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Player and coaching changes highlight the off-months of the season
Picture this: Tom Brady is coming off of his sixth Super Bowl ring at 42 years old, the Cleveland Browns are not only favored to win the AFC North, but have the fifth highest odds of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy and the Pittsburgh Steelers have a top tier offense after willingly letting go of Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.
Just a few years ago, this mental image would have seemed ludacris; however, this is the shocking reality of today’s NFL. The landscape of the National Football League was drastically remodeled this offseason, making for one of the most anticipated regular seasons in recent memory.
An entire group of elite players found new homes during this offseason, for a variety of reasons, such as money or simply being put in a better personal situation. Though some of these moves were ultimately decided by teams, not the players themselves.
Some NFL stars were able to control their own destiny and choose their new home, including former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell. Bell sat out the full duration of the 2018 season mainly due to frustration stemming from the fact that the Steelers placed a franchise tag on him for a second year in a row in the hopes of eliminating any chance of injury before he could sign a long-term deal. Not only was Bell considered a top-three player in his position in 2017, but he either caught or carried the ball 406 times — over 100 more touches than the next closest back.
If he signed the franchise tag again in 2018, the Steelers would have likely used him in the same, high-volume fashion. A player refusing to sign the deal and choosing to sit out a season was certainly a rarity in the NFL, but the move ended up working out for Bell, as he signed a four-year deal with the New York Jets worth $52.5 million ($25 million guaranteed) this offseason.
A situation considered to be closely related to Bell’s was that of safety Earl Thomas, who was holding out for a contract before the season started. Thomas, on the other hand, did not choose to miss games, and to the world’s dismay, suffered a gruesome leg injury during week four, ending his season.
At the time, it was unknown if he would get a big contract this offseason, or even be able to play at the same level again. Thomas was widely considered the best, or at least one of the best, free safeties in the league, being the only player in the NFL with 25-plus INTs and 10-plus forced fumbles since 2010, per NFL Research.
Ultimately, when free agency started, the injury became irrelevant to teams interested in him. Thomas was able to secure a huge bag, cashing in on a four-year, $55 million deal, with $32 million guaranteed, to play for the Baltimore Ravens.
Additionally, plenty of athletes were relocated to different teams in trades, with some moves more surprising than others. Other notable players making their way to new homes include star wideout Antonio Brown being traded to the Oakland Raiders, rookie quarterback Josh Rosen being traded to the Miami Dolphins to make room for first-overall pick Kyler Murray in Arizona and Odell Beckham Jr. being shipped to Cleveland. Rosen and Brown were both at least rumored to be gone when the offseason started, but Beckham Jr. was a head-scratcher to most, as he is going into his prime as one of the most athletic players to ever grace an NFL field.
A player who could be making his way to a new home soon is Ezekel Elliot, who has said he refuses to play another down for the Dallas Cowboys without a contract extension. Elliot is due to receive just under $13 million over the next two years, even though he has led the league in rushing attempts and rushing yards in two of his three years in the NFL.
Given that Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley is set to make over $14 million just next year perhaps legitimizes Elliot’s claim that he’s underpaid. The shelf life of a typical running back is shorter than any other position in football. Throw in the fact that he’s been the most used back in the last three years, and he seems to have a strong case for deserving a new contract.
Unfortunately, Elliot’s quarterback, Dak Prescott, just turned down a $30 million a year deal in hopes of getting $40 million, which could further limit the Cowboys’ salary cap leeway. To make matters worse for Elliot, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones doesn’t seem too concerned about not having his star running back around.
“We know he’s capable of … carrying the whole load,” Jones told reporters, in reference to newly drafted running back Tony Pollard, indicating that they might be okay with letting one of the league’s best running backs sit on the bench for an unspecified amount of time.
Either way, every team that made an offseason move, questionable or not, is banking on it paying off in the future.
In the last few football-less months, some teams have also gone through massive renovations, hoping to fix past years’ problems. Most notably would be the Arizona Cardinals, picking up offensive mastermind Kliff Kinsbury to be the new head coach and drafting a dynamic gunslinger in Murray with the first overall pick, only a year after drafting Rosen in the first round.
The Cardinals were not the only team who felt as though a change at the top would benefit the organization, as the Green Bay Packers, Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New York Jets, Cincinnati Bengals and Miami Dolphins all made changes at head coach. Even though this may appear as an extensive list for just a single offseason, Sean McVay and the Los Angeles Rams showed the world how monumental of a difference a head coach change can make.
Aug. 1 officially marked the beginning of the NFL Preseason, with the Denver Broncos taking on the Atlanta Falcons. Similar to the offseason, the game was hectic and full of surprises, with the Broncos winning on a last play hail mary into the endzone. Denver’s new head coach, Vic Fangio, took a speedy trip to the emergency room after the team’s mid-day meetings, passed a kidney stone, then returned to the stadium in time to see rookie wide receiver Juwann Winfree win the game. Winfree was thrown a fade in the back of the endzone as time on the clock clicked down to zero, fought the defender for the ball as it popped into the air, just for Winfree to outmuscle his defender and secure quarterback Brett Rypien’s pass for the game winning score.
The most game-altering rule change implemented this offseason was the ability to challenge pass interference calls or no-calls, and Fangio was the first coach to utilize the new rule, although unsuccessfully. This change stems from the overwhelming outcry after the blown pass interference call in the NFC championship game between the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints. This was not the only rule change implemented, as a few minor rules were inputted, such as restrictions of celebrations and forcing the kicking team on kickoffs to have five players on each side of the kicker.
Another major rule change implemented was the restriction of blindside blocks, fully removing them from the game of football to decrease the amount of head and neck injuries. While not all fans may immediately love these new rules, the NFL Rules Committee assumes they are what is best for the game. With these changes and offseason moves, the upcoming season is likely to be filled with intrigue.
Written by: AJ Seymour — firstname.lastname@example.org