$.01—We’ll start close to home, which for me is Holland, MI. That happens to be the hometown of Kirk Cousins, now the NFL’s highest-paid player. Cousins signed a three-year, $84 million contract to become the quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings. The kicker here is the details of the deal.
All $84 million is fully guaranteed. No need for roster or workout bonuses. No superfluous fluff on the back end that only serves to allow agents to gloat instead of benefitting their clients.
It’s the white whale of every NFL player. That Cousins is the first to secure it on the open free agent market continues his stunning ability to game the system. He might not be a great quarterback, but there’s never been anyone better at taking advantage of the situational context of his contract status, not even Joe Flacco.
Cousins will earn close to $135 million in five NFL seasons thanks to this contract on the back of consecutive franchise tag deals. He’s done so by refusing to acquiesce to the common practice of seeking flashy numbers over many years with the illusion of long-term security. Cousins figured out that taking a three-year deal for “just” $84 million is smarter than a six-year, $140 million deal because he’s going to see all $84 million, and he’ll be able to negotiate from a position of strength after three years instead of being stuck, or unceremoniously dumped. It’s a brilliant move by Cousins and agent Mike McCartney, one many players wish would become the norm.
Unfortunately, the big-time agents will eschew this practice because it’s not in their best interest. They want as big of a number of the total contract as possible and will sell out their clients’ interests in other areas to make that happen. What good is a $3 million lump payment cap figure in the sixth year of a deal when the player will either be dumped or renegotiated by the end of the fourth? Cousins’ deal cuts the BS and agent-oriented fluff.
If the NFLPA really wants to push on an issue, this is one to fight for. Doing deals in the best interest of the player and not necessarily the agent should be what the player’s union supports. It won’t be easy to break the power cartel of the prominent agents, but Cousins and Richard Sherman (more on him below) are proving it can be done.
$.02—Cousins takes over the job of three men in Minnesota. All three Vikings quarterbacks from a year ago are now Minnesota diaspora.
Case Keenum cashed in his career year to the tune of $36 million from Denver. Heretofore a journeyman who played well enough to start 24 games in six years and be generally regarded as one of the league’s better backups, Keenum exploded with an underrated supporting cast in Minnesota. His accuracy (67.6 percent) was no fluke and should carry over to Denver, but the 22/7 TD-to-INT ratio will be difficult to replicate.
Like Cousins, Keenum smartly took a two-year deal so he will hit free agency sooner and get another contract – and another signing bonus – quicker. He just turned 29, and if he’s better than the death spiral that was Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch over the last two seasons in Denver, he’ll be able to get another commensurate deal at 31. That’s smart.
Sam Bradford continues his inexplicable ability to pull in serious cash despite being perhaps the 12th-best QB in the NFL on his best day. He exploited the crying need for help in Arizona, pocketing a one-year, $20 million deal with $15M guaranteed. There is an option for 2019 as well. Not bad for a 30-year-old coming off his third major surgery on his left knee since 2013 who will be on his fourth team in five seasons. Arizona smartly hedged their bet on Bradford by signing Mike Glennon, licking his wounds from his humbling short tenure in Chicago. They should still draft a quarterback before Day Three, too.
Then there’s Teddy Bridgewater. After missing almost all of the last two seasons after his gruesome knee injury, Bridgewater appears ready to get back to starting. The NFL seems more cautious on Bridgewater, however; he struggled to find any offers to do more than compete with middling veterans. He’ll do just that with the New York Jets and Josh McCown, though the move into the top 3 (more on that below) likely means one of those two won’t make the final roster.
$.03—The Baltimore Ravens have a desperate need at wide receiver. They sought to remedy the situation by signing free agent Ryan Grant from nearby Washington. Coming off the first season where he saw extended action, the former fifth-round pick out of Tulane turned his 45 catches for 572 yards and four TDs in 2018 into a more lucrative deal than Detroit is paying Golden Tate, who averages almost exactly double those figures every season.
When most in the football media saw the report of Grant’s four-year, $29M deal with the Ravens, they just assumed it was a troll account pimping fake news. It was real however, and a tsunami of condescending condemnation and questioning of GM Ozzie Newsome’s relative sanity ensued.
