NFC Notes: Bucs, Peterson, FAs

The Buccaneers‘ path from 2-14 back to respectability may not be that far away, writes ESPN’s Mike Sando in an insider piece (subscription required). Citing the likely arrival of Jameis Winston and the potential upgrade from Mike Glennon/Josh McCown at sports’ premier position along with new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter potentially being the best coordinator hire in the league, the Bucs’ re-emergence may not be that far away. One anonymous source is certain Winston is a better player than Marcus Mariota, once thought as the pick here.

[Mariota] is very similar to Colin Kaepernick but probably has a little better arm because Kaep is so low with his release all the time,” a veteran NFL offensive coach told Sando. “[Mariota] has more arm angles but always throws it flat. Winston will throw it perfectly with enough arc and zip to get it up and down before the safety arrives. He has a real natural feel. He is the guy who can pick up any ball and play any sport and beat you.

In other matters …

  • Vikings GM Rick Spielman offered praise for Adrian Peterson despite the trouble that could mark his exit from Minnesota, the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Sid Hartman reported. The soon-to-be 30-year-old runner recently returned to the commissioner’s exempt list after this week’s ruling to overturn his suspension.”Everybody talks about the 30-year-old back, but he didn’t have any hits on his body last year and he is different,” Spielman said of the 2012 MVP. “Just very unique from a physical stature standpoint and just he has unique traits that you don’t see very often come through the NFL. I suspect Adrian is going to have a great year next year.”
  • NFC West free agent departures could include Mike Iupati, Frank Gore, Dan Williams and Byron Maxwell, and USA Today’s Nate Davis examines each team’s scenario. Among the takeaways, the 49ers allowing both Iupati and Michael Crabtree to leave are advised, as is the Cardinals finding a way to keep improving nose tackle Dan Williams.
  • Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin charts running backs’ career swoons — as well as the long-term deals that gave the Cowboys cap trouble in recent years — around age 29 to illustrate why the Cowboys need to separate from DeMarco Murray despite his monstrous contract-year campaign. Murray will be 27 next season and is the top running back on the market.

Extra Points: Jackson, Raiders, NFL Rosters

Earlier today, we learned that the Buccaneers would keep receiver Vincent Jackson on their 2015 roster without asking him to accept a pay cut or a contract restructure. After speaking to an executive with another NFL team, Ian Rapoport of NFL.com reports that those around the league believe Tampa’s decision could lead to a “market reset” for receivers. In essence, players like Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe, or Percy Harvin, all of whom could be asked to accept a pay reduction in the near future, could refuse, citing Jackson as an example. The 32-year-old Jackson had a down season in 2014, but he’ll still earn $9.7MM in base salary next year.

Elsewhere around the league …

  • The league is considering expanding roster sizes from 53 to 55 players, a source informed Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio. Fifty-three-man rosters (45 active players on game days) have been the standard in the NFL since 1993, when rosters ballooned from 47 to 53 in the first year of modern free agency. Although this will mean a bit more money to allocate to players, 10 NFL teams are below the salary floor of 89 percent that must be used from the 2013-16 seasons and haven’t had to spend as much on rookies in recent years. Practice squads went in this direction last year, expanding from eight to 10 players.
  • Speaking of that salary floor, some of this decade’s doormats will use that initiative to splurge on top free agents, ESPN’s John Clayton writes in his mailbag. The Jaguars and Raiders have over $120MM of salary cap space between them, and some of that cash needs to be spent this season to fall in line with the CBA’s four-year floor, which both teams are well under at 80 percent spending (Jaguars) and 82 percent (Raiders). Dallas and Washington also appear on the list of off-the-pace spenders. That comes not via the thriftiness of Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder, but from those owners’ free spending — and subsequent cap penalties — in the uncapped 2010.
  • The Jets are also in that insufficient-spending bracket and are in strong cap position ($51MM+ over) with only free agent starter, David Harris. Explaining why the Jets should retain the longtime starting linebacker while allowing exits of Michael Vick, Dawan Landry and their other top free agents, the New York Daily News’ Seth Walder takes a look at Gang Green’s offseason approach.

Sam Robinson contributed to this report

 

 

NFC Links: Lynch, Eagles, Packers

Marshawn Lynch offered fans a rare glimpse into his thought process, and it contradicts his post-Super Bowl assessment.

The Seahawks running back decided to use a Turkish television station, although CSNNE’s Phil Perry breaks down the interview, to express his stance on not receiving a goal-line carry to potentially lift Seattle to a second straight championship.

To be honest with you, I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that I was expecting the ball,” Lynch told the Turkish station. “Yes, I was expecting the ball. But in life, these things happen. Like I told a reporter after the game, it’s a team sport.”

This surprising insight comes exactly a month after Lynch told ESPN’s Jim Trotter he wasn’t dismayed by not getting a carry on a play that instead resulted in Malcolm Butler‘s game-sealing interception. Currently in Turkey, Lynch also gave weight to the notion, albeit in a roundabout manner, that Pete Carroll didn’t want him to win the MVP award.

I mean, you know . . . I think it was more of a . . . how do I say this? When you look at me, and you let me run that ball in . . . I am the face of the nation. You know, MVP of the Super Bowl . . . that’s pretty much the face of the nation at that point of time,” Lynch said.

Lynch remains under contract with the Seahawks for one more season, although the mercurial runner has yet to accepted a reported extension offer, which clouds his future.

In other news …

Broncos To Place Franchise Tag On Demaryius Thomas

Barring any unforeseen contract agreement, the Broncos will place the franchise tag on receiver Demaryius Thomas tomorrow, reports Mike Klis of the Denver Post. The tag will guarantee Thomas approximately $12.797MM for the 2015 season.

Per Klis, the Broncos will use the more popular non-exclusive franchise tag, which will allow Thomas to have talks with other teams but will entitle Denver to two first-round picks if they decide to not match an offer sheet. As Klis notes, this is highly unlikely to happen, so Thomas is almost certainly a lock to play for the Broncos in 2015.

Denver was widely expected to use the tag, and speaking at the combine earlier this month, Broncos general manager John Elway confirmed that the club would utilize the tag on Thomas if a long-term contract could not be worked out. Elway said the the team would still like to work out an extension with Thomas, and now the two sides will have until July 15 to negotiate a multi-year agreement.

The 27-year-old Thomas was set to be a part of a loaded free agent receiver crop, which includes Dez Bryant (who is also expected to be tagged tomorrow), Jeremy Maclin, Randall Cobb, and Torrey Smith. Thomas, who finished last season with 111 receptions for 1,619 yards and 11 touchdowns, would have been in line for a contract averaging close to $14MM per season. A long-term deal with the Broncos should come close to that figure, but with Denver now holding the leverage, the AAV expectations might be tempered.

Thomas has shown some willingness to take a hometown discount, indicating that he enjoys playing with future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning. But Manning, at age 38, could be entering his final season in the NFL, and it’s unclear if Thomas would show the same inclination to stay in Denver were Manning retired.

After accounting for the franchise tag, the Broncos are projected to have about $16.5MM of cap space to work with as free agency approaches. The club and Manning are reportedly discussing some sort of contract restructure, so Denver could conceivably carve out a little extra financial room. As Klis reported earlier today, the Broncos are expected to be active participants in free agency, targeting help at offensive line, tight end, and safety, but they aren’t expected to retain some of their own free agents, such as Julius Thomas, Terrance Knighton, and Orlando Franklin.

Both Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant were long believed to contenders for the franchise tag, and now other clubs will have until tomorrow to decide whether to apply their own tag. Justin Houston (Chiefs) and Jason Pierre-Paul (Giants) are each expected to be tagged by their respective teams, while Devin McCourty (Patriots) and Jerry Hughes (Bills) are also candidates for the tag. Check out PFR’s Luke Adams’ recap of all the franchise tag candidates here.

AFC Notes: Fins, Broncos, FA Targets, Ravens

Always among the biggest players in free agency, the Dolphins will look to fill several holes when the new league year begins next week. Corner, defensive tackle, and linebacker are among the positions that could use upgrades in South Beach, and Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald offers several names that could be of interest to the Fins. Per Jackson, the Dolphins have internally discussed both Kareem Jackson and Brandon Flowers at corner, and the club also wants to re-sign Jimmy Wilson.

