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How to spin an NFL offseason “grade” into anything you want it to be

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NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Baltimore Ravens Patrick McDermott-USA TODAY Sports

ESPN’s Mike Sando posted an article on Insider this week detailing some NFL executives’ thoughts on each team and their offseason moves. Grades were then assigned to each team based on their moves and what the execs had said about said moves.

The LA Rams were an obvious candidate for the highest grade in the class because of their acquisitions, including Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, and Brandin Cooks. A fan could easily argue that the moves were a little overrated and that the chemistry could be difficult to pull off, but you couldn’t argue that those are four players who have demonstrated top-5 abilities at their respective positions throughout their careers.

And the Rams did rank first with an A-, but technically they were tied with the New England Patriots. That grade was a little more surprising to me.

LA made several high-profile acquisitions. The Patriots made none. Not a single high-profile acquisition. In fact, they were even responsible for providing Cooks to the Rams in exchange for a first round pick. The pick was a significant net positive for New England, but I think anyone could agree that as an “offseason move for next season” it was not as valuable as Cooks, because Cooks is a proven commodity that is much more likely to contribute in 2018.

The Pats also lost Nate Solder, their starting left tackle for the last six seasons, and they don’t have a known commodity replacing him. They lost Dion Lewis, a player with 1,110 yards, nine touchdowns, and zero fumbles in 2017. Their biggest acquisitions were Danny Shelton and Jason McCourty, two key pieces for the 0-16 Cleveland Browns.

And all of this equaled the same sum total as the offseason for the Rams.

The thing about the word “grades” is that it implies that there might be a right or wrong answer. That’s because in school we have no distinction between a grade on a multiple choice test and a grade on an open-ended answer or a term paper. There is no right or wrong answer when grading an offseason, a draft pick moments after it happened, or a trade. That’s where people seem to confuse these articles with “fact” (Sando is saying that definitively the Patriots had a better offseason than 30 other teams) with “opinion” (Sando is saying that in his opinion, the Pats had a better offseason than 30 other teams).

And Sando, or any writer, has a complete right to that opinion.

Just like he has the right to give the Seattle Seahawks a C, a grade better than only three other teams in the NFL. I won’t detail everything Sando said about the Seahawks, instead I want to focus on what Sando and the execs said about New England. And then I want to make that into a statement about the Seahawks.

Because in the case of opinions on moves that don’t have a “right or wrong” it’s not about the content of what you’re saying, it’s about how you spin what you’re saying.

Here is the write-up on the Patriots offseason moves:

New England Patriots

Grade: A-

The Patriots, like the Rams, worked the compensatory pick system to their favor, putting themselves in position to add two third-rounders in 2019, plus later-round picks. Why overpay declining talent in free agency when you can acquire veteran personnel via trade, then pick up comp choices in early rounds as a reward for your restraint in the unrestricted free agent (UFA) market?

The Patriots let declining left tackle Nate Solder leave, replacing him with first-round pick Isaiah Wynn. They acquired cornerback Jason McCourty after losing Malcolm Butler. They used their other first-rounder for running back Sony Michel after losing Dion Lewis, and then they replaced receiver Danny Amendola with sixth-rounder Braxton Berrios, who evaluators see as a viable slot option. They also picked up right tackle Trent Brown from San Francisco.

Solder, Butler and Lewis signed for $143 million combined. Their replacements will command a fraction of that sum.

”Sony Michel has the potential to have an Alvin Kamara-type season,” an exec said. “He has major medical concerns, but New England tends to draft and replace those guys, turning them out every four years, anyway. My biggest concern with Wynn is durability and that he is an average athlete, but they have one of the best line coaches and one of the best quarterbacks for getting rid of the ball, so they will be fine.”

This exec thought the McCourty acquisition was the biggest one for the Patriots.

”You are getting a starter at a position of need for much cheaper than Butler -- a steal, even if it is just for one year and then Duke Dawson replaces him,” the exec said.

This offseason would feel better for New England if Tom Brady were attending voluntary workouts and outwardly thrilled with his situation. But Brady will show up when it matters, and when he does, Josh McDaniels will still be his offensive coordinator after nearly leaving for Indy. Julian Edelman, Dont’a Hightower, Marcus Cannon and Derek Rivers will be back from injuries once the season starts, further strengthening New England.

”Brady thinks what he’s doing is better for him because he is meticulous,” an exec said. “But the nature of the NFL game is that when you are not there, you are not taking every opportunity to prepare yourself as well as you could have. What happens if his play dips? Remember, they change wideouts all the time. It can eat at the core of your team. It feels like the last year or two.”

In reading that, you could come away with the mindset that New England said “out with the old, in with the new!” and that things could only get better because the genius Belichick managed to get more quality talent under the salary cap than most elite teams could with the same resource constraints. That losing Cooks, Solder, Lewis, and Butler was not a bad thing, but the only thing the Patriots could do to improve for the next generation of Patriots.

