KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Derrick Johnson has always been a company man, willing to do whatever it takes to help the Kansas City Chiefs win playoff games and someday end their long Super Bowl drought.
Restructure his contract? OK. Tutor young linebackers? Sure thing.
The point where Johnson draws the line is in telling the Chiefs when he’ll finally hang up the cleats. The 34-year-old is coming off a second season-ending Achilles tendon injury, and he knows he’s entering the twilight of his career. But he doesn’t know if the end will come after the upcoming season or the one after that, when his current contract is due to expire.
“I struggle with that,” he said. “The older you get, the more you know it’s coming to an end at some point. But I just hope and pray when football is over for me I can have peace and rest.”
Therein lays the challenge for the Chiefs, along with every other team in the NFL: When is it the right time to draft replacements, especially when extra roster spots have become invaluable, time limits on practice are more constrictive, and the pressure to win has never been greater.
“You’re always trying to work ahead and trying to prevent the roster from taking a major, major hit at any position. That’s the nature of the National Football League,” said Titans general manager Jon Robinson. “As veteran players age or hit a level where they become maybe too expensive for your football team, that’s something that you have to look at and manage.”
Precisely how teams manage it varies in just about every respect.
First there’s the timeframe.
Teams try to forecast about three years ahead, but several GMs said that has become increasingly difficult. More players are walking away from the game early because of the increased risks of injuries and concerns over head trauma, while the shelf life of some positions may only be a few years to begin with, making it difficult to forecast even a year in advance.
Players such as Johnson, who is entering his 13th season, are about as rare as the I-formation in an era when the NFL Players Association reports the average career lasts just over three years.
Then there are positional differences.
There are some jobs where a player can be drafted and slide right into the starting lineup with minimal experience, while it may take others — quarterback, for one — several years of development before being ready for games.
Finally, there are philosophical differences.
Teams such as the Packers prefer to shore up holes almost exclusively through the draft, while others are more willing to dip into free agency. The draft carries the significant benefit of financial flexibility, but the downside is the pressure of enduring a crash-course on life in professional football.
“You can’t predict the future,” Robinson said, “but you just try to set yourself up so the rosters can kind of weather the storm of losing guys, and you can still play winning, productive football.”
Robinson is facing that very challenge this offseason.
Already, he’s released cornerback Jason McCourty and begun the search for a replacement for the nine-year veteran. Tight end Delanie Walker is coming off a Pro Bowl season and is a 12-year veteran who will be 33 in August, so finding a replacement for him could become an issue soon.
The Cowboys are another interesting case study in drafting replacements.
A few years ago, they gambled that breakout running back Demarco Murray would age quickly and let him go in free agency. Dallas struggled the following season — though it did put the Cowboys in position to draft Ezekiel Elliott — while Murray ran for more than 1,200 yards with Tennessee last season.
The Cowboys also recognized that injury-prone quarterback Tony Romo was heading toward the end of his career, so they chose Dak Prescott in last year’s draft. But any thought that he was a developmental project quickly dissolved when Prescott took over the starting job and never let it go.
Dallas also tried unsuccessfully to draft an heir to tight end Jason Witten, whiffing on second-round pick Gavin Escobar. Witten is signed through 2021, but realistically has only a couple seasons left.
His situation is not unlike Johnson’s in Kansas City, where a longtime fixture is still capable of playing at a high level, even if nobody is quite sure how long that will last.
“One of the neat things we have going is we bring in good competition at all spots. There are no positions absolutely guaranteed,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “I’ll tell the rookies when they come in, ‘You can cut it loose and see what happens,’ and that covers all areas.
“If a guy goes down, the next one comes in, and you have to maintain that, maintain that level of competition. And you obviously keep the best guys that create the most competition.”
The San Francisco 49ers have let it be known they will be “open for business” if any team would like to move up to the No. 2 spot in the first round.
And despite everything you hear about this QB class being loaded with “projects”, someone might just panic and take them up on the offer.
Still, that would be a surprise.
More likely in the Top 10, keep your eye on Jacksonville (4) and the New York Jets (6) as teams who also should be “open for business.”
So who might be shopping?
For one, the Cleveland Browns — even though they own the No. 1 pick. If they really have fallen for North Carolina QB Mitchell Trubisky, they shouldn’t take him at No. 1, but they might not want to chance waiting until they pick again at No. 12. The Browns have plenty of later-round picks to entice a team to move back a few spots.
And how about the Cincinnati Bengals? They have 11 picks to play with in the draft, and with a defense decimated by free agency the past two years, might have their eye on Jacksonville’s spot at No. 4. The Bengals sit at No. 9, but if they have a defensive player they don’t want to chance losing, it is worth moving up to secure him.
