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NFL preview: A 17th game, new rules, faces in different places ... a number of changes

 Rams defensive back Jalen Ramsey shown earing his new No. 5 jersey.
Because of an NFL rule change, defensive back Jalen Ramsey was able to switch his number to 5 this season. He had been wearing No. 20 with the Rams.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

The NFL is going into overtime.

Each team will play 17 games this year, the first change to the regular-season structure since 1978, back when Tom Brady was still in diapers.

The collective bargaining agreement ratified in March 2020 cleared the way for that expansion, creating an extra week and pitting teams from opposing conferences that finished in the same place within their divisions the previous year. The AFC will be the home conference for the 17th game this season, and the NFC next season.

So that’s Rams at Baltimore, and the Chargers playing host to Minnesota.

There’s plenty to watch for this season, including:

Quick-change artists

The NFL has become a numbers game. If a player wants to wear a wacky number, he has a far bigger selection this season. Now, running backs, tight ends and wide receivers can wear any number between 1 and 49 and 80 and 89. Defensive backs can wear 1 through 49; linebackers 1 through 59 and 90 through 99; offensive linemen 50 through 79; and defensive linemen 50 through 79 and 90 through 99.

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Not everyone is a fan of the relaxed restrictions.

“The number rule is crazy,” Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady told the Tampa Bay Times. “Literally, guys changed their numbers today. I’m playing two guys who had different numbers in the preseason. So yeah, you’ve got to watch film and know who you’re studying, but so do running backs. They’ve got to know who to block. So does the offensive line. So do the receivers who are adjusting their routes based on blitzes.

“So one guy has got a 6, one guy has an 11, one guy has a 9. And they change every play when you break your routes and get to your spot. It’s going to be a very challenging thing. It’s a good advantage for the defense.”

This rules

Every year, there are at least tweaks to NFL rules, although other than the new regulations on jersey numbers, the adjustments this season are minor.

The most notable changes:

— Expanded consultation of replay review: The replay official and designated members of the officiating department can now communicate to the referee “certain objective and administrative aspects of the game.”

— Second forward passes: Modifies penalty to add a loss of down for a second forward pass behind the line and for a pass thrown after the ball returns behind the line.

— Expanded prohibition against blocking below the waist.

— A maximum of nine players in the “setup zone” on a free-kick formation.

Trading places

Barry Sanders never made it out of Detroit, but Matthew Stafford did.

Stafford, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2009, was traded from the Lions to the Rams in a rare quarterback-for-quarterback swap that sent Jared Goff, another player selected first overall, to the Motor City.

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That was the blockbuster deal of the offseason, but there were plenty of other big-name players who switched teams. Among them:

WR Nelson Agholor (New England from Las Vegas): Coming off a career-best 896 yards receiving with the Raiders.

CB A.J. Bouye (Carolina from Denver): Since 2014, Bouye has 14 interceptions and 72 passes knocked away.

QB Teddy Bridgewater (Denver from Carolina): Bridgewater set career highs in passing yards (3,733) and passing touchdowns (15) in his lone Panthers season.

QB Jacoby Brissett (Miami from Indianapolis): Dolphins are going with Tua Tagovailoa, but Brissett brings experience as a backup.

DT Michael Brockers (Detroit from RAMS): In nine seasons with the Rams, Brockers collected 28 sacks and 48 tackles for loss.

OT Orlando Brown (Kansas City from Baltimore): No team had a bigger offensive line overhaul than the Chiefs this season.

WR John Brown (Las Vegas from Buffalo): In two seasons with the Bills, Brown had 1,518 yards and nine touchdowns receiving.

DE Jadeveon Clowney (Cleveland from Tennessee): Will join fellow No. 1 pick Myles Garrett on an impressive Browns defensive front.

RB James Conner (Arizona from Pittsburgh): Conner spent his first four seasons with the Steelers, the last three recording at least 700 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns.

Chicago Bears quarterback Andy Dalton (14) looks to pass.
Andy Dalton, a longtime Cincinnati Bengals starting quarterback who spent last season with the Dallas Cowboys, will start for the Chicago Bears this season.
(David Banks / Associated Press)

QB Andy Dalton (Chicago from Dallas): In 11 games with the Cowboys last season, Dalton threw for 2,170 yards and 14 touchdowns.

QB Sam Darnold (Carolina from New York Jets): Former USC star opens the season against the Jets, team that had picked him third overall.

OT Eric Fisher (Indianapolis from Kansas City): Former No. 1 overall pick joins one of the league’s best offensive lines.

QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (Washington from Miami): Fitzpatrick is the seasoned hand in a quarterback room that includes Kyle Allen and Taylor Heinicke.

Here’s how every team in the NFC is set to finish over the course of the 2021 NFL season.

WR Kenny Golladay (New York Giants from Detroit): Golladay only appeared in five games last season, but before that he had back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons.

WR A.J. Green (Arizona from Cincinnati): Every season of his career, the No. 4 pick in 2011 has accumulated at least 500 yards receiving. Complements DeAndre Hopkins.

TE Hunter Henry (New England from CHARGERS): One of four AFC tight ends with at least 60 receptions last season.

CB Troy Hill (Cleveland from RAMS): Had a career-high three interceptions last season, two of which he returned for touchdowns.

RB Mark Ingram (Houston from Baltimore): His 7,324 yards rushing and 9,219 yards from scrimmage are the most of any back currently on an active roster.

LB Melvin Ingram (Pittsburgh from CHARGERS): In nine seasons with the Chargers, Ingram had 49 sacks and 70 tackles for loss.

CB Adoree’ Jackson (Giants from Tennessee): In 46 games with the Titans, the former USC burner had 33 passes knocked away.

WR DeSean Jackson (RAMS from Philadelphia): In his 13th season, and with 56 touchdowns, Jackson still has that extra gear to get behind defenders.

Cleveland Browns defensive back John Johnson III participates in a drill.
Safety John Johnson III will be missed by the Rams but is a welcome addition to the Cleveland Browns’ defense.
(David Dermer / Associated Press)

S John Johnson (Cleveland from RAMS): Should help bring along rookie Grant Delpit, Cleveland’s second-round pick.

WR Julio Jones (Tennessee from Atlanta): Seven-time Pro Bowl selection and two-time All-Pro makes a short move across state and conference lines.

DE Ryan Kerrigan (Philadelphia from Washington): Kerrigan’s 95½ sacks with Washington were the most in franchise history.

RB Phillip Lindsay (Houston from Denver): Former Broncos standout joins an imported backfield that includes Rex Burkhead (from Patriots) and Ingram.

C Corey Linsley (CHARGERS from Green Bay): If you’re going to reshape an offensive line, start with the guy who touches the ball on every play.

G Kyle Long (Kansas City from Chicago): Son of Howie Long and brother of Chris is a devastating blocker when healthy.

CB Jason McCourty (Miami from New England): Twelve-year veteran will face his old team twice a season.

QB Gardner Minshew (Philadelphia from Jacksonville): The Eagles are going with Jalen Hurts, but Minshew will be waiting in the wings.

DE Yannick Ngakoue (Las Vegas from Baltimore): Ngakoue has 45½ career sacks, including eight last season with Minnesota and the Ravens.

CB Patrick Peterson (Minnesota from Arizona): Peterson’s 28 career interceptions ties him with new teammate Harrison Smith and Devin McCourty for third-most among active players.

Here’s how every team in the AFC is set to finish over the course of the 2021 NFL season.

OT Riley Reiff (Cincinnati from Minnesota): Reiff will be protecting the surgically reconstructed Joe Burrow and paving a path for Joe Mixon.

TE Kyle Rudolph (Giants from Minnesota): Has a chance this year to become the 10th tight end with 500 receptions, 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns.

WR Emmanuel Sanders (Buffalo from New Orleans): Still a deep threat after 11 seasons and 662 receptions.

QB Tyrod Taylor (Houston from CHARGERS): With Deshaun Watson in legal limbo and his future uncertain, Taylor again steps in as a talented bridge player.

Houston Texans quarterback Tyrod Taylor  rushes against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a preseason game.
Former Charger Tyrod Taylor will start the season as the No. 1 quarterback for the Houston Texans.
(Justin Rex / Associated Press)

LB Kyle Van Noy (New England from Miami): Finds his way back to Patriots after collecting six sacks last season.

WR Sammy Watkins (Baltimore from Kansas City): Watkins won a ring with the Chiefs but hopes to be a bigger factor with the Ravens.

DE J.J. Watt (Arizona from Houston): Texans’ all-time leader in tackles for loss (172), sacks (101) and forced fumbles (25) joins the relentless Chandler Jones on Cardinals’ line.

QB Carson Wentz (Indianapolis from Philadelphia): Retirement of Philip Rivers led to reunion of Philly tandem of Wentz and Frank Reich.

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Dare to dream

At least one NFL team each season since 2003 has won its division a year after failing to qualify for the playoffs.

