Most Surprising Early Moves of 2018 NFL Free Agency

Alex KayContributor IMarch 17, 2018

Most Surprising Early Moves of 2018 NFL Free Agency

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    Calling 2018 NFL free agency anything but action-packed would be a massive understatement. Certain markets—most notably the wide receiver and quarterback ones—went absolutely wild in terms of money exchanged, resulting in some contracts that had seemed implausible just last weekend.

    There have also been a number of surprise cuts this week, as a few teams were forced to part ways with star players while scrambling to fit new deals under the salary cap.

    Not every move in this free-agency period has been shocking, but several could certainly be described as such. Here's a look at the most surprising of the bunch.

Honorable Mentions

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    Jonathan Stewart Signs Deal with New York Giants for Reported Base Value of $6.9 Million Over Two Years

    The G-Men have had one of the most inconsistent backfields in recent years. They've tried their luck with veteran acquisitions via free agency, most notably signing Shane Vereen in 2015 and Rashad Jennings in 2014, although neither move panned out as Big Blue had hoped.

    New Giants GM Dave Gettleman has a history with Stewart from their time in Carolina, giving him a one-year extension a few months before being fired from the Panthers front office in the 2017 offseason. They are reuniting in the Big Apple, but this deal likely isn't going to pay dividends, even for a desperate squad that ranked near the bottom of the league in rushing offense last year.

          

    Case Keenum Signs Two-Year Deal with Denver Broncos Worth Reported $36 Million

    The Denver Broncos defense was stellar last year but couldn't catch a break with turnovers and three-and-outs committed by the offense. Quarterback play was downright abysmal for this franchise, which is desperate to get a useful body under center. Keenum fits the description, but the 30-year-old journeyman is getting paid a ton of money for having one impressive season on his resume. It was admittedly a great year—he went 11-3 as the starter and threw for 3,547 yards and 22 touchdowns against seven interceptions—but this is overpaying for what will likely be an average quarterback.

    Denver's best-case scenario is recreating the success Minnesota enjoyed with Keenum, using an elite defense to get back to the playoffs while Keenum manages the game and doesn't make too many critical mistakes. That's not a bad plan and worked for the franchise when it dragged Peyton Manning to a Super Bowl in 2015, but this sum of money could have been used to improve other areas of the roster.

            

    Anthony Hitchens Signs with Kansas City Chiefs on a Reported Five-Year, $45 Million Deal

    The Dallas Cowboys lost a solid linebacker this offseason by letting Hitchens walk in free agency. The Chiefs are adding a fierce tackler who filled in capably when Dallas starters Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith were injured, but they had to pay a lot for a player that was a good insurance policy for his former club but wasn't a main cog in the defense.

    He'll now get paid like a key contributor, costing Kansas City a minimum of $21.3 million over the next four years in guaranteed money with the potential to earn up to $49.3 million after incentives, according to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero. Hitchens will provide highlight hits and a nonstop motor, but he can't cover well. The 25-year-old will have to improve quite a bit as he hits his prime, otherwise this will be a surprisingly expensive deal for a middling linebacker.

Jerick McKinnon

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    The SurpriseJerick McKinnon Signed Four-Year Deal with San Francisco 49ers Worth a Reported $30 Million

    Why It's Surprising: The 49ers haven't been shy about giving out big-money deals ever since John Lynch took over as general manager. The club made Jimmy Garoppolo the highest-paid player in NFL history (on an annual basis)—until Kirk Cousins narrowly broke that record at the start of this free-agency period—despite his limited resume. San Francisco continued the trend this week, coming to terms with Jerick McKinnon on a contract that will make the former Minnesota Vikings backup the fourth-highest-paid running back in the league. Only veteran stars Le'Veon Bell, Devonta Freeman and LeSean McCoy will make more in 2018.

    It's an incredible amount of money for a player that has started just 14 games during his four-year career and spent a good amount of time as a backup to Adrian Peterson, Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray. He had chances to shine, however, due to Peterson's suspension for most of the 2014 season and Cook's injury in Week 4 in 2017.

    San Francisco paid McKinnon like a bell-cow back, though there isn't much precedent for McKinnon getting a ton of totes on the ground, as his game high is 20 rushes—which he took for just 36 yards in a matchup with the Houston Texans in 2016—and he only breeched the 15-carry mark 11 times.

    The Georgia Southern product has eclipsed the 100-yard mark on the ground only twice in his career, with both of those triple-digit performances coming during his rookie outing. The 25-year-old was mostly utilized when a change of pace was needed, however, and his pass-catching ability made him ideal to employ as a third-down back in Minnesota's offense.

    49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan likely has big plans for his new offensive weapon and will try to get him the rock in a number of ways. Expect the 5'9", 205-pounder to serve as a safety valve for Garoppolo, as he's a sure-handed receiver out of the backfield who has amassed 142 receptions on 192 targets for 984 yards and five touchdowns in his career.

