Team Notes week 1 2021

By Bob Harris
Bob Harris<

NEWS, NOTES, RUMORS AND OTHER GOOD STUFF

Directly from the desk of FlashUpdate Editor Bob Harris. The good; the bad; and yes. ... Even the Bears. There is no better way to jump start your weekend than browsing these always educational -- often irreverent -- team-by-team, Fantasy-specific offerings. ...
Access specific teams by clicking on a team name in the schedule appearing directly to your left or by clicking on a helmet below; return to the helmets by hitting the link labeled "Menu" following each teams notes. ...

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Arizona Cardinals

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

As Darren Urban of the team's official website noted, the removal of a fourth preseason game had a butterfly effect on a number of operations across the NFL and with the Cardinals.

Final cuts were done well in advance of the first practice on Labor Day, the practice squad built out rather than players walking in the door as Game 1 prep had already begun. It also allowed for a mandatory four-day bye for players -- Thursday through Sunday -- to get a break before the regular season got underway.

In some ways, it's not a lot different than before, given that players essentially were given Friday through Sunday off after the Thursday night preseason finale. But after going hard for five weeks, an abrupt break is not exactly what a coach always loves.

"I'm not sure how we feel about it just yet," head coach Kliff Kingsbury acknowledged. "As a coach, you ramp up and you don't really want four days to back back down, but it is what it is, so we will deal with it."

Wide receiver Christian Kirk said Cardinals strength and conditioning coach Buddy Morris likens the break to running your car into a wall.

"We get on a schedule and right now it's all muscle memory," Kirk said. "When you just stop and do nothing, it can really have negative (affects)."

The time off is like playing a Thursday night game, tackle D.J. Humphries said, and the Cardinals actually will have one of those this season when the Packers visit Oct. 28. There is a rest and recovery aspect to the down time, but there is still reason to get a sweat in.

Given that the Cardinals had their final preseason game cancelled, there is the element of having such an extended stretch without a game. Then again, almost all the key players who will be trying to beat the Titans this week wouldn't have played the preseason finale against the Saints anyway.

The Cardinals are relatively healthy going into the first week of practice. Having his group recharged and ready for the weekly grind -- the Cardinals' in-season bye doesn't come until Thanksgiving weekend -- is the (only) result Kingsbury would like to see from the time off.

"If we use it correctly," Kingsbury said, "it can be a real plus. ..."

Meanwhile, Associated Press sports writer David Brandt notes that Kyler Murray and Kingsbury had a two-year honeymoon to adjust to life in the NFL. There were some good moments, some bad moments, and that inconsistency was reflected in an 8-8 record one season ago.

Now, the training wheels come off.

The Cardinals are under considerable pressure to make the playoffs this year after just missing the postseason in 2020. That's just fine for Murray, who said his expectations will always be sky high.

"I'm not trying to be average, I never will be," Murray said. "I'm always striving to be perfect. Obviously, being perfect is very tough, very hard. Maybe it's not a thing. But we're going to get damn close."

The 24-year-old Murray is the unquestioned face of the Cardinals as they try to make headway in a tough NFC West that also includes the 49ers, Seahawks and Rams.

The Cardinals made multiple moves in the offseason in an effort to bulk up the roster, adding three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, seven-time Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green and three-time Pro Bowl center Rodney Hudson.

Those are obviously some big names with big resumes, but adding them also represents a gamble. All three players are in their 30s and the NFL is notoriously tough place to last more than a decade.

"I love what they're about, that's the bottom line," Kingsbury said. "All those guys have been incredible professionals, played at a high level, played in big games and have done it the right way for a long time. That type of leadership is outstanding for any program.

"Then you throw in that they can all still play at a high level."

Arizona should still have one of the league's most interesting offenses. Murray threw for 3,719 yards and 26 touchdowns while also running for 819 yards and 11 scores. DeAndre Hopkins returns after an All-Pro season that included 1,407 yards receiving and six touchdowns.

The Cardinals have a tough early-season schedule with three of their first four games on the road. They'll start at Tennessee before returning home to face Minnesota, then they'll have back-to-back road games at Jacksonville and the NFC West rival Los Angeles Rams. ...

So how do they achieve success this year?

According to ESPN.com's Josh Weinfuss, reaching what he considers the best-case scenario -- 11 wins -- could be relatively easy for this team if the offense figures out a way to balance itself and if Watt can return to form, providing pressure off the edge to offset Chandler Jones' pass rushing.

"However," Weinfuss went on to note, "if Kingsbury can't adapt when/if the offense struggles, or if the defense can't get the pressure up front, then five wins might be where this season heads. And if that happens, a major reorg could be coming. ..."

Other notes of interest. ... The Cardinals hope they've improved on special teams by adding veteran kicker Matt Prater. The 37-year-old is a two-time Pro Bowler entering his 15th NFL season. He spent the past seven years with the Detroit Lions.

Prater replaces Zane Gonzalez, who made some big kicks in 2020, including a handful of important ones. Prater has made a career 83.2 percent of his field goal attempts compared to 78 percent for Gonzalez. ...

And finally. ... It seems unlikely at this point, but there's still the possibility 11-time Pro Bowl receiver Larry Fitzgerald returns for an 18th season.

Fitzgerald has played his entire career in Arizona and is one of the most productive receivers in NFL history. He sounded like a man close to retirement during a radio interview in August, though he kept the door open for a return.

"To be honest with you I just don't have the urge to play right now," Fitzgerald said in a Sirius/XM interview. "I don't know how I'll feel in September, October, November moving forward, but I just, today, I just don't have that urge. And I think I have to be respectful of that. Football is not one of those games you want to walk out there and play and not be fully engaged and ready to prepare and do the things necessary that you need to do."

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Kyler Murray, Colt McCoy, Chris Streveler
RBs: Chase Edmonds, James Conner, Jonathan Ward, Eno Benjamin
WRs: DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green, Christian Kirk, Rondale Moore, Andy Isabella, Antoine Wesley
TEs: Maxx Williams, Darrell Daniels

Atlanta Falcons

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

As Associated Press sports writer Paul Newberry framed it: "New coach.

"New general manager.

"No Julio Jones.

"The Atlanta Falcons have embarked on a new era, one that doesn't include the greatest receiver in franchise history. ..."

Jones was dealt to the Tennessee Titans over the summer for a couple of draft picks, a move that helped the Falcons deal with a messy salary cap situation exacerbated by the pandemic.

It was also a clear signal that the Falcons, after pushing repeatedly to replicate their run to the 2017 Super Bowl, have decided on a longer-term rebuilding job on the heels of a dismal 4-12 season.

Atlanta fired coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff after losing their first five games in 2020, stumbling to the finish of a third straight losing season with an interim coach.

"This is a great opportunity to build a foundation, to build a culture," said linebacker Brandon Copeland, part of the Falcons' bargain-basement class in free agency. "We may be starting from the ground up, but we plan on starting fast."

Owner Arthur Blank has turned things over to a rookie head coach, former Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, and long-time New Orleans Saints executive Terry Fontenot, the first Black general manager in Falcons history.

Fontenot had to make plenty of tough decisions to get under the reduced salary cap, cutting ties with productive veterans such as safety Ricardo Allen and center Alex Mack.

But the trade of Jones was the most stunning blow of all, depriving the Falcons of a seven-time Pro Bowler who has the most catches in franchise history (848) and shared the lead role with quarterback Matt Ryan.

The deal was generally panned by Atlanta fans who found it difficult to fathom that the best Fontenot could get for Jones was a second-round pick.

But the 32-year-old commands a huge salary and was coming off an injury-filled season in which he played only nine games. With the Falcons needing cap relief and their star receiver making it clear he was ready to move on, Fontenot wasn't in much of a position to haggle.

Smith spent training camp and the preseason working extensively with younger, lesser-known players who may not make much of an impact this season.

Ryan didn't play at all in the three preseason games, and most of the starters saw little action.

"We've got a lot of young guys that we wanted to look at and need these game reps that we may not be relying on early, but chances and odds are we need them to play at some point for us this season, and especially next year," Smith said.

Yep, the Falcons are in full rebuilding mode.

Here are some other things to watch for heading into this new era.

With Jones now in Tennessee, Calvin Ridley steps into the unquestioned role as the Falcons' top receiver.

He seems up to the challenge.

Ridley is coming off the best season of his three-year career, hauling in 90 receptions for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns.

Also keep an eye on Russell Gage, who filled in ably while Jones was injured last season and finished with a career-best 72 receptions.

Beyond that, the Falcons passed on some more obvious needs to draft Florida tight end Kyle Pitts with the No. 4 overall pick.

Fontenot said he couldn't pass on a dynamic talent such as Pitts, who is built like a tight end (6-6, 245 pounds) but has the speed and skills of an outside receiver.

"He checks all the boxes," the new GM said.

Smith is counting on the rookie to create all sorts of matchup problems.

"This team is gonna rise," Pitts said. "People may think we're a work in progress. But I think we've got the start to be a very good team during the year."

The Falcons are eager to find a running back who can provide more balance to the offense.

Todd Gurley didn't pan out during his one year in Atlanta, so the team turned to former Carolina back Mike Davis.

He did a solid job filling in for the injured Christian McCaffrey (642 yards rushing, 59 receptions), but it's a bit of a red flag that this is Davis' fifth team in seven seasons.

Behind him, a late roster change is worth noting: The Falcons brought Wayne Gallman Jr. from the outside, signing him to the 53-man roster last Thursday, at the expense of someone who has been around a little while. Qadree Ollison was waived in a corresponding move as the Falcons try to fortify their depth behind Davis and do-it-all runner Cordarrelle Patterson.

Gallman played for the New York Giants the past four seasons, with his best season coming in 2020. He had 147 carries for 682 yards and six touchdowns, good enough for a 4.6-yard average.

Ollison was never able to find a good rhythm this preseason, slowed some by an undisclosed injury in the middle of camp. He still made the 53-man roster over Caleb Huntley and D'Onta Foreman, who were waived and signed to the practice squad, where they remain.

Gallman will have had a week-plus to learn the offense and prepare for carries in the regular-season opener against Philadelphia. Davis will take most of the carries, but there's an opportunity to earn a role in the Falcons backfield -- although expect to see Cordarrelle Patterson -- listed as the RB2 on the initial depth chart released by the team.

As NBCSportsEdge.com notes, Patterson most recently had 81 rushing attempts in two seasons with Chicago and 42 rushes in 2018 with the Patriots. Atlanta Journal-Constitution beat writer D. Orlando Ledbetter, during multiple appearances with the FootballDiehards on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio, has advised listeners that Patterson will have a role in this offense. ...

Worth noting: The Falcons have major issues on both sides of the line.

On offense, the guys up front have struggled to keep Ryan on his feet, allowing an average of more than 44 sacks a game the past three seasons. The team needs big improvement from youngsters Chris Lindstrom, Kaleb McGary and Matt Hennessy. On defense, the Falcons have struggled to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, managing just 29 sacks last season. Dante Fowler (three sacks) was a huge disappointment in his Atlanta debut.

That said, there are real questions about depth at so many places on the roster.

According to ESPN.com's Michael Rothstein, if they stay largely healthy, 10 wins is a possibility with the top-end talent the Falcons have, especially on offense.

But if injuries start piling up, particularly in the defensive front seven, it could get really difficult really fast for Atlanta in Smith's first season. Dean Pees can be a difference-maker as a defensive coordinator in a lot of ways, but if the Falcons start running into depleted defensive options, even his genius won't be enough to help. ...

In a related note. ... Ryan has been one of the NFL's most durable quarterbacks, missing only three games in his 13-year career. The Falcons are hopeful he can maintain that trend, even at age 36, because there are all sorts of issues behind him on the depth chart.

Matt Schaub retired and expected backup AJ McCarron went down with a season-ending knee injury in the second exhibition game.

Days before the final preseason game, the Falcons hastily brought in former Arizona first-round pick Josh Rosen, who's already on his fifth team in four years. The only other QB on the roster was undrafted rookie Feleipe Franks. Keeping Ryan healthy must be a priority.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Matt Ryan, Josh Rosen, Feleipe Franks
RBs: Mike Davis, Cordarrelle Patterson, Wayne Gallman
WRs: Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage, Christian Blake, Olamide Zaccheaus, Frank Darby, Chris Rowland
TEs: Kyle Pitts, Hayden Hurst, Jaeden Graham

Baltimore Ravens

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

As Associated Press sports writer Noah Trister notes, in 2 1/2 seasons as a starter, Lamar Jackson has been an offensive threat unlike any in the NFL.

He won an MVP and eventually a playoff game, blending efficient passing with a running ability rarely seen in a quarterback.

About all that's left for the Ravens is to take the next step and make it to the Super Bowl. In the AFC, that won't be easy.

"This team is just set up perfectly to make a run," defensive end Calais Campbell said. "Now, obviously, it's hard to do, and every team wants it. There are other teams out there that've got just as much talent and great players, as well, so it's going to be a battle, but there's no excuse."

The Ravens are 30-7 in the regular season with Jackson as the starter, so another playoff appearance this season feels like more of a bare minimum than a goal.

Whether Baltimore can finally catch Kansas City as the class of the conference remains to be seen. The Ravens also have to contend with the likes of Pittsburgh, which beat out Baltimore for the division last season, and Buffalo, which knocked Jackson and Co. out of the playoffs.

The Ravens (11-5) are one of eight AFC teams that won at least 10 games last season, so while they feel tantalizingly close to a championship in some respects, they can't afford to slip at all.

Baltimore ranked first in the NFL in rushing last season and last in passing, underscoring the fact that with Jackson's unique skill set, the Ravens do things a bit differently. He's rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons, and even in a league that values pocket passing, it's hard to argue with Jackson's winning percentage.

When he does throw, Jackson has completed 64 percent of his passes for his career, with 68 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. Still, there's room for improvement.

"Michael Jordan could drive, and then he learned a jump shot. So that's how we've approached it," quarterbacks coach James Urban said. "Michael Jordan didn't stop driving the lane. He just learned how to shoot better and more consistently. So we're just learning how to, more consistently, throw the ball -- and more accurately."

The Ravens tried to surround Jackson with better receiving talent, adding Sammy Watkins in the offseason and drafting Rashod Bateman in the first round. Bateman has dealt with groin problems during the preseason, but if healthy, this could be an improved receiving group for Jackson to work with.

According to John Eisenberg of the team's official website, the best guess for the Week 1 lineup at receiver is Watkins and Marquise Brown (both coming off hamstring issues that limited them in August) starting out wide, with Devin Duvernay and James Proche II splitting time in the slot.

It might not be what the Ravens envisioned but there's still plenty of talent and potential playmaking.

Another issue?

That top-ranked running game took a hit when J.K. Dobbins went down in the final preseason game with a season-ending knee injury. Gus Edwards returns after running for 723 yards last season.

"I have full confidence in the rest of the running backs that are here to pick up the load and to do a great job for us," head coach John Harbaugh said.

Edwards is projected to gain 1,041 yards and score eight touchdowns this season, according to ESPN analyst Mike Clay. But ESPN.com's Baltimore beat writer Jamison Hensley contends Edwards could reach over 1,200 yards rushing, given that featured running backs have averaged 72 yards rushing per game when playing alongside Jackson, who draws a lot of attention from defenses as a runner himself.

Hensley added that Edwards possibly could surpass all expectations because of Baltimore's schedule. The Ravens play 12 games against run defenses that ranked in the bottom half of the NFL.

That said, Hensley conceded the Ravens won't be as dynamic in the backfield without Dobbins.

Last season, he became the first player since Adrian Peterson in 2012 to total 800 yards, nine rushing touchdowns and a 6.0-yard average.

The numbers, however, surprisingly suggest the Ravens won't lose much in explosiveness and red zone efficiency. On big runs, Dobbins broke a 15-yard gain once every 11.1 carries last season. Edwards averaged one every 14 runs in 2020. Inside the 20-yard line, Dobbins recorded eight touchdowns on 25 carries. Edwards scored six touchdowns on 25 attempts.

The biggest drop-off from Dobbins to Edwards is in the passing game. Dobbins focused on becoming a better pass-catcher this year, and he made one-handed receptions and leaping catches in the end zone all offseason. Edwards has 18 catches in three seasons.

But on the ground, since 2018, Edwards has the league's 11th-most rushing yards (1,227) between the tackles. The most impressive stat: Edwards' average speed in 2020 when crossing the line inside is 9.83 miles per hour, according to Next Gen Stats. Only one player was faster when reaching the line -- Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (10.9 mph).

Edwards is a no-nonsense, punishing downhill runner who found his niche as offensive coordinator Greg Roman's "closer" to finish off games. Now, he will be lining up next to Jackson to open games.

"He's our kind of guy," Roman said. "He's really built for what we do. He's going to get more of a workload now. Not to say it won't still be a committee, but Gus is definitely going to get a lot of work, and we feel great about that."

Meanwhile, Hensley notes that Edwards' backup is Ty'Son Williams, a second-year player out of BYU who leapfrogged Justice Hill on the depth chart. Williams impressed the Ravens with his physicality.

On a less-positive note. ... Hill suffered a torn Achilles during a recent practice, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported, ending his season before it began.

With both Dobbins and Hill done for the year, the Ravens are in need of a running back or two with the regular season just days away.

To address this need, Baltimore signed veteran free agent Le'Veon Bell to their practice squad. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Bell is likely to be added to the 53-man roster when ready.

Bell began last season with the Jets, the team that handed him a four-year, $52.5 million deal in 2019, but was released by New York in mid-October. He landed with the Chiefs, appearing in nine games and rushing for 254 yards and two touchdowns on just 63 attempts before seeing his role evaporate during the postseason. In Kansas City's AFC Championship Game win over Buffalo, Bell was inactive, and though he dressed for the Chiefs' 31-9 loss in Super Bowl LV, he did not play.

Bell took some time to trash the Chiefs this offseason while still without a team, a stretch of unemployment that has lasted into this week. At 29 years old, a pairing with the run-heavy Ravens might help rejuvenate his career, provided he can rediscover his explosive style.

The Ravens also announced the signing of Trenton Cannon. He takes the roster spot of Hill. Expect Cannon to work primarily on special teams if he's active this week.

Whatever the case, Baltimore has been nearly unstoppable when it gets the ground game rolling, and it is 16-2 (.889) over the past two seasons when gaining over 180 rushing yards. But when held under that mark, Baltimore is 9-5 (.642). Expect Edwards to be plenty busy.

Is the offensive line up for it?

The Ravens traded standout tackle Orlando Brown to the Chiefs, and they acquired offensive linemen Kevin Zeitler and Alejandro Villanueva. Tackle Ronnie Stanley has been working his way back from an ankle injury.


One last note here. ... The Ravens and Jackson still have not worked out a new deal. The Ravens and tight end Mark Andrews have.

Per multiple reports, the Ravens and Andrews agreed to terms on a four-year extension.

Andrews was due to make $3.384 million in 2021, the final year of his rookie deal. The four-year, $56 million extension makes it a five-year, $11.87 million deal.

A 2019 Pro Bowler, Andrews has 156 receptions for 2,105 yards and 20 touchdowns in three seasons with the Ravens. He has been one of Jackson's most reliable targets.

It remains to be seen whether the Ravens and Jackson work out a deal before Week 1. He's under contract for two more years, thanks to the fifth-year option that applies to first-round picks. If he'd been selected one spot later, he'd be entering the final season of his rookie contract.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Lamar Jackson, Trace McSorley, Tyler Huntley
RBs: Ty'Son Williams, Latavius Murray, Devonta Freeman, Gus Edwards
WRs: Marquise Brown, Sammy Watkins, Devin Duvernay, Tylan Wallace, Miles Boykin, James Proche, Rashod Bateman
TEs: Mark Andrews, Josh Oliver, Eric Tomlinson, Nick Boyle

Buffalo Bills

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills stormed to the top of the AFC East -- unfamiliar territory for anyone other than the New England Patriots -- and kept going last season.

Nearly all the way to the Super Bowl.

Now comes the encore, and the expectations remain just as lofty.

"If the team's not looking to win the Super Bowl," Allen said, "they're doing it wrong."

The Bills lost to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC championship game last season, falling just short of reaching the Super Bowl. And the first step in that journey was winning the AFC East, which had been locked down by New England for most of the last two decades.

Buffalo's division title was its first since the 1995 season -- a few months before Allen was born. It also snapped the Patriots' 11-season division winning streak, and ended a stretch during which Bill Belichick's bunch had won 17 of the last 18 division crowns.

"I think our guys understand, and we've stressed that all year and all offseason, is what we did last year was really good but it means nothing," general manager Brandon Beane said. "We're 0-0."

Just like every other team. But Buffalo has some history to conquer just to win the division again.

The last time a non-Belichick coached team won consecutive AFC East titles was when the Patriots did it under Bill Parcells (1996) and Pete Carroll ('97). And the last time a team other than the Patriots finished first in the AFC East in back-to-back seasons: the 1988-91 Bills.

"The ultimate goal is to make the playoffs and give yourself a chance for a world title," Allen said, "and that's what we've got to do."

For what it's worth, entering his fourth NFL season, the 25-year-old Allen is the dean of the AFC East starting quarterbacks. And he's getting paid like it, too, signing a six-year, $258 million contract last month.

Tua Tagovailoa, the No. 5 overall pick last year, will be under center for Miami. Meanwhile, Zach Wilson, the No. 2 pick this year, is the guy for the New York Jets. And with New England stunningly cutting Cam Newton, the starting gig goes to Mac Jones, who went 15th overall in April.

They'll all be aiming for Allen and the Bills. But the Bills will present serious challenges to the entire league.

The offense returns 10 starters from last year, when the unit set numerous single-season passing and scoring records, with Stefon Diggs becoming Buffalo's first player to lead the NFL in yards receiving and catches. The only change is the addition of receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who fills the vacancy left by John Brown's departure.

The defense also returns 10 starters with the only "new" addition being defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who returns after opting out last year for COVID-19 concerns.

Lotulelei's hulking presence in the middle should shore up issues Buffalo had in stopping the run last year. Another difference is the commitment the Bills placed on upgrading their inconsistent pass rush by using their first two draft picks to select defensive ends Greg Rousseau and Carlos Basham, and signing Efe Obada in free agency.

Just as important, the Bills have continuity at the coaching ranks, with offensive coordinator Brian Daboll entering his fourth season and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier back for a fifth.

One step at time, said head coach Sean McDermott.

