Offseason? What offseason?
Just a few short months after crowning the Baltimore Ravens as world champions, the NFL has seen coaches and general managers fired, star players traded and college stars drafted. Now, just days before the start of training camp for most teams, the 2013 NFL season has the building blocks for its own identity.
As with every year, this upcoming season will, in part, be shaped by what has taken place over the last five months. Which ones will have the biggest lasting impact on the 2013 season and the game as a whole?
One of the best linebackers of his era and a cemented piece in Chicago Bears history, Brian Urlacher decided to finally hang up his cleats after 13 seasons.
Urlacher initially wanted to continue playing, but once contract talks fell through with Chicago, he decided that he would rather spend his fall watching the games from the comforts of his home than play for another team.
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons Urlacher is no longer in the NFL is because Lovie Smith is no longer the coach of the Bears. In fact, Urlacher firmly believes that he would still be playing if Lovie were coaching, as he told ESPN Chicago in May:
One-hundred percent, I think so...my want-to would be there more, as well. I think my desire to want to play for the Bears and still be there with his staff and my teammates would be a lot more as well. I love playing for him.
While Urlacher never won a Super Bowl, he and Ray Lewis defined their generation of great defensive players and should be a lock to enter the Hall of Fame one day.
After coming so close to finally getting over the hump and to the Super Bowl, the Atlanta Falcons looked sure to lose Tony Gonzalez to retirement.
Gonzalez initially said he was “95 percent sure” that he was ready to retire (h/t Don Banks of SI.com), but the Falcons gave Gonzalez the Brett Favre treatment and convinced him to come back for one more run at the Super Bowl.
Had Gonzalez retired, the Falcons would have been forced to use a high draft pick or precious cap space on a tight end. Instead, they were able to focus their resources on adding more pieces to their already talented roster.
On the surface, the Texans’ decision to sign Ed Reed in place of Glover Quin makes little sense. The 27-year-old Quin is the younger, more athletic player and and as versatile as any safety in the league. Meanwhile, Reed, 34, is clearly on his last legs and a shadow of his former dominant self.
However, there is a method to the Texans’ madness. Just about every key player on the team is homegrown and have had limited exposure to a winning atmosphere. The Texans needed to bring in someone with championship experience.
That's where Reed comes in.
On the field, Reed is still an instinctual player who can create a few extra turnovers for the defense, but is also, of course, heavy with veteran experience and leadership.
Statistically, the New Orleans Saints fielded the worst defense in NFL history in 2012 after setting the record for yards allowed, despite being under the guidance of defensive guru Steve Spagnuolo.
Back from his yearlong suspension, Sean Payton has taken drastic measures to fix his paper-thin defense.
The Saints will predominantly run a 3-4 system under new coordinator Rob Ryan. They used their first-round pick on versatile safety Kenny Vaccaro. They also added Keenan Lewis and Victor Butler in free agency, but Butler suffered a devastating ACL tear after colliding with teammate Mark Ingram in OTAs and is likely out for the season.
Even without Butler, the Saints have made enough improvements to field a much-improved defensive unit in 2013. After all, there is nowhere to go but up at this point.
For years, Steven Jackson has wasted his talents on a hapless St. Louis Rams organization. Now, Jackson is finally on a contending team that should be able to give him the playoff run and experience his career has thus far lacked.
After releasing the worn-down Michael Turner, the Falcons needed another dynamic presence at the running back position who, unlike a rookie, would be able to immediately step into a full-time role.
Plus, as the Falcons continue to move away from their run-first roots under the defensive-minded Mike Smith, Jackson can catch and protect better than Turner ever could.
In a division that could be won by any four of its members, Jackson could be the difference that puts the Falcons over the top in the NFC South.
The San Francisco 49ers have a roster as talented as any in the league, but there is no doubt that losing Michael Crabtree for at least the majority of the regular season to an Achilles injury will have an enormous effect on the 49er offense.
Crabtree’s production started to skyrocket when Colin Kaepernick became the starter in the middle of the 2012 season, as the two developed an instant chemistry. Crabtree finished the season with career-high totals in yards (1,105), receptions (85) and targets (126).
