The Daily Briefing Thursday, March 15, 2018

AROUND THE NFL 

NFC NORTH

 

DETROIT

The Lions have been signing under-the-radar defenders.  Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com:

 

New coach Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn have helped oversee a quiet defensive overhaul this week, with the Lions bringing in cornerback DeShawn Shead, linebacker Devon Kennard and linebacker Christian Jones. These are the types of low-cost, low-risk deals the Patriots — where both Patricia and Quinn, of course, cut their teeth — often make in free agency.

 

 

GREEN BAY

Hard-to-please Bill Barnwell of ESPN.com likes the signing of DT MUHAMMAD WILKERSON:

 

DL Muhammad Wilkerson, Packers

Grade: B+

It’s almost difficult to believe that a player as productive as Wilkerson could see things go south as quickly as they did in New York. The Temple product racked up 18 sacks and 49 quarterback knockdowns from 2014 to ’15 … only to generate just eight sacks and 18 knockdowns over the two subsequent campaigns. The New York media was lousy with reports of Wilkerson plodding through practices and games, and by the end of his run, he was being suspended for missing multiple team meetings.

 

The natural assumption is that Wilkerson got his big contract from the Jets before the 2016 season and suddenly stopped caring. Maybe he didn’t get along with new coach Todd Bowles. Perhaps Wilkerson was a product of playing alongside Damon Harrison and a motivated Sheldon Richardson, although Wilkerson did get to spend the last two years with the wildly talented Leonard Williams. Under any circumstance, the Jets-Wilkerson relationship needed to end for the sake of both parties.

 

If you believe the Wilkerson-got-rich scenario, you should probably like the one-year, $8-million deal the Packers handed him on Tuesday, given that the 28-year-old would presumably be using his one-year deal as leverage for a multiyear contract to come. The Packers might not necessarily want to sign Wilkerson to a long-term pact, but for one year, he should be motivated to play his best football. An interested Wilkerson and a healthy Mike Daniels would be one of the best one-two punches in the league.

– – –

It is no surprise that Jon Gruden could be in the hunt for 32-year-old WR JORDY NELSON.  Chris Wesseling of NFL.com:

 

Change happens quickly in the NFL. Yesterday’s star is in today’s discard pile.

 

Just two years ago, Jordy Nelson led the NFL with 14 receiving touchdowns. Prior to tearing his ACL in 2015, he was among the league’s premier playmakers, making magic with Aaron Rodgers as a precision route runner, dangerous deep threat and sideline acrobat. On Tuesday, the Packers released him.

 

Turning 33 this offseason, though, Nelson has lost the speed needed to consistently separate from cornerbacks. His yards-per-catch average has plummeted from 15.5 to 13.0 to 9.1 over his last three healthy seasons.

 

Can he turn in a bounce-back season with a new quarterback after spending a decade with Rodgers? As we examine the market, these are the teams we expect to be most interested in answering that question.

 

1. Oakland Raiders: When it comes to established veterans set free in their twilight years, a signing often comes down to connections. New Raiders wide receivers coach Edgar Bennett spent the past seven years as Nelson’s position coach and then coordinator in Green Bay. With Michael Crabtree’s Oakland future up in the air, Nelson could be an option opposite offensive focal point Amari Cooper.

 

2. Cincinnati Bengals: Speaking of connections, Alex Van Pelt recently signed on as Bengals quarterbacks coach after working alongside Bennett as a Packers offensive assistant for the past half-decade. Would Cincinnati entertain the idea of bringing in Nelson to push Brandon LaFell, Tyler Boyd and John Ross for snaps?

 

3. New England Patriots: Danny Amendola is absconding to Miami with a new contract and Julian Edelman is coming off ACL surgery. If Nelson wishes to follow the well-worn path of ring-chasers to Foxborough, perhaps there’s mutual interest in a sure-handed wideout.

 

4. Philadelphia Eagles: If Nelson does prioritize a Super Bowl contender, why not the reigning champions? The Eagles might be in the market for a versatile veteran at a bargain rate after dealing Torrey Smith to Carolina.

 

5. Baltimore Ravens: From Lee Evans to Steve Smith to Mike Wallace to Jeremy Maclin, Baltimore is the last pit stop on the wide-receiver train. The Ravens were reported to be in pursuit of Donte Moncrief, who signed with Jacksonville. Might Nelson be a fallback option?

 

 

MINNESOTA

The QB KIRK COUSINS deal is only for three years and it is fully guaranteed.  Other NFL players and analysts take note.  Nick Schwartz of ForTheWin.com:

 

Cousins is expected to sign a three-year, fully-guaranteed contract according to Adam Schefter, reportedly worth $28 million a year.

 

NFL players from around the league reacted to the deal on social media, and Doug Baldwin called Cousins “a hero” for young players.

 

Doug Baldwin Jr

@DougBaldwinJr

Kirk Cousins is a hero for all the young players that will follow after him. Now we need more players to bet on themselves until fully guaranteed contracts are the norm and not the exception.

 

 trey wingo

@wingoz

Has a QB ever played the game of NFL money better than Kirk Cousins? 2 straight years on the franchise tag, followed up by 3 years 84 million guaranteed, then another kick at the can at the age of 32. Well done Kirk, well done

 

Tom Byrne

@1TomByrne

Vikings will pay Cousins $28M next season,

49ers will pay Garoppolo $27.5M,

Lions will pay Stanford $27M,

Raiders will pay Carr $25M.

 

Eagles will pay Wentz & Foles a combined $14.8M

 

Levi Damien

@LeviDamien

Guaranteed money of top five highest paid NFL QB’s:

5. Andrew Luck $47M

4. Derek Carr $40M

3. Matt Stafford $60.5M

2. Jimmy Garoppolo $48.7M

1. Kirk Cousins $84M

 

Kevin Clark

@bykevinclark

The Cousins contract is a game changer for good quarterbacks, not the entire NFL. It took a LOT for him to gain this leverage and not everyone will be able to do it.

 

This from Albert Breer of TheMMQB.com:

 

Credit to Kirk Cousins. It took stomach to pull off what he did. Two years ago, when his agent, Mike McCartney, first proposed a fully-guaranteed, three-year deal to the Redskins, he may has well have been asking the team for the deed to FedEx Field.