"If getting noticed was the goal, then maybe we accomplished that. But if winning and the goals that we had set up was it, we know we didn't accomplish that last year," McDermott said. "This is a new season."

The Bills are counting on having fewer COVID-19 practice restrictions and a three-game preseason schedule to get their pedestrian running attack better prepared for this year. Buffalo finished 20th in the NFL with 1,723 yards rushing -- the team's fewest since 2014 -- behind the tandem of Devin Singletary and Zack Moss.

For what it's worth, ESPN's Matthew Berry predicts that Moss will be a touchdown monster in this high-powered offense. Last year as a rookie, he led the team in both red zone and goal-to-go carries. And he has earned an even larger share of the load, getting more than 13 touches in three of his final four games. That said, Singletary has been drawing rave reviews all summer.

We might not get a great read on the backfield until the season progresses. ...

Beyond this week's opener against a strong Steelers defense, the Bills face a familiar tough stretch in their schedule come October, when they travel to face Kansas City and Tennessee on consecutive weeks. Last year, Buffalo dropped to 4-2 after losing back-to-back outings at Tennessee and at home to Kansas City in mid-October.

Buffalo also faces a familiar foe in Tom Brady, when the team travels to play the defending Super Bowl champions at Tampa Bay on Dec. 12. Brady set an NFL record for most wins against a single opponent during his 20 seasons with New England by going 32-3 against Buffalo. ...

Other notes of interest. ... The debate over player vaccination was an offseason-long topic in Buffalo, with receiver Cole Beasley threatening to retire in June because of restrictive league protocols. He didn't retire, but concerns over Beasley's availability were raised last month when he was one of four players forced into five days of self-isolation for having close contact with a vaccinated team trainer who tested positive for COVID-19.

Beasley and fellow receiver Isaiah McKenzie were also fined by the NFL for not wearing masks inside the team facility. McKenzie has since announced he has received his first or two vaccination shots.

All that said, Beane expects the Bills to have all players available for the season opener against Pittsburgh on Sept. 12. Diggs did not appear in a preseason game and missed two weeks with a knee injury.

The initial injury report lent further credence to that notion. Sanders (foot) was limited in Wednesday's session while McKenzie (shoulder) fully participated.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Josh Allen, Mitchell Trubisky
RBs: Devin Singletary, Zack Moss, Matt Breida, Taiwan Jones
WRs: Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, Gabriel Davis, Isaiah McKenzie, Emmanuel Sanders, Jake Kumerow
TEs: Dawson Knox, Tommy Sweeney

Carolina Panthers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

According to Associated Press sports writer Steve Reed, Matt Rhule was sitting in his office earlier this offseason watching game film of an opposing player when his focus suddenly shifted to New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold.

The coach eventually emerged from his office at Bank of America Stadium and walked down the hall to see general manager Scott Fitterer and asked, "You think Sam would ever be available?"

A few phone calls later, and Rhule had his guy.

The Panthers traded second-, fourth- and sixth-round picks to the Jets for Darnold, who fizzled out in New York after going 13-25 in three seasons as a starter. Yes, he's a bit of a reclamation project, but the Panthers feel he can thrive in the right environment with the right coaches and playmakers around him -- and help solve their quarterback woes following a 5-11 season.

"I think Sam can really benefit from a reset," Fitterer said.

There's no doubt Darnold has more weapons with which to work in Carolina.

Running back Christian McCaffrey is back after missing 13 games with injuries last season, wide receivers D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson are coming off 1,000-yard campaigns, and rookie wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. and free agent tight end Dan Arnold have also been added to the mix.

Darnold has been up and down during training camp, but looked good in his most extensive preseason action last week throwing for 162 yards and two touchdowns against the Pittsburgh Steelers' second-team defense.

"We like his athleticism, his size and especially the arm strength -- the ability to throw the deep ball. We like that," Fitterer said. "And everything, like the person that he is, the toughness and the work ethic -- all of those things really stood out to us."

Darnold's first hurdle will be facing the Jets, Carolina's opponent in the regular season opener.

"The biggest thing for him is having poise, and he has that," McCaffrey said.

One could also argue having McCaffrey might be the biggest thing.

The fifth-year running back became only the third player in NFL history to amass 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in a single season en route to earning All-Pro honors in 2019. He played well last year, too, but injuries limited him to 259 total yards and five TDs in three games.

Now McCaffrey is back and eager to get going after sitting out the preseason as a precautionary measure.

"It teaches you a lot and you learn about yourself when you are forced to go through adversity -- you either fold or keep going," McCaffrey said. "It was tough at first and I have such a big appreciation for this game. I will never take that for granted."

The Panthers signed Taylor Moton to a $72 million deal to shore up the right tackle spot, but the offensive line still looks like the biggest area of concern. Carolina repeatedly allowed blitzing linebackers and rushers to run free and pressure the quarterback.

Given that Darnold has been sacked 98 times in his first three seasons that is the last thing the Panthers need to thwart their QB's confidence.

Going up against the Jets offers Darnold a revenge game in his Panthers debut. A strong start would obviously be great.

As ESPN.com's David Newton suggests, if Darnold plays well, there's enough talent around him for this team to finish better than .500. But if the team's new plan at the most important position doesn't work out, a third straight losing season is in the cards.

Carolina finished 22nd in Total QBR last season and was 32nd in 2019; both were five-win campaigns. Simply put, QB play needs to be much better for success this season. ...

Beyond that, Reed advises us to keep an eye on Marshall, the team's second-round draft pick out of LSU, who could wind up being a huge beneficiary of playing alongside starting receivers Moore and Anderson where he should receive plenty of single coverage.

The rookie led all NFL wide receivers in the preseason with 181 yards on nine receptions while showing big-play potential.

It's no surprise Marshall has emerged on the scene so quickly given his familiarity with Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady, whom he worked under at LSU. Marshall had 23 touchdowns in his final two seasons with the Tigers and Brady knows how to use his skillset.

Other notes of interest. ... The Panthers announced last Thursday that they claimed Royce Freeman off waivers. The Broncos let Freeman go last Wednesday.

Freeman appeared in all 16 games last year, but rushed only 35 times for 170 yards. Back in 2018, Freeman rushed for 521 yards with five touchdowns. He accounted for 752 yards from scrimmage and four total TDs in 2019. The Panthers will likely have limited snaps available behind McCaffrey. The team also has fourth-round pick Chuba Hubbard for depth at the position and he should be viewed as the primary insurance policy behind the starters. ...

The Panthers are going with untested kicker Ryan Santoso after his strong debut in last week's preseason finale. About 24 hours after being acquired via trade with the New York Giants, Santoso made two field goals, including one from 52 yards, and three extra points to beat out the slump-stricken Joey Slye for the job.

Still, there is uncertainty with Santoso given that he's never actually kicked in a regular season game. And his 52-yarder was a little shaky, too, hitting off the right upright before bouncing through. ...

Defensive end Brian Burns appears on the verge of a breakout season after posting 16 1/2 sacks over his first two seasons. With the Panthers adding edge rusher Haason Reddick (12 sacks last year for Arizona) on the other side and the expected development of last year's rookie first-round draft pick Derrick Brown on the inside, Burns should see fewer double teams than he did in his previous two seasons. ...

And finally. ... The Panthers may be without one of their starting offensive lineman in Sunday's season opener against the Jets. Carolina has placed starting right guard John Miller on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Monday, the team announced.

It's currently unclear whether Miller has tested positive or is a close contact of someone who has. If Miller is vaccinated and tested positive, then he'll be able to return to the team after two negative tests separated by 24 hours. If he is unvaccinated and tested positive, he's out for a minimum of 10 days -- which would make him unavailable for Week 1.

According to multiple reporters, Dennis Daley is likely to replace Miller if he is unable to start against New York.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Sam Darnold, Phillip Walker
RBs: Christian McCaffrey, Chuba Hubbard, Royce Freeman
WRs: D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson, Terrace Marshall Jr., Brandon Zylstra, Shi Smith
TEs: Dan Arnold, Ian Thomas, Colin Thompson, Tommy Tremble

Chicago Bears

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

As Associated Press sports writer Andrew Seligman notes, the Chicago Bears are counting on Justin Fields to develop into the franchise quarterback Mitchell Trubisky never became.

It's just not clear when his opportunity will come.

The Bears plan to go with veteran Andy Dalton as the starter to open the season, hoping he can give them the steady play they lacked in recent seasons and allow their latest prized rookie to watch and learn.

"If Andy controls Andy and we have success on offense and we play well and we're winning, that's a good thing," head coach Matt Nagy said. "I think we'd all understand that's a good thing while this kid develops and continues to grow and learn and watch tape. But at the same point in time, Justin needs to do everything he can from Week 1 in the video, in the meetings, at practice, always being prepared.

"Because you're one play away."

The Bears excited their fans when they traded up nine spots with the New York Giants to draft Fields with the No. 11 pick. It was another big swing to land the franchise quarterback Chicago has lacked for decades.

Fields comes with a far more extensive resume than Trubisky, the No. 2 overall pick in 2017. He was a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2019 and the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year each of his two seasons at Ohio State after transferring from Georgia.

In the preseason, Fields looked like he was ready. He showed his ability to squeeze passes into tight windows and extend plays with his mobility.

But Dalton will be the one staring at Aaron Donald when Chicago visits the Los Angeles Rams on Sept. 12. The longtime Cincinnati Bengals quarterback signed a one-year, $10 million contract after spending last season in Dallas. If the Bears struggle early, the calls for Fields figure to grow louder.

"Just have to take advantage of every practice rep I get," Fields said. "I can't be defeated by, 'There's no more preseason games.' Just every rep in practice, and every play I get, I've got to treat it like a game and get better on that play."

Whatever the case, Nagy's offense needs to make major strides behind Dalton and/or Fields. Maintaining the status quo on offense is unacceptable, and Nagy knows that. As ESPN.com's Jeff Dickerson stressed, the Bears spent their entire offseason focused on that area and need to see a return on their investment.

Another sluggish year on offense, won't be acceptable.

Chairman George McCaskey opted to stick with general manager Ryan Pace and Nagy after last season, citing the team's culture.

But if the team struggles again?

The Bears did make the playoffs for the second time in three years last year. But they got there as the seventh seed in an expanded field. They then bowed out with a convincing wild-card loss at New Orleans after going 8-8 in the regular season for the second year in a row. ...

A big concern for the Bears is the offensive line.

Chicago signed 39-year-old Jason Peters in mid-August, hoping the two-time All-Pro can solidify the left tackle spot with second-round draft pick Teven Jenkins missing the start of the season following back surgery. Right guard James Daniels (quad) and right tackle Germain Ifedi (hip flexor) are coming off injuries.

On the other hand, the blocking improved after Chicago shuffled the line late last season. The Bears moved Cody Whitehair from center to left guard and inserted Sam Mustipher at center.

Beyond that, star receiver Allen Robinson hoped to sign a multiyear deal. Instead, he'll play under the $17.9 million franchise tag.

Chicago's most reliable playmaker, Robinson is coming off one of his best seasons as a pro. He caught a career-high 102 passes, and his 1,250 yards were second only to the 1,400 he had in his 2015 Pro Bowl season with Jacksonville.

Running back David Montgomery enters his third year looking to build on a strong finish last season, when he ran for 1,070 yards and eight touchdowns. He came on strong down the stretch, with 598 yards and seven TDs in the final six regular-season games.

It's worth noting ESPN's Matthew Berry has concerns -- not the least of which was the fact Chicago's late-season schedule was super favorable for the RB (six of Montgomery’s seven 20-plus-point games last season came against defenses that finished in the bottom six in fantasy points allowed to RBs).

"First," Berry wrote, "the difficulty of any schedule is hard to predict until you get into the season, so that's up in the air, but we can safely assume it's unlikely the Bears get that cushy of a schedule again. And the addition of Damien Williams should certainly cut into his workload, including in the passing game. Williams can play (He got robbed of being the Super Bowl LIV MVP). So I believe Montgomery's workload goes down and it will decrease even further if/when Tarik Cohen ever comes back. (In 2019, Montgomery averaged 2.3 targets per game. In 2020, post-Cohen injury, he averaged 4.9 targets per game.) And assuming Fields takes over, he is a mobile quarterback and a threat to run himself. Does Fields vulture a few gimme touchdowns this season from Monty when they are in close?"

Fair points all.

But fantasy managers who expended fourth-round(ish) draft capital to land Montgomery as the RB2 aren't likely to sit him based on this. Nor should they. ...

As for Cohen? The Bears placed the receiving back on the reserve/PUP list, so he's out for the first six games of the season.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Justin Fields, Nick Foles, Andy Dalton
RBs: David Montgomery, Damien Williams, Khalil Herbert, Tarik Cohen
WRs: Allen Robinson, Darnell Mooney, Damiere Byrd, Marquise Goodwin, Breshad Perriman
TEs: Cole Kmet, Jimmy Graham, Jesse James, J.P. Holtz, Jesper Horsted

Cincinnati Bengals

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

Plagued by injuries to key players -- including franchise quarterback Joe Burrow -- on top of all the pandemic-related disruption, last season was a special kind of mess for the Cincinnati Bengals.

According to Associated Press sports writer Mitch Stacy, there is plenty of reason to believe this season will be better than that 4-11-1 result for the moribund Bengals. But with preseason games behind them, questions linger.

Burrow, who had reconstructive knee surgery, is healed but had a bumpy training camp early as Cincinnati's offense struggled for rhythm. He was held out of the first two preseason games, and played just one series in the final one. He hasn't been hit hard yet.

Coach Zac Taylor said just seeing Burrow trot onto the field lifted everyone's spirits.

"There was a lot of unknown there last November (when Burrow was hurt)," Taylor said. "I think to see him back in the huddle and get things back to normal is great for all of us."

No. 1 running back Joe Mixon is healthy again, too, after missing the last 10 games with a foot injury. But he also saw little playing time in the preseason.

The Bengals have high hopes for receiver Ja'Marr Chase, the fifth overall draft pick in the spring who was a teammate of Burrow's on the 2019 LSU national championship team. But Chase, who sat out the 2020 season, keeps dropping passes. He dropped three in a row in a preseason loss to Washington and then couldn't keep the handle on Burrow's only pass in Sunday's game, a loss to the Dolphins.

"I know what kind of guy Ja'Marr is and what kind of player he is. He will be ready to go Week 1," Burrow promised.

Chase is expected to start alongside veteran receiver Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, who had a great rookie year in 2020 despite the team's struggles.

But what about the offensive line?

The offensive line, a conspicuous weakness for Cincinnati in recent years -- Burrow was sacked 32 times and faced pressure on 146 of his 453 drop backs, should be better than last season's spare parts crew.

Center Trey Hopkins and left tackle Jonah Williams are healthy again, and free-agent pickup Riley Reiff is expected to solidify the right tackle spot. Draft picks Jackson Carman and D'Ante Smith are battling some veterans for playing time at guard.

"Our offensive line is going to surprise people," Bengals owner Mike Brown said.

Again, as ESPN.com's Ben Baby put it: "Cincinnati's hopes -- and perhaps the fate of head coach Zac Taylor -- will hinge on the passing offense."

The 38-year-old Taylor is 6-25-1 in two seasons as the Bengals head coach. Ownership was quick to express support for him after last season, but Taylor needs to win more in 2021. This year's team is considered his, with few players are left from the Marvin Lewis era.

"He's got this opportunity. It's critical to him and us both," Brown said. "I really feel good about our chances. But I'm fully aware that you have to go out on the field and prove it. You can't just talk about it."

On the injury front. ... Taylor announced on Monday that cornerback Trae Waynes won’t be able to go in the season opener due to a nagging hamstring injury.

That this was announced before the first injury report of the season even goes out says it all. With Waynes down, the Bengals will ask newcomer Eli Apple to start alongside Mike Hilton and Chidobe Awuzie as they attempt to stop an elite name like Justin Jefferson.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Joe Burrow, Brandon Allen
RBs: Joe Mixon, Samaje Perine, Chris Evans
WRs: Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, Auden Tate, Stanley Morgan Jr., Mike Thomas
TEs: C.J. Uzomah, Drew Sample

Cleveland Browns

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

In just one season, head coach Kevin Stefanski transformed the Browns from overhyped underachievers into championship contenders.

The next step will be tougher.

As Associated Press sports writer Tom Withers reminded readers, passed over during Cleveland's search in 2019, Stefanski gave the Browns a second chance to hire him and, well, the rest is history.

Working in harmony with general manager Andrew Berry, who returned to the organization in 2020, Stefanski guided a team with several of the league's rising stars through an unprecedented season of obstacles and to the Browns' first playoff win since 1989.

He has brought the Browns sanity and stability, two things in short supply in Cleveland for much of the past two decades.

Also along the way, the 39-year-old coach formed a strong bond with quarterback Baker Mayfield, who has grown into a leader while quieting the doubters who wondered about his long-term viability.

With a franchise QB, coach and front office, the Browns are legitimate at last, and the Super Bowl talk is warranted.

Cleveland's rise, however, has also spawned huge expectations for a team that collapsed under the weight of preseason hype two years ago.

But Mayfield, who took off following the bye week last season by throwing 14 TD passes and just two interceptions in his last 10 games, believes those tough lessons of the past will serve the Browns well when adversity arises in 2021.

"Because we've been punched in the mouth quite a bit, I think our guys will know how to handle that," he said. "It has to be reiterated every time, we still have to go out there and play with complete confidence and know it's just not going to happen. It's a tricky line to walk."

Mayfield has a plethora of playmakers, led by running back Nick Chubb (1,067 yards and 12 TDs in 12 games in 2020) and his backup/sidekick Kareem Hunt (841 yards, 6 TDs).

The Chubb-Hunt 1-2 punch is unlike any in the league and it serves as Stefanski's bread and butter to set up play-action passes for Mayfield.

Cleveland's defense has undergone a front-to-back remodeling with the additions of edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney to work opposite All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett, veteran linebacker Anthony Walker Jr., safety John Johnson III and rookie cornerback Greg Newsome II solidifying some troublesome areas.

The Browns showed they belonged among the AFC's elite last season by going on the road to beat Pittsburgh in the wild-card round -- ending a 17-game losing streak at Heinz Field -- before losing 22-17 to two-time defending conference champion Kansas City in a game Cleveland let slip away.

This time, they intend to finish the job.

"We're a very unsatisfied team," said tight end Austin Hooper.

According to ESPN.com's Jake Trotter, the biggest variable heading into this season is whether the Mayfield-Odell Beckham Jr. connection finally comes together. The Browns showed last year they can win without OBJ -- but to become a legit Super Bowl contender, Trotter believes they need a playmaker of Beckham's talent.

The good news? Beckham returned quicker than expected from a season-ending knee injury, and will likely be on the field in Week 1 against the Chiefs.

It's undeniable that he gives Stefanski -- and Mayfield -- a weapon capable of stretching any defense. What remains to be seen is whether he can handle a supporting role on a team loaded with playmakers.

The Browns will start 2021 in the same place 2020 ended: Arrowhead Stadium. The league's schedule makers matched up the Browns and Chiefs in Week 1.

"Hell, yeah," Browns wide receiver Rashard Higgins said when asked if that was a good thing.

It was Higgins' costly fumble at the goal line that proved to be pivotal in Kansas City's comeback win.

The Browns want payback. ... We'll see if they can get it. ...

Other notes of interest. ... As ESPN's Matthew Berry recently reminded readers, it wasn't that long ago Hooper was a No. 1 tight end in fantasy. He didn't finish 2020 although in his seven games last season with at least five targets, Hooper averaged 12.1 points. So he shouldn't be totally overlooked.

That said, NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal pointed out that recent reports cite David Njoku as the best tight end in Browns camp. ...

Chase McLaughlin isn't in danger of being kicked to the curb by the Browns ahead of Sunday's regular-season opener.

After Monday's practice, Stefanski said McLaughlin will serve as the team's kicker against the Chiefs.

It's the first time Stefanski has publicly committed to McLaughlin kicking in a real game for the Browns.

The Browns signed undrafted rookie kicker Chris Naggar to their practice squad Thursday, so they could have staged a kicking battle this week in practice to decide whether McLaughlin or Naggar would face the Chiefs.

But McLaughlin has already received the nod for Week 1.

"Yeah, we go into game one with Chase for sure," Stefanski said. "I mean, it's a competition at every position throughout the season, but the plan was always to have two kickers."

And finally. ... One of Garrett’s personal goals is NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He was on track to maybe winning the award last season when he contracted COVID-19.

The virus flattened the 6-foot-4, 275-pound specimen, who required breathing treatments over the final weeks. After getting 9 1/2 sacks in his first nine games, Garrett only recorded 2 1/2 over his last seven.

As long as he stays healthy, Clowney should help Garrett. Clowney can play opposite Garrett or slide inside and next to him, creating a pick-your-poison matchup issue for offenses to scheme against.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Baker Mayfield, Case Keenum
RBs: Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, Demetric Felton, D'Ernest Johnson
WRs: Odell Beckham, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Anthony Schwartz, Rashard Higgins, Jarvis Landry
TEs: Austin Hooper, David Njoku, Harrison Bryant

Dallas Cowboys

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

As ESPN.com's Todd Archer noted, "Dak Prescott has had five full practices since July 27 and no preseason work after missing the final 11 games of the 2020 season, but the Dallas Cowboys quarterback says he is ready for [Thursday's] season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. ..."

"I'm definitely ready. I'm excited," he said after last Friday's practice in full pads. "I put in a lot of work to get to this point. Whether it was months ago, rehabbing the ankle, to the last few [weeks] keeping the feet working while I was letting my arm rest. There is so much work I put into this I'm just excited to go out there and be a part of the full game. Just being out there with my brothers and being able to do something I love."

Prescott's latissimus strain in his right shoulder, which took him out of 10 practices in Oxnard, California, and back at The Star in Frisco, Texas, is feeling 100 percent. There are no limits in what he does in practice or what the game plan will look like against the Buccaneers. His surgically repaired right ankle, which he hurt last October, has not been an issue since he returned to practice during organized team activities in the spring.

"I think we went about this process the right way that part of it was protecting me from myself," Prescott said. "I mean, the moment I got into any team reps, I wasn't dialing anything down. I wasn't trying to throw a certain amount of percentage. I think that's just the way I play the game, I just went out there and playing within the moment, ripping passes, not thinking about it, just making the plays I needed to make. Then after two days like that realizing there wasn't any residual effect and I wasn't sore. I've been sticking to the plan and it's all worked out. Yeah, from the shoulder to the leg to my mind, I'm ready to go."