Along the defensive line, Miami is interested in Tom Johnson, Corey Peters, and Terrance Knighton, the latter of whom, as Jackson adds, will be the most expensive. Kenrick Ellis is viewed as a “backup option,” while Haloti Ngata will be on the Dolphins’ radar if he’s released by the Ravens. At linebacker, Jackson has previously reported that Miami is intrigued by David Harris, Mason Foster, and Dan Skuta.

Here’s more from the AFC:

  • Like the Dolphins, the Broncos are expected to be heavily involved in free agency, as they have been for the duration of GM John Elway’s reign. According to Mike Klis of the Denver Post, the Broncos will target a variety of positions next week, with offensive line, safety, tight end, and defensive end among them. Center Rodney Hudson, edge defender Pernell McPhee, and and tight end Charles Clay all figure to spark Denver’s interest, per Klis, who adds that center is the one position where the Broncos will surely add a high-profile free agent.
  • Ravens cornerback Victor Hampton was arrested for DWI last night, tweets Jeff Zrebiec of the Baltimore Sun. Hampton was signed to a futures deal in January, and given Baltimore’s low-tolerance for off-the-field incidents at the moment, Aaron Wilson of the Sun (via Twitter) doesn’t see Hampton ever setting foot on a field for the Ravens.
  • The Raiders haven’t officially released safety Tyvon Branch, leading Jason Fitzgerald of Over The Cap to believe (Twitter link) that Branch will be designated a post-June 1 cut. Such releases can’t be formalized until the new league year begins next week.
  • In a full-length piece, Fitzgerald takes a look at the Colts’ cap situation as they head into free agency. Check out PFR’s Connor Byrne’s Indianapolis outlook here.

Offseason Outlook: Arizona Cardinals

Pending free agents:

Top 10 2015 cap hits:

  1. Patrick Peterson, CB: $14,791,200
  2. Calais Campbell, DL: $14,750,000
  3. Carson Palmer, QB: $14,500,000
  4. Larry Fitzgerald, WR: $10,850,000
  5. Jared Veldheer, T: $8,500,000
  6. Daryl Washington, ILB: $6,500,000
  7. Jerraud Powers, CB: $5,350,000
  8. Lyle Sendlein, C: $4,275,000
  9. Jonathan Cooper, G: $3,967,909
  10. Drew Stanton, QB: $3,866,668

Notable coaching changes:

Draft:

  • No. 24 overall pick
  • No traded picks

Other:

Overview

For the second straight season, Bruce Arians and the Cardinals were surprise contenders, but unlike the 2013 season, when Arizona won 10 games only to finish outside the playoff picture, the Cardinals managed 11 wins, earning a posLarry Fitzgeraldtseason berth via a wild card spot. Arians won Coach of the Year (for the second time in three years), and both he and general manager Steve Keim inked contract extensions that will keep the pair in in Phoenix through 2019.

Of course, Arizona didn’t win that aforementioned playoff game, losing to the Panthers largely due to the absence of a viable quarterback. Just two days after signing a three-year extension, Carson Palmer tore his ACL, leaving backup Drew Stanton to take over in the middle of Week 10. After Stanton then went down in Week 15, journeyman Ryan Lindley was forced to take over, and Arizona never recovered.

The Cardinals thrived on the other side of the ball, where despite numerous injuries and a yearlong suspension of linebacker Daryl Washington, the defense finished seventh in DVOA under coordinator Todd Bowles, who has since taken a head coaching position with the Jets.

Key Free Agents

Most of Arizona’s top free agents reside on defense, where Keim has made a habit of adding low-cost veterans to supplement a talented core. One such addition was cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who signed a one-year, $4MM pact with Arizona after being released by the Jets. The 30-year-old played more than 1,000 snaps in the desert in 2014, and he looks to be line for a multi-year deal. Keim indicated that the club would like to-resign Cromartie, but allowed that he’s likely to hit free agency. A reunion with Bowles and the Jets is certainly on the table, especially if New York loses out on Darrelle Revis.

