The Biggest Question Marks Heading into NFL Free Agency

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistMarch 8, 2018

The Biggest Question Marks Heading into NFL Free Agency

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    If you've followed the NFL for any length of time, you know that the season doesn't really end with the Super Bowl. While we haven't seen any on-field action since the Philadelphia Eagles hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl LII, there has been plenty of football to follow since. 

    The scouting combine is in our rearview, which means the next big offseason event—the start of free agency—is right around the corner. In fact, teams can begin contacting the agents of pending free agents Monday. They will officially be able to sign players at 4 p.m. ET on March 14.

    We've already gotten the answers to a few big offseason questions. The Pittsburgh Steelers have franchise-tagged Le'Veon Bell. The Kansas City Chiefs have agreed to trade Alex Smith to the Washington Redskins and Marcus Peters to the Los Angeles Rams. The Cleveland Browns are going to...well, some things we just can't predict.

    Even with some of the offseason drama having already subsided, there is still a plethora of uncertainty surrounding free agency. With the market opening in less than a week, we're here to examine the biggest remaining questions.

Will Le'Veon Bell Sign His Tender?

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    We know that Le'Veon Bell isn't going to hit the open market when free agency opens. This means that other teams cannot even negotiate with Bell, at least not officially. As of now, Bell's only choices are to negotiate with Pittsburgh, sign the tender or retire.

    For Bell, the choice may not be so obvious.

    "I don't think I should settle for anything less than what I'm valued at," Bell said, per Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com. "I just have to decide if I'm going to play when the time comes."

    Bell can continue lobbying for a new deal until July 16. After that, he'll either have to play under the franchise tag or not play at all.

    The question here is if Bell will sign the tag or try to force the Steelers into making a long-term deal or a trade. Teams aren't supposed to tag players with the intent of later trading them, but if the right deal comes along and Bell is still playing hardball with the Steelers, a trade may be Pittsburgh's best option.

    If, say, a team offers up a first-round pick to Pittsburgh and a hefty long-term extension to Bell, it could be a win-win-win scenario. Everything hinges on when, and if, Bell signs the tag.

Will a Team Trade for Jarvis Landry?

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    Miami Dolphins receiver Jarvis Landry has already agreed to sign his franchise tender, but this doesn't mean he'll be playing in South Beach in 2018. The Dolphins have given him permission to seek a trade, and if the right offer comes in, Miami will certainly listen.

    According to Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com, the Baltimore Ravens and Chicago Bears are two of "at least five teams" that have been in contact with Landry's agent to discuss potential trades. The interest is obviously there, but will a team actually pull the trigger and trade for Landry?

    There are reasons why he's an attractive option. He's one of the better slot receivers in the league, and he led the NFL with 112 receptions in 2017. However, he also averaged just 8.8 yards per catch. He's reliable, but he isn't the most explosive receiver out there.

    If a team does trade for Landry and gives him a long-term contract—or if he gets an extension from Miami—it's going to affect the receiver market at large. This is especially true if a deal gets done before the start of free agency.

    There are plenty of notable wide receivers—including Danny Amendola, Allen Robinson, Sammy Watkins and Eric Decker—scheduled to hit the open market. Their agents will be paying close attention to Landry's situation because it could set a baseline for this offseason's receiver contracts.

Do Teams View Teddy Bridgewater as a Starting Option?

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    Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater certainly appeared to be on the path to becoming a franchise quarterback early in his career. However, a limb-threatening leg injury put a big halt to that, and it's now been two years since he started an NFL game.

    It's not easy to pick the game back up after a two-year layoff for any reason, but Bridgewater is coming off an injury that nearly ended his career altogether. Only the Vikings—and the medical personnel close to him—know for certain how close Bridgewater is to his pre-injury self. If Minnesota isn't eager to retain the 25-year-old, it's telling.

    The bigger question is whether other teams around the league view Bridgewater as a viable starting option. There is no lack of teams in need of a full-time starter—the Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos, Arizona Cardinals and New York Jets are just a few outside of Minnesota. Bridgewater has made it clear he wants a starting opportunity.

    "Vikings QB Teddy Bridgewater said he 'definitely' views himself as a 2018 starter but admitted he does not know if it will be in Minnesota," Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com wrote earlier this year.

    A lot will probably hinge on medical tests and team workouts, but Bridgewater's situation is intriguing. If at least one team does view Bridgewater as a permanent solution and not just a short-term bridge QB (no pun intended), his demand on the open market and ensuing contract will reflect this.

    This could lead to Bridgewater getting a better deal than fellow Viking Case Keenum, who played well as a starter just last season.

What About AJ McCarron?

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    AJ McCarron doesn't have a body of work to rival Teddy Bridgewater's or even Case Keenum's. He made just four starts—including the playoffs—for the Cincinnati Bengals in his four years as a pro. However, McCarron is a highly regarded backup and was nearly traded to the Browns last season, presumably to get a starting opportunity.

    The question is whether teams view McCarron as a potential long-term answer at quarterback, a short-term placeholder who can develop a rookie or nothing more than a high-end backup.

    At least two teams seem to view McCarron as, at a minimum, a starting option for this season.

    "Cleveland, with four picks in the top 35 of the draft, is still exceedingly interested in signing free-agent quarterback AJ McCarron after the trade-deadline-day debacle last fall and then backstopping him with a rookie quarterback in the draft," the MMQB's Peter King recently wrote. "I'm hearing that's coach Hue Jackson's preference."

    According to Vic Lombardi of Altitude Sports, the Broncos will also be interested in McCarron this offseason.

    "No doubt," Lombardi said during an appearance on Pro Football Talk Live.

    It's impossible to believe everything we hear this time of year, but if any team views McCarron as even a short-term answer, he'll likely be getting a deal similar to the three-year deal Mike Glennon received last offseason.

    For the record, the Bears have released Glennon back to the open market, so he could be an option for teams this offseason as well.

How Much Will Andrew Norwell Get on the Open Market?

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    I know, I know. Fans don't usually get all that excited about landing an offensive lineman in free agency. Quarterbacks and receivers are flashier. So are pass-rushers and cornerbacks. However, a top-tier lineman can do wonders for an offense, and NFL personnel people know this. Unfortunately, top-tier linemen aren't just popping out of the NFL draft these days, so their value in free agency is on the rise.

    Any team that wants to upgrade the interior of its line is going to be interested in Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell. He's just 26 years old and coming off an All-Pro season.

    There are some other intriguing linemen headed to market—like guard Josh Kline and tackle Nate Solder—but Norwell's combination of youth and ability makes him the most intriguing of the bunch. CBS Sports' Pete Prisco recently ranked Norwell as the top non-quarterback in this year's free-agent class.

    So how much could he command on the open market? My guess is a whole lot.

    Last offseason, the Browns gave guard Kevin Zeitler a five-year, $60 million deal. He was roughly the same age at the time but was not coming off an All-Pro campaign.

    Now, according to Draft Analyst's Tony Pauline, Norwell is heading to the New York Giants, and it's already a "done deal."

    This is interesting for a couple of reasons. First of all, teams aren't supposed to be in contact with players or their agents yet—though we all know that's only a rule if teams are caught. Secondly, it doesn't factor in the possibility of another team flush with cash slipping in and making Norwell a better offer. After all, it only takes two teams to start a bidding war in free agency.

    Norwell's situation will be worth following for other free-agent linemen and for linemen who will be free agents in the near future—especially if those being drafted continue to come in with stunted development.

What Kind of Contract Will Trumaine Johnson Get?

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    While Andrew Norwell might not be a flashy free-agency get, Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson is going to be. With the Chiefs sending Marcus Peters to L.A., there's virtually no chance the Rams are going to try retaining Johnson.

    This means Johnson is going to hit the open market after being franchise-tagged for two straight offseasons. While he isn't a Pro Bowl cornerback, he is one of the better cover corners in the NFL, and he'll likely be viewed as the top defensive back in free agency—if Malcolm Butler's Super Bowl benching affects his value.

    Ironically, Butler's teammate with the New England Patriots last season, Stephon Gilmore, was free agency's top corner in 2017 before he joined the team. He landed a five-year, $65 million deal with New England. It wouldn't be a shock to see Johnson get a contract that equals or surpasses that.

    Yes, Johnson is roughly a year older than Gilmore was last offseason, but he's still in his prime in an era when salary caps are steadily increasing. Plenty of teams are loaded with cap cash and should be willing to get in on the Johnson sweepstakes.

    Again, Pauline has reported that it's highly probable a player is headed to a specific team. In Johnson's case, Pauline puts him with the San Francisco 49ers. This makes sense, as the 49ers have money to spend and a need at cornerback, but it also discounts the possibility of other teams getting in on the bidding.

    Regardless of where Johnson lands, he'll likely have a deal in place before the official start of free agency. That, in turn, will likely impact other free-agent corners like Butler, Morris Claiborne and Prince Amukamara.

How Highly Will Starting-Caliber Running Backs Be Valued?

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    We know the financial value of running backs is on the decline. One only needs to observe the franchise-tag number for backs dropped from $12.12 million to $11.87 million this offseason for proof of that.

    However, we've seen the value of workhorse backs increase on the field in recent years. Just look at how much players like Leonard Fournette and Todd Gurley meant to their teams in 2017.

    The question is: What kind of balance will there be in free agency this offseason? While Le'Veon Bell won't be hitting the open market, there are some starting-caliber backs who will. Those heading to market include Isaiah Crowell, Dion Lewis, Carlos Hyde and Jeremy Hill.

    Chris Ivory recently signed a two-year, $5.5 million deal with the Buffalo Bills.

    We're not likely to see a back getting close to $11.87 million this offseason, but whatever amount of money some of these guys do get will likely be an indicator of how much teams prioritize the draft over free agency now and moving forward.

    We saw talented backs like Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt all come out of the draft last year. Hunt, a third-round pick, even led the NFL in rushing. This year's class, led by potential No. 1 overall pick Saquon Barkley, may be just as good.

    "It's a deep class," Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn said, per John Niyo of the Detroit News.

    Ivory will soon turn 30. Crowell and Hill are just 25. If they receive contracts that are not much greater than Ivory's deal, then we should have pretty strong evidence that teams would rather roll the dice in the draft than pay proven players at the position.

Where Will Kirk Cousins Land?

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    This question is burning as much as any in recent offseasons. With Alex Smith going to Washington, we know that Kirk Cousins is heading to a new home. Since starting-caliber quarterbacks rarely hit free agency in their prime, it's kind of a big deal.

    There have been several rumors cropping up about Cousins in recent days, and it's been a challenge to sort through them all. One thing we know, though, is that Cousins is about to get paid.

    According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the four teams remaining in the race are the Broncos, Cardinals, Jets and Vikings. Benjamin Allbright of 104.7 FM Denver has reported, however, that "multiple Broncos sources" believe Cousins is already destined for Minnesota.

    Minnesota certainly makes sense, as the Vikings appear to be a quarterback away from dominance.

    Here's the catch, though. Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News reports that Cousins hasn't ruled out any team yet. This means the Browns might still be able to lure Cousins with their massive cap space—at least, that's probably what Cousins wants teams to believe.

    Make no mistake, Cousins is going to be attracted to a team with winning potential. By leaving his options wide open, though, he ensures that any team wooing him will have to pay fair market price.