NFL Free Agency is unpredictable at the best of times, but in the midst of a global pandemic 2020’s version has been even more bizarre.
Given that every other major sports league is on hiatus, the NFL forged through with its off-season with a “business as usual” mantra – except it wasn’t business as usual. Travel bans and social distancing meant players could not fly to meet with clubs in person and team doctors couldn’t conduct physicals. That could be the reason many free agents with checkered injury histories are still unsigned.
With all of that in mind, here are the early winners and losers of a free agency period we’ll likely never forget.
Who is a bigger winner than Tom Brady? The six-time Super Bowl champion got a two-year deal for $50 million guaranteed that can get as high as $59 million after incentives. The $25 million per year is the highest average salary Brady has had in his career. He’s heading to a place with warm weather, no state income tax and two Pro Bowl receivers.
Make that two big Pro Bowl receivers.
Brady has zero pass TD attempts to a six-foot-five receiver in his entire illustrious career. The four wide receivers with the most career receptions from Brady are all under six-feet.
Brady’s new wideouts are big and elite. Mike Evans is six-five and Chris Godwin is six-one. Last season, the Bucs receivers racked up 642 receiving yards on tight-window throws (less than one yard of separation at the time of the catch), which ranked third in the NFL.
It’s time to bump Brady up in your fantasy draft queues.
Tampa Bay’s ticket office
Tampa Bay was 30th in attendance in 2019, averaging under 52,000 fans. This wasn’t a one off because they were a bad team: Tampa Bay’s best attendance rank in last decade was 26th.
Why? Because the Buccaneers have been bad for a while. Tampa Bay’s last 10-win season was 2010, and that Bucs team missed the post-season. Their last division title was 2007, as was their last playoff appearance. Their last playoff win was in 2002, the year the Bucs won the Super Bowl.
Brady could end all of those streaks, and early signs show fans believe he will. Lethargy amongst Bucs fans forced to watch a bad product wasn’t always the case. When the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl more than 17 years ago, they had 100,000 people on their season-ticket waiting list.
Tampa Bay is hosting the Super Bowl this year and could be the first team to play in a Super Bowl as host. The buzz is back in The Bay.
The AFC East is up for grabs. The mystique of Brady no longer will torment an entire division.
Since 2001, Tom Brady’s first season as a starter, TB12 has as many wins in the Super Bowl as all other AFC East starting quarterbacks have post-season wins over that period of time. Brady has won 17 AFC East titles since 2001 while the rest of the division has combined for two. The Patriots have won 11 straight division crowns and never finished worse than second with Brady as starter (2002).
But now it’s time for the other AFC East teams to step up.
The Buffalo Bills played the Patriots tough twice last year and the Miami Dolphins beat New England the last time they played, pushing the Patriots out of a first-round bye. Both the Bills and Dolphins have been aggressive this off-season and could challenge New England for the automatic playoff berth that comes with winning the division.
Not only did Bridgewater come back from a career-threatening injury to become a starter who garnered a lucrative contract, he bet on himself and won.
Last off-season, Bridgewater turned down a contract offer with Miami and the chance to play in his hometown, choosing instead to stay in New Orleans as a backup, waiting for the perfect fit.
When he got his opportunity this season, he balled out and went 5-0 as a starter. He was rewarded with a three-year, $63-million deal from the Carolina Panthers.
Despite now being the divisional rival of his former team, Carolina is a great fit for Bridgewater as the new offensive coordinator in Carolina, Joe Brady, was an assistant in New Orleans two years ago and knows Bridgewater well.
We expect Bridgewater’s .647 win percentage, fourth-best since 2014, to go up during his time in Carolina.
Big Play Slay never hid his desire for the Detroit Lions to trade him, and trade him they did.
He’s a winner not just because he got his wish, but also because he got paid. Slay agreed to 3-year, $50-million extension with the Philadelphia Eagles after being acquired from Detroit. The average value of the deal is $16.7 million, making him the highest paid corner per year in the league.
The raise is well-deserved. Slay is one of three defensive backs to be selected to the Pro Bowl in each of the last three seasons. Over the last three seasons, he has 52 per cent completion rate allowed as the nearest defender, third best in the NFL. He covers No. 1 receivers exclusively, and last year had a 50 per cent completion rate allowed against Pro Bowl wideout.
That’s what he’ll be called to do in the NFC East by the Eagles, which is why they are also winners here. Slay limited Amari Cooper to just two catches in Week 11 last season. Philadelphia needs Slay badly as the team’s corners were injured and inept last year – the Eagles allowed 11 30-yard touchdowns in the air last season, 10 of which were to perimeter receivers. That’s more than twice as many as any other defence.
The Slay trade was actually mutually beneficial. Detroit gives up their best player on defence, but they are more than one player away from contention and gets third- and fifth-round picks in return for Slay.
The Lions now have nine picks in the upcoming draft, including four of the top 85. They need to stockpile talent to improve the roster as head coach Matt Patricia looks to turn the team into a contender. He’s already put his stamp on the team, as the Lions have seven former Patriots on their team and only six Lions who were on the roster before Patricia took over ahead of the 2018 season. But big improvements need to be made, and more draft picks are the key.
