While the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers might just have finished a thrilling Super Bowl, the NFL is only going to get busier in the weeks to come. The league’s 32 teams are planning their offseason agendas, identifying targets in free agency and beginning to narrow down prospects they’ll want to pay close attention to at the scouting combine ahead of the 2020 NFL draft.
Last week, I ran through all 16 NFC teams and projected the first five things each should be thinking about as they prepare for the new league year, which begins March 18. I’ll head to the AFC this week, starting with the East division and then heading west. Here’s the schedule:
Monday: AFC East
Tuesday: AFC North
Wednesday: AFC South
Thursday: AFC West
Let’s start in the AFC with the East, where arguably the greatest player in NFL history might be leaving the only team he has ever known. Nothing dramatic or anything. We’ll get to the Patriots in a bit, but let’s begin with the division’s other playoff team:
Projected 2020 cap space: $82.8 million
1. Pick up Tre’Davious White‘s fifth-year option and extend him. In most cases, we would look at the Bills letting Stephon Gilmore leave in free agency for the Patriots as a disaster. The Bills administration didn’t think Gilmore was worth a franchise tag, but he went to New England and took his game to a new level under Bill Belichick, eventually winning Defensive Player of the Year this past season.
One way to mitigate losing the best cornerback in football is by drafting the second-best cornerback in football, which is what the Bills did one month later by taking White in the 2017 draft. The former LSU star has shown the ability to move around the field and take on the opposing team’s top wideout on a weekly basis. According to NFL Next Gen Stats data, White allowed a passer rating of just 36.3 as the closest defender in coverage last season, which was the league’s second-best mark for corners with at least 200 coverage snaps. Quarterbacks would have been better off throwing the ball into the ground, given that the passer rating for a season full of incompletions is 39.6.
Picking up White’s fifth-year option is academic. Getting him signed to an extension will be tougher. As I mentioned in the NFC section, the cornerback market has been stagnant over the past four years. Josh Norman signed a five-year, $75 million deal with Washington in 2016, while Xavien Howard narrowly topped Norman’s average annual salary when he inked a five-year, $75.3 million extension with the Dolphins last year. Howard’s deal pays only $39.3 million over its first three seasons, though, while Norman’s much older contract netted the recently cut corner $51 million over the same time span.
White’s representatives should look to top Howard’s overall compensation and get a more player-friendly structure to his deal. With Rams corner Jalen Ramsey coming due for what should be a record-setting extension, the Bills should be motivated to get their deal done first. A five-year, $80 million contract with $50 million due over Years 1-3 would make sense for both sides. The good news for Bills fans is that White shouldn’t be leaving Buffalo for a long time.
2. Bring back Jordan Phillips (or find a replacement). The most difficult decision of the offseason for coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane is what to do with one of their breakout stars from 2019. Phillips was a waiver-wire acquisition from the Dolphins in 2018 who signed a one-year, $4.5 million deal to stick around last season, but no one could have anticipated what was going to happen next. Phillips doubled his snap rate and produced more sacks (9.5) in one season than he had over his four prior NFL campaigns (5.5). The only defensive tackle in the league to rack up more sacks was Aaron Donald.
Can Phillips keep that new rate of play up? It’s hard to say. More advanced metrics weren’t as kind to the Oklahoma product. His 16 knockdowns were good, but not great; they would typically be in line with a seven-sack season. According to ESPN’s pass rush win rate methodology, Phillips ranked 71st in the league with a win rate of 10.1%, and he created just five sacks on his own, which was tied for 64th. On tape, while Phillips came up with an impressive bullrush against Rodger Saffold for one sack and managed to take down Ryan Fitzpatrick with no hands for another, four of his sacks would clearly be of the coverage variety. He looked like a functional part of a very good defense as opposed to someone who was the force of nature making things happen.
