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. I'll start with the NFC East, which seems likely to shed some well-known stars after a tumultuous and entertaining 2016.
1. Restructure the contracts of Tyrone Crawford, Travis Frederick and Tyron Smith. The Cowboys believe in signing their star players to mega-long extensions with large base salaries. Those base salaries can be converted into signing bonuses, giving the players much of their season-long base salaries up front, while allowing the Cowboys to spread the cap hit over the remainder of their deal. Just four NFL players are signed through 2022. Two are Cowboys -- Smith and Frederick.
Dallas is about $10.5 million over the 2017 salary cap before signing any of its unrestricted free agents, but the Cowboys will create cap space by making a few expected restructurings. By cutting the base salaries of Crawford, Frederick and Smith to $1 million and converting the rest into signing bonuses, the Cowboys can free up $23.3 million in 2017 cap space. Restructuring deals like this can come back to bite a team if the players lose their effectiveness or if the team suddenly wants to get rid of a player for off-field or injury concerns, but that's a risk Dallas is clearly comfortable running.
2. Make a decision on Tony Romo. The Cowboys have run into that exact problem with Romo. Let's be clear about what their options are here. They're not going to carry Romo on their roster with a $24.7 million cap hit for 2017 under the possibility that Dak Prescott might get injured. That's not an insurance policy; it's buying a Porsche and keeping it in the garage in case you crash your Camry. (No shade toward Prescott or Camry owners.) It's not economically feasible, given the Cowboys' cap situation, and it would just push the eventual cap hit of moving on from Romo into the future. It's also a false construct to suggest the Cowboys will be bare behind Prescott if Romo leaves; Dallas can sign a credible backup in free agency.
It also doesn't make sense for the Cowboys to hold onto Romo until training camp in the hopes that a team will suffer a quarterback injury and make a desperate Sam Bradford-esque trade, given that those sorts of deals rarely happen and given how the Cowboys will want to use the savings from a Romo deal to build the most competitive team possible in 2017. By solving the Romo conundrum early in the offseason, the Cowboys will have the maximum amount of time to use the money they save or prepare for the picks they acquire.
So what are Dallas' options? The Cowboys can trade Romo, which would cause them to incur $19.6 million in dead money on their 2017 cap, but nothing in 2018 and beyond. The Romo trade market would probably consist of teams that felt like they didn't have a realistic shot at signing Romo as a free agent, such as the Bills, Bears, Jets and 49ers. The Broncos, who would be the likely favorites to sign Romo if he hit the open market, are too smart to be drawn into a bidding war.
If the Cowboys cut Romo, they have two choices. They can release him under the typical rules and owe the same $19.6 million on their 2017 cap. (If Romo chooses to retire, the Cowboys would incur this same charge.) Alternatively, they can designate him as their post-June 1 release (despite the fact they would be cutting him in March) and stretch the dead money from his cap hit over two years. Dallas would then host a $12.7 million dead-money charge in 2017 (saving $12 million) and a $6.9 million charge in 2018.
The Cowboys probably would prefer to stretch the dead-money hit over two seasons, but doing so would ensure they won't get a return for their deposed starting quarterback. A seventh-round pick probably isn't enough for the Cowboys to justify accelerating all that dead money into 2017, but there has to be a point where the trade compensation would make it worth Dallas' while. If a team offers Jerry Jones a fourth-round pick that could conditionally rise to a second-rounder, similar to the trade that brought Brett Favre to the Jets, I think the Cowboys would consider that good value.
3. Work out an extension for Jason Witten. The Cowboys are at the end of a lengthy extension with Witten, who has a good amount of leverage because he's entering the final year of his deal and due a cap hit of $12.3 million, the largest figure due any tight end in the league by a margin of nearly $2 million. Dallas could choose instead to pay $4.9 million in dead money by releasing him, but backup Gavin Escobar is a free agent, and Witten was still productive at age 34.
Instead, the Cowboys probably will want to extend their relationship with Witten for a couple of more seasons. It would make sense for Dallas to tack on a couple of years to Witten's deal in the range of $5 million to $6 million per year. The Cowboys can free up another $6 million or so by extending Witten's deal.
