1. Browns trade up for Johnny Manziel
Browns fans know all about saviors. The last one, new owner Jimmy Haslam, hasn’t worked out so well. Not only have none of Cleveland’s would-be Moseses reached the promised land, they haven’t come particularly close. That means expectations are through the roof for a task no one has ever accomplished — getting the Browns to the Super Bowl. That’s the challenge Manziel is staring down. He seems to be the man for the job. A quarterback so confident, so swashbuckling that he’s literally nicknamed “Johnny Football,” Manziel is a player in the mold of those who break them. History suggests he won’t be able to do it. That’s because no one has done it in Cleveland. But the Browns are swinging for the fences, and Manziel is their best home-run shot in ages.
2. Bills trade up for Sammy Watkins
If the Browns are swinging for the fences with Manziel, the Bills are swinging for the fences on every pitch. A franchise that’s made boldness its M.O. since hiring coach Doug Marrone, the boys by Lake Erie have become the living embodiment of “go big, or go home.” The latest example is Watkins, a 6-foot-1, 211-pound lid lifter of a wideout the Bills earned the right to draft at No. 4 overall only after surrendering two first-round picks and a fourth. It was the steepest of prices for a team that has an unproven quarterback (E.J. Manuel) and a backlog of receivers (Mike Williams, Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin, T.J. Graham). Watkins will need to be a superstar to justify the cost. He has the tools — lightning speed, otherworldly quicks and tackle-breaking ability — now it’s up to his coaches and teammates to put them to use.
3. Redskins sign DeSean Jackson
Jackson’s reward for a career season (82 catches for 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns)? His walking papers. That’s not to mention the ugly rumors and innuendo that preceded them. D-Jax didn’t escape the viper pit NFC East and its fishbowl-media atmosphere but has landed with a quarterback in Robert Griffin III who knows a thing or two about making big plays. Jackson is unlikely to even come close to the numbers Chip Kelly helped generate in Philly, but there’s reason to believe he can strike up a weekly deep-ball connection with RGIII. Living well is the best revenge. D-Jax will get a chance to do so in Washington.
Life should be pretty easy for a quarterback when you’re throwing to Calvin Johnson. For Matthew Stafford, it is. The problem has been when he’s thrown to anyone else, as there hasn’t been anyone else. The Lions have spent five years surrounding their franchise signal caller with unaccomplished wideouts and stone-handed tight ends. By adding one of the league’s better No. 2 receivers and selecting the draft’s top tight end, that’s finally changed. No longer will Stafford have to choose between forcing the ball to Megatron and dumping it off to a running back. That’s bad news for the rest of the league.
5. Jets sign Eric Decker
How do you address the league’s sorriest receiver corps? With free agency’s best receiver. That is not to say the move is without risk. Decker’s reputation rests largely on the dinks and dunks of Peyton Manning, while $15 million guaranteed is a pretty penny for a man who’s a No. 2 receiver at heart. But Decker can catch passes, certainly better than the no-hands gang the Jets trotted out in 2013. You can call Decker overrated or overpaid, but you can’t call him underqualified to catch passes from the likes of Geno Smith and Michael Vick.
6. Eagles acquire Darren Sproles
Chip Kelly closed a door with DeSean Jackson, but he made sure to open another with Sproles before doing so. A 5-foot-6 Swiss Army Knife on the wrong side of 30, Sproles might not have much time left in the NFL. Age is rarely kind to any player, let alone one smaller than the average football writer. But Sproles still had plenty of juice left in 2013, and if no one is a better partner-in-crime for his skill-set than Sean Payton, Kelly is a close second. The Eagles need Sproles to help pick up D-Jax’s playmaking slack. Expect him to do so.
7. Vikings trade back into the first round for Teddy Bridgewater
If someone told you a year ago the Vikings would take Bridgewater with their first-round pick, you probably would have guessed it was at No. 1 overall. Instead, it was No. 32, as the Vikes leap-frogged any potential day-two movers by surrendering their second- and fourth-round selections. Bridgewater was available because of questions about his build (slight), hands (small) and deep ball (shaky). It should go without saying that he’s not a sure thing. But the Louisville product commands the short-to-intermediate areas of the field and keeps his composure even when the pocket is collapsing. There’s a strong chance he’ll make starts in 2014.
How do you go from journeyman to the man? Two skyscraping outside receivers are a good start. That’s the recipe Marc Trestman used for McCown in Chicago, and it’s the meal Lovie Smith’s Bucs are hoping to cook up in Tampa. The obvious concern is that McCown has left his quarterback whisperer for a man in Smith who’s known more for setting offenses back than moving them past the first-down line. Calling Lovie’s shots will be former Cal coach Jeff Tedford, a coordinator with exactly zero NFL experience. In theory, copying Trestman’s formula should be easy. In practice, everyone would be doing it if it were easy. The Bucs are trying to recreate history, but they’re a few disastrous McCown starts away from infamy.
9. Jets sign Chris Johnson
The man formerly known as CJ2K is more name than game at this point. Johnson has averaged an unimpressive 4.17 yards per carry since his record-breaking 2009 and appeared somewhere between lethargic and disinterested when it comes to breaking tackles. He was miscast as an every-down bellcow. That’s no longer the case in New York, where he’ll head up a three-man committee. Johnson will be the chairman, but will no longer be slammed between the tackles as a matter of course. Gang Green will scheme him into space and ask him to catch a few passes. Johnson is never going to recapture his lightning-in-a-bottle 2009, but he can still be the lightning in a multi-man backfield.
The faces are fresh…to Oakland. To football, they’re veteran retreads; ones heading to the Bay Area for paydays more than anything else. That doesn’t mean they won’t make the Raiders more watchable, but reinventin’ the wheel they ain’t. The process should be a little smoother. The results will be largely the same.
11. Saints trade up for Brandin Cooks
Sean Payton’s Saints offenses have always been dynamic. What they haven’t always been is young. That changed in a big way in May, when Payton saw fit to use his first-round pick on a wideout for just the second time in nine years, taking Cooks and his 4.33 wheels. The Saints now have NASCAR speed in Cooks and Kenny Stills, who are both under 23 years of age. Cooks is small (5-foot-10, 189 pounds) but versatile and will be featured both inside and out. He’s a dynamic playmaker Payton should have little trouble unleashing on the Superdome’s fast track.
12. Browns sign Ben Tate
To date, Tate’s career has been one of injury and missed opportunity. That’s the bad. The good? He’s not Willis McGahee, Chris Ogbonnaya or Fozzy Whittaker. A product of Gary Kubiak’s zone-blocking scheme, Tate is a natural fit with ZBS whiz Kyle Shanahan, and despite all the injuries, he brings a career 4.7 YPC into 2014. There will be trips to the sideline, but Tate will be great when he’s on the field.
13. Jaguars sign Toby Gerhart
As much as signing Toby Gerhart could, this move sent shockwaves through the NFL. A guaranteed $4.5 million for Toby Gerhart? That Toby Gerhart? It was a puzzler for a team moving on from Maurice Jones-Drew, and to a degree, still is. But whereas the majority see a pedestrian talent who’s had the courtesy of running behind Adrian Peterson the past four seasons, the Jags see a three-down back who can pass protect and punish defenders after contact. Ticketed for 15-20 touches per game, Gerhart will have RB2 appeal in fantasy leagues.
14. Ravens sign Steve Smith
Smith has admitted he’s no longer a No. 1 receiver, going as far as to compare himself to Kevin Walter in OC Gary Kubiak’s system. But he’s still a sure pair of hands, one capable of making plays against tight coverage. That’s something the Ravens sorely lacked in 2013. Smith’s lid-lifting days are over, but he’ll help keep the chains moving in Baltimore.
When the Colts lost Reggie Wayne last season, they attempted to replace him with Darrius Heyward-Bey, an undrafted free agent (Da’Rick Rogers) and a 2012 sixth-rounder fresh off suspension (LaVon Brazill). If that sounds bad on paper, it was even worse in practice. Although Moncrief is a rookie and Nicks a shell of his former self, The Horseshoe has taken sufficient steps to ensure it won’t get caught short at wideout again in 2014.
