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5 Best Moves of the NFL Season

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On Monday, Charlie Bernstein listed the five biggest mistakes of the NFL offseason. But today, we’ll focus on the decisions general managers got absolutely right.

With only five weeks remaining until the playoffs, here are the five best moves made before the start of the 2016 season.

Giants’ defensive spending spree

This is the rare occasion when a team spent a ton of money in free agency, and did not immediately regret it.

The Giants ranked dead last in pass defense in 2015 and surrendered six leads in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter, the most since the NFL merger in 1970, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

With his job almost certainly on the line, Jerry Reese backed up the Brinks truck and spent more than $200 million in retaining Jason Pierre-Paul and adding Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison and Janoris Jenkins.

Pierre-Paul, who lost parts of two fingers in a horrific fireworks accident last July, earned NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors with a career-high three sacks, a forced fumble and a 43-yard touchdown on a fumble recovery.

After a slow start and playing through a hand injury, Vernon has sacks in four consecutive games. He and Pierre-Paul hardly ever come off the field.

Harrison has made stops on 17.3 percent of his run-defense snaps this season, the highest-rate among interior defensive linemen according to Pro Football Focus. And Jenkins consistently shadows opposing No. 1 receivers, allowing a passer rating of 67.5 on balls thrown into his coverage.

Dallas dominates the draft

For all the grief the Cowboys took after selecting running back Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick, there’s little doubt now it was the right choice.

Running behind Dallas’ exceptional offensive line, Elliott leads the NFL with 1,199 rushing yards while averaging 22.1 carries per game. Owner Jerry Jones expressed no concerns with Elliott’s workload in an interview Tuesday on Dallas radio station 105.3 The Fan.

“The more we can give Ezekiel the ball the better,” Jones said. “We’re winning with that. We’re winning by wearing them down on defense.”

But the Cowboys struck gold with the 135th overall pick, grabbing franchise quarterback Dak Prescott out of Mississippi State. Prescott has flashed incredible poise since his first preseason snap and it’s carried into the regular season. He’s completing 67.9 percent of his passes, boasting a 108.6 passer rating and an 18-to-2 ratio of touchdowns against interceptions.

But before heaping all of the credit upon the Cowboys’ brass, let’s not forget Prescott was far from the original plan. Jones wanted to trade back into the first round and grab Paxton Lynch.

“When I look back on my life, I overpaid for my big successes every time,” Jones told reporters following the first round. “And when I tried to get a bargain, get it a little cheaper or get a better deal on it, I ended up usually either getting it and not happy I got it. Or missing it.

“And I probably should have overpaid here.”

Already with two tape-measure home runs in the 2016 draft class, don’t forget the Cowboys still have Jaylon Smith waiting in the wings. The former Notre Dame linebacker, picked in Round 2, was considered a consensus top-10 talent before tearing his ACL in the Fiesta Bowl.

Eagles wheel and deal for Wentz

Three teams seemingly benefited from the Eagles’ pursuit of Carson Wentz.

First and foremost, Philadelphia landed the man it hopes will be the franchise quarterback. Wentz has hit a rough patch, tossing seven picks and just four touchdowns in his last seven games. But there’s a lot to like about his poise, toughness and intelligence.

Not to mention, the Eagles may have the worst receiving corps in the NFL.

But as mentioned earlier this month, the Titans and Dolphins are also reaping the benefits of Philadelphia’s quest to distance itself from the Chip Kelly era, or error, depending on how you look at it.

Tennessee acquired DeMarco Murray, the AFC’s leading rusher (1,043 yards), by simply swapping fourth-round picks and absorbing the running back’s $6 million cap hit. The Titans enter their Week 13 bye just a half-game behind Houston for the lead in the AFC South.

As for the Dolphins, they acquired a pair of useful defensive starters – linebacker Kiko Alonso and cornerback Byron Maxwell – for swapping first-rounders. Miami has won its last six games and currently occupies the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC.

Falcons invest heavily in Mack

The Falcons have never lacked elite talent at the skill positions – quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receiver Julio Jones, running back Devonta Freeman, etc.

But the biggest turnaround for the league’s highest-scoring offense has been the quality up front. Tackles Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder have turned into top-notch bookends, but Mack might have been the missing piece in Kyle Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme.

The three-time Pro Bowl center signed a lucrative five-year deal to join the Falcons from Cleveland.

Mack is one of PFF’s highest-graded centers in the league, turning in one of the best seasons of his career in both run blocking and pass protection. Against the Cardinals’ top-notch pass rush, Ryan felt pressure on only seven of his 39 dropbacks.

Redskins keep Cousins, add Norman

Washington exercised caution when it came to Kirk Cousins, electing to use the non-exclusive franchise tag and pay the 28-year-old quarterback a one-year deal worth $19.95 million.

After some early struggles, Cousins holds a passer rating of 101.4 and trails only Drew Brees with 3,540 passing yards. He hasn’t thrown an interception since Oct. 30, posting four consecutive games of a Total QBR of at least 80.0, per ESPN.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported earlier this week the Redskins will likely use the franchise tag again if a long-term deal is not reached before the start of free agency. The price will rise to $23,943,600 in 2017.

Washington also caught an extremely fortunate break when the Panthers shockingly parted ways with All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman. Daniel Snyder wasted little time handing Norman a $75 million deal to battle with Odell Beckham Jr. and Dez Bryant twice a year.

Norman hasn’t been as dominant as he was last season, with only one interception, but he’s still been effective. Bryant caught only two passes for 19 yards when covered by Norman on Thanksgiving.

With a record of 6-4-1, Washington maintains a hold on the final Wild Card spot in the NFC.


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