The 2019 NFL season is over. The 2020 season is months away. In the interim, free agency and the draft. It’s time to run down what we’re watching for.
There wasn’t NFL football this Sunday. Sad times.
Yes, the XFL kicked off its slate over the weekend and the reviews were good. For the sake of those employed by the league, hopefully it lasts.
Meanwhile, the NFL is going into its on-field slumber. We won’t see teams so much as stretching until OTAs in April and May, followed by minicamps in June. Then comes training camp in late July, and football is back. Looking out my Chicago window, July ain’t coming soon.
So for the next few months, we have free agency and the draft (check further down the column for important dates). We have some CBA talk (again, further down) and tons of juicy subplots to hold us over.
This is the time for dreaming. For hoping your team has the perfect offseason. The right signings, the draft picks that turn into great values for the next four years.
What are a few topics to keep an eye out for? Here’s some stuff to gnaw on:
Free agency is going to be dominated by pass rushers
All the talk is about the quarterbacks, and understandably. Tom Brady, Dak Prescott, Jameis Winston, Philip Rivers, Ryan Tannehill, Marcus Mariota and Drew Brees are all slated for the open market. It’s intoxicating to think of what could be. The reality? Most of these names will never sniff free agency.
Last week, FanSided reported Yannick Ngakoue is very unlikely to get out of Jacksonville. Early on Monday morning, FanSided reported the Kansas City Chiefs still want to sign defensive tackle Chris Jones to a long-term deal — the same stance they’ve had since last summer — despite a tight cap situation. If they can’t come to terms before the March 10 tag deadline, it’s very possible he’s retained in that manner.
Even without Ngakoue and Jones on the market, a legion of other pass-rushers remain. Jadeveon Clowney, Arik Armstead, Bud Dupree, Dante Fowler Jr., Vic Beasley Jr., Robert Quinn and Matthew Judos are all pending unrestricted free agents.
Veteran receivers are going to have a depressed market
A.J. Green, Emmanuel Sanders and Robby Anderson are picking the wrong year to earn a big payday.
While each will bring ample talent to their new teams, it might be at a lower cost than most will predict. Why? The incoming draft class is considered generational at the position. Many in NFL circles believe a half-dozen receivers could go in the first round, including Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, Clemson’s Tee Higgins, Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb, TCU’s Jalen Reagor and Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk.
If a general manager needed a top receiver, he’s likely going to take one from the draft under cheap team control for five years rather than spend lavishly on an aging vet.
Pass interference will bedevil the rules committee again
In an overreaction to last season’s NFC Championship Game and the uncalled infraction against Los Angeles cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman, the NFL allowed pass interference to be challenged by head coaches in 2019.
The predictable result? Disaster.
Senior Vice President of Officiating Al Riveron repeatedly stated the standard for pass interference was not met, even when receivers like DeAndre Hopkins were getting mauled on key plays in the end zone. Nobody wants to go through this sham again.
It’s a bad look to reverse course, but it’s even worse to continue down a doomed one. The NFL knows this can’t go on. Whether the league takes away the ability to challenge pass interference or heavily modifies the rule remains to be seen, but it would be surprising if it doesn’t look much different for 2020.
Top 10 potential cap casualties this offseason (contracts per OTC)
1. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers ($19.1M savings)
2. Sammy Watkins, WR, Kansas City Chiefs ($14M savings)
3. Marcell Dareus, DT, Jacksonville Jaguars ($20M savings)
4. Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati Bengals ($17.7M savings)
5. Xavier Rhodes, CB, Minnesota Vikings ($8.1M savings)
6. Janoris Jenkins, CB, New Orleans Saints ($11.2M savings)
7. Leonard Floyd, EDGE, Chicago Bears ($13.2M savings)
8. Jimmy Graham, TE, Green Bay Packers ($8M savings)
9. Josh Norman, CB, Washington Redskins ($X2.5M savings)
10. Joe Flacco, QB, Denver Broncos ($10M savings)
"“We want to get this done. Things are fixing to heat up. We want to put every foot forward and try to grind this out and get a deal done.”"
– Dalllas Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones on quarterback Dak Prescott’s situation
The longer this goes on, the more Prescott will earn. Dallas could have extended Prescott last offseason before Jared Goff and Carson Wentz signed their deals with the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles, respectively.
Ultimately, Prescott’s pay slot is no secret. Wentz got $32 million annually while Goff checks in at $33.5 million. Russell Wilson, who signed a four-year extension with the Seattle Seahawks in April, came in at $35 million per year. With the cap rising again, look for Prescott to exceed Goff and Wentz while challenging Wilson’s figure.
Should the Cowboys tag Prescott and drag this into the summer, there’s a chance Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes ink mega-extensions. If that happens, the price will rise once more with the market being reset.
Only three franchises have played in a trio of consecutive Super Bowls. The New England Patriots, Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins. Oddly, all AFC East teams.
Info learned this week
1. Pats are favorites for Brady, but impact will be widespread
Smart money has Tom Brady returning to the Patriots. Still, the drama is real.
If New England can’t sign Brady prior to the start of free agency’s tampering period on March 16, teams will publicly support their current quarterback while quietly calling agent Don Yee, trying to gauge interest.
The list of teams would be long, potentially including the Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts, Los Angeles Chargers and Oakland Raiders. The Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers are also intriguing even if those situations would involve ample moving parts.
For any interested parties, the idea of Brady could cost them other free agents.
For example, let’s say the Chargers ear-mark cap space for the six-time champion. While they’re waiting for an answer, Austin Ekeler, Melvin Gordon and Hunter Henry are all taking offers. If Los Angeles waits too long, it could lose playmakers and still miss out on Brady. The same example with different names could be applied to multiple teams.
