February 28, 2018
The offseason is here and this marks an important time for all NFL franchises. Front office teams and coaching staffs are taking a look at their rosters and trying to figure out how they can improve in 2018. The two best sources of player improvement are the draft and free agency signings. Some teams will use the draft as an opportunity to farm young talent to build for the future while some teams like to bring in big time free agents that can help teams out in the short term. Both strategies have their positives and negatives. It is mostly dependent on the direction/status of your current franchise. If you are a rebuilding team who doesn’t have a realistic shot of contending then you may go through the draft and keep your cap space. If you are a contender or a playoff team who needs one more solid player to put you over the top, free agency may be best for you. These two processes are intertwined and can put teams in a rough spot when deciding what to do in the first few rounds of the draft. Surely a lot depends on your cap situation and who is available in the draft but your priorities have to be set in these situations. When making this decision you also have to consider the rest of the roster and how it will fit with the new players. Does your team have a lot of veterans who want to win now or a young core that will be peaking down the road? These decisions make the life of an NFL GM difficult as they have a lot of things to consider and juggle when they make personal decisions.
In this series I will analyse teams that have a need at a fantasy relevant position and try to decipher whether it is best for them to go with a free agent signing or early round rookie selection in consideration to their draft position, cap space and franchise direction.
Draft Position (First Two Rounds): 15th overall and 47th overall
Cap Space: $22 million
Franchise Direction: Middle of the pack with Playoff Potential
With the retirement of Carson Palmer the Arizona Cardinals have a void in their offense. This, in addition to the retirement of head coach Bruce Arians, will have a large impact on the Cardinals offense and is a need that will certainly be addressed this offseason. Arizona had limited luck with backups Blaine Gabbert and Drew Stanton last season, both showing that they are not the future for the Cardinals. Their poor play along with the absence of star running back David Johnson put Arizona in a rough spot and caused them to finish with the 22nd ranked offense and a mediocre 8-8 record. Their offense, and team overall, should get a boost next season with the return of some key injured players like David Johnson and Mike Iupati. Still they will need a new signal caller and it will be interesting to see what direction this team goes this offseason.
Since they finished 8-8, the Cardinals have the 15th pick in the NFL draft. That draft spot will likely take them out of the race to get one of the highly contested draft prospects like Josh Rosen and Sam Darnold. This puts them in a precarious situation. If Steve Wilks (new head coach) and his offensive staff fall for one of the more questionable prospects (Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen) that could be an option for them to consider. But, that also comes with some obvious faults. These quarterbacks all have various marks on their draft profile and it would, hypothetically, take a lot of work to get these players NFL ready. With their veteran heavy roster, the Cards will likely make a playoff run in 2018, especially so considering this will likely be the last year of Larry Fitzgerald. Rookie quarterbacks, even the surest ones, have a very unlikely chance of first year success in this league. And even though this team needs to consider its future, they likely will not go after a quarterback early in the draft (outside of a trade into the top five picks).
That being said, what could Arizona get if they look to the free agent market? The belle of the ball is without a doubt Kirk Cousins this year. His is an impressive player who is still in his prime. The only drawback for the Cardinals is their cap space. They currently have $23 million dollars, which is a lot, but it may not be enough to sway Cousins. They have a lot to offer him in terms of talent around him, atmosphere and franchise situation but it is yet to be seen if that will matter when the Jets are reportedly ready to offer him upwards of $60 million for 2018. If Arizona finds itself out of the Cousins sweepstakes (like they did with Peyton Manning in 2012) they will be forced to reevaluate. There are some other solid options out there in 2018. Players like Case Keenum, Sam Bradford and A.J McCarron could give the Cards what they want at a smaller price. These players all have their marks as well but they would better fit the trajectory of this team for 2018 as they would be better suited to get Arizona back to the postseason.
