2021 NFL Offseason Primer: The Draft, Free Agency, Deshaun Watson Situation and More

Looking ahead to the biggest issues and stories that will dominate the NFL in the coming months.
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On tap this offseason may be one of the most consequential non-playing periods in modern NFL history—or at least that is how it’s being billed. There’s a good chance the trend of quarterback movement begins to gain some footing, much to the delight of the NFL as a whole, which would like to capture some of the NBA’s nomadic star magic (along with a younger fanbase that finds itself less interested in rooting for teams and more interested in wild, “dream team” style upheaval). As we’re penning this, an NFL Network report suggested Russell Wilson would like to be more involved in the team’s personnel decisions and that the team is not willing to trade him but has received calls. This, on the heels of Deshaun Watson asking his way out of Houston because he was not granted that privilege, and as we await the any-minute-now news that Carson Wentz has been dealt (Wentz is reportedly not speaking to the team’s GM).

Pandora’s box has been opened, it seems, and it will no doubt color the next few months of professional football news. With that in mind, let’s run down some of the most critical aspects of the offseason through the draft, in which the Jaguars are on the clock, set to begin a new era of football under Urban Meyer.

It’s hard to believe that Trevor Lawrence’s emergence onto the game’s biggest stage will only be, like, the 90th-most interesting aspect of this offseason. It reminds me a bit of last year, when we were not fully able to digest Cam Newton’s arrival until the opening week of the season due to the flood of on-field news (and, obviously, the grip of a pandemic’s beginning stages).

Without further ado, consider this your primer to a wildly consequential offseason.

2021-nfl-offseason-primer

This week

• At some point in the next few days or weeks, we should have clarity on the contract of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. It seems as though both sides are interested in a reunion. Roethlisberger has publicly stated his willingness to rework his contract for the 2021 season, and the Steelers have said publicly that is necessary in order for them to move forward. ESPN reported late last week that both sides are coming together soon. The topic will almost certainly center around how to manipulate the cap via a contract extension for Roethlisberger that is ultimately hollow on the back end, allowing the Steelers to negate the gargantuan, $41 million cap hit currently on the books for 2021.

That talk should also have interesting implications. Namely, the Steelers have a lot of work to do in order to get underneath the salary cap, which should involve some pretty high-profile cuts or restructures. So, they’ll have to present a realistic vision of the 2021 roster to Roethlisberger, while potentially introducing their plan to replace him after the season is over.

Feb. 23: Franchise tag window

The franchise tag will give us insight into what will happen with Dak Prescott. Chances are, the Cowboys will tag him again and use the administrative tool as the foundational structure of a new deal. It would be wildly irresponsible, seeing how last year panned out for Dallas, to play that game of chicken with Prescott again. Given the bizarre nature of the market and an uncertain QB class beyond Lawrence coming down the pike, it would make sense for the Cowboys to act fast and then shuffle to the bargaining table. Prescott, who by all indications is rehabbing “ahead of schedule,” should take the first steps toward being under contract at JerryWorld next year.

The franchise tag window will also give us some fascinating insight into what direction certain teams are going to go. Will Cam Newton be back in New England on the tag, for example? Will the Bears try to franchise Allen Robinson (likely an indicator of how successful they were at upgrading their quarterback)? Will the Lions try and keep Kenny Golladay, despite the fact that Golladay would almost certainly want to test the market? Will the Buccaneers choose to franchise Chris Godwin or Shaq Barrett?

This is just a guess, but I would imagine we’ll see more battling over franchise tags this year given that the tag numbers will drop slightly or remain static. That said, if the 2021 league revenue projection is such that the cap number is lower than in 2020, leaving many teams hurting to create cap room, thus limiting their ability to be aggressive in free agency, players might not walk away from guaranteed, high-end one-year deals.

March 17: Free agency and the shrinking cap

NFL Network reported that the salary cap is expected to be in the neighborhood of $185 million, which would not be a devastating blow to NFL teams given that the NFL and NFLPA had already agreed to a cap floor at $175 million. That said, it could still cast a long shadow over free agency, where a handful of teams are expected to be major players and could score some deals. A thought: This is not dissimilar to a few free agency periods we’ve seen when players knew they needed to merely survive the upcoming season and play well in order to hit the market the next year when the cap ceiling could rise and normal spending habits might resume. To me, this benefits heavy-hitting teams already in contention, plus emerging teams like the Jets (if they land Watson), Jacksonville (if they draft Lawrence) and the Patriots.

Among the top free agents this year:

• QB Dak Prescott
• WR Chris Godwin
• WR Allen Robinson
• WR Kenny Golladay
• LT Trent Williams
• S Justin Simmons
• S Anthony Harris
• LB Lavonte David
• G Brandon Scherff
• TE Hunter Henry
• WR Will Fuller
• LT Taylor Moton
• G Joe Thuney
• Edge rusher Shaq Barrett
• S Marcus Williams
• CB William Jackson
• QB Ryan Fitzpatrick
• CB Richard Sherman
• DT Leonard Williams
• DB Desmond King
• S Marcus Maye
• S John Johnson
• WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
• WR Corey Davis
• WR Antonio Brown
• Edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney

Without knowing exactly what the Jets will do at quarterback, the Patriots will undoubtedly be the most closely watched team in free agency. Without Tom Brady, how will the recruitment process in Foxboro now work? Will the incorrect but prevalent idea that Brady was actually the brains behind the operation harm Bill Belichick’s ability to acquire some of the top free agent talent? Will Belichick continue to sink into a soft rebuild, or will he make the anticipated countermove to Brady and start to reload the Patriots’ roster?

March 20: Carson Wentz bonus due

While indications are that Wentz could be gone by then, this is a critical date on the Eagles’ calendar. Should their top brass decide that moving on from the former No. 2 pick is the right thing to do, they would like to do so before paying him his bonus, which is due on the third day of the league year. It would be surprising to see Philadelphia wait this long, though it could drag out the process to see if, say, a loser in a Deshaun Watson sweepstakes wants to throw its hat into the ring. Given how many moving pieces the quarterback carousel could jar loose, though, the Eagles run the risk of overplaying their hand. For example, Sam Darnold, Jacoby Brissett, Jimmy Garoppolo and Newton all loom large as free agents or players potentially available via trade. If Philadelphia has a buyer, it’s best to lock it down now, aggressive Toyota dealership style, before letting the customer slip out the door to browse elsewhere.

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April 5: Offseason workouts

Roger Goodell said at the Super Bowl that virtual is a way of life in the NFL right now. Last year, we wrote about teams like the Browns learning to get along completely over Zoom. The Buccaneers installed a new offense with a new quarterback virtually. The Chargers threw a rookie quarterback into the mix early in the season with no in-person preseason training and he was a sensation.

J.C. Tretter, the president of the NFL Players Association, has argued thoughtfully about the end of offseason workouts altogether and 2020 was a fair argument in his holster. So, we put this as a date to target for two reasons:

• Will we see any momentum on the no workouts front? Will we see more players believing that these are largely unnecessary and invite the needless risk of a soft tissue injury before the season starts—not to mention pull these people away from their families at a time when, potentially, they’d otherwise be able to finally live some semblance of a normal life with their immediate circle?

• Will we be in a place societally where in-person workouts are even doable? What will April look like amid this puzzling and unequal vaccine rollout process? Will NFL teams begin to creep up the queue for vaccinations when the rest of the world is still struggling to acquire its first dose? Will only vaccinated players get clearance to play? There are so many questions related to vaccine access that complicate a relatively simple question.

Deshaun Watson trade

See if you can follow my thought process here. I’m putting the Deshaun Watson trade this late in the offseason because I would imagine the Texans are going to continue this tough-guy posturing for a little while longer. The Belichickian cosplay stance that no one man is above the organization, plus ownership’s insistence in juggling the emotions of his best players set the stage for something truly and profoundly confusing.

