Ranking the 25 Best Moves of the 2016 NFL Offseason

Justis Mosqueda@justisfootballFeatured ColumnistJune 7, 2016

Ranking the 25 Best Moves of the 2016 NFL Offseason

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Outside of Ryan Fitzpatrick's contract negotiations with the New York Jets, every other major move that the NFL as a whole is going to make in 2016 has already happened.

    Between head coaches and general managers, free agents and draftees, just about all of the movement that was projected to happen before the 2016 regular season has already been finalized for over a month.

    With the moves in our rearview mirror, we've distanced ourselves enough from the initial hot takes to give a true evaluation of the league's changes between 2015 and 2016.

    In an attempt to save time for everyone involved, we'll only be ranking the top 25 moves that teams made this offseason in ascending order, based on the circumstances that franchises were in before they were able to execute these actions.

25: Patriots Signing Chris Long and Shea McClellin

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Maybe I'm giving Bill Belichick too much of the benefit of the doubt for his track record, but the additions of Chris Long and Shea McClellin as defensive ends for the New England Patriots seem like an intelligent move.

    He's already turned a down-on-his-luck pass-rusher into a starter in Jabaal Sheard.

    Sheard was the 37th overall pick in 2011. As a rookie, he posted 8.5 sacks, a great amount for a first-year player. After two years, he had a 15.5-sack totalagain well above the average for a second-year, second-round pass-rusher. In his last year with the Cleveland Browns, though, he only had two on the year.

    After running through his rookie contract, he signed on with the Patriots in 2015, where he was able to pull down eight sacks in 13 games despite just one start. With New England trading Chandler Jones, it's assumed that Sheard will be the starter now.

    In competition with Sheard will be Long, a former second overall pick who was named the NFL Alumni's Defensive Lineman of the Year in 2011, and McCellin, who was the 19th overall pick in 2012 for the Chicago Bears and a team captain in 2015.

    Having three formerly promising players competing for one starting gig is one of the best options you can ask for from a value standpoint.

    Long signed on as a $2.38 million, one-year defensive end, while McClellin is slated for $9 million over three years to go along with Sheard's base salary of $4 million in his contract season. No one is breaking the bank out of that unit, which is why the Patriots traded Jones in the first placeat least logically.

24: Rams Moving to Los Angeles

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    The Rams made the decision to leave St. Louis for the long-term goal of becoming Los Angeles' football team this offseason.

    In theory, in the NFL, it doesn't matter where your franchise is located. Every team has the same amount of money to spend on its roster, shares revenue and is given draft picks in reverse order of its previous season's record.

    Based on that, you can clearly see why St. Louis residents would be greatly frustrated to lose the organization. Why Los Angeles matters when juxtaposed to St. Louis, from a football standpoint, is free agents.

    One reason why teams like the Green Bay Packers, Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens have adopted long-term draft-and-develop approaches as franchises is the fact that it is hard to recruit out-of-towners to those cities when the options of New York, Miami, Atlanta, San Diego and San Francisco exist on the market.

    By making the move from the Gateway to the West to the Pacific coast, the Rams have now thrown their hat in the ring to be one of the NFL's highly touted temptresses.

23: Buccaneers Hiring Dirk Koetter as Their Head Coach

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Between 2014 and 2015, general manager Jason Licht's first two years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the team drafted 12 players on the offensive side of the ball but just one to play on defense.

    Those investments, including quarterback Jameis Winston, allowed for a four-game swing in wins between the 2014 and 2015 seasons.

    Now, did that happen because the franchise made a strong effort to improve that side of the ball or because offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter did well with those young talents?

    No matter the answer, though, if an offensive coordinator has success with a young quarterback, he's on the fast track to leaving for a head coaching job.

    If the Buccaneers wanted to keep Winston in the same system, it was important to promote Koetter. The last thing a franchise wants is to consistently rotate out offensive coordinators, which could have made Winston the next Jason Campbell.

    For the sake of keeping some continuity on offense for the young building blocks, like Winston, receiver Mike Evans, tackle Donovan Smith, guard Ali Marpet and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkinswho all have great potential but aren't necessarily "there" yetthis was one of the best head coaching moves in the 2016 offseason.

22: Browns Cutting Johnny Manziel

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    Scott Eklund/Associated Press

    On the field, Johnny Manziel didn't look like a former first-round quarterback. He was a chaotic college passer, the same player he was at Texas A&M, more than anything else.

