Musings, observations and the occasional insight on a frenetic and headline-filled first day of the league’s free agency period...
• Of all the unexpected NFL developments on Wednesday, nothing quite rivaled the surprise factor in Denver, where the two old quarterbacks—general manager John Elway and head coach Gary Kubiak—are now in the market for two new quarterbacks, after watching both Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler walk away in different fashions in the span of about 50-plus hours.
Elway and his defense-led Broncos earned their Super Bowl ring last month, and it apparently imbued them with enough confidence that they’re willing to step off the game’s most daunting cliff imaginable without a net, heading into the league’s new year with no viable starting quarterback option. It’s almost refreshing in its boldness and daring.
Nothing like turning the page on last year in stunning fashion for the defending Super Bowl champions, who become only the second Super Bowl winner in league history to enter the following season without either of their top two quarterbacks, joining the 2001 Baltimore Ravens, who bade farewell to Trent Dilfer and Tony Banks.
It’s a long way from March 9 until the NFL’s opening game of the 2016 season, of course, and yes, 2015 seventh-round pick Trevor Siemian remains on the QB depth chart. But I think it’s fair to say that the afterglow phase of the post-Super Bowl honeymoon just ended in Denver with Osweiler’s departure to Houston. If you think the Broncos proved they could win the biggest prize despite so-so to sub-standard quarterbacking last season, just imagine the challenge they might face this year, without either of the passers who helped them win 15 games in the 2015 season.
Whether Denver winds up looking disciplined or delusional for the decision to not go all-out to keep Osweiler, only time will tell. But this much is clear: Elway showed once again he’s not going to be held hostage by conventional wisdom when it comes to the quarterback position. And you’ve got to trust his track record at this point.
He didn’t give in to Tebow-mania when Peyton Manning became available in early 2012. He didn’t give in to fealty to Manning’s past greatness when he asked No. 18 to accept a $4 million pay cut to return for the 2015 season. And he didn’t give in to Osweiler having the leverage of being able to generate a four-year, $72 million offer from the Texans, one that included a whopping $37 million guaranteed. Especially when Osweiler was giving the Broncos every indication he didn’t really want to be in Denver next season, or take on the burden of being the quarterback who replaced Manning.
Elway stuck to his guns and his plan for his starting quarterback vacancy, and at the moment you’d have to give him the benefit of the doubt when stacked up against the recent inability of the Texans to find a long-term answer at the position. That’s what a Super Bowl title and two trips to the big game in the past three seasons has earned him, the right to view Osweiler’s value differently than did Houston, even in a quarterback-thin market.
What does Denver do now at the game’s most crucial position? I’m not quite sure, but I have a feeling that panic won’t be among the possible options. Maybe the Broncos take a fresh look at Ryan Fitzpatrick, the 33-year-old free agent quarterback who turned in a career year with the Jets last season and who appears to be engaged in a battle with New York to see who blinks first. Maybe they make a deal for the 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick, or sign former Washington starter Robert Griffin III. The acquisition of one of those veterans, along with the use of the Broncos’ No. 31 draft pick on a quarterback like Michigan State’s Connor Cook or Memphis’s Paxton Lynch, could change the dynamic in Denver pretty quickly.
It’s important to remember that while the Broncos liked Osweiler’s upside, they also knew his weaknesses, and obviously felt that seven career starts on a team that was largely carried by its defense did not make him deserving of a blank check. The Texans, whose owner, Bob McNair, gave voice to his team’s desperation at quarterback earlier this off-season, felt otherwise.
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In Denver, the team has put its trust in the two old quarterbacks, and that has worked out pretty darn well so far. Even if very few of us thought the Broncos, just a month after their Super Bowl victory, would find themselves in need of two new quarterbacks.
• So much for a sense of complete clarity on the Eagles quarterback front, but really, hasn’t that pretty much been the state of things in Philadelphia ever since Andy Reid spent a second-round pick on Kevin Kolb in 2007, even with franchise arm Donovan McNabb firmly in place as a starter?
