' abilities after the catch than his arm strength. The Panthers had 4,129 gross passing yards and 50.7 per cent of that tally was made up of yardage after the catch, well above the league average of 45.6. 

That is not necessarily a criticism in an NFL where several teams rely heavily on short passing games that focus on the strengths of their receivers in the open field, but it is evident through the lack of downfield success that the Panthers need a more dynamic quarterback if they are to contend. 

Carolina lost eight games by one score in 2020, with Bridgewater failing to author a single game-winning drive. 

He threw one touchdown to three interceptions in the fourth quarter last season, further illustrating the need for the Panthers to find a more physically gifted quarterback who can make the clutch throws in the waning moments. 

Of course, the Panthers might have been more successful in that regard had Christian McCaffrey been available for more than three games. 

Bereft of the talents of a running back who led the league in scrimmage yards and touchdowns in 2019, the Panthers were 21st in rushing yards per game. 

They actually slightly improved in terms of rushes of 10 yards or more, recording 47 to the 45 they registered in 2019. However, with Carolina's 64 scoring drives ranked 23rd in the NFL, the Panthers evidently gave defenses little to fear in 2020. 

That has to change if they are to make the second-year leap under Rhule.

Defense

The Panthers spent every pick of the 2020 NFL Draft on defense and, at least in terms of their pass defense, that decision paid dividends. 

Carolina allowed 6.23 yards per pass play, the 12th-best average in the NFL, but the Panthers were dragged down by a below-par run defense. 

Indeed, the Panthers gave up 4.75 yards per rush, with just four teams faring worse than Carolina in that regard. 

And, while teams did not move the ball efficiently through the air against Carolina, the Panthers struggled to keep opponents out of the endzone. 

Of the 161 opponent drives versus the Panthers, 74 resulted in either a touchdown or a field goal, giving Carolina an opponent scoring efficiency of 46.0 that ranked 27th in the NFL. 

Yet this youthful unit still showed enough for Rhule and the Panthers to be encouraged going into 2021. 

Carolina finished 2020 tied-10th in takeaways with 22, third-round pick Jeremy Chinn contributing three of those in an impressive rookie season from the versatile safety. 

The expected development from him and first-round defensive tackle Derrick Brown provides reason for optimism, though the onus will be on Brown and edge rusher Brian Burns to do more to pressure the quarterback after the Panthers recorded 29 sacks in 2020, only good enough for tied-23rd in the NFL. 

This inexperienced group was asked to do too much by the offense last season but, if the likes of Chinn, Brown and Burns make the anticipated strides, the defense will have a much better chance of winning games for the Panthers in 2021.

Offseason

It's all about the quarterback in Carolina. After reportedly making an offer to the Detroit Lions for Matthew Stafford before he was traded to the Rams, the Panthers are expected to aggressively pursue a deal with the Houston Texans to acquire Deshaun Watson. 

With the young core they have, the Panthers would instantly become playoff contenders with Watson under center. Failing that, Carolina stands out as a likely destination for one of Zach Wilson, Justin Fields or Trey Lance in the draft. 

Regardless of whether it is Watson or one of that group of rookies under center in 2021, the Panthers will also need to reinforce their offensive line. 

Both starting tackles from last season, Russell Okung and Taylor Moton, are scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency. 

Thankfully, the Panthers are in a decent position to re-sign free agents and pursue those from other teams. They will be nearly $40million under an assumed salary cap of $185m. 

Having gotten little production from the position last season, tight end should be an area the Panthers look to address. Ian Thomas led Carolina tight ends with just 145 receiving yards in 2020. 

The defense is not the finished article but, after focusing on that side of the ball last year, this offseason is one in which Carolina needs to load up on offense to help the Panthers make the next step.

The New Orleans Saints are in limbo.

Until Drew Brees reveals whether his playing career will continue into a 21st season, New Orleans will not be able to finalise a plan of attack for an extremely challenging offseason.

With or without Brees, the Saints need to make some significant changes, New Orleans left facing a balancing act between staying competitive and getting under a shrinking salary cap.

They are under that pressure after one of most talented rosters in the NFL again came up short in the postseason, their playoff hopes ended in the Wild Card round by their NFC South rivals and eventual Super Bowl champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The lessons learned from that failure will dictate how the Saints attack free agency and the draft this year.