4. Pick up Zack Martin's fifth-year option. Martin, arguably the best guard in football, will be a bargain for the final time in 2017 at a cap hit of $2.9 million. His salary will rise to $8.5 million or so in 2018, and the Cowboys probably will give him one of their patented eight-year extensions.
5. Resist the temptation to bring back all of their secondary. The Cowboys got surprisingly effective seasons at cornerback from Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne. Both had been massive disappointments before this season, Carr after arriving as a big-ticket free agent and Claiborne after being the sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft. Both are now unrestricted free agents, but the Cowboys should be price conscious in deciding whether to retain their cornerbacks, given their inconsistent history of play. Claiborne also has battled injuries on an annual basis, and Carr's advancing age is a concern -- he turns 31 in May.
Those concerns aren't there for 28-year-old safety Barry Church, who formed an effective combination next to 2015 first-rounder Byron Jones in 2016. Church did miss four games with a forearm injury, but his versatility makes him a good fit if the Cowboys decide to retool in the secondary. Jones has been solid at safety, but defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli could move him back to cornerback, where Jones would be more valuable.
1. Release Victor Cruz, J.T. Thomas and Rashad Jennings. The Giants have $25 million in cap space, but they'll want to clear space and roster spots for more productive players. Cruz wasn't the same player after battling back from his torn patellar tendon and is due $9.4 million in 2017; Thomas and Jennings are replacement-level players. The Giants would clear out $13 million with those moves.
Editors note: This story was published before the Giants released both Cruz and Jennings on Monday afternoon, clearing an additional $10 million from their cap.
2. Pick up Odell Beckham Jr.'s fifth-year option. Duh.
3. Try to re-sign Johnathan Hankins. As tempting as it might be to go after Jason Pierre-Paul, who looked like his old self during the second half of the 2016 season, JPP has been inconsistent and has injury issues even independent of his fireworks incident, including a back ailment that required surgery in 2013. Hankins, 24, is younger and wildly underrated, particularly as an interior penetrator. He knocked down opposing quarterbacks 10 times in 2016 and had a seven-sack season as recently as 2014. Hankins is a better bet to age well over his next deal than Pierre-Paul.
If the Giants insist on retaining JPP, they might want to franchise him as a way to reduce his leverage and try to create a more feasible environment for a multiyear extension. The franchise tag for defensive ends should come in around $17 million in 2017, which would be a lot to pay for a guy who had 5.5 of his seven sacks against the Bears and Browns last season. General manager Jerry Reese probably doesn't want to pay Pierre-Paul that much on a one-year deal, but it's more palatable than committing to Pierre-Paul over three guaranteed years, which is what he could hope to command on the free market. A deal with two mostly guaranteed seasons as part of a multiyear pact would be a reasonable compromise.
4. Extend Justin Pugh and Weston Richburg. The Giants don't have a good offensive line, but the strength of the line is on the interior, where Pugh has settled as an excellent guard (when healthy) and Richburg has developed into one of the best centers in the league. Both are free agents after 2017, and the Giants need to retain them. Pugh is in line for his fifth-year option this season at $8.8 million, a number that probably would come down as part of an extension. Richburg, a second-round pick, will make just $1.5 million in the final year of his rookie contract, and the Giants can't tag him with a fifth-year option. If they're unable to lock up Richburg, they will have to look at franchising their star center in 2018.
5. Upgrade the right side of the offensive line. After failing to upgrade their offensive line in 2016, the Giants spent most the season with a pair of middling veterans on the right side in John Jerry and Marshall Newhouse. Neither was very good, and the Giants had the league's 26th-ranked rushing attack by DVOA. Newhouse is a free agent, and the Giants might want to roll out a red carpet for his trip to Newark Airport. Bobby Hart, a seventh-round pick in 2015, might figure in for one of the spots on the right side, but the Giants still need to address their offensive line, either in free agency or in the draft.
