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2017 NFL offseason: The biggest storylines worth watching before the draft

The quarterback carousel should dominate the headlines, but that’s not all we’ll be talking about this spring.

Baltimore Ravens v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

For some NFL players, February through April is their time to relax, reflect on the past season, and do some light prep for the upcoming one. For many more, it’s a hectic spree of roster decisions, contract negotiations, and finding new homes.

Official team practices don’t start for five months, but that doesn’t mean the NFL offseason will be boring. Contract extensions, free agency drama, and the 2017 NFL draft will ensure the league remains in the news throughout the spring and into the summer.

Headlines will emerge from the ether to fuel debate. Last season, it was moves like Josh Norman getting de-franchise tagged, DeMarco Murray moving to Nashville, and everything that happened to Laremy Tunsil on draft night. This year, almost anything is in play.

But plenty of breaking news will come from expected sources. A handful of veteran quarterbacks are set to find new homes in 2017, led by four-time Pro Bowler Tony Romo. Standouts like Le’Veon Bell, Dont’a Hightower, and Eric Berry are all set to ink new contracts with their teams — or send the free-agent market into a frenzy by refusing.

Here’s a breakdown of the biggest stories set to dominate the NFL’s news cycle before the draft this spring.

Quarterback shuffle will monopolize the headlines

Everyone wants to see where Tony Romo ends up

Jerry Jones said recently that he’s not sure what to do about Tony Romo, but the reality is that it’s time for the Cowboys to move on from the veteran quarterback. With Offensive Rookie of the Year Dak Prescott behind center and plenty of NFL teams in need of a quality quarterback, there’s no sense in letting Romo languish on the bench.

Romo’s current contract with Dallas carries a cap hit of $24.7 million for 2017. He expects to be released by the Cowboys instead of traded, which may make it a bit easier for him to land with a new team.

Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch struggled last season with the Broncos, but Denver is a rare example of a team that probably is just a quarterback away from being a contender.

Romo could also land with the Jets, the Bills — if they move on from Tyrod Taylor — or the Texans, since the Brock Osweiler experiment is almost certainly over. The 49ers, Browns, and Bears are also teams that need a quarterback, so there should be a substantial market for Romo’s services.

Will the Patriots trade Jimmy Garoppolo?

It’s good to have an insurance policy for your franchise quarterback, especially when he’s about to turn 40 in the upcoming season. New England has two — plus an all-world quarterback who says he can play well into his fourth decade on this earth.

That makes Garoppolo, who led the Patriots to a 2-0 record to kick off Tom Brady’s Deflategate suspension while posting an impressive 113.7 QB rating, an expendable asset for Bill Belichick to trade away. With Brady locked into the team’s top spot until his strawberry-free body betrays him, and 2016 draft pick Jacoby Brissett looking like a capable backup, Garoppolo could be the latest piece New England ships out for draft picks.

The Patriots found a way to win Super Bowl LI despite trading away young Pro Bowl players Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins for draft picks in 2016. With Garoppolo set to hit free agency after the upcoming season, the team may want to maximize his value this spring rather than allow him to leave without compensation.

Several teams would be interested suitors for a 25-year-old, potential franchise quarterback. The Browns, loaded with capital after trading last year’s No. 2 draft spot to the Eagles, appear to have the inside track on landing the Eastern Illinois product. The Bears and 49ers are also expected to be bidders, while the Jets and Bills have an outside chance — though the Patriots seem unlikely to deal Garoppolo to a division rival.

What’s next for Jay Cutler?

It seems like a formality that the Chicago Bears will cut Cutler, who is finally at the part of his contract where the dead money won’t outweigh the cap savings. Cutler will turn 34 in April, and in addition to his usual turnover problems, he’s had trouble staying healthy, playing just five games last year. Cutler hasn’t put together a full 16-game season since 2009, his first year in Chicago.

At this point in his career, Cutler is more of a liability than an asset, but he still has enough name recognition that some team will probably take a chance on him. He’s been linked to the New York Jets, who just hired Cutler’s former QB coach, Jeremy Bates. However, that seems like a longshot. The team is also trying to find a trade partner to no avail. Regardless, Cutler will be an option for teams that think they can win now if they find the right veteran QB.

That is, unless he decides to retire.

Will the Bills stick with Tyrod Taylor?

The Buffalo Bills have to decide whether they’ll pick up the option on Tyrod Taylor’s contract. If they do, Taylor will be owed a guaranteed $30.75 million, or they could let him hit the market as an unrestricted free agent.

Taylor provided stability at the position over the past few seasons, and the dual-threat QB is one of the team’s most versatile weapons. But he has been criticized for not adding enough in the passing game to justify such a large contract. He has barely surpassed 3,000 yards in both of his seasons, and many believe that the Bills need a better pocket passing QB to complement LeSean McCoy in the run game.

Losing Taylor, though, means that Cardale Jones will most likely take over as starter, and there are many doubts to his NFL readiness. Although Taylor’s play may not justify a payout of that size, the Bills letting him walk would mean more question marks at the position for a team that is trying to take the next step in 2017.

Colin Kaepernick is looking for a new home

The biggest storyline with Kaepernick heading into the 2016 season was off the field with his protest of oppression against minorities in America. He took a knee during the national anthem and it caused a wave of protests not just in the NFL, but in other sports at the highest and lowest levels. On the field, Kaepernick took the 49ers’ starting job from Blaine Gabbert in Week 6 and finished the season with 16 touchdowns and four interceptions.

Now, Kaepernick is expected to test the free-agent waters. He had spectacular seasons in 2012 and 2013, and considering how little help he had around him, his numbers for 2016 weren’t all that bad. That doesn’t mean he’s going to get a big contract, but there should definitely be interest in his services.

