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.

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 Seattle Seahawks and left tackle Duane Brown have agreed to a reworked contract, ensuring he will be on the field for their regular-season opener.

Brown had abstained from practice for most of the Seahawks offseason programs in search of a new deal.

The two parties have come to terms on an arrangement that means Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson will have his best pass protector when the Seahawks face the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday.

According to multiple reports, Brown's deal has been adjusted so that per-game roster bonuses now take the form of guaranteed money. The Seahawks have also inserted an injury protection benefit for 2022.

While Wilson complained of getting hit too much in the offseason, little of the Seahawks' struggles to protect him were the fault of Brown, whom the Seahawks acquired in a trade from the Houston Texans in 2017.

Indeed, Brown's pressure rate allowed of 5.2 per cent ranked sixth in the NFL last season, though Wilson was sacked 47 times, the third most in the league.

With his financial demands satisfied, Brown can now focus on making sure Wilson has more time to throw this season, starting against a Colts team whose 39 sacks for negative yardage ranked tied-10th in the league in 2020.

It's a passing league. You hear it said so often these days about how the NFL has become all about throwing the ball, rather than running it.  

Quarterbacks have dominated the MVP award in recent years, with the last player from another position to scoop the honour coming back in 2012. 

In the 2020 regular season, 18 players topped 1,000 receiving yards. That was actually a decrease from the previous campaign, when no fewer than 29 achieved the feat, but does not necessarily reflect a reverse on recent trends.  

Stefon Diggs led the way in the previous campaign with 1,535 yards. The Buffalo Bills receiver will be expected to be a key component for his team on offense again in 2021, yet no individual has topped the list for two straight years since Calvin Johnson, who managed to do so in 2011 and again in 2012.  

So who are the top contenders to lead the way this time around? Stats Perform takes a look... 

 

Stefon Diggs 

Acquired by the Bills through a trade with the Minnesota Vikings, Diggs enjoyed an outstanding first campaign in Buffalo. He not only led the way for receiving yards but also catches (127) and targets (166), aided by him playing in all 16 games in a year where COVID-19 impacted so many rosters. His 95.9 yards per game ranked second, even though he had just seven plays that went for 25 yards or more. Emmanuel Sanders has arrived during free agency to bolster the receiving group in Buffalo, yet the former Maryland Terrapin undoubtedly remains top of the depth chart and has established a rapport with starting quarterback Josh Allen.  

Calvin Ridley 

Ridley's third year as an Atlanta Falcon saw him emerge as a pass-catching superstar. The 26-year-old had 90 catches from 143 targets, resulting in 1,374 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. According to Stats Perform data, Ridley recorded a big play of 45.1 per cent of his targets, the fifth-highest rate in the NFL among wide receivers. New head coach Arthur Smith got his chance at a top job after impressing in charge of a run-heavy Tennessee Titans offense, but by no means does that mean a receiver cannot prosper in his system. The main reason for Ridley hoping to improve on his previous numbers is the departure of Julio Jones, the franchise legend who did miss games through injury in 2020 but still had 51 catches.   

Justin Jefferson 

Rookie receivers are not meant to settle into NFL life as quickly as Jefferson did with the Minnesota Vikings. The first-round pick selected with the intention of replacing the departed Diggs had 88 receptions for 1,400 yards - surpassing the single-season record by a rookie in the Super Bowl era, set by Anquan Boldin (1,377) back in 2003. That is a particularly impressive achievement when you consider he had just 70 yards combined in his first two games, yet he made up for lost time with seven 100-yard outings in the weeks that followed. Yards after the catch (YAC) will likely need to rise for him to surpass those numbers, considering he averaged 4.6 yards per reception in 2020, putting him down at 27th among receivers. 

Davante Adams 

A contract year, plus a quarterback with a point to prove (again) are potentially the added ingredients required for Adams to have a record-breaking year in what could potentially be his last for the Green Bay Packers. Aaron Rodgers is still around after an offseason full of intrigue - and the reigning MVP already fed his top option relentlessly in 2020. Indeed, Adams' average of 10.6 targets and 8.2 receptions per game were the best for any receiver in the NFL, as well as leading the way with 18 touchdown catches and 98.1 yards per outing. His total yardage of 1,374 was tied for fifth, but it should be remembered he played in only 14 games. He recorded a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup on a play where he is targeted regardless of whether the pass is catchable, 70.1 per cent of the time and led all receivers with 3.9 burn yards per route. With the benefit of three more games than he had in 2020, Adams is perhaps the favourite to usurp Diggs at the top of the leaderboard.   

Tyreek Hill 

Hill averaged a healthy 14.7 yards per catch and 9.0 receptions a game as part of a high-powered Kansas City Chiefs offense. His final total of 87 catches came from 135 targets, showing how he remains a prominent option for quarterback Patrick Mahomes, helping him top 1,000 receiving yards for a third time in four years (he had 860 while playing in 12 games in 2019) and average 3.3 burn yards per route. The Chiefs are coming off a painful Super Bowl loss and may feel they have a point to prove, yet the main concern for Hill's hopes is the presence of a dominant tight end on the roster (more on him to come...). 

DeAndre Hopkins 

In his first year with the Arizona Cardinals, Hopkins set a franchise record for receptions in a season, finishing up with 115 (matching his best season with the Houston Texans, by the way) for a total of 1,407 yards. His 7.2 catches per game ranked third behind only Adams and Diggs, aided by 13 plays that went for 25 yards or more. His YAC number (510) also ranked in the top 10 for all positions, helping him secure a fifth trip to the Pro Bowl. The 29-year-old has missed just two games in his entire career and while he is set to head into his ninth season, there has been little sign of him slowing up in terms of overall output.  

DK Metcalf 

Having gradually emerged in 2019 before making having a noticeable impact in the postseason, Metcalf made a further leap in his second year with the Seattle Seahawks. His big-play ability was demonstrated by his 15.7 yards per catch – Jefferson (15.9) was the only receiver to be targeted at least 120 times and finish with a higher average. Likewise, the Vikings rookie had 16 receptions that went for 25 or more yards, one more than Metcalf managed while working with Russell Wilson. His offseason included a spell on the track, he clocked 10.36 seconds in his 100m heat at the Golden Games and Distance Open in California, but now the focus is back to football, and Metcalf will hope to use that speed to help him improve on his gaudy average of 13.31 burn yards per target from 2020 and take the Seattle offense to the next level.

