With some states announcing that training camps can occur, it is starting to look like the NFL will proceed with its summer schedule, following its coronavirus-altered offseason. The NFL and NFLPA must navigate a series of COVID-19-related hurdles in the coming weeks, but the possibility of teams going to camp on time appears to have increased.
As the virtual offseason winds down, here is a key issue each franchise is facing heading into the summer.
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Coming off a year when the Cardinals ranked 27th in pass-defense DVOA and saw Patrick Peterson deliver uneven post-suspension work, the team did not make a notable move at cornerback. Ex-Falcons starter Robert Alford is due back after missing all last season due to injury, but he struggled in 2018. Pro Football Focus also slotted 2019 second-round pick Byron Murphy as a bottom-10 corner as a rookie. Logan Ryan, Darqueze Dennard and Eli Apple remain in free agency. The Cards allowed an NFL-high 72 completions of 20-plus yards last season. What will be a trendy sleeper team should consider an addition here.
Transparency is not exactly thriving in the modern NFL, so it was interesting to hear Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter express so much uncertainty regarding Todd Gurley’s health. The two-time All-Pro's career began trending downward after a December 2018 knee injury. The Falcons just got off an injury-prone running back’s salary. Going from Devonta Freeman to a compromised Gurley will not move the needle as Matt Ryan enters his age-35 season. As COVID-19 restrictions hopefully continue to loosen, the Falcons need to get answers on Gurley’s condition.
Since cutting Elvis Dumervil in 2016, the Ravens have not been in the pay non-Terrell Suggs edge-rusher business. But after not drafting one, any notion they will consider the previously rumored tag-and-trade transaction with Matt Judon seems a past-tense proposition. The Ravens possess somewhat of a need on the edge with Judon, who has been a key rusher for three seasons. The team has extensions to address with left tackle Ronnie Stanley and cornerback Marlon Humphrey, but the July 15 deadline regarding a Judon re-up will be critical to the franchise’s pass-rushing future.
The coronavirus nixing in-person workouts has a key effect on perhaps the AFC’s top threat to the Chiefs and Ravens. The Bills will have missed nearly three months’ worth of Josh Allen-Stefon Diggs rapport-building time. With Allen on the low end for NFL accuracy and Diggs an elite route-runner with a penchant for drama, the Bills hope their top two offensive investments can sync up quickly. Allen and Diggs are playing video games remotely together. That's...something? Hopefully both men have adjusted their "Madden" rosters to put virtual Diggs on the Bills.
This is the wrong offseason to expect immediate rookie impact. The Panthers saw their top cornerback of the past four years (James Bradberry) defect in free agency and waited until the fourth round to address the position. The Panthers rightfully devoted extensive resources to helping their front seven — which ranked 32nd in 2019 run-defense DVOA and lost Luke Kuechly — but they should be in the market for veteran help at corner. They are down to Donte Jackson (Pro Football Focus' No. 89 corner last season) and little else.
The Bears offensive line ranked 29th in Football Outsiders’ top run-blocking metric last season. The team's most notable addition: underwhelming ex-Seahawks first-rounder Germain Ifedi, whom it plans to move to guard. Essentially the same Bears O-line did play better during the team’s 2018 playoff season. But executing this strategy in advance of QB Mitchell Trubisky’s make-or-break season is strange. The Bears are not believed to be pursuing ex-Saint Pro Bowl guard Larry Warford, but there is a host of viable guards and tackles available for camp-competition purposes at the very least.
Joe Burrow’s top two weapons are in contract years, and the Bengals’ steps with WR A.J. Green and RB Joe Mixon in the coming weeks will be critical. The Bengals franchise-tagging Green prevented him from a free-agency payday in advance of his age-32 season. Coming off a missed season, Green's best move may be betting on himself and playing on the $17.9 million tag. Cincinnati is not expected to entertain paying Mixon in the new Christian McCaffrey price realm ($16M per year). With a few recent eight-figure-per-year running back contracts burning teams, the Bengals’ attempt to lock down Mixon in this financial vicinity will be a key domino in a key year for the running back market.
The Browns received too much hype last offseason and not enough this year. But this is another team stung by the mandated virtual offseason. On his fourth head coach and fourth offensive coordinator in three seasons, in Kevin Stefanski and Alex Van Pelt, respectively, Baker Mayfield missing the spring reps is critical. Cleveland acquired two new starting tackles and paid up for tight end Austin Hooper, adding to its John Dorsey-assembled array of elite running back and wideout weaponry. Mayfield and Stefanski will need to capitalize on a truncated preparation window to validate the Browns' sleeper status.
