If the opener is any evidence, the 2021 NFL season is set to be a rollercoaster ride.

Defending champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers emerged victorious from a frenetic encounter with the Dallas Cowboys, raising their Super Bowl LV title banner and then prevailing 31-29.

No team has won the Super Bowl in successive years since Tom Brady and the New England Patriots did so in the 2004 season. He will aim to repeat the feat having led the Bucs to glory last year, but do they deserve their status as favourites to retain the Lombardi Trophy, or will the Kansas City Chiefs or another of their potential challengers stand triumphant in Los Angeles come February?

With a jam-packed first Sunday of the campaign on the horizon, Stats Perform's panel of experts make their predictions for what promises to be a fascinating season.

Nicholas McGee: Shanahan puts his Super Bowl curse to bed

AFC Champion: Cleveland Browns
NFC Champion: San Francisco 49ers
Super Bowl Champion: San Francisco 49ers
MVP: Tom Brady

San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan has endured his fair share of Super Bowl heartbreak, receiving criticism after the Atlanta Falcons blew a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI when he was the offensive coordinator and in the wake of the Niners' fourth-quarter collapse against the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV two seasons ago.

But the roster Shanahan has at his disposal is one primed to contend to go deep into the postseason again. Nick Bosa leads an extremely deep defensive line that has the talent to take over games while the offense is flush with playmakers. The question is when dual-threat quarterback Trey Lance, the third overall pick in the draft, will be ready to win the starting quarterback job from Jimmy Garoppolo.

With Lance adding another element to the rushing offense, a ground attack that ranked second in yards per game in 2019 has the potential to become a near-unstoppable force and lay the foundation for Shanahan to finally get his hands on the Lombardi Trophy.

In Tampa, Brady looks to be somehow getting stronger with age and, if that continues throughout the campaign and the Bucs are contending to repeat as champions, it will be difficult to look past him for MVP. With pass rushers that can overwhelm opponents and a diverse rushing attack, the 49ers have a potential formula to dictate a game against Tampa and end Brady's hopes of an eighth title.

The Browns have a strong case for the top running game in the NFL going into the season. An excellent supporting cast for Baker Mayfield and a superb offensive line means the 2018 number one overall pick has everything he needs to push Cleveland to a deep postseason run. On defense, the Browns have made astute additions at linebacker and in the secondary and boast one of the most well-rounded rosters in the league. Yet in a matchup between their head coach Kevin Stefanski and Shanahan, the nod has to go to the league's pre-eminent play-caller.

Rob Lancaster: Dak is back, and so are the Cowboys as an NFC force!

AFC Champion: Kansas City Chiefs
NFC Champion: Dallas Cowboys
Super Bowl Champion: Kansas City Chiefs
MVP: Dak Prescott

How 'bout them Cowboys! The call may be brave, but the NFC has not seen a back-to-back champion since the Seahawks in 2014 and Dallas' performance in the opener was one of a team that should not only be favourite for their NFC East division but also contend for a conference title they will see as long overdue.

The Cowboys piled up points when Dak Prescott was healthy, though they didn't equate to wins. His 403 passing yards and three touchdowns were also not enough against the Bucs, but they should serve to allay concerns over the ankle injury that ended his 2020 season or the shoulder issue that overshadowed his preseason and boost hopes he can perform at a level that helped Dallas average 509.5 net yards per game in the first four weeks of the previous campaign.

The key to Dallas realising their potential is the defense, where the Cowboys hope the presence of Dan Quinn as coordinator should help see vast improvements. The early signs were promising against Tampa Bay as a team that allowed 2,541 rushing yards last year gave up only 52 to the Buccaneers on Thursday. If they can become even an average defense this season and get the best out of Prescott, that is a recipe for a Super Bowl challenge. 

As for the Chiefs, a Super Bowl defeat is one thing, but they were embarrassed by the Bucs. The response has been to improve the offensive line, making sure Patrick Mahomes has time to work his magic. Not only will they get back to the big game, this time they will triumph, dashing Jerry Jones' dream of hosting a title parade in Texas.

Chris Myson: Never bet against Brady

AFC champion: Cleveland Browns
NFC champion: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Super Bowl champion: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
MVP: Tom Brady

The Buccaneers took time to find their groove last season, understandably given Brady moved to a new offense after 20 years in New England as the team coped with a disrupted preseason. A roster with few obvious holes put it all together down the stretch, a feat that became more remarkable when it later emerged the ageless Brady – whose 40 passing touchdowns was the second-highest total of his remarkable career – played the whole season with a torn MCL.

After the Bucs incredibly found a way to ensure they will return all 22 starters, their head coach and both coordinators, it would be brave to bet against them at least coming close to a repeat with a fit and firing Brady showing just how comfortable he now he is in Tampa by throwing for 379 yards and four touchdowns, albeit with two interceptions, and leading a game-winning drive against the Cowboys.

The Browns, in their second year with impressive offensive mind Stefanski, continue to draft and recruit wisely under GM Andrew Berry. With star wideout Odell Beckham Jr returning from injury with a point to prove, Mayfield poised for a career year and a formidable rushing attack already in place, they will relish another shot at the Chiefs after pushing them all the way in a 22-17 Divisional Round defeat.

Ben Spratt: Watch out, Peyton – Mahomes is coming for your record!

