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.
Our fifth stop on our tour squaring the best and worst moves in NFL free agency, the AFC South. We’ve already gone through both the AFC and NFC North. Likewise for the AFC and NFC East. The AFC South was arguably the toughest division in football just a couple of seasons ago. Now, it is a division mostly in transition but one that should still be a dog fight.
Best and Worst of NFL Free Agency: AFC South
Best Move: None
Yea. This isn’t a cop-out or laziness. The Houston Texans have had one of the weirdest offseasons in recent memory. After giving away arguably the best wide receiver in the game, Houston (led by head coach and general manager Bill O’Brien) did well just to not trade away the franchise in Deshaun Watson, though it’s hard to believe they’re building trust either.
There does appear to be a method to the madness or at least a strategy for navigating what is sure to be an adjustment period for Watson. They added Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb to a group that will still return Kenny Stills, Will Fuller, and Keke Coutee. Fuller and Coutee have struggled to stay healthy (as has Cooks) and Stills has always been a complementary option.
Worst Move: Swapping Receivers
This is a little bit of piggybacking. Taking on David Johnson’s contract certainly qualifies. But this deserves its own section. Let’s go to the tape: Hopkins is a three-time All-Pro, four-time Pro Bowler, and has 315 catches for 4115 yards with 31 touchdowns over the last three seasons. Cooks has none of the accolades and caught 187 balls for 2869 yards and 14 scores.
Production on the field is dependant upon being on the field; something Cooks has struggled with. Nuk has missed all of two games in one more NFL season than Cooks, who has missed time with numerous injuries, not the least of which being multiple concussions. Aside from a change philosophically (and an out in Cooks’ contract in 2021), the benefits are hard to find.
Next Move: Protect the Franchise
Watson is second in the NFL in sacks taken over the last three seasons, trailing only Russell Wilson. This is especially notable because the former Clemson Tiger missed more than half of his rookie season with a torn ACL and is only in second place by 17 sacks. He even led the league in the category in 2018.
When the Texans traded for Laremy Tunsil, the seemed to be moving towards correcting a fatal flaw. Trading away Watson’s top weapon isn’t doing any favors and Tunsil wound up leading the NFL in penalties. Houston still needs an infusion of talent and should look to do so in a draft rife with interior line talent. For what it’s worth, it’s also full of talented wide receivers.
Best Move: Old Man Rivers
Any time a team adds a Hall of Fame quarterback to their roster it has to set the bar for grading their free-agent class. The Indianapolis Colts courting and subsequent signing of Philip Rivers is no different. They tried to make do with Jacoby Brissett following Andrew Luck’s abrupt retirement, even giving the former New England Patriot a short extension.
Brissett is no Luck and he isn’t Rivers either so the upgrade is obvious. It is a shift in philosophies for Indy and head coach Frank Reich. They have largely been a ball-control offense, playing at their pace and fielding a solid defense. Rivers is the definition of a gunslinger and a talkative one at that. It will be interesting to watch this marriage in 2020.
Worst Move: Missing Out on Diggs
In stark contrast to their division mates in Texas, it is rather difficult to find a flaw in the offseason the Colts have had. They got a new field general, kept their offensive line together, and traded for a solidifying presence along their defensive line. The one thing they “failed” (quotes because it’s subjective) to do is give Rivers ample weapons as he enjoyed with the Los Angeles Chargers.
Stefon Diggs would have made a perfect option. His versatility would have allowed him to be the short-area weapon a la Keenan Allen but he is also explosive enough to be the downfield threat that Mike Williams was. Instead, Rivers will lean on T.Y. Hilton who dealt with injuries last season and is somehow already 30 years old. There weren’t many misses for Indy but this opportunity might be one.
Next Move: Find Another Corner
Indy signed former Minnesota Vikings corner Xavier Rhodes in free agency to replace the departed Pierre Desir alongside Rock Ya-Sin and Kenny Moore. The problem is Rhodes, who will be 30 when the season starts, allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete over 80 percent of their passes in his direction.