    Between that fact and the constant headache that he brought to the public relations team, the risk-reward balance was just not enough for the passer to have a chance to win the starting gig heading into 2016. The Cleveland Browns needed to make the decision on if it was worth it to keep the lingering presence of Manziel involved in their oncoming quarterback battle, and they made the right decision.

    Veteran Josh McCown, fallen star Robert Griffin III and efficient rookie Cody Kessler all have more short-term value than Cleveland hypothetically sitting on its hands and not making a move for a passer while it waited for Manziel to get his act together off the field so he could develop on it.

21: Ravens Reloading in the Draft

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    Gail Burton/Associated Press

    In the top 100, the Baltimore Ravens made three draft selections. All three of those players can compete for short-term starting jobs but also have good long-term outlooks.

    Many will call general manager Ozzie Newsome the best in the NFL, and his 2016 draft will only further prove that. The Ravens' first-round pick, Ronnie Stanley, may see time at tackle or guard in 2016 but is also credited as a dancing bear with elite left bookend potential.

    Kamalei Correa, a pass-rusher in college, can either compete as a pass-rusher or an off-the-ball linebacker in the NFL. His three-cone time and short shuttle time ranked in the 94th percentile or higher at the defensive end position, according to Mock Draftable, which would suggest the upside of an edge-bender.

    Their third-round pick, Bronson Kaufusithe son of a college coachis also a hybrid defender. He can play either 4-3 or 3-4 defensive end at 6'6" and 285 pounds. When grading him on the relative curve of interior defensive linemen, Mock Draftable compares him most similarly to Henry Anderson, a third-round pick from the 2015 draft who was a breakout player in his rookie season.

    The Ravens, who finished with an uncharacteristic 5-11 record, are now set with three potential impact players early on who still have room to grow. Ozzie did it again.

20: Broncos Signing Russell Okung

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Denver Broncos were able to add Russell Okung, a former sixth overall pick and Pro Bowler, to their Super Bowl-winning roster this offseason.

    They needed a new left tackle to protect first-round quarterback Paxton Lynch. This was evident even in 2015, when Joe Thomas trade rumors (via ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold) were the talk of the midseason.

    Okung has had injury issues throughout his career and is even coming off an ankle injury. The volatility of his health makes him a high-risk, high-reward signing, but Okungwho doesn't have an agentsigned an interesting deal with Denver in terms of structure.

    On paper, he's making $53 million over five seasons, but it's really a $5.2 million, one-year contract that involves a $47.8 million, four-year option that the Broncos will need to make the decision on next offseason.

    At least in the short term, their injury worries should be eased.

    If Okung proves himself injury-prone again, he only cost $5.2 million to kick the tires on, a blessing in the current landscape of the NFL. If he proves himself healthy, they get first dibs on a former Pro Bowl bookend after just dipping their toes in the water to start their relationship.

19: Raiders Signing Kelechi Osemele

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    The idea of having a brand as a football team is interesting. From a schematic standpoint, it might scare teams off from running specific plays or force them to approach games differently.

    Coming out of 2015, the Oakland Raiders were a ball of clay to mold, but they weren't a statute to be feared.

    Left tackle Donald Penn was a free agent, which led to question marks for the team. Was it just a consistent blindside bookend away from being one of the AFC's most explosive teams in the near future? Did it value the offensive line enough to go after a big name?

    In the end, the Raiders re-signed Penn but did respond to the "Do they value the offensive line?" question in a big way.

    The Raiders gave a massive deal to Kelechi Osemele, who was previously with the Baltimore Ravens. Osemele, a former 60th overall selection, is a 26-year-old with 51 NFL starts under his belt and widely regarded as one of the best interior offensive linemen in football.

    According to Spotrac, Osemele's average salary of $11.7 million ranks him as the top guard in the NFL. In fact, the difference between him and Mike Iupati and Brandon Brooks (second with an $8 million average) is roughly equivalent to the difference between the pair and Shawn Lauvao (18th-highest-paid guard in the sport).

    The Raiders paid big, but Oakland now has a puzzle for every team to solve. Do defenses want to be underrepresented in the box against Penn, 2014 third-round pick Gabe Jackson, All-AFC center Rodney Hudson, Osemele and tackle Austin Howard on the line of scrimmage?

