Monday, the opening of the legal negotiating window ahead of the free agency period, is the busiest team-building day on the NFL calendar. The next busiest will be Tuesday, so let’s get right to the biggest NFL takeaways from all the roster shuffling:
1) No free-agent signing matters as much as nine-time conference champion Tom Brady changing his mind after a difficult 40 days of retirement. Not only does Brady’s return maintain the Bucs’ status as a contender in the NFC, it is already helping them keep their roster together. Center Ryan Jensen re-signed on a three-year, $39 million contract, which might be less than he would have received on the open market.
Then again, the Bucs have as many questions regarding their free agents as any team in football. They’ve already lost starting guards Alex Cappa (headed to the Bengals) and Ali Marpet (to retirement), with more defections expected in the coming days. Brady’s comeback should help the team retain Rob Gronkowski. Save the Kyle Trask vs. Blaine Gabbert chatter for at least another year!
- 2022 NFL free agency: Latest league news from Monday, March 14
- Vikings GM on Kirk Cousins extension: 'High-level QB play is a prerequisite' to building winning team
- Steelers reach agreement with QB Mitchell Trubisky on two-year, $14.25M deal
2) The Jaguars were that team this year — the team that snaps up high-risk propositions in the first few hours of the negotiating period and hopes for the best. I don’t hate it. Whether guard Brandon Scherff, wide receivers Christian Kirk and Zay Jones, tight end Evan Engram, defensive tackle Foley Fatukasi and linebacker Foye Oluokun are all worth the money they’re receiving is almost beside the point. The Jaguars badly needed starter-quality players on their talent-poor roster, and all their unused cap space wasn’t helping anyone otherwise.
The 30-year-old Scherff might be the biggest risk, as a quality guard whose body could be breaking down (22 missed games over the past four seasons). Andrew Norwell’s 2018 signing is an example of a time when paying a Pro Football Focus-approved guard did not pan out for Jacksonville. Oluokun can do a little of everything. Fatukasi was one of my favorite targets in free agency, and based on his price tag (three years, $30 million, with $20 million guaranteed), many teams agreed. The total money in Kirk’s contract (four years for $72 million, according to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport) got all the attention, but he’s a fine young secondary receiver. It’s more like a two-year, $39 million contract, which is also wild, but less of a long-term gamble. Engram is a great risk worth taking on a one-year, $9 million prove-it deal; Trevor Lawrence should love him. Jones’ contract (three years, $30 million) is insanity in any market. There’s always one!
3) The Bengals spending money on mid-tier guards Alex Cappa (from the Bucs) and Ted Karras (from the Patriots) is typical of their highly effective approach in free agency the last two years, targeting the middle class. Karras also can play center. It makes sense, because both players play to a professional standard, and the Bengals’ offensive line has not done that.
It’s also one way to admit an apparent blind spot for Zac Taylor and his staff. They can’t seem to coach or develop offensive linemen. Karras (who agreed to a three-year, $18 million deal) was available for far cheaper the last two offseasons. Cappa is the type of former mid-round pick that a quality staff like the Buccaneers can develop from a problem spot to a guy who gets paid elsewhere. To put it another way: The presence of a great offensive staff or offensive-line coach would make these moves unnecessary, but the Bengals deserve some measure of self-scouting credit, because Taylor has shown no apparent aptitude for helping his line for three years running.
4) The Bears’ deal for defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi ($40.5 million over three years, with a reported $26.35 million guaranteed) was a big surprise after an up-and-down season in Cincinnati. B.J. Hill was an upgrade over O-Gun for the Bengals in 2021 and wound up returning to the team Monday for less money (three years, $30 million) than Ogunjobi signed for in Chicago. Ogunjobi makes splash plays but has surely driven coaches crazy the last few years in Cleveland and Cincinnati by not always following his assignment or getting gashed in run defense.
5) The Browns’ release of Jarvis Landy was the only logical move after their trade for Amari Cooper. Adding players like Cooper is what cap space is for! The Browns only had to give up a fifth-round pick and a swap of sixth-rounders to avoid competing with the rest of the NFL for Cooper, who was on track to be released by Dallas. $20 million per season for Cooper with no upfront guarantees is more than fair in a market where Christian Kirk gets $18 million per season in base value. I like the 29-year-old Landry as a second or third receiver and slotted him at No. 25 in the latest Top 101 free agent ranking. He only missed one career game prior to his injury-marred 2021 season. But the 27-year-old Cooper is clearly a more dynamic player and worth the extra money.
6) The Mitchell Trubisky contract terms tell the story of his potential role with the Steelers. He’s clearly the favorite to start over Mason Rudolph, but he’s only getting $14.25 million over two years, according to NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero. That doesn’t preclude the Steelers from drafting another option. Trubisky makes more sense as a 1A choice if general manager Kevin Colbert also drafts a quarterback in the first three rounds to develop. There isn’t a big difference in quality between Trubisky and other potential bridge quarterbacks like Jacoby Brissett, Tyrod Taylor or Andy Dalton. I’d take Jameis Winston and Teddy Bridgewater (who’s going to Miami) well ahead of Trubisky. But as a one-year stopgap, this isn’t an offensive move, as long as the money isn’t crazy. He’s making similar money to what Tyrod Taylor got with the Los Angeles Chargers in 2019 and Case Keenum got in Cleveland in 2020.
7) Rapoport and Pelissero reported the Saints and Panthers were set to meet Monday with Deshaun Watson’s representatives. They are clearly the most likely next teams for Watson. This follows a Texas grand jury not finding enough evidence to charge Watson with a crime following allegations of sexual misconduct stemming from massage therapy sessions.
Watson still faces 22 civil lawsuits and a potential NFL suspension, the same uncertainties that originally stalled Watson’s trade talks last March. Watson’s first tweet since the allegations and an accompanying tweet from his agent did not show any contrition. Any team that acquires him will have a lot of work to do to convince fans it cares about women.
8) While other teams look for new quarterback solutions, the Vikings and Falcons are kicking that can down the road another year. Kirk Cousins’ one-year extension caught me off guard to a greater degree than it should have. The Vikings needed the cap relief Cousins’ new deal provided, and the team had clearly decided to roll with him for another season, this time with old friend Kevin O’Connell as his head coach. But Cousins continues to wield an incredible amount of power for a mid-level, slightly-above-average starting quarterback, already guaranteeing his salary for 2023 at $30 million. The Vikings are paying heavily for this way of doing business in the present and will pay for it even more when this process ends. They probably wouldn’t have done the extension unless they believed strongly in Cousins. It’s similar to how the Saints treated Drew Brees late in his career and how the Bucs treat Tom Brady, with the main difference here being those are two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.
The 33-year-old Cousins, on the other hand, was fortunate and savvy enough to never take a long-term contract offer from Washington early in his career. If Cousins can have this much leverage, just imagine what a true top-10 quarterback could do. It’s why Lamar Jackson’s rumored plan to play out his fifth-year option, get the franchise tag a few times and eventually hit free agency makes a lot of sense, if the 25-year-old former MVP is willing to take the risk. If a top-shelf QB actually ever hit the open market in his prime, he would re-write the position’s pay scale.
9) Matt Ryan’s restructure was another bit of accounting that put off pain into the future. The Falcons did “not want to” to make this move, according to NFL Network’s Steve Wyche, which will lock the 36-year-old Ryan in for another year.
10) No general manager will be busier this offseason than Packers head honcho Brian Gutekunst. Rapoport’s report that Davante Adams is not happy with the franchise tag is not a surprise, and “Gutey” is doing his best to make room for a future extension. Big choices have already been made. Stout outside linebacker Preston Smith was extended to lower his cap number, while surprise All-Pro linebacker De’Vondre Campbell was rewarded with a five-year contract one year after arriving in Green Bay as an afterthought. Meanwhile, Za’Darius Smith and tackle Billy Turner were cut loose. Smith should have a strong market despite missing nearly all of 2021 with a back injury.
11) I was surprised the top two cornerbacks in the market didn’t make even more money. J.C. Jackson is going to fit like a glove in the Chargers’ secondary. Jackson, Asante Samuel Jr. and Derwin James are playmakers that figure to get the ball back to Justin Herbert for a lot of extra possessions.
12) The Bucs were able to keep Carlton Davis for three years and $45 million. Davis’ contract is similar to the one Trae Waynes signed with the Bengals in 2020. Jackson’s considerable pact (five years, $82.5 million) with the Chargers is only a little better than the one Trumaine Johnson signed with the Jets in 2018. I expected Jackson and Davis, two premier cornerbacks entering their prime, to set a new cornerback market, but it didn’t happen.
13) The Chargers used some of those savings to pick up underrated Rams defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day. Coach Brandon Staley knows what Joseph-Day can do from their time together with the Rams, and what he can do is help the Chargers’ ragged run defense. Former Giant Austin Johnson was also added to help up front.
14) The Michael Gallup extension could go down as one of the most team-friendly in football over the next five years. The Cowboys kept him at a discount because he was coming off a torn ACL, and now they own his rights for the next five years at a bargain rate, $57.5 million evenly spread over the life of the deal.
The Dallas front office isn’t through, but I like what they’ve done, retaining tight end Dalton Schultz and signing DeMarcus Lawrence to a new contract that lowers his cap number. Right tackle La’el Collins is expected to become another cap casualty, but the Cowboys have ultimately chosen to keep the right guys.
15) I like what the Dolphins have accomplished so far. Emmanuel Ogbah, a top-10 free agent, returned at a reasonable rate. Chase Edmonds and Cedrick Wilson are versatile, low-cost veterans for Mike McDaniel to employ in his offense. The Dolphins need depth everywhere and got it, including at quarterback. Teddy Bridgewater has a similar skill set to Tua Tagovailoa, and he’ll provide a terrific backup option if Tua struggles. Miami is Teddy’s hometown. It’s a great system fit, and yes, I’m going to get overly excited again.
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