- The San Francisco 49ers made some bold additions (Jerick McKinnon, Richard Sherman) while the Cardinals executed some head-scratching moves that could leave their future in jeopardy.
The first (and most exciting) week of NFL free agency is in the books. While there are still a few high-profile dominoes to fall, many of us will turn diminishing attention spans will turn to the draft.
In that spirit, it’s time to hand out some superlatives from the initial spending spree:
BEST OFFSEASON SO FAR: San Francisco 49ers
The two free agents I felt had a chance of being “good deals” despite teams needing to pay a high-end market price were Jerick McKinnon and Weston Richburg. San Francisco ended up signing both.
McKinnon was not cheap. According to the details of his contract, there was a cash value of $22.8 million and $18 million in total guarantees, putting him among the top-paid running backs in the NFL. However, the 49ers are taking the biggest cap hit for his contract in 2018—the year they’ll theoretically have the most space. By the time their new feature running back hits the fourth year of his deal, they can escape worry-free. In the meantime, McKinnon plays what NBC Sports Bay Area described as the “Devonta Freeman” role, which will allow head coach Kyle Shanahan to accentuate both McKinnon’s receiving skills and surprisingly formidable short-yardage burst. He’ll be a dream target for Jimmy Garoppolo and a menace in the screen game. His catch radius among running backs is quite high.
As for Richburg, it’s another smart contract with significant per-game roster bonuses ($400,000). The Giants loved him in the draft a few years back because of his athleticism—He’s versatile but is best at center. There’s little doubt we’ll see him out ahead of McKinnon on one screen pass after another this season.
MOST SURPRISING OFFSEASON SO FAR: TIE: Indianapolis Colts and Arizona Cardinals
The Colts let go of Johnathan Hankins and sat out a high-priced bidding war. This is not a bad thing. As general manager Chris Ballard told Colts.com:
“Look, one of our goals—we looked in free agency, and we just didn’t feel like we were at a point to where we wanted to add some of the guys at the price that they were at, and we need to add some young talent to this roster. So the ability to have seven players here in the next two years that are all going to be first- and second-round picks was attractive to us.”
Since Ballard came aboard, Colts fans have been waiting for … something. With Andrew Luck on the roster, team supporters believe that they can win right now. Ballard obviously feels differently. Despite a trove of cap space, it seems like the Colts are wisely building toward something more sustainable, which can be timed with a period where Luck is theoretically beyond any lingering shoulder pain.
The Cardinals cut Tyrann Mathieu, and signed both Mike Glennon and Sam Bradford. This has to be a strange place for Arizona—good enough on paper to win 5–9 games next season, but not nearly good enough to compete in a division that features the Rams, 49ers and Seahawks. I hate advocating for the simplistic let’s just tank strategy, but it seems like Arizona has wedged itself between playing for now and playing for the future. The team has plenty of equity from the fan base after the rock and roll tenure of Bruce Arians and could probably survive a quick, 49ers-style bottoming out over the next two years if they re-emerge with a potential franchise quarterback and some young stars. As it stands now, though, the Cardinals do not seem to be in position to draft one of the big five this year (save for the possibility of a Lamar Jackson slide), nor do they have much room to develop a quarterback with a first-year head coach trying to rack up victories and two experienced veterans already soaking up all the practice reps. The signing of Justin Pugh is certainly a positive and can help them bridge whatever roster revolution they’re trying to create, but there won’t be a ton of cap space to carry over into 2019.
MOST ELECTRIFYING OFFSEASON: Los Angeles Rams
I’m not sure if dealing for Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters and (potentially) signing Ndamukong Suh qualifies as “best,” but it’s certainly worthy of its own manufactured category. We’ve seen teams layer big-name, castaway talent via free agency and trade who have landed in the conference title game (Jacksonville) and have also seen these teams bottom out when the locker room implodes. This is a lot on the back of a 32-year-old head coach and 70-year-old defensive coordinator, but if they succeed there may not be another NFC team save for the Eagles who can stop them.
For a franchise new to an area, though, there is no better blueprint. The Rams have forged an identity heading into a 2020 season where they’ll open a revolutionary new stadium with seats that need to be filled, and it looks like they’ll have the personalities to fill them. Rarely does this star-studded roster building plan coincide with success but McVay already has an evolving, high-octane offense in place.
FREE AGENT MOST LIKELY TO SUCCEED: TIE: Andrew Norwall, guard, Jacksonville Jaguars and Nate Solder, left tackle, New York Giants:
Both of these free agents represent a significant improvement. For Solder, if Eli Manning isn’t battered from the left side, he’ll be hailed as the best offensive lineman the team has had since peak-career Chris Snee. Solder has the luxury of replacing Ereck Flowers who undoubtedly possesses the physical tools to be a promising offensive lineman in the NFL but hasn’t developed at the speed many expect for a top 10 pick. As for Norwall, he enters a dominant rushing offense. Leonard Fournette gained 3.9 yards per carry last year and could improve that number significantly with the addition of Norwall and the continued development of key pieces like Cam Robinson.
STRANGEST MOVE: Sammy Watkins to the Chiefs
It’s only strange because of the top-of-the-market, three-year $48 million deal he signed. Otherwise, I love it. Rarely do you see contracts in free agency based on potential instead of production, just ask Alshon Jeffery. On one hand, their enthusiasm suggests that Andy Reid already has a master plan in tow. On the other, Watkins has had moments of brilliance combined with nagging lower-body injuries and periods of on-field frustration. In Kansas City he’ll be teamed with a rookie quarterback (in terms of on-field experience) who looked great in brief action but could still be susceptible to some of the same mistakes and mental blocks that first-year quarterbacks endure.
TEAMS THAT WILL STILL BE GOOD EVEN THOUGH THEY WEREN’T OVERHYPED DURING THE HYSTERICAL FIRST WEEK OF FREE AGENCY, A LEAGUE-CREATED MEDIA STORM THAT ALLOWS THE NFL TO PUT THE SPORT ON EQUAL FOOTING WITH NATIONAL SIGNING DAY IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL BUT IS REALLY JUST HIGH-PROFILE PEDDLING OF A FEW OVERPAID VETERANS FILLING HOLES ON MEDIOCRE CLUBS THAT DIDN’T DRAFT WELL ON A FRONT-LOADED BUT ULTIMATELY HOLLOW CONTRACT: The Patriots, Steelers, Chargers, Packers, Panthers and Falcons.