The 25 Most Important Developments from the NFL Offseason
The NFL offseason is all about change.
From free agency and the draft to owners and rules committee meetings, offseason events exist primarily to strengthen the NFL product and to ensure fans aren't watching a re-run the following season.
While most decisions made during the offseason will ensure at least some change to the NFL landscape, some are more impacting than others. Over the next 25 pages, we will examine the most important developments of the 2014 offseason as they pertain to the coming year and beyond.
This is not a list of the best moves or smartest draft picks. It is a look back at the individual moments that, as of now, appear will have the greatest impact on and off the field for 2014 and beyond. All offseason decisions with the potential to have a major influence on a team or league basis were considered and entries are ranked on their potential impact for both the short and long term.
25. New York Jets Sign Michael Vick
The twisting and turning career of quarterback Michael Vick went in an intriguing direction earlier this offseason when he was signed to a one-year contract by the New York Jets.
This move would be even more significant if Vick had a realistic chance of opening the season as the starting quarterback, but even Vick has admitted that second-year signal-caller Geno Smith is the team's starting quarterback.
"Geno's the starting quarterback for that football team," Vick said, via Dom Consentino of NJ.com.
Bringing Vick to New York is still an important offseason development as it ensures that Smith will have someone to push him and that Vick won't be starting for another franchise in 2014.
24.Detroit Lions Hire Jim Caldwell
The Detroit Lions have plenty of interesting pieces in place throughout the roster, but they don't have much in the way of winning or postseason experience (just one playoff appearance in the past 14 years).
However, the team may have found a little of both when it added former Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Caldwell in the same capacity earlier this offseason.
Caldwell's Colts reached the playoffs in two of his three seasons with the team, the lone non-playoff season being the year quarterback Peyton Manning was sidelined with a neck injury. His team reached the Super Bowl following the 2009 season.
As NFL.com's Marc Sessler previously pointed out, Caldwell, as a quarterback coach with the Baltimore Ravens a couple of seasons ago, helped turn Joe Flacco into a championship passer. If he can do the same for Detroit's Matthew Stafford, the Lions could be looking at another big piece to their own championship puzzle.
23. Houston Texans Draft Jadeveon Clowney
However, the move holds significant impact for a couple of reasons.
For starters, it should allow the Texans to pair Clowney with defensive end J.J. Watt (36.5 sacks in three seasons) to form one of the most threatening pass-rushing duos in the entire league.
It also meant that other teams—and not the Texans—would have an opportunity to pounce on one of the top quarterback prospects available in the first round of the draft.
Houston did eventually use a fourth-round pick to select former University of Pittsburgh quarterback Tom Savage, but unless he really surprises early on, the search for the next franchise quarterback will likely continue into next year for the Texans.
22. Minnesota Vikings Hire Mike Zimmer
When the Minnesota Vikings hired former Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to be their next head coach, it signaled a change in philosophy for Vikings football.
While star running back Adrian Peterson will still play a very important role with the team, he should no longer have to put the franchise solely on his shoulders. Zimmer brought with him offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who should help elevate the efficiency of Minnesota's passing attack.
Zimmer himself should have a big impact on the opposite side of the football. He helped craft an aggressive and effective defense in Cincinnati and appears to want to do the same in Minnesota.
Of course, improving the defense shouldn't be difficult. The Vikings ranked dead last in scoring defense in 2013, allowing an average of 30 points per game to opposing offenses.
21. Oakland Raiders Trade for Matt Schaub
The trade that sent quarterback Matt Schaub from the Houston Texans to the Oakland Raiders had a two-fold effect on the NFL landscape.
On one hand, it gives Oakland a veteran presence under center. Schaub had an off year in 2013, but he is an experienced quarterback who should at least be able to hold down the fort while rookie second-round pick Derek Carr adapts to the pro game.
On the other hand, it marked the end of an era in Houston.
Schaub's seven seasons in Houston marked the most successful run for any quarterback in the franchise's existence. He tossed 124 touchdown passes during his time with the organization and helped lead the Texans to the first two playoff appearances in the team's history.
20. Texans Hire Bill O'Brien
The Houston Texans are the latest NFL team to take a chance on a Bill Belichick disciple as a head coach.
The team hired former Penn State head coach and longtime (2007-2011) Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien to be its new head coach very early in its offseason. O'Brien brought with him former Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.
O'Brien is clearly an offensive-minded head coach and will call plays for the team this coming season, according to NFL.com's Marc Sessler.
What O'Brien has not done is bring in a young signal-caller, aside from fourth-round pick Tom Savage, to be the team's potential quarterback of the future. This, of course, could be one of the reasons starting wide receiver Andre Johnson is unhappy with the current state of the franchise. (We'll address this topic later.)
