The end of Big Ben and Jamieis Jeopardy: the best storylines for the NFL season

<span>Photograph: David Grunfeld/AP</span>
Photograph: David Grunfeld/AP

The NFL’s annual summer minicamps are underway and training camps are right around the corner. Now is as good a time as any to look ahead to the most fascinating players heading into the 2021 season, non-Aaron Rodgers division.

Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins

You have to feel for Tagovailoa. He was drafted while still recovering from a devastating hip injury that was always going to stymie his development. Given the circumstances, the Dolphins were happy to wait on their quarterback of the future.

Then two things happened: the Dolphins turned out to be legitimate AFC East contenders, and fellow first-round quarterback Justin Herbert set to work torching the earth out west with the LA Chargers, immediately inspiring the kind of Bowie-over-Jordan vibes that would make any organization shudder.

With the Dolphins entering the year with playoff aspirations and Herbert leaping to the forefront of many “top 25 under-25” lists, the pressure is now on Tagovailoa to accelerate his own development curve. He cannot be fine or OK or getting-there anymore; he must hit the ground running in 2021.

Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers

Videos coming out of the Steelers’ summer work are … concerning. The words coming out of new offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s mouth are … doubly concerning. “We’re going to do what Ben [Roethlisberger] wants,” Canada said this week.

Canada was brought into the Steelers fold to bring a modern approach to their stale offense. No coach – and I mean no coach – uses motions, shifts, and pre-snap movement as much as Canada. The two other core tenants of Canada’s philosophy: playing from under center and using big formations.

There’s a problem, though: all three of those directly contradict the Roethlisberger Doctrine. Roethlisberger likes to take charge from the shotgun; he likes to play from empty formations; he does not indulge in pre-snap movement.

Related: After Aaron Rodgers, who will be the next star QB to try to force a trade?

It’s a strange marriage, made all the more confusing given Canada’s public concession to Roethlisberger’s wishes. Roethlisberger is ageing. Last year’s end-of-season creaking was a preview of what’s to come; the rumbling, tumbling Roethlisberger of former yers is no more. The Steelers must adapt, and in Canada they stumbled on a coach who could force some evolution. Now it’s over to Roethlisberger to recognize his newfound limitations and to get out of his own way.

Derwin James, LA Chargers

Derwin James’ versatility is a huge asset for the Chargers
Derwin James’ versatility is a huge asset for the Chargers. Photograph: Kelvin Kuo/AP

The most intriguing hire of the recent coaching cycle was Brandon Staley crossing the Los Angeles divide, leaving behind the Rams to take the head coaching job with the Chargers.

Staley is perhaps the most innovative defensive coach to enter the NFL in two decades. After years in college football, he jumped up to the role of Rams defensive coordinator and set to work building the most fearsome defensive structure in the league.

Of course, building a sophisticated, quirky, creative scheme is easier when you have the league’s finest wrecking ball (Aaron Donald) and one of the game’s top cover corners (Jalen Ramsey). Whether or not the coach can recreate his recipe for success elsewhere remains an open question. Certainly, Staley with have a bowling ball of his own with the Chargers, thanks to edge-rusher Joey Bosa. But it’s do-everything safety-linebacker-slot-cornerback-hybrid Derwin James who inspires a burning in the football loins.

James is among the league’s most explosive athletes and a true position-less player – not a player who just lines up in a whole bunch of spots, but who excels in a whole host of different roles. Staley will have fun crafting ways to best use James’ talent, and if the defensive back returns from his 2020 injury close to his best he will be vying for the defensive player of the year award by the season’s end.

Jameis Winston, New Orleans Saints

What to make of the Saints without Drew Brees? You could argue – if you wanted to be hyper critical – that for the last two seasons, Brees’ diminishing game held back the Saints offense, bogging down a group that had the kind of skill position talent and offensive line that would make even the Kansas City Chiefs a little envious.

Could Winston, he of 30-touchdowns-30-interceptions fame squeeze some extra juice out of the Saints offense, adding a vertical passing game that vanished at the end of the Brees era? Will Sean Payton be able to unlock the former No 1 overall pick, whispering all the right things and calling all the right plays in order to maximize the good of Jameis (his aggressiveness) while covering up the bad (his aggressiveness)?

Or will it all be a mess: A classic case of a team falling off a competitive cliff once a hall of fame quarterback walks out the door.

Jadeveon Clowney, Cleveland Browns

For the first time since the resurrection of the franchise, the Browns enter the season with Super Bowl expectations.

This is a team that will see Odell Beckham Jr return from injury. It’s a team with the best offensive line in the league. It’s a team with the most consistent, explosive running back group in the league. And it’s a team with two of the 10 most fearsome pass-rushers in the NFL. Who do you double-team? Myles Garrett, gunning for defensive player of the year and the all-time single-season sack record (the 17th game will help), or Jadeveon Clowney, the former No 1 overall pick who has the second-highest pass-rush win-rate in the NFL over the last three seasons.

The Clowney-Garrett duo will give the Browns the kind of pass-rushing oomph that can ruin even the finest gameplan. If Clowney, who has entered the mercenary stage of his career, is motivated enough to deliver another prototypical Clowney year, the Browns will be primed to clinch the AFC North and will be well placed for a deep playoff run.

Alex Leatherwood, Las Vegas Raiders

Like most recent Raider draft picks, Leatherwood walks into the building under considerable pressure. He has already been hit with the “reach” tag after being selected 17th overall, adding an extra degree of scrutiny to his rookie year.

And there will be no time for him to find his feet. It’s gone a little under-the-radar, but the Raiders opted to blow up one of the league’s top offensive lines this offseason, trading away Trent Brown, Gabe Jackson, and Rodney Hudson for middling draft picks. It was a bold move, and it means that Leatherwood will be expected to start and deliver from the opening week of the regular season. The only problem: the five opening games of the Raiders’ regular season are the Ravens, Steelers, Dolphins, Chargers, and Bears, all of whom feature an All-Pro pass-rusher or a group that finished in the top-15 in pressures in 2020. Best of luck, rook!

Trey Lance, San Francisco 49ers

The Niners have briefed all the right things about Lance. Yes, there will be a steep learning curve. Yes, we’re happy to roll with Jimmy Garoppolo until Lance is ready. Listen, it will take time – he did miss all-but one game last season due to Covid, and that was in college football’s second division. We’re excited but cautious for year one.

Nonsense! Lance will play – because that’s how it works in the modern NFL. From 2005 to 2020, 45 quarterbacks were selected in the first round of the draft. In 43 of the 45 cases, those first-round quarterbacks became their teams’ full-time starters within two seasons, and almost all of those received the nod within 10 games of their rookie season (wait any longer and it indicates there’s a problem).

Lance’s mobility should bring a new dimension to Kyle Shanahan’s offense. It’s the main reason the Niners coughed up so much draft capital to move up to select Lance third overall. With mobile-ish quarterbacks, Shanahan has produced some of the most effective, efficient offenses of the last decade. Adding a true dual-threat at the most important position on the field opens up all-manner of fresh possibilities.

It may not fully come together in year one, but it will be fun watching Shanahan blend his style with that of his young quarterback.