Verner, 25, coming off his first Pro Bowl season, will be one of the top cornerbacks on the free-agent market. Before you get too excited, let's add some perspective here: This smacks of a due-diligence call by the Jets, who are involved in a negotiation with their own top cornerback, Antonio Cromartie. If Cromartie doesn't take a pay cut to lower his $15 million cap charge, he'll be released. So, yeah, this could be posturing as well. My sense is that Verner is a contingency if things fall apart with Cromartie.
Verner will be expensive. Very expensive. Brent Grimes re-upped with the Miami Dolphins for four years, $32 million, and Sam Shields re-signed Saturday with the Green Bay Packers for a reported four years, $39 million. I don't think the Jets are eager to spend $9 million to $10 million-a-year on a new corner, one year after using a high first-round pick on Dee Milliner.
True, Cromartie is about four years older than Verner, but he's still a good player, assuming that troublesome hip has healed. If he agrees to reduce the $9.5 million he's due to make in salary and bonuses, Cromartie would be a solid, short-term answer. Then again ...
If the Jets cut Cromartie, they'd save $9.5 million on this year's cap, creating a nice, not-so-little slot for a premier free agent. Interesting. By rule, teams can only talk with agents that represent players from other team. (Yeah, like we believe they're only talking.) The real action starts Tuesday at 4 p.m.
This year, ESPN NFL analyst Bill Polian served as our "general manager" for the tracker, assigning letter grades to each player available. The grading scale is tied to a salary value: Polian believes an 'A' player should receive a contract with an annual value of at least $6 million, while a player with a 'B' should receive between $2-6 million per season.
That's when Polian's 'B-minus' grade for Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd caught our eye.
By next week, Byrd could become the highest paid safety in the NFL, as he's expected to fetch a deal worth at least $9 million on the open market. That represents a wide gap between Polian's valuation and what Byrd could actually receive, so we asked the former Bills general manager about his take on Byrd.
Polian said the salary ranges assigned to the letter grades can eventually change based on market spending, but noted that his grade of Byrd wouldn't be affected.
"He's a speed-deficient safety," Polian said. "Safeties don't get faster as the years go on."
Byrd is the third-ranked safety on Polian's list, behind Antoine Bethea (who received an 'A') and Chris Clemons (who received a 'B').
Nice of them to join the party.
But now the philosophy appears to be changing.
They locked up Cumberland with a modest, three-year contract, and they're in the market for another veteran. Yes, they're serious about upgrading the position. They've been linked to Brandon Pettigrew (Detroit Lions), Scott Chandler (Buffalo Bills) and Jermichael Finley (Green Bay Packers). The "legal tampering" period is underway, and they've already expressed interest in Pettigrew. I think they're trying to sell Pettigrew on the idea that he and Cumberland would be a two-headed monster, with Pettigrew handling the in-line responsibilities and Cumberland being deployed as the "move" tight end.
In theory, it sounds good, but Cumberland isn't known as that kind of tight end. In 2013, most of his receptions (16 out of 26) came when he lined up as a traditional, in-line tight end, per ESPN Stats. They tried to move him around the formation; in fact, he ran 76 of his 214 routes from the slot or split out wide, but he was targeted on only 15 of those 76 routes. In other words, he was a decoy. Either that, or he simply couldn't get open.
Obviously, the Jets thought enough of Cumberland to sign him before he hit the open market. Hey, why not? He'll be only 27 and the price was right -- $3.7 million over three years, according to the New York Daily News. I have doubts about whether he can be a legitimate, pass-catching tight end, although here's something you probably don't know about him: His yards-after-catch (YAC) was 6.35 per reception, second in the league.
One thing is certain: The Jets are trying to shake up the status quo at one of their weakest positions.
The free-agency season is upon us, and the Jets have about $23 million in cap space, which will grow to more than $40 million if/when they dump Santonio Holmes, Antonio Cromartie and Mark Sanchez. It's "go" time for Idzik, whose long-term plan -- presented to owner Woody Johnson when he was hired 14 months ago -- is predicated on stockpiling talent in 2014.
People who know Idzik say he won't take a "shop-till-you-drop" mentality into free agency. They say he will spend, but won't forget his core principles. He won't give lucrative, long-term deals to players over 30 or those with injury concerns. He won't sell out to sign "the big star." He won't deviate from his "the-draft-is-our lifeline" philosophy. He won't pay top-dollar prices for middle-of-the-road players.
Pardon me, but I'm skeptical of the last one, because most teams overpay in free agency. Do you think starting-caliber receivers will be beating down the Jets' door to play with Geno Smith and the 31st-ranked passing offense? Of course not; the Jets will have to pay to attract the top talent.
Former longtime NFL GM Bill Polian, now an ESPN analyst, cautioned that free agency isn't a cure-all.
"The best players are signed,” he said on a media conference call. “These (free agents) are essentially ‘B’ players whose agents are looking for ‘A’ money. That, in itself, is not the best of buys. You recognize that as a general manager.”
Ideally, you want to use free agency to fill needs, allowing you to take a best-available-athlete approach in the draft. It's easy to preach that, but quite another to practice it. When the bidding starts and the money starts flying, it's easy to get sucked into the madness of free agency. Idzik is known for his deliberate approach; we're about the find out how deliberate. The "legal tampering period" begins at midnight; the signing period commences at 4 p.m. Tuesday.
A few thoughts on what to expect from the Jets:
1. Keeping their own: Unlike last year, the Jets are actually trying to retain some of their free agents-to-be, namely RT Austin Howard and TE Jeff Cumberland. They're deep into negotiations with both players. It wouldn't be a surprise if both re-up by Tuesday. They're interested in keeping LB Calvin Pace, 33, but they won't shower him with money because of his age. They told RG Willie Colon, almost 31, he's free to test the market. Once again, it's the age factor. Former second-round pick Vladimir Ducasse also is unlikely to return. In his case, it's not age, it's a talent thing.
2. Resolve the QB situation: If I were Idzik, I'd address this ASAP. How can you convince free-agent receivers to sign if you're selling the still-unproven Smith and a bunch of question marks at quarterback? They should make an immediate run at Michael Vick, with Josh McCown the No. 2 option. Vick isn't what he used to be, but he has more credibility than Smith at this point. If Idzik strikes out in free agency and the trade market, he might have to turn to Sanchez, whose cap charge ($13.1 million) and surgically repaired shoulder make him a less-than-ideal option.
3. Go wide: There are two ways to approach the wide-receiver search. Idzik can go long and invest significant money in Golden Tate, a solid No. 2 receiver, or he can go short and take a chance on Hakeem Nicks, who might be ammenable to a one-year deal. Nicks has No. 1 talent, but he hasn't played like a lead receiver since 2011. Obviously, there are other options as well, including Emmanuel Sanders. Stay away from Eric Decker; he'll cost too much and he's not a true No. 1. If the Jets can sign a No. 2, pairing him with Jeremy Kerley, Stephen Hill and David Nelson, they'd be in position to look for a No. 1 in a receiver-rich draft.
4. The big splurge: Even though the Jets have a ton of cap space, I can't see Idzik spending franchise-type money for one player -- unless he makes an exception for S Jairus Byrd. Even that would be a long shot. With the possibility of 12 draft choices (counting possible compensatory picks), Idzik can afford to be relatively patient, building for sustainable success and avoiding the quick fix. The goal should be to build around Smith, letting him grow with those around him. That was part of the problem for the previous regime. They put Sanchez in charge of a win-now team and, by the time Sanchez was ready to take the next step, the talent around him had eroded. They couldn't get it going at the same time. This is Idzik's chance to make that happen.
Effective at midnight tonight, the NFL opens what has become commonly known as a "legal tampering window." While teams cannot execute a contract with a free agent (other than their own free agents) until Tuesday at 4 p.m., they can contact the agents of pending unrestricted free agents of other teams.
This allows teams to begin their pursuit of players that they believe could add value to their roster, while it allows the agents for players to assess the market that they are expected to have come the start of the new league year.
To be clear, teams cannot speak directly with players from other teams (so while the Patriots could speak with Julian Edelman, they would not be able to, for example, speak directly to Eric Decker). Linebacker Jon Beason has opted to represent himself this offseason, meaning he will be unable to participate in the legal tampering window.
This nearly four-day period was first implemented last offseason. It gives players a glimpse into their market before the market can technically take shape, while also giving teams a head start on their potential signings.
A year ago, Wes Welker used this window to see what else was out there for the Patriots. It was believed that he and his agent were looking for a deal longer than two years and with more guaranteed money than he wound up receiving. As it turned out, Welker's market was not nearly as robust as his representation supposed it would be, as his deal with Denver maxes out at $12 million over two years.
For players like Edelman and cornerback Aqib Talib, this is an opportunity to weigh any potential offers they have received from the Patriots against offers other teams are willing to make on the open market.
The Bills have about $25 million in cap space and are expected to be "active" in free agency, according to CEO Russ Brandon. Still, signing free agents can often be a perilous endeavor, with many players' values inflated because of supply and demand factors. Just because the Bills have the money doesn't mean they will or should spend it.
