Off-season report cards: Grading the AFC
- SI writers analyze (and criticize) the off-season moves of all 16 AFC 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 AFC 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, MMQB writers Albert Breer, Jenny Vrentas, Robert Klemko and Tim Rohan 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: Cincinnati Bengals
2016: 6-9-1, third in AFC North
Significant Additions: WR John Ross (R1), DE Jordan Willis (R3), RB Joe Mixon (R2), LB Kevin Minter (FA)
Significant Losses: LB Rey Maualuga, RB Rex Burkhead, LB Karlos Dansby, OT Andrew Whitworth, OG Kevin Zeitler, OT Eric Winston, DT Domata Peko, DE Margus Hunt
The exodus continues from Marvin Lewis’ Cincinnati Bengals.
A club that appeared on the cusp after a 12–4 finish in 2015 has seen the departure of several impact free agents in two years. After losing productive receivers Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones a year ago in free agency to the Falcons and Lions, respectively, offensive line centerpiece Eric Zeitler, one of the top guards in football, signed a five-year, $60 million deal with Cleveland this off-season. The loss of ageless wonder Andrew Whitworth, who took a three-year deal to anchor the Rams’ offensive line, leaves gaping holes, highlighting Cincinnati’s recent draft blunders.
Selecting tackles Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher back-to-back in rounds 1 and 2 in 2015 would have looked like a prescient move now, if not for their lackluster performances a year ago. Ogbuehi was a glorified turnstile at right tackle before switching to the left side—where he promptly allowed Jadaveon Clowney to put his left shoulder in QB Andy Dalton’s lumbar. Fisher, getting some late burn at right tackle, was similarly poor as a pass blocker.
So what did team president Mike Brown and Lewis do to stop the bleeding? After letting Whitworth and Zeitler walk they drafted 188-pound receiver John Ross in the first round and added running back Joe Mixon to a crowded position room. Now it’s up to Fisher andOgbuehi to hold down the edges on an offense that appears to be squandering the best years of a seminal football talent in A.J. Green.
Despite losing aging-but-useful linebacker Karlos Dansby and serviceable interior lineman Domato Peko in free agency, Cincinnati’s defense remains formidable thanks to anchoring front seven performers Geno Atkins, Vontaze Burfict, Carlos Dunlap and Vinny Rey. Versatile safety Shawn Williams surprised as a more-than-capable replacement for Reggie Nelson (another 2016 defector).
The cornerbacks are another story. Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard have done little to justify their first-round selections in 2012 and ’14, underscoring Cincinnati’s biggest problem of late: Of the 17 players the team has drafted in the first three rounds after 2011 (the year they selected Green and Dalton), just one has made a Pro Bowl (Tyler Eifert in ’15). Zeitler certainly deserved a nod in 2016, but he’s no longer on the roster.
To hear Andrew Whitworth, the consummate team guy, talk about Cincinnati and his decision to join the Rams is to understand the pall that accompanied a 2016 regression into losing.
“I started to really open my eyes to man, what a challenge, and a new place, that would be something that invigorates me and makes me want to push even harder and do even more, find some other part of me that I don’t know exists that I can challenge myself to become,” Whitworth told ESPN in March. “And that’s what really intrigued me about the move.
“And then when I realized I was open to moving, and moving on to a new challenge, I really wanted to be away from Cincinnati’s situation.”
Look for that situation to change drastically if things don’t turn around in 2017.
Off-season report card: Baltimore Ravens
2016: 8–8, second in AFC North
Significant additions: CB Marlon Humphrey (R1), LB Tyus Bowser (R2), DT Chris Wormley (R3), CB Brandon Carr (FA), S Tony Jefferson (FA)
Significant losses: OT Ricky Wagner, CB Lardarius Webb, LB Elvis Dumervil, WR Kamar Aiken, S Matt Elam
Roster depth went from being Baltimore’s biggest strength to its greatest weakness in just five short years. Uncharacteristic failures in the draft for Ozzie Newsome and Eric DeCosta stunted efforts to replace defensive stalwarts like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed; of the team’s two first-round picks and four second-round picks between 2012 and ’14, just one remains on the roster (stud inside linebacker C.J. Mosely).
Yet Baltimore’s biggest handicap is one of its longest-tenured players. Joe Flacco, drafted in 2008, now carries the largest salary cap hit in football at $24.5 million in 2017. The Ravens are spending about 15% of their active cap space on a player with a 34–27 touchdown-interception ratio over the past two seasons. With the three-year extension he signed in 2016, Flacco can’t realistically be released and replaced until 2019, when the cap hit becomes more manageable.
“We need to get more out of Joe,” Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said in January. “He would agree with me.”
What’s more, the Ravens did little to improve Flacco’s supporting cast this offseason. Baltimore lost superb right tackle Ricky Wagner to the Lions on a five-year, $47.5 million-dollar deal in free agency and wide receiver Steve Smith to retirement, adding only running back Danny Woodhead to the offense. All eyes are on third-year receiver Breshad Perriman and third-year tight end Maxx Williams, both of whom have missed significant time due to knee injuries.
Instead, the Ravens splurged on the defense. The team added versatile safety Tony Jefferson and capable cover corner Brandon Carr in free agency, and Newsome used his first four draft picks on the defense, addressing big needs at cornerback and outside linebacker with first-round choice Marlon Humphrey and second-rounder Tyus Bowser. It’s an embarrassment of riches for defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who built a defense around Mosely that ranked in the Top 10 in every meaningful statistical category in 2016.
Baltimore’s big problem remains a stagnant offense that only grew more conservative after the firing of offensive coordinator Marc Trestman after a Week 5 loss against Washington. Despite having the NFL’s eighth-ranked offensive line in terms of pass protection according to footballoutsiders.com, Flacco’s 6.4 yards per attempted were the lowest of his career. With former QB coach Marty Mornhinweg at the helm of the offense, Flacco leaned heavily on tight end Dennis Pitta, who last year was the third-most targeted tight end in the NFL but had just 729 yards receiving to show for it. However, the 31-year-old reinjured his hip at the Ravens’ OTAs, which means there’s a good chance Flacco may be losing last season’s receptions leader.
