The NFL's Riskiest Offseasons Aren't Happening Where You Might Think

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterMarch 30, 2018

Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh speaks during a news conference after an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

You've probably already heard this, but it's incredibly risky to make aggressive moves like the Rams have this offseason. The way they're building their roster will end in one of two ways in 2018: They'll either make the 1985 Bears look like a JV squad, or they will implode in training camp when Marcus Peters punches Aqib Talib for stealing his chain and Aaron Donald goes on sit-down strike after seeing Ndamukong Suh's bank statement. 

But at least the Rams know what they're getting themselves into. Other teams are taking even bigger risks. They just don't know it yet because it isn't as obvious.

Those teams are making the NFL's favorite bad gamble: the no-risk risk. They're trying to somehow get better by getting rid of their best players. The dreaded culture change. The rebuilding project that is driven by personalities, not potential. The play-it-safe-and-guarantee-mediocrity gambit.

"You don't quit on talent," Giants general manager Dave Gettleman told NFL Network's Kimberly Jones during the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, Florida, this week. The Giants brass then spent the rest of the week sounding like they couldn't wait to quit on Odell Beckham Jr., one of the most talented individuals in professional sports, because he's sometimes a bit of a handful.

Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

Gettleman and the Giants already traded Jason Pierre-Paul to the Buccaneers for loose change and are moving on from many of the big names they splurged on over the last two years. If they trade Beckham, even for a fistful of draft picks, they might as well make Quitting on Talent the team's 2018 motto.

Granted, much of the talent quit on the Giants last year. It makes sense for a 3-13 team to shed some salary and move on from older players.

The Seahawks are in a similar situation. Their veterans grew expensive and cantankerous in the years since their championship, making a reboot inevitable.

The problem comes when a rebuilding team starts giving away its best rebuilding blocks, as the Giants are itching to do with Beckham and the Seahawks did with Richard Sherman, because they convince themselves that the locker room needs an attitude adjustment. That's how teams either get stuck in endless rebuilding cycles or become mediocre for years, waiting for the stars to finally align and make everything perfect.

The no-risk risk and perpetual culture change are staples of AFC East also-ran reasoning.

The Dolphins have been vocal about their need to change the clubhouse atmosphere since the end of last season. Head coach Adam Gase said Tuesday that he was certain that the team culture was about to improve now that the roster has been reimagined.

"I know it's going to be different," he told reporters. "You have some alpha dogs who are not going to accept a lot of the bulls--t that has gone on."

Gase is a third-year coach admitting that lots of bull-spit still goes on in the locker room he was hired to clean up, but let's focus on Miami's roster moves instead of Gase's oversharing. The Dolphins have traded or moved on from Suh, Jarvis Landry, Mike Pouncey, Jay Ajayi (midseason last year) and some expensive veterans who didn't contribute much. In their place arrive Frank Gore, Josh Sitton, Albert Wilson, Robert Quinn, Daniel Kilgore andso Gore has a canasta partnerDanny Amendola.

In their quest for "alpha dogs," the Dolphins have added four players over 30, an edge-rusher who hasn't tallied double-digit sacks since 2014 and a 35-catch-per-year slot receiver to replace their 100-catch-per-year slot receiver. They got older and less talented after a 6-10 season and are hailing it as progress. They're poised to go 5-11 this year—but very professionally.

The Bills have been playing mad scientist with their team chemistry since head coach Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane arrived last offseason. The new regime traded offensive starters Tyrod Taylor, Sammy Watkins and Cordy Glenn for draft picks over the last two years. They'll spend the next month trying to trade those draft picks for one really high draft pick. They'll use that really high draft pick to draft a quarterback who will have no one to throw to and a depleted line protecting him. At least McDermott will have a locker room full of his type of guys, most of whom are defensive linemen and linebackers.

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

The Jets got rid of Muhammad Wilkerson but let Suh use them as his safety school, and they traded up from sixth to third in the draft after identifying "six or seven" players they liked in this year's class. (Think about it...) They aren't so much playing low-risk football as they are chasing their tails like a golden retriever at a fireworks display, so let's leave them out of this.

While many teams are eager to build locker rooms where everyone can harmoniously hope for a wild-card berth, teams aside from the Rams have figured out that big rewards require real risks.

The Eagles got more immediate drama with the Michael Bennett trade than they bargained for, but they knew they weren't acquiring a shrinking violet. By Packers standards, signing Muhammad Wilkerson and Jimmy Graham while letting popular receiver Jordy Nelson walk was like betting the mortgage on a roulette spin. The Eagles are doubling down on the aggressiveness that made them champions, and the new Packers braintrust realizes the team needs to work outside of its comfort zone to avoid peaking at 10 wins every year.

Elsewhere in the standings, the 49ers happily gobbled up Sherman and some other premium talent from teams that were looking down at them in pity a year ago. The Browns have acquired several starters who got caught in culture clashes elsewhere (Taylor, Landry, Damarious Randall) at affordable prices.

Tony Avelar/Associated Press

Some of this is just typical NFL parity churn, with weaker teams vulturing big-name players from stronger ones, but the caliber of talent and the reason for its easy availability makes this offseason unique. Instead of top contenders sloughing off expensive veterans for the bottom-feeders to fight over, middling teams are putting premium players on the block so they can sign 35-year-old running backs and backup Bengals quarterbacks instead.

Aggressive teams snap up the "risky" players. Passive ones enjoy the safety of the herd. Maybe that isn't new, but it's more noticeable when the Rams are assembling the Howling Commandos and the Giants are listing one of the NFL's best players on eBay.

This week's owners meeting reminded us that NFL executives are so like-minded that they dress like they all worked at the same used car dealership in the mid-1980s. Coaches are notoriously risk-averse, and while they believe they can fix Josh Allen's accuracy and make Frank Gore young again with their wizardry, most have no coping mechanism whatsoever for Beckham-Sherman-Suh-Bennett types who don't approach their profession like they are extras in Dunkirk.

The Rams are wagering that their young barista head coach and old drill-instructor defensive coordinator are the perfect leadership combination for their band-of-misfits defense. The Eagles proved themselves to be interpersonal relationship ninjas last season. Pete Carroll held the Seahawks together for a heck of a run. The Patriots just are. A few teams now follow their leads, daring to be different.

The rest of the NFL is searching for "alpha dogs" who don't actually bark much.

That's the culture in need of changing in the NFL. And it means embracing individuals like Suh and Beckham, not quitting on them.


Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. He is also a co-author of Football Outsiders Almanac and teaches a football analytics course for Sports Management Worldwide. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.


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