Off-season report cards: Grading the NFC
- SI writers analyze (and criticize) the off-season moves of all 16 NFC teams. Who gets a passing grade?
The aftershocks of free agency and the draft have subsided around the NFL—now teams have all summer to examine the strengths and weaknesses up and down their rosters. To recap all the biggest moves and get an early sense of who improved the most since the lights went out on Super Bowl LI, we filled out report cards for every NFC team in order to reset the landscape ahead of training camp.
Call these progress reports instead of report cards, if you must—after all, teams have two months to adjust their rosters before the long lead-up to Week 1 reveals how players on the move around the league are settling into their new homes. Still, it’s hard to imagine many unsigned veterans can drastically change a team’s 2017 outlook.
Below, SI/MMQB writers Emily Kaplan, Jonathan Jones, Chris Burke and Andy Benoit analyze (and criticize) the off-season moves of all 16 NFC teams. The report cards are listed in order of ascending grade.
Off-season report card: Dallas Cowboys
2016: 13–3, First in NFC North. Lost in Divisional Round.
Significant Additions: G Jonathan Cooper (FA), CB Nolan Carroll (FA), S Robert Blanton (FA), DE Taco Charlton (R1), Chidobe Awuzie (R2), CB Jourdan Lewis (R3), S Xavier Woods (R6), CB Marquez White (R6)
Significant Losses: T Doug Free, G Ronald Leary, CB Brandon Carr, CB Morris Claiborne, S J.J. Wilcox
The Cowboys lost a starter from what is easily the NFL’s best offensive line when right tackle Doug Free retired. But remarkably, the line might be improved. Free’s spot will be filled by La’el Collins, the talented third-year pro who missed 13 games last season with a toe injury. Collins brings tremendous athleticism as a run-blocker. He’d been at left guard with Ronald Leary, who defected to Denver. And so the Cowboys will be the latest team to try Jonathan Cooper here. The oft-injured 2013 first-round pick has had failed stints with the Cardinals, Browns and Patriots.
On the glass half full side: Cooper has never been flanked by talent like left tackle Tyron Smith and center Travis Frederick. In a zone scheme such as Dallas’s, playing in a group of quality linemen can elevate a player. (See Cooper’s predecessor, Leary, for example.) If Cooper flames out, his career will almost surely end, and the Cowboys will make due with Joe Looney or Byron Bell, two fringe players signed over from Tennessee in 2016 and ’17 respectively.
No other work was needed on the Cowboys’ offense. The defense, of course, was a different story. Entering the draft, Jerry Jones and the front office had to restock a secondary that had lost three starters in free agency: corner Brandon Carr to the Ravens, corner Morris Claiborne to the Jets and safety J.J. Wilcox to the Bucs. To fill these voids, the Cowboys, after signing improved-but-not-spectacular Eagles corner Nolan Carroll in free agency, drafted corners Chidobe Awuzie (Colorado) in the second round, Jourdan Lewis (Michigan) in the third and Marquez White (Florida State) in the sixth. They also got safety Xavier Woods in round five. He’ll compete with incumbent Jeff Heath and journeyman backup Robert Blanton (signed over from Buffalo).
The beauty of this secondary is that its three best players are versatile. Third-year pro Byron Jones might be the only defensive back in football who can truly play anywhere. He has the range to operate in centerfield, he’s a good enough tackler to venture into the box, he’s strong enough to press receivers on the outside, and he possesses the twitchy quickness to battle in the slot. Jones can answer a lot of problems.
In addition to him, top corners Orlando Scandrick and Anthony Brown (a tremendously underappreciated sixth-round pick last year) can play inside or outside. With Jones, Scandrick and Brown all capable of filling so many different roles, the Cowboys can tailor their game plans to opponents while also making that game plan more user-friendly for the rookies. With three guys who can do so many things, no rookie DB will have to do something he’s not comfortable doing.
The reason the Cowboys didn’t address their secondary in the draft’s first round is that they badly needed pass-rushing help. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli doesn’t like to blitz. Instead he favors four-man D-line rush tactics like stunts, twists and grouped slants. Part of the reason he does this is he has a lot of mediocre front-four players who can’t consistently win on their own and need aid from the scheme. Marinelli will still have to lean on these tactics in 2017, but the hope is that with No. 28 overall pick Taco Charlton aboard, it won’t be quite as heavily. A lot is riding on Charlton. With Demarcus Lawrence battling back problems in recent years and David Irving being only a part-time player, the Cowboys really don’t have another pass rusher who can bend the edge snap after snap.
Off-season report card: Arizona Cardinals
2016: 7-8-1, second place in NFC West.
Significant additions: S Antoine Bethea, LB Karlos Dansby, K Phil Dawson, QB Blaine Gabbert, OLB Jarvis Jones, LB Haason Reddick (R1), S Budda Baker (R2), WR Chad Williams (R3), G Dorian Johnson (R4)
Significant losses: DE Calais Campbell, TE Darren Fells, S Tony Jefferson, LB Kevin Minter, OLB Alex Okafor, S D.J. Swearinger, LB Daryl Washington, G Earl Watford
The Cardinals—featuring the ultra-talented RB David Johnson and potential Hall of Fame WR Larry Fitzgerald on Bruce Arians's chance-taking offense, and dynamic playmakers like Deone Bucannon, Tyrann Mathieu and new rookies Budda Baker and Haason Reddick on one of the NFL's more unique defensive rosters—should be one of the NFL's most entertaining teams in 2017. But the big question here—will Arizona be any better than their 2016 selves?
There are reasons to believe they will, not the least of which is their recent, pre-2016 track record—the Cardinals played in the 2015 NFC title game and chalked up a combined 34 victories from 2013 to ’15. Even with WR John Brown scuffling through injury last season and QB Carson Palmer unable to drum up any consistency, the offense ranked in the top 10 in both points and yards.
The front office and coaching staff must trust that the points will come. Aside from swapping OT Jared Veldheer from the left side to the right to accommodate D.J. Humphries, the Cardinals' additions on offense were mostly limited to the draft: Williams, Johnson, Logan and OT Will Holden. All could contribute, but it's possible none plays an expansive role this coming season.
The status quo might be good enough to keep the offense in rhythm. The defense, on the other hand, has undergone some changes.
Where it gets most interesting (read as: exciting or dicey, depending on your personal confidence level) is at defensive end and safety. The Cardinals let longtime D-line stalwart Calais Campbell walk in free agency this off-season, and then decided to look in-house for solutions. When asked at the combine how the Cardinals planned to make up for Campbell's loss, Arians replied, “We hope we've done that in the draft the last two years, with Rodney [Gunter] and Robert [Nkemdiche].”
If it turns out that the Cardinals do improve this season, they will be able to thank their commitment to versatility on defense. That's specifically true at the safety spot, where the Cardinals lost two players to free agency: D.J. Swearinger, who saved his career with his play in Arizona, and the wholly underrated Tony Jefferson. Competing for their spots in the desert will be ex-Colts veteran Antoine Bethea and rookie Budda Baker. They’ll join incumbent star Tyrann Mathieu and others in what could be a deep secondary.
There is a bit of a challenge in how to utilize all of those safety pieces (plus Tyvon Branch and CB convert Harlan Miller).
Mathieu’s role could be the key to unlocking everything else. Currently working his way back off a season-ending shoulder injury, Mathieu initially was expected to transition back to his old spot as a hybrid corner, playing close to the line of scrimmage—he spent significant chunks of last year at free safety. However, Bethea, despite having extensive experience at free safety himself, is more of a strong safety at this point in his career; and Baker tells SI that the Cardinals are prepping him for a nickel safety/slot corner role, too.
“At the end of the day, [Tyrann’s] a safety and he [also] has all the tools to be all the other things” Baker says. “They just wanted to get another one in me, I feel like it’s going to be beneficial, you’re getting a player who can play any position.”
