With prices soaring and the importance of elite quarterbacks overwhelming, the NFL is shifting towards a new frontier at its most important position.
The manner in which the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes were handled was lacking. Badly.
The past week’s media coverage of Watson finding a new team was borderline grotesque at times. The storylines were about teams — the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, Cleveland Browns, and Carolina Panthers — making pitches, trying to sell themselves to Watson on why he should join them.
On Friday, the Browns won the race. They agreed to a blockbuster deal with the Houston Texans, sending them three first-round picks along with a 2023 third-round and ’24 fourth-round choice in exchange for Watson, who immediately signed a five-year, $230 million, fully-guaranteed contract. It’s the largest guarantee in NFL history and the second-largest annual average salary.
Additionally, the Browns made sure that should Watson face a suspension this upcoming season, it’ll be almost painless financially. His base salary is $1 million in 2022, and any suspension and therefore forfeiture of salary comes from that portion of his deal, not the bonuses.
Really, Cleveland went the extra mile in every fashion imaginable.
Yet Watson, 26, is facing 22 civil suits for a variety of sexual harassment and misconduct issues. Regardless, teams were pitching themselves to him instead of having Watson explain why he’s worthy of the risk.
And despite a Texas grand jury dismissing the nine criminal complaints on March 11, it’s still a risk.
It’s a risk for the team. It’s also a risk for the community.
After all, the city of Cleveland is getting a man who is facing almost two-dozen lawsuits from women alleging heinous acts in great detail.
Perhaps Watson is a victim in all this. It’s possible both the 10 complaints — nine reached the grand jury — and 22 civil suits are false accusations. Maybe he’s an innocent man who was a target because he’s rich and famous in a world where those two titles are often the unattainable goal for so many in society.
It’s possible, and that shouldn’t be discounted. However, Watson facing serious accusations should also be mentioned in reports about him until he’s not. That’s the job.
The press is powerful and is supposed to be critical. Every story is about understanding the bigger picture while being able to explain the small ones, along with the wake left behind.
In the case of Watson, none of that happened. The reports detailing the chase for him were important from a football perspective but sorely lacked context. Far too often the details of his alleged acts were disregarded as inconvenient to intertwine with the athlete, as though they can possibly be separated in the current moment. They felt almost a backdrop to the somehow more important story: where will Watson go?
Why does this happen? Because Watson is a great football player, and insiders have a job. We must cover the NFL. To do so, we need sources and therefore, access. To gain access, it’s about relationships, largely with agents and team personnel.
In short, it’s much easier to stick to football.
Yet that’s not the job. Not the job it’s supposed to be anyway.
As a collective, we failed. Badly.
Top 10 signings the first week of NFL free agency
1. Haason Reddick, EDGE, Philadelphia Eagles
2. J.C. Jackson, CB, Los Angeles Chargers
3. Von Miller, EDGE, Buffalo Bills
4. Justin Reid, S, Kansas City Chiefs
5. Brandon Scherff, G, Jacksonville Jaguars
6. Jordan Whitehead, S, New York Jets
7. Allen Robinson, WR, Los Angeles Rams
8. Charvarius Ward, CB, San Francisco 49ers
9. Laken Tomlinson, G, New York Jets
10. Ted Karras, C/G, Cincinnati Bengals
"“The Browns organization did not reach out to me. I didn’t expect them to do so, and can understand why they didn’t. But, knowing what I know, they probably should have.”"
– Attorney Tony Buzbee on whether the Browns, or any team, reached out to him regarding the 22 civil suits facing Watson
Fran Tarkenton played 18 years between the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants. When he retired following the 1978 season, he finished atop the NFL leaderboard with 47,003 passing yards.
Oddly, Tarkenton only led the league in passing once, the final year of his career with 3,468 yards.
Info learned this week
1. Raiders-Packers might both lose Davante Adams trade
The Las Vegas Raiders are being aggressive, but is it wise aggression?
On Friday night, the Raiders stunned the NFL world by trading 2022 first- and second-round selections to the Green Bay Packers receiver Davante Adams before signing him to a five-year, $140 million deal.
Adams reportedly could have signed the same deal in Green Bay but wanted to play with former Fresno State teammate, quarterback Derek Carr.
So which team wins the trade? Quite possible it’s neither.
The Raiders are trying to keep pace in the AFC West (deep dive in Parting Shot on that) but is this a true avenue for success? Carr is a good quarterback but he’s not Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert or Russell Wilson. It’s arguable Las Vegas should have bundled those draft picks and/or Carr’s palatable cap hit for an upgrade at quarterback.
