Top 10 storylines for NFL free agency

Kirk Cousins
Vincent Frank
Written by Vincent Frank

NFL free agency will soon be upon us. There’s a whole heck of a lot of money set to be thrown around this year. It really is a perfect storm for free agents to receive huge paydays while teams themselves overspend.

The backdrop here is also real. Just how will teams use the trade block as an alternative to free agency? Names included here could include Kirk Cousins, Tony Romo, Sheldon Richardson and even Brandon Marshall.

All the while, certain players wait for the franchise tag to be handed to them. Will Cousins remain with the Washington Redskins, even after he’s tendered? Kansas City Chiefs All Pro safety Eric Berry has indicated he will not sign his tender. How will that play out?

These are among the top-10 storylines for NFL free agency.

1. How will the Tony Romo saga conclude? 

Will Tony Romo be traded or released?

At this point, it seems that both the Dallas Cowboys and their former Pro Bowl quarterback are ready for a conclusion to this matter. The hope here is that it’s an amicable split between the two sides. Unfortunately, pretty much everything is still left up in the air as we head into free agency.

Dallas’ No. 1 priority heading into the offseason was to trade Romo. It makes perfect sense. Despite being injury plagued over the past two seasons, the 36-year-old veteran should find a decent market for his services.

More than just his own history of success, the quarterback situation around the NFL is a complete mess with at least a quarter of the teams potentially looking for new starters this spring. That would seem to suggest the Cowboys could get a nice little bounty in return for Romo.

The problem here is two-fold. As we mentioned above, Romo has found himself injury plagued over the past couple seasons. In fact, he’s played in a grand total of five games since earning a Pro Bowl trip back in 2014. That will likely force some teams to show hesitation, especially when we’re talking about giving up valuable assets.

Secondly, Romo is set to count $24.7 million against the cap. Even with Dallas having to pony up $5 million of that in a trade, paying nearly $20 million to someone with Romo’s injury history is a risky proposition.

Despite all this, we still expect Romo to be traded once the new league year starts in March. While the Denver Broncos seem to be his preferred destination, it looks like Vance Joseph and Co. are willing to stick with what they have (more on that here).

If Dallas were to cater to Romo and find a contender for him, that seemingly limits his choices to the Houston Texans and aforementioned Broncos. If not, it opens his market up to teams like the San Francisco 49ers and New York Jets.

This might not be the first major piece of the off-season equation to drop, but it sure will play a role in what happens when it comes to the rest of the free-agent market at this position.

2. Veterans on the chopping block

Darrelle Revis

We’re not necessarily talking about those on the trade block. That conversation will come a bit later. Instead, the focus here is on veterans who might find themselves cut either prior to the start of the new league year or shortly after free agency opens.

It happens every year. Teams perceive that a veteran’s worth is nowhere near where his salary cap figure is. Other players are let go simply because their teams are in bad cap situations.

When looking at the situation this year, the Dallas Cowboys and New York Jets have the worst cap problems. Both actually need to shed money in order to be players in free agency. Where as Romo will play a role in what happens with Dallas, the Jets are in a less ideal position.

Future Hall of Famer Darrelle Revis will likely have to take a pay cut or find himself released. That doesn’t even take into account his recent legal issues. The same can potentially be said for both Brandon Marshall and David Harris. Such is the nature of the beast when a team gears up for a title run and falls flat on its face.

This trio is set to count nearly $30 million against the cap, $25 million of which the team can save if it were to release the three. Center Nick Mangold is another name to watch.

It also wouldn’t be a tremendous surprise to see the Kansas City Chiefs release injury-plagued running back Jamaal Charles. At 30 years old and after playing a combined five games over the past two seasons, Charles is not worth the $6.2 million he’s set to make next season. Add in the fact that Kansas City can save that entire $6.2 million by releasing him, and the writing seems to be on the wall. This, despite the fact that the Chiefs’ brass reportedly want to keep him around (more on that here).

These are just a few of the veterans to watch as free agency gets going. Most teams around the NFL are in decent cap situations, so it’s likely the list of notable players released this year will be less than in season’s past. But there’s still going to be a nice amount of cap casualties.

3. The defending champ’s ideal situation

Bill Belichick and the Patriots are in a prime position heading into free agency.

