Bold offseason moves for every NFC team
Pro Football Focus podcast hosts Jeff Dooley and Sam Monson frequently argue on the show about player rankings, trade suggestions, and positional value—with Sam usually shooting down the more extreme ideas Jeff proposes.
So, with free agency just around the corner, we had Jeff put together a bold offseason move for every NFL team—with Sam following behind to share his take on which made sense, and which ones he thought were ridiculous.
Here are Jeff’s bold moves for every NFC team, with Sam’s opinion on whether they are smart—or questionable—ideas:
Dallas Cowboys: Don’t draft QB at No. 4, upgrade the defense instead
This is a tough spot for the Cowboys, especially if they really like one of the top two QB prospects in California’s Jared Goff and North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz, and either is available at No. 4 overall. But there’s a strong case for instead drafting an impact defender at that spot—Ohio State DE Joey Bosa, Oregon DL DeForest Buckner, and Florida State DB Jalen Ramsey could all potentially fit the bill—and looking to make another addition to the defense via free agency (Kansas City CB Sean Smith or Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul might make sense). Tony Romo turns 36 before the start of the season, and is coming off an injury-filled 2015, but he’s just one year removed from ranking No. 6 in PFF passing grade and No. 4 in deep-ball accuracy. A healthy Romo plus an improved defense would have Dallas right back in NFC title contention in 2016.
Monson’s take: Dallas saw last year what happens if you don’t have a quarterback, and while they want Romo there for years to come, at his age (36 by the time the season starts) they are past the point where they can rely on that happening. Drafting Goff or Wentz gives them a potential Favre-Rodgers handoff, and while that got messy, it was the best possible transition on the field. I don’t see how Dallas could pass on Wentz, in particular.
New York Giants: Trade for Joe Thomas
I already know Sam isn’t going to like this one, but here’s the rationale:
1.) The Giants are in serious need of an upgrade along the offensive line, particularly at left tackle, where rookie Ereck Flowers graded out as the third-worst tackle in the league in 2015.
2.) Joe Thomas graded out as the best tackle in the league, and the Giants have a ton of cap space and can absorb Thomas’ salary in exchange for a draft pick or two.
3.) Quarterback Eli Manning is 35 years old and is coming off the lowest-graded season we’ve ever recorded from him, but has the pass-catching weapons around him to succeed if he gets better pass protection. This trade certainly isn’t the smartest long-term move, but in the short-term, the Giants would get a standout left tackle who could immediately help their offense, while still having cap room to grab an impact defensive player in free agency.
Monson’s take: The Giants are so far away from a quick fix that they need to keep all of their picks and address this roster from the ground-up. Thomas would be a fantastic upgrade, but I’m not sure it would actually achieve anything, and this team has far more holes in need of filling.
Philadelphia Eagles: Make a run at Sean Smith or Danny Trevathan
Okay, just hear me out, Sam. Yes, I know the Eagles whiffed just last offseason on a big-money cornerback signing in free agency with Byron Maxwell. That alone should be cause for concern with regard to Smith. But the truth is that Maxwell has never graded out as well as Smith did during the 2014 season, when he was PFF’s second-best coverage corner, and adding Smith would take pressure off Maxwell (who was put in some tough one-on-one matchups last season, and graded quite well in 2013 when playing in a No. 2 CB role opposite star Richard Sherman in Seattle) and give Philly one of the league’s most talented secondaries. Trevathan could be had at a lower price, however, and would really upgrade the Eagles’ linebacker group in coverage and against the run.
Monson’s take: I’m fine with Philadelphia’s corners. They were put in a bad situation with the defense last year and floundered, but in a better scheme (or at least one asking less of them) they can improve. Maxwell, Eric Rowe (another year into his development), and a guy like JaCorey Shepherd (who PFF College grading loved) back from injury should see them set there. The Trevathan move, however, I really like. He’s a high-quality linebacker and could help them massively.
