Who had the best off-season in the NFL ahead of the 2020 season? It’s a fair question on its own, but even more so after we laid into the worst of the worst in our previous installment. That list included two members of the NFC North and one AFC South representative. This time around, three divisions are represented and we still span both conferences.
2020’s Best NFL Off-Seasons
3. Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills, who went 10-6, had by far the best 2019 of any of the teams mentioned here. But that in and of itself was a surprise so the efforts made by the front office to make it a regular occurrence is encouraging. It doesn’t hurt they made one of the biggest moves of the offseason and followed our theme of surrounding your young passer with targets.
Maybe it doesn’t really qualify as a free agent acquisition, trading for Stefon Diggs was big time. Their package that included only one pick in the first round is good value; only outdone by the Cardinals nabbing Hopkins. Head coach Sean McDermott didn’t just give his quarterback someone to lean on. He brought in a number of his former Panthers players to further his defense.
In the draft, Buffalo surprised many by going with A.J. Espenesa but they needed a power end who could set the edge. The real smart pick was Zack Moss to pair with Devin Singletary. The diminutive pair should make for a nice crutch for Josh Allen and the passing game. Getting Gabriel Davis in the fourth was also a nice steal.
Buffalo has a path to owning the AFC East now that the Patriots as we know them are no more. But with the Dolphins fast-tracking their rebuild and the Jets still growing around Sam Darnold, it won’t be easy. It appears the front office recognizes this and has set out to ensure they are the next perennial winners of the division.
2. Denver Broncos
Offensive weapons are the name of the game in today’s NFL and in this article. The Denver Broncos off-season has been a terrific example of how to go about stockpiling them. They already have their franchise quarterback and a 1,000-yard receiver and running back in the trio of Drew Lock, Courtland Sutton, and Phillip Lindsay. That didn’t stop them.
Free agency saw the Broncos lose Ronald Leary, Connor McGovern, Chris Harris, and Derek Wolfe (all starters) but replace all four. And in a surprising case of the rich getting richer, they also managed to lure Melvin Gordon over after the division-rival Los Angeles Chargers let him walk. Gordon and Lindsay are the best 1-2 running back combo in the league.
Sometimes the draft just falls in your favor. That happened when Lock fell to Denver a year ago and it happened again in this draft. Jerry Jeudy was in the conversation to be the first wide receiver taken and even a top-five pick. So his falling to 15 is almost inconceivable. Add to that landing KJ Hamler in the second round and you see why Lock was quoted saying the Broncos “…got some stallions”.
Denver went 7-9 with lock going 4-1 completing 64 percent of his passes for 1,020 yards, seven touchdowns, and three picks. That is impressive for a player thought to be too raw to start as a rookie. With a year under his belt and an improved supporting cast, Lock is poised to breakout. It’s too soon to be talking dark-horse MVP candidate, but Offensive Player of the Year, maybe?
1. Arizona Cardinals
An off-season in which a team nabs a versatile, top-tier talent in the draft after stealing arguably the best wide receiver in the league absolutely has to make any list of best off-seasons. When that team’s other moves highlight their desire to improve their porous defense, like the Arizona Cardinals, they have a good shot at “winning” the off-season.
Free agency was too kind to the Cards. DeAndre Hopkins is third in receptions and yards and is second in touchdowns since he entered the league in 2013. All it took to land him was David Johnson’s bloated deal and a mid-round pick. The Houston Texans made the bad version for this list largely on this trade. Adding De’Vondre Campbell, Jordan Phillips, and Devon Kennard should make Chandler Jones happy.
The reinforcement of the defense didn’t stop in free agency, either. Arizona took Isaiah Simmons of Clemson with the eighth overall pick. The versatile defender will play linebacker to start but expect him to line up all over the field in just as he did in college. Getting Houston tackle Josh Jones in the third round is a boon.
If there is one knock on what the Cardinals did it has to be they didn’t add more talent to the offensive line. Adding Jones and free-agent addition Marcus Gilbert is nice, but Kyler Murray took 48 sacks last season. That number will come down as he learns to get rid of the ball quicker or pull it down and run sooner. But the offensive line was not good in 2019. Will it improve in 2020?
Best Off-Seasons of 2020 in the NFL
This was not meant to be a slight to the other teams that had really strong off-seasons. The Dallas Cowboys, Carolina Panthers, and Baltimore Ravens all had great off-seasons as well. But Dallas and Carolina lost Travis Frederick and Luke Kuechly, no small blows, and Baltimore was 14-2 last season. It’s hard to see them winning more games in 2020.
Will D Clark Joins Steven in another edition of Punching the Clock. We Gave our Final thoughts on “The Last Dance” and Re-Drafted the very intriguing 2001 NFL Redraft.
