It's time to reflect on the 2017 offseason. There are a few stray veterans left in the free-agent pool, and teams could still execute something unexpected if injuries arise, but organizations have mostly closed their checkbooks and built the rosters they will take onto the field in September.
Of course, we can know only so much right now. This time last year, there was no way anybody knew that the Cowboys had drafted a franchise quarterback. Kyle Shanahan was lucky to survive the offseason in Atlanta as an offensive coordinator, let alone be considering head-coaching roles.
At the same time, we can look at what each team's goals were (or should have been) heading into March and gain a sense of whether they did enough to address those concerns. In most cases, we also can plot what they have to do before hitting Week 1.
I'm tackling these grades division-by-division (see above for the ones I've already done). Let's head to the NFC South, where the NFC champs drove an unexpected run to the Super Bowl with a nearly flawless offseason last time around ...
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What went right?
The Falcons continued to add pieces to their front seven. While Atlanta's speedy young defense jelled in time for its postseason run, it's also worth noting that the Falcons weren't a very good defense for most of the season. They finished the season 27th in DVOA and 29th against the run, a problem teams weren't able to exploit because the dominant Atlanta offense kept getting out to leads.
Players such as Deion Jones and Ra'Shede Hageman should continue to improve, but the Falcons lost Jonathan Babineaux to retirement, and Vic Beasley Jr. is exceedingly unlikely to repeat his 15.5-sack campaign, given that he knocked down opposing quarterbacks only 16 times. Atlanta didn't need to overhaul its defense, but the first (and maybe only) spot it needed to address was that front seven.
The Falcons made two big additions to upgrade their defense. When defensive tackle Dontari Poe's market failed to materialize, Atlanta executive Scott Pioli swooped in for a player he once drafted in Kansas City. Poe's one-year, $8 million deal is an excellent contract for a player who made the Pro Bowl twice during his rookie contract and is still just 26. Poe's pass-rush ability hasn't returned since undergoing back surgery two years ago, but he's still an effective run-stopper.
It also helps that the Falcons used their first-round pick on UCLA edge rusher Takkarist McKinley, who should be part of a deep rotation at defensive end. It's hard to dislike McKinley, both for his motor on the field and his public display of appreciation for his grandmother during the draft. The one frustrating part for the Falcons is that they had to trade their third- and seventh-round picks to move up five spots and jump ahead of the Cowboys and Steelers to grab McKinley in a draft in which edge rushers were plentiful. When you consider that the Falcons have been able to find useful contributors such as Tevin Coleman and Austin Hooper in the third round of recent drafts, the hidden cost of trading up for McKinley might be missing out on a useful player at another position.
They locked up Desmond Trufant. Atlanta's defense broke out, surprisingly, with its star defensive back on the sidelines. Trufant has been an excellent cornerback for years now, with teams mostly avoiding throws to the left side of the field with him in the lineup. It's hard to compare Trufant to Richard Sherman because Trufant has just seven interceptions over four professional seasons while Sherman has racked up 24 during his first four campaigns, but he's about as close as coach Dan Quinn is going to get to his former charge.
Trufant's deal is worth $41.5 million over its first three seasons, slightly more than what Janoris Jenkins ($39.7 million) and A.J. Bouye ($40 million) recently picked up in free agency and just below the deal handed to Stephon Gilmore ($42 million). Don't be fooled: Trufant would have gotten more if he had been allowed to hit unrestricted free agency, as the Falcons were able to leverage a relatively cheap fifth-year option at $8 million into a friendlier contract.
What went wrong
The offensive line might be a concern. The Atlanta offense spiked last season after the addition of star center Alex Mack, who was the fulcrum on one of the league's best starting fives. Crucially, the Falcons were healthy up front; they went 80-for-80 with all five starters answering every regular-season game. Tackle Jake Matthews missed a few snaps, and Mack eventually suffered a fractured fibula that limited him during the Super Bowl, but the Falcons were able to rely on their best linemen in a way no other team in the league could match.
The line is unlikely to be as healthy in 2017, simply by sheer regression to the mean. It's too difficult to expect five linemen to stay healthy for four months of football. The Falcons also lost underrated guard Chris Chester to retirement and don't have an obvious replacement. Rookie fourth-round pick Sean Harlow is likely to compete with 2016 sixth-rounder Wes Schweitzer, who has yet to take an NFL snap after sitting out inactive his entire rookie season. Neither is likely to be as effective as Chester, and the only other veteran the Falcons have on the bench is utility player Ben Garland. Atlanta could be in the market for a backup lineman during camp.
