The Daily Briefing Tuesday, February 20, 2018

AROUND THE NFL 

It’s time to play tag and Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com is all over it.

 

It’s that time of year when the NFL reminds you its calendar rarely slows and never stops. Less than three weeks after Super Bowl LII, the first window of player movement decisions will open.

 

Beginning Tuesday and continuing through March 6, teams can place the franchise tag on one pending free agent, a decision that is expensive but also provides massive leverage against losing a big-time player.

 

Transition tags can also be applied in this window, but the franchise tag is far more important — and popular — because it ensures the team a hefty return if a player ultimately departs. (Transition tags are cheaper, but offer only the opportunity to match an offer.)

 

As we enter the NFL’s 26th offseason with the tag — it made its debut in 1993 as the salary-cap era took off — let’s run through the basics, some recent trends and projections for 2018.

 

The franchise tag is a labor designation that restricts a player’s potential movement in exchange for a high one-year salary. It is governed by owners and players through the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) and has two types.

 

Go on …

 

The first is the “exclusive-rights” franchise tag. Any player with this tag is bound to the team for the upcoming season. His agent is prohibited from seeking offer sheets elsewhere.

 

The second is the “non-exclusive” franchise tag. In this scenario, players can sign an offer sheet with another team.

 

What happens after the tag is applied?

 

It depends on the interest level between the sides.

 

The player can sign the tender at any time, a decision that fully guarantees the salary and immediately places all of it on the current year’s cap charge. This can increase a player’s leverage in a tight cap situation; the team will be motivated to negotiate a longer-term deal to lower the cap number.

 

The decision can also backfire if the team is comfortable with the high cap number; the leverage in this case would side with a player who remains unsigned as camp looms.

 

In either event, the sides have until July 16 to agree on a multiyear extension. After that point, the player can sign only a one-year contract, which cannot be extended until after the season.

 

Can a team rescind the tag?

 

Why, yes.

 

The Carolina Panthers did just that to cornerback Josh Norman in 2016, for example, when they determined they wouldn’t be able to sign him to a long-term extension. A rescinded tag is one of the risks players take when they don’t immediately sign the tender. It can’t be rescinded once it is signed.

 

What typically happens in these situations?

 

Over the past five years, the NFL has averaged just under seven franchise tag designations per season. Here’s a look at the final results in that span, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information researcher Evan Kaplan:

 

33 franchise tags extended

 

16 players played out the season under the tag

 

16 signed long-term extensions

 

One player (New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul) signed a modified contract after July 15.

 

Where can I find the franchise values for each position?

 

The NFL hasn’t calculated them yet, and one of the twists of the franchise tag window is that teams can extend them without knowing the exact figure. They’re usually released during the annual scouting combine, in the days before free agency begins (March 14). In a few cases, deals that happen between now and then can impact the exact numbers. The exact per-team salary-cap total — also not solidified yet — can change them as well.

 

2017 Franchise Tag Values

POSITION                 TENDER AMOUNT

Quarterback                 $21,268,000

Running back               $12,120,000

Wide receiver               $15,682,000

Tight end                        $9,780,000

Offensive line               $14,271,000

Defensive end              $16,934,000

Defensive tackle           $13,387,000

Linebacker                   $14,550,000

Cornerback                   $14,212,000

Safety                           $10,896,000

Kicker/punter                  $4,835,000

 

The NFL salary cap is expected to jump at least $10 million from its $168 million number in 2017, so you can count on incremental rises in each franchise tag number as well. You can feel reasonably confident that the tag numbers will rise at least $500,000 and no more than $2 million per position.

 

Really? No firm numbers?

 

OK, maybe a few.

 

We know, based on the CBA, that a team has only one option when it wants to apply the tag in consecutive years to the same player: 120 percent of the previous year’s tag. That could apply to a number of players in 2018, most notably Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell.

 

Bell played under a $12.12 million tag in 2017, meaning his 2018 tag would be worth $14.544 million. (He has said he might sit out the 2018 season rather than play a second year under the tag.)

 

Other than Bell, what other players are 2018 franchise-tag candidates? Here are some names to watch for if productive negotiations on long-term deals don’t materialize:

 

DeMarcus Lawrence, DE, Dallas Cowboys

 

Ezekiel Ansah, DE, Detroit Lions

 

Sammy Watkins, WR, Los Angles Rams

 

Allen Robinson, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars

 

Andrew Norwell, G, Carolina Panthers

 

Sheldon Richardson, DT, Seattle Seahawks

 

Is it always bad for the player to play under the franchise tag?

 

The franchise tag pays a player close to market value for one year, but provides no future guarantees. The tag becomes an advantage if a player remains healthy and valuable enough that the team feels compelled to use it multiple times. The value of the second tag is 120 percent of the first, and the third 144 percent of the second.

 

How rarely do teams use the tag on the same player in consecutive years?

 

It happens more often than you might think: 15 times since 1997, including four times since 2011: Cleveland Browns place-kicker Phil Dawson, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Anthony Spencer, Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins and Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson.

 

It is much less common for skill players. Cousins became the first quarterback ever franchised in consecutive years last offseason. There have been only three other skill players who have been tagged twice at any point in their careers: quarterbacks Drew Brees (2005, 2012) and Peyton Manning (2004, 2011) and receiver Rob Moore (1995, 1999).

 

Are some positions more susceptible to the franchise tag than others?

 

Yes.

 

Per ESPN’s Stats & Information research, 30 offensive linemen have been franchise tagged since 1993, while 27 defensive ends and 26 linebackers were tagged. On the other end, there have been four punters, 10 quarterbacks, 11 running backs and 11 tight ends franchised.

 

Generally speaking, teams see a better economic value to leverage high-end linemen than skill-position players.

 

Do some teams use the tag more than others?

 

Yes, but given the 26-year span of the tag’s existence, the numbers are more a function of talent and cap management than a philosophical opposition or support of the tag itself. Every team in the league has used it at least once.

 

The Indianapolis Colts have used it an NFL-high 11 times, followed by the Chiefs (10), Seattle Seahawks (10) and Arizona Cardinals (10). The Texans (one), Falcons (two) and Browns (three) have used it the fewest times.

