Each Team’s Biggest Question Mark Heading into 2018 NFL Offseason
Each Team’s Biggest Question Mark Heading into 2018 NFL Offseason
Each Team’s Biggest Question Mark Heading into 2018 NFL Offseason
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The Philadelphia Eagles may be Super Bowl champions, but not even they can afford to rest in preparation for the 2018 season. Sure, the NFL may not be back in meaningful action until the fall, but as we all know, football is a year-round business.
Now that all 32 franchises have largely solidified their front offices, it’s time for teams to start forging rosters and installing game plans. Those rosters are going to look much different in just a few months than they did during the 2017 season.
Free agency will officially kick off at 4 p.m. ET on March 14, and the 2018 NFL draft will follow roughly six weeks later in Dallas.
Unfortunately, it isn’t possible for a franchise to get every free agent and draft pick it targets or to retain every player it wants. Teams have to figure out what differences on their rosters they want and which they can they afford.
Naturally, this leaves every squad with several questions heading into the offseason. We’re here to examine the biggest one for each team.
Arizona Cardinals: Who Will Play Quarterback in 2018?
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Here’s a mild spoiler: There are going to be a lot of quarterback questions on this list. Quarterback is the most important position in the NFL, and there is no shortage of teams lacking a quality starter. The Arizona Cardinals find themselves in that position since Carson Palmer retired in January.
Not only must the Cardinals deal with Palmer’s retirement, but they also must face the fact that Blaine Gabbert and Drew Stanton could leave in free agency. There’s a chance Arizona could have an entirely new quarterback room in 2018.
Normally, it would make sense to retain either Gabbert or Stanton for continuity’s sake—and it still does to some degree—but the Cardinals have a new head coach in Steve Wilks after Bruce Arians’ retirement and a new offensive coordinator in Mike McCoy. It’s unlikely there will be a ton of system continuity on offense anyway.
While re-signing Gabbert or Stanton would help address depth at the quarterback position, identifying a full-time starter is Arizona’s biggest offseason priority.
Since the Cardinals don’t pick until 15th overall, finding a Day 1 starter in the draft is unlikely. This means their best option is to sign a starting-caliber passer such as Kirk Cousins or Case Keenum in free agency. Bringing in a bridge quarterback like Sam Bradford and drafting a developmental signal-caller is another possibility.
Arizona is projected to have around $22.5 million in cap space, so making competitive offers to quarterbacks shouldn’t be an issue with a little work. Convincing a sought-after free agency like Cousins that they are close to being a playoff team—like they were in 2014 and 2015—will be the Cardinals’ bigger challenge.
Atlanta Falcons: Can They Maintain Their Defensive Front?
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While the Atlanta Falcons offense took a step back in 2017, the defense became one of the more impressive units in the league, ranking eighth in scoring with just 19.7 points per game allowed.
A big reason for its emergence was the speed and athleticism on the back end and at linebacker. However, the size and strength the team assembled up front shouldn’t be discounted. Atlanta was able to create pressure on the interior, bring pressure from the edge, contain the run and free up linebackers to make plays with its defensive front.
A large portion of that front is scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency this offseason.
Defensive tackles Dontari Poe, Ahtyba Rubin and Courtney Upshaw are all set to hit free agency, as is defensive end Adrian Clayborn. While Poe was the only full-time starter of the group last season, depth is important to any strong defensive interior, and Clayborn (9.5 sacks) was a big cog in the pass-rushing machine.
Atlanta is projected to have $12.8 million in cap space this offseason, so retaining every member of the defensive front is pretty much impossible. Head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff will have to decide whom they want to keep and where they plan to find replacements for those who depart.
Baltimore Ravens: Who Will Be Joe Flacco’s Go-To Targets?
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The Baltimore Ravens missed the postseason in 2017, but it wasn’t due to a lack of quality defense. The team allowed just 18.9 points per contest, sixth-fewest in the league. Baltimore’s problem was a lack of effective offense, particularly through the air.
The Ravens averaged just 189.4 yards per game in passing offense. No pass-catcher produced 800 yards receiving, and quarterback Joe Flacco averaged a disappointing 5.7 yards per attempt. Tight end Benjamin Watson led the team with 61 receptions, while wideout Mike Wallace had the most receiving yards with 748. Both are scheduled to become free agents.
The Ravens don’t have much reliable pass-catching talent behind Watson and Wallace. Free-agent addition Jeremy Maclin was a disappointment with just 440 yards receiving. 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman was an even bigger disappointment with just 77.
The good news is that at least Wallace seems eager to return.
“If they will have me, I will definitely come back,” Wallace said, per Sean Grogan of the Cecil Whig.
