Each NFL team’s offseason is filled with small moves and marginal personnel decisions. Sometimes, that series of small moves will build a winner. But a big, bold move always helps, by dramatically improving talent at an important position or changing the overall direction of the franchise. Here, Football Outsiders is suggesting a bold move for each team. Some of these are realistic, others are more far-fetched, but each would provide a significant change and improve a team’s chances of winning future Super Bowls.
There will be references to Football Outsiders’ DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) metric, which takes every play during the season and compares it to a baseline adjusted for situation and opponent. It is explained further here.
Moves are suggested for each team independently of the moves suggested for other teams. We also set a “no Deshaun Watson” rule for every team except Houston. Otherwise, we would be suggesting a bold Deshaun Watson trade for half the teams in the league!
Dallas Cowboys: Let Dak Prescott walk in free agency, trade up and draft a quarterback
Prescott isn’t overrated. Both QBR and passing DVOA identified him as a top-eight passer in 2019 and 2020 before his injury. But the favorable situation that Prescott has enjoyed with excellent pass protection and skill-player talent in recent seasons could prop up a lesser quarterback. It did so for Andy Dalton in 2020; many fans missed his bounce-back 53.8 QBR in the shadows of defense-driven losses and Dalton’s poor play in prime-time games. And it likely propped up Prescott in his rookie season in 2016 when a Tony Romo injury thrust the fourth-rounder into an unexpected starting role.
The Cowboys can’t expect to duplicate that once-in-a-generation Day 3 draft value. But they might be able to plug one of the refined rookie quarterback prospects such as Zach Wilson or Mac Jones into their offense and experience similar short-term success. That shift would dramatically lower the team’s floor for the 2020s, but it would also raise its ceiling. Already up against the salary cap, an expensive Prescott extension would accelerate the hemorrhaging of blue-chip free agents that started with Byron Jones last year. By resetting with a rookie quarterback, the Cowboys could retain their other stars and build like the Rams and Eagles from recent seasons, teams that leveraged the cost savings of Jared Goff‘s and Carson Wentz‘s inexpensive rookie deals into exceptional roster depth and eventual Super Bowl berths.
The Cowboys could likely accomplish that realignment with a modest jump from their current No. 10 draft pick, an opportunity they wouldn’t have in a year with fewer top quarterback prospects or after a typical season of eight or more wins that would land them in the back half of the first round.
The Giants expected to solve their long-term left tackle problem with their 2020 selection of Andrew Thomas with the No. 4 pick. But even allowing for some early struggles after veteran Nate Solder’s opt-out forced him into the Week 1 starting lineup, Thomas underwhelmed in his rookie season. His 5.8% blown block rate was the highest among tackles with 300 or more snaps in pass protection, according to Sports Info Solutions charting. That’s a major problem for young quarterback Daniel Jones, who, despite cutting his turnover rate in Year 2, tied for the league lead with 11 fumbles thanks in large part to a 9.1% sack rate that was second highest at his position.
And it makes tackle Rashawn Slater the perfect choice for the team’s top 2021 draft pick, even if it opens the front office up to criticism from the media and fans that might read it as an admission of failure with Thomas. In truth, a Slater selection would not admit failure. His strength and athleticism will likely allow him to play multiple offensive line positions. But it would plan for the possibility of a failure that could derail the franchise given the necessary timing of a Jones extension.
The Giants will have to decide on Jones’ fifth-year option next offseason, so they need to protect him this season to see if he can protect the football. Slater would provide insurance for the team to make that evaluation in 2021, and he may even be the difference between one bad lineman and two good ones if Thomas is a better fit for right tackle than left.
The Eagles lost 48 combined games from presumptive starting offensive linemen Brandon Brooks, Lane Johnson, Isaac Seumalo and Andre Dillard in 2020. Given Carson Wentz‘s historically big efficiency splits with and without pressure, those injuries may have ended the Eagles’ hopes of a playoff berth before Wentz even started to slump.
Now that Wentz is gone, the team will want to reinforce that line to give sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts his best chance to succeed. But the Eagles may should resist that temptation. With a team full of veterans and an eye on a return to the Super Bowl, Philadelphia is $43 million over the projected salary cap. Only the Saints have a bigger deficit.
The Eagles will have to make sacrifices, and the offensive line could be a good choice given Hurts’ mobility in the pocket and scrambling. Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson echo those skills, and they have ranked in the top 10 in DVOA on their dropbacks with pressure every year since 2017 and have done so behind consistently porous offensive lines. Hurts started just four games in 2020 but teased that potential with what would have been a 13th-place finish in DVOA under pressure had he qualified. And if he can continue that success with pressure, then the Eagles can spend their limited resources to address their other deficiencies such as linebacker and wide receiver.
Keyshawn Johnson and Matt Miller discuss the possibility of the Eagles and Jets drafting quarterbacks in the top 10.
Washington Football Team: Sign Cam Newton
Washington head coach Ron Rivera had a chance to sign his former Panthers franchise quarterback Newton in the first year with his new team in 2020. Since he chose not to, it may seem like a stretch that Rivera would target Newton this offseason after the latter’s Patriots underwhelmed with a 7-9 record.
