Every NFL Team's Weakest Link Heading into 2021 Free Agency
We're getting closer to the biggest shopping day on the NFL calendar. On March 17 at 4 p.m. ET, free agency will open. Players can sign on the dotted line. Teams can start doling out big contracts. There will be a flurry of activity (that actually begins with the "legal tampering" period March 15).
This year's free-agency period will be unlike any in recent memory. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NFL's revenue is down—and with it the expected salary cap. For the first time in years, the cap will likely be smaller in 2021 than it was the season before. That financial crunch has hit some teams hard. Eleven clubs sit above an estimated $180.5 million cap, which won't make adding free agents any easier.
Regardless of whether a team is swimming in cap space like the Jacksonville Jaguars or up against it in the worst way like the New Orleans Saints, every franchise has one need that towers above the rest. A weakest link that must be addressed.
For some, it's the offensive line. Others need pass-rush help. Others need a quarterback.
All are detailed here.
Arizona Cardinals: Cornerback
The Arizona Cardinals nearly made the playoffs in 2020, and the team fielded a top-10 defense against the pass. But preventing a backslide in 2021 will take some doing—veteran cornerbacks Patrick Peterson, Dre Kirkpatrick and Johnathan Joseph are all about to hit free agency. The Redbirds also aren't exactly rolling in dough to spend in free agency, especially after signing defensive end J.J. Watt to a two-year, $31 million deal.
Bringing Peterson back would wipe out what little cap space the team has, as would signing a higher-end free agent corner like A.J. Bouye of the Denver Broncos or Richard Sherman of the San Francisco 49ers.
But the Cardinals have one thing going for them: This year's class of free-agent corners is deep. There are proven veterans like Xavier Rhodes of the Indianapolis Colts, upside-laden youngsters like Michael Davis of the Los Angeles Chargers, 26, and less expensive but still capable players like Terrance Mitchell of the Cleveland Browns.
It's good to have options.
Atlanta Falcons: Edge-Rusher
This is becoming an annual dilemma for the Atlanta Falcons.
Last year at this time, the Falcons were coming off a disappointing season in which the team managed just 28 sacks—tied for the second-fewest in the league. In an effort to give that lagging pass rush a boost, Atlanta handed a three-year, $45 million contract to edge-rusher Dante Fowler Jr., that included $22 million in guarantees.
Um, about that.
Fowler responded by accruing just three sacks, the fewest the 26-year-old has garnered in a season. The Falcons "climbed" to 23rd in sacks, but the team posted only 29—just one more than in 2019.
Atlanta had the worst pass defense in 2020, in no small part because Fowler and the pass rush couldn't generate pressure.
Remedying that situation has to be a priority for new general manager Terry Fontenot this offseason.
Baltimore Ravens: Wide Receiver
The Baltimore Ravens made the playoffs again in 2020, but the team's inability to move the ball through the air consistently was its undoing again.
As Kevin Patra wrote at NFL.com, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta allowed that the passing game needs to improve. But he also stated that doesn't mean the team has to pursue an elite receiver in free agency:
"It's not all about getting the No. 1 receiver that everybody likes to talk about. We would certainly look at that. We would try to upgrade at every single position on this football team this offseason if we can, based on the parameters of what we have to work with draft pick-wise, money-wise and all the other challenges associated with building a football team."
If the Ravens wanted to, the money's there to take a run at Allen Robinson II of the Chicago Bears or Chris Godwin of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who headline this year's free-agent receivers.
But with $18.1 million in cap space and the team's top two edge-rushers Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue) about to hit the open market, a second-tier wideout like Corey Davis of the Tennessee Titans is a more likely target.
Buffalo Bills: Edge-Rusher
The biggest need for the Buffalo Bills will likely depend on how the team addresses its own free agents.
Buffalo is in a financial bind at $1 million over the projected salary cap for 2021. In addition to staring down the barrel of a massive contract extension for 24-year-old quarterback Josh Allen, the Bills also have a number of impending free agents on the offensive line, including guards Jon Feliciano and Brian Winters, and tackle Daryl Williams.
If one or more of those blockers depart, then keeping the protection intact in front of Allen is easily priority No. 1. But if Bills general manager Brandon Beane can figure out a way to keep the band together, then upgrading the pass rush jumps into the top spot.
