NFL Free Agency 2018: Grading the Biggest Moves
- Which moves will be the immediately successful and which might not pan out as expected?
Because few actually abide by the “legal tampering period” rules, the meatiest portion of free agency can strike even before the new league year begins. For those on the east coast, that meant waking up to a flurry of major deals on Tuesday morning in addition to four inches of snow. Case Keenum, Sammy Watkins and Andrew Norwell were off the market before some West Coast general managers went to bed. While there are still some remaining tidbits, like how the Steelers will resolve their near future with Le’Veon Bell and where remaining players like A.J. McCarron land, the opening bell was an early climax.
• What’s a day during NFL free agency like for Adam Schefter? We spent 24 hours with him in 2017. Watch only on SI TV.
Here are the biggest acquisitions thus far and how we think they graded out (in mostly reverse-chronological order):
JORDY NELSON TO THE RAIDERS
This is a tough acquisition to grade because we have no earthly idea what Jon Gruden’s offense is going to look like. There are probably miles worth of tape from Gruden calling Jordy Nelson games on Monday Night Football saying things like “This Jordy Nelson, man, there’s nobody who does it better than this!” But what that will mean for Derek Carr remains to be seen.
Nelson flourished in Green Bay not only because of his superb route running and deft hands but because of the wordless relationship he developed with Aaron Rodgers. There was not another receiver-QB tandem in the league who could pick apart a defense substituting players off the field on the fly like the Packers. They turned that vulnerable moment into an almost layup-like efficiency.
Can Nelson, who is now 32, do that again with Carr? Also, what will the financial ramifications of the signing be? NFL Network mentioned that it could cost the Raiders Michael Crabtree, which seems like a truly adventurous decision for Gruden at best.
AJ MCCARRON TO THE BILLS
This signing probably caused more than a few eye-rolls in Buffalo. We replaced Tyrod Taylor with this guy? Here’s why I think it’s perfect. I imagine McCarron being extraordinarily motivated after free agency didn’t break his way. At the outset, he seemed to be right in the Teddy Bridgewater/Sam Bradford mix for a starting role on a potentially good offense.
Now? He’s in run-heavy Buffalo duking it out with Nathan Peterman and what I believe will be a top 10 pick at quarterback. Sometimes, a quarterback room void of a veteran presence is a black hole and weighs the team down. But I could see Sean McDermott liking the fact that he has three quarterbacks looking to prove themselves for different reasons. In that way, it can become a suddenly-affordable strength. The Bills were not the Vikings, and would not have been one very expensive Kirk Cousins away from making the conference title game. This is a roster that is still a year or two away, and they are approaching the development of that roster wisely.
Nate Solder to the Giants
It’s funny watching an organization change course in the NFL. One of the first things a new regime does is correct the mistakes of the former one, which, in the Giants case, means not letting an above-average veteran left tackle slip out of your hands in free agency.
The offensive line was not the Giants offense’s only undoing last year. There were high-caliber players (like Weston Richburg), but there were also significant liabilities and a quarterback who held the ball for too long because all his receivers were injured and the backups weren’t getting open. One way to stop that domino effect is to lock down Manning’s theoretical blind side, which is what New York did on Wednesday. It was not cheap—Solder will, according to various reports, become the highest paid offensive lineman in the NFL at more than $15 million per season.
With the Eagles layering one defensive linemen on top of another this offseason, this was an emergency move the Giants had no choice but to make. If they plan on taking a quarterback in the draft, he’ll be unable to develop without some time in the pocket. If they plan on sticking with Manning, there’s no way he would find any remaining life in his career with Ereck Flowers anchored on the left side.
I know some Giants fans will hate this move because it delays the inevitable rebuild this franchise has to make at some point. After their Super Bowl victory in 2011, New York has continuously kicked the can down the road, with the playoff appearance in ’16 providing some false hope for the near future. Still, the desire not to squander Manning’s remaining years is admirable. It’s also refreshing to see the organization admitting some fault and fixing the problem.
Carlos Hyde to the Browns
I would caution against those saying Hyde’s arrival means the team will not be drafting Saquon Barkley. Hyde can be anything in this Browns offense, including a feature back in Hue Jackson’s system if the opportunity arises. His career-high catch total from 2017 (59) has to be encouraging for Tyrod Taylor, who will benefit immeasurably from one (or maybe two) running backs adept at an improvisational short-yardage passing game.
There aren’t many running back success stories in free agency after the player’s year 27 season, but for a team with money to spend, this is a worthwhile stab at depth and convenience for whomever is playing quarterback next season.
