Over the next two weeks, I’m going to preview the beginning of each team’s offseason by identifying the first five things it should do during this downtime. I’ll hit the NFC this week and the AFC next week. Here’s the schedule for the week ahead:
Monday, Feb. 12: NFC East
Tuesday, Feb. 13: NFC North
Wednesday, Feb. 14: NFC South
Thursday, Feb. 15: NFC West
No team was more aggressive about acquiring talent in as many different ways over the last year than the Eagles. Even after moving up in the draft to grab Carson Wentz in 2016, Howie Roseman refused to stay put and continued to reshape the roster around Wentz. The Eagles added key free agents like Alshon Jeffery and LeGarrette Blount, made trades for the likes of Jay Ajayi and Tim Jernigan, and drafted contributors like Derek Barnett and Mack Hollins. You know what happened next.
In the end, Philadelphia’s decision to move on from backup quarterback Chase Daniel and bring back former starter Nick Foles might have ended up as its most important call. It was Foles who got hot during the postseason and saved the Eagles after Wentz tore his ACL. A move that was an afterthought amid a busy offseason ended up helping the Eagles win their first Super Bowl.
Let’s start this series with the home of the champions in the NFC East (in alphabetical order):
1. Extend Zack Martin. Dallas’ star guard is entering the fifth and final year of his rookie deal, and the Cowboys will almost surely give the former Notre Dame star one of their patented eight-year contract extensions. Martin likely will become the highest-paid interior lineman in football when he signs his deal.
If the 27-year-old does sign an eight-year deal, it should top $90 million and pay Martin in excess of $40 million over its first three years. The length of the deal should allow the Cowboys to reduce Martin’s cap charge from its current $9.3 million mark, even given the massive contract extension to come.
2. Restructure Travis Frederick‘s deal. The Cowboys might not be as aggressive to clear out cap space by restructuring Tyron Smith‘s deal, given that their star left tackle battled myriad injuries this season. Frederick is one of the best centers in the league and isn’t anywhere, so the Cowboys will be more comfortable clearing cap space with the Wisconsin product. Jerry Jones can convert $9 million or so of Frederick’s salary to a signing bonus, freeing up $7.5 million in room.
3. Force Dez Bryant to take a pay cut or release the 29-year-old. While the Cowboys aren’t in an onerous cap situation after moving on from Tony Romo (who will still cost Dallas $8.9 million in dead money this year), there’s a huge gap between Bryant’s $16.5 million cap hit and his recent production. While you might have blamed injuries for middling seasons from Bryant in 2015 and 2016, he played all 16 games this season and wasn’t able to consistently change games. His 69-838-6 line wasn’t dissimilar to the 65-810-5 line posted by Jermaine Kearse, who was essentially a throw-in for the Jets in the Sheldon Richardson trade.
At this point, the dynamic downfield receiver who terrified defensive backs from 2012 to ’14 looks to have been replaced by a possession target who primarily leverages his size to win on slants. From 2012 to ’14, Dez was 31st among wideouts in average yards after catch and caught 31 passes on throws more than 20 yards downfield, the sixth most in football. Bryant had just 11 such catches over the three ensuing seasons, including just four in 2017. He was 63rd in yards after catch over that time frame.
Bryant still has a role to play on this team, but he’s years removed from performing like a No. 1 wideout. The Cowboys can’t really restructure the five-year, $70 million extension Bryant signed before the 2015 season, given that it has only two years and $25 million remaining. The Cowboys would save $8.5 million by releasing Bryant, but it makes more sense to cut his $12.5 million base salary in half and allow Bryant to make some of it back with incentives. If the three-time Pro Bowler doesn’t improve, though, this will be Dez’s last year in Arlington.
4. Franchise DeMarcus Lawrence. The Cowboys can use the money they save from the previous deals to free up room to bring back their star defensive end. Dallas is entering the offseason with $20.6 million in cap space and will need more than $17 million to lock up their best pass rusher for another season.
