Bleacher Report's 2014 NFL Offseason Awards
The envelopes please…
Welcome to our take on what NFL teams or players have earned a symbolic trophy when it comes to the last six months and change. We have come up with a dozen categories and hope to give every club as well as some coaches and performers their just due.
In some cases, the awards are less than flattering. But there’s one way to erase the memory of our honors and that’s by proving these "accolades" wrong.
So here are the winners…and the "winners."
Best Offseason, Team: Chicago Bears
Last season proved to be unbearable for the team from the Windy City.
A franchise known for its toughness thanks to a traditionally tough defense couldn’t stop much of anything in 2013.
However, thanks to free agency and the draft, the Chicago Bears look like they have fixed the leaks that eventually turned a 3-0 start into a mediocre 8-8 finish.
The club that finished 30th in the NFL in total defense, last in the league in stopping the run and allowed a whopping 478 points this past season (tied for the second most in the NFL) has done plenty to rectify the situation.
General manager Phil Emery added defensive ends Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young to help a pass rush that managed a mere 31 sacks a year ago—tied for the second fewest in the league. Emery used four of his top five picks in May on this side of the ball, adding cornerback Kyle Fuller, defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton and safety Brock Vereen. The latter looks like the starter at free safety, at least until Chris Conte is healthy.
Offensively, the team is primed for a big season. All the pieces are in place for head coach Marc Trestman. The key is whether quarterback Jay Cutler can start all 16 games for the first time since 2009. A year ago, only the Denver Broncos scored more points than the Bears.
Over the past few days, there have been a few bumps in the road. Larry Mayer of ChicagoBears.com talks about promising second-year wide receiver Marquess Wilson, who will be sidelined indefinitely with a broken clavicle. Meanwhile, David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune recaps the latest on tight end Martellus Bennett and his altercation with Fuller at training camp.
Still, there have been plenty of positives for a club that looks to get back to the playoffs after a three-year absence.
Worst Offseason, Team: Kansas City Chiefs
Could the team that made a nine-game improvement from one season to the next now be headed back in the opposite direction once again?
For the Kansas City Chiefs, it began during the first days of free agency when Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert, defensive end Tyson Jackson, running back Dexter McCluster and guards Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah all left for new teams.
Later, the team opted to part ways with Pro Bowl cornerback Brandon Flowers, who wound up signing with the division-rival San Diego Chargers.
The Chiefs selected six players in the 2014 draft, and in terms of immediate help it appears that sixth-round pick Zach Fulton may get the nod at right guard. Andy Reid’s club plugged some of the holes via free agency and in recent weeks added veterans such as tackle Ryan Harris and safety Steve Gregory.
The franchise did re-sign Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles to a nice extension but has yet to make a longer commitment to quarterback Alex Smith…at least for now.
Combine all of this with the fact that the team lost five of its final seven games last season after a 9-0 start, then proceeded to blow a 28-point lead in the playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts, and it unfortunately appears that the Chiefs have picked up where they left off late in 2013.
Best Draft, Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
A pair of consecutive 8-8 seasons doesn’t cut it in the Steel City.
That’s why this offseason the Pittsburgh Steelers made a lot of changes looking to avoid a third straight year without a playoff invitation.
The team was uncharacteristically busy during free agency, adding veterans such as running back LeGarrette Blount, wide receiver Lance Moore and free safety Mike Mitchell.
However, these additions will be enhanced by a very promising draft class. Start with inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, who will be a rare rookie starter in a Dick LeBeau defense. The team used a second-round pick on promising defensive end Stephon Tuitt, adding more youth to a unit that has gotten a little long in the tooth. And explosive third-round running back Dri Archer looks like a home run threat out of the backfield as well as on returns.
The Steelers also got some more wide receiver help in intriguing prospect Martavis Bryant from Clemson. All told, Pittsburgh added nine players in the draft, and Bleacher Report colleague Chris Gazze offers this solid progress report.
Should Shazier and Tuitt perform as they have to date, that alone could help make the Steelers defense fearsome and opportunistic once again. And that will go a long way to Mike Tomlin’s club getting out of this 8-8 rut.
Worst Draft, Team: Indianapolis Colts
OK, it certainly doesn’t help that the Indianapolis Colts selected fewer players (five) than any team in the 2014 draft.
It was just surprising the direction the team went in in terms of choices.
Granted, the team did not have first- and fourth-round choices due to previous trades. And second-round pick Jack Mewhort could wind up being the starting left guard after veteran Donald Thomas went down last week with a torn biceps.
