The NFL offseason is a three-step process each franchise must undertake to put the best version of the team on the field the following campaign.
First, general managers and decision-makers must address internal obstacles. Those involve potential contract extensions and restructures, veteran releases and pending free agents based on projected salary-cap standings. Some teams have plenty of space to manipulate the roster, while others are forced to shed salary. Trades opportunities tend to pop up as well.
From there, free agency begins at the start of the new league year (March 17). How the team managed its salary cap earlier determines how active it can be on the open market.
Finally, the draft serves as the driving force in talent acquisition. Younger, cheaper talent replenishes the roster as it transitions from one campaign to the next.
Organizations adjust as each step plays out since not everything works in their favor. The 2021 offseason is still in its formative stages, though it could get wild with a shrinking salary cap, massive demand for quarterbacks and an atypical draft-evaluation period.
Each franchise has three significant issues to address. How the team addresses those will determine whether it's been successful. Everyone yearns to be the new Tampa Bay Buccaneers after last year's Super Bowl-defining offseason.
After 10 seasons in the desert, eight-time Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson looks like he'll enter free agency. According to Darren Urban of the Arizona Cardinals' officials site, general manager Steve Keim and Peterson "have talked," but no official offers have materialized.
Cornerback was already an area of concern. Peterson's potential departure amplifies the situation because of an aging and unsettled secondary.
Another Cardinals legend remains in limbo. Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has yet to make his intentions for 2021 clear. If the future Hall of Famer plans to play, Keim must re-sign him. The 37-year-old is not the player he once was, but he remains a viable receiving threat and a great locker room presence.
Also, special teams can't be overlooked. Punter Andy Lee and kickers Zane Gonzalez and Mike Nugent are pending free agents. Neither performed particularly well last season anyhow. The Cardinals missed seven field goals, while Lee ranked 21st in net punting average.
Cornerback is the top priority with Patrick Peterson's expected departure.
Bring back wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald for one more season.
Special teams require a reboot.
Some will scoff at the idea of the Atlanta Falcons drafting Matt Ryan's eventual replacement with their fourth overall draft pick, but it would be a smart long-term strategy. Ryan turns 36 in mid-May. The team can save $15.1 million by trading or cutting the quarterback next offseason. Furthermore, this year's quarterback class is exceptional.
By planning the transition now, the Falcons won't scramble to replace Ryan. If the veteran returns to form, the team will have a valuable trade chip in its back pocket.
From there, center becomes a priority. Alex Mack is a pending free agent, and Atlanta doesn't have any salary-cap space. Also, the team didn't get as much from its defensive front as it expected after signing Dante Fowler Jr. That unit remains a concern the Falcons are likely to address in the draft.
Last but certainly not least, kicker Younghoe Koo emerged as a Pro Bowler in his first full year with the franchise. He's set to enter free agency, though the Falcons would be wise to re-sign the 26-year-old specialist before then.
Draft a quarterback to become Matt Ryan's heir apparent.
Prioritize the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
Re-sign kicker Younghoe Koo.
Orlando Brown Jr. could be on his way out the door after requesting a trade from the Baltimore Ravens. The team's starting right tackle is more comfortable on the blind side. ESPN's Jeremy Fowler reported Brown's representation has "begun exploring trade possibilities."
With Brown potentially gone and little clarity at the center and right guard positions, three-fifths of the Ravens front could use fortifications. D.J. Fluker is a pending free agent as well. Baltimore must be strong up front to excel in its run-first scheme.
On top of worrying about the offensive line, the Ravens' passing game has yet to evolve. Another more well-rounded target would be beneficial for Lamar Jackson's development.
The defensive front has issues as well. Yannick Ngakoue, Matthew Judon, Pernell McPhee and Tyus Bowser are set to enter free agency. Of the three, Ngakoue has the most upside. He came in via an October trade, and his re-signing should be prioritized.
Bolster the offensive line.
Find another wide receiver to complement quarterback Lamar Jackson and passing game.
Re-sign edge-rusher Yannick Ngakoue.
