Highlights from Day 1 of NFL Free Agency

Posted: 03/09/2017 by levcohen in Football

The first day of NFL free agency has come and gone, and it didn’t go quietly. As usually, there was a flurry of activity. Here are some highlights, and my takeaways of some other rumors that have been circling around the league:

Jags open the checkbook: The Jaguars splashed $127.5 million (with $56 million fully guaranteed) on two players today. Those two players, of course, are studs. Ex-Cardinal Calais Campbell is a ferocious defensive lineman who is as well-rounded as any interior rusher in the NFL, while ex-Texan A.J. Bouye broke out to become one of the best cornerbacks in football last year. And Jacksonville also added ex-Cowboy Barry Church, giving the Jags a huge boost at safety. On paper, their defense now looks like one of the best in football. The Bouye-Jalen Ramsey cornerback combination is elite, and Campbell joins a front that includes the explosive Dante Fowler Jr. and all-rookie team member Yannick Ngakoue. But the Jaguars have made huge investments before, and they haven’t always panned out. Malik Jackson is an example, as is Jared Odrick. And the Jags didn’t go out of their way to find safe options. Bouye has had one good year, so even though he looks like a locked-in shutdown cornerback, there’s more risk than would normally be associated with a 25 year old star cornerback. And Campbell will be 31 when the season starts, making Jacksonville’s longterm commitment to him a scary prospect. He’s a consistent player who’s only missed six games in his nine year career, but there’s got to be some drop-off soon. With that being said, you have to like the moves that Jacksonville made today to bolster a defense that has a lot of young talent but needed some oomph to become a real asset. The Jaguars still look shaky (at best) offensively, so they’re going to need a huge performance from the defense to become relevant next season. That’s much more likely to happen now that they have Bouye, Church, and Campbell.

Eagles recognize their WR need: Goodbye, Dorial Green-Beckham. Hello, Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. It’s difficult to completely and successfully revamp at a position through free agency, but the Eagles are trying to do just that. They signed both talented receivers to very low-risk deals, with Smith getting $15 million over three years and Jeffery signing for a single year and $14 million. Both guys had really bad seasons last year, which makes both of them intriguing buy-low options. Of course, Jeffery is injury prone and Smith is drop-prone, but with career yard-per-catch averages of 15.0 and 17.0, they both add a lot of explosiveness to a receiving core that had almost none. Wentz has to be smiling right now, because a core of Jeffery, Smith, and Jordan Matthews coming out of the slot with receiving threat Zach Ertz at tight end looks a whole lot better than what Wentz had to work with last season. This is also a sign that the Eagles want to look elsewhere in the first round of the draft. Mock drafts often had them picking a wide receiver in the first, but now it’s much more likely they’ll look for a pass-rusher or cornerback.

Panthers reunite the Kalil brothers: The Panthers shelled out $55.5 million (with $25 million guaranteed) to left tackle Matt Kalil, who will join his brother Ryan on the Carolina offensive line. The Panthers were right to focus on left tackle help given how important it is to protect Cam Newton. But did they get the right guy? To me, this seems like a massive overpay for a guy who largely underperformed with the Vikings after an excellent first couple of seasons. Remember: Kalil also missed 14 games last season following hip surgery. This is a puzzling signing, especially when considering that the Panthers refused to give this kind of money to Josh Norman last spring.

Buccaneers going all-in on deep passing game: I can tell you one thing: Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson make for a terrifying 1-2 combo down the field. Jameis Winston threw the ball deep a lot last season, and he should do so even more often in the 2017 campaign. The Bucs had to invest at wide receiver after Vincent Jackson’s production fell off a cliff, and they got one of the most explosive ones available. One thing DeSean Jackson won’t do is improve the consistency of the boom-or-bust Buccaneers. He’s been known to disappear from time to time, so it’ll be on Winston to become a more consistent quarterback in order to unlock the true potential of an Evans-DeSean combination.

Browns make bold trade: The Cleveland Browns just essentially bought a 2018 second round pick from the Texans for the $16 million attached to Brock Osweiler this season. For the win-now Texans, the trade makes obvious sense, putting them in position to become a favored destination for Tony Romo. And it reaffirms Cleveland’s desire to pile up as many draft picks as possible. They’ll cut Osweiler, but they had a lot of cap space that they weren’t otherwise going to use, and they’re not going to win a lot next year. Why not go out and get a second round pick?

I also wanted to talk about the two major players who are likely to be traded in the upcoming days…

Brandin Cooks for Malcolm Butler trade makes perfect sense: The Saints and Patriots both made moves that increased the likelihood of a Cooks for Butler trade. New England signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore (the top CB on the market not named Bouye), while the Saints added receiver Ted Ginn (a suitable Cooks replacement). Trades involving the Patriots are usually lopsided, but this is a trade that I think would, if anything, favor New Orleans. The Saints have three great young receivers in Cooks, Michael Thomas, and Willie Snead. They’re all 23 or 24 years old, and it makes sense for them to trade Cooks, the guy who was unhappy about his role down the stretch last season. They’ve been offered a first round pick from the Patriots in return, but Butler would be a better return. He’s one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, and I can’t imagine that they could get more for Cooks. If Butler’s paired with a healthy Delvin Breaux, the Saints might finally be able to stop an offense or two. Of course, Cooks is a perfect fit in New England and would make the Patriots’ scary offense even harder to stop. One-for-one trades like this are rare in the NFL, which makes me skeptical, but it’s one that makes sense for both teams.

Houston and Denver are perfect Tony Romo landing spots: Dallas is going to trade Tony Romo very soon. The Texans and Broncos are being mentioned as the top competitor for Romo, and that’s the case for good reason. Both teams are playoff-ready teams that were a quarterback away from challenging for a Super Bowl last year. Whichever team gets Romo is the clear #2 team in the AFC with the clear chance to challenge the Patriots for supremacy. New England has to be feeling nervous, because these are the only two teams in the AFC whose defenses have given and will continue to give Tom Brady fits. Remember last year’s playoffs, when the Texans were in within a score of the Patriots until the fourth quarter? That’s a game they win with Tony Romo, and that’s even though J.J. Watt was out of the game. If Watt comes back, the Texans are probably a better all-around team than the Broncos at this point. Their defense was dominant last year even without J.J. and will be even better if and when they get him back. But the Broncos, too, have a devastating pass rush and a top notch secondary, one that didn’t just lose its most important player (as the Texans did with A.J. Bouye). Both defenses are good enough to carry bad offenses to the playoffs. The sky is the limit with Romo — I still believe he can play at a near-elite level — at the helm. Of course, expecting Romo to be healthy is almost like expecting Brock Osweiler to win a Super Bowl… but it’s definitely worth a shot, and it’s definitely something to keep an eye on over the next few days.

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