Every year, teams try their damnedest to upgrade in big enough ways in important enough roles to elevate themselves in the Super Bowl picture. Some teams are more successful than others, obviously, but that’s always the goal. This offseason, we saw a lot of moving and shaking as teams jockeyed to overtake the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and take home the Lombardi Trophy next February.
In the space below, we’re going to look at the 10 most impactful people (or groups of people) in new places or new roles during the 2021 season.
Last year, Dolphins coach Brian Flores built one of the NFL’s most creative and versatile defenses, showing opposing offenses all kinds of different looks and pressures made available to him with improved personnel. Miami was able to move the ball offensively with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center due to his high-risk, high-reward style, but struggled to do so with Tua Tagovailoa at the helm because he is by nature a more conservative player, and the Dolphins didn’t have much in the way of game-breaking perimeter talent.
Enter two of the fastest, most explosive receivers available this offseason. Fuller is capable of making tremendous plays downfield, but he’s also shown the ability to open the field for others: Deshaun Watson’s performance was consistently better with Fuller on the field than off when they played together in Houston. Waddle has Fuller’s downfield capabilities, but adds in more precise route-running ability, which should enable him to be an elite after-catch threat. Pair that duo with incumbent wideouts DeVante Parker, Preston Williams, and Lynn Bowden Jr., and the Dolphins offense should create more explosive pass plays this season.
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Unlike the No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks, Lance and Fields were drafted to teams with rosters that could conceivably have been in the playoffs a year ago had things gone differently. The 49ers crumbled under the weight of injury issues last year, but they were in the Super Bowl the year before. The roster is ready to win now. The Bears are not far removed from making the playoffs with Mitchell Trubisky at quarterback.
If when these players step into the lineup they can hit the ground running, their teams could take off from there. Lance, in particular, should be in position to have success right away due to the offensive infrastructure the 49ers already have in place with Kyle Shanahan, an excellent offensive line, and a talented group of pass-catchers who excel at creating yards after the catch.
No NFL team splashed the pot in free agency more than the Patriots. They signed Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, Matt Judon, Jalen Mills, Henry Anderson, and Davon Godchaux. They brought back Kyle Van Noy after he was released by the Dolphins, and re-traded for Trent Brown. They’re also getting Donta Hightower back after he opted out of last season, and added Mac Jones, Christian Barmore, and Ronnie Perkins (among others) in the draft. They should also have a healthier Cam Newton this season now that his bout with COVID-19 is months instead of weeks behind him. This is a much more talented team than it was last season, and that should show up on the field.
Remember that period a few years back where the Saints had an elite, damn near unstoppable offense every year but you had no idea what you were going to get from the defense, and it was usually bad so they just went 7-9 every year? Well, now the Saints have excellent talent on defense and should be quite good, but there is no way to know what to expect from the offense, because we still do not know who will be playing quarterback.
6. Titans offensive coordinator Todd Downing
In 2019 and 2020, the Titans finished the season sixth and fourth in offensive efficiency, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA. In each season, they were playing better, more efficient football toward the end of the year, heading into the playoffs. They did all that under offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, who is now the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons.
His replacement, Downing, was the team’s tight ends coach in each of the last two seasons. In his last stint as an offensive coordinator, the 2017 Raiders offense finished the year 13th in DVOA. Not bad, but not elite. He has better talent now than he did then, but he also needs to get those elite results that Smith got the last two seasons, because Tennessee’s defense is… not good. If the Titans are merely a top 8-12 offense instead of a top-five unit, they could go from potential contender to also-ran pretty quickly. How the Titans adjust to their new play-caller will go a long way toward determining the fate of their season.
5. Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and the Dallas defense rookies
The Cowboys have basically the opposite problem. Their offense should be just fine now that everyone is healthy. When Dak Prescott was playing at the start of last season, they were putting up historic numbers despite the absences of Tyron Smith and La’el Collins, and with Ezekiel Elliott looking like a shell of himself. Prescott, Smith, and Collins are back, as is the rest of the offensive infrastructure from last season and (mostly) the year before. The questions are on the other side of the ball.
Dallas’ defense was historically bad for much of last season under Mike Nolan. And not just numbers-wise. They got lost all. the. damn. time. Guys didn’t know assignments, got lost in the scheme, made easy-to-correct mistakes, consistently. They should be better coached under Quinn, but do they have enough talent to achieve results? Can they approach slightly-below-average on that side of the ball? Last year’s unit simply did not have a lot of talent. That’s why the Cowboys used draft picks on (deep breath) Micah Parsons, Kelvin Joseph, Chauncey Golston, Osa Odighizuwa, Nahshon Wright, Jabril Cox, Israel Mukuamu, and Quinton Bohanna. Can they find any quality starters among that group? They need at least a couple, or they’ll be going to be playing a lot of 41-38 type of games.
As a rookie, Justin Herbert completed 66.6 percent of his passes at an average of 7.3 yards per attempt, throwing 31 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions along the way. And he did that despite being pressured on 37 percent of his drop-backs — the 10th-highest rate among 35 qualified passers.
So what did the Chargers do? They went out and signed the best center on the market in Linsley, who is fresh off a seven-year partnership with Aaron Rodgers and should be a tremendous help to Herbert in setting protections and making adjustments at the line. They signed Feiler, who can play guard or tackle. They brought Aboushi over from Detroit, and he’s coming off his best season. And they drafted Slater, arguably the best offensive lineman in the draft. In two years’ time, they have completely remade their offensive line, after they brought in Bryan Bulaga last year.
Herbert performed remarkably well under pressure last season, but performance under pressure isn’t all that stable year to year. Your best bet is to keep pressure away from the quarterback altogether. The Chargers’ moves should help them do just that.
Last year, no team made more of an effort to improve its defense during the offseason than the Dolphins. They went on a huge spending spree, used multiple early draft picks on that side of the ball, everything. This year, it was the Browns’ turn. They already had Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward, stars on the perimeter. What they needed was to add depth on the outside, and especially up the middle. Consider that mission accomplished.
Clowney hasn’t necessarily lived up to his No. 1 pick billing as a pass rusher, but he’s a tremendous run defender and has proven capable of pushing the pocket to create sack opportunities for others. Johnson was the best safety on the market, and is one of the most versatile back-half defenders in the league. Hill and Newsome provide immediate upgrades at the No. 2 and 3 corner spots, and bring added versatility. And JOK was the most versatile defender in the draft — a guy who really can play both safety and linebacker. You can’t just have a couple great players to put together a great NFL defense. You need everything, everywhere. The Browns are much closer now.
The Rams have built a roster that is ready to win right now. Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, a strong offensive line, great weapons, Sean McVay… they’re ready to go. They were ready to go the last couple years. Jared Goff, though, was not. Stafford isn’t necessarily a top-five quarterback, but he is a much more talented — and consistent — player than Goff, and there should be a new ceiling available to this offense that was not there for the last two seasons. That’s especially true due to Stafford’s ability to make plays outside of structure and outside the pocket. Goff was much more limited in those areas.
You watched the Super Bowl, right? Remember how Patrick Mahomes was running for his life? These guys are in charge of making sure that doesn’t happen again. It’s tough to imagine any players on new teams being responsible for something more important than that.