At 27, Dan Williams will hit free agency at a younger age than Cromartie, and he’s coming off a better season, having finished No. 14 among 81 qualified defensive tackles per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Williams is part of a loaded interior defensive line class, which also boasts Ndamukong Suh, Terrance Knighton, and Nick Fairley, among others. But aside from Knighton, who’s spent his career in a 4-3 defense, and B.J. Raji, who seems likely to return to the Packers, Williams is the only true nose tackle available on the open market. He should find many offers once free agency begins, and it’s possible he’ll price himself out of Arizona’s range.

Tommy Kelly is seven years older than Williams, but his 2014 production showed no hint of an advanced age. After being released by the Patriots at cutdowns, Kelly signed a one-year deal with the Cardinals that netted him less than $1MM. The veteran defensive lineman ended up playing more than 700 snaps, and performed well. But given his age, he shouldn’t command too much of a market, meaning Arizona could have a chance to bring him back.

Two linebackers — Sam Acho and John Abraham — hit free agency at very different points in their respective careers. The 27-year-old Acho played nearly 500 snaps and held up well, especially against the run, and could be a nice find for a LB-needy club in free agency; the link between he and Bowles is obvious, but Acho would make sense for the Jets. Abraham, meanwhile, was placed on injured reserve in September after doctors told him to sit out a year following a concussion. He’ll be 37 in May, and it appears as though retirement is the best option for him given his head injuries.

On offense, the Cardinals have just one pending free agent — guard Paul Fanaika — who played more than 400 snaps. He was underwhelming in 2014, placing No. 71 among 78 guard qualifiers per PFF. The free agent guard class recently saw some newcomers, as Todd Herremans, Justin Blalock, and Charlie Johnson were all released in recent days, so Arizona can probably find an upgrade if they’d like. It’s probably time to give 2013 first-round pick Jonathan Cooper a chance to start, so Fanaika shouldn’t return regardless.

Tight end Rob Housler saw limited duty as the backup to John Carlson, and wasn’t overly effective when he did play. The Cardinals spent a second-rounder on Troy Niklas in 2014, so I’d expect them to bid farewell to Housler, especially given they’ve been linked to free agent James Casey.

Possible Cap Casualties

The Cardinals have already been among the most active teams in advance of the new league year, releasing both Darnell Dockett and Ted Ginn Jr., and agreeing to a new deal with Larry Fitzgerald that will keep the veteran receiver in Arizona for the next two years. Still, the club has only about $14.3MM in cap space, so further moves could be coming.

Center Lyle Sendlein was possibly the worst player on the Cardinals’ offense, as he finished the year with a -31.3 PFF grade. Soon to be 31, Sendlein is scheduled to count $4.275MM in 2015, the final year of his deal. Releasing Sendlein would save Arizona $3.15MM, and although the free agent center market isn’t strong, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the team seek out an upgrade on the open market or via the draft.

Stanton could also be on the chopping block, as he’s due to count more than $3.8MM next season — Arizona would save $3.2MM by cutting him. But given the uncertainty regarding Palmer and his recovery, and the team’s utter lack of QB options elsewhere on the roster, Stanton will probably be safe.

Carlson, entering the final season of a two-year contract, was especially ineffective in 2014, struggling in nearly every aspect of the game — he was PFF’s third-worst TE, and his run-blocking was particularly sub-par. The Cardinals could clear nearly his entire cap figure by releasing him, and given their cap situation, having another $1.6MM to work with could be appetizing.

Positions Of Need

Without question, the Cardinals are a team set up to win now. With a 36-year-old quarterback, and an aging receiver locked in for two seasons, Arizona has a short window to remain a contender, so free agency decisions will need to focus on the short-term. Keim & Co. have done a wonderful job with under-the-radar signings in the past, and with less than $15MM to work with, the club will have to hope it can do the same again.

Offensive line should be the key area of concern heading into the new league year. Arizona added left tackle Jared Veldheer on a five-year deal last offseason, and he was certainly a stabilizing presence on the blind side. However, he was the only effective player along the Cards’ front five, as every other position was filled by a below-average lineman. If Sendlein isn’t retained, center could a priority, but as mentioned, there aren’t a ton of options at the position. Instead, the Cardinals could focus on guard — one spot could be handed to Cooper, with the other being filled by a free agent. The likes of Mike Iupati and Orlando Franklin are too expensive, but someone like Blalock could be a nice addition on a short-term deal.

