Month: October 2017

Offseason Outlook: Minnesota Vikings

Pending free agents:

Top 15 cap hits for 2016:

  1. Mike Wallace, WR: $11,500,000
  2. Matt Kalil, T: $11,096,000
  3. Adrian Peterson, RB: $11,000,000
  4. Everson Griffen, DE: $8,200,000
  5. Phil Loadholt, T: $7,750,000
  6. Kyle Rudolph, TE: $7,300,000
  7. Linval Joseph, DT: $6,350,000
  8. John Sullivan, C: $5,833,333
  9. Harrison Smith, S: $5,278,000
  10. Brian Robison, DE: $5,250,000
  11. Captain Munnerlyn, CB: $4,583,334
  12. Brandon Fusco, G: $4,050,000
  13. Anthony Barr, OLB: $3,475,526
  14. Shaun Hill, QB: $3,250,000
  15. Trae Waynes, CB: $2,941,901

Notable coaching/front office moves:

Draft:

Other:

Overview:

The Vikings took the next step in a quick rebuild and clinched their first NFC North championship since the Brett Favre-led 2009 squad secured the title en route to the conference title game. Blair Walsh‘s missed 27-yard field goal in the final seconds of Minnesota’s Wild Card game concluded the team’s march and presided over the Vikes’ accomplishments in the eyes of many, but judging by where the team was when Mike Zimmer was hired in 2014, the ex-Bengals DC’s second season in Minneapolis was a rousing success.

Most of the players responsible for the Vikings’ 11-5 campaign will return; Minnesota doesn’t face the kind of free agency gridlock some of its playoff-qualifying brethren are encountering as the 2015 league year concludes.NFL: Minnesota Vikings at St. Louis Rams

Adrian Peterson‘s threats of not playing for the Vikings again, or trade demands that never materialized, are in the past now. The running back remains the team’s offensive centerpiece despite venturing into his age-31 season. Peterson’s three rushing titles are the most since Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith each finished with four between 1990-97. The Vikings’ workhorse back winning rushing crowns seven years apart also matches Sanders, who led the league in ground gains in 1990 and 1997. Peterson earned this honor on the fewest carries of his three NFL-leading seasons, at 327, but even though he was a healthy inactive essentially for 15 games in 2014 – preserving his body to some extent – All Day’s workloads should be monitored at his age.

The Vikings’ aerial attack, however, did not take flight, with Teddy Bridgewater failing to build on the promise he showed as a rookie. Bridgewater threw just 14 touchdown passes and largely operated like a low-level game manager in the Peterson-fueled offense.

Stefon Diggs looks to have carved a spot in Minnesota’s starting lineup going forward, while trade acquisition Mike Wallace sputtered and may well have punched a ticket out of the Twin Cities. Injuries on the offensive line emerged again, but Joe Berger enjoyed a standout slate filling in for John Sullivan. Rookie T.J. Clemmings didn’t exactly lock down the right tackle job for the future did receive 17 starts worth of seasoning in place of Phil Loadholt. A longtime backup, Berger graded as Pro Football Focus’ second-best center and best run-blocking snapper.

Defensively, Minnesota finished in the middle of the pack but had to compensate for injuries to their best three defenders in Linval Joseph, Anthony Barr and Harrison Smith, who combined to miss nine games. All three were PFF marvels, with Smith ranking as the analytics site’s best safety — by far — and Joseph’s standout season slotting in behind only Aaron Donald and J.J. Watt among interior defensive linemen. A dynamic talent who has displayed elite abilities in pass rush and coverage, Barr rated only behind Luke Kuechly among non-rush linebackers.

These three are under contract for 2016, with Barr and Joseph signed through 2018, pending the Vikings eventually picking up the outside backer’s fifth-year option. Joseph’s contract in particular looks like a bargain. The 27-year-old’s the ninth-highest-paid 4-3 defensive tackle at $6.25MM per season, signing his deal a year before Ndamukong Suh and Marcell Dareus inked accords paying them $19.06MM and $15.85MM per year, respectively.

Despite only finishing with the NFL’s 14th-best defensive DVOA, the Vikings have a strong defensive core around which to build.

Key Free Agents:

Most of the Vikings’ key expiring contracts come on defense, but none of the team’s potential defectors are impact players at this point.

Chad Greenway (Vertical)Arriving in the 2006 first round, Chad Greenway is the longest-tenured Viking. The former Iowa standout’s started 135 games in his career, including 12 last season, but is the least important of the team’s starting backers at this point and wouldn’t warrant any kind of significant investment on a team with needs elsewhere. Greenway’s said he’d like to re-sign with the Vikings, and Zimmer believes he’ll be back. But it would likely be a one-year pact for the 33-year-old, so the team needs to line up a successor either way.

Safety Robert Blanton enjoyed an above-average 2014 season as a starter, but fellow UFA Andrew Sendejo beat him out for the job last season. The latter, however, was the fourth-worst full-time safety in the league in 2015, in PFF’s view. Neither is worthy of much investment going forward. Minnesota will probably look elsewhere to add talent to further accentuate Smith’s elite skills.