Work on a deal with Devonta Freeman. The Falcons might find it difficult to find a fit on salary with Freeman, given the number of players already making massive amounts of money on the roster. Their successful run of draft picks on defense over the past couple of seasons, however, might have cleared out a window for the Falcons to pay Freeman to be their starting running back. Freeman will look to top the $19 million Lamar Miller picked up on the first three years of his deal with the Texans last offseason, although this year's cold free-agent market should be a reminder that most teams still aren't paying a premium for halfbacks.
What went right
The Panthers were able to build a deep pass rush for relatively cheap. Even after trading Kony Ealy to the Patriots, the Panthers are stout at defensive end with players on below-market deals. Carolina was able to hold onto the wildly underrated Mario Addison, who has 22 sacks over the past three seasons, by giving him a three-year deal worth $22.5 million with just $9 million in guarantees. Charles Johnson, who took a $3 million deal last season to stay in Carolina, picked up a modest raise by jumping to two years and $8 million with just $2.8 million in guarantees.
The returning Julius Peppers finished the trio out by taking a one-year, $3.5 million contract to presumably finish his career where it started. He had 7.5 sacks and 11 knockdowns in a limited role for the Packers last season. Throw in Wes Horton and third-round pick Daeshon Hall, who might end up as an edge-setter on early downs and an interior rusher in passing situations, and you have a rotation with all kinds of interesting pieces.
They locked up Kawann Short. In the absence of a true star defensive end, the Panthers needed to pay their best pass-rusher, even if he comes from the interior. Short is a consistent disruptor against overmatched guards and centers, having racked up 10 or more knockdowns in each of his four seasons. The only 4-3 defensive tackles with more tackles for loss against the run last season were Aaron Donald, Alan Branch and Michael Bennett. Short was able to extract $51 million over the first three years of his deal, which is right in line with the $47.8 million Fletcher Cox picked up over the first three years of his extension after you account for the rise in the salary cap between 2016 and 2017. Short is unlikely to be a bargain at that rate, but the Panthers needed to retain young talent after giving away Josh Norman last offseason.
What went wrong
The Matt Kalil contract. You can understand why the Panthers would want a left tackle, given how Michael Oher missed 13 games with a serious concussion and might not be able to play in 2017. The Panthers also lost right tackle Mike Remmers to the Vikings during free agency and the draft was historically thin along the offensive line, making their need for tackle help even more pressing. They've had success buying low on unwanted players like Oher in years past, so it's reasonable to think that general manager Dave Gettleman would trust his coaching staff's ability to make chicken soup out of chicken feathers.
You can understand why the Panthers might pursue Matt Kalil, especially because his brother, Ryan, is their star center. Price matters, though, and the Panthers paid a heavy premium for a player who has seen a promising career sapped by injuries. He really hasn't been an effective tackle since his rookie season in 2012, and he has been downright awful during stretches over the ensuing few seasons. Kalil was playing through pain and underwent multiple offseason knee surgeries in Minnesota before undergoing season-ending hip surgery after two games last season.
Giving Kalil a one-year contract with incentives or the sort of one-plus-an-option deals Russell Okung and Kelvin Beachum signed last season would have been one thing. Instead, though, the Panthers bit big. Kalil's listed five-year, $55.5 million deal is a misnomer, but it's realistically either a one-year, $13.6 million contract or a two-year, $25.5 million deal at its low end. Andrew Whitworth, who is older but has been one of the best tackles in football over the past several seasons, was able to rack up only $23 million on the first two years of his deal with the Rams, and even that deal has more flexibility than Kalil's in the short term. It's hard to find a worse contract handed out in free agency this offseason.
Re-sign Trai Turner. The Panthers are likely ruing that they weren't able to lock up their star guard before the market for interior linemen took a leap forward in free agency. The two-time Pro Bowler is another one of the stars from the same LSU offense that produced Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and Jeremy Hill in the 2014 draft, and given that Turner still hasn't even turned 24, he's going to get an enormous contract if the Panthers don't keep him from free agency.
The franchise tag is unlikely, too, because it's tied to the far more lucrative compensation of tackles and will be in excess of $15 million in 2018. The Browns gave Kevin Zeitler a five-year, $60 million deal with $23 million guaranteed at signing and $38 million over the first three years of his deal. Zeitler is also already 27 and has yet to make a Pro Bowl during his career. If Turner is suiting up for the Panthers in 2018, it may very well be as the highest-paid guard in the league
What went right
The Saints devoted draft picks toward fixing their pass defense. It's not exactly a secret that the Jairus Byrd era did not go well for the Saints. The former Bills ball hawk had a nightmare run in New Orleans. A pass defense that ranked sixth in the league by DVOA before Byrd arrived fell to 27th, 32nd and 29th during Byrd's three years in the Bayou.
