2021 NFL season predictions: Winners and sleepers for Super Bowl, MVP, stats leaders and more

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The 2021 NFL season is officially underway, so what better time to predict how it will unfold? From the Super Bowl champion to the league’s individual leaders in passing, rushing and receiving, here’s who might come out on top:

Super Bowl champion: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The New England Patriots were the last team to win back-to-back Super Bowl titles, establishing a budding dynasty in 2003 and 2004. The quarterback of those teams, Tom Brady, is seeking his eighth ring after winning it all in his first year in Tampa Bay. The old adage is that it’s hard to repeat, and even harder when the starting quarterback is 44 years old. But the Bucs return all 22 starters from the best roster in the league last season.

The front seven, led by linebackers Shaquil Barrett, Lavonte David and Devin White, is dominant, and star defensive tackle Vita Vea returns after missing most of 2020. The trio of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown at wide receiver remains elite, and there’s even a promising rookie in edge rusher Joe Tryon-Shoyinka.

Outside of injuries, the only thing that threatens to derail this team is Brady finally showing his age. Good luck predicting when that will happen.

Watch out for: Los Angeles Chargers

Hope springs eternal every offseason for the hard-luck Chargers, but this year feels different. Justin Herbert transformed from polarizing draft pick into one of the best rookie quarterbacks in league history, giving the woebegone franchise something to build around.

First-time head coach Brandon Staley brings his innovative defensive scheme back to L.A., where he helped the Rams finish fourth in defensive efficiency in 2020, according to Football Outsiders. All-Pro safety Derwin James and edge rusher Joey Bosa are healthy, and the offensive line should be much improved with the additions of veterans Corey Linsley and Matt Feiler and first-round pick Rashawn Slater.

If Herbert continues to improve, the offensive line jells, the defense cracks the top 10 and the Chargers avoid their usual baffling meltdowns, Los Angeles can push the Chiefs in the AFC West and make some waves in the playoffs.

Most Valuable Player: Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes

With the weapons Mahomes has around him going into Year 5 with coach Andy Reid, it’s a pretty safe bet to assume the 25-year-old wins his second MVP award. No matter what metric you want to use, there isn’t a better quarterback in the NFL right now.

Watch out for: Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB Tom Brady

The reasoning here is twofold. First, the Bucs should compete for the best record in the league. And second, Brady should be more comfortable playing with coach Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich. Toward the end of his first season in Tampa Bay, Brady was not only one of the league’s most efficient passers, but also one of the most aggressive. He should pile up stats for a dominant team, as he did in Thursday night’s season-opening 31-29 win over the Cowboys.

Defensive Player of the Year: Los Angeles Rams DT Aaron Donald

There’s not much that needs to be said. No other defensive player in the league can wreak havoc the way Donald does. As long as he’s healthy, he should be the favorite for this award every season. He’s already won it three times.

Watch out for: Washington Football Team DE Chase Young

If there’s a physical freak out there who can compete with Donald for scariest defensive player in the league, it’s the 6-foot-5, 265-pound Young. The 2020 No. 2 overall pick didn’t disappoint as a rookie, recording 7 ½ sacks and 10 tackles for loss and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ fifth-best edge defender. If Young gets 15 or more sacks and Washington wins the NFC East for the second straight season on the strength of its defense, he’ll have a strong case.

Passing yards leader: Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott

Before his season-ending ankle injury in Week 5 last season, Prescott was on pace to throw for nearly 6,000 yards in a 16-game season, which would have shattered the NFL record. His top targets — Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup — return, and the offensive line should be improved, though a five-game suspension for right tackle La’el Collins looms large. Not to mention, if Dallas’ defense doesn’t take a significant step forward under new coordinator Dan Quinn, Prescott might need to throw the ball a ton to keep the Cowboys competitive. Case in point: his 403 yards and three touchdowns on 58 passes in Thursday night’s loss to the Bucs.

Watch out for: Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan

The 2015 MVP season feels like a distant memory, but any film geek will tell you that Ryan remains one of the league’s best quarterbacks. He’ll miss throwing to superstar Julio Jones, who was traded to Tennessee, but Calvin Ridley is capable of being a No. 1 wideout, and No. 4 overall pick Kyle Pitts should be a Pro Bowl-caliber tight end as a rookie. The big question is whether Ryan will have enough time to throw behind a patchwork offensive line, but new coach Arthur Smith did wonders for quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s career as the Titans’ offensive coordinator with a play-action-heavy scheme. It’s possible the 36-year-old Ryan turns back the clock this season.