    He should also have plenty of space to operate when rushing should Garoppolo continue playing at the high level he showed upon taking over as the starting signal-caller last year. Defenses will not be able to stack the box to stop the run, plus the Niners snagged a new offensive lineman to clear lanes in Weston Richburg, signed away from the New York Giants on a five-year deal.

    This is still a lot of money to commit to someone who was merely a backup running back, but the sky is the limit for McKinnon right now. San Francisco rolled the dice on a player with tremendous upside who they believe could be a feature back in this league. Getting this bet right could pay dividends for the organization. Getting it wrong, however, could greatly set the team back in its quest to return to the postseason for the first time in a half-decade.

Albert Wilson

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    The SurpriseAlbert Wilson Signs with Miami Dolphins on a Reported Three-Year, $24 Million Deal

    Why It's Surprising: The Phins had a vacancy to fill in their wide receiver corps after trading top wideout Jarvis Landry—who led the league with 112 receptions—to the Browns in exchange for Cleveland's 2018 fourth-round pick, as well as a seventh-round selection in 2019. It wasn't surprising that Miami sought a replacement for the LSU product in free agency, but how much they paid to acquire former Kansas City Chiefs receiver Albert Wilson is sure to raise a few eyebrows. By inking him to a contract worth $8 million annually, Wilson enters the top 25 at his position for projected 2018 cap hits.

    Before the Dolphins signed him, Ian Rapoport described Wilson's market as "hotter than expected" after a 42-catch, 554-yard, three-touchdown 2017 campaign, mostly lining up in the slot. Those are respectable numbers but don't jump off the page in any meaningful way. The 25-year-old's best days are likely still ahead of him, but he's going to need to deliver on his upside for the Dolphins to get their money's worth here.

    The franchise also signed receiver Danny Amendola away from the AFC East rival New England Patriots; he is most effectively employed out of the slot and could compete with Wilson for snaps there.

    As an undrafted free agent out of Georgia State in 2014, Wilson has steadily improved throughout his four seasons with the Chiefs, culminating with career highs in most major statistical categories last season. He graded out as a Pro Football Focus' No. 33 wide receiver with a rating of 77.7, which is considered average for the position.

    If he's not able to vastly improve on his numbers or winds up losing a good number of snaps to Amendola, this signing will go down as one of the more puzzling ones of 2018. It'll be especially disappointing considering Miami had to sever ties with a handful of marquee veterans to help sign Wilson and others.

Jordy Nelson

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    The SurpriseJordy Nelson Released by Green Bay Packers and Signed Three-Year Deal Worth Reported $15 Million with Oakland Raiders

    Why It's Surprising: Nelson has been a fixture in the Packers receiving corps for what seems like forever. The 32-year-old has been with the organization since it selected him in the second round of the 2008 NFL draft. He burst onto the scene in his fourth season, catching 68 passes for 1,263 yards and career-high 15 touchdowns. He was a solid contributor during the team's Super Bowl run a year prior and has been one of quarterback Aaron Rodgers' most reliable targets ever since.

    After a great 2016 in which he led the league in touchdown receptions (14), in 2017 Nelson suffered through his worst statistical campaign since his sophomore season, greatly struggling without an injured Rodgers in the lineup. The Kansas State product couldn't get on the same page with backup Brett Hundley and caught just 53 passes on 88 targets for 482 yards and six scores. He finished his time in Green Bay with 550 catches—third in franchise history—on 836 targets, generating 7,848 yards and 69 touchdowns, making one Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro appearance for his efforts in 2014.

    General manager Brian Gutekunst released Nelson instead of taking on a cap hit of $12.5 million in 2018. The team needed to clear space to fit tight end Jimmy Graham's new two-year, $22 million deal under the cap, and the cut will correspondingly save more than $10 million. Gutekunst thanked the veteran wideout for his services and claimed that Nelson will one day be in the Packers Hall of Fame, per the team's official press release:

    "We cannot thank Jordy enough for all that he has given the Green Bay Packers and our community for the past 10 years. He has been an exemplary professional and teammate and greatly contributed to our success. Jordy will always be a member of the Packers family and we look forward to his eventual induction into the Packers Hall of Fame. We wish Jordy, his wife Emily, and the rest of their family all the best."

    The Raiders didn't waste any time inking Nelson to a new deal. It's easy to see why, as Oakland's offense took a step back last year, going from No. 6 overall in the league in 2016 down to tied for 17th in 2017. The former Packer should help breathe some life back into a vertical passing game that tended to disappear for long stretches. Nelson should have little competition for the starting job across from Amari Cooper after the Raiders cut ties with Michael Crabtree—who would have counted for a shade under $8 million against the cap—to make room for Nelson.

    It's worth noting that only $2 million of this deal is not fully guaranteed, a surprisingly low number given Nelson's age and drop in production last year. Still, he has managed to stay relatively healthy during his career, and much of that decline can be chalked up to Hundley's ineptitude.

    If he can deliver anything close to the numbers he produced with Rodgers when Derek Carr is throwing him the rock, Nelson could be a nice addition to the Raiders roster. If not, Oakland will have to make a very expensive decision to rid itself of his heavily guaranteed contract.

Richard Sherman

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    The SurpriseRichard Sherman Released by Seattle Seahawks and Signed Three-Year Deal Worth Reported $39 Million with San Francisco 49ers

    Why It's Surprising: The Seahawks made the controversial decision to break up their "Legion of Boom" this offseason by releasing Sherman before the start of free agency. Sherman was a key member of a secondary and elite defense that led Seattle to its first Super Bowl victory in 2013 and nearly repeated a year later. It's rare for a player as productive as Sherman to hit the open market, but the Seahawks are opting to go in a new direction that doesn't include the 29-year-old cornerback and his $11 million salary for the 2018 season.

    The 49ers made their first move of what has been a busy period by coming to terms with Sherman. They'll be adding a player who himself noted that he leads his position in interceptions, passes defensed and opposing completion percentage/passer rating since being drafted in 2011.

    Sherman spent years locking down San Francisco receivers, which seems to have played a part in the organization's strong run at his services. GM John Lynch gave a glowing assessment of the corner in the team's press release announcing the signing:

    "Richard is one of the premier competitors [head coach] Kyle [Shanahan] and I have ever encountered. We look forward to him sharing his wealth of experience and his passion for the game of football with our team. Richard has long been looked at as the prototypical corner in our scheme and the opportunity to have him mentor our players was one we needed to attack. Most importantly, we are excited to have a championship caliber corner on the field for the 49ers."

    Despite the high praise, the franchise structured the deal in a way that adds a layer of protection in case the 6'3", 195-pound defensive back doesn't pan out the way all parties are hoping. There are outs that could essentially render the contract as a one-year, $9 million deal in a worst-case scenario. Sherman is coming off a ruptured Achilles that forced him to miss games for the first time in his career. 

    This will be a transaction worth monitoring in 2018. One of the two NFC West rivals impacted by the move will come out on the losing end. Will Seattle have egg on its face for letting a potential Hall of Famer go in his prime to save some money, or will the Niners get burned by investing heavily in a player who will turn 30—at which age there aren't many success stories about corners switching teams—and is coming off a major injury that forced him to miss nearly half a season? Only time will tell.

Tyrann Mathieu

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    The SurpriseTyrann Mathieu Released By Arizona Cardinals

    Why It's Surprising: The Cardinals attempted to negotiate a salary decrease with star safety Tyrann Mathieu, who declined to take the pay cut and was subsequently cut from the roster. It was the only direct discussion that the organization and player had during the offseason, although general manager Steve Keim told reporters that he was unsure about whether or not the Honey Badger still had a defined place in the team's defense or its payroll with new head coach Steve Wilks. This transaction made it obvious that the two parties were not on the same page and gives both a fresh start.

    By cutting Mathieu right before the start of the new league year, Arizona immediately saved $5.75 million this year and $8 million in 2019. They also avoided paying another $5 million for a bonus that was due if he was still on the roster on Friday. The Cardinals put some of those savings toward deals for quarterbacks Sam Bradford and Mike Glennon—the team had no signal-callers this offseason after Carson Palmer's retirement—as well as tackle Andre Smith and linebacker Josh Bynes.

    Mathieu said he is going to be heavily factoring the potential for his new team to contend into his decision, per Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer, via NFL.com's Kevin Patra: "It's not all about money for me. I want to go somewhere where I can be completely immersed in football, and it's not too much about anything but winning. I want to be a part of winning culture, where you feel that all the time. That's all I want."

    There should be no shortage of suitors lining up to acquire Mathieu's services. The safety has been amongst the best in the league at making plays on the ball and laying big hits since coming into the league as a third-round selection in 2013. Mathieu was widely regarded as having first-round talent, but off-field issues kept teams from taking a chance on him until Arizona called with the No. 69 pick. He played five seasons for the Cards, recording 281 tackles, 11 interceptions, four forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and one defensive touchdown in that span.

    The downside is his susceptibility to injury. Prior to playing 16 games during the 2017 campaign, the LSU product had missed at least two games in every one of his first four seasons and landed on injured reserve three times with knee injuries.

    Mathieu's knees are something that potential buyers will need to consider. One healthy season doesn't mean the 25-year-old is past his injury woes. If he can stay healthy, there is no doubt this is one of the game's great safeties and he'll be a huge contributor on his next team. Whether or not he can actually finish most of the seasons and contribute to a playoff run remains to be seen.

