Every NFL Team's To-Do List for Rest of the 2021 OffseasonMay 26, 2021
Every NFL Team's To-Do List for Rest of the 2021 Offseason
The NFL offseason has entered yet another stage.
We've gone through the frenzy of free agency. The drama of the NFL draft. The revelry of rookie minicamp (OK, that one was a stretch). And now it's time for the outstandingness of organized team activities.
And…I broke alliteration.
Kidding aside, it's an important time for NFL teams: The first gathering of new arrivals and old standbys. For rookie players, it's the first opportunity to interact on the practice field with their veteran counterparts. For new coaches, it's the first chance to install new schemes and put their stamp on a franchise.
It's not quite training camp proper. But every team has a to-do list.
For many, it's time to start sorting out depth charts and coaching up youngsters. For others, it's a chance to get a look at players coming off injury. Or to make a late addition to fill a need.
And for at least one team, it's time to consider saying goodbye to an all-time great.
It would be impossible to offer a comprehensive list of everything that every team needs to get done—in no small part because said list can change on a dime.
But here are a few matters of business that all 32 teams need to get checked off before the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers meet September 9.
- Get the Young ILBs Ready
- Sort Out the Backfield Pecking Order
- Determine a Starter at RG
Over the first half of the 2020 season, the Arizona Cardinals looked like a playoff team. But a second-half swoon cost the Redbirds a trip to the postseason. Arizona was active in the offseason, but with all the changes comes work to do.
With the addition of Tulsa's Zaven Collins, the Cardinals have spent their first pick on an inside linebacker in back-to-back drafts. Arizona has enough confidence in Collins and Isaiah Simmons to give veteran Jordan Hicks permission to seek a trade, per NFL.com's Ian Rapoport. But Collins hasn't played an NFL snap yet, and Simmons made just seven starts a year ago. The pair needs some coaching.
The backfield saw significant changes as well after Kenyan Drake's departure. Fourth-year veteran Chase Edmonds is reportedly determined to nail down the starting role, but he has never carried the ball even 100 times in a season and will have to hold off a challenge from James Conner, who served as a featured back during his time in Pittsburgh.
There is also a camp battle brewing at right guard. Justin Murray made seven starts for the Cardinals last year and didn't allow a sack in over 600 snaps, per Pro Football Focus. Veteran Brian Winters started nine games for a 13-win Bills team in 2020. And Josh Jones, a 2017 second-rounder, while short on experience, possesses considerable talent.
- Trade Julio Jones
- Overhaul the Defense
- Determine a Starting Left Guard
After a 4-12 season, the Atlanta Falcons are teetering on the edge of a ground-up rebuild.
Frankly, the best thing for the franchise could be a good, hard push.
The longer that trade rumors swirl around veteran wideout Julio Jones, the worse it will be for a new Atlanta regime that doesn't need distractions. If the cap-strapped Falcons are serious about dealing the 32-year-old, and he's serious about wanting a trade, as he told FS1's Undisputed (via ESPN.com) he is, then once the calendar turns to June, general manager Terry Fontenot needs to take the best offer he can get.
The Jones saga isn't the only major storyline in Atlanta. With Dean Pees coming out of retirement to coordinate Arthur Smith's defense, the Falcons will feature more 3-4 looks in the base defense. For some like edge-rusher Dante Fowler Jr. (who has experience playing in the 3-4), it may not be that big of a deal. But it will be a major transition for others.
Atlanta also has a highly unsettled secondary after a number of departures in free agency. A.J. Terrell appears entrenched as one of the starting cornerbacks, but a lot of playing time on the back end is up for grabs.
There is also a sizable question mark along the offensive front, where fourth-year pro Matt Gono, free agent acquisition Josh Andrews and rookie third-round pick Jalen Mayfield will compete to start at left guard.
- Acclimate the New WRs
- Add a Veteran Edge-Rusher
- Get the New-Look OL Squared Away
The Baltimore Ravens are coming off an 11-win season and third consecutive playoff appearance. In the eyes of DraftKings, the Ravens are the favorites to win the AFC North.
But that doesn't mean there aren't a few things that need tightening in camp.
The Ravens continued trying to upgrade the passing weapons around Lamar Jackson in the offseason, double-dipping at wide receiver with the addition of veteran Sammy Watkins in free agency and the selection of first-rounder Rashod Bateman. It's important that Jackson work on developing a rapport with those receivers and that Bateman learn the offense and get his route-running tightened up.
There are also changes up front. After trading Orlando Brown Jr. to Kansas City, the Ravens moved quickly to replace him by signing Alejandro Villanueva. Tenth-year veteran Kevin Zeitler was also signed to start at guard. Both veterans have been around the block a few times, but there are still new line calls and plays to learn.
Penn State's Odafe Oweh will inject some youth and athleticism into the pass rush, but Baltimore's edge-rushers remain a potential weakness. With about $9.8 million in cap space, the Ravens should consider adding a veteran like Justin Houston.
- Extend QB Josh Allen
- Get Young Edge-Rushers Ready
- Settle on a Starter at Guard
The first item on Buffalo's offseason to-do list is a pricey one.
The Bills don't have to extend Josh Allen now—the 25-year-old is under team control through the 2022 season. But after his production exploded a year ago (69.2 completion percentage, 4,544 passing yards, 37 touchdowns), there's no question that Allen is the long-term future under center in Western New York.
The longer the Bills wait to extend him, the more it will cost them.
