This free agency period has been nothing short of a roller coaster. From the Tom Brady controversy finally getting resolved to the Bears’ front office staying as incompetent as ever, players have been on the move more often than not, especially this offseason.
However, one thing is for sure: this free agency period was like no other, in both a good and a bad way. Without further ado, here are the top 5 best free agency transactions of 2020, including both trades and signings. The top 5 worst free agency transactions of 2020 will be in another article.
HM: Melvin Gordon Signs 2 Year, $16M deal with Denver Broncos
Talk about furthering a breakout season for Drew Lock. Even though Denver had a solid RB combination for the future, this is undoubtedly the move that screams, “We’re going all-in”, and while many did not see this move coming, it should definitely generate more faith in the Broncos to make a playoff push in 2020.
Denver has slowly risen from the dead ever since they selected Bradley Chubb and Courtland Sutton in 2018 (according to the NFL.com draft tracker here), and the decision to sign an elite running back like Melvin Gordon for cheap placed them on the trajectory to becoming one of the NFL’s elite.
Gordon’s 2019 holdout was not a great decision; almost every NFL fan knows this, but to turn down more money just to play in the same division as the former team who treated him poorly screams competitiveness. Expect Gordon to run angrier than ever this year.
However, the reason this signing is so great for the Broncos is it gives Young Dreezy another elite weapon to work with. Pat Shurmur gets to work with the talented quarterback he supposedly wanted to draft 6th overall in 2018 (article here), and Gordon signs a bargain deal to join one of the most dynamic aerial attacks in 2019 (that is, if they draft Alabama WR Henry Ruggs III).
Gordon’s best trait is his elusiveness. He’s a very slash-and-cut-type runner and excels at running through contact. His best strength is probably breaking tackles at will, in both the running game and the passing game, and should get around 300 touches in Shurmur’s new offense.
Imagine Lock dropping back on play-action with Sutton, Ruggs, Noah Fant, and DaeSean Hamilton all getting 1-on-1 matchups downfield, after Denver has slashed the opposing defense over and over again with Melvin Gordon runs (see depth chart here); if you happen to be the poor soul standing on the opposite side of that line of scrimmage, just say good night.
#5: DeForest Buckner Traded to Indianapolis Colts for 13th Overall Pick
There are always 2 ways to interpret a trade: from the heart and from the mind. Empathizing with all 49ers fans would be the former; Buckner was a stud, a captain, a franchise player, whatever positive thing anyone could say, D-Buck embodied that. Coming from someone who’s not a 49ers fan, watching him get shipped out of the Bay Area was devastating, and there’s no way around it.
However, when looking at it from an unbiased point of view, this trade is a win for both sides. After signing breakout DE Arik Armstead (another Oregon player) to a massive contract extension with $17M AAS (according to Spotrac), they could not afford Buckner, especially with the price Indianapolis paid. Now, would paying Buckner make more sense than paying a guy who broke out in a contract year (see depth chart here)? Probably, but San Fran signed Armstead because of his ability to play every spot on the defensive line, which is incredibly valuable.
So, after signing Armstead, San Fran had to part ways with Buckner, and it can be argued that Indy stole him. They gave up the 13th overall pick, which San Fran will likely use to replace Buckner, and the $21M AAS (according to Spotrac) may just be a bargain. If the LA Rams had to give up 2 1st rounders for Jalen Ramsey, a cornerback, getting a player of greater positional importance and of equal caliber is a win-win for the Colts (see depth chart here).
They get an elite defensive lineman who can just take on blocks with his unbelievable power, letting All-Pro Darius Leonard fly around and make tackle after tackle. Expect these two to become building blocks in Indy’s mini-rebuild (at least for now), and while Indy may not have a long-term answer at quarterback for the moment, they can either snag a developmental one in the 2nd round or just wait a year for the quarterbacks in 2021.
Indianapolis needed a defensive lineman for years, and they just got a top 3 player at his position, while only giving away a 2020 1st-round pick. Buckner will undoubtedly change their franchise, the same way he did for the 49ers because that’s just what he does. Even though they can’t draft a quarterback in the 1st round, the three quarterbacks projected to go as 1st-round picks (Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Tua Tagovailoa) would be gone before their pick in all likelihood.
On the other hand, if one of the quarterback projects (Jordan Love, Jacob Eason) falls to the 2nd round, they’ll most definitely find value there, and secure their future that way. Indy has an All-Pro DT to complement their young talent, the best linebacker in all of football, and Frank Reich’s system. If that structure isn’t worth the 13th pick, then what is?
While San Francisco may use that pick to take Javon Kinlaw 13th overall, who can potentially replace Buckner as the 3-technique DL of the 49ers’ future. Both sides won here, especially the Colts, and the 49ers save cap space they can use for All-Pro tight end George Kittle in 2021.
