While the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers might just have finished a thrilling Super Bowl, the NFL is only going to get busier in the weeks to come. The league’s 32 teams are planning their offseason agendas, identifying targets in free agency and beginning to narrow down prospects they’ll want to pay close attention to at the scouting combine ahead of the 2020 NFL draft.
Over the next two weeks, I’ll run through every team and the first five things they should be thinking about as they prepare for the new league year, which begins on March 18. I’ll start in the NFC West and work my way east before starting with the AFC, as you can see from the schedule:
Tuesday, Feb. 11: NFC West
Wednesday, Feb. 12: NFC South
Thursday, Feb. 13: NFC North
Friday, Feb. 14: NFC East
Next week: Entire AFC
Let’s head to the NFC North, where three of the division’s four starting quarterbacks held the league’s largest cap hits last season. That isn’t the case in 2020, but each of the teams in the North will have to improve their rosters while overcoming some cap obstacles this upcoming offseason:
Projected 2020 cap space: $13.4 million
1. Pick up Mitchell Trubisky‘s fifth-year option. When I write these pieces, I have to toe a line between what I would do and what makes sense given what we know about the opinions of the coaches and executives actually making the decisions. It might make sense for the Titans to move on from Derrick Henry because of how poorly big second contracts have gone for running backs, but there’s little chance of that happening after Henry’s stellar run in the 2019 playoffs.
Likewise, let’s talk about Trubisky. Last season was supposed to be the year he took a step forward after a successful 2018 campaign. Instead, he continued to make questionable decisions, stopped using his legs to gain valuable first downs for most of the season and ended up in one of the most conservative passing attacks in recent memory. He averaged 6.1 yards per attempt; after adjusting for era, that’s the 11th-worst mark since the merger.
It’s fair to say that Trubisky’s long-term viability as a starter is in question. I would argue that the Bears have seen enough and need to bring in someone who will either start ahead of Trubisky or serve as meaningful competition. General manager Ryan Pace, on the other hand, has already said that Trubisky is going to be starting in 2020.
With that in mind, if you’re operating under the assumption that Trubisky is the Week 1 starter for the Bears, it makes little sense to decline his fifth-year option. The chances of him breaking out as a guy worth a second contract, at least to Pace, are almost certainly higher than the chances he’ll suffer the sort of injury which prevents him from passing a physical and keeps the Bears on the hook for a quarterback they don’t want in 2021.
Pace has also made a mistake in this scenario before. The Bears declined Kyle Fuller‘s fifth-year option before the 2017 season, but when the 2014 first-rounder finally put things together and had an above-average run, the team didn’t have Fuller under contract for a fifth year in 2018. Instead of having Fuller on a below-market deal for one season, Chicago ended up matching a Packers offer sheet which made the corner one of the highest-paid players at his position. (That was just fine in 2018 when Fuller was an All-Pro, but not quite as impressive when his passer rating allowed jumped by nearly 40 points last season.)
Trubisky’s fifth-year option for 2021 will end up somewhere between $24 million and $25 million and will be guaranteed for injury only. The decision depends on what you feel about him right now. If he’s not a guy with whom the Bears can win a Super Bowl, they need to decline the option and find a new starter. Given that Pace still seems to think Trubisky is on his way to stardom, though, they should be inclined to pick up his fifth-year option and hope for the best.
2. Find a quarterback 1A. Even if I’m going to defer to Pace’s opinion on Trubisky’s future, it would be foolish for Chicago to not target a backup quarterback in 2020. Beyond the concerns about Trubisky’s talent level, he has missed games in both 2018 and 2019 with injuries and often puts his body at risk to extend and/or make plays. The Bears need somebody who can challenge Trubisky and step in as a viable replacement.
Their backup over the past two seasons was Chase Daniel, who is a free agent. While he gave them a veteran who supported Trubisky off the field, it would make sense for Chicago to target a more mobile quarterback who can step in and continue to give teams pause with his legs. The logical suggestion as the offseason approached was Marcus Mariota, who had played under Bears offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich at Oregon, but Helfrich was fired after the team disappointed in 2019.
The Bears replaced Helfrich this offseason with former Bengals coordinator Bill Lazor. While Lazor isn’t expected to make the playcalls with Matt Nagy in charge, the Bears could consider going after one of Lazor’s former charges in Andy Dalton, 32, who is still technically under contract with the Bengals. Cincinnati will likely cut Dalton to hand the starting job to presumed first overall pick Joe Burrow. Dalton is a more mobile quarterback than people think and just good enough to challenge Trubisky without immediately demanding the No. 1 job.
3. Make a decision on Leonard Floyd. The breakout season hasn’t yet come for Floyd, whose sack totals have dropped in each of the past three years after racking up seven in 12 games as a rookie. Floyd has stayed healthy over the past two seasons, which is promising, but despite playing across from the perpetually double-teamed Khalil Mack, he has a middling seven sacks and 23 knockdowns over that time frame. He ranked 57th in pass rush win rate a year ago.
For a team that starts the offseason with less than $14 million in cap space and has holes to fill on both sides of the ball, Floyd is a problem. As Floyd enters his fifth-year option, he has a cap hold of $13.2 million, which is the third-highest on the team. Chicago has already restructured Fuller’s contract and could cut players like Prince Amukamara (which would free up $9 million in cap space) and Cordarrelle Patterson ($4.8 million), but its clearest path to creating cap room is by doing something with Floyd.
From a football sense, the best thing to do would be to let him play out his fifth-year option. Pass-rushers occasionally break out in Year 5 — Nick Perry comes to mind — but for cap reasons, the Bears should probably move on from Floyd and go after a replacement on the edge. If Pace thinks Floyd is still an above-average pass-rusher, they should pursue an extension to help reduce his 2019 cost.
4. Find a new starting guard. You can’t fault Kyle Long for retiring this offseason. After missing just one game and making it to three Pro Bowls across his first three seasons in the league, he looked like he was on a Hall of Fame track. Since then, Long has played just 30 of 64 games while battling multiple injuries. He characterized it as “stepping away,” but whether he returns in the future or not the Bears will need to find a guard this offseason.
Last year, the Bears turned to veteran Ted Larsen, who was felled by a knee injury of his own and replaced by converted defensive lineman Rashaad Coward. Larsen is a free agent, and Coward is probably best suited as a backup tackle. This isn’t a great free-agent market for guards, but if Chicago reduces Floyd’s cap hit, it could have enough room to target somebody like Quinton Spain as a mid-tier option.
This team isn’t in great draft shape, as its first-, third-, and fourth-round picks are all gone. The Bears do have an extra second-rounder from the Raiders as the last spoil of the Mack trade. Pace has exhibited a propensity for trading up in the draft to grab players he loves, but he needs to trade down and amass extra picks this year. If that means taking a guard in the third or fourth round as opposed to the second round, so be it.
5. Address the holes at inside linebacker and safety. Former free-agent imports Danny Trevathan and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are both free agents again, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if both moved on. Clinton-Dix will likely find a multiyear deal in free agency, while Trevathan will turn 30 in March and completed just one 16-game season in his four seasons in Chicago.
The team was actually slightly better by some measures last season without Trevathan. Chuck Pagano’s defense allowed a 50.5 QBR and 21.2% first-down rate against the run with Trevathan on the field, but those marks fell slightly to a 48.0 QBR and 20% first-down run rate without the former Broncos standout. In part, that was due to the emergence of Nick Kwiatkoski, who impressed in Trevathan’s absence.
The problem with simply plugging Kwiatkoski in for Trevathan? Kwiatkoski is a free agent too. There will be teams interested in him, but with a limited history as a starter and inside linebackers typically coming cheap on the open market, I would guess he’s worth more to the Bears than most other teams. Re-signing Kwiatkoski and using some of the savings to target a safety in free agency makes the most sense for the Bears.
