The Biggest Ripple Effects of 2019 NFL Free Agency

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMarch 27, 2019

The Biggest Ripple Effects of 2019 NFL Free Agency

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    In the NFL, nothing happens in a vacuum. And free agency is no exception.

    A flurry of activity by an NFL team can turn them from pretender to contender in the blink of an eye. The reverse can be true as well. Start hemorrhaging talent, and today's Super Bowl contender can be tomorrow's also-ran.

    Free agency can do more than just shake up the pecking order in division races around the league. The first round of the NFL draft can change completely as team's fill holes and their needs change. And the biggest deals made in one year set the bar for negotiations in the next.

    From one of the NFL's worst teams in recent years to the team that has inarguably been the best, free agency has impacted every club in the league—some more than others.

    Here's a look at some of the biggest ripple effects of 2019.

        

The Cleveland Browns Are the Class of the AFC North. No, Really.

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    In 2016, the Cleveland Browns won all of one game. The following season, the Browns joined the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only teams in NFL history to go winless over the course of a 16-game season.

    The 2018 season brought with it a glimmer of hope in the arrival of rookie quarterback and No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield. The Browns experienced the biggest turnaround a winless team in a non-strike year has ever had—from 0-16 to 7-8-1.

    If that was a glimmer of hope, free agency this year has hope pouring through windows in Cleveland so brightly it's almost blinding.

    First, the team overhauled the defensive line, trading guard Kevin Zeitler to the New York Giants for end Olivier Vernon and signing tackle Sheldon Richardson to a three-year pact.

    Then the Browns made an even bigger splash, agreeing to terms with the Giants on another deal—in return for the 17th overall pick, Cleveland's third-rounder and safety Jabrill Peppers, the Browns received wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

    That still looks weird every time I type it.

    Those moves, coupled with Cleveland's earlier acquisition of tailback Kareem Hunt (who will sit out the first eight games of the season due to a suspension), have sent a clear message by general manager John Dorsey—he believes the Browns are ready to compete for a playoff spot.

    The oddsmakers in Vegas agree. Per Ben Fawkes of ESPN, the Browns are the betting favorite to win the AFC North in 2019.

    Talk about a weird thing to type.

The Patriots Could Be Pressed into a Move Up from No. 32

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    After winning Super Bowl LIII, the New England Patriots have the last pick in the first round of the 2019 draft.

    However, the team is most assuredly not last in the NFL in problems heading into said draft.

    The Pats already had plenty of issues. In free agency's first wave, the Patriots watched both their starting left tackle (Trent Brown) and best edge-rusher (Trey Flowers) sign massive contracts with the Oakland Raiders and Detroit Lions, respectively.

    As it turned out, New England's problems were only just beginning.

    As ESPN's Mike Reiss reported, after nine seasons in the NFL, five Pro Bowls and three Super Bowl victories, 29-year-old tight end Rob Gronkowski announced his retirement on March 25.

    Now, the Patriots have enjoyed a great deal of success over the years in patching holes on the roster created by the turnover that's an annual rite of passage in the NFL. But that's three large holes—including a pair at premium positions.

    If an edge-rusher like Florida's Jachai Polite, tackle like Washington State's Andre Dillard or tight end like Iowa's T.J. Hockenson slip to the Patriots at the end of the round, the team will no doubt pounce.

    But the Patriots are also a franchise that's never been shy about making moves on draft day, and it's not hard at all to imagine New England making one to slide up and grab a player who can fix at least one of those pressing issues.

    After all, in Beantown the future is now.

The New York Giants Have a Plan...Allegedly

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    As Michael Eisen reported for the team's website, Giants president John Mara insists that despite letting go of big-name players like edge-rusher Olivier Vernon, wide receiver Odell Beckham and safety Landon Collins, the Giants believe they can contend in 2019.

    "Of course we would (like to make the playoffs)," Mara said. "We are never going to come into the season and say we don't want to be a playoff team. The direction from ownership to Dave and Pat is build the team."

    The thing is, given the flailing around the Giants have done this offseason, the team isn't really in full rebuild or a contender. They're stuck in limbo.

    OK, so the Giants didn't want to tag Collins at over $11 million for 2019. But even if you view Collins as a limited player in coverage, it's hard to argue that veteran Antoine Bethea isn't a sizable downgrade.

    Kevin Zeitler is a very good guard, and the Giants badly need help on the offensive line. But trading Vernon leaves the G-Men precariously thin in the pass-rush.

    Yes, the Giants now have an extra first-round pick in this year's draft and a starter on the back end in Jabrill Peppers. All that cost was arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL—and it's hard to buy the move as a money-saver when the Giants turned around and gave Golden Tate almost $10 million a season as Beckham's replacement.

    The whole offseason has been one step forward, two steps back. New York appears a team without direction—headed nowhere fast.

2019 Could Be the End of the Line for Bobby Wagner in Seattle

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    Over his seven seasons in the NFL, Bobby Wagner has been both a linchpin for the Seattle Seahawks defense and one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL. The 28-year-old has never failed to top 100 total tackles in a season and has been named to the Pro Bowl after each of the last five seasons.

    And yet, just as with players like cornerback Richard Sherman and safety Earl Thomas, another key member of the "Legion of Boom" defense that took the Seahawks to back-to-back Super Bowls could have one foot out the door.

    Back in January, Wagner told Aaron Fentress of NBC Sports Northwest that he was hopeful he'd get to finish his career in Seattle.

    "I want to be here," Wagner said. "This is where I want to be for my career. This is an amazing city, amazing fans, an amazing organization and so I would love to be here. We'll make sure business takes care of itself."

    However, that may not be practical—for a couple of reasons.

    First, Wagner isn't the only prominent player for the Seahawks who is set to hit the open market in 2020. Edge-rusher Frank Clark will be a free agent next year after receiving the franchise tag in 2019. Quarterback Russell Wilson is also entering the final year of his contract.

    I hear he's important.

    There's also the matter of the massive deals handed to off-ball linebackers this year. Kwon Alexander received $13.5 million a season from the San Francisco 49ers. C.J. Mosley got a five-year, $85 million pact from the New York Jets.

    Wagner's a better player than both—so good, in fact, that the Seahawks might not be able to afford him.

A $20 Million Edge-Rusher Is Coming

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Technically, a $20 million edge-rusher is already here. Per Spotrac, the franchise tag that Demarcus Lawrence of the Dallas Cowboys is playing under for a second consecutive season will pay the 26-year-old $20.5 million in 2019.

    But that's just for one year. Soon enough, a long-term deal is coming for a pass-rusher that will also pay in excess of $20 million annually.

    Maybe that deal will come for Lawrence, who is just now entering the prime of his career and has 25 sacks over his last two NFL seasons.

    Maybe it will be Seattle's Frank Clark. Like Lawrence, Clark will play under the franchise tag in 2018 after amassing a career-high 13 sacks last season. Clark has piled up 32 sacks over the last three years, and at 25, he's even younger than Lawrence.

    Maybe it will be the third member of the tag trio—Jadeveon Clowney of the Houston Texans. Clowney has never had 10 sacks in a season, but the 26-year-old is finally healthy and showing the explosiveness that led to his being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft.

    We just saw Trey Flowers get a five-year, $90 million extension from the Detroit Lions—and Flowers doesn't have the sack production of Lawrence or Clark.

    Boost that deal a little bit, and there you have it—a $20 million man on the defensive front.

A Run on Edge-Rushers Is Absolutely Coming in the 2019 Draft

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    Of late there has been growing speculation that rather than take Ohio State edge-rusher Joey Bosa with the first overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft, the Arizona Cardinals will draft a quarterback in Round 1 for the second year in a row and pair new head coach Kliff Kingsbury with Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray.

    Rest assured, though—while the first pick in this year's draft might not be a pass-rusher, the edge guys are going to dominate the early-going on April 25.

    For starters, it's a matter of talent. The class of 2019 is filthy-deep with pass-rushers. Eight of the top 15 players on the big board of Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller are either defensive linemen or edge-rushers.

    That includes the top-four players overall—Bosa, Alabama's Quinnen Williams, Kentucky's Josh Allen and Michigan's Rashaan Gary.

    There's also the matter of need. At No. 2, the San Francisco 49ers just traded for Dee Ford, but the team's been highly aggressive in bolstering the pass rush in recent years. The New York Jets (No. 3) and Oakland Raiders (No. 4) are positively desperate for help getting after the quarterback. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Detroit Lions and Buffalo Bills could also be in the market for help on the edge and/or in the trenches.

    That's the possibility of six pass-rushers off the board by the time the Cincinnati Bengals pick at No. 11.

The Miami Dolphins Definitely Have a Plan, and It Rhymes with Tank

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    Mark Brown/Getty Images

    The Miami Dolphins weren't especially active in free agency—and most of the team's moves have involved departures as opposed to arrivals. The Dolphins cut bait on quarterback Ryan Tannehill and are reportedly actively shopping defensive end Robert Quinn.

    It's not that the Dolphins don't have a direction. They do—straight into the toilet.

    Granted, you won't get the Dolphins to openly admit they're tanking in hopes of landing a high draft pick in 2020—and the quarterback that pick would bring. When asked if the team was in the beginning stages of a rebuild, new head coach Brian Flores gave an answer that was about the coachspeakiest reply ever replied.

    "I think every team's rebuilding. That's this league. Every team rebuilds every year because no team is the same every year," Flores said, via Grant Gordon of NFL.com. "So the Patriots are going to be different than they were last year. So are the Bills or Jets. So is every other team. So that's my personal philosophies. Last year was last year. This year is this year."

    But the reality is the Dolphins now have Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback, arguably the weakest core of skill position players in the NFL and a non-existent pass-rush. The team will be hard-pressed to win four games in 2019.

    That may honestly be for the best. As we're witnessing with Cleveland, sometimes bottoming out is preferable to year after year of six-win mediocrity. It nets the sort of high pick that accelerates the rebuild.

    It's darkest before the dawn and all that.

The Championship Window in Pittsburgh Is Shut

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    Joe Sargent/Getty Images

    You'd be hard-pressed to find a team in the NFL that had a rougher offseason than the Pittsburgh Steelers. All the drama from the past year-plus in the Steel City finally came to a head.

    First, the team's acrimonious divorce from superstar wide receiver Antonio Brown was finalized. That the Steelers were left no recourse but to trade the seven-time Pro Bowler was bad enough. But all the Steelers got in return for the 30-year-old was a third-round pick and a fifth-round pick.

    The team didn't even get that for tailback Le'Veon Bell. Sure, the Steelers will all but certainly receive a third-round compensatory pick in 2020 after Bell signed a lucrative four-year deal to join the New York Jets, but just as with Brown, the tenure of one of the most dangerous offensive players in the league in Pittsburgh ended with hard feelings and that player walking out the door.

    Yes, the Steelers still have James Conner in the backfield and Juju Smith-Schuster at receiver. Not to mention that Ben Roethlisberger fellow at quarterback. But while Conner and Smith-Schuster are rising young talents, they aren't Bell and Brown. Not yet.

    The Steelers did add a couple of pieces on defense in cornerback Steven Nelson and inside linebacker Mark Barron, but neither's a true difference-maker.

    A Pittsburgh team that stumbled to a 9-6-1 record last year and missed the playoffs isn't any better post-free agency.

    And it's awfully hard to view this Steelers squad as any kind of real threat to make a run at the Super Bowl.

A Terrible Chiefs Defense Is Somehow Worse

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Last year, the Kansas City Chiefs had one of the NFL's most prolific offenses and one of the league's worst defenses. The former got the Chiefs all the way to the AFC Championship Game.

    The latter kept them from advancing to Super Bowl LIII.

    Given how poorly that defense played in most aspects, one would think that improving defensively would have been the Chiefs' overriding priority in free agency.

    One would be dead wrong. As a matter of fact, rather than improving, the Chiefs gutted the one part of the defense that actually worked in 2018.

    Last season, no team in the NFL had more sacks than the 52 the Chiefs piled up. But after tagging and trading outside linebacker Dee Ford and cutting bait on batterymate Justin Houston, over 40 percent of those sacks are no longer in town.

    The Chiefs now have defensive end Chris Jones, defensive end Chris Jones and defensive end Chris Jones.

    It gets better. The team watched cornerback Steven Nelson sign with the Steelers, replacing him with veteran journeyman Bashaud Breeland. Tyrann Mathieu is an upgrade at safety, but he was an expensive one. The inside linebacker spots remain an area of weakness.

    Unless the Chiefs hit the jackpot in the draft, opposing quarterbacks are going to have all day to survey a secondary that allowed the second-most passing yards in the league in 2018.

    Patrick Mahomes is going to have to score a ton of points again in 2019.

It's a Make-or-Break Season for the San Francisco 49ers

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Apparently, San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch bores easily. Because it seems like not a day passed in free agency this year where Lynch wasn't making a splash—again.

    There was the four-year, $54 million contract for inside linebacker Kwon Alexander. The two-year, $10 million pact with tailback Tevin Coleman. And the trade and five-year, $85 million whopper of a deal for outside linebacker Dee Ford.

    It all falls in line with Lynch's uber-aggressive MO. He's the GM who swung the deal that brought quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to town. The executive who gave big money last year to running back Jerick McKinnon.

    And with the second overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft, Lynch is going to get at least one more opportunity to add an impact player to this year's roster. One more chance to increase excitement among the fanbase.

    The thing is, over the tenure of Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan, that excitement's been confined to the offseason. The current regime is just 10-22 over the past two seasons.

    Yes, injuries have played a part—a big one. And the cupboard was admittedly pretty bare when the pair took over. But the NFL is a results-driven business. So far, those results just haven't been there.

    It's not going to be easy in a division with two playoff teams from a year ago (including the reigning NFC champion). But after dropping upward of $150 million on more additions, if the Niners don't show significant improvement in relatively short order, the grumbles are bound to start.

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