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 sprouting up in Indianapolis next week, 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 which players they'll want to retain from their own rosters heading into the new league year on March 9.
A good offseason, naturally, starts with a good beginning. That's where we come in. Teams like the Broncos and Panthers probably don't need our help, but that's never stopped us before. Over the next few days, we'll run division by division and detail the five moves each NFL franchise should make to kick off their offseason in the right fashion. That can 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've picked out. Finally, the advice is contained within its own world; multiple teams might be ideally interested in going after the same player, or a situation which might make sense for one organization wouldn't for the other.
It's 32 teams, 32 universes. Here goes.
1. Franchise Alshon Jeffery. It's unconscionable to imagine that the Bears -- who have $55.4 million in cap room heading into 2016 -- would let their 26-year-old No. 1 receiver hit unrestricted free agency. Chicago might not be close to coming to terms with Jeffery on a long-term extension, but franchising Jeffery ensures that he stays with the team and eliminates most of his leverage, making it easier for Bears fans to rest at night knowing that Eddie Royal won't be the top receiver in 2017.
2. Release Martellus Bennett. The Bears already cut Jermon Bushrod after the former Saints starter got hurt and lost the left tackle job to Charles Leno, finishing the year having played just 21.7 percent of Chicago's offensive snaps. That saved the team $4.3 million. It can save an additional $5.2 million by wiping another one of the signings from the Phil Emery era off of the books. Bennett seemed to work his way into John Fox's doghouse and unexpectedly went on injured reserve with a "day-to-day" rib injury in December. The Bears don't need the cap space, but it's money the Bears could use on a tight end more to their liking. New offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains worked with Craig Stevens in Tennessee, and the block-first tight end is an unrestricted free agent.
3. Raid the Broncos for Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan. Von Miller would be nice too, but he isn't leaving Denver. Football isn't always as simple as signing the players who played for you elsewhere, but Fox could do worse than using that enormous cap surplus to go after two players who would fill gaping holes in Chicago. The Bears were 31st in defense-adjusted value over average a year ago, and Trevathan would give them a much-needed inside linebacker with capable coverage instincts. Jackson, a force of nature during the playoffs, would be a massive upgrade over the likes of Will Sutton and Jarvis Jenkins as a five-technique end in Vic Fangio's defense.
4. Add a cornerback or three. Corner was mostly a wasteland for the Bears last season, and so Chicago will return former first-rounder Kyle Fuller, slot corner Bryce Callahan, and start over. Tracy Porter showed some signs of life for the first time seemingly since his time with the Saints, so the Bears might very well try to bring him back, but this is a team which badly needs to find a solution or two at cornerback.
Assuming that Josh Norman stays in Carolina, there's no true No. 1 corner about to hit the market, so paying a premium for somebody like Janoris Jenkins might not be ideal. With that being said, the Bears have the cap space to fold a lot of guaranteed money into their 2016 cap, and they might be able to get somebody like Jenkins or Prince Amukamara by guaranteeing them more in the first year of the deal and offering the possibility of playing under Fox and Fangio, two of the best defensive coaches in the game.
5. Bring back Matt Forte. It's technically not too late, right? Giving running backs with as much tread on their tires as Forte a long-term deal is often a bad idea, and the Bears have a promising long-term option in Jeremy Langford, but it just feels wrong to see Forte take his hat in hand and go elsewhere. Again, given how much money the Bears have to work with this offseason, they could very comfortably give Forte a larger-than-expected first-year base salary in lieu of a signing bonus -- all of which would be the same to Forte in terms of when he receives the actual check -- and keep Forte around at a team-friendly price in the years to come. Bears fans who have to watch Julius Peppers on the Packers twice a year deserve better.
1. Cajole Calvin Johnson into returning. Beg, plead, throw a new contract at him, whatever it takes.
2. If/when that fails, use the $11 million created in cap space to find a replacement. The post-Megatron depth chart in Detroit looks mighty thin; it's Golden Tate and, well, Corey Fuller. The Lions can expect Eric Ebron to continue growing as he enters his third year in the league, but they're about to find themselves in need of a starting wideout during an offseason where very few exciting veteran wide receivers are available. (Detroit might address the position during the draft, but it already is down a third-round pick. The Lions do have extra picks in the fifth and sixth rounds, but a fifth-rounder isn't replacing Johnson.)
