Ranking the Top 10 NFL Offseason Dominoes Left to Fall Before 2021 Season Starts
There's plenty we know about the state of the NFL in 2021.
We know that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs will probably win their divisions. We know that the Cincinnati Bengals and the New York Jets most likely won't. We know these things for a variety of reasons, including what has happened so far this offseason.
With that said, there's quite a bit up in the air. There are a few prominent veteran free agents who have to find places to play in 2021. Others could be on the verge of signing contracts that will provide them with a lifetime of financial security. A fistful of quarterback battles have yet to be resolved. And the future of a pair of superstars is uncertain.
How all of those situations play out doesn't just affect the teams involved. It affects the others in the division. And the conference. And the opponents of that team each week.
That's the thing about dominoes. Knock one over, and who knows how many more will fall.
10. Free-Agent Flea Market
Just about every year, there are a handful of big names who languish well into the summer before they find a new home.
The summer of 2021 is no different. In fact, thanks in part to this year's reduced salary cap, there are multiple Pro Bowl players still looking for work.
Cornerback Richard Sherman: There have been numerous landing spots mentioned for the three-time first-team All-Pro, including reunions with the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. The 33-year-old said recently he's waiting for the right fit.
"I want to get to a team that's competing for a championship, so that's what I'm focused on and waiting for a right opportunity," Sherman said, per Bloomberg's Ritika Gupta. "When it comes, that's where I'll be."
Edge Justin Houston: At 32 years old, Houston isn't the player who nearly broke the league's single-season sack record (22.5) in 2014. But he managed to amass 19 sacks over two seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, including eight a year ago.
There have been a number of landing spots mentioned recently for the four-time Pro Bowler, who is 2.5 sacks short of 100 for his career. Bleacher Report's Maurice Moton wrote recently that he expects Houston to land with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
OT Mitchell Schwartz: Were it not for the back injury that cost Schwartz 10 games last year, the 32-year-old would all but certainly still be holding down the strong side of the line in Kansas City. But the Chiefs blew up their line after getting blasted by the Bucs in Super Bowl LV, and Schwartz has yet to find a third NFL home.
However, Schwartz said in February that he plans to be healthy again for the 2021 campaign. If that's the case, there are playoff contenders in Chicago, Pittsburgh and Tennessee who could all use help at right tackle.
9. Contracts for 2022 Free Agents
The impending free agency of players in 2022 might not seem like that large of a domino. Given how the NFL's collective bargaining agreement is structured, holdouts have mostly become a thing of the past.
With that said, there are a number of players whose next deal could have major ramifications, both to the salary cap of the teams looking to retain them and the market at their position.
Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay Packers: The Packers may not know who their quarterback will be in 2021. But regardless of who is under center this year and beyond, it's clear that signal-caller has a much better chance of succeeding if Davante Adams is on the team as well.
The Packers appear to be well aware of this. ESPN's Jeremy Fowler reported Thursday on SportsCenter that Green Bay has begun working on a "massive" extension for the 28-year-old—one that could make him the highest-paid receiver in the NFL.
T.J. Watt, Edge, Pittsburgh Steelers: If Watt's comments at minicamp were any indication, he won't be negotiating his second NFL contract publicly.
"With respect to the process, I'm not going to be talking about any contract stuff," he said on a Zoom call.
Watt may not want to talk about his looming megadeal, but it will be a major topic of conversation until pen is put to paper. After 42.5 sacks over the past three seasons, Watt is headed for a true whopper of a payday. Spotrac estimates that Watt's new pact will average a knee-buckling $25.4 million per season.
Jamal Adams, S, Seattle Seahawks: The Seattle Seahawks gave up a lot to procure Adams from the New York Jets. One year in, it appears to have been a wise move. In his first season with the Seahawks, Adams set an NFL record for sacks by a defensive back (9.5) on the way to this third consecutive Pro Bowl.
Now, however, the bill has come due, and his extension should make him one of the league's highest-paid defensive backs.
"They've been good talks," Seattle head coach Pete Carroll said of contract negotiations, per ESPN's Brady Henderson. "It just hasn't been able to get settled at this point, but it's coming. We expect him for [training] camp, and everything should be fine."
8. Defensive Overhaul in Cleveland
There may not be a team riding more hype into training camp than the Cleveland Browns. Much of that hype is justified. The Browns won 11 games last year and notched their first playoff victory since their return to the NFL in 1999. Per Pro Football Focus, they have the best offensive line in the league.
After a defensive overhaul in the offseason, Cleveland's roster appears to be as bereft of glaring weaknesses as any in the NFL.
However, that new-look defense has a ton of moving parts.
Yes, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney has three Pro Bowl nods on his resume. But the last of those came in 2018, and Clowney was mostly a non-factor last year in Tennessee.
Yes, the Browns added two new starters at linebacker in Anthony Walker and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. But Owusu-Koramoah's next NFL snap will be his first, and while Walker is a capable pro, he's not a difference-maker.
There are three new faces on the back end in safety John Johnson and cornerbacks Troy Hill and Greg Newsome II. There are essentially two more in corner Greedy Williams and safety Grant Delpit, who missed the entire 2020 season with injuries.
