Editor’s note: Brien is a well-traveled Houstonian and Army Combat Veteran with an extremely wide range of talents and interests including the NFL (Packers), Irish History, and writing. Follow him on twitter @ODonalsVanguard
By BRIEN O’DONAL
Well, I must say I’m quite surprised at how NFL free agency has played out so far. Most of the shocking moves have occurred via trade. I have only seen one contract that looks like it could be bad for the salary cap. It seems a majority of signings appear to be good fit for each team’s needs. The largest position group making waves has been the wide receivers and the 49ers have been making the most acquisitions. Quality offensive linemen signed quickly and the drop off from best available to a depth player is significant. And only in the last few days have the top running backs begun signing. This all seems to be different than in years past in which the first week is full of big contract signings of high price free agents where teams mortgage their future to win now. I kind of like this year’s way of team building better. These reasonable contracts have left teams still in good shape to add more and more depth as the year goes on.
It has already been written about on this site, but the Brock Osweiler trade was the biggest story of day one. There had been nothing like it in the NFL before but it wouldn’t be the biggest story for long. Just to make sure their name was on everyone’s lips (or because Tom Brady doesn’t have many more years left) the Patriots went out and traded away several picks from the 2017 NFL draft to get themselves key players Brandin Cooks, Dwayne Allen, and Kony Ealy. Once again they proved that they don’t need to build a team the conventional way to still be the favorite to win the Super Bowl. Trades don’t happen very often in the NFL because every draft pick is valuable to getting young talent for the future. The Texans were able to make a deal with a team that had money to spend, but the fact that the Patriots gave up so many picks was surely the biggest story of free agency so far.
A big signing of note was Calais Campbell to the Jaguars. He was one of the biggest names in free agency this year and his services were pursued hard by the Broncos and the Jaguars. He gives Jacksonville an even more talented defensive front. In addition to him they added safety Barry Church and one of the top cornerbacks on the market, A.J. Bouye. It is the hefty sum given to Bouye that I think might be a bad contract. He was given a lot of money without a long resume to back it up and if he struggles the Jags will have to cut bait like they did with Davon House, their big signing at the position two years ago. On paper though, the defense in Jacksonville might be pretty good.
The first of the position groups to go fast in free agency was the wide receivers. In order to keep this from becoming too much information I will only give the ones I think will have a big impact. I’ll start with the Giants signing Brandon Marshall after cutting Victor Cruz before the new league year. Marshall is still a big body receiver and a serious red zone threat. His signing gives Eli Manning one of the best receiving corps in the NFL. The Redskins got hurt with the departure of DeSean Jackson to Tampa Bay and Pierre Garcon to San Francisco. Keeping Kirk Cousins happy should be a big part of their plan and after letting his top two receivers go they only got Terrelle Pryor on a one year prove-it deal. Tampa on the other hand has to be happy about adding Jackson opposite their star wide out Mike Evans. Other big names to get signed are Alshon Jeffery to the Eagles on a one year deal and Adam Theilen resigning with the Vikings long term. All these receivers seem to be good acquisitions for those teams without hurting their caps. Impact receivers are finding their teams more and more favorable to getting them under contract before they hit the market. If you look at most of the names above you recognize a lot of veterans and a few that were just disgruntled. The fact that most of them went quickly shows how important it is to have multiple contributors at the position.
Offensive linemen were the other group to see the big name talent taken off the board in a short time. The Browns to me look like the big winners. They were able to resign left guard Joel Bitonio and solidified the interior by signing center J.C. Tretter and right guard Kevin Zeitler. While Joe Thomas is still playing at a high level; if they can get a solid right tackle they may offer whatever quarterback is there a fighting chance. The Broncos improved their line with the signing of Ronald Leary although they lost Russell Okung to the Chargers. Hopefully he can improve his play in Los Angeles enough to look like a good signing. Detroit was able to upgrade at the expense of their division foe the Packers by signing T.J. Lang, who has been a pro bowl guard. Minnesota also got better this offseason with the additions of Mike Remmers and Riley Reiff. After last year they needed to do whatever it takes to get better up front. There are a few other good to average players who moved around but after the first few days there was a significant drop off in talent and teams were scrambling to keep up. From here on out anyone looking for help on the offensive line will be adding depth or hoping to catch lighting in a bottle.
The 49ers have been the most active team this offseason, signing 11 players so far. The only really big talent players were Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin but Brian Hoyer might be their smartest. If he can be at least a solid starter it could get them more than two wins this year. Another big player in free agency has surprisingly been the Green Bay Packers. Over the last few years they’ve garnered a reputation for eschewing this ritual but this year they dipped their toes in the water in a big way. They made sure to lock up one of the top pass rushers on the market this year by resigning Nick Perry and then let Jared Cook’s high price walk away when they signed Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks. They also added more depth to a position of need when they brought back a prodigal child Devon House who left on a big contract to Jacksonville two years ago. It was a change to see them so active but doing so may have cost them some of their own players like Julius Peppers, T.J. Lang, J.C. Tretter, and Micah Hyde. The way they play the offseason game they are probably counting on good compensatory picks next year.
It’s been a week and a day since free agency started and no surprise to me, running back is a position that continues to be devalued. It wasn’t until three days ago that Eddie Lacy was the first big-name back to get signed, and his contract wasn’t all that great. Seattle is just hoping to he can produce the way he did his first two years in the league, but most would say that’s unlikely. Latavius Murray got a deal with the Vikings a day later, probably ensuring there would be no return for Adrian Peterson who is still waiting to get a deal. There aren’t a lot of great running backs available right now and with a soft market for their talent and a draft apparently loaded at the position it wouldn’t surprise me to see this position continue to get signed slowly in the coming weeks.
The last remaining item to discuss also has the most drama surrounding it. That’s right, it’s Romo time! He was almost released and free to let the Broncos and Texans fight over him like a scrap of expired meat, but Jerry Jones forgot about their bro-mance and is holding out for a trade. Last word is that neither Denver nor Houston is willing to trade for him so now it’s just a waiting game. This has gotten old and I’m glad it’s not a big story anymore. Once this resolves itself we can all move on. As for the rest of free agency, this is the best time. Bargain free agency usually picks up around the third week but with legal tampering and a soft market all around it is coming early this year. Most of the players left will find only small money contracts or none at all till September or later. Depth being important to the health of a roster, the teams that make the best signings now will be better in the long run.