NFL Power Rankings: 1-32 poll, plus where each team stands after free agency

NFL Power Rankings: 1-32 poll, plus where each team stands after free agency

Millions have been spent and the landscape of the NFL has been significantly altered due to the initial free-agency blitz. But while there are obvious storylines (Tom Brady) that have been written and a few more to go (Jadeveon Clowney), now is a good time to take the temperature of each NFL team.

Therefore, we’ve asked our NFL Nation writers to describe in three words where the team they cover currently stands this offseason.

How we rank in our Power Rankings: Our power panel — a group of more than 80 writers, editors and TV personalities — evaluated how teams stack up throughout the season.

Jump to:
NE | NO | NYG | NYJ | PHI | PIT | SF

Way-too-early ranking: 1

Three words: Keeping it together. The Chiefs named defensive tackle Chris Jones their franchise player at a cost of about $16.1 million and are keeping wide receiver Sammy Watkins at a cost of $21 million rather than releasing him and taking a $7 million charge. Those moves mostly wiped out their salary-cap room and signaled that the Chiefs will keep the band together as much as possible for another Super Bowl run rather than replenish through free agency. The Chiefs re-signed backup quarterback Chad Henne and added two probable reserves in offensive lineman Mike Remmers and cornerback Antonio Hamilton. — Adam Teicher

Way-too-early ranking: 3

Three words: Lamar awaits draft. The Ravens used what little cap room they had on defense in free agency. Baltimore placed the franchise tag on outside linebacker Matthew Judon, traded for defensive end Calais Campbell and re-signed cornerback Jimmy Smith. The focus now shifts to the draft, where the Ravens will look to improve the supporting cast around quarterback Lamar Jackson. Baltimore will add a wide receiver (or two), an interior offensive lineman and perhaps another running back to help the reigning NFL Most Valuable Player. — Jamison Hensley

Way-too-early ranking: 2

Three words: Run it back. The 49ers were clear about their offseason intentions: They wanted to keep their NFC championship team together as much as possible. While cap constraints meant saying goodbye to one of their best players (DT DeForest Buckner), his departure created flexibility to bring back key contributors from last season such as Arik Armstead and Jimmie Ward. It also gave them much-needed draft capital (the No. 13 overall pick), so they can be major players in the NFL draft and continue adding valuable, cost-effective pieces to a deep, talented roster. Their hope is that those moves will keep their championship window open longer. — Nick Wagoner

Way-too-early ranking: 4

Three words: Quite the catch. I probably shouldn’t overstate the importance of signing 33-year-old free-agent wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, but he sure feels like the perfect fit to fill the Saints’ most glaring need. They already had one of the NFL’s most talented rosters, so they didn’t need an overhaul. And they have kept most of their core together. But their lack of options in the passing game was evident in each of their past two playoff losses. Michael Thomas had 119 more catches than any other WR on the team last season. — Mike Triplett

Way-too-early ranking: 5

Three words: Pass-catchers still needed. The Packers made a run at tight end Austin Hooper but it got too rich for them. There’s still plenty of opportunity for them to get Aaron Rodgers more weapons in what is a receiver-rich draft. They could take a receiver in the first round for the first time since 2002, but even if they decided to go with a tackle or defensive player at No. 30, they can still find immediate help on Day 2 of the draft. — Rob Demovsky

Way-too-early ranking: 6

Three words: Waiting on Clowney. The Seahawks want him back, but they’re exercising patience. Jadeveon Clowney wants at least $20 million, more money than anyone has been willing to offer. The Seahawks have been active elsewhere, starting with four under-the-radar offensive line additions. They’ve added two pass-catchers in Greg Olsen and Phillip Dorsett and found a potential upgrade at right cornerback by trading for Quinton Dunbar. Re-signing Jarran Reed and bringing back Bruce Irvin will help their pass rush, but they still need a primary threat like Clowney, and Seattle might be able to get him back at a bargain rate. — Brady Henderson

Way-too-early ranking: 8

Three words: Must keep building. The Titans started free agency on a good note by making sure quarterback Ryan Tannehill and running back Derrick Henry were back for another season. They made another move in the right direction when they signed Vic Beasley Jr. However, the loss of Jurrell Casey and possibly Logan Ryan leaves questions about the defense. The Titans need to find ways to help improve the defense and overall team speed. Most of the premier free agents have been plucked from the market. That places emphasis on a productive draft to add impact players to help build off of last season’s momentum. — Turron Davenport

Way-too-early ranking: 9

Three words: Defense deeply depleted. The Vikings unloading expensive veterans while not re-signing a handful of their own free agents was inevitable given their salary-cap situation, but losing Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander, Xavier Rhodes, Andrew Sendejo and Jayron Kearse leaves a lot of production to replace. The defense is in the midst of a reboot, and Minnesota will need to hit on its draft picks this year in hopes that a first- or second-round cornerback can aid a group that lost all of its starters and find a defensive end to begin to replace what Griffen brought over 10 years in Minnesota. — Courtney Cronin

Way-too-early ranking: 11

Three words: AFC East front-runner. While the Jets focused on building their offensive line, the Dolphins spent big money on marquee free agents and the Patriots coped with the loss of quarterback Tom Brady, the Bills made one of their splashiest moves of the new league year, trading for wide receiver Stefon Diggs. The additions Buffalo made on defense should, on paper, make an already-stout group even better — vaulting the Bills to the top of the preseason AFC East totem pole. — Marcel Louis-Jacques

