With one signing in the offseason, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went from an average team to the Super Bowl thanks to the signing of Tom Brady. Offseason movement can be overrated, but we’ve seen teams make major immediate impacts with upgrades through trades, free agency, and the draft. We could potentially see another crazy offseason of quarterback movement, which could again shake up the landscape of the NFL.
As we sit just over a week away from a major 2020 offseason signing leading his team to the Super Bowl, we can dive into who could be the most interesting teams of the 2021 offseason.
Urban Meyer, the No.1 overall pick, and the highest projected amount of cap space would make any team interesting. Jacksonville also has an extra first-round pick (25th) from the Los Angeles Rams and an extra second-round pick from the Minnesota Vikings. What also stands out for the Jaguars is they are one of the few teams with cap space that won’t need to spend on a quarterback. Trevor Lawrence will be the starter on a rookie deal and either Gardner Minshew will be the backup on a sub-$1 million cap hit, or if they trade him, get an extra draft pick and bring in a veteran. Whichever route the Jaguars go at backup quarterback, they won’t be in the $20 million-plus market.
That leaves the Jaguars with a lot of money to potentially spend on upgrades throughout the roster. The question becomes how aggressive does Jacksonville want to be on those moves? The skill positions aren’t in a bad place. D.J. Chark and Laviska Shenault already make up a potentially explosive duo at wide receiver. A third wide receiver or explosive tight end could definitely help the passing game, but the foundation is in place. James Robinson exceeded expectations as an undrafted free agent and could use a little more help upfront from an offensive line that only ranked 26th per ESPN’s Run Block Win Rate. The pass blocking of the line wasn’t much better, 25th in Pass Block Win Rate.
Left tackle Cam Robinson is the only key free agent on the offensive side of the ball, unless you want to count Keelan Cole or Chris Conley, who played 75% and 42% of the offensive snaps, respectively. Robinson struggled this past season, especially pass blocking, ranked 84th of 97 tackles with at least 100 snaps by adjusted blown block rate, per Sports Info Solutions. 2019 second-round pick Jawaan Taylor was worse, ranked 96th among those 97 tackles.
The unit that desperately needs help is the defense. Jacksonville’s defense ranked 31st in DVOA during the 2020 season and doesn’t have a lot of high-end talent. Myles Jack was one of the league’s best off-ball linebackers after a down season. Josh Allen started to develop on the edge, as did Taven Bryan on the interior. But the secondary is mostly barren.
This could be where they dip into free agency, specifically at cornerback where rookies can struggle out of the gate — take first-round pick C.J. Henderson, who ranked 140th among 148 cornerbacks by adjusted yards allowed per coverage snap. The cornerback market isn’t overwhelming but a safety such as Justin Simmons or Anthony Harris could help make the jobs of the corners easier.
Jacksonville also doesn’t have to go on a spending spree this offseason. With Lawrence on the way and Meyer at least expected to stick around for a while, the Jaguars could slow burn the rebuild, similar to what the Indianapolis Colts have done, which has left them among the league leaders in cap space over the past few offseaons. With much of the AFC South falling apart, the Jaguars could carefully pick their spots for when to strike before committing to go all-in too early.
Speaking of the Colts, they’ll be one of those teams looking for a quarterback. With the retirement of Philip Rivers, who ranked 10th in EPA per attempt among quarterbacks in 2020, and the pending free agency of Jacoby Brissett, the Colts don’t have a starting-caliber quarterback on the roster.
The free agent class isn’t great, unless the Dallas Cowboys let Dak Prescott go — and that would raise a whole subset of fascinating offseason plotlines — so the focus will likely be on a trade. What makes the Colts’ decision fascinating is which quarterback(s) they target. There are teams that could be in the quarterback market, but the Colts have to be. It’s likely they’re the team that strikes first because few other shoes have to drop — if any — for them to start the process. They also won’t want to get beaten to their top target.
Indianapolis is likely out as a potential Deshaun Watson destination due to sharing a division with the Houston Texans, but they could still go the established veteran route in Matthew Stafford, which would mirror their move for Rivers last offseason with Stafford even younger and cheaper than Rivers was when acquired. This past season, Stafford was 10th in Expected Points Added per attempt from the clean pocket and had the highest EPA per attempt on intermediate throws (11-19 air yards) outside of the red zone.
Last offseason, the Colts gave up the 13th overall pick for DeForest Buckner, so giving up the 21st overall pick for Stafford would not be outside of general manager Chris Ballard’s roster-building strategy.
Given the extra cap space, the Colts could also make a push to sign Kenny Golladay to reunite the receiver and quarterback. T.Y. Hilton is set to be a free agent and showed some age outside of games against the Texans. A Golladay-Michael Pittman–Parris Campbell trio could instantly be a fun mesh with Stafford.
