Is this premature? Absolutely. Am I going to do it anyway? You bet.
We haven’t seen quarterback drama like this in New England since at least 2017 when the team traded Jimmy Garoppolo to San Francisco. At that point, the Patriots still had Tom Brady. Mac Jones seemed to be Brady’s heir after the Pats spent a first round pick on him in 2021. New England reached the playoffs and Jones was in the conversation for Rookie of the Year.
Oh how things have changed.
Jones opened the season as the unquestioned starter, but suffered an ankle injury in Week 3 that forced him to miss the next three games. Brian Hoyer was supposed to be his short-term replacement, but then the veteran quarterback suffered a concussion during his first start against the Packers.
Enter Bailey Zappe.
The rookie fourth-round pick from Western Kentucky was a bit of a surprise pick by the franchise in this draft, but most viewed him as a developmental prospect who could be a quality backup long term. That has not been the case so far. Zappe nearly upset the Packers in Week 4 coming in to replace Hoyer. He led the Patriots to back-to-back wins over the Lions and Browns, completing 41 of 55 passes for 497 yards with three touchdowns and an interception.
Needless to say, fans in New England were ready for Zappe Hour and The Zappening and everything in between. However, Mac Jones was cleared to return for Monday Night Football against the Bears and got the start. Jones didn’t last long though. He attempted just six passes, amassing 13 yards, and was pulled after throwing an interception. Zappe got the offense moving, scoring a pair of touchdowns to take a 14-10 lead. Things went off the rails from there. Chicago went on to win 33-14.
Zappe clearly provided a spark, but it fizzled and it left New England in a tricky spot at quarterback. Belichick dodged questions about who his starting quarterback would be going forward. He said Jones was taken out of the game because he wasn’t healthy. If that was really the case, then why was Jones out there in the first place? This whole situation is a bit bizarre and really casts a shadow over his future with the team.
It certainly appears that Belichick is no longer 100% committed to Jones. He has been underwhelming this season, with just three touchdowns to six interceptions. His passer rating and completion percentage are also down from a year ago.
As I already noted, this is definitely a bit early to talk about Jones no longer being with the Patriots. This would be very early to move on from a first-round pick at quarterback after just two seasons, especially without a change in the front office. Still, stranger things have happened. If Jones does become available, there are a few teams that will definitely be interested.
Indianapolis Colts The Colts have been searching for a quarterback since Andrew Luck retired. Matt Ryan was the team’s fourth opening day starter in as many years. This team has been searching for a long-term solution, but has only had stop-gap answers. Acquiring Jones could potentially end the carousel at the position.
Now, I can understand why Indianapolis might be hesitant to make this move. The Colts brought in Carson Wentz hoping a change of scenery would bring out the best in a player that looked like an MVP before he suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2017. That obviously didn’t work out as the Colts shipped him out to Washington after just one season.
The difference here is that Jones is still on his rookie deal. Wentz had already signed a mega extension with a ton of money guaranteed. It makes acquiring Jones a much lower-risk move by comparison. Frank Reich is on the hot seat. I’m not sure he will get another chance with this team, but Chris Ballard has put together a pretty good roster outside of the quarterback spot. Jones could give him a consistent, accurate passer to operate a run-focused offense centered around Jonathan Taylor.
New Orleans Saints The Jameis Winston experiment in New Orleans has not gone according to plan. His play has been inconsistent, but more importantly, his health has kept him off the field. An ACL injury cost him the remainder of the 2021 season. Now, he is dealing with multiple fractures in his back and a lingering ankle injury. Andy Dalton has fared well in relief, but I can’t imagine that the Saints really believe he could be the long-term answer at quarterback.
Jones has a similar playstyle to Drew Brees and while Sean Payton is no longer the head coach, this is still largely the same staff. Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael had a lot of success with an incredibly accurate quarterback who lacked elite mobility and arm strength. New Orleans has already sunk a lot of draft capital into this team, so I would not be shocked to see them go all in by acquiring an upgrade at quarterback.
Washington Commanders I already talked about Carson Wentz and how he struggled in Indianapolis. Things have not been much better since he joined the Commanders. His protection was terrible before he suffered a thumb injury that landed him on injured reserve. According to Spotrac, Washington can move on from Wentz this offseason with minimal dead. Releasing him would free up $27 million in cap space. Needless to say, Wentz’s future in D.C. doesn’t look great. I think it is also safe to assume that Washington does not believe in Taylor Heinicke long term. They went out and acquired Wentz despite having Heinicke still on the roster. It feels like this team is poised to look elsewhere this offseason when it comes to the quarterback position.
Jones would certainly need better protection if he were to thrive in Washington, but $27 million would give the Commanders a decent amount to invest in their offensive line. Terry McLaurin would unquestionably be the best receiver Jones has ever worked with and it would be a reunion with his former teammate Brian Robinson. This is another tricky spot with Ron Rivera on the hot seat, but adding a young quarterback on a rookie deal could buy him a bit more time to turn things around in Washington.
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It is hard to believe that one year after Baker Mayfield led the Browns to their first playoff win since 1994 he will now be searching for a new home. Tom Pelissero reported Thursday that Mayfield has requested a trade following Cleveland’s pursuit of Deshaun Watson.
An injury-riddled, disappointing 2021 season soured the relationship between the team and the former No. 1 pick. Cleveland had already opted against offering Mayfield an extension, instead allowing him to play out the final year of his rookie contract.
Mayfield posted a goodbye to Browns fans on social media earlier this week following the team’s interest in Texans quarterback Watson. The writing was on the wall then, but it is still a shocking development considering the Browns entered the season with legitimate title aspirations.
So what happens now for Mayfield? There is no shortage of suitors for the 26-year-old quarterback this offseason. Carolina, Atlanta and New Orleans are all in on landing Watson, but two of those teams will still need a long-term answer at quarterback after a deal goes down. Beyond those three, the Colts, Giants and Seahawks are all kicking the tires on prospective quarterbacks. New York did just sign Tyrod Taylor to backup Daniel Jones, but if there is interest in Mayfield, I don’t think that will stop them from making a move. What makes this complicated is that the Browns do not seem inclined to trade Mayfield. Jake Trotter tweeted shortly after the news broke that Cleveland denied his request.
The teams that stand out to me are Indianapolis, Carolina and Seattle. The latter two allow the Browns to move Mayfield out of the conference and both teams have major question marks at quarterback with hopes of being much more competitive in 2022. However, Cleveland might receive the best offer from Indy. After trading away Carson Wentz and without a first-round pick in 2022, it is hard to figure out who the Colts will start at quarterback this season. Let’s go team by team.
The Panthers have several starting quarterback options, which is to say they have no idea who will start for them this season. Sam Darnold, who was selected two picks after Mayfield in 2018, is still under contract for 2022. He had an up-and-down year that ended prematurely due to an injury. Then there is Cam Newton. Super Cam arrived halfway through the 2021 season and immediately breathed some new life into the Panthers offense. The spark was short-lived though as Carolina went 0-5 in games Newton started. The former MVP also threw just four touchdowns and five interceptions in eight appearances. There is no question the Panthers need a long-term solution at quarterback.
Should they make the call?: Absolutely not. What is the point in adding a second quarterback from the 2018 draft coming off an injury. Mayfield would be an upgrade over both Darnold and Newton, but this does not provide the stability the Panthers need.
Now that Russell Wilson is donning Broncos orange, Seattle desperately needs to find its next quarterback. The combination of Drew Lock and Geno Smith does not inspire much confidence for long-term success. Lock is heading into his fourth season, but has struggled with consistency and health. Smith is a career backup who can step in for an injured starter. Neither is going to be the starting quarterback by the time 2023 rolls around. In fact, both could not be on the roster by that point. The question is not if Seattle needs help, it is if this is the right move.