In the 2021 draft, Buffalo focused heavily on improving the pass rush, using its first two draft picks on edge-rushers. Gregory Rousseau of Miami and Boogie Basham of Wake Forest are both talented and athletic. But there can be a steep learning curve at the position—just ask 2020 second-rounder A.J. Epenesa.
Mario Addison, 33, and Jerry Hughes, 32, aren't getting any younger. The Bills need to get those young pass-rushers ready.
The team also has some sorting out to do in front of Allen on the offensive line. Cody Ford played tackle as a rookie, but after kicking inside to play guard last year, Ford fared well before injuring his knee. He is the favorite to start opposite Jon Feliciano, but he could face a challenge from free-agent acquisition Forrest Lamp and the returning Ike Boettger, who made seven starts last year after Ford got hurt.
- Get Sam Darnold Comfortable in the Offense
- Bring Christian McCaffrey Along Slowly
- Pick a No. 3 Wide Receiver
To be fair, the Carolina Panthers have questions to answer on defense. Who plays where at linebacker (and which linebackers stay on the field on passing downs) is a matter that may not be decided until well into the summer.
But the biggest "to-dos" in Charlotte in 2021 are on offense—largely because the team has a new quarterback in Sam Darnold.
As David Newton reported for ESPN, Panthers coach Matt Rhule noted how important it is that Carolina's young skill-position players get as much work in as possible with the team's 23-year-old signal-caller.
"We have a young team," Rhule said. "It's a chance for us to develop some just very basic skills for a lot of guys, basic knowledge of our system, then try to grow from there."
However, there's one player we probably won't see much of—at least where contact is concerned. There's been nothing to indicate that star running back Christian McCaffrey won't be 100 percent for the season opener after an injury-marred 2020. Still, it's a safe bet that his participation in padded practices will mostly be done in a non-contact jersey.
With Curtis Samuel now catching passes in the nation's capital, the Panthers also need to decide who will serve as the team's third receiver. Free-agent acquisition David Moore is the front-runner in the early going, but if rookie Terrace Marshall Jr. proves to be a quick study, it won't be long before the LSU speedster is on the field.
- Pick a Starting Quarterback
- Lock Up Wide Receiver Allen Robinson II
- Settle on a Third Cornerback
Despite the fact that the Chicago Bears sacrificed their first-round pick in 2022, among other selections, to move up and take Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, Bears head coach Matt Nagy told reporters that heading into camp, veteran Andy Dalton will be the starter:
"Andy is the starter. Andy's going to get the one reps. ... I know that time is the biggest question right now for Justin and I completely understand that, because there is an excitement, there is that want for all of us to see what Justin can do. We'd be lying to you if we didn't say that or believe that. But we got to make sure as we go through this thing that we also do what's best for the Bears and for Justin."
We'll see how long that holds if Fields continues to impress.
Regardless of who Chicago's quarterback is to start the regular season, the Bears would be well-served to lock up the team's No. 1 receiver long term. Allen Robinson II has caught 200 passes over the past two years, topping 1,100 receiving yards both times in spite of mediocre QB play. At some point, Fields will take over, and his odds of success are a lot better with an elite wide receiver making his life easier.
Robinson has earned a payday that should actually free up cap space in the short term.
Defensively, Chicago's boundary corners appear set in Desmond Trufant and Jaylon Johnson. But the nickel role is up for grabs, with Artie Burns, Duke Shelley and rookie Thomas Graham Jr. all potential contenders for the spot.
- Make Sure Joe Burrow's Rehab Stays on Track
- Solidify the Offensive Line
- Sort Out the Pecking Order at Linebacker
The offseason in Cincinnati is all about one thing: Joseph Lee Burrow.
Per ESPN's Adam Schefter, Dr. Neal ElAttrache, who performed Burrow's ACL surgery, said 2020's first overall pick should be ready to rock for Week 1.
"He's on track for full go for start of the season," ElAttrache texted ESPN. "He's doing all the work. He's worked his tail off and been an amazingly mature participant in his recovery. He's focused and great to work with."
Without question, Burrow's health is the most important thing to the Bengals. But in addition to carefully monitoring his rehab, the team also needs to take steps to make sure Burrow doesn't take the beating he did in 2020.
That means getting an offensive line with several new pieces ready for the season. Left tackle Jonah Williams is coming off a serious knee injury. Right tackle Riley Reiff joined the Bengals in free agency. Second-round pick Jackson Carman will make the switch from tackle at Clemson to left guard in the NFL.
There's uncertainty at linebacker. It's a safe bet that youngsters Akeem Davis-Gaither, Germaine Pratt and Logan Wilson will man Cincy's three starting spots. But who starts where (and which linebackers play in sub-packages) may not be known until well into camp.
The Bengals also have a new wide receiver in Ja'Marr Chase. But given his prior relationship with Burrow at LSU, he should fit into the Bengals offense with relative ease.
- Manage Expectations
- Acclimate New Faces on Defense
- Find the Second Starter at CB
In 2019, the Cleveland Browns headed to training camp one of the league's most hyped teams. There was talk of a Super Bowl run.
Instead, the team imploded during a 6-10 nightmare that got head coach Freddie Kitchens fired after one season and reinforced the notion that Cleveland was as snakebitten as franchises get.
Fast-forward to now, and Cleveland is coming off an 11-win season, its first playoff win since the 1994 campaign and a Coach of the Year award for Kevin Stefanski.
The hype is back.
