Told Ya So: The Biggest NFL Offseason Gambles Paying Off So Far

Sean TomlinsonNFL AnalystSeptember 29, 2017

Told Ya So: The Biggest NFL Offseason Gambles Paying Off So Far

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    It would be easier and a whole lot less stressful if everything fell into place perfectly each offseason for every NFL team. It would also be boring, and there wouldn't be a need to take many risks.

    But offseason gambles are necessary because of salary-cap restraints. And because taking a leap forward is tough for a team to do if its general manager always chooses the safe route.

    So teams do something like trade up for running back Kareem Hunt, as the Kansas City Chiefs did in the 2017 draft. It was easy enough to look at the 98 missed tackles Hunt forced in 2016, which was the nation's second-highest total, according to Pro Football Focus, and forecast a quick transition to NFL success. But it's always still difficult to sacrifice anything for a player at a position highly susceptible to injury.

    Hunt has reshaped the Chiefs offense, keeping it marching forward after Spencer Ware's season-ending injury. That dice roll has been a tremendous success. 

    Elsewhere, the Washington Redskins haven't missed wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, and the Houston Texans may have finally found their solution at quarterback after trading up for Deshaun Watson.

    Those are just a few of the offseason gambles that have worked out nicely so far in the 2017 season. Let's dive deeper, starting with Watson's rookie brilliance.

Honorable Mentions

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    Here are a few other gambles that didn't quite make the cut.

         

    Raiders taking a chance on Gareon Conley: Plenty of high-end prospects come into the draft with some sort of character question or red flag. However, few have a case come to light just days before the draft, as Conley did when a woman accused him of rape.

    In late July the matter finally came to a conclusion, and Conley wasn't charged. But at draft time in April, a lot of murkiness surrounded Conley, so much that the potential top-10 pick dropped all the way to No. 24, and into the Oakland Raiders' lap.

    General manager Reggie McKenzie had a possible steal on his hands. But the risk was clear, and the optics of having a first-round pick in legal trouble before playing a single snap weren't pleasant either.

    Now, all of his off-field issues are behind him, and in his NFL regular-season debut he allowed just one catch while playing 46 snaps, per PFF.

         

    Broncos thinking running back Jamaal Charles still has something left: The easy assumption during the offseason was that Jamaal Charles was near his career finish line and didn't have much to offer, even in a limited capacity.

    That thinking is automatic when we're talking about a running back who is 30 years old and has suffered multiple severe knee injuries. But the Broncos believed, signing him because they felt confident Charles could be a key figure in their run-oriented offense.

    They've been rewarded, as he's turned 9.3 carries per game into 128 yards while averaging 5.1 yards per attempt.

          

    Jaguars making a massive financial commitment to Calais Campbell: The Jacksonville Jaguars gave Calais Campbell, a defensive end set to enter his age-31 season, a four-year contract worth $60 million, $30 million of which is guaranteed.

    There's risk with any 30-plus-year-old player that he'll quickly have an age-induced decline. So the hope was that, at minimum, Campbell would provide two years of high-level play. Then if he begins to decline, well, so be it. At that point his guaranteed money will have run dry anyway.

    Campbell is still a dominant force along the defensive line, and at minimum seems to have at least two seasons of being a pocket-collapsing behemoth left in him. He has 4.5 sacks over three games in 2017, and he set the Jaguars' single-game record with four sacks in Week 1.

Texans Starting Deshaun Watson Early

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    It's still early to make grand statements about the direction of the Houston Texans' season and whether Watson will be the immediate savior the team needs. But after just two starts, it's clear the NFL game isn't too fast for him, the spotlight isn't too bright, and the Texans have something they've missed at quarterback for a long time: creativity.

    Watson will go through the standard rookie quarterback struggles. He may sometimes make poor reads or force a ball into a tight throwing window. But he's showing that even when times are tough, the 22-year-old can lean on his natural athleticism and still come up with critical game-changing plays.