Best of the rest 

Who else could emerge from the pack? Michael Thomas led the league for receiving yards in 2019 with the help of Drew Brees, only to then endure an unexpected down year last time out. His early trip to the PUP list has likely ended his hopes of regaining the crown before Week 1 has even kicked off. Terry McLaurin had similar numbers to Hill (87 receptions on 134 targets), as well as 486 yards after the catch – a number only topped by four receivers. 

Meanwhile, A. J. Brown topped 1,000 yards for a second straight season with the Titans and trailed only Adams with 3.6 burn yards per route, though he now has former Falcon Jones for company on the roster. Allen Robinson should not be dismissed after having 151 targets on a struggling Chicago Bears offense, while Justin Herbert's emergence with the Los Angeles Chargers helped Keenan Allen average 10.5 targets per outing, second most in the NFL. If a long shot is more your fancy, Diontae Johnson had 88 receptions for 923 yards, but those figures came on 144 targets and Johnson's big-play percentage was a disappointing 21.3.  

Dak Prescott's return to fitness should help the Dallas Cowboys' plethora of receiving options, including Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb, while Matthew Stafford's move to Los Angeles will be expected to pad the numbers for Rams duo Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp.  

The year of the tight end? 

Blocking is still part of the job but catching balls has become a key aspect of life as an NFL tight end: Travis Kelce had the second-most receiving yards (1,416) and Darren Waller (1,196) also made the top 10. Waller actually had more targets out of the pair, while his 576 yards after the catch put him second behind only running back Alvin Kamara in the entire league. George Kittle made it to four figures in 2018 and 2019, only to then see injury ruin his fourth campaign with the San Francisco 49ers, one in which he was open on 90.5 per cent of targets and led all tight ends with 3.9 burn yards per route. Expect him to try and make up for lost time. 

Then there is Kyle Pitts, the rookie selected fourth overall by the Falcons. Despite playing only eight games, he led the FBS in receiving yards (770) as he racked up 96.3 yards per game, averaging 17.9 yards per catch. If he can translate those ridiculous numbers to the pro game, Pitts will become immediately become prominent in Atlanta's offense, potentially taking away some opportunities that could go to Ridley. 

Drama has not been in short supply among the NFL quarterbacks this offseason.

There have been new names, new deals, new feuds, old feuds...

Now the 2021 season is on the horizon, but not every situation at the sport's most important position has reached a satisfactory conclusion.

There are intriguing QB scenarios to keep an eye on for plenty of teams this season, as Stats Perform explores.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Let's start with a rookie. While fellow first-round picks Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Mac Jones are set for starting roles, Trey Lance has a fight on his hands with the 49ers.

Lance is raw, having played just 19 college games in the FCS, and is set to begin the season behind Jimmy Garoppolo – fit again after becoming one of a remarkable number San Francisco players to suffer with injuries last year, unable to follow up their Super Bowl run.

But Lance's dual-threat ability gives Kyle Shanahan a new dynamic, as evidenced by his 14 rushing touchdowns in 2019 with North Dakota State. Garoppolo has only two career rushing scores.

That is likely to initially put the ball in Lance's hands in the red zone, where his legs should help improve a red zone efficiency of 53.2 per cent from the 2019 season, when a fully fit Niners team ranked 21st in the NFL.

By the end of the year, though, the 21-year-old will undoubtedly be keen for a bigger role, increasing pressure on Garoppolo while the team try to maintain a title challenge.

CHICAGO BEARS

Justin Fields is the second first-round selection starting the year behind an established NFL QB in Andy Dalton.

"There's no need for us to rush Justin," said Bears general manager Ryan Pace last week, explaining they were "very confident" in Dalton. "I just think the more time [Fields] has to learn that and observe, the better off for him," Pace added.

But Fields, who threw for 63 TDs and rushed for a further 15 in two years at Ohio State, is undoubtedly a more realistic long-term solution than Dalton, on his third team in three years.

Fields, like Lance, can run, ranking fifth in the Power 5 among quarterbacks with 7.42 yards per carry last year, but the Bears also need improvement through the air, having ranked 22nd with 228.4 net passing yards per game in 2020.

While the departed Mitchell Trubisky neither threw nor ran the ball well – delivering an accurate, well-thrown ball on just 71.6 per cent of passes and averaging 1.81 yards per carry – Fields (80.18 well-thrown percentage) can do both if given the opportunity.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

It is not only the teams who have spent first-round picks on passers who have a battle under center, with the Saints able to consider two options to replace the great Drew Brees.

Jameis Winston threw only 11 passes in New Orleans last season after leaving the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with the versatile Taysom Hill preferred when Brees was out injured, making four starts at QB.

But Winston has been confirmed as the starter for the new campaign – at least for now. Whether Sean Payton is willing to stick with an entertaining yet erratic QB for a full season remains to be seen.

The 27-year-old became the first player ever to throw 30 TD passes and 30 interceptions in the same NFL season as the Bucs went 7-9 in 2019.

Winston's 10.70 air yards ranked second, yet his pickable pass percentage of 7.69 was second-worst among those with 100 attempts or more.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

While some teams have multiple reliable options at QB, the Eagles scarcely have one. Having moved on from Carson Wentz, Jalen Hurts is their starter.

Last time out, in his rookie year, Hurts completed just 52.0 per cent of his passes – the worst rate of any QB with 100 or more attempts – and still could not quite keep up with the league's elite running QBs, averaging 6.00 yards per carry.

Yet Philadelphia's response was to trade out of the number six pick in this year's draft and then opt against taking either Fields or Jones, who remained on the board after they moved back up to 10.

Joe Flacco, now 36, is in as the back-up, while a "fired up" Gardner Minshew has arrived from the Jacksonville Jaguars after 37 TDs in two years but is set for a role as a third-stringer.

Unless Hurts makes significant strides, it is difficult to see how the Eagles will not again be in position to take one of the top college QBs in 2022.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers was at the centre of the most compelling offseason speculation surrounding a quarterback this offseason. However, the Green Bay Packers star was not the only former champion at the centre of offseason speculation this year, with Russell Wilson's agent informing ESPN of four trade destinations that would interest the Seahawks stalwart.

Seattle kept their man in the end, but Wilson will be looking for progress from last season, when he complained of "getting hit too much" – "a pretty normal reaction," according to coach Pete Carroll.

Wilson was in the MVP conversation for the first half of the year but was soon left exposed behind a poor offensive line, sacked 47 times to swell his career total to 394 – the most of any QB since he entered the league.

