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Barnwell hands out offseason awards to every NFC team: The Commanders are most likely to …

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With NFL free agency and the 2024 draft in the books, it’s time to take a big-picture look backward at the offseason. This year, I’ve decided to encapsulate what I’ve learned about each team by handing every team a superlative for what it did this offseason. In some cases, teams furthered a trend they’ve exhibited for years. Others went in the opposite direction. Some made moves that form a clear plan. Others seemed to inexplicably change their plan between free agency in March and the draft in April.

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We’ll start with superlatives for the NFC’s 16 franchises. Next week, I’ll move over to the AFC side. Let’s begin with a team that doesn’t appear to be singing from the same hymn sheet as its most conspicuous voice:

Jump to an NFC team:
ARI | ATL | CAR | CHI
DAL | DET | GB | LAR
MIN | NO | NYG | PHI
SF | SEA | TB | WSH

NFC EAST

The superlative: Team most likely to utterly and completely ignore whatever its owner is saying

Owner Jerry Jones’ repeated proclamations that the Cowboys are “all-in” this offseason seem utterly and completely at odds with how his team has conducted the offseason. When you think of a team that is all-in, you probably envision one using every spare inch of its salary cap space, trading up in the draft and making the sorts of moves that make headlines and sell jerseys.

That isn’t exactly happening in Dallas. The Cowboys have lost seven players who lined up for at least 400 snaps last season, including longtime left tackle Tyron Smith and running back Tony Pollard. They’ve brought in exactly two veterans throughout free agency: linebacker Eric Kendricks and former lead back Ezekiel Elliott. They traded down with the Lions in Round 1 of the draft, gaining an extra third-round pick, but while allowing two offensive linemen to come off the board before they eventually drafted tackle Tyler Guyton. This does not look or feel like an all-in football team.

The Cowboys can’t be all-in in terms of adding talent this offseason because of the raises due to the players already on their roster. Wideout CeeDee Lamb has seen a bump from his $4.5 million salary in 2023 to $18 million as part of his fifth-year option, and he should top an annual average salary of $30 million per season on a contract extension. Edge rusher Micah Parsons, who is ticketed to make $5.3 million in the fourth year of his rookie deal, is eligible for a new contract that should get him north of $35 million per year.

And then there’s Dak Prescott, who holds all the leverage in negotiations in advance of the final year of his deal. Jones & Co. holding a hard bargaining line during Prescott’s prior contract talks accomplished little; the quarterback ended up getting franchise-tagged and then landed a market value deal with no-trade and no-franchise-tag clauses, meaning he’s now a year away from unrestricted free agency. The starting number in terms of average salary on his deal starts with a six. In all, that’s three players who were making about $50 million combined in 2023 who should be up around $125 million as early as this season.

I’m not so sure being all-in is a great way to run a football team, anyway. In 2021, the Rams felt pretty good when they traded two first-round picks for quarterback Matthew Stafford, added pass-rusher Von Miller at the trade deadline and eventually won Super Bowl LVI, but that’s not always a foolproof strategy. Ask the Dream Team Eagles or the Saints in the twilight of the Drew Brees era, teams that pushed the pedal to the metal and came up short. Even with a veteran roster, trading down and building a team that can win over multiple seasons is a smart philosophy. The Cowboys, who have made heavy investments in analytics over the past couple of years and generally made smart decisions during the draft, feel less and less like a team driven by Jones’ whims than ever before.

As it stands, they have set fans’ hopes artificially high without making the underlying moves to reinforce that optimism. Jones might be playing 4D chess, hoping to pin the blame on Prescott or coach Mike McCarthy when the Cowboys fail to live up to those all-in expectations in 2024. More realistically, given how they have conducted their offseason, it just feels like there’s a disconnect between what they’re doing and what Jones is saying to the public.


The superlative: Team most likely to bench its starting quarterback by the end of the season

While the Giants didn’t end up drafting a replacement for Daniel Jones, I wouldn’t say I’m optimistic about his chances of holding on to his job heading into 2025. For one, even before suffering a torn ACL last November, he showed little of the confidence and steadiness that helped earn him a contract extension in March 2023. He threw more interceptions (six) in six starts than he did across a full season in 2022 (five). He averaged a woeful 5.7 yards per attempt and took sacks on nearly 16% of his dropbacks.

