GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Last offseason, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy said general manager Ted Thompson "might shock you this year" when it came to free agency. That turned into exactly one significant free agent signing, tight end Jared Cook.

If the Packers make any moves this offseason, Pro Football Focus thinks it could be at cornerback. The analytics website, in a piece for ESPN Insider Insider, picked one free agent for every team. For the Packers, it was Los Angeles Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson.

Trumaine JohnsonAP Photo/Stephen BrashearRams cornerback Trumaine Johnson would be a welcome addition to a Packers secondary that struggled last season.

The Packers still have high hopes for the trio of Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins and LaDarius Gunter -- who all played extensively last season as second-year pros -- but they would be taking a big chance if they didn’t make a significant addition at a position that struggled mightily last season.

Johnson would offer the Packers a tall cornerback (he’s 6-foot-2) who could help offset the loss of Sam Shields, who was released this month after he missed all but one game last season because of a concussion.

Johnson, a former third-round pick of the Rams, played last season under the franchise tag of $13.952 million. If the Rams tagged him again, it would cost nearly $17 million. The website Spotrac estimated that Johnson’s market value would be $12.4 million per season.

In 2016, Johnson had just one interception in 14 games. In the same number of games in 2015, he picked off seven passes.

PFF had another possible free agent cornerback target, A.J. Bouye of the Texans, going to Carolina. His market value was estimated at more than $11 million per season.

The Packers surely need help at cornerback after their pass defense ranked 31st in the NFL last season, but even if it did come in free agency, it would seem unlikely that Thompson would spend that kind of money.

FRISCO, Texas -- Visions of Jason Pierre-Paul in a Dallas Cowboys uniform might dance in some fans' heads, but Pro Football Focus offered up a different pass-rusher to wear the star -- Nick Perry.

In picking one free agent for every team, PFF selected Perry Insider, who put up 23.5 sacks in his first five seasons with the Green Bay Packers, including a career-high 11 in 2016.

Brock OsweilerBenny Sieu/USA TODAY SportsPackers pass-rusher Nick Perry had a career-high 11 sacks last season.

If it’s been said once it’s been said a million times, the Cowboys need pass-rush help. As I laid out on Wednesday, however, do the Cowboys need to go to the deep end of the free agency pool to find help? After all they had one more sack than the Giants, who paid big money to keep Pierre-Paul and sign Olivier Vernon.

The Cowboys have committed big dollars to Tyrone Crawford, but injury and inconsistency have not led to the production they expected when they signed him to a five-year, $45 million extension. But there is a play-time component to consider should the Cowboys attempt to go after one of the better pass-rushers available.

Crawford played in 58.9 percent of the snaps last season, which was second-highest among Cowboys defensive linemen. He missed the final two games with a shoulder injury. Before the injury he checked in at 68 percent of the defensive snaps.

In order to get their money’s worth from a defensive end, 70 percent of the snaps should be the baseline. It would make no sense to pay a lot of guaranteed money to a pass-rusher and have him check in at 55 percent of the snaps.

Perry played in 58.6 percent of the snaps last season for the Packers. He missed two games because of a hand injury and has yet to play a full season. Before 2016, he never had more than four sacks in a season.

Injuries aside, the Cowboys also have to worry about the one-year wonder theory. Perhaps Perry’s injuries are a thing of the past and he is about to hit a level of play Jerry Hughes hit with Buffalo in 2013 and ’14 when he had 20 sacks and cashed in with a five-year, $45 million deal. In Anthony Spencer's first five years with the Cowboys, he had 21.5 sacks. The Cowboys put the franchise tag on him in 2012 and '13, paying him nearly $20 million. He had a career-high 11 sacks in 2012, but played in just one game the following season because of a knee injury.

So how do you come to the right price? In analysis done by the Spotrac, Perry is looking at a $8.5 million-a-year average based on comparable players in terms of age and production.

Perry could be a good fit for the Cowboys. He appears to be a hard worker, which is a must under Rod Marinelli. He also ranked 10th among edge defenders against the run, according to PFF. That’s a must for Marinelli, too.

It makes sense, but would the Cowboys use the dollars?

Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesOne year after losing guard Kelechi Osemele in free agency, Ravens right tackle Rick Wagner is projected to attract a lucrative deal.

The Baltimore Ravens might be a couple weeks away from watching another starting offensive lineman receive a lucrative payday elsewhere.

Rick Wagner, the Ravens' starting right tackle the past three seasons, could become the NFL's second highest-paid right tackle. He is projected to make $6.9 million per season, according to Spotrac.

This would come one year after Kelechi Osemele signed the most lucrative contract ever for a guard (an average of $11.7 million per season).

The Ravens would prefer to keep Wagner after he produced one of his best seasons since being selected in the fifth round by Baltimore in 2013. Wagner, 27, was rated as the ninth-best right tackle last season, according to Pro Football Focus. He gave up three sacks, four quarterback hits and 25 hurries in 2016.

By the March 9 start of free agency, Baltimore has to determine whether Wagner is worth that type of money or if there is more value in finding another starting right tackle at a lesser cost. The Lions' Riley Reiff, a 2012 first-round pick, is the second-best right tackle available and is projected to make $5.3 million per season. Other starting right tackles in free agency include the Patriots' Sebastian Vollmer (a likely cap cut) and the Panthers' Mike Remmers.

One concern about committing so much money to Wagner is his inconsistency. He had his best NFL season in 2014, and he then followed it up with one of his worst. In 2015, he allowed a career-worst 52 quarterback pressures.

But Wagner should draw interest because of the number of teams looking to solidify the right side of their lines. The Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers are among the teams looking for starting right tackles. Wagner has a connection in Seattle after protecting Russell Wilson's blind side when they were at Wisconsin.

