Though the COVID-19 pandemic appears far from over, the NFL gradually regained a semblance of normalcy during the 2021 offseason. The draft returned to being a live event, as thousands of fans flocked to the banks off Lake Erie in Cleveland. Players reported for offseason workouts in the summer. Teams are preparing for packed stadiums in the fall.
Though seemingly normal, the 2021 offseason still featured plenty of drama, especially among the quarterbacks. One of the league's all-time greatest retired, while another contemplated joining him after feuding with his organization. The GOAT signed an extension through his 45th birthday, while a Heisman winner started a comeback -- at a different position. Another QB finally got his contract, while another restructured his record deal make a run back at the Super Bowl. And for just the second time this millennium, five passers went in the top 15 of the draft, beginning with a generational prospect at the top.
Rodgers returns to Green Bay
Despite being disgruntled with the organization, reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers finally agreed to rejoin the Green Bay Packers at the start of training camp -- albeit with the condition that he would be able to control his future after the upcoming season. As a result, the Packers voided the 2023 year in Rodgers' contract, the last one in his current deal, while agreeing not to tag him in the future. To consummate the peace offering, the Packers also traded for Rodgers' former go-to wide receiver Randall Cobb.
Rodgers candidly aired his grievances with the organization as camp opened, noting his frustration with being left out of key personnel decisions. He even admitted he considered retiring. Instead, he's back for his 17th season with the Packers. And despite the falling-out, they'll attempt at least one more run at a Super Bowl together.
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Brees hangs it up
New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees did decide to retire, finishing as the NFL's all-time leader with 80,358 passing yards. After an illustrious 20-year career, which included leading the Saints to their first Super Bowl appearance (and victory), Brees should be a lock to become a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Other notable retirements included quarterbacks Phillip Rivers and Alex Smith, wide receivers Julian Edelman and Demaryius Thomas, tight ends Jason Witten and Greg Olsen, offensive linemen Maurkice Pouncey, Mike Pouncey, Mike Iupati and Anthony Castonzo, linebackers Thomas Davis and Sean Lee and kicker Adam Vinatieri.
Watson faces sexual assault accusations
In April, the first of 23 lawsuits was filed against Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, with allegations of sexual assault or sexually inappropriate behavior during massage sessions. In addition, 10 women filed complaints with Houston police, two of whom hadn't filed lawsuits against Watson.
The NFL hasn't restricted Watson's participation with the Texans, though it said in a statement last week that a "review of the serious allegations remains ongoing and active."
Before the allegations surfaced, Watson had requested a trade from the Texans.
Tension with Seahawks fuels Wilson trade rumors
Rodgers wasn't the only premier quarterback to become exasperated with his circumstances. Russell Wilson expressed frustration with all the hits he'd been taking and requested more say in the Seattle Seahawks' personnel decisions, as well. Wilson never demanded a trade. But the fact that his agent publicly disclosed the only four teams (Cowboys, Saints, Raiders and Bears) he would play for in the event of a trade underscored the tension.
Dak finally gets his money
The third offseason was the charm for quarterback Dak Prescott. After seemingly endless negotiations that covered three years, Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys finally agreed to a four-year extension worth $160 million, including $126 million guaranteed. The deal also included an NFL-record $66 million signing bonus, effectively resetting the quarterback market for future negotiations elsewhere.
Prescott might be coming off a compound ankle fracture, but after such a massive extension, the pressure will be on for him to become the first quarterback since Troy Aikman to take Dallas to a Super Bowl.
Brady signs extension
A month after winning a seventh Super Bowl, quarterback Tom Brady signed a one-year contract extension with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that will tie him with the team through the 2022 season -- and his 45th birthday.
The move saved the Buccaneers $19 million against the salary cap, which allowed them to keep the bulk of their Super Bowl-winning team together, making them a favorite to repeat.
Patriots splurge post-Brady
After watching Brady win a Super Bowl without them, the New England Patriots went on a free-agent spending spree, setting an NFL record with $163.4 million in guaranteed money doled out in one offseason.
The first domino to fall actually came via a trade with the Las Vegas Raiders for offensive tackle Trent Brown, who already owned a Super Bowl ring protecting Brady's blindside in New England three years ago. In addition to bringing back QB Cam Newton, the Patriots signed tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry and edge rushers Matt Judon and Kyle Van Noy, among several other potential key players.
In the draft, the Patriots possibly might have scored their next quarterback of the future, as Alabama's Mac Jones fell to their pick at No. 15.
After an NFL-record 11 straight trips to the playoffs with Brady, the Patriots' brass didn't want to sit out a second consecutive postseason without him.
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K.C. revamps OL despite missing out on Williams
Kansas City was unable to close the deal on Trent Williams, who returned to the San Francisco 49ers as the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history with $55.1 in guaranteed money. Still, the Chiefs signed guard Joe Thuney and center Austin Blythe before nabbing Orlando Brown Jr. to man left tackle in a trade with the Baltimore Ravens. Kansas City brought former Pro Bowl guard Kyle Long out of retirement on a one-year deal as well.
To help make it all happen, Kansas City restructured Mahomes' contract, saving the Chiefs $17 million against the cap. Should his new line jell, Mahomes surely will reap the rewards.
Rams swap Goff for Stafford
One of the biggest moves this year actually went down before the end of the playoffs. The Los Angeles Rams picked up quarterback Matthew Stafford in a trade with the Detroit Lions in exchange for quarterback Jared Goff and a bevy of draft picks. The Lions collected two future first-rounders, plus a third-rounder this year in the first exchange of former No. 1 overall picks in the common draft era.
Goff had led the Rams to a Super Bowl just two years earlier before signing a contract extension worth $100 million in guaranteed money. The Rams' offense, however, tailed off the past two seasons, prompting the organization deal for Stafford.
Eagles send Wentz to Indy
Goff wasn't the only quarterback to get traded this offseason after signing a big-money extension in 2019. The Philadelphia Eagles sent quarterback Carson Wentz to the Indianapolis Colts for a third-round pick this year and an additional 2022 conditional pick that could be a first-rounder if Wentz starts the bulk of this season for Indy. (The conditional pick will be a first-rounder if Wentz plays at least 75% of the Colts' offensive snaps, or if he plays at least 70% of the snaps and the Colts reach the playoffs. Otherwise, it is a second-rounder.)
Wentz suffered a foot injury in the Colts' opening week of training camp. Late in 2017, Wentz tore an ACL as the Eagles went on to win the Super Bowl. He then signed an extension, which included $107.9 million guaranteed.
Jets trade Darnold to Carolina, draft Wilson
Three years after hailing him as the face of the franchise, the New York Jets jettisoned Sam Darnold to the Carolina Panthers. The trade netted the Jets a 2022 second-round pick while clearing the way for them to select BYU's Zach Wilson with the second overall pick in this year's draft.
The Jets are betting Wilson can develop into the passer they once thought Darnold would become. The Panthers, meanwhile, are gambling that they can rehabilitate Darnold, a former No. 3 pick.
Panthers send Bridgewater to Denver
After netting Darnold, Carolina shipped Teddy Bridgewater to the Denver Broncos for a late pick while agreeing to eat a chunk of Bridgewater's salary. The trade gave Denver an alternative at quarterback to Drew Lock, who ranked just 29th in QBR last season.
Across the board, the Broncos boast a playoff-caliber roster. But to get to the postseason, they'll need much better play at quarterback, regardless of who starts.
49ers, Bears trade up for QBs
The draft featured plenty of wheeling and dealing, highlighted by the San Francisco 49ers acquiring the third pick from the Miami Dolphins ahead of the first round to select North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance. Later in the draft, the Chicago Bears were able to swing a deal as well, moving up from No. 20 to No. 11 to grab Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields.
The Dolphins jumped back to No. 6 in a pre-draft trade with the Eagles to eventually grab Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle. Then at the draft, the Eagles leapfrogged one rival (New York Giants) in a trade with another (Cowboys) from No. 12 to 10 to draft Waddle's college teammate, Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith.
The Jacksonville Jaguars opened the draft by taking Clemson's Trevor Lawrence, who will try to become the first No. 1 overall pick since Peyton Manning to quarterback the team that drafted him to a Super Bowl title.
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Watt goes to Arizona, Clowney to Cleveland
A pair of up-and-coming teams upgraded their pass rush further by signing two former teammates.
After the Texans granted his request for a release, five-time All-Pro J.J. Watt signed a two-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals. Watt, 34, will team up with Chandler Jones, who leads the NFL in total sacks since 2012.
The Browns, meanwhile, scored Jadeveon Clowney, who played with Watt in Houston after the Texans selected him No. 1 in 2014. Clowney has battled injuries throughout his career, but in Cleveland, he'll have a prime chance to thrive playing opposite All-Pro Myles Garrett.
Other notable free-agent signings included: wide receiver Kenny Golladay (Giants), safety John Johnson III (Browns), wide receiver Corey Davis (Jets), safety Anthony Harris (Eagles), receiver William Fuller V (Dolphins), quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (Washington), cornerback Adoree' Jackson (Giants), center Corey Linsley (Chargers), offensive guard Kevin Zeitler (Ravens), defensive end Carl Lawson (Jets), cornerback Mike Hilton (Bengals), cornerback Shaquill Griffin (Jaguars), defensive end Yannick Ngakoue (Raiders), defensive end Bud Dupree (Titans), defensive end Trey Hendrickson (Bengals), defensive end Haason Reddick (Panthers) and wide receiver A.J. Green (Cardinals).
Tebow makes a comeback
After being out of football the past six years, Tim Tebow signed a deal to play tight end with the Jaguars, reuniting the 2007 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback with Urban Meyer, his college head coach at Florida.
Tebow, 34, previously had been toiling in the New York Mets' minor league system. Nine years ago, Tebow did win a playoff game as quarterback of the Broncos. But he never has caught a pass in his college or pro career.
Meyer, who won national titles for the Gators and at Ohio State, was one of seven new NFL head-coaching hires, along with Brandon Staley (Chargers), Nick Sirianni (Eagles), Arthur Smith (Falcons), Robert Saleh (Jets), David Culley (Texans) and Dan Campbell (Lions).
Titans reel in a star wideout
The Tennessee Titans bolstered their already physically imposing offense by trading for seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones. Jones, wide receiver A.J. Brown and All-Pro running back Derrick Henry form a trio that figures to leave plenty of bruises on opposing defenses. In all, the Titans landed Jones and a 2023 sixth-round pick in exchange for a 2022 second-round pick and a 2023 fourth-round selection.
Nassib announces he's gay
In June, Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib became the first active NFL player to come out as gay. Nassib, 28, made the announcement in an Instagram post, saying "one day, videos like this and the whole coming-out process" would be unnecessary. "But until then," he said, "I'm going to do my best and do my part to cultivate a culture that's accepting." In a statement, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the league was "proud of Carl for courageously sharing his truth."
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Washington fined after workplace culture investigation
Following an investigation into the team's workplace culture, the NFL fined the Washington Football Team $10 million. "Bullying and intimidation frequently took place," the report said, "and many described the culture as one of fear." All senior executives, including owner Dan Snyder, were also instructed to take part in training in workplace conduct.
NFL OKs jersey number rule change
NFL owners approved a rule change to allow running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, defensive backs and linebackers to wear single-digit numbers. Previously, only quarterbacks, kickers and punters could don them. Los Angeles Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey (No. 20 to No. 7), Minnesota Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson (21 to 7) and Carolina Panthers wide receiver DJ Moore (12 to 2) were among those to change numbers. More figure to be on the way in 2022, when players won't have to buy out the existing inventory of player jerseys to alter their number, which was the case this year.
League threatens forfeits for unvaccinated outbreaks
Before training camps opened, the NFL sent out a statement threatening forfeits and the loss of game checks should an outbreak among unvaccinated players cause an unresolvable disruption in the regular-season schedule.
NFLPA president and Browns center JC Tretter responded by calling the memo unhelpful, then ripped the teams that had been forcing their unvaccinated players to wear wristbands during practices. Tretter said the policy was "unnecessary" and had been put in place "to try to shame unvaccinated players publicly."
Unvaccinated players already face severe protocols this season, including daily testing, mask-wearing and travel restrictions.