Nine weeks into the first-ever 17-game NFL season, we have had enough time to come to some type of understanding regarding which front office decisions have paid dividends and who has misfired. To this point, three front offices have stood out thus far as deserving of recognition, while others have not been as successful.
Arizona Cardinals Front Office
I think a lot of the credit for Arizona’s win against San Francisco on Sunday with Kyler Murray out belongs to Kliff Kingsbury. I had Colt McCoy in Cleveland, so I am not totally surprised he found some success on Sunday because I think he is a better football player than most people realize. That said, he won on Sunday completing 22 of 26 passes for 249 yards and a TD without turning the ball over, in part due to Kingsbury’s game planning.
It is extremely rare that a coach with a losing record in college comes to the NFL and starts winning. Eight head coaches were hired in 2019, and Kingsbury was widely predicted to be the least successful. Two of those coaches have already been fired (Adam Gase and Freddie Kitchens), and only Bruce Arians and Matt LaFleur have won more games since 2019 among that group.
Outside of the Kingsbury coaching hire, I also think Arizona has made some really smart and calculated moves the past few seasons. They let Kenyan Drake go to Las Vegas on a two-year $11 million contract and replaced him with a much cheaper option in James Conner going into 2021. They also let Dan Arnold leave via free agency and were even able to upgrade at tight end at the deadline by adding Zach Ertz after Maxx Williams was lost to injury.
On defense, they let an aging Patrick Peterson test free agency, where he signed a one-year $8 million contract with Minnesota. Overall, I think they have created a very strong core that is supported with both cheaper veterans and players on rookie contracts.
Even with all their moves and their win this weekend without Murray, at the end of the day, their decision to draft him with the first overall pick is why they are finding so much success right now.
It took immense courage by their front office and coaching staff to hitch their future to Murray’s success. Russell Wilson fell to the third round because he was short, and teams were worried about his ability to hold-up in the NFL. Murray is about three inches shorter and was taken with the No. 1 overall pick, just one year after they drafted Josh Rosen with a top-10 pick.
Yes, things have changed in the NFL landscape, but not many teams would have just given up on their first round quarterback after one season. They deserve a lot of credit for that because it is very unusual for a general manager to make that kind of public admission that he messed up a quarterback pick that badly.
A lot of teams would be afraid to take that heat, but it has paid off immensely for them.
Los Angeles Chargers Front Office
The Chargers have had a lot of talent for a long time, led primarily by Phillip Rivers. But now, it seems like they have finally fully addressed their offensive line to go along with a franchise quarterback. Between 2019 and 2020, the Chargers were allowing over 2.1 sacks per game. Through eight games this season, they are only allowing 1.75 sacks per game in Justin Herbert’s second season.
This is a direct result of their front office adding three starting caliber offensive lineman this off-season.
They started by making Corey Linsley the highest paid center at the time in free agency. They also added Matt Feiler to their interior offensive line on a reasonable contract after he had started 40 games for Pittsburgh over the last four seasons. Finally, their offensive line moves culminated in April when they took tackle Rashawn Slater with the 13th overall pick.
So far this season, all three players have started every game for Los Angeles, and Slater looks like he could be the most successful offensive lineman from this past draft. To end up filling a whole unit like that in one off-season and not massively overpaying is very impressive.
Like Arizona, I think the Chargers also deserve credit for some of the moves they have not made over the past few seasons. It was wise to let Melvin Gordon leave via free agency and not get into a bidding war with Denver. Instead, they invested that money in a more dependable player in Austin Ekeler and elected to build out the rest of the running back room with cheaper contracts.
They also let Hunter Henry leave for New England, who has had major injury concerns over the course of his career. Instead, they constructed a cheaper tight end room with Jared Cook and Donald Parham. I believe this discipline over the past few off-seasons directly resulted in them being able to bolster their offensive line in the manner they did. I also think that unit right now is one of the reasons they are in the playoff hunt, along with the play of Justin Herbert.
New England Patriots Front Office
New England is 5-4 currently and would make the playoffs if the season ended right now. They appear to have the right quarterback that can do what they want to do. Even just getting that right is a massive jump on a lot of teams.
I also think the free agents they added this off-season, even though they were expensive, fit what they want to do and have helped accelerate their turnaround.
Las Vegas Raiders Front Office
Las Vegas has had about everything go wrong that possibly could have this year, and they are still 5-3, so it is hard to be overly critical of their front office. Somehow they continue to improve, but I am not sure how sustainable that is.
Obviously, the Raiders drafting has been a major problem, and those issues have amplified in recent weeks. In 2019, they drafted Clelin Ferrell with the fourth overall pick, who has struggled to stay on the field and has only 6.5 sacks since entering the NFL. Josh Allen, who was arguably the consensus top edge player, was selected three picks later and already has 18.5 sacks in his career.
In 2020, they had two more first round picks, Henry Ruggs and Damon Arnette, who are both no longer with the team. Both players were released for cause, so it is likely all guarantees will void, but both positions leave Vegas with massive holes.
In all, Las Vegas had five picks in the first three rounds of the 2020 draft. With Lynn Bowden previously traded and Tanner Muse released, only third round pick Bryan Edwards remains. Even with the 5-3 record right now, I am not sure the Raiders are building a sustainable roster.
San Francisco 49ers Front Office
I have been a big fan of Kyle Shanahan as a coordinator for some time and was advocating for him in both Cleveland and then Atlanta after that. As a head coach, I worry if he is too impatient to have sustained success.
Over the past few seasons, they have made a bunch of short-term moves, and I think that is catching up with them. As a head coach, you cannot have the mindset of being all-in if you do not have the right roster. They got extremely close in 2019, but now they have gone backwards.
I think one of their moves that has really backfired and does not get a lot of attention is letting DeForest Buckner go to Indianapolis. It was a mistake to think that they could replace that production with just Arik Armstead and Javon Kinlaw, who they drafted with the pick acquired from the Colts. Since the trade, Buckner has 13.5 sacks for Indianapolis and Armstead and Kinlaw have combined for just 7.0.
They also drafted Brandon Aiyuk in the first round of that draft, who has shown promise but has struggled to put it all together through 20 career games.
In looking towards their future, they have a tremendous investment in Trey Lance. They traded first round picks in 2022 and 2023 to acquire him, so they have tied themselves to him for the immediate future.
It is too early to judge him and he has had minimal playing time, but I do have concerns. Jimmy Garoppolo is clearly struggling to win games right now, and it is very rare that a starting caliber quarterback struggles this much in Shanahan’s offense. Even though it is so early, it raises questions about how they feel about Lance internally.
Carolina Panthers Front Office
This begins and ends with Sam Darnold really. The Jets had already decided they were moving on from him after the 2020 season, and I felt Carolina massively overpaid by giving up a future second and fourth when they did not need to. To combat the mistake, Carolina extended Darnold his fifth year option, which guarantees over $18.8 million for next season.
This season, Darnold is tied for the league-lead with 11 interceptions. He has also already fumbled six times (lost two) and has one of the lowest TD:INT ratios of all starting quarterbacks. This impatience (while also passing on Mac Jones in the draft) cost Carolina over $20 million and multiple future draft picks — all for a struggling quarterback.
Aside from the Darnold move, I actually think they have brought in some good players, but I do not think they are bringing in free agents that are reflective of where they are as a team.
At corner, Stephon Gilmore was a good addition, but he will cost them over $6 million this season, with no guarantee he will be on the roster next year. They also brought in multiple veterans like Pat Elflein, Cameron Erving, Haason Reddick, and Morgan Fox all on short-term deals. If they were realistic about this season, I think getting to .500 would have been a really big step forward, but they should not have allocated future resources (cap dollars and draft picks) to get there.
These decisions will hurt their future in a year where they had no chance of making a deep run, no matter what.