 

And Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com breaks down who might be tagged:

 

Last year, we waited until just a few days before the window closed, officially explaining that few if any tags ever are applied early in the process. This year, I basically decided not to procrastinate.

 

Dolphins: Receiver Jarvis Landry could be slapped with either tag. The franchise tag has received the most attention in articles regarding his future, but the transition tag would give Landry a chance to see what’s available elsewhere — and it would give the Dolphins a chance to match whatever someone else would offer to a player who may not attract a top-of-market package.

 

Bills: The trade of receiver Sammy Watkins left the Bills with no tag-worthy players in 2018.

 

Jets: The Jets hope to re-sign tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, but their reported offer of $8 million over two years falls well short of what the tag would cost. Also, their misadventures with defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson, who parlayed the tag into a long-term deal the Jets would like to escape, could make them hesitant about using it again.

 

Patriots: A couple of years ago, cornerback Malcolm Butler seemed destined to be tagged, if he didn’t sign a big-money deal. Now, he’ll exit as a guy who played no defensive snaps in Super Bowl LII. There’s no one else they should consider tagging, especially with tackle Nate Solder exempt and running back Dion Lewis playing a position with a cost-prohibitive tender.

 

Steelers: Running back Le’Veon Bell could be tagged again, but the one-year tender would increase by 20 percent, from $12.1 million to more than $14.5 million. The Steelers prefer signing him to a long-term deal, which will be hard to do if Bell insists on $14.5 million for 2018 as the starting point.

 

Bengals: They didn’t apply the tag a year ago to tackle Andrew Whitworth or guard Kevin Zeitler; they don’t have more viable candidates this year.

 

Browns: The worst franchise in the league has earned that title in part by having no players who are worthy of the franchise tag.

 

Ravens: Center Ryan Jensen benefits from the fact that offensive lineman are lumped into one bucket for the franchise tag, which means that a guard or center will be paid like a left tackle, if tagged. Which means that few if any centers or guards will ever be tagged.

 

Texans: A year after watching up-and-coming cornerback A.J. Bouye walk away in free agency, they won’t be stopping significantly older cornerback Johnathan Joseph from leaving.

 

Colts: The Colts aren’t as bad as the Browns, but the Colts are afflicted by the same lack of talent that will keep anyone (other than Andrew Luck, if he ever gets healthy) from ever being tagged.

 

Titans: Kicker Ryan Succop could be tagged, but it would cost more than $5 million to do it.

 

Jaguars: Receiver Allen Robinson tore an ACL in Week One, and he’s due to become a free agent. He believes he’s healthy; if the team agrees, he could be tagged. (Like Jarvis Landry, the transition tag could be an option; for Robinson, the unknown about his knee could keep other teams from making him an offer the Jags couldn’t or wouldn’t match.)

 

Broncos: The silver lining from the dark cloud of a bad year is that there are no impending free agents who merit special consideration.

 

Chiefs: Some tough decisions are coming, with players like Marcus Peters (2020), Tyreek Hill (2020), Kareem Hunt (2021), and Patrick Mahomes (2022) heading toward free agency. For now, there’s no one to tag.

 

Chargers: Safety Tre Boston is a candidate for the franchise tag or the cheaper transition tag. Beyond that, they don’t really have anyone worth tagging.

 

Raiders: Their 2018 tag money went toward quarterback Derek Carr‘s contract. Their 2019 tag money could end up going toward linebacker Khalil Mack‘s long-term deal.

 

Cowboys: The Cowboys reportedly will apply the franchise tag to defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence.

 

Washington: Quarterback Kirk Cousins could be tagged again, if Washington follows through on its misguided plan to get immediate compensation for Cousins by trading him. It would be a mistake, for various reasons. It also could be challenged, and beaten.

 

Giants: Guard Justin Pugh will be hitting the open market, if he isn’t tagged. Again, the tag for interior offensive lineman has become, as a practical matter, the tag for exterior offensive lineman. Specifically, left tackles. Which means it could cost more than $15 million to keep Pugh around for one more year. Which means Pugh could end up in Jacksonville, with the guy who drafted him five years ago.

 

Eagles: Things would be very interesting in Philly if Nick Foles had signed only a one-year deal. With Foles under contract through 2018, there’s no one else who’d justify the investment of a franchise or transition tag.

 

Vikings: If the Vikings are going to spend more than $24 million to use the franchise tag on quarterback Case Keenum, they should consider breaking the bank on a long-term deal for Kirk Cousins. Or paying less to get A.J. McCarron. Franchise-tagging Keenum comes with a 20-percent bump in 2019 and a 44-percent hike in 2020, which makes it anything but a long-term solution. The transition tag could be an option, allowing the Vikings to keep Keenum at a cheaper rate and giving them a right to match any offer sheet he signs.

 

Packers: With receiver Davante Adams signed, safety Morgan Burnett remains the only remotely viable candidate for the tag. If the Packers truly want him, however, they’ll more likely find a way to sign him to a multi-year deal.

 

Lions: The biggest decision for the Lions will be whether to apply the franchise tag to defensive end Ziggy Ansah. He finished his rookie contract with a flourish, racking up 12.0 sacks. Two years before, he had a career-high 14.5. But it’s that donut hole of 2016, when Ansah managed only two sacks in 13 games, that gives the Lions pause. They may want to be sure they’re getting the double-digit guy before they do anything more than a one-year rental.

 

Bears: The Bears have to decide whether to tag cornerback Kyle Fuller, a former first-round pick who they deemed a year ago to not be worthy of the fifth-year option. If Fuller had previously played like he did in 2017, a different decision would have been made.

 

Panthers: They’re not expected to tag either of their primary candidates — guard Andrew Norwell or defensive lineman Star Lotulelei. The question becomes whether they re-sign either of them in competition with the open market.

 

Buccaneers: Another year, another roster containing no free agents worthy of the tag.

 

Falcons: The tag is a long shot for the Falcons, with the possible exception of kicker Matt Bryant. It would cost more than $5 million for one more year.

 

Saints: They can’t tag quarterback Drew Brees. They won’t tag anyone else.

 

Seahawks: Tight end Jimmy Graham hasn’t done enough in three seasons with the team to justify a tag. Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson possibly did enough in one season, especially in light of the investment made to get him from the Jets last year (receiver Jermaine Kearse and a second-round pick).