The highest-paid right tackle is the Eagles' Lane Johnson, but he received $11.252 million per season because Philadelphia will likely move him to left tackle at some point. The true market price for right tackles is an average over $6 million per season, which is what five are currently earning: the Packers' Bryan Bulaga ($6.75 million per season), the Chiefs' Mitchell Schwartz ($6.6 million), the Jaguars' Jermey Parnell ($6.4 million), the Falcons' Ryan Schraeder ($6.3 million) and the Steelers' Marcus Gilbert ($6.1 million).

Losing Wagner would continue an unwanted trend of players leaving Baltimore after being developed there for four seasons. In the last four offseasons, another team has given at least one Ravens free agent more than $12 million in guaranteed money. Linebackers Paul Kruger and Pernell McPhee, defensive lineman Arthur Jones, wide receiver Torrey Smith and Osemele received a total of $91.9 million in guaranteed money.

The NFL combine is less than two weeks away, and days after that the free agency period will begin with the start of the new league year. So it’s time for the Detroit Lions -- and every other team in the NFL -- to begin to take stock of what they have and where they can upgrade and improve.

With that in mind, we’ll do that as well with every position on the Lions roster leading into next week’s combine. And just a reminder that things can change incredibly quickly over the next few weeks as Detroit decides which players to re-sign and let go.

Today we’ll look at a position the Lions might end up overhauling: Tight end.

Under contract: Eric Ebron (starter), Cole Wick, Khari Lee, Kennard Backman

Free agents: Matthew Mulligan, Tim Wright, Clay Harbor

Chances Lions bring back their own free agents: Mulligan and Wright would seem like possibilities, at least to compete for jobs. The Lions held on to Wright throughout the season after he tore his ACL, and he can be a receiving threat as a tight end. Mulligan is a blocking tight end the Lions found use for throughout the season. Of course, there’s a chance Detroit could upgrade the position entirely outside of Ebron -- and the Lions have to decide at some point this offseason whether they’ll pick up Ebron’s fifth-year option for 2018 as well.

What do the Lions need between free agency and the draft: This is an area Detroit could try to make a big splash. But there will likely be a combination of free agency and the draft here. If the Lions were to decide not to pick up the fifth-year option on Ebron, the position becomes a high priority for the future as well.

Three free agents to look at:

Martellus BennettChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesMartellus Bennett would give Matthew Stafford another reliable target to throw to.

Martellus Bennett, New England: One of the more entertaining talkers in the NFL, Bennett is also the biggest prize out there in this position group. The 29-year-old has moved around throughout his career, spending four seasons in Dallas, one with the New York Giants, three with Chicago and last season winning a Super Bowl with the Patriots. He has scored three or more touchdowns every year since 2012 and has been durable, playing all 16 games four of the past five seasons. This would be a large investment, but if the Lions wanted to try and diversify their offense -- and give Matthew Stafford another big, reliable target -- they could look at Bennett. Plus, Bennett is an exceptional blocker, making him a complete tight end and a high-value target around the league.

Anthony Fasano, Tennessee: This would be a stop-gap option, but likely one that would come at a very reasonable value. Fasano turns 33 in April and isn’t considered a standout receiver, but he is a good blocking tight end and has shown in the past he can be somewhat of a threat in the red zone. If Detroit wanted to pick up a blocking tight end on a short-term deal while drafting someone to develop behind him, Fasano could be an intriguing target.

Mychal Rivera, Oakland: He doesn’t have huge numbers, but if the Lions commit to Ebron, Rivera would be able to come in and have a role behind him. He’s also younger, not turning 27 until September. His numbers have never stood out and he’s not the red zone threat some other players on the market are, but if the Lions are looking for low- to mid-level options at the position, he could be a player worth investigating.

Three combine rookies to consider:

Jake Butt, Michigan: He has the talent to be a high-end draft pick, but a torn right ACL in December’s Orange Bowl will likely knock him down some draft boards. If he’s around in the second or third round, he could be a value pick for Detroit and give the franchise insurance in future years with Ebron. Butt had 138 career catches for 1,646 yards and 11 touchdowns at Michigan. This would be a long-term pick, but one that could be a wise investment, depending what doctors say.

Michael Roberts, Toledo: If the Lions want to go the developmental route at the position, Roberts could be a fit. He has the body at 6-foot-4, 261 pounds to be a good blocker and would be a good complement to Ebron as a tight end who mostly plays on the line instead of split out, like Ebron typically does. His college stats aren’t impressive -- 70 catches for 832 yards -- but he has 22 career touchdowns, including 16 last season. He’s a legitimate red zone threat.

Adam Shaheen, Ashland: He is an intriguing player. He started his career as a Division II basketball player at Pitt-Johnstown before transferring to Ashland and has impressive size at 6-foot-6, 277 pounds. He actually left school with a year of eligibility remaining, which is almost unheard of on the Division II level. He had 70 catches for 803 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2015 and followed it up with 57 catches for 867 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. How he runs and looks in drills at the combine could put him in really good position come draft time. But the measurable numbers and receiving abilities are clearly there.

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Many of the odds that have come out of Las Vegas in recent weeks had given the Kansas City Chiefs the fifth- or sixth-best chance among NFL teams to acquire quarterback Tony Romo when he gets his trade or release from the Dallas Cowboys.

That seems reasonable. While the Chiefs need to at least look into the possibility of acquiring Romo and they may indeed be intense players when this sweepstakes gets serious, they should not be considered favorites. Other teams, most notably the Denver Broncos and Houston Texans, may be more motivated to make such a move and could be more attractive destinations to Romo than Kansas City.

