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The Biggest Story Lines of the 2021 NFL Offseason

Now that the Super Bowl is in our rearview mirror, it’s time to look ahead at the next few months of the NFL calendar. That means quarterback movement, salary cap fluctuations, the draft, and much more in what could be one of the wildest offseasons in recent memory.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Now that the NFL season is over, what the hell are we supposed to do with our time? The answer: Follow Adam Schefter’s Twitter account.

This offseason might be the most exciting one in years. A lot of the NFL’s top stars are unhappy (welcome to the club!), and that may lead to trades. Solid-to-excellent receivers all around the league will hit free agency. Five quarterbacks could be selected in the first round of the draft. And as many as 18 teams could have new starters under center in 2021, according to Schefter. Then there’s the fact that the league is planning to expand to a 17-game season. That’s all a lot to process, so here we’ve explained the biggest story lines of the offseason.

The Quarterback Carousel

Deshaun Watson

Deshaun Watson bought a VIP ticket on the NFL’s version of the Titanic. Now he wants a lifeboat. Watson still has five seasons and more than $145 million remaining on his deal with the Texans—a deal he signed after the team shipped DeAndre Hopkins and multiple first-rounders away in a series of disastrous trades. But now Houston’s latest shenanigans have the QB sending out an SOS.

Watson was reportedly told he’d have input on the hiring process for the Texans’ next general manager. That’s the kind of power a quarterback seeks when the guy running the front office, Jack Easterby, is a cross between Dwight Schrute from The Office and Littlefinger from Game of Thrones. Watson also reportedly asked that the Texans head-coaching search include interviews with 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy. This was hardly a difficult request to accommodate, considering Saleh and Bieniemy were two of the strongest candidates in the NFL. But Houston hired new GM Nick Caserio without Watson’s input, and the team didn’t seem to seriously look at Saleh or Bieniemy for head coach (the Texans ultimately hired former Ravens assistant David Culley). Schefter reported last month that Watson was far angrier about this sequence of events—and the perceived broken promises—than about the Texans’ roster mismanagement. Watson’s anger was apparently a two out of 10 after the Hopkins trade, but Schefter said it was a 10 out of 10 when Watson found out about the Caserio hire via ESPN instead of the team.

It feels important to note here that the Texans are run by owner Cal McNair, who inherited the team from his father two years ago. The depth to which McNair has screwed up the franchise in that short time is breathtaking. McNair hired Easterby, who Sports Illustrated reported lied on his résumé and padded one title with the Jacksonville Jaguars from “an assistant to the director of operations” to “the assistant director of football operations.” The former is an internship; the latter is a corner-office-style football job. Watson has little reason to trust McNair to hire good people.

But the Texans hired Caserio, and Caserio has little reason to trade Watson. Caserio is now the one who has to bring this ship into port, and the first thing he has to decide is whether he wants the likely defining move of his tenure—or potentially his career—to be trading away Watson.

Thus far, it sounds like Caserio is shutting down trade talks. The Texans have Watson under contract, and the new CBA ratified last year gives teams even more control over stars than before. This will all come down to money. If Watson is willing to miss game checks and absorb millions of dollars of fines to maintain his principled stand, he’ll have the leverage to force a trade. If not, the Texans may try to strong-arm him. It all depends on how badly Watson wants off this boat.

Carson Wentz

The Eagles are a long way from the team that won the Super Bowl three years ago. Head coach Doug Pederson was fired last month, a move that was widely interpreted as Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and general manager Howie Roseman choosing Carson Wentz over Pederson. But apparently that interpretation was wrong. According to Schefter, the Eagles are now expected to trade Wentz within the next month.

Nobody comes out of this situation looking good. If you factor in the draft picks used to trade up for Wentz in 2016, the pick Philly spent on him, and the fact that he signed the largest contract in franchise history just two years ago, Wentz represents the biggest investment the Eagles have ever made. And as The Athletic’s Zach Berman wrote this week, trading Wentz would force Philly to pay out the largest dead cap hit in NFL history, at more than $33 million. Trading Wentz would be an L for everyone at every level of the Eagles organization.

