Since his introduction to NFL as a childhood fan in the 80s, Neil Reynolds played for a decade in the British league before becoming a journalist in the 90s.
He now presents the UK’s biggest live American football programme, NFL on Sky Sports.
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With the 2021 season about to begin, Neil was kind enough to join us to discuss his lifelong relationship with American football, this unique moment in NFL history, and the upcoming season’s most compelling teams, players and storylines.
Emile Avanessian: Which teams and players were your early fandom favourites?
Neil Reynolds: Well, the reason I became an NFL fan was because my dad would watch a lot of it on Channel Four. He was watching one time and all the commentators were getting excited about this curly haired rookie out of Pittsburgh who was running on to play for the Miami Dolphins in the second half against the Raiders. It was Dan Marino. And they were all so excited. From then, I started following the Dolphins and became obsessed with the team and Dan Marino. So, I was a Miami Dolphins fan.
But now, obviously with my job, that has kind of have evolved. I have people ask me ‘Which team do you support?’, but I don’t really show it much on Sky. These days, I would rather watch the game of the week. If you tell me that the Bucs are playing the Chiefs, I’d rather see that game than, for example, Dolphins-Jets. I love the storylines, the headlines, and watching these legends.
EA: Looking ahead to this upcoming season, which teams and players are you most intrigued by?
NR: So at first glance, I think the teams that were there or thereabouts last year will be contenders again. Now, of course, there are always surprises in an NFL season, but Tampa Bay have a year under their belt with Tom Brady, and they’re returning all 22 starters, which has never happened before in the salary cap era. So I think at the Bucs will make another strong run.
I also really fancy the Buffalo Bills. They’re actually my pick to win the Super Bowl. Josh Allen has gone from this kind of wild colt to a thoroughbred, and he’s an outstanding player. I think he’s going to take that team to great heights.
I’m also fascinated to see the dynamic between Aaron Rodgers and the Packers and Russell Wilson and the Seahawks. There’s no doubt both wanted out. Both may be out in 2022. So how do they play out the next season? If both players play to their potential, those teams can be contenders. But will they be distracted? That to me is fascinating.
Obviously, quarterbacks always drive this league, and there are a few others that are interesting. Is Matthew Stafford going to be what Sean McVay has always been looking for with the Los Angeles Rams?
And Carson Wentz and Sam Donald are both at a career crossroads. Can they salvage their careers in Indianapolis and Carolina? And then there’s the question of what a Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson can do for the Jags and the Jets? Can they get those franchises off the doormat? There’s lots to look forward to.
EA: When writing team previews, I make an effort to talk about difference-makers in defense, on the offensive line, or at the skill positions. But it always comes back to the quarterback.
NR: The Bucs had a 5,000 yard passer in 2019. They had Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, almost all of the players that were there last year were there in 2019. But Tampa won a combined 17 games in the three seasons before Tom Brady got there. He gets there and they win a Super Bowl. It’s staggering.
EA: Another very intriguing team is the Tennessee Titans. They were, similarly, sort of adrift. They had talent at wide receiver, and they had talent at running back. But it wasn’t until Ryan Tannehill arrived and began to thrive that they began to have success. He was himself at a career crossroads, and now they have a chance to be an absolute juggernaut, at least offensively. But without Tannehill, none of it coalesces.
NR: I think Tennessee is one of those teams in the next group for me. I think the AFC is stronger, in terms of having more contenders as you go down. I think Cleveland could really make strides this year. Their offense is really good, and they’re defense is upgraded. And Baltimore, we never really should write off. They just play physical football and they know how to win games. And will we get the Steelers that won 11 straight? Or the one that lost five of the last six? I feel like the AFC goes deeper.
Another team I’m very fascinated to see is San Francisco. Very quickly we forget, especially in the media, how good teams were. We think of the 49ers last year being in the basement. They were in the Super Bowl the year before!
No team had more injuries last year than 49ers, but this team’s still loaded. They could be right in the mix with the Bucs the Packers in the NFC.
EA: That division in general, the NFC West, is going to be fascinating. At least on paper, there’s not a bad team there.
NR: I think about the NFC West, and I think about Arizona. This is an outfit who have Kyler Murray at quarterback and can be really dangerous. They were on course for the playoffs until that late slump. And that’s the worst team in that division. That’s the best division in football, I’d say, along with the AFC East. I think that race is going to be really fascinating this year.
EA: The AFC East is also going to be fascinating. There’s the Patriots, with the upheaval that just happened in the last 48 hours or so. It’s going to be very interesting to see how Mac Jones fares once the games count. And I’m actually quite bullish on the on the Dolphins, as well.
NR: Me too. I think Dolphins did well again, putting more around Tua. They’re always going to play well on defense under Brian Flores.
Going back to the Patriots, I think Mac Jones is a Belichick kind of guy. He wants somebody with football intelligence, who can just keep the offense ticking. It doesn’t always have to be big plays. Just keep them moving down the field.
EA: Well, that’s kind of an underrated thing with Tom Brady. Of course, Brady makes spectacular throws. But what’s made him so great for so long is his mastery of the unspectacular. Making simple plays, and not making backbreaking mistakes.
