Let’s play word association. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “NFL offseason winners”? For some, it’s likely the New England Patriots and Jacksonville Jaguars because of what they’ve done in free agency and the draft over the past few months. The Pats got better on both sides of the ball, retaining linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Duron Harmon while adding corner Stephon Gilmore, running backs Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee, receiver Brandin Cooks, tight end Dwayne Allen, and pass rusher Kony Ealy. Jacksonville’s offseason haul, under new executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin, is nearly as impressive: defensive lineman Calais Campbell, cornerback A.J. Bouye, safety Barry Church, tackle Branden Albert, and, of course, LSU running back Leonard Fournette.
For others, though, the response would be something along the lines of “what Rex Ryan claims to be before getting fired” or a sarcastic reference to the Philadelphia Eagles’ “Dream Team.” Whether it was Philly’s free-agent spending spree in spring 2011 that prompted Vince Young’s now-infamous line (they finished 8–8 and out of the playoffs) or Ryan’s bold statement from the 2016 offseason (he was out of a job by Week 16), plenty of fans know that sometimes the only thing “winning the offseason” gets you is false hope.
So, is there any correlation between “winning the offseason” and actually winning football games? If you’re the Buccaneers, probably not. But over the past five years, there also are a few teams that turned big offseason moves into big victories on the field — especially when those teams were run by John Elway.
2012 Offseason Winners: Buffalo Bills and Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bills made plenty of offseason-winner lists after signing pass rusher Mario Williams to a six-year, $100 million contract — at that point the most lucrative deal for a defensive player in history. That blockbuster acquisition was bolstered by a four-year deal for defensive end Mark Anderson. And with a solid draft class — highlighted by South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore and Georgia tackle Cordy Glenn — the Bills, after finishing with an 6–10 record in 2011, looked poised to finally challenge the Patriots in the AFC East.
Meanwhile, the Buccaneers went on a spending spree, doling out over $140 million on the first day of free agency. They signed receiver Vincent Jackson on a five-year, $55.6 million deal, All-Pro offensive guard Carl Nicks on a five-year, $47.5 million contract, and cornerback Eric Wright on a five-year, $37.5 million deal. A promising draft class that included safety Mark Barron, running back Doug Martin, and linebacker Lavonte David only added to the building excitement around Tampa Bay ahead of Greg Schiano’s first season as head coach.
For Buffalo, things didn’t go as planned. Williams wasn’t the game-wrecker he was supposed to be and Anderson was a straight-up bust, registering just one sack in five games. Buffalo regressed on both sides of the ball, falling from 16th in Football Outsiders offensive DVOA in 2011 to 20th in 2012, and 14th in defensive DVOA to 27th. Head coach Chan Gailey was fired after the Bills posted their eighth-straight losing season, finishing 6–10 and in last place in the East.
As for Tampa Bay, things looked up at first, and a few of the offseason acquisitions quickly paid dividends: Jackson caught 72 passes for 1,384 yards and eight touchdowns, and Martin rushed for 1,454 yards and 11 scores. With this boost, the Bucs rose to 14th in offensive DVOA in 2012 after finishing 26th in 2011, and the team improved on a four-win season in 2011 to win seven games in 2012. But Nicks was never the anchor in the line he was meant to be — he played just nine games in two seasons for the Bucs — and Wright struggled. Any upward trajectory for the team was short-lived, and after Schiano’s squad went 4–12 in 2013, he was fired.
2013 Offseason Winners: Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos
In 2013, winning the offseason meant you also won your conference.
Seattle general manager John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll went for the gusto in spring 2013. First, they traded their first-round pick to the Vikings for playmaking receiver Percy Harvin and then signed him to a six-year, $67 million contract extension. They then added pass rushers Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril in free agency, and put together what looked to be a promising 11-pick draft class, including running back Christine Michael.
Meanwhile, Elway looked to build around Peyton Manning, who he signed the previous offseason, by inking receiver Wes Welker to a two-year, $12 million deal — a move that came with the added bonus of weakening the rival Patriots. He also gave contracts to guard Louis Vasquez, defensive linemen Terrance Knighton and Kevin Vickerson, and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Grabbing defensive lineman Sylvester Williams and running back Montee Ball in the draft were the cherries on top of a big-time offseason.
