The entire landscape of the NFL can shift in the offseason, and we might be in the midst of that again this spring.
One week after the legal tampering period began, hundreds of millions of dollars have been handed out and several teams think that they’ve transformed from pretender to contender. That strategy isn't without fail, as the winner of free agency doesn’t always reap the rewards of their spending spree. But as a fan, it’s always a thrill to say your team is “going for it” with their offseason moves.
The offseason is still young, with nearly six months until Week 1 kickoff. That means there’s plenty of time for things to change, with ample talent still available in free agency and the draft coming in April. So far, though, it’s clear that certain teams have jumped ahead and others have fallen behind.
Here’s a look at four winners and four losers from the first wave of NFL free agency:
Winner: Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
When isn’t Tom Brady a winner? Seriously, things couldn’t have gone much better over the last week for the former retiree. The 44-year-old QB convinced his family to let him play a 23rd NFL season, announcing his return on Sunday. When legal tampering began Monday, the Bucs got to work.
Through the first week, Tampa has added WR Russell Gage, OG Shaq Mason and DB Logan Ryan and re-signed WR Chris Godwin, C Ryan Jensen and CB Carlton Davis. They still have several pending free agents, including TE Rob Gronkowski, RB Leonard Fournette and DT Ndamukong Suh. Regardless, the Bucs are in a great position to win a weak NFC South and cruise to the postseason.
Loser: New England Patriots
Brady continues to win the breakup with Bill Belichick and the Patriots. New England has been eerily quiet, signing just two outside free agent (CB Terrance Mitchell, RB Ty Montgomery) and bringing back a handful of veterans on cheap contracts. Star cornerback JC Jackson left, and the Pats lost two starters on their offensive line in Shaq Mason (traded to Bucs) and Ted Karras (signed with Bengals). New England did bring back starting right tackle Trent Brown, who agreed to a two-year deal.
The inactivity isn’t all that surprising given Belichick’s track record in free agency. Last year was an anomaly, where the Pats spent more than any other team. That strategy had some hits (Matt Judon, Hunter Henry) and some misses (Nelson Agholor, Jonnu Smith), but now they are paying the price. While the rest of the AFC loads up, New England is left hoping they get massive in-house improvement from Mac Jones and their 2021 free agent failures.
Winner: Derek Carr and the Las Vegas Raiders
Through the first few days of the week, the Raiders looked in danger. Free agents flocked to their division rivals, while Las Vegas seemed destined for the AFC West cellar. Then, a pair of monster moves catapulted the Raiders back into the contender conversation.
First it was Chandler Jones, the former Cardinals’ star sack-master, agreeing to join Maxx Crosby on a scary defensive line. Second was the stunner, when Vegas traded for Davante Adams and made him the highest-paid receiver in NFL history. The move for Adams adds a dimension that this offense was lacking, and he now becomes their No. 1 weapon for a unit that already features Hunter Renfrow and Darren Waller.
The biggest winner from the Raiders’ aggressive moves is quarterback Derek Carr. The 30-year-old Carr is entering the final year of his contract, and now he’s poised to stay in Sin City long term. Adding Adams, Carr’s college teammate, means that new GM Dave Ziegler and head coach Josh McDaniels fully believe in their quarterback. The Raiders’ new core is officially ready to compete in the toughest division in football.
Loser: Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers
The Raiders’ gain is the Packers’ loss. Adams has been Aaron Rodgers’ No. 1 receiver since 2017, and there’s no obvious replacement currently on the roster. In 2021, Adams had 169 targets. The next closest was RB Aaron Jones, who had 65, and WR Allen Lazard, who had 60. That’s a ton of production to replace – and the Pack will need to add another veteran and possibly a rookie in the draft.
