The 2021 NFL regular season — the first with each team playing 17 regular-season games — comes to a close Sunday. All 16 playoff spots will be locked in with the Green Bay Packers as the No. 1 seed in the NFC and the Tennessee Titans the No.1 seed in the AFC after Sunday night football.
To say it was an unusual year is an understatement. The league worked through a second consecutive year disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. Several teams experienced COVID-19 outbreaks that affected more than 20 players on their roster.
On the field, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady are favorites for the MVP after helping their teams reach the playoffs again. Pittsburgh Steelers edge rusher T.J. Watt tied the NFL single-season sacks record and is favored to win Defensive Player of the Year.
What’s next for the teams that did not make the playoffs this season? NFL Nation digs in.
What went wrong: It all started with the shot quarterback Tua Tagovailoa took from Buffalo Bills defensive end AJ Epenesa in Week 2. The hit left Tagovailoa with fractured ribs and landed him on injured reserve for the next three weeks. Miami failed to get off the ground without Tagovailoa and struggled upon his return, losing seven straight after winning its season opener. The Dolphins then won seven straight before a loss to Tennessee knocked them out of playoff contention. Coach Brian Flores’ defense was elite over the second half of the season, but the offense has a long way to go, ranking in the bottom third of the league in most major categories. Until they improve on that side of the ball, the Dolphins’ ceiling appears to be on the cusp of playoff contention.
Biggest offseason question: What will Miami do at quarterback 2022? Tagovailoa showed improvement from his rookie season, but enters this offseason with plenty of questions regarding his ceiling and status as a franchise quarterback. The Dolphins were interested in trading for Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson last season. With three first-round picks over the next two drafts, Miami also could try to swing for another big-name quarterback like Rodgers or the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson, if they are available. Or, the team could stay with Tagovailoa. No matter who is under center, Miami should use its ample salary-cap space (more than $70 million) to build up its fledgling offense. — Marcel Louis-Jacques
What went wrong: The Jets suffered every form of growing pain known to the NFL. You begin the season with a rookie quarterback (Zach Wilson), a starting lineup with eight rookies and a relatively inexperienced coaching staff (especially on offense) and you’re going to have a bumpy ride. The Jets suffered three three-game losing streaks, looking utterly inept at times, but this season was about growth more than wins and losses. It was about coach Robert Saleh establishing his program. It was about player development. Basically, they sacrificed this season for the future. Was it worth it? Wilson’s late-season improvement creates optimism, as does a promising 2021 draft class. The offense, after a brutal start, established a run-based identity. Everything hinges on Wilson, the No. 2 overall pick. He needs to accelerate his growth in 2022 for the Jets to have any chance of breaking their playoff drought — a league-high 11 years.
Biggest offseason question: How can the Jets close the massive gap with the rest of the AFC East? Right now, they have the fourth-best quarterback in the division and by far the worst defense. They can help Wilson by improving his supporting cast. They need a wide receiver, a tight end and more help on the offensive line. They certainly have the resources to address those needs along with several holes on their 32nd-ranked defense. Because of past trades they have two first-round picks and two second-round picks — a chance for a watershed draft. With about $60 million in projected cap room, they also can be active in free agency, although that isn’t GM Joe Douglas’ cup of tea. As for potential trade chips, the names to watch are left tackle Mekhi Becton and wide receiver Denzel Mims. There seems to be a mix of opinions on their value to the team. — Rich Cimini
What went wrong: Injuries. Lots of them. It began in the preseason finale, when starting running back J.K. Dobbins suffered a season-ending knee injury. It lasted until the end of the regular season, when quarterback Lamar Jackson missed the last four games with a right ankle injury. The Ravens suited up a franchise-high 75 players this season and started 45 players in at least one game. Three of the four highest-paid players on the team — offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle) and cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey (torn pectoral muscle) and Marcus Peters (knee) — were out for the year by midseason. Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale joked that this season resembled “Squid Game,” the Korean survival horror-drama series. It was a disappointing finish for Baltimore, which had the best record in the AFC six weeks ago. But the overachieving Ravens just didn’t have enough to win those critical close games in the end.
