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 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:
The AFC South sent two teams to the playoffs in 2018, but unless you were particularly fond of underlying metrics, you might have been surprised to see that the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts were those teams.
Of course, the Jacksonville Jaguars also were an advanced numbers darling before last season, and they collapsed, so can the Jags rise atop the AFC South again? Let's run through the moves each of these four teams might make in a suddenly competitive division.
1. Franchise Jadeveon Clowney. The Texans don't want to lose Clowney, nor should they. The 2014 No. 1 overall pick has made it to three consecutive Pro Bowls and just turned 26. He has completed only one full 16-game season as a pro, but the microfracture surgery on his right knee that cost the South Carolina product most of his rookie season hasn't been a problem since. Clowney has missed six games over the past four seasons, undergoing two subsequent arthroscopic surgeries on his other knee.
At the same time, the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Clowney hasn't yet put together the sort of massive season that seems natural for a defender who looks as dominant on the football field as he is. Fifty different defenders have racked up at least one double-digit sack campaign since the beginning of the 2014 season, but Clowney isn't one of them.
He has come close in each of the past two seasons, hitting 9.5 sacks in 2017 and getting to nine last season. But on his game, he looks like the sort of defender who should be annually flirting with Defensive Player of the Year honors. His knockdown totals don't suggest a player who has been trading in bad luck, either. Using the 45 percent rule, Clowney's 67 knockdowns over the past four seasons imply he should have racked up about 30 sacks over that time frame. He has recorded 29.
I'm not saying this to disparage Clowney. I would hardly be surprised if he put together a 15-sack season in 2019. Nobody would be. I bring this up to illustrate how difficult his contract negotiations might be. Edge rushers are paid to rack up sacks, and Clowney's 29 sacks rank 27th over the past four seasons. The Texans might very well point to his production as closer to good than great and suggest he's worth something below the five-year, $72 million extension that Danielle Hunter signed last year. (Hunter, for what it's worth, has 40 sacks over those four years.)
On the open market, though, Clowney would get to negotiate with 31 teams. At least one of those teams would be willing to take the plunge and pay him on his potential, expecting him to put up those 15-sack seasons his tape hints toward. On the open market, Clowney might get something closer to a five-year, $100 million deal with $60 million in guarantees, which would top every other edge rusher contract in the NFL short of Khalil Mack. You can bet Clowney's representation knows this. The Texans have to negotiate against that possibility. Going year to year with Clowney with franchise tags would cost the Texans around $68 million over the next three years, so there's no savings there, either.
The Texans will start with a franchise tag north of $17 million in 2019 and go from there. I think they'll eventually come to terms on an extension, if only because a long-term deal makes sense for both sides. This is going to be a more difficult negotiation than most other franchise tag extensions.
2. Re-sign Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu's one-year, $7 million deal was a victory for both sides, as Mathieu stayed healthy and produced his best season since his All-Pro campaign in 2015. He was a consistent producer in a Texans secondary that struggled for steady play at cornerback last season, and while his 2015 performance might loom as an outlier, Mathieu's range and instincts make him a valuable free safety.
The 26-year-old Mathieu has suggested he wants to return to the Texans, and a new deal makes sense for both sides. In a market full of free safety options after a season when the league seemed to punt on the position, Mathieu might understandably prefer to lock up long-term stability in Houston. A three-year, $30 million deal could make sense for both parties.
3. Clean up the cornerback position. The Texans have thrown plenty of assets at corners, but things haven't quite worked out the way they planned. Kareem Jackson, a first-round pick in 2010 who spent eight years at cornerback, moved to safety last season to replace Andre Hal, who was battling leukemia. Jackson is a free agent. Kevin Johnson, a 2015 first-rounder, hasn't been able to stay healthy, and he missed 15 games in 2018 while dealing with the aftereffects of a pair of concussions. The Texans have a $9.1 million fifth-year option for him in 2019 that is guaranteed for injury, and it's unclear whether the Wake Forest product will be able to pass a physical. A failed physical would trigger that guarantee.
The Texans drafted Johnson with the hopes that he would eventually take over for Johnathan Joseph, who started 14 games at age 34 and is under contract for $4.8 million in 2019. When Johnson got hurt in 2016, the Texans promoted A.J. Bouye, who excelled in a starting role. The Jaguars signed Bouye to a five-year, $67.5 million deal in free agency in 2017, and the Texans responded by signing Jags slot corner Aaron Colvin to a four-year, $34 million contract last year.