I really like the Eagles’ going out and signing Chiefs backup Chase Daniel to a three-year, $21 million deal on Wednesday, because when has Sam Bradford ever really inspired long-term confidence from anyone? Injuries and bouts of ineffectiveness have been a staple of Bradford’s game, and even though he’s in line for $36 million over the next two seasons, it’s a smart move for the Eagles to give themselves a 1A-type of option at quarterback. When you factor in Daniel’s three years of experience in the offense run by new Philly head coach Doug Pederson—Daniel’s offensive coordinator in Kansas City—the Eagles just acquired a passer who could well wind up being more adept in their new system than Bradford.
• The Eagles also get high marks from me for their work on the trade front. Yes, they gave away DeMarco Murray to Tennessee for little more than a “pretty please” and a “thank you,” moving up just 13 slots in the fourth round of the draft by swapping picks with the Titans. But they’re out from under the big contract they unwisely gave him last year in that Chip Kelly off-season of intrigue, and that’s an addition by subtraction.
And Philadelphia’s best maneuver was two more salary dumps in shipping the underachieving Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso to Miami in exchange for moving from No. 13 to the Dolphins’ No. 8 position in the first round. That’s a potentially huge jump into this year’s top 10, and it might even put the Eagles in position to nab one of the top two quarterbacks in the draft, either Carson Wentz or Jared Goff. Other blue-chip prospects who might now be in their wheelhouse include athletic UCLA linebacker Myles Jack, Notre Dame offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves or Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott.
For two players the Eagles clearly didn’t want any more, given that they arrived during the club’s Kelly era and thus were in line to be scrubbed from the roster by Philly’s new/old front office regime, that’s a pretty good return on a couple of spare parts.
• That said, the Titans got themselves exactly the kind of proven and productive No. 1 running back they needed in Murray, despite his lost season in Philadelphia last year. Murray will be the hard-nosed, tough rusher that head coach Mike Mularkey will lean on to help take pressure off second-year quarterback Marcus Mariota, and I’ll be willing to bet the Titans aren’t bluffing when they talk about turning him back into a “workhorse” rusher.
Murray may not equal his 2014 production, when he led the league in rushing with 1,845 yards on a 4.7-yard average, but you can put it in writing that his 2016 statistics will come closer to those numbers than his disappointing 2015 performance (702 yards, 3.6).
• Giants general manager Jerry Reese certainly proved he knows which way the wind is blowing with his team’s massive free-agent spending spree. Not that massive free-agent spending sprees usually end well for those conducting them. But New York’s expenditures on defense underline that Reese’s job is on the line if the Giants don’t return to the playoffs in 2016, so there was more than an element of desperation in the addition of Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins, Dolphins defensive end Olivier Vernon and Jets defensive tackle Damon Harrison, along with the re-signing of defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul to a one-year deal.
Giving the inconsistent Jenkins a contract calling for more than $12 million a year borders on absurdity, but Vernon’s deal was even more astounding, with $52.5 million of guarantees. On the surface, the moves make New York’s liability on defense seem a distant memory, and that should translate into a winning season this year and continued job security for Reese.
But we know that upgrades on paper don’t always translate to upgrades on the field, and that’s where the $114 million in guarantees that New York’s handed out thus far are somewhat ironic—because nothing about first-day free agent activity guarantees success.
Jenkins looks to me like this year’s Byron Maxwell, a good-but-not-great cornerback who got paid as if he’s elite. Jenkins entered the NFL in 2012 as a second-round pick with red-flag character issues, and for the most part he has made those issues go away in St. Louis. But as one league source told me Wednesday, “Jenkins in the New York market could be a problem, because of the city’s many distractions and temptations.” The Giants’ best hope is that big money and a big market don’t prove more than Jenkins can handle. And with that price tag, New York needs Jenkins to get off to a strong start to the season, to avoid having something of a bullseye on his back even before his Giants career gets fully underway.
