NFL Dominoes Left to Fall for 2021 Season Entering August

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistJuly 31, 2021

NFL Dominoes Left to Fall for 2021 Season Entering August

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    Luis M. Alvarez/Associated Press

    The big NFL dominoes keep falling as training camps get rolling.

    Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers have patched things up, which was the biggest domino to consider before camps opened. Second overall pick Zach Wilson inked his rookie deal with the New York Jets, helping to cement all 259 picks as under contract.

    So what's next? Some major free agents remain on the market, big extensions need to get done, trades could happen and notable position battles are on deck, to name a few.

    Here's a look at the biggest dominoes yet to fall as the NFL calendar turns to August.

Zach Ertz Drama

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    The Zach Ertz drama in Philadelphia is one of the last big points of speculation yet to find a resolution.

    Ertz has reported to training camp with the Eagles, but by all accounts, the veteran tight end would still prefer a reworked deal or a trade.

    NFL Network's Mike Garafolo reported on Inside Training Camp Live: "He's still not happy. He didn't get that contract extension last season, and nothing has changed right now."

    Ertz, 30, played in 11 games last year and scored one touchdown. The Eagles blew up the team around him this offseason, most notably trading quarterback Carson Wentz. Garafolo previously reported Ertz would have loved to follow Wentz to Indianapolis.

    But the Eagles have taken a hard-line stance, and Ertz remains under contract for one more season. One way or another, this figures to hit a boiling point soon.

One Last Blockbuster Trade?

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Who said the Julio Jones trade was the last big blockbuster the NFL offseason had in store?

    The speculated standoff between the Miami Dolphins and cornerback Xavien Howard came to a head when the star defender went public with a trade request Tuesday. Several teams, including two playoff teams, have since contacted the Dolphins about a deal, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network.

    No wonder, as the 28-year-old led the NFL in interceptions in two of the last three seasons. His play last year, highlighted by 10 interceptions, earned him an 87.3 Pro Football Focus grade, putting him in the "Pro Bowler" grade just shy of "Elite."

    Howard inked a five-year, $75.3 million contract in 2019, but he's the second-highest-paid corner on the team after the Dolphins signed Byron Jones to a five-year, $82.5 million deal in 2020.

    Given Howard's own hard-line stance, a trade could shake up the playoff picture before the season starts.

Key Free Agents

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    It might be recency bias, but the remaining crop of free agents feels stronger than normal at this time of year.

    Richard Sherman is the biggest name by a wide margin. His 2020 season got derailed by injuries, but he earned an 88.9 PFF grade over 15 games in 2019. However, an arrest July 14 on five misdemeanor charges of criminal trespass (domestic violence), malicious mischief (domestic violence), resisting arrest, driving while under the influence and reckless endangerment of roadway workers has altered the outlook of his market.

    Otherwise, edge-rusher Justin Houston has had 7.5 or more sacks in eight of his 10 seasons. Linebacker K.J. Wright is starter material after 86 total tackles last year. Everson Griffen can still pressure off the edge, Geno Atkins and Kawann Short can pressure from up the middle, and Mitchell Schwartz, Rick Wagner, Russell Okung and David DeCastro can start along offensive lines.

    Teams that use cap space to upgrade a position with one of these players will better their outlook and alter divisional races.

Extensions for Big Names

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    The summer is often the time for teams to complete big-money extensions with key players.

    This year is all about heavyweight names at critical spots. Think the Cincinnati Bengals and star safety Jessie Bates III, owner of a 90.1 PFF grade, the top mark at his position. Or Pittsburgh Steelers edge-rusher T.J. Watt, whose amazing pace puts him at 49.5 sacks over 62 games.

    Then there are the quarterbacks. Josh Allen in Buffalo emerged as a breakout star who flirted with MVP contention. Former MVP Lamar Jackson in Baltimore has a chance at resetting the quarterback market.

    Those are just a few of the many deserving candidates. The quarterbacks could raise the bar higher than ever financially. That applies to extension candidates at other positions too, albeit on a smaller scale.

QB Competitions

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    Nam Huh/Associated Press

    The quarterback competitions this summer don't feel as wild as usual.

    But some noteworthy ones stand out.

    Washington skipped on a big-name rookie in the first round. Instead, Ron Rivera's club will throw 38-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick into the fire with Taylor Heinicke. Fitzpatrick hasn't been consistently effective in recent years, while Heinicke threw for 306 yards in a playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    Perhaps more interesting is the battle in Chicago, where veteran Andy Dalton will look to hold off first-rounder Justin Fields. Dalton has been a serviceable starter with playoff upside, but Fields was the 11th pick after a desperate Bears front office traded up to get him. If the rookie seems ready, the coaching staff will likely pull the trigger.

    On a lesser scale, Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater will duke it out in Denver. Jalen Hurts will look to hold off a veteran like Joe Flacco in Philadelphia, and it's hard to say what New Orleans will do with Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill.

    Besides the obvious implications of who wins a quarterback battle, it should also prove interesting to see if rookie success stories like Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert encourage teams to shy away from stable, low-ceiling veterans.

Notable Injury Developments

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    Michael Owen Baker/Associated Press

    It didn't take long for injuries to dominate the headlines at training camps.

    New Orleans Saints wideout Michael Thomas hit the PUP list to start camp after undergoing surgery on his ankle in June. Saints coach Sean Payton said Wednesday the surgery should have happened sooner than it did. If Thomas remains on the PUP list when the season starts, he'll miss the team's first six games as it attempts to figure out the Winston-Hill puzzle.

    New Arizona Cardinals star defender J.J. Watt went on the PUP list too because of hamstring discomfort. That throws Arizona's win-now plans into the wind, especially after pass-rusher Chandler Jones reportedly requested a trade.

    Over in Dallas, after working his way back from a brutal ankle injury, Dak Prescott is out of practice with a minor injury to his throwing shoulder.

    Given the magnitude of the names involved, massive dominoes are set to fall on this front, which could have wide-ranging implications for many teams outside of their own.