Baltimore’s check-down woes were never more apparent than in a Week 14 loss to the Patriots in Foxborough, when Flacco connected with running backs on 15 of his 37 completions to running backs, a season-high, while the Patriots seemed satisfied to drop seven or eight players into coverage.
Yet Mornhinweg returns, now armed with a full offseason to prepare. And the offense experienced only attrition in the meantime. If the answers are already on the roster, the time to reveal themselves is nigh.
Off-season report card: New York Jets
2016: 5–11, fourth in AFC East.
Significant additions: QB Josh McCown (FA), CB Morris Claiborne (FA), LT Kelvin Beachum (FA), S Jamal Adams (R1), K Chandler Catanzaro (FA)
Significant losses: CB Darrelle Revis, C Nick Mangold, WR Brandon Marshall, T Ryan Clady, T Breno Giacomini, K Nick Folk
It wasn’t that long ago—17 months, to be exact—that the Jets were a team with double-digit wins, one victory away from a postseason berth. How quickly things change in the NFL.
That was the 2015 season, when optimism was high for new head coach Todd Bowles and GM Mike Maccagnan. Owner Woody Johnson authorized an off-season spending spree that doled out $168 million to five players, including Darrelle Revis, who was given a hero’s welcome back to the team that drafted him. Two years later, only two of those players, cornerback Buster Skrine and guard James Carpenter, are still with the team. They tried to “win now” that first year and failed, and what’s left behind is an awkward dynamic—a team starting over in year three of a regime.
Johnson preached patience to fans this off-season, but really, there’s no other message to send. The Jets have gone into total tear-down mode with their roster, cutting most of their roster’s most familiar faces: Revis, center Nick Mangold and receiver Brandon Marshall. The moves cleared gobs of cap space but also left gaping holes at some of the most critical spots on the field. When your strongest position on offense is guard, that’s not a great indicator of success.
The eroded talent base on this roster is not the sole responsibility of the current regime. The flip-flopping in organizational philosophy over the last several years has done no one any favors. The last time Jets fans heard the plea of patience wasn’t long ago: 2014, John Idzik’s second year as general manager, the famous draft when he selected 12 players. Both Idzik and head coach Rex Ryan were fired eight months later, and just three of those 12 players are still on the roster.
Building through the draft is the ideal, but the reality is that patience is scarce in the NFL. Maccagnan came onto the job with an approach he billed as a “competitive rebuild,” but the Jets came out of the first two years absent both results and a clear path forward. Now, they’re committing to just the rebuild part. Look no further than how they handled the draft. Maccagnan traded back four times, boosting the Jets’ haul to nine picks; he also picked up a fifth-rounder in 2018, and he used the team’s top two picks on safeties. That’s the picture of a general manager building for the long term, not the short term.
The Jets signed Josh McCown in the off-season because they needed to ensure they had a quarterback who can start in Week 1. He is that, and by all accounts an excellent teammate, and the Jets don’t need that much more from him. A team in rebuild mode doesn’t want a 38-year-old starting the entire season. What the Jets do need to do is start Christian Hackenberg at some point this fall and come out of this season with a better idea if there’s a future with the 2016 second-round pick.
The Jets didn’t draft a quarterback out of what was billed as a mediocre class this year, but talent evaluators are expecting a much stronger 2018 QB class—starting with USC’s Sam Darnold. Given the way their current roster looks, the Jets could very well be in contention for a very high draft pick.
New York’s approach of starting over again, and building from the ground up, is the right one. But for Maccagnan and Bowles, this is a tricky position for their third year on the job. The big question: Will Johnson have the same patience he’s asked for from the fans?
Off-season report card: Buffalo Bills
2016: 7–9, third in AFC East.
Significant additions: Head coach Sean McDermott, GM Brandon Beane, FB Patrick DiMarco (FA), S Micah Hyde (FA), K Stephen Hauschka (FA), CB Tre’Davious White (R1), WR Zay Jones (R2)
Significant losses: CB Stephon Gilmore, WR Robert Woods, RB Mike Gillislee, LB Zach Brown, S Aaron Williams, K Dan Carpenter
Since Terry and Kim Pegula bought the Bills, bringing the team under the control of the same family that runs the NHL’s Sabres, a common slogan seen on hats and T-shirts in upstate New York has been “One Buffalo.” This off-season, a similar phrase has been coming out of One Bills Drive: “One voice.”
That voice belongs to Sean McDermott, the new head coach hired away from his job as the Panthers’ defensive coordinator to replace Rex Ryan. McDermott spoke for the team at the combine, during free agency and the draft and also in the hiring of Brandon Beane, his former colleague in Carolina, to be Buffalo’s new GM.
The one-voice approach is the Bills’ best chance of ending the 17-year playoff drought that hangs over everything they do. The club handled the transition somewhat awkwardly, allowing Doug Whaley to silently remain in the GM seat through the draft, while it was clear that McDermott was the one running the show. But ultimately, they got this part right—starting fresh with a new coach and GM who are on the same timetable and have an established working relationship. They also cleaned house in the front office, surrounding their new hires with two well-respected personnel execs, Brian Gaine from Houston and Joe Schoen from Miami.
This kind of unity has been absent from the organization for quite some time. In recent history, Doug Marrone opted out of his contract, for reasons he has never fully explained, after his second season in Buffalo. He was succeeded by Ryan, whose early declaration of “alignment” in the organization had faded within the year. Both coaches had arranged marriages with Whaley, who had been with the club since 2010 and officially assumed the GM job in ’13. The picture painted at the end of the ’16 season was that of a disoriented organization, one that seemed confused on not only how to explain why it had fired its head coach before the final game of the season, but also what it was looking for in its next one.
