NFL

NFL free agency preview, Combine winners and more

NFL free agency is only a week away. Here’s what you should expect to see when the frenzy gets underway in the coming days.

In seven days, the NFL officially allows tampering between teams and the incoming free-agent class. Unofficially, talk has been happening since the beginning of the combine.

Between now and when reporters start announcing deals in principle, you’re going to hear rumors flying everywhere. Some will have merit, and some are simply smokescreens designed to drive up price and entice a bigger market.

During some conversations in Indianapolis, many of them in the wee hours, we can parse a few story lines to monitors.

Le’Veon Bell

Bell will be heavily courted. At 27 years old, the two-time All-Pro literally has half of the league interested in him, per league conversations. While not all of them will make serious offers when next Monday rolls around, at least 14 teams have expressed interest in him and he’s going to have a bidding war for his services.

Two teams to watch? The New York Jets and Oakland Raiders. Multiple sources believe the Jets are going to be heavily involved, as many have expected for months. As for Oakland, the Raiders desperately need a star to sell for both the short and long-term. Bell would be a great fit in that regard.

One other fit? The Baltimore Ravens. With Lamar Jackson under center, Baltimore needs a terrific ground game and a read-option threat. Bell is both of those. It would be out of character for the Ravens to make a splash move like signing Bell, but this is a new age in Baltimore from Joe Flacco leaving to Eric DeCosta taking over for Ozzie Newsome in the front office.

Los Angeles Rams

Out west, the Rams swung for the proverbial fences last offseason. They came only a few feet from hitting a home run.

Now, Los Angeles has to figure out how to move forward. The Rams only have $22 million in cap space with a litany of free agents including defensive tackle Ndamukong Such, safety LaMarcus Joyner, edge rusher Dante Fowler Jr. and guard Rodger Saffold. Per a source, Saffold is likely leaving Los Angeles as he’ll be priced out of the Rams’ range.

For general manager Les Snead, he’s facing a few large decisions over the next year. How much is Jared Goff going to command, and when should Los Angeles try to sign him? After giving up a pair of draft picks for him, is Marcus Peters worth keeping? On the perimeter, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp are both set for free agency after two more seasons. Do extensions come into play next winter?

There are a ton of moving parts in Los Angeles.

Nick Foles and the quarterbacks

On the quarterback market, the only name truly worth a big contract is Foles, who will be a free agent after Philadelphia considered putting the franchise tag on him. While the Miami Dolphins have interest in Foles as a replacement for Ryan Tannehill — who will be cut shortly — the Jacksonville Jaguars are the clear favorites.

Jaguars General Manager Dave Caldwell is opening up space by restructuring Marcell Dareus’ contract while trying to trade running back Carlos Hyde and defensive end Malik Jackson. In both cases, expect releases.

So what will Foles’ asking price be? He’s likely going to search for something in the range of $25 million per year, which is what the tag would have paid him. With few suitors, he may have to settle a bit below that cost, but he’ll be paid handsomely on a multi-year deal.

Kansas City Chiefs

In Kansas City, the Chiefs are remaking their defense. After finishing 31st in yard allowed a year ago, General Manager Brett Veach isn’t being passive. Both outside linebackers may need a change of address form. Justin Houston will be either traded or released soon — with the latter being likely — as first reported by FanSided in February. As for Dee Ford, he is receiving the franchise tag but could be traded for the right price.

The question many in Kansas City are asking is why Houston and Ford, considering the only positive on that unit was leading the NFL in sacks. There’s a simple answer.

The Chiefs currently have $24.98 million in cap space. By moving Houston, Kansas City gains $14 million more. However, Ford’s tag equates to $15.4 million, putting the overall number back at $23.5 million overall. If Kansas City were to cut Houston and trade Ford, the Chiefs would vault to almost $39 million with additional draft capital in a class full of pass-rushers.

With huge extensions coming for Tyreek Hill and Chris Jones, and eventually Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City has to be smart with its money. Paying its third-best pass-rusher $21 million, along with a talented but inconsistent Ford on an eventual long-term deal isn’t smart business.

Los Angeles Chargers

Staying in the AFC West, the Chargers are trying to retain an important part of their defense.

Los Angeles is hoping to bring back inside linebacker Denzel Perryman before the thumper hits free agency, per source. Perryman, 26, is terrific when healthy, but has simply struggled to stay on the field. In four years with the Chargers, the former University of Miami star missed 22 games. That said, his talent is tantalizing.

If the Chargers can’t come to terms with Perryman, there’s going to be a nice market for his services.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Finally, the Buccaneers are attempting to climb out of the NFC South cellar. They’ll have to be creative. After hiring new head coach Bruce Arians, Tampa Bay has new reason for hope. However, there are going to be hard calls ahead on both defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and wide receiver DeSean Jackson. McCoy is due $13 million this season with no dead money on that deal. Jackson is within that same structure at $10 million. In addition, Jackson had a rough relationship with quarterback Jameis Winston last year, per a source with knowledge of the situation.

With only $17.6 million in space and coveted slot receiver Adam Humphries hitting the market, General Manager Jason Licht has to move into action soon.

Only one week to free agency, and then the madness ensues.

Power rankings

Best 10 free-agent signings of all time

1. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints (2006) – Brings a Super Bowl to the Big Easy
2. Reggie White, Green Bay Packers (1993) – Turns an outpost into a champion
3. Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos (2012) – Another ring for the Mile High City
4. Charles Woodson, Green Bay Packers (2006) – Stolen in his prime from the Raiders
5. Deion Sanders, San Francisco 49ers (1994) – Primetime gets San Fran over the hump
6. Deion Sanders, Dallas Cowboys (1995) – Primetime takes Cowboys to the promised land
7. Kurt Warner, Arizona Cardinals (2005) – Warner takes Cards to the Super Bowl
8. Rich Gannon, Oakland Raiders (1999) – From backup to MVP
9. Curtis Martin, New York Jets (1998) – One of the best back ever leaves Pats in his prime
10. Darrelle Revis, New England Patriots (2014) – Revis helps the dynasty continue in Foxborough

Quotable

“I don’t even have to play football if I don’t want. I don’t even need the game, I don’t need to prove nothing to anyone. If they wanna play, they going to play by my rules. If not, I don’t need to play.

– Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown on his future

Brown is continuing to torpedo his value. The 30-year-old surely believes he’s simply telling the truth and forcing his way out of Pittsburgh. In reality, he’s becoming toxic. Despite his immense talents, few teams are going to want anything to do with a player on the wrong side of 30 who says he doesn’t need football.

Worst of all, Brown is not in touch with reality. If Brown doesn’t play, he will be forced to pay back $11.8 million in bonuses he has been paid as part of his contract.

This has become a daily train wreck.

Podcast

Check out Matt Verderame and Josh Hill every week with a new Stacking The Box episode! This week, the guys talk free agency, who won the combine and much more. To subscribe, please go to iTunes, and get all the latest episodes sent to your mobile devices!

Random stat

The Houston Texans are the only NFL team to have never played in a conference title game. Since Houston’s inception in 2002, the New England Patriots have participated in a dozen, including a current streak of eight.

Info learned this week

1. The debate between Murray and Rosen truly begins

With Kyler Murray measuring at 5-foot-10 and one-eighth, and 207 pounds, talk is picking up that he’ll go No. 1 overall. The question is whether that’s to the Arizona Cardinals, or a team that moves into that spot.

The reality of that situation is straightforward. If the Cardinals draft Murray and deal second-year quarterback Josh Rosen, General Manager Steve Keim might as well clean his desk out. It would be a stunning admission that both he’s no longer in charge — head coach Kliff Kingsbury is — and that he brutally whiffed on Rosen. All this only months after Keim fired former head coach Steve Wilks after one year to replace him with a guy who had a losing record at Texas Tech… with Patrick Mahomes.

Should the Cardinals trade out of the spot, they could use the additional draft picks to start rebuilding one of the league’s worst rosters. It seems a no-brainer from that standpoint unless the team firmly believes Rosen is going to be a bust.

If Rosen does hit the market, the Washington Redskins should be heavily involved. Washington desperately need a cheap quarterback for the next few years as Alex Smith tries to recover from his broken leg. Smith’s cap hits are $20.4 and $21.4 million over the next two seasons. Rosen on the other hand comes in at $3.99 and $4.79 million for Arizona over that same span.

2. D.K. Metcalf becomes polarizing prospect

How much do you value production against measurements and 40-times?

The answer to that question likely determines your feelings towards Ole Miss receiver D.K. Metcalf. Metcalf dominated the Scouting Combine, showing up in peak condition. In Indy, the former Rebel measured 6-foot-3 and 228 pounds with 1.6 percent body fat. He also put up 27 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press before running a blazing 4.33 40-yard dash time.

So what’s the issue? Metcalf was hurt in college last year and not overly productive in Oxford. In 12 games as a redshirt freshman, Metcalf caught 39 passes for 646 yards and seven touchdowns in 12 games. In 2018, his season ended prematurely with a neck injury, limiting him to seven games. Before getting hurt, he ranked second on Ole Miss with 26 catches and 569 yards.

