The start of the NFL’s free agency period has been a whirlwind before it even technically began. Kirk Cousins got a rare, fully guaranteed contract to move from Washington to Minnesota. The man he replaces, Case Keenum, turned a $2 million deal in 2017 to $18 million per year with Denver. Drew Brees entertained leaving New Orleans, then re-upped for two years.
Non-quarterbacks did work, too. Jarvis Landry will be paid handsomely for his willingness to run routes in the vicinity of Cleveland’s quarterback black hole. Jimmy Graham and Muhammad Wilkerson became uncharacteristically splashy free agent signings for the Packers. Tennessee decided the best way to replicate New England’s success was to take a bunch of its players.
And then there’s a corner of the league sitting the first two days out, quietly biding its time and formulating plans. A handful of rebuilding teams, not seeing the logic of spending big for veteran players who won’t lead a flawed roster to the playoffs, will wait for less-expensive signings and helpful draft hauls. Other established winners may not have much room to negotiate under the salary cap, and instead will settle for small tweaks and hope an undervalued veteran slides through the cracks.
While these eight teams won’t be generating headlines in March, their quiet approach could lead to big stories come September. They’re betting on back-end roster building and an influx of talent from the 2018 NFL Draft.
Notable free agents: Dontari Poe, Adrian Clayborn, Levine Toilolo
Signings (as of March 14): 1 (tendered restricted free agent Ricardo Allen)
No team has yet stepped up to overpay Clayborn for his outlier 9.5-sack season (remember, six of those sacks came in one game against the Cowboys), so there’s a chance he winds up back in Atlanta’s plans. Losing him and Poe creates a need along the team’s defensive line, but limited cap space (approximately $13 million, according to Spotrac) and a general distaste for this year’s crop of free agents means the club will be sorting through the leftovers and using the draft to address needs on both sides of the line and at safety. Fortunately for the Falcons, those aren’t pressing needs.
Notable free agents: Jonathan Cooper, Anthony Hitchens (signed with the Chiefs)
Signings: 1 (tendered David Irving). Also franchise tagged DeMarcus Lawrence
The Cowboys locked down top pass rusher Lawrence for $17.1 million next fall, which means only Philadelphia has less salary cap space than Jerry Jones’ team this offseason. Any significant signing will likely require the team to release veterans like Dez Bryant, Sean Lee, and Cole Beasley or negotiate restructured contracts and possible pay cuts. If the team believes 2017’s regression to nine wins was a fluke, it could keep its core intact while adding through the draft. There are areas of improvement that could be addressed, however; Dallas’ once-prolific offensive line needs help (see the above entry on Clayborn) and an impact linebacker would shore up an uneven defense.
Notable free agents: Frank Gore, Rashaan Melvin, Jack Mewhort
Signings: 5 (Denico Autry, Jeremy Vujnovich, Erik Swoope, Luke Rhodes, and Chris Milton)
Indianapolis’ trouble is headlined by Andrew Luck’s balky shoulder, but his absence does little to explain a defense that ranked 30th in defensive efficiency. The Colts need help everywhere, and one or two big signings won’t do much but make the team slightly less awful next fall. With $73 million to spend this offseason, the team will make moves — but is more likely to shade toward front-loaded and short-term deals it can walk away from if the rebuild extends beyond the 2018 campaign.
GM Chris Ballard could opt to spend big in 2019 instead, when he knows what he’s got in young players like Malik Hooker, Quincy Wilson, and what is likely to be a big draft haul this year. With quarterback-hungry teams eyeing Indianapolis’s No. 3 pick, the franchise will have the chance to add loads of young talent the next two seasons — and will tailor its free agent priorities around that.
Autry is a good start. The 27-year-old defensive end is enough of a pass rusher to keep blockers on their toes and uses his long reach to swat down passes at the line of scrimmage. He’s still growing as a player and should fit into the team’s rebuild, even he’s pricey at nearly $18 million over three years.
EDIT: well, that didn’t last. Ballard went on a spree, signing a handful of low-cost players to pad out his roster. Jeremy Vujnovich, Erik Swoope, Luke Rhodes, and Chris Milton all signed minor deals with the team Wednesday afternoon.
