The NFL offseason is upon us. Most of the league has spent January thinking about what it’s going to do in the player-acquisition period stretching through the end of April, and while the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams are a little behind the pack, I suspect they aren’t too upset about having to catch up.
Over the next two weeks, I’m going to detail the first five moves I think every team should make this offseason. I’ll begin in the NFC West and work my way east, and then catch up with the AFC next week. Check out the full schedule below:
Let’s get to the NFC South, where the Saints repeated as division champs for the first time in franchise history. It would hardly be a surprise to see New Orleans win the division for the third consecutive season in 2019, but if Drew Brees slips, the rest of a frequently entertaining division will be ready to pounce. Let’s start with the Falcons, who fired both coordinators in an attempt to get back to the playoffs …
1. Negotiate a pay cut or a release with Vic Beasley Jr. The microcosm of promise unfulfilled on the Atlanta defense, Beasley led the league with 15.5 sacks in 2016 and has just 10 sacks over two seasons since. The 15.5-sack season was about as unlikely of a campaign as you’ll see from a pass-rusher — he knocked down opposing passers only 16 times in 2016. Beasley was supposed to break out with a full-time move back to the defensive line in 2018, but the former first-round pick generated just five sacks in 16 games.
It’s too early to give up on Beasley rounding into form, but his $12.8 million cap hit for 2019 is untenable. In a draft in which there is oodles of defensive line talent, it’s difficult to believe that Beasley would get something approaching $13 million per season in free agency, even given that he’s two seasons removed from a sack crown. As Beasley turns 27 in July, he’s also older than just about every other defender from his 2015 draft class. He’s months older than Jadeveon Clowney, who was taken with the first pick a year earlier.
There should be a middle ground here that makes sense for both sides. The Falcons could give Beasley a four-year, $62 million extension with $8 million in Year 1 and nothing else fully guaranteed until next March, when the Falcons would either decline their option on the remainder of Beasley’s deal or pick up $34 million in guarantees over the subsequent two seasons. If they can’t come to terms, the Falcons should trade Beasley for a late-round pick and use the $12.8 million they save elsewhere.
2. Franchise Grady Jarrett. The Falcons will use about half of that available space if they franchise Jarrett, who has rounded into an imposing force in the middle of their defense and arguably become their best pass-rusher. Jarrett finished the season with six sacks and 16 knockdowns, and while he hasn’t had that dominant season his tape might indicate, he is still just 25 years old.
The good news for the Falcons is that the defensive tackle franchise tag is consistently less than the figure for defensive ends. CBS’ Joel Corry projects a $15.4 million tag for defensive tackles in 2019. A Jarrett extension would come in somewhere around $15 million to $17 million per season.
3. Address the guard spot. After their offensive line went 80-for-80 in starts in 2016 and stayed healthy for the entirety of the regular season, the Falcons haven’t been quite as lucky with their line over the ensuing two seasons. Atlanta’s would-be starting linemen have missed 28 games over the past two seasons.
The line also hasn’t played as well, with the Falcons struggling to replace retired guard Chris Chester. Wes Schweitzer, who won the right guard job as a rookie in 2017, lost it in 2018 before being forced to play left guard once Andy Levitre went down with a torn triceps in Week 2. Levitre is now a free agent. Right tackle Ryan Schraeder hasn’t been 100 percent. There just isn’t much here after Jake Matthews and Alex Mack, and Atlanta’s influential center will turn 34 in November.
Atlanta needs to get better play from its guards in 2019. One obvious fit in free agency might be J.R. Sweezy, given the presence of former Bucs coach Dirk Koetter as offensive coordinator, but the Bucs also had Sweezy take a pay cut after he missed all of his first season in 2016 thanks to injuries and then cut him outright after Year 2. You would understand if Sweezy isn’t desperate for another round with Koetter. Rodger Saffold, arguably the top guard on the market, is probably out of Atlanta’s price range. The Falcons might have to get creative.
4. Find a new receiving back. When the Falcons signed Devonta Freeman to a five-year, $41.3 million extension, it signaled they were probably going to move on from Tevin Coleman when the lighter half of their running back rotation hit free agency. The Freeman deal, signed after two years in a Kyle Shanahan scheme that has made basically every running back look great for a decade, has been a loser so far. Freeman’s efficiency dropped while he fumbled four times in 2017, and he missed 14 games last season.
Coleman was competent in Freeman’s absence, but he’s going to get a multiyear deal on the market. The Falcons will want to draft a receiving back to replace Coleman.
5. Extend Julio Jones. The Falcons don’t typically extend their players before the final year of their deals — Atlanta didn’t even hand Matt Ryan a new deal after he won MVP with two years left to go on his deal in 2016 — but they could make an exception for their star wideout. Jones made his desires known last summer by deleting all of the Falcons content from his Instagram, with the Falcons subsequently turning some of his 2018 and 2019 base salary into a bonus to get Jones a quick boost.
