The Smartest NFL Offseason Moves so Far
The NFL offseason is the time for teams to get stronger by divesting themselves of anchors—some financial, some based on performance—and making key additions from the free-agent pool and through the draft.
Not all teams get it right with every move they make. Lucky for them, there are 53 roster spots, and ideally, none will make or break the team's upcoming season.
Some offseason moves, however, are just so brilliant it seems they can't do anything but pay off in a big way. Whether because of the bargains they represent or the ability to perfectly fill roster holes for both the short and long term, there are certainly some that are hard to criticize.
Here are the smartest decisions NFL teams have made thus far.
Green Bay Packers Draft Running Backs Johnathan Franklin and Eddie Lacy
Though the Green Bay Packers have one of the best passing offenses in the league, the same hasn't been true about their run game in recent years. In 2012, the Packers ranked 22nd in rushing yards per game, with 104.6, and 26th in 2011, averaging 100.3 rushing yards per game.
Granted, their top-10 passing offense afforded them the luxury of not having to run the ball much, but at 26.7 rushing attempts per game last year, they should have had significantly more production. Add into that the fact that quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sacked more than any other passer in the league, and the Packers just needed to find a way to run the ball more effectively and keep their quarterback out of undue danger.
To help solve this problem, the Packers turned to the draft, taking Eddie Lacy—considered by many to be the draft's top running back—in the second round. Even smarter, however, was their choice to take another running back, UCLA's Johnathan Franklin, in the fourth round.
With a history of turf toe, a bad pro day workout and concerns that Alabama's offensive line allowed Lacy to appear more impressive than he really is, the Packers found a way to provide insurance for him while also getting another of the draft's top running backs.
Now, the Packers have a welcome challenge on their hands: a running back battle, the outcome of which is likely to only benefit their bottom line in 2013 and beyond.
With Lacy and Franklin joining DuJuan Harris, Alex Green and James Starks, the Packers have options, whether they choose to use a committee of backs or commit to one in a featured role. And with younger players now outnumbering seasoned veterans, they won't have to worry about the age of their backs for a significant amount of time.
Baltimore Ravens Land LB Elvis Dumervil
When the Baltimore Ravens let starting pass-rushing outside linebacker Paul Kruger leave in free agency, they needed to find someone to fill his void.
Considering their other defensive holes—both starting safeties, two inside linebackers—and their then-overall lack of depth on that side of the ball, it seemed nearly impossible that they would be able to meet all their needs via the draft. Their limited salary-cap room also prevented them from being too splashy in free agency.
However, a stroke of luck in the form of a botched fax saw outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil bid adieu to the Denver Broncos, putting him on the market at just the right time for the Ravens—and ultimately, at the right price.
Though Dumervil's deal with the Ravens is worth $8.5 million this year, just $1 million of that is in the form of salary. The Broncos, on the other hand, offered $8 million, with $5 million in salary. Dumervil managed to get his desired payday, but in a form the Ravens could handle with ease.
In return, the Ravens get one of the league's most proven pass-rushers, who has posted 63.5 sacks along with 225 combined tackles over six years. They also made a decided upgrade over Kruger (for whom the Cleveland Browns ultimately paid more than the Ravens did for Dumervil) and did so at a relative bargain.
Though fate and luck had a hand in the Ravens' ability to land Dumervil, the fact that they were smart enough to make a move for him as soon as he became a free agent was one of their best offseason decisions.
Jacksonville Jaguars Draft Denard Robinson
Last year, the Jacksonville Jaguars ranked 21st in passing yards and 30th in rushing yards after the quarterback tandem of Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne struggled and the team's run game was hampered by Maurice Jones-Drew's foot injury, which had him sidelined for the final 10 games of the season.
The Jaguars needed to find someone who could provide a shot in the arm to their offense and give them a competitive advantage over their opponents. They did this when they opted to take offensive weapon Denard Robinson in the fifth round of the 2013 draft.
Robinson, the former Michigan quarterback, will be used by the Jaguars as a running back, receiver, kick returner and even quarterback, getting at least 10 to 15 touches per game. With speed and versatility, Denard is like three or four players in one, which gave the Jaguars options and allowed them to use their valuable draft picks on other areas of major need, like offensive tackle and the secondary.
This kind of forward-thinking philosophy on offense will take pressure off of whomever becomes the Jaguars' starting quarterback this year and add an air of unpredictability to both their passing and running games.
Drafting Robinson should pay dividends for the Jaguars this year.
New York Jets Draft QB Geno Smith
To say that the New York Jets have a quarterback problem is mildly underestimating their current situation.
In 2012, quarterback Mark Sanchez's poor play—and poor support from his offensive line—led the Jets to a 6-10 record. They ranked 30th in passing yards per game, and Sanchez's completion percentage was 30th in the league.