Although left tackle Duane Brown has missed practice as he waits on a contract extension – another development that has frustrated Wilson – the Seahawks have at least traded for guard Gabe Jackson. That move needs to work.

Wilson last year averaged 8.70 air yards while throwing a pickable pass at the sixth-lowest ratio in the NFL (2.64%), but he has to have help if Seattle are to succeed.

The Seattle Seahawks have made Jamal Adams the highest-paid safety in the NFL, with the team confirming he had signed his extension Tuesday.

ESPN reported Adams has landed a four-year deal with a maximum value of $72million. An average annual value of $17.5m lifted Adams ahead of Justin Simmons ($15.25m).

A resolution between Adams and the Seahawks had long been anticipated, with his previous contract up at the end of the 2021 season.

Seattle gave up two first-round picks in a trade with the New York Jets for the 2019 First Team All-Pro last year, making a long-term deal a necessity.

"We officially signed. I'm excited to be here," Adams said in a Twitter post on the Seahawks' page. "It's going to be a wonderful journey, man.

"The next thing on our mind is getting that [championship] – getting right back to it and going to get it."

Adams had a career-high 9.5 sacks in 2020 and ranked second among all safeties in disrupting runs on 15.6 per cent of plays, but the Seahawks were only 16th in defense (364 points allowed).

While the team will hope Adams can inspire improvement on that side of the ball having agreed terms, there is no resolution in sight for holdout left tackle Duane Brown.

To the frustration of quarterback Russell Wilson, who was sacked 47 times for 301 yards last year, ranking second and third respectively, Brown has not been practicing as he seeks an extension.

Brown has allowed just six of the 146 sacks Wilson has suffered over the past three seasons.

Russell Wilson wants the Seattle Seahawks to quickly work out a solution to get left tackle Duane Brown back on the field.

Brown has only a single year remaining on his existing contract, which will count for $13.35million against the cap in 2021.

The veteran lineman is keen for an extension, though, and he has the backing of superstar quarterback Wilson.

"Not having Duane Brown out there is a pretty significant deal because I think he's one of the best left tackles in the game, there's no arguing it," Wilson said.

"I think he's as good as it gets. There's nobody more athletic, more talented than he is."

Brown turns 36 this month, but the QB added: "Age is just a number. He looks like he's 28, 30 out there. He's really exceptional.

"He's so smart and physical, understands the game, and I think people fear him, to be honest with you, when they're rushing him and playing against him.

"So we definitely want to be able to get him back out there. We've got to figure that out because we need Duane Brown."

The issue and Wilson's comments should be of particular concern to the Seahawks, who for a time looked as though they might enter this year without the eight-time Pro Bowl quarterback.

Wilson this offseason bemoaned "getting hit too much", prompting speculation after an impressive 2020 went off the rails fast.

The 32-year-old, who had appeared on course for an MVP year, suffered as he was sacked 47 times for 301 yards, ranking third and second in the league respectively.

It is a common issue for Wilson, who has lost more sack yards (975) over the past three seasons than any other QB.

However, of those 146 sacks, Brown has allowed just six, showing why Wilson is desperate not to disrupt the one position that is performing in front of him.

Wilson believes Brown can continue to perform well into his thirties, too.

"I think he's got several more years to play," Wilson said. "I think he can definitely do it. I don't think there's anybody more athletic than him. You see what he can do.

"And he's also our leader. He's a guy who really leads the offensive line and, really, he commands the offensive line and really can set the tone."

Any regression in 2020 was minimal, as Brown allowed only a single sack for a second successive year and had just one penalty.

The former Houston Texans tackle allowed four adjusted sacks – up from one – but that still accounted for a mere 0.9 per cent of his 444 pass protection snaps, ranking 12th in the league among left tackles. His 0.4 per cent of 250 snaps had ranked fourth a year earlier.

There was no change, meanwhile, in the pressures Brown allowed, staying at 5.2 per cent – sixth in the NFL in 2020 (23 pressures allowed) and tied-second in 2021 (13).

It wouldn't be an NFL offseason without some contract controversies.

Though the two most recent collective bargaining agreements have made it more difficult for players to hold out, several teams are still approaching the start of training camp needing to resolve issues surrounding players unhappy with the terms of their current deal.

Aaron Rodgers' continued self-enforced exile has cast a shadow over the offseason, but his staring contest with the Green Bay Packers is not tied to his level of remuneration.

For four big-name defenders who skipped mandatory minicamp – though Jamal Adams was permitted to do so due to personal reasons – it is indeed about the money.

New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore said recently to ESPN: "I just want what I'm worth, however that plays out. Every player should be paid what they're worth. That's just how it is."

But what is the worth of Gilmore and the three other high-profile defensive players? And should the teams in question make the effort to sign them to more lucrative deals?

Stats Perform looked at the advanced metrics surrounding each player to assess the best course of action for their respective franchises.

Stephon Gilmore, CB, New England Patriots

Gilmore's demand to be paid what he is worth may strike some as bemusing from a player who carries the highest salary cap hit among cornerbacks ($16.27million) and missed five games in a down year.

However, his wish is more likely related to his base salary rather than his overall cap number. Gilmore is due $7m in base salary in 2021, half of what Byron Jones of the Miami Dolphins, whose $14m base salary is the most among corners, is scheduled to receive next season.

Though 2020 was a disappointing year for Gilmore and the entire Patriots defense, he has a strong case for narrowing that gap to Jones.

While he only managed one interception and three pass breakups, Gilmore still had the edge over Jones in several metrics.

His adjusted open percentage, which measures how frequently an opponent got open against a defender's coverage, adjusted for position, was 24.18 compared to 26.16 for Jones.

 

Though both spent time playing as inside corners, both Gilmore and Jones are primarily outside defenders and there was a contrast between the two when they lined up at that spot in 2020. Gilmore allowed a burn – when a receiver wins his matchup on a play where he is targeted regardless of whether the pass is catchable – on 50 per cent of his targets, compared to 60.4 for Jones.

Gilmore was also superior in terms of burn yards per target (10.08 to Jones' 14.08), while his burn yards per snap average of 1.36 was 12th among corners with at least 200 pass coverage snaps on the outside. Jones struggled by comparison, allowing 1.92 burn yards per snap.

The Patriots used a lot of their salary cap space on a free-agency splurge they hope will get them back in contention. However, given Gilmore's past level of performance – since signing with New England in 2017, he has racked up 52 pass breakups, tied for sixth-most in the NFL, and 11 interceptions – they might well be wise to find a way to negotiate a contract with an increased base salary for a player whose unadjusted open percentage of 46.6 was fourth among outside corners in his last full season in 2019.

