NFL offseason questions: a trade for No 1 and Russell Wilson’s future

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Caleb Williams;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Caleb Williams</a> appears to be headed to the <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Chicago;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Chicago</a> Bears.</span><span>Photograph: MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News/Getty Images</span>

Will the Bears trade the No 1 overall pick?

What the Bears do with the draft’s top pick is the hinge point of the offseason. They have three options:

  • They can take Caleb Williams, the top quarterback in the class, and trade Justin Fields

  • They can trade the pick and stick with Fields

  • They can draft Williams and keep Fields

From a team-building perspective, the third option makes sense. It gives the Bears two throws at the franchise quarterback dartboard, or at least for Williams to work in the background until he’s ready to supplant Fields as the starter. But once you include feelings, contracts and agents, it gets tricky. If Chicago select Williams, they will be operating on a new timeline, and will look to extract maximum value from Fields in a down year for available quarterbacks. If they punt on Williams in favor of a treasure trove of picks, they’ll be rooted firmly in win-now mode, with a Fields extension looming.

The decision will come quickly. We’re approaching the anniversary of Chicago dealing away last year’s top pick for a bevy of selections, including the pick that wound up being No 1 in this year’s class. Reports suggest if the Bears opt to go the Williams route, they would look to make a deal early, trading Fields before free agency opens on 13 March.

It’s hard to imagine the Bears trading out of the top spot two years in a row. There have been subtle signs of progress from Fields, but not enough to pass on Williams.

Where will the big-name free-agent running backs land?

We’re a year removed from the sky-is-falling discourse around running backs and their contracts. But we also just experienced a season in which running the ball was as valuable as it has been in recent seasons – and with Christian McCaffrey banging the drum for backs as the bedrock of a championship-caliber offense.

This year’s crop of free agents is a who’s who of the position’s biggest stars. Josh Jacobs, Saquon Barkley, Tony Pollard and Derrick Henry will be available. Further down the list, there is D’Andre Swift, Austin Ekeler and Gus Edwards.

Running back is the league’s most interchangeable position. And given its injury rate, teams don’t want to concentrate a high percentage of their cap into one guy, preferring to spread the cost around or putting their funds into the offensive line, the group that makes a run game sing.

That’s logical. But in the middle of a salary-cap surge, teams may be willing to dole out extra dollars to land the top available players. Who doesn’t want to see Henry or Jacobs in the backfield with Lamar Jackson in Baltimore? What about Barkley on the Chiefs?

Last year’s free-agent period represented a crisis point for the position. But if this crop of runners is unable to snag multi-year contracts, with decent compensation, it will represent a new low.

Will Kirk Cousins leave Minnesota in free agency?

Cousins is the best quarterback on the market this offseason, despite tearing his achilles last year. He kept the Vikings offense above water when Justin Jefferson missed time last season – and ranked somewhere between the fifth and eighth most effective quarterback in the league’s dorkiest metrics.

Top eight quarterbacks rarely, if ever, become available in free agency. If they do, it’s typically because they’re coming off an injury (Peyton Manning, Drew Brees) or they’re nearing retirement and sick of their coach (Tom Brady).

Cousins is only 35, a baby compared to some franchise-altering quarterbacks who have moved in recent seasons. You can scoff all you like at Cousins’ place in the quarterback standings or his performance in big games, but the market this offseason will still be bountiful. Cousins would be an immediate upgrade for the playoff-hungry Falcons, Steelers, Raiders or Broncos.

When Cousins was last a free-agent, he eked out a first-of-its-kind, fully guaranteed three-year contract. Somehow, despite the injury, he might have even more leverage this time. With needy teams and a thin quarterback market, his contract could wind up in the $60m-a-year region.

Any Cousins deal could be too rich for Minnesota’s taste. Even with Cousins, the Vikings will probably sit in the league’s mediocre wasteland: not good enough to squeeze past the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs but too good to throw in the towel and tank. Their cleanest option is to re-up Cousins and run it back in the NFL’s junior varsity conference, but they’ve already signaled they would be unwilling to sign another fully guaranteed deal. If another bidder or two drive up the price, he will probably be playing football elsewhere next season.

Does Russell Wilson have any juice left?

Wilson’s time in Denver has been a disaster. It started with eyes on catching Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, and ended in embarrassment. A bunch of on- and off-the-field issues swirled around the Sean Payton-Wilson relationship last season, and it degraded enough for the Players Association to investigate.

If Cousins returns to Minnesota, however, Wilson will be the top available, veteran quarterback. And there will be a market. Aside from dealing for Fields or striking gold in the draft, there are few avenues for teams to upgrade at quarterback. Those teams taking one last chance on a young-ish quarterback – the Steelers, Raiders, maybe the Patriots – will most likely target Wilson as a steady hand who could still have some life in his arm.

Can the Chiefs retain their defensive core?

Kansas City enter the offseason in an unprecedented position: they’re trying to sustain a 10-year, dynastic run while being within tantalizing reach of the league’s first-ever three-peat.

That raises some tough questions. How will they rebuild their wide receiver room? Is their offensive line good enough? Can they keep the bulk of their star-laden defense intact while preserving cap flexibility?

The Chiefs’ defense carried them through rough spells last season. Central to that was all-world defensive lineman Chris Jones and All-Pro cornerback L’Jarius Sneed. Both will be free agents in a couple of weeks. Retaining the pair will be expensive, and the team can only franchise tag one of them, with all signs indicating it will be Sneed.

No team in the league has been better at plugging in replacement-level players and getting them to play above their career average than the Chiefs. But Jones and Sneed represent something different. They’re two impact pieces at the two most valuable spots on a defense.

Given their investment at cornerback in recent years, the Chiefs could probably live without Sneed long-term, though not without lowering their 2024 ceiling. In cold financial terms, the Chiefs should let one player walk and reinvest their dollars across the roster. In emotional terms, they owe it to themselves to bring back two A-plus stars to try to win three in a row, even if they have to pay a tax in future years.

Who will be the biggest star traded?

The last couple of offseasons have been dominated by trades: Aaron Rodgers to the Jets; AJ Brown to the Eagles; Davante Adams to the Raiders; Tyreek Hill to the Dolphins. All were transformative, though some more effective than others.

There will be plenty of big names up for grabs this offseason. The Vikings have already pooh-poohed a potential Jefferson trade. But if Cousins walks away in free agency, that could change the calculus. Tag and trade rumors continue to hover over Sneed (Chiefs), Tee Higgins (Bengals), Barkley (Giants) and a host of would-be free agents.

There will be other names available, too. The Bills could help their cap position by dealing away Stefon Diggs. The Saints (as always) need to shed some salary, which could make Alvin Kamara available. Sitting in cap hell, the Chargers will need to cut or trade a number of their star names, including Joey Bosa, Khalil Mack and Mike Williams. The Broncos will probably dangle Jerry Jeudy in any discussions to move up in the draft to try to nab one of the top quarterbacks. Adams seems settled in Vegas now that Antonio Pierce is the full-time head coach, but that could change if Rodgers and the Jets come calling.

The most impactful trade target, however, could be Brandon Aiyuk. The Niners have yet to reach an agreement on a long-term extension with the receiver. “Brandon’s a guy we want to keep around for a long time,” Niners GM John Lynch said at the combine. But San Francisco are paying the price for multiple deep playoff runs. They’ve handed out bumper contracts to Trent Williams, Arik Armstead, Nick Bosa, Deebo Samuel, Fred Warner and George Kittle in the last two seasons, while absorbing McCaffrey’s contract. Someone has to be the odd player out.

A cap boom could help the Niners retain Aiyuk. But it will be tough for San Francisco to stomach if the receiver wants to be paid in the league’s top tier ($25m per year).