Picking Up the Wild-Card PiecesSarah Glenn/Getty Images
After 20 teams saw their NFL seasons end after Week 17, four more teams made their way into the discard pile this weekend. Arizona, Cincinnati, Detroit, and Pittsburgh each has to make the difficult transition from playoff contender to uninvolved bystander this week, and with that switch comes a focus on 2015. The four wild-card-round losers will have to start focusing on the moves they’ll make at the beginning of the offseason, in terms of the players they’ll want to keep, the guys they’ll let go, and the targets they might want to consider in the early days of free agency. Three of those four teams could be moving on from franchise icons in March.
Let’s take a quick look at what those teams are soon going to be thinking about. There are big decisions to be made and improvements to be targeted. If these four teams want to make it back to the postseason in 2015, they’ll have to play their cards right in the months to come.
(All of the contract data in this piece is from Spotrac.)
Big Question: What Do You Do With Larry Fitzgerald?
I addressed the Fitzgerald question briefly in my Monday wrapup, noting that his $23.6 million cap hit for the 2015 season simply isn’t tenable. He enters 2015 with the third-largest cap hit in football,1 an unsustainable figure for a player who has likely slipped some from his peak as one of the NFL’s top wide receivers.
You can’t argue that Fitzgerald is worth more than 17 percent of the cap (assuming a $138 million figure), but he might not have slipped quite as far as his numbers suggest. Fitzgerald played six games with Carson Palmer this season before Palmer went down with a season-ending torn ACL. In those games, Fitzgerald produced numbers that prorate to an 85-catch, 1,288-yard, five-touchdown campaign. Those numbers were a little catch-lucky, since Fitzgerald caught an otherworldly 78 percent of his targets from Palmer, but you could happily live with giving a player with those numbers low-end WR1 money.
The problem for the Cardinals is the hometown premium, the idea that a player would blanch at taking a pay cut from his longtime team while being perfectly willing to accept a similar or worse deal from the free market. Fitzgerald would qualify here. With no guaranteed money remaining on his deal, the Cardinals could approach him about a massive restructuring that might dramatically lower his 2015 cap hit below $10 million. Fitzgerald would probably see that as an unfair, insulting pay cut of more than 50 percent, but he also would be unlikely to see a similar sort of deal on the free market. Getting $8 million per year from a team like the Patriots might be preferable to taking $8 million as part of a huge pay cut from Arizona.
Arizona has to decide on Fitzgerald soon, given that he has an $8 million roster bonus due on the fifth day of the 2015 league year. If he stays in Arizona, the Cardinals could convert that roster bonus into a signing bonus over the final four years of his deal, which would lower his 2015 cap hit to $17.6 million. The Cardinals would also likely want Fitzgerald to reduce his base salaries, starting with his $8 million figure in 2015 and salaries in the $14.8 million range from 2016 through 2018. If a team trades for Fitzgerald, it would likely insist on a similar sort of restructure as part of the deal.
Otherwise, if the Cardinals cut Fitzgerald before the roster bonus comes due, they will still be responsible for $14.4 million in dead money on their 2015 cap, or $7.4 million if they designate him as a post–June 1 release. Neither of those options seem particularly appetizing for the Cardinals, who are hoping to contend in 2015. I would imagine the most likely course of action for all involved is a restructured deal, even if general manager Steve Keim suggests otherwise.
Position of Interest: Running Back
Paying big money for running backs isn’t exactly a popular move these days, but the Cardinals will likely want to build around their rushing attack in 2015, given their investment in offensive linemen over the past two seasons and the uncertain status of Palmer after his second ACL tear. The Cardinals got a very limited season from Andre Ellington, who played through a foot injury and averaged just 3.3 yards per attempt. Ellington may end up looking better as a secondary option in a time-share (as he was in 2013), which would leave the Cardinals in the market for a starting tailback.
The good news is that this is going to be a market full of options at running back. It’s hardly a stretch to imagine Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, and DeMarco Murray all hitting free agency this offseason, with Peterson and Lynch being targets for release. Even without those guys, the free-agent pool will include Frank Gore, Knowshon Moreno, Darren McFadden, Justin Forsett, Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley, Dan Herron, and a likely candidate I could see the Cardinals targeting, Ryan Mathews. Keim is a value-conscious shopper, and Mathews is a Pro Bowl–caliber back at the nadir of his value after missing 10 games this year with an ankle injury.
