NFL

Belichick set for rare spending spree, will veterans flock to Tampa? - The five teams to watch in free agency

By Sports Desk March 09, 2021

A month on from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' triumph in Super Bowl LV, teams across the NFL are preparing to make moves they hope will propel them towards glory.

This year's free agency period is unlikely to see a move as decisive as Tom Brady's decision to swap the New England Patriots for the Buccaneers.

However, with franchises dealing with a likely declining salary cap because of the impact of playing a season largely without fans, the chaos of the league's open market should still be fascinating to watch.

But which teams will be the most active when the NFL opens the window for teams to begin negotiating with free agents next Monday?

Here we look at those likeliest to be busy and the signings they could make.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Cap Space: $85.7million

From having the number one pick in the draft, which they will almost certainly use on Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, to having the most salary cap space in the league, the Jaguars are the franchise that holds the keys to the offseason.

New general manager Trent Baalke and first-time NFL head coach Urban Meyer have no shortage of needs to address following a one-win 2020 season.

Lawrence will require much-improved pass protection if he is to thrive and lead Jacksonville to contention. With that in mind, they should be in on the sweepstakes for All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams, who cannot be franchise-tagged by the San Francisco 49ers and is likely to command over $20m a year.

Given the money at their disposal, the Jags will be among the leading candidates to lure edge rusher Shaquil Barrett from the Buccaneers. He could form a formidable tandem with Jacksonville's 2019 first-round pick Josh Allen.

New York Jets

Cap Space: $72.4million

The Jets' offseason will be defined by whether they stick with Sam Darnold at quarterback or use their second overall pick to select one of the top four signal-callers in the draft class.

But beyond that pivotal decision, Jets GM Joe Douglas and Robert Saleh have an arduous task of turning one of the worst rosters in football into one primed to contend in the AFC.

Saleh may look to his old team, the 49ers, for whom he was defensive coordinator from 2017 to 2020, to build up his secondary in New York.

Richard Sherman could be tempted cross country to stay with Saleh, while slot cornerback K'Waun Williams is a New Jersey native who could offer the Jets a dependable presence familiar with the defense.

New England Patriots

Cap Space: $72.6million

Bill Belichick has rarely been one to spend big in his storied tenure as head coach and de-facto GM of the Patriots.

However, possessing a talent-poor roster and in danger of being left behind in the AFC East, this could be the year where he changes course, and Belichick has already made a significant move, bringing back offensive tackle Trent Brown in a trade with the Las Vegas Raiders.

New England must make a decision at quarterback after an unconvincing season from Cam Newton as Tom Brady's successor.

Regardless of who is under center, the Patriots will not compete if their quarterback does not have dynamic weapons among their pass-catchers.

Belichick has typically had a blindspot for wide receivers in the draft, so more experienced options with playmaking upside like Corey Davis and Marvin Jones could find a home in New England. Hunter Henry may also be a target if the Los Angeles Chargers decide not to pay the tight end who was franchise-tagged last year.

Indianapolis Colts

Cap Space: $50.5million

The Colts have the man they hope will be the answer at quarterback following Philip Rivers' retirement, backing Carson Wentz to rehabilitate his career under Frank Reich and acquiring him from the Philadelphia Eagles.

In terms of a support system, Wentz is heading into a team with a strong one in place, yet it could still be improved and the Colts have the wiggle room to be aggressive.

They may be an attractive destination for the aforementioned Williams, who would be an upgrade on the retired Anthony Castonzo at left tackle.

Veteran wide receiver T.Y. Hilton could leave in free agency and it would not be wise for the Colts to rely too heavily on Michael Pittman Jr at wideout despite a strong end to his rookie season.

As they look to maximise Wentz's chances of being successful, a move for a high-profile receiver like Allen Robinson could make a great deal of sense for a team looking to challenge the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Cap Space: $18.1million

The outlier here in terms of cap space but, having blown out the Chiefs in Super Bowl LV, the Buccaneers will surely not be short of players wanting to join them on short-term deals to link up with Brady and make another push for a Lombardi Trophy.

Tampa will be busy enough trying to hold on to as many in-house free agents as possible, but the Bucs will find intriguing potential temporary options in areas of need on the open market.