Houston? Can they wait until their spot at 25 to get a quarterback? They might have to unless they get creative. They don’t have much to offer as far as extra picks this year. It will be surprising if they choose to mortgage future draft picks to move up, but desperation sometimes makes teams do crazy things on draft night. So if they do choose to deal, look for them to include a player in the trade.
Those three teams seem most likely to alter the picking order in the Top 10.
But things could also be interesting as the first round progresses.
Consider this: Denver (20), Giants (23) and Seattle (26) all have a need at left tackle. Should they attempt to address it in the first round, there could be quite the cat and mouse game among the three – or at least the Giants and Seattle – to improve their spots.
The Seahawks, with three third-round picks, seem to have more to offer than the Giants, if they feel the need to move up a few spots.
The NFL draft draws ever closer, and the nearer it gets, the more hot trade rumors and pie-in-the-sky scenarios will abound. In all likelihood, no more significant deals will materialize until the first round commences April 27. But just for kicks, our latest Round 1 prognostications include a few logical — we think — moves to shake up the board. Here’s mock draft 6.0 for 2017:
1. Cleveland Browns — Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M: Cleveland coach Hue Jackson indicated at last month’s league meeting that the top pick is not for sale, even in a year when the type of polished quarterback prospect the Browns so desperately need isn’t worthy of the selection. (Naturally, an ESPN report surfaced Wednesday suggesting team brass is now strongly considering UNC QB Mitchell Trubisky first overall. We’ll address that shortly.) But barring a huge upset, it’s hard to envision anyone other than Garrett — an elite athlete who produced like one for the Aggies and would address a primary need for the Cleveland defense — hearing his name called first by Roger Goodell on draft night.
2. *Trade with San Francisco 49ers* Carolina Panthers — Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU: This move would allow the Niners to accrue valuable picks for their rebuilding process while only dropping a few spots — the transaction would probably cost the Panthers their No. 8 overall selection in 2017, next year’s first rounder and probably a fourth, too. But Carolina is a team built to win now, and Fournette is a compelling talent who could launch them back to the Super Bowl. And given the desire to reduce the pounding on QB Cam Newton and ever-fragile RB Jonathan Stewart’s advancing age, Fournette would fit like a glove in this offense. But Carolina might have to jump Jacksonville to get him.
3. Chicago Bears — Jamal Adams, S, LSU: Though Chicago’s defense has shown steady improvement during two years under coordinator Vic Fangio, it still lacks an identity. Adams’ highlight reel is full of big hits and disruptive plays, and with a sub-4.4 40-yard dash at his pro day, he answered any lingering questions about his athleticism and ability to range for deep balls. His swagger and reputation as a strong leader could vault this unit to the next tier.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars — O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: Fournette seems like the perfect addition to this team. But with him off the board in this scenario, the new brain trust of Tom Coughlin and Doug Marrone could go in another direction to support struggling QB Blake Bortles. Howard projects to be at least as good a receiver as departed Julius Thomas, and his far superior blocking ability should keep him on the field and perhaps also help unleash Jacksonville’s recently dormant ground game.
5. *Trade with Tennessee Titans* Browns — Mitchell Trubisky, QB, North Carolina: Cleveland forfeited its opportunity to take Carson Wentz in 2016. But this year, we’ll have them exchange part of their cache of picks to leap up from No. 12 — past the Jets, the first team that seems reasonably likely to pick a quarterback this year — to guarantee the arrival of a player they allegedly love. Trubisky’s accuracy and decision making in college were first rate and could make the Ohio native the best choice to operate this playbook. [Note: This pick originally belonged to the Los Angeles Rams before Tennessee acquired it last year.]
6. New York Jets — Solomon Thomas, DE, Stanford: As was the case with DL Leonard Williams, the sixth overall choice two years ago, the Jets might just find themselves staring at a player too good to pass up at this spot. Teamed with Williams and Muhammad Wilkerson, Thomas would allow New York’s front to remain imposing and scheme versatile, and his arrival could hasten a timeline to offload Sheldon Richardson.
7. *Trade with Los Angeles Chargers* Seattle Seahawks — Marshon Lattimore, CB, Ohio State: If Seattle is truly serious about trading CB Richard Sherman, this could be one way to make it happen. Seahawks GM John Schneider has had mixed results, at best, trading high picks for veteran star power (think Percy Harvin and Jimmy Graham). So with this move he’d reverse course as the Legion of Boom surrenders its 29-year-old Pro Bowler — while sending him out of the NFC — in order to obtain the pick that nets Lattimore, this year’s premier corner. Let’s say Schneider also obtains a veteran blocker while he’s at it, maybe Orlando Franklin or Joe Barksdale. On the flip side, the Chargers would pick up Seattle’s 26th pick, while new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley — he used to hold the same post in Seattle — is reunited with Sherman, the big-bodied cover man the Bolts don’t currently have to combat the likes of WRs Demaryius Thomas, Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree in the AFC West. Finally, Sherman gets to return to his native L.A., giving the Chargers a recognizable talent and personality as they get established in their new home, not to mention someone who could really help QB Philip Rivers make one more Super Bowl push before his career winds down.
