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The 10 biggest NFL offseason storylines to watch: A QB market unlike any we've seen

 

The 10 biggest NFL offseason storylines to watch: A QB market unlike any we've seen

The NFL season came and went with the same speed you treat a holiday gathering that involves your weird drunk uncle asking you how to use Twitter. But there will be no breaks -- or brakes -- on this bullet train toward the 2018 season. We are careening right into the offseason, and there is promise for this to be a very weird and very intense offseason.

Like anything NFL-related, the offseason will focus on quarterbacks. But unlike most offseasons, we're getting multiple young quarterbacks available in free agency and a huge pile of them available in the draft. It's a good time to need a quarterback, but it's also going to be a wild game of musical chairs for those teams.

Let's dive into those storylines as well as the 10 things I'm watching for this offseason. Love, hate or have a better suggestion? Holler at me on Twitter @WillBrinson.

1. Where does Kirk Cousins land?

If someone asked me what I'm most curious about this offseason, it's Kirk Cousins No. 1 and the second thing isn't really even that close. Cousins is going to be a free agent barring the Redskins getting absurdly petty with their breakup from the former fourth-round pick. And his free agency is unlike anything we have ever seen: Cousins is an NFL unicorn, a franchise-caliber quarterback hitting the open market completely unencumbered, completely healthy and under the age of 30. Jimmy Garoppolo just got paid a record sum and he was under 49ers control for the foreseeable future courtesy of the franchise tag. Cousins played the past two seasons under the tag and we will finally see what the market for a quarterback brings. 

Cousins landing a $150 million contract for five years of work would hardly be surprising; it might be likely. And his destination can be boiled down to a few landing spots, but there is no absolute way to predict where he ends up.

The Jets are certainly in play, with their piles of money and friendly offensive coordinator situation (Jeremy Bates is a Shanahan disciple). The Browns are the Browns but they are also rich with money and have offensive line talent plus the ability to procure young stars with two top-five picks in the 2018 NFL Draft. The Vikings and Jaguars can both sell Cousins on becoming the piece of the puzzle to put them over the top. Signing with Minnesota or Jacksonville might mean taking a little less money, but it would also mean becoming an instant playoff and Super Bowlcontender. 

Denver (more on the Broncos below) and Arizona offer similar setups, albeit at a lower level. There is also the wild-card factor here of the Redskins diving into the fray Tuesday and tagging Cousins. Doing so would likely result in Cousins filing a grievance and there's a good chance he would win. The Redskins tagging him could derail their offseason. If he signs it immediately, the Redskins would see their cap space evaporate and might not be able to trade Cousins unless he's willing to play ball with someone else on a long-term contract. The Redskins playing that game of chicken would derail the free-agent market and delay how things shook out in the offseason while everyone waited on a Cousins resolution.  

Cousins is a very, very big domino and no one knows with any certainty which direction he's going to fall. 

2. The rest of the QB market

All things considered, this is a pretty absurd free-agent quarterback class. You never see a guy like Cousins walk into the market, and circumstances conspired to create a few other odd situations. The last real young quarterback to hit the open market was Drew Brees, and he was coming off a franchise-tag season with the Chargers while battling a shoulder injury. It's easy to forget, but the Dolphins actively chose Daunte Culpepper over Brees in free agency. It's a fascinating what-if for Nick Saban's NFL tenure. Brees will be hitting the market again this year, because his previous contract, which held a provision preventing the Saints from using the tag on him again, is up. 

In a vacuum, Brees could net a monster deal by playing market forces against one another. But this version of Brees appears to be kindler, gentler and a little more sentimental. After a deep playoff run that ended in stomach-punch fashion in Minnesota, Brees has stated openly he plans on returning to the Saints if they'll have him. And they probably will! Except the question will be whether they want to have him at the price he prefers (~$30 million a year?) or the price they would prefer (~$25 million per year?). 

New Orleans should be good next season, thanks to the presence of Alvin Kamaraand Michael Thomas on offense, plus a defense that finally turned the corner with an infusion of young talent led by Marshon Lattimore. With Brees, the Saints are a Super Bowl contender, but it sure feels like this whole vague contract negotiation is going a little too smoothly. 

