Are Free-Agency Moves Enough to Help NFL's Young Quarterbacks?March 19, 2021
Are Free-Agency Moves Enough to Help NFL's Young Quarterbacks?
The Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns provided the template other franchises with developing quarterbacks should follow to maximize their signal-caller's capabilities.
Josh Allen and Baker Mayfield played exceptionally well in 2020. But they had plenty of help.
Buffalo made the league's second-best move (after Tom Brady signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, of course) last year when general manager Brandon Beane traded for wide receiver Stefon Diggs. The Bills gained a true No. 1 wide receiver after slowly building a better cockpit around Allen the previous two offseasons.
Cleveland made more renovations around Mayfield. New general manager Andrew Berry prioritized the offensive line by signing right tackle Jack Conklin in a free agency and then doubled down with Jedrick Wills' first-round selection. The team also added two-time Pro Bowl tight end Austin Hooper, who is an ideal fit in Kevin Stefanski's offensive scheme.
Each organization made significant investments to make sure its quarterback succeeded.
The Arizona Cardinals, Cincinnati Bengals, Los Angeles Chargers, Miami Dolphins, New York Giants, New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles are next in line to do something similar after making early-round investments in the position over the last three seasons yet struggled to gain any traction toward making the playoffs.
Some are deserving of a passing grade after their initial moves at the onset at free agency, while others have clearly failed their young quarterbacks so far.
Arizona Cardinals: Pass
The Arizona Cardinals are certainly older today than they were coming into the month. General manager Steve Keim's three biggest offseason moves all involve 30-somethings who still have something left in the tank. But how much?
J.J. Watt's addition will create a ripple effect through the entire defense, though he doesn't directly improve quarterback Kyler Murray's situation.
The acquisition of three-time Pro Bowl center Rodney Hudson does. The Cardinals traded a third-round pick to acquire the standout blocker and a seventh-round pick, per ESPN's Adam Schefter. Hudson has long been one of best centers in football, if not the best.
The 31-year-old snapper has allowed only three sacks over the last six seasons and easily graded as the game's best pass-blocking center during said stretch, according to Pro Football Focus. Hudson brings elite lateral agility and movement skills. Plus, the veteran will bury defenders if a chance presents itself.
Neither Mason Cole nor Lamont Gaillard played particularly well last season. Hudson is a massive upgrade.
The same isn't necessarily true for Arizona's acquisition of A.J. Green.
A healthy version of Green would give the Cardinals a dynamic downfield threat to work outside the numbers. But the 32-year-old target hasn't been the same since foot and ankle issues began bothering him during the 2018 campaign. Green played in all 16 games last season but managed only 523 receiving yards.
Murray's situation should improve, particularly because of Hudson's blocking. However, the Cardinals' moves could turn into a failing grade if their veteran additions don't hold up throughout the season.
Cincinnati Bengals: Fail
For the second straight offseason, the Cincinnati Bengals have been one of the most active teams in free agency. And for the second straight offseason, the organization hasn't gone all-in regarding its most glaring need: the offensive line.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Bengals offensive line ranked 30th overall last season. It allowed 32 sacks and 42 quarterback hits before Joe Burrow, the first overall pick in the 2020 draft, suffered a season-ending left knee injury in Week 11 against the Washington Football Team.
Prior to the injury, Burrow looked every bit the part of a franchise quarterback. At times, the Heisman Trophy winner carried the offense and kept the Bengals in games. His average of 268.8 passing yards per game ranked seventh overall.
"I think we've got one of the premier, best young quarterbacks in the game, and we're going to do everything we can to build around him and give him the opportunity to really shine and show what he can do," Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin told reporters prior to the start of free agency. "It's going to start with him."
Actions speak louder than words.
Cincinnati didn't land any of the top-tier blockers at the start of free agency. Defensive end Trey Hendrickson and cornerbacks Mike Hilton and Chidobe Awuzie are excellent signings. But they're not going to protect or make Burrow better.
The Bengals have a couple of pieces in place with Jonah Williams and Trey Hopkins.
Riley Reiff's addition certainly helps. The 32-year-old veteran is set to take over right tackle after signing Friday, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. It's a start but not the solution.
