NFL free agency was a welcome distraction for the first few days. The flurry of activity was a nice way to take our minds off of the growing coronavirus pandemic.
But reality is setting in again, and with it the notion that all of these free agency moves may be for naught. Already the NFL has essentially canceled offseason workouts. And if we are at least a year away from a vaccine, and experts are saying we may need to go through two to four rounds of social distancing, how are teams going to congregate 90 players for meetings, practices, and physical contact in August? How is the NFL going to jam 65,000 fans into a stadium this fall? It’s hard to remain optimistic.
But we’ll carry on for now, under the assumption that somehow life will return to normal at some point this year. So let’s take a look at some of the action that happened in free agency the past week:
▪ How weird is 2020? Tom Brady is a Buccaneer, Philip Rivers is a Colt, and Ryan Tannehill is a made man. Not only did the Titans not want Brady, they gave Tannehill a four-year, $118 million contract that is essentially three years guaranteed at $91 million, including $37.5 million this year.
Factoring in a new contract for Kirk Cousins and a franchise tag for Dak Prescott, Tannehill is now the ninth-highest-paid quarterback in the NFL in terms of average annual value ($29.5 million), eighth-highest in total guarantee ($91 million), and fifth-highest in full guarantee ($62 million).
And, yes, locking up Tannehill to this contract was the right move for the Titans. He and the team had an unbelievable 2019 season — Tannehill’s passing stats were out of this world — and the Titans would have been crazy to scrap it all for 43-year-old Brady. Trying to build on last year is their best course.
▪ Cousins’s two-year extension gave the Vikings some much-needed salary-cap relief while also rewarding him handsomely. Entering the final year of his previous contract, Cousins got a three-year, $96 million deal through the 2022 season that is basically fully guaranteed and makes him the fifth-highest-paid QB in average annual value ($33 million). Cousins got a pay raise from $29.5 million to $40 million this year (plus $2 million more in incentives), but his cap number decreased from $31 million to $21 million. But Cousins’s cap number in 2022 will be a whopping $45 million, so expect another restructure before that season.
▪ Jimmy Garoppolo didn’t sign anything, but it turned out to be a pretty solid week for him. Cousins agreeing to an extension in Minnesota should (but still probably won’t) end all speculation about the 49ers dumping Garoppolo and making a run at Cousins next offseason.
And 49ers fans probably feel better about Garoppolo’s contract after seeing the deals signed by Cousins and Tannehill. Garoppolo’s contract, which averages $27.5 million per year and will pay him $25.2 million in 2020, was the richest in the NFL when he signed it in February 2018. Two years later, Garoppolo ranks 10th in average annual value, and he’ll continue to slide when Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson get their new deals. The 49ers now have a quarterback on a reasonable deal who just led his team to a Super Bowl appearance.
▪ Rivers signing a one-year, $25 million deal with the Colts meant Jacoby Brissett or Brian Hoyer was on his way out, and on Saturday, they chose the latter. Both had guaranteed bonuses due Sunday, the Colts paying $7 million for Brissett and avoiding the $2 million for Hoyer.
Brissett has a $6 million salary and $2 million in per-game bonuses this year, and the Colts may be able to find a trade partner after paying that bonus. But will the Colts want to trade Brissett after paying him $22 million for one season? It wouldn’t be the worst idea to keep him as the backup, in case Rivers fades down the stretch.
▪ As for Rivers, 38, I was surprised to see him land another starting job. But the Colts believe their window to win is now — they also traded the 13th overall draft pick for defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. Colts coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni coached Rivers with the Chargers earlier this decade, and think they can run it back one more time.
▪ It was a tough week for free agent receivers. Only six signed contracts — Amari Cooper in Dallas, Randall Cobb in Houston, Damiere Byrd in New England, Seth Roberts in Carolina, Emmanuel Sanders in New Orleans, and Nelson Agholor in Las Vegas. A.J. Green got the franchise tag, while Larry Fitzgerald and Danny Amendola signed earlier this offseason.
