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. After hitting the NFC last week, I’m getting to the AFC this week. I’ll start out West and finish with the Super Bowl champion Patriots in the East on Friday, as you can see from the schedule below:
Tuesday, Feb. 19: AFC West
Wednesday, Feb. 20: AFC South
Thursday, Feb. 21: AFC North
Friday, Feb. 22: AFC East
Let’s begin this week with the AFC West, where the Broncos already kicked off the player-acquisition window by reportedly trading for their new starting quarterback …
1. Cut Case Keenum and Emmanuel Sanders. Realistically, there isn’t going to be a trade market for Denver’s 2018 starting quarterback given his $18 million base salary, $7 million of which is already guaranteed. Likewise, there’s no credible scenario in which the Broncos keep the 30-year-old Keenum with a $21 million cap hit behind Joe Flacco. Denver would eat a $10 million dead cap charge by releasing Keenum, but it would free up $11 million in badly needed cap space in the process.
The Broncos can create more room by moving on from their veteran receiver. Sanders returned to form last season and was averaging 72.3 receiving yards per game, but after tearing an Achilles in December, he might not be ready to start the season on the active roster. The team can cut the soon-to-be 32-year-old and free up $10.3 million more in space. After declining linebacker Brandon Marshall‘s option, these two moves would get the Broncos to $44.5 million in cap space.
2. Bring back Matt Paradis. This offensive line has been a mess for years, but the one bright spot has been the development of Paradis, who redshirted after being drafted in the sixth round in 2014 before starting 57 consecutive games. He missed the final seven games of last season with a fractured fibula, and while he should be healthy to start 2019, the Broncos don’t yet have their star center under contract.
The franchise tag might not apply here, thanks to a rule structure that hasn’t caught up with how teams value players. The NFL makes only one offensive lineman tag value available, and despite the fact that left tackles get paid more than linemen elsewhere along the line, the tag value for guards and centers is based on top-tier blindside protectors.
CBS Sports’ Joel Corry projects that the 2019 tag for offensive linemen will come in at $14.2 million, which is an exorbitant sum considering that the largest annual average salary for any center in the league is Tampa’s Ryan Jensen at $10.5 million. Paradis is also hitting the market at age 29, making him older than most typical first-time free agents. You can understand why he might also want to avoid the franchise tag. This is his best — and possibly only — chance at making life-changing guaranteed money.
In a league desperate for competent line play, though, Paradis is going to have a serious market. Jensen was three years younger than Paradis when he entered free agency, but he got a four-year, $42 million deal after just one year as a starting center. Paradis is likely to get a similar deal; it wouldn’t be a surprise if he picked up a four-year, $44 million pact.
3. Work on bringing back Bradley Roby. A rare hit for GM John Elway in the first round of the draft, Roby excelled as Denver’s third cornerback behind Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr., only to struggle last season after Talib left for the Rams. Roby is an unrestricted free agent, but the Broncos don’t really have anyone to take his place in the lineup; Tramaine Brock is also a free agent, and third-round pick Isaac Yiadom played like a rookie in limited time. If no team blows Roby away with an offer — which is entirely plausible given what we saw last season — the Broncos should trust their first four seasons with Roby over an uneven 2018.
4. Add a weapon at tight end. Jeff Heuerman is a free agent, and while the Broncos were hoping that Jake Butt would give them an athletic tight end, Butt tore an ACL for the third time in practice last September. Knee injuries have limited the former Michigan man to three NFL games in two seasons. Troy Fumagalli, a fifth-round draft pick last year, spent all of his rookie season on injured reserve.
With the Broncos trading Demaryius Thomas and likely moving on from Sanders, they need to get more out of their tight end group as receivers. In a draft rich with tight ends, they have to consider using their second- or third-round pick on a weapon for Flacco. They could also be in the discussion for possible cap casualties such as Kyle Rudolph and Cameron Brate.
5. Resist the urge to go after a quarterback and draft front-seven help. While there were reports that Elway was infatuated with 6-foot-4 Missouri quarterback Drew Lock before the Flacco trade, Lock is the exact sort of big-bodied, inaccurate passer Elway has failed with over the past few seasons. Flacco is not a long-term solution, but unless Dwayne Haskins or Kyler Murray slip to the Broncos at No. 10 overall, Denver won’t be in position to take a franchise quarterback.
