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Early NFL Free Agency Snap Judgments

Evan Pinkus via AP
Evan Pinkus via AP

Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we digest the whirlwind events of the NFL’s two-day legal tampering period, which now essentially pre-empts today’s official but anti-climatic opening of free agency…..

* The ascendant Cleveland Browns. Roll those words around in your head for a minute or two, letting them sink in for full effect.

Even before the blockbuster Odell Beckham Jr. trade was swung Tuesday night, I pegged the Browns as the favorite to win the AFC North in 2019. But now? Now you have to consider Cleveland a potential powerhouse in the AFC, and how ludicrous would that suggestion have sounded a mere six months ago, with coach Hue Jackson still on the scene and his club coming off back-to-back records of 1-15 and 0-16 in 2016-17?

The Browns and their fans are about to have some real fun — and a sustained run — for the first time since the star-crossed franchise re-entered the NFL as a 1999 expansion team. It’s a pretty easy prediction to make that the Mayfield to Beckham connection will wind up significantly out-doing the Manning to Beckham tandem, especially the one we’ve seen on display the past two miserable seasons in New York, with the Giants winning a total of eight games those years.

Cleveland’s offense has been a hide-your-eyes train wreck for so long, but in the span of less than 11 mind-blowing months, the Browns have added so much talented skill-position youth to their attack: quarterback Baker Mayfield (age 23), running backs Nick Chubb (23) and Kareem Hunt (23) and receivers Jarvis Landry (26), Beckham (26) and Antonio Callaway (22). Has there ever been a more dramatic and overnight upgrade executed on either side of the ball in NFL history?

You almost feel sorry for the not-quite-forgotten Browns defense, which had to suffice with the relatively low-profile additions of ex-Vikings defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson in free agency and defensive end Olivier Vernon via trade with the Giants. Any other year, those moves might have been the centerpiece addition of Cleveland’s offseason, but this isn’t any other year. It’s win-now time for these Browns, and their opportunity to take control in the AFC North couldn’t be any more obvious.

With Pittsburgh subtracting elite playmakers Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell from their offense, Baltimore undergoing a talent drain that has seen it lose proven veterans such as C.J. Mosely, Eric Weddle, Terrell Suggs, Za’Darius Smith and John Brown, and Cincinnati starting over of sorts with new rookie head coach Zac Taylor, the Browns appear poised and ready to fill the void atop the AFC North’s power structure.

Based on all of this week’s NFL transactions, already one online oddsmaker, BetOnline.AG, put out an updated line on the Browns’ Super Bowl odds. They opened 33/1 on January 16, improved to 16/1 recently, and are now 12/1 in light of the Beckham trade. In other words, the bedraggled Browns suddenly aren’t an extreme long shot to make the Super Bowl — despite being one of the four current NFL franchises to never play in the game.

Make no mistake. Browns general manager John Dorsey has constructed no “Dream Team’’ roster, circa the 2011 Eagles. This isn’t a one-year, take-your-shot building job going on in Cleveland. It’s a young and on-its-way-up roster, with an intriguing new head coach in Freddie Kitchens and finally what feels like a solid foundation in the front office.

The Browns are going to be good. Maybe very good. And a ton of fun to watch. After cranking out such consistent misery year after year in northeast Ohio, “The Factory of Sadness’’ looks to out of business for good.

* So the cap-flush Jets landed ex-Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell as was expected all along, and good for them, I suppose. At least they targeted the correct former Pittsburgh star and didn’t get sidetracked by trying to throw a stupid number at the high-maintenance handful that is receiver Antonio Brown.

But can anyone definitively say what Bell is right now as a weapon? When he last played the game in 2017, he was undoubtedly one of the best, if not the best, running back in the league. But we don’t what he is today, after a year away from the NFL. Is he refreshed and ready for a career year, or perhaps a tad out of shape and poised to rest on his laurels after finally landing a long-term big-money deal?

Given his track record, Bell also may be one positive test for marijuana away from a league suspension, and after sitting out all of 2018, can anyone be sure that issue won’t crop up to bite the Jets at some point? His history of knee problems also has to be a tad concerning to New York.

