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2021 NFL offseason preview, power rankings, Deshaun Watson and more


The 2021 NFL offseason is here. It’s time to preview both free agency and the draft, and what to expect in these weird times.

The Super Bowl is behind us. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are champions, and deserved ones.

Now, we head into the offseason, with 32 clubs back in play. Thirty-two clubs believing that next year, they can enjoy the Bucs’ current reality.

Of course, we know those dreams are fiction for some, right? Not really.

After all, who at this time believed the Buccaneers would be holding the Lombardi Trophy? Few saw Tom Brady headed to Tampa Bay. Even fewer believed he could turn a listless franchise into champs. Yet here we are.

The year prior, nobody saw the San Francisco 49ers as likely to go from No. 2 overall pick to NFC champions. Yet, Kyle Shanahan’s team was seven minutes away from the franchise’s sixth ring.

The point? Even the biggest dreamers — and some dreams are more grandiose than others — have a chance of realizing them.

Moving into the offseason, we have a litany of storylines and subplots to monitor. Here are 10 quick-hitters which will dominate the next few months.

– How does the Deshaun Watson saga end?

Whether OTAs are virtual or in-person (more on that below), Watson skipping them would only create more drama. The same, obviously, holds true for minicamps and training camp. Of course, if the Houston Texans are going to trade him, doing it before the draft would be wise. Then again, this is the Texans.

If Watson is dealt away, it appears the Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers are all worth monitoring.

– Who cashes in quickly during free agency’s first few days?

The salary cap is falling almost $20 million, which means free agency dollars are in short supply. Talking to multiple league sources, the expectation is stars will get paid, but that second-tier will be squeezed significantly. Expect a ton of one-year deals and incentive-laden contracts for very good players.

Unlike past years where free agency essentially began at Prime 47 during the Scouting Combine, conversations have been going strong since the Senior Bowl. Look for pacts to come together quickly for big-ticket players, and then money to dry up.

– Less player movement

Building off the above topic, agents will likely encourage mid-level clients to take short-term deals before they hit free agency. Again, with the lack of money around the league, non-stars would be wise to ensure themselves of a decent deal. If they go to market and nothing materializes, they could be waiting until summer for a job.

– Extension talks between Lamar Jackson, Ravens

I’ve written extensively about this subject in this space before, so I’ll be quick. Talking to multiple league sources, there’s an expectation Jackson and Baltimore get a long-term, lucrative extension done. Those same sources also believe it’s a very risky proposition for the Ravens.

Jackson is a hard worker, has impeccable character and is an MVP at 24 years old. However, he also has one playoff win and there are questions about his passing acumen. Should be a fascinating negotiation as he becomes eligible for an extension.

– COVID is here, but relief appears on the way

Vaccines are being distributed and therefore, we have real hope of a normal 2021 regular season. The looming question, though, is whether anything prior to training camp is in-person or once again sponsored by Zoom.

Many teams felt not much was lost by going virtual, but others would far prefer to have live OTAs and minicamps, especially those with new coaching staffs. It’ll be interesting to see where the country is come April, May and June.

– Receivers, quarterbacks and corners will rule the first round

There’s a real chance more than half of the 2021 Draft’s top 20 choices will be comprised of receivers, signal-callers and cornerbacks.

The league’s most glamorous position will see Trevor Lawrence, Mac Jones, Justin Fields, Zach Wilson and Trey Lance come off the board. The pass-catchers are fantastic as well, led by DeVonta Smith, Ja’Marr Chase and Jaylon Waddle. At corner, Patrick Surtain Jr. and Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley are likely top-10 selections.

– The draft will have an outsized importance in 2021

With the aforementioned problems plaguing free agency, teams are far more likely to see their fortunes rise and fall with their rookie classes than a splurge on the open market. If we see worst-to-first stories, it’ll be because a front office found three or four key contributors in the draft, and not from spending $200 million on veteran upgrades.

– Dak Prescott and the Cowboys have another round in them

Everyone is talking about the quarterback situation across the state, but let’s not forget about Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys. After being tagged last summer, it seems we’re headed that way once more, barring a quick reversal. Owner Jerry Jones will be paying Prescott more than $37 million on the tag, severely hampering any other moves Dallas can make.

If, however, the Cowboys can sign Prescott before free agency begins, it would open up ample possibilities to bolster the defense. Dallas fans should be hoping the two sides mercifully find common ground.

– How do Packers help Aaron Rodgers over the NFC title game hump?

This will be the question dogging Titletown all offseason. After doing ver little to upgrade around Rodgers last winter, the Packers repeated their 13-3 regular season before faltering one step shy of the Super Bowl. General manager Brian Gutekunst doesn’t have much in the way of free-agency dollars, but will he be aggressive in the draft?

Green Bay can’t afford to waste any time with Rodgers, who played to an MVP level in 2020 but is also 37 years old. Gutekunst should prioritize receivers and corners.

– Do the Chiefs make big moves in the wake of their big loss?

Kansas City currently sits $23 million over the cap, but with a few base-to-bonus conversions and an extension for Tyrann Mathieu, the Chiefs would be relatively flush with cash. After losing the Super Bowl, will general manager Brett Veach continue his annual tradition of taking big swings, ro does he make a few modest moves and add a draft class?