Should they make the call?: I personally would love to see Colin Kaepernick get a second chance by landing with the Seahawks. Pete Carroll revealed this week that he has been in touch with the former 49ers quarterback. Kap is also working out with Seahawks wide receiver Tyler Lockett after he posted a video lamenting his lack of throwing partners. That being said, Mayfield is a much safer bet than Kaepernick, who has not taken a snap in the NFL since 2016. If Cleveland is willing to move Mayfield for a Day 2 and a Day 3 pick, I would strongly consider it.
Once again, the Colts find themselves in desperate need of a quarterback. Last year, that led Indianapolis acquiring Carson Wentz from the Eagles. Colts general manager Chris Ballard already flipped Wentz to Washington for pennies on the dollar, so this team is short on draft capital and high on needing a solution. With the right quarterback, this team has the talent to make a real run at winning the AFC South and maybe winning a playoff game or two. Sam Ehlinger and James Morgan are the only quarterbacks on the Colts roster at the moment. Maybe Indy will give Ehlinger a chance to compete for the job, but it also needs to find a veteran to be in the mix.
Should they make the call?: I don’t think so. To be honest, I think the Colts have missed their Super Bowl window. They have holes at wide receiver, left tackle, left guard, cornerback and safety. They have big contracts on board already for players like DeForest Buckner, Darius Leonard, Braden Smith and now Yannick Ngakoue. They still need to pay Quenton Nelson as well. I just think Indianapolis has too many holes and not enough resources to fill them all and become a true contender with this current roster. This core could still win a title, but it looks like it will be a year or two before they are ready to compete. If I’m Ballard, I pass on Mayfield and go sign Jameis Winston while I retool the rest of my roster.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints are clearly banking on landing Watson. After rolling with the combination of Winston, Taysom Hill, Trevor Siemian and Ian Book in 2022, the Texans quarterback could offer some much needed stability. You know, as soon as he is done serving the suspension that is likely coming for his off-the-field behavior. Still, if Watson winds up in Carolina or Atlanta, New Orleans will still need a quarterback. Winston and Siemian are free agents, Hill is a gadget player and Book looks like an overmatched backup quarterback. With Michael Thomas hopefully coming back from injury and Alvin Kamara facing legal trouble himself, there are still a lot of question marks surrounding this Saints offense.
Should they make the call?: Assuming they don’t land Watson, I say yes. Contingent on the asking price of course. If the Saints can land Mayfield for a mid-round selection and a future Day 3 pick, I think that is worth doing in this case. Mayfield is still 26 and has shown the potential to be a solid starter in the NFL. He won’t be a superstar, but the Saints can work to build more around him. They already have some great playmakers and a solid offensive line in place. That sounds like a recipe for success for Mayfield.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
How about a wild card to throw into the mix? Tom Brady is returning for another season, but his contract is up following 2022. Not to mention that he could always retire again. Rumors put Brady in San Francisco for 2023 with a chance to finish his career in his hometown. Speculation about Brady aside, it feels like Tampa has one more year with the seven-time Super Bowl champion. What remains behind Brady is far from reassuring as Blaine Gabbert and Kyle Trask will compete to be his backup.
Should they make the call?: I say yes. I just don’t think Cleveland would do the deal. Tampa could probably offer some more draft capital if the Browns would be willing to eat at least part of Mayfield’s cap hit for 2022. It would give Bruce Arians a year to evaluate Mayfield and let him learn from the greatest to ever play the position. Mayfield will certainly have opportunities to start elsewhere, but that does not mean he should take them right away. If he has another tumultuous year, it is hard to envision him landing a starting job anywhere beyond 2022. He has to pick his next destination carefully.
It’s almost time for football! Training camp is getting underway and the NFL rumor mill is in full effect. Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson and even Chandler Jones could be on the move.
There will be plenty of time to get into all of the potential scenarios for the big names looking for a change of scenery. I wanted to take a look at where every coach in the NFL stands though as we approach the preseason. Every year, we see about seven or eight head coaching openings in the league. Those openings don’t happen without a coach losing his job. Here is an early look at which coaches could be sweating it out at the end of the season. My plan is to update this list at the midway point and again after the regular season.
New York Jets – Robert Saleh Heat Index: 🔥 A rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback. It’s the first time the Jets have ever had both heading into the same season in franchise history. That takes the pressure off everyone here. While seeing a massive turnaround from a 2-14 season would be great, it is not expected. As long as Saleh can show signs that he is putting the pieces in place for future success, that’s all that matters. Besides, after dealing with Adam Gase for two years, Saleh will be a breath of fresh air.
New England Patriots – Bill Belichick Heat Index: 🔥🔥 Could the Patriots really fire Bill Belichick? It feels unlikely. At this point, I think it is more likely Belichick retires or leaves on his own accord than being fired. Still, after a very rocky 2020 season, the Patriots spent a ton of money in the offseason to retool their roster. They also spent a first round pick on Mac Jones. If New England takes a step backward though and the offense flops again, maybe the team could think about making a change. Again, it feels incredibly unlikely, but the expectations are certainly higher for the Patriots in 2021.
Buffalo Bills – Sean McDermott Heat Index: 🔥🔥 The Bills are entering a clear championship window in the final two years of Josh Allen’s rookie deal. Allen took a massive step in 2020 and put together an MVP-caliber campaign. If he can come close to replicating that performance, Buffalo will be very capable of winning its first Super Bowl in franchise history. In order to get to that point, Sean McDermott needs to get the defense back to its 2019 form. With higher expectations comes increased pressure. It would take a truly miserable season for McDermott to lose his job, but he has to deliver.
Miami Dolphins – Brian Flores Heat Index: 🔥 Honestly, if the Dolphins went 0-17 and Tua Tagovailoa lost his starting job to Jacoby Brissett, I think Brian Flores might still keep his job. He is a ton setter and a great culture builder. Let’s be clear, I don’t expect the above scenario to come true. Miami came up one game short of reaching the playoffs in an incredibly competitive AFC. Even if Tagovailoa falters again, I think Flores would get a chance to pick another quarterback and continue building the framework of this team.
Indianapolis Colts – Frank Reich Heat Index: 🔥🔥🔥 Which direction are the Colts headed? The team has a championship-caliber roster in a lot of areas. Their front seven is incredible. The secondary should be even better in 2021. The offensive line is definitely among the top five units in the league. They lack a true No. 1 receiver at this point, but they have depth at the skill positions. It now all falls on Frank Reich and Carson Wentz. Indianapolis acquired Wentz this offseason for a decent amount of draft capital, reuniting him with his offensive coordinator from his early days in Philadelphia. If the Colts struggle in what looks to be a fairly weak AFC South and miss the postseason, there could be some significant turnover in Indy.
Houston Texans – David Culley Heat Index: 🔥 If there was ever a team that could be accused of tanking in the NFL, it has to be the Houston Texans. After releasing franchise icon J.J. Watt amid a massive quarterback controversy on the heels of a 4-12 season, it seems like the Texans are entering a long rebuild. With limited draft capital in recent years, this roster has a massive talent deficit compared to the rest of the league. The roster building is confusing as well, as the team continues to target veteran running backs. Deshaun Watson was likely not going to play this season before his pending legal situation unfolded. Now it seems certain he will not see the field in 2021. All of this is to say, there is absolutely no pressure on David Culley to succeed this season.
Tennessee Titans – Mike Vrabel Heat Index: 🔥🔥 Mike Vrabel has the Titans playing at an extremely high level. They are tough, determined and disciplined, which is usually a product of good coaching. After making a splashy move to land Julio Jones, the pressure is on for Tennessee to make a deep postseason run. With Arthur Smith heading to Atlanta, it is going to be interesting to see if the Titans can maintain their offensive success. A major step backward could see Vrabel come under scrutiny. I think his job is safe, but stranger things have happened.