Big Question: What Do You Do at Quarterback?
The Bengals could have let Andy Dalton play out the final year of his rookie deal as a possible lame-duck starter, but they instead committed to their fourth-year passer by giving him what was reported to be a six-year, $96 million deal in August. In reality, it’s more like a two-year, $24 million deal with five option years containing nonguaranteed money.
Even if the Cincinnati brain trust decided it was sick of losing in the first round of the playoffs and wanted to move on from Dalton, it wouldn’t make a ton of sense to do so in 2015. Dalton is owed a $4 million roster bonus on the third day of the 2015 league year, so like the Cardinals with Fitzgerald, the Bengals would need to make their decision relatively quickly. If they choose to keep him, Dalton’s cap hit will be $9.6 million. If they move him off the 53-man roster before that bonus arrives, Dalton’s dead money would amount to … $9.6 million.2 I understand the opportunity cost of getting Dalton’s dead money out of the way now as opposed to waiting until 2016, but there’s really no advantage otherwise.
Cutting or trading Dalton would be far more logical in 2016. His cap hit balloons to $13.1 million, but with all the guaranteed money in the contract already paid, the Bengals would owe only $7.2 million in dead money on their cap if they moved on from Dalton, amounting to the accelerated remnants of his already-paid signing bonus. The structure of the contract actually makes it pretty clear the Bengals intended to give Dalton a two-year window through the end of 2015 to become a surefire franchise quarterback.
It’s hard to argue that Dalton played poorly enough for the Bengals to cut him after 2014. If anything, he lived up to the exact expectations the Bengals should have had after Dalton’s first three seasons. They could still choose to rage-quit the Dalton era and move on, but it seems more plausible they’ll retool and take another look at the market after 2015. With somewhere near $40 million to work with after accounting for rollover, the Bengals have the cap space to rekindle their habit of taking a chance on damaged goods by trading for Jay Cutler, but a Cutler-Dalton battle would basically just run on bad-joke fuel. They also have a more pressing concern.
Position of Interest: Defensive End
The Bengals badly missed departed defensive end Michael Johnson this season. Their run defense collapsed without the versatile Johnson in the lineup, and while he was never a dominant pass-rusher, Johnson’s role as the starter allowed Wallace Gilberry to conserve his energy and impress as a situational pass-rusher. Gilberry faltered when given a starter’s workload this year, producing just 1.5 sacks after averaging seven in his previous two seasons as a reserve. Margus Hunt, one of the team’s second-round picks in 2013, failed to exhibit much development and played only 187 defensive snaps in 2014.
Cincinnati needs to add a two-way defensive end to play across from Carlos Dunlap while allowing Gilberry to slip back into his rotational spot. There’s a star defensive end in the prime of his career available in free agency, but the problem is that he’s named Greg Hardy. Would the Bengals be willing to take the PR hit for signing Hardy, who has spent almost the entire season on the commissioner’s exempt list? They could opt for a less-controversial option in the wholesale market by signing Jason Pierre-Paul away from the Giants or Brian Orakpo out of Washington, but after those three, the edge rusher market is very slim in 2015.
The real problem, though, is that Cincinnati simply doesn’t spend money on veteran free agents. It doesn’t happen. The Bengals are built from within, and the biggest free-agent deal they’ve given to a player on their current roster is the three-year, $5.4 million deal Adam Jones signed to stay with the team after playing for the league minimum in 2012. Every one of Cincinnati’s big contracts are for players it drafted and developed or acquired at a bargain-basement price before signing to a extension. It’s actually pretty remarkable. It may suddenly break character, but that seems unlikely.
Big Question: Can You Re-sign Ndamukong Suh?
If Sunday was Suh’s last game in a Lions uniform, he went out with a bang. After successfully appealing his one-game suspension for stomping on Aaron Rodgers, Suh was a force to be reckoned with against the Cowboys. He controlled the line of scrimmage and came up with a pair of key sacks on consecutive downs, including one of the most impressive efforts of the 2014 campaign, when he ragdolled All-Pro rookie guard Zack Martin before sinking his claws into Tony Romo.