At running back, Andre Ellington is a talented receiving option, but he might not be cut out to be a featured back. Luckily, RB is a position flush with free agent possibilities. If the Cardinals can’t land a big name like DeMarco Murray or (if he’s released/traded) Adrian Peterson, they can look at some lower-tier options, instead. Ryan Mathews would make a solid pairing with Ellington, although both share injury concerns. Mark Ingram could make sense for Arizona, or the club could take a chance on Stevan Ridley on a one-year, “prove-it” deal. In the draft, the Cardinals could look at either Todd Gurley or Melvin Gordon in the first round, or wait until later rounds to find a capable back.

If Cromartie leaves via free agency, the Cardinals could also have a hole to fill at CB. If the club wants to add another veteran to team with Patrick Peterson, someone like Chris Culliver or Brandon Flowers could be an option (although the latter might be a tad too expensive). Arizona could choose to invest in a younger player such as Davon House or Buster Skrine, but I’d guess that they’ll take the same approach they did with Cromartie, and wait for a veteran to fall into their lap. That could be Flowers if his market fails to develop, but 32-year-old Tramon Williams seems like the ideal target for the win-now Cardinals.

That strategy — waiting out the market — is how I expect Arizona to approach free agency as whole. The club has a history of stretching a dollar, especially on defense, and though Bowles is no longer around to develop talent, the Cardinals simply don’t have the cap space to target top-tier free agents. Adding complementary players to fill out an already strong core seems like the best avenue for Arizona.

Extension Candidates/Contract Decisions

The Cardinals already made a move to lower Fitzgerald’s 2015 cap hit, and they could do the same with other players in the hopes of clearing out cap space. Palmer, for example, has a $9.5MM roster bonus due in March which could be converted into a signing bonus, lowering the QB’s cap charge. Calais Campbell and Veldheer could be candidates for a similar restructuring.

Entering the final year of his rookie deal, Michael Floyd is a candidate to have his fifth-year option picked up. The 25-year-old is coming off a down year in which he caught just 47 passes for 841 yards, but he finished with over 1,000 yards in 2013. He’s always shown flashes of talent, and given that Fitzgerald won’t be around for the long haul, I’d expect the Cardinals to exercise the option.

Washington’s contract status is unclear — some of his contract guarantees probably will void due to his suspension, but it’s hard to speculate what the Cardinals might do with him given that we don’t know the specifics of his deal. Speaking at the combine, Arians said he doesn’t “even think about” Washington. We’ll probably see some sort of resolution with Washington in the near future.

Overall Outlook

The Cardinals could be viewed as a litmus test used to separate optimists from pessimists. The glass half-full perspective: Arizona has won 21 games during the past two years, has a solid head coach and front office in place, and has a record of succeeding in player acquisition. Glass half-empty? The Cardinals are counting on an aging quarterback coming off a second torn ACL, have limited cap space, reside in a tough division, and lost perhaps their best tactician (Bowles) to another job. The 2015 offseason will go long way in determining how that pendulum swings.

Information from Over The Cap was used in the creation of this post. Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Free Agent Market For Cornerbacks

Our list of 2015 free agents provides a comprehensive position-by-position breakdown of which players are eligible to hit the open market this year. However, that list of names doesn’t include much context or additional information about those players. So, with this year’s free agent period fast approaching, we’ve been taking a closer look at the free agent market for each position. Today, we’ll turn our attention to cornerbacks. Let’s dive in….

Top unrestricted FAs:

Maxwell is widely considered to be the top option on the cornerback market, and looks like a good bet to land the biggest contract of the group this month. However, suitors should approach with some caution when considering the Seattle corner, despite the fact that he played a key role for the league’s best secondary. It’s worth noting that the Seahawks locked up all the other starting defensive backs to extensions, but seem willing to let Maxwell walk. Additionally, while Pro Football Focus grades aren’t the be-all, end-all for player evaluation, Maxwell earned just a -0.2 mark in 2014 (subscription required). Besides Tillman, who missed the season with a triceps injury, only Skrine’s PFF grade was lower than that, among this group.