19. Cleveland Browns Hire Mike Pettine
We don't yet know if new Cleveland Browns head coach Mike Pettine will be successful. We do know that the decision to fire former head coach Rob Chudzinski after only one season and replace him with the unheralded Buffalo Bills coordinator has already had an impact on the franchise.
The near-comical coaching search led to the firing of general manager Mike Lombardi and CEO Joe Banner by owner Jimmy Haslam. Haslam promoted Ray Farmer to the general manager position, and Farmer and Pettine have already put their fingerprints on the team.
It is clear that the 2014 Browns will be a defensively oriented squad, as the new regime moved quickly to bring in free agents like safety Donte Whitner and linebacker Karlos Dansby. Cleveland used its initial draft pick on Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert.
The defense-first philosophy has worked well for teams like the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. It remains to be seen if it can work for the Browns. For now, however, there appears to be a clear vision in Cleveland for the first time in quite a long time.
18. Kansas City Chiefs Suffer Heave Free-Agency Losses
Free agency gives struggling franchises an opportunity to get significantly better by adding proven talent during the offseason.
For successful teams, free agency typically does more harm than good.
The Kansas City Chiefs, a surprise playoff team in 2013, lost a good amount of talent this offseason due to free agency and may be a significantly weaker team this season because of it.
According to Eric Edholm of Yahoo sports, the Chiefs lost five significant players within the first 90 minutes of the free-agency period. Those losses were starting left tackle Branden Albert, guards Jon Asamoah and Geoff Schwartz, defensive end Tyson Jackson and wide receiver Dexter McCluster.
This isn't to say that Kansas City cannot repeat as a playoff team, but the loss of five significant contributors will make the road back to the postseason much more of a challenge.
17. Washington Redskins Hire Jay Gruden
The hiring of head coach Jay Gruden by the Washington Redskins is important for a couple of key reasons.
For starters, it means that another coach will have an opportunity to work with potential superstar Robert Griffin III. Griffin has shown both boom and bust potential during his short pro career, but Gruden—an offensive-minded coach and former Arena Football League quarterback—may have what it takes to get the best out of Griffin.
The hiring also means that the Cincinnati Bengals lost both their offensive and defensive coordinators in the same offseason.
Gruden served as offensive coordinator in Cincinnati from 2011 to 2013, and he was replaced by former Oakland Raiders head coach Hue Jackson.
16. Denver Broncos Bulk Up on Defense
We've already mentioned how the Chiefs lost key pieces in free agency this offseason. Now it's time to talk about how the division-rival Denver Broncos used the period to add to an already impressive roster.
The Broncos reached the Super Bowl last season thanks to the efforts of the league's top scoring offense (37.9 points per game). The team used the free-agency period to bolster the other side of the football, adding cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward and pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware.
Oh yeah, the team also drafted cornerback Bradley Roby in the first round of May's draft.
If the Broncos defense can show significant improvement with these new additions, there is little reason to believe the team won't again be the favorites to reach the big game out of the AFC.
15. Tennessee Titans Hire Ken Whisenhunt
The hiring of head coach Ken Whisenhunt brings immediate credibility to the Tennessee Titans organization.
After all, it was Whisenhunt who helped the long-suffering Arizona Cardinals finally reach a Super Bowl following the 2008 season.
His experience in helping turn around one franchise should help Whisenhunt in the challenge of returning the Titans to relevancy. (The team has missed the playoffs in each of the past five seasons.)
In addition to bringing a potential power shift to the AFC South, the hiring of Whisenhunt has another significant effect. It prevented the Detroit Lions from landing what was widely considered to be their first choice as head coach.
14. Josh Gordon Is Arrested for DWI
The NFL is a world driven by star power, and 2013's most productive receiver certainly qualifies as a star.
Therefore, the league couldn't have been happy when ESPN reported that Browns receiver Josh Gordon (1,646 yards receiving in 2014) was facing a year-long ban for violation of the league's substance abuse policy.
According to Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com, Gordon will have an appeal hearing later this month. However, there is one big problem.
Gordon can't seem to stay out of trouble.
Gordon was arrested for driving while intoxicated (DWI) in North Carolina over Independence Day weekend. According to an ESPN report, his blood-alcohol level was just over the state legal limit of .08.
This latest incident certainly won't help Gordon's appeal process and could be damaging enough to ensure that one of the league's most exciting young players won't be on the field in 2014.
13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Hire Lovie Smith
Of all the new head-coaching hires, the hiring of Lovie Smith by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers may be the one that brings the most immediate success.
Smith has playoff and Super Bowl experience and has spent time with the Buccaneers organization before (as linebackers coach from 1996-2000). He also brings with him a clear vision of how to turn Tampa into a winner.
In free agency, Smith brought in journeyman quarterback Josh McCown and immediately named him as the team's starting quarterback. The Buccaneers then pulled the trigger on 6'5" wide receiver Mike Evans in the first round of May's draft.
