The decision to extend Blake Bortles‘ contract doesn’t stem from the quarterback’s ability. It isn’t a product of what he showed in the postseason during two impressive games against the Steelers and Patriots or, alternately, in a dismal effort at home against the Bills.
Jacksonville’s decision to re-sign Bortles is a product of a questionable decision the Jaguars made last year — it seemed questionable at the time and has grown worse with some perspective. It’s also a reflection on where this team is going and whether the Jags can build upon an impressive 2017 season to take that final leap past the Patriots and into the Super Bowl.
Last May, the Jaguars decided to exercise Bortles’ fifth-year option, which gave the team another year of cost control on their enigmatic quarterback through the 2018 season. The fifth-year option for players taken in the top 10 of the draft is rather expensive for quarterbacks, given that it represents the average salary of the top 10 players at the position. For Bortles, that fifth-year option was more than $19 million.
The salary is guaranteed only for injury, so in most cases, teams that regret the move can just cut the player and move on without any penalty. Players who can’t pass a physical by the beginning of the new league year (in March) remain on the cap and get paid, even if they can’t play, as will likely be the case for Ryan Shazier in Pittsburgh. The Steelers naturally couldn’t have anticipated in May that their star inside linebacker would suffer a career-threatening spinal injury six months later, but for Pittsburgh, the reward of having another year of cost control over Shazier was worth the risk that he would suffer a serious injury.
Likewise, the Jaguars were about to be stuck paying Bortles $19 million for an injury he had when Jacksonville signed him to the extension. The UCF product suffered a wrist injury during the final month of the 2016 season, which the Jaguars elected to treat with shots in the hopes of avoiding surgery. The Jags then picked up Bortles’ option last May all while knowing he had a wrist injury that might require surgery after the 2017 campaign. The wrist got worse as the 2017 season went on, requiring Bortles to undergo surgery after the season ended in late January.
A move that seemed iffy at the time without public knowledge of the injury and looked downright foolish once the Jags briefly benched Bortles during the preseason for Chad Henne only looks worse now. Given the likelihood that Bortles would be unable to pass a physical and subsequently be guaranteed $19 million before hitting free agency next season, the Jaguars made the decision to tender him a three-year, $54 million deal with $26.5 million guaranteed at signing. The fifth-year option was a sunk cost, and the Jaguars didn’t make a terrible move by handing Bortles this deal, but it raises questions about their thought process heading into 2018 and beyond.
The details of the deal
There’s a slim chance Bortles will actually end up playing out this extension for all three years, as teams almost never let a veteran quarterback play into the final year of his contract. This is more realistically a two-year deal for somewhere between $30 million and $36 million, plus incentives, with the ability to renegotiate after 2019 without having to resort to the franchise tag.
To gain that concession, the Jags had to drastically increase the chances Bortles remains the starting quarterback for Jacksonville in 2019. The structure of this deal — namely, the $15 million signing bonus, which is spread over three seasons for cap purposes — means the Jaguars would pay a steep cost to dump Bortles after one season. Cutting the soon-to-be 26-year-old would leave a minimum of $10 million in dead money on their cap next year.
That number could rise as high as $16.5 million if Bortles can’t play; the Jags guaranteed $6.5 million of his $16 million base salary in 2019 with offsets, which another team would inherit as part of a new deal. If Jacksonville cut Bortles after 2018 and he signed a one-year, $3 million contract with, for instance, the Browns, the Jags would owe Bortles $3.5 million in cash and have $13 million in dead money on their cap for 2019.
It’s surprising that the Jags would structure Bortles’ deal in such a way. Under general manager Dave Caldwell, they have typically gone year-to-year with their contracts, guaranteeing money up front over the first two years of contracts with base salaries and roster bonuses while retaining flexibility afterward. That has come in handy when free agents such as Chris Ivory and Julius Thomas haven’t worked out, but it’s also how the Jags have operated in re-signing homegrown talent.
In the case of star linebacker Telvin Smith and the four-year, $45 million deal he signed in October, for example, the Jags guaranteed a $3 million base salary in 2018 and an $8 million roster bonus, all of which hits the cap next year. Smith’s $4.1 million signing bonus costs only about $810,000 in cap room per year, so the Jags could theoretically get out of Smith’s extension after next season and have only $2.4 million in dead money remaining on their cap.
