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The NFL’s Worst Off-Seasons of 2020

We are officially in the dead zone in the NFL off-season. Free agency and the draft are both in the rearview as organizations, players, and fans anxiously await the 2020-21 season. Whether or not it starts on time remains to be seen, but the NFL has acted as if things would proceed as normal. As such, we can–no, we are obliged to pass judgment on all that has transpired.

This will be a two-part exercise focusing on the best and worst laid plans from this off-season. We will begin with the bad news first, so apologies to any fans of the teams that follow. It may have been overpaying in free agency or reaching in the draft. It could be the opposite where a team was too frugal or patient and missed out on a prospect.

However you slice it, it wasn’t good….

Worst Offseasons of the NFL in 2020

3. Chicago Bears

Our countdown begins with the Chicago Bears. Coming off of a rather disappointing 2019 where they went 8-8, this is not what fans want to hear. They peaked in 2018, going 12-4, but fell back to Earth and have been trying to piecemeal their way back to prominence. That’s what happens when your general manager goes all-in on a project quarterback.

Trying to remedy their mishandling of the quarterback position with journeyman Nick Foles is less than inspiring. But when you add in the draft capital it took to get him, the deal triggers something worse. Robert Quinn should boost the pass rush so his big payday may well be justified. Jimmy Graham did well for himself to get the deal he did. Let’s just leave it at that.

The draft was a chance to make it right but opinions on if the Bears accomplished that. Chicago landed the draft’s top tight end but did so at the expense of higher-rated players at bigger areas of need like safety, a hole they filled with Tashaun Gipson. Their second pick, cornerback Jaylon Johnson received better reviews, even if tempered by his shoulder issue. The rest of the picks were developmental.

Chicago, operating under financial constraints of their own making, came out of the offseason without being substantially better on paper. Aside, perhaps, from Foles though they are largely counting on 2018 being closer to who they really are than the debacle of 2019. Well, that and scrap-heap offensive linemen. Not exactly encouraging.

2. Green Bay Packers

Staying in the NFC North for this one, the Green Bay Packers have seemed to be working multiple angles heading into the 2020 season. They ended 2019 one game away from the Super Bowl. But everything since has been with an eye towards the future. They traded up to take quarterback, drafted a running back in the second round and spent big money on a middle linebacker and right tackle.

General manager Brian Gutekunst has been much more active than his predecessor but this off-season was reminiscent of days past. Two of Green Bay’s acquisitions were linebacker Christian Kirksey and wide receiver Devin Funchess. Kirksey has only played in nine games the past two seasons while Funchess appeared in just one game for the Colts last season.

Their draft wasn’t bad in a vacuum, especially taking Love with a 36-year-old Aaron Rodgers. Brett Favre can attest to that. But the pick of a running back in AJ Dillon that, barring an injury, is the third-stringer. The Packers took their second pass-catching tight end in as many seasons but ignored the receiver room, opting for experience and internal improvement.

Green Bay’s off-season is saved by Love’s talent (regardless of any other factors) and Ricky Wagner. That’s a far cry from the praise they rightfully received last off-season. Teams don’t spend big every year. That would actually be a bad thing. But for a team that was so close to playing for a championship, this off-season has left a lot to be desired.

1. Houston Texans

You probably know where this is going. Anytime a team trades away a player that is ranked at or near the top of his position, you better have a damn good reason for doing so. For the Houston Texans, that reason appears to be Bill O’Brien; the head coach slash de-facto general manager. Not only that, but it doesn’t appear he has done enough to replace that player.

Rumored to be displeased with DeAndre Hopkins’ influence in the locker room and desire for a new deal, B.O.B. went bold. He traded the stud wideout to Arizona. This is where it gets weird. O’Brien felt compelled to take back the bloated contract of running back David Johnson. And you’d be forgiven if you felt Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb combined didn’t make up for the loss of Hopkins.

Even weirder, usually following a move such as the Hopkins trade, teams try to draft the next guy to replace them. It’s true Cooks and Cobb were brought in, but this was a deep class at receiver. Instead, the Texans replaced a different key cog in D.J. Reader. It’s never a bad thing to build in the trenches. But that idiom is usually reserved for guys who get after the quarterback.

Houston also ignored the offensive line outside of a fourth-rounder. That’s not enough, even with last year’s trade of Laremy Tunsil, for a team that ranked eighth in sacks allowed in 2019. O’Brien might be trying too hard to channel his inner Bill Belichick, fielding an offense without a true number one receiver. The problem is, when the Patriots had a chance to get a true number one in Randy Moss, they did. O’Brien is hustling backward.