Don’t get me wrong. The Jets got better with their free agency shopping spree, of which Bell is the signature acquisition. But how much better is hard to know right now. C.J. Mosely is a very good linebacker. But I’m not sure he’s a true difference-maker and it would make me nervous that Baltimore refused to stretch too much to keep him, perhaps seeing him as somewhat limited and not worth breaking the bank for.

I like the Jamison Crowder addition quite a bit and Josh Bellamy could be a useful receiving cog as well. Every year there are teams that go big in free agency and easy reaction is to point out that approach rarely works. Maybe the Jets will get it right this time and add only valuable pieces that lead to more winning and contention in the AFC East.

Or maybe they’ll have somewhat the same experience as the rival Giants, who in 2016 rebuilt their defense overnight in part thanks to three high-profile free agents that cost $106.3 million in guaranteed money. Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison and Janoris Jenkins all helped New York win that year, and the G-Men went 11-5 and earned a wild-card berth under first-year head coach Ben McAdoo. But the Giants lost that playoff game at Green Bay, and have gone 8-24 in the past two seasons, with Vernon, Harrison and Jenkins all now elsewhere.

If a team doesn’t draft well, the scotch-tape approach to contention usually doesn’t last for long or return enough early results to make the initial investment worth it in the long run. We’re about to see how much improvement the Jets have bought themselves.

* It’s pretty clear Earl Thomas didn’t find quite the safety market he expected this week. Safeties went flying off the shelf on Monday and Tuesday, but Thomas remained un-signed until he agreed upon a four-year deal with Baltimore on Wednesday. According to ESPN, his contract is worth $55 million, at $13.75 annually just a tad shy of the $14 million or $15 million per year benchmark he was said to be aiming for.

Thomas thought he was in for top-of-the-line money, like the six-year, $84 million contract Washington handed ex-Giants safety Landon Collins (Oh, Washington’s at it again), or the three-year $42 million deal Tyrann Mathieu struck with Kansas City, with both of those contracts averaging $14 million annually, narrowly edging out his deal based on at least one metric.

While he waited for his market to develop, Green Bay pounced on ex-Bears safety Adrian Amos for $37 million for four years and Houston locked up ex-Jaguars safety Tashaun Gipson at a reported $22 million over three seasons — roughly half of what Thomas was thought to be seeking.

Eric Weddle signed with the Rams, Lamarcus Joyer with the Raiders and Kenny Vacarro re-signed with the Titans. All got offers before Thomas did, and that was surprising news for a guy who thought he entered the market holding all or most of the cards when it came to value. Another veteran, Cleveland’s Jabrill Peppers, got traded to the Giants in the Beckham deal, relocating yet another safety in the swirl of transactions.

The reality? Thomas is going to be 30 soon, he’s played in only 29 of Seattle’s 48 regular-season games in the past three years due to injury, so he was unlikely to set the market. Thomas still got paid, and paid very well by the Ravens. But after making it clear he had strong interest in playing for Dallas, and perhaps San Francisco, Thomas settled for Baltimore in a twist he probably didn’t see coming.

* Maybe we should re-name the Raiders the Silver and Brown after their two big headline moves, signing ex-Patriots offensive tackle Trent Brown and trading for Antonio Brown. Trent Brown’s contract was simply mind-boggling, but it’s always about desperate measures for desperate teams in free agency. Brown got $66 million over four years, making him the NFL’s highest-paid offensive tackle ever, at $16.5 million annually. Not bad coin for a guy who played left tackle in the NFL for the first time in 2018.

And then there’s the landmine field that is Antonio Brown. Good luck with this one, Raiders. I can’t decide which combustible relationship will be the first one to show signs of strain in Oakland. Will it be head coach Jon Gruden and Brown? Brown and Raiders quarterback Derek Carr? Or how about perhaps the odds-on favorite, Gruden and Carr, since many of us have thought that working relationship to be fraught with potential friction since the day Gruden was hired. Whichever of those tandems goes sideways first, it’s the Raiders who will ultimately lose.

Antonio Brown and Carr reportedly played a little informal game of pitch and catch away from the team complex on Tuesday, even before the trade becomes official on Wednesday. That’s a good sign, but honeymoons are always fun. It’s what comes after them that matters, however.

* The most surprising move thus far this week? The Chiefs agreeing to trade pass rusher Dee Ford, whom they franchised, to San Francisco for a second-round pick. That seems like a great pickup for the pass-rush starved 49ers, but it also makes you wonder what Kansas City really thought of Ford?

Kansas City just released pass rusher Justin Houston and said goodbye to Tamba Hali last March, and has anyone lost that much depth at one position over so short of a span? From a leading strength to a glaring weakness in about a year, that’s the state of the Chiefs pass rush currently.

Andy Reid hasn’t lasted 20 seasons as an NFL head coach without knowing what a good player looks like and making every attempt to keep them. So it says a lot in my eyes when Reid was ready to cut ties with Ford. Maybe Reid just never got over that offsides penalty that essentially cost the Chiefs the AFC Championship game against the Patriots.

* Speaking of all the personnel losses the Ravens have suffered in recent days, what does it say about things in Baltimore that we barely remember the offseason started for the Ravens with the Joe Flacco trade to Denver? So, sure, watching Mosely, Suggs, Smith, Weddle and Brown walk out the door must hurt. But, you know, don’t forget about the quarterback who won a Super Bowl MVP for Baltimore just six years ago. Somebody must be sorry to see you go, Joe.

* Raise your hand if way back in the stormy days of late 2017 you thought the benched Eli Manning’s tenure with the Giants would out-last Beckham’s? I sure didn’t. And I still don’t comprehend why New York general manager Dave Gettleman felt the need to move Beckham — his team’s most elite player — just one year after signing him to a huge contract extension? On the scale of unnecessary problems created for his team, Beckham has been a far bigger headache in the past than he was at any point in 2018.

And paying Beckham almost $21.5 million for just one season of his new deal, with a resulting $16 million cap hit of dead money in 2019 makes little sense.

The Giants better hope Saquon Barkley and whichever young quarterback they draft in the first round accounts for most of the oxygen expended on this team in 2019. Because New York isn’t going to be my pick to win the NFC East, or contend for the playoffs, this season. Or next.

* Ex-Patriots tight end Dwayne Allen signed with Miami and said he’s hoping to be an agent of change for the Dolphins. Yeah, so was Danny Amendola last year. How’d that work out? Miami just released Amendola recently, before he landed in Detroit with ex-Patriots defensive coordinator, Matt Patricia.

Allen might prove to be a very useful role player for the Dolphins, but in truth, it’ll be head coach Brian Flores — if anyone — who will bring a version of the Patriot Way to South Florida. With both the Dolphins and Lions competing furiously to see who can re-create New England’s program the most accurately, it’s another fun exercise we’ll watch unfold as we’re waiting to see the Patriots clinch another AFC East title in 2019.

* Penny for Chip Kelly’s thoughts when he heard the news the Eagles re-acquired receiver DeSean Jackson via a trade with the Bucs? How many more ways can Philadelphia general manager Howie Rosen come up with to try and indict and eradicate the team’s entire Kelly era? Let’s hope the rumors are true and Bills running back LeSean McCoy is the next ex-Eagles who will return to Philly.

* Teddy Bridgewater decided to stay with New Orleans as a backup quarterback, as we suspected he might. I’m not sure how strongly Miami pursued him, but the Dolphins did have interest at some level. And while many might not understand him opting to be satisfied for another season as a No. 2, rather than compete for a starting gig with the Dolphins, it does make some sense.

In Miami, there were a lot of unknowns for Bridgewater, even though he’s from there. Who will be the Dolphins’ primary playmakers this season, and will they be capable of helping the starting quarterback look good, or even competent? Is Miami going all out to win this year, or does the patient re-build approach that spells tanking to some have some validity? Is the 2019 starter being set up for failure in Miami?

In that light, another year of duty behind Drew Brees, then potentially taking over a high-powered offense with a proven offensive coaching staff probably made it a somewhat easy call for Bridgewater. The key obviously will be if Brees is done playing after 2019, and Bridgewater is then seen as the heir apparent who will get every shot to keep the train rolling in 2020.

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