The Jaguars didn’t give veteran stars such as Calais Campbell ($6 million) and A.J. Bouye ($10 million) huge signing bonuses as part of far larger and longer contracts when importing them in free agency last year. Either they’ve suddenly changed the way they do business and are going to approach the salary cap differently, or Bortles’ camp insisted they structure this extension in such a way as to make it more likely the former third-overall pick is around for another season.
It’s not about the money in Bortles’ pocket. The Jaguars could have offered Bortles the same three-year, $54 million deal but replaced the $15 million signing bonus with a $6 million signing bonus and a $9 million roster bonus payable on the first day of the new league year. In that scenario, Bortles sees the money hit his bank account at exactly the same time, but the Jags would owe a minimum of $4 million and a maximum of $10.5 million by getting rid of Bortles after one season.
The other prescribed reason the Jaguars structured the deal this way might be to create cap space in 2018, but that doesn’t make much sense. Jacksonville already had about $30 million in cap space with Bortles under contract at the $19 million mark. Their free-agent class includes star wideout Allen Robinson, fellow starting wideout Marqise Lee, nickel cornerback Aaron Colvin, veteran linebacker Paul Posluszny, and Henne. The Jags are unlikely to pay serious money to Colvin given their investment in Bouye. Henne and Posluszny will likely get modest one-year deals. Lee has pieced together one healthy, productive season as a pro. The Jags rightly want to keep around Robinson, but they could have franchised him for one year at $16.3 million or extended him with whatever structure they wanted without having to free up 2018 cap room.
If the Jaguars wanted to free up cap space in the short term for whatever reason, they could have cut struggling wideout Allen Hurns and saved $7 million. Alternately, Caldwell could have turned $12 million of Bouye’s upcoming base salary into an option bonus and freed up $9 million, a move the Jags don’t often do but one that would have entailed less risk than redoing Bortles’ deal.
Borrowing from the future to create cap savings now also ignores the reality that the Jaguars are going to need cap room in the very near future. The Jags have just $17.1 million in free space next year before accounting for rollover or re-signing Robinson. Jacksonville also will be looking at extending Myles Jack and star edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue in 2019, given that they’re both free agents after the 2019 campaign and due for hefty raises on the combined $3.1 million they’ll account for on that year’s cap. Caldwell can create cap room by cutting one of his expensive defensive linemen at that time, but the argument for the Jags clearing out space immediately at the cost of a totally different deal structure with Bortles doesn’t really add up.
So, with the cap-space argument aside, the Jags made this move because they’re comfortable betting that Bortles will be worth running out as their starter into the 2019 season, but not so comfortable that they were willing to give him the sort of five-year extension players such as Andrew Luck and Cam Newton signed before their fifth-year options actually played out. Is that wise?
Is Bortles worth it?
Depends on which guy shows up. Bortles had his best season in 2017, but it was topsy-turvy. Among the league’s regular quarterbacks last season, only Cam Newton had a higher standard deviation in terms of game-to-game Total QBR than Bortles. Those numbers don’t include the postseason, when Bortles was borderline unplayable as a passer against the Bills but used his legs to pick up first downs in the second half. He followed that with great games against the Steelers and Patriots, which clearly left a lasting memory in the minds of the Jacksonville front office.
When I evaluated Bortles after the 2015 season, I noted that what looked like impressive numbers were mostly hot air. A disproportionate amount of his success came in garbage time as the Jags faced defenses that were mostly concerned with holding on to leads. His biggest plays were a product of throwing up 50-50 balls to Robinson, who was developing into a top-tier wideout.
I can’t make those arguments about Bortles this time around. Robinson went down with a torn ACL in Week 1, and the team’s other nominal starters — Hurns and Lee — were each battling injuries for stretches of 2017. Bortles’ best run came when he threw for 901 yards and seven touchdowns without a pick over a three-week stretch in December, with much of that damage coming on throws to fourth-round pick Dede Westbrook and undrafted free agents Keelan Cole and Jaydon Mickens.
Indeed, Bortles also wasn’t padding his stats. In 2015, he dropped back 163 times on drives that started with his team possessing a win expectancy at or below 10 percent, which was the third-highest total in football. He posted a 98.6 passer rating on those drives. Last season, Bortles had 68 such dropbacks, which was 25th in the league. He also didn’t derive much benefit from those situations, posting a passer rating of 75.0.
Instead, Bortles dominated teams when he got to throw without having to worry about dragging his Jags back into the game. On drives that began with the Jags enjoying a win expectancy of 75 percent or higher, Bortles was a monster. He completed nearly 67 percent of his throws, averaged 8.8 yards per attempt and threw eight touchdowns without a pick. His passer rating was 115.9 and his Total QBR was 82.0, which was second in the league in those situations behind Russell Wilson (91.2).
I don’t bring this up to criticize Bortles — there’s nothing wrong with throwing the ball effectively when your team is ahead, of course — but it’s also fair to wonder how much of his perceived improvement from a team that benched him during the preseason is the context in which he played. After years of investing in running backs, the Jags had their best running game with Leonard Fournette in tow. The Jacksonville defense posted the best DVOA in the league, forced the opposing team to punt on a league-high 50.7 percent of possessions and allowed the Jags to run 191 meaningful possessions on offense, second behind the Cardinals. Bortles was facing plenty of tired defenses in 2017.
The Jags’ defense is unlikely to be quite as effective next season, if only because of health; including their 11 starters and key reserves such as Colvin, Posluszny and Marcell Dareus, their defensive core missed all of three games during the regular season. Jacksonville also was dominant on offense in the red zone, scoring an average of 5.5 points per trip. That, too, is difficult to pull off on a recurring basis. Bortles is likely to shoulder a more meaningful part of the load and won’t be in such passing-friendly situations.
On the other hand, he’s likely to have Robinson back in the fold. If Robinson comes back with Cole and Westbrook, Jacksonville’s top receivers will each be entering their age-25 campaigns and should improve. Fournette should be healthier after a midseason ankle injury kept him out and slowed him for much of the subsequent campaign. Cam Robinson was projected to end up as a right tackle, but he over-delivered as a rookie left tackle and allowed just two sacks in 15 games. He should continue to grow into his role.
The problem with judging Bortles gets back to that variance issue. The Jaguars didn’t have any idea which quarterback they were going to get from week to week. After that incredible three-game stretch, Bortles threw five interceptions over the final two games of the year, although one was in a desperate, game-ending situation. He followed that with an awful game against the Bills in the wild-card round before looking impressive against two of the best teams in football.
If the Bills had mustered up anything on offense — or stopped the Jags on the fourth-and-goal, play-action touchdown pass that ended up winning the game for Jacksonville — Bortles’ season would have ended with three straight ugly games and there’s virtually no chance the Jaguars are picking up this option. Then again, if the ball doesn’t bounce off a defender’s hands before a field goal try at the end of the first half or his defense doesn’t come up with a fourth-and-goal stop to win the game, Nick Foles never has the opportunity to have those two incredible games against the Vikings and Patriots, either.
The best way to evaluate Bortles is by looking at the entirety of his season and the way he has played over his entire career as a starter as opposed to looking at those two most recent games or the three beforehand. In that vein, it’s hard to make a case that the Jags should be committing to playing Bortles past 2018. This is a guy who might not even have started in Week 1 if Henne had been more impressive during the preseason. Bortles’ mechanics, which were a problem heading into the draft, fell apart in virtually unprecedented fashion under heavy pressure in 2016 before staying solid last season. With the Jags investing in weapon after weapon for their quarterback, Bortles ranks 29th in Total QBR and 30th in passer rating over the past four seasons among the 30 quarterbacks with at least 1,000 pass attempts.
The Jags proved that they can win with Bortles, and if not for a questionable call or two, they might have advanced to the Super Bowl with their much-maligned passer calling signals. It’s also true that there might not be a guaranteed upgrade to Bortles waiting in the marketplace. Kirk Cousins could go elsewhere, and as ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando noted on my podcast Monday, Cousins’ Total QBR in 2017 (52.3) was below that of Bortles (55.6). The Washington star was also the third-most inconsistent quarterback of the season. Eli Manning appears to be staying in New York and hasn’t been very good over the past two years. Sam Bradford hasn’t been able to stay healthy. Case Keenum has one year of success on his track record, and, like Bortles, it came during a 2017 season in which a good running game and a dominant defense did a lot of the work.
At the same time, though, it’s not difficult to imagine that a Jaguars offense whose job is first and foremost to avoid turnovers might very well be better with Alex Smith at the helm, and Jacksonville could have topped Washington’s offer if so inclined. Cousins has a far longer track record of success than Bortles and likely has a higher long-term floor. The Jags were reportedly actively exploring the quarterback market days before extending Bortles.
I think Bortles deserved to come back into 2018 as the team’s starter on that fifth-year option. Simultaneously, it’s difficult to understand how a team that didn’t believe enough in Bortles to hand him a meaningful long-term deal also thought it was worth the risk of being stuck with a $10 million-plus dead-money hit in 2019. It’s also extremely unlikely any team would have given Bortles two years and $36 million fully guaranteed on the free-agent market given the other options available.
This is a Jaguars organization that, rightfully buoyed by the success of 2017, is doubling down on the guys who took it to the AFC Championship Game. Caldwell, Tom Coughlin and Doug Marrone were under contract through the end of 2019, but ownership just gave each new deals running through the 2021 campaign. Bortles was part of that success, and while he wasn’t the most important contributor, he also held his own for stretches of time. The Jaguars don’t advance past the Bills without their defense making up for a terrible game from the quarterback, but they also wouldn’t have made it past the Steelers without several big throws from him, too.
It’s also fair to look back 12 months ago, when the two most promising up-and-comers in the AFC were the Raiders and Titans. One year later, both Jack Del Rio and Mike Mularkey are gone and the teams they left look to have major holes.
The Jaguars should be good again in 2018 — they actually underperformed their Pythagorean expectation of 11.8 wins with a 10-6 mark — but there’s also a chance that everything goes south against a harder schedule if the defense’s injury rate regresses toward the mean. If that happens, the Jags might very well be looking at the decisions they made this offseason and wonder why they were so adamant about bringing everyone from 2017 along for the ride.
Jazmine Sullivan, Eric Church to sing national anthem at Super Bowl LV
NEW YORK — R&B star Jazmine Sullivan and country singer Eric Church will join forces to sing the national anthem at the next month’s Super Bowl LV, where Grammy-winning singer H.E.R. will perform “America the Beautiful.”
The performances will take place Feb. 7 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, before the big game and halftime show starring The Weeknd. It will air on CBS.
Deaf rapper and recording artist Warren “WAWA” Snipe will perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful” in American Sign Language. Emmy-nominated musical director Adam Blackstone will arrange and produce Church and Sullivan’s rendition of the national anthem.
Jay-Z’s Roc Nation company is executive producing the halftime show for a second year. Jesse Collins, who has produced the BET Awards and is working on this year’s Grammys and Oscars telecasts, will serve as an executive producer.
Sullivan rose to the top of the R&B charts in 2008 with her debut single and album. She’s earned 12 Grammy nominations and written songs for Mary J. Blige, Jennifer Hudson and Monica. Her new album, “Heaux Tales,” debuted at No. 4 on this week’s all-genre Billboard 200 albums chart.
Church, a 10-time Grammy nominee, released his debut album in 2006 and has topped the country charts with songs like “Drink In My Hand,” “Springsteen,” “Talladega” and “Record Year.” He’s released multiple multiplatinum and platinum albums and was named entertainer of the year at last year’s Country Music Association Awards.
H.E.R. won two Grammys in 2019 and has earned critical acclaim for her live performances, including her work as a guitarist. She’s won honors at the MTV Video Music Awards, BET Awards and Soul Train Music Awards and launched R&B hits such as “Focus,” “Best Part,” “Slide,” “Damage” and “B.S.” with Jhené Aiko.
NFL free agency 2021 – Biggest upcoming player decision for all 32 teams
The 2020 NFL playoffs are down to the top four teams heading into championship weekend. However, that also means that 28 other teams have begun their offseasons. Ahead of them looms free agency and the 2021 NFL draft to help shore up weaknesses and holes in their rosters.
There are several teams that just hired new general managers and head coaches who are eager to get to rebuilding their teams, while others who fell just short in the postseason are asking themselves how they can get over the hump.
