The NFL calendar has reached the point – one month removed from the draft, two months from the start of training camps – when executives, coaches and players can begin focusing on their “Top Gun” tickets, tee times, travel itineraries and other forms of legitimate downtime even as they grind through OTAs and await June’s mini slog of minicamps.
And, sure, the never-ending hamster wheel of league business will continue to turn as teams determine whether to extend franchise-tagged players and the status of a few high-profile quarterbacks remains up in the air for various reasons.
Still, Memorial Day is as good a time as any to assess what’s occurred during the NFL’s increasingly up-tempo “offseason.”
Wide receivers: They’ve emerged as the game’s second-most important players. It seemed like all the veteran stars cashed in, the Dolphins’ Tyreek Hill, Raiders’ Davante Adams, Eagles’ A.J. Brown and Bills’ Stefon Diggs landing new contracts averaging at least $24 million annually – though all but Diggs were traded in the process. Meanwhile, six receivers were selected in the first round of the draft, part of the 16 taken within the first 100 slots. Suddenly the guys catching the ball are nearly as critical as the guys who throw it.
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Los Angeles: The reigning Super Bowl champion Rams couldn’t keep everyone – later, Von Miller, Robert Woods, Austin Corbett and a few others – but they signed LB Bobby Wagner and WR Allen Robinson while reacquiring CB Troy Hill. Perhaps equally important, it seems the rest of the NFC West lost ground on last season’s division champs.
Meanwhile, the crosstown Chargers worked the trade market for Pro Bowl OLB Khalil Mack, signed Pro Bowl CB J.C. Jackson in free agency and added more support for QB Justin Herbert in the draft, taking OL Zion Johnson in the first round and RB Isaiah Spiller – he should ease the load on Austin Ekeler – in the fourth. It’s certainly plausible that the Bolts and Rams could be on a Super Bowl collision course, though – if it came to pass – be a shame if this matchup occurred a year after Super Sunday was staged at SoFi Stadium … though the battle of LA will at least occur in Week 17.
Todd Bowles: Odd as Bruce Arians’ abrupt decision to step aside seemed, nice to see such a well respected coach – particularly a Black one – get a second chance at a head job, especially an opportunity with the Buccaneers that’s far superior to what Bowles inherited while with the Jets.
AFC West: It’s become the league’s premier division given the Chargers’ upgrades, the Raiders’ additions of Adams and pass rusher Chandler Jones and the Broncos’ trade for QB Russell Wilson. The Chiefs’ pursuit of a seventh straight division title will be a laborious one, though the league’s new playoff format offers the possibility all four clubs could advance to postseason. You’ll definitely be seeing them frequently as the schedule will average roughly one primetime appearance each week by an AFC West member.
Joe Burrow: After getting sacked 70 times in 20 games last season, the Bengals’ franchise quarterback will be operating behind an almost entirely new-look offensive line, LT Jonah Williams projected as the only holdover from the front five in Super Bowl 56 – when Burrow went down seven times.
Nathaniel Hackett: Denver’s rookie head coach has broken from the gate with an affable, self-deprecating and effervescent personality – basically the antithesis of predecessor Vic Fangio. Here’s hoping Hackett can maintain the good vibes even if the Broncos get off to a 2-4 start or some such while navigating their brutal division.
Zach Wilson: The Jets’ “thick” and “beefy” quarterback received some thick and beefy support from a widely hailed draft class that included first-round WR Garrett Wilson and second-round RB Breece Hall. GM Joe Douglas was quieter in free agency but added TEs Tyler Conklin and C.J. Uzomah and G Laken Tomlinson, the latter two providing leadership and Super Bowl experience while further elevating Zach Wilson’s supporting cast. Chatter that he could make a second-year leap similar to Burrow’s seems overblown, but expectations around this team have certainly gained altitude.
