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 the elements they think are most critical to winning on offense, 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'll do during the offseason, because those decisions might end up defining the season to come. Some teams have a lot to do before the new league year begins March 9, whereas 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 on the minds of each team's brass as they prepare for the 2017 offseason. Here's the NFC North, where everyone has a reason to hit the free-agent market this spring.
1. Release Jay Cutler. John Fox may not end up with a better option under center than his deposed incumbent, but it's fair to say Cutler has run his course in Chicago. The Bears don't need the cap space, but releasing Cutler will free up $14 million to go with the $58.9 million they already have available, pushing Chicago up near $73 million with few free agents of consequence. (The team could create another $10 million in space by releasing linebacker Lamarr Houston and receiver Eddie Royal.) It's possible the Bears could bring Brian Hoyer or Matt Barkley back as a backup quarterback, even after the latter's late-season spurt of interceptions, but they'll need to address the QB position in some way this offseason.
2. Franchise Alshon Jeffery. It's curious that the Bears haven't already locked Jeffery up to a long-term deal, but even after a disappointing 2016, there's little reason for the Bears to let Jeffery leave for free. They have no other free agents who would justify the tag. By virtue of being tagged for the second time, Jeffery's salary would rise to $17.5 million in 2017, which would make him the highest-paid wide receiver in football.
Even if that seems excessive, think about that $73 million number I just mentioned. What are the Bears going to do with all that money? There's no way they can even come close to using all of it, and while they'll roll most of it over, Jeffery is a genuine asset. The Bears can use that tag as leverage for a palatable long-term contract or to create a trade market for their star receiver. I don't see a strong argument against the Bears franchising Jeffery for a second consecutive year.
3. Make a big move at quarterback. The Bears are better positioned than most to go after one of the more promising options at quarterback. Their defense started to improve last season under Fox and Vic Fangio, rising from 31st to 22nd in DVOA despite missing key players like Eddie Goldman and Danny Trevathan for chunks of the year. The injuries eventually hit in the second half, as Chicago fell from 16th in defensive DVOA to 30th over the final eight weeks of the season. Chicago also found a burgeoning running game with rookie Jordan Howard, who helped Bears fans forget about Matt Forte. The Bears were 1-6 in games decided by a touchdown or less last year and were the league's unluckiest team on special teams. They're closer than you think.
They also have the sort of offensive line that would be capable of protecting a talented quarterback, although they might be a left tackle away from truly ranking among the better lines in football. Chicago had the league's eighth-lowest sack rate (4.7 percent) and its sixth-lowest pressure rate (23.4 percent) in 2016. That's not a trick of the Bears' scheme, either: They threw their passes 8.7 yards in the air, which is well above league average, and they took 2.52 seconds to get the ball out, which is right above the league average of 2.50.
It's always dangerous for teams to go after a quarterback without having any support around him, given the worries about passers forming bad habits and suffering career-impacting injuries early on. The Bears have much of the infrastructure to support a quarterback, though, and given that Fox and Ryan Pace are entering their third year together at the helm with a 9-23 mark, they probably need to strike and show signs of improvement soon.
Which quarterback should they go after? It's too early to say. I would be skeptical of Mitch Trubisky and Deshaun Watson given the early scouting reports, but if the Bears have glowing reviews on one or the other, this would be the year to take one with the third overall pick. Sending the third overall pick to the Patriots for Jimmy Garoppolo would be too much, but the Bears could piece together an offer with the 36th selection and the extra fourth-round pick they got from the Bills in the Reggie Ragland trade.
Tony Romo would make less sense, and it's hard to imagine the Bears going after Colin Kaepernick after they watched his worst start of the season last year, but Tyrod Taylor would be feasible if he's cut by the Bills, as expected. Regardless of the specific passer, the Bears should take their shot at solving their quarterback conundrum this year.
4. Upgrade at cornerback. Chicago's other key position of need, as has been the case seemingly since Charles Tillman left town, is at corner. The Bears seem to have given up on 2014 first-rounder Kyle Fuller, with Fangio questioning his heart as Fuller missed the entire 2016 season with a knee injury. Bryce Callahan is a freak athlete and has shown some flashes of useful play, although he's far from a finished product and struggled with multiple injuries in 2016. Tracy Porter was often unfairly matched up against top wide receivers for most of the year. The Bears have work to do at corner.
If they don't use the third overall pick on a quarterback, they could consider Marshon Lattimore of Ohio State, who is seventh on Mel Kiper's Big Board. In free agency, they should be players for the corners at the top of the market. In a deep class, the Bears could have a shot at Trumaine Johnson, Sam Shields, Logan Ryan, Stephon Gilmore, Dre Kirkpatrick and A.J. Bouye. Coming away with at least one viable starting cornerback -- if not two -- is hugely important for a team that posted the league's eighth-best sack rate last year.
5. Upgrade at safety, too. Oh, we're not done in the defensive backfield. The Bears aren't much better at safety, which has hurt them when teams attack downfield. Chicago was 27th in DVOA against deep passes last year, while posting the league's 17th-best mark on shorter throws. The defense as a whole combined for just eight interceptions all year. Some of that traces back to the fact that the Bears faced the league's fourth-fewest passes, but they still need to find playmakers on defense.
There's a logical fit for the Bears at the third pick in LSU safety Jamal Adams, although the track record of safeties being taken at the top of the draft is mixed at best. One of the success stories is former fifth overall pick Eric Berry, who may also hit the free-agent market this year if the Chiefs can't come to terms with him on a contract extension. Berry would be pricey, but he represents the sort of all-world safety the Bears desperately need on the back end of their defense. Even less notable players like Micah Hyde or T.J. McDonald would represent an upgrade for Chicago.
1. Work out an extension for Matthew Stafford. The Lions aren't letting Stafford go anywhere, but as their longtime quarterback enters the final year of his deal, general manager Bob Quinn will probably want to sign Stafford to his extension now and not have to worry about the possibility of franchising him in 2018. The reason why? Quinn might have to use his franchise tag next year to keep his best pass-rusher.
2. Try to work out a deal with Ezekiel Ansah. He already is getting a massive raise this year as his salary jumps from $5.9 million to $12.7 million, but after playing out his fifth-year option in 2017, Ansah will be an unrestricted free agent.
There are a few reasons to sign Ansah right now. One is that the Lions have more leverage as Ansah remains further away from free agency. The franchise tag for defensive ends in 2018 will probably come in around $18.3 million, and if the Lions wanted to franchise Ansah again in 2019, they would have to pay $22 million. That's $53 million over the next three years.
It seems like a lot, but keep in mind that Olivier Vernon, a less productive pass-rusher, just got $53.3 million over the first three years of his new deal from the Giants when he hit unrestricted free agency. With inflation and superior performance, Ansah would top $55 million and even approach $60 million over the first three years of his new contract if he was a free agent tomorrow.
The Lions can lock in a cheaper price by signing Ansah now in lieu of going year to year. They can also buy (relatively) low after a disappointing season. Ansah missed three games with a high ankle sprain that continued to bother him during the year and finished 2016 with just two sacks, down from the 14.5 he posted during his breakout 2015 season.
Ansah wasn't his usual self, but he also was unlucky. He knocked down opposing quarterbacks 15 times, which is a second useful measure of pass pressure and often a good predictor of sacks. In 2016, edge rushers sacked opposing quarterbacks on 42 percent of their knockdowns. Ansah's two-for-15 performance was a huge outlier; by that 42 percent rate, he "should" have produced 6.3 sacks, with that 4.3-sack difference the largest in the league among underperformers. (The biggest outlier the other way? The Falcons' Vic Beasley, who had 16 knockdowns and produced 15.5 sacks against an expectation of 6.7 for an 8.8-sack difference.)
Ansah, the fifth overall pick in 2013, should be back to his usual self in 2017. Indeed, during that 2015 campaign, he knocked down opposing passers 34 times, generating an expectation of 14.3 sacks against his actual total of ... 14.5 sacks. The 27-year-old's price is only going to go up, so the Lions are better off buying in now.
3. Figure out the right side of the offensive line. The Lions have a pair of impending free agents: right guard Larry Warford and right tackle Riley Reiff. Reiff moved over after four years on the left side once Detroit drafted Taylor Decker in the first round of last year's draft. Reiff's return might depend upon the market he finds in free agency. If a team values the former Iowa standout as a left tackle and is willing to pay a premium, it's hard to envision Reiff returning. If Reiff is looking only at right tackle money, Detroit should probably be able to keep him around.
Warford's the better lineman of the two, but his best season was arguably his rookie campaign in 2013. There's a strong case to retain Warford, especially after 2015 first-rounder Laken Tomlinson lost his starting job at left guard for a stretch last year. If Tomlinson had played well, the Lions could have played third-round pick Graham Glasgow at right guard and allowed Warford to move on. Now, Glasgow might be needed at left guard, and Tomlinson might not be worth trusting with a starting gig.
4. Pursue Kendall Wright in free agency. Wright isn't a big name, but as a third wideout in an offense that loves to go three-wide and throw short passes, Wright's agility makes him a solid fit. He caught 94 passes in 2013 and looked to be on the verge of a Jarvis Landry-style career, but Wright fell out of favor in Tennessee and eventually landed in a scheme that didn't play to his strengths under Mike Mularkey. The Titans ran three-WR formations a league-low 422 times in 2016, while the Lions had the NFL's fourth-highest mark (732 snaps). Wright won't have the blocking ability of Anquan Boldin, but he should be a more dynamic receiver with upside.