The Vikings’ decision on Mike Harris should warrant more consideration. A 16-game starter for the first time, Harris delivered a quality season at right guard. Playing two seasons in Minnesota, the 27-year-old Harris helped hold together a line that endured staggering losses. Harris possesses versatility as well, having seen extensive time at tackle and guard, and will make for an interesting free agent as a result. The Vikings are already paying Brandon Fusco $4.85MM per season as one of the team’s four offensive linemen playing on a second or third Minnesota contract. A Harris accord may not cost quite that much, but after what he showed last season, he won’t be too much cheaper.

Terence Newman played well over his one-year contract and could be brought back. But the No. 5 overall pick in 2003 would be the oldest defensive back in the game next season — and possibly its oldest defensive player should James Harrison opt to retire — if he chooses to play again, turning 37 before the season starts.

The Vikes have invested well at cornerback, with two first-rounders, Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes, expected to start or see extensive time together next season. Captain Munnerlyn, PFF’s top Minnesota corner last season, is set for the final season of his three-year contract as well. This won’t rule out a Newman re-up, as he won’t cost much and will likely be available on a one-year pact, but there are other options out there. Zimmer’s former protege in Cincinnati, Leon Hall, could be a target, with the Bengals having invested even more than the Vikings at corner and Hall looming as a 31-year-old UFA.

Kenrick Ellis served as decent depth, but the Vikings are well-stocked on their defensive interior. Another team in need of a potential starter could easily pry away the former Jets third-round pick.

These being Minnesota’s biggest free agents illustrates the solid footing on which the Vikings currently stand. Determining the futures of these UFAs are far from the biggest decisions the team must make this offseason.

Possible Cap Casualties:

The Vikings have some options, devoid of financial repercussions, to shed extensive salary if they so choose.

Mike Wallace currently has the team’s highest cap charge for 2016. However, it’s highly unlikely he’ll enter the season with this status, and it’s very possible the deep threat could be looking for a fourth NFL employer soon. Rick Spielman is planning to meet with Wallace’s agent this week in hopes of convincing him to take a pay cut. This strategy didn’t take in Miami, eventually forcing the trade that sent him north, but Wallace may be more receptive this time around considering the season he just compiled.

Wallace, who will turn 30 this August, is coming off by far his worst slate, catching just 39 passes for 473 yards (283 fewer than his previous career-low figure). The former third-round pick can probably still be a productive receiver; he snared at least five touchdown passes and gained no fewer than 756 yards in his first six seasons. But accepting a pay reduction will almost certainly be his only path back to the Vikings.

Wallace has no guaranteed money left on the lavish contract he initially signed with the Dolphins in 2013, and the eighth-year target acknowledged his contract and substandard year could make him a one-and-done Viking. The team only gave up a fifth-round pick to acquire Wallace last March.Matt Kalil

Minnesota’s second-highest cap number belongs to Matt Kalil, as the Vikings exercised their fifth-year option, worth over $11MM, on their inconsistent left tackle last season. The Vikings could save that entire figure by cutting Kalil, whom they’re reportedly torn on retaining. The promise of Kalil’s rookie season, when he booked a Pro Bowl berth and gave Vikings fans the impression their left-edge spot was set for the decade’s remainder, has not resurfaced much in the three years since. But the Vikings don’t have a viable alternative to Kalil at this point, making a release riskier than shedding Wallace’s salary.

Rick Spielman‘s first draft choice as GM, Kalil improved some last season, but was still a below-average tackle and as of now will be paid like an elite blocker. Among offensive lineman, only D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Tyron Smith feature higher 2016 cap holds than 2012’s No. 4 overall pick does right now.

Cutting Kalil and Wallace could nearly double Minnesota’s projected cap space, ballooning it to more than $45MM, and would allow further bolstering of an already strong roster.

Phil Loadholt won’t generate that kind of cash influx if he’s released, but that’s a possibility as well. The Vikings could create $6MM in additional space by releasing their longtime right tackle.

Loadholt – whose current situation is a lower-profile version of Ryan Clady‘s in Denver – has missed the last 21 Vikings regular-season games because of severe injuries. A torn pectoral ended Loadholt’s 2014 season and a string of five consecutive seasons in which he’d started at least 15 contests, and the torn Achilles he suffered before last season shelved him in 2015. Like Clady, Loadholt proved productive prior to his health issues, grading out as a top-five tackle in 2013 (per PFF) and playing well in ’14 before going down with an injury.

A former second-round pick who recently turned 30, Loadholt is owed a career-high $7.75MM as part of the final year of the four-year contract extension he signed in 2013. The former upper-echelon right tackle could very well be released or, like Wallace, asked to take a pay cut.

Positions Of Need:

One thing working for Loadholt’s status in the Twin Cities: T.J. Clemmings‘ struggles as a rookie on the right side. The reconfigured line sans John Sullivan and Loadholt — which was the game’s only quintet to start all 16 games together — provided Teddy Bridgewater with the second-worst pass protection in football last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Clemmings came in at No. 67 among PFF’s graded full-time tackles last season. While Mike Harris thrived on moving from tackle to guard, Brandon Fusco didn’t take to left guard as well as his previous right-side spot.