Phillips is going to get a big raise this offseason, but should Buffalo offer him a significant multiyear deal? It’s a tough decision. With no other obvious candidate for the franchise tag, the logical thing for the Bills to do would be to franchise Phillips and see if he can repeat his feat for a second season before giving him a long-term extension. (Shaq Lawson, who also saw an uptick in his performance, might be an interesting candidate for a transition tag.)
3. Add an offensive lineman. The Bills brought in seven new offensive linemen for Josh Allen last season, and their young quarterback reaped the benefits of extra protection. Now, the Bills need to figure out how they can get that line to the next level. Left guard Quinton Spain and reserve tackle LaAdrian Waddle are both free agents, but the key figure is second-year right tackle Cody Ford, who was the weakest link along the line in his rookie year.
If the Bills want to kick Ford inside to guard, they can let Spain leave. Ty Nsekhe, 34, would be first in line at right tackle, but they would likely want to at least consider bringing in somebody like Jack Conklin as a major upgrade on the right side. Lesser options such as former Panthers tackle Daryl Williams would figure as competition for Nsekhe and short-term depth.
On the other hand, if Ford is going to stick at tackle, Buffalo will probably look to add a guard. Spain could return, and it could promote utility interior lineman Spencer Long to the starting lineup, but it has the cap space to get more aggressive if it is inclined. With Brandon Scherff likely getting the franchise tag from Washington, the best guard on the market would be New England’s Joe Thuney.
4. Add a cornerback. The Bills have finished second and sixth in defensive DVOA over the past two seasons, so while they don’t have many weak spots, they could try to upgrade on Levi Wallace. Taron Johnson is a solid slot cornerback, but Kevin Johnson is also hitting free agency. It wouldn’t shock me if this team added at least one cornerback to either compete with Wallace or take his job in the lineup.
One name that pops out is Norman, given that he played for McDermott in Carolina and is a street free agent. The Bills have gone down the veteran-reclamation route before when they signed Vontae Davis to a one-year deal, which didn’t work out, but Norman, 32, would be a low-cost option with reasonable upside.
Free agent James Bradberry would be the other fellow Panthers corner in play, but he would come at a much higher price tag. More realistically, this is probably a spot the Bills address in one of the first two rounds of April’s draft.
5. Work on extensions for Dion Dawkins and Matt Milano. White will garner the most significant deal from Buffalo’s 2017 draft class, but the Bills have other work to do. Milano has quietly emerged as an playmaker and an above-average linebacker against both the pass and run, with the Boston College product allowing 6.1 yards per completion in 2019. The former fifth-round pick already got a raise to $2.1 million when he qualified for the NFL’s proven performance escalator, but Milano could be in line for something like a four-year deal in the $56 million range.
Dawkins’ deal will be trickier. After he impressed as a rookie, Buffalo traded Cordy Glenn and happily installed Dawkins as its left tackle for 2018, only for the second-round pick to rack up 91 penalty yards and allow eight sacks. The team brought in all those linemen over the offseason but gave Dawkins another season on Allen’s blind side, and he responded with a much more effective campaign. The Bills clearly believe in Dawkins, and they’ll need to spend about $37 million to hit the 89% four-year floor, so his extension could also come this spring.
Projected 2020 cap space: $93.7 million
1. Cut Reshad Jones and Albert Wilson. The Dolphins are hardly in need of cap space, and they would have cut Jones last year if it weren’t for the fact that his salary had guaranteed the year before. Jones is already guaranteed $2.1 million in 2020 and his release would still result in $10.2 million in dead money, but Miami would free up $5.4 million in cap room and save $9.4 million in cash by releasing the former Pro Bowler. Cutting Wilson, who has been limited by injuries to 742 receiving yards over two seasons, would free up $9.5 million in cash and on the Miami cap. These two moves get the Dolphins to $108.6 million in cap space, which should be enough to add a piece or two.
2. Focus on building infrastructure. I wrote about this in September when it became clear that the Dolphins were going to lose a bunch of games, but one of the ways the Browns did themselves a disservice during their tanking effort was by letting go of Mitchell Schwartz. Schwartz was one of the NFL’s best right tackles, and while the Browns were happy to net a comp pick for him in free agency, their logic was faulty.
Schwartz was 27 and would have been a building block along the line for years. Replacing him meant that whoever the Browns did eventually take as their quarterback of the future would be at a disadvantage. It hurt DeShone Kizer and Baker Mayfield. The Browns eventually signed away tackle Chris Hubbard from the Steelers on a larger deal than the one Schwartz got in free agency, and Hubbard has been disappointing. Schwartz just won a Super Bowl with the Chiefs.
To bring this back to the Dolphins, it’s clear that Miami’s plan stretches beyond Ryan Fitzpatrick‘s tenure with the team. The Dolphins need to build their offensive infrastructure now so it’s ready when their quarterback of the future takes over. They’ve already locked up players such as DeVante Parker and Jesse Davis, but they should focus on adding young pieces who are likely to serve as the support network for their quarterback in 2020, 2021 and beyond.
I wonder if the Dolphins will try to emulate the Bills by just adding piece after piece to their offensive line and focusing on depth as opposed to standout individuals. Like the Bills, the Dolphins have one starter they’re definitely going to keep: Davis, who will either stick at right tackle or move inside to guard. Veteran center Daniel Kilgore could come back for another year, but the team is expected to be interested in former Patriots interior lineman Ted Karras, who would likely take over at the pivot.
The tackle spots are key. Miami is more likely to use free agency to target the right side, given that there is a pair of young options in their prime with 26-year-olds Jack Conklin and Germain Ifedi among the unrestricted free-agent pool. (If the Dolphins plan on drafting left-handed quarterback Tua Tagovailoa — they have three first-round picks — the right side would become their long-term starter’s blind side and make a player like Conklin even more appealing.) Most of the left tackles coming free are in their 30s, with major question marks such as D.J. Humphries (injuries) and Greg Robinson (penalties) as the exceptions. The Dolphins seem more likely to address the left side with one of their five picks in the first or second round.
3. Upgrade the pass rush. The Dolphins simply couldn’t get after the quarterback in 2019. They ranked last in sack rate, adjusted sack rate and pressure rate. Taco Charlton led the team with five sacks, and he played only 10 games. Unsurprisingly, given the injuries and turnover in their secondary, they also posted the league’s worst pass defense DVOA.
Miami will return young pieces such as Charlton and former first-round picks Charles Harris and Christian Wilkins, but it needs to add difference-makers along the defensive line. Jadeveon Clowney has suggested he wants to play for a winner, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Dolphins target Dante Fowler Jr., who was born, raised and went to college in Florida. Fowler had 11.5 sacks last season and is still just 26, which means he should still be in his prime as the Dolphins improve over the next few years. Fellow young free agents such as Arik Armstead (26) and Bud Dupree (27) should also be in the discussion.
4. If you love Tagovailoa, move up. If the plan for 2019 was really to Tank for Tua, there’s a chance the Dolphins could stay put and still grab the Alabama star. Tagovailoa’s hip injury and the emergence of Joe Burrow have pushed the presumed first overall pick down to where the Dolphins could conceivably still draft him with the No. 5 selection. The Bengals seem set to take Burrow at No. 1. Washington doesn’t need a quarterback and can take franchise edge rusher Chase Young at No. 2. The Giants don’t need a quarterback at No. 4 and haven’t traded down since 2006.
With the Lions lurking at No. 3, though, Miami could get pipped to its man. Detroit could draft Tagovailoa itself and trade Matthew Stafford. It could credibly move down in a swap with the Chargers (who pick sixth), Panthers (seventh), Jaguars (ninth), Raiders (12th) or Colts (13th), each of whom could be looking for their quarterback of the future. The Jags and Raiders both have an extra first-round pick, while the Colts have the 34th selection to trade. They’re all possible trade partners who could leap ahead of Miami.
