It’s time to reflect on the 2017 offseason. There are a few stray veterans left in the free-agent pool, and teams could still execute something unexpected if injuries arise, but organizations have mostly closed their checkbooks and built the rosters they’re going to take onto the field in September.
Of course, we can know only so much right now. This time last year, there was no way anybody knew that the Cowboys had drafted a franchise quarterback. Kyle Shanahan was lucky to have survived the offseason in Atlanta as an offensive coordinator, let alone be considering head-coaching roles.
At the same time, we can look at what each team’s goals were (or should have been) heading into March and gain a sense of whether they did enough to address those concerns. In most cases, we also can plot out what they have to do before hitting Week 1.
We’ll run division by division over the next two weeks. Let’s start with the Super Bowl champs and begin with the AFC East, which was perhaps surprisingly as full of turnover as any group in the league:
To go directly to your favorite team, click the links below:
What went right
They picked up an extra first-round pick in the 2018 draft by trading down. The Bills shed picks under general manager Doug Whaley, trading up to grab Sammy Watkins and Reggie Ragland during his tenure in charge of the organization. Buffalo drafted just 20 players from 2014 through 2016, and those drafts don’t look pretty right now. The most productive player from Whaley’s 2014 draft might be Ross Cockrell, who is starting at cornerback for the Steelers (more on Watkins later).
Trading down with the Chiefs from No. 10 to No. 27 netted the Bills a 2018 first-round pick, and though that pick is likely to come in the latter half of the draft, given Andy Reid’s steady run of regular-season success, new general manager Brandon Beane will benefit from the additional draft capital. It’s unclear whether Whaley had much say in the decision, as new coach Sean McDermott reportedly ran Buffalo’s draft room, but whoever is responsible deserves a pat on the back.
They cleaned house. This probably wasn’t a time for half-measures. Rex Ryan’s status within the organization seemed to turn toxic as the 2016 season went along, as his grandstand firing of Greg Roman after an 0-2 start seemed to either mask or ignore the difficulties Ryan had in crafting an effective defense. After inheriting a unit that ranked second in DVOA under Jim Schwartz in 2014, Ryan’s defenses ranked 24th and 26th during his two years at the helm.
Whaley also hadn’t lived up to expectations. The decision to trade up for Watkins in a draft in which the Bills could have stayed put and snagged Odell Beckham Jr. or Allen Robinson loomed as a misstep, while massive deals for Jerry Hughes and Charles Clay looked questionable on first glance and quickly aged poorly. Whaley had success finding players in the bargain bin, churning the likes of Tyrod Taylor, Lorenzo Alexander and Zach Brown into Pro Bowl-caliber contributors overnight, but it’s hard to argue that he left a better roster than the one he inherited, quarterback aside. Given the organizational chaos, the Bills were probably right to blow up both spots and hire a new coach and general manager. It’s also telling that owner Terry Pegula went for a pair of executives who have experience working alongside one another, hiring away both McDermott and Beane from Carolina.
The timing of the Beane hire is interesting. The Bills kept Whaley and their scouting staff on throughout the draft process before firing them all first thing Sunday morning after the draft was completed. Beane was hired several days later. You can understand the weird disconnect there: The Bills were relying on a scouting staff that had done so poorly that they were all about to be fired as the basis for whom the team should draft in 2017.
At the same time, the alternative might not be that helpful, either. Most teams will fire their general manager in January and hire a new one in February because the best candidates will come off the market before Valentine’s Day. Those general managers were likely involved in their old team’s scouting process, but they can’t bring their notes along for the ride, and they usually don’t hire a new batch of scouts until after the draft, anyway. (New Colts GM Chris Ballard, as an example, just hired what amounts to a new personnel department.)
There might not be a right way to go about things, to be honest. Swapping out personnel departments is always going to be tough, and there’s going to be some breakage no matter how and when the changes occur. Outgoing departments might even do something right; Charlie Casserly was on his way out in Houston in advance of the 2006 draft and left for good shortly thereafter, but his final draft with the team produced three Pro Bowlers in Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans and Owen Daniels.