It’s easy to blame an offensive line that struggled without left tackle Andrew Thomas early in the season while Jones was in the lineup. It’s fair to point out the Giants didn’t exactly field a threatening receiving corps. Those arguments held more weight when Jones was on a rookie deal as opposed to his four-year, $160 million pact. If a quarterback is getting paid $40 million per season, he needs to at least play passable football, even without his left tackle and with middling receivers. Jones wasn’t up to that task.

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Tannenbaum: Giants made a big mistake passing on J.J. McCarthy

Mike Tannenbaum was confused by the Giants drafting WR Malik Nabers over QB J.J. McCarthy considering Daniel Jones’ injury history.

This front office made a commitment to Jones after his surprising 2022 campaign, but coach Brian Daboll and general manager Joe Schoen also declined his fifth-year option that spring, suggesting they saw a different sort of quarterback for the Giants in the years to come. They also went out this offseason and gave Seattle backup Drew Lock a one-year deal worth a guaranteed $5 million; if you ask Seahawks GM John Schneider, Lock signed in New York because he was “sold” on the chance to compete for the starting job with Jones.

There’s a financial element here, too, as $23 million of Jones’ $41.6 million base salary in 2025 is guaranteed for injury, which would leave the Giants on the hook for that amount if he is unable to pass a physical next offseason. That’s a legitimate worry for Schoen and Daboll, given that Jones already has been sidelined in multiple seasons by neck issues and has completed one healthy season in the five years since being drafted.

In recent years, we’ve seen the Raiders (Derek Carr) and Broncos (Russell Wilson) bench their quarterbacks late in the season to avoid triggering future guarantees in their contracts. Given Jones’ struggles last season, his injury history and the presence of Lock, Jones is going to be on the hot seat in New York. He needs to win the 2025 job before Thanksgiving.


The superlative: Team with the most unlikely free agent signing of the offseason

Howie Roseman spending nearly $13 million per season on a veteran running back in free agency? In the past, that would have had me worried Chip Kelly had stolen access to the team’s fax machine and surreptitiously retaken control of operations in Philadelphia. A general manager who has spent as much as anybody on offensive linemen over the past decade while being perfectly happy to play midround picks, low-cost free agents and low-risk trade acquisitions at running back isn’t exactly the person I expected to sign Saquon Barkley, the top running back available.

When the deal was signed, I wrote about how signing a running back made more sense than it did in years past. The massive increase in the salary cap combined with the stagnation of the RB market makes a deal of this size — it’s really two years and just over $25 million — far more reasonable. Advanced metrics such as rush yards over expectation (RYOE) are beginning to create a better handle on splitting the impact of backs versus offensive linemen in the run game. It does seem telling the NFL’s three most analytically inclined organizations — the Browns, Eagles, and Ravens — either already had a highly paid back (Nick Chubb) or added one (Barkley and Derrick Henry) in March.

And yet, even acknowledging those facts, this still seems shocking. Barkley averaged 3.9 yards per carry last season and has a significant injury history, including a high-ankle sprain last season. The hit rate on second contracts for running backs, even without considering how much they cost, is remarkably low. And for an Eagles team that lost center Jason Kelce (retirement) and had bigger holes elsewhere on the roster, was paying up at running back really more likely to give them a reliable solution than trusting their prior plan at the position and using that money somewhere else?

The Eagles now field what might be the most expensive offense in NFL history. They have players on significant veteran contracts at quarterback, running back, both starting wideout spots, tight end, left tackle, left guard and right tackle. The only place they have players on rookie deals now, ironically, is up front at center and right guard.

So much of what Philadelphia has done this offseason feels like a reaction to what went wrong down the stretch during its brutal end to 2023, when it lost six of their final seven contests. The Eagles replaced both coordinators. Barkley has come in to give them a more reliable runner between the tackles and to take some of the rushing load off quarterback Jalen Hurts. (I still think Barkley is going to get some of the Tush Push work.) They signed linebacker Devin White, brought back defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson on a multiyear deal after being unwilling to give him that sort of contract a year ago and used their first two draft picks on cornerbacks after seeing their pass defense melt down in December and January.


The superlative: Team least likely to make headlines

In the post-Daniel Snyder era, the new ownership and front office in Washington has generally shied from doing splashy things or making the sort of high-profile decision the former team owner seemed to make and regret time after time during his two decades in charge. Whether that meant big-name free agents, coaches and executives or outlandish contracts, the Commanders seemed to operate in their own universe at times.

