The Biggest Looming Decision for Every NFL Team

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistAugust 11, 2018

The Biggest Looming Decision for Every NFL Team

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    The phone rings: It's a compelling offer for a star player. A starting quarterback goes down with an injury. The lead wide receiver decides to hold out for a new deal. There's an ongoing evaluation on an underperforming head coach.

    The NFL grind never ends for everyone involved in building a successful team. We're accustomed to referring to spring and summer months as the offseason, but major decisions are made in that period. 

    Months after the draft, teams still have starting positions to fill. Some front office executives are crunching cap-room numbers to keep core players on the roster for the long term. And a few coaches know it's a critical year for their job security. 

    Who's going to take over a vacant starting position? Is a player due for a new contract? Are a few early wins enough to take a coach off the hot seat? Let's take a look at major decisions each club will consider through the first few weeks of the regular season.

Arizona Cardinals: Setting the Price for Running Back David Johnson

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    Just when you thought running backs lost value in a passing league, the top players at the position have become dual threats in the backfield as ball-carriers and receivers.

    In 2016, running back David Johnson led the league in touches (373), yards from scrimmage (2,118) and offensive touchdowns with 20. Unfortunately, a wrist injury that required surgery derailed his third season after Week 1. Still, he's the most important player on the Arizona Cardinals offense outside of wideout Larry Fitzgerald, who's headed toward his career sunset, turning 35 years old in August. 

    Johnson skipped mandatory minicamp to send a message to the front office concerning his deal in a contract year. Despite his decision to report to training camp, the Cardinals should use the summer to put together a suitable proposal for a talent set to become the offensive focal point with either an injury-prone or rookie quarterback under center. 

    Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley signed a four-year, $57.5 million deal with $45 million guaranteed. Johnson doesn't have comparable long-term production, but his breakout year should help him come close to that figure.

Atlanta Falcons: Grady Jarrett's Value in Extension Talks

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    It's a good time for those inside the Atlanta Falcons organization. There's money to go around within a franchise experiencing relative success. Kicker Matt Bryant, quarterback Matt Ryan, left tackle Jake Matthews, wide receiver Julio Jones, safety Ricardo Allen, head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff have all received new money.

    Back in May, Dimitroff told 92.9 The Game (h/t Falcons team reporter Kelsey Conway) defensive tackle Grady Jarrett as someone who's primed for an extension. The front office rewarded Allen just last week, so assuming the Falcons continue to take care of their own, it's logical to think the team would reach a new agreement with the fourth-year veteran before Week 1 of the regular season. 

    Jarrett played a major role in run defense and pressuring the quarterback in the previous season. He's the reason why the Falcons defensive line won't miss Dontari Poe as much in the middle of a four-man front. 

    The 25-year-old doesn't have a Pro Bowl on his NFL resume, but he's an integral component to an improved defense. The Buffalo Bills signed Star Lotulelei to a five-year, $50 million deal in March, putting him at No. 15 in average yearly salary among defensive tackles. Jarrett will likely cost the Falcons a little more than $10 million annually beyond the 2018 campaign.

Baltimore Ravens: Is It Time to Part Ways with Breshad Perriman?

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    You can sum up wideout Breshad Perriman's three-year career in two words: injury-prone and underwhelming. The Baltimore Ravens certainly expected more from the 2015 first-rounder.

    Perriman didn't see the field during his rookie season after attempting to work his way back from a PCL surgery, then hit a bump in the road with another knee injury that required a stem cell injection in the following offseason. He suited up for all 16 games during the 2016 term but only caught half the passes thrown his way, logging 33 receptions for 499 yards and three touchdowns. Hamstring and knee ailments limited the 24-year-old last year. 

    The Ravens didn't exercise Perriman's fifth-year option, but he did cash in on a roster bonus. The front office flooded the offense with new wide receivers, a mix of veterans and rookies that includes Michael Crabtree, Willie Snead, John Brown, Jaleel Scott and Jordan Lasley.

    Perriman didn't start the 2018 preseason off on the right foot when he allowed a pass to slip through his fingertips, leading to an interception, in the Hall of Fame Game against the Chicago Bears. He bounced back with three catches for 71 yards and a touchdown against the Los Angeles Rams on Thursday. 

    With the influx of talent at the position, the Ravens will need to decide if it's time to pull the plug on Perriman's tenure in Baltimore.

Buffalo Bills: Starting or Sitting Josh Allen?

