Will free-agent quarterbacks fall victim to collusion?

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For the first time since the NFL launched a system of free agency that relies heavily on a salary cap, a healthy complement of veteran quarterbacks soon will hit the open market. And even though recent growth in the salary cap indicates that someone already should be making more than $30 million per year at the quarterback position, there’s a not-so-subtle sense emerging that teams will refuse to overspend.

It could be coincidental, fueled by a mutual realization based on Jacksonville’s decision to keep Blake Bortles at $18 million per year that it becomes impossible to contend if too much money is devoted to the quarterback position. It also could be deliberately coincidental; it could be the product of collusion.

Yes, collusion happens. Yes, it’s hard to prove collusion. (Colin Kaepernick‘s pending grievance may prove otherwise.) Regardless, the league has a built-in structure for communicating to teams cautionary tales of overspending, and for nudging them away from blowing the curve. Coincidentally (or not), reports have emerged in recent days that teams like the Jets won’t give Kirk Cousins a blank check — and that teams like the Cardinals aren’t even interested in joining what could become a runaway bid process for the first healthy franchise quarterback under the age of 30 to hit the open market.

This dynamic could impact other quarterbacks, like Drew Brees. A team intent on competing to win the Super Bowl this year should offer him $30 million per year. Don’t be surprised if people start talking about his age or otherwise picking nits about the current state of his game, as a precursor to no one offering dramatically more than whatever the Saints will pay.

Ditto for lesser options like Case Keenum and A.J. McCarron. Some now believe that each guy will be hard pressed to get more than Bortles got from the Jaguars.

Then there are the red-flag veterans, competent players with lingering knee problems. The money simply may not be there for Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater, if the money isn’t as big as it was expected to be for Cousins, Brees, Keenum, and McCarron.

The ultimate leverage for most quarterback-needy teams will be the draft, where potential quarterbacks can be found at very affordable five-year deals. Look at the list of annual pay rates for quarterbacks; the bottom third of it is full of players operating under the terms of assembly-line deals crafted by a system aimed at preventing busts from stealing money — and that also allows teams to squat on talented players for four or five years at well-below-market rates.

Salary cap is expected to be at least $178 million, could exceed $179 million

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With the new league year approaching, the NFL and NFL Players Association soon will be finalizing the salary cap number for 2018. In December, the NFL projected a range of $174.2 million to $178.1 million for the cap.

As often is the case, the actual salary cap likely will exceed those projections.

Per a source with knowledge of the situation, the cap will at least be $178 million. It also could exceed $179 million.

The specific number, generally driven by revenues in the prior years, ultimately becomes the product of negotiation between the NFL and NFLPA. Last year, the parties set the cap at $168 million.

The cap has been experiencing significant growth in recent years, even with a decline in TV ratings. With the Thursday night broadcast package spiking from $450 million to at least $550 million annually as of 2018, the increases likely will continue.

Bortles is first, but several 2014 first-round picks will get bigger contracts

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When Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles signed with the Jaguars on Saturday, he became the first member of the 2014 class of first-round draft picks to sign a second contract with his team. He won’t be the last.

Several first-round picks from 2014 will get even bigger deals on their second contracts. The class of 2014 is heading into its fifth year, and we look below at each of the 2014 first-round picks whose fifth-year options were picked up:

Jadeveon Clowney: The first overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft is set to make $13.8 million this year, and he has lived up to his promise enough that he’ll be one of the highest-paid players in the NFL when he gets his second contract.

Khalil Mack: The Raiders chose to prioritize locking up their 2014 second-round pick, Derek Carr, first. But they should prioritize getting Mack done soon. He heads into 2018 set to make $13.8 million.

Jake Matthews: The Falcons’ left tackle is set to make $12.5 million this season.

Mike Evans: The Buccaneers and Evans haven’t started talking about an extension. This year he’ll make $13.3 million.

Anthony Barr: Barr was chosen to his third consecutive Pro Bowl this year and is under contract with the Vikings for $12.3 million this year.

Eric Ebron: Although he’s been a disappointment for the Lions, they picked up his $8.25 million fifth-year option. It remains to be seen whether the Lions will want to keep him around.

Taylor Lewan: The Titans’ left tackle is still a good deal at $9.3 million this year. They’ll likely want to keep him signed to keep protecting Marcus Mariota‘s blind side for many more years.

Odell Beckham: He said last year that he wanted to be the highest-paid player in the league, but an injury-plagued 2017 season may force him to play for $8.5 million in 2018 and wait until 2019 to get a bigger deal.

