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Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press
The NFL offseason seemingly becomes a larger circus with each passing year, and this particular experience has already been wilder than ever.
Considering that the salary cap has dropped for the first time ever, expect more of the same when the new league year launches next Wednesday.
With that in mind, here are eight bold predictions related to the 2021 free-agent frenzy.
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Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press
I’m not giving up on this trade, even after Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores recently said he’s excited to work with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa this offseason, per the Sun-Sentinel‘s Omar Kelly. What was Flores supposed to say? And he’s not wrong about Tua’s potential.
I’m not suggesting the 2020 No. 5 pick can’t become a franchise quarterback, and it’s far too early to judge him based on an abbreviated, pandemic-impacted rookie season in which he was coming off a major hip injury.
But he didn’t perform well, and it remains as likely he’ll be a bust as he’ll become a success. The Dolphins already know Deshaun Watson is a success, they’re loaded with the draft capital that will likely be necessary to compel the Houston Texans to deal their disgruntled star quarterback, and it’s possible Watson is the final piece of the puzzle for Miami to become a contender.
So why not upgrade? Players like Watson almost never become available, and the Dolphins are in the best position to make this happen. They can even offer the Texans somewhat of a post-Bill O’Brien cleansing by giving them back the No. 3 overall pick that was originally sent from Houston to Miami in the Laremy Tunsil trade.
It’s just too perfect, even if it’s extremely bold and admittedly still a stretch. But if it doesn’t happen, I’m betting that’ll be because the Texans dig in and make Watson decide whether to play there or not at all, not because the Dolphins are too attached to Tua and their draft picks.
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Charles Krupa/Associated Press
The San Francisco 49ers have stood by quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo publicly, but not in an overly effusive fashion. ESPN’s Seth Wickersham reported last year that San Francisco brass “discussed” pursuing Tom Brady before he signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last offseason. After another injury-marred campaign from Garoppolo (his second in three full seasons there), it’s hard to believe the Super Bowl-oriented 49ers are satisfied.
Meanwhile, the New York Jets haven’t stated what they’ll do with quarterback Sam Darnold, but this regime didn’t draft Darnold, and it’s hard to imagine them sticking with the league’s lowest-rated passer from 2020 when they can have their pick of the non-Trevor Lawrence quarterback litter in the draft.
That said, Darnold is still just 23 and possesses plenty of potential outside of Adam Gase’s football prison. Kyle Shanahan’s quarterback-friendly offense could take pressure off of the 2018 No. 3 overall pick and enable him to finally excel.
And for the purposes of a trade, it probably doesn’t hurt that new Jets head coach Robert Saleh has a relationship with Shanahan and 49ers general manager John Lynch after they spent the last four years together in the Bay Area.
Per Spotrac, the 49ers would save $23.6 million by cutting Darnold and would take on a mere $4.8 million hit with Darnold, who would also be cheaper than Garoppolo in his 2022 option year. That would make it a lot easier to keep key players like Trent Williams, Kyle Juszczyk, Richard Sherman and Solomon Thomas on the roster this offseason.
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
Dak Prescott’s new backloaded contract and several restructured deals have given the Dallas Cowboys breathing room under the salary cap, but that doesn’t change the fact that the payroll is extremely top-heavy.
The Dallas roster contains the league’s second-highest-paid quarterback (Prescott), tied-for-second-highest-paid running back (Ezekiel Elliott), fourth-highest-paid wide receiver (Amari Cooper), three of the league’s 40 highest-paid offensive linemen (Zack Martin, Tyron Smith and La’el Collins) and one of the NFL’s six highest-paid defensive players (DeMarcus Lawrence).
They likely realize they need to spread the wealth, and a Cooper trade would give them a tremendous opportunity to do exactly that.
Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb all scored five touchdowns while going over 800 yards and averaging at least 8.0 yards per target in 2020, but Gallup and Lamb are a hell of a lot cheaper. Other teams will value Cooper far more than Dallas needs to because of the presence of Gallup and Lamb, and the Cowboys can create $14 million in cap space by trading the soon-to-be 27-year-old.
Those savings along with a Day 2 draft pick should be all Jerry Jones needs, because there’s no way Mike McCarthy’s offense shouldn’t be able to excel still with Prescott, Elliott, Martin, Smith, Collins, Gallup and Lamb.
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Justin Edmonds/Associated Press
The Chicago Bears look desperate, and they should be. They were a middle-of-the-pack team in almost every broad metric last season, and despite an aging and increasingly expensive roster, they haven’t won a playoff game since 2010.
But because they sneaked into the postseason, they lack draft capital along with salary-cap space and a franchise quarterback.
But general manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy know it’s now or never, and I’m thinking that could have them on the phone with the Las Vegas Raiders about a second blockbuster trade between the two teams in roughly a three-year span.
Jon Gruden sent Khalil Mack to Pace’s Bears in 2018. Now, with Marcus Mariota in tow and intriguing alternatives to Carr available in the draft, I can see Gruden shipping Carr to the Bears for a semi-premium draft pick.
The Raiders haven’t taken off with Carr, who can come off the books at a minimal charge. They appear to be rebuilding the offensive line anyway, and they could see about taking on veteran Bears receiver Allen Robinson II as a replacement for the recently released Tyrell Williams.
Robinson was hit with a $17.9 million franchise tag this week, enabling the Bears to deal him to a cap-rich team just like the Raiders. That said, the phrasing in the headline above was deliberate because it’s possible they shop Robinson elsewhere and still make a separate trade for Carr.
