NFL Offseason: 49ers, Bucs Among Early Winners

As with most pro sports leagues nowadays, the term “offseason” has become a misnomer in the NFL. The months following the Super Bowl, the most-watched sports event in America, are packed with contract decisions, free agent signings, pro days and combine performances for prospects, and, the highlight of the offseason, the NFL Draft from April 29 to May 1. 

This off-season “season” has been especially impactful, from the addition of a 17th game to the retooling of several contenders to early intrigue around the top of the draft. The NFL’s hierarchy isn’t the same as it was when the Buccaneers lifted the Lombardi Trophy a couple months ago. These are the winners and losers of the NFL offseason pre-NFL Draft. 

Winner: AFC East Teams

The Patriots went on the league’s most prolific signing spree. The Bills kept offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and added veterans Emmanuel Sanders and Mitch Trubisky (as a backup, of course). The Dolphins have accumulated picks at an astonishing rate and continue to profit off the Texans’ desperate trade for tackle Laremy Tunsil. And the Jets have the second pick in the draft and a head coach whose name is not Adam Gase at the helm.

Did any of these teams improve significantly? Not yet, even with the Patriots’ 10 signings, and the Bills should still be heavy favorites to repeat as division champions. But the division could certainly send three teams to the playoffs after having just one last year, and even the Jets have a lot to look forward to with quarterbacks Zach Wilson and Justin Fields likely available at their draft slot. In the post-Brady AFC East, the GOAT may be gone, but the parity has returned.

Loser: The Jon Gruden Experiment

I don’t want to react to overreact to the offseason moves, but the last couple months have given me reason to swap the Patriots, who were active and should look much more stout next season, and the Raiders, a playoff contender until the late weeks, in the NFL’s pecking order. And I’m not sure the Raiders are still going up despite their improvement in 2020. Derek Carr is not the long term answer in Las Vegas and seems to constantly be on coach Jon Gruden’s hot seat, but the Raiders won’t go out on a limb and trade for or sign anyone else to replace him. The free agent signees aren’t inspiring either, a mix of perpetual fantasy sleepers like Willie Snead, Kenyon Drake and John Brown and recent underperformers like Yannick Ngakuoe. A couple of those may pan out, but if the Broncos draft a quarterback, I’m having a hard time believing the Raiders are immune from a fourth place finish. Vegas doesn’t really have a direction, which is something that a Super Bowl-winning coach with a 10-year contract should bring to the table. 

Winner: Dak Prescott

The Cowboys are winners here for finally signing their franchise quarterback, but I’m giving this spot to the real winner here: Dak Prescott. With four years and $160 million dollars on his deal, Prescott gets his money after being severely underpaid on his rookie contract, plus he can re-enter free agency to up the bidding in a couple years. He is set up tremendously well to succeed, with weapons CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper on the perimeter and two offensive minds in Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore on the sidelines. Maybe he could get more money on the open market, but Prescott couldn’t be in a better situation than he is in now and should take the leap to the NFL’s elite in his first season post-injury.

Winner: Matthew Stafford

This technically happened before the Super Bowl, but allow me the opportunity to give my thoughts on this eye-opening trade. For Stafford, the trade is the best news since he had Megatron. The Rams have invested heavily in building a strong offense and have Sean McVay calling the plays, plus one of the league’s better defenses. After years of languishing in Detroit no matter his playmaking ability, Stafford should have every opportunity to make Los Angeles a top team in the NFC and a Super Bowl contender. If anyone needed a change of scenery, it was Stafford, who won’t be in the early afternoon Thanksgiving game any longer but should be in primetime battles for the foreseeable future. 

Loser: Jared Goff

Everything that Matthew Stafford gains, Jared Goff loses. The former No. 1 pick is the stopgap answer for a Detroit franchise that is just starting an extensive rebuild and with no way out. He gets his money, but the Lions’ offense figures to be anemic and I’m not sure the Lions even compete against the Andy Dalton-led Bears in their biannual matchups. On top of that, the guy has to move from Los Angeles to Michigan. It is difficult to imagine that Goff will ever fulfill his potential that he flashed as the 2016 draft’s top prospect. He certainly didn’t live up to it with the Rams. 

Winner: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Bucs are returning everybody. Like, absolutely everybody. That’s a rare sight for reigning Super Bowl champions, and it can’t be said for a couple of fellow NFC contenders (specifically division rival New Orleans). If Tom Brady is healthy, Tampa Bay should have every opportunity to earn the lone playoff bye and have a path to the Super Bowl that doesn’t go through NOLA or Lambeau’s frozen tundra. I don’t have any concerns about the Bucs’ willpower after winning it all, chiefly because Brady is under center and will never take his foot off the gas pedal until he retires. The Bucs entered last year’s NFL playoffs as a wild card, and since then they have established themselves as something much greater. 

Loser: New Orleans Saints

The retirement of Drew Brees marks the end of a wildly successful era in New Orleans and the franchise’s only true run of competence in its history. If the Saints don’t handle the next couple years right, they could be back to the “Aints” pretty soon. So far, New Orleans doesn’t give me any confidence that it can keep its contender status, from coach Sean Payton’s marked reluctance to commit to either Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston at quarterback to the salary cap difficulties that seem to plague the Saints on an annual basis. Great coaching, great drafting and a great roster have elevated the Saints after a stretch of malaise in the mid-2010s, but I can only bank on one of those, the coaching, to stick around this next season. 

Winner: San Francisco 49ers

The post-Super Bowl slump was in full effect for the Niners, though this one can largely be chalked up to injury. But San Francisco hasn’t written off their struggles to having an off-year and have been marvelously aggressive to open the offseason. Signings Trent Williams and Kyle Juszczyk fit well in coach Kyle Shanahan’s system, while a couple of key guys (Jaquiski Tartt!) should keep the defense in top shape. But the most significant move was the 49ers’ trade up to No. 3 in the draft, which puts them in position to draft a top college quarterback. Between Alabama’s Mac Jones, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, San Francisco has put itself in position to draft an immediate contributor and a face of the franchise to succeed the underwhelming Jimmy Garoppolo. I would not be surprised if the 49ers rebound to the top of the NFC West and count them as a playoff contender going forward. 

Loser: Houston Texans

In the span of a couple years, the Texans have become a joke of an NFL franchise. 14 months ago, they had a double-digit lead on the Kansas City Chiefs in the playoffs. Since then, franchise cornerstones DeAndre Hopkins and J.J. Watt have moved to Arizona, coach and general manager Bill O’Brien has been fired and franchise quarterback Deshaun Watson wants out and has made his disdain for the organization visible. I would love for former Ravens coach David Culley to succeed as the Texans’ head coach, but the current state of the Texans is laughable. The only thing that Houston can boast is that it has a stable of dominant 2019 running backs: Mark Ingram, Philip Lindsay and David Johnson. There’s not much else, and likely won’t be for a while. 

Winner: NFL Fans

With this last point, I want to address the 17-game schedule, which will almost certainly throw off my concept of the NFL. My biggest takeaway — the near elimination of .500 teams. Instead of finishing in the comfy 8-8 slot, mediocre teams will have to straggle the league average and finish either 9-8 (a winning record) or 8-9 (a losing record). An 8-8-1 season could happen — and I can guess who it could happen to first — but is pretty unlikely, and the road to an undefeated season just became one game tougher (and given that teams have to match with a team of similar standing for that 17th game, truly dominant teams that are 20-0 candidates will likely have a really tough game for that extra game). It’s too early to reach a verdict on the NFL’s latest act of expansion, but those two points alone bode well for the league. 

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