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 the elements they think are most critical to winning on offense, 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'll do during the 2017 offseason, because those decisions might end up defining their season to come. Some teams have a lot to do before the new league year begins March 9, whereas 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 on the minds of each team's brass as they prepare for the 2017 offseason. Here's the AFC East, with four teams who have quarterback decisions to make this spring.
1. Reconsider the apparent decision to move on from QB Tyrod Taylor. I've still yet to see a good argument for why the Bills are deciding to decline the option on Taylor's contract, which would trigger what amounts to a two-year, $40.5 million deal. Taylor is probably overpriced at that number, and the Bills were naive to pay Taylor a little over $8 million in new money this year just to have the right to pay Taylor what would have at best been a market-value deal, but they have no clear path to a quarterback of Taylor's caliber.
I'm going to continue on with this piece assuming that the Bills do release Taylor because I think it's a more representative story of what could actually happen, but I do think it's an ill-advised move for this team as it's currently constructed. This is an organization that hasn't developed a young quarterback before Taylor since Jim Kelly, and even he was 26 when he joined Buffalo from the USFL. Before Kelly, you're looking at Joe Ferguson. That's one quarterback developed out of college since the Bills joined the NFL.
2. Sign QB Jay Cutler. No, I wouldn't be thrilled about Jay Cutler, either. But what else can Buffalo do? Tony Romo is probably not signing there, and Buffalo shouldn't be trading away draft picks for a quarterback at his age with his injury history. The Patriots traded Drew Bledsoe to the Bills, but they're probably not as comfortable trading a young quarterback like Jimmy Garoppolo, who might torment them for a decade within the division. This quarterback draft class doesn't have any highly regarded prospects, and the Bills shouldn't trust their developmental ability to reach for a prospect like Mitch Trubisky with the 10th overall pick.
Of the options likely to be available, Cutler makes the most sense. He's not going to require a long-term commitment, has been relatively competent for most of his career (albeit with larger variance swings than most quarterbacks) and should be available for free without requiring any sort of trade or infringing upon the draft-pick compensation formula. Cutler also holds Buffalo's new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison in high regard, having worked with him in Denver. Cutler vouched for Dennison as a head-coaching candidate back in 2013. Cutler buys the Bills some time during which they can remain competitive while waiting for a better option at quarterback to arrive in the league.
3. Franchise CB Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore has never really turned into the No. 1 cornerback it seemed like he might become after Rex Ryan showed up in town two years ago. Coaching changes and injuries have hindered his development -- Gilmore hasn't made it through a full 16-game season since his rookie year in 2012 -- but he's also an accomplished, no-doubt starting cornerback entering his age-27 season, and those guys are incredibly valuable in today's NFL.
Gilmore could probably expect to get Janoris Jenkins-level money in free agency. The former Rams corner brought home $39.7 million over the first three years of his new deal. Factoring in inflation -- and with the cap going up about 8 percent in 2017 -- Gilmore would be looking at something in the $43 million range over three years. That's roughly $14.3 million per season. The franchise tag for cornerbacks is projected to come in at ... $14.3 million! What a coincidence. The Bills don't have a ton of cap room -- they'll be in the $39 million range if they release Taylor -- but keeping Gilmore around seems wise. Franchising him would be the first step toward a long-term deal.
4. Let LB Lorenzo Alexander leave, but retain LB Zach Brown. The Bills spent most of the year without first-round pick Shaq Lawson and all season without second-rounder Reggie Ragland thanks to injuries, but they didn't feel much of an impact thanks to breakout seasons from Alexander and Brown. Alexander, a 33-year-old career special-teamer with nine sacks in his first nine NFL seasons, broke out with a stunning 12.5-sack campaign, while Brown came over from the Titans on a one-year deal and made the Pro Bowl at inside linebacker.