Those are a lot of new faces who will need to learn to play together in a hurry, and defensive coordinator Joe Woods has his work cut out for him.
It won't take long to see how Cleveland's new defense will affect the balance of power in the AFC.
The Browns open the regular season Sept. 12 in Kansas City against the Chiefs.
7. Extensions for the QB Class of 2018
The 2018 draft class was headlined by a handful of big-time prospects under center. Five signal-callers were drafted in the first round, including four in the top 10.
It hasn't worked out for everyone. In three seasons, Josh Rosen has gone from being the 10th overall pick to a journeyman backup. Sam Darnold is on his second team, although the Carolina Panthers have already exercised the fifth-year option on their new starter.
The other three first-rounders from 2018, however, are fixing to get paid.
The biggest no-brainer is actually the last player taken in the round. All Lamar Jackson has done in three years in Baltimore is set an NFL record in rushing yards for a quarterback, become the only QB in league history to gain over 1,000 yards on the ground in back-to-back seasons and led the Ravens to the playoffs three times.
Oh, yeah. And he was the NFL's most valuable player in 2019. If you're into that sort of thing.
Josh Allen's coming-out party came in 2020, when the Bills quarterback completed 69.2 percent of his passes for 4,544 yards and 37 touchdowns while adding another eight scores on the ground. The Bills won 13 games (tied for the most in franchise history) and made the AFC title game, while Allen was the runner-up to Aaron Rodgers in MVP voting.
Cleveland's Baker Mayfield hasn't enjoyed the statistical success of Allen or Jackson, and he struggled in 2019 after setting a new (since broken) high-water mark for touchdown passes by a rookie. But Mayfield rebounded last year, leading the Browns to their first playoff win since the mid-90s.
Jackson and Allen are locks to get deals north of $40 million per season. Mayfield isn't far behind. And while all three are under contract through at least 2022, the longer their teams wait to sign them, the more expensive their extensions will become.
It's not just a matter of the impact on their teams' salary caps either. Once the first of the dominoes falls, a baseline will be set—a baseline that the other two quarterbacks will want to exceed.
6. Windy City Showdown
That went over about as well as you'd expect. But the jeers turned to jubilation when the Bears moved up in the first round of the 2021 draft to select Ohio State's Justin Fields.
The party didn't last long, though, because head coach Matt Nagy continues to insist that Dalton will be under center when the Bears kick off the regular season Sept. 12 against the Rams in Los Angeles, per Patrick Finley of the Chicago Sun-Times:
"There will be a process and a plan. We will stick to that. That plan is not going to change tomorrow. The plan is not going to change in training camp. The plan is a plan — and it's been thought out. [...] All three of those guys [Dalton, Fields and Nick Foles] know that you need to produce, you need to play well, you need to compete, you need to be the best quarterback you can be. And then it’s going to be really pretty easy for us to see who that is and how that goes."
Nagy has taken the Bears to the playoffs twice in three seasons, but there's belief in some circles that he's on the hot seat in Chicago. Starting Dalton gives him at least a partial out if the team struggles early. He can say that the youngster wasn't ready and that he needs time and patience.
But if Dalton and the Bears get off to a slow start, it's not going to take long for calls for Fields to get louder. And that's assuming that those calls aren't already deafening if Fields looks good in the preseason.
5. Boston QB Party
The first year of the post-Tom Brady era for the New England Patriots didn't go especially well. Cam Newton struggled mightily throwing the ball, and the Pats missed the playoffs for the first time since George W. Bush was president.
However, despite throwing just eight touchdowns in 2020, Newton was brought back for 2021.
The question now is whether he'll be starting when New England hosts the Miami Dolphins in Week 1.
The Patriots used the 15th overall pick on Alabama signal-caller Mac Jones in April, and while Newton was sidelined in OTAs with a hand injury, Jones made the most of his reps with the first team. As Mike Giardi reported for NFL.com, the starting job is now a full-on, wide-open competition:
"The 22-year old out of Alabama was fast-tracked during the course of OTAs and mandatory minicamp, on a number of occasions getting more reps than the incumbent Newton and, up until the final day of minicamp, looking better than Cam. Are there still mistakes? Obviously. Jones has only been here for a hot minute. Yet there is an efficiency to his game and an accuracy -- especially in the short to intermediate areas -- that Newton just lacked this past season."
In fact, one anonymous teammate told Giardi that the rookie may be in the lead.
"Mac sees the game the way [offensive coordinator] Josh [McDaniels] sees it," he said.
Granted, the Bills are still the favorites in the AFC East.
But the Patriots spent a ton of money this offseason to upgrade the roster on both sides of the ball. If New England can shore up its weakness at the game's most important position, then the division race in 2021 is headed for juggernaut status.
4. Life After Brees
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers may be the defending champions of the NFL, but the defending champs of the NFC South are the New Orleans Saints. The Saints have big names on both sides of the ball, whether it's Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas on offense or Cameron Jordan and Marshon Lattimore on defense.
