It's one of the first lessons taught in NFL analyst trope school: Teams must surround a young quarterback with talent. Easy to say, but New York Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan has actually done it this month -- and with panache!
Maccagnan had some inherent advantages. For one, he still has his job despite his team winning 14 games combined in three seasons, managing to finish behind the BillsandDolphins each time -- a difficult task even if a team were trying to tank. Maccagnan also had a war chest of cap space, partly built because his forgettable rosters haven't included many homegrown stars worth re-signing. But that's old news. Chicago Bears GM Ryan Pace was unsuccessful until trading in coach John Fox for Matt Nagy, and Maccagnan could similarly make good with his second chance, Adam Gase, who replaced Todd Bowles.
The Jets' top signing, Le'Veon Bell, will take pressure off second-year quarterback Sam Darnold by taking the ball out of his hands, catching short passes and protecting him from blitzes. New slot receiver Jamison Crowder is a heady competitor with a playing intelligence similar to Quincy Enunwa, who is now locked in on a reasonable long-term contract. Gase can flood the middle of the field with pass catchers, including promising second-year tight end Chris Herndon, because flooding the middle of the field to find a mismatch is all the rage. (It's also essentially been the Patriots' approach for the better part of this decade.) Maccagnan's low-cost trade for Raiders guard Kelechi Osemele shores up a trouble spot on the team's offensive line.
There's more work to be done and no second-round pick in next month's draft, the cost of finally getting a franchise quarterback to believe in. Familiar areas of concern remain (edge pass rush, offensive tackles), but this was a great month for Darnold's chances of making a sizable second-year leap. In this reset era of modest Jets expectations and an owner overseas, that should be all Maccagnan and Gase need to keep building the roster in 2020, when they are projected to be drowning in cap space once again.
So, who else benefited from all the player movement across the NFL this month? Below is a list of guys who are flying high, thanks to free agency/trade activity.
Baker Mayfield, QB, Cleveland Browns: The Browns having too many mouths to feed on offense would be a hilarious "problem" for anyone who's watched the franchise this century to contemplate. It won't be a problem because of Mayfield. The addition of Odell Beckham Jr. should make everyone better, even if it doesn't show up in juiced-up stats for David Njoku, Jarvis Landry and Antonio Callaway. The Browns are right to bet on Mayfield making it all work, because he has the strongest personality of the group and the talent to put all his receiving options in line. GM John Dorsey might need to get creative looking for upgrades at tackle in the draft, but adding Beckham all but completes a skill-position group that tops any other football team in terms of youthful talent.
Myles Garrett, DE, Cleveland Browns: There's been so much attention paid to the Browns' offense that the loaded Cleveland defensive line has fallen under the radar. Opponents are still going to double-team Garrett. But the additions of defensive end Olivier Vernon and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson to a formidable defensive line that already included Larry Ogunjobi will allow Garrett to be the leader of a greater whole. As intriguing as the Browns' offense will be to watch in 2019, this group may be leading the way.
Leonard Fournette, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars: Tom Coughlin sounded all but done with Fournette after the beefy runner's disastrous second season ended with the Jags VP of football operations releasing a statement calling Fournette "selfish," then choosing to go after the guarantees in the former No. 4 overall pick's contract. (Fournette is reportedly challenging the Jags' ability to void the guarantees.)
But Coughlin's actions this offseason speak louder than his tough love, even before recent comments that he has "full confidence" Fournette can rebound. The Jaguars cut Carlos Hyde, an acquisition gone wrong last year. The only other move the Jags made at running back in the offseason was picking up journeyman Thomas Rawls. With T.J. Yeldon and Corey Grant free agents, there are barely any other RBs on the roster, and the Jaguars aren't in position to jettison any potential boost to the offense.
The addition of Nick Foles should lead to a less predictable Jaguars attack, better lanes to run through and more first downs to keep drives alive. It's hard to imagine the team's injury luck on the offensive line getting any worse. Fournette has absolutely been a disappointment through two seasons, but it's too early to call him a bust. Foles gives him a chance to make good, and the Jaguars have no other choice but to roll with the bruising RB again.