The Vikings now have the 30-year-old Sullivan and Loadholt — who each started from 2009-14, bridging the gap from Favre to Bridgewater — back but also no clear starting spot for Joe Berger. A solution could be sliding the veteran backup to left guard and moving Fusco back to the right side at which he excelled, where he can replace the departing Harris. Clemmings, who is also an option at right guard after he worked there last summer as a rookie, didn’t look ready to start full-time at right tackle based on his 2015 performance. But if the Vikings decide the $6MM in cap savings outweighs Loadholt’s potential to remain effective, Clemmings could have a clearer route to a starting gig.

Nevertheless, some additional youth will be required here, either in the form of a free agent in search of his second contract or an early-round rookie.

It’s possible the Vikings could have three starters in their 30s blocking for a 31-year-old running back. If Sullivan — who like Loadholt proved durable from 2009-14 — can return to the level at which he played before the Vikings awarded him with a third contract last April, this unit could be a strong outfit in the short term. Sullivan is due to take up reasonable $5.83MM cap numbers the next two seasons. But relying on two injury comebacks from early-30s performers is obviously not ideal.

In order to line up long-term options on the offensive line, the Vikings will need to add some reinforcements soon. Minnesota has enjoyed success in finding linemen through the draft, but amazingly hasn’t selected an interior-line cog in the top three rounds since 2006. If that streak continues – which it probably shouldn’t considering where some of the gems the team drafted are at in their careers – a deep guard class could factor into that decision.

With both Sullivan and Berger under contract, center doesn’t make much sense as a priority in free agency, but the other spots could use the depth. As far as second contract-seeking guards go, Alex Boone, Ramon Foster, Brandon Brooks, Jeff Allen, and obviously Kelechi Osemele represent the notable free agent options, along with Harris. This would be an area to target for veteran assistance.

Evan Mathis, Jahri Evans and Richie Incognito are also available, but the Vikings as of now already have too many 30-somethings on second or third deals up front.

At tackle, Minnesota may need more help. Mitchell Schwartz and Andre Smith are the top unrestricted options, but Schwartz in particular would require a significant financial commitment — something closer to the mammoth extension Lane Johnson just received ($11.25MM AAV) than the position’s second tier of Bryan Bulaga/Jermey Parnell/Austin Howard/Marcus Gilbert, who play for around $6MM on average. Considering both Kalil and Loadholt are carrying top-five salaries at their respective positions, adding another pricey edge blocker will not be realistic as long as they’re both still around.

Joe Barksdale, who was about the only good thing involved with the Chargers’ front in 2015, is another potential target for the Vikings at tackle. Barksdale’s market stalled last spring, but he’s only 27 and has played 16 games in each of the past three seasons.

If Minnesota wants to shake things up and move on from Kalil, the non-Cordy Glenn contingent on the left side doesn’t include a bevy of fits. Donald Penn wouldn’t provide the kind of youthful complement the team needs. That leaves Russell Okung as perhaps the top prize if Glenn gets the Bills’ franchise tag, which will make Okung awfully expensive.

The Vikings will have to make interesting choices here, as this is one of the more fluid offensive line situations in football. As of now, none of the starting five are locked into a job in 2016.

If Mike Wallace isn’t receptive to a pay cut, it might be a positive for the Vikings’ wideouts. The team will bring back Stefon Diggs and the suddenly viable Jarius Wright, and Charles Johnson should be given another chance to recapture the form he showed in the second half of 2014, but Minnesota will still will look to upgrade on the outside.

In terms of a downfield threat, Wallace still fits the bill in theory with his elite speed, but he didn’t have a single reception of 35+ yards in 2015. Travis Benjamin appears to be headed toward the market after talks broke down with the Browns, and the fifth-year breakout performer could provide an upgrade. However, Benjamin doesn’t have much to go on besides his contract season. Seattle may allow Jermaine Kearse to reach free agency, and he’s a more consistent target than Benjamin, who suddenly went off for 68 receptions last year on a terrible Browns team after combining for 41 in his first three campaigns. Kearse, or someone like Rishard Matthews, would bring a solid presence opposite Diggs.

Marvin Jones‘ history working against Mike Zimmer charges in practice in Cincinnati could lead somewhere, but he doesn’t profile as a downfield receiver the Vikings ideally need to supplement Diggs. As for Mohamed Sanu, he’s a better receiver than Cordarrelle Patterson, but his penchant for gadget-style gains may be too close to Patterson’s ill-fitting repertoire for the Vikings to pursue him.

Regardless of the moves the Vikings make to address the wide receiver position, it will be on Bridgewater to elevate the team’s passing game into an above-average attack instead of what the Vikings put on display last season.

On the defensive side of the ball, rookie UDFA Anthony Harris showed some promise toward the end of last season, but the Vikings will look to address their other safety spot. With Harrison Smith likely set for an extension, Minnesota won’t look to add a top-shelf safety. But there are plenty of quality options out there this year, including two with a recent history in Zimmer’s system.