The usually player-friendly Cowboys’ hesitancy in making Dak Prescott the NFL’s highest-paid player is understandable, but this negotiation surpassing a year has dragged it into weird territory. Dallas is six weeks away from Prescott beginning the Kirk Cousins tag-tag-free agency path — which led him out of Washington. Even Dak playing 2020 on the $31 million franchise tag would be a massive failure at the end of Dallas’ lengthy extension puzzle. But with Deshaun Watson perhaps set to beat Prescott to securing an NFL-record salary, the leverage remains on Team Dak’s side.
Are the Broncos going to allow Phillip Lindsay to earn less than one-tenth of Melvin Gordon's salary? Thanks to his undrafted status, Lindsay is extension-eligible. As a runner, he has outproduced Gordon. But the hometown product is set to earn $750,000 alongside Gordon's two-year, $16M deal. While Lindsay has indicated he will report to camp — the new CBA limits his options anyway — this almost has to be an issue given his two 1,000-yard rushing seasons in two years (to Gordon’s one in five). The Broncos moved away from Lindsay extension talks earlier this year, and the financial imbalance in their backfield could undercut a strong offseason.
Outside of Detroit and the fantasy football world, Kenny Golladay is not a household name. But after his second straight 1,000-yard receiving season, the Lions’ top weapon is entering a contract year. The pandemic could threaten a decrease in the 2021 salary cap, but finality on that front will not emerge until after the season. Golladay’s camp will likely push for a deal that moves him past the $16M-per-year range and into the top five at the position. The Lions have no skill player on a veteran contract signed through 2021; they should be able to accommodate the former third-round pick.
Former Bears and Falcons wide receiver Taylor Gabriel remains a free agent. Beyond him, the market is grim for the WR-needy Packers. As far as trades go, the Texans’ Kenny Stills is the most obvious name the Packers could consider. Others exist, however. The Dolphins’ Albert Wilson, the Jaguars’ Dede Westbrook, and the 49ers’ Dante Pettis, who works under head coach Matt LaFleur’s brother, Mike, could also be options. The Raiders’ Tyrell Williams could be an in-season trade option. But the Packers likely need another veteran, after drafting no receivers and with low-priced signee Devin Funchess a modest talent.
The rumor that recent extension recipient OT Laremy Tunsil was aiming for a contract north of $20M per year was true, and the same source indicating the Texans are considering a Deshaun Watson pact worth north of $40M annually makes it a matter to take seriously. While Houston’s 24-year-old quarterback has already become a star, a deal this offseason would force future Texans salary-conscious decisions. With Watson signed through 2021, the Texans could table extension talks in hopes Patrick Mahomes accepts a team-friendlier extension and thus lowers the former’s price. But based on all-action GM Bill O’Brien’s decisions thus far, a near-future Watson splash move is in play.
The Colts have made significant improvements this offseason but need more help at defensive end going into camp. They have former All-Pro Justin Houston and promising ex-second-rounder Kemoko Turay penciled in as starters, but the former is injury-prone and the latter is coming off a season-ending broken ankle. With Jadeveon Clowney, Everson Griffen and Markus Golden on the market, the Colts, who have shown a greater willingness to pay up for talent this year than in recent offseasons, would further strengthen their slept-on team by springing for one of them.
Franchise-tagged players frequently bicker with their respective teams, but Yannick Ngakoue’s anti-Jaguars crusade is different. The defensive end’s trade value will plummet if the Jags do not deal him by July 15, the deadline for tagged players to sign extensions. They should hope to avoid a late-summer swap — like the Texans’ Jadeveon Clowney debacle that ended with Seattle sending Houston a third-round pick and spare parts. The Seahawks fetched first- and second-rounders for Frank Clark. With a few teams in need of edge help, the Jags can aim fairly high. A successful trade would give them a third 2021 first-round pick.
Patrick Mahomes extension talks loom, overshadowing the Chiefs’ negotiations with their best defensive player. The upcoming talks will be critical. Chris Jones has become one of the NFL’s best defensive tackles. But the Chiefs have a record-setting payment to make at quarterback and to a defensive end (Frank Clark) on a $20.8M-per-year deal. Attached to a $16.1M franchise tag, Jones will certainly seek to top DeForest Buckner’s recently signed $21M-per-year accord. No team is particularly close to having two $20M-per-year defensive linemen. The Chiefs accomplishing that and a Mahomes windfall would be an achievement.
