The NFL offseason is upon us. Most of the league has spent January thinking about what it’s going to do in the player-acquisition period stretching through the end of April, and while the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams are a little behind the pack, I suspect they aren’t too upset about having to catch up.
Over the next two weeks, I’m going to detail the first five moves I think every team should target this offseason. I’ll begin in the NFC West, work my way east, and then catch up with the AFC next week. Let’s start with the team holding the first overall pick in April’s draft. Check out the full schedule below.
Tuesday, Feb. 12: NFC West
Wednesday, Feb. 13: NFC South
Thursday, Feb. 14: NFC North
Friday, Feb. 15: NFC East
1. Address the offensive line (again). Every move the Cardinals have made to try to fix their offensive line issues over the past several seasons has seemed to bust, mostly thanks to injury. Free agents such as Mike Iupati and Justin Pugh haven’t stayed healthy. D.J. Humphries, a first-round pick in 2015, spent his first season in Bruce Arians’ doghouse before struggling with injuries; he has played just 27 of 64 possible games over four seasons. By the end of 2018, rookie quarterback Josh Rosen was playing behind a line of five backups. Imagine if your first student driving lesson involved merging onto the track at Talladega.
Re-signing Joe Barksdale, who arrived as a midseason waiver claim from the Chargers, is a reasonable place to start. The Cards won’t re-sign Iupati after a disappointing stint in Arizona, and given new coach Kliff Kingsbury’s predilection for throwing the football, they’ll want someone who is a better pass-blocker on the interior.
Humphries is a difficult case, as the Florida product is entering his fifth-year option and coming off of a season-ending knee injury, which might prevent him from passing a physical. If Humphries can’t, Arizona will be on the hook for his $9.6 million option. If Humphries can pass a physical, the team can choose to cut him, but it has no obvious replacement for Humphries at left tackle.
Then again, according to Stats LLC, Humphries has allowed 12 sacks in 27 starts, including five in nine games last season. The Cardinals might as well keep him around and see if there’s anything there in a rebuilding year, but they need to have a Plan B they’re comfortable with if Humphries doesn’t suddenly find his form.
2. Resolve Patrick Peterson‘s future. While Peterson retracted the trade request he made around the October deadline, the Cardinals are in a bit of a quandary when it comes to their superstar cornerback. He has two years and just under $24 million left on the five-year, $70 million extension he signed in the summer of 2014, which is relatively cheap for a franchise cornerback.
Peterson’s next deal is likely going to reset the cornerback market, which is topped by the five-year, $75 million deal Josh Norman signed with Washington in 2016. Peterson turns 29 in July, so if Arizona waits until next offseason, it will be mostly paying for years on the wrong side of 30, and those seasons might very well be coming for a rebuilding franchise.
The best time to do something about Peterson’s future is now. If the Cardinals don’t think they want to pay Peterson top-tier money for his age-31 and age-32 seasons, this is when he’ll have the most trade value. If they want to sign Peterson to an extension, now’s the time. Assuming that the first three years of Peterson’s new deal will be fully or practically guaranteed, it’s better to use the two years of below-market money they have as leverage to lock up Peterson from ages 29 to 31 as opposed to ages 30 to 32. A five-year, $80 million extension with $40 million guaranteed at signing would be a good place to start.
3. Find more cornerback help. Arizona hasn’t been able to solve its cornerback spot across from Peterson for several years now, with everyone from Justin Bethel to Marcus Cooper to Tramon Williams filling in for short stints. By the end of the year, Raiders castoff David Amerson was starting.
Arizona tried to beat the market to the punch by signing former Falcons corner Robert Alford to a three-year, $22.5 million deal last week. Counting on Alford when he was one of the worst starting corners in the league in 2018 is a dangerous proposition. At the least, they should be looking for a corner in the second-to-third round range to develop behind the 30-year-old Alford. It would be easier to find that corner if the Cards …
4. Trade the No. 1 overall pick for multiple selections. They won’t be taking a quarterback with Rosen already on the roster. It will be tempting to keep the top pick in this draft and use it on a defensive difference-maker such as Ohio State’s Nick Bosa or Alabama’s Quinnen Williams, both of whom profile as absolute studs and wonderful complements to Chandler Jones.
