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The best, worst, and biggest moves in the first wave of NFL free agency

What signing surprised us most? Which player is the biggest bargain? Who made the most puzzling decision?

A collage of NFL players Tom Brady, DeAndre Hopkins, and Malcolm Jenkins, superimposed on a black background with aqua squiggly lines.
Tom Brady, DeAndre Hopkins, and Malcolm Jenkins are all on the move in 2020.

The NFL abhors a vacuum. Football rarely sleeps.

That’s why, barely two weeks after the combine, the league plunged back into a frenzy when the free agent tampering window officially opened March 16. Stars darted across the NFL like jet-packed glaciers, changing the game’s landscape in their wake. Tom Brady decided two decades with Bill Belichick was enough. DeForest Buckner was shipped from the Bay Area to Indianapolis at a premium price. Byron Jones became the league’s highest-paid cornerback ... for two days.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg, and we’re only talking about three days of transactions.

We’ve broken down all March’s offseason moves a few different ways:

Let’s dive a little bit deeper and give these signings and trades a little more context. These are our superlatives for the 2020 NFL offseason’s biggest moves through the first week of free agency.

Most surprising move: Tom Brady leaves New England ... for Tampa?

Even as reports swirled about Brady’s desire to leave and the Buccaneers’ willingness to offer him the world, it seemed foolish to think he could ever wear another uniform. Even if he did, the top landing spots for a player branching out with California roots, a personal lifestyle brand, and a budding production company seemed to be rooted on the West Coast.

Nope! Brady saw what the Buccaneers could offer — the guidance of QB whisperer Bruce Arians, two of the game’s top wideouts, the promise of building around him — and made his decision. His next jersey number will be written in calculator font instead of classic block numerals. Now he gets the chance to prove he’s not just a product of Bill Belichick’s coaching, and Tampa Bay has the gas to get his motor running again.

Least surprising move: The Cowboys franchise tag Dak Prescott

Prescott was a free agent in name only; there was no way in hell Jerry Jones was going to allow him to leave. However, the team’s short-sighted march toward salary cap hell meant the idea of a record-setting contract was a non-starter this spring. That left the franchise tag as the obvious call to keep the two-time Pro Bowler and former NFL Rookie of the Year deep in the heart of Texas ... for this season at least.

Biggest overpay: Dante Fowler Jr.’s $45 million deal with the Falcons

The Miami Dolphins were the only team that finished the 2019 season with fewer sacks than the Falcons. So it made sense for the Falcons to look for pass-rushing help in free agency. Fowler fits the bill perfectly after finishing the 2019 season with 11.5 sacks. But a three-year, $45 million contract that can climb as high as $48 million? That’s quite the headfirst leap.

Fowler had 14 sacks in 39 games with the Jaguars before he was traded to the Rams in the middle of the 2018 season. For all but one year in his still-young career, Fowler has been a subpar edge rusher.

If 2019 was a sign of things to come, then his $15 million per year price tag is worthwhile. But it’s also possible that being part of a 50-sack defense anchored by Aaron Donald made Fowler look good. He’ll have to shoulder more of the load in Atlanta, and the Falcons may find out that his contract doesn’t match his production.

Biggest bargain: Vernon Butler signs with the Bills for $15 million

Jordan Phillips’ monster season meant he was due for a big pay raise, which he found with the Cardinals. The Bills then brought in a more-than-capable replacement in Butler, who cost just $15 million over two years.

Butler is a similarly thick run-clogger who was a more reliable tackler than Phillips last season (a 3.0 percent missed tackle rate compared to 12.1 for his predecessor). The former Panthers DT put up similar pressure and knockdown rates as Phillips and is nearly two years younger. With a stacked defense behind him in Buffalo, he could be due for a breakout — much like Phillips had last fall.

This label could certainly change as the offseason marches on. The NFL’s biggest bargain probably isn’t an in-demand free agent who came to terms on an agreement at the dawn of the tampering period. It’ll be a veteran who quietly signs a small deal in the aftermath, like Shaquil Barrett did before leading the league in sacks. But for the first week of free agency, the Bills got the biggest steal. In fact, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix’s one-year, $4 million contract with the Cowboys — the same length and price Barrett settled for last spring — might be even better than Butler’s contract.

Best Bill Belichick cosplay: Lions coach Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn

Patricia, the longtime New England assistant, helped oversee a 2019 offseason that brought former Patriots Trey Flowers, Justin Coleman, and Danny Amendola to town. They weren’t especially helpful; Detroit went 3-12-1 thanks in part to the back injury that limited starting quarterback Matthew Stafford to eight games.

Patricia and general manager Quinn are doubling-down on that strategy in 2020. The Lions signed former Patriots Jamie Collins and Danny Shelton before executing a swap of Day 3 draft picks to bring clutch safety Duron Harmon to Michigan. Patricia’s plan to replicate New England’s dominant defense is by stealing away as much of it as he can.