The other problem is the complete inability to change direction. At the combine, Metcalf ranked in the bottom third percentile of both the 3-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle. Up until last week, Metcalf was largely considered a borderline first-round pick. Now, teams must decide if he’s worth a much larger investment.

3. Gurley’s knee will be major issue for Rams moving forward

The Rams have to be breathing deep into a paper bag. Late last week, word leaked out that star running back Todd Gurley is dealing with arthritis in his left knee. Gurley, 24, was limited down throughout December and into the playoffs, missing the final two regular-season games before totaling 30 carries in the postseason.

If Gurley does indeed have arthritis, there’s a real chance this becomes a chronic problem both for the back and his team. Los Angeles made a gigantic investment prior to the season, inking the former first-round pick to a four-year, $57.5 million extension including $45 million guaranteed. The contract made him the highest-paid running back ever on an annual or guaranteed money basis.

In fact, cutting Gurley would actually create more dead cap than savings for the Rams until 2022, the penultimate year of the deal.

As explained by Dr. David Chao, the diagnosis isn’t necessarily a harbinger of terrible years ahead. Still, if this situation continues to devolve, it could become a disaster for Los Angeles.

4. Giants moving on from key defensive pieces?

The New York Giants are a fascinating team to watch over the next few days.

New York has $27 million in cap space but wants more. The Giants are reportedly hoping to trade defensive end Olivier Vernon, who is scheduled to make $19.5 million this season. Moving him would save the team $11.5 million, potentially giving general manager Dave Gettleman more room to be aggressive in free agency.

However, the Giants have to first figure out the Landon Collins situation. Collins, 25, is a three-time Pro Bowl and former First-Team All-Pro. The near consensus was that Collins would receiver the franchise tag worth $11.1 million, but that’s now unlikely to take place. Gettleman has been publicly vocal about not wanting to commit huge money on the tag. Furthermore, New York hasn’t had any talks of a long-term deal with Collins.

Don’t be surprised if two Giants’ stars join the free-agent frenzy.

5. NFL cap set at $188.2 million

If you want an understanding of how successful the NFL has been over the last decade, look no further than the rise of the salary cap. The cap is tied directly to league revenues, and it was set on Friday afternoon at $188.2 million for the 2019 season.

At the beginning of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2011, the cap was $120 million. It has since risen by more than 50 percent, showcasing a stunning amount of growth for a sport that has been pacing America’s athletic interest since the late 1960s.

When the cap was introduced in 1994, it came in at $34.6 million. To put that in perspective, Drew Brees’ cap hit this season? $33.5 million.

History lesson

The no-huddle offense wasn’t created by Marv Levy and the Buffalo Bills. It actually originated in Cincinnati, where the Bengals rode their explosive attack to Super Bowl XXIII in 1988.

In the late ’80s, the offense was revolutionary. Cincinnati head coach Sam Wyche devised the offense with Boomer Esiason’s intellect in mind. Esiason turned the scheme into a major success, winning the NFL MVP.

In the ’88 AFC Championship Game, Buffalo actually petitioned the league to make the scheme illegal. Two years later, the Bills made the offensive style famous, riding the K-Gun to four straight Super Bowl appearances.

Parting shot

Of any of the eight divisions, the AFC South stands to change the most in the coming weeks.

The Indianapolis Colts only trailed the division-winning Houston Texans by a single game last season, and now have a league-best $106.4 million to spend in free agency. The Colts can obviously target multiple impact players, putting them in position to make a nice run come September.

As for the aforementioned Texans, they are facing some important defects. Cornerback Kareem Jackson and safety Tyrann Mathieu are both about to get paid, potentially leaving Houston with some holes in an already poor secondary. The Texans have the third-most cap space with $80.9 million, with some of that earmarked to tag outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney. However, if the Texans are going to improve, they need to improve both the offensive line and weapons beyond DeAndre Hopkins.

Jacksonville’s situation was detailed above, but adding Foles would be immense. The Jaguars still have the personnel to field an elite defense, and getting Foles into the mix alongside a healthy Marqise Lee would make the Jaguars a tough out.

Finally, the Tennessee Titans. Tennessee has been linked to having interest in Antonio Brown, although that seems like a poor fit. Head coach Mike Vrabel is no-nonsense, and the Titans are a run-heavy offense with an erratic quarterback. Tennessee’s best approach might be to continue building the offensive line while getting another option on the outside who isn’t Brown. Think Tyrell Williams or Golden Tate.

In the AFC South, free agency might well determine how the standings shake out.

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