AFC champion: Kansas City Chiefs
NFC champion: Los Angeles Rams
Super Bowl champion: Kansas City Chiefs
MVP: Patrick Mahomes

The Chiefs may well have been entering this season as two-time reigning champions if not for an awful Super Bowl showing from their offensive line, which allowed superstar quarterback Mahomes to be pressured 33 times by the Buccaneers.

Kansas City addressed that issue in the offseason and will hope they have now found a fix. Effective pass protection should take the Chiefs all the way and mean an outstanding regular season for Mahomes, who might even fancy a shot at Peyton Manning's single-season record of 55 touchdowns with a 17th game to play with.

That O-Line would face the ultimate test if the Rams also made the big game, however, tasked with keeping Aaron Donald away from Mahomes. It is an improvement to the Rams' own weakest element – their QB, with Matthew Stafford in for Jared Goff – that figures to bring them into contention to emerge from the NFC as they did in the 2018 season.

Tom Brady was grateful for Ryan Succop's last-gasp field goal as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers opened the 2021 NFL season with a dramatic win over the Dallas Cowboys.

The Bucs' Super Bowl defence looked set to begin with a loss as they trailed 29-28 with seven seconds remaining in Thursday's opening-night thriller at Raymond Jones Stadium.

But inspired by seven-time Super Bowl winner Brady, the hosts edged a see-saw battle 31-29 thanks to Succop's game-winning kick in the dying seconds.

After surviving a scare against the Cowboys, Brady accepts there is plenty of work for his side to do.

"The margin of error is thin in the NFL," he said. "One or two plays, it's always that's the way the game goes. Fortunately, we found a way to win. 

"I'm really happy Ryan and the field goal team made that really clutch kick there at the end. That was great to see. But as a team, we all know we've got to get back to work.

"We won, it's great, but we know that it was far from perfect and we have to get back to work and clean a lot of stuff up."

Brady completed 32 of 50 passes for 379 yards against the Cowboys and passed Drew Brees for most career passing touchdowns in season openers in NFL history with 43.

Cowboys counterpart Dak Prescott, making his comeback from a long lay-off, was 42-for-58 passing, with 403 yards, three TDs and one interception.

Prescott has now had 400-plus yards in four games since the start of last season – the most by any player in the NFL.

But from the Bucs' perspective, it was far from a vintage performance as they committed 11 penalties for 106 yards and converted just two of six third-down tries.

"We've got a lot a lot to learn," head coach Bruce Arians said. "I'm obviously not pleased with the start of the game, though I loved the finish. 

"Our guys are winning. They're going to finish and we're going to win, but we can play better and not put ourselves in that situation."

Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won an opening-night thriller in the NFL, the Super Bowl champions overcoming the Dallas Cowboys 31-29 thanks to a field goal with two seconds remaining.

The Cowboys led 29-28 with seven seconds on the clock at Raymond Jones Stadium – the home of the Buccaneers and the scene of their Super Bowl LV triumph in February.

But after Brady led an 11-play, 57-yard drive, Ryan Succop stepped up to convert the last-gasp field goal as the Buccaneers opened the 2021 season with a win.

It was another memorable outing for seven-time Super Bowl champion Brady (43), who passed Drew Brees for most career passing touchdowns in season openers in NFL history.

Brady completed 32 of 50 passes for 379 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions as the 44-year-old quarterback fuelled the Buccaneers.

Cowboys counterpart Dak Prescott – back on the field for the first time since his season-ending ankle injury in Week 5 of the 2020 season – was 42-for-58 passing, with 403 yards, three TDs and one interception.

Prescott has had 400-plus yards in four games since the start of last season – the most by any player in the NFL.

The Buccaneers and Cowboys traded touchdowns in the opening quarter – Brady finding Chris Godwin before Prescott's 22-yard pass was caught by CeeDee Lamb inside the final two minutes.

Brady and Rob Gronkowski connected for a touchdown as the Buccaneers reclaimed the lead and while Prescott's TD pass to Amari Cooper and a Greg Zuerlein field goal put Dallas ahead, Tampa Bay had the last say before half-time – Antonio Brown on the end of a 47-yard throw.

There was history made in the third quarter as Brady and Gronkowski combined for their 100th touchdown, the star pair joining Hall of Famers Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison (114) in the 100 club.

With his 22nd career game with multiple receiving TDs, Gronkowski broke a tie with Antonio Gates for most games by a tight end in the Super Bowl era and moved into a tie for sixth in any position.

Dallas only trailed 28-26 entering the final period thanks to Cooper's second TD and the visitors took the lead with just over a minute remaining via another Zuerlein field goal, but Succop and the Buccaneers were not to be denied.

The consensus in recent years has become that the very best in the NFL predominantly reside in the AFC. It is a claim that is difficult to argue, given the Kansas City Chiefs' emergence as the most explosive team in the league, the rise of the Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns and the consistency of the Baltimore Ravens with their dynamic running game.

Yet, in terms of sheer depth, the NFC might have the edge. It may be tough to look beyond the reigning champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and too many find teams that can legitimately hope to be lifting the Lombardi Trophy come February, but this is a conference swimming with playoff calibre competitors.

That plethora of contenders will all be hoping to topple Tom Brady and the Buccaneers after they crushed the Chiefs 31-9 in Super Bowl LV to claim their second title in franchise history.

