- ESPN.com national NFL writer
- ESPN.com NFC North reporter, 2008-2013
- Covered Vikings for Minneapolis Star Tribune, 1999-2008
A most unique and exhausting NFL season — one that followed a most unique and exhausting offseason — is over. The NFL and the NFL Players Association can take a breath.
They just better make it a quick one. The COVID-19 pandemic will shape the 2021 offseason as well, and both the league and the union will carry their protocols into the spring, summer and possibly the fall. As a result, the league’s traditional offseason calendar remains largely to be determined.
The nature of the 2021 NFL draft, player workouts, mini-camps, training camp and the preseason are in the air. The league’s official page of key dates, in fact, contains only two: the March 1 deadline for draft-eligible college players to announce their return to college and the April 29-May 1 draft.
One way or the other, the NFL will need to plow through a long list of offseason priorities. Here are 15 of them.
Finalize plans for a 17-game season
Owners have already started the process of adding an extra game to the regular season, a right they won during the 2020 collective bargaining agreement (CBA). They agreed in December on the schedule machinery, announcing that the 17th game will be an interconference matchup based on divisional standings during the prior year, but held off on a final vote.
Commissioner Roger Goodell did not provide a fully committed answer last week at the Super Bowl when asked if a 17-game schedule would start in 2021. But given the revenue reduction that owners incurred during the pandemic in 2020, it’s a logical assumption that they will seek all possible revenue streams moving forward. The additional week of the regular season would provide it, and a vote could happen in the coming months.
Structure the offseason
Because of the ongoing pandemic, the NFL is faced with another plan-as-you go offseason. Its first big tent-pole event, the annual scouting combine that typically opens in late February, has largely been scrapped in its conventional form. Players will work out and receive medical exams on or near their college campuses, and interviews will be virtual in most cases.
The rest of the offseason will be based on public health conditions. The draft is scheduled for April 29-May 1 in Cleveland, but its format — whether it is on-site, virtual as it was in 2020 or a combination of the two — hasn’t been determined.
We can say with some certainty that the Jacksonville Jaguars will select Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence at No. 1 overall. The New York Jets could select a quarterback with the No. 2 pick, or they could stick with starter Sam Darnold and trade the pick to accumulate more draft capital.
Based on the CBA, in-person offseason workouts for teams with new coaches could start in early April. But the NFL and the NFLPA will need to weigh the value of those workouts, and later organized team activities (OTA) and minicamps, against the effort it would take to make them safe.
Remember, the 2020 season was played after an entirely virtual offseason. Last week, Goodell said: “Virtual is going to be a part of our life for the long term.”
Plan for COVID-19 vaccines and negotiate a deal on them
At the moment, the country’s vaccine rollout has little relevance for conventional NFL operations. The earliest opportunity for players to be in team facilities again is more than two months away.
But at some point, the NFL and NFLPA will have to answer the same questions that many other workplaces will face. Will vaccination be mandatory? Will there be exceptions? What percentage of a team must be vaccinated to reduce overall risk? And what restrictions can be lifted when a team is all or mostly vaccinated?
Find homes for all the QBs
We’ve already seen one blockbuster quarterback trade, with Matthew Stafford moving to the Rams and Jared Goff flipping to the Lions. But the NFL offseason could be dominated by quarterback transition, headlined by the Texans’ Deshaun Watson, who has asked for a trade. The Bears, 49ers, Panthers, Patriots, Colts, Jaguars, Jets, Saints, Broncos and Washington Football Team could all replace their 2020 starters or draft presumptive replacements.
The Eagles are reportedly considering a trade of Carson Wentz. The Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger will need to renegotiate his contract to return. The Packers say they want Aaron Rodgers back, and Rodgers said: “I don’t think that there is any reason why I wouldn’t be back,” but added: “There’s not many absolutes in this business.”
In all, 40% of the league could face a transition at the game’s most important position.
Determine the 2021 salary cap number
Like many businesses, the NFL’s revenues dropped significantly during the pandemic, largely because of limitations on attendance. By definition, lower 2020 revenues mean the team spending limits will fall in 2021.
The NFL and NFLPA agreed last spring to a minimum cap floor of $175 million per team, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be the final number. (It was $198.2 million in 2020.) The final number is likely to fall around $180 million, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported.
