Thousand Oaks, CA, USA; Los Angeles Rams receiver Allen Robinson II (1) during organized team activities at California Lutheran University. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
We kicked things off with the AFC, now we move to the NFC. A handful of 2021 playoff teams lost more talent than they added, namely the Arizona Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys, but every transaction big or small can still make an impact.
Sometimes, the deals you don’t make can also be your best long-term moves. Teams across the NFC hope the tough decisions they made this offseason will turn out for the best. It’s important to think several years down the road when making any investment and not get caught up in maximizing a short-term window, especially in a sport with as much randomness as football.
Let’s examine the best offseason move for all 16 NFC teams.
The Cardinals lost a lot of talent this offseason, but staying true to their valuations should age well in the long run, especially if/when they sign quarterback Kyler Murray to a large multi-year extension before Week 1. Chandler Jones has been a staple of the Cardinals defense for the last half-decade, but not matching the three-year, $51 million deal he signed with the Raiders for his age 32-34 seasons has a strong chance of looking like the prudent move. Normally an elite pass-rusher and plus run-defender, Jones is coming off the consecutive worst run-defense grades of his career in 2020-21.
Sending a first-round pick to the Baltimore Ravens for wide receiver Marquise Brown and a third-round pick may have been a bit of an overpay, but when factoring in the third-round compensatory pick Arizona is slated to receive in 2023 for letting Kirk walk, it becomes more palatable. While Brown may now push for an extension at a similar value, he’s been more productive as an outside wide receiver and has displayed a higher top-end speed on the field according to NGS tracking data.
The Falcons comfortably had the league’s worst edge rush group in 2021, generating just 67 quarterback pressures, almost 30 fewer than the next-worst team. They registered only 8.5 total sacks, also a league low, and earned the lowest grade of any edge defender unit with a 50.9 mark.
Enter Ebiketie, who had multiple quarterback pressures in every game he played in in 2021 after transferring to Penn State from Temple. The step up in competition with his move to the Big Ten didn’t faze him, earning a 90.5 pass-rush grade with a 22.9% pass-rush win rate.
Atlanta needed more pass-rush juice alongside recently extended interior defender Grady Jarrett, and Ebiketie is a good start.
We’ve already lauded the Panthers’ additions across the offensive line this offseason, with center Bradley Bozeman making our list of top 32 contracts in the NFL. The addition of interior defender Matt Ioannidis late in the offseason after he was surprisingly let go by the Commanders could also make a major impact on the defensive line opposite Derrick Brown. But the Panthers saved their best move for last in finally agreeing to a trade with the Cleveland Browns for Mayfield.
All Carolina had to give up was a 2024 conditional fifth-round pick that could become a fourth-rounder based on playing time and roughly $5 million in salary. Since Mayfield and Darnold were taken with the No. 1 and No. 3 overall picks in the 2018 Draft, Mayfield has earned an 80.0 passing grade compared to Darnold’s 58.5. He has a 6.1% big-time-throw rate (6th) compared to Darnold’s 3.6% (51st).
No singular move deserves acclaim as the best move this offseason for the Bears, but that’s exactly how a rebuild should be approached at the outset. Chicago is several pieces away from a competitive unit on both sides of the ball, and that’s why stockpiling extra draft capital on Day 3 was sharp as new general manager Ryan Poles looks to overhaul the roster. Chicago was without a first-round pick for the third draft out of the last four but found a way to add more talent at the tail end of the weekend.
Two of their Day 3 picks were used on FCS offensive linemen Braxton Jones out of Southern Utah and Ja’Tyre Carter from Southern University, both of whom ranked top-10 among FCS tackles in PFF wins-above-average for the 2021 season. Chicago’s patient approach and recognition of the fact that more dart throws on Day 3 improves your odds of finding a diamond in the rough could turn the team around sooner rather than later.
