The best, worst and most underrated moves of the 2019 NFL offseason

ByDan Graziano ESPN logo
Thursday, January 23, 2020

Hindsight is the most wondrous of evaluation tools. Just look back on all the "best offseason moves" lists from last summer if you're looking for a laugh. Almost none of what we expected came true. But that's the essence of sports anyway, so it's fine.

With only one game left in the 2019-20 NFL season, we have the luxury of looking back on the 2019 offseason and knowing which moves were the best, worst, most underrated, etc. This isn't an I-told-you-so exercise, because I didn't. Like almost everyone else, I didn't see much of this -- or at least the extent of it -- coming.

So enjoy this hindsight-driven look back on the 2019 offseason, and please keep it in mind when you read those preseason pieces this summer. The moves that look the best or the worst at the time they're made often turn out much differently than you expect.

Jump to:

Best | Worst

Underrated | Still waiting...


The Chiefs' defensive makeover

I was skeptical of the move to hire Steve Spagnuolo as defensive coordinator. His track record has many more bad years than good ones. I grew even more skeptical as the Chiefs overhauled their defense on the fly and in ways Spagnuolo clearly had a hand in directing.

But after a bit of a sluggish start, Spags & Co. proved me wrong. The Tyrann Mathieu signing was a difference-maker. Replacing Dee Ford with Frank Clark worked out (though one could argue the Ford thing worked out for the 49ers as well). Chris Jones managed to continue to thrive as a pass-rusher in spite of Spagnuolo's history of not asking his defensive tackles to be that.

And now the Chiefs are in the Super Bowl after holding Derrick Henry to 69 yards in the AFC Championship Game. With Patrick Mahomes and all those speedsters on offense, the Chiefs only needed their defense to elevate from terrible to OKin order to go further than last year's Chiefs did. And that defense has been better than OK.

The Ravens' offensive makeover

They won a bunch of games and made the playoffs when they threw Lamar Jackson into the starting job and retooled the offense around him on the fly in 2018. But offensive coordinator Greg Roman really took things to a new level with what he built for Jackson in the 2019 offseason.

Not only did the Baltimore coaching staff iron out Jackson's rookie-year turnover issues, they made him the centerpiece of the league's most dynamic scoring attack, earned the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs and almost certainly won Jackson the MVP award in his second NFL season. In a year with the usual number of head coach openings, Roman might have been snatched up by another team for the big job -- and another season averaging 33 points per game with Jackson could make him the hottest candidate for 2021.

The Titans' trade for Ryan Tannehill

This was a straight-up dump by the Dolphins, who were through with Tannehill and picked up a large chunk of his salary as part of the deal. But when Marcus Mariota faltered early in the season and Tennessee replaced him with Tannehill as its starting quarterback, things turned around in spectacular fashion. The Titans went 7-3 to close out the regular season with Tannehill as their QB, ranking third in the league in both points per game (30.4) and yards per game (406.2) before advancing to the AFC Championship Game.

The 49ers drafting Nick Bosa with the No. 2 pick

San Francisco never wavered during the draft process, rejecting offers to trade up and staying the course with Bosa, whom they correctly envisioned as the final Infinity Stone in their gauntlet of first-round defensive linemen. Watching Bosa and his fellow first-rounders dominate the Vikings and the Packers in the playoff games that landed the Niners in the Super Bowl validates the importance of drafting an exceptional edge rusher when you have the chance to do it. Bosa is the star of a stellar group, and he helped elevate that group to the game's grandest stage.

The Buccaneers signing Shaquil Barrett

Tampa Bay's signing of the former Broncos linebacker to a one-year, $4 million contract generated barely a ripple on the free-agent market, but it may have been the steal of the season. Barrett needed 10 sacks to trigger a $1 million incentive clause, and he got nine in the Bucs' first four games. He ended up leading the league with 19.5 sacks on the season and should fare considerably better in free agency this time around.


The Browns hiring Freddie Kitchens as coach

All of the hope and hype that accompanied the Browns into the 2019 season was alloyed by the question of whether first-year head coach Kitchens could bring everything together and manage his talented group into the playoffs. He could not.

The Browns were a mess from training camp, when Odell Beckham Jr. got hurt and Baker Mayfield had too many conflicting voices in his ear. They were a factory of the wrong kind of headlines all year. Kitchens continually sounded the wrong note publicly whenever he was dealing with a crisis, and the team's performance indicates he wasn't sounding too many right notes in private, either. The Browns fired Kitchens after only one year and hired Kevin Stefanski, who was their other finalist for the job last January, to replace him.

