The Biggest Looming Decision for Every NFL Team Before 2021 Season Begins

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJuly 12, 2021

The Biggest Looming Decision for Every NFL Team Before 2021 Season Begins

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    The NFL offseason isn't over, but it feels like it's drawing to a close. The first few waves of free agency are in the rear view, along with the draft. However, teams still have multiple key decisions to make before the regular season kicks off September 9.

    Some teams have more pressing needs to address than others, but every franchise has some tough choices ahead. Rosters have to be solidified, starters need to be named and with the July 15 deadline to extend franchise-tagged players looming, some futures have to be weighed.

    Here, you'll find a look at each team's biggest lingering decision ahead of the 2021 season and which directions could be best for both 2021 and beyond.

Arizona Cardinals: The Future of Chandler Jones

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    Arizona Cardinals pass-rusher Chandler Jones missed the bulk of the 2020 season with a torn bicep. In 2019, though, he had 19.0 sacks and 40 quarterback pressures. Even with J.J. Watt joining the Cardinals this offseason, Jones should be viewed as Arizona's top pass-rusher if healthy.

    Unfortunately, Jones is also entering the final year of his contract and has stayed away from team activities while seeking a new deal. Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports believes Arizona could have a bigger problem than Jones skipping minicamp.

    "There are problems between this premier pass-rusher and this franchise, and everyone there knows it," La Canfora wrote last month. "He is vastly underpaid, and they don't seem to want to give him anything above the $15 million he is set to make."

    The Cardinals have to decide how to handle the 31-year-old's situation. Either they need to make him financially satisfied, or they need to work out a trade agreement. Risking a full-blown holdout that could last well into the regular season will do nothing to benefit the franchise in 2021.

Atlanta Falcons: Defining Roles in the Post-Julio Jones Era

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    Kevin Sabitus/Associated Press

    For years, Matt Ryan and Julio Jones were the centerpieces of the Atlanta Falcons offense. While Ryan hasn't gone anywhere, Jones was traded to the Tennessee Titans. The offense is likely to be quite a bit different without him.

    Calvin Ridley largely filled the No. 1 receiver role last season, as Jones missed seven games due to injury. However, the Falcons have to decide on a new offensive game plan based around Ridley, Russell Gage, Hayden Hurst and No. 4 overall draft pick Kyle Pitts.

    Pitts is a tight end but has the physical skills to potentially overtake Ridley as Ryan's new target.

    "Pitts has all the makings of being a true matchup nightmare at the TE position with the athleticism, versatility, grit and skill set to play across the formation," Nate Tice of the B/R Scouting Department wrote.

    Ryan will still be pulling the trigger, but will the passing game run through Ridley, Pitts or some combination of the group? That's a decision new head coach Arthur Smith will have to make sooner than later.

Baltimore Ravens: Move or Wait on a Lamar Jackson Extension

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is three years into his NFL career and, therefore, eligible for an extension. With three playoff appearances and one regular-season MVP award on his resume, Baltimore shouldn't hesitate to give him one.

    The question for the Ravens is whether to grant Jackson an extension now or to wait a year or even two to get a deal done. There are benefits on both options.

    On one hand, signing an extension now would likely be the cheaper long-term option. NFL salaries—particularly those for quarterbacks—are constantly on the rise. Jackson's market value could be much, much higher two years from now than it is currently. Signing Jackson now would also ensure that his contract isn't a distraction during the regular season.

    Alternatively, Baltimore can have Jackson on a rookie contract for up to two more seasons—including the fifth-year option for 2022. That would give the Ravens more financial flexibility for the short term.

    According to Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk, negotiations have already begun and are "going smoothly." At some point, though, Baltimore will have to choose between putting ink to paper, continuing negotiations into the season or telling Jackson they'll pick up talks next spring.

Buffalo Bills: Move or Wait on a Josh Allen Extension

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Like Jackson, Josh Allen was a 2018 draft pick and is eligible for a contract extension. Like the Ravens, the Buffalo Bills are faced with a choice between extending their quarterback now or waiting on a deal.

    The aforementioned financial implications apply here—and based on the next-man-up nature of quarterback contracts, Buffalo may be inclined to strike before Baltimore on an extension. However, waiting for Allen to "prove it" for another season could be extra beneficial for Buffalo.