The good news is that the 49ers do have a handful of players to ease the blow. Early in the offseason, they made a trade for former Raven Anquan Boldin, who was likely going to assume Delanie Walker's role almost as a receiving tight end.
Now, Boldin will have to start immediately at WR and carry the load for the receiving corps until Crabtree gets back. So one important development has, in retrospect, created another. The 49ers also have 2012 first-round pick A.J. Jenkins and 2013 fourth-rounder Quinton Patton waiting in the wings.
There is a chance that Crabtree could come back this year, especially if the 49ers make the playoffs (which they should). In the meantime, the Niners are going to need their new acquisitions to step into bigger roles immediately.
While the Vikings were able to yield some high draft picks in exchange for Percy Harvin, they were left with the worst receiving corps in the league by a wide margin.
For a team that was trying to bring along a young quarterback in Christian Ponder, they needed to add a big-time threat to make Ponder’s (and Adrian Peterson’s) life easier. What better way to do it than stealing from a division rival?
Greg Jennings, who's come on board on a five-year, $47 million deal, is not quite the dynamic speedster that Percy Harvin is, but he is a true No. 1 receiver who can get open and make difficult catches.
The Vikings still have some work to do for their receiving corps, but Jennings moving to Minnesota adds yet another intriguing layer to an already heated Packers-Vikings rivalry.
As talented as any tight end in the college ranks, Rob Gronkowski slipped to the second round of the 2010 draft due to a spotty injury history at Arizona. After dominating the league over the past three seasons, injuries have begun to slow down Gronk's record-setting start to his career.
Gronk's injury issues began to emerge after he broke his forearm in a November matchup against the Colts, which he re-broke in the playoffs against the Texans.
Because of a lingering infection, Gronkowski will need to undergo a fourth surgery on his forearm, putting his availability for the season opener in jeopardy, as reported by Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald.
In June, Gronkowski had back surgery—the troublesome area that caused his draft-day slide—and officially placed on the PUP list Monday. Whether the star tight end misses the season opener seems trivial at this point; he was a shell of himself in Super Bowl XLVI and missed virtually the entire 2012 playoffs in addition to five regular-season games.
Now that Aaron Hernandez is out of the picture and there's no proven receiving threat in sight, the Patriots are going to be more dependent on Gronkowski's health than ever.
The Browns have already added a few exciting young pieces in Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo, but perhaps their most valuable acquisitions of the offseason are on the coaching staff.
Norv Turner had his shortcomings as a head coach, but there is no disputing his ability to design an offense and call plays. With a feature back to work with in Trent Richardson and a load of young talent, Turner is exactly what the Browns needed to give their stagnant offense a boost.
Meanwhile, Dick LeBeau protege Ray Horton has established himself as one of the best defensive minds in the game. He turned Arizona’s once-porous defense into a stingy unit that was one of the league's toughest under his watch.
With these two coordinators on the same staff, Cleveland could have a tactical advantage on a near-weekly basis.
This year’s free-agency period was a bit slow for a lot of veterans, but several younger stars were able to cash in on massive deals.
Mike Wallace landed a massive $60 million deal with the Dolphins, but he actually left quite a lot of money on the table; he reportedly turned down $76 millions from the Vikings, simply because he wanted to play in Miami.
However, Wallace’s decision hardly lessens expectations for the speedy wide receiver, as the Dolphins are expecting Wallace to stretch the field and get the most out of Ryan Tannehill’s big arm.
If Wallace can be the player the Dolphins are paying him to be, they could have a real chance of finally stealing the division from New England.
NFL teams have a contingency plan for every possible outcome of a trade, release or loss in free agency.
However, there is no way the Broncos could have anticipated the loss of one of their best defenders to a paperwork snafu.
Elvis Dumervil reportedly faxed the paperwork for his restructured deal seven minutes too late. And to avoid a massive cap hit, the Broncos then had to release him at the last minute.
Dumervil predictably fired his agent and found a home with the Ravens, but this story reveals just how rigid (and primitive) the NFL’s business practices can be.
While a bit unusual, the fact that three offensive tackles went within the first five picks of the 2013 draft is hardly eyebrow-raising. Having quality tackles is vital to any offense that does not have Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers under center.
However, what makes these selections so unusual is that all three top-five tackles—Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel and Lane Johnson—are all slated to start at right tackle.
Right tackles are often viewed as the slower, more powerful tackles who specialize in the run game. With teams using top-five picks on the position, it is become more widely accepted that right tackles need to be just as good in pass protection as left tackles, as premium pass-rushers are being moved all over the line.
If the Chiefs, Jaguars or Eagles are able to find success with this forward thinking, it could change the way NFL teams address the tackle position, using their resources on two quality tackles rather than just one elite left tackle.
It was a good year to be an upper-echelon starting quarterback with a contract about to expire.
Joe Flacco set the market after signing what was a lucrative deal in NFL history at the time. Coming off a Super Bowl win, Flacco earned the contract he received, even if it may not represent where he ranks among NFL quarterbacks in terms of skill.
When the Dallas Cowboys gave Tony Romo a massive six-year, $108 million contract extension in late March, it predictably stirred up frustrated Cowboys fans who were still recovering from Romo's season-ending interception in the final week. On the other hand, Dallas had little choice but to pay Romo, who actually tied for the NFL lead in comeback victories last year with five.
Aaron Rodgers signed what would stand as the richest deal in NFL history, a seven-year extension worth up to $130.75 million with $54 million guaranteed, which includes a $35 million signing bonus. Rodgers is arguably the best player on the planet, so it was only a matter of time before he landed such a contract.
The most interesting contract, however, was the three-year extension the Lions gave Matthew Stafford with two years remaining on his deal. The move opens up some much-needed cap space for the Lions and keeps Stafford under contract for an additional year.
If Stafford explodes into an All-Pro, the contract would be a bargain with him making far less than someone like Aaron Rodgers or Joe Flacco. But if he busts and the Lions continue to lose, it's likely that no one who made the offer will be around to deal with with the ramifications anyway.
In either case, if there is one thing we learned this offseason, it's that teams are not afraid to pay upper-echelon quarterbacks a lot of money.
The New York Giants rarely find themselves associated with offseason drama, but they did face a potential issue with Victor Cruz’s contract situation.
With the potential threat of a training camp holdout fast approaching, the two sides finally came to an agreement as Cruz signed a six-year deal worth just over $45 million, per Chris Wesseling of NFL.com.
Still, Cruz left the bargaining table with a bit of a sour taste in his mouth. He believes that he left money on the table for the sake of staying in New York and removing the risk of playing out another season.
As Cruz said on Sirius XM Radio Show The Opening Drive, per Wesseling:
When you understand from a numbers standpoint, and the numbers you put up you feel like you deserve a certain amount of money ... and you want your team to owe that to you. You see guys getting these huge paydays and you feel like you're at the same caliber, if not better than some of those guys.
It is natural for the average fan to react negatively to Cruz’s comments, but he does have a point: His numbers match up with those of just about anyone (outside of Calvin Johnson). Because he was a restricted free agent on a one-year tender (a common situation for former undrafted free agents such as Cruz), he lost a bit of leverage at the bargaining table.
In any case, the Giants must now turn their attention to Hakeem Nicks if they want to keep their dynamic passing attack in place.
Geno Smith was the latest victim of the “green room slide,” as the player who most considered the top passer in the draft fell all the way to the quarterback-needy Jets in the second round.
But the drama was just getting started.
After the draft, Smith fired his agents, which he has every right to do. However, doing it so soon after a disappointing draft experience made him appear immature, as if he was looking for a scapegoat for the reason he slipped so far in the draft.
Shortly after the move, reports emerged that Smith was less than stellar in the pre-draft process, using his phone when talking to team officials, as Rich Cimini of ESPN New York reported.
"He's going to have a tough time in New York," an NFC scout said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Right now, he's coming off as a spoiled, pampered brat."
Even if these reports are true, Smith took an inordinate amount of criticism before even being fitted for a helmet.
Ultimately, Smith's success in the NFL will be determined by his play on the field, not his handling of agents.
The 2013 draft was perhaps the most unpredictable one ever, especially when it came to predicting when the quarterbacks would start going off the board.
Generally, most perceived Geno Smith as the top quarterback of this class, but the Bills shocked the world when they made EJ Manuel the only quarterback to be taken in the first round.
Viewed by most as a mid-round talent, Manuel is an ideal combination of size, mobility and arm strength that the Bills are hoping they can mold into something special.
Manuel will be a case study in determining if it is possible to mold such a raw but gifted player into an NFL quarterback in such a short amount of time. If coach Doug Marrone can find a way to overcome his accuracy issues, Manuel can change the way the NFL goes about drafting quarterbacks.
In an offseason that has seen plenty of controversy among star players, Von Miller is the latest to be disciplined by the league.
Miller is facing a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, as reported by ESPN's Adam Schefter. Mike Klis of the Denver Post noted that Miller had already tested positive for amphetamines and marijuana during his rookie season in 2011.
For the Broncos, who have already lost their second-best pass-rusher to a fax machine snafu, losing Miller may not be as crushing of a blow as it may seem initially. They added Shaun Phillips in free agency to bolster the pass rush, and as long as Peyton Manning is on the active roster, they should be able to cruise to a division title in the league's weakest division.
Perhaps the biggest worry for Denver is the fact that Miller (allegedly) tested positively twice in as many years. A rookie making a mistake is one thing, but to do it again a year later shows a pattern of behavior.
It should be noted that Miller is claiming he did nothing wrong and will therefore appeal the suspension, per Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today Sports. Worst-case scenario, all Miller has to do is serve the suspension and stop taking these drugs for all of this to go away.
There was a lot of ugly quarterback play in the NFL last year, but no quarterback situation was as dire as that of the Arizona Cardinals.
After spending the last few years trotting out the likes of Kevin Kolb, John Skelton and Ryan Lindley on a weekly basis, finding a veteran quarterback that would immediately command the respect of his teammates was the first task on new general manager Steve Keim’s list.
Carson Palmer had his share of struggles in Oakland, but he was hardly the sole source of blame. With his team constantly trying to make up a deficit, he was forced to take chances and make dangerous passes that often led to interceptions.
The Cardinals still need to find themselves a young quarterback to groom for the future. In the meantime, whenever they feel disappointed about Palmer’s play, they can always just watch a few snaps of Ryan Lindley’s 2012 starts for vindication.
How on earth does a team with five Pro Bowlers wind up picking first in the draft? Simple: quarterback play and turnovers.
While you can’t fix a turnover problem from an executive’s corner office, you can get your team an experienced quarterback to bring stability to an organization—which is exactly what the Chiefs did.
Alex Smith was benched halfway trough the 2012 season despite playing the best football of his career, but the Chiefs should temper their expectations. It is hardly a coincidence that he turned his career around as soon as Jim Harbaugh arrived on campus, as Harbaugh has an uncanny ability to turn every quarterback he touches into gold.
Andy Reid knows plenty about quarterback development himself, but turning the Chiefs into a high-flying passing machine would be a mistake. If Smith can be the same caretaker he was in San Francisco, the Chiefs can win a lot more than two games in 2013.
As we have seen with Richard Seymour and Lawyer Milloy, the Patriots never have a problem moving on from a player if they feel it benefits their team, and fan favorite Wes Welker was no exception.
At the start of free agency, most assumed the two sides would eventually find common ground. After all, Welker and the Patriots have enjoyed such a mutually beneficial relationship, so why break up now?
As it turns out, according to Greg Bedard of the Boston Globe, Welker was unimpressed with the effort the Patriots made to keep him:
In the end, it was about respect. Welker never thought the Patriots showed enough. ... [W]hen it comes to athletes, a team shows its true level of respect in dollars—and the Patriots never quite did that with Welker.
Ultimately, Welker agreed to a two-year, $12 million deal with the Broncos.