It’s not a coincidence that Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots have won five Super Bowls in a 17-year span. Here’s an organization that has always represented a forward-thinking mentality more so than any other in the professional sports world. That’s how you sustain success for this long of a period in the salary cap era.

Now coming off a 14-win regular season and their latest Lombardi, the Patriots head into free agency in a tremendous position. They are currently $63 million under the cap — number that will be even greater once New England either releases of forces Danny Amendola to take a pay cut (more on that here).

Now, this doesn’t mean that New England will have upwards of $70 million to spend on outside free agents. The team will have to prioritize re-signing Sebastian Vollmer, Jabaal Sheard and Martellus Bennett in free agency. That should still leave the Pats with a nice amount of cash to spend on free agents.

But as we have seen throughout the years, New England is very picky when it comes to adding top-end talent. It usually looks for veteran reclamation projects or hits the bargain-bin market. That could change in March with the possibility of adding a player at a position of weakness.

We can look at running back and wide receiver as two examples here. LeGarrette Blount is set to become a free agent and might have priced himself out of what the Pats want to spend on a player of his ilk. Meanwhile, Tom Brady could use a true No. 1 receiver to team up with Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman in the passing game.

Pure conjecture here, but it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see New England target Adrian Peterson (should he be made available) or Chicago Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery.

Then, we have the entire Jimmy Garoppolo situation. At this point, it seems to be a foregone conclusion that New England will trade him. That’s only magnified by the fact that Brady, who will be extended here soon, wants to play three-to-five more years. Add in the fact that New England might be able to acquire a couple high-round picks for Garoppolo, and this is brought to an entirely new level.

Either way we spin it, New England is in an optimal position to improve its roster. That has to be considered a scary proposition for other contenders, all of whom continue to play from behind here.

4. Running backs look for a solid market

Le'Veon Bell

Teams with five of the top-eight rushing attacks in the NFL this past season made the playoffs. It’s an interesting stat to look at considering today’s professional football world has increasingly become pass first. It also tells us a story of running backs not necessarily dying out in terms of value, much like most of us figured they would years back.

This should lead to an increase in value when it comes to this position in free agency. Though, a lot of that will depend on exactly how the market itself plays out.

Will future Hall of Fame Adrian Peterson find himself available to the masses? If so, how will teams view him after he played in just three games due to multiple injuries this past season? Despite being injury plagued over the course of the past two years, will Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy find a stronger-than-expected market? These are the two big question marks at this position.

Though, there’s surely going to be a focus on lesser-known options. Let’s assume for a second Le’Veon Bell has the franchise tag placed on him by the Pittsburgh Steelers. That will leave Latavius Murray and LeGarrette Blount as the two other best options on the open market.

Even after putting up 2,350 total yards and 18 touchdowns over the past two seasons, the Oakland Raiders are expected to let Murray walk in free agency. Still just 27 years old, he should find a decent market for his services.

Meanwhile, Blount is coming off a 2016 campaign that saw him lead the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns. At 30 years old, he’s definitely going to be looking for that first and only major payday of his career. Does this exclude the Pats from re-signing the veteran?

How this plays out will have a huge role in the outcome of the 2017 NFL Draft, where multiple running backs could potentially go in the first round. As of right now, the likes of Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook and Christian McCaffrey could all be seen as Day 1 picks. Should teams go that route instead of free agency, what will that mean for the veterans mentioned above? See. It’s all correlated. And while the primary focus here is on free agency, everything that happens will have a chain reaction.

5. Will the Packers buck their trend?

Aaron Rodgers simply needs more help with the Green Bay Packers

As we covered when focusing on NFL teams that need to ace free agency earlier, it’s never been more important for the Packers to move on from their old ways. Here’s a team that has simply decided to avoid free agency for the past five-plus years with the likes of Julius Peppers and Jared Cook acting as its biggest additions during that span.

For the most part, this has worked out swimmingly. Green Bay is coming off its eighth consecutive playoff appearance and has earned five division titles in the past six seasons. But it became readily apparent during the 2016 campaign that building through the draft simply isn’t going to fix the myriad issues we see with the Packers.

During a four-game span at the midway point of the season, Green Bay’s defense yielded a franchise record 153 points. And while this unit improved down the stretch, its issues were brought to the forefront one again in the playoffs when the Packers yielded 75 combined points in two games against Dallas and Atlanta.