Given that success and an offseason that saw the defense receive an (on paper, anyway) impressive overhaul, the most important thing the Browns have to do in 2021 is tune out the hoopla. Don't listen to the talk of the team being a legitimate threat to the Chiefs in the AFC. Don't look ahead to that Week 1 trip to Arrowhead Stadium just yet.
There's work to do, especially on defense. There are eight new starters, who involve all three levels of the defense—whether it's Jadeveon Clowney up front, Anthony Walker and rookie Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah at linebacker, or Troy Hill and John Johnson III in the secondary.
That's a lot of new faces who will need to learn to play as a unit.
There's also a looming position battle at boundary corner opposite Denzel Ward. With Hill likely slated for the slot, rookie first-rounder Greg Newsome II and third-year pro Greedy Williams will square off in the biggest competition of camp.
- Quinn-ify the Defense
- Sort Out the Linebackers
- Do the Safety Dance
It shouldn't be surprising that the to-do list for the Dallas Cowboys focuses on the defense. Provided quarterback Dak Prescott is healthy for the season opener in Tampa Bay (and there has been nothing to indicate he won't be back from his ankle injury), then the Cowboys offense should be just fine.
The defense, however, struggled last year. And massive changes are coming in 2021.
As Nick Eatman reported for the team's website, head coach Mike McCarthy indicated that Dan Quinn's new defense will feature a blend of three- and four-man fronts. However, it's worth noting this may not be as drastic as it sounds. Quinn ran a 4-3 "under" front in Atlanta that shares many similarities with the 3-4.
There are also new faces on the Cowboys defense. Dallas already had a pair of talented young linebackers in Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, both 25. But after the former struggled with injuries last year and the latter just struggled, Dallas used its first pick in the 2021 draft on the top off-ball linebacker in the class in Micah Parsons of Penn State. The Cowboys doubled down at the position in Round 4, taking LSU's Jabril Cox.
In free agency, they signed veteran strong safety Keanu Neal and versatile defensive back Damontae Kazee. Even though Dallas drafted Parsons and Cox, Quinn insists that the team plans to move Neal to linebacker, per David Helman of the team's official site, which could create quite the logjam.
Whether that change of position sticks (and who slots where in the new-look Dallas defense) will be one of the dominant storylines at Valley Ranch this summer.
- Quarterback Battle!
- Age vs. Youth at Running Back
- Fill the Hole at Right Tackle
The Denver Broncos have been mentioned as a potential landing spot for just about every veteran quarterback who could become available in 2021. But so far, there's no Aaron Rodgers or Deshaun Watson. Instead, veteran Teddy Bridgewater will attempt to unseat Drew Lock under center.
As Mike Klis wrote for 9News, Denver head coach Vic Fangio said the training camp reps between Bridgewater and Lock will be split down the middle. Most pundits consider Bridgewater a slight favorite to win the job, but this competition may not be decided until well into the preseason.
The title of lead running back could be up for grabs as well. Veteran Melvin Gordon III was solid in his first year in Denver, topping 1,100 total yards. But that didn't stop Denver from trading up in Round 2 to select North Carolina running back Javonte Williams.
Per Aric DiLalla of the team's website, Gordon said he's not worried about losing his job.
"You can look at things in two different fashions. With the Javonte situation—you bring in a back in the second round, my contract is about to be up—so you could look at it as, they brought him here to replace me," Gordon said. "Or you can just look at it as, it's just another way for me to get better."
The release of Ja'Wuan James also opened a hole at right tackle. Denver signed veterans Bobby Massie and Cameron Fleming to compete for the spot, although third-year pro Calvin Anderson could figure in as well.
- Get Jared Goff Ready
- Turn Back the Clock Offensively
- Implement Scheme Switch on Defense
It was tempting to put "stop threatening to bite kneecaps off," but we'll let Dan Campbell have his fun—especially since once the regular season starts, the Detroit Lions are highly unlikely to have any.
Like it or not, for at least the next couple of years, the Lions and Jared Goff are married. Getting the QB up to speed in Anthony Lynn's offense has to be priority No. 1.
The problem for Goff (and the Lions) is Detroit's receiving corps is the league's worst. Tyrell Williams, Breshad Perriman and rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown aren't scaring opposing defenses. This team just isn't set up to grip and rip.
So don't. Implement an offense that takes advantage of the team's excellent pair of offensive tackles, Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow, talented young running back D'Andre Swift and elite tight end T.J. Hockenson. Prioritize efficiency over explosiveness. Try to shorten games and lean on the running attack and defense.
That defense is undergoing major changes, moving from the hybrid fronts of Matt Patricia to more 3-4 looks under Aaron Glenn.
There's a silver lining there. Patricia's penchant for bringing in ex-Patriots like Jamie Collins Sr. and Trey Flowers means that Detroit has several players with experience playing in a three-man front. Even edge-rusher Romeo Okwara played some rush linebacker at Notre Dame.
Green Bay Packers
- Mend Fences with Aaron Rodgers
- Mend Fences with Aaron Rodgers
- Mend Fences with Aaron Rodgers
There's only one thing on Green Bay's to-do list in 2021. Or at least only one thing that matters: Putting a stop to the Aaron Rodgers soap opera and doing whatever it takes to smooth things over with the 2020 NFL MVP.
As Nick Shook noted for NFL.com, from the moment reports broke that Rodgers was unhappy in Green Bay, Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst has insisted that not only would Rodgers not be traded, but also that player and team would work out a contract extension.
"I'm not gonna get into contract specifics, but Aaron's our guy," Gutekunst said. "He's gonna be our quarterback for the foreseeable future. We're excited about the things we're gonna try to accomplish here over the next couple years. We certainly think that with the contract that you're kinda talking about, it's something we'll work through."
