Last week, I ran through all 16 NFC teams and projected the first five things each should be thinking about as they prepare for the new league year, which begins March 18. I'll head to the AFC this week.
Jump to a team:
AFC West: DEN | KC | LV | LAC
AFC South: HOU | IND | JAX | TEN
AFC North: BAL | CIN | CLE | PIT
AFC East: BUF | MIA | NE | NYJ
NFC East: DAL | NYG | PHI | WSH
NFC North: CHI | DET | GB | MIN
NFC South: ATL | CAR| NO | TB
NFC West: ARI | LAR| SF | SEA
We'll finish this series with the AFC West, where the Super Bowl LIV champs will have to get creative to bring back the heroes of their run to the title. But let's start with a team that has cycled through seven starting quarterbacks since winning Super Bowl 50 four years ago ...
Projected 2020 cap space: $58 million
1. Decline various options and cut Joe Flacco.The Broncos already have announced that they'll pick up Von Miller's 2020 option, but they will likely go in a different direction with several other veterans. Ron Leary hasn't been able to stay healthy since coming over from the Cowboys, and while the offensive line has perennially been an issue for the Broncos, cutting him would free up $8.4 million in space. Moving on from Todd Davis would create an additional $5 million in room, and releasing kicker Brandon McManus would generate $3 million more.
The biggest target is on Flacco's back. After suffering a season-ending neck injury and giving way to rookieDrew Lock, there's no way the Broncos will bring back the former Ravens starter on his current deal. Flacco has a $20.3 million base salary in 2020, and releasing him would free up just over $10 million in room. While they don't need to make any or all of those moves, cutting Leary, Davis, McManus and Flacco would get the team to nearly $85 million in cap space.
2. Franchise Justin Simmons. I'd like to see the Broncos work out an extension with their star safety, but the first step to keeping Simmons around is using the franchise tag, which would hand hima one-year deal in the range of $12.7 million. Simmons will likely look to top the four-year, $58.4 million deal former Vic Fangio safety Eddie Jackson signed with the Bears in January. Given that Simmons is likely the best draft pick John Elway has made since he took Miller with his first selection in 2011, I would imagine the Broncos will make sure they keep him around.
3. Replenish the defensive line. Denver's top three veteran defensive linemen are all free agents, with Derek Wolfe, Adam Gotsisand Shelby Harris all coming to the end of their respective deals. The Broncos will return second-year end Dre'Mont Jones and reserve nose tackle Mike Purcell, but they need to add at least two contributors to rebuild the front three of Fangio's defense.
Harris is going to attract interest from teams looking for a 3-4 end or 4-3 tackle with upside as an interior pass-rusher. The Illinois State product had six sacks in 2019, his first full year as a starter, but they were his only six quarterback knockdowns, suggesting he's unlikely to keep those totals up without creating more pressures in 2020. Harris also finished 111th out of 120 in ESPN's pass rush win rate metric. There's more to defensive line play than sacks, of course, but when the interest in Harris is reportedly topping $10 million per season, sacks are realistically expected to be part of the picture. I'd suggest Denver pass on bringing back Harris at that rate.
4. Replace Chris Harris Jr. It looks like the Broncos will also lose a second Harris, as their longtime cornerback is hitting free agency. He was still the team's best corner in 2019, but there are reasons to worry he might be declining. NFL Next Gen Stats noted Harris' passer rating allowed has declined in each of the past four seasons. Part of Harris' value in years past came from the fact that he was able to play at a high level at both slot corner and outside, so it remains to be seen whether he'll keep that up on his next deal. Fangio moved Harris outside far more frequently last season, and 2018 free-agent signing Bryce Callahanis expected to be back to man the slot in 2020. Signing corners on the wrong side of 30 is a dangerous move; Harris turns 31 in June.
Harris is still a valuable player, but if the bidding goes north of $15 million per season, the Broncos might want to back out. The problem with backing out, though, is that depth chart after Harris at corner is slim. Callahan should be back after dealing with his foot injury.De'vante Bausby showed some promise before suffering a season-ending spinal injury, but 2018 third-rounder Isaac Yiadom has been unplayably bad and might not make the 2020 roster. With a deep cornerback class in free agency, Denver could make at least one veteran addition to replace Harris.
5. Decline Garett Bolles' fifth-year option. Elway's 2017 first-round pick just hasn't worked out. Even the arrival of star offensive line coach Mike Munchak didn't stem the tide of holding penalties for Bolles, who was flagged 17 times in 2019. Only Laremy Tunsil was penalized more frequently, but 12 of Tunsil's penalties were false starts. Just two of Bolles' penalties were false starts. He was whistled for 13 holding calls, three more than any other player in the league.
If you're looking for the faintest glimmer of hope, Bolles was flagged for only four holding calls in the second half after racking up nine over his first eight games. When you consider that he was an over-aged draftee and is already turning 28 in May, though, the upside just isn't here. The Broncos should address left tackle in the draft and decline Bolles' option for 2021.
Projected 2020 cap space: $16.5 million
1. Cut Sammy Watkins.Although Watkins came alive in the playoffs, the 288 receiving yards he racked up in Kansas City's three victories were nearly a match for the 308 yards he produced over his final nine games of the season. The former Buffalo first-round pick has averaged 49.7 receiving yards per game during the regular season in his two seasons with the Chiefs. While there are plenty of mouths to feed in their passing attack, they can't realistically afford to devote a $21 million cap charge to Watkins in 2021.
He enters into the offseason with the largest cap hit for any wideout in football, but releasing the 26-year-old would free up $14 million in space for the team. After his playoff exploits, Watkins will have a robust market in free agency, but we have six years of evidence that he is a second wideout. The Chiefs also will likely lose Demarcus Robinson in free agency, so it wouldn't surprise me if general manager Brett Veach went out and acquired a meaningful replacement in free agency or with an early draft pick to play alongside Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman.
2. Franchise Chris Jones. My pick for Super Bowl MVP, Jones only helped what was going to be a lucrative market by making a series of big plays during Kansas City's fourth-quarter comeback win. After racking up 15.5 sacks and 29 knockdowns in 2018, he came back with nine sacks and 20 knockdowns in 13 games in 2019. The Mississippi State product ranks third in pass rush win rateamong defensive tackles over the past two seasons, while the 20 sacks he has created is tied for 12th among all defenders.
Jones isn't considered to be a very good run defender, but he'll shoot into the backfield for the occasional tackle for loss. Even if he is a middling tackle against the run, anyone who creates that sort of havoc on the interior in the passing game is going to get paid a lot of money. The only question when it comes to his offseason is figuring out where the checks will originate.
The Chiefs should start by franchising Jones, which would initially cost $15.5 million. The bigger question is whether the two sides can figure out a long-term deal. He can't expect an Aaron Donald-sized deal, but Grady Jarrett signed a four-year, $68 million pact last offseason, and Jones has been a considerably better pass-rusher than the Falcons tackle. I would figure he would be looking for a five-year deal in the $100 million range.
If that's too rich for the Chiefs, they could very plausibly look to trade him to a team that would hand out that sort of deal, just as they did with Dee Ford a year ago. Veach netted a 2020 second-round pick from the 49ers for Ford, which seemed like a more valuable proposition until San Francisco made it all the way to the Super Bowl. A Jones deal would probably also be for a second-round pick, although Kansas City might be able to lock in a specific selection by trading for a pick in this upcoming draft. Teams such as the Lions, Dolphins and Colts all pick in the first half of the second round and could have an interest in adding Jones.
3. Address cornerback. Cornerback typically isn't a high priority for the Chiefs, and they were able to get by and win a Super Bowl with low-cost options last season. Bashaud Breeland, Morris Claiborneand Kendall Fuller are all free agents, however, and replacing them will be important. Think about the 2017 Eagles, who got valuable contributions from similarly low-cost corner options Ronald Darby and Patrick Robinsonduring their playoff run. Robinson left, Darby declined, draft picks haven't worked out and the Eagles have been a mess at the position since.
The Chiefs traded for Fuller as part of the Alex Smith deal, and while he wasn't able to live up to expectations, I wonder if they would target a corner as part of the package for Jones if Kansas City deals its star defensive tackle. I don't think they will go over the top when it comes to spending on corners, but Veach will be looking for bargains in free agency. Cap casualties like Xavier Rhodes and Trumaine Johnson could make sense at the right price.
4. Draft a running back. The Chiefs have cycled through options with limited success since cutting Kareem Hunt. Damien Williams has been a touchdown machine in the playoffs, but he was injured and inconsistent for most of 2019. Carlos Hyde didn't make it out of camp. LeSean McCoy was a healthy scratch by the time the postseason rolled around, and the Darwin Thompson train never really got out of the station. This is always going to be a pass-first offense, so the Chiefs shouldn't be investing a lot at running back, but it's time to use a third- or fourth-round pick on one. Williams is a free agent in 2021.
5. Pick up Patrick Mahomes' fifth-year option and work on an extension. The question with Mahomes is timing: Do the Chiefs sign him now or wait another year? Theoretically, they could enjoy one more year of Mahomes on a cap hit of just $5.3 million, roll over cap room to 2021 and then sign their star quarterback to a massive deal. That's the path the Panthers took with Cam Newton and the Colts followed with Andrew Luck, who signed their deals after finishing their fourth pro season. Newton and Luck were the first two quarterbacks drafted with the first overall pick under the league's current CBA, which created slot value contracts and drastically reduced how much quarterbacks at the top of the draft were paid on their rookie deals.
