Biggest winners from NFL free agency frenzy

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The first wave of NFL free agency saw money thrown around at a record clip. Safeties got paid big time. Pass rushers were at a premium. Meanwhile, one quarterback cashed in because of previous postseason success.

We look at teams like the New York Giants as obvious losers. But there were a ton of winners. New York trading Odell Beckham Jr. to Cleveland puts the Browns in that category. Meanwhile, the Green Bay Packers were unusually active on the open market.

These are among the biggest winners from the early stages of NFL free agency.

Landon Collins

Not only did this former New York Giants Pro Bowler become the highest-paid safety in NFL history, he joined the Washington Redskins. This is significant in that Collins’ often-volatile childhood was filled with him idolizing late-great former Redskins star Sean Taylor. This proved to be an emotional moment for Taylor once he officially signed in Washington.

From a contractual standpoint, Collins will earn $84 million over six seasons with $44.5 million total guarantees and $26 million guaranteed at signing. That’s whole lot of cash for a safety that’s struggled in coverage. Get yours, Landon!

Cleveland Browns

It all starts with the acquisition of star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. in a trade with the New York Giants. OBJ has proven to be among the most-electric playmakers in the NFL. Still young, he’ll join a core group of Baker Mayfield, Kareem Hunt, Nick Chubb, Jarvis Landry and David Njoku in what should be an elite Browns offense.

But it’s the underrated moves GM Jon Dorsey did on defense that should also have Browns fans excited. Defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson has been among the best interior defenders in the NFL over the past several seasons. The addition of Olivier Vernon from New York also added to Cleveland’s growing pass-rush group. Richardson and Vernon combined for 37 quarterback hits last season. They are going to be exceptional on a line that already includes Myles Garrett.

New York Jets

Anthony Barr’s decision to snub New York for the Minnesota Vikings hurt this team pretty big time. Barr would’ve been a dynamic force along the front seven. Even then, general manager Mike Maccagnan did some tremendous work. He added an anchor to the front seven in that of four-time Pro Bowl linebacker C.J. Mosley. It’s an area the Jets simply needed to address, no matter the cost that came with it.

Though, New York’s biggest addition came in the form of All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell on a below-market deal. Bell bet on himself and lost after sitting out all of last season with Pittsburgh. He’s now rested and ready to help young quarterback Sam Darnold in the backfield. Almost as important, New York picked up a solid guard in Kelechi Osemele in a trade with the Raiders while adding stud slot receiver Jamison Crowder in free agency.

Earl Thomas

Unlike the above-mentioned Le’Veon Bell, Thomas decided to report to work last season while in the midst of a contract stalemate with the Seahawks. Like clockwork, the future Hall of Famer suffered a broken leg four games into the season. Set to turn 30 prior to the 2019 campaign, most figured that this would impact the seven-time Pro Bowler’s stock in free agency.

That didn’t happen. Thomas bet on himself and won. He ultimately inked a four-year, $55 million contract with the Baltimore Ravens. Said deal called for $32 million in full guarantees. This is the type of deal Thomas was demanding from Seattle in the first place. Good for him.

The linebackers

Whether it’s rushing the passer, stopping the run or dropping back into coverage, linebackers got the cash in free agency this march. Four-time Pro Bowler C.J. Mosley signed a five-year, $85 million deal with the New York Jets calling for $51 million in guarantees. Despite suffering a torn ACL, fellow inside linebacker Kwon Alexander inked a four-year, $54 million contract with the San Francisco 49ers.

From the edge, Dee Ford’s five-year, $87.5 million deal with San Francisco set the tone in free agency. But the Pro Bowler wasn’t alone. Anthony Barr netted $67.5 million over five years by re-upping with the Vikings. Meanwhile, the combination of Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith picked up $118 million from the Green Bay Packers. Yeah, it was a good month to be a free-agent linebacker.

Antonio Brown

Brown wanted out of Pittsburgh. He let this be known time after time over the past several weeks. The seven-time Pro Bowler pushed so hard for a trade that he forced Pittsburgh to trade him to the Raiders for pennies on the dollar (almost literally). In turn, Brown was able to land a record-setting three-year, $50.13 million deal with Oakland.

While the future Hall of Famer might be on a lesser team, it’s a fresh start for him. He’s going to be the face of an offense led by a quarterback in Derek Carr who is downright giddy to be playing with the receiver. That’s something we couldn’t say about Ben Roethlisberger during Brown’s Steelers days. Despite acting immature throughout most of the winter, Brown is the big winner here.

Nick Foles

This former Super Bowl MVP turned part-time starting duties with the Eagles into a massive pay day in Duval. Foles ended up inking a four-year, $88 million deal with the Jaguars in free agency — calling for $50.13 million guaranteed at signing. Foles’ average salary of $22 million ranks higher than Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Cam Newton and Tom Brady.

Talk about taking advantage of a bull market at quarterback. Despite his postseason success with Philadelphia, the 30-year-old Foles has had a largely unassuming career. After all, he’s started a grand total of 44 regular-season games in seven years. That’s absurd given the contract Foles was handed by Jacksonville.

Brian Gutekunst

Packers fans must be elated with this hiring. In two offseasons since replacing longtime general manager Ted Thompson, Gutekunst has pretty much added more top-end free agents than his counterpart did throughout Thompson’s entire tenure in Green Bay.

The latest examples of this were the additions of pass rushers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith as well as stud young safety Adrian Amos. All three will have starring roles on the Packers’ defense moving forward — adding proven players to a talented young core. Green Bay ponied up, too. The three came at a total cost of $154 million. Making Gutekunst a magician is the fact that they received a combined $48 million in guarantees. For comparison’s sake, Trey Flowers received $40 million fully guaranteed from the Lions.

Tyrann Mathieu

Honey Badger banked on himself big time on a one-year, prove-it deal with Houston last season. He was coming off a couple injury-plagued seasons with the Cardinals. The idea was to hit the open market in 2019. Like clockwork, Mathieu returned to near Pro Bowl levels with the Texans — recording 89 tackles, eight passes defended and two interceptions.

After turning down $9.5 million annually to remain with Houston, Mathieu decided to test the open market. He ultimately inked a three-year, $42 million deal with Kansas City. This makes Mathieu the second highest-paid safety in the NFL based on average annual salary. Way to bank on yourself.

Baltimore Ravens

Losing the likes of Joe Flacco, Terrell Suggs, Eric Weddle and Michael Crabtree in one offseason was a clear indication that new Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta is hellbent on building the roster under his terms. It’s not a bad thing. For too long, former general manager Ozzie Newsome was seemingly stuck in the past.

Instead of retaining these players, Baltimore set forth a new roster build mentality. It’s led by young quarterback Lamar Jackson and extended into free agency. That included the team-friendly three-year, $15 million deal the Ravens signed Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram too. Bringing in Earl Thomas on a lucrative four-year contract also acted as an upgrade over Weddle. Given how great Weddle has been, that’s rather astonishing. These Ravens also refrained from getting into a bidding war with other teams for the services of C.J. Mosley. Overall, this has been a good first offseason for DeCosta in his new role.