Nobody would argue against the idea that Jones is underpaid, given that he has two years and just over $21 million left to go on his extension in a market where Sammy Watkins just signed a three-year, $48 million deal. Julio is closer to Marqise Lee-type money, and while I don’t want to be disrespectful to the Lee family, I think even they would admit that Jones is a different caliber of receiver.
It will be tricky because the other recent major contracts for wideouts were signed with one year left to go on their respective deals. Mike Evans got $41.8 million in new money over the first three seasons of his extension. Antonio Brown picked up $42.2 million in the same category, and Odell Beckham Jr. was at $44.3 million. Evans has the most total money due over the first three seasons of his deal at $55 million, but he also was already in line to make $13.3 million and the third year of his extension is unguaranteed.
Because Jones has two years left on his current deal, the calculus changes. The Falcons also front-loaded Jones’ last extension to pay him more money up front, and after he wanted to hold out on the back end of the deal, they probably won’t want to do that again as part of his current extension. This is going to be a complicated negotiation.
Jones will look to top Beckham’s contract numbers, which means something in the ballpark of a five-year, $95 million extension. The goal for Julio and his representation would probably be to take home something around $60 million over the first three years of the deal.
1. Address the tackle position. The Panthers have some work to do. The good news is that second-year tackle Taylor Moton had a very good season on the right side and appears to be locked into that role for the years to come. No worries there. Moton took over for Daryl Williams, who missed virtually all of 2018 with knee injuries. More on him in a second.
The left side of the line isn’t quite as enticing. One of Dave Gettleman’s last moves as Panthers general manager was to sign Matt Kalil to an inexplicable five-year, $55.5 million deal before the 2017 season. Oft-injured Kalil had a subpar 2017 season before missing the entire 2018 campaign with a knee injury. Chris Clark, who became the starter in Kalil’s absence, was a stopgap and is now a free agent.
The Panthers find themselves in a difficult place with Kalil, who has a $12.5 million cap hit in 2019. If they cut him, they’ll owe $14.7 million in dead money. Even if they designate Kalil as a post-June 1 release, they would owe $4.9 million in 2019 before a $9.8 million charge in 2020. No team wants to eat that much dead money, but Kalil might not justify the roster spot if the Panthers can find a competent left tackle.
This brings us back to Williams, who was a second-team All-Pro right tackle in 2017 and is now a free agent. The Panthers briefly slotted Moton in as their starting left tackle in place of Kalil before moving him to the right side once Williams reinjured his knee. One option for the Panthers would be to cut Kalil, re-sign Williams, then move Moton to left tackle. It’s high-risk — Moton might not be able to play left tackle — but they might also end up with the best possible combination of tackles available from this three-man bunch.
More likely, the Panthers will let Williams leave, keep Moton on the right side and give Kalil one more year at left tackle. Taking a tackle in the first few rounds of the 2019 draft should be in the cards for Carolina.
2. Find a free safety. The Panthers re-signed Eric Reid after he impressed as a midseason signing, but they probably need to find him a partner in center field. Mike Adams, who was the starter a year ago, is probably best suited for a reserve player/coach role at this point. Carolina has 2018 third-rounder Rashaan Gaulden in the mix, but he’s still converting to the position after playing mostly corner in college and likely profiles as a strong safety, where Reid is best.
The good news for the Panthers is that the veteran market is deep at free safety, given the presence of Earl Thomas, Tyrann Mathieu and several others. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix could make sense here given his likely price tag.
3. Add an edge rusher. The Panthers finished 25th in sack rate last season, and while they got a surprisingly docile season from Kawann Short, the edge rushers behind Mario Addison didn’t do very much to move the needle. Addison finished with 10 sacks, but Julius Peppers was the only other defender with more than 3.5 takedowns, and the future Hall of Famer just announced his retirement. Wes Horton, who started eight games a year ago, is also a free agent.
Again, the Panthers find themselves in the right moment for adding defensive line help, given that this is a draft that is absolutely loaded with front-seven defenders. GM Marty Hurney should be able to grab an impactful pass-rusher for coach Ron Rivera with the 16th overall pick. The Panthers also could dip into the free-agent market for help, where a veteran such as Benson Mayowa or Bruce Irvin could contribute in a rotational role.
4. Decline the fifth-year option on Vernon Butler. The Louisiana Tech product simply hasn’t improved since entering the NFL, and in a Panthers organization that has done a good job of developing defensive linemen, the onus for that would seem to fall on Butler himself. The 24-year-old was a healthy scratch in December. It wouldn’t be a shock if he were on another roster by Week 1 of 2019. A reunion with Gettleman in New York is entirely plausible.
5. Draft a replacement for Ryan Kalil. Carolina’s longtime center (and Matt’s brother) retired this offseason, leaving the Panthers with a hole at the pivot. There are centers such as Mitch Morse and Matt Paradis on the free-agent market, but the Panthers might prefer to lean toward the draft for cap reasons. Carolina already met with NC State product Garrett Bradbury at the Senior Bowl, and adding at least one rookie to compete with Tyler Larsen for the starting job would make sense.
