Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season is nearing. It starts in just the matter of days when the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers host the Dallas Cowboys on “Thursday Night Football.” That game with signify the return of Dak Prescott from injury.
Sunday’s games include a tremendous matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns in the AFC. Is Baker Mayfield going to be up to the task taking on Patrick Mahomes? Here, we look at five players under the most pressure in Week 1 of the NFL season.
Christian McCaffrey, running back, Carolina Panthers
After missing 13 games last season to injury and sitting out the exhibition slate, the NFL’s highest-paid running back returns when his Panthers take on the New York Jets Week 1. After touching the ball a combined 729 times in 2018 and 2019, the Panthers plan on using McCaffrey in a more concrete role while preserving him for later in games.
“You go into a game with a mindset on how many plays are in a game, and how many times you’d like him to get the ball, if there are 70 times you’d like him to get the ball 70 times,” offensive coordinator Joe Brady said recently. “But the reality is we have to be smart with that.”
This is going to be key for a Panthers team looking to rebound from a disastrous five-win campaign in Matt Rhule’s first season as their head coach. Recently-acquired quarterback Sam Darnold won’t be able to do the heavy lifting on offense. The onus will now be on McCaffrey to stay healthy and fresh throughout the season. That starts Week 1.
Jimmy Garoppolo, quarterback, San Francisco 49ers
While 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan has yet to announce that Garoppolo will be the Week 1 starter against a bad Detroit Lions, that’s the direction it’s trending. Whether this remains the case moving forward on the season depends heavily on how the injury-plagued 29-year-old quarterback performs and whether San Francisco believes Trey Lance is ready.
Lance outplayed Garoppolo during the preseason. He adds another dimension on offense for a team with clear-cut Super Bowl aspirations. Taking on a Lions defense that yielded a whopping 32.4 points per game last season and didn’t improve too much on that side of the ball, the pressure is squarely on Garoppolo’s shoulders to perform well here. If not, we could be seeing “Trey Area” take effect in Santa Clara sooner rather than later.
Jameis Winston, quarterback, New Orleans Saints
It would be hard for any quarterback to replace what Drew Brees has meant to both the Saints and the city of New Orleans over the past 15 years. We’re talking about a future first-ballot Hall of Famer who helped the city rebuild after Katrina and returned this organization to league-wide relevance around the NFL.
This is magnified with Jameis Winston. He’s entering yet another contract year and must show he can be a starter-caliber quarterback in the NFL. The last time this former No. 1 pick took regular snaps in the regular season, he threw a whopping 30 interceptions as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers back in 2019. He’ll now open the Saints’ 2021 schedule against reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers while attempting to replace a former MVP. No pressure there.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, wide receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers
Yet another contract year player who chose a prove-it deal last offseason, Smith-Schuster is clearly under pressure to return to 2018 form. Over the course of the past two seasons, this talented USC product has tallied less than 1,400 receiving yards while averaging a mere seven yards per target. That came after JuJu jumped on to the scene as a sophomore for Pittsburgh by recording 111 catches for 1,426 yards in 2018.
To say that Ben Roethlisberger and Co. are relying on Smith-Schuster to up his game would be an understatement. There’s not a whole lot behind him at wide receiver, especially with the issues we’ve seen between James Washington and the organization. It’s also not going to be an easy task against one of the best corners in the NFL in that of Buffalo Bills star Tre’Davious White come Week 1.
Baker Mayfield, quarterback, Cleveland Browns
The 26-year-old Baker Mayfield is coming off a 2020 campaign in which he led Cleveland to its best season since back in 1994. In the process, the former Heisman winner looked every bit the part of a franchise quarterback. It’s now time for Mayfield and his Browns to take that next step as the quarterback enters his fourth NFL season.
It starts Week 1 against the two-time defending AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs. The pressure is squarely on Mayfield to prove that he can go tit-for-tat with the game’s best. He will need to do this in order for Cleveland to open its season with a statement win over Mahomes and Co. Is Baker up to the task? We’ll find out soon enough.