 

It’s now March 2018. And McCartney and Cousins are hours away from pulling it off.

 

Not everyone would’ve been cool with turning down a shot at long-term stability as a starting quarterback, and choosing to play out a season on the franchise tag with a multi-year offer on the table. Even fewer guys, given the injury rate in the league, would’ve been willing to do it twice. Cousins was.

 

And this afternoon in Eagan, Minn., he’ll get his reward—a groundbreaking, fully guaranteed, three-year, $84 million deal as the new quarterback of the Vikings. This after making just under $3 million his first four years in the league. This after taking home $43.9 million on tags the past two years. This, more than anything else, after listening to his agent and making a massive wager on himself.

 

“He shifted a little risk on to himself and said, ‘I believe in myself, and I’ll go do it,’” NFLPA president Eric Winston said Wednesday night. “What’s obvious is the blueprint is there. Every player’s got to decide. It comes down to how you want to handle your business. The blueprint is there. Obviously, for a quarterback, it’s there. And then it’s a matter of what you want to take.”

 

Could this lead to bigger change? That much will be up to Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, New England’s Tom Brady and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger—four quarterbacks clearly in line for new deals this offseason who will determine whether Cousins is an outlier or a trend-setter.

 

If they do traditional deals, it’s hard to see major change coming about. If they follow the Cousins blueprint, and hold the line, the ground may just move on the way NFL players are paid.

 

– – –

We start with the story of the offseason, and that’s Kirk Cousins’ landing spot. It is right where the season ended in Super Bowl LII, and with the team that was just one win from becoming the first to host the big game. And we’re going to go bigger picture here, because the deal Cousins will sign could wind up being about much more than how far he can take the Vikings in 2018.

 

Where things go from here is dependent upon the handful of superstar quarterbacks next in line for new contracts, and what they can do to tear down an old rule that’s been on the books forever. This rule has served as a big-time roadblock in football players’ fight for guaranteed money.

 

The NFL’s funding rule was put on the books around the AFL-NFL merger, before the national TV deals, and was meant to ensure that players would get the money they were owed. At a time when some franchises were on the financial ropes, the provision came in stipulating that every fully guaranteed dollar owed to a player, but not yet paid to him, had to be funded to a league-run escrow account.

 

Back then, it made sense. Guys had reason to worry about their checks clearing. But as the league’s earning power has grown, the rule’s usefulness has changed. Now, it’s deployed by teams almost exclusively as a shield. Clubs will tell players they can’t afford to guarantee deals because funding them creates cashflow issues. And that much is no secret.

 

“The funding rule is archaic,” McCartney said Wednesday night. “It doesn’t belong in the NFL. And the sooner we can get it eradicated, the better.”

 

McCartney and Cousins have done their part. The rest? Follow us here …

 

• Ryan is entering the final year of his contract, while Brady, Rodgers and Roethlisberger all have two years left. Each could get an extension this offseason, and each is more accomplished than Cousins.

 

• Say Ryan goes first. And say Ryan gets a fully-guaranteed, three-year, $90 million deal. Then, the pressure will be on Rodgers, Brady and Roethlisberger to follow suit.

 

• If all five were to get fully guaranteed deals, then that’s five owners cutting massive checks to follow a rule that lacks any functional reason.

 

• And then, a rule that’s always been bad for players is suddenly bad for owners.

 

The funding rule isn’t collectively bargained, which means the owners could pull it off the books tomorrow if they wanted. It’s been good to them, so they haven’t. And so it’s up to individual players—quarterbacks, in particular—to change that.

 

“For a lot of years, we took their word for it, they won’t do (fully guaranteed deals),” said Winston. “And Kirk proved they will do it. They want to win. They could come back tomorrow and say, ‘We’re gonna get rid of it.’ And they get rid of it, and that’s it.”

 

The reality is that if players want the fully-guaranteed contracts that their peers in baseball and basketball have, this is how it needs to happen. There isn’t a collective bargaining agreement in a major sports league in North America that either requires or prohibits guaranteed contracts. It has to happen through individual negotiations.

 

That means taking a stand in situations like this, as Cousin has done the past two years.

 

Now, the ball is Ryan’s court. And Rodgers’ court. And Brady’s court. And Roethlisberger’s court.

 

We’ll see how hard they swing back. Plenty of their brethren will be watching.

– – –

The Vikings have also added QB TREVOR SIEMIAN through a trade, a move liked by Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com:

 

For one day only, Trevor Siemian is atop the team’s quarterback depth chart. Minnesota’s acquisition of the former Broncos starter means that the 2018 trade tsunami is not quite over yet, and it makes a ton of sense from the Vikings’ perspective.

 

Instead of spending upwards of $5 million for a warmed-over veteran backup, the Vikings can save money on a young former starter who showed incredible potential in the 2016 season and the early portions of 2017 before collapsing under the weight of an awful Broncos offensive line. The Vikings, who are presumably in line to close the deal with Kirk Cousins after he visits Thursday, surely hope Siemian never hits the field, but it’s a nice insurance policy to have.

 

NFC EAST

 

NEW YORK GIANTS

RB JONATHAN STEWART insists the Giants did not sign a has-been.  Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Giants General Manager Dave Gettleman brought in a familiar face from his days with the Panthers this week as part of his attempt to build a better running game for the 2018 season.

 

Running back Jonathan Stewart signed with the Giants after being released by Gettleman’s former employers in a move that didn’t come as much of a surprise. Stewart has seen his average yards per carry drop from 4.1 to 3.4 over the last two years and he’ll turn 31 later this month to complete a combo that often foreshadows further slippage for a back.

 

On Wednesday, Stewart insisted that he won’t continue to follow that trajectory.

 

“I’ve got a lot left,” Stewart said, via the New York Post. “The only reason why I would be playing is if I knew I could play and I know I can play, Dave knows I can play — there is a lot that I feel I want to prove and writing my own story as far as how things shape up moving forward for me.”

