After months of endless rumors, mock drafts and the occasional 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.
Our offseason grades series finishes up with the NFC West, which arguably features the two best teams in football heading into 2016. The division also includes the Rams, who made the biggest trade of the 2016 offseason in moving up for the first overall pick in the draft, and the 49ers, who hired the league's most controversial coach and then decided to go on vacation for the rest of the offseason. The Seahawks were quiet after making their own stunning offseason trades in years past, so this year, the logical trade for a veteran superstar fell to Arizona, where the Cardinals picked up what might be the final piece of their championship puzzle.
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What Went Right
They finally found a world-class pass-rusher. Under Bruce Arians' stewardship, the Cardinals have been forced to get after the quarterback by blitzing. And blitzing. And blitzing some more. They've blitzed on 46.1 percent of opposing dropbacks over the past three years, when only one other team in football, the Tennessee Titans, has blitzed over 40 percent. That was a schematic choice, but it was also a reflection of Arizona's personnel. The Cardinals haven't had a big-ticket pass-rusher under Arians. They got by with John Abraham leading the way in 2013, Alex Okafor in 2014 and Dwight Freeney last season, but it's awfully tough to continue filling one of football's most important positions with post-peak veterans and mid-round draft picks.
Enter Chandler Jones. General manager Steve Keim made a reasonable trade to acquire the star pass-rusher from the Patriots, sending a second-round pick and disappointing guard Jonathan Cooper to New England. It may be tough for Arizona to re-sign Jones, but if the Cards lose him in free agency, they should get a third-round pick back as compensation. Assuming that happens and accounting for the relative value of the two picks per Chase Stuart's empirical draft value chart, the Cardinals will have traded Cooper (a guard whose fifth-year option they were going to decline anyway) and the 140th pick in the draft for one year of Jones. That's a good deal.
They brought in Evan Mathis. With Cooper struggling at right guard, Arizona thought about moving him to center before the Jones trade; instead, the Cardinals drafted Missouri's Evan Boehm in the fourth round to play the pivot and signed Mathis, fresh off a Super Bowl victory with the Denver Broncos. Mathis wasn't quite as effective in 2015 as he had been during his glory days with the Philadelphia Eagles, but he's an impactful run-blocker and might look better after a full training camp and offseason; he has time to grow comfortable with his linemates.
They used their first-round pick on Robert Nkemdiche. This feels like it's going to work, right? Plenty of teams talk about their organizational culture and ability to fit players in their locker room, but the Cardinals have placed a serious emphasis on their culture and managed to foster a place where Tyrann Mathieu has been able to stay on the straight and narrow. Any draft pick can fail, but in terms of his talent, everybody thinks Nkemdiche has the raw talent to make the Cardinals look awfully smart for nabbing him at 29. It's smart of them to leverage the culture they've developed to go after superior players without destroying their locker room in the process.
What Went Wrong
The offensive line's still pretty thin. Jared Veldheer and Mike Iupati are locked in on the left side, but Arizona will start new contributors at the remaining three spots along the O-line. Mathis is in at right guard, and the winner of a battle between Boehm and 2015 backup A.Q. Shipley will take over at center, but the most interesting change is at right tackle, where 2015 first-rounder D.J. Humphries will take over for Bobby Massie after having not taken a single snap in anger as a rookie. It's certainly defensible to trot out those options for starting jobs, but there's precious little behind that trio.
The secondary could use some help. Cornerback is an issue for these Cardinals. They have the incredible Patrick Peterson on one side, but Tyrann Mathieu's torn ACL could very well limit his effectiveness in 2016, just as it did in 2014, when he struggled through an up-and-down campaign. Arizona also moved on from Jerraud Powers, leaving the Cards with Justin Bethel starting across from Peterson. Teams abused Bethel, known more for his special-teams ability, when he entered the starting lineup at the end of 2015.
Third-round pick Brandon Williams is very raw and has played only one season in college at corner, so he's not likely to have an immediate impact. Antonio Cromartie struggled in his return to the Jets, but after playing very well across from Peterson in 2014, it's a surprise the Cardinals haven't reached out to try and bring the former Pro Bowler into the fold on a one-year deal.
Re-sign Mathieu. Teams are typically reticent about inking players with multiple knee injuries to long-term deals, but it's difficult to imagine the Cardinals parting ways with their slot cornerback, who was one of the best defensive backs in football last season. Mathieu, likewise, must surely value the stability and familiarity of the locker room in Arizona to an extent that most other players would not.
With Mathieu entering the final year of his rookie deal, the Cardinals might be able to leverage the uncertainty of his second ACL tear to bring down the price on a long-term deal. It also helps that Mathieu is listed on league rosters as a safety, which would make his franchise tag number for 2017 something in the $11 million range. That figure would be more like $14 million if he was (correctly) listed as a cornerback. Janoris Jenkins just received $39.7 million over the first three years of his deal with the New York Giants; the Mathieu camp would likely hope to get a similar figure as they negotiate with the Cardinals.
