Welcome to the Starting 11. This NFL season, we’ll be collecting the biggest story lines, highlighting the standout players, and featuring the most jaw-dropping feats of the week. Let’s dive in:
1. For the 20 teams that didn’t make the playoffs, the question now is where they go from here. And that question is especially pressing for the Vikings. After a 13-3 finish and a trip to the NFC championship game last season, 2018 was supposed to be the year that Minnesota finally got over the hump. Nearly every key member of a stacked defense was set to return, and the Vikings handed Kirk Cousins a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million contract this spring in hopes that he’d be the final piece of their championship puzzle. But instead of repeating their romp through the NFC, Minnesota ended the year as the conference’s final team out of the postseason, courtesy of Sunday’s 24-10 loss to Chicago. General manager Rick Spielman built the Vikings to contend for a Super Bowl in 2018, and now that they’ve been eliminated, Minnesota will be faced with plenty of looming concerns this offseason.
The Vikings are projected to have just over $10 million in cap space for 2019 — a paltry number in this era of exponential cap growth — and they also have several notable players hitting free agency. At the top of that list is linebacker Anthony Barr. Barr has had an uneven career to this point, but he’s a talented former first-round pick with the ability to rush the passer as an off-ball linebacker. He’s probably looking at a deal worth at least $11 million or $12 million per season, which will be tough for the Vikings to afford. Minnesota may also lose some players along the offensive line, as guards Nick Easton and Tom Compton and reserve interior lineman Brett Jones all become free agents. Easton missed the entire season with a herniated disk in his neck, and his absence ended up being a major loss for Minnesota. Now Easton and his replacement are set to hit the open market. And it’s not as if the Vikings have any in-house replacements waiting in the wings, either. Their lone 2018 draft pick along the offensive line was Brian O’Neill, a second-rounder who’s already starting at right tackle.
Taken on its own, one major positional hole may not seem like a crippling problem. But the concerns about the interior of Minnesota’s offensive line are representative of the issues facing this team in 2019 and beyond. Because of the financial commitments the front office made last offseason, holes across the roster become inevitable. And when those holes start to add up, that’s when teams fall from the ranks of the league’s elite. Safety Anthony Harris, who filled in admirably for the injured Andrew Sendejo this season, will become a free agent this coming offseason. Sheldon Richardson will hit the market after a nice season. There are some cost-cutting moves available to the Vikings that might give them a bit of financial flexibility, but those moves would have consequences of their own. If Minnesota were to cut a player like Trae Waynes (who has no guaranteed money included in his fifth-year option), it would save them about $9 million against the cap. But it would also leave the Vikings without the cornerback depth they crave. Something has to give, and that’s a new problem for the Vikings, who’ve enjoyed so many rookie or under-market contracts over the past few seasons.
The Cousins deal was supposed to offset some of the inevitable talent drain the Vikings expect to experience over the next couple years. Minnesota’s front office viewed Cousins as the type of quarterback that’s not typically available in free agency — an elite passer that gave the team a much higher ceiling than a player of Case Keenum’s caliber. That belief — and the financial burden it’s brought — is what makes Cousins’s late-season stumbles so concerning. After watching him toil against the Bears, it’s clear that offensive coordinator John DeFilippo wasn’t the cause of all Minnesota’s problems. Cousins struggled during the second half of the year, even with a new coordinator, and there don’t seem to be many easy solutions for the Vikings’ offensive woes. They went all in on this version of their franchise, and they may be saddled with it for some time.
2. Similar to the Vikings, the Steelers ended the season on the outside looking in. And they don’t have a clear blueprint to quickly turn things around, either. Pittsburgh didn’t make the sort of huge offseason swing that the Vikings did last spring, but the front office has still bet big on its current roster. Nine players are set to make at least $7.9 million in 2019, and Pittsburgh is projected to have just $9 million in space, with an additional $19 million slated to carry over from 2018, thanks in large part to Le’Veon Bell’s refusal to sign his franchise tender. Even with the rollover money, the Steelers won’t be flush with cash next season. Many of the team’s recent signings are scheduled to take huge jumps between this year and next. Antonio Brown’s cap hit rises from $7.95 million to $22.16 million. Cameron Heyward’s number leaps from $7.06 million to $14.9 million. And Stephon Tuitt’s hit more than doubles, from $5.43 million to $13.64 million.
