NFL

NFL free agency reaction, AFC powers are rising, draft talk and more

With the crux of free agency behind us, it appears the AFC is about to become a powerhouse after major moves from multiple teams.

The New England Patriots still lord over the AFC, but the serfs are organizing.

If the start of March showed us a common theme, it’s that AFC teams were willing to spend significant capital — both financially and in draft picks. In many cases, the additions came from NFC teams, tilting the balance of power back to a conference that has largely been dominated by one franchise for 20 years.

While New England is both the Super Bowl champions and AFC favorite, the distance between the Patriots and multiple AFC franchises is quickly closing. Here’s a look at which AFC teams upgraded:

Kansas City

After years of posturing, the Kansas City Chiefs are firmly in contention. Vegas has Kansas City as a co-Super Bowl favorite with the Patriots, something that has been buoyed by the additions of Tyrann Mathieu, Carlos Hyde and Alex Okafor. While the Chiefs did move on from Eric Berry, Justin Houston and Dee Ford, Kansas City has three picks in the first two rounds and a new, more aggressive defensive scheme under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.

Considering the offensive personnel around Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City will be heard from.

Cleveland

On the shores of Lake Erie, it’s impossible not to be excited about the Browns. General Manager John Dorsey is creating his masterpiece, landing wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and defensive end Olivier Vernon in a trade with the New York Giants. Dorsey also signed defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson and running back Kareem Hunt, adding significant talent to both sides of the ball.

GOING DEEP: Browns in unusual position of favorite entering 2019

The AFC South

Looking at Indianapolis, the Colts have been quieter than expected but should still improve. General Manager Chris Ballard signed wide receiver Devin Funchess to play opposite T.Y. Hilton and retained cornerback Pierre Desir. Also, Andrew Luck is now two years removed from shoulder surgery and Frank Reich is entering his second year as head coach. Indianapolis has a pair of second-round picks as well in a draft that boasts a litany of pass-rushers, putting the Colts in fine shape.

Meanwhile, the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars made key additions. Tennessee signed veteran guard Rodger Saffold to a four-year deal, helping to keep oft-injured quarterback Marcus Mariota upright. General Manager Jon Robinson also made a wise pickup in Ryan Tannehill. Mariota has never played a full 16-game season, and Tannehill provides the insurance that Blaine Gabbert never could. Tannehill’s style of play is also similar to Mariota.

Circling back to the Jaguars, Nick Foles immediately raises the ceiling of what’s possible in Duval County. Foles isn’t great, but he’s solid, and Jacksonville believes that he can make a dormant offense respectable.

The Also-Rans make runs

Perhaps most underrated in the AFC’s surge is the improvement from last year’s bottom feeders. The New York Jets and Oakland Raiders were the league’s two most aggressive teams in free agency, doling out more than $200 million between them.

Oakland went on a spending spree after trading third and fifth-round picks for Antonio Brown. The power couple of Mike Mayock and Jon Gruden signed left tackle Trent Brown, receiver Tyrell Williams and safety Lamarcus Joyner.

New York made its own headlines with the signings of running back Le’Veon Bell, inside linebacker C.J. Mosley and receiver Jamison Crowder. The Jets also acquired guard Kelechi Osemele from the Raiders, helping to bolster a below-average offensive line.

GOING DEEP: Jets have tremendous free agency run

All of these improved teams can’t outshine the Houston Texans and Los Angeles Chargers, who retain rosters which should yield double-digits win totals once again.

All told, only a few notable AFC teams took hits.

The Baltimore Ravens did land Earl Thomas and Mark Ingram, but the losses are staggering. Baltimore released Eric Weddle and Michael Crabtree before watching John Brown, Za’Darius Smith, Terrell Suggs and Mosley leave in free agency.

Over in Pittsburgh, the Steelers dealt Brown for cents on the dollar before losing Bell to New York. They remedied the situation by… signing cornerback Steven Nelson to a three-year deal.

Of course, until proven otherwise, the Patriots have the final say. Contenders have risen in the past only to be swatted down by the historic duo of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.

GOING DEEP: Chiefs signing of Mathieu shows understanding of window

However, this year provides a deeper field of legitimate contenders. There is the opportunity for each to get better still in the draft come April 25. Perhaps that is where the ultimate differentials will be created.

In short, a relatively weak conference is now strong, looking to flex against its lord in Foxborough.

