Many NFL teams script their first 15 (or more) plays before a game starts to focus on getting a few fundamental concepts right. Whether they want to attack a particular defensive player or scheme, exploit a perceived weakness or simply drill down on the offensive elements they think are most critical to winning, they pay particularly close attention to the plays they'll start with on Sunday as they wrap up the week.
Likewise, organizations need to pay attention to the first few critical things they do during the 2017 offseason, as those might end up defining the year to come. Some teams have a lot to do before the new league year begins March 9, while others won't have to make critical calls until the first day of the NFL draft on April 27.
In this series for ESPN over the next two weeks, I'll be running through the first five things that should be running through each team's mind as it prepares for the 2017 offseason. Let's head to the AFC West today, where one franchise has already moved, and another may be on its way.
1. Don't panic and trade away a high draft pick to get QB Tony Romo. The Romo situation is a fascinatingly weird standoff in which each party -- Romo, the Cowboys and the potential acquiring team -- can really only foil the hopes of the others right now. The Broncos certainly seem like they would be the favorites to grab the oft-injured Cowboys starter if he hits free agency, given how close they are to contention, but they would miss out on Romo if the Cowboys traded him to another organization. A team like the Bills or Bears might panic and offer something as high as a second-rounder to cut the line and acquire Romo, but the flip side is that Romo might just respond to that by choosing to retire. Threatening to do so may be enough to facilitate his release.
The most plausible outcome is that the Cowboys choose to cut Romo, given the cap savings of stretching Romo's dead money over two seasons and the modest draft-pick return that would likely come via trade. If that happens, the Broncos could sign the best quarterback on the market without giving a pick away. John Elway didn't panic last offseason, and he's rightly unlikely to do so here, either.
If the Broncos do acquire Romo, they will also have an interesting trade chip available in Trevor Siemian. Siemian probably isn't a long-term starter in the NFL, but his usefulness in Denver last year suggests he would be an above-average backup, and that's valuable: An acquiring team would owe Siemian a total of only $1.3 million over the next two seasons. Siemian-for-Romo might be a logical trade in its own right. The Broncos could also likely recoup a draft pick by sending Siemian elsewhere. Paxton Lynch would then remain as the long-term backup and replacement for Romo.
2. Renegotiate OT Russell Okung's contract or release him as part of an offensive line overhaul. The former Seahawks starter made the ill-advised decision of heading into the market without representation last year and ended up as the best advertisement for hiring an agent. He signed what amounted to a one-year, $5.2 million trial with the Broncos that gives way to a four-year, $47.8 million deal if Denver chooses to pick up his option by March 8. Okung's deal would have $21 million guaranteed, all over the next two seasons.
Okung stayed on the field for all 16 games for the first time in his career during the 2016 campaign, but he (and the Broncos' offensive line as a whole) did not have the best season. It's tough to imagine that the Broncos want to go forward with his deal as signed, and even if they want to retain Okung, they have all the leverage in terms of deciding whether they want to keep the former sixth overall pick. They can choose to offer Okung a new, smaller deal, or allow him to hit the market again.
Regardless of whether it's Romo, Siemian or anybody else playing quarterback in Denver next year, though, the Broncos have to invest in improving their offensive line this offseason. They were too frequently the unit at fault in a frustrating offense, and in a division with Joey Bosa, Justin Houston and Khalil Mack, there's no getting by with half-measures up front.
If the Broncos don't keep Okung, they could target 35-year-old Bengals star Andrew Whitworth as a short-term option at left tackle in free agency before making further moves during the draft. Denver is down a fifth-round pick after trading it to the Patriots for tight end A.J. Derby, but it's projected to pick up four compensatory selections, including two third-rounders, a fourth-rounder and a seventh-rounder. Chase Stuart's draft value chart projects those picks to be worth 13.5 points of draft capital, roughly equivalent to the 28th pick of a typical draft.
The Broncos can leverage those selections to add depth along the line, trade up to grab a starter or acquire a veteran who might be on the market, such as Eagles left tackle Jason Peters. They should also be in range to draft a tackle with the 20th selection. Indeed, in his latest mock draft, Todd McShay has the Broncos drafting Wisconsin tackle Ryan Ramczyk with their first selection.
3. Get help along the defensive front. The Broncos were probably right to let Malik Jackson walk after the 2015 season given how much he got from the Jaguars ($31.5 million over the first two seasons), but their run defense was a mess. While they finished the season with the league's best defensive DVOA, their No. 1-ranked pass defense carried the load, as they ranked just 21st against the run. It didn't help matters that projected starter Vance Walker sat out the entire season after tearing his ACL, and Derek Wolfe also missed time.
