Let’s get right to it, with news, notes, insights, and reactions to the first few days of NFL free agency:
■ The wow contracts: Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler, Giants defensive end Olivier Vernon and cornerback Janoris Jenkins, Jaguars defensive end Malik Jackson, and Saints tight end Coby Fleener.
■ Osweiler started just seven games in four seasons and got benched for Peyton Manning before the playoffs, but still parlayed that 5-2 record with the Broncos into a four-year, $72 million contract with the quarterback-desperate Texans. The $35 million owed over the final two years is pay-as-you-go funny money, but the first two years are very real. Osweiler got a $12 million signing bonus and $37 million fully guaranteed in the first two seasons. The Texans went all-in on Osweiler. Good luck, kid.
■ Giants GM Jerry Reese spent money Wednesday like a man fighting for his job, giving Jenkins the second-highest guarantee ever for a cornerback ($29 million) and Vernon $41 million guaranteed over the first two years of his deal, and $54 million over three years. Vernon, a 25-year-old pass rusher with 29 career sacks, and Jenkins, a 27-year-old potential No. 1 cornerback, were arguably the top two free agents available this year.
Reese also gave nose tackle Damon Harrison $20 million guaranteed over two years. That’s $90 million for three players for the next two seasons.
■ Jackson has only been a starter for one season, but the Jaguars gave him crazy money — $31.5 million guaranteed over the next two years, or about $2.5 million for each of his 14 sacks. We’ll see how much of Jackson’s success last year in Denver was because of his play versus the one-on-one matchups he got thanks to Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, and Derek Wolfe.
■ And the Saints gave Fleener an eye-opening contract to fill their void at tight end created by the departure of Jimmy Graham. Fleener averaged 46 catches, 539 yards, and 4 touchdowns in four underwhelming seasons with the Colts, but the Saints rewarded him with an $8 million signing bonus and $14.6 million guaranteed for the first two years of his five-year deal. The $14.6 million is $600,000 more than Rob Gronkowski is set to make over the next two years (more on that in a bit).
■ Some curious roster decisions in Miami. The Dolphins let a lot of young talent walk out the door by allowing four players to sign elsewhere: Vernon, running back Lamar Miller (Houston), wide receiver Rishard Matthews (Tennessee), and defensive end Derrick Shelby (Atlanta). Yes, those players were drafted four years ago by a different regime, but the Dolphins still needed to retain some of their young, homegrown talent.
The Dolphins chose old over young, keeping 34-year-old Cameron Wake and 31-year-old Mario Williams over Vernon. They also traded with the Eagles for a cornerback with a bad shoulder who barely passed his physical (Byron Maxwell) and a linebacker who has torn the same ACL twice (Kiko Alonso).
■ The Falcons’ Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli spent wildly, if not desperately, in the first two days of free agency. They gave center Alex Mack $20 million guaranteed over the next two years, receiver Mohamed Sanu $14 million over two years, and almost $12 million for defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Shelby.
■ The Broncos are in a hole at quarterback, and trading for Mark Sanchez on Friday doesn’t fill it. But criticizing John Elway for letting Osweiler “slip away” is laughable. Just because Osweiler was a second-round pick and the backup quarterback does not automatically make him the heir apparent. If Elway doesn’t think Osweiler is worthy of taking over at quarterback or worth $37 million, well, he knows a lot more about Osweiler than we do after spending the last four years with him. The Broncos will probably get a third- or fourth-round compensatory draft pick for Osweiler, too.
That said, the Broncos enter quarterback purgatory and will have to rely on retreads such as Ryan Fitzpatrick or Colin Kaepernick for one or more years until they find their next quarterback. Elway pulled off Manning four years ago, now what does he have up his sleeve?
■ Certain players that were connected to the Patriots ultimately were far too expensive for their tastes. Among many reasons not to spend big money in free agency, the Patriots are mindful of their salary hierarchy — i.e. making sure they don’t pay free agents more than their current top players.
The Patriots would never entertain Sanu at $7 million. The Lions gave wide receiver Marvin Jones $13 million guaranteed for one season and $20 million over two seasons. The Jets gave $14 million guaranteed over two years to running backs Matt Forte and Bilal Powell. Matthews got $15 million over four seasons from the Titans, but only $2.5 million guaranteed, which perhaps shows a lack of serious interest from the Patriots.
■ Think the Chiefs are concerned about Tamba Hali’s weight? The 32-year-old signed a restructured deal that requires him to weigh in five times per season, at $100,000 each. That said, Hali still did get $11 million guaranteed over the next two years.
■ Why are the Jets so far apart with Fitzpatrick? For one, they have only $3.997 million in cap space, according to NFLPA records, and couldn’t sign Fitzpatrick for backup money now, let alone the $10-plus million he likely is seeking. The Jets are carrying unwieldy cap numbers for Darrelle Revis ($17 million) and Muhammad Wilkerson ($15.7 million), and might have to cut or restructure several high-priced veterans to create cap space, including left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson, wide receiver Brandon Marshall, center Nick Mangold, cornerback Buster Skrine, linebacker David Harris, right tackle Breno Giacomini, and safety Marcus Gilchrist.
RE-SIGN OF THINGS TO COME
Patriots instead are saving up
The Patriots have been quiet in free agency because they already have their front-end players under contract. They also are saving up to re-sign players whose contracts expire after the 2016 season: Malcolm Butler, Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, Logan Ryan, Jabaal Sheard, Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, and Duron Harmon on the defensive side alone. Whew.
But the Patriots might also be saving up to deal with a couple of their offensive stars. They hooked up Tom Brady last week with a $28 million signing bonus. Now it might behoove them to take care of Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman to head off any possible discontent.
To be clear, while Gronkowski has mentioned via Twitter that he is “underpaid,” Edelman hasn’t uttered one peep about his contract situation. But when Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan are set to make more money than Edelman in 2016, and middle-of-the-road receivers such as Mohamed Sanu are getting $7 million signing bonuses and $14 million guaranteed, Edelman likely can’t help but feel a tinge of disrespect over his current deal.
Edelman is entering the third year of a four-year, $17 million contract he signed before the 2014 season. His base salary this year is $2.5 million. If everything goes perfectly — he plays in all 16 games, catches seven touchdown passes, or has more than 1,057 receiving yards — he can make as much as $4 million. Amendola, meanwhile, is set to make $5 million this year with an extra $500,000 in incentives. Hogan, per reports, could make around $5 million this year, too.
So the Patriots could have a situation where their best and most productive receiver not only is underpaid compared with the rest of the league — top receivers make more than $14 million — but is also making the least among his own team’s top three receivers.
Gronkowski, meanwhile, is vastly underpaid compared with the other elite offensive weapons in the NFL, even after the Patriots just paid Gronkowski a $6 million option bonus. He is set to make $2.25 million in base salary this year, with another $750,000 in bonuses, for a maximum total compensation of $9 million this year. And Gronkowski is due to make just $5 million next year.
Even if Gronkowski and Edelman don’t want to rock the boat with the Patriots, they have some leverage now. The Patriots’ offense fell apart after Edelman broke his foot last year, and Gronk’s impact has been established.
Edelman and Gronkowski are still young and healthy, yet both have a lengthy injury history that could derail their careers at any moment. And NFL teams never hesitate to squeeze their players for paycuts or outright releases the moment the players’ production doesn’t match their contracts. If ever there were a time for Edelman and Gronkowski to use their leverage to get more money — by skipping offseason workouts or threatening a holdout, for example — this offseason is it.
SO LONG, FAREWELL
Quite a list of recent retirees
While the past week was a giant celebration of players switching teams and signing big contracts, we should also take a moment to recognize the players who have retired from the NFL in the five weeks since the Super Bowl. It is quite an eye-popping list.
Among those walking away from football this offseason are Peyton Manning, Calvin Johnson, Charles Woodson, Jared Allen, Logan Mankins, and Matt Hasselbeck. They have 44 Pro Bowl appearances between them, and all but Hasselbeck should be serious candidates for the Pro Football Hall of Fame when they gain eligibility in 2021.
Manning and Woodson are locks to gain induction in their first year of eligibility. Allen is tied for ninth with Julius Peppers with 136 career sacks. Guards have a hard time getting inducted into the Hall, and Mankins never won a Super Bowl, but with seven Pro Bowls in 11 seasons he’ll garner a long discussion.
Johnson might be the most interesting Hall candidate. His stats were phenomenal — 721 catches for 11,619 yards and 83 touchdowns in nine seasons, an average of 80 catches, 1,291 yards, and 9.2 TDs per season. He holds the NFL record with 1,964 receiving yards in 2012, has the most 200-yard games in history (five), and is the fastest receiver to 10,000 receiving yards. He’s a first-ballot inductee in the Fantasy Football Hall of Fame.