1. Cut or trade Connor Barwin, Mychal Kendricks and Ryan Mathews. Barwin is still a useful player, but he's miscast as a wide-nine pass-rusher in Jim Schwartz's scheme. The Eagles' sack rate with Barwin on the field in 2015 was 5.7 percent, more than double the rate they produced with him off the field (2.6 percent). In 2016, though, the Eagles posted a much better sack rate with Barwin on the bench (7.3 percent) as opposed to him on the field (4.9 percent). His versatility and the need for edge defenders in New England make him a potential candidate for the Patriots.
Mathews has unsurprisingly struggled with injuries, and in a year with an excellent draft class of running backs, Philly could look for a cheaper option to work alongside Darren Sproles and Wendell Smallwood.
Kendricks fell out of favor and is too expensive, given how the Eagles avoid using him in their sub-packages or as a blitzer. He played only 26.8 percent of the defensive snaps this past season. If the Eagles designate Kendricks as a post-June 1 release and trade or cut Mathews and Barwin, they would free up $16.8 million in 2017 cap space.
2. Explore the possibility of re-signing Bennie Logan. The Eagles already are spending a lot on their defensive line. They handed out a massive deal to Fletcher Cox and have Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry locked up on second contracts. Including Barwin, four of the seven largest cap hits on Philadelphia's balance sheet in 2017 belong to defensive linemen. (The other three are offensive tackles Lane Johnson and Jason Peters and backup quarterback Chase Daniel.)
It would be tough for the Eagles to justify paying market value to yet another defensive lineman, but if there was ever a scheme where it made sense to spend big money on the linemen, it would be with Schwartz's 4-3, which relies almost entirely on the front four to get pressure. Philadelphia could try to get by with Beau Allen and help from the draft, but it would make sense to bring back Logan at the right price. The problem is that Logan might be able to command something close to Damon Harrison-level money on the open market.
3. Sign DeSean Jackson. It's a good story, of course, but it just makes sense for the Eagles to bring back Jackson, their former star wideout, given their offensive needs. Carson Wentz ranked 26th in passer rating on "deep" passes of 16-plus yards downfield, and while coach Doug Pederson installed a relatively conservative scheme for his rookie quarterback, the Eagles desperately need some speed to scare teams off pressing the line of scrimmage while providing Wentz with a big-play weapon downfield.
4. Make a run at A.J. Bouye. The Eagles don't have a ton of cap room -- they would be at just over $29 million if they made those three moves from the first suggestion -- but if they're going to invest in a position, it should be in a cornerback to play behind that defensive line. Leodis McKelvin was burned far too frequently in 2016 and was released last week, and starter Nolan Carroll II is a free agent. Bouye, 25, is still young enough that general manager Howie Roseman would be signing a cornerback who could expect to be in his prime over most of his free-agent deal. His versatility in moving around the formation would come in handy in a division in which there are great slot receivers, such as Jamison Crowder, and great receivers who move into the slot, such as Beckham. Bouye is going to get a lot of money from some team, and the Eagles don't have the sort of financial flexibility other teams have, but the fit is there.
5. Trade down in the draft. The Sam Bradford deal blessed the Eagles with a 2017 first-round pick they weren't expecting to have after trading up for Wentz, but Philadelphia needs to stockpile more picks and acquire more young talent on rookie deals. The Eagles had no second- or fourth-round picks in last year's draft, although they had two fifth-rounders and three seventh-rounders.
More disconcertingly, the 2014 and 2015 drafts just haven't delivered much talent to the Philadelphia roster. Jordan Matthews is the only starter to come out of 2014; first-rounder Marcus Smith has barely played, and third-rounder Josh Huff was cut after being arrested for DUI during the season. The 2015 draft delivered solid middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, but first-round pick Nelson Agholor has become a symbol of Chip Kelly's personnel issues, and second-rounder Eric Rowe was dealt to the Patriots after one season. The Eagles need a young core to grow alongside Wentz, and they'll feel the absence of those disappointing classes.
