Winners and Losers of the First Phase of Free Agency

Offensive linemen and three of the league's quarterbacks are sitting pretty after the first few days of free agency. Wide receivers and Texans fans ... not so much.
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We are through the first phase of free agency, with the eventual destination of former Lions receiver Kenny Golladay remaining the lone blockbuster deal yet to go down (if indeed it is a blockbuster and not just a high-end rental). While it is impossible to say who actually won and lost free agency this soon, we can look back on recent history and judge certain behaviors as indicators of a winning or losing free agency cycle.

Take this with a grain of salt: This time last year I was probably telling anyone who would listen that the Buccaneers were nothing more than a traveling Vegas road show for soon-to-be retirees. There’s a certain hesitation in being wrong about that again, which complicates my feelings about an exciting offseason in New England.

Alas, let’s dive into the early winners and losers with many of free agency’s biggest names officially off the board …

Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray and Jon Gruden

WINNERS

Owners

This is a league driven by players, their performances and their personalities. This offseason, thanks to a pandemic that provided the cover for a lowered salary cap and reduced player price tags, owners got to have all of the benefits without as much of the cost. While this isn’t akin to the baseball-style collusionist behavior that left good players out on the market for months, slowly chipping away at their value, it is a sad time for players who earned their emergence onto the free-agent market only to make 60 to 70% of what they would have at another time.

Make no mistake, most owners could still afford to pay these players their fair market wage but are loving the opportunity not to, based mostly on the idea that they “lost” money a year ago with no gate revenue.

Offensive linemen

This was one of the few positions that seemed to hold its value. Trent Williams reset the market for the largest offensive line contract in NFL history with a six-year, $138 million deal. As of Thursday night, 15 teams are over the league average spending threshold on offensive linemen and 10 teams have more than 20% of their total adjusted cap devoted to offensive linemen. Cam Robinson, despite some struggles, was hit with the franchise tag. Joe Thuney reset the market at the guard position at $16 million APY, which will almost certainly be broken by Brandon Scherff if and when a long-term deal is reached there. There are now 12 guards in the NFL making more than $10 million per season on average. Depending on how you view the Corey Linsley deal, he also reset the center market with a five-year deal worth $62.5 million.

Russell Wilson

After his camp did a solid job of raising his unhappiness through various media tributaries, the Seahawks’ phone lines were inundated with calls about a possible Wilson trade. We now know, thanks to Dan Patrick, that they were handed the chance to take three first-round picks plus two starters from Chicago’s roster and declined. I think most of us would do the same thing if offered that deal. Wilson is one of the five best quarterbacks in the league.

However, with that information out there, Wilson has essentially won the arm-wrestling contest. If the Seahawks had any private reservations about Wilson, there were none serious enough to warrant taking a fair offer from the Bears. Like they have been for the past few years, Seattle is, in a way, under Wilson’s thumb even if they wouldn’t like to admit it. Making him happy is a primary objective. We’ll see how that shakes out in Round 1 of the 2021 draft, as free agency in Seattle has been relatively quiet.

Taysom Hill

Many of us (myself included) raised serious doubts in the past about Sean Payton’s continual insistence that Hill was a long-term starter and Drew Brees successor. While we don’t know if he will be that long-term option, Hill has a legitimate chance to beat Jameis Winston in camp and earn the job. New Orleans will likely run a version of the offense its been trotting out with Brees, giving Hill expanded control of said offense. Say what you will about Payton’s planning for the post-Brees era, but he could very well find himself on the league’s cutting edge, as other teams scramble to find their own version of Hill and incorporate more two-passer options throughout different sets.

The 49ers

The 49ers seem to be approaching this offseason pragmatically, aside from the massive Trent Williams deal. Their focus on rebuilding the offensive line puts them in a powerful position entering 2021. Should they want to move on from Jimmy Garoppolo and draft his successor, this is the perfect veteran offensive line with which to do so. Should they opt to keep Garoppolo and lean more heavily on the running game, they can do that as well. Getting Alex Mack for $5.5 million, even at age 35, is a bargain.

Patrick Mahomes

The Chiefs lost Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz this offseason, but did manage to acquire Joe Thuney and wrestle Kyle Long out of retirement. It’s hard to project what that offensive line will look like down the road, and what Long will look like after a year away from the game. But we are seeing a continued investment in Mahomes’s front five, which may include some draft capital as well. With the length and heft of Mahomes’s contract, some teams might argue that a quarterback has to take on a larger share of the responsibility, including getting the ball out faster and bettering his protection calls.

The Chiefs aren’t there yet. They’re bringing in reinforcements.

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Kyler Murray

We’re still up in the air as to what the A.J. Green signing ultimately means in Arizona. He could have wanted out of Cincinnati and had few options to alleviate double coverage, which impacted his numbers. This could end up being the best $6 million (up to $8 million with incentives) Steve Keim has ever spent. The more quantifiable upgrade is at center. Rodney Hudson has been one of the league’s best for a long time now, and graded out well in 2020 despite some erratic performances elsewhere around him. We saw a similar move by the Chargers, with the acquisition of Corey Linsley for Justin Herbert. There are few more valuable pieces than a heady, experienced center who can help you run on autopilot.

