Free agency stops for nothing, apparently. Riding the momentum of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the NFL opted not to delay the start of free agency amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Because traveling for free agent visits has gone a little out of style, many of the deals will push ahead via telephone, with on-site physicals to be completed at a later date.
So here we are, dutifully logging on to grade such transactions. This promises to be one of the most star-studded free agency slates in recent memory. This is how it’s panned out so far…
Tom Brady to the Buccaneers
Make no mistake: The lone guarantee here is that Raymond James Stadium will be filled with an increased number of privileged, Patagonia-wearing business males this season who will purchase season tickets as a tool to further their own financial interests. The immediate dopamine hit of a 5,000-person waiting list for season tickets may be the high Buccaneers management will chase for the end of days. The Buccaneers could also go 13-3 and win the NFC South.
The different routes this experiment could take are drastic. On one hand, I am inclined to turn off my pessimism and settle on the fact that Brady is arguably the best player in NFL history and, even at 43, could be dominant in a vertically-focused offense featuring the best wide receiver he’s played with since Randy Moss in 2009. On the other, I am left to wonder about the cattle call of Patriots who have drifted away from New England only to struggle without the cliff’s notes provided by the greatest head coach in modern history. Brady, to me, would seem to be separate of that list given that the reason he lasted as long as he did with Belichick was because he could match the coach’s maniacal preparation.
From a functional, on-field standpoint there is another mystery. We are left to wonder if Brady’s net negative expected completion percentage was the product of a lowly group of receivers in 2019 or if it was an indicator of his decline. Jameis Winston, who had one of the wildest quarterbacking seasons in NFL history last year, finished with a similar completion percentage but a lower window of completable throws. We are also left to wonder if, in an age where functional mobility has become essential for offenses in order to even the math with opposing defenses, selling out for a stationary pocket passer is the best idea in a division featuring some formidable coordinators and pass rushers.
In lieu of an incomplete, I think I’ll be forced to meet this acquisition with enthusiasm. At the least, Brady is one of the best decision-makers in NFL history, and the Buccaneers have struggled mightily in that department. If Brady’s highs are not as drastic as Winston’s, but his devastating lows are not as bottomless, the Buccaneers will still be a better team.
Todd Gurley to the Falcons
Gurley’s 2019 was weird. He spent more time behind the line of scrimmage than almost any other running back (partially a function of the Rams' running style), faced a ton of eight-man fronts and struggled to get north and south as frequently. That said, he also averaged almost four yards per carry and scored 12 touchdowns. Assuming his knee condition is manageable moving forward, this would appear to be a steal since we’re operating in the same world where Bill O’Brien traded DeAndre Hopkins for David Johnson and a handful of picks. Gurley is still one of the most exciting athletes in football and will be paired with a more dependable quarterback and weapon set offensively. That percentage of eight-man fronts should decrease if Atlanta rebounds this year (though, in 2019, Devonta Freeman faced almost the exact same number of stacked boxes).
Melvin Gordon to the Broncos
A former first-round pick made expendable by his coach (a former NFL running back who knows the position as well as any coach in the league) hits free agency and is signed by a team that has had a notable amount of success identifying good running backs late in the draft. I understand the need to help Drew Lock here, but I am not sure this is where I’d be allocating my cash.
Darius Slay to the Eagles (Trade)
We knew Howie Roseman wasn’t sitting this one out. This division still belongs to the Eagles, with the right amount of situational roster aggression, and Roseman seems to understand as much. Slay’s price dropped into a suitable range and now Philadelphia has a dependable, top-tier cornerback to place on the back end of an aggressive Jim Schwartz defense (which also received some critical pieces up front). It won’t be enough to completely mitigate the loss of Malcolm Jenkins but, interestingly enough, Slay is dominant against the best wide receiver in the division. So there’s that.
GRADE FOR LIONS: C+
GRADE FOR EAGLES: B -
Gerald McCoy to the Cowboys
There’s been a pretty fascinating run on defensive linemen during this free agency period and McCoy, fresh off a one-year prove-it stint in Carolina, is no exception. McCoy was solid amid a good Panthers front last year and should be a welcome addition to a Cowboys front that lost a resurgent Robert Quinn to the Bears in free agency. The Cowboys are still going to be in the market for some outside pass rush help, though. McCoy will be a draw in that, wherever he goes, he tends to open up lanes for outside pressure.
Robert Quinn to the Bears
The important thing here is to look past the reported heft of the deal and realize it’s basically a two-year commitment for a player who appeared to re-energize his career in 2019 with the Dallas Cowboys. Quinn will be in a similarly advantageous position in Chicago and, assuming he’s healthy, will have opportunities to get at the quarterback. His 11.5 sacks last year were his best since 2013, when Quinn had 19 sacks for the St. Louis Rams. The Bears’ defense still has a long way to go this offseason and they’re hinging a significant amount of hope on a veteran who had settled in as a middling player before last season’s comeback. Can they be satisfied with Quinn as the major defensive prize?