Byrd was released this offseason and remains a free agent, but he was not the only problem. Fellow free-agent addition Brandon Browner was a disaster in 2015. New Orleans's draft picks have been a disaster, with 2014 second-rounder Stanley Jean-Baptiste released after four games with the team and 2015 third-rounder P.J. Williams missing 30 of his first 32 game thanks to injury. Safety Kenny Vaccaro took a major step backward before returning to form over the past year. The only players emerging from the Saints' backfield with significant credit are CFL refugee Delvin Breaux and street free agent Sterling Moore, who was signed out of desperation last September.
With little salary-cap space, the only way the Saints were going to fix their secondary was by investing more draft picks into solving the problem. After spending a second-round pick on Vonn Bell last year, New Orleans doubled down by using its first-round pick on cornerback Marshon Lattimore before adding safety Marcus Williams in the following round. It also used third-round picks on Alex Anzalone, who figures to serve as a coverage linebacker if he can stay healthy, and Trey Hendrickson, who will compete for snaps as a reserve pass-rusher.
Now you can picture a world in which Williams is lining up in center field, Vaccaro is attacking the line of scrimmage, Bell is possibly working as a hybrid corner/safety, and Breaux and Lattimore are above-average cornerbacks on the outside. It might not work, and it'll probably take some time for the young talent to come together, but there's at least a coherent plan here.
They signed Adrian Peterson on the cheap. It's entirely possible that AD is done after missing virtually all of the 2016 season with a knee injury, but it seems foolish to count out the 32-year-old given what happened the last time he suffered a knee injury. Peterson returned from a torn ACL during his age-29 campaign and promptly won league MVP, running for 2,097 yards with Christian Ponder at quarterback. He slipped a bit over the ensuing three seasons, but his quasi-missed season wasn't injury related, and Peterson was still good enough in 2015 behind a terrible offensive line to lead the league in rushing and make the All-Pro team.
He doesn't have to be that good to justify the two-year, $7 million pact he signed with the Saints in April. Peterson replicates much of Mark Ingram's skill set, which could be a problem, but the Saints did manage to find 133 carries for backup Tim Hightower during what was a relatively healthy season for Ingram in 2016. With the investments made along the offensive line -- the Saints signed guard Larry Warford to a reasonable four-year deal and spent their first-round pick on future right tackle Ryan Ramczyk -- they should be able to piece together a more balanced offense in 2017.
What went wrong
They traded up to grab ... another running back? It's difficult to win trades in which you deal a future pick in a higher round for a pick in a current round. The Saints have made that sort of trade for a running back before, sending their 2011 second-round pick and a 2012 first-rounder to the Patriots for the pick they used on Ingram. The Patriots turned those picks and a third-round selection into Shane Vereen and Chandler Jones. Even as Ingram has turned around his career, you can see why the Saints might regret that swap.
It was surprising given how the Saints have locked up Ingram and signed Peterson, then, to see them trade their 2018 second-round pick to get a third-round pick and draft Alvin Kamara. Kamara profiles as a receiving back who could play a limited role in the Saints' offense as early as this season, but they just aren't really in a position where they should be trading up to grab third-string running backs. They've too often made mistakes in trading up for talent, and they need as many cheap players as they can get. It's hard to believe that they wouldn't have been better off staying put and using their picks at 76 or 103 on Kamara or eventual Eagles draftee Donnel Pumphrey. Alternately, they could have made a move for Jamaal Charles, who signed an incentive-laden one-year deal with the Broncos shortly after the draft. Travaris Cadet is still on the roster too, and the Saints could have used their second-round pick next year to look at a running back of the future.
Max Unger is hurt. Unger has stayed relatively healthy during his Saints tenure after the Jimmy Graham trade, missing just one game in two seasons, but he completed just two full seasons in six as a Seahawks player and could miss the beginning of the regular season after undergoing foot surgery in May. Unger is tentatively expected to return in September, but if he has any setbacks, it would behoove the Saints to take a look at Nick Mangold, who is the top center remaining on the market.
Every team can have a player get hurt, of course, but it's really telling to see just how many players on this roster have a long history of injuries, either as pros or heading into their pro careers. In this draft class alone, Lattimore has a long history of hamstring troubles, while fellow first-round pick Ramczyk is coming off hip surgery in January. Kamara has knee injuries in his past. Anzalone struggled through shoulder injuries in college before breaking an arm last season. The Saints have taken risks on red-flagged amateurs like Hau'oli Kikaha in the past, and even relatively healthy college athletes such as Williams and Sheldon Rankins have had injuries pop up after joining the team. Injuries, not talent, are the biggest problem holding back the Saints.
Another extension for Drew Brees. The Saints signed Brees to a one-year, $24.3 million extension last offseason to avoid putting themselves at risk of losing him to unrestricted free agency, but in doing so, they added three automatically voiding years to the end of the new contract. The Saints will owe $18 million in dead money for Brees on their 2018 cap if he leaves town, which would be disastrous on both a professional and economic level. They will pay $13.4 million in dead money on their cap this year, the fifth-highest total in the league, and that number isn't falling anytime soon.