There is something of a catch-up the Cowboys are trying to do in these practices. Prescott said he worked out with some players during the mandatory three-day break following the final preseason game, and if they need any extra work over the next week they will do it.

Before Aug. 25, he had not thrown a pass to Amari Cooper, who was recovering from offseason ankle surgery, in training camp. CeeDee Lamb returned to practice this week from a stint on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

"You've got to give him credit for the process that he worked himself through," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "It isn't like he just stood in the back and didn't do anything while he wasn't throwing. He's staying on top of the footwork. His conditioning couldn't be better. All the extra work that all these guys put into it, Dak took advantage of that time."

The Cowboys have three more full practices, one in pads, before flying to Tampa, Florida, Wednesday, and Prescott will play in his first game in 340 days.

There are concerns.

The Cowboys are preparing to take on Buccaneers without star guard Zack Martin. The team announced Sunday the All-Pro guard tested positive for COVID-19 and won't play in Thursday's season opener.

To underscore Martin's importance to the Cowboys' offense, Ezekiel Elliott named the lineman the team's most vital player.

"Zack's our best player on our offense. I mean most runs, they coming back behind him," Elliott said. "It's disappointing but you can't harp on it, can't let it be more than what it is. I mean, definitely going to miss him, definitely wish he was out there, but we still have a game to go play and we got to try and get the job done."

Given return-to-play protocols, the Cowboys aren't expecting Martin to play Thursday night. A fully vaccinated player -- which Martin reportedly is -- can return if he does not have symptoms and receives two negative tests 24 hours apart. While theoretically possible Martin could be cleared in time, given symptoms were present, it's unlikely he'll make it back in time.

Third-year guard Connor McGovern is expected to start in Martin's spot for the season-opener.

McGovern also took a decent number of first-team reps at right and left guard in training camp for various reasons, like giving Martin periodic rest or moving left guard Connor Williams to center for a few snaps. That should help his preparation as well.

He'll need that all that going up against Tampa Bay, who has one of the league's best front sevens, featuring disruptive interior linemen Ndamukong Suh, Vita Vea and William Gholston. Suh, who was placed on Reserve/COVID-19 last week, was activated on Monday and is expected to play Thursday.

Last time we saw Tampa's D, they were making Patrick Mahomes run for his life in the Super Bowl. The Cowboys probably don't want Prescott to be in that mode in his first game back. ...

Beyond Martin, receiver Noah Brown was the only remaining Dallas player on the COVID-19 reserve list after being added this week. Brown was removed, however, on Wednesday and is ready to roll. The others activated in time for the return from the post-training camp break were Lamb, S Damontae Kazee and DT Carlos Watkins. ...

With Martin likely to miss the season opener after testing positive for COVID-19, there was some good news for the offensive line Monday. La'el Collins went through a full practice Monday, according to the team's practice report. He missed practice time recently while dealing with stingers.

"I thought he practiced well [Sunday]. I was pleased," McCarthy said. "I like the work that LC put on film."

Swing tackle Ty Nsekhe (foot) and defensive end Chauncey Golston (hamstring) were the only players limited Monday.

Prescott (right shoulder) and Collins were among the six players the Cowboys listed as full participants. Defensive end Tarell Basham (ankle), cornerback C.J. Goodwin (hamstring), defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence (back) and safety Donovan Wilson (groin) also had full practices.

On Tuesday, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told 105.3 The Fan that he believes Collins can play through his issue.

"I think we're going to have him for the game, and you're right, I would call this a typical stinger yeah, these guys do usually play with them," Jones said via Calvin Watkins of the Dallas Morning News.

We'll watch for more on the health front in advance of Thursday's game. Watch the Late-Breaking News section for more in advance of kickoff. ...

Other notes of interest. ... Associated Press sports writer Schuyler Dixon reminded readers last week that Lamb had some of the most spectacular catches of camp and could be on his way to surpassing Amari Cooper, who has a $100 million contract, and taking the No. 1 tag that usually ends up with any Dallas receiver wearing No. 88.

Cooper was brought along slowly in camp coming off ankle surgery, and Lamb, last year's first-round pick, ended the preseason on the COVID-19 list. But they should be ready to lead a potentially dynamic group that includes Michael Gallup.

"I think we can be tough, man," Cooper said. "You never know until the season really starts and things really start popping off because momentum plays a huge factor in it."

While the numbers say otherwise, Cooper believes he's the best receiver in the league -- although he offered a qualification to that.

"There's a difference between thinking you're the best and actually going out there and proving it," Cooper said. "Do I think I'm the best? Yes. Have I proven it? I wouldn't say I have."

Indeed, as NFL.com notes, nine NFL wide receivers had more receptions last season than Cooper's 92. Eleven had more yards than Cooper's 1,114, and dozens had more TD catches than Cooper's five. Then again, how many of them lost a quarterback like Prescott in the fifth game of the season? How many of them share the ball with a rusher like Elliott, who's led the NFL in carries in two of the last five years?

Being in the right situation at the right time can make a big difference where statistics are concerned, and that's where Cooper draws the confidence to make the claim.

"There are guys who have actually put up some great numbers. They've taken advantage of their opportunities and stuff like that," Cooper added. "I'm just still trying to take advantage of my opportunities and trying to put up those numbers to lead the league in yards, touchdowns, all across the board, really. Only after I've done that will I say I'm the best and that I've proven myself to be the best."

The good news: Prescott is back, which means Cooper not only has a top-notch passer to work with, but one whose mobility can extend plays and give Cooper additional time to separate. That still might not be enough to put up numbers with the likes of Stefon Diggs, Tyreek Hill or DK Metcalf -- after all, Elliott will still get plenty to eat from the backfield.

But Cooper, trimmer this season at 215 pounds, is clearly feeling good about himself entering 2021.

And setting the highest of goals. ...

And finally. ... The Cowboys converted $6.25 million of Prescott’s base salary into a signing bonus on Tuesday, creating $5 million in cap space.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Dak Prescott, Cooper Rush, Will Grier
RBs: Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard, Corey Clement
WRs: Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Cedrick Wilson, Noah Brown, Simi Fehoko, Michael Gallup
TEs: Blake Jarwin, Dalton Schultz

Denver Broncos

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

According to Associated Press sports writer Arnie Stapleton, first-year general manager George Paton brought both a fresh approach and a throwback doctrine to the Broncos in his first crack at roster building following a two-decade apprenticeship in scouting and personnel.

Paton refurbished Denver's defense, starting with the secondary, and beefed up the Broncos' backfield after succeeding franchise icon John Elway in January.

Paton acquired former Minnesota signal caller Teddy Bridgewater from Carolina for a sixth-round pick and selected North Carolina's running back Javonte Williams in the second round of the NFL draft.

In between those moves, he drafted Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II with the ninth overall pick just weeks after signing cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller in free agency.

The rookie class shined at training camp and in the preseason and Bridgewater bested Drew Lock in a quarterback clash to win the starting job. He'll be the 11th starting quarterback for Denver since Peyton Manning retired. No other NFL team has churned through that many passers in the last half-decade.

Bridgewater takes over an offense loaded with young talent.

The Broncos aim to establish their ground game with veteran Melvin Gordon II and Williams to open up the passing lanes for speedsters Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler, Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, and tight ends Noah Fant and Albert Okwuegbunam.

Paton also re-signed safeties Justin Simmons, who has the franchise tag, and Kareem Jackson, and drafted safeties Jamar Johnson and Caden Sterns.

And he fortified his front seven by drafting Ohio State linebacker teammates Jonathon Cooper and Baron Browning, who quickly won over star Von Miller.

Paton exercised the final year of Miller's contract. He returns for his 11th season after missing all of last year with a dislodged ankle tendon and will team with Pro Bowler Bradley Chubb for the first time since Sept. 29, 2019. In their 20 games together, the pass rush duo has combined for 29½ sacks, seven forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and an interception.

Miller sees a roster that's legitimately two-deep across the board for the first time since he led the 2015 version to the Super Bowl title.

"We have some of the same players we had last year, but our team looks totally different," Miller said. "The energy is totally different. I know I get carried away" with his annual preseason predictions, but "this year is going to be a great year for our guys."

Meanwhile, Stapleton advised readers that one fan of the drudging quarterback competition that dominated Denver's offseason was Jeudy because it helped him focus as he worked to cut down on the dropped passes that plagued him as a rookie. The former Alabama star and 15th overall pick in last year's NFL draft caught 52 passes for 856 yards and three touchdowns last season, well shy of expectations.

Regarded as the best route runner to come out of college in at least a decade, Jeudy proved his hands weren't quite as ready. He had two crucial drops in a season-opening loss to Tennessee and dropped a half-dozen passes in a 19-16 loss to the Chargers in Week 16.

Fangio declared afterward that he hoped that would be a "defining moment" in Jeudy's career, and the wideout responded with a season-high 140-yard game against the Raiders in Week 17 that included a 92-yard TD, the longest pass play in the league in 2020.

That focus continued in training camp and in the preseason.

Also worth noting. ... Sutton, who looked sharp in his first action since suffering a torn ACL in Denver's 2020 season opener. Sutton played 18 snaps in the team's exhibition closer, drew three targets and caught two of them. In an encouraging sign for the Broncos, he ran a deep out route for a 19-yard pickup to convert a third down, and cut off the left knee he injured for easy separation. Three plays later, he scored on an 8-yard TD catch from Bridgewater.

If the Sutton who dialed up 1,112 receiving yards in 2019 is back, it's a huge boost for Denver.

Bridgewater, with his quick reads and throws that are on time and on target if not jaw-dropping passes, proved the safer bet to start than the more athletic Lock, a daredevil who may have a higher ceiling but also a lower floor.

By the way, Bridgewater has four straight preseason games with at least one pass TD and no INTs dating back to Week 4 (preseason finale) of 2019. It's his longest streak of such games since at least 2016.

Bridgewater is Fangio's seventh starting quarterback. The only NFL head coach with more than that through their first 33 games was John McKay, whose expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost their first 26 games in 1976 and '77. The Bucs were 4-29 in their first 33 games under eight quarterbacks.

Fangio is 12-20 in his two seasons as Broncos head coach and that includes 0-7 in September. With a soft schedule in the first month -- Giants, Jaguars and Jets -- Fangio cannot afford another slow start, especially after his poor clock management cost him chances to win September games in each of his first two seasons.

Paton signed a six-year deal and Fangio and his staff are basically on notice to prove they belong beyond 2021.

As for the backfield rotation. ... Fangio was asked on Monday about the faith the coaching staff has in Williams.

"He's earned that trust," Fangio said of the rookie, "and we're not at all against playing him in any situation, in any time of the game."

Expect Williams to share the workload with Gordon.

And finally. ... On the injury front, during his Monday press conference, Fangio told reporters, "I think so," when asked if Fant and Bradley Chubb will be available in Week 1.

Fant has been sidelined by a leg injury and Chubb with an ankle injury. Per Aric DiLalla of the team's website, Fant participated in individual drills in Monday's session. Chubb worked on a side field during the portion of practice open to media.

The Broncos could certainly use both players healthy and available for the season opener. Chubb recorded 7.5 sacks, nine tackles for loss, and 19 QB hits in 14 games for Denver last year. Fant caught 62 passes for 673 yards with three touchdowns in 2020.

More on their status via Late-Breaking Update in coming days.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Teddy Bridgewater, Drew Lock
RBs: Javonte Williams, Melvin Gordon, Mike Boone
WRs: Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, K.J. Hamler, Diontae Spencer, Jerry Jeudy
TEs: Noah Fant, Albert Okwuegbunam, Andrew Beck, Eric Saubert

Detroit Lions

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

As Associated Press sports writer Larry Lage note, the Lions made a lot of changes in the offseason by bringing in a new general manager, coach and quarterback.

The franchise with one playoff victory since winning the NFL title in 1957 is coming off three straight double-digit loss seasons.

Detroit might be doomed with at least 10 losses again.

General manager Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell might be able to eventually turn the team around. It's just difficult for anyone outside the organization to envision that happening this season with quarterback Jared Goff and a defense that might not be better than last year's historically bad unit.

Goff, though, is refusing to buy into the belief that the lowly Lions are destined for failure.

"Internally, our expectations are win games and, first of all, win the division," Goff said.

If Detroit could pull off that stunning feat, it would be the franchise's first division title since the 1993 season.

Left tackle Taylor Decker, drafted 16th overall by Detroit in 2016, hopes the reshaped front office, coaching staff and roster make a difference.

"I'll welcome any change that'll help us win because we've lost a lot more than I've liked to around here," Decker said. "I want to see Detroit become a winner."

Campbell is getting his first chance to lead a team in the league at the start of a season. In 2015 in Miami, he was 5-7 as an interim coach with a team that was 1-3 when he was promoted.

Campbell knows there are people who doubt he can help Detroit become a winner and he hopes his players are fired up by those who believe they will fail on the field.

"If you are a true competitor, it gives you a kick in the rear," he said. "I like that and I know guys that we brought in here, they love it.

"We've got something to prove and we want to prove it."

Looking for positives here?

Detroit set itself up for jokes when it drafted another tight end in the first round two years ago, taking T.J. Hockenson with the No. 8 overall pick. No one is laughing at the decision now.

Hockenson earned Pro Bowl honors last season. He has gotten into even better physical condition this year, preparing him to be Goff's go-to target and to perhaps be considered among the league's best tight ends with Kansas City's Travis Kelce and Las Vegas' Darren Waller.

"He's a great player and I think he has all the ability to be one of those guys," Goff said.

That said, the Lions' best chance to compete in games, and possibly win some, will be to keep their defense off the field with a clock-eating running game.

D'Andre Swift, who had 878 yards of offense and 10 touchdowns as a rookie, and former Green Bay Packer Jamaal Williams give the team a solid pair of running backs.

Swift was almost certainly drafted over Williams in most fantasy drafts.

Should that have been the case?

According to ESPN's Matthew Berry, over the past two years, no running back has caught a higher percentage of his targets than Williams. From 2017 to '20, the Chargers, under head coach Anthony Lynn, had the third-highest RB target share in the NFL. From 2017 to '20, the Chargers, under Lynn, had the second-most RB receptions in the NFL.

Lynn is now the offensive coordinator for the Lions.

Berry went on to note that in his seven games last season with at least 10 touches, Williams averaged 13.1 points per game, which would have been RB25 on a points-per-game basis.

Last season for the Lions, Kerryon Johnson and Adrian Peterson combined for 231 touches. Neither is on the team this year.

There's certainly a path to workload for both Swift and Williams and the offensive line seems to be relatively strong led by Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow and Decker.

For the record, Swift is expected to be ready to play Week 1 versus San Francisco, Campbell told 97.1 The Ticket, per Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.

Swift has been dealing with a groin injury that kept him out of preseason action. Campbell previously said he was uncertain Swift would be ready to play in the season opener, so Tuesday's update is a positive for the Lions' top running back. ...

Meanwhile, Detroit's weakest position group appears to be its receivers.

The Lions let Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola walk in free agency. They missed in free agency on adding veterans to replace them, releasing Breshad Perriman and Geronimo Allison after both failed to be productive in the preseason.

Detroit desperately hopes receiver Tyrell Williams can stay healthy, second-year pro Quintez Cephus develops quickly and 27-year-old Kalif Raymond takes advantage of catching passes after returning kicks and punts for four NFL teams.

The Lions also hope they caught a flyer by acquiring Trinity Benson from Denver in a trade, adding a receiver that was on the Broncos' practice squad the last two years and was likely going to be released.

The good news?

Well. ... At least from a fantasy perspective, Detroit's horrible defense is a positive.

The Lions gave up 519 points -- 32.4 per game -- and 6,716 yards last season to break team records set by their 2008 winless team and to rank among the worst in NFL history. Holmes did not want to spend a lot of money in free agency to fills holes on defense, due to the team being in rebuilding mode, and passed on taking a defensive player in the first round.

So, as ESPN.com's Eric Woodyard suggests, the narrative of coaching influence and front-office changes can go only so far with this new-look Lions team. Players are going to have to produce. And with a defense that bad, the onus is going to be on Williams, Raymond, Cephus and rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown will have to make some big plays as Goff tries to revitalize his career.

None of that should be a given. But it's within the range of possible outcomes.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Jared Goff, David Blough
RBs: D'Andre Swift, Jamaal Williams, Jermar Jefferson
WRs: Quintez Cephus, Kalif Raymond, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Trinity Benson, KhaDarel Hodge, Tyrell Williams
TEs: T.J. Hockenson, Darren Fells

Green Bay Packers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

According to Associated Press sports writer Steve Megargee, there's no sense downplaying how important this season is for the Green Bay Packers.

"Look, I think we all know what's at stake," said quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the reigning league MVP.

Megargee went on to explain that Rodgers' uncertain future with the franchise puts more pressure on the Packers as they pursue their first Super Bowl berth since their 2010 championship season. The Packers have lost in the NFC championship game four of the last seven years, including each of the last two seasons.

After putting together his third MVP season, Rodgers skipped the Packers' organized team activities and mandatory minicamp as part of a standoff with team officials before arriving for training camp. Rodgers says he wants a voice in the team's decision-making process and has indicated he doesn't know whether he will return next year for an 18th season in Green Bay.

Rodgers isn't the only notable player who could be heading out the door. All-Pro receiver Davante Adams heads the list of Packers whose contracts are set to expire at the end of the season.

Green Bay is coming off a second straight 13-3 season. Rodgers leads a star-studded offense that produced a league-high 31.8 points per game last season. The defense features a premier pass rusher in Za'Darius Smith and one of the game's top cornerbacks in Jaire Alexander.

The Packers can worry about the future later. For now, they're eager to make the most of the opportunity standing right in front of them.

So what stands between Green Bay and their best-case outcome this season?

As ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky notes, the Packers had one of the best offensive lines in the NFL -- if not the best -- last season, but they're starting this year without left tackle David Bakhtiari, who's still recovering from knee surgery in January. He opens the season on the physically unable to perform list, meaning he will miss at least the first six game. Combine that with the loss of center Corey Linsley to the Chargers in free agency, and they're down two All-Pro linemen.

The Packers look poised to start two rookies on the line -- center Josh Myers (second round) is a lock, and guard Royce Newman (fourth round) could start, while Pro Bowl left guard Elgton Jenkins kicks out to tackle until Bakhtiari returns.

"We've had some veteran lines over the years," Rodgers said. "This won't be one of them. There'll be some young guys playing and some guys playing spots they haven't played a ton of time at. That's just the way it goes. There's not going to be a grace period, though, I can promise you that."

In other personnel notes. ... Pro Bowl running back Aaron Jones stayed with Green Bay rather than departing as a free agent, but former backfield mate Jamaal Williams is now with the Detroit Lions.

Williams' departure means 2020 second-round draft pick A.J. Dillon takes on a bigger role as the complementary back to Jones. Dillon rushed for just 242 yards as a rookie but showed his potential with a 124-yard performance in a late-season victory over Tennessee.

Wide receiver Randal Cobb, who last played for the Packers from 2011-18, returned to Green Bay at the start of training camp. The Packers reacquired Cobb from Houston at Rodgers' suggestion.

Cobb joins a deep receiving corps that features Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Allen Lazard. Last year, Adams became the first NFL player to have at least 100 receptions and 18 touchdown catches in the same season.

Beyond that, the Packers didn't bring back Mike Pettine as defensive coordinator and fired Shawn Mennenga as special teams coordinator after their NFC championship game loss to Tampa Bay.

Joe Barry is the new defensive coordinator after coaching the Los Angeles Rams' linebackers the last four years. Maurice Drayton was promoted from assistant special teams coach to special teams coordinator.

Barry's two previous stints as a coordinator in Washington and Detroit didn't go well, but Packers players say they love the energy he brings.

"He's someone you want to play for, someone you want to be around," linebacker Krys Barnes said. ...

Still, I'll remind you the one thing Green Bay has working in its favor -- and it's something that works in the favor of fantasy managers as well: The Rodgers to Adams combo.

As NFL.com's Steve Smith Sr. reminded readers last month, Rodgers led the league in just about every major passing category last season, resulting in his third league MVP award. He completed a 72.6 percent of his pass attempts in the red zone last season, ranking first among QBs with at least 10 red-zone throws, per Next Gen Stats.

In addition, 35 of his league-leading 48 pass TDs occurred in the red zone.

He's nearly unstoppable in this area of the field, especially when Adams is present. Fourteen of Adams' league-high 18 receiving touchdowns in 2020 came inside the red zone.

If he needs a score, assume Rodgers will look Adams' way.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Aaron Rodgers, Jordan Love
RBs: Aaron Jones, A.J. Dillon, Kylin Hill
WRs: Davante Adams, Randall Cobb, Allen Lazard, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Amari Rodgers, Malik Taylor
TEs: Robert Tonyan, Marcedes Lewis, Josiah Deguara

Houston Texans

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

Last season was a terrible one for the Houston Texans as they started 0-4 to cost coach Bill O'Brien his job and finished 4-12 after winning the AFC South the previous two seasons.

However, as Associated Press sports writer Kristie Rieken suggests, this season could be even worse in David Culley's first year as a head coach.

There is little reason for optimism with stars J.J. Watt and Will Fuller gone to other teams and Deshaun Watson not expected to play after he requested a trade before 22 women filed lawsuits alleging sexual assault or harassment against the quarterback.

Culley confirmed on Monday that Tyrod Taylor will be under center when the Texans open their season against the Jaguars.

"Taylor will start at quarterback for us, for sure," Culley said.

Taylor, 32, signed a one-year contract with the Texans in March after spending two seasons with the Los Angeles Chargers. Taylor started the season opener for Los Angeles in 2020 but was sidelined the following week when a Chargers team doctor accidentally punctured his lung while trying to give him a pain-killing injection just before kickoff.

The 10-year veteran has made 47 starts in his career. He has passed for 9,770 yards with 54 touchdowns and 20 interceptions and rushed for 1,850 yards and 16 touchdowns in 72 games overall.

By the time he recovered he had lost his starting job to Justin Herbert, who became the Offensive Rookie of the Year.

"Last year didn't go the way that I would want it to, but those things are out of my control," Taylor said. "It's an opportunity for me to be able to rebound and still play at a high level, which I know I can do. I'm excited to play with the talent that we have on the offensive side of the ball."

Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly, one of a handful coaches returning from last year's staff, has been impressed with Taylor's demeanor so far.