Xavien Howard, CB, Miami Dolphins

Like Gilmore, Howard may also be comparing his contract to that of Dolphins team-mate Jones, whom Miami made the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL with a five-year $82.5m deal in March 2020.

Howard still has four years left on a deal paying him over $15m a year, but the All-Pro will have his eyes on a contract closer to Jones' average annual value of $16.5m.

Such compensation would unquestionably be deserved given Howard led the league in interceptions for the second time in three seasons in 2020 by picking off 10 passes.

His adjusted open percentage of 25.19 was almost a full percentage point better than that of Jones, and he had a significant edge in burn yards per target, though Howard was not exactly impressive in that category, giving up an average of 11.12 while playing on the outside.

 

Yet that number is likely more reflective of how often the Dolphins left Howard in single coverage. Indeed, Howard's average depth of target of 14.5 yards speaks to the frequency with which he was given the task of staying in tight coverage with a receiver downfield.

The Dolphins aren't flush with cap room – Miami sit just over $5.5m under the 2021 cap – but, in a year where the team will be expected to make a year-three leap under head coach Brian Flores, identifying a method by which to keep Howard happy is the smart move.

With a league-leading 18 interceptions in the past three seasons, Howard is a playmaker the Dolphins need on the field and motivated if they are to challenge in the AFC.

Jamal Adams, S, Seattle Seahawks

Having long since angled for a lucrative extension even before his blockbuster trade to the Seahawks last offseason, Adams is finally in line for his payday at some point this year.

Still playing on his rookie contract and due to earn close to $10m in 2021, Adams will have designs on becoming one of the highest-paid safeties in the NFL.

Justin Simmons of the Denver Broncos is the safety with the top contract, his average annual salary coming in at over $15m, but a better comparison for Adams may be division rival Budda Baker of the Arizona Cardinals ($14.75m).

Baker and Adams each spend a significant amount of time in the box and down near the line of scrimmage and the latter's reprsentatives will base much of their argument in negotiations around him leading the Seahawks in sacks with 9.5 last year.

 

Yet they may struggle to make a compelling case when the discussion turns to his skills in pass coverage.

Adams finished the 2020 season with an adjusted open percentage of 24.94, comfortably below that of Baker, who set the fourth-best mark among all NFL defenders with 16.38 per cent.

Such a disparity would on the surface appear to make it tough to justify Seattle giving Adams a deal akin to that of Baker.

Yet after surrendering two first-round picks to prise Adams from the Jets, the Seahawks have locked themselves into a situation where they have no choice but to pay him. Though he has proven himself a playmaker near the line of scrimmage, his performance in coverage should lead Seattle to try to ink Adams to a deal with eye-catching headline numbers but a team-friendly structure.

Chandler Jones, EDGE, Arizona Cardinals

Due to earn $15.5m in base salary and carry a $20.8m cap hit in the final year of his contract in 2021, Jones' desire to receive the compensation he believes he is due before his deal expires is likely motivated by the Cardinals' decision to sign J.J. Watt to a two-year, $28m deal this offseason.

Watt remains an ominous presence on the defensive line, but – now 32, with a checkered injury history, and having posted nine sacks in 24 games over the past two seasons – his signing is a gamble by the Cardinals, and Jones may be wondering why they did not instead invest in keeping him around.

Jones has been the picture of consistency for the Cardinals, posting double-digit sacks in each of his first four seasons with Arizona before a torn bicep cut his 2020 campaign short after five ineffective games.

The Cardinals' reticence to pay the 31-year-old now is understandable given that recent injury, but Jones will feel he has already proven himself dependable heading into 2021 and is more deserving of a new deal than several of his fellow edge rushers who have already received paydays this offseason.

 

In his last full season in 2019, only one edge rusher, Cameron Jordan (70), had more pressures where he beat a pass protector than the 69 Jones produced.

Watt had 51 such pressures in 2020, Shaquil Barrett received a $17m-a-year contract from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after producing 53, while Leonard Floyd was paid $16m a year by the Los Angeles Rams after beating a man on 39 pressures.

Those deals complicate matters for the Cardinals, who might have to choose between paying a player they may not trust to stay healthy and potentially shipping out the most productive pass rusher in their recent history.

The obvious solution is a new deal laden with playing-time incentives that reward Jones for staying healthy. If that cannot be done, then the Cardinals could possibly soften the blow of losing him by getting a clutch of 2022 draft picks to help them restock their defense in return via trade.

As the passing offense has developed to become the dominant and most critical aspect of NFL attacks, the need for a secondary with the talent to regularly withstand aerial assaults led by a deep crop of quarterbacks has become an increasingly pressing one.

In a league where the deck is stacked heavily in favour of offenses, there is only so much even the best cornerbacks and safeties can do to keep the burgeoning ranks of exceptional athletes at quarterback in check.

Going into the 2021 season, several teams stand out as being best prepared to do that with the talent they possess in the defensive backfield.

Using advanced data, Stats Perform has ranked every secondary in the NFL by their performance in pass coverage. The rankings were produced by multiplying each player's coverage baseline by a projected target share for 2021, which is dependent on their position on the depth chart, with the results then aggregated at team level to produce that defense's coverage grade.

To look exclusively at the secondary, the results for defenders who spend their playing time almost exclusively in the box have been filtered out.

The results are very favourable for one NFC West team, though two franchises from that division are at the wrong end of the rankings, while a couple of surprise names feature among those secondaries who look ready to take a leap in 2021.

THE ELITE

1. Los Angeles Rams

Graded DBs: Jalen Ramsey, Darious Williams, David Long Jr, Taylor Rapp, Jordan Fuller

The Rams may have lost key pieces in the secondary in the form of safety John Johnson and cornerback Troy Hill but, even with the departure of defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, moving the ball on Los Angeles through the air will be an imposing challenge in 2021.

Their defensive backs' aggregate coverage grade tops the league and is 17 percentage points above average, with two-time first-team All-Pro Jalen Ramsey (20.45 per cent) and the underrated Darious Williams (21.60 per cent) each in the top 15 among cornerbacks in adjusted open percentage allowed, which looks at how often a defender allows an opponent to get open when in coverage against them, adjusted for the position they play.

