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NFL free agency takeaways: Tom Brady’s move is bad for the NFC and good for the Bills

Tom Brady could face tougher competition in the NFC than he did in the AFC. (Nick Wass/AP)
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The first wave of NFL free agency was more like a tsunami, with more than 80 percent of players on most top-100 lists having been re-signed, franchise-tagged or signed by new teams less than a week into the new league year.

If the free agency movement wasn’t enough, there were plenty of trades, too, including blockbusters involving stars DeAndre Hopkins, DeForest Buckner and Stefon Diggs.

Oh, and in case you didn’t notice, perhaps the greatest quarterback of all time, Tom Brady, left the New England Patriots after 20 seasons to restart his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

That’s where we’ll start our list of takeaways from the first few days of free agency:

Brady’s arrival makes the NFC even more competitive.

The Patriots’ phenomenal success over the past two decades — nine AFC championships, six Super Bowl victories — was of course thanks to the brilliance of Brady and Coach Bill Belichick, and it will be fascinating to see how each fares without the other.

But it’s fair to say Brady will face a tougher path now that he’s out of the AFC East and playing in an NFC that is loaded with highly paid quarterbacks. Not counting Alex Smith, whose career is uncertain because of health, Brady will become the 12th NFC quarterback making $21 million per year or more. Of those, six — Russell Wilson, Jared Goff, Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins, Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz — are making $30 million or more.

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Quarterback salary is certainly not the only metric to judge a team by — just look at the AFC, which has two MVPs (Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes) and another rising star (Deshaun Watson) on their rookie deals — but it does speak to how competitive the fight for playoff spots in the NFC should be this season. In the Bucs’ division, the NFC South, the Matt Ryan-led Atlanta Falcons and Drew Brees-led New Orleans Saints should provide a rude awakening for Brady, who has grown accustomed to six games per year against the Miami Dolphins, New York Jets and Buffalo Bills.

Even with the new format that includes seven playoff teams per conference, the Bucs will have to be sharp to make the postseason. Some sportsbooks are projecting 10 NFC teams at 8½ wins or better, including six at 9½ (the San Francisco 49ers, Saints, Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks, Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys). Contrast that with the AFC, which only has two teams — the Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs — projected to win more than nine games.

That’s where Brady will feel the impact. His presence should make the Bucs a nine-win team, but they may have a hard time overtaking the Saints for the division title and will be fighting off the Falcons for a wild-card spot.

Brady’s departure came at the right time for the Bills.

It would be foolish to count out Belichick and the Patriots, but not knowing how they’re going to fill their post-Brady quarterback void (Jarrett Stidham?), it certainly seems as though Buffalo has caught up to them after all these years.

Why the Patriots aren’t rushing to replace Tom Brady with a proven quarterback

The Bills added Diggs in a trade with the Vikings, addressing perhaps their biggest need (for a deep-threat wide receiver), and signed seven unrestricted free agents. And that follows a rebuilding effort that resulted in a playoff berth last season.

The Patriots, meanwhile, have lost Brady and six other free agents, in addition to trading away safety Duron Harmon.

Vegas has the Bills and the Patriots even at nine wins. Clearly Belichick has a plan, but the Bills would be right to finally sense vulnerability in their division rival.

Projecting the Tom Brady-less AFC East

Even more teams are in win-now mode.

With Brady set to turn 43 in August, clearly the Bucs will feel a sense of urgency to win the Super Bowl over the next couple of years. But they’re not the only ones. Brees is back for a final shot (or two) with the Saints, and the Indianapolis Colts signed 38-year-old Philip Rivers to a one-year contract. (Don’t be surprised if Indy selects a passer in the second or third round of April’s draft, possibly Washington’s Jacob Eason, to develop behind him.)

New Orleans has been in win-now mode for several seasons, and its additions of veterans such as safety Malcolm Jenkins and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders last week served as reminders that it will be making another run at the Super Bowl this year. The Colts also made bold moves beyond the Rivers signing, dealing their first-round draft pick to San Francisco for Buckner before signing the defensive lineman to a contract extension worth $21 million per year, and convincing left tackle Anthony Castonzo to return on a two-year deal.

The wide receiver and cornerback draft classes affected the market.

This draft class is considered a great one for wide receivers and cornerbacks, and that has appeared to affect the decision-making of teams in free agency.

As expected, the top two free agent cornerbacks received big paydays, with Byron Jones agreeing to a deal with Miami worth $16.5 million annually and James Bradberry getting $14.5 million annually from the New York Giants. Trae Waynes got $14 million per year from the Cincinnati Bengals, and Kendall Fuller got $10 million per year from the Washington Redskins.

But Chris Harris and Logan Ryan figured to get $10 million per year or more, and that didn’t happen. Harris accepted a two-year, $17 million deal from the Los Angeles Chargers. Ryan is still available. So are Bashaud Breeland and Ronald Darby.

The situation is worse for wide receivers. The draft has roughly 25 wideouts with third-round grades or better. Excluding Amari Cooper, who re-signed with Dallas, not one free agent receiver has claimed a contract for more than $10 million annually. Robby Anderson hit that mark with a two-year, $20 million signing with the Panthers on Tuesday. Sanders took a two-year, $16 million deal when many expected him to get $11 million per. Randall Cobb came in at three years for $27 million. Breshad Perriman signed with the Jets on Tuesday for one year and $8 million.

The new CBA had free agents signing shorter deals.

The new collective bargaining agreement has agents accepting shorter-team deals. I don’t think I’ve seen a recent offseason with so many lucrative three-year deals. Among the free agents moving to different teams, only three had five-year deals. Only four agreed to four-year contracts.

In the new CBA, players will see their percentage of league revenue increase, and a big spike is expected to come to the salary cap once the next round of television contracts is complete, although you have to wonder how the novel coronavirus and the resulting economy will affect those discussions. The shorter-term deals give players a chance to hit free agency again soon, when contracts figure to be more lucrative.

Coronavirus-related travel restrictions had an impact.

The rules restricting players from flying to teams for visits — put in place by the league in response to the coronavirus pandemic — has affected those with injuries. This is true for quarterback Cam Newton, whom the Panthers released Tuesday.

Edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney, considered one of the top free agents, thought he could get more than $22 million per year. But his injury history — he is most recently recovering from core surgery — could mean his deal is closer to $15 million per.

The inability to travel for physicals could also negatively affect draft prospects, most notably former Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who is coming off a serious hip injury.

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