The NFL's money season started Monday. Our Top 101 Free Agents list was only up for a matter of hours before half of the original top 10 was decimated by franchise tags. Antonio Brownreset the wide receiver market with a huge contract by nightfall, one of many deals that should be completed this week in a league awash with salary-cap space and TV money like never before.
Get ready for two wild weeks of transactions, then four months of recycled storylines mostly about what will have happened over these two weeks. The NFL Scouting Combine kicks off in Indianapolis this week, with most key decision makers giving press conferences Wednesday, a chance to carefully drop breadcrumbs about how the madness will unfold. The delayed timing of this year's combine, one week later on the calendar than it has been for years, will make a huge impact.
The combine ends March 6, just one day before free-agent contracts officially can be negotiated, meaning more deals will get worked on (officially and unofficially) in Indy. Expect the buzz leaking out of boozy Hoosier steakhouses to be buzzier, trade rumors to fly less responsibly and plenty of big names to change jerseys before the Ides of March.
First, let's take a quick look at the impact of Monday's moves and detail some storylines to watch this week during the NFL's unusual annual business convention:
What Monday's tags mean for the market
1) Five of the original top 10 players included in the Top 101 Free Agents list Chris Wesseling and I compiled were tagged Monday, with Kirk Cousinsfollowing on their heels Tuesday, while Eric Berryagreed to a long-term deal with the Chiefs. It wasn't a surprise to see Cousins, Le'Veon Bell, Kawann Short, Chandler Jones, Jason Pierre-Paul and Melvin Ingram get the franchise tag -- they were all projected to do so here -- but the moves outline a general theme with this free agency period: Teams across the league have more than enough cap room. When more than half the league has $30 million-plus in salary cap space (according to OverTheCap.com), the importance of cap room diminishes. Teams mostly keep the players they want. What, really, is the difference between $40 million in room and $80 million?
Consider JPP. Working out a long-term deal is complicated. Paying him $17 million for one season under the tag, with no promise beyond 2017, is just obvious business for the Giants. In a year-to-year league, there's no reason to ever let high-quality starters like JPP leave the building. Even a team like New York, which spent like wild last season and has plenty of holes, can afford to put such a big number against the cap. Short-term deals with huge guarantees in the first year or two are becoming the norm in the NFL.
2) It's a good thing this draft is loaded with edge rushers, because teams won't be able to find them in free agency. That's why it was such a smart decision for the Chargers to guarantee Ingram $14.29 million on a one-year deal under the tag. On the open market, he could have raked in more than triple that in guaranteed money, considering Olivier Vernon -- who had a similar profile -- signed a deal including $52.5 million guaranteed last year.
With Jones, Ingram and JPP off the board, Nick Perry is our highest-rated free-agent pass rusher. After the Pantherssmartly re-signed Mario Addison -- one of the best free-agent sleepers -- over the weekend, the next-best edge rushers behind Perry include Jabaal Sheard, DeMarcus Ware and Andre Branch.
3) Franchise tags set a high bar for long-term negotiations. Cousins is set to have earned, at a minimum, $44 million over 2016 and '17 now that he's been given the exclusive tag by Washington, and he has as much leverage as is imaginable. Ingram's agents can start negotiations for his long-term deal at $14 million per season.
4) The Steelers made a notable distinction by giving Bell the exclusive franchise tag instead of the non-exclusive tag. This prevents other teams from potentially negotiating with Bell and giving up two first-round picks to sign him, though the Steelers knew that wasn't going to happen. Bell's injury history and suspension make any long-term contract tricky. But the team knows he deserves to make more than any running back in 2017, and he should. (If nothing else, the tag will make Bell the highest-paid running back in 2017 by a wide margin, according to OvertheCap.com.) The Steelers proved Monday with Brown's deal that they aren't afraid to pay when the time is right.
7) Unlike cornerback Josh Norman's rescinded tag from a year ago, defensive tackle Kawann Short's franchise tag in Carolina should eventually lead to a long-term deal. General manager Dave Gettleman wants his team to be defined by its toughness up front, and Short is one of the very best at his position.
Some years, NFL news dorks like myself have to stretch to look for realistic trade rumors, even when every NFL decision maker and agent is staying in the same handful of hotels. This is not one of those years. Expect to hear reports regarding the following names this week:
Kirk Cousins: If the 49ers or a surprise team wants to reshape its organization by forking over major assets for the quarterback, those plans could start to leak out this week. The Redskins could choose to put an end to the speculation by definitively saying they won't listen to offers on Cousins, but that seems unlikely. Why not at least listen? A Cousins trade sounds almost too fun to actually happen and would create a fantastic domino effect around the league.
Tony Romo: No one can agree on when Romo will be released by the Cowboys, if he's to be released by the Cowboys. At the very least, Jerry Jones will try his best to get something in return for his franchise quarterback. This is the week to see if a team like the Bills is desperate enough to make a play. If that happens, expect all sorts of news to spill out into the cold Indiana winter from the omnipresent Cowboys bus.
Sheldon Richardson: Remember when Richardson was one of the best young defensive linemen in football and expected to be a core piece of the Jets for years to come? Now he doesn't truly have a position in the Jets' defense and inspires articles saying a trade would be an addition by subtraction for New York. The Jets are one of the rare teams in need of more cap space and can free more than $8 million by dealing Richardson to the highest bidder. He's the most likely player on this list to get dealt in the new league year. Browns cornerback Joe Haden is another name to keep an eye on this week, as he was dangled before last season's trade deadline, according to Rapoport.
The press conference answers to watch for
2)Bills GM Doug Whaley and new coach Sean McDermott can send a signal about their intentions for Taylor, who is ostensibly their starting quarterback but has a massive option on his contract coming up. Other teams will be watching the Taylor negotiation closely, because he could upgrade plenty of quarterback rooms.
4) John Elway is unusually frank with the media, and the Broncos GM figures to be a little ornery after missing the playoffs. With last year's starter, Trevor Siemian, recovering from shoulder surgery, the Broncos remain a wild card in a lot of quarterback conversations. The installation of a new coaching staff in Denver could result in a bigger roster shakeup than expected.
5) The timing of the combine could expedite decisions on other big names around the league who could be released. Some players who figure to be on the bubble for possible cuts over the next week include Cutler, Jamaal Charles, Darrelle Revis, Robert Griffin III, Nick Foles and Ryan Mathews, among many more. (UPDATE: Charles will be released Tuesday.)
The ostensible purpose of traveling to Indianapolis is to gather information about college prospects. While that has its charms, NFL front offices have more pressing concerns to be settled in the next two weeks. Business should be booming.