Five Lessons Learned from 2021 Offseason

by Al Scherer · Analytics & Advanced Metrics

When looking at the preseason for clues about the upcoming fantasy season, first of all, don’t focus too much on the stats. Having second- and third-team offenses taking on second- and third-team defenses is how we end up with Nathan Peterman as this year’s NFL preseason passing yardage leader and Joe Flacco as the likely 2021 preseason MVP with a 106.2 passer rating, followed closely by C.J. Beathard and Mitchell Trubisky. While this preseason’s receiving leaders included breakout rookie Terrace Marshall, they also boasted the Colts’ Dezmon Patmon and the Bears’ Rodney Adams. And there were no established running backs inside the top-25 in rushing yards.

What we can learn, though, comes from offseason and preseason actions of NFL GMs and coaching staffs and, to a lesser extent, preseason usage trends. Though, again, some of the latter has to be tempered by the fact that many teams only played their starters in parts of two or fewer games.

So are there lessons to be learned from this year’s offseason and preseason as we head into NFL 2021? Absolutely. Here are five takeaways as the season begins.

1) First Round QBs Will Always Start Early

The days of first-round rookie QBs sitting on the bench for much or all of their rookie campaigns are long gone. What worked for Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers just doesn’t fly anymore. Mahomes and Rodgers, as great as they turned out to be, were drafted behind a reigning Pro Bowler and a Hall of Famer, respectively. With all due respect to Cam Newton’s early career exploits, there were no Hall of Famers or Pro-Bowlers leading the 2020 Jaguars, Jets, 49ers, Bears or Patriots.

So, if you drafted any of this year’s first round quarterbacks, expect to use them early this season. NFL teams today need a franchise QB on a rookie contract to build around. Some teams, like the 2018 Cardinals and 2020 Dolphins, now give early-drafted rookie QBs playing time if for no other reason than to find out they have to draft another one early the next year.

Of 2021’s five first-rounders, three (Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, and Mac Jones) have already been named their teams’ starters. These teams have even gone so far as to ship the competition out of town. The other two (Trey Lance and Justin Fields) are Top-10 dynasty QBs per’s Dynasty Deluxe Rankings and will be starting very soon.

Between 2015 and 2020, all 15 QBs drafted in the first round started as rookies and did so, on average, by week 4. That included Mahomes and those rookie QBs that struggled out of the gate, like Josh Rosen and Dwayne Haskins.

So, if you’ve added Fields and he is not the Bears’ starter by week 1, don’t lose any sleep. Look to either their matchups in Week 4 hosting Detroit or Week 5 at Las Vegas as a great Fields coming-out party. If you’ve got Lance, assuming his finger is OK, on the road at the Philadelphia in Week 2 or hosting the Seahawks in Week 4 are great spots. Don’t expect these two to sit long behind Andy Dalton and Jimmy Garoppolo, neither of whom was inside the top 30 in PlayerProfiler’s Accuracy Rating, Money Throws or Rushing Yards per Game metrics in 2020.

Action Item: If you’ve drafted a rookie QB, he’s either starting already or will be very soon. If you’ve got Fields or Lance, be sure you’ve grabbed a low-priced starter with a good early schedule to get you through the first few weeks. Guys like Teddy Bridgewater in Denver or even Sam Darnold in Carolina have easy enough opening schedules to get you through the first few weeks. Then expect your rookie QB to pay off soon, and for most of the season.

2) These Aren’t Your Parents’ Jets

As Matt Kelley often points out, great teams focus on passing and on stopping the pass. Successful teams are built on strong offensive and defensive lines, solid cornerbacks, and a stud quarterback on a rookie contract. To highlight the importance of offensive line play, of Pro Football Focus’ 15 lowest-ranked offensive lines in 2020, just one of those teams had a winning record.

The Jets, though not in the upper-tier of offensive and defensive lines yet, are at least moving in the right direction. They’ve invested first round picks into their lines in each of the last three years. In this year’s free agent class, GM Joe Douglas and staff added edge rusher Carl Lawson and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins to boost head coach Robert Saleh’s 4-3 defense. They drafted their franchise QB Zach Wilson this year, surrounding him with both veteran skill players and exciting rookies Elijah Moore and Michael Carter.

While the Jets still need more pieces, this team will begin to be competitive and will surprise some teams as early as this year.

Action Item: Now’s the time to start stocking up on Jets, especially in dynasty, before they take off.


3) These ARE Your Parents’ Jaguars

On the other hand, there’s Jacksonville, with one winning season this century and six head coaches in the last 10 years.

