The 7 NFL teams that have given us the most to talk about in free agency
Sometimes that's a good thing and sometimes that's a bad thing ...
Somehow, the NFL has gone several days without making waves, its longest stretch all month. At least as of the time I’m writing this. That will surely change soon, especially since Will Smith slapping Chris Rock has put the Oscars in all the headlines. The NFL will never let another source of entertainment shine for too long!
In all seriousness, this has been the wildest offseason I can remember, and March isn’t even over yet:
Or, as Stefon Diggs put it:
Although every team has been busy since the start of free agency, some have stood out for the moves they’ve made — good and bad. Here are seven that have most grabbed my attention in the last couple of weeks.
The team that is doing right by its quarterback, thank God: Cincinnati Bengals
Last month, the Bengals came up just short in the Super Bowl, with the blame lying mostly with a shoddy offensive line that has continually failed to protect Joe Burrow in his first two seasons in the league. Though some — in particular, Carson Palmer, who is simultaneously the best and worst person to weigh in on the matter — doubted the front office was willing to spend the money, the Bengals have learned from their past mistakes. So far, they’ve signed three quality offensive linemen: Alex Cappa, Ted Karras, and La’el Collins, with Burrow acting as the closer for the Collins deal:
They also brought in tight end Hayden Hurst — a good blocker and a capable pass catcher — to help fill the void left by C.J. Uzomah.
None of those additions generated the same buzz as other blockbuster moves we’ve seen, but on paper, they’re a collective huge step forward for the future of Burrow and the Bengals.
The team that sold its soul to finally get a quarterback: Cleveland Browns
It’s not surprising to see the way teams fell over backwards trying to land Deshaun Watson, but it is disappointing. Even before a grand jury declined to indict Watson on charges of sexual misconduct — a decision which does not establish guilt or innocence — more than a third of a league inquired about trading for the 26-year-old because, well, he’s an immensely talented quarterback:
Watson still faces 22 civil lawsuits and a possible suspension. The tricky issue with this case and others like it is that there is no hard evidence and, short of an admission of guilt (which will never come), no possibility of any. However, if you actually seek out information — not necessarily what you want to hear but what the reporting says — his accusers are credible. And according to their lawyer, the Browns didn’t reach out to the alleged victims.
Instead, they appeared to be out of contention for Watson, but then sweetened the deal so much — the most guaranteed money ever and structured to protect him if the NFL serves him a suspension — that he turned down the supposed favorites (his hometown Falcons) and decided to flee to the Cleve.
I’m sympathetic to the Browns fans who have a conscience about this trade. I can’t blame those who have decided to no longer cheer for the Browns, and I also can’t blame those who are appalled but don’t want to let one player define their team or fandom. After all, Watson will be their quarterback and a face of the franchise for the foreseeable future but not forever. Nor will I judge those who are both disgusted by this move and also a little excited about how good the team can be, and then they feel guilty about that. (I mean, we’re humans and we’re complicated, and we can hold conflicting feelings at the same time. Be kind to yourselves.)
Cleveland, home of the QB jersey of sadness, has been searching for a franchise quarterback for decades, and while Baker Mayfield once looked like the answer, it was clear after last season that he wasn’t it either. So the Browns pulled out all the stops to acquire Watson … and then refused to act conciliatory about it and insulted everyone’s intelligence in the process:
Sports are not morality contests, especially in the NFL where you can find unsavory characters on every team and in every owner’s suite. But the Browns showed no misgivings about bringing on a quarterback who has been accused of 22 incidents of sexual misconduct, which sends a message to fans, and women in particular: winning matters above all else, even you.
The team that is politely telling its quarterback to put up or shut up: Miami Dolphins
In Mike McDaniel’s first conversation with Tua Tagovailoa, the new Dolphins coach pledged to “get all that greatness” out of his young quarterback. So far, McDaniel is doing everything he can to live up to that promise.
The biggest splash the Dolphins made was trading for Tyreek Hill, a big-play burner who will join forces with the similarly speedy Jaylen Waddle as Tagovailoa’s top two weapons. While Hill is coming off a career-high 111-catch season, the decision doesn’t come without risk. Miami gave up a lot of draft capital and is making Hill the highest-paid receiver in the league. And considering Hill’s history — he pleaded guilty to assaulting his pregnant girlfriend while in college and was accused of breaking his three-year-old son’s arm — it’s not a particularly palatable deal.
The Dolphins’ other signings are less risky and less costly. Former Cowboys receiver Cedrick Wilson could end up being a steal. So could running backs Chase Edmonds and Raheem Mostert, who are also reliable pass catchers and can fit into McDaniel’s field-stretching vision for this offense ... if they can stay healthy.
They also added two of the best available offensive linemen: guard Connor Williams and left tackle Terron Armstead, who can provide much better protection than Tagovailoa got in his first two seasons. Miami’s OL ranked No. 27 in pass block win rate in 2020 and dead last in the same category in 2021.