The Bills won the AFC East in 2020, but the team's pass rush was in the middle of the pack, logging just 38 sacks. Buffalo tried to upgrade said pass rush last season with the addition of veteran Mario Addison, but while Addison tied for the team lead in sacks, the 33-year-old did so with just five.
Carolina Panthers: Quarterback
In 2019 while appearing on Amazon's All or Nothing, Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper said just how important he believes it is for his team to have a superior quarterback. Tepper said, via Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk:
"This league is set to be an 8-8 league. Everything is fair in this league. So if you have better coaches, better GMs, some advantages with facilities, advantages with the training, management process, whatever those, whatever it is, you know, analytics, whatever that is to give you an edge, that's what you need. And you need a good quarterback."
Given those statements, Teddy Bridgewater's struggles in his first season with the Panthers and the fact that Tepper signs the checks in Charlotte, it shouldn't surprise anyone that Carolina reportedly took a run at Matthew Stafford. Or that the team is reportedly clearing cap space to attempt to trade for Deshaun Watson, per ESPN's David Newton.
It's clear the Panthers view upgrading quarterback as the team's biggest need in 2021.
Who are we to argue?
Chicago Bears: Quarterback
In 2017, the Chicago Bears moved up in the first round to draft Mitchell Trubisky second overall.
One year ago, those same Bears traded with the Philadelphia Eagles to acquire Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles.
The Bears have reached the postseason twice over that four-year span, but it was as much in spite of those quarterbacks as because of them.
As a result, the Bears are expected to be active in this year's QB carousel. Chicago was never a realistic trade candidate for Stafford, but a lot of smoke connected Carson Wentz to the Bears before he landed in Indianapolis.
With Trubisky set to become a free agent, the Bears have to do something. But with top wide receiver Robinson about to hit the open market as well and the Bears just $233K under the cap, whoever Chicago's quarterback is in 2021 could find himself with an empty cupboard of skill-position talent.
Cincinnati Bengals: Offensive Line
There is zero question what the Cincinnati Bengals need to prioritize this offseason: cutting down on the beating that quarterback Joe Burrow took as a rookie.
Before suffering a season-ending knee injury in a Week 10 loss to the Washington Football Team, Burrow was sacked a whopping 32 times and hit countless others. With the first pick in last year's draft already rehabbing from a major injury, it's essential that the team upgrades one of the league's worst offensive lines.
If Oregon's Penei Sewell makes it to fifth overall in April's draft, the Bengals will all but certainly pull the trigger on the standout tackle. But Cincy also needs to take a run at an upgrade or two in free agency. High-end offensive linemen annually command great interest on the open market, but the Bengals are well-positioned to be players in free agency, with the seventh-most ($37.7 million) available cap room.
Whether it's a tackle like Rick Wagner or Alejandro Villanueva, or an interior lineman like Corey Linsley or Nick Easton, the Bengals need to be one of the NFL's most active clubs along the offensive line.
Cleveland Browns: Linebacker
The Cleveland Browns made strides as an organization last year, winning 11 games, making the playoffs and winning a postseason contest for the first time since the team rejoined the league in 1999.
But if the Browns are to emerge as a legitimate Super Bowl contender, there's work to be done—especially in regard to a defense that allowed 358.4 yards per game.
Veteran linebacker B.J. Goodson, who paced the team in tackles in 2020 with 91, is a capable pro but not much more than that (and a free agent). Fellow veteran Malcolm Smith is well past his prime at 31. Youngsters Sione Takitaki, 25, and Mack Wilson, 23, have shown flashes but have been inconsistent.
With $20.2 million in cap space, the Browns have the wiggle room to take a run at this year's high-end free agents at the position, whether it's Lavonte David of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Matt Milano of the Buffalo Bills. If those off-ball linebackers are too rich for Cleveland's blood, a player like Pittsburgh's Avery Williamson or Nicholas Morrow of the Las Vegas Raiders could offer improvement at a lesser cost.
Dallas Cowboys: Secondary
The Dak Prescott drama has hogged most of the offseason headlines for the Dallas Cowboys, and with good reason. But keeping Prescott isn't the team's only priority, and it's likely Dallas will retain him either via the franchise tag or an extension.
The team really needs to do something about a defense that ranked 23rd in yards allowed in 2020 and 28th in scoring defense.
