NFL free agency opens with numerous big moves

Ryder Martin

Illustration by Alex Hanks

The lack of sports due to COVID-19 has really helped drive home just how unnatural the world feels right now. With the absence of all major sports leagues, the past week has felt very disconcerting to fans. Lucky for all major sports fans looking for a reprieve from the stress and worry of the current global pandemic, the NFL free agency, in which coveted free agents will begin looking for their next home, officially got underway and flooded our news feeds with a number of shocking moves.

Free agency kicked off early with a number of teams placing the franchise tag on players that could’ve become free agents. Dak Prescott of Dallas, Derek Henry of Tennessee and Shaquil Barrett of Tampa Bay were perhaps the three biggest names on the list, potentially setting up contractual disputes down the line. The tagging of Barrett in particular indicated that Tampa was likely to move on from up and down quarterback Jameis Winston as the franchise tag was thought to be one of the last potential avenues the Buccaneers had to signal a desire to retain his services.

Afterward, the fabric of the league was shaken to its very core. Tom Brady posted an announcement to Twitter announcing he was officially leaving the New England Patriots. A prolific career in New England that encompassed nine Super Bowl appearances with six victories and dominance of a division that may never be seen again was officially over. Despite many indications that Brady would indeed be leaving New England, the sporting community at large seemed unable to accept this possible reality. Speculation immediately ran rampant about where Brady would go with the Buccaneers and Chargers quickly emerging as the presumptive favorites. As Monday wore on, the Chargers were reported to be out of the running, and around an hour after that news, Tom Brady was reported to be signing with the Buccaneers. On Friday, the terms of the deal were finally disclosed as being a two-year, $50 million deal with an extra $9 million in incentives. For Brady, this represents a seismic shift in his career as he is leaving the only team he has ever known to go to a team that has historically been one of the worst in NFL history with only six playoff victories in franchise history. Coming off a season in which Brady was reportedly frustrated by his offensive personnel in New England, Brady will walk into a much better situation in Tampa Bay, which boasts two 1,000 yard receivers in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Brady is also likely to try and unlock the potential of tight end O.J. Howard, who has yet to capitalize on the potential and skill set that made him a first-round pick in 2017.

Beyond Brady, quarterbacks changing places was a theme throughout the first day of free agency. After being let go by the Los Angeles Chargers, Phillip Rivers came to an agreement with the Indianapolis Colts on a one-year, $25 million deal. The Colts hope that Rivers is the missing piece that will make them a serious Super Bowl contender. In two separate moves, the Carolina Panthers signed Teddy Bridgewater to a three-year, $63 million deal and subsequently announced they would allow Cam Newton to seek a trade. Newton came out after the announcement and stated he did not wish to be traded and the organization was forcing him out. Almost a week later, Carolina announced they would be trading backup quarterback Kyle Allen to the Washington Redskins for a fifth-round pick to clear room for the signing of XFL standout quarterback PJ Walker, who played college football for new Carolina head coach Matt Rhule. Bridgewater installs himself as the new starting quarterback in Carolina, completing his comeback from the devastating knee injury he suffered during the 2016 preseason. 

On Wednesday afternoon, the Bears made a move to bring in more competition for Mitch Trubisky as they traded a fourth-round pick to the Jaguars for quarterback Nick Foles. The Jaguars now possess 12 picks in the upcoming NFL draft as they head toward a rebuild. The Bears will likely hold a competition for the starting quarterback job, though this may be complicated by the potential for a shortened offseason program due to the ongoing pandemic. Some quarterbacks remained in the same location, however, with the Saints giving Drew Brees a new two-year, $50 million deal and the Vikings handing Kirk Cousins a two-year, $66 million extension. 

While quarterbacks have arguably the most important position in football, they are not the only position that matters, and free agency reflected that. A number of major position players changed teams via trade with the biggest perhaps coming just as the legal tampering period began. The Arizona Cardinals were able to pull off a stunning trade, acquiring Deandre Hopkins and a fourth-round pick from the Texans for David Johnson, a second-round pick and a fourth-round pick. 

Many around the NFL scratched their heads at this trade as David Johnson’s contract was deemed “untradeable” by most and the Texans received dismal returns for one of the top three receivers in the game of football in the middle of his prime. For the Cardinals, this gives Kyler Murray a major weapon heading into his second season and addresses one of their glaring offseason needs. The trade also appears to be a failure by the Texans when compared to the returns the Minnesota Vikings received later in the day by shipping off disgruntled wide receiver Stefon Diggs and a seventh-round pick to the Buffalo Bills for a first-round, fifth-round, sixth-round and 2021 fourth-round draft selection. Diggs will slot in as the number one wide receiver for the Bills as they attempt to win the AFC East for the first time since 1995. The last of the big trades on the first day saw the San Francisco 49ers trade standout defensive lineman DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts for the 13th pick in the upcoming draft.  

Numerous teams set out to improve in key areas. Faced with the possibility of a wide-open AFC East with the departure of Tom Brady, the Miami Dolphins set out to make numerous improvements to their defense. Their first move was to hand a record-setting contract for a cornerback to former Cowboys cornerback Byron Jones. Jones’ five-year, $82.5 million deal set a record for most annual value in a contract. Former Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy also joined the Dolphins on a four-year, $51 million deal. Former Bills defensive end Shaq Lawson rounds out Miami’s defensive overhaul, joining on a three-year $30 million contract. Coming off a season of high expectations that led to utter disaster, the Cleveland Browns approached the opening of free-agency looking to give Baker Mayfield even more help. First, they gifted him a new target in former Falcons tight end Austin Hooper on a four-year, $44 million contract. They also moved to shore up a shaky offensive line with the addition of former Titans offensive tackle Jack Conklin on a three-year, $42 million deal. Cleveland then signed an insurance policy for Mayfield by bringing in quarterback Case Keenum on a one-year deal, giving the Browns one of the best backup quarterbacks in the league.

With the “franchise player” tagging of quarterback Dak Prescott, the question turned to what the Dallas Cowboys would do with free-agent wide receiver Amari Cooper. This question was answered on Tuesday night as Cooper signed a five-year, $100 million deal to remain in Dallas. In addition, the Cowboys re-signed tight end Blake Jarwin to a three-year, $24.25 million deal and linebacker Sean Lee on a one-year contract worth $4.5 million. Defensively, the Cowboys signed free-agent safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to a one-year deal for $4 million and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy to a three-year, $18.3 million deal. Later in the week, the Cowboys learned of the surprise retirement of stalwart center Travis Frederick, making their resigning of offensive linemen Joe Looney look like a prudent move. In the aftermath of the DeAndre Hopkins trade, the Texans signed free-agent wide receiver Randall Cobb to a three-year, $27 million deal. The Texans also agreed to terms with free-agent cornerback Bradley Roby on a three-year, $36 million deal.

The Las Vegas Raiders, looking to make a splash in their new home, were also busy during the opening of free agency. Longtime Cowboys tight end Jason Witten inked a one-year deal with the team, although he is likely to be much more of a mentor figure to the Raiders starting tight end Darren Waller than a big contributor. The Raiders also brought in competition for starting quarterback Derrek Carr, signing former Titans starting quarterback Marcus Mariota under terms yet to be reported. Mariota will attempt to resurrect his career in a manner similarly to Ryan Tannehill, who replaced Mariota as the starting quarterback of the Titans after Mariota struggled last season. Later, The Philadelphia Eagles attempted to solve one of their biggest longstanding personnel issues since their Super Bowl victory by trading for discontent star Lions cornerback Darius Slay for a third- and fifth-round draft selection. Slay signed an extension with the Eagles soon after with a three-year, $50 million contract. The Eagles released longtime safety Malcolm Jenkins in a separate move. Jenkins found a home later in the week with the New Orleans Saints on a four-year, $32 million deal. Coming off a season in which they finished with a league-best 14-2 record but were manhandled by Derrick Henry in the playoffs, the Baltimore Ravens improved their defensive line. They traded the fifth pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars for Calais Campbell in an absolute steal of a trade and then signed former Rams defensive tackle Michael Brockers to a three-year, $30 million deal [UPDATE: After a failed physical the Ravens were unable to sign Brockers and he would resign with the Rams. The Ravens would then fill the void by signing former Denver Broncos pass rusher Derek Wolfe]. The Ravens hope this will lead to less of a reliance on using the blitz to generate pressure as the Ravens blitzed on the highest percentage of plays run against them last season. 

The Los Angeles Rams made headlines later in the week with the surprise move to cut star running back Todd Gurley. Coming off the worst season of his professional career and with lingering uncertainties about his long-term health, it was still a surprise to see the Rams absorb a large chunk of his remaining contract to release him. Speculation about where Gurley would land dominated the news cycle Thursday night with no clear consensus forming. By Friday morning, however, we had our answer as the Atlanta Falcons, having just released former starting running back Devontae Freeman, agreed to a deal to bring Todd Gurley to the Falcons, though the terms of the deal have not been disclosed. Gurley’s move to the Falcons makes the NFC South perhaps the most fascinating division in the entire NFL with the arrivals of Tom Brady to Tampa Bay and Teddy Bridgewater to Carolina. The New Orleans Saints, not content to stand pat, also made a move on Friday night, bringing in wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders on a two-year, $14 million deal, giving Drew Brees another proven target. The Chicago Bears made a move to give Khalil Mack to the other side of the defensive line, signing former Cowboys defensive end Robert Quinn to a five-year, $70 million contract.

In what essentially boiled down to an unofficial trade, the Los Angeles Chargers and Denver Broncos swapped big names a couple of days into the start of free agency. Running back Melvin Gordon, off a failed holdout from the Chargers, ended up signing with the Denver Broncos on a two-year, $16 million deal. After turning down a contract that would have paid him in the double digit millions annually, Gordon’s holdout can now be resoundingly called a failure, although he now will have the chance to face his old team twice a year. With the offseason trade for former Jaguars corner A.J. Bouye, many people saw this as the end of Chris Harris Jr.’s time in Denver, and that would prove to be the case. Harris will be heading to the Chargers on a two-year, $20.25 million contract. Going forward, Harris will look to help a Chargers team heading into unfamiliar territory without longtime quarterback Phillip Rivers and coming off a disappointing season starting with Super Bowl aspirations.

Going forward, the attention of many will now turn to the names still looking for a home. Former Seahawks and Texans edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney was regarded by some as the best available player in this free agency class, but he has yet to find a home. Reportedly seeking around $20 million a year, Clowney has been reported as feeling “underwhelmed” by the offers received thus far. It is fair to speculate that NFL teams are possibly not comfortable giving out a premium contract for a player whose stats have not always managed to match the talent readily apparent on a consistent basis. Jameis Winston is also still without a home, and it looks like his time as a starting quarterback in the NFL is over for the time being. Without a clear landing spot, Winston is likely to take a deal far lower than he would have been paid had the Buccaneers chosen to stick with him. Though the offensive numbers of 32 touchdowns and over 5,000 yards are eye watering, Winston’s turnovers spiked dramatically last season as he became the first quarterback ever to throw 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in the same season. Lastly, a cornerback market that started on day one of free agency with big names coming off the board immediately — Byron Jones heading to the Dolphins, James Bradberry to the Giants and Kendall Fuller to the Redskins — has now cooled off dramatically. With multiple big names like Nickell Robey-Coleman, Logan Ryan and Prince Amukamara still available, free agency will be a fascinating story to follow as the second wave of the cornerback market develops. 

In a week when so many sporting events were postponed or even outright canceled, it was a welcome reprieve to see the NFL attempt to conduct business as usual. While there are unlikely to be any traditional introductory press conferences for these new signings, this past week was still able to bring a little sense of enjoyment back into the lives of a number of sports fans looking for it. So thank you to the NFL, even if it was only a very small event. For those in the sports world, it was something much more than that — it was just a small sense of a return to normalcy.