Both of the Bengals’ starting safeties, Reggie Nelson and George Iloka, are headed for free agency, and each played extensive snaps under Zimmer’s tutelage. Despite the fact that the 32-year-old Nelson led the NFL in picks last season, Iloka may warrant a bigger contract due to entering just his age-26 season. He has been a three-year starter, lining up with the first-stringers in 16 games for the 2013 Bengals under Zimmer. Iloka also enjoyed a balanced 2015, showing a near-equal acumen for deterring the pass and the run. An ideal complement for Smith, Iloka’s best years are probably ahead of him. The former fifth-round pick’s connection to Zimmer makes Iloka worth monitoring in Minnesota.

If Nelson’s market dries up due to concerns about his age, a short-term deal to team him with Smith wouldn’t be a bad idea. In the event one of Cincinnati’s back-line bastions doesn’t make his way to Minneapolis, the Lions’ Isa Abdul-Quddus or the Cardinals’ Rashad Johnson could be options. Still, with Smith in the fold, this isn’t a pressing need.

Harrison SmithExtension Candidates/Contract Issues:

Already secured via a comfortable fifth-year option, Harrison Smith will be a cornerstone player in Minnesota for the foreseeable future. His first Pro Bowl berth was overdue, and an extension should be a formality. Rick Spielman will look to ensure that the second selection of his GM tenure stays visible in Minnesota, since a player with a combination of Smith’s versatility and play-making skills doesn’t come along often.

Smith will rightfully look for top-tier safety money, with contracts like Devin McCourty‘s, Jairus Byrd‘s and Eric Berry‘s forthcoming deal as comparables. Both McCourty and Byrd signed for at least $9MM AAV in 2014 and ’15, respectively. With the cap rising at the rate it is, Smith could justifiably ask to exceed those accords and join Earl Thomas as the only other safety averaging an eight-figure salary.

Spielman also should have relatively quick decisions on exercising the fifth-year options for Xavier Rhodes and Sharrif Floyd, with the latter playing alongside Linval Joseph to make up one of the game’s top interior-line tandems. Rhodes still profiles as the Vikings’ No. 1 corner despite his inconsistent 2015. He should be given this season and next to establish the value of his second contract. The prospective prices for both of these moves — fifth-year options for defensive tackles selected at Nos. 11-32 cost $6.15MM in 2015, with cornerbacks taken outside the top 10 taking up $7.51MM of a team’s cap — aren’t deal-breakers by any means.

The team’s fifth-year option decision regarding Cordarrelle Patterson should be just as easy. Patterson hauled in just two passes despite being healthy for 16 games, making his 2015 campaign one of the more anonymous seasons by a first-round wideout playing for the team that selected him. The former first-team All-Pro return man has not proven worthy of an extra year’s worth of Minnesota-based development. With Patterson’s 2017 option year set to cost at least $7.3MM, this is a non-starter.

Overall Outlook:

The Vikings have some intriguing choices to make, but possess the nucleus to battle the Packers and repeat as NFC North champions. If the Vikings can solve their offensive line matrix and continue to reap rewards from employing one of the league’s greatest running backs, their running game and their promising defense – which will return mostly intact – gives them one of the NFC’s best rosters.

Teddy Bridgewater‘s development will be essential for catalyzing Minnesota’s pursuit of further playoff advancement, but there’s a lot of reason for optimism up north as the new league year approaches.

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

Extra Points: Vernon, Crosby, Bears, Draft

The fate of defensive end Olivier Vernon will shape how the Dolphins approach their offseason, writes Adam H. Beasley of the Miami Herald. The Dolphins have until Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET to place the franchise tag ($15.7MM) or transition tag ($12.7MM) on Vernon. But doing either of those things would make it especially difficult for them to keep fellow pass rusher Cameron Wake and running back Lamar Miller, which they want to do. If he hits the open market, Vernon could end up with a long-term deal in the range of $12MM to $14MM annually, per Beasley, who adds there’s an outside possibility Miami will slap the franchise tag on the 25-year-old and then trade him.

Here’s more from around the NFL:

  • The Packers are unlikely to use the $4.572MM franchise tag on longtime kicker Mason Crosby, reports Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. As of last week, there was optimism the Packers and Crosby would agree on a contract and render the tag unnecessary. If that doesn’t happen by March 7, Crosby will be free to start negotiating with other teams.
  • Even though he’s coming off a personal-best eight-sack season, the Bears could release edge rusher Lamarr Houston, one well-placed AFC executive told Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune. Cutting Houston would open up over $4MM of cap space for the Bears this year. When PFR’s Dallas Robinson previewed the Bears’ offseason earlier this month, he named Houston as a possibility for the chopping block.
  • Ole Miss defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche has visits with 19 teams set up, according to Tony Pauline of WalterFootall.com. That number has increased from the 15 Pauline reported Sunday.

Latest On Malik Jackson

MONDAY: Contrary to Klis’ report of a contract offer worth ~$12MM per year for Jackson, the Broncos are slightly under the $11MM mark, writes Troy Renck of The Denver Post. Further, while previous reports stated that Jackson is looking for $12MM annually, the number is closer to $14MM, per Renck.

SUNDAY, 5:59pm: The last known offer the Broncos extended to Jackson was worth approximately $10MM AAV, but the team has reportedly upped its terms for the fifth-year end. The Broncos have sent an offer for nearly $12MM per year to Jackson, according to Mike Klis of 9News.

