NFL free agency in 2018 officially opened for business at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, but it some ways, it felt finished by then. With a crazy 48-hour legal tampering period leading up to the “frenzy,” many of the league’s best free agents already had agreed to deals with new teams.
Free agency is only one part of a long offseason, with the 2018 NFL Draft still more than a month away. But the money spent through signings and trades, and how teams attempted to upgrade, has set the tone for the upcoming season.
NFL FREE AGENCY 2018:
Winners, losers of open market
Here we grade and rank the most notable moves, starting with the splurge on the top available quarterback.
NFL free agency grades: A
Vikings sign QB Kirk Cousins (three years, $84 million)
Minnesota backed up the Brinks truck to ensure it could lock down Cousins for the short term as he enters his pivotal age-30 season. He fits the Vikings’ new West Coast offense perfectly and will mesh well with offensive skill players Stefon Diggs, Adam Thieln, Kyle Rudolph and Dalvin Cook.
Cousins evens the playing field in the battle for NFC supremacy with the Super Bowl champion Eagles. He was worth the “all in” approach with a team that’s built to win now.
Bears sign WR Allen Robinson (three years, $42 million)
Chicago trotted out a joke of a wide receiver corps last season, hampered further by the knee injury to Cameron Meredith. Now they have a bona fide No. 1 who’s both a big-play field-stretcher and a red-zone drive finisher for second-year QB Mitchell Trubisky.
The parallel here is the idea that Robinson can have the same effect on the athletic, accurate Trubisky as former Bear Alshon Jeffery had on the Eagles’ Carson Wentz in his second season.
Jaguars sign G Andrew Norwell (five years, $66.5 million)
Jacksonville wasn’t rumored to make such a move, but it upgrades nicely next to stud center Brandon Linder. The NFL’s best rushing attack got a lot stronger with Norwell replacing free-agent Patrick Omameh. Leonard Fournette will see bigger holes open for his power running, and Blake Bortles will enjoy the extra inside protection.
Chiefs sign WR Sammy Watkins (three years, $48 million)
Kansas City wasn’t rumored to make such a move, but it upgrades nicely opposite speedster Tyreek Hill. Watkins is a deep threat, too, but he developed into Andy Reid’s ideal, complete West Coast receiver in his one season with the Rams. Watkins will fit well with the big-armed skills of second-year QB Patrick Mahomes.
Titans sign RB Dion Lewis (four years, $20 million)
Lewis was a feature back for New England down the stretch in 2017, but he got good money to go back to being more of a complementary passing game option in Tennessee. Imagine Lewis and third-year bruiser Derrick Henry as the lightning and (then the) thunder of the Titans. Marcus Mariota will love throwing to Lewis, too, as Matt LaFleur installs his version of the West Coast offense.
STEELE: Titans issue warning to AFC
Giants sign LT Nate Solder (four years, $62 million)
Solder is a little old (turns 30 in April) to become the highest-paid offensive lineman in the league, but left tackles with solid production and experience don’t hit the open market often. New York had to pounce in order to nail down the edge, especially after it lost out on Norwell inside. Now the Giants’ attention can fall on left guard and center through the next waves of free agency and the draft.
Chiefs trade for CB Kendall Fuller
Fuller had an exceptional season in Washington playing from the slot off Josh Norman and Bashaud Breeland. He’s far from an afterthought in the trade with the Redskins, as Fuller is just scratching the surface as a dynamic playmaker and can match the impact Marcus Peters had outside.
Rams trade for CB Marcus Peters
Peters is still pretty darn good himself. Even though he gambles in coverage and can give up some big plays, he still can make a ton of them. Having a stable secondary around him (Lamarcus Joyner, Aqib Tailb, Nickell Robey-Coleman) will allow Peters to be aggressive as a back-end ballhawk for Wade Phillips’ blitzing defense.
Patriots trade for DT Danny Shelton
New England needed a linchpin against the run and a true nose tackle. Shelton came on strong as a run-stuffer last season and is better suited for Bill Belchick’s scheme than he was for that of Gregg Williams.
Titans sign CB Malcolm Butler (five years, $61 million)
Adoree’ Jackson, the team’s 2017 first-rounder, has the talent to develop into a special No. 1. So this is a great deal for a reliable, durable No. 2. Butler will allow former Patriots teammate Logan Ryan to move into his more comfortable role in the slot. Butler lost his mojo with the Patriots in a tough 2017 season that ended with his Super Bowl 52 benching, but he can rebound to be the well-rounded cover man Tennessee desperately needed.
Jets sign ILB Avery Williamson (three years, $22.5 million)
The Jets got a strong surprise season at the same position from Demario Davis, but Williamson is three years younger and rangier as a replacement. He’s an excellent run defender and has the upside to be better than Davis in coverage.
NFL free agency grades: A-
49ers sign CB Richard Sherman (three years, $39 million)
San Francisco falls short of an “A” because, even with the team-friendly deal for its former Seahawks tormenter, Sherman is entering his age-30 season and coming off a ruptured Achilles. Beyond the risk, if Sherman is healthy, he should pay off as a heady cover man and a much-needed leader for a promising young defense.
Browns trade for QB Tyrod Taylor
Is Taylor the splashiest veteran Cleveland could have added? No. Is he a long-term solution? Probably not. But he’s the type of stable, efficient QB they can use right now. Taylor also is a cheap pocket holder for the franchise QB the Browns are bound to draft, and he can win some games to make them a lot more respectable in the meantime. He also has a big arm and athleticism, two attributes that can work well for Todd Haley.
Panthers sign CB Bashaud Breeland (three years, $24 million)
Carolina needed someone more dynamic and experienced to start along with James Bradberry. Breeland last season was a better overall cover corner than former Panther Norman with the Redskins. He’s only 26 and has some shutdown potential; he also came at a reasonable price as a significant improvement over Daryl Worley.
49ers sign RB Jerick McKinnon (four years, $30 million)
The price might seem high for a diminutive dasher who isn’t built to handle 20-25 touches per game, but there’s a lot of the Falcons’ Tevin Coleman in Kyle Shahahan’s latest open-field backfield cog. McKinnon improved his value with some big games filling in for Cook in Minnesota last season. He should be paired with another early-down, Devonta Freeman-type back in San Francisco. Look for that option to come in a deep running back draft.
Browns trade for WR Jarvis Landry
Landry supplements Duke Johnson Jr. and tight end David Njoku in the short passing game, and he also can play well off Josh Gordon running deeper routes. He’s the tough, reliable slot receiver the Browns have been missing since the best days of Andrew Hawkins. Landry should immediately be the go-to guy for Taylor; the only question is whether he’s too pricey for his specific role.
Bears sign TE Trey Burton (four years, $32 million)
Burton goes from throwing the “Philly Special” TD pass in Super Bowl 52 to cashing in as a former Eagles backup who flashed as a receiver when needed. Chicago had a mess at the position with the injuries to Zach Miller and Dion Sims. While Robinson gives Trubisky a true top wideout, Burton provides an athletic, sure-handed security blanket. New coach Matt Nagy knows what a difference a tight end with those skills can make having just coached Travis Kelce in Kansas City.
Browns sign OT Chris Hubbard (five years, $37.5 million)
This and the pickup of lesser tackle Donald Stephenson indicated Cleveland might not have Joe Thomas in 2018, and Thomas’ decision to retire came soon after. Hubbard is better suited to solidify right tackle, however, than he is to slide over into the big cleats of Thomas on the left side. Look for the Browns to find Thomas’ true replacement in the draft.
Texans sign C/G Zach Fulton
Fulton could start at either guard position in Houston, but he’s expected to line up at center after playing well there as a backup in Kansas City. He gives the Texans a much-needed athletic run blocker inside while also strengthening a big weakness in front of Deshaun Watson.
NFL free agency grades: B+
Broncos sign QB Case Keenum (two years, $36 million)
Denver avoided the temptation for Cousins and settled on Keenum as a stopgap option. Paxton Lynch, Chad Kelly and a rookie draft pick will have a little more time to develop and compete, as Keenum can produce in a West Coast — the type of offense in which he played under Gary Kubiak in Houston. The price seems a little high, however, and Taylor might have been a better get. But John Elway will keep taking shots at QB until he gets it right.
Texans sign CB Aaron Colvin (four years, $34 million)
Houston needed help at cornerback with Johnathan Joseph as a free agent and both Kareem Jackson and Kevin Johnson entering contract years coming off disappointing seasons. It was good for the Texans to jump on Colvin while the top defensive backs were signing elsewhere, but they paid a high price for an above-average slot cover man.
Rams trade for CB Aqib Talib
On paper, Talib and Peters could create a new “No-Fly Zone” in Los Angeles. In the locker room, they could create a volatile situation together. It will be a challenge to get their personalities to mesh, and beyond that, Talib is overdue for a drop-off at age 32. If he still can play like the Talib of old for Phillips, it’s a boom. Otherwise there is a bust factor in play.
Lions sign OLB Devon Kennard (three years, $18.75 million)
New coach Matt Patricia needed to rebuild Detroit’s linebacker corps outside with Tahir Whitehead and Paul Worrilow unsigned. Kennard isn’t spectacular, but he covers a lot of ground, is pretty decent in coverage and can contribute as a strongside blitzer. He’s a very Patriots-like signing for the Lions.
NFL free agency grades: B-
Jets sign QB Teddy Bridgewater
The Jets hedged their bets after losing out on Cousins by bringing back Josh McCown for one more season and also taking a 2018-only flyer on Bridgewater. There are real doubts about whether Bridgewater can get back on track as a worthy NFL starter, but he gives New York a third-tier option for the short term with McCown and likely a rookie first-round QB. At this point, Bridgewater is more of a developmental prospect himself.
49ers sign C/G Weston Richburg (five years)
San Francisco did extend Daniel Kilgore before free agency, so it needs to decide where to play Richburg, once an elite center in New York before a concussion-derailed 2017 season. There’s a good chance Kilgore will stay in the middle and Richburg will slide over to his original position of left guard. Either way, the 49ers got a much-needed upgrade for their overall interior blocking.
Packers sign DE Muhammad Wilkerson
Wilkerson had a rough off-field finish to his Jets career, but the Packers represent potential for a rebound as Mike Pettine, his former defensive coordinator, takes over their 3-4 scheme. Wilkerson is young and well-rounded, and if his head is right with a change of scenery, he’ll be an excellent run-stopping/pass-rushing complement to Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels in Green Bay’s rotation.
Browns sign RB Carlos Hyde (three years, $15 million)
Hyde replaces Isaiah Crowell as Cleveland’s early-down power back, and his style fits Haley’s scheme better than it did with that of Shanahan. Hyde provides a little more juice and finishing ability than Crowell offered, too. He and Johnson are a fine 1-2 punch to play off the Browns’ suddenly loaded three-level passing game. The one knock on Hyde at his price is a durability issue.
Jaguars sign WR Donte Moncrief (one year, $7 million)
Moncrief, once a potential breakout wide receiver, didn’t live up to his size, speed and hands in Indianapolis and was further hampered by Andrew Luck going down. This isn’t the cheapest dice roll, but Jacksonville could easily afford it for a talent who could thrive in its West Coast offense. Moncrief has a ceiling high enough to be an adequate replacement for Robinson outside.
Panthers trade for WR Torrey Smith
Smith is pretty much a one-trick receiver, and he’s been that way since he left Baltimore for San Francisco and then Philadelphia. But his trick — running deep downfield for long balls — meshes with Cam Newton’s needs in Norv Turner’s offense; needs that were missed without Ted Ginn last season. Moving Worley for him and later getting Breeland looks like a win for the Panthers.
Bills sign DT Star Lotulelei (five years)
Lotulelei has seen his play decline over the past couple post-Super Bowl seasons. The Bills are hoping he can find his way again as an inside force while reunited with his former defensive coordinator, Sean McDermott.
Giants sign RB Jonathan Stewart (two years, $6.9 million)
This isn’t exactly how New York plans to address its backfield, where Orleans Darkwa and Shane Vereen are free agents, Paul Perkins is buried and Wayne Gallman is unknown. A signing such as Stewart, who can serve as a solid veteran backup, is a more of an early indication that the Giants are eyeing Saquon Barkley to be their main man.
Ravens sign WR John Brown (one year, $5 million)
The Ravens did employ Smith and did draft Breshad Perriman, so Brown’s home-run ability fits what they like to do downfield with Joe Flacco. Brown also can be a tough, underrated receiver in the red zone. The issues are Brown’s history of soft-tissue injuries and the sickle-cell trait, but given the sorry state of the Baltimore receiving corps with Jeremy Maclin cut and Mike Wallace a free agent, he’s a reasonable flyer.
Eagles trade for DE Michael Bennett
In addition to Bennett, Philadelphia also picked up another veteran tackle/end type in former Lions and Ravens starter Haloti Ngata. It adds to the strong depth on the defensive line, where they did lose Beau Allen (Buccaneers) in free agency. Bennett just might not have much left.
Jets sign RB Isaiah Crowell (three years)
Crowell helps the Jets replace retired Matt Forte and oft-injured Bilal Powell. Crowell is, however, limited to being an early-down option, and he’s very inconsistent, as he can reel off long runs but also can struggle to get tough yardage between the tackles. This would work better should Crowell be paired with a fast receiving back, say Georgia’s Sony Michel, in the draft.
Giants trade for ILB Alec Ogletree
Kennard’s former team, New York, is suddenly short on linebackers as it goes to more of a base 3-4 under new defensive coordinator James Bettcher. Ogletree fills a desperate need and is a capable starter, but he is coming off a terrible season in Los Angeles.
NFL free agency grades: C
Packers sign TE Jimmy Graham (three years, $30 million)
Graham made out like a bandit with what should be his last NFL contract, given he’s 31 and has a recent history of knee injuries. He slowed down with the Seahawks, but he’s still a touchdown machine who scored 10 times as a red-zone weapon in 2017. Graham can work out better in that respect for Aaron Rodgers than veterans Jared Cook and Martellus Bennett could. Then again, the Packers already have a receiving TD monster in Davante Adams.
Dolphins sign WR Albert Wilson (three years, $24 million)
Wilson can do a lot of things well as a receiver, but he’s still coming off modest career highs — 42 catches for 554 yards and 3 TDs — in his final season with the Chiefs. He’s getting paid quite a bit for limited production and, contrary to popular belief, he isn’t a “cheaper version of Landry.”
Redskins sign WR Paul Richardson (five years, $40 million)
File Richardson with Wilson as a receiver who flashed at times in 2017 but still remains an unknown quantity out of a West Coast offense. Add in the fact that he’s a supposed deep threat for Washington to help non-downfield throwing Alex Smith, and this is a bit of a head-scratcher.
Redskins trade for QB Alex Smith
Smith turns 34 in May and is still costing the Redskins a lot of money in relation to Cousins. He also has hit his ceiling, in contrast to Cousins. Washington is treating Smith like an upgrade in the West Coast offense when he’s actually an expensive stopgap who just got replaced by a bigger-armed model in Kansas City. Even though it was a proactive early trade, it felt like post-Cousins desperation for a non-contender.
Ravens sign WR Ryan Grant (four years, $29 million)
Let’s keep the Redskins theme going around the Beltway. Grant did a few good things behind Jamison Crowder and Josh Doctson, but not enough to justify his getting this type of money and a shot to be a No. 1 receiver in Baltimore. The Dolphins are to Wilson as the Ravens are to Grant after losing out on actual offense-changing receivers.
Dolphins trade for DE Robert Quinn
Quinn’s All-Pro days as a pass-rusher are in the rearview mirror. Injury issues and a position change to a 3-4 outside linebacker have curbed him, so Miami is taking a big chance and hoping he can find his way in its defense.
Dolphins sign WR Danny Amendola (two years, $12 million)
Good for Danny Playoff, finding some good money away from the Patriots, with a division rival, no less. We already know he won’t do the same things in Miami, and this move is an indication that the Dolphins are going more slot-by-committee in an effort to replace Landry.
NFL free agency grades: D
Cardinals sign QBs Sam Bradford (one year, $20 million) and Mike Glennon
There are no failing grades in NFL free agency; just incomplete marks for teams that can’t or didn’t spend money and players who have yet to sign.
That said, Arizona easily has made the worst moves in 2018 free agency so far, and that’s not including its failure to keep Tyrann Mathieu for its defense.
Bradford’s recent lack of durability and production suggests he should not have gotten anything close to the amount of money the Cardinals gave him. And in case we needed another reminder of how this compares to the Bears wasting cash on Glennon last season, the Cardinals also decided to roll with Glennon as a presumed backup.
If Arizona doesn’t draft a QB because of this situation borne from desperation, it would only exacerbate these mistakes. If it does and that player starts over both, it will only highlight how misguided and wasted this QB two-step was.