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2019 NFL free agency: Biggest moves and non-moves

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Football fans of a certain age know free agency wasn't always this madcap.

Long before mid-March was imbued with franchise tag drama, landscape-shifting swaps and oft-doomed mega contracts, players possessed almost zero freedom to chart their own careers.

Before free agency was introduced in 1993, the league offered a brand of open-market movement called "Plan B" free agency, which allowed teams to protect 37 players. Those designated were forbidden from signing elsewhere without allowing their current team to match the offer.

As a young Browns fan, I recall rifling through USA TODAY to find out which Cleveland players would hit the market. Invariably it was a mix of low-level performers and fading veterans. The best players in football were rewarded with zero freedom, which led to a string of antitrust lawsuits I won't bore you with -- but which gave birth to free agency as we know it.

Players back then would have looked upon this week's action as nothing short of the psilocybin-induced fever dreams of a madman -- but a beautiful madman.

The trade-happy free agency period we know today doubles as a page-turning suspense novel. This year's drama was the wildest yet, flush with heroes, heels, curveballs and a swath of well-written plot points.

Let's take a look at who made it all happen -- and who didn't:

BIGGEST MOVES

1) John Dorsey casts his spell, turning the once dead-zone Browns into a "Madden" roster dreamt up by a 13-year-old with a liquid-pound of sugar running through the bloodstream. It's understood that jettisoned front-office architect Sashi Brown put Dorsey in an enviable position. Armed with a hill of draft picks and more cash than a handful of minor nations, Dorsey has overseen an accelerated roster rebuild that turned the Browns from the biggest laughingstock in sports to a team now viewed as a Super Bowl threat. Typing that sentence still feels pulled from a separate reality, a sliding-doors otherworld where all the ugliness Browns fans endured has been replaced by a surging hope for tomorrow -- and today. A quick roster comparison:

The Browns on April 1, 2017:

QB: Cody Kessler, Brock Osweiler, Kevin Hogan
RB: Isaiah Crowell, Duke Johnson
WR: Corey Coleman, Kenny Britt, Rashard Higgins, Louis Ricardo
TE: Gary Barnidge, Randall Telfer

The Browns TODAY:

QB: Baker Mayfield
RB: Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, Duke Johnson
WR: Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Antonio Callaway, Rashard Higgins
TE: David Njoku, Demetrius Harris

The low-cost Beckham trade was a masterstroke that now gives the Browns the juiciest receiving corps in the AFC. The same could be said of their defensive front after Dorsey acquired pass rusher Olivier Vernon from the Giants before inking free-agent defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson to pair with starry Myles Garrett and the underrated Larry Ogunjobi.

Dorsey has transformed the roster into an on-paper powerhouse after helping the Chiefs do the same before parting ways two offseasons ago -- months after pulling off a trade for Patrick Mahomes. Dorsey then bucked expectations by selecting Mayfield first overall when most of the football world expected Cleveland to side with Sam Darnold.

The optimism around this Browns team is the product of both Sashi's forward-thinking table-setting and Dorsey's ability to hit home runs with the resources he was given.

This is a new world for Browns fans, who have spent the vast majority of this century laughed at by their friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, ex-lovers, current romantic targets, bosses, underlings, store clerks, machine repairmen, professors, social-media hobby-horse types who have never read a book, toddlers, amped-up grandparents, wit-cracking nurses, summery bombshells, government officials and the always-plotting football gods.

Can first-year coach Freddie Kitchens take all these parts and flip the switch? That's the million dollar question along the once-burning waters of Lake Erie.

2) The Jaguars conclude that football is more fun with a functional quarterback. The release of Blake Bortles put an end to years of in-house wish-casting around a signal-caller with questionable mechanics and a penchant for tossing killer picks. Jaguars brass spent last offseason whistling Dixie about the untoward extension furnished to Bortles, but the madness has been put to bed. The signing of Nick Foles ushers in a much-needed new chapter under center for a team that still houses core talent on defense and just enough juice around the Super Bowl-winning quarterback to make the offense interesting. Still, questions remain. Before the backup-turned-hero forever altered the history of Philadelphia, Foles was a spotty starter who missed games due to a rash of injuries and was benched in St. Louis after nine starts for Case Keenum.

The four-year, $88 million deal for Foles includes a franchise-record $50.125 million in guarantees. The hope is that new coordinator John DeFilippo can maximize his former Eagles pupil with an RPO-infused playbook that unleashes the steady play we saw from Foles in back-to-back playoff runs. It's fair to wonder how Jacksonville's offensive roster, previously fitted for a run-heavy scheme, will pull this off. Foles has grown as a player and gives the Jaguars one of the NFL's most respected leaders. Players will rally around him -- and maybe this all works out -- but there's reason for measured suspicion.

3) The Silver and Black max out the credit card. The Raiders have toyed with irrelevance for a dangerously long stretch of human history. The franchise has won more than eight games only once since 2003. Telling the story bad teams tell, the majority of their high draft picks over the years were ultra-duds. Jon Gruden's return to Oakland saw the coach gut the roster for more of those picks, shipping away pass-rushing terror Khalil Mack and wideout Amari Cooper to furnish the Raiders with five first-round selections over the next two drafts. Gruden then pushed Reggie McKenzie, the man who picked both those players, out the door and hired NFL Network's Mike Mayock to take over the general manager's seat.

Mayock earns points for landing star receiver Antonio Brown from the Steelers for just a third- and fifth-rounder in 2019. Brown's numbers are destined to drop with Derek Carr throwing the ball instead of Big Ben, but the brilliant pass catcher brings life to the Raiders. It remains to be seen if his best days are ahead, but Brown -- signed to a three-year, $50.125 million deal -- makes this offense intriguing. Adding ex-Charger Tyrell Williams is a big help for a team that previously housed one of the worst receiving groups league-wide.

With the celebrations and bluster around his return replaced by criticism and questions, Gruden, it seems to me, has shifted course. The draft haul remains, but the money spent this week points to an accelerated rebuild. Along with the Antonio Brown payout, the Raiders dropped $16.7 million guaranteed on safety Lamarcus Joyner and made Trent Brown the richest left tackle in the NFL with a $66 million deal packed with $36.75 million in guarantees. The bookend is entering his prime at age 25, but it's unclear what his prime will bring: the steady play we saw under wizard/coach Dante Scarnecchia during New England's playoff run? Or the vastly up-and-down handiwork Brown produced in San Francisco? Either way, the Raiders are far more compelling now than they were a week ago.

4) The suddenly frisky Jets land their man while the Giants drop their hot-and-bothered fan base into a super-massive black hole. Mike Maccagnan is under the gun to produce a winner. The Gang Green general manager predictably tapped New York's mountain of cap room to address a rash of needs. The Jets have doubled as a raging snooze fest for ages, so who can argue with the $35 million guaranteed Venmo'd to Le'Veon Bell? He's a sensational talent who gives second-year passer Sam Darnold a top-shelf weapon at less than what Todd Gurley costs.

Anthony Barr hurt the Jets by nixing his deal for a return to Minnesota, but re-signing Henry Anderson helps. New York also added a needed (but expensive) piece in ex-Ravens inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, whose $17 million annual fee sets a record at his position. More chips were added around Darnold with the trade for guard Kelechi Osemele and the signing of wideout Jamison Crowder.

Today's Jets possess the talent to make a playoff push. Maccagnan is aggressively building around the franchise quarterback he wheeled-and-dealed up the board to draft last offseason. That stands in deep contrast to the lackluster, confusing soup the Giants have cooked up. The Beckham trade -- for such a minimal haul -- begs the question: What is happening here?

Beckham's departure leaves Big Blue with $16 million in dead cash. The Giants turned around and signed Golden Tate to a four-year, $37.5 million contract with $23.5 million guaranteed. Nice player, but a move that lands with a thud post-OBJ.

Meanwhile, the Giants have $45.4 million tied up in Eli Manning over last season and the one upcoming. The bizarre compulsion to stick with this fading signal-caller while shedding the team of its finest player is hard to defend. An 8-year-old Giants fan might go an entire lifetime before New York drafts a player the equal of Beckham.

The in-house allegiance to Manning is at the core of a confusing week for a Giants team telling their fans: a) Everyone else is wrong about Eli Manning. b) We don't need to explain our plan. c) You, as a Giants supporter, are in for a rough ride.

BIGGEST NON-MOVES

1) A topless Bill Belichick frolics by the sea as New England does what New England does. Characteristically quiet during free-agency's opening stanza, the Patriots watched other teams shoot greenbacks out of a snow blower while coach Belichick sunned in the Caribbean:

New England made one crafty trade that fits like a glove by acquiring versatile defensive lineman Michael Bennett from the Eagles for next to nothing. The Patriots then re-signed cornerback Jason McCourty, wideout Phillip Dorsett and D-lineman John Simon. Quiet machinations from a Patriots squad doing it their way while everyone else attempts to catch up.

2) The Bengals rest in carbon freeze. It's unfair to praise the Pats for staying quiet only to lash Cincy for the same approach, right? Wrong. That's comparing a supernova to a flung-from-orbit, oxygen-free moon. The Bengals responded to last year's debacle by re-signing right tackle Bobby Hart to a three-year, $16.5 million pact before re-upping with tight end C.J. Uzomah and linebacker Preston Brown.

Hart is just 24, but graded out as last year's 75th-ranked tackle, per Pro Football Focus. The team has some nice pieces in place on offense in Joe Mixon and A.J. Green, but the Bengals continue to wade through life with the perfectly average Andy Dalton under center and no overt ambition to spice things up for 2019.

3) Chris Ballard stays true to his word. Back to a team we can trust. Coming off a saucy playoff campaign, the Colts' GM made it clear he would not be pressured to chase Antonio Brown or Le'Veon Bell. Colts fans might desire more fireworks from a front office armed with $94 million in cap space, but Ballard is committed to building through the draft -- and he's drafted well. Re-signing defensive end Margus Hunt and cover man Pierre Desir made sense. Adding wideout Devin Funchess won't solve Earth's problems, but it's a one-year deal for a big-bodied pass catcher who once showed promise in Carolina. With nine picks in the draft, Ballard is a month away from doing what he does best. Andrew Luck can take care of the rest.

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @MarcSesslerNFL.

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