16. 49ers acquire Stevie Johnson
Johnson was injury-prone and inconsistent in 2013 but is still only one year removed from posting his third straight 1,000-yard campaign. Johnson’s skills may be somewhat redundant to Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin’s, but he’s the sure pair of hands the 49ers lacked in Crabtree’s absence last season. If there’s a downside, it’s that Johnson’s WR2/3 days are almost certainly over in fantasy. Nevertheless, he was a shrewd acquisition for an elite team that’s too often been a man down at receiver.
The Jets’ QB job remains Smith’s to lose, but lose it he may, as Vick was not a window-dressing addition. For all the coaching staff’s talk of Smith’s improvement down the stretch last season, he was not a quarterback who impressed as a rookie. Vick is several lost steps removed from being the league’s most dynamic player, but he’s still someone who can make things happen for a run-based attack. Smith will have to be on his game to keep his job.
Even after the departure of Eric Decker, “lack of weapons” was not a phrase that applied to the Broncos. But instead of resting on their laurels, the rich decided to get richer, adding the versatile Sanders and high-upside Latimer. Peyton Manning’s pinball offense will roll on in 2014.
19. Dolphins sign Knowshon Moreno
A colossal bust until he was introduced to the soft fronts that Peyton Manning invites, Moreno hit the open market as a wild card. Turns out, teams saw through his Manning-inflated numbers. Moreno made all of one visit, accepting a one-year, $3 million deal from Miami 16 days into free agency. Moreno is not the most talented runner on the Dolphins’ roster — that’s still Lamar Miller — but he is the most competent and will be an asset as an RB3/FLEX, particularly in PPR leagues.
The Giants still need Randle, but it’s impossible to view Beckham’s selection at No. 12 overall as anything other than a referendum on Randle’s ability to replace Hakeem Nicks. The best route runner in this year’s draft class, Beckham and his 4.43 wheels will be called on to provide the big-play ability Nicks lacked in his final few years in New York.
21. Texans sign Ryan Fitzpatrick
With Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, T.J. Yates and Tom Savage, the Texans have four quarterbacks. As the old adage goes, that really means they have zero quarterbacks. A battle tested game-manager, Fitz is the signal caller most likely to emerge from the murk. It won’t be pretty, but it should be better looking than Matt Schaub was in 2013.
Sammy Watkins wasn’t the only playmaker the Bills acquired. In Williams they have a 27-year-old red-zone threat. In Brown, they have a back who is still only 23 and a dynamo in space. Both players have warts — they wouldn’t have been available if they didn’t — but are solid additions to a team searching for as many skill players as possible.
23. Bengals pass on upgrading Andy Dalton
Going into the final year of his rookie contract, there isn’t much mystery about Dalton’s game. He’s a game manager, one prone to peaks and valleys. He’s never going to be a franchise quarterback. That’s why it was surprising the Bengals decided not to pressure him, waiting until the No. 164 overall pick to select career backup A.J. McCarron. The odds are low Dalton takes much of a step forward in 2014, but they’re now quite high that he’ll be back with the Bengals in 2015.
That’s one way to ensure you won’t have to give Peyton Hillis the ball in 2014. Jennings is an injury-prone 29 year old, but is coming off a career year for a Raiders offense that couldn’t exactly be construed as “good.” Williams, meanwhile, is a Heisman Trophy finalist carved out in the Michael Turner mold. Combined with wild card David Wilson, they give the Giants an infinitely better running back trio than they had a year ago.
25. Browns sign Miles Austin
If Miles Austin is the answer, you probably don’t want to know the question. For the Browns, it’s, “How do we make up for the loss of the league’s best young receiver in Josh Gordon?” The obvious answer is that you can’t. The painful answer is that you take fliers on players like Austin, hoping they still have something to offer. Now 30, Austin appeared to have nothing left for the Cowboys last season, but there’s a good chance he not only sticks on Cleveland’s 53-man roster, but gets an opportunity to contribute on offense.