What can be gleaned from another season in which the Saints excelled but ultimately fell short of expectations? We reflect on their 2020 using Stats Perform data.

Offense

The numbers tell a very clear story. In 2020, the Saints' passing offense was not the force it has been in previous years.

After finishing seventh in net passing yards per game (265.3) in 2019, the Saints finished 19th (234.9) in the same category in 2020.

They also had nine fewer passing plays of 25 yards or more, recording just 24 having put up 33 in 2019.

Indeed, this was a season in which the increasing limitations of Brees' arm restricted the upside of the New Orleans attack.

Brees was 14th in passing yards gained per attempt (7.54) in 2020 but his impact as a downfield thrower was minimal.

He attempted just 21 passes of 21 air yards or more in his 12 games and completed only nine of them, though five went for touchdowns.

Should Brees retire, head coach Sean Payton may be tempted to go with Taysom Hill as his replacement in 2021 after he filled in for the 42-year-old in four games in 2020.

Utility man Hill attempted nine passes of 21 air yards or more and completed five of them for 170 yards and two touchdowns with a passer rating of 140.0, offering hope he could be an upgrade on Brees in that area.

Though there are concerns over the explosiveness of the passing game, there should be no such worries about their ground attack.

The Saints ranked eighth in the NFL in rushes of 10 yards or more (60), with 27 of those coming from Alvin Kamara.

Kamara finished fourth among running backs in scrimmage yards per game with (112.5).

With or without Brees, the Saints need to find a way to maximise the potency of their passing game so not to waste the prime years of one of the top running backs in the league and ensure they have the firepower to compete in the NFC.

Defense

One of the main reasons the Saints were able to contend despite the conservative nature of the passing offense was the strength of their defense.

The Saints were one of the premier defensive teams in football, allowing opposing offenses to move the ball at a rate of 5.01 yards per play, with only three teams bettering them in that regard.

New Orleans also had one of the most opportunistic defenses in the league, their 26 takeaways tied for third in the NFL.

The 92 points scored off those turnovers provided a substantial boost to Brees and the offense, with that resulting in the league's sixth-best tally.

The Los Angeles Rams (2) were the only team to allow fewer touchdowns of 20 yards or more than the five the Saints conceded, while New Orleans was exceptional at keeping opposing run games in check.

New Orleans forced 50 negative run plays in 2020, the negative yardage total of minus 121 fourth in the NFL behind the New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers.

Between their ability to limit big plays, take away the football and make offenses one dimensional through shutting down the run game, the Saints boasted an elite defense last season.

With uncertainty at the quarterback position, keeping that group together is likely to be pivotal to the Saints' hopes of staying in contention in 2021.

But for a team whose salary cap situation is the worst in the NFL, that will be easier said than done.

Offseason

Assuming the most optimistic estimate of the salary cap being $185million, the Saints are set to be $65m over it as things stand.

New Orleans look set to suffer after years of stretching the cap to its extreme, and that pain is coming in a year where they have 22 unrestricted free agents.

Brees has restructured his contract in advance of his expected retirement, helping the Saints significantly, yet their odds of keeping around defenders such as Marcus Williams, P.J. Williams and pass rusher Trey Hendrickson - who was third in the NFL with 13.5 sacks in 2020 - still look slim.

Linebacker Kwon Alexander and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who carry a combined cap hit of over $23m and can be released for a dead cap charge of just $4m, stand out as obvious potential casualties of the financial issues facing the Saints.

Should Brees indeed ride off into the sunset, New Orleans will need to decide whether to gamble on Hill or bring back Jameis Winston on an affordable deal and make him the successor.

The draft could also be an avenue by which the Saints could find Brees' heir, however, it seems more likely they will use their draft capital to reinforce a defense that could lose talent at all three levels.

Their decision-making in resolving the issue at quarterback and minimising the impact of the potential departures on defense will define whether the Saints stay at the sharp end of the NFC in 2021.

A permanent residency in Las Vegas. It's what so many performers around the world dream of getting, but in 2020 the Raiders were left delivering a mediocre performance to a non-existent audience in their first year in the desert. 

Their mammoth new Allegiant Stadium home was left empty due to restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the Raiders again flattered to deceive, an exciting opening act giving way to an underwhelming finale that ended hopes of a postseason encore. 

Under normal circumstances, a third successive season in which the Raiders missed the playoffs would lead to pressure on Jon Gruden. 