Suh had to excuse himself during the postgame press conference after being overcome by emotion at the lectern, a reaction likely both to the nature of Detroit’s crushing loss and the realization that this was probably the end of his Lions career. As the second overall pick in the 2010 draft, Suh is one of the last players in the league on a rookie contract that was signed before the CBA’s new rookie scale came into effect. As a result, he’s been happy to play through his five-year deal and reap the comfortable benefits of the league’s largesse; thanks to an earlier restructuring, Suh’s cap hit in 2014 was a whopping $22.4 million, the largest of any player in football. Suh, who turns 28 today, will see the final year of his contract void after the Super Bowl and enter unrestricted free agency at the peak of his powers.
The former Nebraska star has already made his free-agent intentions clear by suggesting publicly that Jimmy Sexton, his new agent, will choose where Suh plays in 2015. The implication there is pretty clear: Suh will go to whoever offers him the most money. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it’s frankly more refreshing than it is cynical, but it doesn’t exactly bode well for the Lions’ chances of keeping Suh in Detroit.
A Suh deal would likely top the contract recently handed to Gerald McCoy, who was taken one pick after Suh in the 2010 draft and has more of an injury history than Suh, who has missed just two games in five years. McCoy got a six-year, $95.2 million extension with $51.5 million guaranteed. Suh will almost surely look for $100 million over six years and expect to approach $60 million in guaranteed money.
Detroit could theoretically afford to keep Suh in town. After his contract voids, the Lions will have $110 million committed to their 2015 cap, with only Suh and one other prominent player on the roster hitting free agency. That’s $30 million or so to play with. The Lions would surely like to make upgrades to their offensive line and add more depth on defense, but they could commit, say, $18 million to Suh in 2015 and build a competitive roster with the remaining cap space they would have.
It’s just not really clear they would be wise to do so. The Lions already have massive contracts committed to Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, veterans who were also drafted under the old CBA and given massive extensions to wipe out the hefty cap charges at the end of their rookie deals. They have two of the 14 largest cap hits in football next year, as Johnson and Stafford alone will count for $38.3 million. That’s nearly 28 percent of the team’s total space if the cap comes in at $138 million. Add Suh at that $18 million figure and three players would take up 40.8 percent of Detroit’s cap.
As great as Suh can be, the Lions might be smarter to distribute their money elsewhere. One possible target is that other impending free agent they could consider re-signing, fellow defensive tackle Nick Fairley. The Lions chose to decline Fairley’s fifth-year rookie option before this season, publicly characterizing the move as a motivational ploy. Detroit then stuck Fairley on the second string when he showed up to camp out of shape, only for Fairley to surprise everyone and deliver his best half-season as a pro before suffering what ended up being a season-ending knee injury.
Fairley will test the open market, and it’s hard to imagine him feeling much more than antipathy toward the Lions. Losing Suh is bad. Losing Suh and Fairley from the league’s best run defense would be perhaps insurmountable.
Position of Interest: Defensive Tackle
The defensive tackle market is awfully thin after Detroit’s two stars, with only Terrance Knighton (who will be coveted by 3-4 teams) and Jared Odrick standing out as notable options on the interior. The Lions could choose to invest in defensive tackles during the draft, but there’s likely nobody they’ll be able to grab with the 23rd pick who matches up to Fairley, let alone Suh. Asking whether the Lions can afford to re-sign Suh might be the wrong question. It might be more accurate to wonder whether they can afford not to.
Big Question: Is It Time to Move on From the Franchise Icons?
Few teams place more of an emphasis on tradition and continuity than the Pittsburgh Steelers, which is why moving on from veterans who have been at the core of a pair of Super Bowl teams can be so difficult. It eventually happens, of course, but making that choice to move on from a player like that (as opposed to the player deciding to retire) is one of the toughest things a general manager has to do. It’s something the Steelers will again have to think about heading into 2015.
Pittsburgh’s cap situation, for the second year in a row, is rough at best. The Steelers have $135.6 million in charges already committed to their 2015 cap for just 37 players, a woozy sum for a team that has holes in the roster. That $135.6 million includes $8.6 million in dead money for LaMarr Woodley’s deal, a charge the Steelers had to push into 2015 by designating Woodley as a post–June 1 cut. (They wouldn’t have been able to get under the cap otherwise.) And that $135.6 million is after nearly $17.5 million comes off their 2014 cap as Jason Worilds and Ike Taylor have their contracts expire.
Taylor was the first in a run of veterans who will simply have to leave in the near future. When the camera panned to him looking downright angry before Saturday night’s game, for which Taylor was inactive (and very well may have been a healthy scratch), the longtime starter may very well have been thinking: I’ve likely played my last game as a Pittsburgh Steeler. He could re-sign for something close to the veteran’s minimum, but at 34, Taylor’s probably finished.
The Steelers could have made a cleaner sweep of their veterans in the past, but to clear out cap space and get back underneath the threshold in 2014, they chose to restructure the deals given to Heath Miller and Troy Polamalu as opposed to cutting them. Those decisions make it far more difficult to clear out cap space in 2015. If the Steelers cut Miller now, his $5.6 million cap hit would be replaced by a still-hefty $3.3 million in dead money. Likewise, the Steelers surely can’t think having Polamalu account for $8.3 million of their 2015 cap is a good idea, but they would get his cap hold down to $4.5 million only if Polamalu were cut, traded, or chose to retire.
There’s really not a ton of fat elsewhere on the roster, either. Pittsburgh could cut fringe players like Mike Adams, Lance Moore, and Bruce Gradkowski and save nearly $4 million combined, but it would also need to sign replacements to fill those roles, eating up most of the savings. Cameron Heyward, currently ticketed for nearly $7 million after the Steelers picked up his fifth-year option, could sign a long-term deal that reduces Pittsburgh’s cap exposure in 2015.
The most logical move of all to clear out cap space, then, might be to double down on another veteran. Ben Roethlisberger is entering the final season of the six-year, $88 million extension he signed in March 2008, a deal that leaves him with a cap hold of $18.4 million in 2015. That’s the 11th-largest cap hit in football.
The only reason the Steelers would have considered moving on from Roethlisberger would have been injury issues, but after making it through just one of his first nine professional seasons without missing any games, Roethlisberger has now completed back-to-back complete seasons in his thirties. There’s still reason to wonder if the hits caused by Roethlisberger’s style will add up by the end of his new deal, but with no clear successor on the roster, there’s no way Pittsburgh can realistically expect to move on from its starting quarterback.
Roethlisberger will receive a contract extension, likely before the 2015 league year begins, to clear out cap space in 2015 while pushing some of the cap repercussions further down the line. When I wrote about quarterback contract extensions earlier this season, I noted that the next deal for a player like Roethlisberger will likely fall somewhere between Tom Brady (five years, $70.6 million, virtually all guaranteed unless you change your mind) and Drew Brees (five years, $100 million, $40 million guaranteed with most of the deal likely to be received).
Brees signed his deal before his age-33 season, just as Roethlisberger will, and the rise in the salary cap since Brees’s deal in 2012 means Roethlisberger could expect to receive a roughly similar contract. A five-year, $105 million deal with a $30 million signing bonus would give Roethlisberger the money he deserves up front, and if the Steelers drop his 2015 base salary from $11.6 million down to $1 million while guaranteeing larger future base salaries in 2016 and 2017, they could even shave $5 million or so off Roethlisberger’s 2015 cap hit in the process.
Position of Interest: Secondary
Even if Pittsburgh holds on to Polamalu, it’ll need to upgrade the defensive backfield, where there are no obvious solutions on the roster. Cortez Allen was wildly disappointing after signing a four-year, $24.6 million extension in September and was benched by Week 9. The Steelers will likely give him another shot in 2015. Taylor, who was also below par, is unlikely to return.
Pittsburgh got by with fill-ins like Brice McCain and Antwon Blake, but they were exposed in the loss to Baltimore, and McCain is a free agent.3 And strong safety Mike Mitchell, disappointing in the playoff loss, is likely priced into returning during the second year of his five-year, $25 million deal. The only defensive back who saw meaningful time returning at a team-friendly price is cornerback William Gay.
The Steelers need to come away from this offseason with new blood in the secondary. Some of that will surely come in the draft, where Pittsburgh will be all but forced to go after a defensive back after years of neglect. The only draft picks the Steelers have used on defensive backs over the past five years who are still on the roster are Allen and Shamarko Thomas, the latter of whom played three defensive snaps in 2014.
The Steelers might also like to add a cornerback in free agency, but given their cap situation, they can’t really afford to shop at the top of the market. The likes of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Flowers simply aren’t in their sights. A second-tier option like Indianapolis’s Darius Butler or San Francisco’s Chris Culliver might be the best the Steelers can do this offseason.