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NFL Free-Agency Superlatives: The Best and Worst From a Wild Day

Teams technically can’t even sign anyone yet, but that didn’t stop a flurry of handshake deals from taking place

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

NFL free agency doesn’t officially start until 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday, but teams took advantage of the league’s legal tampering period on Tuesday to get a flurry of handshake deals done. Reports came in fast and furious, and if you blinked, odds are you missed something. Let’s take a look at all the superlatives from Tuesday’s free agency action.

Most Obvious Call: Drew Brees Re-ups With the Saints

There was a small part of me—microscopic, really—that had actually started to believe that the Saints were going to let Brees hit free agency, but that thought up and vanished like a fart in the wind on Tuesday when New Orleans inked their future Hall of Fame signal-caller to a two-year, $50 million extension with $27 million guaranteed. It’s as close to a no-brainer move as any team could have made: The Saints already had the nucleus of a top-tier defense and a dominant run game intact. By holding on to the 39-year-old Brees—who is still healthy and playing at an elite level—they look built to contend for a Super Bowl in 2018.

Best Arms Race: The NFC North Signing Frenzy

The Jimmy Garoppolo deal has spurred the start of an arms race in the NFC West, but the NFC North apparently decided it wouldn’t be outdone. The Bears got the ball rolling by unofficially landing 24-year-old former Jaguars wideout Allen Robinson, a talented deep threat, red zone target, and the top receiver on the free-agent market. Chicago wasn’t done there, though, coming to agreements with former Eagles tight end Trey Burton and former Falcons receiver Taylor Gabriel before the day was up. That’s an intriguing haul for Bears GM Ryan Pace and first-year head coach Matt Nagy—these moves were made with the clear goal of surrounding second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky with as much playmaking talent as possible. With Robinson and Gabriel both providing their best Tyreek Hill impression deep down the field and the athletic Burton lining up all over the formation (and maybe throwing a pass or two as well) à la Travis Kelce, it’s easy to picture the Bears putting together the type of unpredictable, hybrid spread scheme Nagy ran last year in Kansas City, especially if it’s paired with a foundational rushing game under incumbent running backs Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen.

Chicago’s going to have to get past the defending division champion Vikings, though, who engineered perhaps the biggest coup of this year’s free agency when they agreed with quarterback Kirk Cousins to a fully-guaranteed, three-year, $84 million contract. The former Washington signal-caller looks like the missing piece to a championship puzzle: an accurate, dynamic passer who gives an already talent-packed offense the chance to become damn-near unstoppable in 2018. Together with the team’s top-tier defense, Minnesota looks primed to defend its spot at the top of the standings.

Of course, Aaron Rodgers is going to have something to say about all that: When he’s back at full health, he should return to his regularly scheduled role as the divisional Destroyer of Dreams come September. The Packers did release longtime wideout Jordy Nelson on Tuesday, but they wasted no time exercising their fresh new philosophy about free agency, coming to terms with tight end Jimmy Graham on a three-year pact. Graham’s 31 years old and coming off a career-low 9.1 yards per catch in Seattle, but he’s still basically unstoppable in the red zone and scored a league-high (among TEs) 10 touchdown catches last year. On paper, it’s a match made in heaven: Graham’s the master of blocking out defenders and using his length to reel in end zone throws, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a quarterback who throws with more anticipation and precision than the guy Graham will be catching passes from in Green Bay. It’s no stretch to believe that if Graham stays healthy, he could go for double-digit touchdowns again in 2018. The Packers addressed their defense, too: Former All-Pro defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson is expected to sign with the club; playing alongside Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark, he gives Green Bay the chance to field one of the most dominant interior fronts in the league.

We can’t forget about the Lions, who made a few moves of their own to bolster new head coach Matt Patricia’s defense. Detroit re-upped cornerback Nevin Lawson to a two-year contract and plans to sign a pair of linebackers in former Giant Devon Kennard and former Bear Christian Jones.

Best Last-Minute Swoop-In: Andrew Norwell to the Jaguars

For most of the past week, it appeared inevitable that Giants general manager Dave Gettleman would make Norwell—the top guard on the free-agent market—a foundational piece of his new offensive line. And while Jacksonville’s no stranger to splash moves in free agency, it wasn’t heavily linked to the former Panther, either. But at the last second, Jaguars executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin swooped in to pull a fast one on his former club, stealing Norwell away with what will be a five-year deal worth $66.5 million with $30 million guaranteed.

The former Panthers guard graded out as Pro Football Focus’ eighth-ranked run blocker last year and should slot in nicely on Jacksonville’s line between left tackle Cam Robinson and center Brandon Linder. The move is another clear sign that Jacksonville is doubling down on an offensive identity centered on Leonard Fournette and a dominant ground game. But Norwell could give quarterback Blake Bortles a nice boost, too: The 2017 All-Pro gave up a grand total of zero sacks and quarterback hits last year per PFF, the only regular lineman to accomplish that feat. And sure, the loss of Robinson stings, but Jacksonville didn’t completely ignore the receiver spot, re-upping Marqise Lee to a four-year deal while signing former Colts pass catcher Donte Moncrief.

Most Underrated Move: Weston Richburg Agrees With the 49ers

In Kyle Shanahan’s zone-blocking run scheme, the center is often tasked with making very difficult blocks—firing out of their stance to reach and seal the defensive tackle to the play side of the field. That requires athleticism, strength, and balance, and in the prolific offense Shanahan ran in Atlanta during the 2016 season, Pro Bowler Alex Mack was the guy who played that crucial role. In Richburg, Shanahan has added a player who looks ready to assume the mantle in San Francisco; the former Giant didn’t generate much hype after missing most of last year due to a concussion, but he’s an excellent pass blocker who’s agile enough to make those tough reach blocks in the 49ers’ run game. With this move, it’s likely that the recently signed Daniel Kilgore will slide to guard.

Biggest Boom-or-Bust Play: Sam Bradford to the Cardinals

The Cardinals rolled the dice Tuesday, agreeing to a one-year, $20 million deal that includes $15 million guaranteed and a second-year team option worth another $20 million. It’s not only a gamble on how Bradford fits in offensive coordinator Mike McCoy’s scheme, but on the idea that the former Viking’s knee will hold up for at least one more year (Bradford missed all but two games last year due to what Vikings coach Mike Zimmer called a “degenerative” knee ailment). Now reportedly healthy, he brings a wide range of potential outcomes to Arizona: His floor is that of a dink-and-dunk game manager who can feed Larry Fitzgerald 120 targets and throw an occasional deep ball, and his ceiling is, well, something close to what we saw from him in Week 1 last year, when he threw for 346 yards and three touchdowns in a win over the Saints.

With all that uncertainty, the Cardinals do have a backup plan, as uninspiring as it is: Mike Glennon is also expected to sign with the team as soon as the new league year hits.

Most Awkward Fallback Plan: The Broncos Pick Case Keenum

The Broncos reportedly made a strong push to bring in Cousins, and several Denver players publicly campaigned to convince him to come to Colorado. That … didn’t work out. Cousins agreed to terms with the Vikings, and Denver turned to a very solid, capable backup option in Keenum—a guy whose play in 2017 with the Vikings indicates that he can lead that offense, push the ball downfield to Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, and provide a short-term bridge option for a team that’s likely to take another quarterback with the fifth pick in the draft. All that assumes, though, that Keenum can quickly get over the fact Von Miller, Thomas, and Sanders all definitely wanted Cousins more.

Most Intriguing New Pair: Pat Mahomes II and Sammy Watkins

The Chiefs were already betting on upside when they chose to send Alex Smith to Washington and move forward with their heir-apparent signal-caller in Mahomes. On Tuesday, the team doubled down on unrealized potential, coming to terms with 24-year-old receiver Sammy Watkins on a three-year, $48 million deal that guarantees $30 million. Watkins’s size (6-foot-1, 211 pounds) and downfield speed makes him the perfect target for the big-armed Mahomes, at least on paper—but the former Bills and Rams pass catcher failed to truly break out in his first four years as he battled foot and hip injuries. The sky’s the limit for this duo, though, and it’s not hard to imagine them linking up for touchdowns for years to come.

Most Confusing QB Plan: The Jets

After coming up short in the Cousins sweepstakes, the Jets turned back to incumbent starter Josh McCown (who got a one-year, $10 million deal as the presumptive starter) and signed Teddy Bridgewater (also a one-year deal), ostensibly to be his backup. On one hand, the Jets now have two starter-caliber options under contract for the 2018 season. On the other hand, both are one-year deals, and the Jets are rebuilding, unlikely to contend, and need to take a quarterback early in the draft (they pick sixth).

Signing McCown or Bridgewater as a short-term bridge option to ease the transition of a drafted rookie to the pros makes sense, but signing both could signal a willingness to punt on drafting a first-round quarterback altogether, a worst-case scenario for a team that’s been in quarterback purgatory for years. Bridgewater may still have the upside to turn back into the franchise-caliber passer we saw in 2015, but if that’s how the Jets view him, he should be on the field, not the sideline—in which case, why sign McCown? And if the Jets do end up selecting Baker Mayfield, Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, Lamar Jackson, or Josh Allen, it doesn’t make much sense to give valuable backup reps to a veteran instead of developing the starter of the future. After signing two free agents at the spot, the Jets have a murky quarterback plan.

Most Culture-Changing Moves: Tennessee Titans

Mike Vrabel’s first goal as the Titans’ new head coach will be to introduce a winning culture to a downtrodden franchise—to install his own version of the Patriot Way. To do that, it helps to have a few players who’ve come up in the same program that he did in New England—players who have been indoctrinated into the “Do Your Job” way of life. Well, Tennessee got off to a good start with that plan on Tuesday, signing two of the most talented former Patriots on the open market in running back Dion Lewis and corner Malcolm Butler. Both players not only bring familiarity to the Belichickian approach to football, but both are highly talented, impact players. Pairing Lewis with Derrick Henry gives Tennessee an enticing one-two punch out of the backfield, and adding Butler to a secondary that already includes Logan Ryan (another former Patriot), promising second-year pro Adoree’ Jackson, and ascending safety Kevin Byard gives the defense a chance to take a big jump forward in 2018.