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    The Buffalo Bills wouldn't have anything to lose in starting quarterback Josh Allen if there's no chance at a playoff berth. However, head coach Sean McDermott talked about taking a "calculated" approach to the rookie's development, per WKBW's Joe Buscaglia

    Perhaps the Bills learned from their past mistake in tossing quarterback Nathan Peterman into the fray during his rookie term last year. The Wyoming product comes into the league with a higher ceiling, but it's clear McDermott doesn't want to do anything that could hurt the young signal-caller's development.

    Furthermore, there's no need to hastily start the future at the position. It goes without saying that AJ McCarron and Peterman will have opportunities to audition as stopgap options under center for the upcoming season. McDermott also strengthened his job security after leading the franchise to its first postseason appearance in 18 years. It's possible Allen takes a professional redshirt year to develop behind the scenes. 

Carolina Panthers: A Wide-Open Competition at Left Guard

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    Initially, the Carolina Panthers' left guard competition included a mix of talents ranging from Amini Silatolu, an offensive guard who's started 31 games for the team, to Brendan Mahon, an undrafted rookie free agent looking for an opportunity. Since training camp started in late July, injuries have narrowed the field.

    Right tackle Daryl Williams dislocated his right patella and tore his MCL, which prompted Taylor Moton to move back to his natural position on the perimeter rather than compete for a starting role at left guard. 

    According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, Silatolu tore his meniscus and is scheduled to undergo surgery Friday. The 29-year-old has played for Carolina the past five seasons, and he could've extended his stay as a starter, but the injury jeopardizes his short-term outlook. 

    At the moment, two names stand out: Jeremiah Sirles, who started four games at left guard for the Minnesota Vikings last year, and Brendan Mahon. It's also worth noting Greg Van Roten started at the position in Thursday's preseason opener against the Bills. 

    Before penciling in an experienced contender as the front-runner, keep an eye on Mahon, who turned heads at practice with the first and second team. With Silatolu's uncertain timetable for recovery, the Penn State product will have an opportunity to rise through the ranks as a summer standout.

Chicago Bears: Roquan Smith's Development Pace (After He Finally Signs)

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    Roquan Smith, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2018 draft, remains unsigned as the last player to put pen to paper in his class. It's not a good start for the Chicago Bears and their new linebacker.

    According to's Nick Friedell, there's a snag concerning new legislature in the rulebook: "Part of the reason for his holdout is language in his contract that would allow the team to reclaim guaranteed money if the linebacker is suspended under the NFL's new helmet-contact rules." 

    Whenever Smith's agent and the Bears front office come to an agreement, the Georgia product must make up serious ground. Linebackers coach Glenn Pires suggests it's an uphill battle, per Friedell: "I think any time you're not with your teammates and you're not working with your teammates, it's not going to be positive." 

    Despite his draft status as a top-10 pick, Smith will need to earn his stripes, especially at linebacker. The Bears still have three more preseason games on the schedule, but an overextended holdout could keep him out of the starting lineup at the beginning of the 2018 campaign. The coaching staff must decide how much they're able to throw at the rookie to prepare him for the regular season if he signs in August.

Cincinnati Bengals: Carlos Dunlap's Value in Extension Talks

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    The Cincinnati Bengals have major financial decisions involving the defensive line on the horizon. Carlos Dunlap's situation stands out because of the young talents behind him on the depth chart.

    Last year, Bengals pass-rusher Carl Lawson had an incredible start to his NFL career with 8.5 sacks—very similar to Dunlap, who logged 9.5 during his rookie term in 2010. The Bengals also selected defensive end Sam Hubbard in the third round of this year's draft. 

    Lawson's quick start and Hubbard's arrival cause some pause on whether the Bengals should push aggressively to extend Dunlap. Nevertheless, the Cincinnati Enquirer's Paul Dehner Jr. spotted the two-time Pro Bowler and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, talking to team owner Mike Brown during a July practice. Rapoport followed with a tweet that confirmed the two sides opened talks on an extension. 

    Lawson flashed during training camp and looks primed to take another step in his sophomore campaign, but it's hard to overlook Dunlap's 64.5 sacks in eight seasons with the team. The 29-year-old defensive end should have a new deal done before Week 1, but the Bengals must show him the big bucks.

Cleveland Browns: Joe Thomas' Replacement at Left Tackle

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    Joe Thomas' decision to retire created a quandary at left tackle for the Cleveland Browns. How does the coaching staff replace a 10-time Pro Bowler and six-time All-Pro on the blind side? At the moment, the process isn't going as smoothly as planned.

    During training camp, the Browns turned to Joel Bitonio, their high-end left guard, to fill the position. According to head coach Hue Jackson, per's Pat McManamon, the fifth-year veteran didn't exactly embrace the new challenge.

