It is once again that time of the year when the 32 NFL franchises can start to make decisions to better their rosters in the hope of adding the Lombardi Trophy to their trophy case. The new league year started two weeks ago on March 17th, and since then, we have seen several significant moves that have changed the landscape of the NFL for the upcoming season and beyond. While we are just weeks out from the draft and months away from the start of the 2021 season, I decided to look at what I deemed the biggest storylines of these early stages. The stories on this list are not ranked as I do not believe one story is more important than the other, but rather, they are important in their own aspect.
- Blank-check Belichick
The Patriots saw their 11-year streak of playoff and division titles come to an end this year as the organization missed the postseason for the first time since 2008 when future Hall of Famer Tom Brady suffered a season-ending injury in week 1. 2020 saw Brady playing in a new uniform and Patriot fans wondering about their team’s future. The Patriots responded by bringing in former-MVP quarterback Cam Newton who was looking for redemption after his last few seasons in Carolina, were lackluster. The result was Newton dealing with multiple injuries, The Patriots dealing with Covid-19 complications almost every week, and a 7-9 record that kept them out of the playoffs, while Tom Brady went on to win his 7th Super Bowl.
Head coach Bill Belichick was determined to see New England back in the postseason, and it showed in these first two weeks of free agency. The Patriots have spent a league-record $159.6 million in guaranteed money trying to revamp their roster into a playoff contender. They may have done that as the money has brought in some big-name free agents, including Defensive Tackle Davon Godchaux, Outside Linebacker Matthew Judon, and Tight End Hunter Henry. As of right now, The Patriots have signed a total of 12 free agents, including Cam Newton returning for his second season under Belichick. Time will tell if these moves carry New England back to the promised land, but one thing is for certain. They are not going down without a fight.
2. Tampa Bay Preparing to Run it Back
It is not uncommon to see a championship team lose two or three starters to free agency after bringing the Lombardi back to their city. That is just the business side of the game. It is uncommon to see a championship team bring back all twenty-two starters as they prepare to defend their title. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have done just that. After restructuring Tom Brady’s contract and moving around some money, the Bucs were able to get pen to paper with defensive starters Shaq Barrett & Lavonte David while bringing back Chris Godwin on the franchise tag and Leonard Fournette on a 1-year deal. The Buccaneers started off slow last year as this very impressive roster needed time to mold and become something special. With all 22 starters returning and the mold already in place, this team is ready to run it back with their eyes on their third Lombardi Trophy.
3. Not One. Not Two. Not Three, But Four Blockbuster Trades
Compared to the NBA, the NFL is pretty bland when it comes to the overall trade market. This has started to change over the last couple of seasons as we saw multiple superstars traded by either demand or the need to move a contract. This offseason has not slowed down as we saw three quarterbacks find new homes with Carson Wentz moving to Indianapolis and Jared Goff swapping place with Matt Stafford in Los Angeles and Detroit. Both trades involved 1st round picks, giving these teams massive draft capital along with a new general. There is still a possibility of a fourth quarterback being traded in Deshaun Watson, but we will discuss this later.
Even after we saw superstar quarterbacks switching homes, the trade circus was not over. On March 26th, we saw the Miami Dolphins set themselves up for the near future. Miami and San Francisco agreed upon a trade that moves the 49ers up 3rd overall in the draft and moved Miami down to the 12th overall pick while collecting two more 1st round draft picks. Social media was blowing up over this trade, but that would change quickly. Minutes later, Miami completed another trade sending the 12th pick and a 2022 1st round pick to the Eagles for the 6th overall pick in this year’s draft. When the dust settled, the 49ers were in line for their quarterback of the future; the Eagles added some extra ammo for the draft, and the Dolphins have five first-round picks over the next three drafts.
4. Massacre Week
Covid-19 hit the sports world not just physically and mentally but financially as well. The loss of ticket sales and other game-day purchases heavily affected the amount of money teams could work with. The NFL saw this front and center two weeks ago when the league salary cap was set at $182.5 million, an 8% decrease from 2020. This was the first time that the league salary cap dropped in ten years, and it left teams scrambling to be under the cap before the start of the league year. This led to multiple teams cutting multiple players. In my opinion, the two teams that stood out this week were the Saints, who released seven players, and the Chiefs, who released 60% of their offensive line from 2020. Covid-19 hit the league hard, and several rosters are going to look vastly different.
5. Deshaun Watson Trade Rumors and Legal Issues
Deshaun Watson’s situation goes beyond football and needs to be taken seriously, but I include it on this list as it does have implications on how teams are approaching the draft. Early on, the offseason’s main story was Franchise Quarterback Deshaun Watson demanding a trade from the Houston Texans. The Texans are on a rapid decline, and Watson, who recently signed an extension with the team, took notice and wanted out. No one blamed him. However, the organization stood its ground, stating that the 25-year-old superstar was not for sale. This did not stop the rumors rising as it was reported that multiple teams, including the Jets, Dolphins, and Broncos, were all interested in acquiring Deshaun’s talents. This was everyone’s focus expecting that it would be during the free-agent period if a trade did get done. No one expected what would happen next.
As the first days of the new league year began, reports began piling in of a number of lawsuits being filed against Deshaun Watson for sexual misconduct. As the days passed, more lawsuits arrived. At the time of this article, 21 lawsuits had been filed, with some having details that are too graphic for me to type. How this affects the trade talks is simple. The Watson situation is a walking time-bomb ready to explode, and no team will want a part of it. It is already being reported that teams are no longer interested in Watson, which is not shocking after the league announced their investigation. At the end of the day, the Watson situation is beyond football and needs to be handled appropriately. He will not be traded before the 2021 draft and honestly may not be on a roster in the possible future. This story is not going away anytime soon and will be a focus of both legal matter and sport.
Author’s Note: The league year is still very young, and new stories will continue to pop up every week. As draft approaches, most league news will shift in this direction very soon. Check back for more league updates as they come!