The Browns

Cleveland’s targeted offseason resulted in getting John Johnson, one of the best safeties in the league last year. Alongside Ronnie Harrison (and whatever they get from Grant Delpit as an added bonus), the Browns have greatly improved against the pass with a versatile defender who can play anywhere in their defensive backfield. Johnson took almost 300 snaps as a slot corner last year and split his time fairly evenly between what one would consider typical “free” and “strong” safety spots. Takk McKinley also stands out as an interesting buy-low option to solve their No. 2 pass rushing woes, which the Browns will also tackle in the draft.

Desperation

Despite being in one of the most depressed free agency markets in recent memory, there were still embattled GMs who were squeezed up against their previous decision-making failures, forced to overpay for a player who managed to generate a market. The Giants come to mind, if only because they seemed to be increasing Leonard Williams’s number artificially and bidding against themselves. Williams and his agent are doing a masterful job handling Dave Gettleman, though, in the meantime, may have caused the Giants to miss out on Dalvin Tomlinson. Tomlinson was a major part of the reason Williams had his breakout moment in 2020. In Los Angeles, the Leonard Floyd re-signing also seemed as if it came from a place of foggy-headedness. Perhaps there were other teams also bidding for his services (Gettleman included), but did that necessitate $16 million per season for a player who just seems to be coming into his own as a pass rusher at age 28?

Washington Football Team

It was a quietly pragmatic offseason for Washington, which gets its essential bridge quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick and one of the best receivers on the market in Curtis Samuel. Retaining Brandon Scherff sets the table for a welcoming environment when they draft their quarterback of the future in a few months. While the C-suite of the franchise may be a bit of a mess, Ron Rivera has polished the WFT during a tumultuous time.

LOSERS

Pass-rushing specialists

Outside of Leonard Williams, who cracks the edge market’s top five in terms of average annual salary, it felt like a bit of a stagnation. On one hand, this is a good thing; teams stopped paying specifically for sacks and seem to have a broader understanding of what causes those sacks. Trey Hendrickson, consequently, got $15 million from the Bengals despite a breakout, double-digit sack season in New Orleans last year. Matt Judon settled at the bottom of the high-end market at $13.5 million per year, while Shaq Barrett’s $17 million per year topped the traditional edge market this offseason.

Most wide receivers

We’re waiting on the Golladay and JuJu Smith-Schuster signings and numbers, which may help lift all boats a bit. As of now? It was a good offseason to be in the market for a No. 2 on a budget. Nelson Agholor might have gotten a little more because of market scarcity, but this was largely a budget-friendly class with high-upside talent. Corey Davis went to the Jets for $12.5 million. Samuel got $11.5 million. Will Fuller is in Miami on a one-year prove-it deal, reportedly worth $10 million. A.J. Green, Emmanuel Sanders and Kendrick Bourne got $6 million, $6 million and $5 million per year, respectively. The confidence and optimism in this year’s class of receivers is real.

Texans fans

Houston is basically becoming a catch-all for veterans hoping to cash out one last time before retirement. That, or a feeding ground for players Bill Belichick doesn’t want anymore. Maybe in three years we’ll forget how disastrous this situation was, but watching the Texans get routinely stiff-armed this offseason, setting themselves up for a miserable 2021, just confirms the theory that you cannot simply survive as one of the 32 NFL franchises, existing on the knowledge that these guys have to go somewhere. You have to treat players well. You have to plan and budget well. You have to cultivate an atmosphere where people want to play.

What is their selling point next year if Deshaun Watson is indeed gone? A 33-year-old Andre Roberts? A 32-year-old Mark Ingram?

Raiders

The Raiders signed Yannick Ngakoue, which was a sensible move to help alleviate some of their self-inflicted pass rushing woes. However, they traded away a large portion of their (admittedly expensive and aging) offensive line only to sign a second running back, Kenyan Drake, to snag workload away from recent first-round pick Josh Jacobs. NFL Network reported that Drake will also be a receiver and “joker” back to which I’ll reply: I’ll believe it when I see it. There has been little in Vegas that has worked out the way Jon Gruden has promised to this point. Free agency in Vegas seems a little directionless at the moment.

Teams that thought they could get a premium QB upgrade

Deshaun Watson’s situation notwithstanding, Matt Stafford moved to Los Angeles and the rest of the doors were largely shut. Russell Wilson seems to be staying in Seattle. Dak Prescott was signed to a long-term deal. Carson Wentz and Jared Goff changed teams, but are both closer to projects anyway. Those asking about Aaron Rodgers were laughed off the phone. While we thought this could have been a transformative offseason for the league, it was in the sense that teams now have a better understanding of how important the position is, and will likely do a better job of trying to pacify the good ones they do have.

Bears

If—and it’s a big if—the Bears somehow land Kenny Golladay to pair with Allen Robinson (Golladay and the Bears reportedly met Wednesday) and are utilizing Andy Dalton as a bridge quarterback to a rookie who will take the reins early in the season, I would love what the Bears have done. If Golladay is somehow a replacement for Robinson or cover for Robinson, or if Andy Dalton really is the full-time starter in Chicago next year, there is no defending what has taken place.

I wrote this week that Dalton cannot be The Plan for an embattled GM trying to punch his way out of a bad situation. If you know that your future prospects are dim, why bet them on a starter who has defined the dividing line between good and bad quarterback play in the NFL during his career? Dalton told reporters on Thursday that he chose Chicago specifically because of the assurance that he would be the team’s No. 1. If that is indeed true, if that was promised to him in advance without any young competition coming aboard, the Bears deserve what they get. 

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