Putting Whaley in charge of the coaching search, then firing him four months later, did little to counter the notion that the Bills lacked a clear blueprint for how to build a winner. But since McDermott was hired, the club has put its trust in him to lead the way. Perhaps the need for a single voice was reinforced early in the off-season, when there appeared to be an organizational divide over the future of Tyrod Taylor. The extension the quarterback signed last summer forced the Bills to make a decision this spring on picking up his option, which included a $27.5 million commitment in 2017. The front office had taken steps to distance itself from Taylor, but the coaching staff, which includes offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, Taylor’s QB coach in Baltimore in 2014, preferred to keep him. The decision to retain Taylor on a restructured contract was a win for the Bills, and particularly for McDermott’s power in the organization.
McDermott began reshaping the roster this off-season, putting an emphasis on the draft. The Bills let several players with expiring contracts walk out the door, among them cornerback Stephon Gilmore and wide receivers Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin. McDermott drafted replacements, selecting cornerback Tre’Davious White in the first round and wide receiver Zay Jones in the second round. They traded down from the No. 10 pick to No. 27, making the deal with a Chiefs team eager to land quarterback Patrick Mahomes, and in doing so picked up a 2018 first-rounder.
The amount of authority the Bills have given a first-time head coach has raised some eyebrows. But the message has come through loud and clear: Everyone will be on the same page moving forward, and the page will be that of Sean McDermott.
Off-season report card: Denver Broncos
2016: 9–7, third in AFC West
Significant additions: OT Garrett Bolles (R1), OG Ronald Leary (FA), DT Domata Peko (FA), DL DeMarcus Walker (R2), OT Menelik Watson (FA), head coach Vance Joseph, offensive coordinator Mike McCoy
Significant losses: Coach Gary Kubiak, OT Russell Okung, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, OLB DeMarcus Ware, NT Sylvester Williams
The Broncos won five division titles, two conference crowns and a Super Bowl in John Elway’s first five years in charge.
In Year 6, Denver slipped to 9–7, and the Broncos cleaned house. Sort of.
OK, so things weren’t going exactly by design. The expectation wasn’t that Kubiak was going to walk away after two years, and just 11 months after winning it all. But it happened. The plan wasn’t to have the offensive line in need of a total overhaul. But that happened too. And few expected Trevor Siemian to hold off Paxton Lynch for this long. But that also went down.
So here are Elway and new coach Vance Joseph, with a rebuilt offensive line, no answer on who’s going to play quarterback 15 months removed from Peyton Manning’s retirement, and system tweaks on one side of the ball and a system switch on the other side of the ball. And yet, nothing has changed?
“Winning nine games and not going to the playoffs last was not good enough,” Joseph says now. “And everyone’s motivated, everyone’s engaged in trying to make this thing better moving forward. So that’s what I’ve noticed from day 1 from every guy in the building, every player, every person who works here, from the chef to the personnel people, last year was not good enough.
“Absolutely, they took it personally. And everyone’s working towards make it better.”
OK, so despite all of the above, the cupboard isn’t exactly barren. Whoever plays quarterback will have Demaryius Thomas and Emanuel Sanders to throw to, and CJ Anderson back. The defense still has Von Miller and Chris Harris and Aqib Talib and Brandon Marshall and TJ Ward and Derek Wolfe—and that’s before you get to promising youngsters like Shane Ray and Bradley Roby.
And most of those guys that made up the bulk of the championship core of two years ago are still plenty good for the championship window to remain ajar. But it won’t be that way forever, which is to say any grace period for Joseph, for Siemian or Lynch, and for guys like Bolles, Leary and Watson to come together will be short.
Joseph, for his part, knows it. He’s said repeatedly he’s not walking into a place that’s broken.
But based on the standard set, that doesn’t mean there isn’t something to fix.
Off-season report card: Miami Dolphins
2016: 10–6, second in AFC East. Lost in wild-card round.
Significant additions: LB Lawrence Timmons (FA), S Nate Allen (FA), TE Julius Thomas (trade), DL William Hayes (trade), DE Charles Harris (R1)
Significant losses: T Branden Albert, DE Mario Williams, DT Earl Mitchell, S Isa Abdul-Quddus, DE Dion Jordan
In early March, Adam Gase was angsty about what was going to happen with Kenny Stills. The Dolphins knew the receiver could very well leave in free agency and in fact had started cushioning themselves for the potential loss a year earlier, when they traded up for another receiver, Leonte Carroo, in the draft. Asked at the combine how he felt about Stills returning, the head coach squirmed. “One day I feel good about it,” he said, “and one day I feel like crap about it. I hate free agency.”
Stills didn’t leave. Before free agency opened, he agreed to a four-year, $32 million deal to stay in Miami. Both the player and his coach cited their close relationship as an important reason why.
That was just one move, but it represents where the Dolphins are headed. In his second year on the job, Gase has earned the trust of both players and the organization to lead this team in the right direction. Miami’s approach this off-season reflected the way Gase wants to do business: Methodically address team needs, and keep your own guys. And apropos to the second point, create an environment in which players want to stay.
This was not the year of spending $60 million on Mike Wallace or $114 million on Ndamukong Suh, the big free-agent fish—and that’s a good thing. Much of the Dolphins’ off-season spending was directed toward their own players. They kept Stills and defensive end Andre Branch before they hit the market, ensuring they had enough good starters at the critical positions of receiver and pass rusher. They gave extensions to safety Reshad Jones and linebacker Kiko Alonso.
Beyond their own roster, the Dolphins traded for TE Julius Thomas and DL William Hayes, and supplemented their 30th-ranked run defense by signing LB Lawrence Timmons to a two-year, $11 million deal. In the draft, not even the offensive-minded head coach was tempted by flashy skill position players—in fact, the Dolphins only drafted one offensive skill player, in the seventh round. Instead, they used five of seven picks on defensive players, focusing on the front seven on both Day 1 (DE Charles Harris) and Day 2 (LB Raekwon McMillan). Miami’s defense faltered too often last season, particularly up front, and the club responded by addressing that weakness directly.
So much of the Dolphins’ 2017 outlook depends on Ryan Tannehill continuing to progress in Gase’s offense and staying healthy after suffering an ACL injury that did not require surgery. Neither of those are certainties. And after being a surprise playoff team in ’16, the expectations in Miami have been raised.
The Dolphins kept together the core of a playoff team, while fortifying areas of weakness. It wasn’t sexy, but it was prudent, and that’s the look of a team headed in the right direction.
Off-season report card: Pittsburgh Steelers
2016: 11–5, first in AFC North
Significant Additions: DE Tyson Alualu (FA), WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (R2), OLB T.J. Watt (R1), RB James Conner (R3), CB Cameron Sutton (R3), CB Coty Sensabaugh (FA), WR Justin Hunter (FA)
Significant Losses: LB Lawrence Timmons, RB DeAngelo Williams, RB Karlos Williams
Last year, the Steelers’ off-season was defined by a rare and ill-advised free agency spend for TE Ladarius Green. This year, the franchise’s off-season will be remembered for the one big move they didn’t pull off.
When the Steelers let Lawrence Timmons walk in free agency, finding an inside linebacker to play opposite Ryan Shazier became top priority this off-season. But after Dont’a Hightower turned down a Pittsburgh offer that was reportedly better than New England’s offer, the Steelers are forced to lean on the unproven Vince Williams, a fifth-year veteran with 16 career starts, in the middle of the defense.
In some ways, the aggressive pursuit of Hightower belied Mike Tomlin’s next-man-up mantra and the Steelers’ general philosophy that the answer is most always already on the roster. To the extent that Williams understands this is unclear: “I am humbled,” Williams told reporters this month. “We had an opportunity to get some linebackers in free agency. We had an opportunity to draft a first-round linebacker. It shows the organization has a lot of confidence in me. It is the first time I have ever felt that way.”
The Steelers instead opted to spend that first-round pick on T.J. Watt, the heir apparent to 39-year-old James Harrison, who turned in five sacks last season for Pittsburgh. Two other crucial figures for the Steelers’ defense: Former first-round pick and OLB Bud Dupree showed flashes in his late-season return from September abdominal surgery, and defensive end Cameron Heyward—perhaps the most important figure of the front seven—is still recovering from a torn pectoral suffered early last season; his healthy return is as large a preseason benchmark as any for this defense.
In the draft, Pittsburgh worked to plug two big holes on offense. Not content to wait and see on the return of Martavis Bryant—suspended for the entire 2016 season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy—Steelers GM Kevin Colbert added receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to a room that looked thin at times despite the emergence of second-year receiver Eli Rogers (Antonio Brown earned more targets than the rest of the wide receivers combined). In the third round, Colbert added Pittsburgh running back James Conner, who will compete for the No. 2 job vacated by DeAngelo Williams.
The biggest unknown for a team whose Pro Bowl quarterback turned 35 in March is in the defensive backfield, which was middling as a pass defense until running aground vs. the Patriots in Foxborough. Cornerback Justin Gilbert, a former first-round pick in Cleveland traded to Pittsburgh early last year for a sixth-round pick, was a miss, which the Steelers admitted when they cut him in February. It’s now up to second-year corner Artie Burns and second-year safety Sean Davis to justify the team spending first- and second-round picks on the backfield after playing reliable if not standout football in 2016.
Off-season report card: Kansas City Chiefs
2016: 12–4, first in AFC West, lost in the Divisional Playoff
Significant additions: DL Bennie Logan (FA), QB Patrick Mahomes (R1), RB CJ Spiller (FA)
Significant losses: RB Jamaal Charles, QB Nick Foles, DL Dontari Poe
The move that will most affect the Chiefs’ 2017 season is probably the acquisition of Eagles nose tackle Bennie Logan—and no offense to Logan or the man he’s replacing (Poe), but there just isn’t a ton to talk about there.
OK, so then it’s cool to assess the move that everyone will be discussing anyway?
If things go to plan, Mahomes won’t take a single snap from center Mitch Morse this year, and he may not in 2018 either. The consensus is that the Texas Tech product needs that time anyway and, in landing with a contending team that has an established starting quarterback, the associated belief is that he wound up in about the best situation possible.
But let’s be honest for a minute. GM John Dorsey gave up next year’s one, plus the 91st pick in this year’s draft to move up 17 spots and snare Mahomes. And if you’re going to make a move like that, at that position, it changes the dynamic for a number of people in your organization.
For as stable as they’ve become, the Chiefs aren’t exempt from that.
It starts, obviously, with Alex Smith, now in his fifth season with Kansas City. Fair or not, perception holds that his presence sets a ceiling on how far a talented, well-rounded team can go. And despite four straight winning seasons, and three consecutive years with a passer rating north of 90, Smith hasn’t yet got to a conference championship game with the Chiefs, like he did in 2011 with the Niners.
Next, there’s a core with aging pieces (Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali) and others deep into their prime (Eric Berry, Jeremy Maclin) that would have an interest in the team sticking with Smith until Mahomes is truly ready—and not buckling to the temptation most teams do when intending to “redshirt” young quarterbacks. If the team decides to take its lumps with Mahomes at some point, those guys are affected.
Then, there’s Dorsey and Andy Reid. The two have built an impressive program and acquiring Smith allowed them to bide their time in finding a young quarterback to hitch their wagon to. This was the year they got aggressive, and most evaluators would tell you this wasn’t exactly a great draft year for quarterbacks, so the long-term future of the Chiefs GM and coach is now tied to the future of Mahomes.
No pressure, kid. Not quite yet, anyway.
Off-season report card: Los Angeles Chargers
2016: 5–11, fourth in AFC West
Significant additions: Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, OG Dan Feeney (R3), OG Forrest Lamp (R2), head coach Anthony Lynn, OT Russell Okung (FA), WR Mike Williams (R1)
Significant losses: OT King Dunlap, CB Brandon Flowers, G DJ Fluker, head coach Mike McCoy, defensive coordinator John Pagano, LB Manti Te’o, RB Danny Woodhead.
The roster tweaking might wind up being nice, but the players added and subtracted aren’t the story here.
The upcoming tumult of 2017 for this franchise is.
The Chargers are breaking in a new head coach, while spending the spring in their old San Diego facility. The team will break for summer in mid-June, like everyone else, but when they reconvene, the franchise will have moved two hours up the freeway to Orange County. Training camp will be in Costa Mesa, two miles from the team’s temporary regular season home base, some 30 miles south of the team’s home stadium for the next three years—the 27,000-seat StubHub Center.
The truth is, no one knows how this is going to all play out. Traipsing around Southern California certainly didn’t help the 2016 Rams, who finished 4–12 and fired their coach with three weeks left in the season. And it may wind up wreaking havoc on these Chargers all the same.
But if you ask the guys on staff there, the hope is that the opposite will happen—and that Lynn, a powerful leader, will be able to use it to unify his troops. Chargers against everyone… Or something like that.
Of course, if that’s to happen, a few things will have to fall into place, and the first one, without question, regards health. The Chargers have been among the NFL’s most injured teams the last two years running, a major factor in McCoy’s inability to hang on to his job, and without better luck there, it’ll be hard to expect better results than the previous staff got.
Beyond that, the offensive line and secondary need improvement. The Bolts spent big money to bring in oft-injured left tackle Russell Okung, and the hope is the rookie guards they drafted (Lamp, Feeney) will be able to jump in quickly. Conversely, the team left the secondary alone mostly (though Desmond King is a rookie to keep tabs on), with the hope that’ll be one group that’ll be healthier.
The upside is that Philip Rivers will be throwing to a basketball team again—with big, athletic targets (Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Hunter Henry) all over the place, like it was in the glory days—and the defensive core (Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Denzel Perryman, etc.) seems to fit Bradley’s scheme like a glove.
But to zero in on all that is to get lost in the weeds here. If the Chargers can’t effectively turn a vagabond existence into a rallying cry, the rest won’t matter much.
Off-season report card: Houston Texans
2016: 9–7, first in AFC South, loss in AFC divisional round of playoffs
Significant Additions: QB Deshaun Watson (R1), LB Zach Cunningham (R2), RB D'Onta Foreman (R3)
Significant Losses: QB Brock Osweiler, CB A.J. Bouye, S Quintin Demps, LB John Simon
It could not have been easy for Bill O’Brien watching his Texans lose to the Patriots in the 2016 playoffs. Statistically, Houston had the best defense in football. They had an elite wide receiver in DeAndre Hopkins and a 1,000-yard rusher in Lamar Miller in the backfield. And they still lost, 34–16, against the organization that O’Brien came up through and the quarterback he used to coach—while O’Brien’s current QB, Brock Osweiler, threw three interceptions.
The previous year had ended in a similar fashion for O’Brien when the Chiefs, another AFC powerhouse that had built itself around the consistent play of its veteran quarterback, demolished the Texans in the first round of the playoffs, 30–0.
O’Brien and general manager Rick Smith recognized a pattern here. It isn’t enough to just make the playoffs every year; if a team is going to contend in this league, the team needs a top-flight quarterback. And in O’Brien’s first two years as head coach, he saw Brian Hoyer, Tom Savage, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates, Brandon Weeden and Osweiler all start at least one game for him.
Smith went about fixing this by borrowing a tactic from the NBA and jettisoning Osweiler to the Browns. In the NBA, teams often unload highly paid players to teams with an excessive amount of cap space by sweetening the deal with a draft pick. That’s what Smith did here, sending Osweiler and a 2018 second-round pick to the Browns, in exchange for, well, not much in return. It was a brilliant move on Smith’s part, but this put the Texans in a awkward spot. They desperately needed a quarterback, and the whole league knew it.
None of the quarterbacks available in the 2017 NFL draft were considered a surefire pick, so the Texans first targeted Tony Romo as a possible option—and, by all indications, Romo seemed attracted by the Texans’ situation. Of course, we know how that ended: Romo retired and moved to the broadcasting booth.
That left the Texans’ scrambling again. Unless O’Brien wanted to enter the season with Tom Savage as his starter, which did not seem like a desirable situation, he needed to acquire a quarterback in the draft. After the Bears shocked everyone by trading up to take Mitchell Trubisky at No. 2 overall, and after the Chiefs traded up to take Patrick Mahomes at No. 10, Smith and O’Brien paid a ransom to trade up with—who else?—the Browns for the No. 12 slot, where they drafted Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson.
The cost? The Texans had to give the Browns their 2018 first-round pick.
So, to recap: the Texans traded away both their first- and second-round picks in 2018 to replace Osweiler—who threw 15 touchdowns and 16 interceptions last season—with a rookie, in Watson. It will be interesting to see how early O’Brien decides to play Watson now. Watson did just win a national championship at Clemson, and he has shown, perhaps, that he has the maturity and the intangibles to be able to step in and play early on.
Only time will tell whether Watson is the right quarterback for the Texans. If he’s not, the moves the Smith and O’Brien made this offseason may set the franchise back a few years. But that’s just the reality of doing business in the NFL, when your team needs a quarterback.
Off-season report card: Oakland Raiders
2016: 12–4, second in AFC West, lost in Wild Card Playoff
Significant additions: CB Gareon Conley; TE Jared Cook; Offensive coordinator Todd Downing; RB Marshawn Lynch; DB Obi Melifonwu; OT Marshall Newhouse; WR/KR Cordarelle Patterson.
Significant losses: S Nate Allen, CB DJ Hayden, DT Stacy McGee, RB Latavius Murray, Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, TE Mychal Rivera, LB Malcolm Smith.
No one in the NFL has a young trio to build around quite like the Raiders do in quarterback Derek Carr, linebacker Khalil Mack and receiver Amari Cooper. And while the team will be faced with challenging contract situations in each of their cases—Carr now, Mack next and then Cooper—the bigger task is putting a championship-level supporting cast around them.
Last year, the Raiders, GM Reggie McKenzie and coach Jack Del Rio showed they’re getting there in reeling off 12 wins. And this year, if what the coaches have seen to this point is any indication—hey have the look of a more physically imposing group on both sides of the ball.
On offense, Murray and Rivera are gone, and in their spots are Lynch and Cook. Both bring elements to the offense that the two they replace couldn’t. Lynch’s punishing style fills a void that Murray wasn’t going to fill, and Cook is the matchup problem in the middle of the field that neither Rivera, nor any NFL tight end that Carr has played with could be.
On the other side of the ball, the addition of big, fast defensive backs in Conley and Melifonwu might as well have been drawn up by coordinator Ken Norton —both were expected to go higher than they did in April.
That’s not to say there aren’t questions here. The linebacker position was a huge need going into the draft – and after Jarrad Davis came off the board three picks before they picked, Oakland waited until the fifth round to take one. The decision to let Musgrave walk and promote the well sought-after Downing will be under some scrutiny. And then, there’s the whole moving-to-Vegas-in-three-years things.
So was it perfect? No. Maybe the staff changes or the holes at linebacker or being a lame-duck will wear on a young team.
But based on what we’ve seen, and with Carr already showing he’s all the way back from his broken leg, it wouldn’t seem smart to count on it. The better bet is the Raiders, behind their three young stallions, stay the upwardly mobile course they set last fall.
Off-season report card: New England Patriots
2016: 14–2, first in AFC East. Super Bowl champions.
Significant additions: CB Stephon Gilmore (FA), WR Brandin Cooks (trade), DE Kony Ealy (trade), TE Dwayne Allen (trade), RB Mike Gillislee (FA)
Significant losses: CB Logan Ryan, RB LeGarrette Blount, TE Martellus Bennett, DL Chris Long
Back in March, when free agency opened, the Patriots were just five weeks removed from their fifth Super Bowl title. If any team was going to surprise during the reckless spending period of the NFL calendar, no one expected it to be them.
Bill Belichick’s team is known for being measured and staid; with the luxury of their collection of rings, they sit back and simply let the market come to them. But this year, about 12 hours before free agency opened and during the negotiating period for teams and players, came news of a stunner.
The Patriots were landing Stephon Gilmore, the former Bills cornerback expected to command top dollar on the open market. And the Patriots weren’t giving him one of those one-year mercenary deals they are known for, or taking advantage of his desire to play for a winner. They were paying Gilmore full market value, a five-year contract worth $65 million, the kind of deal the Patriots generally don’t dole out to players outside of their system.
Yes, New England had more than $60 million in cap space entering free agency, plenty of room to spend. But the Gilmore move was part of an uncharacteristically bold off-season that looked very much like the Patriots pushing all their chips in for a championship—that is, another championship, or two, while Tom Brady is still Tom Brady.
They sent a first-round pick to New Orleans for WR Brandin Cooks, the kind of downfield burner Brady hasn’t had since Randy Moss. They traded their second-round pick to Carolina in exchange for defensive end Kony Ealy (read: future assets in exchange for ones that can help them in the present). After signing Gilmore, conventional Patriots wisdom would have been to trade Malcolm Butler the season before he becomes an unrestricted free agent, as they did last year with Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins. But while the Patriots engaged in trade talks with the Saints, a deal never materialized, keeping Butler in New England with Gilmore to form one of the best cornerback tandems in the league.
Brady has said he wants to play until he’s 45—or 70, if you go off his cheeky video decrying the so-called Madden curse. But the fact that the Patriots did not trade Jimmy Garoppolo this off-season, despite fervent interest in Brady’s backup, is a possible sign that Belichick isn’t betting on having No. 12 for quite that long. You don’t often talk about a reigning Super Bowl champ reloading for the following season, but that’s exactly what the Patriots have done.
That’s not to say they abandoned their usual way of doing business. Anticipating that tight end Martellus Bennett would be too pricey in free agency, they replaced him even before he officially left, trading for Dwayne Allen on the eve of free agency. For the second straight year, they swiped a restricted free agent from the Bills—running back Mike Gillislee—and also took advantage of the little-used May 9 tender to get back compensation for losing LeGarrette Blount to the Eagles. The Patriots also played the Dont’a Hightower situation just right. He made one of the key plays in Super Bowl LI, but they let him test free agency, correctly anticipating that the market for an inside linebacker wouldn’t be robust enough to lure him away from New England. All bread-and-butter plays in the Patriots’ playbook.
Many coaches around the league suspect that Belichick, 65, and Brady, who will turn 40 in August, will retire together. Of course, no one outside of New England truly has any real knowledge of their plans. But this is the point in their partnership when the short term may for once take precedence over the long term—and, at least for the next year or two, that is not welcome news for the rest of the NFL.
Off-season report card: Cleveland Browns
2016: 1–15, fourth in AFC North
Significant Additions: C JC Tretter (FA), OG Kevin Zeitler (FA), DE Myles Garrett (R1), SS Jabrill Peppers (R1), TE David Njoku (R1), WR Kenny Britt (FA)
Significant Losses: QB Robert Griffin III, WR Andrew Hawkins, QB Josh McCown, DB Tramon Williams, WR Terrelle Pryor, DT Stephen Paea, S Jordan Poyer
First- and second-round picks Myles Garrett and Jabrill Peppers add some much needed oomph to a run defense which gave up 4.6 yards per carry last season, but the big improvement here is along the offensive line, which has the chance to coalesce into something special.
