Free agency is a time of the year where NFL teams can either improve their roster or blow up their salary cap. I have always taken a view that teams should not use free agency to build their team, but rather spend money to acquire a missing piece that helps put the team over the top. I think a good use of free agency in recent years was the New England Patriots signing free agent CB Darrelle Revis back in 2014. That deal was a one-year deal for $12 million and contained a club option for the second year, which would have paid Revis $20 million and would have counted $25 million against the salary cap.
That signing helped take New England from the 10th ranked scoring defense and the 26th ranked yardage defense to the eight ranked scoring defense and the 13th ranked yardage defense. They went from the 12th ranked fantasy wide receiver defense to the fourth ranked fantasy wide receiver defense. Revis was a big reason they were able to win the Super Bowl that year, he was an All-Pro first team selection. However, they did not blow up their salary cap situation for that season or years to come and they were able to walk away from him the following season without have negative long-term salary cap ramifications.
Compare that to what the New York Jets did that 2015 off-season. They signed Revis to a five-year contract worth $70 million and had $39 million in fully guaranteed money. He made the Pro Bowl in 2015, was a disaster in 2016 and they cut him two years into the deal. They ended up overpaying for him in the 2016 season and they ended up with some dead money when they moved on from him. More importantly, he never really helped their defense and they would have been better off signing a cheaper option in free agency or rebuilding their defense in the NFL Draft. That monster signing made big headlines in the off-season, but never helped them make the playoffs or compete for a Super Bowl. It was that splash signing that is good for publicity, but not for winning.
The NFL Draft is where the foundation for the roster is built and NFL Free Agency is where teams should pick up a missing piece or two to help put them over the hump. Sitting out free agency entirely is also not good, Green Bay fell into that trap most off-seasons with Ted Thompson since 2005 and despite having QB Aaron Rodgers, and they have not appeared in a Super Bowl since 2010. However, it is better to have a GM that sits out free agency and focus on the NFL Draft than to have one that is trying to build the roster in free agency. It is too expensive to improve the roster in free agency alone and GMs that spend too much money there often crash and burn due to big contracts invested in players that are past their prime.
Here are the 10 big storylines that I am looking at in free agency. These are the stories that are going to change the landscape in the NFL for the upcoming season and for seasons to come.
1) Where does QB Kirk Cousins sign a long-term contract? This is a very odd situation, because rarely does a 30-year old quarterback with three consecutive seasons of 4,000 yards passing and 25 touchdowns hit the open market. Usually a quarterback that hits free agency is in decline, at the end of his career or he has some sort of injury concern. There are no questions about Cousins from a health standpoint. He has played 16 games each season over the last three seasons. His production is good and the only question is his W/L record. He is (24-23-1) and he is (0-1) in the playoffs. Seeing Washington’s defense has been below average, it is hard to blame Cousins for all those losses when his QB rating has been 101.6, 97.2 and 93.9 the last three seasons.
The New York Post’s Brian Costello reported that the New York Jets might offer Cousins $60 million in the first year of his contract. That seems insane, because they would have to offer at least 50% of his first year number in the second year of his deal, which means they would be paying $90 million to a player that has never won a playoff game. Also, Cousins may want to take a little less money to go to the Arizona Cardinals, Denver Broncos, Jacksonville Jaguars, Minnesota Vikings or a host of other teams that are in better position to compete for a Super Bowl than the Jets in 2018. Cousins is one of the best quarterbacks to hit free agency in recent years. He could command a fortune in free agency and change the direction of a franchise or cap strap them for years to come.
2) Will the Pittsburgh Steelers apply the franchise tag to RB Le’Veon Bell? He is by far the best running back on the market and ESPN reporter Jeremy Fowler believes the Steelers will use the franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell ahead of the March 6 deadline to apply the franchise tag. That would give the two sides until July to work out a long-term deal. Fowler also is reporting the Steelers have already budgeted the $14.5 million cap number into their free agency spending plans.