    Allen was tremendous during his breakout campaign of 2020. However, he was much more up-and-down than Jackson in his first two seasons. Allen compiled passer ratings of 67.9 and 85.3 in 2018 and 2019, respectively, before making an MVP-level jump last season, including a 107.2 rating.

    Quarterbacks Carson Wentz and Jared Goff should provide the Bills with cautionary tales. Both signed lucrative extensions after their own breakout campaigns. Neither is currently with the team that signed those deals.

    To be fair, Allen has shown steady progress as a signal-caller. Still, Buffalo will have to weigh the risks of acting too early against those of potentially waiting until Allen's market value has skyrocketed.

Carolina Panthers: Identifying a Left Tackle

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    Brett Duke/Associated Press

    The Carolina Panthers have a couple of tough decisions to make regarding their offensive line. Right tackle Taylor Moton will be locked into the franchise tag if an extension isn't done before the July 15 deadline. The Panthers also have to decide who is going to play left tackle.

    2019 second-round pick Greg Little and offseason addition Cameron Erving appear to be the front-runners for the left tackle spot. Coach Matt Rhule has stated that third-round rookie Brady Christensen isn't in the mix just yet.

    "We think he's a right tackle," Rhule said, per Schuyler Callihan of FanNation.

    Ideally, the Panthers will be able to resolve both situations. However, settling on a left tackle is the more pressing need. Moton should be under contract one way or another for 2021. However, he isn't going to protect Sam Darnold's blind side, barring an unforeseen development.

    Carolina has made Darnold its reclamation project for 2021. Ensuring he has the best protection possible will be a great first step toward revitalizing his career.

Chicago Bears: How Soon the Justin Fields Era Begins

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    The Chicago Bears have already decided that veteran Andy Dalton will start over rookie 11th overall pick Justin Fields at quarterback—at least initially.

    "There's so many things that can happen between today and that Week 1, but Andy is our starter and Justin's our No. 2. And we're going to stick to this plan," coach Matt Nagy said on the Cris Collinsworth Podcast (h/t Jelani Scott of NFL.com).

    What Chicago must now decide is how adamant they are to sticking to that plan. Will Dalton be on a short leash after only a few in-season mistakes? Will the Bears hope to see Fields under center this season? Does the rookie have any legitimate shot at unseating Dalton during the preseason? Will Fields sit and learn for a year no matter what?

    These are all questions that Chicago should try to answer as quickly as possible. Doing so could determine how the offensive game plan is designed, how secure Dalton is in his role, and ultimately, what the franchise should do with third-stringer Nick Foles.

    If the Bears believe the Fields era can begin sooner than later, Foles may immediately become expendable.

Cincinnati Bengals: Sorting Out the Offensive Line

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    Emilee Chinn/Associated Press

    The biggest decision the Cincinnati Bengals need to make—aside from whether to rush Joe Burrow back onto the field—is which starting five gives the team its best chance at protecting Burrow. The No. 1 overall pick in last year's draft suffered multiple torn ligaments in his left knee just 10 games into his pro career.

    Burrow was also sacked 32 times in his 10 regular-season appearances.

    The Bengals added right tackle Riley Reiff in free agency and drafted guard Jackson Carman in the second round. However, solidifying the line will be about more than just plugging in the new additions. Left tackle and 2019 first-round pick Jonah Williams has struggled to stay healthy, while center and 2018 first-round pick Billy Price cannot stay in the starting lineup.

    Players like Quinton Spain, Michael Jordan, Trey Hopkins and Xavier Su'a-Filo will also be in the mix.

    Draft status and salary should be irrelevant for the Bengals here, and identifying the right starting lineup and/or rotation will be critical to the team's success. More importantly, it could be critical to Burrow's long-term health.

Cleveland Browns: Move or Wait on a Baker Mayfield Extension

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield isn't yet as accomplished as fellow 2018 draft picks Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen. However, Mayfield, the first of the three to be drafted, could also be the first to sign a second extension.

    "Some people around the league believe that this could get done the soonest. Because [Lamar Jackson] and [Josh Allen] are top-five to -seven quarterbacks. They're considered high-end guys. Where Baker is still working his way into that," ESPN's Jeremy Fowler said on SportsCenter (via Matt Howe of 247Sports).

