NFL offseason reflection: The 10 most impactful developments


We've finally reached the point in the offseason where it feels safe to make sense of the last few months. Free agency opened with its typical frenzy. The draft gave us a look at the next class of new faces hoping to make an impact on the NFL. Offseason training programs are now ramping up while minicamps are just around the corner.

That's why this is a good time to start thinking about how this coming season will be affected by what's happened so far. This isn't just a discussion about signings and selections, either. It's an evaluation of all the choices that have occurred since the Denver Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50. Some have shocked us, others have mystified and a few, well, they were long overdue. The whole point of this list is to determine which decisions will have the greatest impact on the 2016 NFL season.

Here they are:

1) Federal court rules in favor of the NFL in Deflategate.

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This never-ending story took another twist in April, when the U.S. Second Court of Appeals ruled that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady must serve the four-game suspension the league levied against him in May 2015. Brady appealed the punishment in federal court and had the suspension vacated before last season began. This time around, the NFL left feeling vindicated, as the court upheld the initial ruling by Commissioner Roger Goodell.

The end result (at least for now ...) is the Patriots will have a full month to see what Jimmy Garoppolo can do at quarterback once the season kicks off. New England supporters will say that isn't such a frightening dilemma, especially since Pats head coach Bill Belichick found a way to win 11 games in 2008 after Brady was lost to a season-ending knee injury in Week 1. Here's the response to that: Eight years is a long time ago, and this New England team isn't nearly as good as that one was. Brady is set to miss games against the Cardinals, Dolphins, Texans and Bills. The Patriots easily could lose three of those games without him.

2) Brock Osweiler signs with the Houston Texans.

No move in the NFL altered the balance of power more than Osweiler's decision to leave the Super Bowl champion Broncos to sign a four-year, $72-million deal with the Texans. The fifth-year veteran might have his doubters -- those who see him as an overrated game manager who faded late in the season after replacing Peyton Manning -- but he is far better than anything Houston has put under center in recent years. The Texans also were smart enough to not position Osweiler as a savior. They added running back Lamar Miller in free agency, used their first-round pick on speedy wide receiver Will Fuller and re-emphasized the reality that this team is built just like the Broncos: with a vicious defense that has its own superstar pass rusher in J.J. Watt.

The Texans won nine games and the AFC South title despite starting four different quarterbacks in 2015. They'll be much better with Osweiler leading an offense that should be far more dangerous this fall.

3) John Elway gambles with his quarterback situation.

Give the Denver Broncos general manager credit for this: He knows how to play hardball. Elway simply wasn't willing to give Osweiler the kind of money that would make the quarterback one of the top 10 highest-paid players at his position. As a result, the Broncos turned over every last possible rock to find another option this offseason -- including pursuing a trade for Colin Kaepernick -- before settling on a trade for Mark Sanchez and the selection of Paxton Lynch in the first round of the draft. It would be one thing if Sanchez was still the same young game manager who did just enough to help the New York Jets reach the AFC title game in each of his first two NFL seasons. But he's been around the league long enough to prove that he has major shortcomings, including the inability to play consistently enough to keep a job.

Elway still has a strong enough defense for the Broncos to stay above the .500 mark. What he doesn't have is a magic wand that can turn Sanchez into the kind of player who can return this team to the playoffs.

4) Carolina Panthers let Josh Norman walk.

The only free-agent move more stunning than Denver letting Osweiler leave their franchise was Carolina's decision to not re-sign All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman. It seemed that a deal would happen when the Panthers tagged him as their franchise player at the start of free agency -- Norman's combination of grit and swagger made him a perfect fit for the reigning NFC champions. But somewhere along the way, Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman decided that he didn't like Norman's contract demands and rescinded the franchise tag. Now Norman is enjoying the benefits of a five-year, $75-million deal in Washington.

It probably will be a while before we hear the entire story on what turned Gettleman off on Norman. This much we do know: Elite cornerbacks are hard to find. In losing Norman, the Panthers gave up a player who locked down plenty of Pro Bowl wide receivers this past year and also willed himself into a star after entering the league as an unknown fifth-round pick out of Coastal Carolina. The Panthers still have enough talent to challenge for a playoff spot. But Norman's departure makes this team far more vulnerable on the back end -- and that will cost them more games than the one they lost in the 2015 regular season.

5) Dallas Cowboys draft Ezekiel Elliott.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones could've opted for defense with the fourth overall pick in last month's draft, especially with versatile DB Jalen Ramsey available for selection. Instead, he made the smarter play by going with the best running back in the class. As much as the Cowboys need to improve their defense, Elliott allows them to do something even more important, which is return to the formula that propelled them to an NFC East division crown in 2014. Elliott gets to run behind the same dominant offensive line that turned DeMarco Murray into a league-leading rusher. His presence also takes some pressure off quarterback Tony Romo (if he can stay healthy) and opens up more possibilities for wide receiver Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten downfield.