    If not, defenses have to play the pair of Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper in one-on-one situations outside.

    The signing of Osemele wasn't just for an individual talent but how teams have to approach the Raiders' personnel on the whole.

18: Chiefs Drafting Chris Jones

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    Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    Chris Jones was inconsistent at Mississippi State, but he's one of the best raw talents that we've seen in a long time.

    Athletically, his top two comparisons on Mock Draftable are Leonard Williams, who was drafted sixth overall in 2015, and Muhammad Wilkerson, who is one of the top five defensive linemen in the NFL today.

    Wilkerson, who was selected 30th overall by the New York Jets in 2011, had the same effort and consistency issues coming out of Temple. A player's effort can be turned around in the NFL, especially when he's a tremendous athlete playing at a position where shooting through a gap is the most important factor to their game. 

    The Kansas City Chiefs were able to add Jones with their second-round pick, their first selection of the draft after trading back due to the historically deep interior defensive line depth in this class. Someone had to slip out of the first round in terms of numbers, and Jones drew the short straw.

    If the Chiefs can land a Wilkerson to play between Dontari Poe and Justin Houston, they've hit a home run.

    Last year, first-round cornerback Marcus Peters was drafted despite being suspended by the University of Washington during his final year in Seattle. Peters was able to get his head straight to win Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, earning comparisons to Charles Woodson from Pro Football Spot's Nate Conant.

    If Kansas City can replicate that success, Jones will be a force.

17: Cardinals Trading for Chandler Jones

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    The New England Patriots made one of the more shocking moves of the offseason by trading away Chandler Jones, their established pass-rusher, to the Arizona Cardinals.

    Jones, who was coming off a 12.5-sack season and Pro Bowl appearance, was moved for Jonathan Cooper and a second-round pick in the 2016 draft.

    Cooper was one of the highest-drafted guards of all time when he was selected seventh overall in 2013. Unfortunately, a broken leg kept him out of the regular season during his rookie year, and he's only started 11 games in total in his career.

    If he can come close to what he was supposed to be coming out of college, that alone may be worth the Jones exchange.

    That second-round pick would eventually be traded to the New Orleans Saints for a third- and fourth-round pick, which then turned into offensive lineman Joe Thuney and receiver Malcolm Mitchell.

    If the Patriots really didn't see Jones as a player who was worth extending, as he was in a contract year, then the fact that they were able to spin him into three playerstwo of whom are on rookie contracts and were drafted in the top 115is a positive for the team long-term.

16: Redskins Tagging Kirk Cousins

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Kirk Cousins had a nice hot streak to end 2015, when he finished eight of his last 10 games with a quarterback rating above 100. He also finished the season with a 69.8 percent completion percentage, highest in the NFL among passers with at least 40 passes on the season.

    Cousins' limited amount of starts with the team is a cause for concern, though. At some point, you have to ask if his success was a flash in the pan, a small sample or something to build a franchise around.

    In a contract season, Cousins' breakout couldn't have happened at a worse time in his career than 2015.

    The NFL is thirsty for quarterbacks, but these one-season breakoutslike Brock that of Osweilerhave been treated like mirages of ponds to this point. Teams want to know what they have before they dive in. The Redskins made the best decision on the table by signing Cousins to the franchise tag.

    Another season of success would warrant a giant contract, while a slip in production would mean a massive drop in salary for Cousins.

    The Redskins didn't have a Von Miller exiting like the Denver Broncos did when they allowed Osweiler to walk. If Washington didn't use the option on the passer, it would have been left empty-handed at the most important position in the sport with a tag burning a hole in its pocket.

15: Packers Drafting for the Future

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The Green Bay Packers drafted seven players, and six of them are 22 years or younger. Their first-round pick, nose tackle Kenny Clark, is only a 20-year-old.

    To say that the draft looks to swing more toward long-term investments than short-term impact players would be an understatement.

    Here are the picks they made in the top 150:

    • Kenny Clark (27th overall) isn't even assured to have the starting nose tackle job, as Letroy Guion is still on the roster
    • Offensive tackle Jason Spriggs (48th) looks to be the third tackle on the team in 2016.
    • Outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell (88th) won't start over Clay Matthews or Julius Peppers on the edge.
    • Inside linebaker Blake Martinez (131st) isn't promised a starting gig with Sam Barrington and Jake Ryan at the position.
    • Dean Lowry (137th) projects to a 5-technique position that is a part-time role in Green Bay.

