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 after a whirlwind week, some conclusions are ready to be drawn—and a handful of teams have already shown that they’re loading up for 2020.
1. The Bills are pushing their chips into the middle of the table
All signs pointed to the Bills being aggressive in free agency this spring. Buffalo made several midtier signings in 2019 (including Cole Beasley, John Brown, and a handful of inexpensive offensive linemen), but the team’s biggest move involved handing center Mitch Morse $26.2 million guaranteed. That might excite offensive line nerds like me, but it’s not going to move the needle for most. This year figured to be different, though. After making the playoffs a year ahead of schedule, the Bills were expected to be buyers when the market opened. Armed with more than $80 million in cap space yet again, general manager Brandon Beane had the financial flexibility to make some big swings that could potentially move Buffalo into the upper tier of the AFC.
Beane took one of those swings last Monday with a late-night deal that brought Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs to town in exchange for a package that included a first-round pick. If anyone was confused about the Bills’ ambitions in 2020, the Diggs deal should clear that right up. Beane and head coach Sean McDermott are ready to win right now. And with a bit more tinkering this spring, Buffalo might be ready to do just that.
The Bills may have squeaked into the playoffs last season, but any honest assessment of this roster heading into the spring would conclude that Beane couldn’t stand pat. Buffalo leaned heavily on its defense in 2019, and even with all the returning talent on that side of the ball, defensive performance tends to be more volatile from season to season. To fight off regression and help the Josh Allen–led offense take another step forward, Beane still had to fill a few remaining holes.
Most of Beane’s early moves resembled his strategy from 2019. The Bills spread out their cache of free agency money on short-term, low-risk signings—several of which had ties to Beane and McDermott’s time in Carolina. Three of Buffalo’s four major additions on defense were former Panthers: pass rusher Mario Addison, linebacker A.J. Klein, and defensive tackle Vernon Butler. As with most early free-agency deals, the Bills paid the sticker price for each. Addison got $15.3 million guaranteed on a three-year, $30.5 million deal; Klein pocketed $9.7 million guaranteed at signing; and Butler immediately got $7.8 million. Those aren’t cheap deals for players who’ve been career backups and complementary pieces. The Butler contract, in particular, seems mostly driven by his pedigree and remnants of Beane’s old scouting reports. Carolina drafted the Louisiana Tech product 30th overall during Beane’s final season as the team’s assistant GM, but he failed to tally more than 16 pressures in any of his first four seasons. Even smart executives can fall prey to the comfort of familiarity or their own biases. Luckily for the Bills, Beane also added former Seahawks defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson on a comparable deal to Butler’s. Jefferson tallied one less pressure last season (44) than Butler notched over his previous three seasons combined (45).
Throughout Beane’s tenure, the Bills have preferred to roll the dice with several low-risk moves in free agency and hope that a couple of them hit. But this spring, there was one area where Buffalo needed to make a bigger splash. Beasley and Brown both have specific skill sets that make them valuable parts of coordinator Brian Daboll’s system, but Buffalo still lacked a complete wideout who could be the centerpiece of its passing attack. A year ago, Beane tried to orchestrate a trade for Antonio Brown, but those talks quickly fizzled. Twelve months later, the Bills pulled off a deal for another star receiver built from the same mold.
Diggs’s production in Minnesota may not compare to peak Antonio Brown, but the two have similar strengths. Both are fantastic route runners—polished technicians who can scorch defensive backs in space and quickly transition into vertical threats on the outside. Like the 5-foot-10 Brown, Diggs is undersized at just 6 feet and 191 pounds, but he plays much bigger. According to Pro Football Focus data, Diggs has the second-best contested catch rate in the league over the past three seasons (58.7 percent). A trio of wideouts averaging 5-foot-10 may not seem like an ideal fit for a quarterback with shaky accuracy, but despite his frame, Diggs has the wide catch radius Buffalo has been missing.
Allen’s continued development is still the most important factor in whether the Bills will take the next step on offense, but Beane has made the right moves to trigger that progress. By extending left guard Quinton Spain, the Bills have kept their entire starting offensive line from 2019 intact. With the addition of Diggs, Allen’s receiving corps is now multifaceted and ready to attack defenses at every level. Adding some line depth and another playmaker in the draft wouldn’t hurt, but the system and supporting cast in Buffalo are ready. Soon, we’ll find out whether Allen is too.
2. The Saints’ complete disregard for the salary cap is getting impressive
For years, New Orleans has operated as if its bills are never coming due. The Saints’ front office treats future draft picks and dead money like they don’t exist. Trade next year’s first-rounder to move up and take Marcus Davenport? Why not! Tack a couple of dummy years onto Drew Brees’s deal to save a few million bucks on the cap? That’s a problem for future Sean Payton! The Saints have been living on the edge for a while as the franchise tries to squeeze everything it can out of Brees’s final seasons, and somehow, it’s actually working.
