In the next two weeks a slew of veteran players will be hitting the NFL's free agent or trade market. A purge of contracts and cap space will begin, albeit likely to a lesser degree that in years past now that the cap itself continues to soar.
With the combine in Indianapolis now less than two weeks away, teams are finalizing their offseason plans and preparing to meet with agents to discuss the future of their clients. By now, in most front offices, the executives have already conducted a full review of every other roster in the league to determine players they believe will be cut, asked to take a pay cut, or who will be shopped ahead of the start of the league year. It's an inexact science, to be sure, but one that signals that the 2018 offseason is, basically, about to launch.
I went through the payroll, depth chart and cap situations with two executives trying to hash out what's likely to come for every organization in the NFL, comparing notes and theories about the state of these teams and where they are likely going. Obviously, some teams have more work to do than others, and there are difficult decisions looming for a wide swath of the league in February that will set the stage for March.
Here's a thumbnail on each NFL franchise gleaned from my conversations this week:
The Cardinals have to find a quarterback, and the hunch I get is that its far more likely they go for a bridge guy like Sam Bradford than a mega-deal with Kirk Cousins. I expect them to draft one high as well. A David Johnson extension will be on the front burner, and they have until March 14 to make a determination on Tyrann Mathieu; his $11 million in combined salary and roster bonus becomes guaranteed then. The execs I spoke to believed the Cardinals would pay that but seek to get Deone Bucannon off the $9 million fifth-year option and on a longer-term deal at a lower cap number.
There is little secret here -- quarterback Matt Ryan, a former NFL MVP, is entering the final year of his deal, and signing him to an extension is paramount. With Drew Brees and Cousins in line for free-agent deals and Aaron Rodgers in line for an extension, the price of doing business with Ryan continues to soar. Getting Jake Matthews off a fifth-year option and on a less cumbersome deal would also make sense.
Ownership has made it clear drafting a quarterback in the first round isn't on the table, but 2018 is likely Joe Flacco's last season with this team given the structure of his contract. (I'd target Tom Savage for that role; abundant upside, played well against the Ravens this year, and they've signed Texans backups before). Finding skill players on offense is the priority, in draft and free agency, and before that happens I expect the Ravens, ever tight against the cap, to purge some of the elders they brought in a year ago in free agency (Jeremy Maclin and Danny Woodhead) to clear some cap room. They've always been remiss to pay big for free agent receivers, but exploring a trade for Emmanuel Sanders would make sense. Can they get anything for Breshad Perriman in trade? Extending C.J. Mosley is the only real in-house business to take care of, another sign of their recent draft struggles.
Bills GM Brandon Beane isn't even a year on the job yet, but already established himself as a wheeler-dealer willing to listen to anything. He was open to moving tackle Cordy Glenn in-season and will definitely consider that option this offseason as well; he's done well moving on from big-ticket items left over from the previous regime. Sources said the Bills will also seek a trade partner for Tyrod Taylor -- Denver is one team that leaps to mind -- but teams may simply wait until March to sign him, knowing the Bills are highly unlikely to pick up his $6 million roster bonus on the March 16. They are loaded with picks and looking diligently at the first-round quarterbacks in this draft.
This is literally a team in limbo without a general manager for now -- they should have given Marty Hurney an extension when Ron Rivera got his weeks ago -- and with an interim owner, with Jerry Richardson under NFL investigation and the team up for sale. In other words, don't expect a whole lot of activity from them. Maybe they get an extension done with a high-character veteran like Greg Olsen. Finding legit outside receivers will be the primary objective to open up the offense.
Go ahead and swallow that $19 million you gave Mike Glennon to start about one month for you. League sources said that quarterback will be gone. His a symbol of a brutal 2017 free-agent class. "Their free agent class from a year ago was a joke," one personnel exec said. "You can count on pretty much all of those guys being out of there this year." Indeed, the team got next to nothing out of Glennon, Mark Sanchez, Markus Wheaton, Prince Amukamara, Kendall Wright et al. a year ago). Pernell McPhee's injury woes have other teams believing the Bears might save that $7 million by moving on from him, and Willie Young is another who could be gone. Re-signing corner Kyle Fuller should be a priority but he's going to find a lucrative market ahead and will not be returning to Chicago, according to a source with knowledge of the situation.
Will this be the final year for Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap with the Bengals? They have been the heart of that defensive front for a long time, but both enter the final year of their deal. Michael Johnson has not produced in his second stint with the team the way he did in his first, and they could save $4.5 million by letting him go. Adam Jones has been a favorite of ownership and highly productive into his 30s, but with a $5.3 million option looming on March 14, do they move on? My guess is he's back with the Bengals for another season.
It's all about finding a quarterback, finally, for this franchise, and it will focus on the first-overall pick in the draft. Securing a veteran to run the offense to start the 2018 season makes sense as well (a Josh McCown type would be perfect), and moving DeShone Kizer out of there might be the best step, too. Extending Duke Johnson should be a no-brainer given the $100 million or so in cap room they have. But coming off an 0-16 season, there aren't a ton of extensions in order and the Browns will be active in free agency. (Personally, I'd part ways with Josh Gordon as well given all of the drama and baggage there.)
The sense I got around the league is that Jerry Jones will not release Dez Bryant ("He'll get him to restructure that contract," one personnel director told me. "Jerry has a way of getting those things done.") The Cowboys don't have oodles of cap room, however, and need to franchise DeMarcus Lawrence and then try to extend him, while David Irving is an RFA and Zack Martin is the next offensive lineman in line for a massive new deal. The Cowboys' focus will be from within.
A year from now, Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are likely to be gone, and rival execs would not be surprised at all if one of them is dealt in the coming weeks. Aqib Talib is gone. Paxton Lynch could be gone once the Broncos solve their quarterback conundrum. I'd put my money more on a younger bridge guy like Taylor or AJ McCarron than I would them landing Cousins in the end. Sign a guy making half of what Cousins will make, and draft a quarterback in the first round (again).
Executives I talk to believe the Lions have to roll the dice and tag Ziggy Ansah, injury concerns and all. "He has a chance to set the market on that side of the ball in free agency if they let him hit the market," one exec said. Tight end Eric Ebron has been the subject of trade rumors before and likely will be again. Significant focus will be paid to getting a feature back and adding talent to the defense for rookie head coach Matt Patricia.
It's time to extend Rodgers again, and while you could make the case for the Packers moving on from either receiver Jordy Nelson or Randall Cobb, I wouldn't bet on it. "Rodgers is back healthy, he got the GM in the seat that he wanted, and he loves both of those receivers," said one exec with ties to that organization. "He'll make it clear he doesn't want to lose them. I don't think they're going anywhere." Clay Matthews isn't the player he once was and they could save over $10 million in cash and cap by letting him go, but I don't anticipate that happening, either. They need to upgrade on defense, obviously.
Brian Cushing is very likely to be gone, saving about $8 million in the process. As much money as possible needs to be funneled to Jadeveon Clowney, who is entering the final year of his deal at a time when longtime defensive anchors J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus are both trying to come back from major injuries. Watt's long-term health has to be a concern, which makes extending Clowney Objective No. 1 (and 2 and 3) for the Texans.
They've been open to listening to trade suggestions on tackle Anthony Castonzo in the past, and some in the league believe the right side is where he should be. Buttressing the offensive line in hopes of Andrew Luck's return is as much a need as is sprinkling talent at all positions on defense With around $80 million in cap space, the Colts will be players in free agency, and much of that money could be sunk into the offensive and defensive lines.
I wouldn't rule out, at all, them sniffing around on guys like Cousins, but in the end I believe it's more likely they land a top dollar backup like Josh McCown than add a new uber-expensive starter. I expect Blake Bortles to be back. The Jags must decide by next week whether to pick up a $4 million option on tight end Marcedes Lewis -- "I'd be surprised if they don't given how he's been there and his ability to block and help in the run game," one exec said -- though the exec does anticipate the Jags release running back Chris Ivory and save over $5 million in the process.
The gutting of the Chiefs defense is underway; if you are over 30, you may have to go. Derrick Johnson and Darrelle Revis are gone, and Tamba Hali is expected to be next behind them. "They are cleaning house on defense," one exec said. The team's highest-paid player, Justin Houston, wont be a part of that purge, I'm told, though the Chiefs are expected to rework his contract to create much-needed cap space to pour back in that defense.
Los Angeles Chargers
Is this finally the end for Antonio Gates? We've been saying that for years, but the free agent has always ended up back there. Two of the better corners in the NFL are entering the final years of the deal with the Chargers, and getting Jason Verrett off the fifth-year option and securing Casey Heyward for a few more years will be the primary objectives. They have the ability to add a few key pieces in free agency, too.
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams won a battle of wills with Aaron Donald a year ago, and his holdout accomplished very little, if anything at all. But I wouldn't suggest going down that road again. Getting the game's premier defensive player locked up for the future is a must. After franchising him two years in a row, corner Trumaine Johnson will not be back with the Rams, according to a league source. He leaves with $30 million in his pocket from the last two years. I'd also be shocked if Tavon Austin is back with the Rams; they save $8 million in cash by letting the former first-round pick go. Some have suggested Rodger Saffold could go, but the Rams really like him as a player and a person, and his versatility is a plus. I expect him to be back.
While others might move on from Ryan Tannehill after his recent injury woes, Adam Gase has championed this quarterback since he arrived there and remains bullish on him. He wants to win with him and see this through, and while they could save $18 million by walking away, that's not in the cards here. They anticipate him running their offense when OTAs start. The Dolphins are super tight on cap space, which adds intrigue to the decision to possibly franchise tag Jarvis Landry, a player they have mulled dealing in the past. Tight end Julius Thomas is very likely gone, creating $6.5 million in cash and over $4 million in cap savings.
They have to find a quarterback, and I personally wouldn't be shocked to see Case Keenum and Teddy Bridgewater back there. They have plenty of cap flexibility. With Anthony Barr and Stefon Diggs in the final year of their deals, there is extension work to be done there, and I continue to hear it will unfortunately be very difficult for Sharrif Floyd to play again due to a lingering knee problem.
With two years left on his deal, Tom Brady could get paid again before the season starts. Rob Gronkowski almost surely will, and with the Patriots up against the cap, a purge of older players is coming, primarily recent additions. Parting with Dwayne Allen, Martellus Bennett, Alan Branch, Kenny Britt and David Harris would create about $19 million in cap space. "The guys they brought in last year are gone," said one AFC exec, "and Bill (Belichick) will go bargain hunting again." Given the exodus of young talent on defense in recent years (Chandler Jones chief among them), a Trey Flowers extension would be smart, too.
Re-sign Drew Brees, hopefully not at $30 million a year, and go into what will likely be a two-year window to win a Super Bowl with him. There isn't much other contract work that needs to be done besides maybe getting longer deals done with some restricted free agents (like Willie Snead). And if they can find a way to keep Alex Okafor from leaving in free agency, that would be a major plus.
New York Giants
Draft a quarterback in the first round, and explore an Eli Apple trade given all of the tumult in that locker room last year. From every signal being sent, Eli Manning is the QB for 2018, and ownership wants to keep Odell Beckham. Brandon Marshall, meantime, is not in the team's plans, I'm told. The Giants are somewhat hamstrung by the cap, but extensions for Beckham and Landon Collins might be the best ways to spend what they do have. Dave Gettleman is going to have to make serious hay in the draft.
New York Jets
First order of business will be moving on from Muhammad Wilkerson, the team's highest-paid player. That is coming, sources said, and will free up $17 million more in cash and $11 million in cap, giving the Jets upwards of $90 million in space to use to woo Cousins. They will be hard to beat for his services, and they'll add other weapons on offense, too. Moving on from Matt Forte is likely as they seek younger, more explosive backs as well.
League sources said Sean Smith and Michael Crabtree are not in the team's plans, which creates about $16 million in cap and cash savings. Will Marshawn Lynch click with Jon Gruden enough to keep him? Also, what kind of fit is tight end Jared Cook in this new offense? Oh, and they face an arduous tack in signing arguably their best player, Khalil Mack, as he enters his fifth-year option. That could be quite tricky.
The more executives I talk to, the more I am convinced that Howie Roseman will keep Nick Foles deep into the offseason and not trade him for anything but significant value. I'm not buying the alleged , but at least a second-rounder and something else. We'll see if that market develops, but Foles's value while Carson Wentz recovers from knee surgery is high. I do, however, expect him to be proactive in what he can get for left tackle Jason Peters. "The offense operated well without Peters, and he'd have some value," one exec said. "The kid who filled in is nothing special, but the offensive line as a whole was fine without Peters." Philly is in a cap bind, but Torrey Smith's $5 million option might be too steep. And the Eagles want to extend Brandon Graham and began talks with him in season.
The Steelers are almost always in a bit of a cap bind, as comes with having a strong roster that allows them to complete most years. They love Joe Haden, but sources said they can't retain him at $9 million (they'll try to bring him back at a lower number, I assume). William Gay is also gone from that secondary I'm told, while Mike Mitchell will be a tough call too, as he could save them $6 million in cap space. Tight end Vance McDonald didn't do much after being acquired and he'd save over $4 million against the cap if let go as expected. The Steelers will tag Le'Veon Bell again if need be.
It's already mission accomplished there by getting Jimmy Garoppolo signed long-term. It's huge and vital and franchise-changing. Love the contract from both sides. And they still have more cap space then the need to continue adding to the roster. Figuring out the extent of Reuben Foster's troubles and determining if he is someone they can continue to keep around will be imperative.
Can they find a way to afford keeping Sheldon Richardson on a tag of some sort? Perhaps savings from moving on from Cliff Avril and Jeremy Lane, and maybe Michael Bennett, would help. They entertained offers for Richard Sherman a year ago, and execs I spoke to anticipate they do the same this year. Some things will be stripped down to try to build back up, for sure. "There's going to be a housecleaning, for sure, but to what extent," as one personnel director put it.
Bringing Mike Glennon back as a backup quarterback is something other teams expect to happen. Working out an extension with Mike Evans is a priority. And the Bucs will have more cap space than they need after parting with Chris Baker and Doug Martin, moves I am hearing are forthcoming and save close to $12 million in the process.
They don't have too much internal business to conduct, save for trying to work out an extension for tackle Taylor Lewan. Some execs believe they could move on from Johnathan Cyprien, who has a roster bonus looming next month. "He didn't really make a lot of plays for them," as one exec put it. Some are asking questions about the run game moving forward – "Derrick Henry doesn't seem to fit what they're going to be doing there now," one personnel guy mentioned to me.
Things are a mess there, again. No one is buying a tag-and-trade scenario with Cousins, at least not that I've talked to. There are rumblings about Josh Norman's future there as well, and they could save $15 million in cash and $8 million in cap space by parting with him. "You just moved on from a franchise quarterback and paid a guy to replace him who you didn't have to pay, so anything is possible there," a personnel director said. "There is no way I would have extended Alex Smith like that. I hear that Norman hates the front office and would want to leave anyway. Something could happen there." Given all of the drama between Washington and Su'a Cravens, he could be gone too, now that he has been reinstated.