The NFL season ended less than two weeks ago, but teams are already making moves in advance of the new league year. And with the NFL combine sprouting up in Indianapolis next week, vacations are already over for many. In addition to the scouting bonanza to come, front offices are figuring out their free-agent plans and identifying which players they'll want to retain from their own rosters heading into the new league year on March 9.
A good offseason, naturally, starts with a good beginning. That's where we come in. Teams like the Broncos and Panthers probably don't need our help, but that's never stopped us before in this space. Over the next few days, we'll run division by division and detail the five moves each NFL franchise should make to kick off the offseason in a positive fashion. That can include anything from cutting a longtime contributor to making a splash in free agency -- or, in some cases, staying out of the pool altogether.
Some teams should be more active than others, so there are a few teams whose five moves extend all the way to draft day at the end of April. Other teams need to be more aggressive by the time the first day of free agency wraps up. Note that these moves aren't always in chronological order, even if they are the first five pressing decisions I've picked out. Finally, the advice is contained within its own world; multiple teams might be interested in going after the same player, or a situation that might make sense for one organization wouldn't for the other.
It's 32 teams, 32 universes. Here we go.
1. Release Mario Williams. Buffalo has floated trial balloons about releasing its big-ticket free agent for most of the offseason, and it has become all but guaranteed that the Bills will move on from the 31-year-old edge rusher as free agency approaches. Smart move. It would free up just under $13 million in much-needed salary-cap space for the Bills, who currently project to be just $635,000 under the projected salary cap of $154 million.
2. Negotiate an extension with Stephon Gilmore. While a torn labrum cost Buffalo's top cornerback the final quarter of his season, Gilmore remains one of the more underrated defensive backs in football and a player who would be rewarded handsomely if the Bills let him hit the free market. Gilmore is signed for $11.1 million this year under his fifth-year rookie option, but general manager Doug Whaley can lock up his star corner and create cap space by signing Gilmore to an extension this offseason. Buffalo will probably use the four-year, $41 million given to Baltimore cornerback Jimmy Smith as a baseline for Gilmore's deal, and so it wouldn't be a surprise to see Gilmore's new contract approach $11 million per year, but the Bills can structure the deal in a way that would create cap space in 2016.
3. Work on bringing back the left side of the offensive line. Some of the money the Bills clear up will have to go toward left tackle Cordy Glenn and left guard Richie Incognito, both of whom are free agents. Incognito was one of the bigger surprises of the year, given that he hadn't been particularly effective in Miami before being suspended as part of his bullying scandal and spending 2014 out of football. Given their cap woes, it's hard to imagine the Bills having enough money to bring both players back; Glenn will be in more demand as a 26-year-old left tackle, so Incognito might be the one who wins out by default and returns.
4. Negotiate a team-friendly extension with Tyrod Taylor. Speaking of surprises! The Bills managed to come away with competent quarterback play for what amounted to a bargain-basement price last year, as Taylor delivered the league's seventh-best QBR (67.8) while posting a cap hit of just $883,333. Given that the Bills' defense unexpectedly fell from second to 24th in defense-adjusted value over average, it's hard to imagine where they would have been without Taylor at quarterback.
Taylor played more than 50 percent of Buffalo's snaps last year, which voided the third and final year of his contract in 2017. He'll get a raise this year, but his $2 million base salary and $3.1 million cap hit still leaves Taylor as one of the most underpaid passers in football. He would be a bargain, but Whaley would be smart to try and leverage that figure into a longer-term deal giving Taylor a raise while locking in future years at below-market prices.
5. Sign Robert Griffin III. This is not necessarily as a Taylor replacement, although things could certainly work out that way. Current Buffalo backup EJ Manuel is a mess, and offensive coordinator Greg Roman was able to take Taylor's limited skill set and build a reasonably effective offense around those strengths last year. Griffin might never be the weapon he looked to be during his stunning 2012 campaign, but chances are he could play the Taylor role in this offense.
As a low-risk, high-upside free agent, the Bills could do a lot worse than signing Griffin to compete for the starting job in 2016.
1. Restructure Ndamukong Suh's contract. The only way the Dolphins could sign last year's most prominent free agent was by structuring his deal in a way that would allow them to pay a hefty signing bonus in the second year of the contract. It's somewhat similar to the way the Saints have built their free-agent deals in recent years, and when I'm referencing the Saints in terms of anything cap-related, it's never a compliment. This isn't a particularly clever strategy from the Dolphins, just a dangerous one.
