The 2021 NFL league year and trading period began on March 17. On March 15, teams were allowed to exercise options for 2021 on players with option clauses in their contracts, submit qualifying offers to their pending restricted free agents, and submit a Minimum Salary Tender to retain exclusive negotiating rights to their players with expiring 2020 contracts and fewer than three accrued seasons of free agent credit. Teams were required to be under the salary cap using the "top 51" definition (in which the 51 highest paid-players on the team's payroll must have a combined salary cap). On March 17, clubs were allowed to contact and begin contract negotiations with players whose contracts had expired and thus became unrestricted free agents.
The following notable trades were made during the 2021 league year:
March 17: Detroit traded QB Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams in exchange for QB Jared Goff, a 2021 third round selection (No. 101), a 2022 first round selection, and a 2023 first round selection.
March 17: Philadelphia traded QB Carson Wentz to Indianapolis in exchange for a 2021 third round selection and a conditional 2022 second round selection.
March 17: Las Vegas traded C Rodney Hudson and 2021 seventh round selection to Arizona in exchange for a 2021 third round selection.
March 17: New England traded OT Marcus Cannon and 2021 fifth and sixth round selections to Houston in exchange for 2021 fourth and sixth round selections.
March 17: Las Vegas traded OT Trent Brown and a 2021 fifth round selection to New England in exchange for a 2021 seventh round selection.
April 5: The New York Jets traded QB Sam Darnold to Carolina in exchange for a 2021 sixth round selection and 2022 second and fourth round selections.
April 23: Baltimore traded OT Orlando Brown Jr., a 2021 second round selection, and a 2022 sixth round selection to Kansas City for 2021 first, third, and fourth round selections and a 2022 fifth round selection.
April 28: Carolina traded QB Teddy Bridgewater to Denver in exchange for a 2021 sixth round selection.
WR Julian Edelman – Three-time Super Bowl Champion (XLIX, LI, and LIII) and Super Bowl LIII MVP. Played for New England during his entire 12-year career.
LB Tamba Hali – Six-time Pro Bowler and two-time second-team All-Pro. Played for Kansas City during his entire 12-year career.
G Mike Iupati – Four-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro (one first-team, one second-team). Played for San Francisco, Arizona, and Seattle during his 11-year career.
RB LeSean McCoy – Six-time Pro Bowler, two-time first-team All-Pro, and two-time Super Bowl Champion (LIV and LV). Played for Philadelphia, Buffalo, Kansas City and Tampa Bay during his 12-year career.
C Maurkice Pouncey – Nine-time Pro Bowler and five-time All-Pro (three first-team, two second-team). Played for Pittsburgh during his entire 11-year career.
C Mike Pouncey – Four-time Pro Bowler. Played for Miami and the Los Angeles Chargers during his 10-year career.
NFL Senior Vice President of Officiating Alberto Riveron retired, leaving two other senior vice presidents, Walt Anderson and Perry Fewell, to co-head the NFL's officiating department. Without Riveron, multiple people in the officiating department will be making the final decisions over replay reviews instead of a single person.
Replay official Carl Madsen died on October 24. He was in his 12th season as a replay official, after an extended career as an on-field official.
Running backs, tight ends, and wide receivers can wear 1–49 and 80–89
Defensive backs can wear 1–49
Linebackers can wear 1–59 and 90–99
The following remained unchanged: offensive linemen (50–79); defensive linemen (50–79, 90–99); and quarterbacks, punters, and kickers (1–19).
Per the league's existing rules, any player who changed his number this season was required to buy out the inventory of his existing jersey before the change was made. A player who intends to change his number for the 2022 season can do so without cost.
Overtime in preseason games was eliminated. This was the first season since 1973 in which overtime was not used in the preseason.
All accepted penalties by either team during consecutive extra point or two-point conversion attempts are to be enforced.
The penalty for a second forward pass from behind the line of scrimmage and for a pass thrown after the ball returns behind the line will now include a loss of down.
