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Lessons From a Frenzied Week in NFL Free Agency

It’s a bad market for running backs and a crowded one for quarterbacks. But as is often the case in free agency, it’s best not to draw too many conclusions in the moment.

Scott Laven / Getty

Sometime in the 30-year salary cap era of the NFL, the idea of winning the offseason was deemed bad. This is not true. We’re just not very good at figuring out who won. Last year, many of us—myself very much included—decided that the Cleveland Browns had crushed the spring by adding Odell Beckham Jr. and Olivier Vernon, among others, to a talented, young roster. Glossing over holes on the offensive line, Freddie Kitchens’s coaching inexperience, and Baker Mayfield regressing into strange mechanical defects, it turns out we were very wrong. Not enough attention was paid to, say, the Ravens getting Earl Thomas on an affordable contract, adding to the talent they acquired in the draft and retaining the flexibility to keep making moves during the season via trades. You know, the things that actually mattered to the 2019 season.

The 2011 Eagles, the so-called “Dream Team,” are a test case in what happens when you “win the offseason” by making risky personnel moves. There were warning signs at the time: The team earned the nickname after signing Vince Young, a fairly average backup quarterback. The Eagles finished 8-8 that season and missed the playoffs. Their problem was not being crowned offseason winners or using free agency as a team-building tactic—it was signing overrated players.

The NFL is set up for teams to take big swings: The salary cap rises at least $10 million each year—it went from $120.6 million in 2012 to $198 in 2020—and a group of younger, aggressive general managers is fine taking risks that previous generations of football executives weren’t. Teams should be aggressive in the spring because there are ways to remedy whatever mistakes they might have made. The Chiefs have been so aggressive that they haven’t selected in the first round of the draft since they took Patrick Mahomes in 2017, dealing their picks for veterans like defensive end Frank Clark. That mind-set has also led to some bad deals, like Sammy Watkins’s three-year, $48 million contract. But it’s clear that being aggressive has made a difference, as six of their 11 defenders currently listed as starters have been acquired from another team. Winning the offseason is crucial; we just all have a bad understanding of what that means.

Drawing lessons from the offseason in the moment is hard. Last season, the football world was fixated on the availability of wide receivers Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham, both dangled by their teams for draft picks, and the Raiders and the Browns were considered the runaway offseason winners at this time last year after swinging those trades. The Raiders released Brown before he played a game for them; Brown then signed with the Patriots and played one game before being released amid an NFL investigation under its personal conduct policy. Beckham had more than 1,000 receiving yards last season, but the Browns offense mostly flopped. It always takes time to know which deals will have the greatest impact. But there are some things you can glean from the early days of free agency, and I tried to do that here:

There are going to be good backup quarterbacks

In the past half-decade, something happened that turned football on its head: It became easier than ever to play quarterback. There are dozens of reasons this happened. The short answer is schemes became more quarterback-friendly, young quarterbacks were more well-versed in passing coming out of high school and college compared to previous generations, and the league spent more than a decade installing rule changes that helped passing. Quarterback is still the hardest and most important job in sports, but it was easier for teams to fill in the gaps if they didn’t have an elite quarterback. This offseason, for the first time in living memory, there are more potential starting quarterbacks than starting spots. There are, in short, a lot of quarterbacks who are either good or who have convinced their teams they are good enough that their teams don’t need to spend money on one of these available quarterbacks.

Most of the teams that had holes filled them quickly. Nick Foles went to Chicago for, err, competition with Mitchell Trubisky. Teddy Bridgewater signed a deal with Carolina. Tampa Bay signed a guy named Tom Brady. The Colts signed Philip Rivers. This left steady quarterbacks like Andy Dalton without a logical landing spot in a trade. The same goes for Cam Newton if he’s healthy. Free agent Jameis Winston has no obvious home. Joe Flacco is a quarterback of some note, even if he’s shown a decline. All are available, and it probably won’t take a lot to get them. Dalton, in theory, could stick around on the Bengals once they draft Joe Burrow with the no. 1 pick. If a team with a solid starter drafts Tua Tagovailoa, that will create another expendable quarterback.

New England might opt for a stopgap option like Dalton if Jarrett Stidham isn’t ready. What’s notable is that the market for these quarterbacks might dip so low that unexpected teams get in the mix: Might the Chargers take a flyer on Newton, to see whether he can get healthy while they roll with Tyrod Taylor? Might the Pats do something similar? It’s an unfamiliar scenario: Teams overpay the most mediocre quarterbacks. Mike Glennon made $14 million in 2017. This league has never acted rationally when it comes to quarterbacks, and now might be the best opportunity for teams to take a flyer on a solid one.