It makes sense for the Steelers to want to keep Bell, because he is only 26-years old and he tallied 1,291 yards rushing, 655 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns last year. He is one of the most versatile backs in the league and a player that is capable of handling 30 touches per game. His ability to stop and start at the line of scrimmage and patiently follow blockers makes him a player that defenses struggle to tackle for a loss. The Steelers have a great offense, but they would struggle to find a player as talented as Bell available to them at the back of the first round. It appears that he will be a big part of Pittsburgh’s offense for years to come, but things can fall apart at the end or contract negotiations could stall. Monitoring Bell’s franchise tag status and negotiations will be a big storyline in the 2018 off-season.
3) How big of a contract will free agent QB A.J. McCarron command on the open market? Here is the dilemma for NFL teams. Cousins is going to cost a boatload of money, maybe even a yacht full of money. Do teams want to commit that much money to a quarterback that has won only one more game than he has lost in the regular season over the last three years? Would it make more sense to go for a lower cost option that has more risk, but may have a lot of upside? Roto World is reporting that ESPN Jets reporter Rich Cimini expects free agent A.J. McCarron to command “at least as much” as Mike Glennon on the open market.
That would mean a three-year deal for $45 million with $18 million guaranteed, which is what Glennon signed with the Chicago Bears last year. That his hardly small money, but it is a lot less than what Cousins will cost. McCarron has attempted only 133 career passes with most of that work coming in 2015 when QB Andy Dalton was lost for the season in December with a thumb injury. Somebody is going to give him enough money to compete for a job, I could see the Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos and New York Jets all in play for his services, which could drive up his price even higher than Glennon received last off-season. Teams are going to have to ask themselves if they want to pay a premium price for a safe player like Cousins or if they want to gamble with a lower cost option like McCarron. McCarron has a lot of risk, but if he is able to be a good starting quarterback, he could be a value signing for a team that needs a quarterback.
4) Will New England Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski retire this off-season? I would say the chances are pretty small that Gronk hangs it up, but I do not think it is an impossibility. Roto World has two reports, one from ESPN’s Jeff Darlington, who reported that Rob Gronkowski has been thinking about retirement for “quite some time.” MMQB’s Albert Breer believes “Rob Gronkowski‘s rumblings about retirement are real.” Those are two very respected reporters, so I think to say that he is just blowing off steam from the Super Bowl loss would be understating the possibility that he just retires this off-season.
There are two schools of thought with this decision. Gronk is slated to become a free agent in 2020. He is owed $8 million in 2018 and $9 million in 2019. There is also a $750,000 per-game roster bonus that he is owed in both seasons. He may be trying to renegotiate that deal while he is 28-years old instead of when he is 30-years old and one way to do that is to put out there that he is thinking about retiring. The other possibility is that he is concerned about a growing number of injuries he has suffered in both college and the NFL. In December of 2016, ESPN Staff Writer Mike Reiss wrote about the nine reported surgeries since his final year at the University of Arizona in 2009 — on his back (three times), forearm (four), knee (one) and ankle (one). Now he has a concussion that he suffered in the AFC Championship Game. It is possible that he knows he has other business interests away from football and wants to leave with his health in tact. If he retires, that would be a major blow to the Patriots offense. My expectation is that he plays in 2018, but I am not sure he plays past this current contract. He does not seem like a player that will be healthy enough to play at 35-years old nor does he have the desire to play that long.
5) Will Indianapolis Colts QB Andrew Luck be healthy enough to start in Week 1 this year? NFL.com reporter Tom Pelissero tweeted this off-season, “Reich on the #Colts offense: “We will be a multiple, attack, up-tempo offense. We will be aggressive.” Heavy no-huddle component.” That would be good news for QB Andrew Luck. He is a very smart player that does well in no-huddle and would benefit from a more creative offensive scheme than what he played in during the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
The question is will his shoulder allow him to play in 2018. It kept him from taking a snap in 2017. About all we have heard is that there was debate about whether he would need another surgery. It seems like he will not have another surgery, which is great news. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported in February that Andrew Luck has begun throwing weighted footballs and he is “full steam ahead” for 2018. He also said that Luck’s shoulder is “fine,” and that the problems now involve “parts around Luck’s shoulder.”