Although Derek Carr has not changed teams or systems the way several QBs did this offseason, the Raiders restocked his pass-catching corps again. Jason Witten and Nelson Agholor join draftees Henry Ruggs, Lynn Bowden Jr. and Bryan Edwards. As he was last year, Carr will again be working with mostly new aerial weaponry. The Raiders will face a challenge in incorporating so many new players in such a short time. With Carr going into potentially his final audition year with Jon Gruden and now facing a challenge from Marcus Mariota, a lot rides on the Raiders training camp.
The Bolts have done plenty to upgrade their roster, adding All-Pro cornerback Chris Harris, Pro Bowl defensive tackle Linval Joseph, longtime Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga and first-round linebacker Kenneth Murray. Except at quarterback, they have a playoff-caliber roster. Los Angeles also needs someone to protect Tyrod Taylor and, eventually, Justin Herbert. Jason Peters-to-L.A. makes too much sense. The 38-year-old left tackle, a free agent, would be a major boon for the Chargers’ playoff chances. Cheaper consolation prizes Kelvin Beachum or Cordy Glenn are on a lower tier.
After the Rams traded two first-round picks for Jalen Ramsey, the All-Pro cornerback is nearly in a Laremy Tunsil-esque name-your-price position in a contract year. The Rams moving off Todd Gurley and Brandin Cooks’ contracts proved unspeakably costly this year, but if they are going to build around another high-priced tandem, Ramsey and Aaron Donald on defense represent a better bet to justify the expenses. A market-shifting Ramsey re-up should be expected soon, and GM Les Snead faces pressure after botching the Gurley and Cooks deals.
It would be another blow to Josh Rosen’s well-off-course career, but if the Dolphins are going to truly invest in their future, keeping him another year could help as Tua Tagovailoa acclimates. The pandemic, Tagovailoa’s injury past and the Dolphins’ low-floor offensive line point to risk if the celebrated southpaw is thrown into the fire early. Rosen is an obvious trade chip, but the Dolphins are unlikely to recoup what they paid for the former top-10 pick (a second-rounder). Rosen remaining on his rookie deal as Ryan Fitzpatrick insurance would be a way to ensure Tua sits until he’s ready.
The Vikings’ previous wave of extensions included a deal for Stefon Diggs (now with Buffalo) that came in well above Adam Thielen’s, which forced a corrective measure that made Minnesota’s No. 1 receiver a top-10 highest-paid wideout. A similar outcome may transpire at safety soon. The Vikings are negotiating with franchise-tagged safety Anthony Harris. Like Diggs when he landed his extension in 2018, Harris is the clear No. 2 to Harrison Smith at his position. If Harris signs for more than Smith’s $10.25M-per-year pact by July 15, the Vikings will need to give their five-time Pro Bowler a big raise by 2021 at the latest to correct the situation.
The coronavirus negated much of the systemic advantage on which the Patriots were set to capitalize by rolling out a Brian Hoyer-Jarrett Stidham quarterback competition instead of splurging on a veteran. Stidham being unable to work out with teammates and receive pivotal offseason instruction delivers a blow to his chances at making the Pats’ unorthodox decision pay off. Unless Bill Belichick surprises everyone by signing Cam Newton — after passing on Jameis Winston and Andy Dalton — his highest-upside quarterback is a fourth-round pick who received no offseason on-site training. This makes the Hoyer re-signing more important.
The bills from the Saints’ loaded 2017 draft class will be coming due. Alvin Kamara extension talks should soon commence. The former third-round pick's 4,476 scrimmage yards rank fourth since 2017 — just ahead of well-paid Saint Michael Thomas’ 4,366. Kamara has a case to be paid at or near Christian McCaffrey’s $16M-per-year rate, given his importance to the Saints offense. Kamara averages 6.1 yards per touch to McCaffrey’s 5.9. The latter's usage rate is higher, however. Of the decorated 2017 running back class, these negotiations will be the most interesting.
A cornerback need existed before DeAndre Baker’s career-threatening arrest for armed robbery. The Giants face the possibility of the 2019 first-round pick never playing another down for the team. Although Baker struggled as a rookie, he is a building-block defender for the Giants. New York losing him will mean its pass defense could be in worse shape than its 2019 corps that ranked 31st in DVOA. The Giants will need to add a cornerback regardless, but coupled with their need at edge defender, their defense is likely to battle uphill again.