Projected 2020 cap space: $45.1 million
1. Pick up Jarrad Davis‘ fifth-year option. Davis hasn’t consistently impressed since the Lions drafted him with the No. 21 pick in 2017. Injuries held him back at the beginning and end of 2019, and in between, he seemed to struggle to translate the athleticism and instincts he showed in college into consistent, reliable linebacker play, especially against the pass. The Lions have guys who are arguably better against the run in Jahlani Tavai and Christian Jones, so they need Davis to be someone they’re confident with in pass coverage.
Davis’s résumé doesn’t sound much different from Trubisky’s, but here’s where draft order matters. As a top-10 pick at quarterback, Trubisky’s fifth-year option is the average of the top 10 salaries at his position, which is a lot. Davis was taken late in the first round, and his fifth-year option would be the average of the salaries ranked third through 25th among linebackers. Even if something catastrophic happened and Davis suffered a career-threatening injury, as Ryan Shazier sadly did after the Steelers picked up his fifth-year option, there’s not much risk for the Lions in terms of their 2021 cap.
2. Address the interior of the defensive line. A’Shawn Robinson and Mike Daniels are both free agents, while run-plugger Damon Harrison is reportedly considering retirement. The Lions will likely use Da’Shawn Hand as a defensive tackle in passing situations in 2020, but even if Harrison comes back, they need to target at least one tackle to play significant snaps in their rotation.
They will have plenty of options, although the identity of the player(s) they’ll want to go after depend upon whether Harrison returns. The logical fit if Harrison retires would be Danny Shelton, who is both an excellent run defender and — crucially for general manager Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia — a former Patriots player. If Harrison returns, Detroit would be looking for a more explosive player to play alongside him. I wonder if the Lions will be the team which makes a huge offer to Jordan Phillips, who broke out with a 10-sack campaign in 2019. Guys like Jarran Reed and Shelby Harris could also be in play here, and the team could even consider reuniting with Ndamukong Suh.
3. Resolve Darius Slay‘s situation before the draft. With one year left on his deal, the Lions probably need to determine whether the three-time Pro Bowler fits into their future before making a call on what they’re going to do with the No. 3 pick. Slay, 29, didn’t have his best season in 2019, but he hasn’t gotten much help from the rest of the Detroit defense while spending the vast majority of his time covering No. 1 wideouts.
The top of the cornerback market is Josh Norman‘s five-year, $75 million deal from 2016, which guaranteed the former Panthers defender $36 million and paid $51 million over Years 1 through 3. Jalen Ramsey will likely push that market forward this offseason, but even if Slay doesn’t get a Ramsey-sized deal, he could feasibly expect to top those Norman figures on a contract extension. A four-year, $64 million deal would be a reasonable expectation from his side.
Part of the equation here involves Ohio State corner Jeff Okudah, who has been the popular pick in mock drafts for the Lions at No. 3 overall after Joe Burrow and Chase Young come off the board. If the Lions think Okudah is a franchise corner and worth taking with the third pick, they might not want to devote significant resources to three cornerbacks, since Justin Coleman is one of the league’s highest-paid slot corners.
The logical move would then be to trade Slay, who would have a market. We haven’t seen many star corners traded in recent years, with Aqib Talib moving twice on what amounted to salary dumps. Marcus Peters went to the Rams for second- and fourth-round picks before being dealt to the Ravens for a fifth-rounder. He was still on a rookie deal, though, and whichever team that trades for Slay would be in line to give him a new deal, which reduces his value further.
Would the Lions be willing to accept a third-round pick for their star corner? There are teams that would likely be interested at that price tag; the Cowboys, Jets and Raiders need help at cornerback, and the Texans have a late second-rounder, a need for cornerback help and a general manager who doesn’t seem to value draft picks. The best thing for the Lions would be to keep Slay around, though.
4. Consider trading down in the first round. I know there have been rumors suggesting the Lions could use the No. 3 overall pick on a quarterback and trade Matthew Stafford. It’s not impossible to imagine, although it doesn’t make much sense to me. Stafford was playing some of the best football of his career before getting hurt last season, which was the first time he had missed a game since 2010. The Lions were 0-8 without him. Stafford is essentially under contract for three years at a total of $51.3 million, which is below market value. The Lions would also see their cap hold for Stafford in 2019 rise from $21.3 million to $32 million if they traded him. Maybe a team blows away Detroit with a trade offer and it happens to love a prospect such as Tua Tagovailoa, but this feels more like trying to create a market for the third pick than anything else.
While the Lions will be better in 2020, they’re not realistically a player away from the Super Bowl. Outside of quarterback and receiver, they either need a starter or meaningful depth just about everywhere on their roster. There are a total of two players — Slay and punter Sam Martin — left from Martin Mayhew’s final six drafts with the organization, including nobody from the 2014 or 2015 classes. They have been active in free agency to try to paper over the holes on their roster, but this team needs multiple impact pieces.
It’s going to be tempting to draft Okudah or Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons with the No. 3 pick, but Detroit needs to consider dealing this pick to a team that wants to move ahead of the Dolphins for a quarterback. When the Jets wanted to move up from No. 6 to No. 3 for Sam Darnold in 2018, the Colts were able to extract three second-rounders. With the Chargers, Panthers and Jaguars all likely considering a quarterback in the top 10, getting a similar sort of haul in terms of draft capital would be worth it for Detroit.
5. Extend Taylor Decker. Quinn’s first draft pick after arriving in Detroit was Decker, who has rounded into form as an above-average left tackle since taking over for Riley Reiff. Decker missed half of 2017 with a torn labrum and committed a career-high five holding penalties in 2019, but he has generally been a solid protector on the blind side for Stafford. Teams don’t typically let those guys walk.
The guy who comes to mind for me when I see Decker is Jake Matthews, who hadn’t made it to a Pro Bowl when he signed a five-year, $75 million deal with the Falcons before starting his fifth year in 2018. Adjusting that deal for inflation would get Decker up to five years and $85 million, which would make Decker the highest-paid left tackle in football. Ronnie Stanley and Laremy Tunsil are likely to get larger deals, so even if it means going to $17 million per season, the Lions would be smart to get the Decker deal done first.
Projected 2020 cap space: $22 million
1. Cut Jimmy Graham. General manager Brian Gutekunst’s forays into free agency have been successful on defense, as Adrian Amos, Preston Smith, and Za’Darius Smith all delivered during the 2019 season. On offense? Not so much. Billy Turner was a below-average guard last season, while Graham has averaged just 33.8 receiving yards per game and caught five touchdowns in 32 contests with the Packers.
The Packers were dreaming about a telepathic red zone connection between Graham and Aaron Rodgers when they signed the former Seahawks tight end to a three-year, $30 million deal in 2018, but Graham’s 10-touchdown run in 2017 was an outlier. He’s also one of the league’s worst blocking tight ends. Graham will still have a job somewhere, but the Packers should move on and free up $8 million in cap space by cutting him.
2. Re-sign Bryan Bulaga. While health has been an issue for the 31-year-old right tackle, the 2010 first-round pick was able to start all 16 games in 2019. He did miss most of two contests, and one of them was quite memorable, as it was the 49ers game where Rodgers spent most of his time running for his life. The numbers with and without Bulaga aren’t quite as significant as that one game would seem; over the last three season, Rodgers has posted a passer rating of 99.9 with Bulaga on the field and 88.6 without him, although his QBR is actually six points better without Bulaga over that time frame.
The Packers could let Bulaga leave and replace him from within; both Turner and Elgton Jenkins have played tackle in the past, and with Lane Taylor returning from a torn biceps, the Packers could push one of their starting guards to tackle. The best scenario? Start Jenkins and Taylor at guard with Bulaga at right tackle and Turner as the first man off the bench.
The NFL Primetime crew discusses how the Packers’ offense couldn’t take down the 49ers.
