Friday, June 14, 2024

Best move by each NFC team in 2022 offseason: Rams break bank for Aaron Donald; Packers, Bucs avoid disaster

As is perennially the case in the NFL offseason, some teams get better and some get worse, at least on paper. But until the games kick off in September, that’s all any of us has — is the paper — to gauge progression or regression. And, with that, the calendar turns to mid-June and mandatory minicamps get underway, marking a perfect time to take a look around the NFC and determine what moves and/or decisions stand out as the best of their respective bunch.

In an offseason owned by a roller coaster of wild news, e.g., blockbuster trades, retirement and unretirement, unexpected releases and mega-deal free agency acquisitions, there is at least one shining achievement for each team in a conference that was as competitive in 2021 as it’s ever been. With just over one month remaining to training camp, the NFC is ready to reload for NFL dominance.

Note: These are offseason moves mostly unrelated to the 2022 NFL Draft


Best move: Appeasing Aaron Donald

This was the biggest no-brainer of the offseason for the Rams, and they handled it perfectly. Donald wasn’t simply threatening to retire as a means of leveraging for a new contract — he was seriously considering it. But the Rams not only remained optimistic, they didn’t play the PR game (e.g., “there are only so many slices in a pie”) with their future Hall of Famer, nor did they lowball him into hanging up his cleats. Instead, they quietly got a massive new contract done to keep Donald in a Rams uniform for years to come, awarding him what equates to quarterback money in the process. Now they can move on to still-important but less pressing matters.


Best move: Bowing to Aaron Rodgers

Say what you want about Rodgers, but you can’t say he’s not the single most important factor to the Packers continuing to remain in Super Bowl contention going forward. Yes, it’s now two consecutive postseasons in which he and his compatriots have unceremoniously fallen flat on their faces, but imagine what the Packers would (or rather, would not) be if he were to part ways with the club. To avoid that QB purgatory, or outright Hell, the team acquiesced in 2021 and then took a hands-off approach in 2022 to let their legend find his way back to their locker room on his own time — then giving him a hefty new contract as a “thank you.”


Best move: Wooing Tom Brady back

Well, yea, this is obviously the key move of the Buccaneers’ offseason, and one that saves them from returning to the ranks of mediocrity or worse in 2022. Brady retired for all of 97 seconds in ant years, immediately unretiring to reclaim his throne in Tampa and allow the team to then turn their eyes to the eventual change at head coach and their current pursuit of Rob Gronkowski, Brady’s brother-in-arms who has yet to commit to playing for anyone next season. But as long as Brady is in uniform, combined with an extension given to a healing Chris Godwin, you can bet the Bucs are eyeing another Super Bowl appearance, as opposed to the team having to digest the lie that there was a replacement in the wings for the greatest QB of all-time. 


Best move: Re-signing Michael Gallup

It’s been an offseason to forget for the Cowboys, both on and off of the field. It’s not been a total loss though, with some key re-signings saving them from abject failure. From the retention of breakout safety Jayron Kearse and Pro Bowl punter Bryan Anger, there are positives to be found in Dallas, but the best move would have to be awarding Gallup a five-year deal, one made that much more important by the decision to trade Amari Cooper followed by the unexpected free agency loss of Cedrick Wilson. CeeDee Lamb now elevates to the role of WR1 as Gallup rehabs from a torn ACL, but without Gallup’s eventual return, a once robust WR group in Dallas would basically just be Lamb and “those other guys” (barring a breakout year by someone like James Washington); and particularly if things continue to go south with tight end Dalton Schultz.


Best move: Acquiring Marquise “Hollywood” Brown

When the 2022 NFL Draft rolled around, the Cardinals has a surprise in store for everyone. They pulled the trigger on a deal to acquire former first-round pick Marquise Brown from the Baltimore Ravens, then picking up his fifth-year option for 2023. The move not only reunites Brown with fellow former first-round pick Kyler Murray, the two having spent time together making plays at Oklahoma, but also gives instant insurance against the suspension of All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins — who will serve a six-game ban for violation of the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. And when Hopkins does return, Murray will presumably have one of the most potent WR duos in the NFL, so bravo to the Cardinals for making such a move.


