The free agency period in the NFL kicked off with the start of the league year a couple weeks ago on March 9. It was the usual flurry of activity for the first 48 hours and things have since settled down. While teams continue to make moves, most of the big name signings are over (with a few exceptions).
It’s often said that winners of free agency are losers on the field, but ask a Bengals fan whether they have fun watching their team stand by idly March after March. I’m here to tell you which moves warrant excitement and which moves might get your GM fired (which I’m sure fans of some teams wouldn’t mind).
Tampa Bay Buccaneers sign DE Chris Baker and WR DeSean Jackson
It’s nearly impossible to build a team through free agency, but you can certainly solidify one. These are two great pickups by the Bucs. Bakers is a productive player and rock solid against the run who signed a three-year deal averaging $5.25 million per year — a rare free agency steal. Jackson is still one of the most productive deep threats in the league and signed a reasonable deal. GM Jason Licht behaved like a winner in free agency.
Philadelphia Eagles sign WR Alshon Jeffery
The Eagles went into free agency with gaping holes on the offensive and defensive perimeter. Signing the top WR on the market in Jeffrey was a good start to getting the young QB Carson Wentz some capable weapons. The reason this signing gets an ‘A’ is because Jeffrey was willing to sign a one-year prove-it deal. Jeffrey has an injury history and was suspended at the end of this past season, so for the Eagles to sign a true No. 1 wide receiver without taking on long term risk is a big win.
Los Angeles Rams sign OT Andrew Whitworth
When I first saw that the 35-year-old Whitworth signed a three year deal worth over $30 million, I questioned the Rams’ decision making. However, when I found out that there are no guarantees in the last two years of the contract (making it effectively a one year deal), I loved the move. Whitworth was one of the best tackles in the league last year and has been for a long time. If father time doesn’t catch up to him in the next three years, the Rams landed a massive upgrade at one of football’s most important positions.
Cleveland Browns sign OG Kevin Zeitler and C JC Tretter
It may come as a surprise, but Zeitler was probably the most coveted free agent on the market. At just 26 he is already one of the best guards in the league and many lineman are productive well into their 30s (see ex-teammate Whitworth above). Combine him with Tretter and guard Joel Bitonio, who the Browns re-signed this offseason, and Cleveland might have the best interior offensive line in football. It’s clear the Browns braintrust wants to make sure their future franchise QB will be kept upright.
Detroit Lions sign OT Ricky Wagner and OG T.J. Lang
The Lions got both the second best guard and tackle available to join an offensive line that looks promising going into next season. With last year’s first-round pick Taylor Decker set to anchor the left side for years to come, Wagner and Lang should provide all-around protection for QB Matt Stafford. It should be noted that the players who were replaced, OG Larry Warford and OT Riley Reiff, signed elsewhere in free agency for more or the same money as the Lions’ new upgrades — bumping up my grade on these signings.
Jacksonville Jaguars sign CB A.J. Bouye, DE Calais Campbell, S Barry Church
The Jaguars, with their seemingly endless cap space, were again able to land three of the top players in free agency. Bouye, Campbell, and Church are all good players and they signed market value contracts. The Jags filled in some holes which should allow them to pick the best player available when the draft rolls around. The reason I only give these signings a ‘B’ is that it is likely that the best player available when the Jags are on the clock in the first round will play one of those three positions. In this case, having these veterans on the roster may take away playing time from a rookie.
New England Patriots sign CB Stephon Gilmore
I hesitate to grade Belichick too harshly, but I don’t think this signing made a whole lot of sense. Gilmore’s contract is for five years and worth $65 million. Forty million of that is guaranteed, so the Patriots are stuck with him at a high cap number for at least three years. This would be great if the Patriots had truly landed one of the best corners in the league, but Gilmore has looked vulnerable the last two years. The Pats have played him twice a year since he was drafted so they are familiar with him, but from this seat it looks like a big overpay.
Chicago Bears sign QB Mike Glennon
A lot of people were alarmed that Mike Glennon will be getting paid $15 million a year, but that’s a bargain for a starting quarterback. The problem is that Glennon will be the starting quarterback. The past few years there has been a growing fascination with Glennon and I can only think it’s a case of absence makes the heart grow fonder. From a football perspective he is a downgrade from Jay Cutler (sorry Chicago).
Carolina Panthers sign OT Matt Kalil
Matt Kalil got the sixth richest contract of any player in free agency this year, but his play would indicate he is worth about a tenth of the $55 million he stands to make. He has performed at a replacement level and is more suited to a backup roll than being one of the highest paid tackles in the league. It is likely that the Panthers’ pro bowl center Ryan Kalil, who happens to be Matt’s brother, called in a favor from GM Dave Gettleman on this one.
Minnesota Vikings sign OTs Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers
The team that Kalil left in free agency went on a bit of a shopping spree for two new bookends on the offensive line. While both are technically upgrades because Minnesota’s line was both awful and injured last year, both received contracts well above what they should be paid. Reiff is an alright starter but not worth almost $59 million. Remmers is capable of holding up against average competition, but he completely melts against the league’s top pass rushers (he was the reason Von Miller won Super Bowl MVP).
Cleveland Browns sign WR Kenny Britt
Signing Kenny Britt to a four-year, $32.5 million contract is bad enough, but it’s not as bad as the contract they handed Dwayne Bowe two years ago. What makes this an easy ‘F’ is that they let a younger, better player walk for less money. Terrelle Pryor played fantastically last season and it was his first ever at the position. Britt has been in the league long enough that we’ve seen his best, and Pryor is already better than that with room to grow. Pryor signed a one-year deal in Washington worth $6 million and the Browns have the cap space to double that. I graded the new front office in Cleveland highly for a few other moves, but this one was a head scratcher.
Cleveland Browns receive QB Brock Osweiler, 2018 2nd-round Pick, 2017 6th-round pick
Houston Texans receive 2017 4th-round pick
Grade for Browns: A+
Grade for Texans: D
This was a really cool trade because it was the first NBA-style salary dump ever in the NFL. The growing cap combined with the fact that it now rolls over from year to year means that many teams are flush with cap space — none more so than the Browns. They were able to smartly use this space to park Osweiler’s laughable $18 million cap figure this season and receive a 2nd-round pick as compensation. The Texans really swallowed their pride in admitting so quickly they’d made such a huge mistake and paid dearly for it.
New England Patriots receive DE Kony Ealy, 2017 3rd-round pick
Carolina Panthers receive 2017 2nd-round pick
Grade for Patriots: B+
Grade for Panthers: D+
Despite Panthers’ GM Dave Gettleman’s recent proclamation that moving up eight spots on day of the draft ‘is gold’, the Panthers received peanuts in exchange for a promising young edge rusher in Ealy. If Ealy would have had a good year for the Panthers this upcoming year, their compensatory pick for losing him would be higher than what they got.
New England Patriots receive WR Brandin Cooks, 2017 4th-round pick
New Orleans Saints receive 2017 1st-round pick, 2017 3rd-round pick
Grade for Patriots: B
Grade for Saints: B
The blockbuster trade of the offseason so far, New Orleans sent a young pro bowler in Cooks to be Tom Brady’s new favorite weapon. I don’t think Cooks will have a comparable effect to when Randy Moss joined the team, but he should be productive. I thought this was fair on both sides and helps both teams. The Saints received significant draft compensation and are able to let Michael Thomas grow into the No. 1 receiver role.
In waiting to write this article, I had figured I would be able to grade big name signings of Tony Romo, Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, and Jay Cutler. However, they face their own obstacles to being signed, and none of them seem like they’re going anywhere any time soon. Jerry Jones doesn’t have any reason to release Romo before June 1, Charles and Peterson are aging running backs with injury concerns and are facing competition from a loaded draft class, and the Bears letting Cutler walk and signing Glennon says all you need to know about his situation. These storylines aren’t likely to work themselves until training camp. Until then, keep reading for weekly draft coverage.