One of the fun parts of covering the NFL is we never know when news will slow down; it’s a 365-day cycle and teams are perpetually finding ways to address and improve rosters.
That being said, the quietest time of the football calendar is usually the next five or so weeks leading up to training camp. Players, coaches and front offices get a well-deserved hiatus before the long grind that for two teams will extend into the middle of February when they are playing for a Lombardi trophy in the Super Bowl.
But before we get to the season itself, there is still business teams need to address. The Cleveland Browns having Baker Mayfield‘s $18.8 million contract on the roster and a couple of franchise quarterbacks in extension talks are among items that should be determined this offseason.
So let’s go team by team and see what moves or decisions they have to (or should) make before camps begin at the end of July. Some are contract-related, quarterback-related, future-of-the-franchise-related or a combination of all three.
Add a veteran cornerback
Let’s start by acknowledging it’s hard to find a hole on the Bills’ roster. General manager Brandon Beane has done an exemplary job extending most of the key players going forward. But cornerback has been a positional talking point this offseason with Tre’Davious White recovering from a torn ACL and veteran Levi Wallace departing in free agency. First-rounder Kaiir Elam projects to play a major part, but depth at the position is critical in a pass-happy league.
Make a decision on tight end Mike Gesicki
The Dolphins have a short window to extend the contract of franchise-tagged tight end, and I’d argue he had a plausible case to be tagged as a wide receiver based off of alignment this past season.
For the sake of simplicity, the relevant comp for Gesicki price-wise is Browns tight end David Njoku, who has far fewer career receiving yards despite having played more games. He recently inked a four-year deal worth up to $56.7 million, a reasonable benchmark for Gesicki to approach or surpass. Gesicki functions like a jumbo slot receiver on offense with a rare catch radius.
Sign linebacker Trey Flowers
While the Patriots have made some recent draft investments in edge players who could figure in more prominently this season (Josh Uche and Ronnie Perkins among them), Flowers would be the latest in a long line of veterans to depart New England and eventually return. He knows the scheme, would bring valuable experience and has enough juice left to be a situational player for the team. He was an extremely well-respected member of its roster when he was previously in New England.
Sign linebacker Kwon Alexander
The Jets brought in the veteran Alexander for a free-agent visit earlier this offseason, though no deal immediately materialized. Not only would Alexander fill what appears to be the Jets’ most critical defensive need right now, he has a strong understanding of their system given his time together with coach Robert Saleh in San Francisco. Alexander is 27 years old and at his best can provide the range in coverage that helps make him a very useful three-down player.
Break the bank for quarterback Lamar Jackson
This one is easy. Until a deal is struck with their franchise player, the priority for Baltimore is to find a way to get it done. Quarterback contracts will never be easy to negotiate and they will always be for massive money, as Jackson should find himself near the top of the market with any deal he signs. He has chosen to be patient when other quarterbacks have secured deals soon after they became extension-eligible (Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen), which comes with injury risk and also upside (the QB market continues to grow). Wrapping up an extension for a signal-caller is always easier said than done, but Baltimore has to find a way to secure its most important player long term.
Louis Riddick and Domonique Foxworth explain how Lamar Jackson should approach this season in the final year of his contract.
Give safety Jessie Bates III a new contract
No Bengals defender leveled up his play during the run to the Super Bowl last season more than Bates, the homegrown safety who was franchise-tagged this offseason. Bates checks pretty much all the boxes you look for in a foundational player at just 25 years old — elite play on the field and a grand total of two games missed in just four seasons. Factoring in all of those considerations, Bates likely desires a deal at the top of the safety market, a price tag that could be around $16 million per year. I’d contend that he is worth it.
Resolve the situation with quarterback Baker Mayfield
No surprise here, as Mayfield is no longer a part of Cleveland’s plans and wants a shot elsewhere. There are a variety of factors that make this situation complicated to resolve. By late June, most NFL teams have their own initial quarterback plan in place and Mayfield is due a fully guaranteed $18.8 million salary for this year. Cleveland’s best path to trading him is by eating a hefty portion of that salary, and while the Browns are in a steady position cap space-wise this year, retaining Mayfield seems untenable and any cap savings in a trade can be useful in future roster maneuvers.
