There was plenty of action in the two days of “legal tampering” before the official start of free agency, and NF:L teams are not done making moves. We asked our two front-office experts, Mike Tannenbaum and Joe Banner, to weigh in on what we’ve seen so far:
If I was with an NFL team, I’m huddling with my staff every morning during this first week of free agency and asking the questions that will help us get smarter about what’s going on around the league and how it will impact us moving forward. Here are some of the questions – and answers – that have come up:
What have we learned about teams’ priorities?
Pass rushers, pass rushers, pass rushers. It started before free agency began, with the Cardinals’ signing of J.J. Watt. The legal tampering period had barely started when Matt Judon (Patriots), Yannick Ngakoue (Raiders), Trey Hendrickson (Bengals), Bud Dupree (Titans), Carl Lawson (Jets), Shaq Barrett (Bucs), Leonard Floyd (Rams) and Romeo Okwara (Lions) had all signed new deals. It’s also a sign that there are no pass rushers in the draft that have teams overly excited. Their market actually started going down late Monday night.
Who’s the best player available following the legal tampering period?
Kenny Golladay. It had been a tie between Golladay and Trent Williams until Williams re-signed with the 49ers late Tuesday.
The market for Kenny Golladay may have gone up due to the contracts that Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne got from the Patriots. Those contracts could make Golladay evaluate his options even longer than before.
Is Andy Dalton the Bears’ starting QB in 2021?
It appears so. Chicago signed Dalton on Tuesday, but they certainly didn’t break the bank (one year, $10 million). The Bears could bring back Nick Foles and have those two compete for the No. 1 job, though Dalton said he was already told he will be the No. 1 QB. I still think they should look at Sam Darnold.
Foles has had a hard time staying healthy, so it was an absolute must to get a capable backup who can step in right away and keep the team afloat. Clearly, the Bears did not have a lot of faith in Mitchell Trubisky, which is why they moved on from him.
Dalton is a proven QB and may have the opportunity to improve the Bears offensively if he can return to the form he showed at the beginning of his career with the Bengals
What was the biggest surprise on Day 1 of legal tampering?
WR Nelson Agholor signing in New England for $26 million. Agholor has never topped 900 receiving yards in a season, but was 17th among WRs in ‘20 with 2.05 yards per route run (min. 25 targets), directly above Brandin Cooks, Michael Thomas, DK Metcalf and Allen Robinson.
I was also surprised about CB William Jackson getting a three-year, $40.5 million deal from Washington. He has the 10th-largest AAV for all CBs, but has only been on one defense that was better than league average against the pass.
Age and durability still matter
Joe Thuney getting $16 million/year from the Chiefs is the most recent example of that. Since coming into the league, Thuney has not missed a single game through five seasons. Thuney, who won’t turn 29 until Nov. 18, is versatile and reliable. He was able to use his sustainable health and versatility as a way to get a huge contract with a team that desperately needed healthy players on the offensive line
Who is the biggest winner this week who wasn’t a free agent?
Quenton Nelson. Considering what the Chiefs paid Thuney, the Colts’ All-Pro guard is up for a big payday this time next year.
Other free agent winners:
Cam Newton. The Patriots brought in a plethora of new weapons for him: TE Jonnu Smith, TE Hunter Henry, WR Nelson Agholor and WR Kendrick Bourne.
Buccaneers. They kept the entire band together by franchise tagging Chris Godwin, signing Shaq Barrett to a long-term deal (four years, $72M), locking up Lavonte David (two years, $25M), Rob Gronkowski (one year, up to $10M) and extending Tom Brady’s contract another year.
Justin Herbert. The Chargers went out and signed Corey Linsley (five years, $62.5M) and Matt Feiler (three years, $21M) to help solidify their pass protection after being one of the league’s worst last year.
What should smart teams be doing right now?
Signing their 2022 free agents while the market is down. Quenton Nelson falls into that category. The Bills and Ravens should use Dak Prescott’s deal to extend Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson, respectively (more on that next week).
For people who really enjoy the cap and its crucial role in strategies around cap management and team building, this is a fun time. As expected, smart teams are getting ahead.
