NFL free agency grades 2020: Tom Brady's decision boosts Buccaneers, sinks Patriots
The NFL's newest league year, one unfolding like none previously has in a century of professional football as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread domestically and globally, officially commenced a week ago today. And not only does the NFL landscape look unfamiliar with club facilities shuttered and pre-draft pro days canceled by coronavirus, it's also been radically altered by Tom Brady's stunning decision to leave New England for Tampa Bay.
With most prominent free agents like Brady having decided where they'll be playing in 2020 and beyond and clubs again allowed to execute trades, seemed as good a time as any to start issuing report cards one week after players officially began switching teams.
JOE MONTANA:49ers legend shares insight on Tom Brady's big move
BEST DEALS:Cowboys land two starters on promising contracts
WORST DEALS:10 most questionable signing of NFL free agency
Cleveland Browns: Impressive haul by GM Andrew Berry, who nicely upgraded the roster for coach Kevin Stefanski – like Berry, a rookie. TE Austin Hooper wasn't cheap (4 years, $44 million), but RT Jack Conklin (3 years, $42 million) was a virtual bargain by comparison given outlandish deals other blockers raked in. Case Keenum provides a capable backup plan behind starting QB Baker Mayfield and can help teach the offense after spending time with Stefanski in Minnesota. Berry added extensive depth to the defense with team-friendly deals for LB B.J. Goodson, S Karl Joseph, S Andrew Sendejo, CB Kevin Johnson and DT Andrew Billings while letting other teams overpay for departed LB Joe Schobert and DB Eric Murray. Berry should be able to solve his left tackle problem in the draft but still has the most available cap space in the league, nearly $50 million, if he wants to pursue other avenues ... say, Washington's Trent Williams.
Indianapolis Colts: Three major moves, all by different means. QB Philip Rivers comes aboard for $25 million and might be closer to the 2018 version of himself while being protected by a first-rate offensive line ... which should remain so after LT Anthony Castonzo re-signed for two years. GM Chris Ballard is generally quite measured when it comes to procuring outside talent, but trading his first-round draft pick (No. 13 overall) for DT DeForest Buckner, who also received a four-year, $84 million extension, should be a tremendous boost on the field and in the locker room.
New Orleans Saints: They kept QB Drew Brees with a palatable two-year, $50 million arrangement and also re-signed DT David Onyemata and G Andrus Peat. Throw in the addition of WR Emmanuel Sanders and return of S Malcolm Jenkins, and this has to be considered a pretty sweet haul for the three-time defending divisional champs.
Arizona Cardinals: Snaring all-pro WR DeAndre Hopkins – while unloading RB David Johnson's contract in the process – goes down as the heist of 2020's free agency period ... especially since RB Kenyan Drake, who bears the transition tag, projected as the better backfield fit. On the flip side, GM Steve Keim rewarded LT D.J. Humphries ($45 million), DT Jordan Phillips ($30 million) and LB Devon Kennard ($20 million) with lucrative three-year contracts, any of which could easily prove overly generous.
Minnesota Vikings: They extended QB Kirk Cousins for two more years, franchised underrated S Anthony Harris, added massive DT Michael Pierce and fleeced the Bills by getting a first-rounder and three additional mid-round picks for malcontent WR Stefon Diggs. Cornerback is suddenly a problem, but it was time to dump Xavier Rhodes ... even if it would've been nice to keep Trae Waynes or Mackensie Alexander, who both opted for Cincinnati.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The stunning import of Brady energizes the previously dormant franchise and a fan base now realistically floating Super Bowl aspirations. A defense that retained DL Ndamukong Suh and pass rushers Jason Pierre-Paul and franchise-tagged sack king Shaq Barrett will benefit greatly simply because TB12 won't compromise it the way his predecessor, turnover machine Jameis Winston, did. And GM Jason Licht still has about $20 million to potentially patch holes at running back, defensive back and offensive tackle.
Atlanta Falcons: Shrewdly aggressive. A nifty swap with Baltimore brought former first-round TE Hayden Hurst, who should capably replace Hooper. Dante Fowler could be the multi-faceted edge presence this defense has desperately sought. And switching out RB Devonta Freeman for Todd Gurley (on a $5 million deal) is a sensible gamble despite questions about Gurley's knee.
Baltimore Ravens: A team that appeared Super Bowl-bound in January before getting trucked by Tennessee in the playoffs added talent, toughness and leadership to a fourth-ranked defense by trading for DL Calais Campbell, who cost a mere fifth-round pick. OLB Matt Judon, who had a career-high 9½ sacks in 2019, remains (for now) on the franchise tag. Did hurt to lose G Marshal Yanda to retirement and to have DL Michael Brockers' deal fall through.
Cincinnati Bengals: Let's first give them credit for stepping out of character – which has typically meant sitting on the sidelines during free agency. Cincy won't be moving a ton of jerseys with its additions – that will happen when QB Joe Burrow is drafted – but a defensed ranked 29th last season should be greatly improved with DT D.J. Reader, S Vonn Bell and former Vikes Waynes and Alexander. Reader, who commanded a hefty pact (4 years, $53 million), could be an especially astute pick-up. Franchising WR A.J. Green and cutting OT Cordy Glenn were the right calls.
Dallas Cowboys: Despite being active spenders, they still have about $20 million of cap room for the ongoing quest to get franchise-tagged QB Dak Prescott secured to a long-term extension. And if this offseason winds up being especially abbreviated by coronavirus, Dallas can scarcely afford for Prescott to skip any of it. Re-signing WR Amari Cooper checked off one major objective, while keeping CB Anthony Brown for three years helped blunt the loss of Byron Jones. Joe Looney remains, though will likely again struggle to spell C Travis Frederick, who surprisingly retired. The additions of veteran DTs Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe, along with S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix's arrival, could put the Cowboys back atop the NFC East.
Philadelphia Eagles: GM Howie Roseman is always good for at least one headlining move, and this year it was the acquisition of Pro Bowl CB Darius Slay, who also netted a three-year, $50 million extension after coming over from Detroit. Throw in the cagey signing of slot man extraordinaire Nickell Robey-Coleman and return of Jalen Mills, and the Eagles look quite healthy at corner after being exposed there in 2019. Safety will be an area to watch after Roseman kept Rodney McLeod rather than Jenkins ... though the back end will generally benefit from quiet arrival of pocket crusher Javon Hargrave in the middle of the D-line. Wideout reinforcements will presumably come in the draft.
San Francisco 49ers: It's never easy trying to keep a championship-caliber nucleus together. GM John Lynch managed to re-sign breakout DL Arik Armstead and retain versatile DB Jimmie Ward. But San Francisco had to part with Sanders, a key midseason acquisition and – far more painfully – 2019 team MVP Buckner. But the former team captain did return Indianapolis' first-rounder, a key consideration for Lynch given he's not scheduled to pick in Rounds 2, 3 or 4 this year.
Denver Broncos: Some nice moves, franchising emergent S Justin Simmons, acquiring DL Jurrell Casey for a seventh-rounder and getting a good deal on RB Melvin Gordon (2 years, $16 million). Trading for CB A.J. Bouye while letting Chris Harris get away to the division-rival Chargers and signing C Graham Glasgow to replace Connor McGovern were essentially lateral moves. Getting unsigned DL Shelby Harris back would boost this grade further. Be interesting to see if GM John Elway brings in a big-name passer to challenge sophomore starter Drew Lock.
Los Angeles Chargers: They've made a series of fascinating decisions. With the fairly expensive additions of veteran RT Bryan Bulaga, CB Chris Harris and DT Linval Joseph on top of the trade for Pro Bowl G Trai Turner, the four-year extension given to RB Austin Ekeler and franchise tag applied to TE Hunter Henry – well, you'd think this team was going Super Bowl or bust for Rivers. Except, of course, he's gone ... and the Chargers appear content to roll with last year's backup, Tyrod Taylor, before likely drafting a new quarterback with the No. 6 pick. Overall, compelling if slightly mystifying ... and Rivers' play with the Colts will certainly influence how this gambit is ultimately judged.
New York Jets: GM Joe Douglas has been on the job for nearly a year, but this was his first stab at free agency – and he practiced restraint, a trait rarely used by his predecessors. Knowing this team wasn't a player or two away from the AFC East throne, Douglas either re-signed (OLB Jordan Jenkins, G Alex Lewis, CB Brian Poole) or added (CB Pierre Desir, OT George Fant, McGovern, ILB Patrick Onwuasor, WR Breshad Perriman, G Greg Van Roten) mid-tier veterans. He also cut bait on CB Trumaine Johnson, an albatross left over from previous GM Mike Maccagnan. Losing WR Robby Anderson didn't help, but it was telling how slowly his market developed. Oh, and Douglas still has more than $30 million in the bank – in case he opts to pursue a stud like unsigned DE Jadeveon Clowney – and now has the flexibility to focus on quality players rather than filling needs at draft time.