Instead, new general manager Dave Ziegler swung big and landed Adams. It’s a great addition to an offense now loaded with tight end Darren Waller, slot receiver Hunter Renfrow and Adams. Yet while Las Vegas is coming off a playoff appearance, it is still the team with the longest divisional odds, and now has a huge cap hit in the upcoming two years for a receiver soon to be 30 years old.
Ziegler can’t be faulted for getting into the AFC arms race, but it could prove costly.
As for the Packers, Adams had no leverage. If Green Bay was legitimately willing to offer Adams the same contract, he would need stunning courage not to sign it before July 15 when the deadline arrived for franchise-tagged players to ink a long-term deal.
Furthermore, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers will be 39 years old in December. The Packers are coming off consecutive seasons of being the NFC’s No. 1 seed and failing to reach the Super Bowl. It’s about winning right now, and trading Adams goes against that goal.
Maybe the deal works out for both, or one. Right now, it’s tough to love it for either.
2. Mayfield soon on the move, but where?
With Deshaun Watson in Cleveland, the next quarterback domino is Baker Mayfield.
Mayfield has a year left on his rookie deal with a cap hit of $18.8 million, making him a bargain with the upside of a potential extension. Looking at the NFL landscape, the two teams making the most sense as a suitor are the Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks.
Both make sense for different reasons. Indianapolis has a playoff-caliber roster in a winnable division, but its current starting quarterback in Sam Ehlinger. For Seattle, Mayfield doesn’t vault them out of a projection for NFC West basement, but the Seahawks are loaded with picks after the Russell Wilson deal.
If the Seahawks want Mayfield badly, there’s little the Colts can do. They don’t have a first-round pick after trading it to the Philadelphia Eagles for Carson Wentz last offseason. Still, it’s unclear if Seattle would trade for Mayfield or instead draft a quarterback in April, or even wait until next offseason when the rookie crop is believed to be much stronger.
Mayfield will be jettisoned shortly, the only question is to where.
3. Bills signing of Von Miller signals an all-in mentality
The Buffalo Bills are sick of being a contender. They want to be the favorite.
After signing Von Miller last week to a six-year, $120 million deal, they now are.
Buffalo has needed an edge rush for years, and Miller provides one with a championship pedigree. The future Hall of Famer has won Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Rams, and now tries to win once more in an unprecedented third city.
For the Bills, the contract is realistically a four-year commitment to a player turning 33 years old this offseason and who hasn’t had double-digit sacks since 2018. General manager Brandon Beane is taking an expensive step fraught with risk, but to win a title, that’s sometimes necessary.
By adding Miller, Buffalo strengthens the weakest part of a defense that ranked first in the NFL last season. The Bills have also sustained few losses, most-notably guard John Feliciano, receiver Cole Beasley and corner Levi Wallace.
To win against AFC contenders who all have star quarterbacks, the Bills understood they needed to upgrade their front and get pressure. Miller should do that.
If he does, there’s no reason Buffalo shouldn’t be playing in Glendale come February.
4. Bengals show commitment to Burrow, winning with OL overhaul
The Cincinnati Bengals’ fortunes didn’t first change with Joe Burrow. It was D.J. Reader.
In the 2020 offseason, Reader signed a four-year, $53 million deal in Cincinnati. It doesn’t sound important, but Reader’s contract represented a shift in the Bengals’ typical plan of eschewing anybody in free agency who got decent money.
In the years since, owners Mike Brown and Katie Blackburn have continued spending to build around a core of draft picks including Burrow, receivers Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase, linebacker Logan Wilson, safety Jessie Bates and others. Last winter, it was edge rusher Trey Hendrickson who rewarded the four-year, $56 million investment in him with a Pro Bowl berth.
Now, it’s the upgrades to three spots of the offensive line.
Last Monday, the Bengals agreed to terms with guards Ted Karras and Alex Cappa, stealing them from the New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, respectively. On Sunday, Cincinnati landed star right tackle La’el Collins after the Dallas Cowboys released him due to a cap crunch.
Cincinnati is showing a commitment to winning and its quarterback one year before he becomes eligible for a contract extension.
Smart business from the Bengals, who are maturing from a long-bumbling franchise to a force.
5. Robert Woods to Titans is sensible, but scheme needs to change
The Tennessee Titans traded virtually nothing for Robert Woods. But will it benefit them?
