Over the next two weeks, I'll rank the 32 NFL teams on the work they did over the 2021 offseason. This encapsulates both free agency and the draft and measures what each team did versus our expectations heading into the offseason.
As an example, we knew heading into the spring that the New Orleans Saints were going to need to create nearly $100 million in cap space. My thoughts here aren't about the circumstances that led the Saints to be in that situation, but how they did over the past few months given those conditions.
Let's start with the teams in the bottom half of the league, leading with the teams that had the worst offseasons. Next week, I'll finish up with the top 16 offseasons.
An impressive offseason might not mean much in the grand scheme of things, but as a reminder, I did this exercise last year. The team that I thought had the best offseason a year ago did pretty well during the regular season and even better during the playoffs; the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the offseason, then the Super Bowl and are now back in the running for the best summer in 2021.
32. Las Vegas Raiders
What went right: For the third consecutive offseason, the Raiders finally fixed their defense. This time around, they didn't let the draft picks they've been counting on stand in the way. Clelin Ferrell, Johnathan Abram and Trayvon Mullen are among the players who aren't guaranteed starting jobs after the Raiders signed Yannick Ngakoue, Karl Joseph and Casey Hayward Jr. They have spent years importing talent on defense and failing to get the most out of their additions, a problem new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley has to turn around.
What went wrong: While contracts for Ngakoue and John Brown were relative bargains, the Raiders inexplicably handed Kenyan Drake a two-year, $11 million pact to serve as a second running back alongside first-round pick Josh Jacobs. Las Vegas also dismantled one of the league's most impressive offensive lines by trading away free-agent addition Trent Brown, star center Rodney Hudson and homegrown guard Gabe Jackson for mid-to-late round picks. The team used a first-round pick on Alex Leatherwood to help replace the losses, but just about every public source regarded the Alabama tackle as an overdraft at No. 17 overall. Teams have more insight into prospects than we typically do, but given the Raiders' recent track record with draft picks, they don't deserve any benefit of the doubt.
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What they could have done differently: Bradley was regarded as one of the league's most promising defensive coaches when he took over as Jacksonville's coach in 2013, but his defenses haven't been consistent, even when he has had talent to work with. Bradley's Chargers defenses ranked 10th in each of his first two years with the team, but they fell to 25th and 20th over the past two seasons. His Jags defenses ranked in the top half of the league just once in four years and improved in the season after he was fired. Should the Raiders have made the call to the ultimate turnaround expert and hired Wade Phillips?
What's left to do: Look for depth at guard. The Raiders signed Nick Martin to compete with Andre James for the starting job at center, but they would be relying on John Simpson and Patrick Omameh at guard if there were injuries. There's more available at the position than there is in a typical year, so I'd encourage them to look at someone such as Larry Warford or Nick Easton.
31. Green Bay Packers
What went right: The Packers were able to bring back their two most prominent free agents by re-signing Aaron Jones and Kevin King. General manager Brian Gutekunst was always going to struggle to bring back star center Corey Linsley, but the Packers will at least pocket a fourth-round compensatory pick for their former pivot. They were able to land a possible replacement in the draft with second-rounder Josh Myers.
What went wrong: Well, if you're a Packers fan who has been hiding under a rock for the past two months, I've got some bad news. Reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers does not seem particularly enthused by the idea of playing for the team, and while the future Hall of Famer has publicly stopped short of requesting a trade, his unhappiness does not appear to be subsiding.
Beyond Rodgers, the roster is getting thin. The offensive line is rebuilding on the fly while David Bakhtiari recovers from a torn ACL, with Elgton Jenkins taking snaps at left tackle in OTAs. The Packers added another option at corner with first-rounder Eric Stokes, but most fans I knew were hoping to see King move on for good this offseason. The Jones re-signing will see the team hand a huge raise to a player it doesn't trust to take more than two-thirds of the snaps from week-to-week, one year after it used a second-round pick on expected replacement AJ Dillon.
What they could have done differently: Letting Jones walk would have freed up more money to address the offensive line. Jones is a great running back, but if the Packers don't see him as a 50-snap-per-game guy, it's tough to justify paying the 26-year-old just under $20 million over the next two seasons. Moving on from Jones would have allowed them to either re-sign Linsley or add another lineman or two to the fold, and they could have used Dillon as the front end of a rotation with one of any number of veteran backs on the cheap.
What's left to do: Commit to Rodgers and trade for Julio Jones. Pretty simple, right? Let's talk through this one. We don't know the exact terms of the offer the Packers made Rodgers this offseason, but we do know Rodgers declined it. If he just wants to move on, this is a waste of time, but the one thing the Packers can offer Rodgers to erase the Jordan Love decision is security.
Rodgers has three years and $73 million remaining on his existing deal, so there's no issue with the idea of giving him a raise. Let's add two years and $90 million onto this deal for a total of five years and $163 million. Here's how that could work:
2021 $1 million $7 million $0 $14.352 million $22.352 million
2022 $2.5 million $7 million $7 million $14.352 million $30.852 million
2023 $25 million $7 million $7 million $2.852 million $41.852 million
2024 $33 million $7 million $7 million $0 $47 million
2025 $38.5 million $7 million $7 million $0 $52.5 million
2026 -- -- $7 million $0 $7 million
The bold figures here are guaranteed; Rodgers gets $98.5 million guaranteed at signing over the first three years of the deal. Combined with a no-trade clause, this deal locks him in as the Green Bay starter for at least three more seasons. It also crucially serves to bring his cap number down over the next two years, creating $14.9 million of space in 2021 and $9 million more in 2022.
Green Bay will want to use some of that space to lock up Davante Adams, but there's something else they can do with their room: trade for Jones, who is due $38.3 million over the next three years. The Falcons star gives the Packers a bit of leverage if the Adams negotiations don't go well and gives them a devastating one-two punch at wide receiver for 2021. In this scenario, Rodgers gets the job security he deserves and the second superstar target he's reportedly wanted.
And what, of all things, could the Packers send to Atlanta in return for Jones? Well, the young quarterback whose future no longer seems to be as the Green Bay starter. Love would no longer have a clear path to the starting job as part of this trade, but he would slot in as the long-term replacement instead for Matt Ryan in Atlanta, possibly as early as next season. New Falcons coach Arthur Smith once worked under LaFleur in Tennessee, so I suspect he might also be interested in Love as a quarterback of the future. The Packers might have to throw in a midround pick to seal things, but extending Rodgers and swapping Love for Jones seems like a win-win for just about everyone.
30. Pittsburgh Steelers
What went right: The Steelers got a pleasant surprise when JuJu Smith-Schuster's market failed to develop, leading the 24-year-old to return on a one-year, $8 million deal. It took voidable years to get Smith-Schuster back in the fold, which should tell you what a mess Pittsburgh's cap looks like. Given their lack of options at the position, the Steelers should also probably be happy that Ben Roethlisberger decided to return for another season, taking a $5 million pay cut in the process. And after agreeing to sign with the Jaguars, Tyson Alualu changed his mind and returned to the Steelers on a two-year, $5.5 million pact.
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