But Wentz doesn’t look great in this situation either. He has not requested a trade but is interested in playing elsewhere, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Les Bowen. Wentz has never won a playoff game with the Eagles. He’s made nearly $80 million in the past five seasons. He reportedly did not respond well to the quarterback competitions with Nick Foles—his backup who had a statue erected outside the Eagles stadium. Nor did he respond well to the Eagles drafting quarterback Jalen Hurts in the second round last year, or Roseman’s comments that he wanted the Eagles to be a “quarterback factory.” But competition and uncertain job security is the nature of professional sports. If there is any doubt about Wentz being unable to meet the challenge, remember that the Eagles are attempting to take on the biggest dead cap hit ever so he can play somewhere else.

The most logical “somewhere else” is Indianapolis. Colts head coach Frank Reich was the Eagles offensive coordinator in 2017, when Wentz nearly won MVP. The Eagles are reportedly looking for two first-rounders and another pick for Wentz; the Colts are unlikely to pay that price. But the way this is going, Wentz will probably get dealt before March 19, when the Eagles owe him a big bonus.

Sam Darnold

The Jets landing the no. 2 pick in this year’s draft seemed to solidify the idea that the team would take a quarterback and move on from Darnold. But hiring head coach Robert Saleh and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur might mean Darnold has a chance to stay—if the team thinks LaFleur’s 49ers-style offense can respark Darnold. If not, the teams that inquired about Matthew Stafford—Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, Carolina, and Indianapolis—could come calling about Darnold, too.

Dak Prescott

Will they or won’t they? The Cowboys have said Prescott is their quarterback, and Jerry Jones loves to talk about it. But they still haven’t signed Prescott to a long-term extension. Jones does not believe Prescott’s ankle injury is an impediment to his future performance, so that shouldn’t hold up negotiations—though Jones may want Prescott to run less. While Prescott is slated to be a free agent, the Cowboys will get a deal done to keep him. But they’ll pay through the nose since they botched this negotiation.

The Other Teams in the Market

The Bears, Panthers, Patriots, Steelers, 49ers, and Raiders could all look for quarterback upgrades this offseason, whether via trade, free agency, or the draft. The 49ers can save more than $23 million by cutting Jimmy Garoppolo this offseason.

The Free-Agent Wide Receiver Class

This coming free-agent class features an unusually high number of talented wide receivers. All of these players get asterisks because their teams can use the franchise tag on them, which would keep them around for at least one more season. But let’s go in order of the players most likely to actually hit free agency.

JuJu Smith-Schuster

You know how when someone is about to get dumped, and knows they’re about to get dumped, and they spend their time theorizing about how to make things work? That is JuJu and the Steelers. Pittsburgh doesn’t have the cap space to keep the wideout around and is unlikely to re-sign him. But JuJu loves being a Steeler. He doesn’t want to leave. Don’t take my word for it—follow him on Instagram.

Come on, JuJu. Let’s not get desperate now.

Allen Robinson II

So far in his career, Robinson has spent a huge chunk of time playing with the following quarterbacks:

  • Blake Bortles
  • Mitchell Trubisky
  • Nick Foles

Robinson is one of the league’s most talented players, but he has yet to play in a good—or even a decent—NFL offense.

Kenny Golladay

Golladay is the same age as Robinson but has played three fewer seasons. Golladay is extremely talented, but he struggles to stay healthy—he missed 11 games last year with a hip issue.

Chris Godwin

Godwin just won a Super Bowl with Tom Brady. That may get him all in his feels for his next negotiation. Godwin turns 25 later this month and is one of the league’s best no. 2 receivers—but is he worth no. 1 money? The Bucs have a lot of other players hitting free agency and will have to make a difficult decision.

