The NFL is still reverberating from the frantic series of signings, trades and retirements that marked the official opening of the league year. Our staffers debate the reasons, look at who’s done well (Raiders!) and project what’s still to come
For the second installment of The MMQB Roundtable, Peter King, Greg Bedard, Andrew Brandt and Andy Benoit got together via instant messaging on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the start of what has been a remarkable league year.
Topic 1: The Whirlwind
Peter King: I have covered the NFL since 1984. That is 31 years. And I don’t remember an off-season day as crazy as Tuesday's first day of the 2015 league year. The nuttiest part was it never ended. After midnight—I don't know, maybe 12:30 or 1 o'clock in the morning here in New York City—Jason Worilds retired. I mean, here's the 11th guy on Bedard's Top 50 free agents list, and we've already had a movement of the tectonic plates of the NFL in the previous eight or 10 hours, and now the best 3-4 outside linebacker on the market quits. That's how crazy it was. You guys?
Greg Bedard: Not when you include the trades. We’ve seen furious action right after the start of the new year, but nothing like this when you talk about the trades of Jimmy Graham, LeSean McCoy, Sam Bradford-for-Nick Foles and then Haloti Ngata. Forget the quarterbacks—we’re talking about three All-Pro players in Graham, McCoy and Ngata who were traded in one day. That’s unheard of. The only thing close to what we saw was after the NFL lockout when there was this mad rush to sign everybody. I was covering the Patriots then and I don’t think I slept for like a week, there was so much movement. Every day there were new players coming and going.
Andrew Brandt: Tuesday was the craziest day I've seen in the NFL since the day after the lockout ended; that had more activity because it included rookie signings as well. The trades put the kicker on all the free-agent activity. The key to me in free agency is how long it lasts before we move to the "musical chairs" portion, where players are looking to find a seat at the table before they're all taken. That may come sooner than we think.
Andy Benoit: I was on a plane when a lot of this went down, and when I landed and checked the news, there were six to seven A-block kind of stories. I was amazed.
Topic 2: Why All the Trades?
King: I've been thinking about this a lot. I will give you my theory: Franchise managers are ballsier than they used to be. John Schneider will do anything to improve his team, and isn't intimidated by blowing the Percy Harvin deal in Seattle. Mickey Loomis, desperado. Has to fix the Saints' offensive line and bloated cap. Chip Kelly, the edgiest coach/GM since Jimmy Johnson. Never met a trade or roster move he didn't like. Les Snead/Jeff Fisher/Kevin Demoff in St. Louis ... same thing. Love trading.
Benoit: I wonder if it’s a factor of the cap rising a bit, or the fact this isn’t a top-heavy draft. That tends to devalue the first-round picks, and maybe teams just say they'd rather take a chance with a player they know rather than a player they think might be second-round quality. I am at the USC pro day. I mentioned what John Schneider said to you to a coach here—that the Seahawks had first-round grades on just 16 players in this draft, and he said, “That’s about how many we have in the first round too.”
Bedard: I agree. I think there might be ballsier GMs than there once were. Look at who made the deals. Schneider has always looked to push the envelope. I can't tell you how many deals he set up for Ted Thompson in Green Bay only to have Ted say no. We know Chip doesn't care about what people think—he's doing it his way or bust, which I like. Fisher and Snead have to push the envelope, as does Loomis. I also think the rookie cap has sort of devalued draft picks a little bit, so teams are a little bit more carefree with including them in deals. They used to guard draft picks like gold. Not so much anymore.
King: Very good point on the rookie picks. Schneider’s opinion about this draft might change in the next seven weeks, but for now, it allowed him to be a little carefree when it came to improving his biggest need area. Picking at 31, he wasn’t cowed by the idea of giving away a first-round pick to the Saints to get a big receiver. Which in essence is what Jimmy Graham is—a hybrid tight end/receiver.
Topic 3: Surprises
King: So there are four big teams—Seattle, New Orleans, Philly, St. Louis—that controlled the mayhem. Which one shocked you the most? Or which trade?