 

The Giants addressed the offensive line on Wednesday by signing tackle Nate Solder and guard Patrick Omameh, which should help Stewart’s chances of making good on his assessment of his own abilities. It should also help any back the Giants bring in to round out their backfield group — Wayne Gallman and Paul Perkins are also on hand — because it seems unlikely that they’ll put all their eggs in Stewart’s basket when it comes to bringing the ground game back to life.

 

Bill Barnwell of ESPN.com has his doubts:

 

RB Jonathan Stewart, Giants

Grade: D+

You would be forgiven if you thought after reading about Lewis and Stewart linking up with prior bosses that the NFL was essentially a classmate reunion site masquerading as a football league. Pressed with the need to find a running back after Andre Brown, David Wilson, Peyton Hillis, Andre Williams, Rashad Jennings, Shane Vereen, Orleans Darkwa, Paul Perkins and Wayne Gallman failed to make the job their own for various reasons, general manager Dave Gettleman shockingly found that the best candidate happened to be a guy he knew from his old job.

 

Enter the longtime Panthers back Stewart, who averaged 3.4 yards per carry and had just one run of more than 20 yards (a 60-yard touchdown against the Vikings) last season. He did this behind an offensive line with arguably the best guard duo in football in Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell. The Giants’ have exactly one guard, John Jerry, who has taken an NFL snap on offense before. Stewart’s also a nonfactor as a receiver and isn’t getting better with age.

 

It’s possible that the soon-to-be-31-year-old Stewart has something left in the tank, but it’s difficult to believe that the league was beating down his door to the point that the Giants needed to guarantee him nearly $3 million on a two-year, $6.9 million pact. It would be more surprising for Stewart to return to his old form than it would be for Darkwa or Gallman to outperform him with a fair shot in 2018.

 

 

PHILADELPHIA

NFL.com thinks the Eagles are about to land DT HALOTI NGATA:

 

The Philadelphia Eagles are close to adding another defensive lineman to the stockpile.

 

NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Haloti Ngata is visiting the Eagles on Thursday, per a source informed of the situation.

 

If the visit goes well, he’ll likely sign with the Eagles, but his former team, the Detroit Lions, remain interested in a return, Rapoport added.

 

Ngata has reportedly been connected to the Eagles for days, but unlike other free agents who signed Wednesday, he’ll take a visit before putting pen to paper.

 

Signing Ngata would add to the Eagles’ embarrassment of riches on the defensive line. The 34-year-old would join Fletcher Cox, Michael Bennett, Brandon Graham, Timmy Jernigan, Derek Barnett, Chris Long and Vinny Curry (until he gets traded or released).

 

Ngata spent the past three seasons in Detroit after nine dominant years in Baltimore. The veteran proved he had scheme versatility switching to the Lions’ 4-3 defense. Ngata remains a stout run defender and was one of Detroit’s top D-line players last year before a biceps injury wiped out his season after five games.

 

Joining a rotation in Philly could give Ngata’s career new life for another couple of years.

 

 

WASHINGTON

The Redskins are counting on in-house replacements to step up.  John Keim of ESPN.com:

 

The Washington Redskins’ first day of free agency was notable for who they lost — not for who they added. It was already known that quarterback Alex Smith and receiver Paul Richardson would be joining them.

 

In most cases, the Redskins had no choice but to watch them leave: Players who would have been backups are getting paid much differently by other teams. It’s not bad when other teams sign your backups to lucrative deals. The problem for the Redskins is that developing that talent hasn’t led to the level of success anyone desires.

 

It’s hard to say the Redskins have been crippled by these losses. In some cases, they have their younger options in place — they just need to produce. In essence, draft picks are replacing draft picks.

 

Washington still has other starting holes to fill, though those existed before these moves occurred. The Redskins still need to find another inside linebacker, whether it’s keeping Zach Brown or adding someone else (Preston Brown remains available). They still need a left guard. They still want to upgrade running back (the draft). And until these holes are filled it’ll lead to questions and angst by a fan base hungry for more than another .500 season. That’s understandable.

 

Also, one reason the Redskins didn’t want to pay quarterback Kirk Cousins a lot is to use that money on others. In some cases it’ll be on extensions for other players. Until that money gets spent, it’s hard to know if it helped or not, though Richardson’s addition is part of that equation.

 

The other difficult aspect is losing four players from the 2014 draft class. Only one player remains: right tackle Morgan Moses. It was a solid group.

 

Looking at Washington’s non-Cousins losses and the impact:

 

Linebacker Trent Murphy: The Redskins wanted to re-sign him, but he was viewed as a No. 3 outside linebacker here behind Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith. Coming off a torn ACL and a performance-enhancing drug suspension, some wondered what sort of deal he’d command. But pass-rushers are tough to find and Buffalo, which ranked 29th in sacks last year, gave him a lot more money and a better opportunity. While Murphy would have been good to keep, there’s no way they’re paying a backup $7 million per year, which Buffalo will. However, the Redskins need 2017 second-round pick Ryan Anderson to progress (Murphy provided little rush his first two seasons) and they could still re-sign Junior Galette, who wants to stay. If they do, then the Redskins have the same rotation as in 2017 when they provided an effective rush with 42 sacks (except for Anderson). The one counter to paying Murphy that price is if they let Preston Smith walk in 2019, but the Cousins decision was made in part to extend guys like Smith.

 

Corner Bashaud Breeland: He developed into a solid No. 2 corner and his three-year, $24 million deal in Carolina, after it’s broken down, essentially is for one year and $9.4 million (with team options the next two seasons). There’s no way the Redskins were going to pay him that when Josh Norman already will command a $17 million cap hit this season. (For the record, at that cap hit, more big plays are needed. Also, with a $9 million dead cap hit, Norman wasn’t going anywhere). If the Redskins hadn’t drafted Fabian Moreau, I’d feel differently about letting Breeland walk (even knowing how emotional he is and the impact of that). But Moreau was a first- or second-round talent who fell to the third because of an injury (just like Kendall Fuller, whose departure to Kansas City caused an outcry from some teammates). They have their in-house option for Breeland; a younger, cheaper player so they can then use that money elsewhere. Now, spend wisely.

