Every free agency period has a tenor that distinguishes one iteration of this annual exercise from the last. In 2020, the NFL’s open market coincided with the early panic of the pandemic spreading across America—plus, Tom Brady was a free agent for the first time. The 2011 free-agency was the post-lockout edition, with the rush of signings coming in late July and early August, after an agreement was reached on the new CBA. Those of us covering the Jets at the time recall vividly the intense pursuit of Nnamdi Asomugha, which put the team’s other free-agency plans on hold while those in the building were “waiting for Jesus,” as one staffer at the time put it. Of course, he signed with Philly as part of the ill-fated “Dream Team.”
The theme of this year is the effects of last year’s COVID-19 season, which has resulted in the salary cap dropping from $198.2 million to $182.5 million. This coincides with an offseason when about half the league has been or will be considering a change at the QB position. The goal is the same, to build a roster than can contend for a Super Bowl, but teams will have to find creative ways to do so. As that process gears up to begin next week, here are six of the main story lines to watch:
1. Kenny Golladay will cash in
The Lions, now in rebuilding mode after trading Matthew Stafford, decided not to use the franchise tag on Golladay, setting up the receiver for a big payday on the open market. The 2017 third-round pick may very well be the biggest headline when the “negotiating period” opens on Monday. Golladay had two straight 1,000-yard seasons in 2018 and ’19 and led the league with 11 receiving TDs in ’19, though he was limited to five games last season by injuries. After Allen Robinson II and Chris Godwin were tagged by their respective clubs, teams will have to enter a free-agent bidding war to secure Golladay’s services.
2. Big rush for the big men
Good offensive linemen are hard to find on the open market—or at all. Thus, this year’s free-agency class will be a rush for teams with an immediate need for extra help up front. Trent Williams secured a major win for a player’s rights last year when the 49ers agreed not to franchise tag the left tackle after the team secured him from Washington. San Francisco will work hard to keep him, as the 32-year-old is still playing at an All-Pro level, but he’ll also have a robust market. Other teams looking for interior line help—hypothetically speaking, to satisfy an eight-time Pro Bowl QB—will have strong options like Joe Thuney or Corey Linsley. Plus, Ravens tackle Orlando Brown Jr., who is seeking a permanent home on the left side, is also available via trade.
3. Expect more short-term deals
The cap, like many of us, is depressed because of COVID-19. That has meant more roster cuts and pay cuts before free agency, and will likely mean more one- or two-year deals once free agency opens. Players won’t be eager to lock themselves in at a lower price. That also may mean a lull after the usual initial free-agent signing rush, when middle-class players might not be seeing the money they were expecting and decide to wait it out.
4. The Brady effect
The Buccaneers already ensured Tom Brady would not have to go without Chris Godwin this season by using the tag on him. A few hours later, the team re-signed Lavonte David. Still remaining at the top of their wish list is Shaq Barrett. It’s normal to have a post-Super Bowl dispersal, but given the success of the Brady signing in year one—and the fact that even Bruce Arians thought that 2021 would actually be their Super Bowl year—that may not be the case in Tampa, though they are currently over the cap. In addition to Barrett, other players set to become UFAs are Rob Gronkowski, Ndamukong Suh, Leonard Fournette and Antonio Brown. In a market that is already going to be depressed, will players be willing to take less to stay in Tampa with Brady, one of the central team-building tenets for the Patriots over the last two decades?
5. The Patriots’ path forward
New England got ahead of the free-agent QB market Friday morning, re-signing Cam Newton to a one-year contract, as first reported by the Boston Globe. But there is still plenty of work to do in New England to chart a post-Brady path forward after what was essentially a lost 2020. They entered last season with a league-high eight opt-outs, including Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung, and a promising start was scuttled after Newton contracted COVID-19 before Week 4. They could still add another QB, such as Jacoby Brissett (a free agent) or Jimmy Garoppolo (a trade candidate if the 49ers find an upgrade), or use some of their $68 million in cap space (before the Newton signing) to land the top offensive playmaker they’ve sorely needed the last few seasons. Earlier this week, they brought back Trent Brown in a trade with the Raiders, so these early moves could portend an active free-agency period for a team needing to fortify its roster and having the resources to do it. Not to mention, the sagging market could be appealing for a head coach generally averse to paying top dollar.
6. The big stunner
What will it be this year? Drew Brees hasn’t yet officially announced his retirement, which has raised some eyebrows, though his silence thus far doesn’t actually mean anything. We already had a seismic QB move this offseason, the Matt Stafford for Jared Goff swap, and while Deshaun Watson’s trade request out of Houston is still hanging there, both sides appear to remain dug in and there hasn’t been anything to indicate a resolution is imminent. But in this offseason of QB musical chairs, there are bound to be more surprises.