Just 48 hours into the new NFL league year, most top free agents are off the board, and much of the money has been spent.
To be frank, the vast majority of deals already signed are overpays, and many will be torn up within a year or two. But there has been some smart shopping, too, and more will follow weeks from now.
That said, let’s explore the best and worst of the early wave. It’s important to note: This isn’t about which teams improved or declined, but rather which used their resources most or least optimally.
1. Loser: Houston Texans
Well, this one’s pretty obvious.
Since adding general manager duties last June, Texans head coach Bill O’Brien has been a model of squandering value, repeatedly selling low and buying high. Then came Monday’s jaw-dropping trade of DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals.
Hopkins is one of the best assets in football. He delivers top-end production with remarkable consistency at a premium position. He also has what amounts to a three-year, $39.9 million contract, well below market for a top-five receiver.
Were there mitigating circumstances? Maybe. Reports say Hopkins wanted a new contract despite the three years remaining on his deal — precedent the Texans wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) set — and that O’Brien had off-field concerns about Hopkins.
But Hopkins had no leverage for a new contract, especially with the new collective bargaining agreement creating harsher penalties for veteran holdouts. As for off-field concerns, Hopkins has — by all public accounts — been a team leader and captain for the Texans with no known legal issues.
Available information suggests trading Hopkins would be foolish, especially considering Houston’s win-now trades for Laremy Tunsil, Duke Johnson and Gareon Conley last year. But even if O’Brien — who, admittedly, has more information than we do — believed it would be smart, he did a horrendous job of maximizing his return.
He likely believes he can fix David Johnson, but with a horrible contract ($14.1 million cap hit) at a devalued position, the running back had negative value. Add in Hopkins, and the deal should have netted the Texans, conservatively, something like recent returns for Odell Beckham (first- and third-rounder, plus Jabrill Peppers) and Stefon Diggs (first-, fifth- and sixth-rounder, plus a future fourth). Instead, O’Brien got the 40th overall pick and deferred a fourth-rounder to 2021.
The Texans’ other moves have at least been passable, but none look like great values.
Randall Cobb (three years, $27 million) could have been had last spring for much cheaper and will take snaps from slot receiver Keke Coutee, who has flashed at times. Eric Murray, who has 15 career starts in 54 games, is being paid (three years, $20.25 million) like a top-20 safety.
Re-signing Bradley Roby (three years, $36 million) stabilizes the cornerback rotation, but he’s battled injuries and inconsistency. The Texans also lost a key defensive piece in nose tackle D.J. Reader, who joined the Bengals.
Already spotty, the Texans’ roster has even more holes, and not too many assets to address them. It’s easy to see things crashing and burning. It’s also easy to see who to blame.
2. Winner: Los Angeles Chargers
Saying goodbye to an eight-time Pro Bowl quarterback and missing out on perhaps the greatest QB of all-time sounds bad. But everything else has gone right for the Chargers.
GM Tom Telesco kept stud tight end Hunter Henry with the franchise tag, extended running back Austin Ekeler on a very reasonable contract (four years, $24.5 million) and then turned to the offensive line.
Trai Turner’s five Pro Bowl nods oversell his value, but he was acquired for an aging veteran who might have been cut (Russell Okung), a clear steal. L.A. then added perhaps the best O-linemen on the entire market in Bryan Bulaga for the same annual salary ($10 million) as career backups George Fant (Jets) and Halapoulivaati Vaitai (Lions).
On defense, the Chargers added two Pro Bowlers who, while older, remain quality pieces. Chris Harris Jr., 30, and Linval Joseph, 31, each agreed to two-year, $17 million contracts without second-year guarantees, providing ample room for value without excessive risk.
Letting Philip Rivers walk and being rebuffed by Tom Brady could hurt, especially for a team ready to win now, but it might be for the better. The Chargers could land Tua Tagovailoa potentially available with the sixth pick in the draft or via a reasonable trade-up. They already have a top-tier blind-side protector for the lefty in Bulaga.
3. Winner: Indianapolis Colts
Even if Chargers were right to let Rivers walk, it doesn’t mean he’s a poor signing for the Colts. On the contrary, Rivers fits perfectly in Indianapolis.
