NFL Teams That Are Poised to Decline in 2021

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistJanuary 21, 2021

NFL Teams That Are Poised to Decline in 2021

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    While the NFL offseason provides a wellspring of hope for each team thanks to landmarks like free agency and the draft, the reality is some teams will regress.

    Roster losses thanks to factors like retirement and bad cap situations are the biggest signals a franchise could regress. In one extreme case, a rift between a franchise player and the team is the main culprit behind an obvious regression.

    Whether it's the derailing of a rebuilding plan or a fade from playoff contention, no team is immune from a predictable regression because of personnel changes and cap hurdles.

    These are the teams set to decline in 2021.

New Orleans Saints

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    The New Orleans Saints are in a world of hurt no matter what happens with Drew Brees.

    Losing a future Hall of Famer is never easy, and Brees continues to consider retirement after his team's playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    Were the cap outlook normal, the Saints could squeak out some production from the quarterback spot even without Brees in 2021. But it's far from normal as they sit last in projected cap space at $105.1 million over the cap.

    That number includes Brees' $36.2 million cap hit, but even if that was cleared off the books, the Saints would rank last. Creative restructures, extensions and cuts are the only way they wiggle out of this league-worst predicament after going all-in for years on Brees' final seasons.

    That means making the roster worse by likely cutting talent such as linebacker Kwon Alexander ($13.4 million in savings). They'll also have a hard time retaining key free agents such as safety Marcus Williams, never mind paying outside free agents and a draft class.

    This is often the cost of contention around an elite veteran passer, though, with regression on the way no matter what happens with Brees.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Like the Saints, the Pittsburgh Steelers have more to figure out than the quarterback position.

    Ben Roethlisberger, at the age of 38, remains a retirement question mark heading into 2021. While statistically impressive with 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, he and the team feasted on a soft schedule en route to an 11-0 mark before collapsing. Pittsburgh lost four of five to close the season, and Roethlisberger threw four interceptions and four scores in a playoff loss.

    Big Ben has a $41.3 million cap hit for a team projected at $25.4 million over the cap in 2021. The Steelers will have to get creative; even if the future Hall of Fame quarterback retires, they will likely need to pay up in free agency to get worthwhile production from the position.

    Beyond quarterback, the Steelers have to worry about key free agents like edge defender Bud Dupree and wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster. That's before considering outside free agents and a draft class.

    While it's not an impossible cap situation, the Steelers overachieved while overspending, and the combination of a worse roster and a tougher schedule could mean 2021 is a long season.

Houston Texans

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    The Houston Texans had a big hole to dig out of even before the Deshaun Watson drama.

    But nothing trumps the saga with Watson, who seems to want out in an apparent dispute with the team around its handling of its general manager and head coach vacancies. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported people in the organization think the star quarterback has played his last down with the Texans.

    That's devastating. No team can afford to lose a 25-year-old superstar at quarterback. But the four-win Texans especially can't, not after his superhuman effort propelled them to those wins. He completed 70.2 percent of his passes with 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions despite suffering 49 sacks.

    On top of this, the Texans have a bottom-seven cap number in the red, J.J. Watt might be a trade candidate and the team has to worry about re-signing free agents like Will Fuller V.

    Normally, suggesting a four-win team will regress would seem like overkill. But the Texans are late to onboard a new coaching staff, could lose an elite quarterback and defensive centerpiece, and have an unclear cap and team direction. They could swap places with the one-win Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC South next season.

Indianapolis Colts

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    The Indianapolis Colts won 11 games in 2020 with droves of cap space, so it might seem like the team is in a position to climb, not fall.

    But fans have seen this story before, as the Colts don't traditionally utilize a ton of that cap space. In 2018, the team won 10 games, only to regress to 7-9 in 2019 before going 11-5 this year. Those are the only two times the team has squeaked above .500 since 2015.

    While the unexpected departure of Andrew Luck was a challenge, the retirement of 39-year-old Philip Rivers isn't much better for the Colts' outlook. The team either has to re-sign Jacoby Brissett (the guy it replaced with Rivers) or seek a new starter on the open market.

    The schedule won't be as easy in 2021 either. The Colts won games against the two-win New York Jets, four-win Cincinnati Bengals, five-win Detroit Lions and four-win Houston twice in 2020.

    The Colts have to eat up a ton of that $68.9 million in cap space on a quarterback again before worrying about free agents such as T.Y. Hilton, Justin Houston and Xavier Rhodes. They'll deal with another change under center against a tougher schedule—regression looks likely.