Way-too-early ranking: 19

Three words: Must protect Brady. The Bucs are over-the-moon excited right now after landing six-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady. But they still need a starting right tackle to replace Demar Dotson and to possibly groom into a replacement on the left side if Donovan Smith doesn’t work out. They’ll also need to address the ground game, getting a running back who can help Brady in the screen game, which in turn helps slow down an opposing pass rush. — Jenna Laine

Way-too-early ranking: 12

Three words: Hold that line. The Cowboys’ top goal was to keep quarterback Dak Prescott and wide receiver Amari Cooper, and they did that with the exclusive franchise tag and a five-year contract, respectively. They have suffered some losses, such as Byron Jones, Randall Cobb, Robert Quinn and the retired Travis Frederick, but they knew they could not pay big money to everyone. They added Gerald McCoy and kept Sean Lee, Anthony Brown and Joe Looney — which takes on added significance after Frederick’s retirement — but are they better now than last season’s 8-8 finish? It’s difficult to say yes, but there is the draft to consider. — Todd Archer

Way-too-early ranking: 14

Three words: Send receivers, STAT! The Eagles did not address wide receiver during the main wave of free agency, even with Nelson Agholor departing for the Raiders and Alshon Jeffery still recovering from Lisfranc surgery. The plan is clear: to address the need in the draft by drawing early and often from what has been dubbed a historic wide receiver class. That approach leaves little room for error. The pressure is on to get it right come April. — Tim McManus

Way-too-early ranking: 7

Three words: Life after Brady. Everything that has unfolded with the Patriots is consistent with how they have generally operated under coach Bill Belichick — more notable defections than additions — except for one major piece: quarterback Tom Brady. With Brady leaving to sign with the Buccaneers, it takes away a security blanket the Patriots have always had in points of transition. So therein lies the intrigue for what’s ahead. The Patriots have always preached that every season is a blank slate, even when Brady was there to lead the way. Now the question becomes if Jarrett Stidham can step in at quarterback. — Mike Reiss

Way-too-early ranking: 17

Three words: Bridging the gap. Signing Philip Rivers signaled that the Colts organization doesn’t believe Jacoby Brissett is its next franchise quarterback after he struggled last season, and that Rivers is more of a short-term starter because the Colts signed the 38-year-old to only a one-year contract. The Colts currently do not have a first-round pick in this year’s draft after giving it to San Francisco for defensive lineman DeForest Buckner, but they do have two picks in the second round, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they used one of those picks on a quarterback who can sit behind Rivers and learn next season. — Mike Wells

Way-too-early ranking: 15

Three words: Checked the boxes. The Steelers filled their most pressing roster needs through free agency, allowing them the luxury of drafting the best available playmaker when they make their first selection at No. 49 overall in the second round. Guard Stefen Wisniewski and tight end Eric Ebron fill the most immediate needs, giving the Steelers a two-time Super Bowl champion to compete for the starting left guard spot and a tight end to be a big-bodied target in the red zone for Ben Roethlisberger. Quieter than most teams, the Steelers restructured the most expensive contracts and were efficient in the first wave of free agency, setting them up for more freedom when the draft rolls around. — Brooke Pryor

Way-too-early ranking: 10

Three words: Life without Hopkins. How do you replace an All-Pro receiver who has led your franchise in receiving since 2014? And someone who bonded immediately with your franchise quarterback on and off the field? The Texans are about to find out after trading away DeAndre Hopkins on Day 1 of free agency. Houston has Will Fuller and Kenny Stills on the roster who, if healthy, will be able to take over some of Hopkins’ production. New signing Randall Cobb, a slot receiver, should be a reliable target. But Houston still needs another outside receiver and could target one in the draft, perhaps with the second-round pick (No. 40 overall) it received in the Hopkins trade. — Sarah Barshop

Way-too-early ranking: 13

Three words: To be determined. The list of starters who are gone is staggering, headlined by star running back Todd Gurley, who was cut after the Rams could not find a trade partner. On defense, the Rams watched two key playmakers — outside linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. and linebacker Cory Littleton — sign elsewhere. Plus, the Rams released cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman and Clay Matthews to create salary-cap space. Their plan moving forward remains unclear, though it’s nearly certain that several of these holes will need to be filled by young and inexperienced players already on the roster. — Lindsey Thiry

Way-too-early ranking: 16

Three words: Something to prove. The Falcons added four former first-round draft picks in Todd Gurley, Dante Fowler Jr., Hayden Hurst and Laquon Treadwell, and all four have to show they can play up to their first-round talent. Gurley is the one fans are excited about the most, and he certainly wants to answer questions about his left knee and his ability to be a productive back. The Falcons, as a whole, have to prove they can compete in a revamped NFC South now featuring Tom Brady. — Vaughn McClure

Way-too-early ranking: 18

Three words: Still offensively challenged. The Bears likely upgraded at quarterback when they sent their fourth-round compensatory pick to Jacksonville for Nick Foles, who has a good opportunity to unseat starter Mitchell Trubisky. But quarterback is far from the only issue. The Bears have yet to upgrade their offensive line. Chicago needs additional help at wide receiver after the club released Taylor Gabriel. Plus, former second-round wideout Anthony Miller is rehabbing from yet another shoulder procedure. And no one really understands why the Bears signed veteran tight end Jimmy Graham to a deal that included $9 million guaranteed and a no-trade clause. — Jeff Dickerson