The Bucs are still the unquestioned class of the conference, but who are teams with the best shot of usurping them and playing in Super Bowl LVI in February? Stats Perform attempts to answer that question as we preview the NFC ahead of Tampa Bay's season opener against the Dallas Cowboys.

Favourites

With Brady's arm seemingly somehow getting stronger in his mid-40s – he averaged 9.5 air yards per attempt, the fourth-most in the NFL, in 2020 – and the Bucs doing an excellent job of retaining a host of free agents that formed the core of their championship roster, Tampa Bay stand as the clear favourites to be the NFC's Super Bowl representative.

Yet it is important to remember the Green Bay Packers and MVP Aaron Rodgers were perhaps just a fourth-down conversion in the red zone away from knocking off Brady and the Bucs in last year's NFC title game. Save for departed center Corey Linsley and injured left tackle David Bakhtiari – not insignificant absentees – Rodgers will have predominantly the same supporting cast as he had last year, including Davante Adams, who led the NFL in receiving touchdowns (18) last term.

The pressure is on defense that forced only 72 negative plays (tied 26th) last term to provide assistance reflective of the talent the Packers have on that side of the ball.

Sean McVay's Los Angeles Rams have rarely had to worry about getting impactful defensive contributions. Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald is coming off a year that saw him post a monstrous pressure rate of 28.2 per cent while Jalen Ramsey is still one of the most feared cornerbacks in the league.

If the defense can continue to thrive without coordinator Brandon Staley – who will coach in the same stadium but as the head man with the Chargers – and the marriage of new quarterback Matthew Stafford and innovative play-caller McVay proves successful, the Rams could be the team that defies Brady having failed to do so against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.

In the mix

The San Francisco 49ers were seven minutes away from ending the 2019 season with triumph in Super Bowl LIV, only to be undone by a stunning late barrage from Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.

Their hopes of going one better were decimated by a relentless wave of injuries, however, the Niners are healthy going into this season and offer one of the deepest rosters in the NFL along with the league's most compelling quarterback situation.

It is unclear when rookie third overall pick Trey Lance – an exciting dual-threat quarterback who tallied 42 total touchdowns and no interceptions in his only full season of college football at North Dakota State – will be ready to take over from Jimmy Garoppolo. Yet, as long as one of their quarterbacks can elevate a talented cast of skill-position players and an extremely well-stocked defense that gets edge rusher Nick Bosa – 28.3 per cent pressure rate in 2019 – back from a torn ACL can stay in the league's top 10, San Francisco will be a threat.

The Niners do have the inconvenience of being in the same division as the Rams and the Seattle Seahawks, whose head coach Pete Carroll may be starting to feel the pressure to deliver with his team having consistently reached the playoffs but failed to go beyond the Divisional Round since their Super Bowl loss at the end of 2014 season.

Seattle do not possess a roster as well-rounded as that of the Niners, yet quarterback Russell Wilson is one who can keep them in any game. Wilson, and therefore the Seahawks, cannot be counted out.

The Dallas Cowboys are more of a longshot and their defense is one ill-prepared to go deep into the postseason. Still, in a league where offense is king, the Cowboys have the attack – provided Dak Prescott is healthy – to outduel opponents having put up 509.5 net yards per game before their quarterback's 2020 season was ended by injury in Week 5.

Sleeper team to watch – Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons appear to be a franchise resisting the reality staring them in the face. Having replaced Dan Quinn with former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, the Falcons had the chance to get a jump-start on a rebuild by taking a quarterback with the fourth overall pick in the draft as the successor to the 36-year-old Matt Ryan.

Instead, the Falcons settled on Florida's stud tight end Kyle Pitts, a move more in keeping with a team ready to win now. With Pitts, who won his matchup with a defender on 70.1 per cent of targets in 2020, joining Ryan and an already talented cast of pass-catchers, the Falcons arguably have an offense that can score at a rate to keep them in the mix.

Wide receiver Calvin Ridley is one of the most dynamic weapons in the conference who racked up 1,374 receiving yards (tied fifth in the NFL) last year. Having to defend both Ridley and Pitts will present a massive dilemma for opposing defenders and, if blitz-heavy new Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees can improve a unit that was tied-20th in the NFL last year with 29 sacks for negative yardage, Atlanta could have the ingredients for a successful season.

The Falcons are stuck in a void between wanting to contend and needing to rebuild. Should the success Smith had as a play-caller in Tennessee continue in Atlanta, their dreams of contention could be realised.

Best Division – NFC West

The biggest barrier to the Rams, Seahawks and 49ers posting a record to put themselves in the conversation for the number one seed in the conference is that they all reside in the same division, one which also contains an Arizona Cardinals team that was 6-3 at one point last campaign before collapsing to an 8-8 record.

With the Cardinals possessing one of the most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in the league in the form of Kyler Murray and an All-Pro wide receiver in DeAndre Hopkins, the NFC West is a division that houses four playoff calibre teams as well as arguably the two best play-callers in the game in McVay and 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan.

Blowouts in the division are rare and all four have proven in recent times that they can deal damaging blows to each other. As this quartet feels the pressure to make the postseason, they promise to produce some of the most fascinating matchups of 2021.

Worst Division – NFC East

The East is the antithesis of the West, with four flawed teams and questionable quarterback situations for every team except Dallas.