They brought back Taylor. The arguments for moving on from Taylor were flimsy at best, and even though Taylor would have likely been slightly overpaid under the terms of his old deal, the Bills were able to renegotiate and lock up Taylor on a more palatable, two-year, $ 30.5 million deal.
What went wrong
They continued to shed talent to the Patriots. It’s telling that the Patriots value Buffalo’s players more than the Bills do. Bill Belichick appears to have guessed correctly on Chris Hogan, who averaged a league-high 17.9 yards per reception and racked up 332 receiving yards in the postseason en route to a Super Bowl ring. The former undrafted free agent is on a three-year, $ 12 million deal with New England, which is chump change for wideouts.
New England continued to pick pieces off the Buffalo roster this offseason. The Patriots made a low-cost addition in adding hyper-efficient big back Mike Gillislee, but the big move was to acquire free-agent cornerback Stephon Gilmore in a deal in which the Bills simply misread the market. They declined to franchise Gilmore for one year at $ 14.2 million and allowed him to hit the market, where the Patriots gave him an average of $ 14 million per year over the first three seasons of his new deal. It’s hard to imagine that Gilmore wouldn’t have had trade value on that one-year deal.
The Bills would have been in line to pick up a third-round compensatory pick for Gilmore, but Overthecap.com projects that the Bills are currently unlikely to pick up any compensatory selections after signing a bevy of free agents. They could still get a third-rounder if they cut three of the low-tier free agents they signed this offseason, which will be tough given that they committed meaningful money to the likes of Micah Hyde, Patrick DiMarco and Steven Hauschka. Even if Gilmore never really turned into a consistent No. 1 cornerback in Buffalo, losing him for literally nothing would be a huge disappointment.
Bringing in a running back behind LeSean McCoy. After losing Gillislee to the Patriots, the Bills are thin behind their perennial Pro Bowler. There’s little reason to think the 28-year-old McCoy won’t be effective again in 2017, but the former Eagle has nearly 1,900 carries under his belt and has started all 16 games just twice in his eight-year career. The Bills didn’t grab any of the veteran backs lurking in free agency and neglected to draft a running back from a deep class, which leaves them with just 2016 fifth-rounder Jonathan Williams behind Shady. Signing LeGarrette Blount will further hurt their chances of coming away with comp picks, so they’ll probably have to look lower down the totem pole. The Carolina crew is familiar with DeAngelo Williams, who might make sense if the 34-year-old wants to continue his career in Buffalo.
What went right
They hammered the draft on defense. Offensive coaches have a habit of falling in love with weapons and targeting them at the expense of defensive help in the draft (see: Payton, Sean). It’s promising, then, that Adam Gase’s Dolphins used their first three picks to add sorely needed depth on defense, most notably edge rusher Charles Harris in the first round. Harris has the best case to eventually be standing as the long-term replacement for the 35-year-old Cameron Wake, but given how Wake looked after recovering from a torn Achilles last season, he might never come off the field.
They bought low on trades for Julius Thomas and William Hayes. Harris, whom the Dolphins acquired from the Rams by moving down 17 spots from their sixth-round pick, will be part of a deep rotation at defensive end, as Miami also brought back Andre Branch. Hayes has benefited from playing alongside some great pass-rushers in the past and had a frustrating season in 2016, but he’s a reasonable one-year flier at $ 4.8 million.
Thomas is a bigger bet, but you can certainly understand some of the logic in acquiring a tight end who excelled as a red zone weapon under Gase before flopping in Jacksonville. I’m not sure Gase was particularly brilliant in how he used Thomas in Denver — a lot of what Thomas ended up doing was simply going up and beating overmatched defenders for the ball, which was a lot easier with a Hall of Fame quarterback in Peyton Manning than it was with the broken Jugs machine that was Blake Bortles — but the Dolphins aren’t paying much to find out if Gase has something special up his sleeve. They’ll pay $ 5.5 million to Thomas this season and can get out of the deal with a $ 2 million buyout next year.