Will Fuller V


Fuller was having the best season of his career and then got suspended six games for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. After years of not being able to stay healthy, Fuller’s best and healthiest season is now cast in doubt.

AJ Green

Green has been trapped in NFL purgatory for years. Last season was by far the worst of his career—the 32-year-old started 14 games and logged a career-low 523 yards. Green missed all of 2019 with an ankle injury and racked up more yards in 2018 despite playing just nine games.

Antonio Brown

It’s hard to see Brown leaving the Buccaneers. He probably wouldn’t have played in the NFL this year due to his legal issues, but Tom Brady helped convince the Bucs to sign him.

Larry Fitzgerald

Fitz is no. 2 all time in receiving yards. If he wants to come back to Arizona, it’ll take him.

Salary Cap Fluctuations

The NFL salary cap is based on a percentage of NFL revenue. Usually, the league makes a shitload of money, so the salary cap goes up. This year, though, the NFL made less due to the pandemic, so the cap is going down. The floor this year is $175 million per team. That’s a lot, but considering teams were budgeting for a cap of around $210 million, many franchises will have to make some hard choices. The Saints, for instance, will need to cut more than $90 million in payroll. Drew Brees’s retirement can save only so much money.

Veterans who are scheduled to make decent but not top-end money may be released. The 49ers would save $23 million by cutting Jimmy Garoppolo. The Broncos could let pass rusher Von Miller leave, saving the team $18 million and potentially netting it a compensatory draft pick in 2022. The Browns could cut receiver Jarvis Landry and save $28 million over the next two seasons. Some surprisingly large names could become free agents as part of this squeeze—and smart teams that have budgeted well could get good veterans at a discount.

The Draft

We’ve got everything you need to know right here.

No Combine

The NFL combine has been canceled, though it’s unclear how much this matters. The combine is extremely useful for teams, but not because of the things they put on TV. The reason the combine was created was so teams could do medical checks on players, as well as interview them all in one place. The athletic testing is the third and least important part of this picture. Any physical traits teams want to see are visible in the tape of players’ college games and during pro days.

Without the combine, the NFL is considering a few changes to make things easier on teams. First, the league is discussing regional medical checks to consolidate that part of the process, according to Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer. That is made easier because 85 percent of prospects are training for the draft in just four states: Florida, Texas, Arizona, and California. Interviews may largely be done over Zoom. And as for the athletic testing, the NFL will try to standardize pro days—which are usually organized by colleges—as much as it can. Things will certainly be different, but this may not be that big of a problem.

COVID-19 Protocols and the Offseason

The NFL is shifting into a new offseason normal. Like many work settings these days, “normal” will be a hybrid of how things used to be and how things are now.

The NFL draft is scheduled to take place in Cleveland, but gathering hundreds of people in a room by late April sounds incredibly optimistic, especially considering how well the remote draft went last year.

Then there’s the question of practices. JC Tretter, the head of the NFL Players Association, wants to scrap the NFL’s offseason practices altogether. “We are the only major sports league with an offseason program,” Tretter wrote on the NFLPA website. “The most physically demanding sport is the only league that brings their players back for extra practices outside of the season.”

That’s a strong argument, especially considering that the lack of programs last summer didn’t cause a dropoff for the people who supposedly need offseason practices most: rookies and new head coaches.

Front-office executives and scouts might seek more of a work-life balance, too. Plenty of executives praised the remote draft last year and said it made them realize that the number of hours they used to spend at the office, away from their families, was perhaps excessive.

A 17-Game Schedule

The fact that the NFL was able to put on its 16-game schedule in 2020 was remarkable—but it may have been the last one ever. The NFL will expand the season to 17 games this year, a move made possible by the new CBA. The NFL won’t formally announce it until they negotiate new media rights deals with their broadcasting partners, but it’s happening. Subsequently, the preseason is expected to be cut down to either two or three games. Football may be over for us now, but the NFL will be force-feeding us even more next season.