I am already well on record as being a skeptic about this NFL free-agent class. As it currently shapes up, this group is significantly lacking in true star power, and looks even less potent than last year's middling crop. Of course, some of that could change between now and mid-March, when free agency officially begins.
The consensus among the executives I have informally chatted with about the 2018 offseason is that it looks to offer few solutions at the skill position spots. "On paper, it's the worst group of free agents I've seen since I've been doing this," is how one top exec for a team put it to me. Of course, things could get a little more interesting via the trade route, and undoubtedly a handful of accomplished veterans will hit the market at some point due to being released for cap or other purposes.
And that's where the intrigue may hinge.
Those players who get cut don't negatively impact the equation for being rewarded with compensatory picks and many of them have already made a ton of money and want to get a chance to go for a Lombardi with a contending team. There won't be a flurry of huge-name signings when the market opens, because there simply aren't that many players of that stature set to become unrestricted free agents. But with every team and every agent about to hit Indianapolis for the combine in less than two weeks, there will be heavy chatter about teams shopping certain contracts and players who must take a pay cut or risk being released (given the dearth of talent on the open market I'd reckon most legit starters would call their team's bluff).
And there will also be a few teams that are so overloaded with cap space and payroll flexibility that they will be willing to set the market at key positions in free agency and also will still be able to aggressively seek other upgrades via trades with teams that are in more of a cap crunch. After having reviewed the cap and cash situation of all 32 teams, and gone over every pertinent contract in the league, there were six teams that stood out to me beyond the rest as having the ability to swing the pendulum of this offseason one way or the other.
A half-dozen teams could set the tone for the ensuing months and add substantial spice and flavor to an otherwise bland free-agent group. These movers and shakers, depending on the direction they chart for their franchise, could have a substantial trickle-down impact on transactions around the league. Perhaps, this offseason will go as they go. Here are the teams that I kept going back to as I poured over contracts, depth charts, cap space and payrolls:
I get the sense that no team is more primed to make a heavy imprint next month than the Jets. They have cash and cap to burn, with no quarterback making even $1 million on their roster and they're about to shed the contract of their highest-paid player, defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson (they'd save another $17 million in cash and create another $11 million in cap space – on top of the $80-odd million they already have – once they make this move). They may try to find some trade value for Wilkerson, and despite his rough go last season, I could see the Patriots, Ravens or Steelers exploring him as a free agent. Oh, and they will come after Kirk Cousins with vigor and intensity and still have a massive amount of resources left to spend on upgrading around him. More than enough to sign a guy like Jarvis Landry if they like, or to acquire a former Pro Bowl receiver via trade should they wish (more on those options later). Beyond Leonard Williams there are few current Jets in line for an extension, and New York doesn't have too many free agents of its own to focus on either (beyond tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins or linebacker Demario Davis). So they will be on the hunt for talent from the other 31 rosters, big time.
So, those receivers I just mentioned? Yeah, the Broncos have two in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, who other GMs believe will be available via trade. Denver is also looking to peddle former Pro Bowl corner Aqib Talib (his attitude and lapses in discipline may make that difficult to accomplish as teams wait it out for him to be released). Then there is the matter of the Broncos' quarterback situation. If they don't pony up upwards of $30 million a year for Cousins, then which bridge guy do they go with? Trade for Tyrod Taylor? Sign AJ McCarron if he is ruled an unrestricted free agent this week when his grievance is resolved? And if John Elway still wants to draft a quarterback, then does he see what he can get for Paxton Lynch, who he just traded up to draft in the first round a few years ago? Or do they clear out a bunch of salary and cap space to funnel much of that into Cousins, and then rebuild around him? This is a team at a crossroads, and its direction will directly impact corresponding moves from other clubs.
The Seahawks have critical decisions to make with their defense, and limited cap space as things currently stand. But John Schneider is always among the most proactive general managers in the game. The Seahawks entertained trade offers for Richard Sherman a year ago and certainly would do so again – though his injury situation clouds things. Will Kam Chancellor be able to pass a physical? With Chancellor on the roster this week, his $6.8 million salary became guaranteed, but questions remain about his health following a neck injury. Cliff Avril is facing a possible injury-forced retirement. Will the Seahawks transition or franchise Sheldon Richardson to keep him off the open market? If not, he will be one of the most sought after players next month. Can they restructure Russell Wilson's deal to create more cap space – they can – and funnel those resources into the offensive line? Does Schneider have another surprise move up his sleeve (like trading for Percy Harvin or Jimmy Graham)? If the Seahawks remain in win-now mode while still transitioning, then the trade route might be their best option. Plenty of intrigue in Seattle.
The Adam Gase/Mike Tannenbaum coupling enters what is often the decisive third year together, and they do so at a crossroads. Things fell apart in 2017 after a surprise playoff run in 2016, and Tannenbaum's impulse has always been to try to throw more money at a problem. But will that best serve the Dolphins and their coach here? Jarvis Landry wants mega-money as a slot receiver, and I wouldn't franchise him, but might Miami? Gase loves Ryan Tannehill, but the Dolphins, barely under the cap, would create over $15 million in cap space by moving off of him. Would Tannenbaum be intrigued by a splashy quarterback out there? Can you count on Tannehill, given his recurring major injuries? Confidants of owner Stephen Ross told me during the season that the owner was ready to move on from defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, set to count a staggering $26 million against the cap. Does he have a change of heart now? Are the Dolphins buyers, or more like sellers? Teams have been interested in acquiring veteran pass rusher Cam Wake for years. I'd expect other teams to feel out the Dolphins at the combine. Maybe Miami rides things out, staying largely status quo, but if they don't they could be at the nexus of several big transactions.
The Vikings came one game from being the first team in NFL history to play in their home stadium in a Super Bowl, and the roster remains deep and young and talented … everywhere but at quarterback. Which of their three free-agent passers (Case Keenum, Sam Bradford, Teddy Bridgewater) do they retain, if any, and how do they do it (franchise/transition/extension)? Are they going year-to-year at QB, or do they enter the Cousins sweepstakes? They have oodles of cap space and could possibly get more if Sharrif Floyd is unable to play again, but also have Anthony Barr, Stefon Diggs and Trae Waynes all eligible for contract extensions, and GM Rick Spielman has done very well securing his own talent during their rebuild. Even if they are aggressive to extend those players now, there is ample room to make a big splash or two from outside the organization. Anytime a team has three pending free-agent quarterbacks who all have the wherewithal to be starters in 2018, it makes them a pivotal piece in the NFL's offseason puzzle for that alone.
The Super Bowl winners have some interesting dilemmas ahead, including possibly trading the Super Bowl MVP, quarterback Nick Foles. Yeah, that will get you on this list. Add in the fact that no GM relishes making trades more than Howie Roseman (he moved up twice to get Carson Wentz), and you have the makings for big moves. What is the trade market like for Foles and does the uncertainty of Wentz's return from season-ending knee surgery complicate things? Do the Eagles keep left tackle Jason Peters, who they won the Lombardi without last year? Or can they move him for a pick and clear out some cap space? Philly is as tight against the cap as any team in the league. Do they pick up the $5 million option on receiver Torrey Smith? Do they trade someone like Vinny Curry? The Eagles lack two day-two picks from the Wentz trade, and no doubt want to recoup some of that young, cheap talent that comes from hitting on second- and third-round picks. Roseman has been trying to nail down an extension with Super Bowl hero Brandon Graham for months – can they get that done with one year left on his deal? Plenty of reasons why eyes around the league will be on Philadelphia, as well as these other five front offices, in the coming weeks.