The Daily Briefing Tuesday, March 20, 2018

AROUND THE NFL 

ESPN.com’s experts weigh in on the most improved teams in free agency:

 

Which team is the most improved after the first wave of free agency?

 

Dan Graziano, national NFL writer: New York Jets. They landed the biggest prize on the free-agent cornerback market in Trumaine Johnson. They added Avery Williamson as a leader for the linebacker corps. They added Isaiah Crowell to their running back group. All upgrades. Now, to the matter of quarterback: Josh McCown isn’t an improvement because he was already there. But the Jets’ overall plan at the position is improved, as Teddy Bridgewater has more upside than anyone else the Jets had on last year’s roster, and trading up to the No. 3 pick in the draft means they’re likely to add someone else who does, as well.

 

KC Joyner, NFL writer: Houston Texans. The Texans ranked 29th in my blocking grades last season. They aimed to help solve this by signing three offensive linemen, the most valuable of which could be the highly versatile Senio Kelemete. They also added Tyrann Mathieu, who can play slot, outside cornerback or either safety position or even fill in as a speedy box linebacker.

 

Mike Sando, senior NFL writer: Cleveland Browns. They had lots of room for improvement and should realize upgrades from multiple newcomers, especially at QB, which offsets Joe Thomas’ retirement. However, NFL rosters are a little worse on the whole because so many depth players remain unsigned (free agents who have been added were signed at premium prices).

 

Aaron Schatz, editor-in-chief of Football Outsiders: San Francisco 49ers. Richard Sherman should still be one of the top cornerbacks in the league if he’s fully healed from his Achilles injury, and is a big improvement for a pass defense that was 28th in DVOA last season. Weston Richburg is a nice improvement in the middle of the offensive line, although I might have kept Daniel Kilgore around at guard instead of dealing him away afterward. Jerick McKinnon’s flexibility and ability to catch passes will help him play a role similar to the running backs Kyle Shanahan had when he was in Atlanta.

 

Field Yates, NFL Insider: Chicago Bears. It was sometimes painful to watch the Bears’ offense last season without any weapons and perpetually struggling. Adding Allen Robinson on a three-year contract along with the signing of versatile and talented tight end Trey Burton should bring a smile to the faces of new coach Matt Nagy and second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Whether it comes to fruition on the field or not, expect an offseason worth of parallels drawn between Nagy’s relationship with Trubisky and Rams coach Sean McVay’s relationship with quarterback Jared Goff.

 

NFC NORTH

 

DETROIT

The Lions with an interesting signing in RB LeGARRETTE BLOUNT, a Super Bowl winner in each of the last two seasons. Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Running back LeGarrette Blount didn’t take nearly as long to find a team in 2018 as he did in 2017.

 

Blount had to wait around a while before signing with the Eagles last year, but he became a member of the Lions before the first week of free agency came to an end. His success with the Patriots and Eagles in the last two years had a lot to do with that and so did his relationship with Lions head coach Matt Patricia.

 

The two men know each other from New England and Blount said “there’s a lot less pressure” involved in coming to a team when you’re already familiar with how the coach likes things done.

 

“My relationship with Matt has always been a great one,” Blount said, via the team’s website. “Even though he was on the defensive side of the ball … anytime I ever saw him in any part of the building, whether it was just walking by in the hall or in the cafeteria or practice or whatever the circumstance may be, anytime he walked past or anytime we were around each other, it was always laughs and jokes. Obviously, we get serious when it’s time to do the job, but for the most part we laughed and joked and clowned around and we enjoyed each other, and it got to a point where we had gotten really close.”

 

Whatever led to Blount’s decision, the Lions are happy to have a back on board who can help them improve on last year’s 32nd-ranked rushing attack. Now they just need to figure out how Theo Riddick, Ameer Abdullah and the other backs on the roster fit in around Blount come the regular season.

 

Here is Bill Barnwell’s take:

 

RB LeGarrette Blount, Lions

Grade: C

 

Blount proved that he could play for someone besides Bill Belichick last season, serving as part of an effective running back rotation for the Eagles en route to their Super Bowl win. The group as a whole moved the football well, but in comparing Blount to his backfield mates, he wasn’t all that effective:

 

RUSHER           ATTS    WP       EP

L. Blount           173       -0.01     -16.20

C. Clement        74         0.40      2.82

J. Ajayi              70        0.03      5.13

W. Smallwood   47         0.03      -6.90

 

ESPN’s win expectancy and expected point metrics basically say Blount was an anonymous back in 2017. You figure Blount was supposed to serve as a hammer near the goal line, a logical role given that he scored 18 touchdowns for the Patriots in 2016, but he was among the worst goal-line backs in football last season. Blount carried the ball 12 times inside the 5-yard line and scored just once, the worst ratio in the league for any back with five tries or more. The other Philly running backs scored on four of their seven attempts.