Should the Cowboys sign Lawrence to a long-term deal now? It depends on the price. Lawrence took an enormous leap in 2017, racking up 14.5 sacks and 26 quarterback knockdowns. Over 25 games in 2015 and ’16, Lawrence generated nine sacks on 18 hits. Lawrence hasn’t shown enough to get paid like a guy who is perennially going to reach double-digit sack totals, but if he hit the free market, some organization would see a 25-year-old coming off a Pro Bowl season and back up the Brink’s truck to sign him. The franchise tag keeps Lawrence off the market and gives the Cowboys leverage as they negotiate a new deal.
5. Pick up Byron Jones‘ fifth-year option and pick a place for him to play. This season was a step backward for the former first-round pick. Jones’ versatility should be an asset, but defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli seemed to get frustrated with Jones’ lack of consistency and eventually started taking him out of the lineup for 2016 sixth-rounder Kavon Frazier, who carved out a bigger role with some big hits as an in-the-box strong safety.
Jones was expected to be a project coming out of UConn, but Dallas hasn’t helped his development by moving him from cornerback to safety. It seems pretty clear that Jones isn’t a strong safety. He should have the athleticism to play center field as a free safety, but the Cowboys don’t appear to love Jones in that role. Assuming that the Cowboys keep Xavier Woods in the slot (and move on from Orlando Scandrick), Jones could play ahead of Jeff Heath at free safety in 2018 if the Cowboys want to give him a shot there.
What about moving him back to cornerback and keeping him at his old position? New defensive backs coach Kris Richard had plenty of success working with big, physical cornerbacks during his time in Seattle, which should help the 6-foot-1, 196-pound Jones. Maybe Jones profiles as a guy who can play in coverage against the division’s tight ends, a group that includes Zach Ertz, Evan Engram and Jordan Reed. Under any circumstance, the Cowboys need to find out what they have in Jones in 2018.
1. Announce that this will be Eli Manning‘s last season in a Giants uniform. When the Giants shockingly benched Manning in November, I rued the missed opportunity to treat their longtime starting quarterback with some class.
After firing virtually everyone involved with the decision short of ownership, they can get a redo here. Manning slipped badly between 2015 and 2016, although the success of the defense during a playoff year masked his decline. The Giants are probably committed to keeping Manning on the roster in 2018, but the $17 million they would save by moving on from the 38-year-old in 2019 is money they’ll need for the roster moves to come. Manning has to leave the team eventually, but send him out in a way everyone will find satisfying. Treat it like a graduation. Ask Eli how he wants to handle things. Announce an Eli Manning Day for one of the home games in September or October and bring guys from the 2007 and 2011 teams back to celebrate. Have a Not Ben McAdoo Day later in the year. Just don’t offer to string together a start streak for no reason.
2. Draft a quarterback with the second overall pick. The Giants have to replace Manning over the next two to three years. They hired Pat Shurmur in the hope that he was going to develop their next franchise quarterback. You only get a few chances at drafting or acquiring that guy, and while the Giants would probably rather have their pick of the draft crop at No. 1, their best shot at finding that star passer is going to be here with the second overall selection in a deep class for quarterbacks.
Whom should they take? It’s still too early to say. Honestly, whom they take is probably less important than what they do to support their new passer. Shurmur helped mold Foles in Philadelphia and manufactured a career year from Case Keenum in Minnesota, so while he struggled with game management during his time as a coach with the Browns, his recent track record looks promising. If the Giants keep Manning, there will be no reason to rush their new pick into the lineup. They can play Manning if he plays well and the Giants stay competitive. If they struggle, there will be an opportunity to bring on their new quarterback later in the year, although I’d recommend they handle it with far more grace than the organization did this season.
3. Re-sign Odell Beckham Jr. Last year, the timing didn’t make sense for the Giants to re-sign Beckham. He was too much of a bargain for too many years to come to rip up his deal and make him the highest-paid wideout in football, let alone give him the sort of quarterback money Beckham publicly sought.
As of last offseason, the Giants could have gone year to year with Beckham and paid him just $28.6 million over the next three years, which is Pierre Garcon money. Now that same figure would cost $48.8 million, which is in line with players like Antonio Brown and DeAndre Hopkins. Beckham’s broken ankle basically cost him all of 2017, but it shouldn’t impact the 25-year-old’s long-term outlook. He’s one of the best wideouts in the league and should be for the next several years.
