5 Key Stories: 2/18/24 – 2/25/24

The opening of the franchise tag window began an important period on the NFL calendar in advance of free agency. It has already resulted in one notable move, with more sure to follow. In case you missed any of the top stories from this past week, here is a quick recap:

  • Bengals Tag Higgins: The two-week franchise tag window opened on February 20, and the Bengals quickly elected to place the one-year tender on wideout Tee Higgins. The 25-year-old would have headlined the free agent class at his position, and both he and the team have expressed a desire to continue their relationship. As a result, it comes as no surprise he will remain in Cincinnati for at least one more season. The Bengals will soon need to work out a monster extension for Ja’Marr Chase to pair with Joe Burrow’s $55MM-per-year contract, however, leading to questions of a tag-and-trade with Higgins or the chances he departs in 2025. The latter can continue negotiating a multi-year Bengals deal as late as July 15.
  • Salary Cap Sees Historic Increase: The NFL unveiled the salary cap ceiling for 2024, and it checked in at $255.4MM. Annual eight-figure increases have been commonplace in non-pandemic years, but the jump of roughly $30MM compared to 2023 is the largest in league history. Teams were preparing offseason strategies with a cap projection approximately $10MM lower than the actual figure, so it will be interesting to see how the found money will be allocated. As always, a number of teams still have work to do simply to achieve cap compliance in time for the new league year. Efforts on that front will be somewhat easier, though, and teams with considerable spending power will have even more flexibility. Notably, franchise tag and 2025 fifth-year option values are also in place, so much-needed clarity has emerged with respect to financial decisions around the league.
  • Bears Nearing QB Decision? Just like last year, the Bears hold the No. 1 pick in the draft and therefore have the means of selecting a Justin Fields successor. A decision on whether to take that route or (once again) retain Fields is expected to be in place by the upcoming NFL Combine. Teams have inquired about Fields’ availability, and the market Chicago can generate for the 24-year-old will no doubt be a crucial factor in the direction the rebuilding outfit takes. Numerous Bears coaches and executives have publicly praised Fields, who has one season remaining on his rookie contract (with the potential for one more via the fifth-year option). He would offer an intriguing option under center for any number of teams – and a trade would pave the way for a Caleb Williams selection – but it is unknown at this point if the Ohio State product will become available (as likely as that seems to be). Clarity on that front should be coming soon.
  • Raiders Interested In Top Pick: If the Bears do elect to commit to Fields, they could trade out of the No. 1 slot as they did last offseason. In that event, the Raiders would be among the teams eyeing a move up the board. Vegas is currently set to select 13th overall, so a trade-up of that magnitude would come at a massive cost. With Jimmy Garoppolo‘s time in Sin City thought to be over, though, the team is in the market for an addition at the QB spot. Three passers could very well come off the board with the first three selections, so Vegas is among the potential suitors which would need to get aggressive to acquire one of the top 2024 prospects under center. Interestingly, a recent reported noted the Raiders should not be considered a landing spot for Fields in the event he finds himself outside of Chicago this offseason.
  • Evans Likely To Reach Free Agency: The Buccaneers are a team to watch in the build-up to free agency, with Mike Evans set to see his contract expire. The perennial 1,000-yard wideout is not believed to be close on extension talks, which could lead to him heading elsewhere on the open market. Evans, 30, has spent his entire career in Tampa Bay but negotiations this past summer did not yield much traction on a third contract. He would be one of the most sought-after receivers in this year’s free agent class on a short-term arrangement in particular, and the Bucs have a new deal to work out with franchise tag candidate Antoine Winfield Jr. as well as quarterback Baker Mayfield. Talks with the latter have begun, and the team is eyeing an agreement before the new league year. Regardless of that effort, the chance of Evans departing this spring remains.
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