Reinforcements may well be required on the defensive line given the possibility of Barrett going elsewhere.

The Bucs have seen one veteran, Jason Pierre-Paul, thrive on the edge. Perhaps Justin Houston, who has 19 sacks over his last two seasons with the Colts, could be tempted by the chance to chase a ring in Tampa.

On the interior, the Buccaneers have a monstrous presence in Vita Vea, and their strength in that area could allow them to take a swing on a former first-rounder in Sheldon Rankins, who has seen his career with the New Orleans Saints stall because of injuries but had eight sacks back in 2018.

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  • Packers want Aaron Rodgers back 'in the worst way' – LaFleur Packers want Aaron Rodgers back 'in the worst way' – LaFleur

    The Green Bay Packers continue to make it clear they want star Aaron Rodgers to remain as their quarterback, despite reports the reigning NFL MVP is unhappy. 

    Rumours have swirled around Rodgers since reports on the first day of the NFL Draft claimed the QB wanted out of Green Bay after 16 seasons with the Packers.

    Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst has already said the team would not trade Rodgers and president and chief executive Mark Murphy reiterated Green Bay's commitment to Rodgers.

    Green Bay head coach Matt LaFleur echoed those sentiments as the Packers opened their rookie mini-camp on Friday.

    "I've got nothing new to update, and we still obviously feel the same way," LaFleur said of Rodgers' future.

    "We want him back in the worst way. I know he knows that, and we'll continue to work at it each and every day."

    Last season, Rodgers amassed 48 touchdowns, five interceptions and a completion rate of 70.7 per cent for the Packers – who lost to eventual Super Bowl champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Championship Game.

    Rodgers' quarterback rating of 121.5 puts him second on the all-time list among qualifiers, behind only his 2011 campaign (122.5).

    In total, Rodgers completed 372 of 526 attempts for 4,299 yards as the Packers topped the NFC North with a 13-3 record to clinch home-field advantage and the top seed in the NFC playoffs for the first time since 2011.

    Rodgers is level with Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Johnny Unitas and Jim Brown with three MVP honours – only Peyton Manning (five) has more in NFL history.

    The Packers begin organised team activities on May 24 and Rodgers is not expected to be present, pending a resolution in the meantime. 

    That leaves LaFleur and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett to work with the quarterbacks on hand: Rodgers' heir apparent Jordan Love and new signing Blake Bortles. 

    Bortles, who signed with the team on Thursday, previously worked with Hackett on the Jacksonville Jaguars from 2015-18. 

    "This is a guy that's started a lot of games and had a lot of success -- shoot, he led his team to the AFC Championship Game [in 2017], and they were close to knocking off the Patriots in New England," LaFleur said.

    "He's got a lot of experience, and that's something you can never take for granted."

    Love was the Packers' first-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft but did not play last season. 

    LaFleur deflected a question about whether he would use the off-season to prepare Love for a starting role in case Rodgers does not return, saying he expects every player on the team to have that mind-set.

    The Packers will open their season at the New Orleans Saints on September 12.

  • Laporte declares for Spain: What can the Man City man add to Luis Enrique's side? Laporte declares for Spain: What can the Man City man add to Luis Enrique's side?

    Aymeric Laporte is set to represent Spain at Euro 2020 after switching his allegiance from France.

    Manchester City centre-back Laporte has represented Les Bleus 51 times in total across the under-17 and under-21 age groups.

    However, the 26-year-old was never handed his senior debut, despite being called up three times by Didier Deschamps.

    Laporte came through the youth ranks at Athletic Bilbao and made 222 appearances for the Basque club until joining City in January 2018.

    He was granted Spanish citizenship earlier this week and FIFA has confirmed he can play for Spain with "immediate effect".

    A report by Marca earlier this week claimed Spain boss Luis Enrique lobbied the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) to look into the possibility of Laporte changing allegiance, so it feels safe to assume he will be a key part of the former Barcelona head coach's plans for Euro 2020.

    But how does Laporte compare to Spain's other options at centre-back?

    Regular game time

    Despite scoring the winner in last month's EFL Cup final against Tottenham and collecting a third Premier League title in four seasons at City, it has been a mixed campaign for Laporte on a personal level.

    He went into 2020-21 as Pep Guardiola's go-to centre-back but the arrival of Ruben Dias and John Stones' resurgence means he is no longer first choice at the Etihad Stadium.

    Nevertheless, the packed schedule undertaken across all competitions by the Champions League finalists means he has still played 27 games, starting 24 and completing 2,250 minutes.

    Of centre-backs used by Luis Enrique this season, that places Laporte third behind Villarreal's Pau Torres (41 games, 3,675 minutes) and Athletic's Inigo Martinez (32 games, 2,914).

    Sergio Ramos, who is now widely expected to have a new centre-back partner for La Roja, has been restricted to 21 games and 1,790 minutes by injuries this season, while Diego Llorente (14 games, 1,160) was compromised by a serious groin injury after joining Leeds United.

    One would-be international colleague Laporte knows very well is club team-mate Eric Garcia. The 20-year-old is set to leave City after declining to sign a new contract last term.

    While running down the clock to his anticipated move to Barcelona, Garcia has become a marginal figure in Manchester, despite Guardiola continuing to profess his admiration of his talents.

    His 10 appearances and eight starts amount to 693 minutes, not significantly more than 514 minutes across seven caps for Spain this season.

    Indeed, Luis Enrique started Garcia in all three of the March internationals, suggesting his lack of club action is not overly hindering his case.

    Keeping it tight in Manchester

    City's defensive improvements have been central to their success this season and, although no longer an automatic selection, Laporte has more than played his part.

    The 14 goals conceded with him on the field are just four more than Guardiola's side have let in amid Garcia's sporadic outings. Only Torres (13) has amassed more than his 12 clean sheets.

    Laporte ranks well across all of the key defensive metrics this season, with 18 tackles placing him level with Ramos and Torres.

    Martinez has made 24, while Marcelo Bielsa's famously intense style of play might be largely responsible for Llorente going into 31 tackles during his relatively smaller workload.

    Laporte's duel success rate of 63.7 per cent is the best of the bunch, with Martinez contesting and winning the most overall (263 and 149), while Torres is out in front in terms of recoveries (232).

    In the air and on the ground

    Standing at 6ft 3ins, Laporte will provide the kind of imposing presence Spain have perhaps lacked.

    He has contested 100 and won 69 aerials, similar numbers to the 103 and 62 returned by Torres, who is of similar stature. Martinez's 136 contested and 82 won again show the Athletic man getting through plenty of work.

    Perhaps Laporte's most celebrated quality is his capacity to start moves from the back via his superb left foot.

    Centre-backs completing a high proportion of their passes is not unusual, given the generally simple nature of them, but Laporte generally plays in a notably progressive manner.

    He has made 244 passes into the final third this season, more than any of the Spain centre-backs mentioned (Torres 240, Martinez 235), a trait that is sure to be welcomed by the attacking talents in Luis Enrique's squad.

  • Rudi can't fail - Rudiger's rise from Lampard outcast to Tuchel's defensive rock at Chelsea Rudi can't fail - Rudiger's rise from Lampard outcast to Tuchel's defensive rock at Chelsea

    Antonio Rudiger is no stranger to putting himself in difficult and painful situations for the cause, as evidenced by the defensive lynchpin of Thomas Tuchel's Chelsea revival sporting a protective face mask during matches over recent weeks.

    Nevertheless, even as a player who appears to relish a challenge and refuse to back down from a confrontation, Chelsea playing behind closed doors might have done Rudiger a favour earlier in the year.

    The Stamford Bridge faithful, for all the success lapped up during the Roman Abramovich era, are certainly not shy when it comes to voicing their displeasure over an unpopular change in the dugout, of which there have been plenty.

    There was the vocal backing for Roberto Di Matteo weeks after his sacking in 2012. Interim boss Rafael Benitez was the villain in that situation but calling out any perceived culprits among a squad often noted for wielding player power has also marked times of tumult.

    When Jose Mourinho's second spell at Chelsea ended with the then-reigning Premier League champions lurching close to the relegation zone in December 2015, he was backed by plenty of fans amid accusations of player betrayal. One banner in the ground famously branded Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa to be "The 3 Rats".