Jerick McKinnon to the 49ers
The initial confusion surrounding John Lynch’s rise to general manager has washed away—he has proven himself a capable negotiator and empowering CEO-type. But the thing I like the most about him in this role is the clear connection he displays to the coaching staff. The McKinnon signing shows that Lynch understands intimately how Shanahan’s offense has worked best, or at least that he’s willing to hear Shanahan out when he’s asking for certain players. While most of free agency is an overhyped game of musical chairs between desperate teams, this represents a potential cornerstone signing for at least one season. Running backs have a short shelf life, but McKinnon could have a significant impact statistically in that short window.
Muhammad Wilkerson to the Packers
One of Muhammad Wilkerson’s goals in free agency was to get out of town—growing up a few minutes from the Jets’ facility was, eventually, burdensome. Green Bay seems to represent the best of all scenarios that he wanted in a franchise. An organization that will protect him, a defensive coordinator that knows how to best utilize him and a defensive line that will clear his way to the quarterback. The 28-year-old former first-round pick is a boom-or-bust signing. He seemed increasingly less interested or motivated after his only Pro Bowl appearance in 2015, but still possesses a sturdy frame and powerful, long arms that make him a menace for average tackles and interior linemen.
Wilkerson benefitted from a rare Packer foray into free agency that also included signing former Seahawks and Saints tight end Jimmy Graham. Brian Gutekunst is taking a significant risk this week, which will pacify the Packer fan base immediately but test the insular vibe that Green Bay has cultivated over the years with a veteran roster. This one could go either way.
Teddy Bridgewater to the Jets
The Jets may have had my favorite pre-free agency to date. The Bridgwater signing gives them a one-year look at a quarterback who was breaking into the top 15 before a catastrophic leg injury in 2016. With the one-year deal, he doesn’t have any assurance that he’ll be the starter, he’ll be driven by an experienced veteran in Josh McCown and he’ll have a similar defensive-minded players coach in Todd Bowles to the one he had in Minnesota.
Will it work out? Maybe not. The Jets have ridden more mid-career quarterbacks out of town than just about any team in the NFL. But Bridgewater represents the offense as it is now: Potentially emerging, young and affordable. Not moving in on Kirk Cousins was sensible, but may have been doomed from the start in New York. If neither McCown or Bridgewater work out, the organization is flexible enough to move on immediately and chase the next big thing.
Trumaine Johnson to the Jets
The Jets had to spend money, so it’s difficult to characterize the plan in a few words. However, Johnson adds some heft to a budding secondary led by Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye. Competent cornerback play in a division that still features Tom Brady is essential and interesting given that the Jets managed to give New England a few shots at home in 2017.
Malcolm Butler to the Titans
With about $60 million to spend this offseason, the Titans jump into the deep end on Day One of this NFL free agency extravaganza and sign Malcolm Butler, bringing the former Patriots Super Bowl hero (and, in later years, scapegoat) to New England South. New head coach Mike Vrabel gets a cover corner who, while not cheap, is hopefully desperate to prove that whatever nebulous offenses ended his career in New England were the act of a tyrannical head coach and not the faults of a rule-bending player.
Butler and new teammate Logan Ryan played well together in New England for three seasons and should resume a strong working relationship in the back end of Tennessee’s secondary. The Titans, as Tom Brady proved in the playoffs last year, are not just one cornerback away from taking the AFC South and marching toward a conference title game. However, the more versatile and capable cover corners a team has, the better they’ll fare against the class of the AFC.
The reported length and dollar amounts of these contracts should not sway opinion—as NFL Network reported, Butler gets about half of the $61 million in guarantees. If a team like the Titans is in contention, they should spend the money. This doesn’t have to be a long marriage if Butler declines a bit as he did toward the end of his Patriot tenure.
• FREE AGENCY, PODCAST-STYLE: Andy Benoit and Gary Gramling break down all the biggest offseason moves and the impact they'll have on 2018. Subscribe!
Josh McCown to the Jets
I was surprised to see the immediate backlash on Twitter after a season when McCown played at replacement level (and at times far above) for the Jets in 2017. A one-year, $10-million deal is easily absorbed by a team that has almost $90 million in cap space, and having an easy-going personality like McCown in the locker room makes it simple to still sign someone like Teddy Bridgewater and draft a rookie at No. 6.
McCown helped the Jets establish offensive weapons out of thin air last year, and he’s the perfect insurance policy for someone like Bridgewater if the Jets continue to follow that path. His familiarity with the terminology and remaining wide receivers is an added bonus. Don’t be shocked when the market for backup quarterbacks balloons this offseason and McCown’s one-year deal ends up looking fairly reasonable.
Jimmy Graham to the Packers
The Seahawks finally did what we expected them to throughout Graham’s career in Seattle—establish him as a dominant red-zone force and Rob Gronkowski-style matchup nightmare for undersized defensive backs. Now Green Bay can pick up where Darrell Bevell and the Seahawks left off.
But this is about more than just a tool for Rodgers, who has been pining for more production out of the tight end position. This is about optics.
Under new general manager Brian Gutekunst, the team is going to at least create the impression that they are more open minded to outside free agents. This has always been true in some respects—Julius Peppers and Charles Woodson were important pieces of good Packer teams. However the perception often was that management has not done enough to surround Aaron Rodgers with talent befitting of a Super Bowl contender.
On a day when the Packers got rid of franchise mainstay Jordy Nelson, the signing of Graham should not only soften the blow, but create some buzz in a place that normally waits until the regular season to get its kicks.
Sam Bradford to the Cardinals
I don’t necessarily blame Cardinals general manager Steve Keim for the predicament the team was in. Arizona struck lightning in a bottle with Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer, and the franchise needed to plan methodically around the whims of an aging head coach and quarterback who were both teetering on retirement when the Cardinals’ surge began a few years ago. It was too tempting to see the boon through, which is why they’re stuck paying an injury riddled quarterback $20 million on a one-year deal.
Sam Bradford—who in the last 10 years has had shoulder surgery, two ACL repairs and arthroscopic knee surgery which kept him out for a majority of last season—is back under center as a team’s prospective opening day starter. The problem, outside of durability, is that it has taken some time to find the right combination of coordinator and supporting cast. He was severely miscast in Chip Kelly’s offense but had quite possibly the best night of his career with the Vikings in an opening-day torching of the Saints back in September 2017.
What will his tenure in Arizona bring? It’s a tough situation. Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy has little offensive weaponry outside of David Johnson and a near-retirement Larry Fitzgerald. The offensive line needs an injection of youth and Bradford isn’t known for his escapability. If they don’t supplement this signing with a significant draft choice at the position—Lamar Jackson could be around at 15—it would be a massively disappointing offseason in Arizona.
Still, and this is the caveat we always have to make with Bradford knowing how the situation will inevitably turn out, if the stars align and the combination of scheme and talent somehow comes together, he’s a top 15 player at the position.
• FREE AGENCY, PODCAST-STYLE: Andy Benoit and Gary Gramling break down all the biggest offseason moves and the impact they'll have on 2018. Subscribe!
Kirk Cousins Expected to Sign a Three-Year Contract With Vikings
Tuesday represented a historic shift in the NFL contractual landscape for game-changing quarterbacks. Kirk Cousins capitalized on a dim passer market that had at least two deep-pocketed suitors and, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, is primed to sign a three-year deal with Minnesota, which could set the template for all other top-tier quarterbacks to come.
While the Jets cleared their deck and the Broncos made some last-minute cap space, the Vikings have the first-visit advantage, and any team familiar with the desperate air of free agency knows that you don’t let a player you like leave the building.
This is a tough acquisition to grade. On one hand, Cousins is just one of three quarterbacks, according to Pro Football Reference, who have averaged more than 260 yards, and at least a passer rating of 90 through their first six seasons. The other two were Dan Marino and Kurt Warner. There has not been a passer of his caliber to hit the free agent market since Peyton Manning, and even then, Manning was on the downside of his career arc.
Cousins is 29, with three consecutive 4,000-plus yard seasons to his credit.
Why Kirk Cousins Can Succeed With the Vikings
Here’s what we don’t know: Can he succeed in a talented, cutthroat division without the aid of a Jay Gruden/Sean McVay offense? Cousins came up during a time when Pierre Garcon, Jamison Crowder and DeSean Jackson were all in their prime or at least just past their prime. It represented an ideal situation for a quarterback that could find his rhythm in a quick passing offense with a set of wide receivers perfectly tailored to break bad defenses quickly.
A lot has been made about Cousins’s record against teams that finished the season .500 or better (4–19). Quarterback wins are a useless statistic, but his ability to dominate against prime competition will always plague him. He’ll be asked to recreate his legacy when he heads to Minnesota. No longer is Cousins the plucky upstart mid-round pick, who was twice franchised by an organization that didn’t believe in him. Now, he could be the final piece—a player with potentially burdensome expectations on his shoulders. This Vikings defense is built to be great, but for how much longer?
Albert Wilson to the Dolphins
Wilson’s deal averages $8 million per season according to NFL Network—a nice payday for a high-end, multi-tooled role player. Wilson made some gigantic catches for the Chiefs last year but was ultimately overshadowed in the passing game by Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. The 5' 9" wideout should be able to help whomever is quarterbacking the Dolphins next season in the intermediate passing game. With so many teams trending toward mismatched bunch formations, Wilson’s speed and size can be a great advantage for Adam Gase.
• JONES: It's a good time to be a free-agent wide receiver
Haloti Ngata to the Eagles
Howie Roseman is not afraid to Dream Team it all over again. It’s hard to imagine Ngata, a 34-year-old, five-time Pro Bowler coming off the bench but that’s the plan for next season. He and Michael Bennett, two of the most revered defensive linemen of the last decade, will supplement a defensive front that already includes Fletcher Cox, Chris Long, Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry. While it’s easy to overreact to certain offseason moves, Philadelphia is layering high-end talent atop a roster that has already won a Super Bowl. Dare we call it Patriot-esque?
Star Lotulelei to the Bills
This signing will be the start of a fun offseason for Buffalo, which will include a top-tier run-defender and potentially a veteran and rookie quarterback. The Bills are slowly creeping up the draft board and are in position to take a shot at No. 2 or 3.
Someone like Sam Bradford or Teddy Bridgewater (UPDATE: Bradford agreed to sign with the Cardinals, and Bridgewater agreed to sign with the Jets) Trevor Siemian and AJ McCarron could also be an interesting fit as competition should they be looking at Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen or Baker Mayfield.
Bills general manager Brandon Beane continues to bring his favorites over from Carolina. Lotulelei will stand in for the traded Marcell Dareus and help Sean McDermott build on a unit that finished ninth in turnovers and second in passing touchowns allowed, but was surprisingly weak against the rush (29th in yards, 32nd in touchdowns allowed and 25th in yards per attempt allowed).
It’s an odd formula for a team that just this past year snapped a playoff drought that lasted almost two decades—new quarterback (or quarterbacks) and a refocused defense. Lotulelei isn’t going to rack up quarterback sacks from the inside, but he is going to jibe with his former defensive coordinator, who loves the idea of stuffing the line to make life easier for his defensive backs and safeties. Even though Lotulelei is at the top of the market, Buffalo should still have some money to play with this week and next week. Their offensive line, second corner and nickel spots, wide receiver and interior offensive line should all get a second look in the coming days. Beane isn’t waiting around for an opening in the AFC East anymore.
Jaguars Fully Committing to Run Game With Andrew Norwell Signing
On Monday afternoon one NFL GM thought that there were two teams still in the Andrew Norwell sweepstakes: the 49ers and Giants. It was known that the Panthers couldn’t retain Norwell, and many assumed Norwell was bound for New York to reunite with Dave Gettleman, the former Panthers GM who signed him in free agency after he went undrafted in 2014.
But the Jaguars turned up as the surprise suitors for Norwell, signing the consistent left guard to a five-year deal worth up to $66.5 million, according to reports. The deal includes $30 million in fully guaranteed money.
Norwell immediately solidifies the left side of the Jacksonville line that already had Cam Robinson at left tackle. Now Blake Bortles blindside will be well protected but, far more importantly for these Jags, they’ll run the ball even more in 2018 and beyond.
Jacksonville led the league in rushing attempts (527) and yards (2,262) in 2017 en route to the AFC title game. The Jaguars even had a postseason-high 101 rushing yards, and the second-place Eagles, who obviously played an extra game, only had 89. Norwell’s signing in Jacksonville signals a further commitment a ground attack that covers up all the passing warts (and losing Allen Robinson in free agency only adds to that, though the Jags will surely address that position in the coming weeks).
Was left guard the most pressing need in Jacksonville? Of course not, and certainly not when considering agent Drew Rosenhaus negotiated the highest average-per-year salary of any offensive lineman for Norwell. But the Jaguars are committed to rushing the ball back to the AFC title game, and Norwell is a huge part of that formula. — Jonathan Jones
Bears Are Gambling on Allen Robinson’s Potential Even After His ACL Tear
The wide receiver market is back. According to NFL Network, Allen Robinson landed a three-year deal with the Bears worth about $14 million per season, which puts him in the Demaryius Thomas/Dez Bryant/Davante Adams neighborhood—a nice place to be for someone who is coming off a torn ACL.
The big bet here for Chicago is on potential. Robinson, a former second-round pick out of Penn State, was part of the face of Jacksonville’s turnaround. One of the first homegrown stars developed by the Dave Caldwell regime, he broke out along with Blake Bortles in 2015 with an 80-catch, 1,400 yard, 14-touchdown season that put him firmly on the radar. The Bears had to come in quickly and over the top to secure a No. 1-type receiver in this market.