1. Franchise Kirk Cousins. There are a few differences between Cousins' situation last season and the decision GM Scot McCloughan faces this year. The price of franchising Cousins has gone up: After paying Cousins a shade under $20 million on the franchise tag in 2016, Washington will owe him $23.9 million on the franchise tag in 2017 by virtue of the 120 percent rate for second franchise tags.
That number will go up slightly if Washington chooses to opt for the exclusive version of the franchise tag. Last year, McCloughan tendered Cousins with the non-exclusive tag, which would have allowed any team to sign Cousins to an offer sheet and send Washington two first-round picks if it decided not to match. This year, the idea of a team being willing to give up two first-round selections for Cousins seems more palatable.
The other factor is that Cousins probably won't be as aggressive about locking in a one-year deal. Last year, he signed the franchise tag two days after he was offered the $20 million tender, which spoke to his desire for security and the relative lack of interest his agent suspected Cousins might get from the open market. That's all different now. Cousins probably will wait to sign his tender in the hopes of retaining as much leverage as possible in securing a long-term contract.
2. Sign Cousins to a long-term extension. The longer Washington waits, the less leverage it has in retaining Cousins. It has no other viable option at quarterback and no path to one, barring a decision to sign Romo or Tyrod Taylor, who would each raise more questions than simply retaining Cousins. Cousins' agent knows that. Washington also would be forced to pay Cousins a 44 percent increase in his salary if it retained him with a franchise tag for the third consecutive season, which would be a staggering $34.4 million.
If Washington does that, Cousins will have received $78.3 million over three years. That's more than Andrew Luck will receive over the first three seasons of his deal ($75 million), without the non-guaranteed salaries Luck had to give up in future years to get all that money up front, as is the case with any long-term NFL deal. Cousins could use the Luck contract as a baseline for his deal, and it wouldn't be a surprise, as Joel Corry suggests, to see Cousins approach Luck's deal.
It might not seem like Cousins is worth such a deal, but that's beside the point. Leverage is what matters in free-agent negotiations, and Cousins has most of it. The last time a quarterback bet on himself and won as significantly as Cousins has is when Joe Flacco turned down extension offers from the Ravens in 2012 and had the performance of a lifetime in the playoffs before winning the Super Bowl. Baltimore has subsequently given Flacco $96.5 million over the past four years and is locked in for $27.5 million more over the next two seasons, despite middling play.
3. Cut DeAngelo Hall or restructure his deal. Safety continues to be an issue for Washington, and Hall, 33, is unlikely to make a significant impact after tearing his ACL three games into the 2016 season. Washington might want to bring him back, but his $5.1 million cap hit for 2017 is untenable. The Redskins can save $4.3 million by releasing him.
4. Re-sign Chris Baker. While he isn't the biggest name on Washington's defense, Baker proved to be an effective 3-4 defensive end for Joe Barry before Jay Gruden fired his defensive coordinator in January. Washington should stay in a similar scheme under promoted replacement Greg Manusky, and it has precious little at defensive end besides Baker, who will turn 30 in October.
A former undrafted free agent, Baker was a bargain on the three-year, $9 million deal he signed before the 2014 season, but he will deservedly seek a much larger extension after recording 27 knockdowns over the past two seasons. After Cousins, Baker should be Washington's top priority.
5. Bring back Pierre Garcon. As much as it seems like Washington might want to consider bringing back Jackson, Garcon has been the more impactful player on the field. Since Cousins took over as the full-time starter at the beginning of the 2015 season, he has a 101.6 passer rating with Jackson on the field and a 95.8 passer rating with Jackson either inactive or on the sideline. His QBR is virtually identical: 75.1 with Jackson around, 73.9 with Jackson out.
It's a smaller sample, but there has been a much more notable difference with Garcon missing. Cousins has posted a 102.4 passer rating and 75.9 QBR with Garcon on the field. In 176 dropbacks without Garcon, Cousins' passer rating has dropped to 81.7 and his QBR to 65.5. Garcon is probably on the downside of his career and turns 31 in August, but he's still useful enough to justify keeping around for two more seasons.