Starting Monday, teams were able to start waiving players and making moves to reshape their rosters. This year will have unique challenges. ESPN reported Sunday that the 2021 salary cap is expected to be between $180 million and $181 million, a drop of more than $17 million. That puts the cap close to where it was in 2018, when it was $177.2 million. In 2018, teams had 155 players making $10 million or more. Last year, there were 209.
For teams to make their rosters work under the cap, they will have to look to shed salary while limiting the amount of money they take on with additions via trade or free agency. The process has already started with some teams, such as in New Orleans, where Drew Brees saved the Saints around $24 million by reducing his salary to the league minimum ahead of his expected retirement.
As usual, much of the most important roster maneuvering will involve quarterbacks. That’s where we’ll begin our look at the most pressing roster questions entering the offseason.
Will Deshaun Watson get his wish and be traded by the Houston Texans?
For now, I say no. The organization has said it has no interest in trading Watson, who is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. It could be difficult to get a fair return for him in a trade, and Watson has a no-trade clause in his $39 million-per-year contract, meaning he would have to approve his trade destination.
At the same time, it doesn’t appear Watson will back down from his demand to be traded. If the Texans were to trade him, they would want a significant amount in return; one report said they were looking for two first-round draft picks, two second-rounders and two quality defensive players.
Among the teams that could put that together are the New York Jets, who have two extra first-round picks from Seattle as a result of the Jamal Adams trade and control the No. 2 selection in this year’s draft, which Houston could use to choose a quarterback to replace Watson. Defensive lineman Quinnen Williams, the No. 3 pick two years ago, is another interesting trade piece, as is quarterback Sam Darnold.
The other team to watch is the Miami Dolphins, who own the No. 3 and No. 35 picks that Houston sent them in the Laremy Tunsil trade. They could also include quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, the fifth pick last year, in a deal. But like the Jets, Miami is in the same conference as the Texans, who might only be comfortable with sending Watson to the NFC.
Will the Eagles trade Carson Wentz?
It sounds as though a trade could happen this week. The perfect fit would be the Indianapolis Colts; Frank Reich coached Wentz for two years in Philadelphia, including the 2017 season when Wentz played his best football before getting hurt.
The other major player is the Chicago Bears. Quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo also coached Wentz in Philadelphia. A trade with the Bears could include former Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, although Philadelphia might have a hard time fitting him under the salary cap. The Eagles are $69 million over the cap, even after lowering the salaries of veterans Alshon Jeffery and Malik Jackson.
The Washington Football Team is also in need of a quarterback, but it’s difficult to imagine an intra-divisional trade. The teams did it before with Donovan McNabb, but that was toward the end of his career.
Can the Packers patch things up with Aaron Rodgers?
The Packers say there is no way they will trade Rodgers, who won the league’s MVP award Saturday, and I believe that. He will be the Packers’ quarterback next season. But he could make things uncomfortable for the team’s management in the meantime. Former teammate T.J. Lang said Rodgers wants some revenge for Green Bay’s move to draft quarterback Jordan Love in the first round last year and not get him any help at wide receiver in what could have been a Super Bowl season.
Revenge could take the form of a contract extension that would ensure he can finish his career as the Packers’ franchise quarterback. To do that, the Packers would probably have to trade Love and ease Rodgers’s worries that his remaining time in Green Bay could be short.
What will the Jets do with Sam Darnold?
You can’t rule out the possibility of a trade. For the Jets to be willing to do so, they’ll have to be convinced that a quarterback they could draft with the second pick — Ohio State’s Justin Fields or BYU’s Zach Wilson — is an upgrade over Darnold.
If they decide to trade him, there will be plenty of interest. If the Colts can’t get Wentz, they would make a big push. The San Francisco 49ers would consider him as a possible upgrade over Jimmy Garoppolo. And don’t count out the Carolina Panthers, who reportedly offered the eighth pick in the draft, a fifth-rounder and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to the Lions for Stafford.
What is Jimmy Garoppolo’s status with the 49ers?
The 49ers still like him, but they are interested in an upgrade. Availability has been his biggest problem; he has started just 23 of 48 games since he was traded from New England. You can see why Coach Kyle Shanahan would like Darnold, who is a talented passer but hasn’t had a good supporting cast around him since being drafted third overall in 2018.
If the 49ers can’t come up with another quarterback, they will embrace Garoppolo and hope he can stay healthy next season.
What’s going on with Teddy Bridgewater?
His situation is similar to Garoppolo’s with San Francisco. The fact that the Panthers bid on Stafford shows that. The Panthers paid Bridgewater $21 million per season in free agency last year, but despite a talented, young receiving corps, the Panthers went 5-11.
If they can’t find a clear upgrade, they might bring in a young quarterback to compete against him.
What will Bill Belichick do to upgrade the Patriots’ roster?
Other than offensive line and running back, the Patriots have to completely rebuild their offense. They haven’t upgraded at wide receiver for two years. They have questions at tight end even after drafting two last year. They aren’t expected to bring back Cam Newton, meaning they will probably need to pursue a veteran quarterback in addition to considering one in the draft.
One player to keep an eye on is Jacoby Brissett, who is a free agent and played previously in New England.
Can the Saints get out from under their salary cap trouble?
The Saints are $79 million over the cap even after Brees reduced his base salary to the NFL minimum. Look at the list of players they might release — Malcolm Jenkins, Thomas Morstead, Janoris Jenkins, Kwon Alexander, Nick Easton, Latavius Murray and Emmanuel Sanders. They will have a hard time keeping together their 2017 draft class, which was their best in a decade, and they could lose safety Marcus Williams, linebacker Alex Anzalone and defensive end Trey Hendrickson.
New Orleans is expected to re-sign quarterback Jameis Winston, meaning he and Taysom Hill would be tasked with replacing Brees if he retires as expected.
Can the Rams put a strong roster around Matthew Stafford?
They can, but there’s no question they’re going to have to lose some talented players to get under the salary cap. The Stafford trade puts them $35 million over the cap, which is third highest in the league; they have $44.2 million of cap money tied up by Stafford’s salary and dead money for Goff.
On defense, the Rams might not be able to re-sign outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, safety John Johnson III and cornerback Troy Hill. They won’t be able to re-sign wide receiver Josh Reynolds. They could lose center Austin Blythe and might have to cut right tackle Rob Havenstein. And they don’t have a first-round pick.
On the bright side, the Rams are better at quarterback and still have stars Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey on defense.
Will Dak Prescott be back with Dallas?
This is without a doubt the most important contract negotiation of the offseason. Prescott has a lot of leverage because he is an unrestricted free agent coming off the franchise tag, and a second franchise tag would cost around $37.7 million and put a major strain on the Cowboys’ salary cap.
In last year’s negotiations, Prescott wanted a four-year deal, and Dallas wanted five years. The Cowboys reportedly offered $35 million per year, while Prescott probably wants something closer to $40 million annually.
Prescott would be the NFL’s top free agent if he hits the open market, but it’s difficult to see that happening. Dallas can’t afford to lose him.
Around the NFL
What a great coaching job by Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles in the Super Bowl. After Patrick Mahomes burned his defense for 462 passing yards in their Week 12 meeting, Bowles switched to a zone defense that is different from his usual scheme, which typically uses a lot of man-to-man coverage, along with cover-one and cover-three zone.
Instead, he used cover-two 41.1 percent of the time and cover-four 25 percent, meaning he was rushing four and dropping seven into coverage. By only blitzing 10 percent of the time and playing his safeties back, he didn’t allow Mahomes to throw deep — and his pass rush took advantage of an injured Kansas City offensive line.
Leonard Fournette may have become the top running back in free agency. After being cut by Jacksonville, he eventually took the starting job away from the talented Ronald Jones II in Tampa. Aaron Jones of the Green Bay Packers and Chris Carson of the Seattle Seahawks have been considered the top free agent running backs, but after Fournette was a force in the Super Bowl with 89 yards and a touchdown, that may have changed.
The Bucs will have a good chance to return to the Super Bowl, but first they face key free agent decisions. Chris Godwin is one of the best wide receivers among free agents and will be expensive to re-sign. Shaq Barrett might be the best edge rusher. Fournette will draw interest. They have to get Rob Gronkowski back for Brady. Antonio Brown is also a free agent. It won’t be easy.