    "Was he reluctant? Yeah. I would be, too," Jackson said. "He plays a position and he's real good at it, but I think for his teammates, his coaching staff and for all involved, he knows it's the best place for him to be right now."

    Bitonio didn't speak with much confidence about the shift toward the perimeter.

    "It's an unknown," he told McManamon. "You're always scared of the unknown. I don't how it's going to go at left tackle; I kind of know how it's going to go at left guard."

    The 26-year-old started all 47 of his career games at left guard, so his trepidation is understandable. Also, the need to move him suggests Austin Corbett and Shon Coleman didn't exactly impress with their reps at left tackle. The Browns have four weeks to figure out who's going to replace a future Hall of Famer.

Dallas Cowboys: Making a Strong Push to Acquire Safety Earl Thomas

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    It's the trade we're all waiting for...well, some of us.

    For those in favor of the Dallas Cowboys acquiring safety Earl Thomas from the Seattle Seahawks, there's good news—'s Todd Archer doesn't see finances as a holdup on a potential deal for Thomas:

    "The Cowboys can give Thomas the moon if they want. They don't have any salary-cap limitations. According to ESPN Stats & Information, they have $14.8 million in cap room…the Cowboys can structure contracts in a way to make Thomas the highest-paid safety in the game if they want to. The question is: Would they want to? Do not dismiss the possibility of them thinking about a trade without a long-term commitment from Thomas."

    It's no secret Thomas wants a new deal or a move elsewhere. The Cowboys don't have entrenched starters at safety after Byron Jones' shift back to cornerback. Of course, we also remember Thomas tracking down head coach Jason Garrett following Dallas' Week 16 loss to Seattle last year to express his interest in donning the starred helmet. 

    Dallas shouldn't do whatever it takes to pull off a trade. However, if it's able to execute a deal involving anything less than a first-round pick, it's a reasonable exchange. The Cowboys allowed 28 touchdowns through the air and only logged 10 interceptions last year.

Denver Broncos: Head Coach Vance Joseph's Future

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    Typically, a head coach going into his second season with a team isn't on the hot seat. However, Denever Broncos GM John Elway lit a small flame under Vance Joseph's chair when there were rumblings Joseph could be fired after just one season.

    The Denver Broncos finished 5-11 last year, which marks their worst record since the 2010 campaign, when head coach Josh McDaniels received a pink slip 12 games into his second season.

    In today's league, front offices don't exercise patience, especially through losing seasons. As a proud franchise with only three of those since 2000, Elway would probably look to make a change at head coach if the Broncos start 2018 slowly—or the team suffers embarrassing losses in September.

    Fortunately for Joseph, Denver only plays against one playoff club from last year within the first five weeks—and three of the five contests are at home. Nonetheless, he must lead a group of winners or potentially risk getting the boot.

Detroit Lions: Trade, Hold or Cut Running Back Ameer Abdullah?

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    The Detroit Lions have ranked no higher than 28th in rushing yards in the past four seasons and finished last in two of those. We should see a more balanced offensive unit in 2018.

    The front office signed three-time Super Bowl champion LeGarrette Blount, who led the league in rushing touchdowns with 18 two seasons ago. It's not a surprise Detroit Free Press reporter Dave Birkett expects him to take over goal-line duties.

    Rookie second-rounder Kerryon Johnson also joins the backfield as a potential early-down option with Theo Riddick able to handle third-down receiving duties.

    How will the Lions handle 2015 second-rounder Ameer Abdullah's future? He's been injured or ineffective in the past two seasons and goes into a contract year clearly on the roster bubble with Blount and Johnson in the fold. According to's Michael Rothstein, the team may look to deal the 25-year-old: 

    "There is a definite chance Abdullah -- if he has a good preseason -- could end up traded. But he has been putting in the work and there [has never] been a question about his talent. And that talent becomes tantalizing enough for new coach Matt Patricia to keep Abdullah around ... as a kick returner and catch-all back."

    A strong preseason could provide Abdullah a ticket elsewhere with more opportunities to shine. But if the fourth-year veteran underwhelms, he may have trouble finding work for the upcoming season.

Green Bay Packers: Who Will Replace Jake Ryan?

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    Green Bay Packers linebacker Jake Ryan tore his ACL during a training camp practice, which adds another obstacle to the defense's road to improvement. Now, general manager Brian Gutekunst must make a decision on Plan B. Does he stick it out with rookie third-rounder Oren Burks filling in or sign a stopgap veteran?

    According to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero, the Packers have discussed adding NaVorro Bowman to the linebacker corps.

