Biggest Winners and Losers of 2021 NFL Offseason
The NFL offseason is generally a time for optimism. Every team is undefeated, and big free-agent additions and rookie draft picks only add to the excitement level. Many teams appear to be improved on paper, and some new players look like Pro Bowlers in the making.
However, where there are winners, there are losers. For every team that landed a prized prospect, another missed out. Every time a player walks into a starting role, another is likely to lose his. While the offseason isn't quite over and plenty has yet to be settled in training camp, we can get a good idea of which players, teams, coaches and fanbases have more reasons for optimism than others.
Here, we'll examine the biggest winners and losers of the 2021 offseason thus far. We'll look at five from each end of the spectrum and dig into where they stand heading into training camp.
Winner: New York Jets
The New York Jets haven't done a lot of winning recently, but their 2021 offseason has been nothing short of a victory. They kicked things off by ousting head coach Adam Gase and (hopefully) the dysfunction that came with him.
New York replaced Gase with respected coach Robert Saleh and hired offensive guru Mike LaFleur to coach the offense. It then traded 2018 draft disappointment Sam Darnold and tapped BYU's Zach Wilson as the quarterback of the future with the No. 2 pick.
Wilson has the tools needed to be the Jets' long-coveted franchise signal-caller.
"Overall, Wilson is a legit franchise QB prospect who will add excitement and explosive plays to whatever offense he joins," Nate Tice of the B/R scouting department wrote.
The Jets further bolstered their offense by drafting guard Alijah Vera-Tucker, wideout Elijah Moore and running back Michael Carter. Toss in notable free-agent additions like Corey Davis, Tevin Coleman, Carl Lawson and Vinny Curry, and it's hard not to be impressed with what the Jets have accomplished in a few short months.
Loser: Minnesota Vikings
The Jets landed their quarterback in April's draft. So did the Chicago Bears, who traded up to No. 11 to take Ohio State's Justin Fields. The Minnesota Vikings, however, missed out on the quarterback they wanted.
The Vikings wanted Fields and lost him to a bitter division rival.
"As disclosed in a video published by the Panthers, the Vikings called Carolina in an attempt to trade up from No. 14 to No. 8 in the first round of the 2021 draft," Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk wrote. "Per a league source, the Vikings were targeting quarterback Justin Fields."
Minnesota's desire to nab Fields suggests their time with Kirk Cousins is running short. While the Vikings did take Texas A&M's Kellen Mond in the third round, he was not the team's first choice.
Perhaps Mond will develop well and work out as Minnesota's future starter. However, if Fields goes on to have a long and fruitful career with the Bears, the Vikings are going to wish they pulled the trigger on a trade.
Winner: Bengals QB Joe Burrow
I've been critical of the Cincinnati Bengals' decision to pass on Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell with the fifth pick in the draft. That hasn't changed. Joe Burrow appears to be a franchise quarterback, and protecting him with a player some view as a Hall of Fame-type talent would have been a wise choice.
Burrow is also coming off a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee, so protecting him this upcoming season is even more important. Still, he comes out of the offseason as a winner. Instead of Sewell, the Bengals snagged Burrow's former LSU teammate in wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, and they are already clicking.
"Right back where it was," Burrow said, per Tyler Dragon of the Cincinnati Enquirer.
While the Bengals did pass on Sewell, they didn't completely ignore a line that allowed Burrow to be sacked 32 times in 10 games last year, as they signed tackle Riley Reiff in free agency and added guard Jackson Carman in the second round.
Cincinnati also took steps to improve its defense—adding Trey Hendrickson, Eli Apple, Larry Ogunjobi and Mike Hilton—which should take some pressure off Burrow.
The Bengals should have a more complete roster this season and should provide Burrow with a much better offensive supporting cast.
Loser: 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo
Like the Jets and Bears, the San Francisco 49ers have a new quarterback in Trey Lance after they traded up to No. 3 in the draft. If the North Dakota State product can live up to his physical potential, it'll be a massive long-term win for the San Francisco faithful.
"He will take some time to develop his consistency as a thrower and to the speed of the NFL game, but Lance's natural traits and work ethic make his upside sky-high, with more nuance to his game that suggests his floor is higher than meets the eye," B/R's Nate Tice wrote.
For incumbent Jimmy Garoppolo, however, the selection of Lance spells the end for him in San Francisco.
Garoppolo has struggled to solidify himself as the 49ers' long-term answer, largely because of injuries. He has missed 23 games over the past three seasons, though he did help take the 49ers to the Super Bowl in his lone healthy campaign in 2019.
However, the addition of Lance puts a fast clock on Garoppolo's 49ers career. He has two years remaining on his contract but only $2.8 million in dead money. San Francisco could part with him with no real financial consequences virtually the second that Lance is ready to claim the starting gig.
Winner: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the defending Super Bowl champs, and they have as good a chance as any team in recent memory of repeating. Thanks to a stellar offseason, the Buccaneers are bringing back all 22 offensive and defensive starters.
Wideout Chris Godwin? He's back on the franchise tag. Pass-rusher Shaquil Barrett? He got a four-year, $68 million deal. Leonard Fournette, Antonio Brown, Ndamukong Suh and Rob Gronkowski? They're all back as well.
Further strengthening the Tampa offseason is the fact that, well, the Buccaneers will actually have one. With no preseason and a largely virtual offseason in 2020, it took some time for new additions like Brady to get going.
