Building the 2021 Roster: Part 1
A new NFL season is underway and the jockeying for position has already begun.
Free agency has concluded, with a number of teams - including the New England Patriots - swinging big on a flurry of new recruits. The San Francisco 49ers made the intriguing move of trading up to the number three pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, presumably to pair a young quarterback with a talented defense, and an offense that has George Kittle and Debo Samuel. Elsewhere, quarterbacks moved around with the remaining questions hovering over Houston Texans star quarterback Deshaun Watson and the alarming allegations concerning his private life. I’ll dive into these topics today as they incorporate football’s most basic element: team building.
Spend Baby, Spend
The NFL’s free agency period is a chance for players to land lucrative deals or find better team fits, while also serving as another avenue for teams to improve their rosters. For the most part, players sign contracts with teams they want to play for.
The start of the new league year - especially this year, with its lowered salary cap - brought a flurry of activity, with free agency and trades significantly altering rosters across the NFL. As a result of the fallout from COVID-19, the salary cap fell significantly from 2020's lofty heights of a nearly $200 million budget.
While a handful of big names agreeing to terms, and spring rosters molded, it is worth bearing in mind all 32 teams are still in the thick of early-offseason activity, especially with the NFL Draft ahead on April 29. The New England Patriots made the biggest splash. The opinions on the Pats' uncharacteristic spending spree will be varied. They overpaid; splurging on multiple free agents rarely works out, although new recruit Matthew Judon is still a Pro Bowl-caliber rusher.
The Patriots badly needed an injection of starters. A number of their position groups are amongst the worst in the NFL. The tight end acquisitions are intriguing. Not content with bringing Jonnu Smith across from Tennessee, they’ve followed him up with a player that head Bill Belichick has long admired, Hunter Henry. This tight end combination will give opposing defenses headaches about where they line up and how to defend them.
New England has invested heavily in the offensive talent, but the quarterback remains a concern. Last season, Belichick had his first taste of disappointment in a long time and it was not met favorably. They’ve brought Cam Newton back, but it is hard to believe with the rebirth of their offense that they aren't eyeing up a quarterback in the draft. The AFC East is considerably better than it was a year ago, and the Patriots know they’re vulnerable. Expect them to do everything within their power to move up in the first round of the NFL Draft to land their future quarterback.
Bringing Back Last Season’s Roster Often in free agency, the teams that make the big splash are designated the winner. Seasoned league observers know there is more substance to what goes on than mere spending. Take the example of how Super Bowl winners the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have operated. The Bucs have worked magic to bring back all their major pieces. To retain all their key free agents is a minor miracle. And it’s not just Tom Brady and a bunch of old guys returning; wide receiver Chris Godwin and linebacker Shaq Barrett represent the future. All 22 Bucs starters return. The Green Bay Packers also restructured deals and moved money around to bring back their starters and stay under the salary cap. In the process, they locked up a key part of the offensive arsenal in running back Aaron Jones. It's no coincidence that the Packers and Bucs met in the NFC Championship Game. Each knows what it takes, at the very least, to get to that game. Returning to the promised land again with its current roster is something Tampa is banking on. Quarterback Merry-Go-Round
The most intriguing storyline in the upcoming NFL draft, as it is almost annually, is: where will the quarterbacks land?
The 49ers have made their move by trading up from No. 12 to No.3 to ensure they land a top quarterback. With top picks Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson expected to come off the board picks 1 and 2, the 49ers will have to decide between Trey Lance, Justin Fields and Mac Jones. Alabama’s Jones is the quarterback that is causing a stir among scouts and the best fit for Kyle Shanahan’s system: it should be noted that for over three months Lance and Fields were considered the vastly superior talents. The 49ers have a solid quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo who will start the season. His ceiling was clear in the 2020 Super Bowl. He can win a good team many games, but is not who you want with the ball in his hands with the game on the line against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.
The L.A. Rams, no fans of the NFL Draft, sent a bunch of picks and struggling quarterback Jared Goff to Detroit for Matthew Stafford. Now we’ll finally find out with a very good team and head coach around him, whether Stafford can consistently be a top ten quarterback and and a force in the postseason.
Deshaun Watson promised to be the quarterback to watch this off-season. After he put himself on the trade bloc and ceased to engage with the Houston Texans front office, all eyes were expected to be on which NFL franchise was prepared to give the Texans all the gold in Fort Knox for Watson, a generational talent and top five quarterback.
Instead, Watson is currently facing 21 civil lawsuits alleging sexual assault and inappropriate behavior. The Houston Police Department has launched an investigation after a complainant filed a report. They remain allegations, but they are being taken with the utmost seriousness. Only a handful of teams were said to be in the running for him, including the Jets, the Panthers and the Dolphins. With the Panthers picking up quarterback Sam Darnold from the Jets, it appears the very least Watson could be doing is sitting out the season. The Jets are in place at No.2 in the draft to take a quarterback. The Dolphins appear content for now with last year's pick Tua Tagovailoa. Watson’s case is an unedifying sight.
Owing to the pandemic, teams don’t have the institutional knowledge on the players that they normally do leading up to the draft which means they might not put as much currency in this year's draft as previous. While franchises such as the Rams have traded away multiple first round picks to win now, other franchises will be using the draft as the springboard to build their roster for seasons ahead and try to unearth the star talent to tip their team over the top. Even after 15 weird months for scouts and personnel offices, all eyes will be on the NFL Draft starting on April 29, when the next major team-building heave begins.