Offseason Outlook

Offseason Outlook: Denver Broncos

Pending free agents:

Top 15 cap hits for 2016:

  1. Demaryius Thomas, WR: $15,200,000
  2. Von Miller, OLB: $14,129,000 (franchised)
  3. DeMarcus Ware, OLB: $11,666,668
  4. Ryan Clady, T: $10,100,000
  5. Aqib Talib, CB: $9,968,750
  6. Chris Harris Jr., CB: $9,000,000
  7. Derek Wolfe, DE: $6,800,000
  8. Louis Vasquez, G: $6,750,000
  9. Emmanuel Sanders, WR: $6,600,000
  10. T.J. Ward, S: $5,750,000
  11. Owen Daniels, TE: $4,500,000
  12. Britton Colquitt, P: $4,000,000
  13. Darian Stewart, S: $3,250,000
  14. Virgil Green, TE: $2,900,000
  15. Sylvester Williams, DT: $2,412,375

Notable coaching/front office moves:

  • Football operations: Lost national scout John Spytek, who was hired by Buccaneers as director of player personnel.




Enjoying one of the stranger routes to a Super Bowl title, the Broncos capitalized on the collection of talent they managed to fit under their salary cap. Despite teetering on the brink of potentially missing the playoffs after amassing a healthy early-season AFC West lead, the Broncos strung together three dominant defensive performances in the postseason once granted their fourth straight first-round bye. The 2010s Broncos are only the fourth team to do earn four straight byes in the double-bye era that began in 1990.

Oddly, this may have been the Broncos’ least complete roster since Peyton Manning arrived in Denver due to the 39-year-old quarterback’s steep decline and a makeshift offensive line. But the league’s top-ranked defense, which improved from a top-five-ranked unit to one in the conversation for best defense ever, compensated for the offense’s issues.

Residing alongside the 2000 Ravens, 2002 Buccaneers and 2013 Seahawks among the top Super Bowl-winning defenses from this century, the Broncos featured a similar outfit from the 2014 group that fell to the Colts in the divisional round. Only Darian Stewart was a new starter on the ’15 team, but Wade Phillips‘ arrival doubled as John Elway’s best offseason hire once it unleashed the talent the GM acquired on defense. Ranking No. 1 against the pass and No. 3 against the run, the Broncos made ball-advancement difficult throughout the season. Timely turnovers secured victories against the Ravens, Chiefs, Vikings, Raiders, Browns and Bengals, and the defense helped give an often-stagnant offense a wide safety net. The Broncos went 12-3 overall in games decided by seven points or less.

While his 3-4 scheme helped unleash Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe as 5-technique ends, and moved Von Miller into the highest-paid defender discussion, Phillips proved malleable in key spots. The Broncos deviated from their blitz-heavy tendencies against the Patriots, yet still posted a staggering 23 quarterback hits to prevent New England from taking advantage of Denver’s conservative offense in the AFC championship game. Using more of a base defense in Super Bowl 50, the Broncos quickly stifled the Panthers’ vaunted zone-read attack and illuminated some weaknesses in Cam Newton‘s game that hadn’t surfaced much during the season.

Denver looks to return the bulk of this defense, one that saw five players — Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Shaquil Barrett, Jackson and Wolfe — register at least 5.5 sacks. The defense’s transition from Jack Del Rio‘s read-and-react approach forced quarterbacks into difficult decisions while managing to be a stout force against the run despite Terrance Knighton‘s departure.

The defense’s performance gave the Broncos’ offense plenty of time to work out issues, but ultimately, the unit settled into a game-managerial style that managed to score enough points while limiting turnovers. The Broncos finished plus-4 in the playoffs, but Manning’s and Brock Osweiler‘s 23 combined regular-season interceptions were the most in the league.

Denver’s offense shifted through several phases during its 19 games. An awkward Manning trying out Gary Kubiak‘s system soon gave way to a pistol-modified version, before Manning’s injury brought back Kubiak’s under-center play-action concepts during Osweiler’s starts. Upon return, Manning’s ball-control-based postseason approach proved reasonably effective, but it obviously looked foreign to those who followed the Hall-of-Fame passer’s career.

Denver finished with two 1,000-yard+ receivers for the fourth straight season, with Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders repeating that feat. The departures of Julius Thomas and Wes Welker showed, however, with the Broncos’ auxiliary cast failing to make a steady impact. Denver’s run game also didn’t resemble Kubiak’s usual upper-echelon editions, ranking 17th at 107.4 yards per game. C.J. Anderson‘s early struggles burned fantasy owners and forced Ronnie Hillman into the starting role. Hillman dashed for a career-high 863 yards and seven scores before running out of steam and ceding work to Anderson down the stretch. Although Evan Mathis ranked as Pro Football Focus’ best run-blocking guard, Denver’s offense line took a step back, giving up 39 sacks. The Broncos yielded just 35 combined in 2013 and 2014.

Manning turned out to be worth the five-year, $96MM contract he signed in 2012, guiding the Broncos to 50 total wins and two Super Bowl appearances. His first two and a half seasons in Denver produced historic numbers and turned the Broncos into instant contenders after years of middling play in the Mile High City. Manning seemed to hit a wall midway through the 2014 season, causing the Broncos to become more reliant on their defense and ground game. But becoming the first quarterback to win Super Bowls with two different teams, lifting Denver to six home playoff games and breaking numerous passing records will make the Broncos nearly as relevant as the Colts as part of Manning’s legacy.

Manning transforming the Broncos into an instant powerhouse, and improving on his QB-record 11 12-win seasons, should rank alongside the work he did in Indianapolis in terms of the signal-caller’s stamp on the game.

Now that the Manning era is over, it will be interesting to see how the Broncos attempt to extend what’s been their most consistent period of dominance in team history. Should Miller sign a mega-extension, the defensive pieces are still largely in place. But the luxury of a quarterback providing coach-level knowledge and elite-level on-field work Denver enjoyed for the most part during this stretch won’t be there. Whether the Broncos can maintain will depend on what happens at quarterback.

Key Free Agents:

Obscured partially by odd off-field incidents and other players’ rises over the past few years, Von Miller re-emerged as the most feared outside pass rusher in football. Miller’s 11 sacks were actually the second-worst total of his career, but he maintained his lofty standing with the advanced-metrics community. Pro Football Focus rated Miller as its second-best edge defender behind Khalil Mack, but bestowed its best run-defending grade for edge-rushers on Miller.

Miller long ago displayed his dominance in NFL circles but broke out on a national level during these playoffs.

Not factoring in much in the Broncos’ one-and-done postseason forays in 2012 or ’14, and not playing during Denver’s run to Super Bowl XLVIII due to a torn ACL, Miller turned in one of the league’s greatest playoff showings for a defender. His five sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception over the course of the Broncos’ final two wins illustrated his value. Predictably receiving the franchise tag, the soon-to-be 27-year-old Miller is the first player since Drew Brees to receive the exclusive tag for an impending free agent and the first non-quarterback to be protected in this manner since Richard Seymour in 2007.

Miller’s Broncos talks may be more complicated than the ones that resulted in franchise players Ryan Clady, Matt Prater and Demaryius Thomas being signed in July of 2012, 2013 and 2015, respectively. The star pass rusher appears to be campaigning for Ndamukong Suh-type money (six years, $114MM, $59MM guaranteed), but the Dolphins were paying Suh in comparison to what he could make on the open market after the Lions didn’t tag him. With Miller being tagged for $14.13MM, the Broncos can use that as leverage in an effort to keep Miller’s price under those marks. Still, Miller will surpass Justin Houston‘s league-high linebacker contract of six years and $101MM and be a part of the Broncos’ title defense this season. John Elway‘s track record for signing his top players points to Miller being back on a long-term accord, even though the negotiations could be tricky.

Elway’s talks with Osweiler may have progressed to the point where the ball’s in the court of Peyton Manning‘s longtime apprentice. The Broncos have reportedly offered the 6-foot-8 quarterback a $45MM deal over three years, which surpasses Nick Foles‘ prove-it-type pact with the Rams but falls just shy of the $16MM AAV threshold that poses a figurative line of demarcation for franchise quarterbacks. Sam Bradford‘s deal and Kirk Cousins‘ franchise tag may have increased Osweiler’s value. The 25-year-old comes in No. 1 on PFR’s list of available signal-callers, and it would behoove Osweiler to see what his market is before re-signing in Denver.

Osweiler may be able to earn more money with a team like the Texans, who aren’t in position to draft Jared Goff or Carson Wentz. But his odds of playing out a contract and staying on track to earn an accord in line with top-flight quarterbacks may be best with the Broncos. After going 5-2 as a starter in a strong late-season audition, Osweiler re-signing with Denver would place him back in a system he seems to fit and give him the luxury of operating with a top-tier defense. Should Osweiler sign elsewhere, he wouldn’t necessarily have these amenities and would have to go about learning a new offense. Osweiler may prove not to be worth the money in an environment that forces him to be more of a gunslinger and less of a game manager.

We don’t yet know what kind of guarantees the Broncos are offering, and that could be the delay in Osweiler re-signing. The former second-round pick surveying the market could induce Denver to up the price. Even though Elway has been one of the best GMs in the game in signing players to team-friendly deals, he might cave at the thought of Osweiler leaving and the Broncos having to turn to a journeyman or a rookie to guide his defending champion roster.

Signing Osweiler to a deal that either nears or exceeds $15MM annually, however, based on seven starts would qualify as Elway’s biggest risk as a GM. Osweiler’s 61.8% completion rate and 10-to-6 TD/INT ratio were positive marks based on his limited work in previous low-stakes situations, and the Broncos don’t win a title without his contributions. But Denver’s offense struggled to get first downs during several entire halves under Osweiler, whose ceiling is certainly in question.

A deal for Osweiler that’s only a few million per year shy of Manning’s lucrative salaries will make it difficult to keep Malik Jackson. The burgeoning-star defender has reportedly rebuffed eight-figure-per-season offers from the Broncos and seems likely to hit the market, where teams with more money and in greater need of pass-rushing help await. The reported deal close to $11MM AAV the Broncos offered Jackson would place the fifth-year player in close proximity to the highest-paid 3-4 ends who are not named J.J. Watt.

Jackson, however, has thrived at three different positions over the past three years – 4-3 defensive tackle in 2013, 4-3 end in ’14 and (most notably) 3-4 end under Wade Phillips – and could push for interior pass-rushing money in line with the 4-3 tackles that aren’t Ndamukong Suh. Although the 26-year-old Jackson outworked Gerald McCoy ($15.9MM AAV) and Marcell Dareus ($16.1MM per year) in terms of combined sacks, hits and hurries last year, he probably won’t receive an offer quite that lucrative. Anything in that realm and the Broncos — who already signed Jackson’s 2012 draft classmate, Derek Wolfe, to a four-year, $36.7MM deal — may have to let someone else pay Jackson’s second contract.

Danny Trevathan, however, profiles as the kind of player Elway has let leave. He allowed Wesley Woodyard to exit after 2013 and hasn’t paid the kind of money Trevathan is probably seeking to non-rush linebackers. The only deal of consequence the Broncos have given to an inside backer under Elway’s watch came when the team extended Joe Mays for $4MM per year in 2012, and John Fox benched Mays less than halfway into that season.

Trevathan looks to have a higher ceiling than Woodyard, who signed for four years and $16MM with the Titans in 2014. Despite playing his first season as an inside ‘backer, Trevathan led the Broncos in tackles for the second time and showed teams he has sufficiently recovered from the leg injuries that derailed his 2014 campaign. The former sixth-round pick could conceivably fetch more than $7MM from a linebacker-needy team. Twelve inside ‘backers earn that on average, and Trevathan is younger than most of them. Entering only his age-26 season, Trevathan ranks as PFR’s top inside linebacker UFA and, unlike Jackson, the Broncos haven’t made much of an attempt to keep him off the market.

Ronnie Hillman is a more intriguing case. He stood out for the Broncos in his fourth year and is only 24. Entering the draft after his sophomore season at San Diego State, Hillman is younger than his free agent ball-carrying brethren, but he clearly ranks among the second tier of UFA backs – behind the likes of Doug Martin, Lamar Miller, Matt Forte and possibly a few others – and may not command too much more than the $770K he earned in 2015. Should Hillman’s market dry out, a return to Denver looms plausible.

Hillman did not show well in the playoffs, rushing for just 54 yards compared to C.J. Anderson‘s 234. And despite his profile as a change-of-pace ball-carrier, Hillman didn’t factor into the Broncos’ passing game — the former third-round pick caught just 24 passes for just 111 yards. It’s more likely that the Broncos let someone else give Hillman a slight raise and either team Anderson with Juwan Thompson and a mid-round rookie next season, or select Anderson’s potential successor in the early rounds.

The Broncos’ free agent gridlock includes two starting linemen, Evan Mathis and Ryan Harris. Neither figures to rank too high on the club’s offseason itinerary.

Mathis graded as the best offensive lineman in the Super Bowl for either team, per Pro Football Focus, and proved to be another pivotal signing by the Broncos. Coming to Denver for one year and $4MM, Mathis battled multiple maladies to lead Denver’s three-guard rotation. He’s hinted at retirement and will turn 35 in November. It’s possible Mathis will continue his career and sign a new contract, but with Max Garcia likely to step in at one of Denver’s guard spots, the veteran likely won’t get that new contract from the Broncos.

An emergency signing once Ryan Clady tore his ACL during OTAs, Harris was thrust into the role of left tackle after Ty Sambrailo also was lost for the season. Harris and Michael Schofield doubled as one of the worst tackle tandems in football, according to PFF, however. The 30-year-old Harris could have a route back to Denver, where he has had two stints, but only as a swing tackle on a veteran-minimum-type contract.

Possible Cap Casualties:

The Broncos’ tightrope walk in an effort to keep Brock Osweiler and Malik Jackson could result in some high-profile names being cut.

Ryan Clady has already agreed to discuss a pay reduction, and the Broncos are in talks with their longtime left tackle about doing so. But how much of a salary slash the 29-year-old Clady will accept is uncertain, and so is his future performance level after missing 30 regular-season games — and both Super Bowls in which the team appeared — the past two years. A former two-time first-team All-Pro and a player drafted to block in a zone system identical to the one Gary Kubiak utilizes, Clady is probably a better option than most tackles available. But the Broncos could save $8.9MM by releasing him, a route John Elway likely will consider despite the Broncos’ issues at the position. Clady has two years remaining on the five-year, $52.5MM extension he signed four years ago.

Louis Vasquez resides in a similar place. Injuries nagged the former first-team All-Pro, and he lost snaps to Max Garcia in the Broncos’ guard shuffle. Although Vasquez played most of the snaps in the playoffs, he’s entering the final saeson of his four-year contract. The Broncos can save $5.5MM by cutting their right guard. As is the case with Clady though, they don’t have an in-house replacement.

One of these performers could well receive the ax, with DeMarcus Ware‘s lofty cap figure ($11.67MM) looming as one the Broncos would probably like to reduce but only ditch as a last-resort measure. Ware delivered more quarterback hits in the playoffs than Miller despite recording 3.5 sacks to Miller’s five. The Broncos may not have qualified for the Super Bowl had Ware not torched Sebastian Vollmer in the AFC title game, showing no ill-effects from the back injury that forced him to miss a career-most five games during the regular season.

Ware, however, will be 34 and the Broncos sport pass-rushing depth. Shaquil Barrett stood out as Ware’s primary replacement, collecting 7.5 sacks. The ex-UDFA could team with 2015 first-rounder Shane Ray to help the Broncos compensate for a Ware release. However, neither can match Ware’s explosiveness, and a scenario where the Broncos lose Ware and Manning in one week may be a lot to digest for a defending champion whose roster reveres those presences. The Broncos can save $10MM by jettisoning Ware.

Positions Of Need:

If the Broncos can’t reach an agreement with Brock Osweiler this week, their options dwindle fast, especially if the Jets retain Ryan Fitzpatrick. Chase Daniel and Matt Moore are the proven backup options, with potentially available higher-risk players like Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III not yet officially available. The latter duo at their respective peaks would represent upgrades over Osweiler, but both come with significant baggage and aren’t the offensive caretakers Osweiler and the postseason version of Peyton Manning proved to be. Kaepernick may require the Broncos to surrender as much as a second-round pick as well.

Rookie prospects like Connor Cook or Dak Prescott may be contingency plans in case Osweiler does receive a monster offer and the Broncos need to sign a veteran backup. Manning’s workmanlike playoff outings proved the Broncos didn’t need stellar quarterback play to win, but their defense might not be quite as good if certain UFAs bolt. And having to go with a rookie learning from a veteran like Moore or even Tarvaris Jackson would potentially be a steep downgrade from Osweiler.

The Broncos’ overtures to Osweiler make it likely he returns, but if John Elway believes preserving this defense supersedes employing a highly-paid quarterback, it will be a very interesting offseason for the defending champions. Only one eventual Super Bowl champion in the free agency era has allowed its starting quarterback to defect via free agency – the Ravens upon replacing Trent Dilfer with Elvis Grbac – so there’s not a lot of precedent for what could transpire in Denver if its Manning succession plan backfires.

Denver’s offensive line will need reinforcements regardless of how Elway handles Louis Vasquez and Ryan Clady. Pro Football Focus ranked the Broncos’ front 20th last season, and the group’s top-rated performer, Evan Mathis, isn’t expected to be back. The Broncos probably turn to Matt Paradis and Max Garcia at two spots, with likely one of Clady and Vasquez occupying a third and Ty Sambrailo expected back at one of the tackle positions. But Sambrailo didn’t perform well in his brief debut, so adding a tackle should be a priority. Clady is a short-term solution at this point.

The bulk of the UFA tackles are power-blocking players, and with the salary crunch in which the Broncos find themselves, a high-priced player is presumably off the table. Texas Tech’s Le’Raven Clark or Indiana’s Jason Spriggs may be available when the Broncos pick at No. 31, and this figures to be an early-round need. Elway, however, hasn’t been big on drafting for need, exemplified first by his bypassing Patrick Peterson and Marcell Dareus for Von Miller, then the best-player-available tendencies surfacing again the past two years. In 2014, the Broncos drafted Bradley Roby after already having Aqib Talib and Chris Harris in the fold, and last year traded up to pick Shane Ray to play behind Miller and DeMarcus Ware.

Guard is also a need, and there are some UFA candidates. Former Gary Kubiak charges in Houston, Brandon Brooks and Ben Jones, make sense. Both Kubiak-drafted players began their careers as zone-blockers and possess extensive seasoning as starters. Brooks and Jones started at least 10 games in a season under Kubiak during his Texans tenure, and each has been a Houston starter the past two years. Before moving to center, Jones played guard under Kubiak.

Pro Football Focus hasn’t enjoyed Zane Beadles‘ work in Denver or Jacksonville, but the recently released guard has proven durable in being healthy for every game of his six-year career. Denver would be able to sign him for less than what the Jaguars paid to bring in the now-29-year-old interior man. Guard is a position the Broncos will also likely address in the draft. They haven’t taken a guard or tackle in the draft’s first two rounds since using a second-rounder on Orlando Franklin in 2011.

Should Jackson depart, the Broncos could save money by shifting Vance Walker to end and acquiring depth. Walker played end with the Chiefs and functioned well as a reserve tackle/end last season in Denver. PFF ranked Walker as its No. 27 interior defender, and he’s due back with the Broncos on a $1.5MM salary in 2016. Mike DeVito is one of the many UFAs that could depart Kansas City and won’t cost as much as Jaye Howard. DeVito had a decent season, but the Chiefs’ well-fortified front didn’t have room for him. Cedric Thornton did well for himself in his contract year, but possibly too well. There aren’t a lot of players who fit Jackson’s description; his replacement will be cheaper and almost certainly inferior.

Running back and inside linebacker qualify as needs, but the Broncos are unlikely to allocate much capital toward filling them, even though some mock drafts have the team going for Derrick Henry in Round 1. With C.J. Anderson‘s postseason work sample showing he’s a starting-caliber back, the Broncos need a player who can complement him by being a receiving threat instead of someone who has a similar skill set. Utah’s Devontae Booker (622 receiving yards in two seasons) or Louisiana Tech’s Kenneth Dixon (464 air yards, seven touchdown receptions in 2015) make more sense as a second- or third-round pick to supplement Anderson and potentially take over once Denver’s current starter’s contract expires after 2016.

Todd Davis looms as the top in-house option to succeed Trevathan. The Broncos, in all likelihood, won’t spend much more than a mid- or late-round pick here and almost certainly won’t bring in a pricey veteran.

Extension Candidates/Contract Issues:

Signed to what turned out to be a steal at three years and $15MM, Emmanuel Sanders enters a contract year in 2016. Gary Kubiak‘s offense traditionally funnels through its No. 1 receiver, as Rod Smith and Andre Johnson have shown, but Sanders has arguably been better than Demaryius Thomas the past two seasons at a fraction of the cost. This proved true in the playoffs, when Sanders served as Peyton Manning‘s top weapon in hauling in 16 passes for 230 yards compared to Thomas’ 7/60 line.

Entering his age-29 season this fall, Sanders could see his worth escalate a year from now. Assuming Alshon Jeffery and the Bears come to an agreement, Sanders could be the top receiver on the 2017 market prior to cuts being made, especially if the Texans extend DeAndre Hopkins or exercise his fifth-year option. Doug Baldwin and Michael Floyd are the other prominent 2017 UFAs as of now. Sanders’ versatility to line up outside and in the slot should put him in line for a final big payday.