But because the Raiders rolled the dice by giving Gruden a 10-year contract, the head coach is a long way from the hot seat during his second spell with the franchise. 

Playing in a division alongside Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, plus Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers, the Raiders face a tough challenge to contend in the AFC West. 

The pressure on Gruden may finally come should they miss the postseason again in 2021, but what can the Raiders do to ensure their first season with fans in Vegas results in a playoff berth? 

Here, with the help of Stats Perform data, we reflect on the Raiders' 2020 season and assess what they can learn from an 8-8 year.

Offense

The Raiders failed in their pursuit of a Wild Card spot despite an impressive year from much-maligned quarterback Derek Carr, who threw for a career-high 4,103 passing yards and finished the season in a three-way tie for fifth in yards per attempt with an average of 7.94. 

Where Carr made clear and significant strides was as a deep-ball thrower. 

On passes of 21 air yards or more, Carr had a passer rating of 124.2, throwing for 10 touchdowns and one interception. Among quarterbacks to have attempted at least 25 such passes, his rating put him fourth in the league, behind only Daniel Jones, Aaron Rodgers and Kyler Murray. 

The exciting thing for the Raiders is there is clear room for him to grow in that area. 

While Carr was much improved pushing the ball downfield, his rapport with Raiders speedster Henry Ruggs III still needs work. 

Carr had 54 completions of at least 20 yards but first-round pick Ruggs registered only eight receptions of 20 yards or more. 

The average distance on those Ruggs receptions was 40.4 yards, putting him fifth among receivers to have had at least five catches of 20-plus yards. 

If Carr and Ruggs can develop their downfield chemistry, opposing defenses will have more reason to fear the passing game, potentially opening things up further for Pro Bowl tight end Darren Waller underneath and a running game that underwhelmed in 2020. 

Though Josh Jacobs scored 12 touchdowns, the Raiders averaged 4.19 yards per rush, the 19th-best mark in the NFL.

There will be onus on Jacobs and the offensive line to improve drastically in that regard but, should Carr make further progress going deep and force defenses to focus on the pass, everyone else's jobs will become a little bit easier.

Defense

Save for occasional flashes - the shackling of Mahomes and the Chiefs in the second half of their Week 5 win at Arrowhead Stadium being the most prominent example - the Raiders defense failed to live up to the significant investment in that side of the ball.

Indeed, the Raiders continued to struggle to contain opposing offenses in 2020, allowing 5.99 yards per play, the seventh-worst mark in the NFL.

They were one of just six teams to give up over seven yards per pass play, with the Raiders' issues on defense leading to the firing of coordinator Paul Guenther.

Las Vegas will hope that Gus Bradley - Guenther's replacement - will be the man to oversee a turnaround.

To do that, Bradley will need to help deliver a significant upturn in production from the Raiders' pass rush. They finished the season with 21 sacks - just three teams had fewer - with edge rusher Maxx Crosby seeing his numbers drop from 10 sacks as a rookie to seven in 2020.

A first-round pick in 2019, Clelin Ferrell had just 2.5 sacks, with the Raiders' inability to get consistent pressure a factor in them allowing a passer rating of 108.9 on opponent throws of 21 air yards or more.

That number also raises questions about a young and exploitable secondary that has found it difficult to produce turnovers.

Las Vegas ranked 30th in takeaways with a meagre 15, with their 10 interceptions tied for 23rd.

Having consistently failed to pressure quarterbacks and to take the ball away, there is significant room for improvement on defense, but the Raiders do not have the financial flexibility with which to add players who can aid their cause.

Offseason

Even after one of the best seasons of his career, there has again been talk about the Raiders trading Carr in the hope of finding an upgrade at quarterback. 

The more likely scenario is that the Raiders parlay Marcus Mariota's one appearance last season, in which he excelled in relief of the injured Carr, into a trade that can net them more draft capital. 

With the Raiders poised to be over $9million above an assumed salary cap of $185m, potentially limiting their options in free agency, those extra draft picks would be welcomed. 

Regardless of how many picks the Raiders end up with, the areas of need are obvious. 

Pass-rush help both on the edge and on the interior of the defensive line is a must, as is an infusion of athleticism at linebacker, last year's free-agent signings Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski proving ill-equipped to help the Raiders stop the threats posed by modern passing attacks. 

