But in the meantime, the league’s busy calendar will hold our attention and in some ways keep us busier than we are during the season itself. There’s plenty on tap, even if Sundays won’t be the same.
Rule changes, personnel moves and ownership drama are only part of what we have to look forward to. With Super Bowl LIII behind us, let’s take a closer look at the key dates and what the big league priorities are heading into the offseason.
Key dates to know
Feb. 14: The Oakland Athletics report to spring training. Yes, we know that’s baseball, but this date should provide a hint of Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray‘s intentions for 2019 and beyond. The Heisman Trophy winner has a minor league contract with the A’s and also has declared for the NFL draft. Reporting to spring training, rather than focusing on the NFL combine and draft, would be our first big clue into his plans.
Feb. 19: The franchise/transition period begins. Every NFL team can use either tag on one pending free agent to ensure, at the very least, the right of first refusal should he sign an offer sheet elsewhere. The biggest candidates for the franchise tag include a foursome of pass-rushers: the Dallas Cowboys‘ Demarcus Lawrence, the Houston Texans‘ Jadeveon Clowney, the Kansas City Chiefs‘ Dee Ford and the Seattle Seahawks‘ Frank Clark. Read more on the Lawrence, Clowney and Ford cases from NFL Nation.
Feb. 26-March 4: The scouting combine comes to Indianapolis. The annual draft meat market will give us a better idea of the 2019 quarterback class, information that if nothing else will provide a leverage point for projecting the top of the draft. At the moment, the highest-rated passer on both ESPN’s Mel Kiper’s and Todd McShay’s big boards is Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins (No. 6 and No. 10, respectively). Is Haskins, Murray or perhaps even Duke’s Daniel Jones worth consideration at No. 1 overall?
Former Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray tells Mike Greenberg that he expects to make a decision about the NFL draft after the Super Bowl.
March 5: The deadline for franchise/transition tags hits at 4 p.m. ET. Most of the tag action occurs late in the process, after teams and players have tested each other for parameters of a long-term deal. Any team that wants to use its tag must file paperwork before the mid-afternoon deadline.
March 11-13: The free-agent negotiation period opens. Referred to by some as a time for “legal tampering” — which makes no linguistic sense — this intense period allows teams and agents of pending free agents to negotiate deals. Most of the offseason’s major contract agreements will take place during this time. The 2019 class could be headed by Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, who sat out 2018 rather than play a second season under a franchise tag. Available quarterbacks will include Teddy Bridgewater, Tyrod Taylor and possibly Nick Foles. Here are the top 50 free agents available on the market.
March 13: Now it’s official. Flip the calendars because the new league year begins. At 4 p.m. ET, all teams must be under the league’s salary-cap ceiling, projected to be between $187 million and $191.1 million. Technically, each team’s cap number is the sum of the cap numbers for its top 51 players. After that point, free-agent deals can be made official, as can trades. Significant names on the trade block include Steelers receiver Antonio Brown, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and perhaps Foles, if the Philadelphia Eagles use the franchise tag on him with the purpose of auctioning him off rather than allowing him to leave as a free agent.
Adam Schefter breaks down the latest on Ryan Tannehill’s status with the Dolphins.
March 24-27: Ah, the annual league meeting. With the gathering in Phoenix, owners will hold their primary meeting of the year. This is where two significant rule changes are debated and long-term plans are mapped out. Items on the competition committee agenda will include adjustments to replay and punting. The 2021 expiration of the league’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with players also will come into sharper focus.
April 1: The first offseason workouts take place. The NFL’s eight teams with new head coaches can begin their offseason programs.
April 15: The NFL’s remaining 24 teams can begin workouts.
April 25-27: It’s draft time! Nashville, Tennessee, is the site for the 2019 event, which for the first time will be telecast on ABC, ESPN and the NFL Network. The Arizona Cardinals own the No. 1 overall pick. At the moment, Kiper’s five highest-ranked players all play defense: Ohio State pass-rusher Nick Bosa, Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, Kentucky linebacker Josh Allen, LSU linebacker Devin White and LSU cornerback Greedy Williams. Will new Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury select Bosa to line up opposite Chandler Jones? What will Jon Gruden do with three first-round picks? Will the New York Giants or Jacksonville Jaguars be the first to take a quarterback? Check out Scouts Inc.’s full draft rankings for scouting reports on the top prospects.
May 3-6, 10-13: Teams can host a three-day rookie minicamp on one of these two weekends. Draft picks, undrafted rookies, tryout players and select first-year players can all participate.
May 20-22: The spring owners meeting, to be held in Key Biscayne, Florida, often cleans up leftovers remaining from the March meeting. For a full look at the league’s offseason priorities, continue to the bottom of this story.
June 2: This is the key salary-cap date. Teams can lessen the salary-cap blow of players they release by designating them as post-June 1 cuts. The unamortized portion of their contracts then counts against the 2020 cap.
July 15: Teams and franchise-tag players have until 4 p.m. ET to reach agreements on multiyear contracts. If they don’t, the only option for playing in 2019 is under the one-year terms of the tag.
Mid-July: The first training camps open. The CBA allows teams to open full-squad training camp up to 15 days before their first preseason game.