The last time these two parties hammered out a deal with Brees on an expiring contract, things got contentious, even with an obvious outcome sitting there all along. Brees was tagged and the Saints pushed the long-term deal up against the deadline, waiting until the last possible moment to pay their quarterback. No such fallback exists here. If Brees is offered $10 million or $15 million more by another contending team (the Jags?), he and the Saints might have an interesting and difficult situation on their hands. 

Also on the market now: former Bengals backup AJ McCarronwho won a grievance against the club and is scheduled to hit free agency, barring Cincy putting the tag on him. With Garoppolo now signed long-term, McCarron immediately slots in as one of the top guys in the second layer of quarterbacks. If Cousins inks a deal quickly and Brees stays in New Orleans, McCarron will find himself in the catbird's seat in terms of negotiating a deal. It's easy to see him in purple or teal but perhaps the Brownslike the idea of taking a second shot at landing him.

The Vkings quarterbacks could borderline get their own position on this list: Minny has three free agents on its roster between Case KeenumSam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater. The best info right now involves the Vikings using the transition tag on Keenum to keep him around, but that's not a guarantee, considering the departure of offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. Keenum is a career journeyman who exploded on the scene and was a top-10 quarterback in 2017. If the Vikings chase another target (Cousins, McCarron, etc.), Keenum would move into a fascinating spot in the market. Denver has been rumored to have interest, and regardless of his past struggles, the guy who played last season would command a lot of interest from teams in need of a starter. Bridgewater and Bradford are big-time injury wild cards. 

3. The quarterback draft class

Making free agency even more intense and exciting for a strong group of quarterbacks is the equally intriguing group in the draft. Prepare yourself accordingly, because the hottest takes that have ever been heated will get served up before the draft thanks to this group. 

Baker Mayfield is DX Deshaun Watson, a rogue, crotch-chopping guy who just finds a way to win. Anonymous scouts will question his height and character. Plop him in a market like New York (both the Giants and Jets could use top-10 picks on a quarterback) and get your popcorn ready.

Josh Allen is the most mystifying prospect of the bunch. He has EVERYTHING in terms of physical talent and can absolutely unleash  a deep ball. But routine accuracy is lacking. It's fair to wonder how much Carson Wentz's rise two years ago helps Allen. 

Josh Rosen has faced criticism over his love of the game. He has some serious ups and downs as well, but certainly fits the bill as a franchise quarterback. He's a strong underdog for drawing eyeballs at the combine for something said in his press conference. 

Sam Darnold would probably be polarizing in any other year. People just want to ask about his fumbles. He probably has the best combo of floor plus ceiling out of this group.

Lamar Jackson will get Michael Vick comparisons and he will also have people saying he needs to switch to wideout. The takes on Jackson will be nothing short of breathtaking in their revealing nature. 

The combination of the draft class and free-agent market plus a huge group of teams in need of quarterback, many of them with top picks and/or tons of cap space, is going to make this one of the better offseasons. 

4. Goodbye, Legion of Boom?

We saw a pretty big change in the NFC in terms of the power structure last season. The NFC West, in particular, is in the midst of a major sea change. The Rams are rising and the 49ers are dangerous with Jimmy G. The Seahawks, well, we don't know what the Seahawks are for the short or long haul.

Pete Carroll was the subject of retirement rumors after Seattle was eliminated from the postseason and the team did a full-blown overhaul on its coordinators and coaching staff. Kris Richard was removed as defensive coordinator and Brian Schottenheimer replaced Darrell Bevell as offensive coordinator. He's charged with, we think, revamping the Seattle offense and building around Russell Wilson. The power run game is long gone, as is Tom Cable, and Wilson needs to be protected moving forward.

Even more perplexing is what will happen with the defense. Carroll indicated neither Kam Chancellor nor Cliff Avril will be healthy enough to keep playing, but the future is still murky for both guys. Earl Thomas was recruiting the Cowboys after playing in Dallas, and knows he might not be in Seattle for the long haul. Richard Sherman is  Michael Bennett does not expect to be back next season.

The Legion of Boom as we know it might say adios this offseason. 

5. Panthers sale and new look

Speaking of a shift in the NFC, the Panthers find themselves in a very precarious position. This is a massive year for this team: Thomas Davis and Ryan Kalil, both lifetime Panthers and critical veterans in terms of talent and leadership, have said they are retiring after the season. This is not the Derek Jeter Retirement Tour; Davis and Kalil are anticipating Carolina being able to make a Super Bowl run given the talent on the roster. 

But winning with all the changes swirling around the team is not going to be easy. The Panthers canned their offensive coaching staff and replaced Mike Shula with Norv Turner and his entire family treeCam Newton spent last offseason recovering from shoulder surgery and now he's going to spend this offseason adjusting to a new coaching staff. Turner's hire has drawn some skeptical eyes, but the reality is he constitutes an upgrade, as long as Newton isn't taking seven-step drops and chucking it downfield on every play. 

Carolina still has to figure out what's happening with Marty Hurney, who has been hired, firedhired as an interimsuspended as an interim and reinstated as an interim. Pretty sure that qualifies for GM BINGO. Hurney is the favorite for the full-time job, but only because the team is up for sale.

Which, by the way, might linger over this franchise some. Jerry Richardson, the team's only owner, has given up control of the team amid an NFL investigation into workplace misconduct. The team is for sale and bidders are beginning to emerge, but the timeline is still very much TBD. Making high-level football decisions without an owner and without a full-time GM is walking a very dangerous tightrope. 

The Panthers need wideout help, they have to figure out if they're going to pay Andrew Norwell and Star Lotulelei before they walk in free agency and they have to formulate a draft plan. Handling the biggest offseason in the franchise's past half decade with a temporary leadership structure is really tricky. 

6. The Patriots' plan

New England faded into the background after the Eagles won the Super Bowl, but the disappearance is only temporary. The awkwardness created by a late-season report about "tensions" between Bill Belichick, Robert Kraft and Tom Brady will not evaporate into thin air just because the team lost a Super Bowl.

The good news about a loss is the trio can go nose to the grindstone and work on trying to secure a sixth Lombardi Trophy. Sometimes work is the best possible distraction for off-field issues. 

Kraft essentially admitted there are issues to hash out and thinks the dynasty can keep rolling along if the group can get together and lay everything on the table.

The return of Josh McDaniels, and his potential ascension to Belichick's spot, maybe provides clarity. Or maybe it makes things more muddled.

Either way, New England's big three figuring out how they want to proceed with their respective careers -- Kraft is the owner and not going anywhere, but Brady and Belichick are at the very least on the back nine of their respective HOF runs -- deserves our full attention.

7. Broncos veterans 

Denver built a Super Bowl champion more through free agency than you typically see, with the addition of Peyton Manning punctuating a spree of signings that paid off with the Broncos hoisting the Lombardi after Super Bowl 50. The Broncos have been bleeding talent for a few years now, but this year could be particularly ugly. Denver has six players with a cap hit north of $10 million heading into the offseason and only Von Miller ($22 million) and Chris Harris ($10.3 million) are guaranteed to be safe. 

Emmanuel Sanders has been rumored in trade talks, although the Broncos would like you to stop talking about that so they can generate interest from some of those quarterbacks we mentioned above. Releasing Demaryius Thomas would free up almost $8 million in cap room, but, again, it would create the issue of the Broncos losing one of their star receivers. 

Aqib Talib feels like a good bet to be released as he would free up $11 million in cap space. Derek Wolfe would free up more than $7 million, and he hasn't played a full 16 games since 2014. 

It's a catch-22 situation, because freeing up money to chase a quarterback would be huge for Denver. The Paxton Lynch thing doesn't appear to be working out for John Elway and he hasn't shied away from spending in free agency at the position. But spending a ton of money on a quarterback requires having a ton of money to spend, and it would probably mean the Broncos taking away a lot of talent from their roster. 