With the quarterback market only getting more and more expensive, negotiating with two years of cost control to go saves teams money in negotiating with their franchise passers. Ryan Tannehill signed an extension in the spring of 2015 after his third season. Carson Wentz signed a four-year, $128 million deal last June, which came after his third season. Jared Goff followed up with a four-year, $134 million deal in September. If Deshaun Watson follows suit and signs an extension with two years of cost control, I'd project the Texans star to come in around four years and $140 million.
None of those quarterbacks, though, compare to Mahomes. None had won an MVP, a Super Bowl or been named Super Bowl MVP before signing their extensions. Wentz was the favorite to win MVP before tearing his ACL in 2017 and did technically claim a ring when Nick Foles closed out the season with a Super Bowl victory, but that's not on the same level as what Mahomes actually did.
The closest comparable for Mahomes' résumé after three seasons in the league is Dan Marino, who won an MVP in his second year but lost in the Super Bowl. Marino signed a deal after his third year, but it came in an era before the salary cap. Kurt Warner won MVP and Super Bowl MVP in his second season, but that was as a 28-year-old coming out of NFL Europe. Tom Brady had a Super Bowl, but wasn't yet on Mahomes's level as a passer.
All of this leaves the Chiefs and Mahomes in a difficult negotiating spot. Obviously, he isn't going anywhere. If Watson comes in at $140 million, though, can the Chiefs really offer, say, $145 million and expect their quarterback to see it as fair value? He could and probably should expect to be the league's first quarterback to take home $40 million per season, but a four-year, $160 million extension is out of line with the top of the market for quarterbacks with two years left to go on their deals. Unless one side gives in, this deal might not come until 2021.
Projected 2020 cap space: $51.6 million
1. Cut Tahir Whitehead. I was surprised when the Raiders let the deadline for Tyrell Williams' $11 million base salary guarantee pass without cutting the former Chargers wideout, but it's clear they think the deep threat will bounce back after plantar fasciitis slowed him down in 2019. With Williams sticking around, the only obvious cut candidate for Las Vegas is Whitehead, who was phased into a diminished role in December. Cutting the former Lions linebacker would free up $6.3 million in cap space.
2. Add a significant pass-rusher. While I don't think the Raiders should make a move solely to get past the Khalil Mack trade, they badly need pass-rushing help. RookieMaxx Crosby came out of nowhere to rack up 10 sacks, and they will hope for more out of No. 4 overall pick Clelin Ferrell in Year 2, but Jon Gruden's team ranked 25th in sack rate and 29th in pressure rate last season.
With Crosby and Ferrell expected to start on the edge, the logical place to look would be for a disruptive interior presence. I just mentioned Chris Jones, and the Raiders could afford to give Jones whatever he wants on a new deal, but a trade seems unlikely. Andy Reid once dealt Donovan McNabb within the division, but you would still figure Reid would prefer to deal Jones somewhere outside of the AFC West, and Las Vegas doesn't have a second-round pick. Maybe it could get creative and send the 19th pick and a mid-round selection for Jones and the 32nd pick.
The next man up might be Bills defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, who had 10 sacks in a breakout campaign for Buffalo. Phillips isn't likely to cost anywhere near as much as Jones, but one former critic of Phillips coming out of Oklahoma was an ESPN personality by the name of Jon Gruden, who criticized Phillips' motor, wondered about his love for the game and said he was "a nose tackle without much pass-rush talent." People change, but he doesn't strike me as somebody Gruden is about to hand a significant contract to.
More realistically, the Raiders could look toward somebody like Ndamukong Suh or Gerald McCoy as a short-term option. They could jump in the Jadeveon Clowney bidding and rotate their defensive ends while moving Ferrell inside on passing downs, but a tackle makes the most sense here.
3. Upgrade at cornerback. Few organizations have cycled through more starting cornerbacks over the past decade without finding a long-term solution than this one. The last cornerback to start three seasons in a row for the Raiders is Stanford Routt, who finished his run with the team in 2011. Daryl Worley, who started over the past two years, is a free agent and unlikely to return.
They tried to address cornerback last year by signing awayLaMarcus Joynerfrom the Rams, but that failed miserably. Joyner had been a hybrid free safety/slot corner early in his career before excelling once the Rams moved Joyner to free safety on a full-time basis. The Raiders signed him to a four-year, $42 million deal and then moved him back to cornerback, where he was overmatched. With Karl Joseph hitting free agency, they could move Joyner back to free safety. Doing so would open up another cornerback spot.
While Las Vegas returnsNick Nelson and 2019 second-round pick Trayvon Mullen, this is a position in which it needs to sign somebody it can (at least try to) rely upon. This might be a spot for Bradley Roby after his bounce-back season with the Texans.
4. Bring in a possession receiver. The wideout corps seemed set last year with Williams working deep and Antonio Brown serving as the primary target hog underneath. You know how that went. The Raiders got an unexpectedly great season out of tight endDarren Waller, but they never really replaced Brown in the lineup. Gruden continued his series of trading draft picks for ill-advised receiving options by nabbing Zay Jones from the Bills, and Hunter Renfrow is going to work out of the slot, but they really need someone to work the intermediate levels of the field.
This could be a logical landing spot for Emmanuel Sanders if he doesn't get a better offer from a team closer to the Super Bowl. (It also would be an ideal opportunity for Amari Cooper, but I suspect that one's not happening.) It's more likely that the Raiders address this position with one of their first-round picks, although that's only if they don't ...
5. Consider trading up for a quarterback. I'm not sure any of the quarterbacks available in veteran free agency are a clear better option than Derek Carr, who quietly did a solid job in 2019. He finished the season 10th in QBR, ninth in passer rating and ninth in net yards per attempt, and while he had Waller, he didn't exactly have a dominant group of wide receivers. While you can understand why the Raiders would go after Tom Brady with a new stadium to fill, Carr was fine last season.
In terms of the future, though, it's fair to wonder if they will target a quarterback with more upside. This could be their best chance to grab that passer. The Raiders have the 12th and 19th picks in the first round, plus three third-round selections, thanks to the Mack and Gareon Conley trades. They don't have a second-round pick, but they have more to offer in a trade now than they will in the years to come.
Everything depends on what Gruden finds when he evaluates top prospectsTua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert over the next few weeks. (Jacob Eason, who ESPN's Mel Kiper mocks to the Patriots at 23 in his most recent mock draft, is likely to still be on the board when the Raiders pick.) If Gruden thinks either Tagovailoa or Herbert are franchise passers in the making, the time to make his move is now.
The Eagles had to swap fourth-round picks and send future first-, second- and third-round picks to move up from No. 8 to No. 2 to grab Carson Wentz in 2016. Having an extra first-round pick in hand should help, but to move up from No. 12 to No. 3, the Raiders might need to send one of their third-rounders and their 2021 second-round pick along with the 19th selection.
Carr's future would obviously come into question if they trade up. Las Vegas would eat only $5 million in dead money if it deals Carr and $7.9 million if it releases the longtime starter, so that's not a factor. What's left of his contract would amount to a three-year, $58.2 million deal with just $2.9 million guaranteed, so he would have some modest trade value if the right opportunity arose.
Projecting that opportunity, at least right now, is impossible. Quarterback is going to be a game of musical chairs this offseason for anywhere from four to 10 teams. If the Buccaneers or Chargers are left standing without a veteran quarterback, would they be interested in trading for Carr? Probably, but I can't imagine it would be for a significant draft pick. There's little risk for the Raiders, who could either keep Carr on as a mentor before addressing his status in 2020 or cut him while paying that additional $2.9 million.
Projected 2020 cap space: $51.7 million
1. Franchise Hunter Henry. Before we figure out the quarterback situation for the Chargers, let's solidify the offense around that quarterback. Henry's career has been marred by injuries, but the Arkansas product's upside is clear. After returning from a tibial plateau fracture, he was the most productive tight end in football over a six-game span between Week 6 and Week 11 before the offense sputtered out afterward.
With so many teams around the league desperate for tight end help and a middling class coming out of college in 2020, Henry has a significant market in free agency. Keeping him on a one-year deal for a projected $11.1 million makes a lot of sense for the Chargers, and he would even have some trade value at that price tag. Transitioning him also would give the Chargers the chance to match what Henry receives on the open market, which could be an appealing alternative.
2. Fix the offensive line. I don't doubt that Philip Rivers declined in 2019, but the offensive line in front of him absolutely dissipated. Rivers didn't throw a single pass in 2019 with both Russell Okung and Mike Pouncey on the field after throwing 463 passes (and posting a passer rating of 104.2) with both of them up front in 2018. Nine offensive linemen took at least 100 snaps for L.A. in 2019. Many of them weren't very good.
The Chargers should be healthier along the offensive line in 2020, but they also need more talent, especially on the right side of their line. Guard Michael Schofield is a free agent, and 2017 second-rounder Forrest Lamp hasn't been able to work his way into a starting role amid a torn ACL and a fractured fibula. Trey Pipkins, a third-round pick last year, was forced into action prematurely and looked overmatched; they can't count on him as a starter at tackle in 2020.
In his most recent mock draft, Kiper has the Chargers drafting Alabama offensive tackleJedrick Wills with the No. 6 overall pick. Wills would slot in immediately at right tackle before eventually moving over to the left side once Okung leaves. They would still need to add a guard, which could be a position they again try to address in the draft. With the question marks elsewhere on their roster, they can't commit to guys like Joe Thuney and Andrus Peat, who should each get north of $10 million per season.
