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Gronk, Le’Veon Bell, and the Biggest Story Lines of the NFL Offseason

With the Super Bowl in the rearview mirror and Week 1 of the 2019 season seven months away, let’s break down the stories that will define the league’s spring and early summer. First question: Where will the Steelers’ star running back sign? (Spoiler: not Pittsburgh.)

Elias Stein/Getty Images

The Super Bowl is over, thank God, but so too is the NFL season. Week 1 of 2019 is beyond the horizon, but luckily we have an offseason of story lines to sate our football appetite in the meantime. Is anyone in Pittsburgh happy? Will the Saints take their misery out on the NFL rule book? Will the Heisman Trophy winner ever play football again? Let’s dive into the biggest stories that should unfold this offseason.

Where Will Le’Veon Bell Sign? (Spoiler Alert: Not Pittsburgh)

Bell gave up $14.5 million by sitting out this season in the hopes of reaching unrestricted free agency in March healthy. (If you are still confused why and how Bell sat out the season, here are some FAQs.) Barring a shocking decision by the Steelers to get back on this roller-coaster ride in 2019, Bell is going to be free to sign wherever he wants, and it will be fascinating to see what he commands on the open market. Running backs have proved to be a terrible long-term investment for teams, but a running back like Bell has never hit the open market. Bell has more yards from scrimmage in his first 62 games than any other player since at least 1950, which is as far back as the stat goes.

Whether Bell can recoup the money he lost last season remains to be seen, but Bell and his agent, Adisa Bakari, have repeatedly indicated that their stance was based on principle as much as profit.

“I’ve made a lot of money, I’m happy where I’m at, I’ve got a good family—I don’t really need to play football,” Bell told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler in January 2018. “Right now, I’m just kind of doing it because I love it. Now, I’ve done everything but own a Super Bowl. … I don’t necessarily care about the money aspect of it. I just want to be valued where I’m at. If I am playing this game, I want to set standards for all the other running backs behind me, like Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott, Melvin Gordon, guys like that. I’m a guy they can kind of look at. I feel I can do that. I’m in a position where I can do that, and I’m going to do it.”

If there was ever a perfect New York Jets signing, this is it.

Pittsburgh Steelers v New Orleans Saints
Antonio Brown
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Will the Steelers Trade Antonio Brown?

Pittsburgh is about to end two years of Bell holdout drama, but the team may be getting into an even bigger showdown this year. Antonio Brown missed the Steelers’ Week 17 game against Cincinnati amid murky circumstances—was his knee injured? Was he secretly disciplined for missing practice? Did he refuse to play?—which led to reports that Brown wanted a trade. Rather than put out the fire, Steelers controlling owner Art Rooney II poured gasoline on it.

“We’ll look at all the options,” Rooney said. “We’re not going to release him, that’s not on the table. But I will say all other options are on the table.”

Amid the reports about his future with franchise, Brown was revealed as the hippo after being the first contestant voted off of the new Fox show The Masked Singer. On Tuesday, TMZ Sports reported that Brown was involved in a domestic dispute in January but was not arrested.

Two Expiring Contracts in Dallas

If you, like me, enjoyed not hearing about the Cowboys for weeks at a time in their quietly surprising offseason last year, I have bad news: We will hear about them early and often in 2019. The Cowboys head coach and starting quarterback are entering the final year of their contracts, and how Dallas handles each situation will affect the franchise well into the 2020s.

It starts with Dak Prescott, whose rookie deal is set to expire after this year. Prescott has earned less than $700,000 per year in his three NFL seasons, a wildly below-market rate for the starting quarterback of the most valuable sports franchise in the world, and Prescott is likely looking to get paid. Letting Prescott reach free agency is simply not an option for Dallas, and owner Jerry Jones has already said Dak is “going to get extended.”

The same vote of confidence has not been granted to head coach Jason Garrett, whose contract is also up after this season. Garrett seemed like a goner as recently as mid-November when the Cowboys were 3-5 after nine weeks, but they finished the season 7-1, captured the NFC East, and won their first playoff game since the 2014 season. Garrett was retained, and one day after the Cowboys lost to the Rams in the divisional round, he told a Dallas radio station that they “don’t anticipate any significant changes on our staff.” But life comes at you fast when you work for Jones, and just a few days later, the Cowboys fired offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. The Cowboys have hired two of their former backup quarterbacks—Kellen Moore and Jon Kitna—to be offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, respectively. The two assistant coaches could innovate Garrett’s offense, or they could double down and give us the blandest year of Cowboys football this decade.

