Much offseason maneuvering is behind us, with the top NFL free agents off the market and the NFL draft in the rearview mirror. However, there are still pressing matters for each team to address before the 2021 NFL season kicks off on Sept. 9.
Marc Sessler identifies the top remaining offseason priority for each NFC team below.
Top priority: Be on the lookout for a tall drink of water.
Larry Fitzgerald's plans for 2021 are unclear and I remain suspicious about a meaningful role for past-his-prime A.J. Green. At 6-foot-4, though, the ex-Bengals target stands out like a parent among children on a Cardinals roster flush with height-challenged wideouts. Beyond 6-foot-1 DeAndre Hopkins and the equally tall KeeSean Johnson (dominant size for a tax analyst) Arizona's crew -- Christian Kirk (5-11), Andy Isabella (5-9) and newly drafted Rondale Moore (5-7) -- begs the question: Aren't you a little short for a Stormtrooper?
Top priority: Determine the fate of Julio Jones.
Falcons brass aren't sitting around a smoky bunker telling themselves: This offense doesn’t require Julio Jones. Leaving the star wideout off the team's new wallpaper rollout was weird stuff, but not an assessment of his talent. "They don't want to trade Jones the player," colleague Steve Wyche reported this week, "but the more than $23 million salary cap hit he carries against a tight cap situation has them listening to teams willing to part with future draft picks." Grady Jarrett has a $20 million price tag of his own, but nobody's interested in acquiring an interior behemoth for that level of loot. Jones will have suitors -- the Niners, Colts and Patriots all make sense -- meaning this drama for the cap-strapped Falcons is just beginning.
Top priority: Rebuild Sam Darnold.
Carolina hit a wall last year because quarterback Teddy Bridgewater crumbled in key moments. In response, coach Matt Rhule went hard after Matthew Stafford and dreamt of a trade for Deshaun Watson before that door slammed shut. After passing on Justin Fields in the draft (a curious decision), Rhule's second season boils down to Darnold living up to the steady stream of love poured on him by a horde of fans in the media. He's set up well with Christian McCaffrey operating as a superhuman and D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson, David Moore and Dan Arnold catching passes. Maybe Darnold is ready to shine after being set free from a torturous tenure with the Jets. Maybe he's just another Teddy. Rhule must operate as football's version of Maury Terry to find out the truth.
Top priority: Put a ring on Allen Robinson.
Blake Bortles. Chad Henne. Chase Daniel. Mitchell Trubisky. The non-heroic version of Nick Foles. Those are the quarterbacks Robinson has caught passes from during his productive but star-crossed seven-year career. It would be understandable if he were averse to signing an extension with a Bears team eternally feeling around in the dark, but the franchise-tagged Robinson might listen after the drafting of Justin Fields. With 200 grabs over his past two campaigns, Robinson is the ideal veteran to pair with Chicago's new rookie field general. A long-term pact would also ease Robinson's weighty $17.9 million tag number.
Top priority: Establish cohesion on defense.
If nothing else, Dallas showed intense commitment to rebuilding a defense that operated last year as a frothing disaster. The draft brought explosive linebacker Micah Parsons, cover man Kelvin Joseph and six additional rookies on defense. New coordinator Dan Quinn has brought a hands-on approach to a unit that typically appeared lost at sea inside Mike Nolan's overly complex scheme in 2020. The hope is that Quinn's player-friendly plan and approach will revitalize the likes of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch while allowing far fewer than last year's outrageous 29.6 points per game.
Top priority: Add helping hands for Jared Goff.
I've gone from lambasting Goff's play with the Rams a season ago -- and his rather milquetoast persona -- to quietly rooting for the dude to succeed in Detroit. The ejector-seated signal-caller is scheduled to face Aaron Donald and company in Week 7. He'll either play hero or quickly be figured out by his ex-teammates, but it's tough to love Goff's chances on paper. His starting targets pre-draft were Breshad Perriman, Tyrell Williams and Quintez Cephus. Fourth-round pick Amon-Ra St. Brown is a lock for heavy snaps, but the group is missing a proven alpha. The Lions have been open about their rebuilding status -- and general manager Brad Holmes knows what he's doing -- but Goff throwing to ghosts suggests a ponderous season ahead.
Top priority: Answer the offseason's biggest question.
I find myself in new realms of exhaustion with the Aaron Rodgers dramatics, but there's no denying it: This is the NFL's biggest mystery. Will he ever play again for the Packers? Can Green Bay solve this grisly mess with 77 briefcases filled with bills bearing the portrait of President Grover Cleveland? Are Packers fans -- hyper-coddled by 29 years of Favre into Aa-Rod under center -- set to peer deep into the void? If Rodgers refuses to play, the reality is grim: Five prime-time tilts with either Jordan Love or Blake Bortles unfurling anti-darts for a freaked out Matt LaFleur wondering when the Football Gods will end this Psilocybin-heavy trip into endless night.
Top priority: Matthew-McVay mind meld.
Micro-focused droid types are asking whether Brian Allen, Austin Corbett or Coleman Shelton will win the tussle to snap footballs to Matthew Stafford. From a bird's-eye view (if winged beings care about such matters), I'm glued to the gridiron romance between Stafford and Sean McVay. The brainy coach greenlit a messy public breakup with Jared Goff to upgrade under center. The basic assumption is that Los Angeles is now a bona fide Super Bowl contender with Stafford flinging sidearm gems. Exiting Detroit was overdue, but can you name me the Five Biggest Matthew Stafford Moments That Rocked The Zeitgeist? I can't, either. He and McVay are under pressure to author Sunday ecstasy come autumn.
Top priority: Pinpoint pass-rushing pecking order.
Only four teams logged fewer sacks than Minnesota's 23 from a season ago. Losing Danielle Hunter for the year to neck surgery -- in combo with trading away Yannick Ngakoue -- was apocalyptic. Hunter is back in the fold after whispers of the chiseled pass rusher demanding a lucrative new deal died down. The question is who will start across from him. A platoon (Stephen Weatherly, D.J. Wonnum, Jalyn Holmes and rookie Patrick Jones II) feels logical, but defensive line guru Andre Patterson sounds especially high on fourth-rounder Janarius Robinson, saying: "I always find that guy in the draft where I say, man, I'd love to get my hands on this kid, and he's the guy."
Top priority: Deliver piles of money to Ryan Ramczyk.
The Saints remain mired in a 2008-esque financial crisis, but general manager Mickey Loomis must put his bean counters to work on the Ryan Ramczyk case. The dominant right tackle is one campaign away from hitting the open market. His $11 million earnings for 2021 appear outrageous next to the average annual value Lane Johnson ($18 million) and Jack Conklin ($14 million) are ticketed to nab. This isn't news to the Saints, who appear interested in working out deals for Ramczyk and juicy cover man Marshon Lattimore. The clock is ticking.
Top priority: Foster stability along the front five.
In an alternate universe, beefy/mauling guard Alijah Vera-Tucker is strutting around MetLife Stadium in a Giants jersey. Instead, Big Blue didn't take a single offensive lineman in the draft. What remains is problematic for a group that finished as the second-worst unit league-wide, per Pro Football Focus. First-rounder Andrew Thomas was, at best, massively underwhelming at left tackle. Will Hernandez finished as PFF's 53rd-ranked guard and was essentially benched for fifth-rounder Shane Lemieux, who ranked 80th. Veteran Kevin Zeitler is history. A beyond-his-prime Nate Solder returns from an opt-out year. Guard Zach Fulton was the team's only free-agent add up front. On and on we go. The Giants say they believe in this collection of humans, but implosion feels possible.
Top priority: Trade for a cover man?
The Eagles went into the draft with a burning need at cornerback. They exited with only one new face at the position in fourth-rounder Zech McPhearson. On paper, a sizable void exists across from Darius Slay on the outside. Philly's most obvious option there, Avonte Maddox, finished as PFF's 121st-ranked corner out of 121 eligible humans. Not something Maddox is likely to highlight on his LinkedIn page. General manager Howie Roseman isn't averse to late-summer swaps, so help could (and should) be on the way.
Top priority: Author an extension for Fred Warner.
Fred Warner is set to earn just $3.4 million this season in the final year of his rookie deal. One of the game's most watchable defenders, Warner finished as PFF's top linebacker in 2020, a feat buoyed by his position-best grade in coverage. He's durable -- with 51 straight appearances, including the playoffs -- a team captain and arguably the heart of San Francisco's defense. It's fair to wonder if the Niners are saving their pennies for a run at Julio Jones, but Warner's next up for a robust new deal.
Top priority: Keep Russell Wilson smiling.
I steered 27 words into a paragraph about PAYING JAMAL ADAMS, but it's crystal clear the 'Hawks will extend a player they landed for a pair of first-round picks and more. Wilson's annoyance with the organization feels ancient because it's roughly seven agitated-quarterback storylines ago -- but has it gone away? Seattle's front office swung a trade with Las Vegas for guard Gabe Jackson, inked tight end Gerald Everett and re-signed bruising runner Chris Carson. Rapport-building moves, but the team also listened to a generous trade offer for Wilson from the Bears. The faint drum beat of separation lingers in Seattle's subconscious. Russell's camp has quieted, but these things never end well. Stay tuned.
Top priority: Kill the past.
The Chiefs understand what Tampa soon will: Repeating is elusive. The Bucs have every reason to confidently parade around. Their Super Bowl whacking of Kansas City capped a raucous end to a campaign that saw Tom Brady and friends put up 30-plus points per game over their final seven tilts. A juggernaut just beginning to sizzle. Everyone's back. Besides a little defensive line help, the needs are few. The ceiling is unknown. But no team has won back-to-back titles since the Brady-led Patriots in 2003-04. Now we've got Brady's dad cold-calling Boston radio stations to trumpet: "We expect to beat the Patriots rather handily (in Week 4)." It's fantastic fodder and happy bluster, but here comes the acid test: Backing it up.
Top priority: Dive deeper into the Ron Rivera wormhole.
After years of ineptitude, Washington has quickly morphed into a bully under Ron Rivera. The resilient leader spent last season turning the club's defensive line into an identity-rich centerpiece. Inking reliable left tackle Charles Leno Jr. helps do the same on offense for one of the conference's better front fives. Right-sider Brandon Scherff was PFF's fourth-ranked guard; Chase Roullier the site's sixth-ranked pivot. Left guard Ereck Flowers can win fights. It's exactly what Rivera wants: Strength and brutality at the line of scrimmage for a gaggle of bought-in players no longer willing to be kicked around the field. The team passed on drafting a quarterback -- with no clear long-term answer -- but Ryan Fitzpatrick can cast spells behind this line with a better gang of skill-position talent than Washington's had in ages.