Chris Harris to the Chargers
It's been a surprisingly methodical offseason for the Chargers, who were expected to pinball deliriously through free agency in an effort to drum up some excitement for the disastrous stadium situation they’re walking into. Alas, no Tom Brady. Chris Harris, 30, is a solid idea and gives L.A. another above average coverage option on the back end. We’ve been saying a version of this for years, but the Chargers have been perpetually one player away from not just being good, but totally dominant on defense. Harris might finally be that player (assuming his teammates on the back end can stay healthy).
Philip Rivers to the Colts
Two years ago, who would have thought that the unpredictable rhythms of the NFL would bring us here? Andrew Luck is off enjoying retirement. Philip Rivers won’t be joining the Chargers in their new L.A. stadium. Instead, he has agreed to terms with the Colts on a one-year deal that seems like the prelude for the Colts also drafting a Luck replacement candidate high in this year’s draft. (And perhaps also sending Jacoby Brissett back to New England?) The move makes sense for Rivers, who is well versed in the offense thanks to time in San Diego with Frank Reich, and gives the Colts a gambler vibe similar to the one they had during the beginning of Luck’s career.
GRADE: B -
Teddy Bridgewater to the Panthers
Finally, Teddy Bridgewater gets to stretch his legs as a starting quarterback in the NFL again. Reuniting with LSU offensive coordinator Joe Brady, Bridgewater gives the Panthers a completely different vibe under center than they’ve had in years past. While we wait to see Matt Rhule’s true vision come into focus, Bridgewater will be the player who leads Carolina from one drafted franchise quarterback to the next. It will be fascinating to see what this means for Christian McCaffrey, and really, the entire infrastructure that Carolina spent years building around Newton and his punishing mobility. Bridgewater will bring a more measured approach and high-completion, mid-range game.
Stefon Diggs to the Bills (trade)
This could provide us with a window to re-grade the DeAndre Hopkins trade as well—which was stunning at the time, even before Minnesota netted a first-round pick for a receiver. This is a good, aggressive move for the Bills, who have been hoping to land a top-flight wide receiver for two years now. It is probably less ideal for Diggs, who gets the cache that he wants and the respect of a true No. 1 wideout without the luxury of having Adam Thielen split up some of the load share. If Diggs is truly head over heels about the prospect of going from Kirk Cousins to Josh Allen, he is more optimistic than I am. The good news for Buffalo is that they will end 2020 with a definitive opinion on Allen, given that his prior excuses (offensive line, wide receiver set) are running out.
GRADE FOR BILLS: C+
GRADE FOR VIKINGS: A
Marcus Mariota to the Raiders
A puzzler if I ever saw one. Jon Gruden should be doing everything he can to support Derek Carr, but is instead adding a high-upside backup who, to be honest, should have been signed by the Bears or Patriots to compete for their starting jobs. Maybe I’m overestimating the value of Mariota as a reclamation project, but nothing seems to fit quite right here. I won’t punish the Raiders for stacking talent (assuming their internal grade is higher than the one below) but I had way higher expectations for the former No. 2 overall pick this spring.
Amari Cooper to the Cowboys
Nice job by Cooper and his team in securing the bag. There was reportedly bit of outside pressure from Washington, but this is the right move for Cooper. Dak Prescott is a rising star and the Cowboys needed a legitimate No. 1 target to keep their offense diversified. The challenge for Mike McCarthy will be solving whatever internal issues seemed to divide Cooper and the Cowboys down the stretch. Another bonus for the Cowboys: While it is theoretically the biggest wide receiver deal in NFL history, they did save a bit on guaranteed percentage and percentage of cap allocated to one player compared to the Michael Thomas and Odell Beckham deals.
Kyle Van Noy to the Dolphins
This is never a good way to think, and often leads us to being memed, but I feel so much better about the Dolphins after the first wave of free agency than I did before it. This team could be a real pain in the side for AFC East opponents this year, especially defensively. I also criminally overrated the Dolphins defense coming out of the preseason last year, but after adding foundational, movable pieces like Van Noy into the fold they’ll be much smoother in running Brian Flores’ scheme.
Jamie Collins to the Lions
This is a personal preference, but I’m rarely a fan of players who have visibly struggled or dropped off outside of the New England bubble. While Collins goes to a former Patriots coach familiar with his best attributes, he doesn’t inherit the same defensive system and deep set of versatile cornerbacks to let him shine.