Free agency is just one of three main ways the Bills can add talent this offseason, along with the draft and any potential trades. In his latest mock draft, ESPN NFL draft expert Todd McShay has the Bills selecting Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews ninth overall. There are three offensive tackles that could be selected in the first 10 picks, which makes the draft an ideal way for the Bills to add talent along the offensive line.
Because of that, offensive line is not on our list of top positions the Bills could target in free agency. Teams can begin speaking to free agents Saturday at noon, while deals can be completed as soon as 4 p.m. Tuesday.
Here's where the Bills might look on the free-agent market:
1. Linebacker: The Bills have already started combing this position. They hosted Jameel McClain and Jasper Brinkley on free-agent visits this week and because both players were released by their former teams, either could sign with the Bills at any time. Both McClain and Brinkley have experience at inside linebacker and could compete for a starting role next to Kiko Alonso, which could push Nigel Bradham down the depth chart. The Bills have insisted that they'll try to keep their defense from last season intact under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, but it's unrealistic to think that nothing will change. Schwartz isn't going to shave his head and become Mike Pettine; he will bring his way of doing things to Buffalo and that could mean changes at linebacker.
2. Safety: This hinges on the status of Jairus Byrd. The door hasn't been shut on a new deal, so if Byrd somehow finds his way back to Buffalo, it will lessen this need to almost zero. If Byrd lands elsewhere, then the Bills have a need here. They just committed a chunk of money to Aaron Williams but they will need another starter at the position. Do they go with a one-year stop-gap measure, using Da'Norris Searcy or re-signing Jim Leonhard for that role? Possibly, but that wouldn't be ideal. Their best bet is to supplement the young talent that they have with a second-tier free agent -- Malcolm Jenkins is one possibility -- and target that position in the draft over the next two years. The Bills aren't doing themselves any favors if Duke Williams is atop their depth chart this summer.
3. Quarterback: Yes, quarterback. The Bills got themselves in a jam last season when Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel saw the field. The events that led to the Bills' quarterback situation last season can be debated for years, but the reality is that they need a better fallback option next season. If they want a quarterback with potential and room for growth, they can address the position in the draft. If they want a veteran who can provide stability if EJ Manuel is injured again, then free agency is the way to go. However they choose to do it, the Bills need to push Lewis and Tuel for the backup jobs.
4. Tight end: Scott Chandler (and his team-leading 53 receptions) could be in another uniform next season. If so, the Bills will need help at tight end. Again, the draft is a possibility but the only realistic option at ninth overall is North Carolina's Eric Ebron. If the Bills don't go that direction this May, they will need some pass-catching ability at the position. Tony Moeaki could return to his pre-injury form, but the Bills should avoid a situation where, by mid-August, they're still waiting for Moeaki to emerge. There are some stronger names at the top of the free-agent class, including Jimmy Graham and Brandon Pettigrew. It would be surprising if the Bills chased either (Graham is franchised and would require the Bills giving up two first-round picks to sign him), but they could shoot for a second-tier free-agent like Garrett Graham to add another layer at tight end.
5. Defensive end: Similar to linebacker, this is a position that could be affected by the Schwartz hire. Pettine's scheme required a third "big body" along the defensive line, in a hybrid defensive end/tackle role. Alan Branch filled that role well and was rewarded with a three-year extension in December. His fit under Schwartz is less certain. In Detroit and Tennessee, Schwartz used two defensive ends with strong pass-rush ability. The Bills have that in Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes but lack depth beyond that. There's a deep free-agent crop this offseason headlined by Jared Allen, Robert Ayers, Anthony Spencer, Michael Johnson, and Justin Tuck. The Bills would make a splash if they dipped into that pool, but even adding a second-tier name would help.
Key free agents: DT Randy Starks, DT Paul Soliai, S Chris Clemons, G Richie Incognito, G John Jerry, OT Bryant McKinnie, OT Tyson Clabo
Where they stand: The Dolphins are expecting major turnover on their offensive line this offseason. Four starters -- Incognito, Jerry, McKinnie and Clabo -- are unrestricted free agents; most are not expected to return after Miami set a franchise record with 58 quarterback sacks allowed and were 26th in rushing. Incognito and Jerry were both involved in Miami’s high-profile bullying scandal. McKinnie and Clabo are older veterans at the end of their careers. So the Dolphins will look to get younger at offensive tackle. Starks and Soliai are solid defensive tackles who could get interest on the open market. Clemons is an average safety who has starting experience.
