NFL offseason winners: From Aaron Rodgers to the Chicago Bears

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Houston took a two-pronged approach this season, trying to balance a championship window while maintaining future flexibility. After an unexpected playoff run, with the top two rookies in the league, plenty of cap space and no first-round pick, it would have been easy to throw money around like a nepo baby in Cabo.

But the Texans showed restraint. They haven’t wasted their cap space by signing expensive veterans to long-term deals. Instead, they traded for willing stars, picked up a few ring-hunting veterans and took on fallen blue chip prospects. They traded for Stefon Diggs to strengthen their receiving corps, and made another deal to bring back Joe Mixon. In free agency, they signed edge rusher Danielle Hunter, defensive lineman Denico Autry, linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair and cornerback Jeff Okudah, a former first-round pick.

Houston recognizes they are in a win-now window. They have the most valuable asset in the league: a top-10 quarterback on a (cheap) rookie contract. But they’re approaching that window with caution and protecting themselves if things worsen: They reworked Diggs’ deal and made it a one-year trial period; Hunter’s contract has a two-year opt-out if the injury bug strikes again; Autry’s deal essentially functions as a one-year contract; Mixon and Al-Shaair received multi-year contracts that become shorter each season.

Diggs is the headliner, but picking up Hunter, Autry and Al-Shaair could put Houston over the top. No defense is as dependent on a true four-man rush as Houston’s. Adding Hunter and Autry alongside Will Anderson and Derek Barnett should brighten up a group that finished third in pass-rush wins last season.

Related: Winners and losers of the 2024 NFL draft: Chicago shines while Denver disappoints

The addition of Al-Shaair could be the most impactful move of all. DeMeco Ryans’ defense requires a linebacker who is comfortable in coverage. In an era where the boundaries are blurring in coverage assignments, Ryans uses a rigid system. There are clear demarcations between the defensive line, linebackers and secondary. In his first year in Houston, Ryans didn’t have a linebacker who was essential to the team’s defensive system. It led to a hockey-style rotation, where opposing offenses could figure out what Houston was doing based on the personnel on the field. Al-Shair, who played for Ryans in San Francisco, should help solve the problem.

Houston is ahead of schedule. But they will enter 2024 with playmakers on offense, a talented o-line, a loaded secondary, a ferocious defensive front and one of the best young quarterbacks in the league. That’s as good a cocktail for a postseason run as any in the AFC.

Chicago bears

How many cigars do you think Chicago General Manager Ryan Poles has gone through this season? What about glasses of champagne?

It hasn’t been a perfect offseason for the Bears, but it’s close enough to make no difference. Drafting Caleb Williams No. 1 overall was the gem of the offseason, but the Bears did plenty to help him.

Entering the offseason, Chicago decided to stick with head coach Matt Eberflus (a defensive-minded coach) and spent the majority of their resources addressing concerns on offense. When a team has a talented, young quarterback, there is usually a race to surround them with talent. The Eagles traded for AJ Brown to take Jalen Hurts to a new level. The Dolphins traded for Tyreek Hill to find out what they had in Tua Tagovailoa. The Bengals reunited Joe Burrow with Ja’Marr Chase via the draft.

The infrastructure is already in place in Chicago. The offensive line is flush with young talent. They added Shane Waldron as offensive coordinator this season, one of the underrated warlocks in the league. In free agency, they signed running back D’Andre Swift and tight end Gerald Everett, two solid veterans. Crucially, they stole receiver Keenan Allen from the Chargers in exchange for a fourth-round pick.

Throwing cash and picks at veterans can be risky. But the Bears have built their offense piece by piece. The receivers’ skills align: Allen is a smart veteran who increases a quarterback’s margin for error; DJ Moore is the burner, a one-man attack who can create after the catch or separate from anyone, anywhere on the field; Rome Odunze is a 6-foot-4, 212-pound pot of nail polish. If you put together a list of the most talented starting receiver trios, the Bears would probably be in the top five.