But, the Patriots’ shortcomings were less about Newton than many believe. Following the free-agent and opt-out losses of all four of their starting linebackers, the Patriots defense declined precipitously from first to 26th in defensive DVOA. And while Newton struggled to stretch the field vertically coming off of shoulder and foot surgeries the previous two offseasons, he avoided turnovers and stayed ahead of the sticks like he always has. To the former point, Newton threw 10 interceptions and fumbled six times on 505 combined pass and run attempts. That 3.2% rate was better than former MVP Lamar Jackson‘s 3.6% rate. And to the latter point, Newton had a 45.5% success rate across his pass and run plays that mirrored Jackson’s 45.9% rate as well as the 45.5% and 45.4% rates of Justin Herbert and Matt Ryan, lauded pocket passers.
Newton’s ball-control approach to offense would fit Washington perfectly. Their third-ranked DVOA defense carried them to the playoffs in 2020 with less successful quarterbacks in Dwayne Haskins (36.7%) and Alex Smith (41.9%). And Newton demonstrated this level of success bereft of skill talent around him in New England. It’s a challenge Washington’s 2021 quarterback will also likely face unless the team finds a way to invest in new wide receivers besides Terry McLaurin and an offensive line whose best blocker, Brandon Scherff, is a free agent.
— Scott Spratt
The Bears have been in the market for a franchise quarterback for the better part of the last 35 years, and the expiration of Mitchell Trubisky‘s rookie contract plus an unusual surplus of available veteran passers make this offseason an easy one for the team to try again to find one. Rumors paired the team with the Wentz before he landed in Indianapolis.
But I wonder if the Eagles might have a different trade target that could transform incumbent backup and former Wentz injury replacement Nick Foles into capable starter. That player is tight end Zach Ertz. Foles has thrown 4.8% more of his passes to tight ends than a typical quarterback since 2017. However, that was less of an option with the Bears last season — with 33-year-old Jimmy Graham and rookie Cole Kmet at the position — than it was in Foles’ best recent seasons with the Eagles in 2017 and 2018 when he had Ertz, Trey Burton, and Dallas Goedert.
Foles had particular chemistry with Ertz with a strong 47.8% success rate despite a low 7.0-yard average depth of target. Put differently, Ertz helped Foles move the chains to extend drives. His addition could help Foles avoid the three-and-outs that plagued the Bears in 2020, both with his receiving and the impact a heavier lineup could have on a run-blocking front that finished in the bottom 10 with 4.16 adjusted line yards per carry.
Detroit Lions: Draft a quarterback with the seventh pick
With the Matthew Stafford trade, the Lions seemed to simultaneously kick off a rebuild and secure their quarterback of the future in 26-year-old Jared Goff. But the Lions’ bounty of two first-round and one third-round draft picks hints at the perception that Goff is no longer worth his contract. One of those picks compensated the Lions for taking Goff off of the Rams’ books in a less extreme version of the 2017 Brock Osweiler trade. The Lions won’t release Goff before the season the way the Browns released Osweiler, but Goff’s current four-year deal has just two more years with dead cap money. The Lions can release him after 2022 without penalty, and that may make sense for the team given Goff’s annual salary, his career splits, and the depth of top quarterback prospects in this year’s draft.
Goff has seen his QBR fall to 25th and 24th at the position the past two seasons as the Rams’ offensive pressure rate has slipped from its previous top-five status to 23rd and 17th in the league. He cannot extend plays in the pocket or scramble for new first downs the way that many of the most successful young quarterbacks can. By using the seventh overall pick on Justin Fields or Trey Lance, the Lions would add a quarterback that can extend those plays and then use Goff as the bridge until their rookie is ready to play.
The Packers came within two wins of vindication of their future-looking approach to the 2020 draft. They selected quarterback Jordan Love, running back A.J. Dillon, and H-back Josiah Deguara with their first three picks, none of whom contributed significantly as rookies to a title contender with Aaron Rodgers and Aaron Jones.
But, the team’s NFC Championship Game loss resurfaced the tension between the organization and Rodgers that could accelerate their eventual divorce. Rodgers is signed through 2023, the last year of Love’s rookie contract. Conventional wisdom dictates that the Packers have their best chance to win with Love when that discounted rookie deal affords them the ability to overspend on other positions. And head coach Matt LaFleur has installed an offensive system whose reliance on play-action and other deception can prop up a less talented quarterback like his previous team Tennessee has done with Ryan Tannehill.
However, the Packers don’t have to move on. They could accept those 2020 draft picks as a sunk cost — or better yet, push a narrative that the team wanted to invest in a premium backup behind their aging quarterback like the Saints did for Drew Brees in recent seasons — and then extend Rodgers and do everything they can to help him win another Super Bowl. Because, unsurprisingly, Rodgers exceled with 8.1 average yards on his play-action attempts in 2020. He has the intelligence and arm talent to succeed with scheme the way he always has in a less creative offense. And he gives the Packers their best chance to win for the next several years.
As such, they should not hesitate to make win-now moves like re-signing Jones or, if Dillon makes that unnecessary, finally adding a second talented receiver to take some of the weight off of Davante Adams‘ shoulders.
