Here are the good, bad, and uninspiring teams from the first official day of NFL free agency.
NFL championships aren’t won in March. If they were, free-spending Washington owner Dan Snyder and his general manager Bruce Allen would be lauded as football’s most brilliant and successful minds.
But the free agent season can serve as the replenishing storm that turns barren rosters into thriving fields. In 2017, the Rams turned signings like Robert Woods and Andrew Whitworth into a rallying point that pushed them from the bottom of the NFC West and into Super Bowl 53. Last offseason, the Bears surrounded second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky with free agent targets like Allen Robinson, Trey Burton, and Taylor Gabriel, and rose from also-rans to NFC North champions. The right moves in the spring can unlock a world of potential in the fall.
A flurry of action to kick off free agency has given the league one of its craziest offseasons to date. All-Pros like Odell Beckham Jr., Le’Veon Bell, Eric Berry, Earl Thomas, and Cameron Wake will all spend 2019 in new locales. 2018 bottom feeders like the Jets, Raiders, and Browns have made massive upgrades. Reigning division champions like the Ravens, Bears, and Rams have watched some key players sign expensive deals elsewhere.
So who got a solid head start on the 2019 regular season with big moves? And who has some newfound roster questions to address? And who just sort of stayed the course?
Let’s dig in.
Winner: Cleveland Browns
The Browns followed up their best season since 2007 by making major moves on the trade market and in free agency. Now they’ll enter the 2019 season with two of the Giants’ top playmakers (Olivier Vernon and Odell Beckham Jr.), a pass-rushing presence who can feast on the chaos created by Vernon and Myles Garrett’s edge attack (Sheldon Richardson), and an inside linebacker who can fill the void left behind by Jamie Collins at roughly 60 percent of the cost (Adarius Taylor).
Those are moves that shore up Cleveland’s biggest weaknesses with star players, giving the club its most talented roster since being reborn in 1999. These moves didn’t happen in a vacuum, either. As the Browns traded in future assets (picks, cap space) for players, the Ravens, Bengals, and Steelers all either saw talented veterans leave or failed to make significant upgrades of their own.
Now Cleveland is the betting favorite to win the AFC North just 14 months after leaving behind an 0-16 legacy — and should be one of the most fun teams to watch in 2019.
Loser: Baltimore Ravens
Sure, the Ravens landed Earl Thomas Wednesday thanks to a four-year, $55 million deal. Now Baltimore has to hope this headliner addition is enough to offset all the losses that have ravaged the roster this March. Thomas can provide an upgrade over the recently released Eric Weddle, but the team still has to manage the departures of Za’Darius Smith (Packers), Terrell Suggs (Cardinals), and C.J. Mosley (Jets).
The league’s top-ranked defense is due for a regression. And while the Ravens’ offense should get better in Lamar Jackson’s second season as a starter and with Mark Ingram in the fold, there’s a very legitimate question, once again, about Jackson’s receiving corps. John Brown and Michael Crabtree were never the answer at wideout and Maxx Williams underwhelmed as a homegrown tight end. So who replaces them?
Winner: Oakland Raiders
Jon Gruden’s first season in his return to Oakland was all about tearing down a roster he didn’t see as a contender. His second is an exercise in rebuilding — and, on paper at least, he’s crushing it.
Gruden and new general manager Mike Mayock have spent their March amassing talent, starting with a trade for Antonio Brown that freed the All-Pro receiver from Pittsburgh for the mere cost of third- and fifth-round picks. Then came the richest contract in offensive lineman history for Trent Brown, who almost certainly won’t live up to it (see former Patriots’ left tackle Nate Solder’s struggles in New York last fall for reference) but will make life easier for Derek Carr. Also making Carr’s life easier? The addition of Chargers deep threat Tyrell Williams, who pushes Jordy Nelson to a more appropriate place as the team’s third wideout and gives the Oakland offense a fresh new look.
The big acquisition on the other side of the ball came via former Rams franchise tag recipient Lamarcus Joyner. There’s still work to be done to overhaul a four-win team, but help is on the way. The Raiders have four of the first 35 picks in this year’s draft, including the fourth overall selection. That’ll give Gruden plenty of opportunities to find a game-changing pass rusher and the linebacking help his team sorely needs.
Fitting all these pieces together won’t be easy, but few teams have added more pure talent than the Raiders this offseason. That’s a win for Gruden, who should have an entertaining team (if not a good one) by the time the franchise moves to Las Vegas in 2020.
