The first two weeks of free agency have seen each team — save for the Buccaneers, who were fond of their 2020 squad — make changes that will affect their 2021 starting lineups. While the free-agent signings generated headlines, here are some key holdovers who stand to benefit from teams’ offseason decisions.
- December 21, 2020
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K.J. Wright remains unsigned, so a fourth contract agreement between him and the Seahawks should not be ruled out. Regardless, Brooks’ role will grow significantly. And with Bobby Wagner’s top-market salary on Seattle’s books at linebacker, it would make sense for the team to rely on a rookie salary alongside its defensive anchor. The latest of Seattle’s surprising first-round picks, Brooks battled injuries early but came on down the stretch. His growth coincided with the Seahawks’ defensive improvement. Wagner may have a new sidekick soon.
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In letting Marvin Jones join the Jaguars and opting against franchise-tagging Kenny Golladay, the Lions are rebooting at receiver. While Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman signed with Detroit, their ceilings are fairly well-established. The new Lions regime will want to evaluate Cephus, who played sparingly (two starts, 35% snap rate) as a rookie. With five-year Lion Jones and four-year cog Golladay gone, the fifth-round pick out of Wisconsin will have freer rein to showcase his skills in the team’s first post-Matthew Stafford offense.
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After Jadeveon Clowney chose the Titans over an aggressive Saints pitch, Trey Hendrickson thrived in a contract year. Hendrickson usurped Davenport and recorded 13.5 sacks. Hendrickson is now a Bengal, leaving Davenport another chance. The Saints traded their 2019 first-round pick to move back into the ’18 first-round for Davenport, but the defensive end has been a primary starter in just one season. Pro Football Focus has slotted the former mid-major freak as a top-20 D-end in each of the past two seasons. If Davenport can crank out stats opposite Cam Jordan in 2021, he will be poised to land a lucrative second contract.
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In not tagging Aaron Jones, the Packers came close to a radically reshaped backfield. Even with Jones re-signing to stay on as their starter, Dillon will become his complementary back. The 2020 second-round pick showed in the snow against the Titans he offers a different sort of skill set compared to the since-departed Jamaal Williams. The thunder-and-lightning cliche will apply for the 2021 Packers backfield, with Dillon (5.3 yards per carry in limited time as a rookie) looming as one of the league’s most interesting off-the-bench weapons.
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The reduced salary cap hit the Steelers hard. A few longtime starters are out of the picture. Pittsburgh’s once-veteran-laden offensive line is down to David DeCastro and a collection of unproven talents. Matt Feiler‘s departure for Los Angeles will move Dotson to a first-string guard role opposite DeCastro. A fourth-round pick last year, Dotson filled in for four starts as a rookie. Pro Football Focus graded the ex-Louisiana Rajin’ Cajun as a top-30 guard. Granted, that judgment came on limited work. But the Steelers will need to rely on multiple new O-line starters on cheap contracts next season. Dotson will be one.
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The Cardinals will be a team to watch at the running back position in the draft, but Kliff Kingsbury said he would be fine with Edmonds playing the lead role next season. After backing up David Johnson and Kenyan Drake, Edmonds will exit March as Arizona’s clear No. 1 ball carrier (among those who take handoffs; Kyler Murray is very good). Edmonds averaged 4.6 yards per carry last season and delivered his best outlet work, catching 53 passes and totaling four receiving TDs. If the Cards do not overinvest at this replaceable position in the draft, Edmonds is on track for a big contract year.
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Jon Gruden‘s affinity for veterans clouds the receiver position, with the Raiders czar greenlighting the signings of John Brown and Willie Snead. Edwards is a bigger target than each, but Brown could stand in his way for snaps on the outside in 2021. Still, Nelson Agholor’s exit opens the door for Edwards to show he can be a starter. The 6-foot-3 South Carolina product adds a dimension the rest of the Raiders’ wideouts lack, and he fared well during the team’s training camp last year. The Derek Carr-piloted passing attack could use some size outside of Darren Waller.
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The Titans passed on a reasonable franchise tag for Jonnu Smith, elevating Firkser into position as the team’s top tight end. The UDFA out of Harvard does not have Smith’s talent, and the Titans may devote at least mid-round draft capital to this position. But Firkser will play a bigger role for the 2021 team, after having participated in 32% of Tennessee’s offensive snaps last season. Firkser eclipsed his previous career-high marks by 20 catches and 162 yards (39 for 387) and is positioned to take a bigger step forward in an offense that also lost Corey Davis.