Cooper certainly got paid — a five-year deal worth exactly $20 million per year — but otherwise the receiver market is being significantly depressed, with most experts pinning in on the excellent crop of receivers in this year’s draft.
Two star receivers were traded for less than expected — Stefon Diggs went for a low first-round pick, and DeAndre Hopkins basically went for a second-rounder. Robby Anderson, Breshad Perriman, Devin Funchess, Phillip Dorsett, and many others are still available.
▪ It is ridiculous that the Cowboys and Prescott haven’t yet agreed on a long-term contract extension. Since last fall, the end game has been obvious — Prescott getting the exclusive franchise tag, which the Cowboys gave him Monday. That was always going to be the starting point for any negotiation, and most teams and quarterbacks in similar situations would strike a long-term deal well before having to actually use the tag.
But both sides appear to be playing hardball for some reason. Prescott will make $30.144 million this year on the tag, and a tag next year would pay him $36.17 million. That's the starting point.
▪ Of the 14 players given the franchise tag this year, Prescott was the only one to get the exclusive tag. The other 13 could still sign with another team, but that team would have to trade two first-round picks.
Saints quarterback Taysom Hill was the only restricted free agent in the league to get the first-round tender. If another team signs him away, it must also trade its first-round pick.
▪ Quarterback musical chairs is just about finished, and Jameis Winston and Cam Newton are left without a seat (assuming the Chargers will roll with Tyrod Taylor and a draft pick, and the Patriots go with Jarrett Stidham). I view Winston’s best options as Jacksonville, Pittsburgh, the Los Angeles Rams, and the New York Jets. For Newton, his best options may be the teams with ex-Panthers connections: Redskins (Ron Rivera), Giants (Dave Gettleman), or Bills (Sean McDermott). Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, and Dallas could be options, too.
CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS
The math didn’t fit with Brady
The Patriots could have worked with Tom Brady and fit him in under the salary cap had they really wanted. But the more I crunch the numbers, the more I understand that it just wasn’t going to work.
The Saints were willing to do whatever it took with Drew Brees — who, like Brady, had a big issue with dead cap money — and signed him to a two-year, $50 million deal. It has a $23 million signing bonus, base salaries of $2 million and $25 million, and two void years for cap purposes. His cap number for this year is a reasonable $23.65 million.
Let’s say the Patriots gave Brady the same deal before March 18. His cap number for 2020 would have been a very practical $14.5 million, which includes his dead money from his previous contract. But Brady’s 2021 cap number would have been an eye-popping $37.5 million. And he would have had $11.5 million in dead money in 2022.
Even when I play with the numbers, it’s hard to avoid the albatross of a big cap number in the future — around $35 million in 2021, or a dead-money hit of around $24 million in 2022.
The Patriots also could have waited until after March 18 to re-sign Brady. This would have put $13.5 million of cap money into 2020, but cleared out 2021 and beyond. The same deal Brees got would result in cap numbers for Brady of $21.25 million, $30.75 million, and a 2022 dead-money hit of $11.5 million.
The Saints decided they will deal with the large cap hits. Brees will have a cap number of $36.15 million in 2021, and a dead hit of $11.5 million in 2022. The Saints could probably restructure him again next year to lower the number, but at some point they will have to take a large hit.
So, I get why the Patriots wanted to move on. Brady is going to be 43 years old, and the Patriots don’t want to be saddled with massive future cap hits, or be forced to annually restructure Brady’s contract and push money down the road. They are taking a $13.5 million cap hit this year and making a clean break.
It was a great run, Tom.
Should Patriots trade Edelman?
A few other Patriots notes:
▪ Now that Tom Brady is in Tampa, do the Patriots trade Julian Edelman? I’m sure Brady would love to have him, but Edelman still has value to the Patriots, both as a receiver and with a contract that will pay him anywhere from $6.5 million to $14.5 million total the next two years.
A trade before June 1 would save the Patriots $4.33 million in cap space this year. A trade after June 1 would save $7 million. The Patriots are tight on space this year, so this is one move to watch. But Edelman is fairly cheap, is a hard worker, and still is a productive receiver, so I would keep him.
