Every NFL Team's Toughest Contract Decision This Offseason
Navigating the NFL offseason is a difficult challenge for team decision-makers. Not only must teams evaluate potential draft targets and free-agent options, but they also have to evaluate players already on the roster.
Which players should be retained? What is a fair contract for both the player and the team? When should a new contract be offered? These are the kinds of questions that can lead to sticky contract situations, like the one the Oakland Raiders faced with Khalil Mack last offseason. Oakland couldn't get an extension done and instead shipped Mack off to the Chicago Bears.
While not every team has a Mack situation on its hands in 2019, each has numerous tough decisions to make. Here, we'll examine each team's biggest—based on the potential fallout and potential reward of each outcome.
Arizona Cardinals: OT D.J. Humphries
The Arizona Cardinals have a problem with the offensive line. The unit allowed 52 sacks last season and rarely gave rookie quarterback Josh Rosen time to play comfortably from the pocket. Offensive tackle D.J. Humphries has been part of the problem over the last four years. The former first-rounder couldn't get on the field as a rookie and has missed 21 games over the last three seasons.
Humphries is set to earn $9.6 million in 2019 due to the fifth-year option Arizona exercised. The question the Cardinals have to ask is whether Humphries is worth that. It's relatively cheap for a starting left tackle—which Humphries is expected to be—but if Humphries plays poorly and can't keep the job, it will be a waste of cap space.
Arizona can release Humphries before the start of the new league year and not pay him a dime. However, that decision carries risk. If the Cardinals let Humphries walk and then cannot secure a better option in free agency or the draft, they'll be even worse off than they are now.
Atlanta Falcons: DT Grady Jarrett
Grady Jarrett is one of the league's best defensive linemen and one of its most underrated players—he's somehow never made a Pro Bowl. It would be a big mistake for the Atlanta Falcons to let him reach the open market this offseason.
The tough part will be figuring out how to retain Jarrett while also saving enough cap space to address other needs. Atlanta is projected to have just $26.3 million in cap space in 2019. Using the franchise tag on Jarrett would eat up more than half of that. A long-term deal would likely provide a better cap situation, and that's what Atlanta is attempting to get done.
"We're working diligently on [a new deal for] Grady Jarrett, that is our focus and that will continue to be our focus right now," general manager Thomas Dimitroff said, via the team's official website.
The Falcons have until March 5 to agree to a deal or franchise Jarrett to extend their negotiating timetable. After that, they risk losing him.
Baltimore Ravens: LB C.J. Mosley
Like Jarrett, Baltimore Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley is one of the top young defenders in the NFL. Also like Jarrett, Mosley is set to become a free agent. The Ravens need to get a deal done or place the franchise tag on Mosley or he's going to get paid big on the open market.
Plenty of teams are going to want an inside linebacker who can run, tackle and cover the way that Mosley can.
The Ravens have a better cap situation than the Falcons—Baltimore is projected to have more than $50 million in space—but they'll still have to find a balance between paying Mosley what he's worth and saving enough future cash to re-sign guys like Lamar Jackson, who will be eligible for an extension in two more years.
Buffalo Bills: RB Lesean McCoy
What do the Buffalo Bills do with running back LeSean McCoy? It's a difficult question because, on one hand, they need to support quarterback Josh Allen with a strong rushing attack. On the other, McCoy may no longer be the best back to lead said rushing attack.
McCoy rushed for just 514 yards in 2018 and average a mere 3.2 yards per carry. Allen, by comparison, averaged 7.1 yards per carry.
Buffalo could save $6.4 million by parting with McCoy, so he is a potential cap casualty. Financially, the move makes sense, but McCoy is a longtime veteran and a fan favorite, so pulling the trigger won't be easy.
Carolina Panthers: WR Devin Funchess
Bringing back wide receiver Devin Funchess would make a lot of sense for the Carolina Panthers, but only at the right price. Funchess is a big, physical receiver who has produced 2,233 yards over the last four seasons for Carolina. However, he has also struggled with drops and creating separation.