Washington Redskins: Trade DeSean Jackson
The Redskins are currently over the cap following their use of the franchise tag on quarterback Kirk Cousins. That means high-cost upgrades through free agency are unlikely; their primary focus now should be the draft. That’s why dealing away Jackson, who carries the team’s fifth-biggest cap hit this season, according to OverTheCap.com, in exchange for picks could be a smart move. He was the team’s highest-graded wide receiver, despite missing significant time due to injury, but the presence of pass-catching weapons like Jordan Reed (PFF’s third-highest-graded receiving tight end) and Jamison Crowder (ranked fourth in slot catch rate as a rookie) make him expendable, so long as Washington can find a trade partner (we have a suggested option a few teams down). Extra picks could help the Redskins re-stock their receiving corps and further rebuild their defense.
Monson’s take: The Eagles took a lot of crap when Chip Kelly just cut DeSean Jackson loose after his first successful season there, but maybe they tried to get a trade done and there were no takers. At this point, Jackson’s career has really only been one big season, and I’m just not sure I see the attraction.
Chicago Bears: Make a run at two top defenders
Even after using the franchise tag on wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, Chicago still has plenty of cap space and a defense that ranked in the bottom half of PFF grades last season. The secondary is the biggest area of concern, which is why signing Kansas City corner Sean Smith to start opposite 2014 first-rounder Kyle Fuller would be an impact move. Smith ranked second in PFF coverage grades among CBs in 2014 and performed well again last season after returning from a four-game suspension. He won’t come cheap, but might be worth overpaying if it means tightening up a weak coverage unit. The Bears also need to improve their D-line personnel for their 3-4 front, which is why Denver DE Malik Jackson (who played under Bears head coach John Fox while with the Broncos) is an intriguing option. However, Chiefs DE Jaye Howard may provide more of an impact against the run (another of Chicago’s weaknesses in 2015) at a lower price.
Monson’s take: Malik Jackson has emerged as a top-tier interior defender, and would give them a legit pass-rush presence inside that they don’t currently have. He failed to generate pressure just once last season across all 19 games he played in (including playoffs), and will be chasing big money somewhere. The Broncos likely can’t afford to keep him, but Chicago can afford to go hard after him. If they fail, a guy like Nick Fairley could be a cheaper alternative, and a guy who has still been very productive, though not has highly advertised. I do like Smith, but I’m not sure I love his fit in that Chicago defense as much as the interior guys.
Detroit Lions: Sign LT Kelvin Beachum
The risk involved here is that Beachum is coming off an injury, but if he can return to his 2014 form when he ranked second among offensive tackles in pass-blocking grades while playing for Pittsburgh, he could have a very positive impact on the Detroit offensive line. The Lions really need a left tackle, particularly to improve their pass protection for Matthew Stafford, and adding one would allow them to move Riley Reiff back to the right side. Additionally, if 2015 first-round guard Laken Tomlinson shows improvement in his second season, this line could look much better in 2016.
Monson’s take: Detroit has the cap space and an OT is one of their bigger needs. Beachum has shown he can be a really high level pass-protector and is probably the best fit of those available, with Cordy Glenn tagged off the market. I’m all for this move if they can make it happen.
Green Bay Packers: Sign LB Danny Trevathan
It’s borderline cliché at this point to say that Green Bay never becomes a major player in free agency, so suggesting any sort of free-agent signing qualifies as a bold move. But Trevathan would make some sense, given the team’s need to improve its coverage ability at the linebacker position. Clay Matthews is being moved back outside to the edge-rusher position, and he and every major contributor at the linebacker position earned negative coverage grades last year. Trevathan ranked in the top-10 of coverage grades among linebackers for Denver last season, in addition to being a force against the run.
Monson’s take: The Packers desperately need to fix their LB woes, but that has been a true for awhile now, and they never seem tremendously concerned with doing so—certainly not via free agency. One of those moves I’m all for, but see pretty much zero chance of happening.
Minnesota Vikings: Cut Matt Kalil and/or Mike Wallace
The two biggest cap hits on the Minnesota roster right now, according to OverTheCap.com, are Mike Wallace (PFF’s No. 96 wide receiver last year, out of 121) and Matt Kalil (PFF’s No. 46 offensive tackle, out of 77). That’s a lot of money to be paying two underperforming players, and releasing even one would open up a lot of cap space for the Vikings to make a big free-agent splash if they wanted. They’d have the option of addressing their issues on the offensive line or landing an impact defensive player.