Tony Romo Ronald Martinez/Getty Images Online gaming site Bovada made the Chiefs their No. 2 favorite to acquire Tony Romo.

Then Bovada comes out Wednesday with odds of 7-2 that Romo will be playing for the Chiefs when the 2017 season begins. Those odds are second behind only the Broncos at 3-1.

While the Chiefs certainly can’t be dismissed yet from this competition, it’s a bit much to suggest that they’re one of the favorites to land Romo -- for a variety of reasons.

Not that this will necessarily be the determining factor, but it’s interesting to note the Chiefs are the only team among Bovada’s favorites that have an established starting quarterback. Denver will otherwise choose between Paxton Lynch and Trevor Siemian, Houston between Tom Savage and Brock Osweiler. The Chicago Bears, Buffalo Bills and New York Jets don’t or probably soon won’t have a legitimate candidate to be a starter on their roster.

The Chiefs are committed, at least publicly, to Alex Smith.

That doesn’t mean they won’t be more determined to acquire Romo than the other teams. It does mean they have more to lose than any of the others in chasing Romo and missing out.

If any of the other teams bid for Romo and don’t get him, they’ve lost nothing. They’ll either find their starting quarterbacks by -- in the cases of the Broncos and Texans -- choosing among existing options, or they will have to look elsewhere.

The Chiefs face some serious and perhaps irreparable damage if they’re involved with Romo and lose. Then they’ve publicly declared with their actions, if not their words, that they don’t think Smith is good enough, and that easily could turn into a problem in their locker room.

The Chiefs are really the only ones on Bovada’s list of favorites that would be pushing all of their chips to the middle of the table by going after Romo. So they need to tread carefully here.

That’s why I wouldn’t consider them favorites for Romo at this point. They may indeed not get involved in this at all unless they’re convinced they will win.

videoCHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There was a time late in the 2016 season when I was convinced it made sense for the Carolina Panthers to cut ties with running back Jonathan Stewart.

ESPN's John Clayton still believes it does, arguing this week (above) that Carolina should make the "bold move" and release the 13th pick of the 2008 draft.

It would be a bold move.

It also would be a bad move.

Clayton's arguments are sound. Stewart is a month from turning 30, an age when the production of running backs typically starts to decline. He averaged 3.8 yards per carry, the second lowest of his career, this past season.

Cutting him would clear $6.25 million from the salary cap and this is a good year for running backs in the draft.

It all makes sense.

Dannie Walls/ Icon SportswireJonathan Stewart has proven value as a pass-blocker for the Panthers.

But then you have to consider that the Panthers are in the process of evolving the offense to take the running load off of quarterback Cam Newton. They are trying to provide Newton, who has been hit more than any quarterback in the NFL since entering the league in 2011, more protection.

Do you really want to leave that in the hands of a rookie?

Forget Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott. What he did this past season as a rookie, leading the league in rushing with 1,631 yards, was amazing. It also was more of the exception than the rule. Elliott played behind arguably the best offensive line in the league. The Cowboys didn't have to depend on him to protect rookie quarterback Dak Prescott.

Newton played behind an offensive line that, in the words of coach Ron Rivera, suffered "position catastrophe" in term of injuries. Imagine how much worse it would have been for Newton if Elliott as a rookie had been asked to help out with protection.

According to Pro Football Focus, Elliott had a 60.1 grade in pass blocking on 66 pass-blocking snaps. Stewart got a grade of 85.3 on 99 pass-blocking snaps. No other back scored higher.

That's a big reason the Panthers shouldn't cut Stewart. Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman will be the first to say it is "rare" that a rookie back is a dependable pass-blocker coming out of college.

"They really are [rare]," Gettleman said in 2014 as he debated the value of keeping Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert on the roster while counting $13.9 million against the salary cap. "There are some guys you can watch 10 tapes on and they never pick up the blitz. They're gone.

"Blitz pickup is a huge issue. It's big."

What Stewart offers in terms of pass blocking is offset by any decline he may have in production.

And there's no guarantee Stewart's production will decrease. He rushed for 824 yards, 19th most in the NFL, despite missing three games and playing behind a makeshift offensive line.

Stewart showed he can be effective with 132 rushing yards on 25 carries in a December Monday night win at Washington.

Williams, who was released following the 2014 season, proved there is life for a back after 30. He rushed for 907 yards and 11 touchdowns and added 367 yards receiving for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2015.

He was 32.

Stewart may have even more tread on his career. He missed much of the 2012 and '13 seasons with injuries, and prior to that he shared the load with Williams for four years.

The Panthers should consider a running back in a deep draft. They should consider LSU's Leonard Fournette, Florida State's Dalvin Cook or Stanford's Christian McCaffrey with the eighth pick.

They need to prepare for life after Stewart.

But it's rare that one back plays all 16 games. Only eight of the top 20 in rushing did this past season.

And to be fair, Stewart has played in 13 games each of the past three seasons. That's not bad.

Put Stewart with a dynamic rookie and the Panthers have created an offense in which Newton doesn't have to run so much. That makes more sense than pairing a rookie with Fozzy Whittaker or Cameron Artis-Payne.

Whittaker is no better than a third-down back, and he's still unsigned. The only three games Artis-Payne was active last season were those that Stewart missed. He had 85 yards on 18 carries with two touchdowns against Tampa Bay, but was otherwise underwhelming.

The final argument for keeping Stewart is the Panthers really don't need the cap space. They're already more than $50 million under the cap.

So as much sense as it once seemed to move on from Stewart, it makes more sense to keep him.