It also kind of sounds .... exactly like Seattle’s offseason?

Here’s what the write-up could look like if you were writing about the Seahawks’ offseason:

“The Seahawks didn’t add any compensatory picks despite losing Paul Richardson, Sheldon Richardson, and Jimmy Graham in free agency, but that’s only because they added four or five potential starters who count against them in the comp calculation: Jaron Brown, D.J. Fluker, Ed Dickson, Barkevious Mingo, and Tom Johnson/Shamar Stephen. Signing them may have cost Seattle comp picks — picks not guaranteed to become players who will contribute — but it did give them help to produce a viable starting-11 on offense and defense. Why overpay declining talent like Graham in free agency when you can acquire veteran personnel via trade (like Marcus Johnson, and likely more to come like Justin Coleman in 2017)?; a reward for their restraint in the unrestricted free agent (UFA) market.”

That’s certainly one way to spin Seattle’s lack of comp picks (an overrated aspect in today’s NFL) into the fact that they lost a few starters and added a few more while getting well below the salary cap.

Now like they did in the original piece, let’s talk about some of those vets who left in the offseason:

“The Seahawks let declining tight end Jimmy Graham leave, replacing him with Dickson and fourth round pick Will Dissly, both of whom are lightyears ahead of Graham as blockers. They re-signed cornerback Byron Maxwell after cutting the injured, aging, and costly Richard Sherman. They used their first-rounder (after smartly trading down and adding a third round pick used on defensive end Rasheem Green) on running back Rashaad Penny after losing Thomas Rawls/Eddie Lacy, perhaps their biggest problem area in 2017. Then they replaced receiver Paul Richardson — costly at $40 million in a deal with Washington despite never having a true breakout season — with Brown, Johnson, and Brandon Marshall, who evaluators see as potentially more valuable options because they cost a lot less. That doesn’t include the players already in the fold like Tanner McEvoy, Amara Darboh, Cyril Grayson, and David Moore. They also picked up right guard D.J. Fluker from New York on a small $1.5 million deal for a starting lineman.

Graham, Richardson, and Richardson signed for $78 million combined, an average salary of $8.6 million. Their replacements will command a fraction of that sum.”

In fact:

  • Jimmy Graham’s AAV is $10m, compared to $3.5m for Dickson
  • P-Rich’s AAV is $8m, compared to $2.75m for Brown, the highest-paid of any of those recievers
  • Sheldon got $8m for one year, compared to $4.1m for Johnson and Stephen combined this year
  • Sherman was set to make over $10m, Justin Coleman and Maxwell will make $4.7m
  • Trading Michael Bennett only saved about $2 million, or about the cost of Dion Jordan

And how about the part where New England gets mostly praise for drafting a running back in the first round compared to disdain for Seattle doing so? Here’s how I could write it:

”Penny has the potential to have an Alvin Kamara-type season,” I, Kenneth Arthur, said. “He has no major medical concerns, but I could always just make an excuse if he did and say that the Seahawks are always “turning them out every four years, anyway.” And my biggest concern with Green is age and experience, but they have developed some really good defensive lineman under Pete Carroll and have him on a defense with at least two Hall of Famers, so he will be fine.”

I also thought the Mingo acquisition was a big one for the Seahawks.

”You are getting a starter at a position of need for much cheaper than most outside linebackers, and Seattle constantly finds these low-cost, low-market free agents and turns them into more big-time players (Bennett, Cliff Avril, Bradley McDougald, and so on and so on and so on),” I said.

Funny how that works, isn’t it?

Now, how about some of the players who are still in the building that might be unhappy with their current contract situations. Is that a good thing, or a bad thing? And what about the internal players who are returning? (Is that “offseason” moves?)

“This offseason would feel better for Seattle if Earl Thomas were attending voluntary workouts and outwardly thrilled with his situation. But Thomas will show up when it matters, and when he does, Ken Norton will be his defensive coordinator after leaving for Oakland. Chris Carson, C.J. Prosise, Rees Odhiambo, George Fant, Nazair Jones will be returning from injury and Duane Brown, Dion Jordan will be starters from Week 1, further strengthening Seattle — though I don’t know if I should include that with offseason moves.”

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I’ve never been a fan of the “grades” pieces of any kind but I also understand why they constantly appear...because they are constantly popular. Perhaps the most popular pieces of their kind. If you just said, “Mike Sando’s opinion on each team’s offseason” then it wouldn’t gain nearly as much traction. Not because of Sando, one of the smartest writers at ESPN, but because it doesn’t have something so quick and “easy to understand” as a grade. We got them all throughout school and sometimes afterwards, but we also can’t forget what they mean.

A grade isn’t always about “right or wrong.” Sometimes it’s about what you personally believe. And that’s how I got from A to C.