Musings, observations and the occasional insight on a dizzying, blockbuster trade-filled first official day of NFL free agency ...
• No move caught everyone more off-guard on Tuesday than Jimmy Graham’s departure from New Orleans via a trade to Seattle for center Max Unger and a package of draft picks. Hearing of the deal, my initial thought was, how did Saints quarterback Drew Brees sit by and let that trade go down? Everyone knew New Orleans was extremely cap-challenged entering this off-season and would have to make some tough and painful decisions to deal with the ugly math it faced. But the thought of letting a 28-year-old pass-catching weapon like Graham get away, after he totaled 51 touchdowns in his first five NFL seasons, is a decision I figured Brees would be willing to throw his body in the doorway to block.
"I'm as shocked as everyone else," Brees told Alex Flanagan after the trade. "I love the guy."
The situation is curious, because I can’t see too many elite quarterbacks on the level of Brees not making sure every avenue is exhausted in terms of cap relief before that worst-case scenario unfolded. Wouldn’t Tom Brady or Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers offer to have played the contract restructuring game before they faced the reality of losing their No. 1 receiving threat?
Brady has done it more than once, adding new years to his deal in a contract extension that in turn freed up salary cap space for his club’s immediate needs. I don’t know if Brees offered to do so in New Orleans or not, but his salary cap figures will be $26.4 million and $27.4 million in 2015-16, the final two years of his current five-year contract, and those seem rife for some club-friendly restructuring maneuvers.
Did the quarterback’s sizable contract play a significant role in the Saints feeling forced to sacrifice Graham, perhaps the NFL’s best tight end of recent vintage? The case appears easy to make, especially since his $100 million deal is entering Year 4 and has yet to be restructured at any point. The Graham trade reportedly only cleared up about $2 million in cap room for the Saints, so maybe there were other reasons for the deal as well. If New Orleans simply wanted to be out from under the rich extension it gave Graham last summer, and wasn't convinced his production made enough of a difference between winning and losing, then perhaps a helping hand from Brees on the restructuring front wasn’t ever even on the radar screen.
But it should have been. Because it’s not every day that a player of Graham’s skill set is shipped away, especially in the prime of his career to a conference foe who happens to be the two-time defending NFC champion. Count me among those who are supremely surprised the Saints would do the tight-end-needy Seahawks that kind of favor. And that Brees would stand for such a move in any way. Brees has been a great team leader during his accomplished nine-year tenure in New Orleans, but I think he missed an opportunity to impact the Saints’ future in a way he might very quickly come to regret.
• Seattle has to be considered one of the big winners of Tuesday’s startling events. It’s just a hypothetical at this point of course, but Graham is a pretty devastating force in the red zone, and the Seahawks could have used a tall and athletic target at tight end on their ill-fated last offensive snap in the Super Bowl loss to New England.
If Russell Wilson was throwing to Graham from the half-yard line, who could use his great height and jumping ability to its fullest, that would be a play call that likely wouldn’t have brought the weight of the world down on the shoulders of Seattle coaches Darrell Bevell and Pete Carroll.
• A league source tells me that all is not hiccups and giggles in Seattle, however. The acquisition of Graham has been heartily welcomed by Seahawks players, but many are also distraught about seeing Unger, one of the team’s true leaders and ultimate professionals, depart after six years in Seattle.
Unger was extremely well-liked and respected in the locker room, and I’m told running back Marshawn Lynch isn’t happy with the loss of one his favorite offensive linemen. And here we thought that new contract Lynch got from Seattle last week would keep him smiling at least until April or so.
• Remember when Eagles fans and the media found Andy Reid too staid and maddeningly predictable, unwilling to change his tried and true patterns and habits, and at times boring and unwilling to swing for the fences? Yeah, those might be fondly recalled as the good old days in Philadelphia about now.
Who knew trying to figure out what current Eagles coach Chip Kelly is really up to would be so exhausting? The Nick Foles for Sam Bradford deal Kelly cut with the Rams on Tuesday continues the head-scratching season in Philly. Does Bradford’s arrival, in the last year of his rookie deal, mean there will be no attempt to trade up to draft Marcus Mariota? Is Kelly finally through cleaning house of every offensive skill player that bore Reid’s stamp, or might Brent Celek and Riley Cooper still be in jeopardy of being jettisoned at some point this off-season, joining the exiled DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin and Foles?
