OFF-SEASON ACTION

Throughout the off-season all the attention is on the teams and players away from the field. Team personnel will currently be busy evaluating all the draft entries that competed at the NFL combine and pro days, but with the draft still a month away the focus has been on free agency.

The NFL free agency period is now calming.  All players who were made available have spent this time finalising negotiations and sorting out where they will be playing in 2017.  It is always entertaining observing where some of the bigger names in free agency end up, in fact some are yet to be signed for the new season.  Teams have decisions to make, if they have a real need to sign a player at a particular position, they could choose to wait a month and target young talent in the draft or go out and get a seasoned pro right now.

Some clubs have a lot more salary cap money to spend than others, these are the ones who will likely be the most active in free agency and do more deals.  Rather than concentrate on each team, I thought I’d review some of free agency by looking at key positions and who made the headline-grabbing signings and trades.

Quarterbacks

Everyone has to find their own star quarterback to lead the offense and to win games.  This year it is perhaps vital for anyone in need of one NOW to find him in free agency, as I do not think much of this year’s draft class!  One or two have the potential to achieve if they are drafted into the right system, but acquiring an already-established quarterback seems like the right way to bring immediate success.  Some of the big stories are still developing but here are a few that have been finalised.

It has been an ongoing story for a long time that the Cleveland Browns need a quarterback – I wrote about the subject in a past blog post (which can be read here!).  On the first day of free agency the Browns traded with the Houston Texans to get QB Brock Osweiler.  The Texans were happy to do this business and send Osweiler (and his LARGE contract) to Cleveland as he failed to play to expectations last year.  It turns out the story hasn’t ended yet, with the Browns likely to use Osweiler to get a deal with someone else and move him on as soon as possible.  Poor old Osweiler has even been quoted as saying he’s heard nothing from the Browns since the trade.  The wait continues to see where he will be come the start of the season.

The state of Cleveland’s quarterback position would all have been avoided if only they had listened to me and kept Brian Hoyer!  During 2013 Hoyer played really well for a number of games but injury curtailed his  season and the Browns decided to move on.  More recently Hoyer has been with the Chicago Bears and I have always rated him because of his time with the Browns, although injury has once again forced him to find a new team: the San Francisco 49ers.  It’s a good move with the 49ers being another team in need of a fresh signal-caller and their new head coach Kyle Shanahan was Hoyer’s offensive coordinator during his time in Cleveland.  This is probably Hoyer’s last chance to have a successful career if he earns the starting job.  Can he win games given the right offense? Yes.  Can he carry that to another level by winning playoff games?  We’ll see.

After allowing Hoyer to leave and releasing long-time number one Jay Cutler, the Bears have given Mike Glennon the opportunity to be their quarterback. The three-year contract given to Glennon shows that Chicago are putting faith in him to lead their improving offense.  Star receiver Alshon Jeffrey has departed so adding one or two new targets for him would help greatly.

Quarterback Geno Smith is moving across New York – from the Jets to the Giants.  I find his career path similar to Hoyer because he dropped off in form despite having loads of potential at one point.  Smith ended 2014 playing really well, but was unable to build on that due to a locker room altercation resulting in him suffering a broken jaw.  He took time to come back from that and never regained his best form, with his time at the Jets ultimately terminated by a knee injury.  With Eli Manning at the Giants it may be tough for Smith to prove himself but I think he can at least be a strong backup.

Wide Receivers

Another market that has gathered interest is the wide receiver position, for the main reason that there was so much movement.

The Philadelphia Eagles strengthened their receiving core by first signing veteran Torrey Smith then adding the top available pass catcher Alshon Jeffrey.  Both have been brought in to improve the team’s passing game and to help young quarterback Carson Wentz, with Jeffrey to be deployed as his number one target.

Like Geno Smith, receiver Brandon Marshall has moved from the Jets to the Giants.  After twelve years in the league, Marshall signed a two-year contract and must see the Giants as his best chance to reach an elusive championship game.  He is still playing at a high level and will be a nice option for the offense who hope he can take some attention away from star player Odell Beckham Jr.  Marshall’s addition should make the Giants offense better.

Desean Jackson has settled on joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He will be a great compliment to the Bucs number one receiver Mike Evans and with quarterback Jameis Winston throwing him the ball, this could be a scary signing for opposing defenses.  Jackson is a fast and versatile player and it will be interesting to see how the Tampa coaches use him.

With Jackson departing the Washington Redskins, the team filled the void by acquiring Terrelle Pryor.  Pryor used to be a dual-threat quarterback but once his form and playing chances dipped he converted to wide receiver, producing a breakout year in 2016 with the Browns.  This season with Washington will be crucial as Pryor will use it to prove his worth and show he can have a valuable impact as a receiver.  As Pryor departed, the Browns replaced him with Kenny Britt from the Los Angeles Rams, who themselves brought in WR Robert Woods – just to complete the merry-go-round!

The Oakland Raiders got another weapon by recruiting Cordarrelle Patterson. The former Minnesota Viking never quite reached his potential with the team as a receiver or returner; he just wasn’t consistent enough.  Oakland will hope they can find a way to use the speedy Patterson to the best of his ability in a squad that should be a real playoff challenger in 2017.

Other Notable Signings

Players from all over the NFL’s rosters find new homes at this time of year.  Below are some more signings of note.