3. Add a quarterback. Of course, the Chargers might have the sixth pick ticketed for their quarterback of the future if Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbertis still available. Los Angeles should be able to grab one of those two players without having to move up unless the Lions draft a quarterback with the No. 3 pick. Moving up to No. 6 to No. 3 to jump ahead of the Dolphins and guarantee their choice of Herbert or Tagovailoa would likely cost the Chargers their 2021 first-round pick.
On the other hand, if they don't plan on drafting a quarterback, they'll still likely want to pursue somebody to compete with Tyrod Taylor, as the only other quarterback on their roster is Easton Stick. A move for Marcus Mariota would make sense, given that the two should be able to play in a roughly similar scheme.
4. Lock up Joey Bosa. With Bosa hitting his fifth-year option, it's about time for this team to lock up its star defensive end. Bosa will look to top the five-year, $105 million deal DeMarcus Lawrence signed with the Cowboys last year, and if the Chargers are quick, they can get a Bosa deal done before Clowney signs a bigger contract in free agency. Bosa's numbers compare favorably to Clowney's, so if Clowney ends up getting five years and $120 million in free agency, Bosa will ask to top those numbers on an extension.
5. Pick up Mike Williams' fifth-year option.Williams hasn't been quite as effective as the Chargers might have hoped when they drafted him with the No. 7 overall pick in 2017, but the Clemson product has been a valuable downfield weapon and a real-life illustration of how random touchdown rate can be for wide receivers. Williams had 10 touchdowns on 43 receptions in 2018, then just two on 49 catches in 2019. It's not time to start negotiating a long-term deal with Williams, but securing his option for 2021 is an easy move for the Chargers.
Let's head to the AFC South, where three teams have to make decisions about the quarterback position in 2020. We'll start with the organization that is already quite confident in its signal-caller, so much so that it might decide to hand him an extremely large check ...
Projected 2020 cap space: $65.9 million
1. Replace D.J. Reader. The Texans unearthed a valuable defensive lineman in the fifth round of the 2016 draft with Reader, who has been able to both clog running lanes and occasionally pressure opposing quarterbacks. The 347-pound tackle more than doubled his career total by knocking down opposing quarterbacks 13 times in 2019 and posted an 8.7% pass rush win rate, which is above average for nose tackles.
Bill O'Brien & Co. don't seem inclined to bring back Reader, who will likely draw a deal in excess of $11 million per season. With needs elsewhere on the roster and plenty of contracts to be signed this offseason, the Texans could pursue a cheaper option on the interior. Patriots defensive tackle Danny Shelton could be a target in free agency, and Houston could use one of its two fourth-round draft picks to go after a bigger body.
2. Rebuild at cornerback. No position was messier for the Texans in 2019 than corner, with defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel cycling through solutions and new additions with little success. After signing Bradley Roby during the offseason, they cut $34 million slot corner Aaron Colvin after their Week 1 loss to the Saints, traded for 2017 first-round pick Gareon Conley and signed fellow first-rounder Vernon Hargreaves.
Hargreaves has already been released, while Roby, Phillip Gainesand longtime starter Johnathan Joseph are free agents. The depth chart at corner currently consists of Conley, Keion Crossen and 2019 second-rounder Lonnie Johnson Jr., who was last seen getting torched by Travis Kelce in the divisional-round loss to the Chiefs.
The Texans will likely look to add a starting-caliber corner in free agency. Roby was the team's best corner and had a solid bounce-back year after a disappointing end to his run in Denver, but the two sides haven't come to terms on a new deal. With the logic that O'Brien and this Patriots-heavy staff will look toward former Bill Belichick corners, the Texans could pursue veterans such asAqib Talib or Logan Ryan, with the latter a more likely addition. There's a significant group of average to above-average corners like Bashaud Breeland and Trae Waynes available, so given their missing draft picks, it would be a surprise if the Texans didn't make at least one significant addition here.
3. Stop trading away draft picks. About those draft picks: Keep them. O'Brien has officially taken over as general manager after a year in which he seemed hellbent on trading away as many selections as possible. Houston will be without its first- and third-round picks this year, as well as the third-rounder it received from the Seahawks for Jadeveon Clowney. It has an extra fourth-round pick and projects to pick up a third-round compensatory pick for Tyrann Mathieu, but this team is already down its first- and second-round picks in 2021, too.
It's one thing for O'Brien to trade for Laremy Tunsil; we can certainly quibble about giving up two firsts, a second and a third for Tunsil and Kenny Stills, but Tunsil was coming off a star-caliber season at a key position and had just turned 25. There's no way that sort of trade is going to be cheap.
The trades O'Brien has to avoid, though, are the ones in which he speculates on value or need. Dealing a third-rounder for Duke Johnson to use the former Browns back as the lesser half of a rotation doesn't make sense when the Browns had little leverage and receiving backs like Theo Riddick were possibilities to be released on cut-down day. (Riddick would get hurt after signing with Denver, but the Texans couldn't have known that at the time.)
Sending another third-rounder to the Raiders for Conley when Jon Gruden was clearly giving up on the former Reggie McKenzie draft pick was too generous; Houston needed cornerback help, but Conley was hardly a guaranteed fix and didn't halt Houston's slide to 26th in pass defense DVOA. These are moves Belichick would make for a sixth- or seventh-round pick. Giving up third-rounders is a different proposition altogether.
4. Sign Tunsil to an extension. The Texans weren't able to come to terms with Tunsil on an extension after the trade, which makes the deal even more onerous. Players have enormous leverage after a team trades multiple first-round picks to acquire them, which is how Khalil Mack was able to totally blow up the edge-rushing market after the Raiders dealt him to the Bears. The top of the market at that point was Von Miller's six-year, $114.5 million deal; Mack signed for six years and$141 million, and that price would have risen only if the Bears had waited until after their playoff run to bring him in.
While Tunsil was surely an upgrade on what Matt Kalil would have done at left tackle in 2019, his first season in Houston was uneven. The Ole Miss product committed a league-high 18 penalties. Twelve of them were false starts, but it's remarkable that one of the league's best left tackles would have five more false starts than any other player in the league. And while you might chalk that up to Tunsil learning the Texans' scheme on the fly after spending most of preseason with the Dolphins, he committed three false start penalties in Week 14 and two more in the wild-card win over the Bills.
Tunsil didn't have a Mack-like impact in his Texans debut, but he's still going to get a record deal for a left tackle. Taylor Lewan's five-year, $80 million contract is the top of the left tackle market; Tunsil should be looking to top $90 million on his five-year deal.
5. Pick up Deshaun Watson's fifth-year option and sign him to an extension. One trade that has worked out for the Texans, of course, is moving up to grab their superstar quarterback in the 2017 draft. They obviously will pick up Watson's fifth-year option, and with stars such as Patrick Mahomes and Dak Prescott about to sign new deals, his price is only going to go up.
Last year's fourth-year quarterbacks established Watson's market. Carson Wentz signed a four-year, $128 million deal, while Jared Goff waited two months and signed a four-year, $134 million contract. Watson's deal should come in somewhere around four years and $140 million.
Projected 2020 cap space: $86.1 million
1. Pursue a veteran upgrade on Jacoby Brissett. While Brissett was better in his second season as a starter, the only thing the former Patriots draft pick did well was avoid turnovers. He threw just six interceptions and had seven fumbles in 15 games, but he ranked 26th in completion percentage and 28th in yards per attempt. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Brissett's expected completion percentage was 64.9%, but the NC State product actually completed 60.8% of his passes. That 4.1% difference was the second worst in the league among passers with at least 250 attempts.
The Colts gave Brissett a two-year, $30 million deal in September after Andrew Luck retired. A $7 million roster bonus is already guaranteed, so the team would save only $6 million in cash and $8.9 million on its cap if it cut the 27-year-old. He will likely stick around as one of the league's most expensive backups while Indianapolis pursues an upgrade in free agency.
The first option that comes to mind is Philip Rivers, who played under Colts coach Frank Reich when the two were in San Diego together (2013-15). Rivers, who just moved his family to Florida, might not want to spend a season in Indianapolis, but this would be a good fit for him in terms of familiarity and roster talent.
2. Find a solution at left tackle. Anthony Castonzo is a free agent and considering retirement. The longtime Indy left tackle had arguably his best season in 2019, so if he wants to keep playing, the Colts would surely like to have him back. He would likely be looking at a deal in the range of three years and $42 million, which wouldn't be an issue for the team given its cap room.
If Castonzo does retire, the paucity of reliable free-agent options on the left side would likely lead them to address left tackle with their first-round pick (No. 13). Even if Castonzo comes back, I wonder whether the Colts might still look to target a tackle with one of their second-round picks. Indy has a solid young right tackle in Braden Smith, but after a healthy season from the line in 2019, adding both a long-term replacement for Castonzo and depth at tackle wouldn't hurt.
3. Add receiving help. Injuries decimated Brissett's receiving corps last season. T.Y. Hiltonplayed 44% of the offensive snaps while dealing with a calf injury, while Devin Funchess broke his collarbone in the opener and missed the remainder of the season. Eric Ebron suffered an ankle injury and missed five games, with he and the team publicly disagreeing about the severity of the injury. Ebron is a free agent and almost certainly won't be returning to Indianapolis.