Instead, the Broncos should replenish a run defense that ranked 16th in defensive DVOA a year ago. (Denver was fourth, in comparison, against the pass.) The Broncos are set on the edge with Bradley Chubb and Von Miller, but backups Shaquil Barrett and Shane Ray are free agents, so using a mid-round pick on the edge might make sense. The more obvious concern would be at the nose, where Domata Peko is an unrestricted free agent and Shelby Harris is a restricted free agent. The Broncos also could stand to add depth behind Derek Wolfe, who just completed his first 16-game season since 2014.
1. Franchise Dee Ford. The Chiefs can’t afford to lose their best pass-rusher. Ford has 25 sacks in 37 games since becoming a full-time starter in 2016, and while he won’t force seven fumbles again in 2019, he’s a building block for this defense. Kansas City might start with the franchise tag, but Ford and the Chiefs likely should come to terms on an extension in the five-year, $90 million range by the end of the offseason.
2. Release Justin Houston. Ford’s franchise tag would cost about $17.9 million and bring the Chiefs below $8 million in cap space. That’s not enough given the other moves the Chiefs have to make, and the most obvious candidate to hit the street is Kansas City’s other edge rusher. Houston signed a six-year, $101 million extension after a 22-sack season in 2014, but injuries have limited the Georgia product to 30 sacks over the ensuing four seasons. The team would free up $14 million in cap space by moving on from the 30-year-old Houston. Kansas City might get lucky and convince Houston to restructure his deal, but there’s no way he can return in 2019 on a cap hit north of $20 million.
3. Work on a new deal for Chris Jones. The Chiefs also need to find the cap room to work on an extension for Jones, who enters the final season of his rookie contract in 2019. He is set to make only a $1.2 million base salary as part of a cap hit under $2 million, but the team can’t plan on having the franchise tag available for Jones in 2020 for reasons I’ll get to in a minute.
Jones was inconsistent during his college career and disappointed during his second pro campaign before delivering a 15.5-sack campaign for the Chiefs last season. They have to be at least a little reticent about handing him an extension, but he is too good of a player when he’s on for the team to let him leave. The timing of the extension depends on another member of Kansas City’s 2016 draft class. …
4. Or work on an extension for Tyreek Hill. If Kansas City can lock up Ford and sign either Jones or Hill to an extension this offseason, it can hold the franchise tag in wait for the other player next offseason. If not, the Chiefs run the risk of letting either Jones or Hill leave in free agency next March.
On paper, the Chiefs would probably prefer to extend Jones and leave Hill’s rookie deal in place for one more season for financial reasons; Hill’s fifth-round rookie contract is far cheaper than Jones’, and the star wideout is going to net a much larger extension when the two sides do come to terms. You might make the case that the Chiefs should lock up Hill instead because he has been the more consistent player; Jones might not attract quite as large of a deal if he takes a step backward in 2019.
In terms of his on-field performance, Hill compares favorably to the other star wideouts who have signed extensions over the past couple of seasons. His numbers over his second and third seasons are similar to those of the league’s other top young receivers over their same seasons, but he needs fewer touches as a receiver to rack up yardage, as you can see from the yards-per-target category:
Those stats don’t include Hill’s work as a runner (210 yards and a touchdown the past two seasons) or what he has done as arguably the league’s best return man, with five return touchdowns across his first three seasons. It would be a surprise if Hill’s next deal tops the five-year, $90 million extension Odell Beckham Jr. signed in August.
5. Find a new center. Coach Andy Reid has generally let his interior lineman leave in free agency, trusting that offensive line coach Andy Heck can mold castoffs or late-round picks into useful starters. When Rodney Hudson hit free agency four years ago, the Chiefs let him leave for the division rival Raiders, drafted Missouri tackle Mitch Morse, and moved him inside to take over as their starting center.
After 49 starts, the cycle will begin anew. Morse likely will leave for a big deal in free agency, and the Chiefs will get creative. Kansas City could hand the job to Austin Reiter, who started when Morse missed five games with a concussion. They could move former Browns center Cameron Erving from guard back to the pivot, where the first-round pick played during his final season at Florida State. Most plausibly, the Chiefs will draft someone in the middle rounds and Heck will turn him into a viable starter.
1. Work on a deal with Denzel Perryman. Two oft-injured defensive stars hit free agency this offseason for the Chargers. It’s probably time to move on from star-crossed corner Jason Verrett, who has played just five games over the past three seasons since making the Pro Bowl in 2015. Even if the they do want to bring back Verrett, it’s hard to imagine him getting much more than the veteran minimum.