The Chicago Bears and Jay Cutler are likely headed for a divorce after eight tumultuous seasons.

ESPN's Jeff Darlington reported on Tuesday that the Bears are actively shopping Cutler.

Cutler’s current contract runs through 2020, but the guaranteed portion of the deal is over. The Bears will open up $13 million in additional salary-cap space if Cutler is traded or released in the offseason (the team will carry $2 million in dead money).

Cutler is, by far, the most statistically successful quarterback in franchise history. The 33-year old (34 in April) owns almost every Bears passing record, but he has been to the playoffs only one time.

Cutler’s problem is turnovers. He has tossed 109 interceptions in 102 regular-season games for the Bears, including a career-worst 26 picks in 2009 after the club paid a hefty price to acquire him from the Denver Broncos.

Chicago's Jay CutlerMike DiNovo/USA TODAY SportsJay Cutler isn't likely to be be back in Chicago next season, but where he'll land is anybody's guess.

To be fair, Cutler cycled through six offensive coordinators in Chicago. And he quarterbacked the Bears to the 2010 NFC Championship Game -- a contest he did not finish because of a knee injury.

Cutler posted a career-best 92.3 quarterback rating in 2015, but he played in only five games last season because of thumb and shoulder problems. He underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing arm in December and hasn’t played a full 16-game schedule since 2009.

Blaming Cutler for all the Bears’ woes is unfair, but he definitely did not live up to expectations. All told, the Cutler era cost the Bears two long-term extensions, two first-round picks, a third-round choice and quarterback Kyle Orton -- who went 9-7 in 2008.

There should be some interest in Cutler if/when the Bears cut him loose. With the help of my NFL Nation colleagues, I came up with a list of four teams that might pursue Cutler to be their starter or backup in 2017.

New York Jets: Cutler has allies in New York in quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates and running back Matt Forte. Now, Cutler’s relationship with Brandon Marshall was not good when Chicago traded Marshall to the Jets in 2015. Maybe it has improved. Maybe not. Maybe Marshall -- whose contract is out of guaranteed money -- isn’t even on the Jets next season. Who knows? But Cutler is better than any of the young quarterbacks currently on the Jets' roster. Whether he’s much of an upgrade over Ryan Fitzpatrick is another story. But someone has to play quarterback for the Jets.

San Francisco 49ers: Cutler played with new 49ers general manager John Lynch in Denver. And 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan’s father, Mike, coached Cutler in Denver when Cutler made the only Pro Bowl appearance of his career (2008). It’s not as if the 49ers are loaded with better options. San Francisco may be content with a Matt Schaub/rookie combo at quarterback in 2017, but it would not be a huge surprise if it considered Cutler.

Buffalo Bills: Never underestimate Buffalo’s propensity to make strange moves. Going from Tyrod Taylor to Cutler is a lateral move. But Taylor clearly fell out of favor in Buffalo at the end of the Rex Ryan era. Because of the Bills’ underwhelming quarterback depth chart, Cutler to Buffalo cannot be entirely ruled out.

Miami Dolphins: Adam Gase did a masterful job with Cutler in 2015. But Gase also knows Cutler’s limitations. Gase probably wants a quarterback who can see the entire field and make snap decisions. Cutler is not that guy. I think Miami can be scary with the right quarterback. Gase is a great coach. In a pinch, Gase can probably do worse than Cutler as his No. 2 behind Ryan Tannehill, who's recovering from an injured left knee. Still, just because Cutler played for Gase doesn’t mean Miami necessarily wants to sign him.video

The return after almost two full seasons on the sideline wasn’t what Victor Cruz anticipated. He finished with 39 catches for 586 yards and one touchdown, which came in the season opener against the Dallas Cowboys.

There were games when the ball wasn’t even thrown in Cruz’s direction. There were games when he was merely an afterthought. There were afternoons when he ran 40-plus routes and his only opportunity resulted in a big play downfield. It was up, down and filled with inconsistent production.

There still were positives to take from the season. The comeback after missing almost two years with a torn patellar tendon and then a calf problem was inspiring. A torn patellar tendon has ruined many a career. Cruz at least looked the part of an NFL player when the ball was thrown in his direction.

That is an accomplishment. There are two injuries that players are scared of these days, according to Odell Beckham Jr. They are a torn patellar tendon and a ruptured Achilles. Cruz had the former, followed by a serious calf injury that robbed him of 2015. Just making it back from the injuries was encouraging for Cruz, and so was playing in 16 games (including playoffs) with only a minor ankle sprain keeping him from appearing in every Giants contest this past season.

“Staying healthy is obviously encouraging,” Giants coach Ben McAdoo said after the season.

But this is a business, and Cruz was cut last week. His production and lack of explosion made him expendable with Roger Lewis and Tavarres King, or a potential draft pick or free agent, as his replacement.

Cruz wasn’t an ideal fit on the outside opposite Beckham. After spending most of his career working out of the slot, Cruz was bumped outside to make room for rookie Sterling Shepard. It didn’t maximize his chance to succeed, and contributed to his departure.

Now Cruz is a free agent, a better fit for a team looking for a veteran to play in the slot. Suitors must determine how much he has left in the tank. Cruz says plenty. The other 31 teams will decide.

Kirby Lee/USA Today SportsVictor Cruz likely would benefit from being moved back into a slot role he occupied most of his career.

Free agent file

Victor Cruz

Position: Wide receiver

Age: 30

Experience: 6 years

Projected contract: 1 year, $2.5 million, $1 million guaranteed

(Note: The projected contract was derived from the average of five league sources surveyed. The panel consists of a front-office executive, salary-cap experts and agents.)