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.
The 2020 NFL Draft has come and gone, the most viewed televised draft in history. 55 million over the three days. I think it’s safe to attribute that to the nation’s quarantine policies and draft being completely virtual. Though it was an interesting outcome seeing commissioner Roger Goodell call out draft picks in his man cave from in front of his big-screen to his lounging chair by the third round. Another fun aspect was seeing the draftees and their families’ reactions when their names were called of new members of club NFL.
We even had comic relief, some of the best moments was seeing 17th pick wide receiver CeeDee Lamb showing off his hand-eye coordination by snatching his cellphone back from his girlfriend. How about defensive tackle, and 14th pick, Javon Kinlaw‘s father falling off the couch when his son was selected.
Lastly, and maybe the best one, was the 29th selection, offensive tackle Isaiah Wilson‘s mom yanking his girlfriend out the camera shot, (after she appeared to resist the first request). This was one of the deepest drafts in recent memory, teams could find solid value through all seven rounds. Only time will tell, let us not forget 20 years ago one of the greatest players in NFL history was found in the sixth round, Tom Brady.
2020 Bears Draft Recap
Mixed Emotions on Chicago Picks
Chicago’s draft was met with an array of feelings as the team decided for their first pick to opt for drafting the best of the worst, as far as depth, in this year’s crop. That was at the tight end position, the 43rd-overall pick Cole Kmet from Notre Dame, the 6’5″ 250-pounder is expected to come in and contribute immediately. Kmet did have an impressive junior year campaign amassing over 500 yards receiving and six touchdowns helping Notre Dame to an 11-2 record. Fun fact: those six touchdowns were all he had for his college career.
The team’s second selection, 50th overall, was more of a relief, picking Utah cornerback Jaylon Johnson, another junior who finished with 7 career interceptions. The one big question surrounding Johnson is not his play but his health, he played the entire season with a torn labrum. Chicago then maneuvered to move up to the third round to grab EDGE Trevis Gipson out of Tulsa. A solid addition to provide more edge rush depth. Here are the rest of the new Chicago Bears as follows:
- CB Kindle Vildor from Georgia Southern (4th rd)
- WR Darnell Mooney from Tulane (5th rd)
- OT Arlington Hambright from Colorado (6th rd)
- OT Lachavious Simmons from Tennessee State (7th rd)
What to Grade Chicago’s Draft: C+
Grading the Bears 2020 draft can be debated but that’s my mark on it. Hey at least it’s a passing grade even though it started out shaky, they brought it up though. The immediate response was, “What are you doing??” Needs for the team are offensive line, wide receiver, and secondary; specifically safety. The team circumvented what direction they should’ve gone (see my previous article) but recovered some. As you’ll see, predictions were dead on as two of them went 44th & 46th.
Initially, it started out as a D, drafting a tight end to an already overcrowded position which brought the number to 10 (since down to nine) on the roster. Not to mention signing free agents Demetrius Harris and Jimmy Graham. With Kmet added unless the plan is to convert some of the many tight ends to offensive linemen, maybe Adam Shaheen, expect to see no more than four on the roster.
Speaking of offensive line it appears the staff is content with the unit as is and the free agents from the clearance rack they invested in. Seeing that the offensive line wasn’t addressed until the end of the draft. Possibly the addition of the new offensive line coach, 24-year vet Juan Castillo, will add improvement.
General manager Ryan Pace made strong moves thereafter adding substantial depth on the defensive side of the ball snatching up corner Jaylon Johnson and moving into the third round to bolster pass rush getting Trevis Gipson. He was even able to get considerable value in the fifth at wide receiver with Darnell Mooney, fast, he will need time to develop though.
What to Expect in 2020
With the current state of the sports world, it’s hard to gauge what to expect. Any team-related activities are virtual, there’s no timetable of when facilities will be open for players and coaches to meet. It’s an unprecedented time in the league right now, so we all have to play it by ear. At least the other teams in the division drafts were lackluster except for the Minnesota Vikings.
If there is a silver lining it’s the signing of Ledarius Mack, we can have the “Mack Attack” here on the defense. This could end up being Pace’s best move of this draft. Mack’s journey to the NFL can be compared to Vikings Hall of Fame defensive tackle John Randle, who was drafted 30 years ago. Talk about history repeating itself, Randle also had an older brother in the NFL, Ervin Randle.
It doesn’t stop there, the similarities of both Mack and Randle are uncanny! Both were considered undersized at their positions at 6’1, Mack weighing 240 lbs and Randle 244 lbs. Think of the possibilities of playing with and learning from your brother who’s a defensive player of the year and considered one of the best if not the best at his position. We could soon be witnessing history here in the Windy City but time will tell.