The Cowboys also aren't in the best financial position, either—their $19.4 million in cap space won't come close to covering Prescott's salary this year, much less pay to re-sign edge-rusher Aldon Smith or sign upgrades for the team's porous secondary.
Say what you want about Jerry Jones, but there isn't a better general manager at creating cap wiggle room. Still, by the time Jones gets Prescott under contract and addresses the Cowboys' own free agents, upgrades on the back end will have to come from the bargain bin.
Maybe someone like Nevin Lawson at cornerback or Damarious Randall at safety.
Denver Broncos: Quarterback
After Drew Lock's two seasons in Denver, it's clear he isn't the long-term answer under center. Lock backslid across the board in 2020, tying for the league lead in interceptions with 15 and completing just 57.3 percent of his passes.
Given those struggles, the Broncos have been connected to a number of veteran quarterbacks this offseason. Peter King of NBC Sports wrote recently that the team could be a player in the Watson sweepstakes.
"Denver does have the ninth pick plus some good young pieces (Garett Bolles?) to offer," King wrote, "and a quarterback with minimal value in Drew Lock, so don't count new GM George Paton out "
Longtime NFL analyst John Clayton wrote for 104.3 The Fan in Denver he also believes the Broncos are in play to procure Watson's services.
"Overall," Clayton wrote, "the great thing going for the Broncos is that this situation is going to take patience. And they can be patient as long as they have Lock, who they're going to keep while they wait to see what happens with Watson."
If Watson doesn't head to town, the Broncos have also been linked to a fallback plan in the form of veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, per Woody Paige of the Denver Gazette. But whoever is under center, it's looking less likely by the day that it will be Lock.
Detroit Lions: Wide Receiver
The Detroit Lions have already made massive changes in 2021, shipping Stafford to Los Angeles for quarterback Jared Goff, a pair of first-round picks and a third-rounder.
The question now is who Goff will throw to. Detroit's top two receivers (Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr.) are set to hit free agency. Golladay has been mentioned more than once as a potential candidate for the franchise tag. But talented though he may be, a one-year deal for Golladay at around $16 million is a predicament for a team that's already $9 million over the projected cap and has no real chance at making a playoff run in 2021.
As Jordan Dajani reported for CBS Sports, Jones has indicated he wants both a decent salary and the chance to make a deep playoff run.
That rules out the Lions and puts new general manager Brad Holmes in the unenviable position of having to rebuild the team's receiving corps on the fly—without many resources with which to do so, since the Lions don't get an extra first-rounder from L.A. until 2022.
Green Bay Packers: Offensive Tackle
Many might be surprised to see any position other than wide receiver listed as the biggest offseason need for the Green Bay Packers. And to be fair, the Packers continue to need a reliable secondary target to complement Davante Adams.
But there's another problem that has moved past wideout to the top of the to-do list in Titletown.
After tackle Rick Wagner made nine starts in 2020, Green Bay let him go to improve its precarious salary-cap situation. All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari tore his ACL on the practice field on New Year's Eve, leaving his status for Week 1 in doubt.
Simply put, the Packers need to add depth along the offensive line. And it's possible the team will need a new blind-side protector for Aaron Rodgers—at least early in the season.
The biggest sticking point with adding any sort of impact free agent will be financial. Even after clearing cap space by releasing Wagner and linebacker Christian Kirksey, the Packers are $11.5 million over the projected salary cap.
Houston Texans: Cornerback
It might be easier to list the positions where the Houston Texans don't need help. The team has already released its best defensive player in J.J. Watt. Despite a report from NFL Network's Tom Pelissero that Houston has no plans to trade quarterback Deshaun Watson, most still believe he will be dealt at some point this offseason.
The Texans do at least have $15.9 million to spend. And right at the top of their list of needs is upgrading a secondary that intercepted just three passes last year on the way to finishing 24th in pass defense.
In-house decisions need to be made at cornerback—Gareon Conley and Vernon Hargreaves III are both about to hit free agency. Conley didn't play last year because of an ankle injury, and while Hargreaves was a 16-game starter, he allowed a passer rating against of over 109 for the second season in a row.
It won't be easy to upgrade the back end in 2021. The widely held perception that the Texans are a franchise barreling in the wrong direction could force the team to overpay to lure in a young corner like Chidobe Awuzie of the Dallas Cowboys.