Luck is one of the most talented quarterbacks in the league when healthy, but I think all we know at this point is that he has a better chance of playing in 2018 than he did in 2017. How much better is anyone’s guess until all parts of his shoulder are fine. An early sign about his health may be how active the Colts are in free agency. It is going to be hard to convince players to sign there if the perception around the league is that his shoulder is a mess.
6) Who is the one player that will command a ton of money that probably does not deserve money? The Los Angeles Rams are in a bit of a quagmire with Watkins. Last year, they traded CB E.J. Gaines and a 2018 second-round pick for Watkins and a 2018 sixth-round pick. That is a considerable sum for a player they rented for just one year, which would be the situation if they do not franchise tag Watkins and allow him to walk in free agency. If they franchise tag him, they will be on the hook for over $16 million, which is a steep price to pay for a receiver that had on 39 receptions for 593 yards and eight touchdowns. Granted, the Rams were a run-oriented offense, but that is not enough production for a receiver in any offense. It is especially not enough production for a player that will make $16 million per year if the Rams tag him.
Watkins is a huge gamble for any team that signs him to a long-term deal. On the positive side, he had enough talent at Clemson that the Bills traded up to the fourth spot to select the talented wide receiver. In the second half of the 2015 season, he tallied 49 receptions for 900 yards, seven touchdowns and 18.3 yards per reception. His 18.3 yards per reception were a league-high for the second half of the season and Watkins caught 70 percent of his targets, second only to Pittsburgh Steelers WR Antonio Brown, who hauled in 72% in the second half of the season. The Bills grew frustrated with foot injuries though and decided to trade him last off-season and while Watkins did stay healthy, he had a subpar season. A year in the system could serve him well and the talent is there for him to live up to a monster contract. However, he could have had just a fluky season in 2015 and be just another guy, which is a big gamble for a $16 million franchise tag or a long-term contract. He definitely does not deserve either coming off a season with 39 receptions for 593 yards and eight touchdowns.
7) Who is the one player that will not likely generate a ton of interest that could be a really good player in 2018? For some reason, I have not given up on former Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB Doug Martin. He is a perplexing player, because when he is on, he is capable of 1,500 yards from scrimmage and double-digit touchdowns. He was an All-Pro First Team selection as recently as 2015. However, he has had two down seasons in a row, tallying only 550 yards and 490 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns each season. That is the big reason Tampa Bay decided not to resign him, they wanted to save the $6.75 million it would have cost to keep him.
Martin is not too old at 29-years old to be a lead back and he has only 1,150 career carries, which is fantastic for a back of that age. He is going to be available for a running back needy team at a cheap price. I think one thing to consider is that Tampa Bay was 27th in rushing yards gained and their offensive line was ranked 30th by Pro Football Focus heading into the 2017 season and they did not play very well this year. Also, the play calling was a disaster in Tampa Bay, so I am not sure any back was going to do well down there. I do not think Martin will ever be a featured back again and his best hope is to be the lead back in a RBBC on a team that needs a veteran running back. At the right price, he could end up going to a team that has a better offensive line and play calling and he could be a cheap free agent signing nobody really talks about in March that contributes to a team in 2018.
8) What will the market look like for New England Patriots CB Malcolm Butler? Butler was one of the best stories of the 2014 season. He was an undrafted rookie that came out of nowhere to make a huge impact in the Super Bowl by intercepting Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson at the one-yard line on the final drive of the game to preserve a 28-24 victory for the Patriots. He followed that up with a Pro Bowl 2015 season and he was a very good player in 2016 and 2017. He led the New England Patriots by playing 97 percent of their defensive snaps this year. However, something happened before the Super Bowl and he was demoted to special teams and he played no defensive snaps in a game where the Patriots surrendered 41 points and 538 yards.
Los Angeles Rams CB Trumaine Johnson is probably the best cornerback on the market and he will not be back in Los Angeles now that the Kansas City Chiefs traded CB Marcus Peters to the Los Angeles Rams. He also is going to cost a boatload of money, so some teams may decide to go with a cheaper option and acquire a player that has been in three Super Bowls and appeared in 11 playoff games. The only question is why did a player that has never been a problem child ended up being benched for the Super Bowl. There have been rumors that Butler missed curfew, but the Patriots have not confirmed that and Butler has denied all the rumors around his benching. Teams will have to do their homework and make sure that they are not signing a locker room headache, but Butler has no other blemishes on his resume, he is a good football player and after Johnson, he is the best cornerback on the open market.