Best move: Not trading Deebo Samuel

Typically when a star player makes a demand to be traded, they get their way, at least in recent seasons. That’s because said player could stage a holdout through training camp and into the season, if they were so inclined, but the installation of a new CBA in 2020 essentially put an end to that type of player leveraging. So when Samuel saw his trade demand ignored, he knew he had to make a decision that would either save or cost him a lot of money, and he’s now expected to report to mandatory minicamp after sitting out voluntary OTAs due to his contract dispute. The 49ers didn’t budge an inch and, because of their conviction (with an assist from the CBA), it looks like they’ll keep their most important offensive weapon in tow for 2022. 


Best move: Acquiring A.J. Brown

Speaking of draft day surprises, the Eagles one-upped everyone as it relates to the trade market, absolutely stunning the league by convincing the Tennessee Titans to send Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Brown to Philadelphia. It wasn’t long before the trade that head coach Mike Vrabel unequivocally stated there would be no trade at all on Brown, but so much for that bullet point. In acquiring Brown, and subsequently giving him a multi-year contract, the Eagles give quarterback Jalen Hurts a nuclear weapon opposite an already high-ceiling talent in former Heisman winner DeVonta Smith, and the QB job is now truly Hurts’ to lose going forward. He took a big step in 2021, and an even bigger one is expected in 2022 — with the addition of Brown and another year under Nick Sirianni. 


Best move: Re-signing Jameis Winston

Drew Brees isn’t walking through that door again, or at least that’s what the odds say, despite the future Hall of Fame quarterback teasing a possible return from retirement after leaving the game following the 2020 season. The Saints can’t afford to plan for such a thing, so they made the smart move to re-sign Winston on a two-year deal, a player that will either serve as a bridge to the future or become the future himself, although he is working himself back from a season-ending torn ACL suffered last season. But without Winston, who got off to a blazing start in 2021, the Saints were victims of their own offensive ineptitude, and overpaying to acquire Baker Mayfield via trade seemed far-fetched after losing the Deshaun Watson race. Winston is familiar, capable and doesn’t cost both arms and legs.


Best move: Acquiring Za’Darius Smith

In what was quite the coup from Minnesota, they were able to stick it to the rival Packers a bit by convincing Smith to not leave the division in 2022 — with offers from several teams, including the Cowboys, on the table. Smith joining the Purple People Eaters not only gives him a shot at facing his former team at least twice per season, but also adds some serious firepower opposite Danielle Hunter. If Smith can remain healthy this coming season, he has proven an ability to change games with his play, and the pass rush tandem is one the Vikings can certainly look forward to harassing opposing quarterbacks with. The two-time Pro Bowler likely has the biggest chip on his shoulder of his entire career after his release from Green Bay, so look out.


Best move: Acquiring Carson Wentz (??)

The question mark is indicative of just how polarizing this acquisition is. On one hand, the Commanders hope against all odds that trading for Wentz is their best move of the 2022 offseason, but those same odds lean strongly in the opposite direction. The problem for Washington is that they haven’t really given their fanbase much to celebrate this offseason, and that includes having no extension done on star receiver Terry McLaurin — a situation that will only continue to devolve until resolved — and what’s more concerning for McLaurin is the possibility Wentz might turn out to be the latest in a growing list of QB failures that he’ll have to use his magic to somehow glean a 1,000-yard season from to keep his value high in the event no deal is struck before 2023. With so much riding on the decision to trade for Wentz, the Commanders better be right about him — something neither the Eagles nor Colts can boast.


Best move: Cleaning house, finally

As it turned out, co-owner John Mara wasn’t kidding around. Ahead of the 2021 season, he made it clear his patience had worn thin as it relates to the Giants continuing to pile on disappointing seasons, and while he wouldn’t issue a playoff mandate for head coach Joe Judge and company, the message was sent. So when Judge failed to deliver again, he was ousted for Brian Daboll, but even more impressive was in how the team finally decided it was time to wave goodbye to general manager Dave Gettleman. In doing so, they usher in a new era led by Daboll and his fellow Bills transplant Joe Schoen — the latter replacing Gettleman — and the two are off to a strong start in both strengthening the roster and possibly setting up Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley for success in a season when neither can afford anything less. Is this a new Big Blue? Time will tell, but it sure does feel like it.


Best move: Signing D.J. Chark

Dan Campbell had the Lions either biting off kneecaps in 2021 or, at minimum, gnawing on them aggressively. The record doesn’t indicate truly how competitive Detroit has become under Campbell, but there’s only so much coaching can do, because there still has to be enough talent on the field to mount wins in the NFL. Jared Goff was good enough to warrant adding around him in free agency as opposed to giving him the Wentz Treatment and, as such, they’ll welcome in Chark to the offense for 2022. When healthy, and if targeted well, Chark can be an explosive receiving threat for a Lions team that desperately needs such talent. He reeled in 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns in his second year in the league, and with the Jaguars, which tells you what he can do. If he and Goff can get on the same page early and often, this will turn out to [easily] be the best move they’ve made in 2022.


Best move: Not trading Robert Quinn

It’s officially a new era in Chicago, with head coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace both being shown the door, and the task of developing former first-round pick Justin Fields now falls into the hands of Matt Eberflus, with Ryan Poles taking over the task of putting the right team around him. The team took a step back in the hopes of taking a step forward though, parting ways with Pro Bowl receiver Allen Robinson and Pro Bowl defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, but they stopped short of making the unforgivable error of shipping Robert Quinn out of town. Amid rumors of Quinn having been shopped, no trade has since arrived, and the All-Pro edge rusher remains in the Windy City to continue doing damage, albeit without fellow All-Pro Khalil Mack, who was traded to the Los Angeles Chargers — making Quinn that much more valuable going forward.


Best move: Acquiring Shelby Harris

Hmm, say something good about the Seahawks. OK, let’s try this: Shelby Harris. In an offseason that saw the Seahawks rule headlines with the move to trade Russell Wilson to the Denver Broncos in a package that sent Harris, Drew Lock and Noah Fant to the Pacific Northwest, in addition to releasing perennial All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner instead of appeasing him contractually (seeing him then land with the Rams, yikes) — having also yet to extend D.K. Metcalf — the Seahawks would love to use the Men In Black neuralyzer to make their fans forget these last few months ever happened. But at least they got some defensive firepower by trading for Harris, who lands at a dire position of need for the Seahawks, a team who struggles consistently getting after opposing quarterbacks.


Best move: Extending Grady Jarrett

If you thought it was challenging to identify a glaring positive for the Seahawks, try doing it for the Falcons. After all, they traded away team legend Matt Ryan in a deal with the Indianapolis Colts only one season after waving goodbye to another in Julio Jones, and you can officially state the organization is in rebuild mode, but they won’t say that themselves. The thing about the truth is it doesn’t need you to agree for it to be correct, and fact is it will take quite a bit for Marcus Mariota to step in and make the Falcons more of a contender than Ryan would’ve but, turning eyes to the defense, keeping Grady Jarrett happy and in the locker room was paramount from both a production and stability standpoint. The All-Pro and two-time Pro Bowl defensive end will continue to anchor a budding Falcons defense going forward, and that’s an A+ move. 


Best move: D.J. Moore gets his bag

It’s yet another offseason in which the Panthers have no clue what the answer is at quarterback, something that’s now become the defining theme for the Matt Rhule era, along with an inability to mount a winning record. But one thing is for certain, and that’s the impact of Moore on any kind of success the team has had and might have going forward. While the offensive crown still sits atop the head of Christian McCaffrey, the All-Pro running back slash wide receiver has now seen multiple seasons derailed by injury following the signing of his record-setting contract, and it was Moore who kept things afloat — despite a carousel of quarterbacks that has now halted, at the moment, at Sam Darnold. Moore was awarded a three-year extension this offseason, following his third consecutive 1,100-yard season, and the former first-round pick can now continue to cook for … well … whoever the QB is at any given time.

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