We’re just a few days into the NFL’s free agent signing period, but most of the big deals and big money have already been doled out, with a flurry of trades going down as well. Big name players like Calais Campbell, Alshon Jeffery, Brandin Cooks and DeSean Jackson have found their way to new homes. A few teams have stocked up on talent, and a few others have hemorrhaged useful contributors. There are still some intriguing names on the market, but the initial mayhem has died down—so let’s talk about some of the most interesting things we’ve learned over the past few days.
1. The Patriots Think Tom Brady Is On The Verge Of Retirement
Watching Tom Brady last season, it was easy to envision him playing for another ten years. The 39-year old superstar put up one of his finest seasons to date (albeit a suspension-shortened one) and added the cherry on top with perhaps the most memorable playoff performance of his career. He still looks to be in great shape physically, and he is playing as well as he ever has. But in the opening days of the new league year, New England has sent two strong signals that it doesn’t expect Brady to be around for long.
First off, there’s the fact that New England has been shockingly aggressive in loading up on talent this offseason. In the course of just three days, the Patriots signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million deal and traded for Brandin Cooks, Kony Ealy and Dwayne Allen. Bill Belichick has long been known for his propensity to hoard draft picks, so it was fairly shocking to see him send his 2017 first rounder to New Orleans to bring in Cooks, who joins a receiving corps that already featured Allen, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan. Add in the second rounder New England gave up in the Ealy trade and the Patriots won’t be on the clock until the 72nd pick of the draft in April. For a franchise that values draft picks more than any other team in the league (except maybe Cleveland—more on that in a minute), this past week has been a shocking departure from the script. The only other time we have seen the Belichick-led Patriots go all in like this was in 2007, when they signed Donte Stallworth and Adalius Thomas and traded for Randy Moss and Wes Welker in the opening days of free agency (and we all remember how that turned out). Those moves were perceived as a case of Belichick going on the warpath in response to the Spygate scandal; this time around, it’s all about Tommy. Belichick is well aware the he’s never going to find another quarterback like Brady (because there are no other quarterbacks like Brady), and he’s loading up as if this season could be their last chance at winning a title together.
And then there’s New England’s other quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo. After Garoppolo turned heads in his six-quarter cameo at quarterback while Brady was suspended, it seemed highly likely that he would be on his way out of town come the offseason. 2017 will be the final year of Garoppolo’s rookie contract (because he was a second-round pick, there is no fifth round option on his deal), and even though he has thrown just 91 career passes, chances are some team with a question mark at signal caller will offer him starting-quarterback money in free agency next year. For reference, see the 4-year, $72 million contract with $37 million in guarantees that Houston gave to Brock Osweiler last year on the basis of seven mostly mediocre starts. While the Texans came to regret that deal pretty quickly, it’s probably the best reference point for what a quarterback with Garoppolo’s resume could expect on the open market. Brady’s current cap hit is about $22 million—there is no way the Patriots would give Garoppolo a contract in the $15-$18 million per year range if they expect him to sit on the bench for two or three more years. With Garoppolo’s value high after his impressive performance at the beginning of the season, the prevailing expectation around the league was that New England would ship him away for a package of draft picks this offseason and let some other team worry about resigning him.
Surprisingly, the Patriots have flatly quashed any notions that they might be looking to move their young quarterback. It’s possible that they would simply rather keep him as an insurance policy for another year and then pick up a compensatory draft pick for letting him walk in free agency—probably a third-rounder, if he gets the type of contract I talked about above. However, it’s hard to imagine that New England wouldn’t have been able to get something better than a late third-rounder in a trade for Garoppolo. Between their offseason spending spree and their steadfast resolve to hold onto Garoppolo, it sure seems like the Patriots expect the post-Brady era to begin sooner rather than later.
2. The Browns REALLY Like Draft Picks
Salary dump trades (where one team uses draft picks to basically bribe another organization into taking a salary cap albatross off their hands) have become fairly common in the NBA, but they are unheard of in football. Just don’t tell the Browns, who pulled off an essentially unprecedented trade this week when they extracted a second-rounder from the Texans in exchange for assuming the burden of Brock Osweiler and his hideous contract. There are very few teams in football who would consider trading for a quarterback with an $18 million cap hit whom they have no intention of building around long-term; then again, the Browns aren’t most teams.
