Sorry, its long.
Don't be afraid to skip down to the Vikings section.
Five offseason moves to improve every NFC North, South and West team
ESPN Staff Writer
Let's hit the NFC North, where the Bears made a (somewhat) surprising run from worst to first, while the rest of the division collapsed. The Packers fired their coach, and the Lions and Vikings both moved on from their offensive coordinators. Can anyone catch up with the league's best defense?
1. Find a meaningful competitor for Cody Parkey. Even if Parkey's missed kick in the wild-card game was actually tipped by an Eagles defender, it's difficult to imagine the embattled Bears kicker having a real future in Chicago. Going on the "Today" show to discuss the miss seemed to irritate much of the organization, and the crowd is going to turn on Parkey the first time he misses a kick at home in 2019.
The ideal replacement would be beloved former Bears kicker Robbie Gould, but he might not want to return to the organization that cut him in 2016, and the 49ers could put the franchise tag on their 36-year-old stalwart. The Bears signed Redford Jones to a reserve contract, but they have every reason to target a veteran such as Matt Bryant or Cairo Santos. The Bears will have to eat $5.1 million in dead money to cut Parkey, but he represents a sunk cost at this point.
2. Pick between Bryce Callahan and Adrian Amos. The only two notable free agents for the Bears are in the secondary, where Amos has quietly rounded into an above-average starter amid the unmissable playmaking ability of fellow safety Eddie Jackson. The depressed safety market from the 2018 offseason and the presence of bigger names such as Earl Thomas, Lamarcus Joyner, Tyrann Mathieu and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix could keep Amos' price down.
At corner, meanwhile, Callahan built upon an underrated 2017 season with an even more impressive 2018, before going down with a broken foot in Week 14, which ended his season. Callahan benefited from playing on an excellent defense at multiple levels, but it's also telling that the winning touchdown pass from the Eagles in that postseason tilt was thrown to Golden Tate against Sherrick McManis, who was Callahan's replacement in the slot.
Of the two, I think the Bears probably will end up re-signing Amos. They've already committed serious money to their two outside cornerbacks in Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara, who will have a combined $23 million cap hit in 2019. The cornerback market is thinner than the safety market, which will make Callahan more of a precious commodity. Callahan also hasn't managed to complete a full 16-game season as a pro, and he has missed 16 games because of injury over his four seasons in Chicago.
3. Sit out free agency. The Bears are missing their first- and second-round picks as part of the Khalil Mack and Anthony Miller trades, respectively. In 2020, they'll send their first- and third-round picks to what will then be Las Vegas, although the Raiders will send their second-round pick back to Chicago. Nobody in Chicago is complaining about the Mack trade after last season, but the Bears are missing a lot of draft capital.
They should do what they can to try to generate compensatory picks over the next couple of years, and while it's tempting to try to go all-in for that one last missing piece, that move rarely pays off. If they lose Callahan, they should be able to recoup a fourth-round compensatory pick for their departed cornerback. When you consider that the Bears drafted Jackson and Tarik Cohen in the fourth round in 2017, a compensatory fourth-rounder might turn out to be a valuable asset.
4. Cut Dion Sims. The Bears have just under $6 million in cap space after re-signing Bobby Massie, so they probably want to clear out a little room to fill out the back of their roster, especially with those missing picks. Sims has value as a blocking tight end, but his $6 million cap hit isn't in line with what similar players such as Michael Hoomanawanui will make in free agency. Sims played only 17.9 percent of Chicago's snaps last season, and that was with Adam Shaheen missing most of the season. The Bears can free up $5.7 million by releasing the former Dolphins draftee.
5. Find a 2020 replacement for Jordan Howard. While Howard excelled during his rookie campaign in 2016 and has been a productive running back, his efficiency metrics have fallen throughout his career. Howard averaged 5.1 yards per carry and posted a 49 percent success rate as a rookie. In 2017, he averaged 4.1 yards per rush, and his success rate fell to 42 percent, which was 35th in the league. Last season, while Howard's success rate popped back up to 50 percent, he averaged just 3.7 yards per carry.
Cohen is the running back who really seems to excel in this offense, although consistency is a problem for the 23-year-old. Chicago should likely expect Howard to move on after the 2019 season, and it should start looking for a back to shoulder his half of the workload as early as this April.
1. Cut T.J. Lang and Glover Quin. The move to sign Lang simply hasn't worked out due to injuries, as the former Packers standout has missed 13 games over the past two seasons with an assortment of ailments. Lang is still an effective player, but after suffering his fifth concussion in 2018 and finishing the season on injured reserve with a neck injury, it's unclear whether Lang wants to continue his career. It's difficult to see him coming back at his $11.5 million cap number under any circumstance.
As for Quin, the 33-year-old safety hasn't been the difference-maker we saw earlier in his career with the Lions. Again, in a market full of talented free safeties one year after the league seemed disinterested in the position during free agency, Quin's $7.9 million cap hit is probably out of line with what he would get on the open market. A pay cut could make sense if Quin wants to stick around, but he would likely be looking at a one-year deal for less than $3 million if Detroit decides to move on.
Cutting Lang and Quin would get Detroit to about $45 million in cap space, and the Lions could get to over $50 million by releasing Nevin Lawson and trading Teez Tabor, neither of whom have emerged as a reliable corner next to Darius Slay.
2. Find a starting corner. About that, actually ... the Lions are still trying to find a second cornerback to play alongside their Pro Bowl starter. D.J. Hayden didn't impress. Lawson can't stop committing penalties, as his 11 flags from a year ago were second in the league, behind Robert Alford. Tabor, a second-round pick in 2017, was a healthy scratch in four games last season, and it wasn't because the Lions were getting great play at corner.
It's probably too early to give up on Tabor, but the Lions can't depend on him to suddenly blossom into a starting corner after two wildly disappointing seasons. Detroit needs to find a solution, and the options in free agency aren't exactly sure things. The Lions would be taking a major risk by spending $10 million or more per season on a player like Ronald Darby.
More plausibly, the Lions will pursue a corner in the draft. They've been popularly linked to LSU corner Greedy Williams with the eighth overall pick, and while they might prefer to add pass-rushing help, Williams would address an issue that has flummoxed the team for years.
3. Go all-in for Trey Flowers. The options at edge rusher in free agency are more promising, even if you assume that DeMarcus Lawrence, Jadeveon Clowney, Dee Ford, and Frank Clark are all likely to be franchised. The Lions got 14.5 combined sacks from former Giants Romeo Okwara and Devon Kennard, but with Ezekiel Ansah all but sure to leave Detroit, they need to add a No. 1 pass-rusher.
The obvious match here is with Flowers, whom Matt Patricia coached in New England. The Patriots don't seem likely to franchise Flowers, and with a trickier cap situation, Detroit general manager Bob Quinn can comfortably outbid his former employer for their best pass-rusher. The price tag might be shocking -- Flowers could very well hit five years and $80 million -- but the 25-year-old has 17 sacks on 61 knockdowns over the past two regular seasons and postseasons. The 45 percent rule suggests Flowers would typically have produced about 27 sacks over that time frame given his knockdown total, so it wouldn't shock me to see Flowers take another step forward in 2019, regardless of where he ends up.
4. Draft a tight end. The ideal scenario for the Lions would be to draft Williams in the first round and follow up with a tight end in Round 2, given that the only tight ends left on the roster are Michael Roberts and Jerome Cunningham. The tight end pool in free agency isn't very enticing, but this looks to be a deep draft for tight ends, with three placing among the top 30 prospects in Scouts Inc.'s rankings. Rookie tight ends generally aren't very productive, but the Lions might be able to find a plug-and-play starter such as Irv Smith Jr. at No. 43.
5. Grab a slot receiver. Detroit won't use a slot receiver as frequently as it transitions from Jim Bob Cooter to new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, but it still needs to add someone capable of working in the slot to replace the lost production from Golden Tate. A reunion with the Tate, given his likely price tag in free agency, doesn't seem likely.
If we look toward former Patriots, one possible candidate would be Danny Amendola, who is likely to be released by a rebuilding Dolphins team given a lofty cap hit. Another low-cost option would be Jermaine Kearse, who caught 26 of his 37 passes a year ago out of the slot. If the Lions want to go into a higher tax bracket, they could look at Adam Humphries or former Packers standout Randall Cobb, who is still just 28. Quinn also should have an instinct for finding slot receivers after spending time in New England, where it's an entry-level course for personnel executives.
Green Bay Packers
1. Let Clay Matthews leave. A few years ago, I wrote about the hometown premium, where a player who has spent a long time making significant money at one stop might construe an offer from that team as insulting, even if it reflects his actual market.
I suspect the hometown premium could pop up with Matthews this offseason. The six-time Pro Bowler just finished a five-year, $66 million extension that didn't live up to expectations. In the five seasons before the extension, Matthews produced 50 sacks and 106 quarterback knockdowns. Over the five seasons covering that extension, Matthews generated 33.5 sacks and 83 hits. Matthews moved to inside linebacker for stretches of that extension, and he should be applauded for his versatility, but the reality is also that inside linebackers don't typically get paid in free agency in the way that edge rushers do.
Matthews is still a useful player, of course, and he'll have a market if the Packers don't re-sign him. But in a year in which there are plenty of other edge-rushing options in free agency and at the top of the draft, Matthews is probably looking at something in the yearly range of $5 million to $6 million if he goes to a contender.
2. Bring back Muhammad Wilkerson. The former Jets standout impressed with the Packers before going down with a broken ankle in Week 3. He had signed a one-year deal to try to rebuild his value after a disappointing end to his tenure in New York, and after the ankle injury, he likely is going to be staring down another prove-it deal. The Packers should give him a second chance to do that.
3. Bring in a free safety. The Packers traded Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to Washington and moved Tramon Williams to free safety last season. But even if you think Williams played well in his new role, he will turn 36 in March, and he can't be considered a long-term solution. Williams also has a $6.4 million cap hold, and the Packers could release the veteran to free up $4.8 million and get to $39 million in space.
The free safety market is full of options this offseason, and if GM Brian Gutekunst wants to make a return foray into unrestricted free agency, the Packers could viably add someone like Tyrann Mathieu or Lamarcus Joyner. Mathieu's playmaking ability seems particularly tantalizing for a defense that ranked 30th in interceptions per drive last season.
4. Use one of the first-round picks to draft an edge rusher. If the Packers let Matthews go, they'll run into 2019 with Kyler Fackrell and Nick Perry as their edge defenders. It's tough to think they're going to be a great duo next season.
Perry had just 1.5 sacks in nine games, and he hasn't yet completed a full 16-game campaign as a pro.
Fackrell came out of nowhere to produce 10.5 sacks, but those sacks came on just 12 quarterback hits. Typically, pass-rushers will turn about 45 percent of their hits into sacks, and players who dramatically outproduce that rate tend to decline the following year. Fackrell cleaned up on a few coverage sacks and had three sacks in which he narrowly tripped or pulled an opposing quarterback down as he passed by. Two of his sacks came against backup linemen in for injured starters. Six of his sacks came against Josh Allen and Russell Wilson, two of the league's most sackable quarterbacks -- and passers Fackrell won't see in 2019. Fackrell did have more impressive sacks -- he even picked one up against Andrew Whitworth -- but it's unlikely he'll get to double digits again in 2019.
The first round of this draft is full of front-seven pieces, and the Packers have two first-round picks after trading down with the Saints last year. Green Bay isn't in position to draft someone like Nick Bosa, but with the 12th and 30th picks, the Packers should be able to come away with at least one impact pass-rusher to replace Matthews.
5. Add at least one wide receiver. Davante Adams was targeted 169 times last season, the second-highest total in the league, behind Julio Jones. The Packers might have the worst receiving corps in football if Adams were to go down injured, as their starting wideouts would become Geronimo Allison, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown. Those are three young wideouts who each flashed for a game or two in 2018, but Allison was undrafted, Valdes-Scantling was a fifth-round pick and St. Brown was a sixth-rounder. The Packers need to invest in a second wideout with Randall Cobb leaving town.
The free-agent wideout class isn't exactly appealing, although it sure seems like Golden Tate would be able to develop an easy rapport with Aaron Rodgers out of the slot. Jamison Crowder also could make sense at a cheaper price point. Using one of their four top-75 picks on a wide receiver might be more plausible. Going into the season with something beyond Adams and hope at wide receiver is critical.
1. Extend Sheldon Richardson. The Vikings have some tough choices to make on defense, thanks in part to the fact that Kirk Cousins has a $29 million cap hit in 2019, the third highest in football. There's also no way to meaningfully restructure Cousins' deal, so the Vikings basically have to let it ride and make cost savings elsewhere.
One player I wouldn't let go of, though, is Richardson. The 28-year-old had another above-average season as an interior disruptor in his debut with the Vikings, racking up 4.5 sacks and 16 knockdowns -- second on the team behind Danielle Hunter's 19. Hunter managed an unsustainable 14.5 sacks on his 19 knockdowns, so it would be reasonable to expect some regression from him in 2019.
As a defensive tackle, Richardson's franchise tag figure is projected to land somewhere around $15.4 million, nearly double the one-year, $8 million deal he signed with the Vikings after leaving Seattle last offseason. He is likely not going to get that on the free market.
Something close to the five-year, $50 million deal that Star Lotulelei signed with the Bills last year makes more sense. Richardson could join his fourth team in four seasons this March, but for something in the range of $10 million per year, both sides could be satisfied with extending his stay in Minnesota.
2. Let Anthony Barr leave and negotiate with Everson Griffen. Barr will have one of the more fascinating markets in the league as a rangy outside linebacker without the sort of pass-rushing numbers we typically associate with highly paid front-seven pieces. I'm confident some team is going to give Barr a deal north of $10 million per season, but after re-signing Hunter and Eric Kendricks last year, it's probably not going to be the Vikings.
With just $5.8 million in cap space even before re-signing Richardson, the Vikings will have to create room to fill out their roster by shedding at least one large salary. The most plausible move would be to cut Griffen, who left the team in September while struggling with his mental state, then returned in October. The 31-year-old Griffen is still an effective player, but Stephen Weatherly played well in Griffen's absence, and Minnesota would create $10.5 million in cap space by releasing their three-time Pro Bowl end.
The Vikings could instead ask Griffen to take a pay cut or keep him around for another season. If they hold onto Griffen, they could create a similar amount of space by releasing the duo of Andrew Sendejo and Mike Remmers, but the Vikings are weaker at safety and along their offensive line than they are at defensive end.
3. Rework the offensive line ... again. Let's get to Remmers here. One of the many spring pursuits we see as Minneapolis thaws out is GM Rick Spielman reconfiguring the Vikings' offensive line, a unit that has improved and declined in almost perfect harmony with the Vikings' broader success over the past five seasons.
Let's try to narrow down the game of musical chairs. Third-year center Pat Elflein is going to stay at the pivot. Brian O'Neill, a second-round pick in 2018 who impressed at right tackle in his rookie season, is penciled in to start there again in 2019. Rashod Hill started the season at right tackle, but he's probably Minnesota's swing tackle in 2019. Remmers, who originally was signed to play right tackle, moved to right guard in 2017 before struggling mightily last season; he is likely to be released, which would free up $4.6 million in cap space.
We're left with three spots in the starting lineup, one of which will go to Riley Reiff. Which one? If you believe the rumors, it might be left guard. In a familiar story, the Vikings signed Reiff to play left tackle, but after two seasons, they think Reiff might be a better fit on the interior. His arms have been a concern going back to his time at Iowa; the Lions drafted Reiff to play left tackle, but after four years on Matthew Stafford's blind side, Detroit drafted Taylor Decker and moved Reiff to the right side.
Reiff isn't the prototypical left tackle, but do the Vikings have a better option? They can't afford to go out and sign Trent Brown in free agency. The 6-foot-6 Hill is massive, but there have been no signs he can play left tackle at the NFL level. It looks like the Vikings will hope to draft one of the tackles with a first-round grade at the 18th spot while simultaneously moving Reiff to guard, but even that would be turning over one of the most important positions in the lineup to a debuting player.
We haven't even touched on who might replace Remmers at guard, and that's in a market where there really isn't much talent available at the position. The Vikings could sign a center like Matt Paradis and move Elflein to guard, but that's a whole other can of worms. Let's just say the line is going to look a lot different in May than it does in February.
4. Explore the trade market for Trae Waynes. One other way to free up space would be to move on from Waynes, who has a $9.1 million cap hold for his fifth-year option. Consistency was an issue earlier in his Vikings tenure, but he has grown steadier and become less of an obvious target for opposing quarterbacks. From what I saw, Waynes was only the primary defender on one touchdown in 2018, when the Rams isolated Waynes against Brandin Cooks for a 47-yard score, and even that took a great throw from Jared Goff.
Are the Vikings likely to sign Waynes to an extension, though? It's a tough call. He will be hitting free agency in 2020 as a 27-year-old who looks to be a very solid No. 2 corner, if not a true shutdown top-tier player. Those guys can get paid: Malcolm Butler picked up a five-year, $61.3 million deal last offseason, and it was coming off of a disappointing 2017 season and that infamous benching in the Super Bowl. If Waynes plays the same way he did in 2018, some team is going to give him an even larger deal in 2020 than Butler's.
It's difficult to picture the Vikings paying that sort of money, given their cap constraints and roster construction. Xavier Rhodes had a disappointing 2018 while battling through injuries, and he is two years older than Waynes, but the Florida State product has shown a far higher ceiling than his younger successor. Mike Zimmer places a priority on drafting and developing young corners, and he appears to have found a gem in 2018 first-rounder Mike Hughes, who was impressive before going down with a torn ACL. If Hughes' rehab goes well, he would likely step in for Waynes in the starting lineup if Waynes leaves.
The Vikings could keep Waynes around for one more season before letting him hit free agency, but teams such as the Patriots and Rams have shown the value in going after players with cost-controlled years left on their rookie deals, and a lot of teams need cornerback help. This isn't a great cornerback market in free agency, either, so one year with Waynes and a comp pick might be preferable to a multiyear deal on Ronald Darby or Bradley Roby.
One logical fit? The Steelers, who were a mess at cornerback after Artie Burns' form mysteriously went south. The former first-round pick was toasted early in the season and lost his job after Pittsburgh's Week 7 bye, playing just 12 defensive snaps over the final 10 games of a disappointing campaign. Mike Tomlin's team also has a bit of extra cap space after the $14.5 million it earmarked for Le'Veon Bell last year rolled over to the 2019 cap.
The Vikings also might welcome the opportunity to rehabilitate Burns, who looked to be a promising corner as recently as 2017. Trading Waynes for Burns and a third-round pick could benefit both sides.
5. Add a third wideout to replace Laquon Treadwell. The subject of much frustration from Vikings fans, Treadwell's move into a more regular role last season did not produce fruitful results. The 2016 first-round pick -- drafted before the likes of Sterling Shepard, Michael Thomas and Tyler Boyd -- averaged just 5.7 yards per target, the fourth-worst mark in the NFL among wideouts with 50 targets or more. Boyd is a reminder that wideouts can break out after they've been written off, but the Vikings are likely to decline Treadwell's fifth-year option this offseason, if they don't cut him outright before the 2019 campaign begins.
The Vikings are blessed with a pair of great wideouts in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, of course. Both can work out of the slot, although Thielen finds himself on the interior far more frequently. His versatility means the Vikings can be flexible in whom they target as a third wideout, although the price tag obviously can't be exorbitant. The Vikings once went after Alshon Jeffery on a long-term deal before Thielen's breakout, so a bigger wideout such as Dontrelle Inman could make sense.
< Message edited by SoMnFan -- 2/14/2019 10:19:49 AM >