Jacksonville Jaguars – Urban Meyer Heat Index: 🔥🔥🔥 It is very bizarre to say a first-year head coach is on the hot seat, but Urban Meyer is unlike most rookie coaches. Meyer comes with a ton of clout from his days at Ohio State and Florida. He also just drafted arguably the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck. The heat here mostly stems from Meyer’s checked history with team culture. The league fined the Jaguars $200,000 for OTA violations and slapped Meyer with a $100,000 fine of his own. The fines stemmed from breaking the non-contact rules of OTAs. This comes on the heels of Meyer hiring former Iowa strength coach Chris Doyle. Doyle resigned one day after his hire following a chorus of former Hawkeyes saying he discriminated against them. The Jaguars have a chance to build something special around Trevor Lawrence. There have already been red flags. Jacksonville needs to be sure it has the best possible system in place for Lawrence to succeed.
Pittsburgh Steelers – Mike Tomlin Heat Index: 🔥🔥🔥 With Ben Roethlisberger’s tenure in Pittsburgh seemingly at its end, could the Steelers opt for a fresh start and move on from Mike Tomlin as well? It certainly feels possible. Despite winning the AFC North and reaching the playoffs, Pittsburgh struggled mightily down the stretch, including a dismal playoff loss against the rival Browns. With no clear succession plan in place and a roster coming up against the cap, the Steelers could look to rebuild with a new coach and a new quarterback.
Baltimore Ravens– John Harbaugh Heat Index: 🔥🔥 A few years ago ago, it felt very possible the Ravens were set to move on from John Harbaugh. Baltimore missed the playoffs from 2015-2017. Joe Flacco was struggling. The defense was far from its championship-winning dominance in 2012. Lamar Jackson likely saved Harbaugh’s job. Baltimore is now among the top title contenders heading into 2021. Harbaugh feels very safe, but there is always a scenario where he could not be back. There have been concerns around the Ravens offense being too one dimensional with Jackson at the helm. Finally winning a playoff game took the edge off, but if Baltimore somehow misses the postseason in 2021, the heat will be turned up on Harbaugh.
Cleveland Browns – Kevin Stefanski Heat Index: 🔥 After reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and winning the franchise’s first playoff game since 1994, Kevin Stefanski is among the safest coaches in the league. His run-heavy approach was incredibly successful, utilizing the two-headed attack of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt to great effect. Stefanski also put Baker Mayfield’s career back on the right path. Now, there are still questions that persist around Mayfield, but after investing heavily in the defense, he might not need to do much for the Browns to be successful again.
Cincinnati Bengals – Zac Taylor Heat Index: 🔥🔥🔥🔥 Through two years on the job, Zac Taylor owns an ugly 6-25-1 record as a head coach. Some of that is a product of joining a team in the midst of a rebuild, but this is the year to start seeing some progress. Joe Burrow is undoubtedly the quarterback of the future in Cincinnati. Coming off a gruesome knee injury, expectations will be tamped down some for Burrow, but another double-digit loss season could cost Taylor his job. The team needs to take advantage of Burrow being on his rookie contract and can’t afford to waste another year of his development and that salary cap window waiting to see if Taylor can put together a winning formula.
Kansas City Chiefs – Andy Reid Heat Index: 🔥 Unsurprisingly, the pressure seems to be fairly low on Andy Reid. He delivered the franchise its first Super Bowl victory since 1970 in 2019. He led the team back to the big game in 2020 despite having an offensive line decimated by injuries. It cost the Chiefs a chance at repeating, but Kansas City is expected to be among the top contenders to lift the Lombardi in 2021. As long as Reid and Patrick Mahomes are still clicking, the Chiefs are going to be among the best teams in the league.
Denver Broncos – Vic Fangio Heat Index: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥 Maybe this is a bit warmer than Vic Fangio truly deserves, but the Broncos are heading into a pivotal season. The team put a lot of faith in Drew Lock by passing on Justin Fields and Mac Jones on draft night. Courtland Sutton is back after missing 2020 due to injury. So is Von Miller. Winning the division is an incredibly tall task at this point with the Chiefs leading the way, but it feels like the Broncos need to be in the playoff conversation for Fangio to keep his job. Another five-win season with suspect quarterback play and a subpar defense is going to trigger a rebuild.
Los Angeles Chargers – Brandon Staley Heat Index: 🔥 Brandon Staley walks into a fantastic situation. He has a talented defense with a number of proven playmakers. He inherits one of the most exciting quarterback prospects in the league in Justin Herbert. Los Angeles is also stocked with some reliable playmakers on offense with Keenan Allen and Austin Ekeler. The Chargers are simply looking to take a step in the right direction this year. Anthony Lynn was a good coach, but struggled with time management and maintaining leads. If Staley can show an ability to at least be average in those two areas, he will be a major improvement and the Chargers will be at least a league average team.
Las Vegas Raiders – Jon Gruden Heat Index: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥 At what point are the Raiders going to put it all together? Heading into his fourth year of his second stint with the franchise, Jon Gruden has yet to post a winning record or reach the postseason. Las Vegas had its moments in 2020, but on the whole it was a disappointing campaign. If the Raiders don’t show signs of progress, expect a rebuild to follow. Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock have had ample opportunity to shape this team how they want it to. Now it is time for the results to follow.
New York Giants– Joe Judge Heat Index: 🔥🔥 Only entering his second year, Joe Judge might be a victim of circumstance more than anything else if he were to lose his job after this season. New York had a rocky 2020 campaign, finishing 6-10 and struggling to figure out its direction offensively. The Giants are in for a much better season in 2021. Saquon Barkley should be healthy at some point early in the year. Dave Gettleman invested draft capital at wide receiver and edge rusher, two positions of need. However, if Daniel Jones struggles and New York suffers through another 6-10 season, Gettleman will almost definitely be gone and the Giants will be looking to find a new franchise quarterback. If there is already that much turnover, Judge could be gone as well.
Philadelphia Eagles – Nick Sirianni Heat Index: 🔥🔥 It is incredibly rare that coaches are fired after just one season. However, it has also happened twice in the past three years. Steve Wilks only got a single season in Arizona and was fired after 2018. Cleveland canned Freddie Kitchen after a disappointing 2019 campaign. It’s not out of the question for the 2021 season either. I already touched on Meyer. Nick Sirianni is not facing as much pressure as his Jacksonville counterpart, but Philadelphia has never been known for being patient. Sirianni inherits a team with more questions than answers at a number of key positions, namely quarterback. If Jalen Hurts flames out and Sirianni shows no signs of building a positive culture, I could see a scenario where ownership decides to clean house.
Dallas Cowboys– Mike McCarthy Heat Index: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥 Speaking of coaches lasting one year with a team, there was some buzz that Mike McCarthy could be done after a single season in Dallas. Even before Dak Prescott went down for the season, the Cowboys looked outmatched. It got much worse after that. McCarthy did enough to somehow earn a second year, but now the pressure is on. Dallas needs to win the NFC East for McCarthy to keep his job. It is an incredibly weak division and the Cowboys have the most talented roster, at least on paper. McCarthy might even need to win a playoff game to truly secure his place in 2022.
Washington Football Team – Ron Rivera Heat Index: 🔥🔥 Ron Rivera seems to have endeared himself well to the fans and to the locker room in D.C. After scraping together a playoff appearance despite a losing record, Washington still has not addressed the quarterback position long term. If it takes a step back in 2021, I don’t think that will be enough to force Rivera out. It would take a truly terrible season to see him lose his job. However, there will be those who feel like Washington’s defense gives them a good chance to repeat as division champions. Expectations lead to increased pressure. Given what we’ve seen in recent years, nothing is out of the question.
