Why NFL free agency is often Fool’s Gold

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So we’ve just had a week of all NFL, all the time, of two mega-New York stories (Odell Beckham Jr., being traded by the Giants and Le’Veon Bell signing with the Jets) breaking within five hours, and the New York media machine going as wild as it can. Fans of the Detroit Patriots are fired up. The Raiders are going to the playoffs. J-E-T-S! Jets Jets Jets!

I am here to dump cold water on this.

Five very bad team stories of spending big in free agency:

• 1996: The Jets, 3-13 in 1995, signed Super Bowl QB Neil O’Donnell (to the third-highest quarterback contract ever) and tackles Jumbo Elliott and David Williams. O’Donnell started 0-6 and got yanked. New York finished 1-15 and fired the coaching staff.

• 2000: Washington, 8-8 in 1999, went wild in free agency, signing Bruce Smith, Deion Sanders and Jeff George to deals totaling $99 million on paper. Sanders lasted one sub-par year and retired, coach Norv Turner was canned in December, and Washington went 8-8, 8-8, 7-9 and 5-11 in the four years after the gold rush.

• 2009: Washington, which likes to win March, replayed its free-agent follies of a decade earlier, making the worst signing in free-agency history (Albert Haynesworth, seven years, $100 million, and he lasted two disastrous years) and a few others. Washington crashed to 4-12. Coach and GM: fired.

• 2011: Philadelphia, NFC East champs in 2010, worked the free market like no team in the 26-year history of free agency, led by president Joe Banner and GM Howie Roseman. ”They came out of the gate like wild men,” coach Andy Reid said. “Dream Team,” quarterback Vince Young christened the newbies—Nnamdi Asomugha, Ronnie Brown, Cullen Jenkins, Young, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and others. “Dream Team” went 8-8 and 4-12. Reid got fired.

• 2016: Jacksonville spent $199 million on good but not great players (Malik Jackson, Tashaun Gipson, Chris Ivory, Kelvin Beachum). The reward: The Jags regressed from 5-11 in 2015 to 3-13 in 2016, and coach Gus Bradley got whacked in December.

I sense a trend.

“There are lots of mistakes made in free agency,” Cleveland GM John Dorsey said Saturday. “And lots of mistakes made early in free agency—when there are 32 teams competing for the best players, and you’re going to pay probably 20 percent more than makes sense.”

Sometimes high-priced imports work, and they improve a team mightily. Reggie White had great defensive impact as the first big free agent in 1993, and made it cool for free agents to work in Green Bay. Drew Brees (2006, San Diego to New Orleans) became one of the best quarterbacks ever. Andrew Whitworth (2017, Cincinnati to the Rams) has been one of the best left tackles of football for a growing and starry team. The Giants got a one-year pop out of Janoris Jenkins, Damon Harrison and Olivier Vernon in 2016, and made the playoffs that year … but it was like a 5-Hour Energy jolt. The Giants crashed. And there are a lot more Haynesworths and Asomughas and ’96 Jets than there are even one-year success stories.

Just Look At 2018

While getting excited about the new class of free agents, remember these Pro Football Focus ratings of some of the richest players who changed teams in the 2018 free-agency class.

Kirk Cousins ($28 million per year) was PFF’s 11th-rated quarterback.
Case Keenum ($18 million per) was the 28th-rated quarterback.
Sammy Watkins ($16 million per) was the 38th-rated wide receiver.
Nate Solder ($15.5 million per) was the 38th-rated tackle.
Trumaine Johnson ($14.5 million per) was the 43rd-rated cornerback.
Allen Robinson ($14 million per) was the 35th-rated wide receiver.
Andrew Norwell ($13.3 million per) was the 13th-rated guard.
Malcolm Butler ($12.2 million per) was the 73rd-rated cornerback.
Ryan Jensen ($10.5 million per) was the 36th-rated center.

Seriously: How many GMs who signed those players, 12 months later, wish they hadn’t? Keenum in Denver, Watkins in Kansas City, Johnson in New York and Butler in Tennessee … Those would be the top on my list.

Read more from Football Morning in America here

Why Texans need to trade for Redskins’ Trent Williams now

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Three Things I Think

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Three quick thoughts:

1. I think my everlasting memory of this trip will be watching J.J. Watt steam in from Aaron Rodgers’ left side on a live pass-rush drill (well, full-speed, but no hitting the quarterback in a camp practice) in the Texans-Packers joint practices. He jousted with left tackle David Bakhtiari, dipped to the outside, got half a step on the left tackle, and sprinted at Rodgers. Watt meant it. As did Rodgers, who sprinted up the right side and evaded Watt. First time Watt ever stepped foot in Wisconsin to play pro football (though a practice), and he got emotional about it, and it meant a lot to him. Two Hall of Fame players going at it on a Monday morning in northeast Wisconsin. Loved it.

2. I think the Texans need to trade for Washington left tackle Trent Williams, who is unhappy in Washington and threatening to not play this year. Houston’s time is now. Watt turns 30 this year. So much of this team is in its prime. They could get three or four more years out of Williams, who turns 31 next Monday, and he’d strengthen the only true weak point of this team.