This offseason, Brady and Co. have hit the ground running.
"The difference in him knowing the playbook, knowing what he likes and what he doesn't like, and us knowing what to expect in terms of ball placement, velocity on the ball. All those things really do help," Godwin said, per Luke Easterling of Bucs Wire.
As offseason winners go, the Buccaneers may already be the biggest of 2021.
Loser: Patriots QB Cam Newton
On one hand, New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton was a winner during free agency. He re-signed with the Patriots and watched as New England added pass-catchers Hunter Henry, Nelson Agholor, Jonnu Smith and Kendrick Bourne.
On the other hand, Newton is in a situation similar to that of Jimmy Garoppolo: His time with his current team could be nearing its end.
The Patriots used the 15th pick on Alabama's Mac Jones. While Jones may not unseat Newton before Week 1, he may at some point in 2021. This is a problem for Newton, whose contract is heavily incentive-based.
NFL Network's Mike Garafolo reported that his deal only has a base value of $5 million—with up to $9 million more based on incentives.
"Pro Bowl, All-Pro, MVP, Super Bowl MVP, etc," Garafolo tweeted.
Newton not only stands to eventually lose the starting job to Jones, but he also figures to lose a considerable amount of potential income if Jones takes over this season.
Winner: Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa
Tua Tagovailoa's biggest offseason win came when the Miami Dolphins decided not to draft a quarterback in the first round. Miami was in prime signal-caller position at No. 3 overall, but it traded the pick to San Francisco, all but confirming that Tagovailoa would be the starter in 2021.
"The kid's been a winner everywhere he's been. I'm really excited for him, especially to have an offseason under his belt, and I think that'll be really important for him," general manager Chris Grier said of Tagovailoa before the draft, per NFL Media's Nick Shook.
Instead of drafting a quarterback, Miami grabbed Tagovailoa's former Alabama teammate in receiver Jaylen Waddle at No. 6. The Dolphins also added wideout Will Fuller and running back Malcolm Brown in free agency.
Tua went 6-3 as a rookie last season, and the new reinforcements should only help the offense.
He will have to take that next step as well, but he has the organization's backing. In that sense, it's hard not to consider Tagovailoa a winner.
Loser: Houston Texans
The Houston Texans offseason began with quarterback Deshaun Watson requesting a trade. Things got much worse from there.
Watson is facing lawsuits by 22 women alleging sexual assault and misconduct. Presumably, teams would be hesitant to make a deal until Watson's lawsuits are resolved, and he could face serious league discipline.
Houston's window of trading Watson for a massive return is likely over, though the team has stated it will make a decision on his future sooner than later.
"As we get more information, as we get closer to training camp, we'll try to make the best decision for the Houston Texans, whatever that entails," general manager Nick Caserio told Sports Radio 610 (h/t Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk).
There's virtually no chance that Watson suits up for the Texans this season, and Houston will likely field some combination of Tyrod Taylor and rookie Davis Mills at quarterback. That's a disappointing development in and of itself—Watson played at a near-MVP level last season—but failing to deal him when his value was still high might be the biggest loss of the Texans offseason.
Winner: Browns DC Joe Woods
Kevin Stefanski is an offensive head coach, and the Cleveland Browns gave him plenty of weapons in 2020. Between Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Baker Mayfield and an impressive offensive line, Stefanski had all the pieces needed to install his offense and make Cleveland a winner.
Defensive coordinator Joe Woods, however, had Myles Garrett, Denzel Ward and a lot of question marks. His unit finished 17th overall and 21st in points allowed.
Fortunately, general manager Andrew Berry gifted Woods with plenty of weapons this offseason. Between Jadeveon Clowney, John Johnson III, Troy Hill, Anthony Walker, Greg Newsome II and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Woods should now have the talent and speed needed to match up with some of the top offenses in the NFL.
"When you look around the league, the league is becoming more of you see teams spreading you out and quick throws. It is becoming more matchups and space," Woods said, per Jared Mueller of Browns Wire.
Woods' defense could go from being a liability to a strength in 2021.
Loser: Packers Fanbase
Reigning MVP and longtime Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers reportedly wants out of Green Bay. The Packers have 2020 first-round pick Jordan Love at quarterback but appear unwilling to trade Rodgers this offseason.
The organization and Rodgers are at a crossroads, and the Packers faithful are caught in the middle.
While Rodgers has largely been quiet on the issue, the Packers have not and seem willing to paint him as the bad guy—or at least the one responsible for dividing the franchise.
"The situation we face with Aaron Rodgers has divided our fanbase," Packers CEO Mark Murphy wrote on the team's official website. "The emails and letters that I've received reflect this fact. As I wrote here last month, we remain committed to resolving things with Aaron."
Green Bay was always going to turn the page from Rodgers to Love at some point, but with Rodgers playing at an MVP level, it didn't seem like the time would come this offseason. As things stand, however, Packers fans are left knowing that Green Bay has a championship-caliber roster that could be wasted on an inexperienced quarterback. There's simply no telling if Rodgers will report or if the Packers can get any noteworthy return for him before the start of the regular season.
For a fanbase that should be excited coming off of back-to-back NFC Championship appearances, the ongoing Rodgers drama has created a bleak situation.
Contract information via Spotrac.