Arik Armstead to the 49ers
I thought NBC Bay Area had a good take on the Armstead deal, which was that he was less consistent but more affordable than DeForest Buckner in the long term, which is why they dealt Buckner to the Colts and signed Armstead to a deal on par with what Olivier Vernon got in free agency a few years back. This was about as sensible a financial maneuver as the 49ers could make, though it feels a little bit like they’re scrambling to keep something together instead of retooling for the future.
Javon Hargrave to the Eagles
This is the kind of signing that goes overlooked throughout free agency and then, in Week 4, when the Eagles’ defensive line is playing better than it has in two years, we’ll all start to nod. Hargrave is a pile-pusher who can abuse opposing centers, but he also hustles to the perimeter and can make plays in open space, which is not as common for a player of his size.
DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals, David Johnson to the Texans (trade)
Bill O’Brien the GM has done some wild things early in his tenure, with last year’s cut down day deal for Laremy Tunsil and the trade of Jadeveon Clowney. Trading DeAndre Hopkins in lieu of a new deal and acquiring David Johnson at full salary(!) for the 2020 season stands alone as the most significant. This is an earth-shattering trade for several reasons, though it’s difficult not to think first about Deshaun Watson, who has benefited greatly from Hopkins’s elite catch radius. The pair has developed a nearly unconscious relationship together and helped position the Texans as one of the better offensive weapon sets in the AFC. That is no more. Good luck to Houston as they attempt to acquire a franchise receiver of Hopkins’s caliber in this draft without even netting a first-round pick in return.
GRADE FOR CARDINALS: A
GRADE FOR TEXANS: F
TE Austin Hooper to the Cleveland Browns
I would try, for a moment, to look past the optics of the Browns reportedly signing the largest tight end contract in NFL history. By the time a wave of premium extensions from other tight ends around the league hit, this will not look as gargantuan as it does now. This was a move that immediately pacifies new head coach Kevin Stefanski, who requires a tandem of dangerous tight ends to run his offense most effectively. In theory, Hooper and David Njokou is something for opposing defense to game plan for.
DeForest Buckner to the Colts (trade)
In a move befitting of a club that may be soon be signing a veteran passer and pushing all their chips to the middle of the table, the Colts have traded for DeForest Buckner. There is a lot to like about the move from the 49ers’ perspective. San Francisco signed Arik Armstread to a long-term deal earlier Monday, which made Buckner expendable given the wealth of talent the 49ers have on defense. It also gives them a second first-round pick in the 2020 draft. The Colts, meanwhile, are looking to add some heft to their defensive front and decided to cut the line of teams waiting on Jadeveon Clowney.
GRADE FOR COLTS: B-
GRADE FOR 49ERS: A-
Byron Jones to the Dolphins
This is exciting to see the Dolphins reaching the other side of this expedited tank and start spending like they expect to contend in the near future. They made their grand entrance into free agency and financial freedom here. Bryon Jones was going to leave free agency as the highest paid cornerback in NFL history, it was just a matter of who was willing to give him the money. Brian Flores is building a formidable secondary pairing Jones with Xavien Howard and should make the Dolphins decently competitive in 2020. This also constitutes a win for Dallas, as they don’t have to see a valued asset haunt them from within the division.
Jack Conklin to the Browns
While this could all be said about the flurry of moves Cleveland made last year, this was a slam dunk and represented the Browns’ biggest need this offseason. Negating the offensive line in free agency last year was a missile headed straight for Baker Mayfield’s development. There was plenty of competition for Conklin this spring and perhaps a twinge of regret down the road for the Titans, who signed Dennis Kelly as a replacement later on in the day. Conklin had one of the best pass block win rates among tackles in the NFL last year. That is relief for Mayfield who, along with a much more sensible play action game, is going to have more time and more receivers to throw to.
James Bradberry to the Giants
Dave Gettleman dips into familiar reserves and nabs one of the better cornerbacks on the market. The financials seem reasonable, as Bradberry’s $15 million APY keeps him below the top of the cornerback class and eases the burden on the new Giants coaching staff. Having some experience to line up opposite 2019 first-round pick DeAndre Baker was paramount to the plan this offseason.
Jason Pierre-Paul to the Buccaneers
Pierre-Paul is re-signing with the Buccaneers on a mid-range, two-year deal. I think it’s smart for a team with cap space to layer their defensive line with talent. Pierre-Paul has been productive in his post-Giants stint in Florida, with 21 sacks over the course of 24 games, and should only aid in the development of players like Shaq Barrett. This is no doubt an all-in year for Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht. Tom Brady pursuit aside, it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Buccaneers continue to take big swings at the plate.