Prepare for next year
As Mike noted, if teams have players they like that will be free agents next year, they should be trying to sign them now. This is an even more team-friendly market than expected. It’s a bad time to be a free agent.
Players should seek one-and-done deals
The market is as soft if not softer than people feared. With the exception of a few big deals, people are taking deals a lot lower than they should be. When you find yourself in this situation, what the agents and the players should be doing is taking a shorter deal, so the player can go back on the market when there is more money to be had. We’re seeing limited instances of that so far.
Maybe the players that have not signed yet are doing exactly that – they’re balking on longer deals, and that’s why it’s taking longer to get done. That’s what should be happening. This is the worst year for players who are free agents to regain their market value in probably a decade, maybe longer than that.
The Patriot Way
Don’t buy into the media narrative that the Patriots are going on some crazy spending spree. They may be overpaying based on the soft market, but I still think they’re signing free agents that are going to make them better, and that are likely to last there longer. These new deals are written with extra years to spread out the cap charge. They won’t spend anywhere near this number. Bill Belichick has not changed. He’s looking for fits at a discount.
New England had more money than most, but they didn’t have to spend it all in one year. There are always some teams that have a lot of room. Some spend part of it. Some say, “The market doesn’t look that great this year. I’m gonna wait. Let’s push the money forward.” I actually think the Patriots are signing good players at what was fair market value. But we’re in a different year. For some reason, they don’t seem to have noticed that the market is very depressed… I think they’ve absolutely improved their team meaningfully, but for some reason they’re not taking advantage of the unique one-year market conditions, and they’re treating it as if it’s business as usual. There’s also the idea that, “If we have to overpay, we’re going to overpay, as long as we get these guys.“ That isn’t a terrible strategy.
It’s worth noting they’re also directly replacing the areas they’ve tried to draft the past 4 years:
Drafted 2 TEs in 2020; signed Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry
Drafted Rivers, Wise, Winovich, Uche; signed Matt Judon
Drafted N’Keal Harry; signed Nelson Agholor
Drafted Isaiah Wynn, five other OTs; traded for Trent Brown
Cold reception for receivers
Time will shrink this list fairly soon, but most deals coming in for free-agent wide receivers are on the low end so far. A large quantity of free-agent receivers combined with some good prospects available in the draft is not ideal for these players. There will be some good values at the position in a few days.
Allen Robinson and Chris Godwin potentially got the best deals here — $17.88 million and $15.983 million on the franchise tag, respectively — and will hit the market again next year. The highest AAV of this year’s WRs so far is Corey Davis, at $12.5 million.
The receiver deals that have been signed this week could be bad news for Kenny Golladay. He’s the best receiver available right now, but he’s looking for more than the market is dictating..
Good deal for Browns
Safety John Johnson should have been a perfect example of a player signing a one-year deal so that he can maximize his value assuming the cap goes back up next year. Johnson signed a three-year deal with the Browns. He should’ve taken a one- to two-year deal. Based on talent and price, this is an excellent signing for the Browns. At three years, $33.75 million, it is a below-market deal done early. Either the agent made a mistake or it tells us the market even for quality players is going to be soft.
Johnson has played three injury-free years (out of four), with 75-plus tackles and 8-plus PDs in each one. Among safeties with 25-plus targets in 2020, he allowed the third-fewest yards per reception (7.6, with 200-plus more snaps than either of the guys ahead of him).
After putting the franchise tag on WR Chris Godwin, the Buccaneers were quick to re-sign pass rusher Shaq Barrett. The reported four-year, $68 million deal (with $36 million guaranteed) is a huge discount. This probably reflects a player telling his agent that he isn’t leaving his current team. Otherwise, it’s hard to understand. Even in this soft market, Barrett could have gotten more money elsewhere.
Barrett got $17 million AAV, the same as Arik Armstead got last year, and Armstead has over two fewer sacks per season.
While keeping Barrett might be a good move, I’m not sure how great it is that the Buccaneers are “keeping the band together.” History says signing all these guys to keep Super Bowl winners together is a bad mistake. Time will tell if Tampa Bay can buck that trend.