So that leaves them with precious few options. They could opt for the likes of Jermaine Kearse or Marvin Jones in free agency, hoping to hit on a secondary receiver the way they did with Tate. Maybe they wait for a possible cap casualty, like Mike Wallace (likely) or Vincent Jackson (less likely), to hit the market. Maybe there's a trade possibility if they match up with a wide receiver who needs a change of scenery, like Kendall Wright or Kenny Stills. If Johnson actually retires, though, the Lions need to do something.
3. Find a replacement for Joique Bell. The Lions were wise to move on from Bell, who offered little as a power back and averaged a mere 3.5 yards per carry during his final year in Detroit. The Lions saved $2.5 million on their cap by releasing Bell, and they should head back into the market to find a between-the-tackles back who can complement Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah. On the high end, that could be Chris Ivory; but given Detroit's cap situation, the more plausible options are guys like LeGarrette Blount and Matt Asiata.
4. Bring back Haloti Ngata. Ngata seemed to get better as Detroit's season went along, as the former Ravens star struggled to get healthy before finding his rhythm in the second half. Detroit's defense went from allowing 30.6 points per game before their Week 9 bye to just 19.4 points per game afterward, and Ngata was a huge part of that improvement. While the 32-year-old suggested that he would like to stay in Detroit, the Lions will need to pay up on a short-term deal to keep Ngata in Michigan.
5. Pick up Ziggy Ansah's fifth-year option. Ansah was third in the league in sacks (14.5) and tied for fourth in quarterback knockdowns (34) during his breakout 2015 campaign. The one silver lining in Megatron's retirement is that the Lions will have no trouble locking Ansah up to a long-term deal when they're contractually able to do so next year.
1. Don't listen to Mike McCarthy. If the rumors are true and Green Bay's head coach is "fed up" with Packers general manager Ted Thompson for staying out of free agency, the Packers should pretend the conversation never happened. It's true that McCarthy has won a Super Bowl and helped develop Aaron Rodgers, but Art Garfunkel had some solo hits too. DJ Jazzy Jeff released a couple of solo records. You get the idea. Thompson is one of the more impressive general managers in football, and he has avoided a method of team building that often historically fails to build winners. If McCarthy wants to advance in the postseason, he needs to stop coaching games like he's trying to put off losing.
2. Well, actually, maybe listen to him this one time. Hey, "Bright Eyes" is a pretty good song. McCarthy is right about the Packers needing to move Clay Matthews back to outside linebacker. It's not that Matthews isn't effective on the interior, but there's a reason the league pays elite pass-rushers twice as much as they do talented inside linebackers: They're harder to find and have a bigger impact on games. (It would be reductive here to compare the fates of the two teams in the Super Bowl and their star linebackers, but it happened.)
The Packers don't need to invest a premium on inside linebackers in free agency, but bringing in a cover linebacker would go a long way in moving Matthews back toward the edge, where he's best. It's a position the Packers could wait to address on draft day -- talented prospects like Chris Borland and Eric Kendricks have fallen to the middle rounds in years past -- but there are plenty of veteran options in free agency. Everyone from Derrick Johnson to Danny Trevathan to Jerrell Freeman could be in play for Thompson, if he wants.
3. Sign Matt Forte. Let's have fun and double down a bit. The Green Bay running game was a mess all year, with Eddie Lacy out of shape and James Starks inconsistent. With Starks now an unrestricted free agent, the Packers could opt for a back who complements Lacy's talents. Forte has the versatility to serve as a late-down back and a weapon in the passing game. He has suggested that he isn't expecting to break the bank and wants to play for a Super Bowl winner. Why not the Packers, with the ability to get back at the Bears twice a year for moving on? Both sides have something to gain here, and it wouldn't disrupt Green Bay's cap or development patterns.
4. Work on new deals for Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang. Among the better guard combinations in football, Sitton and Lang are both due new contracts next year. They each rank among the 10 highest-paid guards in football in terms of cap hit, so it might be prohibitive to sign them both to extensions, especially after the Packers brought back Bryan Bulaga last season. In a way, Thompson might need to work backward here; if he thinks the Packers will find a guard or two in this year's draft, he'll probably need to make a choice about signing Lang or Sitton -- the likely winner -- to extensions this offseason.
