Free Agency Reshapes NFL Landscape

I've been covering the National Football League for 16 years, and this is the most active early offseason I can remember. It's a little dizzying to keep track of so much player movement, and I will always wish that free agency and fairness to athletes were more compatible with loyalty and players spending their careers with a single team. But it's also fun, trying to assess how the moves shake up 2018 NFL forecasts. In this piece, I assess several teams that will look substantially different in 2018.

Los Angeles Rams

Last year, they led the NFL in scoring, went 11-5, and won the NFC West. Since then, they've acquired Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters, and Ndamukong Suh. Talib and Peters were All-Pros in 2016 — they got as many votes from the Associated Press as all other cornerbacks combined — but Talib appears to be slowing down and the Chiefs shopped Peters before trading him. Furthermore, those additions were largely offset by the departures of Robert Quinn, Alec Ogletree, and Trumaine Johnson, not to mention the draft picks traded for Talib and Peters.

There are no buts about the Ndamukong Suh signing. It's a massive win for the Rams. Suh is one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL, and pairing him with Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers should create nightmares for opposing offenses. It's a one-year deal, with Suh playing for his next contract, so there's minimal risk even if you're suspicious of a player who's only missed two games in eight seasons and who never leaves the field, playing the most snaps of any defensive lineman almost every year.

If the Rams can add a wide receiver and a good edge rusher between now and September, they could be Super Bowl favorites heading into Week 1.

New York Jets

Is there any method to the Jets' madness? I have been making fun of Daniel Snyder for 13 years now — well, longer than that, but 13 years for something specific. In the week leading up to the 2005 draft, Washington traded first-, third-, and fourth-round choices to the Broncos so it could move up and take quarterback Jason Campbell 25th. Aaron Rodgers unexpectedly fell in the draft, and Green Bay selected him 24th. If Snyder had waited until draft day, he could have traded up to get Rodgers instead of Campbell.

Apparently impressed by Snyder's gaffe, the Jets last week traded a top-10 draft pick and three 2nd-round picks to the Colts for ... the third overall choice in this year's draft. That's three 2nd-round picks to move up three spots, for the right to select ... whom?

If it's a quarterback they want, as most assume, then they either love not one, not two, but three rookie QB prospects, or they're shockingly confident that the one they really want won't go in the first two picks. Trading up so aggressively for an unknown quarterback is especially odd because the Jets recently signed Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater for a combined $15 million.

If they're targeting Saquon Barkley, they can't count on his being around at that point, either. The most plausible explanation, I think, is that there are three players the Jets see as franchise-changers, but that not all of the three are quarterbacks. Perhaps they like Barkley and two of the QBs, or maybe Bradley Chubb is in the mix somewhere. Certainly it will be fascinating to see how the Jets handle their draft. In the meantime, though, they paid an enormous ransom to move up three spots in the draft, for the opportunity to select one of three players, dependent on the whims of the Browns and Giants. It's a move worthy of Daniel Snyder.

Minnesota Vikings

Minnesota made the biggest splash of the offseason by signing Kirk Cousins. Now the highest-paid player in league history, Cousins should represent an upgrade over journeymen Case Keenum and Sam Bradford, and he's joining a team already loaded with talent. Last year's Vikings went 13-3 and reached the NFC Championship Game with a backup QB and a committee of backup running backs filling in for injured rookie Dalvin Cook.

Minnesota has also signed former Jet and Seahawk Sheldon Richardson to a one-year deal, providing some insurance on defense, where it's unlikely the team can stay as healthy as it did in 2017. But the real intrigue comes from a new-look offense, featuring not only a new quarterback but also a new coordinator, former Eagles QB coach John DeFilippo. Cousins should be a clear upgrade, the team's best passer in years. He's had three straight seasons with 4,000 yards, 25 pass TDs, 4 rush TDs, and a passer rating over 90. The biggest concern about Cousins probably relates to his uneven play under pressure, which could present a problem for a team with championship aspirations.