I get that Bradford played in a Kelly-like spread offense and rolled up big, splashy numbers at Oklahoma. And that he knows Eagles offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur well, after Shurmur was his Rams OC during his rookie year of 2010. But is Bradford’s fit in Kelly's offense that much better than that of Foles, who if anything might be a superior athlete than the ex-Rams' QB? And doesn’t Bradford's injury history, which includes two ACL injuries, give Kelly more than a little pause?
The Eagles apparently aren’t scared of ACL problems, because they shipped McCoy to Buffalo last week in exchange for linebacker Kiko Alonso, who is coming off his own ACL reconstruction last year. Maybe all that emphasis on health science makes all the difference. Do they have a protein shake/smoothie designed just for ACL rehabs in Philly?
Don’t get me wrong. I like Kelly’s courage to follow his convictions. I just wish I understood them a little more than I currently grasp. Of the 62 Eagles who were on the roster in 2012, Reid’s last of 14 seasons in Philly, it has been reported that only 16 remain, including just seven offensive players. That’s a ton of change, and at a whirlwind speed. Kelly is good at pulling the trigger. But clearly it still remains to be seen if he shoots straight.
• After listening to Rams coach Jeff Fisher dismiss all that Sam Bradford trade talk at the NFL scouting combine last week in Indianapolis, I’m starting to think I’m just not hearing Fisher clearly enough because of that thick, bushy mustache he favors. I thought Fisher said Bradford was the Rams’ guy at quarterback about eight ways that weekend. But he could have been dropping an octave or two and slipping in a "for now" and I might have missed it.
Fisher kept noting that St. Louis was "5-2-1" with Bradford as a starter in the division in the three years he had coached the Rams, but that record is never going to change now. Maybe it’s time now for Fisher to start talking up the fact that Foles was 14-4 in the 18 starts he made under Kelly in Philadelphia in 2013-14. As it turns out, neither one of those impressive records added up to job security.
• The Lions' trade for Haloti Ngata is a very nice recovery in Motown, after the spectacle of how badly the organization handled the Ndamukong Suh contract situation in recent years, leading to his free-agent departure for Miami. Ngata isn’t the disruptive force in the middle of the defensive line that Suh has been, but he still has some game and will do well playing back under Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, a former Baltimore assistant.
The usually disciplined Ravens always believe in moving a player a year too early rather than a year too late, and when Ngata refused to play ball and rework his contract to Baltimore’s liking, it meant he was destined for a stint on the market, five Pro Bowl berths and all. Don't feel too badly for the Ravens' defense without Ngata up front: Baltimore is very high on young defensive tackles Brandon Williams and Timmy Jernigan, and the Ravens believe in getting their youngsters into the starting lineup as soon as they start to show signs that they’re ready.
Still, the talent exodus in Baltimore is perhaps as glaring as anywhere on the NFL map. Ngata is gone, and so too is valuable defensive end/linebacker Pernell McPhee (Chicago), deep-threat receiver Torrey Smith (San Francisco) and productive and proven tight end Owen Daniels (Denver). As is the case with New England, free agents leaving Baltimore rarely seem to out-perform their level of play produced as Ravens, so keep that trend in mind as the 2015 season unfolds.
• Speaking of Daniels, he must have a clause in his contract that binds him legally to playing exclusively for Gary Kubiak. The Ravens' tight end signed on Tuesday with Denver, where Kubiak happens to be the new Broncos coach. Daniels spent one season in Baltimore, and it corresponded with Kubiak’s one year as the Ravens offensive coordinator. And, of course, in the eight years from 2006 to '13, Kubiak was the Texans coach for all but the final three games of '13, and Daniels was one of his tight ends, having been drafted by Kubiak and Houston in the fourth round out of Wisconsin in 2006.
Daniels won’t entirely make up for the loss of tight end Julius Thomas, who signed with Jacksonville, but rest assured Kubiak knows how to use him effectively in his offense.
• Good for the Jets that they threw Woody Johnson’s wallet at Darrelle Revis and it worked, weakening their arch-rival Patriots in the process. But in reality, we’ve seen a pretty similar version of this good-field, no-hit Jets team before during the Rex Ryan era, and it wasn't enough to either win the AFC East or end the franchise’s decades long Super Bowl drought.