Aug. 1: Football returns with the Hall of Fame Game. The first game of the preseason is played between teams selected by the NFL and officially opens the preseason slate.
Big offseason priorities
1. Continue referee overhaul amid renewed officiating focus
There will be at least two more new NFL referees in 2019 following the retirements of Walt Coleman and Pete Morelli. The new additions mean the league will have replaced more than half (10 of 17) its crew leaders since the start of the 2014 season. That will be the backdrop for a deep analysis of every aspect of the department, starting with why it needed two in-season clarifications from the competition committee in 2018 to dial down rule interpretations. Senior vice president Al Riveron’s effectiveness will be evaluated, as will a precedent-setting decision to fire down judge Hugo Cruz during the season for performance reasons.
2. Examine replay
If nothing else, the competition committee will stage a robust discussion about replay following the missed pass-interference call in the NFC Championship Game. Historically, owners have stamped out any discussion about adding penalties, non-calls and subjective decisions to replay. They remain unlikely to support a massive overhaul, but a limited compromise could emerge. One possibility, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, is to expand the list of challengeable plays with a strong penalty disincentive. Another is to allow a replay official to step in to correct clear and obvious mistakes.
Adam Schefter says the NFL will discuss a rule change during the offseason that allows coaches to challenge judgment calls.
3. Make the punt safer and less penalized
After making substantive changes last season to the kickoff, with what they consider strong success, league decision-makers are ready to move on to the punt. In announcing a crowdsourcing effort for ideas, the league said that the punt ranks second behind kickoffs in the highest rate of concussions. It is also the most penalized play in the game on a percentage basis, according to competition committee chairman Rich McKay. (There was a flag on 12.9 percent of punts in 2019, compared to, say, 3.2 percent on pass plays, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.)
Some special-teams coaches find the newest initiative confusing because the league’s goal in tweaking the kickoff was to make it more like a punt. For that reason, it’s possible that the most substantive changes — if they are approved this offseason — will be focused around reducing flags. Something as simple as new interpretations of existing rules, like emphasizing the need for forcible contact on illegal blocks in the back, could make an impact.
4. Manage ownership uncertainty
Ownership change is nothing new in the NFL, but the league will keep its eye on two franchises this offseason.
The Seahawks haven’t said much about their long-term plans following the death of Paul Allen in October. His sister, Jody Allen, is now the chairman of franchise, but the presence of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos at Super Bowl LIII was an interesting development. Bezos, whose primary company headquarters is in Seattle, has long been coveted as a future partner by other NFL owners.
Meanwhile, the family of Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen is engaged in a legal fight to determine which of his heirs will one day gain control of the team. Bowlen suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and ceded operation of the team to a family trust in 2014.
5. Align the helmet rule with reality
The NFL took the unprecedented step in 2018 of only occasionally enforcing a major new rule, opting instead for a phase-in process that left coaches, players and outside observers confused. The prohibition on lowering the helmet to initiate contact with an opponent was approved more quickly than most NFL rules, producing substantial preseason confusion and leading to the necessary step of pulling back enforcement. There were only 19 flags and a total of 28 fines for the foul, but the league issued 139 warning letters. That approach made the best of a problematic situation, but it can’t continue.
To maintain credible game administration over time, rules must either be enforced or struck down. The helmet rule isn’t going to be eliminated; NFL research showed that lowering the head increases the likelihood of a concussion. So the league will have to find a way to begin plausible enforcement and hope that players and coaches are better equipped after a year of practice to make the adjustment.
6. Monitor the spring leagues
One major spring league will debut just days after the New England Patriots claimed Super Bowl LIII. Another is scheduled to kick off in 2020, in conjunction with a third that has been in operation since 2017. Neither the Alliance of American Football (AAF) nor the XFL nor The Spring League are meant to challenge NFL supremacy. If anything, their long-term success could hinge on a formal developmental agreement with the NFL.
In the meantime, they could produce ideas worth stealing. The AAF, for example, has banned kickoffs and will provide alternatives to the onside kick when it opens play Saturday. The XFL has promised to “reimagine” the game of football. Ahead of its launch, the XFL is partnering with The Spring League, which stages games from March 28-April 11 in Texas, to test ideas for quickening game pace and minimizing idle time.
7. Expand injury-reduction strategies
Concussions dropped 23.8 percent in 2018 after league executives implemented a multipronged plan to minimize brain injuries. Encouraged by those results, the league will look to focus its data on hamstring, knee, foot and ankle injuries.
Among the studies either underway or set to begin soon: associating the best (and worst) cleat styles with the various surface types in NFL stadiums. The league also will put sensors in the mouthguards of players from four teams to learn more about collision speeds and consequences.
8. Ensure a smooth game in Mexico City
Commissioner Roger Goodell said at the Super Bowl that Hispanics represent the NFL’s fastest-growing audience. A major part of that growth is the promise of a regular-season game in Mexico City, one that was canceled in 2018 because of poor field conditions. There is blame to spread on both sides for that fiasco, but the league must do its part to make its 2019 return successful. Although domestic television ratings grew by 5 percent in 2018, the NFL knows that its best option for audience expansion is through international outreach.