What they don't have, at least not yet, is a starting quarterback after Drew Brees retired in the offseason.
Veterans Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill are vying to be Brees' successor. Per Jim Trotter of NFL.com, head coach Sean Payton indicated the competition won't be resolved until well into the preseason.
"We pay attention to everything," he said. "You pay attention to just what you see without any predisposed thoughts. We'll have tried to do our best relative to the reps that we have during the training camp and during the preseason games and then kind of go from there."
It was Hill who saw the field last year when Brees was out with broken ribs and a collapsed lung. He won three of four starts, but his passing numbers weren't especially impressive. Winston topped 5,000 passing yards with the Buccaneers in 2019, but he also threw 30 interceptions.
Most pundits (Trotter included) seem to think that Winston holds the edge in the competition. Simply put, he's a better passer than Hill. The Saints could have a more dynamic offense with Winston at quarterback and Hill in the "Swiss army knife" role he has played in recent years.
Of course, Winston will only work if he can cut down on the turnovers that have derailed his career.
And the Saints will only work as the biggest challenger to the Bucs in the division if they sort out their quarterback situation satisfactorily.
3. Bay Area Bounce-Back
Two years ago, the San Francisco 49ers were the NFC representatives in Super Bowl LIV. Last season, they were a six-win mess that finished in the cellar of the NFC West.
It's easy to pinpoint the difference from one year to the next: injuries. San Francisco was ravaged by them on both sides of the ball in 2020.
The return of a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo under center, running back Raheem Mostert, wide receiver Deebo Samuel, tight end George Kittle and 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year Nick Bosa will make the Niners a vastly improved team.
But wait, there's more.
San Francisco general manager John Lynch was aggressive in the 2021 draft, mortgaging the franchise's future to trade up to the third overall selection and select North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance.
"I think he did a good job. I mean, just being able to throw everything at him, you know, we got through the whole installation and be able to do that. You know, there’s a process of it. Some days you do good, some days you do bad, but there's a whole up and down with it that is necessary for a guy to go through. So you can get those reps, soak it in, have an idea of what it feels like. Now we have tape to show him, tape to talk to him about, he gets to get away on his own and have an idea of what's expected out of him when he gets back."
San Francisco has the talent to contend not just in the NFC West but also in the conference. But there's precious little margin for error in the league's toughest division.
Shanahan's decision at quarterback will reverberate through the entire NFC.
2. Deshaun Watson's Future
Before Super Bowl LV, there were reports that quarterback Deshaun Watson was dissatisfied with management in Houston and wanted a trade. Teams started lining up in an effort to obtain the services of an electrifying young dual-threat quarterback just entering the prime of his career.
Then, by April, 22 separate lawsuits had been brought against Watson by women alleging sexual assault or misconduct.
Those allegations have led to investigations by both law enforcement and the NFL, both of which are ongoing. Depositions aren't set to begin in the lawsuits until February 2022, and the league has shown little inclination to act until the matter has been litigated.
NFL insider John Clayton of 104.3 The Fan (h/t Zack Kelberman of SI.com) recently pointed out that Watson could spend the 2021 season on the commissioner's exempt list (effectively suspended with pay).
Were Watson to settle the cases, that would likely speed up the timetable for any league discipline, but there has been no indication that will happen. Until the investigations are resolved, it's unlikely a team will trade for Watson, meaning his future is stuck in limbo.
1. The Aaron Rodgers Saga
Like there was any chance No. 1 would be something else.
The future of Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay isn't a domino. It's a 12-story monolith towering above the NFL.
Rodgers is arguably the best quarterback the Packers have ever had. He's the reigning NFL MVP after throwing for 4,299 yards and a league-high 48 touchdowns against five interceptions in 2020. In each of the past two seasons, he has led the Pack to a 13-3 record and the NFC Championship Game.
With Rodgers, Green Bay is probably the primary challenger to Tampa Bay in the NFC. With all due respect to 2020 first-rounder Jordan Love, without Rodgers, the team would be hard-pressed to make the playoffs.
There has been at least a glimmer of sunshine amid all the doom and gloom in Titletown. According to B/R's Mike Chiari, ESPN's Jeremy Fowler reported on SportsCenter that Rodgers and team have had some "early" talks.
But so far, there has been nothing to indicate that any positions have changed. Rodgers wants to be traded. The Packers have no intention of acquiescing. And Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports wrote that he doesn't expect there to be much blinking in the near future:
"I don't expect to hear anything out of Rodgers' camp until the start of camp, and maybe not even then. He isn't worried about fines – he will be made more than whole whether that ends up in a redone deal in Green Bay or a new contract as part of a trade. I suspect he will let Cheesehead Nation get a nice look at what this offense looks like without him this summer – it will only end up strengthening his position – and then perhaps he will change his tune and come in on a horse made of Cheddar cheese to save their season. Or maybe he'll sit out til they trade him. Regardless, I don't see him flinching at all in the next few weeks."
The smart money should be on Rodgers starting for the Packers in Week 1 with a reworked deal (and a fat chunk of bonus cheddar in his wallet). But until this last domino finally falls, the whole league is holding its breath.