- ESPN.com national NFL writer
- ESPN.com NFC North reporter, 2008-2013
- Covered Vikings for Minneapolis Star Tribune, 1999-2008
The 2020 NFL free agent market officially opened Wednesday amid one of the more unusual weeks in league history. With the rest of the sports world shut down this week due to coronavirus concerns, all eyes were on the league’s annual frenzy of player movement. And the league did not disappoint.
We’ve seen seven teams ensure that they would have new starting quarterbacks next season — most notably the Patriots after bidding farewell to Tom Brady — while two others re-signed their incumbents. And it all happened amid unique rules that restricted travel and access to team facilities. As a result, many deals weren’t formally announced by teams who haven’t yet arranged physicals for their new players.
But our annual assessment of winners and losers pushes forward based on ESPN-confirmed reports, with six of the former and four of the latter.
WINNERS OF FREE AGENCY
The Browns are ubiquitous members of every offseason winners list. One of these years, it will make them winners during the season, as well.
Is this the year? All we can say now is that each of their moves this week were as close to objective upgrades as any they could have executed. No one would turn down the addition of Jack Conklin at right tackle if the other options were Chris Hubbard or Greg Robinson. It would be hard to argue that new tight end Austin Hooper doesn’t bring the Browns a new dimension. And if quarterback Baker Mayfield were injured, new backup Case Keenum would give the Browns a decent chance to stay afloat.
The two biggest questions facing the Browns weren’t fixable through free agency. We still can’t know whether coach Kevin Stefanski can improve the team’s on-field discipline. And for all the talk about the Browns’ offensive line, we won’t find out for a while whether Mayfield can improve his decision-making and recognition.
But there is no doubt the Browns have a better talent at the right positions after this negotiation period.
Sometimes, heavy forays into free agency actually works. There was almost universal agreement that the Bills’ 2019 spree played a significant role in clinching a wild-card spot. And after their efforts this week, the Bills might have made themselves the favorites in the new-look AFC East.
The big-ticket acquisition, of course, was acquiring Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs via a trade. But the Bills made plenty of other important and thoughtful moves. First, they made sure to prevent a backslide from their otherwise improved offensive line in re-signing guard Quinton Spain. Then they went hard at upgrading a defensive line already anchored by defensive tackle Ed Oliver by signing veterans Quinton Jefferson and Vernon Butler. And it’s likely that coach Sean McDermott will have a better idea of how to use new Buffalo cornerback Josh Norman, dating back to their time together with the Panthers.
As is the case with the Browns, free agency couldn’t address the Bills’ most significant question. You can’t directly make quarterback Josh Allen a more consistent and accurate passer with external moves. But at the very least, another strong offensive line and an enhanced set of receivers can help maximize the good throws he does make.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ box office
The Buccaneers’ agreement with quarterback Tom Brady will no doubt elevate their chances to make a playoff run in 2020. Their first win, however, arrived via ticket sales. Fans rushed the team’s website on Tuesday night, finding themselves in a digital que that for season tickets extended to nearly 6,000 people at some points.
To be clear, the Bucs had plenty of room for growth. Their announced home attendance ranked among the NFL’s five lowest in each season of the previous decade, and in 2019, they ranked No. 30 with an average of 51,898.
Gate receipts are among the revenue NFL owners will share under the new collective bargaining agreement, so the Buccaneers will only receive a partial financial boost from the run on tickets. More importantly, though, the team is on its way to creating the kind of gameday environment it hasn’t experienced in decades. Remember, the last playoff game the Buccaneers won was Super Bowl XXXVII after the 2002 season.
Players don’t normally celebrate when they are tagged as a franchise player. The arrangement locks them into a one-year contract with no future guarantees. But assuming Prescott is taking a long-term approach, the former fourth-round quarterback should be thrilled to receive the exclusive-rights tag from the Cowboys.
If nothing else, the tag puts Prescott one year closer to testing his true value on the open market. If he wants, he could follow in the footsteps of Kirk Cousins by playing under a tag in 2020 and 2021 — earning close to $70 million in those two years — and then assume that a third tag in 2022 would be cap-prohibitive.
Assuming his performance doesn’t regress in the meantime, Prescott would be a 28-year-old unrestricted free agent quarterback in 2022. Cousins was 29, with just one Pro Bowl on his resume, when the Vikings handed him an NFL-record $84 million in full guarantees. Prescott could command much more, and if his deal is short enough, he’d get back to the table or the open market again in his early 30’s.
Cousins’ second deal, which he agreed to terms on this week, assured him of a $150 million haul in his first five seasons in Minnesota. Looked at one way, Prescott has taken the first step toward raking in $200 million or more between from 2020-24.
Murray was the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year, and his season augured great promise for his future with the Cardinals. But to be a top-end passing offense, Murray needed a top-end threat — and he got perhaps the NFL’s best in DeAndre Hopkins.
Hopkins will help bust the Cardinals out of their plodding movement down the field. In 2019, their 217.3 passing yards per game ranked No. 24 in the league. Murray, meanwhile, averaged 7.1 yards per attempt when targeting receivers. That ranked No. 29 in the league.
Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury’s version of the Air Raid offense leans relatively heavily on four-receiver sets. They used that formation on 328 snaps last season, more than the next five teams combined. With three other receivers on the field, Hopkins in theory could face a minimum of double teams.