"He is even-keeled throughout the entire game," Kelly said. "Throughout highs, lows, it doesn't matter, he's going to be the same guy, and that's a great thing because he's never going to lose control in terms of being too emotional or getting too high or getting too low. He's very steady."

Rookie Davis Mills, a third-round pick, will be Taylor's backup. Houston also has quarterback Jeff Driskel, who spent the offseason with the Texans, on its practice squad.

While the decision to name Taylor the Week 1 starter isn't a surprise, it is a reminder of just how weird the quarterback situation in Houston is.

As Profootballtalk.com notes, Watson, one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, is on the roster, but no one knows when or if he'll play again. Watson is facing lawsuits, a potential NFL suspension and even possibly criminal charges. Watson is also insisting that he does not want to play for the Texans ever again.

Trades have been discussed, but so far nothing has happened.

Whether Watson becomes the Texans' starting quarterback again remains to be seen. For now, the job is Taylor's.

Meanwhile, the Texans made improving their running game a priority this offseason after ranking 31st in the NFL by averaging just 91.6 yards rushing a game. They return David Johnson, who is looking to bounce back in his second season in Houston after a subpar 2020 campaign. He's joined by new additions Phillip Lindsay, Mark Ingram and Rex Burkhead, giving the Texans plenty of options in the backfield.

Johnson, Ingram and Lindsay were all starters just last year and appear to be the strength of Houston's maligned roster.

Perhaps they'll allow for the Texans to control the clock and keep some games close. Against the Bucs in their exhibition finale, Ingram led the way in the first quarter with 44 yards and averaged 4.0 yards per carry. Johnson, who remained largely quiet this preseason, broke out with a 21-yard run to cap off a 30-yard night on the ground. Lindsay finished with an average of 2.8 yards per run.

Remember, Ingram and Lindsay are listed as the co-starters with Johnson expected to play more of a receiving role.

Whatever the case, Culley believes their depth at the position will be beneficial as the Texans try to establish themselves as a power running team. As for who will get the most carries, Culley expects to use a committee approach to the position.

"We feel like we're very versatile back there and we can do what we need to do during the game depending on what they allow us to do," he said. "We're not afraid to have any of those guys in at any time in the ballgame."

Fuller signed with Miami this offseason after spending his first five seasons with the Texans, leaving Brandin Cooks as the team's top receiver. Cooks performed well in his first season in Houston and led the team 1,150 yards receiving. He did well as Watson's go-to receiver in the five games when Fuller was suspended for using performance enhancers.

How good has he been for fantasy managers?

ESPN's Matthew Berry laid it out well last week when he pointed out that since 2015, among wide receivers, Cooks ranks fifth in receiving yards, tied for 11th in receiving scores and eighth in total fantasy points. Over that span, Cooks has missed a total of three regular-season games.

Last season, his first in Houston, Cooks was WR17.

Last season, Fuller, Randall Cobb, Keke Coutee, Darren Fells, Chad Hansen, Kenny Stills, Steven Mitchell, Kahale Warring and Deandre Carter combined for 254 targets.

None of them are on the Texans' 53-man roster as of Sept. 1, 2021.

Last season, Cooks had 10 games with at least seven targets. In those 10 games, he averaged 19.7 fantasy points.

Berry added: "Last season, 19.7 fantasy points per game would have been WR4, just ahead of Calvin Ridley. ..."

That's pretty good.

Yes, Houston added Anthony Miller in a trade with the Bears and he could help make up for the loss of Fuller. Miller dressed out for practice Monday, but he might not be ready for the opener after dislocating his right shoulder in the first preseason game.

That leaves journeyman Chris Conley and rookie Nico Collins as the top options behind Cook heading into Week 1, when the Texans jump right into division play, hosting No. 1 overall draft pick Trevor Lawrence and the Jacksonville Jaguars in their opener Sept. 12 before traveling to Cleveland on Sept. 19. ...

A few final items here. ... The Texans are signing WR Danny Amendola to a one-year, $2.5 million deal after a Tuesday working. The team also brought in free agent kickers Michael Badgley and Joey Slye for workouts on Monday, according to Aaron Wilson of SportsTalk790.

They added Slye to their practice squad on Tuesday.

Kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn is working through a minor injury but is still expected to play in Houston's season opener against the Jaguars.

And one last note. ... New Orleans is trading for Texans starting corner Bradley Roby, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Davis Mills, Jeff Driskel, Deshaun Watson, Tyrod Taylor
RBs: Mark Ingram, Phillip Lindsay, David Johnson, Rex Burkhead, Scottie Phillips
WRs: Brandin Cooks, Chris Conley, Anthony Miller, Danny Amendola, Nico Collins, Andre Roberts
TEs: Jordan Akins, Pharaoh Brown, Brevin Jordan

Indianapolis Colts

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

As Associated Press sports writer Michael Marot reported it, Carson Wentz wanted a fresh start in Indianapolis. Instead, it seems he's seeing and hearing more of the same.

He missed three weeks with an injured left foot, returned to practice for three days of limited work before landing on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Now it's unclear whether he'll start the Sept. 12 opener against Seattle, and head coach Frank Reich is defending Wentz from scrutiny over his vaccination status.

"What I can say is I know every one of our players cares very deeply about this team," Reich said. "Every one of our players knows we're on a mission. I really believe that every one of these players is a team-first guy."

At least Wentz knows Reich is one of his biggest fans. They developed a strong working relationship during Wentz's first two NFL seasons and created a strong bond behind the scenes because they shared similar values and religious beliefs.

In fact, Reich lobbied in favor of making the deal with Philadelphia, hoping Wentz would help stabilize a position that's been a virtual turnstile since Andrew Luck missed the 2017 season. Regardless of who starts the opener, Wentz or backup Jacob Eason, it will be Indy's fourth Week 1 starter in four years.

"It's going to be up to the doctors" Wentz said when asked about the foot. "As long as there's nothing I can do to injure myself or make it worse, I know I've played through a lot worse."

For the record, Wentz was slated to practice fully on Wednesday and is on track to play this week (I'll follow up as needed on this via Late-Breaking Update in coming days).

If he stays healthy and productive, Wentz could benefit from what looks like his strongest supporting cast since the Eagles won the Super Bowl following the 2017 season.

Running backs Jonathan Taylor and Marlon Mack each have 1,000-yard seasons on their resume, Indy's offensive line has allowed the NFL's second-fewest sacks over the past three seasons, and Wentz will be working with a group of young, talented receivers looking to replace injured four-time Pro Bowler T.Y. Hilton, who will spend the at least the first three weeks of the season sidelined (he was placed on injured reserve after having minor neck surgery last week).

But Taylor is the one to watch here.

In a speculative piece published late last month, ESPN's Dan Graziano advised readers they shouldn't be surprised if Taylor leads the league in rushing.

Graziano went on to explain the Colts love Taylor and insist he can be not just an every-down back but a dominant workhorse. When Graziano visited their camp, he heard from multiple people about the improvements Taylor has made this offseason in the passing game -- both as a pass-catcher and as a blocker.

Beyond that, Graziano note the Colts will want to be run-heavy to take pressure off Wentz and lean on their outstanding offensive line, and Taylor could pile up massive yardage totals as a result. He was the NFL's third-leading rusher last season, putting up 1,169 yards and averaging 5.0 yards per carry.

In addition, there's a young, improving defense that ranked among the league's top 10 in yards and points allowed last season. And, not surprisingly, high expectations after the Colts made the playoffs two of the last three years.

The question is whether Wentz can stay on the field long enough to make an impact.

"We've been working out ever since the (trade) down and I feel like whenever he gets back, he's going to be good and he's going to be ready to go," second-year receiver Michael Pittman Jr. said. "If he's not, then we have other people who will step up, but we expect Carson to be ready."

Wentz's addition to the COVID-19 list has raised plenty of questions about one of the league's least-vaccinated teams. Reich's most recent estimation was that roughly 75 percent of Indy's players have taken at least one COVID-19 shot.

So far, nine Colts players have appeared on the COVID-19 list and four starters were still on it Tuesday: Wentz, left tackle Eric Fisher, center Ryan Kelly and receiver Zach Pascal. Fisher wasn't expected to play until at least late September because he's still recovering from a torn Achilles tendon.

But Reich and defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus both missed time at training camp because of positive tests even though both were fully vaccinated.

"It's an individual decision but it does have consequences and ramifications for the team, and that's where it makes it so complex," Reich said. "I think what you're going to hear from most people in that camp is a lot of the decisions to not get vaccinated I think are more family-type reasons. So, what are you going to say about that?

"A guy is prioritizing his family, is there anything wrong with prioritizing your family?"

Meanwhile, if the Colts survive a brutally tough first five weeks, things could get much easier.

After hosting the Seahawks and Los Angeles Rams the first two weeks and hitting the road for the next three -- at Tennessee, at Miami and at Baltimore -- the schedule should ease up. Each of the first five foes won 10 or more games and four made the playoffs.

But they only face three 2020 playoff teams over the final 12 games and two -- Oct. 31 against the Titans and Nov. 28 against Tom Brady and Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay -- are at home.

One last injury note here. ... Receiver Parris Campbell was listed as limited Wednesday with an Achilles, but NFL Network's Ian Rapoport notes this is more of a lingering issue not a situation where he suffered an injury in today’s practice.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Carson Wentz, Jacob Eason, Sam Ehlinger
RBs: Jonathan Taylor, Nyheim Hines, Marlon Mack, Jordan Wilkins
WRs: Michael Pittman Jr., Zach Pascal, Parris Campbell, Ashton Dulin, Mike Strachan, T.Y. Hilton
TEs: Jack Doyle, Mo Alie-Cox, Kylen Granson

Jacksonville Jaguars

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

As Associated Press sports writer Mark Long put it: "Shad Khan's relatively brief NFL tenure has been filled with failure. ..."

Even Khan knows it.

The Jaguars owner admittedly whiffed by hiring Mike Mularkey, Gus Bradley, Dave Caldwell, Tom Coughlin and Doug Marrone during his first nine years on the job. He was the second fastest in league history to lose 100 games despite taking several different approaches.

He tried a longtime NFL assistant (Mularkey), went with an up-and-coming coordinator (Bradley) and eventually turned to someone with head coaching experience (Marrone). Khan even threw a two-time Super Bowl champion (Coughlin) into the mix.

The results rarely changed.

There was that memorable run to the AFC championship game in 2017. But Khan suffered double-digit losses in each of his other eight seasons. His frustration peaked during last year's 15-game losing streak. He fired Caldwell, the team's general manager, then let Marrone go a few weeks later.

Khan had a new plan, one he had been contemplating for months, maybe even a year.

It centered around Urban Meyer and Trevor Lawrence, a three-time national championship-winning coach and a quarterback who lost twice in college.

"This time, I got it right, OK?" Khan said emphatically. "We have the opportunity to go with winners and then let them build."

Meyer and Lawrence are now tasked with leading Jacksonville's latest -- maybe greatest -- attempt at a sustainable turnaround. It begins Sept. 12 at Houston.

The highly organized and supremely detailed Meyer spent the last eight months putting his stamp on every aspect of the floundering franchise, from revamping the team's health and nutrition approach to adding a "rejuvenation room" designed to enhance rehab.

Instead of trying to conform to traditional NFL ways, Meyer carried over many of the same methods that worked so well in stops at Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and Ohio State: winner/loser drills, up-tempo practices and no days off for anyone.

"We want to win," receiver DJ Chark said. "If this is the way to win, then that's what we're going to do and that's the plan. So let's do it, let's see how it works."

Meyer leaned on several veteran NFL assistants, including offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and defensive coordinator Joe Cullen, for advice on creating schemes and playbooks, building the roster and figuring out how far he could push professionals.

But the bottom line is Meyer inherited a team that won one game last season and remains one of the youngest in the league. But he added nine draft picks, including Lawrence with the No. 1 overall selection, and signed several starters in free agency.

He also has a vision for success. Meyer wants to be the fastest team in the league, be an up-tempo offense that features spread-option elements that Lawrence ran to near-perfection at Clemson, get after opposing quarterbacks, be dynamic on special teams and show creativity at every turn.

"We're going to continue to push the envelope on that stuff," he said.

It's refreshing for Khan, who finally feels like he has the right combination at the two most important positions in football: coach and quarterback.

"Nine years ago, buying the team, it was like the great journey, the first step on a 1,000-mile journey and looking to the horizon." Khan said. "And what it is now? We've been through ups and downs, mostly downs. Now you're looking at a great upside."

But it hasn't been all positive this summer.

Travis Etienne Jr. was supposed to be a game-changer for the Jaguars. But they will have to wait a year to see what the 25th overall pick in the NFL draft can do. The all-time leading rusher in Atlantic Coast Conference history, Etienne suffered a Lisfranc injury to his left foot in a preseason game and was placed on injured reserve.

"That was a shot in the jaw, that one," Meyer said.

According to SI.com's John Shipley, if there was any previous doubt that James Robinson was the early candidate to be the Jaguars' No. 1 running back entering the 2021 season, that doubt should be mostly put away by now. Robinson was on the field for eight of Lawrence's 15 snaps in the exhibition opener, including the entire first drive.

"Robinson got the first snaps for the Jaguars and the most significant snaps with the first-team offense," Shipley wrote, "showing the importance and value he holds for Jacksonville's starting offense."

Etienne's injury does nothing to slow that roll.

Also with Etienne out, journeyman Tavon Austin had a chance to become the team's change-of-pace back and potentially created mismatches for opposing defenses. But the team placed Austin on injured reserve last Thursday, two days after Meyer said he was good to go for the season opener.

Austin was one of Jacksonville's roster surprises. Despite signing in early August, he made the team over fellow former first-round picks Phillip Dorsett and Laquon Treadwell. Dorsett or Treadwell both landed on Jacksonville's practice squad, and one likely will replace Austin for the opener at Houston.

Jacksonville kept five receivers, including primary kick returner Jamal Agnew. Two others, D.J. Chark (finger) and Marvin Jones Jr. (shoulder), are returning from injuries.

The team signed tight end Jacob Hollister on Friday, three days after Buffalo surprisingly released the fifth-year pro. The 6-4, 285-pound Hollister has 74 receptions for 652 yards and six touchdowns in four seasons with New England (2017—18) and Seattle (2019-20). He signed with Buffalo earlier this year.

Hollister adds depth to Jacksonville's tight end room that includes run-blocking specialist Chris Manhertz, James O'Shaughnessy and rookie Luke Farrell.

Meanwhile, the worst defense in franchise history got a makeover in the offseason. After giving up an AFC-leading 492 points (28.9 a game), Meyer and general manager Trent Baalke took a huge swing on that side of the ball.

They signed more than a dozen free agents, used four draft picks on defenders and switched to a 3-4 scheme.

Cullen, who came to Jacksonville from Baltimore, expects the unit to be considerably improved. It starts with getting more from pass rushers Josh Allen and K'Lavon Chaisson, who combined for 3½ sacks in 2020.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Trevor Lawrence, C.J. Beathard
RBs: James Robinson, Carlos Hyde, Dare Ogunbowale
WRs: D.J. Chark, Marvin Jones, Laviska Shenault, Tyron Johnson, Jamal Agnew
TEs: Chris Manhertz, Jacob Hollister, Luke Farrell, James O'Shaughnessy

Kansas City Chiefs

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

As ESPN.com's Adam Teicher reminded readers, running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire was far from a bust as a rookie and first-round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs last season. He finished fourth in rushing (803 yards) among rookie backs and was tied for third in catches (36). Those numbers were even better considering he missed three games with hip and ankle injuries.

But he didn't have a great impact in terms of big plays. The Chiefs and Edwards-Helaire believe there will be more for him out there this season.

The biggest leap for Edwards-Helaire could be as a receiver. The Chiefs lost their No. 2 wide receiver, Sammy Watkins, and didn't replace him from outside the team, so they're looking for someone to pick up his catches.

Edwards-Helaire said he spent the offseason working on his receiving.

"We move the ball around, we spread the field and why not work on something that I feel like I can improve on?" he said. "So that was one of my steps as far as improvement."

Head coach Andy Reid said, "We didn't have a huge expanded role for him in the pass game, just kind of getting him in the swing of the defenses that the NFL plays and then all the run plays that we have and the routes that we did have that tie in with everybody. But we tried to give him a little bit more this offseason and he's handled it well."

Edwards-Helaire had one of his best receiving games last year against the Dolphins in Week 14, when he had five catches for 59 yards. He was injured in the next week's game, knocking him out of the lineup for the remainder of the regular season.

Quarterback Patrick Mahomes said it's no coincidence Edwards-Helaire had one of his best receiving games late in the season.

"At the end of last year you could see that transition happening," Mahomes said. "Those college running backs, when they come into the NFL it takes them a couple of games to get used to how the game is played. You could see it right before the injury last year of how he was evolving and I think you see that as he came into training camp this year."

Edwards-Helaire said, "It's really just [about] being trusted. I was a rookie last year. Week in and week out they see it at practice but when it's game time everybody kind of gets into their own rhythm. Pat kind of got comfortable. Everything was kind of [fast] at the beginning of the season.

"This offseason was big for me. I was working on my hands, working on routes because I knew that was something that was going to be pinpointed [this season]."

Having the same offense carry over from Year 1 to Year 2 will be a major benefit for Edwards-Helaire.

"In my three years at LSU, I had three different offenses," Edwards-Helaire said. "Just having the time to have the same offense going into the next year was very relaxing for me and I was able to work on a lot of things that I needed to work on."

Teicher went on to note the Chiefs' offseason offensive line rebuild -- they will likely have five new starters from last season when the regular season begins -- was aimed at more than just better protecting Mahomes. The Chiefs also believe their line changes will improve the running game.

Edwards-Helaire averaged 4.4 yards per carry last season, which isn't bad but still the lowest average for the back who led the Chiefs in rushing since 2016. Edwards-Helaire and the Chiefs also had problems running in short-yardage and goal-line situations, but they converted a third-and-2 running play with Edwards-Helaire on their first try in the preseason against the 49ers.

"A lot of [running game success] is based off the passing game," Edwards-Helaire said. "That's what this offense is built off of. The times that we do run the ball effectively, [the opposing defense] is worried about the pass. Having Pat Mahomes on our side and Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman and Travis Kelce, it only benefits me as an running back."

Remember, the Chiefs allowed Sammy Watkins to walk in free agency, though it was no great loss given how much the veteran wide receiver was hurt. They tried to add depth by drafting Cornell Powell in the fifth round, but he was cut last week, so the Chiefs are rolling with Hill and holdovers Hardman, Demarcus Robinson, Byron Pringle and Daurice Fountain.

But Kelce won't be alone in the tight end room this season. Nor will he be alone on the field. The Chiefs chose to keep four at the position, including Blake Bell, rookie Noah Gray and quarterback-turned-wide receiver-turned-tight end Jody Fortson.

In fact, the Chiefs used all four at once in a goal-line package in their preseason finale. Scored a touchdown, too.

Meanwhile, as Associated Press sports writer Dave Skretta notes, the Chiefs face one of the league's toughest schedules this season, but it is front-loaded with playoff contenders.

This week's opener against the Browns is a rematch of their divisional-round game, and their Week 2 trip is to another divisional playoff team in Baltimore. The Chiefs return home to face the Chargers, likely their toughest AFC West opponent this season, then face the Eagles before an AFC championship rematch against the Bills on Oct. 10.

On the injury front. ... Reid said on Monday that Edwards-Helaire (ankle) and Darrell Williams (concussion) are expected to play in Sunday's opener against Cleveland. "It looked like they're moving around pretty good," Reid said. "I think we'll be okay there."

I'll have more on both via Late-Breaking Update in coming days.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Patrick Mahomes, Chad Henne
RBs: Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Darrel Williams, Jerick McKinnon
WRs: Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman, Demarcus Robinson, Byron Pringle, Daurice Fountain, Marcus Kemp
TEs: Travis Kelce, Noah Gray, Blake Bell

Las Vegas Raiders

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

According to Associated Press sports writer Josh Dubow, the improvement the Raiders showed offensively in year three under Jon Gruden was negated by the lack of progress on defense.

The end result was another season without a winning record or playoff berth.

That prompted an offseason of change for the Raiders, who brought in energetic new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and a simpler system that they hope will allow the young players to be more aggressive.

"He's just, he's a ball of energy at all times," defensive end Maxx Crosby said. "That's what you want in a coach. He's a big positive influence in this building and I'm looking forward to playing for him."

How much the Raiders improve on a defense that ranked in the bottom two in the league in points allowed, takeaways, yards per play allowed and sacks in three seasons under Paul Guenther will depend more on the talent than the coaching.

The Raiders bolstered the pass rush with the addition of edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue and defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson and added help in the secondary in veteran cornerback Casey Hayward and rookie safety Tre'von Moehrig.

But the team also needs better performances from the returning players led by 2019 draft picks Crosby, Clelin Ferrell, Johnathan Abram and Trayvon Mullen.

"It's not been just on the defense. I think it's been on everybody," Ferrell said. "I think definitely as a defense, we are trying to step up to the plate and I don't want to say hold our own. But we're trying to be the reason why we win. We want to be the reason why other teams fear us. We want to be the reason why we get to play for Super Bowl."

While the Raiders tried to rebuild the defense this offseason, they also tore down much of the offensive line that has protected quarterback Derek Carr.

The Raiders traded away center Rodney Hudson, right guard Gabe Jackson and right tackle Trent Brown in salary cap moves and will replace them with untested former undrafted Andre James at center, versatile veteran Denzelle Good at right guard and rookie first-rounder Alex Leatherwood at right tackle.

"They are going to get tested," Carr said. "Obviously, people are going to test our rookies out and they are going to try to do those things, but we're all about competing and we're all about the next play."

Carr is coming off his most productive season in three years under Gruden and much of the improvement came from the willingness to throw it deep. After ranking second to last among starters in how far his average pass traveled in 2018-19, Carr moved into the top half of the league in that category in 2020 thanks to the fifth-most deep completions and third-most yards on deep throws last season.

Much of that success came on throws to Nelson Agholor, who left in free agency. So second-year player Henry Ruggs III will have to fill that void this year if the Raiders want to keep the deep passes as a big part of their game.

But he's not the only player of note in the receiving corps.

In fact, second-year wideout Bryan Edwards recently told ESPN.com's Paul Gutierrez about the "diversity" of this group.

