Boom-or-Bust Predictions for NFL's Biggest Offseason Moves

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystMarch 25, 2017

Boom-or-Bust Predictions for NFL's Biggest Offseason Moves

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    Will Alshon Jeffery re-establish his value in Philadelphia?
    Will Alshon Jeffery re-establish his value in Philadelphia?Associated Press

    Ideally, the moves made early in an offseason will add one final piece for a team to reach another level or make a championship run. But just as often, NFL general managers end up having to seek new employment because of failed decisions.

    The sort of decisions that can fall short on the field and sting even worse for a team's bottom line.

    The stakes are that high during the beginning of a new league year. There's a playoff twinkle in the eye of GMs as they sign, say, an Alshon Jeffery for an instant infusion of offense at wide receiver. Or a tackle like Andrew Whitworth to minimize the shades of black and blue all over their quarterback's body.

    The free-agency dust has fallen back to earth as we round the bend into late March. The open market now consists mostly of players who are trying to find teams, instead of teams trying to find players (good luck, Adrian Peterson).

    So which marquee moves (excluding re-signings) have boom potential? And which ones could bust fast?

    Let's take a look at 10 of the most notable offseason moves so far and try to predict the booms and busts.

Brandon Marshall to the New York Giants

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    Al Pereira/Getty Images

    Age can often be a long-term concern when signing a veteran free agent.

    But the New York Giants' signing of Brandon Marshall is a move where even in the short-term, age concerns could creep up. Marshall just turned 33 years old, and he wouldn't be the first or last receiver to see his production tail off as he gets further into his 30s.

    However, although Marshall might decline somewhat in 2017, he should be immune to any sort of cliff dive. Typically, wide receivers who lean heavily on speed are the ones who see their skills suddenly evaporate. That's not Marshall, because while he's fast enough, raw vertical explosion has never been the foundation of his success.

    He relies on utilizing his size (6'4", 230 lbs) and body control to shield off defensive backs, consistently winning battles for contested throws. That's what has made him such a dominant red-zone threat and led to four double-digit touchdown seasons. His wide catch radius has also resulted in an NFL record six campaigns with 100-plus receptions.

    He's not far removed from one of those years, as in 2015, Marshall finished with 109 receptions for 1,502 yards. His 941 career receptions trail only the Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald (964) over the past 11 seasons since Marshall entered the league, according to Pro Football Reference.

    Marshall's skill set solves a dire need for a Giants team that may be seeing its championship window set to close as quarterback Eli Manning's career winds down. They have an abundance of speed at receiver between Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard. The final piece that receiver group needed was a reliable set of hands to make difficult catches amid chaos.

    Marshall has done that throughout his entire career.

           

    Prediction: Boom

Alshon Jeffery to the Philadelphia Eagles

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    There will likely be several winners because of the one-year deal the Philadelphia Eagles agreed to with wide receiver Alshon Jeffery.

    The first is the Eagles. They gave the best receiver on the market a contract that minimized risk and maximized the potential returns. The team wisely bought low on a receiver who has missed 11 games over the past two seasons due to injuries and a suspension.

    If he has another off-field misstep or his health doesn't cooperate, the Eagles won't have to swallow either their money or pride (or both) while justifying a commitment to Jeffery beyond 2017. If things turn toward the toilet with Jeffery, they can say "thank you very much for your services, sir," and move on without offering a contract extension.

    Jeffery himself is a winner, too, because he needed to rebuild his value.

    He's a 27-year-old receiver with two 1,000-plus-yard seasons on his resume. He needs to prove he can do it again, though he still produced sparkling numbers even during an injury riddled 2015 (807 receiving yards over only nine games). Now one of the league's most acrobatic young pass-catchers can establish himself as a premier wide receiver again while benefiting from competent quarterback play and then cash in next spring.

    The final and maybe most important winner is that quarterback.

    Carson Wentz sizzled to start his rookie season and then struggled once the league adjusted. Such peaks and valleys aren't out of the ordinary for a rookie quarterback who's still developing.

    But the unreliable hands from his receivers didn't exactly help. The Eagles' top three wideouts combined to drop an astounding 26 passes in 2016, according to Jimmy Kempski of PhillyVoice.com. Philadelphia risked shattering Wentz's confidence if it didn't give him a football vacuum like Jeffery.

                 

    Prediction: Boom

Brandin Cooks Traded to the New England Patriots

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady can use the fact that he's, well, Tom Brady to elevate anyone around him.

    That's what it usually feels like at least, especially after wide receiver Chris Hogan blasted off for 332 receiving yards during the 2017 playoffs when his previous career single-season high was 450 yards.

    But what would happen if Brady could throw to an established receiver who has already thrived as a deep threat elsewhere? We're about to find out.

    The Patriots traded for Brandin Cooks, the shifty wideout who was a first-round pick in 2014 and has recorded 1,000-plus receiving yards in two of his first three NFL seasons. Cooks has also scored 20 touchdowns in 42 career games and incredibly posted two 170-plus-yard games while with the New Orleans Saints in 2016.

    Cooks is versatile and able to stretch the field from both the slot and on the outside. He ran 37.0 percent of his routes from the slot in 2016, but much of his damage came near the boundary. Of his 1,173 overall receiving yards, only 305 yards were collected as a slot receiver.

    That is ideal, because although Cooks can have success there, the Patriots don't need him in the slot. That's where Julian Edelman has made his living, as he posted the third-most slot yards (724) in 2016.

    Cooks needs to be a trusted deep option, and he's proved himself in that role. That was especially true during his final season with the Saints when he was given 11 catchable balls that traveled 20-plus yards through the air, and he caught all of them while also turning four of those throws into touchdowns.

    The Patriots' window to add even more championship jewelry is threatening to close because of Brady's age (39). Giving him a turf burner like Cooks is one sure way to keep it open for another year.

              

    Prediction: Boom

Stephon Gilmore to the Patriots

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    Bill Wippert/Associated Press

    The Patriots overpaid for cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Or maybe it just feels that way because by chasing the top of the market—any market, at any position—they did something out of character.

    In truth, the 26-year-old Gilmore received a contract in line with his age and the rapidly rising salary cap.

    Either way, the result was the same: The Patriots did something startling by making themselves vulnerable and pursuing a rock-star free agent. This is a team that usually waits to find great value in the second and third waves of free agency. Or often prides itself on nailing the later rounds of the draft. For example, Gilmore will effectively replace Malcolm Butler if he's traded away. And Butler wasn't even drafted at all.

    The Patriots signed Gilmore for $65 million over five years. But as always, the most important number is the amount of sweet, sweet guaranteed cash. He is guaranteed to pocket $40 million, which is an unsettling amount of security for a cornerback who, in many ways, just came off a down year by his standards.

    Gilmore is now set to receive the fourth-most guaranteed money at his position, per Spotrac, and equal the amount given to the Seahawks' Richard Sherman. Yes, that comes after he recorded a career single-season-high five interceptions in 2016. But interceptions tell only a partial story and can often be circumstantial.

    Gilmore also allowed a reception on 60.3 percent of his targets in coverage. That was up significantly from his 54.3 percent in 2015, and on those receptions, he gave up an average of 15.6 yards, a career single-season high. He also recorded just six passes defensed after posting 12 in 2015.

    He's still a highly physical, effective cornerback, which is shown in his 2016 passer rating allowed of 70.6. But being good won't be enough given the contract. He needs to be a game-altering player. And it's difficult to be confident that future lies ahead for him.

     

    Prediction: Bust

Andrew Whitworth to the Los Angeles Rams

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    Frank Victores/Associated Press

    Andrew Whitworth doesn't act his age on the football field. He turned 35 years old in December and is still one of the league's sturdiest walls at left tackle.

    It's easy to remind yourself of his age, though, and note that nothing is certain when any player, at any position, is in his mid- to late 30s. Continuing a football career is never an assumption at that point. 

    That is why it would also be easy to see bright, glowing bust warnings written all over Whitworth after the Los Angeles Rams signed him to a three-year deal worth $33.75 million. It would be wrong, too.