Even if Baltimore is able to bring back Wallace and Watson, they need to add additional receiving talent through the draft or free agency. Going after someone like Allen Robinson or Jarvis Landry may not be realistic, though, as the Ravens are projected to have less than $8 million in cap space.
It would make more sense for Baltimore to target a receiver like Courtland Sutton or Calvin Ridley in April’s draft, assuming Perriman hasn’t made the franchise afraid of targeting another receiver early.
Buffalo Bills: What Will They Do with Tyrod Taylor?
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This past season, the Buffalo Bills made the playoffs for the first time since 1999. They did so, in part, because of the dynamic play of quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Yet, the Bills are clearly not committed to Taylor for the long term—at least not at his current price. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have benched him in order to start fifth-round rookie Nathan Peterman in the middle of a playoff campaign.
Taylor is scheduled to carry a cap hit of $18.1 million in 2018.
The Bills need to determine if they’re going to give Peterman a full-time crack at the starting job, if they want to go after a proven starter like Cousins or if they want to try to select another quarterback early in the 2018 draft.
First, though, Buffalo needs to figure out what to do with Taylor.
If he isn’t their guy, it doesn’t make sense for the Bills to keep Taylor on the roster. Cutting him outright wouldn’t be a much better option, as he is still owed $8.6 million in guaranteed money. Reworking his contract to something more team-friendly isn’t an option.
Taylor has no interest in another renegotiation, per Vic Carucci of the Buffalo News.
Trading Taylor and acquiring a potential bridge at the position such as Keenum or Bradford would make the most sense if Buffalo wants a younger quarterback to be its future. This, of course, would require another team valuing Taylor more than the Bills do.
Carolina Panthers: Can They Find the Pieces for Norv Turner’s Offense?
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The Carolina Panthers made a change at offensive coordinator this offseason. A big reason why is former coordinator Mike Shula’s offense was failing to push the ball downfield. Despite having a premier quarterback in Cam Newton, the team averaged a disappointing 192.3 passing yards per game (28th in the NFL).
A staple of Norv Turner‘s system is the vertical passing attack.
Newton has the arm talent to excel that scheme, but the question is whether Carolina can assemble the proper cast around him. Carolina has some quality pass-catchers such as Greg Olsen, Devin Funchess and Christian McCaffrey. However, it doesn’t have a field-stretching wideout to fully maximize Turner’s scheme.
“They need to stretch the field,” analyst Bill Cowher explained recently, per Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer. I love their running back. He’s been a special kid. You know what they are on the defensive side of the ball. So I think getting some speed to be able to create more of a vertical game would be a great complement to Funchess.”
Young receivers Curtis Samuel (4.31 40-yard dash) and Damiere Byrd (4.27 40-yard dash) possess some speed, but neither has proved himself as a big-time go-to target—even at the collegiate level. The Panthers need to find one, possibly two, downfield threats between free agency and the draft.
Carolina is expected to have close to $12 million in cap space, so going after a guy like Robinson or Taylor Gabriel with a backloaded deal in free agency would make sense. Doing so could free up an early draft slot to use on a successor for an important pending free agent such as Julius Peppers, Andrew Norwell or Star Lotulelei.
Chicago Bears: Who Will Will Be Catching Passes from Mitchell Trubisky?
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The Panthers might not have a legitimate No. 1 receiver, but the Chicago Bears may not even have a No. 2 NFL wideout on their roster. While first-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky showed some growing pains in 2017, he wasn’t the primary reason why Chicago ranked dead-last in passing (175.7 yards per game).
Wideout Kendall Wright led the team with only 614 receiving yards, while no other player on the roster surpassed 400. To put that into perspective, 61 NFL players had more receiving yards than Wright this past season, and 109 players surpassed the 400-yard mark.
Even if the Bears target a pass-catcher or two early in the draft—Chicago has the eighth and 39th overall selections—that may not be enough to put a quality receiving corps around Trubisky. Adding a top-flight receiver in free agency should be a goal. It would also be smart to target a free-agent tight end like Watson, Jimmy Graham or Trey Burton.
Fortunately, Chicago should be able to land a quality pass-catcher or two on the open market. The team is expected to have close to $40 million in cap space to spend this March.
Strengthening the cornerback position should also be a goal for the Bears, but ensuring Trubisky can build off of his rookie season has to be the top priority.
Cincinnati Bengals: How Do They Rebuild Their Offensive Line?
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The Cincinnati Bengals gambled big last offseason, allowing two starting offensive linemen—guard Kevin Zeitler and tackle Andrew Whitworth—to leave in free agency. The plan was to replace the veteran duo with cheaper players.
Unfortunately, the gamble didn’t pay off. As a result, Cincinnati had one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines.