Defensive tackle Michael Pierce’s decision to opt out would have devastated the Vikings if they hadn’t already designated 2020 as the year they would shed some veterans to fix their cap situation. Before his decision, Pierce signed with the Vikings for three years and $27 million. He was the team’s most expensive free-agent addition and was the entirety of their plan to replace the released former Pro Bowler Linval Joseph.
With the expectation that Pierce will play in 2021, and now that the team has escaped its cap nightmare, the Vikings could easily call it a day. Instead, we would love for them to double down with another signing of an expensive free-agent defensive tackle, Leonard Williams.
Even with their other cuts, the Vikings were remarkably complete in 2020 with the No. 11 passing offense, No. 6 rushing offense, and No. 14 pass defense by DVOA. But their run defense finished 30th in DVOA and dead last allowing 5.16 adjusted line yards per carry, and did so despite Eric Kendricks leading all linebackers (min. 50 tackles) with a 6.3% broken tackle rate based on Sports Info Solutions charting. That weakness may be more than Pierce can overcome on his own, but its correction could vault this version of the Vikings into Super Bowl contention. And thanks to their discipline last year, the team could free the space to make it happen by extending Cousins and avoid the alternative of a complete rebuild.
— Scott Spratt
Atlanta Falcons: Draft Matt Ryan’s Replacement
There’s a good chance that when the Falcons are on the clock at No. 4 in April’s draft, they will be the first team up that doesn’t have an obvious need at the game’s most important position. Jacksonville and the Jets will surely pick quarterbacks at No. 1 and No. 2, and many draft scenarios have the Dolphins trading out of Houston’s No. 3 pick as some quarterback-needy team leaps ahead of the Eagles for either Zach Wilson or Justin Fields. That would leave the Falcons with the pick of the other players, including left tackle Penei Sewell, star receiver Ja’Marr Chase and linebacker Micah Parsons.
They should strongly consider picking a quarterback anyway. Matt Ryan will be 36 years old on opening day 2021. His DVOA declined every year from 2016 through 2019, finally stabilizing around 7.0% — the level of a mid-tier starter — across 2019 and 2020. Although the decline leveled off in 2020, the past two seasons were still the third-lowest and second-lowest DVOA marks of his 12-year career, with him now lingering closer to replacement level than his MVP performance in 2016.
Ryan’s strong career means the Falcons haven’t picked this high since they took him third overall in 2008, so this is likely to be the best opportunity they have to draft a replacement before he retires. Especially if the Dolphins decide to stand pat and use their pick, dropping the third quarterback into Atlanta’s lap, the Falcons should take a serious look at their options for life beyond Ryan as he moves into the back half of his 30s.
Per Over the Cap, the Panthers rank eighth in salary cap room for 2021. Every team with more room than Carolina, except Cincinnati, has a bigger hole at quarterback, though the Jaguars and Jets should address that in the early rounds of April’s draft. The Panthers might not have their long-term answer, but with Teddy Bridgewater, a strong supporting cast and good coaching they are well positioned to have a solid offense.
Instead, they can look to improve their No. 24 defensive DVOA by spending on the hefty list of potential options in the front seven. Yannick Ngakoue or Romeo Okwara would pair with Brian Burns to make an intimidating pass rush, with the budget still high enough to add a player such as Sheldon Rankins or Solomon Thomas on the inside. An off-ball linebacker such as Matt Milano or Jayon Brown could then either take the pressure off the struggling Shaq Thompson or allow the team to move on from Thompson entirely. Even better, every one of those players will be 28 or younger on opening day, reducing the danger of signing a free agent whose best days are already behind him.
The key component of the most successful teams in Panthers history has been a strong front seven on defense. They have the options to restore that dominance this offseason.
Stephen A. Smith discusses if he would rather have Cam Newton or Jameis Winston as his starting quarterback.
There are a couple of issues we face when considering the Saints this offseason. First, though he is widely expected to do so before April’s draft, at the time of writing Drew Brees has not officially retired. It’s not that quarterback wouldn’t be a need if he stuck around — he’s very clearly losing the battle against Father Time — but that would change the outlook for other players such as Taysom Hill and free-agent-to-be Jameis Winston.
Second, regardless of what happens with Brees, this team is at least $65 million over the current projected salary cap for 2021. Around half of that can be cleared by releasing Kwon Alexander, Nick Easton, and Malcom Brown, and designating Janoris Jenkins for release after June 1.
Beyond that, however, the team will probably have to make some tough roster decisions regarding players it would rather keep — highly paid veterans such as Jared Cook, Emmanuel Sanders, Terron Armstead or Cameron Jordan, and young draftees approaching the end of their rookie deals such as Marshon Lattimore and Ryan Ramczyk. Extensions and restructures will certainly come into play, but it would take a master class in cap management for the Saints to keep all of their top players.