On defense, they retained star cornerback Jaylon Johnson a few months after signing edge rusher Montez Sweat to a long-term extension. This last move is particularly important: After falling flat again early last season, Chicago’s defense caught fire after the team acquired Sweat at the trade deadline. Through the final nine weeks of the season, the Bears finished fourth in EPA/play, a measure of down-to-down effectiveness. The preparations are in place for the Bears to field a top-10 unit in 2024.

Williams finds himself in a rare situation. He is the No. 1 overall pick at quarterback and steps into a playoff-caliber roster that has postseason expectations instead of hope. No pressure, tower.

Jets from New York

If you can tear yourself away from the fact that the Jets star quarterback seems to spend an inordinate amount of his time on the r/conspiracy page, the Jets have done a good job this season.

(A side note: Aaron Rodgers’ penchant for surfing the Internet has a football angle. Rodgers and his buddy/Jets OC Nathaniel Hackett run one of the most sophisticated offenses in the NFL. It’s unusually complex even by professional standards. It takes time , reps and intelligence to install. The Jets would be better off letting Rodgers have Zoom calls with his teammates, instead of splitting it up with podcasters.)

Addressing the offensive line was the most pressing concern for New York. The Jets allowed pressure on 50% of their dropbacks last season and allowed 64 sacks, partly because the ball didn’t get out fast enough and partly because of the lack of talent along the offensive line. One of those sacks was enough to cost Rodgers his season.

General manager Joe Douglas wasted no expense in seeking upgrades on the game. The Jets signed aging (but excellent) left tackle Tyron Smith in free agency along with guard John Simpson, and they traded for right tackle Morgan Moses. In the draft, they ignored calls to pick another weapon for Rodgers and decided to take Olu Fashanu with the 11th overall pick.

There were smart moves elsewhere. Receiver Mike Williams was picked up in the Chargers’ fire sale, and edge rusher Haason Reddick was added in a trade with the Eagles. They also signed interior lineman Javon Kinlaw, who will add some spice to the team’s pass rush. Notably, they added Tyrod Taylor as a backup quarterback, who should bring some maturity to the quarterback room and be a viable replacement if Rodgers, who turns 41 in December, misses at any time. They added some sizzle midway through the draft rounds by drafting cornerback Qwan’tez Stiggers, running back Braelon Allen and receiver Malachi Corley, who went by the name “YAC King” during an explosive college career.

On paper, the Jets have a deep and talented defense. And there is a chance of fireworks in the event of a violation if the group can stay healthy. Hang up the banner, Jets fans. It’s another offseason championship. Their fans will be hoping that the team can maintain this success for once once the actual matches start.

Green Bay Packers

The Packers didn’t make a major effort to add talent around Jordan Love, instead betting on the growth of their young players on offense. But they deserve credit for being aggressive in their efforts to improve their greatest need: safety.

Safety is essential in the modern NFL, and Green Bay’s group at the position was a mess last year. They retooled this offseason, cashing out and spending draft picks four new safety measures. They signed Xavier McKinney in free agency, one of the most malleable safeties in the NFL. Spending $68 million on a safety is out of character for the frugal Packers, but bringing in a top player at the position was a necessity. What used to be Typical of a team that loves developing young talent and stocking positions of need, the team picked up three additional safeties in the draft: Javon Bullard, Evan Williams and Kitan Oladapo.

Safeguards increase what a defense can do. The NFL is past the point of safeties with individual roles: a ball hawk who plays deep and a masher who plays closer to the line of scrimmage. In the past, teams typically carried two of each. But as the game has evolved, having role-specific security means locking yourself into a structure that is incompatible with the modern game. Nowadays, every security must be versatile. All four additions in Green Bay fit that bill. They can play deep in the defensive backfield, line up, blitz or stand in the penalty area.

The addition of new defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley is also a big plus. Green Bay finished 23rd in EPA/play last season. In the second half of the season this deteriorated to 26th place. If the Packers can reach a league-average level, they will bring the Lions close to the NFC North.

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