During kickoffs, the receiving team may have no more than nine players in the "set-up zone" (the area between 10 and 25 yards from the kickoff spot).
An expansion of the booth-to-official communication on replays, allowing replay officials to advise on "specific, objective aspects of a play when clear and obvious video evidence is present and/or to address game administration issues."
The league introduced COVID-19 protocols intended to encourage vaccination among players, coaches, and staff. On July 22, the NFL sent a memo warning teams that if a game that had been postponed due to COVID-19 outbreaks among unvaccinated players could not be rescheduled within the 18-week season schedule, the team responsible for the outbreak would be charged with a loss by forfeit, and be responsible for financial compensation to the other team, since teams typically do not get paid for cancelled games. On July 24, it was reported that the league will fine players $14,650 for each violation of COVID-19 protocol if they are unvaccinated.
On July 23, the league announced the following temporary rules for 2020 would remain in place for 2021, allowing roster flexibility due to uncertainty regarding the pandemic.
A player on injured reserve could return after missing three games, instead of the normal eight.
Teams could return an unlimited number of players from injured reserve throughout the year, instead of the normal limit of three.
Practice squads could include up to 16 players for each team, up from 12.
After 4:00 p.m. ET on the Tuesday of a game week, a team could designate up to four practice squad players as "protected," meaning they are not allowed to sign with another team until after their current team plays its next game.
Up to two practice squad players could be elevated to the active roster each game week without removing any current players, 4:00 p.m. ET the day before a game.
On August 30, the league and the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) agreed to COVID testing protocols for the season. Fully vaccinated players were tested at least once per week and could opt for additional testing. Like in 2020, unvaccinated players were tested every day during the regular season and postseason except game days.
Corresponding with the expansion of the regular season to 17 games, the preseason was reduced to three games per team. NFC teams each hosted two preseason games and AFC teams each hosted one. There was a league-wide bye week the weekend of September 4–5, between the final preseason game and the start of the regular season.
The NFL released its regular season schedule on May 12. The season was played over an 18-week schedule beginning on September 9. Each of the league's 32 teams plays 17 games, with one bye week for each team. The regular season concluded on January 9, 2022; all games during the final weekend were intra-division games, as it has been since 2010.
The 2020 collective bargaining agreement (CBA) signed by team owners and the NFLPA allowed for an expansion of the regular season from 16 to 17 games. On March 30, 2021, owners approved the expanded schedule. The extra game was added to the existing scheduling formula. Each team continues to play the other three teams in its own division twice, one game against each of the four teams from a division in its own conference, one game against each of the four teams from a division in the other conference, and one game against each of the remaining two teams in its conference that finished in the same position in their respective divisions the previous season (e.g., the team that finished fourth in its division would play all three other teams in its conference that also finished fourth in their divisions).
The added game is a fifth interconference matchup between divisions that had played each other two years earlier, based on the position in their respective divisions the previous season (e.g. the team that finished fourth in its division plays a club that finished fourth in a division of the other conference). AFC teams host the extra game in odd-numbered years, including 2021, with NFC teams getting the extra home game in even-numbered years.
This section lists games that were moved or canceled because of severe weather, COVID-19 outbreaks, by way of flexible scheduling, or for other reasons, including games that were moved to Saturday. When the entire season schedule was released on May 12, the league announced that in Weeks 15 and 18, two games would be moved to their respective Saturdays.
The Jacksonville–Los Angeles Rams game, originally scheduled for 4:25 p.m. ET on CBS was flexed to 4:05 p.m. ET on Fox.
The New Orleans–New York Jets game, originally scheduled at 1:00 p.m. ET on Fox, was cross-flexed to CBS, remaining at 1:00.
The San Francisco–Cincinnati game, originally scheduled at 1:00 p.m. ET on CBS, was flexed to 4:25 p.m ET, still on CBS.
