Our panel of ESPN NFL Insiders is breaking down what all the offseason action means for the 2018 season throughout the week.
Next up: Kirk Cousins headlined the free-agent quarterback class, but will he have the most success in Year 1?
Our Insiders weigh in, plus dig into these topics:
Which free-agent QB will have the most success in Year 1?
Kevin Seifert, national NFL writer: Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings. It’s really difficult to envision a scenario, other than injuries across the board on offense, in which Cousins doesn’t produce big numbers and double-digit victories for the Vikings. It is less obvious that he’ll prove a big upgrade from Case Keenum, who played one of the best seasons in franchise history last year, but in terms of the 2018 free-agent class, Cousins will have the most success this season.
Mike Sando, senior NFL writer: Alex Smith, Washington Redskins. Of all the quarterbacks changing teams, Smith is the one who has proven that he can succeed in multiple places/systems. I’m less sure of how Cousins will deal with expectations in a new environment, though he is obviously set up for success with a strong supporting cast.
Dan Graziano, national NFL writer: Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints. Full disclosure: I’m doing this a little bit later in the project, and I see a ton of people picked Cousins. But Brees was a free agent who just happened to re-sign with the same team. I like the Saints as NFC favorites, and while I like their run game (even with Mark Ingram suspended for the first four games), I expect a little bit of regression to the mean in terms of the scoring balance between the run game and the pass game. Brees had an excellent 2017, but his 23 touchdown passes were his fewest in a season as a Saint. I think he rebounds to eye-popping statistical territory as he breaks big career passing records.
Mike Clay, NFL writer: Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings. The offensive line is still shaky, but Cousins is otherwise positioned well for a massive first season in Minnesota. The team’s loaded defense will shorten the field, and he’ll have a terrific group of weapons with Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, Dalvin Cook, Kyle Rudolph and Kendall Wright.
KC Joyner, NFL writer: Alex Smith, Washington Redskins. Smith is coming off a season in which he ranked second in yards per attempt (8.0), so Washington won’t be asking him to be a dink-and-dunk passer. It’s also notable that Cousins ranked ninth in yards per attempt (7.6) last season despite playing in an offense that by season’s end was crippled by injuries at nearly every position. Give Smith a relatively healthy supporting cast for a full campaign, and he can once again contend for a top-five spot in YPA.
Matt Bowen, NFL writer: Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings. With running back Dalvin Cook back in the mix and a proven group of pass-catchers with which to work, Cousins is in position to post consistent numbers in Minnesota. Plus, given the Vikings’ top-tier defense under Mike Zimmer, Cousins will benefit from bonus possessions and sudden change opportunities. That’s when you take a shot to the end zone.
Which offseason addition will make the biggest impact in 2018?
Bowen: Tyrann Mathieu, S, Houston Texans. His past injuries have to be discussed, but the former Cardinal played faster on tape toward the end of 2017. He’s an upgrade in Houston at a position of need, and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel can utilize Mathieu’s versatility in the game plan. Think of a defensive matchup weapon here who can find the ball and play multiple roles for a secondary that struggled last season.
Clay: Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, CBs, Los Angeles Rams. It’s hard to mention one without the other, so I’m going to cheat and go with the two trades the Rams made to acquire superstar corners Peters and Talib. Yes, Peters has some off-the-field concerns, and Talib is now 32, but both have been top-10 performers at the position the past few seasons and, along with Ndamukong Suh, help position the Rams as legit Super Bowl contenders in 2018.
Graziano: Nate Solder, OT, New York Giants. The Giants haven’t scored 30 points in a game since Week 17 of 2015, Tom Coughlin’s last season as head coach. There are myriad reasons for the drought, but the main reason the offense hasn’t worked is that the line hasn’t played well. Moving on from 2015 draft bust Ereck Flowers and replacing him with a reliable veteran at left tackle should allow the Giants at least a chance to see how good their offense can be. The price tag on Solder was massive and could cause the Giants problems down the line. But he should make a big difference in 2018.
Joyner: Jimmy Graham, TE, Green Bay Packers. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has the reputation of not throwing to his tight ends often enough, yet over the past four seasons, Rodgers ranks 10th in completion percentage (51.6) and touchdown percentage (51.6) on end zone throws to tight ends. Those numbers should vault close to the top of the league now that Rodgers has a jump ball tight end of Graham’s caliber, and this pairing could combine for double-digit touchdowns this season.
Sando: Case Keenum, QB, Denver Broncos. It’s either Keenum or Tyrod Taylor, simply because they are competent quarterbacks joining teams that were horrendous at the position last season. Even average play from them will provide massive upgrades. I’ll go with Keenum because there isn’t a highly drafted quarterback waiting to take his job.
Aaron Schatz, editor-in-chief of Football Outsiders: Tyrod Taylor, QB, Cleveland Browns. Or Baker Mayfield. It doesn’t matter which one of them it is; either should be a massive upgrade on what Cleveland had at the quarterback position last season.
Seifert: Jimmy Graham, TE, Green Bay Packers. Rodgers has a strong history with tight ends who provide even the slightest mismatch. He looked often for Jermichael Finley from 2009 to 2013 (5.6 targets per game) and Jared Cook (5.1) in 2016. Even if Graham’s best days are behind him, he is with a quarterback who wants to use the tight end as much as any in the NFL.
Field Yates, NFL Insider: Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants. It’s hard for me to look past a player who is primed for the possibility of handling 250-plus total touches right away. We’ve seen rookie running backs make an immediate impact in recent seasons, and Barkley has a decidedly clear avenue to doing the same for the G-Men.