8. *Trade with Panthers* 49ers — Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford: The buzz surrounding McCaffrey has steadily grown since his sterling combine and pro day outings, which showcased his abilities as a runner, returner and especially receiver. New Niners GM John Lynch, a Stanford alum himself, could replicate the one-two tailback punch new coach Kyle Shanahan enjoyed in Atlanta if McCaffrey is coupled with power back Carlos Hyde.
9. Cincinnati Bengals — Jonathan Allen, DT, Alabama: This would be a gift for Marvin Lewis’ defense. Despite being an interior player, Allen piled up 22½ sacks over the past two seasons, several courtesy of his tireless effort. He’d more than fill the hole that currently exists alongside Bengals DT Geno Atkins and give this team a pair of wrecking balls in the pits.
10. Buffalo Bills — Malik Hooker, S, Ohio State: The Bills haven’t had much production from their safeties since saying goodbye to Jairus Byrd after the 2013 season, and the depth chart looks particularly bleak heading into the draft. Hooker covers a ton of ground, gets his hands on the ball (7 INTs in 2016) and makes things happen when he does (3 TDs last year). The only question is his health after surgeries on his shoulder and for a sports hernia shelved him during the pre-draft process.
11. New Orleans Saints — Reuben Foster, ILB, Alabama: A sideline-to-sideline defender brings the ability and attitude this defense has noticeably lacked in recent seasons. If he fulfills his potential, Foster could be a centerpiece in the mold of Ray Lewis or Luke Kuechly.
12. *Trade with Browns* Titans — Haason Reddick, LB, Temple: An undersized defensive end for the Owls, the 6-1, 237-pounder will be a linebacker in the NFL. And during an offseason full of impressive exploits, Reddick has displayed the athleticism to play in space in base packages while reverting to his quarterback-hunting background on passing downs. He’d certainly be the type of weapon coordinator Dick LeBeau could deploy creatively. [Note: This pick originally belonged to the Philadelphia Eagles before Cleveland acquired it last year.]
13. Arizona Cardinals — Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan: Ankle surgery prevented Davis from showcasing his ample skills at the scouting combine or at his pro day. But he’ll run just about any pattern from the route tree, and will separate from and/or overpower most defensive backs. Davis averaged 13 TDs and nearly 80 catches over the course of his four-year college career while amassing a Football Bowl Subdivision record 5,278 career receiving yards. A nice piece of clay for Bruce Arians and Larry Fitzgerald to refine.
14. Eagles (from Minnesota Vikings) — Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State: Philadelphia spent much of its free agent capital obtaining weapons for second-year QB Carson Wentz. Cook could be the cherry on top, a multi-dimensional threat out of the backfield who can hit home runs on running or receiving plays. And if seems a luxury pick, the Eagles could afford him this year given how deep the draft is with the corner help this secondary will require.
15. Indianapolis Colts — Forrest Lamp, OL, Western Kentucky: This draft is stocked with defensive depth, and new Colts GM Chris Ballard will surely partake. But before he addresses that side of the ball, it might be best to pluck one of the few elite offensive line prospects. Lamp could plug in either at right tackle or guard to bolster the protection of franchise QB Andrew Luck and his surgically repaired shoulder.
16. *Trade with Baltimore Ravens* Detroit Lions — Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee: How productive was Barnett for the Vols? He broke Reggie White’s school sack record, so enough said. A better football player than athlete, his hard-working style would play well in Detroit and be a boon to the Lions’ D-line — maybe even so much so that GM Bob Quinn might be willing to part with a mid-round pick to move into position for Barnett.
17. Washington Redskins — Kevin King, CB, Washington: Josh Norman can’t cover everyone. King (6-3, 200) is talented and provides the kind of size that matches up favorably against the likes Dez Bryant, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery in the NFC East. Bringing him aboard could also allow Bashaud Breeland to move into a nickel role that might suit him better.
18. Titans — John Ross, WR, Washington: The latest reason he’s a fit in Nashville? Ross indicated on NFL Network last week that he’d really like to play with QB Marcus Mariota, a fellow Pac-12 alum. Personal preferences aside, Ross just makes so much sense for this team when considering how his 4.22-second 40 speed could rip defenses already stretched to the breaking point by Tennessee’s “exotic smashmouth” running game. And whether on deep routes, screens or as a returner, he is a threat to go all the way every time he touches the ball.
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Charles Harris, DE, Missouri: Is there any division where it’s more imperative to have an effective pass rush than the NFC South? The Bucs will see Matt Ryan, Cam Newton and Drew Brees six times next year, and an edge presence like Harris could certainly get their attention. No Tampa Bay player had more than 6 ½ sacks in 2016.