Prescott's injury helped the Washington Football Team reach the playoffs with a 7-9 record in 2020, illustrating just how far what was once seen as the league's glamour division has fallen.

Washington will have the entertaining but erratic Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback while New York Giants signal-caller Daniel Jones and his offensive line look ill-prepared to propel them to the playoffs. Jalen Hurts brings dual-threat intrigue for the Philadelphia Eagles, yet theirs is a roster that likely has too many holes for him to overcome.

This is a division that will likely hinge on Prescott's ability to stay healthy and the performance of Washington's young and talented defense, but do not expect it to be an entertaining battle.

MVP Candidates

His offseason staring contest with the Packers in the rearview mirror, Rodgers will be in the running for his fourth MVP award should Green Bay again go deep into the playoffs and he replicates a 2020 campaign that saw him deliver an accurate well-thrown ball on 82.4 per cent of attempts, the third-highest ratio in the league.

Aaron Donald perennially loses out to quarterbacks, and it is tough to see what else the Rams' All-Pro defensive tackle can do to put himself over the top. Donald led the league with a remarkable pressure rate of 28.2 per cent in 2020 as he took home Defensive Player of Year honours.

His new team-mate Stafford could be in the mix if the former Detroit Lion proves the major upgrade on Jared Goff many expect him to be while Wilson will surely have a compelling claim if the Seahawks offense can sustain the level that saw Seattle lead the league with 298.1 net passing yards per game last year from Week 1 to Week 9 in 2020 for the entire season.

The elephant looming over the conference, though, is Brady and the Bucs, whose offense took over the league in the final four weeks of last season season, Brady enjoying a deep-ball renaissance that, if it carries into 2021 and Tampa remain best in the NFC class, will make him a tough candidate to beat.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are expecting Dak Prescott to be at his best as the Dallas Cowboys quarterback returns to action in Thursday's NFL season opener. 

Prescott did not play in the pre-season and has not seen live game action since suffering a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle last October against the New York Giants. 

But Cowboys CEO and director of player personnel Stephen Jones said Tuesday that Prescott is "100 per cent ready to go" for the game and he has "total confidence in Dak and how he feels about what he can do for this football team." 

The defending Super Bowl champions are of similar mind, said Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians. 

"Knowing him [Prescott] personally like I do, there's no change in him, with the way he's gonna play," Arians told reporters. "He only knows one way how to play, and that's full-speed."

At full speed, Prescott is one of the most dangerous playmakers in the NFL. In his last full healthy season, 2019, Prescott led the NFL with 4,902 passing yards and 30 touchdowns, and added 277 yards and three more TDs running the ball. 

He was off to a similarly effective start before going down in Week 5 last season, completing 68 per cent of his passes for 1,856 yards with nine passing and three rushing touchdowns. 

The opposing quarterback Thursday, Tom Brady, can relate to returning from a serious leg injury. He spoke Tuesday of his mindset in coming back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in his left knee in the first quarter of the 2008 opener, an injury that cost him the rest of the season. 

"We kind of feel invincible at times, especially playing a really physical sport, but I think one thing about getting injured is we're not invincible," Brady said. "I think you have a different perspective when you come back.

"You're really disappointed when you lose games, but it's more disappointing when you don't get to play in games. I'd rather play and lose than not play at all, as crazy as that sounds. If you're not playing it just means you're at home.

"I remember that was a tough year just sitting, watching, watching all my teammates, and I made a pretty conscious decision I was gonna do everything I could at that point to stay healthy as I could my entire career."

Brady has, starting every game since the 2009 season opener aside from his four-game "Deflategate" suspension at the beginning of the 2016 season. 

As he prepares to begin his 22nd NFL season, Brady knows he and his team will need to out-play Prescott and the Cowboys to get off to the start they want. 

"[Prescott is] a really talented player," Brady said. "Really since the day he got in the league he's shown to be a great leader of the team, and you know we're just expecting him to play like that, like Dak Prescott does.

"He's very talented, moves in the pocket, throws a good ball, they've got a lot of talented skill players.

"So for us, offensively, we're gonna have to do a good job putting our defence in a good position, I don't think we can give any extra possessions.

"Turnovers will be a big factor, field position is going to be important. It's a big challenge for our team."

The Dallas Cowboys will be without All-Pro guard Zack Martin for their season opener with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers following a positive coronavirus test.

Martin will subsequently be placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, ruling him out of the meeting with the defending champions at Raymond James Stadium on Thursday.

Having seen their 2020 season hindered greatly by injuries, most notably to quarterback Dak Prescott – whose campaign was ended in Week 5 – but also to several members of their offensive line, the Cowboys will have been hoping for some continuity up front in 2021.

However, they will be minus the services of a four-time All-Pro in Martin, who played in only 10 games last year.

Of Martin, head coach Mike McCarthy, who confirmed Connor McGovern is the favourite to deputise, said: "He's frustrated, obviously, but this is the world that we live in.

"We will continue to work the combinations, but Connor McGovern will take the majority of the reps at right guard."

Martin's absence is a sizeable blow to a Dallas offensive line that must protect Prescott from a Buccaneers defense that pressured Patrick Mahomes 33 times in their Super Bowl LV win in February.