Looking at the Packers’ current WR group, it’s bleak to say the least. Lazard is a restricted free agent and will likely return. Beyond Lazard, it’s Randall Cobb (39 targets in 2021), Juwann Winfree (13 targets), Amari Rodgers (8 targets), Malik Taylor (3 targets) and Chris Blair (0 targets). Green Bay obviously needs to add weapons for Rodgers, who surprisingly agreed to a massive extension despite knowing Adams was going to leave.
Winner: Los Angeles Chargers
Another AFC West team, another free agency winner. The Chargers had clear weaknesses on defense after narrowly missing the playoffs in 2021. It’s safe to say GM Tom Telesco recognized those holes and plugged them accordingly.
Just before free agency began, the Chargers traded for former Bears linebacker Khalil Mack. Not only will Mack pair perfectly with four-time Pro Bowler Joey Bosa, he will also be a key factor in improving the Chargers’ 30th-ranked run defense. A pair of massive defensive tackles – Sebastian Joseph-Day (6-foot-4, 310 pounds) and Austin Johnson (6-foot-4, 314 pounds) – also signed as free agents. The biggest coup of all came in the secondary, with former Patriot JC Jackson joining the Chargers on a five-year deal. Los Angeles has no excuse not to compete for the playoffs in Year 3 of the Justin Herbert era.
Loser: Dallas Cowboys
Similar to the Packers, the Cowboys are a historic franchise who lost a disappointing playoff game and then lost several key contributors in free agency. Luckily for both teams, they each play in a weak division that is still very much within their grasp.
Dallas traded WR Amari Cooper to the Browns in an effort to free cap space. Then, key free agents in WR Cedrick Wilson Jr. and DE Randy Gregory spurned America’s Team for greener pastures in Miami and Denver, respectively. The Cowboys’ purge continued later in the week, releasing longtime starting RT La’el Collins. Oh, and RB Ezekiel Elliott is still under contract for five more years. Not a great week for Jerry Jones and Co.
Winner: Cincinnati Bengals and Joe Burrow's safety
The Bengals – the reigning AFC Champion – are shoring up their biggest weakness in pursuit of getting over the hump and winning a Super Bowl. Wait, what? Imagine reading that sentence at this time last year. Joe Burrow has accelerated the Bengals’ championship window, and director of player personnel Duke Tobin has obviously realized that.
Burrow was sacked seven times in the Super Bowl, with several other close calls. Now, he’ll have a fresh group of giants standing in front of him. Alex Cappa joined Cincy after winning a Super Bowl with the Bucs. Ted Karras will play center after bouncing around the Patriots’ interior O-line over the years. Then they signed La’el Collins from the Cowboys to play right tackle and complete the full remodel. The Bengals are doing all they can to combat the dreaded Super Bowl loser hangover.
Loser: Baker Mayfield and Cleveland Browns fans
On paper, it all makes sense for the Browns. Trading for Deshaun Watson, a bonafide star quarterback in the NFL, makes them a clear contender in the AFC. He’s an obvious upgrade from Baker Mayfield, who has failed to live up to expectations as the No. 1 overall pick. But there’s much more to this story that makes it a conflicting move for Cleveland fans.
Watson wasn’t charged in criminal court for allegations of sexual misconduct made by several women. This decision by the Harris County grand jury escalated trade talks, but he is still being questioned. There are still 22 pending civil lawsuits from women alleging sexual assault and misconduct, and a suspension from the NFL could be looming.
To secure Watson – who seemed destined to join the Falcons or Saints – the Browns gave him an NFL-record $230 million in guaranteed money over the next five years. They even protected him from losing much of it, giving him just a $1 million salary for 2022. So, even if he’s suspended, the lost checks will come from that $1 million, not the other 229.
All of it – the pursuit, the media coverage, the fanfare and the contract – puts Browns fans, one of the most passionate groups in the league, in an impossible position. They’ve longed for a quarterback of Watson’s caliber for years. Sixteen different quarterbacks have started a game for Cleveland over the last 10 years. That number jumps to 24 over the last 15 years. Watson represents an answer at quarterback. But what he represents off the field could be the bigger concern right now.