We’re only a few hours away from the 2020 NFL Draft which was supposed to take place in Las Vegas but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an unprecedented change had to be made. The NFL will have it’s first virtual draft from the home of Commissioner Roger Goodell. It’s like the ultimate “real life” fantasy draft, just think about it. Don’t worry about it, us fantasy players get it! The evening’s historic festivities begin with the Cincinnati Bengals picking first.
The first four selections seem to be locked according to several mock drafts starting with Heisman winning QB Joe Burrow of LSU. Two through four have EDGE Chase Young, cornerback Jeff Okudah (both from Ohio State), and Isaiah Simmons, a linebacker from Clemson going to the Washington Redskins, Detroit Lions, and New York Giants respectively. Simmons may slip from that fourth slot but the rest of the first round is murky and up in the air. With teams bound to make trades, wheeling and dealing, we’ll just have to see where the chips fall.
Bears and Draft Day
What will Chicago Do
The Chicago Bears and general manager Ryan Pace have an extra day to prepare as they have no first day selections. Remember the Khalil Mack trade in 2018 with the Oakland Raiders, (now Las Vegas)? If not, a quick refresher: Chicago’s first-round pick this year (19) was part of the deal; which was well worth Mack. Bears have seven picks in total this year with the first coming in the second round at 43rd and then 50th, they don’t pick again until the fifth round. So with that said Pace and the organization really need to make those first two picks difference makers.
What direction will the Bears decide to go? What direction should they go? The answer should be simple. Offensive line first, secondly wide receiver and a distant last, safety. Good thing the draft will be loaded at the most needed positions. Looking at the offensive line in 2019, besides quarterback, was the most inconsistent part of an offensive unit that failed to score a touchdown in the first half in 11 of 16 games. Chicago ranked in the bottom half of the league in all major offensive categories. 27th in rushing, 25th in passing, 29th in both total yards and scoring, 31st in yards per play and 32nd in yards per pass attempt.
Chicago’s line struggles can be attributed to injuries, pro bowl guard Kyle Long was lost to a hip injury after just 4 games, who has also since retired. Long was then replaced by Rashaad Coward who was a converted defensive lineman. Right tackle Bobby Massie suffered an ankle injury that put him on the shelf for the last five games of the season. Need we say anything more, to compete offensively in the NFL your foundation starts up front.
In regards to wide receiver, it appears that Taylor Gabriel didn’t quite fit the role the team was expecting him to. As evidenced by Pace releasing the six-year veteran. In two seasons in Chicago Gabriel had 96 receptions, 1041 yards, and six touchdowns. The Bears now need to add a speedy downfield threat to fill in that slot position. That would be a welcomed addition for Anthony Miller and Allen Robinson, who led the team with a career-best 98 receptions, 1147 yards, and seven touchdowns.
What Prospects Will the Bears Select?
At this point, it would be easy to say the best offensive lineman available but with the teams first pick not coming until Friday at selection 43, get the best value at positions in need. Unless there’s a player they’ve targeted that they believe will be there later, then they can work out a trade to move down and possibly get another pick, say, in the 3rd round. With that being said here are some players the Bears should have an eye on:
- Justin Jefferson WR LSU – Great hands, physical receiver, 4.4 speed
- Grant Delpit S LSU – Second-ranked safety prospect, value pick, good size, and coverage skills
- Cesar Ruiz OL Michigan – True Center would allow Cody Whitehair to move back to his natural guard position
- KJ Hamler WR Penn State – Second-fastest WR in the draft, strong for his size, 5’9 176lbs, downfield threat
Now time to see if any of these players will be the next Chicago Bear.
All good things must come to an end and, thus, we have reached that point with our Best and Worst series. Our final installment takes on the NFC West. There hasn’t been too much change at the top, but a cellar-dweller seems poised to make some noise in 2021 and a former contender suddenly has a need to retool.
Best and Worst of Free Agency: NFC West
Best Move: Nuking the Competition
The best trade of the offseason may be up for debate. Rob Gronkowski to Tampa has made it interesting. But the Arizona Cardinals trade (see: fleecing) with the Houston Texans for stud wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins might take the cake. Not only did they get arguably the best receiver in the game today, but they also moved the massive contract of running back David Johnson.
Murray, the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, got through last season with the ageless Larry Fitzgerald as his top option. Fitz is a Hall of Famer without a doubt, but at this point, Hopkins is undoubtedly the better receiver. At least one writer thought Kyler Murray would be the MVP next season. That number is sure to rise now.