"We have me," said the 6-3, 212-pound Edwards, a third-round draft pick out of South Carolina in 2020, "obviously a big-body outside receiver.

"Ruggs, extremely fast, can take the top off any defense, can make plays underneath, can do it all.

"Hunter Renfrow, Third and Renfrow, Swiss Army Knife. Tough as nails.

"And we've got Zay Jones, who can play any position. We've got a lot of guys -- Willie Snead. ... I feel like we have a very dynamic room."

With a receivers room centered around Ruggs -- the No. 12 overall pick last season who had 26 catches for 452 yards and two touchdowns in 13 games -- Edwards and Renfrow, a fifth-rounder in 2019, Las Vegas has a young, skilled and hungry, though relatively unproven, group. It also has to replicate the production lost by Agholor's departure.

Of course, after posting back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and leading the Raiders in targets, receptions and receiving yards over the past two seasons, Darren Waller is the primary target for Carr.

As Steve Smith Sr. wrote for NFL.com, "Waller is not only a big, physical target, measuring 6-6 and 255 pounds, but he knows how to get open with sharp route-running ability -- much like a wide receiver playing tight end."

Better still, Waller caught 19 of his 23 red-zone targets last season, with six touchdowns. Smith believes Waller should build on his production in 2021 as improved weaponry within the Raiders' offense should allow Waller more one-on-one opportunities.

Could he be more of a scoring factor this year?

The Raiders once again had problems finishing drives. They ranked 25th in the NFL last season in converting red zone trips into touchdowns, which once again was a major area of focus in training camp.

"I've got to call better plays, we've got to run the ball better in the red zone. Our running game was horrific in the red zone," Gruden said. "No, it wasn't good, wasn't good."

Despite spending a first-round pick in 2019 on running back Josh Jacobs and getting back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons out of him, the Raiders made a big move at running back this offseason. Las Vegas signed Kenyan Drake to an $11 million, two-year deal to add a better pass catcher and another running threat in the backfield.

"I think that we know that crunch time if we need a play, I feel like we got a lot of guys that are going out there that he trusts to make a play," Jacobs said. "I feel like I'm one of those guys."

There were also changes up front.

Stalwart center Rodney Hudson, road grader right guard Gabe Jackson and maddening right tackle Trent Brown were among the departures. New pieces include center Andre James, right guard Denzelle Good and rookie right tackle Alex Leatherwood, and if that group is solid, so too should be the Raiders' record.

The offense will face a serious challenge in the opener, when they host the Ravens.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Derek Carr, Marcus Mariota, Nathan Peterman
RBs: Josh Jacobs, Kenyan Drake, Peyton Barber
WRs: Henry Ruggs III, Bryan Edwards, Hunter Renfrow, Zay Jones, Willie Snead
TEs: Darren Waller, Foster Moreau, Derek Carrier, Nick Bowers

Los Angeles Chargers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

Justin Herbert and Brandon Staley have created plenty of buzz around the Los Angeles Chargers. Whether both can help lead a turnaround after two disappointing seasons remains one of the more intriguing questions in the AFC going into the Sept. 12 opener at Washington.

Herbert looks to take another step forward among the league's top quarterbacks after winning AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors last season. He has an emphatic supporter in Staley, who was hired as coach in January after one season as Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator.

"It's always a tough situation when you bring in a new staff and a lot of new players, but I feel like they've done a great job of building relationships with our team," Herbert said. "We had a lot of good work in the offseason. All of the guys were committed, showed up and did a lot of great work."

Herbert -- who threw for a rookie record 31 touchdowns last season -- will run a more up-tempo offense while also taking advantage of his ability to throw deep and make plays on the run. Herbert's 10 touchdown passes on throws of at least 20 yards are the most by a rookie since 2006, according to Sportradar.

As Associated Press sports writer Joe Reedy explained, incoming offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi's scheme also features more personnel groups and formations, putting more on Herbert's plate. But for Herbert, who won college football's version of the academic Heisman in 2019 -- it is a challenge he enjoys.

"We're going to utilize his big arm. We're keeping the defense on their heels, especially when a new personnel group comes in while you're in the huddle," Lombardi said. "By the time they figure out who's in the huddle, they're trying to get their call in. We'll already be breaking and then the ball snaps. The less time you give the defense to think about it, the better."

Herbert has plenty of weapons with running back Austin Ekeler and wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. They also came out of camp without significant injuries, which was Staley's primary objective during the preseason.

"I do feel like we're on schedule as a team. I know in all three phases of the game that people know how we want to play. I feel and see that full investment," said Staley, who replaced Anthony Lynn after he went 5-11 in 2019 and 7-9 last year after reaching the divisional round in 2018.

The Chargers made a considerable investment to their offensive line with three signings in free agency and the selection of left tackle Rashawn Slater in the first round.

Corey Linsley became the league's highest-paid center, while guards Matt Feiler and Oday Aboushi have added some stability to the interior. Slater, the 13th overall pick in the draft, looked solid in the first preseason game against the Rams.

Any improvement from the line would be welcome after Herbert was constantly under pressure last season. The starting group appears set, but there remain depth issues.

Injuries again plagued Bryan Bulaga during training camp after missing seven games last season. Feiler could move to right tackle with fifth-round pick Brandon Jaimes stepping in at guard.

Los Angeles has a tough opening six-game stretch before the bye week as it takes on four teams -- Washington in Week 1, Kansas City, Cleveland, and Baltimore -- that made the playoffs last season. The only one not on the road is against the Browns on Oct. 10.

The other two games -- Dallas and Las Vegas -- aren't pushovers by any stretch, either.

Also worth noting. ... As ESPN's Matthew Berry pointed out last week, since the beginning of 2019, 31 running backs have at least 300 touches. Of those 31 qualified backs, Christian McCaffrey is third with 1.17 fantasy points per touch. Alvin Kamara is second in fantasy points per touch, at 1.20.

And first, with 1.21 fantasy points per touch, is Ekeler.

Berry went on to note that in his nine healthy games last season, Ekeler averaged 18.6 touches per game.

Over a 16-game season, that equals out to 297.6 total touches. For perspective, Ezekiel Elliott had 296 total touches in 2020, fifth most in the NFL.

Better still, once he came back from injury last season, from Week 12 on, playing with Herbert, no running back had a higher target share than Ekeler's 19.9 percent.

Last season, Ekeler scored only three touchdowns. In 2019, he scored 11 touchdowns.

There's an argument to be made that -- playing the Kamara role in the offense Brady brings from New Orleans, Ekeler is a prime candidate for positive regression in the touchdown department.

Meanwhile, the Chargers' defense is tough to figure out, but that's the way it was designed by Staley. And safety Derwin James Jr. is back and at the center of it. He is healthy after missing all of 2020, will be a dynamic impact player on D and is relaying the plays from the sideline.

But is he a safety? A corner? A linebacker?

As ESPN.com's Shelley Smith notes, James brings a different feel to the Chargers' defense, and his play -- and health -- could be a big decider in whether Los Angeles is a very good team or has another losing season.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Justin Herbert, Chase Daniel, Easton Stick
RBs: Austin Ekeler, Justin Jackson, Larry Rountree III, Joshua Kelley
WRs: Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Jalen Guyton, Josh Palmer, K.J. Hill, Josh Reed
TEs: Jared Cook, Donald Parham, Tre' McKitty, Stephen Anderson

Los Angeles Rams

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

According to ESPN's Lindsey Thiry, the Rams haven't deviated from their reasoning in completing a blockbuster trade for quarterback Matthew Stafford.

After a Super Bowl appearance in 2018, the Rams front office believes they remain in contention to make another deep playoff, maybe even Super Bowl, run. And they hope that Stafford, in his 13th season, is the quarterback to lead them.

Throughout his first L.A. training camp, Stafford ingratiated himself with teammates with his leadership and ability to distribute the ball.

"I'm just watching him, the way he works, the balls he's throwing and getting it to these receivers," three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald said. "I ain't never see it done like that."

As expectations mount for the 33-year-old Stafford ahead of a Week 1 opener against the Chicago Bears on Sept. 12th, much of his success will be determined by his supporting cast.

As Thiry notes, that starts up front. The offensive line played a quick round of musical chairs midway through camp.

At the outset, it appeared fourth-year pro Austin Corbett won the starting job at center and that third-year pro Bobby Evans would play right guard. But after a joint practice against the Dallas Cowboys 10 practices through camp, Corbett shifted to right guard, fourth-year pro Brian Allen took over at center and Evans became the odd man out.

"Brian has done a great job and Austin is doing a great job moving back to guard," Stafford said. "It has been pretty seamless."

A fourth-round pick in 2018, Allen started nine games at center as a second-year pro before he underwent season-ending knee surgery. He did not play last season and is now entering the final season of his rookie contract. "He's a really good communicator, a smart guy," Stafford said. "He played center before for a long time. It has been good to work with him."

If Allen proves stable, the line could be in good shape. Last season, with Austin Blythe at center (who signed with the Kansas City Chiefs in free agency), the line ranked seventh in the NFL with a pass-block win rate of 62.6 percent.

Stafford's blind side will be protected by left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who is entering his 16th season and turns 40 in December. Seventh-year pro Rob Havenstein returns at right tackle and third-year man David Edwards returns to left guard.

Losing Cam Akers to a season-ending right Achilles tear before training camp was a blow, as last year's second-round pick was expected to excel.

But third-year pro Darrell Henderson Jr. rushed for 624 yards and five touchdowns last season and has proven to be an effective back when healthy, plus the Rams added fourth-year pro Sony Michel, a former first-round pick, via a trade with the New England Patriots in exchange for a 2022 sixth-round pick and a 2023 fourth-round selection. Michel provides a necessary reinforcement and his downhill style fits with Henderson's shiftiness and pass-catching ability.

"He's a nice complement to what we already have," McVay explained about Michel, "in terms of when you look at the confidence that we have in Darrell Henderson and what he's been able to do when he's been available for us."

Asked if Michel, who's learning the playbook after the Aug. 25 trade, is ready to contribute Week 1, McVay said he'll know more later in the week.

Despite the addition of Michel, McVay said rookie seventh-round pick Jake Funk remained in the plan, citing his "great maturity for a rookie player."

The offense lacked a deep threat in 2020, shrinking its ability to utilize the entire field.

The Rams signed DeSean Jackson in free agency to stretch the defense and that's exactly what he's done in camp, as he connected daily with Stafford on deep passes. The challenge will be keeping Jackson healthy after he missed the majority of the past two seasons because of various injuries. The Rams have implemented a cautious training plan in an attempt to keep the 14th-year pro available.

"Speed guy, at 34 years old, 35, however [old]," McVay said when asked for reasoning behind recently resting the 34-year-old Jackson at practice. "It's amazing the way he's able to still run. He knows his body really well."

Robert Woods' and Cooper Kupp's chemistry with Stafford appears to be in midseason form and the two are bound to be his go-to targets. Van Jefferson's connection with Stafford steadily improved and the second-year pro appears on track for a significant increase in production from his rookie season.

"Every time we step out on the field, he's trying to be better," Stafford said about Jefferson, who caught 19 passes for 220 yards and a touchdown last season. "I'm trying to be better with him, with all the guys. We're just trying to maximize our opportunities. That's what he has to do and what he continues to do."

Second-round pick Tutu Atwell could be thrust into action if Jackson is not available, though based on the preseason it appears the rookie's impact will be mostly on special teams as a returner.

At tight end, Tyler Higbee returns as the starter. After catching 44 passes for 521 yards and five touchdowns while playing through several injuries last season, Higbee appeared healthy in camp while establishing a connection with Stafford. "He's been a productive player for such a long time," McVay said. "I think he's feeling good. He really battled through a lot of different things last year that that's really a credit to his toughness and his resilience."

Depth behind Higbee could be an issue after the Rams did not offer to extend free agent Gerald Everett, who signed with the Seattle Seahawks.

Remember: The Rams want to play in the first Super Bowl at their own SoFi Stadium in February.

Anything less will be a disappointment, even though most of this core will be together for the near future. But make no mistake: Stafford's success and the revitalization of the Rams' offense will hinge on the skills of McVay, who could restore his reputation as an offensive guru. That effort starts this week against the Bears. ...

Meanwhile, Thiry notes the Rams' defense is coming off a great season and is anchored again by Donald and All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey.

But whether the Rams win double- or single-digit games could depend on how well the unit adjusts to new defensive coordinator Raheem Morris and the loss of four key starters, including veteran defensive lineman Michael Brockers, safety John Johnson III, cornerback Troy Hill and outside linebacker Samson Ebukam.

The development of defensive lineman A'Shawn Robinson, outside linebacker Justin Hollins, cornerback David Long Jr. and safety Taylor Rapp will be paramount.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Matthew Stafford, John Wolford, Bryce Perkins
RBs: Darrell Henderson, Sony Michel, Jake Funk
WRs: Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, Van Jefferson, DeSean Jackson, Tutu Atwell
TEs: Tyler Higbee, Johnny Mundt, Jacob Harris, Brycen Hopkins

Miami Dolphins

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

As ESPN.com's Marcel Louis-Jacques notes, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and head coach Brian Flores speak "every day," but it's what Flores told the rest of the team during a meeting last Tuesday that resonated with him.

One day after Flores confirmed the Dolphins' confidence in Tagovailoa despite rumors of the team's interest in trading for Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, Tagovailoa expressed his gratitude for the public support.

"I think it means a lot with it coming from the head coach," Tagovailoa, the 2020 No. 5 overall draft pick, said Wednesday. "The support that I have from him and from the team, it means a lot. But for me, I'm just focused literally on trying to get our guys ready for next week."

Flores did not specify what he said during Tuesday's meeting but did confirm Tagovailoa as the Dolphins' Week 1 starter against the New England Patriots.

"I don't get into conversations I have with the team, players. Those conversations are private," Flores said. "I will say that Tua is our quarterback. I think he's had a good training camp, I think he's made a lot of progress. I think he's made a lot of improvement. We're pleased with where he is. He's going about his preparation for New England the way he should be."

Flores added: "I think it's important for players on the team to feel like they have the support of their teammates, their coaches and everyone in the organization. I think that's very important."

Tagovailoa started nine games as a rookie in 2020, completing 64 percent of his passes for 1,814 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions.

Teammates are quick to defend that effort.

"His playbook was condensed to slants and bubbles," Miami safety Eric Rowe says. "They really wouldn't let him show his arm. Now in training camp they're allowing him the opportunity to throw it deep. That's what we need."

He also spent this entire offseason entrenched as Miami's starting quarterback, despite rumors that the team could trade for Watson. With those rumors resurfacing last week, Tagovailoa's coach and teammates reaffirmed their support for him as they prepare for their regular-season opener.

"I love every single quarterback here, and I'm sticking with whatever quarterback Coach Flo puts out there," offensive lineman Solomon Kindley said. "I'm going to do my job no matter who he puts out there. Like, he said Tua, so I love Tua and I'm going to block for Tua."

Tagovailoa will work with an upgraded cast of targets, including former Alabama teammate Jaylen Waddle, Miami's first draft pick.

"You just give him the ball in space and you let him work," Tagovailoa said.

Waddle and top free agent acquisition Will Fuller give Miami more speed at wideout. They join a group that also includes DeVante Parker, who has led the team in receptions each of the past three years, and a talented set of tight ends led by Mike Gesicki.

It's unclear how much help Tagovailoa will get from his ground game. Blocking is a perennial problem in Miami, and the line looks as unsettled as ever, while running backs Myles Gaskin, Salvon Ahmed and newcomer Malcolm Brown have combined for one career carry of more than 30 yards.

It's worth noting that Flores suggested on Monday that Gaskin has become a player the team can trust to be on the field for all three downs.

"He's made [pass protection] a part of his game that he's not a guy we have to take out in those situations," Flores said (via NBCSportsEdge.com). He also touted Gaskin's professionalism as the 24-year-old has reportedly been consistent in coming in early and leaving late to do extra work throughout camp. ...

The Dolphins have changed offensive coordinators every offseason since 2017, and now Flores is going with two: George Godsey and Eric Studesville. The team has repeatedly declined to disclose who will have the final say with play-calling.

Why the secrecy?

"We just try to keep things internal," Flores says.

It will be a group effort, however, as will game-planning.

"Whether it's co-coordinator, tight ends coach, quarterbacks coach, receivers coach, line coach, assistant, those guys have voices," Godsey says. "We think that everybody's voice should be listened to. Then at some point, we make a decision."

And hope for better results. A big reason the Dolphins haven't had success in January is because they haven't ranked in the top 10 in offense since 1995.

In fact, as Associated Press sports writer Steven Wine put it, "The Dolphins' most recent playoff win is nearly old enough to drink."

On Dec. 30, 2000, Dave Wannstedt and Jay Fiedler helped Miami beat the Indianapolis Colts in overtime in a wild-card game. Since that victory, the Dolphins have lost 176 games, a stretch that includes 10 coaches, 21 starting quarterbacks and an 0-4 postseason record.

For a franchise that once celebrated Dan Marino, Don Shula and the NFL's only perfect season, a drought about to turn 21 can be especially tough to swallow. Only the Bengals (1990) and Lions (1991) have gone longer without a postseason victory.

But early September is a time for optimism. Every team is undefeated, even the Dolphins.

"The sky is the limit for us," All-Pro cornerback Xavien Howard says. "I see a lot of great things going on."

In 2020, the Dolphins had a better team but bad luck. They doubled their win total in Year 2 under Flores, and improved their point differential by 254 points to plus-66, their best since 2002.

Alas, they also became the first 10-win team to miss the playoffs since the 2015 New York Jets.

This week, the Dolphins are dealing with COVID-19 issues ahead of the season opener against the New England Patriots after they placed starting left tackle Austin Jackson and tight end Adam Shaheen on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

Shaheen landed on the list as the result of a positive test. NFL Network's Tom Pelissero added that the 26-year-old has had no major symptoms, but will be required to quarantine because he's unvaccinated, officially ruling him out for Week 1.

It's unclear at this point whether Jackson tested positive or is considered a close contact. This is Shaheen's second time on the COVID list in just over a month.

Shaheen has been staunchly against being vaccinated against COVID-19. Jackson's status is unknown.

If Jackson cannot play in the season opener in Foxboro, it would be a massive blow to Miami, especially facing a revamped Pats defense that looked feisty with newcomer Matt Judon during preseason action. If Jackson, a 2020 first-round pick who started 12 games last season, can't play Sunday, Greg Little would likely be in line to get the start.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Jacoby Brissett, Reid Sinnett, Tua Tagovailoa
RBs: Myles Gaskin, Salvon Ahmed, Malcolm Brown
WRs: DeVante Parker, Jaylen Waddle, Will Fuller, Jakeem Grant, Albert Wilson, Preston Williams, Mack Hollins
TEs: Mike Gesicki, Durham Smythe, Hunter Long, Adam Shaheen

Minnesota Vikings

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

According to Associated Press sports writer Dave Campbell, for a franchise that is no stranger to drama, the Vikings have already dealt with their share of it with the regular season opener still more than a week away.

Forgive head coach Mike Zimmer, then, if he's feeling as though he has spent much of the last month figuratively extinguishing fires.

"I think it's been eight years," Zimmer said. "You know what? It's like that at probably every place. Everybody has their trials and tribulations, I guess."

No matter how much it might appear the Vikings have the market cornered on bad luck, they're indeed never alone in this high-stakes, low-stability league. The Vikings, though, have not exactly had a smooth training camp after a promising recharge this offseason for a strong rebound from a 7-9 finish in the 2020 schedule of virus disruptions and empty stadiums.

Popular offensive line coach Rick Dennison took an advisor role to remain with the organization, his refusal to be vaccinated for COVID-19 prohibiting him from in-person interaction with players.

The most prominent unvaccinated Vikings employee, quarterback Kirk Cousins, had to sit out five days of practice per NFL protocols after being deemed a close contact of backup Kellen Mond after the rookie tested positive.

Several other vital players also remained against getting the vaccine, putting them under a stricter set of protocols that make them more at risk to miss a game. Their stance also subjected them to the bewilderment and irritation of Zimmer, who lamented his team's low vaccination rate compared to the rest of the league.

For five years and counting, the offensive line has been the team's biggest question mark.

First-round draft pick Christian Darrisaw, the left tackle the Vikings targeted to replace their steadiest blocker, salary cap casualty Riley Reiff, needed a second surgery on his midsection after struggling to fully heal from a groin injury he had in college at Virginia Tech.

Darrisaw will be behind veteran Rashod Hill on the depth chart for now. The new starter is at right guard, with Oli Udoh replacing Dakota Dozier.

The offense managed only four field goals in the first 10 quarters of exhibition games. Then up-and-coming tight end Irv Smith Jr. injured his knee, needing meniscus repair surgery that will likely sideline him for 2021.

"There will always be curveballs thrown at us, and you still have to find a way to deliver and produce, so you're always looking to find that way," Cousins said. "If anything, you kind of expect change to happen so you're not caught off guard when it does, but a big part of lasting in this league and having success consistently is finding a way to be resilient and still produce no matter what may change in your environment."

The Vikings spent big in free agency on the suddenly vulnerable defense, bringing in defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson and cornerback Patrick Peterson among others and bringing back cornerback Mackensie Alexander and defensive end Everson Griffen.

Campbell went on to suggest there's a last-chance vibe around the Vikings these days, four years removed from their appearance in the NFC championship game. Perhaps these late-summer bumps in the road will be irrelevant by winter, or maybe they're harbingers of more disappointment and major change.

"We added a lot of talent, a lot of smart guys. We've all mixed in pretty well," said safety Harrison Smith, the longest-tenured player. "I'm excited about the group we have and what we can do."

According to ESPN.com's Courtney Cronin, double-digit wins depend on whether the defense can truly bounce back to its traditional form. As we saw in the preseason, the depth behind Minnesota's starters is weak, especially at linebacker and in the secondary, so the Vikings have to see a strong return on their investment in players such as Peterson, Bashaud Breeland, Tomlinson and a host of others.

If it doesn't pan out, the Vikings might be looking at a lot of turnover next offseason. The first stop in finding this out comes against the Bengals in Cincinnati this weekend...

Other notes of interest. ... For all the issues that might have popped up for the Vikings this summer and all the problems that might still be unsolved, they still boast two of the NFL's best players in running back Dalvin Cook and wide receiver Justin Jefferson. When Jefferson missed a couple of weeks of practice as a precaution with a minor shoulder injury, Cousins sure noticed.

