NFL Time Machine: Imagining the Best Do-Over for Every Team This Year
Twelve NFL teams survived the 2017 regular season, while 20 did not. Four more will fall this weekend, and by the first Monday of February, all but one will be left wondering what could have been had they done things differently over last 12 months.
So rather than let bygones be bygones in the new year, let's reflect on those missteps.
If every NFL team could be granted one do-over from the last calendar year, here's what each would be smart to re-do.
Shoulda Picked Deshaun
No. 12 overall pick Deshaun Watson was so dominant in six starts as a rookie that the Houston Texans should pencil him in as their franchise quarterback for years to come.
Because you can't win consistently in the NFL these days without an elite signal-caller, several teams should already regret passing on Watson. After all, the 22-year-old Clemson product was leading the league with 19 touchdown passes and ranked second with an 8.3 yards-per-attempt average when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in November.
If he qualified for rate-based passing statistics, Watson would have been the league's third-highest-rated passer this season, and he would have ranked first in terms of touchdown rate, yards per attempt and QBR. On top of all that, he led all quarterbacks in rushing yardage (269) prior to his injury.
Therefore, the following teams wish they could rewind to Thursday, April 27, so they could select Watson with a first-round pick. Even if they'll never publicly admit it.
They're in the playoffs, but they were so disenchanted with good-not-great starter Tyrod Taylor midway through the season that they benched him in favor of a comically unprepared rookie fifth-round pick. The Bills can't be mad about adding an extra 2018 first-round pick by trading their No. 10 overall selection to the Kansas City Chiefs, but in hindsight, they would have been better off using that pick on Watson.
The jury is still out on Mitchell Trubisky, but his rookie season wasn't nearly as good as Watson's. In fact, Watson threw almost three times as many touchdown passes (19 to seven), despite starting half as many games (six to 12). Seeing as the Bears traded up to land Trubisky, they'd likely prefer to go back in time, stand pat and select Watson at No. 3 instead.
Bengals starter Andy Dalton's passer rating has now dropped significantly in back-to-back losing seasons, and he's on the wrong side of 30. He's a low-end starter, which isn't likely to change this deep into his career. The Bengals need to get more out of that position, especially with star receiver A.J. Green in his prime. Rather than spending their No. 9 overall pick on disappointing wideout John Ross, they should have taken Watson and put Dalton and backup AJ McCarron on the trade market.
The Browns still could have something special in No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett, but their obsession with accumulating draft picks might have cost them a franchise quarterback. Cleveland also held Philadelphia's No. 12 overall selection, but it traded that pick to the Houston Texans for the No. 25 pick and a 2018 first-rounder. Houston took Watson in that spot, while the Browns remain in search of a reliable starter under center. They drafted Notre Dame product DeShone Kizer in Round 2, but Kizer turned the ball over an NFL-high 28 times while posting the league's lowest passer rating as a rookie.
New York Jets
No. 6 overall selection Jamal Adams is becoming a star safety, but stopgap starting quarterback Josh McCown will be 39 before he throws another pass, 2015 fourth-round pick Bryce Petty has been abysmal and 2016 second-rounder Christian Hackenberg has yet to throw a regular-season pass. Their next franchise quarterback isn't on the current roster, while Watson is already a franchise quarterback. That makes this a no-brainer in hindsight.
Woulda Traded for Jimmy G
Some quarterback-hungry teams might regret not trading up to draft Watson in the top 12, but it would have been easier for some of those squads to acquire quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in a trade.
After gaining seasoning under the New England Patriots for three-and-a-half years, the 26-year-old won all five of his starts after landing with the San Francisco 49ers midway through the 2017 season. That made the deal—San Francisco traded New England its 2018 second-round pick—appear like a coup for the 49ers, who look as though they're ready to pay him exorbitantly based on his incredible late-season run.
Three particular teams should regret not forking over something more for Garoppolo before the 49ers did, while the two franchises involved in the trade might wish they had acted sooner.