In a draft this deep with defensive talent — Mel Kiper Jr.’s first mock draft has 16 front-seven pieces going in the first round — the value in using the first overall pick on a defensive player just is not there. There are no sure things in any draft, and the Cardinals can find a pass-rusher who isn’t likely to be far off from Bosa later in the first round.
More importantly, though, the Cardinals simply need to stockpile talent after years of poor drafts. There’s nobody left on the roster from the 2012 draft that preceded Steve Keim’s promotion to general manager. Once free agency begins, no player from Keim’s 2013 or 2014 drafts will be left in the organization. The 2015 draft will be down to Humphries and David Johnson. The 2016 draft is down to Robert Nkemdiche and Brandon Williams, both of whom have been wildly disappointing.
Keim’s 2017 draft was more promising, and it’s still way too early to judge the 2018 class, but the Cardinals have one above-average starter and three athletes who haven’t been healthy or effective to show for five years of drafts. They need to amass draft picks and rebuild their roster. They need to hope that somebody falls in love with a quarterback and doesn’t want to run any risk of another team trading up with the 49ers at two. If Arizona can get an extra first-rounder or a pair of second-rounders to move down, it needs to seriously consider that offer.
5. Add another wide receiver capable of playing on the outside. Arizona’s two best wideouts are Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk. They’re both best suited to play in the slot at this point in their careers, and there’s not much doing for the Cardinals on the outside. Fitz spent more time in the slot in 2018, where he caught 47 of his 69 receptions.
If this is the 35-year-old Fitzgerald’s final season, the Cardinals will likely prepare for 2020 with Kirk in the slot and question marks on the outside. Chad Williams, a third-round pick in 2017, caught just 37 percent of the passes thrown to him a year ago and hasn’t shown much in the NFL. Bringing in a receiver who can win at the line of scrimmage, either in free agency or via the draft, should be a priority in aiding Rosen’s development.
1. Convince Andrew Whitworth to come back. The easiest way for the Rams to disappoint in 2019 is for their offensive line to take a step backward. We saw how Sean McVay’s offense ground to a half amid a poor performance from their line in Super Bowl LIII, and with no experienced replacement for Whitworth on the roster (and just one top-95 pick in the draft), the Rams desperately need their 37-year-old left tackle to put off retirement and return for another season.
What will it take to convince Whitworth to stay? As he enters the final year of his three-year contract, the Rams could give Whitworth a one-year extension with a raise in 2019 to start. Is he sick of the Los Angeles traffic? Owner Stan Kroenke has to have a spare helicopter laying around somewhere. Let Whitworth commute on the chopper. Is there a Yoshinoya black card? Whatever it takes.
2. Bring back Rodger Saffold and C.J. Anderson. Might as well keep the left side of the line intact, and at 30, Saffold should still have several years left in the tank. There might still be a team out there that looks at him as a possible tackle candidate, but Saffold is probably looking at a deal in the $11-12 million annual salary range.
Anderson and Los Angeles seems like a good fit for all parties involved after the former Broncos back came off the street and excelled in December and January. The Rams shouldn’t go over $3 million per season to retain him, but as an insurance policy against Todd Gurley‘s knee — which, he’ll be happy to tell you, is fine and definitely not injured — Anderson is a helpful backup.
3. Trade down from the 31st pick. Teams will buzz the Rams on the end of Day 1 in the hopes of trading back into the first round, which has the advantage of providing teams with a fifth-year option. The Rams will want to make the pick, of course, but this is a team that has traded away most of its top draft picks to either draft Jared Goff or build around him.
It’s more important that L.A. comes away with two or three solid contributors from this draft who can succeed for cheap over the next few seasons than go after one player with a slightly stronger chance of becoming a star, especially as the team continues to lock in the core of this squad. If the Rams can get a team picking in the top half of the round to send them second-round picks in 2019 and 2020, they should jump at the chance.
4. Sign Clay Matthews and wait out the market on veterans. Matthews is almost too obvious of a fit. The Rams are thin on the edge and probably won’t be able to afford to bring back Dante Fowler Jr. Matthews grew up in Southern California and walked on at USC, where his home stadium was the Rams’ current home. Matthews’ numbers are down in recent years, but joining the Rams would allow him to play as a full-time edge rusher. The inside linebacker work Matthews did in Green Bay also should depress his price to the point where the Rams can afford to bring in Matthews on a one-year deal.
Every veteran player who wants a meaningful shot at winning a Super Bowl is going to tell their agent they want to come play for the Rams this offseason. The Rams will likely sit out most of free agency to avoid impacting their standing in the compensatory pick formula, but they’ll target players who are cut by their current teams, since those players won’t count against the compensatory formula.
Who does that mean? At wide receiver, the Rams could stash a wideout like Emmanuel Sanders on the physically unable to perform list to have depth in case of, say, another Cooper Kupp injury. If the Vikings cut Everson Griffen, another former USC product, the Rams would loom as an obvious destination. Justin Houston also would make sense. There will be surprise cuts, as there are every year, and the Rams will presumably have first dibs on any of those. They should have enough clout to encourage some veterans to hold off on signing until after July 1, when the moves won’t touch the compensatory formula.
5. Don’t extend Jared Goff this offseason. Teams have the option of extending their first-round picks with long-term deals after the end of their third seasons in the league. In most cases, they wait a year and reap the benefits of a fourth season priced in at well below market value. The exceptions are generally for transcendent superstars such as J.J. Watt and Patrick Peterson.
The Rams are the exception to the exception: They’ve done several fourth-year extensions under GM Les Snead, including Tavon Austin, Robert Quinn and, most recently, Gurley. You can see how those moves went. Austin was a disastrous contract from the jump. Quinn fell off dramatically after a 19-sack season in Year 3, although he looked like an absolute star. Gurley was an MVP candidate for half of 2018, but he was struggling by the end of the season with a mysterious knee injury, and the Rams didn’t skip a beat when they replaced Gurley with Anderson.
It’s too early to evaluate the Gurley deal, but as we get to Goff’s future, look no further than the Super Bowl. The Patriots flummoxed Goff in a way that might end up being telling. He made a few excellent anticipatory throws, but he spent most of the game out of rhythm waiting for somebody to get open.
Earlier this year, I brought up the idea of a team constantly remaining on the rookie quarterback cycle by drafting a quarterback, developing him into a star, and then trading him at the end of his rookie deal for a high draft pick to repeat the process. The right team would have a brilliant offensive mind for a head coach and oodles of offensive talent, players the team otherwise would have to let go to pay their quarterback a premium.
The Rams are the most obvious example for this concept, although it’s clear they believe Goff is a bona fide franchise quarterback. I don’t think the Rams will hop back on the rookie passer cycle. I don’t think they should trade Goff at the end of his rookie deal, either. I don’t know if any team will ever have the guts to do it, because getting that rookie quarterback evaluation wrong as a GM means you’re getting fired and becoming the butt of jokes for a decade. It’s too much pressure.
At the same time, I don’t think Goff is such an obvious perennial Offensive Player of the Year candidate that the Rams need to start extending him immediately. It has to at least be a little concerning that Goff’s numbers fell off once Kupp was injured, especially because Kupp is the exact sort of luxury the Rams would struggle to keep around at the going rate for wide receivers once they give Goff a raise.
There’s no rush here. Get another year of information, and if Goff is the player the Rams think he is, they’ll still have tons of leverage to extend him after Year 4. The Rams can use their cap space now to add veteran talent or roll it over to have extra money when Goff does get expensive. And if Goff does take a step backward in 2019, well, it could save the Rams from a Derek Carr-esque conundrum.
1. Move on from Pierre Garcon, Garry Gilliam and Malcolm Smith. It’s almost a lock that the 49ers will move on from the 32-year-old Garcon, who has struggled with injuries during his two years in San Francisco while being passed on the depth chart. Gilliam, who served as the backup tackle behind Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey, played just 8 percent of San Francisco’s offense snaps last season and has a cap charge north of $5 million in 2019. Smith was a bizarrely expensive signing in 2017, missed all of that season with a torn pectoral muscle, and then started only five games in 2018.
Those three moves will clear out about $7.3 million in cap space and get the 49ers to just over $70 million in room.
2. Franchise Robbie Gould. The 49ers can work out a long-term deal with their 36-year-old kicker, of course, but with no other realistic options for the franchise tag, GM John Lynch can keep Gould around for 2019. Gould was the seventh-best kicker in football on scoring plays last year.
3. Pursue a cornerback in free agency. Although Richard Sherman was a success in his first season by the Bay and K’Waun Williams has rounded into a solid slot cornerback, the other corner spot has been an issue. Ahkello Witherspoon regressed in his second season before tearing his PCL, and while 2018 third-rounder Tarvarius Moore came up with the occasional big play in Witherspoon’s absence, he also looked like a rookie for stretches, too.
In a division with the Rams, three good cornerbacks are the minimum. Sherman also has already suggested that a move to free safety could eventually be in the cards, although it doesn’t appear that such a move would be likely to occur in 2019. Either way, the 49ers should be in the market for a cornerback this offseason.
Sadly for the Niners, this cornerback market isn’t exactly filled with sure things. Assuming the 49ers want somebody with size for coordinator Robert Saleh’s scheme, the two most obvious fits would be Colts corner Pierre Desir and Patriots regular Eric Rowe, each of whom are 6-foot-1. Desir is coming off a career year in Indy, while Rowe has a longer track record but hasn’t been able to stay healthy. The former Eagles draftee has missed 27 games over the past three seasons. Good money on a team-friendly structure might be the way to go here.
There are much more obvious fits at free safety, where the market is far deeper. The most tantalizing move would be to reunite the Legion of Boom by signing away Earl Thomas from the Seahawks, although the future Hall of Famer hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2015 and turns 30 in May. Thomas would be a plug-and-play free safety, with Jaquiski Tartt stepping in as the 49ers’ version of Kam Chancellor. Lamarcus Joyner, Tyrann Mathieu and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are also free agents the 49ers could pursue at the position.
4. Find a Leo. Although the 49ers have spent three first-round picks on defensive linemen over the past four seasons, they’ve managed to unearth only one excellent pass-rusher in defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who posted 12 sacks and 20 knockdowns in a breakout 2018 campaign. Cassius Marsh chipped in with 5.5 sacks, but everything up to this point has suggested that Marsh is a better fit as a rotation end.
The Seahawks-style defense Saleh runs in San Francisco is designed to work with an athletic weakside pass-rusher whose sole job is to ruin quarterbacks’ days. The 49ers haven’t really had a Leo since Saleh came on board, with players such as Elvis Dumervil and Eli Harold filling the role out of necessity’s sake. Former first-round picks Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas aren’t good fits in the Leo role. The 49ers need someone quicker and with more bend to get after the quarterback.
A great fit at Leo would be Nick Bosa, but he’s the favorite to come off the board with the first overall pick to the Cardinals, just ahead of San Francisco at No. 2. If Arizona trades out of the pick to a team that wants to draft a quarterback, well, the 49ers should be all set to draft Bosa. If not, the popular pick for the 49ers has been Kentucky edge rusher Josh Allen, but the Niners might also be able to trade down and grab an extra selection while still taking a pass-rusher somewhere in the 8-12 range.
5. Hold onto Nick Mullens. As far as practice-squad passers go, teams have done a lot worse than the 49ers did with Mullens at quarterback in 2018. He isn’t going to win the job from Jimmy Garoppolo anytime soon, but Mullens posted a 90.8 passer rating and averaged 8.3 yards per attempt with a set of skill-position weapons beset by injuries. The 49ers also have Mullens under contract for two more seasons at less than $1 million per year, given that the Southern Mississippi product will be an exclusive rights free agent in 2020.
At the least, he appears to be a competent backup quarterback, a role that teams usually pay something in the $6 million per year range to fill. Mullens has $10 million in surplus value on his current deal, let alone the implied value of what would happen if he continues to develop and turns into a viable starting quarterback. In a financial system in which cheap quarterbacks rule the world, Mullens has significant trade value.
In some cases, I would encourage a team like the 49ers to trust their coaching staff and scouts to find and develop another undrafted free agent like Mullens. I can’t do that here. When I wrote about Garoppolo before the 2018 season, I mentioned that we couldn’t be confident he would be healthy for a full season.