This iteration of the Steelers is here to stay, and their best days may already be behind them. Ben Roethlisberger is 36 years old and he’s dealt with a laundry list of injuries in his career; his drop-off may be even faster and more precipitous than we’ve seen in other aging quarterbacks. Brown will be 31 before the start of next season, with a cap hit fit for a quarterback and production heading in the wrong direction. Guard Ramon Foster is a free agent this year, and if he walks he’ll be leaving the Steelers offensive line — which has played together as a unit for years — without one of its key contributors. Combine a potential offensive stagnation with the Steelers’ inability to develop talent in the secondary, and you get a grim picture of what Pittsburgh might look like next season. This year’s results will mark the start of people seriously questioning Mike Tomlin’s future with the franchise, and it probably won’t end here.
3. The Cardinals fired Steve Wilks after just one season, but their issues go far deeper than the head coach. Arizona’s roster needs major overhauls, on top of finding the right person to guide Josh Rosen’s career. It takes a nightmare season for an NFL coach to lose his job after a single year, and that’s precisely what Arizona experienced in 2018. The Cardinals are set to have the no. 1 pick in the 2019 draft, and they’ll need it — it’d be quicker to list the positions where the Cardinals have a solution moving forward than it is to list the holes on their roster.
Arizona was decimated by injuries along the offensive line this season, but even at full strength, the Cardinals could use some upgrades there. Tackle D.J. Humphries looks like yet another first-round misstep by Arizona’s front office, and there’s also no long-term answer at the other tackle spot. With Larry Fitzgerald expected to retire, the receiving corps consists of rookie second-round pick Christian Kirk and … well, that’s it.
The Cardinals are projected to have nearly $60 million in cap space, but this rebuild needs to go beyond quick fixes in free agency. Arizona has to completely restock its roster with young talent, and luckily for the Cardinals, there’s a route to make that happen. If you’re going to get the first overall pick in the draft, it’s best to land it when your franchise already has a plan at quarterback. Much like the Colts did last spring, the Cardinals could trade their selection for a ransom of draft capital they can use to retool the roster — which would be one of the first steps in righting the ship.
Another will be finding the right head coach, and that might be a more difficult process. Arizona reportedly offered former Packers coach Mike McCarthy the head coaching job and full personnel control, only for McCarthy to turn it down. McCarthy may be committed to sitting out this season no matter the offer (he’s still getting paid by the Packers either way), but because Arizona fired its coach after a single season, it’s possible that other candidates will be hesitant about taking this job. Regardless, hopefully the Cardinals have learned from their mistake with Wilks and will try to find an offensive-minded head coach who’s interested in working with Rosen. Along with restocking the talent pool, pairing Rosen with the right coach/play-caller has to be Arizona’s no. 1 priority this offseason.
4. The Browns will also be trying to find the right coach to develop Baker Mayfield, and based on Mayfield’s play down the stretch, it may not be a tough sell. The days of Cleveland being a wasteland that eats up coaches and spits them out seems to be over. Mayfield looks like the real deal. He made several throws in Sunday’s 26-24 loss to the Ravens that should entice any offensive-minded head coach in contention for the job. It’s no accident that Mayfield set the rookie record for touchdown passes in a season, even though he didn’t start for the first three games of the year. He’s a special passer who possesses every attribute a coach could want in his franchise quarterback.
It’s tempting to look at the success that Mayfield had with interim offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens over the second half of the season and think the Browns should hang on to him in some capacity, but with Baker’s ceiling and the talent lining the Cleveland roster, the Browns should be scouring the entire world in search of the right head coach. Familiar names like Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley should be on that list, but the net should be cast far and wide. A team that starts Aaron Rodgers under center currently has a head coaching vacancy, and Cleveland still might be the more desirable job. General manager John Dorsey has the Browns set up for long-term success, and that’s led to optimism in Cleveland entering this offseason.
5. Jacksonville is reportedly retaining head coach Doug Marrone, but the Jags still face a slew of important offseason questions about some of the most high-profile players on the roster. It’s all but guaranteed that Blake Bortles will not be on the Jags’ roster next year, likely leaving the team with a sizable dead-cap hit from the extension he signed last offseason. But that move has been expected for some time now. The latest drama around the Jags concerns running back Leonard Fournette, who’s had the remaining guarantees in his contract voided because of his one-game suspension earlier this season. By voiding Fournette’s guarantees, the Jags can theoretically move him this offseason via trade or release with no financial penalty. While that lessens the blow, moving on from Fournette would still mean that the Jags are leaving behind a player they drafted fourth overall — two years ago.
Jacksonville’s drafting and contract decisions on the offensive side of the ball over the past half-decade have been nothing short of atrocious. The Bortles extension was designed to create cap space that could allow the Jags to keep their championship window open in 2019. Instead, they used the $10 million in space from the Bortles deal to sign guard Andrew Norwell and wide receiver Donte Moncrief while doing nothing to create competition at the quarterback position. Now, they’re projected to be $11 million over the cap in 2019, with no definitive solution under center. After finishing 5-11 this season, the Jags are slated to have the seventh overall pick in next year’s draft. And at this point, it’s hard to envision them doing anything but selecting a quarterback. Finding the right passer — and quickly — is the only way the Jaguars can possibly salvage the remaining elite production from Jacksonville’s increasingly expensive defense.