Tennessee Titans: They bailed on the Brady sweepstakes, opting to re-up QB Ryan Tannehill before the legal tampering window opened March 16. GM Jon Robinson then franchised RB Derrick Henry, though the 2019 rushing leader surely wants an extension more than a $10.3 million tag. Otherwise? Given Robinson still has about $25 million at his fingertips, hard to figure why he gave OT Dennis Kelly a three-year, $21 million deal after letting Conklin leave for Cleveland (3 years, $42 million) – though the numbers square given Kelly is no more than half the player Conklin is. Casey was offloaded, though OLB Vic Beasley ($9.5 million deal for 2020) might be a worthy gamble if coach Mike Vrabel can harness the ability that once allowed the former Falcons first-round pick, still only 27, to lead the league in sacks.
Carolina Panthers: A quarterback room of Teddy Bridgewater and XFL star P.J. Walker feels more appropriate for a rebuilding team than departed Kyle Allen and former MVP and face of the franchise Cam Newton. Adding deep threat Anderson on a bargain two-year, $20 million deal should expand the offense, though now-traded Turner has been far more reliable than new LT Russell Okung.
Kansas City Chiefs: Not much to see here. DT Chris Jones was given the franchise tag, allowing the champs to keep their most important free agent. DB Kendall Fuller went back to Washington while several bottom-of-the-roster players were re-signed. But with virtually no cap room, K.C. will be challenged to lock Patrick Mahomes into an extension – one that will doubtless reset the quarterback market – any time soon.
Pittsburgh Steelers: They didn't have a whole lot of flexibility after tagging OLB Bud Dupree, yet still managed to reel in nice pieces in veteran TE Eric Ebron and OL Stefen Wisniewski. Signing FB Derek Watt to play with brother T.J. was a nice touch. Hargrave will be missed.
Green Bay Packers: They've been as quiet as anybody, giving two-year deals to LB Christian Kirksey and RT Rick Wagner while cutting ties – probably wisely – with Bulaga, TE Jimmy Graham and LBs Blake Martinez and Kyler Fackrell. Sometimes, less is more in the often hazardous free agency game.
Detroit Lions: The Motown Pats scooped up former New England defenders Danny Shelton, Duron Harmon and Jamie Collins, the latter two having previously played for coach Matt Patricia in Foxborough. Newly signed CB Desmond Trufant should capably replace Slay, who couldn't wait to ditch Patricia but brought back a third- and fifth-rounder from Philly. Best move – backup QB Chase Daniel's arrival to a team that went 0-8 without Matthew Stafford in 2019. Most questionable move – OT Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who agreed to a five-year, $45 million windfall despite starting just 20 games for the Eagles.
Los Angeles Rams: Constricted by their cap, they were forced to jettison Gurley, Robey-Coleman and LB Clay Matthews, and GM Les Snead couldn't keep defensive mainstays like Fowler or LB Cory Littleton. Frankly, the Rams did well to add DT A'Shawn Robinson and OLB Leonard Floyd while re-signing LT Andrew Whitworth and G Austin Blythe. Another gift materialized when Brockers' deal with Baltimore disintegrated over concerns about his ankle. The veteran is now returning to the Rams, part of what should be a stout front with Aaron Donald and Robinson. Expect more maneuverings from a team suddenly trying to keep pace in the NFC West a year after losing the Super Bowl.
New York Giants: No major splashes as rookie coach Joe Judge tries to settle in. Martinez and CB James Bradberry agreed to three-year pacts averaging more than eight figures, while DL Leonard Williams was given the franchise tag. Otherwise, it's been a slew of lower-profile veterans, including former Patriots Dion Lewis and Nate Ebner, who should theoretically help Judge implement his program.
Washington Redskins: Led by coach Ron Rivera, the new regime has been thrifty, a contrast for an organization that typically spends freely. The biggest moves were the franchising of G Brandon Scherff, and four-year deal extended to lure Fuller from Kansas City back to the club that drafted him in 2016. Rivera also imported a pair of his former Panthers, LB Thomas Davis and Allen. However getting a fifth-round pick in exchange for quality (if disgruntled) CB Quinton Dunbar seemed insufficient, and there really needs to be a resolution in what feels like an open-ended war with Trent Williams.