 

49ers: With quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo signed to a five-year deal, there’s no one to tag.

 

Cardinals: Like the 49ers, there’s no one to tag — unlike the 49ers, there’s no quarterback on the roster.

 

Rams: After tagging cornerback Trumaine Johnson for two straight years, it would cost quarterback money to tag him a third time. Receiver Sammy Watkins could be kept under contract via the tag for a lot less than that.

 

NFC NORTH

 

MINNESOTA

QB TEDDY BRIDGEWATER is all about winning.  Courtney Cronin of ESPN.com:

 

Teddy Bridgewater has been in a reflective mood lately.

 

Last week, the Minnesota Vikings quarterback posted a series of photos on Twitter from the 2017 season with the caption “humble servant.” A day earlier, Bridgewater took to Instagram to relay how being a leader among his teammates, peers, loved ones and community is greater than any personal goal he could ever set.

 

The next few weeks and months hold uncertainty for Bridgewater. He’s set to become a free agent on March 14, but the speculation of whether he’ll return to the Vikings or sign elsewhere this offseason has long since started.

 

A lot remains up in the air regarding the quarterback’s next step, two full seasons removed from the catastrophic knee injury he sustained at the end of the 2016 preseason.

 

One of a few things that’s certain is how much this season — Bridgewater’s comeback year — meant to the quarterback.

 

“It was probably my favorite season by far, even though I didn’t play much,” Bridgewater told ESPN. “This season challenged my mindset because as bad as I wanted to be out there playing, being the competitor that I am, I wanted to go to war and go to battle with my guys, I had to be out there in a different aspect. I had to be there for the guys mentally.

 

“It gave me a different role, and I accepted it. It was one that was hard to accept because I’m a competitor, but I wouldn’t trade this year for nothing.

 

Bridgewater’s girlfriend, Erika Cardona, has written a children’s book.  Chris Thomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer-Press.

 

In 2014, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was taken with the No. 32 pick in the NFL draft by the Vikings.

 

In a children’s book, “Little Bear Teddy” gets selected “with the seventh growl of the 2014 animal draft” by the “Wildpack” team.

 

The recently published book “Little Bear Teddy: Big Dream Come True” was inspired by Bridgewater and written by his girlfriend, Erika Cardona.

 

Cardona, a writer who works with children, had been thinking about a book based on Bridgewater’s dream coming true of making it to the NFL. She decided to go through with the project after Bridgewater suffered a torn ACL on Aug. 30, 2016, and told him about it for the first time soon after he came out of surgery the following week in Dallas.

 

“She had this idea of wanting to do a book and then I guess, with me being hurt, I don’t want to say that’s the main purpose behind the book, but it gave her another reason or another way to deal with what I was going through,” Bridgewater said Tuesday. “It was awesome when I found out about it, and I’m even more happy now that it’s published.”

 

The book is the first in what Cardona hopes to be a “Little Bear Teddy” series of three to five books. The book, featuring illustrations from Twin Cities artist Mary Schaubschlager, was self-published and available for sale at www.littlebearteddy.com.

 

“I just figured it would be easy to turn Teddy into a bear character,” Cardona said. “It’s about a little bear who had a dream, and it came to life.”

 

NFC EAST

 

DALLAS

Brandon George of the Dallas Morning News says the Cowboys won’t let DE DeMARCUS LAWRENCE hit the open market.

 

One of the variables that will play a huge role in just how much money the Cowboys have to spend in free agency in March will begin to take shape over the next two weeks.

 

Tuesday is the first day NFL teams can designate their franchise player for 2018. They can tag a player up until the 3 p.m. March 6 deadline.

 

The Cowboys will use their two-week franchise tag window to focus solely on defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence.

 

The question isn’t whether Lawrence will be back for 2018. Instead, it’s how much money the Cowboys will have to dish out to make it happen and how that will affect their 2018 salary-cap space.

 

Executive vice president Stephen Jones laid out the Cowboys’ offseason plan of attack for re-signing Lawrence last month at the Senior Bowl.

 

“Our first goal is to sign him to a long-term deal,” Jones said. “To me, the only reason you use a franchise tag is to hopefully protect yourself if you can’t get a long-term deal signed that you like. That’s normally the route we like to go. Certainly we’re going to roll up our sleeves and see if we can do something with DeMarcus without having a franchise tag.”

 

Jones is expected to meet with Lawrence’s agent, David Canter, next week during the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.

 

The Cowboys are in no rush to apply the franchise tag on Lawrence. A source told SportsDay’s David Moore they won’t do it Tuesday. They will first try to agree to a long-term deal and, if needed, apply the tag closer to the deadline.

 

 

WASHINGTON

Can the Redskins restrict QB KIRK COUSINS with yet another franchise tag?  Kimberley Martin of the Washington Post:

 

The Washington Redskins can officially apply the franchise tag to Kirk Cousins starting this week. But if they do, expect the quarterback to go on the offensive.

 

Cousins will file a grievance through the NFL players’ union if the Redskins stick the franchise tag on him, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity. This represents a line in the sand, of sorts, ahead of Tuesday’s opening of the two-week window during which NFL teams can place the franchise tag on players. The tag would prevent Cousins from entering unrestricted free agency, where he is expected to command an enormous contract from another team — possibly the most expensive in league history.

 

The basis for the complaint is simple: Cousins could argue that the organization is violating the terms of the collective bargaining agreement because the team has no intention of engaging in good-faith negotiations on a long-term deal, or having him play under the franchise tag amount of $34.5 million guaranteed in 2018.

 

Several league sources have characterized the potential act of tagging Cousins as a spiteful move, citing the spirit of the franchise tag and the ongoing saga involving both camps. The franchise tag is typically used to buy teams more time so that they can continue contract talks on a possible long-term deal. Players who are tagged have to sign a multiyear contract or extension by 4 p.m. on July 16.

 

Washington, however, agreed to trade for former Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith this offseason, and agreed with Smith to a long-term extension that would keep him under the Redskins’ control for another five years.