Aaron Donald: One of the best players in the NFL, Donald is a bargain at $6.9 million. He held out last year, and this year he will certainly want to get paid what he’s worth.

Ryan Shazier: The focus for Shazier will be rehabbing from the serious spinal cord injury he suffered last season. His fifth-year option is guaranteed for injury, so he will receive his $8.5 million salary in 2018.

Zack Martin: The Cowboys want Martin to be part of their offensive line for many years to come. He’s set to make $9.3 million this year.

C.J. Mosley: When the Ravens picked up Mosley’s fifth-year option, coach John Harbaugh said Mosley would be part of the Ravens for many years. This year he’ll play for $8.7 million.

Ja'Wuan James: The Dolphins put James on injured reserve last year. This year he’s due $9.3 million.

Brandin Cooks: Traded from the Saints to the Patriots, Cooks is set to earn $8.5 million on his fifth-year option in New England.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix: The Packers picked up the fifth-year option that pays Clinton-Dix $5.6 million this season.

Dee Ford: He’s set to play for the Chiefs for $8.7 million this season.

Darqueze Dennard: The Bengals are set to pay Dennard $8.5 million this season.

Jason Verrett: The Chargers are set to pay Verrett $8.5 million this season.

Deone Bucannon: The Cardinals are set to pay Bucannon $8.7 million this season.

Kelvin Benjamin: When the Bills acquired Benjamin in a trade with the Panthers, they also acquired his $8.5 million salary for 2018.

Jimmie Ward: The 49ers are set to pay Ward $8.5 million this season.

Bradley Roby: The Broncos are set to pay Roby $8.5 million this season.

The 2018 starting quarterbacks, ranked by APY

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The three-year deal with a base value of $54 million gives Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles an average of $18 million per year. That sounds good in isolation, but it puts him near the bottom of all NFL starting quarterbacks not constrained by a slotted rookie deal.

Here’s the list of 2018 starters by annual average, with actual numbers for those with contracts and projected numbers for those who will still be signed.

1. Kirk Cousins: $29 million per year (projected). The number could go higher depending on the number of suitors and the zeal with which they pursue him.

2. Drew Brees: $28 million per year. Whether he signs with the Saints or someone else, Brees always has gotten paid handsomely. As he should. If the Saints want to keep him, they’ll possibly need to match or beat the package given to the guy who has started seven largely inconsequential games.

3. Jimmy Garoppolo: $27.5 million per year. The highest paid player in the NFL won’t be the highest paid for long. He may not be in the top five for long.

4. Matthew Stafford: $27 million. He’ll have another chance to get to the top of the market when he signs his fourth big-money, multi-year NFL contract in a few years.

5. Derek Carr: $25 million. If the Raiders hadn’t signed him last year, the Raiders would be faced with a fascinating decision. Keep Carr or pursue someone like Cousins, most recently coached by Jon Gruden’s younger brother?

6. Andrew Luck: $24.594 million. He hasn’t done much to earn his money, but that should change this year.

7. Joe Flacco: $22.133 million. But for a crippling cap hit, the Ravens would be considering replacing the Super Bowl MVP from five years ago.

8. Aaron Rodgers: $22 million. When it’s all said and done, he’ll be north of $30 million.

9. Russell Wilson: $21.9 million. He’s already overdue for a new deal.

10. Ben Roethlisberger: $21.85 million. The Steelers have mentioned the possibility of an extension. As more and more quarterbacks get paid, Roethlisberger may demand one.

11. Alex Smith: $21.7 million. Combining a four-year, $94 million extension with a 2018 salary of $14.5 million puts Smith on the fringe of the top 10.

