Sunday, April 14, 2024
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2024 NFL free agency: The Texans’ rise and other underrated storylines that we aren’t talking enough about

This NFL offseason has certainly been a wild one. We saw several of the best running backs in the game switch teams, quarterbacks get moved around and financial records be broken. We also saw plenty of players switch sides within their own division, such as Calvin Ridley, Saquon Barkley and Aaron Jones

There were plenty of big storylines to come out of the first two weeks of NFL free agency, but there are other storylines that aren’t being talked about maybe like they should be. Below, we will break down five underrated free agency storylines that we aren’t discussing enough. 

1. The WR extension ‘market’

Four of the best wide receivers in the NFL are up for extensions — including the best pass-catcher in the world in Justin Jefferson. The others to keep an eye on are CeeDee Lamb of the Dallas Cowboys, Ja’Marr Chase of the Cincinnati Bengals and Brandon Aiyuk of the San Francisco 49ers

To be more specific, you could make the argument that three of the top five receivers in the league are looking for new contracts, meaning these three are likely to reset the market — potentially surpassing Tyreek Hill’s $30 million-per-year average. Someone has to go first, and could set the new “floor” for the other two, who will use that new contract to leverage their own. Depending on the numbers included in that contract, and taking this incredible incoming crop of wide receivers into consideration, could a trade be coming for one of the top wideouts in the NFL?

Instead of paying a receiver $30 million per year, could a team trade that wideout to another club that will pay him — much like the Kansas City Chiefs did with Hill a couple offseasons ago — and then take their new No. 1 wideout early in the 2024 NFL Draft? That could be in play. One of these teams could decide to go cheaper in the name of team building.  

It’s not guaranteed this offseason will be dramatic in regards to the wide receiver market. It could be next offseason. But remember … you want to be first.  

2. The Houston Texans are doing things right

The Texans were the surprise story of the 2023 season. After winning 11 total games from 2020-22, Houston won 11 games, including playoffs, in 2023, and were AFC South champions. No one saw it coming, but first-year head coach DeMeco Ryans helped orchestrate a defensive turnaround, while new offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik helped C.J. Stroud turn in one of the best rookie quarterback campaigns ever, as the Ohio State product won Offensive Rookie of the Year. 

It wasn’t just Stroud who starred as a rookie for Houston. The player selected right after him, Will Anderson Jr., won Defensive Rookie of the Year after notching seven sacks and 59 pressures. Then, rookie wideout Tank Dell was on his way to having the most prolific rookie receiving campaign in franchise history before he suffered a season-ending leg injury. 

The Texans clearly have a great foundation to build upon, which is why Nick Caserio and Co. made the decision to be aggressive this offseason. Houston locked up pass rusher Danielle Hunter, who is coming off a career campaign with the Minnesota Vikings in which he recorded 16.5 sacks, to a two-year contract worth $49 million — including $48 million guaranteed. The Texans also upgraded the ground game, trading for former Bengals running back Joe Mixon. The 27-year-old recorded his fourth 1,000-yard rushing campaign last season, and signed a three-year extension with Houston. 

The Texans did lose a couple of pieces on the defensive front, such as Sheldon Rankins and Jonathan Greenard, but Houston also added plenty, with the underrated Denico Autry, defensive tackle Tim Settle, plus Mario Edwards and Foley Fatukasi. The Texans also signed a tackling monster at linebacker in Azeez Al-Shaair, re-signed a former first-round pick in defensive end Derek Barnett, re-signed tight end Dalton Schultz and took a flier on former No. 3 overall pick cornerback Jeff Okudah

When your star quarterback is coming cheap on his rookie deal, this is when you’re supposed to be aggressive in team building. That’s exactly what the Texans are doing. The job is not done and we still have the draft, but the Texans are doing things right. 

3. The New York Jets in 2024

Remember when Aaron Rodgers was traded from the Green Bay Packers to the Jets? Some viewed the four-time NFL MVP as the missing piece for the Jets to become contenders, but Rodgers tore his Achilles just a handful of plays into the 2023 season, and New York stunk again. 

It’s unfortunate, because the Jets are a better team than you think. The defense is elite under Jeff Ulbrich; it’s just that the offense was a disaster — especially at quarterback and offensive line. Nathaniel Hackett isn’t an offensive mind in high demand, but remember that his system is made for Rodgers. With Rodgers under center, could it be … good?

So, what’s the Jets’ outlook for 2024 compared to 2023? Last offseason, New York added Allen LazardRandall Cobb and Mecole Hardman. None worked out. The Jets also scored Dalvin Cook, but he was released before the end of the regular season. This offseason, Joe Douglas put an emphasis on the offensive line (as he should), signing a new left tackle in Tyron Smith, a new guard in John Simpson and traded for right tackle Morgan Moses. The Jets also landed wide receiver Mike Williams, which I feel better about as an addition compared to Lazard/Cobb/Hardman. 

The AFC is loaded, but should we be talking about the Jets more heading into 2024? They will have to prove they can win games, of course, but Rodgers has this superpower where he steps up to make his doubters look silly. Can he do it again?

“Last year was a little loud,” Jets head coach Robert Saleh said Sunday, per NFL.com. “We welcome a little bit of quietness.”

4. Cleveland Browns QB room

The Browns started four different quarterbacks in their first 16 games of the 2023 season, and it’s very clear the Deshaun Watson trade and signing has not worked out just yet. Cleveland is entering the third year of a six-year deal they gave Watson, which includes an NFL-record $230 million guaranteed. Watson has missed 11 games in each of his first two seasons with the Browns, due to a suspension in 2022, and injuries in 2023. Cleveland has averaged 19.7 team offensive points per game in Watson’s starts compared to 21.5 points per game with other starting quarterbacks over the last two years.

This offseason, it was thought the Browns would re-sign Flacco or add a different backup quarterback, but who saw them quickly adding two quarterbacks on top of former preseason phenom Dorian Thompson-Robinson? Two former Pro Bowlers? Who could potentially start?

Cleveland now has Watson, Jameis Winston, Tyler Huntley and DTR. Why is that? Are the Browns moving forward with the understanding that their $230 million man is going to be perennially injured? Or is one of these guys trade bait? 

5. The Justin Fields trade and Pittsburgh Steelers future

The Steelers parted ways with quarterbacks Kenny Pickett, Mason Rudolph and Mitch Trubisky and brought on Russell Wilson. Then came the Justin Fields trade. On the surface, the Steelers add a young quarterback through a cheap transaction (conditional sixth-round pick), who could start if the Russ experiment goes awry. The Fields trade was obviously a major NFL storyline, but what exactly is the game plan here? 

Wilson is the front-runner to be QB1, according to coach Mike Tomlin. A bit of a controversial decision, sure. But also keep in mind that the Steelers have a big choice to make concerning Fields this offseason in picking up or declining his fifth-year option. We have no official word on this just yet, but it doesn’t appear Pittsburgh will pick up the option, which would pay the former No. 11 overall pick $25.66 million in 2025. So, it’s possible Fields will be in Pittsburgh for one year, especially if Wilson isn’t bad. 

But what if Russ is bad? Or just not that good? Did the Steelers trade a sixth-round pick to create a quarterback controversy and divide the fan base? My opinion is that there actually may be a competition. Or maybe Tomlin makes a change in the middle of the season if things aren’t going Pittsburgh’s way. But bottom line, there are several unanswered questions that come with this trade.

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