2019 Offseason Marked By Some Major Changes

By Bob Harris
Bob Harris

Change is a constant in the NFL offseason. It happens at all levels. In the league office. Team management. Coaching. All have some impact on the game.

But none as much as player movement.
That was even more prominent this offseason, with some of the biggest names in the NFL moving to new locations. And as always with major moves, there are associated, cascading echoes that add to the impact of the initial move, and I have ranked these accordingly.

Of course, these are mine. Your own rankings and opinions may vary and that’s okay; in fact, the goal of this article is really to get your wheels turning toward assigning values to all the players included here as well.

If you’re playing catchup and need a complete and full accounting of all the moves made this offseason, hit the FootballDiehards.com website and click the “Free Agent Moves” link in the upper left corner of the main page. Otherwise, here’s the best of the bunch.
 

1. AB Forces His Way Out Of Pittsburgh; JuJu Rising

Kudos to Antonio Brown, who pretty much talked (and acted) his way out of Pittsburgh as the Steelers dealt their superstar receiver to Oakland. The Steelers got third- and fifth-round picks in April’s draft and Brown got a reworked contract – with a guaranteed $30 million – that makes him the NFL’s highest-paid wide receiver.

Brown recorded Hall of Fame-type production in Pittsburgh with 834 receptions, 11,207 yards and 74 touchdown catches in nine years. But a frayed relationship between the player and team eventually overshadowed the gaudy numbers, and a divorce became inevitable.

The question now is whether Raiders coach Jon Gruden can maximize Brown’s talents in Oakland. It might also be worth wondering how Brown will react if Gruden can’t.

This just in: Brown is accustomed to getting the ball.

In fact, Brown has eclipsed 1,250 receiving yards in six consecutive seasons – something only he and Torry Holt have ever done. He’s the only receiver to ever top 100 receptions six years in a row. No other receiver even did it five consecutive times. The downside is that Brown is going to turn 31 in July and (as noted above), his paycheck is hefty.

That said, the Raiders’ offense just got better.
Oakland finished the 2018 season No. 28 in points scored. The team traded away Amari Cooper last October, leaving the since-retired Jordy Nelson as the leading wide receiver and tight end Jared Cook, who moved on to New Orleans via free agency, as Derek Carr’s top weapon.

Brown’s age might not make him a cornerstone for the Raiders, but he’s a skill position player that will force defenses to account for his abilities.

Meanwhile, Brown wasn’t the only wide receiver who joined the Raiders this offseason. The Raiders also added Tyrell Williams, who originally signed with the Chargers as an undrafted rookie out of Western Oregon in 2015. With Keenan Allen sidelined by injury, Williams had a breakout season in 2016, catching 69 passes for 1,059 yards and seven touchdowns and scoring 12 or more PPR fantasy points in 10 games.

He hasn’t been quite as effective in either of the last two years, but that’s easily explained. Williams only had three games with more than five targets last season. Now in Oakland, Williams should be a solid addition to Gruden’s offense alongside Brown. In particular, Williams’ ability to stretch the field, as evidenced by his career average of 16.3 yards per catch, should also free up Brown in the intermediate passing game.

The end result?
Carr now has an impressive array of wide receivers (and a new featured back in rookie first-round pick Josh Jacobs) around him, and suddenly this team looks a whole lot better now than it did at the end of 2018.

As ESPN.com’s Matthew Berry pointed out, since 2015, Carr ranks fourth in percentage of deep passes that are on target (70.8 percent). So he can throw it deep. He just hasn’t recently (recording the lowest average air yards per throw in the NFL last season). That should change now.

It’s worth remembering that only Dan Marino (68) has thrown more TD passes in the first two years of a career than Carr (53). ...

On the other side of the Brown deal, the Steelers will now lean on JuJu Smith-Schuster, their receiving leader in 2018, to serve as their top downfield weapon. They’ll also be looking for second-year man James Washington to move up in the rotation with Smith-Schuster. They also added Donte Moncrief in free agency and Diontae Johnson in the draft.

But fantasy owners should set expectations high for Smith-Schuster, who ranked seventh in the NFL in receptions (111) and receiving yards (1,426) on his way to a Steelers’ Most Valuable Player award as voted on by teammates. Smith-Schuster insists he’s prepared to become the team’s No. 1 receiver.

Current Average Draft Position (in PPR scoring drafts) has Brown as WR7 and Smith-Schuster as WR8. It’ll be interesting to see if that changes at all in the wake of this deal.

And yes, these moves rank No. 1 on this list because of the broad implications and possibilities (both actual and fantasy) for both teams.
 

