By Ryan Bukowiecki (@ryanbski)
Officially, the new season of NFL business commenced at 4 pm Eastern time this afternoon, but a furious prelude of contract and trade announcements has swept us all up in a different type of March Madness since early Monday.
The 2019 chapter of NFL Free Agency has come with a fury even though no official contracts are just starting to be signed and new prized catches can just begin to be announced under their new colors.
The legal tampering phase that encompassed Monday and Tuesday was only in name, most teams were at the least setting themselves up to follow through on the deals they wanted if not downright extending their arms on the handshake deals needed to get a jump on the rest of the competition throughout the league.
A lot of big names are coming off the FA list and teams are having no trouble flinging big money around to get the guys they need. In Chicago, the Bears were no different, mostly, and made a couple signings though no record money looks to be making its way out of Halas Hall.
Also, the Bears were given clarity on their own top free agents. Fresh off the heels of the Antonio Brown trade to the Raiders setting off the week, numerous teams have made splashes in this free agency, none bigger than the Browns, who’ll we’ll get into soon. Fans of teams across the league are excited for this upcoming season just from the last week and the draft is still over a month away.
Suddenly, the NFL has become the hot topic in sports talk media again and there are still a lot of big names that have yet to be signed. Let’s take a deeper dive into the various free agency stories.
Wide Out Swap Out
Actual free agency has been forced to take a back seat to the impact the NFL has felt in been rocked by a pair of trades involving top wide receivers.
First, former Steelers standout wide receiver Antonio Brown went to the Raiders over the weekend after weeks of deliberation over his eventual landing place and late Tuesday Odell Beckham Jr. was traded by the Giants to the Browns for what reportedly will be the No. 17th overall pick in this year’s draft, the Brown’s second third-round pick this year (95th overall) and safety Jabril Peppers.
The Browns have been terrific over the past two offseasons in acquiring talent. The offensive rookie of the year runner up was the Browns first pick and first overall selection in the draft with quarterback Baker Mayfield. Mayfield revived the offense with a decent supporting cast. Now add in stars in Kareem Hunt and Odell Beckham Jr., the Browns may be a dark horse favorite to go on a run to a title this year. A good defense is about to be complimented with perhaps an even more impressive offense.
As for the other star receiver, Brown may not have quite the impact on the Raiders as Beckham will have on the Browns. The Raiders are a team with multiple unknowns, many aren’t convinced that the front office and coaching staff has the ability to draft the players needed to reshape the team. Questions remain with the quarterback position as well as what the Raiders may try to do with four picks in the first 35. If the Raiders can draft the impact players they need and settle the quarterback position with a clear starter, then Brown may be able to have a huge impact. No doubt Brown is still one of, if not, the best receiver in football and has been in MVP conversations.
Oakland is much earlier in its rebuild stage than Cleveland is but things can change so quickly in the NFL. These two receivers have the ability to carry their teams to the playoffs and more, amazing to see in today’s NFL the types of talent that are being moved unlike at any point in the game’s history.
Times Are Changing
The Bears came into this off-season with a majority of the team under contract for the upcoming season. The only starters that made it to free agency was safety Adrian Amos and basically a starter in nickel back Bryce Callahan.
Chicago opened the legal tampering period by coming to terms with cornerback Buster Skrine, formally of Detroit, and running back Mike Davis, formally of Seattle, after resigning tight end Ben Braunecker earlier in the day. The signing of Skrine is a very likely cost effective option compared to Callahan, meaning that Callahan will likely move on to another team. Both Skrine and Callahan are similar in their measurables and even though Skrine is not as adept at making plays, he is far more durable than Callahan. Callahan has yet to play a full 16 game season while Skrine has missed only five games in his eight seasons.
It must have been felt by the Bears that Callahan would command too much and worried about paying that much for his inconsistent availability. As for Davis, he isn’t a well known player but he is a back that fits the mold that coach Nagy wants. Davis can run and catch with good burst speed, he does lack the top end speed but will be an upgrade over running back Benny Cunningham. The Bears will still want to get another running back with previous reports saying they want to trade current starter Jordan Howard.
Le’Veon Bell is no longer available — his agreeing to terms with the Jets was the last major news in the Tuesday evening deluge — he may have been a target of the Bears and certainly could have filled Howard’s shoes. Encouragement to that end existed earlier in the day yesterday as the Bears gained more cap room by converting some of linebacker Khalil Mack’s roster bonuses into a signing bonus. That move gave the Bears an extra 11 million in cap room and perhaps signaling general manager Ryan Pace trying to make a big move.
Now that Bell is off the market, the Bears could still make a big move in bringing in a safety, especially after Amos was signed by the Packers, or at edge rusher even. Safety and running back are positions that can be addressed in the draft with the few picks the team has. Running back looks to be a position the team will address in the draft now that there is not an obvious solution in free agency. The day two signing for the Bears most of note was collecting a versatile receiver in Cordarrelle Patterson, formally of the Patriots.
Regardless of his place in the Bears receiver rotation, Patterson will be a key special teams player and will be of need in that area after the Bears lost receiver Josh Bellamy to the Jets. Bellamy was a special teams ace but also a surprise contributor on offense especially when the starting receivers missed games. Bellamy showed much needed versatility and Patterson was very versatile for the Patriots last season as a returner, receiver and runner. Nagy will be able to use Patterson in multiple ways and he can fill in for any of the receiver positions in case of injury. This can be classified as a really solid signing for the Bears to get needed depth at the receiver position with a still young player fresh off a Super Bowl in a system that expertly used his skill set.
A big splash move could still be coming for the Bears with their cap room or perhaps the team might focus on adding a few more supplementary roster moves. Either way, we have learned over the years that guessing what Pace might do can be a difficult challenge.
The start to this year’s pro football free agency has been a gold rush for both teams and players. The money and lack of movement that occurred in baseball’s free agency last year and this year has been the exact opposite to the start of the NFL’s off season.
Record breaking deals were agreed upon as soon as the tampering period began. Top tier free agents down to lower tier free agents have been signing fast and furious, with teams spending a lot too. Some of the headline moves on day one was the record setting deal for safety Landon Collins to Washington. Former Patriot Trent Brown signed a record breaking deal for a left tackle with the Raiders.
The NFC North got stronger as the Lions continue to look like the NFC Patriots by signing a few ex-Patriots in edge rusher Trey Flowers, cornerback Justin Coleman and wide receiver Danny Amendola. The Lions also added help at tight end in Jesse James from the Steelers. The Packers were the other big spender from the North on day two. The Packers came to agreements with safety Adrian Amos, edge rusher Za’Darius Smith, edge rusher Preston Smith and offensive lineman Billy Turner while letting go of veteran pass rusher Nick Perry. Both the Lions and Packers want a strong rebound after how disappointing their seasons were a year ago.
As for the Vikings, they have been similar to the Bears in doing some minor moves while letting some bigger names walk. The big name free agent on the Vikings is linebacker Anthony Barr. It was reported Barr had agreed to sign with the Jets but, in one of those weird circumstances, got cold feet about the move and went back to resign with the Vikings.
On paper, the North looks to be one of the toughest divisions in football, the Bears will have to be smart with their money and draft picks to maintain their reign in the division.
Plenty of big names are still on the market to be on the lookout for in safety Earl Thomas, edge rusher Justin Houston, wide receiver Golden Tate and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. These players can make rippling wave-type impacts in the right situation.
A lot of players will be signed over the course of the week before the market “shuts down” for the draft. Then the draft will come and all sorts of deals may happen again but it will be the last opportunity for teams to significantly improve the roster.
Ryan Bukowiecki covers the Chicago Bears and professional football for WARR