Look ahead: Everything you need to know for the 2021 NFL season

  • A view of SoFi Stadium in Inglewood. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

LOS ANGELES — The NFL just completed the most improbable of seasons, with several games moved amid the coronavirus but none canceled.

There’s little time for celebration, however, as the league has to keep its eyes downfield with the year-round schedule rolling along.

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A look at the issues to come:

Vaccines

This is a big one. When will the NFL return to some semblance of normalcy, with relaxed protocols and stadiums filled with fans? NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has made it clear that the league isn’t going to “jump the line” and advocate for player vaccinations before others in their distribution category get them. “It’s too early to say whether vaccines will be part of the solution,” Goodell said. “We expect that they will. We hope that much of our society will be vaccinated by the summer because it’s in the best interest of our country and the health of our people. So, we’ll adapt and if our protocols have to adapt again we will.”

Unclear too is when fans can return to stadiums in large numbers. A total of 1.2 million spectators attended games during the 2020 season, with only some teams allowing fans to watch live in socially-distanced arrangements. According to the league, there were no instances of those situations leading to outbreaks. “We’re proud of that,” Goodell said, “and we’re going to build on that.”

Plenty of questions remain. Will players still be tested for the coronavirus on a daily basis? Will everyone still be outfitted with devices to collect proximity data? Will coaches still be fined or otherwise punished for improper use of face coverings?

“I don’t know when normal is going to occur again, and I don’t know if normal ever will again,” Goodell said. “I don’t know if anybody here can do that. I know this — we have learned to operate in a very difficult environment, we have found solutions, and will do it again. And that’s hard, that’s what we believe is a lesson for us here is the relationships. I think one of the most impressive things to me and meaningful.”

Scouting combine

The 2020 combine was the last “normal” event before the pandemic, with thousands of prospects, coaches and evaluators, and media members converging on Indianapolis for the annual testing of NFL hopefuls. The league announced last month that this year’s combine has been canceled, and that any workouts will take place on individual pro days on college campuses. The NFL is encouraging testing consistency to make evaluations more standardized, and that all clubs have access to video from the workouts.

Salary cap

Get ready for some serious belt-tightening. With all the revenue losses associated with the pandemic, the salary cap is going to take a significant dip when the new contract year begins March 17. According to various projections the cap is expected to drop from the current $198 million per team to $180.5 million, which is better than the floor ($175 million) but is still a gut punch. Nearly half the league would currently be over that projected cap. That means far fewer big deals and teams parting ways with some of their pricier talent.

TV deals

The NFL has been in negotiations for months with top executives from its network partners — Fox, CBS, NBC and ESPN — on long-term contract extensions that are expected to demolish the previous records for rights fees. ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” agreement expires after this season; the other deals run through 2022.

Coaching diversity

After a big emphasis on making the head-coaching ranks more diverse, only two of the seven hires were minorities — David Culley in Houston and Robert Saleh with the New York Jets. Three of the general manager openings were filled by Black men: Terry Fontenot in Atlanta, Martin Mahew in Washington and Brad Holmes in Detroit.

“We want to make the NFL, our clubs, more diverse. It is much broader than just head coaches for us,” Goodell said. “But the head coaches are important, and we put a lot of our policies and focus on that this year. As you know, we had two minority coaches hired this year. But it wasn’t what we expected and it’s not what we expect going forward.”

Quarterback carousel

The Rams traded Jared Goff and a treasure-trove of draft picks to Detroit for Matthew Stafford, but that won’t be the only high-profile transaction at the game’s most important position. Houston’s Deshaun Watson has requested a trade, but there’s no guarantee the Texans will let him go. Philadelphia is looking to trade Carson Wentz, Las Vegas is rumored to be shopping Derek Carr and Ben Roethlisberger will need to rework his contract to return to Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, Philip Rivers retired after one season in Indianapolis and all signs point to New Orleans’ Drew Brees calling it a career too.

Draft

Last year’s virtual draft was such a surprising success that the league plans to keep some of the elements of it, even after it’s safe to resume the event the old way. Viewers loved getting a peek into the homes of players, coaches, general managers, owners and, even, Goodell, and the unpolished, on-the-fly aspect of it made it only more intriguing. This year’s draft is scheduled to take place in Cleveland on April 29-May 1, and it figures to be a hybrid between in-person and virtual. City officials said in December that the NFL is planning an outdoor event with a large footprint along the lakefront with free, outdoor events for the public to coincide with player selection.

LA picks

The Chargers, who struck gold last year by taking quarterback Justin Herbert with the sixth pick, have this year’s 13th selection. The Rams, who haven’t had a first-round selection since making Jared Goff the No. 1 overall pick in 2016, don’t select until No. 57. They landed receiver Van Jefferson in that spot last year and running back Cam Akers at No. 52.

Preseason

Should it be three games? Two games? Whichever, most people are in agreement that the old system of four meaningless games was far too bloated — except perhaps team owners who reaped the benefits of those bountiful money-makers. It’s unlikely to be like last summer, when the entire preseason was scrapped amid the pandemic, but we can at least expect a slimmed-down version.

17 games

The collective bargaining agreement allows the NFL to add a week of regular-season games to the schedule so that each team plays 17, but owners haven’t made a decision on that. “There’s still more work to be done on that,” Goodell said before the Super Bowl, “but once the game is done, we’ll turn our focus a little bit more to that. Even though we have the option, we’re going to continue to talk about this.”

Los Angeles Super Bowl

The NFL hasn’t played its marquee game in the L.A. area since Dallas destroyed Buffalo, 52-17, at the Rose Bowl at the end of the 1992 season. So three decades will have passed when SoFi Stadium plays host to the Super Bowl next February. The game will be played in the shadow of NFL Media, whose headquarters are next to the new stadium, and the two major nodes of activity figure to be the Inglewood site and LA Live downtown.

NFL key dates

Feb. 23-March 9: Teams can designate players from franchise or transition tags.

March 1: Deadline for eligible college football players to notify the NFL Player Personnel Department of their intent to forgo the 2021 NFL draft and return to college.

March 15-17: Teams have three days to negotiate only with agents of players set to become free agents.

March 17: New league year begins, which means free agency also begins and deals made before this date become official.

April 5: Offseason workouts can begin for teams with new head coaches, which includes the Chargers.

April 19: Offseason workouts can begin for rest of teams.

April 23: Last day restricted free agents can sign offer sheets.

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April 28: Last day to match offer sheets for restricted free agents.

April 29-May 1: NFL draft in Cleveland.

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