"Absence makes the heart grow fonder," Cousins said to Jefferson recently. "When you showed back up and kept making plays, it's like, 'This guy is pretty good. ...'"

As noted above, Smith is likely to miss the season based on the 4-5 month recovery timetable, sources told ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Smith was primed for a breakout season at the time of his injury, having risen to the top of the depth chart at tight end following the departure of Kyle Rudolph during free agency. During the final four games of the 2020 season, Smith hauled in three touchdowns on 20 targets and finished the year with 30 catches for 365 yards and five scores.

The Vikings made a move to replace Smith on Tuesday, acquiring veteran tight end Chris Herndon from the New York Jets.

Herndon will help fill an important role among Vikings tight ends. Zimmer called the depth at the position "not very good" in light of Smith's injury. Minnesota is expecting its No. 2 tight end, Tyler Conklin, who has been sidelined with a hamstring injury since Aug. 16, to be ready this week.

As Cronin reminded readers, Herndon showed a lot of promise as a rookie in 2018, when he caught 39 passes for 502 yards and four touchdowns. Since then, the 2018 fourth-round pick has struggled to replicate that production. Herndon was suspended in 2019 following a DUI arrest and injured his hamstring while working his way back onto the field. In his first game back in November 2019 against the New York Giants, Herndon cracked a rib and was placed on injured reserve.

Last season, Herndon struggled with drops and fumbles and transitioned into more of a blocking tight end. He bounced back toward the end of 2020, recording 31 catches for 287 yards and three touchdowns. ...

The Vikings have a new kicker in Greg Joseph, part of a continued revamp of the special teams units that deteriorated into the league's worst last season. The kickoff and punt returner roles have needed a boost as badly as any, and rookie Ihmir Smith-Marsette will get the first crack.

One last note here. ... The Vikings signed offensive lineman Brian O'Neill to a multi-year extension on Wednesday. The terms have not yet been disclosed.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Kirk Cousins, Kellen Mond
RBs: Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison
WRs: Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, K.J. Osborn, Dede Westbrook, Ihmir Smith-Marsette
TEs: Tyler Conklin, Chris Herndon, Brandon Dillon, Ben Ellefson, Irv Smith Jr.

New England Patriots

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

Mac Jones has the keys to his first NFL offense.

The rookie quarterback won't be the only one tasked with steering the New England Patriots back into relevance in the AFC East following a fiasco of a first season without Tom Brady.

As Associated Press sports writer Kyle Hightower reminded readers, head coach Bill Belichick spent a lot of money this offseason to help the Patriots put a 7-9 finish in 2020 behind them.

He started by bringing in two of the most sought free agent tight ends in Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, while also securing the services of two of the market's top receivers in Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne.

On defense he added Matt Judon, Davon Godchaux and others up front to beef up a unit that went from allowing the fewest yards per game in 2019 to ranking 15th in the NFL this past season.

Still, the biggest change by far was Belichick's decision to cut ties with Cam Newton at the end of training camp, setting up Jones, the 15th overall pick in April's draft, as the first Patriots rookie to start a season opener at quarterback since Drew Bledsoe in 1993.

"He's had a high level of production," Belichick said of Jones. "He's young. I'm sure he'll continue to learn and grow. We'll see where that goes, but that's why we drafted him. I think he's come in and performed at a level that supports that."

Jones split reps with Newton this preseason and maximized an opportunity to separate himself in the competition when Newton missed five days because of a misunderstanding of COVID-19 testing protocols.

In the end, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said Jones ultimately earned the job by impressing the coaching staff with his approach, ability to process information, and to learn from his mistakes.

Jones said he's focused only on continuing to build on the foundation he built this preseason.

"There's a lot of work to do. But I think I've made progress," he said. "Honestly the only thing that matters is today. And then tomorrow I'll focus on tomorrow. I think the past is the past and we're kind of moving on to the new season here."

Dan Graziano expects the Patriots lead the league in rushing -- even though Newton's not the quarterback.

Graziano went on to explain that coaches love their offensive line. They love their defense. They believe they have tremendous depth at running back with Damien Harris, James White, J.J. Taylor and preseason standout Rhamondre Stevenson.

Jones can sling it, no doubt.

But the Patriots' identity is likely to be the run game. And if they're good enough that the offense is playing with the lead more often than not, they will lean on it hard.

When it comes to the receiving corps, Jakobi Meyers isn't a major success story just yet, but there were some strong underlying signs from him last year.

According to ESPN's Seth Walder, Meyer was targeted on 27 percent of his routes run, the 10th highest rate in the league among wide receivers with at least 300 routes, while simultaneously achieving the fourth-most separation over expectation among wide receivers with at least 70 targets past the line of scrimmage. Walder explained that separation over expectation controls for variables like depth of target, air yards to sticks, distance from sideline, air time and route, using NFL Next Gen Stats data.

But crucially, it is only calculated on targets, which means that a receiver often targeted by a quarterback might look worse in the metric, making the combination of a high target rate and high separation numbers particularly impressive. Meyers' plus-3 completion percentage over expectation wasn't exceptional in a vacuum, but it did lead New England wide receivers last season.

Meanwhile, with the plan to work Meyer primarily in the slot this year, ESPN's Matt Bowen believes that fits into Meyer's skill set.

"There is nuance to his game," Bowen wrote, "which points to his awareness in identifying coverages and finding holes in zone schemes. While Meyers lacks dynamic ability after the reception, he catches the ball inside his frame and is a very competitive receiver who displays his toughness on middle-of-the-field throws."

In 2020, Meyers caught 39 of his 59 total receptions inside of the numbers. And at 6-2 and 200 pounds, he's much bigger than people think. He's an excellent inside complement to Agholor and Bourne.

Beyond that, Bowen targeted Smith as an upside TE1 in his fantasy drafts due to the tight end's receiving traits, formation versatility and overall fit in a Patriots offense that will utilize two-tight end sets. While fellow tight end Henry will see targets on middle-of-the-field throws this season in New England, Bowen notes that Smith is a movable piece in an offense that lacks juice at the wide receiver position.

Bowen believes that means seeing Smith removed from the core of the formation, or being utilized on pre-snap motion, to create both matchups and schemed opportunities.

Bowen went on to remind readers that last season with the Titans, Smith ran a route on only 58.3 percent of dropbacks, yet he totaled eight touchdowns. And his 5.6 yards per reception after the catch ranked fourth in the NFL, ahead of Travis Kelce.

With his physical makeup at the position, Smith can be deployed in New England as a seam stretcher, quick-game target out of empty sets and as a viable option in the low red zone.

As for the other side of the ball. ... As many changes as the Patriots made on defense, safety Adrian Phillips said they were all geared toward being a more physical group.

"The easiest way to slow down a fast offense is just to be physical with them. They can't run full speed when they're getting hit in the mouth," he said. "We know what we did last year. We kind of had an underwhelming season and you got that bad taste in your mouth. And you don't want that anymore. So, it's like the defense is kind of putting it on their back."

What the defense won't have for at least the first six games is the services of 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore.

The cornerback will begin the season on the physically unable to perform list as he continues to recover from offseason quadriceps surgery. There is also still no resolution on Gilmore publicly seeking additional compensation on top of his $7 million base salary for 2021.

That will put a lot of responsibility on J.C. Jackson to take on opponents' top receivers.

Though Gilmore is currently not playing, Jackson said Gilmore very much remains in his teammates' ears.

"Stephon, he's been around," Jackson said. "He's helping us in meetings and stuff like that. He's always there. You got any questions about football, he's a great teammate. He's gonna be there whenever you need him."

On special teams. ... The Patriots will open the season with their third kicker in three seasons after undrafted rookie Quinn Nordin beat out Nick Folk for the job.

It seemed as if Nordin had lost his chance to unseat Folk after he missed a field goal and two extra points in the Patriots' second exhibition game against the Eagles. But special teams coordinator Cam Achord said how Nordin responded in the preseason finale against the Giants (went 2 for 3 on FGs with a make from 48 yards) was key.

"He had the one rough outing and then came back and had solid performance. ... That's the big thing -- you continue to get better," Achord said. "You've got to continue to look at guys. As long as they're continuing to get better in their progression, it makes a big difference for you in the end. ..."

New England opens the season with back-to-back division games against the Dolphins and Jets, before hosting the Saints in Week 3. That will set the stage for most-anticipated game of the season when Brady and the Buccaneers visit on Oct. 3.

It will be Brady's first trip to New England since he departed in free agency following the 2019 season.

Other notes of interest. ... Henry injured a shoulder in the Aug. 8 practice. He missed the entire preseason.

The tight end, though, expects to play Sunday in his Patriots debut.

"I wouldn't say doubt," Henry replied when asked if he has any doubt he'll be in uniform on Sunday, via Zack Cox of NESN.

According to Jeff Howe of The Athletic, Stevenson dislocated his thumb last week in practice. Howe added there's some optimism the rookie should be okay to play Sunday against the Dolphins.

I'll have more on Henry and Stevenson via Late-Breaking Update in coming days.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Mac Jones, Brian Hoyer
RBs: Damien Harris, James White, J.J. Taylor, Rhamondre Stevenson
WRs: Jakobi Meyers, Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, Gunner Olszewski, N'Keal Harry
TEs: Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, Devin Asiasi

New Orleans Saints

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

Jameis Winston definitely will be the New Orleans Saints' Week 1 starter, Sean Payton confirmed Tuesday.

That game against the Patriots has been moved from New Orleans to Jacksonville.

Payton said the Saints are leaning toward staying in the Dallas area for the next several weeks until they are able to return home following the destruction of Hurricane Ida.

Payton said the team is making contingency plans to set up somewhere else through Week 4 -- then "reel it back" from there if they are able to return home sooner.

While the Saints' relocation because of the storm has been a rushed decision, the team's choice as the starting quarterback was in the making for months. Payton said he ultimately chose Winston over Taysom Hill because "he's done a great job, he's earned that."

"The No. 1 thing is leading your offense and moving the ball and scoring points. And we feel like he's got a unique skill set with his arm talent -- boy, he can get the ball down the field," Payton said. "He's done a really good job of working through some of the progressions."

Payton said both Winston and Hill "competed their tails off"

"I can't tell you enough how much I appreciate how those guys have handled it," said Payton, who added that "we feel good about that room," which also includes rookie fourth-round draft pick Ian Book and possibly veteran Trevor Siemian, depending on the results of roster cuts and practice squad transactions.

Payton said he heard a lot of speculation that if the Saints chose Hill as their quarterback, they wouldn't be able to keep using him in his versatile QB/RB/TE/WR role. "We couldn't make the decision just based on that. We wanted to look at it completely from an open eyes standpoint," Payton said in response.

Payton said he had a "real good dialogue" with Hill, even though he knows it was "challenging and disappointing" for him to lose out on the starting QB job. But Payton said he still expects Hill to be a big part of the offense in his unique role.

"I've got a very clear vision relative to how he's gonna help us this year," Payton said. "Those two are both gonna be extremely important if we're to play well and win games this year."

Alvin Kamara, one of the most dynamic and explosive players in the NFL as both a runner and receiver, remains a pillar of a New Orleans offense that also fields a formidable front five.

But they won't have Latavius Murray behind Kamara.

The Saints released Murray after they asked him to take a pay cut and he refused, Adam Schefter of ESPN reports. Murray was due a $2.95 million base salary this season, which is a lot to pay a backup running back.

That leaves Tony Jones Jr., who impressed this summer, as the primary backup to Kamara. ...

The Saints open the regular season with Thomas on the physically unable to perform list, meaning the two-time All-Pro will miss at least the first six games. Expect Winston to rely on second-year pro Marquez Callaway and small but speedy receiver Deonte Harris, who is also the Saints' top return man.

Thomas is expected to be back from ankle surgery before midseason.

And several key players return on defense from the previous four playoff seasons, including 2017 All-Pro defensive end Cam Jordan, 2019 All-Pro linebacker Demario Davis, and three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marshon Lattimore.

The Saints are bringing two veteran players back into the fold ahead of Week 1.

NFL Network's Mike Garafolo reported the Saints are re-signing receiver Chris Hogan and backup quarterback Trevor Siemian to the 53-man roster, per a source informed of the situation.

It was always the Saints' plan to bring both veterans back. They did so ahead of Week 1. Inking the vested veterans to the 53-man roster ahead of the season opener will guarantee their base salaries.

New Orleans brought in the 33-year-old Hogan in July following news that Thomas was expected to miss the start of the season. The former New England Patriots receiver, and lacrosse player, impressed during camp. While he didn't make the Saints' initial 53-man roster, Sean Payton liked what he saw from the veteran to bring him back for Week 1. Given the youth playing critical roles in the WR corps, adding a veteran like Hogan to the mix makes sense for the Saints.

Siemian will likely slide into the backup role behind Winston, allowing Hill to resume his duty as gadget player without risking a series of injuries to leave the Saints without a QB on game day. The situation should be similar to how Winston played backup to Brees last season. Re-signing Siemian takes the pressure off rookie Ian Book to be that emergency QB out of the gate.

The team placed kicker Wil Lutz, tight end Nick Vannett and offensive lineman Will Clapp on injured reserve in corresponding moves. All three must miss a minimum of three games.

With Lutz recovering after core muscle surgery, the Saints will need a kicker. They signed Aldrick Rosas back to their practice squad. The expectation is they will activate Rosas from the practice squad to the game-day roster, saving them a roster spot on the 53 for now.

And finally. ... The Saints have added a valuable veteran to their secondary.

New Orleans is trading for Texans starting corner Bradley Roby, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported. Roby won't be available for Week 1 because of a 2020 violation of the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. But the eighth-year corner will help at a position of need for the Saints, whom Rapoport noted worked the phones hard in search of a CB.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Jameis Winston, Taysom Hill, Trevor Siemian, Ian Book
RBs: Alvin Kamara, Tony Jones Jr., Dwayne Washington
WRs: Marquez Callaway, Deonte Harris, Chris Hogan, Lil'Jordan Humphrey, Ty Montgomery, Michael Thomas, Tre'quan Smith
TEs: Adam Trautman, Juwan Johnson, Garrett Griffin

New York Giants

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

The New York Giants used free agency and the draft to fill holes in the lineup and to give Joe Judge a better chance in his second season as coach.

They gobbled up playmaking receiver Kenny Golladay, veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph and cornerback Adoree Jackson on the open market in March. The draft added speedy receiver Kadarius Toney in the first round. Everything was in place for New York to come off a 6-10 season and reach the playoff for the first time since 2016.

With the preseason over and the season opener against the Denver Broncos this week, the Giants may have more holes to fill than at the start of training camp. Injuries and longer than expected rehabilitations seemingly have left the Giants short-handed for the opening kickoff.

The list of question marks is long and impressive.

Coming off reconstructive ACL surgery on his right knee, star running back Saquon Barkley has not practiced at 100 percent and has had no contact. Golladay (hamstring), Jackson (ankle) and Rudolph didn't play in the preseason games, along with Toney, cornerback Aaron Robinson (core muscle) and linebacker Elerson Smith (hamstring), the team's first, third and fourth-round draft picks.

Left guard Shane Lemieux has been slowed by a knee injury since early in camp and tight end Evan Engram (calf) and receiver Darius Slayton (ankle/foot) were hurt in the preseason finale against New England.

In possibly a make-or-break third season, quarterback Daniel Jones seemingly is going to have less help than last year. The positive is coordinator Pat Graham's defense might be able to carry the team for a while with defensive lineman Leonard Williams back after signing a long-term deal coming off a breakthrough season.

All Judge can do for now is get his healthy players ready.

"One thing to focus on going into the season is you're never a finished product Week 1," he said. "You need to understand that, keep building, keep improving week to week from how you operate in September to keep improving as a team, and build towards those long stretches of the season. We're going to coach whoever is available and it's our job to have the entire team ready and the entire team progressing, and that's what we're going to focus on."

Fortunately, Labor Day provided good news: Barkley is nearly ready.

NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported that Barkley is close to being fully cleared and gearing up to play Sunday versus the Denver Broncos, per sources close to the situation.

The star running back suffered a torn ACL in Week 2 last season. Despite the tear occurring nearly a year before the 2021 season kicks off, there had been questions about whether Barkley would be fully healthy to begin the campaign.

Both the Giants and Barkley have been cautious. Most players declare themselves ready to play, usually boasting they're in the best shape of their lives post-injury. However, Barkley has tread cautiously, suggesting multiple times in the lead-up to training camp and preseason that he wasn't sure when he'd be fully cleared.

The closer we get to opening day, the more optimistic things have become about the shifty dual-threat being healthy to start the season.

Last Thursday, he shed the red jersey for the first time in live drills. Did he feel like his old self out on the field?

"I guess. I feel good. Taking it one day at a time," Barkley said. "I'm just not even trying to think about do I look like my old self. I'm a very confident player. I know whenever I'm able to get back out there -- maybe it might be one quarter, maybe it might be one play -- whatever the opportunity is, when I'm back out there, I know I'm going to be able to go out there and be who I am and play how I am.

"Right now, I'm not focusing on if I'm making cuts, saying, 'Is that how it was before?' I'm focusing on getting in football shape, just living in the moment, enjoying the moment and playing football again."

For the record, Rapoport noted that the club needs to watch him get through to Thursday's practice without any setback to gauge how the RB's body responds to the workload. Judge confirmed that Tuesday.

"I know the next question coming is where is Saquon," Judge said, via the New York Daily News. "Look, that won't be decided until later in the week. I want to see how he responds to a couple things physically within his body and make the best assessment for him this weekend and going past that."

Perhaps the Giants continue to take baby steps with Barkley in Week 1, keeping his load lighter against a very good Broncos defense and ramp up his workload each week. But the fact that we're finally having discussions about Barkley being close to fully cleared is great news for Jones and the rest of the offense.

The same holds true for Golladay.

He returned last Tuesday for a situational/walk-through practice and Thursday marked the first time Golladay has been on the field working in live drills at full speed since he pulled up lame on Aug. 3. He also seemed to be moving well and without limitations, although he didn't exactly indicate his explosiveness had returned fully just yet.

"I feel like each day I'm getting better," Golladay said. "So, right now I'm just taking it day by day, trying to stack good days on top of each other."

Rudolph (foot) and Toney (COVID-19 and hamstring) also just recently returned. Engram has yet to be ruled out with a calf injury, but is considered a long shot to play.

I'll be following up on all involved via Late-Breaking Update in coming days. ...

Meanwhile, beyond the injuries the biggest concern is the same as last season.

As Associated Press sports writer Tom Canavan notes, the offensive line was shaky in 2020 and its performance against the Patriots last week was poor. It gained 34 yards on 12 rushes, allowed two sacks and three quarterback hits.

Left tackle Andrew Thomas, the first-round pick last year, had a horrible game, whiffing on two pass rushes. Lemieux didn't play. Nick Gates is a solid anchor in the middle. The right side is a question mark. Will Hernandez is making the move to right guard after losing his spot on the other side to Lemieux following a bout with COVID-19. Right tackle will be played by either veteran Nate Solder or second-year pro Matt Peart.

If the offensive line is serviceable, Jones could have a breakout season, and the Giants will score points.

If it's not, Jones will likely continue to turn the ball over too much, the points will be sporadic and it won't make a difference who gets healthy among the skill players -- although there are factors working in their favor.

First and foremost, the Giants play in the NFC East, the NFL's worst division.

Washington won the division with a 7-9 record, and the Giants finished second, only a game behind despite a 1-7 start. Dallas also was 6-10 and Philadelphia 4-11-1.

Anyone can win this division.

And, as Canavan noted, Graham is going to become a head coach if his unit has another year like last. Graham took over a defense ranked 30th in 2019 and turned it into the NFL's ninth best. With the exception of Tomlinson, the group is returning and has a better understanding of the schemes.

The preseason showed the run defense needs some work. Veteran Danny Shelton is replacing Tomlinson in the middle of the 3-4 front.

Williams was a beast last season, getting 11 1/2 sacks. LB Blake Martinez continues to tackle everything in reach and James Bradberry is one of the league's top cornerbacks.

The smartest move the Giants made in recent years was signing placekicker Graham Gano last August after he was let go by Carolina.

The 34-year-old hit 31 of 32 field goals, with his only miss from 57 yards in the second week of the season. He ended the season setting a team record by making his final 30 attempts.

Gano has kicked so well the Giants could afford to trade Ryan Santoso to Carolina last week for a draft pick. ...

One last note here. ... The Giants created a little more cap space for the 2021 season.

Field Yates of ESPN reports that they have restructured the contract of wide receiver Sterling Shepard. They converted just under $6 million of his base salary for this season to a signing bonus in a move that creates $3.99 million in cap space.

Shepard's cap hits in each of the next two seasons will go up by just under $2 million and releasing him after this season would leave them with $6 million in dead cap space. That may make it likelier that he's back for another year, although the next few months should provide more information needed to make that decision.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Daniel Jones, Mike Glennon
RBs: Saquon Barkley, Devontae Booker, Gary Brightwell
WRs: Kenny Golladay, Sterling Shepard, Darius Slayton, C.J. Board, Kadarius Toney, John Ross
TEs: Evan Engram, Kyle Rudolph, Kaden Smith

New York Jets

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

According to Associated Press sports writer Dennis Waszak Jr., the vibe around the Jets began to change the day Robert Saleh was hired as coach.

The stench of a 2-14 season instantly dissipated and the disappointment and frustration of 10 straight years without a postseason appearance began to fade.

The team was overwhelmingly excited about Saleh's arrival. And the hiring was met with rare approval by both long-suffering fans and critical media. Maybe -- just maybe -- the Jets finally got this right.

"His character and passion," Jets vice chairman Christopher Johnson said in January, "are what this team needs."

Fast forward almost eight months and Saleh's impact is clear with his "All Gas, No Brake" mantra etched into the minds of the players and on the facility doors. Saleh has engineered a culture change around a franchise that needed an exorcism.

But now, it all must transfer to the field. And stay there. Starting in Week 1 at Carolina.

"I'm anticipating a lot of learning moments throughout this entire season," Saleh said. "We've gotten some great opportunities with regards to game management and reviews and timeouts and all that stuff. The difficulty level is only going to amplify once the regular season hits. So, there's still going to be many more learning opportunities to come."

The players have bought in, though. And they appreciate Saleh's breath-of-fresh air philosophy.

"I mean this in the nicest way possible: The Jets' previous head coaches have been gurus," center Connor McGovern said. "They have been into X's and O's and, 'We're going to beat you with the better scheme.' Saleh is: 'We're going to beat you because we work harder and play with higher effort.' He is what I would call a leader of men.