    Waiting until after Allen and Jackson have signed their extensions could give Mayfield more leverage—or at least a higher contract floor. However, waiting does have its advantages for Cleveland.

    For starters, while Mayfield was electric as a rookie and blossomed toward the end of 2020, he was very much below-average in 2019. He posted a passer rating of just 78.8 that season and went 6-10 as a starter. The Browns may want to see if continuity with coach Kevin Stefanski keeps Mayfield playing at a high level in 2021. A regression, like the one he had in 2019, could give Cleveland pause about locking up Mayfield with a lucrative long-term deal.

    On the other hand, waiting until next offseason could drive up Mayfield's asking price—should he pick up where he left off at the end of last season.

Dallas Cowboys: A Plan for Protecting Dak Prescott

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott is set to return from last year's broken ankle, and he's under contract through the 2024 season. The challenge ahead for the Cowboys will be to keep Prescott healthy and on the field.

    Getting back offensive linemen Zach Martin, La'el Collins and Tyron Smith should help, but coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore need to determine a plan for protecting Prescott too.

    Dallas may be tempted to lean on Prescott and the passing game, especially if Ezekiel Elliott is again an average back as he was in 2020. With receiving weapons like CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup on the roster, that temptation could be strong.

    However, the Cowboys must balance the offense enough to avoid exposing Prescott to unnecessary pressure. While Prescott appears close to 100 percent, we've seen leg injuries affect both the mobility and confidence of quarterbacks in the past—Carson Wentz being a prime example.

    If Dallas is unable to protect Prescott, it could be staring down another lost season. The Cowboys won just four of 11 games without him last year.

Denver Broncos: The Bridgewater-Lock Quarterback Competition

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    With Von Miller set to return and new additions like Kyle Fuller and rookie Patrick Surtain II on the roster, the Denver Broncos could have a sneaky-good defense in 2021. In fact, NFL Network's Steve Wyche recently named Denver as the defense he's most excited to see this season.

    While having a great defense is a massive asset, it may not matter if the Broncos cannot field a functional quarterback. Drew Lock was a veritable disaster in 2020, posting a passer rating of 75.4 and tying for the league lead in interceptions with 15 in 13 games. He'll face competition from Teddy Bridgewater during training camp.

    While Bridgewater was statistically better in 2020—he posted a rating of 92.1—he went just 4-11 as a starter and was dumped by the Panthers after his lone season in Carolina.

    This may not be the most headline-grabbing quarterback competition of the offseason, but it's one the Broncos are going to have to sort out to be successful. If Denver has any hope of winning the AFC West, it will have to do more than simply contain Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert and Derek Carr. The Broncos will have to muster enough offense to outscore them.

Detroit Lions: A Plan for the New-Look Offense

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    The Detroit Lions offense is going to look quite different in 2021. Quarterback Matthew Stafford and No. 1 receiver Kenny Golladay are both gone. Head coach Dan Campbell and offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn appear to be building their new system around quarterback Jared Goff.

    "But I think in regards to myself personally, Dan and A-Lynn have really empowered me to kind of [say], what do I want? What do I like? How do I want to see it? How do we want to do things? And they're constantly bouncing things off me," Goff told reporters (at the 3:20 mark).

    However, Detroit will have to decide whether Goff really is the centerpiece of the offense moving forward. The former Los Angeles Rams signal-caller was not the centerpiece of the Stafford trade and has been relatively average over the past couple of seasons. Detroit is also lacking star power at receiver, with the group being headlined by the likes of Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman.

    Can Goff really be the new face of the Lions offense, or would a run-centric system based around D'Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams give Detroit its best chance of success this season? That's a choice that Campbell and Lynn will need to make ahead of the regular season.

Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers' Future

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    Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press

    Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is the reigning NFL MVP. He's also unhappy with the organization and has stayed away from it throughout the offseason. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported over draft weekend that Rodgers wants out of Green Bay entirely.

    However, the Packers have been unwilling to entertain trade offers for Rodgers to this point.

    "No market because GB still giving zero indications it's trading him," ESPN's Jeremy Fowler tweeted. "Hence, there's nothing for monitoring teams to do right now."

