Most Surprising Early Moves of 2019 NFL Free Agency

Zach Kruse@@zachkruse2Senior Analyst IMarch 14, 2019

Most Surprising Early Moves of 2019 NFL Free Agency

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    The start of free agency in the NFL is always full of surprises.

    Teams spend money on unexpected targets. Star players find new homes. Teams go on unforeseen spending sprees. Players at certain positions surprisingly strike it rich. 

    We can try to predict everything that's going to happen, but when you mix 32 teams, over $1 billion of cap space and a bunch of players looking for paydays with new teams, surprises are a guarantee. 

    Here's a look at the most surprising early moves and storylines to start free agency. 


Trades Steal the Show

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    The biggest moves to start free agency weren't even signings. A handful of blockbuster trades stole the show. 

    The Pittsburgh Steelers dealt Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders for third- and fifth-round draft picks. The New York Giants sent Odell Beckham Jr. and Olivier Vernon to the Cleveland Browns for Kevin Zeitler, Jabril Peppers and draft picks in the first and third rounds. The Kansas City Chiefs traded Dee Ford to the 49ers for a second-round selection. 

    Brown and Ford both received lucrative contracts from their new teams.

    The top of the free-agent pool wasn't lacking in talent, but it couldn't compare to what teams were doing in the trade market. Two of the most talented pass-catchers of the last 10 years and arguably the most disruptive edge-rusher in the NFL last season changed teams in trades few could have predicted. 

Earl Thomas Lands in Baltimore

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Who predicted the Baltimore Ravens would be gutted by losses to start free agency, only to sign safety Earl Thomas—arguably the best defender available—on the third day of action? 

    The Ravens released starting safety Eric Weddle and saw linebacker C.J. Mosley, edge-rushers Terrell Suggs and Za'Darius Smith and receiver John Brown sign elsewhere. But then the Ravens completed a stunning move, signing Thomas to a four-year, $55 million deal on Wednesday, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN

    The move continues a long line of elite safeties in Baltimore: Ed Reed, Eric Weddle and now Earl Thomas, the six-time Pro Bowler. 

    The Ravens lost a lot of talent to start free agency, but responding with Thomas might be enough to salvage it. 

Ultra-Aggressive Packers

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    The Green Bay Packers were more aggressive in March 2018 under new general manager Brian Gutekunst. With almost $35 million in cap space going into free agency, per, it was easy to peg the team as potential players on the open market again this year. 

    But no one could have envisioned the type of splash Gutekunst made Tuesday. 

    The Packers signed not one but two edge-rushers, adding Za'Darius Smith from the Baltimore Ravens and Preston Smith from the Washington Redskins to address the team's biggest need. They also stole reliable safety Adrian Amos away from the division rival Chicago Bears and signed versatile offensive lineman Billy Turner, a potential solution at right guard. 

    In one productive morning, Gutekunst found answers to the roster's three most pressing needs and opened up possibilities in the draft for the Packers, who have two first-round picks and 10 picks total. 

    Long gone are the days of Ted Thompson, who avoided free agency like the plague. In two offseasons, Gutekunst has moved the Packers forward, evolving the team's roster-building practices. The Packers must now be considered legitimate players every March. 

Anthony Barr Spurns Jets, Returns to Minnesota

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    How about this for a twist: Not only did Anthony Barr change his mind after agreeing to a deal with the New York Jets, but he turned down more money and a chance to rush the passer more often to return to Minnesota and play for Mike Zimmer and the Minnesota Vikings. 

    According to Rich Cimini of ESPN, Barr's new deal with the Vikings will average $13.5 million per year. The Jets' offer was $15 million or more. 

    Rarely does a player pass up a chance to make more money, especially when that money is earned playing a premium position. Instead, Barr will return to his old role with Zimmer as an attacking off-ball linebacker. 

    It's possible the Vikings lured Barr back with the promise of more opportunities to be an edge-rusher. Or maybe Barr simply had second thoughts about playing in New York for a rebuilding Jets team. Either way, Barr's switcheroo was one of the most surprising events in free agency.

Off-Ball Linebackers Cash-In Big

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    All the top available edge-rushers cashed-in big, but so did the off-ball linebackers. C.J. Mosley, Anthony Barr, Kwon Alexander, Jordan Hicks and even Preston Brown all signed significant deals during the first few days of free agency. 

    Mosley (five years, $85 million), Barr (five years, $67.5 million) and Alexander (four years, $54 million) found highly lucrative markets. Mosley will be the new centerpiece of the Jets defense, Barr is returning to Mike Zimmer in Minnesota and Alexander is headed to San Francisco. 

    Off-ball linebacker hasn't been considered a premium position in today's NFL, but the early spending in free agency suggests that might be changing. 

Safeties Make a Major Comeback

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    A year after the safeties were pretty much ignored in free agency, the position made a major comeback. The five best all received new deals worth $9 million or more per season, per Spotrac

    • Landon Collins, Washington Redskins: Six years, $84 million 
    • Earl Thomas, Baltimore Ravens: Four years, $55 million
    • Tyrann Mathieu, Kansas City Chiefs: Three years, $42 million 
    • Adrian Amos, Green Bay Packers: Four years, $36 million 
    • Lamarcus Joyner, Oakland Raiders: Four years, $42 million 

    Collins, Thomas and Mathieu now sit atop the safety position in terms of average salary, while Amos and Joyner cracked the top 12. 

    Eric Weddle, Kenny Vaccaro and Tashaun Gipson also signed multi-year deals with new teams. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Tre Boston and Eric Berry are likely next. 

    Is this an overcorrection from the NFL after last offseason? Are teams understanding the value of safeties in the modern game? Or was the talent pool just considerably better than last spring? If money talks, safeties are back in a big way.

Bills Go Wild

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    No team has made more moves than the Bills, who used their wealth of cap space to sign a confirmed eight new players and re-sign one of their own during the first three days. 

    Seven of the signings were on offense: Receivers Cole Beasley and John Brown, center Mitch Morse, offensive tackle Ty Nsekhe, guard Jon Feliciano, tight end Tyler Kroft and running back Frank Gore. Cornerback Kevin Johnson, a 2015 first-round pick, is another new face.

    ESPN's Dianna Russini also reported Wednesday that the Bills have signed Pro Bowl returner Andre Roberts. 

    Clearly, the plan was to surround quarterback Josh Allen with a better supporting cast. The Bills scored the third-fewest points and gained the third-fewest yards in 2018, so major upgrades were required. Instead of making one or two big signings, the Bills chose volume. 

    Morse, Feliciano and Nsekhe should help stabilize the offensive line, both on the interior and the edges, and Brown and Beasley will add a new receiving target for the underneath and vertical parts of the field. Gore and the blocking of Kroft will add to the run game. 

    The Bills knew they needed to invest in offense to help Allen going into his second year, and they've put in the effort.