My thoughts on all 32 NFL franchises ahead of the chaotic 2021 off-season conclude today with thoughts on the eight teams from NFC south and west divisions.
Big question: Rebuild or retool?
When the 2021 season commences next September, quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones will be 36 and 32 years of age, respectively.
Given the fact Atlanta will have the franchise’s highest draft pick since drafting Ryan with pick three in 2008, it’s easy to see why new general manager Terry Fontenot might be tempted to take a successor with pick four come draft night.
There’s little doubt Ryan and Jones are still in the prime of their careers, but after another hugely disappointing season in Atlanta, it seems as though a full-blown rebuild is inevitable.
The Falcons will be in an awkward position on draft night, with the draft board unlikely to match the team’s biggest needs (interior offensive line, running back and everywhere on defence). What drafting a quarterback at pick four means for the team’s 2021 aspirations is anyone’s guess.
Big question: How aggressive will Matt Rhule be in acquiring a franchise quarterback?
Teddy Bridgewater is what he is: a good, ordinary quarterback. Despite finishing fifth in the league in completion percentage (69.1), Bridgewater finished in the middle of the league for total passing yards (17th with 3733), average yards per attempt (12th with 7.6) and adjusted quarterback rating (17th with 64.2).
After seeing immediate dividends on defence from a sneakily good draft haul and missing star running back Christian McCaffrey for most of the season, head coach Matt Rhule and the Panthers’ front office must be wondering how the season could have panned out differently with better quarterback play. After all, we’re talking about a 5-11 team that lost eight games by one score or less this season.
With Atlanta in flux, Drew Brees likely retiring and Tom Brady surely nearing the end, the Panthers need to strike by finding a franchise quarterback of their own.
Big question: What does life after Drew Brees look like?
Drew Brees hasn’t technically retired yet, but it looks like a foregone conclusion. What’s not a foregone conclusion is who takes his place.
Given the Saints’ late draft spot and unenviable salary cap situation (currently US$69 million or A$87 million in the red, per Over the Cap), it’s going to be very interesting as to how they fill the position.
It appears as though it’ll come down to Taysom Hill, who didn’t look like a franchise calibre quarterback in the four games he played this season while Brees was injured, and Jameis Winston, who threw the ball 30 times to the other team the last time he was a starting quarterback and doesn’t have a contract for 2021.
The Saints have been the league’s great under achievers over the last five years or so, however they still have a roster ready to win a championship. There’s just one important piece missing.
Big question: Can they keep the band together?
Defending Super Bowl champions must always deal with the same issue of keeping its impact players around, and the Bucs will be no different.
In 2020, Tampa Bay signed running back Leonard Fournette, wide receiver Antonio Brown, tight end Rob Gronkowski, pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul and defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh to one-year deals. All five players had an enormous impact during the team’s incredible playoff run.
Add in pass rusher Shaquil Barrett, who played on the franchise tag in 2020, and impending free agents Lavonta David and Chris Godwin, and the reigning champions are going to have some tough decisions to make.
The Bucs have a decent amount of cap room to keep some guys (US$21 million or A$27 million per Over the Cap) but make no mistake: this team is only in contention as long as Tom Brady sticks around. It’s not a big window, so they need to do all they can to retain the aforementioned impact players.
Big question: How much help can they give Kyler Murray in one off-season?
Star second-year quarterback Kyler Murray struggled to make plays down the stretch with limited weapons around him on an Arizona offence that only managed the 17th best passing attack despite finishing sixth overall. A total of 45 explosive pass plays (plays of more than 20 yards) in 2020 (which ranked 19th) speaks to the want for more game-breaking weapons in the desert.
Boom off-season recruit DeAndre Hopkins yielded immediate return on investment, with 115 receptions for 1407 yards (both clearly team highs) and six touchdowns (equal most). Ageless wonder Larry Fitzgerald was next best with 54 receptions for 409 yards.
This will be a fun team to watch when all the pieces come together on offence. General manager Steve Keim just needs to assemble them.
Los Angeles Rams
Big question: Are the Rams back in Super Bowl-or-bust territory?
The trade for Matthew Stafford would suggest head coach Sean McVay knows his team is capable of winning it all. Despite the running gag of having no first-round picks, the Rams still have one of the better rosters in the NFC.
They had the league’s best defence in 2020, although there will be some key decisions to make on some impending free agents, most notably breakout pass rusher Leonard Floyd, cornerback Troy Hill and safety John Johnson.
Stafford comes from Motown to lead a Rams offence that still managed to finish 11th in total offence despite all the trials and tribulations Jared Goff experienced in 2020. Some may pose the question as to whether or not Stafford really is an upgrade at quarterback after only leading Detroit to three playoff appearances in 11 years there (with zero wins). A look at Deshaun Watson’s performance in Houston this past season should help answer that.
Big question: Are the Niners the league’s most likely bounce-back candidate?
San Francisco were smashed with injuries this season, losing two of their top defensive lineman in Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas in the first few weeks of the season. Injuries also beset the offensive side of the ball, with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, running back Raheem Mostert, tight end George Kittle and receiver Deebo Samuel all missing stretches of games throughout the season.
The fact the Niners still managed to win six games in the toughest division in the NFL and finish with a top-five defence was a minor miracle.
The loss of defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to the Jets hurts, and they’re another team not sold on their current quarterback situation, but there’s enough in this roster for one of the league’s brightest coaches in Kyle Shanahan to work with and potentially get back to Super Bowl Sunday.
Big question: How do they maximise the prime of Russell Wilson’s career?
A season that started so promisingly in Seattle saw the offence, led by MVP favourite Russell Wilson, win six of the first seven games while averaging 34 points per game. During the second half of the season, Wilson and the offence began to sputter as the defence, having struggled through the first eight weeks, came to life. All told, Seattle finished with the 17th-ranked offence and the 22nd-ranked defence.
Head coach Pete Carroll knows his Seahawks simply must improve in the trenches if they are to truly contend with Wilson. Seattle’s offensive line ranked 16th as a unit in pass-blocking in 2020, the highest the group protecting Wilson has finished in his nine years as starter, according to Pro Football Focus. They could also stand to upgrade a defensive front that finished with a pass rush win rate of just 40 per cent (23rd).
No first-round picks for the next two years won’t make it easy.