The NFL season ended less than two weeks ago, but teams are already beginning to make moves in advance of the new league year, and with the NFL combine next week in Indianapolis, vacations are already over for many. In addition to the scouting bonanza to come, front offices are figuring out their free-agent plans and identifying players they'll want to retain on their rosters heading into the new league year, which begins March 9.
A good offseason, naturally, starts with a good beginning. That's where we come in. Teams such as the Broncos and Panthers probably don't need our help, but that has never stopped us before. Over the next few days, we'll run division by division and detail five moves each NFL franchise should make to kick off its offseason in the right fashion. That could include anything from cutting a longtime contributor to making a big splash in free agency -- or, in some cases, staying out of the pool altogether.
Some teams should be more active than others, so there are a few teams whose five moves extend all the way to draft day at the end of April. Other teams need to be more aggressive by the time the first day of free agency wraps up. Note that these moves aren't always in chronological order, even if they are the first five pressing decisions I picked out. Finally, the advice is contained within its own world; multiple teams might be interested in going after the same player, and a situation that might make sense for one organization won't for another.
It's 32 teams and 32 universes. Here goes.
1. Lock up Kelechi Osemele. Cap space is what the Ravens badly need, but John Harbaugh & Co. can't afford to lose a wildly talented player such as Osemele. He and Marshal Yanda team up to make the best tandem at guard in football, and Osemele even managed to shuffle over to left tackle, his position in college, for a few games amid Baltimore's horrific stack of injuries the past season.
The problem is the offensive line franchise tag will come in at more than $13 million, a figure the Ravens really can't afford to set aside for a guard, even one as talented as Osemele. (The largest cap hit for a guard, for comparison, is the $8.1 million assigned to Kevin Zeitler and David DeCastro). Unless the Ravens have serious reservations about the 26-year-old Osemele's surgically repaired back, they need to find a way to keep their dominant guard combination intact. One way Baltimore could free space would be to find a trade partner for current left tackle Eugene Monroe, but the Ravens have other ways to clear out space. Keep reading.
2. Extend Joe Flacco's deal to create cap space. This day has been coming for a while. When Flacco surprisingly led the Ravens to a Super Bowl win moments before hitting unrestricted free agency, Baltimore was forced to pay a premium to keep him in town. With little cap space -- remember that the Ravens were forced to trade Anquan Boldin for salary relief that same offseason -- general manager Ozzie Newsome had to structure Flacco's deal in a way that pushed the serious salary cap hits into the future.
Well, it's the future. Flacco's cap hit nearly doubles this season, from a modest $14.5 million in 2015 to $28.5 million for the upcoming campaign. More than likely, the Ravens and Flacco's representation built this leap into the deal to force a renegotiation of Flacco's contract, which is likely to happen this offseason. Baltimore could fold most of Flacco's $18 million base salary into a signing bonus spread over the final three seasons of his current contract, but it's more likely that they'll draw up a contract extension to give Flacco, say, a new, five-year deal. (If you're wondering why other teams get hammered for this and the Ravens don't, it's because other teams make this sort of cap panic a habit. Baltimore does not.)
3. Cut Dennis Pitta as a post-June 1 release. The five-year extension the Ravens gave their promising tight end hasn't worked out. Pitta fractured and dislocated his hip during training camp in 2013 and managed to come back by December, which led the Ravens to lock him up the following February. Pitta subsequently reinjured his hip three games into the 2014 season and hasn't played since. It's unclear whether Pitta will play again, and though he has no more guaranteed money left on his deal, his $7.2 million cap charge for 2016 doesn't make much sense to keep. The Ravens would create $5 million in cap space by designating Pitta as a post-June 1 release.
4. Release Lardarius Webb. Another talented young Raven felled by injuries, Webb has torn his ACL twice and has been hampered by a variety of maladies during his professional career. Baltimore has talked about moving Webb to free safety, but with a cap hit of $9.5 million, Webb would be one of the highest-paid players at his new position. The Ravens already restructured Webb's deal to give him a pay cut the past offseason; cutting him might be the simpler solution now. Baltimore would realize $3.5 million in savings by moving on from their former starter at cornerback.