The Cardinals have leaned into this approach of “draft first, figure it out later” as much as any team in the league. They've moved Mathieu all over their secondary, and Bucannon is a safety turned linebacker. This year, Arizona will add in Baker and first-rounder Haason Reddick, who played DE at Temple but projects to be a linebacker in the NFL. They also return OLB Chandler Jones, a pass rusher and then some.
As a result, Arians's team has an enviable ability to dictate matchups on their terms, rather than try to adjust to what an offense throws at it.
“I think it's important to have hybrid players at all levels, whether it is your defensive line, your linebackers or secondary” Cardinals GM Steve Keim said at the combine. “Because when you do things like we do—multiple fronts, multiple coverages—you have that position flexibility where you can play inside, you can play outside. … To have a guy like Tyrann Mathieu who can invert, play in the slot, play in the nickel for you, the more flexibility you have, the more you can do.”
The flexibility, that athleticism may have to be enough. The Cardinals did not aggressively chase any upgrades at cornerback, nor did they nab a legitimate fallback option should Palmer falter (no, Blaine Gabbert does not count). It was an off-season of minor, if intriguing, tweaks for a team that finished below .500 a year ago.
Off-season report card: San Francisco 49ers
2016: 2–14, fourth in NFC West
Significant additions: GM John Lynch, Heach coach Kyle Shanahan, QB Matt Barkley, RB Kapri Bibbs, OLB Brock Coyle, WR Pierre Garcon, OT Garry Gilliam, WR Marquise Goodwin, K Robbie Gould, RB Tim Hightower, QB Brian Hoyer, FB Kyle Juszczyk, DT Earl Mitchell, TE Logan Paulsen, WR Aldrick Robinson, OLB Malcolm Smith, C Jeremy Zuttah, DL Solomon Thomas (R1), LB Reuben Foster (R1), CB Ahkello Witherspoon (R3), QB C.J. Beathard (R3), RB Joe Williams (R4), WR Trent Taylor (R5), TE George Kittle (R5)
Significant losses: S Antoine Bethea, CB Tramaine Brock, K Phil Dawson, RB Shaun Draughn, LB Gerald Hodges, QB Colin Kaepernick, OL Marcus Martin, WR Quinton Patton, WR Torrey Smith
The 49ers have not exactly been a model of stability recenty, so making any long-term assumptions about the organization may be a mistake. Nevertheless, one could assume that rookie GM John Lynch and rookie coach Kyle Shanahan will be afforded a little leeway as they attempt their rebuild of a struggling team.
Two storylines central to that project’s rate of completion are underway: 1) What Lynch has done in an attempt to fix the league’s worst defense; 2) What he does next to address the 49ers’ quarterback position. At of the start of free agency, the 49ers had exactly zero quarterbacks on their roster—Colin Kaepernick opted out of his contract, and Lynch chose not to re-sign Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder or Thad Lewis.
“A lot people look at it like, ‘Oh my gosh. You don’t have any quarterbacks,’” Lynch said at the time. “But that also is somewhat liberating in that you can create this thing in that position, that is so critical, in the way that you want it.”
The immediate path he and Shanahan took: signing Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley out of free agency, then trading up in Round 3 of the draft for Iowa’s C.J. Beathard. The plan as of now is for Hoyer—most experienced of the three with 31 career starts—to handle the No. 1 gig, followed by Barkley and Beathard, in that order, on the depth chart.
That’s an acceptable strategy if Lynch already has his sights set on 2018 quarterback targets, be they Kirk Cousins (who played under Shanahan from ’12–13) or an intriguing crop of potential draft picks. It is less encouraging if the 49ers believe they are in solid shape at QB for the long term. To that end, Shanahan raved to The MMQB’s Peter King about Beathard: “He processes the game so well,” Shanahan said. “Tough as s---. Got a chance. He reminds me a lot of Kirk Cousins.”
A GM can tweak a roster as many times as he’d like, but there is little success to be had without getting things right at the quarterback spot. Hoyer did hold his own as a starter for the Browns during the 2014 season, with Shanahan as his coordinator. He at least offers experience in Shanahan’s system, an element that should ease the transition into 2017. Eventually, though, the 49ers likely are going to need an upgrade at the game’s most important position.
They’re not exactly set throughout the rest of the offensive roster, though, hence Hoyer’s status as an adequate "bridge QB." San Francisco trotted out arguably the NFL’s worst collection of receivers last season, a group that should be better in 2017 thanks to the arrivals of Garcon, Goodwin and Taylor. Shanahan will try to recreate some of the magic he revealed in Atlanta’s attack last year, but he of course does not have Matt Ryan or Julio Jones (among others) at his disposal.
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is facing a similar challenge. He spent three seasons as a Seahawks assistant and then another three under Gus Bradley in Jacksonville, and the 49ers are planning to implement a version of the Bradley-inspired Seattle defense. But Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman aren’t walking through that door.
Which brings us back to point No. 1: Lynch’s moves to repair the defense. A year ago, the 49ers were ghosts when the opposition had the football, allowing a ludicrous 165.9 yards per game on the ground.
So, Lynch spent his first three draft picks on that side of the ball: DL Solomon Thomas, LB Reuben Foster and CB Ahkello Witherspoon. It’s not fair to say the success of Lynch’s tenure hinges on Thomas and Foster—it would be more fair to say the quarterback situation will be the driving force. However, for Saleh and the 49ers to take steps forward on defense, both Thomas and Foster need to be everything they’re promised to be.
Thomas stands to occupy a critical inside-out role along the defensive line, perhaps not all that dissimilar from how Seattle has used Michael Bennett. Foster, meanwhile, could be the fast-flowing anchor of San Francisco’s linebacking corps. If he’s healthy, that is—shoulder surgery has his 2017 status in limbo.
If Thomas and Foster are All-Pro talents, the defense could be formidable in short order. If Foster labors in getting on the field and Thomas’s development plateaus, well ...
The 49ers do appear to have a plan in place, which is more than could be said for the ill-fated Chip Kelly era. The results probably won’t come in 2017—the roster Lynch inherited was a mess. Whether or not the turnaround takes hold in ’18 or ’19 hinges in large part on the Thomas/Foster tandem and what else Lynch has planned at QB.
Off-season report card: New Orleans Saints
2016: 7-9, 3rd in NFC South.
Significant Additions: WR Ted Ginn Jr. (FA), RB Adrian Peterson (FA), G Larry Warford (FA), LB A.J. Klein (FA), LB Manti Te’o (FA), QB Chase Daniel (FA), CB Marshon Lattimore (R1), OT Ryan Ramczyk (R1), S Marcus Williams (R2), RB Alvin Kamara (R3), LB Alex Anzalone (R3), DE Trey Hendrickson (R3)
Significant Losses: WR Brandin Cooks, S Jairus Byrd, OL Tim Lelito, DL John Jenks, RB Tim Hightower
The Saints haven’t made the playoffs for three straight years, and you can sense some urgency to squeeze one more run out of 38-year-old quarterback Drew Brees. New Orleans was very active this off-season and although much attention will be paid to the late addition of Adrian Peterson (more on that later) it’s clear the front office is aware of its biggest hurdle: a leaky defense.
New Orleans’ three biggest area of needs heading into the off-season? The secondary, the pass rush, and depth at linebacker. The Saints first addressed linebacker in free agency. New Orleans recently has relied on a rotating cast of versatile linebackers and 2017 should be no different. Entering the mix is A.J. Klein, the 25-year-old who comes from the division rival Panthers. The Saints paid Klein starter’s money (three years, $15 million) meaning he should be manning the middle. New Orleans also added Manti Te’o at a bit of a bargain (two years, $5 million). Should Te’o’s health hold up — he missed 13 games in his first three seasons because of foot or ankle injuries — the 26-year-old could surprise. And in the draft’s third round, New Orleans added Florida linebacker Alex Anzalone. He, too, faces durability questions, but he has excellent size and athleticism and experience playing in all three linebacker spots.