The Broncos still have a window with these veterans, but it's a small one. They feel like they might be in purgatory here.

8. The catch rule

The NFL finally admitted it might be willing to change up the way the catch rule works, with Roger Goodell suggesting it's broken (he's not wrong) and expressing a willingness to start from scratch. Super Bowl LII paved the way for a change

Because this is how the media often works, expect plenty of questions to coaches at the combine on the catch rule, as reporters prep for features on the NFL's dumbest rule. 

The real work will be done at the NFL owners' meetings, however. That's when the competition committee could huddle up and decide to overhaul the catch rule. 

If I was a betting man (or, more accurately, had an opportunity to bet on this scenario), I would expect a major change that makes it much easier to stomach some of the things we see from officials.

Namely, I would anticipate you see an emphasis on allowing what was ruled on the field to primarily stand, with replay serving only to fix major mistakes that were handed out by the officials. What's really big to watch here: Would the Dez Bryantcatch or the Calvin Johnson catch or even the Jesse James catch end up being ruled as catches when all is all said and done with the overhaul by the NFL?

9. Andrew Luck's health

One of the best quarterback prospects in the past 25 years, Luck looked like a franchise QB for the first few seasons of his career, dragging the Colts to multiple division titles. Then Indy managed to mangle his health and it hasn't really had a fully healthy Luck around for a few years. 

The Colts didn't get a single snap out of their franchise quarterback this season, with Luck trying to recover from offseason shoulder surgery throughout the entire season. It was an unmitigated disaster.

No one knows whether he's better now. We have gotten some vague updates from owner Jim Irsay and GM Chris Ballard, but Ballard even essentially admitted the Colts don't know where he stands in his recovery. That made things a little dicey when it came to the search to replace Chuck Pagano, except the Colts got high marks for managing to lure Josh McDaniels away from New England.

Until they didn't -- McDaniels bolted at the last second, leaving the Colts holding the bag and looking sort of foolish. (Don't blame Ballard or Indy for this, it was all McDaniels' doing.)

Credit Ballard for standing tall in his press conference and really credit him for going out and getting Frank Reich, who appears to fit in perfectly with the culture of Indianapolis. The Colts might be better off, especially with Reich having a number of different experiences and styles to build on in an attempt to help Luck return to prominence. 

Reich and the Eagles did great work with Carson Wentz, who has a similar build and similar style to Luck. Reich knows how to protect a quarterback and should integrate a system that keeps Luck from taking too many unnecessary shots. Indianapolis is the forgotten team in this division with the Jaguars surging, the Titans making the playoffs then firing their coach and the Texans expecting both Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt back. But if Luck is healthy, it could flip the division on its head. 

10. Gruden's return

This is not me saying Jon Gruden being back is the 10th most important thing; it's more of a bookend with the free-agency stuff, because Gruden is a fascinating storyline. The Raiders have a lore that few franchises can boast of, but it has been a while since they were dominant in the fashion of the Al Davis days. Jack Del Rio won 12 games two years ago, and it was the culmination of some smart roster maneuvering by Reggie McKenzie, but the Raiders haven't been consistently good in a long time. 

Gruden's return, which features the coach signed to an absurd 10-year, $100 million contract, is what Mark Davis believes can take Oakland back to the halcyon days of competitiveness. Gruden was coach of Oakland the last time it was a quality contender and the Raiders made the Super Bowl with what amounts to his roster the season after he was traded to Tampa Bay. Unfortunately Oakland also lost to Gruden in the Super Bowl.

He would eventually be fired by the Buccaneers and spent the greater part of a decade out of coaching and working for ESPN on "Monday Night Football." By the time it was all said and done, he was with the WWL longer than he was with Tampa. 

Gruden was a great coach for stretches and has a pedigree. 

You can argue the time he spent away from coaching only helps him, because he got to examine league-wide trends and talk to every coach about their ideas. You could also argue being out of coaching for almost 10 years will make coaching tough the second time around. 

Which is what makes this so unpredictable. Any outcome with Gruden is on the table. The Raiders could win 12 games next season or they could win five.