If you’re the Dolphins and you’re in love with Tagovailoa, you can’t risk waiting for the Lions to take a defensive piece with the third pick. The Jets sent three second-round picks to the Colts to move up from 6 to 3 and draft Sam Darnold two years ago. If the Lions call the Dolphins and ask for the 39th and 56th picks to move up from No. 5 to No. 3, the Dolphins probably have to say yes.
5. Look for opportunities to create value in the draft. Having said that, the Dolphins should continue to think about their rebuild as a multiyear effort. If they can draft Tagovailoa and a bunch of talented pieces around him with those five first- and second-round selections, that’s great.
If another team gets desperate and wants to make the Dolphins an offer with future possibilities, though, they should be realistic and consider it. Take the 26th pick. Last year, Washington wanted to move up and draft Montez Sweat, and it offered the Colts its second-round pick and a 2020 second-rounder for the 26th selection. Indy took it and turned the 46th pick into the 49th and 144th selections. The 2020 second-rounder Washington sent became the 34th pick I mentioned earlier, which is nearly a first-rounder.
Independent of the players involved, turning No. 26 into Nos. 34, 49 and 144 is a victory for the Colts. Miami should be similarly patient and try to create value in future years if the option presents itself this April.
Projected 2020 cap space: $44.1 million
1. Re-sign Tom Brady. What, you thought I was going to talk about locking up James Ferentz? While it’s fun to think about where Brady might go, a reunion between the future Hall of Famer and the only professional team he has ever played for still makes the most sense. Brady is already comfortable with the coaching staff and still lives in the Boston area, even if his mansion is for sale. The Patriots had the league’s best defense in 2019 and likely give Brady the best chance of winning a Super Bowl relative to the other teams likely to pursue him this offseason.
And from the Patriots’ side, letting Brady leave would mean that $13.5 million in dead money would accelerate onto their cap in 2019. This is an uncommonly deep veteran free-agent quarterback market, and the Pats could target passers such as Teddy Bridgewater or Philip Rivers, but are they really better off with one of those quarterbacks than they would be with Brady? The 42-year-old unquestionably declined in 2019, but that had much to do with his lack of healthy, effective receiving options. A deal that pays Brady $30 million for 2020, likely with voidable years attached for cap purposes, is still the most likely outcome for the league’s most legendary pending free agent.
2. Upgrade — massively — at tight end. If Brady does come back, New England needs to give him more weapons. Where it is going to head seems clear. At wideout, the Patriots already have Julian Edelman, Mohamed Sanu and 2019 first-round pick N’Keal Harry under contract for this season. Unless they can go get somebody like A.J. Green or Amari Cooper, the wide receivers who are going to be available in free agency are going to be of a similar caliber to those three. I could see the Patriots adding a low-cost speed threat, but I don’t think paying $13-14 million per year for somebody like Robby Anderson to play ahead of Harry is where they will go.
On the other hand, the Pats’ tight ends for 2020 are Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo. It’s much easier to upgrade there, and there will be plenty of options in free agency. They should be at the top of the bidding for Hunter Henry and Austin Hooper. Henry is a slightly better blocker, but Hooper has been the far healthier option. Regardless of whom the Patriots prefer, upgrading from LaCosse to Henry or Hooper is where they should focus their efforts this offseason.
I wouldn’t stop at one tight end. The Patriots should target an athletic option such as Tyler Eifert or Jimmy Graham to play as their second tight end and give Brady another weapon in the red zone. It’s a position they should address in the draft, too. Losing arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history without executing a viable plan to at least approximate replacing him was uncharacteristic for Bill Belichick. I can’t see him going through another offseason without correcting that misstep.
3. Convince Devin McCourty to return. The Pats have four regulars from that dominant defense hitting free agency in McCourty, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Danny Shelton. Of the four, I would focus most on McCourty, who would have been a Defensive Player of the Year candidate if he hadn’t been overshadowed by Stephon Gilmore, who eventually took home the honor. McCourty’s intelligence, preparation and ability to communicate from free safety are a massive help to the Patriots in coverage, even when he’s not the primary defender on a given play.
