The NFL offseason is upon us. Most of the league has spent January thinking about what it's going to do in the player-acquisition period stretching through the end of April, and while the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams are a little behind the pack, I suspect they aren't too upset about having to catch up.
Over the next two weeks, I'm going to detail the first five moves I think every team should make this offseason. I'll begin in the NFC West and work my way east, and then catch up with the AFC next week. Check out the full schedule below:
We're going to finish this week with the NFC East, which seemed like a division no team wanted to take home before the Cowboys went on a five-game win streak in November. Dallas has a lot of work to do this offseason to keep its core, while the rest of the division has to deal with quarterback concerns ...
1. Release Sean Lee, Allen Hurns and Terrance Williams. While Lee is a Cowboys icon after nine years with the team, his role as an every-down linebacker was taken by rookie Leighton Vander Esch last season. Lee has a cap hit of $10.8 million, and by cutting these three veterans, Dallas would free up $14.3 million in cap space, pushing it to $59 million in total. After a decade of struggling with their salary cap, the Cowboys are finally in excellent shape.
For a minute or two, at least.
2. Work out an extension with DeMarcus Lawrence. The Cowboys can franchise Lawrence for a second time and will likely do so to ensure he stays in Dallas, but the long-term deal should come this offseason. After Lawrence broke out with 14.5 sacks on 26 knockdowns in 2017, he followed with 10.5 sacks on 23 knockdowns last season. He added eight tackles for loss against the run, which was three off the league-leading 11 produced by Luke Kuechly.
An extension for the soon-to-be-27-year-old Lawrence isn't going to come cheap. His representation likely will try to compare him to Khalil Mack, who produced 21.5 sacks, 48 knockdowns and 29 tackles for loss in his two seasons before signing a six-year, $141 million extension with the Bears at age 27. That one might be a hard sell, in part because Mack's deal is an outlier among edge rushers. His $23.5 million average annual salary is more than $4 million higher than that of any other player at the position.
The Bears had no leverage when they extended Mack -- it's hardly as if they were going to trade two first-rounders in a deal for Mack and then go year to year with him -- but the Cowboys are one year away from an onerous third franchise tag on Lawrence, so they don't have much leverage either. Lawrence has undergone two back surgeries and was suspended for four games in 2016 after violating the league's substance abuse policy, but that's not enough to drive down his price.
The closest comps to Lawrence in terms of situation are likely Chandler Jones and Melvin Ingram, each of whom was franchised and then signed to an extension during the 2017 offseason. The Chargers' Ingram signed a four-year, $66 million deal with $34 million guaranteed at signing and $50 million due in Years 1-3. Jones' five-year, $82.5 million deal guaranteed $31 million at signing but came through with $51 million due in the first three seasons. The structure of Jones' deal with the Cardinals also virtually guaranteed that he would be in line to receive the $51 million.
Lawrence will be looking to top the Jones deal. If we use a 2019 projection of $190 million, the cap will have risen by 13.7 percent between Jones signing his deal and Lawrence signing his. That rise would get Lawrence to $58 million over three years. I agree with Cowboys reporter Todd Archer's assessment and think we might as well go with round numbers. Lawrence's new deal will be somewhere around five years and $100 million, with $60 million due in the first three seasons.
3. Extend Dak Prescott. The final year of Prescott's four-year, $2.7 million deal is 2019, and while there were some concerns that he was regressing during the first half of 2018, his play once Amari Cooper arrived in town did enough to quell most of the discussion about the team letting him leave after his rookie contract expired. A reminder about Prescott after three seasons:
Player B is Carson Wentz, and while I'd still say Wentz is the better quarterback, those numbers don't include Prescott's edge as a rusher and the fact that he has stayed healthy. The Eagles are going to extend Wentz, as I'll get to in this piece. I don't see a strong case for the Cowboys passing on Prescott. After Dallas missed out on Paxton Lynch and Connor Cook before settling for Prescott, I wouldn't trust Jerry Jones & Co. to go back into the quarterback market.
There are three comps for Prescott in contract negotiations, given that he started three full seasons as a non-first-rounder under the current CBA. One is Andy Dalton, who signed a six-year, $96 million extension in 2014 but one that guaranteed him only $17 million at signing while allowing the Bengals to go year to year. Dalton is entering the fifth year of that deal now, but I doubt Prescott would be willing to take that sort of contract structure.
The second is former third-round pick Russell Wilson, who was the closest to Prescott in terms of salary. Months before his fourth season began in 2015, Wilson signed a four-year, $87.6 million extension with $31.7 million guaranteed at signing and $56.6 million due the first three seasons. Wilson, again, isn't a perfect comp here; he won a Super Bowl during his rookie contract and floated a spurious idea about going to play baseball, which didn't go far. The Seahawks also prefer relatively short extensions, while the Cowboys are more likely to give Prescott one of their six-year specials for cap reasons.
The final comp -- and perhaps the most accurate of the three -- is Derek Carr. The Raiders quarterback followed a career year at age 25 by signing a five-year, $125 million extension in 2017. The deal guaranteed Carr $40 million at signing with $67.5 million due the first three seasons. It was also basically structured in a way that would allow Oakland to easily move on from him after three years if he didn't work out. Jon Gruden's Raiders don't have cap concerns, given their lack of talent, but they will be able to get out of Carr's deal after 2019 with just $5 million in dead money.
Wilson and Carr ended up with roughly similar deals through three years. When you build in the expected rise in the cap when they signed their respective deals, Wilson's contract amounted to 12.4 percent of the cap through three years, while Carr was at 12.7 percent. Build that same idea for Prescott and you get something in the ballpark of $77 million over the first three seasons of his new deal. Round up to $78 million and you get Prescott to $26 million per year the first three seasons. Six years and somewhere around $160 million would be a starting point for his extension.
4. Re-sign Amari Cooper, and get him some help. Of course the Cowboys are going to re-sign Cooper after he transformed their offense in 2018. He won't turn 25 until June, and though his numbers fell off during his final season and a half in Oakland, his Cowboys numbers prorate to a 94-1,289-10 line, which would be a natural growth progression from his 2015 and 2016 seasons.
Cooper hasn't yet had the sort of massive season we've seen from Mike Evans and Odell Beckham Jr., each of whom signed an extension as he entered his fifth-year option season, which Cooper will hit in 2019. The best comparison might be Brandin Cooks, who signed a five-year, $81 million extension in July. Cooks had only $20.5 million guaranteed at signing, but his double-dip bonus structure left him with $50.5 million in practical guarantees and $42 million in new money in Years 1-3.
Cooper is due $13.9 million for his fifth-year option, so a new deal would likely need to get Cooper to $56 million in Years 1-3, which would conveniently top the $55 million Evans got in his deal. A five-year, $87 million extension would get Cooper to the $100 million mark over six years when you factor in that fifth-year option.
If the Cowboys are cutting Hurns and Williams and letting Cole Beasley leave in free agency, they'll be in the market for a receiver to play alongside Cooper and Michael Gallup. Cooper has had success in the slot the past two seasons, so a pure slot receiver might not be the ideal solution, but there are plenty of options out there if Dallas wants to go in that direction. Wideouts such as Jamison Crowder and Adam Humphries could be an upgrade on Beasley, who turns 30 in April. It wouldn't be a surprise to see the Cowboys add one of them. Danny Amendola, who grew up outside Houston before going to Texas Tech, would also make sense if he's a cap casualty in Miami.
5. Work on a deal for Byron Jones. If the Cowboys get all of the above done, they can take things slowly with Jones, who emerged as a star only last season after shuffling between corner and safety. Jones' fifth-year option is a relatively modest $6.3 million, which is a bargain for a talented cornerback in the modern NFL. If the Cowboys don't need to use their franchise tag for any of the players mentioned previously, they could theoretically go year to year with Jones, franchise him twice and pay only $45 million or so over the next three seasons. That's just about what Trumaine Johnson got from the Jets in free agency last year.
Jones' closest comp is Kyle Fuller, who was basically written off as a bust before an impressive 2017. He was hit with the transition tag by the Bears before signing a four-year, $56 million offer sheet with the Packers, which the Bears instantly matched. Jones was a Pro Bowler last season, though, while Fuller didn't make the Pro Bowl until after signing his deal in 2018. Jones might command more of a premium than Fuller did on the free market.
If the Cowboys wanted to re-up Jones, they probably would be looking at something in the range of four years and $64 million. If they opt for a longer extension, his new deal might top the five-year, $75 million standard-bearer Josh Norman signed with Washington back in 2016. The Cowboys aren't going to have much cap space once these deals are up, but they won't complain if their core continues to play the way it did in 2018.
1. Franchise Landon Collins. The Giants are still recovering from years of subpar drafts under former GM Jerry Reese. The only players left on the roster from a five-year stretch of Reese drafts between 2011 and '15 are Collins and Odell Beckham Jr. Losing Collins, one of the few young building blocks the Giants have on defense, would be a step backward for a team that already has plenty of problems on offense.
2. Move on from Eli Manning, and acquire a veteran to replace him. As the Manning Farewell Tour stretches into its third year, it remains to be seen what it will take for the Giants to quit their longtime starting quarterback. Manning's numbers superficially rose last season -- he posted a career-high completion percentage of 66.0 and the fourth-best passer rating of his career (92.4) -- but the two-time Super Bowl MVP's Total QBR was a middling 51.6, ranking 25th out of 33 qualifying passers.
His raw numbers were less impressive than they might seem. By ESPN's expected points metric, 30.3 percent of his completions did not push the Giants closer to scoring points, the highest rate in the league among passers with 400 attempts. His average completion traveled just 5.6 yards in the air, the 25th-highest rate in the league. Manning also spent a significant chunk of the season throwing in garbage time. He threw 90 passes on drives that started with the Giants holding no more than a 1 percent chance of winning the game, third most in the NFL behind Kirk Cousins and Matt Ryan.
On top of all this, Manning is making $23 million in the final season on his contract, a salary he would not come close to hitting on the open market. His jersey might as well have "INERTIA" on the back. Manning is a Giants legend and deserves to be applauded for the role he played in two Super Bowl victories. He doesn't deserve to be unceremoniously benched midseason, as he was during the 2017 campaign, for Geno Smith. But the Giants need to be realistic about their future, which doesn't involve Manning. They can free up $17 million in much-needed cap space by moving on from him.
