The 2021 NFL season gets underway Thursday night, as the Cowboys take on the defending champion Buccaneers. But before we think about Tom Brady returning to the field with his full Super Bowl–winning cast around him, The Ringer’s NFL writers came together to predict which teams will make the playoffs, and who will come away with awards at the end of the season. Here’s what they came up with.
Playoff Predictions and Super Bowl Winner
Kevin Clark: The Packers have an incredible collection of top-end talent—not just the reigning MVP, but perhaps the best wide receiver and tackle in football, as well as a top-flight cornerback in Jaire Alexander and talent at almost every level of the field. Now, you might have noticed that the Chiefs have a similarly stacked roster, and that’s why these two will play in a classic Super Bowl. I’m picking the Packers based on the addition by subtraction of not having Mike Pettine anymore, and what I consider to be a more talented defense. It will be a shoot-out, and it will be close. But I’m going with the Packers.
Nora Princiotti: Chalk is boring, but it’s chalk for a reason. The Chiefs lost the Super Bowl last season because of their offensive line, so they spent the offseason fixing it. It’s entirely possible that that unit could struggle early on before it truly jells, but all it needs to do is click by January.
Steven Ruiz: The season hasn’t even started yet and I already hate my Super Bowl pick. I’m putting entirely too much faith in Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman to get the most out of a supposedly improved receiving corps that has already been decimated by injuries. But the receivers will eventually get healthy (I think), Lamar Jackson is still a very good football player, and the defense seems to be a top-five unit every season. Picking the Chiefs to win it all is probably the smart thing to do, but it’s also boring. That’s right, Patrick Mahomes bores me!
Danny Heifetz: Picking a rematch is a cop out, blah blah blah. Spare me. The quarterbacks, coaches, and surrounding talent for these teams are just too good. In the NFC, it’s hard to bet against Brady’s playoff experience. Buffalo is enticing in the AFC, but I stared into a mirror and I’m not ready to pick Josh Allen over Mahomes. Give me the Chiefs.
Danny Kelly: The Bills have all the pieces to make a Super Bowl run. There’s continuity on both sides of the ball and in the coaching staff. The already-solid defense got an upgrade in its pass-rush group with the additions of Gregory Rousseau and Boogie Basham. And most importantly, Josh Allen is primed for a massive year. In Brian Daboll’s high-octane, pass-first scheme, Allen’s going to make this Bills offense a buzz saw.
Kaelen Jones: The Browns and Bills could make Kansas City’s life hard in the AFC, but I’m not betting against Patrick Mahomes—against any NFC challenger.
Ben Solak: Call me a sentimentalist, but I sure would like to see Aaron Rodgers win a Super Bowl in his final season in Green Bay, as some sort of odd swan song/flipping the bird at Brian Gutekunst hybrid. The good news is the Packers have the roster to do it. Early season bumps with a new defensive structure and a shuffled offensive line are inevitable, but I imagine everything will coalesce. No way they lose three consecutive NFC championship games … right?
Rodger Sherman: Until further notice, just keep picking the Chiefs to win the Super Bowl. Maybe this strategy will change in, like, 2024, but until then, just pencil Kansas City in.
Riley McAtee: Preseason predictions should at least be fun, since they’ll almost certainly be wrong. Aaron Rodgers going on a scorched-earth revenge tour that ends in a Super Bowl victory would be fun. And seeing him do it over the Browns would also be fun; I’ll never stop believing in Baker Mayfield.
Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
Heifetz: MVP is a team award disguised as an individual award. Twelve of the past 14 MVPs have been quarterbacks whose team earned a first-round bye. This season, I think Josh Allen, Aaron Rodgers, and Matthew Stafford will all fit this bill, but Mahomes is the safest choice.
Princiotti: Mahomes with a better offensive line and extra time to work his magic? Sends shivers down the spine.
Solak: This award typically goes to a top-seeded quarterback, so in my playoff picture, that leaves Mahomes, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Lamar Jackson—a.k.a. the past four winners of the award. Voters don’t like back-to-back winners (it hasn’t happened since Peyton Manning in 2008 and 2009), so I can scratch Rodgers off the list. When you think about it, it’s kind of silly that Mahomes has won only one MVP award even this early in his career. I usually don’t like taking the chalk, but he’s just too good.