 

Twelve carries isn’t enough to base a meaningful sample on, so I’m not suggesting that Blount is a terrible goal-line back, but just that he had an ugly season as the hammer in 2017. Before 2017, Blount had converted 42.4 percent of his 66 goal-line carries into scores, which was narrowly above the league average of 38.4 percent. Blount also offers virtually nothing as a receiver and was on the field for just 15 third-down snaps as a pass protector, so all of his value is tied up in what he does with the ball in his hands as a runner.

 

Given that Blount had to wait until May to sign a one-year, $1.2 million deal with the Eagles last year, it’s a bit of a surprise that the 31-year-old got a raise to a sign a one-year, $2 million deal with the Lions that could rise to $4.5 million with incentives. Blount should be an upgrade on Ameer Abdullah in short-yardage situations, but his role on a team that loves to throw the ball and create mismatches with its backs in the passing game is murky beyond that.

 

 

MINNESOTA

Mike Sando of ESPN.com is already worried about how much someone will pay KIRK COUSINS in 2021.

 

Kirk Cousins’ new contract with the Minnesota Vikings pushed top annual NFL quarterback salaries ever closer to the $30 million mark. Baseball has its $30 million men in pitchers Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, David Price and Max Scherzer, along with Jose Altuve and Miguel Cabrera. The NBA’s $30 million club features LeBron James.

 

A look ahead to the NFL quarterback market awaiting Cousins upon the conclusion of his landmark three-year, $84 million deal shows a path for him to surpass $35 million average per year (APY) with a few assists from his peers. It’s no guarantee, but here’s how it could happen in a reconfigured 2021 quarterback landscape, as seen through the eyes of league insiders.

 

Here are five keys to making it happen:

 

1. Matt Ryan does not follow in Drew Brees’ footsteps

Ryan is entering the final year of his deal with the Atlanta Falcons and would ideally sign a new one before training camp. Team owner Arthur Blank said during Super Bowl week that he’d like to see Ryan take a team-friendly contract. Drew Brees of the division rival New Orleans Saints accepted such a deal last week, giving the Saints additional resources to pursue their championship plans. Tom Brady has operated similarly. The mindset Ryan takes into his negotiations will affect how much the $28.1 million APY benchmark increases.

 

“If [agent] Tom Condon is in charge, Ryan will come in over 30,” a league insider predicted. “If Ryan does his own deal the way Drew Brees just did his own deal, then he comes in over Kirk Cousins. The team could say, ‘Hey, Jimmy Garoppolo came in at $27.5 million and Kirk Cousins came in at $28 million, so we will go to $28.5 [million], you’ll be the top guy and you’ll be set for life, but we can add players.’ “

 

Ideally for other quarterbacks, Ryan would lift the market into the low 30s this summer, allowing Rodgers to operate from an elevated platform when he renegotiates the $22 million-per-year deal he signed in 2013. That deal was the NFL’s APY king for three years until Joe Flacco signed for $22.1 million annually in 2016.

 

2. The salary cap continues increasing by roughly $10 million per year

Insiders expect that to happen as TV money continues to flow for the remainder of this collective bargaining agreement. Cap increases were smaller earlier in this CBA, but the back-loaded structuring has kicked into gear. Continued increases in the cap can fuel increases in spending, especially for the best players.

 

“I think $35 million is where the quarterback market is headed, and if the cap grows more, then maybe $40 million,” an insider said. “Everyone says there is no middle class in the NFL. I would argue that in free agency, all these guys are middle-class players. Even Kirk Cousins is a middle-class quarterback, and he is getting paid at the top.”

 

The current labor agreement runs through 2020, making 2021 an uncapped year for now. Insiders did not think the uncapped year would prevent quarterbacks from signing long-term contracts as the uncapped year draws nearer. Eli Manning and Philip Rivers both signed six-year extensions in the summer of 2009, ahead of the uncapped 2010 season.

 

3. Rodgers resets the top of the market with a monster deal

The Packers’ future Hall of Fame quarterback is signed through the 2019 season. He will turn 35 in December and is coming off his second serious injury since turning 30. Green Bay could, in theory, play a waiting game with Aaron Rodgers over the next couple of seasons, with the threat of the franchise tag looming. But new general manager Brian Gutenkunst said during the scouting combine in February that the team would prefer to get a deal done sooner rather than later. Why alienate one of the greatest players in the game?

 

If Rodgers were an unrestricted free agent, as Cousins was this offseason, teams would be lining up with blank checks. A contract running through 2019 and the threat of the franchise tag thereafter works against Rodgers in that regard, but his current deal could work for him in other ways. The deal Rodgers signed in 2013 carried a $22 million APY that was 17.9 percent of the $123 million cap for that season. The same percentage of the 2018 cap would equate to a $31.7 million APY. The figure would be $33.4 million for 2019 if the cap increased by $10 million.

 

“If you are Matt Ryan or Aaron Rodgers, you may not be able to do a fully guaranteed deal, but what about a deal where the APY works out to 16-18 percent of the cap over the life of the deal, or whatever the number is?” an insider said. “The hard part is that the franchise tag is there. It took a guy [Cousins] to get to the marketplace to get a fully guaranteed deal.”