Indianapolis Colts: Offensive Tackle
Not that long ago, the Indianapolis Colts' biggest need was at quarterback after Philip Rivers retired. But Wentz's acquisition in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles filled that need.
Now the Colts have to take a chunk of their $43.6 million in cap space (fourth-most) and address the protection in front of their new quarterback.
Rivers wasn't the only Colts starter who called it a career after the 2020 season—left tackle Anthony Castonzo also retired. And given how badly Wentz struggled behind a bad line in Philly a year ago, finding a dependable player to cover Wentz's blindside is a necessity.
Trent Williams of the San Francisco 49ers is a perennial Pro Bowler and easily the best tackle available in free agency. But he won't come cheaply—Spotrac estimates the next contract for the 32-year-old could average over $18 million per season.
And with in-house free agents such as wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, edge-rusher Justin Houston and cornerback Xavier Rhodes also about to hit free agency, all that cap space could vanish quickly.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Offensive Tackle
Offensive tackle isn't the biggest need the Jaguars have as the Urban Meyer era begins in Jacksonville. That would be a quarterback.
But it is a fait accompli that the Jaguars will use the first overall pick in the 2021 draft on Clemson signal-caller Trevor Lawrence, so we'll consider that need filled.
That makes Jacksonville's top priority upgrading the protection in front of its sizable investment in Lawrence.
In 2020, the Jaguars allowed 44 sacks. Only two teams in the AFC (the Cincinnati Bengals and Houston Texans) surrendered more. The team's young starter at left tackle, 25-year-old Cam Robinson, is set to hit free agency.
With the most cap space in the National Football League ($82 million), the Jags have the coin to either re-up or tag Robinson or take a run at just about any tackle about to hit the open market—up to and including Williams.
The Jags also have a second first-round pick obtained in the Jalen Ramsey trade that could be used on O-line help.
The biggest issue may be convincing a top free agent to continue his career with a team that dropped 15 games in a row last season.
Kansas City Chiefs: Offensive Line
At first glance, the Kansas City Chiefs don't have many holes. Two straight trips to the Super Bowl will do that.
But look a little deeper, and a potentially big problem becomes evident—especially if you consider that the Chiefs are a whopping $23.8 million over the projected salary cap.
The offensive line is in a tricky spot.
Three players who started up front for the Chiefs in Super Bowl LV—Austin Reiter, Andrew Wylie and Mike Remmers—are all about to hit free agency. So are reserve linemen Daniel Kilgore and Stefen Wisniewski. Starting tackles Eric Fisher (torn Achilles) and Mitchell Schwartz (back) are both coming off major injuries and are slated to hit free agency in 2022.
The Chiefs will get relief if guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and tackle Lucas Niang opt back in after skipping the 2020 season, and some of those free agents may cut the Chiefs a break in return for the chance to make another Super Bowl run.
But keeping the O-line from taking a sizable step backward in 2021 won't be easy.
Las Vegas Raiders: Defensive Line
The Las Vegas Raiders have made a concerted effort to invest in the defensive line in recent years, both in free agency and the NFL draft.
Not many of those moves have paid off. Clelin Ferrell has posted just 6.5 sacks in two seasons since the Raiders took him fourth overall in 2019, including just two a year ago. After a promising inaugural season, fellow second-year pro Maxx Crosby's production dropped off in 2020. The Raiders managed just 21 sacks last season, and only one player (Crosby) had more than three.
There is talent to be had along the defensive line in free agency even after Watt signed with the Arizona Cardinals, whether it's edge-rushers like Yannick Ngakoue of the Baltimore Ravens or interior linemen like Jurrell Casey of the Denver Broncos.
Unfortunately, the high-end free agents along the defensive line may be well out of the Raiders' price range, as Las Vegas sits $7.2 million over the projected salary cap.
Los Angeles Chargers: Offensive Line
The Los Angeles Chargers appear to have found their franchise quarterback in Justin Herbert.
Now the team needs to invest in the offensive line in front of its young signal-caller.
The Chargers offensive line struggled in 2020, allowing 34 sacks while ranking dead last in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. The line already lost veteran center Mike Pouncey to retirement, and guards Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney will soon both become unrestricted free agents. There has also been talk that high-priced guard Trai Turner could be released after one year with the team.
Whether it's at tackle, guard or center, the Chargers need to improve across the board if Herbert is to evolve in his second season. If there's a silver lining, it's that the Bolts have at least some cap space even before (potentially) releasing Turner.
Whether it's tackle Trent Williams, guard Brandon Scherff or center Nick Martin, the Chargers are all but surely going to at least kick the tires on the bigger names along the offensive front.
Los Angeles Rams: Edge-Rusher
The Los Angeles Rams fielded the No. 1 defense last year. And the team's pass rush (anchored by Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald) paced the NFC with 53 sacks.
Repeating those numbers in 2021 won't be easy. Donald isn't going anywhere, but edge-rusher Leonard Floyd is a free agent after posting a career-high 10.5 sacks. He will all but certainly sign elsewhere. And after Floyd, the next-closest edge-rusher to Donald (who led the team with 13.5 sacks) was Samson Ebukam with 4.5.
I say that Floyd will all but certainly sign elsewhere because the Rams can't afford to pay him. Due in part to the $22 million dead-cap hit from trading Goff, the team is a staggering $34.8 million over the projected salary cap.
Add in that the Goff trade meant the Rams shipped off two more first-round picks to Detroit (in 2022 and 2023), and the Rams aren't set up to make any splash additions in free agency or the draft for several years.
Miami Dolphins: Center
There wasn't a more aggressive team last year in free agency or the draft than the Miami Dolphins. And for the most part, those moves paid off. The Dolphins went from 5-11 in 2019 to 10-6 last year, narrowly missing the playoffs.
That improvement aside, the Dolphins still have work to do, especially on the offensive line. That line showed improvement in 2020, but it still ranked inside the bottom five in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.
With about $22.8 million in cap space, the Dolphins have enough wiggle room to sign one of the top free agents along the offensive front. Given that 2020 starter Ted Karras is a free agent after one OK season with the Dolphins, taking a run at an upgrade like Corey Linsley of the Green Bay Packers isn't a bad idea. Reupping Karras isn't a terrible Plan B, either.
The key is continuing to improve the O-line, which can only help the development of young quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
Minnesota Vikings: Guard
The Minnesota Vikings entered the 2020 season with Super Bowl aspirations and left it a 7-9 mess. They have multiple needs and not much in the way of cap space with which to fix them. In fact, the Vikes sit almost $9.5 million over the cap for 2021.
They will need to use some creative accounting (and a restructure or three) to get in position to add a free agent or two. And even once it does clear cap space, Minnesota probably won't have the cash to sign the higher-end (and higher-priced) free agents.
Per PFF, the Vikings ranked 26th in offensive line play last year—and both the guard and center spots were clear weaknesses.
Given the team's salary-cap issues and lack of dependable interior linemen, the Vikings need quantity almost as badly as they need quantity.
That could lead to a "combo platter" that includes a younger guard who hasn't played to his potential like Lamp, 27, and an aging vet like J.R. Sweezy of the Cardinals, 31.
New England Patriots: Quarterback
For two decades, the New England Patriots were as set as set can be at quarterback. But last year was the first season of the post-Tom Brady era…
And it was, um, yeah.
There's a chance there won't be big changes under center in Foxborough this year. Despite throwing just eight touchdown passes in his first season with the team, Cam Newton drew raves from head coach Bill Belichick, according to Ben Volin of the Boston Globe.
The Pats could roll Newton out for one more year as a bridge to a rookie quarterback. Or just punt on the position for a year and go with a veteran stopgap under center. With the third-most cap space ($62.2 million), New England can afford to sign just about signal-caller available.
And until the team has a long-term answer, quarterback will loom over all other needs.
Per Arnav Sharma of Patriot Maven, Tom Curran of NBC Sports Boston said on WEEI Radio that he expects Belichick to go all-out in trying to get back into the playoffs in 2021.
"Everything I am hearing from down there is that the Patriots are going to be extremely and uncharacteristically aggressive in this offseason," Curran said.
New Orleans Saints: Quarterback
This need is dependent on the 800-pound gorilla in New Orleans.
Will Drew Brees retire?
It had been widely expected that after Brees restructured his contract to provide badly needed cap relief that the greatest player in Saints history would hang them up. But more than a little uncertainty was injected into the situation last week when, per Ryan Dunleavy of the New York Post, Brees' trainer posted a video of the 42-year-old working out.