With that in mind, given the productivity of the recent college receiver pipeline, the Saints can seriously consider dealing Thomas. Thomas had incredible production during his first three years in the league, but an injury-plagued 2020 season was also marred by a team suspension following a fight with teammate C.J. Gardner-Johnson. That led to trade speculation at the time, some of which has warmed up again this offseason. A trade of Thomas, processed on June 1, would free up $12.8 million, per Over the Cap — freeing up more than any other player save Jordan — giving the team some room to keep together its outstanding offensive line.
The Saints, who have a strong track record with wide receivers, could then draft Thomas’ replacement at No. 28, or perhaps higher depending on the result of the trade. They might find it more palatable to release veterans Cook and Sanders and try to restructure the contracts of the rest, but either way the starting receiver corps could look significantly different next September.
A Super Bowl champion one year removed from leading the league with 19.5 sacks, Barrett is on record stating it’s “time … to break the bank now.” He did add that he hopes that happens with the Buccaneers, but the Buccaneers have a lot of valuable free agents and nowhere near enough cap room to sign them all to the size of deals they are likely to demand. Of those free agents, Chris Godwin and Lavonte David should be priorities No. 1 and 2, whereas third priority Barrett is the one most likely to demand a market-setting contract.
There are plenty of potential replacements for Barrett entering free agency — the Buccaneers could lure his former teammate Von Miller from Denver; get younger with former Jaguars, Vikings and Ravens edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue; snap up Chargers veteran Melvin Ingram; or give Detroit’s 2020 breakout edge rusher Romeo Okwara the same chance they gave Barrett two years ago. If Jason Licht and Bruce Arians believe they can replace Barrett adequately with one or another of these likely cheaper options, they can let him enjoy his payday elsewhere and be no worse off.
— Andrew Potter
If you’ve been reading these “one bold move” articles over the years, you’ll recall that we have often suggested the Cardinals trade Peterson away for draft picks because they were unlikely to get back to the playoffs before he hit free agency. Well, it’s 2021, the Cardinals just missed the postseason for the fifth year in a row, and Peterson will soon be a free agent. He’s going to get a deal from some team … but why couldn’t that team be Arizona? And is there a way to retain both Peterson and Reddick, who came out of nowhere to lead the Cardinals with 12.5 sacks?
The cap situation might work to Arizona’s benefit here: Teams aren’t going to have as much spending room as they usually do, and veterans will likely settle for one-year deals, hoping for a bigger jackpot in 2022. The Cards are 15th in effective cap space, per Over the Cap, and with Kyler Murray still on his rookie deal, they could easily find $9 million or so for Peterson. At age 31 and in this market, he might not find a better deal.
If they can get that deal done, they could use the franchise tag on Reddick. That would cost them about $15.7 million, a reasonable value for a good 27-year-old edge rusher. Pairing Reddick with a healthy Chandler Jones would give Arizona a set of bookend pass-rushers few teams could match.
Los Angeles Rams: Trade away Woods, Kupp, Higbee and more
The Rams don’t have a lot of options here. They’re already about $34 million over the salary cap going into free agency. And they’re facing a dearth of draft picks in the future, having traded away their first-round selections in each of the next three years. They need to get younger, they need to get cheaper, they need to get draft picks and they need to do it all as quickly as possible. Only three players on the roster — Matthew Stafford, Aaron Donald, and Jalen Ramsey — should be considered untouchable. Everyone else should be on the block.
Some of the most notable high-salary trade candidates include:
Robert Woods ($13.9 million cap hit in 2021) and Cooper Kupp ($14.5 million). The Rams are currently in the top five in 2021 salary devoted to wide receivers, so there’s no better place to start budget cuts.
Tyler Higbee ($7.5 million). Only six tight ends are projected to have higher cap hits this fall.
Michael Brockers ($9.8 million). Any defensive tackle playing next to Donald should get opportunities to make plays; the Rams could get by with someone cheaper here.
In six starts last season, Jimmy Garoppolo had a Total QBR of 61.5; it was about the same, 60.8, for San Francisco’s Super Bowl season in 2019. It was much worse (27.5) in 2018, but that came in only three starts. In those same three years, Kirk Cousins has posted total QBRs of 59.5, 60.4, and 63.2; game for game, he has been very similar to Garoppolo. The biggest difference is that Garoppolo has missed 23 starts over the past three years, with the 49ers going 6-17 in his absence, while Cousins has missed only one start since 2015.
They’re not identical players — Garoppolo hits more explosive plays but also gives up more sacks and interceptions — but Cousins has basically been a healthier version of Garoppolo. And that health could mean the difference between San Francisco challenging for Super Bowls or missing the playoffs entirely.
It’s easy to see how this trade would benefit San Francisco, but what’s in it for Minnesota? In three years with Cousins, the Vikings have gone 8-7-1, 10-6, and 7-9, never achieving more than fringe wild-card status. It’s time to shake things up, either with Garoppolo or a younger quarterback prospect. Cousins also has two years left on his deal, and his cap hit skyrockets to $45 million in 2022; there won’t be much of a market for him at that point. If they’re ever going to trade Cousins, it’s now or never.