Of the two, Brown is more likely to repeat his career year, given that he's turning 27. The problem is that he excelled playing as a 3-4 inside linebacker for the Bills, who have Ragland signed for the next three seasons to play middle linebacker. Brown would likely move to the weak side as the Bills transition to a 4-3 base defense, and it's unclear whether he would be as effective in that role. At the same time, new head coach Sean McDermott made hay with two very rangy linebackers in his last job with the Panthers, as Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis were the core of the Carolina defense. The Bills probably owe it to themselves to see if Brown can play as a cover linebacker under McDermott.
5. Otherwise, focus on acquiring more draft picks. The Bills need to reload after repeatedly trading up over the past few seasons. Buffalo traded down in 2013 and grabbed a rookie of the year candidate with the extra second-round pick they added in Kiko Alonso, but they failed to learn their lesson. The Bills moved up in 2014 to acquire Sammy Watkins, sending an extra first- and fourth-round pick in what seems now like an ill-fated decision. Two years later, they sent two fourth-round picks to the Bears to move up eight slots and grab Ragland.
Buffalo is down a fourth-round pick this year after the Ragland trade. They swapped their seventh-rounder for Dallas' fifth-round pick as part of the Matt Cassel deal, which helps, but the Bills need to restock their roster with young talent. They are unlikely to have a single one of their draft classes deliver more than two Bills starters on Week 1 of the 2017 season. The Bills need to target free agents who were released and won't impact Buffalo's right to draft-pick compensation and consider trading down more fervently in the draft.
1. Cut DE Mario Williams. Let's start with one of the easiest moves any team will make this offseason. Williams was a healthy scratch by the end of the year, and the Dolphins will save $8.5 million with his release. They can add another $8.2 million in savings by releasing defensive tackle Earl Mitchell and linebacker Koa Misi, which would have the Fins approaching $45 million in cap space.
2. Pick up QB Ryan Tannehill's contract for 2017. Although Tannehill didn't have the sort of breakout year people looking at Miami's record might have thought, he's still the best option the Dolphins have under center. Matt Moore might be a more cost-effective choice, but the Dolphins continue to find competence with Tannehill, who will admittedly be overpaid with a $20.3 million cap hit in 2017.
3. Lock up WR Jarvis Landry. One of the more unique players in football, the former LSU standout is entering the final year of his rookie deal, which will be the first in which his cap hit will top even $1 million (at $1.1 million). Landry's 288 catches over his first three seasons might inflate his actual value, given that a good chunk of his receptions are essentially long handoffs. Landry caught 61 passes within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage last year, a figure topped only by Larry Fitzgerald among wideouts.
Those catches still count, of course, and Landry is in line for a massive deal. The closest comp to Landry as a player is Tavon Austin, who got $30 million over the first three years of his deal with the Rams, but Landry has been far more productive than the inconsistent, underutilized Austin. His agents will look for a deal closer to the contract T.Y. Hilton extracted out of the Colts, which was good for $38 million over the first three seasons of the extension.
4. Allow WR Kenny Stills to leave. If the Dolphins re-sign Landry (or at least intend to do so), there's not much of a case for locking up Stills. The deep threat would be Miami's third wideout behind Landry and 2015 first-rounder DeVante Parker, and while the Dolphins spent 690 offensive snaps in three-wideout looks this season, Mike Tannenbaum would be committing a staggering sum of money to wide receivers given what Stills is likely to make on the free market.
The reality is also that Stills is still more of a prospect than anything else. His numbers this season were buoyed by an unsustainable touchdown rate. Through the first three years of his career, Stills caught 11 touchdowns on 122 receptions, or one every 11.1 receptions. Last year, Stills had nine TDs on 42 catches, or one every 4.7 receptions. Wideouts with that sort of touchdown rate almost always regress to the mean, especially in the modern game. Since 1990, receivers who caught 30 or more passes and scored once every five receptions or less averaged a touchdown once every 11.7 receptions the following season. Stills has averaged 41 catches per season, so at that rate, he's in line for three to four touchdowns next year. Torrey Smith's 2014-2015 seasons loom as a plausible comp and a warning sign to teams thinking about giving Stills $8 million or so per year.
