After months of endless rumors, mock drafts and the occasional actual transaction, the player-movement portion of the NFL offseason is basically over. Sure, a few guys might get traded between now and August, but most moves are in the can. What your favorite team's roster looks like now is just about what it's going to look like for the 2016 campaign.
So now that everything is settled, let's run through the NFL and take a bird's-eye view of each team's offseason. The NFC South mostly stuck to form this offseason. The Falcons desperately tried to patch up the glaring holes in their roster. The Buccaneers fell in love with somebody they couldn't have been less interested in a year ago. The Saints made the same mistakes they've made for years. Even the defending division champs repeated an old trick by surprisingly releasing a star. The Panthers were able to get over Steve Smith Sr.; will it be as easy to move on from Josh Norman?
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What Went Right
They secured a massive upgrade at center with Alex Mack. The Falcons have struggled for years to replace long-time center Todd McClure, who retired after the 2012 season. They drafted Peter Konz in the second round that year as McClure's replacement, but Konz never developed and is out of football. Last year, they turned the job over to 26-year-old journeyman Mike Person, who had played all of two NFL games before starting 14 times for the Falcons last year.
They paid a pretty penny to bring Alex Mack in, but the Falcons have to feel great about finally procuring a useful center. Mack's five-year, $45 million deal pays him $26 million over the next three seasons, which is a premium for a pivot, but Atlanta has been begging for a viable center for years now. Mack also has experience in offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's scheme from their time in Cleveland, which should make for a smoother transition than most new contributors.
They re-upped Adrian Clayborn. The latest defensive lineman to get out of Tampa Bay and suddenly play at a much higher level, Clayborn impressed as an interior pass rusher for Dan Quinn, leading the Falcons with 15 quarterback knockdowns. The Falcons re-signed him on a very reasonable two-year, $8.5 million deal with $5 million more available in incentives. That's a contract that should benefit both sides. Clayborn has missed the better part of two full seasons with injuries during his five-year career, which could come back to bite the perennially thin Falcons, but this was a risk worth taking because ...
What Went Wrong
They didn't do enough to address the pass-rush problem. It's hard to gauge whether this was the best they could have done, given their limited financial resources, but the Falcons aren't much better off with their pass-rush options than they were a year ago, when they produced a league-low 19 sacks. Atlanta pressured quarterbacks on just 23.0 percent of opposing dropbacks, which was also the worst in the league. First-round pick Vic Beasley Jr. flashed at times during his rookie season while playing through a torn labrum, but he went missing for games at a time and finished with just four sacks and five quarterback knockdowns. Those four sacks also led the team. That is dire.
The Falcons didn't add much to that group. They re-signed Clayborn and will naturally hope that Beasley plays better as a sophomore, but the only addition they made to the pass rush was Dolphins reserve end Derrick Shelby, whose best season as a pass-rusher saw him produce 3.5 sacks and eight hits on a line with Ndamukong Suh and Olivier Vernon last year. Shelby's four-year, $18 million deal isn't going to break the bank, and there's no money in 2017 or beyond guaranteed right now, but this feels like a broken piece of Atlanta's roster that still hasn't been fixed.
They overpaid for Mohamed Sanu. This is why I can't say the Falcons completely lacked the financial resources to invest in a pass rusher. It made sense for Atlanta to move on from Roddy White, who wasn't an NFL-caliber receiver at this point of his career, but it's hard to see Sanu making the sort of impact his contract suggests. Sanu's five-year, $32.5 million deal includes $14 million guaranteed and $20 million over its first three years. Torrey Smith got $19.75 million over his first three years on his five-year deal last offseason and had been a far more productive receiver by virtually any metric before hitting free agency.
Even during his two years as a starter before giving way to Marvin Jones last year, Sanu averaged 38.9 receiving yards per game. That's roughly what Robert Woods and Malcom Floyd did last year. Atlanta had some success plucking a receiver off of the scrap heap last year in Leonard Hankerson; the difference between Sanu and somebody like Hankerson, who's now on the Bills, in combination with Justin Hardy and another draft pick just isn't enough to justify Atlanta's outlay. That goes double, given how intensely Kyle Shanahan's offense focuses on its top receiver, which isn't going to change with Julio Jones around.