I see New York fielding a really strong defense in 2015, and an offense that’s still lacking a front-line starting quarterback. What’s so new about that approach in New York? Until you tell me who’s going to be the new No. 1 at the game’s most pivotal position this season, the Jets’ impressive work in acquiring the likes of Revis, fellow free-agent cornerback Buster Skrine and receiver Brandon Marshall won’t be nearly enough to close the gap that exists between them and the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots. Stop me if you've heard this before, but if you don't have a quarterback in the NFL, you don't have a chance. And that remains unchanged in Jets-ville for now.
Even if Revis Island once again changed coordinates within the AFC East.
• On the surface, I get what the Colts are thinking. In each of the first three seasons of the Andrew Luck-Chuck Pagano era, Indy has climbed another rung in the postseason, earning a wild-card berth and going one-and-done in the playoffs in the 2012 season, winning the division and a first-round game in the '13 season, and repeating in the division and getting to the AFC Championship Game in the '14 season. This is a team that’s close to punching a Super Bowl ticket and built to win now, and general manager Ryan Grigson can thus defend the free-agent signings of older veterans like running back Frank Gore, defensive end-linebacker Trent Cole, and guard Todd Herremans on that basis (with the team also in pursuit of ex-Texans receiver Andre Johnson).
But I will add these two thoughts on the Colts’ moves: While all four of the potential new Colts are proven products and winners, none of them have actually won a Super Bowl in their long careers. That may or may not matter in their ability to help the Colts reach that goal, but it does bear noting that teams loading up with multiple big-name free agents in the same off-season haul have rarely succeeded.
The 2011 "Dream Team" Eagles and the star-crossed Washington club of 2000 are just two glaring examples of such chemistry experiments that have gone badly. It’s difficult to get established veterans who have already played so long and so well in the league to instantly jell and mesh with a new team, even one as talented and successful as the Colts have been the past three years. The Colts are well-coached and are built around a young, elite quarterback, so they’ve got that going for them. But still, consider yourself warned, Indy. Signing a bunch of post-30 free agents hasn’t often worked. And until you get more help for that shaky Colts' offensive line, the other additions might not make the difference you’re hoping they make.
•Jake Locker announcing his retirement at age 26 after four mostly forgettable, injury-plagued seasons in the NFL was one of Tuesday’s curveballs we didn’t see coming. Not earth-shaking, mind you, but still unexpected, given his youth. Locker wasn’t going to be in high demand as a free agent this off-season, but someone would have signed him and given him decent money to fill a backup role, such is the state of the league’s quarterbacking depth.
Locker’s departure only underlines again how thin the 2011 quarterback draft class looks from the perspective of four years. Cam Newton is the only first-round success story, at No. 1 overall, and then came Locker at No. 8 to Tennessee, Blaine Gabbert at No. 10 to Jacksonville and Christian Ponder at No. 12 to Minnesota. Locker wasn’t going to be re-signed by the Titans, Gabbert is again a free-agent after spending 2014 in San Francisco and Ponder is a free agent after four rollercoaster-like seasons with the Vikings.
The second and third rounds of that 2011 draft display a better track record, with Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton and the 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick going in the second, and Houston’s Ryan Mallett being selected in the third. At least all three of those passers are still drawing a check and have a chance to be starters in 2015.
•Think things don’t change at lightning speed in today’s NFL? Roughly 25 months ago, Baltimore beat San Francisco 34-31 in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. The Ravens’ Joe Flacco threw for 287 yards and three touchdowns in that thrilling game on 22-of-33 passing, without an interception.
Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith combined to catch eight of those passes from Flacco, for 139 yards and a touchdown. Now both will be suiting up for the 49ers in 2015. Baltimore’s other pass receivers in that game? Ray Rice (released). Vonta Leach (released). Ed Dickson (signed with Carolina in 2014). Jacoby Jones (released).
And that’s the kind of rate of turnover the NFL features even on the most winning of teams. The 49ers, of course, are experiencing their own exodus this off-season, which was headlined by the not-so-mutual parting between the team and head coach Jim Harbaugh after last year’s 8-8 finish.