20. Denver Broncos — Garett Bolles, OT, Utah: He’s probably got the most upside of any tackle prospect this year. And with Russell Okung off to the Chargers, Denver has a gaping blind side vacancy. After overcoming a rough childhood, adapting to the NFL should be a breeze for Bolles.
21. *Trade with Lions* Ravens — Takkarist McKinley, OLB, UCLA: Baltimore OLB Terrell Suggs is still getting it done, but he’s 34. Elvis Dumervil is no longer a Raven. So there’s a spot for McKinley, whose ever-revving motor is made to order for a defense with an attacking reputation.
22. Miami Dolphins — Jarrad Davis, LB, Florida: Yes, Miami just signed veteran LB Lawrence Timmons and extended Kiko Alonso’s deal. But the Dolphins still have room for improvement in their linebacking corps, and Davis is the kind of athlete and leader who could solidify the entire defense.
23. New York Giants — David Njoku, TE, Miami (Fla.): Not hard to imagine GM Jerry Reese licking his chops if this New Jersey native is available when the Giants pick. Njoku is an explosive athlete loaded with potential. And a 20-year-old prospect couldn’t ask for a better scenario than being allowed to develop as the third or fourth receiving option for an offense that likes to put the ball into the air.
24. *Trade with Oakland Raiders* Rams — Mike Williams, WR, Clemson: Los Angeles would have to make a deal to get back into the first round. And despite signing Robert Woods, the Rams still don’t have a No. 1-caliber wideout, so it may be time for GM Les Snead to again get creative. Williams is big (6-4, 218), fast enough, effective in the red zone and — perhaps — exactly the type of forgiving target who could accelerate second-year QB Jared Goff’s development. And what do the Raiders stand to gain? A high second-round pick — the Rams own No. 37 — and probably an extra third rounder, ammunition which would nicely help GM Reggie McKenzie patch the numerous holes on his defense.
25. Houston Texans — Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson: Not only did the Texans fail to obtain Tony Romo, they don’t currently have a quarterback under contract beyond the 2017 season. So clearly, this is the right time to acquire a promising player who might need a year to get ready. And given the supporting cast that would surround him, hard to fathom a much better outcome from Watson’s perspective.
26. *Trade with Seahawks* Chargers — Ryan Ramczyk, OT, Wisconsin: Even if the Bolts hadn’t divested a blocker in our hypothetical Richard Sherman trade, it still makes sense to upgrade the protection in front of Philip Rivers. Ramczyk could step in at right tackle and theoretically succeed Russell Okung on the left side down the road.
27. Kansas City Chiefs — Patrick Mahomes, QB, Texas Tech: He’s become quite the hot prospect over the last few months. In some ways, Mahomes — a strong-armed gunslinger — may be the antithesis of K.C. incumbent Alex Smith, 32. Yet that may also be exactly what the Chiefs need if they’re ever to make significant noise in the playoffs. Coach Andy Reid, who was once charged with taming a young Brett Favre, has experience tutoring undisciplined passers. Mahomes will need time, which dovetails with Smith’s contract, which expires after the 2018 season — if Kansas City doesn’t opt out first.
28. Dallas Cowboys — Gareon Conley, CB, Ohio State: Dallas lost four key defensive backs in free agency, including both starting corners. Chances are they’ll be targeting cover guys early, and Conley might be good enough to take over the No. 1 role immediately.
29. Green Bay Packers — Tre’Davious White, CB, LSU: The Pack’s secondary was in tatters by season’s end, a reality the Falcons exposed in their NFC Championship Game romp. Losing Micah Hyde in free agency didn’t help. But White can — both as a highly capable defender and an impact punt returner.
30. Pittsburgh Steelers — Jabrill Peppers, S, Michigan: The last time we saw Pittsburgh’s defense, it was being diced through the air for 384 yards and three TDs by Tom Brady. It’s lacked a difference maker on the back end since Troy Polamalu retired, and Peppers might be the man to change that. (And with RB DeAngelo Williams gone, maybe he even gives Le’Veon Bell an occasional breather.)
31. Atlanta Falcons — Cam Robinson, OL, Alabama: The NFC champs have already plucked former Tide assistant Steve Sarkisian, so why not also turn to Tuscaloosa for a massive and highly capable lineman to take over for retired G Chris Chester?
32. Saints (from New England Patriots) — Taco Charlton, DE, Michigan: With the second level benefiting from New Orleans’ first pick, now it’s time to add juice to the pass rush. Only the Lions had fewer sacks than the Saints’ 30 among NFC teams in 2016. (And, yes, it might be awfully tempting here to take DeShone Kizer or Davis Webb as Drew Brees’ eventual replacement.)
Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis