Panthers superstar Christian McCaffrey returned to practice Monday, which is certainly a welcome sign considering he hasn’t been out there since Week 2. While it’s a step in the right direction, it doesn’t mean McCaffrey will be suiting up for Carolina on Thursday Night Football this week. In fact, CMAC is a “long-shot” to play in their division game against the Falcons, a source told Ian Rapoport of NFL Network (Twitter link).
Mike Davis took over as the Panthers’ running back and got off to a hot start, but he’s since cooled off significantly and only had 12 rushing yards yesterday. As such, McCaffrey’s return can’t come quick enough. The Panthers are now 3-4 and desperately need a win over Atlanta if they want to stay in the NFC playoff picture. McCaffrey went down with a high ankle sprain in their Week 2 game against the Bucs and has been sidelined ever since.
Here’s more health updates from around the league:
- The Titans lost their first game of the season on Sunday, and they also lost a key piece of their defense for a while. Rookie cornerback Kristian Fulton will miss a “few weeks” with a knee injury, according to veteran beat writer Paul Kuharsky (Twitter link). Kuharsky writes that it’s unclear if he’ll go on injured reserve, which would require him to miss at least three games. A second-round pick in April’s draft, Fulton has started the Titans’ last two games after missing one on the COVID-19 list. Tennessee’s secondary has already struggled mightily, so this is an unwelcome development for Mike Vrabel’s unit.
- The Bengals have already had a tough time blocking for Joe Burrow, and Cincy fans everywhere were holding their breath when starting left tackle Jonah Williams went down with a neck injury yesterday. Fortunately, the “early indications” are that the injury is not “overly serious,” a source told Ian Rapoport of NFL Network (Twitter link). Rapsheet says Williams may miss this week, but there is some optimism he could return after their Week 9 bye. The 11th overall pick of the 2019 draft, Williams missed his entire rookie season with a shoulder injury but had played every snap this year before going down.
- Williams isn’t the only member of the Bengals’ offensive line banged up, as starting right tackle Bobby Hart also got hurt against Cleveland. Hart will miss this weekend’s game against Tennessee, head coach Zac Taylor announced Monday. Hart had also started all seven games this season, and now it looks like Burrow might be without each of his starting tackles this season. Given that he’s already been running for his life in most weeks, this could be a recipe for disaster.
- The Seahawks also lost their first game of the season Sunday, and now it looks like they’ll be without starting running back Chris Carson for a while. Carson suffered a mid-foot sprain that will leave him week to week, Rapoport tweets. While Carson will apparently miss some time it doesn’t sound like anything too serious, and he shouldn’t be on the shelf too long. Fellow running back Travis Homer also got hurt on Sunday night, and we’re still waiting on an update on him.
- The Cardinals beat Seattle on Sunday night, but unfortunately the recently signed linebacker Isaiah Irving suffered a serious injury and had to be carted off. Irving suffered a back injury that will likely sideline him for the rest of the season, a source told Josh Weinfuss of ESPN.com (Twitter link). Signed off Denver’s practice squad a couple of weeks ago, Irving was in his first game with the Cards and was only playing on special teams, so this won’t have too much impact on Arizona’s defense. Hopefully Irving is able to make a swift and full recovery.
- Irving wasn’t the only Cardinal to go down. Starting running back Kenyan Drake hurt his ankle, and he’s going to miss some time. Drake will miss a few weeks with a slight ligament tear in his ankle, a source told Adam Schefter of ESPN.com (Twitter link). Chase Edmonds, the highly talented change of pace back, will now get a chance to shine in Drake’s absence. Fortunately Arizona has a bye in Week 8, which will reduce the number of games Drake has to miss. Schefter adds that the team is treating the ligament issue essentially like a high ankle sprain.
- Chargers tight end Virgil Green came down with a crucial touchdown in Los Angeles’ win over the Jaguars, but unfortunately he hurt himself on the play. Green will miss several weeks with a lateral ankle sprain, Rapoport tweets, and he’s a candidate for injured reserve. The Chargers still have Hunter Henry of course, but this is a significant blow as they like to run multiple tight end sets. Second-year UDFA from Stetson Donald Parham also caught a touchdown from Justin Herbert on Sunday, and should be in line for more playing time moving forward. Green, in his third season with the Chargers, has always been more of a blocker than receiver during his ten-year career.
Let’s take a look at the details from the latest contracts signed in the NFL, with all links going to Twitter unless otherwise noted:
- A.J. McCarron, QB (Bills): Two years, $10MM. $3MM in 2018, $7MM in 2019. $1.1MM of ’19 salary guaranteed for injury. 2019 salary fully guaranteed on Day 5 of 2019 league year. Bills would incur $2MM dead-money charge by cutting McCarron after one season (via Mike Rodak of ESPN.com).
- DaQuan Jones, DE (Titans): Three years, $21MM, $14MM fully guaranteed at signing. $6MM base salary for 2019 fully guaranteed (per Caplan).
- Virgil Green, TE (Chargers): Three years, $8.6MM, $5.9MM fully guaranteed, which covers the first two years of this deal (per Adam Caplan of ESPN.com, on Twitter).
- Cody Davis, S (Jaguars): Two years, $5MM, $2.5MM fully guaranteed. Deal contains option bonus due 22 days before the start of the 2019 league year (via Caplan).
- Jermon Bushrod, OL (Saints): One-year deal (via Herbie Teope of NOLA.com)
Green, who spent his entire seven-year career with Denver, had 14 catches for 191 yards and one touchdown last season. The former seventh-round pick has one receiving TD to his credit in each of the last four campaigns, but his real bread and butter is blocking. While Pro Football Focus ranked Green an underwhelming 63rd among 71 tight end candidates, his blocking grade was fourth at the position. Green was listed as the fifth-best tight end in our positional free agent rankings.
[RELATED: Chargers Depth Chart]
The Chargers will likely rely on Green as a blocking tight end. Former second-rounder Hunter Henry sits atop the depth chart, and the team is also rostering Sean Culkin and Braedon Bowman. Meanwhile, long-time tight end Antonio Gates is considering retirement.
NFL free agency will get underway on Wednesday, March 14th, and while the list of free agents will change between now and then, we do have some idea of who will be available when free agency kicks off. The frenzy is right around the corner and it’s time for us to break down the outlook for each position. We’ll start today on offense, before getting to defense and special teams later this week.
Listed below are our rankings for the top 15 free agents at each offensive position. The rankings aren’t necessarily determined by the value of the contracts that each player is expected to land in free agency, they are simply the players we like the most at each position, with both short- and long-term value taken into account. Restricted and exclusive-rights free agents are not listed here since they are unlikely to actually reach the open market. The same goes for players who have been franchise tagged or transition tagged.
We’ll almost certainly be higher or lower on some guys than you are, so we encourage you to make your voice heard in our comments section to let us know which free agents we’ve got wrong.
Here’s our breakdown of the current top 15 free agents by offensive position for 2018:
- Kirk Cousins
- Drew Brees
- Case Keenum
- A.J. McCarron
- Sam Bradford
- Teddy Bridgewater
- Colin Kaepernick
- Josh McCown
- Mike Glennon
- Drew Stanton
- Jay Cutler
- Chase Daniel
- Ryan Fitzpatrick
- Brock Osweiler
- Tom Savage
There were many difficult calls when putting this list together, but ranking Kirk Cousins as the No. 1 QB available was not among them. Cousins is the best quarterback to reach free agency in recent history and he’ll become the highest-paid player of all-time – at least, for some period of time – in mid-March. Who will make history with Cousins? That’s anyone’s guess right now. The Browns have more cap room than any other team, but a recent report from Adam Schefter of ESPN.com listed the Broncos, Cardinals, Jets, and Vikings as the final suitors for Cousins. Of those four, the Jets have the most money to work with, but they’re concerned about the Vikings winning out and Cousins’ desire to win could point him in another direction. If the Broncos and Cardinals want in on the Cousins sweepstakes, they’ll have to get creative with the books.
Drew Brees is included here, but by his own admission, he’ll be re-signing with the Saints rather than testing the open waters of free agency. Unless the Saints lowball their franchise QB, it’s hard to see him leaving New Orleans.
Case Keenum put together a tremendous season for the Vikings, but he doesn’t have a history of success beyond 2017. There will be plenty of interest in Keenum, but only after QB-needy teams strike out on Cousins. The incumbent Vikings could re-sign Keenum, but right now, it seems like they are intent on exploring the Cousins waters first.
There isn’t a ton of footage on A.J. McCarron, which made his placement on this list awfully tricky. We know this much: McCarron did well in place of Dalton in the home stretch of the 2015 season and his former offensive coordinator Hue Jackson was salivating at the chance of landing him before the Browns bungled the trade with the Bengals. McCarron’s relative youth is a plus (he won’t turn 28 until September) and his lack of experience can be looked at as a positive. Unlike some of the other names on this list, he hasn’t run up his NFL odometer.
What will NFL teams make of Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford this offseason? Not long ago, both seemed like quality starting options. However, there are serious injury questions about both players and any team signing them will either look to backstop them with another decent option or ask them to come onboard as a QB2. With that in mind, one has to wonder if Bradford would consider retirement if asked to hold the clipboard for another signal caller. Bradford has earned upwards of $110MM over the years in the NFL, so it’s safe to say that he has enough money in the bank to call it quits if he wants. For now, he’s intent on playing.
Colin Kaepernick‘s placement on this list is sure to draw some strong reactions from his fans and detractors alike. Looking purely at his football ability, there’s no question that he belongs on someone’s roster. At minimum, Kaepernick profiles as a high-end backup, even after a year out of the game.
Quarterbacks coaches have long believed that Mike Glennon is capable of great things, due in part to his height. At 6’7″, he can see over any defensive line, but he hasn’t done much on the field to prove that he is a quality Week 1 starting option. Josh McCown, who is a decade his senior, edges him here for his surprisingly strong performance in 2017 at the helm of a weak Jets offense.
During his teleconference on Monday, NFL Network’s Mike Mayock opined that Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch could shoot up the charts if he clocks in at under 4.65 seconds in the 40-yard-dash at the combine. Mike Garafolo of NFL.com (video link) hears that Vander Esch has been beating that number in practice, which means that we could see him climb the boards in the coming weeks.
Last year, Garafolo was hearing similar rumblings about Temple’s Haason Reddick and he catapulted from the second round to No. 13 overall where he was snagged by the Cardinals. Recently, a scouting director told Matt Miller of Bleacher Report that LVE will go in the first round, though he is unlikely to crack the top 15.
Vander Esch, a high-end athlete for his position, broke out in 2017 with an eye-popping 141 tackles, the most by any Boise State player in an individual season since 1988. He also had 8.5 tackles for a loss, four sacks, and two interceptions.
Here’s more from around the league:
- Mike Florio of PFT wonders if this year’s free agent quarterbacks could fall victim to collusion. Already, we’ve heard talk that the Jets will not simply hand Kirk Cousins a blank check, despite their desperate need for a franchise QB. Florio anticipates similar talk to emerge about Drew Brees, who would likely garner $30MM/year from a contender in a fair market. Meanwhile, there’s talk that lesser options like Case Keenum and A.J. McCarron may get less than the value of Blake Bortles‘ now exercised $18MM option with the Jaguars. If QBs of that caliber are stifled, then injury-prone players like Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater will certainly feel it too. Ultimately, teams will be able to find leverage in this year’s draft, which has multiple QB candidates for the first round.
- This year, free agent blocking tight ends like Darren Fells (Lions), Lee Smith (Raiders), and Virgil Green (Broncos) figure to earn more than expected, Ian Rapoport of NFL.com tweets. The reason, Rapoport says, is because of poor draft talent in that area and a lack of other options. Last offseason, tight end Rhett Ellison landed a four-year, $18MM free agent deal from the Giants despite averaging just ten catches per season over the course of his five-year career, so there is precedent for TEs to cash in even without gaudy stat lines.
- If you’re not doing so already, you can follow Pro Football Rumors on Twitter: @ProFootballRumors. It’s a must-follow for all NFL fans, particularly with free agency right on the horizon.
As teams prepare their free agency budgets, several marquee players will be notified soon they will be cap casualties. Brian Cushing was one of the first to find out in 2018. But Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com expects some key members of NFC teams to be jettisoned soon. The Packers are likely to keep one of the Jordy Nelson/Randall Cobb tandem, but Rosenthal does not expect both to return. Not after Davante Adams signed for $14MM AAV. Ian Rapoport of NFL.com noted this week Cobb is more likely to be shown the door than Nelson, who has been Aaron Rodgers‘ favorite target for years. A Cobb cut would save the Packers $9.5MM in dead money. Nelson would create $10.2MM in space if released. The duo count as the Nos. 2-3 players on Green Bay’s 2018 cap sheet.
The Panthers have used either DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart, or a combination of both, as their top ground producer since the 2007 season. But Rosenthal expects Stewart to be cut along with Charles Johnson. A Stewart cut would create $3.7MM in cap space while tagging Carolina with $1.5MM in dead money. He will turn 31 next month. This would create a void at running back, with Christian McCaffrey more of a pass-catching hybrid type, but Stewart’s yards-per-carry average dropped to a career-low 3.4 last season. Although, his 15 games of work were his most since the 2011 slate.
Here’s the latest from around the league:
- Though the Broncos have Matt Paradis and Shaquil Barrett as impending RFAs, they don’t have many high-profile UFAs. Todd Davis profiles as a player who will generate interest on the open market after garnering some as an RFA last year, and Mike Klis of 9News notes the Broncos would like to have their two-year inside linebacker starter back. But the player that might be more likely to return and complement Brandon Marshall in 2018 is Corey Nelson. A four-year backup who started six games in 2016, Nelson is the free agent the Broncos would most like to bring back, Klis writes, adding the former seventh-round pick may receive some heavy Broncos interest during the legal tampering period that begins March 12.
- Virgil Green and Cody Latimer saw their Denver deals expire, and Green would like to stay on a third contract. A member of every John Elway-era Broncos team, the eighth-year player has functioned as a blocking tight end for most of his Broncos tenure. Green signed a three-year, $12MM deal to stay in Denver in 2015 when many of his 2011 draft class mates departed, but with a Kirk Cousins push coming, the Broncos may not have much money to spend to retain him. Latimer did not develop into what the Broncos hoped as a second-round pick but became a dependable special teams player. Klis writes the Broncos will consider re-signing him if his market doesn’t develop.
- Oklahoma State wide receiver Marcell Ateman has impressed the 49ers, among other teams, Tony Pauline of DraftAnalyst.com reports. Ateman has been working with former 200- and 400-meter world-record holder Michael Johnson in developing for the draft and is viewed as a Day 2 prospect, but Pauline writes his stock figures to rise based on the speed and vertical numbers he’s been posting. Ateman broke out for 59 receptions, 1,156 yards and eight touchdowns as a senior.
While the game probably will not effect the College Football Playoff, USC vs. UCLA will certainly have a ton of NFL Draft implications. Both starting quarterbacks, Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen, are considered two of the best QB draft prospects eligible for the 2018 NFL Draft, and will try to outshine each other during Saturday’s contest. The hyped matchup will be attended by 20 teams in some form, including the QB needy Jets, according to Rich Cimini of ESPN.com (Twitter link). The Jets were most recently connected to Wyoming signal caller Josh Allen, although Allen’s draft status has taken a big hit because of some early season struggles vs. top level collegiate defenses. New York’s season has gone a bit better than many expected, but they still have a long-term need at the QB position with Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty not looking like the long-term answer. The Jets, along with many other scouting departments will definitely get a good comparison of two of the top signal callers in all of college football in Los Angeles this weekend.
- The Texans have faced a number of injuries to key players including J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus and most recently quarterback Deshaun Watson. Now another playmaker who missed time early in the season will be forced to the sidelines again. Big play receiver Will Fuller will miss Sunday’s game with a rib injury, according Houston’s official injury report released on Friday afternoon. This leaves the team without another weapon for now starter Tom Savage and puts added pressure on DeAndre Hopkins to make contested plays due to increased attention from the defensive backs. Fuller missed the Texans first three games with a broken collarbone, but has since caught an impressive seven touchdowns in the past six games. Bruce Ellington is the next man up on the depth chart to try and replace Fuller’s downfield threat ability.