"He doesn't think X's and O's win football games. He knows players win football games. He's the kind of guy that is going to motivate everybody."

The next phase of the franchise's shift came when the Jets traded Sam Darnold to the Panthers and drafted Zach Wilson with the No. 2 overall pick.

The former BYU star has impressed his coaches and teammates with his tireless preparation, and his solid summer provided a measure of confirmation to what Saleh and general manager Joe Douglas already believed: Wilson can be their QB for years to come.

The Jets have been looking for a consistently successful quarterback since the days of Joe Namath. And Wilson will head into the season as the latest to try to shoulder those lofty expectations.

"I have confidence in myself and this team and I shouldn't just tell myself, 'Oh, there's going to be rookie mistakes,'" Wilson said. "You know, there is, but you can still do well with rookie mistakes, you can still learn from those. You can make a mistake in a game, but still finish strong and just move on."

The Jets will head into the season with one of the NFL's youngest rosters, with at least eight players -- including Wilson -- who are either rookies or in their second year possibly starting in Week 1.

"Pete Carroll once said, 'You can't be afraid to play young guys,'" Saleh said of the Seahawks coach who is one of his mentors. "They're hell on wheels and they're fun to watch."

A major criticism of the Jets the past few seasons was the lack of playmakers around Darnold. Well, Douglas has surrounded Wilson with quite a few.

The backfield in coordinator Mike LaFleur's offense has options in the veteran Tevin Coleman along with Ty Johnson, La'Mical Perine and rookie Michael Carter, a fourth-rounder. The wide receivers were upgraded with free-agent signings Corey Davis and Keelan Cole and second-rounder Elijah Moore to go with Jamison Crowder, Denzel Mims and Braxton Berrios.

According to ESPN.com's Rich Cimini, the Jets remain hopeful that Crowder, who tested positive last week for COVID-19, will play in Week 1 against the Panthers.

Crowder has virus-related symptoms, Saleh said Monday, but NFL protocols allow him to return to the team before Sunday because he's vaccinated. Once he's asymptomatic for 48 hours, he must have two negative tests 24 hours apart to be eligible. If Crowder had been unvaccinated, he would've been required to sit out a minimum of 10 days, meaning he likely would've missed the opener.

"We're just taking it a day at a time," said Saleh, adding that Crowder was an isolated incident with no close contacts.

Crowder, the Jets' leading receiver in 2019 and 2020, is their top slot receiver this year. If he can't play, they could use Moore or Berrios in the slot.

Their top outside receivers are Davis and Cole.

Tight end remains a bit of an uncertainty after New York traded Chris Herndon to Minnesota this week and cut Ryan Griffin and Daniel Brown. Tyler Kroft was signed in the offseason appears to be the starter.

While the success on offense will ultimately be determined by Wilson's development, the big guys up front will play a major contributing role while executing a new zone-blocking scheme.

Left tackle Mekhi Becton had a concussion at the end of camp and first-round left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker didn't play in the preseason because of a pectoral injury, so chemistry will be a focus early on. Morgan Moses was signed in the offseason to compete with George Fant for the right tackle spot, which was still undecided.

Beyond all that, it should be noted that Wilson has been everything the Jets envisioned when they drafted him. He has impressed with his tangibles (quick release and arm strength) and intangibles (poise and work ethic). Saleh said Wilson is "light years ahead of normal rookies" when it comes to preparation and study habits. Wilson has taken every first-team rep since the spring and he handled the first two preseason games with relative ease, although he did face predominantly backups.

It was good for his confidence, and it's helping his teammates become believers. "You couldn't ask for a smoother transition," Cimini added.

If Wilson brings stability to the position, the Jets will overachieve, though they have a low bar.

Only once in the past 14 years has their starting QB exceeded the league average in Total QBR (Ryan Fitzpatrick, 2015). ...

On the other side of the ball, the loss of defensive end Carl Lawson to a ruptured Achilles tendon was deflating, especially because Saleh and coordinator Jeff Ulbrich planned on him being a consistent pass-rushing presence. The Jets' late-summer trade for Shaq Lawson should help fill the void.

But the rest of the line is solid and should still cause fits with Quinnen Williams, Sheldon Rankins, Folorunso Fatukasi and John Franklin-Myers leading the way.

The Jets' biggest question mark is their cornerbacks group, which is alarmingly young and inexperienced -- especially after the surprising cut of Bless Austin.

Bryce Hall, going into his second year, is one projected starter, with Brandin Echols (sixth-rounder) possibly in the mix along with fellow rookies Jason Pinnock (fifth-rounder) and Isaiah Dunn (undrafted), and Javelin Guidry (second season). Rookie Michael Carter II (fifth-rounder) is the likely nickel corner. There will be a lot of learning on the jobs -- and possibly long days -- in the secondary.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Zach Wilson, Mike White
RBs: Ty Johnson, Michael Carter, Tevin Coleman, Lamical Perine, Josh Adams
WRs: Corey Davis, Jamison Crowder, Elijah Moore, Keelan Cole, Braxton Berrios, Denzel Mims, Jeff Smith
TEs: Tyler Kroft, Ryan Griffin, Daniel Brown, Trevon Wesco

Philadelphia Eagles

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

Since the moment Carson Wentz was traded to Indianapolis, there's been speculation the Eagles would trade for Deshaun Watson or another high-profile quarterback. While they signed former Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco in March and traded for Gardner Minshew last week, the starting job belongs to Jalen Hurts.

As Associated Press sports writer Rob Maaddi notes, Hurts took all the reps with the starters in training camp and rookie head coach Nick Sirianni finally confirmed the obvious on Tuesday after the team reached the 53-player roster limit.

"Jalen is our starter. He's done a great job," Sirianni said. "We wanted him to take advantage of the opportunity and take the reins with the advantage of the opportunity that he got, and we feel like the preseason that he had, he did that.

"I consistently saw a player that got better every single day. I consistently saw a player make the read, getting better with his reads and his accuracy and his ability to run and when not to run. He did exactly what we wanted him to do."

Hurts, a second-round draft pick in 2020, started the final four games on a last-place team, going 1-3 with flashes of brilliance and plenty of inconsistency. He quickly proved himself to teammates, even if the front office keeps its options open.

"I really like his mentality. All the intangibles, this kid has them in spades," three-time All-Pro center Jason Kelce said of Hurts. "He's got a great quiet, calm confidence to him. He's cocky. You can tell in his head he's the best player on that field, but he doesn't make all the … receivers, all the other players, feel like that's the case. He still appreciates all those other guys.

"He's still humble enough. But also confident enough at the same time. And that's hard to find in a player. But that's the way most of the (best) players I've been around are. So I'm excited to see what he can do this year."

The Eagles fired coach Doug Pederson after a miserable season that followed three consecutive playoff appearances, including the franchise's only Super Bowl title. They replaced him with Sirianni, who didn't get an interview with any other team.

Sirianni had spent the previous three seasons as offensive coordinator in Indianapolis. He brings plenty of energy and excitement and surrounded himself with a young staff. Expectations are low for Sirianni and the Eagles this season but he found after his introductory news conference just how tough media and fans in Philadelphia are when he was criticized for the way he answered questions.

Desperate for a playmaker at wide receiver, the Eagles spent another first-round pick on the position, trading up after trading back and selecting Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith at No. 10 overall. A knee injury slowed Smith at the start of camp but he finished strong.

Smith teams with Jalen Reagor, a 2020 first-round pick coming off a disappointing, injury-riddled rookie year.

In what should be a plus for all the above-listed players, ESPN.com's Tim McManus, there is a pretty compelling case to be made for Miles Sanders having a breakout season in 2021.

But nobody wants to hear it.

That's largely because similar prognostications last offseason fell flat. The 2019 second-round draft pick was a hot name in fantasy football and was expected to make the leap toward the upper echelon of backs in Year 2 after setting franchise rookie records for all-purpose yards (1,641) and yards from scrimmage (1,327).

Instead, Sanders missed four games with hamstring and knee injuries and finished 15th in rushing yards (867) and tied for 25th in rushing touchdowns (6).

His receiving numbers dipped dramatically, going from 50 receptions on 63 targets (79 percent catch rate) for 509 yards and three TDs in 2019 to 28 catches on 52 targets (54 percent catch rate) for 197 yards and no scores last season.

The production fell short of the hype.

Sanders has been flying under the radar all summer as a result, further covered by the low expectations surrounding the Eagles.

But McManus believes a closer look reveals why Sanders has bust-out potential.

Sanders, 24, dealt with a hamstring strain for the bulk of training camp last year and was sidelined for Week 1. Then he hurt his knee in October against the Baltimore Ravens and missed the next two weeks. He was never quite right. A rash of injuries along the offensive line made things even trickier, as the Eagles set an NFL record by having 13 different offensive line combinations in the first 14 weeks.

Sanders and the O-line are healthy heading into the Sept. 12 regular-season opener at the Atlanta Falcons. The front features three players who are over 30 years old in center Jason Kelce (33), guard Brandon Brooks (32) and right tackle Lane Johnson (31), but if the offensive line can avoid injuries, it has top-five potential.

"Man, my confidence is through the roof with this offensive line," Sanders said. "I'm not going to lie, I'm not going to sugarcoat it. We can do a lot of special things with this O-line. They know that, everybody else in this building knows that. We're going to go as they go."

Sanders ranked fourth in yards per carry (5.3) behind Cleveland's Nick Chubb (5.6), Green Bay's Aaron Jones (5.5) and Tennessee's Derrick Henry (5.4).

He flashed big-play ability, becoming the first Eagles player to record multiple rushing touchdowns of 70-plus yards in a single season. And he was the first running back to break three runs of 70-plus yards since 2012 when Jamaal Charles, Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson did so.

Put his two seasons together, and Sanders lands in pretty impressive company.

He has produced the fourth most scrimmage yards per touch (5.7) since 2019 among running backs with at least 300 touches behind the Los Angeles Chargers' Austin Ekeler (6.3), New Orleans' Alvin Kamara (5.8) and Carolina's Christian McCaffrey (5.8). He is fourth in the NFL in rushing average (4.9 yards per carry) over that span and leads the league in rushing plays of 60-plus yards (4).

Hurts and Sanders were paired together for three games last season. (Sanders sat out the season finale against the Washington Football Team.) In those three games, Sanders averaged 103 yards from scrimmage while scoring three of his six rushing touchdowns.

The threat Hurts presents as a runner keeps defenses honest.

Sirianni's last job was as offensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts, who deployed a fairly balanced attack. The Colts ranked 10th in rushing attempts last season with 459 compared to 403 for Philadelphia, which ranked 24th. In 2019, Indianapolis was fifth in rushing attempts (471) and the Eagles were seventh (454).

Colts running back Jonathan Taylor finished third in the league in rushing yards last season (1,169).

"We've obviously been impressed with Miles' ability to play. He's a very talented back. Excited about the things he's going to be able to do this year for our team," Sirianni said.

"As far as [splitting playing time] goes, we just like to keep guys fresh. If Miles needs a break, we'll have a guy in there to sub him. Then also, with our passing game, there are definitely things Miles can do, but we also have some other backs, like with Kenny Gainwell, rotate in, and Boston Scott is doing a good job of that as well."

Sanders had a strong training camp, showing good patience and next-level acceleration through the hole. However, he had issues holding on to the ball in the passing game. Drops became a regular sight, fueling concerns that last season's struggles as a pass-catcher were more than just a blip.

The rookie Gainwell, meanwhile, excelled in that area, just as he did at Memphis. Sanders had no problem conceding Gainwell has the best hands among the Eagles' running backs.

If Sanders has issues early on, it would be no surprise if Gainwell and Scott take on larger roles in the pass game, thereby eating into Sanders' snaps.

Sanders has been catching the ball with more consistency of late. If he can keep that up, and avoid injuries, a big season awaits.

The fun begins with this week's game against the Falcons in Atlanta. ...

Also worth noting. ... Three-time Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz remains on the roster despite seeking a trade and the team's pursuit of one throughout the offseason. Ertz is coming off a down year after averaging 82 catches and 879 yards over the previous six. He set an NFL record for most receptions by a tight end with 116 in 2018. It'll be interesting to see if Ertz gets more snaps than Dallas Goedert.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Jalen Hurts, Joe Flacco, Gardner Minshew
RBs: Miles Sanders, Kenneth Gainwell, Boston Scott
WRs: DeVonta Smith, Jalen Reagor, Quez Watkins, Greg Ward, JJ Arcega-Whiteside
TEs: Dallas Goedert, Zach Ertz, Jack Stoll

Pittsburgh Steelers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

Success came so easily for Ben Roethlisberger early in his career, he could be forgiven if he thought it would last forever.

Yet nearly 17 years after his NFL debut, the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback can still hear the words of former teammate Chad Scott ringing in his ears.

"(He) got up in front of the team and was like, "Listen, I've been doing this a long time and there's no guarantees you're ever going to make the playoffs again,'" Roethlisberger said. "So, I think every guy needs to take that approach, that (2021) could be the last chance you have."

For many of the Steelers, it might be. The now 39-year-old Roethlisberger included.

As Associated Press sports writer Will Graves notes, Pittsburgh resisted the chance to blow up the roster during the offseason, tinkering with it instead of overhauling it following an embarrassing home playoff loss to Cleveland.

Roethlisberger opted for a pay cut (on paper) to come back for an 18th season even after center Maurkice Pouncey and tight Vance McDonald both retired, guard David DeCastro was released, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva left for Baltimore in free agency and good friend Randy Fichtner didn't return as the team's offensive coordinator following a season in which the Steelers finished last in the NFL in rushing.

Roethlisberger insists his decision to return was not driven by vanity or greed, but by his love for the game and the belief there's still plenty of life left in his right arm now that he's nearly two years removed from right elbow surgery.

Still, Pittsburgh's mandate over the offseason was trying to take some of the pressure off Roethlisberger to do it all. The Steelers used the 24th overall pick to take former Alabama star running back Najee Harris, promoted Matt Canada from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator and used the three selections after Harris (tight end Pat Freiermuth, center Kendrick Green and tackle Dan Moore Jr.) on players who could conceivably create space for Harris to do his thing.

"All four of those guys are really football guys who have come in and acted like pros," Canada said. "From a coaching perspective, we're very happy with the way they work at it. Very happy."

The hope is Harris' arrival and a scheme that will include having Roethlisberger line up under center -- a concept that basically vanished while Fichtner called the plays -- will revive a rushing attack that finished last in the NFL in both yards and yards per carry in 2020.

In wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, Pittsburgh has the talent and the speed to stretch the field. It's something the Steelers struggled to do last season. Roethlisberger averaged a career-worst 6.3 yards per attempt and had just seven completions of 40 yards or more. Part of the blame fell on the running game, which was so ineffective Fichtner and Roethlisberger turned to short passes in an attempt to move the ball.

Roethlisberger is adamant he still has the arm strength to chuck it deep. He'll have plenty of options in a group that has plenty at stake personally, particularly Smith-Schuster. The four-year veteran and social media star opted to return on a one-year deal rather than leave in free agency, eager to prove his meager 8.6 yards per reception was a product of the system, not his own ability.

As Graves suggests, a little bit of balance could go a long way toward helping the Steelers stay in the playoff mix in one of the NFL's most competitive divisions and make their decision to retool instead of reboot look like a wise one.

Of some concern?

Head coach Mike Tomlin has resisted anointing specific starters along the offensive line, and with good reason. The unit remains very much a work in progress with a Week 1 visit to Buffalo looming.

Zach Banner, expected to return to the starting right tackle spot a year removed from knee surgery, was instead placed on the injured reserve/return list. Banner's absence means there's a very real chance Chuks Okorafor moves from left tackle to right, leaving Moore to protect Roethlisberger's blind side.

The interior line lacks fewer questions, with Kevin Dotson at left guard, Green at center and former Pro Bowler Trai Turner replacing DeCastro at right guard. Green has spent much of his summer watching videotape of Pouncey, marveling at Pouncey's physicality. A little bit of violence in his own approach to the game could go a long way toward determining whether Green is a long-term solution.

Also worth noting, Pittsburgh's reward for a division title and the best start in franchise history (11-0) is a schedule that statistically is the toughest in the NFL.

Trips to Buffalo to open the season this weekend, Kansas City and Green Bay as well as visits by Seattle and Tennessee -- not to mention the typical foray into what Tomlin likes to call "AFC North ball" -- will make it challenging for the Steelers to return to the postseason.

Four of Pittsburgh's first six games will be at Heinz Field and the Steelers will have to take advantage if they want a little bit of wiggle room down the stretch. The final month features four games against teams -- the Chiefs, Titans, Browns and Ravens -- that all made the playoffs in 2020. ...

Other notes of interest. ... The Steelers placed running back Anthony McFarland, who was trending to be a top backup for Harris, on IR. His injury is unknown. He won't be eligible to return until Week 4 at Green Bay.

T.J. Watt is widely considered a favorite to win 2021 Defensive Player of the Year honors entering a contract season with the Steelers.

So it was good new when the Steelers pass rusher ended his hold-in Wednesday by fully participating in practice for the first time this season. That included the team period, which he previously has skipped.

So does that mean Watt will play Sunday absent a contract extension?

"Like I said yesterday, I'm proceeding with that assumption," Tomlin said, via Brooke Pryor of ESPN.

Watt, 26, made the All-Pro team each of the past two seasons and was third in defensive player of the year voting in 2019 and second last season. He has 29.5 sacks the past two seasons, including an NFL-best 15 in 2020, with 77 quarterback hits, 15 pass breakups, 10 forced fumbles and 23 tackles for loss.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins
RBs: Najee Harris, Benny Snell, Kalen Ballage, Anthony McFarland Jr.
WRs: Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Ray-Ray McCloud
TEs: Eric Ebron, Pat Freiermuth, Zach Gentry

San Francisco 49ers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

As 49ersWebZone.com's David Bonilla framed it: "Jimmy Garoppolo will be the San Francisco 49ers' starting quarterback come Week 1, right? Unless he isn't. But he probably will be. Most likely. We're all pretty sure of that. Kind of. ..."

Yes, the veteran is the odds-on favorite to be under center when the 49ers face the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on September 12. The No. 3 overall pick, Trey Lance, will likely remain on the sideline but could enter the game in plays specifically designed to take advantage of his athleticism.

Head coach Kyle Shanahan has repeatedly declined to officially name his starting quarterback, often noting that there is no competitive advantage in doing so. He's correct, but consistently declining to officially announce the team's worst-kept secret has become somewhat comical.

Shanahan joined KNBR this morning and was asked if he was ready to declare his starting quarterback.

"No, I'm not," Shanahan responded. "And I don't think I'm going to tell anybody. I think everybody's just going to have to see it on Sunday (of Week 1)."

It was worth a shot.

In Shanahan's defense, he has declared all offseason that Garoppolo is the team's starting quarterback, and the plan is to have Lance sit and learn behind the veteran. The coach has stated that he would not object to starting a rookie, which he repeated this morning, but Lance would need to prove that he gives the 49ers the best chance to win.

Did he do that during the preseason?

While Lance has shown flashes of his exciting potential, the rookie probably didn't accomplish that just yet.

"I'm not trying to be cute with it or anything, but I think I've been pretty consistent through the whole thing," Shanahan continued. "I don't think it's really a necessary big statement that everyone wants me to make. But I've got two quarterbacks that I think can help us, and we're going to make sure we keep working with both of them throughout the year.

"Jimmy's been our guy since we've been here, and he's done a hell of a job. And I know he's going to help us throughout this year. And I plan on Trey helping us also."

But there was another hint. ... Via Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports Bay Area, Garoppolo was set to speak with reporters on Wednesday after Shanahan, which is the time slot reserved for the week's starting quarterback. Lance isn't scheduled to speak this week.

For what it's worth, Lance showed signs of progress in returning from a finger injury but there are still questions about whether he will be able to play in the season opener.

Lance no longer needed a splint on the index finger on his throwing hand after suffering a small chip fracture in the exhibition finale on Aug. 29. But during the open portion of practice for reporters Monday, Lance didn't make any throws. He held a ball during an early drill but practice squad quarterback Nate Sudfeld took warmup throws behind Garoppolo.

Lance didn't take snaps from center and only went through the motions on his footwork in the backfield before making fake throws on Monday. He was listed as a limited participant Wednesday.

Receiver Brandon Aiyuk (hamstring) returned to practice Monday while fellow wideout Jalen Hurd was working on the side.

Shanahan told reporters on Wednesday that Hurd is a candidate for injured reserve. Lance was limited in practice with his finger injury.

I'll have more on all involved via Late-Breaking Update in coming days. ...

Getting back to the quarterback situation, Shanahan gave a few hints of what could come during the season in the first two drives of the final exhibition game when Garoppolo and Lance shuttled in and out depending on personnel groupings. The Niners hope that will allow them to get the most out of both quarterbacks without breaking up any rhythm on offense.

"It was weird at first. Just having to process the whole thing," Garoppolo said. "But after being on the field, it was fun. When we're clicking like that and the defense is scrambling like that, it makes it hard. We're trying to win games out there and so whatever it takes, we're going to do that. ..."

As ESPN.com's Nick Wagoner reminded readers, we saw what health means for the Niners last season, but the thing that could make or break this season is whether they can press the right buttons when it comes to their quarterback situation. It's not so much about the performance of Garoppolo or Lance -- both should have the tools to produce -- as it is about managing the competition between them and not allowing it to morph into a controversy.

It hasn't been a problem yet, but things can change when a loss or two hit. How Shanahan, the two quarterbacks and the locker room respond when that adversity inevitably comes will go a long way in determining if this team can return to contender status.

We'll certainly be watching for more on that. ...

Other notes of interest. ... There will be a new coach calling the defensive signals after Robert Saleh left to become head coach of the Jets. DeMeco Ryans has moved up from linebackers coach to coordinator and will bring a few of his own wrinkles to what has been a successful scheme. If training camp and the preseason is an indication the Niners might be a little more likely to bring pressure.

"Obviously he's going to have his own taste or his own, his own touch to the defense," All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner said. "He brings that passion every day and he knows exactly what he wants. So it's been great so far."

Ryans will benefit from the return of an important piece of the defense.

The Niners were dealt a major setback last season when 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year Nick Bosa went down with a season-ending knee injury in Week 2. San Francisco eased Bosa back slowly in training camp but he seems ready to pick up where he left off as a rookie when he was one of the top pass rushers in the league.

