Stock Up, Down Around the NFL After Early Free Agent Activity
The NFL free-agent tampering period has the league buzzing with new deals that must wait until 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday to become official.
The first wave of free agency is often the most influential, as that's when the biggest money tends to fly around. An unexpected trade or a flood of second-wave signings can swing the momentum in the opposite direction, though. All of these moves will also affect how the 2018 NFL draft plays out at the end of April.
The amount of money being thrown around is jaw-dropping, as a number of NFL teams are flush with cap space. But some of these early free-agent signings will serve as warning tales in time.
Let's break down which individuals and teams are seeing their stock rise—or vice versa—in the aftermath of this early action.
Stock Up: Cleveland Browns
Trades are a rarity in the NFL, but Cleveland Browns general manger John Dorsey proved to be the exception to the rule heading into the new league year.
His quest to find "real players" led him to make a flurry of moves, including the acquisitions of quarterback Tyrod Taylor, wide receiver Jarvis Landry and defensive back Damarious Randall. Dorsey's work continued on the free-agent front, as the team is expected to sign right tackle Chris Hubbard, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. Taylor and Landry are especially notable, as the team massively improved its offensive outlook for the 2018 season by trading 2018 third- and fourth-round picks and a 2019 seventh-rounder.
Taylor might not be a long-term fix for Cleveland, but he could be the best quarterback the team has had since its reincarnation in 1999. His efficiency and deep-passing ability doesn't mask all of his weaknesses, but he'll help the Browns win right away. Best of all, his low acquisition cost shouldn't stop the team from drafting its signal-caller of the future with either the No. 1 or No. 4 overall selection.
The trade for Landry was riskier since he has yet to sign an extension, but for only two Day 3 picks, it was worth the reward. The fiery receiver is terrific at breaking tackles, and he figures to play the role JuJu Smith-Schuster occupied under then-Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley last season.
Overall, the Browns look much more like a playoff contender than not with the moves they've already made. Taylor and Landry are impact players at two critical positions for the team, and it's refreshing to see the Browns aggressively going after their targets early.
Stock Down: AJ McCarron
The Denver Broncos, Minnesota Vikings, Arizona Cardinals and New York Jets have each reportedly reached agreements to fill their respective quarterback vacancies. The Buffalo Bills remain without a clear 2018 starter, but they may prefer a different veteran stopgap.
With only 11 games played and three games started across his four-year career, McCarron's uninspiring play and lack of physical upside are clear factors in how teams view him. The 27-year-old has a slightly below-average arm for a starter, and he lacks the experience to be a polished decision-maker. He's a game-manager at best, in the same vein as former free-agent busts Mike Glennon and Brock Osweiler.
At this point, McCarron may have to follow in Glennon's footsteps. Glennon signed a three-year deal with the Chicago Bears last offseason that was effectively structured as a one-year deal, and the Bears drafted quarterback Mitchell Trubisky No. 2 overall. It didn't take long for the Bears to bench Glennon, as he couldn't stave off the rookie.
McCarron could be stuck with a one-year tryout where he's constantly looking over his shoulder as a rookie awaits behind him.
Stock Up: Allen Robinson
When there's a dearth of high-end talent available in free agency and in the draft at a given position, the few potential stars on the market benefit the most.
This year's free-agent darling among wide receivers was Allen Robinson, who agreed to a three-year, $42 million deal with the Chicago Bears, per Josina Anderson of ESPN. While the 24-year-old is coming off a torn ACL, he was the best option on the market after Davante Adams re-signed early and the Miami Dolphins franchise-tagged Jarvis Landry.
The 6'3", 220-pound Robinson is a rare above-the-rim receiver who can stretch a defense vertically because of his ability to win at the catch point. His size and play strength are excellent, and he pairs that with a unique ability to break through contact once he has control of the ball. His mixture of age and lack of similarly impactful free-agent receivers helped him land a strong offer from Chicago.
Assuming Robinson regains his explosiveness, he'll fit like a glove with the Bears. Chicago also added slot speedster Taylor Gabriel from the Atlanta Falcons on a four-year deal, per ESPN's Andrew Hawkins, which should help draw defensive attention away from Robinson. The Bears paid a top-of-the-market price for the Penn State product, but Sammy Watkins landed an even fatter contract with the Kansas City Chiefs, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network.
Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky should enjoy having a receiver as good as Robinson, and new Bears head coach Matt Nagy can expect him to make a similar impact to what tight end Travis Kelce did in Kansas City.
Stock Down: Adam Gase
Few NFL head coaches can handle the role of personnel decision-maker in addition to their normal job duties. The ones who bite off more than they can chew struggle almost immediately. (See: Kelly, Chip.)
That seems to be the case for Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase.
Gase helped the Dolphins overachieve and reach the playoffs in his first season as head coach in 2016, but the team slipped back to 6-10 without quarterback Ryan Tannehill at the helm this past season. While Miami lacked dynamic talent on both sides of the ball, Gase also struggled to uplift his players with scheme.
The biggest concern moving forward is Gase's handling of talented players who may not fit his mold.
Under Gase, Miami has overpaid for outside talent while allowing developed talent walk away for pennies on the dollar. Three of the team's best players in 2016 and 2017 are now gone, with Jay Ajayi in Philadelphia, Jarvis Landry in Cleveland and Ndamukong Suh likely to be released Wednesday, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, despite a $22.2 million dead cap hit on the books.
Gase needs to make it work with bigger and sometimes difficult personalities, as talent wins in the NFL. Until he proves he can do that, his stock will keep dipping.
Stock Up: Buffalo Bills
While the Cleveland Browns were wise to acquire Tyrod Taylor, the Buffalo Bills benefited from the move, too.
Even though Taylor was the Bills' best quarterback in years, he was maligned for his limitations to the point where a breakup felt necessary. Getting the 65th overall pick from Cleveland was a better-than-expected return considering head coach Sean McDermott temporarily benched him for a raw rookie this past season.
The Bills' subsequent trade of left tackle Cordy Glenn helped them twofold as well. Buffalo shipped Glenn and the 21st overall pick to Cincinnati for the 12th overall pick, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, shedding $11.25 million in the process.
The Bills now own six of the first 96 selections, which is plenty of ammunition to move up for their quarterback of choice. Their decision to move up from No. 21 to No. 12 is reminiscent of when the Philadelphia Eagles traded up from No. 13 to No. 8 in 2016, setting up their next move up to No. 2.
Since the Browns may still take a quarterback with their first or fourth overall pick, the Bills will need to aim high to get their man. According to Eric Galko of Sporting News (via Ryan Talbot of New York Upstate), Buffalo's preferred quarterback is Josh Rosen.
Getting from No. 12 to a top-three pick looks far more realistic than it did a week ago.
Stock Down: Corey Coleman
While the Browns appear to be vastly improved, it may come at the expense of wide receiver Corey Coleman.
The 2016 first-round pick has been a massive disappointment through his first two seasons. His lack of polish on the field and inconsistent availability—he's played in only 19 of a possible 32 games—means he could turn into an afterthought for Cleveland in the wake of Jarvis Landry's arrival.
Coleman will only turn 24 in July, but he may be heading into a make-or-break season with the Browns due to the latest regime change. With no ties to the front office and the presence of Josh Gordon, Landry, tight end David Njoku and running back Duke Johnson all battling for targets, Coleman may struggle to make much of an impact in the passing game.
The Browns could also look to trade Coleman as they churn the roster of some of their recent investments. With the fifth-lowest catch rate of all receivers in 2017, per NFL.com's Next Gen Stats, Coleman's would present a buy-low opportunity for potential suitors.
Even if Coleman returns to the Browns, the team may decide to add competition for him to prove himself against. They can't afford to keep playing subpar players as often as they have over the last several years.
Stock Up: San Francisco 49ers
The last few months have brought a strong gust of positive momentum for the San Francisco 49ers.
General manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan have already taken advantage of the opportunity to build around quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo while there's such a buzz about his play. With Garoppolo locked into a new extension, the 49ers quickly came to terms with cornerback Richard Sherman, giving them a potential anchor for a defense that needed an identifiable star.
According to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, Sherman's three-year, $39 million deal is more like a one-year, $7 million contract with incentives moving forward. While he may never return to his All-Pro form—he's coming off a ruptured left Achilles and turns 30 at the end of March—it's a worthwhile risk that allows the Niners to draft a young cornerback if they prefer that route over signing another big-name free agent.
On Tuesday, San Francisco then agreed to a five-year deal with former New York Giants center Weston Richburg, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. He was a terrific player before a concussion limited him to four games in 2017.
The 49ers still have over $60 million in cap space at their disposal, per Over the Cap, so they figure to be in the middle of the action once the tampering period ends. With holes on the offensive line, at wide receiver and running back, Lynch can invest in high-end veterans to keep his draft possibilities flexible.
Having that much available cap space gives the Niners a larger margin for error, as they aren't working in the margins like others who must deal with their in-house players earning extensions.
Stock Down: Denver Broncos
Things can change quickly in free agency, as decision-makers become desperate when agents warn that their clients plan to sign elsewhere. Just look at the Denver Broncos.
After flirting with quarterback Kirk Cousins, the Broncos pivoted as it became clear that Cousins was headed to the Minnesota Vikings. Instead, they quickly came to terms with Case Keenum on a two-year deal worth between $18-20 million annually, per Pro Football Talk. However, that does not necessarily take them out of the quarterback market with the fifth overall pick, per Benjamin Allbright of Mile High Sports.
Keenum played well for the Vikings last season, but his long-term outlook remains a wild card. Prior to 2017, he looked like a career journeyman. Denver has the upside of a Super Bowl contender, but it has massively whiffed on the most important position on the field.
The Broncos' recent trade of cornerback Aqib Talib was another blow to their core. Talib is aging and Bradley Roby is ready to take over as a full-time No. 1, but it won't be easy to find a third corner as good as Denver had the last several years.
That's the cost of losing the last two seasons to bad quarterback play. Keenum should be a decent bridge quarterback if nothing else, but it's telling that the Vikings walked away from him.
Stock Up: Leonard Fournette
As well as Leonard Fournette played as a rookie, his job is about to become even easier.
The Jacksonville Jaguars came to terms Tuesday with offensive guard Andrew Norwell on a record-setting five-year, $66.5 million deal, Schefter reported. The move massively improves Jacksonville's offensive line, as Norwell is an elite pass- and run-blocker.
Fournette struggled finding clear running lanes for most of the 2017 season, in part due to average vision and feel for developing second-level leverage. But not everything was on him, as his 3.9 yards per carry was heavily influenced by a mediocre offensive line that struggled to maintain blocks after mere seconds.
Norwell's presence next to second-year left tackle Cam Robinson will be a game-changer for this offense.
In Bleacher Report's NFL1000 series, Norwell finished as the No. 2-ranked guard. NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar highlighted how his natural feel for the game helps fuel his success: "Watch how he uses body control to recover even when he gets beaten back. Watch how he effortlessly hands off one defender and takes on another against advanced line games. Watch his careful footwork when he's pulling to the other side of the line."
That attention to detail bodes well as Norwell ages, too. Rather than being over-reliant on the ability to overpower opponents, he has great nuance to his game.
Stock Down: Seattle Seahawks
Seattle's Legion of Boom era is officially over.
The Seahawks released three cornerbacks, the most notable of whom was Richard Sherman, and traded defensive end Michael Bennett to the Philadelphia Eagles for peanuts. Seattle's secondary could continue to change, as it remains unclear whether safety Kam Chancellor will be medically cleared for 2018, while safety Earl Thomas has been mentioned in trade talks, per NFL Network's Michael Silver.
The Seahawks needed to start overhauling their defense, and their decisions will create a more cap-flexible situation moving forward. It made sense for them release Sherman, Jeremy Lane and DeShawn Shead, but Sherman and Bennett will be nearly impossible to replace in 2018.
The talent purge may also be a statement that the Seahawks are looking to reduce the number of vocal players in their locker room. With Bennett and Sherman in the fold, Seattle had one of the most socially outspoken teams in modern sports.
It's unclear how the front office and coaching staff will react to having less stars on the roster. Their job may get easier off the field, but they have struggled to build a consistent offense around star quarterback Russell Wilson. The pressure is now on to maximize their resources to recreate a Super Bowl-caliber defense.
As the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers continue to load up and improve, the Seahawks may be a few years away from returning to prominence.