Benoit: The Graham trade. I didn’t know he was up for grabs. We’re talking about a revolutionary type of tight end and going to a completely different system. Who saw that coming? Anybody? Mickey Loomis is doing the same thing Chip Kelly did—he’s saying, We think our system can make up for the loss of Graham. But the Saints don’t have a passing game that scares anyone receiver-wise, other than Graham. As far as getting Max Unger at center—he moves well, can play well in a confined space. New Orleans has not had good mobility at the center position and never fully corrected it. That’s a good add. But how about the NFC team that's gone to the Super Bowl the last two years making a move to totally re-design its offense? That was incredible to me.
Bedard: No doubt the Jimmy Graham trade, for a variety of reasons. I mean, how much drama did the Saints go through last year to get that contract done with Graham, from the whole “Graham wants to be a WR, Saints say he's a tight end," to the actual deal? Then you have the Seahawks players calling Graham out as soft and overrated. And now you take Brees' top weapons away from him, a year after getting rid of Darren Sproles? Brees doesn't throw the deep ball as well anymore, and the Saints just took two of his easier throws away from him in two years. Underrated move to get the center, Unger, though. The Saints have gotten really soft on the inside, and he'll help a bunch, if healthy. That was the one line in Peter’s Wednesday column that jumped out at me. Only 16 first-round grades. Wow. Doesn't surprise me, but to hear an actual GM say that…
King: On Unger, I think Seattle felt it could move him because Tom Cable did a good job with the line last year when Unger was hurt.
Bedard: The Saints were/are in really bad shape after things didn't work this year. Loomis had no choice but to shake things up. He put together a poorly constructed roster last year, talent but little heart and leadership. They needed to change things up. This was really bold.
Brandt: Re Jimmy Graham, it’s just amazing that the Saints would unload him seven months removed from giving him a $12M bonus and take a $9M hit—the proration left on the bonus—in doing so.
King: Andrew, what do you think motivated Mickey Loomis?
Brandt: The Saints actually take a negative cap hit to their already-bloated cap by trading him ... but they do remove him from the books going forward.
King: So, take the pain this year (plus add a good center) to get better in 2016 and beyond...
Brandt: I sense that he saw an opportunity for Unger and for a player they maybe thought was not worth the contract they gave him. Schneider losing out on Julius Thomas seems to be what spurred the deal. But I just don't get the Saints cap/contract management.
Bedard: You and me both, Andrew.
King: It still makes their 2015 year awful. I think the Saints/Graham relationship went south because of two things: One, Graham just didn't show up in some big games, including games where his toughness, or lack thereof, got exposed. Sean Payton saw that. Loomis saw that. He was invisible in that playoff game. Two, when management and the coach have to testify against a star in a salary case, that can't be good for the relationship between player and team. Andrew?
Brandt: I though about that, Peter. That franchise tag designation, dispute and hearing was a sore spot for coaching/management and players. It is one thing to go through a grievance for a player who has left—which I was involved with several times—but a whole other story when the player is still playing. Coaches/management can say "It's business," but we know that to players it's always personal.
Topic 4: Early Evaluations
Bedard: Which team do you think has done the best job in the early going?
Benoit: I want to say Philadelphia. They’ve done the most dynamic job. Of all the teams, they’ve accomplished what they wanted the most. I like what Philly has done. I know a lot of people don't, but I do. Kelly’s going all-in on himself. I think Sam Bradford in that system—the Rams committed to that early on, then went to the power-running system. Philadelphia is not the only team that thought Bradford can play in a spread system. The Eagles have about seven different plays on offense, and it is not a difficult system to learn. Kelly obviously just wants to play fast. I think Bradford can play fast enough. He did it in college. There is a little bit of a quick twitch to his game. Nick Foles does not have that quick twitch to him. I am still not convinced they’ve given up on trying to get Marcus Mariota.
King: Jacksonville. I like Julius Thomas, and I think he's got a good chance to play a complete season this year. He's been unlucky with the injuries. And Greg, you know Davon House—very good young corner, and David Caldwell did not overpay for him.
Brandt: I'm going to show bias and say the Packers. Randall Cobb clearly took less than he could have made elsewhere—he would have been hot—and Bryan Bulaga agreed to take the same average as Josh Sitton had, not a penny more, at $6.75M, to stay. Keeping those two in the fold bodes well for the future.