What Went Right
They moved on from inflated deals for veteran contributors. It's tempting to hold onto players who have been franchise cornerstones, but the Rams were probably smart to draw a line and move on from Chris Long, James Laurinaitis and Jared Cook. (Well, two franchise cornerstones.) Long signed a bargain-basement deal with the Patriots, and the Rams would have loved to have him back at that figure, but he was probably not worth the $14.3 million he was due in 2016. Cutting the three players cleared out about $23 million in cap space. I wouldn't say the Rams used that space wisely, but in a vacuum, this was a good idea.
What Went Wrong
They traded a bounty of draft picks for Jared Goff. If anybody should know how foolish it can be to deal multiple years of draft picks to move up and grab one player, it's the Rams, who benefited lavishly from the Robert Griffin deal with Washington. If anybody should realize that the first overall pick isn't guaranteed to produce a star quarterback, it's the Rams, who lived with Sam Bradford for years.
And yet, with no clear path to acquiring a franchise quarterback and the organization staring down Case Keenum and Nick Foles for another season, the Rams pushed all-in and sent a boatload of picks to the Titans to move up and draft Goff, the QB out of Cal. It's unclear whether the move will work, but we know that deals like this work out far less frequently than the teams who trade up think they do. You can make a case that the Rams are better positioned to deal with the pain of missing out on cheap contributors than most -- Mike Sando elaborated on that for Insider -- but even if Goff turns out to be great, there are going to be holes up and down this roster preventing Los Angeles from building a dominant team around their new quarterback.
They retained Jeff Fisher. The Goff trade feels like a team incurring the moral hazard of executives who want to keep their jobs. Going after a young quarterback extends the timeline for a front office that might very well have been fired after this season, let alone another middling campaign with Keenum at the helm. As I noted in December, Fisher is the first head coach to post four consecutive seasons without a winning record and retain his job since ... he did the same thing in Tennessee in 1998. I don't think Fisher consciously made the Goff deal trying to justify a few extra years on the job. I'm sure he made the move thinking he wanted a franchise quarterback and knowing how hard those can be to come by. But struggling organizations deal with this all the time, and given how Fisher's tenure had produced consistently middling results, it was probably time for him to go.
They spent an exorbitant sum on Mark Barron. Barron is a useful weapon and a success story for the organization; the Rams acquired him from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a draft bust at safety before converting him into a starting linebacker this past offseason. Barron's playing the same sort of hybrid role Deone Bucannon has excelled in for the Cardinals, and players in that vein can be difficult to find, especially if you deal away your entire draft.
At the same time, though, Barron has played a little more than a half-season in that role for the Rams, and they're paying him as if he's a superstar. The five-year, $45 million deal the Rams gave Barron guarantees him $20 million and pays him a whopping $29 million over its first three years. I can't criticize the Rams as much for turning down his fifth-year option the offseason prior, given that Barron switched positions in the meantime, but this is an awful lot to invest in a guy who hasn't played at a high level for the vast majority of his professional career.
It's not necessarily a wrong move for the Rams, as is the case with the Goff trade, just an incredibly risky one. We're already seeing the impact of their trades. There's a major hole at safety, with T.J. McDonald possibly facing down a suspension, and no replacement signed for departed starter Rodney McLeod. The offensive line is still suspect at best, which won't make Goff's life any easier. That deep, dominant defensive line is thinner than it has been in years. The Rams are a different team. It's just not clear whether they're a better one.
What Went Right
They held onto Colin Kaepernick. As toxic as the relationship between Kaepernick and the San Francisco front office appears to have become, there wasn't a real reason for the 49ers to trade their former starter at quarterback. They have plenty of cap space and didn't use most of it this year. Their other option at quarterback is Blaine Gabbert, so it's not as if they're set at the position, even if Gabbert outplayed expectations last season. They would have been selling as low as humanly possible on a Kaepernick trade, given his subpar performance and injuries last season, and if anybody can rehab Kaepernick in a system that plays to his strengths, it's Chip Kelly. If the whole thing goes south, they can cut Kaepernick next year and not feel guilty -- nobody's expecting the 49ers to win this year, anyway.
They built around the lines with their draft picks. The 49ers have fallen from grace for a number of reasons, but it's not a coincidence that their run atop the league a few years ago coincided with dominant work on either side of the line of scrimmage. Those days are gone, but it's logical for the 49ers to go after players to rebuild those positions. San Francisco used two first-round picks on players whom Carolina Panthers GM Dave Gettleman would describe as hog mollies.
Oregon defensive end DeForest Buckner will slot in alongside former college teammate Arik Armstead in service of Kelly, their former coach at Oregon, while Stanford guard Joshua Garnett should step into a starting role immediately after the 49ers struggled to replace the departed Mike Iupati last year. I'm not crazy about the 49ers trading up to grab Garnett, but since they moved from the top of the second round to the bottom of the first round and picked up a fifth-year option on Garnett in the process, it's more defensible than most.
They hired Chip Kelly. Kelly isn't a safe bet, and his run as a personnel executive was disastrous, but he managed to get a lot out of Eagles teams with some pretty bad quarterbacks, and nobody doubts his X's and O's acumen. He'll have to do a better job of managing people, but he was the most successful head coach the 49ers could possibly have hired.
What Went Wrong
They forgot to upgrade the rest of the team. Right now, with the offseason over, the 49ers have nearly $49 million in cap space to work with. I can't understand why they didn't at least try and use some of it to upgrade their roster. They can carry it over, but why not sign players to one-year deals or contracts with no guaranteed money after 2016? Trent Baalke correctly values draft picks as incredibly important assets and likely didn't want to infringe on the possibility of picking up comp picks, but the 49ers only had one outgoing free agent of any value, Alex Boone, who will likely net them a fourth-rounder.
Even if they were worried about that fourth-round pick, the 49ers could have targeted players who were released by their teams and therefore don't impact the compensatory formula. Or they could go after veterans now, given that signings after May 12 won't qualify for compensation. It's not as if the 49ers should be selling out to win in 2016, but this is a team with enormous question marks and no prospects of note at wide receiver, to pick a position. Should they have taken a flyer on somebody like Rueben Randle or Rod Streater? Should they go after Riley Cooper, who at least has familiarity with Kelly's system and flashed some competence in years past? Signing somebody like Cooper for real money would have been a bad idea, but for the minimum when your other option across from Torrey Smith is Quinton Patton or Bruce Ellington? This feels like a team that isn't actively trying to get better, which seems bizarre.
Figure out the Anthony Davis situation. Davis isn't a dominant right tackle, but at his best, he was an above-average option on the right side and part of a wildly successful unit for the 49ers. Davis publicly suggested he was ready to return to the league after sitting out the 2015 season, only to tweet that "dealing with Trent" [Baalke] was giving him a headache. No further progress has been made on the Davis front, which doesn't help an offensive line that might be stuck starting Erik Pears at tackle next year. If Davis is out of shape, as reports have suggested, how much would it cost the 49ers to send a few personal trainers his way? And if the relationship between the two parties is beyond repair, either cut or trade Davis, because there's little sense in having him lurking just beyond the team's grasp.
What Went Right
They held onto their first-round pick. It's bizarre to say that for somebody who came up in the league under Ted Thompson, but John Schneider has made a habit of trading away his first-round pick with limited returns. He dealt one away for Percy Harvin and used another as part of the package for Jimmy Graham, with neither of those deals working out. His 2014 first-rounder was used in a series of trades down, which also haven't really worked out, but that's at least a more logical move.
This year, Seattle held onto its first-round pick and even drafted an offensive lineman! Sure, Germain Ifedi profiles as a classic Seahawks lineman who might not be able to help out in pass protection, but he's a useful athlete for a line that sorely needs help.
They resisted the urge to go after a big-ticket replacement for Marshawn Lynch. The Seahawks saw how effective undrafted free agent Thomas Rawls was during the regular season while Lynch was out of the lineup, but it didn't make sense for the Seahawks to go after the likes of Lamar Miller or Chris Ivory to replace Lynch, given their cap situation and needs elsewhere on the roster. They'll roll with Rawls, Christine Michael and as many as three drafted halfbacks (if they all make the roster), with third-rounder C.J. Prosise profiling as a long-term starter if they can get him more experience at the position and work on his fumbling issues.
They retained Jeremy Lane. After returning from a broken wrist and torn ACL midseason, Lane flashed the same promise he showed in years past. With another offseason to heal, he should profile as an above-average starter at a position where the Seahawks were badly burned by Cary Williams in 2015. Lane is basically on a two-year deal worth $11 million, and when you consider what cornerbacks like Janoris Jenkins got this offseason, that's a bargain.
What Went Wrong
The offensive line is still a mess. A line that has created major problems for the Seahawks in years past -- with the playoff loss to Carolina as the most recent and obvious example -- got worse this offseason. The Seahawks lost both Russell Okung and J.R. Sweezy in free agency and replaced them with ... J'Marcus Webb and Bradley Sowell, who have been two of the worst tackles in football over the past few seasons. The Seahawks will start Ifedi at guard and move Garry Gilliam, who was badly overmatched at right tackle, to the left side. Justin Britt is moving to center and competing with Patrick Lewis, who helped shore up the line when he entered the starting lineup last season.
It's a jumbled fiasco, and it isn't the first time. Sheil Kapadia has looked into the reasons why Seattle has been so curiously cheap up front, and it's clear the Seahawks are looking for different attributes in their offensive linemen under Tom Cable than most other teams. But it's also hard to argue that this line is going to be entirely dependent upon Russell Wilson's ability to evade free rushers in the passing game. That's never ideal.
Work on a Doug Baldwin extension? The most prominent unrestricted free agent coming up for the Seahawks is Baldwin, who had a stunning second-half spurt as the Seahawks' passing attack kicked into high gear. He's probably not going to score 14 touchdowns again, but if the Seahawks do go with a more pass-happy attack after Lynch's retirement, Baldwin's numbers are going to continue to look like that of a No. 1 wideout. His three-year, $13 million extension with the Seahawks has been a bargain when you consider what similarly talented wideouts received in free agency this offseason. Is there a middle ground where it makes sense for both sides to continue their relationship after 2016?