In his last full season in 2019, Martin conceded a pressure rate of 2.8 per cent that ranked third among all guards. That declined to 5.6 per cent last season, but Martin still performed well above the average (8.1 per cent) for his position, and McGovern (8.0 per cent) will need to improve if the Cowboys are to spoil Tampa Bay's Week 1 party.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott said he is "definitely ready" to make his NFL return against Super Bowl champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1.

Prescott's 2020 season ended in Week 5 with a fracture-dislocation of his right ankle and the Cowboys star has been stepping up his comeback ahead of the September 9 trip to Tom Brady's Buccaneers.

Two-time Pro Bowler Prescott – who also hurt his shoulder during preseason, having undergone ankle surgery – expressed excitement over his imminent return for the 2021 opener following Friday's practice.

"I'm definitely ready. I'm excited," Prescott told reporters. "I put in a lot of work to get to this point.

"Whether it was months ago, rehabbing the ankle, to the last few [weeks] keeping the feet working while I was letting my arm rest.

"There is so much work I put into this I'm just excited to go out there and be a part of the full game. Just being out there with my brothers and being able to do something I love."

Since taking the starting role as a rookie in 2016 from an injured Tony Romo, Prescott has thrown for 17,634 yards with 106 touchdowns and 40 interceptions.

The 28-year-old Prescott has also rushed for 1,314 yards and a further 24 touchdowns.

Though he missed most of last season, Prescott is 10th among qualifying quarterbacks in yards per attempt (7.69) and 12th in passing plays of 25 yards or more since 2016.

"I think we went about this process the right way that part of it was protecting me from myself," Prescott said. "I mean, the moment I got into any team reps, I wasn't dialling anything down. I wasn't trying to throw a certain amount of percentage.

"I think that's just the way I play the game, I just went out there and playing within the moment, ripping passes, not thinking about it, just making the plays I needed to make. Then after two days like that realising there wasn't any residual effect and I wasn't sore.

"I've been sticking to the plan and it's all worked out. Yeah, from the shoulder to the leg to my mind, I'm ready to go."

Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy added: "You've got to give him credit for the process that he worked himself through. It isn't like he just stood in the back and didn't do anything while he wasn't throwing.

"He's staying on top of the footwork. His conditioning couldn't be better. All the extra work that all these guys put into it, Dak took advantage of that time."

The Dallas Cowboys do not believe Dak Prescott needs to play in preseason games to be ready for Week 1. 

That was the message conveyed by head coach Mike McCarthy on Monday as he said the team would maintain a cautious approach with their quarterback as he returns from a shoulder strain. 

Prescott returned to full team drills Monday for the first time since injuring his shoulder in practice on July 28, but it does not sound like he will play in Saturday's preseason game against the Houston Texans. 

“We’ll see how the week goes, but there’s no urgency from my perspective to see Dak play against Houston," McCarthy told reporters. "This is more about we don’t want to create a setback possibly.

"His volume of throwing leading up to that point, I mean, he was probably in midseason form from the amount of work he put in over the summer, coming out of the OTAs. ...

“I think we’d all like [to see him in a game] that but that’s not the priority. I think his volume throwing, getting the capacity back to where he was is the number one thing."

McCarthy added that if Prescott does not play Saturday, he also will not feature in the August 29 preseason finale against the Jacksonville Jaguars because the focus in that game will be on players competing to win roster spots.

Prescott's 2020 season ended in Week 5 with a fracture-dislocation of his right ankle, so it will be quite a gap between facing game-speed defenders if he does not play until the September 9 opener at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

Despite the layoff, McCarthy said keeping Prescott in controlled practice conditions is more valuable to the team than having him face an opponent when the games do not count. 

"We just really don’t want to put him in a position where he can reinjure it," McCarthy said. "We’ll continue to work on that plane."

Prescott is entering his sixth season as the Cowboys' quarterback. In 2019, his last full campaign, his career-best 4,902 passing yards were second in the NFL to Jameis Winston (5,109), and his 30 touchdown passes ranked fourth in the league. 

In his absence, the Cowboys have managed just one touchdown in two preseason games, both losses. 

 

The Dallas Cowboys have activated wide receiver Amari Cooper off the physically unable to perform list as they continue preparing for the new NFL season.

Cooper had surgery on his right ankle during the offseason, undergoing a procedure to remove bone spurs after being bothered by the issue in the 2020 campaign.

His recovery had been continuing under the guidance of the Cowboys' medical staff, but now the 27-year-old – a four-time Pro Bowler - is clear to return to practice with his team.

The fourth overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft by the then-Oakland Raiders, Cooper was traded to Dallas in October 2018.

He has 449 receptions for 6,211 yards in his career during the regular season, plus 38 receiving touchdowns. His three playoff appearances have seen him record 15 catches for 181 yards and a score.

Cooper led the way for the Cowboys in terms of receptions (92) and receiving yards (1,114) in 2020, while rookie CeeDee Lamb matched him with five touchdown catches. Dallas' offense was hampered badly when starting quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a season-ending injury in Week 5.

They finished with a 6-10 record at the end of head coach Mike McCarthy's first year in charge, having used four different quarterbacks.

The Cowboys start the new season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are the reigning Super Bowl champions, on September 9.

The Dallas Cowboys remain hopeful Dak Prescott will be ready for the season opener despite a shoulder injury that knocked him out of training camp, but they got a look at their other quarterback options as they opened the NFL pre-season on Thursday. 

Garrett Gilbert and Cooper Rush turned in solid performances even though they were unable to lead a touchdown drive in a 16-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio.

