The new NFL league year doesn’t kick off officially until March 14, but with Super Bowl LII now in the books, it’s time to start looking forward to the 2018 season. Change is already in the air, and front-office overhauls, coaching upheavals, free agency, trades, the draft, and a few inevitable rule tweaks have the potential to drastically alter the makeup of a handful of teams—and reshape the league at large. Here are the 10 biggest questions for the NFL offseason.
1. How will the quarterback carousel shake up the league?
Alex Smith became the first quarterback domino to fall last week, and Jimmy Garoppolo may be next, with a recent report noting he and the 49ers could come to an agreement on a long-term extension as early as next week. Based on the way that Garoppolo played down the stretch, that move has the potential to transform the 49ers into a playoff-caliber team, creating a ripple effect felt throughout the NFC West while altering the complexion of the NFC overall.
But those two moves are only the beginning of what looks like a chaotic period of player movement at the most important position in sports. With the Redskins grabbing Smith, where will Kirk Cousins sign? What will the Vikings do at the quarterback position with all three incumbents—Case Keenum, Sam Bradford, and Teddy Bridgewater—set to hit free agency? Will the Jaguars double down on Blake Bortles? Where will former Jets signal-caller Josh McCown end up? Is Tyrod Taylor done in Buffalo? Will the Giants stick with Eli Manning? Will the Saints shock the world and move on from free agent Drew Brees? (OK, spoiler: No, they won’t.)
There’s plenty of quarterback-needy teams out there, including the Browns, Broncos, Jets, and Cardinals, and big changes could be in store for the Dolphins and Bills at that spot, too. How the game of musical chairs at the quarterback spot plays out will be the most important thing to keep an eye on in the coming months.
2. How will coaching and front-office moves shake up rosters around the league?
The front-office and head-coach carousels have the potential to create major upheavals at every other position around the league, too. Seven teams (the Titans, Cardinals, Giants, Bears, Raiders, Lions, and Colts) will head into 2018 with new head coaches and/or front-office personnel, and a handful more have made changes at the general manager position (Browns, Texans, and Packers).
For some of those squads, the offseason may only involve a few minor moves meant to refine already-talented rosters, but for others, major rebuilds may be afoot. Take a look at what the duo of GM Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott did when they arrived in Buffalo last year: The Bills quickly traded away receiver Sammy Watkins, cornerback Ronald Darby, and linebacker Reggie Ragland, and, for a while there, it looked like a fire sale was on. Then Buffalo made the playoffs for the first time in nearly two decades in part because of that major turnover during the offseason.
Scheme changes, locker-room culture shifts, and salary cap purges are common among regime changes as new coaches and GMs look to bring in “their guys,” ditch the players that are not, and create a competitive team. Paired with a league that appears increasingly comfortable making trades, and we could see some fireworks this offseason.
3. Will pending superstar contract negotiations stall?
Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell is looking for a long-term contract and has already indicated he’s willing to sit out or retire if the team tries to franchise-tag him for a second straight year. Receiver Odell Beckham Jr. is another holdout candidate, and if Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald doesn’t get his much-deserved mega-deal, Los Angeles could open the year without the league’s best defensive player for a second straight season.
Add in players like Raiders pass rusher Khalil Mack and Cowboys edge defender Demarcus Lawrence, both of whom will be looking for long-term deals, and this offseason holds the potential for plenty of contract drama. Should any of these contract negotiations go awry, it could create distractions and, in some cases, force teams to scramble to add fill-in players to account for holdouts.
4. Will there be any surprise retirements?
Last year, Jay Cutler retired only to put back on his clothes and suit up for the Dolphins at the last minute. Anquan Boldin signed with the Bills then decided to call it quits just before the season began. And, of course, Tony Romo headed for the broadcast booth.
This year, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Larry Fitzgerald hang up his cleats, but it’d represent a major setback for a Cardinals offense already down its starting quarterback. There’s a long list of potential retirees behind Fitz, and Rob Gronkowski got speculation flowing with his wishy-washy comments over his future following the Patriots’ Super Bowl loss. Tom Brady and Brees have both indicated they plan on playing next year, but there’s still time for either of them to change their minds, and the same goes for Steelers signal-caller Ben Roethlisberger, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, and Manning. Add in tight end Antonio Gates, defensive end Julius Peppers, running backs Adrian Peterson and Frank Gore, safety Kam Chancellor, pass rusher Cliff Avril, and a slew of other aging vets that could decide to call it a career and a few teams could look a whole lot different in 2018.
5. Will the Seahawks rebuild … or just reload?
Speaking of Avril and Chancellor, the Seahawks could look a whole lot different in 2018. The overhaul’s already started, of course, and following the Seahawks’ 9-7 finish, head coach Pete Carroll fired offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, defensive coordinator Kris Richard, offensive line/assistant head coach Tom Cable, and a few other position coaches—all moves that signaled a desire to return to the type of football Carroll wants his team to play.