New Orleans has been on an incredible team-building run during the past four years. Here’s every player the franchise has drafted in rounds 1 to 3 since 2016: Sheldon Rankins, Michael Thomas, Vonn Bell, Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams, Alvin Kamara, Alex Anzalone, Trey Hendrickson, Davenport, Tre’Quan Smith, and Erik McCoy. That is ridiculous. Half of those guys are All-Pro-caliber players. The other half have largely developed into quality pieces who have met or outperformed expectations based on their draft status. It’s one of the hottest draft streaks in recent NFL history.
By stockpiling key players on cheap rookie deals, the Saints have freed up money to spend elsewhere, and they’ve pushed those dollars as far as they can go. The contract structures for some of the team’s high-priced stars are hilarious. Defensive end Cameron Jordan signed a three-year, $52.5 million extension last June. By December, the Saints had converted $9.5 million of his salary into an option bonus and tacked a void year onto the end of the deal to spread out the prorated money. Using every available accounting mechanism to shoehorn all possible talent into this roster is now typical in New Orleans—and this spring has been no exception.
The Saints entered the offseason with limited cap space, but that hasn’t stopped them from spending to the gills. New Orleans inked Brees to a two-year, $50 million deal (which includes two void years); re-signed guard Andrus Peat to a five-year, $58 million deal (with $33 million guaranteed); brought back former Saint Malcolm Jenkins on a four-year, $32 million deal; and topped it off by luring in prized free agent wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders with a two-year, $16 million deal. If you’re wondering how that’s possible, well, so am I. According to The Athletic’s Katherine Terrell, the Saints had about $4 million in available cap space before signing those deals. There are some obvious moves that would free up a lot of cap room (like releasing Janoris Jenkins and his $11.3 million non-guaranteed salary), but as usual, New Orleans will have to pull off a high-wire act to fit everyone in the budget. It’s a risky way to operate, but once again, the Saints will most likely field one of the most complete rosters in football. And with the cap projected to explode in the next two years after the league’s new TV deals are signed, it’s possible that all the financial maneuvering may not even burn the franchise in the long run.
3. The Chargers are quietly positioning themselves as the surprise team in the AFC
I know, I know. My annual (often misguided) belief in the Chargers often leads to nothing but disappointment, but it’s different this time—I swear. The Philip Rivers era may be over, but general manager Tom Telesco has this team ready for a smooth transition. Telesco has completely rebuilt the right side of the Chargers’ offensive line in the past few weeks—first by trading for guard Trai Turner and then by signing former Packers tackle Bryan Bulaga to a three-year, $30 million deal. Landing Turner cost the Chargers left tackle Russell Okung (which solves one problem by creating another), but the former Panther has been a leading interior lineman for years. He brings a physicality that the middle of the Chargers’ line has long lacked. Bulaga just turned 31 and comes with a worrisome injury history, but nabbing him at $10 million a year is a steal given the state of the right tackle market. When healthy, Bulaga is a top-five player at his position, and his deal is strikingly similar to the one the Jets gave George Fant—who couldn’t start for the Seahawks last season. That is stupefying.
Telesco went to the “aging but effective veteran” well several times last week. Along with Bulaga, the Chargers signed Vikings cap casualty Linval Joseph and former Broncos cornerback Chris Harris to nearly identical two-year, $17 million contracts (with $9.5 million guaranteed). The Harris contract, especially, could wind up as a bargain. Even before signing Harris, the Chargers had a talented cornerback group that featured Casey Hayward and Desmond King. Dropping Harris into the mix puts this team in the conversation for the league’s best secondary. Harris, Hayward, King, All-Pro safety Derwin James, and 2019 second-round pick Nasir Adderley could give passing offenses a lot of trouble next season. Throw in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram tearing around the edge as Joseph collapses the pocket, and things start to get exciting in a hurry.
Instead of waiting to see how the team’s future QB plans would shake out (as the Chargers rode with Tyrod Taylor in the interim), Telesco spent the early part of the offseason fortifying the rest of his roster to be ready when said QB arrives. By extending running back Austin Ekeler and using the franchise tag on tight end Hunter Henry, the Chargers kept one of the NFL’s best pass-catching groups together. They’ve added high-level contributors on the offensive line. And, if the defense stays healthy, it has the makings of a top-five unit. If the Chargers hit on their franchise quarterback with the no. 6 pick (whether it’s Justin Herbert, Jordan Love, or someone else), this team has the potential to shock some people next season.
