Ranking the 16 worst NFL offseasons of 2021: Which teams struggled and didn't improve?
Bill Barnwell
Posted: 2021-06-06

Over the next two weeks, I'll rank the 32 NFL teams on the work they did over the 2021 offseason. This encapsulates both free agency and the draft and measures what each team did versus our expectations heading into the offseason.

As an example, we knew heading into the spring that the New Orleans Saints were going to need to create nearly $100 million in cap space. My thoughts here aren't about the circumstances that led the Saints to be in that situation, but how they did over the past few months given those conditions.

Let's start with the teams in the bottom half of the league, leading with the teams that had the worst offseasons. Next week, I'll finish up with the top 16 offseasons.

An impressive offseason might not mean much in the grand scheme of things, but as a reminder, I did this exercise last year. The team that I thought had the best offseason a year ago did pretty well during the regular season and even better during the playoffs; the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the offseason, then the Super Bowl and are now back in the running for the best summer in 2021.

32. Las Vegas Raiders

What went right: For the third consecutive offseason, the Raiders finally fixed their defense. This time around, they didn't let the draft picks they've been counting on stand in the way. Clelin Ferrell, Johnathan Abram and Trayvon Mullen are among the players who aren't guaranteed starting jobs after the Raiders signed Yannick Ngakoue, Karl Joseph and Casey Hayward Jr. They have spent years importing talent on defense and failing to get the most out of their additions, a problem new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley has to turn around.

What went wrong: While contracts for Ngakoue and John Brown were relative bargains, the Raiders inexplicably handed Kenyan Drake a two-year, $11 million pact to serve as a second running back alongside first-round pick Josh Jacobs. Las Vegas also dismantled one of the league's most impressive offensive lines by trading away free-agent addition Trent Brown, star center Rodney Hudson and homegrown guard Gabe Jackson for mid-to-late round picks. The team used a first-round pick on Alex Leatherwood to help replace the losses, but just about every public source regarded the Alabama tackle as an overdraft at No. 17 overall. Teams have more insight into prospects than we typically do, but given the Raiders' recent track record with draft picks, they don't deserve any benefit of the doubt.

What they could have done differently: Bradley was regarded as one of the league's most promising defensive coaches when he took over as Jacksonville's coach in 2013, but his defenses haven't been consistent, even when he has had talent to work with. Bradley's Chargers defenses ranked 10th in each of his first two years with the team, but they fell to 25th and 20th over the past two seasons. His Jags defenses ranked in the top half of the league just once in four years and improved in the season after he was fired. Should the Raiders have made the call to the ultimate turnaround expert and hired Wade Phillips?

What's left to do: Look for depth at guard. The Raiders signed Nick Martin to compete with Andre James for the starting job at center, but they would be relying on John Simpson and Patrick Omameh at guard if there were injuries. There's more available at the position than there is in a typical year, so I'd encourage them to look at someone such as Larry Warford or Nick Easton.

31. Green Bay Packers

What went right: The Packers were able to bring back their two most prominent free agents by re-signing Aaron Jones and Kevin King. General manager Brian Gutekunst was always going to struggle to bring back star center Corey Linsley, but the Packers will at least pocket a fourth-round compensatory pick for their former pivot. They were able to land a possible replacement in the draft with second-rounder Josh Myers.

What went wrong: Well, if you're a Packers fan who has been hiding under a rock for the past two months, I've got some bad news. Reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers does not seem particularly enthused by the idea of playing for the team, and while the future Hall of Famer has publicly stopped short of requesting a trade, his unhappiness does not appear to be subsiding.

Beyond Rodgers, the roster is getting thin. The offensive line is rebuilding on the fly while David Bakhtiari recovers from a torn ACL, with Elgton Jenkins taking snaps at left tackle in OTAs. The Packers added another option at corner with first-rounder Eric Stokes, but most fans I knew were hoping to see King move on for good this offseason. The Jones re-signing will see the team hand a huge raise to a player it doesn't trust to take more than two-thirds of the snaps from week-to-week, one year after it used a second-round pick on expected replacement AJ Dillon.