On November 23, the NFL announced that two games would be moved to Saturday, December 18: Las Vegas–Cleveland at 4:30 p.m. ET and New England–Indianapolis at 8:15 p.m. ET, both exclusively on the NFL Network (though the Las Vegas-Cleveland game was later moved to Monday, December 20 due to a COVID-19 outbreak among Cleveland players). The three other games that the league had the option of scheduling on Saturday (Carolina–Buffalo, New York Jets–Miami, and Washington–Philadelphia), remained on Sunday, December 19 (though the Washington-Philadelphia game was delayed to Tuesday, December 21 due to a COVID-19 outbreak by Washington).
The Green Bay–Baltimore game, originally scheduled at 1:00 p.m. ET on Fox, was flexed to 4:25 p.m ET, still on Fox.
The Las Vegas–Cleveland game, originally scheduled for Saturday at 4:30 p.m. ET, was moved to Monday at 5:00 PM ET, remaining on the NFL Network, due to an outbreak of COVID-19 among Cleveland.
The Philadelphia–Washington game, originally scheduled for 1:00 p.m. ET on Fox, was moved to Tuesday at 7:00 p.m. ET, remaining on Fox, due to an outbreak of COVID-19 among Washington.
The Los Angeles Rams–Seattle game, originally scheduled for 4:25 p.m. ET on Fox, was moved to Tuesday at 7:00 p.m. ET, remaining on Fox, due to an outbreak of COVID-19 among Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles Rams–Baltimore game, originally scheduled at 4:25 p.m. ET on Fox, was flexed to 1:00 p.m. ET, still on Fox.
The Carolina–New Orleans game, originally scheduled at 1:00 p.m. ET on Fox, was flexed to 4:25 p.m ET, still on Fox.
The Arizona-Dallas game, originally scheduled at 1:00 p.m. ET on Fox, was flexed to 4:25 p.m. ET, still on Fox.
The Las Vegas-Indianapolis game, originally scheduled at 1:00 p.m. ET on CBS, was cross-flexed to Fox, remaining at 1:00.
For the first time in league history, two games with playoff implications were moved to the last Saturday of the regular season. This move was announced at the same time as the final Sunday Night Football game on January 2, 2022. The Kansas City–Denver game, originally scheduled for Sunday at 4:25 p.m. ET on CBS, was moved to Saturday at 4:30 p.m. ET on ABC/ESPN, and the Dallas–Philadelphia game, originally scheduled for Sunday at 1:00 p.m. ET on Fox, was moved to Saturday at 8:15 p.m. ET, on ABC/ESPN.
The 2021 playoffs began with the wild-card round, with three Wild Card games played in each conference. Wild card weekend took place from January 15–17, 2022. This marks the first time that the wild card games were played over three consecutive days. Two games were played on Saturday, three on Sunday, and one on Monday night, marking the first Monday playoff game since 1988.
In the divisional round, which was played on the weekend of January 22–23, the top seed in the conference played the lowest remaining seed and the other two remaining teams will play each other. The winners of those games advanced to the Conference Championships, which were played on January 30.
Tom Brady became the first player to start 300 career games at any position.
Jameis Winston passed for 145 yards and five touchdowns, setting the record for fewest passing yards in a game with at least five passing touchdowns. The previous record of 158 yards was held by Eddie LeBaron.
Julio Jones became the fastest player to reach 13,000 receiving yards, doing so in 137 games. The previous record of 154 games was held by Jerry Rice.
Patrick Mahomes set the records for most passing yards and passing touchdowns in a player's first 50 games with 15,348 and 125, respectively. The previous record of 14,372 yards was held by Kurt Warner. The previous record of 116 touchdowns was held by Marino.
Andy Reid became the first head coach to win 100 games (regular season and playoffs combined) with two different franchises.
The Cleveland Browns became the first team in NFL history to lose a game despite scoring 40 or more points and not turning the ball over. Teams with 40+ points and no turnovers had previously been 442–0.
League-wide, kickers missed 13 point after touchdown attempts, breaking the record for a single week. The previous record of 12 misses was set in week 11 of the 2016 season.