4. The Bengals and Dolphins are not messing around
There have been plenty of jaw-dropping developments in the NFL in the past week, but the Bengals’ foray into free agency might top my list. It’s less jarring to see Tom Brady in a Bucs jersey than it is to watch Cincinnati throw around wads of cash. According to ESPN’s Ben Baby, the Bengals ranked 30th in total spending and guaranteed money given through the past five years of free agency. So you can understand why I did a spit take upon seeing some of the deals they handed out last week. In less than 24 hours, Cincinnati signed former Texans defensive tackle D.J. Reader to a four-year, $53 million deal and inked former Vikings cornerback Trae Waynes to a three-year, $42 million contract (with $15 million guaranteed at signing). That wouldn’t qualify as a spending spree for most teams, but for the Bengals, it’s downright gluttonous.
Both moves succumb to standard free-agency pitfalls. They’re inevitable overpays for solid (or in Waynes’s case, pedigreed but disappointing) players who happen to hit the market. But in this case, the motivation behind the moves is more notable than their value. With so many holes on their roster, the Bengals could have easily chosen to continue their rebuild into next season—even after taking former LSU quarterback Joe Burrow with the no. 1 overall pick. Instead, they used the franchise tag on wide receiver A.J. Green and continued spending money on additions to the defense. Zac Taylor’s first year as Cincinnati’s head coach was ugly, but the franchise caught its share of bad breaks before the season even began. Both Green and 2019 first-round pick Jonah Williams suffered season-ending injuries by the first day of training camp, and those losses became impossible to overcome for a team that was already short on talent. Cincinnati is clearly hoping Burrow’s contributions, some better injury luck, and a few high-profile moves will lift this team to relevancy sooner rather than later.
The Dolphins also accelerated their timeline in the past week with a handful of monster deals. Miami emerged from a crowded field to win the Byron Jones sweepstakes, nabbing the former Cowboys’ corner with a five-year, $82.5 million deal that includes $54.4 million guaranteed. The Dolphins’ other signings all align with familiar free-agency tropes: paying full freight for a rejuvenated bust coming off a single good season (three years, $30 million with nearly $20 million guaranteed for Ereck Flowers), breaking the bank for a player the Patriots got off the scrap heap a few years earlier (four years, $51 million with $30 million guaranteed for Kyle Van Noy), and signing a relatively productive pass rusher to an eight-figure deal that seems … fine (three years, $30 million with $20.8 million guaranteed for Shaq Lawson). But the Jones contract isn’t your typical free-agent overpay—for a few reasons.
Jones became available only because of how badly Dallas has allocated its resources. Players with his draft status, physical ability, and recent success don’t become free agents often. All those factors conspired to position Jones for the richest cornerback contract in the league, but I don’t think many people predicted Miami would be the team to pay it. The Dolphins already reset the cornerback market last May when they handed Xavien Howard a five-year, $75 million deal that made him the highest-paid corner in the league by average annual value. Now, Miami has the two of the three most expensive cornerbacks in football on its roster. The Dolphins are taking the argument that pass coverage is more important than pass rush to its logical conclusion. No team in the league has come close to this type of investment in two coverage players on the same defense. Head coach Brian Flores is conducting a fascinating experiment, and it sure feels like this team’s tanking days are a thing of the past. The Dolphins are gearing up to head in a new direction when they land their quarterback, and with Tua Tagovailoa possibly available at no. 5 overall, that could very well be this season.
5. New Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski is already putting his stamp on Cleveland’s roster
Based on Cleveland’s high-profile additions last week, there’s no mystery about what sort of offense Stefanski’s team will run next fall. During his first full season as the Vikings’ offensive coordinator, Stefanski implemented his version of the Shanahan-Kubiak outside-zone system in Minnesota—with offensive assistant Gary Kubiak offering input on the scheme he helped create. Stefanski doesn’t come from one singular offensive background, but it sure seems like he’ll bring the foundation of Minnesota’s 2019 offense with him to the Browns. Cleveland signed right tackle Jack Conklin and tight end Austin Hooper to top-of-the-market deals early in free agency, and both players have extensive experience playing for members of the Shanahan-Kubiak coaching tree. The Browns may have paid the sticker price for these guys, but they should give a boost to Cleveland’s offense.
In lower-profile moves, the Browns signed former Vikings quarterback Case Keenum to a three-year, $18 million deal to back up Baker Mayfield, and they traded for Broncos’ fullback Andy Janovich. Keenum’s experience with Kubiak’s system, history with Stefanski, and similar playing style to Mayfield make him an ideal backup for this roster. And Janovich will allow the Browns to use the heavier sets Stefanski deployed in Minnesota to great success. This offense will be different than any Mayfield has ever played in, but with this scheme and talent, he’ll have every chance to bounce back in his third season.