5. Find some help across from Ansah. Devin Taylor was effective as a rotation defensive end in 2015 but struggled as the full-time starter in 2016, racking up just 4.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hits. Taylor will be a free agent. The Lions got an unexpected boost from interior lineman Kerry Hyder, who recorded eight sacks, but they need another edge rusher to give Ziggy support. Given how expensive top-end pass-rushers will be in free agency, though, the Lions will likely look to the draft or the lower tier of the market to flesh out their defensive line.
1. Re-sign TE Jared Cook and G T.J. Lang. The Packers have $43.6 million in cap room after releasing Sam Shields, and some of that money has to go to retaining contributors from their 2016 team. Cook is still a limited player and can be wildly frustrating at times, but Aaron Rodgers' numbers were significantly better with him on the field:
Having been misused for years elsewhere, Cook should be willing to settle for less to stay in Green Bay.
2. Bring back OLB Julius Peppers (if he's not retiring), but pass on OLB Nick Perry. The Packers had to limit Peppers' snaps, but at 37 he's still effective on a per-play basis and won't require a long-term investment. Perry was the Packers' best linebacker and had a career year, but it was almost entirely unsupported by his previous level of play. He recorded 11 sacks after racking up 12.5 sacks over his four previous seasons combined, and teams are going to shell out big money in the hopes that Perry has turned into a superstar.
That's a serious risk for the Packers, who weren't interested in picking up Perry's fifth-year option for 2016 and signed him to a one-year, $5.05-million deal. Having seen Perry up close and personal for five years, Green Bay will have more insight than anyone into whether he's really worth $10 million or so per year. If the Packers have made it this far without signing him to a long-term deal, chances are Perry is not worth what he'll get on the free market. Somebody like DeMarcus Ware could be a fit here, too.
3. Address the cornerback position. Concerns about the Packers' cornerback play were a little overstated, but it was frustrating to see Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins stagnate during their second year in the league. The Packers moved on from Shields after he missed 15 games with a concussion, but they probably need to invest another high draft pick or make a rare foray into the upper level of free agency to supplement their corners.
Given how Ted Thompson is loath to miss out on compensatory picks, he probably would prefer to target a veteran who was released by his prior team. The problem is that there aren't many useful corners who are likely to fit that criteria. The Packers could target Davon House, who played his first four seasons in Green Bay and is likely to be released by the Jags, but this might be the year for Thompson to bite the bullet and go after one of the many corners hitting the market in the prime of their careers.
4. Shore up inside linebacker. It's a perennial complaint for the Packers, but they can do better than Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez in the middle. It's pretty clear that Green Bay doesn't see inside linebacker as a particularly valuable position, which isn't necessarily wrong, but the Packers can still devote more resources to stability in the middle. They're probably not going to sign Lawrence Timmons, but it's something they should consider addressing before the fourth round of the draft. Maybe they target somebody like David Harris as a two-down inside linebacker if the longtime Jets starter is released, or look at Buffalo's Zach Brown for his coverage abilities if his market fails to develop.
5. Add a starting running back, and give serious thought to signing Adrian Peterson. I admit, on first glance, the idea of the Packers signing Peterson seems nuts. The Packers don't typically sign free agents, and they haven't paid running backs big money throughout the years. Peterson has failed to mention the Packers when talking about the places he might want to suit up in 2017, a list that includes the Giants, Texans and Buccaneers along with a long-rumored dalliance with the Cowboys.
Well, some of that is true. The Packers value running backs more than it might seem: Thompson gave Ryan Grant a four-year, $20 million extension in 2008 and used a second-round pick on Eddie Lacy in 2013. The returns haven't been very impressive, but the Packers have tried to solve their running back issue without settling for someone like James Starks (even if they've had to go back to Starks at times). Ty Montgomery showed promise over his 80-carry sample as he transitioned from wide receiver to running back in 2016, but he was wildly inconsistent and had exactly one game with more than nine carries. He has a role in this offense, but it's unclear whether it's as the feature back.
Peterson could fit. The Packers have gone after free agents when they're transcendent, Hall of Fame-caliber players who are undervalued for a given reason at a certain point in their career, like Peppers and Charles Woodson. Peterson fits in that group. He won't dent the team's ability to collect compensatory picks, given that the Vikings would need to release AP for him to hit the market. He won't require a long-term commitment at 31, but Peterson is not that far removed from being productive, given that he led the league in rushing yards behind a terrible offensive line in 2015.