What to expect: Incognito and Jerry are as good as gone. Both were cited in the 144-page Ted Wells report. The Dolphins will let them go elsewhere in order to distance the franchise from that ugly scandal. Miami has plenty of cap room and will look to spend it at offensive tackle. Free-agent tackles like Eugene Monroe and Branden Albert could be high priorities. If the Dolphins can land one of them, that rules out a return for McKinnie. The defensive tackle position is interesting. Miami may aim to bring back Starks or Soliai, but nothing is guaranteed if neither player is signed before March 11. There is a chance the Dolphins could lose both players and need a contingency plan.
Key free agents: CB Aqib Talib, WR Julian Edelman, RB LeGarrette Blount, LB Brandon Spikes, C Ryan Wendell
Where they stand: The Patriots would like Talib back, and Brent Grimes' four-year, $32 million contract with $16 million guaranteed in Miami provides a ballpark for the marketplace. Is that too rich for the Patriots? The club would also like Edelman back, but after investing in a receiver with a similar skill set last offseason (Danny Amendola), it will be interesting to see how far the Patriots are willing to extend to do so. Talib is the key piece, and similar to Wes Welker last year, it makes sense to think the team will quickly move to Plan B if a deal isn't struck by the start of free agency.
What to expect: The Patriots aren't flush with cap space, and Bill Belichick often says that free agency is one slice of the team-building process, along with the draft and trades. A focus on retaining their own, with a few complementary pieces from other teams added in free agency, would be our best guess as to how the Patriots approach things in 2014. Key spots in addition to retaining Talib and Edelman are adding a more dynamic presence at tight end, more pass-rush help and depth at defensive tackle.
Key free agents: S Jairus Byrd, TE Scott Chandler, K Dan Carpenter
Where they stand: With just six unrestricted free agents -- the fewest in the league -- the Bills are in good shape heading into free agency. However, they could lose one of their best players. The Bills decided not to franchise Byrd, a three-time Pro Bowler; franchising him would have cost $8.4 million against the cap and risked another summer-long contract dispute. The Bills need offensive weapons and help along the offensive line. They could use the ninth overall pick in the draft to help improve their offense while supplementing other positions through free agency. Jim Schwartz's defensive scheme could require some help at linebacker, while they will need reinforcements at safety if Byrd signs elsewhere.
What to expect: The Bills have about $25 million in cap space and will be "active" in free agency, according to CEO Russ Brandon. One sleeper position to watch is quarterback, where the Bills have thrown their support behind EJ Manuel but still could look for a veteran as a backup plan. They've shown a preference for mobile quarterbacks, which could mean Michael Vick is on their radar.
The Bills recently worked out linebackers Jasper Brinkley and Jameel McClain, who were released by their former teams (Arizona and Baltimore, respectively), which could signal an interest at that position. They just gave Aaron Williams, their young safety, a contract extension, but they could be in the market for a second-tier free agent there.
» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South
Key free agents: RT Austin Howard, PK Nick Folk (franchise player), TE Jeff Cumberland, LB Calvin Pace, RG Willie Colon, S Ed Reed.
Where they stand: The Jets are trying to re-sign Howard before he hits the open market. He's not a household name, but he's a massive blocker with surprising athleticism. Howard has two years of starting experience and he's only getting better. They've expressed an interest in re-signing Cumberland and Pace, although it's unclear if deals will get done by Tuesday. Pace produced a career-high 10 sacks last season, playing for the minimum salary, but he's 33 -- and the Jets won't throw significant money at a player that old. The Jets are rebuilding at tight end, so Cumberland's role is undefined, which could affect negotiations. Colon and Reed are fallback options. In Reed's case, way, way back. Colon is recovering from biceps surgery and won't be healthy until the spring.
What to expect: With an anticipated $30 million in cap space, the Jets could be aggressive buyers if they so choose. They need a wide receiver (or two), a tight end and a veteran quarterback to push Geno Smith. There aren't any true No. 1 receivers on the market, so they'd better be careful not to overpay for the second-rate talent. Emmanuel Sanders and Golden Tate could be on the radar. They're likely to have interest in QBs Josh McCown and Michael Vick, who'd be ideal because he already knows Marty Mornhinweg's system from their days together in Philadelphia. If they strike out with free agents, the Jets could retain former starter Mark Sanchez, contingent on his health and a massive pay cut. The Jets could have 12 draft choices (counting possible compensatory picks), so they don't have to overpay to fix every need in free agency.
Player: Josh McCown, Chicago Bears
2013 salary: $865,000.