Winner: New York Jets
The Jets got better by adding Le’Veon Bell at a reasonable price, and giving Sam Darnold more receiving options with Bell, Jamison Crowder, and Josh Bellamy. They retained Robby Anderson, brought back defensive end Henry Anderson, and traded for All-Pro guard Kelechi Osemele. Their other big signing was C.J. Mosley, the kind of sideline-to-sideline presence who can boost any defense.
And yes, the club also got spurned by Anthony Barr, who verbally agreed to the deal, looked around at the rest of the Jets roster, and decided to return to Minnesota instead.
So there’s a chance this all backfires on them in extremely Jets fashion. But for now, it was a good start to the new league year for one of New York’s teams.
Loser: New York Giants
Over the span of two trades, New York shipped out:
- WR Odell Beckham Jr.
- EDGE Olivier Vernon
The Giants acquired:
- RG Kevin Zeitler
- S Jabrill Peppers
- the 17th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft
- the 95th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft
Losing Landon Collins also stings, even if the Giants weren’t about to offer him the six-year megadeal he’d eventually sign in Washington. Replacing him with Peppers is a reasonable move — even if Peppers has a lot of the same box safety limitations Collins did in a more raw package.
That’s a lot of star talent going out, and while the return isn’t that bad, the Giants are still stubbornly building their team around 38-year-old Eli Manning:
What I have learned about the Giants’ plan in the past 24 hours:
1. They’re not planning to cut Eli, even with a $5M roster bonus due Sunday.
2. There’s still a chance they don’t take a QB in this year’s draft.
More here: https://t.co/YFKyn0rzXb
— Dan Graziano (@DanGrazianoESPN) March 14, 2019
Armed with two first-round picks, the Giants have some options to improve. Or they can just be bad in a different way. Judging by Dave Gettleman’s moves so far, it’s hard to be optimistic.
Winner: New England Patriots
The Pats’ big move Wednesday wasn’t to retain Trent Brown or Trey Flowers on monster deals or to land the receiving help the team desperately needs. It was either:
1. Re-signing veteran role player John Simon, who had two sacks last fall
2. Bringing special teamer Brandon Bolden back into the fold after a year in Miami
3. Re-upping Phillip Dorsett (44 catches in two years with New England) on a one-year deal, or
4. Re-signing a guy the 2018 Browns were about to cut, Jason McCourty, for two more years of above-average cornerback play.
And while nothing is official, it looks more likely that Rob Gronkowski will return next season instead of opting for retirement/acting in bad action movies.
For some teams, that relative inaction may be concerning. For New England, it’s business as usual. Also business as usual: using late-round picks to acquire a useful veteran for next to nothing. Who would dare call the Patriots anything but winners at this point?
Loser(-ish, thanks to cap concerns): Philadelphia Eagles
- LB Jordan Hicks (91 tackles, six QB hits in 12 games last season)
- QB Nick Foles (MVP of the team’s only Super Bowl victory)
- DL Michael Bennett (nine sacks, 30 QB hits in 2018, both second on the team)
- a seventh-round pick
- a sixth-round pick
- Malik Jackson (whose sack total decreased from eight to 3.5 and was released by Jacksonville earlier)
- DeSean Jackson (who is 32 years old but still a burner)
- a seventh-round pick
- a fifth-round pick
Philly didn’t have many needs to fill this offseason, and swapping out Bennett for Jackson won’t be much of a downgrade, if any. Even so, the Eagles’ lack of cap space meant they were destined for the lesser end of the spectrum when it came to a winners/losers list, and any major additions that can get them back to the top of the NFC East will have to come in this year’s draft.
Winner: San Francisco 49ers
John Lynch has steadily been chipping away at the Niners’ massive cap space with high-priced acquisitions in his two-plus years as the team’s general manager. In 2017 it was Pierre Garcon, Malcolm Smith, and Kyle Juszczyk. Last year it was Weston Richburg, Jerick McKinnon, and Richard Sherman.
That was just building a runway toward a pair of massive 2019 contracts. Dee Ford and Kwon Alexander signed deals worth a combined $141.5 million to punch up the San Francisco linebacker corps — Alexander as a free agent and Ford after being acquired from the Kansas City Chiefs. Those two will bolster an undermanned second level, with Alexander serving as a rangy interior presence and run stopper and Ford serving as the edge rusher the team had hoped Solomon Thomas would be.