That Ohio State cornerback Marshon Lattimore was available at No. 11 was a blessing for New Orleans, in desperate need of a lockdown corner. A deal for Malcolm Butler never came to fruition, but that’s fine because Lattimore’s ball skills (four interceptions and nine pass breakups in his lone year as a starter) are elite. In a historically deep year for cornerbacks, Lattimore was the top-rated on most team’s boards. Marcus Williams from Utah is a ball-hawking free safety who, paired with Lattimore, will give the league’s worst ranked pass defense (274 yards allowed per game in 2016) an immediate boost.
Fans will gripe that New Orleans only answered to two of its three defensive needs. The Saints were unsuccessful in finding a pass-rushing talent to relieve some pressure from Cam Jordan. UCLA’s Takkarist McKinley would have been a great fit, but the division-rival Falcons swooped ahead to draft him. With New Orleans’ top pass-rushing targets (Taco Charlton, Charles Harris and McKinley) gone at No. 32, the Saints used the pick they got from trading Brandin Cooks for future offensive line assurance in Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramczyk. Adding who many considered to be the draft’s top offensive tackle isn’t a bad choice, but it’s fair to wonder if not addressing the pass-rush will ultimately doom this team.
The loss of Cooks shouldn’t be too much of a blow for Brees. Free agent addition Ted Ginn Jr. is a lesser version of Cooks, but Brees will likely pay more attention to emerging star Michael Thomas and Willie Snead. (Don’t totally sleep on undrafted free agent Travin Dural of LSU, although his immediate impact might be on special teams). And of course, there is Peterson. The 32-year-old is thirsty for redemption and might just find it in a downhill run game reminiscent of what he was used to in Minnesota. Third-round draft choice Alvin Kamara may seem like a luxury pick (especially with Mark Ingram coming off a 1,000 yard season) but like the Ramczyk selection, the Saints are preparing for life beyond 2017 as well.
Off-season report card: Philadelphia Eagles
Last Year: 7–9, fourth in NFC East
Significant Additions: WR Alshon Jeffery (FA), RB LeGarrette Blount (FA), WR Torrey Smith (FA), DE Chris Long (FA), DT Timmy Jernigan (FA), DE Derek Barnett (R1), CB Sidney Jones (R2), CB Rasul Douglas (R3), RB Donnel Pumphrey (R4), WR Mack Hollins (R4), WR Shelton Gibson (R5)
Significant Departures: DE Connor Barwin, NT Bennie Logan, CB Nolan Carroll, CB Leodis McKelvin
Perhaps the biggest name in free agency this year was Alshon Jeffery. The Eagles got him with a one-year, $9.5 million deal. Worst-case scenario: The long, strong-handed ex-Bear incurs more of the injuries and failed PED tests that hurt him in Chicago. Best-case scenario: He fixes a shoddy receiving corps that neutered Doug Pederson’s offense in 2016. The Eagles needed to do something here. Their wide receivers were so slow and undependable last season that Pederson often chose to operate out of two-tight-end sets in obvious passing situations. That’s unheard of in today’s NFL, where three-receiver sets are the norm.
Not only is Jeffery a receiver you never take off the field, he’s also one who can draw extra safety help. That will clarify the coverage reads for the team’s budding star quarterback. Carson Wentz was already stellar at identifying coverage, and with 16 games now under his belt, his classroom football IQ should translate more to the field. This will eventually lead to a more vertical passing game. Last season, to keep things manageable for their rookie QB, Pederson and his staff encouraged Wentz to get the ball out quickly. A guaranteed seven-yard completion was almost always preferable even to a very likely 20-yard completion. But make no mistake: Wentz has the arm, toughness and field vision to make those 20-yarders. He’s similar to Andrew Luck in his ability to extend plays. Jeffery makes it easier for Wentz to choose these spots.
In case there was any doubt about the futility of this receiving corps, the Eagles added three other players to it: veteran Torrey Smith (signed over from San Francisco), fourth-round pick Mack Hollins and fifth-rounder Shelton Gibson. Most likely, the only receiver from last year who will remain a regular contributor is possession slot man Jordan Matthews.
Of these three newcomers, Smith will get the best crack at playing time. It’ll be interesting to see how he fits Pederson’s offense. Smith is a stiff, limited route-runner, which can be especially problematic in a system built on the timing and spacing of route combinations. However, he still has straight-line speed that defenses must honor. How much will Pederson build around that? Even if Smith isn’t getting the ball, such speed can be used to impact safeties, which frees up other targets.
The rest of Philly’s offense is relatively unchanged. Running back LeGarrette Blount is a familiar name, but with fourth-round pick Donnel Pumphrey coming aboard, and incumbents Ryan Mathews, Darren Sproles and Wendell Smallwood being more diverse players, it’ll be tough to find him snaps. Up front, the Eagles did not address left tackle, with this year’s free agent and draft classes being so weak at that position. Instead they’ll stick with Jason Peters. His 35 years of age now show, but the belief is he can grind for one more year.
On defense, the personnel has been shuffled, starting up front. Sturdy veteran Connor Barwin was released. In his stead is Chris Long, another sturdy veteran who can set the edge against the run, and first-round pick Derek Barnett, who figures to at first be a pass-rushing specialist behind Long.
At nosetackle, Bennie Logan signed with Kansas City; in his spot (sort of) is ex-Raven Timmy Jernigan. We say “sort of” because Logan was a gap-clogger who could dominate with strong east/west movement. Jernigan is more of a north/south gap-shooter. His best position is three-technique (i.e. between the guard and tackle). He and Fletcher Cox can each line up at a three-tech spot on third downs, but on first and second down, one of those two will have to align tighter inside, between the guard and center (i.e. at “nose shade”). Cox might be the best all-around three-tech in football; the guess here is Jernigan will play the nose. But can he?
Changes abound in the secondary, too. Starting corners Nolan Carroll and Leodis McKelvin were allowed to walk in free agency. (Both could be effective at times, but neither was effective all the time. McKelvin could be especially up and down.) Journeyman Patrick Robinson was signed in free agency, but the real additions were second-round pick Sidney Jones and third-round pick Rasul Douglas. They’ll be counted on to start in nickel in 2018. For Douglas, it could even be sooner. For Jones, it will be whenever his torn Achilles is healed.
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz believes in straightforward, fundamentally sound football. That is to say, he doesn’t riddle his scheme in complexities. Theoretically, this should make it easier for newcomers to contribute right away.
Off-season report card: Washington Redskins
Last Year: 8-7-1, third in NFC East
Significant Additions: WR Terrelle Pryor (FA), LB Stacy McGee (FA), LB Terrell McClain (FA), S D.J. Swearinger (FA), DL Jonathan Allen (R1), DE Ryan Anderson (R2), CB Fabian Moreau (R3), RB Samaje Perine (R4)
Significant Departures: GM Scot McCloughan, DC Joe Barry, WR DeSean Jackson, WR Pierre Garçon
Things are still messy, but at least Washington got QB Kirk Cousins back for at least another year. Cousins’s experience in Jay Gruden’s offense is important. This year, that offense will be getting the ball to a pair of new receivers: ex-Brown Terrelle Pryor and last year’s first-rounder Josh Doctson, who has played only 31 NFL snaps because of injury. Collectively, Pryor and Doctson might be an upgrade in talent over predecessors DeSean Jackson (now a Buc) and Pierre Garçon (now a Niner), but in Gruden’s scheme, diversity at wide receiver is important. With so many of its route designs intertwined, it’s imperative to have someone who can lift the coverage deep (that was Jackson) and threaten it inside (that was Garçon). Pryor drastically improved his route-running last season in Cleveland; it’s vital he continue on that trajectory. What Doctson can do remains to be seen.
Most likely, Washington will have to rely on getting better balance from its ground game. Rob Kelley is now The Guy. Samaje Perine was drafted in the fourth round as a rotational piece; it won’t be long before he formally captures Matt Jones’s roster spot.
