NFL Franchise Pillars Who Are Likely to Change Teams in 2021
For several NFL franchises, the 2020 offseason has brought about the end of an era. Longtime cornerstones like Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Andy Dalton have switched teams, while Cam Newton remains on the free-agent market.
Other franchise pillars, like Luke Kuechly, Joe Staley and Marshal Yanda entered retirement. However, their departures carried a different vibe, as everyone knows that a playing career cannot last forever. The thought of certain players donning a different uniform, however, can be harder to fathom.
Green Bay Packers fans, for example, may find it difficult to visualize Aaron Rodgers playing for another team. At least, they did before the Packers added Jordan Love in last month's draft.
Several franchise faces are likely to change teams in the near future. Here, we'll examine some who could do so as early as next offseason, based on factors like age, contract length/value, cap space and team direction.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
Let's start with the aforementioned Rodgers. His contract makes it relatively unlikely that Rodgers will be released or traded next offseason—he'll have three years and $31.6 million in dead money remaining on the deal. However, the presence of Jordan Love leaves Rodgers' departure squarely in the realm of possibility.
Despite reaching the NFC title game last season, the Packers didn't draft to accentuate Rodgers' strengths. They largely drafted to the strengths of head coach Matt LaFleur—taking running back AJ Dillon in Round 2, for example.
Green Bay appears to be preparing for life after Rodgers, and that life could begin as early as 2021.
"I think, right now, if I had to pick one or the other, I'd say after this season they're gonna end up trading him," Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio said on the Sports Talk Live podcast.
Depending on how disgruntled Rodgers is over the drafting of Love, a trade may be in the Packers' best interest.
David Bakhtiari, OT, Green Bay Packers
Rodgers isn't the only recognizable Packers veteran who could be on the move in 2021. Longtime left tackle David Bakhtiari is scheduled to become a free agent, and the Packers could find it difficult to re-sign him.
Bakhtiari will be 29 years old next offseason. He was a first-team All-Pro in 2018 and a Pro Bowler last season. He's missed just six regular-season games in seven seasons with the Packers, and he is going to be highly coveted on the open market.
The Packers, who are projected to have roughly $34 million in cap space next offseason, may not be willing to match the heftiest bids. Green Bay seems to be moving in a different direction, and Bakhtiari could be viewed as part of the old guard.
Green Bay allowed right tackle Bryan Bulaga to leave in free agency this offseason. Bakhtiari, the team's most reliable offensive player not named Rodgers, could be next.
A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
While Andy Dalton led the Bengals offense for nearly a decade, one could argue that wide receiver A.J. Green was even more the face of the franchise. Drafted in the same year as Cincinnati's former starting quarterback, Green has amassed 8,907 receiving yards and seven Pro Bowl appearances in nine years and eight seasons.
Green did not play in 2019 because of an ankle injury.
Injuries are why Green could be at the end of his Bengals tenure. The soon-to-be 32-year-old has missed 29 games in the last four seasons, and there's no guarantee he'll regain his Pro Bowl form. The Bengals used the franchise tag on Green to give him a year with rookie quarterback Joe Burrow, but one year could be all Green gets.
In addition to drafting Burrow, the Bengals selected former Clemson wideout Tee Higgins this year. Higgins, another big-bodied wideout in the mold of Green, has the potential to develop into Burrow's No. 1 target.
If Cincinnati does move on from Green, he's likely to find opportunities elsewhere. Quality veteran receivers are still coveted, even if they no longer possess their peak skills. Just look to the employment of guys like Danny Amendola and Ted Ginn Jr. as proof.
Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals
Like David Bakhtiari and A.J. Green, cornerback Patrick Peterson is set to be a free agent in 2021. One of the few recognizable Arizona Cardinals in the pre-Kyler Murray era, Peterson could soon be suiting up for a different team.
The eight-time Pro Bowler requested a trade two seasons ago, though he eventually apologized to the fanbase for doing so.
"I'm here to stay, baby," Peterson said, per ESPN's Josh Weinfuss.
It's still likely that Peterson ends up playing elsewhere. He is going to draw heavy interest on the open market—ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that three teams inquired about trading for him last season. With Arizona fully becoming Murray's team, the Cardinals may not want to overpay to retain Peterson.
While fellow face of the franchise Larry Fitzgerald is likely to retire a Cardinal, Peterson will probably spend the back end of his career playing elsewhere.
Dont'a Hightower, LB, New England Patriots
With Brady now a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the New England Patriots are short on recognizable players. There's Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore and second-year receiver N'Keal Harry—mostly known for being a rookie disappointment—but there aren't many names instantly familiar to the casual fan.
Linebacker Dont'a Hightower is one of the few. Entering his ninth season with the franchise, Hightower is one of the longest-tenured Patriots, a three-time Super Bowl champion and a two-time Pro Bowler.
Hightower is also scheduled to be a free agent next offseason.
Three years ago, Hightower hit free agency, only to return on a four-year deal after testing the market. He may not return this time around, as coach Bill Belichick has a history of letting players walk before their efficacy begins to decline.
The Patriots are entering a new era without Brady, and the 30-year-old may not be in their long-term plans.
Jerry Hughes, DE, Buffalo Bills
Though he was originally drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in 2010, defensive end Jerry Hughes has become a standout with the Buffalo Bills. Hughes was traded to Buffalo in 2013, and over the last seven years, he has become perhaps the team's most recognizable defender.
In the years before Josh Allen, Hughes and running back LeSean McCoy were arguably the most identifiable players on the entire team.
However, Hughes' time in Buffalo could be nearing its end. At 31 years old, Hughes isn't the dominant pass-rusher he once was—he had 20.0 sacks in his first two seasons in Buffalo, 4.5 last season—and his potential replacement could be in the building.
The Bills just used a second-round pick on former Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa.
Hughes is due to make $9.45 million in 2021, but only $2.1 million of that is guaranteed. He could be a cap casualty for the Bills, but he'll likely find work elsewhere. Guys who can pressure the quarterback usually do.
Zach Ertz, TE, Philadelphia Eagles
It's hard to fathom the idea of the Philadelphia Eagles moving on from star tight end Zach Ertz as early as next season. He is one of the top tight ends in the league, he's Philadelphia's most consistent pass-catcher, and he's probably the most recognizable Eagle after quarterback Carson Wentz.
However, Ertz will also be 30 years old and entering the final year of his contract in 2021. Releasing Ertz is unlikely but not impossible, as doing so would save the Eagles roughly $5 million in cap space. They're currently projected to be more than $51 million over the cap.
A trade is more likely, if the Eagles can convince a team to take on Ertz's full $12.7 million cap hit.
Philadelphia has a potential replacement in budding star Dallas Goedert, and young players like Miles Sanders and rookie wideout Jalen Reagor could help the Eagles offense function without Ertz. While Eagles fans would be sad to see their offensive cornerstone go, Philadelphia can be a contender without him.
J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
Pass-rusher J.J. Watt has been a pillar for more than just the Houston Texans. He has been a pillar of the Houston community since being drafted in 2011. A three-time Defensive Player of the Year, Watt also helped raise more than $41 million in Hurricane Harvey relief.
It's difficult to imagine Watt playing for a different team in a different city, but it could happen. The 31-year-old is under contract for two more seasons, but there is no dead money remaining on his deal. Houston could release or trade Watt without financial consequence.
A trade cannot be ruled out because coach and de facto general manager Bill O'Brien has shown he isn't afraid to deal franchise staples. A release is possible based on a combination of salary—Watt is set to earn $17.5 million next season—and injury history.
Watt has played just 32 games over the past four seasons.
While retiring a Texan may appeal to Watt if he is released, another potentially enticing opportunity exists. Brothers T.J. and Derek Watt are both signed to the Pittsburgh Steelers. J.J. could eventually want in on the fun.
"He is jealous," T.J. Watt said, per Teresa Varley of the Steelers' official website. "I caught him wearing a Steelers hat around the house."
Melvin Ingram III, DE, Los Angeles Chargers
Though not the face of the franchise that J.J. Watt is, Los Angeles Chargers edge-rusher Melvin Ingram III has been a defensive mainstay for nearly as long. Drafted one year after Watt, Ingram is a three-time Pro Bowler and has been one of the Chargers' most consistent defenders.
Alongside Joey Bosa, Ingram has helped forge one of the league's most dominant pass-rushing duos over the past four years. He has 49.0 sacks to go with 350 tackles and 14 forced fumbles in eight seasons.
Ingram is also scheduled to become a free agent in 2021.
It's highly unlikely that Ingram will choose retirement. He'll turn 32 next April, and while he'll be entering the back nine of his career, Ingram should still have something left in the proverbial tank. However, the rebuilding Chargers—who dumped Philip Rivers and drafted Justin Herbert this offseason—may not be interested in whatever is left.
After what will be nine seasons in San Diego and Los Angeles, Ingram may be moving on.
*All contract and cap information via Spotrac.