Amid the chaos of last year, a time when football was of paltry importance in the grand scheme of things and a healthy doubt about a functioning season existed, there were plenty of budding storylines related to what was happening on the field that we didn’t have the headspace to grasp.
There we were in mid-August, barreling down on Week 1, when we’d be hit with topics that would have been so thoroughly dissected during a normal offseason that they would begin to feel trite before kickoff. Instead, we rubbed our eyes and said, My goodness, that’s right, Cam Newton is on the Patriots now.
This won’t be the case (as much) in 2021. We’ll see mostly full stadiums. The shadow of a pandemic, while still something that should be taken quite seriously, no longer casts widely over anything and everything we’re trying to enjoy. People hugged the commissioner during the draft and booed him in person. Put another way: Nature is healing.
So when we’re looking at the pressing matters of this offseason, they probably won’t feel as gargantuan as they did a year ago. For example, we know the answer to the question: How the hell are we going to make this work?
Count me among those who are thankful for a little granular football talk.
Here are the 10 most interesting storylines on my radar for the rest of the offseason.
Could we see the development of two legitimate multiquarterback systems?
While Brian Hoyer’s presence in New England doesn’t seem to be great news for Newton, the 2015 MVP’s contract is structured in a way that would make plenty of sense to keep him on as an offensive weapon, even if Mac Jones is ahead of schedule and has already paved an inside track to the starting job.
Allow us to dream for a second. With the Saints, we saw Sean Payton effectively deploy a second quarterback in games for the better part of two years—something that NFL types have been telling us was impossible for decades. He will very likely play in that meadow again this year with both Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston offering different ways to carve up defenses. After Payton did that, we saw the Eagles draft Jalen Hurts for the purpose of creating a similar dynamic. We saw other teams draft receivers with pasts as quarterbacks to try and create a more budget-friendly version of this subpackage.
New England seems uniquely qualified to add a QB power element into its offense. On some teams it would likely serve as a distraction, sure. We’ve seen franchises crumble under the idea of sharing snaps between two stylistically divergent quarterbacks (hello, Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow). But we’re talking about New Orleans and New England here, with two of the most tenured and successful coaches in NFL history, guys who transcend the fallacy that leadership needs to come squarely from the quarterback position and exude out of the huddle like some kind of reverse gravitational pull. Why not keep your best players and figure out creative ways of using them?
The running backs turned wide receivers: hype or substance?
After we spent the early portions of voluntary minicamp watching the Jaguars tailor Travis Etienne’s workouts toward the receiver position, Najee Harris told reporters in Pittsburgh that he’s had a similar experience thus far, and that the Steelers will “line me up out wide and stuff like that how I did in college—utilize the running back in the passing game out wide, in the slot, all the way out to the X position.” While this is not uncommon, drafting Etienne as a positionless weapon who splits time evenly between running back and wide receiver would represent an interesting shift in how teams are willing to spend their draft capital, and could go a long way toward legitimizing a pick that was somewhat panned at the time. Similarly, having Harris lined up wide frequently could tip hands on where OC Matt Canada is going with his new offense in Pittsburgh. It would be hard to imagine a ton of empty-set formations, for example, given Ben Roethlisberger’s pronounced lack of mobility.
Of course, some of this could be what it’s intended to be: window dressing. Jacksonville could be looking to get a sense of what Etienne is capable of out of the backfield, especially if he’s going to be used more predominantly on third downs. The Steelers could be tinkering with some concepts that Harris was familiar with at Alabama. The offseason is the perfect time for teams to capitalize on the hunger surrounding football and the breathless media coverage that often results. Etienne could be Percy Harvin, or the Jaguars could just be riding a tailwind and not correcting (or actively encouraging) a misperception.
What is left of the Deshaun Watson trade market? Who is still looking?
It would be fair to assume that the Eagles, Broncos and Panthers are still very much alive in the discussion for a quarterback. Colleague Albert Breer also mentioned in a recent mailbag that the Dolphins are a team that possesses the draft capital and could always pivot toward Watson if it becomes clear that Tua Tagovailoa cannot carry the burden of QB1 in Miami.
As we’ve said countless times, this cannot and will not be a topic of discussion until Watson’s alleged victims have had their day in court. The NFL, while wielding an uneven history of suspensions at best, also has to determine what its role will be in limiting Watson’s capacity to play in 2021. It is important to remind ourselves of this cold reality as we await legal proceedings: The one thing that has not changed during this time is a team’s willingness to contort itself into an ethical pretzel in order to win. Watson, whenever he is able to return, will be a commodity regardless of how the sexual misconduct lawsuits play out. Should he definitively be cast as a guilty party, his new club will still willingly fork over a troika of first-round picks and blanket his situation in vague legalese in order to avoid addressing the topic head-on.
Will a Shanahan kryptonite emerge, and how will Trey Lance alter the equation?
There is an argument to be made that more than 25% of the NFL is running Kyle Shanahan’s system in some capacity (I’ve included the Rams and Seahawks here, though one could say theirs are only flavored by the system). That does not include teams that unsuccessfully tried to incorporate it recently (Philadelphia), or teams that were on a trajectory to install it (Denver) before altering course. Assuming the 49ers can find their footing offensively and begin thumping opposing defenses again, that number will only balloon in the coming years. Shanahan himself said that the beauty of his offense is that it’s largely indefensible, so long as you have the right kind of roster. You can essentially present multiple options to your opponent and pick them apart at their weakness.
However, with more than 25% of the league running the system, and now two really good defensive head coaches exclusively practicing against it every day (Mike Vrabel and Robert Saleh), one has to wonder if this is the year we’ll begin to see somewhat diminished returns on the offense for those who don’t possess someone like Lance, who will significantly change the equation in San Francisco (similar to the way Russell Wilson could alter it in Seattle). Shanahan has been up-front about the way mobility and adding an 11th person to the equation will alter the offense’s potency. There is little doubt that Lance’s composition and athleticism were a major reason why the 49ers decided to trade up in the first place. We’ll see the difference this year between where the offense currently is (a good reference point might be the Titans with Ryan Tannehill) and where it’s going. How many teams will catch up to where it is? And what did Shanahan see creeping into opposing game plans last year that informed his decision to trade up and diversify his offense in the first place?
How will Aaron Rodgers and the Packers dance around the offseason?
While there are countless ways for this to end, it’s hard to imagine the Packers feeling threatened by the idea of an early retirement, as they already have the quarterback they planned on replacing Rodgers with on the roster. The true art form of this offseason will be kowtowing to Rodgers in a way that doesn’t necessarily make it obvious they’re doing so. Green Bay has been embarking on this awkward shuffle for years now, but this time it’s on stage for the world to see.
It’s hard to believe how breathless and caught up we were about the idea of Rodgers’s using Jeopardy!, a game show that films 46 days out of the year in a location that is a four-hour flight from Wisconsin—as opposed to a two-hour flight from Denver or one hour from Las Vegas—as a legitimate counterweight in his push to get out of Green Bay. It’s even harder to believe that we’re willing to dismiss Rodgers’s innate competitiveness, the very thing that drove him to this lot in life, and assume he’d be completely comfortable in pseudo retirement (or playing for a noncompetitor, for that matter, which, at the present moment the Broncos and Raiders currently are, even if Rodgers would certainly shift them in another direction).
My best guess goes something like this: We get a revelatory interview at some point in which some of the more salacious grievances are addressed. We get a significant financial commitment from Green Bay and the promise of a more aggressive approach to finding receiver talent and offensive line upgrades. We watch a 13–4 Packers team in 2021. Wash, rinse, repeat. While that doesn’t necessarily seem like where it’s headed at the moment, these eruptions have a tendency to cool down.
How, if at all, will Urban Meyer’s presence alter training camp structures for upcoming opponents?
This was less true of Matt Rhule’s emergence in the NFL, but it’s hard not to remember Chip Kelly’s entry into the NFL and the shockwaves it sent through various team facilities unsure of what he’d do with his offense. As a Giants beat reporter at the time, I remember secret practices where the team would envision no-huddle offenses run at warp speed to try and counter the Eagles’ plans to push the tempo and run up their snap counts. I remember the push to get Philadelphia into joint practices.
Will the Jaguars have a similar impact? Meyer doesn’t have as distinctive an offensive philosophy now. It’s not like he’s coming right from Utah and everyone will have to panic-learn the spread option. But he is arriving with a track record of success and a bedrock of offensive football research that has shown some clever shapeshifting at every stop along the way. A successful RPO-based scheme is not going to scare away defenses now. In fact, it’s probably preferable now that teams are more comfortable defending it. But there will be a push to learn what Meyer will pull from OC Darrell Bevell and what Bevell is hoping to adapt from Meyer, who has had his fingerprints all over some of college football’s most important developments of the last two decades.