King: A few other things I liked: Justin Durant, for reasonable money in Atlanta. Health has always been his bugaboo, but after six games last year he was one of the best defensive players in football playing in Dallas. I like your point about Green Bay, Andrew. Ted Thompson made sure he didn't overpay on Bulaga, and Bulaga showed he didn't want to leave by taking less to block for Aaron Rodgers. I like Seattle getting Graham ... but I do not like that contract.
Bedard: There are two that stand out to me, beyond the Jaguars, who have done well with a bunch of guys, although I think they way overpaid for Dan Skuta. Really like the Raiders getting three players, center Rodney Hudson, defensive tackle Dan Williams and linebacker Malcolm Smith, who are ascending guys. That's rare in free agency, and what a departure for Reggie McKenzie from last year, when he was shopping at Jurassic Park. Andrew, why do you think there was that one-year change for Reggie, whom you know very well?
Brandt: I think Reggie learned to move away from stopgaps like LaMarr Woodley, Maurice Jones-Drew and others, and now truly has a "clean cap" to shape the team. I know they wanted Cobb and Suh, but Reggie can finally put his stamp on things completely now.
King: Good point about Reggie. One personnel guy told me Wednesday night: "Rodney Hudson's a top five center, the only top-five offensive lineman at center, guard or tackle available in free agency this year."
Topic 5: DeMarco
Bedard: When, where and at how much does the music stop for DeMarco Murray, whom I knew would be overvalued in FA by fans and media.
Benoit: He needs a big offensive line. I don’t think it’s a great fit in Philadelphia. Oakland, I can see. Dallas, I can see. He doesn’t go east-west very well. He’s a power runner.
King: Very good question about Murray. I was told by someone close to him that he'll stay in Dallas if it's close but would leave if the gap in money is big. My guess:
And you've got Dallas and Arizona watching the Adrian Peterson slow dance with the Vikings very, very closely.
Brandt: You know what I've written about DeMarco: His production has hurt him rather than helped him. I'm interested in seeing what he gets. The market has been set with Mark Ingram/Frank Gore getting $4M average. I have heard Philly for Murray, but just don't see it.
Bedard: I'm sticking with my pre-free agency pick: Murray doesn't find enough dough on the market and winds up back in Dallas at about $5 mill per. But I think Oakland could be a real factor because the guys they wanted to spend big on, Suh and Cobb, were gone.
King: Interesting that Murray, on his own, called Chip Kelly. Chris Mortensen had that. Obviously, he's trying to create more of a market for himself.
Brandt: Teams may think his last season is the best and healthiest he's going to be. It’s the trend of getting away from paying for past; paying for future production only.
Bedard: Desperation. Exactly, Andrew.
King: Evidently he stressed to Kelly that he played with Sam Bradford at Oklahoma and would be perfect for the Eagle offense.
Brandt: I'm guessing $6-7M per year for him, far below the McCoy/Marshawn outlier deals...
King: Re: desperation: You guys are right. Dallas thinks he'll realize how good he had it behind that good line, and with Tony Romo and Dez Bryant and Jason Witten making sure defenses don't concentrate wholly on him on first downs.
Topic 6: Chip Kelly
Brandt: I'll ask a question: I'm a fan of Chip Kelly for his out-of-the-box ways. What do you guys think? Too much too soon to be GM too?
King: Reminds me so much of Jimmy Johnson. Bull in a personnel china shop. I sat in on their ’91 draft in Dallas. Jimmy was a tornado. Got a whim, acted on it. I would be careful about saying Kelly is in over his head.
Brandt: Absolutely Peter. He's got great intellectual horsepower...
Bedard: Also reminds me of Belichick when he got to the Patriots. In post-Browns Belichick, Johnson and Kelly, you're talking about three headstrong guys who are going to do it their way, boom or bust. I like it, if you know the owner is in your corner, and judging how Eagles owner Jeff Lurie dealt with Andy Reid over the years, I'm guessing Chip has a lot of slack. I just like how a coach wants to get the building his way, and actually does something about it. DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin all were kind of rabble-rousers who either complained about money or had that potential. I wouldn't have any money guys in my locker room.
Benoit: I know people around the league are concerned about his ability to run a draft. But as far as this part of the year, and all the risky moves—you hired him to be Chip Kelly. This is what the Eagles signed up for, and Chip's doing it. He's being bold and decisive.
Brandt: Seems like he's moving on from guys who don't fully "buy in" and is reshaping the team in his image. Had heard LeSean wasn't all in, although Maclin was. That was pure $$.
King: I have read that, heard that all day Tuesday and Wednesday. The guy knows what he wants, and he's going to get it. I am not paying Maclin $11 million a year. Who knows why Frank Gore reneged, or whatever happened, and went to Indianapolis instead. By the way, Andrew: You're close to the Eagles there in Philly. What do you think really happened with the Gore deal?
Brandt: I don't really know, but quite the intrigue with Drew Rosenhaus also representing LeSean. Maybe they had an honest conversation that did not go well. Free agency can be the Wild West. I once had a reneging story....
King: Let's hear it.
Brandt: I signed—or thought I signed—defensive tackle Sam Adams one year, coming to agreement while he was visiting the Ravens. We put him on a flight from Baltimore to Green Bay. Well, someone got him off the plane as it was taxiing to take off, and brought him back to the Ravens, where he signed a sweetened deal (the one I negotiated). I was crestfallen, could not believe what happened. I vowed I would never deal with that agent again, but of course a couple of years later he had a player we wanted, and I swallowed my pride and called him.
King: Amazing. How did the agent explain it? What did Adams say to you?
Brandt: I'm sure the same way Drew is explaining Gore: “Hey, that’s what the player wants...” Never talked to Adams.
King: On a lighter note, did you guys see the gigantic alligator on the golf course in Florida? That's the Sam Adams of alligators.
Brandt: Ha! Crocodile Suhee..
Bedard: Growing up on golf courses in Boca Raton, that was a normal occurrence. I was playing in a junior golf tournament and my ball landed five feet from an alligator. I played the ball...quickly.
Topic 7: Speaking of the Colts …
King: Hey, so in the middle of doing this, the Colts just added Andre Johnson. Out goes one Miami wideout (Reggie Wayne) and in comes another. Thoughts?
Benoit: I like it. He’s a good player underneath. They have Donte Moncrief and T.Y. Hilton to stretch the field and go deep. Johnson can use the middle and short to catch 85 balls, something like that.
Brandt: Grigson likes his veterans. He's signed him, Frank Gore, Todd Herremans, Trent Cole. Two from the U, two from the Eagles.
King: Good point.
Bedard: Trent Cole was their best move. Herremans does nothing to help that line. Another unathletic lineman. They need to do better on the line.
Topic 8: Second-tier moves
Brandt: What is an under-the-radar FA yet to sign that you guys like??
King: Jabaal Sheard. You know, he's the guy the people inside the Patriots thought Belichick should have drafted instead of Ras-I Dowling a few years ago.
Bedard: I thought they should have picked him then too. Glass-I. Nice pick.
Brandt: Why no action on Michael Crabtree? That surprises me ... great hands.
Benoit: The best value left is Greg Hardy. Little money, low risk, and he is a total game-changer, and he can have a superstar impact. He is a top five DE/DT/nickel, and he can have great impact if you can overlook all the off-the-field stuff, which isn't going to be easy.
Topic 9: About the Money
King: Andrew, One more question from me for you: Does the money seem outlandish to you? Or just a result of the cap being up $20 million since 2013?
Brandt: Money does not seem outlandish. Suh matched the highest guarantee ever—$60M—and Revis got close to $40M, but everyone else is in the same $20-25M range as the past couple of years. Teams are better at structuring deals, though, with teams like Jets giving Revis all salary, no bonus, no future cap consequences if things go south.
King: Did you like the Revis deal for the Jets?
Brandt: I did. Two fully guaranteed years and a portion of the third. If he's not productive for that long, I'd be surprised. Key signing for them.
Benoit: I agree with what you wrote, Peter—the Patriots should have paid Revis, even if it put their cap in danger. They would not have won the Super Bowl without him. If there ever was a bullet to bite, this would have been the one.
King: The AFC East got a lot better this week. Except for the kings of the hill, of course.
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