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The Oxford Dictionaries define a gamble as taking “a risky action in the hope of a desired result.”
When looking at that definition from an NFL prism, every move front offices and coaching staffs make can be construed as a gamble.
Some are bigger than others, of course. Deciding on the team’s swing tackle before 53-man roster cuts is not as big of a gamble as signing a quarterback to an eight-figure deal.
In this piece, we’ll look at the biggest NFL offseason gambles working out through two weeks. Each risk listed falls into one of two (in some cases, even both) categories:
1. A team traded a significant amount of draft capital for a player and/or signed someone to a monster long-term deal.
2. A team made a big switch (and/or notable decision) at quarterback, the NFL’s most important position.
All of the moves have a strong element of risk based on teams’ significant financial and draft-capital commitments. If the transactions work out, they can lead to Super Bowls. If they don’t, it can lead to a front-office and coaching overhaul.
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The Kansas City Chiefs’ move at quarterback from Alex Smith to Patrick Mahomes was a two-year offseason gamble. In 2017, Kansas City dealt the No. 27 overall pick, its third-rounder and its 2018 first-round selection to the Buffalo Bills for their 10th pick. The Chiefs then took Mahomes and inserted him as the backup.
The Chiefs won the AFC West for the second straight season but lost a heartbreaking Wild Card Game 22-21 to the Tennessee Titans.
Smith had one year left on his deal, and the Chiefs could have ridden out that contract and given the reins to Mahomes in 2019.
However, Kansas City decided the time was now to make the switch and traded Smith to the Washington Redskins. Smith has been solid throughout his 14-year career and led the Chiefs to four playoff appearances, but Mahomes is the NFL’s very early MVP thanks to 10 touchdowns (only one other signal-caller has more than six) and 582 passing yards.
The Chiefs need Mahomes’ offensive onslaught, as the defense has not fared well, allowing 63 points. In fact, Football Outsiders ranks the Chiefs defense last in efficiency, a stark contrast to the offense’s No. 1 mark.
Mahomes’ penchant for explosive plays, specifically deep bombs to wideouts Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins, helps keep the Chiefs one step ahead of their opponents.
At some point, Mahomes will regress a bit; he’s on pace for 80 touchdowns, which would break the league record by 25. However, “Showtime” Mahomes has been fantastic thus far, and he’s made his team a Super Bowl contender.
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The Minnesota Vikings finished 13-3 and were one win away from hosting last year’s Super Bowl before losing in the NFC Championship Game.
Quarterback Case Keenum played a big part in that resurgence after the Vikings finished just 8-8 the year before. The seven-year pro was fantastic in 15 regular-season games, completing 67.6 percent of his passes (which ranked second in the league) and throwing 22 touchdowns to just seven interceptions.
That left the Minnesota Vikings with a significant decision in the offseason: Should they re-sign Keenum, who was great in 2017 but had only started 24 career games up to that point, or should they look for a more established starter on the free-agent market?
One had to wonder whether the switch from the successful Keenum to Cousins would upset the apple cart, in addition to the fact that the team is on the hook for $84 million no matter what happens.
But Cousins has fared well so far, completing 65.5 percent of his passes for six touchdowns and just one interception. After leading Minnesota to a season-opening 24-16 win, he led the Vikings on a comeback in Lambeau Field against the Green Bay Packers, salvaging a 29-all tie thanks to 425 passing yards and four touchdowns (including this dime to Adam Thielen). If not for a missed 35-yard field goal as overtime expired, the Vikings would have won.
Cousins looks like the real deal, and he’s already established a strong rapport with Thielen and wide receiver Stefon Diggs. This move has been a clear success.
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It’s too early to tell whether the Denver Broncos’ decision against drafting a quarterback at No. 5 (e.g. top prospects Josh Allen or Josh Rosen) to be the long-term face of the franchise will work out for them.
But right now, Denver’s call to have free-agent signal-caller Case Keenum take the reins for the foreseeable future is working out.
