Which NFL Teams Will Own the 2019 Offseason?
One offseason—that's all it takes to turn around an NFL franchise.
The Chicago Bears flipped their 5-11 record from last year to 12-4 this season. Now, they're preparing to host a home playoff game. How did they do it?
General manager Ryan Pace used free agency to surround quarterback Mitchell Trubisky with pass-catchers, Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton. He acquired impact assets for the defense as well.
The Bears selected linebacker Roquan Smith with the No. 8 overall pick and traded for edge-rusher Khalil Mack. And head coach Matt Nagy and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio put the personnel in the position to succeed.
Other than the Bears, the Cleveland Browns changed their franchise with the No. 1 overall pick, quarterback Baker Mayfield, who deserves some Offensive Rookie of the Year buzz.
General manager John Dorsey also took lead running back Nick Chubb in the second round of this year's draft and became an active buyer on the trade market. He picked up lead wide receiver Jarvis Landry and ball-hawking safety Damarious Randall. The Browns went from winless to a seven-win team in a year.
What's the common thread between the Bears and Browns' offseasons? Both front offices made bold moves, added cornerstone talent through the draft and spent money on impact players during free agency. Focusing on those elements, we'll take a look at teams in position to own the upcoming offseason and surge in 2019.
The Oakland Raiders traded two of their best players, Mack and wideout Amari Cooper in exchange for draft capital, which initiated a complete rebuild under head coach Jon Gruden. The decision to move the two-time All-Pro edge-rusher reeled in first-rounders for the next two years, a sixth-round pick and a third-rounder in 2020. The front office netted an additional top-32 pick in exchange for the fourth-year wide receiver.
The Raiders have three first-round picks and a projected $77.1 million in cap space next year. Say what you want about the decision to trade Mack and Cooper, but the franchise has the resources for a strong roster reset. In an interview with Howie Long of Fox, Gruden talked about players "dying to come and play [for the Raiders]." We'll see who shows interest and signs with the Silver and Black in the coming months.
The team fired general manager Reggie McKenzie in December then hired NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. He doesn't have previous front-office experience, but his expertise provides the Raiders with a compass to navigate a crucial predraft process that will shape this franchise's future.
Although the Raiders' acquired first-round picks dropped below 20 because the Bears and Cowboys reached the postseason, their own selection lists fourth. Oakland will have the option to trade draft capital for impact players, move up to acquire a prospect or slide down to accumulate more picks. Gruden, Mayock and company will have extensive flexibility in restructuring the roster.
The Indianapolis Colts are projected to have the most cap space next year, with $122.2 million. Only three players on the roster carry a cap hit worth more than $10 million: quarterback Andrew Luck, wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and left tackle Anthony Castonzo. There are no bloated contracts for a 10-6 playoff club going into the next term, which is a big deal.
The Colts have the financial capital to spend on coveted players on the open market and the allure of a team that can compete for a Super Bowl in the short term. Luck's return sparked a quick rebound from a 4-12 campaign. Some of the roster's top talents are under 25 years old or unheralded veterans.
Tight end Eric Ebron elevated his profile and became a viable touchdown threat, logging 13 scores after recording 11 in his first four years with the Detroit Lions. Denico Autry transitioned from a rotational player in Oakland to a team sack leader for the Colts. Rookie second-rounder Darius Leonard led the league in solo tackles (111). He's in contention for Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Ebron and Autry's transformations are attractive examples for other players hoping to reset their careers. More importantly, general manager Chris Ballard will have the deep pockets to sign top-notch free agents interested in joining a playoff team on the rise.
New York Jets
Despite a rocky start to the season, quarterback Sam Darnold has shown enough flashes to put the franchise and fanbase at ease. He's thrown five touchdown passes and zero interceptions in the last three games and looks like a foundational piece to the team's future. Now, Gang Green can approach the rebuild in a way similar to what the Bears just did.
General manager Mike Maccagnan will have the opportunity to hire an innovative head coach. He holds the No. 3 pick in the draft and goes into the offseason with a projected $106.6 million in cap space—the second-most behind the Colts.
Maccagnan doesn't have any excuse to miss out on surrounding Darnold with high-end assets. The Jets can spend money on offensive linemen to protect him, sign running back Le'Veon Bell as an impact skill player for the offense and acquire a top edge-rusher via free agency or the draft.
As a 4-12 club, there are plenty of holes to fill. The Jets certainly have the resources to hit on talent in the important areas, if they're willing to spend the cash and acquire an instant starter with the No. 3 overall pick.
The Arizona Cardinals will have the seventh-most cap space next year, a projected $62.6 million. But that's not the most important tool in owning their offseason. With the No. 1 overall pick, this club controls Day 1 of the upcoming draft.
Based on their moves during free agency, the Cardinals may opt to draft defensive end Nick Bosa, who many believe is the top prospect in the 2019 class. Arizona addressed the quarterback position in April, moving up to the No. 10 spot to select Josh Rosen. Unlike Darnold, he didn't finish the season on a strong note, but the team could use its financial resources to upgrade an offensive line that ranks 26th in pass protection, per Football Outsiders.
Expect general manager Steve Keim to keep his options open about trading the No. 1 pick. Quarterback-needy teams may be willing to acquire the top selection to choose a potential franchise signal-caller. The Cardinals can move down and acquire more draft capital for their roster rebuild. Although none of the top quarterback prospects are currently projected to go within the top three, that could change in the coming months.
Arizona will have the option to fill a need with a top prospect or address multiple voids using first- and second-round selections via trades.
Unlike the other four teams, the Baltimore Ravens don't rank among the top 10 in cap space available, with their projected $37.0 million. However, the front office is expected to send quarterback Joe Flacco and his $26.5 million cap hit elsewhere in the offseason.
According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, the Ravens plan to move on from Flacco. It's not a shocker after rookie signal-caller Lamar Jackson helped lead the team to a division title. The move would mark an official new era in Baltimore, and the team could use the 33-year-old quarterback as a bargaining chip to acquire draft picks, a starting-caliber player or both, like the Kansas City Chiefs did last year.
The Chiefs sent quarterback Alex Smith to Washington in exchange for a third-round pick and a budding cornerback talent in Kendall Fuller last January. As a playoff team, the Ravens don't need a star or first-round pick to stay in contention. A decent starter or an early-round selection would suffice in maintaining a solid roster.
In a quarterback-centric league, Flacco should have a healthy market value. He's a Super Bowl champion with the arm strength to push the ball downfield. The Ravens may not have a ton of cash or a high draft pick, but there's leverage in a dangling a competent signal-caller on the trading block.
Team cap-space projections provided by Spotrac.