It’s time to reflect on the 2017 offseason. There are a few stray veterans left in the free-agent pool, and teams could still execute something unexpected if injuries arise, but organizations have mostly closed their checkbooks and built the rosters they’re going to take onto the field in September.
Of course, we can know only so much right now. This time last year, there was no way anybody knew that the Cowboys had drafted a franchise quarterback. Kyle Shanahan was lucky to survive the offseason in Atlanta as an offensive coordinator, let alone be considering head-coaching roles.
At the same time, we can look at what each team’s goals were (or should have been) heading into March and gain a sense of whether they did enough to address those concerns. In most cases, we can also plot what they have to do before hitting Week 1.
We’ll run division by division over the next two weeks. Let’s head to the NFC East, a division that drastically turned things around in 2016 and sent two teams to the postseason for the first time since 2009.
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What went right
They didn’t do anything spectacular and pocketed a bunch of compensatory selections. Given owner Jerry Jones’ history, it’s always a relief to see the Cowboys have a relatively quiet offseason while avoiding going after players whose names (and salaries) might outstrip their performances. The Cowboys did not consummate their long-standing interest in running back Adrian Peterson, instead allowing the would-be backup to Ezekiel Elliott to head farther south to New Orleans. They re-signed Terrance Williams and Jason Witten in lieu of finding a sexier second weapon in the passing game for quarterback Dak Prescott. They operated like a team in sound shape, which they are.
The Cowboys might very well sign a veteran or two now that the additions won’t affect Dallas’ standing in the compensatory process. Per the projections at overthecap.com, coach Jason Garrett’s team appears set to pocket the maximum of four compensatory picks, including picks in the fourth and sixth rounds to go with a pair of fifth-rounders. If we treat those picks like the average compensatory selections from each of those rounds, the Cowboys are grabbing 6.4 points of draft capital, per Chase Stuart’s chart, which is roughly equivalent to the 84th pick in the draft.
They found help for their pass rush. Rod Marinelli has been manufacturing a pass rush out of sheer will the past couple of seasons; the Cowboys sacked Aaron Rodgers three times during their 34-31 loss to the Packers in the playoffs, but it’s telling that all three sacks came from defensive backs. At the very least, Dallas needed to try to give Marinelli a pass-rusher with some sort of pedigree to rotate in on the edge, and Jones committed his first-round pick toward an upgrade by drafting Taco Charlton out of Michigan with the 28th selection. Marinelli has a well-earned reputation of getting the most out of defensive linemen who have been anonymous elsewhere within the league; here’s his chance to work with a first-round talent. Dallas also spent four draft picks on defensive backs, which will be crucial, given that it lost four of its top six defensive backs from last season’s depth chart to free agency.
What went wrong
The Cowboys publicly overplayed their Tony Romo hand. The most likely scenario for the Cowboys and Romo was always that they would end up dumping him after June 1 to spread the $19.6 million cap hit from his release over two seasons, but they turned the negotiations into a farce. Few players have been dangled more publicly in the media than Romo was during February and March, with the Cowboys alternately telling reporters that they would release Romo and insisting that they never had any plans to cut him and would trade him only for a pick. The whole ordeal did nobody any favors.
They didn’t draft anybody along the offensive line. The Cowboys possessed the deepest offensive line in football last season, but that depth took a major hit this offseason, when right tackle Doug Free retired and guard Ronald Leary left for the Broncos in free agency. Dallas responded with modest measures. It signed a pair of frustrating players in former Cardinals bust Jonathan Cooper and former Panthers tackle Byron Bell but otherwise left the position untouched. The Cowboys will consider moving left guard La’el Collins to right tackle, but he hasn’t been consistent on the interior, and that would open up another hole at Collins’ old spot. This wasn’t a great draft for offensive linemen, but it probably wouldn’t have hurt Dallas to use a mid-round pick on one.
Sign a veteran or two on defense. The Cowboys should be thinking about veteran help, either along the defensive line or in the secondary, particularly at cornerback. They could opt for a big name such as Dwight Freeney, Paul Kruger or Elvis Dumervil to provide competition in camp and push for a meaningful pass-rushing role if he makes the team.