It’s always a big deal when a team drafts a quarterback in the top five — Washington’s offseason will be made on how Jayden Daniels pans out — but what was otherwise striking was how normal and understandable so many of their moves seem. The new regime hired a well-respected but untested general manager in San Francisco’s Adam Peters, then flirted with other coaching options before eventually hiring Dan Quinn, a culture-builder who took the Falcons to Super Bowl LI and dramatically improved the Cowboys’ defense within his first two years of joining those organizations. (Don’t ask about what happened in between.)

When it came to personnel, the Commanders didn’t take a big swing and instead invested in bargain deals for a handful of veterans. Their biggest signing was former Quinn charge Dorance Armstrong, who had 21 sacks over the past three years in a situational role in Dallas. They plumbed the depths of the Panthers’ defense for Frankie Luvu and Jeremy Chinn, players who looked like potential Pro Bowlers at different times over the past few years. Running back Austin Ekeler and corner Michael Davis were meaningful parts of a playoff team in Los Angeles as recently as 2022. Their highest-profile signing was Bobby Wagner, whose one-year deal is as much about reestablishing the team’s culture as it is landing a valuable middle linebacker.

Trying to hit singles isn’t a guaranteed path to success, and some of Washington’s other moves raised more questions. The decision to hire Kliff Kingsbury as offensive coordinator after his teams failed to launch in Arizona seems questionable, and we’ll have to see how his offense melds with new O-line coach Bobby Johnson’s running game. Quinn’s defenses have been great only when he has had stars such as Earl Thomas and Micah Parsons, and he doesn’t have that sort of player in this lineup. And to some extent, the Commanders’ moves were defined by their limitations: This hasn’t been an organization in which players have wanted to come play, and they weren’t one star away from meaningfully contending for anything. In the big picture, though, it’s worth appreciating the contrast between the old Commanders and the new ones.

NFC NORTH

The superlative: Team most likely to have the same items on its shopping list in 2025

Bears fans are rightfully excited about the 2024 season. They’re about to bring back a defense that ranked second in the NFL in points allowed per drive over the second half of the season and join it with an offense that added quarterback Caleb Williams and wide receivers Rome Odunze and Keenan Allen this offseason. If Williams is the sort of prospect many project and the defense holds its gains from a year ago, Chicago should be competing for a division title, if not raising its sights even higher.

One thing I’ve learned over the years, though, is you’ll often be disappointed if you look at year-to-year roster changes that way. Assuming everything that went right one year will go right the next and that everything that went wrong will be improved by offseason changes is usually a good way to be disappointed. I’m optimistic about the Bears, but I don’t think they’re going to have a top-five offense and defense in 2024.

If that doesn’t happen, it’ll probably be because they didn’t do enough to address their concerns along the line of scrimmage. While Matt Eberflus’ defense broke out in the second half of 2023 after acquiring edge rusher Montez Sweat via trade, the pass rush still ranked 21st in sack rate and 25th in pressure rate. (As I wrote last week, the Bears’ turnaround was mostly driven by a dramatic spike in turnover rate, which is more difficult to sustain from year to year.) They didn’t sign a significant pass-rusher to join their rotation this offseason.

And along the offensive line, the most notable addition they made was Ryan Bates, who lost his job with the Bills after struggling as a starter at guard in 2022. Chicago seems set to try the utility lineman at center in 2024, where he’ll compete with former Rams starter Coleman Shelton. Both players have experience, but neither has been a plus lineman as a pro.

Questions remain about 2022 fifth-round pick Braxton Jones, who missed six games last season and allowed pressures on 14.2% of opposing dropbacks while playing left tackle. Justin Fields‘ inconsistencies in the pocket didn’t help, but the Bears are now trusting Jones to protect their latest franchise quarterback. GM Ryan Poles used a third-round pick on Kiran Amegadjie, but the tackle from Yale is regarded as more of a project than a ready-made rookie starter.

Nobody should fault the Bears for drafting Williams and Odunze in the top 10 — and Poles could still add players in the months to come — but don’t be surprised if we’re sitting here next March counting on Chicago to prioritize offensive linemen and pass-rushers in free agency.