Halapoulivaati Vaitai to Detroit
A move that may be initially panned by the Lions’ fanbase, though I’ve always felt that Vaitai was an underrated asset during Philadelphia’s Super Bowl run and a versatile swing piece who spent valuable time studying behind the indefatigable Jason Peters. The $10 million per season price tag is also reasonable given that tackle salaries are skyrocketing and deals are shortening in length. The Lions, desperate to shore up an offensive line that had some forward momentum, gets a powerful blocker before the dance floor empties.
Ereck Flowers to the Miami Dolphins
For those of you who unplugged on Flowers after he flamed out with the Giants, hold your laughter. The obvious positional move, knocking him down to guard, paid off significantly in Washington and now he’ll be making top-15 money at the position. Keep in mind that Flowers is sitting around $10 million APY in Miami according to NFL Network, which means that he’s still well off the league lead for guards. It’s not quite a value signing for the Dolphins, who desperately need to beef up their offensive line, but it’s not simply lighting a bag of money on fire either. Before their franchise quarterback arrives either in 2020 or 2021, they want to have the lines intact.
Hayden Hurst to the Atlanta Falcons (trade)
The Falcons let Austin Hooper leave in free agency and are spackling the hole with Hayden Hurst, the former first-round pick out of South Carolina. Hurst was part of Baltimore’s three-headed monster at tight end but failed to distinguish himself as a receiving threat, logging just 43 catches for 512 yards and three touchdowns over two seasons. However, the Falcons are betting big that Hurst was simply lost in a quarterback transition back in 2018 and a spark in chemistry between Lamar Jackson and Mark Andrews in 2019.
So much so that they’ll surrender a second- and fifth-round pick while getting Hurst and a fourth in return.
GRADE FOR RAVENS: B+
FOR FALCONS: C+
Ryan Tannehill to the Titans
Forget about Tom Brady for a second. The question should be: Did the Titans make the right move in giving Tannehill a four-year, $118 million deal? The new CBA disallowed their ability to use both the franchise and transition tags, respectively, on Tannehill and Derrick Henry. So instead, Tannehill gets a deal that reasonably ties him to the Titans for two years. It would be easy for the club to get out after 2021 and even easier to escape after 2022. The knee-jerk reaction here is to be scared that some of Tannehill’s success was due to the fact that he was a mid-season replacement and teams did not have a great concept of how he would be utilized within that offense. A franchise tag is a slightly higher one-year premium and raises the floor on a long-term deal but can also be erased after one season if Tannehill slinks back into the quarterback he was in Miami.
One reason I kind of like the Ryan Tannehill deal: It’s not outrageous. We’re about to see an unprecedented spike in quarterback salary and this deal locks up a healthy, 31-year-old former first-round pick for roughly the cost of Kirk Cousins per year. Tannehill gets a solid amount of security (a guaranteed percentage better than Russell Wilson in Seattle), and the Titans enter into a high-risk gamble that could accelerate the building of the remaining roster.
And here’s my more detailed look at how the Tannehill signing impacts Tom Brady, Derrick Henry and more.
GRADE FOR TITANS: B
GRADE FOR TANNEHILL: A+
Bradley Roby to the Texans
Setting the stage for how robust the cornerback market figures to be, the Houston Texans locked up Bradley Roby on a three-year, $36 million deal (via NFL Network). The former first-round pick is a decent value signing for the Texans, a team that got to see him on a trial basis last year and wanted to pencil him in long-term to help negate some of the other departures on defense. Roby, 28, seems to be rounding out as a better cornerback, despite the fact that his interception and pass breakup numbers are down.
Calais Campbell to the Ravens (trade)
It seems like there are moments when the Ravens’ front office is miles ahead, lapping the field. Campbell, a 12-year vet, is a pass rushing force and was the catalyst for some of Jacksonville’s best moments over the past three seasons. The fact that he was plucked for a fifth-round pick (and his full salary for 2020) shows some impressive hustle, taking advantage of a fire sale in Jacksonville. Campbell has had his three best QB-hit seasons over the past three years and two of his best three sack seasons.
Josh Norman to the Bills
It’s fair to say that Norman is not the feared secondary villain he’s been in the past, but it’s also fair to say that at one year and $6 million to reunite with his old defensive coordinator (Bills head coach Sean McDermott), he’s absolutely worth the flier. Norman was still respected by opposing quarterbacks during his final year in Washington, getting roughly four targets per game and logging one interception and six pass breakups. However, he was benched down the stretch in 2019 and outplayed by some of his replacements.
Greg Olsen to the Seahawks
It seemed the air was ripe for a Seahawks trade deadline deal for a tight end; now they’ve got one in the offseason. Russell Wilson is as deft and creative a quarterback as there is in the NFL, and deserves a cadre of receiving threats who are used to getting to various target points on the field to haul in big-yardage grabs. Olsen, after years of playing with Cam Newton, should be perfectly adept to handle Wilson’s freewheeling moments and may enjoy a few more on-target passes.
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