2. Jets Land Bell

After gaining nearly 2,000 total yards during the 2017 season, Bell opted to pass on the $14.5 million franchise tag in Pittsburgh in 2018 – forgoing about $855,000 per game – in order to preserve his chance for a big contract in free agency this offseason.

Did his gamble pay off?
The Jets landed Bell for $52.5 million over four years with $35 million guaranteed. As ESPN’s Rich Cimini put it, “Bell’s price was big ($13.1 million average per year), but not crazy big.”

Bell gives new head coach Adam Gase and second-year signal caller Sam Darnold a big-time playmaker, arguably the best player at his position before his season-long hiatus. In fact, Bell’s average of 128.9 total yards per game from 2013 to 2017 is the highest for an NFL back over the first five seasons of a career since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. During that span, he rushed for 5,336 yards and 35 touchdowns while catching 312 passes for 2,660 yards and another seven scores.

Even after a year-long layoff, expecting him to continue as one of the most versatile and dangerous offensive players in the NFL isn’t a reach. But whether he’ll get a sufficient workload, in what’s certain to be a less-prolific offense than those he enjoyed in Pittsburgh, to return to (and sustain) past levels of production remains to be seen.

And even if that’s enough to drop Bell outside his customary top-five draft status, it doesn’t mean he won’t perform at that same level.

Remember, the Jets acquired high-end guard Kelechi Osemele from the Raiders to help in the blocking department. They also added Jamison Crowder to go along with a young receiving corps featuring Robby Anderson, Quincy Enunwa and tight end Chris Herndon.

The pieces are all in place. And they now include Bell.
On the other side of this coin, James Conner’s performance during Bell’s absence last year showed that he wasn’t overwhelmed by the unexpected trip up the depth chart. “It’s what I have always asked for,” Conner said. “The opportunity to be a starting NFL running back. It was a great opportunity.” And he cashed in on it – to the delight of his fantasy football owners.

The second-year back missed three games while nursing an ankle injury but ran 215 times for 973 yards and 12 touchdowns, while also catching 55 passes for 497 yards another score in the other 13 games. Conner’s success meant the Steelers didn’t have to worry about running back while sorting out the Bell and Brown situations.

Playing under a team-friendly rookie deal, Conner is Pittsburgh’s unquestioned starter in an offense that will ask him to again be a versatile centerpiece. But with Jaylen Samuels and rookie Benny Snell on board, GM Kevin Colbert hopes to instill a more balanced approach in the backfield that might prolong careers and make the Steelers more potent in the long run. That hasn’t been HC Mike Tomlin’s preferred approach, however, and whether the coach can find a role for all three – especially when one RB gets hot – remains the biggest question.

Whatever the case, Conner is surely the first man up.

With positional scarcity a thing, Bell’s move has a major impact on a pair of top-10 fantasy running backs. That’s a big deal.
 

3. Browns Add OBJ, Hunt To Already Dangerous Offense

As Cleveland Plain Dealer staffer Mary Kay Cabot framed it: “Odell Beckham worked out with Browns QB Baker Mayfield and his longtime friend and former college teammate Jarvis Landry last offseason at USC, and now he’ll get to do it for real.”

This after the Giants dealt their disgruntled superstar wideout to Cleveland for a first-round pick (No. 17 overall, Clemson DT Dexter Lawrence), the Browns’ second third-round pick (No. 95, Old Dominion DE Oshane Ximines) and safety Jabril Peppers. The Browns got Beckham. Cabot added: “The trade catapults the Browns into ‘elite offense’ territory, what with Mayfield, Beckham, Landry, Nick Chubb, Antonio Callaway, David Njoku, Duke Johnson and, at some point, Kareem Hunt (who the Browns signed earlier in the offseason).”

In Cleveland, the three-time Pro Bowler will be reunited not only with Landry, his former LSU teammate, but also with receivers coach Adam Henry, who coached him in college and with the Giants. The trade gives Mayfield a bona fide superstar No. 1 receiver, and gives Beckham a quarterback that can get him the ball anywhere on the field.

From a fantasy standpoint, the notion of Mayfield, who played at an extremely high level down the stretch last season, throwing to Beckham and the rest, with a strong rushing attack led by breakaway threat Chubb, in a scheme designed by coordinator-turned-head coach Freddie Kitchens (who will continue as play caller despite his promotion), is a pretty appealing thought.

In general, as Profootballtalk.com’s Michael David Smith wrote: “After their promising season in 2018, they’ve now made the most aggressive move of the offseason. This is a strong statement that these are not the same old Browns. These are the new Browns, and they’re contenders.”