I thought our Andy Benoit nailed it in his NFL free agency guide and tracker when he noted that Allen’s greatest strength is down the field and toward the sideline. It’s a place where the best wide receivers win the ball, and Benoit noted that some NFL team would risk a large sum of money to find out if he could do that even after a devastating knee injury.
That happened on Tuesday, with two parties actually taking significant risks. Robinson will be in Chicago for at least two years depending on how much of the reported “guarantees” are actually guaranteed. That means in the same way that Chicago is betting on him, he is betting on a new offensive coaching staff led by Andy Reid disciple Matt Nagy and second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Of the three first-round picks taken at quarterback in 2017, Trubisky—on paper—may be the least exciting destination for a free agent wide receiver looking to bolster his value and hit on one more major contract. Over 12 starts last year, Trubisky threw for 2,193 yards (182.8 per game) with seven touchdowns, seven interceptions and a 77.5 passer rating.
All parties involved are hoping that a cleaned house and a fresh perspective offensively mitigates some of the inevitable concerns Robinson would have in Chicago.
Can Sammy Watkins Play to His Potential in Chiefs’ Now-Loaded Offense?
What a phenomenal deal for Sammy Watkins personally. If you had to put your young-but-fledgling career in the hands of any offensive mind in the NFL right now, wouldn’t it be Andy Reid? The 24-year-old Watkins gets $48 million for three years with $30 million guaranteed, according to the NFL Network, which means two things:
1. Prime wide receiver money at just a million under the Antonio Brown threshold
2. A chance to hit the market again well before Watkins turns 30.
When grading something like this, you have to take into consideration both the benefit from Watkins’s side and the risk taken by Kansas City. Watkins has flashed moments of absolute brilliance throughout his career in Buffalo and Los Angeles, but he’s had to balance his desire to be an Odell Beckham-esque, 10-target-per-game player with lingering health issues and serious changes in offensive scheme. Reid has been consistently able to get his top targets the ball over the years, but is $30 million in guaranteed money too much for someone who has posted just one 1,000-yard season over four years of at least eight games per season?
The wide receiver market and NFL free agency as a whole are strange. A little more than a year ago today, Alshon Jeffery took a high-end one-year deal with the Eagles for less money per year. While that ended up resulting in a heftier extension, Jeffery was arguably a more proven commodity, with two monstrous seasons under his belt already.
From a fan perspective, though, it’s a move that allows people to dream. The prospect of Watkins, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Kareem Hunt in the same offense is dizzying for opposing defensive coordinators on paper. The question is whether Patrick Mahomes can make all the parts work, and this may end up being Reid’s greatest challenge as a head coach. With expectations at uncanny levels, can he deliver a team that was more consistently dominant than any of the Alex Smith-led units now that he has an arsenal of brand-name talent?
Signing Case Keenum Is the Smarter Move for the Broncos Right Now
While this might puzzle some Broncos fans who thought the team was clearing the decks to dabble in the Kirk Cousins sweepstakes, executive vice president John Elway might have made the smarter play. A good point brought up by Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk early Tuesday morning: Keenum will cost about $10 million less than Kirk Cousins, giving Denver the ability to also add a complementary piece at wide receiver. I’ll take that a step further: Since Sammy Watkins and Allen Robinson are both off the board, Elway can also invest in the front five. Justin Pugh and Weston Richburg are among the best offensive linemen remaining in free agency and can both play two different positions. Finding a cheaper, younger replacement for Aqib Talib is also in the cards now.
One more reason to like the Keenum deal? It sounds like the contract will be similar to the one Mike Glennon signed in Chicago last season, meaning that it’s not prohibitive for the Broncos in the long-term. There’s a good chance the always-aggressive Elway wants to take another swing at the quarterback position in this year’s draft. Sitting at No. 5, he is very much in play for one of the five big-time talents (Jackson, Darnold, Rosen, Mayfield, Allen) and could provide his team the comfort of a short-term quality starter alongside the promise of a long-term rookie option.
Keenum played in two fewer games than Cousins last year and finished just 546 yards behind the former Washington quarterback. Cousins threw just five more touchdowns and almost doubled Keenum’s interception total. Pat Shurmur, Keenum’s offensive coordinator in Minnesota last year, was finally able to put a practical spin on an offense that accentuated Keenum’s best attributes. Throughout his seven-year career, there’s been a reason he was almost always thrust into an emergency starter role, and now he has the confidence and comfort of at least a one-year residency under center in Denver. It was interesting to see Keenum make the first major wave of news during NFL free agency and not strategically wait and see what Cousins does, which could have improved his asking price from a desperate team looking for a silver medal. At the same time, he might have ended up in the best offensive situation out of the teams still searching for a starting quarterback.