The first wave of free agency is pretty much complete after two weeks, with dozens of players switching teams and hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts being awarded.
The Patriots were the busiest team, shelling out $175 million fully guaranteed for 23 players as of Friday afternoon. Let’s take a look elsewhere around the league at some of the best free agent moves, and some that make you scratch your head:
▪ I’m digging the program that Ron Rivera is building in Washington. Not content with last year’s 7-9 record that resulted in a surprising NFC East title, the Football Team made three great signings. It added the perfect veteran quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick for just $10 million, gave him a great young weapon in 25-year-old receiver Curtis Samuel, and upgraded the defense with cornerback William Jackson. Washington will return most of its No. 2-ranked defense, and its 30th-ranked offense should be much improved.
▪ The Chiefs made salary-cap cuts out of both starting offensive tackles, Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz, but they made a terrific addition in Joe Thuney, even if they had to pay him $48 million over the next three years. The Super Bowl proved that the Chiefs must upgrade their protection in front of Patrick Mahomes, and in Thuney they landed one of the most durable, versatile, and reliable offensive linemen in the NFL. Plus, the Chiefs still could re-sign Fisher or Schwartz to lower contracts later.
Thuney’s agent, Mike McCartney, told Fansided that the Patriots were late entrants into the Thuney sweepstakes, and per the article, their interest was “significant after being quiet much of the season.” The Bengals, Chargers, and Jets also were in on Thuney, but the Chiefs made the first offer, and the most significant.
▪ The Chargers were also smart to improve the protection in front of young franchise quarterback Justin Herbert. They paid a pretty penny for former Packer Corey Linsley, giving him $26 million over the next two years when most other centers were in the $3 million-$5 million range per year this offseason. They also added guard/tackle Matt Feiler, who started 39 games for the Steelers the last three seasons.
▪ Two teams took advantage of a soft receiver market. The Steelers got JuJu Smith-Schuster back for one year and only $8 million, which is great as they go for one last run with Ben Roethlisberger. The Dolphins got Tua Tagovailoa a much-needed upgrade by signing speedster Will Fuller to a one-year deal worth a little more than $10 million, plus $3 million in incentives. The Dolphins also made a smart move in signing an experienced veteran in Jacoby Brissett to back up Tagovailoa for $5 million guaranteed, plus $2.5 million in incentives.
▪ The Bills have mostly been quiet in free agency, but I love the signing of veteran receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Though he just turned 34, Sanders caught five touchdown passes last year and has gone for at least 60 catches and 700 yards in each of his last three seasons. Sanders essentially replaces John Brown and should be a great safety net for Josh Allen.
▪ And I like the Giants getting a big weapon for Daniel Jones in receiver Kenny Golladay, even if they had to give him a four-year, $72 million contract, with about half of it fully guaranteed. This is a big, no-excuses year for Jones, and now he has a terrific 6-foot-4-inch receiver on the outside.
▪ Can anyone explain what Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock are doing in Las Vegas? They dumped three-fifths of their offensive line from a year ago, trading guard Gabe Jackson to Seattle, tackle Trent Brown to New England, and center Rodney Hudson to Arizona, with Hudson costing them $12 million in dead cap space. Meanwhile, the player they invested in was a . . . running back? The Raiders already have Josh Jacobs, but they spent $11 million guaranteed over two years for Kenyan Drake, who is a nice player but plays the NFL’s most injury-prone and replaceable position.
▪ Eleven quarterbacks have signed contracts this offseason, including eight who have switched teams, yet the Broncos have curiously not added a QB. The starter is still Drew Lock, whose 75.4 passer rating ranked 32nd out of 35 QBs last year, and their only backups are Brett Rypien and Jeff Driskel. Perhaps the Broncos were hoping to make a run at Deshaun Watson, which now has hit a major snag. One league source said he was surprised that Mitchell Trubisky signed with the Bills, because the Broncos showed interest. Jimmy Garoppolo is now potentially available, or perhaps the Broncos will show interest in Gardner Minshew, who may be on the trade block in Jacksonville.
▪ I don’t understand the Bengals’ logic at edge rusher. They had a solid homegrown player hit free agency in Carl Lawson, but let him sign with the Jets for three years and $45 million (two years and $30 million fully guaranteed). Instead, the Bengals shelled out big money for former Saints pass rusher Trey Hendrickson, giving him either $20 million for one season or $32 million for two seasons. Hendrickson had just 6½ sacks in his first three seasons combined before exploding for 13½ in his contract year. Why the Bengals chose Hendrickson over Lawson is a strange one.
▪ The Buccaneers have brought back Shaq Barrett, Chris Godwin, Lavonte David, Rob Gronkowski, Ndamukong Suh, Leonard Fournette, and all of their own role players, but haven’t signed a single player from outside the organization. The Patriots were always good about making changes even after Super Bowl seasons, and the Buccaneers may find it difficult to replicate last year’s success with the exact same cast of players.
▪ While the Dolphins made solid moves on the offensive side, they made some curious ones on defense. The Dolphins didn’t have a great pass rush last year, and now have a big hole on the edge after trading Shaq Lawson, releasing Kyle Van Noy, and not addressing the position in free agency. The Van Noy release was especially curious. Yes, the salary cap decreased this year, and Van Noy was going to cost $12 million. But the Dolphins weren’t in cap trouble, signed Van Noy to the contract last year knowing full well what kind of player he was, and he delivered exactly as expected, with six sacks and other stats precisely in line with his career numbers.
▪ The Titans’ moves had a whiff of desperation, particularly with the signing of former Steelers edge rusher Bud Dupree. The Titans only had 19 sacks last season, and got zero out of expensive free agent signees Jadeveon Clowney and Vic Beasley. Now GM Jon Robinson is taking a big swing again with Dupree, basically giving him $35 million guaranteed over two seasons. That’s a lot of coin for a guy who has averaged 6½ sacks per season and never fulfilled expectations in Pittsburgh.
▪ Nick Caserio is having a weird first offseason in Houston. He isn’t signing any impact free agents, but is spending a good chunk of money on mid-range veterans (such as Shaq Lawson, Marcus Cannon, Christian Kirksey, Terrence Mitchell, Jordan Jenkins, and Andre Roberts) who don’t have much of a future with the team. Are the Texans rebuilding or trying to win quickly? Pick a lane.
What does 49ers’ move mean for Garoppolo?
The 49ers shook up the NFL on Friday by trading a boatload of picks to the Dolphins to jump from No. 12 to No. 3 in this year’s draft. The most obvious conclusion is that the 49ers will draft one of the top quarterback prospects, with Mac Jones getting buzz alongside Zach Wilson and Justin Fields. The other logical conclusion is that Jimmy Garoppolo, on the books for $25.5 million this year, is now available in a trade.
A few thoughts:
▪ The Patriots should make a run at Garoppolo, considering their minimal investment in Cam Newton ($3.5 million guaranteed for one year). As I wrote March 8, a trade for Garoppolo will likely be a third- or fourth-round pick, plus a restructured, multiyear contract that is probably heavy on incentives and per-game bonuses. The Patriots will need to do that, since they couldn’t fit his $25.5 million salary under the salary cap without other moves.
▪ While the Patriots will be the heavy favorite to land Garoppolo, don’t discount the Broncos, Bears, or possibly the Saints as suitors. The Broncos and Bears are desperate for a QB (and Garoppolo is a Chicago kid), while Garoppolo seems like he’d be a great fit with Sean Payton.
▪ Of course, there’s always a chance Garoppolo won’t be traded. ESPN’s Adam Schefter quoted an unnamed 49ers source Friday saying, “Jimmy is here to stay. He’s our guy this year.” That may just be the 49ers trying to get better trade value. Or perhaps they’re doing what the Chiefs did in 2017 by drafting Patrick Mahomes, then sitting him behind Alex Smith the whole year. Fields’s cap number as the No. 3 pick will only be in the $7 million range.
▪ This all but ensures that quarterbacks will be taken with the first three picks in the draft between Trevor Lawrence, Wilson, Fields, Jones, and Trey Lance. The Falcons now sit in the catbird seat with the No. 4 pick. They could take a QB and sit him behind Matt Ryan for a year or two, or they could trade the pick to the Panthers, Broncos, Patriots, Washington, Bears, or Steelers.
▪ The Dolphins picked up extra first-round picks in 2022 and 2023, then turned around and flipped a 2022 first-rounder to the Eagles to move up from No. 12 to No. 6 this year. Don’t be surprised if they want one of the top offensive playmakers, LSU receiver Ja’Marr Chase or Florida tight end Kyle Pitts.