• What happened to the notion that the Browns and new coach Hue Jackson would raid his old team, the Bengals, for a significant talent infusion? Didn’t happen on Wednesday. Instead there was a mass exodus of proven Cleveland players, while the Browns somehow held onto enigmatic quarterback Johnny Manziel for the time being. Go figure.
Despite new Browns VP of football operations Sashi Brown saying at last month’s NFL combine that “it’s important to keep our own” free agents, Cleveland watched former Pro Bowl center Alex Mack sign with Atlanta, receiver Travis Benjamin bolt for San Diego, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz leave for Kansas City and safety Tashaun Gipson join Jacksonville.
That’s a quadruple whammy for the Browns, even with their history of bracing for and enduring the worst-case scenario. So far, the presence of Jackson as the team’s coach hasn’t proven a benefit in terms of players wanting to stay in Cleveland.
• The Dolphins are another team that always seem to be snake-bit in free agency, and I don’t get how they decided ex-Bills defensive end Mario Williams was a good bet at this stage of his career, even with a two-year, $17 million team-friendly deal that can be gotten out of fairly easily after 2016.
Williams didn’t just mail in his efforts and complain about his role in 2015 under Rex Ryan—Bills sources have told me that he was seen as part of the problem in Buffalo for at least two years now, and maybe longer. Williams said he chose Miami in part because of owner Stephen Ross’s enthusiasm during his free agent visit. But the Dolphins will be lucky if Williams shows as much enthusiasm on Sundays, because that part of his game has been lacking for a while now.
• Guard Kelechi Osemele is a good young player the Ravens drafted, developed and would have loved to keep. But there’s no way Baltimore was going to compete with Oakland offering Osemele more than $11 million a year, which was at least $3 million more per year than the Ravens were willing to pay.
The Raiders reportedly will play him at left tackle, and paid him as if he already has a proven track record at that key position. But he’s only played four games at tackle in his career and spent the rest of his time at guard. And if he proves only to be a middle-of-the-road talent at tackle, Oakland will have badly miscalculated.
The Raiders had a crazy amount of cap room and had to spend a good deal of it, so Osemele was the benefactor of that reality. But with his history of back issues, and occasional inconsistent play, Osemele made it tough for the Ravens to invest in him given their cap constraints. Oakland went overboard in order to land him, and succeeded. But making him one of the five highest-paid offensive linemen in the league made little sense based on his history.
• It looks like Mike Wallace and Greg Jennings are destined to be linked in history. Both of the one-time star receivers signed big-money free agent deals in 2013, with Wallace joining the Dolphins after being drafted by Pittsburgh and Jennings joining the Vikings after being drafted by Green Bay.
Both players lasted two years with their new teams, then switched cities, with Wallace being traded to Minnesota in March 2015 and Jennings being released by the Vikings and signing with Miami that same month, after Minnesota acquired Wallace.
Now they’re both back on the market after being released this year by the Vikings and Dolphins, respectively. Wallace is attracting decent interest from Baltimore, but if the Ravens sign him, it’ll likely be a relatively low-cost deal, with the hope that he can add some field-stretching verticality to Baltimore’s passing game, the way Torrey Smith once did before joining San Francisco last year.
They both got paid in free agency three years ago, but the grass hasn’t been so green for either receiver since Wallace left Pittsburgh and Jennings exited Green Bay. Maybe sticking with Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers as their quarterbacks would have been the wiser move.
• Quite the week for quarterbacks in the draft class of 1998 to call it quits. First Peyton Manning said goodbye to the NFL, and Wednesday brought the curtain down on Matthew Hasselbeck’s career, with the former Packer-Seahawk-Titan-Colt announcing he’s leaving the game after 18 seasons in order to join ESPN as an analyst on Sunday Countdown.
Hasselbeck had a superb run after entering the league as a sixth-round pick in 1998, and he’ll be just as good on TV, if not better, given that he’s one of the most eloquent and entertaining talkers in the game, with a gift for great story-telling. In some ways, Manning and Hasselbeck both took really memorable final bows in the 2015 season, with Hasselbeck keeping the Colts’ season afloat at age 40 with five wins in eight starts in place of the injured Andrew Luck.