The question now is whether that coaching purge will extend to the team’s roster. Chancellor and Avril may both be done (neck injuries), Richard Sherman’s status for the start of the year remains in doubt (Achilles), and pass rusher Michael Bennett’s days in Seattle could be numbered. Sheldon Richardson and Jimmy Graham are free agents, and Earl Thomas is already threatening to hold out—a stance that’s produced plenty of trade rumors. Carroll and Seahawks GM John Schneider lack second- or third-round picks, too, and for a team that has built through the draft the past eight years, the temptation to add draft capital could be strong. Will Carroll and Schneider reboot an aging roster and clear out a bevy of highly paid but aging vets? Or will they simply trim the fat at a few key spots and keep the core nucleus intact?
6. Who will buy the Panthers?
Amid accusations of workplace misconduct, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson announced in December that he would sell the team. That brought forth plenty of speculation as to who will step in and take over. Will P. Diddy really make a run at NFL ownership? Will Warriors star Steph Curry join the fray? The list of potential investors is long and varied, and the winning bidder could end up being one of many types of owners, perhaps the meddling, in-on-the-action type (read: Jerry Jones), the hands-off-type (like Paul Allen), or somewhere in between. This sale has the potential to change the direction of the team in the short term and the long, stylistically and beyond.
7. Which rule changes will the NFL implement?
The NFL desperately needs to revamp its catch rules; that much is clear. But what constitutes a catch will be just one item on the docket for the league’s rules committee this spring and summer, and don’t be surprised if there are additional alterations meant to correct for a big dip in scoring in 2017. Maybe that means granting further protections to quarterbacks or tightening up pass interference and illegal contact rules. Whatever the case, changes that go into effect this offseason could have a major impact on games in 2018. Just imagine how many games would swing in different directions if the league’s catch rules made any sense!
8. Which teams will adopt college-style schemes?
The Eagles just won the Super Bowl with a futuristic hybrid offense that mixes the college game and the pro. And not only did Philly head coach Doug Pederson’s system make Carson Wentz an early favorite for the MVP award, but that quarterback-friendly scheme helped Nick Foles lead the team to a championship after the team lost Wentz for the year with a torn ACL.
The NFL’s a copycat league, and plenty of teams were paying attention to what Pederson—and a few other forward-thinking coaches around the league, including his former boss Andy Reid—did this year to stress defenses with run-pass options, option runs, and play-action looks. Under Reid protégé Matt Nagy, the Bears are due for a move to a more spread-out college-style offense, as are the Titans under new head coach Mike Vrabel. Add the Redskins, a team that may incorporate some of Kansas City’s offensive stylings to help smooth Smith’s transition, to that list, and there should be a handful of other teams that work those concepts into their offenses.
9. Which backups are poised to shock the world?
Foles and Keenum came out of nowhere this year to lead their respective teams to success and playoff glory (to varying degrees, obviously). Prior to the season, both were nothing more than afterthought backups to which no one really paid much attention. I know that this offseason—through minicamps, OTAs, and preseason action—I’m going to be paying closer attention to the backup-quarterback landscape. Will A.J. McCarron be the next surprisingly effective starter? Landry Jones, Cardale Jones, or Davis Webb? The NFL’s not likely to go through a rash of injuries quite like we saw this year, but as teams implement offenses that simplify reads for quarterbacks and utilize more of the college-spread-style schemes, we could see more “no name” quarterbacks step into the limelight.
10. Will Andrew Luck return to the field?
For most of last summer, reports seemed optimistic that Luck, who was battling to rehab from his labrum surgery last January, would return to the field in 2017. That obviously never happened. Luck hit the IR in early November then headed off to Europe to seek alternative treatments for an injury to his throwing shoulder that had not healed as planned. Now, heading into the offseason, reports again seem optimistic that Luck’s shoulder will be ready for the rigors of football. Whether that’s true or not could have massive implications for the AFC South, a division seemingly on the rise with the turnaround Jacksonville underwent this season, the return of Deshaun Watson, and the coaching change in Tennessee.
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is expected to be hired as the Colts’ new head coach, and the move represents the potential for a play-caller-quarterback pairing made in heaven. McDaniels earned a reputation in New England for his creative scheming, ability to find and exploit mismatches, and design a varied game plan from week to week. With a talented quarterback like Luck running that system, the sky’s the limit for the Indianapolis offense. But the gulf between Luck and Jacoby Brissett is substantial, and McDaniels’s success in his second stint as a head coach could hinge on the health of Luck’s throwing shoulder.