Way-too-early ranking: 20

Three words: Ready to draft. The Raiders hit on some real and specific defensive needs in the first wave of free agency, particularly at linebacker (Cory Littleton, Nick Kwiatkoski and Carl Nassib), cornerback (Eli Apple) and safety (Jeff Heath). And they got a pass-rushing defensive tackle (Maliek Collins). General manager Mike Mayock said at the combine that with so many needs on defense, he did not have to be so “surgical” on that side of the ball. It all leaves open the possibility of the Raiders using one of their first two draft picks (Nos. 12 and 19) on a receiver (CeeDee Lamb? Jerry Jeudy/ Henry Ruggs III?) — Paul Gutierrez

Way-too-early ranking: 23

Three words: Wild-card bound. The Cardinals filled almost every major need during the first week of free agency, whether through signings or trades. By adding All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and signing defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, outside linebacker Devon Kennard and inside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, Arizona went from a five-win team to a playoff contender, especially with the Rams dismantling their defense and the confidence gained from winning in Seattle last season. — Josh Weinfuss

Way-too-early ranking: 22

Three words: Help for Baker. Everything about the first day of free agency was about helping Baker Mayfield, and the new regime demonstrated by its moves that it still believes he is the Browns’ long-term franchise quarterback. Cleveland signed the best tight end on the market in Austin Hooper to give Mayfield a reliable pass-catcher out of play-action and in the red zone. The Browns also signed the top right tackle in free agency in Jack Conklin, who is one of the top frontside pass-protectors in the league. And to top it off, Cleveland brought in veteran QB Case Keenum to serve as a mentor for Mayfield. — Jake Trotter

Way-too-early ranking: 21

Three words: Still need help. The Broncos made trades to bolster their defense, acquiring defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and cornerback A.J. Bouye, and used the franchise tag on safety Justin Simmons. They chose to use the bulk of their free-agency dollars on the offense, signing guard Graham Glasgow, running back Melvin Gordon, tight end Nick Vannett and backup quarterback Jeff Driskel. It leaves them searching for additional team speed in the draft and that should have them taking a long look at the cornerback options, as well as wide receiver, with the No. 15 pick. — Jeff Legwold

Way-too-early ranking: 24

Three words: On the rise. The Chargers missed on free-agent quarterback Tom Brady but otherwise made several moves in free agency that should help them contend for a division title. They addressed issues on their offensive line by signing right tackle Bryan Bulaga and trading for guard Trai Turner. By re-signing running back Austin Ekeler and applying the franchise tag to tight end Hunter Henry, the Bolts ensured that — whether it’s Tyrod Taylor or a rookie selected in the draft — their new starting quarterback will have sure-handed targets. And on defense, signing cornerback Chris Harris Jr. immediately puts their secondary among the best in the NFL. — Lindsey Thiry

Way-too-early ranking: 26

Three words: Brian Flores Way. After a largely idle 2019 offseason, the Dolphins backed up the Brinks truck by making an aggressive push toward competing in a post-Tom Brady AFC East. That means investing heavily in man-to-man cornerbacks such as Byron Jones, versatile front-seven, two-way players such as Kyle Van Noy and Shaq Lawson and special-teams standouts such as Clayton Fejedelem and Elandon Roberts. The Dolphins have a promising future because players have bought into the Brian Flores Way, and there’s hope that with 14 picks in the draft (including three first-rounders), Miami will find its quarterback of the future and become a perennial contender. — Cameron Wolfe

Way-too-early ranking: 25

Three words: Better draft well. General manager Joe Douglas, in his first offseason with the Jets, is patching holes with short-term fixes. Only three of their eight new players received multiyear contracts. Of the three, only one (center Connor McGovern) has security beyond 2020. This puts the pressure on Douglas to draft well. Patching is OK, but the team still needs long-term solutions at wide receiver, offensive tackle, cornerback and outside linebacker. The Jets always seem to be in a perpetual state of rebuilding. It’s painful for the fan base, but Douglas deserves a fair chance to do it his way.– Rich Cimini

Way-too-early ranking: 27

Three words: Life after Cam. Yes, the Panthers are in the midst of a complete rebuild under new coach Matt Rhule. If there was any doubt, it ended when they decided to move forward without franchise quarterback Cam Newton and with free-agent pickup Teddy Bridgewater. It’s all about getting young and cheap to be in position to make a playoff run in a few years. Their first nine free agents were 27 or younger and all had deals of one to three years. None were established stars. But nothing spoke louder than moving on from Newton, the first pick of the 2011 draft. — David Newton

Way-too-early ranking: 29

Three words: Work still remains. Yes, the Giants signed two significant free agents in cornerback James Bradberry and linebacker Blake Martinez — and they will help. The Giants then started to fill in around them, but there are still holes all over this roster, with no imposing edge rusher or difference-maker on defense and the offensive line still in need of upgrades at tackle and center. The Giants, under coach Joe Judge and general manager Dave Gettleman, still have a lot of work left to do after the first wave of free agency. More additions are needed, in free agency and the draft. — Jordan Raanan

