With the official kickoff of the NFL free agency period on March 13, a whirlwind of signings and trades ensued. Wide receivers such as Odell Beckham Jr. and Antonio Brown, some of the most talented individuals at the position in the past decade, were shipped off by general managers believing that a bona fide number one wideout wasn’t going to get their team to the biggest stage and hoist the Lombardi. Below is a quick analysis of some of the biggest and some of the most inconsequential movements across the league.
The Pittsburgh Steelers traded wide receiver Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders for a third-round pick and fifth-round pick in the upcoming 2019 NFL Draft, a bargain price for a wide receiver who holds an NFL record of five consecutive seasons with 100 plus catches. The Raiders additionally extended Brown’s contract, locking him down for an additional three years with a deal that caps out at $54 million in total value, including $30 million in guaranteed money.
The New York Giants traded wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to the Cleveland Browns in exchange for a first- and third-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, along with second-year safety Jabrill Peppers. 26-year-old Beckham Jr., pulled a higher asking price than 30-year-old Brown simply due to the youth and explosive offense that Beckham Jr. offers. The move comes with lots of head scratching, as the Giants traded away one of their two young offensive stars while continuing to keep 37-year-old liability Eli Manning at quarterback.
The Jacksonville Jaguars signed former Philadelphia Eagles backup quarterback and Super Bowl 52 MVP quarterback Nick Foles to a four year, $88 million deal. After declining to take the one year, $20 million contract offer from the Eagles, Foles flew south to take over as the Jaguars’ quarterback. The Jaguars franchise has been stuck with former first-round bust Blake Bortles at quarterback. In a related move, the Jaguars released Bortles, taking a sizable cap hit while simultaneously creating the biggest cheers heard from their fans since the 2017 AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots.
Winners of free agency:
New England Patriots: While the rest of the NFL frantically plays checkers, head coach Bill Belichick plays chess. Though defensive lineman Trey Flowers left for Detroit on a lucrative deal the Patriots weren’t willing to match, they acquired Eagles defensive end Michael Bennett and a seventh-round draft pick in 2020 for a fifth-round pick in 2020, an incredibly under the radar bargain for New England. With an additional 12 picks in the upcoming draft, Belichick is likely to continue building for the future while quarterback Tom Brady continues to elevate the play of the pieces around him.
Green Bay Packers: New general manager Brian Gutekunst went out and did what former general manager Ted Thompson refused to do for the majority of his tenure in commanding the cheeseheads’ roster: spending money on free agents. In the frozen tundra of Green Bay, Wisconsin, it’s difficult to attract free agents unless you’re giving the player the best offer they have. Gutekunst snagged two key edge defenders, signing Za’Darius Smith away from the Baltimore Ravens and Preston Smith from the Washington Redskins. Both players have the flexibility to switch from outside linebacker to defensive end and have significant prowess in both the pass rush and against the run, a position the Packers have been significantly lacking at over the past few seasons. In addition, they stole a talented player from within their division, signing veteran safety Adrian Amos away from the Chicago Bears, helping to solidify the back end of an incredibly youthful secondary.
Cleveland Browns: Aside from the questionable signing of free agent running back Kareem Hunt, who has since been suspended by the NFL for eight games to begin the season for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, Browns’ general manager Jim Dorsey has built an offensive powerhouse around second-year signal caller Baker Mayfield. Outside of Hunt, Mayfield has power back Nick Chubb behind him, along with scatback Duke Johnson Jr. To stretch the field, the wide receiver tandem of Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., who were college teammates and hold several records at the collegiate level as a duo, and second-year tight end David Njoku. While his stats from last season left more to be desired, Njoku’s athleticism and development in head coach Freddie Kitchens’ offensive system will help him turn into a go-to target for Mayfield.
New York Jets: General manager Mike Maccagnan went out and broke the bank to build a team around his young signal caller in Sam Darnold. Following a similar layout to the Los Angeles Rams, the Jets hope to build an expensive team around Darnold before they have to give him a payday at the end of his rookie contract. With three years left on his four-year deal, with room for a fifth-year team option, expect Darnold to pilot the Jets to the top of the AFC within the next few years. To do so, Maccagnan went and paid for a leader for his defense, resetting the market with middle linebacker C.J. Mosley’s deal, giving the defensive roamer 17 million dollars per year on his four-year deal. In addition, putting a true running back behind Darnold is the best way to help a young quarterback develop, and Le’Veon Bell fit the bill perfectly. 27-year-old Bell sat out last season after putting up 1,946 yards from scrimmage in 2017. With well rested legs and a change of scenery, Bell should be able to carry the load in New York.
Losers of free agency:
Baltimore Ravens: After losing Mosley, Za’Darius Smith and safety Eric Weddle, the Ravens’ top-ranked defense from last season has seemingly crumbled. With a college styled offensive scheme not designed to put up a significant amount of points, Baltimore will need to lean heavily on its defense until quarterback Lamar Jackson develops his passing abilities further. Free agent running back Mark Ingram will be worth every penny he’s being paid if he and Jackson can get on the same page in the backfield. On the plus side, acquiring free agent safety Earl Thomas to replace Weddle will give the defense a new leader to rally behind, but Thomas’ now 30 years old with a history of injuries could end up being a liability for the Ravens.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Losing your top offensive weapons of the past decade would be a season crippler for any franchise other than Pittsburgh. Wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster out produced Antonio Brown last season and was voted by teammates as the team’s most valuable player for the season. While Bell’s absence and transcendent running style will be sorely missed, running back James Conner will thrive behind the top-ranked offensive line in the league. Dipping their hands into free agency to attempt to recuperate on any of their losses would’ve been helpful, but Steelers faithful know to trust the methodology used in the Steel City.