Perryman makes for a more difficult case. The former Miami product hasn’t had a Verrett-sized injury history, but the Chargers’ inside linebacker has missed 22 games over his first four seasons, including 16 over the past two years with knee, hamstring and ankle injuries. Over the past four years, the Chargers have allowed a 53 Total QBR and an 88.9 passer rating with Perryman sidelined, but a 41.6 Total QBR and an 80.6 rating with Perryman on the field. The effect is more pronounced on the ground, where the defense allowed 4.7 yards per carry with Perryman off the field and 4.0 yards per rush with their former second-round pick on it.
I don’t know how Perryman is valued given the injury history, but he’s a helpful player for this defense. The Chargers ended the year playing safeties at inside linebacker in the postseason after Perryman and Jatavis Brown went down, and they might prefer a fresh start at the position. Some team is going to take the plunge on Perryman, and if he can stay healthy — a huge “if” — it is going to have an excellent football player on its hands. A deal with significant per-game roster bonuses would make sense if Perryman wants to return to Los Angeles.
2. Pick up Joey Bosa‘s fifth-year option. This is an easy call, as the only thing that has managed to stop the 2016 third overall pick has been his own health. The pass-rusher missed the first four games of his rookie season with a hamstring injury, then sat out the first half of the 2018 season while recovering from a foot injury. Bosa otherwise has 28.5 sacks in 35 career games, roughly a 13-sack rate over a full 16-game season.
The Chargers could consider working on an extension with Bosa, given that they might be buying low after a half-season. The only other first-round edge rushers to get an extension after three years under the current CBA are J.J. Watt and Robert Quinn. Los Angeles could go year by year with him and get his next three seasons for something slightly south of $40 million, which is far below his market value over that time frame. It’s more likely that the two sides will find mutual ground on an extension next offseason.
3. Extend Philip Rivers. The fiery 37-year-old Rivers has shown little sign of slowing down, as he posted a 105.5 passer rating in 2018, which is tied for the best single-season mark in his career. (He posted a 105.5 passer rating in 2008, 2013 and 2018, so get ready for a 42-year-old Rivers to run roughshod on the AFC West again in 2023.) Rivers has said that he has no desire to play into his mid-40s, but on a championship-caliber team, it seems fair to believe that he has a couple of more years left in that right arm.
With Rivers entering the final year of the four-year, $83.3 million extension he signed in August 2015, it makes sense for the Chargers to try to tack on a two-year extension to get him to his age-40 campaign. Drew Brees signed a two-year, $50 million extension before the final season of his deal with the Saints last March; given a likely rise in the cap, a two-year, $54 million pact would make sense.
4. Add defensive line help. The Chargers have a lot of work to do up front, as 34-year-old nose tackle Brandon Mebane is a free agent, while L.A. declined the option on Corey Liuget, who started the 2018 season suspended and ended it on injured reserve with a torn hamstring. Throw in Darius Philon and Damion Square, both of whom are free agents, and the Chargers have to find players to make up more than 1,700 missing defensive snaps in 2019.
The decision to decline Liuget’s option freed up $9.5 million of cap space, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Chargers used some of that money to re-sign Philon, who started 13 games and chipped in with four sacks and nine quarterback knockdowns a year ago. L.A. could certainly look toward a deep draft for defensive linemen, but it also wouldn’t be surprising to see the team pursue veteran help. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley could put a word in for Malik Jackson if his former charge in Jacksonville is a cap casualty.
5. Don’t sign Melvin Gordon to an extension. The running back is entering the fifth-year option of his rookie deal at $5.6 million. Gordon has been an asset to fantasy teams, scoring 38 touchdowns over the past three seasons. After fumbling six times on 217 touches as a rookie, he has responded by fumbling just four times on 862 touches over the ensuing three campaigns. His ability with the football makes him a three-down back, and he had his best season as a runner in 2018.
All of those things are true, but the Chargers have to give serious thought to letting Gordon leave after the 2019 season. For one, there are concerns about paying any veteran running back significant money after his rookie deal. Gordon doesn’t have as many carries as other backs after their first four seasons, but that’s because he has already struggled to stay healthy; he has completed just one 16-game season and missed nine games in four campaigns. Gordon has suffered knee injuries in three different years in addition to a 2016 hip sprain and a 2018 hamstring issue.