Worst Move: Not Protecting the Franchise
It just wouldn’t be a Best and Worst installment without lamenting an organization’s failure to address a porous offensive line. Murray tied with Matt Ryan and Russell Wilson for the league-lead with 48 sacks taken. Sure, some of that could be attributed to rookie struggles. But the Cards line was just as much of an issue in 2018 with Josh Rosen.
Murray mobile to say the least so it’s also not a stretch to say he covered up some of the deficiencies of the line. Arizona re-signed Marcus Gilbert, who didn’t see the field in 2019, and has starting center A.Q. Shipley sitting in limbo. He’s started every game for the last three years. With four picks in the first four rounds (but no second-rounder) watch for a couple of linemen to land in the desert.
Next Move: Stop…Anybody
Arizona’s offense should be very formidable next season. Murray, Fitz, Nuk, and the re-signed Kenyan Drake can be as good as any other group in the division. But the defense needs a LOT of work. They finished 2019 ranked 24th in rushing yards allowed and 31st in passing yards allowed.
They were in the top-10 in ESPN’s Pass Rush Win-Rate metric and had Chandler Jones’ 19.5 sacks (2nd) so the issue isn’t the pass rush, though Jones could use a running mate. Rookie cornerback Byron Murphy had a rough season opposite Patrick Peterson who was involved in trade rumors last season. The biggest issue is a lack of playmakers; Arizona ranked 27th in takeaways.
Los Angeles Rams
Best Move: Ummm…
This offseason has been…interesting for the Los Angeles Rams with not much of it being in a good way. They’ve had to cut their high-priced running back due to injury concerns. Cap issues have forced them to watch pass rusher Dante Fowler (who had 11.5 sacks) head to Atlanta. They also managed to retain Michael Brockers after his deal with Baltimore fell through.
Los Angeles did add A’Shawn Robinson from Detroit and Leonard Floyd from Chicago. So maybe that’s the best thing for the Rams this offseason. That they were able to add anyone (they’re currently $6 million over the cap) is remarkable. They even took advantage of the halt in physicals to keep Brockers and Floyd on hold while deciding who to keep or how to keep both.
Worst Move: Lack of Foresight
This might be the most obvious of all the sections so far. The Rams were a sub-.500 team just four years ago and deserve credit for their quick turnaround from that to appearing in Super Bowl LIII. But the cost has been immense and the bill has finally come due. Now they will have to navigate the next couple seasons with financial constrictions and no first-round picks.
Bears fans will tell you how much that lack of picks in the first round hurts. You can’t readily remedy a poor selection from the year before. And if you do, you have to hamstring yourself in future drafts; if you survive, that is. Luckily for L.A. they still have talent on the roster and who they believe is the franchise in Jared Goff under center.
Next Move: Practice Patience
Patience might as well be a four-letter word in the sports world. Almost no one is in favor of slow, drawn-out processes and the Rams were no different. Their mortgaging of the future paid off with that Super Bowl berth. Now, though, they might need to shift their focus. They were able to take advantage of Goff’s rookie deal and his extension has tightened the purse strings.
That isn’t a bad thing, or at least it doesn’t have to be. They should use this time, and the lowered expectations, to figure out who they really are. Most teams will look good when stacked like the Rams were. But when the onus has to be on the quarterback (second contract status), you get to see the truth. Goff is flawed and benefitted heavily from his head coach. They have to see if he can be more.
San Francisco 49ers
Best Move: Adding Another 1st
Trading away a key member from a unit that was your biggest strength is rarely a good idea but that’s where the San Francisco 49ers find themselves after flipping defensive lineman DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts for a first-round pick. Buckner and linemate Arik Armstead were reminiscent of John Henderson and Marcus Stroud in their heyday.
Buckner’s trade aided the Niners in retaining Armstead, who just re-signed for five years and $85 million with $48.5 million guaranteed. But more important, San Francisco didn’t get jobbed like many of the deals we saw go down; Arizona’s robbing of Houston comes to mind. Not only did they get a good deal, getting a first-rounder back moves this deal to ‘great’ territory.
Worst Move: Not Getting WR2
The not-so-subtle implication here is that the 49ers already have a top option at the wide receiver position. That option would be Deebo Samuel who, as a rookie, caught 57 balls for 802 yards. He showed versatility, too, toting the rock 14 times for 159 yards. He had 6 total touchdowns. But after him, the 49ers are banking on a lot of unrealized potential.
Emmanuel Sanders (36 receptions, 502 yards) is now in New Orleans. Kendrick Bourne had just six fewer catches than Sanders and only had 358 yards. They all fall in behind tight end George Kittle, but that doesn’t mean ignore the position altogether. Teams will be better prepared for the run game in 2020 and Jimmy Garoppolo will be forced to answer the challenge. Make it easier for him, San Francisco.