3. Add another receiver. Davante Adams is great. What the Packers were working with after Adams was … not as great. Graham was a shell of his former self, and the rest of Rodgers’ targets were either undrafted free agents (Geronimo Allison, Allen Lazard, Jake Kumerow) or late-round picks (Marquez Valdes-Scantling). While Green Bay was successful when Adams missed four games with turf toe, Rodgers’ best receiver for most of that stretch was running back Aaron Jones.
Finding a second weapon at receiver has to be the biggest priority for the Packers in terms of adding new talent to the roster. They can and probably should address wideout early in the draft, but I would imagine that they’ll think about going after an option in free agency. While I don’t think they would be inclined to make an Adams-sized offer to Amari Cooper, there are downfield options available in Robby Anderson and Breshad Perriman, both of whom were impressive at the end of the season.
The addition doesn’t have to be a wide receiver, either. If they cut Graham, there’s every reason to think the Packers would consider going after one of the two star tight ends on the market in Hunter Henry and Austin Hooper. If Gutekunst can nab one of the big-name tight ends and then draft a wide receiver in the first or second round, Green Bay should be able to stave off further regression from Rodgers, 36, in 2020.
4. Clean up things at linebacker. You saw the NFC Championship Game, right? It’s unfair to pin what the 49ers did solely on Green Bay’s inside linebackers, given that everybody in their front seven had a terrible game, but the Packers ranked 23rd in rush defense DVOA during the regular season, too. They are locked into their edge rotation for years to come with the two Smiths and first-round pick Rashan Gary, so they’re not going anywhere.
At inside linebacker, though, the Packers are going to make changes. Blake Martinez and B.J. Goodson are both free agents, and 2018 third-round pick Oren Burks hasn’t been able to stay healthy. Martinez routinely racked up gaudy tackle numbers, but I can’t imagine the Packers bringing him back on any sort of meaningful deal after what happened against the 49ers. Options like Joe Schobert and Cory Littleton would be significant upgrades in free agency, though this seems like a position the team might prefer to address with fresh legs in the draft.
5. Lock up Kenny Clark. While Jones is also in the queue for a possible extension, I’d be worried about the clear divide between his production and what the Packers think of the talented running back. Jones has been massively productive and the Packers still seem hesitant to even give him something close to an every-down workload when Jamaal Williams is healthy. While Williams is a free agent, it seems likely that they will bring in someone to split snaps with their starter. Jones could be a candidate for the franchise tag if he continues to produce in 2020.
While Clark will want to burn the 49ers tape, he has been one of the more quietly impressive defensive linemen in football for a while now. The UCLA product should be in line to top the four-year, $68 million extension Grady Jarrett signed with the Falcons before the 2019 season. Clark’s deal could come in somewhere around five years and $80 million.
Projected 2020 cap space: -$12.3 million
1. Create some cap space. Just in case you missed that minus symbol above, the Vikings are in a tight cap squeeze. While they aren’t going to end up in the sort of apocalyptic cut spree that teams like the Ravens and Titans dealt with 15 years ago, general manager Rick Spielman & Co. have some work to do over the next few weeks.
Minnesota would instantly get under the cap if Everson Griffen exercises his right to opt out of his deal, which would free up $13 million in room. It would also deprive the Vikings of a productive defender, as he racked up eight sacks and 24 knockdowns during the regular season and was excellent during the two-game playoff run. Griffen has said he wants to stay with the team, and the Vikings probably aren’t ready to stick Ifeadi Odenigbo into the starting lineup. My guess is that the two sides agree to terms on a modified contract and Griffen stays.
The next move would be to cut cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who has struggled mightily over the past two seasons and was moved in and out of the lineup at times in 2019. The Vikings will create $8.1 million in cap space by cutting the 2013 first-round pick, which has sadly become an inevitability. Rhodes could come back on a much smaller deal, but a split probably makes sense for both sides at this point.
Minnesota typically doesn’t like to restructure deals to create cap space, but unless it wants to cut someone like Linval Joseph (who would free up $10.4 million in room) or Kyle Rudolph ($3.7 million) or trade Stefon Diggs ($5.5 million), it might not have a choice if it wants to create meaningful cap space. There’s one player whose cap hit could fall …
2. Work on a Kirk Cousins extension. I’m going to save a lengthier Cousins debate for another day. Briefly, in the playoffs, he was good enough to beat Drew Brees and the Saints at home and was horribly overmatched against the 49ers’ pass rush in a game in which I don’t think any quarterback would have played well. The Vikings have gotten about what they should have expected when they signed Cousins to a three-year, $84 million deal in 2018.
You might remember that he signed a deal that was fully guaranteed at the time of signing. The Vikings structured the deal with a $3 million signing bonus and huge base salaries of $22.5 million, $27.5 million and $29.5 million. There wasn’t any reason to hide salary at the end of the deal because it was all guaranteed anyway, but it’s not the easiest contract structure for cap purposes. Cousins has the third-largest cap hit in all of football at $31 million.
If the Vikings want to negotiate a new deal with him, I’m not sure whether he would attempt or expect to get a second fully guaranteed deal. Regardless of what he wants, they should be able to use the bonus structure to reduce his cap hit for 2020. Let’s say Cousins wants to sign a three-year, $100 million extension, which would mean the Vikings would have to pay a total of $129.5 million to him over the next four years. They could give him a $40 million signing bonus and spread the money out this way while creating much-needed cap space now:
While I brought up the idea of Cousins potentially heading somewhere via trade in my offseason dominoes piece, he has a full no-trade clause and would need to approve any deal. If the Vikings want to reduce his cap hold, it will almost surely have to be via an extension.
3. Replenish the secondary. In addition to the pending release of Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander are both free agents. Anthony Harris, who impressed in his first year as a starting safety, is also a free agent. Those four players combined for 3,004 defensive snaps last season. The Vikings have young corners Mike Hughes, Holton Hill and Kris Boyd, star safety Harrison Smith, and virtually nothing of note behind them.
I don’t think the Vikings will keep Waynes or Alexander. Harris seems more plausible, but they might not want to invest significant money in a second safety given their roster issues elsewhere. Mike Zimmer has a long track record of working with teams who use first-round picks at cornerback, which means the team could take a corner with the 25th overall pick in April’s draft.
Zimmer coaxed six seasons out of veteran corner Terence Newman when most thought he was toast after his time in Dallas, and the Vikings could go after at least one reclamation project at the position this offseason. In addition to free agents like Aqib Talib and Johnathan Joseph, we’re likely to see players like Josh Norman and Trumaine Johnson become cap casualties. Don’t be surprised if one of those guys goes to training camp in Minnesota.
4. Re-sign Dan Bailey. After the Blair Walsh fiasco and a year and a half with Kai Forbath, the Vikings were delighted to sign Bailey after the longtime Cowboys kicker was cut by Dallas in camp. He promptly hit 75% of his field goals in 2018. When he struggled in training camp last summer, the Vikings traded a fifth-round pick to the Ravens for Kaare Vedvik, only to cut Vedvik after he missed three kicks in the preseason.
Bailey promptly went 27-of-29 on field goal tries, and while he missed four of his 44 extra points, he was one of the better kickers in football on scoring plays. Past performance isn’t indicative of future results for kickers, as the Vikings know very well, but there’s nobody available who is a clear upgrade on Bailey.
5. Don’t re-sign Dalvin Cook to a huge extension. I covered this a bit in my column on running back contracts, but as talented as Cook is, he profiles as a dangerous candidate for a second contract. He has a track record of injuries and only really broke out when he was dropped into a Gary Kubiak/Kyle Shanahan offense, which has a long track record of making just about every back it touches look like superstars.
Minnesota’s cap situation makes this an even easier decision. The best thing for the team is to let Cook play out the final year of his rookie deal, move on and turn the job over to Alexander Mattison. Teams typically ignore history, assume their guy is the exception and pay their standout back before regretting it shortly thereafter. The Vikings are in such a tight cap bind that they might be forced to listen to history.
