AFC Notes: Harris, Broncos, Jets, Rice

After a Thanksgiving Day heavy on NFC action, this weekend’s slate of games will focus more on the AFC, including a Sunday night showdown between the Broncos and Chiefs that could go a long way toward determining the winner of the West division. As we look forward to the rest of Week 13’s contests, let’s check out some AFC items….

  • Broncos cornerback Chris Harris has become one of the most unheralded elite defensive backs in the league, as Jeff Legwold of ESPN.com details. The timing of Harris’ impending free agency is inconvenient for the Broncos, who will also have to lock up Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas this offseason. Speaking to Legwold, one NFC personnel director offered the following evaluation of Harris: “He’s an upper-tier player, a top player, and somebody is going to pay him if [the Broncos] don’t.”
  • The Jets should take a chance on Robert Griffin III, but not by trading for him, writes Brian Costello of the New York Post. Costello wouldn’t deal for the embattled QB unless it’s for a rock-bottom bargain price, like a seventh-round pick. Instead, the Post scribe suggests that Gang Green should wait and see if Washington is forced to cut RGIII. Then, the Jets can draft a QB and have the rookie compete with Griffin and Geno Smith for two spots.
  • In the midst of a lost season, the Jets are hoping to find another Wayne Chrebet, Costello writes. The beloved Jets receiver saw plenty of losing seasons during his time but he used those opportunities to establish himself as a key piece for the future.
  • Earlier this month, we learned that a ruling on Ray Rice‘s suspension appeal was expected to happen by Thanksgiving weekend. Adam Schefter of ESPN.com (video link) indicates that the decision still could come any day, including today, but it looks increasingly unlikely to happen this week. While the former Ravens running back would immediately be eligible to return to action if his suspension is overturned, teams may shy away from signing him this season.

Zach Links contributed to this post.

Teams Facing Offseason Quarterback Decisions

No position in the NFL – or, arguably, in any of North America’s major sports leagues – is more crucial to a team’s success than quarterback. And by our count, half the teams in the league shouldn’t have to worry about the position this offseason at all.

Many of these 16 clubs have an established veteran who remains under contract for multiple seasons, like the Packers with Aaron Rodgers or the Patriots with Tom Brady. Others don’t necessarily have an elite veteran quarterback, but have recently committed a high draft pick to a young signal-caller who is still expected to be the long-term answer — think Teddy Bridgewater in Minnesota or Blake Bortles with the Jaguars.

However, the other half of the league’s teams have some uncertainty at the position. In some instances, a team will actively pursue a starting quarterback in the draft of free agency. For other teams, it’s simply a matter of ensuring that the current QB gets locked up for a few more years beyond next season.

Here’s an early look at those teams that should need to address the quarterback situation in one way or another during the offseason:

Teams with no clear-cut starter for 2015:

  • Buffalo Bills: Both players who have started at quarterback this year for the Bills could theoretically be back for the 2015 season — Kyle Orton has a second-year option on his deal, while E.J. Manuel‘s rookie contract runs through 2016. Neither player has asserted himself as a real answer for the club this season, but without a first-round pick, the Bills will be hard-pressed to find a long-term solution in the offseason.
  • Cleveland Browns: Unlike many of the teams in this group, the Browns actually may have two plausible options at quarterback, rather than none. The question GM Ray Farmer and his staff must answer is whether the team will hitch its wagon to Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel, or whether both players will return for 2015. Hoyer is eligible for free agency in March, so Cleveland could simply let him walk if the team believes Manziel will be ready to take over.
  • Houston Texans: Even if the Texans had seen enough from Ryan Mallett to think he was their future starter, he’s a free agent at season’s end, so there’s no guarantee he returns. Perhaps Houston views Tom Savage as its future starter, but I’d be surprised if the team doesn’t seek out alternatives this winter.
  • New York Jets: Like the Bills, the Jets haven’t had any success with their young quarterback (Geno Smith) or their veteran stopgap (Michael Vick). Smith could get one more chance in 2015 depending on how he finishes this season and who is coaching the team next year, but there are certainly no guarantees for the former second-round pick.
  • St. Louis Rams: Coming off another season-ending knee injury and owed a base salary of nearly $13MM in 2015, Sam Bradford is a strong candidate to become a cap casualty in the offseason. Austin Davis likely isn’t the Rams’ long-term signal-caller of choice, so St. Louis looks like a team that could target a QB in the draft. The Rams are currently projected to select 12th overall.
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Mike Glennon received a vote of confidence as the Buccaneers’ “quarterback of the future” in the offseason from head coach Lovie Smith, but with Glennon currently backing up ineffective veteran Josh McCown, it’s not clear if the Bucs continue to stand by that stance. Glennon and McCown are both under contract for next season, so maybe Tampa Bay will try again with the duo and hope for better results, but with a potential top-five – or at least top-10 – pick on the way, the club will have to at least consider drafting a QB.
  • Tennessee Titans: Former first-rounder Jake Locker is on an expiring contract and appears to be on his way out of Tennessee. That could leave Zach Mettenberger as 2015’s starter, but the LSU product was a sixth-rounder and will have only a half-season of experience heading into next year. Presumably, like the Bucs, the Titans would have to take a long look at quarterbacks with their potential top-10 draft pick.
  • Washington: Amazingly, it was only two and a half years ago that Washington was giving up the farm in order to land Robert Griffin III. Now, it’s looks like there’s a reasonable chance that RGIII’s time in D.C. is coming to an end. Head coach Jay Gruden doesn’t seem any more enamored with Kirk Cousins than he is with Griffin, and Colt McCoy isn’t a long-term solution, so Washington is another team that could target a quarterback near the top of 2015’s draft. If they don’t go that route, Griffin could ultimately get the nod for at least one more year.

Teams facing decisions on options or extensions:

  • Carolina Panthers: As the first overall pick in 2011, Cam Newton remains under contract for one more season because the Panthers exercised his fifth-year option for 2015. Still, it seems unlikely that the team would let him play Week 1 without a new deal. In all likelihood, it’ll be a matter of when – not if – Newton and the Panthers reach a long-term agreement, which could provide a notable benchmark for the quarterbacks from the 2012 draft.
  • Indianapolis Colts: One of those 2012 quarterbacks is Andrew Luck, and again, it’s a matter of when – not if – he signs a new long-term contract with his current team. He becomes eligible for an extension this winter, but the Colts could choose to simply pick up his 2016 option and put off long-term negotiations another year.
  • Miami Dolphins: Unlike Luck, Ryan Tannehill isn’t a lock to have his fifth-year option exercised. Still, despite Tannehill’s ups and downs over the years, and despite an expected price tag of about $15MM on that 2016 option, I’d expect the Dolphins to exercise it. It’s not immediately fully guaranteed, and even if it were, Tannehill has done enough this year that he’s worth keeping around for an extra year at that price, if not locking up to a full-fledged, multiyear deal.
  • New York Giants: Eli Manning and the Giants have both expressed interest in continuing the relationship, and I anticipate that’ll be exactly what happens. Manning’s current pact expires after the 2015 season, so the two sides should get serious about an extension this winter.
  • Philadelphia Eagles: Perhaps the Eagles should be included in the section above, since we can’t say with 100% certainty that Nick Foles will reclaim his starting role in 2015, given how shaky he was early this season. Still, I’d be pretty surprised if Philadelphia went another direction. Because he wasn’t a first-round pick in 2012, Foles doesn’t have a fifth-year option, meaning his deal will expire after 2015, and the Eagles will have to make a decision on him soon. In my view, Foles could start the ’15 season without a new deal and – if the Eagles like what they see – he could sign an in-season extension like Carson Palmer did with the Cardinals this year.
  • Pittsburgh Steelers: Another instance where it’s only a matter of time until a new deal gets done — the Steelers will likely sign Ben Roethlisberger to a contract this offseason that locks him up beyond 2015. The team has already indicated that negotiations will resume at season’s end.
  • San Diego Chargers: Another veteran who should remain with his current team, Philip Rivers is expected to re-open extension discussions with the Chargers after the season. His current deal expires after 2015.
  • Seattle Seahawks: Like Foles, Russell Wilson is a third-round pick whose rookie contract doesn’t feature a fifth-year option. As such, the Seahawks may be more aggressive about working out a multiyear extension sooner rather than later with their franchise quarterback, whose deal runs through the 2015 season.

Latest On Jim Harbaugh, 49ers

Even before last night’s ugly home loss against the Seahawks, the future of 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh was very much up in the air, with many observers around the league believing someone else will be coaching the club in 2015. Following yesterday’s loss, Harbaugh’s seat seems to be even hotter. Niners CEO Jed York tweeted after the game that his team’s performance “wasn’t acceptable,” and apologized to fans for the showing, prompting speculation that Harbaugh might not even last until season’s end. While I don’t think a move involving Harbaugh is imminent, there’s certainly a sense of unease in San Francisco, where the Niners’ 7-5 record makes it an uphill battle to a playoff spot.

Here’s more on Harbaugh and the 49ers:

  • While the notion of firing Harbaugh with several games left in the season “seems beyond ludicrous on the surface,” there’s a strong sense in league circles that the front office is looking forward to Harbaugh’s exit, writes Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk. As such, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the club parts ways with Harbaugh and promotes Jim Tomsula to head coach to try to make a last-ditch run to the postseason. Still, with just four games left on the 2014 schedule, it seems more likely that the team will play out the year with Harbaugh and then try to see if they can trade him in the offseason to a team in need of a new coach.
  • As something of an aside, Florio notes in the aforementioned piece that multiple league insiders believe Tomsula has the inside track to succeed Harbaugh as the Niners’ next head coach.
  • The daughter of Niners general manager Trent Baalke tweeted after last night’s game that offensive coordinator Greg Roman “can take a hike,” though she has since deleted the tweet. Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com (Twitter link) acknowledges that replacing Roman is one major move the team could make, but says there’s no indication Harbaugh is looking to make a change.
  • Asked after last night’s loss if it was time to reevaluate the offense and make major changes, Harbaugh replied, “We always do that. We’ll do that again. We’ll evaluate it. I don’t know what you refer to with major changes” (link via Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News).
  • For what it’s worth, Harbaugh had no reaction to York’s tweet, writes Maiocco at CSNBayArea.com.
  • Prior to last night’s game, Florio wrote in a separate PFT piece that the 49ers’ silence on Harbaugh’s future has been deafening. With little support from the San Francisco front office, the question is now where Harbaugh will wind up — per Florio, many expect him to stay in the Bay Area, or at least on the West Coast, and the Raiders are viewed as the most likely landing spot.

Zach Links contributed to this post.

Extra Points: Chiefs, Sam, Ravens

The football world is abuzz over Jay Gruden‘s decision to bench Robert Griffin III, but the quarterback is taking a diplomatic approach to the situation. “Coach’s decision,” Griffin said when asked about the move, according to John Keim of ESPN.com. “I’m here to help this team win.” This is a lost season for Washington, but the decision to go with Colt McCoy raises all sorts of questions about their future. More from around the NFL..

  • The Chiefs worked out defensive backs Ellis Lankster, DeMarcus Van Dyke, and Johnny Patrick, a league source tells Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk (via Twitter). Both Lankster and Patrick are former Jets. Lankster, 27, has 47 NFL games to his credit between 2009-2013. He auditioned for the Lions and Panthers this fall but he has yet to find an NFL home since his release from the Jets in September.
  • Montreal Alouettes GM Jim Popp said that Michael Sam was close to joining the team with three weeks to go in the CFL season, tweets David William Naylor of TSN. Maggie Hendricks of USA Today identified the Bears and Lions as a couple of clubs that might have interest in the linebacker earlier this month, but no one has signed him since he was dropped from the Cowboys’ practice squad.
  • The Ravens were smart to listen to Kirk Ferentz when they took a chance and drafted offensive guard Marshal Yanda, writes Childs Walker of The Baltimore Sun. In fact, Walker argues that Yanda is quietly becoming one of the greatest players in Ravens history. “He’s definitely one of the best linemen in the league,” said Steve Palazzolo, a senior analyst for Pro Football Focus. “He can play the power game and maul people but then you see some of the reach blocks he makes, and he moves awfully quickly over a short space.”