Coach Hue Jackson, operating under the safe assumption that a powerful running offense and elite protection will make life easier for whoever is eventually tabbed as their starting quarterback, re-stocked an offensive line that produced 4.9 yards per carry a year ago with free agent additions J.C. Tretter at center and Eric Zeitler at guard. Tretter, 26, was playing the best football of his life in Green Bay last season before a knee injury cut his 2016 short. And Zeitler had emerged in Cincinnati as the top all-around guard in football in many eyes.
Put simply, it’s the Cowboys model; Take an outstanding offensive line, a 1,500 yard runner, and watch your rookie quarterback flourish. The Cowboys just happened to find the line, runner and QB in the span of six drafts and the Browns have been putzing around since choosing Joe Thomas to anchor the offensive line in 2007.
Obviously, Jackson would like to speed up the process, and despite a 1–15 finish, he seems to be identifying future long-term starters on both sides of the ball at a faster rate than his predecessors. Weakside linebacker Chris Kirksey and cornerback Jamar Taylor each offered promising performances for a defense that gave up the second-most yards in the NFL in 2016. Joel Bitonio, 25, was back in 2014 form until an October Lisfranc injury ended his season.
Is the quarterback of the future on the roster yet? Jackson has to hope second-round pick Deshone Kizer puts a stop to the QB carousel that has defined the Browns for the last two decades and some change, but he has his detractors, who point to his on-field decision-making, inaccuracy (Kizer tossed at least one pick in 15 of 23 starts) and decision to leave school a year early. He’s a project, and one the Browns appear comfortable resting on the bench until the offense is good and ready for a daisy-fresh rookie.
The biggest marker for success in Browns-land this season will not be Kizer’s play, but the Year Two test for 2016 rookies Emmanuel Ogbah and Corey Coleman. Understandably, the 22-year-old Coleman struggled after breaking his hand in a September practice. The fact that Cleveland had four different passers throwing the ball with regularity last season didn’t help. Ogbah, 23, turned in 5.5 sacks in 16 starts at defensive end, but really struggled against the run despite the anchoring presence of Danny Shelton on the interior line.
As much as Browns fans would like to see some adequate quarterback play for once, this season should be about finding the right solutions for longterm success on the offensive line with two new high-profile starters, and finally putting an end to a porous run defense that has made Cleveland the AFC North’s doormat long before Jackson showed up. If those units can jell early, consider the 2017 offseason a success.
Off-season report card: Indianapolis Colts
2016: 8–8, third in the AFC South
Significant Additions: S Malik Hooker (R1), CB Quincy Wilson (R2), LB Tarrell Basham (R3), RB Marlon Mack (R4), LB Jabaal Sheard (FA), LB John Simon (FA), WR Kamar Aiken (FA), GM Chris Ballard
Significant Losses: TE Dwayne Allen, LB D’Qwell Jackson, S Mike Adams, GM Ryan Grigson
The Colts’ offseason began with a bang in mid-January, when owner Jim Irsay fired general manager Ryan Grigson. Since drafting QB Andrew Luck with the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL draft, Grigson failed to build a championship-caliber defense to complement his franchise quarterback. From 2012 to ’16, the Colts routinely had one of the worst defenses in the league, ranking 26th, 20th, 11th, 26th and 30th.
To replace Grigson, Irsay hired Chris Ballard, an executive who had spent the last four seasons in the front office of the Kansas City Chiefs, one of premier organizations in the NFL that also—perhaps not coincidentally—had a reputation for building solid defenses. And among Ballard’s first tasks was re-shaping the porous defense in Indianapolis.
When the league year started, Ballard chose to pass up the big-name free-agent defenders like A.J. Bouye, Stephon Gilmore, Calais Campbell or Brandon Williams—all of whom received deals of at least four years worth somewhere between $26 million and $40 million guaranteed. Instead, Ballard found two pass rushers—Jabaal Sheard and John Simon—in the bargain bin, inking them both to team-friendly three-year contracts. Both Sheard and Simon served rotational players for the last two years for the Patriots and Texans respectively, and in their limited roles, they both showed they could pressure the quarterback. In two years, Sheard compiled 13 sacks and Simon 8.5.
Then Ballard turned his focus to the draft, where he found help for his secondary, thanks, in part, to how the top of the draft fell. After the Bears picked Mitchell Trubisky and the Titans chose Corey Davis in the first five picks — both surprises — several of the top defensive prospects were pushed down, which led to Malik Hooker, one of the top safety prospects, falling right into the Colts’ lap. Grigson followed that up by picking a cornerback a tall, press corner from Florida named Quincy Wilson in the second round, and then he added another pass rusher in the third, a high-energy guy from Ohio University named Tarrell Basham.
Ballard had more needs he could have addressed this offseason. Luck could have used more weapons around him perhaps, and the Colts’ offensive line has also been horrible over the last five years with Grigson was in charge. Offensive line was arguably a more pressing need than the defense, too, because a bad offensive line means Luck gets roughed up more and more, and thus the chances of him getting hurt are greater. But Ballard did not address the offensive line in any tangible way, other than drafting Zach Banner, the 6' 8", 350-pound USC tackle in the fourth round, as, presumably a developmental project.
Maybe that’s a sign of just how bad the Colts defense really is. The moves Ballard made won’t fix it overnight, either. But he showed that he at least has a plan to fix it: build a core of young defenders through the draft and find under-the-radar pieces to fill in the gaps. Colts fans may be hoping that next offseason he splurges on a high-priced free agent, too.
Off-season report card: Jacksonville Jaguars
2016: 3–13, fourth in AFC South
Significant Additions: DL Calais Campbell (FA), CB A.J. Bouye (FA), S Barry Church (FA), RB Leonard Fournette (R1), OT Cam Robinson (R2), Tom Coughlin as Executive Vice President of Football Operations, Doug Marrone as head coach
Significant Losses: OT Kelvin Beachum, G Luke Joeckel, S Johnathan Cyprien, CB Prince Amukamara, DL Tyson Alualu, head coach Gus Bradley
This time a year ago, the Jaguars were the hot pick to make a run to the playoffs. QB Blake Bortles’s stastically strong season in 2015 and the flashy players added during free agency made it easy for pundits and fans alike to ignore the fact that Jacksonville was coming off a five-win season.
