Every NFL team has to navigate the minefield that is the offseason, from free agency and the draft to front-office and coaching-staff makeovers. While it’s impossible to definitively predict how each franchise’s decisions will pan out, it’s clear that some teams have fared better than others over the past few months. With the deadline to lock up franchise-tagged players imminent, training camp just over the horizon, and rosters coming into focus, it’s time to assess the transactions, crown the team that won the offseason, and shame the one that lost it.
Winner of the 2016 Offseason: Jacksonville Jaguars
Yes, that’s right: the Jags, who excelled in the draft and free agency alike. Jacksonville entered the NFL’s free-agency period with nearly $75 million in burnable cap space, giving them lots of power at the negotiating table. They used their stack of chips to sign Malik Jackson to a six-year, $85.5 million contract, which might look like an overpay on the surface — the $14.25 million average annual value ranks eighth highest among all NFL defensive linemen — but it was a necessarily bold move to secure the best interior rusher on the market. GM David Caldwell and head coach Gus Bradley likely view Jackson as a Michael Bennett–type player in their 4–3 system, a similar scheme to what Pete Carroll runs in Seattle. Like Bennett, Jackson doesn’t have a true position; he’ll play the 3-technique a lot (lining up on the outside shoulder of the guard), but should also see snaps as an end (at the 4i technique, or the inside shoulder of the tackle), where he was very effective for Denver.
Wherever they put him, he’ll shoot gaps or pair with the Jags’ other pass rushers on stunts, and the team will count on him to provide steady disruption in the backfield. Bradley and his fellows on Carroll’s coaching tree share a common refrain: It’s all about “affecting the quarterback.” Jackson may not rack up double-digit sacks, but his numbers for quarterback hits and hurries are elite among defensive tackles.
Acquiring Jackson wasn’t the only boon to the Jaguars’ pass rush. Underrated situational rusher Ryan Davis returns on a second-round restricted free-agent tender, and getting last year’s third overall pick, Dante Fowler, back from a torn ACL is the NFL offseason version of finding a hundred-dollar bill in your couch cushions. The same could be said for defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks, who missed all but four games last season but is back and fully healthy entering 2016. It’s safe to say that Jacksonville’s defensive group is having a good summer.
And that’s before factoring in the rookies. It’s typically tough to count on much from any team’s freshman class, but in Jacksonville’s case, the 2016 draft was unique: The Jags managed to grab maybe the two best overall players in the draft in Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack. Despite suffering a slight meniscus tear in May, Ramsey, the fifth overall pick, is slated to start at corner on day one; Jack, meanwhile, is healthy now, but fell all the way into the second round due to concerns that he might need microfracture surgery someday. Long-term concerns aside, he looks like a sure shot to at least get reps as a nickel linebacker with the upside to play three downs at some point this year. Both are freakish athletes — think Patrick Peterson for Ramsey and Jamie Collins for Jack — and that infusion of speed and explosiveness is exactly what the Jags need. Third-round defensive end Yannick Ngakoue and fourth-round defensive tackle Sheldon Day should also bolster Jacksonville’s defensive depth.
Free agent (and 2014 Pro Bowler) Tashaun Gipson looks like the starter at free safety, meaning he’ll fill an absolutely essential role as the center fielder in Bradley’s cover-3-heavy scheme, and Prince Amukamara — a former first-rounder on a one-year prove-it deal — will be a factor both inside and on the outside in bump-and-run.
It’s not always a good thing when a unit gets such a heavy face-lift, but schemewise, these acquisitions make a ton of sense for the Jags when taken together.
On the other side of the ball, Jacksonville added depth and talent to the offensive line by signing quality tackle Kelvin Beachum away from Pittsburgh, and he’ll get a shot at the left tackle job provided his surgically repaired ACL holds up. As another injury-return bonus, the Jags get one of their best interior linemen, Brandon Linder, back after he missed all but three games in 2015. He’ll compete to start at center.
