The NFL ticker is going into overdrive, filling up with the latest free agent signings and other happenings in what can only be described as a pretty hectic first official day in the NFL (preceded by some pre-first day craziness, too).
Green Bay shocked the football world by releasing WR Jordy Nelson, while the Minnesota Vikings solidified their quarterbacking need by signing Kirk Cousins (more on him later).
To no one’s surprise, superstar QB Drew Brees re-signed in New Orleans to the tune of two years and $50 million. Also not shocking was Case Keenum getting inked by Denver to a two-year, $36 million pact.
The first official day will continue to be interesting as other high profile free agents, like Ndamukong Suh, find new homes.
What we’ve seen already is a clear separation between early winners and losers, as it has paid to strike early and while the iron is hot — or risk being shut out of needed talent.
Here are eight early winners and seven losers in the free agent market.
15. Winner – Green Bay Packers
With the disappointing Martellus Bennett in the rearview mirror, the Packers rolled the dice and came away with one of the best red zone receivers in the game in TE Jimmy Graham. He gives a healthy Aaron Rodgers a premier target, instead of a guy like Bennett who just didn’t fit in. Graham didn’t pile up the yards like in years past with Seattle in 2017, gaining his lowest total since his rookie season with 520, however, he did have 10 TD receptions in 16 games (13 starts). Those 10 TD catches put him just three behind NFL leader in that department, Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins. Green Bay also made another significant move, signing former Jets’ DE Muhammad Wilkerson to a one-year, $5 million deal. He’ll help shore up the Packers defensive line and add some pass-rushing pizzazz.
14. Loser – Seattle Seahawks
After letting go of pretty much all of the last vestiges of the “Legion of Boom” the Seahawks have done little so far to shore up a defence now bereft of Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett (traded to Philadelphia) and Jeremy Lane. While Seattle was sleeping, they also lost WR Paul Richardson to Washington and TE Jimmy Graham to Green Bay. These developments have to be alarming to QB Russell Wilson, for sure. As for the state of the Seahawks defence, there are still plenty of defensive backs available, but some of the best of them, like Bashaud Breeland, have inked pacts elsewhere. On offence, Wilson needs protection and the team hasn’t moved quickly on that front, either. The tight end pickings are pretty slim and great wideouts won’t be had cheaply either. Seattle is an easy early loser.
13. Winner – Tennessee Titans
In one fell swoop, the Titans made significant moves to improve their offence and defence. After going to the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and making it to the second round, Tennessee wasn’t content to sit on its laurels, nosirree. First, they replaced the released DeMarco Murray with New England Patriots ever-improving dual threat rusher Dion Lewis. The Titans signed the 27-year-old to a four-year, $20 million contract to hopefully replicate the career year he had for the New England Patriots in 2017 (896 rushing yards and 6 TD; 214 receiving yards, 3 TD). Then they also again poached the team that beat them in the playoffs, the Pats, by signing All-Pro and two-time Super Bowl winning corner Malcolm Butler to a five-year, $61 million deal. He had 55 tackles, two interceptions, a sack and 12 pass deflections in 2017. Sounds like the Titans are putting together a winning formula for 2018.
12. Loser – Indianapolis Colts
With AFC South playoff teams like Tennessee making moves to get better (CB Malcolm Butler and RB Dion Lewis, who the Colts targeted), the Colts, by their inaction, aren’t doing themselves any favors. The team also lost young receiver Donte Moncrief to the Jacksonville Jaguars, who also went to the post-season, losing a hard fought decision to the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game. With Andrew Luck due to return (?), the Colts need offensive help, especially at running back, where leading rusher Frank Gore is a free agent and exploring his options elsewhere. They also need a replacement for Moncrief, who was second to T.Y. Hilton among Indy wideouts in receiving yards. Indianapolis also has a slew of defensive free agents, like starters Barkevious Mingo and Rashaan Melvin that they will need to re-sign, or replace. The quiet out of Indy is deafening.
11. Winner – Chicago Bears
By bidding adieu to veteran QB Mike Glennon, the Bears have anointed second-year pivot Mitch Trubisky as starter. They did the young pigskin chucker a solid, too, signing Jacksonville free agent wide receiver Allen Robinson to a three-year, $42 million contract. Robinson missed just about the whole 2017 season after tearing his ACL in week 1. However, in his first three seasons, the Pro Bowler had 201 catches for 2,831 yards and 22 touchdowns (he led the NFL with 14 in 2015). In a couple of smaller, but fairly significant moves, Chicago also signed TE Trey Burton and WR Taylor Gabriel. Burton, of the Philadelphia Eagles, caught 23 passes for 248 yards and five TDs, while former Atlanta Falcon Gabriel hauled in 33 passes for 378 yards and one TD. Not finished there, the Bears also got 25-year-old kicker Cody Parkey from Miami, who was 91.3 percent efficient on field goals.
10. Loser – Washington Redskins
The Redskins are a loser here for the fact that they went out and got an emerging talent at wide receiver in Seattle’s Paul Richardson, but, will have soon-to-be 34-year-old Alex Smith throwing him passes instead of Kirk Cousins. Not long after getting Richardson’s name on a five-year, $40 million pact, they watched as QB Kirk Cousins took his act to Minnesota (more on him later). So, for now, it doesn’t really matter that Richardson had a career year on the west coast, snaring 44 passes for 703 yards and six touchdowns in 16 games. And, the team also lost third leading receiver Ryan Grant (573 yards, 4 TD), making Richardson’s signing even more curious in hindsight. No one on the ‘Skins quarterbacking depth chart other than Cousins threw a pass last year, so there’s also the fact they have no backup for Smith in the wings, in case he gets hurt. And, the Washington defence also lost starting corner Bashaud Breeland to Carolina. Ouch.
9. Winner – Denver Broncos
We’re making the Broncos a provisional winner, in that they may have put the ointment on an itching soar at quarterback by signing Minnesota Vikings’ hero Case Keenum to a two-year, $36 million contract. At minimum, the Broncos get a veteran who effectively holds down the fort while young pivot Paxton Lynch develops. At best, Keenum better utilizes the talents of wideouts Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders and maybe, just maybe, the Broncos return to the playoffs. Keenum definitely grabbed the bull by the horns in 2017, throwing for career highs in completions (325), yards (3,547) and touchdowns (22), while maintaining a stellar 98.3 QBR. The provisional part of our winner designation alludes to the fact that Denver has to re-work their defence, particularly at corner (they traded Aqib Talib) and getting an effective edge rusher. That is all.
8. Loser – Buffalo Bills
Let us be the first to say the Bills won’t make the post-season in 2018, after being a surprise entrant in 2017. Why? Because they traded a NFL quarterback in Tyrod Taylor to Cleveland and don’t have anyone to replace him. Then, they signed a running back they don’t really need in Jacksonville’s Chris Ivory. They already have Pro Bowl back LeSean McCoy, so we guess Ivory is a good no. 2 off the bench? Doesn’t make sense. The Bills did make a couple of quiet moves otherwise, that may or may not help them, in signing FS Rafael Bush (a back-up in New Orleans) and DT Star Lotulelei (also a reserve in Carolina). Back to Taylor, the Bills will either need to draft a quarterback who may or may not pan out down the road (since they don’t own a top pick) or sign one of a horde of 30-something veterans still looking for work, like Jay Cutler, Drew Stanton or Chad Henne. Or, Nathan Peterman takes over. Not good, Buffalo, not good.
7. Winner – Miami Dolphins
Like the Denver Broncos, the Fish are provisional winners. They did themselves a favor by cutting Jay Cutler loose, considering Ryan Tannehill will be back in the fold for the 2018 season. They also waved buh-bye to a big contract and largely disappointing defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh, saving themselves big bucks to spend on other players they hope won’t underachieve. Thus, after dealing leading — and expensive — receiver Jarvis Landry to Cleveland for draft picks, the Dolphins gave Tannehill a couple of tried and true receivers for the upcoming season. First, they signed Kansas City WR Albert Wilson to a three-year, $24 million contract. He caught 42 passes for 554 yards and three TDs in 13 games (seven starts). Then, they rolled the dice on 32-year-old two-time Super Bowl champ Danny Amendola, who made 61 catches for 659 yards and two TDs. He followed that up with a great playoff run, catching 26 passes for 328 yards and two more touchdowns in three games.
6. Loser – Arizona Cardinals
After 14 seasons, Carson Palmer has finally retired. The Cardinals are probably sad to see him go, but it was time, especially after breaking his arm in 2017 and missing more than half the season. So, what is the team going to do to replace him? How about signing oft-injured 30-year-old QB Sam Bradford to a one-year, $20 million contract. Now, he might prove us all wrong here and be a great placeholder pivot, but wouldn’t a rebuild around a younger quarterback — saving money for other more critical free agents — have been the ticket? The team also signed Chicago Bears QB Mike Glennon, just in case. The other off-season needs that haven’t been addressed yet, like help on the offensive line to protect their expensive QB, as well as some depth in the defensive secondary, are paramount. But, giving $20 million to one guy doesn’t leave much to share around.