Seattle Seahawks: Don’t sign any pending free agents to big extensions
Seattle is going into free agency with about $4.4 million in cap space, according to Over the Cap. And with only 47 players under contract, they have a lot of holes to fill. Key Seahawks hitting free agency include Chris Carson, Poona Ford, K.J. Wright and Shaquill Griffin. For his part, Wright has already said he will not take a “hometown discount.” Seattle, however, should not break the bank in re-signing Wright or any of its other free agents.
This is going to be a very strange offseason, with the salary cap expected to drop to around $180 million. Thirteen of the NFL’s 32 clubs are already over that figure. Eight of those teams made the playoffs, including three of the four franchises that played in the conference championship games. Teams are going to have to make some hard decisions, and the market is soon going to be flooded with good players. For the teams that have managed the cap well, it’s going to be a buyer’s market. The Seahawks shouldn’t just be looking to cut salary; in some cases, it should be able to upgrade.
All of this also means that Carson, Ford, Wright and Griffin might not get the contracts they’re looking for elsewhere, and they might find themselves with little option but to return to Seattle on cut-rate, one-year deals. The grass, as they say, isn’t always greener.
— Vince Verhei
Buffalo Bills: Break the bank for J.J. Watt
As of time of writing, the Bills are about $200,000 over next year’s salary cap, and while they can free up some space by releasing some relatively lesser-used pieces, they have to worry about re-signing Matt Milano, Daryl Williams and Jon Feliciano. Considering the Bills made the AFC Championship Game this year, the prudent move would be to manage their cap, prioritize their own free agents and run everything back for 2021.
But where’s the fun in that? In 2020, Buffalo was second in pass rush win rate and fifth in pressure rate by ESPN Stats & Information charting; it was only 14th in adjusted sack rate. Early in the year, the Bills struggled to convert pressures into negative plays for the offense.
Enter J.J. Watt, no longer the destroyer of worlds he was in his 20s but still a force. Sports Info Solutions charted Watt with 28 hurries last season, more than any Buffalo defender other than Jerry Hughes (30). If Buffalo really wanted to be bold, it could make up for Watt’s declining physicality by moving him back inside, where he started his career. Good luck to an opposing offensive line dealing with Watt, Hughes, Ed Oliver and Mario Addison on passing downs. We saw what an outstanding pass rush could do in the Super Bowl against the Chiefs; attempting to replicate that makes a lot of sense for the Chiefs’ top rival in the conference.
What’s more, estimates by salary cap experts have Watt’s next deal being less than Milano’s. If given the choice between a pass-rush specialist and an off-ball linebacker, Buffalo might well be better off splurging on a future Hall of Famer like Watt rather than bringing back its top coverage linebacker.
Miami Dolphins: Trust the young offensive line and trade back
Miami’s offensive line was terrible in 2020. The Dolphins were one of five teams to rank 20th or worse in both adjusted line yards and adjusted sack rate, and they duplicated the feat in both pass-block and run-block win rates. Both Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tua Tagovailoa finished in the bottom 10 in average time to throw last season, per Next Gen Stats; some of that was by design, but some of that was because of a lack of confidence in the big men up front. With Oregon’s Penei Sewell likely to be available with the third pick, one couldn’t blame Miami too much for simply staying put, drafting Sewell, moving last year’s second-round pick, Robert Hunt, back to guard (his position in college), and continuing to build a line to protect their quarterback of the future.
The key phrase there, however, is “last year’s draft pick.” None of Miami’s five primary starters last season was older than 27, and they used two top-40 picks last season on Hunt and Austin Jackson. Early results were not promising — Jackson had 28 blown blocks by SIS charting and the rest of the young line wasn’t far behind him — but there’s a reason Miami drafted these players high. You could make an argument that one season is too soon to hedge on last year’s prospects, even for a better prospect like Sewell. It is a gamble, but you could bet on another year in the system and a normal offseason being the keys to unlocking the potential Miami saw in its 2020 draft class.
The Dolphins could also deal the third pick in a quarterback-heavy class. They got their guy last year, so let someone from the Carolina/Denver/San Francisco portion of the draft overpay for the rights to grab the third quarterback off the board. By moving back, Miami could have as many as five picks in the top 50 this year, allowing it to fix multiple positions as it continues to rebuild its young core under Brian Flores.
This strategy runs the risk of watching Sewell turn into a perennial Pro Bowler while the Dolphins’ 2020 class continues to struggle, but loading up on multiple top-tier players beats putting all your faith in just one.
It wasn’t overly shocking that New England stood pat in last year’s draft once Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert went off the board, though the fact that they didn’t add a single quarterback anywhere in the draft to replace Tom Brady raised more than a few eyebrows. After the Cam Newton experiment didn’t end up paying off, and Jarrett Stidham didn’t ride to the rescue either, the Patriots remain in the same place they were a year ago: How do you replace a franchise legend like Brady?
The answer almost certainly isn’t “staying put.” The most likely scenario is that all of the five first-round-caliber passers will be gone by the time the Patriots’ pick comes around at No. 15. Rumors have the Patriots instead kicking the tires on trades and veteran free agents, and trading up in the first round isn’t a particularly Belichickian move; the Pats last moved up on draft day back in 2012. Still, short of a Deshaun Watson maneuver, bringing in a veteran isn’t going to kick-start the next Patriots dynasty. If the Pats want the best chance of settling their quarterback position for the foreseeable future, they can’t count on finding another Brady in the dregs of the draft; they need to be bold.
The Patriots aren’t going to be in the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes, but they have a chance to grab Zach Wilson, Justin Fields or Trey Lance. A trade with Cincinnati at No. 5 (for No. 15, No. 46, and a fourth-rounder?) would put New England in the catbird seat for a passer of their choosing, while trading with Dallas in the 10th slot would at least jump them over the 49ers and Vikings. The Patriots have the draft capital to go get their guy; the question is, do they have the will?
New York Jets: Trade for Jimmy Garoppolo
The true bold move here is “trade for Deshaun Watson,” but as noted in the intro, that could be said for half the league. So assuming Watson goes elsewhere, what’s the backup plan?
Jimmy Garoppolo has shown that he can operate out of new offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur’s offense. In his one fully healthy season in San Francisco, he finished 11th in DVOA and DYAR and led the 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance; the last Jets quarterback to top Garoppolo’s 2019 numbers was Chad Pennington in 2006. Rumors have attached the 49ers to every free agent and draftable quarterback around, and while Garoppolo does have a no-trade clause, he may be willing to waive it to work with some of his old coaches again, especially if the alternative is being cut.
Adding Garoppolo would give Robert Saleh’s team an experienced veteran who knows how to run the new offensive system, allowing for a smoother transition. In addition, Garoppolo’s contract is such that teams can get out at any time with very little dead money, so it wouldn’t stop the Jets from adding a rookie to the team as well. What Garoppolo would do is give the Jets flexibility; they could still draft a quarterback with the second pick or use it on tackle Penei Sewell and try to grab a second-tier passer later in the draft.
And if Garoppolo looks like he did in 2019, then the Jets have a top-third starting quarterback, and one who’s still under 30. Garoppolo isn’t going to knock anyone’s socks off with big-time highlight-reel plays. But he could bring the level of competence and stability the Jets have been searching for over the past decade plus.
— Bryan Knowles
Our original bold concept for the Ravens was to trade behemoth tackle Orlando Brown, ideally for an impact wide receiver, before his disgruntlement became too widely known. However, now that he has demanded a deal out of Charm City, the boldness of such a move has vanished. Indeed, the bolder move might be keeping the unhappy Son of Zeus despite his desire to play left tackle, Ronnie Stanley and his massive contract extension be damned.
Meanwhile, the Ravens’ lack of an elite wide receiver has been brought up repeatedly since their playoff debacle against Buffalo. But what if Lamar Jackson’s playing style simply isn’t conducive to a traditional passing offense? And how much would a single, presumably high-priced wideout really change, when the rest of the personnel and scheme remains enslaved to a power rushing attack? Moreover, would the likes of Allen Robinson or Kenny Golladay want to block as much as the Ravens’ offense would require?
Instead, Baltimore should lean even further into its unique style, which works best when multiple pass-catching tight ends are on the field. Trading Hayden Hurst made sense last offseason, but his absence was felt, as was the loss of blocking tight end Nick Boyle to injury. Smith, who was multidimensional in a run-first attack in Tennessee, would be a snug fit who could fill both roles and give opponents fits when teamed with Boyle and Mark Andrews in three-tight sets. When the entire football commentariat says to do one thing, the best move might be to zag in the other direction.
As fun as it is for Bengals fans to daydream about stud prospects such as Penei Sewell or Ja’Marr Chase in stripes, the team is not one or two stalwarts away from title contention. A battalion of young talent is needed to fill in the roster around Joe Burrow.
Trading from the No. 5 hole all the way out of the first round would likely require multiple willing partners, which of course are not always so easy to find. But if deals were available, the Bengals could flip that No. 5 choice into half a dozen or so of the top 100 prospects, plus future premium draft capital, which would hopefully hit when the team indeed is just a player away. Dealing for depth also plays into the strengths of this draft; Cincy’s needs are mainly in the trenches, where the 2021 class is very deep on both sides of the ball.
Meanwhile, being drafted in the first round by Cincinnati is like donning chain mail and venturing out into an electrical storm. The team hasn’t had a first-round pick survive an entire season since Kevin Zeitler in 2012. Cincy’s last seven first-rounders have combined for all of 20 starts in their rookie years, half of those coming from Burrow before he went down with a season-ending knee injury in 2020.
On the other hand, second-round picks like Jessie Bates, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd form the spine of the team’s core. Cincy should lean into its strength and amass a raft of Day 2 selections at the cost of the fifth pick.
Tim Hasselbeck insists Baker Mayfield is only going to improve under Kevin Stefanski.
We live in a world where one young quarterback who made the Super Bowl (Jared Goff) was traded, another (Jimmy Garoppolo) is rumored to be gone soon, and myriad other veteran passers are available. Meanwhile, the depth of incoming talent at the position from the college ranks has never been greater, which is fueling the impatience seen in many league outposts. In that context, the Browns have to be strongly considering whether Mayfield can be the guy to lead the team to the big game, much less win it.