    The Packers have to decide if they're going to stand firm on the issue or try moving the future Hall of Famer before Week 1. This decision, though, may be ultimately be decided by Rodgers.

    If the MVP reports to training camp and is willing to play in 2021, there's virtually no chance that Green Bay will trade him. However, if he doesn't report and doesn't plan to play for the Packers again, opening up the request line may be the smart decision for Green Bay.

Houston Texans: Replacing Deshaun Watson

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    The Houston Texans probably aren't going to have Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson under center in 2021. There have been 22 different lawsuits filed against Watson by women alleging sexual assault or misconduct, and Watson has requested a trade out of Houston.

    The Texans plan to make some sort of decision on Watson's future before camp.

    "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 ProFootballTalk).

    The Texans will also have to determine how to best build their offense without Watson being a part of it. Picking a starting quarterback from between Tyrod Taylor, Jeff Driskel and rookie Davis Mills will be the first step. Determining whether to lean on that quarterback or on running backs David Johnson, Mark Ingram II and Phillip Lindsay will be the next step.

    Of course, the Texans were one of the worst teams in football with Watson last year and may be the front-runner for the No. 1 pick in the 2022 draft. Perhaps deciding whether or not to tank this season is the real decision Houston faces heading into Week 1.

Indianapolis Colts: How Much Patience Carson Wentz Will Get

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Carson Wentz was arguably the NFL's worst quarterback in 2020. He posted a passer rating of just 72.8 and tied for the league lead in interceptions (15) despite only playing in 12 games. However, the Indianapolis Colts were willing to acquire him because Wentz was previously a Pro Bowler under head coach Frank Reich.

    Reich, who served as the Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator when the Eagles won the Super Bowl, may know how to return Wentz to a near-MVP level. Indianapolis, though, will need to decide just how patient it can be with Wentz this season.

    Should Wentz's turnaround not be immediate, the Colts can either stick by him or turn to Jacob Eason and/or Sam Ehlinger. The trade to acquire Wentz was a conditional one, and if he plays at least 75 percent of the offensive snaps—or 70 percent with a playoff berth—Indy will owe the Eagles a 2022 first-round pick instead of a second.

    However, the choice between seeing things through with Wentz or pulling the plug shouldn't be a snap decision. The Colts have been searching for a long-term solution at quarterback since Andrew Luck retired in 2019. If they believe that Wentz can be the answer, they need to decide now whether it's worth seeing him through any potential bumps at the cost of draft capital. Doing so should determine whether Reich wants to feature Wentz in the offense or try to hide him.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Whether to Extend Cam Robinson

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    Zach Bolinger/Associated Press

    The Jacksonville Jaguars are set to roll with No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence at quarterback this season. Protecting his blind side will be Cam Robinson, who was given the franchise tag earlier in the offseason.

    The question Jacksonville faces is whether to extend Robinson before the July 15 deadline.

    While Robinson has been a serviceable left tackle, he's been far from great. In 2020, for example, he was responsible for five penalties and five sacks allowed, according to Pro Football Focus. Finding an upgrade won't be easy, though, and Robinson could potentially become an expensive option down the road.

    Robinson's projected market value is $11.3 million annually, according to Spotrac. That's more than reasonable for a left tackle. However, a strong season while blocking for Lawrence could cause Robinson's market value to skyrocket.

    Trent Williams reset the tackle market with a deal worth $23 million annually this offseason. While Robinson isn't nearly as accomplished as Williams, a Pro Bowl-caliber campaign could realistically double Robinson's asking price by 2022.

Kansas City Chiefs: The Offensive Line's Starting Five

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    The Kansas City Chiefs made it back to the Super Bowl in 2020 but were ultimately overmatched by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The biggest issue in Super Bowl LV was Kansas City's inability to slow the pass rush.

    Not having starting tackles Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher may have had a little something to do with that.

    Kansas City is looking to revamp its offensive line this offseason, ideally to avoid a repeat of the Super Bowl. Schwartz and Fisher are both gone, and the Chiefs added Orlando Brown Jr., Joe Thuney, Kyle Long, Austin Blythe and rookie Creed Humphrey over the past few months.

    While the new additions make the offensive line appear better, the Chiefs still have the tough task of assembling a functional starting five. Sorting out the offensive line will be a training-camp priority and an important step ahead of Week 1.

