NFL Free Agency: Winners and Losers (So Far)
NFL Free Agency: Winners and Losers (So Far)

This article is part of our NFL Free Agency series.

You've probably heard some version of the saying about winners in March being losers come September and October. Dan Snyder, with his brutal track record of pricey free-agent flameouts, may singlehandedly be responsible for this cliché. There is an element of truth to the idea, partially because the best teams use up most of their cap space re-signing their own starters, which then leaves franchises with less talent to duke things out at the top of the free agent market.

It's easy enough to look at a list of 'additions' and 'departures' and decide which teams got better or worse on paper. But really, should we consider a franchise a "winner" if it overspends on good but not great players that can drag a roster from bad to mediocre? While fans might appreciate those upgrades in the short term, the difference between 5-11 and 7-9 doesn't mean much if it isn't optimizing the chances for Super Bowl glory — or at least a decent playoff run — at some point in the not-so-distant future.

Looking at recent trades and the first week of free agency, my goal is to pinpoint the teams that moved closer or further away from that ultimate goal of winning a ring (be it in 2020 or 2023). And, of course, Rotowire is still a fantasy sports website, so we'll also take a look at how the recent transactions have impacted individual players.

The Winners

    

New Orleans Saints

The Saints will bring back every starter on offense besides Ted Ginn, who was replaced with an upgrade in Emmanuel Sanders. A five-year, $57.5 million contract for LG Andrus Peat does seems a bit rich, but you can afford to slightly overpay for continuity when all your chips are in the middle for the upcoming season. It's a similar story on defense, where the Saints are losing S Vonn Bell, CB Eli Apple and LB A.J. Klein but adding S Malcolm Jenkins. The Saints have Janoris Jenkins on hand to replace Apple at cornerback, and Klein was arguably the team's worst starter anyway. Good luck finding a weakness on this roster.

    

Buffalo Bills

Tom Brady is gone, Josh Allen is still on his rookie contract, and neither the Dolphins nor Jets looks like a serious threat to win more than seven games. It'll be tough to win the AFC with Allen at quarterback when the other top contenders have Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth an aggressive shot if the opportunity is there (and it is).

The biggest addition, of course, is Stefon Diggs, who heads to Buffalo with four years and $47.5 million remaining on his contract. It's worth giving up a first-round pick and a few late-round selections to get Diggs at that price, even if he's likely to ask for a new deal within the next few years.

The Bills' other offseason moves haven't received nearly as much attention, but I thought they did well to swap out DE Shaq Lawson (Dolphins) and DT Jordan Phillips (Cardinals) for DE Mario Addison, DT Vernon Butler and DE/DT Quinton Jefferson, essentially adding three solid bodies for the same price it would've cost to retain two of their own guys. Bonus points for adding Josh Norman, who can compete with Levi Wallace to shore up the one shaky spot in an otherwise pristine secondary.

Plus, the Bills still have approximately $22.5 million in cap space, sporting a balanced sheet where no one player has a cap hit above $11.625 million for 2020. They may not have a first-round pick, but they also don't have any glaring holes (besides Allen) and have plenty of room to add depth or even make another splash.

      

Minnesota Vikings

This is where I need to specify that I'm only judging recent moves. The Vikings made some big mistakes the past few years, ranging from Mike Zimmer's insistence on dictating strategy to his offensive coordinators (which may have cost them Diggs) to overpaying to re-sign LB Anthony Barr. But if we only look at what's happened this offseason, GM Rick Spielman has done a nice job resisting the temptation to continue with a full throttle win-now strategy.

The Vikings took that approach the past two years but failed to recapture the magic of 2017, despite Kirk Cousins being an upgrade on Case Keenum. While Cousins has taken much of the blame, he's essentially been the same guy we saw in Washington — an above-average QB, not a great one. Meanwhile, the Minnesota defense has declined from great to merely good, and the offensive line hasn't been able to recapture its smoke-and-mirrors magic from 2017.

It's similar to what happened in Seattle a couple years ago when the L.O.B. defense started to decline but still accounted for a huge portion of the team's salary allocation. Rather than ponying up more cash to keep the gang together, GM John Schneider got rid of some of the older guys and focused on rebuilding the team around his franchise quarterback. Cousins is no Russell Wilson, but it looks like a similar strategy of rebuilding the team without fully punting on a season.