The Seahawks improved on an 11–5 campaign in 2012 to win the NFC West and earn the NFC’s top seed after going 13–3. Seattle’s defense dominated all year, finishing first in DVOA as Bennett and Avril combined for 16.5 sacks. The Broncos’ free-agency haul made an immediate impact as well: Welker was a catalyst for Denver’s passing game, catching 73 passes and 10 scores as Manning threw a record 55 touchdowns and the team scored an NFL-record 606 points. Denver, too, grabbed a no. 1 seed, and the two teams met in the Super Bowl, where Seattle routed the Broncos, with the help of a few big first-half plays by Harvin and his kickoff-return touchdown to open the second half.
Yet, while the short-term effect of both teams’ offseason moves was undeniably positive, the long-term effects aren’t as clear. Bennett and Avril have emerged as pillars of the Seattle defense, but Harvin’s Super Bowl heroics were a major outlier for an otherwise miserable trade. The mercurial receiver played in just one regular-season game in 2013 due to a hip injury, and the team offloaded him to the Jets five weeks into 2014. As for that 11-man draft class? Only tight end Luke Willson remains with the team.
For Denver, Vasquez and Knighton proved to be excellent role players, but Welker’s effectiveness faded in 2014, and both Rodgers-Cromartie and Vickerson played just one year with the club after signing their deals. Neither Williams nor Ball ever developed like the team had hoped — Ball is out of the league and Williams just signed with the Titans — and none of the other draft picks developed into consistent contributors.
2014 Offseason Winners: Denver Broncos and Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Elway made big waves in free agency for the third season in a row, this time focused on improving the Broncos defense. Denver signed pass rusher DeMarcus Ware, safety T.J. Ward, and cornerback Aqib Talib, plus addressed the loss of Eric Decker in free agency by adding receiver Emmanuel Sanders. With the addition of first-round pick Bradley Roby, Denver’s winning offseason made them favorites to return to the Super Bowl.
The Buccaneers were aggressive in free agency once again, adding the top defensive end on the market, Michael Johnson, plus All-Pro cornerback Alterraun Verner, tackle Anthony Collins, center Evan Dietrich-Smith, defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, and quarterback Josh McCown. (Don’t laugh. McCown played well for Chicago in 2013, throwing 13 touchdowns and just one interception with a 67 percent completion rate and 8.2 yards per attempt in eight games.) This group was bolstered by two big-time receiving threats in receiver Mike Evans and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, coming to Tampa Bay via the draft. In head coach Lovie Smith’s first year at the helm, the Bucs looked like a playoff team … on paper, anyway.
In reality, they were a disaster: The Bucs somehow regressed from a 4–12 campaign in 2013 to finish with just two wins. While Evans emerged as a potential superstar as he caught 68 passes for 1,051 yards and 12 touchdowns, the rookie was about the only bright spot of the season. Johnson registered just four sacks and was released one year into a five-year, $43.8 million deal. Verner was a disappointment, Collins got benched before the year was over, and McCown tossed 11 touchdowns and 14 picks in 11 games. Tampa Bay released him after the season.
In the AFC, Denver’s free-agency gambles once again produced: Ware notched 10 sacks, Talib picked off four passes (including two for touchdowns), Ward provided a big-hitting presence in the middle of the Broncos defense, and Sanders caught 101 passes for 1,404 yards and nine touchdowns. Even the rookie Roby contributed, with two interceptions and 14 passes defensed as he rotated with Talib and Chris Harris at corner. With an infusion of talent to the defensive side of the ball, the Broncos jumped from 15th in defensive DVOA in 2013 to 4th in 2014. Denver won the AFC West again and grabbed the 2-seed, but were upset in the divisional round by the Colts.
While that loss stung, it was Elway’s 2014 free-agency group that made up a big part of the foundation of the Broncos’ 2015 Super Bowl–winning squad. The defense was one of the best the league has ever seen, and that core carried the team when Manning’s arm strength and effectiveness fell off a cliff.
