Each of the top three wide receivers taken in the 2021 NFL Draft entered Week 1 of the season facing pertinent questions. Could Ja'Marr Chase shake off his drop-laden preseason and revive his rapport with Joe Burrow? Can DeVonta Smith excel despite his slender frame? Will Jaylen Waddle be able to mesh with Tua Tagovailoa again amid concerns over his college quarterback's arm strength?

It is important not to be a prisoner of the Week 1 moment. With the opening slate of games notorious for enticing observers into mistaken conclusions.

However, after all three played major roles in wins for the Cincinnati Bengals, Philadelphia Eagles and Miami Dolphins, respectively, the answer to each of those queries is, for now, a confident yes.

The trio all found the endzone in their NFL debuts, making league history in the process.

Indeed, the 2021 season is the first in common-draft era in which three rookie wideouts that were each selected in the first round scored on a touchdown reception in Week 1.

And their performances provided plenty of encouragement they will each vindicate their lofty draft statuses.

Chase the ace

The highlight of Chase's 101-yard showing in Cincinnati's win over the Minnesota Vikings was a 50-yard touchdown catch from college team-mate Burrow on a perfectly thrown ball on which the fifth overall pick took advantage of soft coverage from Bashaud Breeland.

But a receiver whose ability to separate was questioned prior to the draft also excelled at getting free from coverage on third down. Registering a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup on a play where he is targeted, on four of his seven targets, Chase finished the game with 14.43 burn yards per target -- ninth among receivers who were thrown to at least five times -- with an average depth of target of 15.7 yards.

His debut effort and the numbers he produced should raise hopes he can rely more on his route-running to beat defenders rather than the physical approach that defined his success at LSU.

Crimson Tide connection returns

Separating from defenders was never an issue for Waddle at the college level, with preseason concerns aimed more at his quarterback than the former Alabama star.

As a rookie, Tagovailoa did not produce much to suggest he would gel with a speedster who won his matchup with a defender on 78.1 per cent of his 2020 targets and averaged 19.96 burn yards per target to lead the Power 5 in his final year with the Crimson Tide.

Yet this pair of college team-mates also had their connection from 2019 cooking again as the Dolphins knocked off the New England Patriots in Foxborough.

They did so largely through intelligently adapting Waddle's traits to the short passing game, giving him chances to run after the catch and using him in motion to stretch and deceive the Patriots' defense, as they did on his touchdown that eventually proved the game-winner.

There was also a play that could have been plucked straight from Waddle's Alabama tape as he got a step on a defender while running vertically and worked his way back to the ball, leaping over the covering cornerback for a 36-yard reception.

With a burn on four of his six targets and 13.09 burn yards per target, Waddle's numbers did not quite match up to those of Chase but, if he continues to stress defenses working horizontally and vertically, he will be a substantial asset to the Miami passing game. 

Smith shreds Falcons

Waddle will have hot competition for the title of best Alabama receiver from this draft, though, at least if Smith continues on his early trajectory from the Eagles' 32-6 defeat of the Atlanta Falcons.

Open on six of his eight targets, Smith's six-catch, 71-yard showing was not one in which he relied on his excellent route-running ability, instead finding holes in the Falcons' zone coverage in a game where he was a favoured receiver for Jalen Hurts, who was second among quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts with a well-thrown ball percentage of 87.5.

Yet his 19-yard touchdown offered a snapshot of what he can do in that regard as he patiently released to the outside against man coverage, sending his defender into a pick play from tight end Zach Ertz. With open space now at his disposal, Smith accelerated before expertly tracking the ball into his grasp in the corner of the endzone.

For both Smith and Waddle, their early success was a continuation of how they performed in college, while Chase demonstrated encouraging progress in an area of the game considered to be a weakness.

Selecting a wide receiver in the top 10 is considered a gamble by many but the early payout from this trio suggests they may prove worth the risk.

Trey Lance's first competitive game since 2019 was in keeping with his brief but spectacular college career. He threw a touchdown pass and he won.

The rookie third-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers did not contribute much to victory beyond that five-yard throw to Trent Sherfield, Jimmy Garoppolo leading the Niners to a 41-33 victory over the Detroit Lions. Yet he was happy to see the field in meaningful action having seen his 2020 season with North Dakota State wiped out due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"I had no idea when or if I was going to play," Lance said in his post-game media conference.

"Obviously I was hoping I would get to get on the field and just help, but at the same time, my role is just to be ready whenever my name is called.

"It just felt great to be out there again, and obviously it feels good to be 1-0."

Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan said of Lance's involvement: "I actually didn't think we would do it on the first drive, but you get into some situations, and that's all play calling is to tell you the truth.

"We'll always have some stuff in for Trey. When your number two quarterback has a skillset that the number one doesn't do in terms of being a threat to run, there's always an option of different plays you can run.

"So we'll have that up at all times while Trey's here. While he's the number two that'll always be an option. But if the one ever gets hurt, then you have to open everything up."