#4: Darius Slay Traded to Philadelphia Eagles for Picks
The Eagles counter the Cowboys’ big free-agency splash with one of their own. Less than 2 days after Dallas signed stud wide receiver Amari Cooper to a 5 year, $100 million deal (according to Spotrac), Howie Roseman packaged a 3rd and a 5th-round pick for star cornerback Darius Slay, who wanted a contract extension and got it (according to Spotrac).
While Detroit inexplicably didn’t get more value for him, this is a game-changing trade for the Eagles without a doubt. Philly’s deficiencies at boundary corner have been so terrible the past two seasons, and with the decline of Ronald Darby (who was once good) and the lack of development in Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas (see depth chart here), they needed someone to lock down Cooper and Terry McLaurin, who they’ll play twice a year.
Slay thrives in man coverage, which is exactly what Jim Schwartz needs in his defense while he sends blitz after blitz after blitz. While that aggressive defense does work, the coverage needs to hold up in the back end for it to do so. Slay travels with and locks down opposing #1 receivers as very few other corners do. Getting him for a pair of Day 2 picks is absolute thievery, which seems to be a theme in this year’s free agency period.
Philly still has a need at wide receiver, and with the depth in this receiving class, one would imagine they’d draft at least two this season, and at least one on Day 2. However, cornerback depth isn’t as great, so Philly had to make their move fast, or they were in a soup. After missing out on Byron Jones in free agency (he didn’t want to play there, according to this tweet from John Clark), Slay was arguably the only piece that separated Philly from another season of defensive disaster.
Good thing they made their move because the Dallas Cowboys are returning this season with vengeance. With all of the talent on their roster in 2019, coaching (goodbye, Jason Garrett) and poor execution failed them and placed a massive chip on the shoulders of the entire program.
To stop an important piece of the raging inferno, all the Eagles needed was a boundary corner who could excel as an aggressive man corner, and boy, did they land one of the best.
#3: Stefon Diggs Traded to Buffalo Bills for a Boatload of Picks
Diggs’ annual cryptic tweets finally came to fruition. Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman traded Diggs and a 7th-rounder to the Buffalo Bills for a 1st, 5th, 6th, and a 2021 4th-round pick (trade details here). If the Bills weren’t considered one of the most dangerous teams in the AFC before this trade, they better be now. With a developmental quarterback on a Pro Bowl trajectory, an incredible defense, and a coaching staff, which gets the best out of its players, there’s nowhere to go but up.
Diggs is one of the 5 best route-runners in the entire league and pairing him with guys like Cole Beasley and John Brown (see depth chart here), who are also great route-runners, really opens this passing game. The former Terp has underrated downfield speed, and can potentially stretch the field. He has a unique ability to leave defenders in the dust because his feet are so quick and clean.
Josh Allen has an absolute cannon for an arm, no doubt about it. He’s a good quarterback, nothing more, and nothing less. However, his accuracy issues stemming from pre-draft persist today. Allen’s definitely developed through 2 seasons, but his deep-ball accuracy in particular still needs some work, which leads to a downside of this trade.
Furthermore, Brown and Beasley are in their 30s, so it would make sense to find their eventual replacements to complement Diggs. The problem with any receiver Allen’s played with, that is, at least until Diggs, none of them have been able to separate at an elite level. This even goes back to Allen’s college days at Wyoming.
Some suitable options for Buffalo to shore up the receiver position are Clemson WR Tee Higgins, Notre Dame WR Chase Claypool, and Florida WR Van Jefferson, all of whom can run great routes.
With Higgins and Claypool, the size really plays a role in their red-zone capabilities, and they can both track the deep ball quite well. Jefferson is the king of the timing route and is a perfect Beasley replacement as the Bills’ future slot receiver. Imagine an offense with Josh Allen, Devin Singletary, Stefon Diggs, Tee Higgins, and Van Jefferson. Wow.
#2: Tom Brady Signs 2 Year, $50M deal with Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tom Brady and Bruce Arians. Brady’s decision to join Tampa makes sense from an everything perspective, mainly because it’s the complete opposite of what he experienced in New England. Reports of tension between Brady and Belichick go all the way back to 2017 when Belichick tried to trade Brady to the 49ers before Robert Kraft shut it down (details here).
Free Agent QB Jameis Winston led the NFL with 30 interceptions.
He had 21 more interceptions dropped: pic.twitter.com/LEAhrBHljj
— QB Data Mine (@QBDataMine) March 16, 2020
Three years later, Brady’s signing has Tampa Bay ready to make a serious run in 2020. Tampa’s biggest issue by far was Jameis Winston’s decision-making. The former #1-overall pick threw a whopping 30 interceptions last season, according to Pro Football Reference, and while about 10 of those weren’t his fault, that doesn’t account for the 20 dropped interceptions Winston threw last season (watch the video above).