Gilbert got the start and completed nine of 13 attempts for 104 yards and a 93.1 passer rating, while Rush came on in the second quarter and was eight-of-13 for 70 yards and a 75.8 rating.

Gilbert twice drove the Cowboys into the red zone but Dallas was left to settle for two field-goal tries, with Hunter Niswander making only one of them.

Niswander missed another field goal at the end of the first half, this one a 52-yarder, and Rush saw another of his drives end in a lost fumble by Malik Turner.

Despite those miscues, Dallas out-gained Pittsburgh 217-123 in the first half while racking up 13 first downs to Pittsburgh's six.

"The performance was decent," Gilbert told reporters. "We did some good things.

"Personally, I was a little sloppy with a couple of things, but it was good to knock the rust off. As an offense, we did a nice job overall of getting the ball moving."

Head coach Mike McCarthy concurred, saying he was pleased with the way his offence moved the football, but called for better finishing in the red zone.

They can expect that aspect to improve under Prescott, who did not travel to Canton for the game.

He told Fox Sports from California during the half-time show that he remains optimistic about being able to start the September 9 season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"We're being cautious," Prescott said. "We're taking it day by day, obviously. It's five weeks before the season opener, so I've got a lot of time. And I'm going to use that time to get myself ready for that game."

Days into preseason camp, the Dallas Cowboys already have reason for concern after quarterback Dak Prescott left practice early Wednesday with a shoulder injury. 

Prescott walked off the field at Cowboys camp in Oxnard, California after experiencing soreness in his right arm. 

The team said later that an MRI exam revealed a muscle strain in his right shoulder and will be "evaluated on a day-to-day basis." 

Wednesday was to be Prescott's first practice with the team in full pads since his 2020 season ended in Week 5 with a fracture-dislocation of his right ankle. 

Prescott, who turns 28 on Thursday, downplayed any concerns in a statement released by the team. 

"I felt some soreness when making certain throws today, and I really just decided not to push things too far," he said. "Better to be cautious and smart about it.

"I don't see this as any kind of serious setback. We'll treat it on a daily basis, and I'll be fine." 

Prescott is entering his sixth season as the Cowboys' quarterback. In 2019, his last full campaign, his career-best 4,902 passing yards were second in the NFL to Jameis Winston (5,109), and his 30 touchdown passes ranked fourth in the league. 

Garrett Gilbert ran the first-team offence in Prescott's absence for the rest of Wednesday's practice. 

The Cowboys have one more preseason game than most teams, the August 5 Hall of Fame Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Canton, Ohio, but Prescott was not expected to play in that contest anyway. 

Dallas will open the regular season September 9 away to Tom Brady and the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

With offseason programs in the books, NFL teams will next month turn their attention to training camp as preparations for the 2021 season ramp up.

Every coaching staff in the league knows that having a reliable offensive line will be crucial to their hopes of success in the coming campaign.

Too many holes in the trenches can doom a team's chances in a hurry regardless of the talent at quarterback and the offensive skill positions.

Reflecting the importance of strong play up front, five offensive linemen were taken in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

And, using combined run block and pass protection data over the past three seasons, Stats Perform has produced projected offensive line rankings to see how each team stacks up in the trenches.

Here we look at which teams are in the best shape, which O-Lines could cause problems for their quarterback and which appear to ready to make the leap to the league's best in 2021.


THE ELITE

1. Dallas Cowboys

LT – Tyron Smith, LG – Connor Williams, C – Tyler Biadasz, RG – Zack Martin, RT – La'el Collins

Injuries decimated the Dallas O-Line in 2020 but, when healthy, it is tough to see another unit in the league that can match this group for overall talent.

That may be a substantial caveat but, should the Cowboys keep their starters in the line-up in 2021, Dak Prescott will have the benefit of excellent protection from several spots up front.

Tyron Smith missed all but two games last season but remains the top pass protecting left tackle in our projected ranks. Zack Martin is second in pass protection among right guards and, if he can return to his best after missing six games in 2020 and right tackle La'el Collins can stay on the field and play at a high level, a stacked Cowboys offense will be in an excellent spot to produce at an historic pace as they did last year before Prescott went down.

2. New England Patriots

LT – Isaiah Wynn, LG – Mike Onwenu, C – David Andrews, RG – Shaq Mason, RT – Trent Brown

The Patriots lost Joe Thuney in free agency but, despite the departure of one of the most dependable guards in football, New England heads into 2021 with an elite group hoping to help the offense bounce back from a dismal 2020.

Trent Brown's return should fortify the right side of the line while left tackle Isaiah Wynn shouldn't have to worry much about his inside shoulder with Mike Onwenu ranking as the second-best pass protecting left guard in the NFL after an excellent rookie season.

David Andrews grades out as the top run-blocking center in football -- he allowed a run disruption on only 5.3 per cent of his snaps in 2020, with Corey Linsley well adrift in second on 6.2 per cent -- while Shaq Mason is in the top three in that area at right guard.

Regardless of whether it's Cam Newton or Mac Jones under center in 2021, the O-Line is constructed in a way where the quarterback and a replenished set of skill-position players should have every chance to succeed.