Kearse had a breakout 2021 campaign in his first full season as a starter after showing flashes of high-level play through his first five seasons. He had just three missed tackles alongside 75 completed tackles and 16 assists, an incredibly low 3.2% missed tackle rate at safety that earned him a 90.0 tackling grade, an area he’s always excelled in.
Add in 11 quarterback pressures on just 39 pass-rush snaps with a very respectable 76.2 coverage grade with nine pass breakups and two interceptions, and retaining Kearse on a two-year, $10 million deal looks like one of the better bargains in the secondary this offseason.
New contracts for wide receiver Michael Gallup (five years, $57.5 million) and edge defender Demarcus Lawrence (three years, $40 million) are both quite team-friendly as well.
Hughes shined in Kansas City after he was traded along with a 2022 seventh-round pick before the season by the Minnesota Vikings in exchange for a 2022 sixth-round pick. The former first-round pick set career-highs across the board, with a 78.8 coverage grade and six pass breakups playing almost exclusively on the outside.
With 2020 No. 3 overall pick cornerback Jeff Okudah recovering from a torn achilles and 2021 undrafted free agent cornerback Jerry Jacobs — PFF’s highest-graded undrafted rookie last season — recovering from a torn ACL, the addition of Hughes will go a long way early in the season opposite Amani Oruwariye. When Okudah and Jacobs return, Hughes has experience playing in the slot and on the outside, as well as playing a lot of zone concepts and heavy press-man. So he can potentially be deployed wherever needed in a secondary that needs to improve in 2022.
With left tackle David Bakhtiari still in the process of recovering from his torn ACL suffered in December of 2020 and do-it-all offensive lineman Elgton Jenkins also recovering from a torn ACL sustained in November of 2021, another versatile offensive lineman with tackle ability was a great use of a Day 3 draft pick.
Tom started at center in 2019 for Wake Forest before moving to left tackle for the 2020 and 2021 seasons and may eventually find an NFL home as an interior offensive lineman at just 6-foot-4. Nevertheless, his 92.1 pass-block grade in 2021 was the highest of any FBS lineman, and he could be an important contributor wherever he’s needed along the offensive line as a rookie.
The Rams are the last team you’d expect to rest on their laurels and be complacent over the offseason as they look to repeat as Super Bowl champions. Adding Robinson in free agency was a perfect example of how they’re going to continue to add new elements in their offense.
The three-year, $46.5 million pact was sharp for a few reasons. First, the Rams are buying low after a down 2021 season for a wide receiver that hasn’t played with a good quarterback since at least high school yet has consistently produced. Secondly, Robinson will be just 29 years old in 2022, and the three-year length of the deal could prove to be genius given the explosion of the wide receiver market this offseason — though Robinson’s camp smartly accounted for this by adding a provision that he could void the 2024 contract year with over 2,200 receiving yards in 2022-23.
Robinson adds a downfield, contested catch element that Cooper Kupp and Van Jefferson aren’t necessarily known for. He can excel lined up isolated on the opposite side of a trips formation by forcing opposing defenses to make a decision whether to bring extra help or not.
Since 2015, Matthew Stafford’s 6,333 passing yards on passes traveling 20-plus yards downfield ranks fourth among quarterbacks, and Robinson’s 162 targets 20-plus yards downfield ranks sixth among wide receivers.
The Vikings had a tough offseason to gauge, in many ways pulling in two different directions as they once again look to make a deep playoff run with quarterback Kirk Cousins despite shaking up a longtime front office and coaching staff.
Their 2022 NFL Draft process was also a bit of a see-saw, beginning with their controversial decision to trade way down to the No. 32 pick from the No. 12 spot, ignoring old school draft value charts in favor of mathematically driven charts that still believe they gained value by moving down. While the entire point of these newer charts is about the process and not the results, the result appeared to be a good one for Minnesota when they landed Georgia safety Lewis Cine with the No. 32 overall pick.
