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 that starts on 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 the five moves each NFL franchise should make to kick off their respective offseasons in a positive 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 that might make sense for one organization wouldn't for the other.
It's 32 teams, 32 universes. Here we go.
1. Cut Brandon Carr as a post-June 1 release. The Cowboys are perennially strapped for cap space, but they should have about $11 million or so available heading into the 2016 year before signing any of their unrestricted free agents, pending the official confirmation of the 2016 cap figure. (The estimate being used here for numbers throughout this series is a $154 million cap.) With less than $1 million in dead cap space for the first time seemingly since the beginning of the salary-cap era, the Cowboys don't need to squeeze their veteran contracts to create more wriggle room under the cap.
In the case of Carr, though, the Cowboys are stuck with a deal that's underwater. They've restructured his deal in years past to create cap room, but now Carr is a middling cornerback with a premium cap figure. Dallas would owe the 29-year-old Carr $13.8 million to stay on the team in 2016, and while the Cowboys would have been able to eliminate all but $2 million of that money if they hadn't restructured in years past, they would now owe Carr $7.4 million in dead money if they released him in the traditional fashion. As a post-June 1 release, though, Carr would cost only $4.7 million in cap space in 2016, with the remaining $2.7 million hitting the cap in 2017. Under any circumstance, it's money Dallas would be better off investing elsewhere.
2. Don't answer when the Eagles call about DeMarco Murray. A reunion between the Cowboys and their former star running back would make on-field sense for both sides. Murray was an ideal fit in Dallas' system, and while Chip Kelly is gone, the 2014 rushing leader might already be due for a change of scenery out of Philadelphia. (More on that in a minute.)
The problem is cost. The Cowboys would be on the hook for $7 million in guaranteed money this year and a minimum of $2 million (basically functioning as a buyout) with a maximum of $7.5 million in 2017. That's just not a smart investment for a running back like Murray; as talented as he is, 2014 sticks out like a sore thumb in terms of his ability to handle a heavy workload while staying healthy. Dallas can't afford to invest that much money in a running back.
3. Sign Alfred Morris instead. If the Cowboys do want to add a veteran running back from their division rivals, the 27-year-old Morris makes sense. Morris had far more success running in a zone-blocking scheme during offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's time in Washington, is a year younger than Murray, has less of an injury history and was far more consistent than his Dallas counterpart.
The numbers really aren't that much different, either; before both Morris and Murray struggled through frustrating 2015 campaigns, their three-year runs as starters produced roughly similar outputs. From 2012 to 2014, Murray carried the ball 770 times for 3,629 yards (4.7 yards per attempt) and scored 26 rushing touchdowns. Over that same time frame, Morris carried the ball 876 times for 3,962 yards (4.5 yards per attempt) with 28 rushing touchdowns. Murray might be the better player, but Morris will come cheaper.
4. Sign a backup quarterback who isn't Johnny Manziel. It will be tempting for owner Jerry Jones to go after the quarterback he coveted in the first round of the 2014 draft, but Manziel has shown little on the field to go with his abhorrent off-field behavior. Taking Zack Martin over Manziel was one of the best things the Cowboys have done over the past decade.
Dallas does need a backup quarterback, though, and after struggling through the Matt Cassel fiasco last year, it's clear that the team needs a passer who can at least vaguely emulate Tony Romo's athleticism, if not necessarily his effectiveness. Given Romo's propensity for injuries and advancing age, it's a place where the Cowboys genuinely need to invest a premium after years of getting by on the cheap. A deal for somebody like Drew Stanton or Tarvaris Jackson would be wise.
5. Add pass-rush help. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has made a career of turning anonymous edge rushers into superstars, but he needs bodies. Greg Hardy and rotation end Jeremy Mincey are both free agents, and after Hardy created noticeable locker room drama, it's unlikely he'll return. DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory will play meaningful roles, but the Cowboys need depth.
Dallas could try to hit the top of the market and go after Olivier Vernon or Mario Williams (assuming the latter is released), but lower-cost, higher-ceiling options make more sense. Somebody like Aldon Smith could be a fit. One fascinating option if he leaves his current team: Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul.