Shanahan confirmed cornerback Jason Verrett is believed to have suffered a torn ACL, his injury preceding a Lions comeback effort from 41-17 down that set up a nervy finish for San Francisco.

"It's crushing. I'm hoping for the best, but it's crushing," said Shanahan, who expects recent cornerback signing Josh Norman to be ready for Week 2 against the Philadelphia Eagles but also confirmed he had spoken with Richard Sherman and that bringing him back is a possibility.

The Chicago Bears played both quarterbacks in their season-opening loss to the Los Angeles Rams, but Justin Fields was the only one to score a touchdown in a game that will increase calls to start him over Andy Dalton.

Dalton saw the vast majority of the snaps as the Bears were swept aside 34-14 by the Rams on Sunday, throwing for 206 yards and an interception.

However, Bears fans saw an exciting glimpse of their future as Fields scampered in for a three-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. He also completed a pair of passes for 10 yards.

Head coach Matt Nagy confirmed using both quarterbacks was always in their plans, despite him having declared Dalton the starter, but did not offer any hint as to whether Fields will see more game time in the coming weeks after his intriguing cameo.

"We had the plan and we stuck to our plan," Nagy said. "We knew where and when we were going to use him and we stuck to that.

"And so, we'll see where that goes and how we do it. But I think we all understand that for us, strategically, we'll see where we go with that — without giving anything away.

"Really, the very first play when he went out there and was able to make a throw — and that was an RPO. So he made a decision to throw the ball off of a look that we had.

"So right there to start the game, I thought that was great. And then he was involved on the sideline. And then when we got down into the red zone at times, we had a couple things in for him that worked and some that didn't work. But when he got down in the red zone, he did some great things there, too.

"So we've just got to keep having him grow and keep staying positive. But he's certainly a weapon."

Sean McVay "loved everything" Matthew Stafford did in his spectacular debut for the Los Angeles Rams as he led them to a 34-14 win over the Chicago Bears.

In the first regular-season game with fans at SoFi Stadium, Stafford delighted a packed house with a display of why the Rams traded two first-round picks to acquire him from the Detroit Lions.

Stafford completed 20 of 26 passes for 321 yards and three touchdowns, posting a passer rating of 156.1, the highest ever by a player in his debut with a new team. 

And McVay could hardly have been more effusive in his praise of his new quarterback.

"I think it was just his steady demeanour throughout the course of the game," McVay said. "Just like you had seen in practice and seen from afar, but I think the first drive of the second half I thought was most impressive.

"But then I'm thinking about what an unbelievable job he did progressing, finding Robert Woods on the last touchdown, so there were multiple things but I think the overall game management and I think the expectation. You could just see there was a look in his eye. He had confidence in his team-mates.

"He expected to play well and he did a great job. It's hard to say there was one thing. I loved everything he did tonight."

Stafford's second throw of the game saw him hit Van Jefferson on a 67-yard touchdown throw on which he booted to his left off the play-fake, flipped his hips back to the right sideline and unfurled a perfect ball to find the second-year receiver on a deep post route.

"I think it was a great job by him being able to flip his hips and make an unbelievable throw," McVay added.

"I think that's kind of one of those things – he's gifted. He's got a great ability to be able to change his arm slot and make all types of throws, whether it be short, intermediate or down the field.

"You're not limited in anything you can do in the pass game. Hopefully, we'll continue to build on options and opportunities that we have moving forward."

Jameis Winston starred as the New Orleans Saints opened the season with a "home" game played more than 500 miles away from the Superdome. 

In discussing his team's 38-3 pounding of the Green Bay Packers in Jacksonville, Florida, the quarterback's thoughts kept returning to New Orleans and the surrounding area.

Asked about his feelings regarding Sunday's game, Winston answered by illuminating the challenges facing the Saints' home community in the wake of Hurricane Ida, which forced the team to relocate its operations to Dallas two weeks ago. 

"We did that for them," Winston said. "We knew how much it would mean to get a victory. They've been through so much, and for us to celebrate this victory with them is amazing.

"Hats off to [the people of New Orleans] for their resilience. They inspired us to go out there and ball."

No one balled quite like Winston, who had five touchdown passes in the New Orleans rout as he made his first start for the Saints after serving as the backup to Drew Brees last season.

Winston said the Saints remained composed despite the many distractions thrown their way in recent weeks, and it paid off Sunday. 

"We were prepared. That was the message today," he said. "My trainer texted me this morning that 'pressure is for the unprepared'.

"I think that one thing we consistently did as a unit with Sean [Payton, the head coach] and with [administrative director] Jay Romig, along with our entire organization, is that despite the adversity of being in Dallas and all that we're dealing with at home, our mindset stayed the same.

"We prepared to play against Green Bay and prepared to play the best football that we could, and we did that."

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers starter from 2015-19, Winston refused to revel in his return to the spotlight after outshining Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. 

"Coach [Payton] says all the time that we're in a race to get better," Winston said. "We are going to celebrate this game today, but there are people dealing with way worse than me right now. There are still people in Louisiana without power.