After one year, it's hard to think of many significant free-agent deals that look worse than Colvin's. He missed six weeks with an ankle injury, but even after returning to health, the Texans seemed to sour on their new acquisition. Colvin played just 112 defensive snaps over the final six weeks of the season, 60 of which came in one game, when the Texans benched midseason addition Shareece Wright. Houston restored Wright to the lineup the following week in favor of Colvin, who was a healthy scratch in the wild-card loss to the Colts. Indy subsequently picked on Wright during the game, with Dontrelle Inman beating him for a 21-yard touchdown.
The Texans are probably locked into bringing back Colvin. The 27-year-old has a $8.6 million cap hit in 2019, and Houston would owe $10.5 million in dead money if it cuts him. Even if the Texans designated Colvin as a post-June 1 release, they would owe $8.5 million in dead money on their cap in 2019 and $2 million next year. Given their cornerback depth chart is Joseph and a series of question marks, the Texans likely will hope they can recoup something out of their investment in 2019. They'll also need to address the position in free agency or the draft.
4. Add a receiver, not Le'Veon Bell. The Texans have been popularly linked to Bell, given that Lamar Miller is entering the final year of his deal and 2017 third-rounder D'Onta Foreman missed virtually all of the 2018 season while recovering from a torn Achilles tendon. With Deshaun Watson making slightly more than $4 million over the next two seasons, the Texans have the cap space to go after a star running back like Bell.
I'm not sure it's the right move for the Texans. In a vacuum, Bell won't be a great deal for any team at the $15 million annual average salary he'll attract in free agency. The Steelers did just fine with James Conner and Jaylen Samuels as their primary backs last season. Bell's track record with injuries and suspensions suggest he's not likely to stay on the field for 16 games per season on a regular basis, either.
I also don't think the fit with the Texans is perfect. Houston mostly operates out of the pistol and shotgun, owing to Watson's comfort there going back to his time at Clemson. Watson took 85.1 percent of his pass dropbacks out of the pistol or in shotgun last season. Bell is certainly comfortable out of the shotgun -- he shows no significant split in performance regardless of where the quarterback begins on his rushing plays -- but nearly 62 percent of his runs over the past four years began with Ben Roethlisberger under center.
The Texans might want to add a back, but they're probably better off drafting a runner to compete with Foreman for carries after Miller leaves town. They have an extra second-rounder from the Duane Brown trade with the Seahawks, too.
Where Houston might instead want to make an addition is at receiver, where they've failed to surround DeAndre Hopkins with steady help. Will Fuller, a 2016 first-rounder, seems to have a telepathic connection with Watson but can't stay healthy. Fuller has 45 receptions for 782 yards and 11 touchdowns in 11 games with Watson, but the Notre Dame product also has missed time with a broken collarbone, cracked ribs, hamstring injuries and a torn ACL. Rookie fourth-rounder Keke Coutee battled a hamstring ailment throughout 2018, and Demaryius Thomas lasted seven games before tearing his Achilles.
The Texans have cycled through all kinds of tight end options over the past few seasons, and given the depth of that position in this year's draft, it's the most logical place they can upgrade on the likes of Ryan Griffin and Jordan Thomas. Jordan Akins, a third-round pick last year, will figure in the offense this season, but the former minor league baseball player will turn 27 in April and doesn't have much time to waste. If the Texans see a franchise tight end in this draft, they should do what they can to nab him.
5. Add help at offensive tackle. You thought I forgot? The Texans should use their first-round pick on a tackle. They should sign a free-agent tackle. They should hold an open tryout exclusively for tackles. They should ask J.J. Watt whether he has any brothers who forgot to try out for the football team and give them a shot at tackle.
1. Bring back Pierre Desir and Clayton Geathers. Desir was the standout corner for a surprising Colts defense last season. After losing his job with the Browns amid one of their many regime changes and bouncing around practice squads, he has found a home in Indy over the past two seasons. The Colts let starting corner Rashaan Melvin leave for the Raiders after the 2017 campaign, but I don't think they'll be as comfortable moving on from the 6-foot-1 Desir, whose size will interest teams like the Falcons in free agency. Kyle Fuller picked up a four-year, $56 million offer as a restricted free agent in 2018 after one good season as a corner, and Desir might angle for a similar sort of deal.