The problem with giving up on Funchess is that quarterback Cam Newton already has a lackluster supporting cast aside from Christian McCaffrey. Funchess was third on the team with 44 receptions in 2018, and losing him could further hinder the Carolina passing attack.
Of course, the Panthers could let Funchess walk and then try to chase a free agent like Michael Crabtree or a trade target like Antonio Brown. There's no guarantee the Panthers will find a clear upgrade over Funchess, though.
Chicago Bears: RB Jordan Howard
Chicago Bears running back Jordan Howard didn't have the best season in 2018. He did top 900 rushing yards, but he averaged an underwhelming 3.7 yards per carry. This leaves his future in Chicago beyond 2019 a bit uncertain.
The Bears are already weighing their options. According to CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora, Chicago is "shopping" the running back. This would seem to indicate that Howard isn't in Chicago's future plans. The Bears now have to figure out if Howard should be in their current plans.
If the Bears cannot move Howard, they can cut him while paying out just $62,007 in dead money. Either of these moves, however, weakens the depth in Chicago's backfield. Releasing Howard also presents the risk of him signing with a division rival.
Cincinnati Bengals: TE Tyler Eifert
The Cincinnati Bengals are in a tough situation regarding pending free agent Tyler Eifert. The tight end is a tremendous weapon when healthy—he caught 13 touchdown passes and made the Pro Bowl in 2015—but he has an extensive injury history—including a broken ankle that ended his 2018 season.
Eifert has missed 53 games in his six seasons with Cincinnati.
The good news is that Eifert recently posted a video showing that his ankle is progressing well. The Bengals may be inclined to give him one last opportunity on a short-term deal. It's a tough call, though. Eifert signed a one-year prove-it deal last offseason and then only appeared in four games before his ankle injury.
Cleveland Browns: WR Breshad Perriman
The Cleveland Browns took a flier on former first-rounders Breshad Perriman and Greg Robinson in 2018. Both players emerged as solid contributors, and Cleveland recently signed Robinson to a new one-year deal. The Browns would like to re-sign Perriman as well.
"We've had numerous conversations with his agent," general manager John Dorsey said, per Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com.
Perriman is represented by Drew Rosenhaus, who isn't going to let his client sign for the league minimum. This puts Cleveland in a tricky spot. Yes, Perriman added value to the offense, but he also had just 16 receptions and two touchdowns. Perriman can be a field-stretching role player—he averaged 21.3 yards per catch last season—but the Browns can't overpay to keep him.
Dallas Cowboys: DE Demarcus Lawrence
The Dallas Cowboys have themselves a star pass-rusher in Demarcus Lawrence. Obviously, they'd like to prevent him from hitting free agency, but that isn't going to be easy. If Lawrence rejects Dallas' long-term contract offers—ESPN.com's Todd Archer reported that an initial offer has been made—Dallas may have no choice but to use the franchise tag as a placeholder.
This could create a volatile situation. Lawrence played under the franchise tag last year and isn't interested in playing under it for a second consecutive season. According to NFL Media's Tom Pelissero, Lawrence will not sign his franchise tender if tagged again.
The Cowboys don't face a dire cap situation—they're projected to have more than $46 million available—but they have to be cautious about how much they spend on Lawrence. Ezekiel Elliott, Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper are going to want their own big deals in the near future.
Denver Broncos: QB Case Keenum
The Denver Broncos have a difficult decision to make with quarterback Case Keenum. He was brought in on a two-year deal last offseason to help stabilize the quarterback position. He struggled, though, and this offseason, Denver has agreed to acquire Joe Flacco from Baltimore, per ESPN's Adam Schefter. With Flacco joining the party, Denver isn't going to pay Keenum's $21 million contract for 2019.
The Broncos would like to retain Keenum under a restructured contract, though, according to The Athletic's Nicki Jhabvala.
"My preference is to have him stay here," general manager John Elway said, per Jhabvala.
If Keenum won't agree to restructure, Denver will be forced to try trade or simply release him. Cutting Keenum would still cost the team $10 million in guaranteed money, so the Broncos should be incentivized to find a more creative solution.