5. Use the money saved to go after another starting cornerback. Expected to be one of the team's strengths heading into the past season, cornerback was a disaster for the Ravens. Webb was a mess, Jimmy Smith didn't look like the emerging top corner he had been before going on injured reserve in 2014, and free-agent acquisition Kyle Arrington was a disappointment in the slot. Baltimore had to turn to castoffs such as Shareece Wright, with expectedly dismal results. With a deep crop of cornerbacks available in free agency, now is the time for the Ravens to go after somebody such as Janoris Jenkins to play across from Smith. Alternately, Baltimore might prefer to wait until the end of free agency and target a cap casualty, as they have in years past, with Elvis Dumervil, Steve Smith Sr., and Arrington.
1. Bring back some semblance of the secondary. The Bengals seem content to let the majority of their defensive backfield hit the free-agent market. Starting safeties George Iloka and Reggie Nelson, and cornerbacks Leon Hall and Adam Jones are all unrestricted free agents. Starting corner Dre Kirkpatrick is in the final year of his deal. Unless Cincinnati knows something about a league-wide move to the wishbone that nobody else has considered, the Bengals need to craft a secondary.
The Bengals don't need the cap space, given that they have $37.9 million in room available heading into the offseason. They're not likely to invest heavily in free agency, given that the only non-homegrown player acquired in free agency and listed as a starter on the depth chart is former Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk.
As such, it stands to reason that they should consider bringing some of these guys back. Moving on from Jones is understandable after his meltdown in the wild-card round, and Hall is 31 and coming off of two Achilles tears, so maybe you don't want to commit to him long-term. You can even make the case that Nelson is 32 and coming off of a remarkably high eight-interception season, so maybe the market will overvalue him. But not re-signing the 25-year-old Iloka? That seems just odd. Marvin Lewis is an incredible defensive coach, and the Bengals will have to do something with former first-round pick Darqueze Dennard this year, but they're letting a lot of talent walk out the door.
2. Pick a wide receiver to bring back, too. The same is true, bizarrely, of the Bengals' two young wideouts. Both Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones are unrestricted free agents, and though starting wideout depth isn't quite as important in an offense with A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert, the next wideouts on Cincinnati's depth chart are seventh-rounders James Wright and Mario Alford. It seems perilous to let both young wideouts leave.
The Bengals probably will address the position in the draft, but among these two, Cincinnati might end up finding Sanu to be the one who returns. In a thin market for wideouts, Jones might be the second-best option available after Alshon Jeffery; teams might look at him as somebody who could undergo a Golden Tate-esque breakout in a bigger role elsewhere. If the Bengals find themselves priced out of Jones' market, they might head toward Sanu by default.
3. Find a new deal for Kevin Zeitler. The Bengals can conjure up some cap space by re-signing their right guard, who -- if you just read the Ravens' section -- currently has the highest cap hit of any guard in football, at $8.1 million by virtue of his fifth-year rookie option. Lewis is probably going to let right tackle Andre Smith leave in free agency this year and replace him with 2015 first-rounder Cedric Ogbuehi. It's hard to imagine him letting another key component of the line leave next offseason, and though the Bengals could wait until then to sign Zeitler, they're better off locking him up now and reducing his 2016 cap figure.
4. Head into the market for depth at defensive end. The Bengals don't often delve into free agency, but when they do, it seems to be for front-seven pieces. They brought defensive end Michael Johnson back after he was cut by the Buccaneers, signed Hawk last year and signed Wallace Gilberry as a rotational pass rusher. With Gilberry again a free agent, the Bengals could use a situational edge rusher to slot in behind Johnson and Carlos Dunlap. Given their well-known proclivity for taking on troubled characters and/or reclamation projects, Aldon Smith or Quinton Coples could make sense in Cincinnati.
5. Pick up Eifert's fifth-year option. We'll finish this one with an easy move, given that the Bengals will surely want to have their star tight end locked up for as long as possible before giving him a gaudy contract extension.
1. Release Johnny Manziel. Let's start the Browns section with an easy one, too. Manziel's cap hit will rise from $2.2 million to $4.3 million when Cleveland releases their former first-round pick, but it's a price the Browns are clearly ready to pay to move on from Johnny Football.
