The 2021 NFL offseason saw every team -- save for the Buccaneers, who were fond of their 2020 squad -- make changes that will affect their starting lineups. While the free-agent signings and draft picks generated headlines, here are some key holdovers who stand to see their roles expand after teams' offseason decisions.
K.J. Wright remains unsigned, and a fourth contract agreement between he and the Seahawks is looking unlikely. Brooks' role will grow significantly. And with Bobby Wagner's top-market salary on Seattle's books at linebacker, it would make sense for the team to rely on a rookie salary alongside its defensive anchor. The latest of Seattle's surprising first-round picks, Brooks battled injuries early but came on down the stretch last season. His growth coincided with the Seahawks' defensive improvement. Wagner stands to have a new sidekick soon.
After Jadeveon Clowney chose the Titans over an aggressive Saints pitch, Trey Hendrickson thrived in a contract year. Hendrickson usurped Davenport and recorded 13.5 sacks. Hendrickson is now a Bengal, giving Davenport another chance. The first-round defensive end has been a primary starter in just one season, but Pro Football Focus has slotted the former mid-major freak as a top-20 D-end in each of the past two seasons. If Davenport can crank out stats opposite Cam Jordan in 2021, he will be poised to land a lucrative second contract. Paton Turner's Round 1 arrival likely means that deal will come from another team.
In not tagging Aaron Jones, the Packers came close to a radically reshaped backfield. Even with Jones re-signing to stay on as their starter, Dillon will become his complementary back. The 2020 second-round pick showed in the snow against the Titans he offers a different sort of skill set compared to the since-departed Jamaal Williams. The thunder-and-lightning cliché will apply for the 2021 Packers backfield, with Dillon (5.3 yards per carry in limited time as a rookie) looming as one of the league's most interesting off-the-bench weapons.
The reduced salary cap hit the Steelers hard. Several longtime starters are gone. Pittsburgh's once-veteran-laden offensive line is down to David DeCastro and a collection of unproven talents. Matt Feiler's departure for Los Angeles will move Dotson to a first-string guard role opposite DeCastro. A 2020 fourth-round pick, Dotson filled in for four starts as a rookie. PFF graded the ex-Louisiana Rajin' Cajun as a top-30 guard. Granted, that judgment came on limited work. But the Steelers will need to rely on multiple new O-line starters on cheap contracts this year. Dotson will be one of them.
Kliff Kingsbury said he would be fine with Edmonds playing the lead ball-carrying role next season, and the third-year coach backed that up in the draft. The Cardinals did not address the running back position. Edmonds will likely be Arizona's 1-A option, with the injury-prone James Conner factoring in. Edmonds averaged 4.6 yards per carry last season and delivered his best outlet work, catching 53 passes and totaling four receiving TDs. After the Cardinals passed on drafting a back, David Johnson and Kenyan Drake's former backup is on track for a big contract year.
Jon Gruden's affinity for veterans clouds the receiver position, with the Raiders czar greenlighting the signings of John Brown and Willie Snead. Edwards is a bigger target than each, but Brown could stand in his way for snaps on the outside in 2021. Still, Nelson Agholor's exit opens the door for Edwards to show he can be a starter. The 6-foot-3 South Carolina product adds a dimension the rest of the Raiders' wideouts lack, and he fared well during training camp last year. An injury changed his rookie-year trajectory. The Derek Carr-piloted passing attack could use some size outside of Darren Waller.
While he will be wearing a far worse uniform in his second go-round as a starter, Evans is primed to return to the Rams' lineup. Center Austin Blythe's free agency exit -- to a Chiefs team that may use him as a backup -- is set to move Austin Corbett to center and thrust Evans into the lineup at guard. A midseason promotion as a rookie in 2019, Evans delighted O-line buff Cris Collinsworth in his nationally televised first-string debut and started six more games. The 2019 third-rounder started zero in 2020, however. Evans will be counted on for a Rams team positioned as a Super Bowl threat in a suddenly thin NFC.
Going into their 2020 training camp, the Titans rostered Malcolm Butler, Adoree' Jackson, and 15-year veteran Johnathan Joseph. Tennessee has since cut all three, and offseason signing Kevin Johnson retired. Although Janoris Jenkins will play a stopgap role, he will be 33 this year. The Titans, who took a gamble on injury risk Caleb Farley in Round 1, need Fulton to be a starter. A knee injury limited Fulton to six games as a rookie, however. With 2020 first-rounder Isaiah Wilson a historic bust, the Titans need last year's second-rounder to pan out to salvage last year's draft class.
In cap hell, the Falcons are moving Gage from WR3 to WR2. They dealt Julio Jones to the Titans, freeing up money to help them sign draft picks. Gage will benefit from the sobering conclusion to Jones' Atlanta run. A sixth-round pick, Gage delivered a quiet 786 yards last season and is set to become Matt Ryan's second or third target in 2021. Gage-Calvin Ridley-Kyle Pitts sounds worse than Jones-Ridley-Pitts -- the team's would-be trio for a fleeting late-spring moment -- but the LSU product has sneaky 1,000-yard potential in Arthur Smith's offense. A big opportunity in a contract year.
Busy at running back in 2020, the Dolphins stood pat for the most part this year. Gaskin outlasted acquisitions Jordan Howard and Matt Breida, beating them out for work easily, and he is in line to retain his job despite the Dolphins being heavily linked to running backs in the draft. Had the Broncos not traded up to No. 35 -- one spot in front of the Dolphins -- Javonte Williams likely becomes Miami's long-term running back, but Gaskin instead should have a firm grip on the team's RB1 role. Longtime Todd Gurley backup Malcolm Brown is in line to supplement Miami's seventh-round success story.
Although the NFL has suspended Gregory four times, the 2015 second-round pick remains with the Cowboys. Despite Gregory's unreliability, the Cowboys appear prepared to let him become a first-time starter. The Cowboys let fellow suspension mainstay Aldon Smith walk, and despite the team hiring a new defensive coordinator (Dan Quinn), Gregory has the inside track to start opposite DeMarcus Lawrence. Gregory, 28, has started one game as a pro. He notched 3.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and 12 QB hits in 10 games last season. A historically odd second act may be coming.
The Jets have delivered extreme fiscal conservatism at corner in recent years, veering wildly after big-ticket Darrelle Revis and Trumaine Johnson signings bombed. Their 2021 approach pushed that strategy to an expected place. The team stood down in free agency and did not use a first- or second-day pick on a corner, leaving a host of Day 3 choices to vie for jobs on Robert Saleh's first Gang Green defense. Enter Hall, a part-timer in 2020. An injury at Virginia dropped Hall to last year's fifth round, but he has impressed in Jets offseason work. The team's caution here points Hall to a big 2021 role.
Sammy Watkins proved predictably unreliable, but his exit strips the Chiefs of a possession receiver. Hardman does not fit the bill, but a tantalizing prospect of the Chiefs deploying one of the fastest receiving tandems in NFL history on a full-time basis is on the table. A raw prospect, Hardman has not shown enough consistency. He has played 45% of Kansas City's offensive snaps in each of his two seasons; the Chiefs will have no choice but to increase his usage. A third-year breakout from Tyreek Hill's sidekick would unlock another dimension within this elite pass offense.
The Giants appeared to place trust in Hernandez, a 2018 second-round pick who began his career with 39 straight starts. But after Hernandez contracted COVID-19 last year, Shane Lemieux replaced him in the lineup. However, the Giants cut their best offensive lineman -- right guard Kevin Zeitler -- to make room for splashy free agent signings and did not draft an O-lineman. This will cue up Hernandez's entrance music. In a contract year, he will be a starter again. A big check could await. As ex-Giants Justin Pugh and Weston Richburg showed, average O-linemen cash in annually on the market.
Their receiver-development acumen generates more publicity, but the Steelers have done well to find capable edge rushers. The team has found supplementary sack artists to team with All-Pros James Harrison and T.J. Watt, with LaMarr Woodley, Jason Worilds, and Bud Dupree producing for extended stretches. The Steelers need Highsmith to become the latest sidekick rush man. The third-round pick recorded 15 sacks as a senior at Charlotte and flashed after Dupree's late-season injury. With Dupree now in Tennessee, Highsmith will be ticketed to start opposite Watt.
The Eagles' decisions to sign Joe Flacco and trade down from No. 6 will give Hurts a once-unexpected chance. The former Heisman finalist was inconsistent as a rookie, but he is believed to have owner Jeffrey Lurie's support after the team's Carson Wentz situation rapidly devolved. The dual-threat quarterback must learn a new system, and he has an unproven cast of wide receivers. Hurts figures to have one year to prove himself, because if Wentz stays healthy in Indianapolis, the Eagles will have three 2022 first-round picks.
One of the biggest winners this offseason, James is the favorite to replace Rodney Hudson at center in Las Vegas. The Raiders traded away their most consistent player -- a three-time Pro Bowler and O-line anchor -- to the Cardinals and gave James a three-year, $12.5 million extension. Kolton Miller's teammate at UCLA, James has all of 116 offensive snaps as a pro. But the Raiders, despite signing ex-Texans center Nick Martin, have offered steady praise for the former undrafted snapper. James' rise will be an interesting transition to observe, with the Raiders having made big changes up front.