McCourty had been considering retirement in years past, but that apparently isn’t in the cards for the 32-year-old this offseason. When he hit free agency in 2015, the Patriots didn’t franchise their star safety and let him receive offers on the open market. McCourty eventually turned down a bigger offer from the Eagles to come back to the Patriots on a five-year, $47.5 million deal. While I suspect several of the Patriots’ outposts around the league will make McCourty a significant offer on a two- or three-year deal, the Pats should do enough to convince their longtime defensive back to return.
4. Bring back one of the linebackers. I don’t think New England will have the cap space to make the moves mentioned previously and retain all of its pending free agents on defense. Belichick will find a nose tackle on the cheap to replace Shelton. Those aforementioned organizations filled with former Patriots will likely want to make a run at Van Noy, who emerged as a leader for the Patriots at linebacker after being acquired from the Lions. He could be priced out of New England’s range.
The most logical fit would be to bring back Collins, who was a revelation upon his return to the Patriots on a one-year, $2 million deal. There’s no way they will be able to get away with signing Collins on that sort of deal, but having seen what life was like with the rebuilding Browns while making top-tier off-ball linebacker money, the 29-year-old might very well be willing to take a discount to stick with the Pats.
5. Rebuild the special-teams unit. In addition to losing longtime coordinator Joe Judge to the Giants, Belichick has a lot of special-teams staffing to do. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski was struggling before going on injured reserve with a hip injury that required surgery. He has a cap hold of $4.8 million for 2020, and New England could need the $3.5 million it would save by releasing Gostkowski, 36, to make moves elsewhere. At the very least, I wouldn’t be surprised if the team asked Gostkowski to take a pay cut.
One NFL executive once suggested to me that there was a rule in which fans and media members were capable of knowing about only five special-teams gunners and coverage players at any one time. By the end of the last season, the Patriots had three of them in Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner and Justin Bethel, who was cut by the Ravens to preserve a compensatory pick. Slater and Ebner are both free agents, while Bethel’s $2 million compensation is unguaranteed. Belichick would obviously love to keep his special teams stocked with veterans, but the needs elsewhere on the roster might force him to cut back.
Projected 2020 cap space: $56.4 million
1. Pick up Jamal Adams‘s fifth-year option and sign him to an extension. As with the Bills and Tre’Davious White, it goes without saying that the Jets will pick up their star safety’s fifth-year option. After the organization talked with the Cowboys about a possible deal at the trade deadline and seemed to infuriate Adams, it looked as though the 24-year-old’s time in New York would be coming to an end. Things have changed; Adams has said he expects to be extended this season and wants to be in New York.
As a first-team All-Pro and one of the Jets’ few success stories from recent drafts, he isn’t going to come cheap. The natural comparison will be to Eddie Jackson, who made two Pro Bowls and a first-team All-Pro in his first three seasons, just like Adams. Jackson signed a four-year, $58.4 million extension on Jan. 3, which set the top of the safety market in terms of average annual salary at $14.6 million per season. Adams will likely hope to become the first $15 million safety, so let’s peg our estimated Adams deal at four years, $60 million.
2. Rebuild at cornerback. The Jets will cut Trumaine Johnson in the coming weeks. While moving on from one of the most disastrous free-agent signings in recent memory will free up only $3 million in cap space, they will save $11 million in cash on a player who never looked like the guy who starred with the Rams. Darryl Roberts allowed a passer rating of more than 100 in both of his seasons with the Jets, and his $5.8 million cap hit in 2020 is unguaranteed.