"I'll probably reflect on it after our season is over, but right now we have to keep getting better. There's some things that I won't like when I watch the film tonight, so we still have to get better."

Next up for the Saints: a true road game Sunday at the Carolina Panthers followed by a trip to New England to face the Patriots in Week 3.

Matthew Stafford did his part in his Los Angeles Rams debut, leading his new team to a 34-14 win over the Chicago Bears.

After a dozen seasons with the hapless Detroit Lions, Stafford guided the Rams past the Bears in their season opener on Sunday.

It was exactly the type of performance the Rams had hoped for from the veteran quarterback, who completed 20 of 26 passes for 321 yards and three touchdowns. 

The 33-year-old Stafford appeared in complete control from the beginning, hitting Van Jefferson for a 67-yard touchdown on the Rams' third play from scrimmage. 

After field goals on their next two drives, Los Angeles answered a David Montgomery touchdown for the Bears late in the first half with another bomb from Stafford to open the second – this one a 56-yard TD to Cooper Kupp. 

Stafford's last touchdown came on a two-yard pass to Robert Woods with 3:17 remaining after a 12-play drive that ate up nearly half the fourth quarter. 

The other veteran quarterback getting a fresh start with a new team did not fare so well. 

Andy Dalton got the start for Chicago despite a persistent clamour for rookie Justin Fields throughout training camp and went 27-for-38 passing with 206 yards. 

Dalton was intercepted in the end zone on the Bears' first drive of the game, failed to convert a fourth down on the second drive and fumbled after being sacked the next time Chicago had the ball. 

Fields did get some snaps, rushing for a three-yard touchdown that briefly cut the lead to 20-14 late in the third quarter, but all that did was further inflame the quarterback controversy that will continue to be the talk of the Windy City. 

Patrick Mahomes produced a record-breaking performance to lead the Kansas City Chiefs' rallying win over the Cleveland Browns in their NFL season opener, the star hailed by Andy Reid and Tyreek Hill.

The Chiefs faced a 12-point deficit before quarterback Mahomes fuelled a 33-29 come-from-behind victory against the Browns on Sunday.

Mahomes threw a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter for reigning AFC champions the Chiefs, including a 75-yard pass to Hill that helped close the gap.

He completed 27 of his 36 passes for 337 yards and three touchdowns as the former MVP made more NFL history.

The 25-year-old broke the record for most passing yards in NFL history through the first 50 games, while he also boasts the most passing touchdowns ever through the same amount of appearances.

"That's Patrick Mahomes being Patrick Mahomes," said Chiefs team-mate Hill. "There it is."

Chiefs head coach Reid added: "You love his attitude because he always feels like we're in it.

"He does such a great job with the guys around him. He's a great communicator during tough times on the sideline."

Mahomes led the Chiefs to their ninth win in the last 11 games in which they trailed by double-digit points.

"We think we can win no matter what the situation is," Mahomes said.

"Getting that play to Tyreek kind of got the crowd back into it," Mahomes continued. "When you're at Arrowhead [Stadium] and the crowd's rolling, it gets the defence going and it kind of translates to the offence."

Sunday was eventful for the New Orleans Saints and star cornerback Marshon Lattimore. 

Hours after they opened the NFL season with a stunning 38-3 rout of Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, reports emerged that Lattimore agreed to a lucrative five-year contract extension. 

NFL Network and ESPN reported the deal guarantees Lattimore at least $68.3million and could max out at $100m.

The former first round pick quote-tweeted a post about the extension from the official NFL Twitter account, adding only a money bag emoji. 

The news was not all good, though, as Lattimore injured his thumb during the game and reportedly will require surgery that could keep him out for multiple weeks. 

The 25-year-old apparently hurt himself in the first half against the Packers. 

He missed the Saints' first defensive series after half-time but returned to play with his right hand and forearm encased in a protective splint. 

Lattimore has been selected for the Pro Bowl in three of his four seasons with New Orleans and was named Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2017.

He led the NFL with five interceptions that season and has added five more picks over the last three years combined as quarterbacks have thrown fewer balls his way. 

 

Aaron Rodgers is hoping the Green Bay Packers can regroup following a "good kick in the you-know-where" in their blow-out loss to the New Orleans Saints.

Rodgers suffered the heaviest loss of his illustrious NFL career as the Packers – who have reached the NFC Championship Game in each of the last two campaigns – opened their season with a 38-3 rout at the hands of the Saints on Sunday.

After a tumultuous offseason, dominated by Rodgers' desire to leave the Packers, the reigning MVP had one of the worst outings of his career.

The superstar quarterback finished with just 133 passing yards (lowest since 2015), two interceptions and a 36.8 passer rating (lowest since 2014).

That passer rating is the lowest by a reigning NFL MVP in his first game of the subsequent season.

After the 35-point demolition, Rodgers said: "This is a good kick in the you-know-where to hopefully get us going in the right direction."

Rodgers added: "They beat us. They played way better than us. We played bad. I played bad.

"Uncharacteristic of how we've practiced in training camp, obviously how I've played over the years. This is hopefully an outlier moving forward. We'll find out next week."

