Free-agency Debrief: Biggest surprises as league year begins

The birth of the new NFL league year was defined by endings. The Browns stopped signing free agents for a few minutes to say goodbye to the franchise’s best player since the team’s reboot in 1999. The Cardinals released the defensive heart and soul of their NFC Championship Game-qualifying “All or Nothing” team. The Lions cut the first-round pick they selected just before Odell Beckham and Aaron Donald went off the draft board back in 2014.


While Wednesday wasn’t as jam-packed with the sort of furious movement seen during Tuesday’s free agency free-for-all, there were a lot of eye-opening decisions. Here’s a look at the biggest surprises from the day in which the NFL calendar officially turned the page to 2018:

Joe Thomas calls it a career: The Browns have done a fine job upgrading their offensive talent over the last week, adding Tyrod Taylor, Jarvis Landry and Carlos Hyde. But the decision of Joe Thomasto retire will make it more difficult for the team to make a quick turnaround.

Perhaps the deal that the Browns agreed to hand Steelers swingman Chris Hubbard on Tuesday should have been a clue. The Browns will give a player with only 14 career starts $18 million guaranteed on a five-year, $37.5 million contract, per NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport. The Browns also picked up former Broncos tackle Donald Stephenson. They knew they had a big hole to fill.

Thomas’ value since being drafted in 2007 is incalculable. He made six All-Pro teams in a seven-year period during his peak and is known as one of the finest technicians ever to play the position. It’s a shame to see him retire with such an exciting influx of talent in Cleveland and two top-four picks on the way. Knowledge of human fallibility aside, I saw him as an indestructible ironman who would play forever. But Thomas’ words on his “ThomaHawk Show” podcast were telling. He said he is staring at a knee replacement in his future and was surprised and happy to have even survived physically to play seven games in 2017. After he’s sacrificed to stay on the field for so long, I’m looking forward to Thomas’ next career in the media making us all smarter.


Honey Badger and Ndamukong Suh top Phase 2 of free agency: Four hundred sixty-eight crusty sportswriter Twitter jokes couldn’t be wrong: Free agency was almost over by the time free agency started. At least, the first phase was. There are still plenty of compelling players out there, including Sheldon Richardson, Dontari Poe and Terrelle Pryor. But the highest-ranked available players on our list of the top 101 free agents weren’t even free a day ago.

Tyrann Mathieurefused to take a pay cut when asked by the Cardinals, betting on himself. It makes sense, because this release largely resulted from a confluence of circumstances. Cardinals coach Steve Wilks didn’t quite see Mathieu as a fit in his scheme, according to Rapoport, and last year’s second-round pick, Budda Baker, is a budding star. (Still, something is wrong about Mathieu getting cut on a day the Cardinals spend money to bring in quarterback Mike Glennon to back up starter Sam Bradford, with left tackle Andre Smith expected to protect them.) I suggested to Mathieu in an interview last week that he could wind up making more money in free agency than if the Cardinals kept him.

“My agent thinks so, too,” Mathieu said.

Now it’s time to see if his agent was right. Plenty of teams could use a dynamic safety who can also cover the slot as a cornerback. While Mathieu admitted that he played a little too carefully early in his recovery from a second ACL surgery, he was flying around the field with abandon late last season. Chris Wesseling listed the Giants atop a list of potential landing spots for Mathieu, and the fit makes a lot of sense, considering the presence of defensive coordinator James Bettcher (who spent the past five seasons with the Cardinals) and the Giants‘ needs. Mathieu is now ranked No. 5 overall on our free agents list, and he’s No. 2 among players who are still looking for a team.

Only Suh is higher than Mathieu among available free agents. I wrote about the reasons why earlier this week, but it still feels surprising to see the two best defensive free agents this season emerge from the discard pile.