While the Colts have high hopes for 2019 second-rounder Parris Campbell, they need to add another weapon. This would be a great landing spot for Amari Cooper if the Cowboys were to let him enter free agency, though that seems unlikely. It might be more probable that they target somebody like Hunter Henry, who would allow them to stay in 12 personnel alongside Jack Doyle. This also could be a position the team addresses with one of its three early picks in the draft.
4. Extend Ryan Kelly. Kelly looked like one of the best centers in the league in 2018. In 2019, he kept up that level of play and added availability to the equation, as the former first-round pick played all 16 games for the first time since his rookie season. He made it to the Pro Bowl as an alternate, and the Colts will likely sign their 2016 first-round pick to an extension this offseason. He should top Nick Martin's three-year, $33 million deal.
5. Consider trading up for Tua Tagovailoa. If the Colts don't land on a veteran quarterback they love and don't need to use the 13th pick to address left tackle, there's a path for them to at least consider trading up for the Alabama quarterback. The Chiefs were able to reach the next level and win a Super Bowl by upgrading from good to great at quarterback, and while Indy isn't at their level, Tagovailoa's pedigree, experience and dominant three-year run at Alabama can't be ignored.
If the Colts feel optimistic about the state of Tagovailoa's hip, they can probably piece together enough to move up for the No. 3 pick in a deal with the Lions. They could offer the 13th, 34th and 44th selections as the bulk of a package to move up. They also could package the 44th selection with their 2021 first-rounder.
Indy has generally been a patient team and amassed extra draft picks under general manager Chris Ballard, but young quarterbacks on rookie deals are franchise-altering propositions. Even if he's not ready to play by the start of the 2020 season, a healthy Tagovailoa could be the ultimate building block for Indianapolis.
Projected 2020 cap space:minus-$1.5 million
1. Create cap space. I would encourage the Jaguars to not be over the salary cap. They can knock out plenty of room in one fell swoop by declining Marcell Dareus' option, which must be done by Feb. 25. Moving on from their most expensive player would free up $20 million in space. They also could restructure a deal with Dareus to keep him around while also creating cap room.
In what could be construed as either good news or bad news, there are plenty of veteran Jaguars who would make plausible cap casualties. Marqise Lee ($5.3 million in savings) and Jake Ryan ($5.5 million) are logical places to start. They could cut free-agent addition A.J. Bouye and eliminate the last tie to their dominant secondary from 2017 to save $11.4 million, while left guard Andrew Norwell could be released to save $5.5 million in space.
2. Franchise Yannick Ngakoue and work on an extension. Jacksonville needs to create this room, in part, to sign Ngakoue to a new deal. The 2016 third-round pick didn't have his best year in 2019, but he ranks 11th in sacks and eighth in quarterback knockdowns over the past four seasons. Even in a down year, he finished 18th in pass rush win rate and created 11 sacks, which was tied for 12th in the league.
The Jags also have Calais Campbell and 2019 first-round pick Josh Allen on the roster, which leaves them in a bit of a bind. Campbell is a free agent in 2021, and while the 33-year-old is still productive, the team can't really justify paying Campbell, Ngakoue and devoting a top-10 pick to Allen with so many holes elsewhere on their roster. With the Jags unable to sign Ngakoue to an extension so far, would they consider trading him for help elsewhere?
I hope not. He is too good of a player to let go for anything short of a starting quarterback, and they should do what it takes to keep him around. The franchise tag for defensive ends is estimated to come in at around $19.3 million, and a five-year extension for the Maryland product could come in at around $111 million.
3. Add a tight end. Injuries wrecked the Jags at tight end last season, but when you're cycling through guys like James O'Shaughnessy, Ben Koyack and Geoff Swaim, it's not like they were realistically expecting much from the position. They did use a third-round pick on Josh Oliver last year, and Oliver still has plenty of upside as a receiving tight end, but I'd like to see them add a veteran to supplement Oliver and allow them more formational diversity. Jacksonville can't realistically expect to add someone from the top tier given its cap situation, but it could look toward Eric Ebron as a high-upside option.
4. Decline Leonard Fournette's fifth-year option. I wrote about Fournette's season in November, and while he finally made it into the end zone in short yardage afterward, the former LSU star averaged 3.6 yards per carry over those final five games. He finished the year ranked 39th out of 45 backs in success rate, and while he was much more productive as a receiver, his fifth-year option would almost surely be more than whatever Fournette would make on the open market. At this point, the Jags need to treat the Fournette pick as a sunk cost, let him play out his rookie deal and pursue cheaper options at running back in 2021.
5. Don't trade Nick Foles. Foles' contract is underwater after an injury-riddled debut season in Jacksonville. He missed half the season with a broken collarbone and was benched three starts after returning for Gardner Minshew, who has the inside track to start in 2020. Foles' $15.1 million base salary is guaranteed, and a $5.5 million roster bonus for 2021 guarantees if he is still on the roster on March 22.
The Jaguars would need to convince Foles to restructure his deal, eat a chunk of guaranteed money and/or attach a draft pick to make a trade work. I don't love the idea. While he struggled last season, they would be dealing Foles away at the absolute nadir of his value in a market full of guys who are arguably better than him. We know the former Super Bowl MVP can get hot for stretches of time, and we've seen him play only four games in a Jaguars uniform. Unless they add another quarterback this offseason or have the ability to move his guaranteed money without attaching a valuable pick, I'd bring him back in 2020 and give him one more shot.
Projected 2020 cap space: $47.9 million
1. Create more cap room.The Titans can free up an additional $16 million or so by releasingDion Lewis,Delanie WalkerandCameron Wake. Wake, who just turned 38, impressed early in the season before struggling with a hamstring injury and going on injured reserve. He can still help a team as an occasional pass-rusher, but his $8.3 million cap hold is untenable.
2. Sign Ryan Tannehill to an extension. The Titans should lock up their quarterback with a multiyear deal to save their two other tags. Tannehill revitalized his career and played at a Pro Bowl level for most of the season, and he shredded teams on play-action and formed a strong bond with stud rookie receiverA.J. Brown. The Titans will surely bring back Tannehill one way or another, but he has earned a multiyear deal.
Pricing out that contract is difficult. A franchise tag for him would come in at around $26.9 million. The circumstances aren't the same, but given that he signed his deal after excelling in a small sample, Tannehill's representation might look toward the five-year, $137.5 million contractJimmy Garoppolo signed with the 49ers in 2018 as the basis for a deal. Update that contract for the 2020 cap and he would be looking at close to $31 million per year. I could see the two sides compromising and Tannehill ending up on a four-year, $120 million deal with $55 million guaranteed. The best thing for both sides is for him to stick around in Tennessee.
3. Franchise tagDerrick Henry. With Tannehill signed, the next step is to temporarily lock up Henry. When I wrote about running back contracts back in November, I noted that Henry had become an integral part of Tennessee's identity, which would make it difficult for Tennessee to move on from the former Alabama star. What happened in the playoffs only makes that even more difficult, given that he racked up 377 yards on 64 carries in victories over the Patriots and Ravens.
Every back is different, but the question a team has to ask itself remains the same: When the vast majority of expensive second contracts for running backs turn out poorly, why is your guy going to be different? The top of the running back market includes the deals signed by Todd Gurley, Le'Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnsonand Devonta Freeman. The Elliott deal is the only one that those organizations would do again.
The Titans can't realistically let Henry go after what he did during the postseason, but they have to hold off on making that decision on a long-term deal for as long as possible. Franchising Henry would cost somewhere around $12.7 million. I would even consider franchising him twice, given that he has brought up Elliott's contract as the floor for his new deal. Elliott's contract paid him $28.1 million over the first two years. Franchising Henry twice would allow the Titans to go year to year and cost roughly the same amount.
For what it's worth, there's a much better chance Tennessee re-signs Henry and franchises Tannehill. Ideally, it would go about things this way instead.
4. Transition tag Jack Conklin. It was a bit of a surprise when the Titans declined Conklin's fifth-year option last offseason, a move that seemed to derive out of concerns surrounding the right tackle's surgically repaired knee. General manager Jon Robinson likely regrets that decision now. Conklin responded with his best season since 2016, as the 2016 eighth overall pick played 94% of the offensive snaps and allowed just three sacks.
While we don't know the specific state of Conklin's knee, his combination of talent and age (25) make him the most appealing tackle on the market. The team probably won't be able to use the franchise tag on Conklin, but because the NFL is operating under the final year of the current CBA, teams can use both the franchise and transition tags in the same offseason. If it re-signs either Tannehill or Henry to an extension, it would still have the transition tag free for Conklin.
The transition tag would hand Conklin a one-year, $14.7 million deal and the ability to negotiate with the other 31 teams. If (and most likely when) Conklin signs an offer sheet with an opposing team, the Titans would have the ability to match the deal. They wouldn't get any compensation if they declined the offer, but this gives them a chance to keep Conklin if the market bears a contract they're willing to match.
5. Bring back Logan Ryan. For all the work the Titans have to do re-signing offensive pieces, it's worth remembering that one of their key defenders is also hitting free agency. Ryan had his best season with the team in 2019, and while they could try to install fourth-round pick Amani Hooker as their slot cornerback if Ryan leaves, letting Ryan get away would be a big step backward. With defensive coordinator Dean Pees retiring, keeping the secondary stable would be a huge plus for Robinson. After signing a three-year, $30 million deal in 2017, the 29-year-old Ryan should be able to push closer to $13 million per season this time around.