12. Eli Manning: $21 million. A middle-of-the-pack quarterback has nearly middle-of-the-pack pay.

13. Philip Rivers: $20.812 million. Dollar for dollar one of the biggest bargains in the league.

14. Cam Newton: $20.76 million. The new Carolina owner’s first order of business should be to address Newton’s deal.

15. Matt Ryan: $20.75 million. The 2016 league MVP is grossly underpaid.

16. Case Keenum: $20 million (projected). That’s 10 times what he made a year ago.

17. Ryan Tannehill: $19.25 million. And now you know why the Dolphins aren’t rushing to get rid of him.

18. A.J. McCarron: $19 million (projected). Not bad for a guy with four career starts.

19. Blake Bortles: $18 million. Kind of puts it the new contract in perspective, doesn’t it?

20. Andy Dalton: $16 million. The Red Rifle may be looking for more green, soon.

21. Tyrod Taylor: $15.25 million. Whether he plays for the Bills or someone else, it’s a pretty good deal.

22. Tom Brady: $15 million. Fake Don Yee was right.

23. Mitch Trubisky: $7.258 million. Slotted rookie deal from 2017, as the No. 2 pick.

24. Jared Goff: $6.984 million. Slotted rookie deal from 2016, as the No. 1 pick.

25. Carson Wentz: $6.669 million. Slotted rookie deal from 2016, as the No. 2 pick.

26. Jameis Winston: $6.337 million. Slotted rookie deal from 2015, as the No. 1 pick.

27. Marcus Mariota: $6.053 million. Slotted rookie deal from 2015, as the No. 2 pick.

28. Patrick Mahomes: $4.1 million. Slotted rookie deal from 2017, as the No. 10 pick.

29. Deshaun Watson: $3.463 million. Slotted rookie deal from 2017, as the No. 12 pick.

30. Dak Prescott: $680,000. By rule, he can’t sign a new deal until after 2018.

The list doesn’t include 32 quarterbacks, given the possibility that one or more rookie quarterbacks will be Week One starters. Wild cards include Sam Bradford, Josh McCown, and Nick Foles, any of whom could also be starting when the season begins.

With predictable play calling, Colts botched fourth-quarter leads like no other team

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The Colts were one of the worst teams in the NFL in 2017, but they were a particular kind of bad: They were actually a decent team for the first three quarters of games, but they self-destructed in the fourth quarter.

Indianapolis had the lead at the start of the fourth quarter in nine of its 16 games in 2017. To finish with a 4-12 record when you’re leading most of your games in the fourth quarter requires some lousy fourth-quarter decision making, and that’s exactly what the Colts had.

Warren Sharp has laid out a litany of trends that show just how dumb the Colts were in the fourth quarters of games.

The Colts became incredibly predictable in the fourth quarters, all but announcing to opposing defenses that they were going to run the ball to protect their leads. In fact, when the Colts lined up with fewer than three wide receivers on the field while leading in the fourth quarter, they ran the ball 100 percent of the time. Those runs averaged just 1.9 yards per carry. Those are the kinds of trends that opposing teams notice, and you can bet that opposing defenses realized that they could sell out against the run to stop the Colts in those situations.

On those runs, the Colts went to Frank Gore much more often than they went to Marlon Mack — even though Mack’s fourth-quarter runs were more successful than Gore’s. It’s not surprising that Mack, a younger player who got fewer carries than Gore over the course of the 2017 season, was more fresh in the fourth quarters of games. It is surprising that the Colts didn’t realize Mack was their fresher player, and kept going to Gore late in games even when Mack’s runs were more successful.

The result of that predictability is that the 2017 Colts are the only team in the last 27 years to lose at least seven games they led at halftime, and the only team in the last 20 years to hold a lead entering the fourth quarter at least nine times, but finish 4-12 or worse.

The good news for the Colts is that new head coach Frank Reich comes from the Eagles, a smart team when it comes to making key decisions late in games. If Reich follows an approach similar to his old boss Doug Pederson, it’s easy to envision the Colts being a lot better in the fourth quarters of games in 2018 than they were in 2017. With, they hope, a healthy Andrew Luck back on the field, and smarter decision making late in close games, they should be a lot better. When it comes to fourth-quarter decision making, they could hardly be worse.

Full list of compensatory draft picks awarded for 2018 NFL Draft

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Here’s a look at the full list of compensatory picks allocated for the 2018 NFL Draft, which the league announced Friday:

(Round-overall selection, team)

3-97 Cardinals

3-98 Texans

3-99 Broncos

3-100 Bengals

4-133 Packers

4-134 Cardinals

4-135 Giants

4-136 Patriots

4-137 Cowboys

5-170 Bengals

5-171 Cowboys

5-172 Packers

5-173 Cowboys

5-174 Packers

6-207 Packers

6-208 Cowboys

6-209 Chiefs

6-210 Raiders

6-211 Texans

6-212 Raiders

6-213 Vikings

6-214 Texans

6-215 Ravens

6-216 Raiders

6-217 Raiders

6-218 Vikings

7-251 Chargers

7-252 Bengals

7-253 Bengals

7-254 Cardinals

7-255 Buccaneers

7-256 Falcons

Could an unexpected team enter the chase for Kirk Cousins?


When it comes to the looming chase for quarterback Kirk Cousins, it’s easy to compile the universe of potential candidates: Broncos, Jets, Browns, Cardinals, Vikings, Bills, maybe the Jaguars.

