Over the next three days, 30 NFL teams will have their players report to training camp. Preseason games, fantasy drafts, and NFL Sundays are around the corner. They are all cruel and sudden reminders that summertime is fleeting and that it’s time to get back into a football season mind-set. That starts with remembering who plays for which team. Everyone at some point this summer has remembered Odell Beckham Jr. is a Cleveland Brown and thought woah.
If the NFL season is a marathon, consider this the first jog for your memory. Here is the NFL’s All-New-Team Team of the best players who switched teams via trade, free agency, or, in one former Monday Night Football broadcaster’s case, unretirement.
Quarterback: Joe Flacco
Old team: Baltimore Ravens
New team: Denver Broncos
After 11 years, 163 starts, 212 passing touchdowns, one Super Bowl victory, and $227.8 million before taxes, the Ravens dumped Joe Flacco this offseason. The move was all but assured when the team drafted Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson in 2018, but it was sealed when Jackson led the team to a 6-1 finish and playoff berth after Baltimore benched Flacco during its bye week. Enter Denver president of football operations John Elway, who traded a fourth-rounder to Baltimore for Flacco and then rerouted quarterback Case Keenum to Washington. Elway has as much job security as any executive in the league, so he didn’t beat around the bush explaining why he made the deal.
“We tried to shake all these trees around here the last four years and quarterbacks didn’t fall out,” Elway told reporters earlier this month. “We’ve taken a lot of shots. We’ve tried a lot of different situations.”
Just a month later, the Broncos took another shot and drafted Missouri quarterback Drew Lock in the second round. Just as Charles Barkley is not a role model, Flacco is not interested in being a mentor.
“The only thing I care about is, like I said, I want this team to be as good as they can with me at quarterback,” Flacco said in quotes distributed by the team before the NFL draft in April. “If we feel like as a team and an organization that we can add value to our team at the 10th pick, then I’m all for getting a guy that can add value to the team with me as the understood quarterback.”
The Player With Something to Prove™ is usually a polite way of referring to someone who’s washed up but doesn’t know it yet. But it genuinely seems that the only true franchise quarterback in Ravens history is more motivated than ever after getting kicked to the wayside. Flacco is the least heralded of the NFL’s elder statesmen, but he’s now on one of the younger offenses in football—his new left tackle, Garett Bolles, already calls Flacco “Papa Joe.”
This grittier Dark Flacco has me shook to my core pic.twitter.com/LRbQbOEy3K— Rutherford Spillington Esq. (@IAmSpilly) July 15, 2019
It’s the fourth year in a row that Denver has a new offensive coordinator. This season, new head coach Vic Fangio brought in Rich Scangarello. While Scangarello’s never run an offense, he spent three of the past four years working for Kyle Shanahan, so it’s likely he’ll borrow heavily from the 49ers’ concepts. This could mean more play-action, which is one of the few remedies that can help every quarterback. Of the 32 quarterbacks who started eight games or more last year, 49ers third-string signal-caller Nick Mullens had the third-most passing yards per attempt on play-action passes (10.5), while Case Keenum was 24th (7.7), and Joe Flacco was 27th (7.4). Perhaps with more play-action Flacco can show he’s still got something left.
Running Back: Le’Veon Bell
Old team: Pittsburgh Steelers
New team: New York Jets
Bell’s will-he-or-won’t-he saga with the Steelers led to his sitting out the 2018 season, forfeiting $14.5 million to preserve his health, and signing with the Jets in free agency for $28.5 million over the next two seasons. New York is not like Pittsburgh, nor are the Jets like the Steelers, and Bell will learn this the hard way. In Pittsburgh, Bell had a veteran quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger and a top-notch offensive line that included center Maurkice Pouncey and guard David DeCastro, who have 11 Pro Bowls and four first-team All-Pros combined, plus an above-average guard in Ramon Foster. In New York, Bell will have a second-year quarterback in Sam Darnold, center Jonotthan Harrison, and guards Brian Winters and Kelechi Osemele. Not only is his supporting cast weaker, but new Jets head coach Adam Gase was reportedly not interested in signing Bell at the price tag. Bell’s blocking will be weaker, the quarterback won’t have the same experience, and his coach isn’t as invested in him. Bell was often praised for his patient running style in Pittsburgh, but it might be hard to be patient with the Jets—or for Jets fans to be patient with him if he doesn’t produce.
Wide Receiver: Odell Beckham Jr.
Old team: New York Giants
New team: Cleveland Browns
There has been so much noise surrounding Beckham the past two years that it’s easy to forget how good he has been in his short NFL career. In 59 games, Beckham has 44 receiving touchdowns and 5,476 receiving yards. Since 1950, there have been four players with 5,000 receiving yards and 40 touchdowns in their first 59 games. Two played in the AFL in the 1960s. The other is Randy Moss.
Beckham is an elite talent, but his production could take a step forward in Cleveland. He pointed out last month that Mayfield’s arm is stronger than Manning’s. While Mayfield can throw deeper, he can also throw more accurately. Among the 26 quarterbacks who threw 20 or more deep passes (20 or more yards downfield) last year, Mayfield had the highest adjusted completion percentage according to Pro Football Focus, while Manning was eighth. Many of these throws from last year will be completions in 2019.
Best of Eli Manning incomplete passes to Odell Beckham Jr. in 2018 pic.twitter.com/uKZocmTBlO— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) June 20, 2019
Beckham does not have trouble getting open. In fact, his man-coverage dominance is stronger than ever. Beckham thrived on getting slant routes in New York, but the Giants relied on those in part because their offensive line was so putrid and Manning so immobile that they had to get the ball out of Manning’s hands fast. Mayfield is also an excellent passer on slant routes, but he can take full advantage of Bekcham’s route-running repertoire in a way that Manning did not.
Here's something for everyone since I've gotten some good questions about the history of RP tonight.— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) April 17, 2019
These are the top-25 seasons I've charted in #ReceptionPerception's success rate vs. man coverage metric through its five year history (caveat: still working through 2018): pic.twitter.com/eq3SH6jxSS
After years of noise, Beckham is likely to remind people why he’s so famous in the first place.
Wide Receiver: Antonio Brown
Old team: Pittsburgh Steelers
New team: Oakland Raiders
Thus completes the triumvirate of elite skill players who swapped teams this year. One year after the Steelers dealt Martavis Bryant to Oakland for a third-rounder, they dealt Antonio Brown to Oakland for a third- and a fifth-rounder—an astonishingly small haul for a player who has more receiving yards in the past six seasons (9,145) than any NFL player has ever had over any six-season stretch. Whether serving as a deep threat or possession receiver, destroying cornerbacks from the slot, or making an unguardable catch on the sidelines, Brown can do everything a wideout needs to do. The trick is feeding him. Brown has averaged 171 targets the past six years. The only player on the Raiders who had more than 88 last season was tight end Jared Cook, and he left for New Orleans. Adding Brown, along with speedy former Charger receiver Tyrell Williams, will change the dynamic of the Raiders offense. Derek Carr was 32nd of 33 qualified quarterbacks in average pass length last year (6.8 yards downfield), though his deep ball was quite accurate on his limited tries. This year will be the best test yet for whether Carr is a true franchise quarterback, as he’s never had more skilled talent than this squad.
Tight End: Jason Witten
Old team: Monday Night Football
Older team: Dallas Cowboys
New team: Dallas Cowboys
After a disastrous tenure in the Monday Night Football booth, Witten returned to the Cowboys to serve in the tight end spot they didn’t adequately fill in his absence. Even after a year off, Witten is superior to Dallas’s other options at tight end, which include Blake Jarwin, Geoff Swaim, Rico Gathers, and Dalton Schultz. How much charge Witten has left on his battery is another matter. The worst four seasons of his career were the previous four before he retired. He averaged 59.1 yards per game from 2004 to 2013, but that number fell to 41.4 yards per game from 2014 to 2017. On the other hand, Witten hasn’t missed a game since his rookie year in 2003. That’s an astounding streak for a tight end. A full year off allows nagging injuries to fully heal for the first time in years, and we’ve seen older players parlay a sabbatical into productive seasons.
The Cowboys could use receiving production wherever they can get it. Amari Cooper is finally the receiver they’ve needed on the outside, but Cole Beasley left in free agency, leaving a void for Cowboys pass catchers to attack seams in the middle of the field. Not only could Witten be the safety valve for Dak Prescott that Beasley once was, but he could also be a better blocker in the run game than their other options.
Offensive Line: Kevin Zeitler
Old team: Cleveland Browns
New team: New York Giants
If the Beckham trade was an NFL earthquake, Zeitler’s being dealt to New York for pass rusher Olivier Vernon was a foreshock. The talks between Giants GM Dave Gettleman and Browns GM John Dorsey led to the Beckham deal being completed just a few days later and then folded into the larger deal. While that Beckham trade was baffling to most onlookers, Zeitler’s acquisition likely completed Gettleman’s goal to transform the Giants back into a team built in the trenches, as it was when it beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
Zeitler is likely the best offensive lineman to change teams this offseason. He’s among the handful of elite guards in the league. He allowed just 11 pressures on 638 pass blocking snaps in 2018, tied for the best ratio among guards (98.9 percent) with a minimum of 200 pass-blocking snaps, according to PFF. By pairing him with 2018 second-rounder Will Hernandez, left tackle Nate Solder, center Jon Halapio, and right tackle Mike Remmers, the Giants have an above-average offensive line just two years after having one of the worst in the league. Building around Saquon Barkley may not be the wisest move, but it’s far better to do so with a strong offensive line than a weak one. The Giants lost their identity by trading Odell, but Zeitler is key to the team’s forging a new one.
Defensive Line: Trey Flowers
Old team: New England Patriots
New team: Detroit Lions
Here are the five highest-graded edge defenders last season according to Pro Football Focus. One of these names is not like the others.
- Calais Campbell
- J.J. Watt
- Trey Flowers
- Khalil Mack
- Von Miller
Flowers’s playing his way into that group looks like an outlier, but the unsung hero of the Super Bowl champion Patriots squad was that good in 2018. Flowers blends elite run stopping, great pass rushing, and strong pass coverage to be a Swiss army knife on the field, and Bill Belichick is good with Swiss army knives. While the Patriots rarely shell out for edge rushers (they opted to trade for Philadelphia’s Michael Bennett instead of re-signing Flowers), Flowers found a home with Detroit, who signed him to a deal that had $40 million guaranteed at signing. The Lions are familiar with Flowers and his skills. The team is run by former Patriots personnel executive Bob Quinn and former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. If any non–New England team can maximize him, it’s Detroit, but plenty of former Patriots leave Foxborough and never have the same impact again. Flowers will need a strong season to buck that trend.
Linebacker: C.J. Mosley
Old team: Baltimore Ravens
New team: New York Jets
Former Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan spent more guaranteed money than any other team in NFL history this offseason, and Mosley was his biggest expense. Not coincidentally, Maccagnan was fired two months later. Mosley received $51 million guaranteed, shattering the figure set by Carolina’s Luke Kuechly and locking the Jets into the second major free-agent reach in a row after last year’s ill-advised Trumaine Johnson contract. Signing Mosley was a curious decision at the time for both Mosley’s play—good, but not elite—and because inside linebacker is not considered a premier position. Combined with their other inside linebackers, highlighted by Avery Williamson, the Jets are spending $23.7 million at the position in 2019, more than double all but seven teams.
The flip side to this is the Jets have a lot of cap space and have to spend it somewhere. Inside linebacker is still valuable for players who are truly excellent in coverage, against the run, and rushing the passer, but Mosley hasn’t proved he’s that type of difference-maker yet. The Jets defense will likely go as he goes.
Cornerback: Bryce Callahan/Kareem Jackson
Old team: Chicago Bears/Houston Texans
New team: Denver Broncos
Two months after Chicago’s maestro defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was tapped to the Broncos head coach in January, the team signed Callahan to follow Fangio to Denver. Callahan was one of the best slot cornerbacks in the NFL in 2018, and his play was a pivotal piece to Chicago’s defense being ranked no. 1 by Football Outsiders’ DVOA. At a basic level, Callahan is a crucial bridge to help Denver’s players understand Fangio’s complex scheme.
“In [offseason practices] when everybody was first learning the terminology and all that stuff, they were asking me questions; and that’s kind of what I’m here for,” Callahan told The Denver Post last week. “You can learn better from a player sometimes than you can from a coach. In that aspect, I can help the guys a lot. … It’s the same message but just worded differently.”
But Callahan is downplaying his skills, as he will also be key to what Denver does on defense. He tied for the fifth-best coverage snaps per reception among all slot cornerbacks last year and was the 11th-graded cornerback in football last year by PFF. One of the handful of cornerbacks ahead of him was Kareem Jackson, whom Denver also added in free agency this offseason after nine stellar years in Houston. Adding Callahan and Jackson to go with cornerback Chris Harris Jr., perhaps the best slot corner in the league, gives Broncos perhaps the deepest cornerback group in the sport to go with one of the league’s brightest defensive minds.
Safety: Earl Thomas
Old team: Seattle Seahawks
New team: Baltimore Ravens
Of all the defenders to switch teams this offseason, Thomas will be the strangest to see in a new jersey. His tenure in Seattle alone is Hall of Fame–worthy. For years, the ground Thomas was able to cover was so large that Seattle was able to try things on defense other teams simply could not. He was the axle on which the Legion of Boom wheel spun, and without him, the wheels often came off. As the Football Outsiders Almanac noted in its breakdown of the Ravens, the Seahawks were a different defense when Thomas was hurt.
Seahawks Defense With and Without Earl Thomas, 2016-2018
|Stat||With Thomas||Without Thomas|
|Stat||With Thomas||Without Thomas|
|Opposing Completion %||60.1%||64.1%|
|Opposing Pass Touchdowns||30||31|
Baltimore won’t have as fierce of a linebacking corp or pass rush after losing Za’Darius Smith and C.J. Mosley in free agency, but inserting Thomas into defensive coordinator Don Martindale’s defense might more than make up for it. While the Broncos have one of the deepest cornerback groups in football, the Ravens have the deepest secondary with Jimmy Smith, Tavon Young, Brandon Carr, and Marlon Humphrey at cornerback, and Tony Jefferson at safety alongside Thomas, who will be playing center fielder in Baltimore’s defense. Thomas replaces safety and facial hair anarchist Eric Weddle, who signed with the Rams after Baltimore let him go this offseason. It remains to be seen whether Thomas is 100 percent after a broken leg ended his season. If he returns to previous form, he could do for Baltimore’s defense what he once did for Seattle’s, and the Ravens could be a serious contender.