 

NFL teams have from Feb. 20 to March 6 to designate the players they want to franchise or transition tag. The Redskins have applied the franchise tag to Cousins the past two seasons, amid unsuccessful discussions about a long-term contract extension between the team and its quarterback, and the option to use the franchise tag on Cousins this year with the intention of trading him is still on the table. But that maneuver is risky.

 

Washington could tag the 29-year-old quarterback to prevent him from becoming a free agent when the new league year begins on March 14. By trading him, the Redskins would be able to recoup some form of compensation in return for his exit. But they won’t be able to pull off a trade until Cousins signs the franchise tag, which means the quarterback could very well use the stall tactic.

 

And as long as Washington is unable to deal him, the Redskins are handicapped in free agency because they’d still be on the hook for the $34.5 million owed to Cousins via the franchise tag.

 

One thing is certain in all of this: Cousins will get paid handsomely.

 

Several quarterback-needy teams and playoff contenders are interested in Cousins, who has 57 career starts. The Cleveland Browns and New York Jets have a considerable amount of cash to spend in free agency, and the Denver Broncos, Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings are all expected to be in the running to land Cousins, who threw for 4,093 yards, 27 touchdowns and 13 interceptions this past season for the Redskins (7-9).

 

NFC SOUTH

 

ATLANTA

QB MATT RYAN was an ironman in 2017.  Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com:

 

Matt Ryan did not win back-to-back MVP awards, but he did something no other quarterback was able to do in 2017 — take every snap for his team during the regular season.

 

The 2016 NFL MVP played all 1,024 of the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive snaps.

 

A total of 32 NFL players played every snap on their sides of the ball, but Ryan was one of only four non-offensive linemen to do it. The other three all were defensive players: Cleveland Browns linebackers Christian Kirksey and Joe Schobert, plus New York Jets linebacker Demario Davis.

 

It’s not unusual for dozens of offensive linemen to do it, but Ryan was the only quarterback to accomplish the feat last season. In 2016, four quarterbacks did so: Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Kirk Cousins and Matthew Stafford.

 

Cousins was on the field for all but four plays in 2017, while Brees missed just five and Stafford nine. Manning was benched late in the season and played in 1,017 of the Giants’ 1,083 offensive plays.

 

Four defensive players played every snap in 2016: Alec Ogletree, Reggie Nelson, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Glover Quin.

 

Clinton-Dix came closest to repeating, playing all but eight of the Packers’ defensive snaps in 2017.

 

Snap streaks were a big story in 2017 because of how one ended. Browns tackle Joe Thomas’ consecutive plays streak ended at 10,363 because of an early-season triceps injury. Thomas had played every snap since the start of the 2007 season.

 

According to ESPN Stats & Information, no one in the NFL has played more total snaps the past five years than Brees, who has been on the field for 5,287 offensive plays dating to the start of the 2013 season. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers ranked second with 5,117.

 

Ryan ranks eighth on the list with 5,036 plays in the past five seasons.

 

 

CAROLINA

It appears as if DE JULIUS PEPPERS wants to play another year.  That and other thoughts about the Panthers from Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer:

 

Q: Will Julius Peppers play in 2018?

 

A: My guess is yes – a source close to Peppers indicates the star defensive end is leaning toward playing but doesn’t want to commit to it yet.

 

Peppers recently had shoulder surgery. From what I understand, he had been playing with that injury for quite awhile. Peppers really gets along with Eric Washington, recently promoted from Panthers defensive-line coach to defensive coordinator. At 38, Peppers tied for the team lead with 11 sacks last season as a part-time player.

 

One thing seems certain: He won’t go elsewhere. Peppers will either play for Carolina or retire. I bet he plays, but this one remains up in the air.

 

Q: Is Luke Kuechly’s latest shoulder surgery something to be concerned about?

 

A: No. Kuechly has rehabbed his way through a torn labrum before, following the Super Bowl season. He played Week 1 in 2016, and I certainly expect him to play in Week 1 in 2018. Now if this was another concussion, of course, that would be a different story.

 

Q: When will the investigation into owner Jerry Richardson’s alleged sexual misconduct finish?

 

A: This one will take a lot longer than the Marty Hurney investigation, which wrapped up Friday with Hurney being reinstated to his job as interim general manager (and as the favorite to become the permanent GM). An independent team led by renowned attorney and investigator Mary Jo White has been in Charlotte doing interviews about Richardson and does not appear close to being finished (although those investigators do not hold subpoena power, so they can’t force anyone to talk).

 

I would guess it will be another month – and perhaps more – before we hear the result of this one. The ultimate punishment the NFL could have meted out is already off the table, as Richardson has announced his intention to sell the team. 

 

Q: Will Tina Becker ever speak to the media?

 

A: The mysterious Becker was promoted by Richardson to run day-to-day team operations in January. The only thing most people remember about Becker is she was once a cheerleader for the team before rising through the ranks. That’s partly because the team hasn’t allowed her to be interviewed by basically anybody other than the oh-so-friendly team website. But that’s likely to change before long, as Becker takes a more public role. 

 

Q: Will the team have a new owner by the time the 2018 season starts in September?

 

A: I think they will, and maybe much sooner than that. Things are percolating behind the scenes on many fronts.

 

Mary Jo White had a big role in the Bountygate investigation, so whether or not she is “renowned” in the positive sense in New Orleans is doubthful.

 

 

TAMPA BAY

The Buccaneers have a new defensive line coach.  Charean Williams of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

The Buccaneers have hired Brenston Buckner as their defensive line coach, the team announced.

 

Buckner will replace Jay Hayes, who Tampa Bay fired on February 9.

 

The Buccaneers also interviewed University of Miami defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski, their own assistant defensive line coach, Paul Spicer, and former Colts defensive coordinator Ted Monachino.

 

Buckner, 46, spent the past five seasons as the Cardinals’ defensive line coach. Arizona led the league with 48 sacks in 2016. The Bucs had a league-low 22 sacks last season.

 

Buckner, who had a 12-year career as an NFL defensive lineman, crossed paths with Bucs General Manager Jason Licht in Arizona in 2013.

 

Buckner was a 10-year player for four teams, most recently in 2005 with Carolina.  He also has some media chops as a talk show host in his past.

 

NFC WEST

 

LOS ANGELES RAMS

Alden Gonzalez of ESPN.com on the Rams and their franchise tag choices:

 

The Los Angeles Rams began the offseason with a significant amount of salary-cap space, but that money goes fast.

