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 sprouting up in Indianapolis next week, vacations are already over for many. In addition to the upcoming scouting bonanza, 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. Over the next few days, we'll run division by division and detail the five moves each NFL franchise should make to kick off their offseason in the right fashion. That can 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 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 ideally interested in going after the same player, or a situation which might make sense for one organization wouldn't for the other.
It's 32 teams, 32 universes. Here goes.
1. Cut Roddy White and Devin Hester. The Falcons have already begun to clear out some of the veteran logjam on their roster by releasing William Moore and Justin Durant. Now they need to clear out space on the offensive side of the ball by revamping their receiving corps.
Hester is the easier cut of the two: Despite being one of the best return men in league history, injuries limited the 33-year-old to 14 touchdown-less returns and just one offensive snap last season. He's a luxury the Falcons can't afford right now, and releasing Hester would save $3 million.
White is the tougher call. The Falcons surely don't want to move on from one of their franchise players and locker room leaders, but White simply isn't the player he once was. He can't get the separation wideouts need to thrive. No starting receiver drew fewer targets than White, who was thrown the ball on just 11.7 percent of the routes he ran in 2015. And the only wideouts in the league who averaged fewer yards after the catch than White were DeAndre Hopkins and Pierre Garcon. White is due $6.2 million this year, but the Falcons could save $4.3 million on their 2015 cap by designating him as a post-June 1 release. It would be nice if the Falcons could bring him back at a lesser salary, but he's not helping Atlanta making as much as he is.
2. Re-sign Adrian Clayborn. One of the few highlights from Atlanta's wildly frustrating defense in 2015, Clayborn was effective as a utility lineman for coach Dan Quinn. He should get a raise on the one-year, $3-million deal he signed with the Falcons a year ago, but Scott Pioli and Thomas Dimitroff should be able to give him that raise and keep him in Atlanta for the next couple of seasons.
3. Pick up Desmond Trufant's fifth-year option. This is about as close to a no-brainer as it gets; even if Trufant didn't make the sort of leap his talents suggested he was about to make last season, the Washington product continued to shut down his side of the field and played about as well as a corner can play behind a terrifyingly anemic pass rush. The Falcons need to pick up Trufant's option to lock him up for 2017, then use that leverage to negotiate a contract extension as soon as the window to do so opens.
4. Draft offensive linemen! Atlanta's line remains a frustrating work in progress. The Falcons have used five picks on offensive linemen over the past five years, including first-, second- and third-rounders, but the only one still left on the roster is 2014 sixth-overall pick Jake Matthews. The Falcons used their first-round pick last year to try to improve their pass rush, and while Vic Beasley failed to turn things around for Atlanta, you can at least understand their logic in how they approached the draft. This year, with Chris Chester an unrestricted free agent and stopgaps filling the starting jobs at multiple spots, the Falcons badly need to use one or more of their draft picks to keep Matt Ryan upright. It would be a bad idea for them to deal away one or more of their picks, unless they ...
5. Trade for Kam Chancellor. With the Falcons cutting Moore, they could be turning over the strong safety job to 2013 seventh-rounder Kemal Ishmael, which would be totally defensible. It would also be reasonable to trade for one of Quinn's former Seattle stars. The 2015 season exhibited both sides of Chancellor: He's the big-hitting, run-stopping safety in the box who gets the other team's attention; and he's the enormous athlete who teams picked on in coverage with athletic tight ends when they needed big plays in the fourth quarter. (Chancellor versus Greg Olsen twice a year is not a good matchup for the Falcons.) The Falcons, 25th in DVOA against the run and sixth in DVOA against tight ends last year, could use the former of the two sides of Chancellor.
Atlanta would likely have to give Chancellor a new extension if they traded for him, given that the Legion of Boom member was principled enough about his value to hold out for two games in 2015. That would be reasonable, but the bigger question becomes Chancellor's trade value. Would the Seahawks accept a fourth-round pick from the Falcons for their star safety? Atlanta is already down a sixth-rounder after the Andy Levitre trade, and they badly need all the draft picks they can get, but the opportunity to add a Pro Bowl-caliber player familiar with Quinn's scheme seems like it would be hard to turn down.
1. Stick the franchise tag on Josh Norman. "Hold onto Josh Norman" isn't exactly next-level analysis, to be fair, but sometimes the obvious moves make sense, too. Norman emerged as one of the league's best cornerbacks this season, and the Panthers can't let him leave town. Franchising Norman would lock him up for 2016 at somewhere around $14 million (since the franchise-tag figures haven't yet been determined) and give Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman time to negotiate a longer-term deal with his star corner.