    The Rams wisely structured Whitworth's contract in a way that minimizes, and nearly erases, any age-related risk. He's only guaranteed $15 million, which ranks 19th among all tackles, according to Spotrac.

    Whitworth has allowed only 19 sacks over the past five years. Meanwhile, the Carolina Panthers signed Matt Kalil to a contract that guarantees him more than double ($31 million) what Whitworth will receive. He's given up 26 sacks over the past half decade, a number skewed in his favor because Kalil missed nearly all of 2016 due to a hip injury.

    So in a barren tackle market that resulted in inflated contracts for inferior talents, the Rams stole a player who keeps fighting off age. It's a signing that was a win in the front office and will be on the field, too.

    Whitworth allowed a mere 14 pressures in 2016, and Rams quarterback Jared Goff was repeatedly pummeled during his rookie season. He went down 26 times over just seven starts.

    Having valuable time to read, adjust and react while looking downfield is critical for a young quarterback. Whitworth has been providing that comfort throughout his career, and he can do it for Goff, too.

     

    Prediction: Boom

Calais Campbell to the Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    We see a familiar tale with defensive end Calais Campbell's move to the Jacksonville Jaguars. In one important way, it's similar to the Marshall signing. There's an immediate impulse to look at Campbell's age and be deeply concerned (he'll turn 31 just before the 2017 season).

    But then those worries melt away when the larger picture comes into view. That's because of both finances and the structure of the deal, and more importantly, the high level of play Campbell has maintained.

    The Jaguars gave Campbell a four-year, $60 million contract. But only $30 million of that is guaranteed, which really makes it a two-year agreement. There are minimal cap penalties after that for releasing Campbell, with a hit of $3 million in 2019.

    Jacksonville has protected itself against an abrupt Campbell decline. And the franchise has control over any remaining productive years from a player who hasn't even hinted at slowing down.

    Campbell has been one of the league's most consistent pass-rushing giants in recent years. He's a 6'8", 300-pound behemoth who has recorded 50-plus pressures over each of the past two seasons. That included leading all 3-4 defensive ends in 2016 with 56 pressures.

    He'll now slide into a defensive line that added tackle Malik Jackson in 2016 and is hoping fellow defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. will take a leap in his second full season.

    The Jaguars fielded a mediocre pass rush in 2016, finishing with 33 sacks (tied for 19th). That number could spike in a hurry.

           

    Prediction: Boom

DeSean Jackson to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Ralph Freso/Getty Images

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were already teetering on the edge of being a playoff team after finishing with a 9-7 record in 2016—at one point winning five straight games.

    Offensively that surge was powered by Mike Evans, the bounding pickup truck of a wide receiver who outmuscles and outleaps defensive backs every week. He's recorded three 1,000-plus-yard receiving seasons to begin his career.

    But Evans needed a wingman, and a specific one. He needed a receiver who could blast off and separate with sheer speed on the other side. He needed someone who could draw coverage deep while opening up areas underneath.

    He needed DeSean Jackson, and so did his deep-throwing quarterback Jameis Winston.

    Jackson could push the Buccaneers into the playoffs after averaging 17-plus yards per reception in each of his three seasons with the Washington Redskins.

    He has also logged two seasons when that per-catch average climbed above 20 yards, with the most recent not too far in the rearview mirror (2014). In 2016, he finished second in receptions that traveled 20-plus yards through the air (18), and first in yards on those deep catches (579).

    Just how desperate were the Buccaneers for a Jackson-like receiver and someone with those career credentials? They finished 2016 ranked tied for 24th in 20-plus-yard receptions.

    And yes, it's true that receivers who are heavily reliant on deep speed can age faster, and Jackson is 30 years old. But the Bucs structured Jackson's three-year deal in such a way that they're essentially saying: Give us two solid years, DeSean.

    His guaranteed money runs out after the 2018 season. He hasn't shown any signs of slowing yet, so between now and then, there's plenty of reason to believe Jackson can light fireworks with Winston on a weekly basis.