    Kansas City is set to open against Cleveland and the pass-rushing tandem of Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney.

Las Vegas Raiders: Finding an Offensive Identity

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Las Vegas Raiders is likely to look a lot different in 2021. While quarterback Derek Carr, running back Josh Jacobs and tight end Darren Waller will all be back, some familiar faces won't be.

    The Raiders parted with leading wideout Nelson Agholor in the offseason, along with three-fifths of the starting offensive line. Gone are center Rodney Hudson, right guard Gabe Jackson and right tackle Trent Brown.

    Las Vegas brought in veteran receivers John Brown and Willie Snead, and used a first-round pick on offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood. It also signed running back Kenyan Drake to a two-year, $11 million deal that is fully guaranteed.

    Now, the Raiders will have to figure out what sort of team they're going to be offensively. The two-headed attack of Jacobs and Drake—with receiving back Jalen Richard also in the mix—might be the new focal point of the offense. Or, the Raiders might try to better utilize the receiving speed of players like Brown and 2020 first-round pick Henry Ruggs III.

    The sheer amount of offensive turnover was unexpected, as the Raiders ranked eighth in yards and 10th in points a year ago. Deciding how to proceed from here will be Las Vegas' next challenge.

Los Angeles Chargers: How Much to Throw at Justin Herbert

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    Los Angeles Rams quarterback Justin Herbert was the 2020 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, set a new rookie record for touchdown passes and at no point appeared overwhelmed by the level of pro competition.

    However, it's worth noting that Baker Mayfield was trending in the same direction following his rookie campaign—he wasn't Rookie of the Year but did set the record that Herbert broke. Then, Mayfield got a new head coach and took a significant step backward in his second season.

    Like Mayfield, Herbert will have a new head coach in 2021. The Chargers hired Brandon Staley to replace Anthony Lynn and added Joe Lombardi as offensive coordinator. Herbert is likely to see a new offensive system this season, and Los Angeles needs to determine how much to throw at him out of the gate.

    The plan is to build the offense around Herbert.

    "I wanted our offense to run through Justin Herbert," Staley told The Athletic Football Show (h/t Chargers team reporter Hayley Elwood).

    While there's nothing wrong with building a system around a young quarterback, the Chargers need to be careful not to overwhelm Herbert during his first full offseason as the starter. As evidenced by Mayfield's 2019 struggles, following up a strong rookie campaign isn't always as easy as it may appear.

Los Angeles Rams: Finding an Offensive Identity

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Rams acquired quarterback Matthew Stafford in a blockbuster trade this offseason. With the prolific passer under center, the Rams could return to Super Bowl contention in 2021. However, to make the jump from playoff participant, Los Angeles will have to figure out how heavily to feature its new quarterback.

    The Rams were a run-oriented team in 2020. While head coach Sean McVay coaxed plenty of production out of the passing attack, L.A. ranked seventh in rushing attempts and 12th in pass attempts. Running backs Cam Akers, Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown were arguably more important to the offense than former quarterback Jared Goff.

    Goff has been replaced by Stafford, and Brown departed in free agency. Now McVay must decide whether sticking with a run-based attack is the right move or he should open things up with Stafford and the passing game.

    Finding an offensive identity before the start of the regular season will be key. Stafford is only 33, but the window with him at quarterback won't be open forever. It would be a shame to waste a good chunk of his inaugural Rams campaign trying to figure out exactly how he fits into the system.

Miami Dolphins: How Much to Throw at Tua Tagovailoa

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa had his fair share of ups and downs as a rookie last season. He did go 6-3 as a starter, but he also struggled to push the ball downfield—he averaged just 6.3 yards per attempt—and was twice pulled for veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick.

    Tagovailoa's struggles seem to have followed him into the offseason. He had a five-interception day during minicamp and is still being coached to more aggressively attack the defense.

    "The conversations are a lot of what we've already talked about here—use this time to practice pushing the ball downfield. Then we’ll make the adjustments and the corrections," head coach Brian Flores said, per Adam H. Beasley of the Miami Herald.