Under Kevin Stefanski’s friendly system and behind a vastly improved offensive line, Mayfield resurrected his game and reputation, which was in tatters after his second season. Now, a contract extension decision looms, one that very well may decide whether the Browns continue on their upward trajectory or flame out and return to the bottom of the league. His value may never be this high again, especially if a huge cap number is bolted to his name.
The return for Baker would be strong — would the Bears trade a couple of picks and, say, Roquan Smith for him? — and a replacement of equal or greater value would be readily available. Trading/cutting Odell Beckham Jr. no longer qualifies as a bold move. This does. The Browns have been mired in Nowheresville since returning to Cleveland; now is the time to execute full measures to finally earn some glory for the hard-luck franchise.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Trade up in the draft, select Trey Lance
Yes, restructuring Ben Roethlisberger‘s contract to spread out his terrifying cap hit over voidable years, thus allowing the team to improve its roster, would be a more realistic bold move. But that’s boring.
So let’s give Pittsburgh the jolt it needs for the future at the most important position in the game. The Steelers historically have been loathe to trade premium draft capital, but that changed when Minkah Fitzpatrick and Devin Bush were available.
Lance is highly unlikely to still be there at No. 24, when Pittsburgh is slated to pick in the first round, so they will have to invest some top picks to get in position to take the fleet and powerful, if inexperienced, North Dakota State quarterback. Next year’s first-rounder and a third from either this year or next is likely the minimum cost, depending on how high up they need to go; if there is a quarterback run and Pittsburgh needs to jump into the top 10 to get him, another premium selection will be required.
Still, it’s worth the cost, as 2021 could be a retrenchment season in the Steel City anyway. Now is the time to get a young passer into the Matt Canada system and have him ready to run, not crawl or walk, in 2022. Pay up, Pittsburgh!
— Robert Weintraub
Houston Texans: Trade Deshaun Watson … but only for Justin Herbert
All of the Deshaun Watson speculation led us to set a rule for this piece that no team’s entry could propose a Deshaun Watson trade, because otherwise our bold moves would consist of 30 Deshaun Watson trades, this entry, and the Chiefs. However, now that we’re talking about the team that’s trying to trade Watson away, let’s talk about what works and what doesn’t.
Trading Watson and not settling the quarterback situation makes no sense. Trading Watson for a high draft pick, while nice, doesn’t really quite qualify because high quarterback draft picks have high bust rates.
Who does not have a high bust rate? Quarterbacks who play extremely well as rookies. Like, say, Justin Herbert. Only five quarterbacks in our database have had more valuable rookie seasons than Herbert: Dan Marino, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Russell Wilson and Dak Prescott.
The Chargers are in a situation where they are essentially fanless and need some juice. Watson would bring an entire posse of Clemson fans and intrigue as one of the league’s most marketable and best players. Herbert would give the Texans a quarterback who, if not Watson, is about as close as you can get on a rookie contract.
We can argue over what else the Chargers might give up in the trade, but in my view, that’s the only way trading Watson makes sense for the Texans.
Indianapolis Colts: Make a play for a top-10 draft pick
There are very few teams that have the requisite cap space to trade for an established starting quarterback and pay big dollars for him. The Colts, projected to have the second-most cap space in the NFL behind only the Jaguars, were one of them. They also would morph from fringe wild-card team to serious title contender with a legitimate franchise quarterback.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine that Carson Wentz is going to be that franchise quarterback. We’re not saying Wentz is going to be the worst quarterback in the league again, but his issues with accuracy and late reads last year weren’t caused purely by his supporting cast.
The Colts still need to look hard at moving up in the draft. They’re not getting Trevor Lawrence, obviously, but Justin Fields, Zach Wilson or Trey Lance could all be worth multiple first-round picks for a franchise that is so, so close to being a legitimate title contender. Wentz should be a starting point for fixing the quarterback position, not the end point.
What the Colts did last season was an excellent victory for team-building, winning 11 games even with a somewhat limited Philip Rivers. It would be a shame to see it wasted.
The Jaguars finished last season with just 18 sacks, second fewest in the NFL. Josh Allen needs running mates up front, and the Jaguars need to rebuild the defensive line after trading Calais Campbell last offseason. Thanks to landing the No. 1 pick, the Jaguars actually don’t have to play the quarterback sweepstakes.
That leaves an easy intersection of a player whom Tampa probably shouldn’t franchise, one who is good enough to make an impact for a bad team, and the team that can afford to pay the freight to move Barrett across the state. The Jaguars are projected to enter free agency with more cap space than any team in the NFL. Lawrence and Urban Meyer will create a culture that should be easy to get excited about, but the defense is still problematic on quite a few levels.
The Jaguars probably aren’t going to turn it around and make it a top-10 unit in a year, but Barrett can make them more respectable than they were in 2020, and it costs nothing but cash.
Dan Graziano breaks down the most likely landing spots for J.J. Watt.
Tennessee Titans: Twist the dagger and sign J.J. Watt
The Titans are going to need to be a little bit flexible this offseason. They don’t have much cap space and they have a lot of players to potentially re-sign who could help next year’s team — including Jayon Brown, Corey Davis, Jonnu Smith, maybe even Jadeveon Clowney. What we’re saying is: They are cap-limited a bit but can make some breathing room.