Way-too-early ranking: 30

Three words: The Midwestern Patriots. It might not be the phrase some in Allen Park, Michigan, like hearing, but that’s been the direction throughout this offseason. The Lions brought in an ex-Pat on every level of their defense — defensive tackle Danny Shelton, linebacker Jamie Collins and safety Duron Harmon. It’s possible that five defensive starters will have New England ties. Then there’s the coaching staff, where all but two defensive staffers have some Patriots past. It makes sense, in a crucial year, that general manager Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia would want to bring in people who know the scheme and understand the culture they are trying to build. — Michael Rothstein

Way-too-early ranking: 28

Three words: Clearing cap space. GM Dave Caldwell traded Calais Campbell, A.J. Bouye and Nick Foles and cut Marcell Dareus to save nearly $40 million against the cap this year. Plus, with those contracts off the books, the Jaguars will have more than $100 million in cap space in 2021. Of the six players Caldwell has added, only two (LB Joe Schobert and TE Tyler Eifert) are front-line guys. The rest help with depth and improve the middle and back thirds of the roster. Caldwell might not be around in 2021 (owner Shad Khan said “the time to win is now”), but he’s getting the franchise in financial shape. — Mike DiRocco

Way-too-early ranking: 31

Three words: Will take time. The Redskins knew they couldn’t rebuild in one year under new coach Ron Rivera, so they weren’t going to chase every big name. They did pursue wide receiver Amari Cooper and missed, but the rest of their signings were more about value and low-risk contracts. They added versatile cornerback Kendall Fuller — their most expensive pickup — and veteran linebacker Thomas Davis. Third-down back J.D. McKissic excites them. But most of the signings were about building depth. Whether it works remains to be seen, but it is the approach. They are focused on the draft, where they own the No. 2 pick (hello, Chase Young). — John Keim

Way-too-early ranking: 32

Three words: Shifting spending patterns. Cincinnati’s conservative approach to free agency went out of the window this year after the Bengals spent more than $112 million on three players — defensive tackle D.J. Reader, cornerbacker Trae Waynes and wide receiver A.J. Green. The aggressiveness is needed for a franchise in the middle of a rebuild. It also prepares for the arrival of quarterback Joe Burrow, the projected No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming draft. The spending spree is imperative for a roster that needs a slew of upgrades. — Ben Baby

Published at Wed, 25 Mar 2020 21:53:46 +0000

Tom Brady is the signing of a lifetime for long-suffering Bucs fans

Tom Brady is the signing of a lifetime for long-suffering Bucs fans

(Editor’s note: ESPN’s Bob McClellan grew up in Central Florida, and his father bought six Buccaneers season tickets in 1976. His brother maintains four of them to this day.)

The GOAT chose the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He wasn’t traded there. It wasn’t for lack of options. Yet Tom Brady signed a two-year deal.

You can’t understand how much the New England Patriots quarterback coming to Tampa Bay means to a Bucs fan.

And by Bucs fan, I’m speaking to those of us who’ve had season tickets in our families since the franchise started in 1976. (We started in the west stands, about the goal line, six seats, six rows up on the aisle. Baseball Hall of Famer Al Lopez and his family were in the row in front of us. A quiet, sweet man.)

The Bucs haven’t fared well chasing big names. They were snubbed by Hall of Fame coaches Bill Parcells (twice) and Bill Cowher. A 2008 trade for Brett Favre fell through at the last minute. And for years players have wanted to do whatever they could to get out of Tampa. Bo Jackson famously never came, even after the Bucs chose him No. 1 overall.

The defense has had great players. Three of them — Lee Roy Selmon, Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks — are already in Canton.

But the offense … my God, the offense. How best to explain the futility we have seen under center? Try this on:

Brady has been to 10 more Pro Bowls than all other Bucs quarterbacks. In the 44 seasons of the franchise.

Brady has been named to the Pro Bowl 14 times. Bucs quarterbacks have been named four times — one each for Jameis Winston, Trent Dilfer, Jeff Garcia and Brad Johnson.

Let’s have some more fun with numbers.

The four quarterbacks who have started the most games in Bucs history are Dilfer (76 starts), Vinny Testaverde (72), Winston (70) and Doug Williams (67). They made 284 starts. Brady has made 283.

TB12 has won 219. QBucs4 won 123 (Dilfer 38-38; Williams 33-33-1; Winston 28-42; Testaverde 24-48). Brady’s winning percentage is .774. The Bucs’ quartet was .433.

Brady has 541 touchdown passes and 179 interceptions. The QBucs4 (Williams, 73-73; Dilfer, 70-80; Testaverde, 77-112; Winston, 121-88) had 341 touchdown passes and 353 interceptions.

I had to read that a few times myself just to digest it without throwing up on my Derrick Brooks jersey. Tom Brady has 200 more touchdown passes in one fewer game than the QBucs4.

And you thought Winston threw interceptions at an alarming rate. He has the best TD-INT ratio of the QBucs4 by a country mile.

The first NFL game I went to was at Tampa Stadium. Steve Spurrier was the quarterback. The Bucs went on to go 0-14. Spurrier made 12 starts and had seven touchdown passes and 12 interceptions. It was the start of an alarming trend.

Brady has been in the league for 20 years. He never has had more interceptions than touchdown passes in a season. Never even close. In Tampa, we celebrated when a QB had more TDs than picks.

Here is a list of guys I saw play QB in person in Tampa, all of whom started games. You are totally forgiven if you don’t recall any. I wish I didn’t.

  • Randy Hedberg

  • Jeb Blount

  • Parnell Dickinson

  • Jack Thompson

  • Gary Huff

  • Mike Rae

  • Jerry Golsteyn

Without checking with ESPN’s Stats & Information group, I’m pretty sure the Bucs are the only team to start a Parnell and a Jeb at QB.

Williams was the quarterback I saw in person the most. Absolute cannon for an arm. Didn’t always know where it was going. Tough as nails. I was upset when the Bucs let him go.

Brady is the fifth Bucs quarterback who has won a Super Bowl in his career and the third who was the MVP in a Super Bowl. Only one — Johnson — won a championship while with the Bucs. Williams was a Super Bowl MVP for the Washington Redskins, and Steve Young was a Super Bowl MVP with the San Francisco 49ers. Dilfer was the starting QB for the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.

The success quarterbacks had once they had departed Tampa used to be a running joke. “Well, wonder how long before he wins a Super Bowl.”

The Bucs haven’t had the best track record in signing free agents, which possibly is tied to the franchise’s futility. They’ve had 26 double-digit losing seasons, including a streak of 12 in a row.

Johnson and Garcia are among their best free-agent signings. They hit big on defensive end Simeon Rice and wide receiver Vincent Jackson, for sure, but the most recent signing of those four was Jackson, and that was eight years ago. And Rice came when the Bucs already had one of the best defenses in the league, so that move made sense.

I can’t blame free agents for ignoring Tampa Bay. It has been mostly synonymous with futility. Money usually trumps everything, but given that, how do you not sign a difference-maker since 2012?

Now, the most successful postseason QB of all time is going to suit up in red and pewter. It’s really not something I gave much thought. I know the Bucs expressed interest, but the Bucs have expressed interest in a lot of guys over the years who chose other places. Feels like almost all of them, to be honest. It just seemed implausible.

I understood Brady to the Chargers. He grew up in California. And plenty of journalists were on the bandwagon for him to go to the West Coast.

I thought Tennessee made the most sense. It was the team that eliminated his from the playoffs in 2019. It has a run game the likes of which Brady has never seen, and a rookie wide receiver who had a 1,000-yard season. Moreover, it has a coach who was a longtime teammate of his and remains a friend in Mike Vrabel.

Brady has no ties of which I’m aware to Bucs coach Bruce Arians or offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich. He doesn’t know receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin or tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. He never has spent significant time in Florida.

But here he is. TB in TB.

Welcome to your new pasture, GOAT. And thanks for coming.

Published at Sun, 29 Mar 2020 11:00:59 +0000

Barnwell: Yes, I’m a tough grader, but here are the nine signings I like

Barnwell: Yes, I’m a tough grader, but here are the nine signings I like

Most deals signed in NFL free agency turn out to be disappointing. Teams pay players expecting the best seasons from their past, but it rarely works out that way. As a result, most of my grades tend to be a C+ or below. Call me a tough grader, but ask the Jets how their massive free-agent haul from last offseason turned out.

Of the more than 100 grades I’ve handed out for free agents this offseason, just nine earned a grade of B+ or better. Here are my favorite free-agent signings so far:

The deal: Two years, $50 million
Grade: A

For two decades, Bill Belichick has put the New England Patriots ahead of any single player on the roster. Virtually every veteran who contributed to the greatest dynasty in modern sports has been shipped out or allowed to leave once he was no longer useful or willing to contribute at the right price. Mike Vrabel was traded to the Chiefs. Randy Moss was shipped to the Vikings. Vince Wilfork finished up with the Texans. Adam Vinatieri had a whole second career with the Colts.

If there were to be one exception to that rule, I always figured it would be star quarterback Tom Brady. Nobody ever referred to the Patriots dynasty as Belichick and Vinatieri or Belichick and McDaniels. Belichick and Brady were equals as (arguably) the best head coach and quarterback of all time. They were the two pillars of the Patriots dynasty, the two centerpieces everyone counted out before they came together for a legendary run in New England. The six championships the Patriots won belong equally to both of them.

Last week, it became clear that the rules weren’t different after all. After years of being lauded for taking less than market value to help the Patriots win, in August 2019, Brady decided it was time for a raise. The Patriots boosted his compensation from $15 million to $23 million and lowered his cap hit by $5.5 million. In the process, Brady got the Patriots to agree that they wouldn’t franchise him in 2020.

The threat of the franchise tag would have limited Brady’s leverage and likely led the Patriots to keep the best player in team history for at least one more season. Instead, when the two sides started to negotiate an extension, it appears that Belichick got that familiar feeling. Brady had an offer of $30 million per season on the table, and by all accounts, the Patriots weren’t willing to compete. This moment was always going to come if Brady didn’t retire after a Super Bowl victory, but when it did, I figured Belichick or Brady would blink. In the end, neither did.

Now, Brady is a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a combination that would have seemed impossible even a few months ago. There will be a time to discuss Brady’s legacy, how it is impacted by the move and how the Patriots will account for his absence. This is about Brady’s new opportunity and what comes next for the new pairing of Brady and Bruce Arians.

