With the NCAA Tournament returning after a one-year hiatus and in full swing, Spring Training returning after it was abruptly halted last year in MLB due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the NBA season approaching the playoffs, the NFL has had to compete for attention more than it would during a normal offseason.
But make no mistake, the league is making news of its own, including the number of games each team will play next season. The NFL was the only major professional sports league to fit a full season in last season during the pandemic. This year, they’re going one step further by exploring expanding the schedule to 17 games, the league announced this week.
The NFL Draft is also rapidly approaching, and in an effort to land a franchise quarterback, the 49ers made an aggressive move to get to the No. 3 spot, trading up from No. 12 with Miami. The Dolphins then traded up from 12 to No. 6 with Philadelphia. The 49ers giving up a first and third round pick next year and a first round pick the following year to do it, but the reward will be high if it works out as they would be guaranteed to be able to draft one of three potential first round quarterbacks at that spot.
Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence is the consensus first pick in the draft. Ohio State’s Justin Fields and BYU’s Zach Wilson are the next two top prospects at the position, with some debate as to which one the New York Jets may take at No. 2. Most mock drafts have Wilson going to the Jets, which would all the 49ers to draft Fields.
They also have a quarterback once thought to be a franchise player on their roster in Jimmy Garoppolo. The 49ers have said they plan to keep Garoppolo even if they draft a quarterback, but there would be no shortage of teams that try to pry him away, including his former team, the quarterback-needy New England Patriots.
With a healthy defense, the 49ers could be Super Bowl contenders next season. It would be interesting to watch how they integrate a rookie quarterback into a lineup that has championship aspirations.
NFL free agency has also changed the landscape and created new contenders. Here’s a look at five of the biggest moves so far.
Dallas Cowboys re-sign Dak Prescott
The Cowboys had issues last season, but it’s hard to imagine them not winning the terrible NFC East last season had Prescott not gone down with a season-ending injury early in the season.
Prescott was completing 68 percent of his passes with 9 touchdowns and 4 interceptions when he was injured. The team’s quarterback play fell off a cliff with him out of the lineup.
Dallas made re-signing him a priority in the offseason. The Cowboys also have defensive issues they need to fix, but their offense should put them right at the top of the division standings next season with the running game led by Ezekiel Elliott and a talented group of receivers that Prescott can work with.
Cleveland Browns sign John Johnson III
The opportunistic Browns made the playoffs last season, despite dealing with injuries to key players. The offense improved, but their defense was inconsistent. It gets much better with the addition of Johnson, a former Rams safety.
Johnson’s ability to cover receivers and also help stop the run will make him an immediate impact player on the defense. He’s had eight interceptions in his career and should help at multiple spots on the field. Plus, he’s used to playing with a dominant pass rusher like Myles Garrett after playing alongside Aaron Donald in Los Angeles. They should complement each other well.
The Browns also added Troy Hill at corner and upgraded their linebacker, defensive tackle, and defensive end positions. If the defense improves even marginally, the Browns should improve on last season’s playoff appearance.
Kansas City Chiefs sign Kyle Long
Long took last season off from football to rest the many injuries he sustained in his career, but the former All-Pro came back and signed with Kansas City this season.
The Chiefs have to protect quarterback Patrick Mahomes at all costs. Mahomes was running for his life in the Super Bowl and had hardly any time to throw against a ferocious and aggressive Tampa Bay front seven.
More improvements are needed on the offensive line to address those issues, but Long’s signing will go a long way toward keeping Mahomes upright.
New York Giants sign Kenny Golladay
Golladay only played in five games last season for Detroit, but when he’s healthy, he’s one of the best receivers in football. He is among the best in the game at contested catches and was a huge asset to Matthew Stafford in Detroit because of his ability to go up in traffic and make catches.
With Saquan Barkley healthy and quarterback Daniel Jones entering year three, Jones has legitimate weapons around him and the Giants should be a favorite to make a move toward the top of the up-for-grabs NFC East standings.
New England Patriots sign two tight ends
At their peak, the Patriots’ offense has always had two capable pass-catching tight ends. They made moves in free agency to bring that dimension back, signing Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, who were considered the top two tight ends available.
Of course, those other versions of their offense had Tom Brady throwing to the tight ends. New England still has to figure out that part of the equation.