Quarterback Andy Dalton consistently found himself under pressure and was sacked 39 times over the course of the season. The line was even worse at opening running lanes. Despite adding talented rookie Joe Mixon to the backfield, the Bengals averaged just 85.4 rushing yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry.
The year before, Cincinnati averaged 4.0 yards per carry and 110.6 rushing yards per game.
For the Bengals to get back to having success in the trenches, they must improve their offensive line. They can target guys like Connor Williams and Mike McGlinchey in the draft, or they could go after free agents like Nate Solder and Andrew Norwell. With Cincinnati needing aid in both pass protection and in run blocking, it would make sense to explore all avenues.
Cleveland Browns: Where Do They Find Their New Quarterback?
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Cleveland Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer has to spend the 2018 season watching from the sideline. While it’s too early to completely give up on him, the Notre Dame product didn’t show nearly enough as a rookie for the Browns to roll with him as their starter next season.
The question isn’t whether Cleveland will have a new starter in 2018. It’s where will the Browns find him?
The Browns are armed with the first and fourth overall picks in the draft, and common sense suggests they would prefer to land their quarterback of the future with one of those selections. The team hired John Dorsey as general manager and Scot McCloughan as a consultant largely because of their ability to evaluate incoming rookie talent.
If the Browns don’t feel as though there’s a Day 1 starter in the draft, they may go after a veteran to fill the starting role for at least one season. According to Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com, they tried to trade for Alex Smith, but the Kansas City Chiefs agreed to deal him to the Washington Redskins instead.
Just because Dorsey didn’t get his first choice doesn’t mean the Browns can’t find a starting quarterback in free agency. Cleveland is projected to carry more than $100 million in cap space into the new league year.
The Browns can afford to open up the checkbook for a premier free agent like Cousins, though he doesn’t make a ton of sense if the front office is set on drafting a quarterback high. It’s more likely they’ll look for a stopgap quarterback who can start in 2018 while mentoring both Kizer and this year’s rookie signal-caller. Options for this role include Bradford, Keenum, Josh McCown and possibly even Taylor, provided the Bills decide to part ways with him. Acquiring AJ McCarron could be another option.
The Browns first must decide what route they want to take in fixing their quarterback position. They then have to figure out who they’re going to get to do it.
Dallas Cowboys: What Will They Do with Dez Bryant?
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The Dallas Cowboys have a big financial decision to make. They’re expected to have roughly $18 million in cap space this season, but they may have to spend big to retain star pass-rusher Demarcus Lawrence.
Unless Dallas figures out how to clear some cap space, it’s going to have a hard time outbidding another team for Lawrence on the open market. One way to quickly clear $16.5 million in salary would be to trade wideout Dez Bryant. Roughly half that amount is guaranteed, so releasing Bryant is another option, but it isn’t nearly as enticing of one.
Bryant is a proven difference-maker when he’s playing at his highest level, so there should be a legitimate market for him. He hasn’t been quite as productive playing with Dak Prescott as he was with Tony Romo, however. Last season, he racked up 838 receiving yards but also logged a career-low 12.1 yards per catch.
The Cowboys need to decide what to do with Bryant moving forward. Will they be willing to pay him a significant sum of money in the hopes he can finally find chemistry with Prescott and return to being a No. 1 NFL receiver? If not, Dallas needs to get what it can in return for Bryant—even if it’s only a compensatory pick—and use the created cash to strengthen other areas of the roster.
Denver Broncos: Will They Chase Kirk Cousins?
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The Denver Broncos still have a championship-caliber defense. What they don’t have is a quarterback capable of leading the offense efficiently enough to win on a consistent basis.
Adding a proven starter like Cousins could immediately put Denver back into the Super Bowl conversation. Linebacker Von Miller already has been doing his part to recruit Cousins this offseason.
If the Broncos aren’t eager to get in a bidding war for Cousins, they’ll next need to decide whether a quarterback like Taylor or Keenum would be an upgrade over the duo of Paxton Lynch and Trevor Siemian. They also own the fifth overall pick, so they could go after a quarterback like Baker Mayfield or Sam Darnold—potentially trading up from No. 5 to do so.
Drafting a quarterback that high would almost certainly put an end to Lynch’s chance of becoming the long-term answer in Denver.
The Broncos have no shortage of quarterback questions to answer this offseason. The first one is whether Cousins is their primary target.
Detroit Lions: Who Will Run the Ball?
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The Detroit Lions took steps to improve their offensive line last offseason, but that didn’t lead to an increase in rushing efficiency. Detroit still ranked last in the league with just 76.3 yards per game on the ground.
A failure to run effectively isn’t a new problem for the Lions, who haven’t had a player rush for 100 yards in a game since 2013. They expected to end that streak upon drafting Ameer Abdullah in the second round back in 2015, but he has mostly been a disappointment.
New head coach Matt Patricia needs to find himself a leading runner this offseason. Otherwise, the offense is going to fall squarely on the shoulders of quarterback Matt Stafford, as it has for the better part of his career.
Detroit selects 20th in the first round, so it would almost certainly have to trade up to select former Penn State running back Saquon Barkley. However, if a run on quarterbacks pushes Barkley down past No. 6 or 7, such a trade may be worthwhile for a team so desperate for a quality runner. If Barkley isn’t an option, going after Derrius Guice would make sense.
The Lions may instead attempt to find their new starter in free agency. Detroit is expected to have more than $45 million in cap space, and there are some intriguing pending free agents including Le’Veon Bell, Isaiah Crowell, Dion Lewis and Carlos Hyde.
Green Bay Packers: Is Now the Time to Offer Aaron Rodgers an Extension?
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Few will argue Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers isn’t one of the NFL’s best signal-callers when healthy. Unfortunately, Rodgers missed nine games in 2017 due to a collarbone injury.
While Rodgers has two years remaining on his current contract, none of it is fully guaranteed. After last year’s injury, it would behoove Rodgers to pursue a new deal that includes some guarantees.
The Packers have to determine whether it’s worth giving Rodgers peace of mind in 2018 with a new deal when they’re expected to have less than $20 million in cap space. Considering Jimmy Garoppolo just inked a deal worth $27.5 million per year, a new deal for Rodgers could cut significantly into Green Bay’s cap space.
On one hand, giving Rodgers a new deal would allow him to play more freely this season, which is when he’s at his most dangerous. It would also likely save the Packers money in the long run, as quarterback contracts are only going to increase in value with each new deal that gets signed. Cousins likely will become the league’s highest-paid quarterback in free agency. Whichever top-tier quarterback signs a deal after him will then take that title.
On the other hand, cutting into Green Bay’s cap space will make things more difficult for new general manager Brian Gutekunst to navigate free agency this offseason.
Houston Texans: How Do They Reshape Their Defense?
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Assuming second-year quarterback Deshaun Watson returns from his ACL tear at 100 percent, the Texans offense should be in good shape in 2018. The team has several questions on defense, however.
Former defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel left to pursue a head-coaching gig with the Tennessee Titans, so Romeo Crennel will return to that role. Crennel filled that job from 2014-16 and served as a defensive assistant last year, so there will be continuity. However, the defense could still look different.
For starters, the Texans cannot know how defensive standouts Whitney Mercilus and J.J. Watt are going to perform as they come back from injuries. The return of Watt, who has suffered several significant injuries throughout his career, is especially unpredictable. After the two went down for the season in 2017, the Texans defense took a significant hit, finishing last in points allowed per game (27.2).
In addition, the Texans have three notable defenders—Jonathan Joseph, Eddie Pleasant and Marcus Gilchrist headed into free agency. Joseph and Gilchrist were regular starters in 2017.
How the Texans deal with their pending free agents, handle their rehabbing veterans and choose to reshape their defense will go a long way toward determining whether they can challenge for the AFC South title in 2018.
Indianapolis Colts: How Healthy Is Andrew Luck?
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The Indianapolis Colts finally have their head coach after agreeing to terms with former Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich. Now, the biggest question in Indianapolis is whether quarterback Andrew Luck will be healthy enough to play in 2018.
Luck hasn’t played since undergoing shoulder surgery after the 2016 season. He’s spent time in Europe undergoing additional therapy over the past year and only recently began preparing to throw a football again, according to Zak Keefer of the Indianapolis Star.
Luck isn’t the only piece the Colts need to be successful in 2018, and considering the bright spots Jacoby Brissett showed last season, there is no real need to rush him. Still, Indianapolis’ offense is unquestionably more dangerous with Luck at the helm, which makes his recovery a major offseason storyline.
“He has not picked up a football, but he’s throwing balls, working on arm speed,” Colts general manager Chris Ballard told reporters on Feb. 7. “He’s not going to skip a step.”He’s going to do everything right to get himself ready to play. I’m very confident—he’s very confident—that he’s going to come back and prove a lot of people wrong.”
The Colts’ optimism about Luck’s recovery is notable, but we’ve seen it before. After all, owner Jim Irsay insisted Luck would be ready by the start of last season.
We know how that prediction turned out.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Do They Believe in Blake Bortles?
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Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles had his ups and downs in 2017, but the oft-criticized quarterback did enough to get Jacksonville to the AFC Championship Game.
However, Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone didn’t believe in Bortles enough to put the ball in his hands with a 10-point fourth-quarter lead in said title game. The New England Patriots ate up the conservative game plan and stormed back to earn a trip to the Super Bowl.