Was Brady foolish to pick the Buccaneers? Should Tampa have gone for one of the other quarterbacks? Can he be competitive with his new team and even compete for a Super Bowl? Let’s run through what we know about this new marriage and get a sense of what to expect for Brady in Florida.

The deal: Two years, $50 million
Grade: A-

I’m admittedly not always the easiest grader, but it’s hard to find much wrong with bringing back a Hall of Fame quarterback on a below-market deal. This is more likely to be a one-year commitment with a voidable year to help create short-term cap space, which is just fine when you’re making space for a franchise quarterback.

Brees didn’t let his slow end to 2018 carry over and was excellent yet again in 2019. There’s always going to be a chance that the 41-year-old will drop off in a way similar to how Tom Brady did in 2019, but the Saints rightfully are going to take another shot at a Super Bowl with Brees in the fold.

The deal: One year, $5 million
Grade: A-

Non-tendered by the Falcons last offseason, Poole responded by turning into something truly rare by 2019 standards: a bright spot for the Jets. With Poole serving as their primary slot corner, the Jets allowed a passer rating of 87.7 to wideouts who came out of the slot or out of a tight split, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, the third-best mark in football. By comparison, they ranked 22nd in the league in passer rating on throws to receivers who were split out wide.

This is a deep draft class for competent cornerbacks (without many great ones available), but the logical entry point for Poole was going to be something close to the four-year, $36 million deal Justin Coleman signed with the Lions last season. Instead, I’m shocked that the 27-year-old Poole wasn’t able to attract a significant multiyear offer. The cornerback market has been stagnant, but this is a great deal for the Jets, who get back one of the few positive contributors for another campaign on a modest deal.

The deal: One year, $8 million
Grade: A-

Although Suh has seemed content to wander the league on a series of one-year deals since he left the Dolphins after the 2017 season, the Bucs saw enough from the five-time Pro Bowler last season to keep him around for another season. Suh didn’t dominate as a pass-rusher, but his alliance with wildly underrated tackle Vita Vea was the biggest reason the Bucs improved from 31st in rush defense DVOA in 2018 to the league’s top rush defense this past campaign.

Suh also brings an underrated asset to the table: availability. The 33-year-old has never missed a game due to injury and has appeared on the injury report only three times in 10 seasons. The Bucs can feel confident that Suh is going to show up and play about 875 defensive snaps at a high level, which is not the case for a majority of free-agent signings. Tampa still has about $16 million in cap room to play with and should continue to attract veterans who want to get one final run with Tom Brady.

The deal: Three years, $30 million
Grade: B+

The best case for Bulaga’s indirect value has been observing what happens to Aaron Rodgers when Bulaga isn’t on the field. In 2019, when the right tackle played 16 games for only the third time in 10 pro seasons, he missed most of two games and parts of six others. Unsurprisingly, Rodgers’ numbers fell off: The quarterback’s passer rating dropped from 96.6 with Bulaga on the field to 83.8 across 101 dropbacks without him. Rodgers’ sack rate was actually worse with Bulaga on the field, but he went from averaging 7.2 yards per attempt with him on the field to just 5.8 yards per throw without him. Rodgers is no fool: When Bulaga wasn’t protecting him, he got the ball out more quickly.

Those seven other pro seasons are the most plausible reason the Chargers might regret this deal. Bulaga has missed 45 games in his career, including all of 2013 because of a torn ACL. He has another 13 games in which he was active and in the lineup but failed to play more than 50% of the offensive snaps, often owing to injuries prematurely ending his night. Bulaga turns 31 next week, so it’s tough to imagine him getting dramatically healthier over the course of this deal, though he has missed only two full games the past two seasons.

Even given those injury concerns, though, the Chargers have to be happy with this contract. George Fant got three years and $30 million from the Jets, and he barely has 16 games’ worth of experience as an NFL lineman. This is an easy win for the Chargers and a major upgrade on what was a dismal right tackle situation for Anthony Lynn’s team in 2019.

The deal: Two years, $12 million
Grade: B+

Nobody can accuse the Steelers of ignoring the tight end position. After trading for Vance McDonald in 2017 and Nick Vannett last year, Pittsburgh is replacing the latter by handing Ebron a two-year deal. A healthy Ebron is an upgrade on both McDonald and Vannett as a receiver, so this is a nice under-the-radar move for Pittsburgh in a rare foray into free agency.

Steelers fans looking up Ebron’s stat line from 2018 and eyeing those 13 touchdowns are too optimistic. That touchdown rate was out of line with both Ebron’s history and the broader history of tight ends in football, given that he turned just 66 catches into 13 scores. The Colts made Ebron a focal point of their offense under Andrew Luck that year with 110 targets, but Ebron’s numbers fell across the board last season. He disagreed with the organization about undergoing ankle surgery in December, which led to his departure this offseason.

A healthy Ebron gives the returning Ben Roethlisberger an upper-echelon athlete with a large catch radius. The Steelers can move Ebron all over the formation to try to create mismatches, which should allow them to leave McDonald in line when they work out of 12 personnel. Drops have been a problem for Ebron in the past, which might bring back ugly memories of Donte Moncrief‘s disastrous September with the Steelers. But if Ebron were consistently healthy and didn’t have the occasional drop, he would be looking at Austin Hooper money.