Biggest offseason question: When will the Ravens sign Jackson to an extension? It’s never been a question of if Baltimore will sign the quarterback to a long-term deal. Both sides have publicly said they want to get a deal done. It’s a matter of when and for how much. The Ravens don’t have to sign Jackson to an extension now because he can play under his fifth-year option in 2022, when his salary leaps from $1.771 million to $23.016 million. But Baltimore also has to weigh whether waiting could upset Jackson and tarnish a strong relationship (see Dak Prescott). Jackson, the 2019 NFL MVP, wrapped up the worst season of his four-year career. He was sidelined by an injury for the first time. And, with a depleted supporting cast around him, he threw an uncharacteristic number of interceptions, getting picked off 13 times in 12 games. There is no doubt that Jackson is the future of this franchise. The question is whether the Ravens sign Jackson to a new deal this offseason or next. — Jamison Hensley
What went wrong: Quarterback Baker Mayfield suffered a torn labrum to his non-throwing left shoulder in Week 2, and neither he nor the Browns passing offense was ever the same. Mayfield, who ranked 26th in the league in QBR (35.3), skipped the finale against Cincinnati to prep for surgery on the shoulder.
Biggest offseason question: Who will be Cleveland’s starting QB in 2022? Mayfield might seem like the obvious answer considering he is under contract next season for almost $19 million. But the Browns could take a hard look at making a run at another quarterback, and Mayfield might be ready to reevaluate how much he wants to be in Cleveland moving forward, as well. — Jake Trotter
What went wrong: It was clear this offseason after Watson requested a trade in January, then faced 22 civil lawsuits with accusations of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior, that this would be the start of a rebuild for the Texans. Not long after Watson’s trade request, edge rusher J.J. Watt asked for his release. With a new front office and coaching staff, there was a lot of turnover. General manager Nick Caserio mostly filled the holes by signing veteran players to one- or two-year contracts. The Texans started off on a high note under coach David Culley with a decisive victory in the season opener, but lost eight in a row and 11 of 12. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor played well in the first game and a half before injuring his hamstring. Taylor was replaced by rookie Davis Mills while on injured reserve, but after the veteran struggled upon returning Culley benched him for Mills. The Texans won two games in a row late in the season but they showed they have a lot of work to do before they’re contending for AFC South titles again.
Biggest offseason question: What’s next at quarterback? Because Watson was on Houston’s active roster this season, he was paid. He had a $10.54 million base salary in 2021, but that number jumps to $35 million next season. Keeping Watson on the roster is not a long-term solution, and while any team wanting to trade for him may prefer to wait until there is clarity around any criminal charges and the lawsuits, it seems likely a move is made before the start of next season. Caserio has been clear to teams that he’s not willing to trade Watson for what he perceives as less than the quarterback’s market value, but at some point he may have to prioritize moving on from Watson. By benching Taylor for Mills late in the season, Houston got an even longer look at the 2021 third-round pick. But did Mills do enough to convince Caserio he should have a legitimate shot at the starting role in 2022? If not, expect Houston to be in the market for a veteran quarterback this offseason. — Sarah Barshop
What went wrong: It’s only fitting that the Colts were eliminated from making the playoffs by losing to the pitiful Jaguars. Indianapolis hasn’t won in Jacksonville since 2014. The Colts, as has been the case every season under coach Frank Reich, got off to a slow start, opening with an 0-3 record. But unlike in 2018 and 2020, the Colts couldn’t overcome their start to make the postseason. As big as the start of the season was for the Colts, they’ll spend the offseason thinking about their inability to hold leads. Indianapolis lost games after blowing double-digit leads against Baltimore, Tennessee and Tampa Bay, with the latter two teams making the playoffs. Legitimate playoff teams know how to close out games. The Colts also lost at home to Las Vegas in Week 17 when they could have clinched a playoff spot.