Though not all of the Jets' problems can be blamed on Sanchez, the way he played last season didn't help matters in the least. But with an expensive contract and no teams desiring to take it on, the Jets had no choice but to move forward with him as their expected starter.
To provide insurance—and options—the Jets also added veteran David Garrard, who promptly decided to retire after a knee injury resurfaced. This left the Jets with their second-round draft pick, Geno Smith, who was thought to be the draft's best passer.
Now, Smith is still quite raw and has a lot of work to do if he's to unseat Sanchez by Week 1. However, drafting him sends a clear message to Sanchez: He's being pushed, and if he cannot improve (and, considering this is his fifth season in the NFL, it's shocking how much he's regressed), there is an option to move on with someone else.
While Smith may not have been the ideal choice of player to push Sanchez, cap restrictions and a dearth of starter-capable talent in free agency forced their hands into making the best decision that they could, considering their situation. At the very least, Sanchez cannot feel comfortable about his 2013 nor his future, which is exactly what the Jets needed to make happen.
St. Louis Rams Prove Commitment to Sam Bradford
When the St. Louis Rams drafted quarterback Sam Bradford with the first overall pick in 2010, he was seen as the catalyst that would turn the team's three years of utter misfortune around. However, since he's been with the Rams, they have won just 16 total games and we've never had a real chance to see the extent of Bradford's talents.
Bradford's injury problems and a dearth of talented, reliable (and healthy) weapons to help him out have caused the team to stumble. And in an ever-strengthening NFC West division, the Rams cannot afford to fall any further behind.
That's why it was incredibly smart of them to spend this offseason girding Bradford with talent in hopes he can finally come into his own as a bona fide No. 1-pick quarterback in 2013.
Though they lost wide receiver Danny Amendola and running back Steven Jackson in free agency, they added tight end Jared Cook to pair with Lance Kendricks and drafted a pair of West Virginia wide receivers in Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, who should both help Bradford's—and the Rams'—bottom line this year.
St. Louis also has a trio of solid options at running back—Daryl Richardson, Isaiah Pead and Zac Stacy—who should be able to capably replace Jackson, and the addition of Pro Bowl offensive tackle Jake Long should result in better protection for Bradford.
In all, the Rams have shown commitment to their fourth-year quarterback in a manner they haven't in previous offseasons. Hopefully he'll now be able to fully realize his potential and position them as contenders in their now-brutal division.
Pittsburgh Steelers Draft S Shamarko Thomas
Though the Pittsburgh Steelers had offseason needs to address in order to have a better 2013 than their 8-8 finish in 2012—wide receiver and running back chief among them—they also did a lot to help their defense in the long term, particularly when they moved up in Round 4 of this year's draft to take safety Shamarko Thomas.
With starting strong and free safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark both on the so-called "wrong" end of 30 years old, the Steelers had no option but to consider who may be the one to replace either player, potentially as soon as 2014. Further, with Will Allen and the disappointing Ryan Mundy both leaving the Steelers in free agency, they certainly needed to address their depth at safety at the very least.
Thomas joins the Steelers at the right time. Customarily, Pittsburgh defensive rookies don't get many snaps in their first season, instead taking the year to learn the ropes of coordinator Dick LeBeau's complex defense and prove their mettle on special teams. While he may see playing time in particular personnel formations (or if Clark or Polamalu gets hurt), this season will be spent trying to get Thomas up to speed and ready to potentially start next year.
The Steelers have had varied success in finding long-term solutions in the draft, particularly on defense. However, Thomas has a lot of promise. He's being directly mentored by Clark and Polamalu, who have both wanted the team to add a young safety to the roster, and has many traits similar to the two veterans.
The Steelers needed to take a longer-term view with the safety position this offseason, and they did so successfully by taking Thomas. It was a smart move regardless of the fact that they had to give up a 2014 third-round draft pick to jump up this year to grab him.
Kansas City Chiefs Acquire QB Alex Smith
When the Kansas City Chiefs fired head coach Romeo Crennel and moved forward with Andy Reid, it was obvious that the Matt Cassel-Brady Quinn quarterback era had come to a close. And with the first pick in the 2013 draft, it was initially expected that they'd pursue a rookie passer—perhaps Geno Smith.
However, the crop of 2013 quarterbacks didn't appear to be all that ready to start and be effective in their first season in the league. So the Chiefs did the best thing they could do: traded for San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, who had been unseated as the starter in favor of Colin Kaepernick, though Smith hadn't performed poorly at the job.
For quarterback-needy teams, Smith was the best possible option this offseason. This draft wasn't going to produce an Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III or Russell Wilson as 2012's class did. The Chiefs acted quickly, getting a trade in place in late February so it could not be finalized at the start of the 2013 league year in mid-March.
The Chiefs' actions thus set in motion their ability to bolster their offensive line by getting the best tackle in the draft class for their needs, Eric Fisher, instead of having to gamble on a young, inexperienced quarterback leading the team. With an experienced arm under center, that's one less thing the rebuilding Chiefs have to worry about this year.
New England Patriots Stockpile Tight Ends
Ever since the New England Patriots found success with their two-tight end offense, they've been stockpiling at the position. Last year, it was treated as a joke—after all, they had Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. How many tight ends can they possibly need when they already possess so much talent?
It's simple, really: When your offense relies so heavily on the effective play of one position, it's important to have insurance in case of injury (or anything else). And the stockpiling paid off in 2012, too—both Hernandez and Gronkowski missed time with injuries, and they were able to plug in Michael Hoomanawanui, Daniel Fells and Visanthe Shiancoe when needed.
While not as effective, at least they weren't particularly out of options.
This offseason was no different. Gronkowski's forearm break required yet another surgery, and he's currently recovering from another procedure, this time on his back. Hernandez looks to be in at least a little trouble (to put it mildly) in connection to a homicide investigation, so his status for 2013 is certainly in doubt.
As a result, it doesn't seem all that strange or paranoid that the Patriots kept both Hoomanawanui and Fells, brought on Jake Ballard, signed two undrafted rookies—Brandon Ford and Zach Sudfeld—and picked up Tim Tebow, who could potentially take up some of the duties traditional to the tight end position.
What at first seemed to be a strange quirk of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has proven to be a smart strategy. Though not having either or both of Gronkowski and Hernandez does damage their offense somewhat, they at least won't be lacking for depth.
Cleveland Browns' Coaching Hires
When the Cleveland Browns changed ownership last fall, it was clear that a housecleaning was going to take place in their coaching staff and front office. It seemed inevitable, but the hope was that under new leadership, they'd get it right this time and give themselves some much-needed stability.
Though the season is still months away from starting and we've yet to see the new-look Browns in any significant way, the moves they made to bring on high-caliber coaches should pay off in the win column.
Replacing former head coach Pat Shurmur is Rob Chudzinski, who spent time with the Browns, San Diego Chargers and Carolina Panthers as tight ends coach, assistant head coach and offensive coordinator, respectively. Instead of offensive coordinator Brad Childress, the Browns brought in Norv Turner. Replacing defensive coordinator Dick Jauron is Ray Horton, formerly of the Arizona Cardinals.
The new offense will feature more downfield passing, stretching the field in a way that maximizes the strong arm of second-year quarterback Brandon Weeden. Though Horton's arrival means a switch from a 4-3 base to a 3-4, many of the players already on the roster (along with those acquired via the draft and free agency) have experience in the 3-4, and the plan is to be aggressive in the Pittsburgh Steelers model.
These coaching hires are well-known names and heavy hitters with a track record of both success and innovation. It's the greatest collection of talent the team has had leading the way since the Browns' return to the league in 1999.
Though there's no guarantee of success simply based on the impressive resumes of the coaches, the Browns have put themselves in the best position to win in over a decade.
San Francisco 49ers Draft Marcus Lattimore
When a team already has a solid roster and strong depth, it has the luxury of taking a few extra risks, especially where draft picks are concerned. With the San Francisco 49ers coming off of a Super Bowl appearance with few holes that needed filling, they opted to use a fourth-round pick on running back Marcus Lattimore despite him suffering three torn knee ligaments and a knee dislocation the previous October.
Lattimore, who also tore his ACL the previous season, was one of the nation's top running backs when healthy. Though his injury history is very concerning, the 49ers apparently felt confident enough in his ability to fully recover and return to his old form. Even better, they didn't need that to happen in 2013.
Lattimore won't play this season, and the 49ers have even requested that he slow down his rehabilitation with an eye toward him being completely healthy for 2014 sans complications or setbacks. They managed to get a player who very well could be one of the NFL's top backs without it being a problem that they'll need to keep a fourth-round draft pick on the shelf for the entire year.
Without Lattimore, the Niners are more than fine at the running back position. They have Frank Gore and LaMichael James along with mobile quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon are more than capable talents who provide quality depth, and they also currently have two other backs on the roster—D.J. Harper and Jewel Hampton—which means that Lattimore sitting out a year won't be any trouble for the team.
This is the best possible situation for Lattimore. No other team that could have drafted him would have had the luxury of letting him cool down his rehab and get him prepared for 2014—as well as for the 49ers. The amount of talent already on their roster combined with the glut of 2013 draft picks allowed them to get creative and potentially shore up the running back position for the long term.