With NFL free agency officially set to begin Thursday afternoon, there’s already a whole heck of a lot that has happened around the football world. Such is the nature of the beast when teams are given a two-day window to negotiate contracts with the reps for impending free agents.
From what has to be described as complete dysfunction in Washington to the San Francisco 49ers throwing money to the masses like it were candy, there have been some rather interesting developments thus far this week.
Meanwhile, it sure looks like the Dallas Cowboys are moving on from former Pro Bowl signal caller Tony Romo. All the while, questions continue to come up regarding the future of Kirk Cousins in the nation’s capital.
These are among the top-eight takeaways around the NFL heading into the official start of free agency.
Contract values don’t necessarily matter
There’s a whole bunch of people — media personalities included — that are freaking out over the terms of deals that have yet to be made official.
Sure, dollar values of these free-agent contracts might very well prove to be eye-opening. But in the grand scheme of things, it really isn’t about the value of a contract.
Instead, it’s all about the structure and the percentage of the salary cap used to acquire a player.
Let’s use the often-illustrated rumors of Kirk Cousins potentially landing in San Francisco via a trade with the Redskins. His new deal is expected to pay him $25 million annually, pretty much the same cash Cousins will make under the franchise tag in 2017.
A total of $25 million per season for a two-year starter seems absurd. That’s until we realize it represents 14.9 percent of the 2017 NFL salary cap. It’s the same percentage San Francisco paid to Colin Kaepernick back in 2014. Now, who would you rather have as your quarterback under these figures?
The same can be said about Rick Wagner set to sign a deal with the Detroit Lions that will pay him $9 million annually. Three years ago, that would have been a large figure for a starting right tackle. In 2017, not so much. For the fourth consecutive year, the NFL cap has increased by $10-plus million. With this increase will come an increase in overall contract values.
The second point of emphasis is just as important. Remember when the Oakland Raiders front loaded a bunch of contracts in free agency two years ago? The idea there was to use their vast amount of cap room to create flexibility under the cap moving forward.
This enabled Oakland to get out from under some of these deals in short order, eventually finding the money to land key contributors to their 2016 playoff team this past offseason. It makes perfect sense for teams that might not be in contention mode over the short term.
In reality, we simply have to look at other factors outside of guaranteed cash and total contract value when determining whether a free-agent deal made sense. The NFL’s tampering period on Tuesday and Wednesday magnified this to a T.
Washington Redskins are an absolute mess
We really don’t even know where to start here. Maybe it’s the fact that Washington’s general manager Scot McCloughan is actually not with the team as it prepares for free agency. It could be that the Redskins are looking for a new GM. Heck, the focus here could be on how the team dropped the ball on the entire Kirk Cousins situation. Then again, maybe the brass in D.C. failing to notify running back Chris Thompson that he was offered a contract could be the starting off point (more on that here).
As it is, the Redskins find themselves in utter turmoil as free agency is set to kick off. Already likely losing starting receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon to free agency, there remains a scenario in play here that suggests Kirk Cousins could be traded to San Francisco in the near future.
Without a GM to deal with the drama, one has to wonder where the Redskins go from here. Will owner Daniel Snyder somehow find himself involved? If not, who will take over for McCloughan throughout the entire off-season process? What we do know is that things are not necessarily going swimmingly in the nation’s capital.
When I asked a Skins official how something would end: "Soon and badly," he said. "Just like everything else around here."
— Jason Reid (@JReidESPN) March 8, 2017
If that’s the case, will San Francisco look to take advantage of the drama in D.C. by offering below-market value for Cousins? Will any top-end free agent want to join this dumpster fire? So many questions on the eve of free agency that it’s too hard to point to one issue.
Bills admit front office mistake
Once Rex Ryan was relieved of his duties late last season, reports surfaced that a lot of it had to do with his support of Tyrod Taylor as the Bills’ starting quarterback. That rumor gave way to Taylor himself actually being benched for the season finale. At that point, it was reported that the Bills’ brass had already decided to move on from Taylor completely.
As the weeks turned into months following a disastrous 2016 season, it still looked like Taylor was on the outs in Western New York. All of that came crashing down in a pile of confusion after Taylor was brought back to Buffalo on a restructured deal on Tuesday (more on that here).
It’s not that general manager Doug Whaley and Co. made a mistake by retaining Taylor. Instead, the Bills’ brass apparently didn’t know which way to go throughout the process. At the very least, it appears the team has admitted to making a mistake initially.
Taylor was always the best option for Buffalo. Here’s a guy that’s tallied 47 total touchdowns compared 12 interceptions in the past two seasons. The exterior options here simply weren’t as fruitful. Luckily, Buffalo came to this conclusion before losing Taylor.
49ers’ new regime isn’t messing around
First-year head coach Kyle Shanahan and new general manager John Lynch surely are hitting the ground running. Fresh off three consecutive offseasons in which the team didn’t much at all in free agency, the floodgates have opened big time in San Francisco.
It started with an under-the-radar move in signing defensive tackle Earl Mitchell earlier this month. Then on Tuesday, this all gave way to an avalanche of interesting signings for the downtrodden organization. The 49ers will reportedly sign quarterback Brian Hoyer, full back Kyle Juszczyk and wide receiver Pierre Garcon when free agency officially gets going on Thursday. They also added speedster Marquise Goodwin from the Buffalo Bills.
These are some huge moves to help fill a major talent vacuum on what was one of the worst offenses in the NFL last season. To add more intrigue here, Hoyer’s signing does not necessarily mean that San Francisco is out of the running for Kirk Cousins in a trade with the aforementioned Redskins (more on that here).
We knew the 49ers would be more active in free agency. They have a completely new personnel team in the front office. Add in the fact that San Francisco boasted $100-plus million heading into free agency, and this was magnified further.
Some will point to Lynch and Co. signing Juszczyk to an absurd $21 million over four years as being ridiculous. But as we mentioned at the outset of this article, there’s a lot of other factors involved here. How is the deal structured? How much is guaranteed? What precise role will the Pro Bowler play?
The same can pretty much be said for Garcon, who will reportedly get $16 million in 2017. This gives San Francisco a ton of cap flexibility moving forward in the rebuilding process.
At the very least, this new 49ers regime is attempting to improve over the short term while creating long-term viability. That’s something we simply didn’t see from the previous regime over the past three years.
The ending of an era in Dallas
The Tony Romo era in Dallas will come to an end on Thursday when the team sends their long-time quarterback packing. It’s not surprising news in the least. But it surely is a sad time for fans in the Big D. While Romo fell short of leading his team to the ultimate goal of a Lombardi, he ends his Cowboys career as one of the best players in franchise history.
It’s a bittersweet ending for Romo in Dallas. He’s played in a grand total of five games over the past two seasons after a long line of injuries finally caught up to him. He leaves the team in good hands with Dak Prescott set to take the new group of Cowboys youngsters to heights we have not seen since the Troy Aikman era. He also leaves without much fanfare. That has to be a bitter pill to swallow.
The good news here is that Romo will leave the Cowboys as the franchise’s all-time leader in completions, attempts, passing yards and passing touchdowns.
He will also exit stage left with an eye on greater things as the quarterback concludes his career. It’s more likely than not that Romo will land with either the Denver Broncos or Houston Texans, giving him an ability to compete for a Lombardi Trophy before he rides off to the sunset with three amazing children and a beautiful wife to call his own. That in and of itself would be a storybook ending to what has been a surprising career for the former undrafted free agent out of Eastern Illinois.
Lions solidify offensive line
We’re pretty sure that Detroit wouldn’t have had an issue retaining former first-round pick Riley Reiff on a long-term deal. He’s proven to be more than starter-caliber throughout his career. But when the opportunity to upgrade at an important position arises, you need to do just that.
After a stellar career at Wisconsin, it was a surprise to see Rick Wagner fall to the Baltimore Ravens in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Most had him pegged as an early-round pick. In some good news for Baltimore, Wagner completely outplayed his draft status. In fact, he finished this past season as one of the best right tackles in the game.
— Brett Whitefield (@BrettWhitefield) March 8, 2017
Unfortunately for Ozzie Newsome and Co., this priced Wagner out of their reach, ultimately enabling the Pro Bowl-caliber right tackle to land in Detroit. Wagner will now act as a book end with 2016 first-round pick Taylor Decker, forming one of the best tackle tandems in the NFL.
It’s in this that the Lions made sure to fortify their protection in front of a quarterback in Matthew Stafford that is coming off a career season. Not a bad way to start the free-agent process.
Loyalty is a false equivalence in the NFL
We’ll read stories about players that take less money to remain with their original teams. We’ll also read stories of teams that have decided to hang on to veterans who have proven valuable in the past. But these stories are few and far between. More often than not, pro football itself is a cold business.
Just look at the New England Patriots as a prime example. Instead of re-signing Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones to long-term deals, they allowed other teams to do just that while receiving draft pick compensation in return. This is what has allowed New England to remain a consistent contender over the past two decades — being cutthroat to an extent.
On the other side of the ledger, we have seen veterans move on from their original teams to sign with division rivals. Brett Favre would be a prime recent example of this, but it’s most definitely not just limited to him. Could Adrian Peterson follow suit by signing with the Green Bay Packers? That’s surely something to keep an eye on.
What fans (and some in the media) fail to realize is that these NFL players are people too. They’re not solely names on jerseys and salary cap figures. They have significant others and children. They have lives.
So when one of your favorite players decides to take cash and play somewhere else, maybe recognize this before putting him in your doghouse for the rest of eternity. It’s important. It gives a face to those we root for on a weekly basis during the season. And if NFL teams aren’t expected to be loyal, why should the players? Just some food for thought as free agency opens.
Ravens are in trouble
Free agency itself hasn’t even started yet, and the Ravens are sitting here already looking at even more glaring holes on a roster that missed out on the playoffs last season. Future Hall of Famer Steve Smith has called it quits and is now breaking news on NFL Network.
Pro Bowl fullback Kyle Juszczyk is on the verge of signing with San Francisco. Meanwhile, Baltimore released Elvis Dumervil to save cap room while watching Rick Wagner depart to the Detroit Lions in free agency. All the while, stud defensive tackle Brandon Williams appears on the verge of leaving in free agency as well. That’s a whole lot of talent to lose for a team that was average this past season.
On one hand, this is a product of drafting well. Whenever you lose free agents for top dollar, it’s a good sign that team building hasn’t been an issue. On the other hand, who is going to replace these central figures? Juszczyk, Wagner and Williams are all relatively young. They’re also just coming off their rookie deals.
With $46-plus million committed to three players next season, that’s a problem for the Ravens. They are either going to have to go bargain shopping in free agency or rely on even younger players to perform in 2017.
Still, there is a lot of work for general manager Ozzie Newsome and Co. to do in the draft to fill the holes left by departed free agents.