 

OverTheCap.com currently projects the Rams at nearly $41 million of cap space, 12th-most in the NFL. But that drops to roughly $35 million after accounting for the draft. Then you have to consider the needs that might not be addressed by the draft, most notably replacing a center, adding a run-stuffing nose tackle and a premier edge rusher, and shoring up depth throughout the secondary. Then there’s that whole thing about making Aaron Donald the game’s highest-paid defensive player.

 

The Rams have 14 players on track to be unrestricted free agents. Six of them played more than 600 snaps on offense or defense in 2017, and two of them look like prime candidates to be tagged, which would considerably cut into the Rams’ budget. The window for teams to tag one of their players — and thus keep a potential free agent with a one-year, guaranteed contract in line with the game’s highest-paid players at the position — runs from Tuesday to March 6.

 

Below, we take a closer look at two potential candidates. The non-exclusive franchise tag, which awards a player’s original team with two first-round picks if it does not match an outside offer, brings with it the average of the top five salaries at a player’s position over the previous five years. A transition tag, which amounts to the average of the top 10 salaries at a player’s position in the current year, allows other teams to match and does not include compensation. Projections were provided by OverTheCap.com.

 

WR Sammy Watkins

Projected price: $16.23M (franchise), $14.03M (transition)

 

Reason for: The Rams gave up a 2018 second-round pick — not to mention a strong cornerback in E.J. Gaines — to obtain Watkins, which should be reason enough to give him more than one season to fit in. Watkins’ numbers weren’t gaudy, but he entered camp near the middle of August and never had enough time to build any real rapport with quarterback Jared Goff. “He got on a roll with the guys that he had during OTAs,” Watkins said after the season, “and once a guy is used to throwing it to someone else, he throws to his guys.” Watkins was referring to Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, the new receivers who benefited from an entire offseason with Goff. There’s no reason to believe Watkins can’t benefit from the same. A multiyear extension could be risky because of his history of foot injuries, but the franchise tag could work out for both parties.

 

Reason against: Watkins’ downfield presence helped open the middle of the field for Woods and Kupp, but Watkins himself finished with only 39 catches for 593 yards in 15 games. He scored eight touchdowns, but his 70 targets suggest that type of production might not be sustainable. Simply put: Watkins didn’t produce enough to warrant a $16 million-plus price tag for the 2018 season, especially with so many needs upcoming on defense. A transition tag, which allows the Rams to match outside offers, would save some money. But the receiver market is dry enough that a team might overpay for Watkins, who has caught 67 of 122 targets for 1,023 yards and 10 touchdowns over the past two seasons. The Rams suddenly are deep at receiver, with Woods (25 years old), Kupp (24), Pharoh Cooper (22), Mike Thomas (23) and a promising vertical threat in Josh Reynolds (23). They can lose Watkins and remain explosive in the passing game.

 

S Lamarcus Joyner

Projected price: $11.08M (franchise), $9.50M (transition)

 

Reason for: This might remind some of the Rams’ situation last year with cornerback Trumaine Johnson, who was franchised a second time because the team simply could not afford to lose him to the free-agent market at that point in the offseason. The Rams similarly can’t afford to lose Joyner. They’ve lost three key members of their secondary since the end of the 2015 season — Rodney McLeod, Janoris Jenkins and T.J. McDonald — and could lose a fourth if Johnson doesn’t return. Joyner might be the best of them all. Pro Football Focus made him the third-highest-graded safety in 2017, his first year transitioning away from slot corner. He’s small — listed at 5-foot-8, 190 pounds — but he hits big and brings great ball skills. A franchise tag makes sense because Joyner is coming off his first year as a full-time defensive player, and one more season in that role would allow the Rams to get a better sense for his fit in the market.

 

Reason against: Franchising Joyner might mean running the risk of not bringing back Watkins. It also might mean not locking up Joyner long term, and the Rams have appeared willing to do that dating back to last offseason. Joyner’s price has risen significantly since then. But in that time, he also fit perfectly into Wade Phillips’ system and established himself as the Rams’ best defensive player outside of Donald. The highest-paid safeties make somewhere in the neighborhood of $13 million a year, and Joyner has that kind of skill set, small as he might be. In an ideal scenario, the Rams would agree to a long-term deal with Joyner before the start of free agency, on March 14, which would then allow them to use their franchise tag on Watkins if they so choose. But the ideal scenario hardly ever presents itself. And if they don’t sense enough willingness from Joyner’s side to get something done, they might need to act by burning their franchise tag on him.

 

AFC SOUTH

 

HOUSTON

The Texans tell LB BRIAN CUSHING he is not in their plans for 2018.  John McClain of the Houston Chronicle:

 

The Texans have told inside linebacker Brian Cushing that he no longer figures into their defensive plans and will be released at some point before the new league year begins March 14.

 

Cushing, 31, played nine seasons with the Texans and is the team’s all-time leading tackler with 664. When he’s released, the move will clear $7.64 million in salary cap space.

 

“It’s all good,” Cushing said Sunday night in a text message. “It’s part of the business.”

 

The Texans’ decision on Cushing isn’t a surprise. During his 10-game suspension last season for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, there was speculation that he would be released during the offseason.

 

AFC EAST

 

NEW ENGLAND

The media may have been caught off-guard when CB MALCOLM BUTLER spent Super Bowl 52 on the bench, but his teammates knew it was coming.  Ryan Dunleavy of NJ.com:

 

Devin McCourty played defense without Malcolm Butler in the Super Bowl, and now he is coming to the defense of his much-scrutinized teammate as the NFL offseason gets underway.

 

After playing 97.8 percent of the Patriots’ defensive snaps during the regular season, Butler did not play any in the loss to the Eagles.

 

The mysterious decision combined with coach Bill Belichick’s tight-lipped approach led to anonymously sourced reports Butler was benched for disciplinary reasons.

 

Not so, believes McCourty, one of the first members of the Patriots to speak on the subject since the Super Bowl LII postgame locker rooms emptied out.

 

“As far as I know, all of that is the furthest thing from the truth,” McCourty told NJ Advance Media. “We all knew he wasn’t starting all week. That wasn’t a secret to the guys on the team.