As we all know, it ended up being a mirage. The Jaguars only won three games, Bortles seemed to regress and the defense allowed more than 25 points a game. Owner Shahid Khan fired coach Gus Bradley and brought in Tom Coughlin as executive vice president above GM Dave Caldwell, which appeared to be the first step in realizing that high-priced free-agency signings doesn’t exactly build a strong team. This would be the first time that Coughlin, who oversaw the Jaguars’ four playoff appearances from 1996–’99, would have control over building a team, but the move just felt ... right.
But even with Coughlin on board, the Jaguars seemed to revert to their same old free-wheeling ways this off-season. When free agency opened, they signed arguably the top cornerback available (A.J. Bouye) and the top defensive lineman available (Calais Campbell), handing over a combined $56 million guaranteed. Then they added safety Barry Church, giving him another $12 million guaranteed.
On paper, the Jaguars seemed to have upgraded their defense immensely, with three new starters. Campbell was a second-team All Pro selection last year, Bouye had a breakout year and finished 12th in the league in passes defended, and Church had proven to be a steady presence with the Dallas Cowboys. But it was also fair to wonder, was this Déjà vu all over again? Take a look at the big-name players that the Jaguars signed during the previous three free agency periods:
2016: Malik Jackson, Tashaun Gipson, Chris Ivory
2015: Julius Thomas and Jared Odrick
2014: Zane Beadles, Ziggy Hood, Toby Gerhart, Chris Clemons, Red Bryant
Of the players signed in 2014 and ’15, none of them are still with the Jaguars. Of the three players the Jaguars signed in 2016, only Malik Jackson—who received $42 million in guarantees over a six-year deal—improved his play after signing. Jackson recorded a career-high 6.5 sacks last year, while Ivory and Gipson both seemed to stagnate.
The Jaguars used their first-round pick to draft Ivory’s replacement in Leonard Fournette—considered by many to be the best running back in the draft. The Jaguars certainly had other needs: offensive line, tight end, defensive tackle, to name a few. But it seems that Coughlin envisioned the 6' 0", 240-pound Fournette as his new Fred Taylor, the workhorse running back who powered those ‘90s Jags teams.
Fournette also may offer the Jaguars something they seem to be searching for with all of these free agent acquisitions: an identity. After six-consecutive losing seasons, Jacksonville is desperate for a star, someone to save them from this ongoing mediocrity. At the very least he should relieve some pressure off Bortles and open up the offense. In time, maybe Fournette, the former All-American LSU running back, will grow into the face of the franchise.
The Jaguars have a new face of the front office, at least, in Coughlin. The question now is whether all these offseason moves are a stroke of genius on Coughlin’s part, or just another example of how the Jaguars seemed destined to make the same mistakes over and over again.
Off-season report card: Tennessee Titans
2016: 9–7, second in AFC South
Significant Additions: CB Logan Ryan (FA), DT Sylvester Williams (FA), S Johnathan Cyprien (FA), WR Corey Davis (R1), CB Adoree’ Jackson (R1), WR Taywan Taylor (R3)
Significant Losses: TE Anthony Fasano, LB Sean Spence, WR Kendall Wright, G Chance Warmack
For general manager Jon Robinson, this off-season was really a continuation of last off-season, when he made the brilliant move of trading the No. 1 pick in the draft to the Rams, allowing Los Angeles to draft QB Jared Goff. Robinson used those extra picks—both last year and this year—to surround Titans QB Marcus Mariota with a better support system.
Armed with the Rams’ first-round pick, the No. 5 overall selection, Robinson chose WR Corey Davis out of Western Michigan—a tall, fast receiver who averaged about 88 catches, 1448 yards, and 15 touchdowns a season in college, and led Western Michigan, a MAC school, to a New Year’s Six bowl game last season. He seems to be exactly the type of alpha-dog, No. 1 receiver that could stretch the field for Mariota for years to come.
Robinson also nabbed WR Taywan Taylor, another small-school receiver, in the third round. Compared to Davis, Taylor is the shorter, shiftier slot receiver. Taylor, who accumulated 98 catches, 1,730 yards and 17 touchdowns in his senior year alone, gives Mariota a safety blanket to check down to.
These moves also pointed to another theme of the Titans’ offseason. Not only was Robinson trying to surround Mariota with more talent, he seemed to be specifically targeting skill positions on offense and defense, making the Titans more athletic overall.
For example, with the Titans’ other first-round pick, the No. 18 overall pick, Robinson chose Adoree’ Jackson, one of the best athletes in the draft. At USC, Jackson primarily played cornerback, but he also moonlighted at receiver and was an elite return man. In his junior year, he had five interceptions and four special teams touchdowns. He could be a weapon at times on offense and in the return game, where he’d give Mariota good field position.
But the way Jackson may help Mariota the most is at his natural position in the secondary. The Titans’ pass defense ranked 30th in the league last year, which meant they played in a few barn-burners and Mariota was pressured to keep up. Robinson addressed the secondary during free agency, too, by, again, adding more athletes, signing Logan Ryan away from the Patriots and Johnathan Cyprien away from the Jaguars. Ryan, a pesky cornerback, was a key contributor to the Patriots’ Super Bowl team, and Cyprien, a hard-hitting strong safety, compiled a 127 tackles last season—the most of any defensive back in the league. And both Ryan and Cyprien are 26 years old, not much older than Mariota.
It’s obvious where Robinson is trying to go with this, building a young nucleus of players to support his quarterback. Mariota is coming back from a broken fibula and entering his third season in the league now, the year most players typically take a leap in their development. If he doesn’t make the leap, he can’t say his GM didn’t help him.