Let’s head to the NFC South, where as many as three teams could be searching for new quarterbacks this offseason …
Projected 2020 cap space: $6.1 million
1. Clear out cap space. The Falcons don’t have much room to work with as they try to rebuild their defense. What’s even worse is that they don’t even really have all that much flexibility to create room; after converting $12.5 million of Matt Ryan‘s $20.5 million base salary into a bonus in January, there’s no other massive salary they would feel comfortable turning into a signing bonus for space. The best Atlanta can really do is convert $10 million of Julio Jones‘ $11.2 million base salary into a signing bonus, which would free up $7.5 million in room.
Instead, the Falcons are going to have to create room the hard way. They can start by cutting Devonta Freeman, who has failed to live up to the expectations he set while excelling under Kyle Shanahan. The team would be responsible for $6 million in dead money for Freeman, but it would free up $3.5 million in space. Adding Ty Sambrailo to the discard pile would free up an additional $3.7 million in room.
Given that they still need to leave space to sign their draft picks, there’s just not a clear path for the Falcons to add a couple of stars on the defensive side of the ball. They’re more realistically looking at one star or a couple of depth pieces. And even that requires the Falcons to make a couple of tough choices …
2. Let Austin Hooper follow Vic Beasley Jr. out the door. In a move I’ve never seen, the Falcons publicly announced before free agency even began that they weren’t going to negotiate with Beasley. I was a bit surprised; they picked up Beasley’s fifth-year option last year, and the former first-rounder racked up 6.5 sacks over the second half of the season. This is likely the right move, though, given Beasley’s inconsistency.
As tough as it might be, Atlanta needs to pursue the same track with its starting tight end. Hooper set career highs in catches (75), receiving yards (787) and touchdowns (six) despite missing three games in 2019, but the Falcons already have too much committed on the offensive side of the ball. This is a team that already has four players making top-tier money at their respective positions in Ryan, Jones, Jake Matthews and Alex Mack (plus Freeman if he’s not cut) and three recent first-round picks in Calvin Ridley, Kaleb McGary and Chris Lindstrom. This team really needs to take the assets it has left and commit them to fixing the defense, and that means letting Hooper leave.
I suppose it’s possible the Falcons could franchise Hooper and try to work out a trade for a draft pick or a defensive piece, though it might limit what they can do in the early days of free agency or prevent them from making a move altogether if he signs the tag. The dream would be to negotiate a trade for a pass-rusher; Yannick Ngakoue comes to mind because of how thin the Jags are at tight end, though Atlanta would probably need to throw in a meaningful pick to make that deal work.
3. Find a No. 1 pass-rusher. The Falcons have to be considered candidates for each of the top available edge rushers, though they’re going to need to get creative to compete for Jadeveon Clowney. This could be a landing spot for Dante Fowler Jr. or short-term options like Robert Quinn or Jason Pierre-Paul.
Atlanta’s late-season surge means it will be picking 16th in April’s draft. The Falcons could move down and add extra picks, but it wouldn’t be the worst idea if they ended up using their pick on an edge defender, too.
4. Add a nose tackle. The Falcons got by with former Saints backup Tyeler Davison in 2019 and could bring back Davison, but there’s something to be said for adding an impact defender next to Grady Jarrett. The Falcons were much better against the run (14th in DVOA) than the pass (25th), but there’s a chance for them to get even better against the run if they upgrade the nose and finally get a healthy season (or a healthier season) from safety Keanu Neal.
The big names in this category could be fun. I’d love to see Jarrett next to Ndamukong Suh, who is among the free agents on the market. Michael Pierce is a brutally effective run defender who could fit in Atlanta. Danny Shelton was great for the Patriots in 2019 and might come at a cheaper price. This is also a spot Atlanta might address in the draft.
5. Draft a running back. If the Falcons cut Freeman, they would be left with one of the league’s least-imposing running back rooms. The good news is that there’s virtually an endless supply of useful running backs. Atlanta could easily add someone like Lamar Miller or Carlos Hyde on a one-year deal without significantly impacting its ability to address the defense.
In the big picture, though, it makes sense for this team to look at drafting a running back in the middle rounds to take over. Atlanta has had success finding guys like Freeman and Tevin Coleman there in the past, and it can use the extra second-rounder it has from the Mohamed Sanu deal with the Patriots to trade down and grab extra selections.
Projected 2020 cap space: $32.2 million
1. Figure out whether to keep Cam Newton. This is the obvious one, but everything depends on what the Panthers see from Newton when they work him out in March. If Newton doesn’t look like he’s healing, Carolina could cut him and pair one of the veteran quarterbacks available in free agency with second-year passer Will Grier. Cutting Newton would free up $19.1 million in cap room.
If Newton looks healthy, the Panthers could keep him and let him play out the final year of his deal. There’s a case for extending him with a structure that would allow the Panthers to get out of the deal with a small payment after the 2020 season, similar to the extensions signed by guys like Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tyrod Taylor in recent seasons, but I imagine Newton would prefer to play out the season and try to negotiate off a productive campaign this time next year.
Jeremy Fowler says the Panthers don’t love their draft options, and they are staying open-minded about Cam Newton.
While the Panthers have mooted a possible Newton trade, I don’t see the middle ground where that happens. Whichever team trades for Newton is going to put him through a significant physical, and he would only pass if he were healthy. If he’s healthy, the Panthers are probably going to want to keep him around unless somebody blows Carolina away with an offer, which isn’t likely given that we haven’t seen an effective Newton since the first half of 2018. Then again, I didn’t think Odell Beckham Jr. or Antonio Brown were getting traded last year, either.
2. Rebuild the defensive line. I liked what general manager Marty Hurney did last offseason to add to a deep, talented defensive line, but the Panthers will need to go back to the well this offseason. Carolina will return Brian Burns, Kawann Short and reserve end Efe Obada, but everyone else is up in the air. Wes Horton retired. Dontari Poe has a team option that might not be picked up after he tore a quad. Veterans Mario Addison, Gerald McCoy, Bruce Irvin, Kyle Love, Vernon Butler and Stacy McGee are all free agents. If Poe departs, the Panthers would need to replace nearly 3,500 defensive line snaps.
Burns and Short will play more snaps if they’re healthier in 2020. There’s obviously not one player the Panthers can target to solve their issues here. I’m a bit surprised they haven’t yet re-signed Addison, who seemed to be on pace to become a lifelong Panthers player. They need to sign at least one veteran starter, and even that number assumes they flood the back half of their draft with defensive linemen.
3. Get a linebacker and a leader to replace Luke Kuechly. Having to rebuild most of a defensive line during an offseason is tough enough. Replacing a franchise icon and future Hall of Famer makes things even more difficult. The Panthers did re-sign Shaq Thompson, who will help shoulder some of the load as they move on from Kuechly, but they still need to add a starter to replace the seven-time Pro Bowler.
The good news for the Panthers is that there’s a deep class of options available in free agency. Carolina could look toward Kyle Van Noy, Cory Littleton, Joe Schobert, Blake Martinez and Patrick Onwuasor to replace Kuechly. Veterans like Alec Ogletree, Denzel Perryman, Avery Williamson and Todd Davis are all also possible cap casualties in the weeks to come.
4. Add a tight end to replace Greg Olsen. If losing one franchise icon wasn’t enough, the Panthers also decided to move on from Olsen, who has the third-most receiving yards in franchise history. You can certainly understand where the team was coming from, as Olsen had missed 18 games over the past three seasons while averaging just 36 receiving yards per contest and had an $11.6 million cap hit coming in 2020. He deserves a chance to play a more defined role on a team closer to a possible championship.