Firstly it is worth looking at the business done by the New England Patriots.  The team that have outmanoeuvred the league with multiple on-field successes over a number of years, were the envy of many once again by having one of the biggest salary caps to spend in free agency and used it to make a list of typically smart moves.  They made big trades – getting defensive end Kony Ealy from the Carolina Panthers, wide receiver Brandin Cooks from the New Orleans Saints and tight end Dwayne Allen from the Indianapolis Colts.  They made big free agent signings – suring up the secondary with cornerback Stephon Gilmore (perhaps the best available at the position) and adding depth with defensive lineman Lawrence Guy and running back Rex Burkhead.  They also held on to star linebacker Dont’a Hightower.  Basically, the reigning champs got a lot stronger.

Also getting stronger is the defense of the Jacksonville Jaguars, a unit that already has some exciting players on the depth chart.  Following free agency they now add defensive end Calais Campbell, which will strengthen the defensive line and bring some experience to a young defense.  The Jags took cornerback A.J. Bouye away from divisional rival Houston as well.  Bouye had a breakout year at the right time and got a large contract to come in and give new head coach Doug Marrone some more quality in the secondary.  The Jaguars have had a nice looking defense for a couple of years, maybe these signings will help them realise their collective potential.

Fellow AFC South team the Tennessee Titans improved their secondary by taking safety and former rival Johnathan Cyprien from the Jaguars and cornerback Logan Ryan who won last season’s Super Bowl with the Patriots.  I like both these players and the Titans – like the Jaguars – are building well.  The race within that division could prove very close.

Offensive lineman do not play the most glamourous positions in the NFL, but as the guys whose job it is to protect the quarterback it is crucial for teams to have some real strength in these places.  The Detroit Lions improved their o-line massively by grabbing offensive guard T.J. Lang from divisional rivals the Green Bay Packers and spent big on offensive tackle Ricky Wagner, who was the best available OT during free agency.  These two will really help Detroit protect quarterback Matthew Stafford and to move the ball in the run game.

While the Lions gained big on offensive line, the Cincinnati Bengals lost big. The Bengals saw all-pro OT Andrew Whitworth join the Rams and top OG Kevin Zeitler leave for the Browns.  These departures mean the Bengals now have a real weakness to address, something they may do in the draft.

Defensive tackle Dontari Poe signed for the Atlanta Falcons, which is a good deal for both sides. The Falcons defense is already full of talent and can now fit interior lineman Poe into the mix; as one of the top players at the position this creates another dynamic for one of the best defenses in the league.

Despite helping the Patriots win Super Bowl LI, it always seemed tight end Martellus Bennett was going to move on.  He has landed with the Packers, which could prove a huge signing for Green Bay and quarterback Aaron Rodgers as Bennett can be amongst the best at the position and very tough to play against.  A Rodgers-to-Bennett combination certainly feels pretty intimidating.

Leaving the Packers is former starting running back Eddie Lacy.  The big runner had a real dip in 2016 due to weight concerns and he has now been picked up by the Seattle Seahawks, who must be hoping to use Lacy to get their running game back to the tough, power running days of Marshawn Lynch.  Lacy certainly has a similar style and Seattle will know how to use him, so if he can stay in shape this will be a really good pairing.

Players Still Available

Some of the biggest stories from this year’s free agency are yet to be written. There are some big names still on the market, with a lot of focus on the free agent quarterbacks.

Perhaps the most coveted is Tony Romo, who seemed destined to leave the Dallas Cowboys once rookie Dak Prescott took the reins of the offense and had such a good season.  Romo is still a Cowboys player for the next couple of months so the organisation could listen to trade offers but teams will wait until he is available as a free agent.  He could still be productive and his most likely destination is the Texans, who now need a quarterback having got rid of Brock Osweiler.  There is a chance the Denver Broncos are also interested in Romo though it feels very probable he will be playing for Houston next season.  Any team that feels like they need a quarterback from free agency will likely make a run at Romo, as others available include Jay Cutler, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Colin Kaepernick, players who are not as highly regarded and will be signed to provide competition by any new team.

One of the top running backs of the last decade is Adrian Peterson and he is now looking for a new home having been released by the Minnesota Vikings.  He has visited a few teams and left without getting signed, though I don’t expect Peterson to wait much longer as he will upgrade the run game of the team that signs him.

Darrelle Revis has once again moved on from the New York Jets.  The former all-pro cornerback has entered free agency after a second spell with the club and so far news of a deal has been slow.  There is a chance he will stay with the Jets but I expect him to be with a new team in the coming weeks.

Also on the defensive side, the Bengals and Lions have released linebackers Rey Maualuga and Deandre Levy respectively. Both players are now 30-years-old, signalling that both teams are moving on to attract younger talent at the position.

At this time there are players who are still contracted, but rumoured to be available for trade if the right deal comes along. Cornerback Malcolm Butler of the Patriots is one such player, with the New Orleans Saints long reported to be interested.  Talks between the two sides appear to be running on however, with the Saints seemingly hesitating on whatever the Patriots are asking for.

Some intriguing trades could be in the works at the quarterback position.  The Patriots backup Jimmy Garoppolo is thought to be available for a trade and the Browns are the team believed to be set on him, especially if they are not going to keep Brock Osweiler.  More surprising would be the Redskins trading Kirk Cousins to the 49ers, which has been long rumoured to be a possibility.  The 49ers do need a new QB but the Redskins would surely be weaker without Cousins given how good he has looked recently.

It is always fun to watch players move around and see how the deals done and yet to be done work out. They will also affect how teams approach the NFL draft, which is just a month away.  I will be focusing a lot on the draft while it draws closer as it is one of my favourite parts of the sporting year.