Let's unpack the NFL's biggest pre-free agency moves
Russell Wilson and Carson Wentz have new homes, the number of available WRs is dwindling, and Tom Brady is back like Freddy Krueger.
If you read my last newsletter, you’ll know I hid a little puzzle that was meant to serve as a hint to the next topic I would write about.
A couple hours after that newsletter landed in your inbox, the NFL went into turbo mode. First, news broke that Aaron Rodgers was returning to the Packers with a megadeal. Soon after, Russell Wilson was traded to the Broncos. Then Rodgers, no doubt perturbed that someone else stole the spotlight from him, piped in that yes, he would be back in Green Bay but actually the contract details were wrong.
A day later, Carson Wentz was sent packing to DC, prompting Adam Schefter’s first (but not worst) groan-worthy tweet of the week:
Then of course, immediately after the men’s March Madness bracket was unveiled, Tom Brady butted his way back into our lives to unretire.
And that’s just a fraction of all the NFL news packed into a few days:
With the negotiating window opening today and free agency officially beginning on Wednesday, even more blockbuster deals will unfold. Most likely, there will be, like, two dozen more before you even read this!
My original plan was to preview the wide receiver free agency class, plus a couple of other players at the position who could be available, either because of trade or release. That was supposed to include Amari Cooper, whose first name I spelled out in the opening paragraph of my previous newsletter, the aforementioned puzzle:
Before I could do that, he was traded.
I will still discuss Cooper’s future and this year’s free agent wide receivers below, but it will no longer be the main conversation of this newsletter. Instead, I’d like to take a closer look at what a few of the big pre-free agency moves mean for the NFL.
Tom Brady’s return solves a lot (but not all) of the Bucs’ problems
Brady, after spending nearly two whole months with his family, decided that he wasn’t done playing football after all. I don’t think anyone is particularly surprised, but it’s a bummer for those of us who were ready to let the younger generation of quarterbacks take over.
As Christian laid out over at FTW, the Bucs still have to figure out who to re-sign and which free agents to target to rebuild their OL and defense, all while dealing with salary cap issues. But Brady gives Tampa an edge days before the start of the new league year: having the opportunity to play with the GOAT and potentially contend for a Super Bowl could lure free agents to Florida — and maybe for less money.
The coaching staff is mostly intact. One weapon, receiver Chris Godwin, is already locked down for the 2022 season thanks to the franchise tag. Another, Gronk, seems likely to rejoin his longtime quarterback. Coveted free agent Ryan Jensen will also return as Brady’s center:
Getting at least one year from Brady also saved the Bucs from having to navigate an increasingly dire market of available QBs. There’s no can’t-miss prospect at the position in this year’s draft, and the top free agent quarterback is, I guess, Jameis Winston coming off an ACL tear, but Tampa probably wouldn’t bring back its former No. 1 overall pick.
With Rodgers staying in Green Bay and Wilson headed to Denver, the best overall trade option would be Jimmy Garoppolo. Not the best talent, though — that would be Deshaun Watson, but he’s not the most palatable solution to a team’s quarterback woes. He still faces 22 civil lawsuits for sexual misconduct and a possible (emphasis on “possible” because this is the NFL) suspension, even as a grand jury chose not to bring criminal charges against him. Important context for that, as noted by the New York Times:
Cases involving allegations of sexual misconduct can be difficult to prosecute, and often do not result in consequences through the criminal justice system. “It’s very unusual for allegations to result in criminal charges, much less a criminal conviction, and this will be yet another instance of that,” said Deborah Tuerkheimer, a law professor at Northwestern University and former prosecutor.
The Buccaneers avoided any of the risks — inexperience, inconsistent play, backlash — that would have come with any of the Brady replacement possibilities. And now they can kick the can on who their next quarterback will be.
Russell Wilson finally gives the Broncos the QB they’ve been looking for … probably
For the first time in his career, Wilson missed time due to injury last season. Once he returned from that three-game absence, he didn’t look comfortable out there — it’s hard to blame him, considering he had surgery on the middle finger of his throwing hand — and his numbers took a hit:
Wilson, in the five games before his injury: 72% completion rate, 10 TDs, 1 INT, 239.2 yards per game, 125.3 passer rating
Wilson, in the nine games after his injury: 61.5% completion rate, 15 TDs, 5 INT, 213 yards per game, 92.9 passer rating
Overall, he also posted his lowest QBR ever in his career (54.7 for the year).
The injury is likely the biggest reason Wilson struggled when he came back. Another reason is the conservative nature of Seattle’s offense — after all, he went through a second-half swoon in 2020, too, after reaching midseason as the MVP favorite.
In theory, a fresh start in Denver, with an offensive-minded head coach and several dynamic targets, should help Wilson bounce back, and sustain, that one-time MVP level. But Wilson is 33 now and showed last season that he’s less of a threat to run the ball. While he’ll get an upgrade (finally) upfront, the Broncos’ offensive line still has a couple of question marks. And phew, the AFC West is absolutely stacked:
So I don’t think we should automatically assume Wilson will be the same (or better) Russell Wilson that we’ve been used to seeing in recent years. However, he’s clearly their best quarterback since the 2012-13 version of Peyton Manning, and I think it’s more likely than not that he’ll be the missing ingredient that the Broncos have needed to get back to the playoffs.
