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NFL Free Agency Superlatives: Making Sense of Two Chaotic Days

Taking stock of the best fits, the most intriguing moves, and the weirdest developments

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The NFL’s oxymoronic legal tampering period kicked off Monday and immediately produced a deluge of handshake deals. Reports on new signings and trades came through so quickly it was difficult to keep up, and while real free agency doesn’t officially start until 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday, decision-makers around the league managed to throw around millions of dollars and plenty of draft picks to try to improve their teams. In case you missed any of the action, let’s break down the superlatives from the league’s legal tampering period.

Weirdest Move: Tom Brady to the Buccaneers

This is weird. It’s extremely weird. The Buccaneers’ new uniforms are undoubtedly going to be weird, and Brady is going to look very weird wearing it. It’s going to be weird seeing him do his pregame pump-up fist-pump in front of a bunch of Buccaneers fans. It’s going to be weird seeing him pass to Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. It’s going to be weird seeing him get coached by Bruce Arians. And it is kind of a weird fit too, by the way: Arians is known for his aggressive, downfield “no risk it, no biscuit” offense, and the soon-to-be 43-year-old Brady lacks the deep-pass velocity and accuracy he used to possess. Anyway, it’s going to be so weird.

Biggest Curveball: Deforest Buckner to the Colts

Colts GM Chris Ballard threw us all for a loop on Monday, sending his team’s top draft pick―no. 13 overall―to the 49ers in exchange for defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. The deal, which included a contract extension for Buckner that will reportedly make him the second-highest-paid interior lineman at $21 million per year, takes Indy out of the running for this year’s top-tier crop of rookie signal-callers (the decision to sign free-agent quarterback Philip Rivers to a one-year deal on Tuesday was further evidence of that) and should boost expectations for this team’s short-term ceiling, making the Colts a far stronger candidate to contend in a wide-open AFC South.

Buckner brings a unique style to Indy, mixing first-step explosiveness with power, length, and versatility. The 26-year-old has quietly been one of the league’s most disruptive defensive tackles over the past few years and notched 7.5 sacks and 55 pressures total last season (which ranked seventh among interior linemen). He’s a big, important get for the Colts and should augment their middling pass-rushing front by collapsing the pocket, creating pressure, and generally just affecting the quarterback. After the Colts became the first team in league history to surrender a 70 percent completion rate two seasons in a row last year, Buckner should help Indy avoid a three-peat.

As for the 49ers, the deal leaves San Francisco with a 6-foot-7, 300-pound hole in the defensive interior. The team did ink free-agent defensive end Arik Armstead to a five-year, $85 million deal (an agreement that averages $17 million per year) before making the trade, but GM John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan will have to get creative in replacing their wayward defensive tackle. They could grab one of the draft’s top interior linemen with the newly acquired 13th pick―Auburn’s Derrick Brown or South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw would be intriguing if either somehow falls that far―or the team could trade back from that spot to try to recoup some much-needed draft capital (currently they have only two picks in the first four rounds, though both are first-rounders). Bottom line, though, is that the Niners have some work to do to fill Buckner’s shoes.

Biggest Splash: The Dolphins Add a Slew of Impact Players

Dolphins GM Chris Grier and head coach Brian Flores came into free agency with plenty of money to throw around, and they did just that, making a bevy of high(ish)-profile moves. The team inked cornerback Byron Jones to a big-money deal while adding projected starters in guard Ereck Flowers, running back Jordan Howard, and pass rushers Shaq Lawson, Kyle Van Noy, and Emmanuel Ogbah.

Jones is certainly the headliner of that group after securing a five-year, $82.5 million contract that makes him the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL (edging out new teammate Xavien Howard, who signed a five-year, $75.25 million extension last May, for the top spot). Flores is taking a similar tack to his former boss Bill Belichick, who frequently spends big on top-tier defensive backs (the most recent example being All-Pro corner Stephon Gilmore). Flores likely sees Jones as a Gilmore-type talent who can help transform the team’s sieve-like pass defense. Along with the additions of Lawson, Van Noy, Ogbah, and Howard, the Dolphins’ rebuild has gotten off to an intriguing start.

Most Needlessly Dramatic: Cowboys Hang on to Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper

I’ll start with the caveat that it’s impossible to know exactly which side shoulders the most blame―whether it’s the team or Prescott himself―for the now two-years-long, absurdly drawn-out contract negotiations. But it’s safe to say the Cowboys should’ve done whatever it took to lock up their young, ascending superstar quarterback to a long-term deal way before it became necessary to go to their trump card and slap down the exclusive franchise tag on Monday. That decision―along with the ratification of a new CBA that prevents teams from using their franchise and transition tags this season―led to some tense speculation from the Cowboys faithful that the briefly free-to-sign-anywhere Cooper would leave for greener pastures … or at least more money.

As it turned out, Cooper did get an offer for more money, but it was from the Redskins, and the playmaking receiver ultimately chose to stay in Dallas and take a five-year, $100 million deal. The Cowboys ended up losing Jones to the Dolphins, sure, but things could’ve been far worse for Dallas’s decision-makers after they dragged their feet on a Prescott extension and let Cooper test the open market.

