Burning Questions After Week 1 of NFL Free Agency

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistMarch 18, 2018

Burning Questions After Week 1 of NFL Free Agency

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    Oftentimes, NFL free agency solves roster issues, filling voids left behind when players retire, sign new deals elsewhere or fall short on expectations. Conversely, it can raise more questions about the depth chart.

    Clubs dip into the free-agent market on uneven financial ground. Depending on the cap situation, some general managers may overspend to address a need while others go bargain-bin shopping for assets with a small market. 

    The wide receiver an offense needs may want a salary outside the front office's price range. As a result, other priorities take a bump, and we're left wondering what's next for the quarterback who needs a go-to receiving option.

    We don't have direct knowledge of what team brass talks about behind closed doors. So, everyone is left to asking questions. Why two quarterbacks? Who's starting at left tackle?

    As for the players left on the open market, especially notable names, there's intrigue about where they'll sign.

    Several days into free agency, let's go through eight of the most pressing questions in the league concerning unrestricted free agents and roster decisions. 

Will the Oakland Raiders Regret Replacing Michael Crabtree with Jordy Nelson?

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    Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

    Since arriving in Oakland, wideout Michael Crabtree became a ball magnet, specifically as a red-zone target. He led the Raiders in touchdown receptions all three seasons between 2015-17. In that span, the veteran receiver ranked fifth among all pass-catchers in end-zone scores with 25.

    General manager Reggie McKenzie selected wide receiver Amari Cooper with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2015 draft with hopes that he'd blossom into a go-to option with Crabtree as a reliable complement.

    The Alabama product has led the wideouts in yardage in each of the past three campaigns, but he's also struggled with drops, late-season injuries that may have affected his play and comes up short as a target inside the 20-yard line. 

    Still, Cooper's ability to rack up yards after the catch and track down the deep ball suggests he's still scratching the surface on his full potential. Head coach Jon Gruden plans to elevate the fourth-year receiver's profile in the offense as the focal point, per NBC Sports Bay Area reporter Scott Bair

    "He'll be the focal point of our offense. I hope he's listening here today. I'm looking forward to joining up with Amari Cooper. He has tremendous quickness. He's smart, versatile and he's a gamer. He likes the bright lights, and he'll be the headliner in our offense." 

    Team brass didn't see Crabtree in a similar light. Instead, the front office released the 30-year-old immediately after signing wideout Jordy Nelson, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport

    Crabtree's 2017 season ended on a sour note, and the issues extended beyond losing football games. In Week 12, he engaged in an on-field skirmish with cornerback Aqib Talib that led to an ejection and a one-game suspension. For whatever reason, the veteran receiver only saw the field for 46 snaps and one target in the last two weeks, which suggests a disconnect between the player and coaching staff. 

    The switch at wide receiver doesn't indicate the Raiders feel Nelson will serve as a far better option in the passing game. It says more about the team's willingness to find a productive veteran pass-catcher to replace a player who didn't register in the new regime's future plans.

    The fanbase will miss Crabtree for coming through in the clutch on multiple occasions, but Gruden and company clearly wanted to shake up the locker room culture.

How Will the New York Jets Handle the Quarterback Situation?

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    Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

    Despite splashy free-agent signings that should help improve the roster, general manager Mike Maccagnan drew mixed reviews for his decisions at quarterback.

    After re-signing signal-caller Josh McCown to a one-year, $10 million deal, per NFL Network's Mike Garafolo, the Jets also acquired Teddy Bridgewater for a season.

    In addition, Gang Green moved into the No. 3 slot in the draft and sent the Nos. 6, 37, 49 overall picks and a 2019 selection to the Indianapolis Colts, per Rapoport. Bryce Petty and Joel Stave remain on the books through the 2018 season, and 2016 second-round pick Christian Hackenberg has two more years on his rookie deal.

    Realistically, barring rampant injury and planets re-aligning, Petty and Stave have zero chance at starting for the Jets in 2018. It's clear the organization doesn't have faith in Hackenberg even with his second-round draft tag. 

    It boils down to McCown and Bridgewater under center for the 2018 campaign. In 2017, the former produced one of his best seasons with career highs in completion percentage (67), passing yards (2,926) and touchdowns (18). He also started 13 games for just the second time in his career, which speaks to why Maccagnan would also sign Bridgewater.

    The team tabbed McCown as the starter, per Newsday reporter Calvin Watkins, but he won't finish the season under center based on his track record.

    The 39-year-old has never played a full 16-game slate. Bridgewater will likely see the field at some point. When he does, the coaching staff can project his progress coming off a significant knee injury during the 2016 offseason.

    Assuming the Jets select a top quarterback prospect, he'd eventually take over as the potential franchise centerpiece. McCown will accept the role as the placeholder while Bridgewater tries to work his way into starting, while the draft pick will have at least a year on the sideline before taking the field. 

Is A.J. McCarron More Than a Stopgap Quarterback for the Buffalo Bills?

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    When the Buffalo Bills traded left tackle Cordy Glenn and their No. 21 overall pick to the Cincinnati Bengals for the 12th selection in the draft, per ESPN's Josina Anderson, an idea the team would continue to move up in order to acquire their quarterback seemed like a logical plan.

    Buffalo already sent quarterback Tyrod Taylor to the Cleveland Browns to ensure a new starter for the 2018 season.

    The team announced a two-year deal for A.J. McCarron Wednesday. Analysts called him a stopgap quarterback, who would eventually yield the starting spot to a first-rounder.

    However, the Jets' transaction to acquire the No. 3 spot complicates the Bills' chance at moving into the top five slots to select their potential franchise signal-caller. New York could solve its quarterback issue and block a division rival from doing the same.

    Ironically, just like New York, the Bills have a young passer on the roster in case draft plans fall apart. General manager Brandon Beane could attempt to pull off another deal with the Browns for the fourth spot or convince the New York Giants to trade the No. 2 overall pick. Either way, it's a tough task. 

    With multiple quarterback-needy teams slotted ahead of Buffalo, the Browns, possibly the Giants, Jets and maybe the Denver Broncos, Buffalo may sit on the outside looking in on top prospects at the position. McCarron's stock just rose a bit. Regardless, the coaching staff will see what he brings to the field.

Where Does Ndamukong Suh Sign?

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    The Miami Dolphins' concerted effort to change the culture in the locker room also swept defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh off the roster.

    Nonetheless, the five-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro can still bring significant value to a defensive line. He still garners extra blocking help on the inside and racked up 15.5 sacks over the past three seasons with the Dolphins.

    It's going to cost one team a pretty penny, though. Spotrac projects Suh will bank approximately $14.2 million in yearly salary. Incentives and contract structure could reduce the bill a bit, but it's going to take a club that's comfortable with their cap space to land the impact defensive tackle.

    Ironically, the Seattle Seahawks, a team that also went through a roster sweep during the offseason, have shown preliminary interest in Suh, per Jordan Schultz of Yahoo. He'd certainly replenish the toughness head coach Pete Carroll lost on defense.

Will the Dallas Cowboys Trade for Safety Earl Thomas?

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    Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

    After a Week 16 contest at AT&T Stadium, safety Earl Thomas approached Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett about a spot on the team if it ever got a chance to acquire him, as captured by Fox 4's Edward Egros

    According to CBS Sports reporter Jason La Canfora, the Cowboys could attempt to convince the Seahawks to part ways with the three-time All-Pro safety sooner than later. 

    Aside from Thomas' desire to put on the starred helmet, the interest in a ball-hawking safety makes sense for a team that allowed 28 touchdowns through the air in 2017. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli also fields a young secondary. Cornerback Orlando Scandrick has already been released, per Anderson.

    ESPN.com's Todd Archer reported the team could move Byron Jones back to cornerback, where he mostly played during his rookie season, due to defensive backs coach Kris Richard's preference for bigger defenders at the position:

    First, the move opens up a spot at free safety. Secondly, Richard coached Thomas in Seattle. He's probably lobbying for a trade to reunite with the six-time Pro Bowler.

How Will the New England Patriots Address the Starting Left Tackle Spot?

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Former New England Patriots left tackle Nate Solder signed a four-year, $62 million deal with the New York Giants, per Rapoport. The 29-year-old will move from Tom Brady to his Super Bowl rival in Eli Manning, who desperately needs protection on his blindside. 

    According to Rapoport, the team intends to retain offensive tackles LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming. There's also interest in Austin Howard, who started 16 games at right tackle for the Baltimore Ravens in 2017.

    With the relative dearth of quality tackles on the market, Howard emerges as a top-flight option pending more roster cuts. Nonetheless, don't rule out activity in the trade market in an attempt to protect Brady, who turns 41 years old in August.

    New England took an aggressive approach in filling roster voids last year, acquiring veterans and giving up draft picks. Knowing head coach Bill Belichick, he prepared for the possibility Solder would sign elsewhere.

Do the Carolina Panthers Have a Pressing Need at Tight End?

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    Cindy Ord/Getty Images

    Tight end Greg Olsen suffered a broken foot during the previous campaign and struggled with the injury after surgery. For the first time in his career, he played less than half a season.

    According to New York Post reporter Andrew Marchand, the 33-year-old auditioned for an analyst position for ESPN's Monday Night Football. It's clear Olsen can see the sun setting on his NFL career as a player. He also voiced his commitment to football and the Panthers for the upcoming season, per Rapoport.

    Then again, the audition probably didn't catch the Panthers off guard. During the team's Week 11 bye, Olsen worked with Fox's broadcast team. He also takes part in on-field commentary during the NFL Scouting Combine when the tight ends work out.

    In February, ESPN.com reporter David Newton listed Olsen's status among reasons he expects the team to select a tight end in Rounds 2-4 in April's draft.

    Aside from Newton's reasoning, look at the timeline. Olsen is entering a contract season. With news about his desire to eventually transition to the booth, it's likely general manager Marty Hurney will pick up a prospect to fill the position long term. Tight end Ed Dickson's signing with the Seattle Seahawks, per ESPN's Josina Anderson, adds more legitimacy to the presumption.

Who Will Sign Adrian Peterson?

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    It shouldn't please anyone to ask this question about an iconic running back during his prime. Unfortunately, Father Time doesn't skip over anyone, and the running back market has changed of late.

    We're seeing an emerging group of young runners utilized as both ball-carriers and receivers flourish in the league.

    Teams still value a physical downhill ball-carrier such as Leonard Fournette, but he caught 36 passes for 302 yards and a touchdown during his rookie campaign. Peterson registered 30 receptions only once in the last five seasons. 

    At 32 years old, his ability to play in space diminishes. He told Bleacher Report's Dan Pompei he was aiming 500 receiving yards with the Saints, but he fell short after the team traded him to the Cardinals. 

    "I was attracted to playing with Brees, a guy who is good at distributing the ball to different players. I know in this system, I'll get some opportunities to catch the ball in space. Drew Brees, he'll get the ball to me." 

    Peterson reached out to Anderson to ensure the league knows that his neck completely healed after the injury cost him the last five games from the previous campaign. Clearly there's a desire to continue his playing career. He won't lead a running back group as a starter, but there's a place in the league for a physical ball-carrier who can finish near the goal line.