NFL GMs Share What Stood Out About Free Agency Amid Coronavirus

GMs and other executives share what stood out most about a very strange week in the NFL. Plus, things to keep you busy without sports and a note on how physicals will get done.
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This week’s been like skating in the dark for NFL teams.

You want to go fast. And once you get your bearings, maybe you will. But without knowledge of what’s around you, you’re also aware that you’re one wrong turn from crashing into something and landing on your rear end.

Over the course of this week, teams, still figuring out the new CBA rules, were being given a slow trickle of information—franchise and transition tag numbers, for example, didn’t go out to teams until they were less than an hour from the deadline to use those tags. The COVID-19 pandemic, and NFL’s insistence to go forward with free agency despite it, only further complicated matters for GMs and coaches facing the real-life adjustments we all are.

Now? Well, all those guys made it through the first wave of free agency. Big trades and big names coming off the market amid all that uncertainty served as an undercurrent for what’ll go down as a very strange week in NFL history.

And we’re gonna review the fallout for you now.

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Welcome in to this week’s GamePlan! We’re now a week into what’s been an eye-opening stretch of shutdowns across our country to combat the coronavirus. The NFL marched on with its offseason, albeit with some changes, and so we’re marching on too. In the column today, you’ll find…

 A list of football-related stuff to do, with no live sports to speak of out there.

 An explanation of how teams can do physicals ahead of acquiring players.

 Why the return was relatively low on DeAndre Hopkins and Darius Slay.

But we’re going to start with a fun rundown of the overall picture of the last week.

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nfl-gms-free-agency-cam-newton

On Thursday morning, I sent a couple dozen texts out to personnel directors and GMs, looking for the one thing that stood out to them about the first three days of action on the NFL’s open market. The idea was to take a few of them and expound upon the points made by the guys paid well to do this for a living.

So now I’ll give you some of those thoughts, then show how they played out the last few days. Got it? Let’s go.

AFC GM 1: One thing to think about is free agency is now done for a while. Big business out of the way and because physicals are so hard to get and we can’t visit with players, some of these lower-end money players will have to wait.

If what this GM is saying winds up playing out, like he said, and affects the mid- and lower-end guys, then I wouldn’t be surprised if it also hits guys with extensive injury history. And that’s where I think you can say Cam Newton is having trouble.

If you’re bringing Cam Newton in, is it as your backup? At $19.1 million, and with picks going to Carolina? Or are you waiting for the Panthers to release him? Should Carolina release him yet, given the circumstance that’s killing his value? The whole thing is complicated, and it’s not hard to see why interest in him has chilled.

And that’s understandable, too. Great as Newton’s been at points, without getting a good look at his left foot or his right shoulder, and the rest of a body that’s taken a ton of punishment over the last nine years, it’d be really, really tough to go all-in on him. So lots of the lower-end players, like the GM said, are affected. So too are injured stars, like Newton and, now, ex-Broncos QB Joe Flacco.

AFC GM 2: Most teams projected the cap at 202 plus. I think the cap coming in lower, along with higher minimums and probably no offseason has slowed the market down.

Consider this: Only one position set a new financial standard this week. That was at corner, where the top-of-the-market number has stagnated in recent years. New Dolphins CB Byron Jones wound up getting $16.5 million per year, making him the new highest paid corner. And on a new-money basis, new Eagles CB Darius Slay nosed past him with a three-year, $50 million extension

Other than that? The receiver and running back markets have been dead, safeties are having trouble getting paid, and linebackers and offensive linemen are getting what they did last year, largely because the sorts of high-end players that were available last year (C.J. Mosley, Trent Brown, etc.) weren’t this year.

AFC Exec 1: The overall pace of free agency has been very slow. The WR market is the slowest. Combination of players available and draft class have hurt signings.

As we said, the market at receiver has been near dead. Jets WR Robby Anderson and 49ers WR Emmanuel Sanders are among the big names unsigned, and some of the above factors (lower cap than expected, coronavirus circumstances, etc.) have contributed to that. But also depressing the market, as our exec said, is a historically strong receiver class coming in the April draft.

That part’s pretty easy to explain. With starting-level players potentially available through the first three rounds, the recent success of second-round receivers (Michael Thomas, Juju Smith-Schuster, D.J. Chark, A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf), and the economics of going with a rookie over a vet, would you be climbing over other teams to give Anderson or Sanders eight figures per?

