The NFL season ended less than two weeks ago, but teams are already beginning to make moves in advance of the new league year, and with the NFL combine sprouting up in Indianapolis next week, vacations are already over for many. In addition to the upcoming scouting bonanza, front offices are figuring out their free-agent plans and identifying which players they'll want to retain from their own rosters heading into the new league year on March 9.
A good offseason, naturally, starts with a good beginning. That's where we come in. Teams like the Broncos and Panthers probably don't need our help, but that's never stopped us before. We've run division by division and detailed the five moves each NFL franchise should make to kick off its offseason in the right fashion. That can include anything from cutting a longtime contributor to making a big splash in free agency -- or, in some cases, staying out of the pool altogether.
Some teams should be more active than others, so there are a few teams whose five moves extend all the way to draft day at the end of April. Other teams need to be more aggressive by the time the first day of free agency wraps up. Note that these moves aren't always in chronological order, even if they are the first five pressing decisions I've picked out. Finally, the advice is contained within its own world; multiple teams might be ideally interested in going after the same player, or a situation that might make sense for one organization wouldn't for the other.
It's 32 teams, 32 universes. Here goes.
AFC WestVon Miller . It would be nice if the Broncos could re-sign Miller and use the franchise tag on one of their other pending defensive free agents. But it seems as if general manager John Elway will follow the same path he most recently used in locking up Demaryius Thomas: The Broncos will use the franchise tag to ensure that Miller stays in town and eliminate some of his leverage before transitioning to a long-term extension.
Truthfully, the Broncos could even franchise Miller a second time without too much pause; he should make around $13.5 million on the tag this year before getting $16.2 million if he's tagged a second time for the 2017 campaign. Compare that to somebody like Justin Houston, who has cap holds of $19.1 million and $20.6 million over the next two seasons. The Broncos know this, and Miller's side knows this, which is why a long-term deal will end up making sense for both parties.
2. Move on from Peyton Manning and re-sign Brock Osweiler . Although the Broncos have suggested that they're showing respect to their Hall of Fame quarterback by letting him dwell upon his options before making any decisions, the reality is Denver really shouldn't expect to have Manning back under his current deal. Manning has a $21.5 million cap hit in 2016, making him the highest-paid player on the team by nearly $6 million over Thomas. Even the most fervent Manning supporter can't legitimately suggest that he's worth even close to that figure at this point in his career.
The Broncos need to clear that money off of their cap to re-sign a number of younger unrestricted free agents, and, if they cut Manning, they would save a staggering $19 million in cap space. That's valuable for a team with $11.8 million to work with before signing any of those UFAs. Some of the money Denver saves on Peyton would unquestionably go to Osweiler, who showed promise before being benched in Week 17. The Broncos would surely rather re-sign Osweiler before he hits the free-agent market, which is why they need the cap space as soon as possible.
3. Cut Ryan Clady . Although Denver needs to rebuild its offensive line, Clady probably is not going to be part of that solution. Injuries have held Clady to just 18 games over the past three years, and with a $10.1 million cap figure, the Broncos probably can't afford to wait around to see whether Clady is the same player after tearing his ACL before the season. The Broncos would save $8.9 million and could apply that to a new left tackle in what looks to be a rich pool of talent that includes Seahawks tackle Russell Okung.
4. Re-sign Malik Jackson . The Broncos are going to be victims of their own success; three of the young starters on their league-best defense are about to become unrestricted free agents, and every franchise in the league just spent January watching what they could do. Teams around the NFL are drooling at the chance to sign Jackson, who excelled as a pass-rusher in concert with Miller and DeMarcus Ware.
Jackson can point at the five-year, $51-million deal signed by Corey Liuget in San Diego and expect to get a better contract. That might just be too much for the Broncos to commit to, especially given that they just locked up fellow 3-4 end Derek Wolfe to a long-term deal last month. If the Broncos let Jackson walk, though, there will be no shortage of suitors.
5. Let Danny Trevathan go. If the Broncos have to make a tough choice at defensive end, their choice at inside linebacker is clearer. As fun as it was for Broncos fans to see Trevathan develop from a sixth-round pick into a quality starting linebacker, Elway can't spend money everywhere, and the Broncos have been able to repeatedly develop unknown players into worthwhile contributors at inside linebacker. Given what Trevathan will be able to command on the open market, the Broncos will need to let him move on and commit their money elsewhere.Eric Berry . As with the Broncos, the Chiefs need to start their offseason by keeping a homegrown superstar around. Berry is one of the league's very best safeties, as he showed while coming back from leukemia this season. Kansas City GM John Dorsey has some tough decisions to make, but taking $10 million out to franchise Berry and eventually set up a long-term contract isn't really one of them. It's a must.
2. Re-sign Sean Smith . With as many as six defensive starters in danger of leaving the team as unrestricted free agents this offseason, the Chiefs will need to pick and choose between their options. Smith is one of the players Dorsey needs to retain. Still just 28 and with the size (6-foot-3) to play aggressively at the line of scrimmage, Smith is the sort of corner teams are increasingly coveting. In fact, if Berry signs a long-term extension, the Chiefs might be able to justify franchising Smith to keep him from the market. Along with rookie Marcus Peters, Smith is a key component in one of the best cornerback combinations in football.
3. Let Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali and Mike DeVito leave. As brutal as it is to see longtime contributors leave, Dorsey needs to make a hard choice or two this offseason. Letting Hali go is an obvious decision, as the Chiefs have a replacement waiting in 2014 first-rounder Dee Ford.
Johnson is tougher, if only because there's no obvious inside linebacker waiting to take his spot in the lineup. But as a 33-year-old with a torn Achilles in his recent past, Johnson is not a great bet to age well. The franchise tag treats all linebackers equally, so the $13.5 million or so Johnson would get with the franchise tag would be totally out of line with what even great inside linebackers get in their deals. Unless they can get him on a one- or two-year deal with a hometown discount, the Chiefs will need to save their money and invest it on younger players, such as defensive lineman Jaye Howard or guard Jeff Allen.
4. Lock up Dontari Poe . Kansas City should extend this monster, too. Poe is one of the league's very best nose tackles, and even though he underwent back surgery last summer, the 25-year-old managed to make it back and play at a high level for most of the 2015 season. The Chiefs picked up his fifth-year option for $6.1 million this year, but they have to lock up their star tackle for the next several seasons.
5. Sign a backup quarterback. The rumor mill has Chase Daniel following former Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson to Philadelphia, which would leave Kansas City in need of a backup behind Alex Smith. One interesting candidate would be Rams starter Nick Foles, who could return to work with Andy Reid if he's cut by Los Angeles, but Foles likely would cost more than the Chiefs would care to give. Given how accurate he looked in throwing short passes for the Cowboys this season, Brandon Weeden might make some sense as a low-cost veteran. Under any circumstances, the Chiefs will head into 2016 hoping Smith continues to stay healthy.Kelechi Osemele . This is going to be a fun section. The Raiders have $72.8 million in projected cap space, a promising young core of talent and no real bad contracts to worry about. So they will just go on a spending spree. The one place GM Reggie McKenzie has consistently committed money to is the offensive line, so it would make sense for the Raiders to make a run at the best lineman on the market. Osemele could slot in at guard, but more likely, the Raiders would try him as their replacement for Donald Penn at left tackle.
2. Sign Mario Williams . Assuming the Bills are going to release the 2006 No. 1 pick, Williams would be a good fit for the Raiders, who are losing Justin Tuck to retirement. They already have a monstrous pass-rusher in Khalil Mack, but there are concerns about the long-term health of 2015 second-rounder Mario Edwards, who has a "possibly genetic" issue with his neck that could jeopardize his long-term future. Even if Edwards can continue his career, the Raiders could get enough out of Williams as a three-down player to justify giving him a hefty salary on a two- or three-year deal.
3. Sign Eric Weddle . With Charles Woodson retiring, the Raiders are in need of a playmaker and veteran leader in their defensive backfield. No player on the market fits that better than Weddle, who would enjoy the added benefit of getting to suit up twice a year against the same Chargers organization that seems hell-bent on running him out of town. If the Raiders want to skew younger, a move for Browns ball hawk Tashaun Gipson would make sense.
4. Sign a cornerback. Although the Raiders were able to get surprisingly effective play out of Washington castoff David Amerson last year, it's probably not a good sign that they needed to turn to a player who was cut at midseason for meaningful snaps less than two weeks later. The jury is still out on 2013 first-rounder D.J. Hayden, and the Raiders could use a viable No. 1 cornerback to make everybody's job a little easier. In terms of finances, they'll be able to outbid anybody on the market if there's somebody McKenzie loves. The aforementioned Sean Smith, Prince Amukamara and Janoris Jenkins are all in play. And if Josh Norman somehow becomes a free agent, the Raiders should offer to build a statue of Norman outside the stadium as part of their package. (Concrete, of course.) And hey, Norman would get to hang out with Stephen Curry in Oakland.
5. Sign Terrance Knighton . Last year, when it seemed a fait accompli that the Raiders would add Knighton to play under former defensive coordinator Jack del Rio, they went in a different direction and signed Dan Williams. Knighton's market never materialized, and he signed a one-year deal with Washington. If that happens again, it might make sense for a reunion, given that the Raiders would be able to rotate Knighton and Williams as part of a rotation on the interior. All it would take is money, and the Raiders have plenty of it to spend.Donald Brown . One of the lesser running backs in the league since joining San Diego, Brown has averaged just 3.1 yards per carry as a member of the Chargers while getting Mike Scifres hurt in punt protection. San Diego would save $3.5 million by moving on from the 2009 first-round pick by Indianapolis, and, with Brown buried on the depth chart, it seems like an obvious call.
2. Build contract extensions for Keenan Allen and Melvin Ingram . The Chargers don't have much of a young core to go around Philip Rivers, but they appear to have difference-makers on either side of the football. Allen had 67 catches for 725 yards in just eight games last season, and Ingram broke out with 10.5 sacks, including 6.5 over his final five games. The only concern with these two budding stars would be injuries: Allen has never finished a full 16-game season, and Ingram missed 19 games between 2013 and 2014.
3. Re-sign Antonio Gates . You could make a case that a struggling team such as San Diego has better things to do with its money than give an oft-injured 35-year-old tight end a new contract, even if it's a player as gifted as Gates. At the same time, though, don't the fans deserve a break after the embarrassing way they were treated this past season? After Ladarius Green failed to develop, there's not an obvious replacement for Gates on the roster. A two-year deal for this Chargers legend might actually give the fans something to cherish.
4. Take a flier on a replacement for Malcom Floyd . With another longtime San Diego receiver leaving, Mike McCoy and returning offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt are left with a hole in their receiving corps across from Allen and Stevie Johnson, neither of whom is guaranteed to stay healthy. There's not a No. 1 wideout on the market, but the Chargers would do well to bring in a veteran to challenge for snaps, given that the rest of their lineup at wide receiver consists of undrafted free agents. A high-ceiling option such as Brian Quick would make sense.
5. Draft a replacement for Eric Weddle. With the franchise having run off one of its most popular players, the Chargers will need to find a long-term option at free safety. Although there's a deep class of candidates available in free agency, they're probably better off waiting until the draft and bringing in a younger talent who can develop alongside Jason Verrett in their defensive backfield.