The Dolphins now have picks 6, 18, and 36 this year, plus several extra high picks the next two seasons. Dolphins GM Chris Grier turned offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil into four first-round picks.
▪ The Eagles now have two first-round picks in 2022, and could have three depending on how much Carson Wentz plays in Indianapolis. If Jalen Hurts doesn’t work out this year, the Eagles will be primed to find a QB next year, in the draft or with someone such as Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson.
Kingsbury’s time is about to come
A few other top story lines of free agency so far:
▪ Kliff Kingsbury is 13-18-1 with no playoff appearances in two seasons as the Cardinals’ coach, and it sure seems like his bosses are putting a lot of pressure on him to win this year. The Cardinals have signed several players over 30 years old — J.J. Watt, A.J. Green, Malcolm Butler, and even kicker Matt Prater — the type of moves that scream “win now . . . or else.”
▪ Can’t help but chuckle at the recent comments from new Jaguars coach Urban Meyer about the free agency process and how it differs from college.
“In [college] recruiting, we would have our recruiting meeting and identify the best players and say, ‘Go get them,’ ” Meyer said, via ESPN. “And then all of a sudden I start finding out this guy cost $28 million and this guy costs . . . "
Meyer also didn’t like that he had to sign free agents without meeting them first.
“That was awful, and I don’t believe it should be that way,” he said. “Not when you’re making organizational decisions. I’m not sure how that rule came about, but to me that’s not good business.”
Welcome to the big leagues, coach.
▪ Speaking of the Jaguars, the rumors are getting stronger that they will trade quarterback Gardner Minshew after signing C.J. Beathard to a two-year deal that pays him $3 million this year. But Minshew is valuable as a backup — turns 25 in May, has already started 20 games in two seasons (7-13 record), has thrown 37 touchdown passes against 11 interceptions, and most importantly is under contract for dirt cheap ($850,000 this season and about $2.5 million next year).
The only logic I can see is that the Jaguars know Minshew is popular with the fan base and don’t want any sort of controversy with Trevor Lawrence about who should be playing quarterback. Perhaps a second- or third-round pick from the Broncos would get it done.
Cold from draft
The Patriots released kicker Justin Rohrwasser this past week, leaving another pockmark on Bill Belichick’s draft record. To be fair, every GM whiffs on picks, Belichick has had his share of late-round hits, and Rohrwasser was only a fifth-round pick, where the success rate is low. But to make Rohrwasser the first kicker taken in the draft, and then release him after one year and zero games played, represents a terrible misevaluation by Belichick and the Patriots.
Rohrwasser joins an alarmingly growing list of wasted draft picks by Belichick in the last five years. Cornerback Duke Dawson (56th overall, 2018) was traded and offensive tackle Tony Garcia (85th, 2017) was released without playing a snap, and third-round pick Yodny Cajuste (101st, 2019) has spent his first two years on injured lists. Cornerback Joejuan Williams (45th, 2019) has done very little in two seasons, same with receiver N’Keal Harry (32nd in 2019), and cornerback Cyrus Jones (60th, 2016) was released after one year.
The NFL Draft was held in Roger Goodell’s basement last year but should look fairly normal this year. The event will be held in downtown Cleveland, top prospects will be invited to attend, and the NFL this past week told teams that they can return to the “war room” setup with as many as 10 people in the room, as long as participants are fully vaccinated. Masks won’t be required if everyone in the room is vaccinated . . . Deshaun Watson’s legal troubles have turned exceptionally ugly, and the sheer number of sexual harassment or assault allegations has derailed any hope he could have of getting traded for the time being. The NFL has no need to do anything now since the season is so far off, but it may eventually have to put Watson on the commissioner’s exempt list while the legal process plays out, which would take Watson off the field for months or longer. Watson may need to find a way to settle these lawsuits quickly, even if it means facing a suspension from the NFL . . . In the Buccaneers’ 2020 video yearbook from NFL Films, who do we see celebrating a touchdown on the sideline while wearing Buccaneers gear from head to toe? TB12′s own Alex Guerrero, who infamously had his sideline pass, team gear, and seat on the team plane taken away by Belichick in the middle of the 2017 season (the travel seat was restored in 2018, but not the sideline pass). The Buccaneers, however, are happy to give Tom Brady whatever he wants.