Comparable contracts: Anquan Boldin (Lions)

Boldin signed with the Detroit Lions last offseason for one year and $2.75 million at age 35. He had the potential to earn another $1 million or so with incentives that would have been hard to reach.

Cruz is younger, but his injury history is more extensive. He also has a different skill set with Boldin being a bigger possession receiver.

Stevie Johnson might be more applicable to Cruz because he was going to be 29 when he signed with the San Diego Chargers in 2015 after struggling with some injuries the previous two years. Johnson received a three-year, $10.5 million deal with $3.9 million guaranteed. That deal basically guaranteed him one season and allowed San Diego the option each of the next two years to decide if they wanted to keep Johnson on the roster. It’s the equivalent of a one-year deal with team options.

Market: Cruz’s market will be interesting. Some teams will undoubtedly think there is little to nothing left in the tank. There are likely to be a few (Cruz met with the Carolina Panthers on Monday) that are willing to invest minimally in hopes that he gets stronger in his second year back from injury and thrives in a return to the slot. Some teams that could fit are the Steelers, Titans, Panthers, Ravens and Bills. The Giants have Shepard. They will not be in the hunt.

What he brings: Cruz isn’t the explosive player he once was, or at least it didn’t appear that way this past season. But he was still able to make tough, contested catches downfield and did it in clutch situations. He’s a veteran receiver who is best suited for the slot and could improve physically in his second season back after missing most of the previous two years.

Synopsis: It's back to square one. Cruz has to prove he still can play at a high level, and he will not be paid at a Pro Bowl level. At 30, he should still have something left to give a team looking for a veteran wide receiver. His best fit is probably as a fourth receiver. The problem with that is that he doesn't contribute on special teams. That will limit his market.

Chances of a Giants return: 1 percent

The Giants elected to dump Cruz and his hefty salary rather than try to renegotiate his contract after the season. They did so because they weren’t sold on him being able to thrive on the outside opposite Beckham with Shepard in the slot. It would take a near impossible string of events in order for Cruz to return for another season.video

Sean Payton dumped some more cold water over the mini-controversy that flared up last season when receiver Brandin Cooks complained about his role in the New Orleans Saints' offense.

Payton told SiriusXM Radio that he “absolutely” anticipates Cooks will remain a Saint this year when asked if the dynamic young receiver could come up in trade talks.

Cooks, 23, is heading into the final year of his contract -- though the Saints hold an option on him for 2018, which will cost around $8-8.5 million. They will likely exercise that option on Cooks this spring.

Brandin CooksScott Winters/Icon SportswireBrandin Cooks has put up back-to-back 1,100-yard receiving seasons for the Saints.

Cooks was upset about being used so often as a deep threat and clear-out receiver at times last year. His frustrations became public after he was targeted zero times in a 49-21 rout over the Los Angeles Rams.

Cooks, however, insisted that it didn’t come from a selfish place, saying that he wants to be great for his team, adding, “Closed mouths don’t get fed.”

When reports popped up last December that Cooks could possibly be traded during the offseason, Payton called them "garbage." And Payton downplayed Cooks’ frustration in his interview Tuesday with the "Schein on Sports" show.

“Really, if you really want to cut down to the chase, he's a magnificent kid … a worker, he's not a kid anymore,” Payton said. “He's a tremendous player, he practices a hundred miles an hour, you have to slow him down some. He's got a great rapport with Drew (Brees). And you have a game, oh, we played the Rams, we score 50 points, but he didn’t have any touches -- and it was unusual; sometimes that happens.

“And generally those things are an agent-driven complaint. And he's too sharp of a guy, and he understands it all. He and I have met several times, and I think what's most important is these guys come in the start of the week and they see their name stamped on plays. We're up until 2 in the morning thinking about ways to get him open, get him on the right matchup. And when the players know that, I think they know they're getting a real good script.

“Now, whether it plays out that way on that given Sunday, sometimes it doesn't. But more often than not, a guy like him you have to get the ball to, and he's explosive. But I see him playing here."

As I have written before, the only reasons that Cooks could make sense as possible trade bait are because the Saints are so deep at the WR position, they have proven an ability to replace elite playmakers on offense and Cooks could fetch a lot in return to help New Orleans in greater positions of need -- like on defense. Payton listed edge rusher and cornerback as two “musts” for the Saints this offseason during his SiriusXM interview.

However, the Saints certainly aren’t in any rush to push Cooks out the door. The former first-round pick has more than 1,100 yards in each of the past two seasons, with a combined 17 touchdowns.

The bigger question mark with Cooks is whether the Saints will invest mega-millions in him in a contract extension beyond 2018.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The NFL free-agent market doesn't open officially until March 9 with teams able to begin negotiating with players on March 7. Before we get to that time, though, teams are already in the process of releasing players to create salary-cap space.

Players who do get cut in the run-up to free agency don't have to wait to sign with another team, which means there's already a market of sorts developing. And the San Francisco 49ers are among the teams dipping their toes into those waters.

Photo by Doug Murray/Icon SportswireDefensive lineman Earl Mitchell, a free agent, would make sense for the 49ers, who are transitioning to a 4-3 scheme.

Miami released defensive tackle Earl Mitchell on Feb. 16, but it didn't take long for suitors to begin pursuing Mitchell. He visited Seattle on Monday and was to visit the 49ers on Tuesday.

Mitchell, on Wednesday, is scheduled to visit Denver and coach Vance Joseph, who was his defensive coordinator in Miami last season. He is scheduled to visit Atlanta later this week. The NFL Network first reported Mitchell's tour of teams over the weekend.

