What’s next for Kaepernick and Griffin? Is Brock Osweiler ready? Who’s at the top of the boards for free agency and the draft? Here are 10 storylines to follow as the offseason takes shape
1. Who is Tennessee taking at No. 1?
Marcus Mariota showed more than enough in his first season to indicate that he’s the franchise quarterback the Titans need. Sitting on the first pick in the 2016 draft, Tennessee has significant holes to fill elsewhere—including, but not limited to, offensive tackle, running back and just about the entire secondary. With no surefire fit at No. 1, new general manager Jon Robinson is inclined to trade down and stockpile picks. Problem is, the draft class is filled with plenty of promising quarterbacks but no can’t-miss studs that would compel a team to make a deal with the Titans, meaning Robinson is unlikely to match the bounty St. Louis collected from Washington in 2012 for Robert Griffin III. (Plus, we all saw how that turned out…)
Key date: April 28. Although Tennessee may tip its hand earlier, this decision will likely come down to draft day.
What should happen: The Titans trade down. The return isn’t superabundant, but they do secure at least one top-tier defensive back and stash depth for their many need positions. Robinson then pays up for a left tackle in free agency (Buffalo’s Cordy Glenn should be the target).
What will happen: Risk-averse Tennessee selects Ole Miss left tackle Laremy Tunsil. An overreach? Maybe. Unsexy? Absolutely. However, the Titans’ 2016 priority is simple: Don’t do anything that jeopardizes Mariota’s development. NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell called Tunsil “as good an offensive tackle prospect as I've seen come out,” meaning the left tackle would be a Day One starter to pair with Taylor Lewan, improving protection for Tennessee’s most-prized asset.
2. Just when you thought you were done with Deflategate…
It’s the cockroach of NFL scandals. More than a year after “PSI” entered the NFL lexicon, Deflategate resurfaces. Even though Tom Brady’s played the entire 2015 season, the NFL is bullish on justifying its initial punishment and won’t let the case die. On March 3 the league’s lawyers will argue in the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York to overturn Judge Richard M. Berman’s decision to throw out Brady’s suspension. This chapter of the soap opera won’t focus on Brady’s alleged role in the scheme to release air pressure from footballs, nor will New England be looking to reclaim its vacated first-round pick or recoup its $1 million fine. Rather, the case hinges on whether Judge Berman misapplied federal law. Brady and the NFLPA are favored to win here; Judge Berman is only reversed about 8 percent of the time. To the NFL, that means one thing: appeal again! Cockroaches are just really hard to kill.
Key date: Feb. 25, when the three-judge panel who will hear the case will be named. As Michael McCann of SI.com explains, this is a crucial piece, as some judges are considered more in line with management (predisposed to favor the NFL) while others favor labor (inclined to side with Brady and the NFLPA). Even though decisions such as Berman’s are rarely reversed, the court rarely hears from lawyers as pricy and experienced as the ones the NFL has retained.
What should happen: The three-judge panel upholds Judge Berman’s decision. The NFL will rest its case, and the word “Deflategate” will be banned from all NFL broadcasts and deleted from iPhone’s autocorrect function forever.
What will happen: The three-judge panel will uphold Judge Berman’s decision. The NFL will appeal, yet again, and litigation will resume for the next 10 years—roughly the amount of time Brady plans on continuing to play.
3. RG3 and Colin Kaepernick get ready for their second act
Washington D.C.’s most beloved celebrity was a 22-year-old kid from Texas, Colin Kaepernick and Jim Harbaugh were on their way to winning multiple championships in San Francisco, and the entire NFL swooned over the read-option: Four years feels like a lifetime ago. We can overload on reasons why Griffin and Kaepernick tumbled from their perches, but the truth is this: Each quarterback’s future hinges on 2016. On first glance, new Niners coach Chip Kelly's uptempo offense seems perfectly suited for Kaepernick, who hopes to rebound from a disastrous 2015. But Kelly has yet to publicly endorse Kaepernick, as the coach famously did with Nick Foles when he took over in Philadelphia in 2013. That could mean the 49ers are willing to move on from their 2012 sensation. Perhaps they fear he is not healthy enough to play. Last month Kaepernick reportedly underwent surgery on his right thumb and left knee. Recovery time treads close to April 1, the deadline when his $11.9 base salary becomes fully guaranteed.
Meanwhile, Griffin’s D.C. dismissal is inevitable as second-year general manager Scot McCloughan banks on life with Kirk Cousins. In free agency, Griffin will generate interest; he’s perhaps the best backup available and still has potential at age 26. Says one AFC high-ranking executive: “I do think there’s a market for Robert, especially because of the way he handled himself last season. He was a total pro, didn’t complain once. That heightened my regard for him, and he’s a great addition for many teams, if the price is right.”
Key dates: Griffin’s $16.155 million option becomes fully guaranteed on March 9. Kaepernick’s $11.9 base salary becomes fully guaranteed on April 1. Both Washington and San Francisco will need to make decisions before then.
What should happen: The two teams cut ties with their former leading men. Thanks for the memories, but banking on mobile quarterbacks with injury histories just isn’t prudent.
What will happen: The 49ers keep Kaepernick. Kelly doesn’t get a drastic roster overhaul in San Francisco, and caters his offense around the irresistible but possibly unsustainable signal-caller. Griffin is released, and signs as a backup in Dallas.
4. The post-Super Bowl makeover
Play a significant role on a Super Bowl team, and someone will offer you a plush new contract come March. Just ask Byron Maxwell. From a club’s perspective, the tradition isn’t quite as attractive. Super Bowl teams are typically beset with salary-cap conundrums. The Patriots, for example, lost Kyle Arrington, Brandon Browner, Darrell Revis, Vince Wilfork and Shane Vereen after last year’s win.
It’s a rarity, but the Super Bowl 50 participants may enter 2016 mostly unscathed. While the Broncos likely will part with Peyton Manning, Denver engineered a contingency plan with Brock Osweiler—as long as the mostly untested backup, set to be a free agent, doesn’t instigate a bidding war. John Elway will also likely retain his splashiest free-agent-to-be: Super Bowl MVP Von Miller. The price will be steep—Miller could top Ndamukong Suh’s record deal in Miami—but Elway is committed to keeping that defense together. In addition, the general manager has already entered contract talks with pending free-agent defensive end Malik Jackson.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman doesn’t face as many quandaries, as he already locked up most of his core—Thomas Davis, Luke Keuchly, Cam Newton, Greg Olsen—and should do the same with 2016 free-agent defensive tackle Kawann Short. Carolina will likely part with veteran wideout Jerricho Cotchery, a loss softened by the return of Kelvin Benjamin.
Cornerback Josh Norman is the leading candidate to earn a paycheck elsewhere, thanks to a breakout season in his contract year. Though the Panthers’ propensity for playing zone hasn’t allowed Norman to prove he’s a shutdown corner— and he has a history of being streaky—he is the best available cornerback in a thin market.
Key date: The NFL Combine, which begins Feb. 24. That’s when contract talks between Osweiler and the Broncos should heat up.
What should happen: Elway must keep Miller, even if that risks losing Jackson. Denver also can’t overpay for Osweiler, who clearly wants to stay with the team that drafted him and may take a club-friendly deal. The Panthers should exercise the franchise tag on Norman, buying them time, and spend the rest of their efforts on locking up Short.
What will happen: Elway figures out a way to keep Jackson, Miller and Osweiler, though the unproven Osweiler have a tough time finding his footing as a starter. The Panthers fill one of their few needs, pass-rushing defensive end, through the draft (Gettleman has a propensity for spotting gems), and Norman stays, with a franchise tag, setting up Carolina to rule the weak NFC South.
5. And the richest free agent will be…
The answer here is obvious: Miller. Whether he stays with the Broncos or cashes in elsewhere, a general manager will mortgage everything to land the league’s rangiest and most explosive edge defender (Super Bowl aside, his electric two-and-a-half-sack performance in the AFC Championship game is reason enough to pay up). With the salary cap growing by about $10 million in 2016, Miller will capitalize. Unless he’s franchised, look for a deal roughly in the six-year, $115 million range.