    With players like Peppers, guard Josh Sitton, guard T.J. Lang, outside linebacker Nick Perry, tight end Jared Cook, outside linebacker Datone Jones, tackle David Bakhtiari, running back Eddie Lacy and Barrington all slated to hit free agency in 2017, the team needed to focus on the long-term projection of the team.

    It addressed the issues of its long-term personnel health by drafting future starters to replace those who may leave in the near future.

14: 49ers Drafting DeForest Buckner

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    DeForest Buckner was one of the best defensive linemen—if not the best D-linemanin this draft class, but he needed to play in the right scheme.

    At Oregon, he was a 5-technique defensive end, using his length to attack tackles rather than gaps.

    The NFL is a gap-shooting league, though. Even 3-4 defenses now have 6-technique, 3-technique and 1-technique linemen, like a 4-3 defense does. Rarely do 3-4 defensive linemen just line up head-on against centers and offensive tackles now.

    This was an issue for Buckner, who doesn't truly have the explosiveness to be a special 3-technique defensive tackle or the bend to be a pass-rushing defensive end.

    Where did that leave him in the predraft process? He either needed to land with one of the few franchises that was truly 3-4-heavy, or he'd be a rotational player or poor schematic fit.

    On draft day, the San Francisco 49ers were the team to pick up the falling defender at seventh overall. Buckner's old head coach and defensive line coach are with the team, and they both have used 3-4-heavy schemes at both the college and professional level.

    There are no signs that this will change during Buckner's tenure with the team, which means that he couldn't have asked for a better landing spotand the 49ers couldn't have asked for a better value selection.

13: Titans, Browns Trading Away the Top 2 Picks in the Draft

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    The NFL has overcorrected on the quarterback market.

    The first overall pick was California's Jared Goff, who at first wasn't even thought of as the top quarterback in the draft until rumors (via Jordan Raanan and Mark Eckel of NJ.com)which wound up being truecame out that the Los Angeles Rams, who traded for the top selection, favored him over North Dakota State's Carson Wentz.

    Even then, Wentz was an FCS passer who wasn't thought of as a first-round-caliber selection during the entire 2015 regular season.

    Not until the postseason, when he returned from injury and participated in all-star games, was the former Bison quarterback quickly linked to teams in the top 10. The Philadelphia Eagles, with Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel in hand, traded for the second overall pick to draft him.

    In total, the Tennessee Titans, the original owners of the first overall pick, and the Cleveland Browns, the original owners of the second overall pick, were able to net a combined four first-round, three second-round and three third-round picks as well as a fourth-round selection in the 2016-2018 drafts for just two selections.

    That type of haul can turn around the Titans and Browns, while the Rams and Eagles are now leaning on their passers to be their everything.

12: Broncos Allowing Malik Jackson to Walk

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    You can't blame former Denver Broncos defensive tackle Malik Jackson, coming off a fifth-round rookie contract, for chasing the money.

    You can't blame effective general manager John Elway, who is trying to make the Super Bowl three times in four years, for seeing more value in contracts than talent in the NFL's hard-cap era.

    When you take a long look at the situation, the best move for both sides was for Jackson to sign with a franchise to essentially overpay him and for the Broncos to earn a compensatory pick in 2017, along with some loosened cap possibilities over the lifetime of his projected deal.

    At the end of the day, Jackson joined the Jacksonville Jaguars on an $85.5 million, five-year offer. In terms of total money, he's now the sixth-highest-paid defender in football. Here are the only names ahead of him:

    • Ndamukong Suh, $114.4 million over six years
    • Justin Houston, $101 million over six years
    • J.J. Watt, $100 million over six years
    • Marcell Dareus, $96.6 million over six years
    • Gerald McCoy, $95.2 million over six years

    Those five defenders combined have posted 18 Pro Bowls and 14 first- or second-team All-Pro honors. At the minimum, they all have at least two Pro Bowls and one All-Pro honor under their belt. Jackson has zero in each category, and he wasn't even a full-time starter until his contract season.

    With players like Von Miller needing extensions, it made no sense for the Broncos to pay Jackson big money and kick the can for a year with a franchise tag.

    Elway's recent draft history would suggest that in a loaded defense, Jackson's impact wasn't worth his price tag.