The Jaguars now must decide whether they believe in Bortles enough to roll with him as their starter in 2018 and beyond. He was serviceable with 3,687 yards passing, 21 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 2017, but his play didn’t warrant the $19 million salary he’s set to earn this coming season.
Jacksonville may have no choice but to guarantee that money, as Bortles will have to pass a physical before the team can release him and he underwent wrist surgery last month. The Jaguars appear content to bring Bortles back, likely making this a moot point unless they want to avoid a hefty guaranteed salary.
Jacksonville could try negotiating a long-term extension with Bortles that would include a more favorable 2018 salary, but doing so likely would require a long-term commitment. Jacksonville must decide whether it’s willing to make such a commitment or if it wants to give Bortles a hefty salary for one final audition.
Kansas City Chiefs: How Many Familiar Faces Will Depart?
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The Chiefs are heading into the offseason looking to kick-start the Patrick Mahomes era. They are widely expected to part with several high-priced veterans before the start of free agency.
Just how many veterans they purge remains to be seen.
The Chiefs have already agreed to ship Smith to Washington at the start of the new league year, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. The contract of 35-year-old linebacker Derrick Johnson voided after the season, Schefter reported, and the Chiefs do not plan on bringing him back.
If Kansas City isn’t ready to part ways with Houston—a renegotiation would make sense, given his price tag—who else may join Johnson and Smith on the chopping block? The Chiefs find themselves in a unique position, as they’re still a playoff-caliber team but are also looking to build around Mahomes moving forward.
This offseason, The Chiefs are likely to search for the right balance of the old guard and new blood.
Los Angeles Chargers: Will They Look for Philip Rivers’ Successor in the Draft?
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The Los Angeles Chargers finished the 2017 season just short of the playoffs with a 9-7 record. Some early mistakes—and an 0-4 opening record—cost them a shot at making a playoff run.
As such, it’s Chargers are more likely to retain pending free agents and tweak their roster than they are to be big buyers looking for a total makeover. Antonio Gates, Tre Boston, Matt Slauson and Nick Novak are slated to become free agents, so there’s plenty of work to be done with the current roster.
If the Chargers are going to make a big external addition, it’s likely to come in the form of a successor to quarterback Philip Rivers.
Rivers has two years remaining on his current contract, but he’s also 36 years old. In addition, the Chargers can get out of his contract following the 2018 season while just paying out $7 million in guarantees.
Thus, L.A. needs to decide if this is the offseason to scoop up Rivers’ successor, or if it can put the decision off until next year. It holds the 17th overall pick in a draft that features plenty of quarterback prospects with upside, so it must choose whether that’s the best use of resources.
The Chargers should expect to be more successful in 2018, which would potentially put them out of range of drafting a top-tier quarterback prospect moving forward.
Los Angeles Rams: Will They Try to Keep Both Johnson and Joyner?
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The Los Angeles Rams had a huge offensive resurgence in 2017, but their defense’s ability to make big plays shouldn’t be understated. Two of their biggest playmakers on that side of the ball were cornerback Trumaine Johnson and safety Lamarcus Joyner.
Johnson has developed into a true shutdown cornerback, while Joyner is excellent in man coverage, back-end zone coverage and in run support. The pair combined for five interceptions, 114 tackles, two forced fumbles and two defensive touchdowns in 2017.
Both Joyner and Johnson are pending free agents, and neither is likely to come cheap.
Johnson has played the last two seasons under the franchise tag, and he’ll be looking to finally cash in on a big payday. Joyner won’t command as much on the open market, but versatile safeties are in high demand, so he isn’t going to be a bargain, either.
The Rams are expected to carry more than $45 million in cap space into free agency, so they’ll be able to make solid offers to both players if so desired. The question is whether they’ll bother or if they’ll resign themselves to losing one or both.
They must settle upon a direction early in free agency, as it will heavily influence what they need to do throughout the rest of the offseason.
Miami Dolphins: What Do They Do with Jarvis Landry?
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Landry is likely to have plenty of suitors if he reaches the open market. He won’t fit in every offense, as he is more of a possession receiver than a true No. 1 wideout, but he thrives in Adam Gase’s scheme.
The Miami Dolphins need to decide whether they want to lock him up before allowing him to gauge the market. Ravens safeties Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson have already taken to Twitter to tell Landry he’d be welcome in Baltimore.
If the Dolphins don’t want Landry to reach free agency, they need to decide what kind of offer they’re willing to give him. Considering they’re currently around $7 million under the cap, they must figure out what they want to do with him before the start of free agency.
Landry isn’t likely to get true No. 1 receiver money on the open market, but Spotrac projects his market value to be nearly $14 million per year.