No matter how you look at it, though, an interesting offense just got more exciting.
Daniel, 33, extended an incredible and unique career arc as a quarterback who has never once competed to start but has played well enough when called upon to merit more than a decade as a backup.
After a two-year stint with the Bears, which followed time with the Saints, Chiefs and Eagles, Daniel signed a three-year deal with the Lions that would max out at $13.5 million. Assuming he makes the final roster, Daniel likely will surpass $40 million in career earnings in 2020.
In 10 NFL seasons, Daniel has made five starts and thrown a total of seven touchdown passes. Since the 1970 merger, only one NFL quarterback has managed a 10-year career with five or fewer starts, according to the Pro Football Reference database. Daniel shares that distinction with David Humm, who started one game between 1975-1984 while serving as the backup for the Raiders, Bills and (Baltimore) Colts.
The Lions have repeatedly denied offseason rumors that they would move on from starter Matthew Stafford, who missed eight games last season because of injury. So if all goes according to plan in Detroit, Daniel will spend another season assuring coaches that the world would not be lost if he stepped on the field.
LOSERS OF FREE AGENCY
Miami Dolphins and Detroit Lions
How many times do we have to say it? You. Can’t. Replicate. The. Patriots. Both the Dolphins and Lions doubled down on that fantasy this week, with dispiriting results.
The Dolphins, coached by former Patriots assistant Brian Flores, guaranteed linebacker Kyle Van Noy $30 million and also signed linebacker/fullback Elandon Roberts.They also committed $57 million in guarantees to cornerback Byron Jones, who will play alongside veteran Xavien Howard ($46 million). The team now leads the NFL in salary cap tied to the cornerback position, possibly because Flores wants to play Patriots-style man-to-man defense. Even last season, the Dolphins ranked No. 4 in the NFL by using man coverage 61% of the time, according to ESPN metrics using NFL Next Gen Stats.
Meanwhile, the Lions — led by two former Patriots staffers in general manager Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia — guaranteed linebacker Jamie Collins Sr. $18 million, while also agreeing to terms with defensive tackle Danny Shelton and trading for defensive back Duron Harmon.
This isn’t so much a comment on the players themselves, but on the cockeyed and still unproven idea that there is some kind of magic sauce that comes with someone who has been in the Patriots’ program. Why can’t we just acknowledge that Patriots coach Bill Belichick has built a unique set of circumstances that routinely maximizes players in ways that aren’t likely to be replicated elsewhere? As a matter of team-building, giving an edge to people with a Patriots connection probably could cloud out more qualified candidates. Just stop it!
The Texans’ quarterback absorbed multiple wounds this week. The biggest was the loss of DeAndre Hopkins, whom he targeted on 29% of his passes last season — the second-highest rate of targets per total passes on any NFL team.
In a larger sense, however, it became clear that Watson is marooned on a franchise that has made a series of indefensible football decisions during the past year. Coach/general manager Bill O’Brien has dumped some of the team’s best young stars, from Hopkins to Jadeveon Clowney, at fire sale prices, all while feeding an odd obsession with aging running backs. In exchange for being one of the league’s most exciting, creative and courageous players, Watson is on track to be buried under organizational dysfunction.
Three seasons into his career, Watson is eligible for a contract extension. From a business perspective, he would be wise to sit tight. If you cared about Watson, his well-being and his future, would you want him tied to the Texans for the longer than he has to? Hashtags can be silly, but #FreeDeshaun seems appropriate.
New England Patriots
This one is almost too easy. The Patriots’ loss of Tom Brady is an event that has changed the course of NFL history. For the first time in two decades, the Patriots aren’t likely to be considered a Super Bowl contender.
A handful of NFL teams have successfully transitioned from a Hall of Fame quarterback, whether it was the 49ers from Joe Montana to Steve Young, or the Packers from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers. But nothing about the Patriots’ situation, at least as of today, suggests they can match that feat. It seems much more likely that second-year player Jarrett Stidham is the guy who happened to be the backup when Brady decided to leave, rather than being a legitimate contender to take over long-term.
It’s always possible that Stidham could surprise us all, or that Patriots coach Bill Belichick could salvage the career of a middle-aged veteran like Andy Dalton. But from all appearances, the Patriots took more body blows this week than they had in any other three-day period in recent memory, and Belichick will have to work miracles in 2020 to overcome them.
The Bears admitted two really big mistakes this week, moving on from their top draft picks in the 2016 (linebacker Leonard Floyd) and 2017 (quarterback Mitchell Trubisky). It’s better to admit mistakes than to double down on them, but it still left the Bears scrambling to find expensive replacements.
They first doled out $30 million in guarantees to lure pass-rusher Robert Quinn, who turns 30 in May and will be playing for his third team in as many seasons. And to replace Trubisky, the Bears then traded a fourth-round compensatory pick in exchange for Nick Foles, who went 0-4 as a starter for the Jaguars last season and is scheduled to earn about $16 million in 2020.
When you add those moves to the inexplicable decision to sign tight end Jimmy Graham to a two-year, $16 million deal — one that makes you wonder if the Bears paid attention to their NFC North rivals in Green Bay last season — you see a pretty bleak picture of desperation. You can only assume that general manager Ryan Pace won’t get another chance to set the franchise on a different tack.
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