Monson’s take: Sold. Kalil had a prove-it year this season, and was barely any better than the season that got explained away by injury and the weight he was forced to play at because of injury. At this point, he’s just a bad player who had one good year as a rookie, and the Vikings need better at left tackle. Wallace is a deep threat only, and Bridgewater doesn’t have the world’s best deep ball, so it’s an ugly fit. The cap space is more valuable than either player.
Atlanta Falcons: Trade for Torrey Smith
I’m not even sure I believe in this one, but the Falcons really need to improve their group of pass-catchers outside of Julio Jones, and the only free-agent option who could really fill a No. 2 role is Cincinnati’s Marvin Jones, and he’s likely to get overpaid. Smith didn’t live up to his big free-agent contract this season, earning a negative PFF grade, but he was dealing with poor quarterback play and is just one season removed from ranking in the top 15 of the NFL in deep-ball catch rate. He and Jones would be a dynamic pairing for quarterback Matt Ryan – who himself is just one year removed from ranking No. 1 in deep-ball accuracy percentage, prior to attempting just 7.5 percent of passes 20 or more yards downfield in 2015.
Monson’s take: The Falcons need help, but they don’t necessarily need a big-time No. 2 in free agency. There are plenty of No. 3-type guys, leaving them to find somebody in the draft who could start. Somebody like Travis Benjamin could add that deep threat role, start, and do a decent job while still splitting the load with a rookie for less investment overall.
Carolina Panthers: Trade for DeSean Jackson
Carolina got by with its makeshift receiving corps this season, largely due to the stellar play of Greg Olsen, the No. 1 receiving tight end in PFF grades. But even with Kelvin Benjamin returning from injury, the Panthers could afford to add another target for QB Cam Newton. Jackson has dealt with some injury issues, but has ranked in the top-three of deep-ball catch rate in each of the last three seasons—an asset for a QB in Newton who significantly improved his deep accuracy percentage this season.
Monson’s take: DeSean Jackson is Ted Ginn with better hands and a worse attitude. Pass.
New Orleans Saints: Trade Drew Brees to Cleveland in exchange for the No. 2 pick
The Saints have already said that they will get a contract extension done for Brees, which should open up cap space for a team that really needs it. But the possibility of this trade is certainly intriguing, as well. New Orleans would have to be convinced that either of the top two quarterback prospects, Jared Goff or Carson Wentz, could be its franchise QB of the future, but such a trade could potentially set the team up well for the long-term by getting younger at the position and also freeing up cap room. Of course, trading away a player of Brees’ caliber is easier said than done, no matter how convinced you are of this year’s class—Brees ranked fourth in PFF quarterback grades in 2015 and has been in the top six each season since 2009.
Monson’s take: No way Cleveland, a team with new analytics-based structures and a rebuilt front office, wants to go this route. They have a shot—again—to take a QB to be the face of the franchise, and they are going to want to do things right all the way along. Their debate is going to be Goff or Wentz, not whether they want to cripple their cap by trading for a 37-year-old starter just because he’s proven. If the Saints can make that happen, I’m all for it.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Make a run at Olivier Vernon
The price tag to acquire Vernon figures to be steep, and Miami has the right to match any offer given to him after having placed the transition tag on him. But the cost could be worth it for Tampa Bay, which desperately needs to add pass-rushing ability to a defense that earned the lowest overall grade in the NFL this season. Vernon had the second-highest pass-rush grade and recorded the second-most QB pressures among 4-3 defensive ends this season, but has only played at that elite level once during his career—his contract year.
Monson’s take: Miami has given the rest of the league the chance to set the market on Vernon, which may be smart given, as you said, his elite play really is just eight-games worth of action. This approach also leaves them at risk of being priced out of his deal, however. It would be a great fit for the Bucs, but like anybody dealing with Vernon, paying him big money given how little of his ceiling we have seen is a big risk.
Arizona Cardinals: Sign Tamba Hali to bolster pass rush
The Cardinals had two weaknesses this season, ranking fourth-worst in pass-blocking grades and fourth-worst in pass-rush grades. With roughly $20 million in cap space, they can likely only make a splash at one of the positions, and in Hali, they could add one of the NFL’s best edge rushers this past season. Hali produced 72 total quarterback pressures in 2015 (including seven sacks), the third-most among 3-4 outside linebackers. He’d be a nice addition to Arizona’s edge rush opposite second-year OLB Markus Golden.