Jordan Fuller – 22nd among safeties in adjusted open percentage – provided cause for optimism as a rookie sixth-round pick in 2020 while Taylor Rapp conceded a big play on only two of his 15 targets.

More progress from that duo could lessen the impact of Johnson's exit but, following highly rated defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant's switch to Detroit, maintaining their status as the gold standard is far from a given for Ramsey and Co. in 2021.

2. Buffalo Bills

Graded DBs: Tre'Davious White, Levi Wallace, Taron Johnson, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer

Buffalo's offense carried the load last season as the Bills progressed to the AFC Championship Game, though the talent in the secondary is such that they can afford to have confidence in putting more of the burden on their pass coverage in 2021.

The Bills' defensive backs rank 15 per cent above the average in aggregate coverage grading. Tre'Davious White's continuing success is a reason for that, the two-time Pro Bowler first among all cornerbacks in adjusted open percentage allowed (16.20 per cent) in 2020.

A cause for concern may come across from White after a mediocre year for Levi Wallace, whose adjusted open percentage (30.85) was close to double that of White, but the Bills have to be impressed by the progress of nickel Taron Johnson, who allowed a big play on only 14 of his 74 targets at inside corner last year.

The safety pairing of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer may also be hoping for a bounce-back year, the latter having allowed a burn on 13 of his 28 targets at free safety in 2020. However, in White, the Bills have a shutdown corner who can lift the play of those around him. As long as that remains the case, Buffalo's secondary should stay among the best in the league even with only marginal improvements made by his team-mates.

3. Denver Broncos

Graded DBs: Kyle Fuller, Patrick Surtain II, Ronald Darby, Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson

The Broncos head into 2021 with questions still abounding over their quarterbacks, but there is no doubt they have a championship-caliber defense, of which the secondary looks to be the strength, their defensive backs possessing an aggregate coverage grade 14 percentage points above average.

Justin Simmons was the best defender in the NFL in terms of adjusted open percentage in 2020, leading the way by allowing pass-catchers to get open against his coverage just 14.99 per cent of the time.

The Pro Bowl free safety will have an exciting mix of experience and youth alongside him. Strong safety Kareem Jackson was ninth among all players at the position in burn yards per target allowed with 7.76. Nickel Ronald Darby (37.8) and free agent signing Kyle Fuller (40.3), inexplicably released by the Chicago Bears, each ranked in the top seven in burn percentage allowed for corners with at least 200 coverage snaps.

That pairing will be joined by arguably the premier corner from this year's draft class, Patrick Surtain II, who makes the step up to the league after a stellar college career with Alabama, which he ended by helping the Crimson Tide to a National Championship and allowing 0.93 burn yards per snap. Only three Power 5 defenders gave up fewer.

Having added Fuller and the most pro-ready corner in the draft, the Broncos' secondary could soon mount a challenge to take the crown from the Rams.

THE BOTTOM

30. Seattle Seahawks

Graded DBs: Ahkello Witherspoon, Tre Flowers, Ugo Amadi, Jamal Adams, Quandre Diggs

NFC West teams gained even more firepower at the quarterback position in a dramatic offseason, magnifying the issues for a Seattle secondary that is a long way from the Legion of Boom.

Having let Shaquill Griffin walk in free agency, the Seahawks are somewhat short on proven players in the defensive backfield, with that scarcity reflected by an aggregate coverage grade 16 percentage points below average.

The Seahawks appear to be banking on Ahkello Witherspoon making a leap he never managed with the San Francisco 49ers. Witherspoon allowed a burn on half of his 28 targets last season.

Tre Flowers' open percentage of 85.7 was the fifth-worst of all corners in the NFL, though the play of another former Niner, D.J. Reed, provided some grounds for optimism as his burn yards per target average of 8.21 put him 15th among corners with at least 200 coverage snaps.

Only three inside corners gave up fewer burn yards per snap than Ugo Amadi (1.14) in 2020 while safety Jamal Adams was not the coverage liability many cast him as, the Seahawks sack leader last season giving up a big play on 10 of his 41 targets.

Yet with Quandre Diggs coming off a year in which he conceded a disappointing 13.82 burn yards per target, this is a group with more questions than answers.

31. Arizona Cardinals

Graded DBs: Malcolm Butler, Robert Alford, Byron Murphy, Isaiah Simmons, Budda Baker

The Cardinals are under pressure to produce a playoff campaign in the third year of Kliff Kingsbury as head coach and Kyler Murray as quarterback - a look at their depth chart in the secondary indicates the offense may have to carry this team to a first postseason appearance since the 2015 campaign.

Should Malcolm Butler and Robert Alford earn starting roles, they will provide veteran presences at outside corner, yet theirs is experience that should not inspire much confidence.

Butler allowed the 10th-most burn yards per snap among corners with at least 200 coverage snaps (2.42) while Alford has not played since the 2018 season.

The strength of this group comes from two former Washington Huskies. Nickel Byron Murphy's burn yards per target average of 7.50 was the fifth-best among inside corners in 2020 and Budda Baker has established himself as one of the premier safeties in the NFL, his adjusted open percentage of 16.38 trailing only three defenders in the previous campaign.

After an offseason in which Arizona did little to address the cornerback position, the onus may again be on that pair to elevate those around them, unless Butler and Alford unexpectedly recapture their form of old.

32. Detroit Lions

Graded DBs: Quinton Dunbar, Jeff Okudah, Amani Oruwariye, Tracy Walker, Will Harris

The Lions' rebuild under Dan Campbell is likely to be slow and painful, with his first season at the helm set to be one in which Detroit give up a lot of points if the secondary cannot improve.

Detroit's defensive backs' aggregate coverage grade is 27 percentage points below average. Key to the Lions improving in that regard will be Jeff Okudah's ability to shake off a difficult rookie season and justify his status as the third overall pick in 2020.

Only two cornerbacks gave up a big play in coverage more regularly than Okudah, who did so on 43.9 per cent of his targets. Unfortunately for Detroit, one of those corners is now on their roster, Quinton Dunbar (44.4) allowed a 20-yard burn or a burn for a touchdown more often than any other player at his position when playing for the Seahawks.

Projected starter Amani Oruwariye (36.9) did not fare much better, and it would be no surprise to see rookie Ifeatu Melifonwu thrust into a prominent role early on. Melifonwu was tied-ninth for the fewest burn yards per snap (1.23) allowed among Power 5 corners in his final season with Syracuse.