The same dynamic, by the way, is at play at the running back spot. D’Andre Swift, Jonathan Taylor, J.K. Dobbins and Clyde Edwards-Helaire are among those considered instant-impact players by scouts, and all four could be available on Day 2 of the draft. Thus, someone like Melvin Gordon is still looking for a job.

AFC Scouting Director 1: One thing that stuck out to me was the run on lower tier OTs like Shon Coleman, Cedric Ogbuehi, Dennis Kelly at the start of free agency shows probably the value of the 3rd/4th OT and lack of OT depth in the draft. Also was surprised at the money (George) Fant and (Halapoulivaati) Vaitai got. Backup guys they got good starter money … weird that a guy like (Germaine) Ifedi is still out there.

The NFL’s offensive line shortage has hit the supply/demand curve at the position again. Fant got $9.1 million per year. Vaitai got $9 million. Those two guys combined for 10 starts in 2019. Kelly—who’ll likely replace Jack Conklin at right tackle in Tennessee, has been a backup for the balance of his career and is 30—got $7 million per.

Certainly, part of this was that arguably the two best players set to hit the market among offensive linemen—New England G Joe Thuney and Washington G Brandon Scherff—were tagged. But this remained the one position group where guys have already gotten paid at several levels. The top guys, like Jack Conklin ($14 million per) and Graham Glasgow ($11 million per), did. Older guys, like Andrew Whitworth ($10 million per) and Anthony Castonzo ($16.5 million per) did. And the aforementioned backups did, too.

Good time to be an offensive lineman.

AFC Exec 2: Thing that sticks out is the teams that have a bunch of draft picks (Miami/Jacksonville) or new signings may not have the time needed to get up to speed. Teams with a bunch of returning starters and continuity will be way ahead of other teams. This all depends if they eliminate phase 1, 2, OTA’s, etc. … But will rookies really be contributors this year? You would be surprised how many NFL players don’t have workout equipment at home. Gyms are closed across the nation so guys have to figure out alternate ways to train. Where are draft-eligible players training? Active roster players training?

This was raised to me a couple times in reference to the free-agent class. And I’m not going to name names here on players who fall into this category without really diving in and researching it, but I will say that there are a couple free agents with less-than-stellar reputations as workers who are still available for that very reason.

It starts, of course, with a team’s ability to sit down and talk to a guy who might have that problem, which can’t be done face-to-face right now. But more than just that, the prospects of a shortened offseason might make it harder for a player like that to assimilate to a new program, learn a new scheme and be in a position to contribute in September.

That, naturally, is making teams more risk-averse.

NFC Exec 2: The D-tackles went fast, and usually the ends come first. They went faster than the ends this time. Other than the receivers having no market—the draft had something to do with that—and there being nothing with the running backs, it’s those D-tackles. There were some good ones out there and the draft’s not great.

Indeed, Javon Hargrave and D.J. Reader came in right around $13 million per year, Jarran Reed got $11.5 million per, and Jordan Phillips came in at $10 million per. And as our exec said, the draft class isn’t awesome at this position. Auburn’s Derrick Brown and South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw probably go in the top 10, and might wind up being the only first-rounders at the position.

AFC Exec 3: The “2nd wave” seemed to blend in immediately after the “1st wave.” Usually, there’s some time in between, but with just a few people in each building due to COVID-19, and players not being able to take team visits and shop deals, teams/players were forced to do the “cheaper” deals quicker.

And maybe this is why things are slowing now. Guys like Vaitai and Fant weren’t far behind Conklin in coming off the market. It also could be that there was some fear that—with the cap lower than expected, and the unusual circumstances, and even the reality that the pandemic may have caused owners to tighten cash spending a little in the short term—the money would dry up quickly.

It’s possible, at this point, that it already has.

NFC Scout: When Austin Hooper became the highest-paid TE at $11 million APY, that seemed really low. George Kittle and Travis Kelce gonna (crush) that contract. Those two are kind of in a class on their own. Hooper is not in their league.

Just thought this one was interesting. And it got me thinking that if I’m George Kittle, I’m 100% waiting for Travis Kelce to do his deal with the Chiefs before I do mine with the Niners, because Kelce has more leverage. Tight ends remain criminally underpaid.

And to wrap up, here are a couple team-specific thoughts that came back…

AFC Exec 4: I’d say Cincinnati has a new approach with Zac Taylor there now. Never real active in free agency in past.

AFC Scouting Director 2: I thought Andrew (Berry) did a good job on Cleveland. Didn’t just collect talent like Dorsey did, he addressed some need.