As Colts.com reports, Thomas was placed on injured reserve by the club. General manager Ryan Grigson also added tackle John Ulrick in the seventh round.
The Colts also selected wide receiver Donte Moncrief in the third round as well as a pair of linebackers Jonathan Newsome and Andrew Jackson on Day 3 of the draft. But for a team that has as many defensive issues as do the Colts, it was surprising that more emphasis wasn’t put on the defensive line. The club did add Arthur Jones via free agency, but that doesn’t appear to be enough up front.
Best Work in Free Agency, Team: Oakland Raiders
It’s been more than a decade since the Oakland Raiders have been excellent.
But thanks to general manager Reggie McKenzie, the Silver and Black are giving it their best shot.
The team that owns a combined 53-123 record the last 11 seasons has a different feel to it this year. The Raiders went out and traded for quarterback Matt Schaub and added quarterback Derek Carr in the second round of the draft. The sky appears to be the limit for outside linebacker Khalil Mack, the team’s first-round draft choice this spring.
But it was during free agency that the club made its mark and it appears with a purpose in mind. What stands out about Oakland’s free-agent class is the battle-tested resumes of the group.
As McKenzie told Jerry McDonald of the San Jose Mercury News, the embattled GM spent free agency in search of leadership and experience.
What we're trying to do is add some veteran leadership. The bottom line is trying to upgrade the team through production and leadership. We've got some young guys, and we want to try and get that good mix, try to build.
Dating back to the 2007 season, defensive ends Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley have each started a pair of Super Bowls and played well in those contests. Meanwhile, defensive tackle Antonio Smith, wide receiver James Jones and cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers have each started in the big game at least once.
The Raiders haven’t been to the playoffs since 2002 and other teams this offseason may have signed more veterans. But it will be interesting to see what influence McKenzie’s free-agent class has on a team starving for success.
Worst Work in Free Agency, Team: St. Louis Rams
Once again, you don’t want to bash a team in free agency just because they didn’t use it a lot this offseason.
In recent years, the St. Louis Rams have been a team that has been building through the draft. The last two years, general manager Les Snead has added four first-round picks in wide receiver Tavon Austin, linebacker Alec Ogletree, offensive lineman Greg Robinson and defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
In terms of free agency, the Rams did very little in 2014. However, it should be noted that wide receiver Kenny Britt, who the team added this offseason via a one-year deal, has just been elevated to the first team, according to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk. The former Tennessee Titans’ first-round pick (2009) showed promise in Nashville, but injuries and other issues have made him a disappointment to date.
Elsewhere, St. Louis added defensive lineman Alex Carrington, quarterback Shaun Hill and guard Davin Joseph for depth. Again, Snead and head coach Jeff Fisher are hoping that youth will be served here and that the team’s small free-agent class (save Britt) prove to be nothing more than insurance policies.
Best Draft Pick: OLB Kyle Van Noy, Detroit Lions
Did you know that the Detroit Lions gave up the fewest points in the NFC North in 2013?
Let’s not get too excited.
The club finished 7-9 and allowed 376 points, an average of 23.5 per contest. Add in the fact that defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and friends totaled just 33 sacks and a mere 22 takeaways and you can see the need for a playmaker on this side of the ball.
New head coach Jim Caldwell and new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin are hoping rookie outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy can fill the bill. Linebackers Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy are productive players and the latter led the club with six interceptions. But the productive performer was not credited with a sack.
Tulloch led the team in tackles, totaled 3.5 sacks but just one interception.
The feeling here is that the versatile Van Noy, a college teammate of Lions defensive end Ziggy Ansah, will be found all over the field as a pass-rusher and an impact defender.
Most Improved Team: New York Jets
A year ago, the New York Jets gave up nearly 100 more points (387) than they scored (290).
The team’s rookie quarterback committed 25 of its 29 turnovers.
The club’s leading receiver caught only 43 passes.
The offensive unit scored only 25 touchdowns.
And Rex Ryan’s team still managed to finish 8-8.
What can you expect in 2014? A much-improved team that has added a number of pieces on offense, including veteran running back Chris Johnson and productive wide receiver Eric Decker.
Smith’s on-the-job training will pay off in a big way. Veteran Michael Vick is the backup quarterback but at this stage poses no threat to the starting job.
The defense, led by unsung defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson and 2013 Defensive Rookie of the Year Sheldon Richardson, is talented and hungry.
Could Ryan and the Jets actually threaten the New England Patriots’ five-year run as AFC East champions? That may be a tall order. But there seems to be an air of confidence surrounding the Green and White these days, a far cry from last season’s doom-and-gloom forecast.