Minnesota’s defense was once among the best in the game but they have slipped of late, falling from third in passing yards allowed in 2018 to 15th in 2019. Indy finished the season ranked 23rd so expecting Rhodes to be a stabilizing presence is probably a stretch at best and a recipe for disaster at worst.
Best Move: Moving Foles
When the Jacksonville Jaguars signed Nick Foles to a four-year, $88 million contract the thought was they overpaid for an average quarterback who had a magical run. After one season and Gardner Minshew, that thought has largely remained the same. What has changed is who will be paying Foles going forward.
Jacksonville managed to extract a draft pick from the Chicago Bears for the journeyman quarterback, reuniting him a veritable who’s who of his former coaches including John DeFilippo who was the Jags offensive coordinator last season. Kudos to general manager David Caldwell for actually getting something for Foles, let alone a fairly valuable mid-round pick.
Worst Move: Sticking with Marrone
Making coaching changes for the sake of changing coaches is never the way to go. But the fact of the matter is coaches have been fired who have accomplished much more than Doug Marrone has. Our first section dedicated to a coach, this is not advocating for anyone to lose their job. But when assessing offseasons, it’s fair to question if Jacksonville should’ve moved on.
Marrone is 21-27 in three full seasons down in Duval. This is on-brand for him; he went 15-17 in his two seasons at the helm for the Buffalo Bills. Jacksonville ranked 31st and 26th in points the past two seasons and his once stout defense has been parted out because of cap and culture issues. Loyalty to Marrone could keep the Jaguars in neutral in 2020.
Next Move: Replenish the Cupboard
With 12 selections in the 2020 NFL Draft and a team seemingly stuck in place, Jacksonville needs to get back to what got them the buzz they had a couple of seasons ago. They have to get some talent back on the roster, namely on that defense. And to be even more specific they need to get their secondary at least close to what it was when Jalen Ramsey was still in town.
Jacksonville brought in Rashaan Melvin to replace the departed A.J. Bouye who bolted for the Denver Broncos. That is really a lateral move and not a particularly good one. This draft has got some talent at the top at the position so it would be wise for Caldwell and Co. to get back to what got them to this point.
Best Move: Not Overcommitting to Henry
The sentiment around paying top dollar for a running back (giving them a second contract) is well documented. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who would say that’s a good idea. So the Tennessee Titans slapping the franchise tag on Derrick Henry almost makes too much sense. After all, his 300 carries, 1500 yards, and 16 scores all led the league. He’s still a runningback.
Christian McCaffrey just finagled the Carolina Panthers for a record-setting contract. Yes, he became the first player to have 2500 yards rushing and receiving in his first three years, that hasn’t helped the Panthers win much. Tennessee rode Henry’s legs far more than their quarterback’s arm. But they still had the wherewithal to not overpay for diminishing returns.
Worst Move: Overcommitting to Tannehill
No one can deny the impact switching from Marcus Mariota to Ryan Tannehill had on the Titans. For example, Henry averaged 3.68 yards per tote with Mariota under. That number jumped to 5.92 with Tannehill, no small feat. Tennessee looked beyond his raw stats and rewarded him with a lucrative, averaging just under $30 million per year.
If Tennessee had looked at Tannehill’s raw stats, at least those from Miami, they might not have been so generous. First, he dealt with injuries in his last three years, an issue Tennessee had with Mariota. But his career even before then could be described as mediocre with even his best of seasons leading to a .500 record. The Titans get great marks for their handling of Henry. Not so much with Tannehill.
Next Move: Repeat Success
This section was close to suggesting Tennessee go hunting for their next franchise passer; sort of a Brett Favre–Aaron Rodgers situation. Instead, in much broader terms, they need to recapture their 2019 magic. That won’t be easy despite the simplistic appearance of their attack.
