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Five Takeaways From a Frenetic Free-Agent Market

What can we learn from a whirlwind start to free agency during which Kirk Cousins, Case Keenum, Allen Robinson, and Dion Lewis all signed with new teams? Franchises are desperate to find answers at quarterback—and are willing to spend big for offensive linemen.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The 2018 free-agent market officially opened on Wednesday, and most of the biggest moves are already in the books. So what can we glean from the flurry of moves? Here are five thoughts on a frenetic stretch of signings.

1. The Quarterback Market Moved Fast—and Unfolded in the Way Many People Predicted

By the start of Monday’s legal tampering period, a marriage between Kirk Cousins and the Vikings already felt inevitable. Minnesota had long seemed like his logical landing spot, since no team searching for a quarterback has a better infrastructure and supporting cast. For a rebuilding team such as the Jets, a price tag close to $30 million per year to land Cousins never made much sense. Meanwhile, Cousins might just be the final piece of the puzzle in the Vikings’ Super Bowl push. No other quarterback was likely to help the franchise’s title chances more this fall.

I wrote earlier this week about the long-term prudency of handing Cousins a three-year deal worth almost $90 million guaranteed (the reported figure for his deal is three years and $86 million). It’s possible that Cousins’s lofty cap number will prevent Minnesota from retaining several of its young stars in 2019. When it comes to the quarterback market, though, patience and reason are often hard to come by.

To shore up their QB spot, the Jets gave a combined $25 million to Josh McCown ($10 million) and Teddy Bridgewater ($15 million) in 2018. Given that the team might still pick a quarterback in the first round of this year’s draft, that means New York could be paying two stopgap quarterbacks who probably won’t serve much purpose beyond this season. Bringing McCown back to mentor whomever the team drafts at the position has merit; tying up 14 percent of the cap on temporary QB options is less understandable.

Case Keenum’s deal with the Broncos (two years, $36 million) is easier to rationalize given Denver’s talent on defense and pair of excellent receivers. The same can’t be said of the Cardinals. Arizona handed Sam Bradford a one-year deal worth up to $20 million as it seeks an answer under center.

And as teams everywhere scrambled to sign quarterbacks before the music stopped playing, the Bills elected to wait out the market after trading Tyrod Taylor to the Browns. Buffalo ultimately added AJ McCarron on a two-year deal worth a maximum of $16 million. That’s the only stopgap solution in this group that appears to make sense. By paying McCarron backup money to possibly hold down the starting spot while a young quarterback watches from the sideline, the Bills avoided needlessly tying up cap space to land a player who likely doesn’t fit into their long-term plans.

2. The Running Back Market Got Pretty Damn Expensive

Carlos Hyde
Carlos Hyde
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The demand for veteran backs has been tepid in recent years, but a few free agents cashed in over the past few days. Former Patriots back Dion Lewis inked a four-year deal with the Titans worth up to $23 million that includes $11.5 million guaranteed. Though Lewis has been excellent when healthy, that’s still a hefty price. Both his $5 million average annual value and his guaranteed figure are tied for the eighth highest at the position. Carlos Hyde, who fell out of favor with the Kyle Shanahan–John Lynch regime in San Francisco, got a similar deal from the Browns: three years, $15 million.

Both signings prompt questions about how the workload for each team’s backfield will shake out. Tennessee cut DeMarco Murray earlier this week, presumably to clear the way for Derrick Henry to take over as the team’s lead back. Only now the Titans have spent a good chunk of money on Lewis. Stylistically, the Henry-Lewis pairing gives new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur a diverse slate of skill sets that Tennessee has previously lacked. As with every other element of the team’s new-look approach, though, how that tandem is deployed this fall is anybody’s guess.

The addition of Hyde in Cleveland creates a similarly murky outlook. The Browns’ feelings toward Penn State phenom Saquon Barkley may be little more than a media creation following Barkley’s ridiculous showing at the combine, and Cleveland’s rumored interest in the back feels iffy with Hyde’s contract on the books. Still, taking on a veteran contract at a given position doesn’t preclude a front office from drafting a rookie whom it covets. Just last year, Minnesota traded up to snag Dalvin Cook after signing former Raiders Pro Bowler Latavius Murray. Yet with Hyde and Duke Johnson in the fold, the Browns’ need at running back is far less glaring.

Murray’s backfield mate in 2017 after Cook was lost to injury was the ultra-athletic Jerick McKinnon, who was reportedly seeking a larger role as he hit free agency. I’d say he found it. McKinnon pulled in a four-year, $30 million deal with $15.7 million guaranteed in San Francisco, making him one of the highest-paid backs in football. This deal was surprising on a couple of different levels. First, it shows the Niners don’t consider McKinnon to be a complementary back like he was during his time with the Vikings. This is no. 1 running back money for a player who’s never had more than 159 carries in a season. And second, it shows that Shanahan is willing to shell out big money for a back. At nearly all of his prior stops, the coach has relied on cheap running backs who were taken later in the draft, and found success with virtually all of them. McKinnon’s skills as a receiver and ability to move all over the field make him an ideal fit in Shanahan’s scheme (the coach found creative ways to use Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman as pass catchers during his two-year stint in Atlanta), but $7.5 million per season still represents a premium at a position where inexpensive rookie options are available.

3. Teams Were Willing to Pay Up for Mid-Tier Receivers

Excuse me if this Bears fan is still riding the pure joy that came with the team landing Allen Robinson, but it’s been hard to shake over the past few days. Chicago inking a 24-year-old receiver who already has a 1,400-yard, 14-touchdown season to his name was welcome news, and it was made even sweeter by some of other receiver deals reported on Tuesday. The Jaguars elected to let Robinson leave in free agency before using a chunk of their resulting cap space to sign Marqise Lee to a long-term deal. Jacksonville issued Lee a four-year contract worth a potential $38 million, with $18 million guaranteed. Robinson—who’s two years younger than Lee and has a significantly higher ceiling—got a deal with only $7 million more in guarantees. Bears general manager Ryan Pace has to be ecstatic.

Lee wasn’t the only complementary wideout to receive a sizable deal in this market. Both Albert Wilson (Dolphins) and Paul Richardson (Redskins) landed contracts with an AAV of at least $8 million. Wilson’s deal in Miami is especially puzzling. The Dolphins are paying Kenny Stills $9.75 million in 2018, and inked Danny Amendola to a two-year deal with $8.25 million in guarantees. Wilson possesses an intriguing skill set and was sure to garner interest after turning in a decent 2017 campaign in Kansas City, but Miami shelling out so much money for its receiving corps as it simultaneously lets some of its best players walk doesn’t make a ton of sense.

Similar to Wilson, Richardson had a knack for spectacular plays during his previous stop, but the former Seahawks jump-ball artist now carries a price tag of a full-fledged no. 2 receiver. There’s a chance that both Wilson and Richardson come into their own with more opportunities on new teams, but it’s difficult to imagine either approaching the impact that Marvin Jones Jr. made in Detroit after getting a deal worth $8 million per season last spring.

4. Cornerbacks at the Top of the Market Received a Striking Range of Deals

Trumaine Johnson
Trumaine Johnson
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Teams in the market for cornerbacks had plenty of options heading into free agency, and that led to some intriguing results. Former Rams standout Trumaine Johnson—fresh off playing two straight seasons on the franchise tag—got a staggering $72.5 million contract (with $34 million guaranteed) from the Jets. The Titans gave Malcolm Butler a $61 million deal (with $30 million guaranteed) just one year after handing former Pats corner Logan Ryan a three-year, $30 million deal. How Tennessee’s defensive back trio of Ryan, Butler, and 2017 first-round draft pick Adoree’ Jackson split duties between the outside and the slot is worth watching; if Butler moves inside in nickel sets, his $12 million salary will seem pricey in a hurry.

Likewise, it’s worth monitoring how the Texans deploy Aaron Colvin, who signed a four-year deal worth $34 million. Colvin served as the Jaguars’ slot corner last season while A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey patrolled the outside, yet his payday points to him embracing a slightly different role in Houston.

The uncertainty surrounding where guys like Butler and Colvin will play on new teams makes the contracts handed to Prince Amukamara and Richard Sherman seem even more shrewd. While concerns about Sherman’s health remain, there’s no doubt about what role he’ll fill in San Francisco; he steps into a nearly identical defensive scheme as the one he mastered in Seattle. In Amukamara’s case, the Bears valued familiarity over trying to land the biggest fish in the cornerback market. The upside for Johnson and Butler may be higher, but it’s also possible that the Jets and Titans just paid a premium to secure similar returns.

5. The Massive Deals Handed to Offensive Linemen Were Further Proof Teams Will Pay for Certainty Up Front

Last spring, the frenzy to sign competent free-agent offensive tackles led to some enormous contracts. The Panthers gave Matt Kalil, who’d struggled for years on the blind side in Minnesota, a five-year, $55 million deal with $31 million guaranteed. The Chargers gave Russell Okung a four-year deal worth $53 million. The Vikings gave Riley Reiff $26.3 million guaranteed.

Those deals range from questionable (Okung) to downright laughable (Kalil), and each speaks to the dearth of quality offensive linemen both in the league and coming down the pipeline. Developing young linemen has never proved more difficult, and, given the shortage of proficient starters available, teams have been willing to spend big for the veteran talent that hits the market. This year’s class, which was even shallower than the 2017 group, was no exception.

Former New England stalwart Nate Solder reset the left-tackle market by securing a four-year contract with the Giants worth $62 million (with $32 million guaranteed). The deal makes Solder the highest-paid tackle in the NFL, a distinction that does not align with his production. Considering the landscape at the position, though, getting fair value for a player of Solder’s caliber isn’t a realistic option.

The same logic applies to the deal that Andrew Norwell received from Jacksonville. At $13.3 million per season with $30 million guaranteed, Norwell is now the highest-paid guard in football, surpassing the contract that the Browns gave Kevin Zeitler in 2017. The increased importance of limiting interior pressure as offenses get rid of the ball faster than ever has inflated the value of guards leaguewide. Demand has far outpaced supply, and that’s caused the asking price for veteran linemen to skyrocket.