Saturday, July 20, 2024

Everything we heard during NFL combine week: Buzz on Justin Fields, Kirk Cousins and top draft picks

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Our national NFL reporters have spent the past week in Indianapolis at the annual NFL combine, talking to execs, coaches, agents, scouts, players and other team sources. The public’s eyes might be on the top 2024 NFL draft prospects working out and running their 40-yard dashes, but behind the scenes, it’s a great place to gather intel about what all 32 teams are doing this offseason. The franchise tag deadline is on Tuesday, and free agency kicks off in a week. We’ll see a handful of trades, a ton of signings and even a few extensions. And with so many people from around the NFL all in one place, the combine offers a chance to learn what might happen.

Jeremy Fowler and Dan Graziano empty their notebooks here with the latest news and rumors. What are sources saying about the best free agents, and where might those players land? Which stars are set for extensions, especially at receiver? Will Justin Fields soon be traded? And what’s the early word on what teams might do at the draft? Here’s everything we heard in Indy.

Jump to the latest on:
Cousins | Fields | Mayfield | WR market
Draft pick trades | Prescott | Pickett | Sleeper FAs
Fowler and Graziano empty their notebooks

Will Cousins go back to the Vikings or hit free agency?

Graziano: The sense I’m getting is Minnesota still wants quarterback Kirk Cousins to return, but Cousins has a very specific idea in mind for what he wants in a new contract, and the Vikings so far have not made an offer that matches it. The ball might be in the team’s court at this point. Cousins and his family like Minnesota and would be happy to stay and finish his career there, but it doesn’t sound like he’s willing to offer the team a hometown discount.

If the Vikings don’t sign him to an extension before the final four years of his contract void on March 12, they will carry a $28.5 million dead money charge on their salary cap and Cousins will be an open-market free agent for the second time in his career. Should that happen, I expect the Falcons to make a strong pursuit. I have been told by multiple sources this week that signing Cousins — not trading for Justin Fields — is the Falcons’ top QB solution, assuming Cousins makes it to free agency.

Fowler: The Cousins-Minnesota negotiation is nuanced, due in part to history. Cousins has spent six seasons with the club — that’s a lot of shared experience. Just 10 days from the new league year, Minnesota is at least loosely bracing for Cousins to test the negotiating window that begins on March 11, though there’s a lot of time left for the sides to continue talking. This close to free agency, waiting might be Cousins’ logical play — and one that essentially puts the team’s broader free agency plans on hold.

Does Minnesota go younger at certain positions for long-term strength, or should it load up on immediate roster help now? The answer could depend on whether Cousins re-signs. As one high-ranking exec with another team said, the feeling is that Minnesota wants to extend Cousins but won’t live or die by that desire. It will have limits. And as you said, Dan, some people in the league believe Atlanta will pursue Cousins. As one NFL exec put it, that’s probably one of the best overall free agent fits out there.


What’s happening with a potential Fields trade?

Fowler: The major quarterback domino that many are waiting to fall is Chicago’s Justin Fields decision. Chicago has not played its hand, and several league sources believe Fields — who has not requested a trade — could probably garner a Day 2 pick in a potential deal. There’s no firm deadline on a trade, though the start of free agency is sort of a soft one. Chicago will need multiple teams in the fray to drive a market, and after asking around, I expect Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Las Vegas and Minnesota to be on Fields’ radar.

There’s plenty of smoke around Atlanta and Fields. Some around the league are wondering about the fit, thinking a Rams-influence offense under new offensive coordinator Zac Robinson could target a Cousins-style quarterback, while others say Fields’ immense talent will be maximized in that scheme. As one league source put it, Atlanta has done enough work on Fields, Cousins and Baker Mayfield that the chances of coming away with one of them are fairly good.

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Stephen A. slams Steelers for having faith in Kenny Pickett

Stephen A. Smith is not happy with Steelers GM Omar Khan for saying he has full faith in Kenny Pickett as their quarterback.


Where will Mayfield end up?

Fowler: While Mayfield and the Buccaneers continue to discuss a potential long-term deal, the veteran QB will have interest outside of Tampa Bay. He has familiarity with Atlanta with new coach Raheem Morris and offensive coordinator Zac Robinson, who were with him during a short stint with the Rams. While the Falcons have been rumored to be paired with other available quarterbacks, that list can be fluid.

Also, New England’s new brain trust — including personnel lead Eliot Wolf and newly hired Alonzo Highsmith — played a pivotal role in drafting Mayfield No. 1 five years ago. And in a broader sense, the Patriots could sign a veteran QB like Mayfield and trade the third overall pick for more draft capital, which is desperately needed.

One more thought: While Cousins is undoubtedly the top option should he leave Minnesota, Mayfield is clearly the No. 2 free agent passer. It wouldn’t be a shock if the Vikings got involved should Cousins leave.


What’s next for Jefferson, Hunter in Minnesota?

Graziano: The Vikings are trying to get a contract extension done with star wide receiver Justin Jefferson, and they’ve also made an effort to re-sign edge rusher Danielle Hunter. Jefferson is likely to set the top of the receiver market whenever he signs, and his deal is certain to pay him more than $30 million per year. The question is how much more.

Hunter, who had 16.5 sacks last season and 27 total over the past two years, could be the top edge rusher on the market and would likely generate interest from multiple teams. The Vikings’ attention has been focused on finding out whether they can keep Cousins, but he’s not the only significant piece of business they have to address.

Fowler: Yeah, not as many numbers floated around Indy as usual, but it’s safe to say teams are expecting Hunter to be in — or at least searching for — a pretty massive price range, something well north of $20 million per year. And the production might just justify it: Hunter has averaged 14 sacks over his past four healthy seasons.


What’s next for the WR market?

Graziano: If and when Jefferson signs his extension, it will bring some clarity to the top of the wide receiver market and affect other deals around the league. Dallas and CeeDee Lamb continue to talk about an extension, and if there’s a receiver out there who could land in Jefferson’s contractual neighborhood, Lamb is probably that guy. The Cowboys need cap space and could save more than $13 million if they extend Lamb. But there are so many receivers looking for deals and so many available in the draft (this year and seemingly every year now) that at some point you wonder if the market will cool again.

A lot of people in Indy seemed to think the reason the Bengals franchised Tee Higgins as early as they did was so they could trade him. With a Ja’Marr Chase extension likely coming this offseason or next, Cincinnati might not be able to keep the band together around Joe Burrow much longer. And then there is Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans, who will be 31 years old when the season starts — but his game isn’t speed-dependent. The Bucs would like to have him back and haven’t given up hope, but the belief is that Evans will at least test the market during the negotiating period to see what else is out there.

The Lions and Amon-Ra St. Brown have been working on an extension that some think could land in the range of $26-28 million per year. The 49ers would like to get Brandon Aiyuk‘s contract extended, but he’s also a trade candidate if they can’t get something done. And finally, the Dolphins and Eagles have decisions coming up on Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith, both of whom are extension-eligible for the first time and have big-money receiver teammates in Tyreek Hill and A.J. Brown, respectively.


A surprise big-money position?

Fowler: Yup, good money will be spent on guards this offseason. So many teams need them and have targeted the position, and Detroit’s Jonah Jackson, Miami’s Robert Hunt, New England’s Mike Onwenu and the Los Angeles Rams’ Kevin Dotson are among the top options. Don’t be surprised if some or all from this group command $16 million or more.

Will there be enough seats in the musical chairs for all of them to get paid? It’s very possible. Consider all of the teams that really need guard help, including the Giants, Jets, Panthers and Jaguars.


Will the Commanders, Patriots trade their Day 1 picks?

Fowler: Washington has received trade inquiries from teams on the No. 2 pick. While they might not be hard, actionable offers, the interest in moving up is there. Among teams that could be on the QB radar are the Giants (No. 6), Falcons (No. 8), Vikings (No. 11) and Raiders (No. 13). That said, I would be surprised if Washington moved off the pick.