    In 10 starts with the Oakland Raiders last year, the 30-year-old proved there's still juice left in his playing career. He led the Silver and Black with 58 tackles between his first game with the team in Week 7 to Week 17 and caught the club's first interception of the season while flat on his back.

    The Packers could also lean on the rookie who provides more flexibility in coverage because of his two-year experience as a defensive back.

    "It’s definitely a strength for me," Burks told the Sporting News' Kenan Goyette. "Those two years of safety experience, knowing the game from a different perspective and using those traits and those perspectives to make plays and things like that. I just have to get the ball rolling and don’t stop." 

    Gutekunst could afford to see what Burks brings to the field during the preseason since Bowman doesn't appear to be lining up multiple offers at the moment.

Houston Texans: Deshaun Watson's Protection at Right Tackle

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    Chris Tilley/Associated Press

    The Houston Texans offensive line deserves heavy offseason criticism following an abysmal overall performance the previous year, when they allowed 54 quarterback sacks. There's added attention to the perimeter protectors with quarterback Deshaun Watson recovering from a torn ACL.

    In 2017, Julie'n Davenport started four games on the blind side, so it's not a surprise he's expected to reclaim that spot. At the beginning of the offseason, the right tackle competition brought some uncertainty. However, Seantrel Henderson has emerged as the front-runner for the starting role. He earned praise for a solid practice session against defensive end J.J. Watt. 

    Rookie third-rounder Martinas Rankin isn't able to compete at all because of foot surgery, and Kendall Lamm has served as a backup for a majority of the past three seasons. 

    Even though Henderson seems like a default option, he'll have an opportunity to shine and lock down the spot during the preseason. If not, the Texans will have to reshuffle the deck and go with plan B or C, which should make fans a bit nervous.

Indianapolis Colts: Any Restrictions on Andrew Luck's Arm?

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    It's not a dream. Quarterback Andrew Luck finally took the field for a football game Thursday after a 19-month absence. It's the next phase in the 28-year-old's recovery from a shoulder surgery that cast doubt on a possible return, per's Mike Wells.

    "There were one or two moments where I wondered if I am ever going to be able to do this again," Luck told Wells. "Certainly, this (preseason opener at Seattle on Thursday) isn't what I've been working toward the whole time, but sort of in the same vein it is another step in this journey and one that is sort of about the next one right now." 

    Luck felt soreness but "no pain" during training camp, per Michael Marot of the Associated Press. Absorbing on-field contact on a weekly basis is the next step in building psychological confidence in his surgically repaired shoulder.

    As the franchise centerpiece, new head coach Frank Reich and the coaching staff may have to design a game plan that doesn't allow Luck to overexert his arm. Luckily, before joining Indianapolis, Reich led the Philadelphia Eagles offense, which ranked sixth in rush attempts with 473 in 2017.

    Indianapolis drafted two running backs, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins, in April to go along with Marlon Mack and Robert Turbin, the latter of whom is going to serve a four-game suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy. 

    Early in the season, the Colts may need to lean heavily on the ground attack as Luck readjusts to the game's physicality. 

Jacksonville Jaguars: Holding or Trading Dante Fowler Jr.?

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    Gary McCullough/Associated Press

    The Jacksonville Jaguars added a component to the interior defense last year with Marcell Dareus, but they may subtract from the front seven this summer.

    Jacksonville didn't exercise Fowler's fifth-year option, which puts him in a contract year following a breakout eight-sack season. Despite a one-game suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy and a shoulder injury that sidelined him through training camp, it's an opportune time to deal the talented pass-rusher.'s Michael DiRocco highlighted Fowler as the Jaguars' top trade candidate and suggested the team may listen to suitors interested in the 24-year-old: "They're unlikely to re-sign Fowler in the offseason, so they might listen if a team that needs a pass-rusher were to call." 

    Fowler missed his entire rookie season with a torn ACL, flashed a bit as a sophomore, then doubled his sack total in the following campaign. If he were traded, the Jaguars would still have Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue and Malik Jackson as pass-rushers to maintain the Sacksonville name. 

    At a premium position coming off a strong year, Fowler should draw some interest, but the Jaguars should wait for the right offer.

Kansas City Chiefs: Is Cameron Erving a Fit at Left Guard?

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    The Kansas City Chiefs listed versatile offensive lineman Cameron Erving as the starting left guard on their unofficial depth chart—take those with a grain of salt—though it makes sense since he took reps at the position through summer practices. The 25-year-old also started at the position against the Texans on Thursday. 

