It takes time to evaluate how a free-agent class panned out. Deals that were celebrated in the moment can turn in a hurry. Overlooked signings occasionally wind up swinging entire seasons. It’ll be months before we truly know who made the right moves, but following a whirlwind week, there are some conclusions ready to be drawn. And for some playoff hopefuls, the first wave of free agency left more questions than answers.
1. After years of roster stability, the Vikings are entering a period of transition.
For most of head coach Mike Zimmer’s tenure, Minnesota retained its homegrown talent better than any team in the NFC. Nearly every successful Vikings draft pick has signed a second (or third) contract with the franchise before hitting free agency, allowing Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman to keep their core intact on relatively inexpensive deals. A laundry list of players have re-upped with the franchise under Zimmer’s watch: Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, Harrison Smith, Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes, Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks, and Anthony Barr, to name a few.
Cap guru and chief negotiator Rob Brzezinski was largely able to balance all those contracts without borrowing money from future seasons (a strategy teams like the Saints have used for years). But last spring, he and the franchise strayed a bit from those principles to keep the band together. When a lack of cap space made Barr’s exit in free agency seem all but certain, Minnesota signed him to a back-loaded deal and converted about $2 million of Kendricks’s base salary into a signing bonus to clear space. That may be business as usual for many teams, but for Minnesota, living on the NFL’s version of a credit card was unprecedented.
The Vikings hoped that by keeping Zimmer’s defense together and implementing a new offensive system that was designed to jump-start Kirk Cousins, their homegrown foundation could make one last run at a championship. They were ... sorta right. Cousins had one of the best seasons of his career in coordinator Kevin Stefanski’s pass-happy offense (ranking fifth in completion percentage over expectation and seventh in adjusted net yards per attempt), but that improvement still wasn’t enough to push Minnesota over the top. Following a blowout loss to the 49ers in the divisional round, the Vikings turned their attention to an offseason packed with uncertainty.
Minnesota addressed the looming question of Cousins’s future with a two-year, $66 million extension that cleared $10 million in cap space this season. Extending Cousins ensures stability under center through at least 2021, but that’s about where the continuity ends. It’s hard to process the amount of turnover the Vikings have experienced in the past two weeks. Rhodes and defensive tackle Linval Joseph were released. Griffen announced he won’t be back. Former first-round pick Trae Waynes signed a three-year, $42 million deal with the Bengals in free agency. Slot corner Mackensie Alexander joined him in Cincinnati on a modest one-year deal. Safety Anthony Harris was given the franchise tag, but it sounds like he may eventually be dealt. And to top it all off, Minnesota pulled off a blockbuster trade that sent Stefon Diggs to Buffalo for a sizable haul of draft capital that includes a first-round pick.
Taken individually, these moves are all defensible. Rhodes was once considered one of the league’s top corners, but he’s regressed badly in the past two years and was considered a likely cap casualty. Joseph will turn 32 this season. Griffen is already 32, but he’s coming off a productive season that should earn him a solid short-term deal elsewhere. Cincinnati’s bold play for Waynes doesn’t match his production, and Minnesota was probably better off staying out of the fray in that scenario. Losing Diggs won’t be easy, but the former fifth-round pick was clearly upset about his standing in the Vikings offense. Minnesota got more for Diggs than Houston got for DeAndre Hopkins, and Spielman now has two first-round picks in a receiver-heavy draft should he go that route to find a replacement. But even if each move is logical, collectively, they signal a seismic shift for the organization.
Minnesota’s cornerbacks were a nightmare last season, but after losing all three starters, it’s unclear who will fill those jobs in 2020. Aside from former first-round pick Mike Hughes, who suffered a broken vertebrae in his neck late last season, the Vikings don’t have many encouraging in-house options. Spielman signed Michael Pierce to a three-year, $27 million deal (with $18 million guaranteed) to replace Joseph. The former Ravens nose tackle is four years younger than his predecessor and brings a reputation as an excellent run defender, but that’s a sizable contract for a player who doesn’t add much pass-rushing value. Finding guys who can get after the quarterback will be paramount without Griffen and reserve defensive end Stephen Weatherly, who signed a nice deal with Carolina last week.