Let's not forget the impact on that defense, either. The more the Cowboys control the football, the more that unit gets to rest. Granted, we might be getting ahead of ourselves here -- since Elliott has yet to take an NFL snap -- but he already should be a popular pick for Offensive Rookie of the Year.

6) Eddie Lacy goes on a diet.

The worst-kept secret in Green Bay last season was that the young running back had a weight problem. The most encouraging news about the Packers this offseason is that he's dedicated himself to doing something about it. There's been some controversy about what the team asked Lacy to lose -- head coach Mike McCarthy denied a report that the Packers told him to drop 30 pounds -- but that doesn't really matter today. Lacy clearly has looked leaner and quicker during the offseason training sessions and has responded to McCarthy's contention that his running back "cannot play at the weight he played at [last] year." One report said Lacy has shed between 15 and 18 pounds already.

If Lacy (who was listed at 234 pounds in 2015, but looked much heavier) continues to shed the weight that slowed him last season, he should become the game changer he was upon first joining the Packers. Lacy gained a career-low 758 yards in 2015 after averaging 1,159 in his first two seasons. That decline played a major role in Green Bay's offensive struggles during the second half of last season. A slimmer Lacy should make McCarthy feel better about avoiding that plight this coming year ... and make the Pack a more dangerous player in the NFC title race.

7) Justin Houston goes under the knife.

This was supposed to be the year when the Kansas City Chiefs made good on all the moves head coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey have made over their three previous years running the franchise. It's now much harder to believe in the Chiefs' hopes of contending for a championship with their Pro Bowl outside linebacker recovering from offseason knee surgery. Houston already had been a non-factor at the end last season, after a hyperextended left knee sidelined him for the final five regular-season games and severely limited him in two postseason games. But then he was dealt a much harsher blow when doctors learned he had a damaged anterior cruciate ligament in the same joint that could only be fixed through surgery. The recovery time for that procedure: six to 12 months. The questions around Houston erupted immediately: Why didn't the Chiefs plan the operation sooner? What exactly was wrong with the joint? How many games can Kansas City realistically expect to get out of their best defensive player? So far, the answers provided by the team haven't made anybody feel better about Houston's status.

The Chiefs are praying he's a fast healer. If he's not, this team will struggle with a pass rush built around an aging Tamba Hali and a former first-round pick in Dee Ford who's been largely disappointing in his first two seasons.

8) Oakland Raiders hit it big in free agency.

If the last few months have taught us anything about the Raiders, it's that they're definitely growing up in a hurry. Oakland already had an impressive nucleus of young stars that included quarterback Derek Carr, wide receiver Amari Cooper and pass rusher Khalil Mack. But this offseason should make many people take note of the potential for this team once September arrives. General manager Reggie McKenzie couldn't have asked for a better start to free agency, as he signed the top available offensive lineman (Kelechi Osemele), an athletic pass rusher to pair with Mack (Bruce Irvin) and a supersized cornerback familiar with the AFC West (Sean Smith, formerly of Kansas City).

The Raiders still have to find a way to mesh all these new players with the ones already on their roster, but there's a lot to like about this bunch. This is a team that showed promise at the start of last season and also beat the Broncos in Denver late in the second half. Those moments gave the young Raiders much-needed confidence in a season when they won seven games. Their offseason acquisitions could push them into contention for a postseason spot.

9) Indianapolis Colts look to help Andrew Luck.

There are plenty of players who were happy to put the 2015 season behind them. Nobody could've predicted that Luck would've fallen into that category. Along with being beaten up (he missed nine games with injuries) and playing poorly (his 74.9 passer rating was a career-low), Luck also had a prime seat for plenty of organizational drama (including the midseason firing of offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton and the widely reported rift between general manager Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano). The good news is that Grigson and Pagano apparently resolved their issues when the season ended and the team bolstered a weak offensive line by adding center Ryan Kelly with their first-round pick in the draft. The Colts also are betting that OC Rob Chudzinski and new quarterbacks coach Brian Schottenheimer have some viable ideas for returning Luck to Pro Bowl form.

It's not that anybody really believes Luck's issues have anything to do with talent. It's just that we became more aware of how much he'd been carrying this team for the first three years of his career. That has to change this fall for a squad that will face much stiffer competition in a vastly improved AFC South.

10) Vontaze Burfict's suspension is upheld.

There might not be a player in the league who is harder to understand than Burfict, who will be serving a three-game suspension when the season begins. He's a Pro Bowl-caliber middle linebacker who sets the tone for a Bengals defense that helped that team win the AFC North in 2015. He's also a powder keg of a player who has developed a reputation for dirty play and knocked Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown out of the playoffs in January. That play led to a personal foul (one that put the Steelers in position to win that wild-card game) and also put Burfict on the sidelines at the worst possible time for the Bengals. The suspension was handed down shortly after that loss in January, but it wasn't finalized until Burfict's appeal in February failed.

Opening the regular season with games against the Jets, Steelers and Broncos already seemed like a daunting task for Cincinnati. Facing that bunch without Burfict available means the Bengals are likely to face a rough start, one that could cripple their hopes of repeating as division champs.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.



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