Atlanta Falcons – Arthur Smith Heat Index: 🔥 After impressing as the offensive coordinator in Tennessee, Arthur Smith has earned the chance to lead a team of his own. The Falcons are coming off a tough season full of late-game collapses and bad injury luck. Atlanta is caught in limbo as well. They have some veteran players that would make you believe they want to contend, mainly Matt Ryan. The front office gave Ryan a vote of confidence, or realized they could not afford to move him, when it passed on Justin Fields in the 2021 draft. Instead, they grabbed an elite pass-catcher in Kyle Pitts for Ryan to work with. That feels like a move towards contending in the short term. Then, the Falcons traded Julio Jones to Smith’s former team. Like I said, the team is in limbo. I think that bodes well for Smith’s job security while Atlanta attempts to figure out its direction moving forward.
New Orleans Saints – Sean Payton Heat Index: 🔥🔥 It is the end of an era in the Bayou. Drew Brees’ retirement leaves the Saints with uncertainty at quarterback for the first time in a decade and a half. New Orleans is also in salary cap hell after loading up to contend in the future Hall of Famers’ final few years. Now, the Saints seem set for a step backward. Where does that leave Sean Payton? He has shown he can win games without Brees in recent years with Teddy Bridgewater and Taysom Hill stepping in to lead the team when Brees went down with injury. I think the pressure is likely off for Payton in 2021. It is a year for the Saints to retool their roster and identify their new franchise quarterback. If New Orleans tanks, Payton’s seat could get warmer, but I expect him to be back in 2022.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Bruce Arians Heat Index: 🔥 The only way Bruce Arians is not the coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2022 is if he decides to retire after the season. Fresh off a Super Bowl victory, the Buccaneers brought back essentially their entire roster to make a run at a repeat. Even if Tampa suffers from a major Super Bowl hangover and misses the postseason, it would be a rash move to fire Arians. He has the trust of Tom Brady, which goes a really long way in securing his position on one of the best teams in the league.
Carolina Panthers – Matt Rhule Heat Index: 🔥 2020 was a rebuilding year for the Panthers. Carolina rebuilt its defense in the 2020 NFL draft, gave Teddy Bridgewater a try at quarterback and lost their best player for most of the season due to injury as Christian McCaffrey played in just three games. Honestly, going 5-11 was a decent feat given how young Carolina’s starters were on both sides of the ball. Matt Rhule has earned the title of one of the best teachers in the game. His coaching skills were showcased during the Senior Bowl this past January. Given that the Panthers made a move to acquire Sam Darnold, I think the expectations will be slightly higher, but I still don’t think Rhule has anything to worry about heading into 2021.
Detroit Lions – Dan Campbell Heat Index: 🔥 If Detroit goes 1-16 in 2021, that might just be mission accomplished for the Lions. Avoiding a winless season and setting the team up to find its quarterback of the future would be a solid start to what will likely be a long rebuild. Dan Campbell likely won’t let any of that happen. He is competitive as hell and I think we could see the Lions win a game or two that they probably shouldn’t simply by putting in a ton of effort. Campbell is going to have his team motivated to play every week. Unless his tough as nails persona rubs players the wrong way in the locker room, I think Campbell will be given a few more years to rebuild this team.
Chicago Bears – Matt Nagy Heat Index: 🔥🔥🔥🔥 Drafting Justin Fields likely takes a little bit of heat off Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace. However, I don’t think it changes a tremendous amount for how this duo needs to approach the 2021 season. It needs to be clear at the end of the year that Fields is on track to be a franchise quarterback and that Nagy is the right person to help him reach his potential. Nagy was lucky to keep his job following a 2020 season where Chicago’s offense was nothing short of anemic. The combination of Nick Foles and Mitchell Trubisky was tough to watch. David Montgomery having a breakout season made up for some of those deficits, but the Bears need to show major progress offensive. It does not mean they will suddenly become the Chiefs or the Buccaneers, but fewer turnovers and sharper play will go a long way.
Green Bay Packers– Matt LaFleur Heat Index: 🔥🔥 Much of how Matt LaFleur will be judged stems from what happens with Aaron Rodgers. Will management blame him for the fractured relationship with the 2020 MVP? Unlikely, seeing as Rodgers’ issues seem to stem more from how the front office operates. There are two ways to spin LaFleur’s tenure in Green Bay. The Packers have reached back-to-back NFC Championship games and dominated the NFC North. For reference, Seattle was the last NFC team to reach back-to-back conference title games in 2012 and 2013. However, unlike the Seahawks, the Packers have been unable to get over the hump. Could another year where the team comes up short in the postseason raise enough questions about LaFleur’s ability to win the biggest games of the year to cost him his job? That seems bold, but don’t rule it out.
Minnesota Vikings – Mike Zimmer Heat Index: 🔥🔥🔥 Mike Zimmer said after the 2020 season that Minnesota’s defense was the worst he ever coached. Enter Patrick Peterson, Mackensie Alexander, Bashaud Breeland, Dalvin Tomlinson, Chazz Surratt and Patrick Jones II. Now, it falls on Zimmer to get the most out of this new talent. Kirk Cousins is locked in through 2022, but another lackluster season from the Vikings could get the wheels turning on a rebuild. Especially if Aaron Rodgers does not play this season, this is Minnesota’s division to lose. Failing to do so would be a major letdown that would likely cost Zimmer his job.
Seattle Seahawks – Pete Carroll Heat Index: 🔥🔥🔥 An underperforming defense, inconsistent play and a disgruntled star quarterback are a recipe for losing your job as a head coach in the NFL. Pete Carroll has the Seahawks in the mix as a playoff regular, but they have not made it past the division round since their 2014 Super Bowl loss. With Russell Wilson complaining this offseason about his offensive line, it certainly will turn up the scrutiny on Seattle’s performance this season. Another early playoff exit highlighted by a team that can’t quite put it all together could spell the end of Carroll’s tenure.
Arizona Cardinals – Kliff Kingsbury Heat Index: 🔥🔥🔥 Entering his third year in charge of the Cardinals, Kliff Kingsbury needs to start producing some results. Arizona came close to reaching the playoffs in 2020, losing the tiebreaker to Chicago for the final spot. However, after starting 5-2, the Cardinals limped to a 3-6 finish. I mean limped literally as well because the team started to struggle right around the time Kyler Murray suffered an ankle injury. Murray still has three years left on his rookie deal, which gives Arizona a fairly lengthy Super Bowl window, but this year feels like an important one to show some progress after signing veterans like J.J. Watt, Malcolm Butler and James Conner to an already talented roster.
Los Angeles Rams – Sean McVay Heat Index: 🔥🔥 While Cam Akers certainly strikes a blow to Los Angeles’ title hopes, it should not drastically change the team’s expectations for 2021. After making the bold move to acquire Matthew Stafford, the Rams are positioning themselves as championship contenders. Taking all of that into account, I still think Sean McVay is entrenched in the organization that he can weather an underwhelming season. Long praised as one of the great offensive minds in the sport, McVay has proven himself to be valuable to this franchise. After all, the team is only three years removed from a Super Bowl appearance. Not to mention, the Rams upset the Seahawks in Seattle with an injured Jared Goff at quarterback. I think McVay is likely safe, but expectations are high for this Rams team heading into 2021.
San Francisco 49ers – Kyle Shanahan Heat Index: 🔥 After slogging through a ridiculous season of injuries, the 49ers seem poised to bounce back in a big way in 2021. However, the team is also facing a changing of the guard at quarterback after selecting Trey Lance with the No. 3 pick in April. I think that actually increases the likelihood Kyle Shanahan keeps his job. He is praised as an offensive guru who has developed several quarterbacks in his coaching career. On top of that, he and general manager John Lynch signed six-year extensions following a Super Bowl appearance. Shanahan will be around for a while in San Francisco.