Fantasy Implications: Like I stated earlier, Arizona’s offense was a mess in 2017 and was not very fantasy relevant, outside of Larry Fitzgerald (WR10 in most formats) and brief period for Adrian Peterson. Bringing in a veteran quarterback would obviously reignite the Cardinals and make various pieces of their offense fantasy worthy. If it is Cousins, the ceiling of this offense is very high and could make players like John Brown (if he is retained) and Jaron Brown sneaky late round/bench stash guys. If they don’t get him and are stuck with a McCarron or Bradford type, it will still be an upgrade over Stanton and Gabbert and will make the offense better. David Johnson’s return will have a positive effect on this team but good quarterback play will only make them fly higher.
Verdict: Go with a free agent. Swing for Cousins, but be ready to swoop up McCarron or Keenum if he goes elsewhere.
Draft Position (First Two Rounds): 1st overall, 4th overall, 33rd overall, 35th overall and 64th overall
Cap Space: $110 Million
Franchise Direction: Rebuilding
Oh Cleveland, a sentence that has been uttered by fans and analysts alike. This team is probably the messiest in all of the NFL in terms of franchise direction and leadership. They have been rebuilding for a very, very long time and are no closer to contention than when they were reconceived back in 2000. That being said, the Browns have a strategy set in place that is unlike one that we have seen from them. They have been able to make lots of trades over the past few seasons that have allotted them a ton of draft capital. They have more picks in this draft than any other team and own just under 10% of all of the first 65 draft selections in 2018. This puts the Browns in a tremendous spot as they have the capital to potentially build a dynasty, if they play their cards right.
A likely part of this year’s draft focus for Cleveland will be the quarterback position. They have shown that they are not particularly committed to Deshone Kizer as their franchise guy and will have the opportunity to grab any quarterback prospect that they like. The top two candidates, as of today, are Josh Rosen and Sam Darnold. Both prospects are highly rated and are projected to be solid players at the NFL level. The Browns could take either one of these players at the 1.01 and use him as their man under center for years to come. The Browns have also been rumored to be interested in prospects Baker Mayfield and Josh Allen so they could also be taken by Cleveland, but wouldn’t merit a 1.01 selection (unless they impress at the Combine and Pro Days). Either way, with the large amount of picks they have and their rebuilding status, it makes sence for the Browns to draft a quarterback in 2018 and hope he is the last name on their infamous list.
While the best bet for the Browns would be to draft a quarterback early in 2018, they still should look at signing a free agent at this position. Cleveland as been rumored to be very interested in Cousins but I have my doubts about his fit there. The Browns are not a winner and will have Cousins losing more and more than he did in Washington. While they have the most cap space in the league and could make Cousins a very handsomely paid player, I’m not sure if that will make matters much better. If Cousins wasn’t happy making $30 million per year to be in Washington, why would he be any happier in Cleveland? The Browns’ most likely candidate to sign is a player they almost acquired earlier this year. McCarron makes a lot of sense for Cleveland. He previously worked under head coach Hue Jackson and thrived while he was with the Bengals. McCarron would make the most sense as a “stop gap” quarterback who could take the reins of the offense for a year or two while the quarterback they draft develops. Whether this is something McCarron would be interested in is yet to be seen but a player of his caliber makes the most sense for the Browns in addition to the quarterback they bring in via the draft.
Fantasy Implications: The Browns have some fantasy relevant players coming back in 2018 and they will likely at least maintain their 2017 numbers. Duke Johnson will still be the pass catching back next year and should continue to be an RB2/RB3 in 2018 (unless Saquon Barkley is taken by Cleveland, which I will cover later in this series). Corey Coleman could bounce back if he stays healthy next year and start living up to his expectations. Josh Gordon, in his first full year of action since 2013, should be a solid WR2 if he also can stay on the field. David Njoku will look to make a step forward next year and could be a top TE if he can develop alongside the Cleveland quarterback.
Verdict: Draft a quarterback early in the draft and allow him to develop for a few seasons. Sign a lower end free agent, like McCarron, to start until your prospect is ready to play.
