The 2021 NFL playoffs featured constant drama from the Divisional Round to the Super Bowl, with the league’s premier quarterbacks shining in tightly-contested games across the board, and the 2022 offseason has only built on that momentum.
Deshaun Watson has been in limbo for most of the past year, but the latest development in his off-field saga appears to clear the way for the Texans to trade the former face of their franchise. Of course, it is the 2022 NFL offseason, so the Watson news was not the biggest development of the weekend, as Tom Brady announced on Sunday that he will return to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Brady’s return dramatically shifts the landscape of the NFC South and the NFL as a whole; he may be approaching 45 on paper, but the David Sinclairs of the world will tell you that aging in reverse is a very real possibility, and Brady hasn’t shown an on-field decline, so it seems reasonable to expect more brilliance in 2022. This article looks at the NFL landscape with Brady back, as well as Watson’s trade prospects. Division odds are from DraftKings and FanDuel.
The GOAT is Back
It would have been nice for this column if Brady didn’t decide to take a page out of Brett Favre’s playbook, as the prospects for the Atlanta Falcons, which The Professor liked a week ago, are decidedly worse now that Brady is back in the NFC South.
Brady’s return means that the likely talent exodus from Tampa Bay will be postponed. The Bucs had already put the franchise tag on receiver Chris Godwin, and the news on Brady was followed by a report that center Ryan Jensen had re-signed for three years and 39 million. Jensen, who is a tone-setter as well as one of the NFL’s best at his position, would have been a potential target for a team like the Cincinnati Bengals if the Bucs had gone into a rebuild, but that plan is out the window.
With Jensen re-signed, Tampa Bay faces key decisions on cornerback Carlton Davis and guard Alex Cappa. There are also veterans contributors to consider, such as running back Leonard Fournette, tight end Rob Gronkowski, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, and edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul, but that crew of mercenaries is more in the market for one-year deals, while Davis and Cappa are coming off their rookie deals and in line for longer-term deals.
Regardless of the details around him, Brady makes Tampa Bay a contender in 2022. DraftKings has Tampa Bay at -200 to win the NFC South (-220 FanDuel), which is tied with Buffalo for the shortest DraftKings odds on an NFL division, but the Bucs are a solid value at that price. Even if the Panthers or Saints acquire Deshaun Watson, there is a reasonable chance Watson will be suspended for at least part of the season, and it would be difficult to play catch up with a team as talented as Tampa Bay.
Watson Back in Play
There have already been more quarterback activity than any NFL offseason in memory, but with Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson back in play, and San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo set to be traded, there are more moves to come.
There are some who point to Houston’s 4-12 record the last time Watson played and question his ability, but that is a fairly shallow analysis of Watson’s talents. Matthew Stafford’s Super Bowl win with the Rams after a decade of failure in Detroit is the most recent example that quarterback play can only make up for so much; Watson was one of the league’s five best quarterbacks in 2020, even if the terrible roster around him resulted in a bad win-loss record.
In many situations, we could bet on Watson’s next team by betting on division odds for a team that could acquire him; for instance, Indianapolis is +140 to Tennessee’s +100 to win the AFC South on DraftKings, and a full season of Watson on the Colts roster would make them the favorite over the Titans. Unfortunately, Watson’s availability remains an unknown, and until we know how many of the 17 regular-season games he will be available for, the strategy of betting on a potential future team is far less viable.
Given Garoppolo’s shoulder situation, Watson will likely be the next domino to fall. One potential variable is Las Vegas quarterback Derek Carr; the Raiders have said they are committed to him as the 2022 starter, but until that commitment is matched with a contract extension like the one Kirk Cousins got from Minnesota, it seems premature to ink Carr in as the starter, particularly given how this NFL offseason has played out. Carr’s cap hit means the Raiders don’t have the same need to make this move, but unless they do, there will be some room for questions.
Amari Cooper Traded, Davante Adams Impasse, and Needle-Moving Free Agents
After weeks of rumours regarding receiver Amari Cooper, the Dallas Cowboys agreed to send the receiver and his 20 million dollar cap hit to the Cleveland Browns, who will hope that Cooper is a better fit in their offense than their last star receiver, Odell Beckham Jr.