 

“I get why people are fishing. The guy played 98 percent of the plays. I just hate that for him character-wise going into free agency. It’s just not true. As far as I know — and I was there all week — not one time did anything come up.”

 

McCourty is a seven-year defensive captain for the Patriots, so he might have been more clued in ahead of time than others. Eric Rowe, who started in place of Butler, and Patriots owner Bob Kraft have claimed to be in the dark.

 

 

NEW YORK JETS

The Jets are prepping the battlefield in the fight for QB KIRK COUSINS.  This from Rich Cimini of ESPN.com:

 

General manager Mike Maccagnan is 0-for-2 when drafting quarterbacks and his veteran acquisitions have produced two good years and one bad year. In other words, he has a checkered track record. Now is the time to change that.

 

With more than $70 million in cap room and the sixth pick in the draft, Maccagnan has no excuse. He must resolve the issue that has plagued the Jets for decades. And, for a change, a quality backup would be nice. Petty is on thin ice and Hackenberg could be shopped in trade talks, although it’s hard to imagine any team showing interest. The one exception could be the Houston Texans, coached by Bill O’Brien, Hackenberg’s first coach at Penn State. By the time the regular season starts, the Jets could have an entirely new look at quarterback.

 

Free-agent market watch: Cousins, Drew Brees, Case Keenum, Sam Bradford, Teddy Bridgewater, A.J. McCarron, Jay Cutler, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Geno Smith.

 

Also could become available: Tyrod Taylor, Blake Bortles and Mike Glennon.

 

The game plan: It’s simple: Get Cousins. The Jets want him badly, and sources say they’re willing to pay whatever it takes — unless the Washington Redskins decide to tag him for a third time (unlikely). Money aside, the Jets hope to convince him he’ll have a chance to win in New York. Because of obvious deficiencies on the current roster, they must sell him a championship vision. Their recruiting pitch also will stress his familiarity with the offensive system. In addition to making Cousins wildly rich, the Jets want to let him know he’ll be comfortable with the scheme and coaches.

 

If they miss on Cousins, the only thing close to a franchise quarterback on the market, the Jets have to lower their sights to a stop-gap option. There’s always a chance the Jets re-sign McCown, who has expressed interest in returning. If he does, it would make quarterback a top priority in the draft. Other fallback options are Keenum and Taylor, who should have some scheme familiarity because his former offensive coordinator with the Buffalo Bills — Rick Dennison — is the Jets’ line coach/run-game coordinator.

 

Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com

 

This report comes amid a belief that the Jets may be willing to fully guarantee Cousins’ deal. The notion of paying “whatever it takes” becomes far more open-ended than that, especially since there’s no way of knowing what it will take until knowing what another team will pay.

 

If there’s at least one other team willing to make a similar commitment, the end result could be an auction that drives the market well north of $30 million per year. Assuming, of course, that Cousins would want to actually play for one of the teams willing to break the bank.

 

During a Super Bowl-week visit to PFT Live, Cousins seemed to suggest that he’s willing to take less to win, while also acknowledging that plenty of winning teams have expensive quarterbacks. Last year, he seemed to suggest that his goal is to make as much as possible.

 

“[T]here’s other quarterbacks that come after you and it would be almost a selfish move to hurt future quarterbacks who get in a position to have a contract,” Cousins said in January 2017. “And if you don’t take a deal that’s fair to you, then you’re also taking a deal that’s not fair to them and you’re setting them back as well. So there’s different reasons. You just do the best you can.”

 

Cousins will be doing better than the best any quarterback has ever done, whether it’s with the Jets or another team. Barring a third straight franchise tag from his current team (which remains unlikely, and likely would be scrapped via a grievance), Cousins will become the first healthy franchise quarterback on the right side of 30 to become a free agent in nearly a quarter-century of free agency. Given the $44 million he has made over the last two years, his next deal could push his career earnings toward a quarter-billion.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

FORMER PLAYERS

Rae Carruth, who may have committed the worst crime of any NFL player – hiring a hitman to kill his pregnant girlfriend, is close to getting out of prison.  And he wants to be a part of the son who survived the shooting.  Kevin Skiver at CBSSports.com:

 

Rae Carruth is a name that most fans of the Carolina Panthers and the Colorado Buffaloes undoubtedly want to forget. A star receiver at Colorado, Carruth was Carolina’s first-round pick in the 1997 NFL Draft, but his pro career ended abruptly after he was charged and convicted for conspiracy to commit murder in 2001.

 

Carruth was found gulity of hiring a triggerman to kill Cherica Adams, a 24-year-old woman that was seven months pregnant with his child, and was sentenced to 18 to 24 years in prison. Now, Carruth’s release date is approaching. Oct. 22, 2018 is the day Carruth is slated to leave a North Carolina prison.

 

His impending release appears to have galvanized the sentimental side of him, as he appears to be ready to break his longtime silence on his crimes. Carruth didn’t testify at his own trial, and he’s done only one interview. Carruth has met his son, Chancellor Lee Adams, twice. Adams’ grandmother (and Cherica’s mother), Saundra Adams, has cared for Chancellor, and has staunchly protested the mere thought of Carruth getting custody of his son.

 

Which leads to Carruth’s letter. Carruth penned a 15-page letter to Saundra, telling her that her claims against him are untrue. He made the letter public, with a foreword, saying that releasing the letter wasn’t to win the public over but to make people question Saundra’s claims.

 

The letter, which can be read in its entirety here, is incredibly complex. It praises Saundra’s care of Chancellor, while also saying that she hasn’t been truthful in interviews about Carruth. Saundra has said in the past that she will be at the gates with Chancellor when Carruth is released, and she’ll work with him, according to WBTV.

 

WBTV conducted an interview with Carruth, in which he was candid about some of the circumstances surrounding Cherica’s death. He started by talking about Saundra’s claims against him, and questioned their truthfulness. “I feel like if I did it in the open, it would put an end to the lies,” he said to WBTV. “If I say publicly, ‘Ms. Adams, I apologize, Ms. Adams, I take responsibility for what happened,’ that she can no longer get on television and do an interview and say Rae has never apologized to me.”