Detroit Lions: DE Ezekiel Ansah
The Detroit Lions used the franchise tag on pass-rusher Ezekiel Ansah last offseason, but they weren't rewarded as much as the Cowboys were with Lawrence. Ansah appeared in just seven games because of injuries and provided only four sacks.
Giving Ansah the tag again in 2019 doesn't make sense, but it's not as if Detroit has completely given up on him.
"Kind of still in the evaluation process for Ziggy," general manager Bob Quinn said Wednesday, per Kyle Meinke of MLive.com.
Ansah was placed on injured reserve with a shoulder issue on December 11. The Lions first have to determine how healthy he'll be in 2019, and they then must determine how high they're willing to bid on him in free agency.
Green Bay Packers: LB Clay Matthews
Linebacker Clay Matthews has been a mainstay of the Green Bay Packers defense for a decade. While his play has declined over the last few seasons—he hasn't posted double-digit sacks since 2014—it's still hard to imagine Matthews playing in a different uniform. That's what could happen if he reaches free agency, though.
"He's been a great player for us for a long time," Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said, per Brian Jones of 247Sports. "He's still playing at a very high level. We'll get to that as we go over the next two weeks."
According to NFL Network's Michael Silver, the Packers do want to re-sign Matthews. Naturally, though, it would have to be done at the right price. Figuring out what that price is will be the tough part.
Houston Texans: LB/DE Jadeveon Clowney
Jadeveon Clowney is one of the league's best all-around defenders. He can play linebacker or end, and he can chase down ball-carriers and cover pass-catchers. He can definitely get to the quarterback, as evidenced by his 18.5 sacks over the last two seasons.
The Houston Texans would be foolish to let Clowney walk in free agency, but they may have few options to prevent him. According to Paul Gallant of Sports Radio 610—and based on the testimony of former Texans receiver Cecil Shorts III—Clowney turned down a long-term offer last offseason.
This means the Texans will either have to provide a better offer than they did in 2018, or they'll have to use the franchise tag to keep Clowney. The only alternative will be letting him test the market, in which case he may never come back.
Indianapolis Colts: CB Pierre Desir
Pierre Desir has developed into a solid starting cornerback for the Indianapolis Colts. The only real issue with Desir is that he has only proved himself over two seasons in Indianapolis, and his first was limited to just nine games because of a shoulder injury.
According to Colts team writer Andrew Walker, general manager Chris Ballard would like to have Desir back but might also let him test the market.
If Desir gets to free agency, he could end up getting a fairly lucrative offer from another team because, well, starting cornerbacks don't just grow on trees. What Indianapolis needs to decide is if a guy with a limited resume as a starter is worth starting-corner money.
Jacksonville Jaguars: QB Blake Bortles
What the heck should the Jacksonville Jaguars do with quarterback Blake Bortles? They clearly don't believe in him as a potential franchise quarterback anymore—he was benched for Cody Kessler after all—but they aren't going to find a trade partner and can't easily cut him right now.
Bortles still has $16.5 million in guaranteed money on his contract. Cutting him would only save $5.5 million in 2018. That would be a tough pill to swallow, but it may be worth it to simply move on and put Bortles in the rearview mirror.
A lot will likely depend on whether the Jaguars draft a rookie quarterback or sign a guy like Nick Foles in free agency. That $5.5 million could help pay a large chunk of another quarterback's salary.
If he isn't gone this season, Bortles is likely out after next season, when only $5 million in deal money will remain on his contract.
Kansas City Chiefs: LB Dee Ford
Kansas City Chiefs pass-rusher Dee Ford had a breakout year in 2018, racking up 13.0 sacks. This could prompt the Chiefs to use the franchise tag on Ford or to clear some cap space to offer him a long-term deal.
According to CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora, the Chiefs are open to trading fellow pass-rusher Justin Houston.
Kansas City, however, has to be careful not to overvalue what Ford accomplished in 2018. Yes, he had a strong season, but it's also one of the only strong seasons he's had as a pro pass-rusher. Ford had 13.0 sacks in 2018, a 10.0 sack season in 2016, but he had just 7.5 sacks in his other three seasons combined—he missed 10 games in 2017 with a back injury.
