Because of free agency, the salary cap, the draft, and constant turnover in the coaching ranks, no NFL team looks exactly the same from year-to-year. But, while offseason tweaks and adjustments are commonplace, when the regular season kicks off in earnest this week, it will feature a handful of squads that will be almost unrecognizable from last year. Whether it be because of front-office shake-ups, new coaching staffs, new schemes, new players, or new identities, these are the seven teams that will look the most different in 2017.
New York Jets
Over the past few months, the Jets made a series of major payroll cuts with a focus on rebuilding from the ground up. Cornerback Darrelle Revis, safeties Calvin Pryor and Marcus Gilchrist, receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, center Nick Mangold, linebacker David Harris, and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick are all gone from last year’s roster, and will be replaced by guys like Morris Claiborne, Marcus Maye, Jamal Adams, [squints to read roster] Robby Anderson, Charone Peake, Wesley Johnson, Demario Davis, and Josh McCown. Even special teams will look different, with long-time kicker Nick Folk being replaced by former Cardinal Chandler Catanzaro. Plus, the Jets already dumped one household name on the roster: Sheldon Richardson.
Meanwhile, offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, who was the only play-caller in the NFL to all but ignore the tight end position, has been replaced by John Morton—and if there’s anything we can take away from that, maybe we can assume it means the Jets will get more than 18 catches out of that position group in 2017.
The Bills completely overhauled the front office and coaching staff this offseason. General manager Doug Whaley is out, former Panthers assistant GM Brandon Beane is in. Interim head coach and offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn has left to coach the Chargers, and former Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott takes his place (along with Rick Dennison as the new offensive coordinator). Defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman is gone, and Leslie Frazier has arrived. Big culture and scheme changes are forthcoming, posthaste.
McDermott brings to Buffalo a 4-3 scheme similar to what he ran in Carolina, a big departure from Rex Ryan’s blitz-heavy 3-4 system. The McDermott defense is more conservative, and eschews exotic blitz looks in favor of simplicity and discipline. Instead of two-gap principles up front, it employs an attacking, one-gap defensive line. Instead of man-heavy coverages in the backend, it utilizes a zone-heavy cover-3. And, at the linebacker level, instead of heavy-footed run-pluggers, McDermott prefers athletes who can run sideline to sideline—think Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, and Shaq Thompson. It’s no surprise then that Buffalo sent 2016 second-round pick Reggie Ragland, a more prototypical 3-4 inside linebacker, to the Chiefs last week in exchange for a 2019 fourth-round pick.
Not only is the scheme and style of its defense changing, but Buffalo’s secondary features an array of new faces, including probable starting cornerbacks E.J. Gaines (acquired in a trade with the Rams) and Tre’Davious White (the draft); safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer (both free agency); bolstered by backup defensive backs Trae Elston (waivers) and Leonard Johnson and Shareece Wright (both free agency). And while the Bills return plenty of starters to their front seven, it’s going to look pretty different in the way that they line up, rush the passer, and drop back into coverage.
The passing game is bound to look almost entirely different under Dennison as well. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor returns (pending clearance from a concussion), but he’ll be throwing to a completely new receiver corps: Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin, and Justin Hunter are gone, and they’ve been replaced by rookie Zay Jones (acquired in the draft), Jordan Matthews (trade), and Andre Holmes (free agency).
Buffalo’s not in the middle of a total rebuild in the mold of the Jets—there’s still plenty of talent on the roster—but we’ll have to wait until the games start to see how that talent will match new schemes.
The Bears didn’t make any major changes to their front office or coaching staff over the offseason, but went to work in free agency and the draft to overhaul the player personnel on both sides of the ball. Offensively, Chicago heads into 2017 with a new quarterback (whether it’s Mike Glennon or Mitchell Trubisky) and a whole new set of receivers: Alshon Jeffrey’s gone, Cameron Meredith’s out for the year with an ACL tear, and that leaves them with a trio of free agent pass catchers, Markus Wheaton, Kendall Wright, and tight end Dion Sims. It’s still a mystery as to which guy will emerge as the passing game’s top target. Then there’s third-year pro Kevin White, the Bears’ first-round pick from 2015, who will hopefully become a big part of passing game as well after two years derailed by injury.
Defensively, the Bears overhauled the secondary, adding three probable starters in cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper and safety Quintin Demps, and acquired some depth up front by signing defensive end Jaye Howard and defensive tackle John Jenkins. They should get a few guys that missed major time last year to injury as well, including outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, linebacker Danny Trevathan, and defensive tackle Eddie Goldman—plus Chicago should get a full season from linebacker Jerrell Freeman, who missed Weeks 12 through 15 due to a PED suspension. Put it all together and this Bears defense has the potential to look pretty unfamiliar compared with last year (read: good).
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams head into 2017 with a new head coach (Sean McVay), a pair of new coordinators (Matt LaFleur and Wade Phillips), and, almost certainly, a brand new identity. There ought to be more energy in the building too, as the ebullient 31-year-old McVay attempts to shock some life back into a franchise that’s won fewer than eight games a season for 10 consecutive years.
Los Angeles will make the change from Gregg Williams’s aggressive 4-3 scheme to Phillips’s hybrid 3-4. It’s not a total overhaul—Williams has always done a great job of adapting his scheme to fit its players—but it could mean the Rams’ defensive fixtures find themselves in slightly different roles. It’s going to be fun to see Phillips push Aaron Donald out a bit to line up across from offensive tackles at the 5-technique spot (assuming he ends his holdout), set Michael Brockers over the center at nose tackle, and ask Robert Quinn to stand up and rush off the edge, similar to what DeMarcus Ware did under Phillips in Denver, as McVay said recently. Another key to this scheme change will be how linebackers Mark Barron and Alec Ogletree, both former first-round picks that have moved to several different positions in their respective careers, adapt to lining up next to one another on the inside.
Offensively, expect plenty of changes, too. McVay got this job for his mastery of play-calling and understanding of how to get the most out of a young quarterback (like he did in Washington with Kirk Cousins), and the first-time head coach has his work cut out for him trying to develop Jared Goff into an NFL passer. Step one was getting his quarterback more support, so the Rams traded for Sammy Watkins, added Robert Woods and left tackle Andrew Whitworth in free agency, and spent their two highest draft picks on tight end Gerald Everett and receiver Cooper Kupp. All this new talent, combined with a totally new passing offense, and the Rams—especially Goff—may be hard to recognize in 2017. That’s the hope, anyway.
The Colts will be weathering an incredible amount of turnover this season as new GM Chris Ballard looks to revive a talent-deficient roster. The changes are most dramatic on the defensive side of the ball, as that group heads into 2017 needing to replace more than a combined 5,100 snaps (almost half of its total from last year) that left in free agency. Free-agent defensive additions include linebackers John Simon, Jon Bostic, Barkevious Mingo, and Jabaal Sheard; defensive linemen Johnathan Hankins, Margus Hunt, and Al Woods should boost Indy’s front seven. Add in likely rookie contributors in cornerback Quincy Wilson and Malik Hooker, plus the fact that star corner Vontae Davis is out indefinitely with a groin injury, and this Indianapolis defense will be tough to recognize.
That’s not even mentioning the lack of a real timetable for quarterback Andrew Luck’s return. The Colts’ franchise passer had shoulder surgery in January, and while he’s resumed throwing, owner Jim Irsay has said he’s not going to rush Luck back onto the field until he’s 100 percent ready. Except no one really knows when that will be, and the team traded for Jacoby Brissett over the weekend. With an almost completely different defense and no Luck on the field, it’s tough to guess what this Colts squad is going to look like early in the year.
The Browns are in the middle of a total rebuild, and a youth movement on both sides of the ball means we’re sure to see a very different team on the field in 2017. Many of the “big name” players (by Browns standards) like Terrelle Pryor Sr., Gary Barnidge, and Joe Haden are gone, and a sizeable percentage of the players in line to significantly contribute in 2017 (Kevin Zeitler, Kenny Britt, and Jason McCourty) just arrived in town.
Cleveland’s offense should feature a bevy of young talent trying to put their name on the map: receivers Corey Coleman, Kasen Williams, Sammie Coates, and Ricardo Louis, and tight ends Seth DeValve and David Njoku, among a few others. Of course, they’ll all be catching passes from rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer, who not only could provide a big spark in the passing game, but could make Cleveland even more explosive on the ground with his ability to pick up yards with his legs.
Defensively, Jamie Collins Sr. and top overall pick Myles Garrett are the headliners in new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’s switch to a 4-3 scheme, but the Browns could end up giving plenty of snaps (depending on who ends up making the roster) to guys most fans won’t recognize. On the defensive line, there’s Trevon Coley, Larry Ogunjobi, Caleb Brantley, Emmanuel Ogbah, Nate Orchard, and Carl Nassib vying for jobs, and in the secondary, players like Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Ibraheim Campbell, Derrick Kindred, Jabrill Peppers, and Jamar Taylor will be trying to make plays. Early on, plenty of fans, especially those of us outside Cleveland, are going to have to cross reference numbers with roster lists to know exactly who’s who out there.
San Francisco 49ers
The Niners blew things up this offseason—GM Trent Baalke has been replaced by John Lynch, head coach Chip Kelly has been replaced by Kyle Shanahan, and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil replaced by Robert Saleh. Offensively, San Francisco’s going from Kelly’s spread-’em-out scheme (which saw 789 plays with three-plus receivers last year, seventh-most) to Shanahan’s heavier, multi-tight-end system (the Falcons ran a league-low 453 plays with three-plus receivers). Defensively, they’re going from O’Neil’s 3-4 to Saleh’s 4-3 system, something similar to what he learned as an assistant to Pete Carroll in Seattle and Gus Bradley in Jacksonville. Just about nothing’s going to look the same.
Quarterback Brian Hoyer replaces the combination of Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick at quarterback. He’ll be throwing to new receivers in Pierre Garçon, Marquise Goodwin, and Aldrick Robinson, and will be out there next to new fullback Kyle Juszczyk, new tight ends Logan Paulsen and rookie George Kittle, and will be handing off to rookie running back Matt Breida. On the other side of the ball, we’ll get to see what former first-rounders Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner look like in a different scheme than they were drafted to play in, and we’ll get to see another pair of first-round defenders, Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster, make plays in the backfield. It might not all be perfectly executed at first, but should be a lot of fun to see this defense evolve.
The 49ers, more than any other team in the NFL, look poised for a total culture change. And if Shanahan can work his magic with Hoyer, and the team’s 3-4 personnel manage to adapt to well to the new 4-3, they might even be pretty good, too.