While the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers might just have finished a thrilling Super Bowl, the NFL is only going to get busier in the weeks to come. The league’s 32 teams are planning their offseason agendas, identifying targets in free agency and beginning to narrow down prospects they’ll want to pay close attention to at the scouting combine ahead of the 2020 NFL draft.
Over the next two weeks, I’ll run through every team and the first five things they should be thinking about as they prepare for the new league year, which begins on March 18. I’ll start in the NFC West and work my way east before going to the AFC, as you can see from the schedule:
Tuesday, Feb. 11: NFC West
Wednesday, Feb. 12: NFC South
Thursday, Feb. 13: NFC North
Friday, Feb. 14: NFC East
Next week: Entire AFC
Let’s open up with the NFC West, where four different teams have won the division over the past five seasons …
Projected 2020 cap space: $51.5 million
1. Let Kenyan Drake go. If you played fantasy football in 2019, you probably remember what a superhero Drake was during the fantasy postseason. After racking up 137 rushing yards and four touchdowns against the Browns in Week 15, the former Dolphins running back followed it up with 166 rushing yards and two scores against the Seahawks in Arizona’s Week 16 upset win. Drake was supposed to be an injury fill-in and part of the running back rotation after the Cardinals traded for him at midseason, but he was the featured back for Kliff Kingsbury’s offense by the end of the year.
If the Cardinals could count on that sort of production from Drake for an entire season, he’d be considered an essential re-sign. He had 162 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown against the 49ers in his Cardinals debut, but in his five other games with Arizona, he carried the ball 62 times for 230 yards with just one touchdown, averaging 3.7 yards per carry.
The bigger picture for the Cardinals, though, is figuring out how much they want to invest at running back. They are already committed to two backs in 2020 in Chase Edmonds and David Johnson, whose $10.2 million base salary is already fully guaranteed. Johnson would have negative trade value if the team tried to shop him after two disappointing seasons, so there’s little chance of getting out of his deal.
Drake did enough to likely earn something in the range of $5 million per season on the open market. Would it be smart for the Cardinals to retain him and commit something in the range of $17 million to their various running backs in 2020? No team spent more than $15.8 million in cash on their running backs last season. If the price tag drops and Arizona can re-sign Drake on a one-year deal in the $3.5 million range, I’d vote for the Cardinals to retain the 26-year-old, but this team has too many problems elsewhere to go overboard.
2. Figure out the offensive tackle situation. Here’s one place the Cardinals will need the money. Left tackle D.J. Humphries, a first-round pick in 2015, is a free agent and just finished his first healthy 16-game season. On the right side, veteran Marcus Gilbert missed the entire season with a torn ACL, leaving the Cardinals to start waiver-wire acquisition Justin Murray. Gilbert is also a free agent and might be on his way out of the league after missing 36 games over the past three years.
The Cards are in a tough spot with Humphries, who has played just 43 games over five seasons. Penalties were a problem for him in 2019 — he committed 13 for 87 yards — but Stats LLC suggests he allowed only two sacks, and Humphries posted a pass block win rate of 90%, which ranked 21st out of 69 qualifying tackles.
With such a limited track record, could Arizona consider using the franchise or transition tag on Humphries to see whether he can do this again in 2020? Right tackle seems like a position the team might try to address in the draft, with Murray moving into a swing role. Justin Pugh also played right tackle with the Giants and could move back outside if the Cardinals add a guard.
3. Decline Haason Reddick‘s fifth-year option. The Cardinals have repeatedly moved Reddick between inside and outside linebacker with little success. The Temple product came into the league as a freak athlete who projected to excel at one linebacker spot, but the Cardinals haven’t done enough to develop his potential. Playing for three defensive coordinators in three years probably hasn’t helped.
Reddick was an every-down player in the first half of 2019, but he played just under 28% of the defensive snaps in December. The Cardinals could pick up his fifth-year option, stick him in one position and hope he finally breaks out in the way they’ve hoped, but it seems more likely that they could move on from the 2017 first-round pick after the season.
4. Add defensive line help. The Cardinals didn’t have much to work with along their defensive line in 2019, as they essentially used their linemen in mass rotations. The only lineman to play more than 50% of the defensive snaps was Rodney Gunter at 53.1%, and he’s a free agent. They were counting on former Chargers end Darius Philon, but he was arrested and charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon stemming from an incident in May, and the team released him in August.
