Ryan Pace

Bears Expected To Retain Ryan Pace, Matt Nagy

The Bears will need to hire a new defensive coordinator, but their power structure is otherwise expected to remain in place.

Matt Nagy and GM Ryan Pace are expected to stay on in their respective roles, Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune tweets. Pace has been with the Bears since the 2015 season, hiring Nagy in 2018. The results have been mixed, and one fateful draft decision has largely defined this era of Bears football, but it appears ownership is content after a second playoff berth in three seasons.

Pace’s decision to trade up to No. 2 overall and draft Mitchell Trubisky has proven to be one of the modern draft’s premier missteps, with Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson becoming superstars fairly quickly while Trubisky struggled. The Bears declined Trubisky’s fifth-year option, and Nagy benched the embattled starter in September. However, the Bears turned back to their young passer late this season and managed to make the playoffs despite a six-game losing streak. The Saints then dispatched the NFC’s No. 7 seeded-squad in a game that saw the Bears gain just 140 yards prior to a garbage-time drive.

While Pace did well to build a championship-caliber defense — trading for Khalil Mack, signing Akiem Hicks and drafting Eddie Jackson and Roquan Smith — Chicago’s offenses have capped that unit’s relevance. The Bears lost DC Vic Fangio after the 2018 season and will now be searching for a successor to the retiring Chuck Pagano. Chicago’s defense has ranked in the top 10 in DVOA over the past three seasons, but some of its key players — Mack, Hicks, Danny Trevathan and Robert Quinn — are either north of 30 or will be by the 2021 season.

Nagy earned Coach of the Year honors in 2018, with the ex-Chiefs OC elevating Trubisky considerably that year and ending a seven-season Bears playoff drought. The Bears finished fourth in the NFC North in each of the three Pace-John Fox seasons, but their 2018 slate did not prove to be an indication of an imminent ascent. The team has gone 8-8 in each of the past two years and has ranked no higher than 22nd in scoring or total offense in that span, despite the 2020 playoff berth in an expanded postseason.

It is not certain if Nagy will have a new quarterback to work with in 2021, but is does look like the young head coach has done enough to earn a fourth season in Chicago. The team still has Nick Foles under contract for 2021 but will add another starting-caliber passer — via Trubisky extension or via outside acquisition — ahead of next season. The Bears have also featured little in the way of proven weaponry outside of Allen Robinson, who is a free agent. Pace’s work reassembling Chicago’s offense this offseason will go a long way toward determining his and Nagy’s long-term futures.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

GM Notes: Colbert, Patriots, Panthers, Rhule, Bears, Pace

We brought you a new batch of coaching notes earlier, and now we’ve got a new collection of front office bullets to pass along as the Browns and Steelers wrap up wild card weekend:

  • Let’s start with the Steelers, who could be in danger of losing their GM this offseason. We heard last week that the Lions were going to pursue Kevin Colbert, and Jason La Canfora tweets their interest in making that happen is still “very real.” While La Canfora’s sources don’t think Colbert would actually make the jump, he says the Lions “continue to gather info and strategize on how to possibly lure him.” Colbert, in the midst of his 21st season in Pittsburgh, has also flirted with retirement recently. Perhaps a first-round exit at the hands of the Browns could convince him to jump ship?
  • The Patriots just lost one key exec when Nick Caserio got hired by the Texans, and fortunately for them it doesn’t look like they’ll lose another. Dave Ziegler has pulled himself out of contention for the Broncos’ GM job, Ian Rapoport of NFL Network tweets. Rapsheet writes that the “organization has committed to Ziegler’s future, and Ziegler has committed to” New England, so it sounds like the Pats gave him an extension and/or raise to stay.
  • There was another big withdrawal on Sunday, as Colts assistant GM Ed Dodds removed himself from the Panthers’ search, Stephen Holder of The Athletic tweets. He had interviewed for the job last week. Dodds declined an interview request from the Browns back in January, so he appears to be waiting for the right opportunity to leave Indy.
  • Meanwhile as the Panthers’ search chugs along, they’ll take a look at a couple of internal candidates. Carolina will interview Director of Player Negotiations & Salary Cap Manager Samir Suleiman and Director of Player Personnel Pat Stewart for their GM vacancy (Twitter link via Joe Person of The Athletic). The Panthers are conducting an exhaustive search, so it’s possible these are just courtesy interviews.
  • One last note on the Panthers for now. No matter who they hire, it looks like it may be Matt Rhule who’s in charge at the end of the day. “Rhule will essentially be running the show in Carolina,” after they replace the fired Marty Hurney, a source told Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com. That’s not all that surprising after owner David Tepper paid him a fortune to lure him from Baylor and Rhule earned strong marks for his first season with the Panthers, getting a bare-bones roster to fight hard and play a bunch of close games against good teams. Florio writes that whoever gets the gig “surely won’t get the job without Rhule’s agreement.” Rhule seems like a strong coach, but obviously these kind of arrangements can get dangerous, as we’ve seen with the Texans and Bill O’Brien.
  • Matt Nagy is going to be back with the Bears in 2021, but GM Ryan Pace’s future apparently isn’t entirely secure. Chicago could target Chiefs exec Mike Borgonzi this offseason, multiple sources told Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune. As Biggs points out, it would make sense for them to bring in someone familiar with Nagy if they’re going to change GMs but not coaches. Nagy, of course, coached in Kansas City under Andy Reid for a while. The Bears’ blowout loss to the Saints today certainly isn’t working in Pace’s favor, and the drafting of Mitchell Trubisky second overall never worked out. This will be an interesting situation to monitor this week.

Bears HC Matt Nagy, GM Ryan Pace Facing Uncertain Futures

Bears head coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace are facing uncertain futures in Chicago, according to Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network (video link). The Bears are mired in a six-game losing streak after starting the season 5-1, and it appears a major shakeup could be on the way.

Nagy’s seat has been getting hotter as the losing streak has continued, and a report surfaced last week that the Bears are more likely than not to fire their third-year HC at season’s end. If that happens, the club is said to be very interested in Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, though it’s unclear if Fitzgerald would want to make the jump from the college ranks to the pros.

Nagy, who served as the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator for two seasons before getting the Bears’ HC gig, was named the league’s Coach of the Year in 2018, his first year at the helm. Under his watch, the Bears won the NFC North and qualified for the postseason for the first time since 2010, and while the team was ousted in the wild card round — thanks to the notorious double-doink missed field goal — the arrow seemed to be pointing up.

That was especially true since Mitch Trubisky took a major step forward with Nagy, earning a Pro Bowl nod at the end of that 2018 season and posting a 95.4 QB rating. Since then, however, it’s been all downhill for both men. The Bears slipped to an 8-8 record last year, Trubisky saw his fifth-year option declined in May, and he lost his starting job to Nick Foles earlier this season. The Bears have been near the bottom of the league in total offense in each of the past two years, not a good look for an offensive-minded coach like Nagy.

Pace, meanwhile, became the Bears’ GM in 2015 and presided over three consecutive fourth-place finishes in the NFC North before the Nagy hire appeared to right the ship. Although plenty of GMs and pundits were high on Trubisky in advance of the 2017 draft, Pace’s decision to trade four draft picks to move up from the No. 3 overall selection to the No. 2 overall pick to acquire him was widely panned at the time, and the deal has not aged well. While Trubisky has failed to live up to his draft status, 2017 draftmates Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes have become premier signal-callers.

Pace has certainly had his good moments, but one playoff appearance in six seasons generally does not make a club keen to maintain the status quo. The Bears could be in the market for a new GM, a new HC, and a first-round quarterback when the calendar flips to 2021.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Extra Points: Bieniemy, Giants, Panthers

Although the Giants are just one game back of the NFC East lead, they are 1-5 and appear on the verge of their fourth straight double-digit loss season. GM Dave Gettleman has presided over the previous two 10-plus-loss campaigns, and some around the league have tabbed the Giants GM job as a potential opening ahead of the 2021 offseason, Dan Graziano and Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com note. The Panthers‘ GM spot has also surfaced around the NFL as one to monitor. Marty Hurney, in place long before Matt Rhule‘s arrival, has been rumored as a potential chopping-block candidate because of Rhule’s overhaul and seven-year contract. Hurney’s contract runs through 2020. Gettleman made his way back to New York shortly after his Carolina ouster, but his rebuild has not taken off. The Giants have never lost double-digit games in four straight seasons.

Here is the latest from around the league:

  • Sticking with staffs, the Texans are indeed expected to strongly consider Eric BieniemyDeshaun Watson has advocated for Patrick Mahomes‘ OC, and Graziano and Fowler note the Texans “definitely” have interest in the Chiefs assistant. The Chiefs are prepared to lose Bieniemy this offseason, which would mark the third time they have lost an OC since 2016. Houston is believed to be seeking a quarterback guru and will have Josh McDaniels (again) and Bills OC Brian Daboll on its target list as well.
  • The Bears may not need to make it back to the playoffs for their current power brokers to stay in place. Both Matt Nagy and GM Ryan Pace are believed to be on track to stick around for 2021, per Fowler and Graziano. Chicago’s 5-1 start has come with just a plus-12 point differential, and the team benched Pace’s handpicked quarterback early in the season. Despite Mitchell Trubisky‘s struggles and current backup status, Pace is currently believed to be safe to receive a seventh year as GM.
  • It does not sound like the Chargers are expecting to have Austin Ekeler back anytime soon. The Bolts’ starting running back is battling what Anthony Lynn calls a “very serious” hamstring injury that has him set to be sidelined for the foreseeable future, Daniel Popper of The Athletic tweets. Given a four-year, $24MM extension this offseason, Ekeler went down in Week 4. The Bolts have been without many key players on offense since turning to Justin Herbert in Week 2.
  • Adoree’ Jackson returned to Titans practice Wednesday. The team designated the former first-round cornerback as an IR-return player, making him eligible to face the Steelers in Week 7 — if the team activates him by Saturday afternoon. Jackson landed on IR before Week 1 with a knee injury.
  • The Panthers placed Joey Slye on their reserve/COVID-19 list and brought in kickers for workouts this week. Carolina has auditioned Casey Bednarski (Minnesota State), Taylor Bertolet and Austin Parker (Duke), per Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle (on Twitter). Bednarski began his coronavirus testing with the team Tuesday, Joe Person of The Athletic tweets. None of these kickers has NFL experience. Slye has not tested positive but came in contact with someone who had, Adam Schefter of ESPN.com notes. The Panthers do not have a kicker on their practice squad, but Slye has not been at the team’s facility since Sunday and could still kick in Week 7.
  • The Dolphins conducted an interesting workout Wednesday. They brought in former Seahawks second-round pick Malik McDowell for an audition, per Field Yates of ESPN.com (on Twitter). The 2017 draftee has not played an NFL down, with an ATV accident and subsequent legal troubles harpooning his career. The former Michigan State defensive lineman recently spent time in prison after a bevy of charges stemming from a 2019 arrest.

Longest-Tenured GMs In The NFL

When we ran down the longest-tenured head coaches in the NFL, we found that less than half of the league’s current coaches have been in their positions for more than three years. That’s not quite the case with general managers, but there have been plenty of changes in recent years.

A handful of general managers have gotten to take their coats off and stay for a long while. Among coaches, Bill Belichick had joined his team prior to 2003. Here, you’ll see that five GMs have been with their teams since before ’03 (Belichick, of course, is also on this list). Two of those five – Jerry Jones and Mike Brown – are outliers, since they’re team owners and serve as de facto GMs. But the Patriots, Steelers, and Saints, have all had the same general managers making their roster decisions for well over a decade.

Here’s the complete list of the NFL’s longest-tenured GMs, along with the date they took over the job:

  1. Jerry Jones (Dallas Cowboys): April 18, 1989[1]
  2. Mike Brown (Cincinnati Bengals): August 5, 1991[2]
  3. Bill Belichick (New England Patriots): January 27, 2000[3]
  4. Kevin Colbert (Pittsburgh Steelers): February 18, 2000[4]
  5. Mickey Loomis (New Orleans Saints): May 14, 2002
  6. Rick Spielman (Minnesota Vikings): May 30, 2006[5]
  7. Thomas Dimitroff (Atlanta Falcons): January 13, 2008
  8. John Schneider (Seattle Seahawks): January 19, 2010[6]
  9. Howie Roseman (Philadelphia Eagles): January 29, 2010
  10. John Elway (Denver Broncos): January 5, 2011[7]
  11. Les Snead (St. Louis Rams): February 10, 2012
  12. David Caldwell (Jacksonville Jaguars): January 8, 2013
  13. Steve Keim (Arizona Cardinals): January 8, 2013
  14. Tom Telesco (San Diego Chargers): January 9, 2013
  15. Jason Licht (Tampa Bay Buccaneers): January 21, 2014
  16. Ryan Pace (Chicago Bears): January 8, 2015
  17. Chris Grier (Miami Dolphins): January 4, 2016
  18. Bob Quinn (Detroit Lions): January 8, 2016
  19. Jon Robinson (Tennessee Titans): January 14, 2016
  20. John Lynch (San Francisco 49ers): January 29, 2017
  21. Chris Ballard (Indianapolis Colts): January 30, 2017
  22. Brandon Beane (Buffalo Bills): May 9, 2017
  23. Brett Veach (Kansas City Chiefs): July 11, 2017
  24. Marty Hurney (Carolina Panthers): July 19, 2017
  25. Dave Gettleman (New York Giants): December 28, 2017
  26. Brian Gutekunst (Green Bay Packers): January 7, 2018
  27. Mike Mayock (Oakland Raiders): December 31, 2018
  28. Joe Douglas (New York Jets): June 7, 2019
  29. Eric DeCosta (Baltimore Ravens): January 7, 2019[8]
  30. Ron Rivera (Washington Redskins): January 1, 2020[9]
  31. Andrew Berry (Cleveland Browns): January 27, 2020
  32. Bill O’Brien (Houston Texans): January 28, 2020

Footnotes:

  1. Jones has been the Cowboys’ de facto general manager since former GM Tex Schramm resigned in April 1989.
  2. Brown has been the Bengals’ de facto GM since taking over as the team’s owner in August 1991.
  3. Belichick has been the Patriots’ de facto GM since shortly after being hired as the team’s head coach in January 2000.
  4. Colbert was initially hired as the team’s director of football operations and received the newly-created general manager title in 2011.
  5. Spielman was initially hired as the team’s VP of player personnel and received the GM title in 2012.
  6. While Schneider holds the title of GM, head coach Pete Carroll has the final say on roster moves for the Seahawks.
  7. Elway was initially hired as the team’s executive VP of football operations and received the GM title in 2014.
  8. In 2018, the Ravens announced that DeCosta would replace Ozzie Newsome as GM for Ozzie Newsome after the conclusion of the season. The Ravens’ ’18 season ended with their Wild Card loss to the Chargers on 1/6/19.
  9. Technically, the Redskins do not have a GM, as of this writing. Rivera is, effectively, their GM, working in tandem with Vice President of Player Personnel Kyle Smith. Smith may receive the GM title in the near future.

NFC North Notes: Bears, Vikings, Flowers

The Bears have made some splashy trades since Ryan Pace replaced Phil Emery as GM in 2015. Deals that brought Khalil Mack and Mitch Trubisky to Chicago required major assets to complete. Fourth-year starter Cody Whitehair and second-round tight end Adam Shaheen also forced the Bears to surrender multiple mid-round picks. In a detailed piece by The Athletic’s Adam Jahns (subscription required), Pace summarized his aggressiveness on these fronts.

I think if you sit on your hands and you say, ‘Oh, this player is definitely going to get to us,’ and he goes right before you and you had conviction on him — not just you but the scouts and the coaches – and you wait on it, you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Pace said. “If you have a guy or a group of guys, be aggressive and make it happen.

I don’t want to undervalue any of these mid-round picks. We’ve shown a lot examples of us hitting on those players. But I know if we’re ever in a situation where, ‘Hey, we’re doing a little too much here,’ we can police ourselves on that. But as long as it’s a fair deal and we’re getting a player that we all have conviction on, then we’ll do it.”

As teams break for camp, here is more from the NFC North:

  • A knee injury Ha Ha Clinton-Dix suffered during Chicago’s offseason program resulted in the recently signed safety beginning his first Bears camp on the active/PUP list. The former Packers and Redskins defender has not missed a game since the 2014 season.
  • However, the Bears received good news on Trey Burton. The team’s second-year tight end starter has been cleared for camp work. The “Philly Special” quarterback underwent sports hernia surgery this offseason.
  • Although Alexander Mattison is the assumed next man up if Dalvin Cook again goes down with an injury, Mike Zimmer cautioned about anointing the third-round pick too soon. The sixth-year Vikings coach (via the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Ben Goessling) singled out third-year UDFA C.J. Ham as a player who stands to play more on passing downs, in front of Mattison, due to pass-protection skills. Backs often begin their NFL careers limited at this skill, so the 26-year-old Ham (31 touches in two seasons, when Latavius Murray played behind Cook) may function as a stopgap while Mattison is groomed.
  • The Lions‘ top offseason expense, Trey Flowers will not begin camp with the bulk of his teammates. The four-year Patriots pass rusher will start his first Lions camp on their active/PUP list. Flowers underwent shoulder surgery before signing with the Lions, but Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press notes the $18MM-per-year defensive end is expected to be ready by Week 1.

Khalil Mack Fallout: Suitors, Raiders, Donald

While the Bears won the 11th-hour Khalil Mack sweepstakes, several other teams are now known to have inquired or submitted bids. After reports of interest from the Jets, Browns and 49ers, Albert Breer of SI.com adds the Packers and Bills contacted the Raiders about their disgruntled defensive end. However, neither team was close to agreeing to the terms the Bears did. Only the Jets were on the Bears’ level in terms of compensation, Breer notes, and the Jets are not believed to have offered two first-round picks. A team was reported to have offered a first- and third-round pick for Mack; it’s possible that was the Jets. (Although, that report last week may have been about a possible first Bears offer rather than the Jets’.) The Packers hovered as the team Las Vegas pegged as the favorites to land Mack, but they will stick with Clay Matthews and Nick Perry on the edge. Buffalo has Jerry Hughes and Trent Murphy slotted as its starting edge defenders, with trade-block occupant Shaq Lawson positioned as a depth piece.

Here’s more from one of this century’s biggest NFL transactions:

  • The Raiders submitted an offer to Mack’s agent in February, and it was swiftly rejected, Breer notes. Jon Gruden said Sunday the Raiders were not in the Bears’ ballpark on numbers, and Breer adds once the Aaron Donald $22.5MM-per-year deal surfaced, the Raiders knew Mack’s asking price was going to become more reasonable. For weeks, the Raiders gave hard no’s when approached with Mack trade inquiries. However, teams noticed the Raiders’ tone changed regarding Mack late last week, with Breer adding they were much more open to deals. It’s logical to assume the Donald agreement catalyzed this process.
  • Chicago brass monitored the Mack situation all summer, with Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy having long meetings about the prospect of acquiring the 2016 defensive player of the year last week, Breer reports.
  • As for why the Raiders didn’t try to hold their line about Mack playing on his fifth-year option salary? Jon Gruden referenced Kirk Cousins‘ situation with his brother Jay‘s Redskins as part of his reasoning for why he felt Mack had to go. “We have waited. We waited and waited and the (Week 1) Rams game was looming,” Gruden said, via Vic Tafur of The Athletic (subscription required). “Our feeling was that he was not going to report anytime soon. And … I saw the Redskins go through it with Kirk Cousins. … It’s a long process. You can wait it out; you can franchise him; you can force him to play. But we made a decision and we’re going to stand by it.” However, the Cousins situation dragged into the passer’s sixth season. Mack has yet to play his fifth. The Raiders had the franchise tag to use in 2019 and 2020, but it appears Mack’s threat about sitting out games prompted them to take the Bears’ unique offer while it was on the table.
  • Mack’s six-year, $141MM Bears deal will feature $73.3MM coming to the new Bears weapon within the first three years, Breer notes. He’ll make $41MM overall in 2018. Donald’s three-year haul on his six-year, $135MM Rams pact will be $67MM.

Bears GM Ryan Pace On Fuller, Draft

Bears GM Ryan Pace touched on a wide range of topics in an exclusive interview with Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune on Thursday. Here’s a look at the highlights: 

On matching cornerback Kyle Fuller’s offer sheet:

We didn’t have a lot of heads up on it. We found out very close to receiving the offer sheet that he was in Green Bay. When he was coming back from that trip he was connecting in Chicago on a layover and he stayed in Chicago.

On announcing the plan to match the sheet hours later: 

We could have waited and dragged it out. Hey, we know we like the player. Once we understood the contract and we knew it was a fair contract, let’s just be decisive and go.

On whether he wanted Fuller to sign an offer sheet elsewhere so that another team would work out the long-term deal for him:

We talked about that and the difficulty of negotiating off the franchise tag. So with the transition tag it allowed us a greater possibility (he would sign an offer sheet) and it allowed us the flexibility with the transition tag you can negotiate all the way through the season. 

On his ideal scenario for the top seven picks in the draft:

Four quarterbacks go…I don’t know [if that’s realistic]. I think three might be realistic but you never know. We have to prepare for all of those scenarios. We’ll prepare for best case and we’ll prepare for worst case. That’s what is fun this time of year. You have all of your evaluations in. Now we prepare for all of those different things that can transpire.

On whether teams have called about the No. 8 pick:

We haven’t [received inquiries] yet. I’m not surprised. I think that will heat up as you get a little closer. When the Jets came up (from No. 6 to No. 3), they were putting themselves in a position where they know they can (get a player they want) where maybe No. 8 is a little too far back for that. It’s hard to predict.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

2018 NFL Franchise Tag Candidates

Starting today, NFL teams will be able to place franchise and transition tags on potential free agents for the first time. While the window for franchise tags is open, most clubs won’t actually tag any players right away.

As our list of important dates for the 2018 offseason shows, the deadline for teams to assign those tags doesn’t come until Tuesday, March 6. Usually, when it comes to NFL contract discussions, deadlines spur action, so teams will wait until that deadline approaches to officially use franchise tags, once it becomes clear that they won’t be able to strike a longer-term deal yet with their respective free-agents-to-be.

Even though the action might not heat up for a couple more weeks, it’s worth taking a closer look at what to expect during 2018’s franchise tag period. The NFL hasn’t officially announced the salary cap figure for 2017, but OverTheCap.com recently projected the 2018 franchise tag salaries based on a presumed $178MM cap. Here are the expected non-exclusive franchise tag amounts:

  • Quarterback: $23.09MM
  • Running back: $11.72MM
  • Wide receiver: $16.23MM
  • Tight end: $10.36MM
  • Offensive line: $14.54MM
  • Defensive end: $17.52MM
  • Defensive tackle: $14.53MM
  • Linebacker: $15.47MM
  • Cornerback: $14.88MM
  • Safety: $11.08MM
  • Punter/kicker: $5.06MM

(For a refresher on the characteristics of the exclusive and non-exclusive franchise tags, as well as the transition tag, be sure to check out PFR’s glossary entry on the subject.)

Here’s our look at the most likely candidates to be tagged, along with several more outside possibilities:

Virtual Locks:

  • Le’Veon Bell, RB, Steelers: Last offseason, things got pretty weird between the Steelers and Bell. Just before the deadline to extend franchise tagged players, the Steelers believed that they had agreed on a five-year offer worth roughly $60MM. Ultimately, Bell backed out because he did not find the guarantees and cash flow to be to his liking. Soon after, friend and former teammate Ike Taylor said that Bell wanted a contract that reflects his performance as both a No. 1 back and a No. 2 receiver – something in the neighborhood of $15MM per year. Le'Veon Bell (vertical) This year, Bell topped his 75 catch total with 85 grabs, so one has to imagine that his position hasn’t changed. Despite some retirement threats in January, Bell has indicated that talks are going better this time around. Here’s where things get interesting – the Steelers say that today (Feb. 20) is the “deadline” for a long-term deal to get signed. If not, they’ll go ahead and franchise tag him for a second consecutive season, leaving Bell with a one-year, $14.5MM pact when factoring in the 20% increase. Will Bell buckle and sign a deal that isn’t quite to his satisfaction? In theory, the running back could abstain from offseason activities and even reboot retirement talk in an effort to get the Steelers to cave and abide by the real extension deadline on July 16.
  • Demarcus Lawrence, DE, Cowboys: It has already been reported that the Cowboys will go ahead and tag Lawrence to prevent him from reaching free agency. Once that happens, you can expect the cash-strapped Cowboys to get to work on an extension that will smooth out the $17.5MM cap hit for defensive ends. There won’t be much drama as to whether the Cowboys will or won’t tag Lawrence, but the subsequent multi-year negotiations will be interesting to watch. Lawrence had a rocky first three seasons in the NFL, but he stepped up big in his contract year with 14.5 sacks. The Cowboys must be willing to pay Lawrence like a top DE, but they may insist on protections like an easy escape hatch or heavy roster bonuses in the event that he is injured or suspended.

Strong Candidates:

  • Sammy Watkins, WR, Rams: As our own Micah Powell explained on Sunday, Watkins is a candidate for the tag with mutual interest on both sides in continuing their union. Committing major dollars to Watkins is dicey, however, given his injury history and his somewhat disappointing stat line in 2017. If the Rams let Watkins hit the open market, they’ll risk losing him to other teams with more wiggle room under the salary cap. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. And in a weak crop of free agent wide receivers, Watkins could clean up and leave the Rams without an obvious replacement.Sammy Watkins (vertical)
  • Allen Robinson, WR, Jaguars: Tagging Watkins will be a tough call for the Rams and the Jaguars have a similarly difficult decision to make when it comes to Robinson. Robinson played only three snaps in 2017 before going down with a torn ACL and he didn’t set the world on fire in 2016. However, his 2015 performance – 80 catches, 1,400 yards, and a league-leading 14 touchdowns – makes it hard for Jacksonville to let him walk. In theory, the Jaguars could re-sign fellow free agent Marqise Lee and let Robinson go, but Robinson is clearly the more talented of the two and one could argue that Lee’s late-season emergence was fueled by advantageous matchups. It’ll be pricey, but the Jaguars are suddenly in position to win and they can’t afford to let one of their best weapons bolt.

Toss Up:

  • Kyle Fuller, CB, Bears: Frankly, I’m conflicted on this one. I’m sure Bears GM Ryan Pace can relate. Fuller turned in a strong rookie campaign and an excellent contract year, but he was a victim of the sophomore jinx and an unfortunate knee injury which cost him his entire season as an NFL junior. Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com hears that Fuller will not be with the Bears this year. But, considering that Fuller graded out as Pro Football Focus’ No. 22 ranked cornerback and the position is already a major area of need for the team, the Bears have to at least think about tagging him for $14.88MM. Kyle Fuller (Vertical)
  • Ezekiel Ansah, DE, Lions: Ansah has performed pretty well over the last two seasons, despite playing through some serious pain. The Lions probably aren’t thrilled about extending a one-year, $17.5MM tender to Ansah, but pressure generating edge rushers like him are at a premium. Consider this: Ansah tallied 12 sacks last year despite knee, ankle, and back ailments. Only seven players topped that total: Chandler Jones, Calais Campbell, DeMarcus Lawrence, Everson Griffen, Cam Jordan, Ryan Kerrigan, and Joey Bosa.
  • Case Keenum, QB, Vikings: Is one year as an elite quarterback enough to justify the franchise tag? Maybe, but the Vikings have options at their disposal, including two other pending free agents already on the roster. If the Vikings can’t retain Keenum or Bradford or Bridgewater with a reasonable multi-year deal between now and free agency, they can use their mountain of cap space to get involved in the Cousins sweepstakes.
  • Sheldon Richardson, DT, Seahawks: The Jets had both Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson under contract, but they could only afford to pay one of the two defensive linemen. Clearly, they chose wrong. For all of the headaches that Richardson gave the team, the five-year, $86MM deal given to Wilkerson wound up being a monumental mistake and will continue to be an albatross for the Jets even after they cut him this offseason. The Seahawks gave up a second-round choice and wide receiver Jermaine Kearse to get Richardson – will they make the same mistake and let him get away? Perhaps not, but it would also be a major gamble to tag him at $14.5MM with limited cap space and other holes to address. The best course of action here may be to try and work out a fresh deal without the franchise tag as a floor for Richardson’s camp. If that fails and the two sides can’t come to terms, the Seahawks can at least collect a 2019 compensatory pick.

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Bears Seek To Interview McDaniels, Shurmur

After the firing of head coach John Fox Monday morning, the Bears were expected to look for an offensive-minded coach to take over the role in 2018. Josh McDaniels (vertical)

They began the process Monday night, requesting interviews with Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport reports (Twitter link).

McDaniels is the longtime Patriots offensive coordinator who has called the shots for seven top-five scoring offenses during his tenure with the team. He also has head-coaching experience, leading the Broncos for parts of two seasons in 2009-10. McDaniels is already being sought by a bevy of teams and will certainly be a splash for the Bears.

The Bears have plenty of familiarity with Shurmur, who has been with division rival Minnesota for each of the last two seasons. Under the veteran coach’s direction, Minnesota locked up the No. 2 seed in the postseason while fielding a top-10 scoring offense. Even more impressive is that the unit accomplished the feat without its starting quarterback Sam Bradford or rookie sensation running Dalvin Cook, who were both lost early in the season to injuries. Like McDaniels, Shurmur has already garnered interest from a number of teams.

Either coach would certainly benefit rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who general manager Ryan Pace said will have a say in the team’s head-coaching decision. McDaniels has worked with Tom Brady for much of his career and also helped groom Jimmy Garropolo in New England. Shurmur’s offense has also helped veteran signal-caller Case Keenum produce a breakout year in 2017.

Should they decide against an offensive mind, the Bears might look in house at defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Whoever receives the job is likely to sign a four-year deal to match the extension Pace received earlier in the days.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.