Monson’s take: Arizona has the ability to cover up the pass-rush and platoon the pressure on defense, but they have bigger problems long-term covering up the O-line. With their cap space, that is the bigger area of concern. Stefen Wisniewski would immediately upgrade the center position, and there are plenty of options around to upgrade at either guard or tackle, several of which are in the mid-levels of free agent spending. They can shoot for pass-rush help in the draft.
Los Angeles Rams: Trade Robert Quinn, the No. 15 overall pick, and 2017’s first-round pick to Titans for the No. 1 overall pick
Sam didn’t like my suggested trade-up to No. 1 for the Texans on Thursday, and I doubt he’ll like this one either, considering it’s largely the same idea. However, at least in this case, the Rams have a more proven asset (Quinn was far and away the top-graded edge defender in 2013 and performed well this past season prior to his injury, whereas Houston’s Jadeveon Clowney is more of a work in progress) and a higher pick in this year’s draft (No. 15 to Houston’s No. 22). This would be a lot to give up for Los Angeles, but this is a team that needs to make a bold move in order to finally find a solution at QB (signing Robert Griffin III as a flier is another possibility). And the presence of Aaron Donald, PFF’s top-graded defensive player in all of football last season, makes losing Quinn a little more palatable.
Monson’s take: We are at least leaping from a slightly closer starting point, and the player this hinges on is a far more proven commodity, but I think my biggest issue with these scenarios is my growing belief that the highest anybody needs to get to secure one of the two top quarterbacks is No. 3 overall, and the difference in trade value to make that two-spot jump is significant. The team already cut loose Chris Long, and William Hayes and Nick Fairley are free agents. Trade Robert Quinn, and suddenly Aaron Donald is your only source of pass-rush.
San Francisco 49ers: Overpay for one offensive lineman and one impact defender
The 49ers have a lot of needs and a lot of cap space. They ranked 13th in pass-blocking last season, but 30th in run-blocking, with center Marcus Martin and right tackle Erik Pears performing particularly badly. G/T Keleche Osemele, C Alex Mack, and RT Mitchell Schwartz all rank in the top 30 of PFF’s free agents list and are worthy targets. On defense, the team ranked among the league’s worst in both pass-rush and coverage grades, which is why making a big offer for a guy like Malik Jackson could be worth it. Jackson had the third-highest pass-rush grade among 3-4 defensive ends last season and would fit in well on a starting front with NT Ian Williams and second-year DE Arik Armstead. Smith, who has been mentioned several times here already, is the best available cornerback on the market and produced the second-best coverage grade among CBs in 2014.
Monson’s take: I know Chip Kelly isn’t the GM in San Francisco the way he was in Philadelphia with personnel control, but you have to think there will be some philosophy crossover, so I just can’t see them making a big-splash to overpay on the O-line. I’m also not sure how much they need to. Anthony Davis is applying for reinstatement, they still have Joe Staley, and the interior guys available are mostly lower-priced free agents. On Defense there are bigger issues, and I could see Sean Smith being attractive for them at corner.
Seattle Seahawks: Trade Kam Chancellor for offensive line help
The Seahawks (once again) had one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL this season, ranking 30th in pass-blocking and 29th in run-blocking grades. There’s something to be said for the fact that quarterback Russell Wilson’s unique scrambling ability (and prior to his retirement, Marshawn Lynch’s power-running ability) has made the line less of a priority than it would be for other teams, but it wouldn’t hurt for Seattle to invest more premium resources at the position. In Chancellor, the Seahawks have a talented player at a position where they’ve already invested a lot of money in CB Richard Sherman and S Earl Thomas, who is unhappy with his contract. If they can trade him in exchange for a lineman or a draft pick they can use on the line, the secondary could likely still continue playing at a high level. Seattle ranked sixth in coverage grade, despite Chancellor having a relative down year by his standards.
Monson’s take: Seattle just does not seem to value O-linemen. They have simply made the philosophical decision that they aren’t going to, or can’t, invest the big money there, and instead seem to be trying to go boom-or-bust on athletic prospects they hope to coach up to play there. So far it has been a disaster, but given that’s their philosophy, I can’t think of anything worse than dismantling the successful parts of the roster to try and patch up the ones kept almost deliberately bad when the overall plan has been working.