Will Harris at least had an admirable 2020 at strong safety, finishing third among all safeties in burn yards per target (7.0) but free safety Tracy Walker (12.85) offered little to suggest he can help Detroit turn the ship around quickly on defense. The Lions have done a disappointing job of drafting and developing talent under previous regimes. Changing that and successfully developing Okudah and Melifonwu will be crucial to this secondary climbing out of the cellar.

ON THE RISE

Minnesota Vikings

Graded DBs: Cameron Dantzler, Patrick Peterson, Mackensie Alexander, Xavier Woods, Harrison Smith

The Vikings invested heavily in the secondary in recent times and the numbers suggest that decision could pay dividends in the coming season.

Minnesota's defensive backs rank 10th in aggregate coverage rating, performing five points better than average. They will be looking for a step forward from last year's third-round pick Cameron Dantzler, who was above average in burn yards per target (9.4) and open percentage allowed (62.3) as a rookie.

But two underrated additions could see them catapult into the top five. Patrick Peterson was considered to have endured a down year last season but his open percentage of 51.9 when playing outside corner was seventh among players to have taken snaps at that spot. Meanwhile, Bashaud Breeland, another free agency signing, was tied fifth in open percentage (52.7) among corners to have played at least 200 coverage snaps.

The presence of Breeland, who is expected to compete with Dantzler for a starting job, and Peterson gives the Vikings strong depth at corner and should mitigate the potential loss of 2020 first-round pick Jeff Gladney, whose future is in doubt amid off-field troubles.

Mackenzie Alexander's return after a year with the Cincinnati Bengals may see him start at nickel, and he will need to improve after allowing 11.16 burn yards per target from the slot last season. Safeties Harrison Smith (13.13) and Xavier Woods (16.33 at free safety) also struggled in that metric in 2020, but the pressure will be taken off that pair should their top three corners live up to expectations.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Graded DBs: Jamel Dean, Carlton Davis III, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jordan Whitehead, Antoine Winfield Jr.

Tampa's secondary arguably already took a step forward as the Buccaneers claimed their second Super Bowl title last season. However, their defensive backfield is only 15th in aggregate coverage rating, Tampa coming in three per cent better than average.

Yet there were signs this group is primed to make further progress in 2021, most of which came from starting corner Jamel Dean.

Dean allowed a burn on 30 of his 64 targets, his percentage of 46.9 comfortably better than the average of 52.8 for corners with at least 200 coverage snaps, while he was 10th in the NFL at his position in adjusted open percentage (21.58).

Carlton Davis III was less impressive, giving up a burn on exactly half of his 92 targets, though the fact he conceded a big play on 25 per cent of his targets (the average was 26 among all corners) leaves room for encouragement.

Nickel corner Sean Murphy-Bunting also did a decent job at preventing big plays, conceding eight on 44 targets on the inside. Yet, despite praise for Antoine Winfield Jr's rookie year, both he and fellow starting safety Jordan Whitehead will hope to make improvements in coverage having given up 11.33 and 12.32 burn yards per target respectively.

However, with a full offseason under their belt to coalesce further, the arrow is pointing up for a young and clearly talented secondary that will again be playing behind one of the best front sevens in football after the Bucs kept the band together for another run in 2021.

Las Vegas Raiders

Graded DBs: Casey Hayward, Trayvon Mullen, Damon Arnette, Johnathan Abram, Trevon Moehrig

The Raiders secondary has received its fair share of criticism in the Jon Gruden-Mike Mayock years, with doubts cast over the merits of selecting Trayvon Mullen in the second round in 2019 and Damon Arnette in the first last year.

But Las Vegas can afford to have confidence in the secondary going into 2021. The Raiders' defensive backs ranking seventh for aggregate coverage, rating 10 per cent better than the average.

Much of the Raiders' presence in the top 10 is tied to the astute acquisition of veteran corner Casey Hayward, whose adjusted open percentage of 17.3 was the fifth-best in the NFL among players at all defensive positions, though a less impressive burn yards per target average of 11.20 reflects how often he was left on an island for the Los Angeles Chargers last year.

Las Vegas will hope Hayward can accelerate the development of Mullen, who was an encouraging 15th in burn yards per target (8.67) among outside corners with at least 200 snaps. Arnette's average of 11.69 suggests he has further to go, and he may face a competition with Hayward for the starting role across from Mullen.

Yet between Mullen's progress, the arrival of Hayward and the selection of free safety Trevon Moehrig in the second round of this year's draft, the Raiders secondary is one that looks primed to establish itself as one of the better groups in the NFL.

Moehrig allowed a big play on 20.3 per cent of his targets in 2020, giving them up at the sixth-fewest rate of all Power 5 safeties with at least 25 targets. His burn yards per target average of 6.71 was the best among Power 5 players at his position. If he can replicate that impact as a rookie, the Raiders should be in extremely good shape in the defensive backfield.

Russell Wilson said he never requested a trade from the Seattle Seahawks, insisting "I'm here to win it all" as he looks to see out his career with the NFL franchise.

Wilson's future has dominated headlines since his agent told ESPN that the star quarterback would only accept a trade to four teams amid his frustrations.

At the end of last season, the Super Bowl-winning quarterback and eight-time Pro Bowler voiced his frustration over the number of hits he had received and spoke of wanting a greater say in team affairs.

Wilson addressed the speculation and drama regarding his relationship with the Seahawks on Thursday.

"Obviously I love Seattle, I love playing here," Wilson said. "I've had a great career here so far. I've always wanted to play here for my full career obviously.

"I think there was some unfortunate frustrations after the season. Obviously you want to win it all and do it all and do everything you can. I think everybody on our team does.

"You want to win it, and I think unfortunately I think it got a little blown out of proportion a little bit."

Wilson appeared to be in MVP contention as Seattle made a 6-1 start to the 2020 season, but a lack of effective pass protection meant the 32-year-old could not maintain that standard.

The 47 sacks he suffered in the regular season were the third-most among NFL QBs.

Wilson has been sacked on a league-high 394 occasions in his Seahawks career, well clear of Matt Ryan (325) in second on that list.

Wilson's completion percentage of 72.3 fell to 61.6 under pressure in 2020, but this was good enough to rank third in the NFL in these situations – behind Teddy Bridgewater (65.9) and Kirk Cousins (62.2).

"I did not request a trade. I've always wanted to play here, and the reality is, I think calls were getting thrown around, this and that, and I think that's just a reality," Wilson added.

"But I think at the end of the day, the real reality is that I'm here and I'm here to win and I'm here to win it all."