For the 49ers, Mitchell would make sense as a possible addition to their defensive line rotation. Under new defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, they are expected to transition to a 4-3 base defense. Though the 49ers have some defensive linemen in place, they are in the market for a run-stuffer after having the worst run defense in the league last season.

That's a role Mitchell could help fill, though he probably wouldn't be the only addition San Francisco would look to make upfront. The 6-foot-3, 310-pound Mitchell played 292 snaps in nine games with 18 tackles in 2016. In 100 games, he has 207 tackles, 5.5 sacks and a forced fumble while averaging 27.4 snaps per game.

With defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey set to become an unrestricted free agent, the 49ers are in need of a nose tackle capable of playing the zero or one-technique in their new-look defensive system. Mitchell also has some ties to the 49ers' new coaching staff, having played for new defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina when he was the assistant defensive line coach for Houston in 2013.

videoWhen he signed with Jacksonville two years ago, Jared Odrick's name would often pop up as a potential free-agent candidate for the Detroit Lions. Now, two years later, Odrick is once again available after the Jaguars released him Monday.

And once again, the Lions should investigate the defensive lineman.

Odrick, 29, wouldn’t be the sexiest signing. But as long as he’s healthy -- he had shoulder and elbow injuries last season -- he would be a fit for Detroit's aggressive front four that prides itself on rotation and versatility. Odrick could come at the right price, too, as he is coming off injuries. He had been fairly durable before.

He has played both tackle and end in a 4-3 defense. In Jacksonville, he played end in a 3-4 defense. Considering how the Lions use their defensive linemen, that would make him a candidate for Detroit. The Lions under coordinator Teryl Austin have often moved ends inside to tackle in pass-rush situations. They’ve also lined tackles up outside of defensive ends.

Players like Jason Jones, Devin Taylor and Kerry Hyder have all been moved inside and outside under Austin with the Lions, and as of now, Hyder is the only one of the three expected to be on the roster in 2017.

It’s well-known the Lions need to pick up their pass rush, and though Odrick has never had huge sack numbers, he has three seasons of five-plus sacks in his career, including 5.5 sacks in 2015 with the Jaguars.

He’s also a player who can set the edge as a run defender for Detroit, something the Lions would need opposite Ezekiel Ansah. His veteran presence would also be a help on a defensive line that could once again go through a transition between the 2016 and 2017 seasons. Taylor, Armonty Bryant, Stefan Charles and Tyrunn Walker are all unrestricted free agents. Khyri Thornton is a restricted free agent.

So there are a bunch of holes to fill for the Lions, and Odrick would have the flexibility to fill multiple spots.

Then there’s something else with Odrick, too, something that might make the Lions attractive to him. NFL Nation Jaguars writer Mike DiRocco reported some of Odrick’s off-field interests -- acting and writing -- caused "minor friction" in DiRocco’s words, with the Jaguars.

That won’t be an issue in Detroit. Lions head coach Jim Caldwell has often shown he’s willing to have a multitude of personalities with varying viewpoints in his locker room as long as their character is high. The best example of that would be DeAndre Levy, who has been outspoken against the NFL regarding CTE. Levy also spends time bringing attention to the issue of sexual assault and doing offseason adventures like wing-walking on a plane and sliding down a volcano. Anquan Boldin and Glover Quin are other Lions who have been comfortable offering their viewpoints and have been treated well in the Detroit locker room. Lions safety Don Carey is an aspiring author and former Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch published a children's book while he was employed by the team.

Caldwell has often said he wants players to be able to speak their mind and he often wants to hear the points of view of players if they are choosing to take a stance. So the Lions' locker room would likely be a place where Odrick would fit in well.

So this is something that, if both sides were interested, could be a potential match and something Detroit should consider as it heads into the free agency period.

TAMPA, Fla. -- ESPN National NFL Insider Josina Anderson reported Tuesday that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could be a possible destination for free agent wide receiver DeSean Jackson due to his rapport with quarterback Jameis Winston.

The Bucs are searching for a big-play threat to line up opposite Mike Evans, who was targeted a whopping 171 times in 2016. They also need a replacement for Vincent Jackson, who was placed on injured reserve after Week 5 and whose contract with the Bucs expires in March. At 34 and with a noticeable decline in play last season, the team is best-served moving forward without him.

DeSean Jackson has a different skill set than Vincent Jackson. At 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, he doesn't have the massive catch radius or a big body that you want catching passes across the middle. But this actually works in the Bucs' favor because they've long needed a receiver with top-level speed who can complement Evans rather than match him, and DeSean Jackson fits the bill.

When the NFL released its "Next Gen Stats" for 2016, Jackson registered the third-fastest overall speed and fastest reception time -- 22.6 mph on a 59-yard pass from Kirk Cousins. The only player faster than Jackson last season was Tyreek Hill, and those times came on a pair of special teams plays.

Jackson recently joined ESPN's Adam Schefter on his "Know them from Adam" podcast and when discussing his speed, he said, "I really feel like I could still run 4.3 or 4.29 like I came out of the combine."

JacksonIcon SMIDeSean Jackson caught 56 passes for 1,005 yards and four touchdowns in 2016.

Jackson saw action in 15 games last season and caught 56 passes for 1,005 yards and four touchdowns. It was the fifth 1,000-yard season in his career. He told Schefter he thinks he could play another four-to-six years and that he would have no qualms about playing in the slot if his speed dropped off.

"I still think I could play on the outside at least another three or four years and still play at a high level," Jackson said. "I'm not losing speed. I just turned 30. I played last year at 29 the whole season and turned 30 at the end of the year."

When discussing criteria for a possible destination he said, "I want to win. Obviously, I haven't won a Super Bowl, so the team that can win, a team that has a great quarterback. And that's definitely what stands out to me."

Winston, like Cousins, is a quarterback on the rise. His growth and chemistry with Evans blossomed last season, culminating into a Pro Bowl invite for Evans. However, one area Winston could stand to improve on is the deep ball accuracy. Who better than Jackson to help?

With a solid offensive line and ground game like they had in 2015 combined with a defense that made a quantum leap last year, the Bucs look poised to become a playoff contender. A tougher schedule next year, which includes facing the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots and the Green Bay Packers, will pose a huge challenge, however. That could certainly entice someone like Jackson.

The Bucs finished 9-7 in 2016 but didn't reach the playoffs. They did, however, win three out of four games against the Super Bowl LI participant Atlanta Falcons over the past three years. The NFC South is a division with no clear-cut favorite, as the Carolina Panthers reaching the Super Bowl in 2015 and finishing dead last this past year, while the Bucs finished second in 2016 and last in 2015.

How much would it cost to land Jackson's services?

His last contract with the Redskins was for three years and $24 million. The fact that he might not be asking for a five-year deal and would be okay with three years is a plus, given his age and the Bucs' recent track record with free agent mega-deals. This has made them far more responsible spenders. They'll look to re-sign their own as well, but none of those deals should break the bank, making room for a couple splash signings.

The Bucs will have about $65-67 million in cap space this year, while the Redskins will have about $61 million, although the Redskins still have to make a decision on whether to re-sign Cousins or play him under the franchise tag. They will also have to figure out their options with Pierre Garcon, who will become a free agent.

The "legal tampering period" for the NFL in 2017 begins March 7, which is when the Bucs can official contact Jackson's representatives. Players cannot begin signing contracts until the new league year begins at 4 p.m. ET on March 9.

Nick Fairley was one of the NFL’s best bargains last season.

That won’t be the case again this year.

The New Orleans Saints defensive tackle is scheduled to be a free agent for the third year in a row. But he should finally be in line for a lucrative long-term deal after having a career season with the Saints in 2016.

Both Fairley and the Saints have expressed a desire to stay together, especially since Fairley is close to his family, just two hours from his hometown of Mobile, Alabama.

But Fairley’s price tag will have a lot to say about that. And he will likely draw more suitors on the open market this time around after settling for one-year, incentive-laden “prove-it” contracts with the St. Louis Rams in 2015 and Saints in 2016.

Fairley’s uncertain future is why I have defensive tackle ranked fifth in my position-by-position breakdown of the Saints’ offseason needs. Otherwise, the Saints have some solid depth there after drafting Sheldon Rankins in Round 1 last year, David Onyemata in Round 4 last year and Tyeler Davison in the fifth round in 2015.

Nick FairleyKen Murray/Icon SportswireDefensive tackle Nick Fairley could be in line for a big raise after a career season with the Saints.

Current depth chart:

Sheldon Rankins: Age 22, signed through 2019 (*Saints control option for 2020). 2017 salary and bonuses: $1.03 million. 2017 salary-cap number: $2.91 million.

Nick Fairley: Age 29, unrestricted free agent.

Tyeler Davison: Age 24, signed through 2018. 2017 salary and bonuses: $615,000. 2017 salary-cap number: $669,306.

David Onyemata: Age 24, signed through 2019. 2017 salary and bonuses: $540,000. 2017 salary-cap number: $675,586.

Ashaad Mabry: Age 24, scheduled to be restricted free agent in 2019. 2017 salary and bonuses: $465,000. 2017 salary-cap number: $465,000.

Justin Zimmer: Age 24, scheduled to be exclusive rights free agent in 2018. 2017 salary and bonuses: $465,000. 2017 salary-cap number: $465,000.

Analysis:

Fairley’s market value is very hard to predict. He had a career-high 6.5 sacks and 43 tackles in a career-high 16 games played last year. His 22 quarterback hits tied for 13th in the NFL, and he had nine tackles-for-loss.

If those kind of numbers were the norm for Fairley, he’d probably make more than $10 million per year like other top-tier defensive tackles.

However, it took several years for Fairley to start showing that kind of consistent production after a turbulent start to his career with the Detroit Lions from 2011 to 2014. Fairley battled injuries, weight gain and questions about maturity and work ethic before he really started to turn things around in 2014 by hiring a personal chef and keeping the weight down (he is listed at 308 pounds but said he has been closer to 290 for the last three years).

We know teams have been skeptical about Fairley in the past, since he has been in the open market in each of the past two years. While many teams showed interest (including the New England Patriots last year), he settled for one-year deals both times. His deal with the Rams was reportedly worth $5 million, plus incentives. His deal with the Saints was worth $3 million, though it climbed to $4.5 million because of the incentives he hit.

Chances are, teams will feel more secure about Fairley now that he’s had two very good seasons in a row -- both in his production and his work ethic. Saints coach Sean Payton said last year, “I know this, there’s a lot different feeling -- at least on our end -- about that player and that person after having been with him a year.”

Most likely, Fairley’s next contract will be a multi-year deal with more guaranteed money, maybe worth somewhere between $6 million and $9 million per year? I know that’s wide range, but like I said, his value is tough to gauge.

The Saints like Fairley -- but they don't need to break the bank for him since Rankins and Onyemata both play the same position as three-technique tackles. Ideally the Saints would keep all of them, though, because they think the big men are most effective in a rotation, and they can play together on passing downs.

Rankins appears to have a very bright future after tallying four sacks and a forced fumble in just nine games played as a rookie after returning from a broken fibula he suffered in training camp. Rankins should be a centerpiece for New Orleans’ rebuilding defense, a role he said he will embrace.

Onyemata, who grew up in Nigeria and just learned the sport when he went to college in Canada, seems to have been a nice diamond-in-the-rough find for the Saints.

And Davison did a nice job last year, earning a starting gig at nose tackle. However, that is a spot where the Saints could potentially upgrade or find more rotational help.

Previous rankings:

No. 12 Specialists

No. 11 Wide receivers

No. 10 Tight ends

No. 9 Quarterbacks

No. 8 Running backs

No. 7 Offensive tackles

No. 6 Safeties

(Note: Check back every day this week for a free agent file)

It is not a matter of if the New York Giants want defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul to return. It is a matter of whether they can make it happen financially.

Pierre-Paul is set to become a free agent after completing his seventh season with the team. He had 7.0 sacks in 12 games before sports hernia surgery ruined his prove-it year.

To erase doubts he could still play at a high level after losing his right index finger and parts of several others in a fireworks accident, Pierre-Paul was among the league leaders with eight batted passes and added 54 quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.

The Giants are sold.

"Do we want him back? Of course we want him back," general manager Jerry Reese said after the season. "He's a good football player."

It’s not going to be easy. Pierre-Paul deservedly wants to get paid with a long-term deal, but the Giants are already heavily invested in their defensive line and have Pierre-Paul and defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins as pending free agents. Word on the street is that they are genuinely trying to keep the defense intact, which means bringing back Pierre-Paul and Hankins.

The Giants might need to use the franchise tag on Pierre-Paul for the second time in three years to make it happen. The franchise number for a defensive end is expected to be about $17 million. That might be where this one is headed, at least as a place-holder until a long-term deal is reached.

Free agent file

Jason Pierre-Paul

Jason Pierre-PaulAl Bello/Getty ImagesJason Pierre-Paul had seven sacks in 12 games last season.

Position: Defensive end

Age: 28

Experience: 7 years

Projected contract: 4 years, $59 million, $21 million guaranteed

(Note: The projected contract was derived from the average of five league sources surveyed. The panel consists of a front office executive, salary-cap experts and agents.)

Comparable contract: Olivier Vernon (Giants)

It’s not exactly apples to apples, but Vernon signed a five-year, $85 million deal with a record $52.5 million guaranteed last offseason. That was money that likely wouldn’t have been available had Pierre-Paul not been involved in a July 4th fireworks accident the previous year. Now Pierre-Paul is 28, has damaged fingers and quite a bit of wear and tear on his body. Pierre-Paul is going to aim for a similar deal (and likely more), because when he was on the field this season it could be argued he was the better player. The difference is he’s not injury-free, 25 years old and in a free-agent class with a dearth of pass-rushers. Still, Pierre-Paul is justifiably going to want to get paid. He’s waited seven years for this long-term deal and already said he’s not going to play on another one-year contract. If the Giants use the franchise tag, it’s not going to be well-received.

Market: Teams are always looking for pass-rushers. For a team that plays a 4-3 defense, Pierre-Paul might be the best available option at defensive end, although there are some quality 3-4 edge rushers this year. The Giants, Bucs, Jaguars, Cowboys and Browns are some potential suitors. The market for Pierre-Paul should be strong, which could make it difficult for the Giants to get him at a price that works for both parties if he hits the market.

What he brings: Pierre-Paul is a solid run defender and pass-rusher. He proved this past season that he can still play despite the limitations with his hand. He’s in tremendous physical shape and has a body that can make him a force in any system. He has a solid all-around game that can help just about any team. The biggest question is his durability. In addition to the hand, he’s had back, shoulder and abdominal problems throughout his career.

Synopsis: Pierre-Paul proved this past season that he’s worth a lucrative investment. Even though a good chunk of his sacks came against the Browns and Bears (two bad teams), he produced consistent pressure off the edge and re-established himself as an effective run defender. He’s not among the league’s best pass-rushers, but he’s still a force to be reckoned with each week for opposing offenses.

Chances he returns to Giants: 70 percent

The franchise tag factors heavily into this equation. If that tool weren’t available, the odds of Pierre-Paul returning would be 40 percent. But it’s hard to imagine the Giants allowing a 28-year-old pass-rusher with plenty of gas in the tank to walk without any immediate compensation in return.

The Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars are closing in on an agreement to trade left tackle Branden Albert for tight end Julius Thomas, a source confirmed. However, work still needs to be done regarding Thomas’ contract and the Dolphins, sources tell ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

Albert is visiting the Jaguars on Monday to take a physical and help facilitate trade, a source tells ESPN's Adam Caplan. The Sun Sentinel was the first to report the Albert-for-Thomas trade.

Julius ThomasAP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackTight end Julius Thomas posted some big red-zone numbers with Dolphins coach Adam Gase in Denver.

Last week Miami initially planned to release Albert, who is due $8.9 million in salary next season. However, the team got unexpected opportunities in terms of trade interest when the news broke. Therefore, the Dolphins waited and explored those options.

If the trade goes through, Miami would fill a big hole at tight end, as former starters Jordan Cameron and Dion Sims struggled last season with injuries and inconsistency. Both players also are unrestricted free agents in March.

Thomas posted career-best numbers in Dolphins coach Adam Gase's system when both were with the Denver Broncos. Thomas recorded 108 receptions for 1,277 yards and 24 touchdowns during a two-year stretch with Gase as Denver's offensive coordinator in 2013 and 2014.

For Jacksonville, the team needed help at left tackle after declining to pick up Kelvin Beachum's contract option for 2017. Albert, 32, is a quality left tackle when healthy. But he has missed 13 games the past three seasons due to various injuries.

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