Making those additions to the front seven will be crucial to the progress Gruden and the Raiders hope they can make in the fourth year of his tenure. 

Should the Raiders fail to identify the correct players at those spots, the ceiling of this team may again be limited in 2021 irrespective of any further strides from Carr.

New York Jets general manager Joe Douglas still believes Sam Darnold can be a franchise quarterback, but cannot guarantee it will be for his organisation. 

Speaking to reporters in a videoconference on Wednesday, Douglas stated he would listen to teams inquiring about the availability of Darnold, whose future with the Jets has been under constant speculation since the team completed its 2020 season with a dismal 2-14 record.  

"I will answer the call if it's made," Douglas said. "Like I've said, Sam is, we think, a dynamic player in this league with unbelievable talent who really has a chance to hit his outstanding potential moving forward. But like I've said earlier, if calls are made, I will answer them." 

Darnold's struggles this past season, combined with the Jets being flush in cap space and owning the second overall pick in the upcoming draft, have triggered talk they are considering a change at quarterback.

Unless the Jets decide to exercise a 2022 option expected to be in the range of $25million, the 23-year-old will be entering the final year of his rookie contract. 

Even with the draft's top quarterback prospect, Trevor Lawrence, expected to land with the Jacksonville Jaguars with the first overall selection, the Jets are well-positioned to grab a new future signal-caller if they so choose.

BYU's Zach Wilson and Ohio State's Justin Fields are widely considered the next two best prospects at the position and potential top 10 picks.  

Douglas is still evaluating all his options and is in no rush to make a definitive determination on the Jets' plans. The draft is scheduled to begin on April 29. 

"We feel like we're really in no hard timeline in the immediate future to make a decision," he added.

The Jets have also been mentioned as a possible destination for Deshaun Watson should the Houston Texans grant the disgruntled quarterback's trade request.

Though New York have the draft capital and cap space to conceivably make such a move, Douglas said he would be hesitant to give up several prime assets for one player. 

"We're better positioned than we were this time last year. Our philosophy and stance has not changed, however," Douglas explained. "Our goal is to be a team that builds through the draft. 

"Ultimately for us to get to where the great teams are, the most consistent teams are, you do that through the draft. It's the most team-friendly market in sports." 

Darnold would likely add to the Jets' stockpile of prime draft picks despite a disappointing 2020 season. The third overall pick in 2018 threw 11 interceptions with only nine touchdown passes while missing four games with a shoulder injury, and his 72.7 passer rating ranked 35th among qualifying quarterbacks.  

ESPN reported last month that a number of quarterback-needy teams had contacted the Jets about Darnold, believing his struggles could be attributed to a poor supporting cast and the offense's instability under former head coach Adam Gase.  

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are Super Bowl champions. So job done for Tom Brady and company, right?

Wrong.

In the aftermath of their crushing 31-9 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, Brady was already speaking on the podium about running it back for another year.

And, having added a seventh Lombardi Trophy to his impressive collection, it's impossible to question the 43-year-old's confidence in pushing for number eight.

However, the reality is that, regardless of how dominant their playoff campaign was, the Bucs have significant issues to resolve if they are to emerge triumphant again next February.

Here we reflect on the season that delivered the Buccaneers' second Super Bowl title and examine the offseason challenges that will be critical to their hopes of successfully defending their crown. 

Offense

Though Brady's first season in Bruce Arians' offense was not without its growing pains, things eventually clicked for the Bucs through the air.

Brady was third in passing yards per game (289.6), behind only Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson.

Over the last four weeks of the regular season, however, Brady led the league in pass yards per game, racking up 333.3 as they surged into the postseason.

The move from New England to Tampa Bay also revived Brady's fortunes as a deep-ball thrower. Tampa had 67 completions of 20 yards or more, the third-most in the NFL behind the Houston Texans and the Chiefs.

Where they will hope to improve next year is in the explosiveness of the running game.

Leonard Fournette was the top running back in the postseason, rushing for 300 yards and three touchdowns, including one in the Super Bowl. 

He had five rushes of 10 yards or more in the playoffs but, in the regular season, it was a different story.

The Bucs ranked 29th in the NFL with an average of 94.9 yards per game, while their 34 runs of 10 yards or more were tied for second-last in the NFL.

If Tampa can improve in that regard in 2021, it will take a lot of the pressure off Brady's shoulders.

Defense

Brady may have won Super Bowl MVP for the fifth time, but it was the Bucs' defense that ensured the Chiefs had no way of coming back into the contest.

They pressured Mahomes 33 times in an effort that derailed the Chiefs' offensive game plan, with that performance reflective of the dominance the Bucs' defensive front produced throughout the season.

Indeed, Tampa Bay registered 48 sacks in the regular season, with the 366 negative yards those sacks produced second only to the Pittsburgh Steelers (-384).

Given the pressure they consistently generated, it is no surprise that the Bucs produced the fourth-most takeaways in the NFL (25).

A talented young secondary capitalised significantly on the disruption the front seven created, vindicating investment in the defensive backfield that had previously been questioned.

Safety Antoine Winfield enjoyed a stellar rookie year but the star of the show in the secondary was cornerback Carlton Davis, who had four interceptions and 18 pass breakups.

As a result of their ability to create pressure and turnovers, the Bucs ranked eighth in pass yards per play allowed (5.93).

The rush defense was even stronger, Tampa Bay leading the league as they gave up just 3.6 yards per run play.

Excelling at shutting teams down through the air and on the ground, the Bucs were sixth in opponent scoring efficiency and 10th in successful plays allowed.

Todd Bowles' defense was critical to the Bucs emerging from the 2020 season with the Lombardi in their possession, but difficult decisions loom as they attempt to keep the group together for another run in 2021.

The offseason

In a year where the salary cap could fall from $198million to, at the most optimistic estimate, $185m, the Bucs find themselves in a better position than most teams.

Assuming a $185m cap, the Bucs have nearly $28m to spend, yet the sheer number of free agents they have means Tampa will likely be bidding farewell to some key names from their championship team.

Shaquil Barrett, the edge rusher who had 13 pressures of Mahomes, is an unrestricted free agent in line for a monster payday. Veteran linebacker Lavonte David is also set to hit the open market, along with wide receivers Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown, tight end Rob Gronkowski and running back Fournette.

Gronkowski has already vowed to return and, given that the Bucs triumphed over the Chiefs with Godwin making just two catches, Tampa may be willing to say goodbye to the former third-round pick to facilitate them paying others.

Barrett and David figure to be the toughest players to re-sign, with the former likely to command something at least in the region of Joey Bosa's market-setting contract for edge rushers, which has an average annual value of $27m.

David may be willing to take a discount after nine seasons with Tampa, but the Bucs might have to face up to the possibility of throwing rookies into the mix on the edge and at linebacker, meaning there could be more pressure on that talented defensive backfield to deliver without the same level of play in the front seven.

Having won it all, the Bucs are effectively playing with house money - at least to those outside the building - and have several options with the 32nd overall pick in the draft.

But edge, linebacker and wide receiver all stand as potential areas of focus for a champion team that may have to revise their expectations of keeping the core of the band together.

The Minnesota Vikings terminated the contract of two-time NFL Pro Bowler Kyle Rudolph after 10 seasons.

Minnesota released veteran tight end Rudolph, who was selected in the 2011 NFL Draft, on Tuesday.

The 31-year-old was set for the second season of a four-year, $36million deal, but Rudolph is headed for free agency for the first time in his career as the Vikings save more than $5m in cap space.

"I got so lucky, because -- I didn't just get drafted by some team who 'had a need at tight end,' Rudolph wrote in a story published by The Players' Tribune.

"I didn't just get drafted as, like, the nameless, faceless '#1 tight end on the board.' I got drafted by a team that was all set in terms of need ... but then drafted me anyway.

"I'll always remember that: how the Minnesota Vikings wanted me -- and wanted to bet on my potential."

In his time with the Vikings, Rudolph started 132 of 140 games, tallying 453 catches for 4,488 yards and 48 touchdowns – all those numbers in the top 10 in franchise history.

Rudolph's touchdowns are the most for a Vikings tight end in their history, while his catches and yards only trail Steve Jordan.

A Pro Bowler in 2012 and 2017, Rudolph had 28 receptions, 334 yards and a touchdown for the Vikings last season.

"Kyle has been a leader and mentor for us on and off the field from the first day I arrived in Minnesota," Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said in a statement.

"He has been such an important part of this team and community throughout his career and it has been an honour to coach him the last seven seasons. He will be missed, and we wish him and his family nothing but the best."

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