 

Cousins’ APY represents nearly 16 percent of the $177 million cap for 2018, which is highest in the league right now. Garoppolo and Matthew Stafford are above 15 percent, while Derek Carr, Brees and Andrew Luck are near 14 percent. Those quarterbacks did their deals in the recent past, and all but the team-accommodating Brees became the NFL’s highest-paid player by APY at the time of signing. Rodgers could shoot for a higher percentage based on performance and precedent.

 

4. Jared Goff, Carson Wentz and/or Dak Prescott play really well and enjoy team success, too

The CBA prevents rookies from signing second contracts until they’ve completed three seasons. Goff, Wentz and Prescott will be eligible for new deals after the 2018 regular season. Their teams might prefer for them to play deeper into their team-friendly rookie contracts. For Goff and Wentz, those deals include fifth-year team options for 2020.

 

The better those three play and the greater success their teams enjoy, the better position they’ll be in to move the market when their times arrive. If Goff, Wentz or Prescott stagnate the way 2015 first-round picks Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota have stagnated, their chances for affecting the market will diminish.

 

Some other young quarterbacks also could factor along the way. Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes and Mitchell Trubisky will be eligible for new deals after the 2019 season. The 2018 quarterback draft class will be eligible for new contracts after the 2020 season, just as Cousins will be completing his current deal. Cam Newton is signed through 2020 and also could factor.

 

Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Manning, Rivers, Tom Brady and Brees are among the veteran quarterbacks signed through 2019. All signed extensions after Rodgers’ deal set the APY bar at $22 million in 2013, but of the six, only Brees set the bar higher.

 

5. Cousins plays well and enjoys team success with Minnesota

If Cousins can help the Vikings reach a Super Bowl, he will be well on his way to commanding another top-of-the-market deal when his current contract runs its course. He might even be in position to do so as an unrestricted free agent, given that using the franchise tag to restrict him would require the Vikings to make one-year commitment exceeding $40 million.

 

But if expectations in Minnesota go unmet, Cousins could wind up watching someone else sign for $35 million a year. Whoever reaches that milestone will do more than set the standard for NFL players. He’ll earn more in one season than the $34,608,000 each NFL team was allotted for its entire roster when the first salary cap went into effect for the 1994 season.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

TAMPA BAY

Hard-grading Bill Barnwell of ESPN.com is okay with the signing of DE VINNY CURRY:

 

DE Vinny Curry, Buccaneers

Grade: B-

Stigmatized as the one defensive lineman in football the Eagles don’t want to keep on their roster, the productive Curry was underrated by traditional metrics last season. He had only three sacks, but he tied Chris Long for the team lead with 18 quarterback knockdowns, which are usually a better predictor of future sacks than sacks themselves. (A pass-rusher with 18 knockdowns will usually generate about eight sacks.) The concerning thing, perhaps, is that Curry has a track record of underperforming those totals; while he racked up nine sacks on 11 knockdowns in 2014, the Marshall product has turned 45 knockdowns into only nine sacks over the three ensuing seasons.

 

Bucs general manager Jason Licht has a long history of negotiating contracts that keep his team’s cap clean and not drafting edge rushers, so Curry should be no exception to those rules. The three-year, $27 million deal Curry signed has $11.5 million guaranteed, and it wouldn’t be shocking if all of that came due in Year 1 of the deal. Tampa desperately needed edge rushing help, so even if Curry produces a season like the one we saw last season, he would represent a much-needed piece of the puzzle for Tampa

 

AFC WEST

 

THE RAIDERS

QB JOSH JOHNSON, the poor man’s Colin Kaepernick, gets another chance.

 

The Oakland Raiders have signed unrestricted free agent QB Josh Johnson, the club announced Monday.

 

Johnson was originally drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the fifth round (160th overall) of the 2008 NFL Draft and has since spent time with 10 NFL teams over his 10-year career.

 

Back with the coach that drafted him, now in the city he was born in.

 

 

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

Former Dolphins C MIKE POUNCEY has a two-year deal with the Chargers, said to be worth $15 million by NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.

 

AFC NORTH

 

PITTSBURGH

A former teammate says S MORGAN BURNETT will be a Steeler to the amusement of Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Former NFL receiver James Jones got one step ahead of the five-minute-head’s-up information robots as to the destination of former Packers teammates Jordy Nelson. Jones is at it again with former Packers teammate Morgan Burnett.

 

Jones, citing an unnamed source (surely Burnett), says Burnett will fly to Pittsburgh on Tuesday morning to finalize a deal with the Steelers.

 

Burnett, 29, has spent eight years with the Packers, and he has been a full-time starter for the last seven of them. The Steelers need help at the position after dumping veteran Mike Mitchell last week.

 

So stay tuned for something official. And stay glued to Jones’ Twitter page for the inevitable scoop regarding Aaron Rodgers‘ next contract.

