2019 NFL Free Agency Frenzy: Winners and Losers Through the First Phase
As the NFL began its new league year on March 13th, they capped off the previous year with a bang in the past 48 to 72 hours - thanks to one of the most insane free agency periods in recent memory. Deals large and small were almost hourly, including a few that created new places of residence for some of football’s biggest names like Odell Beckham Jr, Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell. Throughout the first phase of the 2019 free agency period, the power ranking tides have changed their courses, leaving teams and fans alike with either cause for joy or concern for their franchise’s direction.
With most of the deals now official, here's a break down of the winners and losers from “Phase 1” of the 2019 NFL free agency period.
If we were to rate the biggest winners of the 2019 free agency period thus far, it would have to be the Cleveland Browns. Just two years removed from their 0-16 season, Browns GM John Dorsey has come in and begun pulling this team out of the abyss they’ve been in for the last 17 seasons. After drafting QB Baker Mayfield with the #1 overall pick in the 2018 draft - who helped the Browns to a near .500 season, he rocked the sports world with a blockbuster trade that could propel the Browns into a Super Bowl contender.
Through the prime-time deal with the New York Giants, the team received star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr in exchange for 2014 draft pick and safety Jabrill Peppers, their 2019 first round pick (#17), and a third-round pick received from the Patriots (#95). The trade allows the Browns to avoid being responsible for Beckham’s $20 million signing bonus he agreed with the Giants, making his contract a steal.
Additionally, they now have the one of the most dangerous and talented wide receiver duos in the league, as Beckham will join good friend and college teammate Jarvis Landry among other stars in the skill positions, like Kareem Hunt and David Njoku. Let’s also not forget that Cleveland received defensive end Olivier Vernon from New York in exchange for guard Kevin Zeitler.
Having Beckham on the same roster as Landry brings more than just friendly chemistry. Throughout his five seasons with the Giants, Beckham was a constant record breaker. He is in the top 5 in all the major receiving categories such as targets per game (3rd), catches per game (4th), and receiving touchdowns in which he had 44 in 59 games (3rd). Adding to that, he is the only player in the Super Bowl era with two seasons of 1000+ receiving yards in 12 or fewer games.
There is no guarantee that the Browns will ascend to the top and win a Super Bowl, but there is no denying that Dorsey’s moves will help them compete in the AFC North, if not win it, and give them a real chance at the playoffs. Look out for the Cleveland Browns next season.
New York Jets
While both New York franchises have experienced constant struggles over the past few seasons, it might be finally be the Jets who start to see the light while telling the Giants “good luck with what we’ve experienced during your Super Bowl teams”. The New York Jets have had a knack for signing running backs, many if not all of whom, have been complete failures for the organization. This isn’t to say that that was their only problem, however.
Now, with a quarterback in Sam Darnold who had highs and lows in his rookie season and a GM who is one bad season away from possibly losing his job, Mike Maccagnan and the Jets went out and picked up a highly coveted free agent that could turn things around. In a deal that was projected to occur, the Jets signed former Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell for 4 years/$52 million. This all comes after Bell sat out a year as part of a holdout due to his refusal to be franchised tagged by Pittsburgh.
Despite many concerns about Bell that follow him from his former team, including commitment and drama, this has to be a deal that Jets fans and especially QB Sam Darnold can appreciate. Now, Darnold will have some weapons in his arsenal in Bell and Jamison Crowder, another free agent signing, who will take some of the pressure off him to make big plays. Bell and his counterparts could see success with offensive minded head coach Adam Gase, despite his struggles in Miami.
Defensively, the Jets made some good signings as well with DL Henry Anderson and ex-Ravens LB CJ Mosley.
We will see what becomes of this deal for the Jets, but if one’s things for certain, it just upped their media coverage in the New York market with the Giants.
After Jon Gruden decided to return to football as a head coach with the Oakland Raiders this past season, the team was nothing but an absolute mess. They had an intelligent football mind in Gruden and talented quarterback in Derek Carr, one of the league’s best QB’s who seems to fly under the radar, but were lacking in any offensive weapons and defense wasn’t much better.
Like the Cleveland Browns, the Raiders knew that they had to go out and find the talent to boost their roster and replace voids left by guys like Amari Cooper. They found their chance in the Antonio Brown drama going on in Pittsburgh. The two parties were in an ongoing conflict over money and Brown’s feelings towards members of the organization such as the head coach and quarterback. So, in shopping for a new suitor for Brown, they complete the transaction with Oakland, giving them Brown and a first-round pick in exchange for two midround picks.
Brown’s new contract features $54.1 million with $30 million guaranteed and it doesn’t harm the Raiders much in cap space. GM Mike Mayock also did a good job at retaining valuable draft picks while giving away those which are of abundance to Oakland. Also, the trade provides Derek Carr with a side piece to help him in a season where all Raider eyes are watching him.
The Raiders also went out and signed a bunch of other notable players who will upgrade both sides of the Ball. One of these moves included ex-Patriots offensive tackle Trent Brown. For four years and $66.8 million, the Raiders offense receives a strong left tackle who can fill in many roles as he did in New England in route to their Super Bowl victory. In the secondary, they pick Lamarcus Joyner from the LA Rams who will be paid $42 million over four years and comes off a Super bowl appearing season with Oakland’s California rival. Joyner provides experience at free safety with defensive mind wade Phillips and can show discipline in dealing with top slot corners like those seen in the Raiders’ division.
Can the Raiders make one last splash in Oakland before heading off for Las Vegas?