The Buffalo Bills now feature one of the league's best rosters. It's not without faults, though.
The organization spent plenty on the offensive line two offseasons ago. It's still a work in progress. Cody Ford should return after last season's torn meniscus and start at right guard or tackle. From there, the projection is a little cloudy.
Daryl Williams' retention would solidify the strong side. Or the Bills could re-sign Jon Feliciano to play guard, with Ford moving out to tackle. They could also upgrade left guard even though Ike Boettger provided solid play once he became the full-time starter in Week 10.
Buffalo is weakest along its defensive line. The Bills pass-rushers are aging or lack explosivity. Linebacker A.J. Klein and 33-year-old veteran Mario Addison tied for the team lead in 2020 with five sacks.
Cornerback opposite Tre'Davious White has been a need for a couple of seasons now. Levi Wallace is serviceable, but he's a restricted free agent. Josh Norman, meanwhile, is an unrestricted free agent. A long-term bookend should be in the plans.
Rework the right side of the offensive line.
Add another pass-rusher.
Find a starting cornerback opposite Tre'Davious White.
Like other franchises around the NFL, the Carolina Panthers are in search of a new starting quarterback. The organization's reported interest in Matthew Stafford and Deshaun Watson signal the same thing: Teddy Bridgewater's spot as Carolina's starting quarterback is tenuous at best.
With the eighth overall draft pick, the Panthers should be positioned to select a new face of the franchise, even if it has to trade up.
Before that, Carolina must address the contract status of two offensive standouts. Right tackle Taylor Moton and wide receiver Curtis Samuel are pending free agents. Moton is a top-tier offensive lineman who's sure to draw interest in free agency, while Samuel is an intriguing and explosive weapon in the passing game. If the Panthers are able to retain both, their quarterback will be in a much better position.
After an entire defensive draft class in 2020, the Panthers can add a tight end to help complete the offense.
Replace Teddy Bridgewater as the starting quarterback.
Sign right tackle Taylor Moton and wide receiver Curtis Samuel to long-term extensions.
Find a competent tight end.
Maybe the Chicago Bears will swing a deal for Deshaun Watson—who recently reiterated his trade request, according to ESPN's Dan Graziano—or for Russell Wilson, who seems to be interested. If either of their teams are receptive to trade offers, general manager Ryan Pace must swing for the fences.
Otherwise, Pace could manage a draft-day deal to land a top quarterback prospect. With the 20th overall pick, Chicago will likely need to get into the top 10 to draft Mitchell Trubisky's replacement.
Whatever the case, the Bears can't enter another season with Trubisky and Nick Foles as starting options.
The team can make itself a more attractive destination by placing the franchise tag on wide receiver Allen Robinson II. Robinson will be a WR1 if he hits the market. Chicago needs its top target in tow to finally build the offense into something.
Fortifications along the offensive front, particularly the right side where tackle Bobby Massie is a release candidate, will help progress on that side of the ball.
Make an aggressive move to acquire a different starting quarterback.
Place franchise tag on wide receiver Allen Robinson II.
Reset at offensive tackle.
The Cincinnati Bengals must do everything in their power to protect 2020 first overall pick Joe Burrow.
Cincinnati's protection schemes were a disaster last year, especially without the caliber of talent necessary to consistently hold up against opposing pressure packages. Left tackle Jonah Williams and center Trey Hopkins are keepers. The rest needs to be rebuilt. Taking an offensive tackle with the fifth overall pick should be a foregone conclusion, whether it's Oregon's Penei Sewell or Northwestern's Rashawn Slater.
The retention of Cincinnati's top two young defenders, Carl Lawson and William Jackson III, is another must. With the team having approximately $43 million in projected salary-cap space, neither player should hit the open market.
The Bengals can create even more space ($9.5 million) by releasing longtime defensive tackle Geno Atkins. The eight-time Pro Bowl selection fell out of favor last season and played in only eight games.
The offensive line takes priority over everything.
Re-sign defensive end Carl Lawson and cornerback William Jackson III.
Release defensive tackle Geno Atkins.