Power rankings

Top 10 signings of free agency’s first week

1. Eric Weddle (two years, $12 million) – Los Angeles Rams
2. Matt Paradis (three years, $27 million) – Carolina Panthers
3. Tyrann Mathieu (three years, $42 million) – Kansas City Chiefs
4. Bryce Callahan (three years, $21 million) – Denver Broncos
5. Le’Veon Bell (four years, $60 million) – New York Jets
6. Za’Darius Smith (four years, $66 million) – Green Bay Packers
7. Malik Jackson (three years, $30 million) – Philadelphia Eagles
8. Tashaun Gipson (three years, $22.55 million) – Houston Texans
9. Rodger Saffold (four years, $44 million) – Tennessee Titans
10. Jason Verrett (one year, $3.6 million) – San Francisco 49ers

Quotable

“I thought he did a great job. I thought he was phenomenal. I know he gave up some sacks and pressures and all this other business, but if you really watch him play, he played with passion and I thought he played well. I just like what he brought to the table as far as energy is concerned. I think he’s an athlete and I think he’s a good player, a good, solid player.

– Cincinnati Bengals offensive line coach Jim Turner on right tackle Bobby Hart

This quote smacks of a coach trying to convince himself of a lie. Hart secured a three-year, $21 million contract from the Bengals after struggling mightily for them in 2018. Last year, Hart allowed 10 sacks and 39 pressures while committing 14 penalties, per Bengals beat writer Paul Dehner Jr.

It must be noted that the contract structure allows Cincinnati to move on after 2019 with relative ease, but the message remains. Paying $21 million for a mediocre backup to be your starter at right tackle is ludicrous, and tells players within the building that poor performance can still be rewarded.

It’s also a showcase of why Cincinnati remains without a playoff win since 1990, the league’s longest drought.

The Bengals rarely spend money on outside free agents who can supplement internal talent, leaving them to either re-sign lesser players or face the monumental challenge of consistently hitting on draft classes. A few failures in the latter department, and you get a team with no upside.

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Random stat

The 1972 Miami Dolphins were the first team to have two 1,000-yard running backs in the same season, with Larry Csonka (1,117 yards) and Mercury Morris (1,000 yards) turning the trick. Only six teams have ever accomplished the feat.

Info learned this week

1. Giants have no clear plan under Gettleman

What are the Giants doing? Who knows. Certainly not Dave Gettleman.

On Aug. 27, Gettleman signed Odell Beckham Jr. to a five-year, $95 million extension. Barely six months later, Beckham was dealt for first and third-round picks, along with safety Jabrill Peppers, to the Browns. The Giants were left with a $16 million cap hit as well.

Then there was the choice to let safety Landon Collins walk in free agency to division-rival Washington. Instead of using the franchise tag to retain Collins on $11 million, Gettleman balked at the idea. The thought was that Collins wasn’t worth the money, something the market would surely confirm.

Those two decisions seemed to signal a rebuild. Incredibly, that’s not the case.

After letting Collins walk and trading Beckham, Gettleman’s signing of veteran receiver Golden Tate to a four-year, $37.5 million deal last week makes no sense. Tate turns 31 years old in August. By the time New York is remotely a contender, Tate will either be gone or ancient.

As for Collins, he signed a six-year deal worth $84 million (more on this below). Gettleman tagging the 25-year-old would have allowed for a trade, another year of quality safety play or an eventual extension. Instead, Collins left for nothing.

The Giants were once a great franchise. They are currently a rudderless mess.

2. Questions around Murray intensify after curious pro day

Kyler Murray didn’t have his height measured again at his Oklahoma Pro Day. He also declined running the 40-yard dash as he did at the Scouting Combine. Odd.

While some will roll their eyes at Murray’s measurement of 5-foot-10 being questioned, there’s internal talk within the league as to whether it was accurate. Some NFL personnel men believe the league put Murray at 5-foot-10 to reduce pressure on team that might want to take him (as if the symbolic difference between 5-9 and 5-10 really matters. Regardless, why not get measured again? It’s not like Murray was going to shrink between the combine and his showcase in Norman.

More importantly, though, is the decision to not run the 40. One of Murray’s biggest selling points on tape was his ability to run to either gain yardage or buy time. Did he not run because he gained significant weight to come in above 200 pounds? If that’s the case, teams should be rightfully concerned that he’s either going to be below that threshold when he plays his first NFL down, or he’ll be at a heavier playing weight, taking away his speed.

Either way, Murray continues to leave a bevy of questions in his wake and remains the most debated player in the draft.

3. Redskins need to pay in-house stars before outside talent

Last year, Alex Smith. This year, Landon Collins.

The Washington Redskins have long had a habit under owner Dan Snyder of paying for players outside their organization while being frugal with in-house talent. Over 2016 and ’17, the Redskins didn’t pay Kirk Cousins and allowed him to leave via free agency. To replace him, Washington sent star corner Kendall Fuller and a third-round pick to Kansas City for Alex Smith, subsequently handing out a $94 million extension.

Last wee, Snyder and the front office were back at it. The Redskins signed Collins to a monstrous six-year deal worth $84 million, stunning many across the league. In the aftermath of that contract, two general managers that I exchanged texts with both felt Washington significantly overpaid.

One was blunt, stating “Washington f**ked the entire market.” The GM complained that Collins was little more than a box safety and not particularly good in coverage.

The message to players within Redskins Park continues to be that free agents will be duly compensated, but drafted talent can walk. One agent relayed that he literally prays his clients aren’t drafted by Washington because of how dysfunctional the organization is.

Not a ringing endorsement for Snyder and Co.

4. Packers are putting together monster offseason

After spending decades eschewing the allure of free agency, the Packers are finally involved in a major way under General Manager Brian Gutekunst. In the span of a single day, Green Bay came to terms with safety Adrian Amos, and edge rushers Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith. All told, the Packers dropped more than $100 million to improve a defense that finished 22nd in points allowed last year.

Gutekunst’s moves speak to an important storyline in Green Bay. The Packers know that Aaron Rodgers is aging, and he can’t shoulder the load alone any more. After missing the playoffs each of the past two seasons, the team swapped out coaching staffs and finally put real money into free agency. With Rodgers turning 36 years old this season, the urgency is evident.

Factor in the resurgence of the Bears, and it’s high time Green Bay open up the wallet to compete for the NFC North crown.

5. Free agency has reshaped needs for teams at top of draft

All the mock drafts before free agency began? Useless. Time to start over.

For months, many saw the Buffalo Bills taking a wide receiver. Is that still the case after a pair of multi-year deals were handed out to Cole Beasley and John Brown? In Oakland, the offensive-centric free agency period should clearly mean a defensive-heavy draft — unless Kyler Murray beckons.

For the quarterbacks, we can take remove any quarterback from the Jaguars’ board, not that they ever had interest in Murray. With the Miami Dolphins, the trade of Ryan Tannehill to the Titans certainly opens the door for a new face at the game’s ultimate position. However, the Dolphins are well set up to start Ryan Fitzpatrick for a season before going all-in for Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert in 2020.

Finally, the 49ers. Sitting at No. 2, they could have Nick Bosa fall to them. Bosa would pair beautifully with Dee Ford, who was acquired from the Chiefs for a 2020 second-round pick. If the Cardinals take Murray or trade out for someone who will, San Francisco is a beneficiary.

History lesson

We’ve seen some colossal trades go down this month, but nothing topped the all-time deal of Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings.

In 1989, the Dallas Cowboys were headed for a 1-15 season. New head coach Jimmy Johnson knew he needed to revamp what had become an old, slow roster. Using the only major chip he had, Johnson dealt Walker to the Vikings for a slew of draft picks and players.

It remains the smartest structure to a trade in NFL history.

Dallas sent Walker, two third-round picks and a 10th-round choice to Minnesota. In return, the Cowboys received first, second and sixth-round selections in 1990, along with linebackers Jesse Solomon and David Howard, cornerback Isaac Holt, defensive end Alex Stewart and running back Darrin Nelson.

However, each of those players had compensation attached to them. In other words, if the Cowboys cut them at the end of the ’89 season, they got an agreed-to pick for each in the ’91 and ’92 drafts.

Johnson wisely cut all five, netting him a pair of first and second-round picks in each year, along with a third-rounder in ’92. Those choices led directly to Emmitt Smith, Russell Maryland, Darren Woodson and Kevin Smith, jump-starting a dynasty.

Parting shot

The rush of free agency is over, but the best deals may still exist.

Some of the league’s biggest names of the last decade are available, including Justin Houston and Ndamukong Suh. Both could play critical roles on a contender. So where does each fit?

Houston has been a 3-4 outside linebacker his entire eight-year career. He remains a quality pass-rusher, notching nine last season despite missing a month. At 30 years old and with an injury history, a short-term deal with a good team makes the most sense. In that vein, the Steelers would be a smart play, pairing him with T.J. Watt. The Bears would also make sense. Just imagine Houston and Khalil Mack coming off the edges.

As for Suh, a return to the Rams makes ample sense, but let’s assume he moves on. The New Orleans Saints have a need inside with Sheldon Rankins recovering from a torn Achilles. Additionally, the Seattle Seahawks could beef up their interior with the 32-year-old. Suh might not be the dominant force he once was with the Detroit Lions, but in a front seven with Bobby Wagner, Jarran Reed, Frank Clark and K.J. Wright? Absolutely.

Most of the household names are gone, but the few which remain could pay huge dividends come January.

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