    Erving has played every position across the offensive line through his three-year career, but he underwhelmed as a 2015 first-rounder in Cleveland before a trade landed him in Kansas City last year. The Chiefs declined his fifth-year option, but the fourth-year veteran could experience a career rebirth as a starter in the upcoming season. 

    Erving has the first crack at the starting role, but Bryan Witzmann and Parker Ehinger remain as possible options pending their preseason performances.

Los Angeles Chargers: Tre Boston's Replacement at Free Safety

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    The Los Angeles Chargers didn't retain free safety Tre Boston, who led the team in interceptions with five in 2017, but they boast a deep secondary with plenty of potential replacements.

    According to's Eric Williams, Rayshawn Jenkins, Jahleel Addae, Desmond King and Jaylen Watkins all took reps at the position through the summer. He also notes rookie Derwin James handled strong safety and dime linebacker duties.

    Among the competitors for the starting role, King stands out as an intriguing option because of his ability to force turnovers and track the ball when it's in the air. Through four seasons at Iowa, he logged 14 interceptions, including eight as a junior, and 33 pass breakups.

    Last year, King served as the primary slot defender, but his versatility and skill set could allow him to provide solid coverage as the last line of defense for the Chargers.

Los Angeles Rams: A Contract Staredown with Aaron Donald

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    Defensive tackle Aaron Donald watched the Los Angeles Rams trade for cornerback Aqib Talib, who's set to make $11 million this season, pay defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh $14 million on a one-year deal, acquire and extend Brandin Cooks (making him the third-highest paid wideout in the league annually) and hammer out a new contract for running back Todd Gurley, which catapulted him to second in yearly salary at his position.

    The money train stopped for seemingly every high-end player on the roster except the 2017 Defensive Player of the Year. Of course, Donald doesn't plan to participate in team activities "any time soon," according to ESPN's Adam Schefter

    Nevertheless, general manager Les Snead says the team and player are "in the same zip code, area code, ballpark" when it comes to extension talks, per Los Angeles Daily News reporter Rich Hammond.

    Sure, Suh can still stop the run, but his sack numbers have dropped over the past few seasons. Donald led the team in that category for each of the last three years. The Rams' revamped defense would certainly miss his presence in the pass rush.

    Initially, the team seemed reluctant to reset the market for defensive players with a record-setting deal for Donald. On the other hand, as we inch closer to the regular season, Snead's encouraging words provide hope for an imminent agreement between the two sides.

Miami Dolphins: Slotting the Right Pieces Together in the Secondary

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    The Miami Dolphins have a good problem with their secondary: Where do all the pieces fit in a starting lineup? Defensive coordinator Matt Burke can exercise his creativity with the talent at cornerback and safety. 

    If Tony Lippett returns to action from an ankle injury, he'll compete with Cordrea Tankersley for a boundary spot opposite Xavien Howard. The front office selected defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick at No. 11 in April's draft, and he shared the team's vision of his role with Miami Herald reporter Armando Salguero

    "I'm not moving around and getting confused or anything like that. I'm going position by position and learning them, the different concepts. A lot of them are similar so once you know one position, you know the other one. So you can assume I'll be able to move around here. That's the plan."

    Fitzpatrick can line up at positions in which the Dolphins have returning starters. Bobby McCain served as the primary slot defender over the past two seasons and signed a four-year extension in June. He's probably going to maintain a solid role on the back end. 

    In 2017, safety Reshad Jones put together his second Pro Bowl season. Fellow safety T.J. McDonald signed a four-year extension last September and started half of the year after serving an eight-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.

    Lastly, cornerback Torry McTyer has impressed the coaching staff during training camp. The 2017 undrafted UNLV product played 119 snaps between defense and special teams duties as a rookie, but he's making a case to see more playing time. 

    It's anybody's guess how the Dolphins will piece together their starting secondary for the 2018 season, but preseason performances should begin to define roles.

Minnesota Vikings: Anthony Barr's Value in Extension Talks

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    The Vikings extended a pair of homegrown talents in defensive end Danielle Hunter and wideout Stefon Diggs during the offseason. Both players came into the league with the 2015 draft class, one year after linebacker Anthony Barr.

    As a complete linebacker on the second level, Barr should land a new deal this summer. Head coach Mike Zimmer squashed a (supposed) trade rumor involving the 2014 first-rounder, per Courtney Cronin of

    "Anthony is my guy," said Zimmer. "No. 1, we are unequivocally not trying to trade Anthony. He was my first draft pick we have ever had with me. He's helped this defense go from 32nd or 31st or whatever it is to being pretty good, and so there's no, none whatsoever, truth to that rumor."

