Ten most interesting developments heading into the NFL Combine

The NFL offseason has gotten off to an incredibly dramatic start this week. As teams take to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, the primary focus has been on players being handed the franchise tag and others seeing their tenures with the only clubs they’ve suited up for come to an end.

The Minnesota Vikings decided against picking up Adrian Peterson’s option for the 2017 season, meaning he’s set to become a free agent in March. Joining on him on the open market will be former Kansas City Chiefs All Pro Jamaal Charles. That sets a completely different market for running backs in free agency.

Meanwhile, a ton of top-end players were handed the franchise tag earlier in the week. That list includes Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins, who seems to be a wanted man in San Francisco.

These are among the most-interesting developments thus far in the young offseason.

1. Adrian Peterson to hit the open market

Adrian Peterson

For the first time in his 10-year NFL career, Peterson will be free to sign with whatever team he chooses. This comes after the Minnesota Vikings decided against picking up his $18 million option for the 2017 season. It also comes following a 2016 campaign that saw Peterson play in just three games after dealing with injuries to both his knee and shoulder.

Peterson will be 32 by the time the 2017 campaign comes calling. He’s played in a grand total of 20 games since the end of the 2013 season. Those are the negatives surrounding him on the free-agent market. Despite this, there already seems to be some decent interest in his services.

As expected, the Dallas Cowboys have already emerged as a potential landing spot. Owner Jerry Jones — long interested in bringing him the home-town kid — is intrigued by the possibility of teaming Peterson up with Ezekiel Elliott (more on that here).

Meanwhile, the Oakland Raiders have come up as a possible landing spot for Peterson. With Latavius Murray likely out of the equation in Oakland, the Raiders are in need of a running back. They also boast a proven quarterback, which seems to be important to the future Hall of Fame running back.

2. Eric Berry gets paid

This is just some tremendous news right here. We’re not entirely too sure why the Kansas City Chiefs were playing hardball with the All-Pro safety. Berry, 28, is coming off a 2016 season that saw him record 77 tackles, four interceptions and two touchdowns. This came just a couple years after the former first-round pick was sidelined due to a cancer diagnosis. Showing himself to be a physical freak, Berry returned to form in relatively short order.

He’s now one of the top safeties in the NFL and is surely being paid like it. In order to avoid handing Berry the franchise tag, Kansas City doled out $78 million over six years with a ridiculous $40 million guaranteed (more on that here).

The news is good for both sides. Berry receives the long-term security he has been seeking and is now the highest-paid safety in the NFL. On the other hand, Kansas City avoided what promised to be a contract stalemate if it had placed the franchise tag on Berry. It really is a win-win scenario for both sides.

3. Patriots don’t tag Dont’a Hightower

It sure looks like the defending champs will by looking for a new middle linebacker. The New England Patriots did not place the franchise or transition tag on Hightower, which will enable him to test the free-agent market next month.

One of the primary reasons for New England’s sustainable success is its unwillingness to overpay its own players when their contracts come up. Whether it’s a trade like we’ve seen with Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins recently or letting a player walk in free agency, the Patriots have remained consistent in this aspect of their philosophy.

Hightower, 26, is coming off his first Pro Bowl season. He’s hitting the prime of his career. He plays one of the most important defensive positions on the gridiron. He’s not a scheme-specific player. The market will be there for the former first-round pick. This all leads us to believe he will depart in free agency.

It’s also extremely likely Hightower will surpass Luke Kuechly as the highest-paid middle linebacker in the NFL. That means north of $61 million with somewhere in the range of $35 million guaranteed. Such is the nature of the beast during a free agency period where teams have a whole heck of a lot of cash to spend.

4. Jamaal Charles no longer a Chief

Jamaal Charles

This was somewhat expected. Due to count $6.2 million against the cap in 2017, Charles wasn’t going to return to the Chiefs at that price tag. He’s played in a grand total of eight games over the past two seasons, tallying a combined 404 rushing yards during that span. The former All Pro also just turned 30 years old and wasn’t necessarily needed in Kansas City due to the emergence of Spencer Ware.