*Update: According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the Chiefs will use the franchise tag on Ford.
Los Angeles Chargers: RB Melvin Ingram
Running back Melvin Gordon is entering the final year of his rookie contract, and the Los Angeles Chargers would like to have him around long-term.
"We've got him and a number of other guys that we'll look at extending at some point," Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said, per Jeff Miller of the Los Angeles Times.
Gordon is undoubtedly a good running back. He combines power, receiving ability and an ability to break tackles. However, the Chargers shouldn't overpay to keep him. The success of backs like Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson late last season should show that Gordon is replaceable.
Los Angeles must weigh the option of extending Gordon now against the risk of his asking for top-tier running back money should he have a career year in 2019.
Los Angeles Rams: G Rodger Saffold
The Los Angeles Rams face several tough decisions heading into free agency. Lamarcus Joyner, Ndamukong Suh and Rodger Saffold are among their pending free agents and were all key contributors to last year's Super Bowl run.
Of these three listed players, Saffold has the toughest situation. He's a key piece of L.A.'s offensive line—you know, the one responsible for keeping Jared Goff upright and for opening holes for Todd Gurley—and he's one of the better guards in the league. This means he's extremely important to the entire offense, and he'll be difficult to keep—potentially more so than Suh and Joyner.
Miami Dolphins: OT Ja'Wuan James
The Miami Dolphins are about to enter yet another rebuilding period. The team would like starting right tackle Ja'Wuan James to be part of the process.
"We drafted him here and he's a good, young player," general manager Chris Grier said, per Cameron Wolfe of ESPN.com. "We'd like to have him here and we'll see what the market [is] and what he's looking for, as well."
Here's the problem. James is a good offensive tackle, not a great one. Since tackles are hard to come by, though, some team is going to massively overpay if he gets to the open market—just like the New York Giants did for Nate Solder last offseason.
That team shouldn't be Miami, so the Dolphins need to try getting a fair deal done before free agency opens.
Minnesota Vikings: RB Latavius Murray
Running back Latavius Murray has been invaluable to the Minnesota Vikings over the last two years. He's served as not only a complement to Dalvin Cook but also a starter on several occasions. It would be smart for the Vikings to bring him back, but Murray won't be content to just be a backup.
"Make no mistake about it, I want to play," Murray said, per Courtney Cronin of ESPN.com.
If the Vikings use a 50-50 split between Murray and Cook, that might appease Murray and his desire for playing time. The problem is that Minnesota cannot realistically afford to pay Murray like a No. 1 back in that scenario. The trick will be finding a balance between salary and playing time that works for both Murray and Minnesota.
New England Patriots: QB Tom Brady
Tom Brady is entering the final year of his contract. For most 41-year-old quarterbacks, this would mean that the team is a year away from moving on. However, Brady continues to stiff-arm Father Time, and the Patriots don't view a contract extension as a big risk.
According to ESPN.com's Mike Reiss, owner Robert Kraft doesn't have "any reservations" about extending Brady beyond the 2019 season.
The trick will be figuring out just how long Brady plans to play—and, more importantly, how long he will perform at a high level. Brady has continually said he wants to play until he's 45, which would mean three more seasons. If his performance starts to dip dramatically in 2019 (his age-42 campaign) or 2020, though, head coach Bill Belichick may be willing to pull the plug.
The Patriots need to figure out how long of an extension they're comfortable with and how much guaranteed money they're willing to risk.
New Orleans Saints: QB Teddy Bridgewater
Like Brady, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees is entering the final year of his contract. Brees turned 40 in January, but he's fighting off age just as well as Brady, if not better. It's unlikely he'll want to retire within the next couple of years, so New Orleans should work on getting an extension done now.
There are two big reasons for this. One is that an extension might lower Brees' 2019 cap hit of $33.5 million. That, in turn, could help free up some cash to extend with star wide receiver Michael Thomas, who has one year left on his rookie deal.
New Orleans is projected to have just under $10 million in cap space, so even if Thomas' deal gets postponed, the cap space would be handy.
The other reason is that it would help give the Saints some idea of their time frame for finding Brees' successor. If Brees commits through, say, 2021, the Saints could stockpile draft picks in order to go after a guy like Clemson's Trevor Lawrence.
New York Giants: S Landon Collins
Landon Collins has been one of the better box safeties in the NFL over the last several seasons, and the New York Giants aren't keen on letting him walk in free agency. However, they could find themselves in a standoff if they use the franchise tag on Collins.
The three-time Pro Bowler wants no part of the tag.
"He's just upset at this point; he's not the first guy to be upset with the franchise tag coming his way," NFL Media's Mike Garofolo said on NFL Network.
The Giants, who have $27 million in projected cap room, need to find a balance between keeping Collins off the market and making him happy enough to play in 2019.
New York Jets: RB Isaiah Crowell
The New York Jets need to find a quality running back to help support second-year quarterback Sam Darnold. Isaiah Crowell was supposed to be that back, and at times, he looked like he was. He even had a 219-yard outing against the Denver Broncos.
However, Crowell was also wildly inefficient at times, and he missed three games because of injury. If the Jets feel that Crowell won't become more consistent, they can release him while paying out just $2 million in guaranteed money for 2019 and 2020.
The decision is tough because New York cannot know for sure it'll find an upgrade. The team has $102.9 million in projected cap room and could try going all-in on Le'Veon Bell. Freeing up Crowell's contract would certainly help that cause, but there's no guarantee Bell will sign there. If New York cannot land an upgrade, then releasing Crowell would potentially put Darnold in an even worse position than before.
Oakland Raiders: TE Jared Cook
Tight end Jared Cook was a Pro Bowler in 2018 after amassing 896 receiving yards and six touchdowns. With the tight end market being weak in free agency, Cook is going to have plenty of suitors. This could make it difficult for the Oakland Raiders to re-sign him, something they would like to do.
"We'd love to have Jared back," general manager Mike Mayock said, per Scott Bair of NBC Bay Area.
Mayock did say, though, that Cook was going to test the open market. A team could offer the soon-to-be 32-year-old tight end more than the Raiders are willing to put on the table.
Oakland has seemed to make it clear that it isn't going to overpay in order to keep players—not even Khalil Mack—at this point in the rebuilding process. Letting go of Cook, though, would rob quarterback Derek Carr of his best target from 2018.
Philadelphia Eagles: CB Ronald Darby
Ronald Darby is the best cornerback on the Philadelphia Eagles roster when he's healthy, and the prospect of letting him go in free agency should worry team decision-makers. However, it's going to be tricky to gauge how far the Eagles should go to retain him.
The issue with Darby is that he's coming off a torn ACL that he suffered in Week 10. That's late in the season and realistically could affect the start of Darby's 2019 campaign.
Still, Darby is going to be one of the hottest cornerbacks on the open market, which could drive his price tag far out of Philadelphia's range (the Eagles have a league-low $884,684 in projected cap room).
Giving him the franchise tag before the 4 p.m. ET March 5 deadline is an option—especially since the team isn't going to use it on Nick Foles—but then the Eagles have to justify using the tag on a player who may not be at 100 percent at any point in the season.
Pittsburgh Steelers: QB Ben Roethlisberger
How much time does Ben Roethlisberger have left with the Pittsburgh Steelers? This is the tough question that Pittsburgh needs to answer because the gunslinger, who turned 37 this Saturday, is entering the final year of his contract.
Extending Roethlisberger now would make the most sense but only if Pittsburgh is convinced he has a few more seasons in him. Roethlisberger has hinted at retirement in the past, but last offseason, he seemed a bit more positive.
"I feel better than I've felt in a long time," Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (h/t Joe Rutter, via the York Dispatch).
If the Steelers feel they can bank on Roethlisberger for several more seasons, then they have to determine how much they're willing to break the bank to keep him. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the team is in preliminary talks to restructure and extend Roethlisberger's contract.
As Schefter points out, the restructure could help Pittsburgh eat the dead money left on Antonio Brown's contract if the team trades the wideout. The Steelers need to find a balance between getting cap relief now and potentially burning themselves in the future if Roethlisberger suddenly calls it quits or significantly declines.
San Francisco 49ers: DB Jimmie Ward
2014 first-round pick Jimmie Ward has been a quality defensive back for the San Francisco 49ers when healthy. He can play both cornerback and safety, and he's earned the respect of head coach Kyle Shanahan.
"He's a guy, as a person, that I'll go to war with any day, I really trust, I really believe in," Shanahan said, per Chris Biderman of the Sacramento Bee. "I hope it works out that we can get him back."
Ward is set to become a free agent when the new league year begins March 13.
The problem is that Ward has struggled to stay healthy. He's ended four of his five seasons on injured reserve. The makes him a gamble. Yes, the 49ers would like him back because of what he can be, but they have to find a creative way to protect themselves from his sizable injury risk.
Read more here: https://www.sacbee.com/sports/nfl/san-francisco-49ers/article226939739.html#storylink=cpy
Seattle Seahawks: QB Russell Wilson
The Seattle Seahawks are fortunate to have an elite quarterback. Unlike some teams on this list, Seattle doesn't have to wonder if it should extend Russell Wilson. It only has to navigate getting that deal done.
"I really do [see Wilson with the team long-term]," Seahawks general manager John Schneider said, per Mike Jones of USA Today. "I have no other reason to believe otherwise other than website rumors."
Things might get tricky, though, because Wilson is in the final year of his contract. He's likely to become the league's highest-paid player on his next deal—that's just the nature of the quarterback-contract cycle—and the price could be substantially higher if Seattle waits until next offseason.
The Seahawks need to figure out how to retain Wilson without also financially crippling the team, and they need to do it sooner rather than later. The price of top-tier quarterbacks is only going to go up. Matt Ryan just signed a deal worth $30 million per year. By next offseason, the going rate may be closer to $40 million per year for an elite quarterback.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: QB Jameis Winston
The new Tampa Bay Buccaneers regime has to figure out what to do with quarterback Jameis Winston. The 2015 No. 1 overall pick has shown flashes of promise, but he also makes some baffling decisions and carries major off-field concerns.
It makes sense for new head coach Bruce Arians to give Winston a year for evaluation. However, that year will come under the fifth-year option and at the price of $20.9 million. That's no longer a bad price for a starting quarterback, but the price will go up significantly if Winston plays well in Arians' system and then gets a shot at free agency or receives the franchise tag.
Now is the right time for the Buccaneers to extend Winston, but until Arians and Co. see him lead the offense, it's going to be hard to know if that's something they want to do.
Tennessee Titans: QB Marcus Mariota
The Tennessee Titans are in a similar situation with quarterback Marcus Mariota, who was drafted one spot behind Winston. Mariota has played well at times. But he doesn't consistently push the ball downfield, and he's had his fair share of injuries—including an elbow issue that affected much of his 2018 campaign.
Second-year head coach Mike Vrabel has a better idea of what Mariota can be than Arians does with Winston in Tampa, but gauging his long-term potential won't be easy. That's a problem because the time to sign Mariota to an extension is now.
Tennessee has to decide which risk is better, signing Mariota now or waiting until next offseason to face the decision all over again.
Washington Redskins: RB Adrian Peterson
The Washington Redskins find themselves in a tricky running back situation. They drafted LSU's Derrius Guice in the second round last offseason but then lost him to a torn ACL in August. Veteran Adrian Peterson stepped in and produced a 1,000-yard season. Bringing back the soon-to-be 34-year-old Peterson would provide much-needed insurance, but it could be difficult.
Washington ($16.7 million in projected cap room) can't commit a ton of guaranteed money to a player who may spend most of his time backing up Guice.
"If you're the Redskins, you want to give Peterson an incentive-laden deal, especially if it's for more than one year," John Keim of ESPN.com wrote. "If you're Peterson, it'll be hard to accept one if it's too loaded."
What the Redskins do with Peterson may depend on their plan at quarterback with Alex Smith expected to miss the 2019 campaign. If they decide to punt on adding a quarterback until 2020, having the piece to win now won't be as important.
*All contract information via Spotrac.