 

When pressed about details on Cherica’s death, Carruth was reportedly evasive. But he did take responsibility. Sort of. “I’m apologizing for the loss of her daughter,” he said. “I’m apologizing for the impairment of my son (Chancellor has cerebral palsy and permanent brain damage). I feel responsible for everything that happened. And I just want her to know that truly I am sorry for everything.”

 

Carruth also said that he and Cherica should be raising Chancellor together.

 

“I should be raising my son,” he said. “His mother should be raising her son. Ms. Adams should not be doing this and I want that responsibility back. I feel like he might not ever have his mother in his life but he could still have me and I could still make a difference and I don’t think that’s anyone’s responsibility when I’m still here.”

 

This expounds on something that Carruth wrote in the letter, saying that Saundra won’t be alive forever. He wants to survive her as Chancellor’s guardian.

 

Carruth’s phrasing in the letter, however, is a bit more cavalier.

 

“Ms. Adams,” he wrote. “The story of how you lost your daughter; how Chancellor came into this world; and the way that he has gone on to endure, thrive, and over achieve with you by his side is so heart wrenching and inspiring on its own, that there isn’t any need for embellishment or lies. And yet you’ve made a habit out of doing so in every interview that you’ve given since the beginning of this whole ordeal.”

 

The letter also addresses his silence, saying he maintained it “reluctantly” out of “respect.” But he’s now ready to get out and make a change, regardless of what people say.

 

“When I first got incarcerated I would ask myself how did this happen?” he said. “How are you here? And the number one answer that I had was I didn’t have a relationship with God. And I know some people might smirk or laugh about that but I know now that I have a very real relationship with God and that’s changed a lot of the ways that I see and view a lot of things.”

 

Carruth’s letter also said that calling Cherica his girlfriend was false, with the two merely hooking up. Carruth concedes that he asked about abortion, but after Cherica said she was keeping the baby, he never went back to the topic.

 

It’s a messy situation that will only get messier. Carruth is one of the most infamous NFL names this side of O.J. Simpson, and any topic involving him is controversial. As we get closer to October, now that the seal is broken on Carruth’s side of things, Saundra and his war of words will likely only get more intense.

 

Count sportscribe Jason Cole unimpressed:‏

 

@JasonCole62

Rae Carruth wanting custody of his son makes me want to see Rae back in custody.

 

 

BROADCAST NEWS

The NFL is raising the price of NFL Sunday Ticket.  This from Ken Fang of AwfulAnnouncng.com:

 

Despite losing subscribers in the fourth quarter of 2017 and reportedly providing refunds to customers angry over NFL anthem kneeldowns, it appears DirecTV will be increasing the price for the Sunday Ticket package in 2018.

 

According to Phillip Swann’s TV Answer Man site, the out-of-market NFL Sunday Ticket will increase to $293.94 for the next regular season, and that’s just for the basic package. It means an increase of 4.2 percent. Last season, the cost if you subscribed before the 2017 season was $281.94.

 

Since 2016, the cost of NFL Sunday Ticket has increased by 14 percent, despite lower ratings for the NFL during that period.

 

The basic package does not include the Red Zone Channel nor the Fantasy Zone Channel, which come at a higher cost. To get those channels, you have to subscribe Sunday Ticket Max, which totaled a whopping $377.94 last season. For 2018, Sunday Ticket Max will increase by $18.00 to $395.95.

 

DirecTV has confirmed the increase on its website. But for those who remember when the package used to cost $99 for the entire regular season, paying almost $400 for the NFL is a hard pill to swallow.

 

With DirecTV holding the rights to Sunday Ticket into the next decade, there’s no incentive for the company to lower its price. But this isn’t just for the NFL. The hike for Sunday Ticket also reflects a similar increase for all of DirecTV’s programming tiers.

 

While DirecTV is in the midst of hiking costs across the board, the increase for its high-profile NFL Sunday Ticket package is going to be rather painful. The satellite provider is obviously hoping that football fans will be willing to pay the price to watch out-of-market NFL games.

 

 

FREE AGENT LINEMEN

Michael Renner of ProFootballFocus.com has a shopping list of free agent offensive linemen:

 

After watching the Eagles offensive line dominate the Pats front on their way to a Super Bowl win, front offices around the league will assuredly prioritize the big fellas in free agency this spring. It’s not an incredibly strong class on the whole, but there are five legit plug-and-play starters to be had. Let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of each.

 

TACKLE

Nate Solder

The only tackle with anything close to a competent grade hitting free agency this offseason, Solder can basically name his price with how tackle needy the league is. Throughout his career, the Patriots left tackle has been the definition of solid – grading above 70.0 for every single season of his career. Reliability is the best ability for an offensive tackle and Solder certainly offers that.

 

He’s coming off arguably the worst season of his entire career though. Solder allowed a career high 51 total pressures, including seven in one game against the Chargers. His 83.2 run-blocking grade was still one of the best figures in the league though, and at only 29 years old it’s unlikely he’s already on the downslope of his career. Expect the line for his services to be long if the Pats allow him to make it to free agency.

 

GUARD

Andrew Norwell

The cream of the offensive line crop, Norwell is coming off a season in which he was named a PFF All-Pro left guard. He was the only starting offensive lineman in the NFL last year to not allow a single sack or hit all season, while his 13 total hurries allowed were the second-best figure of any guard in the league. While guard may not be as premium a pass protection position as tackle, that kind of performance will have franchises quarterbacks around the league begging their GMs to sign him.

 

Oh, and he’s pretty good as a run blocker too. His 83.4 run-blocking grade was eighth best among guards, and that wasn’t even his career high in that regard. He graded out better as a run blocker each of the last two years with an 84.1 run-blocking grade in 2016 and 87.6 in 2015. The former undrafted free agent has nothing more to prove and the only question mark left for him is how much he’s going to get paid this offseason.

 

Justin Pugh

At one point, Pugh looked on his way to becoming one of the league’s elite guards, but injuries and position switches took their toll the past two seasons. He only managed 1,186 snaps over the past two years, with 2017 being the lowest-graded season of his entire career. That’s concerning, as he also comes with a back injury that hampered him throughout this past season.