Indy will hope to get Desir signed for less than that, and bringing back Geathers would allow the Colts to keep their starting secondary intact. Geathers is a highlight-reel hitter, but the concern is health; the 2015 fourth-rounder has missed 22 games over the past three seasons, mostly with a neck injury. The Colts shouldn't be treating their 2018 team as a precious, irreplaceable group of players, but Geathers is a useful box safety and could even be a hybrid linebacker in nickel packages. If the team does re-sign Geathers, it will likely want to try to build his deal around per-game roster bonuses and prepare for the possibility that Geathers gets hurt during his deal.
General manager Chris Ballard also will have the ability to sort through some of the bargain-bin finds he has made over the past couple of seasons. He already has re-signed Mark Glowinski, but the Colts will have to decide whether they want to bring back veterans such as Margus Hunt, Najee Goode and Dontrelle Inman for 2019 or try to upgrade.
2. Add a difference-maker along the defensive line. The Colts have a lot to be excited about up front. Jabaal Sheard is one of the most underrated two-way ends in the game. Denico Autry broke out in a dramatic three-game stretch during December, racking up six sacks in three games. The Colts bring back a pair of 2018 second-rounders in Tyquan Lewis and Kemoko Turay, with Turay's 13 quarterback knockdowns ranking fourth among rookies.
The Colts ranked 29th in adjusted sack rate last season, though, and if they want to stay committed to defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus' Tampa 2 shell, they need to get consistent pressure with their front four. With three top-60 picks in a draft full of defensive linemen, it wouldn't be a shock if one of those picks went toward a pass-rusher.
I'd also think the Colts will head out to the free-agent market to try to find a veteran. Most of the big names such as DeMarcus Lawrence and Dee Ford are likely going to be kept off the market with franchise tags, but there also will be some big-name players hitting as salary-cap casualties.
Autry found success as a pass-rusher as Indianapolis moved him inside to rush against guards more frequently, but could the team supplement Autry by making a run at an interior disruptor like Gerald McCoy if he is cut by the Buccaneers? Ballard came to Indy from the Chiefs, who are likely to sacrifice Justin Houston to franchise Ford. Houston would have to adjust to having his hand in the ground more frequently, but on pure pass-rushing ability, the Georgia product would be an upgrade and a key part of an edge-rushing rotation.
3. Add help at wide receiver. The Colts were one of the most pass-happy teams in football last season. When the score was within 14 points, Frank Reich's offense threw the ball 64.5 percent of the time, good for the third-highest rate in the league. Only the Steelers (68.4 percent) and Packers (67.0 percent) leaned more heavily toward the pass while games were competitive.
T.Y. Hilton and Eric Ebron got 230 of Indy's 644 pass attempts. Ebron put up a career season, while Hilton missed two games and battled through injuries to excel in December and January. The group of Inman, Ryan Grant, Zach Pascal and Chester Rogers were targeted 201 times, and while Andrew Luck completed more than 68 percent of those throws, he averaged just 6.7 yards per attempt on those targets. Luck averaged 8.8 yards per attempt on his throws to Hilton and Ebron.
There's an opportunity to add an impact wide receiver, given that the Colts have virtually unlimited cap space; they could bring back Inman after he impressed as a midseason pickup, but the Colts also might find an opportunity to upgrade too. The wideout free-agent class isn't very enticing yet, but imagine this offense with Hilton across from, say, Antonio Brown?
4. Continue to add offensive line depth. For the first time in years, the Colts have an above-average offensive line. Indy has three starters on rookie deals to go with left tackle Anthony Castonzo and right guard Glowinski, who signed a three-year, $16.2 million deal to stay with the Colts in January.
Glowinski took over after veteran Matt Slauson went down with a back injury, and Slauson subsequently decided to retire last month. Jack Mewhort, who had been expected to add depth, unexpectedly retired in August. Indy was able to get by with Joe Haeg, Le'Raven Clark and Evan Boehm as backup linemen, but it needs to keep adding depth to the line, especially at tackle.
5. Pick up Ryan Kelly's fifth-year option. Few Colts took a bigger leap forward in 2018 than Kelly, the final first-round pick under former GM Ryan Grigson's reign. The Alabama product was a difference-maker on the ground, as Indy averaged 4.5 yards per carry and first downs on 25.2 percent of its rush attempts with Kelly on the field, but just 3.6 yards per rush and a 19.8 percent first-down rate with Kelly sidelined.
