Five teams with head-scratching plans to open NFL free agency

We’re officially nine days into the NFL’s new league year, and NFL free agency has done its best to save sports fans from coronavirus purgatory. In just seven days, we’ve seen major deals (Tom Brady to Tampa Bay), major head-scratchers (Bill O’Brien trading DeAndre Hopkins for a pack of Marlboros and a bran muffin), and everything in between.

Free agency can often prove to be fool’s gold. Deals that look solid at the time can quickly turn out to be anything but – for every Peyton Manning, there is a Trumaine Johnson, whom the Jets released just two years into a five-year, $72.5 million contract.

With the first wave of free agency in the books, many teams have already put themselves into precarious spots by looking for quick fixes or trying to retain expensive players. Some of these deals may end up working out, but it’s not hard to see an avenue where they don’t. Here are a few teams that may end up regretting their free-agency moves. (We’ll exclude obviously bad ones, like the aforementioned Hopkins trade.)

Panthers replace Cam Newton with Teddy Bridgewater

If there was a book on how not to properly send off a franchise icon, the Carolina Panthers would be the authors. They posted a message on Instagram thanking Cam Newton while he was still on the roster, a move that Newton himself took issue with. They also signed Bridgewater with Newton still on the roster, erasing whatever little trade leverage they had.

Reports said the Panthers tried to trade him to both the Bears and Chargers, but neither was interested due to his medical history (the coronavirus has made it harder for teams to conduct their own physicals). So Carolina eventually had to release their former franchise cornerstone for nothing.

Apart from fumbling their divorce with Newton, replacing him with Bridgewater is questionable in itself. The Panthers have a weakened roster (Dontari Poe signed with the Cowboys, Luke Kuechly retired) in a tough division that just added Tom Brady. They should be rebuilding for when Brady and Drew Brees leave the division, and they have a top-10 pick that would allow them to draft a quarterback. So why spend $60 million over three years on Bridgewater? It’s a win-now move for a team that isn’t ready to win anytime soon.

49ers extend Arik Armstead, trade DeForest Buckner

The NFC champions were strapped for cash, entering free agency with the sixth-least amount of cap space. Like every team with talented youngsters on cheap deals, tough decisions were coming. San Francisco made one by choosing to sign defensive end Arik Armstead to a five-year, $85 million extension, then trading DeForest Buckner to the Colts for a first-round pick.

Armstead had a monster year in 2019, logging 10 sacks. But those 10 sacks were more than his entire career total leading up to it – he managed just nine in 46 games prior. He missed some time in that span, playing eight games in 2016 and six in 2017.

Buckner, meanwhile, logged nine more career sacks in one fewer season. He has also been an iron man, missing only one game since being drafted in 2016. The 49ers correctly assumed Buckner would be more expensive (the Colts paid him $84 million over four years), but Armstead was not that much cheaper, and they paid him for a year’s worth of production instead of four.

Rams continue to throw money around

Since reaching the Super Bowl after the 2018 season, the Rams have done a lot more spending than winning. They signed Jared Goff to a four-year, $134 million extension, then traded two first-round picks to get CB Jalen Ramsey. This was after signing Todd Gurley to a $60 million extension before 2018, and trading yet another first-round pick to get Brandin Cooks.

Barring a trade, the Rams will not draft in the first round until 2022. They were facing over $108 million of cap space tied up between five players: Goff, Gurley, Cooks, Ramsey and Aaron Donald. A wise move would have been to play 2020 close to the vest, and wait until the later rounds of free agency to snag some cheap veterans.

Instead, they gave 38-year-old LT Andrew Whitworth a three-year contract worth up to $37.5 million. They let Dante Fowler Jr. and his 11.5 sacks walk, but replaced him with Leonard Floyd (four sacks in 2019) for $10 million (up to $13 million with incentives). They did cut Gurley, but will eat $22 million of dead money over the next two years. A team that has as bare of a cupboard as anyone now has even more cash tied up in veterans, and Goff is going to have to play much better than he did in 2019 to justify all this spending.

The Jaguars have no plan on defense

It seems hard to believe, but just two years ago the Jacksonville Jaguars were a few plays away from the Super Bowl. That was not due to Blake Bortles, but an absolutely loaded defense that included Ramsey, Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue and A.J. Bouye. The next year, they chose to extend Bortles. Since, the team has crumbled.

Three of those four stars are now gone (minus Ngakoue, who seems sure to follow in their footsteps), and the team has very little to show for it. This offseason, they traded Campbell, who has been to the Pro Bowl the last three seasons, to the Ravens for a measly fifth-round pick. They traded Bouye to the Broncos for a fourth-rounder. This defense was bad last year even with those guys (29th in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA stat) – now, they won’t stop anybody.

Then, they gave linebacker Joe Schobert a five-year, $53.75 million contract. Schobert is a good coverage linebacker, but he is not a game-changer on his own. This move feels like management trying to appease their fan base after everybody else walked, but that’s a lot of money over a long period of time for a guy who likely won’t make a huge difference considering the circumstances.

Bears give up a lot for marginal improvement

The Chicago Bears got better at two key offensive positions. At tight end, they signed Jimmy Graham to replace/complement Trey Burton. At quarterback, they traded for Nick Foles to replace/push Mitchell Trubisky. The key question is how much they improved, and at what cost.

Graham got $16 million over two years, which is a significant contract for someone who is 33 and didn’t produce with Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers throwing him the ball in recent seasons. A few days later, the Steelers paid Eric Ebron $12 million over the same two-year span, and Ebron is seven years younger.

Foles is a better quarterback than Trubisky, but it was glaringly obvious Jacksonville was going to move on from him. Bears GM Ryan Pace gave up a fourth-round pick anyway, while taking on some of his contract (they will pay him $21 million guaranteed over three years).

Like the Rams, the Bears are not flush with cap space or draft picks. With the fourth-rounder now gone, they only pick twice before Round 5 (two second-rounders). If Foles is the answer and leads Chicago back to the playoffs, a fourth-rounder will seem like peanuts. But both moves reek of desperation for a GM who already missed big on Trubisky.

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