Sherman: Until further notice, just keep picking Patrick Mahomes to win MVP. Maybe this strategy will change in, like, 2028, but until then, just pencil Mahomes in.
McAtee: Mahomes has been so good the past three seasons that it’s surprising he’s won only one MVP award. The complete overhaul of the Chiefs’ offensive line should have Mahomes primed for a career year (well, another one).
Josh Allen, Bills
Kelly: Allen is going to go off for the Bills this year in the team’s super aggressive pass-first scheme, and I think Buffalo has a chance to finish with one of the best records in the NFL.
Jones: If you haven’t already asked forgiveness for past Josh Allen takes (like a handful of us at The Ringer have), it’s officially last call. Allen is still ripping accurate throws. With another year of continuity in both play-calling and supporting cast, don’t be shocked if he improves on his 46-TD total from 2020.
Matthew Stafford, Rams
Clark: Since 2013, when quarterbacks started a streak of winning every MVP award that might never end, most of the MVPs have been all-time greats: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes. But the list of winners also includes Cam Newton and Matt Ryan, two talented players who had career years with great rosters and, in Ryan’s case, the best offensive coordinator in the league. My theory is that, given Sean McVay’s offense and the talent around him, Stafford will play better than ever, and the team will win enough games to carry him to the MVP award.
Lamar Jackson, Ravens
Ruiz: Look, I picked the Ravens to win the Super Bowl, and if they’re in a position to do so, that would mean Lamar had a great year. Really, this is just wishful thinking on my part because I can’t handle another offseason of Lamar Discourse. By signing Sammy Watkins and drafting Rashod Bateman, Baltimore has finally given the QB an NFL-caliber receiving corps. I believe Jackson is one of the NFL’s better passers, and he’ll be able to show it this year. A 50-touchdown season—counting both passing and rushing scores—is on the table.
Offensive Player of the Year
Davante Adams, Packers
Clark: I’m picking Davante Adams to have a huge year as the Packers roll to an NFC North title. He is, at worst, a top-three receiver in the sport, and he might be the best this year. On a solid roster with Aaron Rodgers throwing to him, I’m all in.
Kelly: Adams has a real shot to lead the NFL in catches, yards, and touchdowns. If he gets that triple crown of receiving stats, it’d be hard not to give him this award, even in a season when Josh Allen (or some other QB) wins the MVP.
George Kittle, 49ers
Princiotti: Ah, yes, the good-job-but-you’re-not-a-quarterback award. In my heart, the OPOY is anyone who can get the league to rename their awards to make more sense, darnit. But if that’s not an option, I’ll take Kittle, whose flexibility in run support and the pass game should keep him on the field in one of the NFL’s most exciting offenses.
Lamar Jackson, Ravens
Ruiz: We must stop the practice of giving the MVP and OPOY awards to different players. It makes no sense! If Jackson is the NFL’s most valuable player and plays on offense, he should get the Offensive Player of the Year award, right? Somehow, Michael Thomas stole the award from Jackson in 2019 by catching a hundred quick slants. We can’t let that happen again!
Matthew Stafford, Rams
Heifetz: A preseason narrative I am buying: Sean McVay is going to throw a lot to reestablish the Rams as an offensive powerhouse.
Josh Allen, Bills
Jones: Seriously, he might score 50 total TDs this year.
Keenan Allen, Chargers
Solak: The Saints’ stellar offense got Michael Thomas this award in 2019, and while I don’t think Keenan Allen can match those numbers, I do like that he saw 10.7 targets per game with Herbert under center last season. One of the Chargers’ top receivers from 2020, Hunter Henry, is gone to New England; rookie third-rounder Josh Palmer and veteran journeyman Jared Cook are the only significant additions to the receiving corps. That’s enough for me.
Calvin Ridley, Falcons
Sherman: The winner *should* be Mahomes, but the Offensive Player of the Year Award kind of functions like the “Best Non-Quarterback Award.” Let’s give it to Ridley, who should put up ridiculous numbers as a no. 1 receiver.
Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
McAtee: See: Mahomes, Patrick.
Defensive Player of the Year
Myles Garrett, Browns
Solak: My heart wanted to go with Pittsburgh edge T.J. Watt here, as he was third in voting in 2019, then second in 2020—first in 2021 would be so satisfying. But with Bud Dupree gone, I think Watt will get more attention on the outside this year. Garrett, meanwhile, will have a substantially improved cast around him. Jadeveon Clowney and Malik Jackson should provide enough pass rush to pull some attention. And if Garrett puts together a 17-game season, he’ll be among the league’s sack leaders for sure.
Princiotti: Garrett has put together two DPOY-caliber seasons, they’ve just been incomplete. If he plays a full season and has Jadeveon Clowney on the opposite side to take some attention away, this should be the year.
Sherman: Someone besides Aaron Donald has to win eventually, right? Right?
Clark: This is a guess that there’s some amount of Aaron Donald fatigue among voters, and that the Browns are relevant enough for Garrett to get a lot of shine. Garrett is probably the second-most-dominant athlete playing defensive line. He’s had double-digit sacks in each of his past three seasons, and most importantly, he’ll be playing for an AFC contender this year.
Aaron Donald, Rams
Jones: As PFF’s Sam Monson examined this summer, Aaron Donald might end up being the best defensive lineman ever. He led the NFL with 98 total pressures and 69 QB hurries last season, and was second in sacks (13.5). He could become the first player to win four DPOY awards.
McAtee: Similar to Mahomes, Donald is just too good to bet against. He has three of these trophies already and six first-team All-Pro appearances in seven seasons, and he could put together another all-world campaign in 2021.
Heifetz: Other players might have better stats, but nobody is a better defender.
Derwin James, Chargers
Ruiz: I just want to see Derwin James play a full season of football again. If that happens, he should get the award. But really, he’s found himself in the perfect scheme for his robust skill set. James will be listed as a safety, but in Brandon Staley’s defense, he’ll do a lot more than man the back end of the secondary. He’ll play a little linebacker, cover tight ends and slot receivers, and rush the passer. And unlike other “hybrids” who are really just “tweeners who aren’t strong in any one area,” James is awesome at everything he’s asked to do.
Chase Young, Washington Football Team
Kelly: Young is poised for a massive Year 2 leap. After tallying 7.5 sacks as a rookie, I expect him to explode into double digits this season. Plus, he’ll be the face of the Washington Football Team’s defensive unit, a group that will be among the league’s elite this year.
Coach of the Year
Bill Belichick, Patriots
Princiotti: Belichick hasn’t won Coach of the Year since 2010, even though his teams have won three championships and nine division titles since then. If there’s ever a time for him to win, it’s 2021: This team has made strong additions in free agency; Mac Jones is progressing; and players like Dont’a Hightower, who opted out of last season, are returning. All of which gives Belichick far more to work with than he had last year.
Kelly: Belichick hasn’t had many opportunities to “turn a team around” over the past decade, but he’s going to do just that for the Patriots after finishing 7-9 in 2020. It won’t hurt that he’ll get New England back to the playoffs with a rookie quarterback at the helm.
Brandon Staley, Chargers
McAtee: First-year head coaches have won three of the past four awards, and Staley is inheriting a team that could be great. The Chargers offense is loaded with a promising collection of talent (not to mention offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, who should bring an efficient Saints-styled scheme to Los Angeles), and the defense has some big playmakers in Joey Bosa and Derwin James. There’s a chance for the Chargers to be one of the best teams in the NFL on both sides of the ball.
Ruiz: This is my second Chargers pick, in addition to picking them to make the playoffs, so I can already tell you that all my predictions are cursed. But if Staley can replicate like 60 percent of the good things he did for the Rams defense last year, and Justin Herbert builds on a surprisingly good rookie season, Staley will be an easy pick for the media, which has been trying to will the Chargers into being good for like five years now. This is the year!
