9:48 PM ET
- Kevin SeifertNFL Nation Close
- ESPN.com national NFL writer
- ESPN.com NFC North reporter, 2008-2013
- Covered Vikings for Minneapolis Star Tribune, 1999-2008
The NFL free-agent market downshifted dramatically on Day 2 of its 2017 incarnation. Instead of multi-year contracts with dramatic signing bonuses, we saw more than a few one-year deals that will spit the recipients back into the 2018 pool.
But whenever there is action in the sports world, by decree, there must be winners and losers. And so we soldier on …
Most admirable approach
The New England Patriots are fresh off their Super Bowl LI victory, their second championship in the past three years, and yet they are wheeling and dealing as much as any team in the NFL. Their latest move, completed Friday night, was acquiring receiver Brandin Cooks from the New Orleans Saints.
The Cooks deal was their second trade of the day and capped off what seems like an all-out assault on league competitiveness. This is a franchise determined to crush any tendency toward complacency.
Earlier, they had acquired defensive end Kony Ealy from the Carolina Panthers as part of an exchange of draft picks. Ealy is a classic Patriots acquisition. He has one year remaining on a rookie deal that will pay him $803,660 this season, meaning he'll be in the kind of contract year that often prompts an uptick in production. If nothing else, he is a cost-controlled version of former starter Jabaal Sheard — who signed a three-year deal with the Colts on Friday that included $12.75 million in guarantees.
When you add Ealy to a haul that includes Cooks, tight end Dwayne Allen (another veteran acquired in an exchange of draft choices), and cornerback Stephon Gilmore, you see a cross-section of the Patriots' perpetually unsatisfied state.
Coach Bill Belichick has no problem swapping out one veteran for another; Allen takes the place of free agent Martellus Bennett. And something tells me Belichick has not a shred of concern for whether incumbent cornerback Malcolm Butler, a restricted free agent who has been offered a $3.91 million tender, is hurt by the decision to pay Gilmore a five-year deal that includes $40 million in guarantees.
Quarterback Tom Brady is the No. 1 on-field reason the Patriots rule the league. And, if they want, the Patriots can still replenish their draft stock by trading backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. But this type of active, use-every-tool approach is a big part of why the Patriots are perennial championship favorites as well.
Most predictable approach — until it wasn't
The Green Bay Packers, losers in two of the past three NFC Championship Games, appeared to be largely standing pat in the first two days of free agency. As is their typical approach under general manager Ted Thompson, they seemed to be watching the world go by as other teams improved — in some cases by signing Green Bay's players. (The Buffalo Bills swiped defensive back Micah Hyde, the Panthers grabbed defensive end Julius Peppers and tight end Jared Cook appeared set on signing elsewhere.)
But as the sun set on Day 2, the Packers emerged with a rarity: They signed the best player available at his position. Bennett, the tight end set free by the Patriots, should be considered a more reliable version of Cook and a weapon who will give quarterback Aaron Rodgers the mid-range option he needs to spread the field.
The Packers have compiled the NFL's second-best regular season record this decade largely by following the same policy. They use their cap space to sign what they think are their best in-house players — linebacker Nick Perry was this week's recipient — and rarely seek proven help like Bennett from outside the program.
This approach leaves the Packers perpetually developing young players who are often promising but not ready to contribute to a championship run. They have made one Super Bowl appearance in Rodgers' tenure. He turned 33 in December. To the admiration of some and the frustration of many, Thompson has seemed uninterested in selling out to pursue a championship to maximize his short-term fortunes with a quarterback who will go down as one of the NFL's best ever.
Bennett isn't a franchise-altering acquisition. But his arrival represents a decision to use more than the usual array of options.
It all brings to mind a saying I heard long ago: If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always gotten. The Packers want more than what they've gotten, so on Friday at least, they decided to do more than what they usually do.
Most understandable approach
I'm a little surprised at the social media venom directed toward free-agent receiver Terrelle Pryor Sr., who accepted a one-year deal from the Washington Redskins instead of a presumably longer and more lucrative offer from the Cleveland Browns. I don't blame him at all, assuming the Redskins keep quarterback Kirk Cousins on their roster this season.
Put yourself in Pryor's shoes. You produced a 1,007-yard season for a team that had six different quarterbacks take a snap. You're supremely confident in your abilities and believe you've shown only a slice of what you can do.
You could return to the Browns, where your quarterback might be Cody Kessler or perhaps a rookie that will be drafted next month. Or you could sign with the Redskins and catch passes from Cousins — who has thrown for more than 9,000 yards in the past two seasons. You'll have every chance to be the No. 1 receiver there after the departures of DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon.
I realize the Redskins once again are a team in turmoil. But other than money, a receiver's No. 1 free-agent criteria is the quality of quarterback. There is almost no way the Browns will have a better quarterback than Cousins in the next few seasons. (Again, that assumes the Redskins don't trade Cousins this spring.) Pryor has a chance for a monster statistical season in 2017, after which he'll be a free agent again and ready to cash in with the highest bidder.
Again, the Redskins are far from a perfect destination. But Pryor bet on himself, and Cousins, and I don't think that's a terrible play. At all.
Most surprising activity
The Panthers have been more active than their recent history, a presumed and understandable reaction to their disappointing 6-10 season in 2016.
They've signed left tackle Matt Kalil, defensive end Julius Peppers, safety Mike Adams, receiver Charles Johnson and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, most notably handing Kalil a market-level five-year deal worth $55 million. Meanwhile, in addition to trading Ealy, they bid farewell to fullback Mike Tolbert and receiver Ted Ginn Jr.
None of this qualifies the Panthers for the league lead in either activity or dollars committed, but it's a pretty notable departure from the way general manager Dave Gettleman usually operates. From 2014-16, the Panthers committed an NFL-low $54 million in unrestricted free agency, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In other words, they spent more on Kalil alone than they did on their past three free-agent classes combined.
The Panthers won the NFC South for three consecutive seasons between 2013-15. The Atlanta Falcons passed them in 2016, and the Panthers do not appear to have taken it lightly. Good for them.
That horrendous 2012 draft
The Browns' release of quarterback Robert Griffin III further buries the top of the 2012 draft. Only three of the first 10 players picked in that draft — quarterbacks Andrew Luck (No. 1, Colts) and Ryan Tannehill (No. 8, Miami Dolphins, and linebacker Luke Kuechly (No. 9, Panthers) — remain with their original teams.
Overall, only 11 of the 32 first-round players are in good standing on the roster of the team that drafted them. This week, Kalil (No. 4, Minnesota Vikings) signed with the Panthers, tackle Riley Reiff (No. 23, Detroit Lions) signed with the Vikings and guard Kevin Zeitler (No. 27, Cincinnati Bengals) signed with the Browns. Cornerback Morris Claiborne (No. 8, Dallas Cowboys), nose tackle Dontari Poe (No. 11, Kansas City Chiefs) and linebacker Dont'a Hightower (No. 25, Patriots) are free agents and have not yet signed with a team.
Ideally, a good team's nucleus is built by players drafted within the previous five years. Some drafts are better than others, but the top of the 2012 version is leaving too many teams looking elsewhere for help.