Jerick McKinnon is one of the NFL’s highest-paid running backs: No current front office pays generous prices quite like the San Francisco 49ers. The deal, first reported by “Good Morning Football’s” Peter Schrager, includes nearly $12 million in guaranteed money in 2018. That will make him the second-highest-paid running back behind Le’Veon Bell in 2018, and McKinnon’s four-year average ranks fourth. NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo noted that McKinnon was ticketed to go to the Jets until the 49ers gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

I love McKinnon’s skill set and have little doubt that coach Kyle Shanahan will maximize it. And perhaps general manager John Lynch’s spending habits won’t come back to bite the 49ers in a league where teams — like San Francisco — almost have too much salary-cap space. Still, there have been some eyebrows raised around the league at the deals the 49ers have given to players like McKinnon, receiver Marquise Goodwin, tackle Garry Gilliam and pass rusher Cassius Marsh.

The Vikings traded for a quarterback: For one day only, Trevor Siemian is atop the team’s quarterback depth chart. Minnesota’s acquisition of the former Broncos starter means that the 2018 trade tsunami is not quite over yet, and it makes a ton of sense from the Vikings‘ perspective.

Instead of spending upwards of $5 million for a warmed-over veteran backup, the Vikings can save money on a young former starter who showed incredible potential in the 2016 season and the early portions of 2017 before collapsing under the weight of an awful Broncos offensive line. The Vikings, who are presumably in line to close the deal with Kirk Cousins after he visits Thursday, surely hope Siemian never hits the field, but it’s a nice insurance policy to have.

Solder gets quarterback-level money: The former Patriots left tackle has been an above-average starter throughout his career, even if his last few seasons have been up and down. Still, it says a lot about this barren free-agent tackle market that the Giantshad to give him nearly $35 million guaranteed over the next two years to get Solder to sign. That’s more than the per-year salary of starting quarterbacks like Alex Smith and Andy Dalton. Solder will undoubtedly make the Giants‘ offensive line better, and he’s known as one of the NFL’s great guys, but that’s a lot of money for a 29-year-old tackle without a Pro Bowl berth to his name.

Bills and AJ McCarron get hitched: The only surprise in McCarron signing a two-year deal with the Bills was the total lack of surprise involved. Five teams filled their starting-quarterback need on Tuesday, almost as if they took turns crossing off names on the free-agent quarterback list. McCarron was the last potential starter left, unless a team got bold and signed Colin Kaepernick. The Bills were the last team looking for a starter.

This marriage of convenience still makes sense. Buffalo is clearly planning to draft a rookie quarterback to build around, so the focus should be on that mystery man, not McCarron.

Guarantees are on the way down: Forget that narrative about Kirk Cousins somehow changing the dynamics of players getting guaranteed contracts in the future. Cousins is getting $84 million guaranteed, but Solder is currently in second place in guaranteed money from any free agents ($35 million), with cornerback Trumaine Johnson in third after reportedly getting $34 million guaranteed from the Jets, per ESPN’s Rich Cimini. Teams seem more hesitant than ever to capsize their coffers with long-term guaranteed-money contracts. In the past, the key contractual terms to note was how much money a player received in the first three years of a contract. Now that’s been reduced to two years even for top-shelf free agents, and only one year guaranteed for many more.

Ebron adds production to tight end market: Even though he was long a punching bag for Detroit fans, I was surprised to see the
Lionsrelease the 2014 first-round pick on Wednesday. Ebron has gained over 2,000 yards in his career, which is significant production for a tight end who is only turning 25 years old this offseason. (Ebron has more career yards than some of the wide receivers who have seen big free-agent contracts come their way, like
Paul Richardson and
Ryan Grant.)

The current regime in Detroit can’t be blamed for the previous regime’s decision to take Ebron just before Taylor Lewan, Odell Beckham, Aaron Donald, Zack Martin and C.J. Mosley in an incredibly deep 2014 draft. The Lions save $8.25 million by not paying Ebron his fifth-year option. This move, by the way, is a good reminder of why teams should almost always pick up the option after a player’s first three seasons: The Lions picked up the option on Ebron, but they still had the option to cut him loose now with no penalty, and they did so after a season where Ebron battled drops and mental errors in key spots.

New coach Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn have helped oversee a quiet defensive overhaul this week, with the Lions bringing in cornerback Deshawn Shead, linebacker Devon Kennard and linebacker Christian Jones. These are the types of low-cost, low-risk deals the Patriots — where both Patricia and Quinn, of course, cut their teeth — often make in free agency.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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