Lamar Jackson set the record for most wins by a starting quarterback before his 25th birthday with his 35th win. The previous record of 34 wins was held by Dan Marino.
Brady set the record for most games with at least three touchdown passes and most games with at least four touchdown passes with 98 and 38, respectively. Both records were previously held by Brees.
Mike White set the record for most completions in a first career start with 37.
Joe Burrow passed for 525 yards, the fourth most passing yards by a player in a single game in NFL history.
Josh Allen became the first player to record 100 passing touchdowns and 20 rushing touchdowns in his first four seasons.
Dak Prescott became the first player to throw a touchdown pass to a running back, wide receiver, tight end, and offensive lineman in the same game.
The Jacksonville-New York Jets game featured two touchdowns scored by offensive linemen. This marked the first time multiple touchdowns were scored by offensive linemen in the same game in NFL history.
The Miami Dolphins became the first team in NFL history to win seven straight games immediately following a seven-game losing streak.
Ja'Marr Chase set the record for most receiving yards by a rookie in a single game, with 266. The previous record of 255 yards was held by Jerry Butler.
Chase also set the record for receiving yards by a rookie in a season. The previous record of 1,400 yards was held by Justin Jefferson.
After a 0–5 start, Quinn was fired on October 11, 2020. He had a 43–42 (.506) record during his 5+ season tenure with the Falcons, with two playoff appearances including one Super Bowl appearance.
Morris, the team's defensive coordinator, was previously the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with a record of 17–31 (.354) and no playoff appearances. He finished out the 2020 season with a 4–7 (.364) record.
Smith served as an assistant coach for the Tennessee Titans from 2011 to 2020 and most recently served as offensive coordinator for the last two seasons; the Falcons hired Smith on January 16. This would be his first NFL head coaching job.
Patricia was fired on November 28, 2020. He had a 13–29–1 (.314) record during his 2+ season tenure with the Lions, with no playoff appearances and finishing both complete seasons in last place in the NFC North.
Bevell, the team's offensive coordinator, was promoted to interim head coach. This was his first head coaching position. He finished out the 2020 season with a 1–4 (.200) record.
Campbell, who had a 5–7 (.417) record as interim head coach of the Miami Dolphins for part of 2015, was hired on January 20. He previously served as the assistant head coach/tight ends coach of the New Orleans Saints from 2016 to 2020.
After an 0–4 start, O'Brien was fired on October 5, 2020. He had a 52–48 (.520) record during his 6+ season tenure with the Texans, with four AFC South titles.
Crennel, the team's associate head coach, was previously the head coach of the Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs, with a combined record of 28–55 (.337) and no playoff appearances. At age 73, he became the oldest head coach in NFL history. He finished out the 2020 season with a 4–8 (.333) record.
On January 29, the Texans hired Culley, whom for the last 42 years was an assistant coach for several teams, most recently for the Baltimore Ravens from 2019 to 2020. From 1999 to 2016, Culley served as an assistant coach for the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs, both coached by Andy Reid. This is his first head coaching job. Culley became the oldest first-time head coach in NFL history at age 65.
After 4+ seasons with a 23–43 (.348) record, Marrone was fired on January 4. The Jaguars made the playoffs once during his tenure, advancing to the AFC Championship Game. They finished 1–15 (.063) in 2020, ending the season on a 15-game losing streak.
Gase was fired on January 3 after finishing the 2020 season 2–14 (.125). He was 9–23 (.281) in two seasons with the Jets, with no playoff appearances.
Saleh, who was a longtime defensive coach in the NFL and on the college level, was hired on January 14. He was most recently the San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator from 2017 to 2020. This was his first head coaching position.
Pederson was fired on January 11 after 5 seasons with the Eagles, with a total regular season record of 42–37–1 (.531), and a playoff record of 4–2 (.667). His tenure included 3 playoff appearances, 2 NFC East division titles, and a Super Bowl LII title. The Eagles finished 4–11–1 (.281) in 2020.