Biggest offseason question: The biggest question going into the season is still the biggest question: quarterback Carson Wentz. It looks on paper like Wentz had an impressive first season with the team. But the reality is they can’t say for sure he’s the long-term answer. Wentz brought his questionable decision-making — including a number of attempted left-handed passes — with him from Philadelphia to Indianapolis. And outside of a strong fourth quarter against Arizona on Christmas night, there really wasn’t a game where you could say the quarterback won it for the Colts. The Colts need that if they truly have Super Bowl aspirations. Running back Jonathan Taylor could use some help at the other skill positions and likely at left tackle. Michael Pittman Jr., the first Colts receiver not named T.Y. Hilton to have 1,000 receiving yards in a season since 2012, was the only legitimate threat in the passing game. Speaking of Hilton, he and tight end Jack Doyle are pondering retirement. Left tackle Eric Fisher was the weak link on the offensive line for the Colts this season. — Mike Wells
What went wrong: Pretty much everything. Owner Shad Khan’s hiring of coach Urban Meyer backfired spectacularly and Meyer was fired in mid-December after reports of mistreatment of assistant coaches and players. Meyer and GM Trent Baalke didn’t give rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence a good supporting cast, and some of the players who would have helped got injured (running back Travis Etienne Jr., wide receivers DJ Chark Jr. and Jamal Agnew). Meyer and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell weren’t on the same page, and the Jaguars were on pace to have the worst per-game scoring average in franchise history. The defense had stretches when it stopped the run, but it didn’t force turnovers: The Jaguars’ minus-22 turnover ratio entering Week 18 was last in the NFL (the next-closest team was minus-13). The roster is one of the worst in the league and will take a while to restock. It has just been a complete disaster.
Biggest offseason question: Will Khan do what he hasn’t done in his 10 years as owner and get the head-coaching hire right? He’s whiffed four times, and his statement of “this time I got it right” when he hired Meyer makes him look foolish. The franchise needs someone who can be a consistent leader, has the players’ respect and understands the importance of building around Lawrence. And, as a bonus question, will he make the right decision with Baalke? Baalke doesn’t have a good reputation around the league, there were issues during his time in San Francisco and a recent report that Khan planned to retain him led to such an uproar that a segment of the fan base changed their Twitter avatars to a clown with a mustache like the owner’s to show their displeasure. — Mike DiRocco
What went wrong: The bottom line on the sixth consecutive playoff miss — beyond injuries, COVID-19 issues and the Von Miller trade — is the convoluted mess on offense. In seven of the Broncos’ losses this season, they scored 14 or fewer points. They repeatedly — and stubbornly — clung to the idea they could do their best work out of open formations and three-wide receiver sets when it was crystal clear week after week, loss after loss, they couldn’t protect their quarterbacks well enough to get much done. The continued attempts to smash the square peg into the round hole cratered the season. Coach Vic Fangio was fired because he didn’t demand enough change loudly enough on that side of the ball before all was lost. Add in a special teams unit that often threw in a game-changing mistake and the Broncos wasted a playoff-worthy effort on defense.
Biggest offseason question: Same as it was in 2016, in 2018 and last season — what is the plan at quarterback? They’ve been through 10 starters since the midway point of the 2016 season — 11 if you count running back Phillip Lindsay‘s start in the no-quarterback game of 2020. And while their offensive problems run far deeper right now than who is taking the snap, general manager George Paton is facing a ho-hum class in free agency at the position and a draft class that may not hold a quick answer either. Competition to trade for quarterbacks — players like Rodgers and Wilson — will be fierce given the draft and free-agency options. — Jeff Legwold
What went wrong: Um, everything! “Things haven’t been that great this year,” running back Saquon Barkley said recently in the understatement of the season. It began in the preseason when just about all the Giants’ playmakers were injured. That was a harbinger of what was to come. Quarterback Daniel Jones, Barkley and wide receivers Kenny Golladay, Sterling Shepard, Kadarius Toney and Darius Slayton all missed at least three games this season. The injuries, coupled with an offensive line that played worse than ever produced, another miserable season. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars averaged fewer points. We should have known in Week 2 when Dexter Lawrence jumped offside on the game-winning field goal attempt in Washington this season was going to be a mess.
Biggest offseason question: Who gets tasked with fixing this mess? GM Dave Gettleman will be fired. Then it’s a matter of whether the new GM is OK with coach Joe Judge and/or Jones getting at least one more season. Judge has been saddled with an insufficient roster, but this year clearly was a step backward. Jones also has been a victim of the lack of the talent around him, but the concerns about what is now a substantial injury history are real. New York has some franchise-altering decisions to make this offseason. — Jordan Raanan
What went wrong: In the past month Washington lost too many key starters, whether to injury (tight end Logan Thomas, running back J.D. McKissic, safety Landon Collins and cornerback William Jackson III) or illness (more than half the roster has spent time on the reserve/COVID-19 list since Dec. 5). That impacted a team whose ceiling was nine or 10 wins. In addition, a defense expected to be the team’s anchor underachieved for several reasons, led by a lack of dynamic play from ends Chase Young and Montez Sweat, poor secondary coverage early in the season and inconsistent linebacker play. In the first six games Washington ranked last in the NFL in points allowed and 31st in yards allowed. The list of issues doesn’t stop there. The running game became a focal point too late, there was inconsistent quarterback play and little production from multiple high-end offseason acquisitions.
Biggest offseason question: How will they find their quarterback? If nothing else, Taylor Heinicke can help them in the future as a high-end backup. There are potentially attractive starting options — Rodgers and Wilson — but it’s hard to imagine Washington landing either one. It’s highly doubtful Watson would waive his no-trade clause to come here, even if his legal issues get settled. Washington could pursue Carr if he becomes available, but it would take draft picks plus a boatload of money to extend a player whose contract expires after the 2022 season. The draft class is not considered strong or deep, so it might be hard to find one the team likes at the time it is picking. There will be free agents such as Mitch Trubisky or Marcus Mariota, who could be paired with a rookie. Regardless, it’s likely the franchise will start its 33rd different quarterback since it last won the Super Bowl in the 1991 season. — John Keim
What went wrong: The offense never got into gear with or without rookie quarterback Justin Fields behind center. In fact, it was probably better with Andy Dalton running things but Bears coach Matt Nagy likely felt pressure to start Fields after just a couple of games. The results weren’t very good — though Fields has shown improvement. If this was Year 1 under Nagy that might be enough, but in his fourth year as the head coach the offense averaged about 18 points per game through Week 17. It’s not the worst in the league but it’s close enough — and likely will cost Nagy his job. There’s just something missing from his offense or his coaching of it.
Biggest offseason question: Can the Bears hire a head coach who will bring out the best in Fields? Chicago has never been known as a place quarterbacks go to succeed and Fields is its latest attempt at employing an elite talent at the position. Nagy failed with Trubisky and didn’t turn heads with Fields in his first year, so it’s likely on to the next coach. Perhaps a run-pass option expert like Greg Roman of the Ravens would be a good fit. The Bears have talent and are deep at running back so maximizing that area would be a good start. The sooner they hire someone, the sooner the offense can learn a new system yet again. — Jesse Rogers
What went wrong: Record-wise, the 2021 season has been disappointing for fans. But anyone watching the Lions can see the foundation first-year coach Dan Campbell and his staff have laid, resulting in a hard-nosed team that competes until the end. However, a couple of things hurt the Lions, beginning with injuries, notably during Week 1 when cornerback Jeff Okudah — Detroit’s No. 3 overall pick from 2020 — suffered an Achilles tear. Center Frank Ragnow and linebacker Romeo Okwara went down with season-ending injuries as well. There was also poor play from quarterback Jared Goff early in the season. The Lions were on the receiving end of some heartbreaking defeats, too, including three on walk-off field goals. It happened in Week 3 against the Ravens, Week 5 versus the Minnesota Vikings and again on Thanksgiving against the Bears.
Biggest offseason question: The Lions have to get it right in the upcoming NFL draft, and not just with the top pick either. Likely with the No. 2 pick, they might get to choose between the top two edge rusher prospects, Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson and Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux. Then they need a wide receiver. Rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown came on strong to end this season, but they still have to fill that void with other threats. Also, a decision must be made on where they want to head at quarterback. Campbell has insisted that Goff is their guy, but they must at least bring in more depth at the position. — Eric Woodyard
What went wrong: Minnesota had one of the most talented rosters in the NFC and underachieved. The Vikings played in 14 one-possession games this season, tied for the most in NFL history. And they lost eight of those, which was tied for second-most and resulted in the Vikings missing the postseason in back-to-back years. If the defense blew a lead one week, the offense would struggle to build one the next. Sure, injuries played a role, as the team lost tight end Irv Smith Jr. before the season started, along with nose tackle Michael Pierce for seven games. Defensive ends Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen and wide receiver Adam Thielen also missed time. Entering Week 18, the Vikings reached historic lows with their two-minute defense, having allowed 120 points entering the final two minutes of either half this season, the most by any team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. Statistically, quarterback Kirk Cousins had one of the best seasons of his career, but he couldn’t get the Vikings over the hump when other parts of the roster struggled. And of course, Cousins’ absence from a must-win game at Green Bay in Week 17 due to COVID-19 was the worst-case scenario for coach Mike Zimmer, who had talked about how that could happen for unvaccinated players when training camp started.
Biggest offseason question: Who stays and who goes? The Vikings haven’t had a winning record since 2019. Although Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman are under contract for the next two seasons, do owners Mark and Zygi Wilf want to continue with this leadership group? It feels like Minnesota may have reached its ceiling and would benefit from a clean slate. That could mean moving on from Cousins, too, even though he’s under contract through the 2022 season. His contract, which comes with a $45 million cap hit in the final year, makes it impossible to cut him. But the Vikings could look to trade Cousins if they want to go the route of a full rebuild and have the wherewithal financially and with draft capital to build the roster back with an all-in approach. — Courtney Cronin
What went wrong: Nothing went “wrong,” really, because the Falcons were entering the season with a roster that was unlikely to be a contender in the first year of coach Arthur Smith’s regime. But the problems that were concerns before the season — the lack of pass rush, holes on the offensive line and depth — all ended up factoring into where Atlanta finished. Atlanta was competitive in close matchups this season — 7-2 in one-possession games entering Week 18 — and had building blocks for the future. That the Falcons were still in contention for the playoffs in Week 17 — considering they struggled to keep quarterback Matt Ryan upright, couldn’t pressure opposing quarterbacks and were without No. 1 receiver Calvin Ridley for much of the season — says a lot about the foundation Smith built.
Biggest offseason question: There is going to be a lot of change on this roster — salary-cap movement combined with one-year contracts all but guarantees it — which means there is flexibility in how Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot approach the offseason. But no matter what they decide with Ryan, Ridley, free-agents-to-be Foye Oluokun and Cordarrelle Patterson and others, the obvious thing that needs improvement is the defensive front. For Atlanta’s defense to reach its potential, it has to add players who can consistently pressure the passer. Sacks are nice but not paramount. Creating backfield havoc against the run and pass is, however. The Falcons didn’t do enough of that in 2021 and need to bring in the personnel to get it done in 2022. — Michael Rothstein
What went wrong: Start with the decision to trade for quarterback Sam Darnold. Despite a 3-0 start, Darnold proved to be no better than he was with the Jets, where he went 13-25 in three seasons. He had nine touchdowns to 13 interceptions and won once in his last eight starts. When Darnold was sidelined with a shoulder injury, coach Matt Rhule tried to replace him with Cam Newton, and that turned out poorly. Newton was 0-5 as the starter. On top of that, the offensive line has been a disaster. Carolina rebuilt the unit during the offseason, then wound up starting 12 different combinations because of injury and COVID-19. That Darnold was sacked at a higher rate (3.3 per game) than he was with the Jets (2.6) speaks volumes. It didn’t help that running back Christian McCaffrey missed 10 games after being out 13 the season before, or that Rhule’s gamble on offensive coordinator Joe Brady ended with him getting fired with five games remaining. It all added up to an offense that, entering the finale, averaged only 17.9 points per game, Carolina’s fewest since 2010. That team was a disaster at quarterback, too, with Jimmy Clausen and Matt Moore as starters.
Biggest offseason question: Quarterback and offensive line — you can’t say one without the other. Rhule has said he must make a “true investment” on the line after his bargain investments this past offseason failed miserably. That means spending in free agency to get a true left tackle and investing draft picks on what former Carolina GM Gettleman called “hog mollies” — big, talented offensive linemen. Current GM Scott Fitterer has invested two of 18 draft picks the past two years on the offensive line. And only one — T/G Brady Christensen (third round, 2021) — has come in the first three rounds. Figuring out the quarterback position will be a bigger challenge. The Panthers are stuck with Darnold because they picked up his fifth-year option that guarantees him $18.9 million in 2022. Newton isn’t the answer, so Carolina must trade for a starter or draft one and go through the growing pains of developing that player. Free agency doesn’t offer much. Fix the offensive line and quarterback position, and the defense is good enough to win in 2022. — David Newton
What went wrong: It might be easier to list what went right for the Saints in 2021, a year that began with quarterback Drew Brees’ retirement, a need to shave $111 million to fit under the NFL’s reduced salary cap and a monthlong displacement to Dallas because of Hurricane Ida. Then, because of COVID, suspensions and injuries that included losing receiver Michael Thomas for the season, quarterback Jameis Winston for 10 games and their three best offensive linemen for half the season, they wound up setting a record for most starters used. It was remarkable the Saints came as close to making the playoffs as they did — and they can credit their stellar defense. But they ultimately couldn’t muster enough offense behind quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Taysom Hill with so many missing pieces. They ranked as a bottom-four offense and a bottom-two passing offense heading into Week 18.
Biggest offseason question: Who will play quarterback? Winston should probably still be considered the leading candidate, especially since the Saints’ salary-cap issues could limit how much they spend. However, he is a free agent who will be rehabbing from a torn ACL in his left knee. New Orleans will likely explore several options — including a potential blockbuster trade. Hill is signed long-term, but he probably remains a longshot for the full-time job. Part of the Saints’ decision will come down to whether they want to remain in win-now mode or consider more of a rebuild. Unfortunately for them, it won’t be easy to draft a surefire starter since they’re picking so low, and this draft class isn’t viewed as being loaded with quarterback talent. — Mike Triplett
What went wrong: Of all the things that went wrong during Seattle’s worst season in more than a decade, quarterback Wilson’s finger injury easily had the most impact. The Seahawks went 1-3 in the four games Geno Smith had to finish and/or start after Wilson went down in Week 5, with those three losses coming by a combined 15 points. They went 0-3 upon Wilson’s return to fall to 3-8. He ranked 29th in QBR during that stretch and missed throws he doesn’t usually miss, suggesting he was still affected by the surgically repaired middle finger on his throwing hand. By the time Wilson started to play better, the Seahawks were well out of contention. They had plenty of other issues. Their defense got off to another terrible start and couldn’t generate a consistent pass rush, they lost running back Chris Carson early and didn’t get enough from safety Jamal Adams before he went down later in the year. Another problem: Their offense was lousy on third down all year, even before Wilson was hurt.
Biggest offseason question: The biggest of many significant questions is whether Wilson will be back, and there are several layers to that question alone: Would the Seahawks have a viable replacement option if they trade him, given how weak this year’s draft is for QBs? Would another team have the need, the interest and the necessary compensation to make it work? Will Wilson, who has a no-trade clause, even want out in the first place? Not even Wilson can know that right now without knowing what changes de facto team owner Jody Allen might make. Conventional wisdom suggests extensions coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider signed within the last year and a half will give them protection, but Allen is hard to predict given how far she’s remained out of view since assuming the role in 2018. Bobby Wagner‘s future is uncertain as well, with the future Hall of Fame linebacker carrying a $20.35 million cap charge into the final season of his deal. — Brady Henderson