I'd figure that New York would follow up by going after a starter, though it depends on who's available on the market. While he lacks the Giants' preferred height, Case Keenum excelled under Pat Shurmur's tutelage during his breakout 2017 season in Minnesota. He's also likely to come relatively cheap, given that the Broncos have little financial reason for keeping the Houston product after trading for Joe Flacco earlier this week.
3. Draft Dwayne Haskins with the No. 6 overall pick. If the Giants don't want to take Kyler Murray because he's under 6 feet, they won't have the same concerns about the 6-foot-3 Ohio State passer. He produced the third-best Total QBR in college football last season at 86.3, trailing only that of Murray (95.8) and Tua Tagovailoa (93.2). Haskins has the physical traits you would want from a quarterback coming out of school, and he was given a first-round grade by the NFL draft advisory board.
The concern with Haskins is inexperience, given that the 21-year-old spent only one year as a starter and threw 590 passes in school. There are similarities to Mitchell Trubisky, who started one season at North Carolina and threw 572 passes before entering the 2017 draft. Trubisky's inconsistency as a passer from drive to drive and game to game speaks to the difficulties a quarterback with that sort of inexperience can have adjusting to the professional level.
Any team taking Haskins should be prepared to let him sit for a full season and develop, but as we've seen with the vast majority of first-round picks, that's unlikely to happen. A combination of Keenum and Haskins would give the Giants a competent passer in the short term and a high-upside prospect for the future.
4. Sign Mike Iupati. The Giants want to be a run-heavy team under GM Dave Gettleman's stewardship, regardless of who lines up at quarterback. His moves to shore up the offensive line last year were mostly disastrous. Big-ticket free agent Nate Solder allowed eight sacks, per Stats LLC, while the right side of the line started the year in New York and finished it in Jacksonville, as the Giants cut both Patrick Omameh and Ereck Flowers. Center Jon Halapio broke his ankle. At least Solder and rookie guard Will Hernandez improved during the second half of the campaign and began to develop a rapport.
The Giants have a hole at right guard with waiver-wire pickup Jamon Brown a free agent, and while Iupati's tenure with the Cardinals was a mess, there's still physicality and talent there in the running game. A one-year flier could give Iupati a shot to prove he's still a starting-caliber NFL guard.
5. Add help at corner. The Giants thought they were set for years at corner when they signed Janoris Jenkins and used a first-round pick on Eli Apple, but after a disastrous 2017 season, they traded Apple to the Saints in October. Apple quickly stepped into the starting lineup and played well for a playoff team, while the Giants started B.W. Webb and undrafted rookie Grant Haley alongside Jenkins for the second half of the season.
Webb is a free agent, and while Haley didn't completely drown as the team's nickel corner, it would be a huge stretch to count on him as a starter in 2019. Investing in a cornerback to play across from Jenkins is the quickest way the Giants can improve a pass defense that ranked 26th in DVOA last season. The Giants could opt for LSU corner Greedy Williams if they pass on a quarterback in the first round, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see them add a veteran such as Bashaud Breeland in free agency before drafting a corner in the second or fourth round.
1. Let Nick Foles leave in free agency. For sentimental and practical reasons, the most appropriate way for the Eagles to handle Foles, who bought out his 2019 option, is to let him hit the free market when the new league year begins in March.
I don't think the option of franchising and trading Foles is particularly appealing in this scenario. To start, it's technically illegal, given that the collective bargaining agreement requires teams to franchise players as part of good faith negotiations to play for the organization in the upcoming season. There is no realistic expectation that Foles would play out the franchise tag in 2019 as the Eagles' backup quarterback. The Patriots were able to get away with this when they franchised Matt Cassel before dealing him to the Chiefs in 2008, so I think the Eagles might not be penalized if they attempt the tag-and-trade, but you can imagine how much of a mess might be made if Foles gets traded to a team he doesn't want to join.
Financially, franchising Foles would force the Eagles to make several other roster moves. Philly is somewhere around $4 million under the cap after convincing Rodney McLeod to take a pay cut. If the Eagles franchise Foles, they'll immediately add his franchise-tag figure -- something in the ballpark of $25 million -- and go well over the salary cap, regardless of where it ends up.
The Eagles would then need to create about $21 million in room before the league year begins March 13, even if they intend to trade Foles at the first moment of the league year. They could theoretically pull that off, but it would involve either cutting contributors or restructuring deals to create short-term cap room at the expense of space down the line. Yes, the Eagles could cut Jason Peters, Tim Jernigan and Nelson Agholor to free up the space needed to temporarily franchise Foles, but that would open another can of worms.
The benefits of trading Foles as opposed to letting the Super Bowl LII MVP pick his next destination aren't as clear as they might seem. The Eagles are capped out and unlikely to spend much in free agency, so there's a good chance they'll recoup a third-round compensatory pick in 2020 when Foles leaves.
Everyone in the league knows that the Eagles don't have much leverage if they franchise Foles, so the offers aren't going to be for much more than that third-round pick. It won't be a first-rounder. Even if we want to believe that GM Howie Roseman can nab a second-rounder in the 2019 draft, is it worth Philly contorting the cap situation and/or shedding starters just so the Eagles can get a pick one round higher and one year earlier?
I might also argue that if anybody has earned the right to pick his new team, it's Foles. The guy is practically a folk hero in Philadelphia. Yes, there's a chance he could go play for the Giants or Washington and face his old teammates twice a year if he hits free agency. The Eagles once traded Donovan McNabb within their own division, and that worked out fine. Foles was a mess in his time in St. Louis with the Rams. It might be a boon for the Eagles if Foles is asked to carry a middling division rival to the playoffs.
Stranger things have happened, but the logical thing for Philadelphia to do is let Foles leave the organization without a franchise tag. My suspicion is that he'll be back with the Eagles later in his career.
2. Move on from Peters, and negotiate a new deal with Jernigan. With four starters hitting free agency in Brandon Graham, Ronald Darby, Jay Ajayi and Jordan Hicks (and the likes of Darren Sproles, Corey Graham, Golden Tate and Mike Wallace joining them), the Eagles have to be flexible this offseason. There's no way they can bring most of those players back, given the cap situation. Roseman could go on a restructuring spree, but the Eagles are going to trust their ability to draft and develop young talent.
To try to create some breathing room, though, the Eagles might have to move on from a franchise icon. Peters just turned 37, and though he was still a useful left tackle, Halapoulivaati Vaitai was impressive during Philadelphia's run to the Super Bowl, while Peters was recovering from a torn ACL and MCL. The Eagles could decline Peters' 2019 option and likely net another compensatory pick in 2020. They also could ask Peters to take a pay cut, but that's something the veteran declined to do in 2017.
Cutting or trading Peters would free $8 million in cap room. The Eagles could create another $7 million in space by releasing Jernigan, who missed most of 2018 while recovering from back surgery. Jernigan is a useful player when healthy, and releasing him would leave Philly thin at defensive tackle behind Fletcher Cox, but this is a deep draft for defensive linemen, and the Eagles should be able to mine the players cut by teams in March to replenish their depth. Jernigan is not going to get the three years and $35 million left on his deal in free agency, so a pay cut as part of a restructure might make sense for both sides.
3. Wait out the market on Graham and Hicks. I thought there was an approximately zero percent chance that the Eagles would have found a way to bring back Nigel Bradham last year, but when he didn't get a multiyear pact in free agency, the Eagles were able to carve out room to re-sign him. The linebacker's five-year, $40 million contract is really a two-year, $13.9 million deal with some extra seasons tacked on for cap purposes, but it was still an unexpected bonus for Philly.
The team might get lucky with two other defensive starters this time around. Graham was underrated for most of his career (including, for several seasons, by the Eagles themselves), but he had his best season in 2017. He has been a good run defender, but he added 9.5 sacks and chipped in that famous strip sack of Tom Brady in the Super Bowl.
Teams aren't beholden to sack totals, but Graham racked up only four sacks as part of Philly's defensive end rotation in 2018. He turns 31 in April, and in an offseason in which both the free-agent class and the draft are full of edge-rushing options, his market might not develop the way that it seems. If it doesn't, the Eagles could justify bringing back Graham on a similar two-year pact to the one signed by Bradham.
Hicks is another talented Eagles draftee, but he plays a middle linebacker spot that hasn't typically been the source of significant free-agent deals, last offseason aside. After the Texas product racked up eight takeaways (seven interceptions and a forced fumble) in his first two NFL seasons, he hasn't recorded any in his two most recent campaigns. Hicks has also struggled to stay healthy, as he missed 21 games in his first four seasons. It wouldn't shock me if he found a multiyear deal on the market, but if he slips through the cracks, the Eagles should consider bringing him back.
4. Find a new backup quarterback. Carson Wentz is eligible for a contract extension, and the Eagles have been aggressive with handing players early extensions going back through the Joe Banner era, but I'd hold off on extending Wentz until next offseason. He has an $8.5 million cap hit in 2019, and while the Eagles could structure a new deal in a way that doesn't dramatically impact that number, there's no reason to rush into a deal. Philly is not going to save much on a Wentz extension, regardless of when it happens, and he isn't going anywhere.
At the same time, the Eagles can't afford to be cheap behind Wentz, who has missed 13 games in his first three seasons when you include Foles' five playoff starts. They need a passer with some pedigree behind Wentz, and while restricted free agent Nate Sudfeld has shown some promise, the Eagles can't feel confident that they're one false step away from pinning their hopes on the former Indiana starter.
Because Philadelphia wants to protect its Foles compensatory pick, it is probably going to sift through quarterbacks cut by other teams to identify a veteran backup. It seems like a safe bet that Blake Bortles will be part of that class, but a handful of other passers are still up in the air. Ryan Tannehill? Eli Manning? Case Keenum? Blaine Gabbert? I don't need to tell you that list doesn't seem very exciting, but then again, Foles was a mess with the Rams in 2015 and nearly left football before delivering one unimpressive spot start (albeit with impressive stats) during his year with the Chiefs in 2016. I would guess that one of those passers will be backing up Wentz in 2019.
5. Acquire a starting running back. The Eagles clearly don't want to invest in a significant salary for their primary halfback, which is smart and borne out by data. They've gotten by the past two years by paying peanuts to free agents without a market (LeGarrette Blount) and buying low on players via trade (Ajayi). In 2018, the Eagles cycled through five backs thanks to injuries before settling on Wendell Smallwood in the postseason.