Everything involving Antonio Brown

The Raiders' trade for Brown, hailed as a coup when it happened due to the low price, ended up a total bust. He spent training camp feuding with the league about his helmet, freezing his foot in a cryotherapy chamber and arguing publicly with GM Mike Mayock over fine money for workdays he missed. The last bit got him cut right before the season started, and he never played a down for the Raiders.

The Patriots' move to sign him hours after the Raiders cut him doesn't look great either, as they're stuck with $10.5 million in dead money and likely will have to pay Brown his $9 million signing bonus if he wins his grievance against them. (But at least he played a game for them.)

And to top it all off, Pittsburgh really could have used help at receiver this year. Would all of this have been different if he and the Steelers had found a way to patch things up? Probably not. Brown's spectacular NFL career appears to have imploded due to his self-destructive off-field and social media behavior.

The Jaguars signing Nick Foles

Believing themselves to be a quarterback away from the kind of successful season they'd had in 2017, the Jags signed Foles to a four-year, $88 million contract with $42.125 million fully guaranteed in the first two years. But the season turned out to be a disaster.

Star cornerback Jalen Ramsey forced a trade due to his relationship with executive VP Tom Coughlin, and then Coughlin was fired late in the season after the NFLPA won a grievance against the Jaguars and ripped the team for the number of player complaints it had received during Coughlin's time there. The Foles deal looks like it might be a massive mistake too, as he missed eight games due to injury and then four more due to a late-season benching in favor of sixth-round rookie Gardner Minshew II, who may have already taken the 2020 starting QB job away from him.

The Jaguars owe Foles $15.125 million in fully guaranteed salary for 2020, and a $5 million 2021 roster bonus becomes fully guaranteed if he's on their roster on the third day of the 2020 league year. They'd absorb a dead-money hit of about $34 million if they cut him and about $19 million if they trade him.

The Giants signing Golden Tate

Giants apologists will point to Cleveland's bad year and Beckham Jr.'s embarrassing behavior at the National Championship Game as evidence that GM Dave Gettleman was right to trade his star wideout. But even if you viewed the Beckham deal as addition by subtraction for the Giants, you can't be thrilled with their plan for replacing him.

They signed Tate to a four-year, $37.5 million contract even though he's a very similar receiver to Sterling Shepard, whom they'd just signed to a four-year, $41 million contract. Tate began the season on a four-game drug suspension and ended it with 49 catches for 676 yards and six touchdowns, while fifth-round rookie Darius Slayton looks like the real deal. The Giants still owe Tate $7.975 million in guaranteed salary for 2020.

Washington alienating Trent Williams

This was a doozy. Williams, the Pro Bowl left tackle, stayed away all season after making it clear he didn't want to play for Washington anymore. (He actually reported on the day of the trade deadline, so as not to lose a year of service time, but he was there one day and did not return after the team put him on the non-football injury list.) Williams was upset with the team's medical staff for misdiagnosing a cancerous growth on his scalp, and he was upset with the front office for not offering to rework his contract after the guarantees ran out.

Washington overhauled its front office and medical staff this offseason, getting rid of a couple of the people with whom Williams was upset. It remains to be seen whether he'll return there, but in the meantime a lot of damage was done. And the quarterbacks the team used, including rookie Dwayne Haskins Jr., had far less of a chance to succeed with Williams sitting out.


The Titans promoting Arthur Smith to offensive coordinator

They lost Matt LaFleur to a head-coaching job after LaFleur spent only one year as their offensive coordinator. But instead of hiring from the outside, Titans coach Mike Vrabel elevated his tight ends coach to the coordinator job. Smith proved more than capable, designing a Titans offense that, yes, used a ton of Henry but also ranked among the most efficient passing attacks in the league behind Tannehill and rookie receiver A.J. Brown. The Titans may have unearthed a coaching star.

The Bills' offensive makeover

None of Buffalo's offseason moves made major waves on its own. But collectively, they rebuilt an offense that helped deliver the Bills' second playoff appearance in three years. Wide receiver John Brown served as a reliable deep threat for second-year QB Josh Allen, while wide receiver Cole Beasley was a great safety blanket. Veteran Frank Gore and rookie Devin Singletary formed a strong run game. And the retooled offensive line kept Allen clean enough for him to advance as a playmaker.

Coach Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane are earning leaguewide praise for their approach to team-building, and you can bet we'll be watching their 2020 offseason more closely.

