Many NFL teams script their first 15 (or more) plays before a game starts to focus on getting a few fundamental concepts right. Whether they want to attack a particular defensive player or scheme, exploit a perceived weakness or simply drill down on the elements they think are most critical to winning on the offensive side of the ball, they pay particularly close attention to the plays they'll start with on Sunday as they wrap up the week.
Likewise, organizations need to pay attention to the first few critical things they do during the 2017 offseason, as those might end up defining the year to come. Some teams have a lot to do before the new league year begins March 9, while others won't have to make critical calls until the first day of the NFL draft on April 27.
In this series for ESPN over the next two weeks, I'll be running through the first five things that should be running through each team's mind as it prepares for the 2017 offseason. Here's the AFC North, where we find four teams seemingly heading in four different directions.
1. Pick up LB C.J. Mosley's fifth-year option. This one's a breeze.
2. Free up cap space. As perennially seems to be the case, the Ravens need a little breathing room to operate this offseason. They currently have $15.2 million in cap space, but we can create some more pretty easily. Baltimore could move on from 33-year-old linebacker Elvis Dumervil (whose release would free $6 million), 30-year-old wideout Mike Wallace ($5.8 million), 30-year-old cornerback Kyle Arrington ($2.1 million) and 36-year-old tight end Benjamin Watson ($3 million), the latter of whom would leave without ever suiting up for the team after he tore his Achilles in August. That's another $16.9 million in room.
3. Re-sign NT Brandon Williams. The Ravens have one of the weirder roster constructions in football. Their lineup consists of players on rookie deals and veterans who were signed away from other teams in free agency, with precious little in the middle. They really have seemed to stop retaining the young talent they develop, even when those players are extremely talented. They have, by my count, just three players signed on "second contracts," which would be first extensions after rookie deals: Jimmy Smith, Dennis Pitta and Lardarius Webb.
The talent that has flowed out over that time frame has been notable. Kelechi Osemele, Torrey Smith, Tyrod Taylor, Arthur Jones, Ed Dickson, Michael Oher and Paul Kruger all either made an impact in Baltimore or made big money elsewhere. It's fair to note that players such as Smith and Jones have been disappointing elsewhere, but it's also reasonable to assume they would have played better had they stuck around in Baltimore.
It's true that the Ravens want to recoup compensatory picks, but they also want to keep talented contributors. Williams fits the bill, having evolved into one of the league's best nose tackles and the fulcrum of the NFL's fifth-best run defense from a year ago. The Ravens can survive losing guard Rick Wagner or fullback Kyle Juszczyk if their right tackle or fullback move on. Finding a nose tackle as good as Williams is going to be way tougher. The Ravens need to retain him, even though he's likely to get a Damon Harrison-sized deal in free agency.
4. Go shopping in the discarded-free-agent market. The Ravens love targeting players who have been released by other teams because they don't count against the formula for compensatory picks. It's still unclear who will be released by other teams, but the Ravens could stand to add help on both sides of the football. If Brandon Marshall is cut by the Jets, he would make sense as a replacement for the retired Steve Smith at wideout. The Ravens will want to look for at least one linebacker, with Kamalei Correa likely sticking inside as a replacement for the retired Zach Orr. Baltimore could target a replacement for Dumervil by signing somebody such as Lamarr Houston or Connor Barwin if they're cut.
5. Find a safety of the future in the draft. 2013 first-rounder Matt Elam was a rare draft misstep from Ozzie Newsome, with the Florida product struggling before missing most of 2016 with a knee injury. The Ravens got by last year with Chargers import Eric Weddle and converted cornerback Webb, and while they were fine, the Ravens committed $13.3 million in cash to their starters at safety, the third-highest figure in the league. The Ravens don't need to find an immediate starter, but they should draft someone who has a credible shot at taking over in 2018.
1. Re-sign O-linemen Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler. The Bengals had one of the best offensive lines in football during their standout 2015 campaign. Last season, the line slipped, owing mostly to dismal play at right tackle. 2015 first-rounder Cedric Ogbuehi was a mess in his debut season as a starter, and it was telling that the Bengals frequently went to veteran Eric Winston as his replacement in lieu of 2015 second-rounder Jake Fisher. With a quarterback as sensitive to pressure as Andy Dalton, the Bengals can't afford to skimp on their offensive line.
Whitworth and Zeitler were the best parts of the Cincinnati offensive line last year, and they're both unrestricted free agents. The Bengals unquestionably drafted Ogbuehi to be their left tackle of the future and take over for the 35-year-old Whitworth. So far, it hasn't worked. It's dangerous to assume Whitworth will continue to play like an upper-echelon left tackle, but right now, the Bengals don't really have much of a choice but to believe. The Bengals might not want to commit a lot of money to guards after signing Clint Boling to an extension, but unless they think Fisher will settle inside, there isn't an obvious replacement for Zeitler on the roster.
2. Bring back CB Dre Kirkpatrick. The Bengals have two first-rounders already at cornerback in Darqueze Dennard and William Jackson III, but Dennard has struggled mightily early in his career, while Jackson missed his entire rookie year. Marvin Lewis also loves to bring his corners along slowly and plays in a division with the Steelers, so the Bengals need all the cornerbacks they can get. Kirkpatrick has been inconsistent, but he also has been the best cornerback the Bengals have had the past two seasons. They might also move on from Adam Jones, who was charged with felony harassment this offseason. Cutting Jones would free $6.3 million in cap space, though the Bengals already have $45 million in room heading into the offseason.
3. Lock up TE Tyler Eifert. The former Notre Dame star is in the fifth-year option of his rookie deal, and while he'll still be a bargain at $4.8 million, Cincinnati will face a conundrum after this year. Eifert produces like a superstar when he's on the field, but injuries have compromised his value. He has missed 27 games in his first four seasons in the NFL, 26 of which have come over the past three years.
The closest comparison to Eifert would be Travis Kelce, who has stayed relatively healthy while having the specter of rookie-year microfracture surgery hanging over his future. Kelce signed a five-year, $46.8 million deal with the Chiefs before his fourth season. That included $21 million in new money over the first three years of his contract. Eifert likely will be looking for something in that range. The Bengals would pay $28 million or so over that time frame if they went year-to-year with Eifert while losing the ability to use the franchise tag on someone else. It's difficult to commit long term to a player with Eifert's injury history, but Cincinnati really has no choice but to give him two guaranteed years as part of a multiyear deal.
4. Address the defensive line in the draft. In a draft that seems relatively deep with contributors up front, the Bengals are probably best using their draft resources on pieces along the defensive line. Both starting defensive tackle Domata Peko and rotation lineman Margus Hunt are free agents, and though the Bengals can still bring either one back, it's probably time to start refreshing the well behind the big three of Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson. With Cincinnati expected to pocket four compensatory picks in this year's draft, the Bengals can replenish some of the weaker spots on their roster.
5. Target some of the wide receivers released by other teams. The Bengals are set with a top wideout in A.J. Green, and Tyler Boyd showed some promise as a rookie, but the team began to look pretty limited on offense last year with Green injured and Eifert less than 100 percent. The Bengals are famously loath to target free agents and cost themselves compensatory picks, but they can go after wideouts who were released by other teams without running the risk of losing any selections.
Will any of those guys be useful? Perhaps. Danny Amendola, Mike Wallace and Torrey Smith could all be cap casualties, but the one to look out for is the same player I suggested might make sense for the Ravens: Brandon Marshall. The Bengals have taken plenty of chances on players who have worn out their welcomes in previous destinations, and Marshall would be a huge upgrade over Brandon LaFell. If the Jets choose to move on from Marshall after two seasons, the Bengals could justify making a rare plunge into the free-agent market.
1. Franchise WR Terrelle Pryor. The Browns have $108 million in cap room even after re-signing Jamie Collins, and their only other impending free agent who might justify the franchise tag is punter Britton Colquitt. Pryor had a stunning season during his debut year as a wideout, catching 77 passes for 1,007 yards on a team that had five quarterbacks attempt 20 or more passes and cycled through three starters. Cleveland should be in no rush to commit long term to Pryor, and with this cap situation, the team doesn't need to be.
2. Wade into free agency. The Browns are more likely to be players in free agency this year, given that they are unlikely to lose anybody who would generate a compensatory selection and won't incur that sort of opportunity cost by making their own moves. They are projected to pick up four compensatory picks in the 2017 draft after letting key contributors walk in free agency last year, though they sent one pick to New England for Collins and another to the Eagles as part of the Carson Wentz deal.
Sashi Brown shouldn't be heading into free agency to try to reach toward mediocrity, but the Browns will need some help building the infrastructure necessary for their future stars to succeed on either side of the ball. Cleveland would be smart to look at what the Raiders did in rebuilding through players at the line of scrimmage.
That starts on offense, where the Browns at least have an anchor in left tackle Joe Thomas. 2015 first-round pick Cameron Erving has been a mess on the interior and moved to right tackle for the season finale in 2016, where he looked competent against the Steelers. If the Browns want to keep Erving at right tackle, they could consider moving guard John Greco to center before going after one of Hue Jackson's old players from Cincinnati, Zeitler, to play guard. If Erving is going to stay at center, the Browns might look at Rick Wagner of the Ravens on the right side.
Defensively, the Browns might want to try targeting risky players with upside. As they move to a 4-3 under new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the Browns will want a penetrating tackle next to the massive Danny Shelton, who held up well as the nose last year. Nick Fairley has had injury issues in the past, but he was productive for the Saints last year and certainly possesses the athleticism to create havoc on the interior. If the Panthers let Kawann Short hit the free market, which seems unlikely, he would be another fit for the Browns. They also might consider trading their third-round pick to the Jets for Sheldon Richardson.
3. Sign QB Tyrod Taylor. The one free-agent move the Browns should force is for their quarterback of the future. Taylor isn't your prototypical QB, but the former Ravens backup was wildly productive in a scheme built around his strengths in Buffalo, where he was both a running threat and a viable downfield passer. Jackson has shown the ability to craft offenses around quarterbacks with atypical skill sets, and he made the most out of Andy Dalton in Cincinnati.
Picking up Taylor doesn't preclude the Browns from drafting a quarterback in the first round over the next two or three years, but he's the best option they're likely to get without using a top-five pick on a passer, especially in 2017. He also won't cost the Browns any of the draft picks they would need to send to the Patriots to acquire Jimmy Garoppolo, which is a massive savings in itself.
4. Trade out of the first overall pick. It might drive Browns fans crazy, but if somebody offers Cleveland even a moderate ransom for the first overall pick, the Browns are going to make the correct move in trading down more often than not. If this were a draft with an obvious quarterback to take at the top of the first round, the Browns would be smart to hold onto their pick, but that doesn't appear to be the case in 2017. We know that NFL teams are each more confident in their own ability to pick players than they should be, and given how aggressively the Browns went after extra picks to start their rebuild last year, I suspect they feel the same way.
Presumed No. 1 pick Myles Garrett looks to be an excellent player, but we won't know whether he's the best player in the draft until it's way too late. Anecdotally, here are all the No. 1 picks who weren't quarterbacks since 1990 with two comparable lists of players: the second overall picks in those drafts and the next player chosen at their respective position, regardless of whether it was with the second pick or the 25th.
Is it really clear that the guys taken first overall were better than the players on either of the other lists?
If somebody wants to give the Browns a 200 percent return in terms of draft capital to move up to the first overall selection, the Browns would be smart to take the offer. This is simply what smart NFL organizations do as they rebuild their rosters, from Bill Belichick in New England to Ted Thompson in Green Bay.
5. Continue to trust the process. The Browns will be better next year. They were unlucky to go 1-15, in terms of their Pythagorean expectation (3.5 wins), their record in close games (1-5 in games decided by seven or fewer points) and the sheer fact that they needed five quarterbacks to take meaningful reps to make it through the season. They're probably not going to be good in 2017, but there will be signs of progress, and Cleveland is doing a lot of things that bode well for the team's future.
With more draft capital to invest than anybody else in football, by a comfortable margin, the Browns can control the draft in years to come. They will likely continue to take advantage of teams undervaluing future selections by trading picks from this year's draft for better selections in future drafts. There's no guarantee it will work, but the alternative is no guarantee either, to which the Rams and Jaguars can currently attest.
1. Franchise RB Le'Veon Bell. I wrote about the difficulty of valuing Bell earlier this year, but the reality is that the Steelers aren't going to let their star running back go anywhere. Pittsburgh has a pair of veteran linebackers hitting free agency in Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison, but Bell is the obvious choice for Pittsburgh's franchise tag.
Bell would get a one-year deal for $12.4 million if the Steelers slap him with the franchise tag. That would solve their quandary of what to do with their star back in the short term, but his deal would become less manageable in 2018, when Pittsburgh would owe Bell $14.9 million on the same franchise tag. They would also face the conundrum of needing to franchise Bell during the offseason in which Antonio Brown becomes a free agent, which is why the team needs to ...
2. Extend Antonio Brown's contract. Brown has been one of the biggest bargains in football since he signed a five-year, $41 million extension two years into his career. As recently as 2015, he had a cap hit of just $7.1 million, which was nestled between Andre Johnson during his lone season with the Colts and Anquan Boldin for his last year with the 49ers. Brown isn't as much of a bargain now, given that his cap hit for 2017 will rise to $13.6 million, but it's going to make GM Kevin Colbert's life a lot easier if he signs Brown to an extension this offseason instead of waiting until 2018.
What will that contract look like? Well, Brown is not going to come cheaply. It isn't a perfect comp because Brown will be on his third contact, but his agents are going to look at the deals handed to Julio Jones and Dez Bryant as their rookie contracts expired and expect to get more. Bryant took five years and $70 million with $32 million guaranteed, while Jones got five years and $71.3 million with $35.5 million fully guaranteed and $47 million practically guaranteed. A.J. Green, meanwhile, set the mark on a per-year basis with $15 million per season.
As CBS' Joel Corry noted, the Steelers' contracts tend to be relatively vanilla, with the majority of the money tied up in signing bonuses and base salaries. After he got an $8.5 million signing bonus on his previous deal, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the signing bonus on Brown's new deal spike dramatically.
Here's one sample Brown deal, with the guaranteed money bolded. This is a five-year, $78 million extension with a $25 million signing bonus and $49 million in practical guarantees. The Steelers have to fold more money into the signing bonus because the Steelers already owe $8.9 million on their 2017 cap in restructured bonuses for Brown, money that he has in hand but hasn't been accounted for on Pittsburgh's cap.
3. Re-sign OLB James Harrison. Harrison was one of the league's biggest bargains last year, given that he was a useful pass-rusher who cost the Steelers $1.5 million on their cap. It seems unlikely that Harrison will go play somewhere else, and that limits his leverage. While the Steelers will likely give Harrison a raise, the 38-year-old wonder should still be relatively cheap.
4. Draft a replacement for ILB Lawrence Timmons. One of the reasons the Steelers can comfortably afford Bell and Brown is because they finally bit the bullet and allowed Timmons' repeatedly restructured deal to live on their 2016 cap. Buoyed by $6.4 million in restructured bonus money, Timmons' $15.1 million cap hit was way out of line with the norm for even the league's best inside linebackers.
Timmons is smart and effective, but he isn't among the league's best inside linebackers on a week-to-week basis, and the Steelers might incur the curse of the hometown premium in trying to offer Timmons what would be a market-value deal. With Harrison likely returning, the Steelers could try shifting Arthur Moats to the interior while drafting Ryan Shazier's eventual position-mate in April.
5. Draft a backup RB for Bell. DeAngelo Williams was wildly effective spelling Bell in 2015, but the longtime Panthers standout averaged just 3.5 yards per carry and struggled with injuries in 2016. The Steelers need a quality backup behind Bell, given his history of injuries and suspensions. Although they could go back to that same veteran well and target a free agent or likely cap casualty such as Jonathan Stewart, the Steelers are probably better off finding a back they like in the middle rounds and molding him into their second halfback.