That would make Jackson the second-highest-paid 3-4 end behind J.J. Watt‘s $16.66MM AAV accord, moving the ascending talent past Cameron Jordan and Calais Campbell, who each make $11MM AAV.

Cole notes Jackson seeks a deal worth at least $12MM per season, but according to Kils, the sides are still far apart. Signs continue to point to Jackson reaching the open market.

Categorized currently as a 3-4 end, Jackson’s proven a threat to pressure passers from three spots, and Klis puts the 26-year-old Jackson in the same potential earnings bracket as Marcell Dareus or Gerald McCoy due to his consistency rushing quarterbacks from the interior. Citing Jackson’s 49.5 quarterback sacks, hits and hurries combined in 2015 compared to McCoy’s 39.5 when fusing these stats and Dareus’ 20, Klis argues Jackson can pursue a contract commensurate with the top tier of 4-3 tackles and possibly earn $15MM annually. Dareus’ AAV number sits at $16.1MM, with McCoy’s residing at $15.9MM.

Although the Broncos have upped their offer, their limited cap space ($8.4MM before Peyton Manning‘s salary comes off the books, should he retire or be released) and notable other free agent commodities could make going much higher difficult.

SATURDAY, 1:49pm: The Broncos’ quest to keep Malik Jackson off the market continues, with Jason Cole of Bleacher Report hearing (video link) the Super Bowl champions “desperately” want to keep the fifth-year defensive end.

Despite not getting too far with Brock Osweiler yet, whom John Elway told media is not a franchise tag candidate as Von Miller is likely to receive the designation, Denver is working to keep Jackson from becoming one of free agency’s most sought-after players."<strong

But Jackson’s agent, Jack Sharp, informed Cole his client currently plans to test the market to gauge the potential offers of other teams. Although Jackson, per Cole, still has interest in re-signing with the Broncos, he prefers to see what’s out there during the legal tampering period process, which begins March 7.

Cole reports Jackson is seeking a deal that pays at least $12MM per season. The Broncos’ top offer so far is worth $10MM AAV.

Denver already signed its starter at left end, Derek Wolfe, to a four-year, $36.7MM accord before its playoff run commenced. A 2012 fifth-round pick, Jackson’s been the more consistent player across his career, excelling at three positions in the past three years — 4-3 defensive tackle, 4-3 defensive end and 3-4 five-technique end — for the Broncos, respectively since breaking into the team’s rotation in 2013.

Elway did not rule out tagging Jackson, which would be worth $15.7MM, but that would mean signing Miller to a long-term deal by Tuesday. Given the Broncos’ recent history with franchise-tagged players signing extensions in July, this seems incredibly optimistic, especially considering Miller’s push to be the league’s highest-paid defender.

Photo courtesy USA Today Sports Images

FA Rumors: Irvin, Forte, C. Long, Gipson, J. Howard

Armed with over $70MM in cap space and in need of defensive upgrades, the Jaguars have emerged as early contenders for soon-to-be free agent linebacker Bruce Irvin, reports Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk.

Irvin, who has spent the first four years of his career in Seattle, is familiar with Jags head coach Gus Bradley – formerly the Seahawks‘ defensive coordinator. Bradley helped Irvin to a career-high eight sacks in the defender’s rookie year, 2012, before leaving for Jacksonville. Irvin has since added 14 more sacks over the last three years. When PFR’s Luke Adams previewed the Jaguars’ offseason three weeks ago, he listed Irvin as a logical fit for the Jags.

Here’s the latest on some other players looking for new contracts as free agency nears:

  • Thirty-year-old running back Matt Forte will have a difficult time eclipsing $3MM per annum on his next deal, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune. The five-time thousand-yard rusher racked up 1,287 total yards (898 rushing, 389 receiving) and seven touchdowns last season, and is poised to join his second franchise after spending the first eight years of his career in Chicago.
  • Free agent defensive end Chris Long is generating interest and will start visiting teams after his first child is born (due date Wednesday), tweets Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Long, 30, has 54.5 sacks in his first eight seasons, all of which were spent in St. Louis. The Rams released Long earlier this month after injuries limited his effectiveness the previous two years.
  • Safety Tashaun Gipson expects his Browns tenure to end after four years, per teammate Donte Whitner. “I don’t think he’s too hopeful he’s going to be back,” said Whitner (Twitter link via Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com). We learned over the weekend that Gipson could parlay his ball-hawking prowess (14 career interceptions) into a big contract.
  • Chiefs defensive lineman Jaye Howard is looking for $8MM to $9MM per year, Biggs reports. Howard, 27, set career highs in starts (14), tackles (57) and sacks (5.5) during the 2015-16 season, and Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded him a solid 24th among 123 qualifying interior D-linemen.
  • The Dolphins could pursue Bears tight end Zach Miller in free agency, writes Biggs. Miller played under new Dolphins head coach Adam Gase when the latter was the Bears’ offensive coordinator last season and totaled career bests in all notable categories. If Chicago loses Miller, it could replace him with one of the Colts‘ free agent tight ends, Dwayne Allen or Coby Fleener, per Biggs.