The 2021 NFL draft is in the books! While I don’t believe in giving out draft grades as soon as the draft ends and none of these players have played even a down in the NFL, I do think it is interesting to look at how the draft unfolded. There were a few teams that found great value at positions of need while others were left reaching or neglected to fill large holes on their roster. Here are my initial reactions to what went down in Cleveland.
Talk about nailing the draft
At first glance, there were a few teams that I think had really strong drafts. They navigated the board well, found great value and filled out their roster for 2021 and beyond. If your team is not here, that does not mean I hated their draft. There are only so many clubs that can impress in a weekend.
Washington Football Team Biggest impact: Dyami Brown, WR, UNC (82nd overall) Best value: Shaka Toney, EDGE, Penn State (246th overall) This is by far my favorite draft class. It is way too early to start handing out grades, but Jamin Davis, Samuel Cosmi, Benjamin St-Juste and Dyami Brown could all be starters this year. Washington filled a number of positions of need and found some great value throughout the draft. Darrick Forest, Dax Milne and Toney are all solid depth pieces who could contribute in situational roles as early as this year. I think there is tons of upside with both Cosmi and Toney. I couldn’t believe they were both still available when they were finally selected. The only knock you could have would be not finding a quarterback to develop. Perhaps Washington really views Taylor Heinicke as a developmental option, but Ryan Fitzpatrick is obviously a stop-gap solution.
Atlanta Falcons Biggest impact: Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida (4th overall) Best value: Jalen Mayfield, OT, Michigan (68th overall) Atlanta quietly had a great draft. They grabbed one of the best receivers in the draft in Pitts. Richie Grant, Jalen Mayfield and Drew Dalman will all push for playing time this year. Avery Williamson will be a special teams standout. Ade Ogundeji has outrageous length to work with and Frank Darby could be a steal in the sixth round. The Falcons also grabbed Jaret Patterson as an undrafted free agent. Not drafting a running back was one my biggest negatives here, so getting him helps soften that blow.
Carolina Panthers Biggest impact: Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina (8th overall) Best value: Daviyon Nixon, DL, Iowa (158th overall) There was a lot to like in what the Panthers did in this draft. Carolina found some gems in the later rounds. Tommy Tremble could be the team’s No. 2 tight end this year and his blocking is a huge asset. Daviyon Nixon had a second-round grade from me and Shi Smith earned a late third-round mark. Landing them in the fifth and sixth respectively is great value. Terrace Marshall gives Sam Darnold another reliable receiver to work with as well. Chuba Hubbard will be a great change-of-pace back behind Christian McCaffrey. Oh, and Jaycee Horn fills a huge need and is pro ready. Carolina has put all the pieces in place for Sam Darnold to be successful.
Cleveland Browns Biggest impact: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB/S, Notre Dame Best value: Owusu-Koramoah Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah was a top-20 player on my board and the Browns got him at 52. That alone might be enough to make them winners. However, they also grabbed Greg Newsome, one of my favorite corners in this draft, and Anthony Schwartz, a field-stretching receiver with untapped potential. James Hudson is a great value in the fourth round with a lot of upside. Having depth on the offensive line is never a bad thing either. I really like all of the Browns picks across the board. Tommy Togiai could compete for a role this season, maybe in goal line and short yardage situations. Tony Field is a great depth linebacker with a nose for the football. Richard LeCounte is talented but has to clean up his off-the-field issues. Demetric Felton is a fun gadget player for Kevin Stefanski to deploy as well. Well-rounded draft for Cleveland that filled a lot of team needs.
Minnesota Vikings Biggest impact: Christian Darrisaw, OT, Virginia Tech (23rd overall) Best value: Wyatt Davis, G, Ohio State (97rd overall) When you trade down and take a player everyone expected you to take before the trade, you are doing well. Minnesota landed two new starting offensive linemen in Darrisaw and Davis. I had both ranked in my top 32 players. The Vikings landed some other key contributors in Chazz Surratt and Patrick Jones II. Janarius Robinson, Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Jalen Twyman are all good value picks in the later rounds. I think Minnesota did an excellent job of planning for the present and the future. Kellen Mond gives the Vikings a development quarterback as well, who could potentially take over for Kirk Cousins down the line. Bottom line, Minnesota addressed some big needs without reaching. That’s a recipe for success.
Even the best laid plans go to waste
We all go into the draft expecting to go one way. Very quickly, it ends up going another way. The best front offices can pivot and recover when the unexpected occurs. With the benefit of hindsight, here a few teams that might want a do-over.
Seattle Seahawks Biggest surprise: D’Wayne Eskridge, WR, Western Michigan (56th overall) Biggest reach: None Let’s make something clear, this has nothing to do with who the Seahawks decided to draft. It is much more about who Seattle didn’t decide to draft. Russell Wilson made it clear he wanted offensive line help. The front office ignored that entirely, waiting until the sixth round to select Stone Forsyth. D’Wayne Eskridge is an exciting player, but the Seahawks absolutely could have filled the role of a third receiver later in the draft, especially when your top two options are D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. I touched on it in my Day 2 surprises, but there were a number of good linemen on the board at that spot. I was also stunned that Seattle did not trade down. With only three picks in the whole draft, moving down to pick up one or two more selections would’ve been a wise move. The three players they took were good ones, but it feels like the Seahawks could have done more.
Dallas Cowboys Biggest surprise: Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State (12th overall) Biggest reach: Nahshon Wright, CB, Oregon State (99th overall) It feels weird to put the Cowboys in this category. On one hand, I love Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox. I think both are great players and Cox was an absolute steal in the fourth round. However, this is a team that already has Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith at linebacker. While Dallas was smart to address its defense, linebacker was the one spot that didn’t feel like a huge need. Rashawn Slater was still on the board with both Tyron Smith and La’el Collins coming off major injuries. Then there was the Cowboys’ third round. Osa Odighizuwa went a bit earlier than expected, but filled a need. Chauncey Golston did too, but I liked him in the fifth round. NahShon Wright is long, but I was shocked to see him go this early. I don’t think this was an awful draft for Dallas by any means, but it was a weird one. I think they could’ve done better with the picks they had and the players still on the board.
Indianapolis Colts Biggest Surprise: Dayo Odeyingbo, EDGE, Vanderbilt (54th overall) Biggest Reach: Kylen Granson, TE, SMU (127th overall) Indianapolis got off to a great start to the draft with Kwity Paye in the first round. Things went downhill from there. Dayo Odeyingbo is an intriguing talent, but he is coming off a torn Achilles suffered in January, so he likely won’t contribute this year. It was also a bit early for him and they had already drafted Paye. With a huge need at left tackle and other needs at receiver and corner, doubling up at defensive end was an odd choice. Kylen Granson was one of my least favorite picks. He went way too early and there were better players on the board, both in general and at the position. Waiting until the seventh round to draft an offensive lineman is questionable given the team has no real plan at left tackle. Carson Wentz proved last year that he does not thrive under pressure. I thought the Colts would prioritize protecting him. Still don’t understand the Sam Ehlinger selection either. Indy just took Jacob Eason last year. Definitely not my favorite draft on paper.
Dylan Moses and Mavin Wilson Heading into the 2020 NFL draft, I had a late first-round grade on Dylan Moses. Even with the ACL injury and him missing his entire junior season, I figured a team would take a flier on him by the end of the second round at the latest. When he returned to school, he became one of the top prospects for 2021. I mocked Moses No. 10 to the Dolphins in my way-too-early mock draft. Moses had a rough 2021 season. He looked nowhere close to the explosive athlete we saw in 2019. His change of direction speed was gone and he reportedly dealt with a meniscus injury. I thought he would slide into the middle rounds of this draft. For him to go undrafted is wild. It was likely due to the lack of medicals for teams this year. Still, Moses missed out in a big way by returning to school. I will be rooting for him to prove people wrong in Jacksonville. Much of the same can be applied to Marvin Wilson. He was a fringe first-round pick in 2020 mocks, but decided to return to school. He debuted at No. 17 to the Jaguars in my way-too-early mock for 2021. Wilson had a checkered season that started with a public dispute with new Florida State coach Mike Norvell. He only recorded one sack, which came against Jacksonville State, in a disappointing season. Wilson ended up going undrafted as well, signing with Cleveland as an undrafted free agent. He signed a deal worth $192,000 guaranteed. For reference, Joe Tryon, who went to Tampa with the final pick of the first round, is expected to sign a deal worth $11.1 million with a $5.4 million signing bonus, per Spotrac.