There’s also the possibility of the Colts taking a swing at a reclamation project such as Sam Darnold or Carson Wentz, moves that would be risky for a team that just went to the playoffs. For Darnold, it would be a bet on the upside that made him the third overall pick in the 2018 draft and for Wentz, it would be hoping that a relationship with Frank Reich could right the ship after a monumental collapse in production, poise, and nearly anything else that goes into competent quarterback play.
It’s also not impossible for the Colts to trade up in the draft and use whatever capital they have to target one of the top quarterbacks in this year’s class. Reich’s ability to work with a talent and raw prospect like Wentz teamed with his ability to change parts of his offense to bounce from Luck to Brissett to Rivers could make trading up for a Zack Wilson or Trey Lance more desirable.
The Colts will also need a left tackle with the retirement of Anthony Castonzo. Xavier Rhodes is a free agent after a bounce back season in Indianapolis. The Colts also lost a number of coaches. Offensive coordinator Nick Sirani left to become the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles and he took three other Colts staffers with him, including defensive backs coach Jonathan Gannon who will serve as Philadelphia’s defensive coordinator.
There are a lot of moving pieces for the Colts, but they’ve put themselves in a position to retool quickly and stay among the better teams in the AFC.
New Orleans Saints
Every year, the New Orleans Saints build for the now and worry about the salary cap later. That works when there’s a quarterback contract that can continually be re-worked and the cap goes up by at least $10 million each season. But this year, New Orleans’s two saving graces won’t be available. Brees is expected to retire and cap will stay flat, at best. Over The Cap currently projects the Saints to be more than $100 million… over the cap.
If nothing is done to Brees’s contract before he retires, the Saints will free up $13.5 million in cap space, though $22 million in dead money will be left on the books.
There are moves to be made that will allow the Saints to get under the cap but it will take a little more work than it has in the past seasons and exactly which moves the Saints make will be the fascinating part of what the roster will look like in 2021. New Orleans could easily cut a number of players to save space, the likes of Kwon Alexander ($13.4M savings) Jared Cook ($9.2M), Malcom Brown ($4.9M), Nick Easton ($5.9M), Janoris Jenkins ($7M), and Emmanuel Sanders ($4M) all come with significant cap relief. But the problem there is those are almost all significant starters and those roster holes need to be filled.
The Saints could also rework recent extensions to Michael Thomas, Demario Davis, and even Alvin Kamara to push down 2021 cap hits and continue pushing money further into the future. The same could be done for the bigger contracts on the books for Terron Armstead and Cameron Jordan. Extensions are also needed for players such as Ryan Ramczyk and Marcus Davenport. It won’t create much cap space to push down Davenport’s hit, which is only slated to be $4.4 million in 2021, but the Saints could get Ramczyk’s number down from his $11 million hit.
Marshon Lattimore could be in that extension group, but he could also be New Orleans’s best trade chip should they want to acquire more draft picks to add more youth to the roster. Lattimore has been up-and-down throughout his career with the Saints. He ranked 107th in adjusted yards allowed per coverage snap among 148 cornerbacks with at least 100 coverage snaps in 2020. As a former first-round pick, it’s possible his perceived value is worth more around the league than what he actually brings on the field. A trade would clear $10.2 million off the 2021 cap. But of course, if this trade is made, plus a Jenkins cut, the Saints are left with no outside cornerbacks.
Then there is the quarterback situation. Taysom Hill will carry a $16.2 million cap hit for 2021 and with a Brees retirement will be the only quarterback on the roster. Hill ranked 21st among 44 quarterbacks with at least 100 passing attempts by EPA per attempt during the regular season. Sean Payton was able to scheme around some of Hill’s skill set for a limited period of time, but it remains to be seen if that’s something that could be sustained over a full season. If the Saints decide to go another route at quarterback, $16 million is a lot of money for the non-QB Hill role.
Los Angeles Rams/San Francisco 49ers
Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay have been lauded for their ability to scheme up an offense. To this point, both coaches have been able to get a productive offense and a Super Bowl berth out of average quarterback play. In both cases, the structure of the offense has lifted up the player under center. Just this season, Nick Mullens was 12th in EPA per attempt on passing plays from a clean pocket.
But it appears both coaches have reached the tipping point in knowing just because they can scheme around average quarterback play, doesn’t mean they have to do so. Both saw what a version of their offensive scheme was able to accomplish with a talent like Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay — he led the league in EPA per attempt and is the likely NFL MVP for the 2020 season. Shanahan also saw what he was able to accomplish with Matt Ryan in 2016 — another MVP and a Super Bowl appearance.
The 49ers have been linked to just about every available quarterback, either through the draft or trade. Thanks to a $28 million roster bonus that was given out in the first year of Jimmy Garoppolo’s contract with the 49ers, his deal only has $2.8 million in dead money for the 2021 season. It’s easily tradable or cuttable. San Francisco also has the 12th overall pick, which is a solid asset for either a veteran or to potentially trade up in the draft.
McVay and Co. have used nearly every opportunity since the season ended to cast doubt on the status of Jared Goff as the quarterback for the 2021 season. The most likely result is a competition between Goff and John Wolford or another young quarterback, though other external options will be limited without a first-round pick.
That is because Goff’s contract is much harder to move than Garoppolo’s. The Rams can’t cut Goff. Even a post-June 1 cut which spreads out the dead money over two seasons would force the Rams to lose $14.85 million on the 2021 cap. Should the Rams trade Goff before June 1, they would save $12.75 million on the cap with a $22.2 million dead money hit, per Over The Cap. The acquiring team would take on a $28.1 million cap hit for 2021 and a $25.7 million hit for 2022. Unlike Stafford, who could bring some surplus-value in that hypothetical mid-tier quarterback contract, it’s more of a you-get-what-you-pay-for with Goff at that price. It’s not an easy move, but it might be one the Rams are aggressive to make.
Both Shanahan and McVay wanting to upgrade at quarterback could be one of the most fun and underrated developments this offseason and could easily turn into one of the best-case scenarios for the 2021 regular season.
The Houston Texans hold the keys to the offseason. Deshaun Watson has officially requested a trade and how the Texans handle that situation should start the dominoes for other major moves, especially at quarterback. There is a staring match that makes all of this more interesting. Watson has a no-trade clause in his contract which will allow him to influence his preferred destination but the Texans also don’t have to trade Watson at all.
Even outside of how insane it would be to trade away a star 25-year-old quarterback, the trade doesn’t make a lot of financial sense for Houston. Watson just signed an extension last offseason and a pre-June 1 trade would force the Texans to lose $5.7 million in cap space for the 2021 season. Of course, there is the possibility the team and the quarterback work something out to where the contract can be reworked and Houston won’t lose money. But that’s a lot of agreeing for two sides that aren’t currently speaking.
Watson has every right not to show up, but the Texans could wait it out and hope it’s a bluff. Houston would be able to fine Watson for any time missed and while that probably wouldn’t be the best PR move, nothing the Texans have done to this point would suggest that’s something they care about. Jason Fitzgerald of Over The Cap broke down what Houston would be able to fine Watson if he’s not traded and sits out.
If a trade does happen, it needs to happen before the draft so the Texans can get the draft picks as soon as possible to start the rebuild this season. The worst-case scenario would be Houston trying to call Waston’s bluff, Watson sitting out, and the Texans panic trading him in training camp. That would leave the Texans with nothing for 2021. Given how Houston has handled the offseason thus far, that might not be out of the question.
How a potential Watson trade goes down informs what other teams are going to be interesting this offseason. If Watson goes to the Jets, who have the second overall pick and an extra first from the Seattle Seahawks, the Jets immediately become fascinating with Watson and enough cap space to make improvements to the roster. In a trade with his current contract structure, Watson would only count for $10.5 million on the 2021 cap. That’s a perfect asset on its own in a year where the overall salary cap will be depressed.
Miami has been the rumored favored destination for Watson and that could make the most sense for both the Texans and Dolphins. The Dolphins have Houston’s first-round pick, which is third overall, plus the 18th overall pick of their own and Houston’s 36th overall pick in the second round. They also have Tua Tagovailoa, who was the fifth overall pick in last year’s draft. Houston could take on those draft picks and Tagovailoa as they look to rebuild in 2021. That would also allow the Texans to use the third overall pick on another potential difference-maker high in the draft or sell that pick to a quarterback-needy team to get more draft picks for the future.
If Tagovailoa works out, the Texans have their quarterback for the future. Tagovailoa had some ups and downs in his rookie season, but still showed plenty of promise. But if Tagovailoa falters, Houston is likely to pick near the top of the draft again and have their shot at a quarterback in 2022.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, would still have about $13 million in cap space after they acquire Watson to pair with a potentially dominant defense.
If Watson is traded, the Texans could also move on from J.J. Watt, who has no guaranteed money left on his contract with cap hits of $15.5 million in 2021 and $17.5 million in 2022.
The Texans are already saddled with some other bad contracts they can’t get out of thanks to the Bill O’Brien-Jack Easterby duo of extensions and trades, so a hard reset in 2021 might not be the worst decision even if trading Watson is how they have to do it. For as good as Watson is — he was fourth in EPA per attempt in 2020 — there aren’t currently easy avenues for the Texans to upgrade the roster in their current situation. It’s amazing they got themselves here, but this might be their best way out.