1. Create some cap space. The Saints can free up $7.7 million in room by releasing Kurt Coleman and Cameron Meredith. Meredith played just 126 snaps on offense before aggravating his knee injury, and Coleman’s $7 million cap hit is onerous for a veteran who played only 34.9 percent of the regular-season snaps. The former Panthers standout played just three defensive snaps during the postseason. Those moves should get the Saints to about $17 million in total cap space.
2. Let Mark Ingram leave if the price gets too high. It’s going to be difficult to let the popular Ingram leave town in free agency, but the Saints might not have the cap space to keep him if he gets starting-caliber money elsewhere. Ingram still plays a meaningful role in this offense — he averaged 13.8 touches per game after returning from his suspension to Alvin Kamara‘s 16.7, not including the meaningless Week 17 contest — but the Saints are going to be pinching pennies to fill out the bottom 20 percent of their roster.
They need to go into the offseason with a hard number on Ingram and stick to it. If it’s $4 million or less, New Orleans could justify keeping Ingram around for a couple of seasons more. Anything more and it is probably better off adding a back in the draft.
3. Re-sign Andrus Peat. Although the Saints drafted Peat as a tackle, he has settled in as a very good guard, albeit with an injury history. With Peat’s fifth-year option arriving, the Saints should be ready to give the Stanford product an extension. They can even structure the deal to lower Peat’s $9.6 million cap hit, although the deal is not going to come cheap.
Peat’s deal probably will come in somewhere around five years and $65 million. This will be a tough negotiation: If the Saints aren’t willing to pay up, Peat will attract big money in free agency from teams who want to sign him to play tackle in 2020.
4. Maintain the other side of the ball. Picking up Sheldon Rankins‘ fifth-year option, meanwhile, is a no-brainer on defense. Rankins tore his Achilles in the divisional-round win over the Eagles, but the option would be too conservative to decline as it doesn’t come into play until the 2020 season.
The Saints also need to add at least one pass-rusher to their rotation with Alex Okafor hitting free agency; they could re-sign Okafor or go after one of the edge rushers who are likely to be released by their teams this offseason to avoid affecting the compensatory formula. If the Saints could persuade somebody like Terrell Suggs or Cameron Wake to wait until the July 1 deadline before signing, that also would be a way to add another piece to the puzzle.
5. Trade up for Kyler Murray (within reason). The gambit to trade for Teddy Bridgewater ended up being rather inconsequential, as his only start in a Saints uniform came in Week 17. The Saints lost a third-round pick as part of the deal, but if they don’t cancel out losing Bridgewater with a similar signing in unrestricted free agency, they should be able to recoup a 2020 compensatory pick, most likely in the fourth round.
I love the idea of the Saints ending up with Murray in the draft. Sean Payton was reportedly fond of Baker Mayfield last year, and while Mayfield’s successor at Oklahoma is hardly identical to Mayfield, it’s easy to imagine how Murray’s accuracy, delivery and playmaking ability would make him a very viable weapon in Payton’s offense. Murray would likely need a redshirt year a la Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City, which is in line with Brees’ time frame, given that the 40-year-old’s contract voids after 2019.
My suspicion is that Murray will drop during the pre-draft process, although that has nothing to do with him and more with the archaic rules teams place on quarterbacks. When Murray measures in below 6 feet at the combine, a handful of teams will take him off their boards or give him impossibly low grades on height alone. If he measures below 5-10, that list will get longer. That would be great news for the Saints.
The tricky part is that New Orleans doesn’t have a first-round pick after trading up for Marcus Davenport last year, so it is going to need to leverage its 2020 first-rounder to try to move up. If the Saints package their second-round pick and that 2020 first-rounder, that should be enough to move into the bottom half of the first round. The Seahawks (21) and the Ravens (22) are teams comfortable with trading down for future selections, and they pick just ahead of the Raiders at 24 and 27. That could be a viable landing spot for Murray and the Saints.
If I’m wrong and the league actually pays attention to Murray’s on-field ability, he’ll go in the top 10, and the Saints probably won’t be able to move up to grab him. In that case, the Saints will need to go back into the market for a Brees backup. If Sam Bradford is able to pass a physical, he would be a logical fit in that role.
1. Cut DeSean Jackson and Beau Allen. While Vinny Curry should survive the former Eagles purge in this organization, Allen might not look as appealing with a $5 million cap hit in a draft full of defensive linemen. The Bucs allowed 4.9 yards per carry and first downs on 31.8 percent of run attempts with Allen on the field, numbers that fell to 4.5 yards per rush and 25.8 percent, respectively, with Allen sidelined. Jackson’s release seems to be little more than a formality.
2. Ask Gerald McCoy to take a pay cut. The Bucs have publicly floated the idea of releasing their star defensive tackle, which seems like a curious move given that they ranked 32nd in defensive DVOA last season. McCoy does turn 31 this month and has a $13 million cap hit, the fourth largest on the roster.