Regardless, this draft class is loaded with high-quality receivers, and 2020 fifth-round pick Darnell Mooney flashed as a rookie. The Bears would likely be fine sacrificing Robinson and, say, a Day 2 pick to see if a 29-year-old three-time Pro Bowl quarterback can flourish in a new setting.
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Mike Roemer/Associated Press
A Pro Bowl running back who has scored 30 total touchdowns over the last two seasons and should have plenty of tread on his tires is expected to hit the open market next week. Handing lucrative contracts to backs is usually bad business in this league, but the 26-year-old Aaron Jones could be an exception for a cap-rich team that can afford the financial sacrifice and is in desperate need of help in the running game.
Despite the fact they’re only two years removed from mistakenly overpaying Le’Veon Bell, the Jets still make the most sense.
Gang Green had the league’s seventh-worst running game in terms of DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average at Football Outsiders) in 2020, Spotrac ranks them third in projected salary-cap space, and the new coaching staff comes from San Francisco’s run-oriented culture.
They’re going to want to do everything in their power to support Darnold—or whoever replaces him at quarterback—and bringing in Jones, who has caught 96 passes for 829 yards over the last two seasons, would help a lot.
He won’t come cheap, and the Dolphins will likely strongly pursue him, as well. But I’ve got Miami focusing on Watson, and the Jets have more money to spend anyway.
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Mike Roemer/Associated Press
Last month, impending free-agent center Corey Linsley didn’t sound confident that he’d return to the Green Bay Packers in 2021. But with Jones likely headed out the door, something tells me the cap-strapped Green Bay front office still works enough magic to do quarterback Aaron Rodgers a favor by re-signing his veteran center.
The Packers know the window is closing for the 37-year-old Rodgers. They can’t afford to strip away all his support and take significant steps backward. Losing Jones is one thing, especially when you have 2020 second-round pick AJ Dillon and maybe even veteran Jamaal Williams on the depth chart at a devalued position, but we’re talking about a consistently strong All-Pro center in his prime at age 29.
A new deal for Linsley would be so costly that the Packers would be hamstrung on the open market. But that’s not their cup of tea anyway, and this team looked good enough to make a Super Bowl run before losing left tackle David Bakhtiari late last season.
Their best chance to get it right in 2021? Maintain as much offensive line continuity as possible for Rodgers and address other needs in the draft. Don’t take away your franchise quarterback’s center when he’s already likely to lose a safety valve in Jones.
It’ll take difficult sacrifices elsewhere, but don’t rule that out. Linsley is one of the most important members of the team.
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Jose Juarez/Associated Press
As soon as Chris Godwin and Allen Robinson II were tagged by the Buccaneers and Bears, respectively, Detroit Lions impending free-agent wide receiver Kenny Golladay became the belle of the ball on that market.
No other receiver on the verge of free agency has the combination of potential and accomplishments possessed by the big, oft-dominant two-time 1,000-yard wideout. There are some durability concerns after he missed all but five games in 2020, but he’s also relatively gently used at 27.
Somebody will make him very rich next week, and I’m thinking that somebody is most likely to be an Indianapolis Colts team that will want to pull out all the stops in what might be a make-or-break year with new quarterback Carson Wentz.
Wentz is joining a Colts team that just lost left tackle Anthony Castonzo to retirement and might also lose fading 31-year-old top receiver T.Y. Hilton on the free-agent market. Golladay would at least represent an upgrade over Hilton for Indy’s fourth starting quarterback in as many seasons.
Considering the cap-loaded Jacksonville Jaguars, Jets, Patriots, Dolphins and Washington Football Team should also be expected to compete for Golladay’s services, Indy will have to be uncharacteristically aggressive in its pursuit.
But general manager Chris Ballard has shown a willingness to be flexible and take chances the last couple of offseasons (see: trades for Wentz and DeForest Buckner), and the Colts don’t have a lot of other work to do as they squat on nearly $50 million in projected cap space.
All those other potential suitors except the Jets and Pats have strong No. 1 alternatives at the wide receiver position, and New York and New England have more work to do across the board than Indy.
Because the demand is there, I’m expecting the Colts to hand Golladay a deal worth at least $20 million per year.
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Daniel Kucin Jr./Associated Press
I don’t think the Bucs would have tagged Godwin or re-signed linebacker Lavonte David if they weren’t extremely confident they could bring back impending free-agent edge-defender Shaquil Barrett.
They have to realize they likely don’t even make Super Bowl LV, let alone win it, without Barrett’s heroics down the stretch, and Godwin and David were luxury bring-backs for a team that already possesses stars Mike Evans and Devin White at those respective positions.
Tampa Bay is over the projected cap, but Albert Breer of The MMQB reported this week that the team is “working on keeping” Barrett, who has 27.5 sacks over the last two years and ranks fourth with 93 total pressures in that span.
As a 28-year-old with that recent track record and only two full seasons as a starter under his belt, Barrett will be chased hard by a lot of teams if he hits the market. But he won’t likely fetch a record-setting deal in a year with a decreased cap, especially because the pool could be quite deep with fellow pass-rushers Yannick Ngakoue, Jadeveon Clowney, Matt Judon, Bud Dupree, Carl Lawson, Trey Hendrickson and Haason Reddick scheduled to hit free agency.
That should enable the Bucs to make it work with a backloaded long-term deal worth at least $20 million per season as they attempt to run it back in 2021.
Salary-cap info via Spotrac unless otherwise noted.