And even if the Vikings do take a receiver early in the draft, it’ll be tough for a rookie to equal Diggs’s production. His raw totals suffered last season as the Vikings transitioned to a more run-heavy offense, but Diggs was still among the most efficient receivers in the entire league. He finished second in yards per route run, second in yards per target, and third in percentage of his team’s air yards. With Thielen injured for much of the season, Diggs shouldered a huge portion of Minnesota’s passing offense.
Now, for the first time in years, the franchise has fallen into team-building purgatory. The Vikings still have too much talent to bottom out if they stay healthy, but even accounting for last year’s injuries and considerable decline from guys like Rhodes, it’ll be nearly impossible for Minnesota to field a better team in 2020 than it did last season. Plus, there’s still plenty of pressure to win now, as both Zimmer and Spielman face uncertain futures with the organization. Those competing interests have required the Vikings to retool on the fly while enduring considerable roster attrition, and the results might not be pretty in 2020.
2. The Lions are stealing from the Patriots in all the wrong ways.
Plenty of former disciples of Bill Belichick have tried to replicate the Patriot Way after becoming head coaches. But no one has done it quite so literally as Matt Patricia. During Patricia’s two-year reign in Detroit, he and general manager Bob Quinn (who spent 16 years in New England’s front office before joining the Lions in 2016) have scooped up just about every ex-Patriot they could find. In the past week alone, the Lions signed Jamie Collins to a three-year, $30 million deal; inked Danny Shelton to a two-year, $8 million contract; and traded for free safety Duron Harmon. As ESPN analyst and longtime GM Mike Tannenbaum pointed out, the Lions now have more former Patriots on their roster (seven) than Lions who were on the roster when Patricia took over. Those moves come one year after Detroit signed Trey Flowers and Justin Coleman—two former Patriots—to big deals in free agency.
There’s nothing wrong with Patricia seeking out familiar faces who fit his plan, but the way he’s gone about acquiring these players is consistently misguided. In their effort to copy New England, the Lions made moves the Patriots would never consider. Belichick was content to watch Flowers hit the market last season, another example of his steadfast refusal to pay top dollar for edge rushers. The Lions, on the other hand, were happy to hand him $56 million guaranteed. After flaming out as a big-money acquisition in Cleveland, Collins returned to the Patriots on an incentive-laden $1 million deal last season—just the latest bargain-bin addition to pay huge dividends for New England. His average cap hit with Detroit through the next two years will be almost nine times that amount.
Collins (and all the other former Patriots) could have a significant on-field impact this season, but looking at the scope of Detroit’s moves, it feels like this team is running in place—again. Shelton is just a less effective version of Damon Harrison, the stellar run stuffer he replaced. After cutting Ricky Wagner, Detroit handed Halapoulivaati Vaitai a five-year, $45 million deal to take over at right tackle. Desmond Trufant will step in for disgruntled cornerback Darius Slay, who was dealt to the Eagles last week for a third- and fifth-round pick. All of those deals will save Detroit some money against the cap this season, but the Vaitai and Trufant deals are still significant investments that arguably leave the roster worse off than it was before free agency began. The Lions seem to have a plan, but it’s unclear how well it will serve them in the long run.
3. Barely a year removed from their Super Bowl appearance, the Rams look like a completely different team.
It’s been one hell of a ride since Sean McVay’s team won the NFC championship following the 2018 season. With the young head coach leading the way, the homegrown nucleus of Jared Goff, Aaron Donald, and Todd Gurley had the franchise positioned as a perennial contender. But following a disappointing 2019 campaign and a whirlwind offseason, the Rams now face a frightening new reality. Cory Littleton, Michael Brockers, Dante Fowler, Nickell Robey-Coleman, and Eric Weddle are all gone. Brandin Cooks is reportedly available for the right price. And in a stunning move, Gurley was released last week, leaving the Rams with more than $11 million in dead money on the cap. By the time next season begins, large swaths of this team could be virtually unrecognizable.
