Wednesday marked a special day for NFL aficionados, as the official start of the new league year hit at 4 p.m. ET, meaning teams could officially sign players to contracts.
Free agency had already been going on for two days under the guise of “legal tampering,” but Day 3 is when the action really started to take off.
There is so much money to spend this year by so many teams that this relatively weak free agency class is hauling in legendary contracts. We saw a few of those on Wednesday, along with some truly puzzling developments.
The following represent the biggest stories from the hectic action, along with what it all means for the parties involved.
1. Giants appear to be in “Super Bowl or bust” mode
While most of us were sleeping soundly in our beds, New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese was finalizing a deal to bring cornerback Janoris Jenkins to the Big Apple. The terms of the contract revealed a staggering amount of money, as Jenkins agreed to a five-year deal worth $62.5 million ($29 million fully guaranteed).
Finally, not long after the Miami Dolphins removed the transition tag from pass rusher Olivier Vernon, Reese pounced on the opportunity to throw more cash at his defense. He signed Vernon to a record deal that pays him more than any defensive end in the NFL — a five-year contract worth up to $85 million with $52.5 million fully guaranteed.
Adding all this up, Reese and the Giants dropped $105.5 million in guaranteed cash for three players who haven’t exactly been consistently great throughout their careers. They’re paying for the potential of greatness, rather than paying for greatness itself, which is obviously dangerous.
Reese has been criticized by many for his failure to address the defensive side of the ball of late. Big Blue has been awfully hit and miss the past decade, and it hasn’t been the team’s modus operandi to swing for the fences like this. The GM has to know he’s on a short leash right now, and so he’s playing to win like he’s never done before.
For his sake, let’s hope these huge deals pay off. If the Giants can once again feature a dominant defense like they did during their last two Super Bowl runs, then there is no doubt the offensive capabilities are equal to the task of challenging for another title.
2. The Jaguars might be scary good in 2016
One day after finalizing deals with defensive lineman Malik Jackson and running back Chris Ivory on Tuesday (two of the biggest moves of the day), general manager David Caldwell was at it again on Wednesday.
Though the Jaguars missed out on the Olivier Vernon sweepstakes, they actually made a move that makes much more sense by signing safety Tashaun Gipson away from the Cleveland Browns. While Gipson may not be a household name, those who study film would tell you he’s one of the best cover safeties in the entire league.
He signed a five-year deal worth up to $35.5 million, which is quite a reasonable price for a safety who can play in and out of the box and who can cover the back end better than many corners.
Yet another move was made later in the day. While relatively minor in comparison to the big deals of the day, it will keep things going well offensively. Tight end Marcedes Lewis will remain in Jacksonville after signing a three-year, $12 million contract.
With the No. 5 pick still tucked away for safe keeping, this team is in position to do some serious damage in 2016.
3. John Elway facing challenge like never before
It’s been a gut-wrenching couple of days for Denver Broncos fans.
Not only did Peyton Manning retire, but the franchise also watched Malik Jackson sign in Jacksonville, linebacker Danny Trevathan sign with the Chicago Bears and Brock Osweiler bolt to play for the Houston Texans on a monster deal.
Less than a month removed from winning a Super Bowl, this team is absorbing heavy blows without a ton of cap space to make moves to replace what it has lost.
Elway has worked some pretty impressive miracles the past few years. His temperament seems to be perfect for his job, and he’s obviously relatable to players. He’s also shown a sharp eye for talent, as the players who are leaving were brought in as rookies under his watch.
However, this upcoming challenge to stay competitive in a division with the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders — both of whom are highly competitive and getting better — is going to test his abilities to the limit.
Obviously the biggest concern at this time is addressing the quarterback position. Thankfully there are a couple of options — both potentially workable — to fix the problem. Once Osweiler left for Houston, Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III have been mentioned as replacements, and both could work well in Gary Kubiak’s system.
But we’re talking about a potential serious step back here, as both quarterbacks not only would be starting from scratch in a new offense, but who also have some things to overcome if they’re going to be successful in this league.
4. Same old Browns?
Given the talent that has walked out the door recently and the lack of movement towards the Cleveland franchise by other free agents, one wonders if rookie head coach Hue Jackson is having second thoughts about his decision to sign with the Browns.
Center Alex Mack left to sign with the Atlanta Falcons and actually took less to leave Cleveland. The Browns also watched receiver Travis Benjamin agree to sign with the San Diego Chargers, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz agree to sign with the Chiefs and Gipson move to play with the Jaguars.
It was a brutal day.
Making matters much, much worse, word trickled out that agents were grumbling about the team being hesitant in negotiations with its own players and outside free agents. Essentially, the Browns were scaring away players, and this was something that was being discussed by many of the the top national NFL reporters.
Despite bringing in a host of new faces to operate the front office and coach the team, it sure seems like we’re still dealing with the same old Browns.
5. Lions make smart replacement choice for Megatron
The Detroit Lions said goodbye to a legend on Tuesday when Calvin Johnson retired. His consistent, outstanding production isn’t something that will easily be replaced, but the $11 million saved by the franchise with his contract off the books is sure helping in this regard.
This year’s free agent class isn’t exactly full of top-tier receivers, but rookie general manager Bob Quinn landed one of the few who can be impact playmakers on the perimeter. In fact, with Alshon Jeffery locked up in Chicago on a franchise designation, it could argued he landed the top receiver of the 2016 free agent class.
Early on Wednesday, it was reported that Detroit had agreed in principle with receiver Marvin Jones, previously of the Cincinnati Bengals. It’s a five-year deal worth up to $40 million, which is a pretty decent price for a top pass-catcher. While he’s not yet there, Cincinnati surely envisions Jones will become that type of players in the coming years.