While I have you here, a few more thoughts on this draft
These next two teams didn’t really fall into either category, but I felt like they were worth talking about because of the moves they made.
Houston Texas Biggest impact: Nico Collins, WR, Michigan(89th overall) Best value: Brevin Jordan, TE, Miami (147th overall) Houston has now signed Tyrod Taylor, traded for Ryan Finley and drafted Davis Mills. Deshaun Watson’s future looks murkier than that of even Aaron Rodgers right now. Adam Schefter was reporting on Saturday that there are people in NFL circles who believe Watson won’t play in 2021. Credit the Texans for being aggressive in trying to find his successor. Well, as aggressive as a team who traded away a ton of premium draft picks to acquire Laremy Tunsil can be. Houston is still undoubtedly one of the worst-run franchises in football, but this is a positive start for Nick Caserio and company. Instead of feeling like this team is headed for a tear down, they suddenly have an exciting, raw quarterback to develop with an on rebuilding. Nico Collins and Brevin Jordan could both be involved in the offense this year. The Texans are still bad, but I like what they did with limited resources.
Buffalo Bills Biggest impact: Carlos Basham, DL, Wake Forest (61st overall) Best value: Basham For the third year in a row, Buffalo invested significant draft capital into its defensive line. In 2019, it was Ed Oliver with the ninth overall pick. A.J. Epenesa landed with the Bills in the second round in 2020. This draft saw Buffalo grab defensive linemen with its first two picks, selecting Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham. Only San Francisco is able to rival the amount of young talent the Bills currently boast up front. What makes this group particularly scary is the versatility. You could really start any of them anywhere along the defensive line and feel pretty good about that decision. That doesn’t even take into account that Buffalo still has veterans like Jerry Hughes, Mario Addison and Vernon Butler. This undoubtedly sets the Bills up to have one of the best defensive lines in the league going forward. Also love the addition of Spencer Brown in the third round.
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Welcome to the NFL offseason. The Buccaneers put a bow on the 2020 season by steamrolling the Chiefs 31-9 in a lopsided Super Bowl. Now, all 32 teams shift their focus to 2021. After a year like none we have ever seen before, we are heading for an offseason like none before.
There are at least a dozen teams that could make a change at quarterback. The NFL combine will not be taking place as usual either due to COVID-19 restrictions. On top of all of that, the salary cap is set to decrease by close to $15 million. This sets up one of the most interesting and pivotal offseasons in recent memory.
With tons of key players potentially switching teams, there is bound to be a lot of movement in these rankings before we get anywhere close to the start of the 2021 season. As it stands though, this is how each team stacks up following Super Bowl LV, as well as a quick look at each team’s biggest free agents.
1. Kansas City Chiefs 2020 record: 14-2 Key free agents: WR Sammy Watkins, CB Bashaud Breeland, CB Charvarius Ward, SS Daniel Sorenson, OLB Damien Wilson Even coming off a drubbing in the Super Bowl, no team is better positioned to make another run at the Super Bowl than the Chiefs. The core of the team is signed through at least 2021 and Kansas City’s front office has done well in recent years to find solid contributors in the draft. As long as Patrick Mahomes is healthy, it is going to be hard to pick against him and Andy Reid.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2020 record: 11-5 Key free agents: WR Chris Godwin, OLB Shaquille Barrett, LB Lavonte David, TE Rob Gronkowski, DT Ndamukong Suh, DT Rakeem Nunez-Roches, RB Leonard Fournette, WR Antonio Brown, K Ryan Succop Tampa Bay will not be going anywhere as long as they have Tom Brady. Yes, Brady will be 44 next season, but this team is built for success all across the roster. There are a number of critical free agents the team will need to lock up, but players like Gronk and AB are likely to stick around to keep chasing rings. There are probably a few other veterans around the league that would do the same thing. Call it the Brady effect, but this team is going to be a front runner to repeat.
3. Buffalo Bills 2020 record: 12-4 Key free agents: G Jon Feliciano, OT Darryl Williams, LB Matt Milano, CB Josh Norman, DE Trent Murphy, TE Tyler Kroft Make no mistake, the Bills are for real. Buffalo has the offensive firepower and defensive grit to be one of the best teams in the league in 2021. Without a ton of crucial free agents, the front office could get aggressive in pursuing another corner across from Tre’Davious White or a more reliable tight end. If Josh Allen can come anywhere close to repeating his performance next year, Buffalo will be back in the postseason.
4. Green Bay Packers 2020 record: 13-3 Key free agents: RB Aaron Jones, C Corey Lindsley, CB Kevin King, RB Jamaal Williams, WR Allen Lazard, TE Robert Tonyan, DE Montravius Adams Once again, the Packers found themselves on the doorstep of the Super Bowl, but could not break through. This team is still really close to putting it all together and finally getting Aaron Rodgers his second ring. Green Bay has some key offensive pieces to re-sign in Jones, Lazard, Lindsley and Tonyan, but this roster is pretty solid throughout. With the right additions at cornerback and along the offensive line, this team should be primed for another deep playoff run.
5. Baltimore Ravens 2020 record: 11-5 Key free agents: OLB Matt Judon, DE Yannick Ngakoue, OLB Tyus Bowser, C Matt Skura, RB Gus Edwards, WR Willie Snead It was a rocky start to the year, but what we saw from the Ravens in the second half of the season points to this team’s championship credentials. Baltimore has some clear holes to fill in the front seven on defense with Judon, Bowser and Ngakoue all out of a contract. The offensive line could use a boost and Baltimore is desperate for another receiver, but the foundation is still strong.
6. Cleveland Browns 2020 record: 11-5 Key free agents: OLB Olivier Vernon, SS Karl Joseph, DT Larry Ogunjobi, WR Rashad Higgins I am very bullish on the 2021 Browns. Cleveland has arguably the best offensive line in the league, a deep group of offensive playmakers and a solid front seven. The secondary should be a bit healthier this season, but the Browns also have enough cap space to make a signing or two to bolster the unit. Baker Mayfield does not need to be Superman for Cleveland to take the next step. If he can avoid turnovers, this team should be in the thick of the division title race.
7. Los Angeles Rams 2020 record: 10-6 Key free agents: C Austin Blythe, OLB Leonard Floyd, RB Malcolm Brown, CB Troy Hill, TE Gerald Everett, SS John Johnson, WR Josh Reynolds, LB Sam Ebukam Los Angeles created themselves a two-year window to go win a championship by acquiring Matthew Stafford. The Rams’ biggest obstacle to accomplishing that goal will be finding a way to supplement the roster with limited draft capital. L.A. is projected to be $25 million over the cap as of right now. They are likely going to lose a lot of their key role players. Stafford is not a mobile quarterback, so if the Rams cannot find a way to protect him, this is going to be a really ugly collapse.
8. Seattle Seahawks 2020 record: 12-4 Key free agents: LB K.J. Wright, RB Chris Carson, DE Bruce Irvin, G Mike Iupati, DT Poona Ford, LB Shaquem Griffin, CB Shaquill Griffin, G Ethan Pocic Seattle played two halves of a great season. The offensive was unstoppable in the first half while the defense looked helpless. In the second half, the offense ground to a halt while the defense found its stride. It all culminated in a disheartening first-round playoff loss. The Seahawks have some critical free agents to re-sign and a number of holes left to fill. Russell Wilson will give them a chance to be great, but the supporting cast is not ideal. Mike Iupati’s retirement is just another sign that this front office needs to invest in the offensive line. If the Texans have taught us anything, it’s that you need to keep your franchise quarterback happy.
9. Miami Dolphins 2020 record: 10-6 Key free agents: C Ted Karras, LB Elandon Roberts, DT Davon Godchaux, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick It all falls on Tua Tagovailoa now. With a solid amount of cap space, a few premium draft picks and a great coaching staff, Miami seems to have the foundation in place to be successful this year and beyond. The theme of this offseason will be finding Tagovailoa some help. Miami knows it needs to find a No. 1 receiver and to solidify the offensive line. Expect the team to be in the running back market as well. With a strong offseason, the Dolphins could definitely push themselves into the top five.
10. Tennessee Titans 2020 record: 11-5 Key free agents: WR Corey Davis, TE Jonnu Smith, DT Da’Quon Jones, OLB Jadeveon Clowney, LB Jayon Brown, K Stephen Gostkowski Tennessee could not take that next step forward after an AFC Championship run in 2019, but the Titans did well to avoid falling apart as well. It is clear the Titans have a formula that works. They just need to reinvest in the front seven on defense to get back on track. Jadeveon Clowney did not work out and you can bet the front office will be looking for some pass rushing help this offseason. Some really interesting free agent decisions exist too in Corey Davis and Jayon Brown.
11. San Francisco 49ers 2020 record: 6-10 Key free agents: OT Trent Williams, CB Richard Sherman, FB Kyle Juszczyk, DE Solomon Thomas, CB K’Waun Williams, RB Jerick McKinnon, FS Jaquiski Tartt, RB Tevin Coleman How does a 6-10 team that lost both its offensive and defensive coordinator end up 11th? Well when pretty much your entire roster is hurt and you still find ways to win football games, that inspires a lot of confidence for when you do get Nick Bosa and company back on the field. This is going to be a crucial offseason for the 49ers, who could be a player in the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes. Cutting Jimmy Garoppolo would get this team up to roughly $45 million in cap space, so big decisions lie ahead.
12. Arizona Cardinals 2020 record: 8-8 Key free agents: CB Patrick Peterson, WR Larry Fitzgerald, RB Kenyan Drake, G J.R. Sweezy, DT Corey Peters, OLB Markus Golden, OLB Hassan Reddick, OT Kelvin Beachum The future still seems bright in Arizona, even after a rough finish to the season. Kyler Murray is clearly the team’s franchise quarterback. The defense had some bright spots. This team is still a few key pieces away from truly contending and the front office has some tough decisions to make regarding Patrick Peterson and Larry Fitzgerald. Finding a new running back will be on the to-do list as well. This offseason is critical for the Cardinals.
13. Indianapolis Colts 2020 record: 11-5 Key free agents: DE Justin Houston, DE Denico Autry, WR T.Y. Hilton, S Malik Hooker, CB Xavier Rhodes, TE Trey Burton, RB Marlon Mack, WR Zach Pascal, QB Jacoby Brissett Not included in that list of free agents are Philip Rivers and Anthony Castonzo, both of whom retired. For the third straight year since Andrew Luck retired, the Colts do not have a plan at quarterback. Perhaps Jacob Eason is the answer, but it is hard to feel too strongly about a player who has yet to attempt an NFL pass. Meanwhile, Indy has a bunch of free agents at key positions on defense and several players close to needing extensions. Thankfully, the Colts have nearly $80 million in cap space to reshape this roster.
14. Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 record: 12-4 Key free agents: WR Juju Smith-Schuster, RB James Conner, OLB Bud Dupree, OT Alejandro Villanueva, DE Tyson Alualu, FS Sean Davis, LB Robert Spillane, CB Mike Hilton, OT Zach Banner Pittsburgh’s offensive line is in shambles and Ben Roethlisberger is mulling retirement. Big Ben will probably be back, but the Steelers are going to need to rework his contract to avoid a $41 million cap hit. This offense has a number of critical needs and the Steelers have limited cap space to work with. Maurkice Pouncey is gone as well after announcing his retirement. All eyes will be on the draft for Pittsburgh. Don’t be surprised if a couple of big-name players walk away in free agency.
15. New Orleans Saints 2020 record: 12-4 Key free agents: QB Jameis Winston, DT Sheldon Rankins, FS Marcus Williams, DE Trey Hendrickson, CB P.J. Williams, TE Jared Cook When you are $70 million over the cap and your future Hall of Fame quarterback is about to retire, you are in for a pretty steep drop. There is still plenty of talent on the roster, but New Orleans has a number of major question marks. With key players on defense headed for free agency and no cap space to re-sign them, the Saints could be headed for a rebuild. I think they will be aggressive in trying to stay competitive, but it is hard to see the path forward right now.
16. Dallas Cowboys 2020 record: 6-10 Key free agents: QB Dak Prescott, DE Tyrone Crawford, LB Sean Lee, C Joe Looney, OLB Aldon Smith, S Xavier Woods This ranking mostly stems from the belief that the Cowboys will bring back Prescott. Before his injury, Dak Prescott was putting up MVP-type numbers. Dallas’ offensive line was decimated by injuries as well and the defense crumbled. Still, with the offensive firepower at Prescott’s disposal and a number of key players returning from injury, this Cowboys team should be in the mix to win the NFC East.
17. Minnesota Vikings 2020 record: 7-9 Key free agents: FS Anthony Harris, DE Ifeadi Odenigbo, LB Eric Wilson, LB Todd Davis The Vikings have very few free agents to tend to. Anthony Harris and Ifeadi Odenigbo are quality starters, but Eric Wilson and Todd Davis were rotational players this year and could easily be allowed to walk. Minnesota’s defense needs a huge turn around in 2021 after a very disappointing 2020 season. There is room for improvement on the offensive line as well. This is a make-or-break year for Kirk Cousins and potentially Mike Zimmer.
18. Carolina Panthers 2020 record: 5-11 Key free agents: OT Russell Okung, G John Miller, RB Mike Davis, LB Tahir Whitehead, WR Curtis Samuel, OT Taylor Morton Reports have placed the Panthers in the middle of conversations for Matthew Stafford and Deshaun Watson. It is clear the front office feels it needs to upgrade at quarterback. With a young defense, there is a lot to like in Carolina. One major area for concern is the offensive line. Three of the team’s starting linemen are headed for free agency. Don’t be surprised if the Panthers spend some draft capital to rebuild their offensive front.
19. New England Patriots 2020 record: 7-9 Key free agents: QB Cam Newton, G Joe Thuney, CB Jason McCourty, RB James White, DT Lawrence Guy, C David Andrews, DE Adam Butler, RB Rex Burkhead, WR Damiere Byrd, CB J.C. Jackson, DE Deatrich Wise New England is primed for a makeover this season with tons of cap space, several key free agents and, potentially, a new quarterback on the way. The Patriots will have a bit more talent, specifically on defense, with several players likely to return after opting out of the 2020 season. Bill Belichick has his work cut out for him to overhaul this roster.
20. Los Angeles Chargers 2020 record: 7-9 Key free agents: OLB Melvin Ingram, TE Hunter Henry, C Mike Pouncey, LB Denzel Perryman, G Dan Feeney Los Angeles is headed in the right direction, but this team still has a long way to go before it is ready to compete for a title. The Chargers are breaking in a first-time head coach in Brandon Staley and have a patchwork offensive line. Mike Pouncey definitely won’t be back either after announcing his retirement. Justin Herbert gives this team a bright future, but there is still a ton of work ahead.