Most Logical: Titans Ink Ryan Tannehill to Four-Year Extension

Yes, there’s some risk involved when it comes to the Titans’ decision to sign Tannehill to a four-year, $118 million contract extension. Yes, that’s a lot of money after a 13-game sample size. And yes, there’s a chance that Tannehill regresses and the Titans find themselves in a situation mirroring that of the Jaguars and Nick Foles. But as fun as it was to imagine Tom Brady in Nashville, none of the Titans’ other quarterback options made nearly as much sense as simply re-upping the guy who just led the team to an AFC championship game berth.

Tannehill proved to be the perfect fit for offensive coordinator Arthur Smith’s scheme, launching deep, precisely placed bombs off of play-action while escaping pressure, picking up yards with his legs, and taking care of the football. The 31-year-old signal-caller showcased steely poise after taking over for Marcus Mariota, finishing third among all passers from Week 7 in touchdowns (22), second in passer rating (119.6), and first in yards per attempt (9.6) in that stretch. With Tannehill under center, the Titans offense transformed from an inefficient, identity-less slog early in the season to a high-flying, high-octane thrill ride.

Of course, running back Derrick Henry had something to do with that turnaround, too. And the team’s decision to push their chips in and give Tannehill a big new contract made it possible for Tennessee to use the franchise tag on Henry for 2020. Based on the success rate of recent big-money contracts to bell-cow running backs, avoiding a long-term deal for Henry was the most logical move, too.

Most Intriguing: Teddy Bridgewater to the Panthers

I use intriguing here because this move conjures more questions than answers. Is it a good move? I don’t hate it, but it’s tough to say whether Bridgewater represents an upgrade over former MVP Cam Newton, who the team plans to trade or release. Is it a long-term move? It seems unlikely: Even with Bridgewater’s three-year, $63 million deal, I’m guessing his presence won’t preclude Carolina from investing in a rookie quarterback of the future, either this year or next. Does Bridgewater fit in the Panthers’ scheme? Sure, though my early guess is that the team will rely on yards-after-the-catch masters Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, and Curtis Samuel to carry a heavy burden.

Overall, though, I’m fascinated to see what Bridgewater can do in new offensive coordinator Joe Brady’s scheme. Brady was instrumental in helping unlock Joe Burrow’s talent at LSU last season and he also cut his teeth as an assistant under Sean Payton in New Orleans. If Brady can’t get Bridgewater to expand beyond the typically conservative, check-down-heavy style of ball he’s played throughout most of his career, the newly signed starter is likely to end up being just a bridge to the future for the Panthers. But if Brady turns Bridgewater into an aggressive deep-ball thrower in an LSU-esque scheme, this could end up looking like one of the biggest free-agent steals in recent history (and it’d catapult Brady into a hot head-coach candidate).

Best Fit(s): Jack Conklin, Austin Hooper, and Case Keenum to Browns

I’m going to be careful in heaping too much praise on the Browns for their offseason moves … again … but I really do like what Cleveland has done in the past two days. The team kicked things off by signing tight end Austin Hooper to a four-year, $42 million contract―and the former Falcon should be a nice weapon for Baker Mayfield as a movable chess piece in the team’s expected two-tight-end-heavy sets. The Keenum deal (three years, $18 million) makes tons of sense as well; the former Redskins and Vikings starter has Air Raid roots and a similar style to Mayfield, meaning the team won’t have to switch gears if Mayfield goes down.

And finally, the three-year, $42 million deal Cleveland gave tackle Jack Conklin just makes too much sense. Conklin has been a solid if unspectacular pass blocker in his NFL career, but consistently grades out as a top-tier run blocker. The 25-year-old finished as PFF’s sixth-ranked run-blocking tackle in 2019 and fits perfectly into the wide zone–focused run game Kevin Stefanski is expected to deploy this year.

Best Bargain: The Cardinals Steal DeAndre Hopkins

As The Athletic’s Sheil Kapadia wrote following the trade that sent Stefon Diggs to the Bills on Monday night, “The cost of acquiring a no. 1 wide receiver starts with a first-round pick.” Apparently, Bill O’Brien didn’t get that memo.

This was a coup. The Cardinals gave up running back David Johnson, a second-round pick, and a 2021 fourth-rounder in exchange for a fourth-rounder and one of the best receivers in the game―who’s still in his prime―and they still have their first-round pick.

Best Return: Vikings Load Up on Picks in Stefon Diggs Deal

Diggs is a top-tier receiver who should be a boon for still-developing quarterback Josh Allen and he is almost certain to make the Bills offense more dynamic. Buffalo paid a price commensurate to his expected impact.

The Vikings secured a 2020 first-round pick (no. 22), a 2020 fifth-round pick, a 2020 sixth-round pick, and a 2021 fourth-round pick from Buffalo—clearing out $11.5 million in salary cap while offloading its reportedly unhappy star (again: Texans, please take notes). That gives the Vikings plenty of draft capital in one of the deepest receiver classes in memory and should give them a chance to address other positions of need.