Of those players who graded above Maxwell in 2014, Culliver and Jackson are a couple worth watching. Both corners are entering their age-27 seasons, and ranked in PFF’s top 15 at the position in ’14. Quarterbacks completed just 50.7% of their passes when throwing into Culliver’s coverage, and Jackson limited opposing signal-callers to a passer rating of 74.2 — for comparison’s sake, players like Geno Smith and Brian Hoyer had better overall marks.

Teams targeting cornerbacks in free agency will have to strongly consider how those players will fit in their systems. The 5’9″ Flowers struggled mightily in 2013 while playing for a Chiefs defense that required him to match up in press-man coverage with bigger, more physical receivers, but had a nice bounce-back season in 2014 playing a different style of defense in San Diego.

There are also a couple instances in this group where multiple corners from one team are eligible for free agency, and the Packers and 49ers will have to decide which of their guys they want to retain. Having already invested heavily in Sam Shields, Green Bay seems unlikely to bring back both House and Williams, and the same can be said for the 49ers, who may not have the flexibility to re-sign Culliver and Cox.

Other unrestricted options:

There’s certainly a drop-off from the first tier to most of these players, but for a team looking for some value in a depth signing, there are a few options worth considering.

When Thurmond made the move from the Seahawks to the Giants a year ago, he looked poised to take a larger role, but a torn pectoral prematurely ended his season. He’ll come at a discount this season, and could be a solid No. 3 or 4 corner. Jimmy Wilson took on a greater role in Miami last season, starting 13 games and playing both cornerback and safety. Although he struggled a little at corner, his versatility is appealing.

The results weren’t always pretty, but Fletcher, Newman, Wright, and Tarell Brown all logged more than 800 defensive snaps for their respective clubs in 2014, and with the exception of Brown’s Raiders, all those teams finished above .500. That doesn’t mean they should necessarily be relied upon as starters again, but if they start out in a reduced role and are forced to take on more snaps, at least they have the experience.

Restricted FAs:

Moore is the standout name in this group, and the only player who saw action in more than half of his team’s defensive snaps. The Cowboys obviously have a few more noteworthy free-agents-to-be to deal with, but I don’t expect them to overlook Moore. He’s the best – and perhaps the only – candidate in this group to receive a one-year RFA tender.

Previous looks at the 2015 free agent market:

PFR Originals: 2/22/15 – 3/1/15

The original content produced by the PFR staff during the past week:

Raiders To Release LaMarr Woodley

The Raiders plan to release edge defender LaMarr Woodley this week, a source tells Fallon Smith of CSNBayArea.com (Twitter link). The 30-year-old Woodley was entering the final season of a two-year deal he inked with Oakland last March.

2014 was something of a lost season for Woodley, who spent the first seven seasons of his career with the Steelers. After playing strictly as an outside linebacker in Pittsburgh’s 3-4 scheme, Woodley moved to defensive end in Oakland’s 4-3 look, and didn’t adjust particularly well, ranking 44th out of 59 qualified 4-3 DEs per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). The Michigan alum played in just six games before tearing his biceps and missing the remainder of the season.

Woodley was due a $1MM roster bonus on the fifth day of the 2015 league year, meaning the Raiders presumably made this move with the intention of avoiding that payment. Woodley had no guaranteed money coming in 2015, so Oakland will clear his entire cap figure off its books, saving nearly $5.2MM. Pending further transactions, the Raiders should now be armed with nearly $61MM in cap space when the free agent period begins next week.

Always a better fit as a 3-4 OLB, Woodley could conceivably look to latch on with a team that plays that scheme. At his age, and coming off injury, he probably won’t be line for a multi-year deal or much guaranteed money. But a club like the Titans (where former Steelers coordinator Dick LeBeau is running the defense), the Cardinals, or the Colts could take a chance on Woodley, hoping that he might thrive with a return to linebacker. A reunion with Pittsburgh also wouldn’t be surprising, as the cash-strapped Steelers could use a veteran stop-gap at pass-rusher.

Woodley becomes the second high-profile Raider veteran cut in the past week, as Oakland also plans to release safety Tyvon Branch.

Week In Review: 2/22/15 – 3/1/15

The headlines from the past week at PFR:

Key News:

Signed:

Released/Waived:

Extended:

Retired: