NFL Teams That Can Make a Splash in Free Agency to Become Contenders in 2021
Every NFL team should go into the offseason with a goal that aims higher than winning free agency, though a couple of splashy additions can catapult a borderline playoff squad into the contender's circle.
Over the last year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed quarterback Tom Brady and then ended a 13-year postseason drought en route to a Super Bowl victory.
Players of Brady's caliber rarely hit the open market, but a team can take significant steps with multiple acquisitions.
The Cleveland Browns revamped their offensive line, adding right tackle Jack Conklin, who had an All-Pro season as a key starter for one of the best run-blocking groups across the league. In his first year with the team, tight end Austin Hooper recorded 46 receptions for 435 yards and four touchdowns through 13 contests.
Conklin and Hooper contributed to an efficient offense, and the Browns made the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 campaign.
Among teams with ample cap space or the flexibility to make room for free agents, we'll take a look at who's a few moves away from a strong playoff push in 2021.
For at least the next season, the Dallas Cowboys should have an explosive offense with quarterback Dak Prescott set to return from an ankle injury. In fact, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, the team wants to extend him on a long-term deal.
Even if Prescott plays through the 2021 campaign with the franchise tag, the two-time Pro Bowler is capable of leading a top-10 scoring offense as he did in 2019.
Assuming the Philadelphia Eagles' trade with the Indianapolis Colts, which involves Carson Wentz, becomes official in the new league year, the Cowboys clearly have the best quarterback in the NFC East.
Prescott is more accomplished than the New York Giants' Daniel Jones and Wentz's potential replacement, Jalen Hurts. The Washington Football Team is expected to "part ways" with Alex Smith, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport and Kimberly Jones.
The Cowboys will need to use a good portion of their cap space to retain Prescott. They have a projected $19.4 million, but the team can use some of its $25.4 million in carryover funds to bolster the defense. The front office can also restructure a larger contract to free up space. Dallas did this with left tackle Tyron Smith last offseason, per ESPN's Field Yates.
Dallas should re-sign edge-rusher Aldon Smith, who recorded 20 quarterback pressures, five sacks and five tackles for loss in 2020. From the open market, the Cowboys should add a veteran cornerback to compensate for the potential losses of Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis. Perhaps the front office could make room for William Jackson III or Bashaud Breeland.
Dallas should take a look at Tashaun Gipson Sr. as an inexpensive replacement for impending free-agent safety Xavier Woods or sign a gap-stuffing tackle such as Johnathan Hankins to improve a run defense that allowed the second-most yards this past season.
With a couple of solid defensive additions, the Cowboys should head into the 2021 season as the favorites to win the NFC East.
Las Vegas Raiders
Among the top-10 scoring teams from this past season, the Las Vegas Raiders stood out as the exception to miss the playoffs. They trended in the wrong direction late in the 2020 campaign, losing five of their last seven outings thanks to subpar defense, turnovers and offensive red-zone woes.
The Raiders can improve in the red zone with a personnel tweak. Tight end Jason Witten retired, so Foster Moreau should see an expanded role. The latter recorded five touchdown receptions during his 2019 rookie campaign.
Vegas should focus most of its attention on a defense that allowed the third-most points in 2020. New defensive coordinator Gus Bradley needs players to execute his game plan.
Although the Raiders are $7.7 million over the salary-cap limit, they can save $20.1 million by cutting quarterback Marcus Mariota, whose trade buzz has faded (h/t NFL Network's Ian Rapoport), and slot cornerback Lamarcus Joyner, who mostly struggled through two seasons with the team.
In response to a mailbag question, The Athletic's Vic Tafur wrote, "I don't know" in regards to Trent Brown's future with the club. The Raiders can save $14 million if they release the Pro Bowl tackle who missed 16 games over the past two years.
Head coach Jon Gruden wants an "alpha" in the secondary (h/t Pro Football Talk's Josh Alper). He also needs help for a pass rush that ranked 29th in sacks this past season. Lastly, the club may look to fill the free safety spot to replace impending free agent Erik Harris.
The Raiders should target safety Marcus Williams, who's tallied 13 interceptions in four seasons. Gruden talked to cornerback Richard Sherman, though Patrick Peterson would also fit the bill as a lead boundary defender. Larry Ogunjobi, Jurrell Casey and Sheldon Rankins are realistic mid-tier options for a 3-technique defensive tackle capable of rushing the passer.
The Raiders need multiple signings for their defense, but Bradley has a solid track record. As a head coach and coordinator, he's fielded top-10 units in yards or points allowed for each season since 2016.
