The confetti has barely settled following Super Bowl LIII, but with free agency only a month away, here’s a comprehensive look at what to expect.
Come Feb. 26, the NFL Scouting Combine will begin in Indianapolis. While the beginning of free agency’s tampering period isn’t until March 11, the action begins over wine and a medium-rare steak at St. Elmo’s.
On the menu this year? A treasure trove of edge rushers.
DeMarcus Lawrence is the best free agent available, but the Cowboys are likely to either tag him prior to the March 5 deadline or agree on a long-term pact. Dallas can’t afford to let its 26-year-old star walk and tagging him for a second time — this year would be just shy of $21 million — would be a cap killer. There would also be potential tension if the Cowboys don’t pay a player who has twice played through a back injury. Stephen and Jerry Jones would be wise to pay Lawrence a contract that is expected to cost upwards of $100 million in total value with $70-plus million in guarantees.
In Houston, the Texans are tagging Jadeveon Clowney barring a shocking development. General manager Brian Gaine would still retain cap flexibility despite the $15.591 million charge. Clowney has developed into a terrific player, but he’s yet to become a top-end pass rusher. Over the last two years, Clowney has totaled 18.5 sacks. The other long-term concern is his health, with the former No. 1 overall pick only played 16 games once.
Unlike Houston, it’s far from certain that the Kansas City Chiefs tag Dee Ford.
Ford has enjoyed double-digit sacks in two of the past three seasons, including a career-high 13 this year. However, Kansas City has a variety of defensive needs and limited cap space (projected at $26.397 million).
Should the Chiefs tag Ford, it probably means the end of Justin Houston, who has a $21 million cap hit. Houston could be released for a $14 million savings in 2019. While a restructured deal could bring that number down, Houston would likely opt for free agency where he can get multiple guaranteed years.
Additionally, Kansas City drafted defensive end Breeland Speaks and outside linebacker Dorian O’Daniel in the second and third rounds of last year’s draft. Both seem an ideal fit for new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s 4-3 scheme.
In short, Ford remains an option. Barring a contract restructure, Houston likely does not.
Ezekiel Ansah is the one name mentioned above who will be available. The Detroit Lions tagged him a season ago, but the 29-year-old only produced four sacks in an injury-plagued campaign. While the down year and age will temper expectations, Ansah should still have a market once Lawrence and Clowney — and potentially Ford — are officially removed from it.
Then there’s Trey Flowers, arguably the most versatile piece on the New England Patriots’ championship defense. Flowers, 25, has 21 sacks over his four-year career and can line up anywhere along the line, including as a stand-up pass rusher.
The Patriots would surely love to retain him, but they have tough choices to make with left tackle Trent Brown and kicker Stephen Gostkowski also becoming free agents. It would be cost-effective to tag Gostkowski and then work on lengthy deals with Flowers or Brown.
Offensively, there are a handful of important names. None bigger than Le’Veon Bell.
Bell, 26, sat out last season waiting to cash in this winter. He’ll do so, and he will have a bevy of suitors. While teams are concerned about his considerable rust, they also realize the immense value he brings to an offense. In 2016 and ’17 with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Bell racked up 20 total touchdowns along with 2,559 rushing and 1,217 receiving yards.
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In late January, FanSided reported that Bell prefers to play with the Miami Dolphins. While that remains the case, it’s uncertain if the interest is mutual. One team to watch is the Chicago Bears. Chicago could clear $8 million in cap space by releasing tight end Dion Sims and running back Jordan Howard, putting it in position to make a run at Bell. Bell would be a terrific fit for Matt Nagy’s offense and a wonderful help for Mitchell Trubisky.
While the quarterback market is thin, Nick Foles is one intriguing name to watch. The Philadelphia Eagles exercised their option to retain Foles, only for the 30-year-old to void said option with a $2 million buyout. Philadelphia may utilize the franchise tag to necessitate a trade, but that’s risky. Foles could refuse to sign the approximated $25 million tag, forcing Philadelphia to either remove it or have a contract anchor on the books.
FanSided’s Jason Cole has reported Philadelphia is leery of Foles hitting free agency because he could sign with the rival New York Giants. If he goes elsewhere, expect both the Washington Redskins and Jacksonville Jaguars to be in the mix, considering their dire need at the position. Foles would likely prefer Jacksonville over Washington because he wouldn’t want to deal with another two-quarterback situation if and when Alex Smith returns to the Redskins.
Finally, Grady Jarrett is 25 years old and coming off a six-sack season on the interior for the Falcons. Atlanta has the cap space to retain Jarrett via a long-term deal or the franchise tag. However, if the Georgia native hits the market, he’ll land a hefty contract.
With the tampering period only a month away, the league now shifts into the battle for talent.
Top 10 QBs you’d want with the Super Bowl on the line
1. Joe Montana – San Francisco 49ers
2. John Elway – Denver Broncos
3. Johnny Unitas – Baltimore Colts
4. Tom Brady – New England Patriots
5. Dan Marino – Miami Dolphins
6. Eli Manning – New York Giants
7. Peyton Manning – Indianapolis Colts
8. Drew Brees – New Orleans Saints
9. Brett Favre – Green Bay Packers
10. Kurt Warner – St. Louis Rams
"“What we’ve got to do, I believe, is let’s go out there and evaluate this team, find out where we need help. Make some good choices for the future, not just for today, if I’m making sense. I’m not looking to go 4-12 or 5-11, thinking that we’re rebuilding. But we must realize that two years from now, three years, that what we did in the 2019 season was why we are at that point.”"
– Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio on how the franchise must view its situation
The Broncos are in a tough spot. Denver general manager John Elway detests the notion of rebuilding, but the team is currently in limbo.
Elway would be wise to explore getting younger and cheaper, potentially even moving stars like Von Miller and Chris Harris Jr. Miller and Elway have endured a strained relationship since a contentious contract negotiation in July 2016, something highlighted by Miller’s mother in an Instagram post last month.
Miller has enormous value, and could net a bevy of picks to help foster a new day in Denver, led by Phillip Lindsay, Courtland Sutton, Bradley Chubb and the eventual successor to Case Keenum.
Matt Verderame and Josh Hill break down why the Rams have an intriguing road ahead, if the Chiefs are deserved preseason favorites, and what to make of the Antonio Brown drama. Make sure to subscribe on iTunes and get all the STB episodes on your mobile devices!
Six states are currently home to multiple football teams. The only one without a Super Bowl win is Ohio, with the Bengals and Browns each searching for their first.
Info learned this week
1. AAF shows well in debut weekend
The Alliance of American Football kicked off on Saturday, and the early returns are promising. Being broadcast on CBS, the AAF did a bigger number than the showcase NBA game on ABC. Whether the eight-team league can keep interest up is another question entirely, but with six teams in non-NFL markets, there’s hope to cultivate hungry fan bases.
One word of caution, though. When the XFL launched in 1999, the first week did phenomenal ratings on NBC. There was a thought that the hard-hitting, no-holds-barred style was going to appeal to the casual fan. The XFL lasted one year.
Now, the AAF isn’t promoting itself as a rival to the NFL. It’s not trying to be extreme. While there are some added dimensions — including the “sky judge” referee who can change calls without a review being called for — this is football at its core. The biggest difference is the eschewing of the kickoff and extra point plays.
2. Kyler Murray decides he’s playing football
Kyler Murray has finally made up his mind.
After months of being on the fence, Murray released a statement on Monday morning that he will be pursuing an NFL career. Despite that, a source has indicated to FanSided that Murray has yet to sign an agent certified by the NFLPA. Technically, baseball agent Scott Boras can’t represent Murray on his football contract because Boras is not certified by he union. While Murray could represent himself, it seems unlikely that he would do so.
Considering he does retain MLB options, an NFL team will likely have to take him in the first round to ensure he stays on a path towards the gridiron. Anything less and the money doesn’t make sense. Whether he goes that high remains to be seen.
However, FanSided’s Jason Cole had a half-dozen NFL executives state that Murray could be a first-round choice. If Murray is drafted in the first round, he would become the first quarterback listed under six feet tall to go that high since Ted Marchiborda was taken by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1953.
3. Cardinals hired offensive, but building their defense
The Arizona Cardinals are entering a new era under head coach Kilff Kingsbury. While the focus will undoubtedly be on how he develops quarterback Josh Rosen, the early offseason moves have been to support the defense.
Arizona signed a pair of Falcons’ cuts, inking cornerback Robert Alford to a three-year deal before signing linebacker Brooks Reed for the 2019 season. Alford, 30, is a quality veteran who gives Arizona a nice combination on the outside opposite Patrick Peterson. Reed, meanwhile, figures to compete for playing time as new defensive coordinator Vance Joseph combs through the personnel.
With the first-overall pick in April’s draft, Arizona will likely add another pass-rusher to compliment Chandler Jones. Nick Bosa of Ohio State is a name to watch there.
4. Raiders swallowing pride, likely headed back to Oakland for ’19
The Oakland Raiders are the proverbial man without a country.
In 2018, Raiders owner Mark Davis stated that should the City of Oakland sue the team, his team would play the 2019 season elsewhere. Now, after striking out on an attempt to play in Oracle Park, Davis appears ready to head back to the Oakland Coliseum for one more season. As of a week ago, Davis had not approached the San Francisco 49ers about playing at Levi’s Stadium, the only other venue that wouldn’t be a logistical nightmare.
Ultimately, this move costs pride but little more for the Raiders. As FanSided’s Jason Cole reported last Saturday, the team has other options including playing in San Antonio, San Diego, Glendale or even London for a year before a permanent move to Las Vegas, but each has its own set of hurdles.
With a last-place team playing out the string in an old stadium, it will be fascinating to see if unloved fans fill the building.
5. Jets have reason to be concerned about coaching staff
The New York Jets might have a problem on their hands.
After hiring Adam Gase to be the head coach, Gase then hired Gregg Williams as defensive coordinator. Subsequently, Williams lobbied to have his son, Blake, join the staff as an assistant. A report by Rich Cimini of ESPN states that Gase was hesitant but ultimately acquiesced to the move. This all comes on top of Joe Vitt — Gase’s father-in-law — being hired as the outside linebackers coach.
While much of the focus has been on the strained relationship between Vitt and Gregg Williams dating back toothier BountyGate days, there should be more attention on the pair of Williams’ in the building. Gregg has a longstanding reputation of believing he’s the smartest guy in the room. This, among other personality traits, is one of the reasons why Browns general manager John Dorsey refused to hire promote Williams from interim head coach after the season, despite a 5-3 mark.
With both Gregg and Blake Williams in house, Gase might have a tough time keeping order.
There have been great seasons authored by running backs over the years. None match up with O.J. Simpson in 1973.
There have been seven campaigns where a rusher has eclipsed the 2,000-yard mark — Eric Dickerson, Jamal Lewis, Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, Terrell Davis and Barry Sanders have the others — but Simpson was the only man to accomplish the feat in 14 games.
After being drafted first-overall out of USC in 1969 by Buffalo, Simpson was expected to dominate immediately. Instead, the former Heisman Trophy winner only notched 1,927 rushing yards over his first three years. Then, after making the first of five consecutive All-Pro teams in ’72, Simpson ran wild in ’73, gaining 2,003 yards on 6.0 yards per attempt.
Simpson’s on-field greatness has largely been forgotten due to his off-field ugliness, but in terms of football skill, his 1973 effort remains the gold standard for running backs.
This column is impersonal by design. Not the case in this week’s parting shot.
Last Sunday, I attended the Super Bowl. It was my first in person. Hopefully it won’t be my last.
For a little boy from Livingston Manor, a tiny town in New York’s Catskill Mountains, it was the realization of a lifetime ambition. The first Super Sunday I remember watching was Super Bowl XXIX, when the 49ers took the Chargers apart down in Miami. Who could have known that 24 years later, I’d be working the game as a writer.
In my eyes, the best part wasn’t the game. It was the moments before, thinking about those who helped get me there. My parents. My friends. FanSided for giving me a chance. There are no small actors in this play. Every part, no matter how fleeting, had a leading role.
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My love affair with the game of football goes back to the ’93 season, the first year I sat down with my father and began to learn. Back then I was five years old, watching NFL Films videos that my mother rented from our town library. There would be no time for Sesame Street. I had to watch 100 Greatest Touchdowns again.
Over the years, I’ve learned one inarguable truth. Do what you love, and let your love show. People know when they see a phony. They also know when they see true passion.
Thank you for reading my work, and here’s to many, many more Super Bowls.