What went right
They added weapons for Eli Manning. There were too many moments last season when the Giants were Odell Beckham-or-bust on offense. Some of that could be attributed to a dismal running game, but the Giants needed to upgrade on Victor Cruz and Will Tye in their starting lineup. They pulled off both additions. First, general manager Jerry Reese signed Brandon Marshall to an eminently reasonable two-year deal, with Marshall taking less money to stay in New York after being released by the Jets. On draft night, Reese used his first-round pick on tight end Evan Engram, giving the Giants another excellent athlete to work with in the passing game. Sure, Beckham is still going to create moments of pure magic on his own, but now he and Manning will have more help.
What went wrong
They failed to address a dismal offensive line. For the second season in a row, the Giants’ offense was rendered irrelevant at times by a porous offensive line. Inexplicably, for the second year in a row, Reese did close to nothing to address the issue. New York lost another regular in Marshall Newhouse, and the reinforcements Reese brought in are underwhelming. Free-agent signee D.J. Fluker failed at tackle before settling in as a mediocre guard in San Diego, and the first and only draft selection Reese used on a lineman was a sixth-round pick on Adam Bisnowaty. After a season in which the Giants ranked 26th in rushing DVOA and averaged just 3.5 yards per rush attempt, you would think Reese would have put more of an emphasis on re-signing offensive linemen.
They re-signed Jason Pierre-Paul to an exorbitant deal and let Jonathan Hankins leave. While 2016 was arguably JPP’s best season as a run-defender and a major upgrade on the player he was during a limited 2015 campaign, Pierre-Paul is now 28 years old and already has back surgery and the effects of that traumatic fireworks disaster on his medical history. It’s reasonable for the Giants to want him around, but it seemed irresponsible to throw a staggering $40 million in guarantees at a player with two double-digit-sack campaigns as a pro, especially in a year when the draft was full of edge rushers and defensive linemen.
As for the situation on the interior, it’s debatable whether the Giants should have brought Hankins back at the three-year, $27 million rate he picked up from the Colts. Even for the Giants, committing to Hankins would have been devoting too many resources to the defensive line, given that Pierre-Paul, Olivier Vernon and Damon Harrison are on all massive deals. It was surprising, though, to see the Giants nominally replace Hankins by drafting Alabama nose tackle Dalvin Tomlinson in the second round. He profiles, essentially, as Harrison: a two-down, interior run-stopper who is limited as a pass-rusher. Having one of those guys is good. But two? Not so much.
Re-sign Justin Pugh and Weston Richburg. As bad as the Giants’ offensive line is, it would get significantly worse if Reese were to allow his two best linemen to leave in free agency next offseason. Locking Pugh up before the guard market took a huge leap forward this offseason would have been prudent, given his ability to step outside and play right tackle.
Richburg, who has been overshadowed by the presence of Travis Frederick in the same division, should also attract upper-echelon-center money if he hits the free-agent market after his rookie deal expires this season. The Giants already have $156 million committed to their 2018 cap before signing Pugh or Richburg, and they have to lock up Beckham, who will be a free agent in 2019. Given those factors, they might not have long-term deals for the offense’s two competent linemen in their plans.
What went right
They’re suddenly deep at wide receiver. Eagles fans who grew ill at the sight of Nelson Agholor and Dorial Green-Beckham taking regular reps last season probably won’t have to reach for the Pepto-Bismol in 2017. The Eagles bought low on Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, adding a pair of veterans who still have considerable upside. The one-year, $9.5 million deal Jeffery took to rebuild his value in Philadelphia, in particular, is a steal of criminal proportions.
The new additions, along with fourth-round size-speed freak Mack Hollins, should provide QB Carson Wentz opportunities to create big plays downfield. Wentz has the arm strength and instincts to chuck the ball wherever he wants, but he struggled to impress on deeper passes last season, whether because of a lack of suitable weapons or a conservative scheme that coach Doug Pederson installed for him as a rookie. Wentz’s average pass traveled just 7.3 yards in the air, which ranked 26th in the league. When Wentz did throw deep (16-plus yards in the air), he was 24th in QBR and 26th in passer rating.
To be fair, 4.3 percent of Wentz’s deep passes were dropped in 2016, the seventh-highest rate in the league. His overall drop rate of 5.1 percent ranked fifth-highest. Jeffery has played in only 21 of 32 games the past two seasons, but he has dropped just two of the 188 passes thrown in his direction by the likes of Jay Cutler and Brian Hoyer in that span. At the very least, Jeffery should be a safe pair of hands for his new quarterback.
They added more pieces to their defensive line. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz loves to build his units around a strong front four, preferring to get pressure without blitzing. Blessed with one of the league’s most promising young defensive lines, Schwartz stayed true to form during his first year in Philly. The Eagles blitzed on only 19 percent of opposing pass plays, the fifth-lowest rate in the league, but they created pressure 30.2 percent of the time, which was the fifth-highest rate last season.
General manager Howie Roseman didn’t rest on his line’s laurels, though. Philly released veteran Connor Barwin, who didn’t take particularly well to the team’s new scheme, and allowed nose tackle Bennie Logan to leave. Roseman refreshed his line by swapping third-round picks in a deal for Ravens tackle Tim Jernigan, a useful interior disruptor who will rotate with run-stopper Beau Allen. Chris Long was brought in to serve as the veteran end playing alongside Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham, and the Eagles went further by using their first-round pick on Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett. In a league in which even anonymous pass-rushers are picking up significant sums of money in free agency, the Eagles go four-deep with defensive ends who could be relative bargains in 2017.
What went wrong
Cornerback is a mess, at least in the short term. Cornerback might have been as big a need for the Eagles on defense as wide receiver was for them on offense. With Philadelphia pressing up against the cap heading into the offseason, they weren’t able to adequately address their weakness on the defensive side of the ball. The Eagles swapped out Leodis McKelvin, who was often overmatched last season, for the frequently disappointing Patrick Robinson. Dwayne Gratz, who never launched in Jacksonville, was brought into the fold. Roseman then used second- and third-round picks on cornerbacks, but his top selection was cornerback Sidney Jones, who tore his Achilles during Washington’s pro day. He is unlikely to make much of an impact this year, which means the Eagles will be relying on their pass rush and a strong set of safeties in Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod to keep their cornerback problems at bay.
They never addressed their need for a bigger back. Reports heading into the offseason suggested that the Eagles would replace Ryan Mathews, a perennial injury risk and one of the few holdovers remaining from Chip Kelly’s spending spree. With a deep pool of free-agent backs and a highly regarded crop of rushers available in the draft, it seemed logical for the Eagles to bring in a back to rotate with Darren Sproles and Wendell Smallwood.
The draft has come and gone, and with most of the free agents off the market, the only back the Eagles have added is fourth-round pick Donnel Pumphrey, a 169-pound back whose skill set suggests he’ll be the long-term replacement for Sproles. Mathews, who is due to make a base salary of $4 million this year, is still on the roster. And the Eagles didn’t bother to go after any of the other backs who might have fit. It was a genuine surprise to see them pass on Jamaal Charles, who played under Pederson in Kansas City and signed a one-year deal for smaller money than Mathews to suit up with the Broncos. They could still target LeGarrette Blount, but otherwise, the Eagles will be hoping that Mathews can stay on the field in 2017.
Make a definitive decision on Jordan Matthews. Nominally the Eagles’ top wideout over the past couple of years, Matthews is entering the final year of his rookie deal and is likely to attract plenty of attention in free agency next year. A 6-foot-3 slot receiver, he has flashed at times during his tenure with the team but has yet to take a big leap forward, and the Eagles might prefer to pay Jeffery the eight-figure annual salary Matthews will receive on the market.
With that in mind, the Eagles should make their call on Matthews now. If they feel like Matthews is a big part of their future, they should lock him up, using the leverage of that bargain rookie deal while Matthews is still a year from free agency. If he isn’t in their long-term plans, the Eagles are probably better off trading Matthews now than waiting a year. The Eagles would get a compensatory draft pick if Matthews left in free agency, but that pick wouldn’t arrive until 2019, and it would come only if the Eagles were to stay out of the free-agent market. Getting a third-round selection for Matthews would lock in what amounts to a top-level comp pick, and it would probably come in the 2018 draft.
What went right
Washington massively upgraded its defensive front. Despite firing general manager Scot McCloughan (more on that in a minute), Washington basically conducted much of its offseason as if McCloughan were still in charge. The team generally avoided big splashes in free agency and built a deeper, stronger defensive line. It was 25th in rush defense DVOA and 27th in yards per carry allowed, so you can understand its need for help up front.
Free agency brought Terrell McClain over from the Cowboys, but more notably, the quietly effective Stacy McGee left the Raiders to head East and play nose tackle. While McGee has struggled to stay healthy as a pro, he has been an impact run-defender and beat the far more expensive Dan Williams for a job in Oakland last year.
Washington followed those moves by happily taking Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen when he fell to the 17th pick of the first round. Teams leaked concerns about Allen’s shoulders, and there are organizations around the league that believe Alabama products are beat up from the grind of playing under coach Nick Saban, but nobody can argue with Allen’s ability or production on the field. This isn’t a risk-free proposition — Washington could be in serious trouble if Allen and McGee struggle to stay on the field — but the upside is a suddenly effective defensive line imported overnight.
They bought low on a couple of high-upside free agents. For years, owner Daniel Snyder set and reset the top end of the market on free agents, paying premiums to sign disappointments such as Adam Archuleta and Albert Haynesworth. Washington’s cap was often bloated, and the team was stuck paying dead money to erase mistakes from years past.
Besides signing Josh Norman last year, Washington mostly avoided those pitfalls under McCloughan. After firing its general manager, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see Washington return to its former largesse. Instead, the team pieced together a coherent plan and gave short-term deals to players with limited but excellent track records. The key additions were Terrelle Pryor and Zach Brown, each of whom played at a Pro Bowl level in relatively new positions last year. Pryor excelled as a wide receiver in Cleveland. Brown was signed off the scrap heap by the Bills after struggling in Tennessee, he moved to inside linebacker, and suddenly he looked like a star. Washington waited out their respective markets and signed both to one-year deals. If Brown and Pryor can reproduce their 2016 form in the NFC East, they’ll be bargains.
What went wrong
They fired McCloughan. An embarrassing power struggle played out in the media and led McCloughan to leave town. McCloughan’s battle with alcoholism was a matter of public record heading into his time with Washington, and it certainly appears that the organization used his struggle as a pretense to fire him with cause at the first possible opportunity.
Ignore the fact that McCloughan is regarded as an excellent talent evaluator around the league, got rave reviews from players and went 17-14-1 with a team that had gone 7-25 the two seasons before his arrival. Imagine you’re a hotshot personnel executive in line for general manager interviews. Why would you want to go work for a team that ran a successful executive out of town and dragged his name through the mud? How would a job with that organization ever be appealing to you, unless you had no other way to become a general manager? It’s not a surprise that Washington still hasn’t hired a GM and expects to restructure its organization from within.
They punted the Kirk Cousins situation. McCloughan wasn’t able to sign Cousins to a long-term deal last offseason, and though that seemed like a prudent move, given Cousins’ relative lack of professional success before 2015, Cousins doubled down with another impressive season in 2016. It’s clear he’s worth big money now, but feeling insulted by Washington’s reticence to offer him such a deal last offseason, he seems hesitant to agree to a long-term extension.
After franchising Cousins twice, Washington is 12 months from what could be a franchise-altering offseason. It will be cost-prohibitive to franchise Cousins a third time, and Washington will have to pay a staggering sum to keep him from hitting the free-agent market, where teams such as the 49ers and Browns will be willing to hit new heights to get a franchise quarterback without having to give up multiple draft picks or develop a quarterback. Cousins’ leverage — and the chances that Washington loses its starting quarterback while getting no more than a compensatory third-round pick in return — grows with each passing day. By this time next year, Washington might have lost the two most important pieces of its organization.
Signing Cousins. It’s going to take an exorbitant, Joe Flacco-esque contract, but Washington doesn’t have much of a choice.