Home NFL Barnwell: Could these six teams still win the NFL offseason? Why they've been quiet and what's next – ESPN

Barnwell: Could these six teams still win the NFL offseason? Why they've been quiet and what's next – ESPN

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There has been plenty of talk about the Patriots, 49ers and Jets this offseason, and that should be no surprise. When you sign a bunch of free agents or trade for a top-three pick, you’re going to be in the headlines. Nothing is sweeter than adding a player in free agency or moving up for a would-be star in the draft; fans are way more likely to get excited about an unlikely addition than they are to be disappointed about missing out on what it cost to get that player down the line.

Let’s look into six teams that have been quiet since the Super Bowl. Some of them have gotten rid of key players, but when it comes to acquiring new talent, they’ve stayed out of the headlines. I’m going to break down why each has been quiet, what it means for 2021 and beyond, and make a suggestion for what all six might do next.

We’ll start with a team that seems set in its (successful) ways:

Jump to a team:
Falcons | Packers | Colts
Rams | Saints | Eagles

Who they lost: C Corey Linsley, RB Jamaal Williams and LB Christian Kirksey

What they did: Re-signed RB Aaron Jones, TE Marcedes Lewis and CB Kevin King

What they didn’t do: Restructure QB Aaron Rodgers‘ contract, sign an inside linebacker, add offensive line depth or get another receiver

Why? The Packers aren’t typically an aggressive team in free agency. General manager Brian Gutekunst’s spending spree in 2019 was an exception and — despite my skepticism at the time — has generally turned out well. The Packers restructured all four of their major signings from that offseason in pass-rushers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, offensive lineman Billy Turner and safety Adrian Amos, with Preston Smith eliminating a $4 million roster bonus to stay with the team. Getting four free agents into a third season with a new team has to be considered a victory.

I’m not sure Green Bay expected to bring back Jones and King this offseason, but the market ended up delivering good prices on their two former draft picks. The Jones deal could end up as low as one year for $14.5 million but is more realistically a two-year pact for just under $20 million. King came back on a one-year, $5 million deal after a similarly inconsistent corner in Trae Waynes got three years and $42 million from the Bengals last year. Paying any running back is a dangerous game — and Packers fans might have been ready to move on from King after he made a number of mistakes in the NFC Championship Game — but Green Bay is bringing back most of the core from a team that has gone 26-6 over the last two seasons. Running it back, albeit without Linsley, seems logical enough.

The decision not to create cap space by restructuring Rodgers’ deal has attracted some attention. He is owed $21.5 million unguaranteed between his base salary and roster bonus in 2021. Converting $20 million of that to a signing bonus and adding two voidable years to the end of his deal would have freed up $16 million in cap space for the Packers this year. Doing that would have created all the room they would have needed to sign, say, wide receiver Will Fuller.

Why didn’t the Packers do it? As some have speculated, they could have been making their future lives easier if their intentions are to move on from Rodgers in the next year or two. If they trade him after the 2021 season, they would owe $17.2 million in dead money. If they were to restructure his contract per the instructions above and then trade him one year from now, that dead money figure would rise to $33.2 million.

Frankly, the Packers aren’t in position to absorb $16 million more in dead money next year. They’re already projected to be $27.3 million over a possible $192.5 million cap, and that’s without re-signing wideout Davante Adams. They will get under by cutting Preston Smith, extending cornerback Jaire Alexander with a small first-year figure and potentially giving Za’Darius Smith a new deal while making other small moves around the roster, but adding $16 million more to the cap would make things messy. If Green Bay intends to keep Rodgers past 2021, a new deal would likely be in play to reduce his $39.9 million cap hit in 2022.

The other argument is that the Packers under Gutekunst and coach Matt LaFleur have shown who they are. They don’t think they need another big-time receiver, and given that Rodgers has had plenty of success when Adams has been injured, they might be right. They want to invest at running back, and the offense has looked pretty good over the past two years. They’re comfortable with an uncertain future at quarterback, but for all the hand-wringing over the first-round pick spent on Jordan Love last year, Rodgers just won his third MVP award and took the team to within a couple calls of the Super Bowl. The Packers are staying the course because the course has generally been pleasant over the last two seasons.

One move to make: Sign a tackle. Turner is probably better served as the team’s swing lineman as opposed to the full-time right tackle, and Green Bay could use him across the lineup after Linsley and Rick Wagner left this offseason. I keep thinking about Mitchell Schwartz, although the Chiefs standout might not be ready to play in 2021 after undergoing back surgery in February. LaFleur had Dennis Kelly in Tennessee, and Kelly would be an upgrade on Turner as a run blocker.

