The Biggest Questions That Remain Entering Start of 2021 NFL Free Agency

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistMarch 15, 2021

The Biggest Questions That Remain Entering Start of 2021 NFL Free Agency

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    Stew Milne/Associated Press

    Over the past week, NFL teams had to drop below the $182.5 million base salary-cap limit. In doing so, some clubs created roster holes while others made space for free-agent acquisitions. 

    Along with roster cuts and restructures, we could see a couple of quarterbacks on the move in the coming weeks. Pro Football Network's Tony Pauline suggested the Seattle Seahawks and Russell Wilson will stick together for another season, but that won't stop one team from trying to pry him away. 

    Because of the COVID-depressed salary cap, several teams may opt for more cost-effective signings rather than big splashes. Players who don't expect to command lucrative deals could accept one-year contracts in hopes of boosting their market value in 2022.

    With the potential trade movement and forthcoming contract negotiations in mind, let's go through eight of the biggest questions heading into free agency.

Will the Texans Trade QB Deshaun Watson?

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    Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson
    Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun WatsonEric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    The Deshaun Watson-Houston Texans saga will remain the biggest storyline until he's sent to another team or retracts his reported (h/t ESPN's Adam Schefter) trade request.

    After a conversation with Texans head coach David Culley on the Huddle & Flow podcast, NFL Network's Jim Trotter believes Houston will trade Watson because Culley spoke about the roster "right now" and wanting players "who are all in." 

    "He is our starting quarterback right now. He is our starting quarterback. Things happen between now and then. We'll see what happens," Culley said when asked if Watson will be the Texans' Week 1 starter in 2021. 

    According to NFL Insider Josina Anderson, the Texans haven't had internal discussions or engaged with any teams about trading Watson.

    For now, the Texans seem prepared to move forward with an unresolved quarterback issue. Teams will likely become more aggressive with offers for Watson because of the slim pickings at the position in free agency. Names such as Andy Dalton, Alex Smith, Mitchell Trubisky and Ryan Fitzpatrick aren't the most intriguing options. 

    John McClain of the Houston Chronicle believes the New York Jets have the best chance to land Watson because they own the No. 2 overall pick, which would allow the Texans to take a top quarterback prospect—possibly BYU's Zach Wilson.

    Watson would have to waive his no-trade clause to facilitate a deal.

Will the Jets Trade QB Sam Darnold?

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    New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold
    New York Jets quarterback Sam DarnoldCharles Krupa/Associated Press

    The New York Jets are open for business as it pertains to their quarterback.

    According to The Athletic's Connor Hughes, general manager Joe Douglas "will answer the call" from potential trade partners. 

    In the meantime, the Jets will evaluate the incoming class of quarterbacks before they make a decision on Darnold, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. Ohio State's Justin Fields, BYU's Zach Wilson and North Dakota State's Trey Lance are viable options behind Clemson's Trevor Lawrence, the presumptive No. 1 pick.

    If the Texans decide to move Deshaun Watson, the Jets could pull off a blockbuster trade instead of going with a rookie signal-caller. 

    In the event that Gang Green selects a quarterback with the No. 2 overall pick, the Chicago Bears and Washington Football Team stand out as the most likely destinations for Darnold. Both teams went to the playoffs this past season but need an upgrade or a clear-cut starter under center for 2021. 

    On KNBR's Murph & Mac show, Rapoport said he doesn't have an indication that the San Francisco 49ers are interested in Darnold right now (h/t 49ers Webzone). 

    Washington released Alex Smith, leaving Taylor Heinicke, who's made two career starts (including the postseason), and Kyle Allen to vie for the starting spot. 

    Chicago could declare Nick Foles the 2021 starter, but he had an uninspiring 2020 campaign, throwing for 1,852 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions through nine games (seven starts).

    Even if the Jets keep Darnold and trade the No. 2 selection for a package of picks, they could change the landscape of the draft.

What's the Bears QB Plan If They Don't Land Russell Wilson?

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    Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace (left) and head coach Matt Nagy (right)
    Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace (left) and head coach Matt Nagy (right)Nam Huh/Associated Press

    The Chicago Bears will aim high while they look to solve their quarterback quandary.