Regardless, teams have had plenty of time to prepare for a drop, and some have done so by hoarding larger amounts of space than normal to roll over into 2021. But the final cap number, to be negotiated as always with the NFLPA and released sometime in late February or early March, will provide a critical guide rail for the rest of the offseason.
Conduct free agency
One offseason tentpole that doesn’t hinge on public health is the free-agent market, which is expected to open in mid-March. The lowered cap could prove disappointing for some players and teams, but at the moment, there are some intriguing names with expiring contracts. Atop the list is Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, who is expected to be fully healed from a dislocated ankle by the start of the 2021 season. But the Cowboys want to re-sign him and could use a second consecutive franchise tag to prevent him from leaving.
Traditionally, teams can start tagging one franchise or transition player in mid-February.
As it stands now, the 2021 class will be heavy on wide receivers. Some will re-sign with their current teams before the market opens. But for now, the list includes Kenny Golladay, Allen Robinson, Chris Godwin, Corey Davis, A.J. Green, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Curtis Samuel and Will Fuller.
Figure out the preseason
Part of the presumption for a 17-game regular season is a reduction of the traditional preseason schedule of four weeks (plus the Hall of Fame game). But it’s way too early to know if the NFL and NFLPA will want, or be able, to have a preseason at all in 2021. The NFL canceled the entire preseason in 2020, preferring to focus on ramping up conditioning in training camp instead. It has since learned that games are not major spreaders of the virus, but the value of playing games that don’t count in the remnants of a pandemic remains an open question.
Address permanent NFLPA requests
The union has already suggested that some of the league’s pandemic-influenced innovations should become permanent. Atop the union’s list is emphasizing a virtual offseason over in-person workouts. Late in the season, NFLPA president JC Tretter wrote in a blog post that players would be better served by working virtually in the offseason, reducing wear and tear on their bodies and presumably allowing them to be fresher at the end of the season. He also wrote in favor of the 2020 training camp format that built in a long ramp-up period before full-contact practices began.
Some of the data analysis has yet to be done. Injury data, especially as it relates to soft-tissue ailments such as muscle pulls, will help flesh out the effectiveness or limitations of virtual preparations. And it’s quite possible that the pandemic will render this issue moot for the 2021 offseason. But the union has been pushing for less offseason work for more than a decade and is unlikely to drop this opportunity to continue.
Absorb fallout from coaching cycle
A significant push to diversify hiring outcomes for leadership positions produced a disappointing final result this winter, meaning the NFL has more work to do this offseason. Teams did give the general manager title to three Black men: Martin Mayhew (Washington), Brad Holmes (Lions) and Terry Fontenot (Falcons). But only two of the seven head-coaching hires were minorities: David Culley (Texans) and Robert Saleh (Jets). In all, the league will have three Black head coaches and a total of five minorities in the position for the 2021 season.
“It wasn’t what we expected,” Goodell said last week, “and it’s not what we expect going forward.”
Those results came after the league expanded its Rooney Rule requirements to include, among other things, a requirement to interview at least two external candidates for head coach openings, and at least one external minority candidate for open coordinator jobs. It also incentivized teams to develop minority candidates by awarding them two third-round draft choices if one of their coaches or executives was hired into a head coach or general manager job. Goodell said the league will revisit discussions this spring to delay any hires until after the Super Bowl, a rule that would slow down the process and prevent teams from skipping past candidates who are still coaching in early February.
But there is a fundamental obstacle to achieving the kind of diversity that Goodell and others in the league office want: They can design rules to require a diverse pool of candidates, and offer incentives for teams that develop the talent, but they can’t force owners to make certain hires. That part will never change.
Maintain social justice energy
Lost in the NFL’s pandemic response was a groundbreaking moment for the league over the summer. In response to a challenge from some of the game’s most high-profile players, Goodell admitted the NFL erred in its attempts to silence peaceful protests in 2016 and the years that followed.
Goodell’s comments came as the nation dealt with the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Four police officers have been charged in his death and await trial.
The league allowed teams and players to affix slogans such as “End Racism” to their game uniforms and relaxed other rules to allow more freedom of expression in public, among many other initiatives. The league reported last month that its contributions toward a 10-year, $250 million social justice commitment have already reached $95 million.