    Miami has to determine how much pressure it is willing to put on Tagovailoa as he enters his second season. The Dolphins upgraded the receiving corps—adding Will Fuller V and rookie first-round pick Jaylen Waddle—and will likely have a new system under co-offensive coordinators George Godsey and Eric Studesville. The pieces could be in place for Tagovailoa to make a jump, but it'll only happen if he is ready.

    Tagovailoa didn't take off as a rookie as fellow first-year quarterbacks Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert did. The Dolphins have to figure out if he's now ready to be their offensive centerpiece or if he should still be treated like he's still a rookie.

Minnesota Vikings: Who Is the Offensive Centerpiece?

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook has been simply spectacular over the past couple of seasons. Between 2019 and 2020, he compiled 2,692 rushing yards, 880 receiving yards and 30 combined touchdowns.

    Minnesota rewarded Cook with a five-year, $63 million extension last September. Protecting their investment should be a priority for the Vikings.

    Cook has an extensive injury history and has missed 18 games in four seasons. While mostly healthy over the past two years, he did miss two games each in 2019 and 2020. With Cook set to carry a cap hit of $12 million in 2022, Minnesota needs to determine if he should still be a workhorse back and the centerpiece of the offense.

    The alternative is to run the offense through 2020 rookie phenom Justin Jefferson. The LSU product racked up 1,400 receiving yards and seven touchdowns last season and appears to be fully capable of being the offensive focal point.

    While it's easy to say that Minnesota has room for both stars, there are only so many touches to go around. Figuring out which player to feature the most could be the key to Minnesota's short- and long-term offensive success.

New England Patriots: The Newton-Jones Quarterback Competition

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    The New England Patriots haven't had star cornerback Stephon Gilmore at offseason workouts as he tries to acquire a new long-term contract. However, Gilmore isn't trying to force his way out of New England.

    "I'm told that Gilmore has largely not expected to be traded throughout this process because he knows the Patriots have made moves with Gilmore in mind," ESPN's Jeremy Fowler said on SportsCenter (h/t Bleacher Report's Tim Daniels).

    While the Patriots do need to make a decision on Gilmore's long-term future, they have a more pressing ruling to make at quarterback. New England has both 2020 starter Cam Newton and rookie first-round pick Mac Jones on the roster—and obviously only one starting spot.

    This will be a critical decision because the Patriots have made it clear that they hope to contend in 2021. They made a plethora of moves during free agency—adding the likes of Nelson Agholor, Matt Judon, Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith and Kyle Van Noy—and hope to return to the postseason after missing out in 2020.

    While Newton has the edge in experience, he's not necessarily the best option to start in Week 1. He was a serviceable dual-threat last season but struggled with passing consistency and efficiency (eight touchdowns, 10 interceptions). If New England believes that the rookie can be a more dependable option, he should get the opportunity to start.

New Orleans Saints: The Winston-Hill Quarterback Competition

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Longtime New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees retired this offseason. The Saints are set to stage a competition between Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill to determine his successor—and the competition could heavily impact the offensive game plan.

    "We've always tried to look closely at the strengths of our players, what they do well and we’ll build a little bit around that player accordingly," head coach Sean Payton said, per Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk. "And that’s something that we did when Drew first arrived here, and we would do with either these two players."

    From a logistical standpoint, giving Winston the first crack at the starting job would make sense. He's a more traditional pocket passer, and starting him would allow Hill to still serve in a utility role and as a change-of-pace quarterback. If Hill gets the starting gig, Winston's value will be purely as a backup.

    Platooning the two quarterbacks could be an option, though that's a strategy that has rarely sustained success in the modern NFL.

    Figuring out which approach is the best for the offense as a whole is the biggest challenge facing New Orleans heading into training camp.

New York Giants: How to Best Protect Saquon Barkley

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley is eligible for a contract extension. However, the Giants shouldn't be in a rush to grant him one. Barkley is coming off a torn ACL, and it remains to be seen if he can return to the Pro Bowl form he showed as a rookie in 2018.

    The Giants need to figure out if Barkley can be the same special back he was before the injury. To do that, they need to devise a game plan to keep him healthy and on the field in 2021.

    The Giants and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett have a couple of options. They could regularly spell Barkley with free-agent addition Devontae Booker. They could also look to lean more heavily on quarterback Daniel Jones and new pass-catchers like Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney and Kyle Rudolph.

