The Most Difficult Decisions of the 2020 NFL Offseason

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistFebruary 20, 2020

The Most Difficult Decisions of the 2020 NFL Offseason

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    Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

    In the 2020 offseason, we could see multiple starting quarterbacks on the move, signaling a rebuild or new era for franchises. Veteran stars will demand lucrative salaries, which may lead to sign-and-trade deals or a change in draft plans. These decisions can make or break a club's NFL season. 

    Those issues come to the forefront before the draft, but teams spend a good portion of the offseason assembling big boards to navigate the selection process in April. General managers and head coaches with top-five overall picks can't afford to swing and miss if they're on the hot seat.

    At this time, front-office executives contemplate short- or long-term plans, but every organization strives to better its roster situation in the coming months. The shot-callers have to take immediate steps in the right direction to lay the foundation for long-lasting success. 

    As coaches and executives grind through tape and crunch financial numbers, we'll dive into eight of the most crucial decisions that will headline the offseason with both immediate and big-picture effects.

    What are some viable options to address those looming questions? While some solutions seem quite simple, others are complicated with moving parts.

          

What's the New England Patriots' Alternative Plan at Quarterback?

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    New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady
    New England Patriots quarterback Tom BradyElise Amendola/Associated Press

    If not Tom Brady, then who? The New England Patriots must be prepared for life without their starting signal-caller of nearly two decades.

    For the first time in his career, Brady will become an unrestricted free agent. He's not in a rush to re-sign with the Patriots, per Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports.

    "It would be extremely surprising if Brady were to agree to any new pact with the Patriots prior to the start of free agency in March, I'm told, and while his process could still result in a return to New England it is far from certain at this point," La Canfora wrote. "Brady intends to take a methodical approach to his first foray into free agency."

    Going into formal meetings with teams, Brady will likely keep an open mind about where he'll play for the next year or so. As a result, New England should have an emergency plan in place to move forward in stride.

    Backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham would be an obvious choice. The Patriots selected him in the fourth round of the 2019 draft. The Auburn product had a strong preseason showing, throwing for 731 yards, four touchdowns and an interception while completing 67.8 percent of his passes.

    The Patriots could acquire Andy Dalton as a bridge-gap quarterback. The Cincinnati Bengals are willing to accommodate his trade desires, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.

    If New England chooses not to give up assets for an outside solution, Marcus Mariota, coming off a down year, could become a viable, inexpensive option. Then again, team brass may fall for a signal-caller late in the first round of April's draft—someone like Jordan Love, Jake Fromm or Jacob Eason. 

    The Patriots could sneak into the playoffs with a veteran replacement for Brady, but a rookie starter may not be good enough to extend the team's 11-year streak as AFC East champions with the Buffalo Bills on the rise.

What Will the Detroit Lions Do with the No. 3 Overall Pick?

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    Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah
    Ohio State cornerback Jeff OkudahAssociated Press

    Assuming the Cincinnati Bengals select quarterback Joe Burrow, and the Washington Redskins take edge-rusher Chase Young, the 2020 draft could go in a number of directions starting with the third overall pick.

    Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia held on to his job, but owner Martha Ford put some pressure on him and general manager Bob Quinn at the end of the 2019 campaign.

    "We expect to be a playoff contender and those are our expectations, which we've expressed to both Bob and to Matt," Ford told reporters.

    Don't expect the Lions to select a quarterback with time ticking on the current regime. Patricia and Quinn may not make it through the 2020 season—let alone see a young signal-caller blossom over the next few years. Detroit needs an immediate impact from its incoming draft class. 

    At No. 3 overall, the Lions will likely choose a top-tier non-quarterback prospect or trade back to fill more roster holes going into a critical season.

    If Quinn doesn't trade down to acquire additional picks from a quarterback-needy squad, defensive tackle Derrick Brown and cornerback Jeff Okudah stand out as likely choices.

    Brown would provide resistance against the run and some push near the pocket for a unit that needs fresh bodies. Interior tackle A'Shawn Robinson has an expiring contract. Under Patricia, his snap count took a moderate hit following a decent 2017 sophomore campaign. The Lions released Damon Harrison Thursday, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.