In no way does his release mean there won’t be a market for Charles in free agency. He’s said to be 100-percent healthy after dealing with knee injuries over the past two seasons. When healthy, Charles has proven himself to be one of the most electric backs in the NFL. It might not be as a three-down running back, but we expect a solid market for the four-time Pro Bowler.

Pure conjecture here, but the San Francisco 49ers and Kyle Shanahan seem to be a potential fit. Shanahan runs the same variation of the west coast offense that Charles succeeded in with the Chiefs. He’s similar to what the former Falcons offensive coordinator had in Atlanta with Devonta Freeman.

Equally as important, San Francisco has the money and the need for another running back to go with the injury-plagued Carlos Hyde. Just something to keep an eye on here over the next few weeks. If Charles is indeed looking for a contender, the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots could also make some sense here.

5. Alshon Jeffery will find value

As expected, the Chicago Bears decided against placing the franchise tag on Jeffery. He’s coming off a 2016 campaign that saw him post less than 850 receiving yards for the second consecutive season. The former Pro Bowler was also suspended four games for violating the league’s policy against performance enhancing drugs.

Some might conclude that this means Jeffery will fund a somewhat unfriendly market in free agency. That couldn’t be further from the truth. On the field, he has dealt with a disastrous quarterback situation in Chicago. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound pass catcher is still viewed as a potential No. 1 receiver in the NFL. Players of that ilk tend to avoid free agency.

There’s already suggestions out there that the Tennessee Titans might spend big on a free-agent receiver. If that’s the case, Jeffery could receive a large payday to team up with young phenom Marcus Mariota in Nashville. The Philadelphia Eagles are also said to be in the market for a true No. 1 receiver to team up with Carson Wentz. These are two concrete possible landing spots.

With the amount of money teams have to spend in free agency, it would not be a surprise to see Jeffery receive a contract that rivals the extension Antonio Brown signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers earlier in the week. It seems ridiculous on the surface, but today’s market is unlike any before it. New trends will be started, and a new value will be placed on free-agent targets. Jeffery will surely benefit here.

6. Panthers lock up two key defenders

Kawann Short

The Carolina Panthers didn’t waste any time making sure two of their top defensive players will be with them next season. The team locked up underrated defensive end Mario Addison on a three-year, $22.5 million contract. Addison, a six-year veteran from Troy, recorded a team-high 9.5 sacks last season. Getting him for under $10 million annually is a tremendous deal for Carolina.

In more important news, Carolina also extended the franchise tag to defensive tackle Kawann Short. A Pro Bowl performer, Short’s future with the Panthers is more up in the air than Addison’s. There’s been widespread speculation that he will hold off on signing the tag, missing out on off-season activities in the process. Though, there’s very little reason to believe Short himself will hold out into the season.

Still likely a projected $30 million under the cap heading into free agency, Carolina now must find a way to upgrade its offensive line. There’s no telling whether Michael Oher will return after sitting out last season with a concussion. Meanwhile, underwhelming offensive tackle Mike Remmers is set to become a free agent. Pass protection was a major issue for what ended up being a disappointing performance from the Panthers this past season. Simply put, Cam Newton needs more help up front.

At the very least, Carolina took care of two major issues prior to the start of free agency. That will enable Dave Gettleman and Co. to focus primarily on the offensive line when March comes calling.

7. Kirk Cousins given exclusive franchise tag 

There’s so many moving parts here it’s really hard to keep up to date. The Washington Redskins took Cousins off the free-agent market completely before it started. By handing Cousins the exclusive rights franchise tag, the team has guaranteed that no other squad can discuss a contract with the Pro Bowler. In the process, it makes a potential trade to the San Francisco 49ers seemingly impossible.

That’s until we realize that by handing Cousins this tag, Washington can still negotiate a trade with San Francisco that would not send two first-round picks back to D.C. Considering San Francisco was never going to hand over those two picks, this really doesn’t change a whole lot.

