A new league year has dawned in the NFL and with it comes the fast and furious news cycle that accompanies it. Most importantly, it’s time for free agency to finally kick into high gear as all 32 teams look to address needs and fill roster slots from quarterback down to special teams mainstays.
After a week of players hitting the open market and changing teams, it’s time to declare a few winners and a few losers as free agency starts to quiet down and everybody re-focuses on the NFL draft. Who comes out with a good grade and who would rather avoid the local press?
The 49ers made Jimmy Garoppolo the highest-paid player in the NFL in February despite just eight starts and free agency was dominated by talk of Kirk Cousins getting the first fully guaranteed contract in the NFL. While you have good arguments that both deals were appropriate for both players, the two combined to really pave the way for the next set of franchise quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan getting new mega deals.
All Browns fans can finally get excited about the prospect of this team actually starting to put wins on the board instead of hoarding draft capital. Jarvis Landry is a quality pickup and veteran presence while Tyrod Taylor gives the team a legitimate starting quarterback who can also help transition to a young draft pick. Add in solid signings like Carlos Hyde, T.J. Carrie plus Chris Hubbard and there’s even more reason for optimism by the lake.
The defending champs are getting greedy after seeing that Lombardi Trophy all alone in the facility. Keeping Nigel Bradham with those numbers was a coup and the salary crunch the team was facing was mitigated by adding talent through trades like the one that brought in Michael Bennett. Haloti Ngata still has some tread on the tires and was a great signing after the initial free agency wave for a team that is looking more and more like one prepared to mount a serious defense of their title.
In terms of wholesale change, few general managers have made more changes to their building than Ryan Pace. In addition to bringing in a new coaching staff, there’s been a clear focus on surrounding Mitchell Trubisky with some weapons and making the team actually watchable to those in the Windy City. Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton didn’t come cheap but the Bears have a chance to make a nice jump in the win column thanks to what they did in free agency.
Normally a first-time head coach has an uphill battle trying to get his roster set and help turnaround a team but that’s not the case for the Tennessee Titans’ leader. Vrabel’s front office found him a top-tier corner in Malcolm Butler to boost the secondary, shored up both lines and found a great complement to running back Derrick Henry in Dion Lewis. Don’t discount adding a bunch of ex-Patriots to the roster either as Vrabel looks to change the culture to what he wants it to be in Nashville.
Eli Manning’s career
The Giants hold the No. 2 pick in the draft and there’s a ton of intrigue over whether the franchise will draft Manning’s replacement or add another weapon to extend his career under center. Judging by what the team has done in free agency, it seems the latter could be in store. Nate Solder was an extremely expensive addition but he solidifies the left tackle spot for the first time in ages and the trade for linebacker Alec Ogletree fills a big hole on defense. This is the kind of offseason a team has when they are declaring they’re going for it over the next year or two, which is exactly what Manning wants to hear.
We’re used to seeing left tackles change the salary structure for offensive linemen but it seems increasingly like guards are the ones who are getting a Brinks truck to roll up to their house. Josh Kline got a solid deal to remain in Tennessee and Andrew Norwell managed a whopping $30 million guaranteed from Jacksonville. Plus, Zach Martin is due for a big raise from Dallas at some point in the next year and the top lineman in the draft is fellow Notre Dame product Quinton Nelson. Yes the guys on the blind side command a slight premium but that gap is narrowing more and more by the guys inside.
It really seems like the Super Bowl window for Seattle is closed for the time being. While Russell Wilson can help keep the team afloat for now, the dismantling of the Legion of Boom and the trade of Michael Bennett have signaled that a rebuild is coming. There hasn’t been an effort to upgrade the offensive line through free agency and perhaps worst of all, the 49ers and Rams are making huge moves in the division to get closer to a Lombardi Trophy.
Kansas City Chiefs’ offense
Sammy Watkins only has one, 1,000-yard season (just barely) and has never put up the kind of numbers many expected when he was a top-five pick, but that didn’t stop the Chiefs from giving him $30 million guaranteed. That’s a big sum for somebody who has the talent but hasn’t yet put it all together to have an All-Pro-caliber season. There will be plenty of growing pains with Patrick Mahomes taking over for Alex Smith and it seems like an offense that was so close to helping the team get over the hump in the postseason could be in for a rocky 2018.
Based on some of the moves the team is making, this certainly looks like a bit of a short-term rebuild down in South Beach. They did get good value in trading wide receiver Jarvis Landry but adding on salary with Albert Wilson and Danny Amendola (plus trading for Robert Quinn and his contract) is a bit of a puzzling secondary move. Reworking Ryan Tannehill’s contract and cutting Ndamukong Suh were moves they had to make but there still doesn’t seem to be any clear direction the front office is working toward other than being marginally competitive in the short term with the potential for fully blowing the thing up next year.
New England Patriots
Yes, yes, Bill Belichick has earned plenty of leeway in looking at the Patriots’ offseason moves but it’s hard not to look at the bigger picture and think that a lot of talent left Foxborough in just a few days. Malcolm Butler stays in the conference with a fellow playoff contender and wideout Danny Amendola remains in the division as part of a re-tooling of Tom Brady’s receiving corps. New England probably couldn’t have kept Nate Solder at that price but it makes a thin offensive line even thinner. Also don’t forget that running back Dion Lewis left when the team could have locked him up earlier. Signing Adrian Clayborn and trading for Cordarrelle Patterson, Danny Shelton and Jason McCourty helps take some of the sting away but the jury is out for now on the moves made by the perennial AFC favorites.
Despite having a ton of cap room, the most notable thing the Colts have done this offseason is add more picks in the draft. While that trade with the Jets made a lot of sense, not going after some big names to help bring along the return of Andrew Luck is going to be debated quite a bit in Indy over the coming year. Yes this is a front office that wants to build through the draft but seeing how the Titans, Texans and Jaguars all added quality pieces, Colts fans might be right to get a tad upset at not seeing the team do more.
Remember when the Bills ended a playoff drought that many fans thought was forever? Guess they don’t in the front office as the team re-tools after last year’s improbable run. It’s clear they’re all in on drafting a young quarterback with the signing of AJ McCarron and subsequent draft pick trade for Cordy Glenn, which speaks to more long-term thinking. They probably overpaid for Star Lotulelei and there’s some risk in the Trent Murphy deal but this isn’t quite the splash Bills fans were hoping for in free agency.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Top photo courtesy of www.vikings.com; Allen Robinson photo courtesy of www.chicagobears.com)