Free agency is a time for significant money to fly around as teams sign players to contracts, often ones for more money than said players are worth. It’s a telling time for the state of many franchises and points to which direction each one is headed.
With the first wave of free agency in the books, and hundreds of millions of dollars doled out, let’s take a look back at what we’ve learned so far. The Patriots, Browns and 49ers have all been at the forefront, while other teams have stayed on the outskirts, waiting for bargains with the next tier of free agents.
Here are 11 lessons we’ve learned up to this point.
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The Patriots are going all in for Tom Brady’s closing window
No team was more active on the trade market than the Patriots, which should really come as no surprise. They were also open to spending their wealth of cash, landing prized free-agent cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
Put simply, the Patriots replaced Martellus Bennett with Dwayne Allen, Chris Long with Kony Ealy, Logan Ryan with Gilmore and Danny Amendola (probably) with Brandin Cooks. Just about every one of those players are younger than the guy they’re replacing, with the exception of Gilmore, who’s seven months older than Ryan.
Bill Belichick’s willingness to part with draft picks and key contributors from last season shows he’s going all in for Brady’s closing window. He’s held onto Jimmy Garoppolo (for now), given Brady a true deep threat in Cooks and added a stud cornerback to the defense.
The Patriots aren’t going to sit back and watch their top free agents walk without bringing in younger replacements. Belichick remains the smartest GM in football.
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No one wants free-agent running backs
Five years ago, Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles would have been scooped up on the first day of free agency, likely on massive contracts. In 2017, they have a hard time generating substantial interest.
Both players remain available, and it seems as though the Seahawks are the only team vying for their services. They’re coming off of significant knee injuries, but that’s not the only reason they’re still on the market.
Teams have learned that signing veteran free-agent running backs isn’t the way to go. Chris Ivory, Doug Martin, DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews all failed to live up to their deals the past two seasons, showing that signing pricey backs is not a smart play.
Even younger backs like Eddie Lacy and Latavius Murray can’t find homes despite not having significant injury histories like Peterson and Charles. It’s a bad time to be a free-agent running back.
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Pass rushers continue to get paid
The NFL is a quarterback-driven league. You need to find one, protect him, and sack the other team’s. If you can do those three things, you typically win. Teams have quickly learned that to be true, and it’s a big reason we’ve seen them spend big for pass rushers.
Whether it was the Broncos and Panthers two years ago or Vic Beasley leading the league in sacks this past season, the best teams typically have strong pass rushes. That has led guys like Nick Perry, Chandler Jones, Melvin Ingram and Jason Pierre-Paul to get paid appropriately.
The top-tier pass rushers don’t often hit the open market as all four of those guys were retained by their respective teams – two of whom signed long-term deals. Finding pass rushers is difficult, so when you have one you keep him – even if it costs you an arm and a leg.
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The Browns are headed in the right direction … sort of
The Browns were off to a great start in free agency. They signed Kevin Zeitler and J.C. Tretter, landed a second-round pick and Brock Osweiler and brought in Kenny Britt. It showed the Browns were heading in the right direction, shoring up the offensive line and accumulating additional assets, but then they reverted to their curious old ways.
They let Terrelle Pryor walk in free agency despite trying to give him $8 million for four years. He signed a one-year deal for $8 million in Washington, a contract that would have been more than feasible for the wealthy Browns. And if $8 million per year is the highest they went, it’s their own fault.
Pryor is a much better receiver than Britt and has far greater potential. He had a chance to be the face of the franchise going forward, but Cleveland was reluctant to pay him what he was worth. It’s a move that could come back to haunt the Browns.
The Texans are going to sign Tony Romo
Book it. They traded Brock Osweiler and freed up $16 million in cap space, and have a gaping hole at quarterback. Unless the Broncos come out of nowhere and pony up a mid-round pick to get Romo, he’s going to Houston. It’s the perfect match.
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The Jaguars keep trying to buy wins
The Jaguars spent more than any team in the NFL last offseason, signing big-name free agents like Malik Jackson, Chris Ivory and Tashaun Gipson. Their flurry of moves cost them $230 million in free agency, attempting to buy wins ahead of a once-promising 2016 season.
All that got them was a worse record than they had in 2015. So what are the Jaguars doing this offseason? Spending more money, of course!
Jacksonville brought in Barry Church, A.J. Bouye and Calais Campbell, arguably the best players at their respective positions at the time of their signing. Those three defenders cost Jacksonville $153.5 million alone, signifying they’re going all in on defense again.
I guess this is what happens when Blake Bortles is your quarterback.
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Teams are desperate for offensive line help
This draft class is strong at several spots: safety, cornerback, running back and tight end. Where it’s not strong is on the offensive line, and teams are aware of that. It greatly impacted the free-agent market with teams showing desperation for offensive linemen.
Andrew Whitworth got paid by the Rams at age 35, Matt Kalil – coming off of hip surgery – got $55 million, Ricky Wagner is now one of the highest-paid right tackles, and Kevin Zeitler set a new precedent for guards.
Protecting the quarterback has become priority No. 1 for most teams, and it shows in the way they’re spending on offensive linemen in free agency. Warranted or not, guards and tackles are going to get paid each offseason, and their deals are only going to get bigger by the year.
The Giants are content with starting Ereck Flowers at left tackle again
The biggest need for the Giants this offseason was on the offensive line. They needed a left tackle, knowing Flowers was one of the worst in the league last year. Andrew Whitworth and Kelvin Beachum figured to be options in free agency, but the Giants were unable to land either.
Given all that, Flowers’ chances of being the starting left tackle in Week 1 keep improving, and that’s not a good thing.
The draft class is weak at that spot, and the free-agency pool is all but dried up. There aren’t any better options out there, unless they opt to trade for one. That’s unlikely to happen, so alas, Flowers will likely get the nod.
That should worry not just Giants fans but Eli Manning. He’s going to be on his back more often than he’d like if Flowers is protecting his blind side this season.
The Bengals didn’t learn from last year’s mistakes
Last offseason, the Bengals watched Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Andre Smith and Reggie Nelson walk out the door and sign elsewhere. Not coincidentally, the offense took a major hit with the passing attack struggling and the offensive line playing significantly worse than it did in 2015.
This time around, they let their two best offensive linemen leave. Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler both left Cincinnati for deals with the Rams and Browns, respectively. The Bengals had enough cap space to sign at least one of them, but apparently they don’t mind seeing their quarterback on his back 50 times a year.
Cincinnati should have been more aggressive in free agency, if only to sign its own players. Rather than signing Whitworth or Zeitler, the Bengals paid Dre Kirkpatrick – a mid-tier cornerback – big money.
The fullback position isn’t dead (yet)
Unlike running backs, fullbacks flew off the board early in free agency. Kyle Juszczyk signed a four-year deal worth $21 million, a curious move by new 49ers GM John Lynch. Then, to further inflate the fullback market, Mike Tolbert and Patrick DiMarco got deals early on.
What does that mean? Simply that the fullback position isn’t dead yet.
Most teams have moved to single-back sets, doing away with fullbacks in favor of three wide receivers or two-tight ends. However, just as we saw with both DiMarco and Juszczyk in Atlanta and Baltimore, fullbacks can be valuable parts of the offense.
They offer differing skill sets, but both are versatile and can help in multiple ways. These signings don’t mean fullbacks will somehow make a comeback, but it's way too early to call them extinct.
John Lynch and the 49ers aren’t wasting any time
In just the first week of free agency, Lynch has signed Juszczyk, Brian Hoyer, Pierre Garcon, Marquise Goodwin, Earl Mitchell, Matt Barkley and Malcolm Smith.
The craziest part of it all is that he may not be done yet. The 49ers may still make a push to trade for Kirk Cousins, which would be the ultimate deal of the offseason. Lynch has showed he’s not going to sit around and wait for the draft to improve his new team. The 49ers have holes all over the roster, some of which they won’t be able to fill solely with draft picks.
Lynch is doing his best to turn this disastrous team around given that he entered the offseason with plenty of cash to spend.