Henry isn’t likely to have the stretch he had from Week 7 on and the returns on backs who had 300-plus touches the season before is also ugly (take note, Panthers fans). Teams are going to focus on putting more on Tannehill’s plate. He had flashes of being able to answer the call last season, but consistency hasn’t been his forte. Titans fans better hope that has changed.
March 11th, 2020 will forever be known as the day the world stood still, the day that sports stopped. It’s been a little under 3 weeks (21 loooooong days) since the NBA shut down amid the coronavirus, aka COVID-19, aka code-19 pandemic. I know this has put one big thing in perspective, what the world looks like without sports, and I don’t like it one bit.
Living in a No Sports Zone with COVID-19
Baby, Come Back!
This is showing us how important sports are to our lives. You know how you’ve got that empty, pit drop in your stomach feeling after losing your first love? That’s how it felt hearing the announcement NBA was suspended indefinitely after Utah Jazz C Rudy Gobert tested positive for that ‘Rona.
Since that discovery, the COVID-19 pandemic has made its rounds in the sports world getting to several well-known athletes and even our favorite announcers. Reaching the likes of New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton, Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant and ESPN’s beloved NBA analyst Doris Burke. So, this thing is real!
I’ve been watching sports since the tender age of eight, (I’m 43 now), when my father introduced me to football. It was Super Bowl XX Sunday when the Chicago Bears defeated the New England Patriots 46-10. Like for everyone, in those 30-plus years since we’ve never seen anything like this. So, what does one do when you’re quarantined and stuck in the “No Sports Zone?” (For those that remember, that’s an ode to the Twilight Zone intro).
Finding an Alternative
Well if you’re like me, you get familiar with that lady in the house. Oh, that’s my wife, and it turns out she’s very interesting. I also finally have time to catch up with all those Netflix shows and movies I promised myself I would watch. My personal fave is The Ozarks with Jason Bateman, I’m already ready for season four! Another one to check out is the documentary, Tiger King, all I can say is whoa!
How about some personal gains, I have a language self-learning disc set I’ve had for the last five years. I think it’s time to crack that open. Hopefully, when we come out of this quarantine I’ll be a new, Spanish-speaking me (I wonder what my Vegas odds are). But this is a sports column so let’s get back to the business at hand.
Not All In
You know who else is going on as business as usual? The NFL, commissioner Roger Goodell said let’s keep the party going, starting with one of the most exciting free agents periods in recent memory. Maybe it’s sports being halted and what we’re going through that added to the excitement but none the less it is.
By the way, the 2020 NFL Draft is still going as scheduled, April 23rd-25th. This was truly a free agent frenzy. We wondered what the Bears were going to do, after 20 years of dominance in the AFC East Tom Brady left New England, Drew Brees coming back to the big easy & more.
Obviously, the biggest signing was Brady with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but this is Chicago, so let’s look at our hometown Bears. In my opinion there free agent moves were, meh, we’ll delve into particulars at a later time, for now here are the key signings. EDGE Robert Quinn, (an upgrade from former first-round pick Leonard Floyd), tight end Jimmy Graham, bringing back linebacker Danny Trevathan, and trading for Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles.
Hang In There
Though we’re in a “No Sports Zone” now, we can use our time to reset and come out refreshed on the other side. One good thing that came of this is the Michael Jordan documentary, The Last Dance, is being released early so, yay! Now if the NFL season becomes in jeopardy of being canceled, then some panic may set in. Until then, let’s be safe and keep the positive vibes.
Free agency opened in the NFL with the legal tampering period and the deals came in furiously. Most teams had a pretty clear idea of who they wanted and at what price. Of course, not all activity is created equal. Some of the teams did very well on paper. Others, however, were not so fortunate.
So who’s who? Well, that is the fun part. Adding talent isn’t a shoo-in way to a passing mark. Some teams would have been better off embracing the chance to rebuild and others passed on the chance at that one difference-maker. Others still seemed to be operating in a different world.
Last time, we went over the AFC North. This time we shift our focus to their NFC counterpart…
Best and Worst From the NFC North Free Agency
Best Move: Finding Another Pass Rusher
After quarterback, Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace has had one other glaring weakness in putting together this roster. That is finding a proper compliment to stud pass-rusher Khalil Mack. Enter Robert Quinn; owner of the highest Pass Rush Win Rate over the past two years. After recording 11.5 sacks opposite DeMarcus Lawrence, he could have a big year in Chicago.
Quinn’s predecessor in Chicago, Leonard Floyd, never developed as a pass rusher and often found himself unable to finish. That isn’t an issue with Quinn, though his deficiencies defending the run could be. Perhaps with Akiem Hicks back healthy next to Eddie Goldman, opposing offenses will be forced to run sideline-to-sideline for the Bears speedy linebackers to clean up.
Worst Move: Bidding Against Themselves
A theme of Pace’s tenure has been the Bears seemingly overpaying for players, be it in free agency or the draft. Trading up for Mitchell Trubisky is the most notable move and he may have just repeated himself trading for Nick Foles. The journeyman cost a (valuable) mid-round pick and $15 million. Pace could have waited for Foles to be released like Cam Newton was.
A logical argument can be made for overpaying for a quarterback, but what about an aging tight end? That’s the scenario with Jimmy Graham who the Bears signed to a two-year, $16 million deal with $9 million in guarantees. Graham hasn’t been useful between the 20s for several years, but he even saw a dip in his red-zone usage last season with the Green Bay Packers.
Next Move: Unearth More Gems
This is, of course, pending any trade that moves Mitchell Trubisky. If that happens, their next move should be to try finding their quarterback of the future. That’ll be tough with no pick until the second round without a passer falling. Outside of that, they’ll need to do what Pace and company have been best know for, discovering talent in the later rounds.
Free agency isn’t over, but the Bears are pretty cash strapped. That means holes at right guard and strong safety need to be addressed via the draft. Alex Bars will have his shot on the line, but Chicago needs offensive line depth across the board. And what about Deon Bush at safety? They at least have thrown bodies at their second cornerback spot.
Best Move: Moving On
When the Detroit Lions signed Desmond Trufant, it helped pave the way for their moving on from Rashaan Melvin. The late-bloomer went undrafted in 2013 and didn’t start until his second season and even then still only had two starts before 2016. He turned a couple of good years with the Indianapolis Colts into a pair of one-year pacts with the Oakland Raiders and the Lions.
Trufant arrives in Detroit on a two-year deal. Melvin’s play tailed off last season as he allowed 63 percent completion and a 104.1 passer rating; up from 54.8 percent and a 96.2 rating in 2018. Trufant spent the first seven seasons of his career with the Atlanta Falcons. He missed much of 2019, but in 2018 he allowed 59.2 percent completion and an 87.6 passer rating.
Worst Move: Moving On
A little double talk here as the Lions basically stayed in place. They upgraded from Melvin, but they also traded Darius Slay to the Philadelphia Eagles. Slay has been Detroit’s best corner since his arrival in 2013. His play dipped compared to 2018, but he still only allowed 55.9 percent completion and 81.6 passer rating. In a down year!
The fact of the matter is, Trufant was really brought in to replace Slay. But the only reason a replacement is needed is because of friction between Slay and Lions head coach, Matt Patricia. Per Slay, Patricia made offensive remarks in regards to a picture of an opposing wide receiver Slay posted on social media. If true, the Lions are in more trouble than needing a cornerback.
Next Move: Win or Go Home
Patricia has done his best to recreate what he experienced with the New England Patriots. He’s even gone so far as to try and take on the persona of his mentor, Bill Belichick, with the media. He’s even chastised press members for being late; an infraction he himself is guilty of. Unfortunately, for Patricia, he isn’t Belichick so his antics aren’t being overlooked.
What’s more, if he is indeed bumping heads with players over such things his tenure in Detroit might not last the entire 2020 season. This isn’t to say an organization is always wrong for choosing the coach over a player (though they usually are). But it is suggesting that Patricia hasn’t done enough (nor does he have a leash long enough) to be running off players.
Green Bay Packers
Best Move: Free Agency Restraint
2019 saw a very different gameplan from the Packers in the offseason. General manager Brian Gutekunst used his second go to further distance his image from that of predecessor Ted Thompson. Green Bay addressed its leaky defense both in free agency and the draft, signing Adrian Amos and pass rushers Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith and drafting Rashan Gary and Darnell Savage.
2020 has been a return to normalcy. Green Bay has added inside linebacker Christian Kirksey, offensive tackle Ricky Wagner, and wide receiver Devin Funchess from the outside. And those deals all pale in comparison to what was spent last year. Fans might have been disappointed by the overall lack of aggressiveness. But they needed much less this time around.
Worst Move: Questions at WR2
Davante Adams has worked his way into becoming Aaron Rodgers’ favorite weapon. He entered last season fresh off of his first 1000-yard season in 2018 but injuries limited him to 12 games. He still managed to accumulate 997 yards, tying his second-highest single-season mark, and grab five touchdowns. Adams’ 83 grabs by far led the team.
The second-leading receiver was Allen Lazard with his 35/477/3 stat line. He was bested by running backs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams as well as tight end Jimmy Graham. The only addition so far, Funchess, missed all but one game last year. With so much youth at the position already, another rookie doesn’t make sense so it’s a bit surprising they didn’t do more.
Next Move: Draft Rodgers Heir Apparent
Green Bay only has one pick this season and it’s not exactly a premium one. They’re currently slated to pick 30th in the first round of the April 23rd NFL Draft. That spot can be used for a myriad of things from simply taking the best player available to trading down to gain more draft capital to fill more holes.
While the Packers could certainly use the pick on a receiver (see above) but a savvier move might be to select a quarterback should one slide. No, they don’t have an immediate need for one, but that shouldn’t stop them from taking one should the opportunity arise. After all, Brett Favre was 36 when the Packers took Rodgers (also 36) in 2005.
Best Move: Blowing Up the Secondary
This is a bit of an exaggeration. What the Minnesota Vikings actually did was start over at cornerback. Xavier Rhodes (Colts), Trae Waynes, and Mackensie Alexander (both Cincinnati Bengals) will all suit up elsewhere as the Vikings revamp their 15th-ranked pass defense.
Rhodes’ release is the biggest reason this is a good move. His completion percentage allowed ballooned from a mediocre 61.3 percent last season to a whopping 81.5 percent. He had to go. It remains to be seen if Minnesota rolls with Kris Boyd and Mike Hughes plus a rookie. But they will need to draft at least one corner. How early and often are the only real questions.
Worst Move: Losing Diggs and Griffen
Hey, a twofer! Both Stefon Diggs and Everson Griffen will find themselves in different uniforms in 2020 for very different reasons. Diggs’ frustration has often been visible on the sidelines and social media; though he has often denied the latter were ever anything serious. Minnesota traded him for a draft haul to the Buffalo Bills. Adam Thielen could struggle without Diggs taking the top off.
Griffen’s departure is a little more sentimental, and not just because he was longer tenured. Griffen went through some mental health issues that cost him five games in 2018. The Vikings stood by him through that and he came back in 2019 with eight sacks opposite Danielle Hunter. They’ll need Ifeadi Odenigbo to take a major leap.
Next Move: Win or Go Home
Vikings brass finds themselves in a similar situation to the Lions. They have put together a team they’ve felt were contenders for the past couple of years only to fall short. Their saving grace has been making the playoffs three of the last six seasons. But how long can just getting there be enough? Especially when the peak was reaching the NFC Championship game back in 2017.
This shows worst on two individuals in the Vikings organization. Head coach Mike Zimmer and quarterback Kirk Cousins. Zimmer is in his sixth season and obviously owns the successes and failures of this group. Cousins has failed to elevate them above the heights they reached with Case Keenum, but he just got an extension. It looks like the powers that be in Minnesota have picked a side.