For the Giants, who are officially in full rebuild mode, this isn’t hard to figure out: Saquon Barkley is the lone fantasy player of interest here. Others – Evan Engram, Sterling Shepard and free-agent addition Golden Tate – remain viable for what they are, but it’s the Barkley show, folks. Let’s hope the burden of carrying this franchise through the next few seasons doesn’t grind him to a nub.

As for Hunt, he’ll serve an eight-game suspension to open the season and those looking to draft Chubb this summer have a bit of clarity. The concern, of course, would be Hunt’s potential usage late in the season, when it matters most to us. I don’t think it’s going to reduce Chubb’s value much – if at all – but it’s something to consider.

My overall ranking for these moves falls down the list a bit – and just a bit – for non-Beckham-related reasons. I mean, Beckham playing with Mayfield is huge (assuming the mercurial wideout remains in the locked and upright position all year and Mayfield builds on his impressive rookie outing). But beyond that, Hunt’s impact (at least for this season) is limited while the Giants’ issues at quarterback (whether Eli Manning or rookie Daniel Jones winds up starting) limit the fantasy impact on that side of the coin.

 

 

4. Ingram To Ravens Leads Murray To Saints; 1 Cook Follows While Another Gains

At the NFL Combine, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said Gus Edwards was the Ravens’ No. 1 running back, but that the team would look to bring in competition.

And they certainly have.
The Ravens added another hammer to their run game by signing Mark Ingram away from the Saints. Ingram, 29, is a physical, downhill runner who can run between the tackles or bounce outside, and is a sneaky-dangerous receiving threat out of the backfield. Plus, he has not missed a game due to injury since 2015.

From a fantasy perspective, assume Ingram will be the top man in a rotation, but he’ll also be sharing carries to some degree with athletic second-year QB Lamar Jackson, who posted a single-season QB-record 147 carries (in just eight starts) as a rookie.

But Ingram is familiar with and capable of succeeding in timeshare situations.

For the past two seasons, he’s been part of a potent one-two combination in New Orleans with Alvin Kamara. Ingram has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in two of the last three seasons and he’s also logged 104 receptions over that three-year span.

An effective red-zone runner, Ingram has 50 career rushing touchdowns, which is a Saints franchise record. He had six last year and 12 in 2017.

So, what kind of workload should we expect in Baltimore?
Also per Berry, in Weeks 11-17 last season (with Jackson starting at QB), the Ravens ranked third in RB carries per game (27.6), first in RB rush yards (149.0) and first in yards per carry (5.40). During that stretch, Baltimore also averaged a league-high 70.9 offensive snaps per game.

So, yes. This is an appealing landing spot for the former Saint – even if Jackson’s rushing ability makes it slightly less than the ideal destination.

I realize some of you might question why this move ranks so high on the board for me. In this case, it’s all about the ripple effect at (again) a position of scarcity.

Could Alvin Kamara play a greater role with Ingram now gone? Perhaps. More likely, however, would be former Vikings backup Latavius Murray stepping into Ingram’s role. Assuming that’s the case, it’s worth noting that Ingram saw 13 touches per game last year, and, as CBSSports.com noted, virtually anyone who has run the ball in New Orleans in recent seasons has been efficient.

Murray scored 26 touchdowns over the past three seasons and should get plenty of red-zone opportunities in the high-powered Saints’ offense. That said, don’t let Murray’s reputation as a between-the-tackles rusher throw you; Murray was used (albeit sparingly) in the passing game in Minnesota, where he totaled 141 yards on 22 receptions in 2018.

As CBS summed up: “He’s not the starting running back for the Saints, but he may be one on your fantasy team.”

Also, as mentioned above, Carr’s top pass-catching target last season was Jared Cook, who corralled 68 passes for 896 yards and six touchdowns. Adding him as a free agent was a coup for the Saints, who have struggled the past few seasons to find consistent receiving weapons for Drew Brees not named Michael Thomas.

As NFL.com’s Kevin Patra noted, Cook provides the Saints with a seam-stretching weapon over the middle who can win one-on-one matchups with linebackers and safeties. New Orleans has been starving for dynamic production from the tight end position since trading Jimmy Graham back in 2015. Josh Hill never morphed into the playmaker Sean Payton hyped about for years. Coby Fleener disappointed. And Benjamin Watson, while solid, wasn’t a matchup problem for defenses.

Cook’s addition just might finally be the answer at tight end, and massively upgrades the Saints’ offense. Per ESPN’s Mike Clay, if we count only the weeks he was active, Cook has averaged target shares between 16 and 18 percent each of the past seven seasons. That’s as consistent as you’ll find in the NFL.