The question now is whether the 49ers can address the other problems that have kept them out of the postseason the past five seasons. Getting a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo will help — but he’s gonna need more than just George Kittle (and sometimes-threat Marquise Goodwin) to target downfield. Kyle Shanahan reuniting with Tevin Coleman is at least a start.
Winner (kinda): Buffalo Bills
The good news is Buffalo upgraded its receiving corps to support Josh Allen in his second year as a pro. The bad news is help came in the form of $56 million in contracts to John Brown and Cole Beasley — two players who combined for 57 receptions in 2017 before taking on bigger roles in depleted receiving corps in 2018. That’s probably not enough to provide a Trubisky or Jared Goff-style year two leap for Allen, but it’s at least something.
Allen got even more support when his front office added four different blockers to his offensive line — centers Mitch Morse and Spencer Long, left tackle Ty Nsekhe, and guard Jon Feliciano. Morse is pretty good! The rest of that group, however, is loaded with borderline starters who could either make the most of an opportunity in Buffalo or settle into reserve roles.
So the Bills worked hard to upgrade an inefficient offense — hello, Frank Gore! — even if they didn’t really get any slam-dunk fits besides Morse in the process. 2019’s gonna be a gamble in Buffalo, but if you squint hard and take a shot of Fireball you can see how it might work.
Loser: Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals decided to go quietly into free agency, prioritizing deals with homegrown players over flashy forays into the open market. That’s fine! The problem is the first two signings the team made were above-market deals for tight end C.J. Uzomah and right tackle Bobby Hart.
The Bengals just signed up for 3 more years of this. First person to figure out why or have anything positive to say, let me know! https://t.co/luOhQ4HXWs
— Rebecca Toback (@Rebecca_Toback) March 11, 2019
Not great! A three-year, $21 million deal to keep linebacker Preston Brown around is a little more exciting, even if he’s only played seven games in Cincinnati last season due to injuries. Even so, the Bengals haven’t added any outside help to boost a roster that went 6-10 last season — and they’ve still got decisions to make on talented-but-uneven players like Darqueze Dennard and Cedric Ogbuehi.
Loser(ish): Indianapolis Colts
The Colts came into 2019 with a league-high $105 million to spend in free agency and needs at expensive positions like pass rusher and wide receiver. As other teams dove in an snapped up players like Trey Flowers, Dee Ford, and Za’Darius Smith, Indianapolis took its swing and got … Devin Funchess.
Funchess is a fine signing — he should be solid playing alongside a consistent quarterback and a star wideout after struggling in Carolina. The club also re-signed Pierre Desir to a three-year contract, keeping a budding cornerback in town. And Jay Ajayi, who would be a solid platoon back next to Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines, is in town deciding whether he wants to be a Colt as well. That leaves only $80 million (ish) to spend before bumping up against the cap this fall, and few big-name free agents still available to reinforce the team’s weaknesses.
For many franchises this would be a problem, but general manager Chris Ballard’s outstanding drafting and careful roster building gives Indianapolis a pass. The Colts have four of the first 90 picks in this year’s draft, which is where immediate contributors Quenton Nelson, Darius Leonard, and Braden Smith all joined the team last year. Ballard’s clearly got another big draft plan up his sleeve — but he could regret passing on some more stable veteran talent with the oodles of cap space he carved out this spring.
Who knows: New Orleans Saints
The big question facing New Orleans right now is what happens with backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The Saints may wind up benefitting from a soft market and the inherent untrustworthiness of Miami’s quarterback situation to keep Drew Brees’ potential replacement in the fold.
But there’s no deal between Bridgewater and the Saints yet, and Bridgewater visited Miami Wednesday to finish up his due diligence in free agency. If he stays in Louisiana he’ll give New Orleans a trustworthy exit strategy behind Brees. If not, the Saints have no insurance behind a 40-year-old quarterback who tailed off at the end of last season.
Elsewhere, the team made a few quiet signings. Mark Ingram’s place in the tailback platoon alongside Alvin Kamara will now be filled by Latavius Murray, the 6’3, 230-pound hammer to Kamara’s 5’10, 215-pound sickle. Veteran linebacker Craig Robertson, a valuable role player who can start in a pinch, is back as well.
None of these are headline-making moves, but they’ll keep the Saints’ trajectory moving upward.