The 25-year-old suddenly looks like a building block, with injuries as the only notable problem holding him back. He has now missed 13 games over the past two seasons, but the Colts need to pick up Kelly's fifth-year option, despite the injury risk.
1. Designate Blake Bortles as a post-June 1 release. After years of being flush with cap space, the Jaguars find themselves in an unfamiliar place. Tom Coughlin's team is currently at or narrowly over the cap before signing any of its free agents, and it will need to create room to bring in its draft class and upgrade the roster.
To start, it's time for the organization to cut ties with Bortles, who teased Jaguars fans for years but never showed any sort of consistent play suggesting he was a franchise quarterback. The third overall pick in the 2014 draft, Bortles never pieced together six straight games with a QBR over 50 across his 75 games. Jacksonville floated the idea of benching him during the 2017 preseason, only to hand the UCF product a curious extension last offseason.
The most hard-core Jaguars supporters might note that Bortles' decline came after a sterling performance against the Patriots in Week 2, as both his offensive line and tight end room fell apart thanks to injuries, but the time for excuses is over. The past is a sunk cost. There's enough talent to win the division here with an upgrade at quarterback. Finding one won't be hard.
The Jags could have walked away from Bortles scot-free if they hadn't handed the 27-year-old an extension last winter, but they'll need to designate him as a post-June 1 release if they want to cut ties now. Jacksonville will eat a minimum of $10 million in dead money, with $5 million hitting its cap this year and $5 million in 2020.
The Jaguars are temporarily responsible for $6.5 million of Bortles' 2019 base salary, but they should be relieved of some of that burden in free agency by teams targeting Bortles as a backup. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Bortles attract a two-year, $10 million deal from a team such as the Bucs or Cardinals, which would get the Jags off the hook for some of the millions they owe.
Jacksonville should get something in the range of $15 million of salary-cap savings this year, depending on how much of Bortles' base salary is offset elsewhere. Doing that will get the Jags under the cap, but they'll still have more work to do.
2. Move on from Malik Jackson, Carlos Hyde and Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Jackson made his first Pro Bowl in 2017. Twelve months later, Jackson lost his starting job and was buried in the lineup behind 2018 first-rounder Taven Bryan. Jackson averaged 45.5 defensive snaps per game during the first half of the season, but by the final month of the campaign, the former Broncos standout was averaging exactly half that figure. The Jags can free up $11 million by moving on from him.
The trade for Hyde was an ill-fated attempt to find a veteran back to keep the Jags' offense going while Leonard Fournette and Corey Grant were injured. The Jaguars ended up trading a fifth-round pick for a player who carried the ball 58 times for 189 yards. Cutting Hyde generates $4.7 million more of cap space. Seferian-Jenkins got $4 million guaranteed as a free agent last year.
3. Don't do anything drastic at running back. During Dave Caldwell's run as Jags general manager, he has repeatedly attempted to solve his running back conundrum by throwing more and more resources at the position with no viable results. He started by signing Vikings backup Toby Gerhart to a three-year, $10.5 million deal. Gerhart lasted one year as a starter and was out of football by Year 3.
The Jags replaced Gerhart by using the 36th pick in the 2015 draft on T.J. Yeldon, who got one year as the primary starter. During the 2016 offseason, they gave Jets bruiser Chris Ivory a five-year, $32 million deal and had him split time with Yeldon. After Ivory missed five games and fumbled five times on 137 touches, they used the fourth overall pick in the 2017 draft on Fournette.
After two years, the Fournette move isn't looking great. The former LSU star has averaged 3.7 yards per carry and missed chunks of time in each of his first two seasons. The team is reportedly attempting to void the remaining $7.1 million in guaranteed salary on Fournette's deal after he was suspended for fighting Bills defensive end Shaq Lawson in the middle of a truly inconsequential game in November. Jacksonville presumably could cut Fournette and save that $7.1 million if Fournette's appeal does not succeed.
The Jags might be tempted to throw more money or high draft picks at running back to try to find a solution. They need to stop. They are better off hitting 2019 with Fournette and re-signing Grant, who was valuable both as a special-teamer and a receiving back when healthy. If the Jags want to use a midround pick on a back or sign a veteran for less than $2 million in free agency, that's fine. Devoting any serious resources to the position would invoke that famous cliché about the definition of insanity.
