NFL Teams Headed in the Wrong Direction in 2021
With the NFL draft now behind us, it's easier to get an idea of which way teams are trending going into the 2021 season.
The draft itself is a wellspring of hope for all 32 fanbases, and reality doesn't usually settle back into place until the season gets underway. But by evaluating roster moves and strategy and utilizing some simple projections, we can identify a few fanbases that should set expectations at a timid level.
Of course, teams that appear to be headed in the wrong direction could still surprise, just as supposed contenders can flop. Cliches like "any given Sunday" and "football is a game of inches" exist for good reason.
But looking at the full offseason with the benefit of hindsight and especially zeroing on the quarterback position, we can identify some teams that are swinging the wrong way, whether it's strictly in the win column, from a long-term building perspective or both.
Say hello to the most predictable team on this sort of list.
The Houston Texans, regardless of who they trot out under center in 2021, didn't do much to improve this offseason after a 4-12 record in 2020.
That sounds almost ridiculous for a team that added nearly 30 free agents this offseason. But that speaks more to the size of the rebuild after finally putting an end to the Bill O'Brien era. There's no guarantee the roster is any better, both because few of the names appear to be impact players and most of the deals were small one or two-year pacts, with punter Cameron Johnston receiving the highest dollar amount of any signee ($8 million).
Even worse, the Texans didn't have a draft selection until the third round, where they used the No. 67 pick on quarterback Davis Mills out of Stanford. He joins journeyman backup Tyrod Taylor, though it doesn't seem likely either will be able to fill in for the near-MVP-level play of Deshaun Watson.
A team that lost J.J. Watt and several offensive linemen, did not have a top-50 pick or any notable free-agent signings and still hasn't come close to fixing the DeAndre Hopkins mistake figures to stumble backward significantly—and that's before taking into account a possible league-worst regression under center.
Nobody can fault the Philadelphia Eagles too much for putting an end to the Carson Wentz era, even if it was a bit sloppy.
The Eagles ate a historic $33.8 million dead-cap hit while trading Wentz to Indianapolis, greatly limiting what the team could accomplish this offseason from a roster-building perspective.
Under new head coach Nick Sirianni, Philadelphia has added just four new players, including 36-year-old passer Joe Flacco, in the hopes of providing some insurance behind Jalen Hurts. A season ago, the second-round pick appeared in 15 games and completed just 52 percent of his 148 attempts with six touchdowns and four interceptions.
While Hurts has plenty of upside, he's fighting an uphill battle in his surroundings. Wide receiver Jalen Reagor, the team's first-round pick last year, was only healthy for 11 games and seemed like an odd fit. DeVonta Smith, the No. 10 pick this year, had size questions chasing him to the NFL. There's still trade speculation around tight end Zach Ertz, and key offensive linemen Brandon Brooks and Andre Dillard enter 2021 coming off serious injuries.
The Eagles could surprise if the youthful offensive core thrives under Sirianni, but it figures to be a marginal uptick from last year's four wins. And if things don't work out, the Eagles dramatically tilt toward an even worse trajectory as the search for a quarterback begins anew.
The Detroit Lions already signaled a brief dip in this direction with the Matthew Stafford trade, which netted them first-round picks in 2022 and 2023 in addition to quarterback Jared Goff.
Goff, simply put, is a downgrade, hence the compensation package. Even last year, Stafford threw 26 touchdowns with 10 interceptions despite so-so surroundings. Goff is a career 63.4 percent passer with 107 touchdowns and 55 interceptions to his name, and last year, he threw just seven more scores than picks.
The implication seems obvious enough: Goff has two years before the potential out in his contract kicks in, so he must use that time to prove he can actually meet the expectations that came with being the No. 1 pick in 2016.
But he'll have to do it on a Lions roster that lost Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay at wide receiver while backed by a defense that only had 24 sacks last season. Detroit paid $37 million in the hopes Romeo Okwara can again hit the 10-sack mark just to keep that unit afloat.
Granted, the Detroit offensive line should be much improved with seventh overall pick Penei Sewell entering the fold. But with new head coach Dan Campbell sporting no years of coordinator experience and just a handful of years as an assistant head coach since joining the coaching ranks in 2010, there's a lot pointing the wrong way if things don't come together nearly perfectly, and fast.
The downswing may only be just beginning for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That seems odd to say about a 12-win team, sure. But Pittsburgh beat up on an easy schedule early last year, lost four of five to close the season, then went down 48-37 to Cleveland in the postseason.
With no other viable direction to go, Pittsburgh will send out Ben Roethlisberger under center again in 2021 a year removed from his 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, albeit on a 6.3 average, by far the worst mark of his career (excluding his two-game 2019 season).
Hamstrung by a poor cap situation, the Steelers lost key cornerback Mike Hilton, quality offensive tackle Matt Feiler and pass-rusher Bud Dupree to free agency. The team backed into the return of JuJu Smith-Schuster, whose soft market resulted in a one-year pact, which wasn't hard to see coming after he averaged just 8.6 yards per catch last year, ranked well outside of the top 100.
To top things off, Pittsburgh spent a premium asset on a devalued position with Alabama running back Najee Harris at 24th overall. There's a chance Harris helps the offense improve of course, but it was odd to see a would-be contender leaking so much talent opt for such a non-premium position at a critical juncture.
If Harris can really uplift the unit that much, maybe Pittsburgh flirts with playoff contention again. But this has the feel of a last-ditch effort with iffy decision-making that could backfire, leaving the Steelers in an even worse state for the long-term in an AFC North that appears to be rapidly improving across the board otherwise.