NFL Teams Facing Make-or-Break Seasons in 2021
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Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
This season is the end of the road for some NFL teams.
For would-be contenders with an all-in approach to roster building, the bills come due at some point. Straddling the salary cap is only viable for so long, and the core pieces of the contention push won’t remain young forever.
Likewise, for rebuilders, the leash is only so long before the results-oriented league demands a fresh start if progress isn’t clear. For some teams—like Cleveland with Freddie Kitchens after 2019—a new staff has just one year to get it done.
Below, let’s look at the teams facing the most critical make-or-break seasons in 2021 based on roster maneuverings and cap outlooks. The contenders might have to blow it up after this season if they fall short, and at least one rebuilder will likely have to reset again if progress isn’t clear.
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Matt York/Associated Press
The Arizona Cardinals might be the best possible example of this idea.
Just ask wideout Christian Kirk, who recently said the following on Good Morning Football, according to NFL.com’s Kevin Patra: “I think it’s now or never for us. That’s the attitude in the locker room. We finally feel like we have all the pieces to put it together and really make a push for the playoffs and for a championship.”
Indeed. The Cardinals signaled their all-in status this offseason by inking heavyweight free agents J.J. Watt, Malcolm Butler and A.J. Green, plus trading for Rodney Hudson to upgrade the line in front of Kyler Murray.
The damage? The Cardinals have roughly $11 million in cap space left. In the brutal NFC West, they are still seeking their first finish above .500 since 2015.
Even without the big spending that signals a clear push going into Murray’s third season, the clock continues to tick on the Kliff Kingsbury era. Over two seasons, he’s gone 13-18-1. If things don’t trend above the .500 mark, the Cardinals could be looking at resetting the coaching staff around Murray, never mind wiggling out of some of the big contracts.
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Aaron Doster/Associated Press
This has the feel of being it for the Zac Taylor era in Cincinnati.
A relative unknown in the head-coaching hunt before the Bengals made him the guy in 2019, Taylor has gone 6-25-1 over two seasons. The task was immense; rebuilding after a Marvin Lewis era that lasted nearly two decades was never going to be easy, and the injury bug hasn’t been kind.
But the normally conservative Bengals have done whatever Taylor desires to reset the roster, including the departure of modern franchise greats like Carlos Dunlap. The team gave two players (Trae Waynes, D.J. Reader) north of $40 million each in 2020 free agency, then gave defensive end Trey Hendrickson $60 million this offseason.
Taylor and Co. also backed into a possible generational passer with Joe Burrow at No. 1 in 2020, only for the team’s biggest weakness of the last five years to result in Burrow’s season-ending injury. Cincinnati has since switched offensive line coaches and used a top-five pick on flashy weapon Ja’Marr Chase for Taylor’s offense.
In short, excuses are running out, and results need to start coming. The Bengals have retooled the roster in dramatic fashion to suit Taylor and his staff’s wants, including a messy schematic overhaul of the defense. If the team can’t crack .500 for the first time since 2015, it’s probably time for another blowup.
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Brynn Anderson/Associated Press
The New Orleans Saints attempted to stop the bleeding in the wake of Drew Brees’ retirement by bringing back Jameis Winston to start around a win-now core meant for the future Hall of Famer.
If only things were so simple.
Not that Winston can’t get it done. He was the 2015 No. 1 overall pick and is still just 27 years old. In 2019, he threw for a league-leading 5,109 yards in addition to 33 touchdowns and 30 interceptions. Improve the latter number, and the Saints could be in business thanks to a talented cast that includes Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara.
But if not? The Saints only have about $11.9 million in free cap space and a negative projected balance for 2022. Messy contracts like the one belonging to Thomas, who has a cap hit of at least $24 million through 2024 if the Saints don’t use the post-2021 out built into his contract, might go on the chopping block.
In short, much hinges on Winston, never mind the coaching staff’s apparent affinity for Taysom Hill, the soon-to-be 31-year-old passer with 134 career attempts and the team’s fifth-highest cap hit this year. If the string of double-digit-win seasons doesn’t stretch to five in 2021, New Orleans probably has to think about drafting a passer as high as possible in the near future, which would mean blowing up the rest to start a rebuild.
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Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
The clock on Big Ben continues to tick.
Now 39 and working with a surgically repaired throwing elbow, Ben Roethlisberger is in what appears to be his final year with the Pittsburgh Steelers. It doesn’t help that last year a win-now core went a fluky 11-0 to start the season before finishing 1-4 down the stretch. The final game was a brutal loss to the Cleveland Browns in the playoffs.
From that vantage point, things already seem to be declining. The Steelers lost franchise linebacker Bud Dupree in free agency and cut offensive line mainstay David DeCastro, so one could argue Big Ben might have to do more of the heavy lifting than usual.
Should Roethlisberger falter, the Steelers are positioned to have about $76 million in free cap space in 2022. That’s prime rebuild territory if the franchise quarterback doesn’t return and assets like JuJu Smith-Schuster choose to play elsewhere in free agency.
Granted, much will hinge on draft positioning and whether the front office truly feels Mason Rudolph can be the long-term answer under center. Either way, this looks like the swan song of the Big Ben era.
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LM Otero/Associated Press
The Dallas Cowboys don’t have a quarterback issue by any stretch thanks to Dak Prescott’s elite ability. Plus, he’s only going into his age-28 season.
But the way Dallas dragged its feet on an extension for Prescott has put the franchise in a financial bind once paired with the other cap decisions in recent years. He carries the team’s second-highest cap hit in 2021 ($22 million), tied with Amari Cooper and second only to DeMarcus Lawrence ($25 million). This, for a team that has just $5 million in cap space and is a projected $23 million over the cap in 2022.
And that’s just the financial aspect. The first season under Mike McCarthy was a bust at 6-10, the team’s worst record since 2015. Prescott’s season-ending injury didn’t help, but neither did an overly complicated scheme that resulted in a miserable defense that had even mainstays like linebacker Jaylon Smith underperforming.
While the Cowboys had previously been content to hold on to someone like Jason Garrett for longer than they probably should have, another failure to crack .500 given the team’s contend-now payroll could cause the patience factor to evaporate.
Regardless, the Cowboys have a cap reckoning coming. After two seasons without a playoff appearance, a third could spell disaster in Dallas.
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