There have been reports that Rodgers wants Gutekunst fired, which is about the only thing the Packers can't do—it would set a terrible precedent and could draw the ire of the league's other owners.
However, that's the only thing the team should balk at. If Rodgers wants a raise, so be it. If trading for Julio Jones would make him happy, do the deal.
This team came one game from the Super Bowl each of the last two years. The Super Bowl window is open. Fantasy-land Madden simulations aside, the moment Rodgers leaves the team, that window slams shut so hard the glass breaks.
- Pick a Starting Quarterback
- Implement Lovie Smith's Defense
- Prepare for a long season
We're going to assume that one way or another, Deshaun Watson will not be in Houston when Week 1 rolls around. Per NFL Network's Tom Pelissero, Watson's trade demands haven't changed. Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk reported that some league insiders expect the 22 lawsuits alleging sexual assault or sexual misconduct against him will result in Watson's being placed on paid leave by the league.
He's probably not playing at all in 2021. And if he does, it won't be in Houston.
The Texans will most likely have a horrible season. Houston is arguably the NFL's most talent-deficient franchise, and the offense will either be led by a low-ceiling veteran like Tyrod Taylor, a no-ceiling veteran like Jeff Driskel or a completely unproven commodity in rookie Davis Mills.
With an offense that will be among the NFL's worst, Lovie Smith's defense will face quite a bit of added pressure. This is not good news. The heart and soul of the Houston defense (J.J. Watt) was released in the offseason, and Smith hasn't coached in the pros since 2015.
After years of a 3-4 defense under various coaches in Houston, Smith is implementing the Cover-2 4-3 scheme he has been running for two-plus decades.
It's a major switch for a team that doesn't have a ton of talent on that side of the ball either.
- Resurrect Carson Wentz's Career
- Bring Back edge-rusher Justin Houston
- Perform a Healing Ritual on LT Eric Fisher
The success or failure of the Indianapolis Colts in 2021 will depend largely on whether head coach Frank Reich can turn back the clock with Carson Wentz.
Wentz's best season came in 2017, when Reich was the offensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Indy's head coach told reporters he's confident Wentz can turn things around:
"We talked about why the poor play last year, I'm just very confident that he has a team around him. It's just I think the culture fit. You guys know how I feel about the Eagles, how highly I feel about that organization. But sometimes in sports, this is one of those transitions I think it's going to end up being good for both organizations."
Wentz has a decent supporting cast and a solid offensive line…with one exception. The Colts signed Eric Fisher in free agency, but after tearing his Achilles in the AFC Championship Game, Fisher might not be available for Week 1. That could mean opening the season with Sam Tevi (who was awful in Los Angeles in 2020) on Wentz's blind side.
On defense, the Colts added pass-rush help in the first round in Michigan's Kwity Paye. But with their $14.7 million in cap space, a case can be made for bringing back veteran edge-rusher Justin Houston, who was second on the team with eight sacks last season.
- Get Trevor Lawrence Ready for Week 1
- Overhaul the Defense
- End the Tim Tebow Farce
There isn't a team in the league with more to do in 2021 than the Jacksonville Jaguars. There's a new quarterback in Trevor Lawrence. A new head coach in Urban Meyer. A new defensive scheme under coordinator Joe Cullen.
So of course Meyer is wasting time trying to convert a 33-year-old quarterback, who hasn't played football since 2015, to a tight end.
Tim Tebow is a wildly popular player. From all indications, he's a fine human being. And the Jaguars are thin at tight end. But the odds that this comeback will end well aren't even a little bit good. It's much more likely that Tebow's arrival will cause problems in the locker room than make the Jaguars any better on Sundays.
The time being frittered away on Tebow should be spent on making sure that Lawrence understands the playbook inside and out. And on practice reps helping Lawrence develop a relationship with his new receivers.
With Cullen looking to add more 3-4 looks to the defense, edge-rushers Josh Allen and K'Lavon Chaisson will have to get used to playing off the line, although that's a role that actually fits both better than having a hand in the dirt. Joe Schobert and Myles Jack are the presumptive starters inside, but the Jaguars need to ensure that the pair is up to the new role.
There was already plenty to do in Duval County without adding "bring the circus to town" to the list.
Kansas City Chiefs
- Shake off the Super Bowl Hangover
- Get the New-Look Offensive Line Squared Away
- Decide on Nickel Linebackers
Even though the Kansas City Chiefs got blown out in Super Bowl LV, there isn't another team with better odds to win Super Bowl LVI.
To do so, the Chiefs will have to buck some recent history. Super Bowl losers have long had a penchant for taking a step backward the following season. Each of the last two Super Bowl losers (the Los Angeles Rams in 2018 and San Francisco 49ers in 2019) not only didn't make it back to the big game but also failed to qualify for the postseason the following year.
There are some big changes in Kansas City in 2021. After watching Patrick Mahomes spend the Super Bowl running for his life, the Chiefs took a buzz saw to the offensive line. The team will roll out a completely different line than last season, with center Austin Blythe, guard Joe Thuney and tackle Mike Remmers coming over in free agency, tackle Orlando Brown Jr. coming over via trade and guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif re-joining the team after opting out in 2020.
It's an impressive line on paper. But one that needs practice reps to jell.
There is also a decision to be made at linebacker. Anthony Hitchens has the edge in experience, but he's an average talent at best and Kansas City used its first draft pick this year on an off-ball linebacker in Nick Bolton.