Grant entered 2017 as Washington’s No. 4 wideout with 39 career catches in three seasons. He’s 27 and average in just about every physical attribute. He proved he can handle being higher up on the depth chart with an accurate quarterback (Cousins), but nothing indicates he’s worth what Tate or Robert Woods are pulling in.
Newsome and Co. quickly realized their folly, and they found a way out. Somehow Grant failed his physical with the Ravens. This is a player who has never missed a game in his four-year NFL career due to any injury. He wasn’t even listed on Washington’s injury report in Week 17.
Grant had no problem passing a physical the very next day with the Colts, and he’s also passed with the Raiders, though he has yet to sign with anyone else. If the NFL doesn’t thoroughly investigate what happened in Baltimore, there is something very fishy going on.
$04—Richard Sherman was the most notable figure of a massive talent purge in Seattle. The Legion of Boom is but a fond memory. Heck, other than the linebackers pretty much everything about the Seahawks strong defense over the last 3-5 seasons is history.
Sherman, the alpha male cornerback who might be the smartest man in the NFL, acted as his own agent. As anyone who knows Sherman at all might expect, he opted to sign with the team where he could do the most damage to Seattle, and he took a below-market, incentive-laden deal with San Francisco.
Many decried his deal as ridiculously team-friendly, and there is no arguing he could have demanded more money from others if he wished. But for a 30-year-old coming off a torn Achilles in November, it’s still a good deal. He’s at the age where top-shelf cornerbacks often go from being Johnnie Walker blue label down to green, or even black label, and that’s without the major injury.
In that context, the deal isn’t so odd. Sherman betting on himself returning to elite status isn’t odd either. Bet against him at your peril.
$.05—It will be strange watching the Cleveland Browns next season and not seeing No. 73 at left tackle. Joe Thomas retired after 11 seasons because his body simply wasn’t up for it any longer.
His 10,363rd consecutive snap wound up being his last. Thomas tore his triceps last fall, ending what is one of the most impressive careers in NFL history. A perennial All-Pro, Thomas was the best offensive tackle of his generation. And he was that way from the first time he took the field for the Browns.
Because he played on largely terrible teams with a cavalcade of ineptitude at quarterback, Thomas never got the national attention he deserved until the very end of his career. It’s a testament to his work ethic and personality that he never played down to the level of his teammates, and that he always brought his best even when his team had no chance of winning.
Thomas remains the highest-graded prospect I’ve ever evaluated, edging out Ndamukong Suh, Reggie Bush and Ezekiel Elliott (and Quenton Nelson this year will be thisclose). He’s poised to move into broadcast media and be just as great, too. His Thomahawk podcast with Andrew Hawkins is one of the best, and his oddball nature and fun-loving persona even while providing cutting insight will be well-received. Best of luck, Joe!
$.06—Thomas’ Browns have been one of the most active teams in acquiring new talent, moves which extend beyond free agent signings. New GM John Dorsey has been a busy man, parlaying the abundance of draft capital into three new starters at key positions.
None is bigger than adding wide receiver Jarvis Landry, the league’s reigning receptions leader. Miami didn’t think his oddly low yards per reception (8.8) was worth his lofty price tag ($15.9M) despite the fact they used the franchise tag on him. For the low price of a fourth-round pick this year and a seventh in 2019, the Browns picked up Landry. Considering Cleveland’s leading receiver at wideout last year hauled in 28 passes, adding someone who averages that many catches each month is a no-brainer, the low yardage be damned.
Cleveland sent a third-rounder to Buffalo to pick up someone who can get Landry the ball, quarterback Tyrod Taylor. It’s a perfect match, really. Taylor is noted for making the careful decision and checking down with impressive accuracy, while Landry is noted for always being open in the checkdown range and catching everything near him. It’s also a sign the Browns learned from their mistake in not having a veteran QB in the winless 2017. Taylor will be the 2018 starter, at least initially. Had the Browns kept a legit veteran around to hold DeShone Kizer’s hand, or keep him on the bench where he belonged until he was more ready, those winless Browns would have won at least 3 games.
Kizer was packaged in another trade, sent to Green Bay for Damarious Randall. This one strikes me as a win-win. Despite his turnover-plagued rookie season where he chronically held the ball too long, Kizer still has decent developmental potential. Green Bay needs someone with a higher ceiling than Brett Hundley as the No. 2 behind Aaron Rodgers, and they got it.
