The madness of March officially gets underway in a couple of weeks.
The NCAA tournament? No, I’m talkin’ NFL free agency.
And given the star-studded list of players on the verge of hitting the open market — including, by the way, the greatest player in league history — this March could be the wildest and most intense of them all.
So, which teams have the most at stake this offseason? Allow me to answer, Schein Nine style:
NOTE: All salary cap figures featured below were pulled from Over The Cap on Tuesday, March 3.
1) Dallas Cowboys
Cap space: $77.3 million
I’ve spent months explaining — across all media platforms — why the Cowboys simply need to lock up Dak Prescott on a long-term deal. The former fourth-round pick has earned a major payday. New head coach Mike McCarthy will make him truly great, consistently great. You can definitely win a Super Bowl with No. 4 under center. Just get it done, Joneses. After all, Dak isn’t the only high-profile pending free agent on this roster. And if you want to keep the rest of the house in order around Prescott, then you cannot franchise the quarterback.
The ‘Boys must sign Dak to a multi-year contract so they can have the franchise tag available for Byron Jones or Amari Cooper. Personally, I would prioritize Jones over Cooper. Jones is a great player and teammate, and I think it’s harder to find studs at corner than receiver in today’s NFL. (Not to mention, this year’s draft is absolutely loaded with quality wideouts.) Both guys will have a ton of suitors if they reach the open market. Cowboys fans: Could you imagine losing your top corner or No. 1 receiver to rival Philly? It’s quite possible if they’re allowed to walk.
It’s all about making deep playoff runs. And for that to occur, you need to find a way to keep the better players, like Jones and Cooper, while giving Dak his due.
2) New England Patriots
Cap space: $41.7 million
Obviously, this is all about Tom Brady and his decision. And understand: The decision is indeed his. There is no doubt in my mind that the Patriots want Brady back. Never get it twisted: Brady might not be playing at the GOAT level anymore, but he is still great. The Patriots’ 2019 issues were more about the lack of talent around Brady. You don’t win more games with Andy Dalton or Marcus Mariota running the offense. You don’t win a division without Tom Brady.
So, what’s the outlook from Brady’s perspective? Well, there are a few places that can offer a better chance to win — like Tennessee, for example. And Brady has connections to head coach Mike Vrabel and general manager Jon Robinson. Thus, he wouldn’t have to guess how the football team would be run. So that could be enticing for a 42-year-old hitting free agency for the first time.
The Patriots, for their part, need to let Brady know that they have a detailed plan to make the offensive roster better. That is, if Tom Brady isn’t already going, going …
3) Chicago Bears
Cap space: $16.6 million
Last season was a waste. The Raiders own Chicago’s first- and third-round picks in April’s draft, thanks to the Khalil Mack trade back in 2018. When you make a deal of that magnitude, missing the playoffs is beyond unacceptable. And whether they want to admit it or not, the Bears have to start over at the game’s most important position.
Yes, Chicago needs a quarterback. Mitch Trubisky — who, I’m not sure if you heard, was drafted before Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson — is an absolute bust. Sure, the Bears need help along the offensive line and at tight end, too. But make Andy Dalton the priority. If it takes a trade, make it. Dalton played well in Cincinnati for Bill Lazor — the same Bill Lazor who just became Chicago’s offensive coordinator.
Sixth-year GM Ryan Pace is responsible for Mitch — and that’s not his only first-round miss. While Pace continues to string everyone along, talking up Trubisky as the team’s starter in 2020, the writing is on the wall: It’s time for a change. NOW. The urgency is at a fevered pitch.
4) Jacksonville Jaguars
Cap space: $21.4 million
Just one season into Nick Foles’ four-year, $88 million deal, could the former Super Bowl MVP be on the trading block? He should be. Regardless of what Doug Marrone and David Caldwell said last week at the NFL Scouting Combine about having "two quarterbacks we really feel good about," Gardner Minshew should be under center. As a rookie, he outplayed Foles. And having a starting quarterback on a rookie contract — a sixth-round rookie contract, to boot — is one of the bigger competitive advantages in the league today.
One year ago at this time, the Jags were an en vogue playoff pick. Now, there’s an identity crisis. Jalen Ramsey is long gone. Tom Coughlin, too. Marrone and Caldwell are back, but hardly entrenched. Jacksonville will reportedly slap the franchise tag on Yannick Ngakoue. This is the right move, as the 24-year-old’s a stud pass rusher who’s just entering his prime. But Ngakoue took to Twitter on Monday and provided this dispatch:
The Jaguars are aware I no longer have interest in signing a long term contract in Jacksonville. Duval, I love you and gave you guys everything I got. Iâm thankful for the journey and look forward to continuing my career elsewhere. -91
Well, that doesn’t seem ideal.