Pro Football Focus ranked the Jags’ 2020 offensive line in the bottom third, just behind the Jets. After selecting franchise QB Trevor Lawrence first overall, instead of protecting their investment by bolstering their offensive line, they used their second first rounder on a luxury pick, RB Travis Etienne, whom they reportedly selected because their actual preferred choice, Kadarius Toney, was already taken – by another team that couldn’t afford to draft a receiver early. The Etienne pick was especially problematic not because of his subsequent injury, but because they had just hit the RB jackpot in 2020 with UDFA James Robinson, top 5 in the league in both Evaded Tackles and Yards Created. Teams coming off 1-15 seasons are in no position to go RB or WR early.

The Jags did eventually select one offensive lineman in the 2021 draft. With their second Round 2 pick, they selected Walker Little out of Stanford. Little has played one game of college football since 2018.

Then there are the personnel moves. Meyer signed an old friend, running back Carlos Hyde to a two-year contract. Hyde, as you may know, played for Meyer at Ohio State back in 2012.

To put into perspective how far back that is: in 2012, Ezekiel Elliott…was a high school student!

Hyde will be involved just enough to steal some of Robinson’s carries and touchdowns. Then, to reach a little further back in the time machine, they added Tim Tebow and tried to make him a tight end. Tebow, you see, was Meyer’s QB at Florida…in 2009! And there was the handling of Gardner Minshew. After alternating first team reps between Lawrence and Minshew throughout camp, and only days after proclaiming the starting QB job was undecided, Meyer shipped Minshew off to Philadelphia for a conditional sixth-round pick.

I just hope this team can keep Lawrence in one piece.

Action Item: Start to get ahead of the curve with a few dynasty Jaguars like Lawrence and Laviska Shenault and buy low on Etienne for 2022 and beyond, but expect more turbulence than with the Jets.

4) Laugh at the Lions While You Can

The Detroit Lions haven’t won their division in 28 years, back when they were led by Barry Sanders, Herman Moore and Breshad Perriman’s dad, Brett Perriman. They haven’t won a playoff game in 30 years, when they made it to the NFC Finals before bowing out to the eventual Super Bowl Champion and then inappropriately-named Washington Redskins.

They’re still a laughing stock, right? Well, not quite so fast. Drafting Frank Ragnow in 2018 was a step in the right direction.

In 2021, new GM Brad Holmes wasted no time, moving Matthew Stafford for a king’s ransom of draft picks, extending Ragnow, and focusing the 2021 draft on offensive/defensive line help and cornerbacks.

When other teams drafting before them (that also needed line help) reached on skill position players, it gifted the Lions with opportunity to select OT Penei Sewell at pick No. 7 overall, adding him to a line that is now top-half in the NFL. It may already be best in the NFC North. After Sewell, the Lions added defensive line help with their next two picks and a cornerback in the first three rounds. They took a couple flyers on skill position players later.

No, the Lions don’t have their franchise quarterback but watch out if they add one in 2022.

By then, there’s a small-but-non-zero chance that NFC foes Green Bay and Minnesota are led by Jordan Love and/or Kellen Mond. While the Bears have found their franchise QB (What were you thinking, Falcons, Panthers and Broncos?), to get Fields, Chicago gave up the future draft picks from which to protect him with a solid line. The Bears are not Super Bowl contenders and their defense is just getting older, yet the GM and head coach can’t commit to a full rebuild.

Yes, the Lions hired a caveman head coach in Dan Campbell. But they’ve embraced the rebuild. They moved older players and stockpiled picks. They’ve built a strong offensive line. Their time will come.

Action Item: It might be early to move on the Lions but be prepared to pounce.

5) Don’t Overlook the Patriots

Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots added the two best free agent tight ends this summer. They drafted their next franchise quarterback in Mac Jones. I was going to say “potential franchise quarterback” but, when a guy posts a 96.1 (100th-percentile) College QBR and 11.2 (97th-percentile) College Yards Per Attempt while throwing 42 TDs against 4 interceptions in the SEC, he’s their guy.

Already having a top-5 offensive line in place, the Pats added to an already-strong defense through the draft, selecting DT Christian Barmore in the second and Ronnie Perkins in the third. They also bolstered their running back corps, selecting oversized RB Rhamondre Stevenson in the fourth. While the rest of the league stocks up on nickel backs and spread offenses, Bill’s Pats are going to punch them in the mouth with 12 personnel in 2021.

Here’s one case where looking at the preseason might give us some insight into their regular season plans. The Pats have rushed as much as they’ve thrown this preseason. Despite their overall team struggles in 2020, they still finished top-10 in the league in rushing yards, yards-per-carry and TDs.

Action Item: Expect solid years from Damien Harris, James White and Rhamondre Stevenson. And don’t forget J.J. Taylor, an exciting late-round running back pick.