Defense is where this team needed the most help. Gruden fired coordinator and friend Joe Barry and replaced him in-house with linebackers coach Greg Manusky. When Manusky coordinated the Colts defense (2012–15) he ran a diverse, pressure-heavy scheme. But that was likely a function of head coach Chuck Pagano’s desires. In Washington, expect Manusky to take more of the straight coverage-based approach that Barry took. Under Barry, it was a lot of zone coverage early in the season, with increased doses of man-to-man down the stretch.
If you’re a straight coverage-based defense, you need dynamic pass rushers. Defensive backs can’t be expected to hold their coverage for more than 3.0 seconds (and 2.5 seconds if it’s a Cover 2-type zone coverage). Washington knows this. And so it was no surprise when they drafted Alabama’s Jonathan Allen in the first round and Ryan Anderson in the second. Mock drafts had Allen listed as a defensive end, but he’ll almost certainly play tackle in nickel, which is the defensive package of choice over 60 percent of the time. The selection of Anderson, a purer edge guy who weighs about 30 pounds less than Allen, only verifies this. He’ll play opposite Ryan Kerrigan. Remember, Junior Galette was originally supposed to fill this role, but he’s missed the last two years with Achilles injuries. Anything he provides this season will be bonus.
The rookies aren’t the only newcomers up front. Underrated ex-Raider Stacy McGee has a good mix of brute strength and agility, particularly in his upper-body movement. He’ll help on first and second downs. So will Ex-Cowboy Terrell McClain, another big guy who moves better than you’d guess.
These new front-seven acquisitions present more freedom for how the team can use 2014 second-round pick Trent Murphy and ’15 second-rounder Preston Smith. Murphy, who is suspended for the first quarter of this season, has toggled at different positions up front. Smith has been a little steadier, playing mostly outside. However, he doesn’t quite have the mix of explosiveness and elasticity to be a true edge-bender. (If he did, Washington would not have drafted Anderson.) Smith’s best role—and Murphy’s, too, for that matter—is as a hybrid joker on passing downs. Have him rove around the formation.
It’ll be interesting to see if either can play strong-side linebacker in a base 4–3. Both have the bodies for it. The question will be coverage. Whoever is at strong-side linebacker will play alongside Bills free agent Zach Brown, a gifted chaser but up-and-down field-reader.
Washington’s defense has more personnel options up front, and also in the secondary. That doesn’t mean there are great options, though. The third-round selection of Fabian Moreau presents even more depth at cornerback; the team will be fine there. The question is at safety. There are a bunch of strong safeties on the roster but no reliable free safeties. The hope is that D.J. Swearinger, signed from Arizona, can fill the role. He hasn’t always been the most disciplined, but to his credit, he matured tremendously with the Cardinals, and their staff felt he would have been an adequate centerfielder. Still, Swearinger is at his best in the box. Those duties, however, will likely be handled by last year’s second-rounder, Su’a Cravens. Behind Swearinger, there are more options, but none that are great. DeAngelo Hall, 33 and coming off his third major injury in as many years (this time an ACL), can’t be counted on. Will Blackmon, a converted corner, was up-and-down at safety last year. Montae Nicholson, the fourth-round rookie, will get a look.
Off-season report card: Seattle Seahawks
2016: 10-5-1, first in NFC West, lost in divisional round
Significant additions: OT Oday Aboushi, DE David Bass, LB Arthur Brown, RB Mike Davis, OL Luke Joeckel DE Dion Jordan, RB Eddie Lacy, S Bradley McDougald, K Blair Walsh, DT Malik McDowell (R2), C Ethan Pocic (R2), CB Shaq Griffin (R3), S Delano Hill (R3), DT Nazair Jones (R3), WR Amara Darboh (R3), S Tedric Thompson (R4),
Significant losses: OLB Brock Coyle, OT Garry Gilliam, K Steven Hauschka, DT John Jenkins, TE Brandon Williams
From 2012–15 the Seahawks rushing attack ranked as follows, in terms of yards: third, fourth, first, third.
Last season: 25th.
QB Russell Wilson’s injury woes (ankle, knee, pectoral) played heavy in the tumbling production. So, too, did the seemingly ever in-flux offensive line (more on that group in a moment). Above all, though, the Seahawks just flat out missed Marshawn Lynch.
Or rather, missed the “Beast Mode” version of Lynch that tore apart defenses during the 2014 season. Lynch wasn’t anywhere close to the same during an injury-plagued 2015, and he “retired” ahead of 2016, leaving the Seahawks to pick up the pieces. His expected replacement, Thomas Rawls, then missed seven games last season himself to a fractured fibula.
Without their bruising run game, the Seahawks lacked any tangible identity of offense. A priority for GM John Schneider this off-season, then, was to find a big back capable of wearing down opposing defenses.
Eddie Lacy, welcome aboard.
“We want to work really hard about regaining the mentality about running the football,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said on ESPN710’s The John Clayton Show, shortly after Lacy signed. “That’s something that’s really important to us. We knew that we lost that edge last year when Russell [Wilson] was hurt and when Thomas [Rawls] was hurt.”
Is Lacy the right guy to bring it back? The answer all depends on which version of Lacy the Seahawks will get.
When the 2013 second-round pick has been in shape and motivated, he has been among the NFL’s toughest backs to tackle—according to Pro Football Focus, only Lynch, DeMarco Murray and LeSean McCoy broke more tackles between 2013 and ’16. But his effectiveness, like his weight, has waxed and waned during his four-season NFL career. After shedding pounds last off-season, Lacy played just five games (and scored zero touchdowns, despite 5.1 yards per carry) before landing an ankle injury planted him on I.R. He also has not had a 25-carry game since 2014.
As for the weight, Lacy just claimed a bonus for checking in below the 255-pound mark, and Carroll said upon Lacy’s signing that he wants his back in the 240s.
The truth is that Lacy is not so much a Lynch successor as another dart for the Seahawks to toss as they dream of a reinvigorated run game.
“I’ve been asked that for 15 years, if it’s better to have two running backs or one,” said Carroll at February’s combine. “I’ve always thought that it’s really valuable when you can have two or three guys that you can work in. ... If there’s a guy that’s so dominant that nobody else deserves the playing time, then you’ve got a great one.”
Keeping Wilson healthy would provide a natural boost to the entire offense. He averaged better than 600 yards rushing over his first four seasons but was limited by his injuries to 259 yards and a career-low 72 attempts a year ago.
Then there’s the offensive line. An annual rite of off-season passage has been to discuss Seattle’s moves (or lack thereof) up front. It’s rather stunning that this continues to be such a bugaboo for the Seahawks, year in and year out. This time around, the Seahawks acquired Luke Joeckel and Oday Aboushi via free agency and drafted versatile LSU product Ethan Pocic. Joeckel figures to be in the starting lineup for Week 1, either at guard or tackle, and Pocic could join him at a to-be-determined spot.
The line, on paper, still does not stand to be anywhere near dominant, but Pocic’s arrival alone is reason for optimism. The Seahawks at least have better O-line depth than they did.
That’s also true in the secondary, another area ravaged by injuries a year ago, namely to safety Earl Thomas. As a safeguard—and to start planning for the future—GM John Schneider drafted Hill, Griffin, Thompson and DB Mike Tyson. The reinforcements along the D-line include second-rounder Malik McDowell and third-rounder Nazair Jones.
Provided Sherman isn’t dealt, the defense should be formidable, as always. The offense will go as the run game does, and the run game really could use the Lacy of old.
Off-season report card: Carolina Panthers
2016: 6-10, 4th in NFC South.