Let's move on to the AFC North, where the reigning league MVP, a Hall of Famer and one former first overall pick at quarterback are likely about to be joined by another ...
Projected 2020 cap space: $32.9 million
1. Decline Brandon Carr's option. The acquisition of Marcus Peters and the expected return of Tavon Young from a neck injury means the Ravens will move forward with Peters, Young and Marlon Humphrey as their top three corners. Jimmy Smith is a free agent and might be priced out of Baltimore's range, but Carr's $6 million compensation in 2020 is more than he would get on the open market.
Carr played some safety for Baltimore last season, but it locked up Chuck Clark on a three-year, $16 million extension last week to continue playing alongside Earl Thomas. Carr's still a useful player at 33, but he will probably need to take a pay cut to come back to Baltimore in 2020.
2. Retain Matthew Judon. While the Ravens have let young pass-rushers such as Pernell McPhee and Za'Darius Smith leave in recent years, those moves came under the spectre of the Joe Flacco contract. With quarterback Lamar Jackson making a fraction of Flacco's deal before a coming contract extension in 2021, the Ravens actually have the room to keep a young pass-rusher.
I'd like to see them bring back Judon, whose 16.5 sacks over the past two seasons masks greater production. His 53 knockdowns over those two years ranks fourth in the league behind Aaron Donald, Smith and T.J. Watt. The Ravens have also been a markedly better pass defense with Judon on the field, allowing a passer rating of 74.9 and a QBR of 39.9 with him in the lineup. Without him on the field, those marks jump to a passer rating of 91.7 and a QBR of 62.0.
Historically, the Ravens have been able to let pass-rushers go because there was somebody else to pick up the slack. When McPhee left, it wasn't a huge deal because Terrell Suggs was in the fold. When they lost Smith last year, they knew Judon was still under contract for another season. They have 2017 second-rounder Tyus Bowser and 2019 third-rounder Jaylon Ferguson in line to get more snaps if Judon moves on, but they don't have the résumé Suggs and Judon did when those other pass-rushers left. I have no doubt the Ravens will find a great pass-rusher given their history of drafting and developing talent, but with enough cap room to maneuver, they should use a chunk of it on Judon.
At the very least, Baltimore should franchise tag its edge rusher. One year of Judon at the projected franchise tag number of $16.3 million wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, and it would give the team the ability to try to pursue a franchise-and-trade opportunity for a draft pick. If the Chiefs were able to get a second-round pick for Dee Ford last year, the Ravens could get a similar return for Judon.
3. Find an inside linebacker. The Ravens unexpectedly lost C.J. Mosley in free agency last year to a massive deal from the Jets and didn't skip a beat; by the end of the 2019 season, they were getting snaps at the position from Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort, both of whom joined the team in midseason. Fort is returning in 2020, but both Bynes and deposed starter Patrick Onwuasor are free agents, which leaves the team to pursue a replacement.
I wouldn't expect the Ravens to spend big here given how many options typically come available at inside linebacker during the offseason. While they are likely to net significant compensatory picks for losing Judon and/or Michael Pierce in free agency, I'd expect general manager Eric DeCosta to pursue cap casualties who won't upset the compensatory formula, such as Avery Williamson and Mark Barron. This is also a position the Ravens will likely address in the draft.
4. Lock up left tackleRonnie Stanley. After making three top-six picks between 1996 and 2000, former general manager Ozzie Newsome didn't pick any higher than 10th for the ensuing 15 years before taking Stanley with the sixth pick of the 2016 draft. The three guys he chose in the top six were Jonathan Ogden, Peter Boulware and Jamal Lewis, who combined to make 16 Pro Bowls, 11 of which belonged to Ogden, who eventually became a Hall of Famer.
Stanley, a first-team All-Pro in 2019, might not quite be on Ogden's level, but he has emerged as one of the NFL's best tackles. The Ravens are as aggressive as any team in football when it comes to letting star players go if their price isn't right, but I can't imagine them letting Stanley leave. With the Notre Dame product entering the final year of his deal, they will likely end up making Stanley the league's highest-paid left tackle on something close to a five-year, $85 million pact.
5. Pick up Humphrey's fifth-year option. Humphrey was emerging as one of the best cornerbacks in football, only to be overshadowed when Peters came over and transformed his career. Humphrey isn't going anywhere over the next couple of years, but with the Ravens now paying Peters, Young, Thomas and Clark, I wonder whether they'll wait a year before extending the contract of their 2017 first-round pick.
Projected 2020 cap space: $47.7 million
1. Franchise A.J. Green. While injuries are a concern for Green (he has played just nine games over the past two seasons), the Bengals can't just let him leave. A healthy Green is too valuable and productive to let him move on, and Cincinnati isn't the sort of team to dip into free agency to replace its 2011 first-round pick.
I'd prefer to see the Bengals work out an extension with Green, but the franchise tag will keep the 31-year-old around for now. He will naturally look toward the three-year, $66 million pact classmate Julio Jones signed with the Falcons, but coming off those injuries, he realistically has to expect something in the range of $18 million to $19 million per season. If the Bengals do decide they want to move on, franchising Green would also create a significant trade asset for teams like the Patriots and Raiders.
2. Draft Joe Burrow. This one's easy, right? Draft the guy who might have just finished the best season for any quarterback in the history of college football. Sell a lot of jerseys.
3. Cut Andy Dalton. The Bengals are going to part ways with their former starting quarterback this offseason, one way or another. I'm not sure whether he will have much trade value on what amounts to a one-year, $17.5 million deal, especially given how much uncertainty there is surrounding the market this offseason.
It's possible that a team is left standing without a chair and trades a late-round pick for Dalton, but it's more likely that he ends up signing somewhere for high-end backup money, which would be closer to $9 million per season. Whichever team wants Dalton could simply fold that $17.5 million into something like a two-year, $18 million contract, but that team isn't going to want to include a draft pick for the privilege.
The Bengals will need a backup to replace Dalton, and while 2019 fourth-rounder Ryan Finley is still on the roster, Cincinnati will probably want a veteran to serve as a mentor to the Heisman Trophy winner. Coach Zac Taylor was the quarterbacks coach in Miami when Matt Moore was on the roster, so if Moore doesn't retire after winning the Super Bowl with the Chiefs, I could see the former Dolphins playoff starter joining the fold. Sean Mannion and Blake Bortles have backed up Jared Goff in Los Angeles and would know Taylor's Rams-influenced scheme.
4. Upgrade the offensive line. With 2019 first-round pick Jonah Williams returning after missing his entire rookie season with a shoulder injury, the Bengals will be making moves along the offensive line. Cordy Glenn will likely be released after missing most of 2019 with injuries and a one-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the team, while 2018 first-rounder Billy Price has been a major disappointment and lost his job during the second half of the season.
The only good news to report from the line in 2019 was that much-maligned right tackle Bobby Hart had a better season on paper, cutting his penalties in half and his sacks allowed from a staggering 11.5 in 2018 to 4.0 in 2019. Williams and Hart are likely to start at tackle in 2020, but Cincinnati needs to use at least one of its draft picks after Burrow to address the interior of its line. This team almost never ventures into unrestricted free agency, but adding a guard such as Joe Thuney would do so much for this line in 2020.
5. Get an extension done with William Jackson. While the Bengals could cut Dre Kirkpatrick and will likely try to re-sign free agent Darqueze Dennard, they also need to lock up their best cornerback. Jackson hasn't been quite as good in 2018 or 2019 as he was during his breakout half-season in 2017, but what we saw from him that year suggests he possesses real upside as a top-10 cornerback. The Bengals gave Kirkpatrick a five-year, $52.5 million deal to stick around in 2017, but a five-year deal for Jackson is likely to top $60 million.
Projected 2020 cap space: $58.3 million
1. Fix the offensive tackle situation. The moves the Browns made to try to replace Joe Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz have failed. Right tackle Chris Hubbard, signed as a free agent from the Steelers, has been a disappointment. Left tackle Greg Robinson traded sacks allowed for holding calls in 2018 and then gave up both in 2019. Austin Corbett, who was drafted by former general manager John Dorsey with the 33rd pick out of Nevada, wasn't able to play anywhere on the line and was dumped by Dorsey to the Rams after 15 offensive snaps.
Cleveland's biggest priority this offseason needs to be fixing its tackle problems. Robinson is a free agent, and Hubbard could be a cap casualty to free up $4.9 million in space. This is a free-agent class that has more solutions on the right side than on the left, but this team should be interested in even a short-term option such as Jason Peters on the left side while it figures out its long-term plan. If Browns fans can head into the 2020 season feeling confident about their tackle situation, new general manager Andrew Berry will have completed his first big task in charge of the team.
2. Figure out a plan at safety. It seemed the Browns were set at safety for the next couple of years with former Packers Damarious Randall and Morgan Burnett. As was the case with just about everything related to the 2019 Browns, however, things went poorly. Burnett tore his Achilles tendon in that fateful Thursday night game against the Steelers, while Randall was left at home for the Pittsburgh rematch by the old coaching staff for reasons unknown. The old football brain trust is almost entirely gone, but the new organization appears comfortable letting Randall hit free agency.
