Giving you guys some notes while we sort through the early stages of free agency…
• The Patriots’ splurge of 2021 recalls their splurge of 2007 in one specific way—the biggest early boom was levied in the addition of a very versatile Ravens edge defender. Back then, it was Adalius Thomas. Now, it’s Matthew Judon. And the comparison, per those in Baltimore, is very apt. “It’s same thing as Adalius,” said one team staffer, in what the Patriots are getting. The Ravens used him all over the place, and given that, and his head for football, New England being attracted to him surprised no one in his old home. And the drawbacks on Judon are similar to where they were on Thomas—he’s not a natural pass-rusher, so you have to scheme him/match him up to get him to the quarterback. In other words, keep him stagnant, and he’s ordinary. Move him around, and you’ll get the most out of him.
• As for the Patriots’ other three signings, each would qualify as a nice complementary piece, with tight end Jonnu Smith being the most obvious one. The brass in Tennessee saw Smith as the type of player who’s good at everything, but really great at nothing, and a tad undersized for the position. Where he fits New England is in the same way Judon does, as a guy who’ll be best used as a chess piece all over the formation. “He’s a competitive blocker on the line of scrimmage,” one Tennessee staffer said. “Good soled, effective on seams, overs, crossers. Has stiffness, not a separation route runner.” And, for what it’s worth, he was also very well-liked there. Meanwhile, expectations for DT Davon Godchaux and CB Jalen Mills should be what the money says—the hope is they can play specific roles well.
• In this morning's MMQB column, we told you the Chiefs simply couldn’t move forward with the investment in their tackles Eric Fisher and Mitch Schwartz. Given that both are coming back from injuries that are problematic for big men (Achilles for Fisher, back for Schwartz), it was no sure thing either would be ready for camp. But those cuts, plus a handful of restructures, took the Chiefs from over than $20 million in the red to over $20 million in the black, and Andy Reid & Co. didn’t waste any time to invest back into Patrick Mahomes’s protection by signing Joe Thuney. Therein, here’s a big key to it—the former All-Pro Patriot has played five NFL seasons, and started all 80 of his games as a pro. He played every snap of New England’s Super Bowl seasons of 2016, ’17 and ’18, 99% of the snaps in ’19, and 97% of the snaps last year. For that, the Chiefs gave him a five-year, $80 million deal, with $32.5 million in the first two years, all fully guaranteed, and another $15.5 million for 2023 vesting into a full guarantee next March. Based on his history, there’s a decent chance he'll see the contract through, and that wasn’t a small part of this for Kansas City.
• Safety John Johnson’s signing in Cleveland is one I paid attention to, in part because there’s a reason that L.A. let him go. The Rams simply did not have room under the cap to keep him. The Browns love his versatility—he can play in the deep parts of the field, he can cover underneath, tackle and stop the run—and that they can therefore pair him with different types of safeties on the back end of the defense. It also makes sense that Kevin Stefanski would value the position, given that the team he came up with, the Vikings, always did. I’d also say the Browns aren't quite done on defense. Expect them to keep sniffing around for another pass-rusher and maybe a corner.
• Speaking of the Vikings—it came as no surprise to the team that Danielle Hunter has an issue with his contract. The five-year, $72 million extension he signed in 2018 was team friendly even back then, and done just before Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack blew up the market for defensive players. Minnesota has done its best to try and manage the situation, even convincing Yannick Ngakoue to take less after trading for him last summer to ensure Hunter would remain the highest-paid guy at his position on the roster. It’ll be interesting to see how they handle that situation from here.
• The Bucs’ all-in approach to this offseason continued with the return of Shaq Barrett on a four-year, $72 million deal that includes $36 million guaranteed, and an $18 million signing bonus. That sounds like a lot to sign, of course, but the importance of it is in mortgaging out the cap ramifications. As a result, Barrett will count for less than $6 million on the Bucs’ books, at roughly a third of his 2020 cap charge. Wondering when the bills for these deals will come due? Looking at how Tampa Bay set up this deal, and deals for Tom Brady and Lavonte David, the reckoning is likely to come in 2023.
• The Lions’ re-signing of Romeo Okwara to a three-year, $39 deal is another that should get your attention. Most new regimes try to be cognizant of who they pay first and who they draft first, because those can be signals of what they’re looking for in players. And if that’s where the logic was for new coach Dan Campbell and GM Brad Holmes to go the extra mile to keep Okwara, it would make sense. As one Lions staffer told me, the 25-year-old is the kind of player who “does everything right. Excellent character.” And so now, if other Lions want to look for the kinds of guys that Campbell and Holmes would be willing to reward, they have someone to point to. Okwara’s as self-made as they come, a former undrafted free agent who caught the old Detroit staff’s eye at Lions/Giants joint practices a few years back, and the Lions decided to claim him when New York cut him at the end of camp.
• Ditto for Michael Davis in L.A., with new Chargers coach Brandon Staley. Like Okwara, the 26-year-old is a former undrafted free agent and was seen as a potential steal for other teams on the free-agent market. His background isn’t quite as clean as Okwara (he does have a suspension for substance abuse on his résumé), but his tape in 2020 sparkled, and he figures to be an important piece in Staley’s defense, with Casey Hayward gone.
• You’ll start seeing more one-year deals and bridge deals soon, as cap space starts to dry up league-wide.
• But there still should be really good money left for the few upper-echelon players still available—49ers OT Trent Williams, Lions WR Kenny Golladay, Vikings S Anthony Harris and Chargers TE Hunter Henry among them.
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