AFC East Notes: Gilmore, Jets, Sanchez, Pats

Wayne Chrebet took a ton of big hits during his time with the Jets and even though he still feels unsettling side effects from that to this day, he’s thankful for his playing career, writes Dennis Waszak of The Associated Press. “I played the way I wanted to play even after I had the injuries, and I wouldn’t change that — because if I did, I wouldn’t be respected and appreciated the way I am now,” the former wide receiver said. Chrebet will be inducted into the Jets’ Ring of Honor along with late former owner Leon Hess on Monday. More from the AFC East..

  • More than half of 2012’s top 10 draftees may not have their fifth-year options exercised, writes Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, and that includes Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Despite being a solid contributor, Gilmore is not yet a star player and that could be more of an investment than Buffalo wants to make. Of course, the team’s uncertain coaching and GM situations also complicate matters.
  • Ben Volin of The Boston Globe (via Twitter) was surprised to see that the Patriots waived defensive back Don Jones today as he believed they were really high on him. The safety was a key special teams player for the Pats, so one has to wonder what went into New England’s decision.
  • If Mark Sanchez continues to play well, it’s going to be a major negative for Jets coach Rex Ryan going forward, opines Jason Fitzgerald of Over The Cap (via Twitter). Ryan has taken a great deal of criticism for his lack of offensive acumen and inability to develop a young quarterback. While observers wrote off Sanchez a long time ago, he has looked rather strong with the Eagles this season and turned in a strong performance today.

Seahawks May Wait On Deal For Wilson

After the Seahawks won the Super Bowl last season, it appeared to be a lock that Russell Wilson would get a new monster contract as soon as he was eligible following the 2014 season. That’s no longer the case, according to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk. Wilson has shown signs of regression, the Seahawks haven’t lived up to the sky high standards that they set last season, and Seattle wants to take a wait-and-see approach to a new deal for their young quarterback, according to a league source.

According to the source, the team’s willingness to give Wilson a new deal will depend in large part on how the current season turns out. If the Seahawks miss the playoffs or gets knocked out early, they’ll be inclined to wait. If they return to the Super Bowl, however, a new deal becomes more likely. Whatever happens, Florio writes, the Seahawks want the outcome to be regarded as fair within the locker room.

Over the summer, Adam Schefter of ESPN.com was hearing that Wilson and Andrew Luck were in line for $24-25MM per year on their second contracts, a number that would top Aaron Rodgers‘ $22MM salary. While that may sound outlandish, quarterback salaries have increased steadily each year and, like Joe Flacco, Wilson’s value shot up following his Super Bowl victory. Of course, Flacco got to ride his Super Bowl win into free agency and Wilson has apparently lost some of his luster since February.

While Seattle is ostensibly uncertain about Wilson, many of his numbers show that he’s playing like a top quarterback in 2014. Wilson’s 63.6% completion percentage this season is right in line with his previous work and with just five picks so far, he’s pretty much on pace to match his total of nine from last season. The advanced metrics are fond of Wilson’s work too. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has Wilson rated as the fourth best quarterback in the league this year, behind Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Philip Rivers, but ahead of notables such as Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.

The Seahawks have shown a willingness to pay big money to keep their stars, but it remains to be seen whether Wilson will get the same treatment as cornerback Richard Sherman or safety Earl Thomas.