I’d like to see the Panthers give Ian Thomas meaningful snaps — the Indiana product has played well when given the opportunity. Thomas has taken 70% or more of the snaps in a game nine times over the past two seasons, and he has caught 37 passes for 356 yards and three scores in those games. Those numbers aren’t far off from what Olsen was posting, but just two of those starts came with a healthy Newton, and Thomas’ $660,000 base salary for 2020 is a fraction of what Olsen was going to take home.
New coach Matt Rhule didn’t use a significant percentage of two-tight end sets over the past couple of years — Baylor used two or more tight ends 10.6% of the time, which was below the FBS average — but I suspect that he’ll want to bring in somebody to challenge and/or supplement Thomas, especially as a blocker. The veteran pool at tight end is already getting thin with Olsen not returning and Vernon Davis, Garrett Celek and Ben Watson all retiring, so this might be a position the Panthers look to address in the draft.
5. Replace James Bradberry. It doesn’t seem like the Panthers intend on re-signing Bradberry, who had his best season in 2019 and looks to be an ascending top-15 cornerback. He saw plenty of No. 1 receivers last season; on plays in which Bradberry was the nearest defender in coverage, 61% of targets against him came against No. 1 wideouts, per NFL Next Gen Stats.
Donte Jackson, a second-round pick in 2018, has struggled since a hot start to his career, making the question of what to do without Bradberry even more pressing. Perhaps they hope improved defensive line play would render their cornerback play less important. Carolina could presumably use the No. 7 overall pick on a corner like Jeff Okudah if he fell that far, but I get the sense that the Panthers are more likely to use that selection on a defensive lineman.
Finding a Week 1 starter across from Jackson is one of the many things the Panthers need to do this offseason. There’s so much to do, in fact, that I couldn’t even fit signing Christian McCaffrey to a contract extension into their five steps.
Projected 2020 cap space: $12.3 million
1. Re-sign Drew Brees. Unlike the Panthers, who aren’t sure whether they expect to contend in 2020, the Saints are pulling out all the stops to win a Super Bowl over the next couple of years. With Brees playing at a high level in 2019 after his thumb injury, they have little reason to look in a different direction. And with New Orleans unexpectedly coming up short at home in a wild-card loss to the Vikings, Brees has every reason to come back to try to win one more ring with Sean Payton & Co.
As usual, expect the Saints to sign Brees to a three-year deal that realistically amounts to a one-year pact with two voidable years for cap purposes (they could also free up $8.1 million by releasing Kiko Alonso, who tore his ACL against the Vikings). They will need to get this deal done to avoid owing $21.6 million in dead money for Brees on their 2020 cap, but unless Brees unexpectedly decides to retire, he’s going to be back in New Orleans in 2020.
2. Tender Taysom Hill at a second-round level and replace Teddy Bridgewater. I’m fascinated to see whether there’s a market for Hill. You would figure the Saints are more creative and open-minded to finding opportunities for him than the vast majority of offensive staffs around the league, but he nearly swung that playoff game against the Vikings. There are almost certainly teams who saw that and imagined Hill making an impact in a larger role with their team than he can ever realistically expect behind Brees.
The Saints can choose one of three restricted free-agent tenders for Hill, which amount to one-year deals with a right to match any offers he receives. The three tiers dictate the compensation the team would receive if they decline to match the offer. Over the Cap estimates that the first-round tender in 2020 will come in at $4.7 million. The second-round tender will fall around $3.3 million, while the original-round tender will be $2.1 million. Because the 29-year-old Hill was an undrafted player, the Saints would not receive any compensation if they tender him at the latter level and lose him to another team.
The Saints can create cap room with a Brees extension, but they aren’t exactly the Colts or Dolphins when it comes to space. Hill played 23% of the offensive snaps last season, though that rose to just over 38% across the final five games. Hill, who would be an unrestricted free agent after the season, is healthy and coming off a wildly impactful performance on national television. Would the Saints match if a team offers him, say, $10 million per season?
I can’t say for sure whether they would be willing to match that sort of deal, but the logical path to pursue would be tendering him at the second-round level. Tendering Hill at the original-round level virtually guarantees a team will make an offer, and while using the first-round tender would ensure he returns to the fold for one more season, the Saints could probably use that extra $1.4 million in cap room. A second-round pick for one year of Hill wouldn’t be a terrible trade for the Saints, either.
As for the other New Orleans backup quarterback hitting free agency, though, the team could become victims of Bridgewater’s success. Payton would surely like to bring back Bridgewater, who went 5-0 in Brees’ absence and remains hugely popular in the city, but it seems likely that he has done enough to earn a starting job somewhere else. If Bridgewater doesn’t land one, they should absolutely welcome him back with open arms, but they’ll more than likely need to find a new backup for Brees.
The Saints haven’t been comfortable with Hill in that role. It could be a position they address in the draft, though they are already down their second-round pick after trading up to grab Erik McCoy last year. The most realistic option is likely Chase Daniel, who would be making his third tour of duty holding clipboards in New Orleans after a two-year stint with the Bears.
3. Re-sign Vonn Bell. The secondary is the biggest looming question apart from quarterback for this team. At cornerback, Eli Apple and P.J. Williams are both free agents, while Patrick Robinson is likely to be released given his $6.2 million cap hold. With their cornerbacks, apart from Marshon Lattimore, struggling last December, they claimed Janoris Jenkins off waivers from the Giants, and he’s likely to serve as the full-time starter across from Lattimore on the final year of his deal.
At safety, the Saints are also in danger of losing the free agent Bell, whose athleticism and versatility allow the former Ohio State standout to serve as a plus defender against both the pass and the run. New Orleans could move C.J. Gardner-Johnson to strong safety to take Bell’s spot in the lineup, but that would just open up the slot corner job in the process. If the Saints plan to keep Robinson, it would probably be at Bell’s expense, but the best secondary for this defense includes Bell in the fold. The market might dictate whether they are able to keep Bell, who could be looking north of $10 million per season on the open market.
4. Add line depth. On the other hand, the Saints are almost sure to lose offensive lineman Andrus Peat, who struggled over the past couple of seasons and could attract teams who want to try him as a left tackle. The Saints signed center Nick Easton last offseason to replace the retiring Max Unger, but after trading up to grab McCoy, the rookie excelled and forced Easton into a job as an injury replacement. The former Vikings starter should be first in line to take over for Peat at left guard this season, but the Saints will want to bring in somebody who can serve as their first backup on the interior off the bench. Will Clapp will compete for that role, but they still need at least one backup offensive lineman, if not two.
Likewise, injuries sapped the Saints’ defensive line by the end of the season. Both Marcus Davenport and Sheldon Rankins have ended the past two seasons on injured reserve. Shy Tuttle has emerged as a promising rotation option on the interior, but New Orleans probably needs to add another edge rusher to compete with Trey Hendrickson behind Davenport and Cameron Jordan. The Saints were reportedly interested in Robert Quinn last offseason, and while he might have priced himself out of their range after an 11.5-sack campaign, adding a veteran on the edge would make a lot of sense for a Super Bowl contender.
5. Extend Alvin Kamara. While the Saints will need to work on extensions with 2017 first-round picks Marshon Lattimore and Ryan Ramczyk, the fifth-year option in their respective deals gives them some flexibility in waiting for 2021 to hand out new contracts. Both players are going to get extensions at or near the top of their respective positions whenever they sign new deals.
As a third-round pick, though, Kamara has no fifth-year option and is entering the final year of his rookie deal. After a relatively modest season in which his touchdown rate regressed all the way past the mean, the Saints might also prefer to try to get a deal done with Kamara before the Panthers negotiate their own extension with Christian McCaffrey.
The top of the running back market, at least in terms of average annual salary, is Ezekiel Elliott at $15 million per season. Kamara’s résumé doesn’t match up with Elliott’s, but it’s certainly favorable to that of David Johnson, who took home $13 million per year on his extension in 2018. With inflation, Johnson’s three-year, $39 million deal would project right around $44 million; it wouldn’t shock me to see Kamara top that mark and come away with a four-year extension in the $60 million to $64 million range.