This is a good risk/reward opportunity for the Steelers, and it’s shocking that tight end-needy teams such as the Patriots didn’t compete here.

The deal: Two years, $23 million
Grade: B+

While there were rumors that one of the organizations stocked with former Patriots coaches and executives would make a run at McCourty, the presence of twin brother Jason and coach Bill Belichick made it more likely that the 10-year veteran would return to his only professional home. The two-time Pro Bowler was one of the best safeties in football a year ago, picking off five passes for the first time since 2012 while allowing a passer rating of just 50.6 as the nearest defender in coverage. This is hardly top-of-the-market money for a safety, so while McCourty is likely to have most or all of this deal guaranteed up front, it’s a logical win-win for both sides.

One other subtle thing about this deal is the structure. McCourty was New England’s second-most-pressing free agent behind Tom Brady and the only other player the team was likely to consider signing to a deal north of $10 million per year. If the Pats were desperately concerned about their cap space, they would have given McCourty a longer deal with a big signing bonus to try to create short-term cap room. (Note: This deal was agreed to before Tom Brady signed with the Bucs.)

The deal: One year, $25 million
Grade: B+

If Tom Brady leaving the Patriots for Tampa Bay isn’t weird enough, get ready for Rivers in silver and blue. I wondered whether the post-Brady Patriots might try to hijack Rivers’ long-rumored move to the Colts, but the reunion between Rivers and former Chargers offensive coordinator Frank Reich just made too much sense for all parties involved. I’m a little surprised that this isn’t more than a one-year pact, even if future years weren’t guaranteed, but Indianapolis has the cap space to absorb a one-year deal and shouldn’t have much trouble bringing Rivers back if things work out.

I’m optimistic that we’ll see a better Rivers in 2020 than we did in 2019, in part because he is going from one of the league’s worst offensive lines to what might arguably be one of its best. The Chargers ranked 19th in ESPN’s pass block win rate metric last season, and even that was likely a product of Rivers’ ability to read defenses and put his linemen in the right place. Anthony Lynn’s offense was overcome by injuries up front, with veterans Russell Okung and Mike Pouncey missing a combined 21 games and never playing a snap together during the season. The Chargers had what was likely the worst tackle situation in football with Sam Tevi and Trent Scott in key roles.

The Colts ranked third in pass block win rate and did a solid job of protecting Jacoby Brissett, whose sack rate in his second run as Colts starter was nearly half of what it was the first time around. With steady, competent protection, expect Rivers to do a better job of protecting himself pre-snap and have fewer plays in which he gets blown up by a failed block attempt immediately afterward. Indy already brought back Anthony Castonzo, which should provide Rivers with one of the league’s best left tackles on his blind side.

Rivers’ interception rate spiked last season, but as I mentioned in my column about possible Brady replacements, a league-high seven of his 20 picks came in the final five minutes of games while his team was trailing. Those are moments when he typically had to try to put the ball into tight windows to try to make something happen. The previous season, playing on a Chargers team that often had leads in the final five minutes, Rivers threw just one pick in the final five minutes of games.

I’d also count on him playing better in front of fans who actually want to root for his team. With the Chargers forced to resort to silent counts in front of rabid fans who were cheering for the opposition in Carson, California, Rivers was 25th in passer rating at home in 2019. He was 13th in the same category on the road. In 2018, Rivers was ninth in passer rating at home and fourth on the road. I wouldn’t usually put much stock in a two-year sample of home/road splits, but few teams have faced the sort of home-field disadvantage the Chargers were up against.

This move isn’t without risk, of course. Rivers turns 39 in December, and you can’t chalk all of his interceptions up to desperate decisions. The Chargers’ offense wasn’t moving the ball effectively early in games, which is why they were often trailing in the fourth quarter. It’s hardly as if the Rivers-Reich partnership was a roaring success the first time around; Reich was fired after a 4-12 season in which the Chargers ranked 26th in points per game and 15th in offensive DVOA. The Colts also don’t have the sort of weapons the Chargers had for Rivers and need to add at least one wide receiver to work alongside T.Y. Hilton and second-year wideout Parris Campbell.

Even given those concerns, Rivers was the best quarterback the Colts could have targeted in free agency. He should be an upgrade on Brissett. With the Jaguars rebuilding, the Titans likely to see some sort of regression from Ryan Tannehill and the Texans seemingly undergoing an existential crisis, the Colts are well-positioned to make a run at the division title if they can get their draft right.

The deal: One year, $1 million
Grade: B+

Robey-Coleman is always going to be synonymous with that play against the Saints, but he has been an above-average slot cornerback in his time with the Bills and Rams. Los Angeles declined his option in order to create cap space, but at this price, I’m surprised the Rams weren’t able to bring him back for another season.

This is an easy victory for the Eagles, who have upgraded two of their three cornerback slots by signing Robey-Coleman and trading for Darius Slay. The slot cornerback market seemed to take off in 2019, when guys such as Bryce Callahan, Justin Coleman and Tavon Young were able to sign significant multiyear deals, but with Brian Poole and Robey-Coleman each taking a one-year deal for modest money, things appear to have swung in the other direction.

