NFL News & Offense Free Agent Preview
Review of recent transactions and potential offensive free agents.
Everyone, accept me, is in Indianapolis this week for the NFL Combine. The continued return to normalcy with the the in-person event that marks peak of the NFL offseason. Get ready for “according to sources”, rumors, and smoke to be presented through the media by teams and agents throughout the week and beyond.
In this week’s newsletter we will cover some recent NFL news and transactions, and take a look at potential offensive free agents for the Houston Texans.
NFL Agents Unite
The NFL shocked the draft world with the implementation of strict rules for the NFL combine and the attendees. I won’t go into the details, but essentially the league was creating a very tight bubble at the combine.
I am not sure where this thought process came from given that COVID disappeared during the NFL playoffs and Super Bowl. The NFL performing a complete 180 on the precautions angered the player agents and team representatives.
The player agents joined forces threatening to advise their clients (draft eligible players) to not attend the combine due to the restrictions put into place. This was a excellent joint effort by the agents. The combine is a big television event, i.e. money maker, for the league.
The league caved very quickly with modifications to the the restrictions at the combine for the attendees and participants. While certain restrictions remain in place, the bulk of the concerns were removed by the league to avoid players skipping the combine.
In one of my recent newsletters we highlighted a few teams that would need to complete a series of roster and contract adjustments to become salary cap compliant by March 16, 2022. Over the weekend reports started pouring in on contract restructures completed by New Orleans and Green Bay.
Green Bay began the process with the restructuring of Kenny Clark creating $10.9 million in 2022 cap space, shuffling more cap dollars to 2023 and beyond. Green Bay followed that up with restructures of Aaron Jones and David Bakhtiari’s contracts, clearing $3.08 million and $7.72 million respectively. These were simple restructures without adding void years.
New Orleans hit the big ticket items early. Completing restructures with Michael Thomas, Ryan Ramczyk, and Andrus Peat. Those three moves created over $31 million in cap space for 2022 for the Saints.
More restructures, extensions, releases are likely to come for these two teams among others. Reminder that many of the simple restructures are merely a formality between the player and team with just a notification to the player. In most cases the restructure does not change how the player is paid. I view these changes merely as an accounting function for the salary cap dollar allocation.
Cleveland Browns and Jack Conklin agreed to a renegotiation over the weekend. Conklin was scheduled to earn $12 million (all non guaranteed salary) with the Browns for the 2022 season. With only $3 million in potential dead money on a release, Conklin was a potential salary cap casualty. Any potential injury protection not withstanding.
Conklin missed 5 games in 2021 after tearing his patellar tendon in his left knee, a difficult injury to come back from.
Cleveland and Conklin’s agent worked together to complete a contract renegotiation for the 2022 season. Conklin now has a $8 million salary, which is now fully guaranteed, with a cap charge of $11 million. The contract, reportedly, includes $4 million in playtime incentives to provide Conklin a chance at earning the $12 million he was scheduled to earn.
Ian Thomas and Carolina Panthers agreed to a 3 year contract extension worth, reportedly, $16.5 million with $8 million guaranteed. This was a fantastic deal for Thomas. Thomas operates as an inline tight end blocking with some work catching the ball. Thomas, a 4th round draft selection in 2018, has not missed a game, pulled in 188 yards receiving on 18 receptions in 2021.
The Thomas extension gives us some insight into the tight end market. This free agent tight end class is both strong and deep coupled with a solid draft class.
A blocking tight end signing a contract with $5.5 million APY shows the position is posed a bump across the board. My expectation for blocking tight ends market WAS to come in around the $3.5 million APY mark. With the Ian Thomas extension, mid level free agent tight ends could easily end up in the $7-8 million APY area with the top free agents topping $12 million APY. The Jonnu Smith contract will be the floor.
Houston Texans Free Agency
This week on the Cap & Trade with TC podcast on Twitter Spaces, Brad Spielberger and I dove into the offensive side of the ball with potential free agents. The positional areas where the team can potentially improve the roster through free agency is Tight End, Offensive Guard, and Wide Receiver (including slot wide receiver).
In the past two weeks we have heard the term “12” personnel and it’s importance with new offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. “12” personnel means there is 1 running back and 2 tight ends on the field. Head Coach Lovie Smith and General Manager Nick Caserio both mentioned the importance of “12” personnel with Hamilton’s scheme.
Currently the Texans have two tight ends on the roster in Brevin Jordan and Paul Quessenberry. Quessenberry is more of a scat/h-back type of tight end. The team will likely add a veteran free agent tight end, draft a tight end, and sign a few more undrafted players at the position. I would expect Antony Auclair to return on another one year contract with slightly above the minimum.
Potential Tight Ends:
Conklin is a smaller frame move type of tight end at 6’4 and 240lbs. Conklin was drafted in 2018 in the 5th round by Minnesota, had very strong athletic measurable with burst and agility scores. Finished the 2021 season with 593 receiving yards on 61 receptions. Conklin’s blocking is less than desired, which may be a red flag for Houston.
Projected contract: 3 years / $31.5 million / $10.5 million APY
Howard is coming off two disappointing seasons in Tampa Bay after he was drafted #19 overall in the 2017 draft. Howard suffered a ruptured achilles injury early in the 2020 season, which may have contributed to his low performance in 2021. Howard was active for all 17 games in 2021, despite playing only 30.7% offensive snaps. Howard would likely need a one year prove it type deal.
Projected contract: 1 year / $4.25 million / $4.25 million APY
Alie-Cox, in my opinion, is a hidden gem coming out of Indianapolis. Alie-Cox played the 2021 season under the 2nd round RFA tender with the Colts. Alie-Cox is 6’4 and 262lbs. with massive 35 7/8” arm length. His arm length coupled with high burst score gives Alie-Cox a big catch radius. Alie-Cox finished the 2021 season with 316 reception yards on 24 receptions and 4 touchdowns. There is a strong chance Indianapolis re-signs Alie-Cox with the potential retire of Jack Doyle.
Projected contract: 3 years / $20 million / $6.67 million APY
Houston will be looking to retool and upgrade the interior of their offensive line. Until something changes I will operate with the assumption that Laremy Tunsil and Tytus Howard will be the starting offensive tackles with Charlie Heck as the swing tackle. New OL coach George Warhop intimated that he is looking for nasty run blocking interior players. I think there is a real chance that Justin Britt returns on another one year contract, or Caserio drafts a Center early in the draft. Despite the free agent guard class having some solid talent, majority of the potential free agents are geared towards zone schemes. Currently players Justin McCray and/or Max Scharping could be release candidates either now or after training camp.
Potential Offensive Guards:
Glowinski is a veteran coming out of Indianapolis coming from a very strong offensive line unit. PFF notes Glowinski has a “nasty streak” in him. Something George Warhop may be interested in. Glowinski is a better run blocker than he is a pass blocker. Per PFF Grading, Glowinski finished at the 21st best graded guard.
Projected contract: 2 years / $13 million / $6.5 million APY
Turner found some resurgence with Pittsburgh after bouncing around courtesy of trades and releases. As noted by PFF, it is difficult to gauge Turner’s pass blocking improvement in Pittsburgh with Roethlisberger's league leading “time to throw”. Turner will turn 29 during the regular season. Turner has spent his career strictly at Right Guard.
Projected contract: 2 years / $12.5 million / $6.25 million APY
Karras will be very familiar to Nick Caserio with the New England connection. But it is worth noting the coaching staff built by Lovie Smith does not have New England ties. Karras will turn 29 during the offseason, and finished the 2021 season as the 15th highest graded offensive guard. Karras worked primarily as the Left Guard in New England, and the two years prior to that as a Center. I know Houston fans are tired of versatility, but Karras could be that gadget offensive lineman for Houston.
Projected contract: 2 years / $9 million / $4.5 million APY
Once regarded as a top tier free agent years ago, Norwell will return to the free agent market after 4 years in Jacksonville. Norwell is 30 years of age and likely to be viewed a veteran/bridge type of player. Norwell works strictly at left guard position. A team signing Norwell is paying for experience over future projection.
Projected contract: 1 year / $6 million / $6 million APY
When looking at the wide receiver group the biggest area of need is slot wide receiver and a capable wide receiver #3. It is unknown if Pep Hamilton values a vertical threat type of slot receiver, or a shifty underneath type of slot receiver. Below a few names that Nick Caserio could explore in free agency.
Potential Wide Receivers:
Pringle is a player with above average athletic traits and body build at 6’1 and 205lbs. Pringle remained buried on the depth chart in Kansas City. One area of positivity that jumps out at me for Pringle is his run blocking. Pringle could be an quality WR3 asset. He lined up on the outside and in the slot with Kansas City. Pringle has missed only 3 games in his career. Pringle played the 2021 season under the ROFR RFA tender.
Projected contract: 2 year / $7.5 million / $3.75 million APY
Another in-division potential target is Zach Pascal out of Indianapolis. Pascal is not going to wow anyone with his athletic measurables, but he is a strong receiver that can get the job done. Working mainly out of the slot receiver spot, despite his 6’2 219lb frame, appeared to fall out favor in Indianapolis as compared to his 2019 and 2020 work. At 27 years old, Pascal may be looking for a new opportunity. Pascal played the 2021 season under the 2nd round RFA tender.
Projected contract: 2 year/ $9.0 million / $4.5 million APY
Berrios is a different type of slot receiver as compared to Pringle and Pascal. Berrios is a smaller, shifty type of receiver, pure slot wide receiver with excellent return skills. Berrios had a career years in New York earning 1st Team All Pro as return man. Berrios was a former 6th round pick with New England. The last two seasons he graded out with PFF Grades of 72 and 74. If Caserio is looking for this type of slot wide receiver, Berrios is likely #2 on the market behind Cedrick Wilson.
Projected contract: 3 years / $20 million / $6.67 million APY
Crowder is the veteran of this group at age 28, and does bring a low body injury history that could cause some concern. Crowder is 5’8 but has shown the ability to play on the inside and outside. He would be a lower cost option versus some of the market. He is not flashy but consistently gets the job done.
Projected contract: 1 year / $4.5 million / $4.5 million APY
McKenzie is a name that had not crossed my radar until a listener on the show this week raised his name as an option. McKenzie was a 5th round draft selection with Denver but things did not work out for him. Finally landing in Buffalo in 2018, McKenzie found a role with the team and has spent the last 3 seasons with Buffalo. ~72% of McKenzie’s snaps the past 2 seasons has been working out of the slot. McKenzie has vertical speed versus Berrios who has the shifty movement. McKenzie’s market should be relatively low.
Projected contract: 1 year / $1.25 million / $1.25 million APY
Sources: Overthecap.com, PFF.com, PlayerProfiler.com, NFLPA records
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