Thanks to some top-notch detective work from Jon Machota at The Athletic, we know the Cowboys had Cine as their No. 13-ranked player on their draft board. We also heard from Cine himself on the Richard Sherman podcast that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers promised to take him with the No. 27 overall pick before ultimately trading down to pick No. 33. All told, the Vikings landed a player we know was highly regarded in several buildings while adding more draft capital in the process, eventually enabling them to also select Clemson cornerback Andrew Booth Jr. in the second round.
Signing edge defender Za’Darius Smith to a team-friendly three-year deal, at least from a structure perspective given how the cash is paid out, was deserving of a mention here as well.
Landry was our selection for the most team-friendly contract on the entire Saints roster, but his signing doesn’t just represent a good value move, it could be the most significant addition of the offseason in New Orleans.
Marquez Callaway led all Saints wide receivers with 294 receiving yards when lined up in the slot in 2021. Meanwhile, Landry has averaged 612 receiving yards per season out of the slot since 2014. With Michael Thomas still on the mend from an ankle injury that has bothered him for almost two full seasons, and rookie Chris Olave adjusting to the next level, Landry can serve as Jameis Winston’s go-to wide receiver to start the season.
With Winston recovering from a torn ACL in his own right, getting the ball out quickly will be all the more important. Since 2014, Landry has 464 receptions where the ball was thrown to him in 2.5 seconds or less, the fourth-most among all players over the span.
Look no further than the situation the Carolina Panthers inherited with quarterback Sam Darnold, and you’ll see why the Giants were smart to remain patient with Jones. We’re not suggesting the Giants should 100% close the door on the 2019 No. 6 overall pick returning to the team in 2023, but new general manager Joe Schoen made the right decision to take the gamble and pass on Jones’ $22.384 million 2023 fifth-year option.
The prevailing thought has long been that if there is even the slightest belief in a first-round quarterback taking the next step, getting a fifth year of cost control by exercising the option after the third season is the right move. The risk is that if the player does play well in their fourth year, you miss out on the benefit of the option and then may have to use a more expensive franchise tag. However, with the 2020 CBA making fifth-year options fully guaranteed at exercise as opposed to guaranteed for injury only until the fifth year, more teams need to be willing to see things through.
Odds are, if Jones does exceed expectations and looks the part of a franchise quarterback in 2022, the franchise tag would only serve as a placeholder for a multi-year extension anyway. Even if not, the extra $9 million or so between the option and the hypothetical franchise tag is a price teams in this similar situation need to be more willing to pay.
The downside risk of Carolina owing Darnold $18.858 million fully guaranteed for the 2022 season is something that should be weighed more heavily. Jones should have the best offensive line and group of pass-catchers of his career, in addition to a significant upgrade at offensive play-caller with new head coach Brian Daboll, and the team can reassess after the season.
We could write an entire article about all the smart things the Eagles did leading up to and during this offseason. Philadelphia maximized the added flexibility that three 2022 first-round picks provided them by acquiring a known commodity in star wideout A.J. Brown and then agreeing to a trade with the Saints that netted them an extra 2023 first- and 2024 second-round pick.
One component of the Brown trade that should not be overlooked was Philadelphia’s unwillingness to officially make the move unless they could strike a deal on an extension beforehand. Players gain added leverage in extension negotiations with a new club after being acquired for significant draft capital, as evidenced by Laremy Tunsil, Jalen Ramsey, Jamal Adams and DeAndre Hopkins, to name a few. Look no further than the current standoff between tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and the Kansas City Chiefs, now eight days away from the franchise tag deadline.
Brown’s four-year, $100 million extension is obviously still a monster contract, but getting his deal done before fellow 2019 draft wide receivers in Terry McLaurin, Deebo Samuel and DK Metcalf and without letting the trade leverage really factor in will pay dividends. In fact, it already has, as McLaurin’s three-year new money cash flow is expected to be slightly above Brown’s $69 million. Samuel and Metcalf may eventually surpass them both before Week 1. Philadelphia got a fair deal done and avoided any potential headaches while working to ink their new star wide receiver long-term.
