When coaches and general managers get honest with one another this time of year, the reality of their circumstances often hits. Maybe the offensive line you thought would jell struggled during the early portion of OTAs. Maybe the receiver group is still weighed down by injury issues. Maybe there’s an uncomfortably large gap between where your scouts thought the rookie quarterback would be and where he actually is. This can be especially true for teams whose coaches are seeing those players on the field, in person, for the first time.
Either way, the draft and free agency is never the salve it’s made out to be, which is why it’s valuable to look at lingering questions at this juncture of the offseason. With mandatory minicamps coming down the pike, teams now have a better idea of what they need, whether or not they can get it, and what they’ll do about it if nothing else seems to work out.
What is your team’s brass staying up all night thinking about? Join us on a journey to find out.
What happens with Isaiah Simmons now?
The Cardinals drafted another linebacker in the first round, pairing 2020 first-round pick Isaiah Simmons with Zaven Collins. That is a lot of equity at the off-ball linebacker spots, but it might be a brilliant transition for GM Steve Keim, who is looking to counter the prevalence of similar offensive systems (San Francisco, Seattle, L.A. Rams) that Arizona will face regularly in the NFC West. Making this plan work—having stout but flexible off-ball linebackers who can play the pass but also stand their ground against heavier personnel—means Simmons taking a massive leap from 2020, when the pandemic forced him to be brought along slowly and resulted in him playing 35% of the Cardinals’ snaps. One suspects Keim is looking at Tampa Bay’s blueprint, which allowed the Bucs to lead the league in negative EPA against the run.
How does the offense align itself after the Julio Jones trade?
Ask people who know the offense that Arthur Smith is installing with the Falcons and they’ll tell you that one of the most important ingredients is the No. 1 wide receiver. That position requires either tremendous speed or … someone who is essentially Julio Jones. The Falcons dealing Jones is a perfect example of a team trying to outsmart themselves. If the fear was that Jones would play well and want to be paid more money deep into his thirties … so what? If the fear was that, after his current contract expired he would not return … so what? How much better is a second- and fourth-rounder than a third-round compensatory pick and another season of Julio Jones perfectly fitting into your offense? Granted, Jones essentially requested a trade, but that request had to come from somewhere. At a million points along the way, was there no way to patch the relationship?
The fevered rush to complete a trade leads us to believe that the Falcons perhaps know (or think they know) something about Jones’s long-term health that we don’t. Or, they know something about Kyle Pitts that we don’t. Or, that Arthur Smith’s offensive philosophy is not necessarily married to the Kyle Shanahan scheme as tightly as we’d thought.
How do the Ravens diversify their offense?
Baltimore’s pivot toward its current system was brilliant. At a time when NFL rosters were populated by smaller, faster bodies, the Ravens forced opponents into their base defense and thumped them to death with heavier personnel. That advantage may be shrinking. The AFC North has matched toughness with toughness. The Browns and Steelers, in particular, are better suited to stop the Ravens than ever before. There were eight off-ball linebackers taken in the top 100 this year, following nine taken in 2020. Teams are realizing their vulnerabilities and are beefing up to stop not only Baltimore, but other downhill running teams like Tennessee, Green Bay and Tampa Bay, which rode the basic “duo” play and their hefty offensive line to a Super Bowl title.
Will they trade for Zach Ertz?
The Bills, along with the Colts, came up most often in early-season rumblings about the three-time Pro Bowler. They may be waiting for the best possible value, though it seems like the wheels could already be in motion. Buffalo recently cleared up some cap space. It would be a sensible upgrade amid an offseason when the Bills should have been theoretically going for it with Josh Allen still on his rookie deal. Allen will soon be a $40 million per year player, making these kinds of moves more difficult in the future.
Does Joe Brady cross the threshold from rising star to certified quarterback whisperer?