2015 Offseason Winners: New York Jets and Indianapolis Colts
After being named the new general manager of the Jets in January, Mike Maccagnan didn’t waste much time. He went out and signed cornerback Darrelle Revis to a five-year, $70 million deal; added corners Buster Skrine and Antonio Cromartie, safety Marcus Gilchrist, and guard James Carpenter; and traded for quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and receiver Brandon Marshall. The selection of USC standout defensive lineman Leonard Williams completed New York’s makeover into what looked like a team that could challenge the Patriots.
In Indianapolis, GM Ryan Grigson inked a couple of potential future Hall of Famers: receiver Andre Johnson and running Frank Gore. He added offensive lineman Todd Herremans, defensive end Kendall Langford, pass rusher Trent Cole, and linebacker Nate Irving. His first pick in the draft, receiver Phillip Dorsett, was a surprise since receiver wasn’t a need for the team, but the Miami product came to Indy with the potential to take the top off of opposing defenses from day one. With its new additions, Indianapolis looked like a team that could improve on the 11–5 finish and AFC championship loss the year prior.
Grigson didn’t get the results he was hoping for, and he’d be out of a job a year later. Instead of being the final pieces to a championship puzzle, Johnson and Gore underwhelmed: Johnson caught just 41 passes for 503 yards and four touchdowns, and Gore managed just 3.7 yards per carry and six scores while ranking 42nd out of 44 qualifying backs in success rate. Langford and Cole were nothing more than role players, and Dorsett struggled badly, catching just 18 passes and one touchdown as a rookie. Andrew Luck also struggled before injuring his shoulder, and never returned to action after suffering a lacerated kidney in Week 9. The offense dropped from 17th in DVOA in 2014 to 30th in 2015, and the Colts finished the season 8–8 and out of the playoffs. Johnson was released after the season. Gore remains a big piece to Indy’s run game, but the Colts have yet to get back to anywhere near the level that made them Super Bowl contenders in 2014.
As for the Jets, it’s hard to comprehend now, but Maccagnan’s overhaul worked at first. Fitzpatrick had a career year, throwing 31 touchdowns; Marshall reeled in 109 catches and 14 scores; and Revis picked off five passes as the Jets improved from a 4–12 season in 2014 to a 10–6 record in 2015. New York went from 27th in DVOA to ninth over the course of one season. The Jets missed the playoffs after losing a win-and-you’re-in game to the Bills in Week 17, though, and of course, it all fell apart in 2016: The Jets won just five games, Revis Island had to be evacuated, Marshall struggled with drops, and Fitzmagic turned back into a pumpkin.
2016 Offseason Winners: Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Giants
After banking cap space for two years, the Jags went on a shopping spree, signing defensive tackle Malik Jackson to a six-year, $85.5 million contract while adding left tackle Kelvin Beachum, cornerback Prince Amukamara, safety Tashaun Gipson, and running back Chris Ivory. An already-improved roster got another boost when the team took cornerback Jalen Ramsey in the first round and landed linebacker Myles Jack in the second.
The Giants went on a spending spree of their own, overhauling their defense by adding pass rusher Olivier Vernon, run-stuffing defensive tackle Damon Harrison, and playmaking cornerback Janoris Jenkins while re-signing edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul. In addition to that bounty, New York put together a talented draft class that included Ohio State cornerback Eli Apple in the first round and Oklahoma receiver Sterling Shepard in the second round.
As always, Jacksonville failed to capitalize on its investments. Jackson played well on the interior and Ramsey looks like the league’s next shutdown corner, but Beachum, Amukamara, Gipson, and Ivory all underwhelmed, while Jack still needs time to develop. (It certainly didn’t help that quarterback Blake Bortles regressed badly, either.) The Jags won just three games after winning five in 2015, and Gus Bradley was fired after four seasons with the team.
On the other hand, the Giants’ offseason additions changed the entire complexion of the defense. The squad that gave up 442 points in 2015 surrendered just 284 in 2016, and it improved on a 30th ranking in defensive DVOA in 2015 to finish second in 2016. Vernon grabbed 8.5 sacks, Pierre-Paul added another seven, Harrison was the best run defender in the NFL, Jenkins grabbed three picks, and Apple started 11 games. The Giants also won 11 games and secured a playoff berth after winning just six games in 2015. Like the Broncos before them, New York built out the core of one of the better defenses in the NFL and tried to pair it with a declining Manning brother. We’ll see if it continues to pay off in 2017.