The 2019 NFL season is over. Now the real fun begins.
The league carries as much action, drama and intrigue during its six months off the field as it does in the six months that it stages games. In 2020, it will add a unique storyline to its usual menu: the prospect of a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the NFL Players Association.
Here’s a look at the key dates and priorities for the coming months, from the CBA to an expansion of the Rooney Rule to an officiating department overhaul to more debate of replay review for pass interference.
Key dates to know
Feb. 24-March 2: The NFL scouting combine takes place in Indianapolis, with a new schedule that will feature three nights of prime-time workouts. One consequence of the new arrangement is a reduction in formal interviews with players, from 60 to 45. (The interview length limits were increased by three minutes, from 15 to 18.) Regardless, the event will provide a foundation for two months of draft mania. Atop the debate points: Is there any reason to think LSU quarterback Joe Burrow and Ohio State defensive end Chase Young won’t be the first two picks? Assuming not, what happens after that?
Feb. 25: This is the first day that teams can apply franchise or transition tags. If the NFL is still operating under the current CBA at this time, teams can use one franchise and one transition tag. Precise position-by-position figures have not been released. A new CBA would spell out the rules for 2020. Possible franchise targets include Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill and Chargers tight end Hunter Henry.
March 10: Any team wishing to use a franchise and/or transition tag must notify the league by 4 p.m. ET.
March 16-18: Teams can begin negotiating contracts with pending unrestricted free agents. ESPN’s ranking of the top 50 such players includes eight quarterbacks. Among them: Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Tannehill, Prescott and Winston. By the end of this period, teams must also make qualifying offers to any of the restricted free agents they wish to maintain right of first refusal on.
March 18: The free-agent market opens at 4 p.m. ET, officially known as the start of the new league year. Any deals negotiated during the March 16-18 window can be made official. If the past is any guide, most of the big names will be off the board by this point.
March 29-April 1: Owners, coaches, general managers and team executives will gather in Palm Beach, Florida, for their annual league meeting. Among the on-field decisions to consider: renewing replay review of pass interference for another season and possible alternatives to the onside kick. This meeting could also be a key point for CBA discussions if there hasn’t already been an agreement.
April 6: The five teams with new head coaches can begin offseason workouts. That list includes the Browns, Cowboys, Giants, Panthers and Redskins.
Marcus Spears likes the Cowboys’ hiring of Mike McCarthy as long as Jerry Jones doesn’t interfere and allows him to do his job.
April 20: The NFL’s other 27 teams can begin offseason workouts.
April 23-25: The NFL draft will take place in Las Vegas, where players will ride a boat to the red carpet among the Bellagio Hotel’s famed fountains. The real drama is expected to begin at No. 3 overall, assuming the Bengals draft Burrow and the Redskins take Young. Study up with current mock drafts from Todd McShay and Mel Kiper Jr.
April 27: This marks the first day that NFL teams can sign XFL players, the day after the end of the XFL season. The league’s inaugural regular-season rosters, announced in late January, included 207 players who had been on NFL rosters within the past six months.
May 1-4, 8-11: Teams can hold one rookie minicamp, over a maximum of three days, during one of these weekends.
May 19-20: NFL owners will meet for their spring meeting in Marina del Rey, California. Often, this minor meeting turns into a setting for major decisions that were tabled during the March meeting.
July 15: This is the final day for a franchise- or transition-tagged player to sign a multiyear contract. After this point, such players can only play under a one-year contract and can’t return to the negotiating table until after the season.
Aug. 6: The annual Hall of Fame game will be held in Canton, Ohio, with participants to be announced later this offseason.
10 big offseason priorities
1. Reimagine diverse hiring practices
In past years, the NFL has looked for ways of tweaking or expanding the Rooney Rule to address stagnation in diverse hiring for key positions. Those changes haven’t broken up the plateau, however. At the moment, the NFL has two minority general managers and four minority head coaches. The Fritz Pollard Alliance is advocating for further changes to the rule, including a requirement to interview multiple minority candidates for each position as well as expanding the rule to coordinator positions. Meetings are already scheduled to discuss possible changes, according to commissioner Roger Goodell.
At least some decision-makers wonder whether it’s time to change the overall template in hiring practices. Perhaps the biggest question the league must consider: Should (and could) owners be held accountable for outcomes rather than just the process? The current system provides no antidote to token or otherwise insincere interviews.
2. Decide the future of pass interference replay
The NFL rule allowing replay review of pass interference was passed last year on a one-year trial basis. That means owners must decide this spring, with help from the competition committee, whether to renew it, tweak it or allow it to expire. There are powerful league voices on all sides of the argument. Everyone agrees that the implementation was rocky and frustrating, but was that because the concept is unsustainable? Was it just executed poorly? Or is a sky judge the better option?
Regardless, pro sports is moving largely toward more — not less — technology-assisted officiating. The NFL tested software last fall that would allow it to ingest replays directly from television trucks, rather than the broadcast, to ensure all angles are instantly available. In other words, a fight to eliminate replay review of pass interference would be fierce.
3. Brace for CBA chaos
Negotiations between the NFL and NFLPA on a new CBA have come down to a final question: Will the majority of players accept a 17-game regular season, starting as early as 2021? If so, ESPN reporting suggests an agreement could come in time for the start of the new league year in March. That would allow the NFL to begin moving forward on plans for not only a longer regular season, but also an expanded playoff bracket and a shorter preseason.