The Chiefs are the Super Bowl LVI favorite, but that doesn’t mean Veach and Co. won’t try to remake certain portions of the roster.

Power rankings

Top 10 potential cap casualties to watch (savings)

1. Derek Barnett – EDGE – Philadelphia Eagles ($10M)
2. Trai Turner – G – Los Angeles Chargers ($11.5M)
3. Eric Fisher – OT – Kansas City Chiefs ($12M)
4. Geno Atkins – DT – Cincinnati Bengals ($9.5M)
5. Kwon Alexander – LB – New Orleans Saints ($13.1M)
6. Lamarcus Joyner – S – Las Vegas Raiders ($8.7M)
7. Jimmy Graham – TE – Chicago Bears ($7M)
8. Christian Kirksey – LB – Green Bay Packers ($5.6M)
9. Eric Ebron – TE – Pittsburgh Steelers ($6M)
10. Ricardo Allen – S – Atlanta Falcons ($6.3M)

Quotable

The Indianapolis Colts have the second-most cap space in the NFL behind the Jacksonville Jaguars. Still, star linebacker Darius Leonard is setting the tone, letting both his own team and prospective signees know it’s about attitude, not Q rating. Love it.

Podcast

Random stat

With their win in Super Bowl LV, the Buccaneers became the 14th NFL franchise to win multiple Super Bowls.

The Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans and Cleveland Browns are the only teams still to never appear.

Info learned this week

1. J.J. Watt kicks off one of the more intriguing free agency periods ever

Even J.J. Watt had enough of Houston.

Only 13 months ago, the Texans led the Chiefs 24-0 in the second quarter of the AFC Divisionals. They proceeded to be outscored 51-7, then two months later traded All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins for a second-round pick and broken-down running back David Johnson. In October, head coach Bill O’Brien was fired following an 0-4 start. At season’s end, quarterback Deshaun Watson began an aggressive campaign to be traded.

Finally, on Friday, Watt took to social media, telling the football world he requested, and was granted, his release.

Watt, 32, is no longer the game-wrecking force of his prime. Since 2016, Watt has only played more than eight games in a season twice, and reached just a single Pro Bowl. He’s still effective when healthy — he has 25.5 sacks in 48 games during said stretch — so the market will be warm for his services.

Of course, this is a different market. With the salary cap expected to drop roughly $18 million due to COVID-19, Watt is looking at a few teams with cap space instead of a majority.

The most popular destinations for him are Pittsburgh and Green Bay, because of family ties and hometown roots, respectively. However, both are well above the threshold and have ample free agents of their own.

Watt will have many suitors, and perhaps Pittsburgh and Green Bay will find their way into the mix. But unlike past years where Watt’s arrival on the open market would have meant a feeding frenzy, this winter will bring tempered enthusiasm.

2. Urban Meyer’s off to rough start in Jacksonville

Chris Doyle’s hiring was announced by the Jaguars on Thursday. He resigned Friday night.

Meyer, who many wondered aloud about upon his NFL ascension, made his first significantly mistake last week. Meyer brought in Doyle as a director of sports performance, who allegedly made racist remarks while at the University Iowa as a strength and conditioning coach.

In a joint statement with general manager Trent Baalke, Meyer apologized, saying he “should have given greater consideration to how his appointment may have affected all involved.”

Yeah, no kidding.

Meyer is about to learn this isn’t Ohio State or Florida. He can’t unilaterally make decisions anymore. In Columbus and Gainesville, Meyer wielded unchecked authority as most college deities do. In Jacksonville, Meyer has to answer to owners, players and the league.

Bringing on Doyle and his checkered past was a short-sighted move by a coach used to getting his way without blowback. Welcome to the NFL.

3. The longer Wentz isn’t dealt, the more we learn

Carson Wentz is still a member of the Eagles. It’s telling at this juncture.

Philadelphia knows it can’t go back. Wentz will be traded, and the Eagles will roll with Jalen Hurts as their quarterback in 2021, pairing him with first-year and first-time head coach Nick Sirianni.

However, it was more than a week ago when Wentz seemed minutes from being dealt. The Colts and Chicago Bears were the two teams most linked to the 28-year-old. Yet here we are, and nobody has made the move.

Reports are scattershot on the asking price, but here’s the reality: the Eagles’ asking price is too high. Whatever general manager Howie Roseman wants, it’s something no club is willing to offer. If Roseman was simply choosing between two deals he loved, Wentz would have been sent packing days ago.

Philadelphia needs to move on and forward. Trading Wentz for a Matthew Stafford package isn’t happening. The Los Angeles Rams surrendered three top-100 picks and Jared Goff, including a pair of first-rounders. If the Eagles get a single first-round pick for Wentz it would represent an upset. Frankly, they should be thrilled for a pair of Day 2 selections.

Roseman and the Eagles are holding out, waiting for more. Each second that goes by suggests they’ll eventually have to accept reality and cut bait.

