A crucial piece missing from any post-free-agency, pre-draft analysis of team needs is an understanding of the way NFL clubs view their own rosters. The litany of mock drafts and all the speculation about where teams have to improve presupposes how they see their weaknesses, and miscalculations of that nature can lead to some of the wildest misses of draft-prediction season.
When teams reach the tail end of the offseason without addressing their remaining roster deficiencies, it signals that, by default, they’re doubling down on the players they already have. Occasionally, these seemingly risky choices are the products of teams knowing their players better than any outside observer could. In other cases, they’re dice rolls that probably never should have happened.
Now that the 2018 offseason is all but over, with only a few straggling free agents left on the market, most of the NFL’s rosters are set—and that means the league’s most significant gambles have come into focus.
Giants Quarterback Eli Manning and Broncos Quarterback Case Keenum
Both the Giants and Broncos came into this year’s draft with top-five picks and uncertain futures at quarterback. Denver had handed 30-year-old Case Keenum a two-year, $36 million deal in March following his surprising year in Minnesota, but John Elway and his staff were still considered prime candidates to select a QB in the first round. For the Giants, stumbling into the no. 2 overall pick seemed to create a perfect opportunity for first-year GM Dave Gettleman to find Eli Manning’s successor. The franchise stalwart is entering his age-37 season with only $6.2 million in dead money left on his deal after 2018, and with the talent still remaining on the roster (and players like Odell Beckham Jr. healthy again), it’s unlikely that the Giants will be picking that high again next spring. Despite all the mock-draft speculation, the first five picks of the draft came and went without either team snagging a quarterback, which leaves the burden for this season squarely on Keenum and Manning.
The Giants appear content to hedge their bets for 2018 and possibly beyond. Gettleman waited until the 108th pick before drafting Richmond quarterback Kyle Lauletta. By eschewing the chance to address his need for a quarterback until the fourth round, Gettleman was able to grab two prospects who project as immediate starters on offense. Running back Saquon Barkley (taken second overall) and guard Will Hernandez (34th) have a chance to transform the entire identity of the Giants’ offense. This group finished 29th in rushing DVOA last season, and Manning’s offensive line was one of the league’s most notorious positional wastelands. By injecting Barkley, Hernandez, and free-agent left tackle Nate Solder into an offense now led by new head coach Pat Shurmur, the hope is that an improved infrastructure can help Manning make one final run.
Denver’s approach has similar components, but a few notable differences. Second-round pick Courtland Sutton brings even more talent to an already-established wide receiver group, and third-round running back Royce Freeman has a chance to emerge from a crowded backfield. For the most part, though, bringing in Keenum is the Broncos’ (potentially) transformative move of the offseason. With a combined 5.4 adjusted yards per attempt and 58.7 percent completion rate, it’s hard to get worse quarterback play than Vance Joseph’s team did last season. Keenum may have marginal upside, but he’s a real upgrade. And with its other offensive tweaks, Denver’s hoping to jump from a bottom-shelf offense (31st in DVOA) to actual competency on that side of the ball.
The climb to at least a middling offense would pair well with the Broncos’ goal of returning to an elite level of play on defense. Denver’s drop-off in its first season without defensive coordinator Wade Phillips seemed precipitous, but Joseph’s team still finished 10th in defensive DVOA and second in yards and plays per drive last year. Adding defensive end Bradley Chubb with the fifth overall pick represents an attempt to jolt the defense back into the top tier, while a Keenum-led offense could help the Broncos move closer to their Super Bowl formula from 2016 and give them a fighting chance in a wide-open AFC.
Cowboys Wide Receivers Tavon Austin and Allen Hurns
The timing of Dez Bryant’s release from the Cowboys was curious to say the least. By cutting Bryant less than two weeks before the draft, Dallas limited the places it could look for a replacement. With the pool of free-agent receivers almost entirely dried up, the draft and potential trades were the only remaining avenues for the team to add an outside receiver. Rather than making a splashy move by drafting Calvin Ridley out of Alabama, Dallas chose linebacker Leighton Vander Esch with its first-round pick and lost yet another opportunity to bolster its receiving corps.
Rather than selecting a wideout in the first two rounds, Dallas swung a trade for Rams receiver Tavon Austin, who’d been the odd man out during Sean McVay’s first season in Los Angeles. In a Jerry World without Bryant and tight end Jason Witten—who retired earlier this month—Austin and free-agent signee Allen Hurns may be the two most prominent receiving options for Dak Prescott, and it’s possible that Hurns turns out to be an upgrade as the Cowboys’ top receiving threat. Bryant’s lack of explosiveness and his inability to separate from DBs often gave the Dallas passing game a stagnant feel last season. According to Pro Football Focus, Cowboys quarterbacks had a 74.8 rating when throwing to Bryant last season; he ranks 41st of the 45 receivers who garnered at least 50 percent of the team’s WR targets.