When faced with the prospect of multiple defensive line losses in free agency last year, the Broncos traded for Jurrell Casey and re-signed Shelby Harris. Both started in Week 1. But Casey's season-ending injury led him out of Denver. This year, the Broncos gave Harris a long-term deal but left the other defensive end spot alone. This gives Jones, Casey's primary 2020 fill-in, the green light to be a full-time starter for the first time. The ex-third-round pick posted 6.5 sacks last season and has progressed in Vic Fangio's defense. With Von Miller back, Jones should have additional disruption opportunities in 2021.
With Brandon Staley's defense the new reality in Costa Mesa, Calif., Nwosu may be set for a seminal season. The Chargers have said goodbye to nine-year edge rusher Melvin Ingram, leaving part-timer Nwosu set to team with Joey Bosa on the edge in Staley's 3-4 defense. A smaller edge player, Nwosu profiles as a better fit as an outside 'backer. He has never topped a 37% snap rate in his three pro seasons, but with Bosa signed to a defender-record $27 million-per-year deal, the Bolts cannot spend much to replace Ingram. It should be on Nwosu -- a former second-round pick -- to seize the job.
Still known best for being the subject of Pat McAfee's showstopping draft-pick reveal , Okereke has a great chance to become a three-down linebacker in his third season. The former third-round pick has started frequently (16 games in two seasons), but the Colts primarily used Anthony Walker alongside Darius Leonard in sub-packages. Walker signed with the Browns, leaving Okereke set for a responsibility bump. Okereke rated as a top-10 linebacker, per Pro Football Focus, as a rookie. The 2021 season will be pivotal for the Stanford alum's NFL trajectory.
Shenault led the 2020 Jaguars in receptions, with 58, and did so despite playing just 56% of the team's offensive snaps. The Jags' receiving corps no longer includes Keelan Cole, Dede Westbrook, or Chris Conley. While Marvin Jones will join Shenault, the 2020 second-round pick is in line for a major opportunity in Urban Meyer's offense. Shenault entered the NFL after an injury-plagued final season at Colorado, but after avoiding notable injuries as a rookie, the 227-pound target will be in a better position to stand out in his second pro season. He could be the aerial centerpiece for Trevor Lawrence.
In 2019, the Vikings made the unexpected move of drafting a tight end in the second round and then signing their longtime incumbent to a high-end extension. Two years later, they cut Kyle Rudolph to open the door wide for Smith to become Kirk Cousins' No. 3 option. The Alabama product played 50% of Minnesota's offensive snaps last season and scored five touchdowns. The second-generation NFLer is still just 22. Smith will offer an elusiveness upgrade on Rudolph, providing more speed over the middle to complement Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson.
After splurging on Emmanuel Sanders in 2020, the Saints pivoted back to their usual WR2 apathy in 2021. Taysom Hill and/or Jameis Winston look to have a less imposing skill-position group to target, but Smith does have experience as an auxiliary wideout. The Saints will need him more this season. The former third-round pick has disappointed deep-league fantasy GMs and battled injuries, but he has shown flashes -- last year's three-catch, 85-yard, two-TD playoff loss a bright one -- that keep giving him chances. With Sanders in Buffalo and Jared Cook gone, the Saints almost have to turn back to Smith.
After letting longtime slot cornerback Mike Hilton defect to the Bengals and then cutting Steven Nelson, the Steelers are in transition at corner. But they did extend Sutton, a role player over the past four seasons. Sutton's snap rate climbed from 25% in 2019 to 53% in 2020. He will likely be close to a full-time player this season, alongside aging Pro Bowler Joe Haden. A six-game starter in 2020, Sutton forced three fumbles; PFF gave the ex-third-rounder a top-30 grade. He will be counted on to help the Steelers remain a top-tier defense.
Jared Cook and longtime No. 2 tight end Josh Hill are gone. The player the Saints traded four picks for last year has a smooth path to being the No. 1 tight end in New Orleans' initial post-Drew Brees offense. After catching 15 passes in a developmental rookie season, Trautman should see a tremendous workload increase. Sean Payton clearly saw something in the 6-foot-5 Dayton prospect, who led his Division I-FCS team in receiving (916 yards) in 2019. With the Saints again lacking a proven No. 2 wideout, there may be pressure on Trautman to produce quickly.
Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.