The 2021 NFL offseason promises to be unlike any in recent memory. With the projected salary cap set to decrease by almost $20 million, quite a few teams are feeling the financial pinch. Five clubs are more than $19 million over the projected cap for 2021, and at least one team owner predicts there will be a "seismic shift" in talent across the league this year.
But while the New Orleans Saints, Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles may be forced to release veterans just to comply with this year's COVID-reduced cap, there are two teams sitting on over $77 million in cap space, according to Over the Cap. Two teams that could add impact players on both sides of the ball. Two fanbases that should be optimistic about the beginning of free agency. And as it happens, it's the teams that also have the first two picks in the 2021 draft.
Get ready, beleaguered supporters of the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets. Your teams could be on the cusp of a turbocharged turnaround in 2021. Or at least should be.
Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill expects NFL rosters will get the snowglobe treatment in 2021, saying on SiriusXM NFL Radio (h/t Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk):
"I think there's going to be a seismic shift in talent across the NFL. You've got teams that are projected to be well over the cap. You've got teams that are projected to be well under. I know every free agent or potential free agent out there is thinking, 'Well, they're not going to get released.' But there are going to be a bunch of surprises for people here in a few weeks when everybody has to get under the cap and free agency starts. And, my guess is, like I said, I see a big shift, seismic shift, in terms of the talent moving around."
That prediction should be music to the ears of Jets general manager Joe Douglas and new Jags GM Trent Baalke. Because their respective clubs can use all the help they can get.
The 2020 season was a nightmare for the Jaguars, who won their first game against the Indianapolis Colts and then lost 15 straight. That miserable campaign landed the Jaguars the golden ticket in the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes, and it's a virtual lock that the Clemson quarterback will be the first player drafted. But adding a new quarterback is hardly the only issue facing Baalke and new head coach Urban Meyer, as the Jaguars have needs galore on offense and defense.
They are also sitting on the league's largest war chest—a whopping $85.2 million, or just over 47 percent of the team's total cap. Still, Baalke said he views the draft as the primary avenue to successful roster building and isn't going to spend money just to spend it.
"The focus is always on the draft and building your team through the draft," he said, per John Oehser of the team's website. "You use your other avenues to supplement your roster, whether that's in big-name free agents, mid-tier free agents or low-end free agents. Everybody has to be aligned, so that's No. 1."
Frugality is well and good, but if the Jaguars are going to put their new franchise quarterback in a position to succeed, they need to use some of that coin to build up the roster around him.
Wide receiver Allen Robinson, who played with the Jags for the first four years of his career, indicated on Cris Collinsworth's podcast that he's open to playing with Lawrence. The seven-year veteran, paired with DJ Chark Jr., would give Jacksonville a formidable one-two punch.
If Lawrence is running for his life, however, it's going to be difficult to have success. That makes upgrading Jacksonville's 22nd-ranked offensive line, per Pro Football Focus, with a tackle such as Alejandro Villanueva or Daryl Williams a wise course of action. The Jaguars also fielded the AFC's worst defense in 2020 and had just 18 sacks all season, so getting Josh Allen help up front and bolstering the secondary are also high on the to-do list.
Draft picks can be used to fill some of those needs, but if the Jaguars are to make any kind of marked improvement in 2021, Baalke is going to need to write some checks.
Of course, while writing those checks, he may have to outbid his counterpart in the Big Apple. Because Douglas has his work cut out for him as well (and $77.1 million with which to do it), and if the Jets don't start turning things around quickly, he may be out of a job.
Like Jacksonville, the quarterback situation with the Jets is in flux. The team has been mentioned more than once as a potential suitor for disgruntled Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, and while Douglas downplayed the idea of dealing a bevy of picks for a superstar player, he also said the team will listen to offers for current starter Sam Darnold. Many mock drafts have predicted that New York will take a quarterback with the second pick.
Much like Baalke, Douglas stressed the importance of building through the draft.
"For us to get to where the great teams are, the most consistent teams are, you do that through the draft," he said. "It's the most team-friendly market in sports. For us to be a team that's consistently competing for Super Bowls, we have to hit on our draft picks."
However, just like the Jaguars, the Jets also have more holes than picks to fill them with. New York's pass rush wasn't great (31 sacks) in 2020, either, and the team released veteran defensive end Henry Anderson to clear more wiggle room. New York's off-ball linebackers were a mess in 2020, and the team's pass defense ranked 28th.
Offensively, the Jets were offensive. No team in the league averaged fewer yards or points per game. Gang Green was 31st in passing offense, 23rd in rushing offense and fielded the fourth-worst offensive line.
Where do you start? Well, with guys such as Yannick Ngakoue or Alvin Dupree at edge-rusher, Xavier Rhodes or Desmond King at cornerback, Kenyan Drake or Leonard Fournette at running back, Robinson or Chris Godwin at wideout and Joe Thuney or Corey Linsley on the interior line. Never mind re-upping in-house free agents such as safety Marcus Maye.
Any would put whoever is under center for the Jets in 2021 in a better position to succeed (or at least compete) than Darnold has been in these past three years.
There are risks that come with "splash" signings in free agency, risks the Jets know all too well given how the Le'Veon Bell and C.J. Mosley signings worked out for the team. Spending like a drunken sailor on free agents has backfired more than once on an NFL GM. There's also the risk of overpaying to convince a player to join a team that has struggled as mightily in recent years as the Jets and Jags.
We've also seen teams in recent years like the Indianapolis Colts who sat at or near the top of the league in cap space but took a conservative approach to free agency.
But now is the time to strike. The Colts were a fringe contender, not a team all but starting over from square one. If life in the NFL returns to some semblance of normal and the cap spikes again in 2022 as expected, then much of the financial advantage these teams currently enjoy will disappear. Then there's the matter of trotting out a shiny new quarterback at the helm of a dumpster fire of a roster.
Ask Darnold how that pans out.
This isn't to say the Jaguars and Jets should just throw a big contract at any player who will say "yes." Or that the 2021 draft won't be hugely important for both teams.
But signing a few impact free agents to fill glaring areas of need will make it that much easier for Baalke and Douglas to use that "best player available" draft strategy they mentioned. Make it that much easier for Lawrence and that new signal-caller in New York to transition to the pros.
The NFL's better general managers take full advantage of every asset at their disposal. For Baalke and Douglas in 2021, one of the biggest is cold, hard cash.
So get out those pens. And start making calls.