They also signed Chris Ivory, a tough inside runner who adds a fierce mentality to an already-burgeoning backfield, and made smart moves in extending receiver Allen Hurns and re-upping tight end Marcedes Lewis. Plus, the one-year extension (through 2017) for head coach Bradley means he’ll have his shot to finally field a winner thanks to all of these additions, and neither he nor his players will have to deal with the distractions of a contract year. It’s a win-win for Bradley and the team: If Bradley stumbles again, the team can move on, but if he produces, the Jags can sign him to a long-term deal.
The offseason losses — offensive linemen Zane Beadles and Stefen Wisniewski and pass rushers Chris Clemons and Andre Branch — aren’t concerning.
The Jaguars significantly upgraded their pass rush, added explosive talent to their secondary, bolstered their offensive line, took several immediate impact players in the draft, and get a number of key contributors back from injury. The pieces are in place for Jacksonville to finally challenge in the AFC South, and that couldn’t have happened without acing the offseason.
Loser of the 2016 Offseason: Indianapolis Colts
While no 2016 squad matched the miserable offseason that the San Francisco 49ers experienced in 2015, a few earned attention for questionable decisions and underwhelming inactivity. At the top of the list: the Colts.
Andrew Luck’s long-term extension being the only impressive move for the Colts this offseason feels like a microcosm of Ryan Grigson’s entire tenure as GM in Indianapolis. Drafting Luck remains far and away Grigson’s best decision, and giving Luck $140 million over six years was as obvious of a choice as was drafting the Stanford star no. 1 overall in 2012. Grigson has been consistent in believing in Luck; unfortunately for Colts fans, he’s also been consistent in not giving Luck the support he needs on either side of the ball.
Over the past four seasons, Indy’s defense has never finished better than 13th in DVOA, and its rush offense has finished 30th, 27th, 11th, and 18th in that metric going back to 2012. Much of that can be attributed to bad drafting. None of Grigson’s defensive draft picks from 2012 to 2014 remains on the roster, and the decision to trade a first-round pick for Trent Richardson in 2013 remains an all-time flop.
And yet owner Jim Irsay extended Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano, a pair whose relationship was reported to be “toxic” and “‘100 times worse’ than the team’s poor play on the field.” Handing out big extensions to Grigson and Pagano feels a little like having a kid to try to save a relationship that’s clearly broken.
The draft is the lifeblood of every NFL roster, helping teams build depth at every position, amass future stars, and do so on cheap rookie contracts. The lackluster drafting from 2012 to 2014 has caught up with the Colts: They needed upgrades to their pass rush, to their secondary, and at running back, and absolutely needed to address some of those holes via free agency after failing to do so in Chicago. Instead, even after heading into the offseason with around $25 million in cap space, they stayed very quiet aside from extending Luck.
They signed cornerback Patrick Robinson to play opposite Vontae Davis, but the rest of their additions — quarterback Scott Tolzien, running backs Robert Turbin and Jordan Todman, receivers Brian Tyms and Josh Boyce, and offensive linemen Kevin Graf, Mitchell Van Dyk, and Jeremy Vujnovich (who?) — look like replacement-level depth at best.
It’s not as if the Colts lacked holes to plug. They lost tight end Coby Fleener to the Saints while retaining Dwayne Allen on what looks to be a massive overpay, and they lost their best linebacker in Jerrell Freeman (to the Bears), plus fellow LB Jonathan Newsome, center Khaled Holmes, safety Dwight Lowery, and cornerback Greg Toler.
The Colts’ draft didn’t do enough to allow for that poor of a showing in free agency. Center Ryan Kelly looks like a year-one starter, but safety T.J. Green is raw as a converted receiver, and Le’Raven Clark will likely need some time to develop. After Kelly, it’d be a reach to expect a ton from this draft class right out of the gate.
Overall, locking up Luck means the Colts should remain competitive in the AFC South, but their stranglehold on that division is far in the rearview. They doubled down on a precarious relationship between Grigson and Pagano, didn’t get demonstrably better in any area this offseason, and worse, the other three teams in their division seem to be on the rise.
The Jaguars added a ton of pieces, the Titans look like they could do some fun things in the division, and the reigning division champion Texans remain a real contender even with a huge question mark in quarterback Brock Osweiler. While everyone else in the South makes strides, the Colts seem content to keep taking baby steps — or worse, stepping backward.