Re-signing Desmond Trufant. One of the hidden superstars of the NFL, Atlanta's star cornerback is in line for a massive contract extension, with Trufant's representation probably hoping to compare the star corner to Arizona's Patrick Peterson. Trufant doesn't post huge interception totals, with six during his three-year career, but he shuts down his side of the field as well as anybody east of Seattle. He's not Richard Sherman, but for Dan Quinn, Trufant is the closest corner he'll find.
What Went Right
They played hardball with Charles Johnson and won. Johnson hasn't been the same since Greg Hardy left; he posted 8.5 sacks in a full 2014 campaign, and then added a lone additional sack during an abbreviated, injury-hit 2015. It was always going to be tough for the Panthers to pay the $15 million due Johnson on the final year of his massive contract extension, especially given their need (at the time) to franchise and re-sign Josh Norman.
So it wasn't a surprise that the Panthers cut Johnson, but it was a massive surprise when they brought him back at a greatly reduced salary. Johnson on a base salary of $10.8 million is a bad idea. Johnson on a $2 million base salary is an absolute bargain. The Panthers still owe $4 million on their cap for Johnson's old deal, so their net savings, including a $562,500 roster bonus, is about $8.4 million. That's an incredible deal, given the cost of pass rushers around the league this offseason. Johnson, at this price, was the best free-agent signing of the offseason.
They went heavily after cornerbacks in the draft. The timing of the Josh Norman decision was unfortunate because it greatly limited what the Panthers could do in free agency; outside of going after somebody like Leon Hall, who is recovering from back surgery, Carolina was basically stuck with a few bad options. As tempting as it must have been to trade up and try and grab one of the draft's top corners in the first round, though, Dave Gettleman was wise to stay back and go with the quantity solution to his problem. The Panthers drafted corners in the second round (James Bradberry), third (Daryl Worley), and fifth (Zack Sanchez). Bradberry might end up at safety in the long run, but the Panthers also need help there. In fact ...
What Went Wrong
Safety is still a question mark. The Panthers let Roman Harper leave this offseason, and he's probably headed for retirement, but they didn't add any depth to replace him. Tre Boston will take over as the starter, and while Kurt Coleman did produce seven interceptions during a breakout season at the other safety spot, he had just 10 interceptions over four previous seasons combined. It's hard to see him generating that sort of production again.
The Josh Norman thing. You can make cases for both sides of the decision to move on from Norman, who was the best cornerback in football last season. It's not crazy to imagine a world where Dave Gettleman is right and it doesn't make sense for the Panthers to pay a cornerback $50 million over the next three years, as Washington will do with Norman. The Panthers will still get a third-round compensatory pick for moving on from Norman, which is likely better than what they would have got on the trade market if they frantically shopped him around before releasing the All-Pro. Norman's about to turn 29 in December and was on the chopping block to be released as recently as the summer of 2014.
And yet, it's just not realistic to think the defense is going to be just fine using a rookie to replace a guy who was playing at a truly dominant level. The Panthers defense was a mess for most of 2014 because the secondary was a disaster; even with Johnson and Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly, they rounded into form only after Norman was restored to the starting lineup and Antoine Cason was benched in favor of Bene Benwikere, who himself is coming off of a broken leg. Brandon Boykin looked like he would be a useful option in the slot after excelling in Philadelphia, but he was mysteriously released Monday.
Passing on Norman might be a wise long-term decision, and Gettleman should be applauded for sticking to his team-building model and trusting that he doesn't need to lock up every one of his players. Norman was a fifth-round pick once, too. And yet, at the same time, the Panthers just aren't a better team in the short-term by letting him go. For a team that won the NFC last year, that's a hard pill to swallow.
Re-signing Kawann Short. There has been plenty of speculation that the money earmarked for a Norman extension will instead go to Short, who has been a wildly effective interior pass rusher. (Ask the Seahawks about him.) Short is entering the final year of his rookie deal, with fellow starter Star Lotulelei hitting the fourth year of his contract, which includes a fifth-year rookie option in 2017. The Panthers used a first-round pick on defensive tackle Vernon Butler, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see Gettleman, a Giants graduate, try to hold onto both Short and Lotulelei to form an unholy rotation on the interior with Butler.