His on-field play hasn’t been quite as impressive as those fantasy totals, either. Gordon’s 29 rushing touchdowns have been the product of sheer volume near the goal line. He has 39 carries inside the 5-yard line over the past three seasons. Backs score on 41.8 percent of those carries, which would suggest Gordon should have scored 16.3 touchdowns on those rushes. He actually scored 18, which amounts to about one extra touchdown every two seasons, and that’s without including his zero-touchdown season in 2015.
The former Wisconsin star doesn’t have the cumulative numbers we would expect from a star back because of the injuries. He also hasn’t been all that efficient on a per-carry basis. Here’s Gordon’s rank in yards per carry and expected point success rate (EPA+%), which measures how frequently a back’s carries increase his team’s chances of scoring, among backs with 150 carries or more in each of his four seasons:
Over Gordon’s four pro seasons, 19 backs have racked up 600 carries or more. Gordon ranks 11th in yards per attempt (4.0) and eighth in success rate (38.5 percent). He has been about a league-average back when healthy, and he hasn’t been healthy for extended stretches of time. Gordon is unquestionably talented, but if he’s looking for a Devonta Freeman-sized deal — let alone something in the Le’Veon Bell or Todd Gurley ballpark — the Chargers are probably better off drafting his replacement and letting him leave.
1. Trade Jordy Nelson. The experiment to bring in the 33-year-old Nelson didn’t really take, as the longtime Packers standout caught 63 passes for 739 yards and three scores in a relatively anonymous 2018 campaign. Nelson still has something to offer, but he’s of little use to a rebuilding Raiders team, something Jon Gruden should have realized before signing Nelson last offseason.
Nelson has only $3.6 million remaining on his deal for 2019, making him a modestly valuable asset as a WR2/WR3 in a market with little in the way of wide receiver help available. The Kansas State product might appeal to teams that strike out in free agency and don’t love this year’s draft class. Teams such as the Colts, Patriots and Cowboys could justify trading a fifth- or sixth-round pick for one year from Nelson. A Packers reunion might also make sense for both sides.
2. Don’t sell off the offensive line. After trading away Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper last offseason, it might be tempting to continue the fire sale and trade away whatever isn’t nailed down. If the Raiders had many veterans of interest beyond Nelson, it might make sense to put them on the market.
The one group I would hold onto in a rebuild, though, is Oakland’s expensively assembled offensive line. The Raiders likely will move on from 35-year-old tackle Donald Penn, but their interior three of Kelechi Osemele, Rodney Hudson and Gabe Jackson shouldn’t hit the market. Having a sound offensive line allows Gruden the best opportunity with which to evaluate Derek Carr and will make life easier for Oakland’s next quarterback if Gruden decides to replace his 27-year-old starter. The Browns let Mitchell Schwartz leave in free agency and lost Alex Mack to the Falcons during their tanking phase, and they ended up paying for lesser veterans to replace their two future All-Pro linemen. The Raiders shouldn’t make the same mistake.
3. Sit out unrestricted free agency (mostly). One thing I would follow from the Browns, though, is to avoid wasting time signing mid-tier free agents while blowing compensatory picks in the process. The Raiders could get a high comp pick for free-agent tight end Jared Cook, who had an outlier season in terms of touches and production last season and isn’t likely to get better after turning 32 in April. They shouldn’t waste that pick just to sign a player who won’t help their long-term outlook.
4. Open for business if you don’t like a quarterback with the No. 4 overall pick. The Raiders are in a bind. Oakland is the first team in this draft that is giving serious consideration to using its first-round pick on a quarterback. The Raiders also pick fourth behind the Cardinals, 49ers and Jets, each of whom could theoretically trade down with a team trying to move up and grab Dwayne Haskins or Kyler Murray. If a team loves one of those passers, it knows it will have to get ahead of Oakland.
If Oakland doesn’t love these quarterbacks and wants to go another 16 games with Carr, it should turn the fourth pick into a trade asset. This roster is too thin to turn down any meaningful trade-down opportunities, and if a team like the Dolphins (No. 13) or the Redskins (No. 15) wants to get ahead of the Giants at No. 6, the Raiders should be able to pick up an extra first-round pick in the process. It means they will miss out on their best chance of adding elite talent with the fourth pick, but this team needs good young players at just about every single position.
5. Draft the best available player. Over and over again. Gruden’s rebuild has left the Raiders with a promising offensive line, some players to hope upon in the secondary, and useful depth at defensive tackle, plus whatever you might think about Carr. The Raiders are in no position to be turning down talent at any position. In a draft full of front-seven pieces, offensive linemen and tight ends, Oakland should simply be trading down or picking the best players on its board.