Next Move: Plan for the Future
Aside from another receiving threat and offensive line depth, the 49ers offense is largely set. And despite their defensive dominance, that side of the ball could be worth a look. They will likely replace Buckner with an incumbent and/or draft pick, but they might need to look at EDGE too with rumors they were looking to move pass rusher Dee Ford and linebacker Kwon Alexander.
But their biggest need might be cornerback. Richard Sherman is a three-time All-Pro, five-time Pro Bowler, and Super Bowl Champ. He’s also on the wrong side of 30 and had a poor game in Super Bowl LIV, reminding everyone of his struggles with speedy receivers. Well, receivers won’t be getting slower and Sherm isn’t getting any younger. The 49ers should be proactive in finding his successor.
Best Move: Letting the Market Play Out
It wouldn’t have shocked anyone if the Seattle Seahawks ponied up and paid Jadeveon Clowney. They didn’t give up much for him, but the three-time Pro Bowler was thought to be one of the premier pass-rushing threats in free agency, if not the entire NFL. Seattle, not exactly flush with cap space, didn’t move too quickly and might benefit from that.
We are less than two days away from the NFL Draft and Clowney is still a free agent. This despite being linked to multiple teams in rumors. Perhaps his extensive medical history played a role as teams are wary of paying big money for an injury risk without the ability to conduct a physical. But Clowney only had three sacks last season. That wee production could be to Seattle’s benefit.
Worst Move: Living DangeRuss
Is it possible the Seahawks offensive line got worse? A group that is far better executing the run game than the passing attack. Seattle also lost Germain Ifedi (16 starts) and George Fant (seven starts) to free agency. They did retain Mike Iupati and added Cedric Ogbuehi and B.J. Finney. Ifedi and Fant weren’t setting the world on fire, but Ogbuehi and Finney had all of four starts in 2019, all by Finney.
Wilson is a wizard at the quarterback position. His ability to extend plays and improvise when the play breaks down is unmatched. But Seattle has never protected him commensurate to his value. That has to change and the draft is a great place to do so. They have tackle Duane Brown but he, along with Iupati, is on the older side. By any measure, the Seahawks need to address this.
Next Move: Find the Pass Rush
The Seahawks tied for 31st in sacks in 2019 with 28. That is the lowest ranking and total in the Pete Caroll era. Their top sack artist, Rasheem Green, had a grand total of four. This is part of the reason why letting Clowney (and Ezekiel Ansah for that matter) sit in limbo while they weigh their options. There isn’t a ton of production on the line.
That isn’t to say they wouldn’t welcome either back, just at the right price. But there is also the avenue of the draft. Some mocks have them targeting Yetur Gross-Matos of Penn State in the first round. That would be a good start but don’t be surprised to see them double down on the position. They need all the help they can get with or without Clowney and Ansah.
We are 75 percent of the way through our trip around the NFL judging the best and worst from the free agency period. We arrive at our final two divisions, the Wests. As we have done with our other installments, we will go over the AFC West first. This is the division of the world champs whose grip on it shouldn’t be expected to loosen any time soon.
Best and Worst of Free Agency: AFC West
Best Move: Landing a Workhorse
Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio is a defensive-minded coach. Those types almost always build their offenses around strong running games. So it shouldn’t have been a big surprise to see Denver be in on one of the most versatile runners in the NFL today, even with local-son Phillip Lindsay in tow.
Lindsay has amassed 2048 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns over the last two seasons. But at 5’8” and under 200 lbs, the Broncos have been reluctant to ride him. Melvin Gordon (6’1”, 215 lbs) doesn’t carry the same worries. Gordon is also a better weapon out of the backfield with 490 receiving yards in 2018 (his last full year) to 437 for Lindsay in his career.
Worst Move: None
This is another where it may seem like a cop-out. But the reality is Denver is smack dab in the middle of a rebuild. Expecting them to be major players in free agency is flawed. Sure, they could have been and could have used the available talent. But building through the draft and making smart free-agent acquisitions is never the wrong choice.
We could certainly nitpick and say they didn’t do enough to upgrade their pass protection or that replacing Chris Harris with A.J. Bouye isn’t a safe bet. We could say they should move Von Miller (they shouldn’t) to cash in on his name while his value is still high. But they have a nice mix of veterans and young guys right now. It’s a good blend.
Next Move: Find WR2
Courtland Sutton has the looks of a stud wide receiver. He turned 124 targets into 72 catches for 1112 yards and six scores with poor quarterback play. But after him, Denver is less than thin. Their second-leading receiver was Emmanuel Sanders who was traded midway through the season, with 30 catches for 367 yards.
