The NFL seemed to pause by the middle of the week, maybe because even the professionally trained athletes it employs could not possibly keep up the frenetic pace that was set at the opening of free agency. An astonishing flurry of trades in a five-minute span Tuesday afternoon encapsulated the breakneck speed of change in rosters.
Tabbing winners and losers at this point is folly. The Broncos, after all, won free agency last March but couldn't get out of the AFC Divisional Round in January because of something free agency and John Elway could not control: injury to Peyton Manning's legs. So we'll skip that part, sparing everyone the hand-wringing over what Bill Belichick will do without Darrelle Revis (spoiler: He has a track record of figuring this stuff out, especially with six months on his hands) and instead note the trends and oddities that made the last few days so compelling.
1. The dismantling of teams is just as riveting as the building of them. We know what caused the most stunning of the trades: The Saints are in salary-cap hell and the resources saved by shipping tight end Jimmy Graham out (the Saints also are trading receiver Kenny Stills and appear to be shopping almost everyone else this side of Drew Brees) can be used on the desperately needy defense. That the Saints and Graham had gone through a bruising fight last season before Graham received a new contract makes it seem like Graham's departure had a touch of the personal mixed in with the professional.
But the rapid dissolution of the San Francisco 49ers after Jim Harbaugh was forced out, and the eye-popping overhaul of the roster Chip Kelly is enacting after getting control of personnel in Philadelphia (he swears that power just landed on his desk one day without him even asking for it), has been fascinating theater.
In the space of a day, Niners linebacker Patrick Willis retired, Pro Bowl guard Mike Iupati signed with division rival Arizona and running back Frank Gore spurned a one-year offer to sign with the Colts, adding a zinger. He wanted to be there because he thought Indianapolis gave him the best chance to win a Super Bowl. Ouch. Of course, Gore is also right. The 49ers, particularly the defense, look nothing like they did when they were in the Super Bowl two short years ago. And the upheaval -- which really began when Harbaugh left -- might not be over. Defensive end Justin Smith is still deciding whether he will retire, too.
But for power-struggle fallout, nothing can compare with the Eagles, where Kelly, invested with the authority once reserved for Howie Roseman, has delivered his verdict on the personnel evaluations of Roseman and Andy Reid by systematically getting rid of virtually anyone who ever said hello to them. In the last week, LeSean McCoy, Nick Foles (part of the shocking trade that brought Sam Bradford to Philly as the presumed starter), Jeremy Maclin, Trent Cole and Todd Herremans were all sent packing. On Thursday, Ian Rapoport reported the Eagles were shopping guard Evan Mathis. Then there was the weird turnstile at running back, where Gore came and went, Ryan Mathewsnearly did the same and, finally, DeMarco Murray sold himself to Kelly and got a whopping contract that undermined the idea McCoy was traded because he was too expensive.
There's nothing unusual about new regimes wanting their own people. But the sweeping out of so many players in such a short period -- particularly universally acknowledged gifted offensive talent -- startled even some of Kelly's colleagues around the league and places the pressure squarely on Kelly and his vaunted offensive system. The NFC East is always compelling, but Kelly in the role of mad scientist adds a sense that the whole enterprise could either go off the rails or ride it all the way to the Super Bowl with no in-between.
2. Doesn't anybody want to take all of that Raiders money? The Raiders entered free agency with nearly $70 million in cap space and a mandate to spend to reach the minimum spending limits imposed by the collective bargaining agreement. One problem: None of the big-ticket players wanted to take the money. DeMarco Murray, Ndamukong Suh, Randall Cobb, Jerry Hughes, Julius Thomas -- all signed elsewhere.
The Raiders did land Kansas City center Rodney Hudson from the Chiefs with a contract that pays him the highest average ever for a center. That was a very good signing. And the good news is the Raiders have been adding younger, still-rising players, rather than the retreads of yore. That portends good things for the Raiders' future on the field.
But the Raiders' spending problem raises an unintended consequence of the minimum spend: if a team like the Raiders can't get top players to take their money, will they be forced to overpay for second-tier players just to meet the minimum-spend threshold? That would seem to set them up for a vicious cycle of long-term suffering. It's a situation worth watching as free agency wears on.
3. What to make of the unexpected mini-wave of mid-career retirements by players like Patrick Willis, Jake Locker and Jason Worilds? Greater knowledge of the long-term impact of injuries is undoubtedly one reason why players are willingly leaving the game -- Willis acknowledged that his feet, which have troubled him since college, were the reason he wanted to stop playing. Worilds, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is going to devote his life to his faith instead of cashing in on what would likely have been a very lucrative free-agent contract. Jake Locker, taken eighth overall in the draft just four years ago, was also scheduled to be a free agent in a market woefully thin at quarterback.
Leaving behind big paydays is unusual, of course. One of the axioms of the NFL is that players are often forced into retirement when teams no longer want them rather than choosing retirement themselves. But it's worth wondering if bigger money in the game will allow players to retire earlier, even if greater riches could be had by continuing.
Willis, as one of the game's top linebackers, made many millions. Locker, after all, never developed into the franchise quarterback the Tennessee Titans hoped he'd be after selecting him eighth overall in 2011 (in part because of injuries), and he would almost certainly have been signed to be a backup if he became a free agent. But he has already earned $12.5 million from his rookie contract, a windfall that makes it a little easier to understand leaving if, as he said in a statement, he no longer feels the burning desire to continue playing. Worilds would have been one of the top linebackers on the market, but he also made almost $10 million in 2014 alone, giving him the financial security to walk away.
4. While the AFC East might have provided much of the theater in trying to catch up to the Patriots -- the Jets signed Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie and Buster Skrine to play corner and traded for receiver Brandon Marshall, the Bills have added McCoy, Matt Cassel and Percy Harvin, and the Dolphins signed Ndamukong Suh and traded for Stills -- the bigger question might be if Indianapolis has made up ground on New England.
That's because Indy already has the one piece that the rest of the AFC East does not: a premier quarterback who has already proven he can carry a team with a mediocre supporting cast. Now the Colts are surrounding Andrew Luck with the kind of veteran -- read: older -- talent that suggests an all-out Super Bowl push. The Colts, of course, were blown out by the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game last season. However, Luck has gotten better each year, and general manager Ryan Grigson has now given him a workhorse running back in Frank Gore and a physical, great-hands threat in Andre Johnson to team with speedsters T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief and Duron Carter. The Colts also have gotten tougher on the offensive and defensive lines -- signing Todd Herremans and Kendall Langford, respectively -- and improved their pass rush by adding Trent Cole.
More pieces on defense are needed, but this is already a better team than the one that was one win away from playing in the Super Bowl. Are the Patriots still the team to beat? Of course, both in the division and the conference, as long as they have Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. But losing Revis and Brandon Browner, along with Vince Wilfork, will force a defensive overhaul, and that could open the door for the Colts or one of the small handful of teams in the AFC's top tier (the Broncos, Steelers, Ravens among them) to slip past the Patriots.