Which team declined the most this offseason?
Yates: Buffalo Bills. Note an important caveat: There is a long-term building process that was followed and not in any way compromised this offseason. The Bills performed exceptionally well in single-score games last season (6-2), which played an integral part in snapping their postseason drought. But it was clear they were not sold on Tyrod Taylor as the long-term quarterback solution, and they utilized their robust draft capital to select Josh Allen seventh overall. Factoring in the QB transition and offensive-line shuffle, Buffalo profiles as a regression team in the short term.
Seifert: Miami Dolphins. Their plan is difficult to discern. They’ve parted ways with most of their best players, from Ndamukong Suh to Jarvis Landry, and added a crew of aging veterans that includes tailback Frank Gore (35 when the season begins), receiver Danny Amendola (32) and guard Josh Sitton (32). Their faith in quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who is returning from ACL surgery, is risky at best. The Dolphins aren’t rebuilding in any functional way, but their roster is not ready to compete for a playoff spot, either. That’s a major step back.
Schatz: Buffalo Bills. The QB situation is a mess. Even if you’re a believer in Allen (I’m not), you have to admit he’s the kind of quarterback who will likely require a lot of work to transition. The offensive line is a mess, too, with Buffalo’s three best linemen gone via either trade or retirement. Football Outsiders’ free-agency analysis also shows edge rusher Trent Murphy as one of this year’s signings least likely to live up to the value of his three-year, $22.5 million contract.
Joyner: Seattle Seahawks. Mel Kiper gave them his lowest grade of the draft, and their free-agent additions were arguably the least inspiring in the league. Those might be enough to drop Seattle to the bottom of this list, but how in the world did the Seahawks do so little to upgrade the offensive line, which was arguably the worst in the league last season?
Graziano: Seattle Seahawks. The decline obviously started last season, sooner than most of us expected. But losing Michael Bennett, Richard Sherman, Cliff Avril and Sheldon Richardson in the same offseason (with Kam Chancellor‘s situation still unresolved) is to see a foundation crumble underneath you. Pete Carroll is not to be underestimated as a puzzle-solver, but does he have enough pieces?
Clay: Miami Dolphins. It was hard not to think of the Chip Kelly-era Eagles when watching the Dolphins chase “culture” while moving on from talented players such as Jay Ajayi, Suh, Pouncey, Landry and Michael Thomas over the past several months. Miami is weak or below average at most positions and is suddenly a candidate for the first overall pick in next April’s draft.
Bowen: Seattle Seahawks. The “Legion of Boom” used to dictate the flow of the game. Play three-deep coverage, challenge routes and physically control the middle of the field. No free passes there. However, with Sherman now in San Francisco, Chancellor facing an uncertain future and a front-four pass rush that must be retooled, the Seahawks have crucial roles to fill on the defensive side of the ball in a division that features quarterbacks Jared Goff and Jimmy Garoppolo.
Which team improved the most this offseason?
Bowen: Los Angeles Rams. The arrow is pointing up for the Bears and Browns after productive offseasons, but I’m looking at the Rams due to the proven, veteran talent they brought in via trades and free agency. Cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib have the playmaking skills to find the ball in the secondary. Go get it. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh bolsters the interior of the front line next to All-Pro Aaron Donald. Wide receiver Brandin Cooks is an upgrade for the passing game. Strong, aggressive moves put this squad in position to win the NFC West and make a serious playoff run.
Clay: Cleveland Browns. They had the league’s worst quarterback play in 2017 but solidified it by acquiring Tyrod Taylor and first overall pick Baker Mayfield. Joe Thomas and Danny Shelton are gone, but Cleveland stocked up with talent: E.J. Gaines, TJ Carrie, Carlos Hyde, Jarvis Landry, Chris Hubbard and Damarious Randall as well as early-round rookies Denzel Ward, Austin Corbett and Nick Chubb. This is a team on the rise.
Graziano: Chicago Bears. The problem is that because of the strength of their division, I don’t know that the improvement will necessarily show in the standings. The Bears spent big in free agency, which isn’t always the best way to go, but they’ve improved their wide receiver corps and kept their secondary intact with that spending. I believe their top three draft picks — Roquan Smith, James Daniels and Anthony Miller — are guys who can help them right away at positions of significant need.
Joyner: Cleveland Browns. It’s incredible that the Browns were able to improve in as many ways as they did this offseason. They added two quality quarterbacks, have a logjam of good running backs with the additions of Hyde and Chubb, brought in three solid cornerbacks in free agency and acquired the best coverage cornerback in the draft (Ward). Three new offensive linemen give the Browns one of the deepest blocking walls in the NFL, and they added Landry, arguably the best possession receiver in the league.
Seifert: New York Jets. Stay with me for a moment. There is no doubt that the Browns have raised their talent level more from 2017 to 2018. But they also had the furthest to go. The Jets’ drafting of quarterback Sam Darnold establishes a long-term focus for what was already a decently talented roster. For the first time in six years, the Jets know whom they’re building around. Don’t underestimate the value in that, even if Darnold doesn’t make a huge impact in 2018.
Yates: Cleveland Browns. From a talent-added standpoint relative to where the team was last season, Cleveland takes the cake. That, of course, includes the fact that this team was historically bad in 2017, becoming just the second to go 0-16. The Browns have cultivated a short- and long-term plan at quarterback and talent across the offense, and they reshaped the secondary.