    According to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune, the Bears "have prioritized" their pursuit of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. Per ESPN's Jeremy Fowler (h/t Bleacher Report's Rob Goldberg), league sources believe Chicago will take a "big swing" at him.

    However, Pro Football Talk's Peter King doesn't think anything will come to fruition between the two teams, calling the scenario a "futile pipe dream." 

    We cannot blame the Bears for their heightened interest in Wilson. After all, the star quarterback listed Chicago as one of his preferred trade destinations, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.

    According to ESPN's Dianna Russini, the Seahawks have answered calls for Wilson. With that said, he hasn't requested a trade and expressed his desire to stay in Seattle, per Schefter.

    As a fallback plan, Chicago can attempt to acquire Marcus Mariota of the Las Vegas Raiders, an expensive backup with a $15.35 million cap hit, or Gardner Minshew II, assuming the Jacksonville Jaguars select Clemson's Trevor Lawrence with the No. 1 overall pick. 

    If the Bears don't execute a trade for a quarterback, they can give Nick Foles a second chance after his lackluster 2020 showing in which he threw for 1,852 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions through nine games (seven starts).

    Chicago could also sign Alex Smith. He would reunite with Matt Nagy, who served as his quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator from 2013 through 2017 with the Kansas City Chiefs.

    In 2020, Smith threw for 1,582 yards, six touchdowns and eight interceptions in eight games with the Washington Football Team. That's not an impressive stat line, but his familiarity with Nagy could help him stabilize the position in the short term as he did for Washington en route to a playoff berth.

How Does the Washington Football Team Address the QB Position?

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    Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera
    Washington Football Team head coach Ron RiveraRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Like the Chicago Bears, the Washington Football Team's top draft pick (No. 19 overall) probably excludes them from a shot at the top four or five quarterback prospects in the draft, barring a trade.

    Washington has in-house options who could start in Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen, who's recovering from a dislocated ankle, but neither player would have a stronghold on the starting job.

    The Football Team should explore trade options such as the Las Vegas Raiders' Marcus Mariota or Jacksonville Jaguars' Gardner Minshew II. The latter doesn't have a high-scale draft pedigree, but he's played 23 games, started in 20 of those contests and thrown for 5,530 yards, 37 touchdowns and 11 interceptions with a 62.9 percent completion rate. 

    Statistically, Minshew has put together solid starts in Jacksonville, but he's clearly a backup if the Jaguars select a quarterback with the No. 1 pick. Washington should look into the 2019 sixth-rounder as an option to lead a playoff-caliber roster because of his solid passing numbers.

    If not, Andy Dalton, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Mitchell Trubisky could land on Washington's radar as arguably the top three quarterback options on the open market.

Will the Drop in Salary Cap Affect Mid-Tier Free Agents?

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    Defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi
    Defensive tackle Larry OgunjobiAssociated Press

    The depressed salary cap may not affect top talents on the open market as much as mid-tier free agents.

    Wide receiver Kenny Golladay and edge-rusher Yannick Ngakoue are Pro Bowlers and arguably the best players available at their respective positions. Teams with needs at those spots and an excess of $30 million in cap space could pay them top dollar.

    This past week, clubs cut experienced veterans, adding to the supply of talent on the market. Over the age of 30, cornerback Janoris Jenkins and wideout Emmanuel Sanders may be willing to take lesser deals at this stage of their careers, but they're still starting-caliber players.

    As a result, teams are less likely to overpay for decent players such as wide receiver Nelson Agholor, edge-rusher Ryan Kerrigan, defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi or cornerback Malcolm Butler. Among the players listed, some of them battled injuries or performed at an average level this past season, others will hit the open market slightly past their prime, and some face competition at a position with depth.

    Ogunjobi, who's a younger free agent at 26 years old, could take a one-year deal and test free agency after a stronger showing in the upcoming season to land a more lucrative contract with the salary cap potentially on the rise in 2022.

Will the Patriots Take an Aggressive Approach in Improving Their Offense?

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    Wide receiver Kenny Golladay
    Wide receiver Kenny GolladayJose Juarez/Associated Press

    The New England Patriots are in a position to reload on offense this offseason.

    The Patriots agreed to acquire offensive tackle Trent Brown from the Las Vegas Raiders, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, and re-signed quarterback Cam Newton.