It will be incumbent on the league to continue pushing forward in this space, and not just in reaction to specific national events. And the issues of race and protest remain complicated within the NFL. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick never got a job, even as a backup, after he initiated kneeling protests among players during the 2016 season. More recently, the complexity has been highlighted not only by the disappointing coaching cycle but also a lawsuit by former players who allege the league’s concussion settlement payout process “explicitly and deliberately” discriminates against Black players who have filed dementia-related claims.
Evaluate penalty drop, especially offensive holding
The NFL officiating department decided to artificially reduce the number of flags thrown in 2020, an unexpected shift that was largely welcomed by fans and other external observers. Total flags were down 18.8%, including 40.7% for offensive holding, from 2019. The reaction was more complicated inside the league, however. Coaches and players were caught off-guard, knowing that the decision was a true difference-maker. In fact, the shift was perhaps the biggest reason why the league set a record for points per game.
By the end of the season, line play in some games more closely resembled professional wrestling, as offensive linemen seemed less fearful of holding penalties. Teams with big financial commitments to defensive players worried that their investment would be neutralized by the shift in rule interpretation. They don’t necessarily want more penalties, but they do want to know whether the league will make this standard permanent at least into the near future.
The final two weeks of the postseason provided an appropriate capstone. Officials in the NFC Championship Game allowed heavy contact between receivers and defensive backs to go unpenalized. In the AFC Championship Game, replay officials reversed an unreviewable play. And in Super Bowl LV, referee Carl Cheffers’ crew tightly officiated contact in the defensive backfield. More than anything, teams just want to know the standard for legal play — and for it to be enforced consistently.
Revisit the sky judge concept
Last spring, NFL teams proposed multiple versions of a sky judge to supplement on-field officials and help avoid obvious missed calls. Owners never voted on them, but the competition committee made plans to experiment during the preseason with increased communication between the existing replay official and the referee. That plan was rendered moot by the cancellation of the preseason. The arrangement, if made permanent, would codify the informal discussions that some referees already have with their replay officials.
Many coaches are big proponents of sky judges, versions of which have worked in both the AAF and the XFL, and these types of suggestions aren’t likely to fade away.
Revive onside kick alternative
Success rates for offensive kicks dropped after a 2018 rule change to make the kickoff safer, a worrisome trend for owners who rightly value the entertainment value of late-game comebacks. In both 2019 and 2020, they considered proposals for a different way to maintain possession after a score. Both revolved around the idea of giving the scoring team one play to gain 15 yards from its own 25-yard line, instead of a kickoff. They rejected the 2019 proposal, experimented with it in the 2019 Pro Bowl and tabled it in 2020, but the factors that motivated them only accelerated in 2020.
Teams attempted 67 onside kicks in 2020, the third-highest total since at least 2001, but recovered only three, the lowest total during that period. The league has waited three years to see if coaches and players could make adjustments on their own. It appears a rule intervention is necessary.
Determine attendance parameters
Pandemic restrictions led to a 92% drop in NFL game attendance from 2019, a trend that owners will be highly motivated to reverse in 2021. Their strategy for the Super Bowl was instructive. They filled about 25% of Raymond James Stadium’s capacity with ticket-buying fans, sitting in pods with masks and other restrictions, and then added an additional 7,500 fully vaccinated health care workers to bring total attendance to about 25,000.
The NFL isn’t likely to have a plan in place until late this summer, and much of it will depend on vaccine distribution around the country. As in 2020, some teams’ plans could change during the course of the season. But you can bet the league will do everything it can to sell every ticket it can in 2021.
Resolve Washington Football Team investigation and dispute
On the field, Washington had an uplifting season. It won the NFC East and platformed two heartwarming stories with the comeback of quarterback Alex Smith and the cancer fight of coach Ron Rivera. Off the field, however, it had a brutal year.
First, the NFL is awaiting completion of an investigation into years of allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace. It is uncertain what attorney/investigator Beth Wilkinson has found, and Goodell said last week that he has yet to meet with her, but any violations of NFL policy would result in organizational discipline.
Second, an increasingly personal dispute has developed between owner Daniel Snyder and his minority ownership partners, who are trying to sell their shares of the team. The league wants desperately to settle the quarrel quietly in arbitration, rather than in courtrooms, without the public airing of any more squabbling.
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