5. Winner – Kansas City Chiefs
When the Chiefs sent veteran signal caller Alex Smith to Washington CB Kendall Fuller and a draft pick, it signaled the start of Patrick Mahomes reign as starting QB. In order to give the young man a chance to succeed the Chiefs went out and got a secondary receiving threat to WR Tyreek Hill and TE Travis Kelce, signing L.A. Rams free agent Sammy Watkins. He is a bit of a work in progress at 24, having caught 39 passes for 593 yards and eight TDs. Not stopping there, Kansas City had some holes to fill on defence, particularly with corners Darrelle Revis (free agency) and Marcus Peters (trade to Rams) gone, as well as the departure of LB Tamba Hali (release). Acquiring Oakland’s David Amerson was a good sign, in that he has eight career interceptions and 64 pass deflections in just 68 games. They also signed 25-year-old linebacker Anthony Hitchens away from Dallas.
4. Loser – New York Jets
We are going to call the Jets a provisional loser, in that they whiffed on targeted quarterback Kirk Cousins, and then signed Teddy Bridgewater and Josh McCown to stop-gap contracts. Bridgewater has thrown all of two passes in league play since 2015 and McCown is well on the other side of his prime, turning 39 before the season even starts. Otherwise, the Jets made a couple of decent, but not mind-blowing moves, bringing in Cleveland Browns running back Isaiah Crowell and ILB Avery Williamson. Crowell is a decent dual threat out of the backfield, having gained 1,030 yards rushing and receiving, but scoring just two TDs. Williamson, who had 52 tackles and three sacks with Tennessee in 16 games, will essentially replace free agent Demario Davis, who was better statistically. Getting CB Trumaine Johnson from the Rams was OK, but we can’t get past the fact the Jets quarterbacking situation will be, at best, iffy.
3. Winner – San Francisco 49ers
Jimmy Garoppolo is in the fold for five years and the Niners seem to have moved on from pivot-turned-professional protester Colin Kaepernick. After much hand-wringing and C.J. Beathard calling plays, the 49ers have the quarterback they have lacked since Kaepernick took the team on a couple of improbable runs in 2012 and 2013. In order to protect their investment in Garoppolo, the 49ers did the right thing and got C Weston Richburg from the New York Jets. They also made a splash and inked RB Jerick McKinnon to a four-year $30 million contract to replace departed rusher Carlos Hyde (Cleveland). McKinnon, who was a second stringer in Minnesota, still rushed for 570 yards and three TDs, while also catching 51 passes for another 421 yards and two more scores. Perhaps the biggest signal of all, though, that San Francisco means business was the acquisition of Seahawks All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman. Things are looking up in the Bay Area.
2. Loser – Cleveland Browns
Sure, the Browns traded for good wide receiver Jarvis Landry, but just who the heck is going to throw him the pinpoint passes he requires in 2018? They traded QB DeShone Kizer away to Green Bay and brought in Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor via another swap and with all the other moves they’ve made it just seems that they are throwing things against the wall to see if they stick. The 0-16 Browns also let RB Isaiah Crowell walk in free agency, only to sign San Francisco’s Carlos Hyde (which may be the best move they made). A team that needs all kinds of help also sent DT Danny Shelton to New England, then bring in DE Chris Smith from rival Cincinnati. Smith, at least, gives them some pass-rushing versatility. The Browns crazy activity also included bringing in (mostly) back-up offensive linemen Chris Hubbard (Pittsburgh; five-year deal) and Donald Stephenson (Denver; one-year contract). Way too much to digest.
1. Winner – Minnesota Vikings
Winner, winner, chicken dinner. The Vikings, who came oh so close in 2017, outbid everyone else for the services of the premier quarterback available in free agency, Kirk Cousins, securing him for three years and $84 million, all guaranteed. The man who threw for over 4,000 yards and 27 touchdowns with the Washington Redskins comes to an offence ready made for his skill set, including wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, tight end Kyle Rudolph and running back Dalvin Cook. Clearing the decks of all other quarterbacks (Case Keenum, Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater) was required to sign him and it very well could result in a long awaited championship come February 2019. As for other moves this off-season, Minnesota hasn’t made any, and after being NFC runner-up in 2017, they are prohibitive favorites this year.