Sign him up: McCown, who turns 36 in July, is the quintessential journeyman. He has played for five teams, and it looks like it will be six because his mid-30s renaissance last season probably priced him out of the Bears' budget for a backup. In terms of role acceptance, he would be a good fit for the Jets because he would push Geno Smith in a non-threatening way -- if that is what they're looking for. He would be David Garrard, sans the chronic knee condition. At this point in his career, McCown knows he won't be handed a starting job. He won't come cheaply; quarterbacks of McCown's ilk can cost a team about $4 million for the first year.
Reasons to stay away: His magical, five-game run last season screams "aberration!" McCown was a mediocre quarterback his entire career, finally finding something special under quarterback guru Marc Trestman. It also helped that he had a couple of stud receivers in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery; he wouldn't have that luxury with the Jets, that's for sure. McCown will parlay his right-time, right-place season into a relatively big payday, but it will be hard to duplicate last season. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jacksonville Jaguars are possible suitors.
Edelman, coming off a career season in 2013, is set to become an unrestricted free agent at the start of the new league year, which begins March 11.
The 27-year old led the team with 105 receptions last season, his fifth in the NFL. After playing on a one-year deal worth just over $1 million in 2013, Edelman figures to earn a raise in his new deal.
He's one of the team's two highest-profile free agents along with cornerback Aqib Talib, and the talks with Edelman bear monitoring as we lead up to free agency.
Watkins is Ryan's second-favorite receiver at Clemson. As many of you know, Ryan's son, Seth, is a receiver for the Tigers. The Jets' coach told the Associated Press that he would like to add a receiver (what a revelation!) and that he likes Watkins a whole lot.
"But there's no way he'll be there" when the Jets pick, Ryan said. He's right; there's no chance he'll fall to them at No. 18.
Clemson has another intriguing wide receiver, Martavis Bryant, who is 6-foot-5 and projects as a third-round possibility, according to some. The Jets' contingent also got a good look at quarterback Tajh Boyd, a late-round projection.
About 60 NFL types were in attendance, but Ryan and the Detroit Lions' Jim Caldwell were the only head coaches, according to AP.
ESPN NFL draft guru Todd McShay offered up his third mock draft on Thursday. The Miami Dolphins hold the No. 19 overall pick and have some well-defined needs.
Here are some thoughts on McShay’s projection for Miami:
No. 19: Zack Martin
Position/school: Offensive tackle, Notre Dame
Analysis: Martin has been the popular pick for Miami since January. He fits many of the things the Dolphins are looking for. Martin is versatile and capable of playing offensive tackle and guard. Martin also is an effort player who brings leadership, which is something the Dolphins desperately need on their offensive line. He fits both the player and character profile for Miami. A good plan for the Dolphins would be to sign a starting left tackle in free agency (Eugene Monroe? Branden Albert?) and draft a starting right tackle or guard in the first round. Martin could handle either position.
Polian had some interesting thoughts on pending free agents for the Miami Dolphins. Here are several that stood out:
Polian's grade: B
Polian's comment: "Though Clemons often aligned to the strong side for the Dolphins' defense, he is a capable free and strong safety who has been highly productive against the run. He has good production as a deep-field pass defender and has the ball skills and route recognition to handle the middle of the field. A sufficient man-to-man coverage player who also adds special-teams value, Clemons is a starting-level safety."
Walker’s thoughts: I believe Polian overrated Clemons. It also was curious that Polian had Clemons rated higher than Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes (B-), who had a career year in 2013. Clemons is a sure-tackler and good in run support, but he often struggles defending tight ends and slot receivers over the middle. Clemons is Miami's top-rated free agent this year, which I disagree with.
Polian’s grade: B-
Polian’s comment: "A veteran coming off a year in which he played with the franchise tag, Starks is a starting defensive tackle who can play on three downs with his ability to defend the run and rush the passer. He has good interior quickness to be a one-gap shooter and disrupt plays in the backfield."
Walker’s thoughts: Polian is spot on with Starks, who at 30 is still a productive player. Starks should get interest in the open market with his ability to rush the passer. He has 36.5 career sacks, which is solid for an interior defensive lineman. There’s a chance Starks and the Dolphins are heading for a mutual parting of ways.
Polian’s grade: C
Polian’s comment: "A rugged, stout run-defender, Soliai stands tall and wide at 6-foot-4 and 340 pounds. He has a fire-hydrant build and is difficult to move at the line of scrimmage. He can handle double teams and help to build a wall in run defense."
Walker’s thoughts: I would put Soliai in the same grade range as Starks, despite both being different players. Soliai is a specialist; he stuffs the run and is difficult to move. I assume Polian's low grade was the result of his lack of pass rush and often coming off the field on obvious passing downs.