It took Tom Brady leaving the AFC and the New England Patriots to shift the balance of power toward the NFC -- joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and leading them to their first Super Bowl win since 2002. Even more impressive is seeing him do it in his first year in Tampa, but he's not the greatest of all-time simply because he has great hair. And as the Buccaneers attempt to reload with Brady on a potential multi-year deal, it stands to reason the NFC is still the conference to beat, and that's saying a lot when considering just how dominant the the AFC is under the iron fist of Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, along with others like the Buffalo Bills and Josh Allen, the Baltimore Ravens and Lamar Jackson, and now Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns.
There's a way the NFC can make sure it keeps its opposing conference at bay going forward, though, and not simply by hoping Brady plays until 2078. Given how much talent is entering the offseason this year, and with teams having to be more creative in spending due to a $182.5 million salary cap, you can expect some interesting acquisitions and accompanying contracts, with several big names being perfect fits for what's going on in the NFC.
If the moves listed below happen, the AFC better pray for rain -- even with Mahomes and the other aforementioned QBs in tow.
[Note: This is specific to players who could be acquired from other teams. All market values, if available, are via Spotrac.]
Chicago Bears - Russell Wilson, QB (Trade)
Most recent (current) team: Seahawks
Market value (annual): $46.4 million
The longer this situation draws out, the more it feels like what once seemed impossible becomes anything but. Wilson's agent listed the Cowboys, Raiders, Saints and Bears as the only four teams he's waive his no-trade clause to play for, but the Bears are the only ones truly set to make a passionate run at him. It's now been reported that's exactly what Chicago plans to do -- or has already begun doing -- hoping to pry him away from the Seahawks in exchange for what would have to be a blockbuster haul. As with the other NFC teams on this list, the Bears have more than one need to resolve this offseason, but none of those voids are as cavernous as the one that exists at quarterback. Until that's fixed, it may not matter what else they patch up, and Wilson is the answer they both desperately want and need.
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Green Bay Packers - Patrick Peterson, CB
Most recent team: Cardinals
Market value (annual): $10.4 million
How's this for a free agency splash in Green Bay? The Packers need to seriously consider adding the future Hall of Famer to the mix and whatever they need to do to make cap room for him -- do it. Peterson is still playing at an elite level and might even be amicable to following the Charles Woodson (remember him?) career arc beginning potentially as early as 2022, one that would see him move to safety as his career continues. For now, however, he has what the Packers need as both a player and a leader, to say the least. Peterson showed no signs of slowing down in 2020 and would be an instant impact in the secondary, a unit that lacks terrifying cornerbacks and if they want to get Aaron Rodgers another Super Bowl ring before he eventually retires, it's time to break out the whooping stick in free agency to get the one or two pieces needed to get over that hump.
Detroit Lions - Bud Dupree, LB
Most recent team: Steelers
Market value (annual): $18.2 million
Want to take the defense to another level in Detroit? Well, give Dupree a call. The Steelers opted to not franchise tag the talented pass rusher as he works to recover from a torn ACL suffered in 2020, but Dupree assures teams he'll be ready for training camp in July and the Steelers are still talks in trying to keep him in Pittsburgh. The latter is all well and good, but the fact he's on the open market now means he gets to make his own decision, and the Lions need to sweeten an offer and get him onboard. When healthy, Dupree is a force and provided he has a dynamic complement, would be a massive add to the rebuilding Lions -- a team tasked with stopping Kirk Cousins, Aaron Rodgers and potentially Russell Wilson going forward. Now is not the time to overthink this. Figure out how to clear the cap space to make this happen.
Minnesota Vikings - Jon Feliciano, G
Most recent team: Bills
Market value (annual): $8.3 million
Kirk Cousins isn't going anywhere, folks. And with that being the case, it'll be paramount to protect him going forward, which is something Scherff would do well. The Vikings have running back Dalvin Cook locked up and one of the better receiving corps in football, but Minnesota has to cringe when realizing Cousins was sacked 39 times in 2020 -- only eight fewer than the regularly bullied Russell Wilson. It made a ton of sense for Washington to do what they can to avoid seeing Brandon Scherff walk out of the door, hitting him with a franchise tag, but take heart Minnesota, because Feliciano is capable as well. Fresh off of an AFC championship appearance as one of the protectors of Josh Allen, the Vikings could definitely do worse than to make him an offer.
Dallas Cowboys - Keanu Neal, S
Most recent team: Falcons
Market value (annual): N/A
Getting a deal done with Dak Prescott is not only key for the obvious reasons, but also for the less obvious ones, i.e., their ability or inability to make moves in free agency. Assuming they remain in their current cap crunch with a $37.7 million franchise tag chained to their ankle, it'll be about trying to find high potential, value talent at positions of need, and Neal is definitely that. Still young by NFL standards, his career has been marred by durability issues but, when healthy, he's one of the better up-and-coming safeties in the league. The injury bug wasn't a thing for him in 2020, or at least not to a major degree, and his pre-existing relationship with both Dan Quinn and Joe Whitt, Jr. -- who are now both in Dallas -- makes for an straightforward conversation and plug-and-play opportunity beside Donovan Wilson, who had a breakout season last year in moving between both free and strong roles. The jury is out on what'll happen in free agency with Xavier Woods, but even if he's retained, attempting to convince Neal to take a bit less to reunite with Quinn has been in the plans since January.
