The NFL season ended less than two weeks ago, but teams are already beginning to make moves in advance of the new league year, and with the NFL combine in Indianapolis next week, vacations are 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 want to retain on their rosters heading into the new league year, which begins March 9.
A good offseason, naturally, starts with a good beginning. That's where we come in. Teams such as the Broncos and Panthers probably don't need our help, but that has never stopped us before. Over the next few days, we'll run division by division and detail five moves each NFL franchise should make to kick off its offseason in the right fashion. That could include anything from cutting a longtime contributor to making a big 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 the draft 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 picked out. Finally, the advice is contained within its own world; multiple teams might be interested in going after the same player, and a situation that might make sense for one organization might not for another.
It's 32 teams and 32 universes. Here goes.
1. Restructure or move on from Arian Foster. It hurts for the Texans to move on from a player who was such a huge part of their success the past few seasons, but Foster was already struggling to live up to his contract before he tore his Achilles the past season. It's hard to imagine him returning as the player he once was, and with the fourth-largest cap hit of any running back in football, it's hard to see him returning to Houston on his current salary. The Texans could save $6.6 million on their 2016 cap by letting Foster go; an alternative might be to give him an extension at a much lower annual rate.
2. Re-sign Brandon Brooks. The best guard available on the market after Baltimore's Kelechi Osemele, Brooks was a critical component of a line that managed to keep the offense afloat, despite losing Foster. The Texans' running game wasn't particularly effective, but that was more on the running backs than the offensive line, given how infrequently the backs broke big plays. Rick Smith might have to decide between Brooks and center Ben Jones, and though Brooks will be more expensive, he's the better player.
3. Go after a zone-friendly veteran back such as Lamar Miller or Alfred Morris. The Texans weren't appreciably worse with Foster missing, but their running backs were no great shakes. Their one-two punch of Alfred Blue and Chris Polk combined to average just 3.7 yards per carry, and the only back since the turn of the century to average fewer yards per carry than Blue did in his first two seasons on as many carries is ... Trent Richardson. That's not great company.
Miller is the sexy pick, as a back who had great success in a limited role in his time in Miami. Morris is the more consistent back of the two, and he will probably come more cheaply, with less of a long-term commitment. The Texans might also consider grabbing a back in the draft, but a veteran to rotate in would make sense.
4. Cut Rahim Moore. It was easy to understand the logic of adding Moore, who had been an effective starter for some very good Denver defenses, but he never seemed to stick in Houston and only played 444 defensive snaps. He's likely to join the scrap heap of failed safety options post-Glover Quin in Houston, along with Ed Reed and D.J. Swearinger. Cutting Moore saves the Texans $2.1 million in cap space.
5. Try not to panic into a bad decision at quarterback. Oh, how good it would feel for Texans fans if Smith blew Washington's offer for Kirk Cousins away or used their first-round pick on a quarterback prospect, right? You can certainly understand Houston's desperation to add a viable quarterback after seeing Brian Hoyer implode in the wild-card round, but there isn't likely to be a great option available, given the assets the Texans have.
Cousins will likely be franchised. Brock Osweiler is likely to return to Denver with the promise of a starting job, and he might not be very good. Compare Osweiler's seven pro starts to Hoyer's first eight pro starts (adding an eighth because he left one of his first seven starts in the first quarter after tearing his ACL), and their numbers are remarkably similar:
That's not to say Osweiler won't be good or Hoyer is special; it's just too early to say. If it's not Osweiler, the Texans are looking at the likes of Sam Bradford and Ryan Fitzpatrick, veterans who have their own flaws. Houston has to work backward, see if there's a quarterback prospect Bill O'Brien loves who might be available in the middle of the first round and act accordingly. The more obvious move might be to draft Christian Hackenberg, whom O'Brien coached with success at Penn State in 2013.