Randall immediately upgrades the free safety spot in Cleveland, the biggest hole by far on the Browns defense. His acquisition moves Jabrill Peppers where he belongs at strong safety or the hybrid safety/LB role. Playing Randall at the right position is a smart move for the Browns, one the Packers never figured out. Green Bay drafted the natural free safety, the best safety prospect in his draft class coming out of Arizona State, and immediately moved him to outside cornerback. That he emerged as a capable starting CB is a testament to Randall’s ability, but he’s got much greater potential at his desired position in Cleveland.
$.07—Some moves I like and some I don’t…
--Weston Richburg to the 49ers. The ex-Giant lost some luster with injury, but if he’s fully healthy Richburg was the top interior lineman on the open market. The Niners inked him for under $10M/yr., a below-market rate for top centers.
--Carolina essentially swapping in Dontari Poe for Star Lotulelei at defensive tackle for less money than the Bills gave Lotulelei. Poe is the better player and the division rival Falcons will miss him. That’s a smart move by GM Marty Hurney.
--Oakland inking CB Rashaan Melvin to a one-year deal to replace T.J. Carrie, who Cleveland signed to a five-year deal that overestimates his ceiling. Melvin has been the better player than Carrie, though the latter does help the Browns too.
--Detroit picking up versatile LB Christian Jones on a cheap 2-year deal. He’s a moveable chess piece for new coach Matt Patricia in what appears to be a new kind of amorphous defensive front seven in Detroit. He’s a better player than Tahir Whitehead, the man Jones is essentially replacing with the Lions.
--Green Bay paying Jimmy Graham $10 million per year. He’s going to help the Packers in the red zone, and they need it, but paying him so much is writing checks his 31-year-old body is no longer cashing. The character break of overpaying another team’s free agent is a new twist from new GM Brian Gutekunst. That they created the money in part by dumping Jordy Nelson (now a Raider) is even further out of character. It might work in their favor, but I’m not optimistic the tradeoff here is a net gain.
--Nate Solder to the Giants. There is no question Solder helps the Giants offensive line in the short term; he’s a quality starting left tackle and was the best option available. It’s the financials which bother me. Giving Solder $62M over four years is steep for a player who nearly retired before last season. His contract is structured as a two-year deal, which gives the Giants an out, but if signing him precludes the team from selecting their long-term solution at left tackle, it’s not money well spent.
--Detroit dumping Eric Ebron. I get that the enigmatic TE was not going to re-sign with the Lions in 2019 when he was scheduled to hit free agency, and that he was also unwilling to play ball in contract negotiations with other teams in any potential trade. But cutting him makes little sense. The Lions TE depth chart right now is Michael Roberts, who caught 4 passes as a rookie in 2017. I’m bullish on Roberts taking a big step…but not that bullish.
--The New York Jets traded up with the Indianapolis Colts, moving from 6 to 3 and guaranteeing they’ll select a quarterback. It’s a (rare) smart move from the Colts, who don’t need a QB and can still land the likes of Saquon Barkley, Bradley Chubb or Quenton Nelson at the new slot and bolster their anemic depth chart with a bounty of second-round picks. They can use one of those picks to replace Johnathan Hankins, their one proven quality starting defensive tackle who they dumped for no apparent reason despite being ridiculously thin at the position.
--Danny Woodhead retired after 10 NFL seasons of being chronically referred to as the prototype for the undersized, versatile running back. He missed more games over the last four years than he played in thanks to numerous injuries. Many a fantasy football owner loved his last full season in San Diego where he topped 1000 combined yards and scored 9 TDs.
--Tyrann Mathieu is now a Houston Texan after the Cardinals refused to pay him $14 million. If he’s healthy the Honey Badger is a huge pick-up for rookie Texans GM Brian Gaine. The Texans sorely need a playmaker on the back end and lack first and second round picks to get one In the draft.
--The Dolphins dumped their two best offensive players (Landry and Mike Pouncey) and defensive player (Suh), and thus far have only signed guard Josh Sitton and wideouts Albert Wilson and Danny Amendola of note. Regardless of the chemistry issues, that’s a massive downgrade in overall talent.
--Less than six months ago, AJ McCarron was worth a second and third round pick to the Cleveland Browns, who would’ve then extended him for significant money as their answer at starting QB. That trade fell through on a paperwork snafu. Now he’s signed with Buffalo for $10M over two years and will be a bridge to whatever QB the Bills draft. Quite a fall in status, albeit one which more accurately reflects his NFL worth.
--Linebacker Paul Posluszny hung up his cleats, retiring from the Jaguars after 11 NFL seasons. Never a star, Posluszny was quietly one of the more reliable, productive tacklers and locker room leaders of his era at his position. He will not be easily replaced.
--The No. 1 pick will stay with the Cleveland Browns and it will be a quarterback. My educated guess: USC’s Sam Darnold. It’s still in pencil at this point, but there are whispers out of Berea that the decision is already made.
--I’m wrapping up my positional rankings and overall big board, both of which should be posted here before April begins. The running backs are near impossible to ordinate in part because schematic fit and style of play matter so much. Saquon Barkley is my top RB, augmented by his outstanding skills in the passing game. But if I had to pick just a pure runner to take handoffs and pitches, I’d take both Derrius Guice and Ronald Jones over Barkley.
--The more I watch the offensive tackles, the less I like the top of the class. However, the developmental tackle group offers a lot of long-term potential and Day Three appeal. Wagner’s Greg Senat, James Madison’s Aaron Stinnie and Brandon Parker from North Carolina A&T could all be above-average starters by 2020, but they’re not ready yet.
--One player I’m going to rate lower than just about every other draftnik: South Dakota State TE Dallas Goedert. I think he’ll be an adequate NFL starting tight end, but I see him in the top 50 a lot. I don’t see it. He got away with being bigger and stronger than the competition at the FCS level. His route-running is pedestrian, and his burst isn’t great. I love the ability to make the difficult catches and one-handed highlight reel snags, but he went to that well too often for my liking. He’s my TE5 in a middle-heavy class and I’m not comfortable drafting him before the fourth round. The Gronk comparisons I’ve seen are absurd to me.
$.10—I got my first in-person March Madness experience over the weekend when I took my son to Little Caesars Arena in Detroit for the Friday night first-round games. My son is an avid TCU fan and getting a chance to see the Frogs in a rare tourney appearance for them was too good to pass up. Catching a relative home game for Michigan State made it even better, albeit quite a bit more expensive.
The atmosphere was something else. A good 90 percent of the 20,000 in attendance were Spartan fans, and they’re not shy about telling anyone and everyone how great their team should be. So when a game Bucknell team gave them all they could handle for most of the night, it was interesting watching and listening to the reactions around us. The Spartans generally played with a low basketball IQ and sloppy fundamentals against Bucknell, which was wildly under-seeded at 14. Truly awful and inept officiating didn’t help other than to stoke the fires of the anxious fans. A commanding performance from Miles Bridges, who strapped the team to his back in the second half, was great to witness firsthand. Bucknell kept it interesting by making several late 3-pointers of increasing distance and difficulty, but the “home” team proved stronger and deeper.
Then came the TCU/Syracuse game. This was not good basketball. Syracuse’s patented zone frustrated the Frogs, who were both indecisive and inaccurate when they did try and shoot over the top. A good 80 percent of the fans were gone by the middle of the first half. Our section went from being completely full to having exactly 10 of us in the 250 or so seats.
Watching the two games back-to-back it was clear that Michigan State was going to struggle against Syracuse. Bridges thrived on midrange jumpers, shots which are nonexistent against the Orange zone. All the silly fouls, the poor off-ball movement and odd lack of spacing to free up 3-point shots the Spartans showed against Bucknell spelled the death knell on Sunday against Syracuse. My son and I were not at all surprised by that outcome.
Back to Friday night, and the overall experience. It was a trip my 12-year-old son and I will never forget. We’re a 3-hour drive from Detroit, and we spent it listening to games on the radio. We talked a lot about hoops. I got to regale him with stories of March Madness past, about names like Bryce Drew, Scotty Thurman and Christian Laettner. We talked about his own hoop dreams and how much more work it will take if he is to attain that basketball scholarship to TCU. It was a priceless father-son experience and one I’m so glad we decided to make on the relative spur of the moment. The $7 lemonade, the $30 t-shirt, the $24 of popcorn he inhaled, all worth it and then some.