Free agency: The time of year when NFL owners and general managers engage in a free-for-all over players whose contracts have just expired. It’s a time of hope, breaking news, and gross overspending. Not every team wades around in the free agency pool, and not every dip into the pool produces great results in the long run. Really, no one can be sure how successful a given acquisition will be until they’ve had the chance to be acclimated into the team.
So to that effect, not all of the winners or losers listed below will remain winners or losers headed into the season. But as we say goodbye to the initial rush of free agency, it’s still fun to see who has gained the most from the market, and who’s been put in an even worse position.
15. Loser – Tony Romo
It looked for a moment like Jerry Jones was actually going to follow through on his word and let Tony Romo leave the Cowboys gracefully. But after the first wave of free agency — and following a heartfelt video goodbye to Dallas fans — Romo is now being dangled as trade bait. After plastering a smile on his face and taking on the role of mentor/all-around good guy last year while the new guy overtook his spot, Romo deserves to choose where he finishes up his career. Sadly, it seems more with each passing day that Jerry isn’t going to let that happen. Maybe worse, the 36-year-old quarterback isn’t drawing much interest from other teams right now, even those in dire need of some veteran insurance under center.
14. Winner – Dak Prescott
Though Tony Romo hasn’t officially departed from the Cowboys, it’s 99.9 percent likely that he’ll be off the roster before draft day comes around. (Then again, since this is Jerry Jones we’re talking about, it wouldn’t completely shock anyone if he milked that 0.01 percent chance for some more press.) Regardless, Dak Prescott should be happy with his current situation. There shouldn’t be any overheated quarterback controversy this year to get in his head, and locking him in at QB1 should allow the coaches and coordinators to gameplan more effectively. Just as importantly, the Cowboys resigned wide receiver Terrance Williams, who became an important piece of the team’s offense down the stretch last season. They also held onto Brice Butler for another one-year, prove-it deal for the meager sum of $1.1 million. Neither of these guys are star receivers by any account, but for Prescott, it might be more important to keep the band together and make him as comfortable as possible so as to avoid a sophomore slump.
13. Loser – Green Bay’s Offensive Line
Just two years ago, the Packers had one of the best offensive lines in the league. Last year, the group still managed to be among the best in the league for pass blocking, despite losing Pro-Bowl left guard Josh Sitton to the Bears. The amount of time they bought Aaron Rodgers deserves much of the credit for the highlight reel of a season A-Rod was able to put together. But now, TJ Lang (another Pro-Bowler) and center JC Tretter are gone as well, leaving some question marks as to how the team will be able to protect their star quarterback. The addition of a couple solid, veteran blocking tight ends — Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks –could help mitigate some of these issues, but Green Bay still needs to find a permanent solution to remedy their sudden dearth of experience on the line. We know Ted Thompson likes to draft the “Best Player Available” rather than any specific need, but if they really want to maximize Rodgers’ prime years, he may want to reach just a bit this year.
12. Winner – The Patriots’ Pro Shop
It seems like 2017 will be yet another high-turnover year in New England. By now everyone should be aware of Bill Belichick’s lack of sentimentality for any of his players not named Tom Brady, and if the beginnings of free agency are any indication, his plug-and-play philosophy will be utilized to its fullest again this year. So far, the Pats have signed former Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore (who will replace Logan Ryan), former Colts tight end Dwayne Allen (who will replace Martellus Bennet), and former Panthers pass rusher Kony Ealy (who will replace Chris Long). They’ve also brought in wide receiver Brandin Cooks, safety Duron Harmon, and defensive end Lawrence Guy, all somewhat underutilized players who should have a chance to become household names under Belichick. This team’s never-ending roster carousel ensures a fresh batch of Pro Shop apparel this season, and Belichick’s propensity for getting the absolute best out of his players means that apparel will be snatched up by fans.
11. Loser – Washington Redskins
It’s not exactly a confidence booster for your fanbase when you fire the GM on the first day of free agency, especially when that GM, who was one of the best talent-evaluators in the league, seemed to be giving his team every chance at a winning future. The Scot McClghan era didn’t last long in Washington, and it ended about as messily as these things can, with internal power struggles and personal demons coming to the forefront because of some nasty public attacks. McLaughlin’s struggles with alcoholism couldn’t be ignored, but surely there was a better way to handle his release. Washington put the franchise tag on their promising young quarterback, but their carousel at defensive line and wide receiver — essentially bringing in Terrell McClain and Stacy McGee to replace Chris Baker, and bringing in Terrell Pryor to fill the gaps left by Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson — seems like a misguided case of management choosing the mystery box instead of the known entity. And too often in this league, it turns out the grass isn’t much greener on the other side.