Walker and nose tackle Sylvester Williams are both free agents, and it's logical that the Broncos will address their defensive line this offseason. They could go after a bigger name like Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell or Chiefs tackle Dontari Poe, but with the 2017 draft deep along the defensive front, it's more plausible that they'll target the position in late April with their mountain of draft picks.
4. Find a secondary pass-rusher to play behind Shane Ray and Von Miller. DeMarcus Ware is a free agent and seems likely to head elsewhere, which isn't too much of a problem given that Ray is on the roster. With Ray becoming a full-time starter, though, the Broncos will need to bring on a replacement to serve as the third piece of their pass rush rotation.
If the Broncos don't go after that player in the draft, Elway will be looking for a low-cost addition to fill in, likely a veteran chasing after a ring. Hall of Fame candidates like Julius Peppers and Dwight Freeney could be in play, along with possible cap casualties like Connor Barwin and Lamarr Houston.
5. Sign RB Danny Woodhead. I find it hard to fault the Broncos' running backs for struggling last season given how poorly the offensive line played, but C.J. Anderson and Devontae Booker failed to impress as a one-two punch. At the very least, Denver should be considering other options to play alongside them in a running back rotation.
Woodhead, 32, would make a lot of sense if he has recovered from the torn ACL he sustained in mid-September. He's spent the past several years playing under Denver's new offensive coordinator, Mike McCoy, in San Diego, so he's familiar with the scheme. Woodhead is not a great pure runner, but he's been an effective pass-blocker and offers significant value as a receiver out of the backfield. Philip Rivers produced a 101.2 passer rating with Woodhead on the field during the latter's four years in California, a figure that fell to 92.0 with Woodhead injured or on the bench.
1. Create cap space by releasing several players. Before the Chiefs can do much of anything, they need to free up some room on their 2017 cap. Kansas City is currently $2.1 million under the cap next year, but it can change that in a hurry. The Chiefs would free $10.8 million by declining Nick Foles' option, which it appears they are expected to do, although they could still bring him back at a lesser figure. Cutting Jamaal Charles would free up $6.2 million, and if they need it, Dustin Colquitt could come off the books for $4.1 million more.
The big question, as I wrote about last month, is whether the Chiefs decide to cut Jeremy Maclin. Maclin looked ordinary last year as the offense shifted toward Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, and while he's still a useful player as he turns 29, GM John Dorsey could free up $10 million on this year's cap by designating Maclin as a post-June 1 release. If Dorsey makes those four moves, the Chiefs suddenly have $33.2 million in cap space, which would come in handy to...
2. ... Lock up S Eric Berry. Berry has made threats to sit out the season if the Chiefs give him the franchise tag for a second consecutive season, but that's exactly what a player with little leverage like Berry would (and should) say in his situation. To be honest, getting tagged again wouldn't be an awful outcome for the star defensive back. Berry would get $13 million in a league where no other safety is making a salary of more than $8.5 million. He would also basically be assured a long-term deal in 2018, given that his franchise tag would be an untenable $18.7 million. But there's obvious risk involved in that scenario, so it makes sense for Berry and the organization to come to terms on a long-term deal.
3 ... And franchise NT Dontari Poe. Getting the Berry deal done would allow the Chiefs to apply the franchise tag to Poe, who would make $13.5 million on a one-year deal if he chose to accept it. That's not an unreasonable figure for Poe when you consider that Malik Jackson picked up $45 million over the first three years of his free-agent deal with the Jaguars. The Chiefs would probably prefer to address a long-term deal for Poe after the 2017 season, when they can move on from the contracts of Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali and free up $15 million in cap space.
With that being said, if anything, I suspect the Chiefs will end up flipping these two suggestions, if only because of what we've seen in the media. Berry has already gone on record with his complaints about the franchise tag, which suggests that he (and his representation) think it's the most likely possibility. Poe's negotiations have been far quieter. It may be that the Chiefs are close to signing him to a long-term deal, but given Poe's back concerns and the depth at defensive line in this year's draft, it seems more plausible that Kansas City has decided to move on from its nose tackle.
4. Add depth at inside linebacker. Inside linebacker became a problem for the Chiefs as the season went along, as Josh Mauga missed the entire season with a torn labrum in his shoulder before Johnson tore his Achilles for the second time. Mauga is a free agent, and counting on an effective season from Johnson at age 34 after a second traumatic injury is tough. Ramik Wilson, a fourth-rounder in 2015, was surprisingly effective late in the year after being cut in the preseason, but the Chiefs sorely need some help at the position. Kansas City could sign another player coming off an Achilles injury, former Chargers starter Manti Te'o, or look at a less expensive option like Michael Wilhoite or Stephen Tulloch.