What they could have done differently: Letting Jones walk would have freed up more money to address the offensive line. Jones is a great running back, but if the Packers don't see him as a 50-snap-per-game guy, it's tough to justify paying the 26-year-old just under $20 million over the next two seasons. Moving on from Jones would have allowed them to either re-sign Linsley or add another lineman or two to the fold, and they could have used Dillon as the front end of a rotation with one of any number of veteran backs on the cheap.

What's left to do: Commit to Rodgers and trade for Julio Jones. Pretty simple, right? Let's talk through this one. We don't know the exact terms of the offer the Packers made Rodgers this offseason, but we do know Rodgers declined it. If he just wants to move on, this is a waste of time, but the one thing the Packers can offer Rodgers to erase the Jordan Love decision is security.

Rodgers has three years and $73 million remaining on his existing deal, so there's no issue with the idea of giving him a raise. Let's add two years and $90 million onto this deal for a total of five years and $163 million. Here's how that could work:

Year Base
2021 $1 million $7 million $0 $14.352 million $22.352 million
2022 $2.5 million $7 million $7 million $14.352 million $30.852 million
2023 $25 million $7 million $7 million $2.852 million $41.852 million
2024 $33 million $7 million $7 million $0 $47 million
2025 $38.5 million $7 million $7 million $0 $52.5 million
2026 -- -- $7 million $0 $7 million

The bold figures here are guaranteed; Rodgers gets $98.5 million guaranteed at signing over the first three years of the deal. Combined with a no-trade clause, this deal locks him in as the Green Bay starter for at least three more seasons. It also crucially serves to bring his cap number down over the next two years, creating $14.9 million of space in 2021 and $9 million more in 2022.

Green Bay will want to use some of that space to lock up Davante Adams, but there's something else they can do with their room: trade for Jones, who is due $38.3 million over the next three years. The Falcons star gives the Packers a bit of leverage if the Adams negotiations don't go well and gives them a devastating one-two punch at wide receiver for 2021. In this scenario, Rodgers gets the job security he deserves and the second superstar target he's reportedly wanted.

And what, of all things, could the Packers send to Atlanta in return for Jones? Well, the young quarterback whose future no longer seems to be as the Green Bay starter. Love would no longer have a clear path to the starting job as part of this trade, but he would slot in as the long-term replacement instead for Matt Ryan in Atlanta, possibly as early as next season. New Falcons coach Arthur Smith once worked under LaFleur in Tennessee, so I suspect he might also be interested in Love as a quarterback of the future. The Packers might have to throw in a midround pick to seal things, but extending Rodgers and swapping Love for Jones seems like a win-win for just about everyone. (Note: The Falcons are now expected to trade Jones to the Titans.)

30. Pittsburgh Steelers

What went right: The Steelers got a pleasant surprise when JuJu Smith-Schuster's market failed to develop, leading the 24-year-old to return on a one-year, $8 million deal. It took voidable years to get Smith-Schuster back in the fold, which should tell you what a mess Pittsburgh's cap looks like. Given their lack of options at the position, the Steelers should also probably be happy that Ben Roethlisberger decided to return for another season, taking a $5 million pay cut in the process. And after agreeing to sign with the Jaguars, Tyson Alualu changed his mind and returned to the Steelers on a two-year, $5.5 million pact.

What went wrong: They were forced to eat their financial vegetables and watch Bud Dupree and Mike Hilton leave in free agency. With the organization moving on from Steven Nelson, cornerback has gone from being one of the team's biggest strengths to one of Pittsburgh's thinnest positions. Justin Layne, a third-round pick in 2019, has played only 117 defensive snaps over his first two seasons, but he might be one of the team's three top cornerbacks this season.

The offensive line is also a mess, with the Steelers losing Maurkice Pouncey to retirement and both Matt Feiler and Alejandro Villanueva to free agency. They brought back B.J. Finney and used third- and fourth-round picks on linemen, but they project to be below average at as many as four positions. Their decision to try to revitalize the running game by using a first-round pick on Alabama star Najee Harris also seemed curious given what we know about the position.

