The first snap of the 2017 NFL season is still months away. When it comes to the offseason, however, it’s the fourth quarter.
Some teams are offseason winners. Other teams need a miracle to win their offseason.
It’s not just on the field where all the other teams play checkers while Bill Belichick plays chess.
Somehow the defending Super Bowl champions added Brandin Cooks, Stephon Gilmore and Kony Ealy and replenished their running back committee with Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee.
The Patriots traded their first- and third-round draft picks this year to the Saints for Cooks and their fourth-round pick. The 23-year-old has caught 162 passes for 2,322 yards and 17 touchdowns over the past two seasons.
New England weakened one of its division rivals by signing Gilmore and Gillislee from the Bills. The latter was a restricted free agent. The 26-year-old Gilmore intercepted a career-high five passes last season and broke up 12, earning his first Pro Bowl honor. Gillislee, like Burkhead, is a complementary running back who will join Dion Lewis and James White. Gillislee and Burkhead, signed from Cincinnati, combined for 921 yards, 10 touchdowns and 5.3 yards per carry last season. The Patriots have enough bodies in the backfield to absorb the loss of LeGarrette Blount.
As if their historic Super Bowl comeback wasn’t enough, the Patriots also snagged a player who would have been a candidate for MVP of the previous Super Bowl had the Panthers won. They acquired defensive end Kony Ealy and a third-round draft pick from the Panthers for their second-round pick. Ealy had three sacks and an interception in Super Bowl 50.
The Patriots addressed the loss of Martellus Bennett by trading for Dwayne Allen in a deal that involved Day 3 draft picks.
All this wheeling and dealing left the Patriots with just four draft picks, none before the third round, but they’re not planting seeds for the future. They want to milk as many championships as they can out of the Tom Brady era.
A look at the Steelers’ free-agent signings suggests they stayed true to their formula. They signed under-the-radar players who could provide value.
They signed former Jaguar Tyson Alualu, who’s always good for a couple of sacks a year, for defensive line depth. They bought a lottery ticket with Knile Davis in an attempt to find a relief pitcher for Le’Veon Bell. Wide receiver Justin Hunter and cornerback Coty Sensabaugh could at least help out on special teams.
It’s who the Steelers didn’t get and who they let get away that defines their offseason. They allowed inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons to sign with the Dolphins because they thought they could get Dont’a Hightower from the Patriots.
Timmons, who hasn’t missed a game since 2010, was the Steelers’ leading tackler last season and added two interceptions, five pass breakups and a forced fumble. He had two sacks in the Steelers’ wild-card win over the Dolphins. Now he’s one of them.
Hightower visited the Steelers, but Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette surmised that Hightower used the Steelers’ offer to get every dollar he could in re-signing with the Patriots. The Steelers could end up regretting this whole gambit.
The Steelers did OK in the draft. Their top two needs were a pass rusher and a cornerback. They got T.J. Watt in the first round and Cameron Sutton in the third round. It’s interesting, however, that former Steelers cornerback Keenan Lewis visited the team the day after they drafted Sutton. Lewis is 30 and didn’t play at all last season. Could it be that they feel Sutton was someone they had to settle for?
In the second round, the Steelers drafted USC wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. Perhaps he was ahead of all cornerbacks on their board at that point. It also speaks to the Steelers’ lack of faith in Martavis Bryant, who was re-instated after serving a substance-abuse suspension in 2016.
If Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown remain healthy, and if Bryant stays on the straight and narrow, the Steelers’ offense could be close to unstoppable in 2017. But those are big “ifs.”
The fact that the Browns have had a better offseason than the Steelers could be forgotten after the Steelers’ Week 1 trip to Cleveland, but the Browns have to start somewhere.
After going 1-15 last season, the Browns have been bullies during the offseason. They took the Texans’ lunch money, or in this case their two first-round picks next season, in two separate deals.
In the first, the Browns received the Texans’ second-round pick in 2018 so Houston could unload Brock Osweiler and his boondoggle contract. All the Browns had to give up was their fourth-round pick this year.
On draft day, the Browns traded the No. 12 pick to the Texans for the No. 25 pick and the Texans’ first-round pick next year. The Browns ended up with Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett, Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers and Miami tight end David Njoku in the first round. They traded back into the first round for Njoku, getting the Packers’ No. 29 pick.
The Browns still got a quarterback, taking Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer in the second round with the 52nd overall pick. In this mediocre quarterback class, the Browns invested less than the Bears, Chiefs and Texans did in their quarterbacks.
In free agency, the Browns weakened the Bengals by signing guard Kevin Zeitler, who has started 16 games in each of the last two seasons.
If all these moves don’t pay dividends for the Browns next season, they still have five picks in the first two rounds of the 2018 draft and eight in the first four rounds.
Not only does the Brock Osweiler fiasco leave the Texans with egg on their face, but the Texans lost some valuable pieces to division rivals.
Cornerback A.J. Bouye is now a Jaguar and linebacker John Simon is now a Colt.
Bouye, who will be 26 next season, broke up 16 passes in 2016. That tied him for ninth in the league according to Sporting Charts. Simon had 10 sacks in a situational role over the past three seasons. He’s started just 12 games. But he did have 26 quarterback hurries last season.
The Texans can’t be blamed for trading up 13 spots to draft Deshaun Watson at No. 12. They’ve finished 9-7 for three straight years, and a quarterback can be the difference between 9-7 and Super Bowl contender. Tom Savage wasn’t going to out-duel Ben Roethlisberger or Tom Brady. The Texans had to do something, but can Watson make an immediate impact? He’d be a good quarterback for a rebuilding team, but the Texans don’t have time to wait.
Even without Osweiler’s cap burden, the Texans might not be done paying for that mistake.
In looking at NFL.com‘s list of the top free agents, it’s not hard to find “Jaguars” among the top 50.
Jacksonville signed Calais Campbell (No. 2) from the Cardinals and A.J. Bouye (No. 5) from the division-rival Texans. Campbell is coming off an eight-sack season and has had at least five every year since 2009. Bouye, according to Pro Football Focus, allowed 54.5 percent of his targets to be caught and those completions averaged 9.8 yards.
The Jaguars also added Cowboys safety Barry Church (No. 28) and lost cornerback Prince Amukamara (No. 40) and safety Johnathan Cyprien (No. 45), who went to the Titans.
Jacksonville’s crowning offseason achievement came in the draft. Leonard Fournette, who they chose at No. 4, could be the safest pick of the draft. T.J. Yeldon and Chris Ivory can step aside.
If Doug Marrone can’t at least get the Jaguars closer to their first .500 season since 2010, it will be time for Tom Coughlin to return to the sideline.
It’s been difficult to figure out what the Bears are thinking throughout this offseason, and they puzzled us further in the draft.
The Bears threw money around like it was candy during the free-agency period. They signed Mike Glennon to a three-year, $45 million contract. That’s a lot of money for someone who’s 5-13 in his career as a starter with none of those starts coming since 2014.
Somewhere between that deal and the draft, the Bears must have seen something in Mitchell Trubisky that they didn’t see at the combine, because they traded up from No. 3 to No. 2 in the first round to take him. The 49ers had their sights set on Solomon Thomas all along, so the Bears didn’t need to make this trade to draft Trubisky. They gave up their third- and fourth-round picks, leaving a 3-13 team with just four more picks in the draft. Not exactly conducive to rebuilding. Not only that, but the Bears created a toxic quarterback situation. Mike Glennon reportedly felt “cheated on” when the Bears drafted Trubisky.
Maybe Mark Sanchez can solve the problem and beat everybody for the starting job. Yes, the Bears also signed Sanchez this offseason. A former No. 5 overall pick, Sanchez is now one of those “Oh, I forgot he was with (insert team name here)” guys. As laughable as it sounds, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the 30-year-old Sanchez can beat out Glennon and a rookie. His pop gun weapons would include free-agent signings Markus Wheaton (48 catches over the last two seasons, signed for two years, $11 million) and tight end Dion Sims (44 catches over the last two seasons, signed for three years, $18 million).
John Fox has led the Panthers and Broncos to Super Bowls in his career. He’s going to need some time to pull off the hat trick, but the front office might not give him that time.
The Buccaneers enter the 2017 season with some unfinished business.
They were 8-5 at one point last year, but losses at Dallas and New Orleans dashed their playoff hopes. They improved from 6-10 to 9-7 in Jameis Winston’s second season and they want to build on that improvement.
Winston has a new toy in DeSean Jackson, who led the NFL with 17.9 yards per reception last year.
On the other side of the ball, the Bucs signed defensive lineman Chris Baker from the Redskins. Baker started all 16 games last season, batting down two passes, forcing two fumbles and recording 4.5 sacks. Good luck blocking both him and Gerald McCoy.
In the draft, Alabama tight end O.J. Howard fell to the Buccaneers at No. 19 just when NFC South defensive coordinators were getting headaches trying to figure out how to cover both Jackson and Mike Evans.
The Buccaneers will be featured on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” during training camp, and they have what it takes to put on a show when the games count.
The Bengals suffered a huge blow to their offensive line when the free-agent market opened, losing Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth to the Rams and right guard Kevin Zeitler to the Browns. Both started 16 games last season.
To fill the latter hole, the Bengals re-united with Andre Smith. They plan to try him at guard even though the 30-year-old has never played that position.
Rex Burkhead might not seem like a huge loss with second-round draft pick Joe Mixon joining Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, but the Patriots are capable of making it look like a bad move. The Bengals are banking on Mixon staying out of trouble, but he’s not the only risk they took early in the draft. They reached for Washington wide receiver John Ross with the No. 9 pick. Ross missed the 2015 season with a torn ACL and also has a history of shoulder injuries.
Not a single offensive lineman was off the board yet when the Bengals drafted Ross. The only offensive lineman they drafted was center J.J. Dielman in the fifth round.
The Bengals were tied for 19th with 33 sacks last season and worked on that problem by drafting Jordan Willis of Kansas State in the third round and Carl Lawson of Auburn in the fourth. Those outside linebackers could turn out to be steals, and they’ll have to be for the Bengals to look back on the 2017 offseason as a positive turning point.
The Raiders haven’t had a boring offseason, that’s for sure.
Days before the draft, they acquired Marshawn Lynch from the Seahawks, who still owned his rights even though he was retired. All they gave up for Lynch and a sixth-rounder next year was a fifth-round pick next year. Lynch, 31, could be rusty, but he last played in 2015 and played in just seven games that year. So his wear and tear is about a year and a half less than that of a 31-year-old who hasn’t had a break.
Lynch ran for more than 1,200 yards every year from 2011 to 2014. He was hampered by injuries and ran behind an offensive line that lost Max Unger in 2015. The Raiders, meanwhile, had the NFL’s fourth-ranked offensive line in 2016 according to Pro Football Focus. It wouldn’t be surprising if Lynch is an upgrade over Latavius Murray.
The Raiders also signed Jared Cook, addressing a tight end spot where no one has caught more than 33 passes since 2014.
In the draft, the Raiders topped the dramatic effect of the Lynch transaction by drafting Ohio State cornerback Gareon Conley at No. 24. Conley was accused of rape the week of the draft, and some wondered if he’d be drafted at all, but the Raiders conducted their own investigation and felt confident enough to take Conley. The police investigation into the matter is ongoing, so the pick still carries a huge risk. But the Raiders provided a hedge by drafting another defensive back in the second round, Connecticut safety Obi Melifonwu. He was a first-rounder in a lot of mock drafts.
All these moves and a healthy Derek Carr could make the Raiders dangerous in 2017.
The Cardinals went from a preseason Super Bowl pick to 7-8-1 and out of the playoffs in 2017.
At least they had the NFL’s second-ranked defense.
Well, about that, five members of that defense were poached in free agency.
Defensive lineman Calais Campbell (eight sacks, one interception, six passes defended, two forced fumbles) went to Jacksonville. Linebackers Kevin Minter (Bengals) and Alex Okafor (Saints) also are gone. Both had 3.5 sacks and Minter started 16 games last year. Also joining the exodus were safeties Tony Jefferson (Ravens) and D.J. Swearinger (Redskins). Jefferson broke up five passes, forced two fumbles and had two sacks in 14 starts. Swearinger had three interceptions and eight passes defended in 12 starts.
Thirtysomething signings Antoine Bethea at safety and Karlos Dansby at linebacker can’t make up for all those losses. The Cardinals took a bigger step in the right direction by drafting Temple linebacker Haason Reddick in the first round and Washington safety Budda Baker in the second round. Reddick, however, has to prove that he’s not a combine tease.
Reddick was chosen with the No. 13 pick, and if the Cardinals wanted to draft a successor to Carson Palmer, they were left out of the quarterback derby when the Chiefs and Texans both jumped over them to draft Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, respectively. The Cardinals might just be waiting until next year to draft a quarterback, or perhaps they lost so many defensive players that it overrode their need at quarterback.