5. Start working on the 2018 quarterback situation. Alex Smith is perhaps unfairly knocked by a certain subset of Chiefs fans and national observers for not being Aaron Rodgers or a similarly talented quarterback. Arguments about whether the Chiefs can win a Super Bowl with him under center seem to ignore what happened with Joe Flacco and Eli Manning in recent years. Smith has an admittedly low ceiling, but a fair number of teams would kill for Smith's performance and Kansas City's record over the past few years.
There's another reason to talk about the possibility of replacing the Chiefs' starting quarterback, though. Smith's contract will be up after the 2018 season, which means that Dorsey and coach Andy Reid likely will want to have their immediate future under center figured out before that point. Nobody likes a lame-duck quarterback. Smith will also be turning 33 in May, so the Chiefs will have to ask themselves whether they want to make a serious commitment to a league-average quarterback over his mid-to-late 30s.
Dorsey and Reid both come from the school of finding your next quarterback before you need him. Dorsey came from the Packers, where Ted Thompson drafted Rodgers in 2005 and didn't get him into the lineup until 2008. Reid found Donovan McNabb early on during his time with the Eagles, but he also drafted Kevin Kolb in the second round and signed Michael Vick, both of whom ended up playing meaningful roles in the transition away from McNabb.
Will the Chiefs trade up and grab Deshaun Watson or go out and sign Tony Romo? Probably not. Is it plausible that they draft a quarterback with one of the four picks they'll have in the first three rounds? You bet.
1. Franchise DE Melvin Ingram. As the Chargers transition to a 4-3 scheme under new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, they'll likely blitz less frequently than they did under previous coordinator John Pagano. The Chargers blitzed at about a league-average rate -- 29.6 percent -- over the past four seasons, while the Jaguars were down at 21.6 percent with Bradley, the third-lowest rate in football.
The Chargers are set at one defensive end slot with superstar rookie Joey Bosa, but just as the Seahawks' pass rush was at its best with Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, the Chargers will want to have a second pass-rusher to go alongside Bosa. Ingram has 18.5 sacks and 39 hits over the past two years, and the franchise tag would give the Chargers a year to see whether Ingram adapts well to Bradley's 4-3 before committing to him on a long-term deal.
2. Release King Dunlap and D.J. Fluker as part of an offensive line rebuild. The Chargers retained offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, so they should enjoy more continuity on that side of the football. But they need to upgrade Philip Rivers' protection. The massive Dunlap has struggled to stay healthy on Rivers' blind side, while Fluker washed out at tackle and hasn't been a difference-maker at guard. Releasing the two would free up $14.5 million in cap space.
The draft class at offensive line seems to be better at tackle than it is at guard, while the free-agent class is guard-heavy, so the Chargers may want to address the respective positions in that order. They can bid for one of Larry Warford, Kevin Zeitler, T.J. Lang and Ronald Leary, the upper-echelon guard class in free agency. The seventh overall pick is probably too early to draft one of this class' tackles, though, so the Chargers might want to use the opportunity to trade down and grab somebody like Ramczyk in the mid-to-late teens.
3. Re-sign Woodhead. All the same things I said about Woodhead for the Broncos still apply to the Chargers, who need a change-of-pace back behind Melvin Gordon. Given his injury and advancing age, Woodhead wouldn't be in line for a big raise on his $3 million cap from 2016.
4. Bring back S Jahleel Addae if his market settles. Addae has been inconsistent and has the reputation of being a headhunter, but he played well after missing time with a fractured collarbone last year. He's not worth overpaying, and the Chargers shouldn't go after the even more frustrating Johnathan Cyprien just by virtue of his experience playing with Bradley. If Addae heads elsewhere, the Chargers will be better off addressing safety on draft day.
5. Start transitioning at cornerback. Bradley has historically sought larger corners to play the Cover 3 scheme he ran under Pete Carroll in Seattle, but he never really found success until his final year in Jacksonville, when Jalen Ramsey and Prince Amukamara were very good. He's moving to a team in Los Angeles that has one of the smallest group of cornerbacks in football with 5-foot-9 Brandon Flowers, 5-foot-9 Jason Verrett, and 5-foot-11 Casey Hayward. Verrett and Hayward are Pro Bowl-caliber players at this point of their respective careers, so it would be foolish to throw them away in deference to Bradley, but the Chargers probably want to look at a bigger corner in this year's draft as a replacement for Flowers, who has suffered multiple concussions over the past three years.
1. Pick up the fifth-year option on Khalil Mack. Some of these decisions don't require deep analysis.
2. Re-sign DT Stacy McGee. While the Raiders paid Dan Williams a lot of money to come over from Arizona in 2016, McGee was their best interior lineman last season. Over the past two years, the Raiders have allowed 3.9 yards per carry with McGee on the field and 4.5 with McGee on the sideline. The problem has been injuries, with McGee missing seven games last year and 12 over the past three seasons. The injuries should depress McGee's price, and he should stick in Oakland.
3. Add a coverage linebacker (or two). Weakside linebacker Malcolm Smith is a free agent, and the Raiders have struggled to find a middle linebacker after rotating through Curtis Lofton, Perry Riley and Ben Heeney at various points over the past couple of seasons. The Raiders will likely look to find replacements, either in the draft or via free agency.
The free-agent options are relatively scarce, although cap casualties like Paul Posluszny could become available. Most of the inside linebackers set to hit the market are players who have done their best work in a 3-4, like Lawrence Timmons and Zach Brown. The most fascinating choice would be Patriots inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower, but with Oakland's big three of Mack, Derek Carr and Amari Cooper coming up for big deals soon, would the Raiders really want to pay an inside linebacker $12 million per year?
The Raiders have $49 million in space, so they can afford somebody of Hightower's caliber in the short term, but given how GM Reggie McKenzie really hasn't placed a huge emphasis on finding effective inside linebackers so far, I suspect they'll target this position with a cheaper free-agent signing or by going after linebackers in the draft.
4. Replace Latavius Murray at running back. Murray is a perfectly functional running back, and the Raiders can justify re-signing him if need be, but they can probably do better for what Murray is likely to make in free agency. It seems that most free-agent backs would love to come to the Raiders given the quality of their offensive line. They should be in the running for every veteran back, and given their short-term cap room, it wouldn't be crazy to see them target Adrian Peterson on what effectively amounts to a two-year deal. McKenzie should also be taking a long look at Doug Martin and Jamaal Charles, and he'll be able to supplement them with a running back in a deep draft class.
5. Sign QB Derek Carr to an extension. As a second-round pick, Carr currently represents one of the biggest bargains in all of football. He's entering the final year of his rookie deal and will cost the Raiders just $1.7 million on their 2017 cap. Outside of Dak Prescott, that's the best value for any QB in the league. The only downside about Carr being a second-round pick is that the Raiders won't have the ability to stick him with a fifth-year option at the end of his deal. He'll be an unrestricted free agent after the 2017 season.
Carr is not going anywhere, but the Raiders will have to fight to find reasonable value for their budding superstar. The best asset they have is that final year of Carr's deal; it's in Carr's best interest to sign an extension as quickly as possible, given that he's leaving $20 million or so on the table between his market value and his actual take-home compensation of $1.15 million in 2017.
The Raiders should also be motivated to sign Carr before this offseason. The leverage of that 2017 compensation disappears once the season is over. McKenzie can roll over the $49 million he has in cap room for seasons to come, but he should prefer for cash reasons to pay Carr now as opposed to waiting a year. The Raiders can also structure the deal in a way that would keep Carr's cap hit down for years to come as they re-sign their stars at other positions.
Quarterback agents will look at the Andrew Luck deal as the basis for their clients. Luck's contract included $75 million over its first three years, with $58.8 million in new money and a $32 million signing bonus. The Carr deal may come in slightly below that, just by virtue of that cost-controlled season, but the Raiders will still pay a pretty penny. The trick will be to give Carr roster bonuses instead of signing bonuses, which pays Carr up front but allows for the cap hit to be paid now as opposed to prorating deep into the future, when the Raiders will be paying the rest of their roster.
Here's a sample six-year deal with Carr, structured in a similar fashion to the deal signed by Kelechi Osemele before the 2016 season. This is for $129 million with $66 million in guarantees all coming in the first three years of the deal. (If Carr wants to get to $70 million, the Raiders could guarantee $4 million of his base salary in 2020.) All guaranteed money is bolded.
This lets the Raiders get the most painful part of the contract out of the way immediately, securing them lower-cost commitments to Carr between 2019 and 2021, when Mack and Cooper will be getting the bulk of their new raises. The savings might not seem significant, but remember that the cap is likely to continue rising over this stretch. They can make a similar deal with Mack next offseason before his fifth-year-option season begins. The Raiders will be kissing the days when they had $80 million in cap room goodbye, but I suspect they won't be too upset.