"I don't even know how many stops we had on their offense the entire day," Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said.

"It was just an all-around poor performance. That starts with myself. Obviously didn't get these guys ready to play."

Just when the Cleveland Browns thought they were in position to open the NFL season with a statement win, Patrick Mahomes did what Patrick Mahomes does. 

The Kansas City Chiefs star threw for a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter as the reigning AFC champions edged the Browns 33-29 on Sunday.

Mahomes completed 27 of his 36 passes for 337 yards and three interceptions as the former MVP made more NFL history.

The 25-year-old broke the record for most passing yards in NFL history through first 50 games, while he also boasts the most passing touchdowns ever through the same amount of appearances.

Cleveland had built a 22-10 half-time lead, with Baker Mayfield directing three scoring drives that led to Nick Chubb finding the end zone twice and Jarvis Landry running in another touchdown before the break. 

Mayfield finished 21 of 28 passing for 321 yards, but had one critical mistake late. With the Browns near midfield and just over a minute to play, the Chicago quarterback scrambled to avoid pressure before throwing a pass up for grabs to the left sideline. Mike Hughes leaped to intercept the ball and the Chiefs ran out the clock from there. 

Mahomes, meanwhile, was poised as ever as he led the Chiefs to their ninth win in the last 11 games in which they trailed by double digits. 

It started with a 14-play drive to open the second half, capped by an 11-yard TD pass to his favourite target Travis Kelce. 

The signature moment, though, was a stunning 75-yard deep strike to Tyreek Hill that brought the Chiefs within two early in the fourth quarter. 

The Browns botched a punt deep in their own territory on the ensuing drive and Mahomes hit Kelce for the go-ahead touchdown three plays later. 

It was the kind of turnaround Cleveland fans have grown all too accustomed to over the years, particularly in season openers. 

The Browns have not won in Week 1 since 2004 and are now 0-16-1 since. 

Winston, Saints crush Packers

Aaron Rodgers dominated the headlines throughout the NFL offseason but he was upstaged in a big way as the season began. 

Jameis Winston threw for five touchdowns as Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers were kept from the end zone altogether in a 38-3 New Orleans Saints rout. 

Rodgers completed just 15 of 28 passes for 133 yards and threw two interceptions. He had only five interceptions all of last season on the way to being named NFL MVP for the third time.

Winston took over the starting role in New Orleans from another future Hall of Famer, the retired Drew Brees, and was brilliant at the Superdome. He completed 14 of 20 passes for 148 yards without an interception or a sack. 

In a matchup of two young quarterbacks, Tua Tagovailoa got the better of his former Alabama team-mate Mac Jones as the Miami Dolphins edged the New England Patriots 17-16 on the road.

While the rookie Jones had the better numbers of the two with 29 of 39 passing, 281 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions, the Patriots repeatedly had to settle for field goals. 

Tagovailoa, meanwhile, ran one touchdown in himself and threw for another in the third quarter that provided the eventual winning margin.

Trey Lance threw his first NFL touchdown and Jimmy Garoppolo excelled but the San Francisco 49ers were forced to hold off a near-miraculous rally from the Detroit Lions in a 41-33 thriller.

Rookie third overall pick Lance was not able to win the starting quarterback job from Garoppolo, yet he still made his regular-season debut at Ford Field on Sunday, and he took his first snap with the Niners on the Detroit 16-yard line on their second drive of the day.

His second snap saw him hit Trent Sherfield for a five-yard touchdown pass and, though Detroit responded with Jared Goff connecting with tight end T.J. Hockenson, Garoppolo's 314-yard performance, which included a 79-yard touchdown throw to Deebo Samuel, scores on the ground from rookie Elijah Mitchell and JaMycal Hasty and a Dre Greenlaw pick-six appeared to have put the game beyond all doubt.

San Francisco led 41-17 with under five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, but a Jamaal Williams short-yardage plunge followed by a two-point conversion provided Detroit a glimmer of hope that grew brighter when George Kittle was unable to field an onside kick.

The Lions subsequently drove down the field and Goff found Quintez Cephus for a two-yard touchdown and another two-point conversion. They then had a chance to tie the game following a fumble from Samuel, but Detroit could not complete an incredible comeback to force overtime.

Samson Ebukam's pressure forced Goff into an errant throw, allowing the Niners to breathe a huge sigh of relief.

It was, however, a pyrrhic victory for San Francisco, who lost cornerback Jason Verrett to what head coach Kyle Shanahan believes is a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Though the 49ers took defensive starters out of the game following Verrett's injury with what eventually proved an insurmountable lead, the ease with which the Lions moved the ball late in the game should be of concern to San Francisco, especially with two of their NFC West rivals enjoying excellent days.

The Arizona Cardinals and the Seattle Seahawks each won comfortably. Kyler Murray threw for four touchdowns and ran for another while defensive end Chandler Jones had five sacks in the Cardinals' easy 38-13 win over the Tennessee Titans, while Russell Wilson had four touchdown passes for the Seahawks as they saw off the Indianapolis Colts 28-16.