Projected 2020 cap space: $85 million
1. Franchise Shaq Barrett. The most obvious offseason move for the Bucs is to ensure that the league leader in sacks sticks around for another season. The franchise tag could easily be a prelude to locking him up on a long-term deal. Barrett could be set to top the four-year, $66 million deal Za’Darius Smith signed in free agency last offseason; Smith had a similarly short résumé as a top-tier pass rusher, but he also didn’t lead the league in sacks in his final season with the Ravens, either. A Barrett deal could come in around five years and $90 million.
2. Figure out the quarterback position. Do Bruce Arians and the Bucs actually know what they want to do with Jameis Winston? He just became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in the same season and finished with a league-best 5,109 passing yards, but there’s little reason to believe he is suddenly about to cut the one or two awful decisions he makes per game out of his picture. This is what Winston is and will be.
Is that worth somewhere north of $30 million per season? Probably not. There also might not be a huge market for Winston given his inconsistency and off-field history. While general manager Jason Licht is still around five years after drafting Winston, Arians has less motivation to stay committed to the former first overall pick. A possible union between Arians and Philip Rivers just seems to make too much sense after the former Chargers star moved his family to Florida.
3. Rebuild the defensive front. Even if we assume that the Bucs will keep Barrett, there’s a lot to do here. Tampa got a breakout season from Vita Vea on the interior, but Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul, Beau Allen, Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Carl Nassib are all free agents. Those five combined for more than 2,500 snaps on a Bucs defense that quietly finished the season fifth in defensive DVOA.
Bringing back Suh and Nassib wouldn’t be the worst idea, although Suh has been happy to settle for one-year deals with the highest bidder in recent years. Pierre-Paul is likely to leave after restructuring his deal following his offseason car crash. Even if they spend $30 million per year on a quarterback, the Bucs also have the cap space to compete with the rest of the league on the top-end pass rushers in free agency, including Jadeveon Clowney and Chris Jones.
4. Find a new right tackle. Demar Dotson has been Tampa’s right tackle seemingly forever, but despite him being a candidate for replacement each offseason, the team has kept the Southern Miss product around since 2009. After a 10-penalty season, though, the 34-year-old Dotson is a free agent and unlikely to return as the Bucs’ starter. Free agents Bryan Bulaga, Jack Conklin and Germain Ifedi might not interest the Bucs for financial reasons, so this could be a position Tampa addresses early in the draft, where they have pick No. 14.
5. Extend Chris Godwin. After a breakout season, the rising star receiver is entering the final year of his rookie deal. While the Bucs have already paid Mike Evans an enormous contract and Breshad Perriman had a massive game without Godwin during the fantasy postseason, the Bucs still have little choice but to pay the fourth-year wideout superstar money. Evans got $16.5 million per season when he signed his extension in 2018, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Godwin topped that mark on his new deal.
We’ll start with the NFC West, where four different teams have won the division over the past five seasons …
Projected 2020 cap space: $51.5 million
1. Let Kenyan Drake go. If you played fantasy football in 2019, you probably remember what a superhero Drake was during the fantasy postseason. After racking up 137 rushing yards and four touchdowns against the Browns in Week 15, the former Dolphins running back followed it up with 166 rushing yards and two scores against the Seahawks in Arizona’s Week 16 upset win. Drake was supposed to be an injury fill-in and part of the running back rotation after the Cardinals traded for him at midseason, but he was the featured back for Kliff Kingsbury’s offense by the end of the year.
If the Cardinals could count on that sort of production from Drake for an entire season, he’d be considered an essential re-sign. He had 162 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown against the 49ers in his Cardinals debut, but in his five other games with Arizona, he carried the ball 62 times for 230 yards with just one touchdown, averaging 3.7 yards per carry.
The bigger picture for the Cardinals, though, is figuring out how much they want to invest at running back. They are already committed to two backs in 2020 in Chase Edmonds and David Johnson, whose $10.2 million base salary is already fully guaranteed. Johnson would have negative trade value if the team tried to shop him after two disappointing seasons, so there’s little chance of getting out of his deal.
Drake did enough to likely earn something in the range of $5 million per season on the open market. Would it be smart for the Cardinals to retain him and commit something in the range of $17 million to their various running backs in 2020? No team spent more than $15.8 million in cash on their running backs last season. If the price tag drops and Arizona can re-sign Drake on a one-year deal in the $3.5 million range, I’d vote for the Cardinals to retain the 26-year-old, but this team has too many problems elsewhere to go overboard.
2. Figure out the offensive tackle situation. Here’s one place the Cardinals will need the money. Left tackle D.J. Humphries, a first-round pick in 2015, is a free agent and just finished his first healthy 16-game season. On the right side, veteran Marcus Gilbert missed the entire season with a torn ACL, leaving the Cardinals to start waiver-wire acquisition Justin Murray. Gilbert is also a free agent and might be on his way out of the league after missing 36 games over the past three years.
The Cards are in a tough spot with Humphries, who has played just 43 games over five seasons. Penalties were a problem for him in 2019 — he committed 13 for 87 yards — but Stats LLC suggests he allowed only two sacks, and Humphries posted a pass block win rate of 90%, which ranked 21st out of 69 qualifying tackles.
With such a limited track record, could Arizona consider using the franchise or transition tag on Humphries to see whether he can do this again in 2020? Right tackle seems like a position the team might try to address in the draft, with Murray moving into a swing role. Justin Pugh also played right tackle with the Giants and could move back outside if the Cardinals add a guard.
3. Decline Haason Reddick‘s fifth-year option. The Cardinals have repeatedly moved Reddick between inside and outside linebacker with little success. The Temple product came into the league as a freak athlete who projected to excel at one linebacker spot, but the Cardinals haven’t done enough to develop his potential. Playing for three defensive coordinators in three years probably hasn’t helped.
Reddick was an every-down player in the first half of 2019, but he played just under 28% of the defensive snaps in December. The Cardinals could pick up his fifth-year option, stick him in one position and hope he finally breaks out in the way they’ve hoped, but it seems more likely that they could move on from the 2017 first-round pick after the season.
4. Add defensive line help. The Cardinals didn’t have much to work with along their defensive line in 2019, as they essentially used their linemen in mass rotations. The only lineman to play more than 50% of the defensive snaps was Rodney Gunter at 53.1%, and he’s a free agent. They were counting on former Chargers end Darius Philon, but he was arrested and charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon stemming from an incident in May, and the team released him in August.
He was signed to a two-year, $10 million deal, and I imagine the Cardinals will pursue one or two players in that price range, as opposed to going after one marquee addition. The Broncos have defensive linemen Derek Wolfe, Shelby Harris and Adam Gotsis all hitting free agency, and with former Denver coach Vance Joseph serving as Cardinals defensive coordinator, it’s easy to wonder whether he’ll encourage general manager Steve Keim to look toward adding one of them. Harris impressed in his first season as a full-time starter and might have the most upside of the bunch.
5. Lock up Budda Baker. After making both the Pro Bowl and the first-team All-Pro roster as a special-teamer during his rookie season in 2017, Baker went back to the Pro Bowl as a safety in 2019. He is listed as a free safety but plays slot corner and even occasionally chips in as a linebacker for the Cardinals.
While Tyrann Mathieu has excelled since leaving Arizona, Baker has been an able replacement and worthy of a long-term deal. Entering the final year of his contract, the former second-round pick will likely be looking for something in the range of $14 million per season.
Projected 2020 cap space: $19.6 million
1. Figure out what’s going on at left tackle. Legendary tackle Andrew Whitworth recently suggested he was planning to play in 2020. The Rams have to figure out whether they want the 38-year-old free agent back. Whitworth took a major step backward in 2019, committing 14 penalties. Ten of those were holding calls, which was the NFL’s second-highest total and more than the seven he had racked up over the prior two years combined.
Even if Whitworth’s play has slipped, though, the Rams don’t have many options. They don’t have a first-round pick from the Jalen Ramsey trade. Nobody else on their roster profiles as a better left tackle candidate. They don’t have much cap space, and even if they did, the best left tackle options on the market are likely to be players like Jason Peters, Kelvin Beachum and D.J. Humphries, none of whom are sure things to be an upgrade on Whitworth. One more run with Whitworth might be the most logical thing, although they really need to convince the veteran to take a pay cut from his $10.3 million base salary in 2019.
2. Restructure Jared Goff‘s contract. The largest cap hit in football for the 2020 league year currently belongs to Goff, who is set to count for just over $36 million. To put that in context, there are only three other players with a cap hit larger than $27 million. The quarterback is set to occupy more than 17% of Los Angeles’ cap in 2020.
It seems exceedingly likely that the Rams set up Goff’s contract to allow for a simple restructure in Year 2. He has a $21 million roster bonus due on March 20, which currently counts 100% against the 2020 cap. By converting this to a signing bonus, they can pay Goff the exact same amount on the same day but spread it over five years for cap purposes. Doing so would free up $16.8 million and drop his cap hit to a much more manageable $19.2 million. The restructure would add more dead money down the line if the Rams want to cut or trade him, but I don’t think he’s going anywhere soon.
3. Address the defensive line. Remember that dominant front four with Ndamukong Suh, Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers and Dante Fowler Jr. from Super Bowl LIII? The Rams might have only one of those guys left on their roster come Week 1 of 2020. I suppose it’s good news that the one they’ll keep is Donald, but Suh left after his one-year deal expired and both Brockers and Fowler are free agents in March.
The Rams could consider promoting Samson Ebukam to the starting lineup, but he’s probably best in his role as a rotation end. Again, this is a spot Los Angeles will have to address in free agency. Fowler probably priced himself out of a return after he racked up 11.5 sacks and 16 knockdowns; could L.A. look toward trying to convince someone like Vic Beasley Jr. to come to town on a one-year deal to follow in Fowler’s footsteps? The 25-year-old Fowler will probably be aiming for something in the range of five years and $90 million on his deal.
Brockers could still make a return, but the Rams could go after Arik Armstead as a bigger defensive end who could also offer more as a pass-rusher than Brockers. Whether L.A. brings back Brockers and Fowler or signs veteran replacements, this is going to take up a bunch of its cap space. I wonder whether it’ll be able to …
4. Try to re-sign Cory Littleton. Littleton is one of the biggest success stories of the Wade Phillips era, a guy who came into the league as a 228-pound undrafted free agent without a clear position and just finished his Rams contract as one of the best inside linebackers in football. Don’t get fooled by the fact that he was named as a Pro Bowler in 2018 and didn’t make it back this past season; Littleton continues to improve and just had his best year.
It’ll be interesting to see where Littleton’s deal lands. C.J. Mosley‘s contract last offseason pushed the top of the linebacker market from a peak annual average of $14.3 million to $17 million, and Bobby Wagner bumped it up to $18 million when he signed his extension in July. Littleton might not get there, but it wouldn’t be shocking if he ended up with something in the range of four years and $60 million. The Raiders picked LaMarcus Joyner off the Rams’ roster in free agency a year ago, and while that move didn’t look great in Year 1, they could make a similar move for Littleton.
It’s tough to see the Rams committing $15 million per season to him, in part because of their needs elsewhere. If his price tag somehow drops somewhere closer to $10 million per season, he would be a more realistic re-signing. The Rams acquired Kenny Young in the instantly disastrous Marcus Peters trade and didn’t play him for a single defensive snap, but he would likely be first in line to see more snaps if Littleton does leave. The Rams could also pursue cheap veterans in the market, with fellow former Wade Phillips project Danny Trevathan one option.
5. Lock up Jalen Ramsey. I thought the Rams were going to negotiate an instant extension with Ramsey after they traded for him in midseason, but the two sides never came to terms. You don’t trade multiple first-round picks for a player unless you plan on keeping him around for a long time, and Ramsey’s representatives know that. There’s no way this team is going to get a meaningful discount here.
The top of the cornerback market has been flat since Josh Norman signed his five-year, $75 million deal with Washington in 2016. Just adjusting for cap inflation alone, a record-setting five-year deal in 2020 would be worth $96.6 million. It wouldn’t be typical to see the biggest annual contract for a position jump from $15 million to more than $19 million, but the combination of the cornerback market staying stagnant and Ramsey holding so much leverage makes it more likely the Rams will simply have to pay up.
Projected 2020 cap space: $19.6 million
1. Listen for whispers from Tom Brady. Yes, it’s silly and there’s approximately a .01% chance of it happening. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Jimmy Garoppolo, and if he had pulled up about 1 yard on that fourth-quarter throw to Emmanuel Sanders, he probably would have been both a Super Bowl winner and Super Bowl MVP already. If it were just about any other veteran quarterback, it wouldn’t be worth discussing.
Tom Brady, though, is Tom Brady. The future Hall of Famer grew up in the Bay Area with Joe Montana as his hero. He has been left in a vulnerable position with the Patriots, who don’t have the sort of weapons and/or offensive line that can help compensate for Brady’s decline. The 49ers have a better line, better weapons and just as good of a defense. They almost certainly have a better offensive playcaller. The Patriots are more familiar and have Bill Belichick. I still think Brady will end up staying in New England, but if he were to leave, the 49ers would be a very tantalizing opportunity.
There are roadblocks — this would be complicated. The 49ers already have a quarterback, of course, and Garoppolo is represented by agent Don Yee. Brady is represented by … Yee. That’s awkward. Getting the money to work wouldn’t be a problem — the 49ers would owe just $4.2 million in dead money and free up $22.4 million in cap space if they were to move on from Garoppolo this offseason — but the Niners couldn’t realistically expect to keep both Brady and Garoppolo on their roster.
Dan Orlovsky and Dan Graziano discuss the possibility of the 49ers moving on from Jimmy Garoppolo and acquiring Tom Brady.
Of course, if they were somehow able to convince Brady to join their organization, another team would need a starting quarterback. The Patriots would almost assuredly be interested in Garoppolo, and sending Jimmy G back to his original franchise would be the most gentle landing possible. San Francisco originally sent a second-round pick to the Patriots for Garoppolo, so with New England’s second-rounder in Atlanta, one logical move would be for the Patriots to send the 23rd and 85th picks to the 49ers for the 31st selection and Garoppolo.
Logical might not be the right word. Each step of this makes some small amount of sense, but it’s almost impossible to imagine all of the pieces coming together for a deal to work. Brady will probably be a Patriots quarterback in 2020. Garoppolo will almost certainly be starting for the 49ers. Fun to think about, though.
2. Decline Solomon Thomas‘ fifth-year option. John Lynch’s debut draft in 2017 is a reminder of just how ridiculous roster-building can be. This was unquestionably a great draft for the 49ers when you consider just one pick in superstar tight end George Kittle. The 49ers also found players like D.J. Jones and Trent Taylor in the later rounds.
Their first five picks in that draft? Thomas, Reuben Foster, Ahkello Witherspoon, C.J. Beathard and Joe Williams, a running back for whom Kyle Shanahan reportedly banged the table to move up and acquire. Williams is out of football; Foster was cut, signed by Washington and hasn’t played since the middle of 2018; Witherspoon and Beathard were both beat out for starting jobs at different times by undrafted free agents; and Thomas hasn’t lived up to expectations as the No. 3 overall pick.
As a top-10 pick, Thomas’ fifth-year option is equivalent to the average of the top 10 salaries at his position. It’s difficult to imagine the 49ers seeing that as reasonable value for someone who played only 41% of the defensive snaps in 2019, down from 60% in 2018. He also suited up for just 32% of the defensive snaps during the postseason. The 49ers are unusually blessed up front, but Thomas hasn’t been forcing them to give him more playing time. He could break out in Year 4, but the 49ers probably need to be realistic here.
