It’s that speculative time of year.
Fans of every NFL stripe are following their teams’ training camp follies with great interest. Every injury is catastrophic. Every dropped pass is a killer. And every success is magnified far beyond typical measure. This sort of hyperbolic reaction to everything, and I’m guilty of this like everyone else, leads to outsized team expectations and crushing disappointment when things don’t happen as projected. Still, it’s not a deterrent to making predictions, however outlandish. We all do it reflexively, as sports in general are ultimately measured by numbers, and those that produce higher ones give us a window in which to make our (suspect) projections.
So I asked you folks to contribute your 2021 season projections for a number of player and team categories, and a fair amount of you responded. The following is a compilation of that effort. While some choices were exceedingly obvious, there’s others that remain firmly in debate and will have to flesh out over the course of the 2021 NFL season.
To the picks:
Division Winner: Cleveland Browns
The Browns eked out a narrow win over the Ravens here, who registered a close second (one vote difference). Really, it’s a toss-up between these two, as the Ravens still retain their advantages over most teams in athleticism, while the Browns have built a formidable roster in a more traditional manner. Barring unforeseen collapse or injury, this debate will probably rage well into the season, and with potential MVP candidates on both rosters, there’s no shortage of significant contributors to each team’s efforts to consider.
Division MVP: Lamar Jackson
Since Jackson remains the only MVP in the division currently, it’s a natural choice, and one a majority of you went with. The closest second choice was a little surprising in RB Nick Chubb, which demonstrates how much faith Browns fans have in their reliable bell cow. Jackson, in my opinion, really does represent what an MVP award is, as the Ravens would be a third-rate cellar dweller without him, and they surely know it. Perhaps our endorsement will net him a few more dollars in his current contract negotiations.
Best QB: Ben Roethlisberger
Despite all the young upstarts at QB in the AFC North, a slim majority of you decided to go with the lone old fella, whose overall season totals and vast experience may yet hold forth for another division-winning year, although “Big” Ben’s decline in the 2020 playoffs can’t be overlooked. Given the changes along Pittsburgh’s offensive line this year, keeping Roethlisberger healthy and upright will be the team’s biggest 2021 challenge. Rookie RB Najee Harris will also play a significant role in doing just that, as well as adding some much-needed ground cover for a team that, frankly, passed the ball entirely too much in 2020.
Best RB: Nick Chubb
A nearly unanimous choice among you, Chubb’s bruising presence has become a staple of the Browns’ offense and should continue to provide meaningful gains and great play-action opportunities for the foreseeable future. The only real concern with Chubb is his lack of receptions out of the backfield, but really, he’s not been asked to do much in that role. Because of Chubb, the Browns have more offensive balance than arguably any team in the NFL currently, which should enable them to expand their playbook a bit from recent years.
Best WR: Chase Claypool
An interesting selection by a much wider margin than anticipated, Claypool looks poised to improve upon his excellent rookie season. His combination of size and speed has been a huge bonus for a tight end-challenged team that traditionally likes to work their passing game to all areas of the field, but particularly across the middle, where sightlines are easiest for QB Ben Roethlisberger. Claypool is useful lining up anywhere, but his value in making tougher catches against larger safeties and linebackers may prove to be his biggest asset.
Best Defense: Steelers
This was the closest of all the tallies, with one vote separating the Browns and Ravens, who were tied, from the Steelers. Given the Steelers’ well-constructed defense and notable defensive personnel, this is a solid choice, although the team may experience some secondary issues due to free agency losses and salary cuts. The Steelers’ pass rush should be enough to offset those losses, although it remains to be seen if stalwart LB T.J. Watt will receive adequate help after the departure of fellow LB Bud Dupree. My guess is yes.
Defensive MVP: Myles Garrett
Another close contest, in which Garrett beat out Watt by a single vote. It should be noted there’s no wrong choice between these two, as both are among the best at their respective positions, both require extensive game-planning to account for, and both are a constant concern of opposing offenses. Garrett seems to have a bit of a chip on his shoulder this season as he works his way back from what was reportedly a serious case of COVID-19 suffered last November; he’s apparently out to prove how recovered he is, which should worry offensive coordinators around the league.
Special Teams: Ravens
Like RB, this was not close, as the Ravens sport arguably the best special teams unit in the NFL in K Justin Tucker, P San Koch and LS Nick Moore, who appears to be filling in nicely for long-time free agent defector Morgan Cox, now with the Titans. Tucker, occasionally termed “The Offense” in Baltimore, stands ready to deliver another excellent year, as his initial preseason kick was 54 yards, successfully delivered.
So that’s that. I imagine we’ll revisit this often during the season. Let’s hope our predictions last through the preseason, anyway.