Jets GM Joe Douglas did well to re-sign outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins on a one-year, $3.75 million deal. But it does look like, with just Jenkins and third-round rookie Jabari Zuniga — who topped out at 6.5 sacks in a college season — Gang Green is making pass-rushing matters difficult yet again. The Jets finished with just 35 sacks last season; safety Jamal Adams was responsible for 6.5 of those. With Sam Darnold on a rookie contract, bringing in Jadeveon Clowney or Markus Golden on a one-year deal, and securing exclusive negotiating rights for a post-2020 extension, should be considered before camp.
The Eagles are kicking the tires on running backs to complement second-year starter Miles Sanders. On a low-cost deal, that would help a thin backfield. Philadelphia has been connected to Devonta Freeman, Carlos Hyde and their all-time leading rusher, LeSean McCoy. Hyde is off the table after he accepted a Seahawks offer Freeman rejected. McCoy is nearly at the end of the line, but the soon-to-be-32-year-old back averaged 4.6 yards per carry in a supporting role for the Chiefs last season. Freeman is 28 but has been less durable than Shady, battling injuries the past three years.
GM Kevin Colbert’s praise of the subpar work Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges delivered in Ben Roethlisberger’s stead points to the Steelers carrying the same backup QBs. But with Big Ben still recovering from a severe elbow injury and the Steelers now featuring a top-tier defense, the team should strongly consider Cam Newton — if his medicals check out. The Steelers are the kings of restructuring contracts to create cap space; they could make room for a higher-end backup deal. Teams may finally be permitted to host free agents soon, and Newton as an overqualified backup Pittsburgh will likely need could make a big difference.
With DeForest Buckner out of the picture, a George Kittle extension resides as priority No. 1 for the 49ers. The 2017 fifth-round pick cannot realistically enter the season making $2.1M. But the 49ers are navigating an unusual negotiation. Kittle’s rare combination of elite blocking and receiving skills — and his importance in Kyle Shanahan’s offense — make him a candidate to aim for upper-class wideout money instead of merely shooting for slightly more than Hunter Henry’s $10.6M tight end-high salary. The tight end market should look considerably different soon.
The Seahawks’ delay in adding to its defensive end group should end soon. They are insufficiently equipped here, and with Markus Golden, Everson Griffen and a Jadeveon Clowney reunion available via free agency, it is nearly impossible to see Seattle resist augmenting its pass rush. Last year's group finished 31st in sacks; the team has yet to replace 2018 top sacker Frank Clark. Perhaps the Seahawks can pull off a trade for disgruntled Yannick Ngakoue of the Jags. Having participated in two tag-and-trades last year involving defensive ends, GM John Schneider is accustomed to this route. In a deep NFC, the Seahawks need more ammo.
The Bucs feature one of the most talented tight end trios in NFL history. Conventional wisdom suggests the team will trade either O.J. Howard or Cameron Brate, with Rob Gronkowski now in the fold. Howard, a trade candidate last year and early this year, would generate more interest. And Brate’s $6.8M-per-year salary is out of step with third-string tight ends’ wages. But Gronk is coming off a retirement and was one of the league’s most injury-prone players. With the Bucs’ roster mostly set, it may not be impossible the team keeps both its holdover tight ends as insurance.
Tennessee’s blueprint with Derrick Henry on a $10M franchise tag and Ryan Tannehill now making nearly $30M a year complicates matters for a team that rode a discount quarterback and rookie-salary running back to the AFC title game. Henry must be extended by July 15 (or he'll play 2020 on the tag), and with 861 career carries, the throwback ball-carrier could still provide value on a four-year contract that contains guarantees in the first two years. That would cover the Tannehill window. Henry fits well with the Titans, but his passing-game limitations will factor into negotiations.
If the Bucs do put tight ends O.J. Howard or Cameron Brate on the trade block, the Redskins represent an obvious fit. Washington engaged in talks for Howard earlier this year, but with Trent Williams as the deal’s other piece, both teams moved on. The Redskins, who lost both Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis this year, did not draft a tight end. Beyond Terry McLaurin, Washington has not done well to outfit second-year quarterback Dwayne Haskins with aerial talent. Howard would certainly add to this stable and could use a fresh start, based on his first year (only 459 yards receiving) in Bruce Arians’ system.
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