Kenny Stills, WR, Miami Dolphins: Once mentioned as a trade candidate, Stills is the Dolphins' No. 1 receiver by default. In a battle of Ryans, Fitzpatrick beats Tannehill in deep-ball accuracy, deep-ball aggressiveness and beard. It's only March, but I'm convincing myself this thinly veiled rebuilding process could be fun to watch.
Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers: It is reasonable to be worried about Newton's shoulder following another surgery. It also reasonable for Panthers fans to be unreasonably excited about wanting to see how the young core of Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore and even Curtis Samuel looks with one more draft piece and strong pass protection. Newton makes this list because the signing of center Matt Paradis and re-signing of right tackle Daryl Williams were savvy moves in an offensive line market without many good options. Also, dumping left tackle Matt Kalil was ultimately an addition by subtraction.
Mike Pettine, DC, Green Bay Packers: It's pretty rare to sign three high-priced starters for one side of the ball in a day. The Packers got younger and more flexible with the pickups of pass rushers Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith, in addition to safety Adrian Amos. It's hard to find a weakness in this defense, especially with a rangy, young secondary for Pettine to mold. It's on the former Browns head coach to make this group work, possibly leading the way early in the season while Aaron Rodgers figures out life with new head coach Matt LaFleur and a young group of receivers.
Derek Carr, QB, Oakland Raiders: It's been a great month for Carr. Whether it's a great offseason for Carr will depend on April, when Jon Gruden and new GM Mike Mayock could very well wind up selecting quarterback Kyler Murray or Dwayne Haskins. Even if the Raiders were to draft Carr's replacement, he could be set up for a Drew Brees-in-San Diego type of season, with all the new teammates to throw to in Oakland.
Antonio Brown is one of the greatest route runners of all time, able to get open quickly after the snap, a crucial skill for working with a quarterback like Carr, who tends to occasionally wait an extra beat for safety before pulling the trigger. Former Charger Tyrell Williams brings deep speed to the team, and J.J. Nelson brings even more as a fourth-receiver type. While the Trent Brown contract could wind up looking ugly long-term, he should undeniably upgrade the team's tackle spot, possibly on the right side, over 2018 third-rounder Brandon Parker.
Marcus Mariota, QB, Tennessee Titans: Chris Wesseling put it well on the Around the NFL Podcast this week: The Titans have sent a loud and clear message they are ready to go deep in the playoffs. Rodger Saffold was the best guard available in free agency by a wide margin -- he upgrades the team's running game. Adam Humphries is a savvy slot producer, a nice match for where Mariota makes his best throws. Even the addition of Cameron Wake on defense gives the Titans a better chance of keeping games low-scoring.
Mariota knows the final year of his rookie contract is crucial to his future, so having a better backup in Ryan Tannehill isn't a concern. Mariota needs to make a loud and clear message of his own that he's worth investing in -- at least GM Jon Robinson is giving him a better chance to succeed this time around.
Josh Allen, QB, Buffalo Bills: This article ends how it started: with a second-year quarterback in the AFC East whose arsenal was expanded by offseason pickups. The Bills' moves are intriguing, but they look like a poor man's Jets team in many ways. Cole Beasley and John Brown could pass for lesser versions of Jamison Crowder and Robby Anderson. The addition of center Mitch Morse can't hurt, but he doesn't have the same track record as the Jets' key interior OL pickup, Osemele. Even the biggest Frank Gore fan around (ahem) won't pretend he'll help Allen like Bell will help Darnold.
Surrounding a young quarterback with pieces is vital, yet it will ultimately be on Allen (like Darnold) to deliver on his opportunity. Anyone convinced that Allen's scattershot, hyper-athletic style is definitely going to work or has no chance is probably holding on to a pre-draft agenda that the NFL film doesn't support. He's unconventional, and the odds are stacked against his accuracy issues, but he's shown enough for me to want to see more. With better teammates around Allen, hopefully the evaluation on him will be more clear a year from now. If not, the Bills could be searching for another young quarterback to surround with talent sooner than later.