3. Let Arik Armstead walk. One way Thomas could end up seeing more snaps would be if the 49ers aren’t able to retain Armstead. The fellow former first-round pick impressed as a run-defender on the edge in 2018, but he followed things up with a career year as a pass-rusher in 2019. After putting up nine sacks and 29 knockdowns over his first four seasons, he had 10 sacks and 18 knockdowns last season.
As an impact player against both the pass and run, Armstead is going to attract significant interest in free agency; it would hardly be shocking if he came away with a four-year, $70 million contract. The 49ers are in decent cap shape and could create an additional $13.1 million in cap space by releasing Jerick McKinnon, Marquise Goodwin and Tevin Coleman, but there’s also a point at which they can’t realistically invest much more into their defensive line. Dee Ford is on a significant deal, and DeForest Buckner is in line to get one this offseason. Nick Bosa is a bargain right now, but the Niners used the No. 2 overall pick to get him last year.
One option for the Niners would be to spread around the Armstead money to keep their depth up front. Sheldon Day, Anthony Zettel and Ronald Blair are all free agents — they would rather have Armstead than any of those three, but they might be able to keep all three with room to spare versus paying Armstead.
4. Lock up DeForest Buckner. Buckner, on the other hand, isn’t going anywhere. The former Oregon star is under contract for 2020 on his fifth-year option at $14.4 million, but the 49ers will almost certainly use the offseason to negotiate a new deal. He’s not going to come cheap.
Buckner can’t realistically expect to look toward Aaron Donald‘s six-year, $135 million deal, but after generating 28.5 sacks and 74 knockdowns over his first four seasons, he can expect more than Grady Jarrett‘s $17 million average annual salary. Something in the $18 million to $19 million range makes sense.
5. Pay George Kittle too. He is going to blow away the tight end market. Jimmy Graham is the only tight end in the league to hit $10 million per season in average annual salary, having done it on each of his last two deals. The only question is whether Kittle, Austin Hooper or Hunter Henry resets it first.
Of those three, Kittle is by far the best player. He’s a much more significant blocker than either of the others and has been healthier than Henry. With Rob Gronkowski retiring, there’s nobody else in the league like Kittle, and there’s nobody this 49ers offense could plug in to take his place. The 49ers averaged 5.0 yards per carry and turned 24.1% of their runs into first downs with Kittle on the field. Without him, they averaged 3.5 yards per carry and converted 16.1% of their runs into first downs.
What happens next is up to Kittle. He could credibly argue that he’s worth much more than a regular tight end and should negotiate off a different position’s pay scale. Wide receiver is an option, but perhaps a more realistic one would be right tackle, where the top of the market comes in at just under $17 million per year. If he wants to hold out for position-changing money, the 49ers would have to pay him something extraordinary.
If not, Kittle will just have to settle for the biggest tight end deal in history. Gronk’s six-year, $54 million deal is the largest maximum value for a multiyear deal, though that had an extremely team-friendly structure. My guess is that Kittle’s contract ends up somewhere around five years and $75 million. Not bad for a guy who took home $645,000 last season.
Projected 2020 cap space: $59.7 million
1. Work to re-sign Jadeveon Clowney and Jarran Reed. Let’s start with the big one. The Seahawks can’t franchise Clowney after trading for him just before the season, and while he finished the regular season with only three sacks, he was far more productive on film when healthy. The former first overall pick finished the season with a 24.8% pass rush win rate, the fifth-best mark in football.
The Seahawks are paper-thin along the edge, with Ziggy Ansah struggling through an anonymous season and first-round pick L.J. Collier a healthy scratch during the postseason. If they don’t get Clowney, they are almost certainly going to need to pay to go after someone like Jason Pierre-Paul or Everson Griffen as a veteran stopgap or Dante Fowler Jr. as a long-term replacement for Clowney. Seattle would almost surely rather just keep Clowney.
How much will they be willing to pay? Pass-rushers with his upside almost never hit unrestricted free agency in the prime of their careers without a serious injury or some sort of problem attached. Clowney’s “problem” is that he has still somehow never hit 10 sacks in a season. There’s more to edge rushers than sacks, but if his representation asks the Seahawks to give him something like Khalil Mack‘s six-year, $141 million contract, can the Seahawks take that sort of risk? Or can they stomach the risk of letting Clowney walk?
He has said he wants to play for a winner, and the Seahawks have been consistently competitive. If we just look at plausible playoff teams in 2020, they could very well be bidding against the Titans, Ravens, Bills, Cowboys, Falcons, Colts and even the Rams. They’re not going to get much of a discount.
Independent of Clowney, bringing back Reed would also be wise. The Seahawks haven’t typically valued defensive tackles, instead preferring to focus on spending at other positions while cycling cheaper veterans and rookie-deal players through the line. The former second-round pick broke out with a 10.5-sack, 24-hit season in 2018, but he didn’t top two sacks or eight knockdowns in any of his other three campaigns. With Reed looking for something north of $10 million per year in free agency, my guess is he gets it from another team.
2. Pursue defensive line depth. Even beyond Clowney and Reed, the Seahawks will need to rebuild their defensive line. Ansah, Quinton Jefferson and Al Woods are all free agents. The only defensive linemen under contract in 2020 who saw meaningful snaps in 2019 are Rasheem Green and Poona Ford. They have an extra second-round pick and almost always trade down, but they’ll need to look toward veteran free agency for at least one starter and one playable reserve.
3. Let Germain Ifedi go. The Seahawks a year ago declined Ifedi’s fifth-year option, and he has been a competent right tackle if you don’t consider penalties; no player has been flagged more over the past four seasons. (Clowney, notably, is second.) It’s a problem that doesn’t appear to be getting much better either; Ifedi tied for seventh in penalties last season with 13.
It would have been nice for Ifedi to develop into more after the Seahawks used a first-round pick on the Texas A&M product, but it’s time to move on. The Seahawks should consider bringing back Mike Iupati, who had a solid bounce-back year after struggling with injuries in Arizona.
4. Work out an extension with Shaquill Griffin. After an uneven 2018 season, the third-year cornerback stepped up in 2019 and deserved his Pro Bowl nod. The replacement for Richard Sherman at left corner, Griffin is just a step or two below his predecessor’s level. He’s a defender the Seahawks are going to want to keep around.
Griffin is still a year away from free agency, but the team will probably want to start negotiations with him now. He likely hasn’t been productive enough to justify the five-year, $75 million deal handed to Xavien Howard by the Dolphins, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see Seattle offer Griffin a four-year extension in the range of $55 million.
5. Pursue the big-name tight ends. You might have noticed Russell Wilson‘s habit of making his tight ends look better. After Jimmy Graham returned from his torn patella, he and Wilson hooked up for a 923-yard season in 2016 and a 10-touchdown campaign in 2017. Graham has a combined 1,083 receiving yards and five scores over his two ensuing seasons in Green Bay. Over the past two years, it has been fourth-round pick Will Dissly and practice-squad find Jacob Hollister who have looked like impressive receiving tight ends with Wilson throwing to them.
As a card-carrying member of team Let Russ Cook, I want to see what he can do with a healthy star tight end. Seattle brought in 34-year-old Greg Olsen for a visit, and he would be an upgrade on Dissly and Hollister, but they should aim higher. What about Hunter Henry or Austin Hooper? Neither of them is in Kittle’s class as a blocker, but just having one of them on the field as a dual threat should make it easier for Seattle to both run and pass. Even Eric Ebron would be a massive upgrade. The Seahawks have the cap space to get aggressive in the bidding at the top of this market. While counting on Henry to stay on the field is dangerous, I want to see what Wilson can do with a healthy difference-maker at tight end.