The superlative: Team least likely to doubt Jared Goff

Few players have had higher highs and lower lows during their NFL careers than Goff. On the low end, the 2016 No. 1 overall pick endured one of the worst rookie seasons in league history, was essentially benched at the end of his Rams career for John Wolford in a playoff game during the 2020 season, got shipped off as salary ballast to the Lions as part of the Matthew Stafford deal and was then nearly benched by Detroit coach Dan Campbell during the 2021 season. On the other hand, Goff was the point guard on a high-octane Rams offense that made it to Super Bowl LIII. He then nearly made it back with the 2023 Lions, only to be felled by a dramatic fourth-quarter comeback by the 49ers.

The Lions are now paying for the Goff who ranks sixth in the NFL in QBR since the second half of the 2022 campaign, as they signed their quarterback to a four-year, $212 million extension in mid-May. He is set to make $153.6 million over the next three years, a mammoth amount of money for a player whose confidence seemed shot at the end of his tenure with the Rams and early during his time in Detroit.

After more than 4,400 pass attempts as an NFL quarterback, the book on Goff is clear. Let him get in rhythm and give him an offense that can attack the middle of the field and he will look like Joe Montana. At his best, he is an incredibly accurate passer with the ability to both anticipate receivers coming free while throwing them open. More often than not over the past two seasons, that’s the quarterback he has been.

When Goff doesn’t have time to throw, well, he’s not that. Every quarterback gets worse when they’re under pressure — and the Lions have a great offensive line — but he falls off more than most when under duress. He was the league’s best quarterback when unpressured last season, but that fell to 24th when he had a defender in his face. That’s a trend that has stuck around since his days in Los Angeles:

This isn’t a criticism of the signing. The Lions have championship aspirations, don’t have another quarterback with pro success on their roster and just came within a couple of drives of advancing to the Super Bowl. Goff’s average salary amounts to just under 21% of the salary cap, and that’s what the going rate looks like for veteran quarterbacks; it’s right between what Derek Carr and Dak Prescott got when they signed extensions with their teams. It certainly reinforces why teams drafted six quarterbacks in the first half of Round 1 in April; landing even a league-average passer for less than eight figures per season remains the biggest competitive advantage in American sports.

Part of being a quarterback in the NFL is managing expectations. Goff has routinely mixed brilliant performances with disaster games as a pro, including last season. He threw five picks across two games against the Bears. He fumbled three times in a loss to the Packers. When he was a pleasant surprise and had a below-market deal, those bad games felt like aberrations and quickly faded from memory. When the expectation is championship-caliber play, as we saw with the Rams, those sorts of performances can quickly turn attitudes sour.


The superlative: Team with the most inflated contract leak of the offseason

Part of being an agent in the modern NFL is sending generous contract terms to the media. In the NBA, it’s difficult to be too misleading with contracts because a max deal is essentially a max deal. Unguaranteed money is the exception, not the rule. In the NFL, the opposite is true, which leads to some dramatic differences between initial reports on contracts and what actually plays out when the precise terms are reported.

The biggest gap between early reports and reality this year belonged to the Josh Jacobs deal with the Packers. Upon signing, the report was the running back had signed a four-year, $48 million contract to leave the Raiders and join Green Bay. And on paper, if he plays all four years, it is true he will make $48 million.

In reality, though? This is a one-year, $13.2 million contract, with the rest of the money unguaranteed. Jacobs could make about $1 million more this year in workout and roster bonuses, but a quarter of the money originally reported on this deal is actually guaranteed. Even by NFL standards, that’s a dramatic outlier. This is basically a second franchise tag for Jacobs (who made $11.8 million on a deal based off the actual tag in 2023), just coming from another team and without the constraints of the real tag.

If anything, signing this four-year deal is worse for Jacobs than the one-year pact. Why? From the Packers’ side, they’re actually getting more leverage by doing this contract as opposed to a one-year deal. By signing him to a four-year pact in which the final three years are unguaranteed, they’re essentially getting three unguaranteed options on the former first-round pick for 2025, 2026 and 2027. If he impresses in 2024, the Packers can re-up for one year and $8.2 million next year. If he’s solid again in 2025, GM Brian Gutekunst can get another season at $11.5 million. Jacobs and his representation might want to get a new deal as opposed to these year-to-year pacts if he impresses, but Green Bay would hold the leverage in getting those deals done.


The superlative: Team most likely to buy the supplemental insurance

The extended warranty on your smartphone. The extra insurance when you rent a car. Peace of mind goes a long way, but there’s a reason why a company is happy to sell you that contract: It’s a moneymaker for them in the long run. Every NFL team wants to add depth and build in backup plans, but the Vikings made serious commitments to a series of contingencies.

