Former NFL scout Matt Williamson writes about the league from X's and O's and talent evaluation perspectives.
Tom Brady signed with the Buccaneers. Philip Rivers joined the Colts, a team that traded its first-round pick to San Francisco for stud defensive end DeForest Buckner. Most of us were stunned that Houston's Bill O’Brien traded receiver DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona for little return. These were all huge moves, but let’s examine 10 underrated transactions that might have a much bigger impact than you'd imagine.
Falcons sign running back Todd Gurley
OK, this doesn’t qualify as “underrated” on the surface, but here is the key to why it is such a shrewd move by Atlanta: The Falcons are only paying Gurley $5 million on a one-year deal. If Gurley doesn’t work out because he gets injured or plays poorly, Atlanta can simply move on at little cost. Expect the Falcons to use a third-round pick or so on another running back who could take over the lead job a year from now. What if Gurley plays about 60% of the snaps and looks close to what we have seen from him over the majority of his career? (Think 2018, when he rushed for 1,251 yards and scored 17 TDs.) Then, the Falcons have struck gold. Atlanta has an established quarterback (Matt Ryan), two exceptional wide receivers (Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones) and an offensive line supplemented with two linemen drafted in the first round in 2019. The overall blocking should be greatly improved in 2020. Gurley doesn’t have to be “The Man.” Instead, he can be just a piece of the puzzle.
Saints sign WR Emmanuel Sanders
All-Pro wide receiver Michael Thomas caught a league-leading 149 passes for the Saints last season, 119 receptions more than the No. 2 wide receiver. As great as Thomas is (and he deserves a boatload of targets), that's simply not good balance. Enter Sanders, who helped propel San Francisco to the Super Bowl last season. After he was traded last October to the Niners by Denver, Sanders piled up 502 yards receiving in 10 games with Jimmy Garoppolo. In 4 1/2 seasons with the Broncos, he caught passes from undistinguished passers Brock Osweiler, Paxton Lynch, Joe Flacco, Case Keenum and Trevor Simien. He should light things up in New Orleans with Drew Brees tossing the rock.
Steelers sign tight end Eric Ebron
Lions fans often considered Ebron, a former first-rounder, a bust. In Ebron’s defense, Detroit hasn’t been the best organization at developing talent, and tight ends rarely come into the league and light the world on fire. In Indianapolis in 2018, Ebron caught 66 of 110 targets from Andrew Luck for 750 yards and 13 touchdowns. Without Luck in 2019, the Colts' offense was sunk. In 11 games, Ebron only caught 31 passes for 375 yards and three touchdowns. The loss of Luck hurt everyone, but no one more than Ebron. With the Steelers, Ebron and Vance McDonald will basically be co-starters. Their styles are different. McDonald is a far better blocker than Ebron, who does his best work detached as basically a big slot receiver. The Steelers don’t really have a great red-zone weapon, which is where Ebron might make his biggest impact. He is only 26, an age when tight ends generally reach their peak in the NFL. Pittsburgh got him for $12 million over two years, a bargain in an insane tight end market.
Ravens trade TE Hayden Hurst to Atlanta for second-round pick
The Falcons dealt the second-round pick they got from the Patriots for Mohamed Sanu to get former first-round pick Hurst, who will replace Austin Hooper. He signed as a free agent with the Browns. So this all makes sense for Atlanta. But the beauty here is on Baltimore’s end. Hurst was blocked on the Ravens' depth chart. Mark Andrews is clearly a better receiver than Hurst, and Nick Boyle is the superior blocker. That left Hurst in a bind as a regular contributor. So, the Ravens smartly cashed in. This 14-2 team from a year ago now has five picks on the first two days of the draft, including two second-round picks and two thirds.
Chargers sign offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga
I wonder that Rivers is thinking as he watches his former team finally load up on offensive linemen after neglecting the line offseason after offseason while he played for the Chargers. This team apparently has finally come to its senses. In fact, the Chargers' offseason is as impressive as any team’s. And they are creating a nice, soft landing spot for a quarterback, perhaps a first-rounder. If, by chance, Los Angeles doesn’t add a quarterback (Justin Herbert?) in Round 1, it probably will draft another lineman to put on the other side of Bulaga, who is an injury risk. (He has missed 45 games in his career.) Still, he's one of the best right tackles in the NFL and was instrumental in Aaron Rodgers’ success in Green Bay.
Eagles sign nose tackle Javon Hargrave
Philadelphia’s defense is designed to dominate up front with highly athletic linemen and four-man rushes. Last season that unit was strong, but it wasn’t dominant, and it further exposed the Eagles' suspect cornerbacks in coverage. Philadelphia greatly aided its pass defense with the acquistion from Detroit of cornerback Darius Slay, who can shadow No. 1 receivers in man coverage and is adept playing zone. But the under-the-radar move was signing Hargrave. Coming from Pittsburgh’s 3-4 scheme, many might think Hargrave is a Casey Hampton space-eating clone. He certainly will help the run defense, but the real value for this rapidly ascending player will be playing the 1 Technique alongside tackle Fletcher Cox. In this alignment and scheme, he'll have the freedom to use his quickness and leverage to attack upfield snap after snap.
Bengals sign nose tackle D.J. Reader
Reader, who succeeded Vince Wilfork in Houston, is closer to the Casey Hampton-type interior defensive lineman than Hargrave. But he's also much more than an old-school run plugger. Reader can get up field better than his frame (6-foot-3 and 347 pounds) would suggest. Cincinnati desperately needed to add to its run defense because its linebacking corps was terrible last season. It was shocking to see the Bengals be this aggressive in free agency, but this was a terrific move. Reader will have a ripple effect throughout the defense.
Bears sign defensive end Robert Quinn
Even with Nick Foles in the building now, the route for success for the Bears is with great defense. That starts with a fierce pass rush, which of course is led by Khalil Mack. Akiem Hicks has a lot to do with that pressure as well from the interior, but now Chicago has three true threats. Quinn played extremely well (11.5 sacks) opposite DeMarcus Lawrence in Dallas last season, and should do the same opposite Mack. Leonard Floyd was somewhat disappointing for the Bears at rush end in 2019. Quinn, who was borderline dominant over the past two seasons, makes Chicago’s front seven one of the best groups in the league.
Raiders sign linebacker Cory Littleton
Led by Aaron Donald, the Rams' defense has had plenty of star power over the past few seasons. But somewhat quietly, Littleton developed into one of the better second-level defenders in the league and might be just coming into his own. He has has outstanding speed and range and excels in coverage. That's exactly what the Raiders missed last season on the second level. Having a reliable, every-down linebacker like Littleton is important in coordinator Paul Guenther’s scheme. Las Vegas doubled down at the position by also signing Nick Kwiatkowski, who isn’t quite as gifted as Littleton. But this pairing should quickly turn an area of obvious weakness in 2019 into a strength.
Redskins sign cornerback Kendall Fuller
During Kansas City’s Super Bowl run, safety Tyrann Mathieu received most of the headlines among the back seven defenders. But Fuller, who played for Washington from 2016-17, had a solid season at outside cornerback and was excellent as a slot defender. He also played at safety when Juan Thornhill was lost for the season with a knee injury. Fuller’s role in Washington is unclear; he'll most likely be a jack-of-all-trades in the secondary.
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