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Going into their 2020 training camp, the Titans rostered Malcolm Butler, Adoree’ Jackson, and 15-year veteran Johnathan Joseph. Tennessee has since cut all three. Although Janoris Jenkins is on track to play a stopgap role, he will be 33 this year. The Titans will need Fulton, a 2020 second-round pick, to be a starter next season. A knee injury limited Fulton to six games last season, and he entered the NFL in a rather difficult year for rookies to assimilate. With 2020 first-rounder Isaiah Wilson a historic bust, the Titans need Fulton to come through to salvage last year’s draft class.
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Although the NFL has suspended Gregory four times, the 2015 second-round pick remains with the Cowboys. Despite Gregory’s unreliability, the Cowboys appear prepared to let him become a first-time starter. The Cowboys are not believed to be planning a second Aldon Smith contract, and despite the team hiring a new defensive coordinator in Dan Quinn, Gregory appears to have the inside track to start opposite DeMarcus Lawrence. Gregory, 28, has started one game as a pro. He notched 3.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and 12 QB hits in 10 games last season. A historically odd second act may be coming.
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Sammy Watkins’ contract proved onerous, given his persistent injury trouble, but the Chiefs lack a possession receiver. There is the tantalizing prospect of the team deploying one of the fastest receiving tandems in NFL history on a full-time basis. A raw prospect in 2019, Hardman has not shown enough consistency. He has played 45% of Kansas City’s offensive snaps in each of his two seasons and, barring a trade for a WR2, should be expected to see more time now that Watkins is Baltimore-bound. A third-year breakout from Tyreek Hill‘s sidekick would unlock another dimension within this elite pass offense.
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Their receiver-development acumen generates more publicity, but the Steelers have done well to find capable edge rushers. The team has found supplementary sack artists to team with All-Pros James Harrison and T.J. Watt, with LaMarr Woodley, Jason Worilds, and Bud Dupree producing for extended stretches. The Steelers have big needs elsewhere; they need Highsmith to become the latest sidekick rush man. The third-round pick recorded 15 sacks as a senior at Charlotte and flashed after Dupree’s late-season injury. With Dupree now in Tennessee, Highsmith will be ticketed to start opposite Watt next season.
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Overshadowed by Washington’s menacing defensive line, the Giants put together a strong group last season. While Dalvin Tomlinson is now a Viking, the team has a talented player to promote into the starting lineup. Pro Football Focus has graded Hill as an upper-echelon defensive lineman for the past two seasons; the former second-round pick has excelled against the run. The Giants have signed nose tackle Danny Shelton, but Hill stands to see more time alongside Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence on a defense dependent on its interior linemen.
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The Eagles’ decisions to sign Joe Flacco and trade down from No. 6 to No. 12 make it rather clear that they will give the keys to Hurts. The former Heisman finalist was inconsistent as a rookie, but he is believed to have owner Jeffrey Lurie’s support after the team’s Carson Wentz situation rapidly devolved. The dual-threat quarterback must learn a new system, and he has one of the league’s worst pass-catching cadres. Hurts figures to have one year to prove himself, because if Wentz stays healthy in Indianapolis, the Eagles will have three 2022 first-round picks.
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One of the biggest winners this offseason, James is the favorite to replace Rodney Hudson at center in Las Vegas. The Raiders traded away their most consistent player — a three-time Pro Bowler and O-line anchor — to the Cardinals and gave James a three-year, $12.5 million extension. Kolton Miller’s teammate at UCLA, James has all of 116 offensive snaps as a pro. But the Raiders, despite signing ex-Texans center Nick Martin, have offered steady praise for the former undrafted snapper. James’ rise will be an interesting transition to observe, with the Raiders having made big changes up front.
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When faced with the prospect of multiple defensive line losses in free agency last year, the Broncos traded for Jurrell Casey and re-signed Shelby Harris. Both started in Week 1. But Casey’s season-ending injury led him out of Denver. This year, the Broncos gave Harris a long-term deal but left the other defensive end spot alone. This gives Jones, Casey’s primary 2020 fill-in, the green light to be a full-time starter for the first time. The ex-third-round pick posted 6.5 sacks last season and has progressed in Vic Fangio’s defense. With Von Miller back, Jones should have frequent disruption opportunities next season.
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With Christian Kirksey a cap casualty ahead of free agency, Martin looks like another Day 3 draft choice primed to start as a Packers off-ball linebacker. Albeit in an injury-plagued season capped at 190 defensive plays, Martin showed promise after impressing at training camp as a rookie. The Packers did not address this position in free agency and have drafted one off-ball ‘backer earlier than Round 4 in the past 14 years. This puts Martin in line to follow in Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez’s footsteps as Day 3 draftees-turned-Packers linebacker regulars.