    It will be a tricky balancing act, as New York presumably also wants to contend this season. Garrett and Co. must figure out a game plan that helps preserve Barkley's health, provides a better read on Jones' long-term prospects and gives the Giants their best chance to win games during the regular season.

New York Jets: Whether to Extend Marcus Maye

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    The New York Jets are running out of time to work out a long-term extension with safety Marcus Maye. If they don't get a deal done before July 15, they'll run the risk of losing him in free agency next offseason.

    Could New York convince Maye to return? Certainly. The franchise appears to be trending in the right direction after the additions of head coach Robert Saleh, offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur and quarterback Zach Wilson. Still, there's no guarantee that Maye will want to stay with a team that is still rebuilding.

    This could be a potentially big problem, as the Jets need to improve their 24th-ranked defense, not simply retool it.

    While Maye isn't a Pro Bowler, he is a quality free safety who logged 11 passes defended, two interceptions and an opposing passer rating of just 80.4 in 2020. Losing him two years after trading away Pro Bowl safety Jamal Adams would force New York to again rebuild the back end of its defense.

Philadelphia Eagles: The Left Tackle Competition

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    Michael Perez/Associated Press

    With Carson Wentz now in Indianapolis, the Eagles should become Jalen Hurts' team. If Hurts is going to succeed where his predecessor failed in 2020, however, Philadelphia is going to have to choose its best option at left tackle.

    The Eagles are set to stage a competition between 2019 first-round pick Andre Dillard and Jordan Mailata. Dillard, who missed all of 2020 with a torn bicep, is open to the challenge.

    "I welcome all competition. I never shy away from it. I'm glad that it's happening, and it makes sense that it's happening," Dillard said, per Dave Spadaro of the team's official website.

    While Dillard may welcome competition, he must know that draft status won't be enough for him to fend of Mailata. Dillard has only made four starts since being drafted and is far from a lock to win the starting job.

    Identifying a quality left tackle—be it Dillard, Mailata or someone else—could be the key to a successful season in 2021. Philadelphia's offensive line was a disaster last season, surrendering 65 sacks and contributing to the worst campaign of Wentz's career.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Whether Ben Roethlisberger Can Still Carry the Offense

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is a future Hall of Famer. However, he's 39 years old, underwent elbow surgery in 2019 and faded down the stretch in 2020. The Steelers have to figure out if he can rebound this season and carry the offense as he has done in the past.

    Count former Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum among those who don't believe in Roethlisberger.

    "I expect him to be benched by the middle of the season," Tannenbaum said, per Mark Madden of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "He's had a great career. It's over."

    If Roethlisberger can't be "Big Ben" in 2021, Pittsburgh is going to have to forge a different offensive strategy. This could involve centering the game plan around their first-round pick, running back Najee Harris. Sorting it out will be a challenge for new offensive coordinator Matt Canada.

    That challenge could be magnified by the offseason departures of center Maurkice Pouncey (retirement) and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva.

    Determining the right offensive strategy will be critical, as the Steelers have a championship-caliber defense—one that ranked third in both points and yards allowed last season. Everything starts with deciding whether Roethlisberger still has one run left in him.

San Francisco 49ers: How Soon Trey Lance Could Be Ready to Start

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The San Francisco 49ers seem to have already decided that Jimmy Garoppolo will start at quarterback in Week 1—though rookie Trey Lance will have an outside chance of unseating him.

    "I definitely see it as Jimmy is the starter, but if Trey is ready to compete, I have no problem with it. I don't sit there and say 'Hey, no, we're not playing a rookie quarterback; we have to rest him the first year.'" head coach Kyle Shanahan said, per The Athletic's Tim Kawakami (h/t Alex Didion of NBC Sports Bay Area).

    What San Francisco now has to decide is how soon Lance might be ready to compete—and how soon he might be ready to start. Even if Garoppolo is the best option to open the season, that doesn't mean that he'll stay under center. Garoppolo has an extensive injury history and has missed 23 games over the past three seasons.

    If the 49ers don't believe Lance can be ready if called upon, they'll have to consider other options. Those could include appointing Josh Rosen or Nate Sudfeld as the primary backup over Lance.

    Lance is the future at quarterback in San Francisco, but that doesn't mean the 49ers should risk putting him on the field before he is ready.