Hurns may not have deserved the knee-jerk contract extension Jacksonville gave him in 2016 after just two seasons, but he’s a more than capable receiver who should provide Prescott with a better target than anything at his disposal last season. In this offense, though, he’ll have to be more than that. In his limited workload in 2017 after returning from a hamstring injury, Hurns lined up in the slot on 72.8 percent of his snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. But how the alignments and snap distribution for nontraditional outside options like Hurns and Austin will shake out in Dallas isn’t yet clear.
Nothing from Austin’s tenure with the Rams suggests that he’s a secret weapon waiting to be unleashed. If McVay—who’s rightfully considered one of the league’s most creative offensive minds—couldn’t find a way to implement Austin into the offense, it’s unlikely that offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has some master plan to turn his new receiver into a potent force. But that doesn’t mean Dallas won’t have to heavily lean on him anyway. Even if Hurns does emerge as a reasonable no. 1 receiver, no one else on the roster (including third-round rookie Michael Gallup and long-time Cowboy Terrance Williams) is a proven secondary option.
Bears Outside Linebacker Aaron Lynch
It feels strange—and as a Bears fan, potentially dangerous—to say this, but after its offseason haul, Chicago doesn’t have many obvious needs. GM Ryan Pace completely revamped the team’s receiving corps in free agency by adding Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and Trey Burton. Pace also re-signed cornerbacks Kyle Fuller, Prince Amukamara, and Bryce Callahan to keep the secondary intact. And in the draft, the Bears addressed three defined weaknesses by drafting linebacker Roquan Smith, guard James Daniels, and wide receiver Anthony Miller in the first two rounds.
But when a team comes into an offseason needing so much work, at least one position inevitably has to go unaddressed. For the Bears, it’s their edge-rushing spots. As part of the team’s pre-free-agency contract purge, both Pernell McPhee and Willie Young were released, leaving 2016 first-round pick Leonard Floyd as the only proven pass rusher on the roster. Chicago’s only notable offseason addition to the pass-rushing group was former 49ers outside linebacker Aaron Lynch, who signed a one-year, $4 million deal in March.
Lynch was all but nonexistent for the 49ers last season. He finished the year with only one sack and was a healthy scratch four times. But the Bears are hoping that a reunion with Vic Fangio—whom he played under in his rookie season—will be enough to jump-start a player who’s still just 25 years old. Lynch finished with six sacks as a rookie in 2014 and followed that up with 6.5 sacks in 2015. In a down year for free-agent pass rushers, and with so many other spots to fill in the draft, Pace is banking on Lynch being the unheralded signing they needed to become a worthwhile partner for Floyd. If Lynch can emerge as that guy, he could be the final piece for a defense that—if it can stay healthy—could surprise a lot of people.
Now that the eulogies for the Legion of Boom are behind us, it’s time to figure out who the heck is going to be playing cornerback for the Seahawks. Richard Sherman was obviously the most devastating departure, but the recently released Jeremy Lane and Lions signee DeShawn Shead are also gone. All that turnover leaves a group of Seattle cornerbacks who are barely recognizable. The Seahawks tendered restricted free agent Justin Coleman, who should return as the nickelback after playing 387 snaps (the fifth most in the league) in that role last year. Shaquill Griffin, the 2017 third-round pick who took over as a starter six games into the season, will start on the outside. But the left cornerback spot may be up for grabs.
Seattle made no real investments in that spot this offseason, which means a collection of undrafted free agents, late-round picks, and career special-teams players are now in the mix for the job. That group includes Neiko Thorpe, DeAndre Elliott, and Mike Tyson. Somehow, Byron Maxwell is also hanging around. It’s a positional Thunderdome that’s sure to depress anyone who loved the last five years of Seahawks football.
No team had a more exciting offseason than the Rams. In less than two months, GM Les Snead added Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, Ndamukong Suh, and Brandin Cooks to a team that made the playoffs last season and already looked poised to be a postseason fixture for years to come. That’s more star power than some franchises add over a five-year stretch.
Snead’s all-in approach to the offseason bolstered position groups that desperately needed help, but it also left the Rams without many additional resources. They’re paying the sticker price for everyone in that group except for Peters (who has one year left on his rookie deal before his fifth-year option kicks in next season), and the capital surrendered for Cooks, Peters, and Sammy Watkins—whom the team added last offseason—left Snead without much ammunition to add talent in the draft. The flurry of moves all but guaranteed that a position or two would suffer as a result, and when the dust settled, that turned out to be the linebacker spot.
The Rams are likely pleased to be out from under the four remaining years on Alec Ogletree’s $42.8 million extension, but trading him to the Giants—combined with the team’s inability to take a linebacker early in the draft—means that Wade Phillips’s defense will enter the season with Bryce Hager (2015 seventh-round pick), Ramik Wilson (free-agent signee), and Micah Kiser (2018 fifth-round pick) vying for the two spots next to Mark Barron in the Rams defense. Even if only one of those players will be a nominal starter in the team’s standard nickel package, he’ll still represent the weakest link on the defense by a notable margin. It’s still going to be difficult for teams to develop game plans to attack a group that’s absolutely loaded almost everywhere, but expect to hear early and often about the ways teams are looking to exploit the Rams’ pass defense in the middle and intermediate areas of the field.