    Editor's Note: Per ESPN's Adam Schefter, Mathieu signed a contract with the Houston Texans. Schefter added the deal is worth $7 million.

Kirk Cousins

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    The SurpriseCousins Signs Three-Year Deal With Minnesota Vikings Worth Fully Guaranteed $84 Million

    Why It's Surprising: Cousins was the gem of the 2018 free-agency class, and everyone knew he was going to get paid handsomely after spending back-to-back years playing on the franchise tag for the Washington Redskins. It wasn't all that shocking that the Minnesota Vikings were the ones to sign him, as they looked to be an elite quarterback short of a Super Bowl run last year and have everything in place for another run with Cousins under center this coming season.

    It didn't raise many eyebrows when it was revealed that the 29-year-old became the highest-paid player on an annual basis. The surprising aspect of this move is that Cousins made history by becoming the first quarterback to negotiate a fully guaranteed megadeal in free agency.

    This shattered the previous high that Matthew Stafford commanded when he got $60.5 million guaranteed on a five-year, $135 million deal. Cousins could push the value of this contract to a total of $90 million after incentives, which is a drop in the bucket compared to what he's been guaranteed.

    Now that the Michigan State product has made history and finally has long-term security, he told ESPN.com that he's hoping to stay in the Twin Cities for more than the duration of this contract: "As [GM] Rick [Spielman] said yesterday, this is a lifetime deal. That's the goal. This is a three-year deal but the expectation from both sides is we raise our kids here and then if everything goes as planned that I'd be here for a long, long time."

    Cousins has to be happy the Redskins turned down the chance to sign him for three years at a fully guaranteed $58.5 million price, which was his counteroffer to their first franchise tag. He wound up staying healthy, playing well and earning a huge salary on a second tag in addition to this blockbuster contract from Minnesota that pays almost $30 million more.

    Huge expectations will come with such a massive amount of money, especially from a team that boasts the No. 1 defense and is coming off an NFC Championship Game appearance, but Cousins won't have to worry about meeting them in order to get paid. The franchise will sink or swim with the 2016 Pro Bowler. For better or worse, he's going to be the man under center in Minnesota for the next three years.

Ndamukong Suh

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    The SurpriseNdamukong Suh Released By Miami Dolphins

    Why It's Surprising: In 2015, the Dolphins came to terms on a record six-year, $114 million deal for Suh that made him the highest paid defensive player in league history. On Wednesday, the Fins decided to tear up the defensive lineman's contract and move on after three years of employing the five-time Pro Bowler.

    Instead of paying the 31-year-old a base salary of nearly $17 million and taking an approximate $26 million cap hit for the upcoming 2018 campaign, Miami decided to convert that former figure into cap space—and absorb the $9 million difference in dead money—in facilitating its free-agency moves. During his three years in South Beach, Suh recorded 108 tackles, 15.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.

    Head coach Adam Gase made it clear he was looking to change the culture of Miami's locker room, a quest he began when he took over the helm in 2016, continued to mold last summer and is still working to accomplish this offseason. Gase called out his veteran leaders after a disappointing 2017 season, per Omar Kelly of the Sun-Sentinel:

    "It's never going to be the way we really want it, the way we keep talking about it [being] until guys take control of this thing. There are a lot of things I can do to make things the way we need, but at the end of this [it's] on player accountability. We need our leaders to step up. We need them to be vocal. We need them to actually do their part in the leadership role."

    This release made it readily apparent that Gase no longer felt Suh, who has never contributed to a playoff win in three postseason trips, had the potential to become a positive force in the locker room. The team also cut ties with three other veterans in the last few days, ridding itself of center Mike Pouncey—who was disgruntled after being denied a salary bump and requested his release—tight end Julius Thomas and linebacker Lawrence Timmons.

    Suh has been involved in a number of unsportsmanlike incidents that made him the subject of heavy criticism. He earned a reputation as a dirty player—a description his peers agree with— not long after being selected No. 2 overall by the Detroit Lions in the 2010 draft. His antics often occurred in nationally televised games, spotlighting transgressions that ranged from his Thanksgiving Day stomp of Evan Dietrich-Smith in 2011 to an attempted choke on Ryan Mallett on Thursday Night Football this past season. Now that he's heading into the twilight of his career, Suh's problems are no longer worth the production.

    Still, Miami could have benefitted from his presence on the field in 2018. He graded out as Pro Football Focus' fifth-best interior defensive lineman in the NFL, and there aren't many players who can generate as much pure power and control the line of scrimmage the way Suh can when he is locked in.

    The three-time first-team All-Pro talent is almost certainly going to catch on with another team this offseason and contribute at a high level during the upcoming season. It's a tough loss, but ultimately the Dolphins probably made the right choice as they attempt to build a better locker room and get ready to compete this year for what would only be their third playoff appearance since 2002.