Last week I previewed the beginning of each NFC team’s offseason by identifying the first five things it should do during this downtime. Now it’s time for the AFC over the next few days. Here’s the schedule for the week ahead:
Monday, Feb. 19: AFC West
Tuesday, Feb. 20: AFC South
Wednesday, Feb. 21: AFC North
Thursday, Feb. 22: AFC East
Let’s move onto the AFC and begin with the West (in alphabetical order), where we’ll see a new head coach and one new starting quarterback, with another likely on the way in the Mile High City:
1. Cut Aqib Talib and C.J. Anderson. The Broncos floated the idea of trading Talib earlier in the offseason but, predictably, nobody took the bait. Talib is still a useful cornerback, but he lacks trade value, with two years and $19 million remaining on his contract, including a $12 million cap hit this season. Someone could theoretically still trade for him, but it’s more likely the Broncos will move on from the 32-year-old and Talib signs somewhere else on a smaller deal in free agency.
Anderson is a good example of how NFL teams can stumble into bad decisions. The undrafted free agent made the Pro Bowl in 2014 and then lost his job (in part via injury) to Ronnie Hillman in 2015, before finally returning to the primary role during the postseason. The Broncos then decided to tender Anderson at the lowest restricted free-agent level to try to save a couple of million dollars, only for the Dolphins to swoop in with a heavily front-loaded offer.
John Elway then matched the offer. So the Broncos — who didn’t think Anderson was worth a second-round tender just weeks earlier — paid Anderson like an upper-echelon running back and promptly got 23 games of anonymous running back play, with Anderson averaging 4.1 yards per carry.
Denver can free up $15.5 million by releasing Talib and Anderson, money it will want in its pursuit of a veteran quarterback.
2. Go after Kirk Cousins. Speaking of veteran QBs, there’s every reason to think the Broncos should be both all-in for Cousins and one of the favorites to land the former Washington star. The Broncos should be able to make a strong case for Cousins, given the presence of a defense that slipped but still finished tenth in DVOA last season. While their offensive line is still struggling, the Broncos have invested heavily up front, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if their pass protection looked far better with Cousins at quarterback as opposed to the combination of Paxton Lynch, Brock Osweiler and Trevor Siemian.
If Cousins wants to play in Denver, the Broncos will pay up. What would a Cousins deal look like? Assuming the 29-year-old craves the stability Washington failed to offer him, the Broncos are probably looking at a minimum of five years and possibly a six-year contract. Elway tends to avoid larger signing bonuses and prefers roster bonuses early in contracts for cap purposes, but given how massive the Cousins extension is likely to be, the Broncos might not have much of a choice.
There’s no way to make a Cousins deal cheap, but here’s how the Broncos could frame a six-year, $180-million deal with a $40 million signing bonus and an even $100 million payable over the first three years, all of which would be practically guaranteed:
3. Add a tight end. Virgil Green is a free agent. A.J. Derby was waived last year. Jeff Heuerman hasn’t panned out. Jake Butt has returned after missing the entire 2017 season while recovering from a torn right ACL, and you figure he’ll be part of the tight end rotation, but the Broncos probably want to supplement Butt with another tight end to play on early downs.
They could re-sign Green, but it’s not difficult to find a useful blocking tight end in free agency. Lee Smith, formerly of the Raiders, could make sense as the team’s starter in 2018 as the Broncos get to see whether Butt finally becomes their long-term solution as a pass-catching tight end.
4. Lock up Matt Paradis and Bradley Roby. While Elway’s drafts have been middling at best over the past few seasons, the Broncos have one useful contributor on each side of the ball entering the final year of their respective deals. Paradis really emerged in 2016 as one of the best centers in the AFC, and as he enters restricted free agency this offseason, the Broncos won’t make the same mistake they made with Anderson. Paradis likely will be tendered at a high level, and the Broncos will use that as a prelude to an extension.
Likewise, Roby seems likely to emerge after spending years as the third cornerback in Denver’s dream trio alongside Talib and Chris Harris. The Ohio State product suited up for more than 68 percent of Denver’s defensive snaps this past season and is ready to take over for Talib as an every-down cornerback. The Broncos already are handing Roby a raise to $8.5 million as a result of picking up his fifth-year option last offseason, so while Denver could let Roby play out his deal and work on an extension next offseason, it seems more likely they’ll sign Roby to a five-year extension in the $55 million range.