First, after losing Kirk Cousins to the Falcons in free agency, they signed Sam Darnold to a one-year, $10 million deal with $8.8 million guaranteed. That’s about double what he made with the 49ers in 2023 and more than any other backup quarterback in the league. Unless the Vikings really saw something when he averaged 6.5 yards per pass attempt with the 49ers in 46 garbage time/Week 18 snaps, they were paying a premium to ensure they would have Darnold as an option if they didn’t land a quarterback in Round 1 of the draft.

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Is Justin Jefferson missing start of OTAs something or nothing?

Adam Schefter reports on Justin Jefferson missing the start of Vikings OTAs, and Dan Orlovsky weighs in on Jefferson’s absence.

Then, to theoretically add more capital in the hopes of trading up, Minnesota sent two second-round picks and a sixth-round selection to the Texans for the No. 23 overall pick and a seventh-rounder. It’s still unclear why the Vikings were willing to light draft capital on fire to land an additional first-rounder as opposed to simply holding on to those second-rounders and moving them in a draft-day deal instead. In the end, they didn’t need that additional first-round pick to take quarterback J.J. McCarthy (or weren’t able to use it to land Drake Maye), at which point they consolidated further and spent even more to move up for edge rusher Dallas Turner.

After cycling through four starting quarterbacks last season, you can understand why coach Kevin O’Connell and GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah wanted to have a quarterback they believed in once the game of musical chairs stopped in April. In paying a premium for Darnold and trading away excess draft capital for the mere possibility a first-round pick would be needed in a trade, though, the Vikings might have outthought themselves.

NFC SOUTH

The superlative: Team most likely to surprise its new starting quarterback … with a new quarterback

You probably saw this one coming, which wasn’t the case for Kirk Cousins when the Falcons shockingly drafted their quarterback of the future before their quarterback of the present had taken a single snap for the organization. I’ve already laid out my thoughts on the decision to draft Michael Penix Jr. at No. 8 overall and what it means for the short- and long-term future of the Falcons, but nothing has happened or come to light since the draft to add context to Atlanta’s process.

A better superlative might be “Most likely to use a quarterback to rush the opposing quarterback,” since the Falcons don’t appear to have addressed their pass rush over the past few months. Despite ranking 19th in both pressure and sack rate and then losing their two most productive pass-rushers — veterans Calais Campbell and Bud Dupree — Atlanta hasn’t done much to bring in help. It signed James Smith-Williams from the Commanders, who had one sack a year ago. It used a pair of midround picks on interior defensive players in Ruke Orhorhoro and Brandon Dorlus, but its only addition on the edge was third-rounder Bralen Trice.

I don’t really understand the Falcons’ plans. Once they signed Cousins, independent of what was going to happen with their first-round pick, they signaled they were going to try to compete with a veteran quarterback over the next couple of seasons. Instead, they’re treating their front seven like it should peak two years from now. Everything about their offseason would make sense if they hadn’t signed Cousins. You wonder whether both sides might regret that deal before a snap has been played.


The superlative: Team least likely to leave a stone unturned

Contrast whatever the Falcons are doing with how the Panthers have elected to conduct their offseason. You can certainly quibble with the players they’ve added, and they might not have a star in the mix, but it’s not difficult to see what their plan was after a disastrous 2023 campaign: Help second-year quarterback Bryce Young at all costs.

And so they have. To last year’s mix, the Panthers have imported two new starting wide receivers in Diontae Johnson and first-round pick Xavier Legette. They added a new running back of the future in Jonathon Brooks, let alone fun backup candidates Mike Boone and Rashaad Penny. They spent big up front on guards Robert Hunt and Damien Lewis and added competition for disappointing 2022 first-round pick Ikem Ekwonu with former Packers swing tackle Yosh Nijman. And in what might be the most important move, they hired Dave Canales to take over as coach after a fine season coaxing a resurgent performance out of Baker Mayfield in Tampa Bay.

Most of that talent is coming in to supplement and challenge last year’s regulars as opposed to replacing meaningful contributors. The only offensive players who played at least 500 snaps for Carolina a year ago and aren’t back for 2024 are center Bradley Bozeman, wideout DJ Chark and guard Calvin Throckmorton, none of whom are likely to be missed. Outside of tight end, where the only major addition was fourth-round pick Ja’Tavion Sanders, the Panthers have added multiple contributors at every level and position group on offense.