Speaking of Brady, he finalized his two-year, $50 million deal with the Bucs, which features, incredibly, a no-tag provision—an indication he wants to keep playing. He’ll be 43 years old this season.

Only a handful of top quarterbacks have reached free agency this decade. Peyton Manning became available in 2012 because the Colts had Andrew Luck waiting. That led to a wild bidding war that included Titans owner Bud Adams offering Manning a “contract for life.” Kirk Cousins reached free agency two years ago, securing the largest fully-guaranteed deal in league history at the time for $84 million. Brady and Rivers, who signed with the Colts, are relative bargains on the open market at $25 million per season. Consider that on Thursday, Jared Goff netted a $21 million bonus and saw $43 million of his salary become guaranteed. Rivers and Brady will both make about $10 million less than Goff per year. The quarterback market is not going to change—it will always be a very expensive position—but for the first time in the modern era, there’s more supply than demand. It’s been a strange week.

There is no clear-cut winner in free agency

Unlike last season’s Cleveland fiasco, there isn’t a team that everyone has deemed to have run away with the spring. The Bills netted Stefon Diggs, the Cardinals got DeAndre Hopkins for almost nothing, but there will likely not be a runaway hype train for any team. Strangely, the winner of the offseason might be … the 2020 Cleveland Browns. They’ve already upgraded at head coach and have simply filled their roster holes by signing right tackle Jack Conklin and tight end Austin Hooper. They took a flyer on safety Karl Joseph. They lost linebacker Joe Schobert but still have a lot of talent on their roster. Dare I say: I’m excited about the 2020 Cleveland Browns. Sigh.

It is bad to be a running back right now

The Rams took the second-biggest dead salary cap charge in NFL history, $20 million, in order to get Todd Gurley off their books. Only the Steelers have paid more, doing so to get Antonio Brown out of town. Here is the state of play for running backs:

It is not news that the running back position is undervalued. The news is that players like Gurley and Melvin Gordon, who is signing a two-year deal worth $13.5 million guaranteed with the Broncos, are having trouble drumming up any kind of running back market. Gordon’s deal was less than he was offered by the Chargers before his holdout last year. Gurley signed a $5 million deal with Atlanta on Friday morning. The only running back who got good news this month—aside from Zeke Elliott, who probably remains very happy he got $50 million guaranteed last fall—is David Johnson, who the Texans inexplicably valued enough to trade Hopkins for. Johnson will make around $11 million in 2020. The 2016 version of David Johnson is valuable. The 2020 version, coming off of three seasons of injuries and limited production (he hasn’t gotten within 600 yards of his 2016 all-purpose yardage total), is less so. It’s unclear why the Texans didn’t just sign or trade for one of the many running backs that teams deem expendable, instead of trading away a superstar receiver to acquire one. Two things can be true at once: You can feel for running backs—I certainly do—that their work is not fetching them the money they should get for the toll the position takes on their bodies. And you can recognize the reality that no team in recent years has been happy after it gave a running back big money.

The changing cornerback market is one of the most interesting free agency takeaways

Almost every NFL team is obsessed with cornerbacks, and yet, strangely, the position remains underpaid.

That changed this week, somewhat. Byron Jones, the best free-agent cornerback, signed with Miami on a five-year, $82.5 million deal with $57 million guaranteed. The Eagles traded third- and fifth-round picks for Darius Slay, then gave him $40 million guaranteed. Both of these players will likely have an impact: Slay fills a glaring need for a team that seems, in theory, to be in win-now mode if it can fill its other needs (the Lions still have a hole at wide receiver). Slay, who has unloaded on Lions coach Matt Patricia since being traded, was one of the best cornerbacks available:

The Eagles are making risky moves in the secondary—they let safety Malcolm Jenkins hit the open market after refusing to rework his deal. They’ll rely on Slay to lock down a side of the field to make everything work. “They better know what the heck they’re doing,” Eagles beat writer Reuben Frank wrote after the team let Jenkins go. But good cornerbacks change a defense. The Patriots defense is always going to have a baseline of competence, but Stephon Gilmore’s lockdown play last season made them capable of shutting down any offense.

Jones, meanwhile, is a different type of acquisition for the Dolphins. He is two years younger than Slay, and he could play safety later in his career, if necessary. He’s joining a team much farther from contention than the Eagles. Miami, coached by former Patriots defensive coordinator Brian Flores, is clearly trying to replicate the Patriots’ structure of emphasizing cornerbacks before all else: The Dolphins are pairing the expensive Jones with Xavien Howard, who signed a deal worth $46 million guaranteed last season. There’s been a lot of research done into how important cornerbacks are compared to pass rush, and cornerbacks will only become more important. Jones and Slay may not be considered expensive for their position for very long.