"I don't know how he could have got stronger, but he did," left tackle Trent Williams said. "Very few people come back from major injury and are better than they were when they left. I played Nick before he left and I played when he got back, and he's better."

The biggest question for the Niners could be depth in the secondary. Jason Verrett is slotted at one cornerback spot but has been healthy just once in the past five years. Emmanuel Moseley is on the other side despite only 17 starts in his career. If one of them goes down, all that's behind them are Davontae Harris, who has eight career starts, and rookies Ambry Thomas and Deommodore Lenoir.

The Niners signed cornerback Josh Norman to a one-year deal and released cornerback Dontae Johnson.

The 33-year-old Norman was an All-Pro in 2015 with Carolina but has struggled to reach that form again since leaving the Panthers following that season to sign with Washington.

He struggled in coverage in both 2018 and '19 but fared a little better last season in a part-time role in Buffalo. He has 83 passes defensed, 15 interceptions, including three returned for touchdowns, in 120 games. He'll help provide depth behind Verrett and Moseley.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Jimmy Garoppolo, Trey Lance
RBs: Elijah Mitchell, Trenton Cannon, Trey Sermon, JaMycal Hasty, Jeff Wilson, Raheem Mostert
WRs: Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Trent Sherfield, Mohamed Sanu, Jauan Jennings, Jalen Hurd
TEs: George Kittle, Ross Dwelley, Charlie Woerner, Daniel Helm

Seattle Seahawks

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

As ESPN.com's Brady Henderson reported it, "Russell Wilson's right hand had barely found the laces on the football when he fired it to tight end Gerald Everett, who was split out wide to the left in a cluster of receivers. Everett caught it, weaved through his blocks and slipped into the end zone for a touchdown. ..."

Henderson went on to acknowledge it was an extreme example, but that play and countless others over the first month of Seattle Seahawks training camp illustrated what will be one of the biggest differences in their offense under first-year coordinator Shane Waldron.

It isn't just that Everett has replaced Greg Olsen as TE1, having followed Waldron to Seattle from the Los Angeles Rams. It's more so how the Seahawks plan to get the ball from Wilson to Everett, Tyler Lockett, DK Metcalf and Co.

In a hurry.

"It's really about getting the ball to our guys fast, quick as possible, taking our shots, too," Wilson said. "And also giving the ball to 32 and letting him run is always a good thing."

That's No. 32 as in running back Chris Carson, who will remain a focal point. But even as Waldron's offense maintains the Seahawks' long-standing reliance on their run game, he's installing a mostly new system, much more than Brian Schottenheimer did when he took over for Darrell Bevell in 2018.

It will feature fast tempo, a staple from Rams coach Sean McVay's offense Waldron is bringing to Seattle. And it will place more of a priority on keeping defenses honest with short and intermediate throws, something the Seahawks failed to do during their offensive collapse late last season, leading to another early playoff exit and Schottenheimer's departure.

All that came after a scorching start to the season in which Wilson led the NFL in touchdown passes over the first eight games and Seattle led the league in scoring. Most of that damage was coming on deep throws, which led defenses to adjust by more frequently dropping a second safety out of the box and deep into coverage.

Henderson went on to advise readers the general feeling around the organization is the Seahawks didn't have a strong enough underneath passing game to take what opponents started giving them. Trying to force deep throws that weren't there instead of quickly getting the ball out of Wilson's hands became problematic against the strong defensive fronts they faced down the stretch, particularly in two matchups against Aaron Donald and the Rams.

Shorter routes put a premium on gaining yards after the catch. It's something Everett does well and one of the reasons the Seahawks signed him to a one-year, $6 million deal. They also had that skill in mind when they spent their top pick on speedster D'Wayne Eskridge, who's back after beginning camp on the physically unable to perform list.

The goal is getting ball to playmakers capable of creating explosive plays with the ball in their hands as opposed to those explosive plays coming via deep throws, which have been Wilson's strength.

Since 2015, the Seahawks have averaged the sixth-most air yards per attempt (8.41), according to ESPN Stats & Information research. During that same stretch -- which includes three seasons apiece under Bevell and Schottenheimer -- they're 22nd in yards after the catch per reception (5.0).

By comparison, the Rams rank 24th in air yards/attempt (7.49) in four seasons under McVay and third in yards after the catch/reception (5.94). Everett ranked third in the latter category among NFL tight ends last season (5.88).

Waldron's offense should take pressure off Wilson thanks to the quicker throws. That should ease one of Wilson's frustrations by reducing the number of times he's hit and sacked.

Seattle will have fans back in the seats at home, but starts the season with four of its first six games on the road, including this week's game against the Colts in Indianapolis.

The two at Lumen Field during that stretch aren't easy with hosting Tennessee and NFC West rival the Los Angeles Rams. Seattle does get a break with a bye that falls at midseason, but road games at Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Washington dot a schedule that's already a challenge. Two of their final three are at home against Detroit and Chicago meaning a late final surge by the Seahawks may be possible. ...

Also of interest. ... Left tackle Duane Brown returned to practice Monday, ending his hold-in. Brown did not participate in on-field team work since the start of training camp in July.

"Yeah, he's ready to go. He's ready to go," head coach Pete Carroll said after practice. "We're pleased to have him. All in all, the camp that he was able to put forth -- he did all the learning. He's really healthy. He's really healthy right now. I'm really thrilled about that for him. It's one of the things we realized about the process of it that we would not wear him down at all during camp, like any player. So he's got fresh legs coming. He wants to play tight end. We probably won't get that chance, but he's asking."

Carroll said Brown would play against the Colts on Sunday.

Brown, 36, has been unhappy with his contract. Jeremy Fowler of ESPN reports Brown's representation and the Seahawks have engaged in discussions about an adjustment to Brown's deal for this year. Brown is scheduled to make $10 million in base salary in the final year of the deal.

"We're really ready to play football right now," Carroll said when asked about whether the team was in talks with Brown's agent. "That's where we are. Everything that needed to be taken care of is taken care of. Away we go."

According to Profootballtalk.com, safety Quandre Diggs ended his brief hold-in Monday. He didn't practice for the team ahead of the final preseason game as he made a statement about his contract.

And finally. ... The Seahawks placed TE Colby Parkinson, CB Tre Brown and CB Nigel Warrior on IR on Tuesday. WR Penny Hart and CB John Reid were promoted from the practice squad and Seattle signed CB Blessuan Austin.

Also, CB Gavin Heslop was signed to the practice squad. TE Mark Vital was cut.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Russell Wilson, Geno Smith, Jake Luton
RBs: Chris Carson, Alex Collins, DeeJay Dallas, Travis Homer, Rashaad Penny
WRs: DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett, D'Wayne Eskridge, Freddie Swain, Penny Hart
TEs: Gerald Everett, Will Dissly, Colby Parkinson

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

Two days after listening to a stirring speech from Tom Brady and receiving glitzy Super Bowl rings during a private ceremony, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers reported to training camp and turned their attention to the challenge ahead.

As Associated Press sports writer Fred Goodall notes, no team has repeated as NFL champions since the Brady-led New England Patriots hoisted the Lombardi Trophy after the 2003 and '04 seasons, yet a compelling argument can be made that no reigning champ since has been more equipped to break the trend than this year's Bucs.

Despite turning 44 early in training camp, Brady is showing no signs of growing old. And with all 22 starters returning, the seven-time Super Bowl winner has a plethora of offensive playmakers at his disposal, as well as one of the league's top defenses, to help him.

Complacency is a potential stumbling block Brady and his teammates are determined to avoid.

"It has to be the mindset," said receiver Mike Evans, the only player in NFL history to begin a career with seven consecutive seasons with at least 1,000 yards receiving.

"You can't get complacent," Evans added. "We won last year. ... We're the defending champs, but we're not the champs of this season, yet. We have to keep working to try and reach that goal again."

With Brady, Evans, Rob Gronkowski, Chris Godwin, as well as defensive stars Devin White, Lavonte David, Jason Pierre-Paul, Shaquil Barrett and Ndamukong Suh, harping the same message, head coach Bruce Arians isn't concerned.

The Bucs finished last season on an eight-game winning streak, including a 31-9 rout of Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl. He's confident team leaders won't allow complacency to become a problem.

"They know what it takes. ... I don't have to say anything," Arians said.

The reigning champions launch the NFL season at home against the Dallas Cowboys on Sept. 9.

Despite not having training camp, preseason games and a normal offseason to prepare for his first year with Tampa Bay due to the coronavirus pandemic, Brady threw for 4,633 yards, 40 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions in 2020. He passed for another 1,061 yards and 10 TDs vs. three interceptions in four playoff wins and Evans made some comments on Sunday that will do nothing to contradict the notion that the Bucs could win back to back Super Bowls.

"We're miles ahead of what we were last year," Evans said regarding his work with Brady. "Not just me and his connection, but the whole team, the whole offense. It's really exciting and hopefully we can do something really special this year."

Evans personally hopes to improve on certain aspects of his own game in his eighth NFL season.

"I always try to work on YAC," Evans said. "I always try to work on that and be in the best shape possible because if I'm in good shape and I'm healthy, I feel like I'm the best receiver on the planet. I just try to work on that mainly."

What has also emerged is another side of Brady, who appears to be enjoying himself a lot more than he displayed publicly during a 20-year stint with the Patriots.

Asked if that can be attributed to getting older, a change in environment or desire to connect more with fans, the quarterback said it might be "all of the above."

"It's nice that I've found my voice more," Brady said. "I really enjoy being around my teammates, my coaches. It's been a different environment ... playing with this group of guys."

Arians and general manager Jason Licht kept a vow to do everything possible to keep a talented roster intact around Brady, who also signed a contract extension that created salary-cap space to help the team to ensure all 22 starters, plus kicker Ryan Succop, remain with the Bucs.

The continuity, as well as Brady's increased comfort level with Arians' offense, are among the reasons the Bucs are positioned as well as any defending champ since the '03 and '04 Patriots to chase consecutive titles.

The Bucs have led the NFL in rushing defense each of their two seasons under defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, whose game plans helped corral Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Mahomes during the team's playoff run.

Barrett, David and Suh were among the players receiving new deals during the offseason. They're confident the defense can be even better in 2021.

"We weren't perfect, and we can never be perfect. There is always work to do, and there's always something to get better at," cornerback Carlton Davis said. "Complacency is the worst thing for an athlete, so we are just trying to correct what we didn't do well and get better at that while continuing to do the things we did do well."

On the injury front. ... Things had been trending toward Buccaneers safety Jordan Whitehead not being available for the season opener against the Cowboys. Now we know that will be the case.

Arians told reporters in his Tuesday press conference that Whitehead will be out on Thursday as he continues to deal with a hamstring injury.

Per Scott Smith of the Buccaneers' website, Arians said everyone else on the active roster is "ready to roll."

With Whitehead sidelined, Tampa Bay is set to use Mike Edwards and Ross Cockrell in the safety's stead.

Other than Whitehead, Godwin was a new addition to Tuesday's injury report. He was listed as a limited participant due to a quad injury. Godwin's fellow wideout Antonio Brown did not practice on Tuesday.

But Godwin, Brown (knee) and running back Giovani Bernard (ankle) all took part in Wednesday's walk-through and avoided injury designation.

Three other Bucs were added to the report, but rest days and not injuries were behind tight end Rob Gronkowski, defensive tackle Steve McLendon, and pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul landing on the list.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Tom Brady, Blaine Gabbert, Kyle Trask
RBs: Leonard Fournette, Ronald Jones, Giovani Bernard, Ke'Shawn Vaughn
WRs: Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, Antonio Brown, Scott Miller, Jaelon Darden, Tyler Johnson
TEs: Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard, Cameron Brate

Tennessee Titans

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

The Tennessee Titans have made clear that five straight winning seasons, three playoff berths and one AFC South title simply aren't enough.

Not this season.

Reaching the Super Bowl for the first time in 22 seasons is squarely in the Titans' sights for the 2021 season. Head coach Mike Vrabel isn't shying away from the lofty goal for a franchise that has reached the league championship only once in its history.

"Our job is to continue to raise expectations for our football team, for our coaching staff, for just our entire organization," Vrabel said. "That is what we have been charged to do, that is our job. There is a plan to doing that."

According to Associated Press sports writer Teresa M. Walker, the Titans see no reason why they can't contend for the AFC championship, a game they lost in Kansas City in January 2020. They have Derrick Henry, the AP NFL Offensive Player of the Year and back-to-back NFL rushing champ and Ryan Tannehill who helped Tennessee rank fourth in scoring last season.

Tennessee ended one drought last season, winning the AFC South for the first time in 12 seasons. But the Titans lost in the wild-card round when Baltimore found a way to smother Henry and the offense.

That's why general manager Jon Robinson traded for Julio Jones, hoping the seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver can help Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Brown provide balance. Robinson also revamped a defense that was among the NFL's worst in several categories last season with six new starters.

"Being able to win the division was good, but that is not why we compete in this game," Tannehill said. "It's not to win the division. It is a step, but ultimately it's to win a championship."

Henry became the first to lead the NFL in rushing in back-to-back seasons since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006-07, he also was the eighth man to run for at least 2,000 yards. Nobody in the NFL has carried the ball as much as Henry the past two seasons, and the Titans limited his work this preseason to keep him fresh as possible.

Asked about his motivation for this season, Henry made clear he remembers being held to 40 yards on 18 carries.

"You're only as good as your last game, and that's the last time I played," Henry said.

Tannehill set a franchise record with 40 touchdowns, 33 passing and seven rushing. The Titans tied Buffalo for the second-most yards per game (396.4) and ranked fourth in scoring in averaging 30.7 points per game. Only Kansas City averaged more yards per play over the past two seasons than Tennessee, while Baltimore is the only NFL team with more touchdowns in that span.

By trading for Jones, the Titans hope they upgraded from Corey Davis, now with the New York Jets, going with the receiver whose 95.5 yards receiving per game over his career is best in NFL history. Davis left the playoff loss with an injury, allowing the Ravens to focus on Brown and Henry in smothering the Titans.

That has the Titans hoping they can force opponents to pick and choose whom to defend first, giving everyone else more room to work.

Worth noting. ... The Titans activated Tannehill from the reserve/COVID-19 list on Saturday. The quarterback was placed on the list Aug. 26 after testing positive for COVID-19, sources told ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Tannehill said he was "in the process of getting vaccinated" when training camp started. He said at the time that he wouldn't have gotten the vaccine but that the NFL is "forcing players' hands" by instituting protocols. Tannehill was on the field when the Titans resumed practice Monday in advance of Sunday's game against the Cardinals in Tennessee.

His return is timely given the limited reps that he and Jones have had together in camp.

Jones missed extensive time after going down during the first week of camp and returned to practice the day that Tannehill was placed on the reserve/COVID list. The Titans also activated running back Jeremy McNichols from the list Saturday. They activated tight end Geoff Swaim off the list and returned him to the active roster on Monday. ...

On the injury front. ... According to ESPN.com's Turron Davenport, there was no sign of Brown during the opening portion of practice Wednesday. Instead, the wideout was riding a stationary bike. Brown has not worked much through the summer as he returns from cleanups performed on both knees in January. At this oint, there's no reason to believe he won't be ready to go this weekend. But watch the Late-Breaking Updates section for more in coming days. ...

Other notes of interest. ... The Titans struggled to get off the field on third down all season long in 2020. They were last in the NFL -- by a long shot -- at 51.8 percent. They also were last in sacks in the league until the final week of the season and a trip to Houston helped them finish 30th in that category. Tennessee was 29th against the pass.

That's why Robinson signed outside linebacker Bud Dupree and defensive lineman Denico Autry along with cornerback Janoris Jenkins as part of a complete makeover of the secondary. He drafted two new cornerbacks in Caleb Farley, the No. 22 pick overall, and Elijah Molden.

Vrabel did his part, giving Shane Bowen the defensive coordinator title he lacked last year and giving his job coaching outside linebackers to Ryan Crow. Vrabel also brought in Jim Schwartz, former Eagles defensive coordinator and Detroit head coach, as a senior defensive assistant.

The kicker position has become an adventure for Tennessee, which has used seven different kickers over the past two seasons. The Titans tried to let Tucker McCann and undrafted rookie Blake Haubeil fight for the job before claiming Sam Ficken off waivers from the New York Jets during training camp.

Ficken may have the job for now. He kicked well in joint practices and a preseason win over Tampa Bay, including making a 58-yard field goal. That prompted Tennessee to waive McCann a couple of days later. ...

And finally. ... The Titans have created a nice chunk of cap space for the 2021 season by restructuring the deal of Jones.

Field Yates of ESPN reports that the team has converted $14 million of his $15.3 million base salary into a signing bonus. They also added two void years to his current deal, which means that they've created $11.2 million in cap space for the coming season.

Jones' contract runs through the 2023 season and has base salaries of $11.513 million each of the next two years.

As Profootballtalk.com suggests, those salaries make it a good bet that we'll be hearing more about Jones' contract if he has a good first year with the AFC South team. The contract numbers for wideouts have gone well above those figures and the 32-year-old Jones probably isn't going to wait until his deal is up to look for one more big payday.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Ryan Tannehill, Logan Woodside
RBs: Derrick Henry, Jeremy McNichols, Khari Blasingame, Mekhi Sargent, Darrynton Evans
WRs: A.J. Brown, Julio Jones, Josh Reynolds, Nick Westbrook_Ikhine, Racey McMath, Cameron Batson
TEs: Anthony Firkser, Geoff Swaim, Tanner Hudson

Washington Football Team

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 7 September 2021

As Associated Press sports writer Stephen Whyno noted, before Washington gets a new name, Ron Rivera's team has one more chance to add another division title.

After winning the NFC East at 7-9 in Rivera's first year, Washington faces higher expectations in what should be the final season before a new moniker is unveiled. Ryan Fitzpatrick was signed to put a veteran quarterback in charge, and it might take a little "FitzMagic" to reach the playoffs again for an organization straddling the line between wanting to win now and building a sustainable contender for the first time in decades.

"If you have success and it's premature and it builds this air about you, that's not right: You get your butt kicked," Rivera said. "If for whatever reason we come out and say, 'Well, we arrived, man, we got this,' then we're not going to get better. We're not going to go back and learn from the basics. We're not going to understand what it takes to get back to where we need to be."

With Fitzpatrick, top receiver Terry McLaurin and second-year back Antonio Gibson running the show on offense and a stacked defense led by reigning AP Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young and stalwart defensive tackles Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, Washington should again be in the mix for first in the NFC East.

The defense that ranked second in the NFL last season added first-round pick Jamin Davis at linebacker and gets safety Landon Collins back from an torn Achilles tendon.

Even if there's some regression, the pass rush powered by Young and Montez Sweat is enough to give opposing QBs some fits and make defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio's unit one of the best in the league.

"I really try not to give ourselves a ceiling," Young said. "We got everything on paper. But at the end of the day, it doesn't matter. It's what we put out on the field and being consistent and just going out there and having to do it every single day."

Even more than consistency, Rivera is worried about his team's maturity. He expressed frustration early in training camp over Washington having one of the lowest rates of vaccinations among players and tried to hammer home the message that it could prove costly during the season.

A first-place schedule with games against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, Tom Brady and the Buccaneers and the New Orleans Saints will test how ready Washington is to win now. Even with a young group, there's a belief in the front office that it's possible.

"We think we can win with these players, develop these guys, and we can have these guys here for a long time," general manager Martin Mayhew said. "And that's what the plan is."

Fitzpatrick, now 38, is set to start for a ninth different team. He beat out surprise playoff performer Taylor Heinicke in a QB competition that was far more a coronation for Fitzpatrick than anything else, but it gave the well-traveled Harvard grad the opportunity to grow into Washington's leader right away.

"I want to be the guy that when we are in the fourth quarter or facing some adversity and people don't know what to do, they can look at me," he said.

"I have been through a lot in my career and have been through a lot in my life and I just try and stay steady. I want to be the same guy every day and the same guy in those situations. If I can provide a calmness for them in those biggest moments, that is the guy I want to be. ..."

Meanwhile, Curtis Samuel was largely sidelined throughout the preseason with a groin injury, but it looks like he still has a good chance to play in Week 1. Rivera said last Thursday that he was very optimistic that Samuel would be out there for the season opener against the Chargers.

"He's been doing a lot of work, a lot of conditioning work on the side as well," Rivera said. "With him, it's, obviously, going to be getting everything down and ready to roll. So we're feeling very confident. He's had some really good days out there on the side. And every morning he comes in and is feeling better and better. So we expect to have him out there ready to go with his teammates on Monday."

It well on Monday. It did not go well on Wednesday, however.

Samuel practiced without issue on Monday, but left the field early in Wednesday’s session and went to speak with trainers on the sideline.

Videos from practice show Samuel take his helmet off after running a route and shaking his head as he tries to stretch out the affected area. He was subsequently listed as a non-participant.

The images don’t bode well for Samuel’s availability in Week 1. If he can’t go, Adam Humphries, Cam Sims, Dyami Brown, Dax Milne and DeAndre Carter would join McLaurin as receiver options.

Rivera previously said that if Samuel does play, it won't be on a limited basis.

"It'll be an all or nothing [situation]," Rivera said. "He'll either be ready -- which would be great. If he's not ready, we have guys who we feel comfortable with that can do some of the things that he does."

Seems like nothing is the most likely outcome.

Samuel signed with Washington after playing his first four years for Carolina, three of which were under Rivera. The 2017 second-round pick reached 1,000 yards from scrimmage for the first time last year, with 851 yards receiving and 200 yards rushing. He also had five total touchdowns.

Having all his weapons back at some point will be important.

As ESPN.com's John Keim notes, a lot rides on Fitzpatrick and the team's quarterback play. Washington ranked last in Total QBR in 2020, so the bar is low. If Fitzpatrick is playing his best ball -- which he and the team are both saying -- then Washington can repeat as NFC East champ.

"But if he has too many FitzTragic games," Keim added, "then it will be difficult."

The defense should be better, but it will need help from the offense and it will come down to steady play under center.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Taylor Heinicke, Kyle Allen, Ryan Fitzpatrick
RBs: Antonio Gibson, J.D. McKissic, Jaret Patterson
WRs: Terry McLaurin, Dyami Brown, Adam Humphries, Cam Sims, Curtis Samuel
TEs: Logan Thomas, Ricky Seals-Jones, John Bates, Sammis Reyes