1. Tom Brady Goes to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After 20 years in Boston, future hall of fame quarterback Tom Brady has left the New England Patriots for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This is, without question, the biggest free-agency signing of the year, and perhaps the biggest in the last decade, as it likely ends the Patriots dynasty of being the best team in AFC (for now at least. The consequential coach-quarterback partnership of Brady and Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick, led the team to 17 division titles, five AFC championship games, and nine Super Bowls, of which they won six, over a 20-year span. They also won the Super Bowl in back to back years between 2003 and 2004, the first team to ever achieve this feat.
The duo made the Patriots one of the most dominant franchises in NFL history, and inspired Boston sports fans for two decades. In his letter to Patriot fans which was posted on social media, Brady thanked them from the “bottom of [his] heart,” saying, “I will always love you and what we have shared — a lifetime full of fun memories.”
With Brady now gone, Belicheck has a nearly insurmountable gap to fill. The recent signing of quarterback Brian Hoyer will not likely be a permanent replacement, and the Patriots will likely look to the draft for a more suitable candidate. Jordan Love of Utah State and Jacob Eason of Washington are the two players New England is likely to choose between, given recent mock draft predictions by Will Brinson.
Alternatively, the Patriots could also address their need at quarterback through the signing of a free agent. Jameis Winston is the only elite player that has remained unsigned. Winston came in second in the number of touchdowns thrown this past season, yet also led the league in interceptions. If Winston is signed, and Belichick is able to suppress the latter of the two stats, he would be a dangerous player.
The Patriots could also sign former Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who would likely only cost a third or second-round pick at most. Newton hasn’t played in a Panther’s uniform since 2018 due to injury and, with the signing of quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater and PJ Walker, will likely not anytime in the future. The former Heisman Trophy winner, Newton has led the Panthers to multiple winning seasons, including an AFC title win in 2015, though went on to lose in the Super Bowl to the Denver Broncos.
His ability to throw outside the pocket is unquestionable, but may not suit Belichick’s scheme, given Brady was not a running quarterback in the slightest. His durability over a 16-game season is also in question, as he missed the entirety of the 2018 season.
Another potential outcome for the Patriots this year is to tank, lose a lot of close games, receive the number one draft pick, and select Clemson Quarter Trevor Lawrence when he finally becomes eligible to declare for the draft in 2021.
However, Belichick is notorious for finding diamonds in the rough at all positions, as the Patriots have picked up undrafted free agents who turn out better than those they selected in the first round (even Tom Brady himself was a sixth-round selection). New England could very much select a sleeper quarterback as a replacement who none of us expect.
This move leaves the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with some hope for the first time in a relatively underwhelming franchise ever since they won the super bowl in 2002. Still, although Brady’s career has been undeniably impressive, his current ability is a question. At 42(he’ll be 43 by the start of the season), he is way past his physical prime. Already not so mobile, his ability to avoid pressure and escape the pocket is limited even further because of his age. Also, he posted his worst QBR in 2019 since his 2008 campaign.
However, what Brady undoubtedly possesses is a talented football brain. He is joining a stacked offense with the likes of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin at wide receiver, and athletic monster O.J. Howard at tight end. With the removal of Winston’s outrageous amount of turnovers, the focused offense could be dangerous and could add a couple more wins to their previous record of 7-9 (The Bucs did lose on week 3 to the New York Giants after a missed 34-yard field goal on the last play of the game). With fewer turnovers and improved offensive talent, Brady could become the framework for the Bucs to win enough games to make a playoff berth.
2. Deandre Hopkins Traded to Arizona Cardinals
Wow. Hardly anyone saw this coming.
In perhaps the biggest trade of this free agency period, the Houston Texans exchanged star wide receiver, Deandre Hopkins, for running back David Johnson of the Arizona Cardinals. Houston also gave up a fourth-round draft pick, while Arizona forked over second and fourth-round picks.
This move comes after Hopkins threatened to “hold out” (not show up to offseason training activities or training camp) if he didn’t get a new contract with increased pay. The Texans and General Manager Bill O’Brien were, evidently, not willing to budge on this issue. According to Texas Sports Nation, the all-pro receiver wanted in the region of 19 to $20 million a year, which would have made him the joint-highest paid player in his position.
O’Brien has a history of trading away star players who make a fuss about their contracts. The trading of former first overall pick, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, to the Seattle Seahawks for two back-up edge rushers and mid-round draft picks, exemplifies this record.
The offloading of Hopkins was likely also due to increased friction between himself and O’Brien, who thought the receiver carried too much influence over the Texans roster and berated Hopkins on the issue shortly before the trade was finalized.
Regardless of the reasoning, the move will have massive implications regarding the power structure of the NFL in the upcoming season, not least for the Arizona Cardinals.
Arizona has managed to add a superstar to an offense in dire need of fresh talent. Though wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has undoubtedly proven his effectiveness over the course of his 18-year career, he is not the future of the team.
