By David DeChant, Field Level Media
Less than 24 hours into the official start of free agency, deals and dollar signs are already flying left and right.
With a few big names (defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, offensive lineman Justin Pugh) still looking for homes and released veterans joining the market (defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, wide receiver Jordy Nelson, safety Tyrann Mathieu), let’s examine which teams stood out on the first day of the NFL league year.
New Orleans Saints
Even if it was fully expected, the Saints signed the best quarterback on the market at a reasonable rate ($50 million over two years). New Orleans will pay heavily in dead money down the line, but keeping Drew Brees at less than a tippy-top-of-the-market rate is a clear win.
The Saints also nabbed slot cornerback Patrick Robinson, who was stellar last season, for a lower annual average than D.J. Hayden got from Jacksonville and picked up Demario Davis and safety Kurt Coleman. Though 29, Davis was quietly terrific in 2017 and remains a reliable coverage linebacker.
No, Kirk Cousins isn’t worth the NFL’s largest contract, but given his leverage, the price tag could have exceeded $84 million over three years. While a fully guaranteed deal might make some squeamish, it’s unlikely any contract structure would have allowed the Vikings to move on after two years if things go south.
With a team ready to win now and with money to spend, Minnesota aimed for the best available option at quarterback and got it. Cousins makes some head-scratching mistakes, but he’ll have an infrastructure like the one he had during his best years in Washington: a highly schemed offense (under new coordinator John DeFilippo) and excellent weapons (Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, Kyle Rudolph, Dalvin Cook).
The Vikings should be applauded for eschewing QBs they knew better for the one that maximizes their current Super Bowl window.
Tennessee’s upgrades didn’t come cheap, but cornerback Malcolm Butler and running back Dion Lewis bring talent and schematic versatility.
Despite a down 2017 campaign, Butler is a reliable man coverage corner who can line up outside or in the slot against a variety of receiver types. Paired with Logan Ryan and Adoree’ Jackson, he gives new head coach Mike Vrabel flexibility in how he matches up with opponents’ receiving corps on a weekly basis.
Lewis brings a dynamic element to an offense that sorely needs one. His 5-foot-8, 195-pound frame belies his effectiveness as a runner — Lewis led the NFL in yards after contact per rush (2.61) in 2017. In the passing game, he should be a great weapon for coordinator Matt LaFleur, who helped unleash backs as receivers with the Rams in 2017 and the Falcons in 2016.
Tennessee also kept starting guard Josh Kline and disruptive defensive lineman DaQuan Jones on mid-level deals while letting two-down linebacker Avery Williamson walk to the Jets.
Like Tennessee, Chicago could have been more frugal, but it’s hard to quibble with adding weapons for Mitchell Trubisky. Allen Robinson is a big target with major upside, and his contract is more palatable than what Sammy Watkins got in Kansas City. Trey Burton ($8 million per year, $22 million guaranteed) will be way overpaid, but he also brings upside as a gifted athlete who deserves more targets. Taylor Gabriel gives Matt Nagy another dynamic piece to feature on screens, jet sweeps, gadget plays and coverage-lifting deep routes.
The Bears used the money they had to spend, and as a result, should know a lot more about Trubisky’s development after this season. They also appear likely to keep intact a solid starting cornerback duo of Prince Amukamara (three years, $27 million) and Kyle Fuller (transition tag). Not bad.
Reigning Super Bowl champions are often gutted in free agency, but the Eagles brought back their only unsigned starter in Nigel Bradham. The price tag (five years, $40 million) isn’t cheap, but linebackers who excel in coverage rarely are.
Philadelphia also added defensive tackle Haloti Ngata to their offseason haul of defensive end Michael Bennett and cornerback Daryl Worley, who were recently acquired in trades. Burton and Robinson were expected departures, but the Eagles have pieces at corner in Worley and 2017 picks Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas (Worley’s college teammate). Likewise, Ngata should slide right into Beau Allen’s vacated role.
Salary juggling will be required, but Howie Roseman is a skillful cap manager, and the Eagles have a few years before a mega-extension for Carson Wentz will be needed.
Kansas City Chiefs
Sammy Watkins oozes talent, but his three-year, $48 million deal ranks fourth (!) in annual average salary among wideouts. Even more troublesome is the structure. Watkins will make $34 million through Year 2 ($30 million guaranteed), and his $21 million signing bonus makes it difficult for the Chiefs to move on after 2019. That’s an exorbitant amount of risk for a player who hasn’t shown high-level production since suffering a broken foot in 2016.
The fit is also questionable, as Andy Reid uses tight ends and backs, as opposed to wideouts, more than most offenses. Across Reid’s 19 seasons as a head coach, a wide receiver has topped 1,000 yards in a season only six times, and only once (2010) have two topped 900 in the same year.
With Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce remaining focal points, Watkins will have a tough time living up to his deal, even if the offense evolves with Patrick Mahomes. Add in a slight overpay for Anthony Hitchens (five years, $45 million, $21.3 guaranteed) and K.C. is off to a questionable start.
New York Giants
Needing to fix an annually leaky O-line, Dave Gettleman is paying dearly for the failures of Jerry Reese. Nate Solder’s annual average of $15.5 million is nearly $2 million clear of the next highest by an O-lineman in NFL history. Solder, who has never made the Pro Bowl and turns 30 next month, is guaranteed nearly $35 million over the first two seasons.
If he solidifies New York’s woes, the price tag will be bearable, but the Giants have other holes up front. Weston Richburg is already a 49er, Justin Pugh is visiting Arizona, and D.J. Fluker is also a free agent. Perhaps Ereck Flowers will be better at right tackle or guard, but this miss is far from cleaned up.
Along with a severe overpay on Solder, the Giants gave 30-year-old Jonathan Stewart $6.9 million over two years when 26-year-old Carlos Hyde (three years, $15 million) or 25-year-old Isaiah Crowell (three years, $12 million) wouldn’t have cost much more.
If Miami didn’t want to pay Pro Bowl wide receiver Jarvis Landry big money, why splurge $14 million per year combined on Albert Wilson and Danny Amendola? Wilson is coming off his best season, but it was hardly an inspiring one (43 catches, 554 yards, three TDs). Amendola is 32 and is the only wideout in NFL history (min. 200 receptions) to average fewer yards per catch (9.65) than Landry (10.1). He’s unlikely to produce more than he did in New England, where he earned about $3.25 million total in 2016 and 2017.
The Dolphins’ poor cap management led to the release of the expensive but still effective Ndamukong Suh, as well as a restructure to Ryan Tannehill’s contract, which will make it harder to move on from the oft-injured quarterback if the team finds a better option in the draft.
Baltimore lands here almost entirely because of Ryan Grant’s contract (four years, $29 million, $14.5 guaranteed). The Ravens have historically been far better at finding wideouts in free agency than in the draft, but they appear to be grasping at straws after the best available options agreed with other teams.
Grant has yet to top 1,000 receiving yards… in his entire four-year career. While he “broke out” for 573 yards and four scores in 2017, surely it wasn’t necessary to guarantee him two years at a salary above that of Golden Tate, Mohamed Sanu and Robert Woods. The Ravens’ one-year pact with John Brown (for $5 million, up to $8 million with incentives) was far more palatable.
After opening up the checkbook in consecutive springs, the Jaguars seemed likely to be less aggressive this offseason.
Instead, they extended Blake Bortles, let Allen Robinson walk and made Andrew Norwell the highest-paid offensive guard in history. They also paid No. 2 receiver Marqise Lee nearly $10 million per year, Donte Moncrief at least $7 million (up to $9.6 million with incentives) for one year and gave D.J. Hayden $19 million over three years to replace departed slot cornerback Aaron Colvin.
None of the individual moves rate as egregious missteps, but collectively a series of small-to-moderate overpays while two significant homegrown talents walk out the door. Colvin’s departure was expected given the presence of Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, but is Hayden worth 75 percent of Colvin’s price tag ($8.5 million per year) in Houston?
Meanwhile, if Robinson returns to anywhere near his 2015 form, the Jaguars’ decision not to tag him will haunt them.