Will Julio Jones end up moving after June 1?
After Jones was left off the Falcons’ promotional material, it’s safe to say Atlanta is still considering moving its star wide receiver. (Update: Jones has actually not been on the team's promotional literature for three years now. But various reports have listed Jones as a likely trade candidate both before and after this year’s promotional material was released.) Jones’s contract becomes imminently more tradable after June 1, which means the Falcons may have spent the draft feeling out the market and could be ready to strike with a club in contention that missed out on the run of supposedly generational wideouts.
While Jones is entering his age-32 season and has had more brilliance behind him than he has in front of him, he is the kind of player who still commands coverage to be rolled in his direction, an encyclopedia of tactical trench warfare who can find a way around any cornerback in the NFL. Paired with the right quarterback, he would be well worth the investment, especially given that his contract is collapsible after next season. If a team that acquires him doesn’t see much left in the tank, it can wash its hands after a season for a reasonable dead-cap charge.
It would seem like a dicey proposition from a public relations perspective, even for a team at the bottom of the salary-cap table, but the Falcons could be sitting on a potential gold mine if they played their cards right and sat on Jones until a training camp injury created a dire need somewhere else. He’s the ultimate plug-and-play starter who could add value to any offense instantly.
What will become of the offseason workout?
The callousness of the Ja’Wuan James situation—he was cut and robbed of $10 million after injuring himself during an offseason workout away from the facility—only perks up the ears of veteran players with some semblance of leverage. While it seems like most voluntary workouts have been well attended (80-plus for the Jets, 70-plus for the Bears, “a significant” number for the Patriots), even after the NFLPA floated the idea that last year was proof of the irrelevance of offseason workouts, we could be in for a changing of the tides.
I’ve talked to coaches who make legitimately good points about voluntary workouts. They’ve stressed the need for even the best veteran players to come in and refine a portion of their game under the guidance of a position coach who can translate everything directly to the scheme. We’ve also heard from countless players who feel well prepared and better taken care of with their personal trainers (and sometimes chefs, massage therapists, etc.) back home (not to mention horror stories of some position coaches who couldn’t relay a coverage to a player if their lives depended on it). James, though, could be a catalyst for more veteran players to openly flaunt their distrust and sow real change in how teams prepare for training camp.
How much impact will returning opt-out players have?
Laurent Duvernay-Tardif headlined a list of NFL players who opted out a year ago but are set to return in 2021. A casual observer might have thumbed through the list and dismissed its population as not star-worthy enough to have caused a real outcome shift in the season. We’d caution anyone watching the Chiefs’ offensive line flail during the playoffs to take a second look at Duvernay-Tardif’s tape before he decided to nobly spend the year treating COVID-19 patients (he is a medical doctor). Additionally, last season the Jets were missing a solid playmaking wide receiver. The Giants were missing an offensive tackle. The Seahawks were missing a guard. The Dolphins were missing a pair of wide receivers. The Patriots were missing some of their most-experienced defensive pieces. And while all of that may seem insignificant in a broader sense, there is no doubt a typical NFL season would have turned out differently with their presence.
With those players set to return, not to mention a handful of college players we did not see in 2020 and an even larger handful of college players who came down with COVID-19 (either symptomatically or not) who admittedly did not perform as well as they were used to in ’20, this year will be a grand reveal, or re-reveal of sorts. Duvernay-Tardif alone returns to an offensive line as the final piece of an offseason restructuring that makes them one of the best units on paper in football.
What’s it going to feel like to be in a full stadium again?
We are trending in the right direction. It was incredible last year to hear a small percentage of a crowd in Kansas City or in Cleveland represent the larger, full-throated majority so well. There was something both sad and beautiful about the sparseness of stadium attendance. Having not attended a game at all last year, I, like many of you, am looking forward to the transcendent experience of driving into a full NFL parking lot. To smell badly orchestrated barbecue coming out of the back of a pocket grill in the trunk of someone’s Nissan Pathfinder. To hear cornhole bags smashing pavement. And, of course, to be amid a mass of humanity all regaining its collective release a return to a part of life that so many of us missed.
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