The last ride.
The swan song.
The grand finale.
The final goodbye.
Maybe even … the Hail Mary.
The clichés are almost bountiful enough to be evenly spread among the (mostly) prominent NFL players who could be spending a final weekend with their current clubs in the upcoming divisional playoff round.
The most notable one, by far of course, is New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees. Once again, reports are circulating that the only man to throw for 80,000 career yards will hang up the cleats after this postseason. Brees, who turns 42 on Friday, hasn’t offered any clarity himself but has a job waiting in the NBC broadcast booth. He’s been remarkably durable for most of his 20-year NFL career but missed nine games over the past two seasons with injuries.
The Saints just won their fourth consecutive NFC South title but have suffered devastatingly dramatic playoff ousters the previous three seasons. Capturing one more ring would allow Brees to join fellow greats Tom Brady – his opponent this weekend – Joe Montana, Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman, John Elway and Peyton Manning, among others, as quarterbacks with multiple Super Bowl victories.
We’ll know late Sunday night whether it’s Brees or Brady who’s one step from reaching Super Bowl 55. But while we’re at it, let’s also not forget these 21 other players, who may never run it back in their current surroundings:
Bills LB Matt Milano
Milano, who’s been OK when healthy enough to play during his rookie contract, is probably this team’s most prominent pending free agent … though 33-year-old KR Andre Roberts is arguably more of a difference maker. Regardless, the Bills’ lack of 2021 cap space currently won’t allow for major moves.
Browns WR Odell Beckham Jr.
He obviously won’t be in uniform Sunday, his rehabilitation from a torn ACL ongoing. But Cleveland has been just fine without a guy who often brings a sideshow element … and could save nearly $16 million on the 2021 cap if they can find a trade partner.
Browns TE David Njoku
You wonder why Cleveland didn’t try harder to trade the former first-rounder given his relative lack of production combined with the fact Austin Hooper signed in free agency and Harrison Bryant came via the draft – both tight ends outperformed Njoku in 2020. Seems pretty unlikely at this point he’s going to collect his $6 million fifth-year option in 2021.
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Buccaneers OLB Shaquil Barrett
Tampa Bay will have quite a few personnel calls to make this offseason, though GM Jason Licht does have the cap flexibility to retain some of his own or look elsewhere. Let’s start with Barrett, who played on a $15.8 million franchise tag in 2020 after registering a league-best 19½ sacks in 2019 – a total that dropped to eight this season. Solid player but perhaps a Pro Bowl flash in the pan.
Buccaneers WR Antonio Brown
The four-time All-Pro, now 32, has recently been showing why Brady wanted him, hauling in five TDs over the past four weeks. Of course, with Brown, it’s not as simple as just performance. A civil lawsuit against him, one that alleges rape and sexual assault, is scheduled to go to trial later this year. The Bucs, who already took heat for signing AB once, will have to again weigh the calculus in 2021.
Buccaneers LB Lavonte David
A team captain, he’s bordered on elite for most of his nine seasons even if his play has gone largely unrecognized (1 Pro Bowl, 1 All-Pro selection) while toiling in Tampa. David is coming off another strong campaign but will also be 31 later this month. He’s unsigned beyond this season.
Buccaneers RB Leonard Fournette
He wasn’t utilized all that much (600 yards from scrimmage on 133 touches, both career lows) following his late-August release from the Jaguars. But Fournette did rumble for 93 yards and a TD on a season-high 19 carries in the wild-card round – which seems more likely to earn him another look elsewhere than a second contract from the Bucs.
Buccaneers WR Chris Godwin
He’ll likely be the primary offseason priority for Licht, whether it’s a new contract or a franchise tag. Godwin’s production didn’t quite match his 2019 breakout campaign, but he was coping with injuries while playing on a far more diverse offense. Only 24, he’s likely to command a deal that averages $20 million.
Buccaneers TE Rob Gronkowski
After a year spent in retirement, he rejoined Brady – and Gronk’s production was largely on par with his final year in New England, if only maybe 60% of what it was in his prime. Remains to be seen if the Bucs want him back and/or if the soon-to-be-32-year-old even wants to put his body through the NFL wringer for an 11th season.
Buccaneers DL Ndamukong Suh
Even at 34, the 2010s All-Decade selection is still getting it done. I was struck by how excited Suh was in the locker room after advancing to the Super Bowl when his Rams beat the Saints in the 2018 NFC championship game. If the Bucs fall short, wouldn’t be surprising if he tries to continue his quest – especially if a defense led by coordinator Todd Bowles remains largely intact.
Chiefs RB Le’Veon Bell
Given he was added as insurance and has played a limited role since forcing his way out of New York, interesting to note Bell is actually averaging a half-yard fewer per touch now (4.6) for Kansas City than he did with the lowly Jets (5.1) this season.
Chiefs WR Sammy Watkins
K.C. expected a dynamic target when he signed in 2018, and he was huge in last year’s Super Bowl. But Watkins, the No. 4 pick of the 2014 draft, won’t ever be confused with a star.
Packers RB Aaron Jones
It’s Jones, not All-Pro WR Davante Adams, who’s led Green Bay in yards from scrimmage each of the past two seasons, amassing more than 3,000 yards. Yet he is hurtling toward free agency (along with fellow RB Jamaal Williams) and just fired his agent after playing this season for little more than $2 million. The Pack could tag Jones. But with rookie AJ Dillon showing Derrick Henry-type potential in his Week 16 coming-out party – and the Packers approximately $20 million overspent on the 2021 cap – a hard decision on Jones could be coming.
Packers C Corey Linsley
He’ll be 30 this summer. His contract is expiring. Linsley was also just voted All-Pro for the first time, centering the line that protects presumptive 2020 MVP Aaron Rodgers. Another dilemma for Pack GM Brian Gutekunst.
Packers OT Jared Veldheer
His second stint with Green Bay might be over before it began. The veteran was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Wednesday. The Indianapolis Colts’ starting left tackle last weekend in Buffalo, Veldheer was on the verge of a history-making footnote as the first player to appear for multiple teams in the same postseason.
Rams OLB Leonard Floyd
His first-year in Los Angeles was an eye-opener – though playing with Aaron Donald makes it much easier to collect a career-best 10½ sacks. But it seems unlikely the Rams, who must eliminate more than $20 million to be cap-compliant by March, can re-sign Floyd back given what he’s likely to command on the open market.
Rams S John Johnson III
The 25-year-old emerged as one of the league’s top safeties on the back end of L.A.’s top-ranked defense. Another financial conundrum the Rams are facing: re-sign an ascending player or let Johnson walk into free agency and break up what’s arguably jelled into the league’s best secondary.
Rams LT Andrew Whitworth
A highly respected veteran who continues to play at an elite level, Whitworth is also 39 and missed a chunk of the season with a knee injury. However, despite mulling retirement in the past, he told NFL Network this week he plans to continue playing. The question will be whether the Rams can afford the final two years of his contract.
Ravens RB Mark Ingram
The lead running back a year ago, he’s often been a healthy scratch in the latter stages of this season, including Baltimore’s wild-card win at Nashville. With J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards now splitting the load, Ingram’s 10-year career may be nearing a close.
Ravens OLB Matt Judon
Though he has led the team in sacks each of the past two seasons, a half-dozen won’t command another franchise tag.
Ravens DE Yannick Ngakoue
Jacksonville’s franchise player last year, he’s been on three teams in the last five months after the Jags and Vikings both traded him. Ngakoue has three sacks in nine games as a role player for Baltimore.
We end at the beginning. One fascinating aspect of Brees’ decision is New Orleans would owe him $25 million in 2021, when the team is currently projected to be nearly $100 million over the cap – by far the most in the league. Getting him off the books would put a dent in that number and maybe help GM Mickey Loomis re-sign Jameis Winston – giving coach Sean Payton two compelling options, along with Taysom Hill, as Brees’ successor.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis
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