Notable free agents: Antonio Gates, Kenny Wiggins, Tre Boston, Jeremiah Attaochu
Signings: 4(re-signed Michael Schofield and Adrian Phillips, signed Virgil Green and Chris McCain)
Los Angeles made a smart move to lock All-Pro cornerback Casey Hayward down for three more seasons at a reasonable $12 million per year, but otherwise has been quiet this offseason. Gates will be given every opportunity to return if he so desires, though Green’s signing suggests he may retire. The rest of the team’s free agents — including starters Wiggins and Boston — have yet to generate interest from the rest of the league. There’s only about $19 million in cap space in LA, which means the club could return all its important starters from a nine-win team that got stronger as the year wore on.
But the Chargers may be one piece away from a breakout, and could feel pressure to make a splash in a reloading AFC West. The Broncos will be better with Case Keenum at the helm, and the Chiefs have surrounded second-year passer Patrick Mahomes with the talent he needs to succeed. That may mean cutting bait on a replaceable player like Wiggins in favor of an offensive line upgrade like Ryan Jensen, or spending big on a useful linebacker like Zach Brown.
Signings: 2 (re-signed Nate Ebner and Rex Burkhead)
The Pats’ Super Bowl roster has faced a worst-case scenario, as the team’s top four free agents have all departed for expensive contracts elsewhere. While last year’s signing of Stephon Gilmore was one of those exception moves that seems to fly in the face of the team’s success (see Rosevelt Colvin and Adalius Thomas in years past), it appears primed for a quiet free agency period. (Although turning a 2019 third-round pick that’s set to be replaced by a compensatory selection into Danny Shelton and a 2018 fifth-rounder suggests it won’t be that calm.)
New England has three picks in the top 63 at this year’s draft, an asset Bill Belichick will promptly turn into six picks in the top 150 while finding the requisite fifth-round picks and undrafted free agents to fill his team’s needs.
Notable free agents: Chris Hubbard (Browns), Mike Mitchell (set to be released Wednesday), Sean Spence
Signings: 0, although they did franchise tag Le’Veon Bell (again).
An old-guard franchise through and through, Pittsburgh is often understated early in free agency and has spent seasons where its most expensive acquisitions were players like Bruce Gradkowski or Jerricho Cotchery. The Steelers don’t have too many pressing needs after a 13-3 season, though linebacker is a big question mark after losing blossoming monster Ryan Shazier to a career-threatening spinal injury. A player like Brown or NaVorro Bowman could help mitigate his loss, but the franchise is pressed up against the cap and may instead devote its first-round pick to a defensive player for the sixth straight year.
Notable free agents: Sheldon Richardson, Jimmy Graham (Packers), Paul Richardson (Washington)
Signings: 1 (re-signed Dion Jordan)
Seattle’s lack of participation in the early free agent frenzy can be tied to a lack of cap space and an aging roster. Cutting Richard Sherman increased the team’s spending room by about 40 percent (from roughly $16.8 million to $27.8m), but that still wasn’t enough to fund the impending rebuild in the Pacific Northwest. With the window closing on the Seahawks’ NFC West dominance and the Rams rising to steal their spot, Seattle is looking at a teardown that eschews expensive veterans. The team will likely cut more big-name players than it signs while using 2018 as a compass year to find its way.
Notable free agents: Doug Martin, Chris Baker (Bengals), Kevin Pamphile
Signings: 4(re-signed Cameron Brate, Keith Tandy and Brent Grimes), added Beau Allen (Eagles)
The Bucs waited until Wednesday to make a move outside their own locker room, then made a splash by adding ... Eagles depth DT Beau Allen? He’ll fill a need, but the fit between former Tampa Bay draftee Adrian Clayborn and the team’s need for a pocket-shrinking pass rusher suggests there are bigger moves to come. Pairing Brate with 2017 first-round pick O.J. Howard is a move designed to bolster Jameis Winston’s development. Re-signing Grimes for $10 million is a pricey move for a soon-to-be 35-year-old cornerback, but the team had the cap space to absorb a single-season hit for a player it obviously likes.
The question now is where the Bucs go from here. The optimism from 2016’s nine-win campaign was erased by last year’s 5-11 season, but Tampa Bay’s 6.9 expected wins suggest this team is close to turning a corner. The Bucs still have plenty of money to go after the offensive and defensive line help they need, though the pickings are slim and getting slimmer on this year’s market. Replacing Martin won’t be easy either, especially now that Lewis, Carlos Hyde, and Jerick McKinnon are all off the market. That is going to put a tremendous strain on this year’s draft class — and general manager Jason Licht can’t afford to mess up.