The Seahawks got an absolute haul from the Denver Broncos for quarterback Russell Wilson, perhaps most importantly acquiring two first-round and two second-round picks, but landing a young emerging tight end in Fant was a great addition for this offense.
Since Fant was selected in the first-round of the 2019 draft, his 1,905 receiving yards are a top-10 mark among tight ends. His 1,016 yards after the catch rank fourth and his 440 yards after initial contact by a defender rank fifth. Along with the recently extended Will Dissly, the Seahawks can now run a lot more 12 personnel if they so desire and can diversify their looks on offense. Trotting out two tight ends could force a defense to stay in a base look to account for the threat of a running play, especially now that Pete Carroll won the war against Wilson and will presumably run the ball a ton. Fant and Dissly could then feast as pass-catchers by creating mismatches through the air.
Trading away quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to add much-needed draft capital and cash/cap savings would be our pick here… if that ever happens.
With Mayfield landing in Carolina, the options for Garoppolo are disappearing as training camp approaches. If it’s true the 49ers had an offer of two second-round picks on the table earlier this offseason, as was reported by Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk, they may come to regret not taking it.
Nevertheless, the 49ers were able to make a big addition to their secondary this offseason after a 2021 campaign filled with injuries on the back-end. San Francisco’s outside cornerback unit earned a 53.0 grade in 2021, good for 30th in the NFL. Their best outside cornerback, Jason Verrett, will return at some point during the 2022 season, but he’s unfortunately recovering from yet another major injury after playing in just one game in 2021. In the meantime, Ward is coming off three straight seasons earning a grade of 64.8 or better and will now play behind a far superior pass-rush unit that should make his life much easier.
For a team already loaded with talent and largely set, the Buccaneers had a handful of strong moves this offseason to bolster a surefire Super Bowl contender in the NFC. Convincing Tom Brady to unretire might be the best move by far, but we won’t count that as an official transaction. Their most recent impact move — adding former Chicago Bears interior defender Akiem Hicks — could end up being the best of the bunch if he returns to form on a new team.
The addition of Gage works in tandem with the extension of wide receiver Chris Godwin, whose three-year, $60 million pact has already aged well in just a few short months. Godwin is five months younger than Washington’s McLaurin, who just got $10 million more in new money on his own three-year extension. While Godwin is on the mend from a torn ACL suffered in late December of last season, Gage will operate as the de facto WR2 opposite Mike Evans. Once Godwin returns, Tampa Bay will have one of the best wide receiver trios in the NFL.
Gage was thrust into a larger role the last two years with the injuries to/departures of Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley in Atlanta, so he handled increased attention from opposing defenses and still managed to earn back-to-back grades above 75.0, with his 138 receptions over the last two seasons ranking 29th among wide receivers.
Washington’s decision to franchise tag Scherff a second time in 2021 to the tune of $18.036 million was an extremely puzzling move, but they were smart to finally cut their losses this offseason and let him walk to Jacksonville where he signed a three-year, $49.5 million deal that reset the guard market at $16.5 million per year as he enters his age-31 season.
Scherff is a great player when he’s on the field, with his 81.1 grade over the last four seasons ranking 11th among all guards, but he hasn’t played in 80% of his offense’s snaps for four consecutive seasons. Scherff has an extremely high floor as a run-blocker and pass-protector — over seven seasons, he’s failed to earn a 70.0 or better grade just one time in each facet. That makes him deserving of a top-of-market deal, but Washington didn’t have to be the one to give it to him. The Commanders have done a great job evaluating offensive line talent for years, and signing Turner for just $3 million coming off a bounce-back 2021 campaign in which he earned a 69.4 grade was a favorable tradeoff when accounting for value.
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Thousand Oaks, CA, USA; Los Angeles Rams receiver Allen Robinson II (1) during organized team activities at California Lutheran University. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports