Analysis

2021 NFL preseason: 6 underdogs to believe in

When you're the Jacksonville Jaguars and you log one puny victory over the course of an entire campaign, you're bound to annoy people.

The fans are irked. The players feel a drifting sense of meaninglessness. The children of Jaguars coaches are nonplussed to switch schools for the fourth time in seven years after the entire staff is ejector-seated out of town come January.

Nobody wins -- except for the guys who replace the guys.

Urban Meyer isn't required to answer burning questions about last year's 1-15 sewage spill. The college coaching icon's résumé speaks for itself and he isn't aiming for a five-year rebuild, announcing when he took the job: "I'm not going to jump into a situation where I don't believe we can win."

Meyer will learn firsthand about the rugged and unforgiving nature of the NFL, but he has more going for him than your average newbie. Trevor Lawrence, the first overall pick, is the most celebrated signal-calling prospect since Andrew Luck -- with more than a few intriguing pieces around him. Marvin Jones, D.J. Chark and Laviska Shenault Jr. form a solid gaggle of pass catchers. 2020 breakout star James Robinson and rookie Travis Etienne loom as a spicy backfield duo, with the latter reportedly "uncoverable" catching passes in camp as a multi-position chess piece with home run potential.

The Jaguars finished 1-6 in one-score games last season and live inside a division with the melting Texans and a Colts team down on its luck. I wouldn't be shocked to see Jacksonville win eight games, but more immediately, there's this: The Jaguars are one of August's most fascinating new-look operations.

Last year's annoyance has morphed into hope. Lofty anticipation built around a surfer-haired star under center and a big-name coach determined to show he belongs. The Meyer-Lawrence journey begins Saturday evening at home (7 p.m. ET on NFL Network) against a surging Browns team that knows how quickly 1-15 can turn into something more attractive.

Here are five other underdog scenarios I'm backing as the 2021 preseason gets cooking:

1) Los Angeles Rams backfield

I saw Cam Akers as a legitimate candidate to lead the league in rushing. Losing him to a season-ending torn Achilles vibed as the stuff of nightmares for Sean McVay's Rams, but morning has broken. The Athletic's Jourdan Rodrigue has tabbed the stable of Darrell Henderson, Xavier Jones and Jake Funk as camp "risers" two weeks running. It starts with the physically freaky Henderson looking "healthy and explosive" in August and ripping off a rash of electric runs.

I'll point to Henderson's lead-dog handiwork early last season, when he gashed the Eagles in Week 2 (12/81/1 with another 40 yards off two grabs) and Buffalo the following Sunday (20/114/1). Durability is an issue for Henderson, meaning Jones and Funk have seen plenty of first- and second-team reps in camp. When Akers went down, Rodrigue noted that Jones "may quietly be one of the Rams' better assets this fall." McVay has basically said it: Los Angeles is rolling committee-style into September. It'll drive Fantasy Heads slightly mental, but the approach feels like a winner.

2) Sam Darnold

Here's the thing: We have no idea if Sam Darnold is A) a good quarterback or B) a wandering rube who somehow tricked the Jets into paying him $30 million guaranteed before landing with the Panthers. His collapse in Gotham was a trick to decipher because of the horrid coaching, bare-cupboard talent and ominous green-black cloud that -- up until now -- has blocked out the sun in Florham Park ever since Joe Namath starred alongside Ann-Margret in the 1970 film C.C. and Company. (This is a real thing: From 1970 through 1976, Namath never won more than seven games in a season for the Jets. Everything since has been mostly foul to the senses.)

We do know this: Carolina's talent puts Darnold in a far brighter scenario. Christian McCaffrey is back in the fold. D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson are quality targets. Buzzy second-rounder Terrace Marshall Jr. has turned heads while the Darnold-Dan Arnold connection appears to be more than an opportunity for clunky wordplay gags. The O-line is suspect, but play-caller Joe Brady has artistic flair. I sense we're going to see a different version of Sam, one freed from the Adam Gase mad scientist act.

3) The Dan Campbell Experience

Logic suggests the Lions are dirt-nap material in the NFC North. In a pass-obsessed league, Jared Goff is stuck flinging anti-darts to fellows like Breshad Perriman, Tyrell Williams and Geronimo Allison. Detroit is openly rebuilding and putting its faith in coach Dan Campbell. He's eye-of-the-beholder content: Some will eat up his bro-ish soliloquies, others will pounce as the losses mount. Me? I can't help but dig his fireside chats with the media.

Asked Tuesday to describe his roster, he thoughtfully responded: "There's no turds here." Last week he illuminated scribes with tales of his high-wattage java routine, which includes 80 ounces of coffee and four shots of espresso EVERY DAY. This is a medieval war zone in terms of gut health. I desire to text him and suggest a celery juice, yet Campbell appears uninterested in fielding GI tract tips from a 150-pound blogger who hasn't lifted weights this decade. He does have my support in Detroit, though, where the Lions might finally have a plan.

4) Matt Canada

Hard to recall an offseason where the Steelers were subjected to more slings and arrows from doubting Thomases. Coming off Pittsburgh's playoff implosion against the Browns, this Cleveland fan was feeling himself one afternoon on NFL Network, when I announced to host Andrew Siciliano that we now lived in a "post-Steelers society."

As we swap springtime delusions of grandeur for an acid-test autumn, I believe Pittsburgh will figure it out. Ben Roethlisberger will shut people up, rookie runner Najee Harris will double as toast-of-the-town material and all the fretting over the offensive line will turn into praise for position coach Adrian Klemm and first-year play-caller Matt Canada.

No, I am not attempting some sort of middle-schooly reverse jinx. Canada's attack is heavily doused in pre-snap motion, misdirection and jet-sweep fare to keep defenses on their toes. It's a colorful departure for Pittsburgh's offense, with Mason Rudolph saying after last week's Hall of Fame Game: "You see 'backers bouncing and not able to fit gaps as easily."

Pittsburgh's line pounced off the ball well against Dallas, with Mark Kaboly of The Athletic noting "a lot of the success had to do with Canada's motion, which made the Cowboys play passively."

It's a work in progress here in August, but writing off Mike Tomlin and the Steelers is too hubris-packed for my liking.

5) Indianapolis Colts

I'm not ready to toss the Colts out of a moving car just yet.

Granted, it's not pretty. Twin foot injuries to passer Carson Wentz and mauler Quenton Nelson totally unspooled an already questionable situation under center. The schedule, meanwhile, is a dark circus out of the gate with seven of their first eight foes looming as bona fide playoff hopefuls.

Some variables to consider: Nelson is determined to return for Week 1. Wentz seems to be progressing well. General manager Chris Ballard has crafted a balanced roster on both sides of the ball highlighted by one of last year's gnarliest defensive fronts. The backfield is powerful. There's also the case of sixth-round rookie quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who has outplayed Jacob Eason -- stealing away first-team reps -- and reportedly "has people within the organization buzzing."

Ooh la la.

If Wentz excels at one pursuit, it's suffering an injury and freaking out the fan base, only to have some understudy gallop in on a beaming white horse to save the day.

The scene has been set.

The rise of Ehlinger begins now.

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter.

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