The 2021 NFL season may still be months away, but fans can begin eagerly circling their calendars in anticipation of some truly mouth-watering fixtures after Wednesday's schedule release.

There are some obvious standouts. The Week 4 meeting of Tom Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Bill Belichick's New England Patriots should capture the entire league's attention as Brady returns to Foxborough for the first time since saying a shock farewell to his home of 20 seasons last offseason, and then going on to win a seventh Super Bowl ring in his maiden season with the Bucs.

A potential duel between Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs and Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in Week 9 hinges on Rodgers blinking in his staring contest with the Packers' brass and returning for the season.

Should he do so, it will pit the reigning MVP against the 2018 MVP and Super Bowl LIV MVP in a matchup of two quarterbacks who have each recently finished in the top five in well-thrown ball percentage. Rodgers was third in the NFL with 82.4 per cent last season while Mahomes was fourth with 81.1 per cent in 2019 as he led the Chiefs to the Lombardi Trophy.

But the games with the best narratives on the surface do not always produce the best matchups. Here, using Stats Perform data, we look at five other games on the schedule that are in the mix to be among the most exciting games of the 2021 campaign.

 

Packers @ 49ers - Week 3

The Packers trounced a 49ers team decimated by injuries last season, though that was probably hollow revenge for Green Bay's NFC Championship Game humbling at the hands of San Francisco in the 2019 season.

Typically, when Rodgers has visited the team he idolised in his youth, things have gone poorly for the Packers. He has won two of his four regular-season meetings with the Niners in the Bay Area but has lost to San Francisco on each of the three occasions he has faced them in the playoffs, with two of those defeats on the road.

Still, if Rodgers acquiesces in his stand-off with Packers management and plays for Green Bay in 2021, it promises to be a fascinating duel of NFC contenders, with the Niners potentially starting a rookie quarterback in dual-threat Trey Lance.

Should Rodgers remain with the Packers, the key matchup in this one could well be the reigning MVP against a Niners defensive line that should get back edge rusher Nick Bosa after he missed most of the 2020 season with a torn ACL.

Rodgers' well-thrown percentage under pressure was 71.0 per cent in 2020, the ninth-best in the NFL, and he will likely have to maintain that accuracy under duress if Bosa is back to his best. The 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year had a pressure rate of 28.3 per cent in his first season in the league, trailing only Adrian Clayborn and elder brother Joey, and sacked Rodgers in the regular season and the NFC title game.

Buccaneers @ Rams - Week 3

Yes, Brady v Belichick is the game everybody in Tampa will be most excited for, and the season opener between the Super Bowl champions and the Dallas Cowboys will be a primetime ratings monster, but perhaps the best duel involving the only player with seven Super Bowl rings will take place when Tampa head west.

The Rams edged the Buccaneers 27-24 in Tampa last season and should provide a stern test again at SoFi Stadium with Matthew Stafford set to be under center for Los Angeles.

But Stafford is not the person Brady will be concerned with when it comes to the Rams. Instead, it will be three-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.

Brady was phenomenal when it came to avoiding interceptable passes last season.

He threw a pickable pass on just 13 of 590 pass attempts in 2020, a percentage of 2.20 that only Alex Smith (2.12) could better. When under pressure, it increased to 3.45 per cent, but that was still the fourth-lowest pickable pass rate in the NFL under duress.

But no defender in the league strikes fear into the heart of quarterbacks quite like Donald, who led all defensive tackles in 2020 with a pressure rate of 27.7 per cent and an adjusted sack rate of 5.5 per cent.

Donald can destroy the best-laid plans of any offense, and surviving the challenge he and the Rams will pose will be one of the biggest tests for Brady and the Bucs in their bid to repeat as champions

Bills @ Chiefs - Week 5

This is a rematch of last season's AFC Championship Game in which the Bills did not produce an effort reflective of their outstanding 2020, and Buffalo look like the team best placed to challenge Kansas City again in the AFC in 2021.

The headline act of this clash is the battle of the quarterbacks, with Mahomes and Josh Allen leading the revolution of athletic, cannon-armed quarterbacks who have taken the league by storm.

But an underrated aspect of this game will be Stefon Diggs' performance against a Chiefs secondary that does not get the credit it deserves.

Diggs was held to six catches for 77 yards in the playoff matchup but recently revealed he played through the postseason with an oblique tear.

When healthy, Diggs has the ability to do significantly greater damage. He led the NFL with 1,535 receiving yards in his first season in Buffalo and trailed only Davante Adams (3.9) in burn yards per route as he averaged 3.6.

However, the Chiefs' projected starting cornerbacks have the means to slow him down. L'Jarius Sneed was fifth among all corners in preventing big plays, allowing a play of 20 yards or more on just 14.5 per cent of his targets. 

Meanwhile, Charvarius Ward was fourth among corners in burns allowed, giving up a burn on 32.7 per cent of his targets.

Bears @ Seahawks - Week 16

The Bears have rarely been high on the list of teams to look out for when it comes to intrigue in recent years, but that all changed when they traded up to draft Justin Fields 11th overall.

Once Chicago ends the charade of committing to Andy Dalton as starting quarterback and goes with the high-upside rookie, the Bears have the potential to be an extremely interesting watch.

That will certainly be the case if Fields is under center when they travel to Seattle's Lumen Field, with the Bears set to face the quarterback they reportedly pursued before picking Fields, Seahawks star Russell Wilson.

A quarterback battle between Fields and Wilson has the potential to be an absorbing encounter featuring two signal-callers who each excel with their accuracy throwing the deep ball.

Of quarterbacks with at least 25 throws of 25 or more air yards, only three players (Ryan Tannehill, Philip Rivers and Derek Carr) had a higher well-thrown percentage than Wilson's 63.0 per cent on those attempts last season.

Fields was similarly proficient attacking downfield in his final year for Ohio State, posting a well-thrown percentage of 76.47 per cent on throws of 15 or more air yards that was superior to that of Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Mac Jones.

If his success in that regard quickly translates to the NFL, the Bears' trip to the Pacific Northwest could turn into a scintillating showcase of the deep passing game. For the first time in a while, the Bears have the potential to be must-see TV.

Ravens @ Browns - Week 14

The balance of power in the AFC North is shifting towards the Ravens and Browns and their Monday Night game in Cleveland last year was among the most entertaining of the 2020 campaign.

In the end, the Browns' inability to stop Lamar Jackson, even after his apparent 'comfort break', from making the big plays in Baltimore's thrilling comeback was the decisive factor in the Ravens' 47-42 triumph.