What we do know here is that 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan will push hard to trade for Cousins. It makes sense considering he’s the quarterback’s former offensive coordinator in Washington and Cousins himself has reportedly indicated the only other team outside of his current squad that he would sign an extension with is the 49ers.

Up to date? Not so fast, my friends. Washington has now reportedly indicated that it will not trade Cousins to any team this offseason, the 49ers included. Really, that’s just a negotiating ploy pushed through to the media as away to up his value in a potential trade.

As it currently stands, Cousins is most likely to return to Washington at salary of about $24 million in 2017. Though, he surely has the upper-hand in demanding a trade should the two sides not work out a long-term contract. Expect trade talks surrounding Cousins, the Redskins and San Francisco to potentially pick up at the combine in Indianapolis this week.

8. Chiefs set the market along the offensive line

By signing Laurent Duvernay-Tardif to what appeared to be a ridiculous five-year, $42.3 million contract earlier this week, the Kansas City Chiefs have set the market for offensive linemen heading into free agency.

Sure Duvernay-Tardif played well this past season for the Chiefs. He’s definitely going to be a key cog for the team moving forward. But here’s a sixth-round pick that’s started a combined 30 games in three NFL seasons. Paying him north of $8 million per season seems to be a steep price. It also goes to show us just how the market will play out on the offensive line when free agency starts next month.

With guards Kevin Zeitler, T.J. Lang, Luke Joeckel and Ron Leary all set to become free agents, it surely wouldn’t be a surprise to see each of them receive $10-plus million on an annual basis. This doesn’t even take into account tackles such as Riley Reiff and Andrew Whitworth set to hit the open market. There’s going to definitely be a high price to pay for those edge pass protectors.

If anything, Kansas City surely made it known that the demand for offensive linemen in today’s market will be vast. With supply now dwindling, it wouldn’t be a surprise if teams were forced to overpay in a big way.

9. Pittsburgh Steelers take care of business

Jan 8, 2017; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) celebrates with Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) after scoring a touchdown against the Miami Dolphins in the AFC Wild Card playoff football game at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Co. definitely aren’t messing around heading into free agency. While the team really didn’t face a real possibility that either Le’Veon Bell or Antonio Brown would depart in free agency, Pittsburgh made sure the topic of conversation was put to bed quickly.

The Steelers handed Bell the exclusive rights franchise tag earlier this week, meaning no other team can negotiate with him. In an interesting turn, this guarantees Bell $12.4 million, pretty much the same amount of cash as if they had placed the non-exclusive tender on the running back.

In equally important news, Pittsburgh locked up the league’s top receiver with the richest contract for a player at this position in NFL history. On Monday, Brown signed a four-year extension with a whopping $68 million in new money, including $19 million guaranteed and an absurd $19 million signing bonus. That’s just a wow moment right there.

Pittsburgh sure has more work to do this offseason in order to compete for a championship in 2017. That much is known. But locking up two of the best players at their respective positions in the NFL is a absolutely huge deal. Doing so prior to free agency means the Steelers are going to work big time this spring.

10. Other wide receivers benefit from not being handed the tag

We focused on Jeffery as bit earlier, but other receivers seemed to have benefited from being given the ability to hit the open market next month. Despite posting his first 1,000-yard season, quarterback-turned-receiver Terrelle Pryor was not tagged by the Cleveland Browns prior to the deadline.

There was some thought given to the idea that Cleveland might place the transition tag on its top pass catcher. Now that this is not the case, Pryor will join Jeffery as the top free-agent receiver on the market. Look for him to receive an absolutely huge payday after a breakout 2016 campaign.

To a lesser extent, the same can be said for Kenny Stills of the Miami Dolphins and Los Angeles Rams receiver Kenny Britt. While there was little doubt that both would hit free agency, the dynamics have changed a tad here.

Antonio Brown’s extension sets a new market for receivers. Depending on what Jeffery and Pryor get in free agency, that could set a new second market at receiver. At this point, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see both Stills and Britt sign deals that pay them north of $12 million annually.