11: Panthers Taking the Tag off Josh Norman

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Cornerback Josh Norman signed a $75 million, five-year contract with the Washington Redskins this offseason, but not until after he had the franchise tag placed on and ripped off his name by the Carolina Panthers.

    After he made his first Pro Bowl in his contract year, the Panthers initially decided they wanted to keep the core of their defense together by working out a long-term deal while Norman was on what amounted to a $14 million, one-year contract.

    Norman's price tag in negotiations must have been too high, though, and the team made the right move by not falling for the one-year standout. 

    This is a unique positive for the Panthers, who are coming off a Super Bowl appearance.

    The Carolina defense is strongly based off what its front seven can do.

    The defensive tackles are flexible and play both 1-technique and 3-technique with little to no preference. The linebackers, Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson, are among the best in coverage individually in the league, and they make up possibly one of the best linebacker units we have ever seen from a coverage standpoint.

    With the flexibility of the defensive line, offensive lines have to stay on their toes. This allows the team's linebackers, who are extremely athletic, to drop into wider zones in coverage. This helps make the safeties' zones smaller, which then translates into cornerbacks covering less ground in Carolina.

    In theory, the cornerback position is less valued in Carolina than in any other place in the NFL, and it's why the Panthers hadn't had many large investments in the secondary prior to the Norman tagging, whereas they've drafted short-term rotational front seven defenders with their first-round picks during the last two drafts.

    As long as one of the three cornerbacks that the team drafted pans out as just an average talent, they'll be more than fine defensively.

    Norman likely would have been the best long-term option for the team talent-wise, but the opportunity cost in that scheme just wasn't worth it, and Carolina realized it before it entered what could have been an entire year of waiting for a Norman decision.

10: Broncos Drafting Paxton Lynch

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The easiest way to win in the NFL is by taking advantage of valuable contracts. The Denver Broncos didn't post enough of an offer to keep Brock Osweiler, a passer who signed for $72 million over four years with the Houston Texas this offseason, on their roster.

    The next-best option was never to settle for a lesser quarterback, a thriftier value on the open market, because there wasn't anyone of Osweiler's caliber in free agency. The team traded for Mark Sanchez, a stopgap quarterback, and it entertained the idea of trading for fallen star Colin Kaepernick, but his cap hit never worked out between San Francisco and Denver.

    The only option left on the table was to take a quarterback in the NFL draft, but it was a three-quarterback class, and Jared Goff and Carson Wentz were drafted with the first two selections. The Broncos' only hope was to land Memphis' Paxton Lynch in the first round and ease him into being a game-changer while Sanchez was the short-term starter.

    Luckily, after skipping an AFC West rival in the Kansas City Chiefs, the team was able to trade up for the passer, which cost it a first- and third-round pick for the move. The Broncos now have a potential starting quarterback on what should be a four-year contract worth roughly $9 to $10 million in total, including a fifth-option if they choose to execute it and multiple franchise-tag options.

    Lynch has the talent to be a franchise quarterback, and the patience of Denver—a team pinching pennies—means he may be.

9: Browns Hiring Hue Jackson

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    There may not have been an offensive coordinator who used run-pass options more than Hue Jackson during his tenure with the Cincinnati Bengals. Pairing that mentality with Robert Griffin III, who when in Washington was an efficient option quarterback, should be a great mesh.

    Jackson had a previous shot at head coaching, when he coached the 2011 Oakland Raiders to an 8-8 record with Jason Campbell, Kyle Boller and a late-acquired Carson Palmer starting at quarterback on the season. Despite the fact that it was the team's best record since 2002, even to this date, Oakland pulled the plug on Jackson after the year.

    Jackson is also credited with assisting the development of Joe Flacco in Baltimore during his formative years in the NFL. If you're making a checklist of success for Jackson, he's hit every mark—the Raiders simply gave up on him too early. With this second chance in the league, Browns fans should expect the most out of the offensive mind. In many ways, he's not too different from Chip Kelly, who is talked about more as an offensive genius than Jackson, for whatever reason.

8: No One Signing Greg Hardy

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    Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    The NFL is a league in which the bottom line of winning football games typically overrides morals. For the most part, when players have gotten into off-field issues in the past, players like Greg Hardy, who went through a domestic-violence accusation episode, typically get signed to a less-than-football-value contract but still find a spot in the league.