Good for the Ohio teams! On the former, it was interesting to see the team make a splash in signing CB Trae Waynes and Reader to deals that added to over $27 million per year, and it makes you wonder if this was a sort of signal to Joe Burrow on how serious they are about winning and winning now. On the latter, landing Conklin and Hooper was a score for Cleveland in the minds of a lot of NFL folks, based on their fit for Kevin Stefanski’s scheme (Conklin’s a better run blocker than pass blocker; Hooper played for Kyle Shanahan).

And so there you have it. Things probably get a little quieter from here. Which, all these guys hope, will allow for some time to get everything in order, before pre-draft run-up unlike any the NFL’s been through before.

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Michael Irvin

POWER RANKINGS

Because everyone is—or should be—hunkered down at home for the time being, I figured I’d join the dozens of people out there telling you what you should do with your newfound free time. So here are some football-related activities to fill your time at home, in case you’re sick of your loved ones…

1) Watch The Program. The best football movie of all-time and I’ll be offended if you argue otherwise. Also offensive: That Conor Orr and Co. didn’t review it during the Bad Football Movies podcast series last year. Check it out. Thank me later.

2) Read Boys Will Be Boys. Jeff Pearlman’s chronicling of the 1990s Cowboys is one of the most criminally underrated sports books ever. Definition of a page-turner.

3) Check out The U on ESPN Plus. Billy Corben’s 30 For 30 on the rise of the University of Miami football dynasty is incredible, and worth the 106 minutes of your time.

4) Hit those YouTube highlight videos. One thing I’ll do every now and then is look at high school hype videos of guys who made it to the NFL. Reggie Bush’s is sort of the Godfather of this genre. Jadeveon Clowney’s was incredible too. And more recently, given that it happened at the highest level of Texas high school football, Kyler Murray’s is insane. Looking for an underrated one? Back around when Bush’s got notoriety, when YouTube was still new, Noel Devine’s tape was the stuff of legend.

5) Get ready for the draft. Hey, it’s all we’ve got NFL-wise. And I promise you we’ll have you covered on that at the site over the next few weeks.

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THE BIG QUESTION

How did physicals get done this week?

Most of them didn’t, but I still think we’re making too big a deal of this part of the process as we work into the second wave of free agency. Tom Brady’s getting his done near where he lives in New York. And the Colts’ and Niners’ ability to pull off the DeForest Buckner trade under these circumstances shows that, if people are working together through what’s pretty much an unprecedented circumstance, there’s a way to keep doing business.

I’ve been told by those on both sides—Indianapolis and San Francisco—that the level of trust between the two teams, built in part by how they kept the deal quiet, was paramount to pulling it off. The Niners’ doctors got on the phone with the Colts and shared medical records, and the physical was performed in California. And the reason why? Well, basically, there was no reason not to do it that way, so long as everyone was willing.

Now, the Niners can go forward and plan with the 13th pick in tow, and the Colts can do the same knowing they’ll be without a first-rounder. And Buckner can rest easy knowing his deal, at $21 million per year, has been executed.

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WHAT NO ONE’S TALKING ABOUT

How contracts play into big trades. And the Antonio Brown situation last year really brought into focus that oft-overlooked factor. A four-time First-Team All-Pro, Brown made it clear to everyone that he wanted a new contract at the top of the receiver market, whether he was traded or not—and given the other issues he brought to the table, some teams wound up backing off, while others changed the algebra on what they were willing to offer.

Parting with premium picks is tough. Making a gigantic financial commitment is too. Doing both at once? It just doesn’t happen that often—and it actually makes what Seattle got for Frank Clark last year all the more remarkable.

And that’s why the Raiders were able to pry Brown for third- and fifth-round picks from Pittsburgh. Likewise, it was known that Lions CB Darius Slay and Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins wanted new contracts, as their teams ramped up trade discussions on their stars. Also, both, as Brown did, had relationships that had, to varying degrees, gone sideways with their teams; and it wasn’t a secret across the league.

Does that mean criticism of the return that Detroit or Houston got isn’t valid? No.

But these situations were a little more complex than people gave them credit for.

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THE FINAL WORD

I’ll reiterate what I said here last week: Take care of yourselves and each other. Listen to doctors. Pay attention to science. Look out for the elderly.

I’m no expert on what we’re up against, but it’s pretty obvious to me that the best way for all of us to get through this over the coming weeks is together (while, of course, keeping our distance from one another).

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.