The argument for releasing McCoy is that the Bucs are going to move to a 3-4 base defense under Todd Bowles and McCoy profiles best as a penetrating 3-technique tackle in a 4-3 defense, as he has played throughout his career. The sheer number of defensive linemen available in the draft also makes expensive veterans less valuable, and it’s plausible that McCoy would struggle to find $13 million per season on the open market.
I don’t think the Bucs should release McCoy. For one, the 4-3/3-4 distinction doesn’t mean much in 2019. Bowles has already said the Bucs will be a one-gap defense, meaning McCoy will have chances to attack. In Bowles’ final season with the Jets, they were only in their base defense 19.8 percent of the time, with the rest of their snaps either coming in goal-line situations or with five or more defensive backs on the field. The Jets were in a 4-3 for two-thirds of those base defense snaps, even after years with Bowles in charge. Bowles’ scheme is less about 3-4 or 4-3 and more about finding creative ways to blitz out of nickel and dime packages.
The Bucs don’t really have the personnel to play in a 3-4, either. Their middle linebacker in 2018 was Kwon Alexander, who got hurt and is now a free agent. Lavonte David will have to move to one of the two inside linebacker spots, and although the roles should be similar, he’ll have to go through an adjustment period. Jason Pierre-Paul, who has spent his entire career as a 4-3 defensive end, isn’t going to turn into a cover linebacker at 30. The best fit for the Bucs is to stick in the 4-3 when they go with their base set.
What would make sense for the Bucs would be to restructure McCoy’s deal as part of an extension. They could offer McCoy a four-year deal in the $50 million range with guarantees in 2019 and 2020 that simultaneously bring down his cap number for 2019. McCoy might not want to hit the open market, and the Bucs aren’t in a position to be getting rid of talented defensive players.
3. Franchise Donovan Smith. Is Smith a franchise left tackle? No, probably not. The consistency hasn’t yet been there for the Penn State product, on a per-game or a per-season basis. Stats LLC credits him with zero sacks allowed in 2016, but that was in a season in which he took 13 penalties. Smith has allowed either five or 5.5 sacks in each of his three other campaigns, but he also has stayed healthy and brought his penalty totals down from that 13-penalty mark to six last season.
From where the Bucs stand, though, they just hired a coach in Bruce Arians who loves to chuck the ball deep downfield. They need pass-blockers who can hold up under that strain, and if the Bucs lose Smith, the only other left tackle option on the market is Trent Brown, who is likely looking at franchise-caliber money. Tampa also has undrafted free agents backing up Smith and Demar Dotson on the outside. I’d lock up Smith and work toward a long-term deal.
4. Import the ex-Cardinals. You know Arians and Bowles are going to go back to the well and try to bring in some of the players who excelled under their stewardship in Arizona. The two obvious fits might be relative bargains. John Brown looked healthy for the first time in years during the first half of the season in Baltimore, but he never developed any chemistry with Lamar Jackson. Brown caught just eight passes on 30 targets for 114 yards over Jackson’s seven starts. He could be the replacement for DeSean Jackson in Tampa.
The other fit would be Deone Bucannon, who went from looking like the prototype for the new hybrid linebacker during his time with Bowles to totally getting lost in the shuffle last season under Steve Wilks. Bucannon needs to end up in a place where the defensive coordinator will play to his strengths instead of emphasizing his weaknesses. Going back to what worked with Bowles would make sense for both parties, especially if the Bucs don’t re-sign Alexander.
5. Bring back Patrick Murray. Now that the Browns quarterback jersey is being retired with the rise of Baker Mayfield, the next sadness jersey probably should be for the Buccaneers’ kicker. Here are the kickers they have gone through in the Jason Licht era:
Murray is 39-of-47 (82.9 percent) on field goals. The rest of this bunch — a group that includes two kickers given significant guaranteed money and one whom Licht traded up to draft in the second round — is 77-of-109 (70.6 percent). At some point, Licht just shouldn’t be allowed to evaluate kickers, right?
Let’s start with the team holding the first overall pick in April’s draft:
1. Address the offensive line (again). It seems every move the Cardinals have made to try to fix their offensive line issues over the past several seasons has been a bust, mostly thanks to injury. Free agents such as Mike Iupati and Justin Pugh haven’t stayed healthy. D.J. Humphries, a first-round pick in 2015, spent his first season in Bruce Arians’ doghouse before struggling with injuries; he has played just 27 of 64 possible games over four seasons. By the end of 2018, rookie quarterback Josh Rosen was playing behind a line of five backups. Imagine if your first student driving lesson involved merging onto the track at Talladega.
Re-signing Joe Barksdale, who arrived as a midseason waiver claim from the Chargers, is a reasonable place to start. The Cards won’t re-sign Iupati after a disappointing stint in Arizona, and given new coach Kliff Kingsbury’s predilection for throwing the football, they’ll want someone who is a better pass-blocker on the interior.
