Because few actually abide by the “legal tampering period” rules, the meatiest portion of free agency can strike at any time. For those on the east coast, that meant waking up to a flurry of major deals on Tuesday morning in addition to four inches of snow. Case Keenum, Sammy Watkins and Andrew Norwell were off the market before some West Coast general managers went to bed. While there are still some remaining tidbits, like how the Steelers will resolve their near future with Le’Veon Bell and where remaining players like A.J. McCarron land, the opening bell was an early climax.
Here are the biggest acquisitions thus far and how we think they graded out (in reverse-chronological order):
Josh McCown to the Jets
I was surprised to see the immediate backlash on Twitter after a season when McCown played at replacement level (and at times far above) for the Jets in 2017. A one-year, $10-million deal is easily absorbed by a team that has almost $90 million in cap space, and having an easy-going personality like McCown in the locker room makes it simple to still sign someone like Teddy Bridgewater and draft a rookie at No. 6.
McCown helped the Jets establish offensive weapons out of thin air last year, and he’s the perfect insurance policy for someone like Bridgewater if the Jets continue to follow that path. His familiarity with the terminology and remaining wide receivers is an added bonus. Don’t be shocked when the market for backup quarterbacks balloons this offseason and McCown’s one-year deal ends up looking fairly reasonable.
The Seahawks finally did what we expected them to throughout Graham’s career in Seattle—establish him as a dominant red-zone force and Rob Gronkowski-style matchup nightmare for undersized defensive backs. Now Green Bay can pick up where Darrell Bevell and the Seahawks left off.
But this is about more than just a tool for Rodgers, who has been pining for more production out of the tight end position. This is about optics.
Under new general manager Brian Gutekunst, the team is going to at least create the impression that they are more open minded to outside free agents. This has always been true in some respects—Julius Peppers and Charles Woodson were important pieces of good Packer teams. However the perception often was that management has not done enough to surround Aaron Rodgers with talent befitting of a Super Bowl contender.
On a day when the Packers got rid of franchise mainstay Jordy Nelson, the signing of Graham should not only soften the blow, but create some buzz in a place that normally waits until the regular season to get its kicks.
I don’t necessarily blame Cardinals general manager Steve Keim for the predicament the team was in. Arizona struck lightning in a bottle with Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer, and the franchise needed to plan methodically around the whims of an aging head coach and quarterback who were both teetering on retirement when the Cardinals’ surge began a few years ago. It was too tempting to see the boon through, which is why they’re stuck paying an injury riddled quarterback $20 million on a one-year deal.
Sam Bradford—who in the last 10 years has had shoulder surgery, two ACL repairs and arthroscopic knee surgery which kept him out for a majority of last season—is back under center as a team’s prospective opening day starter. The problem, outside of durability, is that it has taken some time to find the right combination of coordinator and supporting cast. He was severely miscast in Chip Kelly’s offense but had quite possibly the best night of his career with the Vikings in an opening-day torching of the Saints back in September 2017.
What will his tenure in Arizona bring? It’s a tough situation. Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy has little offensive weaponry outside of David Johnson and a near-retirement Larry Fitzgerald. The offensive line needs an injection of youth and Bradford isn’t known for his escapability. If they don’t supplement this signing with a significant draft choice at the position—Lamar Jackson could be around at 15—it would be a massively disappointing offseason in Arizona.
Still, and this is the caveat we always have to make with Bradford knowing how the situation will inevitably turn out, if the stars align and the combination of scheme and talent somehow comes together, he’s a top 15 player at the position.
Tuesday represented a historic shift in the NFL contractual landscape for game-changing quarterbacks. Kirk Cousins capitalized on a dim passer market that had at least two deep-pocketed suitors and, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, is primed to sign a three-year deal with Minnesota, which could set the template for all other top-tier quarterbacks to come.
While the Jets cleared their deck and the Broncos made some last-minute cap space, the Vikings have the first-visit advantage, and any team familiar with the desperate air of free agency knows that you don’t let a player you like leave the building.
This is a tough acquisition to grade. On one hand, Cousins is just one of three quarterbacks, according to Pro Football Reference, who have averaged more than 260 yards, and at least a passer rating of 90 through their first six seasons. The other two were Dan Marino and Kurt Warner. There has not been a passer of his caliber to hit the free agent market since Peyton Manning, and even then, Manning was on the downside of his career arc.
Cousins is 29, with three consecutive 4,000-plus yard seasons to his credit.
Here’s what we don’t know: Can he succeed in a talented, cutthroat division without the aid of a Jay Gruden/Sean McVay offense? Cousins came up during a time when Pierre Garcon, Jamison Crowder and DeSean Jackson were all in their prime or at least just past their prime. It represented an ideal situation for a quarterback that could find his rhythm in a quick passing offense with a set of wide receivers perfectly tailored to break bad defenses quickly.