Most baffling move: Bill O’Brien ships out DeAndre Hopkins

It’s no surprise that the Texans have made a boneheaded decision with O’Brien in charge of things. But this latest move needs to be dunked on at every turn. The Texans traded star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals along with a 2020 fourth-round pick in exchange for ... running back David Johnson, a 2020 second-round pick, and a 2021 fourth-round pick.

Johnson isn’t close to being in the same league as Hopkins, while a second-round pick is a pitiful compensation for an elite receiver like him. To completely pile on, the Vikings got a haul of draft picks that same day for Stefon Diggs, including the Bills’ first-rounder.

What makes this move so much worse is that the Texans have DeShaun Watson! They have a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback who can make absolute magic with the right weapons. And instead of continuing to build around him, O’Brien took away a top-three receiver from a quarterback who already is suffering from a lack of talent around him. That’s just cruel, but it’s par for the course with O’Brien.

Biggest tank move: The Jaguars trading Calais Campbell

Jacksonville had a few moves it had to make to get back under the salary cap. The team cut ties with defensive tackle Marcell Dareus to save $20 million, traded cornerback A.J. Bouye to save about $11.4 million, and pawned off its $88 million Nick Foles mistake on the Bears.

But it never really looked like the Jaguars were trying to tank until they decided to send Calais Campbell to the Ravens for a fifth-round pick.

Campbell was the heart and soul of the Jacksonville defense. He was the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2019 and a Pro Bowler each of his three seasons with the team. Even if trading him meant $15 million in savings, the move undoubtedly signaled a white flag from the Jaguars.

It’s probably not a bad idea. The Jaguars finished last in the AFC South in back-to-back seasons and need to start fresh. Loading up on picks (they have 12 in the 2020 NFL Draft) and cap space makes sense, even if it means losing a bunch in 2020.

Best reunion: Sean Payton brings Malcolm Jenkins back to New Orleans

In a surprise move before the official start of free agency, the Eagles announced they weren’t picking up Jenkins’ contract option. That made the veteran safety and team captain a free agent — for a few hours anyway.

It didn’t take Payton long to pounce, giving him a chance to make good on one of his biggest coaching regrets: letting Jenkins leave New Orleans in the first place.

Jenkins started his career with the Saints in 2009, when they drafted him in the middle of the first round. He became a free agent after the 2013 season and then joined the Eagles. In six seasons in Philadelphia, Jenkins was a three-time Pro Bowler who never missed a game and was a much-needed playmaker in the secondary.

He’s headed back to New Orleans, where Jenkins will be a valued leader on the field, in the locker room, and in the community. Even at 32 years old, Jenkins is still playing at a high level and will be a boost to a team trying to get another championship before Drew Brees calls it a career. The Saints won a Super Bowl in Jenkins’ first season in the NFL. Maybe they can do it again now that he’s back where he started.

Best homecoming: Todd Gurley heads back to Atlanta

The Los Angeles Rams released Gurley on Thursday afternoon, just a few minutes before they would’ve owed him $10.5 million. The good news is that Gurley didn’t have to wait long at all to find a new team. The Atlanta Falcons announced Friday morning they reached an agreement with the 25-year-old back:

While Gurley didn’t grow up in Atlanta (he went to high school in North Carolina), he played college football at Georgia. UGA’s campus in Athens lies just east outside of Atlanta, so there is a huge overlap between the Dawgs and Falcons fanbases.

How healthy Gurley is remains unclear — in his last season with the Rams his carries were significantly limited. If he can get back to being the same players he was in 2017 and 2018 when he led the league in rushing touchdowns, the Falcons are getting a big upgrade on the ground.

Biggest jerk move: The Panthers “granting” Cam Newton a trade

On Tuesday, the Panthers announced that they were allowing Newton to seek a trade. Shortly after posting the news on Instagram, Newton commented on the post to be clear he never wanted to be traded:

Screenshot via @panthers on Instagram

The Panthers made it even more obvious they were done with Newton by reportedly signing Teddy Bridgewater to a three-year deal soon after. For a player who’s been with the Panthers his whole career and is the franchise’s winningest quarterback in history, this split shouldn’t have been so messy.

Instead of acknowledging they wanted to move on, the Panthers treated Newton as if he were disposable. He deserved to go out in much smoother fashion than that, even if, as Newton said on Instagram, feelings and business don’t go together.

Biggest risk: Trae Waynes gets $42 million from the Bengals

Waynes is fast as hell and has a first-round pedigree, but wasn’t especially good in coverage last year for an overtaxed Vikings secondary. Opposing quarterbacks completed 74 percent of their attempts when targeting him, leading to a 107.9 passer rating. He hasn’t had multiple interceptions or double-digit passes defensed in either of his previous two seasons.

Despite all that, the Bengals still handed him a three-year, $42 million contract that’s stacked in such a way that he can’t be released without leaving eight figures of dead cap space behind until 2022. There’s a chance the change of scenery rebuilds his value as a corner, but he got a top-of-the-market salary after a middling season, and this could prove to be a massive overpay for Cincinnati. As is the Bengal way.