But it’s not just about the quarterbacks

Adrian Peterson and the Vikings might be headed for a breakup

The Minnesota Vikings have until March 11 to decide if they’ll pay Peterson a $6 million roster bonus that would essentially ensure the team keeps the running back for an $18 million cap hit in 2017. Spoiler alert: They won’t.

Peterson’s chances of staying with the Vikings are entirely reliant upon each side reaching a compromise for a renegotiated contract that pays the seven-time Pro Bowl running back much less.

If they can’t make that happen, one of the greatest running backs in NFL history will be on the free-agency market, albeit in the same month he turns 32.

What uniform will DeSean Jackson be wearing next season?

Jackson spent his first six seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, establishing himself as one of the most explosive playmakers in the league. However, he had an ugly falling-out with the organization when head coach Chip Kelly released him in 2014. Eager to get one over on his former team, Jackson signed with division rival Washington, and despite some injury problems, continued to produce at a high level.

Now Jackson is a free agent, and there’s speculation that he could reunite with the Eagles. However, recent reports have linked Jackson to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who could use an upgrade at the No. 2 receiver spot next to Mike Evans. Meanwhile, the Eagles badly need a talent infusion at WR to help out second-year quarterback Carson Wentz, so Jackson going back to his old team makes a lot of sense on several levels.

Although he’s 30 years old and struggled with injuries in recent years (he hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013), Jackson is still a quality receiver who has a lot to offer teams as a field-stretching deep threat.

Will Alshon Jeffery stay with the Bears?

Jeffery played out 2016 under the franchise tag, but he had a season to forget, struggling with injuries while being hit with a four-game suspension. Tagging him for the second year in a row would cost the Chicago Bears $17.5 million, and the Bears are not expected to tag him this season. Jeffery should hit the open market for a big paycheck.

When healthy, Jeffery is one of the best receivers in the league, but injury concerns could make some teams cautious about committing to him. Nevertheless, he’ll be a high-demand free agent and should have no shortage of suitors if the Bears let him walk.

What about JPP?

In 2015, Jason Pierre-Paul’s NFL career was in jeopardy after a fireworks accident left him with a badly disfigured hand. He eventually returned to the field and played eight games, but the club on his hand was an awkward fit and he managed just one sack.

Last year, JPP got fitted with a specialized glove and rebounded to become one of the league’s most dominant pass rushers. He got seven sacks and three forced fumbles, becoming a major factor in the New York Giants revitalized defense. Still only 28 years old, JPP stands to cash in big should he hit free agency, but the Giants might not let him get that far. There’s a strong chance New York uses the franchise tag on JPP, helping retain one of its most important pieces.

We won’t just be talking about free agency, though

The Rams need to fix their offense

The Rams’ first season back in Los Angeles couldn’t have been a bigger disaster. Perhaps the biggest reason for their 4-12 record was a hideously stagnant offense, resulting in Jeff Fisher losing his job.

New head coach Sean McVay will be tasked with improving LA’s attack, and one of his biggest challenges will be trying to develop Jared Goff. The Rams gave up a lot of assets to take Goff with the No. 1 overall pick last year, but he simply didn’t look ready for the NFL. Goff completed just 54.6 percent of his passes, threw seven interceptions to five touchdowns, and averaged 5.3 yards per completion. The Rams need much more from Goff in his second year.

Goff wasn’t the only problem in LA’s offense. Todd Gurley took a big step back from his electric rookie season, averaging just 3.2 yards per carry. He wasn’t helped out by a horrendous offensive line, repeatedly slamming into brick walls, but Gurley didn’t make defenders miss and mostly lacked the explosiveness we saw in 2015.

There’s also a glaring hole at wide receiver. Tavon Austin is badly miscast as a No. 1 guy, while Kenny Britt is heading to free agency. The lack of quality weapons did no favors for Goff. McVay will have his hands full trying to rebuild this side of the field.

Which stars will get contract extensions?

Several key young players are nearing the end of their contracts. Derek Carr, fresh off a breakout season that established him as an MVP candidate, has one year left on his rookie deal with the Raiders. Four-time All-Pro Antonio Brown is nearing the end of the five-year, $42 million deal he signed in Pittsburgh in 2013. Matthew Stafford is ready to sign another lucrative contract once he plays out his deal next fall.

Allowing any of those players to hit the free-agent market would be a coup for the rest of the league — and would be extremely unlikely. While other teams scramble to remake their rosters in 2017, teams like the Raiders, Steelers, and Lions will be working to lock down important pieces for 2018 and beyond.

There are some less obvious extension candidates floating around as well. Super Bowl LI quarterbacks Matt Ryan (whose contract expires after 2018) and Tom Brady (2019) could both add extra money to their deals this spring. Sam Bradford could wind up locked in to the Vikings’ roster, depending on how the team views Teddy Bridgewater’s recovery. Devonta Freeman and David Johnson headline the crop of tailbacks who could earn lucrative new contracts before even sniffing free agency.

The Raiders still want a new home

Of all the stories that could find a resolution during the 2017 offseason, the Raiders’ pursuit of a new stadium is the most likely to be pushed back.

The team filed for relocation to Las Vegas in January, and that’s set to be discussed at the NFL’s annual owner meetings in March. But since the filing, the Raiders lost the investment of Sheldon Adelson, who was set to contribute $600 million to a new stadium in Las Vegas.

Other potential funding sources have since emerged, but the Raiders face the uphill battle of convincing 24 NFL owners to vote that no future stadium is possible in Oakland and the only future for the team is in Las Vegas.

But if the owners say no, the case isn’t closed for the Raiders. The team needs a new stadium, whether it gets one in Las Vegas, Oakland, or elsewhere, and the battle to secure one is going to draw headlines in the 2017 offseason and possibly beyond.