The only way out of this immediate mess is to keep spending and give Brees another contract extension. Re-signing Brees is a totally reasonable and logical move, but that massive amount of dead money only serves to create additional leverage for the 38-year-old quarterback, who could basically justify asking for a percentage of the team at this point. The Saints, meanwhile, continue to treat the cap and the financial element of team-building like they intend on becoming the cautionary tale in a Michael Lewis novel.
What went right
The Bucs added weapons for Jameis Winston. At points last season, the Bucs were down their No. 2 wideout (Vincent Jackson), their nominal No. 1 tight end heading into training camp (Austin Seferian-Jenkins), their top two running backs (Doug Martin and Charles Sims), and their biggest free-agent addition along the offensive line (J.R. Sweezy). It was a testament to Winston, receiver Mike Evans and coach Dirk Koetter that the Bucs were able to piece together an offense that finished a respectable 18th in DVOA.
Tampa shouldn't be as injury-hit this year, but it's going to be deeper and have a far higher ceiling on offense. The Bucs added a deep threat in 30-year-old wideout DeSean Jackson, who should be able to retain most of his speed and resulting value over what amounts to a two-year, $23.5 million contract. At tight end, the Bucs will supplement the surprising Cameron Brate with first-round pick O.J. Howard, who offers enormous upside, albeit with a coach whose offenses haven't used tight ends as primary targets frequently. It's hard to imagine Evans being more productive than he was in 2016 because the former seventh overall pick was targeted a league-high 173 times, but he won't need to be.
They finally worked on the safety position. The last line of defense has been a perennial headache for the Bucs, who have tried to get by with limited options like Chris Conte and Major Wright at times over the past few years after their big-money duo of Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson flamed out. It was a bit of a surprise to see the Buccaneers move on from Bradley McDougald, who ended up signing with the Seahawks after developing nicely in Tampa, but the Bucs should be set at safety in 2017.
J.J. Wilcox was imported from the Cowboys and should serve as a natural box safety, while second-round pick Justin Evans has the athleticism to play as a deeper safety in center field. There may be hiccups, but Evans and Wilcox are the most promising safety duo Tampa has rolled out on the way to training camp since, well, Barron and Goldson. If Vernon Hargreaves III takes another step forward in his second year, and 32-year-old Brent Grimes continues to defy age after having a stunning return to form last season, Tampa's secondary could sneak up on opposing offenses. A good defensive backfield can come in handy in a division with the Falcons and Saints.
What went wrong
They let the Doug Martin situation slide. The decision to hand Martin a five-year, $35.8 million deal last offseason was foolish at the time, as Martin had struggled with injuries and inconsistency during his rookie contract. Martin proceeded to have one of the worst years imaginable, averaging 2.9 yards per carry while missing six games with an injury. He was a healthy scratch in Week 16 before the Bucs announced that their starter would be suspended for the next four games after failing a PED test and heading into rehab.
The suspension voided the remaining $5.7 million in guaranteed salary on Martin's deal, which seemed to be a precursor to the Bucs releasing Martin and saving money on what appeared to be a mistake of a deal. Instead, the Buccaneers have basically waited out Martin and appear set to go into training camp with the 28-year-old as a key part of their backfield.
While they deserve some credit for sticking with a player who was clearly in some level of off-field stress, Martin wouldn't have come close to getting anything like the four-year, $26.5 million deal he's still receiving on the free market this offseason. It's cold, but the Bucs probably should have explored their options and restructured Martin's deal or released him before signing him to a new contract. It's not hard to imagine that the Bucs would have been better by adding somebody like Adrian Peterson, especially given that Peterson's two-year, $7 million deal is nearly as much as Martin will make in 2017 alone.
Sign Mike Evans. While the 23-year-old superstar is still two years away from unrestricted free agency, the Bucs are going to pay their No. 1 wideout superstar money. The only difference is that they're probably better off doing it now, during an offseason when the only star wideout to sign an extension is Antonio Brown. Next year, the wideout market will be reset when players such as DeAndre Hopkins, Allen Robinson and Jarvis Landry are due to hit free agency while fellow 2014 draftee Odell Beckham Jr. enters the fifth-year option of his own deal.
Evans is in line to make only a maximum of something like $32.3 million over the next three years, assuming that the cap continues to rise at a similar rate and the Bucs decide to franchise him in 2019. Brown's extension, to contrast, will net him $48.9 million over its first three seasons, and he's a little more than five years older than his Tampa Bay counterpart. If the Bucs can convince Evans to take an early extension, they could save millions of dollars.