Patriots Waive Don Jones

The Patriots have opened up a spot on their 53-man roster, cutting safety and special-teamer Don Jones, according to Field Yates of ESPN.com (via Twitter). Jones will become an unrestricted free agent, able to sign anywhere, if he goes unclaimed on waivers.

Jones, 24, spent last season with the Dolphins, but was waived by the team this year following roster cutdowns at the end of the preseason. The former seventh-round pick was claimed off waivers by the Patriots, and has played exclusively on special teams for New England in 2014, contributing seven tackles in kick and punt coverage.

As Mike Reiss of ESPN.com observes (via Twitter), in confirming the transaction, Jones had been a key special teams player for the Patriots, so his release is an unexpected move that raises questions about why it happened. The safety was fined by the Dolphins and excused from the team back in May after making inappropriate comments on Twitter about Rams draftee Michael Sam, but hasn’t been in the news since then.

49ers Announce Series Of Roster Moves

With tonight’s crucial divisional showdown against the Seahawks looming, the 49ers have made multiple changes to their 53-man roster, the team announced today in a press release. Tight end Garrett Celek has been activated from the physically unable to perform list, while tight end Asante Cleveland has been promoted to the active roster. To accommodate the additions, the club has waived linebacker Chase Thomas and placed tight end Derek Carrier on the injured reserve list.

Multiple injuries at the tight end position necessitated the Niners’ latest additions — besides Carrier, who had been sidelined with a foot injury and will now miss the rest of the season, tight end Vance McDonald is also banged up, dealing with a back ailment. Having been on the PUP list since August, it’s the first time Celek has been on the active roster this season, and the second game for Cleveland, who was briefly promoted in September before returning to the taxi squad.

As for Thomas, the 25-year-old was signed off the practice squad earlier this month and saw action in the Niners’ last three games. He looks like a candidate to return to the practice squad, assuming he clears waivers.

Saints Place Brodrick Bunkley On IR

The Saints have made a defensive roster change in advance of Week 13’s contests against the Steelers, officially placing injured defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley on their injured reserve list, according to a team release. To fill Bunkley’s spot on the 53-man roster, defensive tackle Lawrence Virgil has been promoted from the practice squad, as we heard yesterday.

Bunkley, who turned 31 on Sunday, suffered a leg injury during New Orleans’ Monday loss to the Ravens. Although the team didn’t specify the diagnosis, a report earlier in the week indicated that Bunkley had torn his quad and was expected to be out for the rest of the season.

With 276 defensive snaps this year, Bunkley was New Orleans’ second-most-used defensive tackle, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). I’d expect increased roles for players like John Jenkins and Tyrunn Walker over the last few weeks of the season, with Virgil serving as a depth piece on the defensive line.

NFC Notes: Lynch, Peterson, Bush, Suh

As the second half of the Bears/Lions game gets underway in Detroit, let’s round up a few Thanksgiving Day notes from around the NFC….

  • While head coach Pete Carroll insists that the Seahawks expect running back Marshawn Lynch to continue his career in Seattle in 2015, it won’t be an easy decision for the team, given Lynch’s age and increasing cap number. In an Insider-only piece, Field Yates of ESPN.com takes a closer look at the team’s upcoming decision on Lynch.
  • With the appeal hearing for his suspension set to commence next Tuesday, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson has until tomorrow to submit any materials he plans to introduce at the hearing, a source tells Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk.
  • After signing with the Cardinals, veteran running back Michael Bush is looking forward to getting a fresh start in Arizona, telling ESPN.com’s Josh Weinfuss that he didn’t feel as if he got a “fair shake” from the Bears during his last year in Chicago.
  • Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press believes the Lions should let defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh walk in free agency, arguing that GM Martin Mayhew and his staff have exhibited a knack for finding less cheaper – and often younger – defensive talent in the draft and free agency.
  • In a story for ESPN The Magazine, Tim Keown takes an interesting look at Cowboys offensive tackle Tyron Smith‘s financial history since entering the NFL, including the Pro Bowler’s struggle with his family’s demands for money.