Buckle up, guys—it’s contract season. Or as I like to call it, bad contract season.
We’ve seen some doozies over the past few years. Remember when the Texans got the bright idea to throw $72 million at Brock Osweiler? Or when the Bears went all-in on Mike Glennon only to use the No. 2 pick on Mitchell Trubisky?
Of course, if you’re familiar with contracts (meaning you’re a frequent visitor of overthecap.com), you’ll know that NFL deals are never as bad as they seem. An over-the-hill Barry Zito pocketing $127 million from the Giants is an albatross. Joakim Noah goosing the Knicks for $72 million is highway robbery. But in the NFL, where contracts come with few guarantees, a mistake like Osweiler or Glennon is relatively easy to overcome. The Texans escaped Osweiler’s deal after one miserable year and the Bears are prepping to do the same with Glennon, who lasted just four games before inevitably handing the reigns to Trubisky.
So who will be this year’s big winner? All signs point to newly minted free agent A.J. McCarron, who is already drawing interest from a handful of teams including the Broncos, Browns, Cardinals, Jets and Vikings. If those names sound familiar, it’s because those teams have also been linked to this year’s biggest free agent prize, Kirk Cousins. McCarron would obviously be a fallback for teams who fail to woo Cousins.
McCarron, who became an unrestricted free agent last week after winning his grievance against the Bengals, is far less experienced than Glennon was when he landed his three-year, $45 million pact with Chicago last offseason. The Alabama alum has attempted just 133 NFL passes, most of which came in 2016 when he was filling in for an injured Andy Dalton. McCarron has played reasonably well in his small sample size (93.6 career quarterback rating) but he wasn’t a high draft pick coming out of ‘Bama (164th overall in 2014) and is relatively old for a first-time free agent (turns 28 in September).
Despite these risk factors, McCarron should see a healthy market and can probably expect to at least match, if not exceed, Glennon’s figures from last year. McCarron’s future will be dictated by the laws of supply and demand. With so many teams coveting a quality signal-caller and a shortage of quarterbacks on the open market, Cousins, McCarron and Case Keenum should all strike it rich in free agency. Even the less heralded likes of Teddy Bridgewater and Josh McCown shouldn’t have too much trouble finding new gigs.
While McCarron would represent an acceptable contingency plan for teams that miss out on Cousins (and much cheaper), there’s already a clear frontrunner in the race for his services. If you recall, the Browns were on the verge of acquiring McCarron for second and third-round picks at this year’s trade deadline. GM Sashi Brown intervened at the last second, a sacrifice that ultimately cost him his job. We know McCarron has a strong ally in head coach Hue Jackson, who previously served as McCarron’s offensive coordinator in Cincinnati. That level of familiarity should be a major selling point for the Browns, but if that’s not enough to lure McCarron, they also have the added benefit of $110 million in cap space. That’s $33 million more than any other team in the league and more than enough to win a bidding war if that’s what it takes.
McCarron’s ceiling may be limited—most see him strictly as a game manager—but he’d be a clear upgrade on DeShone Kizer, who was statistically the league’s worst starting quarterback last season. He’d also be a fine stop-gap while Cleveland grooms a franchise quarterback. The Browns own two of the top four picks in the draft and are sure to use one of them on a QB. Josh Rosen, Josh Allen and Sam Darnold are each vying to be the top quarterback taken in this year’s draft. The Browns have needs at nearly every position—hence their 0-16 record in 2017—but ending the team’s maddening run of subpar quarterback play would be a big step in the right direction.
Free agency begins on March 14, but before the chaos ensues, teams have until March 6 at 4 PM ET to assign the franchise tag. Le’Veon Bell was slapped with the franchise tag last season and can probably expect a similar result in 2018. Bell was none too happy to get the tag last year, holding out until a week before the regular season. Even as recently as January Bell said he’d consider retiring if the Steelers tagged him for the second year in a row, but the three-time All-Pro selection has since had a change of heart. “You want that security. That's why I said I'll play on the tag,” said Bell during an appearance on NFL Network earlier this month. “All that's going to be guaranteed. You want to tag me again, okay, all that's going to be guaranteed.”
In addition to being arguably the league’s top running back (though Todd Gurley and David Johnson would beg to differ), it would appear Bell is also a shrewd businessman. Certainly a long-term deal rich in guarantees would be the preference, but if the Steelers are willing to hand Bell $14.54 million (that’s what the franchise tender will cost them) on a silver platter, why fight it? Let me tell you, there are much worse things in life than being the highest-paid running back in the league by a country mile. If the Steelers want to go year-to-year with Bell like the Redskins have done with Cousins, so be it.
Bell is free to blow off OTAs and training camp while he waits to sign his tender, though it doesn’t sound like he’ll be going that route this time around. Bell reportedly has no plans to hold out should the Steelers tag him and has said the two sides are much closer in contract talks now than they were at this point a year ago. Coming off an 11-touchdown season that saw him average almost 130 yards from scrimmage, Bell isn’t going anywhere.
Allen Robinson tore his ACL just three snaps into the 2017 season. The Jaguars did fine without him, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready to let A-Rob, an impending free agent, reach the open market. In fact, if the two sides can’t strike a deal in the coming weeks, the Jaguars are likely to place the franchise tag on Robinson. The franchise tender for receivers this year should be around $16.3 million.
That’s a lot of quiche to throw at a player coming off a major injury and receiver isn’t necessarily a need for Jacksonville. Keelan Cole finished fourth among rookies with 748 receiving yards while fourth-round pick Dede Westbrook showed glimpses in limited action this past season. However, Robinson is still just 24 and is less than three years removed from leading the league in touchdowns. Robinson claims to be nearing full health and even if that’s a slight exaggeration, the Penn State alum will be ready well in advance of Week 1. Jacksonville should have its foot on the gas after coming agonizingly close to knocking off the favored Patriots in a tighter-than-expected AFC Championship. If that’s the mindset, keeping Robinson in Duval County should be a top priority for the Jags.
Among defensive players, Cowboys DE DeMarcus Lawrence is likeliest to draw the franchise tag, which would net him a cool $17 million in 2018. Lawrence led Dallas with a career-high 14.5 sacks this past season while earning PFF’s second-highest pass-rushing grade among 4-3 defensive ends (he was behind Joey Bosa). That sack total was the highest by a Cowboy since DeMarcus Ware recorded 19.5 takedowns in 2011. The Cowboys are relatively cap-strapped—tagging Lawrence would leave them with just $2 million in spending money—but the 25-year-old Boise State product is too valuable to risk losing on the open market. Dallas will meet with Lawrence’s agent at the upcoming NFL Combine to try and hash out a long-term deal, but if the two sides can’t come to a compromise, the franchise tag will come into play.
It seems crazy to think the Redskins would tag Kirk Cousins for a third straight year, especially after landing Alex Smith and then signing him to a lucrative extension (four years, $91 million with $71 million guaranteed). But according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, it’s still a possibility. Of course, it would be an enormous waste of cap space and Washington would be unable to trade Cousins (which is the only reason for tagging him in the first place, unless the Redskins were doing it out of spite) until he signed his $34.5 million franchise tender.
Obviously it would be nice to get some kind of compensation for Cousins, but tagging him would be a wholly unnecessary risk. The Redskins made their decision to move on from Cousins as soon as they invested in Smith. There’s no need to throw shade at Cousins on his way out the door. Not to mention that the CBA prohibits the Redskins from tagging a player they have no intention of signing. Cousins plans on filing a grievance with the league if the Redskins do end up tagging him.
In all likelihood, Cousins will be allowed to test the market, where he should receive massive interest. Jimmy Garoppolo set a high bar with his five-year, $137.5 million megadeal last week but the more experienced Cousins still has an excellent chance to clear that threshold, in turn making him the highest-paid player in NFL history. Of course, that will only last until the Packers get around to signing Aaron Rodgers to his next extension. How’s that sound, A-Aron?