Free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft have come and gone. Both events have altered the structure of many teams. New talent has come in, old talent has been sent out, and now jobs are on the line across the NFL. That’s the nature of business in professional sports, and the NFL is certainly no different.
With that in mind, here’s a look at players whose jobs are in jeopardy as training camps looms.
Despite hauling in 56 receptions for 571 yards and six touchdowns — all career highs — the Falcons declined the fifth-year option on Hayden Hurst, ensuring that he will become an unrestricted free agent following the 2021 season. If that weren’t a strong enough indication that Hurst’s job was in jeopardy, Atlanta then went out and selected superstar tight end Kyle Pitts in the first round of the NFL draft (No. 4 overall). Assuming they keep Julio Jones (which is 50-50 at this point), the Falcons aren’t built to run many two-tight end sets. It’s highly unlikely Pitts will be removed from the field outside of injury. That doesn’t bode well for Hurst, his projected playing time, or his potential production. In fact, don’t be surprised to see Atlanta attempt to deal him for a mid-round pick ahead of the NFL’s trading deadline.
When you talk about players on the fringe of breaking out, Jamison Crowder’s name always seems to come up. However, luck has not been on his side in Washington or New York. In 2020, Crowder’s production was limited due to injuries and inconsistency around him. In 2021, his role is likely to decrease substantially due to the team’s rebuild, which features a new quarterback (Zach Wilson) and the arrival of wide receivers Keelan Cole, Corey Davis and rookie Elijah Moore. In fact, Crowder, who is entering the final year of his current contract, could become a cap casualty as opposed to someone lost to depth, especially when considering his cap hit of nearly $12 million. That’s quite a bit for a slot receiver.
The quarterback situation in Chicago was confusing prior to the 2021 NFL Draft, and it only got more confusing after the fact. After moving on from Mitchell Trubisky, the Bears seemed poised to ride things out with Nick Foles. Then they signed veteran Andy Dalton and went in hard on promoting him as “QB1.” Again, that was short-lived as Chicago traded up in April’s draft in order to acquire Justin Fields. While they’ll maintain that it’s an open competition headed into training camp, rookie first-round quarterbacks don’t ride the pine anymore. It’s clear that the Bears would like to move on from Foles and his bloated contract, and that Dalton’s days are already numbered. It’s an unfortunate turn of events for Dalton, but that’s the nature of business in the NFL.
Even prior to the 49ers selecting Trey Lance with the third overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft, Jimmy Garoppolo’s future in San Francisco seemed uncertain at best. However, with a lukewarm trade market, Jimmy G has managed to hang around and will likely remain in place through training camp. If injuries around the league don’t boost his trade market, Garoppolo could potentially even start under center come Week 1. However, quarterback development isn’t approached the same way it was a decade ago. First-round quarterbacks play, and they play early. Accordingly, Garoppolo will have an extremely short leash. One tiny hiccup may be all it takes before he’s yanked. But, odds are, even if he plays well, his starting job is in serious jeopardy. It’s really a matter of when and not if.
1. Jaylon Smith, LB, Cowboys
In August 2019, the Cowboys signed Jaylon Smith to a five-year contract extension worth $64 million, including $35.5 million guaranteed. They did that because they clearly saw long-term viability in him. Smith had essentially dominated over his first three seasons in the NFL. However, despite putting up impressive numbers on the stat sheet, Smith’s effectiveness actually took a step back in 2020. He recorded the lowest Pro Football Focus grade of his career (54.2) and struggled against the run. Then, in the 2021 NFL Draft, Dallas used their first-round pick on Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons and their fourth-rounder on LSU linebacker Jabril Cox. As Bill Engvall would say, “Here’s your sign!” The Cowboys may not be able to get out from underneath Smith’s massive contract right now, but make no mistake about it, his snap count is doing to decrease significantly this coming season.