Draft Position (First Two Rounds): 5th overall and 40th overall
Cap Space: $25 Million
Franchise Direction: AFC Playoff team with Contender Upside
After being Super Bowl champions back in 2015, the Denver Broncos have maintained that level of talent on their team but have not had the same amount of luck and success. When Manning retired after Super Bowl 50, the Broncos began looking for the next man under center that would help maintain the team’s excellence. Unfortunately, and fortunately at the same time, their plans had to change quickly as the presumed replacement for Manning in Brock Osweiler did not sign with the team and left for Houston. John Elway and company had to improvise and decided that the best course of action would be to send out former undrafted free agent Trevor Siemian as their starter for 2016 and beyond. While Siemian had some brief moments of success in Denver, he fell flat overall and has not been able to bring the Broncos back to the Super Bowl (or even the postseason for that matter). Denver needs to reevaluate the quarterback position this offseason as their championship window is closing.
The Broncos finished last year 5-11 and will be selecting fifth overall in the 2018 draft. They will likely miss out on Rosen and Darnold and will be left with an interesting debate, much like the Cardinals. Should they go after a less developed quarterback and hope he can develop into an NFL level guy? Normally I would say the risk is not worth it but if any front office executive could help develop a quarterback, I would like to have Elway in my corner. Now, it is fair say that Mayfield or whomever could impress over the Combine/Pro Day process and be a natural fit for Denver but as of right now it still looks like a gamble for their organization. However, I would take that risk and grab their favorite remaining quarterback at the fifth overall pick in an attempt to secure a future star at the most important position in football.
Of all the teams that will be looking to secure Cousins in the free agent period, no team has a better case than the Broncos. While they may only have $25 million in cap space available, their team is the most playoff ready of any of the teams that are expected to go after him. If you put a player of Cousins’ caliber on the Broncos it is fair to say they would be favorites to with the AFC West and could make a deep playoff run with their stout defense and competent offensive supporting cast. They are my favorites to land him this offseason and he would be another major move made by Elway.
Fantasy Implications: Both Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders (if they are maintained) will see large upgrades in 2018 of Cousins comes to town. He would be the best quarterback Thomas has ever played with (outside of 2013 Manning) and he would be someone I would target in drafts and trades this season. The Broncos’ running back situation is yet to be determined but it's safe to say that whomever they go with in 2018 they will be better off with Cousins under center.
Verdict: Go for Cousins and draft a quarterback with the first round pick. Develop that pick under Cousins for a few years and have him ready to take over when Cousins regresses.
New York Giants
Draft Position (First Two Rounds): 2nd overall and 34th overall
Cap Space: $21 million
Franchise Direction: Fringe Playoff Team
Despite being projected to make the postseason by many experts and analysts, the New York Giants failed miserably and finished as the second worst team in the league. Injuries and general dysfunction where the main culprits of the Giants demise and with a new regime in place, they should be on their way back to their 2016 form.
Though their record was terrible in 2017, the Giants now get the second overall pick in the 2018 draft. With this pick I would expect them to grab whichever quarterback they are most fond of that doesn’t get taken by Cleveland. While the Giants have a young quarterback on their roster in Davis Webb, he seems unlikely to take over as the franchise quarterback when Eli Manning retires. This drafted quarterback would be best developing under the tutelage of Eli versus starting over him in 2018. Eli still looks as though he has something left in him and is expected to play at least through next season. This would give time for the young quarterback to learn from him and be able to take over when Eli leaves. A key component of the success of this rookie will be his chemistry development with star wideout Odell Beckham Jr. (as long as he is retained). OBJ is an offensive star and is someone who will likely be the foundation of the Giants’ offense for years to come. It will be very important for the rookie quarterback to develop a good relationship with Beckham so they can excel on the field.
The Giants likely won’t seek a free agent quarterback as they already have Eli on the roster for next year. If for some reason he were to return or force a trade to a different team than the Giants would be a desirable spot but that seems very unlikely.
Fantasy Implications: OBJ will go back to being the fantasy stud he was next year when he is recovered from his ankle injury. Sterling Shepard will likely
Verdict: Draft a quarterback with the second overall pick and groom him under Eli Manning for the next few seasons
New York Jets
Draft Position (First Two Rounds): 6th overall, 37th overall and 49th overall
Cap Space: $79 million
Franchise Direction: Rebuilding
Not much was expected of the New York Jets in 2017. They are a team that is going through a rebuild and are trying to tank now for better drafts picks that can become good players later. This year the team went 5-11 and will be selecting sixth overall in the 2018 draft. While the team isn’t anywhere near playoff contention, they at least seem to have a plan for their future (unlike other teams on this list). One step on their plan for redemption is to solidify their quarterback position. Their recent draft picks in Geno Smith, Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg have not worked out and the team is looking for someone to come in and take over their offense.
The best choice the Jets can make for their long term future is to take a quarterback with that sixth overall selection that they have. They, like the Broncos, will likely miss out on Rosen and Darnold and will be forced to take a less stable prospect. Will this is less desirable than getting one of those two guys, if they can still get a quarterback they like at this spot than it will be a good chance for them to get a franchise level guy and build around him for the future.
As a result of their current rebuild status, the Jets also in possession of a serious amount of cap space for 2018. They have almost $80 million dollars to play with and will likely be a big swinger in the free agent market. One name that has been linked to this is Cousins, who is rumored to be able to receive an astronomically large offer from the Jets. While this may seem like a good idea for the Jets it really doesn’t make sense for either party. Cousins, like with the Browns, will probably not go to a losing team this offseason as he has stated he wants to be on a winning team. Now, given that there is upwards of $60 million dollars on the table, that may be enough to change his mind; but it still seems like he will go elsewhere. As for the Jets, it doesn't make sense for their rebuild trajectory to make a move like this. For rebuilding teams it is better to be full-out bad so you can maximize your draft capital versus being mediocre and not getting as good of a draft pick as you possibly could. While this is painful for fans and players alike, it is the dose of medicine a team needs to get back to full contention health. Plus, if they were to draft a Lamar Jackson or Baker Mayfield type, it would be better to start him outright so he can get experience and so the coaching staff can see how their offensive sets work effectively. Both of those quarterbacks likely won’t flourish under the same system that Cousins would, causing the offense to jumble when it would be time for Cousins to leave/retire and the young guy to take over. As flashy and shiny as Cousins is, it would be best for the Jets to sit this one out and spend their exuberant amount of money elsewhere.
Fantasy Implications: There were not a lot of good fantasy options on the Jets in 2017 outside of the few weeks Josh McCown and Robby Anderson were connecting well. This is likely not to change for 2018 as the team will still be looking for an offensive identity. The young quarterback they take will have a lot of appeal in dynasty startups/rookie drafts as he will likely have an offense made for him and could benefit from his playmaking ability (like Jackson/Mayfield did in college).
Verdict: Draft a young quarterback early and start him outright as your franchise level guy
Draft Position (First Two Rounds): 21st overall, 22nd overall, 53rd overall and 56th overall
Cap Space: $29 million
Franchise Direction:Fringe Playoff Team
The Buffalo Bills made the postseason for the first time this millenium this season and sem to be taking a step forward under the Sean McDermott regime. The Bills had a strong defense that carried them all season, but their offense was shaky at times in 2017. Tyrod Taylor had a fine year this season but for whatever reason has yet to fully gain the admiration and trust of Buffalo coaches and management. He has been rumored to be shopped around or cut for a long time now and it seems like there is still the chance that he is not the Bills quarterback next year. While Taylor is not a super elite player, he is still solid enough to play at the NFL level and is the best player under center the team has had in a long time (despite the Nathan Peterman love).
The Bills are in a good spot for the 2018 draft. They are one of two teams to have multiple first round picks (Browns). While they are towards the end of the first at 21st and 22nd overall, it is still nice to have this much draft capital in your possession. It is yet to be seen what level of quarterback talent will be available at 21st overall but it would be a good call to take someone like a Mayfield or maybe Allen if he were to fall that far. If they don’t, then Buffalo would be best off grabbing a player like Mason Rudolph or Luke Falk with one of their second round selections. These players still have some upside to them but are a lot more raw and have more marks on their profile. With Taylor in place and the team already being in good shape, there isn’t an overwhelming need to find they franchise quarterback in the first round if one they like isn’t available.
Buffalo will not be in the market for a franchise quarterback unless they move on from Taylor; a move I don’t see coming but is something that wouldn’t surprise me. Plus, even if they did, the Bills have very little cap space this offseason and likely won’t be in the race to get a big name like Cousins. Despite their disdain, the best thing for Buffalo to do is to keep Taylor for at least 2018.
Fantasy Implications: Buffalo did not have a top 48 wide receiver last year but do have some bounce back options. Kelvin Benjamin was thrown into this team halfway through the year and between that and the injuries made for a bad season. He is still talented enough to be a WR2/WR3 and I project he will be next year with Taylor back and a full preseason to get things going. Zay Jones is a nice young option who will look to make a name for himself in 2018. LeSean McCoy will still be a good fantasy option but may finally see some regression due to his age and mileage. Charles Clay showed that he could be a TE1 when he stayed healthy and will likely be the same way in 2018.
Verdict: Keep Taylor as the started but take a quarterback in the second round to develop for later on down the road.
Draft Position (First Two Rounds): 30th overall and 62nd overall
Cap Space: $52 million
Franchise Direction: Contender
After being sprung into the NFC Championship by this miraculous play, Keenum and the Minnesota Vikings were defeated by the Eagles and are now evaluating what to do for next season. The Vikings are an excellent team from top to bottom and boast one of the deepest rosters in the entire NFL. This is personified in their quarterback rotation. The 2017 Viking not only three starting level quarterbacks on their squad. Keenum, (who played like the Comeback Player/Most Improved Player of the year); Bradford, (who looked good in week one but was injured for most of the rest of the season) and Teddy Bridgewater (the franchise quarterback before his horrific knee injury in 2016) are all semi high-level quarterbacks in the NFL and would have franchises delighted to have them if they were to be on their team. The unfortunate part of this is they are all free agents in 2018. This puts the Vikings in a tough spot as they will have to decide who, if anyone, should be brought back in 2018 and beyond.
Minnesota has the 30th pick in the 2018 draft and will likely not draft a quarterback at this spot. There is the potential for them to maybe take one later in the draft but they will be focused on other positions with the early part of their draft board.
As I alluded to, this free agency period will be very important for the Vikings to execute. They will have to decide which one, or ones, to bring back and for the right price. Bradford seems the least likely to be retained as he didn’t play much of a role in their 2017 success. He will likely try to be a starter elsewhere and is almost better suited for that at this point in his career. This leaves Keenum and Bridgewater for consideration. Bridgewater is younger than Keenum and was the man in Minnesota before his injury, so that will likely bode well for him. I see both coming back as long as Keenum doesn’t get a massive offer from another team. He could be brought in to another team that doesn’t get Cousins, like Denver or Arizona, but he will likely be back with Vikings because of the success he had there in 2017 and the impact he had in the locker room/community. There have been some rumors of Cousins coming to Minnesota but that is unlikely to happen for a few reasons. The main reason is the Vikings’ cap situation over the next few years. Starting in 2019, the Vikings have a lot of key players to give extensions to, like Anthony Barr, Sharrif Floyd and Stefon Diggs. If Minnesota ties up a lot of money in Cousins they may not have enough to sign some of their other players, which would mess with their depth and main source of power. If, somehow, Cousins and Keenum get similar contracts then they will surely bring Cousins in but it seems like Keenum won’t command that much salary. It seems like they will run it back with Keenum and Bridgewater in 2018 and will try to make another deep playoff run.
Fantasy Implications: Keenum was a QB2 in most formats and was a good streaming candidate most weeks. If he can keep up his 2017 play next year, he will still not be a weekly fantasy starter. Bridgewater is a dynasty stash as he could take the job back this preseason. All of the impressive fantasy assets from 2017 (Diggs, Adam Thielen, Kyle Rudolph, Dalvin Cook before injury) will be the same in 2018 unless Keenum fully falls off.
Verdict: Bring back Keenum and Bridgewater and run with whoever wins the job in the preseason.
-Brandon Sysak ( Follow on Twitter )