3. I think I marvel at DeAndre Hopkins and found it compelling to just watch him practice in Green Bay. He even dropped a pass over the middle. Consider that last year he became the first receiver since drop stats were kept—at least 13 years—to catch at least 110 balls without a drop. “Why do you think people don’t really know that?” he asked me after practice, a bit annoyed. I don’t know, but I do know Hopkins is the best wideout in football by almost any measure. “There are games, like against Philly last year, when he gets his jersey ripped off,” coach Bill O’Brien said. “Teams are so physical with him. What makes him special is so many plays are contested. People are draped on him, and he comes down with it.” With wideout injuries last year, Houston saw a weird three-man coverage at times on Hopkins, “cut coverage,” O’Brien called it, with a linebacker undercutting him near the line of scrimmage before he would get out in the open field and face two cover guys. I asked Hopkins how he worked on his hands as a kid. Jerry Rice tossed and caught bricks with his dad, a mason. Hopkins: “This is something I haven’t told many people, because it’s embarrassing,” he said. “We always used to catch flies with our hands. I was the only one who could catch ‘em. One-handed, two-handed. I actually studied flies. I’d watch ‘em. How do you catch flies? They fly up. If I can catch that, I can catch anything.”

Why Antonio Brown is crazy to fight NFL over helmet issue

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Regarding the Mike Silver/Adam Schefter-reported stories Friday about the melodrama surrounding the Oakland receiver—or, I should say, the receiver employed by Oakland who is not currently playing for Oakland—the overriding thought I have is a simple one. The NFL and the NFLPA have teamed up to research helmet safety and helmet technology through exhaustive, independent studies since 2016. All players were told in 2017 they’d have to wear new helmets—league and union-approved—by 2018, with a one-year grandfather period pushing the absolute deadline to don correct helmets to 2019. I did a podcast about the helmet in May, and over the previous seven months talked to 14 players about the helmet issue. Several of the players weren’t crazy about making the change, including 49ers tackle Joe Staley, who’d worn the same model of helmet for 15 years (though it had been updated at least once) and admitted to me he would not have changed unless forced.

“It’s something that needs to be done,” Staley told me last fall, “and I think I’m a perfect case study of why it needs to be done. I wouldn’t have changed my helmet unless they made these rules changes.”

For Brown to be fighting this is just crazy. According to Schefter, Brown had a two-hour grievance hearing Friday with an independent arbitrator, arguing that he should be able to wear a helmet he has been wearing for more than 10 years. (That, in itself, makes the helmet illegal; the NFL mandates that helmets worn for at least 10 years be replaced, regardless of their condition.)

There isn’t much the league and players union agree on without reservation, but the current helmet protocol, the outgrowth of a $60-million investment by NFL owners in 2016 to improve helmet technology and reduce head trauma in players, is one of those things. If Brown wins, he would be the lone player out of 2,016 active and practice-squad players in the NFL this season who would be wearing a helmet—the Schutt Air Advantage, in his case—not approved for use by NFL and NFLPA testers. And this helmet is so old that it’s not even been tested by the league and the union. I’m told unquestionably it would fail any test for helmet safety, as would virtually any helmet not made in the last four or five years.

A few other thoughts on this nutty story:

• Brown has to grow up, or he’s got to get some help. Someone in his life, if anyone has a scintilla of influence over him (and that is in doubt), needs to say to him: The Raiders could void your contract for this behavior, and you’d be out $30.1 million in guaranteed money, and what team would pay you even a fraction of that after? You walked out on the Steelers and then turned into a child on the Raiders and boycotted them too—in the span of nine months!

• The Steelers have to be the happiest team in the league right now. They don’t have a great player, but they do have a sane, undivided training camp.

Jon Gruden has to defend Brown, which he did Saturday night after the Raiders’ preseason win over the Rams. But anyone who knows Gruden knows he’s got to be frustrated over his best offensive weapon being disabled because of the freaky frostbite injury and fuming at Brown being AWOL because the NFL is trying to make football safer for him.

• To be a fly on GM Mike Mayock’s wall. He’s a football purist, and his first season piloting a storied franchise might be sent over a cliff by the weirdest controversy in years that has incredibly little to do with real football.

• Mike Silver’s 20-tweet thread detailing the Brown story Friday was exquisite. Best football thread I’ve seen, full of rich detail and information about the dysfunctional Brown/Raiders/helmet thing. What was great about Silver’s long social screed: It was essentially an 800-word news story, broken in real time on Twitter instead of being broken on NFL.com with a Twitter link to the story. Whatever the reason for doing it that way (NFL.com I’m sure now regrets the loss of traffic on a heavily read story), I found it easy to digest just by scrolling up on my phone. Silver had the helmet stuff solid, and this piece of information that can’t go on in team meetings: “Brown, according to witnesses, typically glances at the screens of several tablets and his smart phone during meetings, distracting himself by engaging in activities which include perusing his bank accounts and ‘liking’ photos on Instagram.” Social media is still the Wild West, but Silver showed you can break news with a story broken into 20 easy bites.

• “Hard Knocks” is either going to show a slice of this Brown story this week, with some real video and team reaction, or it’s Pravda. And I know Ken Rodgers of NFL Films, the curator of this show. He will want to show the real story, very much.

I’ve been around a lot of crazy stories in the NFL in my 35 years covering the league. But the last nine months in the life of Antonio Brown is right up there.


One more thing from Kearse: “The NFL changed the rules to prevent more head injuries and more head contact. But at the end of the day it’s a full-contact sport and guys are kind of making quick decisions, and you want to be able to have a product that’s going to be able to protect you. I think the NFL wants this league to last. They’re going to have to continue to keep digging deeper to improve. It’s an uncontrolled environment where things can happen and for me personally, I want to have the best protecting me out there.”

Someone’s got to get to Brown, and fast.