Published at Fri, 27 Mar 2020 12:17:15 +0000

How one hit cost an NFL player $1 million

How one hit cost an NFL player $1 million

It was a routine play for the Baltimore Ravens and center Matt Skura. On a fourth down, quarterback Lamar Jackson ran against the Los Angeles Rams, and Skura locked up nose tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day. Then, Rams defensive lineman Michael Brockers accidentally crashed into Skura’s left knee.

It’s a hit that would cost Skura $1.1 million.

Four months ago, when all of Brockers’ 305 pounds rolled into the side of Skura’s leg, Skura’s ACL, MCL and PCL were severed. His kneecap dislocated. Skura was the starting center for the NFL’s highest-scoring offense and was nearing his biggest payday. In one collision, his season was abruptly over in Week 12 and the course of a promising football career was altered.

Skura felt the pain of the NFL’s brutal unpredictability on that one play in Los Angeles. Then last week, the financial reality of that injury came. Skura received the low tender as a restricted free agent at $2.1 million, which is much less than the $3.2 million second-round tender he almost assuredly would’ve gotten if he had avoided injury.

“It’s crazy because we’ve ran those plays hundreds of times in the last three years and nothing happens. Then one play can change it,” Skura said. “And that’s the tough part, too. You think you can go back and rewind that play over and over again, and you try to change time. You think you can do that, and that’s the difficult part of mentally overcoming an injury. It happened and now you just got to move forward and you gotta focus on making your knee better or injury better rather than trying to dwell on the ‘what ifs.'”

There were plenty of shocked faces when Skura was carted off the field at the Coliseum. If anyone was going to be impervious to injury along the offensive line, it was going to be Baltimore’s iron man in the trenches. Skura had started 36 straight games. His 1,814 snaps, from the time he took over as starting center in the 2017 opener to when he blew out his knee, led the NFL.

It’s only natural for Skura to think back to the moment when Ravens left tackle Ronnie Stanley blocked Brockers so hard that the Rams defender fell backward into his leg. Would Skura have escaped injury if his left foot hadn’t been planted? What would’ve been the damage if his heel was simply off the ground?

This seven-figure difference in salary represents a big hit to the wallet for Skura, who went undrafted and earned $1.8 million in three years. His $645,000 salary last season ranked 43rd among centers.

This is purely a business move by Baltimore, which is pressed against the salary cap. The Ravens are looking for any wiggle room and are taking the calculated risk that no other team signs Skura to an offer sheet, given his health status.

“I definitely felt like, ‘This kind of sucks, possibly losing out on an extra million in salary,'” Skura said. “But I mean, right now, I’ve just got to deal with it and say, ‘It is what it is,’ and go out and show that I’m still the same great player that they loved before, and hopefully that pays off and instead of just a million dollar difference. You know it will be much more and so now we’re talking about tens of millions of dollars.”

Skura is aiming to return sometime in training camp, where he can look to regain his starting job from Patrick Mekari. Skura has been off his crutches for over two months, and he’s hoping to get back to running in a couple of weeks.

At home in Charlotte, North Carolina, with his gym closed due to coronavirus precautions, Skura has even taken to pulling his pickup truck with a bungee cord wrapped around his waist. Anything he can do to test the surgically repaired knee.

Even though it sounds strange to say it, Skura feels lucky in some ways. He didn’t tear his meniscus or suffer more nerve or artery damage. It was a significant injury, yet he knows it could’ve been worse.

His social media posts have shown him hitting the exercise bike and lifting weights. His agent, David Canter, tweeted last week: “[Skura] is WAYY ahead of schedule in his recovery.”

Ravens officials have expressed optimism in Skura’s return. Recently retired guard Marshal Yanda reminded coach John Harbaugh that he suffered nearly the same injury in his second season and he went on to play in eight Pro Bowls.

“He established himself as a one of the better centers, at least, in the National Football League, without trying even to overstate it,” Harbaugh said after Skura’s injury. “He was playing at a really, really high level and running the show up front. You just feel bad about it for him, but he’ll come back from it stronger than before.”

This was the first major injury of Skura’s football career, but he’s familiar in dealing with adversity.

A four-year starter at Duke, Skura thought he had a shot at getting selected as high as the fourth round but ended up signing with Baltimore as a free agent (after six other centers were drafted). He spent his rookie season on the Ravens’ practice squad before getting a tough first starting assignment in 2017. Skura was asked to fill in for a perennial Pro Bowl player, Yanda, in London. Skura had to line up at guard, a position he hadn’t played in five years.

After holding his own at guard, Skura took over at center in 2018 for Ryan Jensen, who left to become the NFL’s highest-paid center with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Skura developed into a steady presence inside, ranking as the league’s 16th-best center at the time of his injury last season.

“He’s a coach’s voice. He’s a coach’s eyes,” Ravens offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris said. “He does what he’s supposed to do, and he plays hard.”

If Skura can establish himself again this season, he can cash in as a free agent next offseason. The top seven centers in the league are averaging $10 million per season.

Right now, Skura has to deal with a smaller-than-expected salary and a head-shaking coincidence. On the same day Skura’s tender was announced, the Ravens signed Brockers, the same player who inadvertently injured Skura, to a three-year, $30 million contract.

Will Skura ask Brockers to keep his distance out on the practice field?

“Maybe he can sit out some plays when I’m in there,” Skura jokingly said.

Published at Fri, 20 Mar 2020 19:26:08 +0000