New defensive coordinator Joe Woods spent the 2017 and '18 seasons with the Broncos and would surely love to bring in free agent Justin Simmons, but Denver will likely franchise its star safety after a career season. Woods was with the 49ers in 2019, and bringing in Jimmie Ward as a free safety and occasional slot cornerback would make sense for a Browns team that could use help in both places. A cap casualty such as Reshad Jones or even former Chiefs star Eric Berry, who sat out the 2019 season, could make sense at strong safety. Cleveland also has an extra third-round pick from the Duke Johnson trade and could address safety there.
3. Replace Joe Schobert. The Dorsey regime also passed on offering a contract extension to the linebacker, who made the Pro Bowl in 2017 and posted a 74.6 passer rating while picking off four passes in coverage last season. Schobert has missed three games in four seasons and racks up plenty of tackles in run support, although those tackles aren't always close to the line of scrimmage.
After accounting for draft position, Schobert was probably the best draft pick of the Sashi Brown era, which might be why the Dorsey regime didn't want to re-sign him. And now, with the more analytically inclined Berry taking over football decisions, the Browns might very well see a relatively fungible off-ball linebacker when Cleveland already has Christian Kirksey signed to a long-term deal. I like Schobert as a player and wouldn't fault the team for bringing him back, but the Wisconsin product's future might be elsewhere.
4. Pick up Myles Garrett's fifth-year option. With Garrett reinstated for the 2020 season, the 2017 first overall pick isn't going to be leaving Cleveland anytime soon. The Browns would be smart to pursue an extension with him now, given that his price tag is likely only to rise when he returns to the field.
Garrett had 10 sacks and 18 knockdowns in 10 games last season before his attack on Mason Rudolph and is unquestionably one of the league's best pass-rushers. I would expect him to top whatever Jadeveon Clowney gets when the former Texans standout signs a massive deal in free agency this offseason.
5. Pick up David Njoku's fifth-year option, too. Nobody will benefit from a fresh coaching regime more than Njoku, who was buried deep in Freddie Kitchens' doghouse last season and seemed likely to leave the organization this offseason. Instead, when Kitchens and Dorsey were fired, Njoku was given a new lease on life under coach Kevin Stefanski. During his only full season as Vikings offensive coordinator, Stefanski used two or more tight ends on 56.6% of the offensive snaps, the second-highest rate in football. Njoku is a tight end!
There's some risk in picking up Njoku's fifth-year option and being stuck with an unwanted player if he can't pass a physical, but the price tag isn't going to be exorbitant, and the upside of what he might be able to do when healthy outweighs the risk. The Browns will likely add to their tight end roomin the draft, but it makes sense to pick up the option and give the oft-frustrating Miami product one more chance before moving on.
Projected 2020 cap space: minus-$2.1 million
1. Create cap space. This is an obvious call given the number you see above. The Steelers can start creating room by cutting inside linebacker Mark Barron, which will free up $5.3 million and instantly get them under the cap. They could also create an additional $5 million by moving on from fellow linebacker Anthony Chickillo. With Bud Dupree hitting free agency, however, I wonder whether they will try to get Chickillo to take a pay cut with the promise of more regular defensive snaps in 2020. He took just 13% of the snaps on defense last season while missing five games.
Otherwise, Pittsburgh is looking at restructuring deals, which will be trickier given that the final year of the collective bargaining agreement mandates that contracts honor the 30% rule.
2. Add a replacement for Dupree. The Steelers will likely have to let Dupree leave in free agency after the 2015 first-rounder finished his Pittsburgh run with a great contract year. After posting 11.5 sacks in 2017 and '18, his first two years as the full-time starting outside linebacker, he matched that total and also registered 17 knockdowns in 2019.
Of course, this could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the team. Dupree was a middling 52nd in ESPN's pass rush win rate, which was right in line with Terrell Suggs, who was a waiver-wire acquisition late in the season for the Chiefs. There's a very Nick Perry feeling to this career year from Dupree, and when the Packers responded to Perry's 11-sack breakout in Year 5 by giving him a five-year, $59 million deal, it turned out poorly for Green Bay. I'd imagine Dupree will be looking for something in the range of five years and $70 million, and the Steelers are probably better off letting someone else take that risk. They could pursue a possible cap casualty such as Ryan Kerrigan to take over in the short term while using their second-round pick on a long-term option.
3. Draft an interior lineman. Utility lineman B.J. Finney is a free agent, and while the loser of the battle between restricted free agents Matt Feiler and Zach Banner could kick inside in a pinch, the future is fast approaching for the Steelers on the interior. Guard Ramon Foster is 34 and entering the final year of his contract extension, while center Maurkice Pouncey is 30 and in Year 2 of his three-year deal. Pittsburgh doesn't have its first- or third-round picks, but it would ideally use one of its two fourth-round selections on a lineman who can fill either spot as a backup in 2020 before stepping in for Foster next year.
4. Work on an extension with JuJu Smith-Schuster. It's fair to say 2019 was a lost year for Smith-Schuster, who played just 58% of the offensive snaps amid injuries and wasn't healthy for most of the snaps he did see. After a 103-yard game against the Dolphins on Monday Night Football in Week 8, he recorded just 109 receiving yards across five appearances the rest of the way.
I don't see any reason for the Steelers to sour on Smith-Schuster's long-term development, especially given that the 2018 Pro Bowler is still only 23. As he enters the final year of his rookie deal, they will need to find a way to use the little cap space they do have to lock up their No. 1 wideout. Even coming off the down year, he is likely looking at something in the ballpark of $19 million per season. That's a lot of dog toys for Boujee.
5. Pick up T.J. Watt's fifth-year option. The Steelers will happily pick up the Defensive Player of the Year candidate's fifth-year option for 2021. While big brother J.J. signed an extension with the Texans after three years, Pittsburgh might not realistically have the cap room to hand T.J. a new deal until the 2020 offseason. We need to see what sort of contracts are handed out this offseason before I can put numbers on what a Watt extension might look like, but it would hardly be surprising if he became the NFL's highest-paid edge rusher.
Let's start in the AFC with the East, where arguably the greatest player in NFL history might be leaving the only team he has ever known. Nothing dramatic or anything. We'll get to the Patriots in a bit, but let's begin with the division's other playoff team:
Projected 2020 cap space: $82.8 million
1. Pick up Tre'Davious White's fifth-year option and extend him. In most cases, we would look at the Bills letting Stephon Gilmore leave in free agency for the Patriots as a disaster. The Bills administration didn't think Gilmore was worth a franchise tag, but he went to New England and took his game to a new level under Bill Belichick, eventually winning Defensive Player of the Year this past season.
One way to mitigate losing the best cornerback in football is by drafting the second-best cornerback in football, which is what the Bills did one month later by taking White in the 2017 draft. The former LSU star has shown the ability to move around the field and take on the opposing team's top wideout on a weekly basis. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, White allowed a passer rating of just 36.3 as the closest defender in coverage last season, which was the league's second-best mark for corners with at least 200 coverage snaps. Quarterbacks would have been better off throwing the ball into the ground, given that the passer rating for a season full of incompletions is 39.6.
Picking up White's fifth-year option is academic. Getting him signed to an extension will be tougher. As I mentioned in the NFC section, the cornerback market has been stagnant over the past four years. Josh Norman signed a five-year, $75 million deal with Washington in 2016, while Xavien Howard narrowly topped Norman's average annual salary when he inked a five-year, $75.3 million extension with the Dolphins last year. Howard's deal pays only $39.3 million over its first three seasons, though, while Norman's much older contract netted the recently cut corner $51 million over the same time span.
White's representatives should look to top Howard's overall compensation and get a more player-friendly structure to his deal. With Rams corner Jalen Ramsey coming due for what should be a record-setting extension, the Bills should be motivated to get their deal done first. A five-year, $80 million contract with $50 million due over Years 1-3 would make sense for both sides. The good news for Bills fans is that White shouldn't be leaving Buffalo for a long time.
2. Bring back Jordan Phillips (or find a replacement). The most difficult decision of the offseason for coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane is what to do with one of their breakout stars from 2019. Phillips was a waiver-wire acquisition from the Dolphins in 2018 who signed a one-year, $4.5 million deal to stick around last season, but no one could have anticipated what was going to happen next. Phillips doubled his snap rate and produced more sacks (9.5) in one season than he had over his four prior NFL campaigns (5.5). The only defensive tackle in the league to rack up more sacks was Aaron Donald.
Can Phillips keep that new rate of play up? It's hard to say. More advanced metrics weren't as kind to the Oklahoma product. His 16 knockdowns were good, but not great; they would typically be in line with a seven-sack season. According to ESPN's pass rush win rate methodology, Phillips ranked 71st in the league with a win rate of 10.1%, and he created just five sacks on his own, which was tied for 64th. On tape, while Phillips came up with an impressive bull rush against Rodger Saffold for one sack and managed to take down Ryan Fitzpatrick with no hands for another, four of his sacks would clearly be of the coverage variety. He looked like a functional part of a very good defense as opposed to someone who was the force of nature making things happen.
Phillips is going to get a big raise this offseason, but should Buffalo offer him a significant multiyear deal? It's a tough decision. With no other obvious candidate for the franchise tag, the logical thing for the Bills to do would be to franchise Phillips and see if he can repeat this feat for a second season before giving him a long-term extension. (Shaq Lawson, who also saw an uptick in his performance, might also be an interesting candidate for a transition tag.)
