If you thought the 2020 NFL season was weird, just wait for 2021. While we all hope that the league won't be as significantly impacted by COVID-19 as it was during a stop-and-start 2020 campaign, one of the financial effects of the pandemic will still be felt next season. The salary cap has been steadily rising over the last decade, but in 2021, the baseline cap number every team starts its offseason with will fall from the previously expected mark of $210 million to a new expectation of $175 million, a 16.7% drop.
Some teams have made preparations in recent weeks for the cap decline, but just about every long-term contract signed over the past few years was structured under the idea that the cap was going to continue rising. As a result, we're going to see teams placed in unfamiliar situations this offseason. There will be less money to go around for free agents, and veterans on rosters with unguaranteed deals might have to choose between taking a pay cut or being pushed onto the open market. It's going to be messy.
With that in mind, I've gone through the 14 playoff teams and taken a look at the players who might not be back on their rosters in 2021, along with projected cap space numbers from Spotrac. We'll go in order of seeding in each conference:
Green Bay Packers (13-3)
NFC playoff seed: No. 1
After they drafted quarterback Jordan Love in the first round last April, there was speculation that the Packers might move on from Aaron Rodgers after the season. Well, that's not happening. The team is $24.4 million over the projected cap for 2021, but the favorite to win league MVP isn't going anywhere.
Instead, the most prominent Packers player likely to leave is unrestricted free agent Aaron Jones. Green Bay doesn't have the short-term cap space to franchise its starting running back and used a second-round pick on AJ Dillon in last year's draft. It seems more likely that Green Bay would re-sign backup Jamaal Williams to pair with Dillon while letting Jones leave. Wide receiver Allen Lazard and tight end Robert Tonyan are restricted free agents and likely to return.
The Packers will also likely need to make some sacrifices up front, where guard Lane Taylor and All-Pro center Corey Linsley are both free agents. It's difficult to imagine more than one of the two returning. Inconsistent starting cornerback Kevin King is a free agent, while superstar Jaire Alexander is now eligible for a lucrative extension. His current cap hold for 2021 is only $3.8 million, so the Packers will have to get creative to avoid dramatically increasing Alexander's cap figure as part of a new deal.