    That's exactly what the Dallas Cowboys gave Hardy when he signed on for the 2015 season, despite the fact he was going to be suspended for the start of the year. After he left Dallas, though, Hardy hasn't found a new home in the league. If the league as a collective wants to make a statement on domestic violence, it's not going come from giving those players a prove-it deal; it's going to come from the NFL keeping them off of rosters altogether.

7: Cardinals Drafting Robert Nkemdiche

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    From a pure talent standpoint, Robert Nkemdiche was the best defensive lineman prospect in the 2016 draft. If you're judging him by production, his six sacks in college don't impress you. That standard has never been the best way to measure next-level success for the position, though.

    For example, Sheldon Richardson, who was named Defensive Rookie of the Year in the 2013 draft class, also only had six sacks in his college career. By his second season in the league, he was named an All-Pro lineman.

    According to Mock Draftable, Nkemdiche's combine numbers were comparable to Richardson's, as an interior defensive lineman. Talent-wise, he's right there with some of the best who have come out of college football, despite his inability to take on double-teams consistently.

    Between the time that the regular season ended and the postseason started, Nkemdiche fell out of an Atlanta hotel window and was arrested for marijuana possession in the same incident. This led to his draft stock falling in the media, and his draft-day fall to the 29th overall pick was reflective of that.

    With that being said, he's not in the league's drug program, and he never was in trouble for drugs at Mississippi. As long as he doesn't become a habitual hotel window-faller, he should be fine in terms of off-field issues. Now, the Cardinals were afforded a potential Pro Bowl lineman on a team with a relatively weak pass rush, and he also came on a discount. Considering their recent history with non-violent-off-field-issue players, most notably Tyrann Mathieu, it's hard to imagine why he'd fail in Arizona, with all things considered.

6: Browns Signing Robert Griffin III

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    There aren't many high-reward, low-risk quarterback options in the NFL these days. The idea of a franchise passer hitting the open market is a fantasy in this era. That means that teams usually mortgage their futures to find one in the draft, and that individual's success or failure typically determines if a staff will stay in tact or not.

    The Cleveland Browns managed to make one of the better moves in their franchise's history by signing Robert Griffin III, the former second overall pick of the Washington Redskins. Griffin was the first non-alternative rookie Pro Bowl quarterback since Dan Marino, but injuries and locker room issues led to a visible lack of confidence in himself and an eventual benching.

    Griffin signed for $15 million over two years, which sounds like a tremendous amount of money, but $7.5 million is what some backups in the league are making now. If the Browns can get him back to his early-career success, Griffin becomes one of the more impactful free-agent signings in a while. If they don't, the team gave itself a parachute to pull by not investing too much in the passer. When the idea of opportunity cost is brought in the conversation, there may not have been a more bang-for-your-buck addition at the position than Griffin this offseason.

5: Texans Revamping Their Offense

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    In 2015, the Houston Texans had five different quarterbacks—Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates, Brandon Weeden, and B.J. Daniels—throw the ball for the squad. The team's leading rusher, Alfred Blue, had 698 yards on the season. While DeAndre Hopkins caught 111 balls for 1,521 yards, the next five pass-catchers on the Texans roster combined for about the same yardage total as Hopkins, and that included two running backs.

    In the playoffs, Hoyer competed 44.1 percent of his passes. It was clear: Houston was good enough to compete in the AFC South, but it couldn't make a splash in the AFC playoffs until it kick-started its offense.

    In the draft, the Texans selected two high-flying receivers in Will Fuller and Braxton Miller to compete for the starting role opposite of Hopkins. In the fourth round, they selected Tyler Ervin, a backfield pass-catcher who should be able to get on the field as a Darren Sproles-like runner. They also drafted Nick Martin, brother of the Dallas Cowboys' Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin, in the second round to replace Ben Jones, who left Houston in free agency.

    The team improved that side of the ball in free agency, too. The Texans picked up Brock Osweiler, the quarterback in this past free-agency class. Osweiler was a backup in Denver for most of his career, but the 6'8" passer is mobile and did well when Peyton Manning was out of the lineup. Only 25 years old, Osweiler has a good jump in NFL experience relative to players of his age at the quarterback position who are still more accustomed to the spread collegiate game.

    The signing of Lamar Miller, arguably the best running back on the market, and Jeff Allen, a top-end guard, solidify the changing times in the third coast. On paper, the Texans offense is almost unrecognizable when put next to the lineup the team put out in its 30-0 wild-card loss at home, which is the highest of compliments.