With that in mind, we asked our NFL Nation reporters to identify the top looming free-agent decision each organization has to make and how likely each is to part ways with the player:
Offensive tackle Daryl Williams. The addition of Williams this offseason helped the Bills feel comfortable moving second-year lineman Cody Ford to guard to start the season. Williams has been a rock in his best season since being named second-team All-Pro in 2017. However, with Jon Feliciano and Matt Milano arguably taking precedence over Williams among the Bills’ free agents, Williams might have played himself into a contract that Buffalo can no longer afford — especially with the salary cap projected to shrink and Josh Allen commanding an even larger deal than previously expected. — Marcel Louis-Jacques
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Dolphins GM Chris Grier publicly committed to Tua Tagovailoa as the 2021 starting quarterback, but head coach Brian Flores was noncommittal when asked if Fitzpatrick would return as a backup, citing the need for a full roster evaluation. Fitzpatrick, 38, will have a decision on whether to retire, but he played well in his two seasons with the Dolphins, transitioning them from rebuilding to contending, so he likely will be offered a notable free-agent contract from another team. If he keeps playing, the expectation is Fitzpatrick will move on to a team that provides him a chance to be a bridge starting quarterback or compete for a starting job. The Dolphins would need to sign and/or draft another backup quarterback. — Cameron Wolfe
Center David Andrews. There are a lot of other notable choices — quarterback Cam Newton, guard Joe Thuney and defensive tackle Lawrence Guy among them — but Andrews gets the nod as a four-time captain and heart-and-soul member of the organization on and off the field. He sets the protection at the line of scrimmage and thus will be a critical extension to whoever is lining up at quarterback, which is another huge question for the Patriots. That’s why the odds seem higher they will work hard to re-sign him. — Mike Reiss
Safety Marcus Maye. The Jets are on record as saying they want to re-sign Maye, their team MVP. Of course, they said the same thing about wide receiver Robby Anderson (he bolted as a free agent) and safety Jamal Adams (traded). So you never know. Maye is a steady, if not stellar, player who is in line for a big payday ($8 million to $10 million-a-year range). This is just his second contract, but he will be 28 for the season. The front office likes his intangibles, and he should be a good fit in Robert Saleh’s zone-based scheme. — Rich Cimini
Pass-rusher Matthew Judon or Yannick Ngakoue. The Ravens have to decide which free-agent outside linebacker to invest in. Judon is the more all-around linebacker, and Ngakoue is considered the better pure rusher. Baltimore has tried to get an extension with Judon, but he has been seeking a contract worth $20 million per season, according to a source. The Ravens could put the franchise tag on Ngakoue, but he’s been a disappointment since they traded a third-round pick for him in October. Ngakoue played just 20 snaps in Baltimore’s playoff loss, which suggests he might not be in the team’s long-term plans. Four of the Ravens’ five outside linebackers are pending free agents: Judon, Ngakoue, Pernell McPhee and Tyus Bowser. — Jamison Hensley
Defensive end Carl Lawson. Lawson might not have had big sack numbers, but he created 10.5 sacks in 2020, according to ESPN Stats & Information and NFL Next Gen. The Bengals would be wise to try to give Lawson a long-term deal. But the big question will be whether Lawson will want to stay in Cincinnati or go to a place where he might be more likely to get sacks. — Ben Baby
Wide receiver Rashard Higgins. The Browns brought Higgins back on a one-year deal from last season, with Mayfield helping convince Higgins to re-sign. Higgins, in turn, has been a huge part of Baker Mayfield‘s resurgence since taking over for the injured Odell Beckham Jr. in the starting lineup in Week 7. The Browns have a lot of money committed at wide receiver, in OBJ and Jarvis Landry. But given Higgins’ rapport with Mayfield, it seems prudent for Cleveland to get a multiyear deal done. — Jake Trotter
Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. Ben Roethlisberger wants him back. Smith-Schuster wants to be back. But the Steelers rarely give second contracts to wide receivers, the only two going to Hines Ward and Antonio Brown. Smith-Schuster was an indispensable member of the offense — especially for his gritty yards after catch and dependability on third downs, but history isn’t on his side. Neither is the salary cap. To re-sign Smith-Schuster, the Steelers will have to pull off more cap wizardry, a trick made even more difficult by Roethlisberger’s $41.2 million cap hit. All of that suggests the Steelers let him walk and rely on Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and James Washington to be the future at the position. — Brooke Pryor
Wide receiver Will Fuller. The wide receiver, playing on his fifth-year option, was setting himself up for a huge new contract before he was suspended for six games for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. Even with the suspension, Fuller might still get a big deal, and it could come from Houston. Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson said in December, after the receiver was suspended, that it’s “very important” that Fuller is back. The Texans, of course, still are navigating Watson’s frustration with their search for a general manager, but re-signing Fuller could be a way to keep Watson in Houston. — Sarah Barshop
Quarterback Philip Rivers. Rivers has told the Colts that he’s “not 100% sure” he wants to play an 18th NFL season. The two sides will take the next month to decide which direction to go. The Colts want Rivers, 39, but they aren’t going to sit back and wait on him to make up his mind. They’ll be evaluating quarterbacks around the league and continue scouting potential draft picks. If Rivers does not return, the Colts could have their third different starting quarterback in as many seasons, because Jacoby Brissett is heading into free agency. — Mike Wells
Offensive tackle Cam Robinson. He was up-and-down in pass protection this season and hasn’t become the dominant player the Jags envisioned when they drafted him in the second round in 2017. He did deal with a torn ACL in 2018, but that shouldn’t have been an issue in 2020. Do the Jags want an inconsistent player protecting Trevor Lawrence’s blind side or will they try to upgrade in free agency or the draft? — Mike DiRocco
Wide receiver Corey Davis. The Titans finally had a potent 1-2 punch at wide receiver last season. Davis took advantage of coverage that focused mostly on A.J. Brown. The chemistry that Davis developed with Ryan Tannehill yielded a 70% catch rate and single-season career highs in yards (984) and touchdowns (five). It’s going to be pricey, but the Titans will figure out how to bring Davis back. — Turron Davenport
Safety Justin Simmons. This is near the top of newly hired general manager George Paton’s to-do list. Inside the locker room, many of Simmons’ teammates wonder what, exactly, a guy has to do to get re-signed. Simmons has played every snap of the last three seasons, he’s been named to a Pro Bowl and been a second-team All-Pro selection over those three seasons. He is one of the Broncos’ most active players in the community and was the Broncos’ nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award in 2020. Certainly the Broncos could place the franchise tag on him once again, as they did this past season, but a new deal keeps one of the best players in house and shows the team is interested in rewarding effort. Yes, the deal has to make sense for the Broncos, but not re-signing Simmons will cause many of his teammates to think, “If he can’t get a new deal from the Broncos, how will I?” — Jeff Legwold
Wide receiver Sammy Watkins. Watkins hasn’t posted great numbers since joining the Chiefs in 2018 but the offense has been more productive when he’s in the lineup than when he’s not. The Chiefs don’t appear to have his replacement on their roster as a No. 2 wide receiver. It’s difficult to picture the Chiefs being able to afford Watkins again, given a tight salary-cap situation. But both sides were motivated to get a deal done last year, when Watkins agreed to a reduced contract in order to remain with the team. — Adam Teicher
Offensive lineman Denzelle Good. Yeah, receiver Nelson Agholor had a career year with 896 receiving yards, an 18.7 yards-per-catch average and eight touchdowns. But with the Raiders likely needing to slash salary to get under the cap, Agholor might command more than they can afford. Good, meanwhile, was the Raiders’ do-everything man on the O-line, filling in admirably at both right tackle and left guard. And with huge question marks surrounding right tackle Trent Brown and left guard Richie Incognito, Good probably is the smarter call here. After all, both coach Jon Gruden and quarterback Derek Carr said Good was the team’s unsung hero and team MVP last year. — Paul Gutierrez
Tight end Hunter Henry. The 26-year-old been solid, but his injuries are confusing things for both sides. The Chargers thought he would make it through the season, but he missed the last two games. Henry is a valuable tight end for the Chargers, and they will try to keep him. But he could have many suitors. — Shelley Smith
Quarterback Dak Prescott. No, this is not a copy-and-paste from last year. He remains the signature piece to the offseason plans. The Cowboys want to sign him to a long-term deal, but they also wanted to do that in 2019 and ’20. If they can’t get a long-term deal, then they will place the franchise tag on him again at a cost of $37.7 million. With the tag or a long-term deal, Prescott’s contract will chew up a good portion of the cap space, and that will affect Dallas’ ability to lure free agents or keep players currently under contract. Perhaps this time the Cowboys and Prescott’s agent, Todd France, will actually have real negotiations before the mid-June deadline if he is tagged again. — Todd Archer
Damien Woody explains that the Cowboys have the worst offense in the NFL since Dak Prescott has been out and says it’s time to change things up in Dallas.
Defensive lineman Leonard Williams. He played this season on the franchise tag ($16.1 million) and had a monster year with 11.5 sacks and 30 quarterback hits, which was third in the NFL. That said, to sign him long term will be costly. How much are the Giants willing to pay? How much will Williams want? He has been insistent that money is not his top priority. Still, he will be costly, and the Giants can’t afford to lose him. No one else had more than four sacks. The Giants need to add pass-rushers, not subtract them. — Jordan Raanan
Defensive back Jalen Mills. He moved from corner to safety in 2020 and improved along the way. He was a starting corner on their 2017 championship defense and has been a locker room leader, but the new defensive coordinator will have to decide if he’s a system fit. — Tim McManus
Guard Brandon Scherff. He played on the franchise tag this season en route to becoming the first Washington player to be named first-team All-Pro since punter Matt Turk in 1996. There was some thought last offseason among those who know Scherff that he might not want to commit here long term, but after coach Ron Rivera’s first season, Scherff seemed enthused about returning, saying he “absolutely” wanted to come back. Rivera wants to build strong lines, and if that’s the case Scherff must be retained. In November 2019, Philadelphia made three-time Pro Bowler Brandon Brooks the highest-paid guard with a four-year deal worth $54.2 million. It makes sense if Scherff’s deal is close to this figure. — John Keim
Wide receiver Allen Robinson. Robinson set a career high with 102 receptions last year, but the Bears have been reluctant to pay the 27-year-old receiver top dollar. Contract talks between the Bears and Robinson’s agent went nowhere during the season. The Bears value Robinson but seem content to let the veteran wideout test the market instead of paying him top-five-receiver money. Chicago could use the franchise tag, but that seems unlikely given the expected decrease in the league’s salary cap. The Bears are bracing for the real possibility that Robinson leaves via free agency. — Jeff Dickerson
Wide receiver Kenny Golladay. The Lions didn’t get a deal done with him in-season and now the question for the new regime is whether to franchise-tag him, sign him to a long-term deal or let him walk in free agency. The most plausible solution here could be to tag Golladay to buy time to either A) work out a long-term deal once they figure out how a barren receiver room might be constructed or B) seek potential trade partners if he’s not part of the long-term plan, similar to what the Texans did with Jadeveon Clowney and the Jaguars did with Ngakoue last offseason. It’s also possible Golladay plays for Detroit in 2021 and the sides figure out something from there, but it’s tough to see the club completely letting him walk considering the 27-year-old’s talent and age. — Michael Rothstein
Running back Aaron Jones. The Packers had a deal on the table that would have made Jones among the top five highest-paid backs in the league, but that was in terms of average per year. The big guaranteed money was missing. So Jones turned it down and then opted to change agents, hiring Drew Rosenhaus. The Packers continue to see how valuable Jones is — just look at his 60-yard run to open the second half of the playoff game against the Rams — but it’s hard to imagine them upping their guaranteed money, especially if they want to re-sign All Pro center Corey Linsley. Perhaps the decision already has been made to let him go — or least hit the market — but it couldn’t have been an easy one. — Rob Demovsky
Linebacker Eric Wilson. The Vikings’ biggest offseason roster decisions center around the likes of Kyle Rudolph and Riley Reiff, both of whom are under contract for 2021 but whose futures in Minnesota are up in the air in part because of the need to create salary-cap space. Wilson, however, could soon be hitting the open market after putting together a strong season in which he played every defensive snap following an injury to Anthony Barr in the first quarter of Week 2. Minnesota can’t afford to keep three linebackers on the roster with how much Barr ($12.3 million) and Eric Kendricks ($8.15 million) are set to make in 2021. But the team must decide whether it can keep Wilson and potentially execute a trade for Barr or move on from the Pro Bowl linebacker. Given the financial implications (dead money), that seems unlikely. And if Wilson can command a $9 million-$10 million salary in free agency, there’s a high likelihood he ends up elsewhere. — Courtney Cronin
Kicker Younghoe Koo. Safety Keanu Neal is a high priority, too, but having a reliable kicker is so valuable and impacts the way the game is called. He’s coming off by far the best year of his career (37 of 39 field goals made), and if the Falcons can lock him down for reasonable money, that’ll be one area new coach Arthur Smith won’t have to worry about. — Mike DiRocco
Offensive tackle Taylor Moton. One could argue wide receiver Curtis Samuel here, but the Panthers don’t have enough cap room to sign both. They need Moton to anchor the right side of the line as they search for a franchise left tackle. Samuel is a nice piece to have, but they can replace him with a healthy Christian McCaffrey and a cheaper free agent or draft pick. — David Newton