New York Giants
1. Let Jason Pierre-Paul walk. As much as it might hurt Giants fans to imagine the player who once looked like the team's next defensive cornerstone leaving, it's unclear whether JPP will ever be the superstar he looked to be during the 2011 Super Bowl run. His play has been uneven at best ever since; Pierre-Paul has produced just 22 sacks in his ensuing 51 games. And all that comes without even considering the fireworks incident and Pierre-Paul's ensuing stonewalling of the organization thereafter. This relationship has run its course.
2. Invest in a top-of-the-market replacement. After releasing veteran linemen Will Beatty and Geoff Schwartz and seeing Jon Beason retire, the Giants have a staggering $58.1 million in cap space available heading into the offseason. General manager Jerry Reese has used his cap space in years past to invest in depth players in the middle of the market, which hasn't worked out very frequently; J.T. Thomas, of all people, has the team's fourth-highest cap hit right now.
The Giants badly need to upgrade their pass rush, given that they were 30th in adjusted sack rate last season. Instead of adding a depth piece or two, they need to target a dominant edge rusher and pay him what he's worth. The obvious candidate is Dolphins end Olivier Vernon, who had the league's third-most quarterback knockdowns (36) this past season. Assuming that the Broncos don't let Von Miller hit the market, the Giants might otherwise be stuck hoping that veterans like Mario Williams or Charles Johnson become cap casualties.
3. Restructure Victor Cruz's deal.Cruz missed the entire year with a series of injuries as he continued to recover from the catastrophic knee injury he suffered against the Eagles in 2014. This after the wide receiver signed a contract extension that began to kick in during the 2014 campaign. Cruz will have a $9.9 million cap hit this year, and while the Giants could save $6.1 million by releasing him, the better move for all parties involved is to come up with a deal allowing Cruz to prove himself without costing the Giants a mint. Thomas Davis did the same thing in Carolina several years ago.
4. Find some help for Eli Manning up front. The decision to release the oft-injured Beatty and Schwartz leaves the Giants with three guaranteed starters up front for 2016: left tackle Ereck Flowers, center Weston Richburgand 2013 first-rounder Justin Pugh, who will slot in at one of the three other spots. Upgrading the other two spots along the line should be a priority for Reese, who might undo all of the goodwill accumulated by winning two Super Bowls and drafting Odell Beckham Jr. if he keeps trotting out John Jerry and Marshall Newhouse in 2016.
With the team committed to Flowers on the left side (despite some iffy results in 2015), a right tackle seems like an obvious place to invest. The best right tackle on the market is Cleveland's Mitchell Schwartz, who seems unlikely to come to New York, given that the Giants just cut his brother. Cincinnati's Andre Smith would make more sense. The market at guard is thin at best, with two above-average options -- Baltimore's Kelechi Osemele and Houston's Brandon Brooks -- and a long line of question marks behind them. Reese needs to land a top-tier lineman to keep Manning upright.
5. Bring back Prince Amukamara. While Amukamara is one of many Giants who have struggled with injuries over the past few seasons, he's also a relatively young (26) cornerback who has played above-average football when healthy. The Giants have no obvious replacement for Amukamara on the roster, and while the former first-rounder has played just one full season in five years as a pro, the Giants really don't have many better options staring them in the face in free agency, either. Unless the market finds him an eight-figure annual deal -- and that's not out of the question, given how cornerbacks get paid these days -- the Giants are basically stuck bringing Amukamara back.
1. Don't franchise Sam Bradford. As tempting as it might be to hold onto their 2015 starter after giving up several assets to acquire him last year, the Bradford deal is a sunk cost at this point. We now have another year of evidence that Bradford isn't even an average pro quarterback, and while the idea of keeping him to see what he looks like under new head coach Doug Pederson has some merit, it shouldn't cost the Eagles close to $20 million. That's what it would take to franchise Bradford for 2016, and if his agent thinks Bradford can find that cash in free agency, Philly should call his bluff.
2. Sign Chase Daniel. Without an obvious avenue to a franchise quarterback at the moment, the Eagles should bide their time and work with the options they have. Mark Sanchez has an obviously low ceiling, but he's still one of the league's better backup quarterbacks. It would make sense to pair him with the 29-year-old Daniel, an unrestricted free agent who spent the past three years working underneath Pederson in Kansas City. Daniel is basically an unknown -- he collected $10 million for throwing a total of 68 passes during his three years in Kansas City -- but he's more valuable to the Eagles than he would be to just about any other team in football. It's far more logical for the Eagles to risk $6 million on Daniel in 2016 than it is to pay Bradford three times as much.
