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Five Team-Building Lessons From the 2017 NFL Season

What can we take from a campaign that saw the Eagles rule the NFC and Blake Bortles reach the doorstep of the Super Bowl? Head coaches who call plays are in style—and so is emulating Howie Roseman.

Brandin Cooks, Blake Bortles, and Howie Roseman
Brandin Cooks, Blake Bortles, and Howie Roseman
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The week after Championship Sunday is a good time for reflection. With no playoff action on tap and the Super Bowl matchup set, it’s the perfect opportunity to look back and glean what this NFL season — and the pair of teams still alive — has taught us. Before we break down every aspect of the Patriots’ dynasty, the unlikely ascendance of Nick Foles, and the popularity of various dog masks, let’s consider five key takeaways from everything in the 2017 campaign that led to this point.

1. Pick-for-Player Trades Are the New Market Inefficiency

It’s no coincidence that the two teams playing in the Super Bowl are the ones that were most active in the trade market over the past year. The Patriots dealt away more than half of their 2017 draft picks to acquire veterans like wide receiver Brandin Cooks, tight end Dwayne Allen, running back Mike Gillislee, and defensive end Kony Ealy. The returns on those deals have been mixed, but the good has outweighed the bad. And the nature of those moves as a team-building strategy points to New England’s ingenuity in finding ways to bolster its roster.

In Bill Belichick’s mind, having two years of Cooks on a rookie deal was more valuable to the Pats than having four years (and a fifth-year team option) of a player he could have taken with the 32nd overall pick. Belichick was willing to pay a premium for certainty, and made multiple transactions that suggested as much. These were probably at least partly motivated by Tom Brady entering his age-40 season, but were also likely driven by a belief that these types of trades can unearth hidden value.

The Eagles apparently embraced a similar mind-set, and there’s nothing mixed about the results from their flurry of pick-for-player deals. The Eagles swung offseason trades for cornerback Ronald Darby (from Buffalo) and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (from Baltimore); both have been instrumental in turning this group into the NFL’s most complete roster. At the trade deadline in October, the Eagles pried running back Jay Ajayi from the Dolphins for a fourth-round pick; in the process, Philadelphia transformed a two-headed backfield monster into a three-headed hydra featuring a trio of distinct skill sets.

As was the case in New England, Philly’s approach was fueled by the front office’s desire to take advantage of a championship window. After the NFC title game, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said that a “Why not us?” mentality fed into the team’s deadline aggressiveness. But this is about more than a win-now attitude. Darby’s contract pays him a combined $1.8 million over the 2017 and 2018 seasons. The Eagles have Ajayi at cap hits of $325,588 and $705,000 for this year and next year, respectively. These deals act as a workaround supplement to free agency. Darby and Ajayi were both known quantities at positions of need. By using draft capital instead of free-agency money to acquire them, Philly retained the financial flexibility to sign Alshon Jeffery to a $9.5 million deal during the offseason (and then give him a four-year extension in December) and ink Jernigan to a four-year deal that’ll give him $5 million next season. Plus, the Eagles still pay stars Fletcher Cox and Lane Johnson their full market value on second contracts.

Executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman showed off plenty of salary-cap wizardry. Pulling off these trades was an integral part of his formula.

2. It’s Smart to Flood the Market at Positions of Need

This year’s playoff field has included a slew of teams that hammered away at the worst parts of their roster last offseason. The Eagles’ two biggest weaknesses in 2016 were their cornerbacks and receivers. Roseman responded by signing Jeffery and Torrey Smith as the team’s outside pass-catching threats, and shored up the corner spots by trading for Darby, signing Patrick Robinson to a one-year deal, and drafting Sidney Jones (43rd overall) and Rasul Douglas (99th). Before the season, no one would have guessed that Robinson — a 30-year-old journeyman playing for his third team in three years — would emerge as the team’s best cornerback. By taking several swings at the position, though, Philly’s front office ensured that it’d have plenty of options.

For Minnesota, which lost to Philadelphia in the NFC title game, the problem area in 2016 was the offensive line. The Vikings were decimated and outmanned up front, prompting general manager Rick Spielman to spend last spring completely overhauling that unit. After signing tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers in free agency, the front office selected center Pat Elflein in the third round of the draft. The Ohio State product became a Week 1 starter. When Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer was asked this week to explain that group’s marked improvement, he said, “I think we had better players. Sometimes it’s simple. It’s that.”

Sometimes it is. The Vikings’ running game jumped from 31st in Football Outsiders’ DVOA in 2016 to 18th this season. That was enough to give credence to the play-action designs that helped fuel a top-five passing offense.

In most years, the Vikings’ leap from 26th to fifth in offensive DVOA would be the turnaround story of the season. In 2017, though, that distinction belonged to first-year coach Sean McVay and the Rams. The revamp McVay orchestrated in Los Angeles represents the biggest single-season offensive DVOA improvement (32nd to sixth) in modern NFL history. While McVay’s ingenuity and quarterback Jared Goff’s development both played significant parts in that success, an entirely remade receiving corps certainly didn’t hurt matters. The Rams signed Robert Woods to a five-year deal, took Cooper Kupp in the third round of the draft, and dealt cornerback E.J. Gaines and a second-round pick to Buffalo to acquire wideout Sammy Watkins (another pick-for-player trade made by a team that went to the playoffs). Directly addressing needs in the offseason is far from a novel concept, but this season was proof of what can happen when teams use every available resource to attack a single problem area.

3. Free Agency Is No Longer a Treacherous Path to Team-Building — If You Look for the Right Clues

Wide receiver may have been the Rams’ focus in 2017 free agency, but the team’s shrewdest signing was left tackle Andrew Whitworth. The 36-year-old was just named to his fourth Pro Bowl and helped stabilize a position that’s been a black hole for this organization since Orlando Pace left a decade ago. That Whitworth was even available on the open market hints at how teams can wisely use free agency to fortify their rosters while avoiding the market’s usual pitfalls. An aging player on a cheapskate team that had devised a succession plan with a pair of young tackles, Whitworth was never coming back to the Bengals after his contract expired following the 2016 campaign. The adage about free agency is that players hit the market for a reason. That’s true. It’s on general managers, though, to discern whether that reason poses a legitimate red flag.

Defensive end Calais Campbell and cornerback A.J. Bouye — 2017 free-agent signees who helped transform the Jaguars defense — were also both available because of extenuating circumstances rather than individual deficiencies. Campbell was a player on the wrong side of 30 who was previously on a Cardinals team that had drafted a likely replacement in Robert Nkemdiche and recently doled out sizable contracts to young guys like Tyrann Mathieu and Chandler Jones. That made Campbell expendable; even at $10.5 million this year, his deal already looks like a win for Jacksonville. Bouye, by comparison, was an undrafted free agent who came on late in his Texans tenure. By the time he emerged as a top-tier cornerback in 2016, the team had already signed two corners to extensions (Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson) and drafted another in the 2015 first round (Kevin Johnson, 16th overall). There was no way Houston could afford to keep Bouye, and its loss proved to be Jacksonville’s gain.

The Eagles’ Jeffery and the Rams’ Woods hit free agency in part because of the turnover in their respective prior organizations as well, but in those cases the changes came at the top. Bears general manager Ryan Pace didn’t draft Jeffery, and a receiver with two 1,000-yard seasons to his credit became a victim of the roster churn. Woods, meanwhile, wasn’t a priority for the Bills’ new regime, and thus was allowed to walk. The growing salary cap and the willingness of so many owners to scrap a GM if he doesn’t produce immediate results creates an ideal environment for smart teams to land quality players who probably shouldn’t be available in the first place.

4. Teams Can Win Without a Star Quarterback, and That Could Shape a Fascinating Offseason at the Position

A Championship Sunday featuring Blake Bortles, Case Keenum, and Nick Foles was a sign that building a winner without a quarterback from the Brady-Rodgers-Brees tier is possible. It just requires an infrastructure — both in terms of scheme and personnel — that can elevate the guy under center.

Jacksonville’s offense fizzled in the second half of last Sunday’s AFC championship game, but its performance early in that game and a week earlier in Pittsburgh reflect the excellent job that head coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett did with this group. A unit led by Bortles somehow finished 16th in DVOA; that amounts to an act of pure sorcery. By leaning on the ground game and mixing in some well-timed (and well-designed) play-action throws, the Jags were able to buttress Bortles enough to field an average offense.

For both the Eagles and Vikings, success on that side of the ball came from having enough stability throughout the rest of the depth chart to withstand a talent drop-off at QB. Minnesota lost Sam Bradford to a knee injury in September, while Philly lost Carson Wentz to a torn ACL in December. Since both teams maintained relative continuity along the line, boasted a collection of dangerous pass catchers, and benefited from the innovation of standout play-callers, they were able to survive and make noise in the NFC playoffs.

The other component here is that all three of the aforementioned teams fielded terrific defenses in 2017. That recipe — great defense, complete supporting casts, and schemes conducive to quarterback success — may have a profound effect on the most intriguing free-agent QB class in years. Kirk Cousins, Case Keenum, and Alex Smith, among others, are likely to be available at some point this spring. Teams like the Vikings, Jags, and Broncos will almost certainly be in the market for a quarterback. It’s reasonable to deduce that the recent success of teams lacking star passers will inform just how much franchises with loaded rosters are willing to pay to get the guy they want under center.

5. Head Coaches Who Call Plays Aren’t Going Away Any Time Soon

If the success stories from the 2017 season and the latest wave of hires are any indication, play-calling head coaches are quickly becoming the standard in the NFL. Consider the NFC playoff teams. L.A.’s McVay, Philly’s Doug Pederson, New Orleans’s Sean Payton, and Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer all call plays on one side of the ball. It’s as if coaches are beginning to understand why they were appealing in the first place. Although there will always be managerial types like new Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, franchises are doing all they can to find the next McVay or Pederson.

Bears coach Matt Nagy followed a similar path to the one Pederson took, going from Andy Reid’s staff to his own head job. Nagy will call offensive plays in Chicago. Josh McDaniels will almost certainly be the Colts’ play-caller when he officially takes over in Indianapolis next season. Even Jon Gruden — who last coached a full decade ago — said that he’ll dial up the offensive calls in Oakland.

As long as McVay, Pederson, and San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan are overseeing entire teams and exploding scoreboards as a play-caller, expect teams to continue looking for options who fit the same mold.