Ajayi and Sproles are both free agents, and while the Eagles will return Corey Clement and Josh Adams alongside Smallwood, they should be targeting another back to take over as their primary ball carrier this offseason. That will most likely come via the draft, though they could pursue trade targets such as Alex Collins and Kenyan Drake.
1. Proceed as if Alex Smith isn't coming back. There's no reason to fault Washington for the Smith trade and extension, both of which made sense last year. Nobody could have anticipated what might happen next. Smith's broken leg and the infection that followed have compromised his career. Washington is privy to much better medical information than I am, but it's only realistic to wonder whether Smith will ever return to the field at all, let alone at anything resembling 100 percent.
There's nothing Washington can do about Smith's contract, which is guaranteed for injury through 2020. Assuming he attempts to make a comeback, the team will owe Smith a $15 million base salary in 2019 (with a $20.4 million cap hit) and a $16 million base salary in 2020 ($21.4 million cap charge) before eating $10.8 million of dead money in 2021. If Smith were to retire after 2019, Washington would get out of that $16 million base salary, but it would still owe $16.2 million in dead money for 2020. There's no good way to deal with this.
Sadly, Washington has to treat the Smith deal as a sunk cost and work on finding a quarterback solution. Colt McCoy has one year left on his deal at a base salary of $3 million, and you would figure the organization has faith in him to serve as the primary backup at a minimum. Washington could go with McCoy as the starter and draft a possible replacement, but McCoy was injured in his second start replacing Smith. The solution has to be McCoy and a first-round pick or McCoy and a veteran with starting experience.
2. Cut Zach Brown. After giving the inside linebacker a series of one-year deals, Washington finally signed Brown to a multiyear contract last offseason, only to sour on him during the season. Brown played just 101 defensive snaps in the final month, as Washington benched him during the Week 14 loss to the Giants. He's still a useful player, but Washington needs cap space if it is going to add a veteran quarterback. Cutting Brown would free up $5.8 million.
3. Extend Brandon Scherff. The fifth overall pick in the 2015 draft has rounded into form as one of the NFL's best guards. The only concern with Scherff is injury; he missed two games in 2017 before a torn pectoral cost him the second half of the 2018 season. Washington would be foolish to pass on extending its star guard, and in doing so it can reduce Scherff's $12.5 million cap hit for 2019.
It's going to be costly. Scherff doesn't quite have Zack Martin's résumé, but with the $12.5 million already owed, his contract is going to be Martin-sized. A five-year, $75 million extension would get Scherff over Martin's average annual salary ($14 million) and total compensation ($84 million over six years). I would start talking about how much it would cost for Washington to go year to year with the franchise tag, but let's just say the team already learned that lesson.
4. Bring back Adrian Peterson. Although Washington turned to Peterson only after rookie Derrius Guice went down with a torn ACL during preseason, the future Hall of Fame back delivered a productive, healthy season for just over $1 million. Guice will be back, and he might be Washington's running back of the future, but Peterson was a good fit and deserves a role in the offense. A raise to $3.5 million would make sense.
5. Find help at safety. What looked like a strength for Washington a few months ago is suddenly a weakness. The trade for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix didn't take, as the former Packers standout struggled after immediately being inserted into the lineup. It's likely he'll land somewhere else in free agency.
Washington also cut D.J. Swearinger in December, as the organization was fed up with Swearinger's comments about the team's struggles. It was a typically shortsighted move given that Swearinger was one of the team's best players in 2018. Although he was frustrating early in his career, he has rounded into one of the league's better safeties. Fellow safety Montae Nicholson was arrested in December and charged with assault and battery and being drunk in public and might be facing league discipline.
On top of all that, Washington clearly doesn't have much money to spend to fix the position. A repeat of last year's cratering safety market would help Jay Gruden & Co., though the most likely source for new blood at the position will be the draft. Washington likely will have an extra third-round pick via the comp-pick system as a result of losing Kirk Cousins, and it would hardly be a shock if the franchise used one of those third-rounders on a safety.
Let's hit the NFC North, where the Bears made a (somewhat) surprising run from worst to first, while the rest of the division collapsed. The Packers fired their coach, and the Lions and Vikings both moved on from their offensive coordinators. Can anyone catch up with the league's best defense?
1. Find a meaningful competitor for Cody Parkey. Even if Parkey's missed kick in the wild-card game was actually tipped by an Eagles defender, it's difficult to imagine the embattled Bears kicker having a real future in Chicago. Going on the "Today" show to discuss the miss seemed to irritate much of the organization, and the crowd is going to turn on Parkey the first time he misses a kick at home in 2019.
The ideal replacement would be beloved former Bears kicker Robbie Gould, but he might not want to return to the organization that cut him in 2016, and the 49ers could put the franchise tag on their 36-year-old stalwart. The Bears signed Redford Jones to a reserve contract, but they have every reason to target a veteran such as Matt Bryant or Cairo Santos. The Bears will have to eat $5.1 million in dead money to cut Parkey, but he represents a sunk cost at this point.
2. Pick between Bryce Callahan and Adrian Amos. The only two notable free agents for the Bears are in the secondary, where Amos has quietly rounded into an above-average starter amid the unmissable playmaking ability of fellow safety Eddie Jackson. The depressed safety market from the 2018 offseason and the presence of bigger names such as Earl Thomas, Lamarcus Joyner, Tyrann Mathieu and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix could keep Amos' price down.
At corner, meanwhile, Callahan built upon an underrated 2017 season with an even more impressive 2018, before going down with a broken foot in Week 14, which ended his season. Callahan benefited from playing on an excellent defense at multiple levels, but it's also telling that the winning touchdown pass from the Eagles in that postseason tilt was thrown to Golden Tate against Sherrick McManis, who was Callahan's replacement in the slot.
Of the two, I think the Bears probably will end up re-signing Amos. They've already committed serious money to their two outside cornerbacks in Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara, who will have a combined $23 million cap hit in 2019. The cornerback market is thinner than the safety market, which will make Callahan more of a precious commodity. Callahan also hasn't managed to complete a full 16-game season as a pro, and he has missed 16 games because of injury over his four seasons in Chicago.
3. Sit out free agency. The Bears are missing their first- and second-round picks as part of the Khalil Mack and Anthony Miller trades, respectively. In 2020, they'll send their first- and third-round picks to what will then be Las Vegas, although the Raiders will send their second-round pick back to Chicago. Nobody in Chicago is complaining about the Mack trade after last season, but the Bears are missing a lot of draft capital.
They should do what they can to try to generate compensatory picks over the next couple of years, and while it's tempting to try to go all-in for that one last missing piece, that move rarely pays off. If they lose Callahan, they should be able to recoup a fourth-round compensatory pick for their departed cornerback. When you consider that the Bears drafted Jackson and Tarik Cohen in the fourth round in 2017, a compensatory fourth-rounder might turn out to be a valuable asset.
4. Cut Dion Sims. The Bears have just under $6 million in cap space after re-signing Bobby Massie, so they probably want to clear out a little room to fill out the back of their roster, especially with those missing picks. Sims has value as a blocking tight end, but his $6 million cap hit isn't in line with what similar players such as Michael Hoomanawanui will make in free agency. Sims played only 17.9 percent of Chicago's snaps last season, and that was with Adam Shaheen missing most of the season. The Bears can free up $5.7 million by releasing the former Dolphins draftee.
5. Find a 2020 replacement for Jordan Howard. While Howard excelled during his rookie campaign in 2016 and has been a productive running back, his efficiency metrics have fallen throughout his career. Howard averaged 5.1 yards per carry and posted a 49 percent success rate as a rookie. In 2017, he averaged 4.1 yards per rush, and his success rate fell to 42 percent, which was 35th in the league. Last season, while Howard's success rate popped back up to 50 percent, he averaged just 3.7 yards per carry.
Cohen is the running back who really seems to excel in this offense, although consistency is a problem for the 23-year-old. Chicago should likely expect Howard to move on after the 2019 season, and it should start looking for a back to shoulder his half of the workload as early as this April.
1. Cut T.J. Lang and Glover Quin. The move to sign Lang simply hasn't worked out due to injuries, as the former Packers standout has missed 13 games over the past two seasons with an assortment of ailments. Lang is still an effective player, but after suffering his fifth concussion in 2018 and finishing the season on injured reserve with a neck injury, it's unclear whether Lang wants to continue his career. It's difficult to see him coming back at his $11.5 million cap number under any circumstance.
As for Quin, the 33-year-old safety hasn't been the difference-maker we saw earlier in his career with the Lions. Again, in a market full of talented free safeties one year after the league seemed disinterested in the position during free agency, Quin's $7.9 million cap hit is probably out of line with what he would get on the open market. A pay cut could make sense if Quin wants to stick around, but he would likely be looking at a one-year deal for less than $3 million if Detroit decides to move on.
Cutting Lang and Quin would get Detroit to about $45 million in cap space, and the Lions could get to over $50 million by releasing Nevin Lawson and trading Teez Tabor, neither of whom have emerged as a reliable corner next to Darius Slay. Editor's note: The Lions cut Quin on Friday, Feb. 15.
2. Find a starting corner. About that, actually ... the Lions are still trying to find a second cornerback to play alongside their Pro Bowl starter. D.J. Hayden didn't impress. Lawson can't stop committing penalties, as his 11 flags from a year ago were second in the league, behind Robert Alford. Tabor, a second-round pick in 2017, was a healthy scratch in four games last season, and it wasn't because the Lions were getting great play at corner.
It's probably too early to give up on Tabor, but the Lions can't depend on him to suddenly blossom into a starting corner after two wildly disappointing seasons. Detroit needs to find a solution, and the options in free agency aren't exactly sure things. The Lions would be taking a major risk by spending $10 million or more per season on a player like Ronald Darby.
More plausibly, the Lions will pursue a corner in the draft. They've been popularly linked to LSU corner Greedy Williams with the eighth overall pick, and while they might prefer to add pass-rushing help, Williams would address an issue that has flummoxed the team for years.