Humphries is a difficult case, as the Florida product is entering his fifth-year option and coming off a season-ending knee injury that might prevent him from passing a physical. If Humphries can’t pass the physical, Arizona will be on the hook for his $9.6 million option. If Humphries can pass, the team can choose to cut him, but it has no obvious replacement for Humphries at left tackle.
Then again, according to Stats LLC, Humphries has allowed 12 sacks in 27 starts, including five in nine games last season. The Cardinals might as well keep him around and see if there’s anything there in a rebuilding year, but they need to have a Plan B they’re comfortable with if Humphries doesn’t suddenly find his form.
2. Resolve Patrick Peterson‘s future. While Peterson retracted the trade request he made around the October deadline, the Cardinals are in a bit of a quandary when it comes to their superstar cornerback. He has two years and just under $24 million left on the five-year, $70 million extension he signed in the summer of 2014, which is relatively cheap for a franchise cornerback.
Peterson’s next deal is likely going to reset the cornerback market, which is topped by the five-year, $75 million deal Josh Norman signed with Washington in 2016. Peterson turns 29 in July, so if Arizona waits until next offseason, it will be mostly paying for years on the wrong side of 30, and those seasons might very well be coming for a rebuilding franchise.
The best time to do something about Peterson’s future is now. If the Cardinals don’t think they want to pay Peterson top-tier money for his age-31 and age-32 seasons, this is when he’ll have the most trade value. If they want to sign Peterson to an extension, now’s the time. Assuming that the first three years of Peterson’s new deal will be fully or practically guaranteed, it’s better to use the two years of below-market money they have as leverage to lock up Peterson from ages 29 to 31 as opposed to ages 30 to 32. A five-year, $80 million extension with $40 million guaranteed at signing would be a good place to start.
3. Find more cornerback help. Arizona hasn’t been able to solve its cornerback spot across from Peterson for several years now, with everyone from Justin Bethel to Marcus Cooper to Tramon Williams filling in for short stints. By the end of the year, Raiders castoff David Amerson was starting.
Arizona tried to beat the market to the punch by signing former Falcons corner Robert Alford to a three-year, $22.5 million deal last week. Counting on Alford when he was one of the worst starting corners in the league in 2018 is a dangerous proposition. At the least, they should be looking for a corner in the second- to third-round range to develop behind the 30-year-old Alford. It would be easier to find that corner if the Cards …
4. Trade the No. 1 overall pick for multiple selections. They won’t be taking a quarterback with Rosen already on the roster. It will be tempting to keep the top pick in this draft and use it on a defensive difference-maker such as Ohio State’s Nick Bosa or Alabama’s Quinnen Williams, both of whom profile as absolute studs and wonderful complements to Chandler Jones.
In a draft this deep with defensive talent — Mel Kiper Jr.’s first mock draft has 16 front-seven pieces going in the first round — the value in using the first overall pick on a defensive player just is not there. There are no sure things in any draft, and the Cardinals can find a pass-rusher who isn’t likely to be far off from Bosa later in the first round.
More importantly, though, the Cardinals simply need to stockpile talent after years of poor drafts. There’s nobody left on the roster from the 2012 draft that preceded Steve Keim’s promotion to general manager. Once free agency begins, no player from Keim’s 2013 or 2014 drafts will be left in the organization. The 2015 draft will be down to Humphries and David Johnson. The 2016 draft is down to Robert Nkemdiche and Brandon Williams, both of whom have been wildly disappointing.
Keim’s 2017 draft was more promising, and it’s still way too early to judge the 2018 class, but the Cardinals have one above-average starter and three athletes who haven’t been healthy or effective to show for five years of drafts. They need to amass draft picks and rebuild their roster. They need to hope that somebody falls in love with a quarterback and doesn’t want to run any risk of another team trading up with the 49ers at No. 2. If Arizona can get an extra first-rounder or a pair of second-rounders to move down, it needs to seriously consider that offer.
5. Add another wide receiver capable of playing on the outside. Arizona’s two best wideouts are Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk. They’re both best suited to play in the slot at this point in their careers, and there’s not much doing for the Cardinals on the outside. Fitz spent more time in 2018 in the slot, where he caught 47 of his 69 receptions.
If this is the 35-year-old Fitzgerald’s final season, the Cardinals will likely prepare for 2020 with Kirk in the slot and question marks on the outside. Chad Williams, a third-round pick in 2017, caught just 37 percent of the passes thrown to him a year ago and hasn’t shown much in the NFL. Bringing in a receiver who can win at the line of scrimmage, either in free agency or via the draft, should be a priority in aiding Rosen’s development.
1. Convince Andrew Whitworth to come back. The easiest way for the Rams to disappoint in 2019 is for their offensive line to take a step backward. We saw how Sean McVay’s offense ground to a halt amid a poor performance from its line in Super Bowl LIII, and with no experienced replacement for Whitworth on the roster (and just one top-95 pick in the draft), the Rams desperately need their 37-year-old left tackle to put off retirement and return for another season.