Essentially, Brady could hold teams hostage, impacting multiple rosters and the destinations of many top-flight players.
2. 17-game schedule looming in CBA talks
The NFL wants a 17-game regular season schedule. The NFLPA is fighting back.
While the two sides are largely aligned on issues for the new CBA — the current one is set to expire after the upcoming season — the topic of an elongated season is drawing ire among the player’s union.
Essentially, the players don’t want another game without additional concessions, considering their bodies go through enough across the preseason, regular season and postseason.
So why does the NFL want a 17th game so badly?
For starters, the league could conceivably create an international package out of this. It could schedule at least eight games in Mexico and the same for London, and create two season-ticket packages for its non-American fans. This would fix the issue of wanting to put a team in London without having players fight the notion of horrid travel and having to live in another country.
If the NFL went to a 17-game schedule, it would also create an 18-week season, stretching well into January. The Super Bowl would be pushed back another week, of course, some years butting against President’s Day. The league wouldn’t mind that.
The key date in all this? March 18. The start of the new league year. According to ESPN, a new CBA agreed upon before that date would start immediately, giving players a larger slice of the revenue immediately, among other things.
3. Rams, Cardinals will have tough time moving expensive backs
The Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Cardinals would be crazy not to move their respective runners, but don’t expect a robust market. While both are household names, each is tied to a financial albatross.
For Gurley, remember his four-year, $57 million extension two years ago? It only starts kicking in this season. Any team acquiring him is paying that deal, and getting out of the contract is expensive. The dead money in 2021 is $8.4 million before dropping to $4.2 million in 2022. Considering his arthritic knee and declining production (857 rushing yards, 3.7 YPC), the contract is immovable without attaching quality draft picks.
Johnson’s situation is similar. The Cardinals owe Johnson $26.1 million over the next two years. While 2021 is easy to get out of ($12 million savings, $3 million dead), Johnson is due $14.1 million this year. After an All-Pro 2016 campaign, Johnson has averaged 3.6 yards per carry since. He’s also only played 30 of 48 games in that span.
Los Angeles and Arizona can try to make deals, but unless they’re willing to attach significant assets with them, there’s no chance.
4. Scouting Combine invitees announced prior to Indy showing
The NFL Scouting Combine is less than three weeks away. Imagine that.
FanSided will be in Indianapolis for the entire week, and there are plenty of names looking to earn money at Lucas Oil Stadium. To be exact, 337 of them. It remains unclear which quarterbacks will throw, although it would be surprising if Joe Burrow participates, considering his stock can only decrease.
Tua Tagovailoa is still rehabbing his hip injury, and will not do any on-field drills. Tagovailoa’s agent, Leigh Steinberg, was in Miami for Super Bowl week, and told media Tagovailoa is on schedule to potential work out for teams prior to the draft, including the possibility of a pro day.
Another name to watch? Keep an eye on Baylor Bears receiver Denzel Mims.
Mims has the disadvantage of being in the best receiver class we’ve seen in recent memory, but could shoot up draft boards. When the NFL departed Mobile from the Senior Bowl, Mims was one of the most talked-about prospects. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds (exact measurements will come at the combine), a good showing on the field and in interview rooms could have him in wonderful position heading into the Baylor pro day.
5. XFL gets off the ground
This was mentioned at the top, but the XFL began its journey over the weekend. The eight-team league is hoping to sustain in the football category much better than its predecessor did when the XFL lasted all of one year in 2001.
The level of play is much closer to the defunct Alliance of American Football (AAF) than the NFL, but that’s to be expected. What’s important is showcasing an innovative product that doesn’t seek mass expansion right away if the ratings and attendance figures are solid. Build slowly, attract a few marquee names and go from there.
The appetite for football is enormous in this country. There’s room for a spring football league. The United States Football League was making its mark in the mid-1980s before foolishly trying to compete head-on in the fall with the established National Football League.
Bluntly, the XFL isn’t going to compete with the NFL. The good news? It doesn’t have to.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns have a rivalry dating back to 1950, but it’s based more on geography than anything else.
Coming over from the All-America Football Conference, the Browns were immediately an NFL power. From 1950-55, Cleveland reached six consecutive title games. The Browns made it back in 1964, beating the Baltimore Colts, 27-0. Pittsburgh sniffed the postseason only once during that stretch, losing the 1962 Playoff Bowl to the Detroit Lions after a 9-5 campaign.
All told, the Browns had one losing season from 1950-73. Pittsburgh didn’t become respectable until 1972, when it began a dominant stretch which included four Super Bowl titles in six years.
Incredibly, the two teams have only shared the same postseason bracket five times in their histories, squaring off twice. Pittsburgh won both times in 1994 and 2002.
The AFC is going to undergo a serious makeover this offseason.
Currently, the Chiefs are reigning champions with the Baltimore Ravens in hot pursuit. After those teams? A drop-off.
For the first time this century, it appears the Patriots have real ground to make up. Tennessee is intriguing but has a quartet of important players hitting free agency in Tannehill, Derrick Henry, Logan Ryan and Jack Conklin.
Then there’s the rest. The chances of the Raiders, Chargers, Bengals, Colts, Titans, Jaguars, Patriots and Dolphins each having different starting quarterbacks come September than they did Week 1 of last year ranges from conceivable to very likely. Literally half the conference.
There’s a good chance Burrow, Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert — the draft’s top three quarterbacks in most minds — will end up on AFC squads. Cincinnati, Miami and Los Angeles are all picking in the top six, with the other three teams (Redskins, Lions and Giants) not needing a signal-caller.
For two decades, the question was always who could compete with New England. The answers were typically Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. One is long gone, and the other is aging and coming off serious elbow surgery.
Time has seemingly stood still in the AFC for 20 years. No longer.