3. Go all-in for Trey Flowers. The options at edge rusher in free agency are more promising, even if you assume that DeMarcus Lawrence, Jadeveon Clowney, Dee Ford and Frank Clark are all likely to be franchised. The Lions got 14.5 combined sacks from former Giants Romeo Okwara and Devon Kennard, but with Ezekiel Ansah all but sure to leave Detroit, they need to add a No. 1 pass-rusher.
The obvious match here is with Flowers, whom Matt Patricia coached in New England. The Patriots don't seem likely to franchise Flowers, and with a trickier cap situation, Detroit general manager Bob Quinn can comfortably outbid his former employer for their best pass-rusher. The price tag might be shocking -- Flowers could very well hit five years and $80 million -- but the 25-year-old has 17 sacks on 61 knockdowns over the past two regular seasons and postseasons. The 45 percent rule suggests Flowers would typically have produced about 27 sacks over that time frame given his knockdown total, so it wouldn't shock me to see Flowers take another step forward in 2019, regardless of where he ends up.
4. Draft a tight end. The ideal scenario for the Lions would be to draft Williams in the first round and follow up with a tight end in Round 2, given that the only tight ends left on the roster are Michael Roberts and Jerome Cunningham. The tight end pool in free agency isn't very enticing, but this looks to be a deep draft for tight ends, with three placing among the top 30 prospects in Scouts Inc.'s rankings. Rookie tight ends generally aren't very productive, but the Lions might be able to find a plug-and-play starter such as Irv Smith Jr. at No. 43.
5. Grab a slot receiver. Detroit won't use a slot receiver as frequently as it transitions from Jim Bob Cooter to new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, but it still needs to add someone capable of working in the slot to replace the lost production from Golden Tate. A reunion with Tate, given his likely price tag in free agency, doesn't seem likely.
If we look toward former Patriots, one possible candidate would be Danny Amendola, who is likely to be released by a rebuilding Dolphins team given a lofty cap hit. Another low-cost option would be Jermaine Kearse, who caught 26 of his 37 passes a year ago out of the slot. If the Lions want to go into a higher tax bracket, they could look at Adam Humphries or former Packers standout Randall Cobb, who is still just 28. Quinn also should have an instinct for finding slot receivers after spending time in New England, where it's an entry-level course for personnel executives.
1. Let Clay Matthews leave. A few years ago, I wrote about the hometown premium, where a player who has spent a long time making significant money at one stop might construe an offer from that team as insulting, even if it reflects his actual market.
I suspect the hometown premium could pop up with Matthews this offseason. The six-time Pro Bowler just finished a five-year, $66 million extension that didn't live up to expectations. In the five seasons before the extension, Matthews produced 50 sacks and 106 quarterback knockdowns. Over the five seasons covering that extension, Matthews generated 33.5 sacks and 83 hits. Matthews moved to inside linebacker for stretches of that extension, and he should be applauded for his versatility, but the reality is also that inside linebackers don't typically get paid in free agency in the way that edge rushers do.
Matthews is still a useful player, of course, and he'll have a market if the Packers don't re-sign him. But in a year in which there are plenty of other edge-rushing options in free agency and at the top of the draft, Matthews is probably looking at something in the yearly range of $5 million to $6 million if he goes to a contender.
2. Bring back Muhammad Wilkerson. The former Jets standout impressed with the Packers before going down with a broken ankle in Week 3. He had signed a one-year deal to try to rebuild his value after a disappointing end to his tenure in New York, and after the ankle injury, he likely is going to be staring down another prove-it deal. The Packers should give him a second chance to do that.
3. Bring in a free safety. The Packers traded Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to Washington and moved Tramon Williams to free safety last season. But even if you think Williams played well in his new role, he will turn 36 in March, and he can't be considered a long-term solution. Williams also has a $6.4 million cap hold, and the Packers could release the veteran to free up $4.8 million and get to $39 million in space.
The free safety market is full of options this offseason, and if GM Brian Gutekunst wants to make a return foray into unrestricted free agency, the Packers could viably add someone like Tyrann Mathieu or Lamarcus Joyner. Mathieu's playmaking ability seems particularly tantalizing for a defense that ranked 30th in interceptions per drive last season.
4. Use one of the first-round picks to draft an edge rusher. If the Packers let Matthews go, they'll run into 2019 with Kyler Fackrell and Nick Perry as their edge defenders. It's tough to think they're going to be a great duo next season.
Perry had just 1.5 sacks in nine games, and he hasn't yet completed a full 16-game campaign as a pro.
Fackrell came out of nowhere to produce 10.5 sacks, but those sacks came on just 12 quarterback hits. Typically, pass-rushers will turn about 45 percent of their hits into sacks, and players who dramatically outproduce that rate tend to decline the following year. Fackrell cleaned up on a few coverage sacks and had three sacks in which he narrowly tripped or pulled an opposing quarterback down as he passed by. Two of his sacks came against backup linemen in for injured starters. Six of his sacks came against Josh Allen and Russell Wilson, two of the league's most sackable quarterbacks -- and passers Fackrell won't see in 2019. Fackrell did have more impressive sacks -- he even picked one up against Andrew Whitworth -- but it's unlikely he'll get to double digits again in 2019.
The first round of this draft is full of front-seven pieces, and the Packers have two first-round picks after trading down with the Saints last year. Green Bay isn't in position to draft someone like Nick Bosa, but with the 12th and 30th picks, the Packers should be able to come away with at least one impact pass-rusher to replace Matthews.
5. Add at least one wide receiver. Davante Adams was targeted 169 times last season, the second-highest total in the league, behind Julio Jones. The Packers might have the worst receiving corps in football if Adams were to go down injured, as their starting wideouts would become Geronimo Allison, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown. Those are three young wideouts who each flashed for a game or two in 2018, but Allison was undrafted, Valdes-Scantling was a fifth-round pick and St. Brown was a sixth-rounder. The Packers need to invest in a second wideout with Randall Cobb leaving town.
The free-agent wideout class isn't exactly appealing, although it sure seems like Golden Tate would be able to develop an easy rapport with Aaron Rodgers out of the slot. Jamison Crowder also could make sense at a cheaper price point. Using one of their four top-75 picks on a wide receiver might be more plausible. Going into the season with something beyond Adams and hope at wide receiver is critical.
1. Extend Sheldon Richardson. The Vikings have some tough choices to make on defense, thanks in part to the fact that Kirk Cousins has a $29 million cap hit in 2019, the third highest in football. There's also no way to meaningfully restructure Cousins' deal, so the Vikings basically have to let it ride and make cost savings elsewhere.
One player I wouldn't let go of, though, is Richardson. The 28-year-old had another above-average season as an interior disruptor in his debut with the Vikings, racking up 4.5 sacks and 16 knockdowns -- second on the team behind Danielle Hunter's 19. Hunter managed an unsustainable 14.5 sacks on his 19 knockdowns, so it would be reasonable to expect some regression from him in 2019.
As a defensive tackle, Richardson's franchise tag figure is projected to land somewhere around $15.4 million, nearly double the one-year, $8 million deal he signed with the Vikings after leaving Seattle last offseason. He is likely not going to get that on the free market.
Something close to the five-year, $50 million deal that Star Lotulelei signed with the Bills last year makes more sense. Richardson could join his fourth team in four seasons this March, but for something in the range of $10 million per year, both sides could be satisfied with extending his stay in Minnesota.
2. Let Anthony Barr leave and negotiate with Everson Griffen. Barr will have one of the more fascinating markets in the league as a rangy outside linebacker without the sort of pass-rushing numbers we typically associate with highly paid front-seven pieces. I'm confident some team is going to give Barr a deal north of $10 million per season, but after re-signing Hunter and Eric Kendricks last year, it's probably not going to be the Vikings.
With just $5.8 million in cap space even before re-signing Richardson, the Vikings will have to create room to fill out their roster by shedding at least one large salary. The most plausible move would be to cut Griffen, who left the team in September while struggling with his mental state, then returned in October. Griffen, 31, is still an effective player, but Stephen Weatherly played well in Griffen's absence, and Minnesota would create $10.5 million in cap space by releasing their three-time Pro Bowl end.
The Vikings could instead ask Griffen to take a pay cut or keep him around for another season. If they hold onto Griffen, they could create a similar amount of space by releasing the duo of Andrew Sendejo and Mike Remmers, but the Vikings are weaker at safety and along their offensive line than they are at defensive end.
3. Rework the offensive line ... again. Let's get to Remmers here. One of the many spring pursuits we see as Minneapolis thaws out is GM Rick Spielman reconfiguring the Vikings' offensive line, a unit that has improved and declined in almost perfect harmony with the Vikings' broader success over the past five seasons.
Let's try to narrow down the game of musical chairs. Third-year center Pat Elflein is going to stay at the pivot. Brian O'Neill, a second-round pick in 2018 who impressed at right tackle in his rookie season, is penciled in to start there again in 2019. Rashod Hill started the season at right tackle, but he's probably Minnesota's swing tackle in 2019. Remmers, who originally was signed to play right tackle, moved to right guard in 2017 before struggling mightily last season; he is likely to be released, which would free up $4.6 million in cap space.
We're left with three spots in the starting lineup, one of which will go to Riley Reiff. Which one? If you believe the rumors, it might be left guard. In a familiar story, the Vikings signed Reiff to play left tackle, but after two seasons, they think Reiff might be a better fit on the interior. His arms have been a concern going back to his time at Iowa; the Lions drafted Reiff to play left tackle, but after four years on Matthew Stafford's blind side, Detroit drafted Taylor Decker and moved Reiff to the right side.
Reiff isn't the prototypical left tackle, but do the Vikings have a better option? They can't afford to go out and sign Trent Brown in free agency. The 6-foot-6 Hill is massive, but there have been no signs he can play left tackle at the NFL level. It looks like the Vikings will hope to draft one of the tackles with a first-round grade at the 18th spot while simultaneously moving Reiff to guard, but even that would be turning over one of the most important positions in the lineup to a debuting player.
We haven't even touched on who might replace Remmers at guard, and that's in a market where there really isn't much talent available at the position. The Vikings could sign a center like Matt Paradis and move Elflein to guard, but that's a whole other can of worms. Let's just say the line is going to look a lot different in May than it does now.
4. Explore the trade market for Trae Waynes. One other way to free up space would be to move on from Waynes, who has a $9.1 million cap hold for his fifth-year option. Consistency was an issue earlier in his Vikings tenure, but he has grown steadier and become less of an obvious target for opposing quarterbacks. From what I saw, Waynes was only the primary defender on one touchdown in 2018, when the Rams isolated Waynes against Brandin Cooks for a 47-yard score, and even that took a great throw from Jared Goff.
Are the Vikings likely to sign Waynes to an extension, though? It's a tough call. He will be hitting free agency in 2020 as a 27-year-old who looks to be a very solid No. 2 corner, if not a true shutdown top-tier player. Those guys can get paid: Malcolm Butler picked up a five-year, $61.3 million deal last offseason, and it was coming off of a disappointing 2017 season and that infamous benching in the Super Bowl. If Waynes plays the same way he did in 2018, some team is going to give him an even larger deal in 2020 than Butler's.
It's difficult to picture the Vikings paying that sort of money, given their cap constraints and roster construction. Xavier Rhodes had a disappointing 2018 while battling through injuries, and he is two years older than Waynes, but the Florida State product has shown a far higher ceiling than his younger successor. Mike Zimmer places a priority on drafting and developing young corners, and he appears to have found a gem in 2018 first-rounder Mike Hughes, who was impressive before going down with a torn ACL. If Hughes' rehab goes well, he would likely step in for Waynes in the starting lineup if Waynes leaves.
The Vikings could keep Waynes around for one more season before letting him hit free agency, but teams such as the Patriots and Rams have shown the value in going after players with cost-controlled years left on their rookie deals, and a lot of teams need cornerback help. This isn't a great cornerback market in free agency, either, so one year with Waynes and a comp pick might be preferable to a multiyear deal on Ronald Darby or Bradley Roby.
One logical fit? The Steelers, who were a mess at cornerback after Artie Burns' form mysteriously went south. The former first-round pick was toasted early in the season and lost his job after Pittsburgh's Week 7 bye, playing just 12 defensive snaps over the final 10 games of a disappointing campaign. Mike Tomlin's team also has a bit of extra cap space after the $14.5 million it earmarked for Le'Veon Bell last year rolled over to the 2019 cap.
The Vikings also might welcome the opportunity to rehabilitate Burns, who looked to be a promising corner as recently as 2017. Trading Waynes for Burns and a third-round pick could benefit both sides.
5. Add a third wideout to replace Laquon Treadwell. The subject of much frustration from Vikings fans, Treadwell's move into a more regular role last season did not produce fruitful results. The 2016 first-round pick -- drafted before the likes of Sterling Shepard, Michael Thomas and Tyler Boyd -- averaged just 5.7 yards per target, the fourth-worst mark in the NFL among wideouts with 50 targets or more. Boyd is a reminder that wideouts can break out after they've been written off, but the Vikings are likely to decline Treadwell's fifth-year option this offseason, if they don't cut him outright before the 2019 campaign begins.
The Vikings are blessed with a pair of great wideouts in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, of course. Both can work out of the slot, although Thielen finds himself on the interior far more frequently. His versatility means the Vikings can be flexible in whom they target as a third wideout, although the price tag obviously can't be exorbitant. The Vikings once went after Alshon Jeffery on a long-term deal before Thielen's breakout, so a bigger wideout such as Dontrelle Inman could make sense.
Let's get to the NFC South, where the Saints repeated as division champs for the first time in franchise history. It would hardly be a surprise to see New Orleans win the division for the third consecutive season in 2019, but if Drew Brees slips, the rest of a frequently entertaining division will be ready to pounce. Let's start with the Falcons, who fired both coordinators in an attempt to get back to the playoffs ...
1. Negotiate a pay cut or a release with Vic Beasley Jr. The microcosm of promise unfulfilled on the Atlanta defense, Beasley led the league with 15.5 sacks in 2016 and has just 10 sacks over two seasons since. The 15.5-sack season was about as unlikely of a campaign as you'll see from a pass-rusher -- he knocked down opposing passers only 16 times in 2016. Beasley was supposed to break out with a full-time move back to the defensive line in 2018, but the former first-round pick generated just five sacks in 16 games.
It's too early to give up on Beasley rounding into form, but his $12.8 million cap hit for 2019 is untenable. In a draft in which there is oodles of defensive line talent, it's difficult to believe that Beasley would get something approaching $13 million per season in free agency, even given that he's two seasons removed from a sack crown. As Beasley turns 27 in July, he's also older than just about every other defender from his 2015 draft class. He's seven months older than Jadeveon Clowney, who was taken with the first pick a year earlier.
There should be a middle ground here that makes sense for both sides. The Falcons could give Beasley a four-year, $62 million extension with $8 million in Year 1 and nothing else fully guaranteed until next March, when the Falcons would either decline their option on the remainder of Beasley's deal or pick up $34 million in guarantees over the subsequent two seasons. If they can't come to terms, the Falcons should trade Beasley for a late-round pick and use the $12.8 million they save elsewhere.
2. Franchise Grady Jarrett. The Falcons will use about half of that available space if they franchise Jarrett, who has rounded into an imposing force in the middle of their defense and arguably become their best pass-rusher. Jarrett finished the season with six sacks and 16 knockdowns, and while he hasn't had that dominant season his tape might indicate, he is still just 25 years old.
The good news for the Falcons is that the defensive tackle franchise tag is consistently less than the figure for defensive ends. CBS' Joel Corry projects a $15.4 million tag for defensive tackles in 2019. A Jarrett extension would come in somewhere around $15 million to $17 million per season.
3. Address the guard spot. After their offensive line went 80-for-80 in starts in 2016 and stayed healthy for the entire regular season, the Falcons haven't been quite as lucky with their line over the ensuing two seasons. Atlanta's would-be starting linemen have missed 28 games over the past two seasons.
The line also hasn't played as well, with the Falcons struggling to replace retired guard Chris Chester. Wes Schweitzer, who won the right guard job as a rookie in 2017, lost it in 2018 before being forced to play left guard once Andy Levitre went down with a torn triceps in Week 2. Levitre is now a free agent. Right tackle Ryan Schraeder hasn't been 100 percent. There just isn't much here after Jake Matthews and Alex Mack, and Atlanta's influential center will turn 34 in November.
Atlanta needs to get better play from its guards in 2019. One obvious fit in free agency might be J.R. Sweezy, given the presence of former Bucs coach Dirk Koetter as offensive coordinator, but the Bucs also had Sweezy take a pay cut after he missed all of his first season in 2016 thanks to injuries and then cut him outright after Year 2. You would understand if Sweezy isn't desperate for another round with Koetter. Rodger Saffold, arguably the top guard on the market, is probably out of Atlanta's price range. The Falcons might have to get creative.
4. Find a new receiving back. When the Falcons signed Devonta Freeman to a five-year, $41.3 million extension, it signaled they were probably going to move on from Tevin Coleman when the lighter half of their running back rotation hit free agency. The Freeman deal, signed after two years in a Kyle Shanahan scheme that has made basically every running back look great for a decade, has been a loser so far. Freeman's efficiency dropped while he fumbled four times in 2017, and he missed 14 games last season.
Coleman was competent in Freeman's absence, but he's going to get a multiyear deal on the market. The Falcons will want to draft a receiving back to replace Coleman.
5. Extend Julio Jones. The Falcons don't typically extend their players before the final year of their deals -- Atlanta didn't even hand Matt Ryan a new deal after he won MVP with two years left to go on his deal in 2016 -- but they could make an exception for their star wideout. Jones made his desires known last summer by deleting all of the Falcons content from his Instagram account, and the Falcons subsequently turned some of his 2018 and 2019 base salary into a bonus to get Jones a quick boost.
Nobody would argue against the idea that Jones is underpaid, given that he has two years and just over $21 million left on his extension in a market in which Sammy Watkins just signed a three-year, $48 million deal. Jones is closer to Marqise Lee-type money, and while I don't want to be disrespectful to the Lee family, I think even they would admit that Jones is a different caliber of receiver.
It will be tricky because the other recent major contracts for wideouts were signed with one year left to go on their respective deals. Mike Evans got $41.8 million in new money over the first three seasons of his extension. Antonio Brown picked up $42.2 million in the same category, and Odell Beckham Jr. was at $44.3 million. Evans has the most total money due over the first three seasons of his deal at $55 million, but he also was already in line to make $13.3 million and the third year of his extension is unguaranteed.
Because Jones has two years left on his current deal, the calculus changes. The Falcons also front-loaded Jones' last extension to pay him more money up front, and after he wanted to hold out on the back end of the deal, they probably won't want to do that again as part of his current extension. This is going to be a complicated negotiation.
Jones will look to top Beckham's contract numbers, which means something in the ballpark of a five-year, $95 million extension. The goal for Julio and his representation would probably be to take home something around $60 million over the first three years of the deal.
1. Address the tackle position. The Panthers have some work to do. The good news is that second-year tackle Taylor Moton had a very good season on the right side and appears to be locked into that role for the years to come. No worries there. Moton took over for Daryl Williams, who missed virtually all of 2018 with knee injuries. More on him in a second.
The left side of the line isn't quite as enticing. One of Dave Gettleman's last moves as Panthers general manager was to sign Matt Kalil to an inexplicable five-year, $55.5 million deal before the 2017 season. The oft-injured Kalil had a subpar 2017 season before missing the entire 2018 campaign with a knee injury. Chris Clark, who became the starter in Kalil's absence, was a stopgap and is now a free agent.
The Panthers find themselves in a difficult place with Kalil, who has a $12.5 million cap hit in 2019. If they cut him, they'll owe $14.7 million in dead money. Even if they designate Kalil as a post-June 1 release, they would owe $4.9 million in 2019 before a $9.8 million charge in 2020. No team wants to eat that much dead money, but Kalil might not justify the roster spot if the Panthers can find a competent left tackle.
This brings us back to Williams, who was a second-team All-Pro right tackle in 2017 and is now a free agent. The Panthers briefly slotted Moton in as their starting left tackle in place of Kalil before moving him to the right side once Williams reinjured his knee. One option for the Panthers would be to cut Kalil, re-sign Williams, then move Moton to left tackle. It's high-risk -- Moton might not be able to play left tackle -- but they might also end up with the best possible combination of tackles available from this three-man bunch.
More likely, the Panthers will let Williams leave, keep Moton on the right side and give Kalil one more year at left tackle. Taking a tackle in the first few rounds of the 2019 draft should be in the cards for Carolina.
