Five biggest moves of free agency -- and five biggest non-moves

Print

Be careful when it comes to measuring teams in March.

Free agency too often doubles as an intoxicant, a hazy elixir that sweeps over fans and analysts like a drunken cloud.

Completely forgetting the rash of massive free agency deals of old that crumbled into failure, we sing songs anew for this year's open-market champions.

The Browns have turned the corner!

The Patriots are coming apart at the seams!

My team's crumbling! They haven't made a deal!

Free agency comes imbued with drama and natural headline-generating action. It gives us hope that even the worst teams can morph into winners, but history tells us too many of these big-time signings utterly flop. Sometimes, the best deal for a team is the one that doesn't happen.

With that in mind, let's look at some of the biggest moves -- and non-moves -- to date.

BIGGEST MOVES

1) Final piece of the puzzle for Super Bowl-worthy Vikings? Last year's free agency flood saw the Bears turn longtime Bucs backup Mike Glennon into a nouveau riche soon-to-be-doomed signal-caller. Impossibly tedious headlines -- THE BEARS HAVE FOUND THEIR MAN -- invariably rained down from the sky until, a month later, the organization body-rocked Glennon by trading up, no less, to pick Mitchell Trubisky second overall. One year later, Mike Glennon is backing up Sam Bradford in Arizona, almost certain to fade into human obscurity.

The NFL is littered with cautionary tales about ill-fated free-agent quarterback additions, but Minnesota's snatching of Kirk Cousins is set apart. A rare find on the open market, Cousins is a rugged field general with deep starting experience and a track record of playing through punishment. We don't need to overstate what he is: a reliable starter who gives Minnesota security at the most important position in sports. Surrounded by a flock of talented pass-catchers and a deep backfield led by on-the-mend Dalvin Cook, Cousins has a chance to exceed what he achieved in Washington.

Still, the expectations are tricky. Cousins must top what Case Keenum put on tape a year ago while taking the Vikings one step beyond last year's NFC Championship Game appearance. Anything less than the Super Bowl will be seen as a disappointment, leaving Cousins to bathe in a pressure cooker he wouldn't have faced with the rebuilding Jets.

2) Browns' bum rush. In snowfields and pubs across America, it's time to pour one out for Sashi Brown. Cleveland's exiled vice president of football operations was, ultimately, much more than a convenient, hand-picked scapegoat for last year's winless trainwreck. Making it clear all along that his plan would require multiple offseasons to fully bloom, Sashi left the Browns with this century's largest draft war chest to complement a wide-open prairie land of cap space.

His successor, John Dorsey, is akin to a man who stumbled into an abandoned bunker stocked with enormous hills of gold, emeralds and legendary trinkets. It didn't take him long to start spending the loot. Cleveland's new general manager made good on his promise to add veteran starters: A firestorm of Friday trades brought a new quarterback in Tyrod Taylor, along with slot receiver Jarvis Landry and safety Damarious Randall. Run-stuffer Danny Shelton was shipped to New England while last year's shaky starting passer, DeShone Kizer, was air-mailed to Green Bay. Dorsey subsequently attacked the free-agent market by adding running back Carlos Hyde, defensive end Chris Smith, cornerbacks Terrance Mitchell and T.J. Carrie, tight end Darren Fells and offensive linemen Chris Hubbard and Donald Stephenson -- with those final moves made to offset the sudden retirement of legendary left tackle Joe Thomas.

Thomas never experienced a playoff game in Cleveland. During his 11-year run with the Browns, this woebegone franchise etched just one winning season. It's bittersweet to imagine the team flipping the switch just months after Thomas bolts stage left, but Dorsey has just begun. The Browns still own the Nos. 1 and 4 overall picks in the draft, along with three second-rounders and a stockpile of additional ammo. This new front office has a chance to make the Browns a team of intrigue, but let's not forget how we got here.

#SashiForever

3) Young quarterbacks gaining weapons. The Eagles used last year's free agency period to surround Carson Wentz with a cadre of veteran pass-catchers and able runners. Those moves set the table for an MVP-level season by Wentz and an improbable, glory-filled playoff run by his backup, Nick Foles.

Following Philly's blueprint, Bears general manager Ryan Pace attacked the market to juice up last year's dead-on-arrival offense for second-year QB Mitch Trubisky. Blue-chip receiving talent Allen Robinson was signed, along with deep threat Taylor Gabriel. Free agency transactions too often drip with hype and non-substantive wish-casting, but we know Robinson can play. We know how Gabriel performed in Atlanta under the creative watch of Kyle Shanahan. The belief in Chicago is that new coach Matt Nagy -- who spun play-calling gold in Kansas City -- and inventive coordinator Mark Helfrich can do what John Fox and friends never could: make this Bears offense a joy to watch.

Speaking of the Chiefs, second-year GM Brett Veach made good on his NFL Scouting Combine promise to recruit help for new starting quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Looking for a lead-caliber wideout to pair with Tyreek Hill, Veach landed Sammy Watkins, the former Bills and Rams pass-catcher who remains just 24 years old. With Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce and star running back Kareem Hunt in tow, Mahomes has a chance to shine out of the gate. If anything was clear at the combine, the Chiefs absolutely love their bomb-dropping, rocket-armed new quarterback and plan to unleash him in full come September.