If Bradley elevates the defense, the Raiders could compete with top-tier teams as contenders.
Los Angeles Chargers
The Los Angeles Chargers finished the 2020 campaign on a high note, winning their last four contests. Despite the late-season streak, they fired head coach Anthony Lynn and replaced him with former Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley.
The Chargers' first-time head coach brings some uncertainty, though Staley is coming off a season in which he fielded the No. 1 scoring defense. That bodes well for a unit that ranked top 10 in yards but 23rd in points allowed.
Los Angeles can spend some of its $23.8 million in cap space to sign edge-rusher Leonard Floyd, who logged a career-high 10.5 sacks under Staley this past season. He would replace impending free agent Melvin Ingram III and strengthen the Chargers' front seven.
If Staley can field another stingy defense, the Chargers could become the Kansas City Chiefs' toughest challenger in the AFC West in part because of their ascending offense that features Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert.
In 2020, Herbert threw for 4,336 yards, 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions behind an offensive line that battled injuries, particularly on the right side. Tackle Bryan Bulaga and guard Trai Turner missed 13 contests combined.
With left tackle Sam Tevi and center Dan Feeney set to become free agents and Mike Pouncey retired, the Chargers must invest in their offensive line to protect Herbert.
Center Corey Linsley and guard Joe Thuney would patch up holes on the interior of the front line. The Chargers can pursue Trent Williams if he hits the open market or offer the No. 13 overall pick to the Baltimore Ravens for Orlando Brown Jr., who's exploring trade options for a starting role at left tackle, per ESPN's Jeremy Fowler.
The Chargers would contend with a decent defense and a well-protected quarterback.
The Miami Dolphins almost entered the contender's group this past season, falling short of a playoff berth because of a Week 17 loss to the Buffalo Bills.
Between 2019 and 2020, the Dolphins made a leap from 5-11 to 10-6. Their roster rebuild started with an aggressive approach in free agency, as they signed cornerback Byron Jones, linebacker Kyle Van Noy, edge-rusher Shaq Lawson and guard Ereck Flowers for an approximate combined total of $125.2 million in guarantees, per Spotrac. All four veterans played at least 55 percent of the snaps on their side of the ball.
In the coming weeks, Miami should spend significant cash to improve its roster. This time, the front office must focus on the offense to help quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
The Dolphins benched Tagovailoa multiple times for Ryan Fitzpatrick, who played well in relief duty. Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald gave the latter a "slim and none" chance of re-signing with the club.
If the Dolphins plan to go all-in with Tagovailoa, they need to surround him with more offensive playmakers. According to Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald, the team and running back Aaron Jones have a mutual interest.
Coming off a career-high 1,104 rushing yards, Jones would bolster the Dolphins' 22nd-ranked ground attack. He's also a solid pass-catcher with 131 receptions for 1,057 yards and six touchdowns for his career.
With $22.8 million in cap space, the Dolphins could add a veteran wide receiver. Marvin Jones Jr., Nelson Agholor and Will Fuller V are all viable options to complement wideout DeVante Parker.
Coming off a 10-6 term, the Dolphins just need an offensive spark to push them into the final playoff picture.
New England Patriots
Despite an offensive attack that went through extended dry spells, the New England Patriots finished 7-9 in 2020.
The Patriots defense ranked seventh in points allowed but clearly missed key players. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore missed five outings with knee and quad injuries. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower and safety Patrick Chung opted out of the 2020 season. According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, New England expects both starters to return in 2021.
While the Patriots defense should remain solid, they must revamp the offense, starting with the quarterback position.
New England can sign Jacoby Brissett, whom the club selected in the third round of 2016 draft. Impending free agent Andy Dalton proved he's still a steady starter, almost leading the Dallas Cowboys to the playoffs this past season. Cam Newton could return and put together a more productive campaign with solid offensive weapons on the perimeter.
Regardless of what happens at quarterback, the Patriots should invest much of their $62.2 million in cap space on pass-catchers. Per Rapoport, Julian Edelman isn't a lock to play in the upcoming season while on the mend from an October knee surgery. Fellow wideout N'Keal Harry hasn't made a significant impact since New England selected him in the first round of the 2019 draft.
The Patriots should target all of the top wide receivers likely to hit the open market, including JuJu Smith-Schuster, Corey Davis, Will Fuller V, Nelson Agholor, T.Y. Hilton, Curtis Samuel and (TE) Hunter Henry.
The Patriots would become a dangerous team if they added a couple of decent offensive playmakers.
Team salary-cap projections courtesy of Over the Cap.