3. Add an offensive lineman. The Bills brought in seven new offensive linemen for Josh Allen last season, and their young quarterback reaped the benefits of extra protection. Now, the Bills need to figure out how they can get that line to the next level. Left guard Quinton Spain and reserve tackle LaAdrian Waddle are both free agents, but the key figure is second-year right tackle Cody Ford, who was the weakest link along the line in his rookie year.
If the Bills want to kick Ford inside to guard, they can let Spain leave. Ty Nsekhe, 34, would be first in line at right tackle, but they would likely want to at least consider bringing in somebody like Jack Conklin as a major upgrade on the right side. Lesser options such as former Panthers tackle Daryl Williams would figure as competition for Nsekhe and short-term depth.
On the other hand, if Ford is going to stick at tackle, Buffalo will probably look to add a guard. Spain could return, and it could promote utility interior lineman Spencer Long to the starting lineup, but the Bills have the cap space to get more aggressive if they are inclined. With Brandon Scherff likely getting the franchise tag from Washington, the best guard on the market would be New England's Joe Thuney.
4. Add a cornerback. The Bills have finished second and sixth in defensive DVOA over the past two seasons, so while they don't have many weak spots, they could try to upgrade on Levi Wallace. Taron Johnson is a solid slot cornerback, but Kevin Johnson is also hitting free agency. It wouldn't shock me if this team added at least one cornerback to either compete with Wallace or take his job in the lineup.
One name that pops out is Norman, given that he played for McDermott in Carolina and is a street free agent. The Bills have gone down the veteran-reclamation route before when they signed Vontae Davis to a one-year deal, which didn't work out, but Norman, 32, would be a low-cost option with reasonable upside.
Free agent James Bradberry would be the other fellow Panthers corner in play, but he would come at a much higher price tag. More realistically, this is probably a spot the Bills address in one of the first two rounds of April's draft.
5. Work on extensions for Dion Dawkins and Matt Milano. White will garner the most significant deal from Buffalo's 2017 draft class, but the Bills have other work to do. Milano has quietly emerged as a playmaker and an above-average linebacker against both the pass and run, with the Boston College product allowing 6.1 yards per completion in 2019. The former fifth-round pick already got a raise to $2.1 million when he qualified for the NFL's proven performance escalator, but Milano could be in line for something like a four-year deal in the $56 million range.
Dawkins' deal will be trickier. After he impressed as a rookie, Buffalo traded Cordy Glenn and happily installed Dawkins as its left tackle for 2018, only for the second-round pick to rack up 91 penalty yards and allow eight sacks. The team brought in all those linemen over the offseason but gave Dawkins another season on Allen's blind side, and he responded with a much more effective campaign. The Bills clearly believe in Dawkins, and they'll need to spend about $37 million to hit the 89% four-year floor, so his extension could also come this spring.
Projected 2020 cap space: $93.7 million
1. Cut Reshad Jones and Albert Wilson. The Dolphins are hardly in need of cap space, and they would have cut Jones last year if it weren't for the fact that his salary had guaranteed the year before. Jones is already guaranteed $2.1 million in 2020 and his release would still result in $10.2 million in dead money, but Miami would free up $5.4 million in cap room and save $9.4 million in cash by releasing the former Pro Bowler. Cutting Wilson, who has been limited by injuries to 742 receiving yards over two seasons, would free up $9.5 million in cash and on the Miami cap. These two moves get the Dolphins to $108.6 million in cap space, which should be enough to add a piece or two.
2. Focus on building infrastructure. I wrote about this in September when it became clear that the Dolphins were going to lose a bunch of games, but one of the ways the Browns did themselves a disservice during their tanking effort was by letting go of Mitchell Schwartz. Schwartz was one of the NFL's best right tackles, and while the Browns were happy to net a comp pick for him in free agency, their logic was faulty.
Schwartz was 27 and would have been a building block along the line for years. Replacing him meant that whoever the Browns did eventually take as their quarterback of the future would be at a disadvantage. It hurt DeShone Kizer and Baker Mayfield. The Browns eventually signed away tackle Chris Hubbard from the Steelers on a larger deal than the one Schwartz got in free agency, and Hubbard has been disappointing. Schwartz just won a Super Bowl with the Chiefs.
To bring this back to the Dolphins, it's clear that Miami's plan stretches beyond Ryan Fitzpatrick's tenure with the team. The Dolphins need to build their offensive infrastructure now so it's ready when their quarterback of the future takes over. They've already locked up players such as DeVante Parker and Jesse Davis, but they should focus on adding young pieces who are likely to serve as the support network for their quarterback in 2020, 2021 and beyond.
I wonder whether the Dolphins will try to emulate the Bills by just adding piece after piece to their offensive line and focusing on depth as opposed to standout individuals. Like the Bills, the Dolphins have one starter they're definitely going to keep: Davis, who will either stick at right tackle or move inside to guard. Veteran center Daniel Kilgore could come back for another year, but the team is expected to be interested in former Patriots interior lineman Ted Karras, who would likely take over at the pivot.
The tackle spots are key. Miami is more likely to use free agency to target the right side, given that there is a pair of young options in their prime with 26-year-olds Jack Conklin and Germain Ifedi among the unrestricted free-agent pool. (If the Dolphins plan on drafting left-handed quarterback Tua Tagovailoa -- they have three first-round picks -- the right side would become their long-term starter's blind side and make a player like Conklin even more appealing.) Most of the left tackles coming free are in their 30s, with major question marks such as D.J. Humphries (injuries) and Greg Robinson (penalties) as the exceptions. The Dolphins seem more likely to address the left side with one of their five picks in the first or second round.
3. Upgrade the pass rush. The Dolphins simply couldn't get after the quarterback in 2019. They ranked last in sack rate, adjusted sack rate and pressure rate. Taco Charlton led the team with five sacks, and he played only 10 games. Unsurprisingly, given the injuries and turnover in their secondary, they also posted the league's worst pass defense DVOA.
Miami will return young pieces such as Charlton and former first-round picks Charles Harris and Christian Wilkins, but it needs to add difference-makers along the defensive line. Jadeveon Clowney has suggested he wants to play for a winner, but it wouldn't be shocking to see the Dolphins target Dante Fowler Jr., who was born, raised and went to college in Florida. Fowler had 11.5 sacks last season and is still just 26, which means he should still be in his prime as the Dolphins improve over the next few years. Fellow young free agents such as Arik Armstead (26) and Bud Dupree (27) should also be in the discussion.
4. If you love Tagovailoa, move up. If the plan for 2019 was really to Tank for Tua, there's a chance the Dolphins could stay put and still grab the Alabama star. Tagovailoa's hip injury and the emergence of Joe Burrow have pushed the presumed first overall pick down to where the Dolphins could conceivably still draft him with the No. 5 selection. The Bengals seem set to take Burrow at No. 1. Washington doesn't need a quarterback and can take franchise edge rusher Chase Young at No. 2. The Giants don't need a quarterback at No. 4 and haven't traded down since 2006.
With the Lions lurking at No. 3, though, Miami could get pipped to its man. Detroit could draft Tagovailoa and trade Matthew Stafford. It could credibly move down in a swap with the Chargers (who pick sixth), Panthers (seventh), Jaguars (ninth), Raiders (12th) or Colts (13th), each of whom could be looking for their quarterback of the future. The Jags and Raiders both have an extra first-round pick, while the Colts have the 34th selection to trade. They're all possible trade partners who could leap ahead of Miami.
If you're the Dolphins and you're in love with Tagovailoa, you can't risk waiting for the Lions to take a defensive piece with the third pick. The Jets sent three second-round picks to the Colts to move up from 6 to 3 and draft Sam Darnold two years ago. If the Lions call the Dolphins and ask for the 39th and 56th picks to move up from No. 5 to No. 3, the Dolphins probably have to say yes.
5. Look for opportunities to create value in the draft. Having said that, the Dolphins should continue to think about their rebuild as a multiyear effort. If they can draft Tagovailoa and a bunch of talented pieces around him with those five first- and second-round selections, that's great.
If another team gets desperate and wants to make the Dolphins an offer with future possibilities, though, they should be realistic and consider it. Take the 26th pick. Last year, Washington wanted to move up and draft Montez Sweat, and it offered the Colts its second-round pick and a 2020 second-rounder for the 26th selection. Indy took it and turned the 46th pick into the 49th and 144th selections. The 2020 second-rounder Washington sent became the 34th pick I mentioned earlier, which is nearly a first-rounder.
Independent of the players involved, turning No. 26 into Nos. 34, 49 and 144 is a victory for the Colts. Miami should be similarly patient and try to create value in future years if the option presents itself this April.
Projected 2020 cap space: $44.1 million
1. Re-sign Tom Brady. What, you thought I was going to talk about locking up James Ferentz? While it's fun to think about where Brady might go, a reunion between the future Hall of Famer and the only professional team he has ever played for still makes the most sense. Brady is already comfortable with the coaching staff and still lives in the Boston area, even if his mansion is for sale. The Patriots had the league's best defense in 2019 and likely give Brady the best chance of winning a Super Bowl relative to the other teams likely to pursue him this offseason.
And from the Patriots' side, letting Brady leave would mean that $13.5 million in dead money would accelerate onto their cap in 2020. This is an uncommonly deep veteran free-agent quarterback market, and the Pats could target passers such as Teddy Bridgewater or Philip Rivers, but are they really better off with one of those quarterbacks than they would be with Brady? The 42-year-old unquestionably declined in 2019, but that had much to do with his lack of healthy, effective receiving options. A deal that pays Brady $30 million for 2020, likely with voidable years attached for cap purposes, is still the most likely outcome for the league's most legendary pending free agent.
2. Upgrade -- massively -- at tight end. If Brady does come back, New England needs to give him more weapons. Where it is going seems clear. At wideout, the Patriots already have Julian Edelman, Mohamed Sanu and 2019 first-round pick N'Keal Harry under contract for this season. Unless they can go get somebody like A.J. Green or Amari Cooper, the wide receivers who are going to be available in free agency are going to be of a similar caliber to those three. I could see the Patriots adding a low-cost speed threat, but I don't think paying $13-14 million per year for somebody like Robby Anderson to play ahead of Harry is where they will go.
On the other hand, the Pats' tight ends for 2020 are Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo. It's much easier to upgrade there, and there will be plenty of options in free agency. They should be at the top of the bidding for Hunter Henry and Austin Hooper. Henry is a slightly better blocker, but Hooper has been the far healthier option. Regardless of whom the Patriots prefer, upgrading from LaCosse to Henry or Hooper is where they should focus their efforts this offseason.
I wouldn't stop at one tight end. The Patriots should target an athletic option such as Tyler Eifert or Jimmy Graham to play as their second tight end and give Brady another weapon in the red zone. It's a position they should address in the draft, too. Losing arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history without executing a viable plan to at least approximate replacing him was uncharacteristic for Bill Belichick. I can't see him going through another offseason without correcting that misstep.
3. Convince Devin McCourty to return. The Pats have four regulars from that dominant defense hitting free agency in McCourty, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Danny Shelton. Of the four, I would focus most on McCourty, who would have been a Defensive Player of the Year candidate if he hadn't been overshadowed by Stephon Gilmore, who eventually took home the honor. McCourty's intelligence, preparation and ability to communicate from free safety are a massive help to the Patriots in coverage, even when he's not the primary defender on a given play.
McCourty had been considering retirement in years past, but that apparently isn't in the cards for the 32-year-old this offseason. When he hit free agency in 2015, the Patriots didn't franchise their star safety and let him receive offers on the open market. McCourty eventually turned down a bigger offer from the Eagles to come back to the Patriots on a five-year, $47.5 million deal. While there are a few organizations with ties to the Patriots that could make McCourty a significant offer on a two- or three-year deal, the Pats should do enough to convince their longtime defensive back to return.
4. Bring back one of the linebackers. I don't think New England will have the cap space to make the moves mentioned previously and retain all of its pending free agents on defense. Belichick will find a nose tackle on the cheap to replace Shelton. Those aforementioned organizations filled with former Patriots will likely want to make a run at Van Noy, who emerged as a leader for the Patriots at linebacker after being acquired from the Lions. He could be priced out of New England's range.
The most logical fit would be to bring back Collins, who was a revelation upon his return to the Patriots on a one-year, $2 million deal. There's no way they will be able to get away with signing Collins on that sort of deal, but having seen what life was like with the rebuilding Browns while making top-tier off-ball linebacker money, the 29-year-old might very well be willing to take a discount to stick with the Pats.
5. Rebuild the special-teams unit. In addition to losing longtime coordinator Joe Judge to the Giants, Belichick has a lot of special-teams staffing to do. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski was struggling before going on injured reserve with a hip injury that required surgery. He has a cap hold of $4.8 million for 2020, and New England could need the $3.5 million it would save by releasing Gostkowski, 36, to make moves elsewhere. At the very least, I wouldn't be surprised if the team asked Gostkowski to take a pay cut.
One NFL executive once suggested to me that there was a rule in which fans and media members were capable of knowing about only five special-teams gunners and coverage players at any one time. By the end of this past season, the Patriots had three of them in Matthew Slater, Nate Ebnerand Justin Bethel, who was cut by the Ravens to preserve a compensatory pick. Slater and Ebner are both free agents, while Bethel's $2 million compensation is unguaranteed. Belichick would obviously love to keep his special teams stocked with veterans, but the needs elsewhere on the roster might force him to cut back.
Projected 2020 cap space: $56.4 million
1. Pick up Jamal Adams's fifth-year option and sign him to an extension. As with the Bills and Tre'Davious White, it goes without saying that the Jets will pick up their star safety's fifth-year option. After the organization talked with the Cowboys about a possible deal at the trade deadline and seemed to infuriate Adams, it looked as though the 24-year-old's time in New York would be coming to an end. Things have changed; Adams has said he expects to be extended this season and wants to be in New York.
As a first-team All-Pro and one of the Jets' few success stories from recent drafts, he isn't going to come cheap. The natural comparison will be to Eddie Jackson, who made two Pro Bowls and a first-team All-Pro in his first three seasons, just like Adams. Jackson signed a four-year, $58.4 million extension on Jan. 3, which set the top of the safety market in terms of average annual salary at $14.6 million per season. Adams will likely hope to become the first $15 million safety, so let's peg our estimated Adams deal at four years, $60 million.
2. Rebuild at cornerback. The Jets will cut Trumaine Johnson in the coming weeks. While moving on from one of the most disastrous free-agent signings in recent memory will free up only $3 million in cap space, they will save $11 million in cash on a player who never looked like the guy who starred with the Rams. Darryl Roberts allowed a passer rating of more than 100 in both of his seasons with the Jets, and his $5.8 million cap hit in 2020 is unguaranteed.
General manager Joe Douglas will need to bring in reinforcements to take their place. Relatively unknown players such as rookie sixth-rounder Blessuan Austin and undrafted free agent Arthur Maulet carved out roles as last season went along and should get more opportunities, but I'm surprised the team hasn't made more of an effort to re-sign slot corner Brian Poole, who was its best corner from start to finish in 2019. Poole will likely look to top the three-year, $25.8 million deal Tavon Young signed with the Ravens last offseason, and the Jets should seriously consider a deal in that range. Adding at least one other cornerback beyond Poole should be in the cards as well.
3. Fix the offensive line. The bad news is that quarterback Sam Darnold was under siege behind a porous offensive line last season. The good news is that most of those linemen aren't coming back. Starting tackles Kelvin Beachum and Brandon Shell, starting guard Alex Lewis, and late-summer acquisition Ryan Kalil are all free agents. Kelechi Osemele, who was supposed to start at guard, was cut amid one of the many embarrassing fiascos that enveloped the Jets organization during the first half of 2019. Fellow guard Brian Winters has a $7.3 million unguaranteed cap hold and could be cut.
The only offensive lineman on the roster who is guaranteed a starting job in 2020 is third-round pick Chuma Edoga. Douglas, a former offensive lineman himself, could add as many as four starters this offseason. Given that he left the Eagles to join the Jets, I wonder if he'll pursue Philadelphia swing tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai as a solution on Darnold's blind side. The Jets could keep Winters to make their life a little easier, but Douglas has a lot of work to do even if they do.
4. Acquire a replacement for Robby Anderson. The organization hasn't been able to retain Anderson, who should attract significant attention as arguably the best young wideout available in free agency if Amari Cooper and A.J. Green get franchised. The Jets could consider franchising Anderson to try to create a trade opportunity, but Anderson might choose to sign a tag that is projected to come in around $18.5 million. My best guess is that Anderson would come away with something like four years and $55 million if he hits the market without a tag.
Complicating matters for the Jets is the status of Quincy Enunwa, who hit injured reserve for the second time in three years with a neck injury. Anderson and Enunwa are very different players, but New York also might cut Enunwa to free up $2.4 million in cap space, which would possibly leave it more inclined to make a serious run at re-signing Anderson.
If the Jets want to target a downfield threat to replace Anderson, their options would include players such as Paul Richardson, Breshad Perriman and Seth Roberts. Anderson is the most exciting option of the bunch, but he's going to be more expensive than any of the alternatives. With so many needs elsewhere, New York might need to let Anderson move on.
5. Get edge-rushing help. When Anthony Barr reneged on his agreement with the Jets last offseason and returned to the Vikings, it left Gregg Williams without the athletic edge rusher the longtime defensive coordinator wanted for his first season in New York. The Jets never really found a solution and finished 26th in the league in sack rate at 5.3%. The only Jets defenders to top three sacks all season were Adams, who plays safety, and Jordan Jenkins, who is now a free agent.
Jenkins has 15 sacks over the past two seasons. Bart Scott has suggested that total is boosted by coverage sacks, but ESPN's pass rush win rate analysis is a little more optimistic. The automated analysis suggests Jenkins has won 16.8% of his pass-rush battles over the past two seasons, which ranks 34th in the NFL. He has created 14 sacks over that time with pressures, including nine for himself and five for other players. I don't think Jenkins is a No. 1 edge rusher, but he should see a multiyear deal on the market.
Ideally, the Jets would be in at the top of the market for guys such as Jadeveon Clowney and Dante Fowler Jr. They desperately need someone in that class to kick-start their defense. With so many expensive problems to solve elsewhere, though, they likely don't have the money to compete when those guys get deals north of $20 million per year without drastically compromising another spot on their roster.
Douglas can free up an additional $6.5 million by cutting Avery Williamson, who missed all of 2019 with a torn ACL, but there's little reason to think the Jets will be able to convince another team to take on running back Le'Veon Bell's contract without sending a midround pick as part of the package. When it comes down to it, I suspect Douglas will either sign one key pass-rusher in free agency and use his first-round pick (No. 11) on a left tackle or vice versa.
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