To that end, the Vikings finally got rid of disappointing CB Xavier Rhodes, and they did well to get a first-round pick and more in exchange for the disgruntled Diggs (a win-win trade, considering the WR wanted out). The mini-purge then continued with 32-year-old DE Everson Griffen, who remains an effective pass rusher but was blocking Ifeadi Odenigbo — seven sacks on 368 snaps last year — from a starting job.

Spielman even prioritized youth with his one pricey signing, bringing in 27-year-old DT Michael Pierce to replace 31-year-old Linval Joseph. The Pierce addition shows that the Vikings haven't given up on 2020, perhaps hoping internal improvement and a strong draft can keep them around 10-win territory. The team can then reach greater heights in 2021and beyond, boosted by its plethora of 2020 draft picks.

     

QB Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals

The 2019 Cardinals allotted 455 offensive snaps to Damiere Byrd, 371 to KeeSean Johnson, 257 to Trent Sherfield and 225 to Pharoh Cooper. Much of that work will now go to DeAndre Hopkins, who appears well on his way to the Hall of Fame after averaging 1,372 yards and 10.3 touchdowns the past three seasons. The Cardinals' blocking still looks mediocre, but they could get a prime OT prospect at No. 8 overall — as is the case in Mario Puig's latest mock draft.

      

QB Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns

In addition to a much-needed coaching change, the Browns made a splash early in free agency with the signings of TE Austin Hooper and RT Jack Conklin. Both players were arguably the best at their respective positions among the free agent crop, and both fill clear needs in the Cleveland offense. I don't think Hooper is quite worthy of a four-year, $42 million contract, but his presence improves Mayfield's appeal as a post-hype sleeper.

     

QB Gardner Minshew, Jacksonville Jaguars

There is some chance of the Jaguars drafting a quarterback, but there's no question Minshew has a better shot at the Week 1 starting job now that Nick Foles is out of the picture. As a bonus, the Jags signed tight end Tyler Eifert, who may be injury-prone and past his prime but nonetheless profiles as a major upgrade on last year's disastrous TE pupu platter in Jacksonville. A pass-catching corps with Eifert, DJ Chark, Dede Westbrook, Chris Conley and Keelan Cole is actually pretty solid, especially if Chark continues to develop into a legit No. 1.

     

WRs Will Fuller + Kenny Stills, Houston Texans

The Hopkins trade may be a disaster for Houston fans, but it creates a nice opportunity for a pair of talented wide receivers that are entering contract seasons. While they might take a hit in terms of per-target efficiency without Hopkins impacting coverages, a 1,000-yard season would be quite useful at the negotiating table for either Fuller or Stills. Plus, their season might end in late December instead of early January, freeing up another week or two for vacation.

   

QB Teddy Bridgewater, Carolina Panthers

I don't quite understand how Bridgewater landed a large contract in a market where Cam Newton, Jameis Winston and Andy Dalton can't even find a starting job. But, that's precisely what happened, and the three-year, $63 million deal even includes $33 million guaranteed, which means Bridgewater will stay in Carolina for at least two seasons unless he's truly brutal in 2020. 

The 27-year-old gets to work with coach Matt Rhule and wunderkind OC Joe Brady, throwing passes to D.J. Moore, Christian McCaffrey, Robby Anderson and Curtis Samuel while playing for a team that has no pressure to win more than five or six games. With a strong group on offense and a barebones ensemble on defense, the Panthers are a good bet to rank top 10 in pass:run ratio.

    

QB Jarrett Stidham, New England Patriots

I don't believe for a second that the Patriots will move forward with only Stidham and Brian Hoyer at quarterback. In fact, I'd try to sell high if I owned Stidham in any dynasty leagues, anticipating that Bill Belichick will sign another veteran or pick a QB within the first few rounds of the 2020 draft. However, this is an article about offseason winners/losers, not an article about dynasty advice, and there's no question Tom Brady's departure increases the odds of Stidham making NFL starts.

    

RBs Darrell Henderson + Malcolm Brown, Los Angeles Rams

This is another situation where we'll likely see competition added, but I don't expect it to be anyone formidable, considering the Rams have multiple areas of need and don't have the draft capital or cap space to address every problem. Henderson is the guy with fantasy upside, while Brown may be boring but also has a nice opportunity ahead to earn playing time. Just remember this isn't the same Rams team that helped Todd Gurley score 40 TDs in 29 regular-season games between 2017 and 2018. The offensive line and defense both have taken a step back.