10. Winner – Martellus Bennett
A lot of folks have been praising Ted Thompson for his unusual venture into the first wave of free agency, securing former Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett to a three-year deal. Getting a guy like Bennett for a cheaper contract than was reportedly offered to Jared Cook might seem like a huge feat for the Packers, but it’s just as big of a coup for Bennett. Fresh off a Super Bowl, playing with perhaps the greatest quarterback of all time, the veteran finds himself with another team of perennial Super Bowl contenders who have maybe the best quarterback playing football right now. Bennett will evidently take over for Cook, who was a favorite target of Aaron Rodgers when healthy, and will earn a nice payday while having a good chance to make it back to the big dance. For a 30-year-old tight end, that’s not something to shake a stick at.
9. Loser – Jay Cutler
The Jay Cutler era in Chicago has officially come to a close. And while many fans rejoice, Cutler begins the potentially frustrating waiting game that is free agency. Like Tony Romo, Cutler can rest assured that he’ll eventually be scooped up by one of the many QB-needy teams out there, but he also has to accept that his landing spot may not be a bastion of success. The Jets, 49ers, Dolphins, and Browns — whose collective 2016 record amounts to 18-46 — are his most likely suitors. So yes, Cutler will likely be employed by a team in 2017 simply because he’s a veteran who’s proven he can sling the ball downfield, but no one’s going to overlook his woeful inadequacy over the past few seasons, either. It’s rare for a 33-year-old quarterback to continue having to prove himself, but that’s the situation Cutler will find himself in, regardless of what team he happens to be playing for.
8. Winner – Mike Glennon
Mike Glennon, a quarterback whose name I repeatedly mistyped as “Mark Glennon” because that’s how vanilla and forgettable the man is, made headlines by scoring himself a hefty payday with the Chicago Bears. After getting their wish to finally move on from the Jay Cutler era, fans are left with a confusing taste in their mouths as they try to understand what to make of the new face of the team. Glennon, meanwhile, is overjoyed at the opportunity in front of him. And why shouldn’t he be? He steps in as the starting quarterback of a franchise who is desperate for any sort of consistency at the position, which means he only has to outplay the ghost of Jay Cutler in order to keep the fans happy. And he’s doing so with a pretty respectable, hungry group of wide receivers to throw to, including new additions Marcus Wheaton and Kendall Wright. Oh, and then there’s that three-year, $45 million contract with $16 million being paid in his first year to get excited about. That means Glennon, who fell off the face of the earth after a decent rookie year in 2013, will earn roughly $28,500 per pass attempt this coming season as the starter. We should all be so lucky as Mark Glennon.
7. Loser – Carolina Panthers
Proving that not all action in free agency is necessarily good action, the Panthers have made some questionable acquisitions thus far. A lot of tackles are getting paid like quarterbacks this year, and one of those QB-level contracts is getting soaked up by the Panthers. Matt Kalil, who comes into this season with a dicey hip and a couple of rough seasons with the Vikings, was signed by the Panthers to a 5-year, $55-million contract with almost half of that figure guaranteed. Kalil, who hasn’t had much of a chance to prove himself in recent years, should have a greater opportunity for success in Carolina, but it’s tough to argue he isn’t being overpaid. The Julius Peppers homecoming is certainly a feel-good story for the pass rusher, but it’s more than fair to wonder if Peppers’ best years are behind him. He recorded 15 tackles and 7.5 sacks last season with the Packers, but the big man was only on the field for just over half of the snaps, a majority of which came later in the year due to other players being injured. Can the 37-year-old keep his motor running for the full season? They also added a 35-year-old safety in Mike Adams, making the Panthers seem like a team intent on getting older and living in the past.
6. Winner – Philadelphia Eagles’ Passing Game
After a promising start to his rookie season, Carson Wentz struggled mightily through the second half of the season. To be fair to Wentz, he had a pretty lackluster supporting cast. Jordan Mathews was his most consistent target by a long shot, and looking down the depth chart at wide receiver would instill a healthy amount of fear in any quarterback, even a veteran. The group was terrible at catching and holding onto the ball all last year. Eagles management went and scooped up a pair of big play receivers, Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. If Jeffrey can still catch those 50/50 balls and Smith can recapture a little of the magic he flashed with the Ravens, the Eagles QB should have plenty of options going into this season. The addition of guard Chance Warmack is intriguing, as well, as the former Titan had some excellent games scattered throughout last season. If he can find a little more consistency, he should give Wentz some more time to throw.