The league would use the CBA’s cost certainty to begin negotiating new television and streaming deals. But if enough players object to the 17-game format, or don’t think they are getting enough in return for it, either the sides will return to the negotiating table or talk of a future work stoppage will intensify.
4. Overhaul the officiating department
NFL executives promised a full postseason review of officiating at every level, but the process actually began months ago. Longtime referee Walt Anderson is expected to be announced as the league’s first vice president for training and recruitment, a position created in the new CBA between the NFL and NFL Referees Association. The league has posted an officiating coordinator job as well.
Current senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron is expected to have a job if he wants it, but there will likely be additional management alongside and above him. Some in the league haven’t given up on the idea of luring back former officiating chief Dean Blandino, now a Fox Sports analyst and an independent contractor to the XFL. NFL chief football administrative officer Dawn Aponte also has taken on more of a supervisory role of the officiating department.
Meanwhile, a handful of veteran officials have accepted an enhanced severance offer and will retire. The league also has the option to renew the full-time program it suspended last summer. The department will look much different — and probably bigger — when officials begin preparing in May for the 2020 season.
5. Monitor the XFL
The XFL’s first game is Saturday, but it already has had a small competitive impact on the NFL. In some cases last fall, the XFL’s presence kept players off NFL rosters. At least three free-agent quarterbacks — Landry Jones, Josh Johnson and Phillip Walker — could not accept NFL offers to provide in-season depth because they already had binding XFL contracts. The XFL doesn’t view itself as an NFL competitor, but it also didn’t want to loan out its quarterbacks during its own minicamp and training camp.
Mostly, the NFL will be watching the XFL to judge the impact of about 15 rule changes from conventional football. Most notable will be revamped kickoffs and punts, three post-touchdown options and a soccer-style overtime format that guarantees equal possession to both teams.
6. Navigate the Patriots investigation
The NFL has spent two months investigating why a photographer sent by the New England Patriots shot video of the Cincinnati Bengals‘ sideline from the Paul Brown Stadium press box in Week 14. The Patriots contend the video was part of a digital feature on an advance scout. In a worst-case scenario, the “feature” was a cover story to circumvent NFL rules and glean sideline information about an upcoming opponent. The level of discipline here will depend on the NFL’s assessment of the Patriots’ motives, a task complicated by a long history of questionable investigations as well as the Patriots’ own history with NFL rules.
Commissioner Roger Goodell said last week that the league “has a responsibility to be thorough” and “to make sure that something that we don’t know happened didn’t happen.” That’s all true. But the league’s track record in similar situations should provide pause for everyone, even though this is widely believed to be a relatively innocuous offense.
7. Reintegrate Myles Garrett
The Cleveland Browns‘ defensive end is serving the harshest discipline for a single on-field act in NFL history, an indefinite suspension that thus far cost him six games. Garrett undoubtedly deserved it after snatching Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph’s helmet at the end of a Week 11 game and hitting him on the head with it. It was a singularly violent act, and his path back to the field is more complicated than most league suspensions. He’ll first need to meet with Goodell and accept that the league is using this incident to make a clear distinction between aggressive play and violence.
Dan Orlovsky, Victor Cruz and Jack Del Rio all foresee huge quarterback turnover this NFL offseason, with so many having uncertain futures.
8. Find homes for quarterbacks on the market
A highly unusual number of capable quarterbacks are eligible to change teams (or retire) this offseason, creating the possibility — however remote — for a wildly different competitive landscape in 2020. The list of pending unrestricted free agents includes Brady, Brees, Rivers, Prescott, Tannehill, Winston, Marcus Mariota and Teddy Bridgewater. Taysom Hill is a restricted free agent. Andy Dalton and Cam Newton could also be on the move. Most of the players on this list are expected to return to their current teams, either through new deals or via franchise tags, but the sheer number of expiring contracts at the position will spark some fascinating conversations if nothing else.
9. Help Antonio Brown … and others
Even as his investigators try to get to the bottom of domestic violence accusations, Goodell sounded a conciliatory tone toward Brown last week. The league’s wellness resources would be made available, Goodell said, even though Brown is not on a roster. “We want to help get him on the right track,” Goodell said. Brown’s erratic behavior recently prompted a South Florida judge to demand he undergo a mental health evaluation.
Any return to the playing field would still be subject to discipline, but Goodell’s olive branch will serve as a public reminder that the league is beginning to recognize the complexities of mental health. If a single player or other league employee seeks help as a result — through the NFL, NFL Players Association or elsewhere — the NFL could derive some positive impact from a scary episode.
Dan Graziano says the NFL expects plenty of touchdowns in the Pro Bowl, which gives them a chance to test out their new alternatives for kickoffs.
10. Address the onside kick
The NFL’s decision to experiment with an onside kick alternative in the Pro Bowl suggests it is focused on ways to address the drop in conversion rates since the 2018 kickoff rule changes. The historic recovery rate of about 21% through 2017 dropped to 7.7% in 2018 and 12.9% in 2019. Owners rejected a proposal last year to give teams a fourth-and-15 play at their own 35-yard line following a late touchdown; the Pro Bowl experiment was from the 25-yard line.
New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton, a member of the competition committee, has suggested relaxing the 2018 rules during the final two minutes of the game to boost conversion rates. Weekly NFL drama is built in part by the hope that a team down two scores late in the fourth quarter can still win via an onside kick recovery, and permanently low recovery rates could alter that perception.