Playing as the second option to all-world receiver A.J. Green, Jones produced at a high level the past three seasons, catching 134 passes for 1,729 yards and 15 touchdowns.
While nobody would ever suggest Jones could possibly “replace” Megatron, the Lions could have done a lot worse.
6. Eagles smart to announce quarterback competition
Don’t be so quick to assume Sam Bradford will be the starting quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2016, despite his freshly signed contract.
The Eagles signed another quarterback on Wednesday, landing career backup Chase Daniel on a three-year deal worth up to $36 million. When the deal was struck, everyone who saw the numbers collectively scratched their heads wondering why in the world Philly would make such a move after the Bradford deal.
It wasn’t long before we got our answer.
The Eagles plan on having a quarterback competition between Daniel and Bradford, and if it’s an honest-to-goodness battle it’s hard to say who will emerge victorious.
Daniel played under Doug Pederson for two years in Kansas City and was highly coveted by the rookie head coach heading into free agency. He knows Pederson’s system and will have an early leg up over Bradford in this department. He was a highly valued backup for the Chiefs and also studied under Drew Brees for three years in New Orleans.
While Bradford has the elite pedigree, it might not matter in the end. The former No. 1 overall pick of the then St. Louis Rams could be watching games from the sidelines with a clipboard in hand this upcoming season.
Regardless of who wins the job, the Eagles are smart to not only plan on having a competition for the job but also for publicizing it so early. Now everyone knows, including every other player in the locker room, that nothing will be given — everything will be earned.
7. Texans might actually have something on offense
It’s been a while since the Houston Texans boasted anything close to a dangerous offense, but they might just have one this upcoming season.
Wednesday was huge for this team. Not only did it land a passer in Brock Osweiler, who many believe has what it takes to be a franchise quarterback, but running back Lamar Miller also came into the fold as the presumptive replacement for Arian Foster.
On paper, both moves should significantly upgrade Houston’s offense, and they also hurt some competition in the AFC by taking from teams that desperately wanted to retain their players.
Assuming Osweiler doesn’t blow up in a bad way, Houston’s offense could be quite dynamic next year. He has the arm strength to get the ball into tight spots and should make receiver DeAndre Hopkins even better than he was playing with Brian Hoyer last year.
Throw in an explosive three-down back like Miller who can kill defenses running and catching the ball and you have a recipe for success.
If the Texans can feature an offense that was even remotely better than we’ve seen the past couple of years, this team could make some serious noise in the playoffs.
8. Quarterback market exceptionally bare
Here’s all you need to know about what kind of talent is available at the quarterback position these days in the NFL: Both Matt Schaub and Matt Cassel landed jobs not long after the bell tolled at 4 p.m. ET Wednesday, signaling the start of the new league year.
Schaub landed with the squad that drafted him and will be the primary backup for Matt Ryan with the Atlanta Falcons, and Cassel signed on with the Tennessee Titans. What is means is that both teams are in the position now where they’re definitely not winning many games if their starting quarterbacks go down.
Cassell and Schaub combined to throw eight touchdowns and 11 interceptions and posted a record of 2-7.
You sign guys like this to be your primary backup and you’re instantly screwed if your starter gets injured. Yet they were the first off the board.
The NFL has a real problem at this position. It’s a passing league without many passing superstars, and the retirement of legendary gunslinger Peyton Manning magnifies it this year, more than ever before.
Thankfully there are still a few potentially decent options out there, such as Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Each of them comes with some serious question marks, though.
Making matters worse this year is a distinct lack of talent coming into the league from the college ranks. This is why players who don’t really deserve big money are getting it right now, which leads us to our next point.
9. Untested quarterbacks shouldn’t be signing these kinds of deals
Osweiler got paid Wednesday on a shocking deal with Houston, which can potentially pay him $72 million over four years. That, by itself, is just staggering. The guy has started seven games, people. Seven.
But when career backup Chase Daniel also raked in his big contract, our jaws hit the floor.
Daniel has started two games in six years and has a record of 1-1. As mentioned before, he will be competing with Sam Bradford, who signed a two-year deal worth up to $40 million.
It’s enough to make you want to pull on your ears, run around in circles and start screaming to your higher power in agony that you never had the arm to play quarterback when you were in school.
You know things are bad when Matt Flynn ironically cannot believe what he’s seeing (read more about that here).
The one saving grace in all of this is that at least everyone else in free agency right now is raking in the dough. The market is so flush with cash, and the cupboards are actually so desperately bare at many key positions outside the really big fish, that most free agents this year are likely making their peers exceedingly jealous.
10. Consistently good teams consistently prove you don’t win in March
It never ceases to amaze how, every year, New England Patriots fans, Baltimore Ravens fans and Green Bay Packers fans go crazy on social media because their team isn’t making moves in free agency.
Every once in a while, adding a key player or two results in a shift large enough to nudge a great team into a championship. But more often than not, teams that “win” in March end up looking pretty foolish when January comes back around.
You can take this to the bank: Bill Belichick isn’t wringing his hands in worry, wondering how he’s going to win games without Olivier Vernon or Malik Jackson, who both inked unbelievably monstrous contracts with new teams in 2016.
Good teams don’t overspend. Teams that make the playoffs year in and year out know that you don’t win in March — April is where the real action is at. The NFL draft is consistently the best way to build a winner.
So fans who have the good fortune of rooting for consistent winners, please stop whining. You’ll be happier than the rest of us next winter when the playoffs are being contested.