If the Jets don’t place the franchise tag on defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, he’s a shoo-in for No. 2. The defensive end is a fit for every team no matter its scheme. As for the Panthers’ Norman, his agent says he turned down Carolina’s offer of roughly $7 million per year before this season, believing his client deserves to be paid like Patrick Peterson, Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman, who each make at least $14 million. That’s a bold stance, but Norman will be bullish for top money. And in Kansas City, safety Eric Berry is more than just an inspiring story (returning from cancer to become an All-Pro); the free safety played his way to a payday.
On offense, wideout Alshon Jeffery will lead all skill positions. Left tackle Cordy Glenn (who is only 27) will cash in as an excellent offensive lineman in a mediocre market.
Key dates: March 1, the deadline for teams to apply the franchise tag; March 7, when the “legal tampering” period begins, allowing teams to negotiate with pending free agents but not sign contracts; March 9, when actual free agency begins.
What should happen: Miller stays in Denver. The Texans, operating with cap room for the first time in some time, pay the kitchen sink to land Wilkerson and create a pass rush tandem so feared it will single-handedly win Bill O’Brien job security even if he can’t find a quarterback. Carolina franchise-tags Norman. The Chiefs open the checkbook for Berry. The Giants acquire Jeffery to relieve pressure on Odell Beckham Jr. The Titans sign Glenn as Mariota insurance.
What will happen: What could be a fun year of free agency moves ends up being a snooze. Miller stays in Denver. Wilkerson and Norman receive franchise tags, Jeffery remains a Bear, Glenn stays in Buffalo. Only Berry signs with a different team.
6. Say hello to a new crop of quarterbacks
There are too many teams that need quarterbacks, and too few quarterbacks on the market. The three viable starters set to be free agents—Kirk Cousins, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brock Osweiler—are all expected to re-sign with their current team. The supply-and-demand imbalance should create a fun carousel (at least for those on the outside). The 49ers, Broncos, Browns, Eagles, Rams and Texans are all desperately searching for a franchise signal-caller. At least eight other teams are looking at quarterbacks, as either a viable backup or an heir-apparent for the current starter (Dallas/Tony Romo, New Orleans/Drew Brees and San Diego/Phillip Rivers and all fit this description). Luckily, this draft class is rich with intriguing options. As of now, Cal’s Jared Goff is the prize in this year’s crop, followed by Senior Bowl sensation Carson Wentz of North Dakota State. Connor Cook, Christian Hackenberg, Paxton Lynch and Dak Prescott have all generated first-round mentions over the past 12 months, but let’s remember: pre-draft buzz is just that—buzz.
Key date: Feb 23. The NFL scouting combine begins, and the pecking order will become more defined.
What should happen: The Browns finally get a franchise quarterback by choosing Jared Goff at No. 2.
What will happen: Goff becomes a Brown, and everyone else scrambles to see who the next surest thing is.
7. What happens to Johnny Manziel?
Manziel’s future in Cleveland has felt precarious for some time, especially since the Browns hired Hue Jackson, but after another troubling off-field incident late last month, the quarterback’s entire NFL career might be at risk. On Feb. 6, Dallas police launched a criminal investigation into a domestic violence assault complaint against Manziel. His father spoke ominously to The Dallas Morning News about his son’s struggles, and the 2013 first-round pick was dropped by his agent. Whereas the Cowboys and other teams were reportedly interested in signing Manziel as a backup, it’s unclear whether any team would take the public relations or cap risk of signing Manziel until he seeks significant treatment. The Dallas investigation could lead to an arrest, and he is also subject to possible punishment under the NFL’s personal conduct policy. Manziel’s mesmerizing talents may still have a place in the NFL—remember, he’s not even 24—but he’s got bigger problems than worrying about this free-agent cycle.
Key date: March 9, the date by which the Browns are likely to release Manziel.
What should happen: Manziel will be released by the Browns. No team should even contact him until the Dallas police finish their investigation and the quarterback spends a significant chunk of time away from the game addressing his problems.
What will happen: Manziel will be released by the Browns. Teams will sniff, but he likely won’t be on an NFL roster by training camp.