What they could have done differently: Used their first-round pick on a lineman while signing one of the many running backs still available in free agency. Christian Darrisaw came off the board one pick before the Steelers at No. 23, but I have to think that they would have been better off with Darrisaw and a back such as Todd Gurley than they are with Harris and their current line situation.

What's left to do: Start working on extensions for T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick. Plenty of teams would love to have this problem, but the Steelers will have to find a way to extend their two young stars on defense over the next two years while struggling with cap constraints. Roethlisberger could retire after the 2021 season, but the franchise will still be on the hook for nearly $16 million in dead money between their longtime quarterback and Smith-Schuster in 2022.

29. Houston Texans

What went right: The Texans didn't do anything to send the franchise backward this offseason, so they took a small step in the right direction. New general manager Nick Caserio's plan in free agency was clear, as the Texans added a staggering 32 veterans to their roster. The vast majority arrived on one-year deals, so this might not be a viable long-term strategy, but they should be deeper across the board and much better on special teams in 2021.

What went wrong: Where to begin? Deshaun Watson reportedly requested a trade out of Houston after the disastrous events of 2019 and 2020. He was then accused of sexual assault by 22 women, leaving his status for 2021 in limbo. The Texans did not seem inclined to trade Watson for a haul of draft picks after his request, but until his cases are resolved, there's no way the team can even trade its quarterback.

On top of that, nobody seemed to want the Texans' head-coaching job. They ended up hiring Ravens passing game coordinator David Culley, who had never been on an NFL head-coaching radar before getting the Texans job at age 65. Culley is widely regarded as a good human being and has plenty of experience, but it's hard to see how the veteran coach isn't being set up to fail.

What they could have done differently: Done something else besides draft a quarterback in the third round. Houston signed Tyrod Taylor in the event that Watson isn't ready to start the season, but it was a surprise to see the team use its first selection in the 2021 draft on Stanford quarterback Davis Mills. The track record for quarterbacks with ideal size and arm strength who fall out of the top two rounds (or really the first round) just isn't very good. Mills had only 11 starts at Stanford and didn't get to go through a traditional combine, so the Texans could argue that Mills slipped through the cracks, but that's the sort of shot a team with lots of talent should be taking in the middle rounds. This is not that team.

What's left to do: Fast-forward through the 2021 season. With their missing draft picks and the Watson situation still unresolved, 2021 already shapes up like a lost year for the Texans. Their underlying performance in 2020 would have projected them to improve in 2021 if Watson was in the fold -- and they are unlikely to be completely terrible after adding so many veterans -- but they've gone from being a top-heavy team to one without star power.

28. Atlanta Falcons

What went right: The Falcons hired Arthur Smith to be their coach, but I might be more excited about the the fact that Smith coaxed defensive coordinator Dean Pees out of retirement. The former Patriots, Ravens and Titans coach has a long track record of success, and Tennessee fell from 18th in DVOA in their final season with Pees to 29th without the veteran a year ago. The Falcons will need Pees, given that they probably have the worst secondary in the league on paper.

What went wrong: A brutal cap situation forced the Falcons to let veterans Alex Mack and Keanu Neal leave. It's also be one of the reasons franchise icon Julio Jones is following them out the door, with the star wideout likely headed to the Titans in a trade. The Falcons needed to clear out more cap space solely to sign their draft class, but seeing the future Hall of Famer line up in Tennessee is going to make Atlanta fans sick to their stomachs.

What they could have done differently: The big question for the Falcons came down to how they cleared out cap space for 2021. Fontenot was going to need to restructure at least one big contract to make room, and the player he chose was going to inform what they were doing with the No. 4 overall pick. Fontenot chose to restructure Matt Ryan's deal, which pointed toward Atlanta avoiding a quarterback. Fontenot & Co. ended up drafting tight end uber-prospect Kyle Pitts.