Teams try to avoid sending head coaches into the season on an expiring contract. It’s hard for a coach to ask players to buy into a team if the front office won’t buy into the coach. (Take a moment to imagine if your boss was on an expiring contract.) Garrett is going to be asked about his job status at Hue Jackson levels this year.

Oakland Raiders v Kansas City Chiefs
Derek Carr
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Where Will the Raiders Play in 2019?

You know what’s worse than letting your quarterback and head coach reach the final year of their contracts? Letting the lease on your football stadium expire. The Oakland Raiders have one more year as the “Oakland” Raiders before they move into their new stadium in Las Vegas in 2020, but where they play in 2019 is low-key the biggest problem on the NFL’s plate for the next two months. The Raiders have been fighting with the city of Oakland and Alameda County over its lease in the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum for years, and the team pulled out of negotiations altogether in December.

“We do not have an answer on where we’re going to play next year,” Raiders CEO Marc Badain said in December. “We have a number of options, and when we have an answer we’ll share it with you.”

The preseason is six months away. This timeline would be stressful if it was a wedding. Not to mention that their “number of options” is a pretty small number: The Vegas stadium won’t be ready in 2019, and UNLV’s football stadium would cost a fortune to upgrade, so moving to Nevada a year early is out. The most likely options right now seem to be playing in Santa Clara by forcing the 49ers to split their home stadium in 2019 like the Giants and Jets share MetLife Stadium, or sharing the San Francisco Giants stadium, Oracle Park (formerly known as AT&T Park, but forever known as the place Barry Bonds hit baseballs at kayakers). Yet that agreement is no guarantee. The mayor of San Francisco has already publicly come out against the latter and there may be stiff opposition in the city. The longer this uncertainty drags on, the more it messes with the scheduling process for the 2019 NFL season.

Rule Changes

After the infamous no-call that likely cost the Saints a spot in the Super Bowl, we’ll see whether the heat-of-the-moment anger translates into changes on the field. Senior vice president of officiating Alberto Riveron is in serious danger of being fired, but the potential rule changes are what’s to watch. Saints head coach Sean Payton, once he’s done eating Jeni’s ice cream and binge-watching the Ted Bundy documentary and You on Netflix, will likely leverage his spot on the NFL’s competition committee to seek to change how NFL challenges work. Bill Belichick has long asked for all plays to be reviewable, including penalties. The NFC championship game has put more momentum behind that idea than ever before. But a proposal to make penalties reviewable is not the same as a proposal for coaches to challenge for a penalty to be called retroactively based on replay, which is the only mechanism that would have fixed the Saints debacle. That might open a Pandora’s box of issues for the league that creates more problems than it solves.

Proposals will likely be made at the owners’ meeting in late March and could be ratified at the next owners’ meeting in late May.

The NFC East Quarterback Breakups

R.I.P., Big Dick Nick—Gone, but Not Forgotten

Nick Foles is too expensive for the Eagles to reasonably consider retaining him as a backup quarterback in 2019. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Eagles plan to franchise tag Foles and then attempt to trade him for a third-round draft pick—a move reportedly made possible on Tuesday when the team picked up Foles’s option for 2019, and Foles gave back $2 million to get it out of the deal in anticipation of being tagged. Once traded to another team, Foles could sign a long-term deal or play on a one-year contract at the franchise-tag value (the average of the five highest quarterback salaries), which would be worth north of $20 million. Foles may be gone from Philly soon, but his Philly Special statue outside the stadium (and the tattoo on many Philly fans’ forearms) will last for decades.

A Power Vacuum in Washington

A year after Washington traded for Alex Smith and signed him to a four-year extension, the team’s future at quarterback is a mystery. Smith broke his leg in Week 11 against Houston and spent a month in the hospital after complications and infections required multiple surgeries. One year and one day after Washington acquired him, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that Washington is not expecting Smith to be ready to play in 2019.

Unless Washington is comfortable rolling with career backup Colt McCoy—who also broke his leg last year—Mark Sanchez, or Josh Johnson, Washington will need a new quarterback this year. That could be a stopgap free agent, like Teddy Bridgewater (also an injury risk), Tyrod Taylor, Ryan Fitzpatrick, or, if we’re lucky, Robert Griffin III.

But Washington could also draft a young quarterback and plan a path forward. Smith will be 36 at the start of the 2020 season, and he wasn’t playing particularly well in the 10 weeks before he was injured. It’s hard to imagine that he would be significantly better after extended time off. Smith is signed through 2022 season, but Washington could part with him at a palatable cap figure as soon as after 2020. Despite Washington just committing $71 million guaranteed, it might make sense to call Smith’s deal a sunk cost and start again.

