Happy holiday weekend! We’ve got a big issue of NFLTR Review for you to start it off right, including:
- Why this June could be the wildest in recent memory for the NFL
- Looking ahead to a potentially shaky 2022 free-agent class
- Good news on the salary cap
Top June Storylines
Usually at this point in the calendar, things are starting to wind down for the NFL news cycle. There’s just not much going on; free agency is over, the draft is in the books and by and large, we know what teams are going to look like heading into the next season.
This year it’s different. Unlike any season in recent memory, there are still huge dominoes that are poised to fall and cause massive ripple effects across the NFL landscape.
It looks like only a matter of time until the Falcons deal WR Julio Jones. Aaron Rodgers remains unhappy with the Packers and one way or another that situation will have to come to a head. And Texans QB Deshaun Watson still wants out of Houston, with the biggest barrier at this point his troubling legal situation facing 22 accusations of sexual misconduct to varying degrees.
We might not get a resolution to all of these storylines in June. But there are potentially significant developments worth keeping an eye out for. So don’t check out completely at the beach or barbecue this month. There could be a lot of action you’ll miss.
The biggest question involving a Jones trade isn’t if it will happen. At this point, it’s a matter of when, to what team and what compensation the Falcons will get back.
It was interesting to see a narrative shift this week in the general consensus of what Jones could fetch from other teams. Reports to start the week indicated Atlanta didn’t have much of a market for Jones, perhaps a second-round pick at best and maybe not even without strings attached like conditions or an agreement to eat part of his salary.
By Wednesday into Thursday, the tone shifted from ESPN, with Jeff Darlington walking back a report from Tuesday that the Falcons would definitely not get a first-round pick to Dianna Russini saying one was already on the table.
If that’s the case, we could just be waiting for a few final details to be hammered out for a Jones trade to break. The deal can’t be officially executed until after June 1 for cap reasons anyway, so there’s still time. It’s also possible a legitimate bidding war for Jones has developed and the Falcons are sorting through that. It’s also possible that Atlanta is lying or stretching the truth to try and manufacture some leverage. The final trade will provide some answers there.
As to where, we covered some potential landing spots last week. The Titans and Patriots have been confirmed as teams who are interested but Russini described Tennessee as a “long shot” so we can surmise they’re not the team offering a first-round pick. The 49ers don’t have a first to offer until 2024, so that leaves the Patriots, Chargers and Chiefs.
If Jones isn’t traded to one of those teams by this time next week, I will be surprised.
June offers the first test of how pissed off Rodgers is with the Packers, as the team has OTAs through June 10 and mandatory minicamp the 15th through 17th. Continuing to skip OTAs will cost Rodgers his $500,000 workout bonus and he opens himself up to $93,000 in fines if he misses minicamp.
Compared to how much Rodgers has made in his career, that’s a pittance. It’s also small compared to what he stands to lose if he holds out of training camp or retires. It still could be considered a shot across the bow of the organization showing he’s willing to make sacrifices to avoid playing for the team.
From there, the next significant fork in the road isn’t until the start of training camp. However, that leaves six weeks or so for the Packers to make things right, if they can, with Rodgers. He hasn’t publicly ratcheted up the pressure as much as he could have on the team compared to what Deshaun Watson was doing back in January and February.
My read on the situation is that Rodgers really hasn’t given up on his dream of playing his entire career for the Packers just yet and he sees an opportunity coming off of an MVP season to exert the leverage that’s in his favor. He wants his career to be on his terms one way or another, either with a new contract that makes it impossible for the Packers to move on to Jordan Love any time in the next few seasons or with a trade to a team he can chart a new path on.
If the Packers are going to make things right with a new contract, June very well could be the time they end up doing it.
Watson’s situation is more uncertain than Rodgers right now. Right now his case has moved into the discovery phase. The first court date isn’t until February 2022, which puts the 2021 season into even more doubt for Watson.
If there’s no resolution to the case before then, there’s a good chance he would spend the year on the commissioner’s exempt list. There’s some precedent there, as that’s what happened to former Panthers DE Greg Hardy while the league waited for his domestic violence case to play out. Without subpoena power, the NFL tends to be reliant on others to do the hard investigative work for them before meting out punishment.
It’s becoming increasingly hard not to see Watson serving some kind of significant suspension at some point, so it’s possible between the exempt list and a suspension, he could miss as much as two full seasons if things stay at their current pace.
There is a way for the gears of justice to grind faster. Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio has a background as a lawyer, and he and other legal analysts have suggested the temporary ceasefire in public statements between Tony Buzbee and Rusty Hardin, representing the women suing Watson and the quarterback respectively, was indicative of quiet settlement talks behind the scenes.