Know of any culture-shifting older defensive players around? The kind that might take a discount? Watt is not 2014 Watt — he has hit double-digit sacks just once in the last five years — but Titans fans are plenty familiar with his work and it is an obvious fit to see him with former Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel in Tennessee.
Sure, Watt could get hurt. He does get hurt at this point in his career. But in terms of bang for the buck for a team that could really use a big boost, it’s hard to find a lot better out there. The Titans and their 30th-ranked pass defense DVOA need a boost. Watt might be the best gamble they can make.
— Rivers McCown
The Broncos have a few holes to fill on their roster. Quarterback is still a question mark, linebacker could use an upgrade, depth at pass-rusher would be nice, and the cornerback group needs another starting-quality player. Denver also needs to add some beef up front, though, and making a big play in free agency is probably the best way to meet that end.
Though J.J. Watt is the best defensive lineman in this free agency class in a vacuum, Leonard Williams may be the best fit to solve Denver’s problem. Williams could slot into Shelby Harris‘ spot in base sets, similar to what he did with the Giants, while being able to move around between the 1-technique and 5-technique positions as necessary.
Williams brings value against both the run and the pass. As a pass-rusher in 2020, Williams racked up 11.5 sacks, notching a career high by 4.5. Williams also shined in run defense, posting a 1.3-yard average depth of tackle, per Sports Info Solutions. That figure ranked 13th among all defensive linemen with at least 20 tackles last season.
Seeing as the 2021 NFL draft is a bit thin on high-end defensive line talent, signing Williams then using draft picks to solve other issues makes even more sense. Denver can instead use the ninth overall pick on a cornerback or package it to move up for a quarterback.
This particular offseason poses issues for NFL teams that were riding close to the cap ceiling already. The cap is not going to rise as it usually would, which means teams are going to have to make moves that they wouldn’t have to make in a normal year. For the Chiefs, that could mean moving right tackle Mitchell Schwartz to clear up around $6.25 million.
Moving either safety Tyrann Mathieu or left tackle Eric Fisher would bring the biggest cap relief, but both players feel too valuable to let go. The next-best option is Schwartz, who is set to make $10 million with a $3.75 million dead cap hit. It’s not ideal, especially seeing as what just happened to the Chiefs’ offensive line when he was out of the lineup for the Super Bowl, but the Chiefs are running low on ways to squeeze money out of their current cap situation.
Schwartz is still a plenty capable player, make no mistake. He helped guide the Chiefs to a solid 14th place in ESPN’s pass-block win rate in 2019 (his last full season). However, Schwartz is now coming off a back injury that took him out in Week 6 of last season. It’s entirely possible an injury like this could put Schwartz on the decline, especially since he is already into his 30s. Again, this will not be an easy move for the Chiefs to make, but something has to give this offseason.
Whether the Chargers choose to re-sign Michael Davis should have no bearing on also trying to bring in Patrick Peterson. Defenses around the league have embraced building from the secondary, and signing Peterson could give the Chargers a strong trio of cornerbacks to work with if they choose to keep Davis. Peterson, though not coming off his best season, can handle the outside and shadow any wide receiver, while Casey Hayward could kick back inside to the nickel position.
If Davis is allowed to walk, Peterson and Hayward would still give the Chargers a great one-two punch on the outside. Peterson brings an element of speed that Davis, while still capable, did not possess and could be quite valuable in keeping up with the many speedy wide receivers in the AFC West.
Giving new head coach Brandon Staley, the former Rams defensive coordinator, a movable piece like Peterson could pay huge dividends. Staley is at the forefront of defensive creativity in the NFL right now, and having a cornerback who can move around and cover anyone the way Peterson can could help put the Chargers’ defense over the top. Providing Peterson a change of scenery from Arizona’s horrific defense should help revitalize his play in 2021, as well.
Either Derek Carr or Marcus Mariota has to go. Carr carries a $22.125 million cap hit with a $2.5 million dead cap penalty, while Mariota is currently eating nearly $11 million in cap space with zero dead cap penalty. The Raiders should know one of two things by now: either Carr is clearly the better option, or Mariota at nearly half of Carr’s price is a better value and gives them the tools they need to restructure the roster.
More likely than not, it should be Mariota who is out. Mariota is set to make almost $11 million as a backup quarterback — behind a starter who has missed just one start due to injury in his seven-year career — and has a haunting injury history himself. Mariota was also lackluster the last time he had a starting job and was swiftly replaced by Ryan Tannehill, who took the Titans’ offense to a new level. If the Raiders can get anything for Mariota, they need to take it.
Carr was plenty good last season. He reached career highs in ESPN’s QBR and ANY/A (adjusted net yards per attempt), all while guiding the Raiders’ passing offense to a ninth-place finish in DVOA. Carr has settled into the Jon Gruden offense well and has plenty of pieces around him to continue putting up top-10 production. The Raiders would be aided more by fixing the defense, not by holding onto Mariota for $11 million in the hopes that he might be a comparable or better quarterback than Carr.
— Derrik Klassen