Still, Ian Rapoport of NFL.com insisted Monday that Brees will not play in New Orleans in 2021, and that leaves the Saints in quite the mess. The only quarterbacks under contract in the Big Easy are Taysom Hill and Trevor Siemian, and even after Brees re-did his deal, the Saints remain a staggering $69.5 million over the projected salary cap in 2021.
It will take a ton of wrangling just to get the Saints in compliance with the cap—much less find the money to bring in a free-agent signal-caller.
Like it or not, a rebuild is coming in New Orleans.
And the opening stages will be painful.
New York Giants: Wide Receiver
The good news for the New York Giants is that in a year when 11 teams are upside down against the salary cap, the G-Men are not.
The bad news is that among the teams in the black, the Giants have the second-lowest amount of wiggle room—less than $1 million.
That puts them at a disadvantage as free agency nears, and the situation looks all the worse when you consider the $15 million per year (or more) it will likely take to keep defensive end Leonard Williams in town after his career season.
If Giants general manager Dave Gettleman can free cap space, an investment at wide receiver would be wise. Daniel Jones struggled in his second season as the Giants' quarterback in no small part because of a lack of dependable targets. Darius Slayton experienced a sophomore slump in 2020. Sterling Shepard once again missed substantial time with injuries. And Golden Tate caught just 35 passes and could be a cap casualty.
The position group needs to be bolstered.
New York Jets: Quarterback
The New York Jets are at a crossroads.
As Garrett Stepien reported for 247Sports, ESPN's Jeremy Fowler said on SportsCenter recently that the Jets haven't closed the door on Sam Darnold as the team's starting quarterback:
"I'm told he is still a viable option for this team as a starter for 2021 because the coaching staff is intrigued by coaching him. They know he was not supported the best the last two years, as far as playmakers around him, offensive system. They believe they can do better with that 49ers-infused play-action running game that offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur brings in. So there will be options here for the Jets. And Sam Darnold will have options, because he'll have a trade market."
Darnold has hardly been put into the best position to succeed. But the consensus seems to be that Gang Green will move on this year, whether it's trading for a veteran like Watson or drafting a quarterback at No. 2 overall and potentially adding a "bridge" veteran like Fitzpatrick.
The Jets have the ammo to be aggressive under center. In addition to that second overall pick, they have Seattle's first-rounder. They also have more cap space than any team except the Jaguars—almost $67.9 million.
Philadelphia Eagles: Wide Receiver
The Philadelphia Eagles shook things up in a big way this offseason, taking on a massive dead-cap hit to unload Wentz in a trade with the Colts. In part because of that $33.8 million charge, the Eagles' financial situation is a mess. Only the Saints are farther over the cap than the $43 million Philly is.
That disastrous cap situation will make it next to impossible for the Eagles to be players in free agency. And that means quarterback Jalen Hurts could find himself saddled with the same issue that dogged Wentz: Philadelphia's wide receivers aren't very good.
Veteran Alshon Jeffery will be released when the new league year begins, per Rapoport. Jalen Reagor missed five games and caught just 31 passes as a rookie. Travis Fulgham is a middling talent who caught just 38 of 67 targets in 2020.
It's far and away the weakest wideout corps in the NFC East—and possibly the NFL.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Offensive Line
Most of the offseason stories in Pittsburgh have centered on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's contract. But the Steelers' issues go beyond quarterback—to the line in front of it.
Pittsburgh's offensive line has already been dealt one substantial blow by the retirement of longtime center Maurkice Pouncey. The team could also soon be looking for a new left tackle—despite coming off a rough season by his standards, veteran tackle Alejandro Villanueva will likely be one of the most sought-after free agents at the position this year.
The high demand for capable offensive line help in free agency puts the Steelers in a bind. Even after Pittsburgh made moves to clear cap space, among AFC teams, only the Chiefs are in worse position.
The Steelers still need to shed $11.7 million in salary just to get under the projected cap, and that's without taking into consideration the impending free agency of players like Villanueva, edge-rusher Bud Dupree and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
San Francisco 49ers: Cornerback
The San Francisco 49ers struggled through an injury-marred mess of a 2020 season. But provided the team gets everyone healthy, the Niners should rebound next season.
However, holes need to be filled. Defensively, the biggest is on the back end.