McDaniel and the front office are putting Tagovailoa in a position to take the proverbial leap this year. If he doesn’t, then at least the Dolphins will know they tried and can move on from him after the season — and they’ll also have Teddy Bridgewater ready to take over as the starter in 2022 if need be.
The team that isn’t escalating the AFC West arms race: Kansas City Chiefs
Midway through the 2021 season, the Chiefs’ stranglehold on the AFC West looked to be in jeopardy. By Week 16, they had secured their sixth straight division title.
In response, the other AFC West teams went all out when free agency began. The Broncos traded for Russell Wilson — a move that would normally be the biggest news of the entire offseason — and shored up their defensive line with D.J. Jones and Randy Gregory. Vegas sent a first- and second-round pick to the Packers to acquire No. 1 receiver and lifelong Raiders fan Davante Adams. They also traded for cornerback Rock Ya-Sin and signed free agent pass rusher Chandler Jones to pair with Maxx Crosby. The Chargers quickly addressed a few roster holes by adding the likes of Khalil Mack and Sebastian Joseph-Day to the defensive line, as well as lockdown corner J.C. Jackson to the secondary.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs traded Mahomes’ No. 1 — and fastest — target, Tyreek Hill, and brought on JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, two perfectly fine receivers who aren’t exact replacements for what Hill can do. On defense, they elected not to bring back the versatile Tyrann Mathieu and signed safety Justin Reid, another perfectly fine player who isn’t an exact replacement.
Perhaps trading Hill was the right move for the Chiefs in the long run. KC now has more salary cap room and 12 draft picks this year, including two each in the first, second, and third rounds. But the offense, even with Mahomes still around and the adaptable Andy Reid running the show, will likely go through an adjustment period. It’s too soon to count them out on a seventh consecutive division championship, but with the other three teams loading up on weapons, the Chiefs are more vulnerable than they’ve been in a while.
The team that is unexpectedly running it back: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last month, the Bucs’ immediate future looked pretty dicey:
Then, as you might have heard, Tom Brady unretired. Since then, they signed four starters and would-be free agents to multi-year extensions: receiver Chris Godwin, running back Leonard Fournette, center Ryan Jensen, and cornerback Carlton Davis. Gronk could be next, though for now he remains undecided.
The core of the team, and its coaching staff, is intact — the one that won the Super Bowl two years ago and gave this year’s eventual Super Bowl champs a scare. But Tampa still looked for outside help to fix a couple of weaknesses. The Buccaneers signed underrated receiver Russell Gage, veteran safety Logan Ryan, and traded for Ali Marpet’s replacement after the guard retired, giving us the coolest bit of trivia this offseason:
The Bucs are already an easy favorite to repeat as NFC South champs. And as we helplessly watch Coach K take Duke to the Final Four (and perhaps beyond) in his final season, it’s a reminder that we might as well start mentally preparing ourselves for another Brady Super Bowl run.
The team that was rewarded for its patience: Indianapolis Colts
A few weeks ago, the Colts made the smart decision to send Carson Wentz packing, even though they didn’t have an answer yet on how to replace him. At the time, their best options looked to be Jimmy Garoppolo, Marcus Mariota, or Mitchell Trubisky. All perhaps better than Wentz, but yeah, not the most inspiring list.
Then the always solid Matt Ryan fell into their laps. And it only cost the Colts a third-round pick — which they received from the Commanders in the Wentz deal — and the Falcons are eating Ryan’s $40 million dead cap hit. Ryan is almost 37 and might not be in his MVP form anymore, but he’s still got a good arm and is much steadier under pressure than Wentz; Ryan led four game-winning drives last season with the Falcons compared to zero for Wentz.
In some ways, Ryan should give the Colts what Philip Rivers did two years ago: a strong leader who won’t actively lose games, surrounded by the kind of homegrown talent on offense and defense that can get Indy back to the playoffs.
The Colts need to add a few more pieces to help Ryan out, and they may not be Super Bowl ready even with him in the fold, but this team should be able to win more games than with Wentz and make it to the postseason. And maybe even beat the Jaguars in Jacksonville!
The team that is Falconing it up: Atlanta Falcons
Let’s see. The Falcons took a massive swing for Deshaun Watson and missed, and by doing so they alienated their longtime quarterback — someone they should feel indebted to for what he’s done for their franchise:
And maybe the Falcons do. Maybe that’s why they only received a third-round pick for their record holder in all major passing categories and the guy who got them closer to a Super Bowl win than anyone else ever has. It’s still a crappy way to treat your high-character quarterback of 14 years.
Marcus Mariota was brought in to take over for Ryan and act as a bridge QB. Mariota’s reunion with Arthur Smith might even make the Falcons a little more competent than anyone expects, if Mariota can actually stay healthy. But Atlanta is taking on $62 million in dead cap for four players who aren’t even on the roster, which isn’t promising news for this year but will at least free up a ton of space in the future. So it’d be wise not to expect much from the Falcons in 2022 (or ever, if we’re being honest).