 

AFC SOUTH

 

INDIANAPOLIS

The Colts have inked TE ERIC EBRON, whose tenure in Detroit is remembered by Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press:

 

Eric Ebron has a new home.

 

Less than a week after being released by the Detroit Lions in a cap-saving move, Ebron signed with the Indianapolis Colts, the Colts announced Monday night.

 

Ebron caught 186 passes in 56 career games, but was one of the most polarizing players on the Lions the last four seasons. He regularly ranked among the league leaders in drops, and was often jeered by home fans who took issue with his brash personality and inconsistent play.

 

The Eric Ebron era is over, so what comes next for Lions?

 

“I really have nothing to put in perspective on what happened there,” Ebron, via the Indy Star, said in a conference call with Indianapolis reporters when asked about his time in Detroit. “I’m on a totally different team and I have nothing to say about the organization. I’m really thankful for them blessing me with an opportunity to play. But I really have nothing to say about the organization.”

 

On Instagram, Ebron posted a picture of himself posing behind a Colts helmet and wrote, “I haven’t smiled like this in a long time. Me and my family can’t wait!”

 

The 10th pick of the 2014 NFL draft, Ebron was taken ahead of Pro Bowlers Odell Beckham Jr. and Aaron Donald, among others, and never lived his draft position down in Detroit.

 

He was a part-time starter as a rookie and showed modest improvement over his first three seasons, before reverting back to a part-time role last fall.

 

The Lions exercised the fifth-year option on Ebron’s rookie contract last spring at the cost of $8.25 million, but ultimately found that price tag too expensive this month.

 

Ebron was the focal point of trade talks both last October and in recent weeks, but when the Lions couldn’t find a taker for his salary, they decided to release him rather than guarantee his deal.

 

According to ESPN, Ebron’s two-year contract with the Colts is worth a maximum of $15 million.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

CHEAP QB? HIGHER VETS

Kevin Clark of The Ringer says teams are going all in on veterans when they have a talented QB stuck on his rookie contract.

 

An elite quarterback on a cheap rookie deal is the best team-building gift in the history of football. The second-best is an elite quarterback who will play at a discount, like Tom Brady. The third-best is an elite quarterback at the market rate. All of these options are, of course, better than having a bad quarterback. But the inflating cap has made this first group—the cheapest quarterbacks who still win games—more important than ever. The salary cap has been rising by nearly $10 million each year since 2013, but rookie quarterbacks have remained cheap since the 2011 CBA changed the rookie pay scale. Sam Bradford, the last quarterback on the old pay scale, received a $78 million deal with $50 million guaranteed in 2010, while last year’s top quarterback, Mitchell Trubisky, signed a four-year, fully-guaranteed $29 million deal.

 

As NFL analytics guru Warren Sharp pointed out, three of the past six Super Bowls were won by teams who had quarterbacks on their rookie contracts. This is somewhat surprising given how older veterans at the position (Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Ben Roethlisberger among others) have rewritten record books over that span. This does not mean a team cannot win with a pricey veteran quarterback; the Saints and Falcons have built good teams while paying their quarterback plenty. No, it just means that when you have a good quarterback under a rookie contract, you can stack so much talent that your chances for competing will basically never be higher than before your signal-caller signs his second contract.

 

Think of the Seahawks, who never paid a single player more than 8.6 percent of the salary cap from 2012 to 2015, while Russell Wilson was on his rookie deal. Wilson is one of the best passers in the game, and he could absolutely lead another team to the Super Bowl even at his current salary ($23.7 million against the cap), but it certainly hampers Seattle’s ability to build a talented roster around him when he’s accounting for 14.9 percent of the cap, like he is this year. No team whose top two players account for more than 21.5 percent of the cap has won the Super Bowl.

 

Look at some of the big moves by teams in the situation the Seahawks used to be in, and you’ll see teams attempting to maximize their windows while they have cheap quarterbacks.

 

Start with the defending champs. The Eagles’ cap was almost stunningly well-managed. No player accounted for more than 6.23 percent of the salary cap. With Carson Wentz playing like an MVP while still on his rookie deal, they used that extra money to either extend or sign veterans. The 2016 preseason trade of a pricey Sam Bradford to the Vikings left a huge hole in the cap, space that general manager Howie Roseman used to sign wideout Alshon Jeffery, who’s now one of the team’s best players.

 

Elsewhere, the Los Angeles Rams are building an all-world secondary by trading for both Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters this offseason, and they’re able to do so because of Jared Goff’s 199th-ranked salary-cap hit among all NFL players. (Wentz is 209th.) In January, I wrote about the rising cap’s massive impact on team-building. In short, any team can find a way to fit nearly anyone under the cap because there’s so much money being pumped into the cap every year due to rising revenues across the league. One of the most interesting quotes came from Rams general manager Les Snead:

 

“Nowadays, I don’t ever remember thinking, ‘Uh-oh, we’re up against the books here.’ Now, it’s more of a strategy. ‘If we keep this guy, what does it keep us from doing?’ It’s not, ‘Hey, we’ve gotta do some things just to get legal.’ I think that’s what has allowed you to make, let’s call it ‘strategic football decisions.’”