San Francisco's top two cornerbacks could both leave in 2021, with Richard Sherman and Jason Verrett set to become free agents. So are reserves K'Waun Williams and Ahkello Witherspoon.
Cornerback isn't the only spot where free agency could hit hard—left tackle Trent Williams, edge-rusher Kerry Hyder and defensive lineman Solomon Thomas are about to become free agents as well.
But the quantity of personnel San Francisco could be on the brink of losing at cornerback necessitates prioritizing spending some of the team's $12.5 million in space on either keeping in-house talent or procuring replacements.
Seattle Seahawks: Edge-Rusher
The Seattle Seahawks have seen this movie before.
For a good-sized chunk of 2020, generating any kind of consistent pass rush was an issue. The in-season addition of Carlos Dunlap helped, and Seattle finished with a respectable 46 sacks. But the team's sack leader was safety Jamal Adams, and per ESPN's Brady Henderson Dunlap is widely expected to be a cap casualty, with the team sitting on just $4.4 million in cap space. Fellow defensive ends Benson Mayowa and Bruce Irvin are also about to hit free agency.
It's quite the dilemma for the Seahawks. They need to clear Dunlap's salary to create cap room, but doing so would put the defense in a bind. Much of Seattle's struggles defensively over the first half of 2020 can be traced to its inability to pressure opposing quarterbacks.
It's possible Dunlap could be brought back at a lower salary in 2021, but if not, Seattle's best bet may be to hope a second-tier free agent like Alex Okafor can shine in a larger role.
Otherwise, the Seahawks will find themselves rehashing last year's issues.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Front 7
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the kings of the NFL after downing the Chiefs in Super Bowl LV. But now comes the hard part.
Staying on top.
The Buccaneers are in a fairly good spot heading into the offseason. While many Super Bowl contenders are either nearly out of cap space or upside down by a significant amount, the Bucs have about $13.4 million to work with.
But they also have quite a few in-house free agents. And nowhere could potential losses hit harder than along the front seven.
After playing under the franchise tag in 2020, edge-rusher Shaquil Barrett will all but certainly command a great deal of interest on the open market. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is also slated to hit free agency, where he could command $7 million per season on a new deal, according to Spotrac's projections.
It creates a balancing act for Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht, who could be staring at either convincing guys like Barrett to potentially offer a "hometown discount" or looking for outside free agents who will sacrifice a little salary for an opportunity at a Super Bowl run.
Tennessee Titans; Edge-Rusher
The Tennessee Titans have advanced to the postseason after each of the past two seasons, including an AFC South title in 2020.
If the Titans are going to make it three in a row, the franchise has to do something about a pass rush that managed just 19 sacks last year—the third-fewest in the league.
The Titans tried to address the pass rush last year by signing Jadeveon Clowney, but his lone season with the team was eminently forgettable. Tennessee also isn't in a position to be major players in free agency. While the Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars are among the league leaders in available cap space, the Titans have less than $2 million to play with.
Despite that modest war chest, the Titans were mentioned as a possible landing spot for JJ Watt. There are other options after that failed to come to pass, whether it's a high-dollar target like Shaquil Barrett of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or a potentially less expensive pass rusher like Ryan Kerrigan of the Washington Football team.
If the Titans are going to be taken seriously as a Super Bowl contender, the team has to get markedly better at harassing opposing quarterbacks.
Washington Football Team: Quarterback
The Washington Football Team is the reigning NFC East champion. It has arguably the best defensive line in the entire league. Running back Antonio Gibson, wide receiver Terry McLaurin and tight end Logan Thomas provide the franchise with some young talent on offense.
The team has to figure out who will be the quarterback leading those young weapons in 2021. Veteran Alex Smith won Comeback Player of the Year in 2020, but he's not the player he once was and admitted to GQ's Clay Skipper that he didn't feel Washington wanted him around last year.
He appears to have been on to something, as Washington is expected to release him, per Rapoport.
Taylor Heinicke played well in a postseason loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but that was the 27-year-old journeyman's second career start. Kyle Allen is, well, Kyle Allen—a journeyman in his own right who is just 7-10 as a starter.
The franchise has the sixth-most cap space. Washington can also offer a veteran free agent like Fitzpatrick or Trubisky a shot at a playoff run.
The issue is finding the signal-caller who can make Washington more than the one-and-done squad from a season ago.