5. Pick up Shane Ray‘s fifth-year option. The Denver pass rush was down across the board in 2017. Von Miller wasn’t as productive as he had been the previous year. DeMarcus Ware retired, and while that opened up a role for Shaquil Barrett in the pass-rush rotation, Barrett only mustered four sacks and 12 knockdowns despite playing 67.2 percent of the defensive snaps.
Nobody fell off more than Ray, who missed the first half of the year with a wrist injury and never seemed to get going. After racking up eight sacks and 21 knockdowns as a situational pass-rusher in 2016, Ray had just one sack and four knockdowns while playing 35.7 percent of Denver’s seasonal snaps. That said, pass-rushers are too valuable to give up on, so the Broncos have to pick up Ray’s fifth-year option, but this will be a critical year for the Missouri product.
1. Cut Tamba Hali. The Chiefs signed Hali to a questionable extension after the 2015 season, one with a structure that basically guaranteed the 34-year-old would be on the roster in 2017. By the end of 2016, the organization probably regretted the decision. Hali lost his starting job to Dee Ford during the 2016 season, then publicly fought for his release before the 2017 season; that release never came. The Chiefs placed Hali on injured reserve to start the year, then had him take only 99 defensive snaps over the second half of the season. Kansas City will save $7.7 million by moving on from their 2006 first-round pick.
2. Pick up Marcus Peters‘ fifth-year option. Peters got suspended for a game last season after briefly losing his mind against the Jets, including a tossing a penalty flag into the crowd. But he’s one of the best cornerbacks on the planet. Andy Reid & Co. might theoretically pass on signing Peters to an extension if there are more flare-ups, but it seems extremely likely that the University of Washington product will be wearing Chiefs colors for the next several seasons.
3. Add an inside linebacker. Kansas City has already announced that it intends to move on from stalwart inside linebacker Derrick Johnson, whose contract voids at the end of the 2017 league year. Now the Chiefs need to find somebody to play alongside Reggie Ragland, who Kansas City acquired from Buffalo before the season.
Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton should have his pick in a market which is perennially team-friendly these days. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Chiefs wait the market out before going after a veteran like Demario Davis or Avery Williamson; they could also look at likely cap casualties, a group which should include Brian Cushing and Jerrell Freeman.
4. Find a backup quarterback. Patrick Mahomes is the starter for the foreseeable future, but the Chiefs need to find a new backup to fill in after trading away Alex Smith. Tyler Bray is an unrestricted free agent, while their previous backup — Nick Foles, who had a big game recently — is probably off the market.
If Tyrod Taylor‘s market fails to develop, the former Buffalo starter would be about as good as it could possibly get as a backup for Reid, given Taylor’s ability to avoid turnovers and his comfort working out of the shotgun as a runner. If Taylor is out of their price range, the Chiefs could look to former deputy Chase Daniel, who has now made more than $24 million as a professional quarterback (including an even $10 million from the Chiefs) for 78 professional passes.
5. Find a punter. Dustin Colquitt is a free agent, and while the 13-year NFL veteran had a solid season in 2017, it’s unclear whether he’ll be back with the Chiefs for another run in 2018. Colquitt had a $4.9 million cap hit last season, which was the most of any punter in the league. If he’s back in 2018, it probably won’t be at that number. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Chiefs use a late-round pick on a punter to develop under stud special-teams coach Dave Toub.
1. Pick up the fifth-year option on Melvin Gordon. Injuries have kept Gordon from emerging as a consistently impactful running back, but the Wisconsin product served as the focal point of the offense for a long stretch in 2016, when he was one of the few left standing. Gordon hasn’t been healthy enough to justify an extension, but he’s good enough to keep around into 2019.
2. Ask Travis Benjamin and Corey Liuget to take a pay cut. Benjamin, the former Browns draftee, hasn’t been consistent during his time in California, having racked up 1,244 receiving yards and eight touchdowns over two seasons. He’s likely the fourth wideout on the depth chart this season behind Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Tyrell Williams, which makes his $5.8 million salary a luxury. The Chargers can save $4.5 million by releasing Benjamin, money they can better apply to weaker parts of the roster.
Liuget has never lived up to the five-year, $51.3-million deal he signed before the 2015 season, offering enough neither as a pass-rusher or as a run defender on a unit which ranked 27th in DVOA in the latter category. He wouldn’t make anything close to the three years and $26.3 million remaining on his deal on the open market, and the Chargers should be interested in getting a discount, if not moving on from their former first-round pick altogether.
3. Re-sign a group of restricted free agents. While most teams don’t have any restricted free agents worth discussing, the Chargers have several worth retaining in wideout Tyrell Williams, safety Adrian Phillips and backup edge rusher Chris McCain. (Cornerback Trevor Williams also is an exclusive-rights free agent, which is a paradox.) The Chargers should be interested in bringing them all back.
Phillips could move into the starting lineup if the Chargers don’t re-sign Tre Boston, who racked up five interceptions in his best season as a pro after coming over from the Panthers. The price for Boston might determine whether the Chargers should bring him back, given that they’ve already invested in Jahleel Addae and Casey Hayward in the secondary and have Jason Verrett signed for one more year at his fifth-year option price of $8.3 million. If the bidding for Boston tops $7 million per year, I would be hesitant to pay up for a guy who the league didn’t really value very much before last season.
4. Lock up Casey Hayward and Denzel Perryman. Speaking of Hayward, the former Packers corner is due for a huge raise after emerging as one of the best cornerbacks in all of football. Hayward’s three-year, $15.3-million deal has been one of the biggest free-agent steals in recent memory for the Chargers, as Hayward has gone from being a slot cornerback with the Packers to a guy capable of competing with any receiver in football anywhere on the field.
The 28-year-old Hayward has racked up 11 interceptions over the past two years; and with one year left on that contract, the Chargers are going to have to offer their star corner a new deal as early as this offseason. There’s every reason to think the Chargers will need to give Hayward an extension in the five-year, $70-million range to stay in Los Angeles for years to come.
Perryman hasn’t been quite as revelatory over the past couple of years. But the Chargers had a significantly better run defense with him on the field, and they got lost for stretches last season while their defensive signal-caller was out injured. The University of Miami product hasn’t been able to stay healthy, having missed 15 games over his first three seasons, but Los Angeles has allowed 4.0 yards per carry with Perryman on the field and 4.8 yards per carry with Perryman sidelined.
5. Make a run at one of the top-tier defensive tackles. Teams are going to copy the Eagles this offseason, and as plans go, you can do worse than bombarding the opposing team with dominant defensive linemen. The good news for the Chargers is that they already have one of the best edge-rushing combinations in football with Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. The problem: The interior of the line hasn’t been as effective.
Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley helped build a Jaguars defense that finally crested after he departed, so let’s try to get the Chargers a dominant interior piece. Sheldon Richardson and Star Lotulelei are both free agents, and while they’re going to help dramatically against the run, Richardson or Lotulelei might not be a third impactful pass-rusher the Chargers could thrive with alongside Bosa and Ingram.
What about Ndamukong Suh? There are rumblings that the Dolphins could cut their highly paid defensive tackle, and while Suh is coming off his least-productive season as a pro, it was still good for 4.5 sacks and 12 knockdowns. If that’s your worst campaign, you’re doing OK. Suh never gets injured and still commands plenty of double-teams. I can see the argument for spending money elsewhere, but if Suh hits the market, he would be a massive upgrade on Liuget on the interior.
1. Release Sean Smith — and don’t stop there. The Raiders already moved on from one starting cornerback by cutting David Amerson earlier this offseason, and they’ll complete the set by dumping Smith, who was a replacement-level cornerback for most of his time in Oakland. Releasing the former Dolphins draft pick will free up $8.5 million. The Raiders will go forward with 2017 first-rounder Gareon Conley at one spot and could re-sign TJ Carrie to play across from him.
General manager Reggie McKenzie has structured most of Oakland’s contracts to keep the organization flexible, and if he and new coach Jon Gruden want, the Raiders can clean house. McKenzie could release Bruce Irvin, Michael Crabtree, Marshawn Lynch and Jared Cook to create more than $27 million in additional cap room, although I don’t think they should necessarily make those cuts.
One move the Raiders should make is to move on from Seth Roberts, who has managed to post the highest drop rate in football over the past three years among wideouts with 100 targets or more. Oakland just signed Roberts to an extension last August, but they can free up $2.3 million by moving on from him. More importantly, they can sign a better third wideout for Derek Carr.
2. Pick up Amari Cooper‘s fifth-year option. Cooper had a wildly frustrating third season in the NFL, seemingly disappearing from the offense for stretches of time before suddenly emerging with big plays. It seems easier to blame his disappearing act on deposed offensive coordinator Todd Downing, given how many other players in the offense struggled this past season. The Raiders will have cause for concern if Cooper doesn’t bounce back in 2018, but they have to pick up his fifth-year option to retain negotiating leverage if they want to sign him to a long-term deal.
3. Extend Khalil Mack. Mack didn’t get close to his (absurd) goal of 30 sacks, finishing with 10.5 sacks and 22 knockdowns. But 2017 was Mack’s third consecutive season with double-digit sacks, making the University of Buffalo product the 22nd player to pull that off during the first four years of his NFL career.
The Raiders have Mack signed for one more year as part of his fifth-year option, but he’s going to be a core player for the team long after they head to Las Vegas. As Alden Gonzalez mentioned last month, the Raiders and Rams might be in a holding pattern atop the pass-rushing market, since Mack’s deal should come in the same ballpark as that of NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.
I mentioned last week that Donald was in line for a six-year, $120-million extension. Mack’s deal might be even bigger by virtue of the fact that he’s a top-10 pick, which impacts the cost of his fifth-year option. Top-10 picks like Mack get paid the average of the top 10 salaries at their position, while first-rounders taken after the 10th spot, like Donald, get the average salary of the players ranked between three and 25 at their respective positions.
As a result, Donald’s fifth-year salary is still a bargain at $6.9 million. Mack’s not stealing money, but his $13.9 million base salary isn’t much of a discount on what he would get as an annual salary as part of a new deal. Donald will probably get more new money, but the $7 million gap between the two means Mack’s deal might look larger once pen hits paper.
4. Sign defensive line help. McKenzie has invested high draft picks up front, but they haven’t really panned out. Mack obviously has been a success, but 2015 second-rounder Mario Edwards didn’t show much in his return from injury last year, while 2016 second-rounder Jihad Ward was a healthy scratch for most of the season. While there are holes behind the defensive line at middle linebacker and possibly at safety next to Karl Joseph, the Raiders need more from their non-Mack defensive linemen to emerge as an effective defense.
The problem: This really isn’t a deep free-agent crop for defensive linemen, especially if Ezekiel Ansah and DeMarcus Lawrence get franchised. The Raiders wouldn’t be in for Ansah or Lawrence, but teams that might have made a huge offer for one of those two stars will instead be putting their money toward lesser players along the defensive front. Oakland could look at Adrian Clayborn, who would play as a defensive end on early downs, then shift inside to offer interior pass-rushing help on third downs. A big offer for Sheldon Richardson also wouldn’t be the worst idea.
5. Take the best player available in the first round. Outside of quarterback and guard, the Raiders are not in a position to pass up a potential difference-maker at any position. While they have needs at the spots I mentioned earlier, Oakland should be willing to take the best player on the board at No. 9 or No. 10 (their pick will be determined in a coin flip with the 49ers at the combine).
Should McKenzie unite a pair of Alabama wideouts, with Amari Cooper and Calvin Ridley? Or a pair of Ohio State cornerbacks, with Conley and Denzel Ward? It’s not difficult to imagine the Raiders improving with either option. Players like Notre Dame tackle Mike McGlinchey and Georgia inside linebacker Roquan Smith could fill more pressing needs, but the Raiders’ roster looks far less impressive right now than it did this time last year. It will take a good draft — and a winning debut under Gruden — to turn that perception around.