3. Baltimore Ravens

LT – Ronnie Stanley, LG – Bradley Bozeman, C – Patrick Mekari, RG – Kevin Zeitler, RT – Alejandro Villanueva

Baltimore's presence in the top three may raise a few eyebrows given they traded right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. to the Kansas City Chiefs.

However, their lofty position is largely a testament to the play of Ronnie Stanley, the left tackle who will be looking to bounce back after seeing his 2020 season ended by an ankle injury.

Stanley ranks tied-fourth among left tackles and was stellar in pass protection prior to getting hurt, with his pressure rate allowed of 4.4 per cent bettered only by David Bakhtiari and Andrew Whitworth at his position.

Having given up a pressure rate of 11.9 per cent at left tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers last season, Alejandro Villanueva will have a challenge replacing Brown, who allowed pressures on just 5.8 per cent of his right tackle snaps in 2020.

But the interior was the main issue for the Ravens last season and, with fourth-ranked right guard Kevin Zeitler arriving from the New York Giants, Baltimore should be confident of a noticeable improvement in the middle of their line.

THE STRUGGLERS

30. Chicago Bears

LT – Teven Jenkins, LG – Cody Whitehair, C – Sam Mustipher, RG – Germain Ifedi, RT – Elijah Wilkinson

After surprisingly allowing Charles Leno to leave, the Bears are banking on Teven Jenkins successfully making the switch from college right tackle to NFL left tackle as a rookie. That he will do so successfully is a dubious presumption to make and there is little to rely on at any spot on the trenches for Chicago.

Cody Whitehair at least provided a solid presence at left guard but the interior protection for Andy Dalton, or rookie first-round pick Justin Fields, will be suspect if Sam Mustipher cannot make strides at center.

Tied as the third-worst center in the NFL in the projected rankings, only Hroniss Grasu (2.8%) fared worse than Mustipher (2.3%) in terms of adjusted sack rate allowed in 2020.

31. Carolina Panthers

LT – Greg Little, LG – Dennis Daley, C – Matt Paradis, RG – John Miller, RT – Taylor Moton

Carolina looks set at right tackle, with Taylor Moton ranking as the fifth-best player at the position, but they have little in the way of solutions elsewhere up front.

The left side looms as a massive issue for the Panthers. Greg Little grades out as the worst left tackle in football and Dennis Daley is 30th among left guards in the projected rankings.

It is far from an ideal scenario for Sam Darnold to step into as quarterback, and he will hope center Matt Paradis can do a significantly better job snapping the football. Paradis' bad snap percentage of 3.49 was fourth-worst in the NFL in 2020.

32. Minnesota Vikings

LT – Christian Darrisaw, LG – Dru Samia, C – Garrett Bradbury, RG – Ezra Cleveland, RT – Brian O'Neill

Offensive line issues have long since plagued the Vikings, who invested a premium pick in a new left tackle by using their first-round selection on Christian Darrisaw of Virginia Tech.

Darrisaw named Trent Williams and Laremy Tunsil as his favourite linemen to watch prior to the draft. If he replicates their impact, he will be a success, but there are substantial problems on the interior.

Dru Samia is the worst left guard in the NFL in the projected rankings, and center Garrett Bradbury allowed pressure on 8.1 per cent of his pass protection snaps. Only two players to take snaps center had worse pressure rates in 2020.

READY TO MAKE THE LEAP

Kansas City Chiefs

LT – Orlando Brown Jr, LG – Joe Thuney, C – Austin Blythe, RG – Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, RT – Mike Remmers

The Chiefs completely remodelled their offensive line in the wake of giving up 33 pressures in the Super Bowl LV, and there is little doubt they head into 2021 with a much-improved group as they attempt to win back the Lombardi Trophy.

Kansas City will need an improvement from Brown following his trade from Baltimore. In his 221 pass protection snaps at left tackle after Stanley's injury, Brown gave up a pressure rate of 10.9 per cent. Having campaigned to play on the left side, Brown's performance figures to come under significant scrutiny.

He will be helped by the presence of Thuney, second among all left guards in the projected rankings after allowing pressure on just 4.3 per cent of his snaps in his final season in New England.

With Laurent Duvernay-Tardif returning to man the right guard spot, the Chiefs' line has an air of solidity about it. Eleventh in the projected ranks, the Chiefs could jump into the top 10 if not the top five should their additions perform to their potential.

Los Angeles Chargers

LT – Rashawn Slater, LG – Matt Feiler, C – Corey Linsley, RG – Oday Aboushi, RT – Bryan Bulaga

Staying in the AFC West with a Chargers team many will be backing to surge towards postseason contention after an Offensive Rookie of the Year season from Justin Herbert, for Los Angeles much hinges on the performance of rookie left tackle Rashawn Slater in his first season in the league.

That is a lot of expectation to place on a player who did not feature in the 2020 college season, but the optimism should come from Slater's 2019 performance for Northwestern, which saw him give up just six pressures on 220 pass protection snaps.

Yet the most important addition for Herbert may be that of center Corey Linsley, who arrived from the Green Bay Packers. Just three centers graded above Linsley in the projected ranks and his ability to quickly develop a rapport with Herbert will be pivotal to the Chargers realising their potential. History suggests the 2020 first-team All-Pro should succeed in doing so.