A sharp downturn was always possible for this franchise. The aggressive team-building approach general manager Les Snead adopted in the past two years brought plenty of risk. The Rams weren’t afraid to make bold moves for veterans on big contracts, sign their core players to market-setting deals that might give other teams pause, and sacrifice draft capital to acquire proven stars. Their front-office personnel would probably bristle at the phrase “all in,” but in the past year, the Rams stretched their resources about as far as any team in the league. And now, they’re trying to figure out what happens next.
Snead has already replaced Fowler and Brockers with Leonard Floyd and A’Shawn Robinson, respectively, but both of those moves are probably downgrades. The Rams might actually be OK at cornerback with Jalen Ramsey holding down one spot and Troy Hill stepping into a full-time starting role, but there’s still a need at outside pass rusher and two glaring holes at inside linebacker.
This roster has deteriorated in pretty much every conceivable way, and the Rams lack both the cap space and draft capital to address their problems. After dealing two of them for Ramsey, Snead heads into his third consecutive draft without a first-round pick. Even if he can recoup something for Cooks, the Rams still don’t have nearly enough resources to fix the issues currently plaguing the roster. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see L.A. finish last in an increasingly competitive NFC West.
4. Each Texans move is more perplexing than the last.
For now, let’s press pause on discussing the DeAndre Hopkins trade. I wrote about the deal in its immediate aftermath, and nearly a week later, I still can’t figure out how it actually happened. But the residual confusion and dismay shouldn’t distract from the other puzzling decisions the Texans made in free agency.
Hours after sending Hopkins to the Cardinals, Texans head coach/general manager/emperor Bill O’Brien signed slot receiver Randall Cobb to a three-year, $27 million contract with $18.75 million guaranteed. That’s a lot of money for a player who Dallas nabbed on a one-year, $5 million prove-it deal a year ago. Compared to his past few seasons with the Packers, Cobb had a bounce-back year in the Cowboys’ high-flying offense, but his numbers still won’t blow anyone away. Among the 77 receivers with at least 100 slot snaps last season, Cobb ranked 26th in yards per route run (1.66). He showed considerably more burst than he did near the end of his injury-riddled time in Green Bay, but the Texans paid a premium for a guy who will be 30 by the start of next season.
O’Brien also shelled out a pile of cash for former Browns defensive back Eric Murray. After spending most of his time at safety during three seasons with the Chiefs, Murray transitioned to slot corner for Cleveland in 2019. Despite the mixed results, Houston still felt compelled to give Murray a three-year deal worth up to $20.3 million. Guaranteed figures haven’t yet been reported, but on its face, that’s a substantial contract for a player the Chiefs (who weren’t exactly loaded in the defensive backfield) were willing to trade for Emmanuel Ogbah last offseason. The Hopkins deal may have stolen most of the headlines, but that shouldn’t overshadow Houston’s other head-scratching moves.
5. The Bears have made a habit of negotiating against themselves.
Overbidding for assets he shouldn’t even want has become a trademark of the Ryan Pace era in Chicago. It began with the three-year, $45 million deal (with $18.5 million guaranteed) he gave quarterback Mike Glennon in 2017 to keep the seat warm for Mitchell Trubisky. Glennon started four games and was released the following spring. Trading up for Trubisky in the 2017 draft cost Pace two third-round picks and a fourth-round pick, all because he was convinced Chicago needed to move up a single spot to land their guy. Then last week, the Bears saved Jacksonville a small fortune by trading a fourth-round pick for Nick Foles and his anvil of a contract, despite a dwindling quarterback market that had already depressed demand for the career backup.
That move came on the heels of a two-year, $16 million contract for 33-year-old tight end Jimmy Graham. The deal is essentially a one-year, $9 million pact with only $3 million in dead money remaining after this season, but somehow, Graham’s representatives managed to sneak a no-trade clause into the agreement. In the NFL, no-trade clauses are typically reserved for quarterbacks who have a ton of leverage. Drew Brees has one. So does Russell Wilson. Kirk Cousins successfully got one in his fully guaranteed $84 million deal from the Vikings in 2018. Graham, who ranked 31st in yards per route run among tight ends last season, isn’t exactly in their company. It’s a small concession that probably won’t matter much in the long run, but it’s just another instance of the Bears conceding far more than they should.