    He did that in Week 2 during a win over the Cincinnati Bengals. Overall in that game, Watson looked like, well, a rookie quarterback in his first NFL start and averaged just 5.2 yards per throw. But when he saw an opportunity to take flight in a critical situation, Watson blasted off for a 49-yard rushing touchdown.

    He's already rushed for 124 yards in two starts and three game appearances. Throughout all of the 2016 season, Texans quarterbacks combined for 143 rushing yards.

    Watson also nearly beat the New England Patriots on the road, throwing for 301 yards and averaging 9.1 yards per attempt. And remember, this is all coming from a quarterback who didn't beat out Tom Savage for the starting quarterback spot in the preseason.

    Now the gamble of thrusting him in early appears to be paying off, as does the gamble Houston took by trading away its 2018 first-round pick to secure Watson.

Jaguars Being Confident A.J. Bouye Wouldn't Become a One-Year Wonder

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    There was a reason to be cautious about cornerback A.J. Bouye when he became a free agent, and maybe even concerned if you're the conservative type.

    Yes, he catapulted himself into the top tier at his position in 2016, a season highlighted by Bouye's two interceptions during the playoffs. He anchored the Houston Texans' defensive backfield while recording 16 regular-season passes defensed and shutting down half the field. And yes, he's overflowing with youthful promise at the age of just 26.

    But there was still risk tied to Bouye. His surge was so sudden, and it's easy to forget that as recently as October 2016, the Texans slotted him fourth on their cornerback depth chart. So would that sharp rise continue after he was showered in free-agency riches?

    Early indications are Bouye will be just fine.

    The Jacksonville Jaguars dumped that sweet, sweet free-agency gold on Bouye and paired him with Jalen Ramsey to create a young cornerback duo overflowing with athleticism. Through three games, the Jaguars have the league's best pass defense. They're allowing only 124.3 passing yards per game and have given up a completion percentage of just 53.3.

    They've done that while powered by Bouye's physical style that matches up well against the larger receivers who roam NFL fields. That includes DeAndre Hopkins, Bouye's former Texans teammate who he held to only 28 yards in his coverage during a Week 1 matchup, per PFF.

    The Jaguars had an abundance of cap space and chose to use a chunk of it on a blossoming young cornerback. They choose wisely.

Chiefs Trading Up for Kareem Hunt

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    Kareem Hunt is the highest running back drafted by the Chiefs during the Andy Reid era. Reid valued him so much that the Chiefs traded up to the No. 86 spot in the third round, sending fourth- and seventh-round picks to the Minnesota Vikings.

    Hunt has responded by being more than merely a value pick on Day 2 of the draft. He's been historically great.

    Hunt is averaging 8.5 yards per carry and has recorded 538 yards from scrimmage already. He has piled up the third-most rushing yards ever through a rookie's first three games (a league-leading 401 yards).

    Even more incredibly, Hunt is the only player in NFL history with a touchdown of 50-plus yards in each of his first three games. The 22-year-old rarely meets an arm tackle he can't power through. He has had two games with 140-plus rushing yards, and he had 246 total yards in Week 1, a new rookie debut record.

    He breaks new ground almost every week, and Reid's smile keeps getting wider.

Chiefs Releasing Jeremy Maclin, and Making Tyreek Hill Their No. 1 WR

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    Prior to 2017, the Chiefs didn't have much of a downfield push in their offense. Their 46 completions for 20-plus yards in 2016 ranked tied for 19th.

    Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin was often the sole supplier of speed that could threaten opposing secondaries vertically. He missed four games in 2016, but in 2015 he was targeted 124 times and turned that workload into 1,088 receiving yards. That season, the Chiefs' second highest-producing wide receiver was dramatically behind Maclin, as Albert Wilson finished with only 451 yards.

    Fellow wide receiver Tyreek Hill busted out in 2016, introducing a fresh and electric element to an offense sorely in need of it. But his experience as a receiver during his rookie season was still limited. His six receiving touchdowns obscured the fact he averaged only 9.7 yards per catch and finished with a modest 61 receptions.

    So there was some risk involved in releasing Maclin and elevating Hill, simply because the unknown is scary for NFL coaches who crave predictability. But to the surprise of few, it seems that letting your mind drift outside the box, as the Chiefs did by giving Hill a larger role, can work out nicely.

    Hill has recorded 277 yards from scrimmage over three games. He's also scored twice, highlighted by his 75-yard touchdown reception in Week 1 during a surprising win over the New England Patriots.

    In just his second season, Hill has paired with Hunt to provide two athletically gifted young talents capable of creating plenty of yards after the catch. Suddenly, the Chiefs offense is loaded with versatile skill-position players who can play multiple roles at a high level.

Rams Signing an Aging Andrew Whitworth

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    Andrew Whitworth will turn 36 years in early December. That's advancing into rocking-chair retirement territory no matter what position you play.

    Sure, high-end offensive linemen can be effective into their late 30s, and Whitworth was among the league's best tackles in 2016. But there's still age-related risk, because once any player gets past his 35th birthday, it's impossible to know when a cliff could be coming, one that will end their long and winding NFL journey.

    Of course, the Rams structured Whitworth's contract in a way that mitigated the risk they took on financially. They gave him only $15 million guaranteed, which means Whitworth is playing under three one-year deals.

    But the risk of a sudden decline hovered around him regardless, and the Rams needed Whitworth to be a source of protection for young quarterback Jared Goff. For now at least, any concerns about fading can be put to rest.

    During his rookie season in 2016, Goff was sacked 26 times over only seven starts. Now in 2017, he's gone down just three times in three games, which includes a Week 3 win when the Rams didn't give up a single sack. And as expected, Whitworth is the main reason for that strong protective bubble around him.

    He's allowed only one pressure through three weeks, according to PFF's Nathan Jahnke. So no, Whitworth isn't ready to retire quite yet.

Jets Signing Josh McCown to Be a Veteran Bridge Quarterback

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    The New York Jets signed Josh McCown to be a bridge at quarterback to...something. What that something might be isn't clear yet, and now the Jets are about three wins away from likely being removed from the Sam Darnold conversation.

    McCown's job is to make sure the Jets offense isn't a complete embarrassment. Basically, McCown is a success if he doesn't do weekly face-plants. So far, he's jumped over that low bar easily.

    Even if expectations are low, there's always risk attached to a 38-year-old quarterback. Will his arm strength hold up? And how long will he maintain the mobility to escape pressure?

    McCown's play has given encouraging answers to both of those questions. He's thrown only two interceptions over 86 pass attempts and is fresh off a convincing win over the Miami Dolphins when the veteran completed 78.3 percent of his throws while averaging 10.8 yards per attempt.

    McCown also had a solid outing in Week 2 despite a loss to the Oakland Raiders, finishing with a passer rating of 114.2 while throwing two touchdown passes and running for 31 yards. If he can stay healthy McCown might do enough to keep the Jets mildly competitive, and that alone will be a major accomplishment given the roster around him.

Redskins Letting Both Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson Walk as Free Agents

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    Trying to defend the Washington Redskins passing offense in 2016 usually ended with a cornerback slowly walking back to the sideline and gazing up to the football heavens wondering what went wrong.

    The Redskins had the league's second-best passing offense in 2016. They averaged 8.2 yards per pass attempt, and their constant passing onslaught was powered by two receivers who each finished with 1,000-plus yards: Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson.

    Those two were on the other end of 224 targets and 135 of quarterback Kirk Cousins' 406 completions (33.3 percent). And now they're gone.

    As expected, Garcon and Jackson were hot commodities on the free-agent market. The Redskins looked at both their roster and the cheaper options elsewhere in free agency, and decided their financial resources could be better used elsewhere.

    There's always a risk when continuity in an offense is disrupted so dramatically. Garcon and Jackson were two pillars for everything the Redskins offense did in 2016, a year when Cousins started to feel comfortable in head coach Jay Gruden's system.

    But the Redskins' confidence in other options has been rewarded so far. They signed Terrelle Pryor to a one-year deal, and although he's been quiet early in the season (116 yards over three games), the 28-year-old has the natural skill to continue a fast rise that started with his 1,007 yards in 2016.

    He should make an impact soon enough, but for now Cousins is still doing just fine without Jackson and Garcon. He's averaging 8.1 yards per attempt while leaning on running back Chris Thompson, along with wide receivers Ryan Grant and Jamison Crowder. Thompson has been especially effective as a pass-catcher with a team-leading 231 receiving yards.

    The Redskins offense is marching right along without two of its core members from 2016, and the defense isn't far behind.

Panthers Getting One Last Season from Julius Peppers

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    There's always concern about signing an aging player, even if he's been effective recently. But much like Whitworth, Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers still moves like he's in his late 20s.

    The 37-year-old has recorded 2.5 sacks over three weeks. That's impressive for anyone, and especially Peppers considering both his age and limited playing time in a rotational role. Peppers has played only 50.3 percent of the Panthers' defensive snaps so far in 2017.

    They need him to continue defying his age moving forward, as with quarterback Cam Newton struggling and tight end Greg Olsen injured, the Panthers defense needs to carry the team. That mission was successful through the first two weeks, when the Panthers allowed only six points. Then they took a giant step backward during a 34-13 loss to the New Orleans Saints in Week 3.

    Peppers will keep being a key part of that effort as he adds to his Hall of Fame resume. He's fresh off a season with 7.5 sacks for the Green Bay Packers as a 36-year-old, again in a limited role. He also sits fifth on the all-time sack list right now, and fourth is within reach.

Bills Plugging in Jordan Poyer as Starting Safety

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    There was an unknown element to safety Jordan Poyer before the Buffalo Bills signed him as a free agent.

    He's still young enough at 26 years old to have plenty of prime years left, and he flashed some potential during the 2015 season with four passes defensed, two interceptions and a sack for the Cleveland Browns. But he had still only made 10 career starts over four seasons prior to 2017, when the Bills and new head coach Sean McDermott signed him to a four-year contract worth $13 million.

    Uncertainty is terrifying for any NFL coaching staff, even one that was confident in its decision to trust Poyer. The Bills have promptly been rewarded for that confidence, however, with Poyer patrolling a secondary that's allowed only 6.1 yards per pass attempt so far in 2017.

    Poyer's contribution has been five passes defensed and one interception. He's still effective as a pass-rusher too and has recorded two sacks, which is more than his previous career total prior to 2017. The Oregon native is also a solid run defender and finished with 11 tackles in Week 2.

    He's been the ideal fit alongside fellow safety Micah Hyde. They're both versatile, having had experience at cornerback and safety.

Rams Bolstering Their Wide Receiver Depth by Signing Robert Woods

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    The Rams needed to give Goff, their young and struggling quarterback, a stable of pass-catchers to lean on in his second season.

    That's been an ongoing project throughout the past year. The latest piece was wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who has had a hard time staying healthy in his career. But when on the field, the 24-year-old has been spectacular at times, most notably with 1,047 receiving yards during his second season.

    The Rams also added shifty slot receiver Cooper Kupp, who formed a strong connection with Goff throughout the preseason and can grow into a target magnet. They plugged in Robert Woods to their wide receiver depth chart, too, and decided he's worth $15 million guaranteed, which was a move initially greeted with wide eyes and cold sweats.

    Woods is playing under a contract that guarantees him only $1 million less than the Lions' Golden Tate, per Spotrac, the same Golden Tate who finished 2016 with 91 catches for 1,077 yards. Woods, meanwhile, is in his fifth NFL season, and his single-year high is 699 receiving yards, which came back in 2014.

    So it was difficult to believe Woods could justify that contract. But early on he's jelled nicely with Goff, which has led to 169 receiving yards in three games. He busted out in Week 3 with 108 yards on seven targets. Woods is averaging 16.9 yards per reception, which is over two yards above his previous single-season career high, and he's once pace for 900 receiving yards.

    He'll surely have some forgettable weeks. But if Woods can even come close to maintaining that early pace, he'll make everyone forget about the money Los Angeles gave to a receiver who was a pedestrian second or third option at the time.

    Snap counts via Pro Football Reference