But what if all the talk about Cousins gets other teams intrigued about the possibility of upgrading their current quarterback situation? Consider, for example, the Cowboys. Specifically, the guy who owns the Cowboys.

Jerry Jones knows the value of a franchise quarterback. He was smitten four years ago with Johnny Manziel. He got lucky two years ago with Dak Prescott. He could now get intrigued by Cousins.

“I wouldn’t put that past him at all,” PFT’s Charean Williams, who covered the Cowboys for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, recently said during a visit to PFT Live. “We’ve seen it so many times with his intrigue with quarterbacks. We saw it back with Johnny Manziel. He just gets in his head some of these quarterbacks that he falls in love with. I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a little love there for Kirk Cousins and is thinking about those down-the-field throws. . .  He does throw the ball down the field way better than most quarterbacks in the NFL. [Ben] Roethlisberger’s right there with him. I know how much Jerry loves that part of the game. I could see that.”

Jones likely would be dissuaded by his son, Stephen Jones, or by coach Jason Garrett. But it would be naive to think Jerry Jones hasn’t at least wondered whether Cousins would be an upgrade over Prescott, and whether the Cowboys should find a way to get the soon-to-be-former Washington starter.

Then there are the Giants. New G.M. Dave Gettleman and new coach Pat Shurmur have reiterated their interest in keeping Eli Manning around. Does that change if they think the Jets have become a viable candidate to bring Cousins to the Big Apple, potentially making the Little Brother franchise the Big Brother, for a change?

Finally, how about the Saints? If 39-year-old Drew Brees wants top-of-market money, would it make sense to make that same investment in Cousins?

It’s unlikely that Cousins will end up with anyone but one of the candidates already on the radar screen. But in a league full of owners who from time to time become infatuated with bright, shiny objects, the brightest and shiniest object is and will be Kirk Cousins, the first healthy franchise quarterback under 30 to hit the open market.

Who else will discuss contract parameters with Brees at Scouting Combine?

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It’s not really news that the Saints and quarterback Drew Brees (more accurately, his agent) will discuss the parameters of a new contract at the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. With all teams and all agents in town for multiple days, it’s a given that discussions will be had, especially when one franchise is facing the theoretical loss of one of the true, short-list franchise quarterbacks.

The real question is whether and to what extent parameters of a contract for Brees will be discussed by agent Tom Condon and other teams. Yes, Brees has said on multiple occasions that he plans to stay with the Saints. Even if he’s not testing the Saints in order to see whether they use his words as a way to lowball him (personally, I think he is), it’s impossible to properly evaluate the quality of the offer made by Drew’s current team without knowing how he is valued by other teams.

There’s a dollar threshold below which an offer from the Saints to Brees will be regarded by the player as an insult. That threshold can’t properly be determined without knowing the ceiling that other teams would offer.

What if, for example, the Vikings decide to reprise the Brett Favre experiment, breaking open the vault (and sending Brad Childress to the airport) in an effort to go all in for the pursuit of a Super Bowl with Brees on board? If they’d offer, say, $30 million per year on a two-year deal, a Saints offer of, say, $23 million per year on a two-year deal would look much different than $23 million per year would seem to be in isolation.

Whether it’s the Vikings, the Broncos, the Cardinals, the Jets, the Browns, or anyone else, what’s lurking behind Door No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, or beyond will go a long way toward assessing what the Saints place behind Door No. 1. Before Condon gives Brees a recommendation on what to do about the offer from the Saints, Condon will need to be able to put New Orleans’ offer in context.

Of course, teams making their actual or hypothetical offers known to Condon constitute tampering. But that’s how the game works, and every team plays the game. Especially at the Scouting Combine.

Mavericks’ situation raises obvious question: Which other teams have issues like this?

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First, the Carolina Panthers. Now, the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks. Sports Illustrated has done a great job of exposing previously hidden issues of inappropriate workplace conduct in the sports world.

The obvious question becomes this: Who’s next?

Everyone is officially on notice. Indeed, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban already had concerns about the issue, before becoming aware of the months-long effort to investigate his team.

“I can’t tell you how many times, particularly since all this [#MeToo] stuff has been coming out recently I asked our HR director, ‘Do we have a problem?'” Cuban said. “Do we have any issues I have to be aware of?’ And the answer was no.”

Cuban has since fired the HR director. Cuban also has fired Earl K. Sneed, a writer for the team’s official website who was: (1) arrested for assaulting his girlfriend during the 2010-11 season; (2) pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of family violence assault and interference with emergency request; (3) after the guilty plea, became unable to travel with the team to games played in Toronto; (4) nevertheless remained employed; (5) began dating a co-worker; (6) allegedly assaulted her in 2014; and (7) nevertheless remained employed, until this week.