The other way to do it would have been to call time on Ryan's future. Atlanta could have restructured the contracts of Jones and Grady Jarrett, drafted a quarterback at No. 4 and traded Ryan after the 2022 season. I think I prefer the way the Falcons handled it in real life, but if Fontenot and Smith loved Justin Fields or Mac Jones, they could have gone in this other direction.

What's left to do: Extend Calvin Ridley. After the Jones trade, one thing the Falcons can do to try to mollify a frustrated fan base is make sure that their other wideout is sticking around. Ridley is a free agent after 2021, and while the team can't afford a massive raise on its current cap, it should be able to use a multi-bonus structure to keep Ridley around for the next several seasons.

27. Los Angeles Rams

What went right: If you think that quarterback play was holding the Rams back from making the Super Bowl, well, you got your upgrade. Los Angeles packaged two first-rounders and former franchise quarterback Jared Goff in a deal with the Lions to acquire Matthew Stafford, giving Sean McVay a new toy under center. The Rams had to eat $24.7 million in dead money for the Goff contract to get the trade done, but nobody will care about the accounting if the move pushes them over the top.

It also seemed likely that Los Angeles would be forced to sign a replacement for Leonard Floyd after the former Bears first-rounder had a bounceback year with the Rams, but Floyd ended up coming back on a four-year, $64 million pact. The move forced general manager Les Snead to dump longtime defensive linemen Michael Brockers on the Lions, but the Rams probably prefer having an expensive edge rusher alongside Aaron Donald to another expensive interior lineman.

What went wrong: When the Rams traded for Stafford, they didn't sign the veteran quarterback to an extension. Teams that have traded two first-round picks to acquire star players have typically paid a premium to sign those guys to extensions, including the Rams with Jalen Ramsey. Khalil Mack, Laremy Tunsil, and Ramsey each became comfortably the highest paid players in the league at their respective positions when they signed new deals; Stafford won't get Patrick Mahomes money, but the former first overall pick is going to have all of the leverage when he negotiates his new deal. It wouldn't be surprising to see a four-year extension for him top $170 million.

Despite adding Stafford and McVay's known aptitude for scheming players open, the Rams continue to invest some of the limited resources they have left at receiver. Despite having Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and Tyler Higbee signed to extension and using a second-round pick on Van Jefferson last year, they signed DeSean Jackson to an inexplicable one-year, $4.5 million deal. Jackson is 35 and played three full games over the last two seasons. He's coming home to Los Angeles. Who else was competing for him at this price tag? Kenny Stills remains a free agent and would have been more likely to stay on the field. The Rams then used their top draft pick on Tutu Atwell.

McVay should have no lack of weapons at receiver, but the Rams continue to neglect an offensive line that is still dependent upon 39-year-old left tackle Andrew Whitworth playing at a high level. Los Angeles was healthier up front last season than it was in 2019, which led to an improvement, but it's relying on so many mid-to-late round picks to keep the line afloat while investing its highest picks on skill-position players. Maybe Stafford will overcome those line issues, but we saw the veteran miss time over the last few years in Detroit when his line failed to hold up. Offensive line coach Aaron Kromer also left the organization, with the Rams hiring Stanford line coach Kevin Carberry to take over the job. Carberry is the rare offensive line coach who is actually younger (38) than his best lineman.

Kromer was one of a number of coaches to leave, as the Rams also lost defensive coordinator Brandon Staley (now the Chargers coach), Joe Woods (Packers defensive coordinator), Shane Waldron (Seahawks offensive coordinator) and Andy Dickerson (Seahawks run game coordinator), among others. Staley helped produce the league's fourth-best defensive DVOA a year ago, and while Raheem Morris did good work in Atlanta, the new L.A. defensive coordinator will have his work cut out for him to keep a top-heavy team at that level in 2021.

What they could have done differently: We've now seen Floyd and Dante Fowler Jr. join the Rams after disappointing stints with their first teams and produce big numbers alongside Donald. Fowler fell back to earth in his first season with the Falcons. Floyd will stick around, but I wonder whether the Rams could have let him leave and tried to replace him with a cheaper option while using the money they saved to add some desperately-needed offensive line help. I might prefer the combo of Haason Reddick and Kevin Zeitler to Floyd and a replacement-level backup guard.

What's left to do: Re-sign Stafford. It'll be better for cap and leverage purposes to get a deal done now as opposed to next offseason.

26. Carolina Panthers

What went right: The Panthers continued to build carefully under Matt Rhule and new general manager Scott Fitterer, with one significant swap that we'll get to in a minute. I like the deals they made Haason Reddick and A.J. Bouye on defense, and they added a valuable piece at cornerback in No. 8 overall pick Jaycee Horn. The decision to give up on Teddy Bridgewater and make a run at Sam Darnold might end up being the most notable and important choice the Panthers made this offseason, but I generally liked the supplemental decisions Rhule & Co. made around their roster this offseason.

What went wrong: I'm not thoroughly excited about the Darnold trade, which saw Carolina send three picks to the Jets for the former No. 3 overall pick, including a second-rounder in 2022. Perhaps more importantly, the Panthers also agreed to pick up Darnold's fifth-year option for 2023, which is now fully guaranteed at $18.6 million. Quarterbacks who start their career like Darnold rarely turn into effective passers in their second stops, and this franchise is making a significant bet that Darnold will be the exception. His lack of development and middling success even in clean pockets would worry me, and I think the most likely scenario is that Carolina is back in the quarterback market again in 2022.

What they could have done differently: The other big bet the Panthers made this offseason was staying put in Round 1 of the draft and drafting Horn. The Bears sent pick Nos. 20 and 164 in the draft and their first- and fourth-rounders next year to the Giants to move up from No. 20 to No. 11 and draft Justin Fields, and even if the Panthers didn't want the Ohio State product, they presumably could have accepted a similar offer from the Bears and picked up a tantalizing first-rounder in the 2022 draft.

Even if we value those future Bears picks as being the last picks in their respective rounds, the package on the whole was worth 33.5 points by the Chase Stuart value chart, which is right around the value of the No. 1 overall pick in a typical draft. More realistically, those picks will add up to being worth more than the top pick in a typical draft. Passing up that trade offer (or, at the very least, not successfully seeking out that sort of offer from a team like the Bears) implicitly values Horn as being worth something like the No. 1 overall pick, and cornerbacks taken in this range just do not have that sort of success rate or impact historically. You could make this same argument for the Lions at No. 7 or the Broncos at No. 9, but this was probably an opportunity the Panthers missed.

What's left to do: Extend Taylor Moton. The 2017 second-rounder has developed into one of the best right tackles in football, and with the left tackle spot looking like a big question mark, the Panthers would do well to solidify one tackle spot for Darnold's sake. The Panthers franchised Moton for 2021 at $13.8 million, and a new deal for the 27-year-old should come in around four years and $62 million.

25. Detroit Lions

What went right: The Lions (mostly) committed to a new plan after the disastrous two-plus years of the Matt Patricia era and rebuilt. New general manager Brad Holmes sold high on Matthew Stafford, getting two first-round picks and Jared Goff in return from his old employers in Los Angeles. The best way to start a rebuild is to add extra first-round picks, and while we're expecting those picks to land in the 20s, Houston's trades for Deshaun Watson and Laremy Tunsil are a reminder that future first-rounders can land just about anywhere.

After making the move to deal Stafford, we got a clear idea of how Holmes and new coach Dan Campbell are planning to win football games in the future by what they did in the draft. The Lions had four picks in the first three rounds and used three of those four on linemen, including Oregon tackle Penei Sewell in the first round. They also picked up Michael Brockers in a salary dump with the Rams and re-signed Romeo Okwara. We'll see how the plan works out, but given that the last plan appeared to be simply stacking players the Patriots didn't want to keep around, trying to control the line of scrimmage is at least a theory with a better track record of success.