    Newton has a one-year deal worth up to $14 million with a $5 million base salary, per NFL Network's Mike Garafolo. Based on the structure of his contract, the Patriots could still add a rookie or veteran competition. 

    Using some of its $69.3 million in cap space, New England can surround Newton or anyone else under center with a strong pass-catching group. The Patriots need upgrades at the wide receiver and tight end positions. 

    According to Rapoport, Julian Edelman's 2021 outlook remains uncertain as he recovers from knee surgery. The Patriots have engaged in trade talks involving N'Keal Harry, per Garafolo (h/t Kevin Patra). Neither wide receiver is a roster lock for the upcoming season. New England could pursue Kenny Golladay, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Corey Davis or Curtis Samuel to bolster the group.

    With two unproven tight ends in Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene—a pair of 2020 third-rounders—Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith and Gerald Everett could land on the Patriots' radar as readymade starters at the position.

    Then again, New England may decide to become active on the trade market. Perhaps it'll make a call to the cap-strapped Chicago Bears for wideout Allen Robinson II, who has "zero plans" to sign his franchise tender in the "immediate future," per ESPN's Jeremy Fowler (h/t Bleacher Report's Tyler Conway).

Will the Raiders Take Big Swings at Defensive Playmakers?

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    Safety John Johnson III
    Safety John Johnson IIIAssociated Press

    The Las Vegas Raiders finished the 2020 season as the only team with a top-10 scoring offense to miss the playoffs. Their defense allowed the third-most points and deserves a lion's share of the blame for the team's mediocrity.

    After Week 14 of this past campaign, the Raiders fired Paul Guenther, who served as their defensive coordinator for three seasons. Gus Bradley will take over the position, which indicates personnel changes on that side of the ball. 

    Vegas has a group of young defenders with potential in Maxx Crosby, Clelin Ferrell, Trayvon Mullen, Damon Arnette and Johnathan Abram but not enough productive veterans in their prime years. 

    Under Guenther, linebacker Cory Littleton struggled, though he cleaned up his tackling late in the 2020 season. Defensive end Carl Nassib had minimal impact on the pass rush with 2.5 sacks and 15 quarterback pressures. Linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski had a solid showing, recording 81 tackles, three for loss, a sack, four pass breakups and an interception. 

    The Raiders need Pro Bowl-caliber or high-end playmakers to elevate their defense while the younger talent develops in prominent roles.

    The Silver and Black must rebuild their front line as defensive tackles Maliek Collins and Johnathan Hankins hit the open market. Ferrell hasn't made enough strides as a pass-rusher with just 6.5 sacks and 36 quarterback pressures in two seasons.

    The Raiders also need a safety who can cover downfield. Erik Harris will become a free agent. Fellow safety Johnathan Abram allowed a 111.4 passer rating in coverage this past season.

    Vegas should take a look at John Johnson III, Anthony Harris, Yannick Ngakoue, Carl Lawson, Romeo Okwara and Dalvin Tomlinson as top targets to shore up its secondary, pass rush and a run defense that ranked 24th in 2020.

Do the Buccaneers Have Enough Cap Space to Retain Edge-Rusher Shaquil Barrett?

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    Tampa Bay Buccaneers edge-rusher Shaquil Barrett
    Tampa Bay Buccaneers edge-rusher Shaquil BarrettSteve Luciano/Associated Press

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will try to keep the core of their championship roster together.

    The Buccaneers franchise-tagged wideout Chris Godwin and re-signed linebacker Lavonte David. They also extended quarterback Tom Brady to save $19 million in cap space, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.

    Tampa Bay will need room to re-sign Shaquil Barrett, who could make north of $20 million per year on the open market. He's recorded 30 tackles for loss, 27.5 sacks and eight forced fumbles in two seasons with the team.

    As of Sunday, the Buccaneers have $9.6 million in cap space. Barrett wants to stay in Tampa Bay, but he would like to cash in on his production as well. On an encouraging note, the club is in talks with him, per Pro Football Talk.

    The Buccaneers seem like the front-runners to sign Barrett even if he officially becomes a free agent. The 28-year-old edge-rusher commented "yessir" on Brady's Instagram post about "keeping the band together" (h/t The Athletic's Greg Auman).

         

    Player contracts and team cap-space figures courtesy of Over The Cap.

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