They took a shot on T.J. McDonald. It’s hard to get too much credit for signing a player who is suspended for the first eight games of the 2017 season, but McDonald looked like a superstar in the making in 2014 and was a competent safety the past couple of seasons. It’s a worthwhile flier at just $ 1.3 million, and the Dolphins could net a compensatory pick if McDonald gets a bigger deal next year.
What went wrong
They repeatedly outspent the market to bring back their own players. It seemed that there was a two-week stretch in March when the Dolphins were handing out blank checks. Kenny Stills got $ 19.5 million guaranteed as part of a four-year, $ 32 million deal. Reshad Jones amassed a five-year, $ 60 million deal with a whopping $ 35 million in guarantees. Branch, signed off the scrap heap last March, was given a three-year, $ 24 million deal with $ 16.8 million guaranteed, including $ 10 million next season. Competent linebacker Kiko Alonso nabbed $ 18.5 million in guarantees on a four-year, $ 28 million deal. The Dolphins even reached out and gave Lawrence Timmons a two-year, $ 12 million deal with $ 11 million guaranteed.
In each of those cases, the Dolphins were paying a massive premium, usually in guaranteeing extra years or extra dollars. These players aren’t useless by any means, but there’s enormous downside risk if they get injured, and it’s hard to argue that they were irreplaceable. Stills’ speed helps open up the offense, but he wasn’t the only fast receiver available, and his production is predicated upon an unsustainable touchdown total in 2016. Branch wasn’t even very effective last season, and the Dolphins could have taken a flier on the next Branch to slot in alongside Harris and Hayes. Timmons isn’t going to be a coverage linebacker at this point of his career — the Patriots carved him up in the playoffs — and two-down run-stopping linebackers are bargains.
Jones is the only player who would qualify as likely to be very good over the length of his deal, but even he got far more than other strong safeties. The Dolphins now have $ 175.9 million committed to their 2018 cap, and that’s before thinking about a new deal for Jarvis Landry. Miami spent like it desperately needed to hold onto the pieces of a 10-6 team, but it was outscored by 17 points last season. The Dolphins’ run to the playoffs came on the back of an 8-2 record in games decided by seven points or fewer, with those wins coming against teams that were a combined 31-80-1. There’s a good chance the Dolphins are too optimistic about their progress, and if they’re wrong, they won’t be able to get out of any of these deals until 2019.
They didn’t supplement their offensive line. Part of the opportunity cost in spending so much on guys who profile as third wideouts or two-down linebackers is that the Dolphins weren’t able to commit resources to the interior of their offensive line. It made sense for Miami to ship out the disgruntled Branden Albert and move Laremy Tunsil to his natural position at left tackle, and the team is set on the right side with Ja’Wuan James, but the interior is … spotty.
Part of the problem is that Mike Pouncey hasn’t been able to get healthy. Pouncey is a Pro Bowl-caliber center when on the field, but he hasn’t made it through 16 games since 2012, and he missed 11 games with a hip ailment last season. He underwent a stem cell procedure for the hip this spring, but the Dolphins have little behind him. They will have to hope that Anthony Steen, who was forced into the lineup last season, can hold up at guard alongside converted tackle Jermon Bushrod, who simply wasn’t very good but still found his way back on a one-year, $ 3 million deal. Offensive linemen were hard to come by this offseason, but the only notable additions Miami made were Bears castoff Ted Larsen and fifth-round pick Isaac Asiata.
Re-signing Landry. The Dolphins have backed themselves into a tough spot. They paid a lot of money to retain Stills, have a first-round pick seemingly on the verge of a breakout in DeVante Parker and are only a year past trading third-, fourth- and sixth-round picks for Leonte Carroo, who was anonymous as a rookie. They’ve committed significant resources to their wide receiver corps, and their 2018 cap situation is already rough.