1. Hand Andrew Luck a blank contract, and let him fill in the terms. Not figuratively -- literally. Hand Andrew Luck a contract signed by Jim Irsay, Ryan Grigson, Chuck Pagano, whoever else has to look it over, whatever. Just leave the terms of the deal blank, and let Luck fill them in. The Colts can't afford to let Luck go, and their best chance of getting him to take a below-market deal might be to try to guilt him into taking less money (also knowing he's smart enough to not wreck their cap from a team-building standpoint). No professional team has followed the Radiohead pay-what-you-want model for "In Rainbows." This is the time to start.
2. Undo last year's free-agent spending spree. The Colts can't get out of some of the deals signed by Grigson in an attempt to put Indy over the top the past season, but they can salvage a few. It seems obvious to move on from Andre Johnson and Trent Cole, which would save Indy $11.1 million. The 2014 class might not get away scot-free, either, given that the Colts could also justify releasing D'Qwell Jackson and Arthur Jones, which would free up an additional $9.8 million if the Colts designated the oft-injured Jones as a post-June 1 release.
3. Bring back Adam Vinatieri and Jerrell Freeman. Vinatieri stubbornly refuses to age, and while his value is overstated by virtue of the fact that star punter Pat McAfee handles Indy's kickoffs, he remains a worthwhile weapon at age 43. Meanwhile, Freeman was one of the biggest bargains in football as a CFL refugee the past three years, and though he's already 29 and due a massive raise, he's an above-average inside linebacker on a defense that badly needs competent contributors.
4. Sign Damon Harrison. Nose tackle has been a disaster area for Indy the past few years, with rookie fifth-rounder David Parry manning the interior for the league's 16th-ranked run defense a year ago. Parry should be part of the rotation, but the Colts badly need bodies up front. Before last year's run on over-30 veterans, Grigson had shown a propensity for using cap space on younger free agents whom he thought could improve over time. Signing the 27-year-old Harrison from the Jets, who had the league's best run defense the past season, would seem to fit that model.
5. Find a cornerback to play across from Vontae Davis. It appears that Indy will let Greg Toler leave in free agency, which leaves a hole between Davis and slot corner Darius Butler. Given Grigson's aforementioned desire to bring in young talent and his past of taking risks on players with injury histories (including Toler), a logical fit might be Prince Amukamara of the Giants. The 26-year-old has looked impressive when he has been able to play, but the Nebraska product has completed just one full 16-game season as a pro. If Amukamara's price tag comes down from the $10 million-per-year rate he is rumored to be trying to hit in free agency, he could be a reasonable risk for Grigson and the Colts.
1. Release Toby Gerhart and Chris Clemons. The Jaguars are heading into 2016 with more than $74 million in cap space, so it's fair to say they don't need to clear out salary. Clemons and Gerhart, though, barely push the Jaguars forward; they offer little short-term assistance and have no long-term value for Jacksonville. Their snaps are better off going to other players, and the Jags would realize $7.5 million in savings by letting them leave town.
2. Sign Alex Mack if he voids his deal. Two years ago, the Jaguars signed Mack to an offer sheet designed to be prohibitive for the Browns to match. Cleveland matched it anyway. Two years later, Mack can choose to void the deal and head back into free agency. He's two years older and is coming off a broken leg in 2014, so although the 30-year-old Mack might not get the sort of mammoth offer the Jaguars offered two years ago, he's still among the better centers in football, and it would hardly be a surprise for the Jags to rekindle their interest.
3. Upgrade on Zane Beadles at left guard. All that cap space has to go somewhere, and with Blake Bortles set to throw to Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and Julius Thomas for the foreseeable future, the obvious landing spot would be the offensive line. Adding Mack would help, but if the Jags can't bring him in at center, Jacksonville could move second-year guard A.J. Cann to center and try to upgrade on veteran Zane Beadles at left guard. The big-ticket investment would be the Ravens' Osemele, who comes up a lot in these analyses because he's awfully good. Osemele's presence might help embattled left tackle Luke Joeckel, who has yet to deliver on the promise that led to his be taken with the second pick in the 2013 draft.
