This offseason, NFL teams across the AFC loaded up on top-end talent like we’ve never seen before, with blockbuster trades becoming something of a regularity.
However, the priciest moves aren’t always the best moves, and they may not have the largest impact on a team’s success. There is more than one way to have a good offseason, as it can be necessary for certain clubs to take one step back before leaping two steps forward.
Here is the best move for each team in the AFC this offseason.
JUMP TO A TEAM:
Trading WR Marquise Brown and pick No. 100 for pick No. 23
The Ravens subsequently traded down from pick No. 23 to No. 25 in the 2022 NFL Draft, adding the No. 130 pick from the Buffalo Bills. So, all told, Baltimore gave up Brown and pick No. 100 for Picks 25 and 130. The 25th overall pick was then used to select Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum, whose 95.4 overall grade in 2021 was the best mark ever given to a center since PFF started grading college games.
Baltimore was able to come out of the first round with safety Kyle Hamilton and Linderbaum while saving a ton of future investment at wide receiver, a position that has obviously undergone a substantial market explosion.
This isn’t a knock on Brown, who's coming off a career-best 91 reception, 1,008-yard season, but it resembles the tough decisions good franchises have to make to sustain success. The Ravens avoiding top-of-market paydays on Marquise Brown and tackle Orlando Brown Jr. while adding elite talent on rookie contracts will go a very long way in keeping a talented roster around quarterback Lamar Jackson if (when) he finally agrees to a big-money extension.
Signing EDGE Von Miller
This was a truly massive contract for the 33-year-old Miller — effectively a three-year, $52.5 million deal — but this Bills defensive line needed a true force-multiplier to elevate the entire unit.
Miller is known for his pass-rush prowess but has also never earned a run-defense grade below 80.0. Over the last two seasons, Bills edge defenders have earned a 54.9 run-defense grade, 24th in the NFL.
The additions of interior defenders DaQuan Jones and Tim Settle round out a defensive line that simply needed to improve if the Buffalo Bills were going to contend for a Super Bowl. Buffalo’s secondary and linebacker units both ranked in the top half of the NFL the last two seasons, and if the defensive line can become a strength as well, Buffalo may have a case as the most complete roster in the NFL from top to bottom.
Adding three starting OL for less than $9 million per year each
History has shown it can be very hard for NFL teams not to overreact to a glaring roster weakness, frequently neglecting to adhere to their valuations and willingly overspending because of the lasting images of the season prior. If there was ever an instance where you’d predict this to play out, it would have been this Bengals front office attempting to fix their offensive line.
Instead, Cincinnati found new starters at center, right guard and right tackle without spending frivolously. And in the case of right tackle La’el Collins, patiently waiting for him to be released by the Dallas Cowboys while they sought to find a trade partner.
All three players are coming off strong seasons, as well. Right guard Alex Cappa earned a career-best 73.4 grade in 2021, center Ted Karras logged quality starts at both right and left guard to the tune of a 72.2 grade (his best in any season with at least 200 snaps) and Collins earned the best run-blocking (89.8) and pass-blocking (76.2) grades of his career.
The Bengals' offensive line should be significantly better in 2022, with a vastly improved ability to overcome an inevitable injury or two as well, and Cincinnati turned things around in a reasonable manner even though it wouldn’t have been remotely surprising if they’d just thrown resources at the problem.
Trading for WR Amari Cooper
With the benefit of hindsight, the Cooper trade has aged wonderfully for Cleveland just four months later. Cooper’s five-year, $100 million extension signed with the Cowboys in 2020 still had a flat rate of three years, $60 million remaining when he was traded to the Browns for a fifth-round pick, and the lack of any discount on the deal likely contributed to the middling trade compensation for a 28-year-old wide receiver with 4,173 receiving yards, 28 touchdowns and 86 explosive receptions over the last four seasons.
Cleveland parted ways with just a fifth-round pick and owes Cooper the same amount of money over the next three years as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Chris Godwin earned on his extension coming off a torn ACL.
Another comparison: Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams, who also signed a three-year, $60 million extension this offseason, is just three months younger than Cooper. Williams has roughly half as many career receiving yards as Cooper — 3,662 to Cooper’s 7,077.
Trading for QB Russell Wilson
The Broncos set themselves up to make a run at either Aaron Rodgers or Wilson this offseason — evidently tired of experimenting at the quarterback position with draft picks like Drew Lock and trade acquisitions like Teddy Bridgewater — before finally striking a blockbuster deal with the Seattle Seahawks.