- The Broncos have just one tight end on the roster entering the weekend for this Sunday’s game against the Bengals. Both A.J. Derby and Jeff Heuerman have been ruled out, which leaves Virgil Green as the lone name left on the depth chart, according to Mike Klis of 9news.com. Derby is recovering from a shoulder injury that he suffered this past Sunday night and Heuerman is dealing with a knee injury. It should be noted that no Broncos tight end has been a huge factor in the team’s offense, with Denver mostly relying on the receiving combo of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders to move the football through the air. Klis does note that the team is expected to call up practice squad tight end Austin Traylor to take snaps as the team’s number two, adding that interestingly an unknown offensive lineman could work as the Broncos number three option if need be.
- In order for the Browns to activate wide receiver Corey Coleman, they opted to waive fellow wideout Kasen Williams. The team has learned that Williams has passed through waivers and is free to sign with any practice squad he chooses, tweets Bob Condotta of The Seattle Times. The 25 year-old receiver first latched on with the Seattle back in 2015, but appeared in seven games with Cleveland so far this season.
A few details on some noteworthy new contracts from around the NFL:
- Orlando Franklin, G (Chargers): Five years, $35.5MM base value. $15.5MM fully guaranteed at signing (Twitter links via Tom Pelissero of USA Today).
- Brett Kern, P (Titans): Five years, $15MM base value. $2.5MM signing bonus. $5MM guaranteed (Twitter link via Paul Kuharsky of ESPN.com).
- Trent Cole, OLB (Colts): Two years, $14MM base value. $2MM signing bonus. $8MM guaranteed at signing. $1MM annually in playing-time/sack incentives (Twitter links via Joel Corry of CBSSports.com).
- Shane Vereen, RB (Giants): Three years, $12.3MM base value. $3.5MM signing bonus. $4.75MM guaranteed (Twitter link via Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun).
- J.T. Thomas, LB (Giants): Three years, $10MM base value. $4.5MM guaranteed. $1MM annual escalators in 2016, 2017 (Twitter link via Wilson).
- Virgil Green, TE (Broncos): Three years, $8.4MM base value. $4.2MM guaranteed. Max value of $11.25MM (Twitter link via Wilson).
- Sergio Brown, S (Jaguars): Three years, $7MM base value. $1MM guaranteed. Escalators can push total value up to $9MM (Twitter link via Pelissero).
- Ed Dickson, TE (Panthers): Three years, $6.8MM base value. $2MM signing bonus ($700K deferred) (Twitter link via Pelissero).
- Joe Berger, OL (Vikings): Two years, $2.155MM base value. $130K guaranteed. $800K available in incentives (Twitter link via Pelissero).
2:53pm: The deal is worth $8.4MM over three years, per Renck.
2:19pm: The Broncos have officially announced their new deal with Green. It’s a three-year pact, according to the team.
2:13pm: He didn’t catch double-digit touchdowns last season, and he wasn’t on anyone’s list of top free agents for this offseason, but tight end Virgil Green will be returning to the Broncos, tweets Jeff Legwold of ESPN.com. Green, like Julius Thomas, had been eligible to become an unrestricted free agent this week.
Green, 26, actually ranked just ahead of Thomas on Pro Football Focus’ overall tight end rankings in 2014, in large part due to his excellent run blocking (subscription required). Green isn’t much of a pass-catching threat – his six catches in 2014 brought his career total up to just 23 – so the Broncos figure to pair him with someone who can be involved in the aerial attack. Owen Daniels, who is very comfortable with Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison, looks like the favorite for that role. The team is reportedly set to host Daniels for a visit on Wednesday.
While a Saturday report indicated Green had six to eight “serious” suitors, his decision appeared to come down to the Broncos and Bears. As Legwold notes, Green informed the Bears today that he intended to remain in Denver.
Troy Renck of the Denver Post reported earlier today that the Broncos were the frontrunners for Green.