4. Sign Nick Foles or Tyrod Taylor. There aren't any foolproof options in this year's quarterback class, and that was before Joe Flacco was traded. Case Keenum was a Pro Bowler in 2017 and a backup-caliber passer otherwise. Foles is inconsistent, and he struggled mightily outside of the Andy Reid/Doug Pederson cocoon, although John DeFilippo, the Eagles' quarterbacks coach in 2017, is now the offensive coordinator in Jacksonville. Teddy Bridgewater has thrown 25 passes in three years since suffering a catastrophic knee injury. Ryan Tannehill has missed 24 games over the past three seasons. Taylor was a disaster in Cleveland last season.
The Jags could very well fall in love with someone like Ohio State's Dwayne Haskins, but they're in a difficult spot with the No. 7 overall pick. They can't afford to wait things out and trust that the Giants won't take Haskins at No. 6, and if they trade up anywhere short of the first overall pick, the Giants or Raiders might very well beat them to the punch. Moving up from No. 7 to No. 1 would almost certainly cost Jacksonville its 2020 first-round pick, and as its roster gets more expensive, it needs to replenish with cost-controlled talent.
If the Jaguars don't think Haskins is a lock to become a franchise quarterback, they're better off going for one of the two top veterans on the market. Foles has struggled to stay healthy for long stretches of time, but when you include his postseason heroics, he has posted a 64.4 Total QBR across 491 dropbacks since joining the Eagles in 2017. He is pretty clearly the highest-upside option on the market, although his price tag also will be commensurate: It wouldn't be shocking if a Foles deal approached $25 million per season.
Coughlin simply might not be able to devote that much money to the quarterback position, given the rest of Jacksonville's roster. The cheaper option would be to go after Taylor, who fits what Coughlin wants out of his offense. The Jags' avowed game plan is to dominate on defense, run the football and avoid giveaways. Of the quarterbacks on the market, nobody protects the football like Taylor. His career interception rate is 1.5 percent, the second best in NFL history for passers with 1,000 attempts or more. Taylor also has run for 1,700 yards on 299 carries over the past four seasons, which would take some of the workload off whoever ends up as the primary Jags back in 2019. Taylor is not a plug-and-play solution, but he'll play to what Coughlin wants and allow the Jaguars to spend elsewhere.
5. Pick up Jalen Ramsey's option and sign Yannick Ngakoue. Jacksonville should keep around the two best draft picks of Caldwell's reign. The mercurial Ramsey battled through a knee injury during a frustrating 2018 campaign, but he remains one of the best cornerbacks in the league. The Jaguars can pick up his fifth-year option for 2020 and start thinking about an extension for him now.
The only other cornerback to be drafted as a first-round pick under the new CBA and extended after three seasons is Patrick Peterson, and Ramsey is going to get a similar sort of deal. Peterson signed a five-year, $70.1 million extension in 2014, when the cap was at $133 million. Now, with the 2019 cap projected to come in at $190 million, a similarly sized five-year deal for Ramsey would be worth $100 million.
The Jags also will want to start working on an extension for Ngakoue, who has rounded into form as one of the league's best edge rushers. The Maryland product has racked up 29.5 sacks and 10 forced fumbles during his three seasons in the NFL, and while his sack total fell from 12 in 2017 to 9.5 last season, don't think he was slipping. He knocked down opposing quarterbacks 33 times, the third-highest total in the league. Using the 45 percent rule, Ngakoue's knockdown totals should have generated something closer to 15 sacks, suggesting the 23-year-old could take another leap forward in 2019.
The Jags will try to point to the five-year, $72 million deal Danielle Hunter signed with the Vikings last season as an appropriate baseline, given that Hunter was also 23 and had 25.5 sacks after three years in the league. It's not going to work, in part because the resounding sentiment around the NFL after the Hunter deal was that the Vikings had managed to extract a discount. Ngakoue is going to get something closer to five years and $90 million to stick around.
1. Cut Johnathan Cyprien. The Titans have gotten little out of Cyprien, who was inconsistent as a four-year starter in Jacksonville before missing 22 of his first 32 games in Tennessee. The team might prefer to bring back Kenny Vaccaro or address strong safety in the draft, but Tennessee can do better than paying Cyprien a $5.5 million base salary in 2019. Parting ways with the 2013 second-round pick would save $5.3 million.