Both have since vigorously denied any settlement talks but there is incentive on both sides to work out a settlement at some point. The women are pursuing charges in civil court rather than criminal court for a reason. It remains incredibly difficult to hold sexual abusers accountable. There’s a much higher success rate in civil court and that includes potential settlements to offer some remedy to the harm that’s been caused. For the plaintiffs, a settlement offers some measure of justice, the chance to avoid the traumatic process of reliving the incidents during a trial and a path to closure.
For Watson, a settlement is his best path to getting back on the football field as soon as possible. As long as this trial process continues, he will not play. And while there’s still much to play out, the facts we know now are not a good reflection on Watson. Statistically speaking, women don’t lie about sexual assault and the odds of 22 women lying about their experience with Watson is low.
Right now both the NFL and the Houston police department have open investigations into Watson. A settlement would probably knock the legs out of both of those, however. From there, Watson just has to take whatever punishment the NFL hands down and start the work of atonement.
What the NFL proves time and time again with these situations is they will overlook a lot in the name of acquiring talented players. Watson is a legitimate superstar quarterback on the field and multiple teams will be willing to put this incident in the past and resume their pursuit of Watson as long as he puts it in his past first.
There might not be much of this that happens in the month of June. The urgency for Watson’s camp doesn’t really start to kick in until closer to training camp. As both sides enter the discovery phase of gathering information and preparing for next year’s trial, new information could come up that changes the equation, however.
Bonus storyline: quality free agents still available
The players on our Top 100 Available Free Agents list won’t have as much impact as the three we’ve just discussed. There remain some real quality starting-caliber players, however, who could have an impact for teams this season.
Morgan Moses was one of the league’s better right tackles last year despite playing through injury and he’s been a stalwart for years. Sheldon Richardson, Steven Nelson, Richard Sherman, K.J. Wright, Melvin Ingram and Justin Houston all are salty veteran defenders who can still play. Really and truly, a lot of what we wrote on the subject two weeks ago still holds up.
A number of these guys will sign contracts in the coming month and find homes where they’ll be relevant for the 2021 season.
This Week In Football
- Falcons WR Julio Jones being available wasn’t a secret, but the veteran poured lighter fluid on trade speculation this week with his “I’m out of there” comments. Things continued to heat up with the revelation that Jones requested a trade months ago and Atlanta has been holding out for a first-round pick. Until Thursday, that seemed like a pipe dream, but the latest buzz has the market for Jones heating up. Whether they get a first-round pick or not, it now looks more and more like Jones will be on a new team shortly after the beginning of June.
- OTAs continued to ramp up this past week with various levels of veteran participation. OTAs are technically voluntary but it’s always more notable when players don’t show up and none was more notable than Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, who looks to be vacationing in Hawaii rather than tossing footballs in Green Bay as his rift with the team continues. In his first public comments on the matter, Rodgers acknowledged some issues but stopped short of outright demanding a trade. So the saga rolls on.
- Texans QB Deshaun Watson also predictably wasn’t at OTAs, and even if he wasn’t trying to force his way out, his legal situation likely would have caused the team to recommend he stay away. The final member of the big-name trio of disgruntled quarterbacks this offseason, Seahawks QB Russell Wilson, also isn’t at OTAs, but that has more to do with the NFLPA’s crusade against OTAs. Wilson seems to be on board for 2021 at least. How the season plays out probably determines whether Wilson raises a ruckus again in 2022.
- The Browns and TE David Njoku also appear to have mended fences for now. Cleveland has three quality tight ends and Njoku is in the final year of his deal but the offers don’t appear to have been flooding in, leading Cleveland to keep him. Njoku could also do worse than making $6 million this year on one of the AFC’s ascendant teams, so it makes sense for both sides to let things play out.
- The Dolphins are continuing to ponder tweaks to their edge-rushing group, as they hosted veteran OLB Melvin Ingram for a visit this week. Ingram hasn’t signed as of publishing, but it would be interesting if Miami brought him on board. They’re deep at the position, especially after drafting Jaelan Phillips in the first round. Miami beatniks suggested there might be some trouble brewing with Emmanuel Ogbah, who had a nice 2020 and wants to be financially rewarded for it.
- Continuing the interesting veteran visit category, the Lions hosted RB Todd Gurley on Thursday. There are a number of connections in Detroit, including GM Brad Holmes and QB Jared Goff from the Rams and RB D’Andre Swift from Georgia, so it makes sense from that perspective. Detroit doesn’t really need running back help but Gurley is cheap and teams can always use depth there.
- The NFL set a ceiling for the 2022 salary cap at $208.2 million, which would be an increase of more than $25 million over the pandemic-shortened cap of this past offseason. The final level will be dependent on how much money the NFL makes or is projected to make this season, which will depend on how full NFL stadiums are. Still, that’s a promising indication that the cap will get back to the kind of growth teams had banked on to build their teams under the old CBA, with potentially even more rapid growth set to kick in for 2023 and beyond.
- Former Colts and Patriots legend Adam Vinatieri suggested he plans to officially file his retirement paperwork this weekend to put a period on an incredible career. There are only two kickers who didn’t play other positions in the Hall of Fame, but Vinatieri has a strong case to be a first-ballot addition. Not only is he the NFL’s all-time leading scorer, but he starred in so many of the biggest moments in NFL history in the most pivotal of situations.
The Big Picture: 2022 Free Agent Class
NFL teams might not advertise it much but a number of them keep an eye on the future in terms of what will and won’t be available to them as they construct rosters. So you can bet several have already done at least a cursory summary of the potential free agents available in 2022.
We’ve done as much at NFLTR with a look at the Top 50 – 2022 NFL Free Agents. There are some big names to be sure. Defensive player of the year candidate and Steelers OLB T.J. Watt headlines the list, with star Packers WR Davante Adams close behind him. Other major names include Bears WR Allen Robinson, Seahawks S Jamal Adams, Browns RB Nick Chubb and Colts LB Darius Leonard, to name just a few.
The thing is, a number of these names won’t be on the list in a couple of months, let alone next March. Extensions and franchise tags thin the pool considerably. Teams will do everything they can — and the CBA gives them the ability to do a lot — to keep their stars. If players are available in free agency, there’s usually a reason. We can still look ahead at next year’s free-agent class and glean a few takeaways though.
There’s a decent chance it ends up weaker than this year’s
The free-agent class never looks as good by the time March rolls around, so it’s not going out on a limb to say our current 2022 top 50 won’t stay as pretty over the next several months. By the time new deals are signed and tags applied, though, the 2022 free-agent class could look a good deal worse than the market this past year.
There’s a full season still to play, so obviously the error bars here are enormous. As things stand today though, it’s not hard to see these players taken out of the pool:
- OLB T.J. Watt
- WR Davante Adams
- S Jessie Bates
- LB Fred Warner
- S Jamal Adams
- RB Nick Chubb
- RT Ryan Ramczyk
- RT Taylor Moton
- LT Orlando Brown
- LB Darius Leonard
- RT Braden Smith
- DL Jonathan Allen
- S Marcus Williams
- S Marcus Maye
- TE Mark Andrews
- TE Dallas Goedert
- RT Brian O’Neill
That would be more than half of the current top 30 players on the list, which is fairly standard. It could even be a conservative projection, as with the cap on an upward trajectory again teams will have fewer hard decisions and could be more aggressive throwing money around to keep their key players.
And with the caveat again that we have a whole 2022 season still to play, right now the depth of the 2022 class doesn’t quite hold up to what we just saw in 2021. There’s a dearth of pass rushers compared to this year when the supply came close to outpacing the demand. There aren’t really any notable quarterbacks available — not without a trade at least — and it probably will be weak again at tackle and cornerback.
Solid, not outstanding, players could get pushed up into premium spots if all of the above players end up subtracted from the list. Rams CB Darious Williams could be a top-ten free agent and perhaps the best corner on the market. Panthers LB Haason Reddick barely cracked our top 50 this offseason and he could be a top-20 player in 2022, before projecting any kind of breakout season.
This year, there were about 30 or so players who were strong, first-wave, high-priority signings. That could be closer to 20 in 2022.
It’s still a good year to need a receiver
Adams probably won’t hit the market but given the current instability in Green Bay, it’s not as inconceivable a thought as it would have been a month ago. Even if he doesn’t, there’s a long list of receivers entering their contract year in 2022.
- Allen Robinson
- Chris Godwin
- Will Fuller
- JuJu Smith-Schuster
- DJ Chark
- Courtland Sutton
- Michael Gallup
- Robby Anderson
- Mike Williams
- Tim Patrick
It remains to be seen if the Bears and Buccaneers are willing to pony up what it will take to lock up Robinson and Godwin this year given their roster construction. They have until July 15 with both players currently on the tag, otherwise both players can probably make it to the open market given how burdensome a second franchise tag tends to be.
Fuller, Smith-Schuster and Anderson have tested the market in recent seasons and have chosen to bet on themselves with shorter deals. Strong seasons in 2021 should position them for another bite at the apple, either from their current teams or elsewhere.
Then there’s the batch coming off rookie contracts and looking at unrestricted free agency for the first time in Sutton, Gallup, Chark and Williams. The franchise tag will be an option teams will hold over them in negotiations but the odds are actually decent half of this group hits the market. Dallas has a deep receiving corps and might not be able to afford Gallup, while the new coaching staff doesn’t have any allegiance to Chark.
Patrick is another interesting name to keep an eye on. He should shake free of Denver due to the depth of the receiving corps and he showed a lot of promise filling in for Sutton this past season as the “X” receiver. He could blossom with a bigger role and opportunity elsewhere.
Another fascinating dynamic to keep an eye on here will be the impact of what looks to be yet another deep class of rookie receivers in 2022. Until just recently, any receiver with a pulse could cash in in some form in free agency. But the strength and depth of the receiver classes entering the league the past few seasons may play a factor in why some guys haven’t quite found the markets they anticipated the last two years.
Good year for guards again but tackle help might be hard to come by
Tackles occupy that second tier of premiere positions behind quarterback along with pass rushers and lockdown corners, so it’s rare to see teams give up on quality options. Ramczyk, Orlando Brown, Moton, O’Neill and Smith are all strong young options, but odds are none of them even sniff free agency.
That means teams looking for tackle help will have slim pickings again in free agency. Perhaps the Saints allow Terron Armstead to walk given he’ll be 30, has a long injury history and New Orleans will have dedicated significant cash to Ramczyk. An extension could make more sense though as long as Armstead plays at a high level in 2021.
That leaves either veteran stopgaps like 37-year-old Seahawks LT Duane Brown or Bengals RT Riley Reiff, or inconsistent youngsters like Jaguars LT Cam Robinson, Steelers LT Chukwuma Okorafor or Eagles LT Jordan Mailata. Teams will have to hope it’s another deep year at tackle in the draft.
Conversely, guard is looking strong once again. Washington has backed itself into a corner with G Brandon Scherff, as a third tag would be well north of $25 million and his second tag has set the floor for a long-term deal at $18 million.
There’s also breakout Browns G Wyatt Teller, who could price himself out of Cleveland which has a number of mouths to feed. Alex Cappa, David DeCastro, Andrew Norwell, Laken Tomlinson and Mark Glowinski are other names worth filing away.
The demand will be higher than the supply for pass rushers
It was a good offseason to need a pass rusher this year. The list of names included Jadeveon Clowney, Yannick Ngakoue, Shaquil Barrett, Carl Lawson, Leonard Floyd, Bud Dupree, Matt Judon and Trey Hendrickson. The market was so deep Justin Houston and Melvin Ingram are still unsigned.
That won’t be the case in 2022. The best pass rusher available could be Clowney who will be trying to cash in for the third time in as many years, only this time he’ll be almost 30. Some other interesting names in contract years include Reddick, Harold Landry, Jason Pierre-Paul and Sam Hubbard. If Landry and Hubbard have breakout seasons, it’s hard to see them getting out of Tennessee and Cincinnati respectively.
It’ll be intriguing to see what happens with the cornerbacks
There are some really interesting names potentially set to be available at cornerback. The Patriots might not have room to keep the duo of Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson together, though a resolution to that in the form of a Gilmore trade could come sooner. A breakout year as the No. 2 corner across from Jalen Ramsey would be huge for Williams.
Behind him, there are a few more guys coming off rookie contracts who could put themselves in a good position with a strong season. Saints CB Marshon Lattimore is probably third in line in New Orleans for a new deal behind Ramczyk and S Marcus Williams. He’ll want top corner money but the Saints might not believe he’s been consistent enough to justify it, especially given how tight their finances are. Buccaneers CB Carlton Davis could also set himself up for a major payday with a strong season, as he really came into his own last year after some early inconsistency.
There are also a bunch of veterans on short contracts who could secure one final contract, including Kyle Fuller, Xavier Rhodes, Patrick Peterson, Malcolm Butler and Jason Verrett. The NFL doesn’t give older defensive backs the benefit of the doubt, so any signs of slippage will make it harder for members of this group to sign in 2022. Some could still end up being top targets in 2022, though, which might be indicative of the overall composition of the class.
A Quick Note
At the end of last summer, we launched this column as somewhat of an experiment. If you’ve read this far down, it’s probably obvious to you NFLTR Review is very different from 95 percent of the content on the site. We weren’t sure how much of an audience there would be but 10 months in it’s safe to say we’ve been blown away by how many of you have been willing to make the investment in reading this piece each week.
As we get into the summer, we wanted to alert you to some changes you’ll be seeing here each week. The NFL typically slows down in June and July and so will we. There will still be a new issue of NFLTR Review every Friday, just slimmed down to account for less news and to give me some time to recharge.
Once again, thank you for reading along and for making NFLTR Review something we anticipate being part of the site for a long, long time!