The Broncos picked a good time to need a receiver. This draft is believed to be deep enough to produce starter-quality options well into the second day of selections. With their top option at receiver, workhorse and scat backs, and their quarterback of the future, all Denver needs is a receiver to take the top off the defense. That is if you think the offensive line play will hold up.
Kansas City Chiefs
Best Move: Retaining Dominant D-Lineman
Chris Jones is a dominant force for the Kansas City Chiefs. A Pro Bowler last year, Jones had a better season in 2018 than in 2019. He finished fifth in pressures that season and while that number fell in 2019, he still made an impact. Jones was credited with three pass deflections in Super Bowl LIV. He also missed three games explaining at least some of the drop from 15.5 sacks to nine (still a good total).
Slapping Jones with the franchise tag is far from solving the problem. Jones wants, deserves, and will get paid. Whether or not Kansas City is the organization to pony up remains to be seen. Rumors of potential trades have swirled since before he signed is tender. But that is a worry for another day. For now, the Chiefs did well to keep him in town.
Worst Move: Missing the Flash Sale
This one might take some convincing, but the Chiefs missed the boat letting the Broncos poach Gordon from the Los Angeles Chargers. Now, if you are done laughing yes, the Chiefs just won the Super Bowl with Damien Williams and all of his 498 regular-season rushing yards and 213 receiving yards.
Kansas City doesn’t need Gordon, that much is true. But the potential of this offense and Patrick Mahomes with Gordon’s dual-threat abilities is scary high. Kansas City had their way with much of the league with Williams and the ghost of LeSean McCoy. Adding Gordon would have made the Chiefs prohibitive favorites to win the whole thing again.
Next Move: Find Another Sammy
Sammy Watkins returning to the Chiefs is a win for Mahomes. Tyreek Hill is the top option, but Watkins has performed like a number one receiver on more than one occasion. Kansas City restructured Watson’s contract to keep the band together but they shouldn’t rest on their laurels just yet.
Watkins has had a problem staying healthy in his relatively short career, only appearing in a full 16 games just once; his rookie season. That injury history is a large part of why the Chiefs were ever able to get him. Had he stayed healthy he might still be in Buffalo catching passes from Josh Allen. Instead, the Chiefs need to remember his body of work and not just his 2019.
Las Vegas Raiders
Best Move: Physically Moving
The Raiders last winning season came in 2016. Before that, it was 2002. That’s one winning season in 17 years. That kind of awful streak is sure to breed apathy among a fan base. So, despite the decrying from nostalgia nuts, the move from Oakland to Las Vegas is not only welcome but long overdue.
Waning attendance and (the bigger issue) a contract dispute over the Coliseum led to this and no one should be upset. If fans in Oakland are, they should be with their elected officials, any deal that they want to be done typically gets done. But the rest of us should indulge in this. In the imagery of the team with the pirate logo and colorful past now reside in Sin City. Glorius.
Worst Move: Spending on MLB
This is splitting hairs a bit. Las Vegas needed a middle linebacker anyway, but especially after letting Tahir Whitehead walk in free agency. They remedied that by signing former Chicago Bears reserve Nick Kwiatkoski to a three-year, $21 million deal. It’s not a large deal but there are definitely risks coming with it.
Kwiatkoski made for a nice fill-in player for the Bears. At different points, he has either come off the bench or started in place of starters Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith. But he has never been tasked with starting more than half a season. That’s plenty of tape to draw a conclusion, but that’s not the issue. Kwiatkoski is limited (the logic for Chicago choosing Trevathan) and Oakland needs a dynamic playmaker in the worst way.
Next Move: Keep Trucking
Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock have taken plenty of flack for their decisions (drafting Clelin Ferrell fourth overall comes to mind) and for just being them. But they have a clear vision for the type of players they want and what they want this franchise to be on the football field. Realizing that vision is always a matter of chance. But Gruden and Mayock have been far more competent than we initially gave them credit for.
In that vein, the Raiders need to keep doing what they have been doing (didn’t think you’d get to read that when Gruden got hired, did ya?). Continue to build through the draft and even the reclamation projects like Marcus Mariota are smart. That one, in particular, is one to watch. It’s no secret that Gruden and starting quarterback Derek Carr have been anything but a match made in Heaven.
Los Angeles Chargers
Best Move: The Patriot Way
No, this isn’t insanity, the Patriot Way definitely made its way West. Philip Rivers leaves the Chargers the all-time leader in passing yards on franchise history. He also leaves retaining every bit of the gunslinger mentality that fans undoubtedly came to both love and loathe at times.
Rivers averaged just over 28 touchdowns per season in 14 seasons as the full-time starter. He had 23 last season and 32 in 2018. He averaged a little over 14 interceptions in that same span and had 20 in 2019 and 12 in 2018. So, it would seem, his 2018 when the Chargers made the playoffs for the first time in five years, was the outlier. Smart move, Los Angeles.
Worst Move: Falling For It
Earlier in this piece, the Broncos received praise for giving a running back a new contract. On their side were the short length and relatively-small dollar mount (two years, $16 million with $13 million guaranteed. Los Angeles handing Austin Ekeler four years for $24.5 million and $15 million in guarantees. That’s a risky proposition for a player with no more than eight starts in any given season.
Next Move: Finding QB1
Naturally, after Rivers moved on to the Indianapolis Colts, and really even before, names were getting linked to the Chargers for 2020. From Jameis Winston to Cam Newton to Tom Brady, Los Angeles was viewed as a top landing spot. They settled on Tyrod Taylor, even announcing as much. But he is, at best, a stop-gap option.
With the NFL Draft just a few days away and an older (and average) starter in place, it makes sense for the Chargers to be looking at one of the top passers coming in. Do they trade up for Tua Tagovailoa whose game is like Taylor’s on steroids or maybe Jalen Hurts who might be somewhere in between those two, or Justin Herbert who is more like the departed Rivers?
Our Best and Worst series is in full bore. We’ve already covered the AFC and NFC North, the AFC and NFC East, and we just finished our AFC South entry. We now turn our focus on the NFC South, a division that would be up for the “Most Dramatic Changes” award if such an award existed. Quarterback changes, roster overhauls, and record-setting contracts, this division has it all.
Best and Worst of Free Agency: NFC South
Best Move: Upgrading at RB
Surely there will be some who will look at this and immediately question how is going to a running back rumored to be dealing with a degenerative knee disease an upgrade over the back the Atlanta Falcons made (at the time) the highest paid in 2017? When the new guy is Todd Gurley and the last guy was Devonta Freeman, that’s how.
The Los Angeles Rams parted with the former Offensive Rookie of the Year (2015) and Offensive Player of the Year (2017) largely due to uncertainty around the long-term health of his knee but fiscal motivations were not absent. Freeman (494 total touches, 2339 scrimmage yards over the last three years) has dealt with injuries that caused him to miss all but two games in 2018. If Gurley (912 total touches, 4988 yards since 2017) is close to his old self the Falcons won’t experience any dropoff and may see better production.
Worst Move: Half Addressing Pass Rush
Yet another where readers may be scratching their heads. After all, Atlanta signed free agent Dante Fowler to a three-year deal worth up to $48 million. Unfortunately, that’s about all they have done to address the issue. After they recorded more sacks than the woeful Miami Dolphins, one guy isn’t going to be enough.
Fowler had 11.5 sacks in 2019 and that his presence will help immensely. But Atlanta let Vic Beasley walk. Despite his inconsistency during his time in Atlanta, he had a strong finish to last season and led the team with eight sacks. They lost another six combined sacks between Adrian Clayborn and De’Vondre Campbell. The 16th-overall pick will be very useful.
Next Move: Lockdown the Corner
A theme we have visited elsewhere, Atlanta has a glaring need for some help on the corners. They finished 2019 ranked 22nd in passing yards allowed. Some of that was thanks to a lackluster pass rush. But none of their corners played particularly well. Desmond Trufant (Detroit Lions) was their best corner and he was only available for nine games.
Isaiah Oliver, Kendall Sheffield, and Blidi Wreh-Wilson aren’t an intimidating trio by any stretch. Wreh-Wilson only allowed quarterbacks to complete 45 percent of passes in his direction but was only credited with being targeted 33 times, or five fewer times than Trufant who missed nearly half the season. Atlanta’s first two picks should be EDGE and cornerback, or vice versa.
Best Move: Bridging the Gap
Cam Newton is probably the greatest to ever do it for the Carolina Panthers. No player has the accolades or had the connection to the area he did. But that time is over and the Matt Rhule regime is getting off on the right foot with a player in Teddy Bridgewater who seems poised to pay off on the promise he had coming into the league.
Touted as an accurate, athletic pocket passer, Bridgewater got derailed by a knee injury that threatened not only his career but also his limb. He regained prominence with the New Orleans Saints filling in for an injured Drew Brees for five games. The Saints went 5-0 and Bridgewater completed 69.7 percent of his passes for 1205 yards, nine touchdowns, and two picks.