2. Pick up Jack Conklin's fifth-year option. After tearing his ACL in January 2018 during Tennessee's playoff loss in New England, the right tackle had an uneven third season. The 2016 first-rounder missed the first three games of the season rehabbing the knee, went down for one game with a concussion and then sat out the final three contests of the season with knee issues.
It's natural to be concerned about Conklin's knee, but the Titans have to pick up his fifth-year option and hope the 24-year-old will look like his usual self in 2019, another year removed from the injury. Most offensive linemen are able to recover from ACL injuries without missing much, so unless there are complications we don't know about, the Titans should still consider Conklin to be an essential part of their future.
3. Add edge-rushing help. Both Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo are free agents, and while GM Jon Robinson knew this day was coming, the preparations haven't gone as planned. Kevin Dodd, a second-round pick in 2016, was cut after two anonymous seasons in Tennessee and is out of football. Meanwhile, 2018 second-rounder Harold Landry had 4.5 sacks in his rookie season. Landry showed promise, but relying on him to be the primary pass-rusher would be aggressive.
The natural thing would be to look at what's going on with the Patriots, but I wonder whether the 270-pound Trey Flowers might be too big to play as a 3-4 outside linebacker in Mike Vrabel's defense. In a draft full of front-seven help, the Titans seem likely to address the edge with the 19th pick. Rashaan Evans, a first-round pick last year, also will likely see some reps on the outside as well, although his best role is alongside Jayon Brown on the interior.
4. Be realistic about Marcus Mariota. We've seen Mariota play four seasons as a pro quarterback. What we know is ... well, not much. He is capable of great plays and has a knack for big conversions in the fourth quarter, but there also are games in which he looks out of sorts from the start. Mariota struggles with turnovers, as the Oregon product has a below-average interception rate and nine or more fumbles in three of his four seasons. He is on his fifth offensive coordinator in five seasons, after Matt LaFleur left for the Packers, and you might argue that none of those five coordinators has built an offense that actually plays to his strengths.
What you can say with the utmost confidence, though, is that it's difficult to count on Mariota to stay healthy for all 16 games. He has yet to do it as a pro, suffering a meaningful injury each year, though he has missed only eight games across four seasons. In 2015, it was MCL sprains on both of his knees. In 2016, he fractured his right fibula in Week 16. In 2017, he got by with a mere hamstring strain. But last season, the 2015 No. 2 overall pick struggled with neck, elbow and nerve injuries, with a stinger eventually keeping him out of Tennessee's must-win game vs. the Colts in Week 17.
At this point, expecting Mariota, who will be an unrestricted free agent in 2020, to suddenly play 16 games in a row for years at a time is naive. The Titans have to treat the backup quarterback spot less like a fallback plan and more like an inevitability. They need to pay a premium and go after someone they're more confident in for two or three starts per year than Matt Cassel or Blaine Gabbert, who is under contract with the Titans for 2019.
There are free agents who represent a match for Mariota's mobility in Tyrod Taylor and Robert Griffin III, but given that the Titans haven't really built their offense around that mobility, they don't necessarily need a quarterback who is comfortable running the read-option. I wonder whether there might be a fit with Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was Tennessee's starting quarterback in 2011 and would qualify as one of the better backups in football. If the game of musical chairs ends with Keenum out of a starting job, the Titans would do well to pay a premium to bring him to Nashville.
5. Extend Kevin Byard. While the free safety was never going to keep up his eight-interception pace from 2017, he had every bit as good of a season in 2018 as the one that got him an All-Pro nod two years ago. He didn't get the same recognition because he picked off "only" four passes, but that's the reality of how voters perceive interception totals as driven by defensive backs when the cause can more often be quarterbacks. The 2016 third-round pick chipped in with two sacks and also threw a 66-yard touchdown pass to Dane Cruikshank when the Texans forgot to cover the Titans' gunner in Week 2.
Byard is a free agent in 2020, and while the Titans could choose to go year to year and use the franchise tag on him, Robinson might understandably want to reward one of his best draft picks since joining the organization. The two sides should eventually come to terms on a deal with an average annual salary of about $10 million.
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 31-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.
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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 away Roby 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 also could 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 slips 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 midround 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 probably would 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 in his first three seasons. It wouldn't 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 linemen 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 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 in his first four seasons, including 16 in the past two years with knee, hamstring and ankle injuries. In 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 28 rushing touchdowns have been the product of sheer volume near the goal line. He has 39 carries inside the 5-yard line in 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:
In 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 midtier 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.