This is a first. So much news happened on the second day of the NFL’s pre-market negotiating period that we’re introducing a new feature to make sense of it all. Behold: Winners and losers from Day T-1 of 2018 NFL free agency.
A wild Tuesday spoiled most of the suspense for Wednesday, when the market officially opens at 4 p.m. ET. There have already been agreements reported for more than 30 of our top 100 free agents — including eight of the top 10.
Here are some highlights from a busy day-before free agency, starting with which teams are off to the best start, with some help from other ESPN NFL Insiders:
Which team had the best day?
Seifert: Packers. It really is a new day in Green Bay, where the Packers rarely dipped their toes into free agency under former general manager Ted Thompson. Tuesday, they got Aaron Rodgers the pass-catching, red-zone dominating tight end he loves with Jimmy Graham and found a big-time difference-maker for their defensive line with Muhammad Wilkerson.
Matt Bowen, NFL writer: Bears. I’m looking at Chicago because the key to this offseason is adding talent and weapons on the offensive side of the ball to boost the development of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. And the Bears did that with three new targets in the passing game. With Allen Robinson, the Bears land a technician in the route tree. He’s a No.1 in Chicago. And Trey Burton has the ability to play as that “move” tight end in Matt Nagy’s offense to create matchups. Plus, the addition of Taylor Gabriel gives Trubisky an option out of the slot. These were aggressive moves by general manager Ryan Pace to put Trubisky in a position to make that second-year jump.
Dan Graziano, national NFL writer: Jaguars. I found this question tough to answer because we all know what type of fool’s gold free agency is, and that so many of these moves don’t end up looking very good in retrospect. So good for the Vikings for getting the top QB on the market and the Bears for rebuilding their offensive skill position group, etc. But the Andrew Norwell signing in Jacksonville is so appropriate to that team and the way it had success last year, I have to give them the props here. The Jags want to bully you on offense with the run game, and what says that better than overpaying for the top guard on the market while watching your one-time No. 1 wide receiver leave? The Jaguars stayed true to their identity and got better where they make their money.
Mike Sando, senior NFL writer: Saints. They got Drew Brees to sign a team-friendly two-year deal with a team option for the second year. He’s a future Hall of Famer and as close to a sure bet as any player who will sign this offseason. Sure, folks took for granted that Brees would re-sign, but no one knew the Saints would get him on such reasonable terms.
Field Yates, NFL Insider: Bears. What a start to the offseason for last year’s No. 2 overall pick. Chicago invested in Trubisky’s future with the hiring of coveted coaching candidate Nagy, then immediately upgraded the offensive output with the expected signings of Robinson and Burton. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that either player would have been the most talented pass-catcher for the Bears in 2017. They’ll now be focal points in 2018 and beyond.
The Minnesota Vikings are prepared to give quarterback Kirk Cousins a fully-guaranteed, three-year contract worth $84 million. That structure has long been anticipated, drawing an obvious question: Would Cousins set a new paradigm for NFL contracts?
I’m not sure that we’re about to see a run of fully-guaranteed deals in the coming months and years. Cousins spurned long-term offers from the Washington Redskins in part because he had the “fallback” of a quarterback franchise tag number that paid him nearly $44 million over two years. Most players won’t be in that situation, making early extension offers more attractive.
On the other hand, it was fair to look at some of the other quarterback deals Tuesday and wonder if Cousins’ deal was having a subtler effect. (Former NFL executive Joe Banner seemed to think so.)
The Arizona Cardinals are expected to sign Sam Bradford — who played only six quarters in 2017 because of a degenerative knee condition — to a one-year deal that would reportedly pay him $20 million. And the New York Jets are offering Josh McCown a one-year deal worth $10 million. Both deals seemed inflated from market expectations, to say the least, and perhaps attributable to the market Cousins set.