The message to every NFL, NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball is clear. Smoke out these issues on your own now, or risk that Sports Illustrated or someone else will do it for you, creating along the way a major embarrassment for failing to act in the absence of the glare that comes from being the subject of a meticulous journalistic investigation.

As Cuban has learned the hard way, asking the HR director whether there’s a problem may not be enough. These teams may have to hire outside firms to investigate them the way that Sports Illustrated has, in order to ensure that the situations are handled properly, especially if they previously were swept under the rug.

Team-by-team look at potential tag candidates

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On Tuesday, the annual two-week window opens for applying franchise or transition tags. Every year, we look at the potential tag candidates, on a team-by-team basis.

Last year, we waited until just a few days before the window closed, officially explaining that few if any tags ever are applied early in the process. This year, I basically decided not to procrastinate.

Dolphins: Receiver Jarvis Landry could be slapped with either tag. The franchise tag has received the most attention in articles regarding his future, but the transition tag would give Landry a chance to see what’s available elsewhere — and it would give the Dolphins a chance to match whatever someone else would offer to a player who may not attract a top-of-market package.

Bills: The trade of receiver Sammy Watkins left the Bills with no tag-worthy players in 2018.

Jets: The Jets hope to re-sign tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, but their reported offer of $8 million over two years falls well short of what the tag would cost. Also, their misadventures with defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson, who parlayed the tag into a long-term deal the Jets would like to escape, could make them hesitant about using it again.

Patriots: A couple of years ago, cornerback Malcolm Butler seemed destined to be tagged, if he didn’t sign a big-money deal. Now, he’ll exit as a guy who played no defensive snaps in Super Bowl LII. There’s no one else they should consider tagging, especially with tackle Nate Solder exempt and running back Dion Lewis playing a position with a cost-prohibitive tender.

Steelers: Running back Le’Veon Bell could be tagged again, but the one-year tender would increase by 20 percent, from $12.1 million to more than $14.5 million. The Steelers prefer signing him to a long-term deal, which will be hard to do if Bell insists on $14.5 million for 2018 as the starting point.

Bengals: They didn’t apply the tag a year ago to tackle Andrew Whitworth or guard Kevin Zeitler; they don’t have more viable candidates this year.

Browns: The worst franchise in the league has earned that title in part by having no players who are worthy of the franchise tag.

Ravens: Center Ryan Jensen benefits from the fact that offensive lineman are lumped into one bucket for the franchise tag, which means that a guard or center will be paid like a left tackle, if tagged. Which means that few if any centers or guards will ever be tagged.

Texans: A year after watching up-and-coming cornerback A.J. Bouye walk away in free agency, they won’t be stopping significantly older cornerback Johnathan Joseph from leaving.

Colts: The Colts aren’t as bad as the Browns, but the Colts are afflicted by the same lack of talent that will keep anyone (other than Andrew Luck, if he ever gets healthy) from ever being tagged.

Titans: Kicker Ryan Succop could be tagged, but it would cost more than $5 million to do it.

Jaguars: Receiver Allen Robinson tore an ACL in Week One, and he’s due to become a free agent. He believes he’s healthy; if the team agrees, he could be tagged. (Like Jarvis Landry, the transition tag could be an option; for Robinson, the unknown about his knee could keep other teams from making him an offer the Jags couldn’t or wouldn’t match.)

Broncos: The silver lining from the dark cloud of a bad year is that there are no impending free agents who merit special consideration.

Chiefs: Some tough decisions are coming, with players like Marcus Peters (2020), Tyreek Hill (2020), Kareem Hunt (2021), and Patrick Mahomes (2022) heading toward free agency. For now, there’s no one to tag.

Chargers: Safety Tre Boston is a candidate for the franchise tag or the cheaper transition tag. Beyond that, they don’t really have anyone worth tagging.

Raiders: Their 2018 tag money went toward quarterback Derek Carr‘s contract. Their 2019 tag money could end up going toward linebacker Khalil Mack‘s long-term deal.

Cowboys: The Cowboys reportedly will apply the franchise tag to defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence.

Washington: Quarterback Kirk Cousins could be tagged again, if Washington follows through on its misguided plan to get immediate compensation for Cousins by trading him. It would be a mistake, for various reasons. It also could be challenged, and beaten.