5. Bring back Casey Hayward if the price is right. In recent years, Thompson has seen some of his talented young contributors sniff free agency before returning to Green Bay. It happened with Sam Shields two years ago, when Green Bay's top corner signed a four-year, $39 million deal. Last year, Randall Cobb made it all the way to March before signing a four-year, $40 million deal to stay in Wisconsin.
Hayward, one of the league's better slot corners, could be the next in line to boomerang back to Green Bay. Any agent worth his or her salt would insist on a good cornerback hitting the market these days -- it would be naive not to, given what corners are getting paid -- but the league might not value Hayward at a $10 million-per-year figure that's being thrown around for cornerbacks who play outside. (Hayward might very well want to prove himself by playing outside more frequently, anyway.) The Packers don't necessarily need Hayward, having drafted Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins last year, but nobody in the NFL sits around and frets that they have too many good options at corner. At the right price, a Hayward reunion would make sense for Green Bay.
1. Cut Mike Wallace and Matt Kalil. The two largest cap hits on the Minnesota roster belong to players who just aren't worth the return. Both Wallace ($11.5 million) and Kalil ($11.1 million) can be released without any dead money appearing on Minnesota's cap, and if the Vikings released both, they would suddenly have more than $45 million to work with this offseason. The team might be attached to Kalil, who was a Pro Bowler as a rookie and could ostensibly respond to new offensive line coach Tony Sparano, but injuries have led the former fourth overall pick to struggle mightily over the three ensuing years, and the young QB he protects is too often in peril.
2. Sign the new left tackle of your choice. There are plenty of left tackle options available for Minnesota in free agency; they include Russell Okung, Kelvin Beachum, Cordy Glenn and even star Ravens guard Kelechi Osemele, who played a handful of games at left tackle last year. Alternately, the Vikings could even keep Kalil, sign Osemele as a massive upgrade at right guard and then move Osemele to the left tackle spot if Kalil flounders under Sparano.
3. Lock up Harrison Smith. The anchor of Minnesota's emerging young defense, Smith has emerged as one of the best safeties in the NFC over the course of his rookie contract. The Vikings have him signed for one more season at $5.3 million as per the rookie fifth-year option, but the 27-year-old is a player the Vikings are going to want to keep around for the long haul. It's not out of the question for Smith to want something similar to the five-year, $47 million deal signed by Devin McCourty last offseason, and the earlier the Vikings lock up Smith, the more leverage they have in keeping Smith from approaching $10 million per year.
4. Sign Leon Hall. Mike Zimmer seems to have one spot in his secondary dedicated to a veteran who used to suit up for him in Cincinnati. The Vikings saw a reasonable return from Terence Newman last year, and while the 37-year-old might still return, the Vikings could upgrade at cornerback with Hall. Hall isn't the outright No. 1 cornerback he looked to be before twice tearing his Achilles, but the 31-year-old still has the range and versatility to play around the defensive backfield. Minnesota's corner pair of the future is Xavier Rhodes and 2015 first-rounder Trae Waynes, but again, nobody in football has too many cornerbacks. A two-year deal for Hall could make everyone happy.
5. Look into adding another receiver for Teddy Bridgewater. The issue with Wallace isn't necessarily that he's a bad receiver; it's simply that $11 million price tag. Minnesota has an emerging young star in Stefon Diggs, a very viable slot receiver in Jarius Wright and a talented tight end in Kyle Rudolph. Cordarrelle Patterson is capable of stretching the field, but he could write TripAdvisor reviews about what it's like inside Zimmer's doghouse. Charles Johnson, too, appears to have fallen out of favor.
There's no No. 1 wideout for the Vikings to go out and acquire, but they could take a flyer on a downfield weapon to fill in a gap in their offense. Again, that could very well be Wallace on a smaller deal. Failing that, Minnesota could take a stab at somebody like Travis Benjamin, who came 34 yards short of a 1,000-yard season this year despite the presence of Josh McCown and Johnny Manziel at quarterback. Benjamin has expressed interest in staying with Cleveland and playing under new head coach Hue Jackson, but things have a way of changing. Andre Holmes, who flashed as a downfield weapon in Oakland before giving way to Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper, could be a low-cost, high-ceiling option.