 

Receiver Ryan Grant: Based on Richardson’s deal, Grant would have been a fourth receiver in Washington, which always liked him a lot. Some believe he’ll flourish with more chances in Baltimore, but he’s also averaging $7 million per year. That’s not a deal for a No. 4 receiver. Again, it’s all about options and now the Redskins need others such as Maurice Harris or Robert Davis to develop and the re-signed Brian Quick to contribute.

 

Center Spencer Long: The Redskins made him an offer at some point last year, likely before the season, but it was rejected (they tend to go rather low on first offers). It still seemed like he would return until he tore his quad and 2017 sixth-rounder Chase Roullier showed he could handle center. They could still always try to upgrade in the interior through the draft (they wanted to select center Ryan Kelly two years ago), but Roullier’s development provided options. Long also could play guard, but he’s considered much better at center and that’s where he’ll start with the Jets.

 

Tight end Niles Paul: He was always a good guy to have around because he filled a lot of roles — tight end, fullback, special-teamer — and he played hard all the time. He wanted more opportunities and, hopefully for him, he’ll get them in Jacksonville. Last summer he and Derek Carrier were in a tight battle for that fourth and final spot. The Redskins traded Carrier to the Rams. Paul was a quality backup on a team whose starting tight end, Jordan Reed, gets hurt a lot. They like second-year player Jeremy Sprinkle, but he has to prove he’s ready for a bigger role should anything happen to Reed. The Redskins also should consider this position in the draft.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

CAROLINA

Bill Barnwell of ESPN.com is grading every free agent transaction and he’s a tough grader.  Here is one of the few to which he gave an “A”:

 

DE Julius Peppers, Panthers

Grade: A

The best free-agent deals don’t expose a team to long-term risk, and sign a talented player to a deal below his market value. That’s what Carolina has done here in signing Peppers to a one-year, $5 million deal after the 38-year-old racked up 11 sacks for the Panthers last season. Granted, it’s likely the North Carolina product only wanted to continue his career in-state. It’s also likely Peppers takes a step backward in 2018, given that his 11 sacks came on just 17 quarterback knockdowns. Even given those caveats, signing a veteran defensive end who can rush the quarterback at this price is about as good as free agency can get.

 

 

NEW ORLEANS

With CHASE DANIEL signing with the Bears, the Saints have inked former Texan QB TOM SAVAGE to back-up DREW BREES.

 

NFC WEST

 

ARIZONA

Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com tries to figure out the plan in Arizona:

 

Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim has a lot of fans around the NFL who respect his work in digging the franchise out of a decadeslong competitive hole. But I’m having a hard time understanding what he and the franchise are doing this offseason or how in the world the Cardinals will be competitive in 2018.

 

It doesn’t take a football savant to question the team’s plan at quarterback. There is no basis for counting on Sam Bradford, who aggravated his knee condition by taking a bad step in Week 1 last season and played only two quarters thereafter. Mike Glennon, meanwhile, bombed last season with the Bears in his best chance to establish himself as even a spot starter.

 

What does the agreement with Bradford, and the Cardinals’ reported plans to also sign Glennon tell us? They better not be done looking for quarterbacks.

 

But the most egregious gaffe, and one that I don’t think has generated enough national scrutiny, is the departure of safety Tyrann Mathieu. As a rule, NFL teams should never let themselves get into the position of parting ways with their best young talent. Mathieu has an injury history, but he rebounded last season to play 16 games. He is still 25 years old and is probably one of the Cardinals’ three best players.

 

ESPN’s Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss noted that the Cardinals were in a tough situation with the monster contract Mathieu signed in 2016. If that’s the case, then it’s still on the team for writing a contract that couldn’t sustain itself for two years. Maybe there’s something we don’t know about Mathieu’s health. But if we have the complete information, well, the Cardinals botched their future with a transcendent player.

– – –

The Cardinals have signed veteran T ANDRE SMITH.  Jim Owczarski of the Cincinnati Enquirer:

 

On the day the Cincinnati Bengals formally announced their trade for Cordy Glenn to solidify the left tackle position, The Enquirer has confirmed that veteran tackle Andre Smith has left the Bengals for the Arizona Cardinals.

 

Smith, who returned to Cincinnati last year as a free agent to be the right guard but ultimately became a valuable swing tackle, was ultimately pushed out of the picture by the acquisition of Glenn and free agent tackle Bobby Hart.

 

The 31-year-old received a two-year contract in Arizona for $8 million, which could move to as much as $10.2 million.

 

The Cardinals have robbed from Iupati to pay Smith per Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

The Cardinals have to pay for all those new quarterbacks (and new offensive linemen) somehow.

 

It appears part of the plan is giving haircuts to the ones left behind.

 

According to Field Yates of ESPN, Cardinals guard Mike Iupati has agreed to a $3 million pay cut this season.

 

He’ll make a guaranteed $5 million, but it was originally $7.75 million, and his $250,000 roster bonus which was due tomorrow is going away. Next year is also voidable in his deal.

 

The Cardinals have already signed veteran tackle Andre Smith, and are bringing Giants guard Justin Pugh in today for a visit.

– – –

Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com on S TYRANN MATHIEU leaving Arizona:

 

Tyrann Mathieu refused to take a pay cut when asked by the Cardinals, betting on himself. It makes sense, because this release largely resulted from a confluence of circumstances. Cardinals coach Steve Wilks didn’t quite see Mathieu as a fit in his scheme, according to Rapoport, and last year’s second-round pick, Budda Baker, is a budding star. (Still, something is wrong about Mathieu getting cut on a day the Cardinals spend money to bring in quarterback Mike Glennon to back up starter Sam Bradford, with left tackle Andre Smith expected to protect them.) I suggested to Mathieu in an interview last week that he could wind up making more money in free agency than if the Cardinals kept him.

 

“My agent thinks so, too,” Mathieu said.