What will it take to convince Whitworth to stay? As he enters the final year of his three-year contract, the Rams could give Whitworth a one-year extension with a raise in 2019 to start. Is he sick of the Los Angeles traffic? Owner Stan Kroenke has to have a spare helicopter laying around somewhere. Let Whitworth commute on the chopper. Get him a black card for Yoshinoya. Whatever it takes.
2. Bring back Rodger Saffold and C.J. Anderson. Might as well keep the left side of the line intact, and at 30, Saffold should still have several years left in the tank. There might still be a team out there that looks at him as a possible tackle candidate, but Saffold is probably looking at a deal in the $11-12 million annual salary range.
Anderson and Los Angeles seems like a good fit for all parties involved after the former Broncos back came off the street and excelled in December and January. The Rams shouldn’t go over $3 million per season to retain him, but as an insurance policy against Todd Gurley II‘s knee — which, he’ll be happy to tell you, is fine and definitely not injured — Anderson is a helpful backup.
3. Trade down from the 31st pick. Teams will buzz the Rams on the end of Day 1 in the hopes of trading back into the first round, which has the advantage of providing teams with a fifth-year option. The Rams will want to make the pick, of course, but this is a team that has traded away most of its top picks to either draft Jared Goff or build around him.
It’s more important that L.A. comes away with two or three solid contributors from this draft who can succeed for cheap over the next few seasons than go after one player with a slightly stronger chance of becoming a star, especially as the team continues to lock in the core of this squad. If the Rams can get a team picking in the top half of the round to send them second-round picks in 2019 and 2020, they should jump at the chance.
4. Sign Clay Matthews and wait out the market on veterans. Matthews is almost too obvious of a fit. The Rams are thin on the edge and probably won’t be able to afford to bring back Dante Fowler Jr. Matthews grew up in Southern California and walked on at USC, playing for the Trojans in the same stadium that is now the Rams’ home. Matthews’ numbers are down in recent years, but joining the Rams would allow him to play as a full-time edge rusher. The inside linebacker work Matthews did in Green Bay also should depress his price to the point where the Rams can afford to bring in Matthews on a one-year deal.
Every veteran player who wants a meaningful shot at winning a Super Bowl is going to tell his agent he wants to play for the Rams this offseason. The Rams will likely sit out most of free agency to avoid impacting their standing in the compensatory pick formula, but they’ll target players who are cut by their current teams, since those players won’t count against the compensatory formula.
Who could fit into that plan? At wide receiver, the Rams could stash a wideout like Emmanuel Sanders on the physically unable to perform list to have depth in case of, say, another Cooper Kupp injury. If the Vikings cut Everson Griffen, another former USC product, the Rams would loom as an obvious destination. Justin Houston also would make sense. There will be surprise cuts, as there are every year, and the Rams will presumably have first dibs on any of those. They should have enough clout to encourage some veterans to hold off on signing until after July 1, when the moves won’t touch the compensatory formula.
5. Don’t extend Jared Goff this offseason. Teams have the option of extending their first-round picks with long-term deals after the end of their third seasons in the league. In most cases, they wait a year and reap the benefits of a fourth season priced in at well below market value. The exceptions are generally for transcendent superstars such as J.J. Watt and Patrick Peterson.
The Rams are the exception to the exception: They’ve done several fourth-year extensions under GM Les Snead, including deals for Tavon Austin, Robert Quinn and, most recently, Gurley. You can see how those moves went. Austin was a disastrous contract from the jump. Quinn fell off dramatically after posting 19 sacks in Year 3, although he looked like an absolute star. Gurley was an MVP candidate for half of 2018, but he was struggling by the end of the season with a mysterious knee injury, and the Rams didn’t skip a beat when they replaced Gurley with Anderson.
It’s too early to evaluate the Gurley deal, but as we get to Goff’s future, look no further than the Super Bowl. The Patriots flummoxed Goff in a way that might end up being telling. He made a few excellent anticipatory throws, but he spent most of the game out of rhythm waiting for somebody to get open.
Earlier this year, I brought up the idea of a team constantly remaining on the rookie quarterback cycle by drafting a quarterback, developing him into a star, and then trading him at the end of his rookie deal for a high draft pick to repeat the process. The right team would have a brilliant offensive mind for a head coach and oodles of offensive talent, players the team otherwise would have to let go to pay their quarterback a premium.
The Rams are the most obvious example for this concept, although it’s clear they believe Goff is a bona fide franchise quarterback. I don’t think the Rams will hop back on the rookie passer cycle. I don’t think they should trade Goff at the end of his rookie deal, either. I don’t know whether any team will ever have the guts to do it, because getting that rookie quarterback evaluation wrong as a GM means you’re getting fired and becoming the butt of jokes for a decade. It’s too much pressure.