There are coaches in this league who, I’m sure, loved the gamble on Sam Darnold. There are others who view Darnold’s struggles with the Jets not just as an indictment of their terrible personnel and haphazard series of offensive systems, but as an inability of Darnold to make necessary adjustments of his own. Those coaches believe Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady is in for some heavy lifting this offseason. While it is not believed to be a can-you-teach-Tim-Tebow-how-to-throw kind of emergency, some of Darnold’s quirks and tendencies make him like a talented basketball player who is not entirely comfortable dribbling with his non-dominant hand. Brady has worked wonders with underdeveloped QB talent before, like Joe Burrow at LSU. The Panthers’ early 2020 offense with Teddy Bridgewater was starting to turn heads. But this undertaking is more than just a new QB–new system marriage. This is a reclamation.
Will the Bears be installing a second offense?
Ask around about Justin Fields and you’ll hear he is less reliant on his athletic gifts than one might have assumed based on his 15 rushing touchdowns over two seasons in Columbus—and the film seems to bear that out. Fields is a good pocket passer, and it’s not impossible to imagine that Matt Nagy could do much of what he’d like to do with Andy Dalton with Fields. However, I think Fields would benefit from a system that is more closely aligned to what the Bills do with Josh Allen, which spreads defenses out and keeps the quarterback as an ever-present threat to escape the pocket (though he won’t do it as often). This creates a numbers advantage and could open up the running game for David Montgomery.
How does a brand new right side of the offensive line hold up, and how do the Bengals prevent a recurrence of last season on the injury front?
It’s an awful lot in the age of voluntary workouts and limited practice time to expect an offensive line to jell overnight. Perhaps that is why the Bengals were slightly more attracted to Ja’Marr Chase at No. 5 than Penei Sewell, knowing that Chase could have a more immediate on-field presence. Cohesion often takes awhile for units that don’t have prior experience working together, and in this case, Cincinnati is asking veteran Riley Reiff to anchor the right side and Jackson Carman, a second-round pick who was primarily a left tackle in college, to play inside Reiff.
The bigger question, to me, is: How do you take what you learned from a season ago and apply it to a scheme that will better insulate Joe Burrow? Carman’s transition to guard will not be flawless but it should not be as worrisome. Carman played in a Clemson offense that had a similar zone/gap split on runs and should be comfortable making the blocks.
The Bengals’ total EPA per rush was -0.123, according to NFLFastR data. But according to Sports Info Solutions, Cincinnati was actually fourth in the NFL in EPA per rush on carries out of a zone blocking scheme. They were dead last in EPA per rush when utilizing a gap blocking scheme, which could have skewed the average.
Sports Info Solutions also notes, based on their machine learning data that has predicted MLB player injuries successfully, Burrow is one of the top quarterbacks on their potential injury risk assessment rankings of 2021. So, what could help mask a developing offensive line, propel an offense forward and keep Burrow from free runners in the backfield? Perhaps a heavier focus on the zone aspects of their running game.
Can Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah deliver on the outsized expectations?
The Browns clearly had a strategy to improve their secondary this offseason, which largely came at the expense of a linebacking corps that still leaves some heft to be desired. Owusu-Koramoah isn’t a heavyweight but can hit well above his class, which should aid in the still-developing physicality of this defense. For years, the salivating over hybrid linebackers has largely been false promise. Defensive coordinators are more inclined to force a player into a more traditional hole than to get creative. Owusu-Koramoah is interesting in that he doesn’t have to start, especially if the Browns’ excitement over fifth-rounder Tony Fields II is warranted. Owusu-Koramoah can be a player straight out of Joe Woods’s imagination and matchup against the division’s litany of pass-catching tight ends and hybrid running back/receivers.
Will there be a changing of the guard (or at least the beginnings of one) at running back?
Ezekiel Elliott is entering his age-26 season, and while all indications are that he is in the best shape of his life—a common trope at this time of year—he is a luxury player at an otherwise inexpensive position who is running out of time (in this sense, time until it makes financial sense for Dallas to back their way out of the contract, which would be after the 2022 season). Looking at the advanced metrics from last year, there isn’t a ton of difference between Elliott and Tony Pollard, save for the name on the back of the jersey. If you’re Mike McCarthy, are you simply trying to squeeze Pollard into different places during camp (he was playing wide receiver last week), or are you trying to get a more thorough evaluation on someone who may end up being almost as good as Elliott at a fraction of the cost? (And, ultimately, will that dropoff from Elliott to Pollard be negated by the fact that you have a top five quarterback?)
