The 2021 NFL season kicks off in Tampa with a highly awaited contest between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Dallas Cowboys. When America’s best team and America’s Team face-off much will be made about Brady vs. Prescott. This makes no sense to us at PFP because here we believe matchups make fights. The games within the game are going to decide who wins. Here are the must-watch matchups for the Bucs Cowboys 2021 NFL season opener.
Vita Vea vs. Connor McGovern
Zack Martin, one of the league’s top guards, will be on Dallas’ COVID list for week 1. If Jerry Jones could’ve picked one week where he could’ve guaranteed you this guy would be to be available to play, he might’ve picked this week. Martin is one of the few interior linemen who stood a fighting chance of blocking Vita Vea 1v1, and this is Dak’s first game back after a major leg injury. In steps Connor McGovern, a third-year backup guard with some big shoes to fill. Without Martin’s dominant presence Vita will see double teams on nearly every play, and Vita may even still drive the pocket back. If McGovern proves to be a liability, Jerry Jones and the Cowboys’ faithful will be sweating bullets until the final whistle.
Davis/Murphy-Bunting vs. Cooper/Lamb
While Zeke and the run game have defined Dallas in the past, I’m not so scared about him lining up against the best run defense in the league two years running. It’s the addition of former Sooner CeeDee Lamb that has me worried about the potential of the Cowboys’ offense. In fact, it’s my opinion that it won’t be long before CeeDee is the number one receiving threat instead of Amari Cooper.
I’m interested in how Todd Bowles will attack the Cowboys’ passing attack in the secondary. Will either corner follow a receiver across either side of the field? Will the Bucs lean more on man or on zone coverages to slow down the receiver duo? In any case, we will have some combination of Davis/Murphy-Bunting vs Cooper/Lamb play out the entire time Dallas is on offense. I think this matchup, not Zeke and the run game, will determine Dallas’ success.
Wirfs/Smith vs. Demarcus Lawrence
Even though Demarcus Lawrence hasn’t notched a 10 sack season in the last two years, he is still the straw that stirs the Dallas defense’s drink. The linebacking core, with the additions of Penn State stud Micah Parsons and former Falcon safety Keanu Neal this offseason, may eventually grow to become the most formidable unit on Dallas’ defense, but in week 1 Demarcus is the only established threat to Tom Brady in the pocket.
Lawrence is capable of rushing on both sides of the defensive line, and it will be interesting to see where the Cowboys deploy him. Tristan Wirfs has proven to be a top 100 player in the league as a rookie. It may be wiser to line Lawrence up on Tom’s blindside and against Donovan Smith, but either way, Demarcus makes for a must-watch matchup.
BONUS: Joe Tryon-Shoyinka vs. the Bench
In an article earlier this offseason, I predicted that Joe Tryon-Shoyinka may only see the field 35% of the time. I based these numbers off of other #3 pass rush options and how much they played recently.
Ladies and gents, Joe Tryon-Shoyinka is here to ruin all that math I did.
After an impressive training camp, Joe Tryon-Shoyinka upped the ante with an equally impressive preseason performance. The first-round selection out of Washington looks blazing fast off the ball. More than just physical tools, he has shown an impressive repertoire of pass rush moves for a rookie. I’m interested in watching how much action he gets in his first game, and where he lines up when he’s in because Tryon-Shoyinka might just become the next great Bucs defender.
The Patriots will play competitive football for the first time since trimming their roster down to the required 85 limit. With the smaller squad traveling to the City of Brotherly Love, there are a few interesting storylines to keep an eye out for as kickoff begins. However, none are as compelling as Devin Asiasi.
The Patriots’ Injury Bug is Back…
The Patriots entered the preseason with a renovated TE depth chart with the signings of Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. Now, just 2 hours away from kickoff, the team’s tight end situation already looks thin. Both Henry and Smith, as well as Matt LaCosse and the recently released Troy Fumagalli, will not be partaking in tonight’s festivities. The only remaining tight end for Thursday is 2nd year Devin Asiasi. The former Michigan and UCLA alum has a chance to shine and will look to continue his already impressive spring. Struggling mightily throughout his rookie season alongside Dalton Keene, Asiasi has turned heads during both OTAs and Training Camp.
Asiasi (6’3″, 257 lbs) was a beast at UCLA in 2019; many considered him to be the best prospect at the position during the draft. However, he fell to the 3rd round with teams worried about health. So far, Asiasi has amassed a whopping 2 catches for 39 yards in Patriots colors, with 1 of them coming for a score in Week 17. Even with the newly acquired stars in Henry and Smith, the 2nd year Patriots has a chance to shine under the radar, starting tonight.