Following the retirement of Peyton Manning in 2015, here’s how the collection of Broncos quarterbacks since stacked up to Russell Wilson over the last six seasons:
|Quarterback||PFF Passing grade||Yards per attempt||Big time throw %||Turnover-worthy play %||Adjusted completion %|
Even in a loaded AFC West, Wilson could push this Broncos team that hasn’t made the playoffs since winning the Super Bowl in 2015 right back into contention.
Signing CB Steven Nelson
The Texans quietly boast a secondary with five starting-caliber cornerbacks as they look to run new head coach Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 defense. Three of those players — Desmond King II, Tavierre Thomas and Jalen Pitre — can all excel as slot cornerbacks.
However, the addition of Steven Nelson could make the biggest impact. With the Texans using the No. 3 overall pick on cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., Nelson will operate as the outside cornerback opposite the young phenom, allowing Desmond King II to return to the inside or perhaps serve as a strong depth option all over the secondary.
Nelson has played at least 900 snaps in four consecutive seasons and earned a 76.0 coverage grade, which ranks inside the top-25 among outside cornerbacks over the span. He’s a good fit in a zone-heavy scheme, and at just two years, $9 million, he could resemble a great value in an underrated secondary.
Trading for QB Matt Ryan
The Colts will once again have a new starting quarterback under center in 2022, marking the fifth straight season they’ll trot out a different option in Week 1.
Indianapolis and general manager Chris Ballard undoubtedly deserve criticism for trading a second- and future first-round pick to the Philadelphia Eagles for quarterback Carson Wentz, but they mitigated the damage as much as possible this offseason.
By acquiring two third-round picks from the Washington Commanders for Wentz, and using the latter of those picks to acquire Ryan, Indianapolis upgraded at the quarterback position hopefully for the foreseeable future (though Ryan will be 37 years old in 2022).
Despite his increased age, Ryan earned a 95.0 grade on passes thrown 10-plus yards downfield in 2021, fourth among quarterbacks. This is behind the 31st-ranked pass-blocking offensive line in the NFL, with rookie Kyle Pitts as his top receiving weapon following the loss of Calvin Ridley after just five games. Ryan will be a major upgrade for Frank Reich’s offense and could push Indianapolis right back into the playoffs.
Signing EDGE Arden Key
The additions of No. 1 overall pick edge defender Travon Walker and first-round linebacker Devin Lloyd to Jacksonville’s front seven deservedly received much more fanfare this offseason, but Key could provide a needed spark along the defensive line coming off an elite stretch of play over the final six weeks of the 2021 season.
Key set career highs across the board in 2021, with a 79.4 pass-rush grade and 36 quarterback pressures on just 260 pass-rush snaps. Most notable was his late-season transition to playing more as a 3-technique and 4i on the interior in passing situations, which led to the best football of his career. From Weeks 13-18, Key’s 90.8 pass-rush grade was the top mark among edge defenders, and his 24 quarterback pressures tied for sixth over the span.
Key’s versatility could enable the Jaguars to deploy Josh Allen and Walker on the edge with Key and Roy Robertson-Harris on the interior in obvious passing situations — a potentially strong third-down unit as the season progresses.
Signing WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
The lasting images of Tyreek Hill as a Kansas City Chief will undoubtedly be hauling in deep balls from Patrick Mahomes after he scrambled around in the pocket evading pass-rushers. But Hill was used in a variety of ways, especially in 2021, as an underneath receiver that consistently created yards after the catch.
The speedy Marquez Valdes-Scantling will help take the top off opposing defenses and open up room for tight end Travis Kelce and the rest of the Chiefs receiving corps. And if Smith-Schuster can return to his early-career form, he could truly feast over the middle.
Since entering the league in 2017, Smith-Schuster’s 1,767 yards after the catch ranks 10th among wide receivers, with his 855 yards after contact 14th. Injuries have derailed an incredibly promising start to his career, but he’s still just 25 years old entering his sixth season and could be the low-cost, high-upside addition that Kansas City needs to stay on track and host their fifth straight AFC Championship game.
Trading for WR Davante Adams
Extending edge defender Maxx Crosby as soon as possible coming off his dominant 2021 campaign in which he led the NFL with 100 quarterback pressures was smart business, as his deal will surely be surpassed by a few other members of the 2019 Draft in due time. Las Vegas has been proactive the last few offseasons with early extensions, and these deals will help balance the major deals for newcomers including wide receiver Davante Adams.
Quarterback Derek Carr’s former college teammate has been the best wide receiver in the NFL over the last four seasons, with his 93.7 overall grade, 432 receptions, 5,310 receiving yards and 47 receiving touchdowns all leading the way at the position.
