We’ve hit a rare slow period on the NFL calendar following the conclusion of Super Bowl 50. But the NFL machine doesn’t slow down for long.
Several teams began releasing veterans last week in advance of free agency, which begins March 9. The NFL Combine begins Feb. 23. And the period to use the franchise and transition tags begins Feb. 16 and lasts for two weeks.
The free agent market won’t look quite as enticing on March 9, because several top candidates will likely get that franchise tag. The tag guarantees the player a top salary for the 2016 season, but prevents him from getting long-term contract security and artificially depresses his market value. Franchise-tag players have until July 15 to work out a long-term deal with their teams, or must play the 2016 under the predetermined salary.
There are three types of tags a team may use: Exclusive franchise tag, non-exclusive franchise tag, and transition tag. The exclusive tag is exactly what it sounds like, giving the team exclusive rights to negotiate. The salary is the average of the five largest salaries at the player’s position in the previous year, or 120 percent of the player’s salary in the previous year, whichever is greater.
The non-exclusive tag uses a slightly different formula, accounting for the previous five years at the position, and players are free to negotiate with other teams. The original team has five days to match an offer sheet, and if it declines, it receives two first-round picks from the new team.
The transition tag is an average of the top 10 salaries at a player’s position, and simply allows a team to match a player’s offer sheet from another team.
Last year, five players received franchise tags: Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Justin Houston, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Stephen Gostkowski. All but Pierre-Paul were able to reach contract extensions before the July deadline.
Let’s take a look at this year’s candidates:
■ Broncos OLB Von Miller (projected exclusive franchise tag: $14.1 million): The fifth-year veteran is set to hit free agency, and picked a great time to lead the Broncos to a Super Bowl win. Miller would easily garner the biggest defensive contract in the NFL were he to hit the open market, but Denver assuredly will use the exclusive tag before working on a long-term deal.
He could still surpass Marcel Dareus’s record $60 million guaranteed, but not only will the franchise tag artificially suppress Miller’s value, he also is hurt by being listed as a linebacker and not a defensive end, where the franchise tag number projects to be at least $1.3 million higher.
■ Panthers CB Josh Norman (projected tag: $13.8 million): Another player who picked the perfect time to have a breakout season, Norman will likely get the exclusive tag from Carolina before working on a long-term extension. Darrelle Revis’s $39 million guaranteed is the benchmark, but the Panthers might be able to get Norman for a few million less.
■ Jets DE Muhammad Wilkerson (projected tag: $15.5 million): This will be an interesting situation. Wilkerson is a beast, with 12 sacks last year and 36½ in five seasons, and he’ll want to get close to or better Dareus’s six-year, $95 million deal. But the Jets also have Sheldon Richardson, Leonard Williams, and Damon Harrison at much lower salaries.
Then again, Richardson has had several off-field issues, and they might not be able to count on him. The best play for the Jets might be to give Wilkerson the non-exclusive tag, then try to trade him (as the Patriots once did with Matt Cassel), hope another team signs him, or at worst keep him around for one more year.
■ Washington QB Kirk Cousins (projected tag: $19.7 million): Cousins made $660,000 last year, and is in line for a huge payday after throwing 29 touchdown passes with only 11 interceptions and leading the team to the playoffs. That $19.7 million starting point for long-term contract negotiations seems like a lot for Cousins, but the Skins probably would have to pay a lot more if teams such as the Browns or Rams were also competing for his services.
■ Bears WR Alshon Jeffery (projected tag: $14.5 million): The Bears traded away Brandon Marshall last offseason, and can’t afford to let their other big-name receiver walk out the door. Jeffery played in just nine games last season and scored only four touchdowns, but he’s had a productive four seasons and is still only 26 years old. Bryant and Thomas both signed five-year, $70 million deals with $45 million in guarantees after getting tagged last offseason, and Jeffery should expect something in the same neighborhood.
■ Chiefs S Eric Berry (projected tag: $10.7 million): Berry was the best story of the season, returning from a cancer diagnosis to play all 16 games and earn All-Pro and Pro Bowl status. Berry will aim for Devin McCourty’s deal, which has $28.5 million in guarantees over three years, most among all safeties.