This is an absolutely crucial offseason for a franchise with question marks all over the place.
5) Indianapolis Colts
Cap space: $86.2 million
General manager Chris Ballard is a stellar team-builder. And at this time last year, Colts fans were understandably thinking about a Super Bowl run. But Andrew Luck’s abrupt retirement changed everything.
Let’s be honest: Jacoby Brissett isn’t the guy. I believe Philip Rivers is. And Indy certainly has the cash to land the 38-year-old signal-caller. Still, last month, Rivers told the Los Angeles Times’ Sam Farmer that he wants to play for two more years max. So, if the Colts nab Rivers for the present, they also need to start thinking about the plan for the future. Ballard has made magic in retooling the Colts, but finding Indy’s next two quarterbacks will be his biggest challenge yet. And it’s only everything for a roster that otherwise could be ready to make a serious run at the Lombardi Trophy.
6) Philadelphia Eagles
Cap space: $41.9 million
Philadelphia is still Eagles country, despite the 76ers’ headline-grabbing roller-coaster season. There’s always pressure on Philly’s No. 1 team. So, how do the Eagles get back in serious contention? Howie Roseman is a gem of a general manager, but suddenly, there are holes across the roster. The need areas include — but aren’t limited to — secondary, pass rush and receiver.
Still, the Eagles are a win-now team. Even though they were absolutely decimated by injuries last season, they still made the playoffs. History says Roseman will be active and pull a rabbit out of the free agency hat. A.J. Green? Amari Cooper? Jadeveon Clowney? Byron Jones? Two of them?? The Eagles are a good team, but Roseman and the Philly fan base demand greatness.
7) Green Bay Packers
Cap space: $20.5 million
At age 36, Aaron Rodgers is still playing at a high enough level to win a Super Bowl, but he needs help. That begins with the receiving corps. Beyond Davante Adams (and maybe Allen Lazard), there aren’t many reliable options to target in the passing game, tight end included. Could TE Austin Hooper, fresh off his second straight Pro Bowl campaign, be the target in free agency? Amari Cooper? A trade for receiver help? And Rodgers needs more than a few new pass catchers, too. What about pending free agent Bryan Bulaga — and the offensive line as a whole?
Third-year GM Brian Gutekunst is proactive, unlike his predecessor, Ted Thompson. But the Packers aren’t exactly flush with cap space, so they’ll have to proceed wisely.
8) Detroit Lions
Cap space: $47.7 million
› Top 101 free agents of 2020
› Teams most likely to draft Tua
› Combine winners and losers:
» Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4
› Top 10 players to add in FA/draft:
» QBs | WRs | Pass rushers | CBs | RBs
› Jeremiah’s post-combine mock
› Brooks 2.0: Packers pick QB
› Reuter’s three-round mock 2.0
I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say Bob Quinn is general managing for his job in 2020. In fact, that’s basically what ownership intimated in January. Quinn’s big decisions haven’t panned out, starting with Matt Patricia’s lackluster results in two years as Lions head coach. Detroit, possessing a roster dotted with soft spots, needs to get better this offseason via every component of roster building: free agency, draft and the trade market.
Whichever path Quinn takes this offseason, it better be the right one. Or else …
9) Tennessee Titans
Cap space: $50.4 million
The Titans made the AFC title game last season — and they could do it again if they run it back. No, I don’t think the 2019 campaign was a fluke for Mike Vrabel’s team. That said, I believe the chase for Tom Brady is special, unique and worth going ALL IN on. And I think it is very much in play, as I explored in the Patriots section above.
But at the same time, Tennessee has three top offensive players set to hit free agency: QB Ryan Tannehill, RB Derrick Henry and RT Jack Conklin. Now, as I alluded to above, I’d chase Brady first and foremost. You have to. But can the Titans do that while keeping Tannehill in the mix as a fallback option should Brady sign elsewhere? Easier said than done. Henry should be a lock to bring back. He’s the engine of this offense. And Conklin is a really good player who clears the path for Henry in Tennessee’s power run game.
Jon Robinson has his work cut out for him over the next few months. But if he nails it, 2020 could be quite a football season in Nashville.
Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.
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