Now-retired 38-year-old quarterback Carson Palmer missed the majority of two of the last four seasons, leaving the Cardinals desperate for something new under center. But they should have been proactive in that regard, rather than leaving themselves with Blaine Gabbert and Drew Stanton atop their quarterback depth chart heading into the 2018 offseason. Last year's No. 13 overall selection, linebacker Haason Reddick, might pan out, but the Pats likely would have taken that pick in exchange for Garoppolo.
The Broncos gambled on quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch for a second consecutive season, and it backfired. Only the Browns had a lower team passer rating than Denver this season as the Broncos missed the playoffs for the second year in a row. No. 20 overall selection Garett Bolles has a bright future at offensive tackle, but the Broncos may have been able to flip that pick for Garoppolo instead.
The Jaguars are off to the playoffs as a fringe Super Bowl contender, but quarterback remains a weak spot. Blake Bortles was the league's 20th-rated passer during a mediocre fourth season, and he's limping into the playoffs after a two-week season-closing stretch in which he completed just 56 percent of his passes for two touchdowns to five interceptions and a 58.6 rating in two losses. If Garoppolo performed in Arizona, Denver or Jacksonville the way he has in San Francisco, he'd be worth at least Jacksonville's No. 34 overall selection from this past April.
New England Patriots
The Pats may have known how high Garoppolo's ceiling is, which could explain why NFL Network's Mike Garafolo reported in March that they wanted two first-round picks for him. That price tag turned out to be too high for a quarterback with two career starts, but it also might have indicated New England wasn't willing to trade Garoppolo before seeing what Tom Brady had left in his age-40 season. As it turns out, Brady is just fine. But by the time the Pats confirmed that, Garoppolo essentially had two months remaining on his rookie contract, so the trade market wasn't as strong. With better timing, the Pats could have gotten far more than a mid-second-round pick for him.
San Francisco 49ers
Ironically, both the Pats and 49ers might wish they had executed that trade sooner, even if it might have cost San Francisco more in the offseason. The 49ers had lost 24 of their previous 26 games before Garoppolo made his first start for them, but they went 5-0 with Garoppolo at the helm. How many more games would they have won with Garoppolo under center during the first three months of the season? Considering that they lost five of those games by three or fewer points, they perhaps could have made the playoffs with Jimmy G. on the roster from the get-go.
Coulda Drafted JuJu
When the Pittsburgh Steelers spent a second-round pick on JuJu Smith-Schuster in April, five other wide receivers were already off the board. The USC product proceeded to lead all rookie receivers with 917 yards and seven touchdowns.
He was also remarkably efficient for a 21-year-old deep threat. He and Tyreek Hill of the Kansas City Chiefs were the only NFL players targeted at least 20 times this year to average more than 15 yards per reception while catching more than 70 percent of the passes thrown their way.
Smith-Schuster is well on track to becoming a star, which means he could have helped several offenses immensely. The following five teams in particular would have been smart to draft him.
With Steve Smith gone and Breshad Perriman once again a disappointment, the Ravens desperately needed a big weapon in the passing game this season. The offense averaged a league-low 5.7 yards per pass attempt—the next-closest team was at 6.1—but that likely wouldn't have been the case with Smith-Schuster in the fold. If Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome could travel to April 28, he'd have to consider taking Smith-Schuster with the No. 47 overall pick instead of linebacker Tyus Bowser, who wasn't a huge factor as a rookie.
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams haven't made many mistakes in the past year, which is why they're headed to the playoffs as the NFC West champion. But Smith-Schuster would have made a much larger impact this season than No. 44 overall pick Gerald Everett, who caught just 16 passes as a reserve tight end during the regular season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers likely regret handing veteran receiver DeSean Jackson a three-year, $33.5 million contract. The 31-year-old former Pro Bowler caught just 55.6 percent of the passes thrown his way while scoring only three touchdowns in his first year in Tampa. The team would have been better off staying away from Jackson and taking Smith-Schuster instead of safety Justin Evans with the No. 50 overall pick.
While the jury remains out on No. 5 overall pick Corey Davis and No. 18 overall pick Adoree' Jackson, the Titans likely would take a do-over on both of those first-round selections. Rather than take Davis, who dealt with injury issues and didn't score a touchdown as a rookie, the Titans could have selected Smith-Schuster at No. 18. At No. 5, they could have selected Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Marshon Lattimore. Imagine Tennessee with those two instead of Davis and Jackson...
The Redskins might have spent their first three draft picks on defensive prospects in part because they believed free-agent addition Terrelle Pryor could turn into a star as their No. 1 receiver. Instead, Pryor caught just 20 passes and scored only one touchdown before an ankle injury ended his campaign in November. They should have stayed away from Pryor and used their No. 49 overall pick on Smith-Schuster rather than linebacker Ryan Anderson, who made no impact as a rookie.
Colin Kaepernick Regrets
Not sure whether you've heard, but former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick became the face of U.S. national anthem protests in 2016 and 2017, which might have contributed to his absence from professional football this season.
The following three non-playoff teams might not have missed the postseason had they taken a chance on Kaepernick when their regular starting quarterbacks went down with injuries.
Green Bay Packers
After a Week 6 collarbone injury sent Aaron Rodgers to injured reserve, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy appeared to be offended by the suggestion that Kaepernick—a former Super Bowl quarterback with a career 72-to-30 touchdown-to-interception ratio—might be a better option than backup Brett Hundley, who had thrown just 11 career regular-season passes before relieving Rodgers. Hundley struggled in three of his first four starts, and the Packers lost five of their first six games in which he was their primary quarterback. Kaepernick might have guided them to an extra win or two during that stretch, which could have helped them stay in playoff contention when Rodgers returned.
Deshaun Watson had the Texans in contention before going down with a torn ACL prior to Week 9. The Texans then went with backups Tom Savage and T.J. Yates in their final nine games. They lost eight of their remaining nine games, with those quarterbacks throwing as many interceptions as touchdown passes (nine apiece). Kaepernick could have given them a better shot in a six-point Week 9 home loss to the Indianapolis Colts, or in back-to-back non-blowout road losses to the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans later in the season.
When franchise quarterback Ryan Tannehill went down with a torn ACL in August, the Dolphins brought a 34-year-old Jay Cutler out of retirement. Cutler started 14 games but was the league's 10th-lowest-rated qualified passer, throwing just 19 touchdown passes to 14 interceptions. Despite playing alongside less support in San Francisco, Kaepernick's 2016 numbers were substantially better than Cutler's 2017 output. He might have helped them win a few extra games to remain in playoff contention, but we'll never know.
Other Roster-Related Do-Overs
These seven teams might not need high-profile, Kaepernick/Garoppolo/Watson-level do-overs, but they still made key roster decisions which they might wish to undo.
Carolina Panthers Don't Sign Matt Kalil, Draft Ryan Ramczyk Instead
In an attempt to shore up the pass protection for franchise quarterback Cam Newton, the Panthers signed free-agent left tackle Matt Kalil to a five-year, $55.5 million contract, even though he hadn't been effective since his rookie season in 2012. Little changed for Kalil in a new environment, as the 28-year-old often did his best impression of a turnstile on Newton's blind side. The Panthers would have been better off saving their money and trading up eight draft spots in order to take Ryan Ramczyk, who has already become a steady presence in New Orleans.
Indianapolis Colts Sign Case Keenum in March
The Colts were either misinformed or in denial about quarterback Andrew Luck's status in the 2017 offseason, which is why they were forced to add Jacoby Brissett in a preseason panic move when it became obvious Luck would remain out indefinitely while he recovered from shoulder surgery. And while there were worse regular starting quarterbacks than Brissett this season, he still completed just 58.8 percent of his passes and threw only 13 touchdowns in 16 games. Indy likely wishes it could rewind to March and sign Keenum, who was the league's seventh-highest-rated passer for an 13-3 Vikings team after inking a mere one-year, $2 million deal.
Los Angeles Chargers Keep Josh Lambo over Younghoe Koo
A tiebreaker cost the 9-7 Chargers a playoff spot, but that wouldn't have been necessary had the Bolts beaten the Denver Broncos in Week 1 or the Miami Dolphins in Week 2. They lost the first game by three points and the second by two points, with rookie kicker Younghoe Koo missing last-second field goals in both instances. That might not have happened had they kept veteran Josh Lambo instead of Koo at the end of training camp. Six weeks after the Chargers released him, Lambo signed on with Jacksonville, where he made 19 of 20 attempts for a team heading to the postseason.
New Orleans Saints Don't Sign Adrian Peterson, Get Alvin Kamara Going Earlier
Saints third-round pick Alvin Kamara is an Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate following a season in which he led all qualified running backs with a 6.1 yards-per-attempt average while recording 1,554 yards from scrimmage. But those numbers could have been even better had the Saints gotten Kamara more involved early. The Tennessee product had 201 offensive touches in 2017, but only 20 of those came in the first three weeks of the season. The Saints lost two of those three games while giving more work to ineffective veteran Adrian Peterson, who joined the team as a free agent in April. That was a mistake, but at least New Orleans realized that quickly and traded Peterson to the Arizona Cardinals in October.
New York Giants Keep Eli Manning on the Bench
The Giants are entering the offseason with a limited feel for what 2017 third-round pick Davis Webb has to offer as a potential franchise quarterback. That's because the team caved to misplaced public outrage, firing head coach Ben McAdoo and general manager Jerry Reese days after McAdoo decided to sit veteran quarterback Eli Manning to get a look at the younger quarterbacks on the roster. The Giants then reinstalled Manning as the starting quarterback for the remainder of a lost season, which helped nobody. They should have given Webb a shot before having to make a decision regarding Manning's future this winter, but they didn't. It was a cowardly, counterproductive move.
Philadelphia Eagles Sign Case Keenum Instead of Nick Foles
In mid-March, the Eagles brought in Foles to be their backup on a two-year, $11 million deal. Two-and-a-half weeks later, the Vikings signed Keenum for a fraction of the price on a one-year contract. Keenum relieved an injured Sam Bradford early and has been remarkably efficient for a Vikings team that now has better Super Bowl odds than the higher-seeded Eagles, mainly because Foles performed terribly in two of the three games he started in place of the injured Carson Wentz. Philly signed the wrong backup.
Seattle Seahawks Keep Alex Collins
The Seahawks have been searching for offensive balance ever since Marshawn Lynch began to fade. This year, 2016 Seahawks fifth-round pick Alex Collins emerged as one of the NFL's most dominant running backs, averaging 4.6 yards per carry while eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark from scrimmage. However, Collins accomplished all of that in Baltimore, because the Seahawks waived him just days prior to the start of the regular season. Collins looks as though he's becoming a star following a particularly hot finish to his sophomore season, while the Seahawks are still looking for a long-term answer to help bolster their bottom-10 running game.
Almost Everyone Passed on the Potential Defensive Rookie of the Year
Not only did Pro Football Focus grade Bills cornerback Tre'Davious White as the NFL's best rookie in 2017, but it also named him to its second-team All-Pro squad. The first-round pick out of LSU has already emerged as a shutdown corner and a playmaker, having recorded four interceptions, 18 passes defensed, a forced fumble, a touchdown and 70 tackles in 16 starts.
But 24 teams passed on White before the Bills selected the 22-year-old with the No. 27 overall pick in April's draft.
Three in particular might consider that to be their largest regret from 2017.
Darius Slay is a hell of a player, but the Lions didn't get a lot else out of their cornerbacks this season. 2013 first-round pick D.J. Hayden remains a bust, rookie Teez Tabor hardly saw the field and Quandre Diggs was a replacement-level starter at best. Thus, the Lions ranked in the bottom 10 leaguewide in terms of completion percentage and yards per attempt allowed. Had they used their No. 21 overall pick on White instead of tackle-whiffing linebacker Jarrad Davis, they might have won an extra game or two this season, which could have been enough to make the playoffs and save head coach Jim Caldwell's job.
Kansas City Chiefs
Buffalo selected White with the No. 27 overall pick, which the Chiefs traded to the Bills in exchange for their No. 10 overall selection to draft quarterback Patrick Mahomes II. And while Mahomes could be Kansas City's long-term answer under center, veteran starter Alex Smith emerged as an MVP-caliber quarterback in 2017. Smith finally found his deep ball, and he may have several years left in him. In retrospect, the Chiefs may have preferred to keep their 2018 first-round pick (which they dealt to Buffalo in the trade-up) and have White in the defensive backfield.
This one is simple. Three spots before the Bills grabbed White, the Raiders selected cornerback Gareon Conley, who recorded just seven tackles while playing in only two games as a rookie before being shut down due to shin splints. White could have done far more for a defense that recorded just five interceptions and surrendered the league's third-highest opposing passer rating in 2017. The Raiders likely wish they had made different coaching- and scheme-related decisions in the 2017 offseason, but picking Conley over White might have hurt them more than anything else.
Other Draft-Related Do-Overs
Watson, Smith-Schuster and White weren't the only 2017 draft picks who should have been taken much higher than they were. Let's highlight three other draft-related do-overs for the road.
Dallas Cowboys Draft Alvin Kamara in Round 2
Yes, the Cowboys already had Ezekiel Elliott, but he was facing a potential suspension (later confirmed to be a six-game ban, which he eventually served in November and December). Besides, Kamara proved to be a special passing-game threat this season. The two could have formed an incredible tandem for the run-first Cowboys, just as Kamara and Mark Ingram did in New Orleans. And with Kamara on board instead of low-impact second-round cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, the Cowboys might have been able to fare better than 3-3 in their six games sans Zeke.
Minnesota Vikings Draft Kareem Hunt
It's hard to find mistakes in Minnesota of late, and it's not as though second-round running back Dalvin Cook doesn't have a bright future. But Cook suffered a season-ending ACL tear just four games into his rookie season, and the Vikes could have had Offensive Rookie of the year candidates Kamara or Kareem Hunt in that No. 41 spot. Hunt, who led the league in rushing with 1,327 yards on the ground as a rookie, was also available when Minnesota used its third-round selection on center Pat Elflein. The Vikings would be better off right now had they taken either back in either round, but with Jerick McKinnon emerging as a quality receiving back in 2017, Hunt would have been a particularly good fit.
Pittsburgh Steelers Draft John Johnson III in Round 3
We conclude the nitpick section with the Steelers, who look as though they found something special with first-round pick T.J. Watt and second-rounder JuJu Smith-Schuster and are off to the playoffs after another strong season on both sides of the ball. Still, no team in the NFL surrendered more 50-yard plays in 2017 than Pittsburgh, who could have traded up three spots in the third round to select sensational rookie safety John Johnson III. Pittsburgh took cornerback Cameron Sutton at No. 94 instead, but he didn't make much of an impact, while Johnson shined in both pass and run defense for the Rams.
Atlanta's Coaching-Related Do-Over
Falcons Promote Matt LaFleur to Replace Kyle Shanahan
Congratulations, Falcons. You get your own slide! That's the result of a relatively quiet post-Super Bowl offseason, with the only controversial change taking place within the coaching staff.
You can't blame the Falcons for losing offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who took a head-coaching job with San Francisco. But Atlanta had the league's highest-scoring offense by a wide margin last season, and quarterback Matt Ryan won MVP. Rather than taking that offense in an entirely new direction by hiring Steve Sarkisian to replace Shanahan as offensive coordinator, the smart approach would have been to throw a bunch of money at 2016 quarterbacks coach and Shanahan disciple Matt LaFleur.
LaFleur still might have left to rejoin former colleague Sean McVay in Los Angeles, but he would have received more responsibilities and a raise in Atlanta, where he could have kept Shanahan's historically productive offense largely intact.
That didn't happen, and now the Rams are coming off a first-place season in which they averaged a league-best 29.9 points per game, while the Falcons barely made the playoffs after averaging just 22.1.
Here's guessing Atlanta immediately regrets its decision.