Cleveland’s chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta first made his name as an assistant GM for the Oakland A’s—you may know him as the inspiration for Jonah Hill’s character in Moneyball—and he has brought many tenets of the Oakland philosophy with him to the NFL. Chief among these is his view of drafting players—that it is more of a crapshoot than anyone would like to admit, and that the best approach is to simply hoard as many picks as possible to maximize your chances of finding useful talent. It’s a smart route to take in rebuilding a team—since rookie contracts are specifically regulated by the CBA, players on their rookie deals are far more likely to outperform their contracts than anybody else, and thus a starting-caliber player playing under a rookie contract is about the most valuable asset you can have. Cleveland has certainly done everything they can do to amass draft selections—the Browns currently own 22 picks over the next two drafts, including three first rounders and five seconds.
The Osweiler trade is the latest, and most striking, example of DePodesta’s pick-hoarding ways—Cleveland basically threw away $18 million in cap room for the 2017 season to acquire an extra draft pick. While that may seem like a lot of money to give up for a single pick, it’s entirely possible that Cleveland has another move in mind—they may look to trade Osweiler for a mid round pick and eat a hefty chunk of his salary, so that instead of paying $18 million for one draft pick they are spending something like $10 to $11 million for two picks. Alternately, they could hold on to Osweiler as a warm body to slot in at quarterback and then cut him loose after next season (the guaranteed money on Osweiler’s contract was front-loaded onto the first two years, so after 2017 Cleveland can release him with almost no financial repercussions). And as bad as he was in Houston last year, it’s not as if Osweiler is a useless player—he went 5-2 over seven starts with Denver in 2015, including a wild comeback win against the Patriots that had Denver fans briefly believing they’d found their new messiah.
Whatever happens with Osweiler, though, one thing is clear—the Browns’ brain trust is willing and able to think outside the box in order to get what they want.
3. The 49ers Have Gone Off The Deep End
Of course, you could also say that the San Francisco brain trust is willing and able to think outside the box in order to get what they want—just don’t mistake that for a compliment. The 49ers plucked John Lynch out of the broadcast booth a few weeks ago to give him a shot at being an NFL general manager, and he hit the ground running with a flurry of free agents signings that were…odd to say the least.
In the opening days of free agency San Francisco has been as aggressive as any team on the market, handing out contracts to eleven unrestricted free agents. That list includes fullback Kyle Juszczyk, wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin, linebacker Malcolm Smith, and a pair of journeyman backup quarterbacks in Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley—the rationale being, I suppose, that if you’re going to have one mediocre quarterback who used to mop up for Jay Cutler in Chicago, then you might as well have two…I mean, it would be silly not to, right? Other than perhaps Garcon, that collection of names doesn’t move the needle much, but the real eyebrow-raiser is how much money the Niners are giving out. Last year, Brian Hoyer took a one-year, $2 million dollar deal to come to Chicago; the Niners gifted him a substantial raise with a 2-year, $12 million contract. Malcolm Smith is a former Super Bowl MVP, but he’s been a mostly replacement-level coverage linebacker for most of his career; after disappointing the Raiders on a 2-year, $7 million deal, he signed with the 49ers for four years and $24.5 million, with $13 million guaranteed. Even Garcon will be 31 when the season begins, and is likely headed into the decline phase of his career; tell that to San Francisco, who offered him five-years and $47.5 million with $20 million in guarantees.
And then there’s Kyle Juszczyk, the biggest head-scratcher of all. Juszczyk is a more or less league average player at the most fungible position in football—he provides decent run blocking and has racked up plenty of receptions the past few years, but most of those were damage-control checkdowns that didn’t contribute meaningfully to the offense’s success. Fullbacks are generally cheap and mostly interchangeable—no fullback has ever signed a contract for more than $2.5 million guaranteed. Well, no fullback except Juszczyk, who took home $10.5 million in guarantees as part of the 4-year, $21 million contract that San Francisco inexplicably lavished on him. That is an insane amount of money for a situational player, and the Niners could easily have found someone to give them similar production to what Juszczyk might offer for a fraction of the cost—see his former team, the Ravens, who essentially replaced him with a more versatile player in Danny Woodhead at a cost of $3.3 million. I just…can’t think of a reasonable explanation for this. Also, if I have to spell the name Juszczyk again, I might cry.
Overall, the 49ers’ front office has shown a tendency to get tunnel vision for specific players combined with a complete inability to gauge the market for those players—not a good sign for their future prospects.
4. The Jaguars Defense Could Be Scary
After years of struggle and woe on the defensive side of the ball, the Jaguars have set their sights on defensive help over the last couple of seasons. After signing Tashaun Gipson and Malik Jackson and drafting Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack in the first two rounds last year, Jacksonville saw a marked improvement, jumping all the way to 13th in DVOA. Not content with that, the Jaguars opened up free agency by handing out a pair of big contracts to cornerback A.J. Buoye and defensive lineman Calais Campbell. It cost them a minor fortune—the two combined to take home $127.5 million, with $56 million in guarantees—but the Jags defense is looking armed and dangerous heading into 2017.
Campbell has been one of the most underrated defenders in the league for years, a consistently productive every-down lineman who can play either the three-technique or the five-technique. He and Malik Jackson will be a dangerous interior pass rushing combination, and both of them are very good run defenders as well. Buoye had a breakout season in Houston last year on one of the NFL’s best defenses, and he is only twenty-five years old. The Jaguars already have a rising star in Jalen Ramsey at the other corner spot—if both of them continue to develop well, that pair could rival Denver’s for the best cornerback duo in the league. The Jaguars also brought in a new strong safety in Barry Church to round out their secondary. Church isn’t a big ticket player, but he was a solid contributor in Dallas and he will be an upgrade over the disappointing Jonathan Cyprien.
Jacksonville already had the skeleton of a dominant defense assembled—in addition to Jackson, Ramsey and Gipson, they have a pair of talented linebackers in Myles Jack and Telvin Smith, and there is still hope that the frustrating Dante Fowler Jr. will begin to tap into his potential. Throw in their impressive free agent haul and you can start to see the outline of a championship defense taking shape.
5. The Broncos Are Going To Pursue Tony Romo
Of course, I can’t forget to mention the biggest story (well, non-story so far) of the offseason—the fate of Tony Romo.
Broncos GM John Elway has been coy about his interest in Romo throughout the offseason, repeatedly insisting that he has no specific interest in Romo and that he’s confident with his current pair of quarterbacks, Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch. Well, they say that if you want to know whether a man is interested, pay attention to how he acts, not what he says—and Elway has been sending some signals. Despite going into the offseason with more than $44 million in cap room, the Broncos have made just one major move—a four-year, $35 million deal with guard Ronald Leary to give them some badly needed help on the offensive line. The rest of their signings—Menelik Watson, Domata Peko, Zach Kerr and Kasim Edebali—have been of the low risk, bargain-bin variety. Denver still has in excess of $12 million to spend, and they still have a championship caliber defense—it doesn’t make sense for them to be sitting on their hands unless they are saving that money for a big move down the line. And who else would that be but Romo?
It’s been a weird week in the Tony Romo saga—after it was initially reported that Dallas would release him when free agency opened on Thursday, the Cowboys did a 180 and instead announced that they were looking to trade their quarterback, and that they were in talks with multiple suitors. That’s looking more and more like a bluff±only the Broncos and Texans have indicated much interest in Romo, and both teams made it clear that they were uninterested in trading for his onerous contract. Dallas is basically playing chicken with Denver and Houston, and it’s looking increasingly likely that the Cowboys will break first—they don’t have much leverage, because everyone knows that they will eventually release Romo if they can’t trade him. Jerry Jones isn’t going to pay a backup quarterback $14 million no matter how often they play golf together.
Romo is going to hit the market sooner or later, and, for all Elway’s public posturing, it will be a shock if Denver isn’t first in line to pay him a visit.