It would be smart for the Giants to get ahead of the curve and sign Beckham to a new deal before the cost of signing wideouts goes up any further. Jarvis Landry is a free agent now, but Beckham’s free-agent class next offseason would include the likes of Stefon Diggs and Mike Evans. Those guys likely aren’t going to make it to free agency, but Beckham and Evans are going to reset the wideout market. If Beckham signs first, Evans will get slightly more, and vice versa. The Giants probably want to beat the Bucs to the punch.
What would get a deal done? Start with Hopkins, who signed a five-year, $81 million extension before starting his fifth-year option. The Texans star was coming off a down year thanks to the tyranny of Brock Osweiler, but Hopkins’ deal included $36.5 million guaranteed at the time of signing and $49 million in practical guarantees, all over the first three years.
Beckham is going to top those both marks, but it’s a question of how much he’ll get on top of what Hopkins earned. The record for money guaranteed at signing to a wide receiver is $46.6 million, which Calvin Johnson got for his megadeal all the way back in 2012. It wouldn’t surprise me if Beckham’s representation tried to top that mark and get Beckham to $47 million guaranteed at signing with $55 million in practical guarantees. If Beckham goes for the biggest wide receiver deal in history, we would be looking at a seven-year, $115 million contract with a $40 million signing bonus, structured as follows:
The deal might be structured differently, but the general concept should be the same: Beckham will get a record deal for a wide receiver by one definition or another. The Giants will also need to sign Landon Collins, but it seems more likely that they franchise their star safety in 2019 before signing him to an extension next year.
4. Clear out cap space. The deal above would raise Beckham’s cap hold by only $1.5 million, but the Giants need room to make improvements elsewhere. New general manager Dave Gettleman is used to this, having inherited a disastrous cap situation during his time in Carolina, so the $21.6 million the Giants currently have free for 2018 might seem like a relative luxury. He can get that figure closer to $35 million by releasing Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Brandon Marshall and Dwayne Harris.
5. Improve the offensive line. The Eagles just won their first Super Bowl with a dominant performance from their offensive line. The Giants have generated the league’s third-worst rushing average and its worst first-down percentage on run plays thanks to a horrific offensive line. The Giants desperately need to protect whichever quarterback will be starting for this team in 2019 and beyond. They’re not doing that with Ereck Flowers at left tackle.
Things need to change, and the Giants’ two best offensive linemen — center Weston Richburg and the versatile Justin Pugh, who has lined up at left guard, right tackle and even left tackle during his career — are both unrestricted free agents. Starting right tackle Bobby Hart was waived by the team at the end of the season and wasn’t claimed by any other teams, which should be telling. The Giants are returning Flowers, backup center Brett Jones and middling veteran guard John Jerry.
The obvious move would be for Gettleman to sign Panthers guard Andrew Norwell, who is likely to leave after Carolina locked up fellow guard Trai Turner with an extension. Norwell will be in line to get top-tier guard money, though, and the Giants are probably looking at a deal similar to the five-year, $60 million pact the Browns gave Kevin Zeitler this past offseason. Norwell should be in line to take home about $40 million over the next three years, which would limit what the Giants can do elsewhere.
The Giants desperately need to upgrade on Flowers, whose fifth-year option is likely to be declined. There’s little guarantee Flowers will be better on the right side, but the Giants can’t trust him to protect the blind side of their quarterbacks at this point. The problem is that there aren’t many left tackles about to hit the market, and if the Giants spend $13 million per year on Norwell, they probably can’t afford to commit another $10-plus million per year to Nate Solder. They can try to draft a left tackle with their second-round pick (or trade up into the first round), but the best solution might be to re-sign Pugh to play right tackle and use Rhett Ellison more frequently to give Flowers help on the left side.
1. Decline Torrey Smith‘s option. The former Ravens standout had a frustrating debut season in Philadelphia, with rookie fourth-rounder Mack Hollins taking some of Smith’s snaps as the season went along. The Eagles enter the offseason $4.6 million over the salary cap, so they’ll need to clear out some cap space to sign their draft class and fill in their roster. Declining on another year with Smith and turning his job over to Hollins will free up $5 million in room.
2. Designate Jason Peters as a post-June 1 release. The Eagles need to clear out more room, though, and the vast majority of their roster consists of players coach Doug Pederson & Co. are locked into through 2018. Peters is one of the few exceptions, and Halapoulivaati Vaitai showed enough improvement during the season for the Eagles to turn a starting job at tackle over to their swing tackle.
The offseason might mark the moment when the Eagles finally move Lane Johnson to the left side, but regardless of how the Eagles line up Vaitai and Johnson, it would be difficult to bring back Peters at a cap hit of $11.7 million coming off a torn ACL. The best-case scenario for the Eagles would be for Peters to return after a pay cut, but if they designate the 36-year-old as a post-June 1 release, they can free up $8 million in cap room.
If they don’t cut Peters, the Eagles will free up room by restructuring Fletcher Cox‘s deal and converting most of his $11.5 million base salary into a signing bonus, which would create $9.5 million or so in savings this year.
3. Explore the trade market for Nick Foles. I mentioned this in my Super Bowl recap, but the Eagles should operate from a position of strength with Foles given the uncertainty surrounding Carson Wentz‘s knee. The Eagles don’t need to trade Foles, and if they don’t get a great offer, they should hold on to him for another year.
If a team like the Bills or Jets offers the Eagles one of its second-round picks for Foles, it might be a good opportunity to sell high on a player who isn’t going to supplant Wentz in the long term and will hit free agency in 2019. The Eagles could choose to replace Foles with a veteran like Josh McCown. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see veterans who are chasing a ring like McCown head to Philadelphia for smaller-than-expected deals this offseason.
4. Wait out the market on Nigel Bradham. Bradham, nickel safety Corey Graham and slot cornerback Patrick Robinson are all free agents this offseason. Robinson played well enough to earn a deal Philadelphia can’t match, and the Eagles seem heavily committed to cheap cornerback play given their investment along the defensive line and at safety. He’s probably gone. Graham might be back.
Bradham will be an interesting situation. The Eagles used the former Bills linebacker and Mychal Kendricks as their every-down linebackers after Jordan Hicks tore his Achilles early in the season. Hicks will be back, and Kendricks — whose four-year extension signed during the Chip Kelly GM days went south quickly — is already in line for a cap hit of $7.6 million in 2018. Bradham is a better player than Kendricks, but the Eagles can’t really commit another multiyear deal to a linebacker given how much they’ve spent elsewhere on their roster.
If a team gives Bradham the five-year, $26.5 million offer that the 49ers handed Malcolm Smith last offseason, his time in Philadelphia will probably come to a close. If the market for Bradham doesn’t develop, though, it wouldn’t be crazy to see the 28-year-old return to the Eagles on a short-term pact. Re-signing Bradham would probably bring Kendricks’ time with the Eagles to a close.
5. Trade down on draft day. The Eagles are missing second- and third-round picks from various trades, and while they have an extra fourth-round selection, they’ll need to replenish some of the missing depth from the Wentz trade and add cost-controlled talent to develop behind their core. Teams love trading up to the final few picks of the first round, since it allows them to acquire a possible fifth-year option for a player they were already planning on taking with one of the top few selections of the second round. Philadelphia has pick No. 32 in the first round.
1. Resist the urge to franchise Kirk Cousins. Trading for Alex Smith should have brought an end to the Cousins era in Washington, and while you can understand the organizational desire to get something back for their franchise quarterback, that ship sailed a year ago. We don’t yet know the specifics of Smith’s contract extension, but it’s safe to assume that Washington’s new quarterback will have a cap hit in excess of $15 million.
Washington currently has $36.2 million in cap room, and franchising Cousins for a third time would eat up $34.5 million of that space. Owner Daniel Snyder & Co. can’t trade Cousins unless he signs the franchise tag, which he’ll only do for a team of his choosing. Why would Cousins want Washington to narrow his options, and why would he want his new team to give up valuable draft picks as a thank-you to the franchise that is moving on from him?
Let’s say Cousins wants to go to the Broncos. General manager Bruce Allen might very well go to Denver and threaten to franchise Cousins in the hopes of extracting a draft pick, but he has zero leverage. Cousins won’t sign the tag, and Washington doesn’t want to be stuck with two quarterbacks making a combined $50 million. Denver will happily wait for Cousins to eventually hit the market, which will happen after Washington releases Cousins. It’s a desperate bluff from Washington.
Cousins is a sunk cost at this point. Washington can get a third-round compensatory selection in the 2019 draft when Cousins signs elsewhere, but the comp pick isn’t guaranteed. Washington can nullify the selection by investing in free agency, either by going after a top-tier talent or a handful of cheaper players. The latter strategy will prevent the Bills from picking up a compensatory pick for Stephon Gilmore this year.
Obviously, compensatory picks can be valuable, and free agency can often be a fool’s errand, especially for Snyder. What I don’t like is the idea of sitting out free agency and ensuring a compensatory pick just so Washington can sit there and say it got something back for Cousins. That’s a PR move, not a football decision. Those third-round compensatory picks also haven’t delivered many stars in recent years. Here are the players drafted with third-round comp selections over the past 10 drafts:
2013: Sam Montgomery, Knile Davis, Zaviar Gooden
2012: Tony Bergstrom
2011: Sione Fua
2010: Brandon Ghee, Rennie Curran, Mike Johnson
2009: Tyrone McKenzie, Chase Coffman, Juaquin Iglesias, Travis Beckum
2008: Chad Rinehart, Andre Caldwell, Thomas DeCoud, Oniel Cousins
It’s still too early to evaluate some of the more recent classes, but these guys combined for all of one Pro Bowl appearance, and that was from DeCoud, who was drafted a decade ago. Adding a compensatory pick is a smart move, but sitting out free agency specifically so Snyder can say five years from now that he got a second tight end or a subpar offensive lineman as compensation for Cousins isn’t the right football decision for this franchise, especially after trading for a 33-year-old starting quarterback.
2. Re-sign Zach Brown and Spencer Long. Washington can start by bringing back two contributors. Brown was an astute low-cost signing last year when his market never developed after a breakout season in Buffalo. While inside linebackers rarely break the bank, Brown repeated his level of play with an excellent debut season in Washington. He’s not in line for an enormous contract, but Brown should get more than the four-year, $24 million pact A.J. Klein signed with New Orleans last offseason.
Re-signing Long might depend on whether he thinks he can get an offer in excess of $8 million per year on what is going to be a very thin market for offensive linemen. Long started his Washington career as a guard before moving to center, but with Shawn Lauvao also a free agent, coach Jay Gruden would probably be slotting Long back at left guard in 2018. A reunion would make sense for both parties.
Bashaud Breeland is Washington’s most notable other free agent, but it’s difficult to imagine Allen committing nearly $14 million in cash to Josh Norman in 2018 and then throwing another $10 million per year Breeland’s way. Having traded away Kendall Fuller in the Smith deal, it wouldn’t shock me to see Washington go after Patrick Robinson at a price range closer to $7 million per year to give them a slot corner while drafting someone to develop on the outside.
3. Pick up Brandon Scherff‘s fifth-year option. Washington will be giving its star guard a contract extension next offseason.
4. Work on an extension for Preston Smith. Quietly, Greg Manusky’s defense was fourth in the league in adjusted sack rate, taking down opposing quarterbacks on 8.0 percent of their dropbacks. Ryan Kerrigan was at the heart of that pressure, but Smith racked up eight sacks of his own to go along with a team-high 21 knockdowns. He now has 20.5 sacks through three seasons, and Washington can’t append a fifth-year option to his rookie deal because he’s a second-round pick.
Smith will be a free agent after the 2018 season, so now would be the time to lock him up. It’s not going to be cheap — a Smith extension would top $10 million per year — but you would forgive Washington fans if they don’t want to hear about the possibility of slapping Smith with the franchise tag next season.
5. Be selective with free agency investments. If Washington loses Breeland and Cousins in free agency, it should be able to recoup at least the third-round pick while signing one — and maybe only one — impact free-agent. That might be the aforementioned Patrick Robinson or another cornerback, but Washington shouldn’t be trying to plug four or five roster spots with free agents.
I’ve suggested in the past that it could be the team that pays Le’Veon Bell $15 million per year, in part to give its fans something to focus their attention on after losing Cousins, but I suspect Pittsburgh will franchise its star running back. Maybe Washington will go for a wide receiver like Allen Robinson or Sammy Watkins to load up on weapons for Smith. Washington can also sign players who were released by their current teams without affecting the compensatory formula, so possible cap casualties like Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray could figure in here.