Eagles Likely To Retain Sam Bradford

If quarterback Sam Bradford isn’t under Eagles control by 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday, the deadline for teams to apply the franchise tag or transition tag, the pending free agent will hold off on signing a deal until he gauges his interest on the market, reports Les Bowen of the Philadelphia Daily News. Bradford’s agent, Tom Condon, and Eagles vice president Howie Roseman met at the combine last week and will talk again Tuesday, according to Bowen (Twitter link).Sam Bradford (vertical)

Free agency begins March 9, but the “legal tampering” period – which starts March 7 – will enable Bradford and Condon to negotiate with other teams beforehand. There’s a question, though, as to how many other clubs will have interest in Bradford if it gets to that point. Neither the Texans nor Browns are expected to pursue the 28-year-old, per Bowen, while the market for his services will shrink by two more if the Broncos and Jets take the predicted paths of re-signing Brock Osweiler and Ryan Fitzpatrick, respectively.

In the end, the Eagles and Bradford might be the best match for one another, notes Bowen, who adds that the likelihood is the two sides will renew their relationship. For the Eagles’ part, it appears they’ll have a hard time finding a signal-caller who’s clearly an upgrade over Bradford through free agency or the draft, in which they hold the 13th overall pick. The expectation is that the two best QBs in this year’s rookie class, North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz and California’s Jared Goff, will be long gone by then.

Bradford, whom the Rams took No. 1 overall in 2010 draft, has battled various injuries – including two torn ACLs – during his career and hasn’t been great when healthy. The former Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Oklahoma has appeared in 63 of a possible 96 regular-season games, totaling 78 touchdowns and 52 interceptions while putting up an 81.0 passer rating.

Former Eagles head coach and football czar Chip Kelly, whom the team fired in December, acquired Bradford from the Rams last offseason in exchange for QB Nick Foles and a second-round pick. Bradford then started 14 games (his most since 2012) and established new career highs in completion percentage (65.0), yards (3,725) and yards per attempt (7.00). He also tossed 19 touchdowns against 14 interceptions. Bradford was particularly effective from November onward, connecting on better than 68 percent of attempts while amassing 10 TDs and four picks. The Eagles went 7-7 in Bradford’s starts, 0-2 with backup Mark Sanchez under center, and missed the playoffs for the second straight year.

Bradford made just under $13MM last season to conclude his six-year, $78MM rookie contract. It appears highly doubtful his next deal will approach either the length or total value of his expiring pact.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Peyton Manning To Retire?

MONDAY: Manning is unlikely to make a retirement decision this week, according to James Palmer of NFL Network (Twitter link). Palmer also backs up various weekend reports that Manning will meet with Elway and head coach Gary Kubiak sometime this week.

SUNDAY, 8:16am: Mike Klis of 9News.com confirms that Manning and the Broncos will, in fact, meet next week, but according to Klis, a source close to Manning says that it’s unlikely the five-time MVP will finalize his decision on whether to retire at that time. No one expects Manning to play for the Broncos next season, of course; it is imply a matter of whether he will retire or if Denver will be forced to release him. In fact, Klis goes on to say that it’s possible a deal with Osweiler could be in hand the minute after Manning’s decision is known.

In a separate tweet, Klis says that the two sources that gave rise to the original Denver Post article reporting that Manning would acknowledge his intention to retire by the end of this week have since “disappeared from the story.”

SATURDAY, 7:50pm: Manning hasn’t informed the Broncos of his decision, and the the team expects to talk to him again this week, per Pro Football Talk (Twitter link).

SATURDAY, 7:26pm: Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning will acknowledge his intention to retire by the end of this week, sources tell Woody Paige of The Denver Post. Whether Manning retires or elects to return for his age-40 season, the Broncos are operating as if he won’t be part of their plans going forward, according to Alex Marvez of FOX Sports.

As Marvez writes, the Broncos are planning to use the $19MM of spending space they’ll have without Manning around next season as a way to pay some of their other players. Manning’s $21.5MM cap number and $19MM salary for 2016 will become fully guaranteed if he isn’t off the Broncos’ books by March 8, so the expectation all along has been that he’ll either retire or get his release by then.

If Manning does indeed walk away, he’ll leave the NFL as a two-time Super Bowl champion, and the league’s all-time leader in total wins by a QB (200), passing yards (71,940) and passing touchdowns (539). He also holds the record for most single-season TD tosses (55, set in 2013). Additionally, the No. 1 overall pick of the 1998 draft has racked up 14 Pro Bowl bids, seven first-team All-Pro selections and five MVP awards on the heels of a stellar career at the University of Tennessee.

The 2015-16 season campaign was the least productive of Manning’s pro career from a statistical standpoint, as he appeared in 10 "<strongregular-season games and compiled his second-lowest completion percentage (59.8%) – not to mention personal worsts in touchdown passes (nine, against 17 interceptions) and QB rating (67.9). Manning was out of action for the second half of November and all of December because of a foot injury, but he relieved a banged-up Brock Osweiler in Week 17 and never relinquished the starting job. Manning worked in a game manager role during the postseason, when the Broncos’ defense dominated its way to wins over the Steelers, Patriots and Panthers en route to a Super Bowl title.