4. Russell Wilson asking for help is causing problems with Seahawks

Russell Wilson made his feelings known. Now it’s incumbent upon the Seattle Seahawks to listen.

Wilson went on The Dan Patrick Show and aired grievances towards his team, suggesting he needs more input and insinuating the offensive line is subpar. Reportedly, Seattle isn’t happy with its star quarterback going public, causing what a source told Patrick is an “unsustainable situation.”

Unlike Houston, Seattle is a stable organization. General manager John Schneider and head coach  Pete Carroll are one of the sturdier power couples in the league. Wilson has spent his entire career with them. The future Hall of Famer is surrounded by explosive weapons in D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, along with a supporting cast good enough for an NFC West title and a 12-4 mark.

Still, Wilson isn’t wrong. The offensive line has been poor for years, consistently putting him atop the sacks taken leaders. Seattle has done a poor job investing in its front, something of increasing importance to a 32-year-old who increasingly needs to avoid big hits.

There’s reason to believe the Seahawks and Wilson will get on the same page with increased communication about important decisions. But it’s a situation worth monitoring in the coming weeks.

5. Steelers’ long offseason begins with Pouncey’s farewell

Pittsburgh probably has one year left with Ben Roethlisberger before retirement hits. For the two-time champion, he’ll have to potentially endure his swan song without longtime center Maurkice Pouncey.

Pouncey, 31, is a nine-time Pro Bowler and two-time First-Team All-Pro. There’s a solid chance he walks into Canton in the decade ahead, much like former Steelers centers Dermontti Dawson and Mike Webster. For years, Pouncey was the man in Pittsburgh’s pivot, anchoring one of the league’s best lines with guards David DeCastro and Ramon Foster on his flank. No more.

Roethlisberger was never a runner, but he was mobile within the pocket for more than a decade. Those days are long gone. With Pouncey gone and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva hitting free agency, Pittsburgh’s quarterback will have much adjusting to do. The biggest change being the man snapping him the ball.

Gambler’s game

Last gambler’s game until training camp, because otherwise we’re simply spinning wheels!

Until then, here’s a futures bet for you to consider. Rumors are swirling about Watson and where he lands, as aforementioned. Denver and Miami, currently at 40/1 and 12/1 respectively, are intriguing bets for the AFC championship if Watson is in town. Perhaps a small bet that could cash nicely.

Two cents

Keep an eye on the Washington Football Team this offseason.

Reports linked Washington to talks with the Lions over Matthew Stafford, and it makes sense. Alex Smith is 37 years old and while heroic, also replaceable. Taylor Heinicke is a great backup option, but he’s not a long-term answer either.

If Washington can make a move for one of the “other” first-round quarterbacks in the draft — think Justin Fields (Ohio State), Trey Lance (North Dakota State) or Alabama’s Mac Jones, it would make sense. With the NFC East representing the most-winnable division and head coach Ron Rivera looking to defend and improve, the Football Team is a player to make a big splash.

Inside the league

I’ll have a feature coming on the future of the Pro Football Hall of Fame this week, and here’s a fun nugget from the story.

A few weeks ago, the 49 voters came together to finalize the 2021 class. Peyton Manning was presented by Colts beat writer Mike Chappell. The presentation lasted seven seconds, and only because Chappell had a technical issue which ate up a few seconds.

Suffice to say, Manning was one of the easiest “conversations” in Hall history.

History lesson

Since 2000, there have been 56 quarterbacks taken in the first round. Only five teams have not taken a single one, including the New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks, Indianapolis Colts, Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints.

Stands to reason a few of those teams might break their respective streaks come April.

The longest draught belongs to the Saints, who haven’t used a first-round choice on a quarterback since selecting Archie Manning in 1971 at No. 1 overall.

Parting shot

Terez Paylor died on Tuesday morning. He was 37 years old. So much ahead, so much lost.

Paylor, a Senior NFL writer for Yahoo Sports, was the rarest of things among sportswriters. He was genuinely happy. The loss of him is the extinguishing of a shining light in an all-too-often dim profession.

Since becoming an NFL reporter — converting from an editor —  two years ago, I began traveling to Mobile, Ala. for the Senior Bowl, the Super Bowl and the Scouting Combine. At the latter two events, I would always see Paylor, who had become a friend over the years. The kind of friend who you go without seeing for months, and within pleasantries, feel like you saw an hour ago.

Yes, I’ll miss his columns. I’ll miss his insight and podcasts. All of it was first-rate, just like Terez.

But what I’ll miss most is the human being.

One would imagine this profession to be filled with people so thankful, so thrilled to be among the few who get paid to watch and write about football. It’s a privilege to never have to actually work. Yet most are the definition of miserable, wrought with anxiety about getting beat on a scoop, constantly believing someone is plotting against them.

Terez was never that guy. He was the opposite, despite being one of the best at what he did. In his mid-30s, he was a Hall of Fame voter and national writer with a real voice and sourcing to compliment it. He was going to be the next great NFL scribe, if he wasn’t already.

Losing Terez is a hammer to the heart, immeasurable in both future scope and sadness.

Rest easy, Terez. You’ll be dearly missed by so many.





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