New York Giants
Following their 2011 season which resulted in a Super Bowl championship despite a highly noted “underdog roster”, the Giants have been in a seven-year long slump in which they lacked cap space, struggled to protect their quarterback in Eli Manning, and dealt with numerous off the field externalities. Although they saw some success in 2016 with an 11-5 record and a playoff appearance, they had to spend a lot of money to bring in free agents to do that, many of whom have since been traded or released as was with Olivier Vernon. The Giants are now in full rebuild mode and working to erase the damages done by former GM Jerry Reese. However, some of the Reese-era players proposed characteristic of “damage” can be questioned. Their sending out seems to give the Giants a sense of misdirection and foolish management.
Over the last week or so, Dave Gettleman has said some things and done some things which have completely divided the Giants’ fanbase. Thirteen days after telling media members at the NFL combine that the team “didn’t sign Odell to trade him”, the former Carolina Panthers GM does just that by shipping the superstar off to the Browns for Jabrill Peppers and two draft picks. This did not go over well with fans and the media, as Gettleman looked vulnerable for accepting such an inexplicable deal and the trade felt like it was for lame off the field purposes. Odell Beckham has been a generational talent for the Giants, for all the reasons listed in my analysis of the Browns, and his presence on the field made Eli Manning look like a better quarterback despite age. Now, Eli’s prime targets are former No. 2 and 3 guys who must quickly learn how to step up their impact.
A key component of the Giants rebuilding process is to fix the weaknesses in their defense, primarily in the secondary. Gettleman, however, has completely acted against this through various defensive moves he has made to get rid of guys who were legitimate positives to the Giants defense. This was seen with safety Landon Collins, who was willing to be tagged if necessary but didn’t receive it because of the team’s refusal to take a hit on their already low cap. Despite Collins being a leader in tackles on the Giants defense, they didn’t believe his talent was worth the money and they let him walk straight to rival Washington who expressed the opposite opinion.
Now the Giants have made some moves to boost certain struggling areas of their roster such as the offensive line. Gettleman has brought guys like Nate Solder, and now Kevin Zeitler from Cleveland, to up Eli’s protection and mentor the younger linemen such as Chad Wheeler. However, the rest of his moves have been completely unfavorable and contradictory to the team’s goals towards not wasting cap money and building with youth. As with the Collins situation, it’s ironic that it wasn’t desirable to risk anything on a player who’s been a force for the franchise, yet they are dishing it out in small portions to guys like QB Alex Tanney who don’t look to be a part of the Giants future. In terms of youth, the first possible successor to Collins that New York signed was 14-year veteran Antione Bethea.
The Giants are in one of the worst situations that their franchise has seen in a long time. They have an aging, future hall of fame quarterback with almost no powerful weapons to complement him outside of Saquon Barkley, a GM who says one thing and does another, and a struggling financial situation.
There is no doubt that the Giants were a loser in this year’s free agency.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, one of the most accomplished franchises in the NFL, has seen much success over the last decade or so despite now having a similar QB situation as the Giants. However, all that is about to change thanks to this year’s free agent moves which will alter the powers that be in the AFC North.
One of the reasons for the Steelers’ dominance despite an aging Ben Roethlisberger is the possession of an abundance of talented skill players for Ben to share the play making with. The top two of these weapons has been wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell, but now both are gone. After many disagreements and holdouts that have affected the team’s progress and public image, Brown was sent to the Oakland Raiders and Bell has found a new home in the Big Apple with the Jets. With two of their greatest weapons moved on, the Steelers offense is left with a lack of skill players to work with and the spotlight is thrown onto young star Juju Smith-Schuster. Pittsburgh will need to find new sources of scoring to keep their successes in the AFC North going.
Financially, the Steelers are also going to hurt from their deal with the Oakland Raiders. Like the Giants with Beckham, they will have to deal with paying out Antonio Brown’s signing bonuses and will take a large hit on their cap with dead money, around $21 million. Draft strength is not a benefit of the deal either as they received only midround picks from Oakland.
With loss of offensive talent and, in recent years, defensive studs such as Ryan Shazier, the Steelers will have to restock and build upon their young guys like JuJu and James Connor in order to remain relevant in the AFC North and compete with the improving Ravens and awakening Browns.
Under the leadership of first year head coach and former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, the Detroit Lions had a subpar 2018-2019 season and their offseason so far looks like it’s been the same.
Following a season where the Lions lost skilled guys like Golden Tate and took some beatings from teams like the New York Jets in the season opener, the objective for this offseason was to bring in some players to make quarterback Matt Stafford and strengthen the Lions defensive front, consisting of mainly ex-Jet and Giant Damon Harrison. The latter seemed to be accomplished with the signing of Trey Flowers from New England, but for the former the picture hasn’t looked any less bleak.
Most of the Lions’ moves in free agency were for guys who played under Bill Belichick’s watch in New England such as Danny Amendola whom the team gave way too much money too given his decline in recent years as a sidekick to guys like Julian Edelman. One of the few non-Patriot signings the team made was for ex-Steelers tight end Jesse James who had some shining moments in Pittsburgh. However, none of these deals will really help the Lions long term in being a scoring threat like they were in the Calvin Johnson days.
The Lions have been able to see the playoff picture a few times throughout Matt Stafford’s tenure, but they’ve never found a way to capitalize on that opportunity come the postseason. With this year’s free agent moves thus far, it doesn’t seem like much will change in the Motor City for the 2019 season. Lions fans should be concerned for their team’s growth and the longevity of Patricia as a coach there.