I could see the Texans running out the clock on this deal, especially given the virtual nature of the combine process, where they will be able to more stealthily evaluate prospects (and quarterbacks), which would normally tip off their plans. They can gauge if there is a prospect worth moving up for. They can give themselves time to sell new coach David Culley to Watson. They can also watch the desperate few teams cut off in free agency begin to flinch.

In the end, the deal will be epic, with tons of draft capital moving to Houston. It will not only change the direction of the franchise that acquires Watson, but immediately impact one of the previously settled QB jobs out there, jettisoning the likes of Sam Darnold, Tua Tagovailoa, Jimmy Garoppolo, Derek Carr or someone else into the fray.

We will also learn more about Jack Easterby, the chaplain-turned-general-manager whose romp through Houston has had incalculable side effects for the organization thus far. How will this issue play out? Will there be an ability to shove him aside once some of the heavy lifting has been done? Will his grip on the organization—remember, a driving force behind the DeAndre Hopkins deal—continue to lead to more high-profile players jumping ship?

April 29: NFL draft

• There are a handful of teams everyone is watching. Theoretically, every team that isn’t the Packers, Buccaneers or Chiefs should want to trade for Watson. In practice, a few clubs—the Jets, Dolphins, Jaguars, Falcons and Eagles—have the kind of capital this year to make it happen (the Jets and Dolphins obviously stand out given their relatively unsettled QB situations and multiple first-round picks, while the other teams have relatively high 2021 picks but would likely have lower first-round picks next year).

• Based on Watson and Wentz’s landing spots, we could see a race for the No. 2 pick or some of the higher selections to acquire the draft’s consolation prize after Lawrence. This field of QBs is wide open and diverse. While it may not have the cache of, say, the 2018 QB class, it does have that wide open of a feel. The league also has a ton of teams that may or may not be in the market. I would love to hear the discussions going on in San Francisco, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Washington, Denver, Carolina and New Orleans right now.

• A person close to the draft process last year told me that teams leaned heavily on intelligence testing scores during the 2020 draft, given the grim outlook of the near future, which meant no offseason programs. They wanted a leg up on players who could quickly absorb information. I would imagine that trend continues in 2021, with an emphasis on acquiring players who are headier than anything else. That could also mean fewer project picks.

This, too, will come after a virtual scouting season with limited pro day access and no centralized hub for medical testing like the combine.

• The Lawrence hype train will commence. Lawrence is the most sought-after prospect in decades—more desired, some will say, than Andrew Luck. Lawrence will be paired with Urban Meyer, a coach with a long track record of collegiate success but no professional experience. His staff is a collection of tenured NFL coaches like Darrell Bevell and Brian Schottenheimer. This has the potential to boom or bust spectacularly for the Jaguars, who, after years of toiling, have the chance to take the foundation they have built and move into hyperdrive. 

• We continue to be blessed by wide receiver classes, which, since 2014, have produced some of the league’s most important players. As offense continues to balloon, and teams like the Chiefs, 49ers, Cardinals and Rams stockpile receiver talent for ever-expanding, multi-wide receiver packages and increasingly skewed run/pass ratios, the importance of a game-breaking wide receiver has never been more significant. Recently, NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah had six wide receivers projected in his first round. Alabama’s DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, and LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase headline a class that could produce some extravagance and serve as pawns in the now-fascinating game of recruit-your-veteran-QB.

New television deal

CBS reported in the new year that the NFL could close in on a new round of television deals before their expiration following the 2021 season. SI’s own Jimmy Traina had John Ourand on his podcast recently, where the pair talked about the league wanting the deals wrapped up by the Super Bowl, which obviously did not happen. That doesn’t mean it isn’t close. The big mystery is what will become of Thursday Night Football, which could move to NFL Network exclusively, or perhaps find a home on Amazon Prime. While that seems like a small wrinkle, it could be a fascinating and risk-averse way for the league to dip its toes into the paid service waters. The NFL is confident in how monumentally popular its product is, but could it begin to whack viewers an additional sum a year to exclusively air Thursday Night Football? These deals often bring on a windfall of bigger deals from owners who now have their future profits guaranteed.