NFL Mailbag: Mark Your Calendar for NFL Offseason Madness

Plus, reader questions on Nick Bosa vs. Chase Young, Mike Zimmer’s future, the QB situations in New Orleans and Indianapolis and much more.
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We’ll get to your mail in a second, but first – We’re right in front of what could be the wildest offseason since football free agency was introduced 27 years ago.

Tom Brady and Philip Rivers have an open road to the market, and technically Drew Brees does as well. The Titans have a decision to make on Ryan Tannehill and the Bucs on Jameis Winston, and depending on where those situations go, there could be big-game hunters on the market. Las Vegas’s (it’s going to take time to get used to writing that) Jon Gruden is lurking on the periphery of all this.

Of course, there’s a scenario here where things end up being quieter than anticipated—and that would start with Brady returning to New England. But with each passing day that all these quarterbacks remain unsigned, the likelihood rises that everything will go in the other direction, and we’ll have a historic amount turnover at the game’s most important position. But before we get there, we have some checkpoints to get through.

NFL Scouting Combine, Feb. 23-March 2: Obviously, each QB-needy team will get a good shot in Indy to look at, and talk to, the 2020 draft’s signal-callers, and compare them to what might be available on the veteran market. But there’s more here than just that. There’s also the crush of agents and team officials in one place, where there will be plenty (cough, cough) hypothetical conversations over what might be to come. Also it’s worth noting that, over the last decade, two of Brady’s Patriot contract extensions were done right around the time of the combine. So if New England’s going to try and sign Brady before free agency starts (even that’s not a sure thing), it’d probably happen here.

Franchise tag window, February 25-March 10: We know the Chargers won’t tag Rivers. Tennessee and Tampa Bay have their own decisions to make. Should they decline to tag Tannehill and Winston (and fail to get those guys signed to deals otherwise), competition on the market for quarterbacks would be amped up, both with the teams as suitors and the players as possible fallback options for others. It’s also within this window that, presumably, Dallas will tag Dak Prescott (unless they get a deal done). The non-exclusive tag number for quarterbacks projects to about $27 million. The exclusive number is $31.26 million, but could rise if quarterback deals are done between now and the draft.

Oregon Pro Day, March 12: Justin Herbert’s last go-round for scouts en masse.

Tampering period, March 16-18: The first wave of free-agent activity is routinely done within this 52-hour window. And this two-day period will set the pace for the quarterbacks. If Brady goes into it like any other free agent would, we could see others coming off the board quick. If he wants to take a tour, do the teams press pause on their own quarterback plans until he decides? Can the individual quarterbacks afford to wait? That, obviously, would be a complicated dance.

Deadline to tender restricted free agents, March 18: The immortal Taysom Hill (before this becomes a headline: yes, that’s a joke) will be tendered by the Saints before this deadline; the question will be at what level. Tendering him at the first-round level, meaning a team signing him to an offer sheet would have to surrender a first-round pick if the Saints didn’t match, would mean putting in a qualifying offer at around $4.7 million. The second-round tender will likely land around $3.2 million. And the decision by New Orleans will determine just how available Hill is to other teams, and play into how active the Saints are with outside options at the position.

All hell breaks loose (maybe), March 18: Free agency starts. Buckle up!

Alabama Pro Day, March 24: Tua Tagovailoa probably doesn’t do much at this one—he’s hoping to have a personal pro day when he’s healthier, in April. But you can bet teams looking at drafting him will be bringing the cavalry to Tuscaloosa anyway.

LSU Pro Day, April 3: We’ll see if the picture on Joe Burrow, the first pick, and the Bengals is any clearer by the time the scouting community descends on Baton Rouge.

Deadline for RFAs to sign offer sheets, April 17: Routinely, teams will wait until close to this deadline to ink RFAs to offer sheets, because that’s when the cap space has dried up. And by the time you get here, a player’s original team may have executed a sort of Plan B.

NFL Draft, April 23: And this should be the conclusion of the winding two-month road in front of us, with Burrow, Tagovailoa and Herbert finding new homes.

And with that, your questions …

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From Shedrick Carter (@shedrickcarter2): There hasn’t been a lot of cuts yet. Do you think teams are waiting to see if the new CBA will be signed before they start making moves?

Shedrick, no. Most teams are in draft meetings right now, and putting together plans for 2020, and that’s usually when cuts are discussed and finalized. I don’t think the CBA is the reason we haven’t seen a rash of releases yet.

But you do raise an interesting point—and if teams are holding on to guys that I thought would be cut a couple weeks from now, my radar will be up. Certain guys (Falcons RB Devonta Freeman, Browns DE Olivier Vernon) are unlikely to return to their teams regardless of this, mostly because their production no longer matches their pay. The closer calls? I could see it, with an expectations the NFL’s economics could change quite a bit.

At this point, I’d say the most likely path to the league doing a deal right now includes a 17-game season. Additionally, I’d say the only way the players agree to that is with significant financial inducements. And if a new deal starts right away, with the final year of the old CBA ripped up, the cap could, in theory, and jump immediately, which would give teams some breathing room. So that’s a really good thought, Shedrick.

From DefendTheDen (@Vretz2121): If you had to give a percentage, what is the likelihood the Lions move back from 3, given Mia, SD, Car and possible TB/ Indy all seem QB needy? Thx.

Defend, I think the Lions would absolutely listen. But a couple things would have to happen for that to go down. First, a quarterback not named Joe Burrow would have to get hot—and that would probably have to happen either with Tua Tagovailoa finding a way to minimize durability concerns or Justin Herbert convincing teams that he can grow out of his collegiate inconsistency. Second, Chase Young would have to go first or second overall.

If Young falls to 3, I think the Lions would almost have to take him. If he goes second, then either Tagovailoa or Herbert is there, and they have a market. And with the five teams you mentioned potentially in play, Detroit then could probably hold an auction. Even better, if they could stay in the Top 5 (via a trade with Miami), there’s a chance they’d still be in position to get someone like Ohio State CB Jeff Okudah.

From Hynes (@hellohynes): Last week on @Toucherandrich, you seemed to make a case for the Pats to NOT re-sign Brady because of how old the team was. Can you go into more detail on this? While I would love Brady to be on the Pats, if he has nothing around him—can fans expect anything more than a WC berth?

Hynes, I’d be happy to go deeper into that. Nine of the Patriots’ 11 defensive starters will be 29 or older by the next month, and free agent Kyle Van Noy is the only one of those nine that won’t be 30 by the end of this year. In May, receiver Julian Edelman will turn 34 and Marcus Cannon will turn 32, and the best young player New England has on offense is probably guard Joe Thuney, who’ll hit the free-agent market in a few weeks.

So the Patriots need to make a decision, Do we run it back one more time with that group? Or is this the right time to cut the cord, make cold decisions, and get a lot younger? If the answer is the former, then there’s no better quarterback for them than Brady. If it’s the latter, we’re talking about something else altogether, and it might not make sense for either player or team to go forward with one another.

And I know that sounds crazy, that the fate of other pieces would determine whether or not a proud franchise says goodbye to perhaps the greatest player of all-time. But that’s the logical reality. If the Patriots are rebuilding, keeping a 43-year-old quarterback at a high price, given where they are cap-wise, probably doesn’t make sense. Nor would it make sense for Brady to stick around, on a team that’ll need a couple years to regain its footing.

One last thing here: I actually think the Patriots may have ripped the Band-Aid off last year, had a gritty, tough group of vets not went on the run they did at the end of the season. Some in the organization might actually see significant roster turnover as overdue.

From michael christopher (@Bigdogz1318): If Chase Young was in last year draft who would have went first Nick Bosa or Chase Young. Who do you think Jets top free agent signing will be with joe Douglas running them now?

Michael, I love Nick Bosa. But I believe Chase Young would’ve gone first, if it was Chase Young right now, coming off the year he just had. Both guys are incredibly technically sound (Buckeyes DL coach Larry Johnson deserves credit for that), play with great effort, and are good enough to build a defense around. So the key word here is “traits”. Bosa’s are elite. Young’s are generational.

When I’ve talked to scouts the last couple months, Young’s compared physically to Jadeveon Clowney, Julius Peppers and Mario Williams. That’s what would separate him from Bosa, in what I think would be a relatively close call.

As for the Jets, I think Priority 1 will be fixing the offensive line, and Douglas has good opportunity in front of him to pull it off. I like the idea of poaching Joe Thuney from the Patriots to play guard, and drafting a left tackle (Andrew Thomas? Mekhi Becton?) with the 11th pick. After that, it’s fair to say that corner and edge rusher would be among the priorities, with Dallas’s Byron Jones and Jacksonville’s Yannick Ngakoue the top guys at those respective spots.

From TheCupofJoeintheD (@CupofJoeintheD2): Will the #DallasCowboys pay #Dak the 40M/yr He wants? Will Mahomes become the first 50M/yr QB?