Moving from Carr to Brees is a clear upgrade, and the lack of high-end wideouts beyond Thomas also works in Cook’s favor here.

One last related item here. ... If Dalvin Cook can remain healthy this year, the Vikings don’t appear to have anybody of Murray’s caliber to cut into the third-year man’s workload. Adding to the intrigue is the arrival of assistant head coach/offensive assistant Gary Kubiak, who will work under offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski.

Kubiak’s teams have long-prioritized the zone-running schemes that helped make Terrell Davis a Hall of Famer and turned Arian Foster into the NFL’s leading rusher in 2010.

Dalvin Cook is primed for a big season.

 

 

 

 

 

5. Coleman Reunites With Shanahan; Freeman Freed For More

As Profootballtalk.com’s Michael David Smith noted, for the second consecutive offseason, the 49ers added one of the top available free agent running backs when Tevin Coleman agreed to a two-year, $10 million contract with the club.

The move makes clear that 49ers general manager John Lynch wants a good running game. Last year Jerick McKinnon signed a four-year, $30 million contract, but after he got hurt Matt Breida became the team’s top running back. Coleman is now joining that mix as the 49ers look to find balance in Kyle Shanahan’s offense.

Remember, Shanahan loved Coleman during the coach’s stint as Falcons offensive coordinator, helping the running back score a single-season high of 11 touchdowns in 2016.

Of course, McKinnon is coming off a torn ACL suffered last August and is said to be on schedule in his recovery and rehab. Nonetheless, expecting Coleman to play the lead role isn’t a reach.

As for Atlanta, the Falcons previously signed two-time Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman to a five-year, $41.25 million extension ($22.05 million guaranteed) through 2022 – an extension that puts Freeman fourth amongst all running backs in average salary per year at $8.25 million.

Freeman, who played in two games in 2018 before undergoing season-ending groin surgery, is expected to return to his starting role in 2019, and head coach Dan Quinn expects a healthy Freeman to play with an edge.

Worth noting, the Falcons made the Super Bowl after the 2016 season with Freeman and Coleman sharing the workload. Freeman accumulated 1,541 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns on 281 touches that season, while Coleman had 941 yards and 11 touchdowns on 149 touches.

Now the expectation is for Freeman to likely move forward with Ito Smith as his complement. The Falcons have confidence in Smith, who scored four touchdowns in 14 games as a rookie last season before undergoing surgery to repair meniscus damage.

But Freeman, who has played in all 16 games only once in four seasons as the regular starter due to numerous injuries – including multiple concussions – needs to stay healthy. The Falcons could add a bigger back to the mix with both Freeman (5-8, 206) and Smith (5-9, 195) being smaller backs.

We’ll see if Freeman can restore the Falcons’ running game – even without his former tag team partner Coleman.

Also Worth Noting. ...
Again, those are the most impactful moves in my estimation, but I think we can all agree that starting quarterbacks are pretty important as well. That being the case, let’s also look at some moves at that position.

The Jaguars had Nick Foles as their top target, and they didn’t waste any time reaching an agreement with the veteran signal caller, inking the former Super Bowl MVP to a four-year, $88 million deal. According to league insiders, Foles can make up to $102 million with incentives, and the deal includes just over $50 million in guaranteed money.

As NFL.com’s Jeremy Bergman framed it, “The signing ushers in a new era under center in Jacksonville and brings another to a close.”

The Jaguars made room for Foles by releasing Blake Bortles, who spent five years in Jacksonville and signed a three-year extension with the organization just 13 months ago. Bortles subsequently signed with the Rams to back up Jared Goff.

Foles’ potential market shrank when the Broncos traded for Joe Flacco and the Redskins acquired Case Keenum from Denver (both veterans will have to deal with incoming rookies in Drew Lock and Dwayne Haskins, respectively), leaving Jacksonville as Foles’ only real suitor. Which might well have been for the best, since Jaguars new OC John DeFilippo was Foles’ quarterbacks coach with the Eagles in 2017.

Foles, 30, has completed 62 percent of his passes in 54 career games, with 68 touchdowns and 33 interceptions. He has the sixth-best career post-season passer rating (98.8) in NFL history.

As Profootballtalk.com’s Mike Florio put it, “Though it often isn’t pretty, Foles gets it done. He’s cool under fire, and he finds motivation in those who doubt him. Even after everything that he accomplished in 2017 and 2018, the doubters are plentiful. And that’s good for Foles, and for the Jaguars.

“So keep doubting him, and he’ll keep finding a way to get it done - and to make his team better in the process.”

The Jaguars are banking on that being the case. If Foles succeeds, multiple teammates – starting with