5. Re-sign DE Andre Branch and LB Kiko Alonso. Alonso is a restricted free agent, so the Dolphins can tender him a deal at the second-round level and likely not have to worry about losing him to another offer while using the leverage to negotiate a longer-term deal. Branch was more useful at defensive end than Williams and counts as a nice reclamation project for the Dolphins after he struggled to make an impact in Jacksonville. A return makes sense for both parties.
1. Re-sign LB Dont'a Hightower. The Patriots have several important players hitting the market, but none is more vital to this team than Hightower, who has a knack of being involved with some of the most important-yet-under-remembered plays in franchise history. It was Hightower who took down Marshawn Lynch with a shoestring tackle one play before the Malcolm Butler interception in Super Bowl XLIX, and Hightower again who strip-sacked Matt Ryan to help turn things around in this year's Super Bowl.
Ironically, the Browns' deal with Jamie Collins established the market for non-pass-rushing linebackers and will up Hightower's asking price. Collins got four years and $50 million to stay in Cleveland, with $36.4 million coming over the first three seasons of the deal. Hightower would get even more if he hit the free market, so the Patriots have to do their best to sign the 2016 Pro Bowler before he hits free agency. The Pats have cleared out future cap space and potential long-term obligations by trading away Collins and Chandler Jones; they have to spend some of that money to retain some of their defensive core.
2. Sign CB Malcolm Butler to a long-term deal and let CB Logan Ryan leave in free agency. Ryan is an unrestricted free agent after noticeably improving during the final year of his rookie deal, while Butler is entering restricted free agency before he hits the unrestricted market next year. Most teams don't bother making runs at restricted free agents, but Butler would make some sense, even if the Patriots tender him at a first-round level.
Therefore, it's probably smart for the Patriots to use the leverage of that final cost-controlled year to lock up Butler now, even if it's a year before the Pats "need" to make a decision on their top cornerback. It's difficult to envision Bill Belichick devoting $24 million or so per year to cornerbacks, especially given how much he's paying Devin McCourty at safety, so it's more likely that the Patriots sign one of their two corners and let the other walk. Ryan is a year younger, but he's going to command a Jenkins-sized contract in free agency. Unless the Patriots see an arbitrage opportunity with Ryan being younger and having a less-notable reputation, they'll likely choose Butler and work on developing Cyrus Jones and Eric Rowe on the outside.
3. Re-sign WR Michael Floyd and RB LeGarrette Blount while letting TE Martellus Bennett leave. Unless Blount gets a ridiculous offer from another team after his 18-touchdown season in 2016, it makes sense for both him and the Patriots to reunite in 2017. Blount's ill-fated run with the Steelers should dissuade him from leaving town, and the Patriots can afford to give him a modest raise after paying him just over $1 million last season.
They also have a buy-low opportunity with Floyd, who will likely be taking a one-year prove-it deal after being released following a DUI charge in Arizona and failing to stand out during his brief spell with the Patriots. Floyd was a victim of a roster crunch during the playoffs, but the Pats will likely cut Danny Amendola this offseason to save $6.4 million.
New England is one of the easiest places to be noticed as a receiver, to which Bennett can attest. He didn't quite break out during his season with the Patriots, thanks to an ailing ankle, but Bennett did win a Super Bowl and help rebuild his stock in advance of what will likely be his last shot at serious money in free agency. As the best tight end on the market, Bennett shouldn't have much trouble getting a deal in the $8 million-per-year range, which would price him out of New England as the second tight end behind Rob Gronkowski.
4. Make a run at DT Dontari Poe, DT Calais Campbell or OLB Chandler Jones. Belichick doesn't often head into free agency, but when he does, it's usually for top-tier defensive players in the prime of their careers. He's gone into the market before for Adalius Thomas and Rosevelt Colvin, both outside linebackers, but the Pats don't show many 3-4 looks after using that as their base defense earlier in the Belichick run.