Jones: I thought I might be picking an underdog until I checked the odds. Turns out you all see what I do: Staley is entering a favorable situation, with Justin Herbert quarterbacking a talented offense and the All-Pro-caliber duo of Derwin James and Joey Bosa on defense. The AFC West could be one of the most competitive divisions in football, but there’s reason to believe that if Lombardi can get the offense purring, the Chargers could be a playoff team in 2021.
Mike Tomlin, Steelers
Clark: This is an award about expectations and, separately, how much the media appreciates a coach in a given year. The Steelers are not widely expected to be serious playoff contenders this season—in fact, I don’t remember a time when the bar was lower in Pittsburgh. But Tomlin is an awesome coach, and his consistency is being appreciated more as time goes on, by myself and others. If the Steelers turn in a solid season, Tomlin will get his due.
Arthur Smith, Falcons
Heifetz: The real Coach of the Year Award is called the Lombardi Trophy. This one usually goes to the coach whose team most outperformed regular-season expectations (bonus points for a first-year coach). If Smith leads the Falcons to the postseason after the team finished 4-12 last year and lost Julio Jones, he’ll be the belle of the ball.
Kyle Shanahan, 49ers
Solak: Coach of the Year, on the surface, is an award for turning teams around and winning games. No coach has won this award with fewer than 10 wins since Jimmy Johnson in 1990, and typically those double-digit-win seasons come as overachievements and surprises. For these reasons, I like San Francisco HC Kyle Shanahan, whose Niners are coming off a six-win season and will likely feature a rookie QB in Trey Lance down the stretch as they fight for the playoffs. The creative running game that Shanahan designs with Lance under center should get him a ton of national pub—and help him win this award.
Brian Flores, Dolphins
Sherman: I think the Dolphins are going to win the AFC East, and I think they’re going to do it because of Flores’s spectacular defense.
Comeback Player of the Year
Dak Prescott, Cowboys
Sherman: We don’t talk enough about how Dak was en route to one of the greatest passing seasons of all time last year. I can’t wait to see what he does if he actually plays a full season.
Princiotti: Prescott’s run on Hard Knocks sets him up nicely for this award, coming off the compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle last year.
Jones: Remember learning about compound fractures for the first time in elementary school? It sounded like you would never, ever be the same after experiencing one. Dak’s injury wasn’t as dire as something like Alex Smith’s, but considering the circumstances, this feels like an easy choice.
Ruiz: Prescott is the quarterback for the most famous team in the league. The NFL will spoon-feed us prime-time Cowboys games whether we want them or not. If he makes it through the year with a decent statline, it’s his.
McAtee: Here’s a fun stat: Over the past two seasons, Prescott has averaged 321.8 passing yards per game. The only other player above 300 is Patrick Mahomes (302.4). The Cowboys have arguably the best receiving corps in football and could have the best offense in the NFL.
Solak: Prescott is the favorite for this award, and while I could give you deep reasoning why someone like Odell Beckham Jr. is a good bet (he is!), I just really want it to be Dak. Prescott’s one of the most fun quarterbacks to watch when he’s on, and the Cowboys offense has the firepower to beat anyone if Prescott is healthy and protected. I don’t think Dallas will be good overall, but I think Prescott’s counting stats will get the job done.
Heifetz: All Dak needs to do to win this is actually come back.
Christian McCaffrey, Panthers
Kelly: After missing most of last season to the combination of ankle, shoulder, and thigh injuries, it’s wheels up for McCaffrey in 2021. He’s a good bet to lead the NFL in scrimmage yards, as he did two years ago.
Clark: I want to pick Dak here, but I still have major questions about his heath. McCaffrey will be back and will be a focal point of this offense. No one who battled injury last year has a clearer path.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Trevor Lawrence, Jaguars
Ruiz: I’m not overthinking this one. Lawrence was the top pick in the draft for a reason, and he was considered the best prospect since Andrew Luck for a reason. Trevor Lawrence is too good to fail, even if he has to overcome the Jaguars’ bad vibes to succeed. Had Trey Lance been named the 49ers’ Week 1 starter, I would have considered him, but sadly that is not the case.
McAtee: There is plenty of competition here, but I’ll go with the once-in-a-decade QB prospect. While the Jaguars offense has looked out of sorts in the preseason, I have faith they’ll figure things out in the games that count. And while the Urban Meyer experiment could see some hiccups, fans and analysts seem to be undervaluing how much one of the greatest college football coaches ever knows about football.
Heifetz: Let’s not overthink this.
Jones: Lawrence isn’t inheriting as nurturing a situation as his fellow rookie passers, but we know for certain he’s his team’s starter and has already flashed some of the talent that made him such a generational prospect.
Mac Jones, Patriots
Kelly: It’s tough to pick just one of the five rookie quarterbacks (Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields, and Jones) who all looked good in preseason action. But for this award, Lance and Jones have big advantages because both landed on teams with excellent defensive units, strong run games, and top-tier coaching staffs to support them. I’m rolling with Jones here because unlike Lance, he’s slated to be the Week 1 starter―and that should give him an edge in every statistical passing category.
Clark: This is not the “best rookie” award. Mac Jones will not be the best rookie, but he will be a starter for an entire season on a team that has some of the best infrastructure in the league.
Princiotti: It’s easiest to win this award as a quarterback, and Jones will start Week 1 for a good team and play behind a good offensive line. That pretty much adds up to pole position.
Solak: I expect the best rookie season to belong to Jones. I have the Patriots as a fringe playoff team, and Mac’s offensive infrastructure is far better than Lawrence’s. But really, any of the five first-round rookies is a fine answer here.
Justin Fields, Bears
Sherman: Fields will be the best rookie quarterback this season, as long as the Bears let him play. Hopefully that happens Week 2 at the latest.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Micah Parsons, Cowboys
McAtee: Parsons will have his work cut out for him on an otherwise lackluster Cowboys defense, but he’s been getting rave reviews in training camp. Dallas defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has talked about using the athletic linebacker as a pass rusher; we could see Parsons doing a bit of everything for the Cowboys.
Clark: The Cowboys defense will be better this year, if only because they got rid of Mike Nolan. The fact that they have better coaches and players on that side of the ball is almost an afterthought, but Parsons should get some well-deserved recognition for being an impact rookie. He wins this one.
Heifetz: Eighteen of the past 20 defensive rookies of the year have been front-seven defenders. Parsons will be given a lot of credit if Dallas’s defense rebounds from one of the worst groups in the NFL last year.
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Browns
Sherman: Owusu-Koramoah is going to make a lot of plays this year. And that’s what wins this award.
Patrick Surtain II, Broncos
Princiotti: It’s hard to win this as a corner, since a lot of the plays Surtain will make this season won’t show up on TV screens. The explosive offenses of the AFC West, though, should give him plenty of opportunities to collect a highlight reel.
Odafe Oweh, Ravens
Ruiz: This is really a Don “Wink” Martindale pick. The Ravens defensive coordinator is a wizard capable of bending opposing pass protections to his will. So expect Oweh to feast on running backs and tight ends who end up having to block him thanks to Martindale’s intricate blitz designs. The first-round pick did not notch a single sack in his final year at Penn State, but college defenses are weird, so that won’t deter me. Here’s a bonus prediction: Oweh will surpass his career college sack total (seven) by December. If I’m wrong, we’ll just never speak of this again.
Gregory Rousseau, Bills
Kelly: Despite opting out of the 2020 season, Rousseau didn’t seem to skip a beat in his preseason appearances, grabbing a pair of sacks in three games. On a Bills team that should be playing with plenty of second-half leads, Rousseau will get the chance to rack up the type of sack numbers you need to win this award.
Kwity Paye, Colts
Jones: DeForest Buckner racked up 9.5 sacks and generated 53 pressures last season, the seventh-most among interior defensive linemen, per PFF. Those pressures helped free up Justin Houston to notch eight sacks. Houston joined the Ravens in free agency, meaning Paye could be the one to now benefit from Buckner’s dominant presence inside.
Zaven Collins, Cardinals
Solak: The Cardinals had a rock-solid starting linebacker in Jordan Hicks, and didn’t even let him “compete” in camp for the starting job—they just handed it over to Collins. That tells you how much they believe and trust in Collins, who has the potential to accrue wild counting stats in a three-down role for Arizona.