Evans should pair with Vincent Jackson to give McCown the type of big-bodied receiver duo he enjoyed last season with the Chicago Bears.
Smith faces a tough challenge in trying to unseat the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints from atop the NFC South, but it is not an impossible task. Considering the unpredictable nature of the division (no team has ever won back-to-back division titles), it wouldn't be altogether surprising to see the Buccaneers make a playoff run this season.
12. Jacksonville Jaguars Draft Blake Bortles
If things go according to plan, rookie quarterback Blake Bortles probably won't even see the field for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2014.
However, the team's decision to draft the Central Florida at No. 3 overall had a significant effect on the way the rest of the first round played out back in May.
For starters, taking Bortles meant that Johnny Manziel or Teddy Bridgewater were available for the Cleveland Browns (No. 22 overall) and Minnesota Vikings (No. 32), respectively.
The move also meant that highly coveted players like Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins (Tampa Bay Buccaneers, No. 4 overall) and Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack (Oakland Raiders, No. 5) were available at the two selections that followed.
11. New England Patriots Sign Darrelle Revis
While every free-agent signing at least has the potential for league-wide impact, few really alter the landscape the way the signing of cornerback Darrelle Revis by the New England Patriots did.
For starters, the move gives New England one of the game's top pass-defenders (Revis was rated No. 1 overall among cornerbacks last season, by Pro Football Focus).
After losing Aqib Talib to the Denver Broncos in free agency, New England had a need at the cornerback position and filled it with the best possible option.
The other reason this signing was significant is because it brings a new chapter to the border war known as the Patriots-Jets rivalry.
Revis spent the first six seasons of his NFL career with the Jets, a team that seems to operate with the goal of besting its most-hated division rival. Now, one of the most talented defenders in recent Jets history will be suiting up for that rival, at least for the coming season.
10. Jermichael Finley Still Fighting to Return to the Field
We never like to see an injury occur on the playing field in any sport. We definitely don't like to see a potentially career-ending injury, like the one suffered by former Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley last season.
This is why it is inspiring to see that Finley's playing career may not be over, even though he's been slow in recovering from the disastrous neck injury suffered last October. The injury Finley to undergo spinal fusion surgery, but the tight end was medically cleared to return to football activities in May.
According to USA Today's Tom Pelissero, Finley is scheduled to undergo another round of medical testing and will have the results sent to all 32 NFL teams.
Here's to hoping that we see Finley back on the football field soon and that other injuries of this nature can be avoided.
9. Vernon Davis Decides to Hold out
However, this is apparently not enough for Davis, who made it clear he would hold out until the 49ers consider giving him a new contract befitting a player of his caliber. Davis was rated sixth overall among tight ends last season by Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
"It’s all about getting paid what you deserve." Davis wrote in a column for TheMMQB.com. "It’s not that complicated. I want the 49ers to win the Super Bowl, and I want to be on the field this summer working toward that goal, but I have to worry about my future first."
If Davis' quest for a bigger payday extends through training camp and into the regular season, the 49ers may have to find a way to overcome the absence of one of their premier offensive weapons.
8. Browns Draft QB Johnny Manziel
You probably knew that former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel was going to end up somewhere on our list. That's probably because the former Heisman Trophy winner has been everywhere in the media this offseason.
The decision by the Browns to trade up and select Manziel at No. 22 overall in the 2014 draft ensured that the media circus would follow him to Cleveland.
The Browns may not be particularly good this season, and Manziel may not even win the starting job over journeyman Brian Hoyer. However, his presence in Cleveland this offseason has made the Browns something they have rarely been since returning to the league in 1999.
It has helped make them relevant.
7. Andre Johnson Skips Texans' Workouts
It is never a good sign when the best player in a franchise's history no longer wants to be a part of that franchise.
This appears to be the scenario developing with the Houston Texans and Andre Johnson, who has avoided all offseason workouts to date.
Tired of losing and unhappy with the current direction of the franchise, Johnson has made it clear that he would prefer to to finish his career with a contender.
According to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, however, the Texans have no plans to actually trade Johnson. This likely means the two parties will likely have to come to some sort of an agreement before the start of the regular season.
Otherwise, Johnson will face stiff fines and forfeit hefty game checks (Nearly $600,000 apiece) for continuing to sit out. Or he could decide to retire after 11 seasons, 12,661 yards and 927 receptions—all with Houston.
6. Arbitrator Rules Jimmy Graham Is a Tight End
Franchise-tagged New Orleans Saints pass-catcher Jimmy Graham had hoped that arbitration would lead to him to being considered a wide receiver instead of a tight end.
After all, his one-year tender of just over $7 million would have been increased to over $12 million had his bid been successful.