Garoppolo has now suffered two serious injuries in his three short stints as a starter, as the 27-year-old separated his shoulder in his second start with the Patriots in 2016 before tearing his ACL three games into the 2018 campaign. The 49ers have the talent to compete for a playoff spot if their team can stay healthy in 2019, and their highest upside is with a healthy Garoppolo, but it’s tough to be confident that he’ll be able to stay healthy for 16 games at a time. Mullens is too valuable of an insurance policy to trade away.
1. Put a full-page ad in the newspaper thanking Earl Thomas for his contributions. I want this to read “Franchise Earl Thomas” or “Pay Earl Thomas a lot of money,” but I think those ships sailed when the legendary Seahawks safety flipped off his own sideline as he was being carted off last season. It’s clear the Seahawks don’t want to offer Thomas a long-term contact, and the franchise tag wouldn’t make either party happy.
What the Seahawks can do, though, is try to repair the relationship for the future. Put an ad in The Seattle Times thanking Thomas for his incredible run with the team. Soft-retire his No. 29 and don’t give it to anyone else until Thomas retires. For whatever has happened over the past year, Thomas is one of the best players to ever wear a Seahawks uniform. Ten years from now, the stuff he did on the field is going to be his legacy. From here on out, it’s about attempting to create a scenario where both sides can feel good about celebrating that one day.
2. Franchise Frank Clark. While the Seahawks will likely look to retain several of their pending free agents — notably D.J. Fluker, J.R. Sweezy and Justin Coleman — Clark is the one free agent the Seahawks absolutely have to retain. In a class of edge rushers who are likely to stay on their current teams via the franchise tag, Clark will be in the mix alongside Jadeveon Clowney and DeMarcus Lawrence for extensions. Lawrence will make more because he’s on his second franchise tag, but if any of these guys sign an extension, it will be with an annual salary between $18 million and $20 million per year.
3. Extend Russell Wilson. The Seahawks went with a run-heavy approach in 2018 that minimized Wilson’s impact on the offense — he threw just 427 passes in 16 games after averaging 527 over the prior three seasons — but Wilson made up for it with hyper-efficiency. He’s not showing any signs of slippage at 30, and while Wilson would find it extremely difficult to toss touchdown passes on 8.2 percent of his dropbacks again in 2019, he remains one of the league’s truly elite quarterbacks when not forced to run for his life before even receiving the snap.
The Seahawks have tended to favor four-year extensions under GM John Schneider, so it’s likely that Seattle will hand Wilson a large signing bonus and lock him up until his age-34 campaign. With Aaron Rodgers averaging $33.5 million in annual salary and $103 million over the first three years of his extension with the Packers, the obvious number to look for here is $35 million per season. A four-year, $140 million extension is eventually where this should settle.
4. Extend Bobby Wagner too. The Seahawks probably will let K.J. Wright hit free agency this offseason, but it’s difficult to imagine them letting Wagner leave next offseason. Negotiations won’t be quite as cut and dried as they are with Wilson because of positional scarcity, but Wagner is still rightly regarded as arguably the best player at his position in football.
The gold standard deal for a linebacker who doesn’t rush the passer is Jamie Collins‘ four-year, $50 million deal from January 2017. I think the Seahawks probably will have to top that as part of a Wagner extension, given that the five-time Pro Bowler is already making north of $10 million per season on his current extension. Going to $15 million per season is too ambitious, but Wagner’s new four-year extension should come in between $52 million and $56 million.
5. Sign Muhammad Wilkerson. The extensions probably will limit much of what the Seahawks can do in free agency, and unless they want to sign a free safety to replace Thomas, there aren’t many great matches between where the Seahawks would want to spend money and useful players.
One logical place to target would be defensive tackle, where the Seahawks have been struggling with their decisions for years. Malik McDowell, the team’s second-round pick in 2017, never played a snap for the team after reportedly suffering serious injuries in an ATV accident. The injury led the Seahawks to trade a second-round pick and Jermaine Kearse for Sheldon Richardson, who left for the Vikings on a one-year deal in free agency. Shamar Stephen left something to be desired next to Jarran Reed, and while Poona Ford has flashed in brief moments, the Seahawks should add at least one veteran to their rotation.
Wilkerson, who looked good for the Packers last season before going down with a serious ankle injury, is probably going to settle for a one-year deal in the hopes of rebuilding his value. He would make sense as the latest Seahawks transplant on the interior.