Woods is a quality receiver, posting consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in 2019 and ’20 with the Rams before a torn ACL in November cut his ’21 campaign short after nine games. However, after signing Allen Robinson to a $45 million deal last week, Los Angeles sent Woods to Tennessee for a 2023 sixth-rounder. The Titans take on Woods’ deal, which has four years and $60 million remaining, although a release after this season results in zero dead cap money.
Provided Woods comes back healthy, he’s a top-20 receiver. However, the Titans need to change their style to properly utilize him.
Last season, Tennessee ran the ball 551 times, most in the NFL. We saw why in the Divisional round, when despite trying to shelter him, quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw three interceptions in a 19-16 defeat.
If Woods is going to be featured, offensive coordinator Todd Downing has to open things up. Otherwise, he’ll be making a quick stop in Tennessee, much like Julio Jones did.
The Jacksonville Jaguars spent more than $250 million in free agency. What did they get?
Last year, it was the Patriots spending lavishly on a hoard of tight ends, receivers and defensive help. New England improved by two wins and got pounded in the AFC Wild Card round.
Jacksonville is obviously coming from a worse place after finishing 3-14, and spending some of its ample cap space was necessary. The deal for five-time Pro Bowl guard Brandon Scherff was terrific. However, the other notable signings — corner Darious Williams, linebacker Foye Oluokun, tight end Evan Engram, defensive tackle Foley Fatukasi didn’t include a single player who has ever been named an All-Pro or Pro Bowler, despite the total price tag exceeding $200 million.
All are good players and upgrades on Jacksonville, but for a quarter of a billion dollars? There should be a few major stars. There’s only one, and he’s an interior offensive lineman.
At receiver, the Jaguars dropped more than $100 million combined on Christian Kirk and Zay Jones, and neither has enjoyed a 1,000-yard season. While it’s critical to note those contracts aren’t going to pay out the inflated totals reported, those pacts are going to eat up significant salary ca space over the next few years.
Staying at receiver, the Jaguars also lost D.J. Chark to the Detroit Lions on a one-year deal and are reportedly open to dealing third-year man Laviska Shenault. If Shenault gets dealt, it’s hard to feel that group is much better than last year’s unit.
Spending big doesn’t always correlate to winning big. The Jaguars weren’t cheap, but did they really buy much of anything?
Inside the league
Continuing the theme of examining my industry, we must do better on explaining contracts.
Each year in free agency, the numbers for big contracts come down and are reported, and fans lose their minds. It’s a tough balance, because breaking deals is an important aspect of the business, but also should be done with a bit of nuance.
The answer might be in tweeting out the original numbers given and then adding a line about structures and guarantees to follow. This way, it illuminates what is almost universally said in the NFL: the only things which matter in contracts are guaranteed money and structure.
Unfortunately, the usual reporting of these contracts involves little detail. It leads to a complete misunderstanding of both the sport and marketplace.
Breaking news is difficult and time-sensitive, but there’s a better way to get the information out.
The Cardinals endured the longest draught without a playoff win in NFL history, spanning three cities including Chicago, St. Louis and Phoenix.
After winning the NFL title in 1947, the Cardinals didn’t win another postseason tilt until handling the Dallas Cowboys in the 1997 NFC Wild Card round.
The Kansas City Chiefs have won the AFC West six straight years. The division is sick of it.
This offseason, the Denver Broncos, Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers have taken turns making massive moves. In Denver, the headliners were landing Russell Wilson for a pair of first- and second-round picks in ’22 and ’23, along with signing edge rusher Randy Gregory away from the Cowboys for five years and $70 million.
Finally, the Chargers traded for edge rusher Khalil Mack (sensing a theme?) before signing corner J.C. Jackson for $82.5 million and defensive tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day to a three-year, $24 million pact.
All this in the pursuit of Kansas City, which has lost pieces defensively in corner Charvarius Ward and safety Tyrann Mathieu, albeit replacing the latter with a young star in Justin Reid. Offensively, though, the Chiefs upgraded with former Pittsburgh Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster on a one-year deal.
Until the NFL expanded its postseason to the current format, it was impossible for an entire division to make the playoffs. While it remains unlikely because this quartet will beat on each other all season, it’s not hard to envision a scenario where they all end up playing on Wild Card Weekend.
The AFC West is loaded. The biggest victims?
The AFC South and NFC West, who have to play it this year.