5. Loser – Terrell Pryor
On paper, a move from the Browns, who finished 1-15 last season, to the Redskins, who set multiple franchise records and just missed out on the playoffs, looks like a solid upgrade for the quarterback-turned-wide receiver. But as mentioned previously, he’s walking into one of the most dysfunctional situations in the NFL, with the head office in complete disorder. To make matters worse, he’s doing so on a one-year, prove-it deal. Which means that if the team stumbles into the season still in disarray — a likely scenario — Pryor is going to have a rough go turning this season into a future money-maker. His relative inexperience at the position isn’t going to help his situation. Since making the switch to receiver, Pryor has bounced to and from multiple organizations, and was cut and resigned by the Browns within the same season, making his attempt at finding some security in Washington an unsafe bet.
4. Winner – Jacksonville Jaguars
It happens every year. The free agency moves the Jags make bolster claims that they’re on their way to becoming legitimate contenders in the AFC. But every year, the Jags find a way to put together a losing season and flounder in the worst division in recent history. So it’s with some caution that we announce Jacksonville as “winners” of free agency this year.
Still, it’s tough to ignore the smart decisions they’ve made thus far. The additions of Calais Campbell, A.J. Bouye, and Barry Church should make them one of the most dominant defenses in the league. Was it expensive? Oh god yes. Will it be worth it come September? Practical analysis says absolutely. Acquiring offensive tackle Branden Albert from the Dolphins is a move that flew under the radar, but should make Blake Bortles’ job much easier this year. All in all, the Jaguars are making big splashes in free agency that should pay big dividends, so long as they can make some smart moves in the draft to go along with them.
3. Loser – Robert Griffin III
How long can a quarterback coast on a magical rookie season? That’s a question the RGIII has been unwittingly answering with his steep drop-off in recent years, culminating with his release from the Browns. It has to sting to be constantly reminded of how you were once the most promising rookie quarterback in the league, only to succumb to a knee injury that would derail his career and secure him a spot on the bench for multiple teams. As with Jay Cutler, there will probably be some teams interested in taking on the Griffin experiment, if only because — like all those good girls who fall for the bad boys — they believe they can be the one to change him. But whichever city he lands in, he’ll more than likely be competing for the starting job once again, hoping to recapture just a little bit of the magic he showed the world way back in 2012.
2. Winner – Cleveland Browns Fans
“This might really be our year!” That’s the kind of hope that free agency produces this time of the year, and the way the Browns are going after players and using their borderline-excessive amount of cap space to make moves validates that hope. Any change is good change in Cleveland, who went 1-15 last season, and a whole lotta change happened in the first wave of free agency. Unloading RG3 was a good start, and their deft trade for a 2nd Round pick in 2018 (and Brock Osweiler…kind of), puts the team in a position to gain an embarrassment of riches. They now have hoarded an incredible 11 draft picks in each of the next two drafts, which should give them enough swings at the plate to improve on their unfortunate reputation as one of the worst drafting teams in the league. But they didn’t wait until the draft to start stocking the shelves. The Browns have already signed former Packers center JC Tretter and former Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler, while resigning Joel Bitonio for another five years. They also acquired Kenny Britt, who’s fresh off a 1,000-yard season in a dire Rams offense. Things might actually be looking up in Cleveland.
1. Loser – Brock Osweiler
Brock Osweiler being traded from the Texans to the Browns was a big win for pretty much everyone involved…except Brock Osweiler. Houston was able to admit they’d made a huge mistake in signing the former Broncos backup last year without having to swallow any more of his lucrative contract. The Browns, who started free agency with more cap space than any other team, were able to assume the rest of Osweiler’s contract without breaking the bank and, most importantly, acquired another 2nd-round draft pick in the process. But the Browns don’t actually want him. They just want that draft pick. Which means there’s a very good chance they’ll drop the quarterback like a hot potato, leaving Osweiler, just one year removed from signing a four-year, $72 million contract, to stumble through the free agency wilderness. And coming off what could delicately be described as a “shaky” season, his potential suitors probably won’t be Super Bowl contenders. In fact, there’s a good chance he could find himself battling it out for a starting spot on whichever team he lands.
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