Front Office Rumors: Vikings, DeLuca, Saints

The Vikings made a number of staff moves this past week. They’ve got one season under their belt with new head coach Kevin O’Connell and new general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, and Minnesota continues to make adjustments to the front office.

The first such adjustment was the release of a longtime staffer in director of football quantitative methods and pro scout Scott Kuhn. According to Seth Walder of ESPN, the two parties decided to part ways after 16 years together. Kuhn first came to Minnesota in 2007, following former general manager Rick Spielman in his move from Miami. The former Dolphins staffer worked his way through multiple roles in Minnesota before finally landing his most recent role back in 2016.

Here are few other front office moves from around the NFC, mostly coming out of the Twin Cities:

  • In further efforts to shape the front office to his liking, Adofo-Mensah brought a big piece over from Cleveland in Sam DeLuca, according to Neil Stratton of DeLuca had been with the Browns since 2013, serving mostly in the role of assistant director of pro scouting. He also spent some time with the Eagles before he joined Cleveland. In Minnesota, DeLuca will claim a role as the Vikings’ senior assistant director of pro personnel.
  • The Vikings will reportedly also be adding a new scout, according to Stratton. Minnesota is poaching Matt Kelly from the Senior Bowl staff, where he served as director of football operations. With the Vikings, Kelly will be the team’s new West Coast area scout.
  • Lastly, the Saints also parted ways with a longtime staffer, according to Jeff Duncan of The Times-Picayune, letting go of a top analytics researcher in Ryan Herman. Herman joined the Saints back in 2017 after working with New Orleans’ assistant general manager Jeff Ireland in Miami, when Ireland was the Dolphins’ general manager. Herman’s seven years in Miami culminated in his role as the director of football administration before taking the job in New Orleans. After six years with the Saints as the team’s head of football research and strategy, New Orleans allowed Herman’s contract to expire.

Bills, DT Ed Oliver Reach Agreement On Extension

After four strong years on the Bills defensive line, defensive tackle Ed Oliver will avoid playing out his fifth-year option to free agency after agreeing to an extension, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN. Oliver’s new contract is reportedly a four-year deal worth $68MM, $45MM of which will be guaranteed.

Oliver isn’t the flashiest of defenders, as many in his position aren’t, but since getting drafted at No. 9 overall back in 2019, Oliver has done his job and done it well. While not elite in any area of the game, Oliver has been a good all-around defender in Buffalo, delivering strong performances as both a run defender and a pass rusher. He didn’t have his best season in 2022, but according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Oliver was the 13th best interior defender in 2020 and the 23rd in 2021.

As a rookie in 2019, Oliver became an immediate contributor rotating in the defensive front alongside Jordan Phillips and Star Lotulelei. He finished his rookie year with five sacks and five tackles for loss. He held down a similar role in his sophomore season, anchoring a rotation that now included Quinton Jefferson and Vernon Butler but now starting every game. In 2021, Oliver became a mainstay on the defensive line, playing more snaps than any other Bills defensive lineman. His playing time that year about doubled any other tackle on the team besides Harrison Phillips, and he rewarded Buffalo with a disruptive four sacks and 10 tackles for loss. Last year, DaQuan Jones replaced Phillips as Oliver’s right-hand man as the two dominated the defensive tackles’ snap share.

So far in his career, Oliver has proven to be an above average pass rusher with 14.5 career sacks from the interior as well as 42 quarterback hits, a disruptive run stopper with 30 career tackles for loss, and an all-around nuisance with 11 swatted passes and four forced fumbles. He’s been a steady, reliable contributor, appearing in all but four games over the course of his career, as well.

Oliver’s new deal is reflective of his status in the NFL. Not considered an elite athlete at his position but still respected as a strong contributor, the $17MM annual average value of Oliver’s extension ranks 11th among NFL defensive tackles. The league’s better tackles make north of $20MM per year while an all-time great like Aaron Donald makes just over $30MM per year. The $45MM guaranteed, though, ranks sixth-most among active defensive tackle contracts.

Five other defensive tackles were taken in the first round of 2019: Quinnen Williams, Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Jeffery Simmons, and Jerry Tillery. Tillery was waived by the Chargers midseason last year. Lawrence agreed to an impressive four-year, $87.5MM deal almost a month ago, and Simmons topped both Oliver and Lawrence with a four-year, $94MM extension, a deal that would top the position if not for Donald. Williams is currently in discussions with the Jets for an extension and should expect a strong one after a first-team All-Pro 2022 season. Wilkins is also in discussions with Miami, but he likely shouldn’t expect to reach the heights of Simmons, Lawrence, or Williams. After two strong seasons, Wilkins may see a deal similar to Oliver’s, but an inconsistent start to his career may limit what he receives.