With the Eagles dropping their first game of 2021 to cross-state rival Pittsburgh 24-16, they will be coming out strong with players fighting for jobs. Asiasi had a solid week with the teams having joint practices and will continue to build on that. He caught a TD on the 17th, the first day that he was the only TE practicing. He should match up well against the weaker Eagles linebacking corps and should be a key contributor in tonight’s game.
The 2021 NFL season will be the first year with a 17th game on the schedule. While seen as a revenue cash grab by some, this provides a unique opportunity to evaluate the league’s history. The NFL has numerous statistical records that players are waiting to be broken every year. Because of the extra game on the schedule, some of these volume-based records might be in more imminent danger. In this article, we will look at five records that have the potential to fall within the next few years based on current trends.
The rookie passing touchdown record is the quintessential example of the type of record waiting to be broken. It’s a recently broken record with multiple quarterbacks flirting with it in recent years. Herbert smashed the record last year after an unfortunate interaction with a team doctor sidelined Tyrod Taylor in Week 2. He proceeded to take over the team and gave no reason for Taylor to start again. Mayfield was on pace for an even higher total had the Browns started him sooner. In recent years, the trend of fully committing to your shiny new draft pick at quarterback has become more commonplace. This provides a golden opportunity for fresh faces to develop quicker and put up numbers similar to their veteran counterparts. This year both Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields are in excellent positions to challenge this record. We could see this record fall in consecutive years if their teams are fully bought in.
Total Scrimmage Yards Record
Current holder: Chris Johnson – 2509 scrimmage yards in 16 games (2009)
Previous record: Marshall Faulk – 2429 scrimmage yards in 16 games (1999)
Average needed: 147.65 scrimmage yards/game
Despite the pass-happy tendencies of the modern NFL, the workhorse running back has remained a major offensive weapon for several teams. Derrick Henry became the prime example of this during his valiant attempt at the rushing yardage record last season. However, those 2000+ yard rushing seasons are few and far between. The total scrimmage yardage record favors running backs heavily featured in the passing game, which fits the mold of today’s true three-down back. Christian McCaffrey was on pace to break Johnson’s record in 2019, finishing third in the books. Dalvin Cook and Saquon Barkley are offensive staples for their teams that could take down the record provided they stay healthy. Even Najee Harris, Pittsburgh’s first-round rookie, has found himself in a system that loves to feature their lead back. He is in a prime position for a shot at the overall record in the coming years.
Receiving Yardage Record
Current holder: Calvin Johnson – 1964 receiving yards in 16 games (2012)
The receiving yardage record set by Johnson nine years ago has been at risk a few times in the past decade. The most notable of these attempts was the race between Julio Jones (1871 yards) and Antonio Brown (1834 yards) in 2015. Both of these stud wide receivers flirted with the pace necessary to break Johnson’s record in a 17 game season. The league has continued to mold itself primarily as a passing league, highlighted by several standout receivers. DeAndre Hopkins and Davante Adams both command enough of a target share to make a legitimate run at the record. Michael Thomas got close during his reception record-breaking year in 2019. Standout 2020 rookie Justin Jefferson may see similar volume sooner rather than later with an aging Adam Theilen on the roster. Additionally, yards per reception monsters like Tyreek Hill and A.J. Brown could mimic the pace Johnson himself needed to set his record in the first place.
Previous record: Terry Glenn – 90 receptions in 15 games (1996)
Average needed: 6.00 receptions/game
Typically, rookies wide receivers are prone to slow starts in the league. They usually find themselves behind an established first option and need to fight for target share in the offense. However, the more recent draft classes have produced wideouts that have hit the ground running more quickly than most. The aforementioned Jefferson finished with 88 receptions in 2020 in a relatively low-volume passing attack. This year’s rookies find themselves in even more advantageous positions to make a run at Bouldin’s record. Ja’Marr Chase is paired with his old college QB Joe Burrow in Cincinnati and has a chance to become his #1 target again. DeVonta Smith finds himself with loads of opportunities in Philadelphia due to no true first option to compete with. Even the running back Travis Etienne could find himself as a check-down monster in Jacksonville’s revitalized offense.
This one seems dubious at first since no player has come close to Strahan since Justin Houston in 2014. Strahan may not even be the record holder anymore with the recent introduction of unofficial sack totals to the books. However, we’ve seen several young players emerge and dominate in the trenches that have a shot. Aaron Donald already made a strong attempt at the record, recording 20.5 sacks in 16 games in 2018. At 30 years old, he’s the same age as Strahan the year he broke the record. Additionally, Donald has not shown any signs of slowing down and will remain a force for years to come. There’s also Joey and Nick Bosa, who have set strong foundations in the league provided they can stay healthy. Finally, Chase Young has the tools to cause havoc in the league for years, especially in the weaker NFC East division. This one might not fall as quickly, but the young guns could make a strong run at the record with an extra game on the schedule.