Worst Move: Repeating the Past
No, this isn’t about Christian McCaffrey’s (record-setting) contract. So far the Panthers plan is just as well thought out as the last one. They have a (potential) stud at quarterback and some weapons around him. But their fatal flaw will once again prove to be a lack of proper protection. Carolina traded guard Trai Turner and received tackle Russell Okung from the Los Angeles Chargers.
Not only is Okung a worse player (irrespective of position) but he is also five years older. The need for a tackle will often outweigh the advantage of a quality guard. But the difference in age (even if linemen can play longer) and the added salary make this look like a losing deal for Carolina and they still need more help protecting their new franchise passer. Also, don’t pay running backs.
Next Move: Replace Heart and Soul
Sounds easy enough, right? The reality of the situation is Luke Kuechly’s retirement is similar to Newton’s departure in that it marks the end of an era. The difference is the Panthers got to make the decision on Newton. Kuechly, who has dealt with numerous concussions in his career, made seven Pro Bowls in eight seasons and was named an All-Pro five times.
But accolades aside, the Panthers will need to find the leadership and dependability elsewhere. Carolina saw eight players leave on defense who started at least nine games. Granted, any time there is a coaching change a roster overhaul is to be expected. But Kuechly would have made the transition easier for new defensive coordinator Phil Snow.
New Orleans Saints
Best Move: Landing WR2
It’s not often that landing a secondary receiver deserves praise. But when that receiver will be with the Saints catching passes from Brees, exceptions are made. Emmanuel Sanders split 2019 between catching passes from Joe Flacco and Jimmy Garoppolo. To say Brees is an upgrade is an understatement.
New Orleans hasn’t had a capable complimentary option since Brandin Cooks left town. Ted Ginn in 2017 was the closest they’ve come. Sanders is a year older than Ginn was then, and is a more versatile receiver. A torn Achilles ended his 2018 early and he returned to put up over 800 yards and play in 17 games last season.
Worst Move: Choosing the Wrong QB2
Somehow Taysom Hill has convinced folks down in the Bayou that he is worthy of being the top backup option. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that he has franchise quarterback potential. Hill is a nice, versatile athlete. But he isn’t a full-time quarterback, let alone a starter. New Orleans gave it away by going with Bridgewater over the more familiar Hill when Brees went down.
Now, this is being stated with a full understanding of how the economics played into this. With Brees returning, retaining Bridgewater became impossible. But selling HIll as anything more than a gadget player (with Brees and Bridgewater still in limbo) was an oversell and if New Orleans stands pat at quarterback, they will regret it if Brees misses time again.
Next Move: Someone to Truzz
The Saints had the fewest rushing yards as a team in the three years since Alvin Kamara arrived. They clearly missed Mark Ingram and the energy he brought to the field and sideline. Latavius Murray gave New Orleans eight fewer yards than Ingram did in his final season. But the latter ran for over a thousand yards the two years prior and did so again with Baltimore last year.
If the Saints want to get the mojo back in their ground game the will try to find another runner with that same type of violent running style. Kamara remaining healthy is probably the bigger boost, but the need for a proper compliment to him cannot be overstated. For all their effort though, finding someone to match Ingram’s infectious energy could be close to impossible.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Best Move: Brady Bunch
Tom Brady signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was the biggest move this offseason in the NFL, not just the NFC South. The only thing comparable is Peyton Manning joining the Broncos in 2012. This surpasses that by far but does have similar questions along with it. Among them is questioning how much Brady’s declining numbers are due to waning ability.
Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, (for now) O.J. Howard, and Cameron Brate will make it clear if Brady is up to the task or not. It’s hard to say the six-time Super Bowl champ has ever had a more talented receiving corps. If there is one thing to complain about it’s the protection that wasn’t great for a more mobile Jameis Winston in 2019. Tampa might also want to finally find a running back.
Worst Move: Not Protecting the Franchise
Recurring themes are becoming a recurring theme. Another team (rightfully) making an investment in a franchise quarterback and surrounding him with weapons but failing to address porous blocking. Brady is 42. ‘Sack’ needs to be treated like the four-letter word that it is for this organization and, so far, their moves don’t show that.
Next Move: Fill the Gaps
Let’s not act like the NFL draft won’t provide the perfect opportunity to address the issue laid out in the previous section as well as address the lack of a run game. Tampa also needs some help in the secondary but they have youth there. Whatever they choose to do in the draft, the top needs to be the offensive line and secondary, in whatever order.
A sneaky move could be for the Bucs to take a pass rusher much sooner than anyone expects. Shaquil Barrett is playing on the franchise tag and Jason Pierre-Paul just re-signed for two years but is already 31. Tampa also lost Carl Nassib, their third-leading sack artist with six. Add pass rusher to the early part of the Bucs draft checklist.