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With Brandon Staley‘s defense the new reality in Costa Mesa, Calif., Nwosu may be set for a seminal season. The Chargers are expected to say goodbye to nine-year edge rusher Melvin Ingram, leaving part-timer Nwosu set to team with Joey Bosa on the edge in Staley’s 3-4 defense. A smaller edge player, Nwosu profiles as a better fit as an outside ‘backer. He has never topped a 37% snap rate in his three pro seasons, but with Bosa signed to a defender-record $27 million-per-year deal, the Bolts cannot spend much to replace Ingram. It should be on Nwosu — a former second-round pick — to seize the job.
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Still known best for being the subject of Pat McAfee’s showstopping draft-pick reveal , Okereke has a great chance to become a three-down linebacker in his third season. The former third-round pick has started frequently (16 games in two seasons), but the Colts primarily used Anthony Walker alongside Darius Leonard in sub-packages. Walker signed with the Browns, leaving Okereke set for a role expansion. Okereke rated as a top-10 linebacker, per Pro Football Focus, as a rookie. The 2021 season will be pivotal for the Stanford alum’s NFL trajectory.
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Shenault led the 2020 Jaguars in receptions, with 58, and did so despite playing just 56% of the team’s offensive snaps. The Jags’ receiving corps no longer includes Keelan Cole, Dede Westbrook, or Chris Conley. While Marvin Jones will join Shenault in north Florida, the 2020 second-round pick is in line for a major opportunity in Urban Meyer’s offense. Shenault entered the NFL after an injury-plagued final season at Colorado, but after avoiding notable injuries as a rookie, the 227-pound target should be in a better position to stand out in year two. He could be the aerial centerpiece for Trevor Lawrence.
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In 2019, the Vikings made the unexpected move of drafting a tight end in the second round and then signing their longtime incumbent to a high-end extension. Two years later, the Vikings cut Kyle Rudolph to open the door wide for Smith to become Kirk Cousins’ No. 3 option. The Alabama product played 50% of Minnesota’s offensive snaps last season and scored five touchdowns. The second-generation NFLer is still just 22. He will offer an elusiveness upgrade on Rudolph, providing more speed over the middle to complement Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson.
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After letting longtime slot cornerback Mike Hilton defect to the Bengals and then cutting Steven Nelson, the Steelers will need to make another move at corner. But they did extend Sutton, an auxiliary contributor over the past four seasons. Sutton’s snap rate climbed from 25% in 2019 to 53% in 2020. He will likely be close to a full-time player next season, alongside aging Pro Bowler Joe Haden. A six-game starter in 2020, Sutton forced three fumbles; PFF gave the ex-third-rounder a top-30 grade. He will be counted on to help the Steelers remain a top-tier defense.
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Last season, the Bengals rostered two former first-round picks and two ex-second-rounders at receiver. Former top-10 selections A.J. Green and John Ross are now gone, with the cornerstone wideout now in Arizona and the recent bust in New York. This leaves the door open for Tate, a 6-foot-5 ex-Round 7 pick, to join Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins. The Bengals’ draft position (No. 5 overall) may prompt them to overload at this position by selecting Joe Burrow college teammate Ja’Marr Chase. But Tate played a key role in 2019 (575 yards). He would be in position to reclaim it if Cincinnati does not draft a wideout in Round 1.
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Jared Cook and longtime No. 2 tight end Josh Hill are gone. The player the Saints traded four picks for last year has a smooth path to being the No. 1 tight end in New Orleans’ initial post-Drew Brees offense. After catching 15 passes in a developmental rookie season, Trautman should see a tremendous workload increase. Sean Payton clearly saw something in the 6-foot-5 Dayton prospect, who led his Division I-FCS team in receiving (916 yards) in 2019. With the Saints again lacking a proven No. 2 wideout, there may be pressure on Trautman to produce quickly.
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The 49ers’ payroll no longer includes Jerick McKinnon and Tevin Coleman’s salaries. Instead, San Francisco’s backfield houses two low-level veteran contracts. The 49ers have Raheem Mostert tentatively set to be their starter, but the speedster saw injuries wreck his 2020 season. The team re-signed Wilson to a one-year, $2 million deal; he should push Mostert and at worst be a frequent off-the-bench cog. The former UDFA averaged a career-best 4.8 yards per carry last year — highlighted by his 183-yard dousing of the Cardinals — and will not need injuries to create a prime role for him next season.