Extend wide receiver Diontae Johnson
The Steelers knocked off one major item from the to-do list when they extended safety Minkah Fitzpatrick on a record-setting deal for his position last week. Now, Johnson is put further into focus. He is just the latest in a string of outstanding wideouts drafted by the team not in the first round and deserves a lucrative deal. He is only 25 and has shown legitimate improvement in each of his first three seasons. The wide receiver market has exploded this offseason, so a deal with surely be a pricey one.
Keep an eye on quarterback Davis Mills
We’re bending the rules here for this entry, as the Texans enter this season with an improved — and younger — roster, with ample resources to build it out in future years. I’m bullish on the approach and efforts thus far of general manager Nick Caserio and will be fixated upon the development of Mills this year. He had flashes last season that lead one to think he has long-term starter upside, but Houston is also among the richest draft-pick teams for 2023.
If Mills does not cement his space as their franchise signal-caller, the Texans could be in a sweet spot to select one of the players in what currently forecasts as an excellent quarterback group for the 2023 draft.
Sort through cornerback Kenny Moore II‘s contract situation
The Colts’ supremely talented Pro Bowl cornerback is looking for additional compensation after outplaying the four-year, $36 million deal he signed in June 2019. The deal placed Moore near the top of the slot cornerback rankings, but his impact has grown immensely since that time — you want a team full of Kenny Moores. His base salaries are $6.5 million this year and $6.7 million next year, none of which is guaranteed. It would stand to reason that Moore wants either additional guaranteed compensation or a long-term extension.
Maximize plans for defensive end Josh Allen
This is more of an approach and less of a move — but still important. Allen is the key to this defense taking a leap this season and beyond. The edge rusher has had moments of unique dominance and was stellar as a rookie, but support around him has been scant. Jacksonville is entering a new scheme this year and also added some useful players that should lessen the burden on Allen (notably No. 1 overall pick Travon Walker). He has the skill set to be a Pro Bowl player consistently.
Sign a veteran receiver
While we know Tennessee’s offense is predicated upon a dominant running game, the Titans’ offensive success in prior years also included an efficient passing game. The receiver group should be led by Robert Woods and Treylon Burks, but Woods is coming off a torn ACL last season and Burks — like any rookie — will be adjusting to the pro game. One more established wideout could help usher along what is a largely young room. Among the available names are Odell Beckham Jr., Cole Beasley, T.Y. Hilton and Emmanuel Sanders.
Give quarterback Russell Wilson an extension sooner rather than later
The Broncos are thrilled to have Wilson as the centerpiece of their franchise going forward and unquestionably want him to be there for the long haul. He is under contract for two more seasons and will earn a total of $51 million from Denver via his present deal. An extension for Wilson would represent a massive raise, but it’s possible that doing a deal now could wind up being a forward-thinking maneuver as the quarterback market continues to soar. Should Wilson play to expectations this year, the cost of an extension will almost surely be higher next offseason.
Strike a deal with left tackle Orlando Brown Jr.
Kansas City’s left tackle received the franchise tag this offseason, an expected outcome after the Chiefs traded for him in 2021 as he was entering the final year of his rookie deal. Brown rewarded the team’s decision to acquire him with a Pro Bowl season as part of the revamped offensive line. This deal strikes me as likely to get done and likely to be a hefty one that Brown has earned.
Kansas City has a roster that includes a handful of players at or near the top of the market but has long been incredibly well managed on the cap by its VP of football operations, Brandt Tilis. Something around $20 million (or a hair more) per year seems like a reasonable estimate for Brown.
Sort through the right tackle spot
I’ve made the case this offseason that right tackle might be the most important spot for each AFC West team because the division is flooded with great pass-rushers, and while each team has a rock-solid player at left tackle, right tackle is a less established group.
For the Raiders specifically, this includes placing 2021 first-round pick Alex Leatherwood somewhere after he played the bulk of his rookie season at right guard. He finished his college career at Alabama as a left tackle and was a projected right tackle on draft night, so perhaps he’ll settle back in there. Other options include Brandon Parker and Jermaine Eluemunor.
