Who Fed It & Who Ate It: 2019 NFL Free Agency
Your humble scribe's procrastination this March may have been a bad idea this time around. When The Gridiron Eye pens a fresh column, putting some number of days distance is done by design as to not be greatly influenced by the thrall of the moment. But given the magnitude of the transactions at the beginning of this fiscal year of the NFL, the impact of some have been marginalized due to their particular timing. So, what will occur here is a look at the more prescient signings and trades of this hot stove. One caveat: since the Detroit Lions were aggressively active in this cycle, a Lions Look article will be forthcoming. So, where to begin...
The biggest transaction of this young off-season was in a trade, as Odell Beckham Jr. was dealt from the New York Giants to the Cleveland Browns for safety Jabrill Peppers as well as the Browns first and third round draft picks. Talk about a move no one saw coming. When it came to top tier wide receivers, all the talk was about Antonio Brown, who was shipped to the Oakland Raiders and given a lucrative salary increase. After the Pittsburgh Steelers opted to eat $21 million in dead money just sever ties with a player who was rapidly becoming a locker room virus, conventional wisdom held that it would be foolish for a team to suffer such a penalty on their salary cap just to rid themselves of an obstreperous presence. Giants general manager Dave Gettleman had other ideas. Beckham had publicly maligned teammate and quarterback Eli Manning this past season in an ESPN interview and came emotionally unglued on the sideline of games a couple times. Gettleman has a history of jettisoning malcontents off the rosters he manages in his time with the Carolina Panthers. But would Giants owner John Mara be on board with such a strategy? After watching Beckham be sent east to northern Ohio, we got our answer. But this raises many questions on both parties of this transaction. On the Browns' side, GM John Dorsey pulled a coup to get QB Baker Mayfield a top flight receiver to complement the likes of RB Nick Chubb, TE David Njoku, slot WR Jarvis Landry (Beckham's college teammates at LSU), and RB Kareem Hunt (once Hunt serves his eight game suspension for his involvement in an altercation with a woman in a Cleveland hotel a few months ago). The big question is will they coexist peacefully? Beckham does have the reputation of being a loose cannon, and could become the albatross around the Browns' neck if something goes sideways. But for not only Dorsey, but for a long suffering fan base hungry to be relevant, much less a winner, in the NFL landscape, the rewards far outweigh the risks. If Beckham finds a comfort zone with the Brownies, then Mayfield's right arm may fall off due to exhaustion. Combine that with another Cleveland to New York trade that sent LB Olivier Vernon to the 'Land for OG Kevin Zeitler, and it is unquestioned that the Browns have vastly improved their roster, so much so that the Vegas sportsbooks have installed them as favorites to win the AFC North this coming season (Yes, favorites). As for the Giants, despite the company line about staying competitive and this not being a rebuild... It's a rebuild. The difference between the reality we see on the outside and the perceptions of those on the inside are based on the treatment and statements regarding Manning. Those of us watching the games are of a consensus belief that he is on the rapid downside of his career. The feeling inside the offices in East Rutherford, New Jersey are that Manning is one good offensive line away from entering a career renaissance, one last big push before he rides off into the sunset. Perhaps the Giants will prove us wrong. But skepticism will be strong regarding this one. We'll revisit this trade same time next year.
