The 2021 offseason is expected to have more twists and turns than most. Due mainly to a restrictive salary cap that will be shrinking for the first time since the 2011 lockout, there will be many decisions made by NFL clubs that will stray from the norm. Here's what we can expect.
1. Quarterback movement
We've already seen two starting quarterbacks exchanged in the first blockbuster trade of the offseason. Though it won't be made official until the first day of the new league year on March 17th, the swap by the Rams and Lions of quarterbacks Jared Goff and Matthew Stafford along with draft choices headed to Detroit was just the tip of the iceberg.
The Carson Wentz trade finally came to fruition this week. With the Colts as the only serious bidder, Indianapolis landed a potential franchise quarterback, with whom head coach Frank Reich has worked, for just a third-round pick and a conditional second. All so Philadelphia could move on and incur a $34 million dead cap hit.
And ESPN NFL Insider Chris Mortensen, who made an appearance on ‘One Bills Live’ just an hour after the Wentz trade was confirmed sees more QB movement on the horizon.
"We anticipate Drew Brees retiring and Jameis Winston figures to be the new fit in New Orleans. Sam Darnold and the Jets is the most fascinating. New coaching staff, his team around him wasn't very good, but they're going into the fourth year of his contract and they have to make a big financial decision. They're sitting at number two in the draft and they really like the quarterbacks. I think it'll be Zack Wilson from BYU, so do they restart the clock with Wilson and trade Sam Darnold? Where would that be? I think San Francisco could be a spot for Sam. That could send Jimmy Garoppolo back to New England. Or might a Deshaun Watson trade to San Francisco send Garoppolo back to Houston? There's a lot that could go on."
Ben Roethlisberger is looking at a sizable pay cut and even then the Steelers may decide starting anew is the best course of action at the position in 2021.
"We know that Roethlisberger has told the Steelers that he'll be very flexible in adjusting his 2021 salary to help the team manage the terrible cap situation they have on their hands," said NFL Network reporter Aditi Kinkhabwala on ‘One Bills Live’ Thursday. "That's why I asked Steelers GM Kevin Colbert, 'Is this entirely an issue of finances?' And he said, 'Well first and foremost' The organization at some point needs to at some point face life after Ben. So do you rip off the band-aid now or do you let this go on for another year or so. The truth is there isn't a plan. The Steelers don't operate under a multi-year plan. They believe they're competing for a Super Bowl every single year so everything they do is focused on the coming year. This is why they're constantly in cap hell."
These teams are just a sample of those faced with big quarterback decisions, with others looking to improve their quarterback situations (Denver, New England, etc.). It's possible that up to half of the teams in the league could have a new QB come September.
Fortunately, the Bills are in no such position with Josh Allen on the roster.
2. Flood of veteran free agent talent
With a restrictive cap this offseason that could be as low as $180 million, down from last year's $198.2 million and about $30M below the anticipated projection of at least $210 million pre-pandemic, many NFL clubs will have to make some hard decisions on some high-priced veterans on their roster.
The Texans already released DE J.J. Watt at his request, though it was widely anticipated the club would've cut him anyway with a cap figure of $17.5M for 2021. Carolina did the same with DT Kawann Short.
"If you're one of these players who had a good year, but not a great year and you're scheduled to make $5-7 million and you're a defensive tackle or a guard or an outside linebacker, you better go ahead and be proactive and offer to re-do your deal," said NFL Network's Steve Wyche. "Otherwise you're probably going to get cut."
Players like Philadelphia TE Zach Ertz and Minnesota TE Kyle Rudolph are players who fall into that category, but it's not just the league's upper middle class. Aging star players will fall victim too. Denver's Von Miller has a cap hit of $22.25 million is expected to be released. So too is Arizona CB Patrick Peterson.
"Von Miller missed the entire 2020 season I think with an ankle injury, he had surgery. In the final year, he's got a cap number of $22.25 million if it's picked up," said CBS Sports cap analyst Joel Corry. "If they do pick up the option, the $17.5 million-dollar base salary is fully guaranteed. So, they would end up saving $8 million on the cap if they didn't pick up the option."
There will also be plenty of impending free agents whose original teams would like to re-sign them, but the open market figures to offer too big a pay day to ignore. Buffalo has such a scenario with LB Matt Milano and possibly RT Daryl Williams.
The anticipated larger than normal supply of veteran talent will present NFL clubs with an ample amount of cap room some intriguing options on the free agent market.
3. More one-year contracts
All of that player supply due to cap constraints of most NFL teams will invariably lead to a buyer's market. Sure the top free agents will still make big money in the opening few days of the market, but the large supply of veteran players combined with a reduced number of NFL teams in a position to pay a premium will soon lead to a soft free agent landscape.
Very soon, NFL veterans who have to wait to find a landing spot will likely have to accept a contract that sits well below their prior market value. It should lead to a lot of one-year contracts.
"A number of players are going to be released and not renewed because of the amount of cap space," said Wyche. "It's going to be the wild west. We're going to see a buyer's market. GMs across the league are going to earn their salaries this offseason."
Players will look to sign a one-year deal at below market value this season, hopefully produce and outperform the contract, so they can cash in as free agents in 2022 when the salary cap presumably moves back to a higher figure that will allow NFL clubs to pay players at a more normalized market value.
Buffalo has been ahead of the curve with this free agent approach. They've completed a number of one-year free agent contracts during Brandon Beane's tenure as general manager. It's likely to continue not only because the Bills won't be able to offer lucrative multi-year contracts, but because players will be seeking to get back into the free agent market next offseason when teams have more money to spend.
"The cap is dropping some $18 million from last year to this year which will pinch some players out of their contracts and off of rosters," said Yates. "They'll be looking to latch on somewhere this year and take their chances in the market again next year."
4. Sacrificing the middle of the roster
The ripple effect of the buyer's market will mean that with NFL clubs signing top end veteran free agents at more affordable prices, there will be limited money left for the middle tier players in the market. Some rosters could soon have a handful of star players gobbling up most of the cap (See: Philadelphia Eagles, L.A. Rams) and the remainder of the roster flush with minimum salary players to fill the other vacancies.
It could put a number of clubs in a position where they're relying heavily on the handful of stars to carry the team, thereby compromising their roster depth. If a team like the Eagles loses Fletcher Cox, or Lane Johnson or Darius Slay to a long-term injury, there will be very little proven depth behind them to pick up the slack and the team won't have the cap space to make any roster moves of note to address such in-season circumstances.
A team like Buffalo doesn't appear to be in such a position, nor do they seem like the kind of operation that would undertake such a philosophy, but a handful of clubs could choose to pin most of their hopes on a limited number of star players to be difference makers while counting on a good number of minimum salary and one-year deal players to hold the rest of the operation together.
5. Contract restructuring
Some teams that are tighter against the cap than anticipated that want to keep most of their roster intact without having to make difficult decisions like the ones described above, will likely reach out to players on their roster to seek a restructuring of contracts.
The common practice is to take a player with a few years left on their contract, and convert some of their base salaries into an instant bonus. It gives the player more money in their pocket now while the club is able to amortize those bonus monies over of the remaining years on the contract. They may even tack an extra year on the back of the player's contract to spread the new bonus money out even more over the life of the deal.
The Bills could find themselves resorting to this approach to give themselves more cap room to leave them in a more flexible position to re-sign some of their own free agents or add new ones they covet to their roster.