Boom-or-Bust Predictions for the NFL's Biggest Offseason Moves of 2018
At week's end, the calendar will change to April, and draft month will be here.
March, however, was all about free agency. And what a month it was.
We saw a number of quarterbacks change teams. One became the NFL's highest-paid player in terms of average annual salary. Two signal-callers who led their teams to the playoffs were shown the door.
One of those quarterbacks (Buffalo's Tyrod Taylor) was traded away. That was a running theme this offseason. Whether it's the 2011 CBA's lingering effects or just changing attitudes across the NFL, there was a flurry of trades involving big-name players this year.
The Los Angeles Rams made more deals than we'd usually see in an offseason leaguewide.
Now, as the focus changes to the festivities in Dallas on April 26, it's time to review of some of this offseason's biggest acquisitions.
Which ones are a big step in the right direction?
Which will haunt the franchises involved?
And will the seats on Kirk Cousins' new private jet be leather or sheepskin?
Kirk Cousins, QB, Minnesota Vikings
Whether Kirk Cousins has a successful first season with the Minnesota Vikings depends on how you define success.
From an individual or statistical standpoint, the 29-year-old should be fine. Cousins threw for 4,093 yards and 27 touchdowns with a passer rating of 93.9 for the Washington Redskins last year...with a wideout corps headlined by Jamison Crowder and one of the NFL's worst run games.
In the Twin Cities, Cousins will drop back to pass behind a line that ranked sixth in the league in pass protection, per Football Outsiders. In wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen and tight end Kyle Rudolph, the Vikings have no shortage of passing-game weaponry. Tailbacks Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray will provide offensive balance and additional targets out of the backfield.
"We're going to do what Cousins does best," Zimmer said. "He's the most important player, really, on the offense, so we have to figure out what he does best, what he feels comfortable with and kind of go from there."
Cousins' massive contract was a clear signal it's Atlanta or bust for the Vikings in 2018. Anything less than a Super Bowl win will be considered a disappointment.
So, even if Cousins has one of his best seasons and makes the Pro Bowl, there will be those who call the 2018 campaign a bust for him if it doesn't end in a title.
That may be what happens, but the stage is set for a big first year in purple.
Alex Smith, QB, Kansas City Chiefs
Alex Smith's trade to the Washington Redskins was the first domino in the quarterback carousel that's dominated the offseason. His acquisition was as clear as signs get that Cousins' time in the nation's capital was over.
Head coach Jay Gruden appears stoked about the swap. When Ian Rapoport of NFL.com asked him whether the Redskins improved at football's most important position, Gruden didn't hesitate.
"Without a doubt," he said.
The 33-year-old Smith is coming off the best season of his 12-year career. In 2017 with the Kansas City Chiefs, he set career highs in passing yards (4,042), touchdown passes (26) and passer rating (104.7) while tying a career best in yards per attempt (8.0).
Those numbers got Smith a four-year, $94 million extension with Washington.
They'll also be hard to duplicate.
Smith, who long had a reputation as a game manager, was the league's most accurate long-ball passer a year ago, according to Pro Football Focus. But that was on a Chiefs team that had one of the NFL's best deep threats in Tyreek Hill. A fantastic young tailback in Kareem Hunt. And arguably the game's best tight end, Travis Kelce.
The Redskins, on the other hand, lack a true No. 1 receiver. Jordan Reed's a talented tight end when healthy, but he's never healthy. The Redskins were 28th in the NFL in rushing in 2017.
Frankly, Smith's best chance at success lies in embracing that game-manager label and eschewing chunk plays for a more dink-and-dunk offense.
An offense that won't do his numbers any favors.
Tyrod Taylor, QB, Cleveland Browns
Let's get this out of the way: Tyrod Taylor won't have a huge 2018 season with the Cleveland Browns. He won't go to the Pro Bowl, and the Browns won't vie for a playoff spot.
That the Bills were willing to part with the quarterback who led them to their first playoff appearance since 1999 demonstrates Taylor's limitations. He's not an elite arm talent, and his 2,799 passing yards and 14 touchdowns last year comprised a pedestrian stat line for a 21st-century QB who started 14 games.
Taylor probably won't throw for 4,000 yards in 2018. But he's the best quarterback the Browns have had since returning to the NFL in 1999. He'll have better weapons in Cleveland (Josh Gordon, Jarvis Landry, David Njoku, Duke Johnson) than he ever did in Buffalo. And Taylor doesn't make game-killing mistakes—he threw four interceptions a year ago and has never tossed more than six in a season.
Taylor might not be the future in Cleveland, but he'll make the present look a lot better.
Jarvis Landry, WR, Cleveland Browns
The Browns didn't only trade for a quarterback. New Cleveland general manager John Dorsey also made sure whoever lines up under center has better weapons at his disposal by dealing a fourth- and seventh-round draft pick to the Miami Dolphins for four-year veteran Jarvis Landry.
He's a polarizing player. Supporters point out that since 2014, only two wide receivers have more receptions than Landry's 400 grabs (Antonio Brown, Julio Jones). The 25-year-old led the National Football League with 112 catches in 2017 and has had two 1,000-yard seasons in four years.
Detractors point out that despite those 112 catches, Landry managed just 987 yards—a paltry 8.8 per catch. Landry's barely averaged 10 yards a reception over his career, and $16 million and two draft picks is a lot to pay for a pass-catcher who can't take the top off a defense.
Both sides have a point.
Landry is what he is. He's not a player of the same caliber as Brown or Jones. His career-long reception is 71 yards, and about 65 of those yards came after the catch.
But Landry's also a proven, dependable underneath target who has never missed a game. He's adept at picking up those yards after the catch, and he'll provide Taylor (or the rookie Cleveland will draft April 26) with a chain-mover and complement to Josh Gordon.
Landry will do in Cleveland what he did in Miami—catch 90-plus passes, flirt with 1,000 yards and score five or six times.
In other words, just what the Browns are paying him to do.
Case Keenum, QB, Denver Broncos
Case Keenum may have only signed a two-year deal with the Denver Broncos, but as Jeff Legwold reported for ESPN.com, the 30-year-old has every intention of making the Mile High City his permanent home.
"My wife and I love it already," Keenum said. "We want to play the rest of my career here; there's no doubt about that. I think the two years is an opportunity for me to continue to prove myself as a starting quarterback, as a franchise quarterback and as someone that a team and a franchise can count on."
Whether that happens will depend on which Keenum the Broncos get.
The 2017 version was great in Minnesota. He smashed his career bests across the board last year, throwing for 3,547 yards and 22 scores with seven picks while leading the Vikes to the NFC Championship Game.
However, in Keenum's other five seasons, he never threw for 2,500 yards in a single year. He had just 24 touchdown passes against 20 interceptions in those seasons combined. His passer rating was 78.4—almost 20 points lower than last year's breakout 98.3.
Most importantly, Keenum's record as a starter in those five seasons was 9-15.
There's room for optimism regarding Keenum in Denver, though. The Broncos have a talented wideout duo in Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas and a quality defense.
But there are also questions at tailback and on the offensive front. Significant questions. Questions to add to those surrounding Keenum's ability to replicate his 2018 success.
He'll be hard-pressed to live up to his $18 million salary or last year's production because of them.
Allen Robinson, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars
There may not be a free-agent receiver who hit the jackpot to the extent Sammy Watkins did with the Kansas City Chiefs (three years, $48 million), but Watkins wasn't the only big name at the position who switched teams.
And after getting $42 million over three seasons from the Chicago Bears, Allen Robinson isn't hurting for cash.
Per Mike Kaye of First Coast News, Robinson said that fat paycheck wasn't the only reason he joined the Bears.
"For me, going into the whole free-agency process, Chicago was definitely a team I had my eye on, from the standpoint that they had just hired Coach [Matt] Nagy," Robinson said. "Coach Nagy was a big part of it ... I'm a big fan of his system and his offense."
Robinson missed almost the entire 2017 season with a torn ACL, and the year before that was a disappointing 73/883/6 affair. But, it was disappointing only because the season prior with the Jacksonville Jaguars Robinson exploded for 80 receptions, 1,400 yards and 14 scores.
Robinson probably won't have that big a season in Chicago—after all, Mitchell Trubisky only threw seven touchdown passes in 12 starts as a rookie.
But Robinson gives Nagy, Trubisky and the Bears something that was sorely missing in 2017—a true No. 1 receiver. A go-to target for Chicago's young signal-caller.
Provided he stays healthy, the targets (and numbers) will be there for A-Rob in the Windy City.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
After yet another postseason disappointment, the Kansas City Chiefs are undergoing quite an overhaul. They traded Smith, opening the door for Patrick Mahomes to start at quarterback. They shipped out cornerback Marcus Peters as well.
In its totality, it's been a curious set of moves for a win-now team. But the most puzzling part of it all was the three-year, $48 million deal (with $30 million guaranteed) a cap-strapped Chiefs team gave wide receiver Sammy Watkins.
Watkins told ESPN.com's Adam Teicher he feels like he can max out his potential in Kansas City.
"I just feel like I have more in my tank," Watkins said. "I feel like I can get a head start and be my best version of myself."
For $16 million a season, one would think Watkins already had—that he was a perennial 1,000-yard receiver and not a repeat disappointment who managed just 39 catches last year and has missed time in three of four seasons.
But there's upside there. Of those 39 grabs with the Rams, eight were touchdowns. Watkins has shown flashes of the elite talent that led the Buffalo Bills to trade up to draft him fourth overall in 2014.
But that's all there's been for the most part—flashes. And now Watkins will catch passes from an untested quarterback on a Chiefs team that already had Hunt, Hill and Kelce.
There's no way Watkins will live up to that contract. If Kansas City starts losing, the deal will look that much worse.
Tyrann Mathieu, S, Houston Texans
In today's NFL, versatility is a coveted trait among safeties. Those who can help against the run, hold their own in coverage and play some slot corner are held in high regard.
That versatility got Tyrann Mathieu a big contract with the Arizona Cardinals. That deal (and a decline in production following a knee injury) led the Redbirds to show him the door in a move to create cap space. Now Mathieu finds himself in Houston, playing on a one-year, $7 million pact.
As ESPN.com's Sarah Barshop reported, Texans head man Bill O'Brien raved about what Mathieu brings.
"He was obviously a safety, he was a nickel, he played a little bit of corner," O'Brien said. "He's very versatile. He's a really good blitzer. Good ball skills. I think he has 11 or 12 interceptions. Ball hawk, tries to punch the ball out. That's what I like about him. He makes plays on the football."
Mathieu tore his ACL back in 2015—an injury that hampered him the following season. But last year it appeared he was rounding back into form—the big plays weren't quite there yet relative to 2015, but the Honey Badger did pile up 78 total stops with three takeaways.
If he's back to 100 percent (or reasonably close), the Texans may need to acquire legal representation.
They will have committed larceny with arguably the top signing of 2018.
Malcolm Butler, CB, Tennessee Titans
The last year has been a whirlwind for Malcolm Butler. He began his contract season with status as one of the NFL's best young cornerbacks and ended it with his mysterious benching in Super Bowl LII.
Per Dakota Randall of NESN.com, the latest theory about that mystery is the 28-year-old's benching may have been at the urging of a teammate or defensive coach after he had an up-and-down fourth campaign.
That's far from the only guess—everything from an unknown injury to an off-field dustup has been posited as a reason Butler got the hook. As the Patriots are slightly less free with information than North Korea, odds are good we'll never know what happened.
Whatever the reason, it didn't spook the Tennessee Titans. The team continued collecting Patriots corners by signing Butler to a five-year, $61.25 million contract one season after inking Logan Ryan to a similarly lucrative deal (three years, $30 million).
It's possible that whatever happened in Minneapolis was a one-shot deal. And Titans head coach Mike Vrabel told Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald that Tennessee did its homework before cutting the check.
"We felt like we knew Malcolm well enough," Vrabel said. "People that we trusted that we talked to about his character, about his work ethic, about the teammate that he was. We're excited to have him."
That excitement should be tempered with more than a little unease though. An inglorious end to an uneven season is a big red flag for a player who was just handed $30 million in guarantees.
Rebuilt Rams Defense
Rather than dedicating half our selections to the bevy of defensive moves the Los Angeles Rams have made, we'll look at their boom/bust potential as a whole.
The list is long enough.
The Rams didn't just bolster the defense. The team took a chainsaw to it. Edge-rusher Robert Quinn, linebacker Alec Ogletree and cornerback Trumaine Johnson are gone—replaced by cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
All three newcomers have reputations as hotheads. In 2017 alone, Peters drew a one-game suspension for throwing an official's flag and Talib got a vacation for duking it out with Oakland Raiders wideout Michael Crabtree.
Suh's history is as long as it is well-documented.
However, according to Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times, head coach Sean McVay doesn't think all those new (large) egos will be an issue. "I think the defensive coordinator [Wade Phillips] has more swag than all of them," McVay said, "so we'll be in good shape."
If Phillips can keep all of these alpha males out of trouble and on task, look out.
This defense could be scary.
Suh, Peters and Talib have 12 Pro Bowl trips between them. The Rams' new starting cornerbacks combined for 26 interceptions over the past three seasons. And the addition of Suh to a defensive front that already included the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Aaron Donald, is the stuff quarterback's nightmares are made of.
Potential disruptions or a clash of egos are a risk with the revamped Rams defense.
But the payoff for this gamble could be staggering. Super, even.
Richard Sherman, CB, San Francisco 49ers
Considering his new contract with the San Francisco 49ers, it's impossible to view veteran cornerback Richard Sherman as a bust.
At first glance, $39.15 million might seem a lot to pay for a 29-year-old cornerback coming off an Achilles tear. But as former agent Joel Corry reported for CBSSports.com, the real value of the deal is closer to $27 million over those three seasons. Only Sherman's $3 million signing bonus was guaranteed at signing.
It was a contract that took the concept of "team friendly" to absurd new heights. Functioning as his own agent might not have been the best idea Sherman's ever had.
But that doesn't mean the club will hit the jackpot.
Even before Sherman's November injury, his play had begun to slip a bit relative to his heyday. This isn't to say Sherman wasn't still playing at a high level—only that he was no longer a defensive force so intimidating that opponents avoided throwing to his side of the field.
That's the problem with him. Everything he does with the 49ers will (unfairly) be compared to what he accomplished at the Legion of Boom's pinnacle. It had already begun to happen in the Emerald City.
Add a new scheme and that torn Achilles to those unreasonable expectations, and odds are good that Sherman won't make it through all three years of that bad contract.
There may not be an NFL player who needed a change of scenery more than defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson.
After piling up 28.5 sacks from 2013 to 2015 and making a Pro Bowl with the Jets, Wilkerson underwent a trying two years in New York. The 28-year-old managed just eight sacks in 2016 and '17 and spent more time battling injuries and the coaching staff than chasing quarterbacks. By the end of last year, a player who received an $86 million contract extension in July 2016 was a healthy scratch.
It was quite the fall from grace, and now Wilkerson will play 2018 in Green Bay on a one-year, $5 million deal.
That pact might be free agency's biggest bargain—assuming Wilkerson can come close to recapturing his past form.
As Wes Hodkiewicz reported for the team's website, Wilkerson believes he can do that with the Packers.
"Green Bay was the best fit for me," Wilkerson said. "I got a good vibe with the coaches and the staff and felt like that was the best place for me."
Wilkerson will suit up this year for a close-knit, veteran team that will contend for a playoff spot. He should be motivated to show the last two years were a rough patch. And when he's on his game, he's a difference-maker who can both rush the passer and set the edge.
Fifty to 60 tackles, seven-plus sacks and some Comeback Player of the Year buzz is a possibility.
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a hot mess defensively in 2017. The team ranked dead last in the NFL in both total defense and pass defense and managed just 22 sacks all season long.
By weight of comparison, Chandler Jones of the Arizona Cardinals tallied 17 by himself.
Both the pass rush and the secondary were areas of great need for the Buccaneers in 2018, and the team looked to shore up the former by dealing a third-round pick (and swapping fourth-rounders) to the New York Giants for defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul.
It's a potentially pricey gambit. By virtue of the four-year, $62 million contract extension Pierre-Paul signed last year the 29-year-old will make $27 million over the next two seasons.
That's a lot to pay a player who hasn't hit double-digit sacks since the 2014 season. Since then Pierre-Paul has battled a number of serious injuries—including the fireworks accident that cost Pierre-Paul part of his right hand.
It's not at all difficult to see where the Buccaneers were coming from. The team had the cap space to absorb Pierre-Paul's salary and needed to add a proven pass-rusher in the worst way. Pierre-Paul might never be the 16.5-sack force again he was back in 2011, but he's a very good two-way end who amassed 68 tackles and 8.5 sacks in 2017.
The problem is that while those numbers are good, they aren't great—and it's fair to question whether they are close to Pierre-Paul's ceiling post-accident, especially given that he will turn 30 before the season ends.