How quickly does Teddy Bridgewater move to the front of the pack?
Drew Lock is a good prospect but one who may end up a casualty of the still-painful divide between NFL and collegiate coaches. The Broncos were able to get some good football out of Lock during his rookie year much in the way the Rams were able to get good football out of Jared Goff. There was always going to be a ceiling once defenses figured out the predetermined destinations. Bridgewater can marry Pat Shurmur’s expectations quicker and run a more representative pro-style offense—that’s what the Broncos want right now. Their defense could potentially be a top-5 unit next year.
Will we see a drastic shift in Anthony Lynn’s offensive identity?
Each of the past two years, Lynn’s offenses in Los Angeles were heavily based out of the 11 personnel grouping (three receivers, one tight end). The split between 11 personnel and the Chargers’ next-most utilized formation was drastic. However, it’s interesting that in both years, the Chargers were top-10 in 21 personnel, or the usage of a fullback, running back and two wide receivers. The Lions signed Darren Fells this offseason from Houston, giving the team another top blocking right end to go with T.J. Hockenson. Few teams, save for the Colts, have that many good run-blocking tight ends on the roster. It shows that Lynn isn’t afraid of working with heavier sets (his background as a running back for the Mike Shanahan Broncos adds to that hypothesis) and that his personnel may align around something far different than what we’ve seen from the Lions—or Lynn—in the past.
Expectations for the Lions’ offensive line are high after the acquisition of Penei Sewell. But their ancillary pieces (good blocking tight ends, potential top-10 offensive line, deep-ish running back depth chart and a quarterback not known for operating autonomously) lead us to believe that we could see more 21 personnel, or perhaps 12 personnel (two tight ends), which the Chargers ran on about 12% of their snaps last year.
What does Matt LaFleur want out of his new defense?
Aaron Rodgers questions aside, it’s worth wondering how much better this defense can be with a fresh look at coordinator. Mike Pettine did a nice job of bringing his simulated pressures and hybrid fronts to Green Bay and, in 2020, the Packers logged their first top-10 in total defense since their last Super Bowl run. This offseason, it was clear that head coach Matt LaFleur was looking for something similar schematically but perhaps with a different trigger man. Among his interviewees were Joe Barry, who got the job, and rising star Ejiro Evero, the Rams’ safeties coach. Both of them were working alongside Brandon Staley as he installed a Vic Fangio–inspired defense in Los Angeles last year. That could mean fewer lighter “Dime” style packages (the Packers led the league in Dime defense frequency last year) and more of an emphasis on traditional pressures.
Does Tyrod Taylor finally hang on to QB1?
With no indication that Deshaun Watson will play for the Texans again, the spotlight shines on Tyrod Taylor. Taylor has been the consummate bridge quarterback of late, having begun the season as the presumptive starter both in Cleveland and Los Angeles, only to watch as Baker Mayfield and Justin Herbert took off once Taylor was injured. Now, Taylor is fending off Davis Mills, a high-upside developmental QB prospect out of Stanford. While it would seem dangerous and somewhat irresponsible to put a young quarterback into the fray with this scattered offense, there might also be a desire to see if Mills can operate as the long-term option after Taylor’s contract is up.
Does Frank Reich bring back the essential element for Carson Wentz?
The Eagles and Wentz divorced once the game plan became less a story to follow and more of a scattershot array of plays to run, which forced Wentz to hang in the pocket longer and try to make things happen with his physical tools. The result was a battered Wentz picking up bad habits. Reich, though, was in Philadelphia for the best of times, where Wentz was bowling with bumpers in the best possible way. Before the snap he had an idea of where to go. There was always an emergency out. The Eagles were setting up opponents and picking off weaknesses, leading to chunk plays.
When Reich left, so too did the idea that Wentz needed these walls in place in order to function. Step one of this rebuild will require some artistry on the game plan front.
What else could the Jaguars do at tight end?