Biggest Franchise Makeover: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
A new executive followed by a new head coach and staff. And make sure you throw in a whole lot of new players. While you’re at it, why don’t you tweak the uniforms a bit?
Welcome to the 2014 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It starts with general manager Jason Licht, who would prove to be very busy during free agency. First things first and a team that hired Raheem Morris and Greg Schiano in recent years, neither who were NFL head coaches before joining the Bucs, went for experience plus.
New head coach Lovie Smith guided the Chicago Bears for nine seasons from 2004-12. Tampa’s new defensive coordinator is Leslie Frazier, who was recently the Minnesota Vikings head coach before being given his walking papers this offseason.
The new faces on the offense include free-agent pickups in quarterback Josh McCown, left tackle Anthony Collins, center Evan Dietrich-Smith, tight end Brandon Myers. On defense, there’s Pro Bowl cornerback Alterraun Verner, defensive end Michael Johnson, defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, cornerback Mike Jenkins and safety Major Wright.
The draft brought targets such as wide receiver Mike Evans, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and running back Charles Sims. The team used all six of its draft choices on the offensive side of the ball.
That’s quite an overhaul. Of course, the Buccaneers have also finished dead last in the NFC South three straight years and haven’t been to the playoffs since 2007.
It will be interesting to see how and when it all comes together.
Billy Beane 'Moneyball' Award: John Schneider, Seattle Seahawks GM
The defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks appear primed to become the first team since the 2003 and 2004 New England Patriots to reach consecutive Super Bowls, much less win them both.
It has been an offseason of change for Pete Carroll’s team. And when you decide to part ways with a number of veterans such as defensive ends Chris Clemons and Red Bryant while wideout Golden Tate opted for the Detroit Lions in free agency, it can be a little unsettling for any club. Last week, the team waived injured tackle Michael Bowie, and he was grabbed by the Cleveland Browns.
But these Seahawks know something about constant changes. Carroll and general manager John Schneider have been shuffling the roster since 2010 and last year they came up aces in Super Bowl XLVIII.
In recent days, the team has added three tested veterans in cornerback Terrell Thomas, tackle Eric Winston and guard Wade Smith, the latter just added to the roster on Tuesday, according to Bob Condotta of The Seattle Times.
Earlier this offseason, the Seahawks played their cards right and wound up scooping up veteran defensive tackle Kevin Williams, the former Minnesota Vikings Pro Bowler.
With running back Marshawn Lynch skittling his way back into camp after a short holdout, all seems right with Carroll’s team once again.
Schneider didn’t have to break the bank when it came to adding these recent veterans. Which means the Seahawks won’t be any bargain to deal with once again.
Most Devastating Injury: MLB Sean Lee, Dallas Cowboys
No team in the league gave up more total yards than the Dallas Cowboys in 2013.
Could they actually repeat that feat this upcoming season?
The franchise opted to release longtime star defender DeMarcus Ware due to financial considerations. Dallas watched Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jason Hatcher leave for the rival Washington Redskins.
Now let’s go back to May, via NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport of NFL.com, when middle linebacker Sean Lee tore his left ACL during OTAs. With Ware and Hatcher gone, Lee was arguably the club’s best returning defensive player.
And now he won’t be returning. Lee had surgery in mid-June and was placed on injured reserve.
Veteran Justin Durant is the man on the spot to take over for Lee. And new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has a familiar face in defensive tackle Henry Melton at his disposal.
The Cowboys are hoping that their offense, loaded at a number of positions, can take up the expected slack.
Tough times for Lee and head coach Jason Garrett, to say the least.
Best Coaching Hire: Defensive Coordinator Ray Horton, Tennessee Titans
The last time the Tennessee Titans fielded a Top 10 defense in terms of yards allowed was 2008.
What a coincidence. It also marks the last time the team reached the playoffs.
But have no fear. Coordinator Ray Horton is here and he is bringing the 3-4 to Nashville.
The highly-regarded coach has been very successful in his previous stops with the Arizona Cardinals and Cleveland Browns. The Titans have added linebacker Wesley Woodyard and Shaun Phillips to help with the transition.
Tennessee has good depth in the front seven and a very promising performer in Jurrell Casey, who will make the switch from 4-3 defensive tackle to nose tackle.
This past season, the Titans were just 14th in the NFL in total defense and a very-disappointing 20th in the league against the run. The club managed a mediocre 36 sacks (10.5 by Casey) and just 25 takeaways in 2013.
Look for both of those numbers to jump considerably. And while the attention in Tennessee will likely go to new head coach Ken Whisenhunt, it’s the addition of Horton that may prove to be more substantial.