New York Giants v Indianapolis Colts
Eli Manning
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Eli Manning and the Giants

Manning is entering the final year of his four-year, $84 million contract extension he signed in 2015. The Giants can save $17 million in cap space by releasing Manning this offseason, but it seems more likely the team is going to keep him on board, let him mentor his successor, and let him waddle into the sunset. After the debacle of a benching in 2017 led to fan uproar about making the best quarterback in team history cry at his locker, it might be an attempt to appease the fan base. Unless the team decides to bank on second-year quarterback Kyle Lauletta, 31-year-old journeyman Alex Tanney, or sign a free-agent quarterback, the team is likely to acquire a quarterback this offseason in free agency or the draft with the sixth overall pick.

Quarterback Commitments, Non-NFC East Division

Farewell, Joe Flacco

Unlike Manning, there is no mystery to who Flacco’s successor will be. Despite a horrid final game against the Chargers in the wild-card round, the Ravens are committed to their first-round pick as the team’s future after he led the team to a 6-1 finish to make the playoffs (funny how nobody is calling Lamar Jackson a winner like people did Tim Tebow). Considering the changes on offense the Ravens will likely make this season to maximize Jackson’s skill set, Flacco may not make sense as the backup quarterback at any price, and especially not the $63 million of salary he’s still owed. Flacco is a good bet to be cut or traded this offseason. Get ready for the wave of actually, Joe Flacco is underrated opinions about to flood football this offseason when he signs with the Jaguars.

QB or Not QB: Will Kyler Murray Play Football or Baseball?

That is the question. Oklahoma’s center fielder/Heisman-winning quarterback was drafted no. 9 overall last year by the Oakland Athletics, but in January, he chose to enter the NFL draft. Considering the demands of being a quarterback, there’s little to no chance he can follow in the footsteps of Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson and play both sports professionally. With A’s spring training beginning on February 15 and the NFL combine in Indianapolis on February 26, he’ll likely have to make a choice this month. If you’re wondering which way he is leaning, well, just watch this clip of him on The Dan Patrick Show last week.

Here’s a shorter, edited transcript of this conversation:

Dan Patrick: Are you going to the combine?

Kyler Murray: I don’t know

Dan Patrick: Wait, are you going to spring training?

Kyler Murray: (Laughing) I don’t know.

Dan Patrick: How tough is it that you’re doing this [press tour] with Gatorade but you know every place you go is going to ask you the same questions?

Kyler: I’m getting pretty good at answering these questions.

Glad that is settled.

Will Gronk Retire?

Tom Brady has insisted he will return in 2019, but Rob Gronkowski has been far less committed. Gronkowski, who played through a number of injuries this year during one of his lesser regular seasons of his career, could go out on top if the final catch of his career was the play that set up the only touchdown in the game that earned him his third Super Bowl ring. A Gronk post-retirement tour could be the jewel of the NFL offseason: He could focus on horse-breeding, pro wrestling, and dance-offs with Shaq.

Will Kareem Hunt or Reuben Foster Be Suspended?

The Chiefs released Hunt on November 30 shortly after TMZ released a video of him shoving and kicking a woman in a Cleveland hotel in February 2018, but the NFL’s investigation is still ongoing. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that the league expects to finish the investigation before NFL free agency begins on March 13. Hunt is currently on the commissioner’s exempt list, which bars him from playing.

The NFL is also still investigating linebacker Reuben Foster’s November arrest on charges of first-degree misdemeanor domestic violence battery in Tampa for an incident at the 49ers team hotel in which he slapped and pushed his girlfriend and damaged her phone, according to the girlfriend. Foster was waived by the 49ers the next day, but Washington claimed him. Prosecutors dropped the charges against Foster in January, but Roger Goodell said last week that does not preclude Foster from having violated the NFL’s conduct policy.

What Will Happen With Colin Kaepernick’s Collusion Grievance?

Remember Kaepernick’s collusion case against the NFL? The case has been out of the headlines, but it remains at the forefront for NFL owners. Kaepernick’s collusion grievance against the NFL, which has been ongoing since last summer, alleges owners colluded to keep him unemployed for his political protests. The case is a labor dispute pursuant to the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement and not (yet) a legal matter in the judicial system, and a gag order preventing those involved with the case from discussing it has kept it out of the news, but it could come roaring back in 2019. It is still unknown what evidence Kaepernick and his attorneys have presented, but multiple team owners and commissioner Roger Goodell have been deposed in the case, and arbitrator Stephen Burbank could reach a decision in the first half of this year.