Without seeing Tim Tebow in action, what we know right now is that Chris Manhertz is Jacksonville’s best blocking tight end in a league where the position is becoming increasingly important. Players aren’t coming out of college with the dual blocking/receiving ability anymore, which makes someone like George Kittle all the rarer. When you think about it that way, the Tebow experiment makes some sense; athletic guy who is willing to fill this role, but also can give you a jackhammer presence in short yardage. Basically, you’re hoping he can, in some way shape or form, manipulate a defense. As of right now, Jacksonville doesn’t have that 11th offensive player who forces the defense to alter its plans, which should make the Jaguars a candidate for Ertz, or some other option we’ve yet to consider on the tight end front (perhaps they’ll be more active during the initial phases of roster cut downs.)
Will the Chiefs ground and pound in 2021?
The Chiefs were 23rd in rushing attempts last year despite having a first-round running back and an offensive line that, while much maligned following their Super Bowl loss, actually averaged a positive net yards over average attempt among starters. This year, the Chiefs’ offensive line has been upgraded significantly, while their offensive weapon set was slightly depleted. It’s fair to wonder whether Andy Reid, as he enters a new phase of Patrick Mahomes’s development, is seeing (and borrowing from) other teams that utilize the power running game effectively to bolster their QB’s efficiency. The Chiefs added a tight end in the fifth round who could help them bolster their 12 personnel looks, which were significantly lacking in 2020.
While they will never deviate too far from the fact that they obviously have a generational star at quarterback, it’s not outrageous to suggest that we’re seeing more and more quarterbacks benefit from a robust play-action offense that carries a legitimate threat of downhill running success. The Chiefs were third in the league in play action passing attempts last year but 15th in EPA per play action pass attempted. Could that be due in part to the fact that they almost never actually ran the ball?
Are we done hearing about Marcus Mariota as a comeback candidate?
Marcus Mariota returned to Las Vegas on a contract that makes him infinitely more tradeable, albeit with a no-trade clause. While this doesn’t seem significant now, it would not be hard to imagine Vegas being the first team other clubs call in the event of an injury to its presumptive starter. The Patriots are already dealing with a Cam Newton issue. The Cowboys and Bengals have quarterbacks coming off significant injuries, and there is a lot of pressure on both staffs to win now. Mariota showed well during his time as a spot player though isn’t going to be good enough to edge out Derek Carr in camp.
This, plus Gruden’s tendency to hoard quarterbacks he’s fascinated with, could be the perfect recipe for a low-grade Sam Bradford desperation trade before the start of the season should an issue arise.
What is the Rashawn Slater initiation process like?
A ton of pressure comes with breaking in a rookie left tackle, especially one who cares for the blind side of reigning Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert. It’s on an entirely different level when the defense possesses one of the best pure pass rushers in the NFL, and a head coach and defensive coordinator known for creativity at the line of scrimmage. There’s a chance Slater, who was viewed by some as a better prospect than Sewell, comes out more pro ready by virtue of the competition he faces in practice.
Who emerges at linebacker?
The Rams are elite up front and stout on the edges but are hoping that Aaron Donald helps them overcome the lack of relative sturdiness through the middle. Donald is obviously good enough to make that happen, but when facing Seattle and San Francisco—teams that will utilize heavier personnel—twice a year, are they strong enough to counter?
Let’s put this another way: If Les Snead’s perpetual desire to cast away first-round draft picks does not impact his success in finding critical role players to shore up his defense, then he should be nominated for an executive of the year award. The Rams’ second pick in this year’s draft (103rd overall) was Ernest Jones, a linebacker out of South Carolina. He’s already calling the first-team defense, which would lead us to believe that Jones has earned a lot of respect so far. That, or Los Angeles is threadbare and trying to speed up a developmental process.
How out are the Dolphins on the quarterback market?
One thing that you can say about Brian Flores: There has been no scholarship at the quarterback position. He instinctively yanked Tua Tagovailoa at different times without any regard for how the move might impact the QB’s development. Still, it was done in a way that was not so haphazard. Flores seems to have the pulse of the locker room and, thus, the equity to make such a decision.
Will Jacoby Brissett cut into first-team reps? Will the Dolphins remain softly attached to Deshaun Watson? It’s worth keeping an eye on.
How do unresolved conflicts at the QB position play out?