At the same time, I don’t think Goff is such an obvious perennial Offensive Player of the Year candidate that the Rams need to start extending him immediately. It has to at least be a little concerning that Goff’s numbers fell off once Kupp was injured, especially because Kupp is the exact sort of luxury the Rams would struggle to keep around at the going rate for wide receivers once they give Goff a raise.
There’s no rush here. Get another year of information, and if Goff is the player the Rams think he is, they’ll still have tons of leverage to extend him after Year 4. The Rams can use their cap space now to add veteran talent or roll it over to have extra money when Goff does get expensive. And if Goff does take a step backward in 2019, well, it could save the Rams from a Derek Carr-esque conundrum.
1. Move on from Pierre Garcon, Garry Gilliam and Malcolm Smith. It’s almost a lock that the 49ers will part ways with the 32-year-old Garcon, who has struggled with injuries during his two years in San Francisco while being passed on the depth chart. Gilliam, who served as the backup tackle behind Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey, played just 8 percent of San Francisco’s offense snaps last season and has a cap charge north of $5 million in 2019. Smith, a bizarrely expensive signing in 2017, missed all of that season with a torn pectoral muscle and then started only five games in 2018.
Those three moves will clear out about $7.3 million in cap space and get the 49ers to just over $70 million in room.
2. Franchise Robbie Gould. The 49ers can work out a long-term deal with their 36-year-old kicker, of course, but with no other realistic options for the franchise tag, GM John Lynch can keep Gould around for 2019. Gould was the seventh-best kicker in football on scoring plays last year.
3. Pursue a cornerback in free agency. Although Richard Sherman was a success in his first season by the Bay and K’Waun Williams has rounded into a solid slot cornerback, the other corner spot has been an issue. Ahkello Witherspoon regressed in his second season before tearing his PCL, and while 2018 third-rounder Tarvarius Moore came up with the occasional big play in Witherspoon’s absence, he also looked like a rookie for stretches, too.
In a division with the Rams, three good cornerbacks are the minimum. Sherman also has already suggested that a move to free safety could eventually be in the cards, although it doesn’t appear that such a move would be likely to occur in 2019. Either way, the 49ers should be in the market for a cornerback this offseason.
Unfortunately for the Niners, this cornerback market isn’t exactly filled with sure things. Assuming the 49ers want somebody with size for coordinator Robert Saleh’s scheme, the two most obvious fits would be Colts corner Pierre Desir and Patriots regular Eric Rowe, each of whom are 6-foot-1. Desir is coming off a career year in Indy, while Rowe has a longer track record but hasn’t been able to stay healthy. The former Eagles draftee has missed 27 games over the past three seasons. Good money on a team-friendly structure might be the way to go here.
There are much more obvious fits at free safety, where the market is far deeper. The most tantalizing move would be to reunite the Legion of Boom by signing away Earl Thomas from the Seahawks, although the future Hall of Famer hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2015 and turns 30 in May. Thomas would be a plug-and-play free safety, with Jaquiski Tartt stepping in as the 49ers’ version of Kam Chancellor. Lamarcus Joyner, Tyrann Mathieu and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are also free agents the 49ers could pursue at the position.
4. Find a Leo. Although the 49ers have spent three first-round picks on defensive linemen over the past four seasons, they’ve managed to unearth only one excellent pass-rusher in defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who posted 12 sacks and 20 knockdowns in a breakout 2018 campaign. Cassius Marsh chipped in with 5.5 sacks, but everything up to this point has suggested that Marsh is a better fit as a rotation end.
The Seahawks-style defense Saleh runs in San Francisco is designed to work with an athletic weakside pass-rusher whose sole job is to ruin quarterbacks’ days. The 49ers haven’t really had a Leo since Saleh came on board, with players such as Elvis Dumervil and Eli Harold filling the role out of necessity’s sake. Former first-round picks Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas aren’t good fits in the Leo role. The 49ers need someone quicker and with more bend to get after the quarterback.
A great fit would be Nick Bosa, but he’s the favorite to come off the board with the first overall pick to the Cardinals, just ahead of San Francisco at No. 2. If Arizona trades out of the pick to a team that wants to draft a quarterback, well, the 49ers should be all set to draft Bosa. If not, the popular pick for the 49ers has been Kentucky edge rusher Josh Allen, but the Niners might also be able to trade down and grab an extra selection while still taking a pass-rusher somewhere in the 8-12 range.
5. Hold on to Nick Mullens. As far as practice-squad passers go, teams have done a lot worse than the 49ers did with Mullens at quarterback in 2018. He isn’t going to win the job from Jimmy Garoppolo anytime soon, but Mullens posted a 90.8 passer rating and averaged 8.3 yards per attempt with a set of skill-position weapons beset by injuries. The 49ers also have Mullens under contract for two more seasons at less than $1 million per year, given that the Southern Mississippi product will be an exclusive rights free agent in 2020.