4. Throw money at the league's cornerback pile. Jacksonville's biggest problem remains its moribund pass defense. The Jags finished with the league's second-worst pass defense the past season, and while they'll get 2015 first-rounder Dante Fowler back up front, after the Florida product missed his entire rookie year with a torn ACL, they badly need to upgrade one of the league's least talented secondaries. Davon House was inconsistent during his debut season in Jacksonville, but he was being asked to shadow top receivers on a snap-by-snap basis, which was too much to ask.
General manager Dave Caldwell might use the fifth overall pick on a cornerback, but the Jags should really push some of that yawning cap void at the league's top corners and dare one to take it. Josh Norman isn't hitting free agency, but Jacksonville can outbid whomever they want for 6-foot-3 Sean Smith, who has the size to excel as a press cornerback in Gus Bradley's scheme. It would be nice to see the Jaguars bring along a young cornerback, but the only homegrown cornerbacks on the roster are Dwayne Gratz and Aaron Colvin, both of whom are largely unproven.
5. Explore a trade for Kam Chancellor. Atlanta is a logical NFC landing point for Chancellor, while Jacksonville seems the natural destination if the Seahawks decide to trade their star safety out of the conference. It would be early for the Jaguars to give up on 2014 33rd pick Johnathan Cyprien after two years, but he has struggled mightily. The Jags could comfortably afford a new deal for Chancellor, and while their primary problems are in pass coverage, Chancellor would be a comfortable upgrade for Bradley, his old defensive coordinator, as an added box defender.
1. Go after one of the many free safeties on the market. The Titans kicked their offseason off by cutting longtime starter Michael Griffin, and unless they plan to move corner Jason McCourty to safety, that leaves them with a gaping hole in the back of their defense. The good news is this player pool is stocked with options, even if the Chiefs retain Eric Berry.
Veterans such as Reggie Nelson and Eric Weddle might not make sense to a rebuilding Titans team, but given that the Titans forced interceptions on just 6.3 percent of opposing drives last year, 25-year-old Tashaun Gipson could make sense. The former Browns starter has 13 picks over the past three years, which is tied for the fourth most in football.
2. Lock up Kendall Wright. Nominally Tennessee's No. 1 wideout, Wright has struggled to build upon his sophomore season of 2013, when he caught 94 passes for 1,079 yards. The Baylor product was beset by injuries throughout a wildly disappointing 2015. There's a chance that 2013 was an outlier, but given the putrid quarterback play in Tennessee before Marcus Mariota arrived and the cost of wide receivers on the free-agent market, the Titans might be able to find a bargain by locking Wright up with a team-friendly extension.
3. Re-sign Delanie Walker. One of the few free-agent additions made by deposed general manager Ruston Webster that actually looks good in hindsight, Walker has emerged as a Pro Bowl-caliber tight end in his time as the starter in Tennessee. He is entering the final season of his four-year deal, and though Walker is probably past his best at 31, the Titans would get enough over the next couple years to justify another four-year deal for one of the few upper-echelon players on their roster.
4. Release Ropati Pitoitua. OK, so Tennessee doesn't exactly have the most exciting set of moves to ponder. Sorry, Titans fans. Pitoitua is due to collect $3.8 million, despite having played a mere 31 defensive snaps the past season. There are better ways for the Titans to use their money -- a Roth IRA, for one.
5. Leave your running backs alone. Under Webster, it seemed like the Titans insisted on an addition or extension to their running back corps on an annual basis. They locked up Chris Johnson, signed Shonn Greene to serve as a power back, let Johnson go, added Dexter McCluster and then used picks in consecutive drafts on Bishop Sankey and David Cobb. After all that, the starter they settled on is ... undrafted free agent Antonio Andrews. The Titans should be like a dog with a cone collar around their running back situation this offseason. Let the wounds heal for a year.