His presence should also entice free agents, such as familiar face Von Miller, to join him in Denver. Even if things don’t work out like they did for Manning and the Broncos, the team took a big swing at QB — and one that was worth trying.
As for the Seahawks, it seems like they’re in rebuilding mode, especially after releasing Bobby Wagner, the heart of that defense, in an apparently tasteless way:
They do have a first-round pick now in April, which could mean they draft Wilson’s potential successor. No matter what the Seahawks do, though, I’m not sure I trust them to draft anyone in the first round.
The Colts have another hole to fill at QB, but at least they dumped Carson Wentz
The Colts’ quarterback position is starting to have a bit of a Defense Against the Dark Arts professor vibe to it:
Even after the Colts surrendered a first-round pick to trade for Wentz, I can’t fault them for wanting to move on from a quarterback who looked like he was actively trying to lose a couple of must-win games.
So Indianapolis is back in a familiar spot: It needs a new quarterback, and its options aren’t great. Most likely, the Colts (who remember, don’t have a first-round pick) will go the veteran route again. They could trade for Garoppolo, who would be an upgrade over Wentz but is similarly panicky, or Baker Mayfield, if the Browns go after Watson. Or maybe even Gardner Minshew, who has proven valuable as a backup but less so as a starter. It’s possible they don’t want to try their luck at a quarterback trade yet again, though.
That leaves free agency, and the Colts, with their ready-made roster, would be a desirable landing spot. Winston, who has a history of erratic play, doesn’t seem like the best fit. They could take a chance on Marcus Mariota, Teddy Bridgewater, or Mitchell Trubisky, who have all game-managed their way to the playoffs before. They’re all probably better than Wentz, at least.
And to the Commanders’ credit, Wentz is better than last year’s starter, Taylor Heinicke. Other than that, I can’t pretend to know what Washington is thinking with this trade. Pretty much par for the course with this franchise.
Khalil Mack’s gives the Chargers an edge defender boost in a QB-loaded division
Despite appearing in just seven games last season, Mack still managed to tally six sacks for the Bears. The three years before that, he totaled 30 sacks and made three Pro Bowls and two All-Pro teams.
Now 31, Mack might have lost a bit of a step, but he’s still a fearsome edge rusher when healthy and much-needed ammunition in the AFC West’s arms race. Perhaps more importantly for the Chargers, Mack also excels against the run — which was ultimately the team’s downfall (and not Brandon Staley’s timeout).
Staley and Mack have a good relationship from their time together in Chicago, and that familiarity could be the key to Mack’s comeback in 2022. Mostly, though, I appreciate that the Chargers followed my advice from the Pro Bowl and formed a defensive superstar tag team. Joey Bosa + Khalil Mack should be a terrifying combo for any quarterback to face down … if they can stay healthy, that is.
Amari Cooper is Baker Mayfield’s (?) new No. 1 WR
I don’t believe that the Cooper we saw this past season was a true No. 1 receiver ... at least not consistently. He did have a couple of 100-yard receiving games and hauled in eight touchdowns, though CeeDee Lamb emerged as Dak Prescott’s favorite target.
I also think Cooper could regain his standing as another quarterback’s No. 1 wideout, whether it’s Mayfield and his surgically repaired shoulder or, possibly, sigh, Watson. He is just a year removed from putting up a 1,110-yard season with mostly Prescott’s hodgepodge backups at QB.
The Browns have had issues at the wide receiver position for a while now; Odell Beckham didn’t work out and Jarvis Landry, who is expected to move on, hasn’t been the healthiest or most reliable weapon for Mayfield (and Mayfield hasn’t been the healthiest or most reliable quarterback for his receiving corps).
Cooper will be an immediate improvement at WR, and the Browns probably won’t stop there. They might decide to pair him with a rookie from this year’s deep receiver draft class. Cleveland could take a high-level prospect such as Garrett Wilson or Drake London (if they last that long) with pick No. 13 or wait until the second round or so and go after one like David Bell.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys should be fine at the receiver position. They were already planning on parting ways with Cooper, thanks to his hefty cap hit, Lamb’s rise, and the potential that a healthy Michael Gallup brings to the table. Keeping tight end Dalton Schultz around with the franchise tag was a good move too.
For other teams looking to add a wide receiver during free agency or via trade, the pickings are getting slim. Davante Adams and Godwin got franchise-tagged. Gallup and Mike Williams re-upped with their teams. Calvin Ridley is serving a longer suspension than Watson will get.
There’s still Allen Robinson, who has bailed out bad quarterbacks many times in his football career but who also kinda phoned it in last season. Or Beckham, who tore his ACL in the Super Bowl. Or JuJu Smith-Schuster, who missed most of last year with a shoulder injury. Or Antonio Brown (please no!). There are also several underrated options, like D.J. Chark, Russell Gage, and Christian Kirk.
But who knows, by the time you read this, half of them might already have a new home. Let the free agent frenzy begin … well, continue!