The NFL Draft is right around the corner. Before we turn our attention there, however, let’s take stock of a wild first two(ish) weeks of NFL free agency, with a look at some of our favourite free agent signings (big and small) from an already-dizzying NFL offseason.
It frankly feels like it’s been months since the franchise tag deadline gave way to the crazy opening days of free agency. Somehow, it’s barely been two weeks. We’ve said before that ‘this league never sleeps’, but this is nuts!
Nonetheless, in the past fortnight, we’ve had a staggering amount of top-line talent change teams. With so much activity under our belts – and the 2022 NFL Draft still almost a month away – it seems like a pretty good time to highlight some of our favourite signings from the start of NFL free agency.
Edge Von Miller to the Buffalo Bills
Let’s set aside the six years and $120 million that raised some eyebrows, but was really only announced for the headlines. The Bills deal for Von Miller is in all likelihood for four years and $70 million, possibly less (about $51 million is guaranteed) if it goes bad in a hurry.
Miller showed during the Rams run to the Super Bowl that he’s still got plenty in the tank. With a pass rush of Greg Rousseau, Carlos Basham and A.J. Epenesa on hand from just the past two drafts – to say nothing of their awesome Josh Allen-led attack – the Bills don’t need Miller to recapture his Defensive Player of the Year form, they simply need him to be what he was in Los Angeles: an excellent, experienced pass rusher who understands what it takes to play the position at its highest level.
Also, given the manner in which the Bills’ last couple of seasons have ended – to say nothing of the lingering sting of four straight Super Bowl defeats of the 1990s – if Miller is the difference between winning a Super Bowl and not, no price would be too high for Bills fans.
With the state of New York having just gift-wrapped $850 million in public money for a new stadium, owners Terry and Kim Pegula probably shouldn’t be overly concerned about the money, either.
RB Duke Johnson to the Buffalo Bills
Not quite what you were expecting, right? I get it. I really didn’t expect to have a running back whose averaged under 350 rushing yards per season through his first seven seasons in the NFL
However, Duke Johnson has been an excellent receiving back on a per-snap basis throughout his NFL career, with season averages of 45 catches a year, for around 400 yards, with a catch rate of 77% – and even better (56 catches, 516 yards per season, with a 76.4% catch rate) when we strip out his last two rough seasons in Houston and Miami.
In a potential juggernaut offense like Buffalo’s, playing alongside an elite quarterback like Josh Allen, Duke has the potential to put up a massive dual threat season. For a team with Super Bowl aspirations, a $1.12 million, one-year commitment is fantastic business.
G Alex Cappa, C Ted Karras & OT La’el Collins to the Cincinnati Bengals
This needed minimal explanation a couple of week ago, when it was only Cappa and Kerras coming in to keep Joe Burrow upright. In the aftermath of adding a rock solid under-29-year-old tackle (and one of the top-15 right tackles in the NFL) to that incoming crew for about half the going rate of a Pro Bowler at the position, it needs even less.
At the risk of becoming one of those annoying writers who quote themselves:
“For the Bengals to build on the special season they’ve just enjoyed, Burrow must be kept upright.”
There may yet be more help on the way via the draft and the latter stages of free agency, but even if this is it, the Bengals have done fantastically well, upgrading 60% of the offensive line in two weeks. It’s not the least bit outrageous to say that, if the unit they’ve now got on paper was the one protecting Burrow in the Super Bowl, the Bengals would probably be champions.
CB J.C. Jackson to the Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers have spared no expense this offseason in trying to build a legitimate Super Bowl contender before the annual cost of their young superstar quarterback skyrockets. Whether Jackson is a legitimate superstar #1 corner in the NFL or merely a ‘very good’ corner who thrived in Bill Belichick’s scheme in New England, he represents a vital piece of the Chargers’ offseason gambit.