 

Now it’s time to see if his agent was right. Plenty of teams could use a dynamic safety who can also cover the slot as a cornerback. While Mathieu admitted that he played a little too carefully early in his recovery from a second ACL surgery, he was flying around the field with abandon late last season. Chris Wesseling listed the Giants atop a list of potential landing spots for Mathieu, and the fit makes a lot of sense, considering the presence of defensive coordinator James Bettcher (who spent the past five seasons with the Cardinals) and the Giants’ needs. Mathieu is now ranked No. 5 overall on our free agents list, and he’s No. 2 among players who are still looking for a team.

 

Only Suh is higher than Mathieu among available free agents. I wrote about the reasons why earlier this week, but it still feels surprising to see the two best defensive free agents this season emerge from the discard pile.

 

 

SAN FRANCISCO

Bill Barnwell of ESPN.com is grading every free agent transaction and he’s a tough grader.  But even on his scale, the signing of RB JERICK McKINNON ranks low:

 

RB Jerick McKinnon, 49ers

Grade: F

McKinnon hit free agency in pursuit of a deal where he could serve as a primary running back, but his case for a larger role isn’t quite clear. The Georgia Southern product was hyperefficient over his first two seasons, averaging 4.9 yards per carry over 165 rushing attempts, but as the larger half of a rotation over the two ensuing seasons, his 309 rush attempts have produced just 3.6 yards per attempt. 14.2 percent of his runs have turned into first downs, which ranks 50th among 51 qualifying backs over that time frame.

 

Some of that could be chalked up to a dismal offensive line in 2016, but McKinnon wasn’t much better behind a much better line in 2017. He also fumbled three times after going his entire career without one. At this point, he profiles as a third-down back with big-play ability, but asking him to run the ball more than five or six times per game is probably too much.

 

It was shocking, then, to see the 49ers give McKinnon a four-year deal for $30 million. The only running back on a multiyear deal with a larger annual salary than McKinnon is LeSean McCoy. San Francisco did this last year when it fell in love with Kyle Juszczyk, didn’t trust its ability to mold a fullback, and gave him a deal more than 200 percent larger than any other fullback’s contract. (Juszczyk subsequently made the Pro Bowl, but that’s because he’s the most famous fullback; he was mostly an anonymous receiver, didn’t contribute as a runner, and the 49ers averaged both more yards per carry, expected points per run, and a higher first down rate when Juszczyk wasn’t on the field.)

 

Kyle Shanahan watched his dad Mike’s offenses produce 1,000-yard backs seemingly out of thin air. His most successful backs in the pros have been exclusively midround picks on rookie deals in Steve Slaton, Alfred Morris, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, none of whom was drafted before the third round. McKinnon should do better under Shanahan’s tutelage. He might even be very good, given what the 49ers have around him, but is he going to suddenly become the second-best running back in football? Even if he does, why aren’t the 49ers confident they can develop a young back into a worthwhile contributor in a scheme which has been doing that for nearly three decades now? General manager John Lynch and company have certainly made some positive moves, and they have money to burn, but the players they’ve gotten stuck on — Juszczyk, Malcolm Smith and now McKinnon — have produced incomprehensible contracts.

 

We’ll revisit this grade if the terms of the contract don’t match the initial numbers, but if not, this is one of the most stunning deals of the offseason.

 

 

SEATTLE

The Seahawks think that LB BARKEVIOUS MINGO is worth a two-year deal.  The AP got the scoop:

 

According to a person with knowledge of the deal, Mingo’s deal is worth up to $10.1 million and includes $3.2 million in guaranteed money.

 

It was a rare addition for Seattle on the first day of free agency. The Seahawks have typically waited for the first rush of signings to subside before jumping into the free agent pool. But the addition of Mingo also stopped a wave of departures from the Seahawks on the defensive side, highlighted by the subtractions of cornerback Richard Sherman and defensive end Michael Bennett in the past week.

 

Mingo, 27, was the No. 6 overall pick in the 2013 draft by Cleveland, but after three underwhelming seasons with the Browns has bounced to New England and Indianapolis the past two seasons.

 

Mingo started six games last season for the Colts and finished with a career-high 32 tackles.

 

AFC NORTH

 

CLEVELAND

In spite of an incredible losing record in his career, the consensus is that T JOE THOMAS will be marching into Canton in the Class of 2023 – now that he has retired.  Pat McManamon of ESPN.com:

 

The Pro Football Hall of Fame might want to start preparing: Joe Thomas figures to be arriving in five years.

 

The 33-year-old left tackle announced Wednesday that he will retire after 11 standout seasons with the Cleveland Browns.

 

“This was an extremely difficult decision, but the right one for me and my family,” Thomas said. “Playing in the NFL has taken a toll on my body and I can no longer physically compete at the level I need to.

 

“From the moment I was drafted, the city embraced me in a way that I could never fully describe. I am proud to call Cleveland home. The loyalty and passion of the fans is unmatched and it was an honor to play in front of them [for] the past 11 years. I would like to thank all of the coaches, teammates, staff, fans and everyone who has shown me support throughout my career. Even though I will be hanging up my cleats, I will always be a Cleveland Brown.”

 

On his The ThomaHawk Show podcast, which he hosts with former wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, Thomas cited his knee injury as a key factor in his decision. He added that his knee was in its worst shape during the 2017 season.

 

“Looking down the barrel of a knee replacement, I think that definitely becomes a decision where you’re like, hey, this football has been amazing, it’s been more than I could ever have expected, but you have to take other things into consideration when you’re deciding if you’re going to play football anymore,” Thomas said. “For the last two to three years of my career it’s been impossible for me to practice. My knee would swell up so much and my back would get so tight. All the injuries add up, it’s like a chain reaction.”

 

Thomas was the model of consistent excellence for the Browns, from the day they drafted him third overall out of Wisconsin in 2007 until he tore his triceps tendon on Oct. 22.

 

AFC SOUTH

 

TENNESSEE

Albert Breer of TheMMQB.com likes the way the Titans signed some ex-Pats:

 

I like what the Titans did this week. There’s a level of certainty they get in signing ex-Patriot corner Malcolm Butler and running back Dion Lewis, given that GM Jon Robinson and coach Mike Vrabel cut their NFL teeth in New England. And each can be a foot soldier for Vrabel as he works to set up program, since they’re well aware of what the expectations will be.

 

AFC EAST

 

BUFFALO

And the Bills are the team that lands QB A.J. McCARRON.  Mike Rodak of ESPN.com:

 

The Buffalo Bills have signed quarterback AJ McCarron to a two-year deal, the team announced Wednesday.

 

McCarron’s deal has a base value of $10 million and can be worth up to $16.5 million if he reaches playing-time incentives, a source said. The deal includes $6 million guaranteed, per source.

 

McCarron joins 2017 fifth-round pick Nathan Peterman on the Bills’ QB depth chart after Buffalo’s trade of Tyrod Taylor to the Cleveland Browns was made official Wednesday.

 

McCarron, 27, was a free agent after winning a grievance filed against the Cincinnati Bengals last year to determine whether he had been incorrectly put on the non-football injury list as a rookie. He not only won his grievance for the incorrect designation, but he also was owed back pay for the time spent on the list in 2014.

 

McCarron played in five regular-season games in the 2015 season and started three, completing 66.4 percent of his passes for 854 yards and six touchdowns. He also started an AFC wild-card playoff game that season, completing 56.1 percent of his passes for one touchdown and one interception in an eventual a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

 

McCarron has contended several times that he wants his chance to start somewhere, and it almost happened when the Browns attempted to send a second- and third-round pick to the Bengals in the fall. However, the paperwork didn’t go through before the trade deadline and McCarron remained with Cincinnati for the 2017 season.

 

McCarron’s signing comes after several veteran quarterbacks had found new teams in free agency this week, leaving Buffalo as perhaps the only remaining team that could offer him a chance to start this season.

 

The signing is unlikely to change the Bills’ apparent plans to draft a quarterback next month. Buffalo owns the Nos. 12 and 21 overall picks, as well as two selections in each of the second and third rounds. The Bills could package those picks to trade up for one of the draft’s top quarterbacks.

 

 

MIAMI

The Dolphins are practicing addition by subtraction as DT NDAMUKONG SUH and TE JULIUS THOMAS join WR JARVIS LANDRY as big-name players who will not be returning to Miami.  NFL.com:

 

Ndamukong Suh is on the market.

 

The Miami Dolphins released the three-time All-Pro defensive tackle on Wednesday. The move has been rumored to be a possibility for the past month and was completed soon after the new year kicked off.

 

Miami also released tight end Julius Thomas, who spent just one season with the Dolphins, tallying 41 catches, 388 yards and three TDs.

 

Still in the prime of his career, Suh is a top-five free agent, ranking third on NFL.com‘s Top 101 Free Agents list, just behind new Vikings QB Kirk Cousins and Saints QB Drew Brees. As of Wednesday afternoon, no teams have specifically linked to Suh, though the Cowboys confirmed, through NFL Network’s Jane Slater, that they are not interested in his services “at this time.”

 

Releasing Suh, who just three years ago inked a whopping six-year, $114 million contract with the Dolphins, incurs an astounding $22.2 million cap penalty, per NFL Research. Suh is being released with a June 1 designation, so $9.1 million of his $22.2 million of dead money will count against the 2018 cap while the remaining $13.1 million will count against the team’s 2019 cap.

 

But, as was the case when the Dolphins traded away running back Jay Ajayi to the Eagles for just a fourth-round pick and agreed to jettison receiver Jarvis Landry to the Browns for fourth- and seventh-round picks, cutting Suh looks to be more locker-room based than performance based.

 

The big DT tallied 15.5 sacks and 181 combined tackles in his time in Miami, despite eating up double teams constantly. Since 2010, he ranks second among NFL DTs in sacks (51.5), first in QB hits (147), second in total pressures (381.5) and first in tackles for loss (103).

 

Ajayi found a happy home in Philadelphia when the Dolphins cut him loose. Landry sounded excited about his pending move to Cleveland. Now Suh will have the opportunity to follow in their footsteps.

 

Is Suh still in the “prime of his career”?  He’s 31.  That sounds more like he’s well past second base and almost to third.

 

Do the Patriots want Suh?  That’s what Isaiah Houde of USA TODAY thinks:

 

Ndamukong Suh is currently a free agent, and the New England Patriots could be the perfect team for him — if he is willing to take less money.

 

The Miami Dolphins signed Danny Amendola on a two-year contract, and they have released Suh. He has been one of the elite defensive tackles in the NFL for seven seasons now. He is coming off of a season where he played all 16 regular season games, had 48 tackles, and 4.5 sacks.

 

The Patriots recently lost Alan Branch and Ricky Jean Francois, but replaced them with Danny Shelton. The addition of Suh could shore up the defensive line and help mask their weakness at the defensive end position.

 

Suh is 31-years-old and is shifting towards the end of his career, and the no other team has utilized elite veterans on fairly cheap contracts like the Patriots have — it makes sense for both parties.

 

 

NEW ENGLAND

Amidst the exodus, the Patriots are keeping RB REX BURKHEAD.  Kevin Patra at NFL.com:

 

The New England Patriots held on to one free-agent running back.

 

The Pats agreed to a three-year contract with Rex Burkhead, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reports, according to a source informed of the deal. Rapoport adds the deal is heavy on guaranteed money.

 

The Boston Globe first reported the signing.

 

Burkhead signed a one-year deal in New England last offseason. The Swiss Army Knife earned a new contract by compiling 264 yards on 64 carries (4.1 average) with five rushing touchdowns, adding 30 receptions for 254 yards and three receiving TDs.

 

The biggest issue in Burkhead’s first season with the Pats was health. The running back missed six regular season games and one playoff tilt. While dealing with a knee injury down the stretch, Burkhead took just four carries in the playoffs for 23 yards.

 

The 5-foot-10 pinball is a versatile tailback, which fits the Patriots’ profile. Burkhead owns elusiveness between the tackles, is a plus receiving back and had success as a short yardage back in goal-line situations.

 

With Dion Lewis departing for Tennessee, keeping Burkhead in New England alongside James White and Mike Gillislee became a priority. In locking down Burkhead, the Pats were able to make sure they didn’t lose two multifaceted backs this offseason.

 

There are reports that Burkhead could have had more money from the Bears.

