The only major professional sports league currently in its offseason is the NFL. Luckily for the NFL, this means that their regular season is the only one that has yet to be affected by the worldwide outbreak of the novel coronavirus. In preparation for the first kickoff in September, the league has continued its typical offseason schedule, which includes the ever-entertaining free agency. During this time, players whose contracts have expired are free to sign with other franchises and secure their paychecks.
On March 16 at noon EST, free agents were permitted to begin legal negotiations with teams, and on March 18 at 4 p.m. EST, the new league year began, allowing players to officially ink new deals.
While the regular season hasn’t been affected by COVID-19, teams, players, agents and owners have had to adjust to limitations implemented by the league to help prevent the spread of the virus. Players can’t visit team facilities in person and must have their physical exams completed by a physician near their current location in efforts to limit travel.
This has caused some issues in free agency for all parties involved. Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, for example, was looking to be traded, but he had recent surgery, so teams want their doctors to evaluate him to ensure he is healthy enough to play. Due to these restrictions and potentially other factors, no teams signed the former No. 1 overall draft pick, and the Panthers released him.
Despite difficulties due to COVID-19, teams have still made both impressive and questionable moves. The three teams that have made the best moves to improve their franchises are the Arizona Cardinals, Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On the other hand, some teams have either lost assets that will be hard to replace or have not made moves to upgrade their chances of winning. The three teams in the worst position currently are the Chicago Bears, Los Angeles Rams and Minnesota Vikings.
Arizona completed “trade of the offseason” — Deandre Hopkins. Hopkins, arguably the best wide receiver in the league, and a 2020 fourth-round draft pick from the Texans was traded for the Cardinal’s David Johnson, a 2020 second-round pick and a 2021 fourth-round pick. To say this deal was like winning the lottery for the Cardinals is an understatement. Hopkins will now be able to team up with future Hall of Fame receiver Larry Fitzgerald and give second-year quarterback Kyler Murray a new offensive weapon. As long as Murray can continue to hide behind his linemen, fans should expect many connections between the dangerous new duo of Murray and Hopkins. Though Arizona gave up Johnson, they re-signed running back Kenyan Drake who had a powerful finish to his 2019 campaign, so they did not lose much at the running back slot.
On defense, the Cardinals upgraded their line by signing former Detroit Lions linebacker Devon Kennard to a three-year, $20 million contract; former Buffalo Bills lineman Jordan Phillips also inked a three-year, $30 million deal with the team.
The Miami Dolphins had the second-most money to spend in free agency, so it was not surprising when they signed some of the best free agents on the market. Former Dallas Cowboys cornerback Byron Jones was one of the top corners available at the start of free agency, and Miami signed him to a whopping five-year, $82 million contract with $54 million guaranteed to pair up with Pro Bowl cornerback Xavien Howard. This move was necessary as the Dolphins allowed the most points in the league in 2019, making Jones a perfect addition for Miami. Head Coach Brian Flores reunited with linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who signed a four-year deal worth $51 million. Miami should also be able to apply lots of pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season after signing defensive ends Shaq Lawson from the Bills and Emmanuel Ogbah from the Kansas City Chiefs to three-year and two-year contracts, respectively.
For their offense, Miami signed offensive guard Ereck Flowers from the Washington Redskins to a three-year, $30 million deal. Upgrading their offensive line seems in anticipation of drafting a new star quarterback in the 2020 NFL Draft next month, where the team has the fifth overall pick. With all these changes, Miami should see big improvements in 2020 after a letdown 2019 season. Perhaps they have a chance at securing the AFC East title.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
One player’s name is all you need to know to evaluate how Tampa Bay’s free agency is going: Tom Brady. The six-time Super Bowl champion quarterback left the New England Patriots to sign a two-year, $50 million deal with the Bucs after 20 years in New England. Brady, who is now 42 years old, is looking to prove to the world, and himself, that he can win a championship without Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick. Brady is a big upgrade from the first pick of the 2015 NFL Draft, Jameis Winston, who threw 33 touchdowns and a league-leading 30 interceptions last season en route to a 7-9 record. With Brady in the driver’s seat, along with one of the league’s best wide receiver duos in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, expect Tampa Bay to shred opposing defenses.
Tampa Bay re-signed defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul to a two-year, $27 million contract and placed the franchise tag on linebacker Shaquil Barrett, who had a breakout season in 2019. The Buccaneers should now be one of the NFC favorites to make Super Bowl LV, which will, perhaps ironically, be played in their home stadium.
The Bears had a disappointing 2019 season, to say the least. Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky finished the season with the fifth-worst quarterback rating and further entrenched the Bears between a rock and a hard place: do they continue to let Trubisky be their franchise quarterback or do they bring in someone else? In a move that the Bears hope will motivate Trubisky, the team traded for former Super Bowl MVP quarterback Nick Foles from the Jacksonville Jaguars. The way I see it, Trubisky will start the season at quarterback but likely be benched by the end of the season as too much pressure to succeed piles on the young signal-caller. Foles is also getting paid over $15 million per season, which is absurdly high for a quarterback whose main role is to threaten Trubisky’s starting position.
Chicago also signed tight end Jimmy Graham from the Green Bay Packers to a two-year, $16 million contract, which is way too much for a player who has not produced at a top level for a few years. In addition, the Bears signed defensive end Robert Quinn from Dallas to a five-year, $70 million deal even though he has not appeared in a Pro Bowl since 2014. Chicago also lost one of the league’s top safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to the Cowboys and cut cornerback Prince Amukamara. The Bears made quite a few questionable moves in the first week of free agency and should not expect to be successful next season.
Los Angeles Rams
Just over one year ago, the Los Angeles Rams were facing the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII. Their elite defense from that season, though, has lost many key players. Los Angeles will be without five defensive starters from last year: linebacker Dante Fowler Jr., safety Eric Weddle, defensive tackle Michael Brockers, cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman and linebacker Cory Littleton. The Rams have struggled to fill the holes in their roster left open by these departures. The one defensive move they did make was signing linebacker Leonard Floyd from Chicago to a one-year contract worth $10 million.
The Rams also cut their former first-round draft pick running back Todd Gurley. Gurley, who has recently struggled with injuries, was not re-signed because the Rams were unwilling to pay him the deal to which they signed him in 2018. Offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth re-signed with the Rams to a deal that will let him play over the age of 40, an anomaly for offensive lineman. As the Rams move into a new stadium, they will be without quite a few of their top players from the past couple of seasons.
Minnesota’s biggest addition in 2020 free agency was not a player but a first-round pick. The Vikings split their elite wide receiver duo of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen by trading Diggs to Buffalo for draft picks. This was a confusing move, given that this trade happened after they gave quarterback Kirk Cousins a three-year, $96 million extension.
On defense, the Vikings lost many key parts of their secondary. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes was cut, and they let cornerback Trae Waynes and safety Andrew Sendejo walk. Former Pro Bowl defensive linemen Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen were also not re-signed. Although the team did place the franchise tag on safety Anthony Harris, who co-led the NFL in interceptions in 2019, the Vikings have so far failed to replace the value of lost defensive players.
There is still plenty of time for teams to improve before week one of the 2020 season as free agency continues and the 2020 NFL Draft approaches. As the past week has shown, many teams have clearly upgraded their roster while others are moving faster toward football purgatory.