Steelers stun Bills

While not quite as dramatic as events in Detroit, the Pittsburgh Steelers' win over the Buffalo Bills at Orchard Park was certainly unexpected.

The Bills led 10-0 at the end of the first half, but Josh Allen was sacked three times as the Steelers held a usually explosive offense in check.

And, after a pair of field goals from Chris Boswell, Diontae Johnson's spectacular catch at the back of the endzone in the fourth quarter gave them a lead they would not relinquish.

Ulysees Gilbert III recovered a blocked punt to make it 19-10 Steelers, Mike Tomlin's men going on to close out a 23-16 win that deals an early blow to a Bills team seen as Super Bowl contenders.

Burrow makes winning return

Last year's number one overall pick Joe Burrow made his return from a serious knee injury in the Cincinnati Bengals' clash with the Minnesota Vikings, and it proved a successful one in a thriller at Paul Brown Stadium.

He connected with college team-mate Ja'Marr Chase, the fifth overall pick by the Bengals this year, for a 50-yard touchdown in the first quarter to give Cincinnati a lead that they eventually let slip late in the fourth quarter when Vikings kicker Greg Joseph tied matters at 24-24 with a 53-yard field goal.

That forced overtime, but a Dalvin Cook fumble in Bengals territory handed Burrow and the Bengals the chance to clinch it, and he did just that with a drive that set up Evan McPherson's 33-yard field goal and sealed a 27-24 success.

This year's number one overall pick, Trevor Lawrence, endured a very different day. He threw for 332 yards and three touchdowns with three interceptions as the Jacksonville Jaguars were beaten 37-21 by the Houston Texans.

On Sunday, four of the five quarterbacks selected in the first round of this year's NFL Draft will take the field for their debuts.

A quintet of franchises capitalised on what many considered to be an historic class at the position to select the prospects they hope will prove to be the long-term future of their respective teams.

However, so much of a quarterback's success is dependent on situation and it is likely the quarterback from this crop of rookies that initially stands out will be the one with the best supporting cast around them.

The consensus is that Trey Lance, the third overall pick of the San Francisco 49ers, is in the best spot. For now, he will have to play second fiddle to Jimmy Garoppolo and settle for only sporadic action as the Niners look to make use of his running threat.

When Lance does take over full-time, he will be playing the most important position on a roster that was seven minutes from Super Bowl glory two seasons ago.

While he may have landed in the most favourable scenario, 11th overall pick Justin Fields appears to have been dealt the worst hand, with the Chicago Bears unwilling to risk putting him out there in Week 1 with a talent-poor offense against the Los Angeles Rams despite a strong preseason.

Do the numbers back up the statements that Lance is in the best situation with Fields in the worst? And where do Trevor Lawrence, first overall pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets rookie Zach Wilson and New England Patriots starter Mac Jones stack up in terms of supporting cast?

Stats Perform analysed its advanced metrics to find out.

RUNNING GAME

1. Patriots 2. 49ers 3. Jaguars 4. Jets 5. Bears

The running game can be an excellent safety net that takes the pressure off a quarterback's shoulders.

Rushing the ball effectively is contingent on an offensive line that can open the holes and a back that can not only take advantage of those lanes but also create for himself.

In terms of run blocking, the Patriots are the standouts among the teams to select a signal-caller. Second in Stats Perform's projected offensive line rankings, put together using combined run blocking and pass protection data over the past three seasons, only two offensive lines league begin the season better prepared to provide the foundation for a successful ground game than that of New England.

Led by center David Andrews - whose run disruption rate allowed of 5.3 per cent was the best in the NFL at his position - and right guard Shaq Mason (6.3%), the Patriots' O-Line is one that should continue to excel at creating running lanes.

Damien Harris showed his ability to take advantage of those lanes last season when he averaged 3.11 yards before contact from a defender, 10th in the NFL, while making things happen for himself with 3.15 yards per carry on attempts where there was a run disruption from a defender.

When Jones makes his first start against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, he should have full confidence in being able to lean on Harris and the line to make his life easier.

The 49ers, whose starting running back Raheem Mostert averaged 3.28 yards before contact last season, might have a strong case for having the top running game should Lance's dual-threat ability take their ground attack to the next level.

Third-round pick Trey Sermon (4.85 yards before contact, 2.77 yards after contact for Ohio State in 2020) could prove an astute selection, though an offensive line 18th in run blocking in Stats Perform's rankings will need to take a step forward.

Still, their position is significantly more favourable than that of the Bears, who rank last in run blocking, making David Montgomery's 1,000-yard 2020 season all the more surprising.

Yet Montgomery was below the league average in yards before contact (2.54 per attempt) and after contact (1.84), hardly inspiring confidence that he can lighten the load on Fields when the Bears finally commit to him as the starter.

PASS CATCHERS

1. 49ers 2. Patriots 3. Jets 4. Bears 5. Jaguars

There isn't much use investing in a potential franchise quarterback if you cannot put weapons around him upon whom he can rely.

In terms of players he can target and trust, Lance has the edge over his fellow rookies, though no team to take a quarterback in the first round landed in the top half of Stats Perform's rankings by collective open percentage.

The Niners landed 18th on that list but conventional wisdom says they will be much higher should tight end George Kittle and top wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk stay healthy.

All three endured injury-hindered 2020 seasons, though Kittle still led all tight ends in adjusted open percentage (45.03%). He was first among tight ends with 3.9 burn yards per route (a burn is a target where the receiver wins his matchup with a defender).

Samuel's burn yards per route rate of 3.0 was particularly eye-catching because his average depth of target of 2.3 was the lowest in the NFL, the former second-round pick showing his skills with ball in hand with 12.1 yards after the catch per reception, best in the NFL.

Aiyuk, meanwhile, produced a big play on 33.1 per cent of his targets, third among rookie receivers with at least 50 targets, a breakout year appears on the horizon for the second-year wideout.

With an elite tight end and two promising wideouts, the Niners' situation is substantially better than Jacksonville's. The Jaguars' pass-catchers ranked last by collective open percentage.

Late free-agent addition Tyron Johnson is the sole wide receiver on the Jaguars' roster to have posted a burn percentage above the average of 62.5 per cent last year.

Johnson did so on 69.2 per cent of his targets and was first in burn yards per target (19.89) and second in burn yards per route (3.6) with an average depth of target of 20 yards.

This evidently skilled deep separator will be tasked with stretching opposing defenses while D.J. Chark (30.33% adjusted open) and Laviska Shenault (27.44%) must do a better job of beating coverage and taking advantage of the stress Johnson can put on opponents to lift this group from the cellar and give Lawrence more to work with.

PASS BLOCKING

1. Patriots 2. Jets 3. Jaguars 4. 49ers 5. Bears

Though most accept Fields is the most exciting quarterback on the Bears' roster, Matt Nagy's decision to not start him and protect him from an offensive line that can hardly protect anyone may be an astute one with Chicago facing Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and the Rams Week 1.

Eventually, Fields will have to take his lumps. There are good defensive players across the NFL by which he will one day be confronted, but a reticence to put him out there behind a line ranked 30th in pass protection by Stats Perform is understandable.

Starting left tackle Jason Peters is 39 and allowed a pressure rate of 12.4 per cent last term, the 10th-worst in the league. The interior of the line is also a substantial concern.

Right guard James Daniels is coming off a year where he gave up a pressure on 11.3 per cent of pass protection snaps. Cody Whitehair is at left guard having played center in 2020, when only three players at his former position allowed a higher adjusted sack rate than his 1.9 per cent. One of those players was this year's starting center Sam Mustipher (2.3%).

While Fields would have the NFL equivalent of a turnstile in front of him. Jones will head on the Gillette Stadium field with an O-Line that is the definition of solidity.

Though not quite the brick wall he had the benefit of at Alabama, the Patriots' line should provide Jones with excellent protection, ranking fifth in pass blocking.

Mike Onwenu ranked as the best pass-protecting left guard in the NFL and in Trent Brown, credited with one adjusted sack allowed on 162 pass-block snaps in his final season with the Las Vegas Raiders, and Isaiah Wynn, the Patriots have a solid pair of tackles to give Jones the time to prove his pre-draft doubters wrong.

The left side of the Jets' line could rival that of the Patriots. Mekhi Becton's pressure rate allowed of 5.5 per cent was ninth among left tackles in 2020. On his inside shoulder, rookie left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker conceded only five pressures on 387 pass protection snaps the last time he played that spot for USC in 2019. Wilson can afford to have great faith in that duo.

DEFENSE

1. 49ers 2. Bears 3. Patriots 4. Jets 5. Jaguars

Defense is often neglected when it comes to talking about a quarterback's supporting cast but, if a team has one that can stifle opposing attacks, it leaves more wiggle room for a young quarterback to endure the 'rookie mistakes' and not sink his team's chances of competing.

Lance's performances during the preseason, while exciting, indicated he is a quarterback who could be a little turnover-prone as he adapts to reading defenses at the NFL level.

San Francisco's is a defense that is strong up front and better than given credit for in the secondary. The 49ers ranked eighth in pass coverage grade, which was produced by multiplying each player's coverage baseline by a projected target share for 2021 with the results then aggregated at the team level.

On the front, Stats Perform projected the average Niners defender to produce a pressure on 11.5 per cent of pass rush attempts, putting them fourth in the NFL.

Though there is great depth on the defensive line, much of that projection is built on Nick Bosa, getting back to his Defensive Rookie of the Year levels of 2019, when he had a pressure rate of 28.3 per cent, after suffering a torn ACL in Week 2 last year. With Bosa healthy and Fred Warner the premier all-round linebacker in the NFL, the Niners have a defense that could help them contend amid bumps in the road for Lance.

The Bears don't have many areas where they can be considered to be the best in the NFL, yet their front seven has a strong claim. The average Chicago pass rusher is projected to produce a pressure on 11.4% of pass rush attempts and the average run defender is forecast to cause a run disruption 10.2% of the time.