What went wrong: The Lions let Kenny Golladay leave, although they'll get a third-round compensatory pick in 2022. They're left with the worst group of wideouts in football as a result, with the plan to seemingly chuck it deep to Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman. They also cost themselves a late-round comp pick by signing Jamaal Williams and just brought in Todd Gurley for a look; early-down back is not a position that this rebuilding team needs to make a priority.

Holmes' work on draft day wasn't as inspiring as his first move; he reportedly turned down offers to move down from No. 7 and then tried to move up in the second round before landing the player he wanted, Levi Onwuzurike, without having to sacrifice picks. I love Sewell as a prospect, but the Lions are not one player away from being a contender, and there were plenty of other valuable linemen in the first round. They can't afford to be this confident about individual players in the first draft of a multi-year rebuild.

It was also a bit of a surprise to see Detroit give Campbell a six-year deal. The former tight end's press conferences have been entertaining -- and he might turn out to be a great coach -- but it's not as if he was the hottest candidate on the market or did wonders as an interim coach in Miami several years ago. If Detroit's rebuild is going to take so long that it needed to give Campbell six years, it should have been trading down at No. 7.

What they could have done differently: I like the idea of buying low on Goff. The former first overall pick wasn't as good as people suggested during the peak of the first few Sean McVay years in Los Angeles, but he's also better than his general public perception in 2021. The Rams talked themselves into believing Goff was the player they wanted him to be and paid an exorbitant fee to rid themselves of that mistake.

The Lions restructured Goff's deal after his arrival, but should they have eaten some of his remaining salary and moved the veteran on for more draft picks? If they had eaten $10 million, they could have traded him with four years and $94.1 million to go on his deal, including just $15.5 million in remaining guarantees after this season. I think that could have netted a second-round pick from the right team in need of a veteran option without much cap space, like the Saints before they brought back Jameis Winston.

What's left to do: Wait. The Lions aren't tanking, but they probably aren't going to be very good in 2021. They need to stay patient and keep with a long-term vision.

24. Cincinnati Bengals

What went right: The Bengals added key pieces for Joe Burrow by signing former Vikings tackle Riley Reiff and drafting Burrow's former LSU teammate, Ja'Marr Chase. Some NFL draft analysts felt like the Bengals should have opted for Oregon tackle Penei Sewell to try to protect Burrow as he returns from a serious knee injury -- and I wouldn't have had any issue with the move -- but Chase also helps protect Burrow. Giving him a receiver he trusts on 50/50 balls will help the former first overall pick get the ball out more quickly. Expect Burrow to have the option to throw hot to Chase throughout the season.

What went wrong: After years of mostly avoiding free agency, the Bengals waded into the free-agent waters again. Unfortunately, for the second straight year, their biggest signing doesn't look like good value. The decision to move on from Carl Lawson for Trey Hendrickson seems curious, given that Hendrickson had only one significant season with the Saints. Even that 2020 campaign has red flags attached, suggesting Hendrickson won't be able to keep up his newfound sack totals in Cincinnati.

You could also argue that the Bengals didn't do enough for Burrow up front. Reiff is a solid pass-protector on the right side, but it's still unclear whether Jonah Williams will actually end up as a franchise left tackle. Cincinnati re-signed Quinton Spain after the former Bills lineman joined the team in November, but the only other notable addition the organization made was second-round pick Jackson Carman, who ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. had as his 13th-ranked tackle. The Bengals are expected to move Carman to guard, but they don't have a spectacular recent track record at developing linemen at their college positions, let alone new ones.

What they could have done differently: Choosing Hendrickson over Lawson and Chase over Sewell are the two decisions the Bengals will end up being judged for across the next few years. They can get out of the Hendrickson deal after one year and $20 million, but doing so would leave them in need of another replacement on the edge.

What's left to do: Extend Jessie Bates, who took over Justin Simmons' spot as the most underrated safety in football. With a Jamal Adams extension likely to reset the safety market somewhere north of $18 million per season, the Bengals would be better served to get a Bates extension done before the Seahawks get busy.

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