Giants: Guard Justin Pugh will be hitting the open market, if he isn’t tagged. Again, the tag for interior offensive lineman has become, as a practical matter, the tag for exterior offensive lineman. Specifically, left tackles. Which means it could cost more than $15 million to keep Pugh around for one more year. Which means Pugh could end up in Jacksonville, with the guy who drafted him five years ago.

Eagles: Things would be very interesting in Philly if Nick Foles had signed only a one-year deal. With Foles under contract through 2018, there’s no one else who’d justify the investment of a franchise or transition tag.

Vikings: If the Vikings are going to spend more than $24 million to use the franchise tag on quarterback Case Keenum, they should consider breaking the bank on a long-term deal for Kirk Cousins. Or paying less to get A.J. McCarron. Franchise-tagging Keenum comes with a 20-percent bump in 2019 and a 44-percent hike in 2020, which makes it anything but a long-term solution. The transition tag could be an option, allowing the Vikings to keep Keenum at a cheaper rate and giving them a right to match any offer sheet he signs.

Packers: With receiver Davante Adams signed, safety Morgan Burnett remains the only remotely viable candidate for the tag. If the Packers truly want him, however, they’ll more likely find a way to sign him to a multi-year deal.

Lions: The biggest decision for the Lions will be whether to apply the franchise tag to defensive end Ziggy Ansah. He finished his rookie contract with a flourish, racking up 12.0 sacks. Two years before, he had a career-high 14.5. But it’s that donut hole of 2016, when Ansah managed only two sacks in 13 games, that gives the Lions pause. They may want to be sure they’re getting the double-digit guy before they do anything more than a one-year rental.

Bears: The Bears have to decide whether to tag cornerback Kyle Fuller, a former first-round pick who they deemed a year ago to not be worthy of the fifth-year option. If Fuller had previously played like he did in 2017, a different decision would have been made.

Panthers: They’re not expected to tag either of their primary candidates — guard Andrew Norwell or defensive lineman Star Lotulelei. The question becomes whether they re-sign either of them in competition with the open market.

Buccaneers: Another year, another roster containing no free agents worthy of the tag.

Falcons: The tag is a long shot for the Falcons, with the possible exception of kicker Matt Bryant. It would cost more than $5 million for one more year.

Saints: They can’t tag quarterback Drew Brees. They won’t tag anyone else.

Seahawks: Tight end Jimmy Graham hasn’t done enough in three seasons with the team to justify a tag. Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson possibly did enough in one season, especially in light of the investment made to get him from the Jets last year (receiver Jermaine Kearse and a second-round pick).

49ers: With quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo signed to a five-year deal, there’s no one to tag.

Cardinals: Like the 49ers, there’s no one to tag — unlike the 49ers, there’s no quarterback on the roster.

Rams: After tagging cornerback Trumaine Johnson for two straight years, it would cost quarterback money to tag him a third time. Receiver Sammy Watkins could be kept under contract via the tag for a lot less than that.

Will Garoppolo, McCarron be able to adjust once defenses see what they can do?

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The 49ers made quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo the highest-paid player in NFL history based on seven career starts, five in Kyle Shanahan’s system. Someone will be paying quarterback A.J. McCarron based on four career starts.

Hovering over both is an important question: What will they do after defenses get enough film on them?

New quarterbacks and/or quarterbacks in new systems can thrive at first. Then, after four or five or six weeks, opposing defenses gather enough film to figure out what the quarterback is doing well, and how to force him away from his favorite plays and throws.

The question then becomes whether, when Plan A is shut down, the quarterback can execute Plan B, C, and/or D. The great ones can. The not-so-great ones can’t. Many in the middle need time to get to the point where they can move the ball and score points against a defense that knows enough to slow them down.

For Garoppolo and McCarron the question is what kind of quarterback will they be, once defenses figure out what they want to do and take it away? The 49ers already have placed a gigantic bet on Garoppolo being able to thrive once he has generated enough film to make it easier to game-plan against him. Whoever signs McCarron will be making a similar wager.

NFL should open trade window earlier

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The window for making trade in the NFL closes on the Tuesday after Week Eight. It opens on the first day of the league year.

It should open sooner than that.

That’s not simply because teams should have the ability at any time to make a trade (although they should). It’s because there’s no reason not to allow teams to make trades after the postseason has ended.

Every year, the waiver period begins the day after the Super Bowl. That’s when teams should be able to make trades, too.

Currently, teams are allowed to negotiate trades whenever they want. They’re allowed to tentatively complete negotiations. They’re not allowed to finalize trades until the first day of the league year, which this year lands on March 14.

