Five things we've learned now that NFL free agency has officially begun

Nate Davis

The NFL's new league year is only 24 hours old, but we've already learned a fair amount since free agency officially began at 4 p.m. ET Wednesday (though it feels like it effectively started the moment J.J. Watt broke up with the Houston Texans last month).

Still, there's been plenty to glean in the past day (read: weeks) as all 32 teams retool for the 2021 season. And though it will probably be at least another week until we see the bigger picture – and more than a month before the draft fully shapes the offseason – here are five things that have already become apparent:

QB Andy Dalton (14) and pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue are among NFL players already on the move now that free agency has kicked off.

Pass rushers get paid

It's generally all about the quarterback(s) when it comes to the NFL. But put the passers aside for a second and ask yourself wha the next most-important position is? Well, if recent drafts hadn't given you the answer – a pass rusher has been the first or second overall pick in four of the last eight drafts, and all of them have had one in the top five – then hopefully the dollars being collected by defensive ends and edge linebackers in recent days have made it clear where general managers' priorities lie. Heck, many league observers were surprised (but perhaps shouldn't have been) when Watt commanded $23 million guaranteed over two years from Arizona even as he closes in on his 32nd birthday with a body battered by a decade in the league.

Since then, the Titans' Bud Dupree, Buccaneers' Shaq Barrett, Panthers' Haason Reddick, Bengals' Trey Hendrickson, Patriots' Matt Judon and Deatrich Wise, Jets' Carl Lawson, Raiders' Yannick Ngakoue, Lions' Romeo Okwara, Giants' Leonard Williams and Cardinals' Watt have commanded contracts totaling north of a half-billion dollars.

As late Raiders owner Al Davis once said, "The quarterback must go down, and he must go down hard" ... along with every team's cap space as room is allotted for QB hunters.

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Wide receiver market slow to develop

As badly as pass rushers were coveted, this year's free agent wideouts haven't felt the love ... not yet anyway.

Sure, Tampa Bay franchised Chris Godwin, and the Bears tagged Allen Robinson. Meanwhile, Corey Davis (Jets) and Curtis Samuel (Washington) have agreed to three-year deals that will pay roughly $12 million per. Will Fuller V took a one-year offer from Miami.

But it doesn't appear anyone will sniff the top of the positional market that pays upward of $20 million annually for elite pass-catchers.

In the meantime, guys like Antonio Brown, Kenny Golladay, T.Y. Hilton, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Sammy Watkins wait ... perhaps to their own peril given the draft once again appears loaded with highly capable receivers.

Where are the big spenders?

As of Monday afternoon, when teams were allowed to initiate negotiations with pending free agents on other clubs, ten (49ers, Bengals, Browns, Chargers, Colts, Dolphins, Jaguars, Jets, Patriots and Washington) had at least $31 million in available cap space.

But though those organizations have made some significant investments – the Bolts and Niners notably resourcing their offensives lines – only the Patriots have (uncharacteristically) gone whole hog, freely spending to upgrade their roster on both sides of the ball in the wake of a playoff-less, Brady-less 7-9 2020 campaign.

The Jets and Jags still have more than $40 million available, per Over The Cap, while the Colts and Panthers each carry more than $30 million apiece. It should be interesting to see how subsequent waves of spending unfold with talents like Jadeveon Clowney, Anthony Harris, Alejandro Villanueva and the aforementioned receivers still waiting for new revenue streams.

But despite a COVID-depressed cap, this quickly appears to be pivoting into a buyers' market.

Las Vegas needs bodyguards

It wasn't that long ago when the Raiders boasted one of the league's elite offensive lines. But, with the exception of left tackle Kolton Miller, GM Mike Mayock essentially put the entire group on the block ... and ultimately traded Pro Bowl center Rodney Hudson (Cardinals), guard Gabe Jackson (Seahawks) and right tackle Trent Brown (Patriots).

And we thought the Silver and Black had defensive issues ...

Yes, quarterbacks still move the needle

For now, no blockbuster moves have coalesced for disgruntled quarterbacks Deshaun Watson or Russell Wilson – though apparently the Bears pushed hard for the Seahawks' Wilson before ultimately making an offer Seattle could refuse.

Still, it didn't take long for a group of mid-tier field generals to find work – Andy Dalton seemingly moving atop Chicago's depth chart, while Ryan Fitzpatrick did the same in Washington. After a year apprenticing behind Drew Brees, Jameis Winston will indeed get a redemptive opportunity in New Orleans, while Cam Newton gets a similar second chance in New England.

Even Jacoby Brissett quickly slid into Fitzpatrick's vacated backup role in Miami and could get another shot if Tua Tagovailoa founders in Year 2. Mitchell Trubisky? He's apparently taking the Winston route, headed to Buffalo for a career rehab year behind Josh Allen while hoping for a fresh opportunity in 2022.

Trevor Lawrence is expected to become Jacksonville's QB1 on draft night, but that still leaves teams like the Jets, Falcons, Eagles, Panthers, 49ers, Patriots, Bears and Saints surely weighing their options under center – and turning to the draft to do so.

Meanwhile Alex Smith, Joe Flacco, Robert Griffin III and Brian Hoyer remain the most high-profile unsigned vets.


Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.

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