    According to Schefter, the Lions have engaged with potential trade suitors for cornerback Darius Slay, who wants a new contract. If Detroit prefers to deal him, Okudah would be a model replacement. He's a solid man coverage defender with ideal size (6'1", 200 lbs). Draft analysts rate him as the top prospect at the position in this year's class.

Should the Carolina Panthers Trade QB Cam Newton?

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    Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton
    Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam NewtonMike McCarn/Associated Press

    We already know the Carolina Panthers are open to trading Cam Newton. According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, the team would want "a large deal" for the three-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro.

    Owner David Tepper refuses to speculate about Newton's future until the team has a good handle on his progress from a Lisfranc injury. Nevertheless, the Panthers expect him to be cleared for "some" football activities in March, per Jourdan Rodrigue of The Athletic.

    If Newton's foot heals without setbacks, Carolina can boost his trade value. Teams may be willing to offer more assets for a healthy signal-caller who's only 30 years old.

    According to Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer, Newton seems like he's likely on his way out of Carolina. 

    "The idea of Newton not quarterbacking the Panthers in 2020 has been slowly seeping into everyone's heads for months," Fowler wrote. "It sounded almost traitorous at first; then possible; and now is seen by many as a fait accompli."

    As head coach Matt Rhule takes the Panthers down a new path, Fowler's thoughts don't seem far off. Peter King of NBC Sports connected Newton to the Los Angeles Chargers but also sees a scenario in which the AFC West club selects a quarterback to groom for the long-term future. 

    "Logic says the Chargers, but I won't be surprised if the new kids in L.A. are going to be more of draft-and-develop than big splash," King wrote. 

    The Panthers could keep Newton on the roster in hopes he returns to 2018 form, a season in which the ninth-year veteran threw for 3,395 yards, 24 touchdowns and 13 interceptions while completing a career-high 67.9 percent of his passes. 

    Even in that year, Newton struggled to finish the campaign with a shoulder injury. Because of the wear and tear on his body, the Panthers may be skeptical about a potential bounce-back 2020 season, coming off a foot injury, under a new coaching staff.

    The Panthers can build around star running back Christian McCaffrey, who led the league in yards (2,392) and touchdowns from scrimmage (19) this past season. If the team selects a quarterback with the No. 7 overall pick, that would likely spell the end of Newton's tenure in Carolina. 

    Although he struggled late in 2019, throwing two touchdowns and six interceptions in his last three appearances, Kyle Allen could be an alternative option to lead the huddle next season. He logged 3,322 passing yards, 17 touchdowns and 16 interceptions in place of Newton.

How Much Will the Dallas Cowboys Pay QB Dak Prescott?

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    Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott
    Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak PrescottRon Jenkins/Associated Press

    For now, Dak Prescott seems like the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys' future. Jay Glazer of The Athletic doesn't see any other player going under center for America's Team.

    "Dak will be the quarterback of the Cowboys," Glazer wrote. "Period. End of story. I don't see him getting 40. I see Patrick Mahomes as the first $40 million-a-year guy. … He will be the quarterback of the future for the Cowboys, and no, he's not asking for 40."

    When it comes to the Cowboys' quarterback situation, the uncertainty isn't about who, but rather how much.

    Glazer points out Prescott isn't asking for $40 million per year, but he did turn down a $33 million, per Clarence E. Hill Jr. of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

    "He said the Cowboys have been trying to get a deal done with Prescott since last offseason," Hill wrote with regard to a conversation he had with Cowboys Executive Vice President Stephen Jones the first week of February. "The two sides came close to deal in September on a contract that would have paid him roughly $33 million annually, sources said, before talks broke down when Prescott upped his asking price."

    Between reports from Glazer and Hill, Prescott's contract should land somewhere in the $34-39 million range annually, which comes close to or eclipses Russell Wilson's position-leading $35 million average. If so, the Cowboys have to think about how that number affects their ability to balance the roster.

    Dallas will have a projected $73.98 million in cap space with several notable players set to become unrestricted free agents other than Prescott, including Amari Cooper, Randall Cobb, Byron Jones, Robert Quinn, Sean Lee, Maliek Collins, Jeff Heath, Jason Witten and Anthony Brown.

    If the Cowboys re-sign Prescott and Cooper, they would have five players likely making a top-five salary at their respective positions. Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, running back Ezekiel Elliott and guard Zack Martin are one of the top two highest-paid players (annually) at their positions.