Consider the situation in which Washington currently finds itself. A deal is in place to acquire quarterback Alex Smith from the Chiefs. But if the Chiefs get a better offer before March 14, they can accept that offer without consequence.

This could leave Washington in a major bind, since a renege by the Chiefs could occur after Washington has sacrificed its ability to apply the franchise tag to Kirk Cousins. Apart from the question of whether a decision to tag Cousins as protection against the Smith trade falling through would survive a grievance, Washington should be able to finalize the trade before making a final decision on whether to tag Cousins.

It’s a defect in the calendar that can affect any team, in any year. A tentative trade is arranged, making a team not inclined to tag a looming free agent. The team doesn’t tag the free agent, the trade falls through, and the team is screwed.

So why not allow teams to make trades as of the day after the Super Bowl? There’s no reason to make teams wait until the middle of March to make trades official, and there’s every reason to let teams formally complete trades before someone gets cold feet.

Hall of Fame voter criticizes other voters, exposing flaws in the process

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The Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee meets every year on the day before the Super Bowl to select that year’s class. Fifteen modern-day players are chosen as finalists, and a maximum of five can be selected. At least 10 will be voted down.

This year, one of the 10 who was voted down was Edgerrin James. One of the members of the selection committee has a problem with that, and he published a column that reveals more about the problems with the selection committee than about James’s merits as a Hall of Famer.

The voter in question is Clark Judge, and he writes that James was left out because voters “ignored” James’ accomplishments. Judge uses the word “ignored” nine times in his argument against his fellow voters. He thinks he recognizes James’ greatness and too many of his fellow voters are ignorant of that greatness.

But Judge provides no evidence that any voter “ignored” James’ accomplishments at all. It’s entirely possible that most or even all of the Hall of Fame voters actually consider James a great player who’s worthy of Hall of Fame enshrinement. It’s just that they consider other candidates even more worthy.

And that’s one of the fundamental flaws with the way the Pro Football Hall of Fame selects its annual classes: It doesn’t matter if, in a given year, there are half a dozen or a dozen or two dozen worthy candidates. A maximum of five of those 15 modern-day finalists are getting in. If Judge is sure that James should have been one of those five this year, he also needs to name one of the five who got in this year who should have been left out in favor of James. Judge curiously fails to do that. Maybe he doesn’t want to anger fans of Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens or Brian Dawkins, but until he’s willing to name one of those five he’d leave out in favor of James, his insistence that James should have been voted in rings hollow.

Based on things Judge has said and written in the past, it’s likely that Judge would have chosen James over Owens. Judge has criticized Owens and defended the Hall of Fame selection committee when Owens was previously voted down. That’s fine. Judge is entitled to the opinion that James should be a Hall of Famer and Owens should not. But he should present that opinion in an intellectually honest fashion: It’s not that the voters “ignored” James’ accomplishments, it’s that voters thought other players were more accomplished. Judge was free to make his case for James at the selection committee meeting, other voters were free to make their case for Owens, and ultimately voters thought Owens was more worthy.

At least, that’s probably how it went down in the selection committee meeting. We don’t know for sure, because the bigger flaw in the process is its lack of transparency. The first rule of the Hall of Fame selection committee is, Don’t talk about what’s said in the committee room. Voters are sworn to secrecy about who said what. If you break that code of silence, you’re out of the club.

But why should that be the case? Journalists demand transparency of everyone else, so why, when journalists deliberate to make a decision, do they insist that their deliberations be shrouded in secrecy?

Because of that lack of transparency, we have no idea what the arguments were that led to James being excluded. It’s entirely possible that someone on the selection committee made a persuasive case against James, and other voters agreed with that case. Or it’s possible that everyone in the selection committee agreed that James is deserving, but when it came time to narrow down the list of 15 finalists, they decided that other candidates were more deserving.

For voters to insist on secrecy about their discussions, only to have individual voters then criticize other voters, only serves to undermine public trust in the Hall of Fame.

Longtime NFL player Ben “Toeless Wonder” Agajanian dies at 98

1964 football card

Ben Agajanian, who played nearly two decades of professional football despite losing four toes in an accident, has died at the age of 98.

Teams would promote the fact that Agajanian had a disability and urged fans to buy tickets to see “Bootin’ Ben the Toeless Wonder,” who kicked field goals with the right foot that he severely injured while he was working in a factory in college. Agajanian wore a shoe with a hard, square block where the toes would have been on his kicking foot, and some suggested that gave him an unfair advantage — to which Agajanian would reply they were free to cut off their own toes if they wanted the same advantage.