Two of those teams — the 2009 New Orleans Saints and 2017 Philadelphia Eagles — went on to win the Super Bowl.

One such team last season was Washington, which went from 3-13 in 2019 to 7-9 in 2020. OK, so the NFC East just wasn’t very good.

Here’s an even more impressive streak: Since 1990, at least four teams each season have qualified for the playoffs after failing to do so the previous year. That’s 31 consecutive seasons.

There were seven such teams in 2020: Chicago, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Washington and the Rams.

Meanwhile, in the last four seasons, seven head coaches in their first season with a new club made the playoffs: Ron Rivera (Washington), Kevin Stefanski (Cleveland), Matt LaFleur (Green Bay), Matt Nagy (Chicago), Frank Reich (Indianapolis), Sean McDermott (Buffalo) and Sean McVay (Rams).

Lonely at top

It remains to be seen whether they’re the magnificent seven, but there are seven new head coaches this season: Dan Campbell in Detroit, David Culley in Houston, Urban Meyer in Jacksonville, Nick Sirianni in Philadelphia, Arthur Smith in Atlanta, Robert Saleh with the New York Jets, and the Chargers’ Brandon Staley.

It’s a snap

Five quarterbacks were selected in the first 15 picks of this year’s draft: Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence (Jacksonville), Brigham Young’s Zach Wilson (New York Jets), North Dakota State’s Trey Lance (San Francisco), Ohio State’s Justin Fields (Chicago) and Alabama’s Mac Jones (New England).

For 13 years in a row, at least one rookie quarterback has started his team’s opener. Lawrence has been named the starter for the Jaguars, Wilson for the Jets and Jones for the Patriots.

Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence throws the football.
Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 pick of the 2021 draft, will start at quarterback for the Jacksonville Jaguars, who finished 1-15 last season.
(Michael Ainsworth / Associated Press)

Only in L.A.

The Los Angeles area will play host to the Super Bowl for the first time since the Dallas-Buffalo game at the Rose Bowl in January 1993. This time it’s at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, home to the Rams and Chargers.

This will be the eighth Super Bowl in the Los Angeles area, which is three fewer than South Florida and two fewer than New Orleans. The next closest is Tampa, Fla., with five.

Milestones

— Buffalo’s Josh Allen needs nine rushing touchdowns to eclipse Cam Newton’s 33, the most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in his first four seasons.

— New England’s Bill Belichick ranks third all time among coaches with 311 victories, regular season and playoffs combined. He needs 14 to surpass George Halas and needs 17 — quite an ask — to tie No. 1 Don Shula.

— Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady needs 1,155 yards passing to surpass Drew Brees (80,358) for most career passing yards.

— The Rams’ Aaron Donald needs 14½ sacks to become the fourth player since 1982 — when the individual sack became a statistic — with 100 sacks in his first eight seasons.

— Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott needs 1,250 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns to join LaDainian Tomlinson as the only players to reach those numbers in each of their first six seasons.

— With 1,000 yards receiving, Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans would become the first player to reach that benchmark in each of his first eight seasons.

— Tennessee’s Derrick Henry needs 1,500 yards rushing and 15 rushing touchdowns to become the first player to accomplish that in three consecutive seasons.

— Arizona’s DeAndre Hopkins needs 99 receptions to surpass Marvin Harrison (845) for the most catches by a player in his first nine seasons.

— With a 100-yard rushing game, Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts can join Lamar Jackson as the only quarterbacks to do that in each of their first two seasons.

— Baltimore’s Jackson needs 25 passing touchdowns and five rushing touchdowns to become the first quarterback to do that in three consecutive seasons.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jacksonsignals touchdown.
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson seems headed to breaking more NFL records this season.
(Aaron Doster / Associated Press)

— Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson needs 1,365 yards receiving to eclipse Odell Beckham Jr. (2,755) for the most receiving yards through his first two seasons.

— New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara needs 33 catches to surpass Roger Craig (358) for the most receptions by a running back in his first five seasons. Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey needs 39 receptions to pass Craig.

— Kansas City’s Travis Kelce needs 85 catches and a 29 yards receiving to surpass Jason Witten (696 catches, 7,909 yards receiving) for the most by a tight end in his first nine seasons.

— With at least 70 catches, Cleveland’s Jarvis Landry would become the first player in NFL history to reach that number in each of his first eight seasons.

— Should he throw for 4,000 yards, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes would join Peyton Manning as the only players to do that three times in their first four seasons. Mahomes, who has 14,152 yards in 46 career games, can become the first quarterback in NFL history to reach 15,000 yards in 50 games or fewer.


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