Significant Additions: LB Julius Peppers (FA), RB Christian McCaffrey (R1), WR Curtis Samuel (R2), OL Taylor Moton (R2), DE Daeshon Hall (R3), CB Corn Elder (R5)
Significant Losses:Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, Asst. GM Brandon Beane, S Tre Boston, WR Ted Ginn Jr., WR Philly Brown
The 2017 season is all about getting Cam Newton back on track. Over the past three years, Newton’s medical history includes ankle surgery, shoulder surgery, a fractured back, cracked ribs, and a concussion. It all seemed to catch up to the Panthers in 2016.
After an MVP season in 2015, in which Newton led Carolina to an NFC championship with a career-high 15 wins, the quarterback’s sputtering 2016 was a major league storyline. Newton’s 90 carries and 359 rushing yards were his lowest totals since entering the league in 2011 and his completion percentage (52.9) was almost seven points lower than his 2015 mark. Newton was sacked 36 times and underwent surgery on his throwing shoulder in March. Newton suffered the partial tear in his rotator cuff in Week 14, and says he played through it to demonstrate leadership.
Panthers GM Dave Gettleman didn’t act as drastically as he did last offseason—read: no Josh Norman-esque drama—but he was active in making life easier for Newton post-surgery, and allowing the offense to evolve. In using its first-round selection on Christian McCaffrey, Carolina not only picked up a running back, but a do-it-all weapon so that Newton doesn’t feel he has to make all plays by himself. At Stanford, McCaffrey easily surpassed Barry Sanders’ longstanding record for single-season all-purpose yards (McCaffrey totaled 3,864, compared to Sanders’ 3,250). Expect McCaffrey to line up in the backfield, in the slot or out wide, take traditional handoffs between tackles, or handoffs around the edge and return punts or kicks.
Versatility and speed were major points of emphasis on offense, especially after Carolina let its fastest player, wideout Ted Ginn Jr., walk in free agency—to the division rival Saints, nonetheless. The Panthers used a second-round pick on Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel who, like McCaffrey, has the potential to line up all over the offense (and his speed is no joke: a 4.31 in the 40 at the combine). Both players are explosive, with tremendous yard after catch potential, which figures to add a few more wrinkles to offensive coordinator Mike Shula’s game plan. More importantly, it can give Newton more high-percentage throw opportunities. Newton completed only 44 passes to his backs last year. That's something Shula noted in his conversation with The MMQB’s Peter King after the draft. As Shula told King: “In the Super Bowl, how many passes do you think Tom Brady threw to his backs? Mostly completed, right? So maybe, sometimes, it turns into just a 4-yard gain. But I'll take a 4-yard gain. ... They're glorified runs sometimes, but they work and it doesn't matter what you call them.”
Newton has never had a season where he was sacked less than 33 times. In an effort to limit, the Panthers might lessen the design QB runs in their offense. They also worked on beefing up the offensive line with another second-round pick, Western Michigan offensive lineman Taylor Moton. The 6-foot-5, 319-pound lineman can play right tackle or guard, but his physical and athletic traits should benefit Newton in 2017 and beyond.
The Panthers didn’t tinker a ton on defense this offseason, but the moves they made sure are interesting. Carolina has arguably the top linebacking corps in football, but added two pass-rushers who could help generate more pressure. In free agency, the Panthers added 37-year-old Julius Peppers. It’s more than just a trip down memory lane; Peppers tallied 7.5 sacks for the Packers last year while playing less than 60 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. Carolina also traded up in the third round for Texas A&M’s Daeshon Hall, who may need some development. He’s still learning the nuances of defensive end after beginning his career as a linebacker, but has tremendous potential in getting after quarterbacks.
Off-season report card: Minnesota Vikings
2016: 8-8, 3rd in NFC North.
Significant Additions: RB Latavius Murray (FA), RB Dalvin Cook (R2), RT Mike Remmers (FA), WR Michael Floyd (FA), QB Case Keenum (FA), DE Datone Jones (FA), T Riley Reiff (FA)
Significant Losses: RB Adrian Peterson, CB Captain Munnerlyn, LT Matt Kalil, WR Cordarrelle Paterson, T Andre Smith, WR Charles Johnson
There was always a hope when it came to Adrian Peterson in Minnesota.
When he tore his ACL and MCL at the end of 2011, there was a hope that he would regenerate and return to form. (He did.) In 2014 when he was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list for child abuse charges, the hope was that he’d return late in the season and rescue the Vikings. (He didn’t.) Even last year, at age 31, he tore the meniscus in his right knee and had surgery immediately with the thought that he could come back and lead a big December push to get the Vikings into the playoffs. (He didn’t do that, either.)
There is no more hope for Peterson in Minnesota after the Vikings didn’t exercise his option and he signed with New Orleans in April. The long-time cornerstone of the franchise and the greatest running back of the past decade is gone, but his position should be just as important to the Vikings as it has been in recent years.
Minnesota loaded up at running back after Peterson’s departure. The Vikings kept Jerick McKinnon, who led the team in rushing in 2016 with 539 yards, and they added Latavius Murray in free agency and Dalvin Cook in the draft.
The biggest question facing the Vikings is when will Teddy Bridgewater return to full health, if ever, after that devastating knee injury last preseason. That question likely was answered when the Vikings didn’t pick up his fifth-year option; Sam Bradford will be the starter to begin the season, and possibly throughout the year. So the next biggest question is who is the starting running back between Murray and Cook.
“We’ve got a long, long way to go before we make any determinations on that,” Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer told reporters recently.
McKinnon was forced into the starting role last season, but there’s no mistake that the job will go to either Murray or Cook. The Vikings signed Murray to a three-year deal—which they can escape after one season—after Oakland let him walk in free agency. Murray had more than 1,800 rushing yards in the past two seasons along with 18 rushing touchdowns while being one of the best pass-blocking backs in the game.
But Murray had ankle surgery less than a week after signing with the team and will miss all of the on-field work leading up to training camp. That opens the door for the rookie Cook to establish himself before the Vikings head to Mankato in late July.
Cook was a consistently great runner at Florida State where he made home-run plays with his shiftiness. His off-field concerns in the pre-draft process shouldn’t affect his on-field play, but his previous injuries and lack of athleticism could. Cook has dealt with shoulder and hamstring injuries since college, and he performed poorly in the athletic testing at the combine. For those reasons, the third-best running back in the draft had to wait until the second day to be selected.
But Minnesota didn’t want to wait too long on Cook. Sitting at No. 48, the Vikings traded with the Bengals to move to No. 41 and get Cook.
The hope is that with two quality running backs, Minnesota’s offensive line will look better than it did last year. Marred by injuries, the Vikings’ line doomed them after a 5-0 start. In turn, Bradford regressed and Minnesota had just two 100-yard rushing games all season long.
General manager Rick Spielman got two run-blocking tackles in Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers in the offseason—a sign that the Vikings, with no star power at wideout, will maintain their run-heavy ways.
Peterson is gone, and it’s probable that no one will ever wear No. 28 for Minnesota again. But if the goal is to get 1,500 rushing yards from your top back, that can be achieved by combining Murray and Cook in the backfield in 2017.
Off-season report card: Atlanta Falcons
2016: 11-5, 1st in NFC South. Lost in Super Bowl.
Significant Additions: Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, DT Dontari Poe (FA), DE Jack Crawford (FA), DE Takkarist McKinley (R1), LB Duke Riley (R3)
Significant Losses: Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, DE Dwight Freeney, FB Patrick DiMarco
Let’s not harp on the blown Super Bowl lead, and instead remember that the Falcons were an exceptionally good football team in 2016, especially on offense. Atlanta scored 540 points in the regular season—seventh most in league history—as Matt Ryan found his stride, and Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman emerged as the NFL’s fiercest running back tandem. The good news: Atlanta brings back almost nearly every major player from that offense. (While fullback Patrick DiMarco, who signed a four-year, $8.5 million deal in Buffalo, was popular among fans, the truth is he only played in 31 percent of Atlanta’s snaps last season.) This offseason, it’s clear GM Thomas Dimitroff didn’t want to tinker too much with a good thing; he even re-upped backup QB Matt Schaub for two more years. An extension for Freeman, who is in the final year of his rookie deal, could be on the way.