2. Move on from Jared Allen. The Panthers head into 2016 with more cap room than they've ever enjoyed during Gettleman's successful reign -- $21.3 million, if you use the $154 million estimate -- but Norman's deal will wipe away much of that space. They acquired Allen from the Bears to help deliver a pass rush in the absence of Charles Johnson, but it was never likely that the Panthers expected to hold onto Allen for the 2016 campaign. Carolina would save $8.5 million by cutting the 33-year-old edge rusher, who accrued just two sacks in 12 games for Sean McDermott's defense.
3. Lock up Kawann Short. One of the most dominant players we saw this postseason, Short has become a devastating interior pass-rusher and a critical member of Carolina's suffocating defense. He played 69 percent of the Panthers' defensive snaps last year -- notable given that no one else on the defensive line was up above 59 percent -- and led the team with 11 sacks and 18 quarterback knockdowns. With Short entering the final year of his rookie deal, Gettleman will need to look at Geno Atkins's five-year, $53 million deal as a baseline for getting an extension done for his star defensive tackle.
4. Rework Charles Johnson's deal. Former GM Marty Hurney gave Johnson a six-year, $76 million deal before the 2011 season to keep Johnson off the free-agent market. Since then, Johnson has produced 42 sacks in 70 games, an average of 9.6 sacks per 16 games. Not bad, of course, but for the defensive end with the third-largest cap hit in all of football, that's not good enough. With the 29-year-old Johnson entering the final year of his contract, the Panthers should be able to convince their long-time edge rusher to take a pay cut as part of a contract extension that would keep him in Carolina for years to come.
5. Find a replacement for Roman Harper. When you go 15-1 and make the Super Bowl, you don't need to ring in too many changes. One place coach Ron Rivera will likely make a change is at strong safety, where 33-year-old Harper is an unrestricted free agent and on the wrong side of his career. It's a very strong market for safeties this year, but unfortunately for Carolina, many of the better candidates are free safeties; the Panthers are already set at that position with Kurt Coleman. Gettleman loves a reclamation project, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see Carolina opt for the aforementioned William Moore or Kansas City's Tyvon Branch to compete with 2014 fourth-rounder Tre Boston for the starting job.
1. Extend Drew Brees to create cap space. The Saints already have one of the worst cap situations in all of football, so while I might be tempted to blow things up and start over, the organization isn't approaching things that way. With that in mind, let's try to play the cards that have already been dealt in New Orleans to build the best possible Saints team for 2016 and the immediate future, given their imposing cap constraints.
That starts by extending their star quarterback, who has the league's largest cap hold in the final year of his contract. The Saints would be committing $30 million to Brees if they decided against extending him, which is staggering given that only two other players in the league have cap hits of more than $25 million -- and they (Ndamukong Suh and Joe Flacco) both have deals that are almost sure to be restructured or ripped up this offseason.
The Saints would likely look at the four-year, $84 million extension signed by Eli Manning in New York as a baseline for Brees' deal; part of the equation would be hoping that Brees takes what amounts to a pay cut to stay in his adopted home. With $10.9 million of his 2016 salary already guaranteed, the Saints would have to structure the deal in a way that pushes much of Brees' signing bonus to 2017, creating badly needed cap space this year. Fortunately, that's common contract structure for the Saints. Given that Brees surely wants to go out a winner, a modest pay cut as part of a new deal would make sense for both sides.
2. Release Brandon Browner and Marques Colston. The Saints have just $2 million in cap space before any possible Brees extension. Even if they can carve out $10 million in room by giving Brees a new deal, they need to free up cash elsewhere. That starts by letting go of a couple of veterans.
Browner's year in New Orleans was disastrous, as he lapped the league by committing 21 penalties. Nobody else had more than 13. That alone would have been enough to make the former Seahawks star a serious problem, but Browner also was regularly beat in coverage downfield. The Saints would create $2.3 million in space by designating him as a post-June 1 release -- Browner hinted in a tweet earlier this month that he wouldn't return to New Orleans -- and add an additional $3.2 million in room by releasing the 32-year-old Colston, who had just 45 catches in his worst season as a pro.
3. Re-sign Benjamin Watson. One of the few bright spots for the Saints in 2015, the 35-year-old Watson surprisingly had his most productive season, long after what was presumed to be his peak. He finished the year with career highs in catches (74), receiving yards (825) and touchdowns (six), and while it would be foolhardy to expect him to pull that off again, New Orleans' top three tight ends are all free agents this offseason. Finding common ground with Watson on a one-year deal makes sense.