A lot has been made about Cousins’s record against teams that finished the season .500 or better (4–19). Quarterback wins are a useless statistic, but his ability to dominate against prime competition will always plague him. He’ll be asked to recreate his legacy when he heads to Minnesota. No longer is Cousins the plucky upstart mid-round pick, who was twice franchised by an organization that didn’t believe in him. Now, he could be the final piece—a player with potentially burdensome expectations on his shoulders. This Vikings defense is built to be great, but for how much longer?
Albert Wilson to the Dolphins
Wilson’s deal averages $8 million per season according to NFL Network—a nice payday for a high-end, multi-tooled role player. Wilson made some gigantic catches for the Chiefs last year but was ultimately overshadowed in the passing game by Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. The 5′ 9″ wideout should be able to help whomever is quarterbacking the Dolphins next season in the intermediate passing game. With so many teams trending toward mismatched bunch formations, Wilson’s speed and size can be a great advantage for Adam Gase.
Haloti Ngata to the Eagles
Howie Roseman is not afraid to Dream Team it all over again. It’s hard to imagine Ngata, a 34-year-old, five-time Pro Bowler coming off the bench but that’s the plan for next season. He and Michael Bennett, two of the most revered defensive linemen of the last decade, will supplement a defensive front that already includes Fletcher Cox, Chris Long, Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry. While it’s easy to overreact to certain offseason moves, Philadelphia is layering high-end talent atop a roster that has already won a Super Bowl. Dare we call it Patriot-esque?
Star Lotulelei to the Bills
This signing will be the start of a fun offseason for Buffalo, which will include a top-tier run-defender and potentially a veteran and rookie quarterback. The Bills are slowly creeping up the draft board and are in position to take a shot at No. 2 or 3.
Someone like Sam Bradford or Teddy Bridgewater could also be an interesting fit as competition should they be looking at Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen or Baker Mayfield.
Bills general manager Brandon Beane continues to bring his favorites over from Carolina. Lotulelei will stand in for the traded Marcell Dareus and help Sean McDermott build on a unit that finished ninth in turnovers and second in passing touchowns allowed, but was surprisingly weak against the rush (29th in yards, 32nd in touchdowns allowed and 25th in yards per attempt allowed).
It’s an odd formula for a team that just this past year snapped a playoff drought that lasted almost two decades—new quarterback (or quarterbacks) and a refocused defense. Lotulelei isn’t going to rack up quarterback sacks from the inside, but he is going to jibe with his former defensive coordinator, who loves the idea of stuffing the line to make life easier for his defensive backs and safeties. Even though Lotulelei is at the top of the market, Buffalo should still have some money to play with this week and next week. Their offensive line, second corner and nickel spots, wide receiver and interior offensive line should all get a second look in the coming days. Beane isn’t waiting around for an opening in the AFC East anymore.
On Monday afternoon one NFL GM thought that there were two teams still in the Andrew Norwell sweepstakes: the 49ers and Giants. It was known that the Panthers couldn’t retain Norwell, and many assumed Norwell was bound for New York to reunite with Dave Gettleman, the former Panthers GM who signed him in free agency after he went undrafted in 2014.
But the Jaguars turned up as the surprise suitors for Norwell, signing the consistent left guard to a five-year deal worth up to $66.5 million, according to reports. The deal includes $30 million in fully guaranteed money.
Norwell immediately solidifies the left side of the Jacksonville line that already had Cam Robinson at left tackle. Now Blake Bortles blindside will be well protected but, far more importantly for these Jags, they’ll run the ball even more in 2018 and beyond.
Jacksonville led the league in rushing attempts (527) and yards (2,262) in 2017 en route to the AFC title game. The Jaguars even had a postseason-high 101 rushing yards, and the second-place Eagles, who obviously played an extra game, only had 89. Norwell’s signing in Jacksonville signals a further commitment a ground attack that covers up all the passing warts (and losing Allen Robinson in free agency only adds to that, though the Jags will surely address that position in the coming weeks).
Was left guard the most pressing need in Jacksonville? Of course not, and certainly not when considering agent Drew Rosenhaus negotiated the highest average-per-year salary of any offensive lineman for Norwell. But the Jaguars are committed to rushing the ball back to the AFC title game, and Norwell is a huge part of that formula. — Jonathan Jones
The wide receiver market is back. According to NFL Network, Allen Robinson landed a three-year deal with the Bears worth about $14 million per season, which puts him in the Demaryius Thomas/Dez Bryant/Davante Adams neighborhood—a nice place to be for someone who is coming off a torn ACL.
The big bet here for Chicago is on potential. Robinson, a former second-round pick out of Penn State, was part of the face of Jacksonville’s turnaround. One of the first homegrown stars developed by the Dave Caldwell regime, he broke out along with Blake Bortles in 2015 with an 80-catch, 1,400 yard, 14-touchdown season that put him firmly on the radar. The Bears had to come in quickly and over the top to secure a No. 1-type receiver in this market.
I thought our Andy Benoit nailed it in his NFL free agency guide and tracker when he noted that Allen’s greatest strength is down the field and toward the sideline. It’s a place where the best wide receivers win the ball, and Benoit noted that some NFL team would risk a large sum of money to find out if he could do that even after a devastating knee injury.
That happened on Tuesday, with two parties actually taking significant risks. Robinson will be in Chicago for at least two years depending on how much of the reported “guarantees” are actually guaranteed. That means in the same way that Chicago is betting on him, he is betting on a new offensive coaching staff led by Andy Reid disciple Matt Nagy and second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Of the three first-round picks taken at quarterback in 2017, Trubisky—on paper—may be the least exciting destination for a free agent wide receiver looking to bolster his value and hit on one more major contract. Over 12 starts last year, Trubisky threw for 2,193 yards (182.8 per game) with seven touchdowns, seven interceptions and a 77.5 passer rating.
All parties involved are hoping that a cleaned house and a fresh perspective offensively mitigates some of the inevitable concerns Robinson would have in Chicago.
What a phenomenal deal for Sammy Watkins personally. If you had to put your young-but-fledgling career in the hands of any offensive mind in the NFL right now, wouldn’t it be Andy Reid? The 24-year-old Watkins gets $48 million for three years with $30 million guaranteed, according to the NFL Network, which means two things:
1. Prime wide receiver money at just a million under the Antonio Brown threshold
2. A chance to hit the market again well before Watkins turns 30.
When grading something like this, you have to take into consideration both the benefit from Watkins’s side and the risk taken by Kansas City. Watkins has flashed moments of absolute brilliance throughout his career in Buffalo and Los Angeles, but he’s had to balance his desire to be an Odell Beckham-esque, 10-target-per-game player with lingering health issues and serious changes in offensive scheme. Reid has been consistently able to get his top targets the ball over the years, but is $30 million in guaranteed money too much for someone who has posted just one 1,000-yard season over four years of at least eight games per season?
The wide receiver market and NFL free agency as a whole are strange. A little more than a year ago today, Alshon Jeffery took a high-end one-year deal with the Eagles for less money per year. While that ended up resulting in a heftier extension, Jeffery was arguably a more proven commodity, with two monstrous seasons under his belt already.
From a fan perspective, though, it’s a move that allows people to dream. The prospect of Watkins, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Kareem Hunt in the same offense is dizzying for opposing defensive coordinators on paper. The question is whether Patrick Mahomes can make all the parts work, and this may end up being Reid’s greatest challenge as a head coach. With expectations at uncanny levels, can he deliver a team that was more consistently dominant than any of the Alex Smith-led units now that he has an arsenal of brand-name talent?
While this might puzzle some Broncos fans who thought the team was clearing the decks to dabble in the Kirk Cousins sweepstakes, executive vice president John Elway might have made the smarter play. A good point brought up by Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk early Tuesday morning: Keenum will cost about $10 million less than Kirk Cousins, giving Denver the ability to also add a complementary piece at wide receiver. I’ll take that a step further: Since Sammy Watkins and Allen Robinson are both off the board, Elway can also invest in the front five. Justin Pugh and Weston Richburg are among the best offensive linemen remaining in free agency and can both play two different positions. Finding a cheaper, younger replacement for Aqib Talib is also in the cards now.0
One more reason to like the Keenum deal? It sounds like the contract will be similar to the one Mike Glennon signed in Chicago last season, meaning that it’s not prohibitive for the Broncos in the long-term. There’s a good chance the always-aggressive Elway wants to take another swing at the quarterback position in this year’s draft. Sitting at No. 5, he is very much in play for one of the five big-time talents (Jackson, Darnold, Rosen, Mayfield, Allen) and could provide his team the comfort of a short-term quality starter alongside the promise of a long-term rookie option.
Keenum played in two fewer games than Cousins last year and finished just 546 yards behind the former Washington quarterback. Cousins threw just five more touchdowns and almost doubled Keenum’s interception total. Pat Shurmur, Keenum’s offensive coordinator in Minnesota last year, was finally able to put a practical spin on an offense that accentuated Keenum’s best attributes. Throughout his seven-year career, there’s been a reason he was almost always thrust into an emergency starter role, and now he has the confidence and comfort of at least a one-year residency under center in Denver. It was interesting to see Keenum make the first major wave of news during NFL free agency and not strategically wait and see what Cousins does, which could have improved his asking price from a desperate team looking for a silver medal. At the same time, he might have ended up in the best offensive situation out of the teams still searching for a starting quarterback.