We know that the Vikings attempted to move up for Justin Fields. We know they also took Kellen Mond, one of the higher profile developmental passers in the draft. While this may have just been a keen understanding of value, there is certainly something to be said about the organization flooding with activity while Kirk Cousins still has two very untradable years (this and next) remaining on his contract. The Eagles showed a true lack of concern for dead money this offseason and their wrangling of the cap in subsequent years could be instructive for other teams hoping to yank their way out of difficult quarterback situations.
So, could we see Mond being inserted as a package QB (we’re not pigeonholing him there)? What happens if he clearly asserts himself and wins the backup QB job? What happens if Cousins struggles?
Who do the Patriots decide to keep at quarterback?
Mac Jones is a lock to be on the roster in 2021. After that, it’s anyone’s guess. The Patriots would seem to be foolish to get rid of Cam Newton, given his exceptional contract that makes a battering ram with top-15 arm talent cost less than countless offensive weapons around the league that don’t offer half the versatility. Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels can find a way to use Newton, but his early camp injury will present some other options. New England runs their camps differently and thus allows units more time to gel and focus than some traditional team camp structures. If someone like Jarrett Stidham starts to play well, as ESPN.com beat reporter Mike Reiss mentioned recently, how does that change the variables? Do you hope Stidham can be stashed somewhere? Do you hope to facilitate a trade at some point to a team that is scattered at the position (Texans, Dolphins, Eagles)?
Will Taysom Hill look any different after a QB-centric offseason?
It’s impossible to downplay the fact that Hill’s body has changed significantly since college and the drills he’s done during preseason have been developed specifically for his altered role in New Orleans’ offense and on special teams. That has come to an end. Hill’s first QB-centric offseason times with one of the most watched QB competitions in recent memory. While he would seem to have the edge by virtue of being in Sean Payton’s infamous QB room for so long, he could widen the gap between him and Jameis Winston by developing a frame that allows more range of motion.
Hill recently told NOLA.com of his offseason workouts: "Look, at the end of the day and when I first got here and I started doing all this stuff, the answer when I was asked 'hey, what's the end goal for you?' has always been to play quarterback. I'm a quarterback at heart and that's my mindset. That is really nice when I can tailor all of my offseason program to being as good of a quarterback as I possibly can."
Can the offensive line support their grand visions?
The Giants’ in-season dismissal of their former offensive line coach last year was indicative of how they thought the development of their high-drafted offensive linemen were going. There seems to be a school of thought that, in the NFL, you either have a great offensive line or a great offensive line coach. The Giants seem to be on the hunt for both, having plastered their front five with tons of equity both in the draft and via free agency. By drafting Kadarius Toney, an offensive weapon, in the first round, it would also seem to indicate that the Giants feel O-line coach Rob Sale is the right man for the job and that he can both develop Andrew Thomas (2020 No. 4 overall pick), get the most out of Nate Solder and find a combination across the interior that limits pressure. Daniel Jones is a tough quarterback who can withstand pressure, but having him under constant duress (he was under pressure on 38% of his snaps last year, second in the NFL) eliminates the advantages of signing Kenny Golladay, drafting Toney and welcoming back Saquon Barkley.
What will the offense actually look like?
Here’s something the rest of the league is watching very closely: As more teams begin to run the Alex Gibbs/Mike/Kyle Shanahan offense, we’re going to reach a point of oversaturation—the scheme, at some point, just won’t be as effective. But here’s what’s really interesting: Beyond the scheme, there’s only a few people qualified to run it. The Shanahan offense is nothing without Shanahan, or Matt LaFleur and Nathaniel Hackett. It is nothing without a laser-eyed focus on potential conflicts and mismatches seen throughout the game in real-time. So, will new Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur carry that gene? There’s been nothing to suggest otherwise, and the Jets are really just a jumping off point to bring this up: It’s going to become very obvious this year who understands how to run this offense vs. who is just yanking up the plays every week and trying to replicate it like a garage band.
What is the near-future plan at quarterback?