21. New York Giants 2020 record: 6-10 Key free agents: DT Leonard Williams, OT Cameron Fleming, DT Dalvin Tomlinson, WR Austin Mack, RB Dion Lewis, RB Wayne Gallman New York had some significant highs in 2020, taking the Bucs to the brink and beating the Seahawks in Seattle. Unfortunately, those were few and far between. Getting Saquon Barkley back will help this offense, but the team is still lacking playmakers. It seems like Joe Judge has reset the culture though and given the team a much brighter outlook. This defense is underrated and is capable of keeping New York in games.
22. Chicago Bears 2020 record: 8-8 Key free agents: WR Allen Robinson, QB Mitchell Trubisky, WR CordarrellePatterson, FS Tashaun Gipson, G Germain Ifedi, DE Mario Edwards Chicago has a big decision to make this offseason. Consensus seems to be that Trubisky is not the answer at quarterback, but the Bears are not well positioned to find his successor. With Robinson unlikely to return, and an uninspiring offensive line, this is not exactly a prime spot for free agents quarterbacks either. How the Bears answer their quarterback question is going to determine their outlook for 2021.
23. Washington 2020 record: 7-9 Key free agents: G Brandon Scherff, DE Ryan Kerrigan, CB Ronald Darby, QB Kyle Allen Washington’s defense is one of the best in the league. Now it needs to invest its resources in building an offense to match. Alex Smith is one of the league’s best comeback stories ever, but he is not the long-term answer at quarterback. He might not even be the short-term solution. With a sizable amount of cap space, Washington could get aggressive in finding some free agent additions, but everything hinges on the quarterback.
24. Las Vegas Raiders 2020 record: 8-8 Key free agents: DE Jonathan Hankins, DE Takkarist McKinley, WR Nelson Agholor, LB Raekwon McMillan, OLB Vic Beasley This franchise has been stuck in neutral for the past five years. Since a short-lived playoff run in 2016, the Raiders have been toiling away in obscurity and mediocrity. Derek Carr likely isn’t the answer at quarterback. Las Vegas’ defense is still one of the worst in the league. This team had it’s moment in the sun after stunning the division rival Chiefs, but it feels 8-8 is the ceiling given who the Raiders currently have on their roster.
25. Denver Broncos 2020 record: 5-11 Key free agents: OLB Von Miller, FS Justin Simmons, SS Kareem Jackson, DT Shelby Harris, WR Tim Patrick, A.J. Johnson, RB Phillip Lindsay Denver’ s offseason is going to be dictated largely by the decision the franchise makes at quarterback. There is some buzz about Deshaun Watson being interested in the Broncos. Drew Lock is still developing, but if the club is going to make a move like that, it would accelerate this team’s timeline significantly. They still have some key pieces on defense to lock up and a major decision looming regarding Von Miller. There is plenty of room for upward mobility.
26. Atlanta Falcons 2020 record: 4-12 Key free agents: C Alex Mack, RB Todd Gurley, SS Keanu Neal, S Damontae Kazee, DE Charles Harris, K Younghoe Koo Where in the world is this team headed? They still have Matt Ryan under contract through 2023 with a pretty easy out after 2021. The future of the club is going to be determined with what the Falcons decide to do with the fourth overall pick. Atlanta has a ton of options. They could find a successor to Ryan, pick their favorite non-QB prospect, or trade down and restock the roster. It is a tough call for new general manager Terry Fontenot.
27. Philadelphia Eagles 2020 record: 4-11-1 Key free agents: OT Jason Peters, WR DeSean Jackson, DE Vinny Curry, S Jalen Mills, RB Corey Clement, WR Greg Ward Carson Wentz is in Indianapolis. Zach Ertz is likely to follow. The Eagles are in salary cap hell and headed for something of a rebuild. Philly has an intriguing young quarterback to work with in Jalen Hurts, but there are question marks all over this roster. Not to mention, the Eagles have a first-time head coach who is a relative unknown. This team does not have the cap space to replenish this depleted roster right away. It is going to be two years before we see the Eagles competing in the NFC East again?
28. Cincinnati Bengals 2020 record: 4-11-1 Key free agents: CB William Jackson, WR A.J. Green, WR John Ross, DE Carl Lawson, DT Mike Daniels, K Randy Bullock, P Kevin Huber The key to this offseason will be protecting Joe Burrow. After the former Heisman winner spent much of 2020 running for his life, rebuilding the offensive line is the focal point. Expect the Bengals to be aggressive in the draft and free agency looking for ways to upgrade its current unit. Cincinnati has a few key free agents as well with William Jackson and Carl Lawson. There is a good chance that one of them departs, opening up another need on that Bengals defense. Cincy will need to stay patient, finding long-term solutions instead of short-team patches.
29. Houston Texans 2020 record: 4-12 Key free agents: DE J.J. Watt, WR Will Fuller, CB Gareon Conley,CB Vernon Hargreaves, DT P.J. Hall, DE Carlos Watkins Things look bleak in Houston. Franchise quarterback Deshaun Watson wants out. J.J. Watt is gone. The roster has holes at cornerback, edge rusher, running back and wide receiver, just to name a few. Under normal circumstances, the Texans could be well-positioned to land a top prospect to accelerate this rebuild. Instead, Houston does not have a pick in the first or second round. The organization maintains that it wants to keep Watson and rebuild his trust, but it is looking like this team might be headed for a long rebuild.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars 2020 record: 1-15 Key free agents: OT Cam Robinson, CB Tre Herndon, WR Dede Westbrook, WR Keelan Cole, WR Chris Conley, CB D.J. Hayden, TE Tyler Eifert, P Dustin Colquitt A new era is coming in Jacksonville. Urban Meyer takes over as head coach and presumptive No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence will be the team’s new franchise quarterback. Things are definitely looking up, but the Jaguars have a lot of work to do still. Josh Allen and K’Lavon Chaisson offer exciting building blocks on defense, but the cupboard is pretty bare in the defensive playmaking department. Jacksonville’s secondary was one of the worst in the league in 2020. With a number of receivers headed for free agency, there is a clear need there as well. Lucky for the Jaguars, no one has more cap space this offseason, so Meyer and new general manager Trent Baalke will have every opportunity to reshape the roster.
31. New York Jets 2020 record: 2-14 Key free agents: FS Marcus Maye, WR Breshad Perriman, CB Brian Poole, LB Jordan Jenkins, S Bradley McDougald, CB Arthur Maulet, LB Tarell Basham The Adam Gase experiment ended with a resounding thud as the Jets played their way out of contention for the No. 1 pick. New York now has a huge decision to make about Sam Darnold’s future. It is very possible he is traded this offseason to make way for a new rookie quarterback selected with the second overall pick. The Jets are also still in the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes, but it is seeming less and less likely they are the winners. At least the organization landed Robert Saleh to be the team’s next coach. His arrival should bring some much needed leadership to the locker room, but also means a scheme change and a likely massive roster turnover. New York is going to be busy this offseason.
32. Detroit Lions 2020 record: 5-11 Key free agents: WR Kenny Golladay, DE Romeo Okwara, WR Marvin Jones, DE Everson Griffin, WR Danny Amendola, LB Jarrad Davis, S Durron Harmon, K Matt Prater Welcome to the bottom of the pile, Detroit. With Kenny Golladay headed for free agency and Matt Stafford now in SoCal, the outlook for the Lions is not very inspiring. It is hard to get excited about anyone on this roster at the moment. Jared Goff gives new coach Dan Campbell a reclamation project, albeit an expensive one. The defense needs an overhaul after some poor roster building in recent years. With a ton of future draft capital now available, the future is a bit brighter in Detroit, but 2021 is going to be a year where this team bottoms out, sheds veteran contracts and looks to rebuild the foundation of the franchise.
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