Graziano: There’s a lot of speculation about what the Patriots will do with the No. 3 pick. Some thought early in the week that a trade down was possible, but by the end of the week, the sense seemed to be that the Pats would stay put and take one of the top three quarterbacks. That wouldn’t preclude New England from pursuing a veteran such as former Patriot Jacoby Brissett in free agency, in case it decides it doesn’t want to rush the prospect it selects at No. 3.


Will Dallas extend Prescott?

Graziano: I am not as convinced as a lot of people seem to be that a Dak Prescott extension in Dallas is a sure thing. His current 2024 cap number is $59.455 million, which is massive, and obviously an extension is the best way to reduce it. But Prescott has a large amount of leverage here, too, with one year left on his deal and a clause in his contract that prohibits the team from franchising him. Plus, he has never made things easy on the Cowboys when they’ve gone to him to talk new deals in the past.

If they can’t make headway in negotiations, the Cowboys could save about $18.5 million in cap space simply by converting Prescott’s 2024 salary into a signing bonus and doing so without adding any more void years to the three that are already on the deal (2025-27). The problem with that? It would result in the Cowboys carrying a cap charge of roughly $55 million for Prescott in 2025, when in this hypothetical scenario he could be playing for a different team.


Tag coming for Winfield … or Evans?

Fowler: While the expectation is that Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. will receive the franchise tag by Tuesday absent a new deal, the two sides will continue talking over the coming days in hopes of an extension. There’s a feeling from people inside the league I’ve spoken to that Winfield would reset the safety market in a new deal, either with Tampa Bay or as a free agent. He was that good last season, finishing with 122 tackles, 6 sacks, 6 forced fumbles and 3 interceptions.

The Bucs have massive decisions on the way, with Evans, Mayfield and linebacker Lavonte David all hitting free agency, and left tackle Tristan Wirfs looking for a market-shifting deal ahead of his 2025 free agency. They are aggressively pursuing a deal with Evans and want him to retire a Buc, and the belief is Evans is open to that. But the Buccaneers also had the chance to sign him last August and didn’t get something done. Anything is possible here, and if the Bucs can secure Winfield and possibly Mayfield over the next few days, what’s to preclude them from franchise-tagging Evans at that point?


Which cornerbacks could be available?

Fowler: Cornerback was a popular position of discussion in Indy, most notably for the trade market. We know the Chiefs are working on a potential tag-and-trade with L’Jarius Sneed, and multiple teams are believed to be in the mix there. The word out of Indy is that Detroit is pretty set on adding a high-end corner, so the Lions are one to watch. Miami is worth keeping an eye on, too.

Several teams believe Saints corner Marshon Lattimore — whose base salary is a paltry $1.2 million due to a restructure — is also available via a trade, and there’s intrigue on Bucs cornerback Carlton Davis III.


Were the 49ers close to a different DC hire?

Graziano: Before filling their defensive coordinator position Saturday with the promotion of Nick Sorensen and hiring Brandon Staley as assistant head coach, the 49ers looked into several very intriguing options. The most intriguing would have been an all-time if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em move. Sources say the Niners explored the possibility of hiring Steve Spagnuolo away from the Chiefs for their defensive coordinator position shortly after their Super Bowl loss to Kansas City.

Spagnuolo’s contract with the Chiefs was set to expire this offseason, and the Niners’ interest likely was one of the reasons the Chiefs moved quickly to extend him. Multiple sources said Spagnuolo’s new deal will pay him somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 million per year.


What lies ahead for Wilkins?

Fowler: While Miami’s stance is that all options are on the table for defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, several league sources say he probably won’t be franchise-tagged. That would put a big-time tackle who had 63 tackles and nine sacks in 2023 on the market.

Houston is intriguing here. The Texans have ample cap space, a quarterback early on a rookie deal and a playoff roster. There would be several teams in the mix, though. The Browns are always good for a splash or two, for instance. Would they strengthen an already stout defense with the versatile DT?


Will Pickett stick as the Steelers’ QB1?

Fowler: Even as they sort out their quarterback outlook, the Steelers have started the process of rebuilding third-year passer Kenny Pickett. I’m told new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith recently spent time with Pickett in South Florida and that the two had a “great” meeting. The sentiment among many here in Indy — including some with the team — was that Pickett could get another chance after a disastrous 2023 season due in part to the offense’s overall struggles under then-OC Matt Canada. Smith should help maximize Pickett’s skill set.

There’s also little doubt Pittsburgh will bring in quarterback competition, which could spark a Mason Rudolph re-signing.


Tough decisions for the Chargers?

Fowler: What will the Chargers do with four marquee players with huge cap hits? Defensive ends Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack and receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams comprise more than half the team’s salary cap, and releasing all four would save $80.8 million in space. Doing that would obviously be shocking, but all four returning in their current contractual state would be a surprise, too.

I’m leaving Indianapolis optimistic about Allen returning, possibly on a new or reworked deal. A few teams asked me about Mack as a trade option, and it seems there’s some interest there. Williams is coming off an ACL tear and is in the final year of his deal, which is why some are wondering whether Los Angeles will release him outright, but he’s also an immense talent. And it feels anything is possible with Bosa, who’s a premier player but hasn’t stayed healthy.


Sleeper free agents getting buzz?

Fowler: OK, time for some sleepers — free agents who aren’t household names but should do pretty well this month.

  • Jacoby Brissett: He’s considered a top backup QB or 1A option after spending 2023 in Washington.

  • Mike Danna: As a versatile lineman who can play inside or out, he had 6.5 sacks for Kansas City last season.

  • Darnell Mooney: The Chicago wideout is much better than his 2023 stat line of 31 catches for 414 yards and 5 TDs suggests. The Chiefs or Titans could be players here.

  • Colby Parkinson: Sure, he played behind Noah Fant in Seattle, but he has field-stretching ability. The free agent and draft tight end classes aren’t deep, so keep an eye on Parkinson.

  • Graham Glasgow: Guard-needy teams that don’t want to spend top dollar will still allot quality money to the next tier. Glasgow started 15 games for Detroit and held his own, and he can play all three OL spots. (The Chiefs’ Nick Allegretti and the Seahawks’ Damien Lewis are two more guards to watch.)

  • Lloyd Cushenberry: One of the best centers available after playing solid in Denver, he could hit the $10 million-per-year mark.

  • Dorance Armstrong: This key Dallas defensive lineman has plenty of interest. He most likely won’t be back with the Cowboys; new Commanders coach Dan Quinn could try to snag him in Washington.

  • Blake Cashman/Azeez Al-Shaair: These two do-it-all linebackers for Houston and Tennessee, respectively, have caught teams’ attention.

  • Darnell Savage: Enough teams will like his first-round traits to give him a chance on a nice deal after he spent the past five seasons in Green Bay.


What else are we hearing around the NFL?

Graziano:

  • The Chiefs continue to talk to coach Andy Reid about his contract. Reid is the third-highest-paid coach in his own division behind the Broncos’ Sean Payton and the Chargers’ Jim Harbaugh, and he and the organization agree there should be something done this offseason to bring the three-time Super Bowl champion coach’s deal in line with the market.

  • It’s a near certainty the Panthers will use the franchise tag on edge rusher Brian Burns while trying to get a long-term deal done with him. I would expect the Jaguars to do the same with edge rusher Josh Allen if they can’t get an extension done with him by the start of the league year next week.

  • Houston edge rusher Jonathan Greenard, who turns 27 in May and had 12.5 sacks last season, could be a popular player on the free agent market if the Texans don’t franchise-tag or sign him before the market opens. The Texans seem to be focused on upgrading their defense in a few key spots, but the biggest for them might be defensive tackle. I’d expect them to be major players if someone like Miami’s Christian Wilkins or Baltimore’s Justin Madubuike were to hit the market.

  • Who, if any, among the star free agent running backs will get paid? Some sources I talked to think the Giants’ Saquon Barkley is the one with the best chance to clear the $10 million-per-year mark. Obviously Barkley is looking for more than that, and it’s possible he could get closer to what he’s looking for. But the RB market is flooded with talent, and all of the factors that frustrated top backs like Barkley, Josh Jacobs and Austin Ekeler a year ago are still present. Jacobs, still just 26 years old, is another one to watch if any of these guys are going to get nice deals, but it could be rough out there again for the position.

  • The 49ers have at least some interest in bringing back edge rusher Chase Young, who was a bit of a disappointment for them after their deadline deal to acquire him from Washington but is still just 24 and has a great relationship with star 49ers edge rusher Nick Bosa. (They were college teammates.) Young might end up having to take a one-year prove-it deal, be it from San Francisco or someone else, but there are enough teams still intrigued by the 2020 No. 2 overall pick’s potential.

  • I still think teams are higher on Michigan QB J.J. McCarthy than a lot of people on the outside think, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him picked in the top 10. He came to Indy as one of the prospects with the most to gain, and while teams of course have questions, he has intriguing traits. He’s the No. 4 QB in the ESPN consensus rankings.

Fowler:

  • ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported last month that Eagles center Jason Kelce told teammates he is retiring, and I’ve talked to multiple sources who believe defensive tackle Fletcher Cox will probably retire at some point this offseason, too. Now, retirements are tricky — plans are malleable as players emerge from the haze of the season — but there’s a real possibility the Eagles will be replacing two legends at once.

  • Will Chris Jones escape Kansas City? Most around the league do not expect it, but they also don’t expect the talented free agent defensive tackle to take a discount. The feeling is if Kansas City can reach the range of $27 million to $28 million per year, that should help close the deal. But the Chiefs have work to do. Jones could probably surpass those numbers if he hits the market. As one AFC scout told me, he is the blue-chip player of the entire free agent class, age be damned (he turns 30 this summer). The Chiefs made clear from the combine they will do everything possible. But remember that Kansas City typically doesn’t pay premium salaries to its own defensive players. It did it for Jones four years ago, but the list isn’t long.

  • The Jaguars very much want to re-sign receiver Calvin Ridley, who had a good experience in Jacksonville, but they know that will be tough if he reaches the negotiating period starting March 11. The expectation is he will put up a rather gaudy number on a per-year average. Teams see elite ability there.

  • Michael Thomas‘ contract with the Saints is set to void, making him a free agent. A few scouts pointed out Baltimore as a good fit. The Ravens likely won’t re-sign Odell Beckham Jr., and they value established veterans at the receiver position. But a reunion with former New Orleans coach Sean Payton in Denver also makes sense. “When he’s out there and healthy, he affects the game,” an NFC scout said.

  • The Rams and 49ers are among intriguing options for quarterback Zach Wilson, who has permission to seek a trade from the Jets. Wilson is looking for a skilled offensive head coach and a place to revive his career. Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan both need backup QB help at the moment.

  • Dalton Schultz didn’t get his big payday last year due to a deep tight end class, but it should come this time after a good season with the Texans. Enough teams expect him to clear $10 million per year. New England is one to watch here potentially, as is a return to Houston. The Seahawks’ Noah Fant will also do well.

  • A C.J. Gardner-Johnson reunion in Philadelphia is on my radar. The Eagles realized they missed the talented safety in the secondary. Tennessee makes sense for him, too. Titans defensive coordinator Dennard Wilson is a big fan of Gardner-Johnson from their Philly days.

  • Dallas could be in the market for a linebacker after last season’s struggles at the position. Jordyn Brooks, a Dallas-area native and one of the top free agent linebackers, would be a good fit.

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