However the Falcons do lose the man most credit with orchestrating the offense: coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who became the 49ers head coach. How much of the success can be attributed to the play-caller and how much in the talent he’s surrounded by? That’s not so easy to parse. Atlanta does have an intriguing replacement in Steve Sarkisian, the former Washington and USC coach who spent last year on Alabama’s staff. Sarkisian is known in college football circles as an innovative mind, and already Falcons players have noted the coach has added a few new wrinkles to Atlanta’s playbook. For now, more details are scarce.
The Falcons did get some help on defense. Atlanta actually ranked 27th in the league in points allowed (25.4 per game). The Falcons should immediately improve with the return of top cornerback Desmond Trufant, who suffered a season-ending pectoral injury in Week 9. Dimitroff has a ton of faith in Trufant and showed it with a five-year contract extension this spring—his $41.5 million guaranteed trails only Joe Haden, Josh Norman and Patrick Peterson.
But more pressing for the Falcons is the front seven. Gone is 37-year-old Dwight Freeney, who had an important role and played very well in the Super Bowl. Dontari Poe, signed on a one-year deal, feels like a quick fix for that. But Atlanta really needs a long-term solution alongside Vic Beasley, so it was important for the Falcons to draft an edge rusher. Quinn is going to take a larger role on defense, and his preference has always been in subbing many players through the front seven. That’s why Atlanta traded up to snag UCLA’s Takkarist McKinley in the first round. McKinley is a highly emotional player (look no further than draft night) who melds perfectly into Quinn’s “brotherhood.” But just as important: McKinley is an ascending talent with tremendous upside as a pass-rusher. In the fall, a scout told me he thought McKinley could be the next DeMarcus Ware.
Overall, it seemed Dimitroff didn’t push the panic button after the Super Bowl collapse. He barely touched the offense and made enough tweaks on defense to hope his players can repeat what they did in 2016, with a better finish.
Off-season report card: Chicago Bears
2016: 3-13, 4th in NFC North.
Significant Additions: QB Mike Glennon (FA), QB Mitchell Trubisky (R1), CB Prince Amukamara (FA), WR Markus Wheaton (FA), TE Dion Sims (FA), WR Kendall Wright (FA), S Quintin Demps (FA)
Significant Losses: WR Alshon Jeffery, QB Jay Cutler, DB Tracy Porter, WR Eddie Royal, QB Brian Hoyer, DL Cornelius Washington
From the moment the details of Mike Glennon’s contract with the Bears were released, it became clear that he was the starting quarterback of the moment and not of the future.
At first there were audible gasps across the NFL at the three-year, $45 million deal for the guy who has been a backup the past two years. But in reality, that three-year deal could easily be a one-year, $18.5 million deal that allows the Bears to have a serviceable quarterback for a season at the market rate before cutting bait in 2018.
So in April when the Bears traded up one spot for Mitchell Trubisky, it was evident that Trubisky was the starting quarterback of the future. A top pick may not start the first game of his rookie season (hello, Jared Goff), but he has to be the guy no later than the start of Year 2.
The greatest concern facing the Bears going into the off-season—and there were many—was clearly how the Bears would move on from Jay Cutler. They were active in free agency to get one of the best available quarterbacks in Glennon and were aggressive on draft night to get their top quarterback in Trubisky.
Chicago did the best it could to plug that hole, but now a new issue has cropped up: what the hell happens at that position this summer? Trubisky, the rookie who drives his grandmother’s 1997 Toyota to the facility, knew his place immediately.
“Mike is the starting quarterback and I’m very excited to learn from him and the rest of the veterans on the team,” Trubisky told reporters. “And I can’t wait to help the Bears win.”
Trubisky can learn from Glennon, but he can’t learn how to be a starter in the NFL without first-team reps. How can the Bears balance the practice reps Glennon needs to be functionally good with the offense against the reps Trubisky needs if he’s going to learn how to be the guy this year?
Ryan Pace’s legacy as a general manager and the rest of John Fox’s time in Chicago as head coach is hitched to the rookie quarterback, so Trubisky needs to get on the field. Trubisky playing with the second-team offense will help, but only to a point since a rookie needs to know the speed of the NFL game with first-team players.
“That’s going to be something that this organization is embracing,” Bears offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains told reporters, referring to the rep balance between the quarterbacks. “Obviously the two bosses (Pace and Fox) communicate very well with each other, and obviously I’m a part of that.
“…Everyone that touches the schedule is a part of that. So we’ve got to be really good at assessing where each guy’s at, and I think that’s the biggest key for us: knowing exactly where each guy is at and figuring out and being flexible with reps.”
The Bears have a lot to figure out heading into 2017. Can their defensive backfield get more than the NFL-low 11 takeaways from 2016? Will wide receiver Kevin White, in his first full healthy season, take over Alshon Jeffery’s production along with free-agent pickups Dion Sims and Kendall Wright?
Off-season report card: Green Bay Packers
2016: 10-6, 1st in NFC North. Lost in NFC Championship Game.
Significant Additions: TE Martellus Bennett (FA), CB Kevin King (R2), DL Ricky Jean-Francois (FA), G Jahri Evans (FA).
Significant Losses: TE Jared Cook, G T.J. Lang, OL JC Tretter, LB Julius Peppers, RB James Starks, RB Eddie Lacy, CB Sam Shields.
The last time we saw Aaron Rodgers on the field he was trying, and failing, to will his Green Bay Packers to victory against a young and fast Atlanta defense.
The Falcons extinguished Green Bay’s running game and plowed through the Packers’ injured offensive line to pressure Rodgers on nearly half of his dropbacks in the 44–21 NFC championship win against Green Bay.
The Packers have gone to the playoffs in each season since 2009, Rodgers’s second as a starter, and that likely will continue in 2017. They have the best thrower of the football in the game today—and possibly in NFL history—and paired with one of the best football minds in Mike McCarthy, it‘s implausible to think Green Bay won’t be playing in January.
But the two areas that plagued the Packers in the Georgia Dome and kept them from their second Super Bowl appearance with Rodgers and McCarthy were addressed in less-than-satisfactory ways this off-season.
Eddie Lacy opted for Seattle over Green Bay, and the Packers released James Starks and then re-signed, then cut, Christine Michael. That left in the backfield only Ty Montgomery, who was a fun story in 2016 as the No. 88 wideout filling in as the starting running back.
McCarthy affirmed Montgomery will be the starter heading into training camp, but the third-year player will have to produce more if Rodgers is to get a reliable running game. Montgomery topped 50 rushing yards in just three games last season and had 100 total yards in the same amount of games. (Montgomery was the leading Packers rusher in the NFC title game not named Rodgers with three carries for 17 yards.) Surely an off-season focused on the position will help Montgomery, but will it be enough?
Green Bay spent the final day of the draft taking every running back in sight. The Packers used a fourth-rounder on BYU’s Jamaal Williams, a compensatory pick on UTEP’s Aaron Jones and their last pick on Utah State’s Devante Mays. Those additions add good numbers on a depth chart, but the reality remains the NFC North kings have a converted wide receiver and slew of third-day rookies toting the rock to open up Rodgers’ passing game.
But more important than who is running for Rodgers is who is blocking for him. In consecutive seasons the Packers have done away with one of Rodgers’ offensive linemen, and there’s dubious depth at a position group so vital to what the two-time MVP does.
First came the Packers releasing guard Josh Sitton at the start of the 2016 season just to see him end up on rival Chicago’s roster. Then Green Bay didn’t bring back guard T.J. Lang this off-season, instead seeing him sign with another divisional rival—Detroit. Green Bay also didn’t re-sign (the sometimes-injured) center JC Tretter, and he went to Cleveland for big money. This comes months after Green Bay’s offensive line was in such dire straits against Atlanta that defensive tackle Letroy Guion had to play five snaps along the line in the fourth quarter.