2. Find a free safety. The Panthers re-signed Eric Reid after he impressed as a midseason signing, but they probably need to find him a partner in center field. Mike Adams, who was the starter a year ago, is probably best suited for a reserve player/coach role at this point. Carolina has 2018 third-rounder Rashaan Gaulden in the mix, but he's still converting to the position after playing mostly corner in college and likely profiles as a strong safety, where Reid is best.
The good news for the Panthers is that the veteran market is deep at free safety, given the presence of Earl Thomas, Tyrann Mathieu and several others. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix could make sense here given his likely price tag.
3. Add an edge rusher. The Panthers finished 25th in sack rate last season, with a surprisingly mediocre season from Kawann Short; the edge rushers behind Mario Addison didn't do very much to move the needle, either. Addison finished with 10 sacks, but Julius Peppers was the only other defender with more than 3.5 takedowns, and the future Hall of Famer just announced his retirement. Wes Horton, who started eight games a year ago, is also a free agent.
Again, the Panthers find themselves in the right moment for adding defensive line help, given that this is a draft that is absolutely loaded with front-seven defenders. GM Marty Hurney should be able to grab an impactful pass-rusher for coach Ron Rivera with the 16th overall pick. The Panthers also could dip into the free-agent market for help, where a veteran such as Benson Mayowa or Bruce Irvin could contribute in a rotational role.
4. Decline the fifth-year option on Vernon Butler. The Louisiana Tech product simply hasn't improved since entering the NFL, and in a Panthers organization that has done a good job of developing defensive linemen, the onus for that would seem to fall on Butler. The 24-year-old was a healthy scratch in December. It wouldn't be a shock if he were on another roster come Week 1. A reunion with Gettleman in New York is entirely plausible.
5. Draft a replacement for Ryan Kalil. Carolina's longtime center (and Matt's brother) retired this offseason, leaving the Panthers with a hole at the pivot. There are centers such as Mitch Morse and Matt Paradis on the free-agent market, but the Panthers might prefer to lean toward the draft for cap reasons. Carolina already met with NC State product Garrett Bradbury at the Senior Bowl, and adding at least one rookie to compete with Tyler Larsen for the starting job would make sense.
1. Create some cap space. The Saints can free up $7.7 million in room by releasing Kurt Coleman and Cameron Meredith. Meredith played just 126 snaps on offense before aggravating his knee injury, and Coleman's $7 million cap hit is onerous for a veteran who played only 34.9 percent of the regular-season snaps. The former Panthers standout played just three defensive snaps during the postseason. Those moves should get the Saints to about $17 million in total cap space.
2. Let Mark Ingram leave if the price gets too high. It's going to be difficult to let the popular Ingram leave town in free agency, but the Saints might not have the cap space to keep him if he gets starting-caliber money elsewhere. Ingram still plays a meaningful role in this offense -- he averaged 13.8 touches per game after returning from his PED suspension in Week 5, compared to Alvin Kamara's 16.7 (not including the meaningless Week 17 contest) -- but the Saints are going to be pinching pennies to fill out the bottom 20 percent of their roster.
They need to go into the offseason with a hard number on Ingram and stick to it. If it's $4 million or less, New Orleans could justify keeping Ingram around for a couple of seasons more. Anything more and it is probably better off adding a back in the draft.
3. Re-sign Andrus Peat. Although the Saints drafted Peat as a tackle, he has settled in as a very good guard, albeit with an injury history. With Peat's fifth-year option arriving, the Saints should be ready to give the Stanford product an extension. They can even structure the deal to lower Peat's $9.6 million cap hit, although the deal is not going to come cheap.
Peat's deal probably will come in somewhere around five years and $65 million. This will be a tough negotiation: If the Saints aren't willing to pay up, Peat will attract big money in free agency from teams that want to sign him to play tackle in 2020.
4. Maintain the other side of the ball. Picking up Sheldon Rankins' fifth-year option, meanwhile, is a no-brainer on defense. Rankins tore his Achilles in the divisional-round win over the Eagles, but the option would be too conservative to decline as it doesn't come into play until the 2020 season.
The Saints also need to add at least one pass-rusher to their rotation with Alex Okafor hitting free agency; they could re-sign Okafor or go after one of the edge-rushers who are likely to be released by their teams this offseason to avoid affecting the compensatory formula. If the Saints could persuade somebody like Terrell Suggs or Cameron Wake to wait until the July 1 deadline before signing, that also would be a way to add another piece to the puzzle.
5. Trade up for Kyler Murray (within reason). The gambit to trade for Teddy Bridgewater ended up being rather inconsequential, as his only start in a Saints uniform came in Week 17. The Saints lost a third-round pick as part of the deal, but if they don't cancel out losing Bridgewater with a similar signing in unrestricted free agency, they should be able to recoup a 2020 compensatory pick, most likely in the fourth round.
I love the idea of the Saints ending up with Murray in the draft. Sean Payton was reportedly fond of Baker Mayfield last year, and while Mayfield's successor at Oklahoma is hardly identical, it's easy to imagine how Murray's accuracy, delivery and playmaking ability would make him a very viable weapon in Payton's offense. Murray would likely need a redshirt year a la Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City, which is in line with Brees' time frame, given that the 40-year-old's contract voids after 2019.
My suspicion is that Murray will drop during the pre-draft process, although that has nothing to do with him and more with the archaic rules teams place on quarterbacks. When Murray measures in below 6-foot at the combine, a handful of teams will take him off their boards or give him impossibly low grades on height alone. If he measures below 5-10, that list will get longer. That would be great news for the Saints.
The tricky part is that New Orleans doesn't have a first-round pick after trading up for Marcus Davenport last year, so it is going to need to leverage its 2020 first-rounder to try to move up. If the Saints package their second-round pick and that 2020 first-rounder, that should be enough to move into the bottom half of the first round. The Seahawks (21) and the Ravens (22) are teams comfortable with trading down for future selections, and they pick just ahead of the Raiders at 24 and 27. That could be a viable landing spot for Murray and the Saints.
If I'm wrong and the league correctly values Murray's on-field ability, he'll go in the top 10, and the Saints probably won't be able to move up to grab him. In that case, the Saints will need to go back into the market for a Brees backup. If Sam Bradford is able to pass a physical, he would be a logical fit in that role.
1. Cut DeSean Jackson and Beau Allen. The Bucs already cut Vinny Curry, and Allen might follow him out the door, thanks to a $5 million cap hit in a year where the draft is full of defensive linemen. The Bucs allowed 4.9 yards per carry and first downs on 31.8 percent of run attempts with Allen on the field, numbers that fell to 4.5 yards per rush and 25.8 percent, respectively, with Allen sidelined. Jackson's release seems to be little more than a formality.
2. Ask Gerald McCoy to take a pay cut. The Bucs have publicly floated the idea of releasing their star defensive tackle, which seems like a curious move given that they ranked 32nd in defensive DVOA last season. McCoy does turn 31 this month and has a $13 million cap hit, the fourth largest on the roster.
The argument for releasing McCoy is that the Bucs are going to move to a 3-4 base defense under Todd Bowles, and McCoy profiles best as a penetrating 3-technique tackle in a 4-3 defense, as he has played throughout his career. The sheer number of defensive linemen available in the draft also makes expensive veterans less valuable, and it's plausible that McCoy would struggle to find $13 million per season on the open market.
I don't think the Bucs should release McCoy. For one, the 4-3/3-4 distinction doesn't mean much in 2019. Bowles has already said the Bucs will be a one-gap defense, meaning McCoy will have chances to attack. In Bowles' final season with the Jets, they were in their base defense only 19.8 percent of the time, with the rest of their snaps either coming in goal-line situations or with five or more defensive backs on the field. The Jets were in a 4-3 for two-thirds of those base defense snaps, even after years with Bowles in charge. Bowles' scheme is less about 3-4 or 4-3 and more about finding creative ways to blitz out of nickel and dime packages.
The Bucs don't really have the personnel to play in a 3-4, either. Their middle linebacker in 2018 was Kwon Alexander, who got hurt and is now a free agent. Lavonte David will have to move to one of the two inside linebacker spots, and although the roles should be similar, he'll have to go through an adjustment period. Jason Pierre-Paul, who has spent his entire career as a 4-3 defensive end, isn't going to turn into a cover linebacker at 30. The best fit for the Bucs is to stick in the 4-3 when they go with their base set.
What would make sense for the Bucs would be to restructure McCoy's deal as part of an extension. They could offer McCoy a four-year contract in the $50 million range with guarantees in 2019 and 2020 that simultaneously bring down his cap number for 2019. McCoy might not want to hit the open market, and the Bucs aren't in a position to be getting rid of talented defensive players.
3. Franchise Donovan Smith. Is Smith a franchise left tackle? No, probably not. The consistency hasn't yet been there for the Penn State product, on a per-game or a per-season basis. Stats LLC credits him with zero sacks allowed in 2016, but that was in a season in which he took 13 penalties. Smith has allowed either five or 5.5 sacks in each of his three other campaigns, but he also has stayed healthy and brought his penalty totals down from that 13-penalty mark to six last season.
The Bucs just hired a coach in Bruce Arians who loves to chuck the ball deep downfield. They need pass-blockers who can hold up under that strain, and if the Bucs lose Smith, the only other left tackle option on the market is Trent Brown, who is likely looking at franchise-caliber money. Tampa also has undrafted free agents backing up Smith and Demar Dotson on the outside. I'd lock up Smith and work toward a long-term deal.
4. Import the ex-Cardinals. You know Arians and Bowles are going to go back to the well and try to bring in some of the players who excelled under their stewardship in Arizona. The two obvious fits might be relative bargains. John Brown looked healthy for the first time in years during the first half of the season in Baltimore, but he never developed any chemistry with Lamar Jackson. Brown caught just eight passes on 30 targets for 114 yards over Jackson's seven starts. He could be the replacement for DeSean Jackson in Tampa.
The other fit would be Deone Bucannon, who went from looking like the prototype for the new hybrid linebacker during his time with Bowles to totally getting lost in the shuffle last season under Steve Wilks. Bucannon needs to end up in a place where the defensive coordinator will play to his strengths instead of emphasizing his weaknesses. Going back to what worked with Bowles would make sense for both parties, especially if the Bucs don't re-sign Alexander.