You don’t always get to choose exactly who’s available at the moment that you’re ready to compete and have the money to spend. At worst, the Chargers identified a very talented corner who, at worst, will markedly improve their team, and paid superstar money (five years and $82.5 million) for him. Of course, it’s also possible that Jackson is, in fact, the superstar corner that he’s being paid to be, and will be a key contributor to multiple deep playoff runs.
S Marcus Williams to the Baltimore Ravens
After four solid-to-very-good seasons in New Orleans – one of which he played under the franchise tag – Williams seemed a prime candidate to… get tagged again. And yet, the Saints, perhaps seeing their long-delayed rebuild approaching rather quickly, allowed their talented free safety to hit the open market.
While Williams is not one of the absolute best safeties in the NFL, he is decidedly ‘very good’, very durable (five games missed in five seasons) and very young (not yet 25). This, plus his place at the head of this safety free agent class suggested that he was in line for a near-top-of-the-market ($15-$16 million per year) payday. Though a team offering that contract would certainly be paying full retail, Williams’ youth, talent, durability and potential for additional development would always have kept such a deal from becoming an albatross. To get that same guy, $1-$2 million per year less than expected, and add him to an already-talented and well-schemed defense on a potential contender is an outstanding move.
The Ravens are coming off of something of a lost season, in which injuries decimated their defense and severely slowed Lamar Jackson. With some injury luck in 2022, this team could once again field both a top-10 defense and an attack led by one of the most singular athletes in the league. If that happens, they may still not be at the very forefront of the contender class, but they’ll be somewhere in the conversation, and a dangerous opponent against anyone on any given day.
G Laken Tomlinson and TE C.J. Uzomah to the New York Jets
After including the Bengals offensive line improvements above, I was a bit hesitant to double up on picks from my previous ‘best free agency moves’ article.
However, when something just makes sense, from both a tactical and financial perspective, and has a has the potential to yield dividends well beyond its financial costs, it doesn’t make sense to ignore it simply because you’ve identified it before.
Last year, the Jets spent the #2 overall pick on Zach Wilson, who they’re hoping will develop into a legitimate franchise quarterback. After an underwhelming first season, there’s some pressure on Wilson to learn and develop and improve in his second year. At the same time, there is an onus on the team to create an environment in which he can succeed. At some point, there will undoubtedly be an effort made to bolster the arsenal of weapons around Wilson. Every bit as important, though, is making sure that he’s upright.
Adding a Pro Bowl guard and an old school edge blocking tight end (who’s fresh off a Super Bowl run with a young QB, and will likely also play some role in the bolstering of that aforementioned arsenal) for the price at which they did (a combined $65 million for three years) is unimpeachable.
These two alone won’t turn Wilson into a franchise quarterback – there’s no guarantee that he’ll become one at all – but these are the kind of moves that tilt the odds in a young quarterback’s favor.
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LB Jayon Brown to the Las Vegas Raiders
The former Tennessee Titans linebacker authored near-Pro Bowl seasons in 2018 and 2019. He’s admittedly had a couple of down years since, during which he’s been limited by injury. However, given his youth (still just 27 years old) and that tangible evidence of his ability to play at a high level in the NFL, a one-year, $1.25 million gamble for a team that’s dedicating BIG bucks elsewhere in search of contention has the potential to stand out as one of the offseason’s savviest moves once all is said and done.
WR D.J. Chark to the Detroit Lions
A fractured ankle limited Chark to just four games in the 2021 season. Provided the injury has healed, Chark is precisely the type of young, low-cost, high-upside gamble that, if successful, could jumpstart the Lions’ rebuild. The 6’4, 25-year-old – who’s two years removed from a 1,000-yard, eight-touchdown Pro Bowl season, and managed 700 yards for the atrocious 2020 Jags – should provide the Lions an outstanding speed option (who, again, is huge) opposite Amon-Ra St. Brown, and could help inspire something of a resurgence in Jared Goff’s career – or ease the transition for whoever else is brought in to run the offense.