The NFL's unfinished offseason business: Top free agents, biggest questions, more

ByDan Graziano ESPN logo
Tuesday, May 28, 2019

We know more than we knew three months ago but less than we'll know three months from now. Yes, we are smack in the middle of the NFL offseason, and there's plenty of unfinished business.

The coaching carousel, free agency and the draft answered a lot of questions about how the upcoming NFL season will look. We've seen quarterbacks switch teams, franchise mainstays cut loose, rule changes proposed and adopted, and even a mid-May general manager firing. The 2019 picture is clearer than it was when the offseason began.

But there is more work to do. There are more questions to answer. There are position battles to resolve and, yes, some potentially helpful free agents still unsigned. With 100 days until the start of the season, here's a look at a few items of unfinished NFL offseason business.


Unanswered questions | Position battles

Top free agents | New contract candidates

Big-picture 2020 topics

Five unanswered questions:

Can the Browns mold all of this talent into a team?

It's possible that no team in the league is going to be watched as closely as the Browns, who beefed up an already promising roster with the additions of Odell Beckham Jr., Olivier Vernon, Sheldon Richardson, Kareem Hunt and others. As good as they look on paper, this collection of players hasn't won anything yet. As talented as the Browns' newcomers are, none of them did a ton of winning in previous stops. First-year head coach Freddie Kitchens is under a lot of pressure to put it all together, and we will be watching closely for signs that it's working right into September, when the games start to count.

What happens with Tyreek Hill?

TheChiefs' star wide receiver has been staying away (without being officially suspended) from the team while the NFL and local authorities in Kansas City have been investigating the disturbing domestic violence allegations involving Hill, his fiancée and their young son. The league considered placing Hill on the commissioner's exempt list but so far has decided it would rather not expand the use of that list to the offseason.

If the investigations drag through the summer -- or if Hill decides he wants to show up for work after all -- someone will have to make an official decision. Do the Chiefs suspend or release Hill? Does the league suspend him or put him on the exempt list? Given the publicly available details of the case and Hill's pre-NFL history, it's hard to imagine the status quo lasting once training camps and preseason games arrive.

Who's running the Jets?

At this point, it appears to be Adam Gase, the coach the Dolphins fired and the Jets hired a little more than four months ago. Having just fired general manager Mike Maccagnan, the Jets are ostensibly conducting a search for his replacement, and it's obviously fair to assume it will be someone they're certain can work in concert with Gase. Any trades or other roster moves that await the Jets this offseason should reflect the difference between Gase's vision for the future and Maccagnan's.

Will Cam Newton be ready in Carolina?

The Panthers quarterback still isn't throwing as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery. Panthers officials have been optimistic -- both publicly and privately -- about Newton's progress, and the team believes he will be ready for the start of the season. But we learned two years ago with Andrew Luck in Indianapolis that shoulder surgery recovery is no sure thing for a quarterback. Until Newton throws, all eyes will be on his right arm.

Which team will be featured on 'Hard Knocks'?

HBO's annual look inside an NFL team's training camp is one of the highly anticipated features of any offseason. At this time, the league and the network haven't announced which team will be the 2019 subject. Any team can volunteer, of course, but if HBO and the NFL aren't happy with the volunteers, it can force one of five teams to do the show.

The rules say you're exempt from having to do "Hard Knocks" if you have a first-year head coach, have made the playoffs either of the past two seasons or have been on the show in the past 10 years. That leaves the Raiders, 49ers, Giants, Lions and Washington as the teams the NFL can compel to do the show. The Raiders would get my vote, but my bet is it ends up being the 49ers.

Five position battles to watch:

Dolphins quarterback

Miami signed Ryan Fitzpatrick before it knew it could get Josh Rosen from Arizona for a song. Obviously, the Dolphins are comfortable starting Fitzpatrick if he's their best option, but Rosen was a red-hot prospect this time last year. Assuming he can pick up the offense quickly, you'd have to think the Dolphins will do everything they can to get a look at him as their starter this season.

Steelers wide receivers

Antonio Brown is gone. JuJu Smith-Schuster is in line to take over as the No. 1, but the receiver positions outside of JuJu remain up for grabs. Donte Moncrief, Ryan Switzer and Eli Rogers are the veterans looking to grab larger shares of the target pie, but youngstersJames Washington and Diontae Johnson have the talent and draft pedigree to hold them off with big summers.

Panthers left tackle

Cam Newton's protection always seems to be one of Carolina's issues, so the second-round pick of Ole Miss'Greg Little is one to watch. Could Little unseat 2017 second-rounder Taylor Moton and open the season as Newton's blindside protector?

Bears running back

The Bears drafted Iowa State's David Montgomery in the third round and view him, eventually, as a three-down back. But they still have do-everything back Tarik Cohen to create mismatches in the short-range passing game, and they signed veteran Mike Davis before the draft. Fantasy players everywhere will breathlessly watch the way the Bears split carries among their backs this preseason.

Ravens pass-rushers

The mid-May signings of veterans Shane Ray and Pernell McPhee got headlines, as they revealed a team unsettled at its outside linebacker position. Truthfully, the Ravens' hope is that those guys can be bit players as youngsters such as Tim Williams, Tyus Bowser and rookie Jaylon Fergusonbecome major parts of the pass-rush rotation opposite emergent starMatthew Judon.

The top five unsigned free agents:

Gerald McCoy, DT

The Buccaneers cut him for financial reasons (and signed Ndamukong Suh for cheaper), and McCoy spent the latter part of last week talking to AFC North teams. His ideal fit would be Dallas, where his interior pass-rush skills would solidify one of the league's most underrated defensive fronts. But the Cowboys are focusing their financial resources on contract extensions for their own guys right now and don't seem likely to outbid other teams for McCoy. If he doesn't end up with Cleveland or Baltimore, watch out for the Colts, who have cap room and money to spend after a disciplined offseason.

Eric Berry, S

Another cap casualty, Berry has been available since the Chiefs cut him in March. He has struggled with injury issues but could surely help someone. Teams such as the Panthers and Jaguars are still looking for safety help. If Berry can return to early-career form, he could help the Jags lock things down on the back end of an already stellar defense.

Morris Claiborne, CB

A former first-round flop for the Cowboys coming off two seasons with the Jets, Claiborne could be an asset in the right defensive scheme. The Cardinals are looking for help at the position for at least the first six games of the season while they wait outPatrick Peterson's suspension.

Derrick Morgan, DE

There isn't much left on the edge rusher market, so if you're a team such as the Giants looking for a full-time impact starter, you might be out of luck. But Morgan could help someone's pass-rush rotation, and a team looking to beef up its depth at the position -- such as the Saints-- could provide a nice landing spot.

Jermaine Kearse, WR

There are a handful of teams that need to add more at wide receiver this offseason. People throw the Packers into that group, but they have a couple of young guys drafted last year who should be able to develop their games in Year 2. Kearse could be just what Washington needs as it builds a passing game around rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins.

Five players in line for contract extensions:

Dak Prescott, QB; Amari Cooper, WR, Cowboys

These two situations seem to be on parallel tracks, as the Cowboys intend to and believe they can sign both. They're almost certainly looking at top-of-the-market deals for both players, and each is headed into the final year of his contract. But the optimism in Dallas that the team can get everyone extended hasn't waned this offseason.

Michael Thomas, WR, Saints

No one in NFL history has caught more passes in his first three seasons than Thomas, and there are currently 95 wide receivers scheduled to earn more money than Thomas in 2019. This is a deal the Saints absolutely need to get done, with Thomas headed into the final year of his rookie deal, but it's entirely possible that Thomas is waiting to see where the Cooper, A.J. Green and Julio Jones extensions land before signing his.

Grady Jarrett, DT, Falcons

Atlanta is happy that Jarrett has been showing up for offseason work, but the Falcons have yet to sign their franchise player to an extension. They have until July 15 to get that finished, or else they have to wait until after the season.

Tom Brady, QB, Patriots

As he prepares to try to win his seventh Super Bowl title, the 42-year-old Brady has one year left on his contract. He has made it clear that he isn't thinking about retiring anytime soon, and it'd be surprising if New England let The Franchise head into the season as a contractual lame duck.

Five topics to think about for 2020:

The new collective bargaining agreement

Talks have started, but they aren't hot and heavy yet. Some involved in the talks believe the owners would like a new CBA in place before the 2019 season starts because of the league's commitment to its "NFL 100" marketing campaign and because they would like to be able to assure their TV partners of labor peace as they negotiate new broadcast rights deals. The current CBA runs through the 2020 season, so it's not essential that this gets done this offseason. But optimism about an early resolution has grown in recent months, so it isn't crazy to think that this could be settled early in the 2020 offseason, if not sooner.

The Raiders' move

The Raiders are entering their final season in Oakland, and next offseason will be all about the transition to Las Vegas. GM Mike Mayock and coach Jon Gruden spoke during the draft about the importance of bringing in young players who could handle all of the complications that will come with the move, so it's already front and center in the minds of the Raiders' brain trust.

The futures of Drew Brees and Sean Payton in New Orleans

It seems we'll all grow old wondering how much longer Brady and Bill Belichick will reign in New England, but what about this pairing? Brees is 40 and doing his contract year-to-year at this point. Payton is entering his 14thyear as coach of the Saints. The team is coming off two straight years of brutally agonizing playoff defeats and believes (seemingly with good reason) that it's capable of winning another Super Bowl while Brees and Payton are there.

If they do win Super Bowl LIV, you wonder how that would affect the plans of coach and quarterback. If the Saints don't win, those plans could depend a lot on how close they come and how realistic another year as top contenders in 2020 appears to be.

The quarterback landscape

Important years await Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, as the Bucs and Titans need to decide at some point whether to commit to them long-term or start over with someone new. Change seems inevitable with the Giants, but will Eli Manning want to continue playing with someone else in 2020? Which of the five 2018 first-rounders will take an encouraging developmental step, and which will have his team wondering next spring whether it made the right call? Who from the promising draft class that includesTua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbertand others will rise to the top and be a potential No. 1 overall pick? What's Miami doing at the position?

The NFL's quarterback picture seems relatively settled as we head into 2019, but a fresh batch of questions is likely to emerge by the 2020 offseason.

The ongoing instant replay debate

The league voted in March to change the replay rules to allow penalties to be reviewable in certain situations, but the implementation of that rule change has run into some problems. However it's resolved, the first year of this change is likely to be fraught with controversy and will almost certainly be reviewed and refined next offseason. The questions from here are how far the league is willing to go with replay and whether this offseason's reaction to the Saints-Rams controversy turns out to be the start of a major expansion.

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