5. Bring back Patrick Murray. Now that the "Browns quarterback jersey" is being retired with the rise of Baker Mayfield, the next sadness jersey probably should be dedicated to Buccaneers kickers. Here are the kickers they have gone through in the Jason Licht era:
Murray is 39-of-47 (82.9 percent) on field goals. The rest of this bunch -- a group that includes two kickers given significant guaranteed money and one whom Licht traded up to draft in the second round -- is 77-of-109 (70.6 percent). At some point, Licht just shouldn't be allowed to evaluate kickers, right?
Let's start with the team holding the first overall pick in April's draft:
1. Address the offensive line (again). It seems every move the Cardinals have made to try to fix their offensive line issues over the past several seasons has been a bust, mostly thanks to injury. Free agents such as Mike Iupati and Justin Pugh haven't stayed healthy. D.J. Humphries, a first-round pick in 2015, spent his first season in Bruce Arians' doghouse before struggling with injuries; he has played just 27 of 64 possible games over four seasons. By the end of 2018, rookie quarterback Josh Rosen was playing behind a line of five backups. Imagine if your first student driving lesson involved merging onto the track at Talladega.
Re-signing Joe Barksdale, who arrived as a midseason waiver claim from the Chargers, is a reasonable place to start. The Cards won't re-sign Iupati after a disappointing stint in Arizona, and given new coach Kliff Kingsbury's predilection for throwing the football, they'll want someone who is a better pass-blocker on the interior.
Humphries is a difficult case, as the Florida product is entering his fifth-year option and coming off a season-ending knee injury that might prevent him from passing a physical. If Humphries can't pass the physical, Arizona will be on the hook for his $9.6 million option. If Humphries can pass, the team can choose to cut him, but it has no obvious replacement for Humphries at left tackle.
Then again, according to Stats LLC, Humphries has allowed 12 sacks in 27 starts, including five in nine games last season. The Cardinals might as well keep him around and see if there's anything there in a rebuilding year, but they need to have a Plan B they're comfortable with if Humphries doesn't suddenly find his form.
2. Resolve Patrick Peterson's future. While Peterson retracted the trade request he made around the October deadline, the Cardinals are in a bit of a quandary when it comes to their superstar cornerback. He has two years and just under $24 million left on the five-year, $70 million extension he signed in the summer of 2014, which is relatively cheap for a franchise cornerback.
Peterson's next deal is likely going to reset the cornerback market, which is topped by the five-year, $75 million deal Josh Norman signed with Washington in 2016. Peterson turns 29 in July, so if Arizona waits until next offseason, it will be mostly paying for years on the wrong side of 30, and those seasons might very well be coming for a rebuilding franchise.
The best time to do something about Peterson's future is now. If the Cardinals don't think they want to pay Peterson top-tier money for his age-31 and age-32 seasons, this is when he'll have the most trade value. If they want to sign Peterson to an extension, now's the time. Assuming that the first three years of Peterson's new deal will be fully or practically guaranteed, it's better to use the two years of below-market money they have as leverage to lock up Peterson from ages 29 to 31 as opposed to ages 30 to 32. A five-year, $80 million extension with $40 million guaranteed at signing would be a good place to start.
3. Find more cornerback help. Arizona hasn't been able to solve its cornerback spot across from Peterson for several years now, with everyone from Justin Bethel to Marcus Cooper to Tramon Williams filling in for short stints. By the end of the year, Raiders castoff David Amerson was starting.
Arizona tried to beat the market to the punch by signing former Falcons corner Robert Alford to a three-year, $22.5 million deal last week. Counting on Alford when he was one of the worst starting corners in the league in 2018 is a dangerous proposition. At the least, they should be looking for a corner in the second- to third-round range to develop behind the 30-year-old Alford. It would be easier to find that corner if the Cards ...
4. Trade the No. 1 overall pick for multiple selections. They won't be taking a quarterback with Rosen already on the roster. It will be tempting to keep the top pick in this draft and use it on a defensive difference-maker such as Ohio State's Nick Bosa or Alabama's Quinnen Williams, both of whom profile as absolute studs and wonderful complements to Chandler Jones.
In a draft this deep with defensive talent -- Mel Kiper Jr.'s first mock draft has 16 front-seven pieces going in the first round -- the value in using the first overall pick on a defensive player just is not there. There are no sure things in any draft, and the Cardinals can find a pass-rusher who isn't likely to be far off from Bosa later in the first round.
More importantly, though, the Cardinals simply need to stockpile talent after years of poor drafts. There's nobody left on the roster from the 2012 draft that preceded Steve Keim's promotion to general manager. Once free agency begins, no player from Keim's 2013 or 2014 drafts will be left in the organization. The 2015 draft will be down to Humphries and David Johnson. The 2016 draft is down to Robert Nkemdiche and Brandon Williams, both of whom have been wildly disappointing.
Keim's 2017 draft was more promising, and it's still way too early to judge the 2018 class, but the Cardinals have one above-average starter and three athletes who haven't been healthy or effective to show for five years of drafts. They need to amass draft picks and rebuild their roster. They need to hope that somebody falls in love with a quarterback and doesn't want to run any risk of another team trading up with the 49ers at No. 2. If Arizona can get an extra first-rounder or a pair of second-rounders to move down, it needs to seriously consider that offer.
5. Add another wide receiver capable of playing on the outside. Arizona's two best wideouts are Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk. They're both best suited to play in the slot at this point in their careers, and there's not much doing for the Cardinals on the outside. Fitz spent more time in 2018 in the slot, where he caught 47 of his 69 receptions.
If this is the 35-year-old Fitzgerald's final season, the Cardinals will likely prepare for 2020 with Kirk in the slot and question marks on the outside. Chad Williams, a third-round pick in 2017, caught just 37 percent of the passes thrown to him a year ago and hasn't shown much in the NFL. Bringing in a receiver who can win at the line of scrimmage, either in free agency or via the draft, should be a priority in aiding Rosen's development.
1. Convince Andrew Whitworth to come back. The easiest way for the Rams to disappoint in 2019 is for their offensive line to take a step backward. We saw how Sean McVay's offense ground to a halt amid a poor performance from its line in Super Bowl LIII, and with no experienced replacement for Whitworth on the roster (and just one top-95 pick in the draft), the Rams desperately need their 37-year-old left tackle to put off retirement and return for another season.
What will it take to convince Whitworth to stay? As he enters the final year of his three-year contract, the Rams could give Whitworth a one-year extension with a raise in 2019 to start. Is he sick of the Los Angeles traffic? Owner Stan Kroenke has to have a spare helicopter laying around somewhere. Let Whitworth commute on the chopper. Get him a black card for Yoshinoya. Whatever it takes.
2. Bring back Rodger Saffold and C.J. Anderson. Might as well keep the left side of the line intact, and at 30, Saffold should still have several years left in the tank. There might still be a team out there that looks at him as a possible tackle candidate, but Saffold is probably looking at a deal in the $11-12 million annual salary range.
Anderson and Los Angeles seems like a good fit for all parties involved after the former Broncos back came off the street and excelled in December and January. The Rams shouldn't go over $3 million per season to retain him, but as an insurance policy against Todd Gurley II's knee -- which, he'll be happy to tell you, is fine and definitely not injured -- Anderson is a helpful backup.
3. Trade down from the 31st pick. Teams will buzz the Rams on the end of Day 1 in the hopes of trading back into the first round, which has the advantage of providing teams with a fifth-year option. The Rams will want to make the pick, of course, but this is a team that has traded away most of its top picks to either draft Jared Goff or build around him.
It's more important that L.A. comes away with two or three solid contributors from this draft who can succeed for cheap over the next few seasons than go after one player with a slightly stronger chance of becoming a star, especially as the team continues to lock in the core of this squad. If the Rams can get a team picking in the top half of the round to send them second-round picks in 2019 and 2020, they should jump at the chance.
4. Sign Clay Matthews and wait out the market on veterans. Matthews is almost too obvious of a fit. The Rams are thin on the edge and probably won't be able to afford to bring back Dante Fowler Jr. Matthews grew up in Southern California and walked on at USC, playing for the Trojans in the same stadium that is now the Rams' home. Matthews' numbers are down in recent years, but joining the Rams would allow him to play as a full-time edge rusher. The inside linebacker work Matthews did in Green Bay also should depress his price to the point where the Rams can afford to bring in Matthews on a one-year deal.
Every veteran player who wants a meaningful shot at winning a Super Bowl is going to tell his agent he wants to play for the Rams this offseason. The Rams will likely sit out most of free agency to avoid impacting their standing in the compensatory pick formula, but they'll target players who are cut by their current teams, since those players won't count against the compensatory formula.
Who could fit into that plan? At wide receiver, the Rams could stash a wideout like Emmanuel Sanders on the physically unable to perform list to have depth in case of, say, another Cooper Kupp injury. If the Vikings cut Everson Griffen, another former USC product, the Rams would loom as an obvious destination. Justin Houston also would make sense. There will be surprise cuts, as there are every year, and the Rams will presumably have first dibs on any of those. They should have enough clout to encourage some veterans to hold off on signing until after July 1, when the moves won't touch the compensatory formula.
5. Don't extend Jared Goff this offseason. Teams have the option of extending their first-round picks with long-term deals after the end of their third seasons in the league. In most cases, they wait a year and reap the benefits of a fourth season priced in at well below market value. The exceptions are generally for transcendent superstars such as J.J. Watt and Patrick Peterson.
The Rams are the exception to the exception: They've done several fourth-year extensions under GM Les Snead, including deals for Tavon Austin, Robert Quinn and, most recently, Gurley. You can see how those moves went. Austin was a disastrous contract from the jump. Quinn fell off dramatically after posting 19 sacks in Year 3, although he looked like an absolute star. Gurley was an MVP candidate for half of 2018, but he was struggling by the end of the season with a mysterious knee injury, and the Rams didn't skip a beat when they replaced Gurley with Anderson.
It's too early to evaluate the Gurley deal, but as we get to Goff's future, look no further than the Super Bowl. The Patriots flummoxed Goff in a way that might end up being telling. He made a few excellent anticipatory throws, but he spent most of the game out of rhythm waiting for somebody to get open.
Earlier this year, I brought up the idea of a team constantly remaining on the rookie quarterback cycle by drafting a quarterback, developing him into a star, and then trading him at the end of his rookie deal for a high draft pick to repeat the process. The right team would have a brilliant offensive mind for a head coach and oodles of offensive talent, players the team otherwise would have to let go to pay their quarterback a premium.
The Rams are the most obvious example for this concept, although it's clear they believe Goff is a bona fide franchise quarterback. I don't think the Rams will hop back on the rookie passer cycle. I don't think they should trade Goff at the end of his rookie deal, either. I don't know whether any team will ever have the guts to do it, because getting that rookie quarterback evaluation wrong as a GM means you're getting fired and becoming the butt of jokes for a decade. It's too much pressure.
At the same time, I don't think Goff is such an obvious perennial Offensive Player of the Year candidate that the Rams need to start extending him immediately. It has to at least be a little concerning that Goff's numbers fell off once Kupp was injured, especially because Kupp is the exact sort of luxury the Rams would struggle to keep around at the going rate for wide receivers once they give Goff a raise.
There's no rush here. Get another year of information, and if Goff is the player the Rams think he is, they'll still have tons of leverage to extend him after Year 4. The Rams can use their cap space now to add veteran talent or roll it over to have extra money when Goff does get expensive. And if Goff does take a step backward in 2019, well, it could save the Rams from a Derek Carr-esque conundrum.
1. Move on from Pierre Garcon, Garry Gilliam and Malcolm Smith. It's almost a lock that the 49ers will part ways with the 32-year-old Garcon, who has struggled with injuries during his two years in San Francisco while being passed on the depth chart. Gilliam, who served as the backup tackle behind Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey, played just 8 percent of San Francisco's offense snaps last season and has a cap charge north of $5 million in 2019. Smith, a bizarrely expensive signing in 2017, missed all of that season with a torn pectoral muscle and then started only five games in 2018.
Those three moves will clear out about $7.3 million in cap space and get the 49ers to just over $70 million in room.
2. Franchise Robbie Gould. The 49ers can work out a long-term deal with their 36-year-old kicker, of course, but with no other realistic options for the franchise tag, GM John Lynch can keep Gould around for 2019. Gould was the seventh-best kicker in football on scoring plays last year.
3. Pursue a cornerback in free agency. Although Richard Sherman was a success in his first season by the Bay and K'Waun Williams has rounded into a solid slot cornerback, the other corner spot has been an issue. Ahkello Witherspoon regressed in his second season before tearing his PCL, and while 2018 third-rounder Tarvarius Moore came up with the occasional big play in Witherspoon's absence, he also looked like a rookie for stretches, too.
In a division with the Rams, three good cornerbacks are the minimum. Sherman also has already suggested that a move to free safety could eventually be in the cards, although it doesn't appear that such a move would be likely to occur in 2019. Either way, the 49ers should be in the market for a cornerback this offseason.
Unfortunately for the Niners, this cornerback market isn't exactly filled with sure things. Assuming the 49ers want somebody with size for coordinator Robert Saleh's scheme, the two most obvious fits would be Colts corner Pierre Desir and Patriots regular Eric Rowe, each of whom are 6-foot-1. Desir is coming off a career year in Indy, while Rowe has a longer track record but hasn't been able to stay healthy. The former Eagles draftee has missed 27 games over the past three seasons. Good money on a team-friendly structure might be the way to go here.
There are much more obvious fits at free safety, where the market is far deeper. The most tantalizing move would be to reunite the Legion of Boom by signing away Earl Thomas from the Seahawks, although the future Hall of Famer hasn't played a full 16-game season since 2015 and turns 30 in May. Thomas would be a plug-and-play free safety, with Jaquiski Tartt stepping in as the 49ers' version of Kam Chancellor. Lamarcus Joyner, Tyrann Mathieu and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are also free agents the 49ers could pursue at the position.
4. Find a Leo. Although the 49ers have spent three first-round picks on defensive linemen over the past four seasons, they've managed to unearth only one excellent pass-rusher in defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who posted 12 sacks and 20 knockdowns in a breakout 2018 campaign. Cassius Marsh chipped in with 5.5 sacks, but everything up to this point has suggested that Marsh is a better fit as a rotation end.
The Seahawks-style defense Saleh runs in San Francisco is designed to work with an athletic weakside pass-rusher whose sole job is to ruin quarterbacks' days. The 49ers haven't really had a Leo since Saleh came on board, with players such as Elvis Dumervil and Eli Harold filling the role out of necessity's sake. Former first-round picks Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas aren't good fits in the Leo role. The 49ers need someone quicker and with more bend to get after the quarterback.
A great fit would be Nick Bosa, but he's the favorite to come off the board with the first overall pick to the Cardinals, just ahead of San Francisco at No. 2. If Arizona trades out of the pick to a team that wants to draft a quarterback, well, the 49ers should be all set to draft Bosa. If not, the popular pick for the 49ers has been Kentucky edge rusher Josh Allen, but the Niners might also be able to trade down and grab an extra selection while still taking a pass-rusher somewhere in the 8-12 range.
5. Hold on to Nick Mullens. As far as practice-squad passers go, teams have done a lot worse than the 49ers did with Mullens at quarterback in 2018. He isn't going to win the job from Jimmy Garoppolo anytime soon, but Mullens posted a 90.8 passer rating and averaged 8.3 yards per attempt with a set of skill-position weapons beset by injuries. The 49ers also have Mullens under contract for two more seasons at less than $1 million per year, given that the Southern Mississippi product will be an exclusive rights free agent in 2020.
At the least, he appears to be a competent backup quarterback, a role that teams usually pay something in the $6 million per year range to fill. Mullens has $10 million in surplus value on his current deal, let alone the implied value of what would happen if he continues to develop and turns into a viable starting quarterback. In a financial system in which cheap quarterbacks rule the world, Mullens has significant trade value.
In some cases, I would encourage a team like the 49ers to trust their coaching staff and scouts to find and develop another undrafted free agent such as Mullens. I can't do that here. When I wrote about Garoppolo before the 2018 season, I mentioned that we couldn't be confident he would be healthy for a full season.
Garoppolo has now suffered two serious injuries in his three short stints as a starter, as the 27-year-old separated his shoulder in his second start with the Patriots in 2016 before tearing his ACL three games into the 2018 campaign. The 49ers have the talent to compete for a playoff spot if their team can stay healthy in 2019, and their highest upside is with a healthy Garoppolo, but I'm not convinced he'll be able to stay healthy for 16 games at a time. Mullens is too valuable of an insurance policy to trade away.
1. Put a full-page ad in the newspaper thanking Earl Thomas for his contributions. I would've preferred to write "Franchise Earl Thomas" or "Pay Earl Thomas a lot of money," but I think those ships sailed when the legendary Seahawks safety flipped off his own sideline as he was being carted off last season. It's clear the Seahawks don't want to offer Thomas a long-term contact, and the franchise tag wouldn't make either party happy.
What the Seahawks can do, though, is try to repair the relationship for the future. Put an ad in The Seattle Times thanking Thomas for his incredible run with the team. Soft-retire his No. 29 and don't give it to anyone else until Thomas retires. For whatever has happened over the past year, Thomas is one of the best players to ever wear a Seahawks uniform. Ten years from now, the stuff he did on the field is going to be his legacy. From here on out, it's about attempting to create a scenario in which both sides can feel good about celebrating that one day.
2. Franchise Frank Clark. While the Seahawks will likely look to retain several of their pending free agents -- notably D.J. Fluker, J.R. Sweezy and Justin Coleman -- Clark is the one free agent the Seahawks absolutely have to retain. In a class of edge rushers who are likely to stay on their current teams via the franchise tag, Clark will be in the mix alongside Jadeveon Clowney and DeMarcus Lawrence for extensions. Lawrence will make more because he's on his second franchise tag, but if any of these guys signs an extension, it will be with an annual salary between $18 million and $20 million per year.
3. Extend Russell Wilson. The Seahawks went with a run-heavy approach in 2018 that minimized Wilson's impact on the offense -- he threw just 427 passes in 16 games after averaging 527 over the prior three seasons -- but Wilson made up for it with hyper-efficiency. He's not showing any signs of slippage at 30, and while Wilson would find it extremely difficult to toss touchdown passes on 8.2 percent of his dropbacks again in 2019, he remains one of the league's truly elite quarterbacks when not forced to run for his life before even receiving the snap.
The Seahawks have tended to favor four-year extensions under GM John Schneider, so it's likely that Seattle will hand Wilson a large signing bonus and lock him up until his age-34 campaign. With Aaron Rodgers averaging $33.5 million in annual salary and $103 million over the first three years of his extension with the Packers, the obvious number to look for here is $35 million per season. A four-year, $140 million extension is eventually where this should settle.
4. Extend Bobby Wagner too. The Seahawks probably will let K.J. Wright hit free agency this offseason, but it's difficult to imagine them letting Wagner leave next offseason. Negotiations won't be quite as cut and dried as they are with Wilson because of positional scarcity, but Wagner is still rightly regarded as arguably the best player at his position in football.
The gold standard deal for a linebacker who doesn't rush the passer is Jamie Collins' four-year, $50 million deal from January 2017. I think the Seahawks probably will have to top that as part of a Wagner extension, given that the five-time Pro Bowler is already making north of $10 million per season on his current extension. Going to $15 million per season is too ambitious, but Wagner's new four-year extension should come in between $52 million and $56 million.
5. Sign Muhammad Wilkerson. The extensions probably will limit much of what the Seahawks can do in free agency, and unless they want to sign a free safety to replace Thomas, there aren't many great matches between where the Seahawks would want to spend money and useful players.
One logical place to target would be defensive tackle, where the Seahawks have been struggling with their decisions for years. Malik McDowell, the team's second-round pick in 2017, never played a snap for the team after reportedly suffering serious injuries in an ATV accident. The injury led the Seahawks to trade a second-round pick and Jermaine Kearse for Sheldon Richardson, who left for the Vikings on a one-year deal in free agency. Shamar Stephen left something to be desired next to Jarran Reed, and while Poona Ford has flashed in brief moments, the Seahawks should add at least one veteran to their rotation.
Wilkerson, who looked good for the Packers last season before going down with a serious ankle injury, is probably going to settle for a one-year deal in the hopes of rebuilding his value. He would make sense as the latest Seahawks transplant on the interior.