■ Bills LT Cordy Glenn (projected tag: $13.7 million): The Bills’ left tackle has started 57 consecutive games and won’t be going anywhere. Glenn’s bargaining position for an extension will be hurt by the fact that the NFL uses only one franchise tag for “offensive linemen” and not a separate one for left tackles, who are generally the highest-paid linemen.
■ Ravens K Justin Tucker (projected tag: $4.5 million): A kicker or punter has gotten the tag in seven straight seasons (Gostkowski was last year’s), and Tucker is this year’s candidate.
Newton’s antics speak ill of him
A few leftover thoughts on the two quarterbacks from Super Bowl 50:
■ If adversity reveals character, then we found out everything we need to know about Cam Newton last week.
No, we’re not criticizing him for his decision to cut short his postgame press conference. He didn’t handle that moment well, but we’ll cut him some slack. He had just suffered a hugely disappointing loss, and listening to Broncos cornerback Chris Harris talk about shutting down Newton just a few feet away sent Newton over the edge.
Newton walking off the podium was raw and real, which is what we ask of our sports stars when we interview them just minutes after the game.
But Newton’s immaturity and startling lack of awareness were revealed Tuesday, two days after the fact, when he blew the chance to take responsibility for the loss and for not selling out to recover the fumble in the fourth quarter that ultimately sealed the victory for the Broncos.
“We’ve got all these people who are condemning and saying, ‘Oh, he should have done this, that, and the third,’ but what makes your way right?” Newton said. “I’ve said it since Day One. I am who I am. I know what I’m capable of, and I know where I’m going. I don’t have to conform to anybody else’s wants for me to do. I’m not that guy.”
Sheesh. All he had to say was, “I don’t know what to say. I froze in the moment and let my teammates, coaches, and fans down, and for that I’m sorry.”
Instead we get excuses and indignation.
I had no problem with Newton’s “dabbing” or his Superman touchdown celebrations this year. But Newton and the Panthers definitely took it too far.
During their 38-0 win over the Falcons in December, Newton and 15 teammates whooped it up on the sideline and took a “dabbing” team photo in the fourth quarter while the game was still being played. That’s not “having fun,” that’s bush league, a horrible lack of sportsmanship and class.
Newton’s lack of leadership and maturity might not prevent him from winning football games, but they will cost him points with his teammates, who see their quarterback making excuses instead of trying to jump on a fumble. He needs to grow up and learn a little humility.
■ As for Peyton Manning, we don’t blame him for taking his time with the retirement decision. If he does retire, it will be for health reasons; he no longer has any zip on his throws, and can’t make it through a season without getting hurt. No one would blame him if he doesn’t want to put himself through the grind anymore.
But if Manning wants to play, he’ll definitely have options. Already there is buzz about him signing with the Los Angeles Rams. Houston, with a domed stadium and a ready-to-win roster outside of quarterback, makes a lot of sense. Heck, Manning might still be a better option for Denver than Brock Osweiler.
One of those teams could do a lot worse than signing Manning for a year or two to keep the seat warm for one of the rookies drafted this year.
Super Bowl field was hazardous
The 49ers have had significant issues with the grass in their first two years at Levi’s Stadium; the turf has been choppy and doesn’t hold well, and Baltimore’s Justin Tucker even missed a kick this year when his plant foot landed in what appeared to be a sinkhole.
The NFL and 49ers officials fretted for weeks over the playing surface for Super Bowl 50 and tried their best, but unsurprisingly the turf had a negative effect on the game.
The Charlotte Observer posted an incredible video of Panthers left tackle Michael Oher sliding back several yards in pass protection, as if he were on ice skates.
We also saw Greg Olsen wipe out when cutting across the middle in the second quarter, forcing Cam Newton to tuck the ball and run. And just so we don’t think this was only a Panthers issue, we saw two Broncos receivers slip and fall when running routes in warm-ups.
“The footing on the field was terrible,” said Denver cornerback Aqib Talib. “San Fran has to play eight games on that field so they better do something to get it fixed. It was terrible.”
This may have been a case of the NFL trying too hard to get it right. Before the game, we noticed that the league took the unusual task of trimming the playing surface one last time with one of those lawnmowers they use to cut the greens and fairways at golf courses. Perhaps the grass was a little too short and fine for the players’ cleats to truly dig in.
Forte would be a useful Patriot
The Patriots need to reload on offense following a disappointing end to 2015, and one player who caught our eye is running back Matt Forte, who announced Friday that the Bears will not be bringing him back for a ninth season.
Yes, yes, we all know that the running back position is “dead” and that teams don’t invest in it anymore — especially the Patriots, who almost never sign running backs for more than $1 million a year. And yes, we are well aware that Forte is 30 years old and doesn’t have many NFL seasons left in his legs.
That said, the Patriots should consider making an exception. Forte has been extremely durable, playing in 120 of a possible 128 games in his career. He still averaged 4.1 yards per carry last year, and has great hands, catching 102 passes just two years ago and 487 for his career.
The Patriots have used specialized running backs in recent years — LeGarrette Blount is the power back, Shane Vereen the third-down pass-catching back, and so on — but that specialization cost them this year when they suffered a few key injuries.
It’s time for the Patriots to invest in complete running backs who can play on all three downs. Dion Lewis is definitely one of them, but he’s coming off an ACL injury and you don’t know what he will bring to the table next year.
But a combination of Forte and Lewis could be devastating. And while running backs aren’t good long-term investments, they can definitely be good short-term investments. The top running backs in free agency last year got about $4 million per season. If the Patriots can get Forte for one or two seasons at $3 million-$4 million per year, they should pounce.
A classic blunder
If we’re talking about things to regret for this past Patriots season, how about the decision to host the Winter Classic at Gillette Stadium, forcing the Patriots to play on the road for the final two weeks at New York and Miami? The Patriots always play much better at home than on the road, and they lost both games to lose the No. 1 AFC playoff seed.
Strange but true: Harvard has more invitees to the NFL Combine (two) than Texas (one). Tight end Ben Braunecker and offensive tackle Cole Toner will represent the Crimson at the Combine, which runs Feb. 23-29. Among New England schools, Boston College had four players invited and UMass had one, while UConn and every other area school was shut out . . . The NFL announced the official draft order Friday, and the Patriots will be forfeiting the 29th pick in April’s draft. The pick simply gets skipped, meaning the Broncos’ draftee will still get the contract slot for the 32d pick, not 31st, and the first pick of the second round is still a second-rounder, not No. 32. Also, if the Patriots trade for a first-round pick, they lose whichever pick is higher . . . The NFL recently expanded the Rooney Rule to the league office. The rule originally required teams to interview at least one minority candidate for all head coaching and general manager positions. Now the league office is required to interview at least one female candidate for all league executive positions. The female requirement does not apply to teams (yet) . . . Patriots players kept busy the last two weeks with surprise visits to Boston-area hospitals. Safety Jordan Richards spent time with Jimmy Fund patients at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute on Feb. 4, and donated platelets at the Kraft Family Blood Donor Center. Stephen Gostkowski surprised patients at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center on Feb. 9. Lewis and Geneo Grissom hand-delivered Valentine’s Day crafts and balloons at Boston Children’s Hospital Feb. 10, and Matthew Slater visited patients at Massachusetts General Hospital on Thursday.
Defense wins championships
Super Bowl 50 was a showcase for the defenses. Denver set a record for fewest yards for a winning team and linebacker Von Miller became just the 10th defender to be named MVP. Here’s a deeper look into how defense seized the day:
|Team||Super Bowl||Score||Conversion rate|
|Denver||50||24-10 win over Carolina||1-14 (7.1%)|
|NY Giants||XXXV||34-7 loss to Baltimore||2-14 (14.3%)|
|New England||XXXVI||20-17 win over St. Louis||2-11 (18.2%)|
|Baltimore||XXXV||34-7 win over NY Giants||3-16 (18.8%)|
|Carolina||50||24-10 loss to Denver||3-15 (20%)|
|Chicago||XLI||29-17 loss to Indianapolis||1-5 (20%)|
|New England||XXXIX||24-21 win over Philadelphia||1-5 (20%)|