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Eight biggest surprises of 2015 offseason

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The end of the NFL Annual Meeting is the unofficial start of the offseason here at Around The NFL. There will be plenty to talk about during draft season, OTAs and minicamp. But there's no denying that the flow of news that keeps our site going will take a more leisurely pace. Or at least that's what I'm trying to tell myself.

With a little time to reflect, here are the seven stories that were the most surprising during a crazy couple of months:

1. Saints go trade crazy


NBA teams like Tom Benson's New Orleans Pelicans sometimes remake their roster quickly through aggressive trading. It doesn't normally happen like that in the NFL. The Saints traded away tight end Jimmy Graham, guard Ben Grubbs and wide receiver Kenny Stills in the span of a few days. The subtractions of Curtis Lofton and Pierre Thomas on top of acquisitions like C.J. Spiller, Dannell Ellerbe, Brandon Browner and Max Unger give New Orleans' roster a dramatically different look.

The moves feel simultaneously desperate, bold, emotional and quite possibly energizing. They are the transactions of an organization frustrated by its slide and aware of its mortality. These glory years with Sean Payton and Drew Brees are running out.

2. Rams get a big return for Sam Bradford


The conventional wisdom last September: Bradford could only return to the Rams if he took a massive pay cut. The conventional wisdom in January: Bradford's contract was untradeable after back-to-back torn ACLs. The reality in March: St. Louis received a young Pro Bowl quarterback (Nick Foles) and a second-round pick in exchange for Bradford. And Bradford didn't have to take a dime less than his scheduled $12.985 million.

The move outlines how highly Bradford was viewed when he came out of Oklahoma. It also stresses the dearth of quality quarterback options available this offseason. The deal is a huge risk for Chip Kelly, but it's just as risky to enter a season with Mark Sanchez as your starter.

This deal could dramatically alter Kelly's tenure in Philadelphia. Then again, the same things were written when Pete Carroll gave picks and cash to acquire Charlie Whitehurst or when the Seahawks signed Matt Flynn. Kelly and Carroll know that the best route to finding a franchise quarterback is taking a lot of swings at the plate. Bradford has to be thrilled. If he excels in Kelly's system, the 2016 free agent could improbably get his second monster NFL contract despite an underwhelming career. When it comes to finances, Bradford could have some of the luckiest timing in NFL history.

3. Greg Hardy and Trent Richardson get paid


Sure, the Cowboys built protection into their contract for pass rusher Greg Hardy. They will only pay him when he's healthy and on the roster. He didn't get guaranteed money. But it's not like the Cowboys are going to cut Hardy in training camp. He is going to easily make more money per game than DeMarco Murray does in Philadelphia, and he could make more than Dez Bryant. Hardy might not truly take a pay cut despite missing nearly all of last season following his arrest on domestic violence charges.

Heading into the offseason, I would have never guessed Hardy would get such a sweet contract. (Much less from a cap-strapped team like the Cowboys.) Hardy made $13.1 million for one game last season and could make nearly that much money again. In a draft environment where "off-field issues" are so discussed, NFL teams speak louder with their wallets.

New Raiders running back Trent Richardson's problems in the NFL are far different. His explosion and motivation have been questioned. When released by the Colts, we weren't sure whether Richardson would even make an NFL roster in 2015. Instead, the Raiders gave Richardson $600,000 guaranteed and a chance to start. They somehow found a way to downgrade from Darren McFadden.

(Other surprisingly big contracts this offseason: Charles Clay, Eddie Royal, Orlando Franklin, Jeremy Maclin, Dwayne Harris and Jermey Parnell.)

4. Ravens trade Haloti Ngata coming off a great year


Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome always finds a way to keep the players he wants. Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis and even Ed Reed all remained on the roster after they peaked as players. Ngata was due big money in 2015, but he was also coming off an excellent season. The Ravens are eating $7.5 million in dead money just to get rid of Ngata before his contract year. The Ravens wouldn't make the move without excellent young interior linemen like Brandon Williams and Timmy Jernigan ready to step in. They also wouldn't make the move unless they believed Ngata is nearing the end of the line and is better suited in a part-time role.

5. Bills becomes one of NFL's most fascinating teams


Buffalo has been bad at professional football for a decade. Even worse: They have usually been boring. That's out the window.

It's amazing to think that coach Doug Marrone's decision to leave the Bills was viewed at the time as an embarrassment for the franchise. New owner Terry Pegula has spearheaded a spending spree that has attracted talent and buzz unlike anything we've seen from the Bills in a while.

Rex Ryan's defensive line is more talented than any he had with the Jets. His offensive coordinator Greg Roman suddenly has a surplus of weapons to deploy: LeSean McCoy, Sammy Watkins, Percy Harvin, Robert Woods and Charles Clay. Matt Cassel is no savior, but he is an upgrade at quarterback. There is a fantasy football feel to the Bills that could blow up in smoke, but this is going to be one of the most fascinating teams to watch in September. We haven't said that about Buffalo in a long time.

6. Frank Gore finds a better home


Jim Harbaugh's power-running game provided Gore the offense he always deserved. With Harbaugh gone to Michigan, it was hard to imagine Gore landing in a better spot. He found one with Indianapolis.

Former Harbaugh assistant Pep Hamilton runs the Colts' offense, and has been searching for a thumper like Gore. Few players in NFL history are better at finding small cracks in the defense, and emerging through for a big gain. The Colts' offensive line is suspect, but it will be tough for opposing teams to stop the run while also dealing with T.Y. Hilton, Andre Johnson, Donte Moncrief, Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener. Gore has never played with a quarterback as dangerous as Andrew Luck.

7. Los Angeles gains even more momentum


We've read the Los Angeles stories for more than a decade. They usually turn into hot air, fan fiction from a city that wants football to return without a logical landing spot. This time is different. The momentum that started to build last year has only escalated.

The Inglewood City Council approved to build a football stadium that includes St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke as a partner. The San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders, meanwhile, teamed up for a stadium proposal in Carson back in February. That previous sentence would have blown my mind a year ago, but Kroenke's land grab has raised the stakes. Some of the highest-powered owners in the league believe there will be a team in place by 2016.

8. Retirements stun NFL, especially 49ers


Patrick Willis, Chris Borland, Jake Locker, and Jason Worilds all surprised with retirements this offseason. There were a lot of hot takes connecting them, although each man retired for vastly different reasons.

Willis was one of the best linebackers of his era and knew he couldn't maintain his level of play because of his injured feet. Locker lost his passion for the sport in part because of his inability to stay on the field. Worilds passed up a huge multimillion dollar free agent contract to pursue religious interests. Borland's decision was the hardest to see coming.

Coming off a fantastic rookie year, Borland expressed concerns about the long-term health effects of head trauma in an unprecedented and preventive decision. It leaves the 49ers with a gaping hole at inside linebacker. Much like the flurry of big trades this month, it's too early to call this batch of retirements a trend. We'll find out next year whether the surprises of 2015 become the new normal.

The latest Around The NFL Podcast unveils our annual division power rankings and welcomes Bucky Brooks back to the show. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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