    The Vikings head coach also added the team is in contract talks with Barr's camp: "We're trying to get him signed...That's between upstairs [front office] and his people. We'd love to have him here."

    There you have it. Barr will either play out the final year of his rookie contract that's set to pay him a guaranteed $12.3 million or take the field with his future intact on a new deal. Now, it's a matter of finding the right number for an off-ball linebacker whose numbers don't exactly jump off the page in the box score. Nonetheless, on film, it's clear he serves as a key component in run defense and short-area pass coverage.

New England Patriots: Choosing Between Veterans Mike Gillislee and Jeremy Hill

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    As Doug Kyed of NESN pointed out, the Patriots typically keep five running backs, which leaves Mike Gillislee, Jeremy Hill and undrafted rookie Ralph Webb fighting for backend roster space.

    Rookie first-rounder Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead are virtually locked into spots because of their draft status, longevity with the team or past contributions. Brandon Bolden has been a key component on special teams. 

    Gillislee joined the Patriots after the Bills decided not to match a two-year, $6.4 million offer sheet. Hill, the No. 55 overall pick in 2014, became an afterthought once the Bengals selected Joe Mixon in the second round of last year's draft and came over to New England in March.

    Hill led the league in rushing touchdowns with 11 during the 2015 campaign. Gillislee logged 13 scores on the ground over the past two terms. One of the two veterans will serve as a goal-line threat in New England, while the other looks to reinvent himself elsewhere.

New Orleans Saints: Who's Going to Take a Reduced Role at Linebacker?

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    At full strength, the New Orleans Saints have layers of depth at linebacker. Craig Robertson, A.J. Klein and Manti Te'o led the team in snaps at the position last year, but roles will change for the upcoming season.

    Alex Anzalone, a 2017 third-rounder, suffered a right shoulder injury during his rookie year and returned to action. He is competing for a prominent role on the weak side. The Saints signed Demario Davis to three-year, $24 million deal, which puts his annual salary among the top 10 at his position, per Spotrac. He's all but ensured a starting spot. 

    Hau'oli Kikaha has moved back to linebacker. When healthy, he's shown the ability to rush the passer off the edge. As a 2015 second-rounder, he has potential, but the 26-year-old could face an uphill battle because of his position's instability and his injury history. Veterans Nathan Stupar and Jayrone Elliott also find themselves in the mix, but it's unlikely either earns a starting role. 

    The linebacker corps comes into the year with extensive experience. The position battles on the back end of the front seven should come down to splitting hairs. Nonetheless, we're going to see a new combination at the heart of the Saints defense.

New York Giants: Identifying the Starting Center

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    There's nothing more sacred than the exchange between a center and a quarterback. A small part of the New York Giants turnaround will focus on the battle at the pivot.

    In 2017, Brett Jones took over for Weston Richburg, who landed on injured reserve because of a concussion, and he started 12 games at center. The new coaching staff won't necessarily keep the status quo between the incumbent and Eli Manning. Jon Halapio took the majority of the reps in the middle of the offensive line during practices. The 27-year-old started six games at right guard last season. 

    Ed Valentine of SB Nation's Big Blue View dug for answers on why Halapio saw an unforeseen shift and a promotion over the summer. It turns out head coach Pat Shurmur likes what he hears from the fifth-year veteran.

    "The closer you are to the ball, the more you need to communicate," Shurmur said. "I think he's done a good job communicating, getting us going in the right direction. We are fortunate enough in practice to see a lot of looks, which will help us and serve us well as we move forward, and he has done a good job with that."

    As is the case with most position battles, the final decision will come down to preseason performances. Jones brings experience, but Halapio has potential.

New York Jets: Starting or Sitting Sam Darnold Week 1?

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    While the Bills seem content with bringing along Allen slowly, New York Jets rookie quarterback Sam Darnold has already impressed those inside the organization. According to Schefter's sources, he "has a very fair shot" at winning the starting job over Teddy Bridgewater and Josh McCown.

    Nonetheless, based on summer performances, SNY's Ralph Vacchiano feels the incumbent stood above his competitors for the position.

    "The 39-year-old McCown isn't just the incumbent starter, he's been the best quarterback in training camp and shows no signs of losing the grip on his job," he wrote.

    Keep in mind that Darnold went through a minor holdup before signing his contract. The coaching staff will take a long look at the rookie and Bridgewater during the exhibition period since we already know what McCown brings to the table. 

