NFL Teams with the Most Work Left to Do in the 2021 Draft

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistMarch 25, 2021

NFL Teams with the Most Work Left to Do in the 2021 Draft

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    For some teams, NFL free agency has been a time to fill some major holes and gear up for a Super Bowl campaign.

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers re-upped with all of their important pieces. The Cleveland Browns made major upgrades to the secondary. The New York Jets actually signed good football players.

    For others, free agency has been a less fruitful endeavor.

    The depressed salary cap, which dropped to $182.5 million, led to more cuts than signings for several teams, while others just had too many roster issues to fix in free agency.

    For those teams, the draft is about to take on even greater importance. The annual event is still the best tool for long-term roster building, but these teams are going to need multiple picks to pan out sooner rather than later after the free agency they just had.

New Orleans Saints

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    Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan
    Saints defensive end Cameron JordanAssociated Press

    No one suffered more from the reduced salary cap than the New Orleans Saints. After years of pushing cap space into the future, the bill finally came due as the Saints were projected to be more than $100 million over the cap at one point.

    That led to quite a few cuts and players leaving in free agency, including Trey Hendrickson, Janoris Jenkins, Emmanuel Sanders, Jared Cook and Sheldon Rankins—all of whom were starters or important rotational players.

    It could have been worse. The Saints cleared $52 million through restructuring contracts, which essentially pushes guaranteed money into future years when they will have to deal with it again. That allowed them to keep players like Marshon Lattimore, Cam Jordan and Taysom Hill.

    Even so, the work of finding players to step into those roles is going to be left to the draft. So far, the team has signed one free agent outside of the organization, fullback Alex Armah.

    Fortunately for the Saints, they were awarded two third-round compensatory picks. They will get the 98th overall selection for the loss of Teddy Bridgewater last season and a special compensatory pick at No. 105 because Atlanta hired former Pro Personnel Director Terry Fontenot.

    It's going to be important to make the most of those picks along with their first- and second-rounders to avoid a full-on rebuild in the near future.

Philadelphia Eagles

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    Los Angeles Rams wide receiver DeSean Jackson
    Los Angeles Rams wide receiver DeSean JacksonAssociated Press

    The Philadelphia Eagles are in a similar situation to the Saints this offseason, except they weren't good, which makes the whole thing more difficult to handle.

    The Eagles were once projected to be around $44 million over the cap for a roster that went 4-11-1 in the NFC East. The list of departures isn't quite as pronounced as the Saints, but it's considerable nonetheless. Players who have either left for new teams or remain unsigned include Carson Wentz, DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery, Vinny Curry, Malik Jackson, Nickell Robey-Coleman and Jalen Mills.

    As far as acquisitions, the Eagles were able to make a great one in Anthony Harris. The former Vikings safety is an upgrade over Mills and came on a cheap one-year contract.

    That alone isn't enough to keep the Eagles defense afloat. The defense was key in keeping the bottom from completely falling out last season, as it ranked 15th in efficiency while the offense was 29th.

    Outside of that, the Eagles' best move may have been trading Wentz, which brought them additional draft capital. That includes a third-rounder this year (84th overall). They are armed with a bevy of third-day picks, including two fifths, three sixths and two sevenths.

    That move also cost them a record-setting $33.8 million dead cap charge. Yet another reason why the Eagles will have to rely heavily on the draft this season to improve the roster.

Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Marvin Jones Jr.
    Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Marvin Jones Jr.Associated Press

    Unlike most of the teams on this list, the Jacksonville Jaguars were big spenders in free agency. Armed with some of the most cap space in the league after a 1-15 season, they offered over $144 million in total value to free agents. 

    Spending that much money, the Jaguars are bound to be better than last season. They simply brought in too many replacement-level players not to see a jump in wins. 

    But there are few individual signings that really move the needle on their own. Cornerback Shaquill Griffin was the 43rd-ranked free agent by Pro Football Focus. Marvin Jones was 55th. After that, their next-highest acquisition was Tyson Alualu at 127th. 

    New head coach Urban Meyer was admittedly not thrilled with how NFL free agency works. 

    "To answer your question, that was awful, and I don't believe it should be that way. Not when you're making organizational decisions. I'm not sure how that rule came about, but to me, that's not good business," Meyer said, per Michael DiRocco of ESPN. 

    Meyer didn't like the lack of contact with a player before signing him due to the legal tampering period. That makes sense coming from a coach who is accustomed to the college recruiting process, which involves several visits and face-to-face communication.

    He'll have a better opportunity to do that kind of player vetting ahead of the draft. That's where the Jaguars are going to have to find their foundational pieces because it didn't really happen in free agency.

Las Vegas Raiders

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    New England Patriots offensive tackle Trent Brown
    New England Patriots offensive tackle Trent BrownAssociated Press

    It's been a puzzling offseason for the Las Vegas Raiders.

    Mike Mayock and Jon Gruden have made some good moves, but there isn't a team in the league that has created more work for itself in the draft since the offseason began.

    Pass-rusher Yannick Ngakoue is a nice addition. Quinton Jefferson and Solomon Thomas should complete a defensive line that was probably the team's biggest weakness last season. Acquiring all three of those players was a great move.