6. Difficult as it may be to admit, it’s time for the Giants to find a replacement for Eli Manning. This was probably true last year, but after the season that Manning and the Giants had, it’s become even more pressing. Manning’s $23.2 million cap number next season is palatable for a starting QB in 2019, but given the combination of his poor production this year, the potential money the Giants could save should they move on, and New York’s current financial situation, the arguments in favor of bringing Manning back next season are dwindling. The Giants would save $17 million in space by releasing Manning before next season, adding nearly 50 percent more cap room to go after free agents. They also have the sixth pick in the draft, which sets up well for general manager Dave Gettleman. The teams ahead of the Giants in the draft — the Cardinals, 49ers, Jets, Raiders, and Bucs — could all potentially retain their QBs next season, meaning New York could be in prime position to land one of the top passers in the draft. No matter how it has to happen, though, the time has come for the Giants to plan their future.
7. Dirk Koetter is out in Tampa Bay, but it looks like both general manager Jason Licht and quarterback Jameis Winston will be back in 2019. And that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Let’s start with Licht, who’s been at the helm in Tampa Bay since 2014. Over that stretch, some of the Bucs’ draft decisions have included selecting kicker Roberto Aguayo in the second round, passing on Derwin James last spring, drafting afterthought running back Ronald Jones one round later, and taking first-round bust Vernon Hargreaves in 2016.
Licht has failed to produce any talent through the draft, and he hasn’t been much better in free agency. But the most significant misstep of his tenure may haunt the Bucs longer than it has to. Tampa Bay’s ownership reportedly wants to stick with Winston — and his $20.9 million fifth-year option — next season, sending a confusing message to whoever the team hires as its next head coach. The Bucs have been dysfunctional enough for the head coach to lose his job, but every other crucial aspect of the franchise infrastructure remains intact. Tampa Bay’s next coach will be stuck with a quarterback he didn’t choose, in the lame duck year of that QB’s contract, paying him a cap hit typically reserved for the best passers in the league. There’s a reason that bad teams stay bad, and the Bucs are showing us why.
8. The Titans have far more stability than the Bucs at every other level of their franchise, but after Marcus Mariota’s injury-ridden season, they may also be weighing the future of their franchise QB. Tennessee won’t feel the need to make any sweeping changes to its staff this offseason, but Marcus Mariota’s ongoing injury issues could force the Titans to reconsider their options at QB. Like Winston, the Titans can move on from Mariota with no financial penalty. On a football level, Tennessee has more reason to be patient with Mariota than the Bucs do with Winston. After suffering through two seasons of Mike Mularkey’s antiquated “exotic smashmouth” offense, Mariota just finished his first year working under a play-action-centric offensive coordinator in Matt LaFleur. The results left a lot to be desired, as the Titans finished 25th in passing DVOA while Mariota averaged 7.6 yards per attempt. But Mariota also spent much of the season nursing elbow and other injuries that hampered his production. Unfortunately, therein lies the problem. Mariota consistently has trouble staying on the field, which may motivate the Titans to look for another option. Sticking with Mariota for another season is the most likely path for Tennessee, but don’t be shocked if they’re one of the surprise teams in the QB market come March.
9. After firing Todd Bowles, the Jets are looking for a new head coach to guide Sam Darnold — and it seems like they’re looking in the right place. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported on Monday that the Jets have requested to interview Bucs offensive coordinator Todd Monken for their head coaching vacancy. Monken oversaw a passing offense that ranked ninth in DVOA heading into Week 17 and exhibited the types of Air Raid qualities that more offenses in the NFL should embrace. The idea of Monken coaching an offense with Robby Anderson on the outside, Quincy Enunwa working the middle of the field, and Sam Darnold at QB is a fascinating concept. Who knows whether Monken will get the job, but this is a good start to the Jets’ search.
10. This week’s line play moment that made me hit rewind: Fletcher Cox finished off his transcendent season with his best game of the year. Lost in Aaron Donald’s historic 20-sack campaign is the absurd pass-rushing production that Cox has generated this season in Philadelphia. He recorded three more sacks on Sunday against Washington to finish the year with 10.5 total, but that doesn’t speak to just how dominant he was at getting after the QB. He’s a game-wrecking force, and on the eve of the playoffs, he’s the most important player on the Eagles defense.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Saquon Barkley can fly, apparently.