Rushing yards leader: Tennessee Titans RB Derrick Henry

Until Henry is dethroned as the NFL’s rushing champion, he’s the man to beat. The only question coming off his 2,027-yard season is whether he’ll keep it up. That said, the change at offensive coordinator, from Smith to Todd Downing, and some question marks along the offensive line should open the door for another contender to emerge.

Watch out for: New York Giants RB Saquon Barkley

There’s the obvious question of health for Barkley, who’s coming off a torn ACL after missing time in 2019 with an ankle sprain. But if he’s back to his top form, it’s a safe bet the Giants are going to give the 2018 No. 2 overall pick the ball a ton. The backups won’t get many touches behind Barkley, who averaged 81.7 rushing yards per game as a rookie.

Receiving yards leader: Kansas City Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill

Whether it’s hauling in deep passes from Mahomes or picking up yards after the catch, Hill is a threat to score anytime he touches the ball. As long as Mahomes is healthy and Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy are calling the shots, Hill remains the best bet to be the league’s most productive receiver — especially considering the drop-off behind him on Kansas City’s depth chart.

Watch out for: Dallas Cowboys WR CeeDee Lamb

All signs out of Cowboys training camp pointed to a huge second season for Lamb, who finished with 935 yards last year catching passes from Andy Dalton, Ben DiNucci and Garrett Gilbert. Then he went for 104 yards in Dallas’ opener. Assuming a healthy season for Prescott, the former Oklahoma star could vault into the league’s top tier of pass-catchers.

Coach of the Year: Buffalo Bills’ Sean McDermott

Coach of the Year winners typically surpass expectations. That’s going to be difficult for McDermott, who went 13-3 last season and reached the AFC championship game. But Buffalo — which faces the ninth-easiest schedule in the NFL based on projected win totals — has a good chance to secure the league’s best record, and McDermott might finally be rewarded for turning the Bills into a contender.

Watch out for: Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin

The Steelers enter 2021 with tepid expectations, given quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s late-career decline and regression expected for one of the league’s best defenses. But there’s still plenty of talent on this roster, highlighted by two Defensive Player of the Year candidates in outside linebacker T.J. Watt and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. If new offensive coordinator Matt Canada can get the most out of Roethlisberger and a talented group of playmakers while overcoming an unproven offensive line, the Steelers could be firmly in the playoff hunt, especially with a third wild-card spot added this season. That could be enough to give the nod to Tomlin, who has never coached a losing season in Pittsburgh.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: New York Jets QB Zach Wilson

Jaguars rookie Trevor Lawrence is the betting favorite, considering he’s received more draft hype than any quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck, but Wilson has looked better in the preseason thanks to the play-calling of offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur and a much-improved offensive line. Lawrence might end up with the better team record, but Wilson has a good chance to be the most productive of the rookie quarterbacks.

Watch out for: New England Patriots QB Mac Jones

After all the hand-wringing about whether the San Francisco 49ers should pick Jones after trading up to No. 3 overall in the draft, the former Alabama star has proven he was a valuable selection for coach Bill Belichick at No. 15. Jones put together a strong preseason to beat Cam Newton for the starting job, and if the new-and-improved Patriots fight for a playoff spot with Jones leading an efficient offense, he will be a serious candidate for this award.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Denver Broncos CB Patrick Surtain II

Drop one of the most pro-ready cornerback prospects into one of the league’s best defenses and watch the sparks fly. Surtain had a pick-six in the preseason, and teammates are raving about the No. 9 pick’s ability to be an impact player. Surtain, the son of the former three-time Pro Bowl selection with the Miami Dolphins, should have the stats and name recognition to be a top contender for this award.

Watch out for: Ravens OLB Odafe Oweh

Oweh impressed during training camp with his versatility and attitude, and he’s likely to benefit greatly from the pressure packages devised by defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale. A double-digit sack season wouldn’t be shocking, and these Ravens are going to be playing in front of a national audience in prime time at least five times. The former Penn State standout has all the raw tools to be a breakout star.

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