Defenses will now have to decide whether to send help toward tight end Darren Waller or Adams, and whichever player gets more of a one-on-one look will be unstoppable.
Trading for EDGE Khalil Mack
The Chargers had one of the best offseasons of any team in the league, making this one of the tougher decisions with so many quality options to choose from.
One could argue the addition of cornerback J.C. Jackson in free agency will have a larger impact, or that beefing up the interior of the defensive line with Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson could go further in fixing the 2021 unit’s biggest weakness — an extremely porous run defense.
However, much like we discussed with Von Miller above, Mack is a complete player on the edge who can dominate as a pass-rusher and run defender. A foot injury effectively ended his 2021 season before it even began, but over six seasons from 2015-20 Mack earned the top grade among all edge defenders in run defense (93.3) and in the pass rush (92.9).
If the Chargers' offense is able to build an early lead, the tandem of Mack and Joey Bosa pinning their ears back on the edge could put games away early in the second half.
Signing T Terron Armstead
Here’s how Armstead stacks up to the left tackles Miami has started in the three seasons since trading Laremy Tunsil to the Houston Texans:
|Left tackle||Overall grade||Pass blocking grade||Pressures allowed %||Run blocking
The addition of wide receiver Tyreek Hill dramatically improves the potential for any offense, but if Hill and Jaylen Waddle need time to get open on longer-developing plays downfield, Armstead will go a very long way in providing Tua Tagovailoa adequate time to get the ball out.
Re-signing T Trent Brown
Following the loss of both starting guards from 2021 — with Ted Karras signing a free-agent deal with the Cincinnati Bengals and Shaq Mason traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Brown’s return on a team-friendly deal has some added value with the continuity he provides. Furthermore, do-it-all offensive lineman Michael Onwenu can return to the right guard spot where he played most of his college career at Michigan.
Brown earned career-best 78.7 overall grade and 81.2 pass-blocking grade in 2021, and the Patriots’ AFC East foes will now line up with edge defenders Von Miller, Melvin Ingram III and Carl Lawson in addition to several young pass-rushers each has drafted in recent years.
Last but certainly not least, Brown has the ability to play both tackle spots, and his two-year deal extending beyond left tackle Isaiah Wynn’s fifth-year option season in 2022 is not a coincidence. Brown can slide over in the event of an injury and adds leverage in negotiations with the former first-rounder entering a contract year.
Signing TEs C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Conklin
Uzomah and Conklin are complete players at the tight end spot, capable of adequate blocking in offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur’s wide zone run scheme, while also contributing as big-bodied safety valves for quarterback Zach Wilson on third downs and in the red zone.
In 2021, the Jets tight end room earned a 56.8 overall grade which ranked 30th, with their 50 receptions and 534 receiving yards both 31st. Conklin recorded 61 receptions for 593 yards in 2021 and Uzomah had 49 receptions for 493 yards, each effectively matching the Jets' entire tight end group’s production alone.
Drafting WR George Pickens
No team has done a better job over the last two decades of finding wide receiver talent outside of the first round, developing these players into upper echelon contributors on their rookie contracts and most often letting them walk in free agency as they rinse and repeat.
It’s possible the Steelers and wide receiver Diontae Johnson find common ground on a multi-year extension either before the 2022 campaign or after the season, but Pittsburgh has no reason to pay an amount they’re not comfortable with.
Adding Georgia wide receiver George Pickens and Memphis wide receiver Calvin Austin III to a position room that also includes Chase Claypool gives them leverage and flexibility moving forward. Throw in tight end Pat Freiermuth and the Steelers still potentially have a dynamic group of young pass-catchers even without their top option of the past several years.
Drafting QB Malik Willis
The Titans are clearly in a period of transition after electing to hit the reset button at the wide receiver position, effectively trading A.J. Brown for first-rounder Treylon Burks and about $60 million in cash/cap savings over the next four years.
After a trip to the AFC Championship game in 2019 followed by back-to-back division titles — earning the No. 1 seed this past season despite a staggering number of injuries — Tennessee is smart to take a small step back to regroup before pushing in once again.
Former Packers executive Andrew Brandt, when discussing the team’s controversial decision to draft Aaron Rodgers in 2005 with Brett Favre on the roster, likes to say that the worst time to find a quarterback is when you need one. This adage is undoubtedly true, and the Titans were smart to get ahead on finding quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s eventual successor.
Tannehill only has one year of guarantees remaining on his contract, with his entire $29 million salary fully guaranteed for this upcoming season and then just one non-guaranteed year remaining in 2023 when he’ll be 35 years old. Willis should have at least the entire 2022 season to learn the NFL game and can take over under center when he’s ready.