Either Bolton or second-year pro Willie Gay Jr. could push Hitchens for a three-down role in the middle of the Chiefs defense.
Las Vegas Raiders
- Shore Up the Rebuilt O-Line
- Get Henry Ruggs III Going
- Sort Out the Safeties
The Las Vegas Raiders made a litany of moves in free agency and the draft in an effort to get back to the playoffs under Jon Gruden. Many of those moves were confusing.
In recent years, the offensive line has been a strength. But the team traded tackle Trent Brown, center Rodney Hudson and guard Gabe Jackson in rapid succession during free agency. That ratchets up the pressure on rookie Alex Leatherwood, Andre James and Denzelle Good to prove in camp that they are ready for full-time roles.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Raiders didn't do a ton to upgrade the wide receiver corps, although they did replace the departed Nelson Agholor with John Brown. Tight end Darren Waller remains the No. 1 option in the Vegas passing game, but wide receivers coach Edgar Bennett needs to coax a big second season from 2020 first-rounder Henry Ruggs III, who underwhelmed as a rookie.
What the Raiders did do was add safeties—lots and lots of safeties. After taking Leatherwood in Round 1, the team used its second pick on TCU safety Trevon Moehrig and then added a safety/linebacker hybrid in Virginia Tech's Divine Deablo in Round 3. That was after bringing back 2016 first-round pick Karl Joseph.
Moehrig and Johnathan Abram appear penciled in as the starting safeties. But Abram has had substantial problems staying healthy, and both he and Deablo could in theory see time as a sub-package linebacker.
There's a lot to sort out.
Los Angeles Chargers
- Coach Up the Offensive Line
- Implement Brandon Staley's Defense
- Pick a Starter at Right Guard
There's quite a bit of optimism in Los Angeles this summer, largely because of the play of Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert. The quarterback set a record for touchdown passes by a rookie last year with 31—a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that he played behind the NFL's worst offensive line, as rated by Pro Football Focus.
That line got a significant influx of talent in the offseason with the addition of Pro Bowl center Corey Linsley in free agency and the selection of mauling Northwestern tackle Rashawn Slater at No. 13. Still, in addition to those new pieces, there's a veteran right tackle returning from back and foot injuries in Bryan Bulaga, a looming position battle at right guard between Oday Aboushi and Brenden Jaimes, and a new offensive line coach in Frank Smith.
Getting that line squared away and functioning as a unit is a major priority for the Bolts.
On defense, even bigger changes are in store. With Brandon Staley moving across SoFi Stadium to take over as the Chargers head coach, we should see a scheme featuring more three-man fronts, ala the defense he coordinated for the Rams.
That means new roles for a number of defenders, including standout pass-rusher Joey Bosa. With Melvin Ingram III no longer on the team, Los Angeles needs someone to fill the role opposite Bosa, with fourth-year pro Uchenna Nwosu the clear front-runner to start at the other rush linebacker spot.
Los Angeles Rams
- Get Matthew Stafford Integrated
- Lat Raheem Morris Put His Stamp on Defense
- Get O-Linemen Comfortable in New Roles
The Los Angeles Rams have been to the postseason two of the past three years (including a Super Bowl trip), but that didn't stop the team from making a massive move in the offseason, mortgaging the future to flip Jared Goff to the Detroit Lions for Matthew Stafford.
As Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times reported, Stafford admitted that after a dozen years in Detroit, he feels like a rookie learning a new system.
"As far as an adjustment goes, I definitely have a big one," told reporters. "Not to the guys, but to the offense, so I can operate and let those guys go play."
Getting Stafford up to speed is obviously the biggest priority in L.A., but it isn't the only one. Brandon Staley's departure for the Chargers job means a new defensive coordinator in Raheem Morris, and while there won't be any sea changes to the scheme, there will be tweaks and new terminology.
There's also a shuffle along the offensive line. Austin Corbett is moving inside to center from right guard. The now-open slot at right guard will ostensibly be manned by third-year pro Bobby Evans.
Again, not a huge change. But after fielding Pro Football Focus' third-best O-line last year, it's important the Rams not backslide substantially in that regard.
- Get Tua and His New Receivers in Sync
- Settle on a Right Tackle
- Get Jaelan Phillips Ready for a Rookie Impact
Given where the Miami Dolphins were as a franchise a couple of years ago, the state of the team is quite impressive. If a few things break the right way, Miami could be a legitimate threat to Buffalo in the AFC East.
The biggest of those, of course, is a year-two jump from quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. The Dolphins added a pair of downfield threats in the offseason, signing Will Fuller V in free agency and drafting Jaylen Waddle sixth overall.
It's important that Tagovailoa get a normal offseason in 2021 so he can work on building a relationship with those new receivers. But it's also important that Miami's young offensive line evolve. Since Tagovailoa is a southpaw, the right tackle position becomes all the more important. And whether it's Robert Hunt (who was average at best in 2020) or rookie second-rounder Liam Eichenberg, the Miami coaching staff needs to coax a better season from the right tackle spot.
The team spent the second of two first-round picks (No. 18 overall) on some edge help in the form of the Miami Hurricanes' Jaelan Phillips. Emmanuel Ogbah had a career year for the Dolphins last season, but it will be difficult to maintain that level of production without some help on the other side.
- Get Danielle Hunter Ready to Rebound
- Settle the Guard Spot Opposite Ezra Cleveland
- Sort out the Corners Behind Patrick Peterson
The Minnesota Vikings were one of the NFL's more disappointing teams a year ago, in part because the defense faltered both up front and on the back end.
