The first wave of NFL free agency has come and gone. While Tom Brady’s exit from New England is the leading story across the football universe, so much more has happened — and even more action is still to come.
Even though the games aren’t on and there are no fantasy results to track, come on — we’re always keeping score. Here are six winners and four losers from the first week of NFL free agency.
Seriously, the Tom Brady signing is such a huge win for Bruce Arians. Whether or not Brady can play anywhere close to the height of his powers is almost secondary. The true win for Arians comes in the massive sigh of relief the future Hall of Famer will bring behind center.
Arians probably has one, maybe two years left on this ride. Brady is on the same page. Now, Arians doesn’t have to spend the final few NFL seasons he has remaining in the blender of frustration that is Jamies Winston or even training up some rookie. He gets to work with a quarterback who, just like the two-time Coach of the Year, is just around to do some legacy building. If he has to dial back some of his system’s trademark downfield passing to suit Brady’s declining arm strength, the tradeoff is well worth it.
With so many quarterbacks available this offseason, a guy like Teddy Bridgewater could have gotten lost in the shuffle or ended up in a spot where he’d have to compete to start. That does not appear to be the case in Carolina.
The Panthers are paying Bridgewater $21 million per year, modest money at the quarterback position. That kind of coin doesn’t indicate that they view him as their franchise guy for the long haul. But look at the depth chart. Once Cam Newton is shipped off, Bridgewater will be far and away the best quarterback on the roster. The team can certainly add a player in the draft but with a glaring lack of draft capital for a full-on teardown or a trade-up in the draft, his real competition may come in 2021 — unless you’re sky-high on the prospects of XFL standout P.J. Walker, who the team signed Monday morning.
Teddy is leaving behind one of the best offensive systems in the league complete with a premier All-Pro wideout. However, there’s talent to work with in Carolina. Curtis Samuel should thrive with an accurate quarterback while Christian McCaffrey and D.J. Moore perfectly fit Bridgewater’s skills as a rhythm passer underneath. Based on the opportunity to start right away for the duration of the season combined with supporting cast, this was was a big win for Bridgewater.
Teams hunting speedy wide receivers
If you’re an organization looking to inject a vertical element into your passing game, you still have a good chance to get it done. Not only did Robby Anderson go unsigned during the first week of free agency, but Breshad Perriman is also still out there. Anderson is the far more proven commodity as one of the best deep threats in the league since he hit the scene. However, Perriman averaged north of 20 yards per catch in Tampa last year and has stacked two good seasons together.
These speed receivers are two of the best offensive players remaining in the pool. Anderson and Perriman will drastically alter the fantasy outlook of the receiver corps they inhabit next.
One of them needs to land in Philadelphia.
The Baker Mayfield revival tour
We just did this last year, of course, but it’s hard not to fall in love with Baker Mayfield if for no other reason than what’s around him coming out of March. In addition to a hopefully healthy Odell Beckham Jr., 2019 Pro Bowl pick Jarvis Landry and the ever-improving Nick Chubb, the Browns brass added even more artillery for Mayfield.
First came the addition of Austin Hooper, a sub-26-year-old tight end coming off a breakout season. You don’t see those in free agency often. Kevin Stefanski’s offense now has a legitimate No. 1 tight end to help revamp this unit into a more 12-personnel-based attack. That will cut down on the amount of three-wide sets for Cleveland, a package that was particularly damaging for them in 2019. Hooper might have had better individual landing spots from a fantasy perspective but his addition is going to make this offense much more efficient.
Perhaps even more importantly, the next big Cleveland swing in free agency came in the form of former Titans All-Pro right tackle, Jack Conklin. The victim of circumstance in Tennessee, he could have easily returned to his old squad had he not been the third wheel behind two more franchise-defining players. As it stands, Conklin will take his blocking prowess to a team desperately in need of tackle help.
Kyler Murray displayed legitimately phenomenal arm talent toward the end of his rookie season. It just rarely resulted in big plays thanks to a substandard supporting cast. The Offensive Rookie of Year just didn’t have any strong outside receiver to work with and certainly no cover-dictating wideout.
His team didn’t just find someone to fit that exact description — they swindled the NFL’s best version of that archetype away from the Houston Texans.
It was already destiny that much digital ink would be spilled with headlines deeming Murray as “This year’s Lamar Jackson.” With DeAndre Hopkins now in Arizona to vault up the passing stats of the already dangerous runner, that hype-train will fire into overdrive. If you want him on your fantasy team, be ready to pay the iron price.
