NFLTR Review: Winners & Losers From The First Week Of Free Agency

The torrential pace of news in the NFL continues with the first week of free agency in the books and plenty of shoes still to drop. In this issue:

  • Winners and losers from free agency’s first week
  • Best bargains, worst deals
  • Trade chatter

Free Agency Winners & Losers

If it feels like this offseason has been extra wild, you’re right. Since Aaron Rodgers announced his return on Tuesday, March 8, there has literally been a major signing or trade with massive ripple effects every single day. 

We’ll have some more comprehensive grades for every team next week when things are a little more settled, but with most of the first week of free agency in the book, we know enough to do some good old-fashioned winners and losers: 

Winners

Chargers

NFL teams put extra focus on the rest of their division because there’s such outsized importance on winning those games. Division winners automatically qualify for the playoffs and those games are a third of the schedule. That’s why the AFC West has turned into basically a nuclear arms race. 

The Broncos, Chargers and Raiders obviously aren’t throwing in the towel, even though the Chiefs have won the division for six straight years and have been to four straight AFC title games since 26-year-old QB Patrick Mahomes assumed the starting job. All three of those teams have made huge moves this offseason and the Chargers’ plan stands out. 

Los Angeles already has one of the league’s most disruptive pass rushers in Joey Bosa but getting multiple points of pressure is critical to shutting down some of the cyborgs quarterbacking teams these days. So the Chargers went out and got DE Khalil Mack, reuniting him with HC Brandon Staley. Mack is 31 and hasn’t had double-digit sacks since 2018, but he also has never been the second-best pass rusher on a team. He’ll benefit from the attention Bosa draws and still has a terrific all-around game. 

That dovetails nicely with the Chargers’ other weakness in 2021 which was the run defense. Los Angeles made two other big additions, signing DTs Austin Johnson and Sebastian Joseph-Day to improve the interior. Joseph-Day in particular is a great get, as he was a part of the No. 1 defense Staley authored with the Rams in 2020 and was second in the league in run stops (tackles that constitute a failure for the offense). 

The NFL is still about stopping the pass, though. The Chargers’ biggest outside signing was former Patriots CB J.C. Jackson, inking him to a five-year, $82.5 million deal. It’s a huge amount but you can actually argue Los Angeles got a steal with just $16.5 million a year, as that’s outside the top five at the position. 

He’s not a lockdown cover corner but what Jackson does best is get his hands on the ball. He has a staggering 17 interceptions and 37 pass deflections the past two seasons. That has a ton of value for a defense because interceptions are harder to get now than just about any point in NFL history — and that’s especially true when you can turn the ball back over to an offense led by Justin Herbert

Bucs

Going into last weekend, things looked bleak in Tampa Bay. Other teams were circling like vultures ready to pick the roster clean of starting-caliber vets while the prospect of starting Blaine Gabbert in 2022 seemed like a real possibility. 

Then Tom Brady called off his retirement and everything changed. 

The Buccaneers had no business being able to re-sign C Ryan Jensen and CB Carlton Davis and truthfully were bracing to lose both. Both came back instead and might have turned down more money to do so in order to play with Brady. Tampa Bay also locked up WR Chris Godwin on a deal that looks like a steal compared to some of the other deals given out to wideouts this week. 

The team didn’t escape without losses. The Bengals poached G Alex Cappa and the Jets got S Jordan Whitehead, and more could be coming. But Tampa Bay arguably got a better player in Shaq Mason while giving up just a fifth-round pick and taking on less salary. Between Mike Edwards and Antoine Winfield, they’ll be fine without Whitehead and can draft a replacement. And they still have the flexibility to make outside additions, like the three-year $30 million deal for WR Russell Gage

They may have paid a premium for Gage but Tampa Bay’s offense has struggled, relatively speaking, the past two seasons when injuries or antics sidelined one of their starting wideouts. Gage provides a more reliable, if less dynamic, third receiver than what the Bucs got from Antonio Brown. You can bet that was important to Brady, and it all comes back to the guy whose return has lifted the Bucs back into the tier of Super Bowl contenders after a 40-day absence. 

Raiders

Las Vegas was pretty quiet to start the negotiating period, signing just CB Darius Phillips and DT Bilal Nichols to modest deals. Phillips has flashed at times but Cincinnati never trusted him with a major role. Nichols showed some starter potential as a rotational player in Chicago. Both deals had upside but didn’t move the needle dramatically.

Boy did that change. The Raiders swung a massive coup by bringing in OLB Chandler Jones to team up with Maxx Crosby as a ferocious pass-rushing duo, perhaps the best one in the suddenly stacked AFC West. They traded away DE Yannick Ngakoue for CB Rock Ya-Sin, which on face value alone is a steal for the Colts but the deal was necessary for Las Vegas to make the finances work. Ngakoue is good, but Jones is a lot better and there’s some upside with Ya-Sin. 

Then the real blockbuster came Thursday night when Las Vegas surrendered first and second-round picks to the Packers for WR Davante Adams, handing him a five-year, $141.5 million deal as well. It’s a massive trade that came almost out of nowhere, reuniting Adams with his college quarterback Derek Carr

The Raiders now have a terrific trifecta of receiving threats between Adams, TE Darren Waller and slot WR Hunter Renfrow for Carr. There’s still work to be done on the offensive line but with HC Josh McDaniels in charge, the Raiders have the pieces to be incredibly successful on offense this season. 

Is giving a 29-year-old wide receiver $28.5 million a year going to look great in a few years? Probably not. The cliff can come fast for receivers. But as things stand right now, the Raiders are adding the league’s best receiver in a division where scoring points is imperative. That’s a win. 

Losers

Cowboys

Dallas truly had an opening to contend for a Super Bowl last season with the league’s No. 1 offense and a defense that could force turnovers and keep the Cowboys in the game. Instead, they choked it away and have spent this offseason taking multiple steps backward. 

The Cowboys have been shedding prominent piece after prominent piece this offseason, with little coming in the way of reinforcements so far. They traded WR Amari Cooper in a salary dump to the Browns, freeing $16 million in cap space which largely went to a franchise tag for TE Dalton Schultz and a long-term deal for WR Michael Gallup. The team’s rationale was obviously to spread their cap around more, and given the way they used Cooper and Schultz respectively in 2021, there’s merit to that. The bigger issue is their decision to extend RB Ezekiel Elliott is tying their hands now. 

The end result is Dallas lost both Cooper and WR Cedrick Wilson and now have depth questions at receiver. Given the standard nine to 12-month recovery timeline post-ACL reconstruction, there is real doubt about Gallup’s status for the start of 2022 because he didn’t go under the knife until mid-February. That leaves the Cowboys incredibly shorthanded compared to how they started off the 2021 season. 

Not only will the Cowboys potentially be down three of their top five receiving targets, there’s turnover on the offensive line to deal with. They allowed G Connor Williams to walk, which isn’t a huge deal by itself. A fresh start will probably do both sides good. But Dallas also cut stalwart RT La’el Collins after failing to trade him. They’re choosing instead to bank on former UDFA Terence Steele, who they like long-term but was more uneven in his performances last season. 

And then there was the debacle with DE Randy Gregory. After sticking with him through years and multiple suspensions, a deal between the two sides was derailed at the last minute because the Cowboys insisted on particular language that could have voided Gregory’s guarantees. Maintaining enough cap space to keep Gregory was supposedly one of Dallas’ top priorities, so it stings to see him leave. They also narrowly avoided a similar fate with DE DeMarcus Lawrence. So far though the only free agent they’ve brought back is S Malik Hooker

It’s telling to contrast the Cowboys’ conservative approach with the ones taken by other front offices around the league. They have an excellent quarterback and the NFC is still wide open compared to AFC. Instead of doing what they could to keep their Super Bowl window open, though, the Cowboys seem to be accepting a step back in 2022 is coming for the good of the team long-term. That approach offers no guarantees. 

Jaguars

At this point, it’s an annual tradition to see the Jaguars as one of the top-spending teams in free agency. It was still jarring to see the aggressiveness with which GM Trent Baalke and HC Doug Pederson attacked the offseason this year. Jacksonville pulled in six of our initial top 100 free agents and arguably got the best deal on the highest-rated one, giving G Brandon Scherff “only” $500,000 more than the NFL’s previous highest-paid guard. 

The real eye-opener was the four-year, $72 million deal the Jaguars gave WR Christian Kirk, blowing away even the “don’t be surprised if he gets this much” reports. While it’s true the actual commitment is only for two years and $37 million, that’s still a massive investment in a receiver who’s never had a 1,000-yard season. Kirk is solid but he’s much closer to the Tyler BoydRussell Gage tier than guys like Tyler Lockett, Mike Evans, Cooper Kupp and Allen Robinson, all of whom Kirk officially ranks ahead of in salary now. 

There’s more. The Jaguars gave WR Zay Jones $8 million a year even though he’s been in the league six seasons and has not yet cracked 2,000 career receiving yards. They gave LB Foyesade Oluokun top-five linebacker money at $15 million a year. Two-down DT Folorunso Fatukasi got $10 million a year and TE Evan Engram got about $9 million on a one-year deal. Veteran CB Darious Williams is at $10 million per year, which is solid money for a No. 2 corner. 

All of them range from solid role players to decent starters, with the exception of Scherff who is one of the league’s top guards. The nature of free agency drives up the cost of players, though, forcing teams like the Jaguars to pay premium prices on what are middling investments. It raises expectations and makes it even harder for those players to continue to justify their spot on the roster in the future, which is why free agency is viewed by most NFL decision-makers as a way to bolster a roster, not as a primary team-building tool. 

That said, in recent years we’ve seen teams that have spent aggressively in free agency reap instant rewards the following season. The Jaguars are an example as a spending spree in 2017 helped fuel a run to the AFC Championship. Last year’s Patriots squad is another example. The trick has been sustaining that success. The Patriots’ spending spree last offseason resulted in as many misses as hits, and we can probably expect the same for Jacksonville. 

It would not be overly shocking to see the Jaguars make a massive improvement in 2022, partially because the bar is so low. Still, if the team wants to be able to find consistent success, they need to draft well enough to put them in a position where they aren’t overspending for players again like they have this offseason. 

Seahawks

For a decade, the Seahawks have operated like they’re smarter than the rest of the league, zigging while others zag. They were legitimate trendsetters at one point with their defensive system and reliance on SPARQ scores to gauge athleticism and find prospects in the draft the rest of the NFL may have overlooked. Their edge evaporated a while ago, though, and Russell Wilson has helped paper over a lot of misses by the front office in recent seasons. 

Wilson is gone, though, and HC Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider have made a litany of decisions that seem to fall into the same old mistake patterns. There’s a curious distribution of cap space; by extending S Quandre Diggs for three years and $40 million, they now have the No. 1 and No. 8 highest-paid safeties in the league. Diggs is a good player but he’s 29 and coming off a fractured ankle. Seattle paid a premium here. 

The three-year, $24 million deal for TE Will Dissly also sticks out, as that’s a lot of money for a tight end whose primary role has been as a blocker. The Seahawks prioritized those two over bringing back CB D.J. Reed, who was really good at corner for them the past couple of seasons. Once again, Carroll’s hubris shows up, as he has passed up spending early picks or big dollars on corners in the past, preferring to take projects and coach them up. The signings of Sidney Jones and Artie Burns fit that bill. 

New DE Uchenna Nwosu is a solid pass rusher who is viewed by some as an ascending player but Seattle is still taking a risk by giving eight figures to a player whose career-high in sacks is five. And I don’t think Austin Blythe is going to solve their issues at center either. 

Seattle does still rank near the top of the league in available cap space right now, so there’s still potential for the team to do a lot more as they reshape this roster. Past history just doesn’t provide much of a reason for optimism right now when it comes to the Seahawks

Top Ten: Five Steals & Five Duds

These are the ten deals that stood out to me in a big way from this past week, either in a positive or a negative way. Quick-hit style: 

Steals

1.Eagles signed DE Haason Reddick, three years $45M

As the cap continues to grow, perhaps exponentially in the coming seasons as the NFL TV money kicks in and the damages from the pandemic are further in the rearview mirror, $15 million a year for a quality edge rusher is going to look like a steal. Reddick should be in a system that fits his strengths in Philly and has proven in back-to-back contract years he can get to the quarterback. 

2. Steelers signed OL James Daniels, three years $26.5M

Young linemen who have shown the kind of promise Daniels has typically don’t come cheap. PFF has had the 24-year-old pretty consistently in the top 20 or so at interior offensive line the past four years, and while PFF line grades should be taken with a grain of salt, this level of consistency is notable. Less than $9 million a year for someone who could be a long-term starter is potentially a major coup for the Steelers. 

3. Steelers signed CB Levi Wallace, two years $8M

Pittsburgh has generally done a good job so far this offseason of being shrewd with their cap space despite having a far larger budget than they’re used to. Landing Wallace is another example. The former undrafted free agent is a good example of how initial labels can stick with prospects long after they enter the league. He’s started the bulk of the past three seasons with six picks and 27 PDs, yet still found a cool market. He’s a capable No. 2 corner for the Steelers. 

4. Packers re-signed LB De’Vondre Campbell, five years $50M

Campbell earned a well-deserved payday after a breakout All-Pro season with the Packers in 2021. The deal is friendly for both sides, too, as $10 million a year is a bargain if Campbell keeps up his level of play and manageable if he doesn’t. The length of the deal offers Green Bay a lot of flexibility and they can get out of it as soon as next offseason with a June 1 cut if needed. 

5. Ravens signed OT Morgan Moses, three years $15M

The Ravens would have made the winners section if they had landed OLB Za’darius Smith at just $8.75 million a year. They still have done quite well for themselves with limited cap space and landing Moses is one of the best bargains so far this offseason. In a league that’s desperate for competent tackle play, it’s almost criminal to get someone with Moses’ track record of durability and above-average play at only $5 million a season. He’s a terrific fit for Baltimore’s offense as well. 

Duds

1.Steelers re-signed OT Chukwuma Okorafor, three years $29M

Here’s an example of a team being desperate for a tackle. Okorafor is a former third-round pick by Pittsburgh who has started the past two seasons at right tackle and generally been below average at best. He got nearly $10 million a year because teams are afraid of just how low the bar can drop at tackle. 

2. Broncos signed DE Randy Gregory, five years $70M

There’s a lot of upside to this deal for Denver, as Gregory flashed a ton of disruptive ability last season. There’s quite a bit of risk, too. A suspension for marijuana isn’t a risk factor thanks to a change in NFL policy but changing teams and systems can be really disruptive for players. Gregory had a great support system with the Cowboys despite how things ended and it’s not clear if he’ll have that to lean on with the Broncos.

3. Rams signed WR Allen Robinson, three years $46.5M

Robinson is a good player and $15.5 million a year is a bargain if he’s healthy and his struggles last year were more related to the offense in Chicago as a whole. It’s just curious the Rams’ big splash after failing to pony up enough money to keep OLB Von Miller is to go after yet another receiver. Odell Beckham and Robert Woods are coming off torn ACL’s, with Woods going down in early November and Beckham during the Super Bowl. So perhaps Robinson is insurance as they recover, albeit very expensive insurance. It’s just a curious allocation of resources to invest this much in a No. 3 receiver when it’s never been easier to find production from pass-catchers. 

4. Saints signed S Marcus Maye, three years $22M

The actual numbers on this are more palatable than what was initially reported, which was about $9 million a year. That would have been steep for a player coming off a torn Achilles and facing a potential suspension for a DUI. Those factors still make this deal somewhat of a risk, and it’s surprising to see Maye sign a long-term deal rather than a one-year, prove-it offer. 

5. Bears signed DT Larry Ogunjobi, three years $40.5M

Ogunjobi cashed in big-time on a seven-sack performance on a one-year prove-it contract in 2021 with this deal. His sack numbers have consistently been pretty good but his overall performances have been a little more up and down. The upside is undeniable and I like Ogunjobi, but $13.5 million a year might be on the rich side. It puts him ahead of Javon Hargrave, Akiem Hicks and David Onyemata and just below J.J. Watt. Perhaps HC Matt Eberflus’ scheme will be a perfect fit and it will all work out but there’s a risk factor here. 

This Week In Football

  • There was a dizzying amount of news this week, so we’ll just hit some big-picture points that will be relevant going forward. The biggest story remains Texans QB Deshaun Watson and his eventual destination. After well over a year of speculation with a dozen or so teams linked to Watson, we’re down to two potential destinations: the Saints and the Falcons. The Browns are out. The Panthers are out too. That has major implications for both teams as they pivot to Plan B or C or whatever at that position. For Watson, it feels like it’s a decision between a better roster and more immediate chance to win in New Orleans versus going home to Atlanta and working with an offensive-minded coach. The word is this will stretch into the weekend, so Watson Watch continues. 
  • And just a reminder, even though there are no criminal charges, more than two dozen women have said Watson committed various degrees of sexual misconduct against them during massage appointments. The sheer number of stories alone gives them credibility, as do the details of the various cases as laid out by Jenny Vrentas with Sports Illustrated. That should not be forgotten as this trade plays out. 
  • There will be other football-related fallout from this situation. Both the Saints and Falcons have incumbent starting quarterbacks, one of whom definitely will be displaced. If Watson goes to New Orleans, the Colts have also been linked to QB Jameis Winston. Staying with the Saints has widely been thought to be both sides’ preferred option but if the Saints are exploring their options, it should be expected that Winston will too. 
  • If Watson goes to the Falcons, that means Atlanta will trade QB Matt Ryan. A previously reported restructure that would have made a trade impractical has not actually been processed yet, meaning the Falcons can still trade the veteran. It would result in a $40 million dead money hit, which would set a new NFL record. But it would actually free up $8 million and it could help recoup some picks the team will have to give up for Watson. And there should definitely be teams like the Colts or Browns who are interested. Ryan is definitely on the downswing of his career but he could bring to a team what late-career Philip Rivers did. 
  • While the Browns were the first of the finalists ruled out, it’s looking like they will still end up with a new starting quarterback in 2022. Former No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield officially requested a trade on Thursday as tensions between the two sides continue to escalate. Mayfield did not handle it well when Cleveland’s entrance into the Watson sweepstakes became public and for their part, the Browns seem like they’re willing to look elsewhere. So far, the official word from the team is they will not grant Mayfield’s trade request, but to me, that feels more like a ploy to maintain trade leverage. If another team wants Mayfield, they will be able to get him. 
  • Closing out the quarterback carousel, the trade for Davante Adams should end any doubt about Derek Carr’s future in Las Vegas, at least for this season. The Raiders are all in with Carr this year. The other name that’s come up has been Vikings QB Kirk Cousins, but his one-year $35 million extension should end that speculation this year. What’s interesting about that is while Cousins didn’t get a huge raise, he did get a no-trade clause, which will be important in 2023 when the two sides are in the position of figuring out their future again. 
  • We’ve already seen a fair amount of trades but there are some more names to monitor going forward this offseason. Vikings DE Danielle Hunter has come up as someone being shopped. He has an $18 million roster bonus due this weekend which marks a decision point for the team. Another name to watch is Rams WR Robert Woods, as he’s coming off a torn ACL and the team just spent big on Robinson. Does that make Woods expendable?

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