Houston's trade for Carlos Hyde

This looked like a throwaway deal at the time. The Chiefs were about to cut Hyde at the end of training camp when the Texans, who'd just lost Lamar Miller to a season-ending injury, stepped in and offered backup guard Martinas Rankin. Hyde picked up the Texans' offense instantly and delivered the first 1,000-yard rushing season of his career as Houston won the AFC South for the fourth time in five years.

The Vikings hiring Gary Kubiak

He was not the offensive coordinator, but Kubiak (as well as run game coordinator Rick Dennison and QBs coach Klint Kubiak, who came with him) helped evolve Stefanski's offense into one that played more to QB Kirk Cousins' strengths. A zone running scheme and an emphasis on play-action helped revitalize the Minnesota offense and propel the Vikings into the postseason.

Stefanski, who's now off to Cleveland as a head coach, credited Kubiak as an invaluable sounding board and a helpful-but-not-intrusive influence on the offense, which performed at a high level for most of the season.

The Dolphins signing Ryan Fitzpatrick

The preseason talk was that the Dolphins were "tanking" to try to get the top pick in the draft. This, as it turns out, was not true. What the Dolphins were actually doing was trading assets in an effort to stockpile as many early-round picks as they could in the next couple of drafts, which makes a lot more sense in the NFL than "tanking" for a specific pick.

Along the way they signed Fitzpatrick, the well-traveled veteran QB, even though they'd traded for Josh Rosen. And by the time they got halfway through the season, they realized Rosen wasn't going to be their guy for the long term so they made Fitzpatrick the starter and ended up winning five of their last nine games, including the Week 17 victory over the Patriots that cost New England a first-round bye.

The Dolphins still have the No. 5 pick in the draft, and because of the Minkah Fitzpatrick and Laremy Tunsil trades, they also have the 18thand 26th picks. They're set up better than fine draft-wise, and in the meantime they have a group of young players who got to feel and enjoy what it's like to compete for and win something. That should help down the road with whoever ends up staying for the rebuild.


The Ezekiel Elliott contract extension

Elliott became the highest-paid running back in the league by holding out of training camp and forcing the Cowboys to confront life without him. The 2019 season was the first of his career in which Elliott did not lead the league in rushing yards per game. The Cowboys' offense evolved and produced at an extremely high level behind quarterback Dak Prescott's career season.

Elliott didn't play poorly by any means -- he still finished fourth in the league in rushing. But given the money involved, and the way the offense seemed to lean on him less after he got it, it's fair to wonder whether Elliott's deal will prove to be worth it or whether it will become just another data point for teams that fear overpaying at the running back position.

The Jets' free-agent moves

Le'Veon Bell and C.J. Mosley were the headliners, signing deals with a combined $70 million in full guarantees. The Jets had a mess of a season, with second-year quarterback Sam Darnold contracting mono in September and backup Trevor Siemian suffering a season-ending injury in his first start. But it's likely they weren't going to contend this year anyway.

If Mosley comes back healthy and the Jets find a way to integrate Bell into the offense more, these moves could pay off in 2020. But for comparison's sake: The Jets got those two guys for $70 million guaranteed; the division rival Bills signed Gore, Brown, Beasley, Mitch Morse, Ty Nsekhe andJon Felicianofor a combined total of $53.3 million guaranteed.

The Lions signing Trey Flowers

Detroit gave Flowers a five-year, $90 million deal with $50 million guaranteed at signing, reuniting him with former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia in hopes of revitalizing the Lions' pass rush. In turn, Miami was the only team that had fewer sacks than Detroit did this year. Flowers had seven of the Lions' 28 sacks, which is right on his career average, but his first-year impact on the defense doesn't seem to have been very much.

Washington signing Landon Collins

The Giants may have been nuts for letting Collins walk without franchising him (or trading him if he really wasn't going to play on the franchise tag), but Washington may have been nuts-er for giving Collins a six-year, $84 million deal with $36.825 million fully guaranteed.

The safety market went through the roof, withEarl Thomasand Mathieu landing deals in the same per-year average range, but Collins' deal was the plum from a player's perspective, and Washington likely could have used the money elsewhere had it been more frugal. Perhaps the defense improves and Collins becomes its centerpiece, but we have to wait to find out.

The Browns' trade for Odell Beckham Jr.

Obviously, this did not go the way Cleveland hoped it would go in the first year. But nothing did in 2019, and the Browns are hitting the reset button again on the coaching staff and in the front office. Beckham played hurt all year and just had surgery to correct a core muscle injury. He's 27 years old, and it's hard to believe he's done being great. But if the Browns do keep him and don't start winning, his deal will continue to be viewed as an albatross by those who don't feel he's worth the off-field headaches.

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