2. Re-sign Mitchell Schwartz. One of the few bright spots for Cleveland over the past few years has been the play of its offensive line. The Browns are likely to lose center Alex Mack, who can void his contract and return to free agency, but they prepared for that by using a 2015 first-rounder on Cameron Erving. (That said, Erving was a mess the past season.) They could keep the rest of their line intact by retaining Schwartz, who has emerged as one of the better right tackles in football over the past couple of seasons.
3. Franchise Tashaun Gipson. Gipson wasn't the same player in 2015, but he had six picks in 2014 before spraining his MCL and missing the final five games. The Browns haven't been able to come to terms with Gipson on a long-term deal, but with more than $38 million in cap space, Cleveland is better off retaining its free safety in the short term and hoping the new regime can find a way to persuade Gipson to stay in the years to come.
4. Cut Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline. The franchise tag for safeties should come in right around $10 million. That's a not insignificant chunk of change, but if the Browns want to get there, they can free up $6.8 million by cutting Bowe and Hartline, veteran wideouts who contributed little to a team going nowhere last year.
5. Take a shot at Brock Osweiler. Unless the Browns are absolutely in love with one of the quarterbacks available with the second overall pick, they might be better off using the pick on a defensive weapon and using their cap space to go after one of the few promising quarterbacks on the market. (The Broncos won't be able to franchise Osweiler with Von Miller probably receiving the tag.) Osweiler is still a question mark, but Hue Jackson has been one of the better coaches in football at developing young quarterbacks in years past. The Browns might not be able to convince Osweiler to jump ship and leave a possible Super Bowl contender, but if they're willing to guarantee him the starting job while the Broncos wait to hear back from Peyton Manning, they might find a window into getting their quarterback of the future for nothing more than money.
1. Sign David DeCastro to a long-term deal. I wrote about Pittsburgh's perennial cap issues back in January, so many of the ideas here are discussed at length there. The Steelers need to clear out cap space to sign departing free agents while locking up members of their talented young core. They can do both by extending DeCastro, who is signed to a one-year deal at $8.1 million on his fifth-year rookie option. A four- or five-year deal for one of the league's finest young guards would lower his 2015 cap hit while ensuring the Steelers have an offensive leader for years to come.
2. Sign Lawrence Timmons to an extension. This isn't a good idea, but it's a necessary one. The Steelers can't justify leaving Timmons with a cap hit of $15.1 million, which would be the league's highest for an inside linebacker by a staggering $5.5 million (counting Clay Matthews as an outside linebacker and assuming the Patriots cut Jerod Mayo). Timmons is a useful player, but pretty good inside linebackers have a cap figure one-third of his.
The Steelers have already had to restructure Timmons' deal twice in five years, and they now have to pay the piper again. To reduce Timmons' cap hold, they'll have to give him a new deal -- probably a three-year contract to spread out what will be a comfortable signing bonus. It's the same thing the Steelers have done in the past, with Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller, and it ends poorly, with the Steelers paying a premium for a player who is a shell of his former self. That's arguably better than paying a reasonably talented inside linebacker as if he's the best defensive player in football, but it's not a solution, either.
4. Try to bring back Kelvin Beachum. "Try" is the operative word here because it's going to be awfully tough. Beachum emerged as one of the league's best left tackles in 2014 before tearing his ACL the past season. The injury should help bring down his market, but at 26, he's going to have all kinds of suitors. Half the league should be interested in signing him. The Steelers will have to get very creative with their contract structure to find a way to re-sign Beachum, but it's a move they should make. Although Alejandro Villanueva was better than Pittsburgh could have hoped in Beachum's absence, he would be a comfortable step down from the player Beachum looked as if he was becoming two seasons ago.
5. Buy low on Le'Veon Bell. After looking like arguably the best back in football in 2014, Bell never got going last year, as an early-season suspension gave way to an abbreviated six-game campaign before Bell tore his MCL and went on injured reserve. That's disappointing for the Steelers, of course, but it might give them a window to sign Bell at a friendlier rate than if Bell had put up a monstrous 2015 campaign. As the 2013 second-rounder enters the final year of his rookie contract, Pittsburgh might be able to save some money while re-signing a player it planned to lock up all along.