8. The NFL rule book can’t catch a break
Is it a catch? Is it not a catch? Is it ever going to change? Short answer: Well, you’re not going to like it. NFL officiating was under siege for much of the 2015 season. While the blowback stemmed primarily from high-profile gaffes amplified by the bullhorn of social media, some criticism was legitimate, pointing to systematic problems with the rules. The biggest one is that the rule book is too obtuse. Exhibit A: definition of a catch. Ever since the Calvin Johnson quandary in 2010—and especially since the Dez Bryant fiasco in the 2014 playoffs—the NFL has overreacted by tweaking the catch rule to the point where its definition is so convoluted the play is impossible to officiate in real-time. (Witness the Jerricho Cotchery catch/no-catch in the Super Bowl.) Says Ben Austro, author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules: “Unless there is a rule change, then it will, in my opinion, be the same major issue from 2015.” Commissioner Roger Goodell says he is committed to solving the problem, even forming a committee of experts to look into the rule, but that was apparently just a tease. “We think that the rule is in a good place right now,” NFL officiating director Dean Blandino told the NFL Network last week. “Maybe there is another tweak that we can make in the rule to make it easier to understand. But I don’t anticipate any major changes.”
Key date: March 20, the annual league meeting in Boca Raton, Fla. If there is a rule change, it will happen here.
What should happen:Blandino gets together with the NFL Rules Committee and completely revamps the rule book. They simplify some troublesome rules and remove ambiguous language that plagues officials’ decision-making.
What will happen: Nothing. We’ll be talking about the same thing in 2016 ... and ’17.
9. Speaking of rules… here’s a new one
One of Goodell’s boldest announcements during Super Bowl week was a wild card—a yellow card, actually. The commissioner endorsed a rule change that would eject a player who accumulates two personal fouls per game. (Many quickly noted that Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib, who was flagged for taunting and for a face-mask penalty, would have been subject to such fate in Super Bowl 50.) As a deterrent to excessive behavior, it feels like an overreaction to two outrageous incidents in 2015: the Odell Beckham Jr. meltdown against the Panthers and Vontaze Burfict’s display in the Bengals-Steelers playoff game. Either way, the new rule is good in theory, but a few practical issues must be addressed. For example, do all personal fouls carry the same weight? Will officials become flag-happy and wield too much power over the outcome of a game? Will teams try to bait opponents into committing personal fouls?
Key date: March 20, the annual league meeting in Boca Raton, Fla., where this will be addressed.
What should happen: The league should wait to adopt this rule until it is thoroughly analyzed. Let it simmer for a year, until all of the kinks are worked out.
What will happen: The rule might just pass, as the competition committee often expedites changes that pertain to safety. A high-profile player will be ejected early in the season for a borderline personal foul and the new rule will instantly become more controversial than the definition of a catch.
10. The dust doesn’t settle quite right after Peyton Manning’s last rodeo
He hasn’t officially announced it—and perhaps he will surprise us all—but let’s assume Manning has played his last NFL snap. With his coveted second championship, he cemented a historic career. But his final NFL season was less than graceful. Besides the physical problems that turned Manning into a shell of his Hall of Fame self, two reports in the past three months cast questions on his character, if not his legacy. In December an Al Jazeera documentary suggested that an Indianapolis anti-aging clinic had shipped HGH to Manning’s wife, Ashley, and implied that it was for Manning’s own use (a claim he vehemently denied). Then last week a New York Daily News columnist rehashed a sexual assault incident from Manning’s college years at Tennessee. The report relied on damning details from a 74-page statement of fact from the lawyer of former Tennessee trainer Jamie Ann Naughright, although many of the general details of the case have already been reported.
The NFL opened an investigation into the Al Jazeera claims, although it may not get very far considering that the key figures in the case are private figures and are not compelled to speak to the NFL. As for the Naughright case, she left Tennessee with a financial settlement and reportedly signed a non-disclosure agreement along with Manning to not discuss the alleged incident.
Key date: There seems to be no timetable for Manning to announce retirement.
What should happen: Federal agencies look into clinics like the Guyer Institute, the facility at the center of the Al Jazeera allegations, to determine whether and to what extent HGH is being illegally prescribed off label. As for the incident at Tennessee, the public would like Manning to be forthright about everything that took place, though the non-disclosure agreement clouds that prospect.
What will happen: Both cases will likely linger with Manning as the public shapes his narrative through retirement.
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