That right there is the crux of the issue. Simply put, the general manager Ted Thompson and Co. have not drafted well enough on defense in recent years to justify solely focusing on that element to help improve their roster.

Also important to note, Green Bay was forced to use a wide receiver in Ty Montgomery as its starting running back. Sure Montgomery performed well and expects to be a full-time back, but that’s not the point. It just goes to show us the lack of depth on this roster.

Flush with cash to spend in free agency, the hope here is that Green Bay will make at least one or two viable moves to help supplement the draft. Reports suggest this might happen, but we’re going to have to see it to believe it.

6. Figuring out the 49ers’ new regime

It’s going to be a learning process for new 49ers general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan. This is the first time either of them have been in their current positions. It surely is an upgrade over what we’ve seen over the past two years. But it’s also leaves a ton of questions.

The good news here is that San Francisco added a ton of front office experience to go with these two. Former top Broncos scout Adam Peters joins assistant general manager Tom Gamble and former Lions general manager Martin Mayhew to fill out the personnel department. Again, this doesn’t give us a real clue as to what the 49ers plan on doing in free agency.

We do, however, know a couple things. First off, San Francisco is likely to have north of $100 million when Colin Kaepernick opts out of his contract. That seems like an inevitability right now. Secondly, this also means the 49ers will be in the market for a veteran quarterback.

Linked to both Kirk Cousins and Jimmy Garoppolo, it will be interesting to see if the 49ers’ new brass decides to start its tenure out with a bang. Sure both Lynch and Shanahan received six-year deals. This seems to be an indication that CEO Jed York and Co. will be patient with the tandem. But the team has a whole heck of a lot of capital to upgrade its roster. Why not use some of that out of the gate?

Coming off a two-win 2016 campaign that saw San Francisco finish dead last in the NFL in passing, it’s not just the quarterback position that needs to be upgraded. Torrey Smith is the only viable starting receiver on the roster and he’s coming off a dreadful 2016 performance. Set to count $9.5 million against the cap in 2017, there’s no guarantee he will be back.

That leads us to our final point here. Shanahan — coming off a 2016 season that saw him win the NFL’s Assistant Coach of the Year award with Atlanta — could be a major draw for high-level free agents on offense.

If the team were to then land a top-end quarterback either via free agency or a trade (hello, Tony Romo), that would potentially make it an even more appealing destination.

That’s where the likes of Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson come into play.

Either way, there’s just so many unknowns here. Will Kaepernick actually return? If not, who will the 49ers get to replace him?

How will the team spend its vast fortune in free agency? How these questions are answered will help define the start of the Lynch/Shanahan regime.

7. Overpaying for mediocrity

Colin Kaepernick

We have seen this story repeated over and over again. Teams attempting to catch lightning in a bottle by adding a perceived top-end free agent. They then get blindsided when said free-agent signing does not pan out. We can ask the Washington Redskins, Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins about this. Each of these teams have failed miserably finding balance between needed upgrades and overspending on free agents.

This is only going to be magnified come March. Nearly half of the NFL will have $40-plus million to spend in free agency with Cleveland and San Francisco likely hitting the $100-plus million range in room. It’s in this that teams must be vigilant in terms of spending.

We previously focused on players that might find themselves overvalued in free agency. That list includes the likes of Jason Pierre-Paul and Trumaine Johnson. Though, there’s certainly going to be some ridiculous contracts thrown out to lesser-known players. What might Jay Cutler receive on the market once he’s released? About a quarter of the NFL has a need for a new starter under center. That promises to maximize Cutler’s market. The same can be said for Colin Kaepernick once he opts out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers.

It’s all about supply and demand here. There’s going to be a ton of demand at key positions, quarterback and offensive tackle included. That promises to lead to the over-valuation of certain players, some of whom likely won’t make much of an impact with ther new team. That’s one of the primary focuses surrounding NFL free agency heading into March.

8. The franchise tag question

Kirk Cousins

This will primarily be answered before the start of free agency. Teams have until March 1st to place franchise tags on impending free agents. And multiple players can expect to be tagged. If we were to make predictions, that list would include Kirk Cousins, Chandler Jones, Le’Veon Bell, Kawann Short and Eric Berry. But that’s not really where the drama is here.