Sort through the right tackle spot
Not a typo. The Chargers are yet another team in the division that needs to solidify its plans at right tackle, as it figures to be a significant talking point going into the season. It was a major area of vulnerability late last season, but the team feels comfortable that Storm Norton or Trey Pipkins III can secure the spot and hold down the fort.
Norton was overmatched against the Raiders in the final game of the 2021 regular season and, without a major addition at the spot, fans remain concerned about the position right now. We’ll see whether the Chargers would consider adding another player to the mix for competition.
Lock in tight end Dalton Schultz for the future
Schultz is another tight end playing on the franchise tag, so the range of what it will take to extend him shouldn’t be a major mystery — a deal similar to the extension that Njoku got (four years, $56.7 million) makes some sense, obviously with a few details different here or there. Schultz is exactly one day younger than Njoku and has been way more productive over the past two seasons. Dak Prescott posted a Total QBR of 95 when targeting Schultz in 2021, the best Total QBR for any signal-caller when targeting a specific receiver in the league in 2021.
Stephen A. Smith and Chris Russo get heated over Dak Prescott’s level of play.
Start evaluating quarterback Daniel Jones
There are more short-term decisions for the Giants to make, but the primary objective for the 2022 regular season is to get the requisite evaluation of Jones as the starter in a new offensive scheme. The team declined his fifth-year option, meaning he is scheduled to be a free agent in March. With a standout year, Jones will likely be headed toward the franchise tag to begin next offseason before discussions begin on a long-term deal. If Jones does not make strides forward this season, the G-Men will be squarely in the mix for a quarterback in next year’s draft.
Help and evaluate quarterback Jalen Hurts‘ progress
While there are other moves the Eagles will make as part of a push for another playoff bid, it still feels like the progress of Hurts sets the ceiling for the franchise this year and beyond. Hurts is a vastly improved player from when he entered the league, has incredible leadership and checks so many of the boxes you desire in a starting quarterback.
However, in a league in which explosive passing offenses have become a more common formula for winning teams, Hurts still has work to do as a pure passer — he has completed just 59% of his 580 career passes and was overmatched in his lone playoff start. There are many reasons to have optimism in Hurts, but the fact that Philly owns two first-round and two second-round picks next year is worth monitoring.
Pay wide receiver Terry McLaurin
McLaurin bypassed the team’s mandatory minicamp as he remains without a long-term deal. Given the recent deals to A.J. Brown and other receivers, a boilerplate is in place for a deal: an average annual value at or near $25 million per season. The risk Washington runs in not securing McLaurin long term is not just that he one day plays for another team in his prime, but the message it sends: If the best offensive player on your team who does everything right and is the definition of rare football character can’t get paid, who can?
Add depth to the offensive line
General manager Ryan Poles has padded his roster at both wide receiver and offensive line through free agency and the draft — though each position remains a long-term need going forward. I’m focusing on the offensive line here, as there are still a handful of veteran names left on the free-agent board who still have starting potential in them (Duane Brown, Eric Fisher, Riley Reiff among those names). Justin Fields‘ rookie season was upended by poor line play, injury and an odd approach to the quarterback competition from the start. I’m confident a major leap is in store for 2022.
Add a cornerback
The Lions project to be much improved on defense this season with an infusion of talent that includes pass-rusher Aidan Hutchinson and the leaps expected from several young key players. One area that remains a bit thin is their cornerback spot, even with the return of Jeff Okudah and addition of Mike Hughes via free agency.
The NFL has become a league in which the next team that has too much cornerback depth will be the first, as quarterbacks are routinely throwing the ball 35-plus times per game and the number of awesome wide receivers grows by the year. Detroit will be wise to monitor the waiver wire during the preseason for players who are let go around the league.
Think about extending the 2019 draft picks
The Packers double-dipped in the first round of the 2019 draft with pass-rusher Rashan Gary and safety Darnell Savage as their top two selections. Both have been hits, with Gary looking like a potential breakout star for the 2022 season. Green Bay recently inked its 2018 first-rounder, cornerback Jaire Alexander, to a long-term deal, taking care of its most important contract-related need. That could also suggest that the potential extensions for Gary and Savage are a year away. Both are cornerstones of the Green Bay defense.
Get the most out of tight end Irv Smith Jr.
The Vikings’ depth chart is not stocked at tight end, with Smith set to be the unquestioned starter after splitting time when he was available over the past three seasons. Smith represents untapped potential, as his college tape suggested a player who could be a viable starter at a critical position in the NFL. He missed the entire 2021 season because of injury, but a bounce-back in 2022 would not be important just for the Minnesota offense, but Smith’s future, too, as he is set to be a free agent next March.
Make a decision on linebacker Deion Jones
The one-time Pro Bowl linebacker has been the subject of speculation this offseason, though a recent injury has prevented him from being on the field for the team’s OTAs and minicamp. Jones is in the final year of his contract, and Atlanta has been unweaving a salary-cap tangle since GM Terry Fontenot was hired in 2021 — making every major contract-related decision that much more critical. We’ll need to see where Jones is at healthwise as we get to training camp, but he is a name to keep an eye on one way or another.
Trade for quarterback Baker Mayfield
Does Mayfield solve all the Panthers’ problems? No. Is he a clear long-term answer? Also no. But in a year that comes with innate pressure, Carolina’s current quarterback situation is precarious. There’s an argument that Mayfield is not a decided upgrade on Sam Darnold based off of Mayfield’s play last year and the injury suffered, but I’d counterpoint that Mayfield’s peak is superior to Darnold’s. Moreover, the Panthers would almost certainly get Mayfield at a discounted portion of his $18.8 million salary.
Sign another running back
We’re following the breadcrumbs here, as the Saints have hosted Sony Michel and David Johnson on free-agent visits, signaling the team feels as though one more veteran back is valuable given its current backfield depth. While Alvin Kamara is the locked-in starter and Mark Ingram II will serve as the top backup, Kamara is set for a hearing on Aug. 1 following his February arrest on battery charges in Nevada. Any potential Kamara punishment from the league is uncertain at the moment, but running back could become a major need in the event that he is suspended.
Add depth at tight end
The Bucs weren’t caught totally blindsided by Gronk’s decision, as they used fourth- and sixth-round picks on the tight end position this past draft. But the Bucs need players who can help immediately, and a veteran who can develop an immediate rapport with Tom Brady would be a wise investment. Unless Gronk eventually returns.
Reach a deal to extend quarterback Kyler Murray
Enough said. OK, we’ll add a little bit more. The Cardinals and their franchise quarterback need to find common ground on a long-term deal. While Murray and the team wilted down the stretch last season, his apex as a player is impossible to ignore. A deal will likely pay Murray an average annual value north of $40 million, which is the going rate for young quarterbacks extending their rookie deals.
Jeff Darlington breaks down where the contract talks between Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals stand.
Bring back wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
While Beckham doesn’t figure to be ready for the start of the regular season, the Rams are in a favorable spot in which they can afford to wait. Adding Beckham would be the cherry on the top of a terrific offseason, and the allure for him to return to Los Angeles is clear: He played really well for them in the playoffs, has a chance to win another Super Bowl and can set himself up for the free-agency period next year.
Solve the dilemma with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo
This one is tricky for a few reasons, not the least of which is that only a few teams would even consider adding a potential starting quarterback right now and Garoppolo underwent shoulder surgery this offseason and still isn’t throwing. But with a salary of $24.2 million for 2022, it would be unpalatable for the 49ers to carry Jimmy G on the roster as their backup this season. That is valuable potential cap space that can be allocated to extending stars such as Deebo Samuel and Nick Bosa if they move on from Garoppolo.
Add a quarterback, if necessary
Seattle is among the few teams that are possibly still in the market for a starting quarterback, with Mayfield and Jimmy Garoppolo as names to monitor. Let’s start here: The 49ers won’t be trading Jimmy G to a division rival, so the manner in which he would land in Seattle is if San Francisco first cut him. Mayfield would be more likely through a trade, but one that was largely on Seattle’s terms financially.
I won’t go so far as to say that Seattle needs to add either of these players, as the team does have some faith in both Drew Lock and Geno Smith and could be better suited looking forward to the 2023 offseason when the draft presents multiple promising quarterback options.