The Eagles have plenty of questions at the moment, which may be purposeful. The organization is looking at three first-round picks next year in a potentially loaded class that will be far deeper than the one that just passed us by. No matter what happens next year, they’ll have the ammunition to trade up for the No. 1 pick in the class and get the quarterback of the future, which is potentially why we’re looking at the skeleton crew behind Jalen Hurts right now. Hurts has some fans in high places within the Eagles’ organization, though their commitment to him could change significantly based on how he performs this year with an upgraded weapon set. Hurts does not have anywhere near the pressure behind him that he provided Carson Wentz a year ago, but in the event of a Hurts injury it’s hard to imagine the short-term plan is just to ride the season out in a winnable division with Joe Flacco. Howie Roseman, ever the dealer, could be in his element once rosters begin to narrow. It would seem the Eagles need someone with more upside vying for the QB2 job.
Is Ben Roethlisberger’s successor on the roster?
Could Pittsburgh’s seeming lack of urgency in replacing Roethlisberger mean that they’re hoping for a slice of good news this summer—his replacement emerging organically? The Steelers signed Mason Rudolph to a contract extension before the season, guaranteeing that they’ll have his rights through the 2022 season. They also signed Dwayne Haskins to a reserve/futures deal and have him theoretically competing in camp. Haskins has been a curiosity of sorts during the early stages of workouts, which is standard for a former first-round pick that is trying to claw his way back onto a roster after an unceremonious wash out. Haskins is raw but talented, and is now with one of the few organizations that may be able to take the time required to turn him into an adequate NFL starter. But he also could just be a curiosity. Maybe it’s Rudolph we should be watching closely.
When will the Brandon Aiyuk hype train leave the station?
While the 2020 first-round pick has been resting a groin injury at camp, he’ll likely be primed for the coveted No. 1 role in Kyle Shanahan’s offense this year, a pace-setter for one of the best YAC offenses in the league. Deebo Samuel led the league in average YAC last year, while George Kittle was also top 10. Aiyuk’s rookie campaign wasn’t shabby, though. Despite getting far less cushion and average separation created than Samuel, he hauled in five touchdowns on 60 receptions over 12 games.
Are we ready to believe in another high-upside signing in the secondary?
Last year, with Shaq Griffin and Quinton Dunbar in the fold, it wasn’t bold to predict that Seattle’s secondary was taking shape again. While the Legion of Boom will never be re-created, Seattle seemed to find themselves the right combination of speed and physicality on the edge… then the Seahawks gave up more passing yards than all but one team in the NFL. Griffin is now in Jacksonville, Dunbar is in Detroit, and while the secondary is still in tatters, the acquisition of former 49er Ahkello Witherspoon is worth keeping an eye on. As the Seattle Times noted, he matched up well with D.K. Metcalf in divisional games. He was on Seattle’s radar as a draft prospect. Witherspoon said that when he’s healthy, he’s the best cornerback in football. That may be an overstatement, but he may provide a boost in Seattle’s porous secondary.
Does the offense now begin as Tom Brady’s?
As colleagues Jenny Vrentas and Greg Bishop expertly reported during the Super Bowl, there was a meeting of the minds between Bruce Arians and Tom Brady where the offense, the one Arians successfully ran and tweaked for a majority of his career, became more of a shared concept. To some observers, it felt more like a complete takeover, with the Buccaneers' resembling more and more of what Brady has been comfortable with for the majority of his career. Now that Tampa has returned all of its personnel, is it safe to assume Tampa will be annexing more of Arians’ offense in favor of the power football that worked down the stretch?
What happens to the Titans’ offensive line?
Maybe this is a little granular here, but I think it was very important Tennessee held on to Keith Carter, their offensive line coach. Arthur Smith’s offense, which is now going to be run by Todd Downing in Nashville, is predicated on a precise, somewhat antiquated form of blocking that not many coaches can properly install. If that system falls apart, so does every advantage you have with using Derrick Henry.
How out is Washington on the QB market?
While I like the idea of giving Ryan Fitzpatrick the full breadth of a season to operate, Washington is clearly operating under the assumption that it’ll be a playoff contender in 2021 (which is a reasonable assumption given how strong it is on both lines of scrimmage). What that also means is that they’ll be unable to draft a quarterback of the future in 2022. Could they try to utilize the workings of this offseason to cut the line and nab a prospect that is flailing elsewhere but could be more comfortable in Washington? Could they be keeping a watchful eye on what happens in New England with Cam Newton? In Miami with Tua Tagovailoa? In Green Bay with Jordan Love?