That’s a lot of hashtags, Cup. I think the Cowboys paying Dak Prescott that much will boil down to the quarterback’s patience. If he’s willing to go through with being tagged, and wait for Patrick Mahomes deal to get done, his price goes up. If he’s willing to play on a tag, and take another swing in 2021 under a new CBA, it could go through the roof—just ask Kirk Cousins. So we’ll see how hard a line he takes on this.

And Mahomes won’t get $50 million per—not this offseason. While there isn’t much the Super Bowl MVP could ask for that would be out of line, doing something in the range of $40 million per is right around where this probably lands. Remember, he has two years left on his rookie contract, and generally if a team does a new deal that early, it’s going to be looking for a little giveback.

Now, if he’s willing to wait for a new CBA and new broadcast deals? Then, the numbers could get crazy. But for Mahomes, getting a life-changing contract now, and limiting that extension to, say, three years (allowing for another bite of the apple before he turns 30) would be a common-sense conclusion to the coming negotiations.

From Sam Minton (@sam_minton22): Do the Pats select a QB again this year?

Sam, I’d advocate for the Patriots to pull three different levers, if Brady leaves. The first would be creating opportunity for incumbent Jarrett Stidham, who has solid physical traits and had a very encouraging first year. The second would be to take a flier on a veteran reclamation project, maybe someone like Marcus Mariota. The third would be drafting one in the first three or four rounds—Georgia’s Jake Fromm projects as a good fit.

To me, there’s no price you can put on finding your franchise guy. You may remember Pete Carroll and John Schneider went through Matt Hasselbeck, Tarvaris Jackson, Charlie Whitehurst and Matt Flynn in Seattle, before landing on Russell Wilson. And earlier in the offseason that the Eagles traded up twice to get Carson Wentz, they’d given Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel deals worth a collective $25 million per year.

Know why most people don’t remember all that? Because the Seahawks and Eagles wound up getting it right in the end. So I’d advocate the Patriots pulling every lever to do the same.

From Craig Ginsberg (@CraigAdamG): Any discussions of Vikings extending Zimmer?

Craig, there were plenty of rumblings on Mike Zimmer’s future at the end of last year, and there were even murmurs that the Redskins could make a run at GM Rick Spielman. The reality is Minnesota has a very talented core that’s getting a little older, and fairly significant change could be just a year or two away. It’s certainly possible that ownership will look at Zimmer within that context—and whether or not they want him captaining a rebuild.

All that said, I think Zimmer’s been what so many of us thought he’d be over all those years he was getting passed over—a very solid head coach that gets the most out of his players, and that players play hard for. He went 7-9 his first year and has made the playoffs three times in the five years since, winning two division titles in that time, advancing in the postseason twice, and finishing .500 or better every year.

Will they extend him? Maybe they give him a token one- or two-year extension. Functionally, I’m not sure it makes much of a difference. In the end, the decision the Wilfs make on him will be about whether they want him shepherding in the team’s next era.

From Jay (@RedskinsCult): Assuming Brees retires, do you think New Orleans makes a play for Brady or Rivers?

Jay, if Brees retires, I think Sean Payton probably makes an effort to keep the two guys currently on his roster—Teddy Bridgewater’s a free agent and Taysom Hill’s a restricted free agent—in hopes the two can compete for playing time in 2020. I do believe there’s a part of Payton that’s probably excited about the prospect of having to do it a little bit differently than he has the last 14 years.

And while that would be going on, I think the Saints would be open-minded to adding someone through the draft. They will, of course, be out of range for a Burrow, Tagovailoa or Herbert. Want realistic names? For the same reasons, Fromm would be a good fit for the Patriots (ability to handle volume, play point guard and lead), I’d think Payton would like him. I also think Payton might look at Utah State’s Jordan Love and say, “I can fix him.”

From Tyler Schmidt (@teachgeek90): The week 1 starting QB for the Colts will be...?

Tyler, it might surprise you to hear this, but you actually aren’t the first person to ask me that this offseason. As of right now, my understanding is the Colts are keeping their options open. They’re picking 13th overall, which might put them out of range to get one of the Top 3 quarterbacks (though Tagovailoa would be an intriguing fit for Frank Reich’s RPO looks. So it wouldn’t be a shocker to see team stopgap the position for 2020.

That might mean bringing in a vet (Rivers’ connections in Indy, to both Reich and OC Nick Sirriani, are well-documented) to start, or compete with Jacoby Brissett, and maybe taking a flier on a quarterback later in the draft. And then, looking at finding a long-term solution next offseason. We’ll see. Whoever’s playing quarterback there, will have a very solid young roster around him.

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