NFL free agency had a record-setting start, with 20 players moving to different teams on contracts worth $10 million or more per year. That included a pair of safeties resetting the market, a running back getting big money that still fell short of expectations and several high-profile trades.
It was the 26th anniversary of free agency, and the money was bigger and the pace faster. Here are eight takeaways from the first wave of signings.
Defense cost the Kansas City Chiefs a Super Bowl trip. Now they may be in worse shape.
The Chiefs released edge rusher Justin Houston and safety Eric Berry, cornerback Steven Nelson left for the Pittsburgh Steelers in free agency, and in the most surprising move, they traded edge rusher Dee Ford to the San Francisco 49ers for a 2020 second-round draft pick after placing the franchise tag on him.
Their only answer so far is adding former Houston Texans safety Tyrann Mathieu, who will replace Berry, on a three-year, $42 million deal, and smaller moves for linebacker Damien Wilson and defensive end Alex Okafor.
Do the Chiefs have more moves planned? As of now, they’re down their top two edge rushers from a year ago and have more work to do to fix their porous secondary. They might once again have to ask quarterback Patrick Mahomes to outscore opponents every week.
The Green Bay Packers finally got into the free agent market.
Former general manager Ted Thompson shied away from building through free agency. From 2010 through 2017, Thompson spent only $8.575 million in free agent contracts. In six of those seven years, he didn’t spend a dime.
This year, the Packers paid four players $183 million in contracts. They spent heavily to improve the defense, adding two edge rushers — Za’Darius Smith of the Baltimore Ravens and Preston Smith of the Washington Redskins — and former Chicago Bears safety Adrian Amos. Most observers were surprised that they gave offensive lineman Billy Turner $7 million per year.
Welcome to free agency, Green Bay. It appears the Packers are doing their best to build up the roster around Aaron Rodgers.
More teams are willing to make trades.
Nine trades were agreed upon before the official start of the league year, the latest sign that many of the NFL’s younger general managers are willing to give up draft picks to fill roster needs with established players.
But the biggest deal involved a pair of veteran GMs for the Cleveland Browns and the New York Giants. John Dorsey added wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and defensive end Olivier Vernon to Cleveland’s roster, a year after trading for wide receiver Jarvis Landry.
Another experienced decision-maker, New England’s Bill Belichick, has been the most aggressive in making deals. He traded for defensive end Michael Bennett this week, and he has picked up 14 veterans in trades over the past four years. Many of those deals involved players in the third and fourth years of their rookie contracts. His M.O. is to find roles for those players in the Patriots’ offensive and defensive schemes, then sign them to extensions or, more often, let them go in free agency and recoup compensatory draft picks.
This past year provided a perfect example: The Patriots traded for then-San Francisco 49ers offensive tackle Trent Brown in April, started him at left tackle en route to a Super Bowl championship, let him go to the Oakland Raiders this week on a megadeal and now will get a third-round compensatory draft pick for him next year.
The New York Giants don’t appear to have a plan.
First, they didn’t use the franchise tag on safety Landon Collins, who subsequently got $14 million per year from the NFC East rival Washington Redskins on the open market. Even if the Giants didn’t want to pay Collins, using the tag on him and then trading him would seem to have been the wiser move.
Then they traded Vernon and Beckham — high-level players at premium positions, with Beckham being one of the most dynamic playmakers in the league — for guard Kevin Zeitler, safety Jabrill Peppers and two draft choices (No. 17 overall and a third-round choice). That adds up to three Pro Bowl players no longer on a roster that has several other question marks, including at quarterback with Eli Manning. It’s a head-scratcher. They did reach an agreement with wide receiver Golden Tate on Thursday.
The safety market exploded.
After safeties struggled to get paid in free agency last year, five got contracts of $10 million or more per year. It’s easy to see why Collins would set the market, having made three Pro Bowls in four seasons. Mathieu also cashed in after succeeding on a one-year prove-it deal with Houston, and Earl Thomas joins the Baltimore Ravens defense for $13.75 million per year.
Le’Veon Bell didn’t change leverage for players who don’t want to be franchise-tagged.
Bell sat out the season and missed out on $14.5 million, then found his market softer than expected and signed with the New York Jets for $13.1 million per year. Not only did he take a pay cut, but his cash flow wasn’t close to what he could have received in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ last offer. He received $5 million in the first year, and $7 million less than what he could have received in the third year.
He wanted a record-breaking contract for a running back. Instead, he made less than three safeties.
Bell wasn’t the only running back who didn’t get much love on the open market. Mark Ingram (Ravens) and Tevin Coleman (49ers) each took $5 million or less per season.
The Buffalo Bills and New York Jets keep chasing the Patriots.
The Bills loaded up on offense, adding wide receivers John Brown, Andre Roberts and Cole Beasley, tight end Tyler Kroft, running back Frank Gore and four offensive linemen, including former Chiefs center Mitch Morse.
The Jets were more aggressive in terms of contract size, doling out a massive contract for an inside linebacker to former Raven C.J. Mosley, who took home $17 million per year. They also added Bell, slot receiver Jamison Crowder and guard Kelechi Osemele (in a trade with Oakland) to build up the offense around second-year quarterback Sam Darnold.
The Raiders may have overpaid for Trent Brown.
Oakland’s splashiest move was the trade with the Steelers for star wide receiver Antonio Brown, but the deal that might deserve more scrutiny is the signing of Trent Brown to a deal worth $16.5 million per year. That made him the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history, less than a year after the team used first- and third-round draft choices on tackles Kolton Miller and Brandon Parker.
It’s possible Brown ends up at right tackle for the Raiders. That’s an important position, particularly in the AFC West, which features a pair of edge rushers in Von Miller (Denver Broncos) and Joey Bosa (Los Angeles Chargers) who line up primarily against the right side of the offense, but not one that warrants a salary anywhere close to what Brown will make.
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