“Lots of guys said I was cheating because I had the hard square toe,” Agajanian told the Los Angeles Times. “I said, ‘Well, you can do it too. If it helps you, why not?'”

Agajanian was twice the league leader in field goal percentage, in 1947 with the Los Angeles Dons in the All-America Football Conference and in 1949 in the NFL with the New York Giants. Overall he played 13 seasons for 10 teams over 20 years in three different leagues: The NFL, AAFC and AFL.

He did that despite not beginning to play pro football until 1945, when he was 26 years old, having first served in World War II — a duty that he wouldn’t allow his injured foot to keep him from serving. In his last season, 1964, he went 2-for-4 on field goals and 8-for-8 on extra points at the age of 45. Agajanian is one of just eight men to play pro football after his 45th birthday.

Early in his career Agajanian played both offense and defense in addition to playing kicker, and when he broke his arm while making a tackle he continued to kick with his arm in a sling.

When he retired from playing, Agajanian became an assistant coach for the Cowboys, where he was one of the first people in the football world to realize that soccer players kicked balls farther by approaching from an angle than football players like himself could kick with a straight-on approach. He studied that style of kicking well enough that he could teach it to young players even though it was never the way he kicked a football. “When I saw these little fellas kick 50 and 60 yards, I decided that’s the way to do it,” he said of the soccer-style kickers.

Agajanian was so influential in teaching proper kicking technique that Cowboys coach Tom Landry recommended he be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, saying that Agajanian had “done more for the kicking game in both college and the pros in the past 50 years than anybody I know.”

Remaining mentally sharp into his 90s, Agajanian was told recently by the New York Daily News that he was the oldest living person ever to have played for the Giants. “I’ll be damned,” he replied. “You know what I attribute it to? I don’t drink, except for a beer once in awhile. I don’t smoke. I played handball two or three times a week and that keeps your legs in shape, your body in shape.”

Agajanian’s football career saw him play at New Mexico and Compton Junior College, and for the Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, Los Angeles Dons, New York Giants, Los Angeles Rams, Los Angeles Chargers, Dallas Texans, Green Bay Packers, Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers. Agajanian’s shoes — the size 11 he wore on his plant foot and the size 7 he wore on his injured right kicking foot — are on display in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

All those “2018 strength of schedule” discussions don’t mean much

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Once the Super Bowl has ended and we start looking ahead to 2018, a common point of discussion is each team’s strength of schedule. We’re told that this team has an easy schedule next season and is therefore likely to improve, while that team has a hard schedule next season and is therefore facing an uphill battle.

And the reality is, all that talk is meaningless.

There are obvious problems with strength of schedule, and the most obvious is that it’s based entirely on each team’s 2017 records. But 2017 record is simply not a great predictor of 2018 performance. Teams fluctuate. Some get better, some get worse. Some were better than their 2017 records suggest, some were worse. Teams regress toward the mean. Teams add and lose free agents. Teams draft players who may or may not contribute as rookies. Key players get hurt in training camp and the preseason. The fact that a team was 11-5 in 2017 tells us very little about whether that team will be a tough opponent in 2018.

After all, a year ago, if you were calculating a team’s strength of schedule for the 2017 season, and that team had a game scheduled against the Eagles in 2017, you would’ve said that contributed to an easy schedule: In 2016, the Eagles were a 7-9 team that finished in last place. And then the Eagles were the No. 1 NFC seed in 2017 and won the Super Bowl.

Looking ahead at this time last year, you also would’ve said the Rams and Jaguars were easy opponents, while the Cowboys, Giants and Raiders were tough opponents. Wrong, wrong and wrong.

For that matter, even within a season, the strength of any given opponent can vary wildly based on when you catch that opponent: Playing the 49ers when Jimmy Garoppolo was their starting quarterback was a lot harder than playing the 49ers when Brian Hoyer was their starting quarterback. Playing the Packers when Aaron Rodgers was their starting quarterback was a lot harder than playing the Packers when Brett Hundley was their starting quarterback. And there’s simply no way to know today which team will be changing quarterbacks nine months from now.

Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Analysis has thoroughly researched strength of schedule and found that the winning percentage of a team’s opponents last year is virtually meaningless in assessing a team’s actual strength of schedule this year. It’s simply not a useful statistic.

So while a look ahead at the schedule might seem like something interesting to analyze in the offseason, your analysis had better be a lot more detailed than just adding up the 2017 wins and losses of a team’s 2018 opponents if you want to find any value in it at all.