4) Dolphins unfurl a whirlwind of mysteriously clunky transactions. You trade Jarvis Landry -- your most productive offensive performer -- to the Browns, replacing him with not one but two lesser slot receivers in Albert Wilson and Danny Amendola. You trade for Robert Quinn, only to turn around and dump Ndamukong Suh. You grant Mike Pouncey his wish to be released, replacing the Pro Bowl center with a lesser talent in traded-for Daniel Kilgore. I don't have a problem with moving on from Lawrence Timmons and Julius Thomas, but this same regime handed Timmons $11 million guaranteed and traded for Thomas one offseason ago. These moves have come under the banner of IMPROVING THE CULTURE, but the roster has failed to follow suit. It's unrewarding to pick on an easy target, but the Dolphins come out of this week leaving their fan base wondering what the plan is in Miami.

5) Cap-challenged Eagles find a way to win the day. Wheeling, dealing and aggressive team-building defines the new NFL. We learned that with last week's opening salvo to free agency: a flourish of head-turning trades that helped teams grow, evolve and, in some cases, devolve in a hurry.

Eagles front-office mastermind Howie Roseman used last offseason to build up his offense with reliable veteran playmakers. Instead of sitting tight after a Super Bowl win, Roseman has returned to the open market with a vengeance, deepening his defense by trading for defensive end Michael Bennett and cornerback Daryl Worley before signing experienced run-stuffer Haloti Ngata. The Eagles also kept one of their own by handing Nigel Bradham a new five-year pact. The Bennett swap is an example of Roseman's swing-for-the-fences mentality. He gave up nothing more than a fifth-rounder and Marcus Johnson for a still-talented and unique pass-rusher. Joining a defensive front laced with Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett, Bennett has a better shot to return to the Super Bowl with Philly than he would have with the restructuring Seahawks.

BIGGEST NON-MOVES

1) Trio of AFC East teams stay away from big-fish free agency quarterbacks. Instead of making a play for Cousins, the Bills traded away last year's starter in Tyrod Taylor and inked passer AJ McCarron. The Jets tried for Kirk, but wound up with Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater. The Dolphins were never a factor in the chase for Cousins.

New England's divisional foes remain weak at the quarterback position, but what comes next will shape the AFC East for years to come. The Jets, Bills and Dolphins all promise to produce draft-day fireworks as they angle to secure arms of the future. The Jets are all but destined to take a quarterback with the third overall pick. The Bills, meanwhile, are a complete fascination. After swapping first-round selections with Cincinnati in the Cordy Glenn trade, Buffalo owns two first-rounders (No. 12 and No. 22), a pair of second-rounders (No. 53 and No. 56) and two thirds (No. 65 and No. 96). The Bills are a genuine contender to take over Cleveland's at No. 4 -- or even switch places with the Browns at No. 1 overall. Then there's Miami, a franchise with a not-so-secret raging man-crush on Baker Mayfield, the Oklahoma signal-caller who might not be around when the Dolphins are on the clock at No. 11, setting the table for another potential big-time trade. Bottom line: After failing to find their quarterbacks of tomorrow in free agency, the Bills, Dolphins and Jets are about to turn the first round of the draft into a beautiful, unpredictable carnival of the senses.

2) Elway: Super Recruiter, Part II. The popular assumption was that John Elway, after lassoing Peyton Manning in 2012, would cowboy up to the bar and do the same with Cousins. Once you got Denver's Hall of Fame icon and Super Bowl-winning football czar in the room with Kirk, nobody else had a shot -- right? Wrong. The Broncos pulled out of the Cousins race early, dialing it back in favor of Case Keenum. Elway might not be done, though, with Denver looming as another club ready to pick a passer with the fifth overall selection. That puts Keenum in the unusual position of starting ahead of first-round enigma Paxton Lynch and quite possibly another first-round quarterback come September.

3) Drew Brees reportedly walks away from $60 million guaranteed. Brees is back with New Orleans on a two-year deal that will pay him $50 million (with $27 million guaranteed) and allow the 39-year-old passer to presumably retire as a Saint. The move he didn't make, though, left a flurry of NFL gossip in its wake. Brees reportedly turned down an offer from a mystery team for a whopping $60 million guaranteed, per ESPN. Who tried to pry him away? The Vikings loom as an obvious guess, but the Cardinals and Jets were also on the hunt for quarterback help. Either way, it's fascinating to imagine where we'd be had Brees bolted New Orleans for the better deal.

4) Ravens miss out on a blue-chip pass-catcher. No team entered free agency more desperate for a game-changing lead wideout than Baltimore. GM Ozzie Newsome failed to land Allen Robinson or Sammy Watkins, settling instead for a pair of half measures. The Ravens handed John Brown a one-year deal that makes sense on paper, but paying ex-Redskins role player Ryan Grant $29 million over four years with $14.5 million guaranteed left onlookers confused. Ultimately, that deal fell to pieces when Grant failed his physical, sending him back into the free-agency pool.

UPDATE: After publishing this piece, the Ravens turned around and signed Michael Crabtree, a move that improves the group and gives Baltimore a proven veteran. Points scored, but Ozzie still has work to do heading into the draft.

5) Quiet Colts roam the distance. We expected Colts general manager Chris Ballard to operate aggressively this week. Armed with a boatload of cap room, Indy was primed to make an impact while addressing a plethora of needs on defense. Instead, the Colts kept quiet, adding one human -- defensive end Denico Autry -- on the first day of free agency. Not every team chooses to make a splash, but Indy's slow hand stands out in a division that saw the Titans add a pair of ex-Pats -- cornerback Malcolm Butler and running back Dion Lewis -- and the Texans lure in cover man Aaron Colvin and blocker Zach Fulton. The Jaguars, meanwhile, snatched wideout Donte Moncrief away from the Colts. A healthy Andrew Luck would change everything for Indy, but we expected Ballard to come out firing.

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @MarcSesslerNFL.

Print

Headlines

The previous element was an advertisement.

NFL Shop