Las Vegas Raiders: GM Mike Mayock has been busy, issuing three-year contracts to lesser known defenders Littleton, DE Carl Nassib and LB Nick Kwiatkoski. Mayock also took fliers on former first-rounders he studied closely while at NFL Network, including QB Marcus Mariota, WR Nelson Agholor and CB Eli Apple. Two past-their-prime Cowboys – TE Jason Witten and S Jeff Heath – will join former Dallas DT Maliek Collins as part of the Sin City reboot. Feels "meh" at best as the linebacker corps gets new bodies but the receiving group does not. Mayock may be trending toward being much better at evaluating college players than guys who have been in the league for a while.
Miami Dolphins: Entering free agency with nearly $90 million available to burn, the Fins were aggressive ... but it remains to be seen if they were wise. GM Chris Grier and coach Brian Flores earmarked a lot of dollars in a bid to apparently become Patriots South (Beach), recruiting LBs Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts and C Ted Karras from New England. Former Cowboy Byron Jones landed a five-year, $82.5 million contract, making him the game's highest-paid cornerback and giving Miami a very expensive secondary after Xavien Howard was paid handsomely a year ago. RB Jordan Howard should greatly help the league's worst run game in 2019. However did Grier overcompensate OL Ereck Flowers (3 years, $30 million), DL Shaq Lawson (3 years, $30 million), and DE Emmanuel Ogbah (2 years, $15 million)? Stay tuned.
Buffalo Bills: They made some moves in line with their disciplined approach from recent offseasons, extending underrated S Jordan Poyer through 2022, adding LB A.J. Klein, signing fading veteran CB Josh Norman to a reasonable deal ($6 million in 2020) and loading the D-line with depth (Mario Addison, Vernon Butler and Quinton Jefferson). But why did a club that owned the No. 22 pick in a receiver-rich draft surrender it and three mid-rounders for Diggs, a moody player who's never been to the Pro Bowl and could disrupt a locker room that boasts carefully crafted chemistry? Seems like a highly questionable risk.
Jacksonville Jaguars: They were nicely compensated by getting fourth-round picks back for QB Nick Foles and Bouye while offloading two massive contracts. But why give up Campbell for a song (fifth-rounder) and then invest a double album into Schobert (5 years, $53.75 million). Also headed to Duval County are DL Rodney Gunter and oft-injured TE Tyler Eifert, neither likely to make a huge difference ... but more so than CB Darqueze Dennard, whose agreement to sign fell through Thursday. Yannick Ngakoue got nailed with the franchise tag, but the unhappy pass rusher could still be dealt.
Chicago Bears: After watching QB Mitchell Trubisky regress in 2019, they could have reasonably gotten Newton, Winston or Andy Dalton to push their incumbent. Instead, GM Ryan Pace overpaid for Foles ... after giving pass rusher Robert Quinn, who will be 30 in May, a five-year, $70 million payday and inexplicably presenting the fading Graham a two-year pact for $16 million. Seemed like quite a Hail Mary from Pace, who doesn't own a Round 1 selection as he continues paying off the Khalil Mack trade.
Houston Texans: Sigh. Newly anointed GM Bill O'Brien's decision to trade Hopkins wouldn't have been unconscionable if he'd gotten (far) more than Johnson and a second-rounder from Arizona. Alas. Elsewhere, O'Brien probably forked over too much to DBs Murray (3 years, $20.25 million), who has one interception and 15 starts in four seasons, and Bradley Roby (3 years, $36 million). Ka'imi Fairbairn also became the league's third-highest paid kicker in terms of average annual salary ($4.4 million). Reader, 25, a rising player, was lost to Cincinnati of all teams. Adding WR Randall Cobb hardly compensates.
New England Patriots: Even after inexplicably divorcing themselves from the greatest player in NFL history, they're essentially out of cap space – Brady's exodus a major reason the team is carrying $26 million in dead money – and are apparently hoping QB Jarrett Stidham (or Brian Hoyer) can take over. Even the decision to franchise G Joe Thuney, now poised to make left tackle money in 2020, was a head scratcher. Nice to keep pillars like Devin McCourty and Matthew Slater, but the league's No. 1 defense in 2019 lost quite a few key performers, notably Van Noy, Collins and Harmon. Maybe this will serve as the prime example of Bill Belichick displaying he's smarter than the rest of the league – he'll doubtless be making subsequent transactios – otherwise, the charted course is tantamount to dynasty-demolishing hubris.
Seattle Seahawks: Until the Clowney situation resolves – he's expressed a desire to remain in the Pacific Northwest – too hard to pin down this grade. The trade for Dunbar, additions of TE Greg Olsen and WR Phillip Dorsett, re-signing of DT Jarran Reed and return of LB Bruce Irvin feel "B"-worthy in a vacuum. But the Clowney verdict could range this anywhere from A- to C-.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis
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