Graham argued that since he spent 67 percent of his snaps in 2013 split wide or in the slot, he should be considered a receiver. However, arbitrator Stephen Burbank ruled that the tight end position has always involved a combination of splitting wide to catch passes and staying in to block, according to ESPN's Mike Triplett.
According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the Saints and Graham are very close to finalizing a deal that would make him the highest-paid tight end in league history. One has to wonder if his deal would be even more lucrative had Graham been ruled a wideout.
Either way, the precedent has been set and even the best pass-catching tight ends will likely face an uphill battle in their quest to be paid like an elite receiver moving forward.
5. Colts Owner Jim Irsay Is Arrested
Sadly, we have grown fairly accustomed to NFL players getting into significant trouble during the offseason.
We're not so used to seeing the names of NFL owners on the police blotter.
However, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay was arrested back in March for DWI and was found in possession of a large sum of cash and several bottles of prescription medication (the full arrest report, via The Indianapolis Star, can be found here).
The tragic part of the story is the fact that Irsay, who had struggled with substance abuse in the past, had been celebrating his sobriety since 2002.
The impacting part of the story as it pertains to the NFL will come when and if commissioner Roger Goodell hand out discipline to the Colts owner. Goodell has been moved quickly to discipline players in the past for their transgressions and his handling of Irsay's situation will show just how much equality there is in the league between owners and employees.
4. Retirement of Tony Gonzalez
Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez made it fairly clear throughout the season that 2013 would be his final year in the NFL.
However, the future Hall-of-Famer has stuck with his decision to retire during the offseason, which means we have witnessed the end of an era.
For 17 years with the Falcons and the Kansas City Chiefs, Gonzalez terrorized opposing defenses and he revolutionized the tight end position along the way. Over the course of his career, Gonzalez hauled in 1,325 passes for an amazing 15,127 yards and 111 touchdowns.
He missed just two games in his career.
“I’m not naïve, and I’ve spoken to enough players who have retired that I know I’m going to miss it. It’s gonna be like a part of me that is dying, honestly."Gonzalez said last year to TheMMQB.com's Peter King. "I’m never ever going to be able to play football again for a living. So I don’t have any regrets."
It sounds as if the legendary tight end will miss playing in the NFL. The NFL will definitely miss having him.
3. NFL Decides to Experiment with Longer Extra Point Attempts
According to NFL.com, kickers converted an astounding 99.6 percent of extra-point attempts in 2013. The near-automatic nature of the kick has led the league to consider altering or abandoning the extra point entirely.
The first step in the process will be to experiment with longer extra-point attempts this coming preseason.
As Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith explains it, extra-point attempts will be moved from the 2-yard line to the 20 for the first two weeks of the 2014 preseason.
Of course, not all preseason trials develop into fully fledged rule changes. However, the decision to tinker with the extra point on even an experimental basis certainly feels like the first step toward the demise of the PAT—and the NFL—as we have come to know it.
2. The Passing of Ralph Wilson
Ralph Wilson was not the only NFL owner to pass away this offseason (all respect intended for Malcolm Glazer and Bud Adams), but the death of the Buffalo Bills owner may have the greatest lasting impact.
A member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Wilson owned the Bills since the team was founded as an AFL franchise in 1960. He also helped to keep the budding league afloat during the early years by financially supporting struggling franchises.
In addition to helping to birth a new brand of modern football, Wilson was an important owner because he ensured the Bills franchise remained in Buffalo. With the franchise now up for sale, its future in Buffalo has to be questioned to some degree.
According to Matthew Fairburn of Syracuse.com, there have been positive reports that the franchise will remain in town. Until a purchase is actually imminent, however, we must assume that a new owner would at least consider moving the franchise to a larger market.
1. The St. Louis Rams Draft Michael Sam
The drafting of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam by the St. Louis Rams is as important as any moment in the 2014 offseason because it marked a first in NFL history.
Sam certainly isn't the first gay player to enter the NFL, and he wasn't the first openly gay athlete to participate in a major american sport. However, his decision to come out to the public months before the 2014 draft allowed him to be the first openly gay player to enter the NFL draft.
The Rams were willing to take a chance on the former SEC Defensive Player of the Year in the seventh round, giving Sam an opportunity to become the first openly gay NFL player to take the field should he survive final roster cuts.
While the drafting of Sam is certainly a historic first, the real impact should be felt in how St. Louis has handled his situation. In short, there is no situation, and Sam's sexuality has been a complete non-story since moments after the draft wrapped (at least as it pertains to the NFL). He is just another rookie trying to earn his way in the world of professional football.
"You don't see anyone not talking to him or against him," rookie guard Greg Robinson said of Sam and his teammates last month, via the Associated Press. "They look at him as a football player."
The Rams have handled things the right way with Sam, and in doing so have helped pave the way for future gay players to enter the NFL with football as their primary focus.