9) Who is going to be willing to pay big money to former Seattle Seahawks TE Jimmy Graham? This is where free agency can be the cause of salary cap hell for teams that pay for production from five years ago. In 2013, Graham was a beast with 86 receptions for 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns. He was both a touchdown threat and a vertical threat with an average of 14.1 yards per reception. If he were on the open market, he would easily be worth $12 million per season. The problem is that player is not on the market. The one that played in Seattle last year had only 57 receptions for 520 yards and 9.1 yards per catch. His value was as a red zone threat; he had 10 touchdown receptions. He is still a very good player, but he is not 2011-2014 Graham. He is a third down possession threat and a red zone option and that needs to be priced into his value.
He could be a good value, because he never fit into the Seattle offense and he is only 31-years old, so a change of scenery could cause him to have a rebound season. He also could be on the decline and injuries could have robbed him of his once special skills. There has been speculation that Baltimore would like to add him. I could also see a team like Green Bay or San Francisco wanting to add him to their roster. He still has a lot to offer a team with an established quarterback, but it has to be at the right price. He is probably never going to be that player that could top both 1,200 yards receiving and post double-digit touchdowns. He is worth adding to the roster, but if a couple teams become interested, it could drive up the price above what a team should be signing a red zone tight end threat. It will not go as high as $12 million per season, but it could be high enough that it becomes a contract a team regrets a year or two down the road.
10) Who will sign with the Cleveland Browns this off-season? Cleveland is a fascinating team in free agency. They have been a terrible team in recent years. They are (1-31) since 2016 under head coach Hue Jackson and the previous year they were (3-13). That means they are (4-44) over the last three seasons and they are in the midst of one of the worst runs in NFL history. Over The Cap.com estimates they also have an estimated $110 million in cap space this year. They have a new GM in former Kansas City GM John Dorsey, former Green Bay Director of Football Operations as an assistant GM and former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley as their new offensive coordinator. It will be interesting if those changes, that cap space and the knowledge they have the first and fourth pick in the NFL Draft will convince free agents to sign there and who they are able to convince to buy into the Browns as a team moving in the right direction.
Other teams with a ton of cap space according to Over The Cap.com are the San Francisco 49ers ($74.4 million), the Indianapolis Colts ($74.1 million), the New York Jets ($73.1 million) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ($71.1million). All those teams missed the playoffs and will be looking for a big off-season to turn their fortunes around. The teams with the least cap space are the Philadelphia Eagles (-$9.6 million), the Miami Dolphins (-$7.4 million), the Kansas City Chiefs ($0.01 million), the Pittsburgh Steelers ($6.5 million) and the Baltimore Ravens ($10.3 million). Those teams will be looking to shed back contracts and renegotiate contracts to create enough cap space to fill the holes they need to in 2018.
Free agency is almost here. The March 6th deadline is fast approaching for teams to franchise tag players. The Miami Dolphins already tagged the first player of the 2018 season, extending a franchise tag to WR Jarvis Landry. Teams are already negotiating with their own free agents. Starting March 12th to March 14th, teams can start negotiating with pending free agents on other teams. On March 14th at 4 pm, teams can finally start signing free agents and the 2018 league year will officially begin. There will be a ton of news over the next month as teams try to make the big signings that help their team become a Super Bowl favorite in 2018.
We will be monitoring all the signings to see how it impacts the teams and your fantasy league. I will have an article up that recaps the big signings in free agency in March. Nicholas Lord and I are going to record our first Ghost Ship since the 2017 on March 05th that previews free agency. We will record a free agency recap show on March 19th. We will also have a NFL Combine Recap and a NFL Mock Draft 2.0 after the NFL Combine. We will be on top of all the Free Agency and NFL Draft news that will help us give you the best rankings this summer to help you win your fantasy leagues. We cannot wait for the 2018 NFL off-season to begin.