Keenum signed a two-year, $36 million deal ($25 million guaranteed). While he has thrown four interceptions thus far, his play has helped lead to two early Denver wins.
Against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 1, the ex-Minnesota Viking threw for 329 yards and three touchdowns. He struggled more in Week 2 (222 yards, no touchdowns, one interception), but he accounted for all 62 yards (55 passing, seven rushing) on the team’s final drive, which led to a game-winning Brandon McManus field goal.
Broncos quarterbacks Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler and Paxton Lynch all struggled at times last year, and the trio combined for a 58.7 percent completion rate, 6.5 yards-per-attempt rate and a 19-22 touchdown-to-interception ratio. The team needed more stability at the position, especially considering it could still contend for the playoffs given that numerous parts from the 2015 Super Bowl-winning side were still present.
Enter Keenum, who has given the team some stability at quarterback. It also helps that the Broncos’ run game has been tremendous, led by rookies Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman. Mike Tanier of Bleacher Report made the case that the two running backs (and a solid defense) have made the Keenum signing a good one:
“The Broncos didn’t sign Keenum to be Manning or John Elway. They just needed to get off the Trevor Siemian/Paxton Lynch/Brock Osweiler merry-go-round and were willing to pay a premium to do it. They needed Keenum to be a competent, professional game manager who wouldn’t get in the defense’s way.“
Keenum has delivered on that front, which has the Broncos off to a 2-0 start.
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The Chicago Bears traded four draft picks—including 2019 and 2020 first-rounders—for Oakland Raiders edge-rusher Khalil Mack before signing him to a six-year, $141 million deal ($60 million guaranteed).
That’s a hefty price tag for one player, but Chicago’s gamble is paying off.
Mack has eight tackles, two sacks, an interception return for a touchdown and two forced fumbles (one recovery) through two games. He has as many sacks and interceptions as his old team combined, in addition to one more forced fumble and recovery.
While it doesn’t show up in Mack’s stat line, his presence also helps his new teammates make plays. Per Patrick Finley of the Chicago Sun-Times, head coach Matt Nagy noted that Mack’s ability to draw double teams gives his teammates more room to roam.
The team-wide impact has been noticeable, as the Bears defense has improved from 14th to fourth in efficiency, per Football Outsiders.
Nagy also noted that the Bears played more conservatively on offense down the stretch of their 24-17 win over the Seattle Seahawks, and that was because he had confidence in the Mack-led defense to preserve the lead.
Ultimately, Mack is a positive impact on the team, and that has put the Bears squarely in playoff contention.
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The 2017 Cleveland Browns’ leader in receptions and receiving yards was No. 2 running back Duke Johnson. In fact, four players (Johnson, tight ends Seth Devalve and David Njoku and running back Isaiah Crowell) had more catches than any Cleveland wideout. Johnson, Devalve and Njoku also had more receiving yards than any wide receiver.
Granted, the Browns were without Corey Coleman and Josh Gordon for significant portions of the year, but if the team had any chance of turning things around from that winless season, it needed to find a reliable pass-catcher to move the sticks and take charge in the aerial attack.
Enter Jarvis Landry, who the Browns signed to a five-year, $75 million ($47 million guaranteed) deal after sending a 2018 fourth-round pick and 2019 seventh-rounder to the Miami Dolphins.
Landry has given the Browns an added dimension in the pass game, hauling in 20 for 278 yards through three weeks.
He’s on pace to eclipse any 2017 Browns wide receiver’s reception and yardage production by the end of Cleveland’s fifth game (Ricardo Louis had 27 catches and 357 yards to lead all Browns wideouts last year).
Landry’s presence is more important given that Coleman and Gordon have since been traded, making the ex-LSU star the clear No. 1 option.
The Browns have been competitive in all three of their games and finally won Thursday night against the New York Jets thanks in part to Landry’s eight catches for 103 yards. Cleveland’s investment in the 25-year-old looks like a win.