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The Most Important Story Lines of the 2019 NFL Season (So Far)

The Chiefs have tried to fix their terrible defense, the Patriots need Bill Belichick to be as good as ever, and the Browns have pushed their chips in

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NFL offseason is an abyss that, when you stare into it, stares back and tells you that DeVante Parker can have a good season as long as he stays healthy. If you look into it too long, you will go crazy—you can only read so many stories about Laquon Treadwell’s impending breakout until you start to believe it.

The offseason is the tax fans pay for five months of uninterrupted football. It’s seven months of really boring stories. The good news is that the offseason is over. The bad news is that “over” is a relative term here—there’s still more than a month to go until real games, but at least players are wearing pads. At least there are legitimate Daniel Jones updates:

Because the offseason is full of stories that don’t matter—we see you, “Trubisky clearly in comfort zone”—we thought it’d be a good idea to round up what stories did matter this offseason.

The Chiefs retooled their defense.

I think about this stat a lot:

The Chiefs made the AFC title game—and came within a few plays of winning it—with one of the worst defenses in the sport. The average opponent drive was 6.6 plays, dead last in the league. They gave up more yards than all but one team. Patrick Mahomes worked more magic than we think. That is why the Chiefs’ defensive makeover is perhaps the most fascinating subplot of the NFL season: If they hit on this, the Chiefs are going to be unstoppable. Crucially, they swapped out pass rush star Dee Ford, traded to the 49ers, and eventually swung a trade for Seahawks pass rush star Frank Clark. They signed Tyrann Mathieu and drafted Juan Thornhill. Things could have been even more interesting if Earl Thomas signed the short-term prove-it deal he was close to signing (he ended up in Baltimore).

The team, notably, fired defensive coordinator Bob Sutton and hired Steve Spagnuolo, in the process switching to a 4-3 from a 3-4. The lesson here is that when you have the reigning MVP, one of the best offensive schemes in football, and talent everywhere on the offensive side, do everything possible to fix the defense. The Chiefs have mostly done that.

The Patriots have to innovate again.

Rob Gronkowski is gone. Since 2006, no duo in football generated a higher passer rating than Tom Brady and Gronkowski since Pro Football Focus started to chart that—an astounding 129.6.

Even in a down season in which he was banged up, Gronkowski managed to have a crucial catch in the Super Bowl. It is a very bad thing for the Patriots that he retired—but here’s where it gets interesting. A few years ago, Tom Brady’s Deflategate suspension and an injury to Jimmy Garoppolo led to Jacoby Brissett starting. I had an epiphany: Belichick at his most desperate is Belichick at his best. I wrote about it then—but Belichick being forced to innovate is one of the truly great things for football nerds. Seeing Brady throw to Randy Moss is great. Seeing Stephon Gilmore lock down a big receiver is great. But it’s a lot more impressive to see Belichick turn Mike Vrabel into a reliable red zone target or Belichick play Troy Brown and Julian Edelman at defensive back. That is interesting.

That brings us to New England’s crop of pass catchers. If you like the Patriots and have a weak stomach I suggest you don’t click on Mike Reiss’s roster projection, which lays out how bare a wasteland Brady’s targets will be in camp outside of Julian Edelman. Tight end Ben Watson’s four-game suspension means that Matt LaCosse and Lance Kendricks might see playing time. N’Keal Harry is crucial, even as a rookie. Reiss, of course, points out that fullback James Develin played 35 percent of the Pats’ offensive snaps last year, as the team used more two-back sets than two-tight-end sets. Barring a breakout of one of the Patriots’ young receivers, it’s possible that Belichick innovates with using the fullback more in a league where defenses have gotten smaller. But this is the point: Belichick will do something because he always does. He will probably keep passing to running backs, or reinvent the slot position, or single-handedly bring the fullback back. The Patriots have gained edges using slot receivers, four receivers at a time, two tight ends, one tight end, two running backs. The Patriots never need much—they win on the edges—but they need something. Gaining edges is what they do. Belichick without an obvious plan is one of the most fun things in sports—because he’ll find one.

The Vikings bring in the Kubiak system.

A few weeks ago, Kirk Cousins told the Vikings website something that may end up playing a large role in the NFC North race: “I think when you look at any numbers or analytics, I’ve been effective when play-action plays are being called, traditionally. … Our analytics department sent me a really good summary a couple of weeks ago over Memorial Day weekend that showed that play action is just effective, period, and you’ve got to call it more.”

Play action is the closest thing to an NFL cheat code. It makes good passers play like great passers and there appears to be no limit to its benefits. It is also the type of thing the Vikings should be doing all the time:

With this in mind, the Vikings brought in Gary Kubiak, who won a Super Bowl as head coach of the Broncos, as an assistant head coach. This is, of course, massive. Kubiak, along with offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, will probably run play action as much as needed—and it’s needed basically all the time. An efficient Cousins changes the entire narrative in the NFC North.

The Eagles stack up.

When Eagles executive Joe Douglas took the Jets general managing job this summer, he told Sports Illustrated that it was a tougher decision to leave the Eagles this year because, well, the Eagles are going to be awesome this year. “I really feel like that franchise, that football team, they’re firing on all cylinders,” Douglas said. “It’s as deep of a team as I’ve ever seen there. And that’s including the ’17 team.”

I’ve been around the Eagles a lot over the past few years, and they are among the smartest organizations in sports. Their roster is always well managed, and this offseason they plugged some of the holes they had: They brought in a handful of solid veterans on dirt-cheap deals: Vinny Curry, Andrew Sendejo, and Jordan Howard among them. They signed mid-priced veterans who could become bargains: Ronald Darby re-signed for $6.5 million, Malik Jackson is getting just $10 million per year and DeSean Jackson is on a three-year, $28 million deal. Having a bunch of great contracts doesn’t mean you are going to win the Super Bowl, but only teams with a bunch of great contracts win the Super Bowl. The Eagles, like the Patriots (and, lately, the Rams), have cornered the market on great contracts. No Eagle accounts for more than 7.4 percent of the salary cap—that’s Alshon Jeffery. There’s a healthy mix of young and veteran talent. The Eagles built one of the deepest rosters in football.

The Texans don’t have a damn general manager.

It is not uncommon for teams to hire their general manager after the draft. The Panthers and Chiefs, two smart franchises, have done this in recent years. The Jets and Texans did so this year. The Jets, strangely, let Mike Maccagnan, who is not good at drafting, draft their players and give C.J. Mosley $51 million guaranteed before letting him go. They replaced him with well-respected Eagles executive Joe Douglas, who probably should have been in charge for the draft and free agency. Anyway, that’s not nearly as head-scratching as what the Texans did: They fired Brian Gaine and replaced him with nobody. Generally speaking, the fortunes of the Jets and Texans will rise and fall entirely due to the decisions their former general managers made.

NFL rosters are mostly set by May and the difference between five wins and 12 wins is not something that can be determined in July, August, and September—you either have a contending roster or you don’t. This, then, is why the Texans’ decision is so strange: With their roster, they can contend for a divisional title—as they did last year—and, if they get a few breaks, contend for a Super Bowl. Gaine tried to address their biggest problem—the offensive line—with two of his top three picks in the draft. This, of course, was badly needed:

The problem here is that contenders, over the course of the season, change their needs. With the rising salary cap, more aggressive front offices, and cheaper players on rookie deals, it’s quite easy to swing a trade midseason that can help get you deep into the playoffs. Look at the Rams with Dante Fowler Jr., or the Saints with Eli Apple, both contenders last year who helped themselves via trade. The Texans might need one or two more pieces to get into the AFC’s elite but won’t have anyone to help get them. That’s odd.

The Browns get aggressive.

Last year I sat down with Browns general manager John Dorsey and he laid out his vision. He said Cleveland’s rebuild would last three years—a timetable I’d assumed then was optimistic after a winless season the year prior. Dorsey is aggressive and smart and knew that managing the cap skillfully with a dynamic rookie like Baker Mayfield is pretty much the most important roster construction angle possible. Something strange happened over the past 12 months: The rebuild from 0-16 sped up, and the Browns are ready to compete now, in Dorsey’s second season.

I was in Cleveland on Thursday and took in practice and press conferences, and—well, folks, the Browns are good. Most notable, I think, was the play of Denzel Ward, the second-year cornerback who looked good shutting down the Browns’ passing attack. This is all to say that a lot of the attention on the Browns offseason has, correctly, been on the aggressive trade for Odell Beckham Jr., a franchise-changing decision. But that does a disservice to the other moves that have made Cleveland a legitimately solid roster—snagging Greedy Williams in the second round, trading for Olivier Vernon to help the pass rush, and bringing in Sheldon Richardson for cheap. The Eagles and Rams have shown how to build a team with a cheap quarterback, and the Browns are building on those plans. The Beckham trade is the future: a team realizing their window is now and trading for one of the best players in the sport to capitalize on it. It never had to take three years to rebuild the Browns, and that’s a football miracle.