Denver Broncos: Fail
Denver Broncos brass looked at last year's roster and clearly thought, "We're good."
The organization hasn't made a single move of note so far this offseason aside from retaining those already on the roster. Denver exercised Von Miller's $7 million guaranteed option, according to Denver 9News' Mike Klis—which lingered over the team entering the new league year. New general manager George Paton tendered wide receiver Tim Patrick and linebacker A.J. Johnson as well.
From there, the team has done very little on the offensive side of the ball. The unit will naturally improve with a healthy Courtland Sutton back on the field. Otherwise, running back Mike Boone has been Denver's biggest acquisition to help quarterback Drew Lock.
In three seasons, Boone ran for 379 yards. He's not much of a receiver out of the backfield, either. But Paton knows the ball-carrier as part of the Minnesota Vikings front office that originally signed Boone as an undrafted free agent.
Normally, the addition of a backup to add depth would barely register. In this particular case, the Broncos prioritized Boone over former Pro Bowl running back Phillip Lindsay. The organization chose to pull Lindsay's restricted free tender and allowed him to enter the market.
The Broncos aren't a better offense without Lindsay. Even last season when the back's production dropped after the organization signed Melvin Gordon, Lindsay still managed 502 rushing yards in 11 games. He's also a weapon out of the backfield if utilized correctly.
Denver did spend big a year ago to help Lock. The Broncos added Gordon, guard Graham Glasgow, center Lloyd Cushenberry III, tight end Albert Okwuegbunam and wide receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler. But there's no reason to stop there.
Los Angeles Chargers: Pass
The Los Angeles Chargers know they have something truly special in quarterback Justin Herbert after last year's sixth overall draft pick broke the rookie records for passing touchdowns (31), total touchdowns (36) and completions (368).
The Chargers' offensive front stunk while Herbert did everything in his power to keep the team in games. In fact, Pro Football Focus graded their offensive line as the league's worst last season.
The teardown of the front five began almost immediately this offseason.
Center Mike Pouncey retired. The team released right guard Trai Turner. Dan Feeney agreed to a deal with the Jets, per NFL insider Adam Caplan. Forrest Lamp, Sam Tevi, Ryan Groy and Cole Toner remain available in free agency.
General manager Tom Telesco had to go big this offseason to properly protect the reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, and, so far, he has.
First, the team signed first-team All-Pro center Corey Linsley to a market-setting five-year, $62.5 million contract. But the acquisition of arguably the game's best pivot wasn't enough. Los Angeles came to terms with guard Matt Feiler shortly after the reported Linsley deal.
With those two in place, the Chargers are now set at left guard, center and right tackle with Bryan Bulaga. The front five isn't complete, but the group took a gigantic leap forward.
Furthermore, Telesco offset the franchise's loss of tight end Hunter Henry with the acquisition of Jared Cook. The 12-year veteran may be on the back side of his career, but Cook produced more receiving yards in three of the last four seasons than Henry's career high of 652.
Miami Dolphins: Pass
After a massive free-agent splurge last offseason, the Miami Dolphins are quietly going about their business during the new league year. General manager Chris Grier has made several moves that deserve mixed reviews.
First, the team downgraded at center.
Ted Karras signed with the New England Patriots to rejoin Bill Belichick's rejuvenated squad. Miami responded by signing Matt Skura. Last year, he struggled to come back from a 2019 knee injury and even had some issues snapping the ball.
Skura does have experience with 51 career starts, though he must play much better this fall to help fortify the Dolphins' front five.
Maybe the team will get something out of newly acquired right tackle Isaiah Wilson. It's a long shot after the Tennessee Titans dumped last year's first-round pick after one season.
Otherwise, Miami's move to improve Tagovailoa's surrounding cast revolves around Will Fuller V's signing. The wide receiver agreed to a one-year, $10 million deal, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. Tight end Cethan Carter was added, too, but he caught just five passes for 53 yards last year.
Fuller is a speed merchant and consistent vertical threat. He'll help open up the offense opposite DeVante Parker. But drafting another wide receiver shouldn't be ruled out because of Fuller's inclusion.
The franchise owns two first-round picks in this year's draft. Miami could easily find yet another weapon with the third or 18th overall selection.
Fuller's signing makes this a pass, but plenty of work can still be done.
New York Giants: Fail
The New York Giants' offseason approach hasn't been exciting.
Sure, general manager Dave Gettleman has added some pieces. They subtracted a couple as well. Those who have signed don't move the needle.
Tight end Kyle Rudolph, running back Devontae Booker and wide receiver John Ross III all bring something to the offense. Rudolph is a traditional in-line tight end to complement Evan Engram. Booker provides quality depth behind Saquon Barkley. Ross, meanwhile, adds speed to the wide receiver corps.
At the same time, the team needed to release guard Kevin Zeitler and wide receiver Golden Tate to create salary-cap flexibility.
The Giants haven't greatly improved in any area offensively. If anything, the unit may have taken a slight step backward, particularly along the offensive line.
Obviously, Gettleman still has an opportunity to turn around the situation. Wide receiver Kenny Golladay remains one of the top available free agents. He visited the team Thursday, according to Undefined's Josina Anderson.
Golladay would immediately be New York's WR1. If the two-time 1,000-yard target decides to sign elsewhere, the Giants will be in a significant quandary since they need help in the passing game for Daniel Jones to develop into a quarterback worthy of his draft status.
Jones is far too inconsistent, and a legitimate top target would go a long way.
Ideally, the Giants would avoid having glaring needs heading into the draft. Front-office failures during free agency often lead to draft mistakes.
New York Jets: Fail
Corey Davis' acquisition alone nearly makes the New York Jets' offseason approach a passing grade, because quarterback Sam Darnold desperately needed another weapon (or three). However, the team fell significantly short in one particular area it supposedly prioritized prior to the start of free agency.
ESPN's Rich Cimini reported the Jets had an interest in center Corey Linsley and guard Joe Thuney. Obviously, they didn't land either.
Linsley signed with the Los Angeles Chargers as the game's new highest-paid center. Thuney is now the league's second-highest-paid guard after agreeing to a five-year, $80 million deal with the Kansas City Chiefs.
One could argue the Jets were priced out of the interior market. However, the Jets currently have the third-most available cap space, per Spotrac. Second, they should have made a strong push if they were really committed to improving the position.
Either Linsley or Thuney would have been a welcome addition. The Jets can still address their offensive line in the second and third waves of free agency, but until they do, this will be a failing grade. Dan Feeney isn't the solution after starting on the league's worst O-line last season and his previous team just let him walk.
At least Davis gives Darnold a legitimate threat as an outside weapon.
The receiver's inclusion is huge for the offense's overall health and the quarterback's maturation. The 2017 fifth overall pick is excellent at creating after the catch and is coming off a season with career highs in receiving yards (945) and touchdown receptions (five). He's an ascending player ready to peak for Gang Green.
Philadelphia Eagles: Fail
Jalen Hurts appears to be the Philadelphia Eagles' franchise quarterback after they traded previous starter Carson Wentz to the Indianapolis Colts.
"Jalen Hurts is the guy. Jeffrey Lurie, the owner of the Eagles, has basically sent a message to his personnel department and his general manager, Howie Roseman, that he wants to do everything he can to help Jalen Hurts be successful and not bring in somebody to compete for the job," ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported (h/t NBC Sports' Reuben Frank).
Roseman has since refuted the part of the report that stated the Eagles won't consider drafting a quarterback with the No. 6 pick. Even so, there's no reason not to believe what Mortensen said since the Eagles sit at a crossroads financially and Hurts flashed as a starter in 2020 after being a second-round draft pick.
Because of the team's dire salary-cap situation, it hasn't been able to build properly around Hurts. All of the team's major moves to date have been subtractions, not additions.
Along with Wentz's departure, the Eagles released wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery. Jason Peters is a free agent as well. Plus, a Zach Ertz trade feels inevitable.
Philadelphia simply isn't solvent enough to make the type of moves needed to greatly improve around Hurts. Wide receiver remains a sore spot. The draft will almost certainly bring some help there. The Eagles could use more than one new target, though. Tight end could use a boost as well if/when Ertz does depart.
In any case, the Eagles have already made their big moves prior to the draft. Hurts will have to wait and hope Roseman does enough to adhere to Lurie's organizational edict.