Back in Buffalo, though, the Bills have locked down the future of their defensive line, especially considering every other experienced defensive tackle on the roster (Jones, Phillips, Tim Settle, and Poona Ford) is set for free agency at the conclusion of the upcoming season. Oliver joins tight end Dawson Knox, who received an extension of his own last September, as the only remaining members of Buffalo’s 2019 draft class.

Dolphins Sign Three Of Four Draft Picks

Thanks to a forfeited first-round pick and multiple trades, the Dolphins had a relatively small draft class in 2023. After seven rounds, Miami walked away with only four drafted rookies. The team tweeted out today that they had succeeded in signing three of the four rookies to their initial four-year contracts.

Texas A&M running back Devon Achane was the Dolphins’ third-round selection. Not only did Achane excel on the gridiron for the Aggies, he was also a participant in several track and field events including the 100m, 200m, 4x100m, and the indoor 60m. The elite sprinter displayed his abilities when he put up the third-fastest 40-yard dash time (4.32) at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine. According to the coaches in the conference, Achane was a first-team All-SEC selection at both the running back and all purpose slots. In his final two seasons, Achane totaled 2,012 rushing yards for 17 touchdowns and caught 60 passes for 457 receiving yards for four more scores.

Achane joins a running backs room that returns four players from last year’s team. He likely should slot ahead of Salvon Ahmed and Myles Gaskin on the depth chart, but he may need to earn his stripes before taking any snaps away from Jeff Wilson and Raheem Mostert. His speed may make him a perfect fit for a strong special teams role as a rookie, as well.

In the sixth round, the Dolphins decided to add a developmental receiver in Elijah Higgins. While he never had his hand in the dirt at Stanford, Higgins reported that 28 of 32 NFL teams saw him as a tight end at the next level. Higgins improved every year as a Cardinal wideout, racking up 1,380 receiving yards and six touchdowns in his college career. As a rookie, Higgins’s focus will likely be on adding the right kind of weight and transforming his body for the position change. In the meantime, he should still be able to add some receiving ability to a tight end group that hasn’t recently put up big numbers between Durham Smythe‘s 129 yards, Tyler Kroft‘s 57 yards, and Eric Saubert‘s 148 yards in 2023.

Lastly, the team signed seventh-round offensive tackle Ryan Hayes out of Michigan. In five years as a Wolverine, Hayes was a two-time All-Big Ten selection who started 29 of 40 college appearances. He had a cemented role at left tackle in Ann Arbor and, at 6-foot-7, 305 pounds, Hayes has a favorable frame to remain at the position in the NFL. Miami acquired some tackles with starting experience this offseason in Isaiah Wynn and Cedric Ogbuehi to go along with returning starters Austin Jackson and Terron Armstead, as well as Kendall Lamm. The Dolphins won’t have any need to ask much of Hayes anytime soon, which should allow the seventh-rounder some time to develop and adjust to the NFL game.

With Achane, Higgins, and Hayes all signed, that leaves only South Carolina cornerback Cam Smith as the team’s lone unsigned draft pick. The team selected Smith in the second round, making him the Dolphins’ highest draft pick and only pick on defense this year.

Bills Sign WR Marcell Ateman

Marcell Ateman‘s Thursday workout with the Bills will lead to a deal. The former Raiders wide receiver — and recent XFL pass catcher — agreed to terms with the Bills on Thursday.

The former NFL backup will join the Bills on a one-year deal. Both Ateman and wideout Preston Williams auditioned for the Bills today. Although Williams has been in the NFL since 2019, the Bills are going with Ateman, who last played in a regular-season game during the 2021 season and last caught a pass in 2019.

Ateman played for the St. Louis BattleHawks in the XFL this season. He will join spring teammates Hakeem Butler and Darrius Shepherd in securing an NFL opportunity. Butler signed with the Steelers last month; Shepherd caught on with the Chargers today. While Butler and Shepherd each finished in the top five in XFL receiving yards, Ateman totaled 259 and did not score a touchdown. The 6-foot-4 receiver caught 19 passes during his Missouri stay, though he did amass 99 yards (on 11 targets) during a game against the Seattle Sea Dragons.

In the NFL, Ateman has played only for the Raiders in the regular season. The Oklahoma State alum trekked to Oakland as a 2018 seventh-round pick. Between the 2018 and ’19 seasons, Ateman totaled 20 receptions for 270 yards and a touchdown. Ateman spent part of training camp with the Cardinals last year, but the Bills sending Cody Ford to Arizona via trade led to the receiver’s exit.

Ateman, 28, should not be considered a safe bet to stick with the Bills. Despite moving on from Isaiah McKenzie and Jamison Crowder this offseason, Buffalo added Deonte Harty, Trent Sherfield and fifth-round pick Justin Shorter. That trio joins Stefon Diggs, Gabe Davis and second-year cog Khalil Shakir.

Minor NFL Transactions: 6/1/23

Here are Thursday’s minor moves:

Buffalo Bills

Los Angeles Chargers

Seattle Seahawks

Shepherd has not played in an NFL game since 2020, when he finished a two-season stint with the Packers. Shepherd did go to training camp with the Broncos last year, and he spent time on Denver’s practice squad. This year, the North Dakota State product finished as a top-five receiver in the XFL. Playing for the St. Louis BattleHawks, Shepherd hauled in 48 passes for 519 yards and six touchdowns. Both the BattleHawks’ top two wideouts — Shepherd and Hakeem Butler — have received NFL opportunities. Only Butler’s eight receiving TDs topped Shepherd’s total. The Steelers added Butler last month.

P Brett Kern Announces Retirement

One of this era’s most experienced punters, Brett Kern will wrap his career after 15 seasons. The former Broncos, Titans and Eagles specialist announced Thursday he is retiring.

Best known for his Tennessee tenure, Kern punted in 197 games with the AFC South team. Although Oilers legends Bruce Matthews and Elvin Bethea have that number beat for the franchise, Kern has logged the most games — by a considerable margin — during the organization’s Tennessee period. Punters occupy the top two spots on the Tennessee section of that list, with Kern surpassing the player he replaced (Craig Hentrich).

Kern, 37, finished his 13-year Titans career with three Pro Bowl nods and a first-team All-Pro honor. The Titans gave promising UDFA Ryan Stonehouse the job out of training camp last year, and while Kern spent most of the season away from the game, he finished his career by helping the Eagles to Super Bowl LVII. Kern replaced an injured Arryn Siposs in December for the Eagles, punting in six games. Though, Siposs’ recovery from a December injury ended up booting Kern off Philly’s active roster just ahead of Super Bowl Sunday.

The Titans acquired Kern in 2009, claiming him a day after the Broncos waived him in-season. Kern signed three Titans extensions, including two deals that paid him at least $3MM per season. The most recent — a $12.65MM deal — came during the 2019 offseason. Despite playing the NFL’s second-lowest-paid regular position (ahead of long snapper), Kern earned more than $29MM during his career.

Kern led the NFL with 49.7 yards per punt in 2017 and finished four other seasons north of 47 years per boot. Following his three-year Pro Bowl run, Kern placed a career-high 59.5% of his punts inside the 20-yard line in 2020. He placed a career-high 39 punts inside the 20 in 2018.

Colts Sign DE Genard Avery

The Colts will add some pass-rushing depth, bringing in veteran Genard Avery. The team announced the signing, which will send the sixth-year defender to a fourth team.

Avery, who played last season as a Buccaneers backup, will attempt to catch on in Indianapolis after spending 2022 with two teams. The Steelers signed him in March 2022 but moved on before cutdown day in August, leading to the Bucs taking a flier. Tampa Bay did not re-sign Avery this offseason. In a corresponding move, Indianapolis waived running back Darius Hagans.

A former Browns fifth-round pick, Avery has played both on the edge and as an off-ball linebacker. The Eagles used the 2018 fifth-round pick in the latter capacity in 2021, running him out as a 12-game starter. The Memphis product played 358 defensive snaps that season, making 43 tackles (four for loss) and registering a sack. Pro Football Focus ranked Avery 56th among regular linebackers in ’21.

In 2022, the Bucs reduced Avery’s workload (72 defensive snaps) but deployed him as a regular special-teamer. In just nine games, Avery logged 164 ST snaps. He finished last season on IR due to an abdominal injury. Avery, 28, picked up 4.5 of his career 8.5 sacks during his 2018 rookie year in Cleveland. During their Freddie Kitchens season, the Browns traded him to the Eagles.

Indianapolis has not re-signed Gus Bradley favorite Yannick Ngakoue, who led the team with 9.5 sacks last season. Ngakoue resides as one of the top free agents still available, but the Colts — as of now, at least — are prepared to give their young pass rushers more run. Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo are heading into their third seasons. Free agent acquisition Samson Ebukam, who worked as one of Nick Bosa‘s 49ers sidekicks last year, brings a cheaper veteran presence compared to Ngakoue. Avery will attempt to join this rotation.

Minor NFL Transactions: 5/31/23

Today’s minor transactions:

Baltimore Ravens

  • Signed: CB Jordan Swann

Denver Broncos

Los Angeles Chargers

  • Waived: LB Damon Lloyd

Tight end Tommy Hudson got into five games with the Titans last season, hauling in three catches for 31 yards. He’ll join a relatively deep tight ends group in Denver that includes Greg Dulcich, Chris Manhertz, Adam Trautman, and Albert Okwuegbunam.

Saints Sign TE Jesse James

For the third straight year, Jesse James has found a new team. The Saints announced on Wednesday that they have signed the veteran tight end.

James’ longest and most productive stint came with the Steelers to begin his career. His four-year tenure in Pittsburgh saw him start 36 of 56 games, and record a personal-best 423 receiving yards in 2018. He has bounced around the league since then, however, spending two years in Detroit followed by one in Chicago.

The 28-year-old inked a one-year deal with the Browns last year, as he aimed to rebuild his value in a depth role. James wound playing only 18 offensive snaps across two games in Cleveland, however, before a biceps injury ended his season. He will now look to find more playing time and better luck on the health front in New Orleans.

James will join a Saints TE room which includes returnee Juwan Johnson and Swiss Army Knife Taysom Hill. New Orleans traded away Adam Trautman during the draft, but they have since signed Foster Moreau in an encouraging sign with respect to his recent cancer diagnosis. James will thus have plenty of competition for playing time in 2023, a season in which the team’s expectations on offense have been raised given the addition of quarterback Derek Carr.

In addition to James, the Saints announced that they have signed fullback Jake Bargas. The former UDFA entered the league with the Vikings, making one appearance with them in each of the 2020 and 2021 seasons. He spent much of the the past campaign on the Dolphins’ practice squad. To make room for those additions, kicker Alex Quevedo has been waived, leaving the Saints with two players (Wil Lutz and Blake Grupe) at that position.

Broncos To Sign K Elliott Fry

The Broncos jettisoned their nine-year kicker last week, moving on from the final link to their Super Bowl 50 roster. In place of Brandon McManus, the team will bring in a far less experienced option.

Denver is adding Elliott Fry on Wednesday, Tom Pelissero of tweets. The McManus cut left no kickers on the Broncos’ roster. Fry will step in. The well-traveled kicker has played three NFL games. It is a one-year deal, 9News’ Mike Klis adds (on Twitter).

Fry, 28, took part in a three-kicker workout last week in Denver. He joined Brett Maher and Parker White in auditioning for the team. Of that trio, Maher brings by far the most NFL experience. He also served as the final kicker during Sean Payton‘s Saints tenure, being the team’s most successful Wil Lutz fill-in during the 2021 season. But Maher also endured one of the worst kicking days in playoff history, missing four extra points during the Cowboys’ wild-card win over the Buccaneers. He also missed a PAT the following week in San Francisco.

As for Fry, he has attempted six field goals in his career, making five. He is 5-for-7 on extra points. The former South Carolina kicker played one game apiece with the Falcons, Bengals and Chiefs from 2020-21. He did not kick in a regular-season game last year.

The kicker the Jaguars traded to make room for McManus, Riley Patterson, ended up as the team’s kicker via waiver claim last year. That transaction came shortly after the team booted Fry. The Jags cut Fry with an injury settlement in August 2022, leading to a return to the Chiefs (via a practice squad deal) and a Cardinals reserve/futures contract. Arizona waived Fry in March.

Fry’s workout ledger is extensive. He has regularly made trips to auditions over the past few years, remaining a coveted option when kicking competitions emerge. Initially entering the NFL as a Bears UDFA in 2019 — after a run in the short-lived Alliance of American Football — Fry resided on nine teams’ rosters or P-squads from 2019-23. The Broncos will make it 10 for the nomadic specialist, who likely will not be handed the Denver job. It would be surprising if the Broncos did not add a camp competitor at kicker, but for now, Fry is the team’s McManus replacement choice.