 

The cap and Goff’s contract have allowed the Rams to assemble a collection of players on the defensive side of the ball that could be the league’s best unit. The combination of factors have also led to an arms race across the league. The Eagles, still reaping the rewards of their cheap quarterback deal, have added Michael Bennett. The Tennessee Titans, who have Marcus Mariota on his rookie deal, have added Malcolm Butler and have Ndamukong Suh coming in for a visit.

 

The Chicago Bears have, apparently, also learned that they might have a short window. Over the past week, they have assembled a nice group of weapons for Trubisky—including Allen Robinson (perhaps the top wide receiver available in free agency), Taylor Gabriel (a speedy wideout), and Trey Burton (an under-the-radar athlete at tight end). There’s no guarantee all of these moves will work or that Trubisky is the guy to make them work. But there is no downside to bringing Robinson in, as Trubisky won’t count more than $10 million against the cap until 2021 at the earliest. The worst-case scenario—that Trubisky never puts it together, and these weapons are wasted—isn’t even that bad. Teams structure deals so that they can get out of them after two years and the next GM can retool the team. If Trubisky can play, then the Bears have begun to maximize their window.

 

The Chiefs are another example. With 2017 first-rounder Patrick Mahomes II about to take over for the traded Alex Smith, they added Sammy Watkins at a massive $48 million price tag.

 

If you have a cheap quarterback, there is no reason not to go all in if you feel the right players are available, since the cap allows for plenty of mistakes. Patience is for teams without a passer.

 

It would not, on the surface, even be such a terrible idea to spend $20 million to $30 million on three quarterbacks, as the Jets may do if they draft a quarterback in the first round and match him up with the already-signed Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater. It’s essentially the same as paying an already-established quarterback, but you’ve tripled your chances of finding great production in a given year. However, there’s a structural problem: There are simply not enough practice reps to go around. It’s the same issue the Eagles faced with backup Nick Foles, until they got to the playoffs, earned a bye week, and essentially ran another weeklong training camp before the divisional round.

 

Quarterbacks deserve to get paid, and they do. Cousins revealed Thursday that he’s been talking to his agent about achieving a fully guaranteed deal for more than two years. There will likely never be a time a team walks away from a great quarterback in favor of keeping quarterback costs low; paying for quality at that position is simply the cost of doing business. But while you have an inexpensive quarterback, there’s no excuse for not taking advantage of the extra roster-building resources. One way or another, you’ll eventually pay the price.

 

 

BROADCAST NEWS

Michael McCarthy of The Sporting News on the imminent decision of Peyton Manning to join FOX Sports – or not:

 

It’s decision time for Peyton Manning.

 

The former NFL star will likely decide this week whether he’ll call “Thursday Night Football” on Fox Sports this season, say sources.

 

MORE: Cavs coach Tyronn Lue steps away from job over health concerns

 

Manning, the two-time Super Bowl winner with the Broncos and Colts, had a “soft” deadline last Friday on whether he’ll move to TV the way fellow quarterback Tony Romo did with CBS Sports last season, said sources.

 

It’s been a delicate mating dance between Fox and the 41-year old Manning. The most sought-after free agent in sports TV has to decide whether he wants to hold out for an opportunity to own/manage an NFL franchise the way John Elway has with the Broncos or join the long list of star QB’s who’ve moved to the broadcast booth, including Troy Aikman and Terry Bradshaw at Fox and Romo and Dan Fouts at CBS.

 

Fox executives pitched Manning when he drove the honorary pace car during their telecast of the Daytona 500 in February. They were encouraged when Manning passed on ESPN’s offer to succeed Jon Gruden as game analyst for “Monday Night Football.”

 

Said a source: “Thursday is more appealing [to Manning]. It’s only 11 weeks . It should have a better game schedule than Monday Night Football. It leaves his weekends free too — which is important.”

 

Fox and Manning’s representatives declined to comment. Manning is represented by super-agent Sandy Montag.

 

Fox and ESPN are willing to pay Manning $10 million or more a year, said sources. That’s an unheard of sum for an NFL game analyst (Gruden made $6.5 million as ESPN’s highest-paid employee).

 

But with NFL viewership falling nearly 20% over the past two seasons, Manning is viewed as a game changer.

 

The five-time NFL MVP was the league’s most popular player during his career. With his multiple endorsements and “Saturday Night Live” appearances, Manning would appeal to both advertisers on Madison Avenue and viewers.

 

“Peyton is worth every penny. Advertisers love him — and the league wants this to happen,” said another source.

 

With Manning’s vast knowledge of football and penchant for film study, network executives are hoping he is getting bored with retirement.

 

His new life has been filled with charity events, such as singing with country music star Thomas Rhett last week in Indianapolis, and ceremonial appearances like Daytona. He sold his stake in 31 Papa John’s restaurants in the Denver area just two days before the league dropped the brand as its official pizza sponsor.