Former Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni was hired as Eagles' head coach on January 24. This marked Sirianni's first head coaching job.
Meyer was fired on December 15 due to a season full of on- and off-the-field issues. During Meyer's single partial season in Jacksonville, the Jaguars were 2–11 (.154). Meyer became the first coach to not finish their first season as head coach since Bobby Petrino resigned in 2007 with the Atlanta Falcons (the last coach to be fired before completing their first season was Pete McCulley in 1978 with the San Francisco 49ers).
Bevell, the team's offensive coordinator since 2021, was promoted to interim head coach. This is his second head coaching position, after serving as interim head coach for the Detroit Lions in 2020, with a record of 1–4 (.200) and no playoff appearances.
Gruden resigned due to the publication of controversial emails sent prior to becoming the Raiders head coach. In Gruden's 3+ seasons during his second stint with Oakland/Las Vegas, the Raiders were 22–31 (.415) with no playoff appearances.
Bisaccia, the team's special teams coordinator and assistant head coach since 2018, was promoted to interim head coach. This is his first head coaching position after 20 years as an assistant coach in the NFL.
Hurney was fired on December 21, 2020, after 14+ seasons in two stints (2002–12, 2017–20). In his time with the Panthers he was responsible for drafting star players such as Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, and Thomas Davis.
Fitterer, former Seattle Seahawks' vice president of football operations, was hired on January 14. He previously served with the Seahawks for 20 seasons in various executive roles.
O'Brien was named general manager of the team during the 2020 offseason, after splitting general manager duties with Easterby, the executive vice president of football operations, and other team executives in 2019. Easterby took over GM duties for the rest of the season.
Caserio was hired on January 7. He was a long-time member of the New England Patriots organization, as an offensive assistant, a scout, and their director of player personnel from 2008 to 2020.
Caldwell was fired on November 29, 2020, after eight seasons.
Baalke, the team's director of player personnel, would serve as interim GM through the end of the season. Previously, he was the general manager of the San Francisco 49ers from 2011 to 2016. On January 21, 2021, Baalke was named permanent GM.
After four seasons without an official general manager, the team hired Mayhew on January 22. He previously served as the GM for the Detroit Lions from 2008 to 2015, and had been working in the San Francisco 49ers' front office since 2017.
Kansas City sold naming rights to its home stadium to health insurer GEHA, renaming the facility to GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. It is the first time in the stadium's 50-year history that it has had a naming rights sponsor.
Buffalo sold naming rights to its home stadium to Pittsburgh-based health insurer Highmark, resulting in the stadium being renamed Highmark Stadium.
Aided by the availability of vaccines, by June 29 all 32 NFL teams had received approval to play their games with no restrictions on attendance. This comes after all games in 2020 were played with either a greatly reduced audience or no fans at all due to local or state public health orders or by team's ownership discretion. However, after a recent increase in cases due to the Delta variant, several teams implemented fan restrictions, mainly due to local or state-level public health restrictions for events being re-enacted in response to the increase, however this purely involves requirements for masking, testing, vaccination or any combination thereof and not on attendance.
COVID-19 fan restrictions in place by team during season
September 14: Beginning September 26, fans ages 12 and older must provide proof of receiving at least one COVID vaccination shot. Beginning October 31, all fans ages 12 and older must provide proof that they are fully vaccinated. Beginning December 22, all fans ages 5 and older must provide proof of receiving at least one COVID vaccination shot.
August 17: All fans who attend games will be required to present proof of COVID-19 vaccination but will not be required to wear masks. Unvaccinated fans will have the opportunity to receive on-site COVID vaccinations prior to games and can then attend wearing a mask.
August 12: Either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test result taken within 72 hours prior to a game required for fan entry. Fans also required to wear a mask at all times unless eating or drinking.