While Chicago's front may be well-rounded, their secondary looks extremely shaky, as illustrated by the Bears' ranking of 22nd in pass coverage grade. Jaylon Johnson enjoyed an encouraging rookie season at corner yet, with Kindle Vildor set to start across from him having only started one game in his brief career, there is clear a potential weakness for opponents to target.

The Patriots have no such problems on the back end, at least when the absent Stephon Gilmore is on the field. New England are seventh in coverage grade, and with linebacker D'Onta Hightower returning and the addition of edge rusher Matthew Judon, they will hope their front seven can dramatically outperform the projection of a pressure from a defender on just 9.51% of attempts.

New York's pass rush suffered a substantial blow when free agent signing Carl Lawson, who had a pressure rate of 22.3% that was seventh in the NFL last season, was lost for the year due to a ruptured Achilles. Without him, the average Jets defender is predicted to cause pressure 10.34% of the time, and there is an even greater onus on defensive tackle Quinnen Williams to carry his 2020 emergence into this year.

The Jets' hopes of the defense offering support to Wilson may be dashed should the front prove unable to lift a secondary bereft of talent beyond safety Marcus Maye, New York entering the season 23rd in pass coverage grade.

A lack of pass-rushing options beyond Josh Allen, who took a step back in an injury-affected 2020, contributed to the Jaguars' mediocre projected pressure rate of 10.18% and, with Jacksonville just above the Jets and Bears in 21st in coverage grade, they need cornerback Shaquill Griffin to live up to his lucrative free agency pricetag to elevate the play in the defensive backfield and ensure Lawrence is not tasked with coming through a shootout every week.

OVERALL

1. Patriots 2. 49ers 3. Jets 4. Bears 5. Jaguars

Aided by an offensive line that excels in both facets, a running back seemingly primed for a breakout year and a defense restocked with players returning from opt-outs and quality free agents, Jones will head into his NFL debut with the top supporting cast of any of the rookies.

The most important thing in Jones' favour, though, is his head coach, as he will benefit from playing for the greatest coach of all-time in Bill Belichick, whose incredible expertise on the defensive side of the ball should prove a significant help to the former Alabama star as he adapts to different looks from opponents.

Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan's play-calling acumen will give Lance an advantage most quarterbacks in the league do not enjoy when he hits the field, with the weapons they boast on both sides of the ball meaning he will likely take over a team headed for the playoffs when he eventually displaces Garoppolo.

Wilson has the luxury of playing for two Shanahan disciples in head coach Robert Saleh and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur. The early signs have been promising in terms of him settling into LaFleur's offense but Saleh will need to do a particularly impressive coaching job on defense to turn them into a unit capable of making Wilson's life easier.

Fields may get help in that respect from the defensive front and will have one of the most underrated wide receivers in the NFL in Allen Robinson. He and Lawrence were deemed by many to be the best quarterbacks in the 2021 class, however, due to the holes on both sides of their respective rosters, it is they who have the most obstacles to immediate success in front of them.

Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Odell Beckham Jr, Nick Chubb. Sunday's enticing playoff rematch between the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns at Arrowhead Stadium is one swimming with star names.

Yet the X-factor of a matchup that could prove pivotal in the AFC postseason race may be a right tackle who has not played an NFL regular-season game.

Chiefs offensive lineman Lucas Niang opted out of the 2020 season but now has been entrusted with helping protect Patrick Mahomes.

In fairness to Niang, he is not alone in being an inexperienced player on a Kansas City O-Line remodelled after the Chiefs gave up 33 pressures in their Super Bowl LV loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Chiefs are set to start two rookies on the interior of the line in center Creed Humphrey, a second-round pick, and sixth-round selection Trey Smith.

But Niang, who is for all intents and purposes a rookie after his decision not to play last year, is the player with the most difficult task.

On the right side of the line, he will be tasked with shutting down the Cleveland Browns' left defensive end, Myles Garrett.

Sixth in sacks since entering the league as the consensus best player in the 2017 draft with 42.5 in 51 games, Garrett has established himself as one of the most feared pass rushers in the NFL.

His pressure rate last year was 21.5 per cent, a drop-off from a 2019 season when he posted a 26.7% pressure rate that was eighth among edge rushers with at least 200 snaps at that position in a Defensive Player of the Year calibre campaign ended by suspension.

In other words, Niang will be facing an elite pass rusher who, unlike last season, has had the benefit of a full offseason.

There is only a limited sample size to judge Niang's ability to keep Garrett in check, though the numbers from his last college season at TCU in 2019 are encouraging.

He allowed nine pressures on 126 pass protection snaps and was not credited with giving up a single adjusted sack.

With the size and arm length to lock on to pass rushers, theoretically Niang has the tools he needs to nullify defenders as he did in college.

Yet, Garrett represents a massive step up from what Niang faced at TCU. As such, expect him to receive plenty of assistance against Garrett from tight end Kelce and from running backs when they are drafted in to help in protection.