 

Fox and ESPN can’t hire play-by-play announcers for TNF and MNF until Manning makes his decision. Why? Because No. 18 will have veto power over who he works with in the broadcast booth, said sources.

 

That’s why ESPN hasn’t announced the successor to former MNF play-by-play announcer Sean McDonough. Even though the New York Post reports Joe Tessitore is expected to get the job.

 

If Manning stays retired, Fox is pursuing Cowboys tight end Jason Witten as Plan B, say sources.

 

The 35-year old Witten could be another Romo, say sources. He has the same direct-from-the-huddle knowledge of today’s game and TV-friendly personality. Like Romo, he’d have a built-in fan base of Cowboys fans across the country. With America’s Team constantly featured in the best broadcast windows, Witten is a household name after 15 seasons in the league.

 

On the other hand, Witten won’t make as much in the booth as he can on the field. Under his current deal, he averages $7.4 million annually, according to Spotrac.com . Unlike the oft-injured Romo, Witten is still at the top of his game. He’s coming off his 11th Pro Bowl season and has played 239 straight games for the Cowboys. Jerry Jones gave him a four-year contract extension in 2017.

 

That could leave Joe Thomas, the just-retired Browns offensive lineman. Or another star tight end: Greg Olsen of Panthers.

 

Sporting News  previously reported Olsen was interested in TV gig. During his bye week in November, Olsen called a game on Fox with Kevin Bukhardt, Charles Davis and Pam Oliver. He was also part of ESPN’s Super Bowl coverage.

 

If Witten and Olsen both return to the playing field in 2018, “Thomas could be the last man standing,” said a source.

 

The DB hears that if Manning does go to FOX, he may be bringing a play-by-play guy with him.

 

 

BEST FREE AGENT DEALS

 

Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com looks at the best free agent deals – from a team’s perspective:

 

Drew Brees, Saints quarterback: The Saints’ front office was vulnerable — and Brees chose not to make them pay. Instead, he settled for $27 million guaranteed on a two-year, $50 million contract. That’s an incredible bargain when a clearly inferior option to Brees like Kirk Cousins was worth $84 million guaranteed. The Saints quickly dropped some of the leftover guap on veteran defenders like linebacker Demario Davis, defensive end Alex Okafor and slot cornerback Patrick Robinson in an effort to win another title during Brees’ infinite peak.

 

Michael Crabtree, Ravens receiver: It’s safe to say John Harbaugh had an in-depth scouting report on Crabtree after his brother coached him in San Francisco. Still only 30 years old, Crabtree has proven time and again he’s at his best on money downs, with 25 touchdowns over the last three seasons.

 

Crabtree’s three-year, $21 million pact ultimately came in with less guaranteed money ($11 million) or average per-year salary than other far less proven free agents, like Paul Richardson ($20 million guaranteed and $8 million per year from the Redskins), Marqise Lee ($18 million guaranteed and $9.5 million per year from the Jaguars) and Albert Wilson ($8 million per year from the Dolphins), received. The Ravens essentially gave Crabtree the money that was ticketed for former Redskins receiver Ryan Grant before Grant failed his physical with the Ravens. No matter what happened with Grant, it’s fair to call the Ravens lucky for how it all shook out. An average season from Crabtree is similar to Grant’s entire career production.

 

Sheldon Richardson and Tyrann Mathieu, Vikings defensive tackle and Texans safety: Prove-it deals are the new inefficiency. With the market not ready to hand Richardson or Mathieu the guaranteed money they desired, both players settled for one-year contracts that can be wins for all parties.

 

Richardson will earn $8 million to play on one of the most intimidating defensive lines in football, a championship contender that figures to bathe in prime-time lights. If he can’t earn a huge long-term contract from a year in Minnesota, it’s not going to happen.

 

The Honey Badger’s market didn’t develop as hoped, perhaps because of concerns as to whether he has fully regained his explosiveness after ACL surgeries. Mathieu’s one-year deal with Houston gives him a chance to prove he can still cover wideouts in the slot. It also gives the Texans a jump on signing him to a long-term deal if he proves front offices around the league wrong once again. As proved to be the case with 2017 free agents Alshon Jeffery (who signed a four-year extension with the Eagles after landing there on a one-year deal) and Dontari Poe (who parlayed his one-year deal with the Falcons into a three-year pact with the Panthers) a year ago, these one-year deals could just be the beginning for Richardson and Mathieu.

 

Teddy Bridgewater, Jets quarterback: New York general manager Mike Maccagnan got all upside and no risk with this deal. Bridgewater only received $500,000 guaranteed on what amounts to a one-year, $6 million contract. It was essentially an insurance policy that already looks unnecessary after the Jets traded up to the No. 3 pick in the draft. If Bridgewater wows the Jets in practice, great. But if the Jets like what they see out of the rookie quarterback they presumably select in April, Bridgewater could wind up getting flipped for a late-round draft pick in August.

 

Dion Lewis, Titans running back: Twenty million dollars sounds like a lot for an injury-prone player — before you examine the details. In reality, the Titans only guaranteed Lewis’ $5.75 million 2018 compensation. That’s half as much as a similar — arguably inferior — player, Jerick McKinnon, will earn this year from the 49ers.

 

More importantly, Lewis landed on a team that should have more than money for him. It has a plan. New offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur will create mismatches with Lewis, just like LaFleur’s coaching mentors Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay have done for pass-catching backs. Incumbent Derrick Henry can handle many of the Titans’ inside carries, providing Lewis a better chance to reach the later years in the contract.

 

Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Jaguars tight end: It’s rare to find a 25-year-old in free agency with a Pro Bowl ceiling, but that’s what Seferian-Jenkins represents for the Jaguars at the cost of $10 million over two seasons. After losing wideout Allen Robinson in free agency, the Jags’ front office rebounded well by furnishing Blake Bortles with fine low-cost pass catchers like Seferian-Jenkins and Donte Moncrief.

 

Julius Peppers, Panthers defensive end: I included him on this list last season when he took a one-year, $3.75 million deal. Peppers responded by notching 11 sacks in only 531 snaps. Peppers’ return on another one-year contract is a victory for all football fans and a Panthers front office that wasn’t going to find cheaper pass-rush skills anywhere in free agency.

 

Marcus Peters, Rams cornerback: Peters wasn’t technically signed in free agency, but the rookie contract the trade acquisition is still playing on made him the best value addition of the offseason. For $1.7 million this season and a fifth-year option estimated at $9.5 million a year from now, the Rams picked up Pro Bowl-caliber coverage skills. That two-year total is less than half of what Jets cornerback Trumaine Johnson will make in 2018 alone.

 

 

2018 DRAFT

Bucky Brooks of NFL.com offered up this Mock Draft several days ago, before the Colts trade with the Jets (We like the pick of BAKER MAYFIELD by the Saints, but New Orleans is going to have to go up and get him.  He won’t be there at 27).

 

1 Cleveland

 Sam Darnold – QB, USC

The presence of Tyrod Taylor allows the Browns to take a patient approach with their QB of the future.

 

2 – NY Giants

Quenton Nelson – OG, Notre Dame

New GM Dave Gettleman has already doled out top dollar to shore up the left tackle spot (Nate Solder). He could take care of the interior by using a top pick on the best lineman in the draft.

 

3 – Indianapolis

Saquon Barkley – RB, Penn State

This pick is likely on the auction block, but in this scenario, the Colts decide to give Andrew Luck an explosive backfield mate with a versatile game. Peyton Manning benefited from having Edgerrin James by his side, and Luck could see his game improve with a dynamic RB commanding attention from opponents.

 

4 – Cleveland

Denzel Ward – CB, Ohio State

The Browns could opt for a safety in this spot, but the team really needs to find a No. 1 CB who can lock up the premier pass catchers in the AFC North. Ward’s athleticism and ball skills make him an ideal fit on the island.

 

5 – Denver

Minkah Fitzpatrick – DB, Alabama

Despite needing a long-term solution at quarterback (yes, even after the signing of Case Keenum), the Broncos could fortify their secondary with a Swiss Army Knife-like defender in Fitzpatrick.

 

6 – NY Jets

Josh Rosen – QB, UCLA

Few quarterbacks can handle Broadway’s bright lights and big stage, but Rosen has been viewed as a franchise quarterback prospect since he dotted recruiting lists as a five-star player. The UCLA standout could sit for a year or step on the field as a surprise starter following a strong preseason in an offense that fits his game.

 

7 – Tampa Bay

Bradley Chubb – DE, N.C. State

The Bucs have been searching for a dominant edge rusher since the Simeon Rice years. Chubb fills the void and gives Gerald McCoy a talented complement on the front line.

 

8 – Chicago

Tremaine Edmunds – LB, Virginia Tech

The ultra-athletic Edmunds would team with Leonard Floyd to give the Bears a devastating 1-2 punch off the edge.

 

9 – San Francisco

Derwin James – S, Florida State

The 49ers could use another pack leader on the defensive side of the ball. James is a Kam Chancellor-like enforcer between the hashes.

 

10 – Oakland

Roquan Smith – LB, Georgia

The Raiders need more speed and playmaking ability on the second level of their defense. Smith is a sideline-to-sideline defender with outstanding instincts and awareness.

 

11 – Miami

Vita Vea – DT, Washington

After cutting Ndamukong Suh, the Dolphins could target the big, athletic interior defender as a suitable replacement.

 

12 – Buffalo

Josh Allen – QB, Wyoming

The Bills might have to climb into the top five to get their guy, but in this scenario, Allen falls to them outside of the top 10. The Wyoming standout flashes some Cam Newton-like playmaking skills as an athletic passer with A-plus arm talent. The Bills can use free-agent addition AJ McCarron as a bridge QB.

 

13 – Washington

Mike Hughes – CB, UCF

The loss of Kendall Fuller and potential departure of free-agent Bashaud Breeland is forcing the Redskins to explore the rookie CB market. Hughes is a standout performer with a set of tools that could allow him to develop into a lockdown CB1 as a pro.

 

14 – Green Bay

Marcus Davenport – EDGE, UTSA

Disruptive edge rushers with length, athleticism and sack production are always coveted at a premium. The Packers need to find another explosive sack artist to neutralize the quarterbacks in the NFC North.

 

15 – Arizona

Calvin Ridley – WR, Alabama

The silky-smooth pass catcher from ‘Bama is an ideal No. 1 receiver in any offense. He could replace Larry Fitzgerald as the Cardinals’ WR1 or spend a season soaking up knowledge from the legendary receiver as a WR2 before assuming the lead role in the passing game in 2019.

 

16 – Baltimore

Orlando Brown – OT, Oklahoma

Despite a historically poor performance at the NFL Scouting Combine, Brown comes off the board as a first-round selection for his late father’s former team as Ozzie Newsome values film study over workout numbers.

 

17 – LA Chargers

Mike McGlinchey – OT, Notre Dame

Rock-solid offensive tackle prospect provides more protection for Philip Rivers on the right side.

 

18 – Seatttle

Isaiah Wynn – OG, Georgia

The Seahawks start their rebuilding efforts with an emphasis on improving a leaky offensive line. Wynn should be a 10-year starter as an interior blocker.

 

19 – Dallas

Christian Kirk – WR, Texas A&M

The Cowboys need more speed and explosiveness on the perimeter. Kirk is a polished playmaker adept at doing damage from the slot or out wide.

 

20 – Detroit

Maurice Hurst – DT, Michigan

The free-agent departure of Haloti Ngata leaves a crater in the middle of the Lions’ defense. Hurst is a blue-collar three-technique with the motor and game to be a disruptive force on the interior. The Michigan DT was diagnosed with a heart condition at the NFL Combine, but I’m hoping that the issue will not lead to a fall down the draft board.

 

21 – Cincinnati

Will Hernandez – OG, UTEP

The Bengals are looking to become more of a power-running squad with Joe Mixon as the centerpiece. Hernandez is a furniture mover with the strength and explosiveness to maul defenders at the point of attack.

 

22 – Buffalo

James Daniels – C, Iowa

The loss of Eric Wood makes it imperative for the Bills to find a pivot with a high IQ and a sound technical game. Daniels is an athletic center with the movement skills to expand Buffalo’s playbook as a pull/trap specialist.

 

23 – LA Rams

Kolton Miller – OT, UCLA

After impressing scouts with his spectacular performance at the NFL Scouting Combine, Miller will pique the interest of teams looking for a developmental OT prospect in the back half of Round 1. Miller could back up Andrew Whitworth for a year or so before sliding into the starting lineup as a franchise tackle.

 

24 – Carolina

Sam Hubbard – DE, Ohio State

The Ohio State product is an explosive pass rusher with an intriguing set of tools that could make him a perennial double-digit sack artist off the edge. With a year or so to learn some tips and tricks from Julius Peppers, Hubbard could be the Panthers’ No. 1 rusher for the next decade.

 

25 – Tennessee

Harold Landry – EDGE, Boston College

The Titans desperately need a sack artist on the edge. Despite a disappointing final college season, Landry is a natural pass rusher with a knack for getting to the QB.

 

26 – Atlanta

Da’Ron Payne – DT, Alabama

The rugged interior defender with outstanding strength and power fills a void in the middle of the Dirty Birds’ defense. Payne is a rock-solid run defender with pass-rushing skills.

 

27 – New Orleans

Baker Mayfield – QB, Oklahoma

With Drew Brees nearing the end of his illustrious career, the Saints could target Mayfield based on his similarities as a pocket passer with pinpoint accuracy.

 

28 – Pittsburgh

Lamar Jackson – QB, Louisville

Despite Ben Roethlisberger’s declaration that he wants to play a few more years, the Steelers need to find the quarterback of the future at some point. Jackson offers more upside than the team’s current backup options ( Landry Jones and Joshua Dobbs) and could appear in Mike Tomlin’s eyes as an updated version of Michael Vick.

 

29 – Jacksonville

Rashaan Evans – LB, Alabama

The retirement of Paul Posluszny could prompt the Jaguars to target an MLB early in the draft. Evans is a rugged defender with a nasty disposition that fits the team’s defensive persona.

 

30 – Minnesota

Taven Bryan – DT, Florida

Mike Zimmer loves stockpiling talented defenders on his front line. Bryan is an explosive interior defender with disruptive potential as three-technique.

 

31 – New England

Connor Williams – OT, Texas

The loss of Nate Solder leaves a huge hole on the Patriots’ front line. Williams could get a turn at left tackle or start on the right side (with Marcus Cannon moving over to the blind side).

 

32 – Philadelphia

Jaire Alexander – CB, Louisville

The Eagles’ secondary could use an energetic defensive playmaker capable of covering outside or in the slot. Alexander is a firecracker with toughness, ball skills and outstanding instincts.