Then again, Johnson’s career was a little short (nine years), and the stats feel empty. Of course football is a team game, but how great of a player was he really? The Lions went 54-90 with Johnson and 0-2 in the playoffs. They also had an 0-16 season and consistently underachieved. Johnson will probably get in, but I don’t think he’s nearly a slam dunk.
And here’s to Hasselbeck, walking away from the NFL after 18 seasons to join ESPN. Hasselbeck finishes his career with 36,638 passing yards, 212 touchdowns, an 82.4 passer rating, an 85-75 record as a starter, a Super Bowl appearance, and three Pro Bowls. Not bad for a kid from Norfolk, Xaverian, and Boston College.
Chiefs’ penalty appears out of line
Stop me if you’ve read this headline before: NFL league office disciplines team with arbitrary, harsh punishment that defies precedent.
Troy Vincent dropped the hammer on the Chiefs, docking them a 2016 third-round pick, 2017 sixth-rounder, and fining the team $250,000 for violating anti-tampering rules last year. The NFL ruled that the Chiefs improperly had direct contact with receiver Jeremy Maclin during the three-day negotiating period. Coach Andy Reid was also fined $75,000 and GM John Dorsey $25,000.
Compare that punishment to what the Jets got last year for tampering with cornerback Darrelle Revis: A $100,000 fine for the team, and no loss of draft picks.
With the Chiefs’ punishment, the NFL wanted to send a message to all 32 teams to adhere to the anti-tampering rules in the days leading up to the start of free agency. But the Chiefs are now the team du jour wondering why the league office hit them so hard.
“While we respect commissioner [Roger] Goodell and the process, we believe that the penalties proposed in this case are inconsistent with discipline enforced in similar matters — particularly given the league’s inconsistent communication of its policies on contact with potential free agents,” Chiefs owner Clark Hunt said.
Amid all of the high-profile retirements last week, you’ve got to love seeing Adam Vinatieri, 43, re-up for not one but two more seasons (even if it’s with the hated Colts). Vinatieri will once again be the NFL’s oldest player this fall, turning 44 in December. Amazing to think that Vinatieri is entering his 11th year with the Colts, one more than he spent with the Patriots. And with Peyton Manning and Matt Hasselbeck retiring, a certain Mr. Tom Brady (who turns 39 in August) is now the oldest non-kicker/punter in the league. Phil Dawson, Matt Bryant, and Shane Lechler are all older than Brady . . . Between the Patriots dropping Brady’s base salaries to $1 million the next two seasons, and the release on Friday of an 8,000-word opus debunking the top 15 myths about Deflategate on “The Wells Report In Context,” the Patriots sure seem like a team that is bracing for Brady to lose the appeal and serve his four-game suspension. We applaud the Patriots’ attempt at transparency, but if they’re so passionate about their innocence and setting the record straight, it’s time to stop barking and take the NFL to court . . . Hope Olivier Vernon took taxes into account when choosing the Giants over the Jaguars and others. Since Florida has no state income tax, and New Jersey has a top rate of 8.97 percent, the $52.5 million he will receive from the Giants is the same as $47.2 million from the Jaguars, as calculated by sports tax expert Robert Raiola of O’Connor Davies . . . Also in that Dolphins-Eagles trade, the teams swapped first-round picks, with the Eagles now getting No. 8 and the Dolphins No. 13. Dropping out of the top 10 has a financial component for the Dolphins. Not only will the drafted player cost $3 million-$4 million less on his four-year rookie contract, but the formula for determining the fifth-year option is different for picks outside of the top 10, providing a savings of several million dollars at most positions . . . The agent of new Patriots receiver Chris Hogan is Art Weiss, who also repped Wayne Chrebet throughout his career. Chrebet came to prominence in the late 1990s when Bill Belichick was the defensive coordinator for the Jets, and was the impetus behind the Wes Welker/Julian Edelman role in the Patriots’ offense that Hogan at times will fill.
A different challenge
Former Bears and Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith was named coach at the University of Illinois on March 7. He joins a select group of NFL coaches who ventured into the college ranks without previously having college head coaching experience. Here’s a rundown of how some of them fared: