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NFL free agency 2017: The Browns and offensive linemen were the biggest winners

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Big paydays for offensive linemen and sensible moves by the Browns were the biggest stories from free agency this year. Retired NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz explains the trend.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Buffalo Bills Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

This time last week, I was glued to my Twitter feed seeing where all the high-priced NFL free agents would be signing and, more importantly, how much they were making. When I saw all the numbers roll in for the offensive linemen, I was tempted to call my agent and let him know I’m back on the market!

This early free-agency period, remember it’s barely a week old, has netted deserving players life-changing money, and I love seeing all of it. As well as players getting rich, teams got rich with talent. I’ll discuss how the offensive line market shook out, plus my favorite under-the-radar signings, which teams “won” and the Browns trade with Houston.

Every free-agency period, we get to hear about “I can’t believe so and so got this.” Well, this is where the market is set. With the cap continuing to rise, so will player salaries. Paying Mike Glennon $15 million for a season of work is the minimum salary for a starting quarterback on his second contract. The Bears paid what the market dictated. Keep that in mind as you read this.

A good week for offensive linemen

Money was flying around in the trenches last week. Let’s start at left tackle where five players, Matt Kalil (Carolina), Russell Okung (Los Angeles Chargers), Riley Reiff (Minnesota), Andrew Whitworth (Los Angeles Rams), and Kelvin Beachum (New York Jets) all got paid as big dogs.

Whitworth will be the protector that Los Angeles needs to help a young quarterback. The move allows the former second overall pick, Greg Robinson, to move inside to left guard, which might be his best position. The Rams upgraded two spots with one move. While Whitworth isn’t the future at left tackle for the Rams, it allows Jared Goff to feel he’s protected from the blind side while he continues his growth in the NFL.

Some Carolina fans knocked how much the Panthers paid for Kalil, $55.5 million, after he came off an injury-riddled 2015 and an injury-shortened 2016. However, I think this move has the most upside out of all the left tackle moves. If he can return to his form as a young player — he was a Pro Bowler his rookie season — the Panthers have a steal at left tackle, only paying him $11 million per season while the number for that position keeps rising.

Moving inside to the guard position, the market went exactly how I pictured it. Kevin Zeitler was the top dog, getting $12 million per year from Cleveland. Other guards signing new deals include T.J. Lang with the Lions, Ronald Leary with the Broncos, and Larry Warford with the Saints.

There’s a trend, a smart one, to lock up guards who can keep the pocket firm in the middle, especially at right guard. With teams throwing the ball quicker than ever, defenses are starting to counter by trying to get pressure up the middle as quickly as possible. This, in turn, increased the need for guards who are stout and can hold up against these types of rushes.

Lastly, and this is a little nugget you’re only getting from me, the right guard position is often the second most important for pass protection. Most right-handed quarterbacks drift slightly to their right on their drops, so being firm is a must. Also, teams routinely slide left more often than right, putting the right guard on an island. I enjoyed seeing Zeitler, Lang and Warford get paid big bucks.

What I also love about all these signings is the fact that these teams matched up the players to the scheme they run. The Saints, for example, love big powerful guards to keep the pocket firm to help a shorter Drew Brees. Plus, Warford is an excellent fit in their run scheme, which is more downhill than side to side. The Lions love to jump set in pass pro, and Lang is the best in the business at it. Leary is excellent in the zone run game, and Zeitler can do it all.

Lastly for offensive line, the right tackle position finally got a jump up in value with the Lions signing Ricky Wagner for over $9 million a year. Last season, the top right tackles signed for around $6.5 to $6.8 million per year, which was down, or even, from deals in the previous years.

The old style of the NFL was run to the right and slide to the left, giving the right tackle more help. Now it’s wide open, and the right tackle must block Von Miller, Khalil Mack, J.J. Watt, Justin Houston, Joey Bosa, etc. The same value should be applied for this position as the left tackle position. I’m glad to see the market start to correct itself.

Let’s talk about the Browns

Before I get to my favorite signings and “winners” from free agency, let’s talk about the Browns.

They had enough cap space and draft picks to overhaul their entire roster, and they did their best trying to do just that. The Browns have had a productive offseason, retooling their offensive line by adding a center, J.C. Tretter, and a right guard, Zeitler; resigning Jamie Collins; and adding wide receiver Kenny Britt. With these additions, plus I’ll assume Myles Garrett first in the draft, and possibly trading for Jimmy Garoppolo, their offseason would be a major home run.

The Browns also made a shocking trade with the Houston Texans, acquiring Brock Osweiler and his $16 million dollar contract plus a 2018 second-round pick in exchange for a lower pick sent back to Houston. The Browns made the first-ever NBA style expiring contract trade. It’s innovative and outside the box.

What’s fascinating to me is the amount of praise heaped onto the Browns because they can trade Osweiler. That would change my opinion because it makes it a trade for a second-round pick at a price of $16 million dollars. Maybe people have gotten so used to the Browns doing the wrong thing, seeing them be innovative is such a positive.

But in the end, they paid $16 million dollars for a second-round pick that’s worth $5 million. If your favorite team overspent for a player by a few million dollars, you’d be upset. But when a team overspends for a draft pick who might not become a stud player until 2019-2020, it’s genius!

The main defense of this trade is they had all this cap space and had to spend it to get to the minimum, plus there were no Pro Bowl players to spend it on and maybe the second rounder would become that. However, the reason the Browns had this much cap space is because they didn’t re-sign their own Pro Bowl players, like Alex Mack and Tashaun Gipson. The popular opinion at the time was, “these players cost too much.” So does that second-round draft pick for $16 million dollars.

I’ll take a wait-and-see approach on the Browns trade.

Winners from free agency

  • Browns, for the reasons mentioned above
  • Panthers. I live in Charlotte and after last year’s offseason disaster, people wondered if Dave Gettleman had a plan heading into this March. Yes, yes he did. Gettleman was aggressive from the start, filling gaps in the roster at left tackle, cornerback, safety, defensive end, and wide receiver. If their defense can get back to its 2015 form, forcing turnovers and getting after the quarterback, that will take pressure off Cam Newton. I like what they have done.
  • Buccaneers. One of my two favorite value signings is Tampa’s addition of defensive tackle Chris Baker. He’s good and now he’s paired with Gerald McCoy. Teams can’t double both of them. The same can be said on offense now that Tampa has added DeSean Jackson. No more double teams on emerging star, Mike Evans
  • Bears. Chicago’s defense played well down the stretch, and the Bears added some more pieces to that unit. I don’t mind the Glennon deal, especially if the Bears feel there’s no quarterback of the future in the draft. Adding some much-needed options at receiver after losing Alshon Jeffery will help Glennon. I’d look for the Bears to continue to add WR pieces in the draft.
  • Patriots. They keep winning. Win a Super Bowl and add more parts to the team: Brandin Cooks, Lawrence Guy, re-signing Dont’a Hightower. I was surprised to see them pay Stephon Gilmore so much when they seem intent on not giving Butler a new deal. Trading for Kony Ealy, who, knowing the way it works, will become a star there now.
  • Jaguars, the winners of every offseason. I think with Tom Coughlin and Doug Marrone running the organization now, their moves to improve the defense will pay dividends.

So those are my early thoughts on a wild first week of free agency. You can refer back to my piece last week on the free-agency process, which will keep going for the next few months.