The NFL offseason features a lot of moving parts: 32 rosters of 53 bodies, a seven-round draft, and a massive free-agent pool make for plenty of change before a given season kicks off. In an effort to get you ready for the 2016 campaign, The Ringer will spend each Friday through September 2 doing its part to remind you how the dust settled — who landed where, what will be expected of them, and what’s different than it was last year. Today, we’re looking at position groups that were revamped over the past few months and could make significant impacts for their teams this fall.
Giants Defensive Line
Last season: Jason Pierre-Paul (DE), Robert Ayers (DE), Johnathan Hankins (DT), and Cullen Jenkins (DT)
This season: Jason Pierre-Paul (DE), Olivier Vernon (DE), Johnathan Hankins (DT), Damon Harrison (DT)
Let’s start with the Giants, who spent their money like Nicolas Cage this offseason. General manager Jerry Reese handed out more than $105 million in guarantees to defensive free agents, including upward of $76 million to rebuild his defensive line.
Former Dolphins defensive end Olivier Vernon was the big-ticket item, costing $85 million over five years, with $52.5 million in guarantees. That’s a massive haul for anyone — second in guaranteed dollars among all defensive ends, and only $1 million less than the Jets gave Muhammad Wilkerson — but it especially seems like a lot for a guy who’s topped eight sacks in a season just once in his career.
Look a little deeper, though, and Vernon was a pass-rushing force in the second half of last season. According to Pro Football Focus, he averaged more than a sack, three hits, and three hurries over his final eight games; per the Football Outsiders Almanac, his 30 quarterback hits were second in the league only to J.J. Watt’s 33. Vernon’s total, by FO’s numbers, was only three QB hits fewer than the Giants’ top five edge rushers tallied last season combined. With production like that, it’s easy to understand why Reese would bet on the second half of Vernon’s 2015 campaign becoming his new normal.
To go along with their shiny new sack artist, the Giants also added former Jets nose tackle and all-around line-clogger Damon Harrison. Harrison benefited from playing alongside Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson, but over the past three years he helped the Jets finish second, 11th, and first, respectively, in DVOA against the run.
More than $9 million per season is a lot of money to give a guy who has played more than half of his team’s defensive snaps just once over the past four seasons, and who should be a nonfactor in the pass rush. But that’s how damn good Harrison is against the run. At 350 pounds, he’s virtually immovable, and he’s also nimble enough to erase plays down the line of scrimmage. He transforms any run defense the moment he steps into the lineup.
Browns Wide Receivers
Last season: Travis Benjamin, Brian Hartline, and Taylor Gabriel
This season: Josh Gordon, Corey Coleman, and Taylor Gabriel
Every time I think about the Browns, it makes me happy that Clevelanders got their title in June. Good days for the football product are not in sight.
Last offseason, Dwayne Bowe signed with the franchise and had a $4.5 million cap hit. He went on to catch five passes. That dollars-per-catch math isn’t hard. It’d be depressing … if Bowe weren’t set to make another $4.6 million — or $100,000 more — not to play for the team this fall after being cut in the spring.
In a lot of ways, the 2015 Browns resembled a particularly awful fantasy roster you’ve had at some point over the past few years — saddled with Brian Hartline and Dwayne Bowe, wondering where it all went wrong. Bowe was a total nonfactor last season, and the two Browns wideouts who got the most work — Hartline and Travis Benjamin — are gone now, too. The prospect of upgrading to a combination of first-round pick Corey Coleman and one of the other 27 receivers Cleveland drafted in April was already exciting. The idea of upgrading to Coleman and 12 games of Josh Gordon is almost too much to handle.
Replacing Benjamin with Coleman means using a similar kind of receiver who’s more appealing in nearly every way. Like Benjamin, Coleman is primarily a downfield threat, but he has more height (he’s 5-foot-11; Benjamin is 5-foot-10) and more ups (he posted a 40.5-inch vertical leap; Benjamin’s vertical is 38 inches). And replacing Hartline with Gordon is sort of like trading Joel Kinnaman for Daniel Day-Lewis. The “occupation” line on their tax returns is the same. That’s where the similarities end.
Bears Inside Linebackers
Last season: Shea McClellin and Christian Jones
This season: Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman
I’ll let Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, a king among men, handle this one.
“We have accomplished inside linebackers who have played in the NFL,” Fangio told the Chicago Tribune last week, “whereas last year we were playing with guys who really never had played that position in the NFL before.”
I would say that’s a polite way to put it, but it’s not even that polite! A season ago, the Bears’ linebacking corps consisted of a guy who couldn’t play the position (Shea McClellin) and three guys who’d almost never played it (John Timu, Jonathan Anderson, and Christian Jones). This offseason, they signed a pair of inside linebackers (Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman) who have each played four years in the league, and over those four years, have played well.
Two of the Bears’ defensive weaknesses last season were stopping the run (Chicago ranked dead last in DVOA) and slowing tight ends (30th in passing DVOA against that position). Their new duo inside should help them take a major step forward in both respects. Bears fans (this guy included) are holding out hope that with Trevathan, Freeman, a healthy Pernell McPhee, and some pop from first-round pick Leonard Floyd, the front seven can drag Chicago’s defense out of the NFL basement. (No, you’re delusional.)
Titans Running Backs
Last season: Antonio Andrews, Bishop Sankey, and Dexter McCluster
This season: DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry
The one bit of solace to be found with the Titans lining up in the Maryland I formation this year and slowly sucking out Marcus Mariota’s soul is that at least he won’t have to hand the ball to Bishop Sankey anymore. Tennessee’s retrograde offensive retooling meant not only spending big this offseason to reshape its line (the Titans signed center Ben Jones and traded up for tackle Jack Conklin), but also ponying up for a new pair of running backs.
Tennessee had to move down 13 spots in the fourth round of April’s draft to make Murray the latest character in The Purge: Chip Kelly, but the deal the Titans gave him is a bit more palatable than the one he got from Philadelphia last offseason. Murray’s contract with the Eagles placed him third among healthy running backs in both average salary and guarantees; his Titans deal — four years for $25 million, with $12.5 million guaranteed — ranks eighth and seventh in those categories, respectively.
Still, the dollar figures are big enough that if Murray plays anything like the back he was last year for the Eagles, this move will come with plenty of regret. The hope for the Titans has to be that the timing and decisiveness in Kelly’s scheme were always a bit wonky for Murray, and that running downhill behind an improved line will get him back in the neighborhood of where he was with Dallas in 2014.
For Tennessee, though, apparently handing Murray a huge stack of money wasn’t enough. With its third 2016 second-round pick, Tennessee took Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry to be the thunder to Murray’s … well, I guess thunder. With these two, the Titans now have a 220-pound sledgehammer and a 247-pound anvil to choose from in their backfield. In a way, they’re the NFL’s version of the 2016–17 Bulls; they may be pretending it’s 1995, but at least they’ll be entertaining to watch.
Last season: David Amerson (CB), Charles Woodson (S), Nate Allen (S), and D.J. Hayden (CB)
This season: David Amerson (CB), Reggie Nelson (S), Sean Smith (CB), and Karl Joseph (S)
I’ve spilled plenty of ink on the Raiders this offseason, and their revamped secondary was part of the reason Greg Cosell of NFL Films picked Oakland to win the AFC West on the first episode of The Ringer NFL Show’s season preview series. But it’s worth mentioning again just how much better this group should be than what the Raiders had a year ago.
Losing Charles Woodson, especially given how well he played last season, isn’t easy. But it’s made easier when Reggie Nelson — on a very reasonable two-year, $8.5 million deal — will step in to replace him. Sean Smith is a very good, very big cornerback, and first-round pick Karl Joseph has the makings of a star at safety. A good chunk of the hope in Oakland is tied into this group lifting the Raiders near the top 10 of the league in defensive DVOA.
Cowboys Running Backs
Last season: Darren McFadden, Joseph Randle, and Lance Dunbar
This season: Ezekiel Elliott, Alfred Morris, and Lance Dunbar
There won’t be anything weird about watching Ezekiel Elliott run behind this year’s Dallas offensive line. It doesn’t make a ton of sense to spend three first-round picks on offensive linemen and then hand a rookie tailback the second-highest guaranteed-money figure at the position, but it should be fun.
Elliott is an incredible talent who should destroy the 68.1 yards-per-game average that McFadden accrued last year, and the recently signed Alfred Morris should have no trouble surpassing the 4.4-yards-per-carry mark he’s ground out over the course of his career. The forgotten man in this group is Lance Dunbar, who was averaging seven receptions per game last season before shredding his knee in the Cowboys’ Week 4 loss to New Orleans. With a combination of Elliott, Dunbar, that line, Dez Bryant, and a hopefully healthy Tony Romo, there’s no reason to think that Dallas can’t jump back into the top five in offensive DVOA.