With third-year wideout CeeDee Lamb more than capable of taking on lead receiver duties, the Cowboys’ offense can handle the loss of Cooper, but there is a lot of pressure on Michael Gallup, who signed a long-term extension after the news of Cooper trade, to successfully return from his torn ACL. If Gallup can complement Lamb as the number two in this offense, quarterback Dak Prescott will have enough weapons to work with, and the Cowboys could target another receiver in a deep draft class to round out their group, but the Cowobys might have prefered to move on from running back Ezekiel Elliott, who once again showed signs of wear after a strong start to 2021. Elliott’s contract situation prevented that move, and Cooper was the odd man out.
That move clears the way for Lamb to be the number one receiver in Dallas, which could move him into the first round of fantasy drafts, and Cooper’s fantasy stock could also go up, as he will have less competition for targets in Cleveland. The Cooper acquisition meant the end of Jarvis Landry’s tenure as a Brown, which is a good move in a vacuum, as Cooper should provide more value on his 20 million cap number than Landry does on his 16, but that could be a moot point if Cooper fails to connect with embattled quarterback Baker Mayfield, who needs a bounceback season after his dismal play in an injury-ridden 2021.
Another receiver whose future awaits resolution is Davante Adams, who has announced he will not play for the Packers on the franchise tag. It is the second time in recent years that Green Bay has been hurt by a recent bump in a positional market; they re-signed left tackle David Bakhtiari after the unique circumstances that had allowed Laremy Tunsil to force Houston into a contract that paid him 25% over the top contract on the market, a number Green Bay had to match to satisfy Bakhtiari, and now they have to negotiate with Adams off of the extension DeAndre Hopkins signed after his trade to the Cardinals.
Reports are that Adams’ camp wants to negotiate off of the average value of the extension, while Green Bay’s front office wants to work off the average value of Hopkins’ contract over his agreement with the Cardinals. Either would make Adams the highest-paid receiver in the NFL, but the Hopkins extension was two years and 54.5 million, which is considerably higher than the roughly 20 million franchise tag number. There are few skill players in the NFL as talented as Adams, and as quarterback Aaron Rodgers has not yet signed a contract, the Packers may want to get this situation resolved sooner than later. Green Bay took steps in that direction with a series of roster moves on Monday, but unless GM Brian Gutekunst has solid numbers inked in for Rodgers and Adams before Wednesday, the Packers could be handcuffed on pending free agents such as linebacker De’Vondre Campbell and cornerback Rasul Douglas.
The free-agent pool does not include a franchise quarterback, so the impact of acquisitions is largely team-dependent, but this class is highlighted by offensive linemen and defenders who could provide a significant boost to contenders. Left tackle Terron Armstead (NO) and guard Brandon Scherff (WSH) bring injury concerns, but are top-end talents when healthy, cornerbacks J.C. Jackson (NE) and Carlton Davis (TB) are number one corners hitting free agency in their mid-twenties, and veterans such as edge rushers Von Miller (LAR) and Chandler Jones (ARI), and safety Tyrann Mathieu (KC), are still performing at an elite level.
Two particularly intriguing teams are the Chargers and Bengals, who both have massive amounts of cap space around superstar quarterbacks entering their third seasons. The Chargers already acquired edge rusher Khalil Mack from the Bears, but still have room to go after a top cornerback to play across from Asante Samuel Jr., and the Bengals are a top candidate to bring in Armstead and/or Scherff. Despite the injury concerns, Scherff could be an outstanding fit; there aren’t many NFL players who can physically overwhelm opponents, but Scherff is one of them, and even if he misses a couple games, he could set the tone for an offensive line group that needs to make meaningful improvements in front of quarterback Joe Burrow. With Brady returning to Tampa Bay, quarterback play around the NFL should be at an all-time high, and moves made in free agency will significantly impact which signal-callers come out on top when we hit the 2022 NFL Playoffs.
This article examined the NFL landscape after the latest news. For more content from The Professor, check out his free agent analysis on BeerLife’s Discord channel, as well as the rest of his content on BeerLife Sports!
Steven Clinton, better known as "The Professor", is a former D-1 Quality Control Assistant (Northwestern, Toledo) who holds a B.A. in Economics and M.S. in Predictive Analytics from Northwestern University. He maintains an end-to-end NFL game projection model and is a film junkie who breaks down the tape of every NFL game.