A quality offensive line for the Packers is important for two reasons: Rodgers holds the ball longer than almost every quarterback in the league, and replacing him with backup Brett Hundley (in the event Rodgers takes a hit due to poor blocking) will no doubt keep Green Bay out of the playoffs.
“It took a while,” Lang told SI.com in January about learning to block for Rodgers on long-developing plays. “We understand there’s times we need to extend the play. Our guys aren’t open and Aaron needs us. We’re used to it, we will block however long it takes, you just need to stay in front of your guy.”
David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga make up one of the best tackle duos in the league, and Lane Taylor played decently in place of Sitton at left guard last year. Don Barclay, who struggled, and Jahri Evans, who will be 34, should compete for the other guard spot, and the Packers used just one draft pick on an offensive lineman when they took guard Kofi Amichia in the sixth round.
Rodgers will still be great with Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb to throw to, and getting Martellus Bennett will make it even tougher to outscore the Pack in 2017. But the cohesiveness of the line and competence of the backfield will determine whether Green Bay can once again, finally, get back to the Super Bowl.
Off-season report card: Los Angeles Rams
2016: 4–12, third in NFC West
Significant additions: Head coach Sean McVay, DE Connor Barwin, RB Lance Dunbar, QB Aaron Murray, CB Nickell Robey-Coleman, C John Sullivan, DT Tyrunn Walker, CB Kayvon Webster, OT Andrew Whitworth, WR Robert Woods, TE Gerald Everett (R2), WR Cooper Kupp (R3), S John Johnson (R3), WR Josh Reynolds (R4)
Significant losses: C Tim Barnes, WR Kenny Britt, S T.J. McDonald, DE Eugene Sims
The best news about Jared Goff’s rookie year is that it’s over. The No. 1 overall pick of the 2016 NFL draft looked lost and overwhelmed during his seven starts last season, games in which the Rams finished 0–7 with a combined scoreline of 221–85. Los Angeles finished the season with the league’s worst offense, both by points and yardage.
The Rams earnestly began their attempt to solve their production woes (and to reverse course on Goff’s trajectory) by hiring new coach Sean McVay, a 31-year-old wunderkind who helped Kirk Cousins play his way into back-to-back franchise tags. In free agency, Rams GM Les Snead revamped his offensive line with the signings of center John Sullivan and outstanding veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth. And then he attempted to find Goff some help via the skill positions by signing free agent Robert Woods and drafting rookies Cooper Kupp, Josh Reynolds and move TE Gerald Everett.
“I don’t think you can ever have enough playmakers,” McVay said during a press conference following Day 2 of the draft. “And if those guys merit it by the way that they compete in practice, then those guys will be on the field, as well.”
Without question, there are more options for Goff this season. Will they be effective options, though?
Lacking, for the moment, is a clear-cut No. 1 receiver—perennial source of frustration Tavon Austin doesn’t fit that bill, nor does Woods, who served as Sammy Watkins’s sidekick in Buffalo and is cut from a complementary-WR cloth. Kupp was the go-to guy on his Eastern Washington offense, but he doesn’t necessarily have the physical or athletic traits to project as an NFL lead dog. The likeliest candidate is Reynolds, a lanky 6' 3" wide receiver capable of making big plays downfield—at the very least, he could step in as Goff’s preferred target in the red zone. Last year’s team leader in touchdowns (as well as receptions and yards), Kenny Britt, signed a free-agent deal with Cleveland.
How rapidly any development occurs from the newcomers will go a long way in dictating Goff’s chances this season. In reality, though, the recent additions on offense are as much about the future as they are about the ’17 season. L.A. drafted a combination of three tight ends and receivers in 2016 (WRs Pharoh Cooper and Mike Thomas, TE Tyler Higbee), then matched that number last month.
The benefit, in theory, is that all of these fresh faces can mature together, headed by Goff. Woods, Austin, Whitworth and Sullivan all have been around the block enough times that they should be able to offer some guidance.
But growing pains are inevitable.
For one, McVay still has to decipher exactly how mesh Goff’s skill set with RB Todd Gurley’s game. The former comes from a West Coast-scheme, shotgun-heavy background; the latter is better suited to attack in downhill fashion, with his QB under center.
McVay put both concepts to work in Washington, and he figures to do so again. The additions of Whitworth and Sullivan up front should help the Rams across the board up front, while the overstocked roster of receivers and tight ends will allow McVay to spread the field when he so chooses.
Again, though, this is going to be a steep uphill climb for a bit, which will shift a great deal of pressure onto the Rams’ defense. Helping the cause there is new coordinator Wade Phillips, who brings decades of experience to supplement McVay’s youthful energy. In tune with the transition from their base 4–3 defense to Phillips’s more flexible, 3–4 plan, the Rams picked up Barwin to add a little pop off the edge. They also added D-line depth in Smart and Walker.
The defense kept the Rams in several games last season, only to crumple down the stretch under the weight of the offense’s issues. McVay’s presence, another off-season’s worth of development for Goff and the free-agent/draft additions to the Los Angeles attack should help a bit in 2017.
But expecting too much, too soon would be a mistake. Repairing Goff will be a substantial challenge for McVay, and Goff can be only as good as the unproven talent around him.
Off-season report card: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2016: 9–7, 2nd in NFC South.
Significant Additions: WR DeSean Jackson (FA) TE OJ Howard (R1), S Justin Evans (R2), WR Chris Godwin (R3), RB Jeremy McNichols (R5).
Significant Losses: QB Mike Glennon
GM Jason Licht had a clear off-season directive: give Jameis Winston as many weapons as possible. Winston is only 23, with two 4,000-yard seasons. However the Bucs are wary of the quarterback’s turnover problem. Winston threw 18 interceptions in 2016, with 10 fumbles (six lost). Many times, it feels like Winston tries to do too much himself. To remedy that, Licht surrounded Winston with playmakers who can relieve some of that pressure.
It began in free agency with wideout DeSean Jackson (three years, $35 million). The 30-year-old speedster has built a reputation over nine seasons as the best friend to a quarterback. Paired with budding superstar Mike Evans (three straight 1,000 yard seasons) and the Bucs may have the best 1-2 receiver punch in the league. Actually make that 1-2-3, as Tampa Bay found a gem in the third round by drafting Penn State’s Chris Godwin. Most evaluators pegged Godwin as a second-round talent. The 6-foot-1, 209-pound Godwin is deceptively fast, averaged 16.6 yards per catch last year while possessing many of the same traits (separation on routes, ability to win contested catches) that made his Nittany Lion predecessor, Allen Robinson, successful in Jacksonville.
And all of this doesn’t factor in perhaps the Buccaneers’ biggest coup: snagging Alabama tight end O.J. Howard in the first round. In a historically rich year for tight ends, it says something that Howard was unanimously atop of the class. At 6-foot-6, 251 pounds, scouts rave about Howard’s long arms and athleticism. Evaluators say his so-so production at Alabama was a byproduct of being underutilized as a pass catcher. Cameron Brate emerged as a revelation for the Buccaneers in 2016; the Harvard alum had eight touchdowns, and was especially dangerous in the red zone. Add Howard to the mix and Winston is covered with two tight ends who can in-line block and stretch the field. The question now is: can Winston keep all of his targets happy? Of the quarterback’s franchise-record 28 touchdowns in 2016, he threw nearly half (12) to Evans and another eight to Brate. He has a few more mouths to feed in 2017.