And yet, it’s tough to imagine them moving on from Landry, who is the spark plug of the offense and a source of steady completions for Ryan Tannehill. The closest comparison for Landry in terms of style is Tavon Austin, who got a (disastrous) four-year, $ 42 million deal with $ 28.5 million in guarantees from the Rams, and Landry is on another planet in terms of production. The franchise tag is a realistic landing spot for Landry in 2018, but that would push the Dolphins over $ 190 million in cap charges and force them to make drastic cuts elsewhere. Landry has the leverage to get a massive deal, and the Dolphins might have no choice but to give him one.
What went right
They maximized their short-term window around Tom Brady. It’s weird to say for a team that just won the Super Bowl, but the Patriots conducted most of this offseason like they want to build the best team possible over the next two seasons, as opposed to building a team that is more likely to be great four or five years down the line. It explains their move to trade a first-round pick for Brandin Cooks, who is signed for the next two years at a total of just over $ 9.2 million. It justifies their aggressive decision to head into free agency and sign Gilmore in lieu of replacing Logan Ryan with a draft pick. They traded for or signed guys in their prime, including Dwayne Allen, Lawrence Guy and Kony Ealy.
Crucially, they also held onto Malcolm Butler instead of trading him before the cornerback leaves in free agency, as the Patriots did with contemporaries Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins last year. It will likely cost the Patriots a couple of rounds of draft value — they would likely have recouped the 32nd pick from the Saints and will get a max of a third-round pick as a compensatory selection — but Butler and Gilmore could be the anchors of the best secondary Bill Belichick has had in New England.
They brought back Dont’a Hightower. Allowing a player to evaluate his options in free agency can be a dangerous game, but the Patriots let Devin McCourty explore the market before bringing him back and did the same with Hightower. The inside linebacker market never really developed, which isn’t necessarily a surprise, but Hightower’s versatility and knack for big plays make him a critical component of this defense. He’s likely worth more to the Patriots than he is to any other team in the league.
The critical components of Belichick’s coaching staff stuck around. Going to the Super Bowl made it easier, but every year Belichick gets to spend with Josh McDaniels is a plus. Dante Scarnecchia wasn’t going to leave for another team, but the legendary offensive line coach didn’t sneak back into retirement after winning another ring, which could make all the difference in terms of protecting Brady in 2017.
What went wrong
They didn’t trade Jimmy Garoppolo. It’s totally defensible to hold onto Garoppolo, of course, but it’s the one move that doesn’t fit with the win-now philosophy. Millions of words have already been spilled about the backup quarterback, and it’s unlikely that the Patriots got anything close to the sort of massive haul they were reportedly requesting in trade.
Now what, though? The arguments that the Patriots needed Garoppolo in case of a Brady injury were flimsy, given that Brady has missed time due to injury once in his career, and the Patriots could easily have signed Brian Hoyer or a similar backup to provide competency if Brady had been hurt again. The Patriots have $ 19 million free in 2018 and could franchise Garoppolo to keep him around, but that’s with Butler, Ealy, Nate Solder, Julian Edelman, Rob Ninkovich and Dion Lewis all hitting unrestricted free agency. If Garoppolo signed the tender, the Patriots would be in serious cap trouble.
Garoppolo’s value could erode dramatically. He could be mediocre if given the chance to play in a larger sample. He could move into the lineup and suffer another injury, suggesting that he won’t hold up to a starter’s workload. A reasonable chunk of his value would have come by virtue of the bargain-basement $ 1.1 million cap hit Garoppolo was due in 2017, which won’t be the case in years to come.
Chances are this will all work out just fine for the Patriots; teams are desperate enough for quarterbacks to give Mike Glennon $ 18.5 million in guaranteed money and bail on the plan a couple of months later. Maybe they know something about Brady’s career timeline that we don’t. For a team that seems to be gearing up to (continue to) win over the next two seasons, though, holding onto Garoppolo is more surprising than it might seem to just about any other team in the league.