The Packers wouldn't pay top dollar for Peterson, but it's tough to see his market really attracting a ton of interest. The Texans aren't signing him after committing to Lamar Miller. The Giants don't have a ton of cap room and need to fix their offensive line. The Cowboys aren't paying Peterson to be a backup behind Ezekiel Elliott. The Bucs make sense if the guaranteed money in Doug Martin's deal is voided by his positive drug test, but that process might still be subject to appeal.
If it's not Peterson, the Packers could still make a move. Martin would make sense as a buy-low option, as would Jamaal Charles, who is likely to be released by the Chiefs. Ryan Mathews and Jonathan Stewart could also be available. This is also a highly regarded draft for running backs, so the Packers could opt for a runner with one of their first two picks. All of that will bring Peterson's price down, too.
1. Restructure Adrian Peterson's deal or release him. As much as Peterson might make sense elsewhere, there's no way the Vikings can retain him for the $18 million he's due to earn in 2017, given that no other back in the league has a cap hit of more than $8.8 million. The Vikings have until March 8 to decide how they want to handle a difficult situation with an all-time great.
The easy solution is to release Peterson, which would free up all of the $18 million. It's also possible the Vikings try to bring Peterson back on a straight pay cut, which would be an ego hit for Peterson but drop him into the $7 million to $8 million range for 2017 before hitting free agency in 2018.
The other option? The Vikings give Peterson a pay cut by means of an extension, which would guarantee him something in that $7 million range in 2017 while giving the Vikings an opportunity to keep Peterson at a palatable figure (with little or no guaranteed money) in 2018.
2. Let many of the free agents leave. The Vikings had one of the deepest rosters in football, but many of those players either took a step backward or failed to deliver on expectations in 2016. The Vikings can get by at cornerback without Terence Newman and Captain Munnerlyn. The Matt Kalil dream is dead after years of injuries at left tackle, and Andre Smith was a mess after his well-intentioned signing before the season.
It's surprising the Vikings haven't re-signed Rhett Ellison, who is a useful blocking tight end, and punter Jeff Locke has been part of a unit that has been above average in each of his four years with the team. Cordarrelle Patterson has been an excellent kick returner, but the Vikes may be blown out of his market if another team values him as a starting wide receiver.
3. Extend QB Sam Bradford. The Vikings probably wasted a first-round pick by trying to salvage their 2016 season with Bradford, but it wasn't his fault. Bradford produced his best season as a pro behind a dismal offensive line. He's signed for 2017 at a salary of $18 million, a few million dollars below the franchise tag for quarterbacks, but Bradford is set to hit unrestricted free agency after this season.
It's hard to know what to do with Bradford because some of it depends on Teddy Bridgewater's health. Bradford has played well enough to keep the starting job, but if Bridgewater's professional future is in question, the Vikings would want to sign Bradford to a long-term deal. If Bridgewater is going to be healthy enough to back Bradford up in 2017, Minnesota might want to sign Bradford to a Tyrod Taylor-esque extension that would allow the Vikings to get out of the deal during the 2018 offseason. In either scenario, the Vikings probably want to have Bradford in their long-term plans without having to worry about him leaving for free after this year.
4. Fix the offensive line. Regardless of who lines up in the backfield, the Vikings need to do more to repair a porous offensive line, especially at the tackle spots. The problem, of course, is that they're already down a first-round pick by virtue of the Bradford trade, although they have extra selections in the third and fourth rounds thanks to a trade with the Dolphins.
In addition to whatever they do in the draft, the Vikings need veteran solutions now to build a functional offense. Maybe they use one of those picks to acquire a left tackle. If the Eagles really do want to move on from Jason Peters, Minnesota could do worse than send a late-round pick to Philadelphia for a player who is signed to a reasonable two-year deal. Alternately, maybe the Vikings prefer to sign Andrew Whitworth in free agency and hope that the 35-year-old buys them time to find their left tackle of the future over the next two seasons.
5. Lock up CB Xavier Rhodes. Perpetually one of the league's most underrated cornerbacks, Rhodes is a Pro Bowl-caliber player who was finally recognized as such in 2016. NFL.com noted that Rhodes led the league in passer rating allowed this season, and while individual cornerback statistics are perpetually a work in progress, Rhodes' play on tape matches the numbers.
Rhodes is entering the fifth-year option on his rookie deal, so he'll be an unrestricted free agent after this season. The Vikings could get a relative discount by just going year-to-year with him if they were so inclined: They could pay him $41.9 million over the next three years if they choose to franchise Rhodes twice, whereas Janoris Jenkins just got $39.7 million over his first three years on the free market with the Giants. Rhodes would get more on the free market thanks to salary-cap inflation alone, in addition to the fact that he's the better corner of the two. But it benefits both sides to figure out a long-term deal, so Rhodes should be locked up for years to come sooner rather than later.