General manager Joe Douglas will need to bring in reinforcements to take their place. Relatively unknown players such as rookie sixth-rounder Blessuan Austin and undrafted free agent Arthur Maulet carved out roles as last season went along and should get more opportunities, but I’m surprised the team hasn’t made more of an effort to re-sign slot corner Brian Poole, who was its best corner from start to finish in 2019. Poole will likely look to top the three-year, $25.8 million deal Tavon Young signed with the Ravens last offseason, and the Jets should seriously consider a deal in that range. Adding at least one other cornerback beyond Poole should be in the cards as well.
3. Fix the offensive line. The bad news is that quarterback Sam Darnold was under siege behind a porous offensive line last season. The good news is that most of those linemen aren’t coming back. Starting tackles Kelvin Beachum and Brandon Shell, starting guard Alex Lewis, and late-summer acquisition Ryan Kalil are all free agents. Kelechi Osemele, who was supposed to start at guard, was cut amid one of the many embarrassing fiascos that enveloped the Jets organization during the first half of 2019. Fellow guard Brian Winters has a $7.3 million unguaranteed cap hold and could be cut.
The only offensive lineman on the roster who is guaranteed a starting job in 2020 is third-round pick Chuma Edoga. Douglas, a former offensive lineman himself, could add as many as four starters this offseason. Given that he left the Eagles to join the Jets, I wonder if he’ll pursue Philadelphia swing tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai as a solution on Darnold’s blind side. The Jets could keep Winters to make their life a little easier, but Douglas has a lot of work to do even if they do.
4. Acquire a replacement for Robby Anderson. The organization hasn’t been able to retain Anderson, who should attract significant attention as arguably the best young wideout available in free agency if Amari Cooper and A.J. Green get franchised. Could the Jets consider franchising Anderson to try to create a trade opportunity? Anderson, though, might choose to sign a tag that is projected to come in around $18.5 million. My best guess is that Anderson would come away with something like four years and $55 million if he hits the market without a tag.
Complicating matters for the Jets is the status of Quincy Enunwa, who hit injured reserve for the second time in three years with a neck injury. Anderson and Enunwa are very different players, but New York also might cut Enunwa to free up $2.4 million in cap space, which would possibly leave it more inclined to make a serious run at re-signing Anderson.
If the Jets want to target a downfield threat to replace Anderson, their options would include players such as Paul Richardson, Breshad Perriman and Seth Roberts. Anderson is the most exciting option of the bunch, but he’s going to be more expensive than any of the alternatives. With so many needs elsewhere, New York might need to let Anderson move on.
5. Get edge-rushing help. When Anthony Barr reneged on his agreement with the Jets last offseason and returned to the Vikings, it left Gregg Williams without the athletic edge rusher the longtime defensive coordinator wanted for his first season in New York. The Jets never really found a solution and finished 26th in the league in sack rate at 5.3%. The only Jets defender to top three sacks all season were Adams, who plays safety, and Jordan Jenkins, who is now a free agent.
Jenkins has 15 sacks over the past two seasons. Bart Scott has suggested that total is boosted by coverage sacks, but ESPN’s pass rush win rate analysis is a little more optimistic. The automated analysis suggests Jenkins has won 16.8% of his pass-rush battles over the past two seasons, which ranks 34th in the NFL. He has created 14 sacks over that time with pressures, including nine for himself and five for other players. I don’t think Jenkins is a No. 1 edge rusher, but he should see a multiyear deal on the market.
Ideally, the Jets would be in at the top of the market for guys such as Jadeveon Clowney and Dante Fowler Jr. They desperately need someone in that class to kick-start their defense. With so many expensive problems to solve elsewhere, though, they likely don’t have the money to compete when those guys get deals north of $20 million per year without drastically compromising another spot on their roster.
Douglas can free up an additional $6.5 million by cutting Avery Williamson, who missed all of 2019 with a torn ACL, but there’s little reason to think the Jets will be able to convince another team to take on running back Le’Veon Bell‘s contract without sending a midround pick as part of the package. When it comes down to it, I suspect Douglas will either sign one key pass-rusher in free agency and use his first-round pick (No. 11) on a left tackle or vice versa.