The Jacksonville Jaguars signed quarterback Nick Foles to a four year, $88 million contract, with $45 million guaranteed. His task: lead the Jags to the Super Bowl. 2018 was a brutal year for the Jaguars. It began in the playoffs, as they were one quarter short of defeating the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game. They re-signed their starting QB Blake Bortles to a two year contract extension, hoping he was becoming the man under center this franchise envisioned when Bortles was drafted third overall in 2014. Instead, he fell apart, so bad so that journeyman signal caller Cody Kessler was starting games in the waning weeks of the season. So Bortles was sent packing, landing in Los Angeles to the Rams' backup to Jared Goff. With that departure, Jacksonville needed a quarterback, so they decided to sign a fat check over to Foles, the hero of the 2018 Philadelphia Eagles' Super Bowl triumph and Super Bowl LII Most Valuable Player. The average yearly salary of $22 million a year is below the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Matt Stafford, Matt Ryan, and Derek Carr. This is no surprise, seeing the fact that Foles was still second on the Eagles' QB depth chart behind Carson Wentz. But make no mistake: dropping that amount of coin on one guy makes the measure of Foles' success in only one metric: getting the Jaguars to the Super Bowl for the first time in their 15 years of existence and bringing the Lombardi Trophy home to northern Florida. Is Foles the guy to do it? The answer lies within the Jaguars' offensive coaching staff. Foles' professional history suggests that if he works closely with a creative offensive mind, especially when they are the head coach, Foles can thrive. If he is playing in a generic offense where he is treated as a cog in a machine, then he will struggle. Consider his best years were in Philadelphia (with head coaches & offensive playcallers Chip Kelly and Doug Pederson), with his worst season was with the St. Louis Rams in 2015 (with defensive oriented Jeff Fisher as head coach and rookie offensive coordinator Rob Boras as playcaller). The good news is that the Jags' offensive coordinator is John DeFilippo, a familiar face to Foles as Defilippo was his quarterbacks coach in Philly in 2017. But will head coach Doug Marrone, who has an offensive background himself, need to interject himself into the unit brain trust for maximize his new qb's potential? Plus, Defilippo was exiled from Minnesota as OC due to disappointing results with their free agency splurge in QB Kirk Cousins. Can Defilippo redeem himself in Jacksonville? How the Jaguars do in 2019 will offer insight into their near future. If they have a bounce back campaign, make the playoffs, and possibly win a game or two in January, then the investment in Foles was money well spent. If Jacksonville goes nowhere or gets worse, then not only will Foles be criticized heavily, but Marrone, general manager Dave Caldwell, and executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin will be squarely on the hot seat. To go from a game away from a conference title to back in the muck of losing football was not what owner Shahid Khan signed on for when he brought back Coughlin to resurrect the Jaguars to their past successes in the late 1990's. And it is difficult to say if Khan will be as patient as he was with former coach Gus Bradley, who was given 4 1/2 years before the plug was pulled. A lot is riding on Foles and the 2019 Jacksonville Jaguars, from a potential playoff push to a large scale organizational purge and everything in between is out there. We'll see on which part of that spectrum this team lands.
Meanwhile, in NFC, three teams were aggressive in signing free agents and orchestrating trades: The Philadelphia Eagles... No surprise here. Vice president of football operations Howie Roseman has been proactive in filling in holes on the roster while mastering salary cap machinations to open up cap space to bring in those new parts to keep that Eagle engine humming. This time around, the defensive line rotation was upgraded with the acquisition of DT Malik Jackson, picked up SS Andrew Sendejo from the cap strapped Minnesota Vikings to shore up the secondary, which was riddled with injuries this past season, pulled the trigger on a trade that sent a sixth round draft pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for WR DeSean Jackson & a seventh round selection, and worked out a deal with the Chicago Bears that brought in RB Jordan Howard for a sixth round draft pick that could escalate it to a fifth rounder. And oh by the way, when Philly started the fiscal year, they had about $10 million in cap space to go shopping. The players landed by Roseman bring in veterans who have postseason experience and still have plenty to offer. Consider the Eagles the favorites to win the NFC East and be a legitimate challenger to win the conference.
... the San Francisco 49ers... The Niners' 2018 campaign was derailed due to injuries, and GM John Lynch is responding by not letting his foot off the accelerator. He bolstered the defense by bringing in LB Kwon Alexander from Tampa Bay and trading with the Kansas City Chiefs to get DE Dee Ford for the price of a second round draft pick in 2020. The offense got a boost by acquiring RB Tevin Coleman from the Atlanta Falcons. Each one of these guys will have a different light shining on them in the fall, as Alexander will be the quarterback of the defense as the Mike linebacker, Ford will be the primary pass rusher instead of a complementary piece of the unit, and Coleman will be teaming up with Matt Brieda in the offensive backfield to give returning QB Jimmy Garappolo a ground game that will be vital in assisting a young passer in keeping defenses honest as he gets acclimated to the field of play after missing last season with an ACL tear. If these pieces fall in place, the 49ers could challenge for the NFC West crown.