NR: There was a commentator who once said that Tom Brady just has the answer to every question in the test. And that’s what you want your quarterback to have. That’s what I think Belichick is looking for in Mac Jones. ‘We don’t necessarily need the 80-yard touchdown pass. I need you to have the answer to every question in the test.’ Jones was described as the most pro-ready out of the rookie quarterbacks, and I think that’s why he’s going start in Week 1.
EA: We’ve momentarily touched on all of the rookie quarterbacks, with one exception. What is your impression of Justin Fields and the and the situation in Chicago?
NR: I can only assume there’s stuff being seen behind the scenes by Matt Nagy. More complicated defenses in practice than Justin Fields as seen in the preseason? I can only assume there’s something that’s not quite the finished article yet. Because from what I’ve seen in the preseason, there’s no doubt Justin Fields should be starting over Andy Dalton. Dalton is a solid quarterback, but he’s never going to be more than a solid quarterback.
I think the fact that Matt Nagy is on a bit of a hot seat means he’s going with the safer hand to begin with. But I think we’ll see Justin Fields by October.
EA: A theory I have about this is that the Bears’ offensive line is by no means a fortress. I get the sense they’re almost throwing Dalton to the wolves, to see how bad these problems are, and how to scheme around them without getting the rookie quarterback clobbered. Because these days, if you draft a quarterback that high and he looks capable, even in the preseason, he starts. It’s not like the old days where a quarterback would definitely sit his first year, and possibly even a second.
NR: I feel the same way about Trey Lance in San Francisco. I think it’s only a matter of time before Jimmy G steps aside, if he’s even the Week 1 starter. It’s only a matter of time before it’s Trey Lance. You don’t give up three first round draft picks (including the pick you’ve spent on him) for a player to sit on the bench. I think he’ll bring something more to Kyle Shanahan’s offense. He’s very dynamic, very exciting. He’s looked good in the preseason.
EA: We talked about how 2020 was a particularly unique season. Now in 2021, in addition to a 17th regular season game and expanded playoff fields, there is the looming threat of non-compliance with Covid protocols potentially costing teams games. How do you see this, once again, ‘new NFL’ of 2021 playing out?
NR: I do think there will be some impact with Covid this year. We’ve seen it already in training camps, where guys are being forced to sit out if they’re not vaccinated. It’s not up to us, or commentators to talk about whether a player is vaccinated or unvaccinated. What I wonder is how it is in the building? How is it going to feel if a quarterback isn’t available for five days, or whatever it is? How are unvaccinated players going to feel about those who get, frankly, an easier season in terms of logistics? Yeah, there’s lots behind the scenes that is going to play out.
EA: Lastly, I’d like to run through your awards predictions. First, who do you foresee winning the MVP award this year?
NR: Because I’m picking Buffalo to win the Super Bowl, I think this is Josh Allen’s year. I think he’s going to an even higher level. I think we’ll consider him one of the elite players in the NFL. So I’m going to say Josh.
EA: This one is a little bit of a twist. Who would be your non-quarterback MVP pick?
NR: You can never go wrong with Derrick Henry. He’s so important. He’s actually got quarterback-like value for the Tennessee Titans, because everything they do comes off of him. And Aaron Donald, who remains, for me, the best player, pound for pound, position for position in the NFL. So I think that he would have a great shot.
EA: And Offensive Rookie of the Year?
NR: I was initially going to say Trevor Lawrence, but I think Trey Lance will have a really big impact, especially in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. I’m very interested to see how he performs in that offense. He’s got more than just being a passer, and I think he can be a bit of everything for them. I’m very excited to see him.
EA: And Rookie of the Year on the defensive side?
NR: It’s really interesting. There are two actually very active, fast linebackers: Micah Parsons in Dallas would be one, and Zaven Collins for the Cardinals. Collins is one of those position-less defenders. He looks like a safety but plays like a linebacker. He can run, he can tackle, he can hit, and you don’t have to line him up in one spot.
I think Parsons can be a bit of that as well. He’s had a strong preseason. So I’d say one of those two.
EA: And finally, who do you think will be the Coach of the Year?
NR: I’m giving a clean sweep to the Buffalo Bills. I’m going to say Sean McDermott. I fancy the Bills, he is a very, very good coach, and he’s gotten that team playing differently.
EA: It’s a wonder he didn’t win it last year.
NR: Agreed. So, yeah, I think Sean McDermott, I think it’s the year for the Buffalo Bills to finally get their first Super Bowl.
Neil Reynolds’ NFL 2021 best players & awards picks:
- Super Bowl 2021 champions: Buffalo Bills
- MVP: Josh Allen
- Non-quarterback MVP: Derrick Henry or Aaron Donald
- Rookie of the Year (offense): Trey Lance
- Rookie of the Year (defense): Micah Parsons or Zaven Collins
- Coach of the Year: Sean McDermott
Watch the NFL season kick off tonight when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers face the Dallas Cowboys live on Sky Sports Main Event, Sky Sports NFL and NFL Game Pass, with live coverage from 1am Friday.