Cleveland took steps to stop such a scenario from playing out again, using their first-round pick on a cornerback in Greg Newsome II who allowed a big play on just 4.2 per cent of his 36 targets in an abbreviated final season at Northwestern.

His addition, and that of versatile second-round linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who allowed a big-play percentage of 11.0 when covering from the slot and had an overall pressure rate of 25.0 per cent, should help the Browns do a better job of slowing down opponents.

But whether those arrivals are enough to make the difference against Jackson and the Ravens is another matter.

An underrated downfield thrower whose well-thrown percentage of 60.0 on throws of 25 or more air yards was seventh in the NFL last year, Jackson has another dynamic weapon to target in the form of first-round receiver Rashod Bateman.

Sixth among Power 5 wideouts with at least 50 targets in burn yards per target (16.15) in his stellar 2019 season, Bateman can be the number one receiver Jackson has long since lacked.

Bateman excelled at creating separation two years ago while having an average depth of target of 16.2. With him and speedster Marquise Brown in the mix, Jackson does not lack big-play weapons, and Cleveland's ability to keep them under wraps could be critical in deciding an ultra-competitive division in 2021.

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

Seattle Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf described the opportunity to race against world-class athletes as a blessing after his Olympic hopes seemingly came to an end on Sunday.

The 23-year-old competed in the 100 metres event at the USA Track and Field (USATF) Golden Games and Distance Open in California, part of the qualification process for this year's rescheduled Games in Tokyo.

Metcalf posted an impressive time of 10.36 seconds in his heat, but that was only good enough to finish ninth as he missed out on a place in the final of the event.

A time under 10.05s would have been enough to automatically qualify for the US Olympic track and field trials in Oregon next month.

"I'm just happy to be here, excited to have the opportunity to come out here and run against world-class athletes like this," Metcalf said in his post-race interview on Peacock.

"Just to test my speed up against world-class athletes like this. Like I said, to have the opportunity to come out here and run against these guys was just a blessing."

Metcalf had been a hurdler and a long jumper at high school before focusing on football in college at Ole Miss. He was selected by the Seahawks with the 64th pick in the 2019 draft.

After posting 58 receptions for 900 yards in his rookie season, he finished the 2020 campaign with 83 catches for 1,303 yards and 10 touchdowns, good enough to earn him a trip to the Pro Bowl.

"They do this for a living. It's very different from football speed, as I just realised," Metcalf, who was strong out of the blocks, added.

Seattle team-mate Russell Wilson was among those from the NFL to be impressed by Metcalf's performance, the quarterback tweeting: "Amazing Bro!"

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes also praised the receiver, who admitted the focus will now switch from competing on the track back to his NFL career.

"10.36 is crazy tho [sic] at that size!! Mad respect!" Mahomes posted on Twitter.

Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has cooled talk of a reunion with former All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman.

Following three seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, the 33-year-old Sherman is a free agent.

In an interview with ESPN on Friday, Sherman said he had been in communication with the New Orleans Saints and Las Vegas Raiders, along with the Seahawks.

"I've talked to Sherm quite a few times here over the offseason," Carroll confirmed, as per ESPN.

"So we have stayed in contact and he's out there. I know he's thinking about it.

"He's looking for an opportunity. I saw where he said there's three or four teams he's considering or whatever.

"So we'll see what happens. But he's been a great player and he's still got some ball left in him, I'm sure.

"But at this point we're going to clear through this day, figure out what happens with the rooks coming up and we'll see where it sits later on."

The Seahawks signed Oklahoma cornerback Tre Brown with one of their three draft picks and Carroll insists a move to bring back Sherman, who starred for Seattle between 2011 and 2017, is not immediately in the works.

"That's not one of our thoughts right now that we're going out and getting another guy at that spot, but we're going to keep looking," Carroll said.

"We're not going to stop looking and we're going to compete. So in that sense, I leave everything open and that's just one of them."

Sherman was a key member of the Seahawks team that claimed Super Bowl glory in 2014 and came up agonisingly short of a repeat against the New England Patriots in the following year's showpiece.

He was named a First Team All-Pro three times in Seattle and made four Pro Bowls.

Injuries have taken an increased toll, however. The Seahawks released Sherman in the 2017 offseason after he suffered a torn Achilles and, after a fifth career Pro Bowl in 2019 and helping the 49ers to the Super Bowl, he missed 11 games with a calf injury last season.

"I want to get on a competitive team," Sherman told ESPN. "I think I still have a lot to give to the game.

"I think I still have a lot that I want to accomplish and I think I can go out there and help a defense come together like it should and reach their potential, reach the heights that the defenses that I've played on have reached."

Pete Carroll is looking forward to a "long future" together with Russell Wilson after Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider told reporters he "never actively negotiated with anybody" over a trade of their superstar quarterback.

Wilson's future has been a source of much debate this offseason.

He appeared to be in MVP contention as Seattle made a 6-1 start to the 2020 season, but a lack of effective pass protection meant the 32-year-old could not maintain that standard.

The 47 sacks he suffered in the regular season were the third-most among NFL QBs.

Wilson has been sacked on a league-high 394 occasions in his Seahawks career, well clear of Matt Ryan (325) in second on that list.

"I'm frustrated [about] getting hit too much," he said in February.

To this, Carroll said on Wednesday: "He wasn't any more frustrated than I was."

Reports emerged of Wilson naming four teams he would be interested in being dealt to, yet Schneider now says such a move was never an option.

"There were a number of teams that called after that media blitz that happened, but no, I never actively negotiated with anybody, with any team," he said.

"Did people call? Absolutely."

Carroll described Wilson's comments as "a pretty normal reaction" and said the pair had "talked extensively throughout the offseason", "as many conversations as we've ever had".

"Russ has been our quarterback for a good while," Carroll said. "We've got a long contract with him.

"And when all of the conversation went about trades and all that, I knew what the truth was: we weren't trading Russell.

"So, we plan on him being here for a good while. I don't know how many years it is now, but we're in great shape and a long future ahead of us is shared.

"Russ knows that. I know that. We're very clear about it.

"That's why it was really obvious that we just had to sit back and kind of let the media take its course with the topic. So we did.

"We're in good shape and both very clear about that."

Wilson's completion percentage of 72.3 fell to 61.6 under pressure in 2020, but this was good enough to rank third in the NFL in these situations – behind Teddy Bridgewater (65.9) and Kirk Cousins (62.2).

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