He was signed to a two-year, $10 million deal, and I imagine the Cardinals will pursue one or two players in that price range, as opposed to going after one marquee addition. The Broncos have defensive linemen Derek Wolfe, Shelby Harris and Adam Gotsis all hitting free agency, and with former Denver coach Vance Joseph serving as Cardinals defensive coordinator, it’s easy to wonder whether he’ll encourage general manager Steve Keim to look toward adding one of them. Harris impressed in his first season as a full-time starter and might have the most upside of the bunch.
5. Lock up Budda Baker. After making both the Pro Bowl and the first-team All-Pro roster as a special-teamer during his rookie season in 2017, Baker went back to the Pro Bowl as a safety in 2019. He is listed as a free safety but plays slot corner and even occasionally chips in as a linebacker for the Cardinals.
While Tyrann Mathieu has excelled since leaving Arizona, Baker has been an able replacement and worthy of a long-term deal. Entering the final year of his contract, the former second-round pick will likely be looking for something in the range of $14 million per season.
Projected 2020 cap space: $19.6 million
1. Figure out what’s going on at left tackle. Legendary tackle Andrew Whitworth recently suggested he was planning to play in 2020. The Rams have to figure out whether they want the 38-year-old free agent back. Whitworth took a major step backward in 2019, committing 14 penalties. Ten of those were holding calls, which was the NFL’s second-highest total and more than the seven he had racked up over the prior two years combined.
Even if Whitworth’s play has slipped, though, the Rams don’t have many options. They don’t have a first-round pick from the Jalen Ramsey trade. Nobody else on their roster profiles as a better left tackle candidate. They don’t have much cap space, and even if they did, the best left tackle options on the market are likely to be players like Jason Peters, Kelvin Beachum and D.J. Humphries, none of whom are sure things to be an upgrade on Whitworth. One more run with Whitworth might be the most logical thing, although they really need to convince the veteran to take a pay cut from his $10.3 million base salary in 2019.
2. Restructure Jared Goff‘s contract. The largest cap hit in football for the 2020 league year currently belongs to Goff, who is set to count for just over $36 million. To put that in context, there are only three other players with a cap hit larger than $27 million. The quarterback is set to occupy more than 17% of Los Angeles’ cap in 2020.
It seems exceedingly likely that the Rams set up Goff’s contract to allow for a simple restructure in Year 2. He has a $21 million roster bonus due on March 20, which currently counts 100% against the 2020 cap. By converting this to a signing bonus, they can pay Goff the exact same amount on the same day but spread it over five years for cap purposes. Doing so would free up $16.8 million and drop his cap hit to a much more manageable $19.2 million. The restructure would add more dead money down the line if the Rams want to cut or trade him, but I don’t think he’s going anywhere soon.
3. Address the defensive line. Remember that dominant front four with Ndamukong Suh, Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers and Dante Fowler Jr. from Super Bowl LIII? The Rams might have only one of those guys left on their roster come Week 1 of 2020. I suppose it’s good news that the one they’ll keep is Donald, but Suh left after his one-year deal expired and both Brockers and Fowler are free agents in March.
The Rams could consider promoting Samson Ebukam to the starting lineup, but he’s probably best in his role as a rotation end. Again, this is a spot Los Angeles will have to address in free agency. Fowler probably priced himself out of a return after he racked up 11.5 sacks and 16 knockdowns; could L.A. look toward trying to convince someone like Vic Beasley Jr. to come to town on a one-year deal to follow in Fowler’s footsteps? The 25-year-old Fowler will probably be aiming for something in the range of five years and $90 million on his deal.
Brockers could still make a return, but the Rams could go after Arik Armstead as a bigger defensive end who could also offer more as a pass-rusher than Brockers. Whether L.A. brings back Brockers and Fowler or signs veteran replacements, this is going to take up a bunch of its cap space. I wonder whether it’ll be able to …
4. Try to re-sign Cory Littleton. Littleton is one of the biggest success stories of the Wade Phillips era, a guy who came into the league as a 228-pound undrafted free agent without a clear position and just finished his Rams contract as one of the best inside linebackers in football. Don’t get fooled by the fact that he was named as a Pro Bowler in 2018 and didn’t make it back this past season; Littleton continues to improve and just had his best year.
It’ll be interesting to see where Littleton’s deal lands. C.J. Mosley‘s contract last offseason pushed the top of the linebacker market from a peak annual average of $14.3 million to $17 million, and Bobby Wagner bumped it up to $18 million when he signed his extension in July. Littleton might not get there, but it wouldn’t be shocking if he ended up with something in the range of four years and $60 million. The Raiders picked LaMarcus Joyner off the Rams’ roster in free agency a year ago, and while that move didn’t look great in Year 1, they could make a similar move for Littleton.
It’s tough to see the Rams committing $15 million per season to him, in part because of their needs elsewhere. If his price tag somehow drops somewhere closer to $10 million per season, he would be a more realistic re-signing. The Rams acquired Kenny Young in the instantly disastrous Marcus Peters trade and didn’t play him for a single defensive snap, but he would likely be first in line to see more snaps if Littleton does leave. The Rams could also pursue cheap veterans in the market, with fellow former Wade Phillips project Danny Trevathan one option.
5. Lock up Jalen Ramsey. I thought the Rams were going to negotiate an instant extension with Ramsey after they traded for him in midseason, but the two sides never came to terms. You don’t trade multiple first-round picks for a player unless you plan on keeping him around for a long time, and Ramsey’s representatives know that. There’s no way this team is going to get a meaningful discount here.
The top of the cornerback market has been flat since Josh Norman signed his five-year, $75 million deal with Washington in 2016. Just adjusting for cap inflation alone, a record-setting five-year deal in 2020 would be worth $96.6 million. It wouldn’t be typical to see the biggest annual contract for a position jump from $15 million to more than $19 million, but the combination of the cornerback market staying stagnant and Ramsey holding so much leverage makes it more likely the Rams will simply have to pay up.
Projected 2020 cap space: $19.6 million
1. Listen for whispers from Tom Brady. Yes, it’s silly and there’s approximately a .01% chance of it happening. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Jimmy Garoppolo, and if he had pulled up about 1 yard on that fourth-quarter throw to Emmanuel Sanders, he probably would have been both a Super Bowl winner and Super Bowl MVP already. If it were just about any other veteran quarterback, it wouldn’t be worth discussing.
Tom Brady, though, is Tom Brady. The future Hall of Famer grew up in the Bay Area with Joe Montana as his hero. He has been left in a vulnerable position with the Patriots, who don’t have the sort of weapons and/or offensive line that can help compensate for Brady’s decline. The 49ers have a better line, better weapons and just as good of a defense. They almost certainly have a better offensive playcaller. The Patriots are more familiar and have Bill Belichick. I still think Brady will end up staying in New England, but if he were to leave, the 49ers would be a very tantalizing opportunity.
There are roadblocks — this would be complicated. The 49ers already have a quarterback, of course, and Garoppolo is represented by agent Don Yee. Brady is represented by … Yee. That’s awkward. Getting the money to work wouldn’t be a problem — the 49ers would owe just $4.2 million in dead money and free up $22.4 million in cap space if they were to move on from Garoppolo this offseason — but the Niners couldn’t realistically expect to keep both Brady and Garoppolo on their roster.
Dan Orlovsky and Dan Graziano discuss the possibility of the 49ers moving on from Jimmy Garoppolo and acquiring Tom Brady.
Of course, if they were somehow able to convince Brady to join their organization, another team would need a starting quarterback. The Patriots would almost assuredly be interested in Garoppolo, and sending Jimmy G back to his original franchise would be the most gentle landing possible. San Francisco originally sent a second-round pick to the Patriots for Garoppolo, so with New England’s second-rounder in Atlanta, one logical move would be for the Patriots to send the 23rd and 85th picks to the 49ers for the 31st selection and Garoppolo.
Logical might not be the right word. Each step of this makes some small amount of sense, but it’s almost impossible to imagine all of the pieces coming together for a deal to work. Brady will probably be a Patriots quarterback in 2020. Garoppolo will almost certainly be starting for the 49ers. Fun to think about, though.
2. Decline Solomon Thomas‘ fifth-year option. John Lynch’s debut draft in 2017 is a reminder of just how ridiculous roster-building can be. This was unquestionably a great draft for the 49ers when you consider just one pick in superstar tight end George Kittle. The 49ers also found players like D.J. Jones and Trent Taylor in the later rounds.
Their first five picks in that draft? Thomas, Reuben Foster, Ahkello Witherspoon, C.J. Beathard and Joe Williams, a running back for whom Kyle Shanahan reportedly banged the table to move up and acquire. Williams is out of football; Foster was cut, signed by Washington and hasn’t played since the middle of 2018; Witherspoon and Beathard were both beat out for starting jobs at different times by undrafted free agents; and Thomas hasn’t lived up to expectations as the No. 3 overall pick.
As a top-10 pick, Thomas’ fifth-year option is equivalent to the average of the top 10 salaries at his position. It’s difficult to imagine the 49ers seeing that as reasonable value for someone who played only 41% of the defensive snaps in 2019, down from 60% in 2018. He also suited up for just 32% of the defensive snaps during the postseason. The 49ers are unusually blessed up front, but Thomas hasn’t been forcing them to give him more playing time. He could break out in Year 4, but the 49ers probably need to be realistic here.
3. Let Arik Armstead walk. One way Thomas could end up seeing more snaps would be if the 49ers aren’t able to retain Armstead. The fellow former first-round pick impressed as a run-defender on the edge in 2018, but he followed things up with a career year as a pass-rusher in 2019. After putting up nine sacks and 29 knockdowns over his first four seasons, he had 10 sacks and 18 knockdowns last season.
As an impact player against both the pass and run, Armstead is going to attract significant interest in free agency; it would hardly be shocking if he came away with a four-year, $70 million contract. The 49ers are in decent cap shape and could create an additional $13.1 million in cap space by releasing Jerick McKinnon, Marquise Goodwin and Tevin Coleman, but there’s also a point at which they can’t realistically invest much more into their defensive line. Dee Ford is on a significant deal, and DeForest Buckner is in line to get one this offseason. Nick Bosa is a bargain right now, but the Niners used the No. 2 overall pick to get him last year.
One option for the Niners would be to spread around the Armstead money to keep their depth up front. Sheldon Day, Anthony Zettel and Ronald Blair are all free agents — they would rather have Armstead than any of those three, but they might be able to keep all three with room to spare versus paying Armstead.
4. Lock up DeForest Buckner. Buckner, on the other hand, isn’t going anywhere. The former Oregon star is under contract for 2020 on his fifth-year option at $14.4 million, but the 49ers will almost certainly use the offseason to negotiate a new deal. He’s not going to come cheap.
Buckner can’t realistically expect to look toward Aaron Donald‘s six-year, $135 million deal, but after generating 28.5 sacks and 74 knockdowns over his first four seasons, he can expect more than Grady Jarrett‘s $17 million average annual salary. Something in the $18 million to $19 million range makes sense.
5. Pay George Kittle too. He is going to blow away the tight end market. Jimmy Graham is the only tight end in the league to hit $10 million per season in average annual salary, having done it on each of his last two deals. The only question is whether Kittle, Austin Hooper or Hunter Henry resets it first.
Of those three, Kittle is by far the best player. He’s a much more significant blocker than either of the others and has been healthier than Henry. With Rob Gronkowski retiring, there’s nobody else in the league like Kittle, and there’s nobody this 49ers offense could plug in to take his place. The 49ers averaged 5.0 yards per carry and turned 24.1% of their runs into first downs with Kittle on the field. Without him, they averaged 3.5 yards per carry and converted 16.1% of their runs into first downs.
What happens next is up to Kittle. He could credibly argue that he’s worth much more than a regular tight end and should negotiate off a different position’s pay scale. Wide receiver is an option, but perhaps a more realistic one would be right tackle, where the top of the market comes in at just under $17 million per year. If he wants to hold out for position-changing money, the 49ers would have to pay him something extraordinary.
If not, Kittle will just have to settle for the biggest tight end deal in history. Gronk’s six-year, $54 million deal is the largest maximum value for a multiyear deal, though that had an extremely team-friendly structure. My guess is that Kittle’s contract ends up somewhere around five years and $75 million. Not bad for a guy who took home $645,000 last season.
Projected 2020 cap space: $59.7 million
1. Work to re-sign Jadeveon Clowney and Jarran Reed. Let’s start with the big one. The Seahawks can’t franchise Clowney after trading for him just before the season, and while he finished the regular season with only three sacks, he was far more productive on film when healthy. The former first overall pick finished the season with a 24.8% pass rush win rate, the fifth-best mark in football.
The Seahawks are paper-thin along the edge, with Ziggy Ansah struggling through an anonymous season and first-round pick L.J. Collier a healthy scratch during the postseason. If they don’t get Clowney, they are almost certainly going to need to pay to go after someone like Jason Pierre-Paul or Everson Griffen as a veteran stopgap or Dante Fowler Jr. as a long-term replacement for Clowney. Seattle would almost surely rather just keep Clowney.
How much will they be willing to pay? Pass-rushers with his upside almost never hit unrestricted free agency in the prime of their careers without a serious injury or some sort of problem attached. Clowney’s “problem” is that he has still somehow never hit 10 sacks in a season. There’s more to edge rushers than sacks, but if his representation asks the Seahawks to give him something like Khalil Mack‘s six-year, $141 million contract, can the Seahawks take that sort of risk? Or can they stomach the risk of letting Clowney walk?
He has said he wants to play for a winner, and the Seahawks have been consistently competitive. If we just look at plausible playoff teams in 2020, they could very well be bidding against the Titans, Ravens, Bills, Cowboys, Falcons, Colts and even the Rams. They’re not going to get much of a discount.
Independent of Clowney, bringing back Reed would also be wise. The Seahawks haven’t typically valued defensive tackles, instead preferring to focus on spending at other positions while cycling cheaper veterans and rookie-deal players through the line. The former second-round pick broke out with a 10.5-sack, 24-hit season in 2018, but he didn’t top two sacks or eight knockdowns in any of his other three campaigns. With Reed looking for something north of $10 million per year in free agency, my guess is he gets it from another team.
2. Pursue defensive line depth. Even beyond Clowney and Reed, the Seahawks will need to rebuild their defensive line. Ansah, Quinton Jefferson and Al Woods are all free agents. The only defensive linemen under contract in 2020 who saw meaningful snaps in 2019 are Rasheem Green and Poona Ford. They have an extra second-round pick and almost always trade down, but they’ll need to look toward veteran free agency for at least one starter and one playable reserve.
3. Let Germain Ifedi go. The Seahawks a year ago declined Ifedi’s fifth-year option, and he has been a competent right tackle if you don’t consider penalties; no player has been flagged more over the past four seasons. (Clowney, notably, is second.) It’s a problem that doesn’t appear to be getting much better either; Ifedi tied for seventh in penalties last season with 13.
It would have been nice for Ifedi to develop into more after the Seahawks used a first-round pick on the Texas A&M product, but it’s time to move on. The Seahawks should consider bringing back Mike Iupati, who had a solid bounce-back year after struggling with injuries in Arizona.
4. Work out an extension with Shaquill Griffin. After an uneven 2018 season, the third-year cornerback stepped up in 2019 and deserved his Pro Bowl nod. The replacement for Richard Sherman at left corner, Griffin is just a step or two below his predecessor’s level. He’s a defender the Seahawks are going to want to keep around.
Griffin is still a year away from free agency, but the team will probably want to start negotiations with him now. He likely hasn’t been productive enough to justify the five-year, $75 million deal handed to Xavien Howard by the Dolphins, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see Seattle offer Griffin a four-year extension in the range of $55 million.
5. Pursue the big-name tight ends. You might have noticed Russell Wilson‘s habit of making his tight ends look better. After Jimmy Graham returned from his torn patella, he and Wilson hooked up for a 923-yard season in 2016 and a 10-touchdown campaign in 2017. Graham has a combined 1,083 receiving yards and five scores over his two ensuing seasons in Green Bay. Over the past two years, it has been fourth-round pick Will Dissly and practice-squad find Jacob Hollister who have looked like impressive receiving tight ends with Wilson throwing to them.
As a card-carrying member of team Let Russ Cook, I want to see what he can do with a healthy star tight end. Seattle brought in 34-year-old Greg Olsen for a visit, and he would be an upgrade on Dissly and Hollister, but they should aim higher. What about Hunter Henry or Austin Hooper? Neither of them is in Kittle’s class as a blocker, but just having one of them on the field as a dual threat should make it easier for Seattle to both run and pass. Even Eric Ebron would be a massive upgrade. The Seahawks have the cap space to get aggressive in the bidding at the top of this market. While counting on Henry to stay on the field is dangerous, I want to see what Wilson can do with a healthy difference-maker at tight end.