▪ One situation I’m watching closely is that of cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who may understandably want a pay raise after winning the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award. Gilmore’s contract of $13 million per year ranks 10th-highest among cornerbacks, and players such as Byron Jones, Trae Waynes, and Darius Slay all passed him significantly this offseason. Gilmore is set to make $11 million in 2020, which is at least 12th highest.
Because Gilmore has restructured his contract multiple times with the Patriots, a pre-June 1 trade would only create $3.33 million in cap space and doesn’t make much sense. But a post-June 1 trade would create $11 million in cap savings, and could potentially net the Patriots a great haul of draft picks.
Dolphins making good moves
Winning the offseason rarely results in winning games in the fall, but you have to like what the Dolphins are accomplishing.
Armed with $90 million in cap space entering the year, the Dolphins signed Jones to a five year, $82.5 million contract, giving them two of the top three highest-paid cornerbacks in the game (also Xavien Howard). They added a solid three-down linebacker in Kyle Van Noy, who already knows Brian Flores’s defensive system well.
They beefed up their pass rush with Shaq Lawson and Emmanuel Ogbah, attempted to fortify their offensive line with Ereck Flowers and Ted Karras, and signed a core special teamer in Kamu Grugier-Hill.
All this supplements the talent that started blossoming during the second half of last season, when the Dolphins finished 5-4.
To top it off, the Dolphins have a boatload of draft picks coming up — three in the first round, and six in the top 70. Now all they have to do is find a quarterback.
The DeAndre Hopkins trade in Houston shows why it is important to have separate people serving as general manager and head coach (unless you have Bill Belichick). Bill O’Brien the coach did a disservice to O’Brien the general manager, letting his emotions get in the way and trading Hopkins for a relative pittance. I understand moving on from Hopkins — his contract demands were high and this year’s draft is loaded with receivers — but O’Brien needs someone with a cooler head to take the point on some of these roster decisions … How badly did the Jaguars want to move on from Nick Foles? They are taking an $18.75 million dead-cap hit, and saving only $3 million in cap space, by trading him to the Bears. The Jaguars paid Foles $30.5 million to ultimately play in four games, all losses … As for the Bears, they’re taking on Foles and his $21 million guaranteed over two seasons. But that doesn’t necessarily make him the starter. A league source close to one of this year’s free agent quarterbacks said he spoke with the Bears at the Combine, and said they were looking for a veteran to push Mitchell Trubisky, but not necessarily to replace him right away. Foles looks like this year’s Ryan Tannehill — he might not start right away, but could get the job quickly if Trubisky falters in August or September. The seats of GM Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy are red-hot … If Brady needs intel on his new coaches, he can talk to his good buddy Peyton Manning. Bruce Arians was the Colts’ quarterbacks coach for Manning’s first three seasons (1998-2000), and Buccaneers quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen was a Colts receivers coach (2002-08) and offensive coordinator (2009-11) … The smartest moves of free agency go to the Baltimore Ravens, who are reloading on defense by adding Calais Campbell and Michael Brockers to the front. Getting Campbell for a fifth-round pick was a steal (the Jaguars needed the cap space). I also really like the Browns’ moves, adding solid tight end Austin Hooper and solid right tackle Jack Conklin . . . Don’t feel too bad for Todd Gurley, who was released by the Rams this past week. He still made $27 million the last two years, and will make $11 million this year — $5 million in guaranteed bonus money from the Rams, and $6 million from the Falcons after signing there Friday. Few, if any, running backs make this type of money in today’s NFL . . . Tua Tagovailoa was already going to be one of the most scrutinized draft picks as he recovers from his major hip injury. But thanks to the coronavirus, Tagovailoa won’t be able to visit teams before the draft, and team doctors won’t be able to poke and prod him further. I still predict he’ll go to the Dolphins, either at No. 5 or a trade up to No. 3. But teams won’t be able to do as much diligence on his hip, and a risky draft pick becomes even riskier.