To sign Sanders, the Broncos will need to up his price somewhat. If their now-conservative offense looks a lot like what it displayed in 2015, securing Sanders’ early-30s services might not be a high priority at the price he could command. After all, Thomas currently represents the team’s largest cap hold at $15.2MM in ’16. However, unlike this year, the Broncos don’t look to have a deep crop of departing UFAs, which could spark interest in retaining their No. 2 target.

Sylvester Williams‘ third season was largely overlooked due to the abundance of talent around him. The Broncos’ nose tackle proved serviceable in his first year without Terrance Knighton but came off the field on most passing downs due to Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe‘s abilities at creating inside rushes. With Jackson perhaps on his way out of Denver, the Broncos may opt for some security on its front without much depth behind Wolfe and Williams.

The Broncos could keep Williams around for two more seasons, with his 2017 option costing them at least $6.15MM, and move on after his first contract expires. Williams entered the league in time for his age-25 season, and if the Broncos pick up his option, he’ll turn 30 during the first season of his next contract. The 27-year-old provides stability now, but barring an uptick in play, Williams may see age affect his earnings down the road.

Denver’s 2013 draft class wasn’t strong. Only Williams and third-rounder Kayvon Webster remain on the team, but Brandon Marshall looms as a de facto ’13 pick due to his rookie-year practice squad time delaying his NFL clock. Marshall, a restricted free agent due to receive a second-round tender from the Broncos, is on track to be a UFA next year and could have a similar market to Trevathan. A former Jaguars fifth-round pick, Marshall being back this season will make it easier for the Broncos to cut ties with Trevathan. But losing both of their No. 1 defense’s starting inside linebackers in two years would put an emphasis on adding at this spot in the draft.

If the Broncos don’t address the ILB position in the draft this year, they could attempt to lock up Marshall early for around $5MM-$6MM per season. The 26-year-old Marshall’s eventual asking price may depend on what Trevathan receives this week. With players like DeMarcus Ware, Louis Vasquez and possibly Ryan Clady and Aqib Talib (the latter due $32MM in non-guaranteed money for his age-31, 32 and 33 seasons) coming off the books, extending someone like Marshall may prove to be important.

Overall Outlook:

While it will be difficult to duplicate what the Peyton Manning years brought, the Broncos are well-positioned in the short-term. John Elway‘s ability to sign outside talent, keep his top players and unearth gems in the late rounds and via UDFA signings have his team looking like the favorite to win the AFC West for a sixth straight season.

Their defensive capabilities notwithstanding, the Broncos’ viability as a long-term contender will come down to Brock Osweiler‘s development if he re-signs. If Osweiler builds on his late-season work, the Broncos’ title window can potentially extend longer than expected. If the league adjusts to the thus-far middling talent, it’s hard to place the defending champions among the favorites to challenge teams like the Patriots or Steelers for conference supremacy.

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

Offseason Outlook: Green Bay Packers

Pending free agents:

Top 15 cap hits for 2016:

  1. Aaron Rodgers, QB: $19,250,000
  2. Clay Matthews, LB: $13,750,000
  3. Sam Shields, CB: $12,000,000
  4. Julius Peppers, OLB: $10,500,000
  5. Randall Cobb, WR: $9,150,000
  6. Jordy Nelson, WR: $8,300,000
  7. Mike Daniels, DE: $7,400,000
  8. Josh Sitton, G: $6,850,000
  9. T.J. Lang, G: $6,181,250
  10. Morgan Burnett, S: $5,956,250
  11. Bryan Bulaga, T: $5,462,500
  12. Letroy Guion, DT: $3,516,666
  13. Datone Jones, DE: $2,455,282
  14. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S: $2,274,137
  15. Damarious Randall, S: $1,799,029

Notable coaching/front office moves:


  • No. 27 overall pick
  • No traded draft picks



Another season, another disappointing finish for the Green Bay Packers. Since winning the Super Bowl in 2011, the team has only made one conference championship appearance, despite employing arguably the world’s best quarterback in Aaron Rodgers. The Packers’ demise this past season could certainly be attributed to injuries up and down the roster, and the club still deserves praise for willing its way to 10 victories in a difficult NFC.

Ted ThompsonFor those looking to point fingers, the majority of the blame could be placed at the top. General manager Ted Thompson has received criticism for his lack of moves in free agency, even reportedly drawing the ire of head coach Mike McCarthy. According to a January report from Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – one that was dismissed by Thompson and McCarthy – the coach “is fed up with his boss’ unwillingness to take a chance and reinforce the roster with veteran players that might be unknown to the Packers but have the talent to contribute.”

Thompson has consistently put together winning rosters, but he has done so with his own players. The Packers have brought in a handful of outside free agents in recent years (including Julius Peppers), but you rarely see the team mentioned as a probable suitor in discussions of destinations for some of the league’s top free agents.

Why is this significant? The Packers’ current crop of free agents certainly played an important role for the team this past season, but none of the players are essential to maintaining the team’s success. Green Bay has depth up and down its roster, making talented players like Casey Hayward, B.J. Raji, and James Starks expendable. Armed with more than $22MM in cap space, Thompson has an opportunity to add some reinforcements to his roster, and there are several holes that could use upgrades (including inside linebacker and tight end).

Thompson could ultimately take his usual route, which would mean extending his 2017 free agents and relying on his previously-drafted players. However, with an abundance of available cash, this offseason represents an opportunity for the Packers GM to drastically improve his roster.

Key Free Agents:

The majority of the Packers’ core should remain intact for next season, and the team retained one of its most important free agents earlier this past week, inking Mason Crosby to a four-year extension. The nine-year veteran has spent his entire career with the Packers, providing the sort of consistency and stability at the position that many teams would envy. Since a dreadful 2012 campaign, Crosby has re-established himself as one of the top kickers in the league, and Green Bay’s offseason becomes a whole lot easier now that the 31-year-old is sticking around.

Casey HaywardOutside of Crosby, the Packers certainly wouldn’t be sweating if any of their free agents left town. Many teams would make retaining a young talented defensive back like Casey Hayward a priority, after the 26-year-old established himself as a solid starting cornerback last season, ranking 16th among the 111 qualified players at the position graded by Pro Football Focus. However, the Packers have the luxury of having both Quinten Rollins (20th) and Sam Shields (25th) on their roster, and the team also drafted Damarious Randall in last year’s first round. Shields and Randall project to be the outside options, and Rollins can easily replace Hayward on the inside. Considering the contract he’s expected to demand, it would be a surprise if Hayward is wearing green and yellow next season.

James Starks, a longtime Packer, had arguably the best season of his career in 2015, finishing with close to 1,000 yards from scrimmage. The 30-year-old ended up bailing out Eddie Lacy, who struggled with inconsistency throughout the season. Coming off a career year, Starks has set himself up nicely for a payday — while he played his 2015 role as a backup and insurance policy to Lacy perfectly, the veteran could decide to seek a starting opportunity elsewhere.

The Packers’ defense has some depth on the edge (especially if Clay Matthews makes his long-awaited switch), but their linebacker core does have two major free agents in Mike Neal and Nick Perry. Neal started 15 games last season, finishing with 36 tackles and four sacks. That wasn’t near the production of his breakout 2013 campaign, but the 28-year-old has proven to be a consistent presence on the field. With Julius Peppers and Matthews already under contract, Neal may be able to find more playing time elsewhere. Perry, meanwhile, is arguably one of the best backup linebackers in the league, and the 25-year-old has averaged more than 16 tackles and three sacks over his four seasons in Green Bay. Perry has experience within the system, and he’s solid insurance in case the Peppers/Matthews duo misses time.

Say what you will about B.J. Raji’s production on the field, but the veteran has been a consistent presence in the middle of the Packers defense for years. Re-signing Letroy Guion to a new contract eases the urgency to retain the older defensive tackle, though the team might lack a bit of depth at the position as Mike Pennel sits out the first four games of next season due to a suspension. Still, Raji could probably command a larger contract elsewhere, and the Packers could find a replacement for the 29-year-old via free agency or the draft.

James JonesThe same could be said for veteran fullback John Kuhn and wideout James Jones. Kuhn is a fan favorite in Green Bay, and he has consistently ranked among the best fullbacks in the game. If Kuhn did leave town, it wouldn’t be impossible to replace his production, but the 33-year-old won’t command a huge contract on the open market, so the Packers should be optimistic about retaining him.

Jones, meanwhile, is a bit of a different story. The 31-year-old returned to the Packers following a single season in Oakland, and he managed to put together one of the strongest years of his career. Jones would seem to be in line for a payday, but teams may be wary of his lack of production outside of Green Bay. The Packers won’t have any reason to overspend to retain his services, considering Jordy Nelson is returning from injury and there are several young wideouts standing in the wings. If the veteran receiver wants a bigger role or more money, he won’t be staying in Green Bay.

“I was hoping it would go be back to Green Bay, but I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Jones recently said on SiriusXM NFL Radio, per Henry Buggy of “Like I said before, I would love to finish my career as a Green Bay Packer, but we all know this business is extremely crazy so it looks like I’m going to hit the open market again so we’ll see what’s going to happen and hopefully I get a little more action this time.”

Offensive tackle Don Barclay was part of the Packers’ four-man rotation at offensive tackle, but the team has plenty of depth with Bryan Bulaga, J.C. Tretter, and David Bakhtiari still in the mix. The same logic applies to tight ends Andrew Quarless and Justin Perillo. The duo combined for only 251 snaps, barely more than a quarter of Richard Rodgers’ 940 snaps. The team could easily replace their depth, or they could opt to improve at the position. Finally, Scott Tolzien’s tenure in Green Bay seems to be over, and the team could either bring in a veteran quarterback or rely on Brett Hundley.

Possible Cap Casualties:

When Julius Peppers signed a team-friendly three-year deal with the Packers in 2014, there was some skepticism about whether the veteran linebacker would ever see the end of his contract. This sentiment was logical: the 36-year-old has a 2016 cap hit up $10.5MM, and the organization could free up $8MM by letting go of the nine-time Pro Bowler. Since signing, however, Peppers has had two solid seasons in Green Bay, averaging 40 tackles and more than eight sacks per year.

Although there was some speculation immediately following the season that Peppers may decide to retire, the veteran was adamant that he intends to play next season, and it doesn’t appear as if he’s going anywhere.

Julius Peppers“I think somebody kind of took (my comments after the season) out of context,” Peppers told Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. “They asked me after the game what did I think about next year, and I was just saying that pretty much everybody has decisions to make and that type of thing. But as far as I know, I think I’m going to be playing next year, unless something happens that I don’t know about. And that’s possible.”

With Mike Neal and Nick Perry set to hit free agency, the Packers will need Peppers to help solidify their linebacking corps.

Since Peppers will presumably be sticking around, there aren’t other clear cap casualties on the Packers roster. Green Bay could decide to move on from punter Tim Masthay, who despite setting several franchise records last year actually rated as below-average. However, cutting the longtime Packer wouldn’t open up much cap room ($1.3MM), and they’d have to find a replacement.

If the Packers ink James Starks to a lucrative contract, they could decide to cut Eddie Lacy, but the modest savings ($850K) probably aren’t enough incentive to give up on the 25-year-old. In both these situations, the player’s release wouldn’t necessarily be influenced by the cap savings.

Positions Of Need:

Packers fans have consistently been calling for Clay Matthews to return to his natural outside linebacker position, and it certainly sounds like the team is open to the idea. However, that kind of move would open up the hole inside that necessitated the change in the first place. For what it’s worth, Mike McCarthy recently hinted to Ryan Wood of that he’d like to see it happen.

Clay Matthews“Frankly, my goal with Clay is for him to play outside linebacker,” the coach said in January. “That’s always been the case. I’ve never really made any bones about it. I think it shows the type of player Clay is, just as far as the type of teammate he is, to go inside and to play as much as he did really full time there.”

The Packers have some depth among their other inside linebackers, but none of the players have proven that they can be relied on full-time. Following a solid 2014 campaign, Sam Barrington sat out the majority of the 2015 season due to injury. Nate Palmer, his original replacement, compiled 64 tackles last season, but he was eventually replaced by rookie Jake Ryan.

While the Packers can perhaps count on one of those players to run with a starting role, a Matthews transition to outside linebacker would require two of them to start. Plus, depending on what happens with Mike Neal and Nick Perry, the team may also need to add multiple edge rushers to its roster.

The Packers already locked up Letroy Guion, who established career-highs in several categories last season. Their other starter, B.J. Raji, is an unrestricted free agent, and it sounds like the two sides have had some talks regarding an extension. However, Raji barely cracked Pro Football Focus’ top 100 among inside defenders, so we’ll see how far the team is willing to go to retain his services.

Eddie Lacy was disappointing last season, finishing with career-lows in attempts (187), yards (758), and touchdowns (three). The third-year running back was criticized by McCarthy for not being in shape, and recent photos have shown a slimmed-down Lacy. Still, there’s only a year left on the 25-year-old’s contract, and there have to be some questions within the organization about whether the team can commit to him long term.

Eddie Lacy“He’s got a lot of work to do,” McCarthy said of Lacy (via Dan Hanzus of “His offseason last year was not good enough and he never recovered from it. He cannot play at the weight he played at this year.”

Meanwhile, James Starks, Lacy’s backup, had one of the most productive seasons of his career, but the lifelong Packer is set to be an unrestricted free agent. Starks may attempt to find a starting job elsewhere, which would presumably price the Packers out of negotiations. Green Bay could attempt to keep Starks and move forward with the solid duo, or the team could look to blow-up its backfield altogether. Plus, beloved fullback John Kuhn is set to be a free agent, meaning we could see Rodgers handing off to multiple new backfield mates in 2016.

Speaking of Rodgers, the team should consider adding some targets to the quarterback’s arsenal, particularly at tight end. Richard Rodgers had something of a breakout year in 2015, but the 24-year-old is a far cry from Jermichael Finley. McCarthy appeared dissatisfied with the position’s production, evident by the firing of tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot. Andrew Quarless is hitting free agency, so the team could look to add a veteran to pair with Rodgers.

The Packers will hold onto most of their offensive line depth, but the front office should consider improving the entire unit. The club allowed the eighth-most QB hits last season, and Aaron Rodgers was sacked 46 times, his highest total since 2012. Rodgers will be turning 33 years old in December, and the organization’s championship window closes a bit each year. The team wouldn’t want to compromise that short timeline and see Rodgers get hurt.

Extension Candidates/Contract Issues:

David BakhtiariThe Packers’ offseason has the potential to be pretty subdued in terms of player acquisitions, so the front office could look to extend several of the team’s 2017 free agents. The club will have a trio of expiring contracts on its offensive line: David Bakhtiari, Josh Sitton, and T.J. Lang. Bakhtiari is the youngest of the bunch, and the former fourth-rounder could be eyeing a contract north of $10MM annually. Thompson and the Packers organization have prioritized retaining their own players, and the general manager has a tendency to ink his young players to contracts during the final year of their rookie pacts. Don’t be surprised if the two sides come to an agreement on a long-term deal, especially since Bakhtiari wants to stay in Green Bay long term.

“I think it’s mutual,” Bakhtiari told Ryan Wood of “I like it here, and they like me. I have another year. So I think if they want to do it early, awesome. If not, then we have one more year to work together. So we can talk about it then. I do think it’s too early though.”

Sitton and Lang are both wrapping up their first extensions, and each of them will be in line for another sizable contract next offseason. It would be difficult for the Packers retain both of those guards, especially since the team invested in lineman Bryan Bulaga last year. Bakhtiari should be an extension priority, but the front office will likely be more willing to let Sitton and Lang hit free agency.

Overall Outlook:

If the Packers follow their usual blueprint and have a relatively silent offseason, the focus may be unfairly shifted to Mike McCarthy. The coach regained his offensive play-calling duties during the regular season, and he seemed to repair his relationship with Aaron Rodgers as the year progressed. Even if the coach did want to partially attribute the team’s failures to lack of veteran reinforcement, someone’s going to have to eventually take the blame for the Packers’ inability to reach the Super Bowl. Considering Ted Thompson’s track records of drafting and developing successful squads, it may end up being McCarthy on the hot seat if the team fails in the playoffs once again.

There’s little reason for pessimism in Green Bay, however. The Packers have set themselves up nicely for the 2016 season. As is, the team should certainly be considered a contender in the NFC, and with more than $20MM in cap space, Green Bay has an opportunity to make itself bona fide Super Bowl favorites.

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

Offseason Outlook: Arizona Cardinals

Pending free agents:

Top 15 cap hits for 2016:

  1. Carson Palmer, QB: $17,875,000
  2. Larry Fitzgerald, WR: $15,850,000
  3. Calais Campbell, DE: $15,250,000
  4. Patrick Peterson, CB: $13,072,377
  5. Jared Veldheer, T: $9,000,000
  6. Daryl Washington, ILB: $7,500,000 (remains indefinitely suspended)
  7. Michael Floyd, WR: $7,320,000
  8. Mike Iupati, G: $5,700,000
  9. Jonathan Cooper, G: $4,629,227
  10. Cory Redding, DE: $4,000,000
  11. Justin Bethel, CB: $3,250,000
  12. Corey Peters, DT: $2,566,666
  13. Deone Bucannon, S: $2,102,509
  14. D.J. Humphries, T: $2,025,480
  15. Alex Okafor, OLB: $1,765,607

Notable coaching/front office moves:

  • No major changes.


  • No. 30 overall pick
  • Owe seventh-round pick to Eagles in deal for QB Matt Barkley.



The 2015 Cardinals came just shy of reaching Super Bowl 50, losing the NFC Championship Game in a 49-15 drubbing at the hands of the Panthers. But, as might be expected for a team that finished the regular season with a 13-3 record and that earned a first-round bye in the playoffs, Arizona’s short-term future is fairly promising.Carson Palmer

After all, the Cardinals boasted one of the league’s best defenses for the fourth year in a row – per Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric – and because quarterback Carson Palmer was (mostly) able to stay healthy in 2015 en route to this third Pro Bowl nod, the team’s offense was equally strong, grading out as the fourth most-efficient unit in the NFL. The club is not flush with cap space, but it certainly has enough to retain at least some of its key free agents – none of which will come with a prohibitive price tag – while also exploring a lucrative, long-term extension for do-it-all defensive back Tyrann Mathieu.

On the other hand, Palmer is 36 and has an extensive injury history, and there is no one currently on the roster than looks capable of replacing him on a permanent basis. Future Hall-of-Famer Larry Fitzgerald enjoyed a rebirth in 2015, but he’s entering the last year of his contract and probably doesn’t have many effective seasons left in the tank – if he even continues his playing career beyond 2016 – and Michael Floyd is also eligible for unrestricted free agency after the 2016 season. Plus, as effective as the defense was, there are some question marks, particularly at pass rusher and in the secondary’s depth, and the future of the offensive line is up in the air.

Assuming Palmer can stay healthy, the Cardinals should again compete for one of the NFC’s top seeds. But if the club want to keep its window of contention open in the long-term, there are some issues to address.

Key Free Agents:

Dwight Freeney was a godsend for the Cardinals in 2015, joining the team on a one-year deal in October after Alex Okafor was sidelined with a calf injury and providing Arizona with a much-needed jolt to its pass rush. He racked up eight sacks in 11 games, but he was close to retiring before signing with the Cardinals, and he is still undecided about whether or not he will play in 2016. Arizona would surely like to have him back on a one-year pact, especially since LaMarr Woodley is unlikely to be re-signed, but Freeney’s status is highly uncertain at the moment.

Okafor was a key component of the Cardinals’ defense last season, but he didn’t have the same impact in 2015 that he had in 2014, and although 2015 second-round draft choice Markus Golden played well after being thrust into the lineup, there is no depth behind him and Okafor. Bringing Freeney back into the fold would help the team stabilize its pass rush as it seeks a dominant edge rusher.

Despite having decent depth on paper, the Cardinals’ secondary saw a noticeable drop in performance when Mathieu landed on the IR late in the regular season. Arizona will probably look to re-sign Jerraud Powers, who provides solid-if-unspectacular play at the cornerback position, and while the Cardinals could bring back safety Tony Jefferson, the fact that they only extended a low-end tender to the restricted free agent suggests that they aren’t totally sold on him (despite his grading out as he 18th-best safety out of 88 eligible players per Pro Football Focus’ advanced metrics). Jefferson could be one of those rare restricted free agents that finds himself switching teams this offseason, and there’s some question as to whether the team will be able to retain fellow safety Rashad Johnson.

Drew StantonOn offense, the Cardinals would probably like to re-sign Drew Stanton, but the going rate for solid backup quarterbacks is about $4MM per year, as Chad Henne‘s new contract with the Jaguars suggests. It’s unclear if Arizona will be able to pony up that type of cash considering the team has more pressing needs on the defensive side of the ball and perhaps along the offensive line.

On the other hand, Arizona’s offense has been a mess when neither Palmer nor Stanton have been available to play, so the club may have no other choice. The free agent market for quarterbacks is predictably barren – at least the part of the market the Cardinals would be exploring – and although many pundits expect the Cards to consider drafting a quarterback they could groom behind Palmer, a mid-round rookie is unlikely to immediately provide the stability that Stanton offers.

Chris Johnson was a pleasant surprise for Arizona after he signed a one-year, $870K contract with the club last season. Although a fractured tibia suffered in the second half of the season sidelined him for the stretch run, Johnson did manage a 4.2 yards per carry average while racking up 814 rushing yards in just 11 games, serving as a nice change-of-pace back for David Johnson. CJ2K recently expressed his desire to return to the Cardinals, and Arizona would probably like to bring him back. The two sides should be able to reach an agreement on a relatively modest contract.

The left side of the Cardinals’ offensive line is pretty set with Jared Veldheer and Mike Iupati at left tackle and left guard, respectively, but on the rest of the line, questions abound. Lyle Sendlein, last year’s starting center, Ted Larsen, last year’s starting right guard, and Bobby Massie, last year’s starting right tackle, are all eligible for unrestricted free agency and could all be playing elsewhere next season. None of those players are particularly inspiring, and the Cardinals have reason to hope they have viable in-house replacements for all of them.

Last year’s first-round pick, tackle D.J. Humphries, did not play a down in 2015 after performing poorly in training camp and the preseason, and head coach Bruce Arians openly commented on Humphries’ lack of motivation. 2013 first-round pick, guard Jonathan Cooper, was benched halfway through the season in favor of Larsen, and he has largely failed to live up to expectations as well. However, because of the draft pedigrees of Humphries and Cooper, they could enter 2016 as starters, though Arizona would likely want to at least bring in some competition for both — especially Humphries (whose work ethic reportedly improved as the 2015 season went on).

If Sendlein leaves, the team could turn to A.Q. Shipley, who is average at best, or, given that the Cardinals have already invested high draft picks and a great deal of money at the guard and tackle positions in recent years, perhaps this offseason they’ll use a top draft choice or significant free agent dollars on a center (although the top center on the market, Alex Mack, is out of their price range). Alternatively, the Cards have considered shifting Cooper to center, which would allow them to re-sign Larsen on a modest contract to continue serving as the right guard. The team is also said to be high on some of its practice squad players like John Wetzel and Rob Crisp, who was a priority undrafted free agent last season.

Jermaine Gresham, who underwent surgery on a herniated disc last March, was not a major part of the Cardinals’ offense in 2015 after signing a one-year deal with the club in July. He caught 18 passes for 223 yards and one score, and became the latest in a string of Cardinals tight ends who have simply been unable to find much footing in the team’s offensive game plans. Troy Niklas is entering the third season of his career, and still has a small amount of upside, and Darren Fells – who surprisingly led the club’s tight end corps with 21 catches for 311 yards and three touchdowns – recently re-signed with the team.

The Cardinals also liked what they saw out of Ifeanyi Momah last preseason, but the converted wideout was placed on season-ending IR in September after injuring his knee. Momah, an exclusive rights free agent, figures to be back now that he has been tendered a contract, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the team target a tight end in free agency and/or the draft. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, however, both options offer slim pickings at the position.

Possible Cap Casualties:

The most obvious potential cap casualty this offseason is linebacker Daryl Washington, who has all the talent in the world but who has been suspended for each of the past two seasons and who remains indefinitely banned. The Cardinals could save $2.5MM by cutting him prior to June 1, or $3.5MM by designating him as a post-June 1 cut, though as long as he’s not reinstated, there’s no rush for the team to make a move. The most recent report concerning Washington indicated that he was continuing to violate the terms of the league’s substance-abuse policy and that his career may be over.

Defensive linemen Cory Redding and Frostee Rucker have enjoyed long and productive careers in the NFL, but the Cardinals will need to get younger along their defensive front sooner rather than later, and Arizona could save $3MM by releasing Redding and about $1.2MM by cutting Rucker. It’s unclear whether the team will let go of both veterans, but one or the other will surely be seeking his fortune elsewhere this offseason. Corey Peters, who signed a three-year deal with the Cardinals last March but who missed the entirety of the 2015 campaign with a torn ACL that he suffered in August, will be relied upon to pick up some of the slack, as will Rodney Gunter.

Theoretically, Alex Okafor could be a release candidate given his disappointing 2015 season – the Cardinals could save nearly $1.7MM by cutting him – but the team needs all the pass rush help it can get, and it is not unreasonable to expect Okafor to bounce back to his 2014 form.Michael Floyd

Likewise, although Michael Floyd has been mentioned as a possible cap casualty – after all, the team could save over $7MM by letting him go – it seems much more likely that he would be in line for an extension, which could also reduce his cap charge a fair amount. Floyd, Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown might represent the best trio of wideouts in the league, and a team with Super Bowl aspirations would be foolish to cut Floyd at this point. He may be inconsistent, and he may be banged up more frequently than the Cardinals might like, but he was excellent down the stretch in 2015, racking up over 100 receiving yards five times in his final eight games of the regular season, and the team is much better with him than without him.

All in all, then, the Cardinals do not have any easy fixes to buy themselves a great deal of cap space, but, like most teams, they could shed a couple of contracts that would create enough breathing room to effectively transact their offseason business without doing much damage on their on-field product.

Positions Of Need:

Arguably the Cardinals’ biggest need is at pass rusher. However, we heard at the end of January that the team didn’t expect to target an impact pass rusher in free agency. That seemed to indicate that the Cardinals would strongly consider using an early draft pick to nab a prospect capable of getting to the quarterback, but there aren’t a great deal of top flight pass rushers in this year’s draft class, which is said to be deeper in interior line prospects than in edge defenders, so the team may be forced to pursue an upgrade in free agency.

I would expect the Cardinals to try and convince Dwight Freeney to return, and Tamba Hali, although he is not the same player he used to be, could be a target as well. Schematically, recently-released players like Mario Williams and Charles Johnson don’t really fit, and the same is true of Olivier Vernon, who has been hit with the transition tag, and Jason Pierre-Paul (although Williams and Vernon could theoretically play 3-4 outside linebacker in Arizona’s system). Most of the other free agent outside linebackers are either uninspiring or are better edge-setters than pass rushers, which could make Georgia’s Leonard Floyd, who is widely regarded as one of the biggest “boom-or-bust” prospects in this year’s draft, a potential target for the Cardinals if he falls to the bottom of the first round.

Assuming one or both of the pair of Tony Jefferson and Rashad Johnson depart, the Cardinals will need a safety. The free agent market is deep in potential replacements there, with players like Eric Weddle, George Iloka, Tashaun Gipson, and Reggie Nelson headlining the class. It would take a fairly significant contract to land one of those players, and Arizona probably has enough cap space to land just one premium talent in free agency this offseason.

Since there aren’t many pass rushers deserving of such a deal, Arizona could sign a safety, or they could seek their much-needed cover help at the cornerback position, which also has a lot of free agent talent. Players like Janoris Jenkins, Prince Amukamara, and Casey Hayward are available, and even lesser players like Shareece Wright could make sense even if the team is able to retain Jerraud Powers. The draft’s top safety prospects like Miles Killebrew and Jeremy Cash aren’t especially strong in coverage, and top cornerback prospects like Vernon Hargreaves, Eli Apple, and Mackensie Alexander will probably be off the board by the time Arizona makes its first selection. However, a player like Houston corner William Jackson III could make a great deal of sense.

Along the offensive line, there aren’t many free agent options at the center position if the Cardinals are unable or unwilling to bring back Lyle Sendlein, with Manny Ramirez and Stefen Wisniewski as possible exceptions. If Arizona shifts Jonathan Cooper over to center and doesn’t bring back Ted Larsen, the team could target a player like guard Geoff Schwartz. Depending on the Cards’ comfort level with Humphries – and assuming they don’t re-sign Bobby Massie and/or Bradley Sowell – a player like Mitchell Schwartz or Will Beatty could be an option as well.

Extension Candidates/Contract Issues:

As noted above, working out an extension with Michael Floyd would allow the Cardinals to reduce his cap charge in 2016 and keep him under club control for the foreseeable future. It’s difficult to predict what a long-term deal would look like, as Floyd has not exactly lived up to his status as the No. 13 overall selection in the 2012 draft. Nonetheless, he has shown flashes of brilliance, and those flashes, combined with his size, athletic ability, and still-considerable upside, would have his camp looking for a payday befitting a No. 1 wideout — the Cardinals, conversely, would want to give him a contract more in line with his performance to date.

I would think the five-year, $55MM contract Jeremy Maclin signed with the Chiefs last season would be a reasonable benchmark, but the eventual contracts for this year’s crop of free agent wide receivers like Marvin Jones, Rishard Matthews, and Travis Benjamin will also help bring some clarity to Floyd’s market.

Tyrann MathieuTyrann Mathieu, meanwhile, will be in line for a lucrative deal of his own, and Arizona brass has made it clear that an extension for the defensive back is one of the team’s top priorities this offseason. A report from two weeks ago indicated that the two parties are, in fact, at the negotiating table, and it will be interesting to see how those negotiations play out. Despite missing the last two games of the 2015 regular season – and all of the playoffs – due to a torn right ACL, the Honey Badger earned first-team All-Pro honors for the first time in his career. He tallied 17 pass breakups, 80 tackles, and a forced fumble this year to go along with five interceptions – one of which he returned for a touchdown – and he ranked as the league’s best cornerback per Pro Football Focus’ advanced metrics (subscription required).

Of course, the Cardinals would rather pay Mathieu like a top safety than like a top cornerback, as Mathieu plays safety in Arizona’s 3-4 base defense. However, the Cardinals run their base defense on only 33% of their defensive snaps. In all other sub-packages, Mathieu plays cornerback, usually serving as the slot corner, and he actually played all seven positions in the back seven at some point in 2015. It could be that the two sides simply split the difference between the average annual values earned by the top corners in the league ($14MM) and the top safeties ($10MM), but in any event, it appears as though Mathieu will reap the rewards for his excellent performance in short order.

The Cardinals would also do well to address Calais Campbell‘s massive $15.2MM cap hit. Campbell was named to the Pro Bowl for the second consecutive season, and he graded out as the 14th-best interior defender out of 123 eligible players per PFF. He is entering the final year of the five-year, $55MM pact he signed with Arizona prior to the 2012 season, and even though he’ll be 30 when the regular season begins, another extension could do wonders for the team’s cap outlook in 2016 and would also keep the anchor of the Cardinals’ defensive front under club control for the remainder of his most productive seasons.

It is unlikely the Cardinals will address Larry Fitzgerald‘s contract this offseason, since he already has cap hits in 2017 and 2018 even though he’s only under contract through the 2016 season (that undesirable outcome is a result of the Cardinals’ restructuring of Fitzgerald’s contract last year, which made his 2015 cap charge much more manageable). Restructuring Patrick Peterson‘s mega-deal would lead to similar problems, and the Cardinals are not desperate enough for 2016 cap space that they should consider such a restructure.

Overall Outlook:

The Cardinals should again be a powerhouse in the NFC in 2016. There are some concerns about the roster beyond 2016, as it lacks a long-term solution at quarterback and has some significant question marks on the offensive line. Additionally, many of its major contributors on the defensive line are either at the end of their careers, are release candidates, or are largely unproven. That’s not to mention, of course, that Fitzgerald may be playing his last season, and the Cardinals are still without a major pass rushing threat.

Still, the Cardinals have thrived under Bruce Arians, and GM Steve Keim is more than capable of keeping his club competitive. The contract issues that the team needs to address this offseason are relatively straightforward, and although the Cards will probably be relying on some fairly inexperienced talent at crucial positions this year – like right tackle, for instance – there’s no reason they cannot continue to thrive, as long as they begin preparing for life after Carson Palmer.

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

Offseason Outlook: Kansas City Chiefs

Pending free agents:

Top 15 cap hits for 2016:

  1. Justin Houston, OLB: $19,100,000
  2. Alex Smith, QB: $17,800,000
  3. Jeremy Maclin, WR: $12,400,000
  4. Eric Berry, S: $10,806,000 (franchised)
  5. Eric Fisher, T: $7,060,613
  6. Ben Grubbs, G: $6,300,000
  7. Dontari Poe, DT: $6,146,000
  8. Jamaal Charles, RB: $5,312,500
  9. Allen Bailey, DE: $5,212,500
  10. Dustin Colquitt, P: $4,450,000
  11. Ron Parker, S: $3,600,000
  12. Travis Kelce, TE: $2,948,226
  13. Josh Mauga, ILB: $2,700,000
  14. Dee Ford, OLB: $2,225,100
  15. Marcus Peters, CB: $2,178,218

Notable coaching/front office moves:


  • No. 28 overall pick
  • Acquired fifth-round pick from Seahawks in deal for S Kelcie McCray.



Mounting one of the most unlikely playoff surges ever, the Chiefs finally exorcised some demons last season by winning a playoff game for the first time in 22 years. After their dominant rout of the Texans, the Chiefs pushed the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots in Foxborough despite having several key players either out or limited.

Kansas City’s 2015 season should be viewed as a rousing success based on winning 10 straight games without Charles to close the regular season after starting 1-5. How much relevance that resilient performance has to the organization’s immediate future, however, will hinge on how well the team navigates its offseason.Eric Berry (vertical)

The strength of the team ended up being the NFL’s No. 7-ranked defense, a unit that may have been the Chiefs’ best since the famed Marty Schottenheimer outfits that guided the franchise out of a near-two-decade stretch of irrelevance. Justin Houston and Tamba Hali again formed one of the league’s best edge-rushing tandems, and the Sean Smith/Marcus Peters pairing outside served as one of the league’s top cornerback duos. Although teams tested the raw Peters relentlessly, with no corner in the league receiving as many targets, the first-round pick responded by intercepting eight passes and returning two for touchdowns en route to defensive rookie of the year acclaim.

However, the Chiefs’ defensive resurgence centered on Eric Berry and Derrick Johnson re-establishing their dominance. Johnson would’ve been a comeback player of the year candidate in an ordinary campaign, re-emerging as good as ever after a torn Achilles’ tendon in Week 1 spoiled his 2014 season. Berry, however, was a runaway winner after returning to All-Pro form following a cancer diagnosis. The Chiefs weren’t sure Berry could play again, which probably played a role in the decision to give Ron Parker a hefty contract. Instead, Berry became a force and seemed to lock himself into a lucrative extension with the team that drafted him six years ago.

Offensively, Alex Smith didn’t deviate much from what gave him his game-managerial reputation. The 31-year-old quarterback took few risks but deftly guided the Chiefs to just enough points week after week, allowing the defense to dictate games. Smith did this without Jamaal Charles‘ services for most of the season, and the Charcandrick WestSpencer Ware tandem operated much better than the Thomas JonesJackie Battle coalition that served as the Chiefs’ ball-carriers in 2011, when Charles suffered the first of his two torn ACLs. Where Smith deviated from his usual careful approach was in helping the Chiefs compensate for the electric Charles’ absence, rushing for a career-high 498 yards.

Jeremy Maclin proved to be worth his upper-echelon contract and helped the Chiefs escape the albatross Dwayne Bowe became to their passing game and cap sheet. Maclin surpassed 1,000 yards receiving, giving the Chiefs a four-digit target for the first time since Bowe reached that mark in 2011. Meanwhile, Travis Kelce has become one of the league’s best tight ends and delivered a Pro Bowl campaign that looked a lot like his breakout season of two years ago.

With Doug Pederson headed to Philadelphia, the Chiefs’ new co-coordinator system is interesting in design, but shouldn’t have too much bearing on how the offense functions. Andy Reid‘s presided over his teams’ offenses throughout his coaching tenure, with Brad Childress working under him for seven seasons in Philadelphia and three in Kansas City. The 37-year-old Matt Nagy has been on Reid’s staff since 2008, but unlike his co-coordinator, who already had head-coaching experience, this move will thrust Nagy into the spotlight after eight seasons in less visible roles. Don’t expect too much to change in a precision-based, risk-averse offense specifically tailored to its conductor.

Kansas City did mount its second-half charge in 2015 against a cozy portion of its schedule, beating a slew of struggling teams. When they ran into top-tier clubs, the Chiefs either lost (as was the case to the Broncos, Bengals, Packers and Vikings in September and October) or caught them at ideal times — the Steelers were without Ben Roethlisberger and the Broncos were restricted by a severely limited Peyton Manning‘s worst game as a pro. How much this contributed to the Chiefs’ second-half run remains to be seen, because the team morphed into the league’s most consistent operation and became only the second team since the AFL-NFL merger to start 1-5 and make the playoffs (the 1970 Bengals did this in a four-team AFC bracket).

Still, should the Chiefs manage to retain some of their free agent defensive standouts, there’s no reason to think they won’t be a threat to unseat the Super Bowl champions in the AFC West. They rode a similar blueprint to the Broncos, with a playmaking defense elevating a station-to-station offense, but fell a little short thanks in part to injuries to Houston, Maclin, Hali and Charles — arguably four of the team’s top five players.

Key Free Agents:

Even the Broncos, with their well-publicized glut of expiring contracts, don’t have the volume of talent with defection options that their chief rivals do. After applying the franchise tag to Eric Berry, the Chiefs still have six either current or former defensive starters — Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali, Jaye Howard, Sean Smith, Husain Abdullah and Mike DeVito — looming as UFAs. Jeff Allen has also become one of the top guards on the market, so the Chiefs will have to make difficult decisions, because despite possessing nearly three times the cap space they had going into the 2015 free agent period, there is more talent unsigned and a bevy of vacancies to fill this time around.

Berry’s past two full seasons have been the finest of his career, and his improbable return to full workloads early in 2015 helped trigger the Chiefs’ late surge. He was a lock for the franchise tag as the team’s most popular player and one who should have many prime years ahead, as he’s set to enter his age-27 season. One of three players to run their old-CBA rookie deals through the end of the 2015 season — along with Sam Bradford and Russell Okung — Berry will be the rare modern player whose franchise tag doubles as a slight pay cut from his peak rookie-contract earnings.

With the Chiefs currently on the hook for $10.81MM for Berry, they will almost certainly come to terms with their cornerstone defender before the July 15 deadline. The salary cap’s $12MM rise from last season makes Berry a candidate to join Justin Houston in establishing a new high-water mark for earnings at his position. Berry’s tag makes him the NFL’s second-highest-paid player at his position for 2016. Earl Thomas is the lone safety to earn $10MM on average, and only Jairus Byrd‘s $10.9MM figure for this season eclipses Berry’s likely temporary salary. A résumé that features two first-team All-Pro distinctions should allow Berry to surpass Thomas’ deal – which was signed in 2014 – and become the highest-paid back-line defender.

It’s not that simple for the rest of the Chiefs’ UFA defenders.

Tamba HaliAlthough it’s strange to picture Hali or Johnson with another team, one of them will probably have to leave after at least 10 years in Western Missouri. Hali plays the more coveted position and was a top-12 PFF edge-rusher last season despite nagging knee problems. We heard earlier this week the Chiefs were “working hard” to retain Hali, a five-time Pro Bowler who has never played fewer than 14 games in a season.

Hali’s days being a threat for double-digit sacks in a season may be over, with Kansas City’s blind-side rusher accruing 12.5 over the past two years after collecting 10+ sacks in three of the previous four years. But he can still be productive as an edge player against the pass and the run. The 32-year-old Hali not being healthy for the team’s divisional playoff game helped give Tom Brady sufficient time to dissect the Chiefs.

When the Chiefs selected Dee Ford in the first round of the 2014 draft, he looked like Hali’s eventual replacement, but the veteran restructured his contract to stay in Kansas City last March, relegating Ford to part-time duty again in 2015. Save for a three-sack game against the bottom-tier Chargers front, Ford hasn’t contributed much in his first two seasons. If Hali is brought back on a salary he deserves, then Ford’s selection will have been a curiously extraneous decision. Hali has made it clear he’d prefer to stay in Kansas City, but in a market where players like Trent Cole or Lamarr Houston are making $7MM per season, Hali would be a coveted commodity due to his consistency. With a player like Ford on the roster, it’s harder to see the Chiefs keeping Hali without a noticeable hometown discount.

Johnson, though, makes more sense as a re-up candidate for the Chiefs. The team doesn’t have a Ford-like talent in waiting behind the former All-Pro, and the 12th-year veteran’s been a marvel during his first two contracts. Kansas City’s longest-tenured player, and one that has played for five of the franchise’s six 21st-century coaches, Johnson also plays a position that teams don’t necessarily panic about replacing. In theory, inside backers aren’t itinerary-topping performers, but Johnson’s three-down ability has been crucial for the Chiefs’ defensive resurgence under Bob Sutton.

Kansas City slipped to 28th against the run without Johnson in 2014, so ditching him would create an immediate need that hasn’t existed in some time. The ’05 first-rounder could easily earn a Karlos Dansby– or David Harris-type deal — each early-30s inside man signed for at least $6MM AAV, with Harris currently making $7.17MM annually. Johnson is superior to both and showed no ill effects in returning from one of the toughest injuries from which to recover.

The Chiefs can afford to pay Johnson or Hali, but probably not both. Kansas City’s investment in Ford makes it more plausible Johnson will be the one the club chooses to retain.

Howard enjoyed a breakout season but could have to chase his payday elsewhere. The Chiefs already committed to Allen Bailey – who didn’t produce on the level Howard did in 2015 – and have Dontari Poe‘s contract negotiations to consider in the not-too-distant future. Considering Bailey is set to earn $6.25MM per season, Howard is probably pushing to be paid on the Derek Wolfe/Jurrell Casey tier (around $9MM per year) and should be able to approach that top-10 realm for 3-4 ends, at least.Sean Smith

Sean Smith also looks like a player who will exit Kansas City. Josh Norman and Trumaine Johnson being franchise-tagged leaves Janoris Jenkins and Smith as arguably the market’s top two corners. A less consistent version of Smith had to settle for a three-year, $16.5MM accord in 2013 and proceeded to outplay that contract. As a quality starter player hitting free agency twice before his 29th birthday without being released, he’ll probably seeking the best possible offer.

A capable safety who started 16 games for the Chiefs in 2014, Abdullah was relegated to an off-the-bench role last season after Berry’s return made the Chiefs a rare team that used four safeties and two corners in dime looks. He’ll be 31 in July, however, so Abdullah may be looking at a middling-at-most deal in a crowded safety crop of free agents.

The only offensive free agent that would have a significant impact if he departs is Allen, who emerged in his contract year. He’ll be one of the most sought-after guards after serving as the Chiefs’ top lineman last season. After not showing much for two healthy seasons in 2012-13, Allen missed 15 games in ’14 and didn’t reclaim a starting job until Week 7 of 2015. But once he did, the 26-year-old guard/tackle helped ignite the West- and Ware-powered run game and graded out as the Chiefs’ top lineman, per Pro Football Focus.

The Chiefs watched Branden Albert, Geoff Schwartz and Rodney Hudson depart after strong contract years and have deployed below-average lines the past two seasons as a result. Allen will command a nice deal from a guard-needy team in a down era for offensive line play, but it will be far more affordable than what Hudson or Albert cost. And with Eric Fisher‘s tenure having been up and down to date, the Chiefs only seem to have a long-term answer at one offensive line spot. Allen would help stabilize this group alongside Mitch Morse, but the Chiefs will have a nice bidding war for his services.

Possible Cap Casualties:

Kansas City doesn’t have many candidates here, with so many key free agents and players whose releases would come with a lot of dead money and scant cap savings.

The only player who would qualify as a big money-saver that may not have a long-term future with the team is Jamaal Charles. The premier Chief for probably the entirety of the 2010s, Charles is now rehabbing his second ACL tear and will turn 30 in December. Despite profiling as one of the era’s best backs, the NFL’s all-time yards-per-carry leader is now firmly on the downside of his career after suffering another major injury. The Chiefs impressively revived their season without Charles but weren’t as explosive on the ground.

Although the Chiefs would save $5.31MM by releasing Charles after eight seasons, general manager John Dorsey has professed that the two-time All-Pro remains in the team’s plans. Running backs are among the most easily-replaced performers, but if Charles is healthy or reasonably well-equipped to return in 2016, is by far the Chiefs’ best running back. He’s probably the best ball-carrier in franchise history, dashing to five 1,000-yard rushing seasons without the luxury of a top-tier line like the ones Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson enjoyed. Charles might see Spencer Ware (5.6 yards per carry in limited duty last season) eat into some of his workload, which has never been on par with some of this era’s other elite backs.

Ben Grubbs would qualify as a potential cap casualty had Kansas City not modified its trade acquisition’s contract upon his arrival last March. Although he looked solid at left guard before suffering a season-ending neck malady, Grubbs will be 32 before this season starts. Unfortunately for the Chiefs, they’re thin up front and would only save $1.1MM by releasing the former Pro Bowler, while taking on $5.2MM in dead money.

Positions Of Need:

Jeff AllenKansas City’s thus-far-cryptic plans for its holdovers will dictate much of what’s needed. But one spot that will need help with or without a re-signing is the Chiefs’ offensive front. Jeff Allen‘s departure would make this a DefCon 1-esque need, but even if Kansas City re-ups the breakout guard, it has holes on the right side. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Jah Reid are backup-level players, and the Chiefs need an upgrade at one of those positions at the very least.

If the Chiefs allocate money toward their defense, affordable guard options exist in Ramon Foster, Mike Harris and J.R. Sweezy. Even a Geoff Schwartz reunion makes sense; he’s going into his age-30 season and has been a quality player when he’s healthy enough to take the field, which has been admittedly infrequent over the past two years. Schwartz, though, could fill either of the Chiefs’ primary needs due to his versatility. A Schwartz gamble would be a route the Chiefs could take if they keep Allen — that would give the team two valuable 20-somethings around which to plan, along with Morse. The Chiefs badly need some quality talent that can be relied upon for the future.

If right tackle is where the Chiefs opt to look – and they should considering how poorly Reid performed last year – players like Joe Barksdale (PFF’s No. 24-rated tackle last season) and Bobby Massie represent middle-class options from the likely too-pricey Mitchell Schwartz. With Eric Fisher teetering on bust status, the Chiefs using their first- or second-round pick to address the position wouldn’t be a bad idea. PFF graded the Chiefs at No. 22 overall among offensive lines, with its pass protection drawing the No. 30 slot.

The Chiefs failing to address the tackle position in free agency or with a draft choice on Day 1 or Day 2 would again leave them vulnerable. Since Schwartz, Branden Albert, and Jon Asamoah left, the team has been forced to start many below-average talents, and despite Jamaal Charles‘ gaudy per-carry averages, it has hindered the offense. Alex Smith has absorbed a career-high 45 sacks in each of the past two seasons.

Kansas City’s other glaring need comes at corner, with the expectation Sean Smith will venture elsewhere. Phillip Gaines‘ season-ending injury in Week 3 put the Chiefs in three- and four-safety looks often, and the club will need to acquire a complement to Marcus Peters. Smith and Janoris Jenkins could be eight-figure AAV players. The next tier includes Prince Amukamara, who comes with a checkered injury history that should keep his price tag under that threshold, and Casey Hayward, a Packers draft choice during Dorsey’s last year in Green Bay.

Without a second or a healthy third corner at this point, the Chiefs should consider allocating resources here instead of getting into a potential bidding war for Tamba Hali or Derrick Johnson. Jerraud Powers and Legion of Boom bastion Jeremy Lane are also available, and the Chiefs have coaxed success out of multiple ex-Seahawks, such as Jaye Howard and Ron Parker. Peters could become one of the game’s best corners, but adding a steadier veteran who is perhaps not as flashy would be an ideal complement on the Chiefs’ budget.

While the Chiefs’ aforementioned linebacker situations are fluid, the team may be less equipped to sustain Howard’s departure. Mike DeVito could be had on a short-term deal after a torn Achilles in 2014 relegated him to a bench role last season. The team’s in-house candidates to fill that role are Rakeem Nunez-Roches and recently tendered Nicholas Williams. While corner and offensive line look like spending avenues for the Chiefs, this job could go toward one of their rookie-contract holdovers.

Behind Malik Jackson and Howard in this year’s crop of 3-4 ends are Cedric Thornton and Akiem Hicks, neither of which is set to attract the kind of attention Howard will. An Andy Reid-drafted performer in Philadelphia, albeit as a 4-3 tackle, Thornton was solid at end with the Eagles last season, rating as a middle-of-the-pack interior defender, per Pro Football Focus. Although likely to hit the market despite the Eagles’ spree of extensions, Thornton’s projected salary may price him out of Kansas City’s range considering the team has $12MM+ allocated to its other two defensive line starters.

No. 2 wide receiver has been an issue for the Chiefs since the Dick Vermeil era’s conclusion broke up the Eddie KennisonJohnnie Morton tandem. The position churns out little annually and has relied on a committee-based effort for most of this decade. That said, this isn’t exactly a high-volume attack that would get the most out of one of the many No. 2-type receivers out there.

Options like Rishard Matthews, Jermaine Kearse or Rueben Randle represent upgrades on Albert Wilson and Chris Conley, but the Chiefs have bigger issues than to hand out a $5MM-per-year-type deal to someone who would reside well behind Jeremy Maclin and Travis Kelce in Alex Smith‘s pecking order. That said, if the Chiefs didn’t have the glut of expiring defensive contracts, this would be the year they could address this position. Veterans like James Jones or Jerricho Cotchery are short-term accord candidates, with NFC South legends Marques Colston and Roddy White on the market as well.

This year’s market provides a reservoir of auxiliary weapons, and Kansas City bringing in a bargain-bin option to compete with Wilson and Conley — and whomever arrives via the draft — will be something to monitor.

Extension Candidates/Contract Issues:

The Chiefs and Dontari Poe, who is set to play this season on a fifth-year option worth $6.15MM, have engaged in preliminary extension talks. As is the case with Berry, an extension for Poe appears to be inevitable. Poe’s anchored the Chiefs’ defensive front for the past three seasons and has emerged as one of the league’s best nose tackles during that span. Dorsey has shown no issue making players brought in by prior regimes the franchise’s faces and has compensated them well. Justin Houston and Jamaal Charles, who received $18MM in new money in 2014, are the most obvious examples.Dontari Poe

Poe recovered from back surgery last offseason and helped anchor the Chiefs’ vastly improved run defense, one that vaulted to eighth in the league. He has played almost all of the team’s defensive snaps over the past three seasons, factoring in on passing downs despite his near-350-pound frame. Poe’s fifth-year option is worth more than any nose in the game this season, and an extension for him — like the one for Houston, and Berry’s eventual pact — will place him atop his position’s earnings hierarchy.

No 3-4 nose tackles currently earns $5MM on average, so Poe’s forthcoming deal could pay him more like a second-tier 4-3 tackle. Ndamukong Suh, Marcell Dareus and Gerald McCoy money may be unreachable for someone with 10.5 career sacks. But the deals for Kyle Williams ($10MM per year) and Tyrone Crawford ($9MM AAV) are numbers at which the 25-year-old dynamic inside presence could take aim. Even if judged purely by sacks, not a prerequisite for nose dominance, Poe has Crawford (eight) beat, and only one of Williams’ seasons eclipses Poe’s six-sack slate in 2014.

Scott Pioli‘s final first-round pick seems unlikely to leave Kansas City anytime soon. Dorsey’s first, though, has a murkier future. Eric Fisher hasn’t been a mega-bust in JaMarcus Russell fashion as a No. 1 overall pick, but he has underwhelmed considerably for a player chosen at that lofty perch. The high standards by which this draft slot is judged place Fisher as one of the worst first-overall selections in modern football history, and the Chiefs have a decision to make soon on the left tackle’s possible fifth year in Kansas City.

Last year, keeping an offensive lineman chosen in the top 10 cost a team $11.096MM, an amount the Vikings are currently deciding if Matt Kalil‘s worthy to earn. That figure will rise to $11.902MM for offensive linemen drafted in 2013’s top 10. Failing to stand out at right or left tackle, Fisher hasn’t shown anything worthy of the kind of money that would place him firmly among the top-10 earners at his position come 2017.

The Chiefs, though, don’t have much at tackle. Donald Stephenson is a free agent and disappointed in his audition with the starters last season, and Jah Reid is more of a swing tackle-type player. Fisher’s fifth year would be guaranteed against injury only, giving the team one more season to evaluate its potential sunk cost. The Chiefs could move on from Fisher after 2016 even if they exercise this option, providing he stays healthy.

Overall Outlook:

A successful offseason keeps the Chiefs in stride with the Broncos. The franchise’s most talented team in probably a decade had the eventual champions on the ropes in Week 2 and outplayed them cumulatively last season in their two matchups. Denver is in line to return more of its defense than Kansas City, and Oakland is set to improve based on the money it has to spend and the pieces already in place. The Chiefs could find themselves in a tough spot if they can’t replace some of the key stalwarts they could well lose this winter.

Last season undoubtedly provided a spark after the Chiefs’ Wild Card romp, but some key ingredients in that seminal march may not be around next season. How much carryover 2015’s progress will induce remains to be seen.

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

Offseason Outlook: New England Patriots

Pending free agents:

Top 15 cap hits for 2016:

  1. Tom Brady, QB: $15,000,000
  2. Jerod Mayo, LB: $11,400,000 (will be $4,400,000 in dead money once he is officially moved to reserve/retired list)
  3. Nate Solder, T: $10,322,666
  4. Devin McCourty, S: $7,937,500
  5. Chandler Jones, DE: $7,799,000
  6. Dont’a Hightower, OLB: $7,751,000
  7. Jabaal Sheard, DE/OLB: $6,812,500
  8. Danny Amendola, WR: $6,804,166
  9. Rob Gronkowski, TE: $6,618,750
  10. Sebastian Vollmer, T: $5,208,334
  11. Marcus Cannon, T: $4,754,168
  12. Rob Ninkovich, DE: $4,750,000
  13. Julian Edelman, WR: $4,421,875
  14. Stephen Gostkowski, K: $4,100,000
  15. Alan Branch, DT: $2,750,000

Notable coaching/front office moves:


  • Lost first-round pick due to Deflategate discipline (would have been No. 29 overall).
  • Owe fifth-round pick to Texans in deal for WR Keshawn Martin.
  • Acquired sixth-round pick from Texans in deal for WR Keshawn Martin.
  • Owe sixth-round pick to Bears in deal for LB Jon Bostic.
  • Acquired seventh-round pick from Texans in deal for QB Ryan Mallett.



The Patriots stormed out of the gates furiously last season en route to a 10-0 start, but an unsustainable level of success in one-score games helped fuel that winning streak. After going 6-0 in one-score affairs during their first 10 games, the Patriots regressed to 0-3 in such outcomes during their final six regular-season matchups. Of course, a laundry list of injuries to salient members of the Patriots’ roster contributed to both that 0-3 skid and the 2-4 conclusion to their campaign. Nevertheless, the Pats went 12-4 for the fourth straight season, earned their seventh consecutive AFC East title, and played in the conference championship game for an astounding fifth time in a row.

However, arch-nemesis Denver’s buzzsaw of a defense denied New England a chance at defending its Super Bowl championship from the previous season. The Patriots’ downfall was their inability to protect quarterback Tom Brady, who sustained one of "<strongthe worst poundings of his storied career in absorbing 20-plus hits from Von Miller and friends. Still, the Patriots had an opportunity to tie the game with a two-point conversion in the waning seconds. Brady tried to thread the needle between two defenders and find receiver Julian Edelman in the end zone, but cornerback Bradley Roby intercepted the deflected pass to seal a 20-18 win and send the Pats home. The Broncos went on to collect their third Lombardi Trophy two weeks later.

It wasn’t the storybook ending Brady wanted after enduring a nightmarish offseason. The Roger Goodell-led NFL suspended Brady the first four games of the season for his supposed involvement in the Deflategate scandal, but Brady appealed and Judge Richard Berman overturned the ruling. Brady proceeded to play all 18 of the Patriots’ games, including playoffs, though the league docked the team its first-round pick this year.

Despite Berman’s verdict, the league hasn’t conceded in its quest to punish Brady. It filed an appeal of Berman’s finding in October, and a three-judge panel for the 2nd Circuit Court of U.S. Appeals is now deciding the case. If two of the three judges rule in favor of the league, Brady will face a four-game suspension to begin next season. He could then file an appeal for the second straight year in hopes of having the judgment overturned. In the event the judges side with Brady, that should finally put the saga to rest.

Whether Brady misses the first four games of 2016 or not, the four-time Super Bowl champion isn’t going away anytime soon. Earlier this week, Brady reportedly agreed to a two-year extension to stay a Patriot through 2019. Assuming that deal is finalized, it’ll give the 11-time Pro Bowler a chance to play through his age-42 season and spend 20 years with the franchise that selected him 199th overall in the 2000 draft.

Key Free Agents:

Fortunately for New England, its pending free agent class is largely bereft of consequential contributors. The prime exception is defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, whom the Patriots acquired from the Saints last September in exchange for reserve tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. Hicks proved to be a terrific buy-low pickup in his 13 games with the Pats, totaling three sacks and earning positive marks for his performance from Pro Football Focus. The site (subscription required) ranked Hicks as its 14th-best D-tackle and awarded him high grades for the pass-rushing and run-stopping abilities he displayed.

Thanks to his showing in New England, Hicks is primed for a sizable raise over the $1.53MM he raked in last season. Whether it will come from the Pats remains up in the air. As of last week, Hicks and the team were “in the strategy phase of the process,” according to ESPN’s Mike Reiss, who doesn’t expect a resolution to come until the legal tampering period (starting March 7) at the earliest. That means the Pats will have to compete against other clubs if they wish to re-sign Hicks. Therefore, he could price himself out of their range and cash in elsewhere when free agency opens March 9.

"<strongIn terms of name recognition, the Patriots’ most significant unsigned players are a pair of running backs, LeGarrette Blount and Steven Jackson.

Despite succumbing to a season-ending hip injury in December, the 250-pound Blount easily paced the Pats in three major rushing categories – attempts (165), yards (703) and touchdowns (six). Now, the two sides are interested in renewing their relationship, Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald reported last week.

While Blount has been an effective rusher on a rate basis throughout his six-year career (4.6 yards per carry), he hasn’t surpassed 200 attempts or 1,000 yards since 2010, doesn’t offer anything as a pass catcher, isn’t young for a running back (30 next December), and doesn’t play a premium position. With all that in mind, odds are he’ll have difficulty topping his previous pact (two years, $3.85MM).

Blount’s injury created an opportunity for Jackson, who signed with the running back-needy Patriots at the tail end of December. Jackson didn’t look like his younger self, however, as the eight-time 1,000-yard rusher added a mere 74 yards on 31 carries (playoffs included). It’ll be a surprise if anyone, let alone New England, signs the soon-to-be 33-year-old again.

Conversely, the Patriots are interested in retaining defensive back Nate Ebner and fullback James Develin, a restricted free agent.

In Ebner’s case, the team is playing “hardball” and hoping to re-sign him for the veteran minimum ($760K), Reiss reported last week. Ebner has never been a factor on defense in his four-year career, but he did play a personal-best 75.1% of special teams snaps last season.

After missing the entire 2015-16 campaign with a broken tibia, Develin could re-up at either the lowest-level RFA tender ($1.67MM) or sign a multiyear deal as a way to occupy less cap space next season, according to Reiss.

The rest of the Patriots’ RFAs – Sealver Siliga, Brian Tyms and LaAdrian Waddle, to name a few – won’t receive tenders, Ben Volin of the Boston Globe reported in January. Tyms confirmed Wednesday that he’s done in New England. As for the remainder of the team’s UFAs (offensive linemen Ryan Wendell and cornerback Tarell Brown, among others), none are good bets to return on anything other than short-term, low-cost deals.

Possible Cap Casualties:

The Patriots identified two cap casualties on Wednesday when they cut receiver Brandon LaFell and tight end Scott Chandler, saving over $4.6MM in the process. LaFell posed a legitimate threat during the Pats’ Super Bowl-winning 2014 campaign (74 catches, 953 yards, seven touchdowns), but injuries and drops contributed to a decline in production in 2015. The 29-year-old averaged 3.36 catches per contest (down from 4.63 the prior year) and failed to find the end zone in 11 games. While Chandler (11.3 YPC, four TDs) wasn’t a bad option behind Rob Gronkowski, New England didn’t think he was worth a cap number over $3MM next season."<strong

LaFell and Chandler might not be the last players the Pats get rid of for financial reasons. Receiver Danny Amendola and two offensive tackles, Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon, could end up on the chopping block. If those three get their walking papers, the Pats would open up more than $10.8MM.

Amendola’s departure would bring the most cap relief ($4.07MM if done before June 1, $5.44MM after). However, he has an important ally in Tom Brady and is fresh off the best of his three seasons as a Patriot, having finished second on the team in catches (65) and third in receiving yards (648).

Instead of releasing the 30-year-old, New England could restructure his contract for the second consecutive offseason. Amendola was scheduled to count $5.7MM against the Patriots’ cap in 2015 before the club adjusted his deal and reduced the total to ~$3.12MM. The Patriots also decreased Amendola’s base salary from $4MM to $1.25MM and upped the incentives in his contract as a way to make up for it. A repeat this year would chip away at his ~$6.8MM cap hit and $5MM salary.

Vollmer has made 80 starts for the Pats since 2009, but he’s not a lock to return because of his age (32 in July), potential health problems, and the savings ($3.13MM) that would accompany his release. Vollmer missed some time last season with an ankle injury, which is a long-term concern, according to Howe. The Boston Herald scribe added that the 315-pounder initiated contract extension talks in November with the Patriots, who weren’t receptive to lengthening his deal (it expires after next season). Vollmer appeared in 14 games last season, made 13 starts, and ranked as PFF’s 42nd-best tackle (77 qualifiers).

PFF thought far less of Cannon, whom it designated 61st among tackles and gave a horrid mark as a pass blocker for his 12-game showing (eight starts). The 27-year-old also took a beating from the aforementioned Von Miller in the conference title game, although Cannon’s hardly unique in that sense. If New England closes the book on Cannon’s five-year tenure with the team, it would free up nearly $3.68MM of spending room. Of course, the Pats could first try to restructure Cannon’s deal to make his base salary ($3.4MM) and cap charge ($4.75MM) more palatable.

Positions Of Need:

Even though the Patriots had the AFC’s most prolific scoring offense last season (29.1 points per game), the expectation is that most of their offseason focus will lie on that side of the ball.

No pending free agent has been connected to the Patriots in the rumor mill as often as running back Matt Forte, who is set to join his second team after spending his first eight years in Chicago. The five-time 1,000-yard rusher turned 30 last season, but he didn’t show his age in piling up 1,287 total yards (898 rushing, 389 receiving) and seven touchdowns in 13 games. Forte made over $7MM in base salary and took up $9.2MM in cap for the Bears last season, but Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune reported last week that he’ll have trouble surpassing $3MM per year on his next deal. That would seem to play into the Patriots’ hands as they look to improve a ground attack that was a paltry 29th in yards per carry last season.

In addition to Forte, the Patriots are doing their homework on veterans Chris Ivory, Alfred Morris and Joique Bell, as well as draft prospect Daniel Lasco (California), per Volin. None of Ivory, Morris or Bell will cost a bank-breaking amount on the market, while Lasco is considered a mid- or late-rounder.

The Pats are keenly familiar with Ivory, who has been a Jet the past three years. Ivory eclipsed the 200-carry mark and 1,000-yard barrier for the first time last season at the age of 27 (he’ll turn 28 this month).

Morris had three straight years of at least 265 carries, 1,000 yards and seven TDs in Washington before plummeting to all-time lows in those categories and YPC (3.7) last season.

Unlike Forte, Ivory and Morris, Bell has never been a true No. 1 back. The soon-to-be 30-year-old averaged only 3.5 yards per rush last season on 90 attempts and amassed a career-worst 22 catches. As a result, the Lions cut him last month. Bell has been eligible to sign anywhere since then, though he hasn’t logged any reported visits.

Though he wasn’t a major producer at Cal, Lasco turned heads last week when he set a combine record for running backs with an 11-foot-3 broad jump. The 209-pounder also led this year’s class of tailbacks with a 41.5-inch vertical leap, came in second in the 60-yard shuttle (11.31 seconds), and finished sixth in the 40-yard dash (4.46).

With Brandon LaFell and Scott Chandler gone and Danny Amendola‘s future uncertain, the Patriots might try to add more aerial weaponry. The problem is that the free agent class isn’t deep at receiver or tight end. Any of the top wideouts available – Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Rishard Matthews, Jermaine Kearse and Rueben Randle – would help the Patriots’ offense, but all are likely to land bigger deals elsewhere. The same is probably true for free agent TEs like Ladarius Green and ex-Pat Ben Watson, though either would serve as a great complement to Gronkowski.

If New England turns to the draft, Ohio State receiver Braxton Miller is a potential second-round target. The Patriots are fans of the 6-2, 215-pounder, according to Tony Pauline of (Twitter link). They could instead grab fellow Buckeye wideout Michael Thomas or TCU’s Joch Doctson, as NFL Network’s Mike Mayock told WEEI earlier this week. Kansas State’s Glenn Gronkowski, brother of Rob Gronkowski, is also on the team’s radar. The Patriots like the tight end/fullback/H-back, The Buffalo News’ Tyler Dunne reported in January (Twitter link).

Up front, the Patriots hope their decision to bring longtime offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia out of retirement helps improve the unit. Scarnecchia coached their O-line from 2000-13 and is taking over again after the firing of Dave DeGuglielmo.

The return of left tackle Nate Solder – who missed most of last season with a torn bicep – will provide a significant boost. Further, the Patriots seem unlikely to do anything drastic along the interior with Bryan Stork at center and some combo of Josh Kline and two fourth-rounders from last year – Tre’ Jackson and Shaq Mason – at guard.

The Patriots won’t necessarily have to add right tackle help if Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon come back. In the event they do look for an upgrade in free agency, Joe Barksdale would be an intriguing, reasonably priced possibility. Barksdale has made 45 starts over the last three years for the Rams and Chargers, respectively, and he totaled the second-most snaps in the league among tackles (1,150) last season. His play earned him a No. 21 overall ranking among 77 qualifying OTs from PFF.

In terms of the draft, the Patriots have had discussions with Kyle Murphy (Stanford), according to Kevin Duffy of Murphy, a projected mid-round pick, showed versatility at Stanford by starting all of its games at right tackle in 2014 and then doing the same at left tackle last season.

Aside from potentially adding depth across the board, which is something all teams want to accomplish, the Patriots don’t have anything pressing to deal with defensively. That could change if Hicks leaves, but the Pats aren’t exactly devoid of talent at D-tackle with their last two first-rounders – Malcom Brown (2015) and Dominique Easley (2014) – and steady veteran Alan Branch in the fold.

Extension Candidates/Contract Issues:

The Patriots aren’t at risk of losing premier talent in free agency this offseason, but winter 2017 is coming. Seven (!) of their most valuable defenders – ends Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard, linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower, and cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan – are presently scheduled for free agency next March. Hightower will likely ride out his fifth-year option season (in which he’s set to make $7.751MM), according to Volin, but extensions could be on the table for at least some of the others.

Chandler Jones (Featured)Jones has been a pass-rushing force throughout his four years in the league – twice stockpiling double-digit sacks in a season – and could end up with the most expensive deal of the septet. Jones accrued new career highs last season in both sacks (12.5) and forced fumbles (four), but things took an odd turn for him when he was hospitalized in January because of a bad reaction to synthetic marijuana. Nothing came of that from a legal standpoint, and it doesn’t appear Jones will face discipline from the league, but it’s something the Patriots could keep in mind when weighing whether to commit substantial money to the 26-year-old over the long haul.

Regardless of whether it’s from the Pats or someone else, in a league that greatly values rushing the passer, Jones has set himself up for an enormous contract – one sure to pay more per annum than the ~$7.8MM he’s scheduled to rack up next season. He’ll undoubtedly keep an eye on the deal Dolphins defensive end Olivier Vernon signs this offseason – if he signs one, that is. The Dolphins applied the transition tag to Vernon, so he could play next season under that tag and make $12.734MM, but there’s a good chance a team will try to poach him via an offer sheet worth that type of money over several years. With that in mind, Jones – who has seven more sacks than Vernon in nine fewer games (which is a plus in demonstrating Jones’ pass-rushing skills, but a minus with respect to durability) – looks like a strong candidate to exceed eight figures per year on his next accord.

Despite missing five games in the last two years (four in 2015 because of an illness), Collins established himself as a high-end defensive playmaker, combining for 215 tackles, 9.5 sacks, nine forced fumbles and three interceptions. He played almost 200 more snaps than the second-closest Patriots linebacker, Hightower, and ranked as PFF’s fifth-best LB last season. Only two ILBs, the Panthers’ Luke Kuechly and the Seahawks’ Bobby Wagner, average better than $10MM in annual worth. Collins is likely to join them soon, though Kuechly’s $12.36MM yearly mean might be out of reach. Wagner’s $10.75MM per-year salary should be a realistic benchmark, however, especially with the cap having risen by roughly $12MM since Wagner signed his extension last summer.

Butler escaped anonymity in February 2015 when he made one of the most famous interceptions in the history of the sport to seal a 28-24 Super Bowl XLIX victory over Wagner’s Seahawks, and he carried that momentum into last season. After Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington exited, Butler became the Patriots’ No. 1 corner, started all 16 regular-season games and picked off two passes. He also ranked 24th among 111 qualifying corners at PFF, finishing six spots above Revis."<strong

Since he’s a restricted free agent next year, the Patriots don’t necessarily need to rush into a lucrative deal for Butler. That’s particularly true when considering Butler’s minimal 2016 cap hit ($600K), which an extension would raise. If the Pats don’t lock up Butler this year and he performs well again next season, the worst-case scenario is that they could apply a first-round RFA tender to him. That tender currently carries a $3.635MM price – certainly a reasonable amount for a standout corner. Odds are nobody will offer sheet Butler if the Patriots give him the highest tender, but if it happens, New England would have the option of either matching it or letting him go and getting a first-rounder as compensation.

Ninkovich, 32, has flown under the radar during his seven years in New England while playing six straight 16-game regular-season games and accumulating 37 sacks over the last half-decade. The nine-year veteran collected 6.5 of those sacks last season, finished second on New England in quarterback hurries (17, one more than Jones) and led its defensive linemen in snaps (891). Despite that, PFF didn’t think much of his output, rating him the league’s No. 81 edge rusher (110 qualifiers). Ninkovich is 25th among 4-3 DEs in annual salary ($3.5MM) at the moment, and given that he’s on the wrong end of the aging curve, he’ll probably struggle to eclipse that on his next contract.

The soon-to-be 27-year-old Sheard is much younger than Ninkovich, on the other hand, and although he missed three games last season, he was first on the Patriots in hurries (24), second to Jones in sacks (eight), and tied for second with Jones in forced fumbles (four). He was also the league’s seventh-best edge rusher by PFF’s standards.

After showing off his pass-rushing prowess for four seasons in Cleveland, Sheard joined the Patriots last winter on a two-year, $11MM agreement. An increase in both term and annual value should be attainable for Sheard on his next deal. An obvious comparable he could use if the Patriots approach him about an extension this offseason is the Vikings’ Everson Griffen, who inked a five-year pact at the age of 26 in 2014. Griffen parlayed 17 sacks from 2011-13 into $42MM, including $19.8MM in guarantees. Griffen is now comfortably in the top 10 among 4-3 DEs in total contract value, guarantees and per-year average ($8.5MM), and Sheard wouldn’t be out of line in requesting to join his company.

Having turned 25 last month, Ryan is the youngest player of the group. The 5-11, 191-pounder has been a durable ballhawk throughout his three-year career, appearing in all 48 regular-season games and amassing 11 interceptions. Four of those picks came last season, as did new highs for Ryan in starts (14), tackles (74) and passes defensed (14). Further, as PFF’s 22nd-ranked corner, Ryan slightly outdid Butler in that regard. Ryan is the same age as Chris Harris Jr. was when Harris got five years and $42MM from the Broncos in December 2014, but the latter had already become a borderline elite cornerback and recorded 45 starts by then. While Ryan – who has totaled 18 fewer starts (27) – isn’t in that class, both the cap and the cost of a quality corner continue to soar, so perhaps his next pact won’t be that far away from Harris’ in value.

Not to be forgotten, special teams whiz Matt Slater is also on the last year of his contract. The eight-year vet has quietly made five consecutive Pro Bowls, one shy of the record for a special teams gunner (Steve Tasker holds that honor). Slater, 30, played 63.7% of the Pats’ special teams snaps last season and tied for the fourth-most ST tackles in the league (15). Whether Slater receives a new contract this offseason or sometime before next March, it’s unlikely to leave the neighborhood of the two-year, $4MM accord he signed in November 2014.

Overall Outlook:

Realistically, there’s nothing that could happen this offseason that would knock the Patriots from the top of the AFC East in 2016 and elevate the Jets, Bills or Dolphins into the No. 1 spot. Even if Tom Brady misses the first quarter of the season, the Jimmy Garoppolo-led Patriots would still have enough talent to at least tread water in Brady’s absence and then separate themselves from the pack after his return. Meanwhile, the division’s other teams – all of which currently lag well behind the Patriots – have numerous issues to address and little cap space with which to work.

For their part, the Patriots are stacked enough that they don’t need to make headline-grabbing acquisitions in free agency or the draft to continue as Super Bowl contenders next season. While some roster-fortifying moves are in order, the Pats aren’t going to lose sight of the fact that several of their defensive cornerstones will require considerable long-term commitments by March 2017. Thus, the club must navigate this offseason with restraint – something that has never been a problem in the Bill Belichick era.

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

Offseason Outlook: Pittsburgh Steelers

Pending free agents:

Top 15 cap hits for 2016:

  1. Ben Roethlisberger, QB: $23,950,000
  2. Lawrence Timmons, ILB: $15,131,250
  3. Antonio Brown, WR: $12,370,833
  4. Maurkice Pouncey, C: $10,551,000
  5. Cameron Heyward, DE: $10,400,000
  6. David DeCastro, G: $8,070,000
  7. Michael Mitchell, S: $6,763,750
  8. Marcus Gilbert, T: $6,461,000
  9. Cortez Allen, CB: $5,750,000
  10. Shaun Suisham, K: $3,503,000
  11. Arthur Moats, OLB: $3,133,333
  12. Heath Miller, TE: $3,181,668 (dead money)
  13. Jarvis Jones, OLB: $2,769,933
  14. Ryan Shazier, ILB: $2,592,874
  15. DeAngelo Williams, RB: $2,565,000

Notable coaching/front office moves:

  • No major changes.


  • No. 25 overall pick
  • Owe fifth-round pick to Eagles in deal for CB Brandon Boykin.
  • Owe sixth-round pick to Jaguars in deal for K Josh Scobee.
  • Acquired conditional seventh-round pick from Giants in deal for P Brad Wing.
    • Conditions aren’t known, but since Wing spent the entire season on Giants’ roster, the conditions were almost certainly met.


Overview:Ben Roethlisberger

An early-season Ben Roethlisberger injury threatened to derail the Steelers’ playoff hopes in 2015, but after missing the entire month of October, Big Ben returned to action and righted the ship for Pittsburgh down the stretch. After a 4-4 start, the club went 6-2 in the second half, beating the rival Bengals in the Wild Card round and playing the eventual Super Bowl champion Broncos tough in the divisional round.

Pittsburgh’s success in 2015 can be attributed to the sort of strengths that we wouldn’t have associated with Steelers teams 10 years ago. The club’s offense is something of a juggernaut, ranking third in the NFL in DVOA, despite injuries to Roethlisberger and star running back Le’Veon Bell, who only played in six games before going down with a torn ACL.

On the defensive side of the ball, Pittsburgh bounced back nicely from a 2014 season in which the unit ranked 30th in DVOA, placing a respectable 11th in 2015. Still, opposing quarterbacks could pass the ball on the Steelers, and the defense no longer embodies the team’s identity in the same way it did during the years in the 2000s when players like Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, and Joey Porter were in their primes.

With at least a couple key free agents to deal with on offense this winter, the Steelers won’t be devoting all their resources to shoring up that defense, but it will be the priority. With Roethlisberger, Bell, Antonio Brown, and Martavis Bryant all primed to return, Pittsburgh has the ability to score at will on most defenses. Now, the focus will be on adding the same sort of play-making talent on defense.

Key Free Agents:

Despite suffering a pair of major injuries in 2015, with left tackle Kelvin Beachum and center Maurkice Pouncey combining for just six games played, the Steelers ranked as a top-10 offensive line, per Pro Football Focus. PFF’s assessment of the group suggests that if Beachum and Pouncey had been healthy, Pittsburgh could have had a top-three line last season.

That offensive line could be in flux this offseason, however, with both starters on the left side eligible to hit the open market. Beachum is probably the most notable of those free-agents-to-be — before suffering a torn ACL in the fall, he was establishing himself as one of the more reliable left tackles in the NFL, especially as a pass blocker, and he’s still just 26 years old. Retaining him will be a top priority for the Steelers this month, and while he probably won’t come at a discount, perhaps his price tag will be kept in check a little by the fact that he’s coming off a major knee injury, rather than enjoying a full, dominant season in his contract year.

Ramon FosterAt left guard, Ramon Foster had another solid campaign in 2015, ranking 16th out of 81 qualified guards, according to Pro Football Focus’ grades. Foster’s position obviously isn’t the same sort of premium spot that left tackle is, and the veteran turned 30 in January, so his odds of landing a mega-deal are slim. Still, Foster has been durable and productive for years, starting at least 14 games for the Steelers every season since 2011. Allowing him to walk in free agency would negatively impact Pittsburgh’s offensive line.

As Jason La Canfora of observed last week (via Twitter), the Steelers are unlikely to lose both of their top free agent linemen. The team values continuity up front too much to simply let the two players protecting Roethlisberger’s blind side leave without a fight. Still, it certainly won’t be easy to keep both. Pouncey, David DeCastro, and Marcus Gilbert, Pittsburgh’s other offensive line starters, count for more than $25MM in total on the team’s 2016 cap. The Steelers will have to be wary about investing too heavily in their veteran offensive linemen, and may want to try to go younger and cheaper at one of those two spots on the left side.

Elsewhere on offense, none of the free-agents-to-be played significant roles for the Steelers in 2015. A pair of backup quarterbacks, Bruce Gradkowski and Michael Vick, will see their contracts expire next week, but Pittsburgh isn’t necessarily under pressure to re-sign either player, since Landry Jones remains in the mix behind Roethlisberger. Of the two pending free agents, Vick was the one who actually saw some action in 2015, earning three starts due to injuries, so perhaps he’ll be the one to return if Pittsburgh attempts to bring back either QB.

At wide receiver, Darrius Heyward-Bey will probably never live up to his draft billing, but the former seventh overall pick carved out more of a role on offense during his second season in Pittsburgh, catching 21 balls for 314 yards and two touchdowns. Heyward-Bey would be no higher than fourth on the Steelers’ depth chart if he returns, behind Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Markus Wheaton, but there are plenty of targets to go around in Pittsburgh’s passing game, so it’s possible he returns if the price is right.

Major changes could be afoot in the Steelers’ secondary this offseason, with three of the club’s top four cornerbacks and two of the top three safeties eligible for free agency. We’ll start at cornerback, where the team risks losing William Gay, Brandon Boykin, and Antwon Blake.

Gay, a fifth-round pick in 2007, has been with the Steelers for all but one season since being drafted by the team, appearing in 128 regular-season contests and another 11 postseason games for the franchise. Head coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler continue to lean heavily on Gay, who played a team-high 1,065 defensive snaps during the 2015 regular season and has shown a knack for making big plays, racking up five return touchdowns in the last three years. His best years are probably behind him, but Gay can still be a solid contributor in the secondary, so it will be interesting to see if he’s re-signed this offseason.

Gay is probably more likely to return to Pittsburgh than Blake, who graded as a bottom-five cornerback in the league out of 111 qualified players, per Pro Football Focus. As PFF’s Ben Stockwell wrote last month, during his first season as a starter Blake made opposing quarterbacks look collectively like Aaron Rodgers, allowing an NFL-worst 1,074 yards in coverage, to go along with eight touchdowns, 28 missed tackles, and a passer rating of 117.0. If he’s re-signed, it should be as a depth piece and a special-teamer, not as a starter.Brandon Boykin

Meanwhile, Boykin is perhaps in the most interesting spot of Pittsburgh’s three pending free agent cornerbacks. The Steelers sent a fifth-round pick to the Eagles for Boykin last year, a sign that they value him. However, the 25-year-old barely saw the field until Week 13. Boykin played well down the stretch, and he could be a nice slot option for Pittsburgh going forward, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he wants to test his market — he has talked in the past about wanting to play on the outside, and his situations in Pennsylvania over the first four years of his NFL career haven’t been ideal, so he may seek out a better fit.

At safety, the Steelers will have to make decisions on Will Allen, their starting strong safety, and Robert Golden, who saw some action on defense in 2015 after previously serving primarily as a special-teamer. Both players have some value, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see at least one of the two return, but with plenty of intriguing options available on the free agent market this winter, Pittsburgh may look elsewhere for a starter, with an eye toward making Allen or Golden the first safety off the bench.

Inside linebacker Sean Spence and defensive linemen Steve McLendon and Cam Thomas round out the Steelers’ list of most noteworthy free agents, but I’m not sure any of them are essential to the Steelers’ plans going forward. A third-round pick in 2012, Spence saw his first two seasons wiped out by injuries and has been a part-time contributor at linebacker in the two years since then. Perhaps his familiarity with the defensive scheme will earn him another contract with the Steelers, but if he gets a better offer from another team, Pittsburgh shouldn’t engage in any sort of bidding war.

As for McLendon and Thomas, they were part of the Steelers’ defensive line rotation in 2015, with McLendon starting at nose tackle. Of the two players, McLendon – a Steeler since 2010 and a starter since 2013 – will be the priority, but the team shouldn’t go to great lengths to re-sign him. The 30-year-old played just 419 defensive snaps in 2015, rarely seeing the field in passing situations. His run-stopping ability is solid, but not spectacular, so the Steelers should be careful not to overpay.

Possible Cap Casualties:

The Steelers’ roster isn’t brimming with potential release candidates, particularly since one of the players who may have been on the chopping block made the decision easy on the Steelers by announcing his retirement. Tight end Heath Miller, a stalwart in Pittsburgh’s offense for the last decade, decided in February to call it a career, taking the team off the hook for his $4MM base salary in 2016.

Miller’s production hadn’t fallen off significantly even as he neared his mid-30s — he caught another 60 balls in 2015, giving him 592 receptions for his career. But with his cap number set to rise to $7.1MM+ in 2016, the Steelers likely would have needed to address his contract, so his retirement allows the two sides to avoid a discussion about a release or a pay cut.

Cortez AllenSigning cornerback Cortez Allen to a four-year contract extension in 2014 appears, in retrospect, to have been one of the more ill-advised decisions made by general manager Kevin Colbert and the Steelers’ brain trust in recent years, and the team will likely terminate that contract this offseason. Allen, who lost his starting job in 2014 and barely saw the field in 2015 due to a knee injury, has a $5.75MM cap hit for 2016. Because he still has three years left on the deal, the Steelers can only create $1.7MM in cap savings by cutting him, though the team could increase that number to $4.4MM by designating him as a post-June 1 cut. It wouldn’t give Pittsburgh any added flexibility in free agency, but it would help the club sign its draft picks in June.

Veteran kicker Shaun Suisham, who also missed the 2015 season with an injury, is another potential cap casualty who could receive a post-June 1 designation. Suisham, coming off a torn ACL, will have a cap hit exceeding $3.5MM, but the Steelers can only save $194K by releasing him. Using the post-June 1 designation would increase the cap savings to $2.4MM. There’s no guarantee Suisham will be cut, but his replacement, Chris Boswell, was very good in his rookie season, missing just four total kicks in 2015 (out of 32 FG tries and 27 XP attempts). Boswell is also much cheaper.

On the surface, veteran linebacker Lawrence Timmons looks like an obvious release candidate for the Steelers, since cutting him would create $8.75MM in cap savings. Nonetheless, I expect the team will prefer to extend Timmons rather than release him, so we’ll get to him a little later.

Positions Of Need:

Although most of the Steelers’ pressing needs are on the defensive side of the ball, we’ll start on offense before diving into those defensive needs. To some extent, Pittsburgh’s offensive priorities will hinge on which free agents return, but it looks like the two main areas of focus will be on the offensive line and at tight end.

As we discussed in the section on the Steelers’ pending free agents, left tackle Kelvin Beachum and left guard Ramon Foster are eligible for free agency this winter, and the team is unlikely to re-sign both players. Beachum’s and Foster’s asking prices figure to play a significant role in the Steelers’ decisions on them, but if the team had to pick one, I expect Beachum would be the choice for a handful of reasons — he’s younger, he plays the more premium position, and it will be much easier this offseason to find a replacement at guard than at left tackle.

The free agent market for guards is a little deeper than it is for tackles, with viable starters like Geoff Schwartz, Chris Chester, and Jahri Evans available once you move beyond the top tier. Additionally, by the time the Steelers pick at No. 25 in the first round, the top three or four tackles in the draft figure to be off the board, reducing the team’s chances of finding a player capable of starting right away. It should be easier to find a guard who can contribute immediately on the second or even the third day of the draft.

At tight end, the Steelers could have an ascending talent in 2015 fifth-rounder Jesse James, who flashed some potential during his rookie season. But James has just eight career receptions, and can’t be relied upon as the full-time starter in 2016, so this is a spot where a veteran free agent signing would make some sense. A veteran who is willing to run- and pass-block in addition to running routes of his own would be a nice fit, and there are a few players who fit that bill, including Dwayne Allen, Zach Miller, Marcedes Lewis, Scott Chandler, and Rhett Ellison. If Pittsburgh prefers to add a young tight end, Arkansas’ Hunter Henry is a good bet to be on the board at No. 25.

If the Steelers make any sort of splash in free agency, it’s more likely to come on defense, where several positions are candidates for upgrades. Cornerback and safety must be addressed, and adding another pass rusher at outside linebacker would be a big help. Changes at nose tackle and inside linebacker are also possible, but let’s start in the secondary.

With so many pending free agents on track to reach the market, the Steelers could be on the verge of overhauling their secondary, though if the team can re-sign some of those free-agents-to-be, that may not be necessary. Bringing back William Gay and Brandon Boykin, giving Antwon Blake‘s snaps to Ross Cockrell, and hoping for a solid year from 2015 second-rounder Senquez Golson would give the Steelers a decent starting point at cornerback, but it’s still a position where the team should seek out an upgrade.

Depending on who is available at No. 25 in the draft, that might not be a bad spot to select a cornerback — Ohio State’s Eli Apple, Clemson’s Mackensie Alexander, and Houston’s William Jackson III are a few possibilities. In their most recent mock drafts, ESPN draft experts Todd McShay and Mel Kiper each have Pittsburgh nabbing a corner, with McShay suggesting Alexander, while Kiper has the Steelers picking Virginia Tech’s Kendall Fuller.

While this year’s class of free agent cornerbacks is relatively deep, I could more easily envision the Steelers going after an impact veteran at safety. Eric Weddle, who has talked about prioritizing culture, fit, and a team with a chance to contend, would be a very nice match for Pittsburgh, but he’s not the only option available. If the Steelers were to target players like George Iloka and Reggie Nelson of the Bengals or Tashaun Gipson of the Browns, they could aim for the added bonus of weakening a division rival by signing away one of Cincinnati’s or Cleveland’s defensive starters.

Of course, if the Steelers’ recent draft history is any indication, it could very well be a linebacker, rather than a defensive back, that the club selects in the first round. In each of the last three years, Pittsburgh has drafted either an inside or outside linebacker with its first-round selection, picking up Jarvis Jones (2013), Ryan Shazier (2014), and Bud Dupree (2015). If a couple of those players can break out in 2016 and live up to their first-round billing, the position might not be an issue for the Steelers, who could also bring back veteran linebacker Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison.

However, Jones, Shazier, and Dupree haven’t really looked like standout performers yet – though Shazier’s excellent Wild Card performance against the Bengals was certainly a promising sign – so linebacker will be another position the Steelers explore upgrading this offseason.

Given the lack of potential difference-makers on the free agent market, this is a spot I’d normally expect the Steelers to address in the draft — especially inside linebacker, where solid players can usually be found in the middle rounds. But considering how many draft resources the Steelers have poured into linebackers in the early rounds in recent years, perhaps it makes more sense to identify a known commodity on the free agent market, looking to improve the floor at the position rather than the ceiling. Tamba Hali is probably the most noteworthy name at outside linebacker, while players like Jerrell Freeman, Derrick Johnson, and Danny Trevathan highlight the ILB market.

Finally, the Steelers have a pair of talented young defensive ends in Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, but the club hasn’t received high-end production at nose tackle, with Steve McLendon handling most of the snaps there. Depending on McLendon’s asking price, that’s one position the club could look into upgrading. I don’t expect the Steelers to go out and land a top free agent like Damon Harrison, but even using a mid-to-late-round pick to get younger in the middle would make sense.

Extension Candidates/Contract Issues:

The Steelers don’t have a ton of cap flexibility this offseason, but they have enough to get by, and they can create more by completing contract extensions or restructures with several players.Lawrence Timmons

As noted above, assuming the Steelers bring back Lawrence Timmons, they should absolutely figure out a way to reduce his cap hit, whether that’s in the form of a pay cut or – more likely – an extension. Timmons is entering his age-30 season, so let’s say he agrees to an extension similar to the three-year, $21.5MM deal David Harris signed with the Jets at age 31 a year ago. I think that may be an overpay for Timmons, who isn’t coming off a great year, but we’ll just use those figures for argument’s sake.

If that sort of extension were to feature, for instance, an $8MM signing bonus and a minimum base salary for 2016, Timmons would exceed the $8.75MM base salary he’s currently in line for, and the Steelers could create upwards of $6MM in cap room in ’16. This sort of deal for veteran players is the kind the Steelers have been willing to do in the past, so I’d be a little surprised if the two sides don’t get something done along these lines.

Like Timmons, guard David DeCastro is entering a contract year and has a significant cap hit. Unlike Timmons, DeCastro is still very much in his prime, and extending the 26-year-old would allow the Steelers to lock up one of their most reliable offensive linemen for several seasons while reducing the impact on the club’s 2016 cap. A new deal that makes the former first-round pick one of the league’s higher-paid guards seems very likely to be consummated in the coming weeks or months.

Many of the Steelers’ other extension candidates wouldn’t necessarily free up any cap room, since their current cap charges are relatively modest — Le’Veon Bell, for instance, has a cap hit of just $1.311MM for 2016. I think Pittsburgh should try to get him locked up to a new deal as soon as possible, but an extension for Bell would almost certainly increase his cap hit rather than reduce it.

Antonio Brown‘s contract was tweaked a little in 2015 to ensure that the star wideout got some additional money up front, but I wonder if the team might rework it again this offseason. Since there are still two years remaining on the deal, it might be a little early for the team to offer a full-fledged extension, but with a $12.371MM cap hit for 2016, Brown could perhaps convert some base salary into a signing bonus to lessen that number.

If the Steelers need to create any additional cap room, Ben Roethlisberger ($23.95MM cap charge), Maurkice Pouncey ($10.551MM), and Cameron Heyward ($10.4MM) look like the top candidates to have their contracts restructured.

Overall Outlook:

The Steelers’ offense is one of the most entertaining units in the league, and it will be a lot of fun to watch it at full strength in 2016 if Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, and Martavis Bryant are all healthy and ready to roll. Still, the club has some potential holes to address on the offensive line to ensure that Big Ben stays upright next season. More pressingly, there are several positions on defense that GM Kevin Colbert and the Steelers’ front office must try to upgrade to avoid putting all the pressure on the offense going forward.

With a little breathing room under the cap, the Steelers can afford to make a play for one or two veteran free agents to help fortify that defense. And given the club’s up-and-down track record on early-round picks in recent years, it would be a boon if Pittsburgh could hit on a couple defensive players in this spring’s draft, adding some young talent to a defensive unit whose most reliable performers have been its veterans.

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

Offseason Outlook: Carolina Panthers

Pending free agents:

Top 15 cap hits for 2016:

  1. Cam Newton, QB: $19,500,000
  2. Charles Johnson, DE: $15,020,000
  3. Josh Norman, CB: $13,952,000 (franchised)
  4. Ryan Kalil, T: $10,329,000
  5. Jonathan Stewart, RB: $9,550,000
  6. Thomas Davis, OLB: $7,500,000
  7. Luke Kuechly, ILB: $6,000,000
  8. Greg Olsen, TE: $5,100,000
  9. Michael Oher, T: $4,500,000
  10. Graham Gano, K: $3,700,000
  11. Star Lotulelei, DT: $3,055,977
  12. Ted Ginn, WR: $2,775,000
  13. Ed Dickson, TE: $2,566,666
  14. Kurt Coleman, S: $2,184,375
  15. Dwan Edwards, DT: $2,100,000

Notable coaching/front office moves:

  • No major changes.


  • No. 31 overall pick
  • Owe sixth-round pick to Bears in deal for DE Jared Allen.



After a 2014 season that saw the Panthers reach the postseason despite a sub-.500 record, many expected Carolina to regress even further, and a lack of faith in the club’s 2015 prospects wasn’t uncommon. Not a single PFR writer projected that the Panthers would earn a playoff berth in 2015 (in my own personal predictions, I estimated Carolina would finish last in the NFC South), as the Falcons and Saints generated much more positive outlooks.
Cam Newton (Vertical)

So for Carolina to finish with a 15-1 record and advance all the way to the Super Bowl was, in a massive understatement, unexpected. But finish nearly perfect they did, with the only blemish on the club’s regular season record coming in a tight Week 16 loss to the Falcons. Carolina bludgeoned its way through the NFC tournament, only to run into a stifling Broncos defense in the title game, ultimately losing 24-10.

The superlatives can be tossed in nearly any direction on the Panthers’ roster, but it all started with 2015 MVP Cam Newton, who posted the best season of his career and, with the help of a complex running scheme, led Carolina’s excellent offense. And as good as the offense was, the defense was perhaps even better, as Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis — aided by breakout stars Josh Norman and Kawann Short — headlined a unit that finished second in DVOA.

Credit is also due to head coach Ron Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman — the Panthers have been hamstrung by salary cap problems for years, but the two decision-makers have found a way to cobble together a roster that works. The club still won’t have much cap space this offseason, and while Carolina won’t have to shop at the “dollar store” — Gettleman’s phrase — anymore, it still can’t afford to bring in too many high end options.

Key Free Agents:

Some clubs have a group of players who might compete for the moniker of “No. 1 internal free agent,” but in the Panthers’ case, there’s no such debate — cornerback Josh Norman‘s expiring contract is far and away the most pressing item on Carolina’s offseason docket. After reports indicated that little progress had been made in extension talks, the club placed the franchise tag on Norman, locking him in Carolina for one more season (unless another team is willing to part with two first-round picks). The Panthers are reportedly hopeful that they’ll be able to work out a long-term agreement with Norman before the July 15 deadline for extending franchise players.Josh Norman (Vertical)

When I examined Norman’s case for an extension back in November, I argued that he should be in line for the prototypical shutdown corner contract: $14MM per year, with more than $20MM in guarantees. Norman, at 28, is a bit older than a standard first-time free agent, and while the franchise tag will limit his ability to market himself to the league, I think that projection is still firmly within his reach.

The franchise tag will pay Norman $13.952MM in 2016 — if the Panthers were to franchise him in 2017, Norman would earn another $16.742MM (120% of his cap charge from the previous year). The total of those two figures — $30.694MM — should be Norman’s target in terms of guaranteed money in negotiations with Carolina. It may seem like a high number, but having reached the end of his contract without having agreed to a long-term deal, Norman holds a great deal of leverage.

Elsewhere in the secondary, veteran corners Charles Tillman and Cortland Finnegan are also headed for free agency. He just turned 35 years old, but Tillman started 12 games (and played decently) in 2016, and has made it clear he’ll only continue his NFL career with Carolina. A one-year – possibly minimum salary benefit – contract could make sense, but I’ll predict that Tillman ultimately retires. Finnegan, meanwhile, was brought in as more of a stopgap, and I don’t expect him to be retained.

At safety, Roman Harper has started all 32 games for Carolina over the past two seasons after joining the club on a low-cost deal prior to the 2014 season. He’s 33 now, and Pro Football Focus didn’t rate Harper’s play very highly in 2015, grading him as the No. 53 safety among 88 qualifiers. Harper will cost $900K against the Panthers’ 2016 salary cap thanks to a void provision in his contract, but I think the team will move on and possibly try to find a superior option through free agency or the draft.

Defensive tackle Kyle Love, something of an inspirational story given that he’s battled diabetes throughout his NFL career, seems to have finally found a home in Carolina after bouncing around the league for a few seasons. He played about 30% of the the club’s defensive snaps, teaming with Dwan Edwards to form nice backup rotation behind starters Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei. Those latter two players are about to get expensive, so retaining a key depth option like Love could be smart.

Let’s move to the offensive side of the ball, where wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery‘s numbers have been falling for three consecutive years. Even with Kelvin Benjamin lost for the season, Cotchery saw his role in the offense decrease, as he hauled in only 39 receptions for less than 500 yards. Benjamin will return in 2016, and with further development expected from Devin Funchess and Corey Brown, the Panthers can probably move from Cotchery as he enters his age-34 season.

2015 Pro Bowl fullback/running back Mike Tolbert is also a free agent, but it’s highly likely that he’ll return to Carolina, where he has spent the past four years of his career. Coming off a four-year contract during which he averaged $2.5MM annually, Tolbert could see a nice pay raise, albeit over a shorter term. The 30-year-old Tolbert recently said that he’d love to stay with the Panthers, but did allow that he would consider moving on.

Of the Panthers’ free agent offensive linemen, the only one who played more than 10% of the club’s snaps was Amini Silatolu, who did so while filling in at left guard for the injured Andrew Norwell. A second-round pick in 2012, Silatolu started 15 games during his rookie year, but has logged just 13 starts in the three years since. He’s still only 27, so Silatolu might look to latch on with a team where he has a better shot at returning to a starting role.

Possible Cap Casualties:

The elephant in the room for the Panthers this offseason is the status of veteran defensive end Charles Johnson, who is entering the final year of a six-year, $78MM deal he signed prior to the 2011 season. Johnson, hampered by a hamstring injury, was limited to just nine games last season, and played in something of a rotation, as he saw action on just over a third of Carolina’s snaps.Charles Johnson (Vertical)

The 29-year-old Johnson is scheduled to count $15.02MM against the Panthers’ salary cap, and all indications are that that figure is unpalatable for the club —the Charlotte Observer recently reported that Carolina will ask Johnson to accept a pay cut next season, and if he declines, he’ll face the possibility of release. The club would save $1MM in 2016 by cutting Johnson.

Depending on how steep a pay reduction the Panthers propose, I could see Johnson choosing to move on, figuring he could earn more on the open market. If Carolina wants to slash his pay by, say, 50%, and reduce his cap charge to $7.5MM, Johnson should definitely decline — he posted 8.5 sacks just one season ago, and reached double-digits in the two years prior, so it’s not as if he’s washed up. Since there would certainly be a market for Johnson’s services were he to become a free agent, he holds a bit of leverage over the team.

Besides Johnson, the Panthers don’t have a ton of other potential cap casualties, but if the team is looking to save a little money on the margins, defensive tackle Dwan Edwards could be on the chopping block. Carolina would only save $1.6MM by releasing Edwards, but he’s 34 years old, so the team could look for younger players to add to its interior rotation.

Positions Of Need:

Offensive line and wide receiver have been listed among the Panthers’ needs for what seems like a generation, and while Carolina could certainly use help in those areas — we’ll cover them a bit later — the three most pressing needs might be on defense.

Defensive end, specifically, is a position group that the Panthers will likely need to target this offseason. I expect Charles Johnson to decline a pay cut and ultimately be released, but even if he does stick around, Carolina needs to add more talent at end. Johnson would be entering the final year of his contract, and while Kony Ealy posted the game of his life in the Super Bowl, he hasn’t shown that level of production in the past.

So if merely adding depth at defensive end is the Panthers’ goal, they could enter the free agent market, and perhaps target someone like the recently-released Mario Williams. Obviously, Carolina won’t be able to pay Williams the $16MM per year he was earning in Buffalo (he’s not worth that amount, clearly), and other interested clubs could probably offer more. But Williams, who has never played in a postseason game, might be intrigued by the idea of joining a ready-made contender, albeit at a reduced priced. On the cheaper end of the scale, Wallace Gilberry is coming off an effective run as a rotational end in Cincinnati, and could be a nice backup piece, while former Jet/Dolphin Quinton Coples reportedly met with the Panthers this week.

If Carolina wants to add an end that will contribute both now and into the future, the team will look to the draft, and while it’s difficult to find a premier edge rusher at pick No. 31, there is no shortage of prospects who might be available. Bucky Brooks of has the Panthers taking Georgia defender Emmanuel Ogbah in his most recent mock draft, while Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun, Clemson’s Kevin Dodd, and Florida’s Jonathan Bullard could also be on the board.

In the secondary, safety is also an area of concern, especially if Roman Harper is not re-signed. At nearly every other position listed in this section, I think the Panthers would be fine combining draft picks with internal options, but to upgrade at safety, Carolina should take a hard look at using what cap space it has. The most obvious addition would be Eric Weddle — not only does he have a history with Ron Rivera and secondary coach Steve Wilks, but he’s indicated that he’d like to join a contending club. Tashaun Gipson, George Iloka, and Rodney McLeod could also be under consideration if the Panthers are willing to spend a little.

Cornerback is also a position that could be addressed, but perhaps is of less importance than perceived. With Josh Norman back in the fold, Bene Benwikere potentially moving to the outside, and Robert McClain around to play the slot, the Panthers can field a passable secondary. Still, it’s certainly an area where young talent wouldn’t hurt, and many observers, including Mel Kiper of and Daniel Jermiah of, project Carolina to select a cornerback in the first round (Mackensie Alexander and Eli Apple being the choices).

Moving to the offense, right tackle has been a concern for the past few years, and Mike Remmers was disappointing in his first full season as a starter. But it sounds like Remmers — a restricted free agent — will return in 2016, and 2015 draft pick Daryl Williams could provide some competition. I doubt Dave Gettleman & Co. will spend money to add talent at this position, but a mid- or late-round draft pick could be in the cards.

As I noted, receiver is always listed among Carolina’s needs, but the group assembled last season — Ted Ginn Jr., Corey Brown, Jerricho Cotchery, and Devin Funchess — played pretty well, and lest we forget, Kelvin Benjamin, who posted more than 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie in 2014, will return from an ACL tear. Brenton Bersin, Stephen Hill, and Kevin Norwood haven’t contributed much in their short NFL careers, but further development is always possible. I don’t expect Cotchery back, but this is a cohort that can succeed, especially in a run-based offense with a talented quarterback like Cam Newton at the helm. The Panthers probably won’t be willing to add a receiver via free agency, but using a pick in the first two rounds — as they’ve done in consecutive seasons — is a possibility.

Extension Candidates/Contract Issues:

Kawann Short was a breakout star last season, posting 11 sacks from the interior, and grading as a top-10 defensive tackle per Pro Football Focus. Short, 27, is entering the final season of his rookie contract, and because he wasn’t a first-round pick (he was selected 44th overall in 2013), the Panthers don’t hold a fifth-year option on him for the 2017 season.Kawann Short (Vertical)

Short will easily be the top option among the 2017 class of free agent defensive tackles, so if he were to hit the open market, he’d be looking at a rather large payday. Since he holds so much leverage, there’s no reason that Short shouldn’t push for a deal that brushes the top of the market — Ndamukong Suh‘s massive Dolphins contract is an outlier, but Marcell Dareus and Gerald McCoy each received more than $95MM in total value. However, Dareus and McCoy did receive vastly different levels of guaranteed money ($43MM for Dareus versus just ~$15MM for McCoy), so that could be an area of negotiation for Short and the Panthers.

Carolina would probably balk at such an asking price given that Short has really only produced for one season, and if no deal can be reached by this time next year, Short could be a prime candidate for the franchise tag, with a likely cost of roughly $14MM. None of the Panthers’ other 2017 free agents would warrant the tag, and the option might force Short to take a bit less money.

Carolina’s other starting defensive tackle, Star Lotuleleiwas selected in the first round, meaning the Panthers can control him — if they so choose — through the 2017 season via the fifth-year option. Lotulelei hasn’t been a star, and he really struggled in 2015, though his play could have been affected by a foot injury (he had surgery last January and dealt with complications in training camp, ultimately missing the first two games of the season). Carolina will surely exercise his option (price tag: ~$7MM), but with the team expected to prioritize an extension for Short, a long-term agreement for Lotulelei could be on the back-burner.

Safety Kurt Coleman was excellent in 2015, adding a stabilizing force in the back end of the Panthers’ secondary. He’s entering the final season of a two-year contract, and he’s set to count just over $2MM on this year’s cap. If Carolina wants to keep Coleman around past 2016, I wonder if they might extend him now and add a bit more guaranteed money to his ’16 base salary, thereby reducing the potential dead money down the line. Then again, Coleman has had a pretty up-and-down career, so perhaps the Panthers will want him to prove his worth again during the upcoming season.

On offense, left guard Andrew Norwell is extension-eligible after just two seasons instead of the standard three as a result of having been an undrafted free agent. He has made former second-rounder Amini Silatolu irrelevant, taking over on the inside and grading as the league’s eighth-best guard in 2016, per Pro Football Focus. Locking up Norwell, and, following this season, right guard Trai Turner, are important tasks in the effort to keep Cam Newton upright.

Overall Outlook:

In a league with such parity, it’s difficult to maintain a contending team, much less a dynasty. And while the Panthers probably aren’t at dynastic levels just yet, it’s not hard to see them getting there. Carolina has solid decision-makers, stable ownership, innovative coaches, young talent on both sides of the ball, and most importantly, a franchise quarterback. A fourth consecutive NFC South title looks almost inevitable, and a return trip to the Super Bowl — and a win, this time — is unquestionably the target for the 2016 Panthers.

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

Offseason Outlook: New York Jets

Pending free agents:

Top 15 cap hits for 2016:

  1. Darrelle Revis, CB: $17,000,000
  2. Muhammad Wilkerson, DE: $15,701,000 (franchised)
  3. D’Brickashaw Ferguson, T: $14,107,000
  4. Brandon Marshall, WR: $9,500,000
  5. Nick Mangold, C: $8,600,000
  6. Eric Decker, WR: $8,000,000
  7. Buster Skrine, CB: $7,750,000
  8. David Harris, ILB: $7,500,000
  9. Breno Giacomini, T: $5,625,000
  10. Marcus Gilchrist, S: $5,625,000
  11. James Carpenter, G: $5,575,000
  12. Leonard Williams, DE: $4,234,288
  13. Dee Milliner, CB: $4,028,532
  14. Nick Folk, K: $3,343,333
  15. Sheldon Richardson, DE: $3,199,000

Notable coaching/front office moves:




Last offseason, the Jets overhauled their front office and made sweeping changes on the sidelines. After some bad decisions by John Idzik and a few disappointing performances that weren’t necessarily Rex Ryan‘s fault, both men were shown the door in favor of new GM Mike Maccagnan and head coach Todd Bowles.

The Jets raised eyebrows when they fired the defensive-minded Ryan only to replace him with another defensive coach in Bowles. The 51-year-old became the Jets’ sixth straight head coach with a defensive background, following in the footsteps of Ryan, Eric Mangini, Herm Edwards, Al Groh, and Bill Parcells. That may seem like an exceptionally long time to emphasize defense, but one can hardly blame Gang Green for being wary of going back to an offensive-minded HC after two dreadful years with Rich Kotite.

Ryan’s exit was supposed to mean less fodder for the New York tabloids to run with, but that wasn’t the case after presumptive starting quarterback Geno Smith got into a skirmish with defensive end IK Enemkpali. Smith’s wired-shut jaw opened the door for Ryan Fitzpatrick, who wound up having a stellar season under center. After an up-and-down start to the year, the Jets found themselves at 5-5 heading into Week 11. From there, Gang Green went on a tear, taking out the Dolphins, Giants, Titans, Cowboys, and Patriots. Unfortunately, they succumbed to the Bills in the season finale and failed to earn a postseason berth, but the Jets showed plenty of promise in 2015.

What can the Jets do to get over the hump this year? Let’s take a look:

Key Free Agents:Ryan Fitzpatrick (Vertical)

The Jets’ list of noteworthy free agents begins with journeyman quarterback turned surprise MVP candidate Ryan Fitzpatrick. In his first season in New York, Fitzpatrick had the best performance of his career, passing for nearly 4,000 yards and 31 touchdowns against just 15 interceptions. After earning just $3.25MM last season, the 11-year veteran should be in line for a healthy raise, and could garner roughly $10MM per season. For months now, there has been an expectation that the Jets and Fitzpatrick would strike a deal before he becomes an unrestricted free agent, but with the new league year right around the corner, the two sides have yet to reach an agreement.

If Fitzpatrick is not signed by the start of free agency, he’ll be one of the most popular offensive free agents available. That’s a far cry from where the 33-year-old’s value was this time last year — at that time, the Jets brought Fitzpatrick aboard as a Plan B in case Geno Smith couldn’t cut it under center. As it turns out, Smith never got his chance to shine due to circumstances out of his control.

Although Fitzpatrick looks like a hot commodity, his value is still difficult to pin down. On one hand, Fitzpatrick guided the Jets offense extremely well in 2015 and talent at the quarterback position is scarce. On the other hand, some would argue Fitzpatrick represents a decent transitional option at best, and pessimists could point to his solid campaign as a fluke. For the Jets, the bottom line is this: Fitzpatrick is the best option they have and they simply can’t afford to let him go. A two-year deal with a $16-$18MM value would be ideal for Gang Green, but the club may have to go a little higher than that to retain its starting QB.

The Jets and Muhammad Wilkerson have been butting heads over a new contract for ages and while there’s no long-term resolution on that situation yet, that resolution appears likely to come at some point this year. Gang Green has applied the non-exclusive franchise tag, worth $15.7MM, to Wilkerson, ensuring that he won’t become an unrestricted free agent.

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. While Wilkerson’s performance showed he was worthy of the franchise tag, the Jets have two other talented defensive ends on their roster, in Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams, so carrying Wilkerson with a $15MM+ cap number is something of a luxury.

Although Wilkerson is technically still a free agent who has the ability to sign an offer sheet with another team, it’s unlikely that any club will give up two first-round picks to sign him away from the Jets. It’s more likely that an interested suitor would approach New York about a potential trade, which would allow that club to potentially land Wilkerson for less compensation, while still giving the Jets something in return for letting him go. Wilkerson’s situation will be worth keeping a close eye on this offseason, since there’s some skepticism that he, Richardson, and Williams are all in the Jets’ long-term plans.

Damon Harrison (vertical)Of course, Wilkerson isn’t the only standout Jets defensive lineman eligible for free agency this winter, and the D-line could become even more crowded if the club re-signs Damon Harrison. “Snacks” is a tremendous run-stopping defensive tackle, and interest in a new deal appears to be mutual.

For the last few years, the advanced metrics at Pro Football Focus have been very high on the 27-year-old’s work. In 2015, Pro Football Focus (sub. req’d) gave Harrison a 91.9 overall grade, placing him as the seventh-best interior defensive lineman in the NFL. Harrison played in only half of Gang Green’s snaps, but he is incredibly vital to the Jets’ 3-4 front and could get big bucks from another club looking for a tough, physical nose tackle. As a result, the Jets’ best chance to retain Harrison might be to work out a long-term deal prior to the start of free agency.

Running back will be a key position for the Jets as the free agent period approaches, since three of the team’s backs – Chris Ivory, Bilal Powell, and Stevan Ridley – will be eligible to become unrestricted free agents. Out of that trio, Ivory has been the most productive, earning his first Pro Bowl nod in 2015 after he ran for 1,070 yards and seven touchdowns.

However, that performance may have lined up Ivory for a contract worth a little more than the Jets are willing to spend. While Ivory may return, Powell looks like the most probable candidate to re-sign with the team — Gang Green probably won’t want to pencil him in as the No. 1 back on the depth chart heading into 2016, but he has averaged a solid 4.0 yards per carry over the course of his career, and has displayed an ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, racking up a career-high 47 receptions in 2015. If the price is right, Powell could return as a third-down back who occasionally gets early-down work as well.

For the last five years, outside linebacker Calvin Pace has been a staple of the Jets’ linebacking core. However, this may be the offseason where it all comes to an end for the Ryan-era holdover. In 2015, Pace appeared in all 16 games for Gang Green but saw his numbers drop across the board, and his 21 tackles and three sacks pale in comparison to his best work in previous seasons. Considering he’ll turn 36 later this year though, the odds are against a strong bounce-back season for Pace in 2016, and if the Jets do bring him back, it’s unlikely to be in a starting role.

Demario Davis is another linebacker whose days as a Jets starter appear numbered. Davis saw the majority of the inside linebacker snaps alongside David Harris in New York last season, but he’s not the kind of standout defender that the club should rely on going forward. A recent report suggested that the Jets would likely let Davis reach the open market, where he’ll probably land an offer worth more than what New York is willing to put on the table.

While Davis may not be in the Jets’ plans, the team could bring back another free agent inside linebacker, Erin Henderson. After missing the 2014 season due to off-field issues, Henderson wasn’t a real contributor on defense for the Jets until late in the 2015 campaign, but he was solid down the stretch, and if the club can bring re-sign him to an inexpensive, short-term deal, he should make good on the investment.

Safety Antonio Allen and defensive linemen Stephen Bowen and Leger Douzable are among the other Jets part-time defenders who could depart this offseason in free agency. None of those players would be bad signings on minimum-salary contracts, but the Jets probably won’t spend much more than that to retain any of them, since they’re unlikely to be relied upon for major roles going forward.

The same could perhaps be said for veteran guard Willie Colon and tight end Kellen Davis on the offensive side of the ball. Colon has started 38 games for the Jets in his three seasons with the team, but injuries limited him to just six contests in 2015, and he’s nearing his mid-30s, so he shouldn’t be counted on as more than a depth piece. As for Davis, he saw a surprising amount of snaps for the Jets last season, but he was primarily used as a blocker, catching just three balls. We’ll see if the team liked him enough to re-sign him with Jace Amaro set to return from a season-ending injury.

Finally, the Jets will likely retain at least two of their restricted free agents, who have proven to be solid contributors. Punter Ryan Quigley figures to be tendered at the lowest rate, and the fact that the RFA tender is non-guaranteed could allow the Jets to bring in some competition for him if they so choose. Wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins could also get a tender offer after grabbing 17 balls in his seven games with the Jets last season. Tight end Zach Sudfeld is a longer shot to be tendered after missing the 2015 season due to a torn ACL.

Possible Cap Casualties:Jeremy Kerley

Just a few months before he lost his job, former Jets GM John Idzik made one of his more questionable roster moves, signing wide receiver Jeremy Kerley to a four-year, $16MM contract which included more than $5MM in guaranteed money. The timing of the extension, which was consummated in October 2014, was a little unusual, since the Jets had just acquired Percy Harvin in a mid-season trade and Idzik’s job was hanging in the balance.

A year and a half later, that extension looks even worse. Kerley has caught just 32 balls in 25 games since putting pen to paper, and now that he has no more guaranteed base salaries, it may be time for the Jets to cut him loose. Releasing Kerley would create just $1.3MM in cap savings, since he still has a total of $1.8MM in dead money on the contract, but if he’s not in the team’s plans, it makes sense to pull the trigger sooner rather than later.

The same can be said of tight end Jeff Cumberland, whose role was significantly reduced under the Jets’ new regime last season. After recording between 23 and 29 receptions in each season from 2012 to 2014, Cumberland caught only five passes on 14 targets in 2015. The Jets can clear the tight end’s entire $1.9MM cap charge from their books by cutting him, so it would be a surprise if they didn’t make that move.

On the offensive line, tackles D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Breno Giacomini have a combined cap hit of nearly $20MM, with Ferguson’s $14.107MM charge making up the majority of that total. The Jets could save almost $13.5MM by cutting both players, but I won’t be shocked if the club keeps both players around. Having said that, Maccagnan probably has enough leverage to ask Ferguson and/or Giacomini to take pay cuts if the team is unhappy with their performances. In Ferguson’s case, in particular, the Jets could create a few million dollars in cap savings without cutting significantly into the veteran’s potential 2016 earnings.

On a smaller scale, kicker Nick Folk is a candidate to have his deal reworked. A quad injury ended Folk’s season prematurely, and while it’s probably not the sort of injury that will have an impact on his 2016 performance, he’s on track for a cap hit of $3.343MM. If the Jets feel like that figure is too high, the team could encourage him to revisit his contract or risk having to battle for his job in training camp.

Positions Of Need:

The Jets will, obviously, have a major hole to fill at quarterback if they can’t work something out with pending free agent Ryan Fitzpatrick. But it would be a huge surprise if the two sides don’t agree to a deal, so we can assume for the time being that the Jets will be set at QB.

The same can’t be said at running back though, where No. 1 option Chris Ivory could walk in free agency. If the Jets can re-sign Bilal Powell, he and Zac Stacy look like good second and third options on the depth chart, but the club wouldn’t have a workhorse to lean on.

Assuming Ivory does leave, it’s likely a signal that the Jets won’t spend big on the position, which would rule out free agents like Doug Martin and Lamar Miller. Using a mid-round draft pick on a running back would make some sense, but it’s possible the Jets will want to devote those picks to adding depth on the offensive line or on defense, so it will be interesting to see how the team addresses the RB position.

One potential wild card? If the Texans release Arian Foster, keep in mind that Jets GM Mike Maccagnan worked in Houston’s front office for 15 years, and was the club’s coordinator of college scouting when Foster was drafted. The veteran running back likely wouldn’t break the bank if teams are scared off by his injury history.

Another potential target worth considering is Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott. I don’t know that spending a first-round pick on a running back is the best use of the Jets’ resources, but if the team hasn’t addressed the position by that point in the offseason, and Elliott is still on the board at No. 20, it’s certainly worth considering, since he has the talent to be a difference-maker on offense.

In Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, the Jets have two reliable pass-catchers, and Jace Amaro‘s return should give the team a viable third option. If Jeremy Kerley and Jeff Cumberland are cut, and Kellen Davis departs in free agency, adding a slot receiver or a second tight end could become priorities for the team. Still, there are some promising in-house options to replace Kerley, including Quincy Enunwa and Kenbrell Thompkins, and tight end isn’t a spot where the Jets figure to devote significant resources. Cumberland and Davis, the team’s top two TEs in 2015, combined for just eight receptions, as Fitzpatrick looked elsewhere on most of his drop-backs.

Outside of running back then, the Jets’ top priority on offense will be on the line, where D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold are getting older, and Breno Giacomini and Brian Winters are question marks. Guard James Carpenter had a nice season in 2015, but he looks like the only starter the Jets can realistically rely on for the next few seasons. Pro Football Focus ranked the Jets’ line as the NFL’s 26th-best in 2015, so an influx of both talent and youth up front would be a boon for the franchise.

Addressing the offensive line in the draft makes sense for the Jets, but it may be tricky to find a good value in the first round, at No. 20. The team can’t count on a tackle like Ronnie Stanley or Jack Conklin to slip that far, and it may be a little high to take an interior lineman. If the Jets can land a first-round pick in a trade involving Muhammad Wilkerson, their draft prospects change, but that’s probably a long shot. For now, it may make more sense for the team to explore second-tier free agents and eventually spend a couple Day 2 or 3 picks on linemen. New York may not find a star with that approach, but adding solid depth and creating competition is important, especially in the event that the club’s incumbent options struggle or go down with injuries.

If the Jets target interior linemen on the open market, there are a couple good options in Houston that Maccagnan is very familiar with — guard Brandon Brooks and center Ben Jones are among the most promising free agents at their respective positions, and each player is just 27 years old this year. At tackle, I don’t expect the Jets to make a big splash for a top-tier free agent, but perhaps the team goes after someone like Bobby Massie, Bradley Sowell, or Don Barclay. All three of those players have starting experience, are still in their 20s, and have a connection to either Jets head coach Todd Bowles or offensive line coach Steve Marshall.

On the defensive side of the ball, the line shouldn’t be an issue unless Wilkerson is traded and Damon Harrison signs elsewhere. In Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams, the team still has two foundational pieces up front, but if the club has to replace Harrison with a lesser nose tackle and decides to move Wilkerson, it’s not nearly as strong a group.

Still, while the Jets’ approach to the defensive line will hinge on whether or not certain players return, the linebacker position should be a priority even if all of the club’s free agents return (which is unlikely). David Harris isn’t going anywhere at inside linebacker, and Lorenzo Mauldin flashed enough promise at outside linebacker in his rookie season that he should have a major role there going forward, but the team could use another starter at both spots, even if Erin Henderson and Calvin Pace re-sign.

Once again, the No. 20 overall pick figures to provide some intriguing options if the Jets opt for a linebacker. There’s a chance that that inside linebacker Reggie Ragland and outside linebackers Leonard Floyd and Darron Lee could be on the board when the Jets are on the clock in the first round, and each of those prospects would look good in green.

I imagine the team will target a player who can contribute immediately, but depending on just how scary his medical records look, Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith – who was in the running for the No. 1 pick before he suffered a major knee injury – will be awfully intriguing. With the draft still nearly two months away, it’s hard to know how far Smith will fall due to his knee and ankle issues. At this point, it still seems plausible that he could be off the board by the time the Jets pick in the first round, or that he could still available for New York in round two or three.

Given the Jets’ willingness to continue leaning on a player like Pace well into his mid-30s, I wonder if the team might be open to targeting free agent linebackers who are on the wrong side of 30. The Chiefs have a couple interesting candidates in OLB Tamba Hali and ILB Derrick Johnson, who are 32 and 33, respectively. And recently-released inside linebackers DeMeco Ryans and James Laurinaitis could be good fits in New York. If the Jets prefer someone a little younger and don’t want to shop in the premium section for a player like Bruce Irvin or Danny Trevathan, then I could see the team kicking the tires on free agents like O’Brien Schofield, Rolando McClain, Shea McClellin, and Sam Acho.

In the secondary, the safety position looks fairly stable, with Marcus Gilchrist and Calvin Pryor capable of starting, and Dion Bailey perhaps set to take on an increased role as the third man on the depth chart. However, with Antonio Cromartie no longer in the mix, the cornerback position will probably need to be addressed.

The Jets figure to give cornerbacks like Marcus Williams, Buster Skrine, and Dee Milliner the opportunity to compete for significant playing time, but it’s a little risky to rely on any of those players as a full-time starter opposite Darrelle Revis. There’s plenty of cornerback depth on the free agent market this winter, so even if the Jets prefer not to splurge on a top-tier option like Janoris Jenkins, Sean Smith, or Prince Amukamara, they should be able to add a steady veteran. Leon Hall, Patrick Robinson, William Gay, and Kyle Wilson are among the players that could fit that bill.

On special teams, the Jets’ outlook remains somewhat uncertain, with punter Ryan Quigley facing restricted free agency and kicker Nick Folk carrying a high cap number. Both players could very well be back, but it wouldn’t cost much to bring in some camp competition at both positions.

Sheldon Richardson (vertical)Extension Candidates/Contract Issues:

Having franchised Muhammad Wilkerson, the Jets will now have until July 15th to work out a multiyear deal with him. Ultimately, the odds of the Jets figuring something out with Wilkerson could hinge on how high the team is in Sheldon Richardson, who is also a candidate for a new deal. It seems extremely unlikely that New York will invest heavily in both players, whose skill sets overlap too much to give them both $100MM contracts.

All indications are that the Jets prefer Richardson’s on-field potential to Wilkerson’s over the long term, but Richardson’s off-field troubles complicate the issue. Further run-ins with the law and/or violations of NFL policies could result in serious discipline for Richardson, who missed four games last season due to a substance-abuse suspension. The Jets will have to be awfully confident those problems are behind him if they’re going to sign him to a mega-deal.

Considering the club holds a fifth-year option on Richardson for the 2017 season, it wouldn’t be surprise if Maccagnan and company put off extension talks for both defensive ends for a little while longer, reassessing the situation after the 2016 season. If Richardson is a model citizen between now and then, the Jets could more comfortably choose to extend him rather than Wilkerson.

Meanwhile, depending on how heavily the Jets choose to be involved in free agency, the team may need to restructure a few contracts to create some cap flexibility. If possible, New York should avoid adjusting Darrelle Revis‘ deal, since pushing more dead money onto the later years of that pact will make it an albatross, particularly if his performance continues to decline (he was good, but not great, during his first year back with the Jets).

Brandon Marshall, Nick Mangold, and David Harris look like more logical candidates for restructures, if the club goes in that direction. Their cap hits range from $7.5MM to $9.5MM, and none of their contracts feature any dead prorated bonus money, meaning the future ramifications of a restructure would be minimal.

Overall Outlook:

The Jets had a strong first season under new general manager Mike Maccagnan and head coach Todd Bowles, and two big offseason additions played a big role in that success — acquiring quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and wide receiver Brandon Marshall only cost the Jets two late-round draft picks, and the two veterans were arguably the team’s best offensive players, making a more substantial impact than the team’s higher-profile free agent signings.

With so many players facing free agency this offseason, and without a huge amount of cap flexibility to retain them all, Maccagnan may have to strike gold with a couple roster moves once again this winter. The Jets can’t afford to go on another spending spree in free agency, and the team has the lowest draft pick of any non-playoff club, so adding premium talent will be tricky. In his first offseason, Maccagnan took advantage of the copious amount of cap room John Idzik left behind, but the GM’s second winter in New York will provide greater challenges, and it will be fascinating to see how he tackles them.

Zach Links contributed to this post.

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

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:




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.

Offseason Outlook: Seattle Seahawks

Pending free agents:

Top 15 cap hits for 2016:

  1. Russell Wilson, QB: $18,542,000
  2. Richard Sherman, CB: $14,769,000
  3. Marshawn Lynch, RB: $11,500,000 (will reduce to $5MM if/when retirement becomes official)
  4. Earl Thomas, S: $9,900,000
  5. Jimmy Graham, TE: $9,000,000
  6. Michael Bennett, DE: $7,000,000
  7. Cliff Avril, DE: $6,500,000
  8. K.J. Wright, OLB: $6,250,000
  9. Kam Chancellor, S: $6,100,000
  10. Bobby Wagner, ILB: $6,068,750
  11. Doug Baldwin, WR: $5,600,000
  12. Steven Hauschka, K: $3,525,000
  13. Cary Williams, CB: $2,333,334 (dead money)
  14. Luke Willson, TE: $1,691,633
  15. Paul Richardson, WR: $1,285,319

Notable coaching/front office moves:

  • No major changes.




The 2015-16 campaign represented a step back in bottom-line results for the Seahawks, who won the fewest regular-season games of the four-year Russell Wilson era (10) and were unable to extend their streak of consecutive Super Bowl appearances to three.

Still, the Seahawks clinched a wild-card berth and made the playoffs for the fourth straight time — an accomplishment only four other clubs have matched during the same span. They also racked up top-five finishes in total offense, defense and point differential, and ranked first in Football Outsiders’ regular-season DVOA metric. Add all of that up, and it doesn’t look as if the Seahawks’ championship window closed when the NFC-winning Panthers ended their season in the divisional round.

On the other hand, the window apparently has closed on the 10-year career of running back Marshawn Lynch, one of the best, most "<strongiconic players in Seahawks history. Lynch and his agent have both made it known that he’s retiring, and general manager John Schneider spoke in the past tense about “Beast Mode” on Wednesday (link via The Seattle Times’ Bob Condotta).

“When you talk about when we got here (in 2010) it was all about establishing this toughness, this bully mentality with our acquisition, and he really helped us do that — on the defensive side of the ball, too — it wasn’t just about how he ran the football,” Schneider said.

Originally acquired from Buffalo for pennies on the dollar (two late-round draft picks), Lynch made four Pro Bowls in Seattle and was the driving force behind its offense for most of his five-plus-year career there. In each of his four 16-game seasons as a Seahawk, Lynch finished with at least 280 carries, 1,200 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. The 29-year-old went out with a whimper, though, as injuries limited him to career lows in games (seven), carries (111), ground yards (417) and per-rush average (3.8) last season.

In hindsight, it’s possible Lynch’s anticlimactic going-out party was a blessing in disguise for the Seahawks, who are now accustomed to life without him and may have found an excellent successor in Thomas Rawls. As a rookie last season, the undrafted free agent from Central Michigan burst on the scene with 830 rushing yards on a sterling 5.6 YPC average. However, Rawls succumbed to a fractured ankle in December and Schneider indicated Wednesday that the soon-to-be 23-year-old will have to earn a starting job in 2016.

“He definitely has the talent to do it,” said Schneider. “But we’re going to get a couple of people in there to compete with him.”

Running back is one of several positions Schneider will focus on this offseason as he tries to improve the already formidable Seahawks. And once Lynch is officially in the club’s rear-view mirror, Schneider will have an extra $6.5MM with which to work.

Key Free Agents:

The Seahawks are chock-full of unsigned players (31), but 14 of those individuals are either exclusive rights free agents or restricted free agents. That means the team isn’t necessarily in danger of losing any of them (the ERFAs will automatically stay under team control if they’re tendered an offer). However, the same isn’t true in regards to the Seahawks’ pending unrestricted free agents, several of whom have played important roles for the club in recent years and could be weeks from finding new homes. Left tackle Russell Okung and linebacker Bruce Irvin are the most integral of the bunch.

Since the Seahawks drafted him sixth overall in 2010, Okung has started in all 72 of his career regular-season appearances and earned a Pro Bowl berth (2012). The problem is that injuries have caused the 28-year-old to miss a quarter (24) of 96 possible contests. He also hasn’t played a full 16-game season and is currently on the mend from recent left shoulder surgery. Okung has been effective when healthy, though, and is aiming to cash in as one of the top tackles in this year’s free agent class.

Okung, who is acting as his own agent, called staying in Seattle “very possible” earlier this week, but he added, “I know my value, and I’m not going to settle for anything less than that.” As neither an elite tackle nor a durable one, Okung probably isn’t in line for the $13.706MM franchise tag. That means a multiyear deal is likely the only way for Seattle to keep Okung, whose next contract shouldn’t greatly exceed his expiring one.

Okung entered the league before the rookie cap was in place and signed for $48.5MM total, netting just over $8MM per year. Those marks currently rank seventh and 11th, respectively, among left tackles. A reasonable benchmark for Okung’s next accord could be the five-year agreement Branden Albert inked with the Dolphins as a free agent in 2014. Albert is now a top-10 left tackle in total value ($47MM, eighth), yearly value ($9.4MM, ninth) and guaranteed money ($20MM, seventh). Of course, with the cap having risen more than $22MM since Albert signed, there’s a chance Okung will surpass those marks.

Irvin, meanwhile, is only scheduled for free agency because the Seahawks chose last spring to decline his fifth-year option for 2016. Had they exercised it, Irvin would have made $7.8MM this year. The Seahawks’ decision initially upset Irvin, who went on a Twitter tirade, though head coach Pete Carroll‘s response was, “We expect him to be here for a long time and we will work to get that done” (link via Sheil Kapadia of

Despite Carroll’s confidence then and Irvin’s declaration in January that he’d be amenable to a hometown discount, there hasn’t been any known progress toward a new deal. Assuming the Seahawks don’t franchise Irvin at $14.129MM, he could find as much as $10MM annually on the market, as Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk reported earlier this month. For his part, Schneider seems resigned to the departure of Irvin, who has recorded 22 sacks in four years since Seattle selected him 15th overall in 2012.

“I love Bruce… but it really, truly is a big puzzle that we have to work through,” Schneider said last week (per Kapadia). “And I’ve met with Bruce individually. He knows how we feel about him as an organization. He knows that we’re either going to be able to make it work or we’re just going to give him a big hug and congratulate him.”

In addition to Irvin, the Seahawks’ front seven is in danger of losing defensive tackles Brandon Mebane and Ahtyba Rubin, who finished third and fourth, respectively, among the team’s D-linemen in snaps last season. The two also started in all of their appearances (16 for Rubin, 15 for Mebane), but neither garnered much praise from Pro Football Focus – the site graded Mebane 70th and Rubin 80th among 123 qualifying D-linemen. It’s worth nothing, however, that the pair played mostly run snaps and the Seahawks’ defense surrendered the fewest rushing yards in the league.

If the Seahawks don’t re-sign Mebane, it would end his tenure with the team after nine years. The 2007 third-round pick is coming off a five-year, $25MM deal, but he’s highly unlikely to approach either of those numbers on his next contract as he enters his age-31 season. Rubin, on the other hand, signed with Seattle for $2.5MM last winter after seven years in Cleveland. Another short-term deal in that price range could keep the soon-to-be 30-year-old in Seattle.Jeremy Lane

The Seahawks’ only other noteworthy UFA defender is cornerback Jeremy Lane, who sat out the club’s first 10 games last season after breaking his arm and tearing his ACL on a Super Bowl XLIX interception. Lane also missed nine games in 2014 and has accumulated a mere six starts in four years. Still, he recorded the first two regular-season INTs of his career and ranked 51st out of 111 qualifying corners at PFF last year, and will be a strong candidate to start opposite Richard Sherman if he stays with the Seahawks. Lane, 25, is hoping to do exactly that.

“If the situation was right, I would love to go back to the Seahawks,” he told SiriusXM earlier this month (link via Stephen Cohen of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer). “They were the team to give me my first opportunity to showcase my skills in the NFL, and I appreciate them. They would be my No. 1 choice I would go to if they were the right choice for me and my family.”

On the other side of the ball, receiver Jermaine Kearse could finally exit his native Evergreen State, in which he played college football (University of Washington) and has spent the first four years of his pro career. Kearse — whom the Seahawks signed as an undrafted free agent in 2012 — has increased his production each year, notching personal bests in catches (49), targets (68), yards (685) and touchdowns (five) last season. Kearse indicated in January that his top priority is securing his family’s financial future, not settling for a hometown discount. With that in mind, Kearse might be able take advantage of a thin pool of free agent wideouts and ultimately price himself out of Seattle. It’s quite possible he’ll land a deal in the neighborhood of $4MM to $5MM a year.

Like Kearse, right guard J.R. Sweezy became a Seahawk in 2012 (as a seventh-round pick) and is now inching closer to hitting the open market. Sweezy has appeared in and started 45 games over the last three years, including 15 last season. Although PFF wasn’t impressed with Sweezy’s contract-year performance, ranking him 66th out of 81 qualifying guards, Rand Getlin of NFL Network tweeted earlier this month that there’s “plenty of buzz” around Sweezy as free agency nears. Sweezy could use the four-year, $19MM deal that ex-Seahawks guard James Carpenter got in free agency from the Jets last year as a yardstick, according to CBS Sports’ Joel Corry.

The rest of the Seahawks’ free agents are role players and/or RFAs, including center Patrick Lewis, backup quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, offensive lineman Alvin Bailey, reserve running backs Christine Michael and Fred Jackson, fullback Derrick Coleman, linebacker Mike Morgan and punter Jon Ryan.

As RFAs, Lewis, Bailey and Michael seem the likeliest to stay in Seattle. Lewis, who took the center job from Drew Nowak midway through last season and ultimately started in all nine of his appearances, is presumably in the Seahawks’ plans going forward.

Bailey appeared to expressed frustration with his situation in October, but with Okung and Sweezy possibly on the outs, odds are the team will tender him a contract.

Carroll said in January he’d like for the Seahawks to bring back Michael, whom they traded to Dallas last September and then signed late in the season after the Cowboys waived him. In his second stint as a Seahawk, Michael averaged 4.9 yards per carry on 39 attempts. Given Michael’s familiarity with the Seahawks’ offense and his solid performance with the club in 17 career games, it would make sense for them to tender the 25-year-old and give him an opportunity to keep his job behind Rawls.

Tarvaris Jackson, 32, has spent most of the last half-decade with the Seahawks, but he’ll test the market, per Jessamyn McIntyre of 710 ESPN Seattle (Twitter link).

It will be a surprise if the Seahawks re-sign Fred Jackson, the oldest running back in the league (35), after he amassed only 26 carries in 16 games last season. Jackson does want to continue his career, though, according to Ian Rapoport of (Twitter link).

Coleman, who’s restricted, isn’t a lock to get a tender considering the legal issues he’s facing stemming from an October car accident. Coleman mostly played on special teams last season, as did Morgan – who was third on the team in ST snaps (284). Morgan is unrestricted, but he shouldn’t be difficult to retain if the Seahawks want him back.

Ryan, the Seahawks’ punter since 2008, has been mediocre to below average in yards per punt and net average in recent years, so that’s a position the club could try to upgrade.

Possible Cap Casualties:

Unless Lynch has a change of heart on his retirement, the Seahawks are devoid of players they’re likely to release for cap reasons. If Lynch does a 180 and decides to keep playing, the Seahawks might not be receptive to keeping him. As mentioned earlier, they’ll open up $6.5MM without Lynch in the picture. If they were to designate him a post- June 1 cut, they’d save $9MM.Jimmy Graham

Releasing three-time Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham would also clear $9MM, whether before or after June 1, but Schneider has no intention of doing it.

“No, I don’t, I really don’t,” he told 950 KJR-AM in January (per Kapadia). “I understand why people would say that based on the salary and what some people have … people on the outside may perceive as a lack of production. But really, truly, the guy is a special player. We gave up a No. 1 draft choice for him.”

In addition to sending a first-rounder to the Saints for Graham last winter, the Seahawks also parted with center Max Unger. Graham then had an underwhelming season in Seattle, catching 48 passes and two touchdowns in 11 games, before suffering a torn patellar tendon in November. The 29-year-old is currently recovering from the injury, and Schneider is encouraged by his progress.

“Jimmy is doing great,” Schneider said last Wednesday. “He’s down in Miami working with some people down there, and he’s doing great. He’s got a great attitude about it. Obviously it was a devastating injury for us at the time, but he’s a great guy, got a great attitude about it, and he’s ready to get after it.’”

Positions Of Need:

Even with Okung and Sweezy in their lineup for the lion’s share of last season, the Seahawks’ offensive line still had major pass-blocking issues for a good portion of the campaign. The unit surrendered the sixth-most sacks in the league (46) and ranked 30th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate metric. Those numbers are somewhat deceiving overall, though, as the group fared well during the second half of the season. Amid their 6-2 post-bye week run, the Seahawks gave up a paltry 13 sacks. Still, with Okung and Sweezy facing uncertain futures, Seattle might have to find two new O-line starters (including an all-important left tackle), and that’s assuming Lewis, left guard Justin Britt and right tackle Garry Gilliam stay in place.

If Okung walks and the Seahawks are willing to spend to replace him, a couple of high-end free agent possibilities are the Raiders’ Donald Penn and the Ravens’ Kelechi Osemele.

Unlike Okung, Penn has been the picture of durability throughout his career, having missed zero games in his nine years in the league. He has also started 16 games in eight straight seasons (as mentioned earlier, Okung has never done that). Both Penn’s reliability and performance (he was PFF’s No. 11 tackle last season, 20 spots above Okung) should lead him to an appreciable raise over the $4.8MM per year he made on his prior deal. Penn is much older than Okung (33 compared to 28), which means he’s unlikely to get more than a two- or three-year commitment. That could appeal to the Seahawks.

Osemele doesn’t have Penn’s track record as a left tackle, having moved there from guard last season, but he’s on the cusp of a substantial payday. We learned earlier this week that the Ravens have been “aggressive” in their attempt to retain Osemele, whom they could offer more than $10MM per season. Osemele is two years younger than Okung, which is a plus, but he has gone three seasons in a row without playing all 16 games.

In the event the Seahawks would rather fill the left tackle spot by less expensive means, Jermon Bushrod – who has made 96 starts since 2009 – is on the market after the Bears released him a couple weeks ago. Bushrod wouldn’t cost the Seahawks much, but he comes with obvious warts. The 31-year-old battled injuries last season and made only four starts – his fewest since 2008 – and Chicago cut him with a failed physical designation. He has since undergone shoulder surgery and is facing a four-month recovery. Okung aside, Schneider hasn’t been one to funnel huge money into the O-line, so it’s not totally far-fetched that he’d take a chance on Bushrod as a cheap stopgap. Of course, Bushrod would first have to get a clean bill of health.

Guard features far more viable options than left tackle when it comes to prospective free agents, and the Seahawks should be able to find a competent one without breaking the bank. At the moment, Richie Incognito (Bills), Ramon Foster (Steelers), Alex Boone (49ers), Jeff Allen (Chiefs), Brandon Brooks (Texans), Mike Harris (Vikings), Chris Chester (Falcons) and Evan Mathis (Broncos), whom the Seahawks visited with last summer but chose not to sign, are all without deals.

If the Seahawks want to use their first-round pick (26th overall) on an offensive lineman, the likes of Taylor Decker (tackle, Ohio State), Shon Coleman (tackle, Auburn) and Cody Whitehair (guard, Kansas State) could be available.

The Seahawks have other holes to fill offensively, but they’re less pressing. As noted above, Schneider will try to augment the team’s running back group. Free agent Joique Bell — who should come at a bargain rate — would add a pass-catching element to the Seahawks’ backfield, which Rawls didn’t provide last season. Speaking of catching passes, with Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett in the fold, the Seahawks are well-equipped to move on without Kearse next season. They’re likely to fill Kearse’s soon-to-be vacated spot by drafting a wideout in the fourth round or higher, according to Kapadia.

With Irvin poised to go someplace else, not to mention the cloudy statuses of Mebane and Rubin, the Seahawks must address their defensive front seven. The team doesn’t necessarily have to bring in a linebacker to fill Irvin’s pass-rushing void, though. End Chris Long — whom the Rams released this month — is a possible fit in that regard, per Kapadia. However, the eight-year veteran isn’t the imposing force he was in his earlier days, having totaled just four sacks over the previous two years while battling injuries. Moreover, PFF gave him an especially poor grade last season (98th out of 110 qualifying edge defenders).

The Seahawks were in the Greg Hardy sweepstakes last offseason, but they backed out after weighing the defensive end’s price tag and his poor off-field conduct (link via Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk). While Hardy’s history of unbecoming off-field behavior hasn’t changed, if he’s cheaper as a free agent this offseason, perhaps the Seahawks will revisit the idea of adding a player with 32 sacks in his last 43 games to help make up for Irvin’s loss. With Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Hardy, the Seahawks would have a frightening trio of edge rushers.

Seattle was also connected to run-stuffing defensive tackle Terrance Knighton last year before he went to Washington for $4MM. Knighton is set to hit the market again next month, and with Mebane and Rubin unsigned, the Seahawks might circle back to Pot Roast as a short-term solution. Nick Fairley (Rams), Ian Williams (49ers), Akiem Hicks (Patriots) and the Saints’ Kevin Williams (a Seahawk in 2014) are some of the other accomplished DTs who are without contracts.

The Seahawks could also use their first-rounder to add to their front seven, and it so happens that the draft is flush with talent in that area. Leonard Floyd (edge rusher, Georgia), Robert Nkemdiche (DT, Ole Miss), A’Shawn Robinson (DT, Alabama), Shaq Lawson (DE, Clemson) and Sheldon Rankins (DT, Louisville) all seem like candidates to end up in a Seahawks uniform.

Shifting to the secondary, Seattle will have to address the cornerback position if Lane signs elsewhere. The Saints plan to cut veteran Brandon Browner, who played in Seattle from 2011-13. Though Browner was awful last season in New Orleans, he had some solid seasons with the Seahawks – whose defense he’s keenly familiar with – and shouldn’t come at a lofty price. The 6-foot-4, 221-pounder even said last summer that he wanted to return to Seattle eventually. Of course, that doesn’t mean the team feels the same way. If the Seahawks would rather sign an established player who isn’t coming off a poor season, Adam Jones (Bengals), Leon Hall (Bengals), William Gay (Steelers) and Patrick Robinson (Chargers) are a few of the many corners primed for free agency.

Extension Candidates/Contract Issues:

Two of the Seahawks’ most valuable defenders, aforementioned end Michael Bennett and safety Kam Chancellor, haven’t hidden their "<strongdissatisfaction with their current contracts — both of which expire after the 2017 campaign. The Seahawks are now discussing a new deal with Bennett, so it looks as though they’re on the road to appeasing him.

Bennett, who recently switched agencies from Rosenahus Sports to Relativity Sports, has accrued 25.5 sacks since joining the Seahawks in 2013. A career-high 10 of those sacks came last season, when he graded out as a top-five edge defender at PFF. While Bennett isn’t exactly playing for the league minimum, ranking 12th at his position in both total value ($28.5MM) and yearly average (~$7.13MM), and 15th in guarantees ($10MM), he has outperformed his contract. If the Seahawks award Bennett a raise, a pact worth upward of $10MM per year could be in the offing. That would put him in the elite tier of 4-3 ends in terms of compensation.

Chancellor took a less diplomatic approach than Bennett last year when he skipped all of training camp, the preseason, and then the first two games of the regular season in hopes of earning a raise. That method backfired, though, as the Seahawks didn’t budge and Chancellor eventually admitted defeat (temporarily, anyway). Chancellor’s failed power move cost him upward of $2.1MM thanks to fines, signing-bonus forfeiture and lost salary.

Chancellor, a top-10 safety in total worth (~$28MM) and per-year value (~$7MM), was seeking at least $9MM annually during his holdout. The soon-to-be 28-year-old isn’t suddenly content with his situation, notes Corry, who expects the four-time Pro Bowler to monitor what fellow safety Eric Berry signs for in the coming weeks. Earl Thomas, Chancellor’s teammate, is the league’s highest-paid safety on a yearly basis at $10MM – a number Berry has a realistic chance to top, and one Chancellor wants to approach.

While Bennett and Chancellor are still under Seahawks control for two more seasons, wideout Doug Baldwin and kicker Steven Hauschka are heading into contract years. Thus, the Seahawks could explore extensions for either or both of them in the coming months.

Baldwin was a quality target for the first four years of his career, averaging 49 receptions for 689 yards and roughly four touchdowns per campaign from 2011-14, but he experienced a significant breakout last season. The 5-10, 189-pounder tied for the lead among wideouts in TDs (14, tied with Brandon Marshall and Allen Robinson) and piled up career bests in receptions (78), targets (104) and yards (1,069). As a result, the 27-year-old should at least be in line to join the financial company of other late-20s receivers like Torrey Smith and Michael Crabtree. Both are non-star players who signed for $8MM or more annually in the last 12 months, placing them in the top 20 at the position in total value and yearly mean.

Hauschka has been consistently great during his five years in Seattle, nailing nearly 89% of his field goal attempts (142 of 160). In two of the last three seasons, Hauschka has connected on well over 90% of tries – including his 29-of-31 output in 2015 (93.5%). Hauschka also hit on all six of his attempts over 50 yards, making him 11 of 13 from that distance since 2013. Further, the 30-year-old was respectable on kickoffs, ranking 11th in yards per kick (64.5) and touchbacks (47). He did struggle in the first year of the 33-yard extra point, however, finishing with the league’s fifth-worst success rate (90.9%).

Despite his PAT issues, Hauschka is set up for a raise over his $2.85MM annual salary if the Seahawks decide to extend him. He could land in a similar ballpark to the Patriots’ Stephen Gostkowski, who signed a four-year, $17.2MM extension at the age of 31 last summer. Gostkowski, second among kickers in total money, yearly average ($4.3MM) and first in guarantees ($10.1MM), had gone a combined 102 of 113 (90.3%) on field goals in the three seasons before his extension. Hauschka has been equally effective during his last 48 games (93 of 103, 90.3%), and the $12MM increase in cap since last year should help his cause in obtaining Gostkowski-type money.

Overall Outlook:

The Seahawks have an all-world core group and one of the premier rosters in the league in place, so John Schneider won’t have to do anything drastic this offseason to keep the team in Super Bowl contention. With the cap space and draft picks he has at his disposal, the seventh-year GM will likely spend the next several months mostly focusing on the Seahawks’ lines as he plots to dethrone the Cardinals in the NFC West and the Panthers in the conference.

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