There may be no position in American football that receives less fanfare than that of a punter. I’d like to take a moment to shine some light on one of them: Johnny Hekker. A veteran punter for the Los Angeles Rams out of Oregon State and former high school quarterback for Bothell High School of the greater Seattle metropolitan area, Hekker went undrafted in 2012 before signing with the then St. Louis Rams.
That may have been the best signing of the 2012 class for rookie general manager Les Snead.
Simply put, Hekker is NFL punting royalty. The man has four All-Pros to his name and is a member of the 2010 NFL all-decade team.
Many fans loath Super Bowl LIII (53) for its lack of scoring but, while the Rams wilted, Hekker shined. That night, Hekker punted nine times. Two punts were returned for a total of two yards. His net was 46.1 yards. Five punts were downed inside the 20 with zero touchbacks. He set a Super Bowl record with a 65-yard punt. Hekker finished his 2018 season with a very solid outing. That game, however, would be the start of a turn in his career.
HEKKER: BY THE NUMBERS
Pro Football Focus (PFF) punting data is available dating back to 2013, Hekker’s second season. In that time, there are some noticeable trends. For example, median punting grades among qualified punters were on a slight downward trend from 2013-2018 but have risen in each of the past two seasons.
Alternatively, top five punting grade averages saw steep declines from 2013-2018 with marginal upwards trends since 2019.
With these trends in mind, we can observe Hekker’s grades dating back to his second season.
Johnny Hekker was ranked as a top-five punter by PFF in 2013-2016 and 2018 (6th in 2017). Considering that average punting grades have decreased among the top five punters over that time frame, a reasonable expectation would be to expect his grades to decline, as they have. The decline relative to his peers, however, tells a more accurate story. Hekker plummeted from the second-ranked punter in 2018 to the 12th in 2019. He continued that free fall into 2020, finishing as the 21st ranked punter. To better understand why we need to examine both seasons.
GAME BY GAME: 2019 AND 2020 GRADES
2019 in isolation can largely be chalked up as a down season. Nearly all NFL players will have a similar experience if they play for an extended period of time. When compared with 2020, a troubling picture begins to form.
Including the playoffs, Hekker punted in 17 games in 2020. His first eight games (Weeks 1-10) resemble improvement from 2019 with a grade of 72 through Week 10 and the 10th ranked punter among those qualified. Beginning in Week 11 in Tampa, his numbers fall off a cliff. From Week 11 through the divisional playoff, Hekker’s grade sat at 50.9, second-worst among qualifying punters over the same period. What changed?
No stand-alone stat can tell a full story. This is especially true of punting. A 31-yard punt downed at the 19 yard-line has a better net outcome than a 50-yard punt that results in a touchback. Average yards per punt does not factor in the outkicking of coverage or whether or not a punt is returnable. Five seconds of hangtime is impressive out-of-context, but useless if the ball only goes 30 yards unless the offense happens to be punting from inside their opponent’s territory.
Context in punting data may be more important than for any other position in football. Over Hekker’s first eight games, his percentage of returned punts was 25 percent and his average hangtime sat at 4.41 seconds. Over the final nine, both numbers went in opposite directions. His return percentage skyrocketed to 44.2 percent and average hangtime dropped to 4.25 seconds. This is causation, not just correlation. The sample sizes were relatively similar: 36 punts through Week 10 and 43 punts after.
The Rams never placed Hekker on the injury report through the 2020 season. While NFL teams are not immune to misreporting injuries (ahem Seattle), there’s no written evidence he was hurt.
To continue our journey, we need to dive into the tape. We will look at two games that I believe define Hekker’s 2020 season-best: Week 4 versus the New York Giants and the Wildcard playoff in Seattle against the Seahawks.
WEEK 4 vs. NEW YORK GIANTS
Hekker’s first punt is a 61-yard bomb that hangs in the air for almost 5 seconds. The coverage is slightly outkicked and leads to a return of 15 yards. A net of 46 yards, is a good, but not great, result for an open field punt.
His second punt of the day was another open field bomb of 58 yards, landing right near the New York goal line. The returner fakes a catch, spoofing the coverage team and enabling the ball to bounce into the endzone. This punt nets only 38 yards, but Hekker does his job.
The third punt is an open field 46-yarder that is returned for 9 yards, a 37-yard net. The ball hangs long enough for the coverage team to swarm the returner, but they fail to do so adequately. An extra two-tenths of a second of hangtime would make this a great punt, but Hekker handles his business while the gunners do not.
The fourth punt is yet another open field bomb of 60 yards. New York brings pressure, speeding up Hekker’s punting process. The ball is over kicked and sails out the back of the endzone for a net of 40 yards.
The fifth and final punt is a long, open field, 54-yarder that lands at the New York 14. This punt hangs for nearly 5 seconds but slightly out-kicks the coverage. That, combined with an experienced returner, leads to a 6-yard return and a 48-yard net. With every second precious for NY late in the game, the outcome is a net positive as the return bleeds a few extra seconds off the clock.
This performance is what Hekker’s fans and coaches have come to expect over his 9-year career. While the end results are not perfect, nearly every punt is a bomb that gives the coverage team an opportunity to do their job and flips the field for the Rams defense. The margins between an elite punt and a solid punt are razor-thin, and sometimes beyond the control of the punter. PFF awards Hekker with a grade of 69.1, a quality grade for a quality outing. Next, we’ll look at Hekker’s seven punt wildcard performance in Seattle.
WILDCARD @ SEATTLE
His first punt is an open field 40-yarder that hits at the 20 and bonces laterally out-of-bounds. It is a short kick that nets 40 with the same end result as a touchback. Hekker isn’t rushed. The coverage has outrun the punt, often a sign of a poor kick. This punt was recorded as one of his two punts inside the 20.
The second punt is an example of why general punting stats alone do not accurately describe the quality of a kick. The ball travels at a low trajectory for 39 yards, hitting at the 20 and taking a few hops to the 10 where it is picked up and returned for 10 yards. Hekker outkicks his coverage due to a line drive punt. The returner originally wants to let the ball go, rather than run under it, but the bounce enables a return. This was the second of Hekker’s two punts inside the 20. Not good.
The third punt is an open field 44-yard boot from the Rams 7-yard line. In this instance, negating a return is paramount. Hekker skies the kick, the gunners create a triangle around the returner, and a fair catch is forced at the Seattle 49. The stats won’t show it, but this is an excellent punt in the context of the game.
The fourth punt is a well-kicked open field sky-ball that goes for 45 yards. The punt is placed near the sideline. While the punt is returned, this is largely due to a failure on the coverage team. The weak side gunner is blocked away from the returner and takes a bad angle, approaching him from the side. The strong side gunner is blocked to the ground out of the play, nowhere to be found. The punt nets 37 yards, but Hekker has done his job.
Hekker’s fifth punt is an ugly one. Officially, it is a 46-yard open field punt that bounces into the sideline. The ball hits down at the Seattle 44, having traveled just 37 yards before taking a Rams bounce to the 35. This is a dreadful open field punt that is salvaged only by a bounce out-of-bounds. Had the ball bounced in any other direction, either the stats would show a very short punt, or there would have been a return. This is Hekker’s worst punt of the day.
The sixth punt is another ugly open fielder. The ball hits at the Seattle 46, just 34 yards before taking a Rams roll to the Seattle 31 for an additional 15 yards. The returner backs off because the kick is short, letting it bounce. This time, the coverage team is awaiting, and the returner opts to not take it on the bounce. Hekker is bailed out by his coverage team and another lucky bounce.
The seventh and final Hekker punt of the game is another poor open field punt. The ball lands at the Seattle 34 having traveled 37 yards. His process is rushed as the personal protector is nearly blocked into the punt. The kick has enough hangtime for the coverage to get around it, but the ball bounces towards the Seattle endzone. It is picked up by the returner at the 27 and take to the Seattle 35 where the ball is fumbled and recovered by the Rams. The stat sheet records a 44-yard punt with a 35-yard net.
Joe buck sums up Hekker’s performance in the wildcard round well with his call on the seventh punt: “Another ugly punt. Hekker has really not hit many good ones (today).” While a few were rushed processes, the majority were just bad balls. Hekker lacked command on the ball that he showed early in his career and even in the first half of 2020.
SO, WHAT CHANGED?
Above all else, Hekker lacked any consistency over the final nine games of 2020. His booming leg was still there, evidenced by multiple 60 plus yard bombs over that time span. Unlike previous seasons, there were far more short, ugly punts in between them.
WELL, SHOULD THE RAMS MOVE ON?
This is a question the Rams are asking as well, and the answer should come following the preseason. This offseason, Los Angeles signed veteran punter Corey Bojorquez, formerly of the Bills, to compete with Hekker. From 2013-2020, STL/LA had never brought in veteran competition with regular-season experience at the punter position. Should Hekker not improve this preseason from his dismal finish to 2020, he will likely be trying to right the ship in another uniform.
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