Minnesota Vikings: How Do They Handle Keenum and Bridgewater?
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It shouldn’t be difficult for the Minnesota Vikings to move on from Bradford, as he’s 30 years old and injury-prone. It will be harder to do so for Keenum and Teddy Bridgewater, however. Each of them are pending free agents, and both appear to have value to the franchise.
Keenum stepped in and started 14 games during the regular season, passing for more than 3,500 yards with 22 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. He played well enough to lead Minnesota all the way to the NFC title game.
Bridgewater, a 2014 first-round pick, is the former face of the Vikings franchise. The organization clearly values him, as head coach Mike Zimmer seemed to flirt with the idea of benching Keenum once Bridgewater was cleared to play again.
Neither player is a sure thing, though. Keenum has struggled as a starter in other systems, and John DeFilippo is replacing former offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. Bridgewater suffered a significant knee injury nearly two years ago and hasn’t started a game since.
Is Keenum a one-year wonder? Can Bridgewater be the potential franchise quarterback he once appeared to be? The Vikings have to answer these questions while determining whether they want to keep one quarterback over the other or try to retain both.
It’s possible Bridgewater’s contract tolls over to 2018 since he started last season on the PUP list, which may simplify Minnesota’s decision considerably.
New England Patriots: How Do They Fix Their Defense?
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After a rocky opening month, the New England Patriots defense took positive steps during the second half of the 2017 season. However, everything fell apart against Philadelphia in Super Bowl LII, as they allowed 538 yards of total offense and failed to register a sack.
For the Patriots to re-establish a championship-caliber defense, they must first add a top-tier pass-rusher. While they registered a respectable 42 sacks, many of those came via blitzes and not from pure talent. No New England player produced more than Trey Flowers’ 6.5 sacks.
The Pats also must find a replacement for cornerback Malcolm Butler, who is a virtual lock to leave in free agency. They benched Butler in the Super Bowl, and their secondary struggled as a result.
Unfortunately, the Patriots need to come up with defensive answers without their longtime coordinator, Patricia, who took over the head-coaching job in Detroit.
New Orleans Saints: What Kind of Contract Can They Negotiate with Drew Brees?
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Quarterback Drew Brees is set to become a free agent, but he expects to return to the New Orleans Saints.
“I’m not going anywhere else,” Brees said during Pro Bowl practices, per Jenna Laine of ESPN.com.
The Saints are expected to have around $25 million in cap space this offseason, which means they’ll likely have to get creative with their contract offer. That is, unless Brees is willing to give them a significant hometown discount.
The contract Garoppolo recently signed will pay him more than $25 million per season. The Saints don’t have the cap space to offer fair market value for a high-end Pro Bowl quarterback, which could force them to offer a two- or three-year deal backloaded with guarantees.
We’ve seen the Patriots go down this road with Tom Brady in the past, and it makes a ton of sense for a team still holding open a Super Bowl window. It would be surprising if New Orleans takes a different approach—or releases Brees—but anything remains possible up until the start of the new league year.
Getting the right deal done with Brees is easily the Saints’ biggest priority heading into the offseason.
New York Giants: Will They Draft Eli Manning’s Successor?
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Former New York Giants head coach Ben McAdoo didn’t last long after making the head-scratching decision to bench Eli Manning for Geno Smith late in the 2017 season. Shurmur is now the team’s head coach, and the Giants recently added Mike Shula as offensive coordinator, per ESPN.com’s Jordan Raanan.
The big question is whether Shurmur, Shula and owner John Mara will try to find Manning’s successor now or later. The Giants are armed with the second overall pick in the draft, which means they’ll have their pick of quarterbacks after Cleveland selects its own (assuming the Browns go in that direction).
While it makes sense to spend that pick on a quarterback—the Giants typically don’t choose this high in the draft—putting off the search could be appealing, too. If Shurmur and Co. believe New York can make a Super Bowl run with Manning at the helm, adding a dynamic force like Barkley would be ideal.
The Giants may want to give themselves time to see how 2017 third-round pick Davis Webb develops, although having too many good young quarterbacks on a roster is rarely a problem.
New York Jets: Will They Gamble on Another Quarterback in the Draft?
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The New York Jets haven’t fared well drafting quarterbacks over the last few years. They spent a fourth-round pick on Bryce Petty in 2015 and a second-round pick on Christian Hackenberg in 2016, but neither appears to be a legitimate starting option.
New York can take a better shot at drafting a quarterback this year, as it owns the sixth overall pick. That should enable the team to land someone like Josh Allen, Josh Rosen or Baker Mayfield, depending on how the first five selections unfold.
The Jets first must decide if they’re going to make that gamble. That will determine whether they go after a potential long-term starter like Cousins or Keenum in free agency or if they go after a bridge quarterback like Bradford—and/or if they bring back McCown for another run.