Do those moves guarantee Young will get back on track and the Panthers will be just fine on offense moving forward? Of course not. Legette might not be an immediate contributor. Ekwonu could continue to struggle. Canales might not be the offensive visionary they are hoping, just as Frank Reich turned out to be disappointing. It’s also true that their offensive depth chart looks a lot better on paper than it did this time a year ago. And if Young does struggle again, they will have a much better sense of whether their issues on offense lay with the quarterback or with his supporting cast.


The superlative: Team most likely to run it back

As part of their annual protest against the NFL’s salary cap, the Saints are tasked with executing a series of restructures and extensions to create the room needed to get under the league maximum. Players get paid their base salaries up-front as bonuses, the team gets under the cap and New Orleans fans can tweet out stuff about how the cap is fake and their executives are wizards. It’s a fun time every year.

One of the impacts of that philosophy, practiced to the extreme extent that the Saints employ restructures, is that they end up locked into the vast majority of their core. Even if they wanted to, the Saints couldn’t afford to cut a half-dozen veterans to become cap compliant or to clear out room to add talent in free agency. The only practical way for them to make their situation work is to restructure deals and keep kicking the can into the future.

Most organizations would see what happened with the 2023 Saints as a reason to make major changes. Facing the league’s easiest schedule, the oldest team in the league by snap-weighted age went 9-8 and missed out on the postseason. The fan base seemingly turned on the team’s most notable new addition in years, quarterback Derek Carr, booing the former Raiders starter off the field on multiple occasions. Outside of the season-ending blowout win over the Falcons, there were precious few positive vibes around this franchise.

Instead, whether because of the cap issues or their belief in the roster, the Saints are essentially running things back again. Of the 22 players who suited up for 500 snaps on offense or defense for them a year ago, 19 will return. The only exceptions are offensive tackle James Hurst, who retired, and guard Andrus Peat and cornerback Isaac Yiadom, whose contracts expired before leaving in free agency. Veteran wideout Michael Thomas and safety Marcus Maye narrowly miss out on that total and were released, but you get the idea: The New Orleans team you saw in 2023 is mostly going to be the players you see on the field in 2024, just one year older.


The superlative: Team most likely to use its top pick to beef up the line of scrimmage

Bucs GM Jason Licht might be the new Howie Roseman. While the Eagles GM has understandably been recognized as a man singularly focused on improving his team’s offensive and defensive lines, Licht might be even more consistent when it comes to using key draft capital to shore up his team’s big bodies.

Over his past six drafts, Licht’s emphasis on linemen has been notable. In 2018, he used his first-round pick on defensive tackle Vita Vea, who grew into a building block for the Tampa Bay defense that led the franchise to a Super Bowl LV win. In 2020, his first-round pick was Tristan Wirfs, who shored up left tackle for Tom Brady during that title run. In 2021, Licht chose defensive end Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, then followed that in 2023 with another defensive lineman in Calijah Kancey.

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Why the Buccaneers’ GM likes it when people doubt his team

Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht explains to Pat McAfee why doubters continue to motivate Tampa Bay.

In 2022, the Bucs didn’t have a first-round pick, but they used their two second-round selections on defensive lineman Logan Hall and offensive lineman Luke Goedeke. The only exception was 2019, when their first-round pick was linebacker Devin White. That’s a lot of premium draft capital being used on the big men in the trenches.

Licht went back to the well this April in using his first-round pick on offensive lineman Graham Barton. A college left tackle, he’s expected to move inside to center, where he’ll fill in for retired standout Ryan Jensen. There’s always risk in moving a player to a new position at the pro level, but Barton was regarded by some as the best interior line prospect in this class. It’s often easier for college tackles to kick inside as opposed to players traveling in the opposite direction.

NFC WEST

The superlative: Team most likely to trade down

Lots of general managers say they’re open for business and willing to trade down for the right price. When push comes to shove on draft day, that isn’t always the case. Cardinals GM Monti Ossenfort is still at the beginning of his rebuild of Arizona after years of mismanagement, but he has proved to be an executive willing to back up what he has suggested.

During the 2023 draft, Ossenfort traded down three times, most notably in the deal that landed the organization edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. He traded back up for offensive tackle Paris Johnson Jr., but those three moves down netted the Cardinals six selections, including a second-round pick in 2023 and a first-round pick in 2024.

Despite ranking among the league leaders in draft capital heading into April’s draft, Ossenfort rightly recognized his team could stand to add more cost-controlled young talent and traded down twice more during draft weekend. He was able to swap a sixth-round pick for a third-rounder by moving down nine spots in the second round, then netted a sixth-round pick for moving down three spots in the third round.

Trading down for the sake of trading down isn’t going to rebuild a franchise, and the most important thing is still drafting valuable players. If Anderson builds off a promising rookie season and becomes a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, the Texans will be happy they moved up. And given that they exceeded expectations and made it to the postseason in C.J. Stroud‘s rookie year, that 2024 first-rounder that loomed as a potential top-five pick for the Cardinals ended up falling all the way to No. 27, making the trade less costly.

At the same time, history tells us the best way to build a team out of mediocrity into a contender is to amass draft capital. It’s how Jimmy Johnson built the 1990s Cowboys dynasty and how Bill Belichick built the Patriots into Super Bowl winners over the past 20 years. Tom Brady, quite famously, was a sixth-round compensatory pick. The Cardinals aren’t one player away from competing for a Super Bowl, so Ossenfort is rightly playing the percentages and getting extra draft picks to help restock the cupboard.


The superlative: Team most likely to have a Hall of Fame-sized hole in its pass rush

No team would be the same after losing Aaron Donald, who announced his retirement in March. He was the most singularly destructive pass-rushing force of the past decade. It’s remarkable that we basically got to witness the primes of J.J. Watt and Donald back-to-back in terms of two pass-rushers who were so utterly unblockable at their best. Watt single-handedly won the Texans playoff games, but Donald swung Super Bowl LVI toward the Rams during their second-half comeback over the Bengals.

Everything now changes for the Rams moving forward. We’ve seen Donald help create breakout years for players such as Dante Fowler Jr. and Leonard Floyd, and he helped kick-start rookies Byron Young and Kobie Turner as pass-rushers along the line of scrimmage last season. The Rams have been able to parlay his leverage into opportunities for other players; as an example, there are offensive lines that would automatically slide his way in pass protection regardless of the defensive alignment, allowing L.A. to create mismatches and overloads with its personnel. It won’t get those same sorts of tells post-Donald.

GM Les Snead & Co. have done their best to try to build a post-Donald defensive line. In addition to Young and Turner, the Rams will bring back Michael Hoecht and Bobby Brown. They spent their first-round pick on edge rusher Jared Verse and then paid a pretty penny in the second round to move up and pair him with Florida State teammate Braden Fiske. None of those guys is going to have the sort of impact Donald had in Los Angeles, but this is a much deeper defensive line than what the Rams rolled out behind him over the past couple of seasons.

The secondary should also be better. After going with a group so young that even the Packers might have blushed a year ago, the Rams imported veterans in Tre’Davious White, Darious Williams and Kamren Curl over the past two months. White might not be ready to start the year after tearing his Achilles in Buffalo in 2023 and Williams is 31 years old in his return to the organization, but this is a much better group on paper than the one they rolled out a year ago.

If you’re getting “Moneyball” vibes, you’re not off: Without any hope of replacing Donald with a like-for-like interior disruptor, this might be Snead’s way of trying to replace him in the aggregate. The Rams will miss Donald, but if they’re better on the edge and in the secondary, they might be able to survive his retirement.


The superlative: Team most likely to take an exciting playmaker in the middle rounds who might never see the field

Hey, even Kyle Shanahan knows this one is true. During their tenure with the 49ers, Shanahan and GM John Lynch have built a fearsome group of playmakers. They drafted Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel with top-40 selections, landed George Kittle with a fifth-round pick and traded a handful of selections to acquire Christian McCaffrey. They were my pick as the best set of playmakers in football heading into 2023, and I don’t anticipate them falling out of the top spot when I put together those same rankings later this summer.

You could also build an entire offense or two out of the players Shanahan and Lynch have gone after at the playmaker spots. They used a second-round pick on Dante Pettis and third-round picks on wide receivers Jalen Hurd and Danny Gray. Pettis was traded before the end of his rookie deal. Hurd never played an NFL snap. Gray had one catch as a rookie, was placed on injured reserve last season and never came off. He’s likely to be buried on the depth chart behind 2024 first-rounder Ricky Pearsall.