Instead, he could attack positions of need by going after one of three Pro Bowl-caliber defenders. Patriots fans need no introduction to Jones, who will likely be franchised by the Cardinals; re-signing him just one year after dealing Jones to the desert seems unlikely, but it would be a wildly entertaining (and distinctly Belichickian) maneuver. If the Cards re-sign Jones, it could push the 30-year-old Campbell into the open market; his versatility and ability as an interior defender fits into the sort of "Planet Theory" approach Belichick learned from Bill Parcells. Poe is even younger and more athletic, but there may be concerns about his long-term health after the 26-year-old underwent back surgery in the summer of 2015. It's unlikely the Patriots make a huge move for a free-agent defender, but this would be a good year to consider such a decision.
5. Trade QB Jimmy Garoppolo. It's the only logical move for the Patriots, with Tom Brady continuing to play MVP-caliber football and expressing no interest in retiring. The Patriots can't feasibly keep Garoppolo around on the bench with no leverage in keeping him after this year, given the $21 million cost that would come with franchising Garoppolo to be Brady's backup. Agent Don Yee represents both quarterbacks, and he's not going to suggest that Garoppolo give up tens of millions of dollars to make Patriots fans happy. Unless Brady plans on retiring after this year, it would be foolish for the Patriots to keep Garoppolo around.
If the Pats do decide to retain him, they would have an above-average backup in 2017 and then recoup what would likely be a third-round compensatory pick in the 2018 offseason, which would be awarded during the 2019 draft. The Patriots would want something more than a third-round pick for Garoppolo if they were to trade him this spring, but would they be able to get a first-round pick? I looked into this question during the season and found that the Patriots were within their rights to expect the relative value of a first-round pick, even if they don't actually get a first-rounder in name.
In part, that's because the teams who would be interested in trading for Garoppolo are generally bad teams at the top of the draft. The Jets and Bills are probably out. The Browns, 49ers and Bears all need quarterbacks, but a top-three pick for a guy with two career starts is likely to be bad business. It's much more plausible that they would give up their second-round pick and another selection, maybe a fifth-rounder that would escalate if Garoppolo makes the Pro Bowl.
The teams choosing later in the first round are more logical landing points. The Browns probably value the 12th pick too highly to deal it for Garoppolo, although swapping it with the Patriots at 32 could make sense. There are three teams who make sense later in the draft. Denver obviously needs a quarterback at 20, although they still seem more likely to go after someone like Romo in free agency. Kansas City could be in the market for a long-term replacement for Alex Smith. It would seem a little early, but Andy Reid has exhibited no qualms about being aggressive with his quarterback situation in years past, while general manager John Dorsey comes from the Packers organization, which has long placed an emphasis on preparing for quarterback changes before they're needed.
The most interesting situation, though, is Houston. The Texans loom at 25, have a Patriots connection with head coach Bill O'Brien and make financial sense. Garoppolo and his $1.1 million cap hit in 2017 might be the only way Houston can upgrade on Brock Osweiler given their cap situation. Houston could start Garoppolo's extension in 2018 while letting Osweiler and his guaranteed deal sit on the bench. They might be shy about going after a young quarterback with limited pro experience after striking out on Osweiler, but NFL teams aren't exactly known for learning from their mistakes. The 25th pick for Garoppolo wouldn't be a bizarre trade by any means.
1. Clean house. There's a lot of culling to do in this locker room. The most obvious release is OT Ryan Clady, whose departure will free up $10 million. That will come in handy, given that the Jets are currently $6.7 million over the cap.
After that? It all depends on how much of a spring cleaning the Jets want to perform. There are rumors the Jets might move on from either Brandon Marshall (whose release would generate $7.5 million in cap space) or Eric Decker ($5.8 million). OT Breno Giacomini ($4.5 million) could be on the chopping block, although the Jets will likely prefer to reduce center Nick Mangold's $9 million cap hold with a contract extension. LB David Harris ($6.5 million) could be gone. Safety Marcus Gilchrist ($5.4 million) ruptured his patella in December and probably won't be ready to play in Week 1.