They didn’t add a cheap pass-rusher looking for a ring.Chris Long wasn’t a superstar in New England last season, but the former Rams standout came up with a few big plays and was an effective rotation end at the bargain-basement price of $ 2.4 million. The Pats did address defensive end by adding Guy and trading for Ealy, but nobody would complain if they had convinced somebody such as Julius Peppers or the retiring DeMarcus Ware to finish with a year in Foxborough.
Adding one of those ring-chasing veterans. The Patriots have a long history of bringing in veterans and moving on when they don’t work out in camp — some poor fan out there has John Lynch, Reggie Wayne and Torry Holt Patriots jerseys — but there are enough names on the market for the Pats to pursue. Elvis Dumervil would be a feasible pass-rush flier. Vance Walker is versatile and was effective before he tore his ACL last summer and missed the season. Darrelle Revis and Sam Shields are still free agents.
What went right
They (mostly) went all-in with their rebuild. The worst thing the Jets could have done would have been to half-commit to a plan and keep players around for old time’s sake. That didn’t happen. Among others, the Jets dumped Brandon Marshall, Nick Mangold and Darrelle Revis, moves that might have seemed unthinkable as recently as this time last year. With Matt Forte‘s contract mostly guaranteed, the only high-priced veteran additions left standing are Eric Decker and Buster Skrine.
The Jets then traded down four times in the draft to acquire much-needed extra picks for a roster almost entirely bereft of young talent. It’s still important to develop those new additions, but if any team in the league needed to draft nine players, it was Gang Green. Going after secondary pieces who will play critical roles in Todd Bowles’ defensive scheme, such as safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye, doesn’t hurt matters.
They attempted to supplement their offensive line. If there’s a place for a rebuilding team to spend, it’s up front, where a good offensive line can help cover for mediocre quarterback play. The Jets released Mangold and Ryan Clady, but they could very well be better up front in 2017. They were able to re-sign Ben Ijalana and Brian Winters, the latter of whom has matured into an above-average guard after struggling mightily earlier in his career. They also replaced Clady with Kelvin Beachum, who wasn’t effective while playing his way back from a torn ACL in Jacksonville but should be better another year removed from the injury. Given the price of offensive linemen this year in free agency, the Jets didn’t break the bank to try to piece together a competent line for 2017.
What went wrong
They signed Josh McCown to play quarterback. It’s hard to see the logic in adding McCown, who has been a replacement-level passer over his career, besides one magical half-season in Chicago four years ago. McCown also struggles to stay on the field, so he isn’t even a reliably healthy mediocre quarterback. The argument in favor of McCown — as is always the case for old, white quarterbacks — is that he’ll bring along New York’s young passers as a mentor, but it’s bunk. McCown has been in the league long enough to mentor JaMarcus Russell, Matt Moore, Caleb Hanie, Mike Glennon, Johnny Manziel and Cody Kessler, and none appears to be better off for the privilege.
Coaches and players making the veteran minimum (such as the still-available Luke McCown) also can mentor quarterbacks, but the Jets are paying Josh McCown $ 6 million to do it. As bad as the Jets’ other options are, they aren’t going anywhere with McCown under center. They’re better off taking a risk on a veteran with any sort of upside or handing the job over to the combo of Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg.
The Jets still haven’t done anything about the tight end spot. Having punted tight end seemingly for years, this would have been a great offseason for the Jets to try to find a safety valve for whomever ends up playing quarterback in 2016. That didn’t happen. Mike Maccagnan used a fifth-round pick on Jordan Leggett, but it’ll be Leggett and the oft-frustrating Austin Seferian-Jenkins competing for the starting job under new offensive coordinator John Morton.
Inquiring about Colin Kaepernick. It’s possible that the Jets might be committed to McCown, but Kaepernick is unquestionably the better player and is certainly the passer with higher upside. If the price is right — and by now, it likely would be — bringing Kaepernick into camp would be a low-risk, high-reward move.