Prior to the Broncos’ playoff run, the December release of a documentary by Al-Jazeera America led to allegations of HGH use by Manning. In the documentary, ex-Guyer Institute pharmacist Charlie Sly claims the Indianapolis-based anti-aging clinic supplied Manning and his wife with HGH as he was recovering from a serious neck injury in 2011. Manning subsequently denied any wrongdoing, calling the accusations “complete garbage” and even threatening legal action.

That neck injury led to the end of Manning’s long tenure with the Colts, with whom he starred from 1998-2010. Manning was remarkably durable in that time frame, starting 16 regular-season games all 13 years and guiding the Colts to 11 playoff berths. After several years of playoff disappointment, Manning won the first Super Bowl of his career – a 29-17 triumph over the Bears – to conclude the 2006-07 season. The Colts got back to the Super Bowl one more time during Manning’s tenure, but they dropped a 31-17 decision to the Saints in February 2010.

After Manning missed the entire 2011 season, ending his streak of 227 straight starts (playoffs included), the Colts released him to pave the way for the Andrew Luck era. Manning then joined the Broncos on a five-year, $96MM deal in March 2012 and helped them to a sterling 38-10 regular-season record from 2012-14, throwing 131 touchdowns against 36 interceptions. Those three seasons ended poorly, though, as the Broncos went one-and-done in the playoffs twice and fell, 43-8, to the Seahawks in a disastrous Super Bowl XLVIII performance in between. Ironically, in Manning’s only subpar statistical season in Denver, the club finished atop the mountain, winning its third championship. The Broncos’ first two titles were won in the 1990s with current general manager John Elway at quarterback.

Along with Elway and his brother Eli Manning, who has also won a pair of championships, Peyton Manning is one of 12 QBs with multiple Super Bowl victories to his name.

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Jets Franchise Muhammad Wilkerson

FEBRUARY 29, 5:35pm: The Jets aren’t convinced Wilkerson is fit to serve as the centerpiece of head coach Todd Bowles’ defense, according to Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News, and will entertain trade offers for him as a result. Mehta adds that the Jets are higher on Richardson, who is entering a contract year and will require a significant financial commitment to retain past next season.

GMs and front office executives relayed to Mehta at the combine that they expect the Jets to have difficulty dealing Wilkerson because acquiring him would cost a club plenty in the form of at least one high draft pick and a new contract for the defender. Wilkerson is seeking at least $40MM to $45MM in guaranteed money, per Mehta.

5:08pm: The Jets have applied the non-exclusive franchise tag (worth $15.7MM) to Wilkerson, reports Albert Breer of NFL.com (Twitter link). As a non-exclusive tag recipient, Wilkerson is free to negotiate a new contract with other teams, but the Jets will have the right to match the offer or let him go and collect two first-round picks in return.

9:46am: While nothing is official yet, the Jets still intend to place the franchise tag on Wilkerson before Tuesday afternoon’s deadline, a source tells Kimberly Jones of the NFL Network (Twitter link). The tag will be worth $15.701MM.

FEBRUARY 15: The Jets and pending free agent Muhammad Wilkerson haven’t come close to an agreement on a new contract, and with the 2016 franchise-tag window set to open on Tuesday, the team intends to use its tag on the defensive end, according to Rich Cimini of ESPN.com.Muhammad Wilkerson

[RELATED: 2016 NFL franchise tag candidates]

Wilkerson, 26, enjoyed his best season as a pro in 2015, racking up a career-high 12 sacks and forcing three fumbles, to go along with 64 tackles. Arguably the best defensive player for the Jets last season, Wilkerson also earned his first Pro Bowl berth.

Although Wilkerson’s performance showed he was worthy of franchise-tag consideration, there were also a handful of factors working against him. He broke his leg during the Jets’ regular-season finale, and while that injury isn’t expected to sideline him at all next season, it complicated his contract situation a little. Additionally, the Jets have two other talented defensive ends on their roster, in Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams, so re-signing Wilkerson could be viewed as something of a luxury.

Still, according to Cimini, GM Mike Maccagnan recognizes that Wilkerson is a valuable asset and that the Jets can’t simply let him reach the open market and sign with a new team without getting any real compensation in return. New York will have to clear some salary cap space in order to make a franchise-tag salary fit under the cap, but that appears to be the team’s plan for now.

Based on a projected $154MM salary cap, the franchise salary for defensive ends would amount to nearly $15.5MM, the highest figure for any non-quarterback position. Even though Wilkerson is a 3-4 end, rather than the sort of 4-3 edge rusher who would typically command higher contracts, that defensive end franchise salary will apply to him.

While Cimini predicts Wilkerson will ultimately play out the 2016 season with the Jets on his franchise salary, there are other ways the situation could play out. The club could entertain trade offers for its star defensive lineman after franchising him, or recommit to working out a longer-term agreement to keep him in New York. If the Jets franchise Wilkerson and don’t trade him, the two sides would have until July 15 to work out a multiyear deal this year. Otherwise, Wilkerson would be locked into his franchise salary for 2016.

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FA Rumors: Broncos QBs, Snacks, 49ers, Hali, Mebane

A look at the latest rumors as we draw closer to free agency:

  • The quarterback-needy Texans are likely to go after Brock Osweiler if he doesn’t re-sign with the Broncos, per CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora (Twitter link).
  • If Peyton Manning – whom Osweiler has backed up since entering the NFL in 2012 – returns for his age-40 season and the Broncos release him, the Texans and Rams could pursue the future Hall of Famer, writes Alex Marvez of FOX Sports. Should Manning elect against retirement, Denver is expected to cut the two-time Super Bowl champion by March 8 and save $19MM on its cap. A good portion of that money would go to linebacker Von Miller, who is looking for a deal similar to what Miami gave defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh last winter (six years, $114MM, with $60MM in guarantees), reports Marvez.
  • It’ll take a “major reversal” for Jets defensive tackle Damon Harrison to not reach the open market, according to La Canfora (Twitter link). “Snacks” stated earlier this month that he and the Jets were making progress toward a deal, but that no longer appears to be the case. The 27-year-old was Pro Football Focus’ top-ranked interior defender against the run last season (subscription required).
  • Passing along what he heard at the scouting combine, Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee lists several prospective free agents the 49ers are thought to be targeting. Guards Kelechi Osemele, Brandon Brooks, J.R. Sweezy, Richie Incognito and Ramon Foster; receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu; cornerbacks Sean Smith, Trumaine Johnson and Janoris Jenkins; and running back Doug Martin could all be on the club’s radar.
  • The Chiefs are working hard to retain linebacker Tamba Hali, whom they’ll meet with later this week, reports La Canfora (Twitter link). Hali has so far spent his entire career in Kansas City, which used a first-round pick on him in 2006. The 32-year-old has piled up 86 sacks (6.5 last season) while missing just four regular-season games in his decade-long career.
  • Speaking of players whose careers have been spent in one place, defensive tackle Brandon Mebane hopes to extend his nine-year tenure with the Seahawks. “I’d love to be back out there in Seattle, finish my career in Seattle,” the 2007 third-rounder told 710 ESPN. However, Mebane added that he’ll probably visit other teams. Mebane’s status is one of many issues PFR addressed in its offseason preview of the Seahawks on Sunday. Click here to read it.

James Laurinaitis To Visit Saints

Free agent linebacker James Laurinaitis will fly to New Orleans tonight and visit with the Saints on Tuesday, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports (Twitter link). This comes on the heels of a recent statement from Saints head coach Sean Payton, who said improving the team’s defensive front seven would be one of its main areas of concern this offseason.James Laurinaitis (vertical)

This will be the first free agent visit for Laurinaitis since the Rams released him on Feb. 19. The 29-year-old is fresh off his seventh consecutive 100-tackle season since entering the NFL in 2009 as a second-round pick. More impressively, he has never missed a game or a start, suiting up 112 consecutive times while chipping in 16.5 sacks and 10 interceptions along the way. However, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) rated his 2015-16 performance an ugly 83rd out of 97 qualifying LBs.

Earlier today, the Saints opened up $3.2MM of spending space when they cut receiver Marques Colston, and that money could obviously go toward signing Laurinatis. The ex-Ohio State standout was due base salaries of $5.775MM in 2016 and $6.1MM in 2017 before the Rams released him.

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Colts Will Not Re-Sign Matt Hasselbeck

MONDAY, 4:02pm: Confirming Sunday’s reports, Hasselbeck has tweeted a goodbye to the Colts organization: “Amazing experience w/ Colts. My family & I are grateful to you Indianapolis. Many great friends, you will be missed!”

SUNDAY, 1:35pm: Andrew Luck will have a new backup in 2016, as the Colts will not attempt to re-sign veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, report Mike Silver and Ian Rapoport of NFL.com (Twitter links). Instead, Indianapolis will turn to former Buccaneers starter Josh Freeman as its No. 2 signal-caller.Matt Hasselbeck (Vertical)

[RELATED: PFR previews the Colts’ 2016 offseason]

Even during his age-40 season, Hasselbeck played pretty well in relief of the injured Luck — he started eight games and posted a 5-3 record, completed 61% of his passes for 1,690 yards, and threw nine touchdowns against five interceptions. Hasselbeck said earlier this month that he planned to return for an 18th NFL season, and Colts head coach Chuck Pagano stated that the club “would love” to have him back. Evidently that thinking has changed, however, so if Hasselbeck wants to play one more year, it will be in a different uniform.

Freeeman, 28, signed with Indianapolis late in the 2015 season and ended up starting the club’s season finale (a win against the Titans). The former first-round pick brings 61 games worth of starting experience to the table — the majority of that time was with Tampa Bay, but Freeman also spent a brief one-game interlude with the Vikings in 2013.

The Colts also have fellow December signee Stephen Morris under contract for the 2016 season, so the team could choose to deploy him as their No. 3 quarterback. Meanwhile, veteran Charlie Whitehurst isn’t mentioned in the NFL.com report, but if Freeman is set to act as the backup, there’s little chance Whitehurst — an unrestricted free agent — will return to Indianpolis.

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