It’s been a few weeks since the last installment, and the events of the past few days in the NFL justify a full return instead of the typical offseason $.05. Way too many intriguing developments for just a nickel!
$.01--Chip Kelly isn’t fooling around with his now powers with the Philadelphia Eagles. The third-year coach is making waves with some radical changes and feverish belief in his personal system.
Last year he jettisoned playmaking wideout Desean Jackson. He’s gone far beyond driven in his quest to rid his team of all playmakers this year.
First he dealt star RB LeSean McCoy to the Buffalo Bills for linebacker Kiko Alonso, a player Kelly coached at Oregon. McCoy was the first overall pick in many fantasy drafts last summer, a dynamic runner with big-play ability and outstanding proven production. He’s rushed for almost 3,000 yards in the last two years, catching 80 passes along the way. This leaves an aging Darren Sproles, nondescript Chris Polk and another Kelly Duck in young journeyman Kenjon Barner to tote the rock.
Okay, they’ll overcome the lack of rushing oomph by becoming more prolific throwing the ball. Or not, as they let top wideout Jeremy Maclin leave via free agency. He reunited with former Eagles coach Andy Reid in Kansas City, which desperately needed upgrading at receiver. Now the Eagles QB will lob throws to Riley Cooper, Jordan Matthews and Jeff Maehl (another former Duck). Oh, and he’ll do so minus quality longtime starting guard Todd Herremans, who was also sent packing. Cooper and Matthews are not bad, but neither is a dynamic playmaker and both are far better served at least one peg down the depth chart than they currently reside.
Kelly is remaking the Eagles as Eugene East. At Oregon he ran an offense where tempo and speed were far more of a premium than actual talent. He wanted his bigger talent on defense. True to that, they signed CB Byron Maxwell away from Seattle. That’s a great move to help bolster what has been a terrifyingly inept Philly secondary, but much more help is needed.
$.02--The Eagles didn’t stay out of the news for long. In a strange move for both sides, the Eagles and Rams swapped quarterbacks and draft picks:
#Eagles acquire QB Sam Bradford, '15 5th round draft pick from St. Louis in exchange for QB Nick Foles, '15 4th round, '16 2nd round picks— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) March 10, 2015
The long and the short of the deal is Sam Bradford for Nick Foles and a second round pick in 2016. Chip Kelly opted to choose the oft-injured Bradford to run his go-go offense in place of Foles, who was fantastic in 2013 but regressed back to the reality of being a merely average player in 2014.
Bradford is a superior talent. He’s shown he can be accurate and commands respect as a field general. Alas, he’s proven incredibly fragile; going back to Oklahoma he has suffered major injuries in four of the last six seasons. One year is a fluke. Two is bad luck. More than that and you’re talking about a completely unreliable player. “You can’t help the club in the tub” is a football axiom for a reason, and the Rams were tired of having backups start more games than Bradford.
Still, if he can stay on the field for a full year the former #1 overall pick is a good fit for the quick-hit passing, and playing behind what still looks like a good OL can only help. The cynical Philly fan will note Bradford never had much in the way of receiving talent to work with in St. Louis, too.
St. Louis continues to be the destination of quarterbacks with equal parts promise and warts. If the ’13 edition of Foles shows back up, the Rams are a playoff team. If the ’14 version, the one who was erratic and missed half the season with injuries of his own, shows up the Rams might not sniff six wins.
Now for my editorializing: I wouldn’t be surprised if Bradford never plays for Philly. Either he’s part of another deal to move up for Marcus Mariota, or Kelly realizes Bradford is a reactive passer instead of a timing thrower and opts to go with Mark Sanchez again. The bizarre language in the deal actually provides some incentive to not play Bradford.
I also wouldn’t be surprised if Kelly is coaching in college in 2016. His grand experiment is a ballsy gamble in his system above all else. This team still has talent and could compete for the playoffs, but they’re also perilously close to being a laughingstock. The latter will not fly with Eagles fans…or ownership.
$.03--The biggest name in free agency was Ndamukong Suh, the All-Pro defensive tackle from Detroit. After exhaustive negotiations which spread out over almost 18 months, Suh and the Lions could not come to terms. Instead, arguably the biggest free-agent talent to hit the market since Reggie White will take his talents to South Beach and join the Miami Dolphins.
This one is personal to me on several levels. I covered the Lions the last two seasons for Bleacher Report, and I’ve been a fan since the #20 in Honolulu Blue was Billy Sims (Google him, kids). Heck, I run Detroit Lions Draft. So this will not be an impartial cent…
I’m angry. I’m not angry with Suh, who took the best offer by a few million dollars and the more favorable front-loaded contract structure Detroit couldn’t offer. No, I’m angry with myself for being so easily misled by the Lions organization.
For well over a year the company line was stern confidence they would re-sign Suh. It nearly happened last winter, but Suh’s protracted agent change and owner William Clay Ford’s untimely death were legit excuses for the lack of consummation. “No problem” echoed the refrain from team HQ in Allen Park.
Over the summer the Lions made what they felt was a great offer. I was told the deal was five years/$85M with over half guaranteed. Suh, or rather his new representation Roc Nation, told them to shove it. General Manager Martin Mayhew broke off negotiations for the rest of the season.
Again, “no problem” was the mantra. There was almost obnoxious confidence--both publicly and privately--Suh would return. Detroit even held the option of using the franchise tag, and I’m told they strongly considered it despite the cap-crippling price tag. When I talked to team sources at the Combine they remained supremely confident Suh would be back.
They opted to not use the franchise tag, but still strongly believed the cornerstone the entire second-ranked defense was built upon would stick around…and I still bought in.
This was all created by a unique, complex situation where the Lions happened to hit on three mega-talents with high draft picks before the new rookie salary structure kicked in. There are all sorts of factors in play that give some legit excusing to Mayhew and to a lesser extent Team President Tom Lewand, who handles the contracts and salary cap. Yet the undeniable end game is that their overconfidence and cap mismanagement cost the Lions the best defensive talent the team has had since Joe Schmidt. With fellow DTs Nick Fairley and C.J. Mosley also leaving via free agency, the strength of the defense suddenly becomes a vacant hole. And that makes me very angry too. They lost a game of chicken they never had to enter.
$.04--Detroit alleviated some of the burn by making a trade just before free agency began at 4 p.m. on Tuesday. The Lions sent fourth and fifth round picks to Baltimore for Pro Bowl DT Haloti Ngata and a seventh round pick.
Ngata isn’t Suh. He’s older, not as dynamic of a pass rusher and is coming off a season where he missed the final four games under suspension for PEDs. The Ravens refused his demands to extend his contract, which is entering the final year at $8.5M for 2015.
Yet he’s a great fit in Detroit, where the stout defense is led by former Ravens coach Teryl Austin. Ngata can play the nose tackle spot or the 3-technique rushing role, and he can do so in a 3- or 4-man front. Expectations are the Lions will run more hybrid defensive fronts like the Ravens have done, and Ngata is the perfect guy to have in the middle of that chaos.
Many expect a contract extension for Ngata, both to secure him for a longer term and to free up more shopping money for the Lions. The team still has designs on some free agent cornerbacks and perhaps another defensive tackle. As of 9:18 Tuesday night they were still a serious player in the Fairley sweepstakes.
Baltimore could afford to play hardball with Ngata thanks to the savvy drafting of Brandon Williams and Timmy Jernigan in recent years. GM Ozzie Newsome showed the foresight in anticipating he would need to replace the aging but still effective Ngata, and he extracted two useful mid-round picks as a harsh lesson to Mayhew and the Lions for failing to do the same.
$.05--The Green Bay Packers normally doesn’t make the news much in the free agency period. Sure, they did sign Julius Peppers last year, but normally the Packers stick with homegrown talent.
They’ve done so again, and in the process demonstrate why they continue to be one of the most consistently successful organizations in pro sports. GM Ted Thompson and his erudite staff let eminently replaceable inside LBs A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones walk away. Instead they devoted their precious cap resources to locking up invaluable offensive weapon Randall Cobb and quality right tackle Bryan Bulaga.
Cobb actually turned down more money from the Oakland Raiders to remain in Green Bay. He’s still getting $40M in four years, which is no small change. But for him, the prospect of winning and catching passes from MVP Aaron Rodgers outweighed a couple extra millions.
That’s not by accident. Thompson and his crew value traits like loyalty and desire to win more than other teams do in the scouting process. They might not always hit, but when they do it’s with players who perfectly fit their system and value their culture. Bulaga might have found better offers outside too, but he was content to stay at home. And that’s part of why Green Bay will once again be the heavy favorites to win the NFC North. That Rodgers guy helps a lot, but the culture of winning and family is the envy of the league too.
$.06--There was another blockbuster of a trade just after the free agent gates opened. The New Orleans Saints sent All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks for center Max Unger and a first-round pick.
Graham is the best receiving tight end in the league outside of Rob Gronkowski. In fact his receiving prowess led to the rift which helped pave the way for this deal. He wanted to be classified as a wideout and not a tight end, which makes the difference in several million dollars. New Orleans steadfastly refused, even though Graham is a terrible blocker and plays most of his snaps lined up outside the formation.
Seattle doesn’t care about designations. They care about winning, and now they have a legit playmaking target for Russell Wilson. He’s scored 46 touchdowns in the last four years, while the Seahawks have just 46 in the last two seasons while repeatedly struggling in the red zone. Consider that problem solved.
For New Orleans, the page is turning. With Drew Brees very close to the end of his illustrious career, the Saints are opting for greater protection in lieu of downfield production. Unger is a slightly above-average center, though he’s had trouble staying healthy. The Saints were in complete salary cap hell too, and this helps free up much-needed funds. The first-round pick (#31 overall) gives them a chance to reload as they build for the future.
There are rumors out there the Saints are shopping Brees too. I heard one on Monday night which I dismissed, perhaps too hastily. Several credible sources reported the Saints would entertain offers, though it’s hard to imagine that franchise opting for the scorched earth rebuild…even though they probably need to strongly consider it.
$.07--One of the more surprising developments came from San Francisco, where the suddenly reeling Niners were dealt a huge blow when All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis announced his retirement. After eight outstanding seasons, one of the best defensive players of this century opted to call it quits rather than absorb further damage to his 30-year-old body.
Willis was hindered by a toe injury last year that limited him to just six games, and he was not able to perform to the superlative standards he had established. His decline and the absence of inside running mate Navorro Bowman were no small part of why the 49ers defense fell back to the pack.
This is a Hall of Fame talent walking away at a time where many players are looking for one last fat payday. Willis didn’t get the critical acclaim he deserved until late in his career, as he was mired on some dreadful teams in the Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary eras. No inside linebacker was better at any point in the meat of his years, from 2008-13. He was one of the best overall players at any position for more than half a decade and the heart of a defense that went from solid to downright fearsome around him. In four of his final five full seasons the Niners ranked no lower than fourth in scoring defense and in the top-8 in turnovers created. That’s an impact defender.
It’s rare to see a top-flight talent walk away so suddenly, with so many years seemingly left. I applaud Willis for valuing his post-football life so highly, and for not watering down his legacy with more potential slipping on the field. Coupled with venerable DE Justin Smith also retiring, the Niners' defense could be primed for quite the slip itself.
$.08--Staying on the retirement front, Jake Locker also called it a career after just four injury-ravaged seasons as quarterback for the Tennessee Titans. His case is a little different…
Locker’s personal decision to quit a job he didn’t like anymore is going to draw much scorn and enmity, but it should instead be celebrated. If his heart wasn’t in football, why keep playing? Why take the money with dishonest intentions? Why subject the body to all the abuse, and the psyche to the venom from fans perennially disappointed with his underwhelming performance and fragility?
I was never a Locker guy. My first real exposure from scouting purposes was his infamous disaster of a game against Nebraska in his senior season at Washington. I can still recite the stat line without looking it up: 4-for-20, 71 yards, 2 INTs, 1-for-11 on 3rd down. It’s the worst game I’ve ever seen a draftable quarterback have to this day, and I’ve watched a lot of both Sean Mannion and Brandon Bridge this year…
His maddening propensity for missing wide open targets marred what was otherwise a really talented athlete. Locker was an excellent scrambler and had a strong arm and aesthetically beautiful throwing motion. He was a revered teammate and leader, a fierce competitor. Yet between the injuries and inaccuracy he never came close to living up to the expectations of being the eighth overall pick in the 2011 draft.
--Maurice Jones-Drew also retired after nine seasons of hard running in Jacksonville and Oakland. In his prime he was one of the better power backs in the league. He’s great on the radio and smart enough to know his career path leads there instead of taking more hits for less money.
--The Houston Texans were a quarterback away from being the best team in the AFC South last season. They’re trying to fill that gaping hole with the duo of Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer. Both are former Patriots draft picks familiar with Head Coach Bill O’Brien, so that makes sense. The rub is they’re both awful. Mallett offers some hope, though I’ll be shocked if he’s anything better than the 23rd-best QB in the league. Hoyer was downright brutal in Cleveland last year, a season after he was cut by three good teams in less than six months.
--More change in Houston comes as franchise icon Andre Johnson is no longer with the team. The Texans released him instead of paying him, and he is (as of 9:06 p.m.) weighing an offer to replace Reggie Wayne as the old wideout in Indianapolis. This is a crushing lesson in football economics to my 9-year-old son, a devoted Texans fan from our time living in Houston. He wore his Andre Johnson jersey all day. God bless you for the memories, Andre…
--The Patriots opted to keep star safety Devin McCourty and decline the $20M option on star cornerback Darrelle Revis. Interesting choice. McCourty is fantastic, no doubt about it. Revis will now try to make the Patriots pay by rejoining the Jets in a move that probably deserves a lot more than this relatively small blurb.
--Oakland swapped out center Stefen Wisniewski for Rodney Hudson, a free agent pillaging of rival Kansas City. Wisniewski wasn’t great--he’s got zero power as a run blocker--but they’re deluded if they think they are getting a significant upgrade in Hudson for the amount of money they gave him. $44.5M for five years for a perfectly average center is insanity.
$.10--The Chicago Bears and New York Jets also made a trade in a sign of two ships moving in differnet directions. Chicago packaged enigmatic but supremely skilled wideout Brandon Marshall to New York for a 5th and 7th round pick.
Marshall fills a screaming need for the Jets…
He’s one of the most prolific targets in the league, a red zone menace with a huge catch radius and fearless on-field demeanor. Marshall is also a bit of a loose cannon, and an expensive one too. That made him expendable for the rebuilding Bears, the third team to give up on him in six years.
Chicago is finally acknowledging they are in overhaul mode. New coach, new GM and years of failing to meet expectations created the cold reality, and Marshall was not part of the long-term solution. Quarterback Jay Cutler might not be either, but he will apparently languish on a bad team for at least one more year unless someone wows them with a trade offer.
The Jets are going full bore at winning with their own new coaching regime. Adding Marshall to play opposite Eric Decker gives them a strong, big wideout tandem. They still sorely lack a quarterback, though the book on Geno Smith has yet to be written. In keeping linebacker David Harris and bringing back Revis Island, the Jets have markedly improved this offseason. You can’t fault them for trying.