4: Dolphins Drafting Laremy Tunsil

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    If you follow the NFL draft at all, you noticed that Laremy Tunsil, the best offensive tackle in college football over the last two season, slipped. You'll find projections sending him to Tennessee with the first overall pick just prior to the team trading the pick to the Los Angeles Rams, but Tunsil wasn't taken off the board until the 13th overall selection.

    The slip was caused by a video of Tunsil smoking something out of a gas-mask pipe that Tunsil's Twitter account sent out just minutes before the draft. Unless he wanted to sabotage himself for no good reason, his agent's story on the account being hacked checks out.

    As it stands in June, that video has no impact on Tunsil's career. He's not in league's drug program. He's not suspended for any amount of time. The Miami Dolphins, who drafted the lineman, now have an elite offensive tackle—one many believed was the best bookend prospect since Joe Thomas—for the price of a mid-first-round pick in a class that was not top-heavy. First-year general manager Chris Grier found himself his first massive steal.

3: Cowboys Drafting Ezekiel Elliott

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    Jeff Lewis/Associated Press

    This one is a layup. The collective football world has expected more out of Ezekiel Elliott than any rookie running back in recent memory. If not for Todd Gurley's knee injury, he might have had the preseason hype that Elliott has going into the regular season, but Elliott takes the cake in terms of how it actually is playing out.

    The Dallas Cowboys offensive line is the best in the league. Dallas has Tyron Smith playing left tackle, an All-Pro; La'el Collins playing left guard, a road-grading guard who did well as a rookie after seeing first-round projections during the draft process; Travis Frederick playing center, an All-Pro; Zack Martin playing right guard, an All-Pro; and Doug Free playing right tackle, who has 98 starts with the team.

    The Cowboys have an offensive identity now in case quarterback Tony Romo gets hurt yet again, or for when he eventually moves on. Dallas went 4-12 without Romo for most of the 2015 season. With Elliott lining up behind the QB, the Cowboys now have an alternative offensive star to build their team and hopes around.

2: Jets Tagging Muhammad Wilkerson

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    Muhammad Wilkerson is the closest player to J.J. Watt that the other 31 franchises in the league have to offer. In theory, the New York Jets play a 3-4 defense, but their defensive ends aren't lining up over offensive tackles' heads on a snap-to-snap basis.

    Really, with their nickel looks, the Jets may as well declare themselves a 4-2 defense. On the line of scrimmage, on the edge, players who on paper are their 5-technique defensive ends, Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson, aren't playing differently than 4-3 defensive ends.

    Richardson even saw some reps at the end of 2015 as a stand-up pass-rushing linebacker. Considering the fact that Richardson was a 294-pound defensive tackle coming out of Missouri in 2013, it's hard to not see the innovation that's happening in Jersey.

    The flexibility of the Jets defense starts and ends with Wilkerson and Darrelle Revis, though—their cornerstone defenders. Wilkerson made 12 sacks in 2015, the most for a 300-pound-plus player since Warren Sapp's 2000 season.

    The Jets parlayed the 30th overall pick in 2011 into an All-Pro defensive lineman. Wilkerson exploded during his contract year, and it's possible that New York didn't have the assets to re-sign a player of the caliber of 2015 Wilkerson, but letting the heart of your defense walk would have been disastrous for the Jets.

    Now, after slapping the franchise tag on him, they're afforded an extra year to get their ducks in a row before Wilkerson is eligible to hit free agency again. If worst comes to worst, the squad could use consecutive franchise tags on the hybrid lineman.

1: Broncos Tagging Von Miller

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    Dan Steinberg/Associated Press

    Von Miller is the best pure pass-rusher in the NFL. After sacking Cam Newton, the only player drafted before him in the 2011 draft, during this past Super Bowl, Miller has cracked a new level of stardom.

    In a contract season, Miller posted 11 sacks and single-handedly took over the biggest game on the biggest stage in the sport, earning him Super Bowl MVP honors. Who was the last pass-rusher to be named Super Bowl MVP? Richard Dent, who played for the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears about a half-decade before Miller was even born.

    There are only a few times that an acceptable approach to team-building involves backing up the track to keep a player, but locking down a transcendent talent who at 26 years old had 60 sacks and looks to be the best at his position in the world is one of those times.