Sophomore quarterback Kyler Murray, will compliment Hopkins perfectly, as he formerly caught passes from Deshaun Watson, who, like Murray, is quick on his feet and effective when throwing outside of the pocket. Coupled with a receiving core of Fitzgerald, Christain Kirk, and running back Kenyan Drake, who recently signed a one-year deal with the team, the Cardinals have put themselves back in contention for the top spot in the NFC West, which they have not won since 2015. They will compete with the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers, who both made the playoff last season. The 49ers are a special case, as they represented the NFC in their Super Bowl loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
However, the Texans, coming off of a short-lived playoff run in 2019, will surely face an uphill battle in the AFC South. Hopkins has had a total of 54 touchdown passes since entering the league in 2013, and has been a favorite target of Watson since his admission in 2017. Though Kenny Stills and the addition of veteran receiver Randal Cobb this offseason will provide Watson with suitable targets in 2020, each pales in comparison to the skill and production that Hopkins offered the team.
The addition of David Johnson, while adding a big-name to a depleted running back core, ran for less than 345 yards in the 2019 season, all while earning over 10 million dollars a season, making him the third highest-paid running back in the league. Johnson hasn’t run for more than 1,000 yards since 2016 and has lingering questions surrounding his durability after multiple injuries throughout his NFL career.
The Texans also lack a first-round draft pick this year, after sending it to the Miami Dolphins in exchange for wide receiver Kenny Stills and offensive lineman Laremey Tunsill, which, given Stills’ mere 561 yards in 2019, and Tunsill accounting for the highest number of penalties in the league (18), is a questionable move. This trade is yet another example of O’Brien’s controversial track-record as a general manager, whose trade history has consistently favored everyone but the team for whom he works.
Meanwhile, while the Texans have been exporting their talent, their division rivals have bolstered their rosters with top free agents, with the Indianapolis Colts improving with additions of quarterback Phillip Rivers and defensive tackle Deforest Buckner, and the Tennessee Titans proving themselves competitive in their playoff run last year.
3. Todd Gurley released by Rams, picked up by Falcons
In the summer of 2018, the Los Angeles Rams gave running back Todd Gurley an extension worth $57.5 million over four years, with $45 million of that guaranteed. However, two years into the contract, the Rams cut him, just a day before they would have had to pay him $10.5 million that was guaranteed for this season in his contract.
Drama surrounding Gurley had been accumulating ever since the end of the 2018 season. His season started well that year, but a late knee injury ruled him out of playing in Week 16 and 17. After the bye, Gurley was cleared to play, but only had 30 touches split across their three playoff games.
The reasoning behind Gurley’s lack of usage was unclear and didn’t translate well into this season. He put up his worst number significantly, with 857 rushing yards on 223 attempts and 14 touchdowns, compared to his MVP candidate 2017 year, where he had 1305 rushing yards (2093 all-purpose yards), and 19 touchdowns on 279 attempts.
Just a day later, the Atlanta Falcons signed Gurley, bringing him back to the state where he played in college. The Falcons look to be setting themselves up to compete in the NFC South, after coming off an underwhelming season just two years ago, after being up 28-3 at halftime in the 2017 Super Bowl. The Falcons also picked up wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, ranked the number one at his position coming out of high school. Treadwell underperformed both in college and the pros. Also, the Falcons traded away Pro Bowl tight end Austin Hooper likely to save cap room, but were able to replace him with Hayden Hurst, a formidable back up on the Baltimore Ravens.
However, even with significant improvements in skilled positions, the Falcons defense is a worry for Atlanta supporters. They picked up outside linebacker Dante Fowler Jr., which will help them on the edge and hopefully improve their defense ranked 23 out of 32 in passing yards against. The Falcons are likely to continue to bolster their defense in the NFL draft this April.
The Falcons still come into the season +600 to win the NFC South, according to Sportsline. They’ll have to compete against the New Orleans Saints, who were deemed Super Bowl contenders this year before crashing out in the first round against the sixth-seeded Minnesota Vikings. Also, they’ll have to face the reinvigorated Tampa Bay Buccaneers who now host the greatest quarterback to ever play the game at age 43.
For the Rams, after a disappointing 8-8 season following a Super Bowl appearance in the year prior, they are likely past their Super Bowl window. Considering Gurley’s underutilization last year, they likely consider him a replaceable asset. However, with Jared Goff signing a four year $134 million dollar contract at the start of the season and performing unremarkably, it puts significant pressure on the Rams salary cap. Even with the likes of defensive tackle Aaron Donald on defense, the only noticeable pick up on defense was defensive tackle A’shawn Robinson from the Detroit Lions. We will have to see the suave, coaching genius of the 2018 Sean McVay and a reinvigorated Jared Goff if the Rams are going to compete this year, especially considering the difficulty of their division. Having to go up against the Super Bowl losers in the San Francisco 49ers, the divisional round losers in the Seattle Seahawks, and an Arizona Cardinal team with Deandre Hopkins, a playoff berth from the Rams seems unlikely in our opinion.
4. Stefon Diggs traded to Buffalo Bills
Similarly to Deandre Hopkins, wide receiver Stefon Diggs’ trade to the Buffalo Bills was born out of his frustration with the Minnesota Vikings, for whom he played since his entry into the league in 2014. However, the difference in Diggs’ case is that he had made his displacement with the organization public through a series of tweets, that began amid the 2019 season when he was still on the Vikings roster and playing for the team.
Trade rumors had circulated up until the October trade deadline, however, Minnesota continually insisted he was not for sale. His impact on the locker-room morale likely played a key role in the Viking’s decision to ship him out. He was oftentimes visibly upset during games, most particularly during their playoff matchup against the New Orleans Saints, where he threw a tantrum for not getting any targets even though the Vikings were winning at the time.
Though the move was a long time coming, it does not detract from the significance of the move, for both the Vikings and the Bills.
Beginning with the latter of the two, Diggs’ addition to the Bills revitalizes a pretty average receiving core, playing for good, not great offense. In the 2019 season, the Bills scored less than 20 points per game, and had around 330 yards of offense per game, on average. This placed 10th, and ninth in the league, respectively.
The team, however, still managed to finish 10-6 and clinched an AFC wildcard position. As can likely be seen from the discrepancy, The Bills’ success in 2019 was largely driven by their strength on defense, allowing the second least number of points of any NFL team: just 16 points per game. This is coupled with allowing under 300 yards a game, which places third of any team in 2019.
Diggs’ addition should prove to close the gap in talent between their offense and defense. Though his overall 2019 yardage is minimal compared to other receivers of his caliber, resulting from the Viking’s preference towards the ground rather than the air, his average reception moved the ball nearly 18 yards, which is greater than that of wide receiver Michael Thomas, who was the offensive player of the year. He has also proven extremely clutch in the playoffs, catching the pass that took the Vikings to the NFC championship in the 2017 season, now dubbed the “Minneapolis Miracle.”
The Vikings, though losing an extremely talented player, should not lick their wounds for too long. They received a first-round pick, along with a fifth, seventh in this year’s draft, as well as a fourth-rounder in 2021. This will give them quite a bit of flexibility when the draft rolls around in April to trade up or down in the draft depending on the players they want to get. Obviously, a wide receiver will be top of mind given Diggs’ departure, and this draft has no shortage of options in that position. Justin Jefferson or Henry Ruggs could be realistic options if they chose to trade up. They also still hold a later first-rounder, which will likely be used in the acquisition of a pass rusher, given the recent departure of Everson Griffin.
Nonetheless, the Vikings still look to be formidable going into 2020, as the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears haven’t gotten much better this offseason, while the Green Bay Packers, though still the best team in the NFC North, don’t look any better than they did in 2019. This means that Vikings are still the second-best team in the division, which, at least last year, was good enough to get them a wildcard spot, which drove them into the divisional round of the playoffs.
However, the greater effects of this trade may be felt in Buffalo, as it makes them the favorite’s in our opinion to win the AFC East, which would be for the first division championship in 25 years.
5. Ryan Tannehill receives big contract
The Tennessee Titans started off the 2019 season with Marcus Mariota under center, the quarterback out of the University of Oregon who the Titans picked as the second overall choice in the 2015 NFL draft. After underachieving throughout his first four years in Tennessee, Mariota continued for the first six weeks of 2019, leading the Titans to a 2-4 record, Mariota was benched for Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill, who was selected in the 2012 draft by the Miami Dolphins proved to be unimpressive as well throughout his NFL career. However, Tannehill heated up the team to a 7-3 record for the last 10 games of the season, clinching a playoff berth.
The Titans were perhaps the most overachieving team in the 2019 NFL playoffs pulling off two upsets against the Patriots in the wildcard round (+4.5 underdogs according to Sportsline), and the number 1 seeded Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round (+10 underdogs according to Caesars), before losing to the eventual Super Bowl champions Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship.
The Titans really played old school football to get them to their place in the AFC championship. They ran hard through the middle, averaging 33.3 rushing attempts per game in the playoffs, with almost all of them going to Derrick Henry, a 6’5’’, 238-pound brute who averaged 149 yards per game over that span.
This summer both Tannehill and Henry were free agents, and remarkably the Titans decided to sign Tannehill to a four year $117 million dollar deal, while they tagged Henry, a questionable choice considering how remarkably hard to tackle Henry seemed during their playoff run.
The Titans scheme is easy for quarterbacks. By running the ball 30+ times per game, it becomes easier for Tannehill purely off the basis of having to throw the ball less. The contract they gave to Tannehill shows the premium quarterbacks receive in the leagues nowadays and the expendability of running backs.
The AFC South should be easier for the Titan’s next year with the chaos currently that is taking place in Houston surrounding the Deandre Hopkins trade. With no real threats in the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Philip Rivers led colt, if the Titans can continue to build off of their impressive playoff run, they can be a real contender in the AFC in 2020.