Worst NFL Offseasons of 2020

This is just one half of the coin. In our next installment, we’ll address the best off-seasons. But it’s hard to ignore the holes in the plans of these organizations. Of course, they could always prove the doubters wrong. But these teams’ decisions make it seem like they are fighting demons of their own creation. That rarely ends well for those involved.

Quarterbacks (Unsurprisingly) Dominating Off-Season Headlines

All of you “defense wins championships” folks will hate to read this but, the 2020 NFL off-season is just another dominated by quarterbacks. They’ve dominated the headlines and are the object around which NFL general managers formulate their off-season plans. Even the ones who are trying to build their defenses do so with the intent of negating opposing quarterbacks.

Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs just gave us our most recent example of this playing out. A stout San Francisco 49ers defense (2nd in yards per game allowed) couldn’t hold the third-year, former MVP down for an entire four quarters. In a league that has shifted so far towards favoring offenses, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Quarterback Talk Will Dominate Headlines Again

Background

Since the league went to 32 teams, the NFL has seen its average pass completions per game jump from 20.1 in 2002 to 22.1 in 2019. It should also be noted that the 2002 number was a relative outlier. The average was around 19.3 and lower the six years prior and four years after the ‘02 season. But all this proves is that teams are passing that much more, right?

Wrong! In this same period, pass attempts have gone from 33.8 18 years ago to 34.9 this past season. That’s an increase of nearly three completions per game but only 1.1 more attempts. Put simply, quarterbacks got more accurate as displayed in the average completion percentage rising nearly four points from 59.6 percent to 63.5 percent.

Any number of metrics can back this up, but we only need to look at the headlines to see the trend. Mahomes winning Super Bowl MVP aside, the next biggest talking point has been about where Tom Brady will play in 2020. He’s 42 years old and didn’t have his best season (statistically or via the eye test) but that hasn’t stopped the rumor mill from churning.

Pro-Style

Among the many hypothesized destinations have been the newly-dubbed Las Vegas Raiders, the Los Angeles Chargers, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In addition to the potential drawbacks to making a large commitment to a quarterback who is less than a decade away from AARP eligibility, all of these teams have quarterbacks either in place or in limbo.

Those incumbents have also been the subjects of trade rumors in their own rights. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers recently moved (a la Brady) to Florida turning up the volume on speculation he could be elsewhere in 2020. Cam Newton has been tabbed by speculators to replace him in L.A. after his Carolina Panthers hired a new head coach and general manager.

It isn’t just the big-name guys getting all the headlines either. Cincinnati Bengals free-agent quarterback Andy Dalton, an average starting quarterback by most metrics, has been spoken of as a possible savior for teams viewed by many as being a “quarterback away” from being true contenders. Even perceived busts like Marcus Mariota of the Tennessee Titans have been given new life by the rumor mill.

Incoming

The NFL Draft is in April and guess what position the presumed first pick, Joe Burrow, plays. Yep, quarterback. A draft that is thought to be strong at wide receiver and other skill positions could have five passers go in the first round. Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa is one of those prospects and he is recovering from a serious hip injury just to illustrate.

Ohio State defensive end Chase Young at the top of a lot of big boards and the Bengals have a significant need for a pass rusher. But that is dwarfed by their need to upgrade the quarterback position. This illustrates the shift in ideology. Rather than build from the trenches, Cincinnati is set to pick Burrow based on one (historic) season.

Even supposed projects or guys missing something are getting first-round love. Justin Herbert was buzzing last year but needed the Senior Bowl to solidify his spot near the top of the draft. The Jacob Easons and Jordan Loves of the world, though, are first-rounders based more on potential than production.

Face Facts

This isn’t some earth-shattering revelation. The transition to a quarterback-driven league has been advertised and vocalized to the point that it’s almost fait accompli you’ll hear “it’s a quarterback-driven league” after a play. The announcers and pundits know it. The fans know it.

Even the league knows it. After revamping the protections on quarterbacks and receivers some years back, the NFL did so again recently. The most heavily debated being challenging pass interference. It’s a change that can and has aided defenses but was clearly developed with offenses in mind.

This might not even just apply to current and future quarterbacks either. It’s fair to wonder if the controversial Colin Kaepernick would be such a lightning rod if he played any other position. His very vocal supporter and former teammate Eric Reid did sign a multi-year deal last February.

Headlines Were Made for Quarterbacks

Again, this isn’t exactly new or revolutionary, we’ve always idolized the quarterback position.  But it has become more intentional along with the devaluation of the running back has been the elevation of the quarterback. Super Bowl Sunday was just a reminder that while defense wins (conference) championships, it is quarterbacks that win Super Bowls.