Allen Robinson backers
You can pick some nits in the Nick Foles trade. You can wonder if the Bears could have done better. You’re certainly entitled to the cynicism brought on by the idea that Chicago isn’t really making a full-blown commitment to unseating the disappointing Mitchell Trubisky.
What you absolutely cannot deny: The Bears just brought in a quarterback that checks in as the best Allen Robinson will have ever played with at the NFL level. Foles, like Robinson’s old quarterback, Blake Bortles, is a streaky player. However, unlike Bortles, Foles’ hot streaks come with beefy passing numbers and Super Bowl runs, rather than just, “Well he didn’t screw it up this time,” which the Jaguars eventually discovered was the best they could hope for with Bortles.
Sooner or later, Trubisky will falter. When he does, Robinson will play with a quarterback who has shown a willingness to go deep and trust his big-time players in high-leverage situations.
We don’t need to belabor this point much longer but it must be said. Bill O’Brien just executed the worst NFL trade of all-time, sending one of the three best wide receivers in the league out of town for a second-round pick and a running back with stone-zero trade value. He did it for literally no good reason. The public excuses about their fractured relationship make O’Brien look ridiculous, at best. What you hear off the record is even more damning. He threw up a massive middle finger to the entire Texans fanbase by dumping the widely beloved DeAndre Hopkins in his prime. You can’t write this article without him.
Denver Backfield clarity seekers
If you were hoping that 2020 would bring a season where Phillip Lindsay, coming off a strong sophomore campaign and paired with an exciting quarterback for the first time in his career, would enter camp as the unquestioned top back on his team, think again.
The Broncos scooped up Melvin Gordon on a two-year deal that includes $13.5 million guaranteed.
Gordon gets a solid haul despite coming off a holdout-driven down year. His fully guaranteed cash ranks ninth among running backs and his per year salary checks in at sixth. In today’s running back market, that’s about as good as it’s going to get. That’s where the positives end.
Gordon is going to figure into Denver’s plans heavily this fall, likely slicing the backfield right down the middle between him and Lindsay. It was a worst-case for both players’ fantasy outlook.
There’s a contingent of Panthers fans who are irritated by how the franchise handled the end of the Cam Newton era. The quarterback himself is probably miffed. The team’s wishy-washy commitment-level to Newton since Ron Rivera was fired toward the end of the 2019 season came to a head last week.
Reports leaked the Panthers would like to trade Newton, all while they signed Teddy Bridgewater to a deal that paid him less than a million more per year than their former starter and adorned their social media accounts with goodbye message graphics despite him still being on the roster. Weird.
Newton is also in a bind because it appears most teams are quite worried about his medicals, a concern Carolina did little to assuage. That’s problematic right now amid travel restrictions and limits on access to examinations across the NFL. Teams that want to get a look at Newton won’t find it as easy as it normally would be this time of year. The longer the Panthers hold on hoping for a return in a trade, the worst it’ll get.
When no trade partner emerges and he’s eventually released, Newton will stand with Jameis Winston as the last two potential starting quarterbacks on the open market. The trouble is, the seats have mostly been filled. In all likelihood, Newton is looking at New England or a reunion with Rivera in Washington as his best paths to starting Week 1.
That is an insane and frankly infuriating situation for a former league MVP who, less than two years ago, was in the middle of his most efficient passing season.
It’s not that being forced to release Todd Gurley makes the team demonstrably worse on the field for 2020. By eating his beefy dead money sum, the Rams are essentially saying he’s a net negative to the operation. However, a team that made a habit of selling off an incredible amount of resources in an attempt to go all-in to get over the hump is now in the phase where the bills are due.
Teams like the Saints and Steelers have annually played a game of “kick the can down the road” with the salary cap. No one cares because they always find ways to make it fit and have an elite quarterback to cover up the sins of the rest of the roster.
The Rams, decidedly, do not. With clear holes on their team, they’re instead forced to focus on shedding bad deals of the past and taking huge financial L’s in the process.
As for Gurley, he’s a winner. He’ll pocket over $10 million this year from the Rams and Falcons combined. He’ll enter the season as Atlanta’s clear No. 1 back on an offense with a strong passing game. If he’s not completely shot physically — and he showed some signs that weren’t the case in spurts last year — he might be able to write a redemptive second arc.