Running back, though, has been the place in which Shanahan has tossed the most picks with limited success. Leaving aside the injury that prevented Jerick McKinnon from living up to a significant free agent deal in 2018, the 49ers traded up in the fourth round of the 2017 draft at Shanahan’s behest to draft Joe Williams. He never played an NFL snap. In 2021, they used a third-rounder on Trey Sermon, who was gone after one season. The following year, they used another third-rounder on Tyrion Davis-Price, who had 40 carries for just 120 yards before being released before the end of Year 2.

The latest addition is Isaac Guerendo in Round 4. Like Williams, Guerendo is a size/speed talent; both players led their respective classes in Speed Score. Unlike Williams, who had a 1,407-yard season at Utah, though, Guerendo wasn’t a productive or regular back during his time in college; injuries and other backs limited him to just 582 yards across five years at Wisconsin before 810 yards in his lone season with Louisville.

You can understand why Shanahan would be enthralled. As talented as McCaffrey is, there’s always a place on the roster for a back who can run a 4.33-second 40-yard dash, as the 221-pound Guerendo did at the NFL combine. If he can play on special teams, he could be the new version of Matt Breida, who served as the home run hitter at times in the San Francisco rushing attack alongside fellow undrafted free agents Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson. As the 129th pick in the draft, Guerendo isn’t going to drag the team out of the postseason if he fails to live up to Shanahan’s hopes.

While it might not feel like a big deal if Lynch and Shanahan whiff on a pick or two when you consider how successful the 49ers have been elsewhere, those misses add up to something more meaningful. Even given that they have recouped some compensatory picks over the past few years after losing several executives to jobs elsewhere, they’re still missing years of draft capital as a product of their failed trade up for Trey Lance in 2021. When teams whiff on picks or trade them away to move up, they end up in situations in which they’re relying on veteran journeymen such as Logan Ryan and Oren Burks or disappointing draftees like Spencer Burford in key moments, and mistakes or underwhelming play from those guys in big moments helped cost the 49ers Super Bowl LVIII.


The superlative: Team most likely to break my heart with a disappointing cut during the offseason

There was no way the Seahawks were going to keep Jamal Adams on his existing deal. The former Jets star hasn’t recorded a sack in three seasons while missing 29 of 51 possible games over that span. He was owed a $16.5 million base salary in 2024, and even before the free agent market flooded with veteran safeties, there was no way the Seahawks could bring him back at that figure given his injury history.

That’s a shame, because if there’s anybody I would want to see create havoc in a Mike Macdonald pressure package around the line of scrimmage, it’s Adams. At his best, his closing speed made him a joy to watch as he chased down opposing quarterbacks. Used in the right role as a linebacker on passing downs and factor on sim pressures and straight-up blitzes, a healthy Adams could have been appointment film each week.

There’s always a chance he could return, given that he hasn’t signed elsewhere, but this also feels like a moment to take a step backward. The Seahawks brutally whiffed on the Adams trade in 2020, sending two first-round picks to the Jets for what amounted to one year of productive pass-rushing from the safety spot. GM John Schneider then won one of the biggest trades in recent league history, landing both a series of players and multiple valuable first-round picks from the Broncos as part of the Russell Wilson trade in 2022.

Were the two trades a cumulative net positive for Seattle? I think so, but it’s close. As part of the Wilson trade, the Seahawks eventually landed left tackle Charles Cross, cornerback Devon Witherspoon and edge defender Boye Mafe, all of whom have already established themselves as starters. (They also picked up edge rusher Derick Hall and veterans including quarterback Drew Lock, tight end Noah Fant and defensive tackle Shelby Harris, who made less notable contributions in part-time roles.)

Those are three standouts, but what if the Seahawks hadn’t made the Adams deal? The picks shipped off eventually landed left tackle Christian Darrisaw and wideout Garrett Wilson, along with a short-lived career for guard Wyatt Davis. Like the players they eventually landed from the Wilson trade, the Adams deal produced a franchise left tackle and a superstar in the passing game for the team(s) that landed the picks.

More than anything, maybe the trades should be a reminder that this stuff is hard. Schneider drafted multiple Hall of Famers in his first two drafts and then developed a reputation of wasting first-round picks on disappointing players or trades down. He and former coach Pete Carroll made a trade for Adams that looked foolish on paper and turned out to be a mess, then made a deal that looked like a franchise-altering proposition and turned out to be a stroke of genius. If you think you have a handle on what a general manager does or does not do well, wait a year and look again.

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