 

 

NEW YORK JETS

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

FORMER PLAYERS

Some free agency thoughts from Albert Breer of TheMMQB.com:

 

The big shocker for me this week? Receiver money. New Chief Sammy Watkins got a three-year, $48 million deal with $34 million in the first two years. And new Bear Allen Robinson got $42 million over three. Both guys were damaged goods, too. Watkins had foot issues and only caught 39 balls in Sean McVay’s offense last year. Robinson is coming off a torn ACL. In the past, guys like that would have to do one-year, make-good deals like Jeremy Maclin did in 2014 and Alshon Jeffrey did last year. Not anymore, evidently.

 

8. Crazy fact: Ndamukong Suh played three years on the six-year, $120 million deal he signed in 2015, and made almost $60 million. He was cut Wednesday. And amazingly enough, based on average-per-year, that deal is still the biggest in NFL history for a non-quarterback. Which is bananas. Rams DT Aaron Donald and Raiders DE Khalil Mack figure to be the next guys capable of challenging Suh’s numbers throne.

 

 

BROADCAST NEWS

Job one for ESPN’s new president Jimmy Pitaro may be repairing the damaged relationship between the NFL and one-time Worldwide Leader.  John Ourand at Sports Business Journal writes from an ESPN-informed viewpoint that points the finger at NBA-loving ex-prez John Skipper:

 

George Bodenheimer had only been on the job as ESPN’s acting chairman for a couple of weeks when he got word that Fox and the NFL would partner on the NFL draft, jointly producing a show that would directly compete against ESPN.

 

ESPN executives were angry. ESPN created the NFL draft as a TV show 38 years ago and popularized it to unprecedented heights over the years. It was one thing when the NFL Network started covering it. But when the NFL brought in a competitive broadcast network, it was seen as a slap in the face.

 

Soon after, Bodenheimer heard rumblings that the NFL was going to put ESPN’s wild card playoff game on Fox. The move, which still hasn’t been completed, potentially leaves ESPN with a $1.9 billion per year deal that features no NFL playoff games — a scenario that miffs several executives in Bristol.

 

ESPN’s relationship with the country’s most powerful sports league never has been totally in sync. Bodenheimer, after all, was ESPN’s president in 2004 when his network produced the “Playmakers” series that infuriated the league. ESPN wound up canceling the series after just one season because of pressure from NFL executives.

 

Still, Bodenheimer was struck by these latest events. Insiders say that Bodenheimer had never seen the NFL’s relationship turn this sour.

 

ESPN is dealing with a declining subscriber base and paying higher rights fees. A host of digital competitors are waiting in the wings to get some of its rights. It’s launching a direct-to-consumer service later this spring.

 

But multiple sources pointed to ESPN’s fraying relationship with the NFL as the top priority for new ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro. Pitaro considers the NFL relationship a priority and already has met with league executives in his first few days on the job.

 

During his three-month stint in charge of ESPN, Bodenheimer made an effort to start getting that relationship back on track. He visited with the league’s top officials and offered various olive branches to curry favor.

 

In one meeting, Bodenheimer committed to have ABC carry the third day of the NFL draft (rounds 4-7), a simulcast of the show that will be on ESPN. Bodenheimer made this deal despite some anger in Bristol that the NFL was working with Fox on a competing telecast, sources said.

 

The fact that Bodenheimer had to make such a concession on the NFL draft offers an illustration of just how bad the relationship between the two powerhouses had become. During Super Bowl week in Minneapolis, NFL executives privately described the relationship as the worst they’ve ever seen. In particular, they pointed to stories on ESPN.com and “Outside the Lines” that they felt went out of their way to portray the NFL in a bad light.

 

Their complaints ranged from the number of times ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” covered the concussion issue to the number of stories from feature writers Don Van Natta and Seth Wickersham about Commissioner Roger Goodell’s salary, the league’s handling of the player protests, palace intrigue at the Patriots and the ongoing dispute between Goodell and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

 

Plus, there were all the negative headlines surrounding the NFL this season that made their way onto “SportsCenter” or the home page of ESPN.com.

 

The NFL always has had a hard time differentiating between ESPN the promotion arm and ESPN the media outlet. It’s not a new development. In 2013, Goodell and then NFL executive Steve Bornstein met with former ESPN President John Skipper at a Manhattan restaurant to pressure him to back out of its affiliation with PBS’s “Frontline,” which was producing a documentary on concussions. ESPN wound up pulling out of the partnership.

 

In the past, ESPN had executives in place who could mollify the NFL. Over the past two years, though, ESPN did not. Skipper did not engage with the people who matter at the NFL, like Goodell and Brian Rolapp, executive vice president of media, sources said. Skipper, who was known to favor basketball and his relationship with Adam Silver over the NFL and its leaders, never fully engaged in the partnership. He did not socialize with or develop close ties to influential owners, like Patriots owner Robert Kraft and the Cowboys’ Jones. It seemed like the folksy Southerner had little in common with the people at the top of the NFL.

 

When he was ESPN’s president, Bodenheimer would check in with league officials regularly to establish open lines of communication, often having private dinners. Skipper eschewed all of those types of meetings with Goodell, Rolapp or any of the owners, sources said.

 

“All of those issues just festered, leaving us where we find ourselves now,” said one ESPN executive.

 

Skipper, and many others at ESPN, always chafed at how poor the “Monday Night Football” schedule was every season. When ESPN cut its rights deal, it paid for what the NFL called the “cable” package, a characterization that always irked ESPN executives who felt the difference between “cable” and “broadcast” was negligible. To the NFL, however, a “cable” package equated to the least competitive media package.

 

ESPN executives believe that for the rights fee it pays — $1.9 billion per year — it should have a stronger package. ESPN executives were particularly angry in 2014 when CBS bought the “Thursday Night Football” package and wound up with a better schedule than ESPN.

 

ESPN executives felt handcuffed because its deals with cable and satellite providers carried a provision that its rate would be cut if ESPN ever lost the NFL.