3. Lock up Fletcher Cox. While the Eagles are transitioning from a 3-4 to a 4-3 under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, Cox is a scheme-transcendent defensive assault weapon.Philly is reportedly close to a deal that would guarantee Cox more than $50 million, and while the price tag might contain some sticker shock, Cox is one of the league's most underrated defensive players. Albert Haynesworth was a Defensive Player of the Year candidate under Schwartz in Tennessee, and Cox could be a similar force for the Eagles.
4. Re-sign Walter Thurmond too. One of the few positives that came out of Chip Kelly's lone season as general manager, Thurmond took relatively well to his transition from cornerback to safety during his debut in Philadelphia. He can expect a raise on the $3.3 million he earned in 2015, and with the Eagles due to have $29.5 million in cap space available before the Cox extension, Philly can afford this reunion.
5. Don't move on from DeMarco Murray. As tempting as it is for the Eagles to cut ties with as many of the mistakes from Kelly's disastrous season at the personnel helm, and as symbolic as it would be to let Murray follow Kelly out the door, dumping their highly paid running back simply doesn't make sense right now for Philadelphia. They would be on the hook for Murray's $7 million salary in 2016 and a $2 million payment in 2017, all of which is already guaranteed. It would cost the Eagles $8 million to keep Murray this year and $13 million to release him; even if they designated him as a post-June 1 release, Philly would be left $10 million in dead money on their cap this season.
The only way the Eagles can manufacture a cleaner break from Murray this year would be by trading him, and that seems foolish, given that he's at the absolute nadir of his value after a disastrous 2015. A change of scenery makes sense on some levels for both parties, but selling low on a player who looked like one of the best running backs in football a year ago seems shortsighted. The Eagles are better off giving Murray a clean slate while seeing how he jibes with the new coaching stuff. If he fails, Philadelphia can move on next year. And if he breaks out, the Eagles will sure be happy that they didn't dump Murray for a conditional seventh-round pick or some similarly modest return.
1. Franchise Kirk Cousins. There are precious few cases where the franchise tag makes sense for a quarterback; this is one of them. Franchising Cousins would give Washington another year to see if the strides Cousins made during his breakout second half stick over a full season without needing to give Cousins the sort of massive multiyear guarantee he would get from desperate teams such as the Browns or Texans on the free market. The exception would be if general manager Scot McCloughan can use the leverage of the franchise tag to extract an extension on team-friendly terms from Cousins, which also isn't out of the question.
2. Release Robert Griffin III. One of the safer bets of this offseason, despite what Washington might suggest publicly. The move to dump the former second overall pick would free up $16.1 million in cap space without incurring any sort of dead money. It's difficult to even conjure a scenario in which Washington could justify retaining Griffin at this price tag.
3. Refresh the secondary by cutting Chris Culliver and Dashon Goldson. I wrote about the likelihood of Washington moving on from one-half of their starting defensive backfield a few weeks ago. Goldson's $8 million cap hold is wildly out of line with his subpar play, while Culliver's $8 million in guarantees voided after an early-season suspension and preceded a torn ACL. McCloughan would realize $13.5 million in savings by cutting the two players, money he could put toward younger, more talented options (Sean Smith? Tashaun Gipson?) in free agency.
4. Cut Andre Roberts. Next on the chopping block for Washington is another free-agent acquisition gone wrong; Roberts was signed to be a starter, but he lost his would-be job to DeSean Jackson, and then his slot gig to Jamison Crowder. His $5 million cap hit would make him the highest-paid fourth receiver in football, and Washington would save $3 million by releasing the former Cardinals contributor.
5. Sign Danny Trevathan. While McCloughan could use some of the savings from the Culliver and Goldson cuts to invest in the secondary, he also could use help at inside linebacker, where Washington's rotation of options lacks the sort of cover linebacker NFL teams need in 2016. Teams like the Patriots went after Trevathan in coverage because there was so little space left for their receivers on the outside, but the Super Bowl winner would be a massive upgrade for defensive coordinator Joe Barry. With Denver focused on re-signing Malik Jackson and Von Miller, they may be forced to let Trevathan leave.
NFC moves to make
ESPN NFL Insider Phil Savage breaks down some of the moves the Eagles and Cowboys should make to be in position for success in 2016.