At the least, he appears to be a competent backup quarterback, a role that teams usually pay something in the $6 million per year range to fill. Mullens has $10 million in surplus value on his current deal, let alone the implied value of what would happen if he continues to develop and turns into a viable starting quarterback. In a financial system in which cheap quarterbacks rule the world, Mullens has significant trade value.
In some cases, I would encourage a team like the 49ers to trust their coaching staff and scouts to find and develop another undrafted free agent such as Mullens. I can’t do that here. When I wrote about Garoppolo before the 2018 season, I mentioned that we couldn’t be confident he would be healthy for a full season.
Garoppolo has now suffered two serious injuries in his three short stints as a starter, as the 27-year-old separated his shoulder in his second start with the Patriots in 2016 before tearing his ACL three games into the 2018 campaign. The 49ers have the talent to compete for a playoff spot if their team can stay healthy in 2019, and their highest upside is with a healthy Garoppolo, but I’m not convinced he’ll be able to stay healthy for 16 games at a time. Mullens is too valuable of an insurance policy to trade away.
1. Put a full-page ad in the newspaper thanking Earl Thomas for his contributions. I would’ve preferred to write “Franchise Earl Thomas” or “Pay Earl Thomas a lot of money,” but I think those ships sailed when the legendary Seahawks safety flipped off his own sideline as he was being carted off last season. It’s clear the Seahawks don’t want to offer Thomas a long-term contact, and the franchise tag wouldn’t make either party happy.
What the Seahawks can do, though, is try to repair the relationship for the future. Put an ad in The Seattle Times thanking Thomas for his incredible run with the team. Soft-retire his No. 29 and don’t give it to anyone else until Thomas retires. For whatever has happened over the past year, Thomas is one of the best players to ever wear a Seahawks uniform. Ten years from now, the stuff he did on the field is going to be his legacy. From here on out, it’s about attempting to create a scenario in which both sides can feel good about celebrating that one day.
2. Franchise Frank Clark. While the Seahawks will likely look to retain several of their pending free agents — notably D.J. Fluker, J.R. Sweezy and Justin Coleman — Clark is the one free agent the Seahawks absolutely have to retain. In a class of edge rushers who are likely to stay on their current teams via the franchise tag, Clark will be in the mix alongside Jadeveon Clowney and DeMarcus Lawrence for extensions. Lawrence will make more because he’s on his second franchise tag, but if any of these guys signs an extension, it will be with an annual salary between $18 million and $20 million per year.
3. Extend Russell Wilson. The Seahawks went with a run-heavy approach in 2018 that minimized Wilson’s impact on the offense — he threw just 427 passes in 16 games after averaging 527 over the prior three seasons — but Wilson made up for it with hyper-efficiency. He’s not showing any signs of slippage at 30, and while Wilson would find it extremely difficult to toss touchdown passes on 8.2 percent of his dropbacks again in 2019, he remains one of the league’s truly elite quarterbacks when not forced to run for his life before even receiving the snap.
The Seahawks have tended to favor four-year extensions under GM John Schneider, so it’s likely that Seattle will hand Wilson a large signing bonus and lock him up until his age-34 campaign. With Aaron Rodgers averaging $33.5 million in annual salary and $103 million over the first three years of his extension with the Packers, the obvious number to look for here is $35 million per season. A four-year, $140 million extension is eventually where this should settle.
4. Extend Bobby Wagner too. The Seahawks probably will let K.J. Wright hit free agency this offseason, but it’s difficult to imagine them letting Wagner leave next offseason. Negotiations won’t be quite as cut and dried as they are with Wilson because of positional scarcity, but Wagner is still rightly regarded as arguably the best player at his position in football.
The gold standard deal for a linebacker who doesn’t rush the passer is Jamie Collins‘ four-year, $50 million deal from January 2017. I think the Seahawks probably will have to top that as part of a Wagner extension, given that the five-time Pro Bowler is already making north of $10 million per season on his current extension. Going to $15 million per season is too ambitious, but Wagner’s new four-year extension should come in between $52 million and $56 million.
5. Sign Muhammad Wilkerson. The extensions probably will limit much of what the Seahawks can do in free agency, and unless they want to sign a free safety to replace Thomas, there aren’t many great matches between where the Seahawks would want to spend money and useful players.
One logical place to target would be defensive tackle, where the Seahawks have been struggling with their decisions for years. Malik McDowell, the team’s second-round pick in 2017, never played a snap for the team after reportedly suffering serious injuries in an ATV accident. The injury led the Seahawks to trade a second-round pick and Jermaine Kearse for Sheldon Richardson, who left for the Vikings on a one-year deal in free agency. Shamar Stephen left something to be desired next to Jarran Reed, and while Poona Ford has flashed in brief moments, the Seahawks should add at least one veteran to their rotation.
Wilkerson, who looked good for the Packers last season before going down with a serious ankle injury, is probably going to settle for a one-year deal in the hopes of rebuilding his value. He would make sense as the latest Seahawks transplant on the interior.