Detroit is desperately trying to rebuild the culture of the team and improve the talent. The Slay trade, if the Lions draft well, will help them do that.
Just 14 months ago, Nick Foles was beating the Chicago Bears in the playoffs. Now he’s been brought in as the saviour to help them get back there.
Foles has four playoff wins as a starter. The Bears have four as a franchise since 1991. In total, 23 starting quarterbacks have played for Chicago since 2000, the second-most by any team in that span behind only the Cleveland Browns.
Foles’ tenure in Jacksonville started off poorly as he suffered a broken clavicle in the first game of his Jaguars career and was 0-4 as a starting quarterback last season when he returned. But, when healthy, Foles has proven to be a winner. He is 26-22 as a starter and a Super Bowl LII MVP.
Now Foles could join Jim McMahon and Trent Dilfer as the only Super Bowl-winning QBs to start for five teams. And he’s back in the offence he played well in as Bears head coach Matt Nagy was with the Chiefs and Eagles when Foles played for those teams. Bears offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and QB coach John DeFilippo also both coached Foles with the Eagles and are now reuniting with him in Chicago.
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams have gone from Super Bowl contender to troubled times in a short period of time.
General manager Les Snead and coach Sean McVay are being forced to revamp L.A.’s lineup because they have mismanaged the salary cap and have failed to hit on players in the draft. Not only did they have to cut their starting running back in Todd Gurley before $10.5 million was guaranteed on his contract on Thursday, their defence was decimated this off-season as they’ve said goodbye to Dante Fowler Jr., Cory Littleton, Michael Brockers, Clay Matthews and Nickell Robey-Coleman.
All the Rams have been able to add to replace them with thus far is Leonard Floyd and A’Shawn Robinson.
Highly paid running backs
I don’t want to place a specific name to this because this is bigger than one player and is a sign of the trend happening at the position, but it’s clear now: it’s not a good investment to pay elite running backs.
The aforementioned Gurley is the latest and greatest example. He scored 21 total touchdowns in 2018 and was rewarded by the Rams that July as the team made him the highest-paid player at his position and gave him $45 million guaranteed.
A year before Gurley was made the highest-paid back in the league, Devonta Freeman had that distinction.
Both players were released this week after their teams couldn’t find a trade partner. Gurley is just 25 years old and Freeman is 28.
Gurley was great. He is one of five players in NFL history with 70 or more touchdowns in their first five seasons. But an arthritic knee and drop in his workload made him expendable. He rushed for just 57.1 yards per game in 2019, 21st in the league, and had zero 100-yard rushing games.
Gurley was also one of four running backs making at least $13 million last year. Among them, only Ezekiel Elliott rushed for more than 1,000 yards, putting up 1,357 yards while making $15 million. Gurley made $14.4 million and rushed for 857 yards. Le’Veon Bell rushed for 789 yards and had a career-low three touchdowns for $13.1 million. David Johnson put up 345 yards and made $13 million.
Gurley and Johnson are already on new teams and there are rumours Bell could be on the move as well. None of their teams made the playoffs.
While the argument can be made that you need an elite runner to win, you definitely shouldn’t pay one big money.
Gordon bet on himself and lost. The league figured out the trend outlined above before Gordon got his market-setting payday.
The 2019 NFL season started with Gordon holding out for a long-term contract. Gordon missed four games and sat out nine total weeks, including training camp. The absence seemed to hurt Gordon as he put up just 3.8 yards per rush and eight rush touchdowns in 2019 when he ended his holdout without a deal.
Gordon turns 27 next month, so that big payday he was hoping for now will likely never come. After putting up just 612 rush yards in 2019, Gordon ended up settling for a two-year deal worth $16 million dollars from the Denver Broncos.
There’s no shame in being replaced by the best quarterback of all-time, but it’s not ideal that after being the first-overall pick in 2015 and now at the age of 25, Winston is an unrestricted free agent still searching for a new team.
Last season Winston put up 33 passing touchdowns, second-most in the league, but coupled those scores with 30 interceptions, seven of which were pick-sixes.
Despite plenty of opportunities, Winston is just 28-42 in his career as a starter. His style of play isn’t conducive to winning football. The top seven NFL teams in turnover differential all made the playoffs. Meanwhile, Winston has 23 more turnovers than anybody since 2015.
It’ll be tough for a team to talk itself into signing Winston, especially when it can’t meet with him in person to have him explain away his on-field decision-making or off-field indiscretions.
If Foles is a winner, Mitchell Trubisky has to be a loser by default.
It’s not just that Trubisky was the second pick in the 2017 draft ahead of both Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes and is already on the verge of being replaced, it’s that the Bears traded up to get him. After all that, Trubisky has just one winning season and one playoff appearance as a starter despite the Bears boasting a championship-level defence ready to win now.
Former first-overall picks Cam Newton and Jameis Winston are looking for work right now and they have more accomplished resumes than Trubisky. If Trubisky doesn’t prove he can be a solid starter and hold off Foles in the inevitable Windy City QB Battle, he’ll be the next pivot looking for work.