    Assuming Bridgewater or Darnold looks anything close to ready as a starter, the Jets will begin the 2018 campaign with a new signal-caller. It's also encouraging to hear that head coach Todd Bowles won't hold back the No. 3 overall pick if he's ready to lead the offense. 

Oakland Raiders: Paying Khalil Mack or Waiting It Out?

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    The Oakland Raiders and edge-rusher Khalil Mack haven't moved significantly toward a new deal that would likely make the two-time All-Pro as the highest-paid defensive player in the league. He certainly deserves it.

    Mack became the first player to receive All-Pro honors at two positions (defensive end and linebacker) during the 2015 season. He's racked up 40.5 career sacks and hasn't missed a game since coming into the NFL as the No. 5 overall pick in 2014. 

    Extending Mack with a massive deal that surpasses Broncos edge-rusher Von Miller's $19 million average annual salary would put the team in new territory as the first franchise with two players making $20-plus million annually. Quarterback Derek Carr's deal averages $25 million per year

    Oakland has $14.8 million in cap room and a new coaching staff in place. Mack doesn't need to see the field for the preseason, but the Raiders defense could take a huge leap with him under defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. In Cincinnati, his defenses logged more than 40 sacks in two of the last three seasons. 

    The Raiders must find a way to resolve this contract dispute with a roster cornerstone still in the prime of his career at 27 years old.

Philadelphia Eagles: Where Does Cornerback Sidney Jones Primarily Line Up?

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    Cornerback Sidney Jones suffered a torn Achilles at Washington's pro day, which essentially led to a redshirt rookie term. He appeared in just one game against the Cowboys in the season finale. Now healthy, the 2017 second-rounder should have a prominent role in the secondary.

    Cornerback Patrick Robinson's departure to New Orleans opened a spot in the slot. Despite taking reps in that role, Jones has more experience on the boundary.

    Dave Zangaro of NBC Sports Philadelphia noted the second-year cover man also moved outside during a recent practice: "Jalen Mills slides inside on nickel downs and get replaced by Jones outside. This has been an option—it's what I'd do—but this is the first we've seen of it." 

    De'Vante Bausby, who went undrafted in 2015, took reps on the inside throughout training camp as well, but the coaching staff will probably give Jones the best opportunity to define his role during the preseason. The former Husky should see ample snaps in the vacated nickel spot and on the boundary.

    As a slot defender, Jones suffered a low-ankle sprain against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday. Fortunately, the injury isn't serious.

    "I know I scared everybody," he told Les Bowen of the Philadelphia Inquirer. "After the game, I texted my people. I'm good."

Pittsburgh Steelers: Finding a Role for Rookie Terrell Edmunds

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Steelers opted to move Sean Davis to free safety following Mike Mitchell's departure, signed Morgan Burnett in March and drafted Terrell Edmunds in the first round. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler must also figure out how to compensate for losing Ryan Shazier's coverage skills at linebacker.

    Edmunds took snaps at linebacker during rookie minicamp, according to Jeremy Fowler of, which prompted speculation about a position shift in sub-packages. The Virginia Tech product lined up in various spots at the collegiate level. Secondly, he stands at 6'1", 217 pounds and has coverage ability on passing downs, logging six interceptions over the past two seasons. 

    At the moment, Edmunds' role isn't defined. He took first-team reps at strong safety while Morgan Burnett missed practices with a hamstring injury, per Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

    "Edmunds has spent the first five days at Saint Vincent College lining predominantly at strong safety with the first-team defense while veteran Morgan Burnett recovers from a hamstring injury," he wrote.

    The Steelers have practiced in a 2-2-7 alignment, dubbed as the dollar package, featuring two defensive linemen, two linebackers and seven defensive backs.

    Butler emphasized the need to show different looks, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ray Fittipaldo: "We'll have to be versatile. With the people we play, we have to defend and stop stuff they do well. Sometimes, they'll have more wide receivers on the field. Well, we have to get more defensive backs on the field. We have to be able to do that." 

    The Steelers could utilize a big nickel package with three safeties on the field, which puts Edmunds in line for a decent role in the secondary. Regardless of his position, the rookie should see a fair amount of action in the 2018 season.

San Francisco 49ers: Identifying the Starting Right Guard

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    Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

    The San Francisco 49ers' training-camp battle at right guard could come down to 2013 first-round pick Jonathan Cooper and 2016 first-rounder Joshua Garnett. For now, it's a heavy dose of Mike Person on the interior. The team also signed undrafted rookie free agent Chris Gonzalez, who spent time with the Vikings

    Garnett suffered a knee injury during training camp and sought a second opinion that called for further treatment, but he'll avoid surgery for now, per Pelissero.