Who they lost: C Alex Mack, S Keanu Neal and DE Takkarist McKinley

What they did: Sign RB Mike Davis, CB Fabian Moreau and some special teamers

What they didn’t do: Move on from QB Matt Ryan, trade the fourth overall pick add more defensive help

Why? The Falcons are in rough cap shape. They needed a major restructure just to get under the hard line in 2021 and chose to push $21 million owed to Ryan into the future to create some room. Team owner Arthur Blank has been generous with handing his top stars extensions in years past, and the only guy on this roster who might be a bargain is wide receiver Calvin Ridley, who is entering the final year of his rookie deal.

As I mentioned recently, the fact that the Falcons chose to restructure Ryan’s contract might tell us something about what they plan on doing — or not doing — with the No. 4 overall pick later this month. After the accounting move, it will be exceedingly more difficult to move on from Ryan after this season, given that the Falcons will owe $40.5 million in dead money if they cut or trade their longtime starter. They could have created a similar amount of space by converting receiver Julio Jones and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett‘s base salaries into bonuses, albeit with voidable years involved for the latter.

It seems meaningful that Atlanta chose to restructure Ryan, which would hint toward not drafting a quarterback in the top five. The most logical thing for Atlanta to do is trade down and add defensive pieces later in the first round.

One move to make: Add defenders with upside. There’s not a ton to be enthused about on the defensive side of the ball for the Falcons, although their performance improved under Raheem Morris in 2020. New coordinator Dean Pees has a well-earned reputation as one of the best defensive minds in football, and as he returns from retirement, I wonder if Atlanta would try to add safety Kenny Vaccaro, who was cut by Pees’ former team in Tennessee last month.

Who they lost: S John Johnson, CB Troy Hill and OLB Samson Ebukam

What they did: Traded QB Jared Goff for QB Matthew Stafford and re-signed OLB Leonard Floyd before salary dumping DE Michael Brockers on the Lions

What they didn’t do: Plug any holes on defense or add any offensive line help

Why? The Rams have more than $39 million in dead money on their 2021 cap, a product of their ill-fated decisions to extend Goff and running back Todd Gurley after three seasons. They owe $3.3 million in dead money for Floyd after using voidable years to sign him last season and $2.7 million more for Brockers after trading the lineman to free up the cap space they needed after signing Floyd to a new contract.

On some level, it’s easier to find a defensive tackle than an edge rusher, so the Rams probably feel good about keeping Floyd around as opposed to Brockers. They’re also guaranteeing Floyd $32.5 million over the next two season after his first really productive season as a pass-rusher, once which came next to the most dominant force in the league. The Rams would have needed to sign somebody to replace him, but by giving him more than $16 million per year, there really just isn’t much to go around across this roster. L.A. had to restructure nearly all of its core contracts just to get under the cap and hasn’t redone an extension with Stafford, which should net the former Lions star yet another massive contract next year.

The one move the Rams made was giving DeSean Jackson $4.5 million, an inexplicable decision for a team that needs more help at just about every position besides wide receiver. Jackson has successfully completed three games over the last two seasons and turns 35 during the season. There are too many ways to find speed if they needed a downfield threat. If they can’t protect Stafford or get off the field on defense, having a speedy WR3/4 isn’t going to help much.

One move to make: Add an offensive lineman. The interior of their line is flimsy at best, which would encourage the Rams to look into the guard market. Trai Turner, Nick Easton and Lane Taylor are still available. L.A. is careful about the compensatory pick formula, but Turner (Chargers) and Easton (Saints) were cut, so no compensatory selection would be due. Larry Warford, who was out of football in 2020, could also be in the discussion.

Who they lost: WR Emmanuel Sanders, CB Janoris Jenkins, DE Trey Hendrickson, C/G Nick Easton, TE Jared Cook, DT Sheldon Rankins, LB Alex Anzalone and QB Drew Brees

What they did: Created $100 million in cap space, franchise tagged S Marcus Williams, gave QB Taysom Hill a fake new contract and QB Jameis Winston a real one

What they didn’t do: Replace most of their outgoing talent

Why? Well, the Saints were in a cap nightmare. We laid out their path to getting under the cap before free agency began, and the Saints mostly stuck to that plan. The only exceptions were that they held onto backup running back Latavius Murray and corner Patrick Robinson, and they haven’t yet negotiated extensions for three key contributors in tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk and cornerback Marshon Lattimore.