 

Over a five-year period ending around 2015, ESPN methodically stripped that clause out of its affiliate deals, meaning that the rates cable and satellite distributors pay are not tied to ESPN having the NFL. That benefited ESPN’s long-term business. It also helped its executives get some swagger back, as insiders say it emboldened them to push back more at the NFL when they feel aggrieved.

 

Other cracks surfaced. There was Bob Iger’s ill-fated pursuit of the Carson, Calif., NFL stadium project. There was also ESPN’s decision to scrap its popular Friday night Super Bowl party. ESPN opted to take a lot of its hospitality money out of the Super Bowl and put it in the CFP championship, which was held in Atlanta this year.

 

This is the environment that Pitaro inherits. Pitaro is known as a smooth relationship builder and excellent negotiator. He will put both of those skills to the test as he looks to fix one of ESPN’s most important partnerships.

 

 

2018 DRAFT

This is about a week old, but as we catch up on Mock Drafts, here is how NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah saw things:

 

1 – Cleveland

SAM DARNOLD             QB          USC

I know he chose not to throw at the combine, but Darnold is still the choice here.

 

2 – NY Giants

SAQUON BARKLEY      RB           PENN ST.

A QB could be picked here, but Barkley is a rare talent.

 

3 — Indianapolis

BRADLEY CHUBB         DE           N.C. STATE

The Colts must address the pass rush.

 

4 – Cleveland

MINKAH FITZPATRICK   DB          ALABAMA

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Browns traded back instead of selecting here.

 

5 – Denver

JOSH ALLEN                   QB          WYOMING

If the Broncos fail to land Kirk Cousins, they could opt for a full rebuild.

 

6 – NY Jets

JOSH ROSEN                   QB           UCLA

Rosen would be a good centerpiece for the Jets’ offense.

 

7 – Tampa Bay

DERWIN JAMES                  S                FLORIDA ST.

James is a special talent capable of starting at multiple positions.

 

8 – Chicago

DENZEL WARD                  CB                OHIO ST.

Ward is the top cover man in the draft.

 

9 – San Francisco

QUENTON NELSON             G                NOTRE DAME

The Niners opt for the best available player.

 

10 – Oakland

JAIRE ALEXANDER            CB                LOUISVILLE

Alexander is coming off a phenomenal combine performance and Oakland needs an upgrade in the secondary.

 

11 – Miami

ROQUAN SMITH                  OLB              GEORGIA

Smith is an outstanding player and arguably the best leader in the draft.

 

12 – Cincinnati

TREMAINE EDMUNDS           LB                VIRGINIA TECH

Edmunds is a freakish athlete and the Bengals need more difference makers on defense.

 

13 – Washington

MARCUS DAVENPORT         DE                TEXAS-SAN ANTONIO

Davenport has solidified his spot as the No. 2 pass rusher in the draft behind Bradley Chubb.

 

14 – Green Bay

MIKE HUGHES                       CB                CENTRAL FLORIDA

The Packers have a need at cornerback and Hughes is excellent on tape.

 

15 – Arizona

 CONNOR WILLIAMS               OT                TEXAS

Williams can play tackle or guard and the Cardinals need to improve up front to compete in the NFC West.

 

16 – Baltimore

BAKER MAYFIELD                   QB                OKLAHOMA

The Ravens should be in rebuild mode and that starts with a new signal-caller. Mayfield can sit behind Joe Flacco until he’s ready to take over.

 

17 – LA Chargers

VITA VEA                                  DT                WASHINGTON

Vea is a top-10 talent and he would be too good for the Chargers to pass up.

 

18 – Seattle

WILL HERNANDEZ                     G                TEXAS-EL PASO

Hernandez is flying up the board after an outstanding Senior bowl and NFL Combine. He’s a stud.

 

19 – Dallas

DA’RON PAYNE                           DT             ALABAMA

Payne showed off his athleticism at the combine and he’d be a good fit for the Cowboys.

 

20 – Detroit

TAVEN BRYAN                          DT                  FLORIDA

Bryan can play any position on the defensive line and he’d be a fun toy for new head coach Matt Patricia.

 

21 – Buffalo

RASHAAN EVANS                      LB                   ALABAMA

Evans is an explosive, playmaking linebacker capable of covering backs and tight ends.

 

22 – Buffalo

LAMAR JACKSON                      QB                   LOUISVILLE

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bills packaged some picks to move up for one of the other quarterbacks, but if they sit still, I could see them building an offense around Jackson’s skill set.

 

23 – LA Rams

JOSH JACKSON                          CB                    IOWA

Jackson will probably slide a little bit after a so-so combine performance, but his ball skills are outstanding on tape.

 

24 – Carolina

CALVIN RIDLEY                          WR                  ALABAMA

The Panthers need to give Cam Newton more weapons and Ridley is a dynamic player.

 

25 – Tennessee

JAMES DANIELS                          C                      IOWA

Daniels has the ability to play all three interior OL spots and he’s ready to play right away.

 

26 – Atlanta

JESSIE BATES                             S                     WAKE FOREST

Bates is one of my favorite players in the draft. He’s a true center fielder with tremendous upside.

 

27 – New Orleans

DALLAS GOEDERT                      TE                  SOUTH DAKOTA ST.

Goedert would post monster numbers in the Saints’ offense.

 

28 – Pittsburgh

LEIGHTON VANDER ESCH         ILB                   BOISE ST.

The Steelers love big, athletic linebackers and Vander Esch has the tools to match up with elite tight ends.

 

29 – Jacksonville

HAYDEN HURST                          TE                    SOUTH CAROLINA

Hurst, who’ll turn 25 before the start of the 2018 season, is a little older than you’d like, but he has Pro Bowl potential and I love the physicality/toughness he brings to the table.

 

30 – Minnesota

BILLY PRICE                                  C                      OHIO ST.

Price reunites with college teammate Pat Elflein and slides right in at guard. He can play all three interior spots.

 

31 – New England

HAROLD LANDRY                  EDGE                     BOSTON COLLEGE

Landry is a gifted edge rusher and that is an area the Patriots need to address.

 

32 – Philadelphia

ISAIAH OLIVER                          CB                      COLORADO

The Eagles have the luxury of simply taking the best player available, and Oliver would be a perfect scheme fit.