    Had stadiums been full around the time of Frank Lampard's January demise, it is possible Rudiger would have faced similar scrutiny.

    "There have been so many nonsense rumours around about me since last week," he told The Athletic in February, following speculation that urged the Chelsea board to dispense with Lampard. "I've never talked with the board about the situation of the coach or on any other topics."

    In a separate interview with Sky Sports, Rudiger explained he suffered "immense" racist abuse online after Lampard's sacking, both an indication of the levels of toxicity at play and a deplorable sign of our times.

    It certainly did not feel plausible that, in the space of four months, Rudiger would be arguably the form defender in European football and leading Chelsea's charge under Tuchel for a pair of major honours, starting in Saturday's FA Cup final against Leicester.

    Indeed, the most remarkable element of Rudiger being singled out as a man responsible for so many of the ills at Chelsea around the fall of Lampard was how little he had been involved in the first team.

    He started two of their first 17 Premier League fixtures before being recalled in the wake of a 3-1 defeat by Manchester City to start back-to-back games against Fulham and Leicester – the latter of which was a 2-0 defeat that effectively sealed Lampard's fate.

    Overall, Rudiger made nine appearances in all competitions under the former England midfielder this season, with eight of those starts. His 742 minutes on the pitch were dwarfed by first-choice duo Kurt Zouma (1,999) and Thiago Silva (1,552).

    Tuchel's decision to switch Chelsea into a 3-4-2-1 shape obviously did Rudiger and his fellow centre-backs a favour in the most basic terms of one more slot in the team being available, but the Germany international has repaid his countryman's faith emphatically.

    In 21 appearances since, he has been involved in a remarkable 14 clean sheets. No defender in the Premier League, or elsewhere in Europe's top five leagues for that matter, can boast more in this time.

    The six goals conceded with him on the field is also the lowest across the continent's elite divisions for any defender to have started 15 or more games from January 27 onwards, which was the date of Tuchel's first game in charge – a 0-0 draw with Wolves.

    Rudiger rested up for Wembley in midweek when Chelsea went down to a lacklustre 1-0 home loss to Arsenal. He was an unused substitute for the only other league defeat of Tuchel's tenure, an unhinged 5-2 collapse versus West Brom after Silva was sent off.

    In the 19 Premier League games Rudiger has not started in 2020-21, Chelsea have conceded 26 goals at a rate of 1.4 per game. With the ex-Roma man in the first XI, this plummets to seven in 17 (0.4 per game).

    Those seven goals have arrived over the course of 1,530 minutes on the field, meaning Rudiger has seen a goal conceded every 218.6 minutes. This is the best ratio in the Premier League for any defender to have played 1,000 minutes or more this term, with Manchester City pairing John Stones (194.9) and Ruben Dias (148.1) next on the list – suggesting the Champions League final in two weeks' time could be something of a cagey affair.

    When set alongside his Chelsea central defensive colleagues Zouma, Silva and Andreas Christensen, Rudiger's imposing qualities are evident. He has made 29 tackles in the Premier League this season, an average of 1.7 per 90 minutes, with no other member of the quartet averaging above one.

    His 7.1 duels per 90 is bettered by Zouma (7.6), although both have the same return when it comes to duels won (4.8).

    Of course, Rudiger has starred within a collective recalibration. In the Premier League, Tuchel's Chelsea have faced an average of 7.8 shots per game at an expected goals (xG) value of 0.6, down from 10.1 and 1 under Lampard.

    Adjustments beyond the defence have also made the Blues harder to play against. They control matches far more effectively, with an average of 663.6 passes per game up from 612.7 at a slightly better accuracy (87.7 per cent from 86.3).

    Chelsea are also pressing opponents more effectively, allowing an average of 10.1 passes per defensive action (PPDA) under Tuchel, behind only FA Cup final foes Leicester and Leeds United across the period in question. This season with Lampard in charge, they averaged 11 PPDA, which was fourth among all Premier League teams.

    The improvements have made life a little easier for defenders, but when Chelsea step out at Wembley there will be no mystery over the identity of their standout performer at centre-back – even if he is wearing a mask. Rudiger has lifted himself off the scrapheap to become Tuchel's talisman.

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