Turning the ball over has been Winston’s biggest issue since entering the league, mainly due to poor decision-making. Signing Tom Brady guarantees better decision-making, even at the cost of $25 million (according to Spotrac). The Buccaneers were arguably 3 games out of the playoffs because of bad breaks, which didn’t go their way. With a quarterback who can at least make better decisions than Winston, the Bucs offense should be even more deadly than it was last year.
Brady’s supporting cast is much better than it was in New England, as the Patriots’ receivers (including you, N’Keal Harry) couldn’t separate at all (Evan Lazar’s tweet with reference to Next Gen Stats here), with Julian Edelman leading the league in drops, according to this article. Furthermore, Josh McDaniels’ lack of offensive creativity didn’t make Brady’s life any easier. However, compared to New England, Tampa looks totally different.
Bruce Arians’ vertical scheme, All-Pro wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, 2nd-year linebacker Devin White, promising corners Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean, and a strong tight-end tandem of OJ Howard and Cameron Brate (see depth chart here). This team, outside of the offensive line and 3-4 defensive end, is overloaded with talent, which is perfect for a 43-year-old quarterback.
However, don’t expect the Buccaneers to be lazy in the draft process. While Brady is still a great quarterback, they need a future signal-caller, so expect them to address that in the top 2 rounds. Furthermore, upgrades at offensive line and defensive end should be at the top of their priorities, as they need to do whatever it takes to make Brady’s life easier. He’s not going to carry the team over the top by himself, so Tampa needs to help him help them.
Finally, Chris Godwin is a free agent after 2020 (according to Spotrac). After resigning All-Pro edge rusher Shaq Barrett (they kind of have to), they may not want to throw themselves into cap hell. Godwin’s a fantastic receiver, but paying him upwards of 15 million puts Tampa into cap hell. With that in mind, the best approach for them would be to take a playmaking vertical threat (Jerry Jeudy or Henry Ruggs III) to play in the slot in Year 1, and then take over the Z-receiver role in Year 2. Either way, look out.
#1: DeAndre Hopkins Traded to Arizona Cardinals for Nothing
Every Texans fan deserves a hug after this. What should bother Texans fans so much isn’t exactly the decision to trade him, but the compensation Houston got as a result of dealing the All-Pro receiver. If Bill O’Brien really wanted to invest in a running game, let’s just say this trade wasn’t the move. Houston took on unnecessary money for no reason, especially when drafting a running back makes so much more sense.
Did O’Brien really give up Hopkins and a 4th-round pick for David Johnson, a 2nd-round pick, and a 2021 4th-rounder, according to Kevin Patra (article here)? That’s the compensation here? Houston just lost their best player for a guy who’s not done anything for 2 whole seasons and is constantly overhyped every single offseason just to get injured or to disappoint in the regular season. Fantastic. O’Brien also recently said the team couldn’t restructure Hopkins’ contract with 3 years left (according to this Yahoo Sports article).
However, why should there be any debate? O’Brien even said the team always comes first (according to this Yahoo Sports article), but when Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins carry your entire team, the rules should bend towards those franchise players, so one would think. Either way, this trade makes absolutely no sense. Besides Watson, who does Houston have to pay? If they really want to get better, invest more into the draft and pay a core of talent (Watson, Justin Reid, etc), while replacing everyone else.
Every Cardinals fan should be giving you a high-five. Imagine hauling DeAndre Hopkins, the best wide receiver in the NFL, and a franchise left tackle in the same offseason. Kyler Murray should be one of the favorites for the NFL MVP next season, and Arizona may legitimately make a run for the playoffs behind him, Kliff Kingsbury, Kenyan Drake, and now Hopkins.
Adding Hopkins to the Cardinals’ core of talent instantly makes them the most dangerous receiving core in the entire league. DeAndre Hopkins (All-Pro), Larry Fitzgerald (seasoned veteran), Andy Isabella (deep speed), Hakeem Butler (could’ve started last season), and Christian Kirk (slot receiver of the future) are 5 receivers with different skillsets, and there is no defense in the league to stop 5 productive receivers with a tremendously talented quarterback (see depth chart here).
Is Arizona a contender? No, not yet. They still have a leaky offensive line at best, and they need some help in the front-7. However, they still have draft picks, and overhauling on both lines is the safest way to keep Murray safe, and make the Cardinals a playoff team for the first time since 2015. If Arizona can go far in just Murray’s second season, they’ll be good for a long time. The road to the Super Bowl begins here, Arizona. Let’s see how long it takes.