    The money tied to a small group of players could keep Dallas off the market for quality veteran help in the secondary next year. That's a problem with only three defensive backs on the books for the 2021 term—all selected in the sixth round or undrafted without significant playing experience.

    Prescott's contract demands may put him under pressure to produce points at a high rate to offset a porous pass defense.

Which Need Will the New York Giants Address with No. 4 Overall Pick?

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    Alabama right tackle Jedrick Wills Jr.
    Alabama right tackle Jedrick Wills Jr.Vasha Hunt/Associated Press

    Similar to the Lions at No. 3, the New York Giants have multiple feasible options with their top pick.

    This past season, Big Blue's offensive line ranked 18th in pass protection, per Football Outsiders. According to STATs (via the Washington Post), right tackle Mike Remmers allowed five sacks, and he's headed for free agency. Alabama's Jedrick Wills Jr. could fill a void on the edge, keeping the pass rush away from quarterback Daniel Jones.

    In December, the Giants released cornerback Janoris Jenkins because of an offensive tweet response to a fan. If the Lions don't select Jeff Okudah, he's an option as a future starter opposite DeAndre Baker in New York.

    ESPN's Jordan Raanan expects the Giants to release linebacker Alec Ogletree and safety Antoine Bethea, which would save the team $8.25 million and $2.75 million in cap space, respectively. If general manager Dave Gettleman cuts either of the two defenders, Isaiah Simmons has the flexibility to play one of those positions. 

    At Clemson, Simmons lined up at safety for two years before switching to linebacker at 6'4", 230 pounds. He can thump near the line of scrimmage and cover pass-catchers in space, logging 238 tackles, 28.5 for loss, 11 sacks, 20 pass breakups and four interceptions over the course of his career.

    As a general manager, Gettleman hasn't traded down in the past, but he's at least thought about the idea, per SNY's Ralph Vacchiano.

    "He 'seems more open to the idea' of trading back this year—even in the first round, according to a source familiar with the Giants thinking," Vacchiano wrote. "And a team source, while saying it's all wildly premature and there have been no actual trade discussions, acknowledged a rare trade back in the first round can't be ruled out."

    Gettleman may receive a draft-day haul for the fourth pick from a team that attempts to trade up for Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert. In that scenario, he would be hard-pressed to say no.

    Regardless of Gettleman's approach, he doesn't have much room for error. Giants co-owner John Mara wants the front-office executive to increase his "batting average" in acquisitions. If the Giants miss at the top of the draft, Big Blue may go through its fourth consecutive losing season and open the search for another general manager to pair with new head coach Joe Judge.

Should the Seattle Seahawks Re-Sign DE Jadeveon Clowney?

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    Seattle Seahawks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney
    Seattle Seahawks defensive end Jadeveon ClowneyRob Carr/Getty Images

    The Seattle Seahawks sent a third-round pick along with linebackers Barkevious Mingo and Jacob Martin to the Houston Texans for Jadeveon Clowney. The star defensive end had a decent season with some standout performances, but he finished with just 31 tackles, seven for loss, three sacks, three pass breakups and an interception.

    On paper, Clowney's production doesn't stand out as extraordinary, but he's asking for a "market-setting contract," per Bleacher Report's Matt Miller (via B/R Gridiron).

    If Clowney is categorized as a defensive end, he's eyeing DeMarcus Lawrence's five-year, $105 million pact with the Dallas Cowboys. Among edge-rushers, Khalil Mack has the top-dollar contract at six years, $141 million. 

    Mack, Lawrence and Clowney entered the league with the 2014 draft class. Since their rookie year, they rank seventh, 32nd and 45th in sacks, respectively. 

    Like Mack, Clowney has shown the ability to play 4-3 defensive end and 3-4 outside linebacker. While the versatility works in the latter's favor, his production leaves a little to be desired for a player who wants to reset the market. 

    Clowney flashed his dominance against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 10 and Philadelphia Eagles during the NFC Wild Card Round, but he needs to show that side of his game consistently to justify a contract worth $20-plus million annually. 

    The Seahawks will have a projected $59.72 million to spend, but Clowney's asking price may put him slightly outside of their pay range. He prefers to play for a contender. So, teams like the Miami Dolphins ($93.73 million) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers ($84.99 million) that are flush with cap space without a recent track record of playoff success may not appeal to him.