Seattle Seahawks: Whether to Extend Jamal Adams

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    Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

    Jamal Adams might be the best pure box safety in the NFL. He's also entering the final year of his rookie contract and doesn't appear close to landing an extension from the Seattle Seahawks.

    "He knows the team gave up two first-round picks to get him, and he's trying to reset the safety market in a big way," ESPN's Jeremy Fowler said on SportsCenter (h/t Corbin K. Smith of FanNation). "I'm not saying he's holding out, but this is a player who got his way out of New York over his contract."

    Seattle doesn't have a hard deadline with Adams the way that teams do with franchise-tagged players. However, it would behoove the Seahawks to get a deal done before Week 1 if they plan on keeping him.

    The closer Adams gets to 2022 free agency—and/or the franchise tag—the less inclined he might be to accept Seattle's offer. Allowing negotiations to drag into the regular season could also cause a potential distraction. There could come a point where Adams becomes more focused on reaching the open market healthy than on making plays.

    Seattle needs to figure out how badly it wants to keep the three-time Pro Bowler. If the answer is "very badly," then the Seahawks should move as quickly as possible to put pen to paper on a long-term deal.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Whether to Extend Chris Godwin

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    Tori Richman/Associated Press

    The Buccaneers only have a few days to get a long-term deal done with wide receiver Chris Godwin. Thus far, Tampa doesn't appear close to finalizing an extension.

    "Nothing imminent on that front," NFL Network's Tom Pelissero said, per Kevin Patra of NFL.com.

    Tampa needs to determine if it really wants to keep Godwin beyond the 2021 season. If it does, then it had better put a rush order on an extension before the July 15 deadline.

    Franchise-tagging Godwin again next offseason would be a costly move, as it would require a 20 percent pay increase over his 2021 cap hit. Convincing Godwin to re-sign in free agency could prove difficult depending on how quarterback Tom Brady performs this season.

    Brady is under contract through 2022 and could potentially play even longer. However, he will turn 44 in August and isn't going to be Tampa's quarterback of the future. If Godwin doesn't like where the Buccaneers are potentially headed without Brady, he could bolt for greener pastures in free agency.

Tennessee Titans: How to Incorporate Julio Jones

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    One of the most headline-grabbing moves of the early offseason was Tennessee's trade for wideout Julio Jones. With Jones joining A.J. Brown on the perimeter and Derrick Henry in the backfield, the Titans could be a nightmare for opposing defenses.

    "You're really going to have to pick your poison," Jones said, per Kevin Patra of NFL.com.

    On paper, the trade was a brilliant one for the Titans. However, head coach Mike Vrabel and offensive coordinator Todd Downing will have to decide how he best fits into the offense. Over the past couple of seasons, this has been Henry's team.

    In 2020, for example, the Titans ranked second in rushing attempts and just 30th in pass attempts. That formula got Tennessee into the postseason, but the Titans could be tempted to lean a little less on Henry with Jones, Brown and quarterback Ryan Tannehill leading the passing attack.

    Will the Titans continue being a run-oriented team? Will they go pass-happy or at least bring more balance to the offense? That's something they'll need to sort out before Week 1.

Washington Football Team: The Future of Brandon Scherff

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    Mark Tenally/Associated Press

    Washington Football Team right guard Brandon Scherff is one of the NFL's best offensive linemen when healthy. He's a four-time Pro Bowler who made his first All-Pro appearance this past season. He's also set to play on the franchise tag for the second successive year.

    The issue for Washington isn't whether to extend Scherff before the deadline. It's a question of whether they can—and if trading him might be an option.

    According to ESPN's John Keim (h/t Chris Russell of FanNation), Scherff has already turned down one long-term offer from Washington that would make him the NFL's highest-paid guard. It's fair to wonder what Washington could offer that would get Scherff under contract long-term within the next few days.

    If the answer is nothing, the Football Team will need to decide whether moving Scherff is more valuable than potentially losing him next offseason for a compensatory pick. The team's belief in its ability to contend this season with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center could play a role in that decision.

    The 38-year-old Fitzpatrick is not a long-term solution at quarterback, and if Scherff is destined to eventually leave anyway, testing the trade waters could be the right move.

                  

    Contract information via Spotrac. Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference.

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