Above all else, New York must determine whether its franchise quarterback is in this draft class. Then, the Jets have to decide if there’s any realistic way to snag him with the draft capital they currently possess.
If they don’t believe their ideal quarterback will still be around at No. 6—and they don’t believe they can trade up for him—they’ll likely prioritize free agency in their search for a new starting signal-caller.
Oakland Raiders: How Do They Revitalize Derek Carr?
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The Oakland Raiders made a huge splash this offseason by bringing in former Super-Bowl winning head coach—and long-tenured ESPN analyst—Jon Gruden on a 10-year deal. His reputation as a quarterback guru likely helped seal the deal.
Raiders signal-caller Derek Carr took a major step back in 2017, passing for just 3,496 yards with 22 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Will Gruden be able to refresh his career? It’s possible, but the Raiders cannot bank on him alone, especially since he hasn’t coached an NFL game since 2008.
While it didn’t help that Carr was coming off a significant leg injury, several other factors played a role in his backslide. That includes a struggling offensive line, inconsistent play by wideouts Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree and a lack of a dependable run game.
The Raiders need to address each of these issues either through scheme or personnel changes to get Carr playing like a legitimate MVP candidate once again.
Philadelphia Eagles: How Will They Get Under the Cap?
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The Eagles got their money’s worth out of their roster in 2017. But if they don’t make significant changes before the start of free agency, they’re expected to be nearly $12 million over the salary cap.
The challenge for Philadelphia will be figuring out where exactly it can save cash.
Many of the Eagles’ highest-paid players—including Fletcher Cox, Lane Johnson, Jason Peters and Brandon Brooks—are essential to their success. Of these four, Peters seems to be the most likely cap casualty.
Had the Eagles not just won the Super Bowl despite losing Peters to a torn ACL and MCL in October, it would seem absurd for them to release him. But if they designated him as a post-June 1 cut, they could save $7 million, per Over the Cap.
Another option would be to trade backup quarterback Nick Foles, which would save more than $7 million. The Eagles shouldn’t struggle to find a trade partner for the Super Bowl MVP, but they’d have to be confident in both Carson Wentz’s health and his next backup.
Pittsburgh Steelers: How Do They Handle Le’Veon Bell?
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If Bell reaches the open market, he’ll be one of the hottest free agents available.
Here’s the problem for the Steelers: They currently have just under $7 million in cap space. Bell wants to be paid like a top-tier running back and a top-tier receiver, according to NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo. While that isn’t likely to happen, he’s still going to command significant money on the open market.
Thus, the Steelers must decide how much they value Bell and how far they’re willing to go in order to retain him for the coming season.
Franchising Bell again would require paying him even more than the $12.1 million he received under the tag last season. That’s likely a non-starter for the Steelers, even if they make some serious salary-saving moves between now and March.
It makes more financial sense to give Bell a long-term deal, but that carries risks as well—most notably the risk of another drug-related suspension. Under terms of his most recent settlement, he’ll be looking at a four-game suspension the next time around, per Garafolo. Pittsburgh has also utilized Bell heavily over the first five years of his career, which could hurt his longevity.
The Steelers must weigh these risks while considering giving Bell a long-term contract that may not be that much cheaper in 2018 than the franchise tag.
San Francisco 49ers: Can They Add a Top-Flight Cornerback?
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Now that the San Francisco 49ers have locked up Garoppolo, they can focus on building around him.
At first blush, this would seem to indicate San Francisco needs to improve the weapons at Garoppolo’s disposal. However, he had little trouble running Kyle Shanahan’s offense with Marquise Goodwin and George Kittle as his top targets. To set Garoppolo up for more immediate success, the 49ers need to focus on improving a defense that allowed 23.9 points per game last season, tied for eighth-most in the NFL.
Their most glaring need on defense is a shutdown cornerback. If the 49ers can land one this offseason, Garoppolo may not have to win so many shootouts.
San Francisco should enter free agency with the NFL’s second-most cap room, trailing only the Browns. They can—and should—go hard after one of the top corners on the market.
Stealing Johnson from the Rams would be a terrific move, but adding a guy like Butler or even Davon House would be a boon as well. Drafting someone like Isaiah Oliver or Denzel Ward could be an option as well, but the 49ers have the cash to go after a proven commodity. That should be the primary plan.
Seattle Seahawks: How Can They Finally Support Russell Wilson?
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For far too long, the Seattle Seahawks have relied on quarterback Russell Wilson to carry the offense on his own. They neglected the offensive line for several seasons before finally making a few moves last year, and they’ve failed to field a dominant running game since Marshawn Lynch‘s (temporary) retirement.