4. Work on an extension for Terron Armstead. A massive project when the Saints took him in the third round of the 2013 draft, Armstead has continued to develop into a promising left tackle. Saints tackles are going to look better than they actually are because of how effective Brees is at getting the football out quickly -- look at how previous left tackles Charles Brown and Jermon Bushrod flopped elsewhere after leaving New Orleans for greener pastures -- but Armstead is one of the few young players the Saints can hold on to as a worthwhile contributor. As Armstead enters the final year of his rookie deal, Saints GM Mickey Loomis will need to find a way to keep Armstead in the bayou for years to come.
5. Don't trade any draft picks. The Saints reversed course last year, dealing away veterans Jimmy Graham, Kenny Stills and Ben Grubbs while acquiring additional picks in the 2015 draft. It hasn't helped in the short term, but given the cap hell they find themselves in, the Saints badly need as many cheap, competent players as possible to rebuild, both in the short term and long term. As tempting as it might be to deal away picks for veteran help -- having already dealt away their sixth-rounder to move up in last year's draft and grab Damian Swann -- Loomis and coach Sean Payton need to keep the picks they have left to continue rebuilding the roster.
1. Cut Alterraun Verner, Bruce Carter and Evan Smith. An annual rite of passage for the Bucs is culling the free-agent mistakes from years past, and here, they will need to do the same. Verner and Smith both lost their jobs during the year (although Verner eventually regained his), while Carter -- expected to start at linebacker -- never actually won one to begin with. The moves would clear $13.5 million in cap space without putting a cent of dead money on Tampa's cap. The Bucs don't necessarily need the cash (they have $50 million in cap space heading into free agency), but it's money better applied elsewhere -- you know, to new free-agent mistakes.
2. Wait out the market to re-sign Doug Martin. Speculation has it that Martin, who had a surprising return to form during an impressive 2015 campaign, will look for a DeMarco Murray-sized contract in free agency. If that's the case, the Buccaneers can't re-sign Martin. The evidence against locking up Martin, of course, is that the Eagles would love to get out of the Murray contract right now if they could. (In fact, the Bucs would be better off letting Martin leave and dealing a conditional seventh-rounder to the Eagles for Murray, if that were to happen.)
More likely is that Martin will hit the market and find his price tag is closer to $4 million or so per year as opposed to $8 million. At that price, a return to Tampa would make sense for both sides. The Bucs have a long-term option in Charles Sims, but Martin's success under Dirk Koetter and his success forming a rotation with Sims would seem to justify that more modest raise. Again, there's $50 million in cap space here; might as well use it on somebody who won't make Bucs fans throw out their jerseys.
3. Don't cut Vincent Jackson. Likewise, the same cap-space argument is there for Tampa's veteran wideout. While Jackson appears to be on the downside of his career at 33, the Buccaneers have a ton of cap room and no obvious replacement on their roster. Jackson is overpaid with a cap hit of $12.2 million, but while Tampa would save $9.8 million by releasing the former Chargers star, it would only open up a starting job for somebody like Donteea Dye or Louis Murphy. The Bucs are better off finding a receiver in this year's draft and letting him work his way into the lineup before moving on from Jackson.
4. Target a No. 1 pass-rusher. As dangerous as it is to tell the Buccaneers to spend heavily in free agency, they badly need to go after an edge rusher. Getting by with the likes of William Gholston and Jacquies Smith just isn't a viable option in a division with Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Cam Newton. Even if it doesn't work -- and if Tampa's free-agent history tells us anything, it won't work -- the Bucs have to invest in a top-tier defensive end to give former Falcons coach Mike Smith some hope as Tampa's new defensive coordinator.
That means investing at the very top of the market. It might not be fun paying a premium for Olivier Vernon, who has just one double-digit sack campaign during his four years in Miami, but the Bucs don't really have a choice. Maybe they go after Mario Williams if the Bills cut the former first overall pick. If there's anything Tampa needs to do with its cap space this offseason, it involves finding a pass rush.
5. Target a No. 2 pass-rusher. No, really. Let's not stop there. The Bucs should be in the market for whatever they can find. Bring Jason Pierre-Paul back to Florida. Go after Tamba Hali. Take a shot on a rotational edge rusher like Wallace Gilberry. Forget the No. 1/No. 2 ordering. Just try to sign them all. Offer the Broncos your pirate ship to let Von Miller leave. The Buccaneers were 26th in pass defense DVOA last year; team up a couple of viable edge rushers with Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David, and this could be a very good defense very quickly.