Not so coincidentally, the Patriots gave Welker’s replacement, Danny Amendola, a five-year contract with a slightly higher per-year average.
Had the Patriots known what was in store for them over the months that followed, they may have treated Welker with a tad bit more hospitality.
The NFL has been very aggressive as of late in terms of implementing rules to make the game as safe as ever, but the latest legislation passed will ban runners from using the crown of their helmet to initiate contact.
NFL running backs are less than thrilled with the new proposition. Ray Rice plans on breaking whatever rules are necessary to protect himself, as he told the Ravens' official website:
I'm just telling you right now, there's not going to be a guy that's going to be able to get a free lick on me and think it's all right. I will defend my case, and I will defend myself as a runner.
After taking away so much from the defensive side of the ball, the NFL is trying to do right by protecting the players on the other line of the scrimmage as well.
The frustration among running backs is understandable, but this type of backlash has followed just about every new rule the NFL has successfully implemented. These professionals will find a way to adapt, just like they always do.
Dozens of coaches are hired and fired every year in the NFL, but the Eagles’ hiring of Chip Kelly is the most intriguing hire in recent memory.
Kelly ran a high-octane offense at the University of Oregon that was focused on a fast tempo and creating mismatches—all elements that other teams have stolen from him already.
However, there is no telling exactly what kind of offense he has planned for NFL competition. Aside from it being a faster game with more talented defenders, Kelly’s biggest transition will be in how he adjusts to the different hash marks, as he often utilized the wide side of the field in college to his advantage.
If Kelly succeeds, it will open the door further for more innovative college coaches to enter the NFL ranks, just as Jim Harbaugh did with his success in San Francisco.
On the other hand, failure will confirm once again that college tactics are meant to stay in college.
Based on talent alone, there are few players in the NFL that are more explosive and powerful than Percy Harvin.
Why, then, were the Vikings so eager to trade him before his contract was up? Harvin had a bad combination of unavailability and an attitude problem that caused a rift with the Vikings coaching staff. The fact that he always battled injuries (specifically, migraines) sealed his fate.
Meanwhile, the Seahawks have filled their void for a speedy threat that can break the toughest defenses in the NFC West. There are few defenses in the league that are built to handle Harvin, Marshawn Lynch and Sidney Rice with Russell Wilson pulling the trigger.
If Harvin can stay healthy and out of trouble, he could be the catalyst that sends the Seahawks to the Super Bowl.
There were a handful of stars traded across the NFL, but the trade that sent Darrelle Revis to Tampa Bay was the biggest roster move since the Denver Broncos signed Peyton Manning in 2012.
When healthy, Revis is not only the best corner in the league, he is the best defender on the planet.
However, if Revis never suffered an ACL injury in Week 3 of the 2012 regular season, he would probably still be a Jet. The Buccaneers have invested a first-round pick, six years and $96 million in Revis' knee, though none of that money is guaranteed.
The good news is that the Buccaneers can get out of the contract after this year without any cap penalties, but doing so would make this a huge waste of valuable financial and draft resources.
If Revis can be the same player he was before the injury, the Buccaneers are on the verge of a Super Bowl, and this trade will go down as one of the biggest steals in NFL history. Otherwise, it could wind up costing Mark Dominik his job.
Unfortunately, the 2013 NFL offseason will be defined more by tragedy than anything else.
Aaron Hernandez had a slew of character issues when he was coming out of Florida, which caused him to slip all the way to the fourth round. From the outside, Hernandez appeared to be well worth the gamble the Patriots made, as he emerged into one of the top receiving tight ends in the game in just a few years.
Even with his character issues, no one could have possibly envisioned that he would be charged with murder and face other legal problems.
It is impossible to ignore the negative attention the NFL has gotten from this ordeal. As rare as this kind of situation is in the league landscape, the casual observer may now associate murder with the NFL. However minor that association is, it's never a good thing.
What will happen to Aaron Hernandez has yet to be determined, but there is no denying the fact that this unfortunate situation has left a deep scar on the NFL’s image.