New York Giants - Shaquil Barrett, EDGE
Most recent team: Buccaneers
Market value (annual): $19.7 million
There's still much to be figured out when it comes to Leonard Williams, but what the Giants already know is they can't afford to lose more pass rush talent, and especially when they need to try and add someone to make their defensive line more robust. Enter Barrett, an absolute monster for the Buccaneers, who is coming off of a franchise tag and a Super Bowl win -- now looking to cash in BIG in free agency and lacking another tag (given to receiver Chris Godwin). And while one of the keys to the success of Daniel Jones will be what happens on the offensive side of the ball, it's the defense's ability to prevent Jones from having to shoot it out with teams that will go a long way as well. Having logged a monstrous 27.5 sacks over his last two seasons, Barrett would be a defensive force not seen in a Giants uniform in a long time, and he's worth every shilling they can figure out how to throw his way.
Washington Football Team - Jameis Winston, QB
Most recent team: Saints
Market value (annual): N/A
Taylor Heinicke might reach full potential in 2021, or he might play understudy for one more year under a veteran. Assuming the latter is the case, potentially fueled by Washington not being in position to land their future at the position by way of the NFL draft, there will be veteran options for them to choose from. They could look toward someone like Andy Dalton or Ryan Fitzpatrick, but it feels like Winston is ready to reassert himself as a starter in the NFL, which is one reason the Saints are all over him for a potential return in the event Drew Brees does retire, eventually. Winston has his warts, yes, but he also has a cannon for an arm and that would marry well the wideout Terry McLaurin. If he's learned how to cut down on his turnovers, along with anything else he might've absorbed from sitting behind a Hall of Famer for a year, he could be an intriguing grab for Washington.
Philadelphia Eagles - Bashaud Breeland, CB
Most recent team: Chiefs
Market value (annual): N/A
One thing the Eagles can't count on is being big spenders in free agency this offseason. They started the calendar year deep in the salary cap red and, as such, will have to continue making moves to get in compliance. That said, when they do begin shopping, it'll have to be in Tier B as opposed to big names like Patrick Peterson, especially considering they both traded for and then locked up Darius Slay on hefty deal one year ago. The name of the game now is to get Slay some help, any help, and pronto. Otherwise, he'll continue being on an island with no worthy safety assistance (another position of priority for the Eagles). Breeland brings both a veteran presence and some Super Bowl-winning advice to a Philadelphia locker room that might've forgotten what it feels like. Having also spent several seasons in Washington to begin his NFL career, Breeland is quite familiar with the NFC East and the Eagles are quite familiar with him, and his four interceptions and 17 pass deflections over the last two years makes him a strong value add.
Atlanta Falcons - Aaron Jones, RB
Most recent team: Packers
Market value (annual): $14.6 million
They're (wisely) sticking with Matt Ryan as quarterback in Atlanta, and I say wisely because while he's not playing at the MVP level he once did, I'm of the belief he can lead the team deep into the playoffs if he has the appropriate weapons around him. The club attempted to put a dynamic player behind him when they signed Todd Gurley on a one-year deal in 2020 but, while serviceable overall, Gurley didn't regain top form that once made him the best dual-threat back in the league. That said, with the Packers making the decision (read: mistake) of allowing Jones to hit the open market by not tagging him, the Falcons have a shot at swooping in and convincing him that if he loved being in an offense that featured a top-tier QB and one of the best wideouts in the game, how's about joining a QB who's also been to the Super Bowl and a first-ballot Hall of Fame receiver in Julio Jones, along with Russell Gage, Calvin Ridley and tight end Hayden Hurst? If you're Jones, and the Falcons can get the money together for it, this is as tantalizing as it gets.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Richard Sherman, CB
Most recent team: 49ers
Market value (annual): $9.9 million
Sherman is no longer at the pinnacle of his career, but he wants to play two more years and still has tread left on his tires. And in the final two seasons, you can bet he wants a shot at landing a second Super Bowl ring. It would be a perfect fit for him in Tampa in that regard, but also in the fact they need some assistance at the cornerback position. Yes, it's tough to fathom a defense as stout as the one the Buccaneers own has any flaws, but adding Sherman as a stopgap to give them time to locate a more permanent fix to complement Carlton Davis would simply be smart money. And if you want to give him a shot at also taking some snaps in the safety rotation, you could increase the value of the signing. Durability is an obvious question mark here, but hence why he'd be a stopgap and not the endgame. Lastly, outside of Brady himself, you'd be hard-pressed to find a higher football IQ to add to an NFL locker room.
New Orleans Saints - Teddy Bridgewater, QB (Trade)
Most recent (current) team: Panthers
Market value (annual): N/A
It's no secret the Panthers are looking to move on from Bridgewater, mostly because the team expected more than what they got in Year 1 of his contract. They reportedly have eyes on Deshaun Watson, and in a major way, but there's a chance they bring in a new quarterback even if they can't pry Watson again from the stubborn Texans. That begs the question of where Bridgewater would land next, still a capable starter who would help an NFL team win games. A perfect move would be for him to return to the Saints, a team that helped him land the deal with the Panthers in the first place, having seen him play well in the absence of an injured Brees. He's already familiar with both the organization and offensive scheme in New Orleans, so if Brees does retire and they lose Winston to a team like the Washington Football Team (see above), reuniting with Bridgewater has to be the next box on their checklist.
Carolina Panthers - Deshaun Watson, QB (Trade)
Most recent (current) team: Texans
Market value (annual): N/A
Speaking of Watson, it remains to be seen if the Texans will wise up and realize the chances of him ever putting their jersey again are next to zero. If they do, however, several teams will fall all over themselves to add his to their roster. The Panthers are one such club, and atop the list of those ready to risk it all for his services, other contenders in the race including the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets. It appears head coach Matt Rhule isn't in the mood to repeat the struggles of Year 1 in his second with the team, and new general manager Scott Fitterer wants to tie this inaugural season to something big -- massive even. It wouldn't get any bigger than landing Watson, even if it'll require mortgaging the future to strike a deal. There are other areas that must be repaired as well, but in the NFL, teams live and die by their QB. Live by this one, or risk continuing to die without him, because draft picks aren't proven; but Watson's talent as a pro most certainly is.
Seattle Seahawks - Joe Thuney, G
Most recent team: Patriots
Market value (annual): $15.3 million
Hey Seattle, it's probably easier to simply appease your future Hall of Fame quarterback than it is to ship him out of town and face a complete organizational reboot. Assuming logical and cooler heads prevail in the rift betwixt Wilson and the Seahawks, the name of the game will be (finally) protecting him going forward. The Patriots opted not to apply the franchise tag to Thuney, and that makes him the best available player at the position this offseason, with Scherff having been locked down by Washington. Signing Thuney would go a long way in showing Wilson you are listening to him and want to extend his NFL career, because allowing him to continue being one of the most pressured and sacked quarterbacks in the league won't cut it. A two-time Super Bowl winner and All-Pro offensive lineman, if the Seahawks haven't placed this call yet, the question is what are they waiting for?
Los Angeles Rams - Will Fuller, WR
Most recent team: Texans
Market value (annual): $16.9 million
Fuller had quite a ride with the Texans in his contract year, having been placed on the trade block -- a move that ruffled his feathers in a big way, along with Watson's -- and he finished the year on NFL suspension. At one point, Watson was lobbying to see Fuller re-signed in Houston, but the QB now wants out and so Fuller likely has little to no interest in returning to a team that doesn't have him or future first ballot Hall of Fame pass rusher J.J. Watt. The Rams could be a ready-made home for him, seeing as he'd provide them an impact talent that can stretch the field for the incoming Matthew Stafford, who has a big arm and isn't afraid to use it. Fuller reeled in 879 receiving yards and eight touchdowns last season despite missing five games, and a trio that features Fuller, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp would be formidable -- along with what tight end Tyler Higbee and wideout Josh Reynolds add to the mix. And thanks to the timing of his recent run in with the league, his price might drop a bit.
Arizona Cardinals - Nick Martin, C
Most recent team: Texans
Market value (annual): N/A
There's another quarterback in the NFC West who'd like to stop running for his life, and his name is Kyler Murray. While Murray can make game-breaking plays with his legs, he and the Cardinals would prefer they be scripted and not incessantly a product of improvisation, so strengthening the offensive line is paramount in the desert. Martin is a ready-made solution for what ails them, providing a powerful anchor to the middle of the o-line, and I'm of the opinion he'd be named starter on Day One. The former second-round pick is also disciplined in his craft, having logged just two false starts in his career -- only 13 penalties on the whole. The Texans released him, but that's not as much a knock to Martin as it is the Texans being ... well ... the Texans. Their loss can be the Cardinals gain. It sure wouldn't be the first time. Just ask DeAndre Hopkins and J.J. Watt. Get the band back together, Arizona.
San Francisco 49ers - Michael Davis, CB
Most recent team: Chargers
Market value (annual): N/A
Make no mistake about it, the 49ers need a lot of help in their secondary. The club is facing several losses in their secondary in free agency, making it a no-brainer for them to pursue Davis, who'd have a short drive and an even shorter flight to relocate from LA to The Bay. Davis isn't the most decorated DB around, but he's grabbed five interceptions in his last two seasons to go along with a defensive touchdown and 103 combined tackles since 2019. He's come into his own as an NFL starter and if you're the Chargers -- a team that routinely saw its defense put quarterback Justin Herbert in bad spots -- you have to know the road back to the top of the NFC West begins with being able to stop opposing receivers from routinely having their way. It's an uber-competitive division fueled as much by a team's defensive prowess as their QB play, and the 49ers are looking to regain their swagger as one of the best defenses in the entire league, so give Davis and call and take one step closer to making that happen.