Even though the Seahawks signed Luke Joeckel last March and traded for Duane Brown in October, Wilson was sacked 43 times in 2017. He was also the team’s leading rusher, amassing 586 yards on 95 carries. The end result was far too many hits on a quarterback who Seattle’s offense revolves around.
The Seahawks should be able to get a quality lineman or running back with the 18th overall pick in the draft. Signing high-end offensive weapons will be more difficult, however, as Seattle is only projected to carry about $13 million into free agency. It doesn’t help that Joeckel is set to become a free agent, too.
For the Seahawks to provide Wilson with the right support, they’ll need to consider parting with high-priced defenders like Richard Sherman, who is scheduled to carry a cap hit of $13.2 million next season. Sherman, though, seems to believe he’ll be back.
“We’re going to try to get everything back on track, get healthy and try to get back after it, Sherman said on Feb. 8, per Brady Henderson of ESPN.com. “Hopefully everybody heals up the way they’re supposed to.”
Both Sherman and safety Kam Chancellor suffered season-ending injuries in 2017.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: How Do They Improve Their Pass Rush?
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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a number of key pieces in place. They have a potential franchise quarterback in Jameis Winston along with premier weapons like O.J. Howard, Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson. What the Buccaneers do not have is a functional defense.
Tampa Bay allowed 378.1 yards per game last season, the most of any NFL team, in large part because it lacked a quality pass rush. The Buccaneers produced a league-low 22 sacks in 2017.
The Buccaneers are expected to enter free agency with more than $60 million in cap space, and they currently own the seventh overall pick in the draft. That should give them plenty of avenues to explore when finding pass-rushers.
Tampa Bay will have enough money to go after premier sack artists like Lawrence and Ezekiel Ansah. It could also have a realistic shot at the projected top edge-rusher in the draft, Bradley Chubb.
Considering how poor the Buccaneers pass rush was in 2017, it would be wise for them to utilize both avenues this offseason.
Tennessee Titans: How Will They Unleash Marcus Mariota?
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Vrabel is quickly becoming one of the most candid and interesting coaches in the NFL. He didn’t hold back when discussing what it was like to coach against Mariota while he served as the defensive coordinator in Houston.
“We were scared to death, again, when we do the stats and run the statistics and he is averaging 17 and 18 yards a completion on play action, those things scare you as a defensive coordinator,” Vrabel said in January, via Jim Wyatt of the Titans’ official website. “Those are big plays that change field position.”
For the Titans to maximize Mariota’s effectiveness as a play-action passer, they must continue to lean heavily on the run—including designed runs for Mariota—and add legitimate downfield receiving talent.
Mariota’s most consistent target last season was tight end Delanie Walker, who will be 34 at the start of the 2018 season. While he remains dangerous, his time as a true deep threat is likely winding down.
Rishard Matthews was the only other pass-catcher to top 600 yards receiving for Tennessee in 2017. Eric Decker had a few highlight moments, but he will be a free agent and didn’t stand out enough for the Titans to prioritize him this offseason.
If Corey Davis can break out in his second season, Tennessee may have its No. 1 wideout. However, adding a legitimate downfield complement in free agency or the draft must be a priority.
Teams weren’t afraid to clamp down on the run against the Titans in 2017 because they didn’t respect the deep-passing game. That plan will backfire in 2018 if Mariota has guys to strike deep off play action.
Washington Redskins: How Do They Build Around Alex Smith?
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Barring an unexpected development, the Redskins will trade for and extend Alex Smith when the new league year begins, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter. This likely means Cousins is gone, which leaves Washington to build around Smith for the foreseeable future.
While the Redskins need to solidify the line in front of Smith—Cousins was sacked 41 times last season—much of the line’s weakness was due to injuries, not a lack of starting talent.
“We’re just trying to survive, honestly,” left tackle Trent Williams said of the line last season, per Liz Clarke of the Washington Post.
Instead, putting a reliable collection of skill players around Smith must be Washington’s top offensive priority.
Tight end Jordan Reed remains elite, but injuries limited him to only six games in 2017. While second-year wideout Josh Doctson showed flashes of greatness, the Redskins lack a legitimate No. 1 receiver. Cousins passed for more than 4,000 yards last season, but Jamison Crowder led the team with 789 receiving yards .
The Redskins may want to target a free-agent receiver like Landry or Robinson, or they could take their chances in the 2018 draft. They also need to bolster their running game, which averaged only 90.5 yards per game last season.
Improving the run defense should also be a priority for Washington, but for Smith to play like he did for the Chiefs in 2017, the Redskins must to give him the same support Kansas City did.
All contract and cap information via Spotrac unless otherwise noted.
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February 15, 2018 at 04:07AM