Matt Ryan: His 14 seasons of distinguished and honorable service spurred the Falcons to liberate the 2016 MVP for a mere third-round pick and one-way ticket to Indianapolis. Absent from the playoffs since the 2017 season, Ryan should finish out his career in contention with the Colts, whose chances to win the AFC South were simultaneously assisted by the Titans’ decision to trade Brown while appearing to lay the groundwork for a major roster transition.
NFC quarterbacks: With a chunk of the conference in flux, Dallas’ Dak Prescott, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady and the Rams’ Matthew Stafford are head, shoulders and right arms above the rest – and highly indicative of the 2022 NFC divisional favorites. The odds for any of those teams to reach Super Bowl 57 should be better … though as the likelihood of success rises, the room for excuses shrinks.
Ex-Alabama QBs: Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts, New England’s Mac Jones and Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa – all Crimson Tide teammates at one point – received varying degrees of help courtesy of the draft and free agency. Most notably, the Eagles traded for and paid Brown, while the Dolphins acquired and extended Hill in addition to committing another $150 million to the offensive side of the ball in free agency. Jones didn’t get that kind of support, though adding veteran WR DeVante Parker, re-signing RT Trent Brown and getting rookie OL Cole Strange and speedy WR Tyquan Thornton in the draft didn’t hurt. Perhaps more important, Jones has been using his first NFL offseason to doggedly prepare for the upcoming campaign. All three teams will be expected to draw wild cards at a minimum.
NFL’s hot stove: The draft always draws massive attention, while franchise tags and free agency also stir the pot – maybe more so now as the league’s lengthier season compresses the offseason. But what seems an increasing willingness to trade superstars (Brown, Hill, Adams, Mack, Wilson and Deshaun Watson among them this year) and draft picks has collectively made the NFL’s silly season more captivating than ever while providing further hope – sometimes false – that even the most downtrodden of franchises can achieve quick turnarounds.
NFL’s hot mess: Yet you’ve also got to wonder if the league rues its popularity. Former Miami coach Brian Flores sued the NFL for racial discrimination in the context of hiring practices – quite the exclamation point to another head coaching cycle that was nearly a clean sweep for white guys until the Texans and Dolphins hired Lovie Smith and Mike McDaniel, respectively – McDaniel’s racial diversity setting off its own unique kind of controversy. Flores also made damning allegations about the way Fins owner Stephen Ross runs his organization … which is a tempest in a teapot compared to what Commanders owner Daniel Snyder appears to be facing. And then there are those disturbing claims aimed at Watson – the courts have already determined he won’t face criminal charges – but off-field resolution for the women who have leveled 22 lawsuits at the quarterback, while accusing him of sexual misconduct, could be years away … even if Watson’s expected league-levied punishment seems to be drawing near.
Ex-Alabama QBs: Hurts, Jones and Tagovailoa will also be under fairly powerful microscopes in 2022. Hurts and Tagovailoa have the benefits of those new No. 1 targets … but both will be expected to produce immediate results for teams that appear to be hedging on their young passers, the Dolphins and Eagles both armed with multiple first-round picks for a 2023 draft expected to be flush with QB talent. Jones likely won’t face that level of scrutiny after helping restore the post-Brady Patriots to playoff status in 2021. Yet he doesn’t have the same caliber of weapons as the guys he used to back up in Tuscaloosa and also must navigate Year 2 amid New England’s opaque offensive plan after longtime coordinator Josh McDaniels took the Raiders head job. Sophomore slump anyone?
AFC quarterbacks: Speaking of Tagovailoa and Jones, wouldn’t you have to say they rank behind Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Derek Carr, Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson, Herbert, Burrow, Watson and probably even Ryan and Ryan Tannehill? In a nutshell – and in stark contrast to the NFC – some very good passers and their teams won’t be qualifying for the AFC playoffs.