... and the Green Bay Packers. That is not a auto-correct error. Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst is blazing his own trail with this signature NFL franchise and endearing himself with Packer Backers far and wide by doing something his predecessor Ted Thompson was unwilling to do: spend serious money on free agents. Once the smoke cleared, the contracts of edge rushers Za'Darius Smith & Preston Smith, safety Adrian Amos, and offensive lineman Billy Turner totaled $182 million (provided all contracts go to expiration) with $56 million paid out in signing bonuses, which is the lion's share of a player's guaranteed money. All these additions are targeted to improve lagging units. Both Smiths will bring in a sorely needed pass rush with the Pack facing the likes of Kirk Cousins, Matt Stafford, and Mitch Trubisky twice a year. Amos coming aboard will give a veteran presence to a secondary that is as green as the jerseys they sport. And Turner will fill in at guard to stabilize the line tasked with protecting the Packers' most valuable commodity in QB Aaron Rodgers. For the first time in a long time, one can come to the conclusion that Titletown has improved their roster before the April draft. It's hard to say if it will be a difference maker that will propel them back to the top of the NFC North food chain, but they've certainly done what they could to avoid becoming prey in a combative division.
And in a piece of news that is regrettable to denote...
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was arraigned on solicitation as one many defendants in a sex trafficking sting operation in central Florida. It should be stated that Kraft was a client of a massage parlor that was the focus of a joint law enforcement operation that was investigating prostitution and a potential sex trafficking ring by the owners of the established business, not on Kraft himself. That said, he was arrested on two counts of solicitation of a prostitute, which is a misdemeanor offense in the Sunshine State. The longtime Patriots owner is showing two faces on this episode. Privately, in front of the league owners during the NFL annual meeting in Phoenix, he has apologized for his involvement in this activity, showing contrition in front of his peers and maintaining a low profile during those meetings, which is different from the past, as his presence on many key leagues committees and willingness to speak to the football media covering the event was a glaring absence. The other face, the one being led by his legal team in Florida, is fighting these charges tooth and nail, with his attorneys aggressively passing multiple motions to suppress evidence collected over the course of the investigation due to malfeasance in either application of surveillance warrants or law enforcement's interest in Kraft based on police contact in an unrelated instance. But there are two questions that beg to be asked. One, will commissioner Roger Goodell sanction Kraft if the justice system does not receive a guilty verdict or plea agreement? NFL players have been reprimanded for violations of the league's Personal Conduct Policy in terms of games suspended and the loss of correlating pay, even if a jurisdictionally responsible entity has not made a judicial determination against them. If Goodell, whose credibility in disciplinary affairs is specious at best, decides to either suspend or censure one of the NFL's most powerful and high profile owners, then Goodell must make a just and measured punishment. If it is too lenient, then there are two standards of conduct, one for the powerful owners and a more aggressive and punitive one for labor. If it is too harsh, it comes off as reactionary, making an example of the franchise, one that has become the envy of the league due to its unprecedented successes. And two, what sanction would fit the crime? Whichever type is considered, other questions arise. If it is a fine, how much hurts a billionaire? If it's a suspension, to what degree is Kraft separated from his team? If it's in draft picks, should the team on the field pay for the mistakes of its owner off of it? And just to address the moronic notion that this offense is sufficient evidence to either revocate the Patriots' membership charter or force the sale of the franchise is ludicrous. The value of the franchise, which is in the billions, would trigger a lawsuit not before seen in the realm of professional American sports. Whatever direction the esteemed commissioner goes in this ignominious saga, expect the microscope to be highly magnified given the relationship between the two well known personalities in the power structure of the NFL. We'll see what will occur in the future as this matter winds through the courts... then at the doorstep of 345 Park Avenue in New York.