General manager Mickey Loomis & Co. were able to clear enough cap room to franchise Williams, although the team hasn’t been able to get a long-term deal done with its starting safety. Making moves to re-sign their other 2017 draft stars (Ramczyk and Lattimore) would free up short-term room and allow the Saints to get a deal done with Williams. The only other signings they’ve made who will be competing for starting jobs are Winston and tight end Nick Vannett.



Jeremy Fowler breaks down how the 49ers are looking at quarterback, as well as the Saints’ interest in Florida’s Kyle Trask.

Otherwise, the Saints didn’t have many options. They were going to be able to keep their core together and lose a fair amount of talent around that core. They’ll be in the market for veterans on defense and could add a wide receiver if someone notable (wideout Albert Wilson?) gets cut this summer. They had a two-year window between 2019 and 2020 and didn’t win a Super Bowl in that window. Now, they’ll try to compete with a roster in transition this upcoming season.

One move to make: Add a veteran cornerback. They’ve been linked to Richard Sherman, and the Saints could be waiting for June 1 to pass so they can sign the future Hall of Famer without having to sacrifice a comp pick. They still have plenty of options: If Sherman isn’t to their liking, they could look at A.J. Bouye, Casey Hayward or Steven Nelson.

Who they lost: DB Jalen Mills, OT Jason Peters, WR DeSean Jackson, WR Alshon Jeffery

What they did: Traded QB Carson Wentz, signed QB Joe Flacco, and made a quick trip to the market for S Anthony Harris before moving down in the first round

What they didn’t do: Add a more meaningful challenge at quarterback, add more help at linebacker or in the secondary or trade TE Zach Ertz

Why? It’s clear that the Eagles are eating their vegetables in 2021 in the hopes of getting to enjoy some cake next year. Trading Wentz forced them to absorb a mammoth dead cap figure of $33.8 million; releasing Jackson and eventually adding Jeffery to the pile will push Philly north of $40 million in dead money this season. If it finds a trade partner for Ertz before June 1, that number might come close to $50 million.

Next year, though, the Eagles are projected with nearly $32 million in cap space. They could have as many as three first-round picks after trading down with the Dolphins while getting a conditional pick back from the Colts. If Jalen Hurts plays well as the starter in 2021, great! They have their quarterback of the future and all those first-rounders to build around him in 2022. If he struggles, well, they will pick high in the 2022 draft and have two stellar picks to try to use if they need to trade up further.

One move to make: Bring in a cornerback. Philly could use another reliable defensive back, and the market still has Bouye, Hayward and Nelson. Former Jets slot corner Brian Poole could make sense on a one-year deal.

Who they lost: OT Anthony Castonzo, OLB Justin Houston, QB Jacoby Brissett, DE Denico Autry, LB Anthony Walker

What they did: Traded for QB Carson Wentz and re-signed WR T.Y. Hilton, RB Marlon Mack and CB Xavier Rhodes

What they didn’t do: Add a more notable weapon for Wentz, sign a left tackle or add an edge rusher

Why? The Colts don’t typically make splashes in free agency. Trading for Wentz was a must given their black hole at quarterback after Philip Rivers retired; they’re basically locked into Wentz as their starter for the next two years as a result. All you can do otherwise is quibble with their re-signings; they know Hilton and Mack better than anybody, but it’s tough to see either signing as great value given the markets at wide receiver and running back.



Stephen A. Smith explains why he thinks staying with the Colts is a better move for T.Y. Hilton than going to the Ravens.

They’re left with two significant holes on their roster. Left tackle is a question mark after Castonzo retired, and with Houston still unsigned in free agency, the Colts don’t have much beyond former second-rounders Tyquan Lewis, Kemoko Turay and Ben Banogu on the edge. They held onto their 2021 first-rounder in the Wentz trade and will likely address one of these two spots with the No. 21 overall pick.

One move to make: Sign an edge rusher. The draft appears to have more first-round picks at offensive tackle than it does on the edge, which would push Indy toward adding a rotation piece. A Houston return could still be in the cards, but Melvin Ingram, Jadeveon Clowney and Ryan Kerrigan are also still available. If the Colts prefer to address left tackle, Russell Okung is unsigned, which could lead to a scenario in which Okung explains Bitcoin to team owner Jim Irsay.

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