The running game figures to be interesting, as well. Incumbent Doug Martin struggled last season (2.9 yards per carry) and left the team with one game remaining to serve a four-game PED suspension and check into a drug treatment facility. That suspension will spill into 2017, but one of the reasons the Buccaneers didn’t draft a running back in the first round—Winston’s former Florida State teammate, Dalvin Cook, was a potential match—was that the front office apparently feels comfortable with the strides Martin has made this offseason. Martin, of course, had an outstanding rookie season in 2012 with 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns. He’s only matched that production once, in 2015. If Martin can’t find his groove, Tampa Bay found a worthy replacement in fifth-rounder Jeremy McNichols from Boise State. It seems important to note that McNichols and Martin have nearly identical statures (5-foot-9 and stocky) and skill sets. Licht has praised McNichols as the best pass-protecting running back in the draft, and like Martin, he adds value as a pass-catcher. In fact, McNichols was a wideout in high school. Perhaps Tampa Bay will find a role for both of its running backs, two more weapons to add to Winston’s arsenal.
Off-season report card: New York Giants
Last Year: 11-5, second in NFC East. Lost in Wild-Card Round.
Significant Additions: WR Brandon Marshall (FA), OL D.J. Fluker (FA), TE Evan Engram (R1), DT Dalvin Tomlinson (R2), DE Avery Moss (R5)
Significant Losses: WR Victor Cruz, K Robbie Gould
The addition of Brandon Marshall is critical. His big-bodied catching style perfectly fits an offense that relies heavily on slant routes. And, obviously, with Odell Beckham around, Marshall won’t see the types of double-teams and zone-coverage rotations he saw with the Jets. Marshall’s only real adjustment will be where he lines up. With the Jets he was often an X-iso receiver, meaning he was by himself on the weak side. But that’s usually Beckham’s role. Marshall’s other playing spot was the slot, which is filled on the Giants by Sterling Shepard.
Most likely, Marshall will see more snaps as a flanker—the receiver who lines up on the side of the tight end. That tight end will be first-round rookie Evan Engram. This is the first true middle-of-the-field threat the Giants have had in the Beckham era. Engram is young and raw but should immediately supplant the supremely limited Will Tye.
It remains to be seen how good of a run-blocker Engram can be. Mediocre blocking at tight end has hindered the Giants’ ground game, which is predicated on basic inside zone runs from shotgun. Barring unexpected greatness from fourth round rookie Wayne Gallman, it won’t be a dynamic backfield. Incumbent back Paul Perkins has decent lateral agility but not quite enough of it to consistently create his own yards. (Though with a year under his belt and increased first-team reps this offseason, perhaps he’ll be a more comfortable runner in 2017.) Shane Vereen is almost strictly a “backfield receiver.”
The Giants don’t have the type of offensive line that can consistently pave lanes for ball-carriers. It was once thought that massive 2013 first-rounder D.J. Fluker could be that, but after four so-so seasons in San Diego, the Chargers let him walk. Expect Fluker to vie for a starting spot along the right side, either at tackle (replacing Bobby Hart) or guard (replacing John Jerry). Too bad Fluker can’t play left tackle; that’s the one position where New York could really stand to improve (so far 2015 first-round pick Ereck Flowers has not panned out).
On defense, instead of paying known-entity Jonathan Hankins roughly $10 million a year to continue at tackle, the Giants spent a second-round pick on Dalvin Tomlinson. They’d love for him and fifth-round defensive end Avery Moss to spark a more successful pass rush. Last year’s big-money free agent pickup, Olivier Vernon, was superb in run defense (better in this department than any other D-end in the league, in fact), but he had only 8.5 sacks, spearheading an often futile four-man rush.
Strangely enough, that Giants’ pass rush also had another upper-echelon defensive end: Jason Pierre-Paul. He was re-signed for $62 million over four years. Like Vernon, Pierre-Paul is a monster against the run. And it’s not like these two can’t put the heat on quarterbacks. Both just need to do it more regularly.
Typically an impotent pass rush fells a defense. But the Giants have something no other team has save for the Broncos: three high-quality pure cover corners: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie plus last year’s newcomers, Janoris Jenkins and Eli Apple. As long as these guys are on the field, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo can dial up any blitz imaginable. And he does. Spagnuolo can be especially creative with his blitzes out of two-safety coverages, which is unusual (in most blitzes there’s just one safety back).
The only tenuous thing with this defense is its depth. If any of the corners are out, it’s in trouble. Recall the playoff loss last year at Green Bay. Rodgers-Cromartie left with a thigh injury on the first series. That compromised part of the man coverage’s reliability, which wiped several blitz packages off Spagnuolo’s play sheet. Eventually Aaron Rodgers exploited this.
Off-season report card: Detroit Lions
2016: 9-7, 2nd in NFC North. Lost in Wild-Card Round.
Significant Additions: G T.J. Lang (FA), LB Paul Worrilow (FA), LB Jarrad Davis (R1), DE Cornelius Washington (FA), CB DJ Hayden (FA), RT Rick Wagner (FA), DT Akeem Spence (FA).
Significant Losses: LB DeAndre Levy, WR Anquan Boldin, G Larry Warford, T Riley Reiff.
Even though the Lions mustered just six points against Seattle in their wild-card loss, the preceding month of football had shown Detroit’s biggest need was on defense.
Things seemed like they finally clicked for quarterback Matt Stafford, and heading into mid-December he was a dark horse in the MVP race for posting another 4,000-yard season in his first without Calvin Johnson. But the defense began failing Detroit in Week 15 and never recovered.
That’s why Lions GM Bob Quinn was so aggressive this off-season in strengthening the D. He had to spend good money to replace offensive linemen Larry Warford and Riley Reiff with T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner, but that had to be done to protect their franchise quarterback. Almost everything else this off-season in Detroit has been geared toward building a defense that will give the Lions a chance in the winter months.
The Lions closed out last season with games against the Giants, Cowboys and Packers before drawing Seattle in the playoffs. In those four games, the defense allowed 377.5 yards and 29 points per game. The Lions had zero interceptions and zero fumble recoveries. They finished the season winless in their last four contests.
Quinn started free agency by getting young pass-rusher Cornelius Washington, who thrived in his limited snaps in Chicago and appeared to be getting the hang of his position by 2016. The Lions also nabbed former Bucs defensive tackle Akeem Spence to add depth behind 11-year vet Haloti Ngata.
Detroit also signed outside linebacker Paul Worrilow, who had gotten edged out in Atlanta by younger players. Former Oakland cornerback D.J. Hayden also signed with Detroit to play opposite Darius Slay.
But there still remained a glaring hole in Detroit’s defense. Long-time linebacker DeAndre Levy got his walking papers this offseason after struggling to stay healthy and perform on his 2015 contract extension. Levy appeared in just four games for the Lions in his final two seasons.
So with the 21st pick in the draft, Detroit took the second-best inside linebacker (behind medical- and red-flag stud Reuben Foster) in Florida’s Jarrad Davis, and Quinn said immediately that Davis would be the team’s middle linebacker. Then Detroit doubled down on Gators and got cornerback Teez Tabor to compete with Hayden in training camp.
Quinn told media before the draft that he saw needs on both sides of the ball, but that’s not how his draft played out. Six of the nine picks are on the defensive side, including three of the first four selections.
“Some of the moves we made on the offensive line may take one position off the board early in the draft. Other than the offensive line, we’re open to adding prospects and adding players to help us,” Quinn said. “Ideally once you get the team exactly how you want—we’re not exactly how we want it right now—we’re working toward that.”
A convincing argument could be made that 2016 was Stafford’s greatest year as a pro, besting his 2011 season when he eclipsed 5,000 yards and threw 41 touchdowns in the 10-win season. Stafford got the Lions into the playoffs without Johnson and engineered eight fourth-quarter, game-winning drives, tied for the most in a season all-time.
If Stafford can repeat that magic in 2017, the Lions have added to a defense that failed them down the stretch and are building the same type of strong, young and fast defense that has made an appearance in recent Super Bowls (Carolina, Atlanta, Denver and Seattle).
The upgrades on defense should allow Detroit to get over the hump of ordinary team hanging on in the playoffs to one that can actually get its first postseason victory in more than a quarter-century.