And so, the vast majority of Suh's $23.9 million base salary will turn into a signing bonus. Let's say $20 million, to keep things simple. That will free up $16 million in cap space for the Dolphins this year while adding $4 million to Miami's cap over each of the next four seasons. Suh won't care; he gets a $20 million check now instead of that same $20 million spread over the NFL season. If the Dolphins want to move on from Suh before the end of the deal, though, whatever's left of that signing bonus accelerates onto their cap that year.
Suh's 2016 and 2017 base salaries are guaranteed, which would make cutting Suh a non-starter. In 2018, the Dolphins would pay $22.1 million if Suh was on their roster and ... $22.2 million if they decided to cut him. So that's out. The earliest the Dolphins realistically can move on from Suh would be 2019, at which point they would still owe $13.1 million in dead money. And Year 1 of the Suh experiment in Miami didn't exactly resound with critical acclaim. That's less a reflection of Suh and more on how desperate the Dolphins were to sign him.
2. Cut Greg Jennings and Brent Grimes. Could the Dolphins keep Suh without drastically restructuring his deal? It's possible, but increasingly unlikely, given that they'll want to try and bring back emerging defensive end Olivier Vernon, who quietly had a monstrous season. They'll need the still-to-be-decided cap to come in at the higher end of estimates, move on from the likes of Lamar Miller and clear out as much salary from the roster as possible. Dumping Jennings, who caught just 19 passes last year, is an obvious move that will save the Dolphins $4 million.
Grimes is a far tougher call. The former Pro Bowler is likely Miami's best cornerback, but he slipped badly last season, getting beaten repeatedly for big plays. Miami asks a lot of Grimes, but they were the worst team in the league by DVOA against No. 1 cornerbacks. The Dolphins could save $6.5 million by cutting the 32-year-old Grimes (or $8 million by designating him as a post-June 1 release), but that would leave them in need of another cornerback, which isn't exactly a cheap position to fill.
3. Franchise Olivier Vernon. On the other hand, if the Dolphins do drastically restructure Suh's deal, they could use the cap savings to lock up Vernon on a short-term deal while trying to negotiate a long-term extension. That should come in somewhere around $15 million. It would be an awfully large price to pay for a team that simply doesn't have much money to throw around, but losing a 25-year-old pass-rusher with as much upside as Vernon is even more of a problem.
4. Find a replacement running back for Lamar Miller. Much to the frustration of fantasy owners, the Dolphins never seemed to trust their starting running back, refusing to turn the ball over to Miller for heavy workloads despite his big-play ability and production in smaller samples. As an unrestricted free agent, Miller likely will find a more welcoming locale elsewhere, and we'll get to see if the Dolphins were right.
Miami seems set to turn things over to Jay Ajayi as its primary back, and while Ajayi has the sort of versatility to justify being on the field for all three downs, the Dolphins will need to bring in a second back as support for their sophomore starter. One cheap option -- and it has to be cheap -- would be Ronnie Hillman.
5. Hold on to draft picks. Executive vice president Mike Tannenbaum had a bad habit of trading draft picks away during his time with the Jets, both to trade up in drafts and acquire veterans. Last year, during Tannenbaum's first offseason with the team, they sent a third-round pick to the Saints as part of the deal that swapped Dannell Ellerbe for Kenny Stills; Stills subsequently caught 27 passes during his first year with the team. (To be fair, the Dolphins also acquired two fifth-rounders for a sixth-rounder when they traded down in the second round with the Eagles.)
Miami has all its picks this year, plus an extra seventh-rounder from the Ravens. With a perilously thin roster ravaged by cap issues and bad drafts, it needs all the cheap talent they can get.
New England Patriots
1. Release Jerod Mayo. Once one of the league's most versatile inside linebackers, Mayo didn't look like his old self after returning from a torn patella this past season. Having lost his starting job to Donta' Hightower and Jamie Collins, Mayo's $11.4 million cap hit is untenable. The Patriots will release him and free up $7 million in cap space.
2. Cut Marcus Cannon and Brandon LaFell. The Patriots shouldn't stop there. Cannon's been a nightmare at tackle, with the Broncos torching him throughout the AFC Championship Game. The Patriots would save nearly $3.7 million by releasing the utility lineman and add another $2.7 million by dumping LaFell, who lost snaps to Keshawn Martin even after returning from a mysterious foot injury.
3. Build extensions for Jamie Collins, Donta' Hightower and Chandler Jones. The young core of New England's defense, linebackers Collins and Hightower and edge rusher Jones are all in the final year of their respective rookie deals and up for unrestricted free agency after the 2016 season. It's difficult, if not impossible, to imagine the Patriots letting any of the three go.
4. Sign a veteran offensive lineman. The Patriots don't often dive into free agency, but in light of how their line decayed as the year went along and the fact that they forfeited their first-round pick in the 2016 draft because of Deflategate, Bill Belichick might be more likely to dive into free agency than he has in years past. Somebody like Kelechi Osemele would be a massive upgrade for the Patriots, but it could be tough to make the money work, given that the Pats are projected to have just $7 milllion in cap space before the aforementioned moves. A veteran like Jahri Evans could help.
5. Pass up Matt Forte and add a big back to replace LeGarrette Blount. The idea of Forte going to the Patriots has become a popular suggestion in recent weeks, especially after news broke that the Bears were not going to re-sign their longtime starting running back. On some level, it makes sense; Forte wants to play for a winner, and the Pats would surely value the versatility and reliable professional play of the 30-year-old Tulane product.
Dig deeper, though, and it doesn't really represent a great fit. Forte might not make as much as he did on his last contract, but he should still come in somewhere around the $3 million to $4 million range, and that's not something the Patriots like to do with running backs, let alone backs on the wrong side of 30. (That's about the range at which they let Shane Vereen leave for the Giants.) The Pats did bring in Steven Jackson this year, but that was after a range of injuries and on a salary that was the literal veterans minimum. It also came after the season-ending injury to Dion Lewis, and Lewis will be back from his torn ACL in 2016; it wouldn't make sense to bring in Forte with Lewis and James White in the rotation as New England's receiving back.
What the Patriots do need, though, is a big back who can operate in short yardage. Forte, for all his strengths, has been well below average as a goal-line back during his pro career. Blount had been filling that role, but he's a free agent and missed the end of the season with a hip injury. Blount was also making the veterans minimum base salary; if he wants a premium, the Pats will likely move on. Chris Ivory would be the ideal option, but he's going to be far too expensive. More likely, Belichick will opt for somebody like Tim Hightower or Ahmad Bradshaw and find them to be a useful weapon.
New York Jets
1. Release Antonio Cromartie and Breno Giacomini. Last season's spending spree by new general manager Mike Maccagnan has delivered mixed returns: For the successes (Brandon Marshall), there are a few failures (Cromartie, Buster Skrine) and a big question mark (Darrelle Revis, who was far more inconsistent than he had been in years past). Most of those players are locked into contracts over the next couple of years, so while the Jets need to open up some cap room to sign their own free agents this offseason, Maccagnan's options are limited. His best path forward is to release Cromartie and Giacomini, moves which would create $11.9 million in cap space to go with the $14.7 million in space the Jets can already expect to enjoy. That's the good news.
2. Re-sign Muhammad Wilkerson. Here's where the bad news starts. The Jets have to come to terms with Wilkerson, their star defensive lineman, in a market where the similarly gifted Fletcher Cox is about to get more than $50 million guaranteed. The Jets can hope that Wilkerson's long-term price tag somehow goes down after he fractured his fibula in Week 17 (which is in itself a bizarre incentive), but it's really not going to matter. Wilkerson's a star, and he's going to be paid like a star. More than likely, the Jets will be stuck franchising Wilkerson and working on a long-term deal over the remainder of the offseason. If they could lock him up now, though, they might be able to ...
3. Franchise Damon Harrison. The quietly underrated anchor of the Jets' run defense, Harrison would have a much smaller franchise tag than Wilkerson -- about 25 percent smaller, based on 2015 numbers -- by virtue of being a defensive tackle. If the Jets play their cards right, they could end up keeping their dominant defensive line together for another season without having to make a long-term commitment to Harrison.
4. Move on from Chris Ivory. It would be painful for Jets fans, who grew to love Ivory's bruising style, but backs like Ivory simply don't age very well. Think about Marion Barber, a back of similar size and style who lost a bit of explosiveness, fell off of a cliff at 27 after 929 carries and was out of football within two years. Ivory, who turned 27 in March, has 883 carries. Ivory was a useful contributor and more than justified his three-year, $6 million contract, but a new deal probably won't age well.
5. Try to convince Ryan Fitzpatrick that moving is no fun. The Jets also need to find a middle ground with their quarterback, who switched teams for the fourth consecutive season and had his most productive professional season at 33 under trusty offensive coordinator Chan Gailey. Fitzpatrick will be able to get more money elsewhere if he wants, but the Jets need to convince him that the quality of their receiving corps and Gailey's presence is enough to call off the movers for another year. A two-year, $15 million deal would make both sides happy.