Garrett had seven pressures, his fifth-most in any 2020 game, and a sack in the Browns' 22-17 playoff loss to the Chiefs. However, he is a player who can decimate bad offensive lines, as evidenced by his 15 pressures against the Cincinnati Bengals last year.

The challenge for Niang is to prevent him from having such a telling impact. His success in doing so will have a significant influence on the Chiefs' ability to maintain superiority over one of their key AFC rivals.

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.

The NFL returned in spectacular fashion on Thursday as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers edged the Dallas Cowboys in a thriller.

It is a remarkable appetiser to the main course of Week 1, which sees 14 more games on Sunday and another on Monday between the Baltimore Ravens and Las Vegas Raiders.

There is a mouth-watering playoff rematch to behold at Arrowhead Stadium, while a clutch of rookie quarterbacks will attempt to make sure their first steps in the league are successful ones.

Ahead of what should be an enthralling opening week, Stats Perform looks at some of the most interesting facts from Sunday's biggest games.

Cleveland Browns @ Kansas City Chiefs

Revenge will be on the minds of the Browns in the most enticing matchup of the opening week, Cleveland aiming to upset the odds after falling short against the Chiefs in the Divisional Round of last season's playoffs.

History, though, is firmly against Cleveland. The Chiefs have won three straight games against the Browns dating back to 2013, while Andy Reid is 7-0 in his career as a head coach versus the Browns, one of three teams he is undefeated against. The others are the Chiefs (3-0) and his former team the Philadelphia Eagles (2-0).

Kevin Stefanski led the Browns to an 11-5 record in 2020, his first year as an NFL head coach. It was the most wins in a season by the Browns since 1994 (also 11 wins). The last time the Browns won at least 10 games in back-to-back seasons was 1986 to 1988 (three straight).

The Chiefs set a franchise record with 14 wins in 2020 and played in the Super Bowl for the second straight season, with Kansas City the favourites to be the AFC's representative in the February showpiece yet again. Only three teams have ever made the Super Bowl in three straight seasons – the Buffalo Bills (four, 1990-93), New England Patriots (three, 2016-18) and Miami Dolphins (three, 1971-73).

Pittsburgh Steelers @ Buffalo Bills

The Bills were a game away from the Super Bowl last season and enter this clash between a new AFC heavyweight and a seemingly fading force on a regular-season winning streak.

In a campaign that saw them go 13-3 and post their best record since 1991, the Bills finished the regular season with six straight wins averaging an NFL-best 38.2 points during that span.

Pittsburgh began last season 11-0, then dropped four of their last five games, finishing with an opening-round exit to the Browns in the playoffs. The Steelers were the first team to start 11-0 since the 2015 Carolina Panthers.

And the Steelers will be looking to avoid a third straight defeat to the Bills, who made it two successive wins over Pittsburgh with last season's 26-15 victory in Week 14. The Steelers had won nine of the previous 10 meetings dating back to 1993. 

Green Bay Packers @ New Orleans Saints

The Drew Brees era is over for the Saints, who have selected Jameis Winston as his successor at quarterback. The Packers have a talented defense but the often-erratic Winston's past form suggests he should move the ball against them. Winston has averaged 12.62 yards per completion over his career, the highest mark by any QB who has debuted in the past 30 years (minimum 1,500 completions).

Two perennial NFC powers, games between New Orleans and Green Bay have been consistently high-scoring affairs. The Saints and Packers have combined to average 52.0 points per game in their 26 all-time meetings, the highest average between any two NFL teams who have met at least 20 times.

Green Bay won 13 games in each of the last two seasons but failed to make the Super Bowl in either one. The Packers joined the 2018-19 Saints as the only teams in the Super Bowl era to win 13+ games in back-to-back seasons but miss the Super Bowl in both.

Elsewhere...

It will be a season partially defined by the performance of the rookie quarterbacks, with four of the five drafted in the first round seemingly set to feature in Week 1.

The Jacksonville Jaguars drafted Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence with their first-ever number one overall pick. When he lines up against the Houston Texans, Lawrence will be the eighth different QB to start a season opener for the Jaguars since 2010, tied for second most in the NFL behind the Browns (nine). 

Second overall pick Zach Wilson is set to become the 49th starting quarterback in New York Jets history when they face the Carolina Panthers and his predecessor Sam Darnold. No Jets quarterback has started every game of a season since Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2015, which happens to be the last time the Jets had a winning record (10-6).

Trey Lance will likely see sporadic action for the San Francisco 49ers versus the Detroit Lions. However, if Jimmy Garoppolo's spotty injury history continues in 2021, Lance could soon become the undisputed starter. Garoppolo was limited to six games last season. In three of the games, Garoppolo passed for multiple touchdowns with no interceptions. In the other three, Garoppolo had no touchdown passes and at least one interception.

The New England Patriots have used just four starting quarterbacks in their season openers since 2000, with Mac Jones poised to be the fifth as he looks to become the long-term successor to Tom Brady. Only the Packers (two) and Saints (three) have had fewer season-opening starters in that span – the NFL average in that time is 7.5 quarterbacks.

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