September 7: Proof of full vaccination or negative COVID-19 test taken with 72 hours prior to fan entry required. Fans also required to wear a face mask at all times unless eating or drinking, regardless of vaccination status.
Cincinnati unveiled new uniforms on April 19. The uniforms are similar to their previous set, but have removed some features such as colored shoulder pads, TV numbers, side panels and outlined nameplates for a toned-down appearance. The team's trademark stripes were left as the most prominent feature.
Cleveland will feature a new white uniform reminiscent of their uniform's 1946 design, commemorating the team's 75th anniversary. Helmet sides are divided with a thin white stripe and have corresponding numbering on either side. Jersey numbers are brown with an orange drop shadow.
Green Bay revealed a new throwback on August 19. This throwback design is based on their 1950s all-green look, featuring green jerseys and pants, golden stripes, numbers and nameplates, and blank golden helmets with gray facemasks. Prior to the 2020 season, which featured no alternate uniforms for the team, the team used blue jersey based throwbacks as their third uniform from 2010 to 2019.
Indianapolis will wear a new throwback uniform on November 28. The design pays homage to the 1956 team, featuring a three-stripe shoulder pattern and helmets with rear logo placement. This design is similar to the one found on the helmet worn with their 2010 alternate uniforms.
Jacksonville made its alternate teal jerseys its primary uniform. The team had previously used teal jerseys as the primary uniform from 1995 to 2011.
The Los Angeles Rams revealed a modern throwback variation of their away uniforms on July 13. This design incorporates blue and yellow sleeves, similar to the ones worn on team uniforms from 1978 to 1999.
The New York Giants will wear new white pants, featuring a stripe pattern resembling their sleeve stripe pattern, with their road uniforms replacing the gray pants. However, the gray pants will be retained for their Week 6 matchup against the Los Angeles Rams to commemorate the 10th anniversary of their Super Bowl XLVI win.
San Francisco unveiled new red throwback uniforms based on the 1994 Super Bowl team on June 30 in celebration of the franchise's 75th anniversary. The uniforms, which feature white numbers with black drop shadows, are counterpart to the all-white 1994 throwback uniforms used by the team since 2018.
This was the eighth year under the current nine-year broadcast contracts with CBS, Fox, and NBC; and the eighth and final year under the current contract with ESPN/ABC. This included "cross-flexing" (switching) Sunday afternoon games between CBS and Fox before or during the season, regardless of the conference of the visiting team. NBC aired Sunday Night Football, the Kickoff Game, and one Thanksgiving game. ESPN's rights to Monday Night Football were modified this season, allowing ABC to simulcast select games (Weeks 1, 14, and 15), as well as a new Saturday doubleheader in Week 18.Thursday Night Football aired on NFL Network, with Fox and Amazon Prime Video simulcasting 11 games (weeks 5–15, excluding Thanksgiving, plus an afternoon game on Christmas Day).
On March 18, the NFL announced its future television deals for 2023–2033, which will see CBS, Fox, and NBC maintain their existing Sunday packages with expanded digital rights for their streaming services (Paramount+, Tubi, and Peacock, respectively). Thursday Night Football will move exclusively to Amazon. ESPN also entered into a new agreement for Monday Night Football for 2022, adding the aforementioned Week 18 Saturday doubleheader beginning this season. It was later announced in May that Fox and NFL Network had opted out of its final season of Thursday Night Football, so Amazon will take over TNF starting 2022. NBC maintained Spanish-language rights to Sunday Night Football for Universo, while its Spanish broadcast network Telemundo would air selected games, including NBC's primetime Wild Card games and Super Bowl LVI.
For the second consecutive season, Nickelodeon simulcast a wild-card playoff game with CBS using the same youth-friendly broadcast modifications that were in place the previous season. The CBS feed of the game was also streamed on Amazon Prime Video.
On October 13, the league announced that ESPN and ABC were awarded the rights to simulcast the Monday Night wild-card playoff game, with ESPN2 and ESPN+ providing the "Peyton and Eli" broadcast.