Arizona Cardinals

LT – D.J. Humphries, LG – Justin Pugh, C – Rodney Hudson, RG – Brian Winters, RT – Kelvin Beachum

The Cardinals must be strong up front if Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury are to have a chance of inspiring Arizona to a successful season in an NFC West loaded with pass-rushing talent, and they made an astute addition on the interior this offseason in a trade with the Las Vegas Raiders that saw them acquire three-time Pro Bowl center Rodney Hudson.

Tied for fourth with Linsley among centers in the projected rankings, Hudson's experience will be a valuable asset to Murray as he looks to take a step forward in year three, the former Kansas City Chief recording a pressure rate allowed of 1.7 per cent that was the second-best in the league at his position.

Kelvin Beachum is a substantial asset to the ground game. His run disruption percentage of 5.9 per cent was third among right tackles in 2020 and, with D.J. Humphries allowing only 28 pressures on 450 pass protection snaps last season, Murray will have three dependable players at the most important positions on the line in a year where another underwhelming campaign will not be acceptable.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will kick off the new NFL season against the Dallas Cowboys on September 9, while Sam Darnold is to be quickly reunited with the New York Jets.

Ahead of the full schedule release later on Wednesday, the Week 1 slate was confirmed with Tom Brady's Bucs the highlight.

After winning the Super Bowl against the Kansas City Chiefs last season, seven-time champion Brady is in the Thursday night game against the Cowboys in Tampa.

The Bucs have brought back the entirety of their title-winning team and face a Dallas outfit aiming to improve on an awful 2020 after signing Dak Prescott to a long-term contract.

Elsewhere, quarterback Darnold will make his Carolina Panthers debut against the Jets team he left this offseason.

In three miserable years in New York, Darnold threw for 45 touchdowns and 39 interceptions across 38 games with a 59.8 completion percentage – the third-worst rate in the league over this period.

The former third overall pick was traded to the Panthers last month for a sixth-round pick this year and a second and fourth-rounders in 2022, with the Jets then using the second selection in 2021 to take Zach Wilson.

Among Wilson's fellow first-round QBs, Mac Jones could potentially make his bow against the man he succeeded at Alabama.

Jones, who is competing for the starting spot on the New England Patriots with Cam Newton, will hope to face Tua Tagovailoa and the Miami Dolphins in a big AFC East matchup.

Trevor Lawrence is likely to go straight into the Jacksonville Jaguars team against the Houston Texans, while Trey Lance will hope to get his chance under center for the San Francisco 49ers at the Detroit Lions and Justin Fields for the Chicago Bears at the Los Angeles Rams in the late Sunday game.

The NFL also confirmed Wilson and Lawrence would be in line for appearances in the London games in October, with the Jets facing the Atlanta Falcons and the Jaguars taking on the Dolphins on consecutive weekends.

Another of the more intriguing Week 1 games sees the Green Bay Packers travel to the New Orleans Saints.

As the Saints begin the post-Drew Brees era, the Packers will hope wantaway MVP Aaron Rodgers is still on the team and able to improve his 3-2 career record as a starter against New Orleans.

The Seattle Seahawks, who have kept hold of Russell Wilson, face the Indianapolis Colts, and Patrick Mahomes' latest title tilt sees the Kansas City Chiefs host the Cleveland Browns.

Mahomes went down with a toe injury and then a concussion in an epic Chiefs win over the Browns in the 2020 postseason, with 35-year-old backup Chad Henne making his playoff debut and having a pick and a sack but completing six of eight passes to complete the job.

In the first Monday Night Football of the season, Lamar Jackson's Baltimore Ravens will go to the Las Vegas Raiders.


Week 1 schedule in full:

Dallas Cowboys at Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Sep 9, 8:20pm ET
Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
New York Jets at Carolina Panthers – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Seattle Seahawks at Indianapolis Colts – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Los Angeles Chargers at Washington Football Team – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
San Francisco 49ers at Detroit Lions – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Arizona Cardinals at Tennessee Titans – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Philadelphia Eagles at Atlanta Falcons – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Minnesota Vikings at Cincinnati Bengals – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs – Sep 12, 4:25pm ET
Green Bay Packers at New Orleans Saints – Sep 12, 4:25pm ET
Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots – Sep 12, 4:25pm ET
Denver Broncos at New York Giants – Sep 12, 4:25pm ET
Chicago Bears at Los Angeles Rams – Sep 12, 8:20pm ET
Baltimore Ravens at Las Vegas Raiders – Sep 13, 8:15pm ET

The Philadelphia Eagles saw a chance to grab a playmaker for Jalen Hurts and made their move, trading up to select DeVonta Smith with the 10th pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Philadelphia swapped with their division rivals the Dallas Cowboys to move up two slots in the draft order and take Smith, sending the 12th overall pick and a 2021 third-round selection to the Cowboys.

Smith won the Heisman Trophy as the best college player in the country in 2020, and the wide receiver will give the Eagles a significant weapon on offense. 

Last season, Smith caught 117 passes for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns as he helped Alabama win the national championship.

Smith and Hurts were teammates at Alabama in 2017 and 2018, just before the receiver blossomed into one of the best players in the country. 

His selection continued a draft-day trend of NFL teams reuniting quarterbacks with receivers they had played with in college. 

Previously the Cincinnati Bengals paired up Ja'Marr Chase with former LSU teammate Joe Burrow and the Miami Dolphins selected Alabama receiver Jaylen Waddle to play with QB Tua Tagovailoa once again. 

Page 1 of 2
© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.