NFL free agency began with a flurry before it even officially opened Wednesday afternoon. Things still could change as players, agents and teams continue to maneuver. But here’s a quick look at the early winners and losers:
Kirk Cousins: His three-year, approximately $84 million deal with the Vikings makes him the NFL’s highest-paid player, sets a new standard for guaranteed contracts, gets him to a Super Bowl contender and leaves him eligible for free agency again and another huge payday at age 32. What’s not to like?
QB-needy teams: Cousins to the Vikings. Case Keenum to the Broncos. Sam Bradford to the Cardinals. Teddy Bridgewater (along with Josh McCown staying) to the Jets. AJ McCarron to the Bills. Tyrod Taylor (via trade) to the Browns. There actually were some potentially viable options available this offseason for those teams with desperate needs at quarterback. That’s not to say it will work out as hoped in every case, or even in most cases. But at least those teams had a reasonable chance, for a change. And there’s still the NFL draft to go, giving franchises like the Browns, Broncos, Jets and Bills further opportunities to add prized rookies to go with the veterans they just put in place.
Saints: No one thought Drew Brees was leaving. Not Brees. Not the Saints. But the deal still had to be worked out and there still was that you-just-never-know possibility of something going wrong. It didn’t. Brees stayed in New Orleans on a two-year, $50 million deal that really is a one-year contract plus a second-year option. The Saints had a very good, very balanced team last season that was a legitimate Super Bowl contender in the NFC before suffering that improbable last-moment playoff defeat at Minnesota. Brees gets another chance or two alongside Coach Sean Payton to take the Saints back to another Super Bowl.
John Dorsey and the Browns: They’re headed in the right direction. It’s debatable whether giving up the top pick in the third round of the NFL draft to the Bills in the Taylor trade was the right veteran-quarterback move. But Taylor is better than most observers give him credit for; he’s mobile and he doesn’t throw interceptions. The arrivals of wide receiver Jarvis Landry and running back Carlos Hyde make the Browns reasonably talented on offense, and the trade for cornerback Damarious Randall (who might play safety for Cleveland) bolsters the secondary. There’s still the NFL draft to go, with the Browns in possession of the first and fourth overall selections. There was only one direction to move after a winless season, and no one is saying the Browns will be contenders next season. But they’re on their way to respectability. Dorsey, their new general manager, looks like he’s the proper roster architect to get them there.
Malcolm Butler: His mysterious benching in the Super Bowl by the Patriots didn’t prevent him from landing a five-year, $61.25 million deal with the Titans that includes $30 million in guaranteed money. Not a bad recovery.
Guards: Andrew Norwell got a five-year, $66.5 million deal from the Jaguars that includes $30 million in guaranteed money. Who says you can’t make any money playing guard?
Wade Phillips: The trades for cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib will give the Rams’ legendary defensive coordinator plenty of options. When a Phillips-led defense has cornerbacks who can take care of opposing receivers the way that Peters and Talib can, the pass rush can be unleashed. Coach Sean McVay’s offense is very good, and the Rams have made moves that should keep them in the thick of the Super Bowl chase in the NFC.
49ers: The rebuilding process is accelerating in Year 2 for General Manager John Lynch and Coach Kyle Shanahan. Re-signing quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was the key, but the Niners didn’t stop there. They signed cornerback Richard Sherman a day after he was released by the Seahawks. They added running back Jerrick McKinnon and guard and center Weston Richburg. It’s not at all outlandish to believe the 49ers will emerge as the primary challenger to the Rams in the NFC West.
Eagles: Howie Roseman, the top football executive in the Eagles’ front office, said at the NFL scouting combine they could not afford to stand pat on the heels of their Super Bowl title. So they went out and traded for defensive end Michael Bennett and cornerback Daryl Worley. They’ve added linebacker Corey Nelson and could be about to sign defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. They’ve managed to re-sign linebacker Nigel Bradham. So far, at least, they’ve hung on to backup quarterback Nick Foles, the reigning Super Bowl MVP, as an insurance policy while Carson Wentz works his way back from last season’s knee injury. It’s not easy to be the champs, and there are no guarantees that things will fall into place for the Eagles again next season. But they’re giving themselves a chance.
Agents Tom Condon and Mike McCartney: Condon negotiated Brees’s deal with the Saints and Bradford’s contract with the Cardinals that pays him $20 million for one season, plus an option for a second season at another $20 million. McCartney negotiated Cousins’s guaranteed deal with the Vikings and got McCown $10 million on a one-year contract with the Jets.
Packers: Green Bay, under new GM Brian Gutekunst, actually is participating in free agency by signing tight end Jimmy Graham and defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson. Being wary of free agency is fine. Being cautious in free agency is warranted. But holding it in total disdain and completely avoiding it like the Packers usually did under former general manager Ted Thompson frustrated some in the organization and perhaps kept the team from being quite as good as it could have been some seasons.
Giants: Getting tackle Nate Solder bolsters the offensive line and adding Jonathan Stewart could help the running game.
Rookie starting QBs: Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Josh Allen and Baker Mayfield still are likely to be chosen very early in the NFL draft. Each will be the potential franchise quarterback of the future wherever he goes. But the veteran-quarterback additions by the Browns, Broncos, Jets and Bills lessen the chances considerably that the rookies will emerge as Opening Day starters.
Seahawks: Sherman is gone, along with fellow cornerbacks Jeremy Lane and DeShawn Shead. Bennett is gone. Tight end Jimmy Graham and wide receiver Paul Richardson exited in free agency. The Seahawks as everyone knew them so well for so long are a fading memory. There is a serious roster retooling going on in Seattle, and it remains to be seen if the Seahawks will be able to retain their annual-contender status.
Dolphins: The Dolphins seem to be hoping that the exits of Landry, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and tight end Julius Thomas amount to addition by subtraction. They have traded for defensive end Robert Quinn and have added wide receiver Danny Amendola in free agency. But so much is unsettled. So much depends on quarterback Ryan Tannehill making a successful return after missing all of last season. It’s difficult to imagine, at least at this point, this team being good enough to get back into playoff contention.
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