Being given the franchise tag is one thing. Actually signing the tag and agreeing to play on a one-year deal is a completely different monster. When we add in the potential of trades, that’s magnified even further.

Let’s look at both Cousins and Berry as case studies here. Cousins previously alluded to the fact that he might not sign the tender. That came before he cleared it all up by indicating he could very well play under said one-year deal. In between all this, rumors have persisted that one in the Redskins’ brass are not sold on him (more on that here).

That’s come at the same time that reports have indicated that Cousins might not want to play for the Redskins. All the while, he’s praised the San Francisco 49ers’ new brass, including former Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Even if Cousins were to sign the tender, there’s a scenario in play here that he might be traded to San Francisco or another team.

The same can’t be said for Berry, who has come out firmly to conclude that he will not sign the tender should it be given to him. Coming off an All Pro performance, Berry wants long-term security on his new contract. That’s something the Chiefs might be unwilling to provide. If so, there promises to be a whole lot of drama here.

The franchise tag itself is one of the most absurd elements of the current collective bargaining agreement. Technically, a team could withhold a player’s ability to hit free agency for the first eight years of his career. That would require a ton of cash if a player were franchised for three consecutive years, but it’s surely something that might impact Cousins moving forward. How players continue to handle being given the franchise tag will be an ongoing story moving forward, including this year.

9. Can the Cowboys be players?

Jerry Jones

Coming off a tremendously successful 13-win season that saw them earn the top seed in the NFC, the Cowboys are looking to continue that momentum into the spring. They have one of the best young tandems in the NFL in the form of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. They also boast the top offensive line in football and a true No. 1 receiving threat in Dez Bryant.

Unfortunately for the Cowboys, most of their talent is concentrated on the offensive side of the ball. They have among the thinnest rotation of defensive linemen in the NFL and continue to struggle finding talent at cornerback. Add in less-than-stellar safety play, and there’s reason for concern here.

The bad news is that Dallas isn’t necessarily in the best of cap situations. It currently sits at a projected $6.7 million under the cap after restructuring some contracts earlier in February. Depending on what happens with Romo, the Cowboys could save a nice chunk of change ($19.7 million). Even then, there’s a lot of work to do here.

Both Jason Witten and Sean Lee are set to count $12-plus million against the cap in 2017. It’s more than likely that each of these veterans will be restructured. The same can be said for Dez Bryant ($17 million) and Tyrone Crawford ($10.4 million).

The issue here, and as we’ve seen with Romo, is that rescutures will place the squad behind the proverbial eight-ball down the road. How much do the Cowboys want to be players in free agency next month? Are they willing to kick their cap issues down the road even more to add veteran talent? That’s the question owner Jerry Jones and Co. must answer between now and the start of free agency.

With needs at defensive tackle, defensive end, linebacker, cornerback and safety, it’s highly unlikely all these holes can be filled via the draft. So in reality, Dallas must find a happy medium if it wants to improve off last season’s success.

10. The trade market

We covered both Romo and Cousins before, but there promises to be a ton more trade action between now and this spring’s draft. Anyone from Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles to Brandon Marshall of the New York Jets could be made available if thy aren’t released beforehand.

We then have the entire dynamic at the top of the 2017 NFL Draft. Last year saw Cleveland and Tennessee move out of the top-two spots. We’re not too sure the Browns and 49ers will do the same in 2017, but there’s definitely a lot to look at here. Both are said to be interested in New England Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

While he’s unlikely to land the defending champs a top-two pick, Cleveland’s second selection is in the middle of the first round. Meanwhile, San Francisco picks at the top of the second round after picking No. 2 overall.

There’s then a scenario in play where a team picking lower in the first round might fall in love with a quarterback. Remember, neither Jared Goff or Carson Wentz were considered the top player in last year’s draft. That’s most definitely something to keep an eye on.

More than all that, there promises to be players we’re not focusing on now that might end up on the trade block. Pure conjecture here, but that list might include the likes of Sheldon Richardson, Joe Haden, Torrey Smith and Doug Martin. It will definitely be something to keep up on as free agency takes over the news cycle.

About the author

Vincent Frank

Vincent Frank

Editor-at-large, Sportsnaut.

“You were born with wings, why prefer to crawl through life?” Rumi