Neither Bradford nor McCown can be considered good bets to start 16 games in 2018. Bradford will be paid as if he will do it, however, and at a high level. The Cardinals have an option for 2019, but that’s not much protection if somehow Bradford flourishes. McCown, who turns 39 in July, has never made more than $7.6 million in a season and could open next season as a backup if fellow newcomer Teddy Bridgewater wins the starting job. A $10 million salary for a backup is about double the norm.
In other words, at least three of the top five quarterbacks who hit the market — led by Cousins — each received short-term deals at hefty salaries that could give them another chance to negotiate on the open market before they retire. (Reliable numbers on Case Keenum, who agreed to terms with the Denver Broncos, have been elusive. Bridgewater signed a one-year deal of unknown value.)
Time will tell on the final impact of Cousins’ deal. But the earliest of indications suggested it will have ripple effects, even if it doesn’t fundamentally overturn the market.
Biggest surprise: Titans sign Malcolm Butler
From a roster standpoint, the Titans entered this week relatively stacked at cornerback. They had 2017 first-round draft pick Adoree Jackson on one side and 2017 free-agent acquisition Logan Ryan on the other. But in what I supposed is a nod toward the NFL’s pre-eminent nickel scheme, the Titans felt compelled to reel in another big fish at the position.
Butler received an enormous market-level contract that includes $30 million guaranteed. It gives the Titans arguably the league’s top three-corner personnel group, but it also focuses a premium level of assets at a position that generally is considered second fiddle to pass-rushers in comprising a strong pass defense.
But if any team knows what it will get from Butler in exchange for that financial commitment, it should be the Titans. General manager Jon Robinson and coach Mike Vrabel both have deep ties to the New England Patriots, where Butler spent his first four seasons.
Wide receivers, cornerbacks cash in
A run at a particular position early in free agency is often a reflection of teams’ true assessment of the upcoming draft class. This week, we saw that pattern emerge at wide receiver and, to a lesser extent, cornerbacks.
By my count, 10 receivers agreed to terms on multi-year contracts with significant guarantees between Monday afternoon and Tuesday night. That included obvious targets such as Allen Robinson and Sammy Watkins, who will sign with the Bears and Kansas City Chiefs, respectively. But even part-time players such as Albert Wilson, Ryan Grant and Donte Moncrief were cashing in. And then there was 32-year-old veteran Danny Amendola, whose 2018 salary with the Miami Dolphins will more than triple what he received from the Patriots last season.
You can feel reasonably confident that NFL teams wouldn’t have spent so much money on receivers this week if they thought this draft had an ample supply who were ready to contribute right away.
The same could turn out to be true at cornerback, although part of the run at that position might have been the result of a dearth of available pass-rushers. Teams hoping to improve their pass defense did the next best thing in bidding for cornerbacks. In addition to Butler, three other cornerbacks were in line for strong deals, veterans Trumaine Johnson (Jets), Bashaud Breeland (Panthers) and Aaron Colvin (Texans) are all off the market. So is Prince Amukamra, who is set to sign a three-year deal to remain with the Bears.
The staggering cost of Teddy’s injury
In August 2016, the Vikings had a franchise quarterback. Teddy Bridgewater had been their starter for most of two seasons. He was having a great training camp and was only 23 years old.
We know what happened next. Bridgewater suffered a catastrophic left knee injury and hasn’t taken a meaningful snap since. What you might not have taken the time to assess — and, for Vikings fans, it’s painful — is the lengths to which the Vikings have gone to replace him.
In all, the Vikings have paid or guaranteed $109 million and shipped out two draft choices to get from Bridgewater in August 2016 to Cousins in March 2018.
You read that correctly.
The Vikings’ immediate reaction to Bridgewater’s injury was to acquire Bradford in exchange for first- and fourth-round draft picks. Then they paid him $25 million in base salaries and bonuses over two seasons. Tuesday, they guaranteed a reported $84 million to Cousins.
It’s true that Bridgewater would have been due for a hefty contract extension right about now if he had stayed healthy and continued his upward trajectory. But at the very least, it cost them two draft picks as well as two rare years of low salaries for a starting quarterback. And, with Cousins due to hit free agency again in three years, the story isn’t over.