    

The Losers

    

Los Angeles Rams

Just to be clear, I don't blame the Rams for being uber-aggressive the past few years when they had a clear window to win a championship. Unfortunately, they didn't do the best job deciding which players to pay vs. which not to pay, and in a few cases were overly generous with the timing and terms of contract extensions.

What's left behind is an awkward situation where it feels like there's too much high-level talent to get started on a full rebuild, but not enough roster depth to compete for a division title in the brutal NFC West. The Rams could've restructured contacts to free up cap space, converting 2020 base salaries into signing bonuses in the usual method teams use to kick the can down the road. They then would've been able to re-sign some of their key free agents, or at least had a chance to secure comparable replacements. 

Instead, Rams GM Les Snead made a tough decision to cut Gurley but otherwise mostly stood pat as a slew of talented players walked away. The Rams' offseason losses (Gurley, Cory Littleton, Dante Fowler, Clay Matthews, Eric Weddle) comfortably outweigh their additions (Leonard Floyd, A'Shawn Robinson), and they already gave up their first-round pick in the Jalen Ramsey trade.

 Snead isn't ready to rebuild but also doesn't want to sink further into cap hell. Personally, I think he should pick one of the two, because the current setup reeks of 8-8.

    

Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys managed to avoid disaster when they franchise-tagged Dak Prescott and re-signed Amari Cooper, but they've nonetheless suffered a major talent drain this offseason, losing CB Byron Jones (Dolphins), DE Robert Quinn (Bears) and C Travis Frederick (retirement). Even with DTs Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe headed to Dallas in the second wave of free agency, the losses outweigh the gains. I still don't understand why Jerry Jones wasn't willing to match the five-year, $82.5 million contract Byron Jones signed with Miami.

   

Stefon Diggs' Dynasty Owners

Diggs seems pleased with the trade, but I wonder if he'll change his mind once Josh Allen throws are sailing over his head. Maybe that doesn't matter to Diggs as long as he likes his coaches and teammates and gets to play football into January, but it definitely matters to his fantasy owners. Bills OC Brian Daboll should do a better job at using Diggs on a variety of short, intermediate and deep routes, but the wide receiver isn't likely to maintain his 68.4 percent career catch rate while playing with Allen. It also isn't a great situation for volume, as the Bills have an excellent defense, a good running game and solid complementary players in the passing attack.

   

RB Phillip Lindsay, Denver Broncos

So much for Pat Shurmur's February comment about Lindsay getting more work in the passing game. The Broncos' signing of Melvin Gordon is probably a commentary on Royce Freeman more so than Lindsay, but it impacts the speedster's workload projection all the same. On the bright side, splitting touches with Gordon could help Lindsay prolong his career and make it deep into a second NFL contract.

     

QB Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans

DeAndre Hopkins is better than Randall Cobb, and Watson is still stuck with the donkey who thought it was a good idea to trade Hopkins for a second-round pick and an overpaid RB. Get ready to watch Duke Johnson produce the same yardage total as David Johnson on half as many touches!

   

QBs Jameis Winston, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton

I still think one or two among this trio will end up in a Week 1 starting lineup, but they'll almost certainly end up disappointed with their respective contracts. For what it's worth, I still like Newton as an endgame dart in best ball drafts, with his running ability creating upside that's otherwise unavailable in the 200s.

   

Random Notes and Tweets

  • The Steelers, Patriots, Packers, Rams and Cowboys are in good shape to pick up compensatory 2021 draft picks, per overthecap.com. The Patriots and Cowboys, in particular, could get a nice haul there.
  • Ideally, Jets GM Joe Douglas would give Sam Darnold some help, but without building a team that's actually good enough for Adam Gase to keep his job beyond 2020 (GENIUS BRAIN). I thought Douglas might be headed in that direction — probably unintentionally — with his under-the-radar additions to the offensive line, but I don't quite understand letting Robby Anderson walk away for two years and $20 million (even after Breshad Perriman was added). Whatever he does, Douglas shouldn't spend money on the defense. He needs to make Darnold look good without actually winning more than eight games.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jerry Donabedian
Jerry was a 2018 finalist for the FSWA's Player Notes Writer of the Year and DFS Writer of the Year awards. A Baltimore native, Jerry roots for the Ravens and watches "The Wire" in his spare time.
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