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NFL Free Agency Preview 2021: Contending, rebuilding, drifting, or tanking?

Our jumbo 2021 NFL free agency preview asks whether your favorite team really has a plan or is just spending money and biding time.

NFL Free Agency Preview 2021: Contending, rebuilding, drifting, or tanking?
Dec 22, 2019; Denver, Colorado, USA; Detroit Lions wide receiver Kenny Golladay (19) in the second quarter against the Denver Broncos at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone knows that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Green Bay Packers enter 2021 NFL free agency as contenders. The New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars are entering rebuilding cycles. The New Orleans Saints and Pittsburgh Steelers are just trying to pry their Super Bowl windows open for another year. This 2021 NFL free agency preview takes a big-picture approach by dividing all 32 teams into four categories:

Contending: Ready to compete for the Super Bowl right now.

Rebuilding: A broad category covering everything from “starting from scratch” to “surprise 2020 Wild Card that still has holes.”

Tanking: Not “tanking” the way the folks in my mentions mean it (stinking for three years on purpose because they think that’s what “Moneyball” means), but bracing for the unavoidable collapse that comes between contending and rebuilding.

Drifting: A team with no sense of direction. Sadly, there are a lot of them.

What about up-and-comers like the Miami Dolphins, Cleveland Browns, or Washington Football Team? Should they make a win-now push in free agency or keep cautiously adding pieces? And what do the Chicago Bears and New York Giants hope to accomplish over the next few weeks and months?

Featured: 2021 NFL Free Agency: Rumors, verbal deals slowly rolling in

Many teams think they are in one category but are really in another, which complicates matters. Let’s examine how each NFL team should approach 2021 free agency (plus a draft preview in some cases), how they probably will approach free agency, and take a few guesses about where some of the biggest names are likely to land.

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2021 NFL Free Agency Preview: NFC East 

Dallas Cowboys

They think they are: Contending

Actual status: Contending

The Cowboys may not be Super Bowl contenders in the same class as the Chiefs, Bills, Packers, or Buccaneers. However, Dak Prescott’s new deal makes them the best team by far in the NFC East. That, in turn, gives them a chance to win 11 games or so in 2021.

The Cowboys are likely to be quiet during free agency, but they will get better by getting healthier. The return of Dak and most of the offensive line should replenish the offense. At the same time, Dallas should add an impact defender with the 10th overall pick as other teams scramble for quarterbacks.

New York Giants

They think they are: Competing? Rebuilding? It’s not clear

Actual status: Drifting

General manager Dave Gettleman claimed that the Giants are “just about there” entering his fourth year of rebuilding the team. However, no one is entirely sure where “there” is.

True to any Gettleman press conference, he also made dad jokes, scoffed at the concept of aiming for a competitive “window,” and offered a self-serving appraisal of the team’s progress (they were 4-2 in the worst division on Earth, hooray). In addition, he generally tried to sound dismissive of reporters’ questions while betraying how far over his head he truly is.

Gettleman likes to spackle over roster holes (and keep the Giants around six wins) by signing mid-tier veteran free agents. He seems to think it’s working. Tune in next year when the Giants are still “almost there.” Then, Gettleman will be boasting about their ability to split with the Eagles while cutting veterans to clear cap space for a Saquon Barkley extension.

Philadelphia Eagles

They think they are: Rebuilding

Actual status: Tanking

Owner Jeffrey Lurie is probably anticipating a quick one-year turnaround with head coach Nick Sirianni and quarterback Jalen Hurts. One similar to the sudden bump the Eagles got from Chip Kelly or their two-year rise to the Super Bowl under Doug Pederson after Kelly. Meanwhile, general manager Howie Roseman is the walking embodiment of the “I’ve made a huge mistake” Arrested Development meme.

The Eagles’ cap situation is so bad that they are at least a year away from rebuilding. As a result, they couldn’t really “tank” right now if they tried. Free agency in Philly will be quiet. The draft will be controversial. And the regular season? A time to spend Sundays dreaming of 2017 and wishing for 2022.

Washington Football Team

They think they are: Contending

Actual status: Rebuilding

Washington doesn’t need a quarterback. They need a quarterback, most of an offense, and a booster shot to make sure their defense does not fade back toward the middle of the pack in 2021.

Free agency could bring a marquee wide receiver to ease Terry McLaurin into a more-fitting No. 2 role. It could also be the time to negotiate a trade for a Sam Darnold/Marcus Mariota-caliber quarterback alternative. Washington could even bide their time, hoard their resources, and prepare to trade up in the draft for North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance or Alabama quarterback Mac Jones.

Related | Dynasty Quarterback Rankings: Top assets heading into 2021

No matter what they do, they must be realistic about how they reached the playoffs in 2020. If Washington thinks it can just tweak its offense and win with its defense, they’ll turn out like the Bears in two years.

2021 NFL Free Agency Preview: NFC North

Chicago Bears

They think they are: Contending

Actual status: Tanking

General manager Ryan Pace makes decisions that look OK in isolation but terrible when strung together.

Franchise-tagging Allen Robinson sounds reasonable, for example. After all, he’s the best player on Chicago’s offense and would have been the best wide receiver on the free-agent market. But Pace could have saved 2021 cap space by signing Robinson to the long-term deal he is worth. That would have created liquidity for free agency, or perhaps created a little cap space to make the Russell Wilson trade Pace is rumored to be seeking more than a pipedream.

Re-signing kicker Cairo Santos also makes some sense. The contract is modest, and Santos stabilized a perennial trouble spot last year. On the other hand, the Bears are trying to clear cap space and prepare for a quarterback transition. They should be auditioning league-minimum veterans and rookie free-agent kickers, not spending money to make sure they can nail 45-yard field goals in 24-13 losses.

With no quarterback, no cap wiggle room, and a defense that’s starting to grey at the temples, the Bears appear ready to tumble into irrelevance. Of course, there’s no sign that Pace, head coach Matt Nagy, or team brass realizes that yet.

Detroit Lions

They think they are: Rebuilding

Actual status: Rebuilding

The Dan Campbell/Brad Holmes Lions are at peace with who they are, an essential springboard toward growth. Letting wide receiver Kenny Golladay leave feels like a step in the wrong direction, and Jared Goff is never likely to lead the Lions to glory.

But there’s something to be said about wiping the slate clean after three seasons of Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn overpaying for Patriots leftovers and then blaming the previous regime when it didn’t work.

Green Bay Packers

They think they are: Contending

Actual status: Contending

The NFL’s designated dysfunctional couple that only stays together because the sex is hot is back for another offseason of BDSM foreplay! The Packers will deny Aaron Rodgers the extra offensive weapon he so desperately craves. Then Rodgers will condemn the Packers as a naughty, naughty organization before he spanks a bunch of opponents while the front office watches with delight.

Where does Jordan Love fit into this creepy analogy? Wait, where do we fit into this creepy analogy? DON’T THINK ABOUT IT! Instead, prepare for another offseason of Packers fans clamoring for wide receivers that the team will neither sign nor draft because of this weird Tantric stuff they are into.

Minnesota Vikings

They think they are: Contending

Actual status: Drifting

This is the Vikings’ steady state. They overpay for ordinary quarterback play, shed the last group of expensive Wild Card-caliber veterans, draft and develop the next group of Wild Card-caliber youngsters, watch them get held back by ordinary quarterback play, then overpay them.

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