    Cooper participated in 11-on-11 drills on a gradual recovery from offseason knee surgery, according to Matt Barrows of The Athletic. He suffered a broken leg in his rookie season with Arizona and then fell into a backup role, but the 28-year-old started 13 games for the Cowboys last year.

    The slight turnaround and the 49ers' need at the position made him a viable candidate to push for a starting role, though the ailment could set him back a bit.

    Garnett and Cooper missed the preseason opener against the Cowboys. If the pair are unable to overcome their injuries, the 49ers may sift through summer roster cuts to fill the void on the offensive line.

Seattle Seahawks: Is It Time to Deal Safety Earl Thomas?

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    Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

    All 32 teams know what Thomas wants: a new deal or a trade. The three-time All-Pro spelled it out in the Players' Tribune this month.

    This situation differs from Donald's, as Thomas is seeking his third professional deal. Overall, he's made a lot more money than the Rams defensive tackle, and there's more wear and tear on his body. The 29-year-old is roughly two years removed from suffering a broken tibia, which caused him to contemplate retirement

    Now, Thomas seems content with sitting out until there's a contract resolution. In the meantime, the Seattle Seahawks will look to develop safeties in his place. However, if the ninth-year veteran doesn't return to the team shortly before Week 1, the front office must consider moving him for some assets in return. 

    It's unlikely the Seahawks would land multiple early-round picks for a disgruntled player in a contract year, but there's value in a deep safety who's coming off a Pro Bowl campaign with a lot left to offer.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Head Coach Dirk Koetter's Short-Term Future

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    Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers could start the season with Dirk Koetter as their head coach and finish with an interim in his place.

    You'd have to look back to the 2009-11 seasons to find the last Buccaneers head coach to complete three terms. Raheem Morris accomplished the feat, but he finished 10-6 in his second year. 

    Koetter goes into the 2018 campaign 14-18, which isn't a horrible record, but the talent on the roster underachieved last year. Tampa Bay's fall to 5-11 as the only team in the division to miss the postseason probably moved the lead skipper to the hot seat.

    Quarterback Jameis Winston's three-game suspension for violating the league's personal-conduct policy puts the team in a difficult spot, as it's playing the Saints, Eagles and Steelers in the first three weeks. Ryan Fitzpatrick won't save the Buccaneers from an 0-3 start. The 35-year-old signal-caller is known for alternating decent and subpar seasons—just ask the Jets.

    If the Buccaneers lose their first three contests and then somehow fall to the Bears in Week 4, the following bye week could become an opportune time to dismiss the coaching staff.   

Tennessee Titans: Outside Linebacker Rotation

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Linebacker Kevin Dodd's odd non-impactful tenure ended shortly after he didn't report to training camp, per Cameron Wolfe of His absence clears the path for rookie second-rounder Harold Landry to take reps behind veteran outside linebackers Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo. The latter missed practices because of a shoulder injury, which allowed the Boston College product to take first-team reps.

    Landry tangled with offensive tackle Taylor Lewan to no avail, according to Jim Wyatt of the team's official website, but going against one of the best perimeter pass protectors in the game should accelerate his development.

    Morgan and Orakpo have entered contract years without a peep about an extension. Landry's preseason showing may encourage head coach Mike Vrabel to give the rookie more snaps in preparation for a bigger role in 2019. 

    During his junior year, Landry led the country in sacks with 16.5. He's capable of bending off the edge and dropping the quarterback. His ability to show his skill set at the professional level should get him more playing time, though it's a tough call if Morgan and Orakpo stay healthy and productive.

Washington Redskins: Who Starts Opposite Josh Norman?

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Whoever starts opposite Washington Redskins cornerback Josh Norman must prepare to see plenty of passes thrown in his direction. Some quarterbacks elect to avoid the All-Pro in coverage.

    Whether it's Quinton Dunbar or Fabian Moreau on the boundary, an unproven full-time starter will see a significant workload increase. At the moment, Dunbar is the No. 2 cornerback on the unofficial depth chart released Monday, via Scott Jennings of SB Nation's Hogs Haven.

    Dunbar started four games last year, while Moreau served as a special teams ace. Preseason action on the perimeter isn't a new wrinkle for the fourth-year veteran, but a poor showing would open the door for the 2017 third-rounder and career slot defender Orlando Scandrick if necessary.

    The Redskins must feel confident in either (or both) Dunbar and Moreau to allow Bashaud Breeland to walk during free agencyhe's still unsignedand to trade Kendall Fuller. The coaching staff should make a major decision on the No. 2 spot in September.