While his interceptions spiked to 20 last season, Rivers wasn’t much different on tape. He gambles slightly more than ideal, which becomes a major issue behind a poor offensive line, as he had in Los Angeles. Add in several late-game deficits and no home-field advantage, and he had a deluge of turnovers.
But Rivers now has perhaps the league’s best O-line — helpful both in protection and for run-game support — and a great home crowd. He knows the scheme, having worked with Frank Reich and Nick Sirianni with the Chargers, and Reich’s offense should instill more discipline in the 38-year-old gunslinger. The Colts also have 11 of 16 games in 2020 indoors.
The Colts’ other two moves were pricey but well worth it.
Left tackle Anthony Castonzo re-signed for two years and $33 million when he probably could have topped $18 million annually and $35 million guaranteed if he’d listened to offers from other teams.
Trading the 13th overall pick for DeForest Buckner — and handing him a four-year, $84 million extension — was certainly bold, but it should pay major dividends. Buckner is extremely productive and consistent, and he fits perfectly at 3-technique in Matt Eberflus’ defense.
In actuality, his contract is a five-year, $98.63 million deal — including the final year of his rookie contract — that could be torn up after two years and $40.4 million with zero cap implications. The Colts, who must spend money, picked a fantastic candidate to pay while maintaining flexibility if it goes sour. That’s excellent work by GM Chris Ballard.
4. Loser: Chicago Bears
This is not to criticize GM Ryan Pace for admitting failure on Mitchell Trubisky (or Leonard Floyd). Doing so is actually good! When you make a gigantic mistake, the sooner you move on, the better.
The problem is the Bears didn’t act particularly quickly or decisively to upgrade at quarterback. Given Pace’s stated goal to add competition for Trubisky rather than discard him altogether, Chicago didn’t chase Tom Brady or Philip Rivers and appeared to merely flirt with Teddy Bridgewater and Cam Newton.
Any of the four would have been better choices than Nick Foles, who has been unproductive with every team but the Eagles and injury-prone everywhere. Reports said Chicago was leery of Newton’s health, but Foles’ injury history is significantly longer, and Newton might come available for free via release.
The Jaguars, of course, could not release Foles because it would have left an ungodly $33.875 million hit in dead money — $12 million MORE than his 2020 cap hit. As a result, many thought Jacksonville would have to attach a draft pick to trade Foles, like the Brock Osweiler trade in 2017. But the Bears failed to use this leverage, giving up a fourth-rounder for Foles.
Replacing Floyd with Robert Quinn is a clear upgrade, and Quinn is worth the money (five years, $70 million) barring significant decline.
However, the Jimmy Graham deal is one of free agency’s biggest head-scratchers thus far. Two years and $16 million is exorbitant for a 33-year-old tight end who can’t block and whose receiving prowess has faded badly.
5. Winner: Baltimore Ravens
The Denver Broncos have also found great value in a pair of trades, but the Ravens get the nod here for maximizing value in different ways.
First, Baltimore GM Eric DeCosta exploited the Jaguars’ poor cap situation by sending a fifth-round pick for Calais Campbell, who remains super productive (31.5 sacks, 77 QB hits over the last three years) and healthy (six games missed in 12 career seasons) at age 33. A massive man who can play anywhere, Campell signed a reasonable new contract (two years, $25 million) and should be a major piece through 2021.
Then, DeCosta capitalized on Atlanta’s need at tight end with his surplus, sending Hayden Hurst for a second-round pick and a swap of fourth- and fifth-rounders. That’s essentially what Houston got for DeAndre Hopkins. Hurst didn’t pan out as a former first-round pick, but that was a sunk cost, and Baltimore pivoted well.
The Ravens also swapped out great run defenders by letting Michael Pierce walk and grabbing Michael Brockers, who has a bit more pass-rush pop than Pierce and cost just $1 million extra annually.
It remains to be seen if Matt Judon will be traded, signed to a long-term deal or play on the franchise tag, but the Ravens will get value out of him one way or another. All in all, great job so far by DeCosta.
–By David DeChant (@DavidDeChant), Field Level Media