If you're gonna clean house, though ...
2. Cut CB Darrelle Revis if he doesn't accept a pay cut. The five-year, $70 million deal the Jets gave Revis already looks like a mistake after Revis declined dramatically in the second season of his return trip to the Meadowlands. The good news, I suppose, is that there's no more guaranteed money left on Revis' deal after this year: The Jets owe $6 million in guaranteed base salary this year as part of a $15.3 million cap hit, but they can cut Revis without owing any dead money after this season.
The Jets have talked about moving Revis to safety, but what good is that? Even if Revis plays well at safety, they aren't likely to contend this year and aren't going to want to pay a 32-year-old Revis $10.9 million to line up at safety next season. They're better off evaluating younger talent to see if they can find a long-term option at safety and saving $9 million by moving on from Revis. If they can get him to take a pay cut down to $8 million or so, keeping Revis would be more defensible, but the Jets have little use for him in their current situation.
3. Trade Sheldon Richardson. The disgruntled Richardson is wildly talented, but he has been an off-field problem for the Jets and was moved out of position to line up at outside linebacker last season. The Jets are moving forward with Muhammad Wilkerson and Leonard Williams at defensive end, which leaves Richardson on the outside looking in as he enters the fifth and final year of his rookie deal.
On talent alone, Richardson is worth a first-round pick. Teams will know that the Jets want to move Richardson, though, before they lose him in free agency. They'll also be aware of his issues off the field, and there could be some hesitance from teams such as Cleveland in handing out a long-term deal to a player they haven't had in their building. There will be a market for Richardson, but it's more likely to be a second-round pick.
4. Resist the urge to do something significant at quarterback. The Jets have no obvious solution under center, with Ryan Fitzpatrick and Geno Smith leaving, Bryce Petty struggling and Christian Hackenberg all but disavowed by the organization just one year after being selected in the second round. They're probably not going to be allowed to trade for Garoppolo unless they make some absurd offer, and Romo doesn't really make sense. It also would seem foolish to commit to Deshaun Watson or Mitch Trubisky with their first-round pick out of desperation, although such a selection would be more plausible in the second round.
The Jets probably want to go for a placeholder or someone with moderate upside without committing serious money. The quarterback who stands out there is Mike Glennon, who is an unrestricted free agent and posted an 84.6 passer rating on 630 pass attempts over four seasons with the Buccaneers. Glennon does take too many sacks, but QBR accounts for that and has him at a 58.0 mark, in between Alex Smith and Teddy Bridgewater from 2013 to 2016.
Glennon will cost more than a backup, but the Jets probably won't have to guarantee him a ton of money given the clear path the North Carolina State product would have to a long-term starting gig. If the Jets gave Glennon $8 million for 2017 and tacked on a couple of extra unguaranteed years in the $12-15 million range that they could use if Glennon works out, it could be a logical short-term solution with some hope of it sticking in the years to come.
5. Solve the tight end problem. No NFL team has less to work with and did less with their tight ends than the Jets a year ago. New York's tight ends caught 18 passes in 2016, which sounds awful until you consider that the position group mustered only eight combined catches in 2015. Chan Gailey's offense didn't lend itself to tight end usage, and the Jets wasted a second-round pick on the since-departed Jace Amaro, but they can't sit around and just punt the position for years.
Solving doesn't mean paying top dollar for Bennett, but the Jets can piece together a moderate platoon without spending too much. Luke Willson has flashed as a second tight end in Seattle and could hold some upside in a larger role. Rhett Ellison is an above-average blocking tight end who should be better in 2017 as he gets further away from tearing his patella in January 2016. It's also a great draft for tight ends, with four prospects in Scouts Inc.'s top 50. Whoever ends up at quarterback for Gang Green is going to need some help. A safety valve (or pair of valves) at tight end could go a long way.