Washington: The mounting issues enveloping Snyder, whose NFL business practices have now become a matter of Congressional interest, remain at the fore – and many who root for his team are hoping his two-decade stint as this once-proud franchise’s owner is nearing its conclusion. Yet we’re only at the beginning of the “Commanders” era, and the team’s rebrand was widely mocked amid a clunky rollout that included a botched crest that had to be immediately revised. Factor in what appeared to a panicky trade for QB Carson Wentz after Washington missed out on Russell Wilson – and it didn’t take long for Ryan and Baker Mayfield to become available afterward – and it appears a long shot that we’ll hear many “Hail to the Commanders” chants this fall.
“C”-Hawks: The departures of Wilson and Wagner signal a new era in Seattle. Yet with the former captains of the offense and defense playing elsewhere, it’s hardly clear who will lead an organization steeped in coach Pete Carroll’s competitive philosophy. Maybe that was also true in 2012, when Wilson and Wagner were drafted by the Seahawks. But with few established veterans here and a big question under center, it feels like Seattle could be stuck in the NFC West basement for a minute.
NBA: Apologies to “The Association,” but “The League” and its recently released 2022 schedule have prematurely canceled your Christmas.
Overtime: What was once a sudden-death format has been tweaked yet again following the hue and cry following last season’s divisional playoff classic between the Bills and Chiefs, when Buffalo didn’t get a possession in OT … and its defense didn’t get a stop. (A week later, the Bengals, who also lost the overtime coin toss, won at Arrowhead Stadium after putting the clamps on Mahomes and Co. when they needed to … but I digress.) But this much you can be confident of: Legions will complain about that first playoff overtime game under the new measure – most definitely if the winning team has the benefit of one more drive.
Justin Fields: Can you name his left tackle? How about a wide receiver aside from Darnell Mooney … if you knew him? Know who the Bears’ new offensive coordinator is? Have you even heard of Matt Eberflus? (Hint: He’s Chicago’s hard-charging, defensive-oriented, rookie head coach.) Anyhoo, that’s one way to support a quarterback coming off a rocky rookie campaign.
Arthur Smith: If you were paying close attention last season, you were wondering how the heck he coaxed seven wins out of Atlanta’s roster and kept the Falcons in the wild-card race for so long. Smith’s reward? The trade of Ryan for less than market value, the suspension of WR Calvin Ridley and GM Terry Fontenot’s admission that, “We’re taking it on the chin this year.” Presumably, that means Smith is guaranteed the opportunity to absorb additional haymakers in 2023.
49ers’ passing game: Good as the offseason was to wide receivers, not so much for “wide backs.” All-Pro Deebo Samuel, who led the NFL with 18.2 yards per catch in 2021 and set a San Francisco record with 2,061 yards from scrimmage (including playoffs), expressed his desire to leave even though the team hasn’t accommodated him. Last season’s starting quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, is recovering from surgery on his throwing shoulder after leading the team to the NFC title game … but coach Kyle Shanahan is ready to turn to Trey Lance and recently acknowledged Jimmy G. will likely be moved eventually. But for now? A lot of questions yet to be answered – including whether Lance is up to the task of leading what should otherwise be a Super Bowl-caliber squad.
Ex-Oklahoma QBs: If only the NFL had that transfer portal that has allowed for a signal-caller exodus in Norman. Alas, Cleveland’s Mayfield and Arizona’s Kyler Murray are bound by contracts that aren’t sidestepped by tantrums. After cleaning his social media accounts of Cardinals mentions, Murray appears to be playing nice again – maybe after realizing other teams weren’t going to part with three first-round picks for him? – though his purported desire to lead the Cards out of a championship desert hasn’t prevented him from skipping voluntary workouts as he awaits the massive payday that one could argue he hasn’t earned yet. (Aside: Did Arizona GM Steve Keim or coach Kliff Kingsbury merit their lengthy extensions, either?) Meanwhile, Mayfield is assured of making nearly $19 million in 2022, even if he’s vowed not to play for the Browns … the very team that owes him that money despite dealing for Watson. Given where QB depth charts are around the league, sure seems like Mayfield may be spending more time in professional purgatory.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL offseason winners, losers: Which players, teams are trending up?