             

    Prediction: Boom

Mike Glennon to the Chicago Bears

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    By the end of September every season, there will almost inevitably be a struggling quarterback who has a high profile-ish name. The volume of complaints from the fanbase will grow louder with each wobbly pass and interception, to the point that the signal-caller in question is benched.

    That's the easy part in the effort to satisfy quarterback anger. The much harder task is finding even an average quarterback to be a replacement.

    I just described what had been brewing with the Chicago Bears and their now-former quarterback Jay Cutler for years. A divorce was best for all sides in the Bears-Cutler marriage.

    But finding a good quarterback in the upcoming draft is a shaky mission at best. So the Bears were forced to sift through the free-agent market that's annually overflowing with rotting garbage.

    The solution they emerged with is a guy who hasn't started a game since 2014 and has attempted just 11 meaningful passes over the past two years.

    In fairness, signing Mike Glennon is a temporary solution, which became evident when the details of his contract emerged. There will be only $2.5 million of guaranteed money left on Glennon's contract after the 2017 season. That pretty much makes it a one-year deal worth $18.5 million, and not at all a three-year deal worth $45 million.

    The problem is, even as a temporary solution, Glennon's starting status could easily lead to the permanent firing of Bears head coach John Fox.

    A quarterback who has a career per-attempt average of 6.5 yards and completed only 57.6 percent of his throws in 2014 (his last meaningful playing time) has some combination of Kendall Wright, Eddie Royal, Markus Wheaton, Kevin White and Cameron Meredith as his top receivers. That won't end well.

     

    Prediction: Bust

A.J. Bouye to the Jaguars

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    The Jaguars' defensive backfield could function like a steel trap in 2016.

    It already featured Jalen Ramsey, the impressive first-round pick in 2016 who finished his rookie season with 14 passes defensed. Now across from him will be a free-agent acquisition who's also young and is also quickly blossoming into a star.

    The Jaguars landed the best cornerback in free agency when they signed the 25-year-old A.J. Bouye to a five-year deal worth $67.5 million. That sounds like a whole lot of dough for a player who's only had one solid season. And it is, but as always, much of it isn't guaranteed. Bouye received $26 million guaranteed, and the Jaguars would face manageable dead-cap hits if they cut him beyond 2018, according to Spotrac.

    There's always concern over a swift regression after a sudden rise like Bouye's in 2016. He'll be fighting off the one-hit wonder tag, a battle that likely won't be too difficult.

    Bouye's success in 2016 came from both his impressive instincts and ball skills and ideal size in today's NFL. He stands 6'0" and weighs 191 pounds, giving him a large frame that powers his physical style.

    Bouye matches the muscle of the league's large-bodied receivers, and it showed in his 58.5 passer rating allowed in coverage, which is downright minuscule. He also allowed 50-plus yards in coverage during only three games in 2016, including the playoffs.

    Ramsey has similarly imposing size (6'1", 211 lbs), meaning the Jaguars are now set up for years to come with two young, physically dominant cornerbacks.

                        

    Prediction: Boom

Terrelle Pryor to the Washington Redskins

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    There's an easy way to quiet any concerns about Terrelle Pryor's booming in one year during his transition to wide receiver and then busting the next.

    You don't invest long term, and instead make the 27-year-old prove himself again by signing him to a one-year deal worth only $6 million. That's what the Washington Redskins did, and in return, they'll get a highly motivated receiver who's developing fast.

    Pryor has two natural elements working in his favor: size and athleticism. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.41 seconds during his pro day in 2011, which is some serious flight for a guy who stands 6'4" and weighs 223 pounds. Combine that with his leaping ability, and you get a weekly dose of acrobatic catches.

    Pryor found almost immediate comfort in his new role as a wide receiver, posting five games with 90-plus receiving yards in 2016, and 1,007 yards overall on 77 catches. He's now part of a Redskins receiver group tasked with replacing the 199 targets that left when Jackson and Pierre Garcon departed as free agents.

    He has all the tools to do that with his deep home run connections.

            

    Prediction: Boom

             

    Advanced statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus, unless otherwise noted.