Cleveland Browns

No team intrigues me more than the Cleveland Browns. They went winless last year, but next season's team should look substantially different. Last year, Cleveland had the worst passing game in the league, with 28 interceptions, an astonishing 27% worse than the 31st-ranked Broncos (22), and a 61.4 passer rating that was equally bad, with Denver (73.0) again 31st. Next year's Browns won't have Joe Thomas, who played the first half of last season but has since retired. They will, however, have a new quarterback (Tyrod Taylor), new running back (Carlos Hyde), and a receiving corps with huge upside: Jarvis Landry (acquired from Miami), Josh Gordon (back from suspension), and Corey Coleman (a 2016 1st-round pick who has mostly remained on injured reserve).

The Browns also upgraded their secondary with E.J. Gaines and Damarious Randall, starters for the Bills and Packers, respectively, in 2017. And of course, Cleveland has the richest stock of draft capital in decades, including the 1st and 4th overall picks, plus two more in the top 35. While one of the 1st-round choices will presumably yield a quarterback, given time to develop behind Taylor and perhaps Drew Stanton, the draft could easily yield three or four Day-One starters.

The Browns have convincingly addressed their greatest problem with the additions of Taylor and Landry, and they've made upgrades elsewhere as well. If things break right, this team could conceivably win the AFC North in 2018. The Bengals are going backwards, the Ravens are spinning their wheels with Joe Flacco, and the Steelers are vulnerable, with Ryan Shazier gone and Ben Roethlisberger 36. If Ben, or Le'Veon Bell, or Antonio Brown misses substantial time, it's easy to see Pittsburgh faltering to 8-8 or so, and if the Browns get consistent play from their rookies and keep guys like Myles Garrett and Josh Gordon on the field, they could better that mark. I wouldn't bet on it, but it's a realistic possibility.

Miami Dolphins

They signed Brock Osweiler, but I don't know how long he'll remain on the roster. The plan is for Ryan Tannehill to retake the reins, with Jay Cutler presumably retiring. Instead of Jarvis Landry, Tannehill will throw to Danny Amendola and Albert Wilson. Instead of handing off to Jay Ajayi, he's got Kenyan Drake and Frank Gore. Center Mike Pouncey, who had one good season six years ago, is gone, and former All-Pro guard Josh Sitton should represent a serious upgrade to the offensive line. And of course, Ndamukong Suh is gone.

Few teams will look more different this season. That could be good, given that Miami went 6-10 last year, or it could be bad, if you think the "real" Dolphins are the ones who went 10-6 the year before and simply had some bad luck last season. It's hard for me to see significant progress: since the start of last season, the team has traded away probably its two best offensive players, and lost perhaps its best defensive player as a salary cap casualty. Tannehill's return will probably help, and the defense is better than it showed last season, so I could be wrong. But Miami has been held back by lack of stability for something like a decade now, constantly overhauling and never giving any scheme or group of players a chance to gel.

New England Patriots

I could wrap this up with the Giants, who inexplicably traded Jason Pierre-Paul to the Bucs and who hold the second pick in the draft, or the Panthers, who have lost Andrew Norwell and Star Lotulelei, or the Texans, who added Tyrann Mathieu and who are getting Deshaun Watson, J.J. Watt, and Whitney Mercilus back. But instead, let's continue our tour of the AFC East.

A number of major contributors to the team's success will be absent in 2018. Dion Lewis and Danny Amendola are gone, replaced by Jeremy Hill and a healthy Julian Edelman. Longtime left tackle Nate Solder signed with the Giants, and Martellus Bennett retired, with Rob Gronkowski's future still unclear. Alan Branch and James Harrison are free agents, and Malcolm Butler joined the Titans.

Lewis led the team in rushing and kickoff returns. Amendola was the number two wide receiver. Solder started every game. Butler's absence may have cost New England the Super Bowl. To be sure, the Patriots have made some additions as well. If Edelman is healthy, he's an upgrade over Amendola. Danny Shelton replaces Branch, Adrian Clayborn can step in for Harrison, and perhaps Jason McCourty can help fill the void left by Butler. So much of the Patriots' character derives from head coach Bill Belichick, perhaps they won't miss defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, now the head coach in Detroit.

It's a lot of turnover, though, and Tom Brady will turn 41 during preseason. I don't think the rest of the AFC East is in a position to challenge the Patriots, unless the Bills hit gold with their draft picks — a legit possibility, given that they have two selections in each of the first three rounds — but I'd be surprised to see New England playing in February for the third year in a row.

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