    Seattle should allow the open market to set Clowney's worth before opening up the checkbook to offer a massive deal. The 27-year-old's good-but-not-great season may hurt his value at the negotiating table.

Will the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Move on from QB Jameis Winston?

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    Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston
    Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis WinstonMichael Reaves/Getty Images

    Jameis Winston underwent LASIK surgery to address his nearsightedness, which prompted plenty of quips linking his 30 interceptions from this past season to poor vision.

    The quarterback position remains a serious matter for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Head coach Bruce Arians is still unsure about Winston's future with the team, per Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times.

    "Really nothing has changed," Arians said. "What's Door No. 2? You know? Can we make the one we have better? All those things you go through right now. … I don't think there's that many guys involved. Until the [franchise/transition player] tags come out and everything else, I'd be shocked if it's two [free-agent quarterbacks]."

    Although turnover-prone, Winston pushed the ball up and down the field, throwing for 5,109 yards and 33 touchdowns, with a bottom-third ground attack (24th) and the 29th-ranked scoring defense. Perhaps some help in both areas could aid the Buccaneers in taking another step in the right direction with their current starting signal-caller.

    Nonetheless, Arians seems ready to survey the open market. According to ESPN's Jenna Laine, the Buccaneers have a few QBs on their radar. 

    "League sources also say the Bucs have interest in Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Teddy Bridgewater and Ryan Tannehill, but the first two seem unrealistic," Laine wrote.

    Tampa Bay can franchise-tag Winston, which would cost approximately $26.90 million, per Over the Cap, and give him one last shot to live up to his draft pedigree as the No. 1 overall pick from the 2015 class.

    Arians' choice at quarterback can push the Buccaneers into the playoff conversation or keep the club stuck in mediocrity. With Winston as the primary signal-caller in five seasons, Tampa Bay has one winning campaign (2016) but won four of its last six games to close out 2019.

Will the San Francisco 49ers Retain DL Arik Armstead?

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    San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Arik Armstead
    San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Arik ArmsteadTony Avelar/Associated Press

    The San Francisco 49ers could lose their 2019 sack leader and a key component to a dominant defensive line because of cap-space restrictions.

    Arik Armstead had a breakout 2019 campaign with 54 tackles, 11 for loss, 10 sacks, two pass breakups and two forced fumbles. Despite a slow start to his career, with three lackluster seasons and having battled injuries between 2016 and 2017, he's going to sign a big contract in the coming weeks.

    Armstead seems like a prime candidate for a lucrative one-year payout on the franchise tag after one stellar season. If he hits the open market, the 6'7", 292-pounder should draw widespread interest from several teams seeking a versatile defensive lineman capable of rushing the passer. 

    According to Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News, the 49ers want to keep Armstead, but he may have done enough to chase more dollars elsewhere. 

    "After his career-best fifth season, he and the 49ers professed a desire to stay together," Inman wrote. "He may have priced himself out of their range." 

    The 49ers must weigh their free-agent options carefully. General manager John Lynch has a $5.05 million base salary 2020 club option on Kyle Juszczyk's contract—arguably the most complete fullback in the game. He's a lead blocker for a top-two ground attack and a solid pass-catcher.

    San Francisco will likely extend star tight end George Kittle's contract as he goes into the final year of his rookie deal. The front office may also consider re-signing Emmanuel Sanders to lead a young wide receiver group.

    The 49ers will have to stretch a projected $19.30 million to retain key players. With that number, the front office may attempt to franchise-tag-and-trade Armstead.

    In that scenario, San Francisco could recoup an early-round draft pick and attempt to flip that asset into another contributor on the defensive line or in the secondary. The 49ers could target a penetrating defensive tackle like Texas A&M's Justin Madubuike or Ohio State's Davon Hamilton while Solomon Thomas takes more snaps on the end.

    Because of Dee Ford's lingering knee and hamstring injuries, the 49ers needed Armstead's production in the pass rush. Without him, the front line would rely heavily on Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner and Ford to maintain a strong group in the trenches.

    If the 49ers keep Armstead on the books, the offense would likely lose Sanders, which puts pressure on quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to develop a stronger rapport with Deebo Samuel, Dante Pettis, Jalen Hurd and Trent Taylor in the coming season. 

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