    What's perplexing is trading three starting-caliber offensive linemen. The Raiders parted ways with Trent Brown, Rodney Hudson and Gabe Jackson, officially signaling the offensive line desperately needs a makeover.

    They did retain Denzelle Good and Richie Incognito, but Good's play was up-and-down last season, while Incognito will be 38 years old this year.

    Wide receiver was already thin but became even more important with the departure of Nelson Agholor to the Patriots. They brought in John Brown and re-signed Zay Jones, but Jones has not proved reliable and Brown isn't a long-term solution.

    To recap, the Raiders could now use help at multiple spots on the offensive line while adding a dynamic threat for Derek Carr, not to mention additional areas of need that were apparent before free agency, such as safety.

Indianapolis Colts

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    Indianapolis Colts cornerback Xavier Rhodes
    Indianapolis Colts cornerback Xavier RhodesAssociated Press

    With an overall strong roster and plenty of cash to spend, it wouldn't have been surprising if the Indianapolis Colts and general manager Chris Ballard were among the biggest spenders in free agency.

    Someone might want to go make sure he's awake.

    The Colts have been almost radio silent on the free-agency front. After trading for Carson Wentz, the team's biggest move has been re-signing cornerback Xavier Rhodes to a one-year deal. They also re-upped with Marlon Mack and T.Y. Hilton for a year and signed offensive tackle Sam Tevi from the Chargers for a year as well.

    Although the Colts went 11-5 and earned a playoff berth last season, they still have some significant holes in the roster. Left tackle needs to be addressed. Anthony Castonzo retired, and Tevi is not the answer.

    They have lost defensive end Denico Autry, and Justin Houston could be the next to go, so the pass rush needs help. Elsewhere on the defense, linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. signed with Cleveland, safety Tavon Wilson went to the 49ers, and Malik Hooker remains unsigned.

    The Colts have significant needs on both sides of the ball but seem unwilling to spend in free agency to fill them.

    That's a lot of pressure on the draft.

Atlanta Falcons

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    Atlanta Falcons running back Mike Davis
    Atlanta Falcons running back Mike DavisAssociated Press

    At this point, the Atlanta Falcons are going to be relying on a change in leadership and scheme to get better results in 2021. Largely because of financial restrictions, the Falcons have been one of the least busy teams in free agency, yet they still only have $5.6 million in cap space to work with.

    Much like the Eagles, the Falcons have flirted with being in the red to pay for a roster that just didn't get results.

    Now, they are struggling to bolster the depth chart through free agency and will instead need to hit it big in the draft. Alex Mack, Keanu Neal and Charles Harris have already found new homes. Names like Todd Gurley, Brian Hill and Darqueze Dennard might not be far behind.

    The free-agent signings are somewhat underwhelming. Mike Davis should be an upgrade over the version of Gurley the Falcons got last year. Linebackers Brandon Copeland and Barkevious Mingo and safety Erik Harris are fliers at best.

    That leaves the Falcons with several voids to fill and the draft as the only means to address them in a meaningful way. The secondary remains a huge need, while they could use new threats on the edge as well. Offensively, there's firepower, but a succession plan for Matt Ryan also needs to be considered.

    If the Falcons are to improve upon last season, it is going to be because they got some breakout performances from rookies and a better organizational vision from new head coach Arthur Smith.

Minnesota Vikings

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    Cincinnati Bengals offensive tackle Riley Reiff
    Cincinnati Bengals offensive tackle Riley ReiffAssociated Press

    The Minnesota Vikings weren't totally inactive in free agency, but they have their work cut out for them if are to get back in the playoff hunt and make the most of the final two years on quarterback Kirk Cousins' contract.

    They signed Patrick Peterson to a one-year, $10 million deal and inked Dalvin Tomlinson to a two-year, $22 million pact. However, they lost plenty of talent, too.

    Tight end Kyle Rudolph and left tackle Riley Reiff highlight the losses on offense, compounding weaknesses along the offensive line. The Vikings already needed a new left guard. Dakota Dozier (six sacks allowed) and Dru Samia (three sacks allowed) didn't get it done there last season. Ezra Cleveland could move from right guard to left tackle, but it just creates a new need on the line.

    Irv Smith Jr. is ready to take over as TE1 for the Vikes, but that doesn't help them run two-tight end sets.

    Defensively, the loss of safety Anthony Harris hurts the most, but Ifeadi Odenigbo heading to the Giants diminishes the bite of an already harmless pass rush that had the fourth-lowest pressure percentage in the league. Stephen Weatherly should help there, although he's only coming in on a one-year contract.

    That leaves the Vikings with needs at safety, offensive tackle and edge-defender based solely on whom they've lost in free agency.

    To make matters worse, Minnesota will enter the draft without a second-round draft pick. It sent the pick to Jacksonville in the deal for Yannick Ngakoue, who was later traded to the Ravens (ouch).

    The Vikings do, however, have an additional third-round selection from trading Ngakoue to Baltimore, as well as four fourth-round picks from various trades and two compensatory selections.


    Salary information via Spotrac. Reported moves via the NFL's free-agency tracker unless otherwise noted.