What Went Right
They upgraded their interior pass rush. The Saints badly needed difference makers in their pass rush, given that Cameron Jordan had 20 quarterback knockdowns and nobody else in their lineup managed more than six. In free agency, they added Nick Fairley, who should serve as a useful rotation rusher, even if the Saints had to build two voided years into Fairley's deal to create cap space for his $2.2 million signing bonus, adding $1.5 million in dead money on their cap in 2016.
Sheldon Rankins, a penetrating Louisville defensive tackle, was a popular mock draft selection for the Saints, and it was a pleasant surprise that they went with him with the 12th overall pick. Rankins has drawn Aaron Donald comparisons, given his relative lack of size for a defensive tackle and violent nature on the interior, and those don't seem entirely unwarranted. Donald was a monster at the combine after adjusting for his size, and Rankins wasn't far off, with Chase Stuart grading him as the seventh-best performer in Indy this year. If Rankins even approximates what Donald has done for the Rams, it would be a huge advantage for the Saints.
What Went Wrong
They paid a premium for Coby Fleener. The Saints were one of the worst defenses in football history last season. You don't need me to tell you that, but I'm going to do so anyway. It's not just that they were last in DVOA. The Bears, who were 31st in defensive DVOA, were closer to the Patriots in 12th place than they were to the Saints in 32nd. New Orleans allowed a 78.8 QBR to opposing quarterbacks, which means the average passer against the Saints would have been the second-best quarterback in football.
So given that the Saints have one of the worst cap situations in football, to the extent that they had to put in the aforementioned voidable years just to fit a little more than $2 million for Nick Fairley on their cap, why on earth are they paying a premium for a decent tight end? If anything, given what Benjamin Watson did last year when moved into the primary role, the Saints should see Sean Payton and Drew Brees as a blessing and try to find a useful, athletic tight end on the cheap.
Instead, they gave Fleener a five-year, $36 million deal with $20.9 million due over the first three years. Because they have precious little cap space this year, the Saints had to structure the deal in a way where Fleener's fully guaranteed cap hit in 2017 will go from $2.4 million to $7.5 million, at which point he will have the sixth-highest cap hit for a tight end in football, assuming the Ravens cut Dennis Pitta. This is for a tight end who never topped 800 yards in a season with Andrew Luck as his quarterback. Watson's out-of-nowhere year at 35 would be Fleener's best season, and Watson is a far better blocker.
Fleener will be productive and post his best career numbers with the Saints, but that's not the issue. The Saints can plug a lot of tight ends into this offense and produce big numbers. They can't do the same on defense, where they've been a mess for years now. I'm not sure spending the money they've assigned to Fleener on a cornerback or edge rusher would have solved the Saints' problems, but it would have at least addressed an issue of concern. Tight end should be one of the last things the Saints are worrying about. It's reminiscent of the 2015 offseason, when they were facing down a terrible defense and decided to double down on running backs by re-signing Mark Ingram and adding C.J. Spiller.
They failed to extend Drew Brees. One way to clear out cap space would have been to address their star quarterback's contract situation. At 37, Brees is in the final year of his contract and has a staggering cap hold of $30 million. That's not just the largest number in football; it's the largest number by nearly 24 percent, given that Eli Manning's in second at $24.2 million.
Brees is still playing at a high level and worth a top-dollar quarterback contract, but the Saints badly needed to create short-term cap space by giving Brees an extension. Brees' side knows this, of course, which is why they have all the leverage in carving out the terms of a deal. That goes even further when you remember that the Saints really can't franchise Brees next year, given that his cap hit would rise even more dramatically. It speaks to how mismanaged the Saints' cap is that they find themselves in this situation and weren't able to throw enough money at a Hall of Fame quarterback to make a deal happen before free agency began.
They tried to go all-in for Josh Norman. And yet, somehow, it's even worse to consider that they reportedly tried hardest to extend Brees in an attempt to sign Norman. The Saints certainly need him, but a player at his price tag just doesn't make sense for Dennis Allen's defense, which sorely needs to add depth and avoid trotting out replacement-level players for meaningful snaps. This is an organization that, on a daily basis, is regretting the Jairus Byrd signing, which was made under similar circumstances. The Saints would have needed to give Norman a massive second-year roster bonus and convert that to a signing bonus to fit Norman under their cap, a move that has bit them twice with Byrd and Junior Galette. The time to extend Brees to create cap space was February, not April.
At the end of the day, the Saints seem to be in denial about their problems. They repeat, or at least attempt to repeat, the same mistakes over and over. The result has been a team that is wasting the final years of one of the great quarterbacks in football. It's fascinating to see the contrast between the Saints and Panthers. Carolina made it to the Super Bowl and felt like it wasn't one player away from winning. New Orleans finished 7-9 for the second consecutive season and felt sure it was.
Extend Brees. As troubled as this team is, it would be a whole lot worse without its quarterback.
What Went Right
They brought in veteran help for their defense. Robert Ayers probably isn't going to pick up nine sacks again, as he did in 2015 with the Giants, but Tampa was so desperate for edge rushers that he should be an upgrade. And while both Daryl Smith and Brent Grimes took a step backward last year, it's not hard to imagine them helping a Buccaneers defense that trotted out replacement-level talent for meaningful snaps. The prices for Ayers (three years, $19.5 million), Smith (one year, $2.5 million) and Grimes (two years, $13.5 million) are all reasonable enough. Crucially, they all contain zero guaranteed money after 2016, allowing the Bucs to cut bait if the deals go south. Tampa's recent history in free agency has been disastrous, but these are relatively low-risk attempts to improve the roster.
What Went Wrong
They fired Lovie Smith. It's hard to figure how a coach who inherited a 4-12 team and went into 2014 with Josh McCown as his starting quarterback got sent packing after improving them by four wins this past year. Smith's Buccaneers did lose their last four games after starting 6-6, but was he responsible for the likes of Anthony Collins and Michael Johnson being so subpar as free-agent signings that they were cut after one season? Was it Smith's fault that his offensive coordinator underwent a heart bypass weeks before the 2014 season began?
Maybe you could make a case that Smith hadn't done enough in his area of expertise. The Bucs did fall from eighth in defensive DVOA in 2013 to 18th during Smith's first season, but that was also after cutting Darrelle Revis and failing to replace him at corner. Despite possessing two stars and running through a lot of replacement-level players at other positions, Smith's defense stuck at 18th in DVOA this year.
If you want to make the argument that Smith hasn't succeeded, I think that's reasonable. But firing Smith after two years, reportedly out of a fear of losing Dirk Koetter to a head-coaching job somewhere else? From the same people who might keep Louis Van Gaal around for a third season in Manchester? It doesn't seem to add up.
They paid a premium for Doug Martin. A year after deciding that Martin wasn't worth a fifth-year option at $5.6 million, the Buccaneers shelled out five years and $35.8 million to keep Martin around, including $21.8 million over the next three years. It's reactionary and short-sighted on its face; you pay free agents for what they're going to do as opposed to what they've done, and pretty clearly, the only reason the Buccaneers paid this sort of premium for Martin is because of what he did in 2015.
Their self-scouting suggested Martin wasn't even worth a one-year deal at that sort of price, and now they're committed to him for two guaranteed years. It's good that the Buccaneers structured the deal in a way that won't leave any dead money on their cap after 2017, and the franchise tag ($11.8 million) wasn't really an option, but chances are the Bucs could have used this money on a defender and gotten by just fine with Charles Sims and a draftee at halfback.
They didn't do enough to upgrade the offensive line. Another place to spend would have been on an offensive line that's been mediocre in its best moments over the past few years. The Bucs did make one addition by signing Seahawks guard J.R. Sweezy, who is a solid run-blocker, but Sweezy has been a mess at times in pass protection, and he's slotting in as a replacement for the now-retired Logan Mankins, who was Tampa's best lineman last year. Right tackle continues to stick out like a sore thumb; why weren't the Bucs in the running for somebody like Andre Smith, who signed a one-year deal with the Vikings for $3.5 million?
Figure out a future at wide receiver. Mike Evans isn't going anywhere at one receiver slot, but the Buccaneers have Vincent Jackson entering the final year of his deal and nothing behind him on the depth chart. Their backups are undrafted free agents such as Donteea Dye and Adam Humphries. Tampa didn't draft a wideout or sign anybody in free agency, so it might make sense for them to bring in somebody such as Riley Cooper to fill out the roster.