Defensive end Trey Hendrickson. The Saints have a lot of big decisions to make, including whether they want to bring back Jameis Winston as a starting quarterback candidate and make expensive long-term commitments to 2022 free agents such as Terron Armstead, Ryan Ramczyk, Marshon Lattimore and Taysom Hill. But Hendrickson is the most fascinating 2021 free agent. It will be interesting to see how the Saints and the rest of the NFL value him after an unexpected breakout season with 13.5 sacks that probably priced him out of New Orleans. — Mike Triplett
Offensive tackle Donovan Smith. Smith won’t be a free agent in 2021, but in 2022. However, 2021 is when the guaranteed money is up in his contract, which has him slated to make $14.25 million next year. He’s had an up-and-down career, but he did turn in one of his best performances in the wild-card round against Chase Young. Still, with the success Tristan Wirfs had as a rookie right tackle, might the Bucs be looking to turn the page, especially when they have several key players becoming free agents in Chris Godwin, Shaq Barrett, Lavonte David, Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown and Ndamukong Suh? — Jenna Laine
Cornerback Patrick Peterson. The Cardinals’ fifth-overall pick in 2011 has played his entire career with Arizona and has been a model and elite cornerback. He made eight straight Pro Bowls to start his career but began a slight decline in 2019 when he was suspended six games for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy. Ever since, receivers are catching more passes against him and Peterson hasn’t been the lockdown corner he was earlier in his career. At 30, he wants another big deal — like the extension he received in 2014 — but the Cardinals didn’t commit to anything, and his contract expires in March. What the Cardinals do with Peterson will hinge on what they do around him. Robert Alford, who signed before the 2019 season, has yet to play a down because of injuries, and Byron Murphy is more of an inside corner. In theory, Arizona would need to solidify the position before letting Peterson walk. — Josh Weinfuss
Outside linebacker Leonard Floyd. The Rams have a few defensive playmakers, including safety John Johnson III and cornerback Troy Hill, who are pending free agents, but with the NFL’s premium on pass-rushers, that could mean Floyd is likely to be the most pursued. Rams coach Sean McVay gave an unequivocal yes when asked if he wanted Floyd to return. But it could come down to whether the Rams can afford to keep the 2016 first-round pick who tallied a career-best 10.5 sacks this season. — Lindsey Thiry
Offensive tackle Trent Williams. He’s the 49ers’ top priority, and he has made it clear he’d like to stay, but it’s not that simple. The Niners cannot tag Williams, which means he could be one of the only premier left tackles ever to hit the open market. Williams has said “it would be interesting to kind of see what [my] value holds” and if that value goes to a place the 49ers might not be able to handle given their salary-cap constraints, they could find themselves with a difficult decision. Odds are the sides will work something out, but if that doesn’t happen before free agency begins, the Niners might have to sweat it out and, if they lose him, find themselves with a massive need at one of the most important positions in football. — Nick Wagoner
Cornerback Shaquill Griffin. Griffin and running back Chris Carson are two players the Seahawks want to keep, but evidently not badly enough to try to extend either last offseason when each was heading into the last year of his rookie deal. Griffin made the Pro Bowl as an alternate in 2019. He’s well-liked in the organization, and he’s answered the question of whether he can take the ball away, with three interceptions in 2020 matching his combined total from his first three seasons. How far the Seahawks will go to re-sign him could depend to some degree on how much they have to pay strong safety Jamal Adams, who’s in line for a massive extension. Adams likely is Seattle’s top offseason contract priority. — Brady Henderson
New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Thomas likely to have multiple surgeries on ankle
New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Thomas is likely to have surgeries on both the torn deltoid and other injured ligaments in his high ankle this offseason, a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter on Tuesday.
Thomas knew it was likely Drew Brees‘ last year and didn’t want to miss out on the final opportunity to try and win a Super Bowl with him. He often wouldn’t practice all week yet would still play in games — at much less than 100% — after taking pain medication, the source said.
The coaches told him even as injured as he was, they were much better off with him than without him, the source said.
Thomas played in just seven regular-season games in 2020 because of a nagging ankle injury that he suffered in Week 1. He returned from injured reserve for the NFC wild-card game vs. Chicago, scoring his first touchdown of the season, after the Saints decided to rest him over the final three games of the regular season to try and get him as close to 100% as possible for the playoffs.
The NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2019 after setting a league record with 149 catches, Thomas had just 40 receptions for 438 yards with no touchdowns in seven games this season.
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