 

While Pugh played right tackle his first two seasons in the league and for 308 snaps this past season, it’s likely teams will still try to sign him as a guard where his best seasons occurred. In 2015, Pugh’s 84.5 overall grade was 10th-best among all guards in the NFL. He followed that up with an 81.2 overall grade in 2016, but he was clearly a different player after a sprained knee sidelined him for five weeks in the middle of that season. The injury red flags are obvious, but when fully healthy Pugh is an impact starter.

 

Jack Mewhort

While the Colts offense line as a whole has been sup-par for entirety of Andrew Luck’s career, Mewhort has been a consistent bright spot. That was, until a recurring knee injury has landed him on injured reserve each of the last two seasons. Mewhort has been limited to fewer snaps (979) than even Pugh since 2015 and has seen a similar dip in performance battling through them. Mewhort had a career high 84.1 overall grade in 2015, but has been trending the wrong way since. He followed it up with a 79.1 in 2016 and now is coming off a 46.1 in 2017. The money Mewhort gets in free agency will almost entirely come down to his medical evaluation and he’s a strong candidate for a one-year ‘prove it’ deal to show he can be the same player he once was.

 

CENTER

Weston Richburg

Richburg’s story isn’t all too dissimilar from his linemate Justin Pugh’s. After earning an 86.5 overall grade (third best among centers) in his second season in the NFL (2015), Richburg has been unable to replicate that performance since. He too is coming off a season that ended with him on injured reserve after suffering a concussion in Week 4.

 

At his best though, he’s arguably the top pass-protecting center in the NFL. He allowed 23 total pressures over the course of the 2015 and 2016 seasons, with only two of those resulting in sacks. He’s been more inconsistent as a run blocker, but much of that stems from his aggressiveness, where he often trades some ugly losses for dominant blocks. When at the top of his game, he’s one of the most scheme diverse and talented centers in the league.

 

 

2018 DRAFT

Bill Polian says that LAMAR JACKSON, who won a Heisman Trophy as a QB, needs to change positions:

 

Lamar Jackson won the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore in 2016 at Louisville, quickly skyrocketing him as one of the top quarterback prospects for the 2018 NFL Draft. He had a star-studded college career, as he took college football by storm.

 

On ESPN’s Golic and Wingo Monday morning, Bill Polian said that he thinks Jackson is a wide receiver in the NFL, and not a quarterback:

 

“I think wide receiver,” Polian said. “Exceptional athelete, exceptional ability to make you miss, exceptional acceleration, exceptional instinct with the ball in his hand and that’s rare for wide receivers. That’s AB, and who else? Name me another one, Julio’s not even like that.”

 

Polian added, “Clearly, clearly not the thrower that the other guys are. The accuracy isn’t there.”

 

He also called Jackson “short and slight” which seems quite off — considering Jackson is 6’3, and 211 pounds.

 

It’s not the first time Polian has said this.

 

In an appearance with ESPN Los Angeles in September, Polian said that Jackson would have to play receiver:

 

“I don’t think that Lamar, the Louisville kid’s in that discussion, in fact there’s a question that he may be, he might be a receiver.”

 

[loud yelling from the hosts, including “are you kidding me?”]

 

“No, I’m not kidding you. And that has to do with girth and skill set as well.”

 

Later on, after discussing the other quarterbacks, LZ Granderson brought up Drew Brees’ size (Brees is actually much shorter than Jackson, who is listed at 6’3″ and a slender–by QB standards–211 pounds). Polian responded, “Different guy, different guy.”

 

“You hurting me, Bill,” Keyshawn Johnson then added, “because I think he’s a NFL quarterback.”

 

“I’m not saying he isn’t, I just don’t think he’s in the class of the other three,” Polian said in response.

 

“The other three” that Polian is referring to are Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, and Josh Allen — all considered to be top-10 picks in the upcoming draft.

 

Polian is wrong about Jackson.

While they’re good quarterbacks, it’s a joke to act like Jackson should just give up playing quarterback. He won a Heisman doing so, after all.

 

Jackson wasn’t an elite passer, but he was one of the better ones in college football. He finished in the top 30 nationally in passer rating (out of 130 FBS teams).

 

SB Nation’s Alex Kirshner explains that while Jackson is assumed to be the worst passer among his peers, that’s not the case at all:

 

Jackson’s career passer rating at Louisville was 142.9, but he was between 146 and 149 in his sophomore and junior seasons, before declaring for the draft. That’s better college pass efficiency than Wyoming’s Josh Allen (137.7) and UCLA’s Josh Rosen (140.1). It’s a whisker behind USC’s Sam Darnold (153.7). Among potential first-round QBs, only Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield (175.4) and Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph (159.7) were significantly better college passers than Jackson.

 

Among Allen, Darnold, Rosen, and even Baker Mayfield, Jackson had the highest percentage of his passes dropped, with 12.04 percent. That’s nearly double that of Darnold

– – –

Despite all these numbers, nobody is suggesting that the other quarterbacks should move to wide receiver. Odd.

 

Even Michael Vick said Jackson is the real deal.

 

“If I’ve ever seen another guy that looks like me, it’s been Lamar Jackson,” Vick told the Courier-Journal of Louisville.

 

“I said that because he made it look so easy,” Vick said. “Maybe I made it look easy, too, but now I’m on the other side and have the chance to watch younger guys. … I just gave him a lot of credit, and I wouldn’t say it was more credit than he deserved because he deserves a lot, but at the same time it was coming from a guy who revolutionized the position, so to speak.”

 

Both Vick and Jackson were excellent in the ground game. But Jackson’s got Vick by a mile when it comes to passing at the collegiate ranks.

 

In his two full seasons as a starter, Vick completed 56 percent of his passes for 3,299 yards, 21 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. In his two seasons, Jackson completed 57.7 of his passes for 7,203 yards, 57 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions.

 

Vick ended up playing 13 NFL seasons at quarterback — so you might imagine that Jackson could squeeze out some seasons at the position as well.

 

This isn’t anything new, and the discussion will continue.

 

The spotlight will remain on Allen, Darnold, and Rosen leading up to the draft. But because of how amazing he was on the football field, and his eventual NFL Combine performance, we’re going to have to have a discussion about Jackson.

 

Nobody really knows if Jackson or any of these other quarterbacks are going to be good in the NFL. But to say that Jackson can’t throw is lazy analysis at best.