The issues on the defensive line were tied mainly to the neck injury that cost edge-rusher Danielle Hunter the entire 2020 season. In 2019, with Hunter's 14.5 sacks paving the way, Minnesota posted the fifth-most sacks (48) in the league. With Hunter on the shelf last year, the Vikes posted the fifth-fewest sacks—just 23 for the season.
The impact of Hunter's return can't be overstated, and Minnesota should play it safe with easing him back in.
The team's lack of a pass rush last season exposed a subpar cadre of cornerbacks. That group still isn't elite, although Minnesota signed veteran Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson and brought back slot corner Mackensie Alexander after his one bad year in Cincinnati.
However, the cornerbacks outside that duo could be an issue. As is often the case with rookies, Cameron Dantzler had an up-and-down first season in 2020. Adding a veteran free agent at the position wouldn't be a bad idea.
In addition, Jeff Gladney could face league and legal discipline after being arrested and charged with felony family violence assault in April.
There's also a battle brewing at guard opposite Ezra Cleveland. 2020 starter Dakota Dozier was a liability, committing nine penalties and allowing six sacks in just under 1,100 snaps, per Pro Football Focus. With both Mason Cole and rookie Wyatt Davis in town, this is likely the most wide-open position fight on the team.
New England Patriots
- Trade for Julio Jones
- Give Mac Jones a Legit Opportunity to Start
- Decide on a Replacement for Joe Thuney
Until Julio Jones is traded (which appears likely) speculation about his next team will be one of the league's dominant storylines. The New England Patriots will no doubt be mentioned as a possible destination in more articles than not. But there's at least one thing the Pats have going for them that many other suitors don't.
Jones reportedly is intrigued by the idea of playing with Cam Newton in New England, per NBC Sports Boston's Michael Holley.
New England took steps to improve the wideout corps with the addition of Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, but Jones is the No. 1 wideout the Patriots lack.
If New England is serious about a quick return to contention, it needs to be serious about Julio Jones as well.
The flip side of that reported interest is that New England also needs to give rookie quarterback Mac Jones a fair shake at unseating Newton as the team's starter. Newton was a great player in his heyday, but that is the past.
Mac Jones is (hopefully) the future for New England, and he was arguably the most pro-ready signal-caller in the class. If he's ready, there's zero reason to delay giving him the ball.
The Patriots also need to address a major hole along the offensive line—the loss of guard Joe Thuney to the Chiefs in free agency. Michael Onwenu is the favorite there after he fared well at tackle in 2020, but he could also be needed on the outside if Isaiah Wynn or Trent Brown struggle to stay on the field again.
New Orleans Saints
- Name a Starting Quarterback
- Coax a Pass Rush Opposite Cameron Jordan
- Decide on a Second Sub-package Linebacker
So there's kind of a big change in New Orleans this year. Something about a guy named Breeze or someone retiring.
While appearing on The Rich Eisen Show, Saints head coach Sean Payton indicated that the battle to replace Drew Brees between Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill won't morph into a two-headed quarterback. Payton wants "a guy."
"If Jameis is starting, obviously Taysom has a role that expands not only just offensively, but on special teams, etc.," he said. "And if it's the other way around, it's probably a little bit more limited just relative to what Jameis would do."
Winston is no doubt the more accomplished passer, while Hill brings a dual-threat ability that Winston can't match.
DraftKings has installed Winston as a clear favorite to win the job. But there won't likely be a resolution here for some time.
The defense has issues to resolve too. After Trey Hendrickson left in free agency, the Saints need an edge-rusher opposite Cameron Jordan, whether it's veteran Marcus Davenport or rookie Payton Turner.
New Orleans has one linebacker locked into an every-down role in Demario Davis, but the second spot is up for grabs. Ohio State's Pete Werner was a Day 2 pick this year and has the range for the role, but Zack Baun has the benefit of a year in coordinator Dennis Allen's scheme.
There's no clear front-runner there.
New York Giants
- Coach Up Danny Dimes
- Figure Out the Right Side of the OL
- Settle on a No. 2 Edge-Rusher
The New York Giants have been busy in both free agency and the draft ahead of a make-or-break season for third-year signal-caller Daniel Jones.
But there is still quite a bit of work ahead.
New York has certainly afforded Jones weaponry in the passing game—in addition to holdovers Darius Slayton, Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram, the G-Men signed free-agent receiver Kenny Golladay and drafted Florida's Kadarius Toney in Round 1 of the 2021 draft.
The weapons might be there, but the offensive line is still a mess. Veteran tackle Nate Solder opted out in 2020 but was awful in 2019, allowing a whopping 11 sacks in just over 1,000 snaps, per Pro Football Focus. Andrew Thomas, the fourth pick in 2020, wasn't a lot better—while he improved over the season's second half, he surrendered 10 sacks of his own. Like it or not, those are the likely tackles, although second-year pro Matt Peart could figure in.
The right guard spot is also unsettled after Kevin Zeitler left for Baltimore, with a pair of subpar options in Shane Lemieux (five sacks allowed in 504 snaps in 2020 with an atrocious grade of 32.2 at PFF) and free-agent add Zach Fulton (and his 11 sacks allowed in Houston a year ago) competing to see who can get Jones killed first.
There's at least a little more room for optimism at the second edge-rusher spot opposite Lorenzo Carter, with Oshane Ximines (4.5 sacks in 2019) and rookie Azeez Ojulari offering a pair of young, athletic pass-rushers who at least could form a decent rotation.
New York Jets
- Add a Veteran Mentor for Zach Wilson
- Figure Out the Backfield Mess
- Bring in a Veteran Cornerback
The good news for the New York Jets is the team is better on paper than it was a couple of months ago.
The bad news is that the Jets still have as many holes as any team.
They hope to have found their quarterback of the future in BYU's Zach Wilson. And barring a disaster, Wilson will start the season opener against Sam Darnold and the Carolina Panthers on Sept. 12. But the depth chart behind Wilson consists of James Morgan and Mike White.
No, really. That's it.
Peter King of NBC Sports recently recommended Chicago's Nick Foles as a potential veteran backup for Wilson. Matt Barkley is still available. Those admittedly aren't names that move the needle much, but the Jets don't want to. They just need a body who has actually played quarterback in the NFL.
Similarly, the Jets would be well-served by using some of their $25 million in cap space to bolster perhaps the weakest cornerback corps in the NFL. Free agent Steven Nelson would be the best corner on the team from the moment he arrived in New York.
The Jets won't find a starting running back this late in free agency. And frankly, given the options on the team (Tevin Coleman, Ty Johnson, La'Mical Perine and rookie Michael Carter) Gang Green appears headed toward a committee attack.
But even that lackluster bunch needs a leader. The Jets need to decide who that will be.
- Light a Fire Under Jalen Reagor
- Trade Zach Ertz
- Bring in a (Cheap) Veteran Cornerback
As Mike Gill wrote for ESPN Radio 97.3, Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said recently that Zach Ertz remains a valued member of the team.
"This isn't a guy in the twilight of his career," Roseman said May 1. "He's a guy still in his prime. A year ago at this time everyone was talking about where he ranked with the top tight ends in the league."
The reality is that Ertz is an aging player coming off a down year who's on a team with next to no cap space and carries a cap hit of $12.7 million in 2021. There has been trade speculation surrounding the 30-year-old for months.
With the Eagles in a rebuild, Roseman needs to swallow his pride, be real about what he can reasonably expect to get in an Ertz trade and get his salary off the books.
It's money that could be used to add a veteran cornerback that Philly desperately needs. The Eagles have Darius Slay (who struggled last year), Avonte Maddox and K'Von Wallace as their top three corners. Philly added Zech McPhearson on the third day of the 2021 draft, but the odds he'll make any real impact defensively aren't great.
From a coaching standpoint, if there's one thing the Eagles need to focus on, it's getting a year-two jump from wide receiver Jalen Reagor, who was drafted 21st overall in 2020.
Reagor managed just 31 catches for 396 yards and a touchdown as a rookie—disappointing numbers for a wideout taken one pick ahead of Justin Jefferson.
Reagor should benefit from DeVonta Smith's arrival in Philadelphia. But he badly needs to up his game in 2021.
- Decide on Big Ben's Backup
- Choose the No. 2 and No. 3 Cornerbacks
- See What the Rookie O-Linemen Can Do
Normally, a backup quarterback battle behind an established veteran with Pro Bowl nods all over his resume is a yawner.
But when that veteran is a 39-year-old in obvious decline who had a major injury a couple of years ago, it is considerably more interesting.
Mason Rudolph has the experience edge on Dwayne Haskins, at least in terms of knowledge of the Pittsburgh Steelers offense. The team just re-upped the 25-year-old for next year too. But Haskins was a 2019 first-round pick who made 13 starts for the Washington Football Team. He also has better arm talent than Rudolph.
Of more importance to Pittsburgh's immediate prospects are the situations at cornerback and along the offensive line.
At corner, Joe Haden and Cameron Sutton are the best options. But Sutton is best-suited to play the slot. If second-year pro James Pierre or third-year pro Justin Layne can play outside, Sutton could move inside. Otherwise, the 26-year-old Sutton will probably land on the boundary, and free agent journeyman Arthur Maulet will play the slot.
Pittsburgh is also looking to improve an offensive line that lost three starters. It drafted Illinois guard Kendrick Green in Round 3 and followed with Texas A&M tackle Dan Moore Jr. in Round 4.
If the two are quick to adapt to the NFL, it's possible they could get significant playing time at center and left tackle. In any event, the Steelers needed the depth.
San Francisco 49ers
- Take It Slow with Trey Lance
- Give Trey Sermon a Chance to Start
- Bring Back Richard Sherman
The San Francisco 49ers made it abundantly clear they are looking to the future under center, sending three first-round picks to the Dolphins to move up and choose North Dakota State's Trey Lance with the No. 3 selection.
Lance's athleticism and arm talent are indisputable. But he is an FCS quarterback who played in all of one game last year. If Lance can prove he gives the Niners the best chance to win, then that's fine. But Jimmy Garoppolo led San Francisco to a Super Bowl two years ago.
So long as he's healthy, the club could do worse. Don't trade him just to do it.
The 49ers also need to bring back another face from that Super Bowl run in cornerback Richard Sherman. As things stand, Jason Verrett, K'Waun Williams and Emmanuel Moseley are the top three cornerbacks.
But there's little depth behind that trio, Verrett has an extensive injury history, and the NFC West is loaded with high-end wide receivers. The Niners have the wiggle room against the cap for a one-year deal.
Make it happen.
San Francisco bolstered its depth in the offensive backfield with a pair of draft picks, beginning with Ohio State's Trey Sermon in the third-round.
Sermon is a downhill runner with a mean streak who doesn't dance around. He's an excellent fit for Kyle Shanahan's one-cut scheme, and it's not hard to imagine his performing his way into a prominent role.
- Get Ready for the Last Rodeo
- Shuffle the New-Look Secondary
- Bring Back OLB K.J. Wright
There's been no shortage of speculation about Russell Wilson's relationship with the Seattle Seahawks front office. There have been rumblings about trade requests and offers and rumors galore.
Per Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated, in a recent appearance on The Rich Eisen Show, head coach Pete Carroll downplayed the hoopla. But in that same article, Breer said he expected Wilson's contract to be his last with Seattle.
If that's the case, and the day could be coming when trading Wilson makes more sense than keeping him (as bizarre as that sounds), then that reality needs to permeate everything the Seahawks do this year. "Win now" will take on a whole new meaning.
If the opportunity to receive a high pick presents itself, do it. Once Wilson is gone, a rebuild is coming anyway.
These Seahawks are at least well-positioned to be contenders, though there are potential problem areas. The secondary looks nothing like it did during the team's Legion of Boom heyday. There's one star (safety Jamal Adams) who might as well be a linebacker, a capable free safety in Quandre Diggs and a boatload of question marks at cornerback.
Free agent addition Ahkello Witherspoon and youngster D.J. Reed are penciled in as the top two corners with Pierre Desir and Tre Flowers not far behind. But who slots where is a question that may not be answered for a good long while.
Finally, while long-time Seahawk K.J. Wright isn't the player he once was, he was still productive enough last year to rank second on the team in tackles.
He's worth a one-year deal and a swan song with the team that drafted him in the fourth round in 2011.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Don't Get Complacent
- Don't Fix What Isn't Broken
- Let the Youngsters Get as Many Reps as Possible
Frankly, trying to put together a to-do list for the Super Bowl champions is a little silly. Most of it is already to-done.
This is a team that is returning all 22 starters from the squad that blew the Kansas City Chiefs off the field at Raymond James Stadium. It's gross.
With some organizations, complacency might be a potential issue. It's hardly unheard of for players to let success go to their heads. But the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are led by a veteran coach in Bruce Arians and a quarterback in Tom Brady who hasn't gotten complacent despite owning more Super Bowl rings than any team.
All Tampa Bay needs to do is keep doing what it's been doing. There's no need to make major changes to the offense. Or mess with the defense. Or overwork the veteran team on the practice field.
This bunch knows what it's doing.
OTAs and training camp will likely feature a lot of young players such as edge-rusher Joe Tryon and quarterback Kyle Trask getting acclimated to the pros and position battles for depth spots, special teams gigs and practice squad slots.
Barring a major injury, it will probably be boring.
And then the regular season will start and things will liven up quickly.
- Sort Out the Revamped Passing Game
- Figure Out the Rotation at Cornerback
- Pick a Right Tackle
It has gone largely unnoticed, but for a team that made the playoffs in each of the last two years (and reached the AFC Championship Game two years ago), free agency was not especially kind to the Tennessee Titans.
The team's top two cornerbacks, Malcolm Butler and Adoree' Jackson, are gone. So is Tennessee's No. 2 wide receiver, Corey Davis, and top tight end, Jonnu Smith. Last year's first-round pick, tackle Isaiah Wilson, was a waste.
Given those holes, there are a lot of questions to be answered in OTAs and training camp.
Free agent addition Janoris Jenkins is locked in to one corner spot. But the questions start piling up. Can first-round pick Caleb Farley stay healthy and make a quick adjustment to the NFL? Can Kristian Fulton work past his own injury issues and build on the flashes he showed a year ago?
Mind you, the Tennessee pass defense ranked 29th in the league in 2020. The Titans can't afford to get worse.
At wide receiver, they have a budding superstar in A.J. Brown, a capable veteran slot in Josh Reynolds, a fourth-round rookie in Dez Fitzpatrick and...not much else.
After Jack Conklin departed via free agency in 2020, a right tackle spot that was a strength became a weakness—but the team addressed it this year. Kendall Lamm has been OK when pushed into starting duty, but he's better suited to being a reserve. That means a starting job is there for the taking for second-round rookie Dillon Radunz, who is talented but raw.
Washington Football Team
- Acclimate the Offense's New Faces
- Get LB Jamin Davis up to Speed
- Figure Out the Third Cornerback Spot
If the Washington Football Team is going to repeat as NFC East champion and improve on last season's 7-9 record, it will have to take a big step forward on offense.
To that end, Washington added a new quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick. The sooner he gets up to speed with Scott Turner's scheme (and his new teammates), the better. This may actually be an instance wherein the 38-year-old's career travels could come in handy.
Given that this is his ninth (!) team, learning a new offense should be old hat for Fitzpatrick.
There's also a new receiver in town in Curtis Samuel, but he has familiarity with Turner and head coach Ron Rivera from their time together in Carolina.
On defense, there are a couple of areas that need to be smoothed over. Washington didn't spend a top-20 pick on outside linebacker Jamin Davis so he could hold down a bench with his backside—the former Kentucky standout will be expected to earn an every-down role on the weak side.
At cornerback, William Jackson III and Kendall Fuller are entrenched atop the depth chart. But there are questions behind them. If third-round pick Benjamin St-Juste can adapt quickly to the pro game, Washington could use him in sub-packages on the boundary while moving Fuller inside. Otherwise, the team will likely turn to veteran Jimmy Moreland, who offers experience and versatility but lacks St-Juste's athleticism and length.
Stats via Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted. Salary-cap information via Over the Cap.
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