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Winners and losers from the early wave of NFL free agency

Live sports might be on hold for awhile, but the NFL offseason is in full swing.

Here are the biggest winners and losers from the early wave of free agency:

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Winner: Arizona Cardinals

Arizona’s defense remains a big question mark, but second-year coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense just became one of the league’s best.

The Cardinals pulled off a blockbuster trade with the Houston Texans, landing All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins — widely considered the best in the league — and a 2020 fourth-round draft pick for running back David Johnson and a second-round pick. After re-signing veteran receiver Larry Fitzgerald to a one-year deal and placing the transition tag on breakout running back Kenyan Drake, Offensive Rookie of the Year Kyler Murray has plenty of weapons at his disposal as he looks to grow into one of the game’s best young quarterbacks.

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It’s almost impossible to overstate how good Hopkins is. According to scouting website Pro Football Focus, Hopkins has ranked among the five highest-graded receivers in the league in each of the past three seasons and has been the NFL’s fourth-most valuable wideout behind only Antonio Brown, Julio Jones and Larry Fitzgerald since 2010. He wasn’t drafted until 2013.

While the Cardinals still need upgrades on defense and along the offensive line, Arizona kept its first-round pick, eighth overall, and still has about $15 million in cap space. Getting the NFL’s best receiver for essentially what the Atlanta Falcons gave up for Ravens third-string tight end Hayden Hurst is the definition of winning.

Loser: Houston Texans

Now, the other side of that lopsided deal. Houston’s experiment with Bill O’Brien handling coach and general manager duties has resulted in plenty of win-now deals, so it’s even harder to explain just what the franchise was thinking in dealing Hopkins away for a declining running back and a second-round pick.

When you consider how little value even the best running backs provide, this deal is indefensible. When you add in that Johnson has fallen off a cliff after recording more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns in 2016, it’s borderline malpractice. Johnson is 28, has the third-richest contract among NFL running backs (with cap hits of $11 million and $9 million the next two seasons, which the Texans are entirely responsible for paying) and ranked 22nd of 49 qualifying running backs in PFF grading last season.

Reports surfaced after the trade that there was “friction” between O’Brien and Hopkins and that the Texans didn’t want to renegotiate a new deal with the star receiver with three years left on the five-year, $81 million contract he signed in 2017. With other star receivers making roughly $20 million per year — Amari Cooper just signed a five-year, $100 million pact with the Dallas Cowboys — Hopkins wanted a deserved pay raise. Houston had other ideas. Now it’s left with an injury-prone Will Fuller, Kenny Stills, Keke Coutee and Randall Cobb, who received a three year, $27 million deal after a nice bounceback season following four years of middling production.

Even if Johnson takes a big step forward — and that’s a big if — and Fuller and Co. stay healthy, the Texans made themselves worse by shipping off their superstar receiver, depriving MVP candidate Deshaun Watson of his most valuable weapon.

Winner: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

It’s not every year that a six-time Super Bowl champion quarterback becomes available on the open market. In fact, it might not happen again. So even when you consider his age, 42-year-old quarterback Tom Brady is one of the biggest free-agent signings in years.

The Bucs’ Super Bowl odds jumped from 66-to-1 to 12-to-1 after the reported agreement, and fans flooded the team’s website to purchase season tickets. That’s the kind of cachet someone who many consider to be the league’s greatest quarterback of all time brings to a new franchise. But how great is he now?

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Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians has long championed the “no risk it, no biscuit” mentality with his offense, which flies in the face of what a careful, methodical Brady has done throughout most of his career. But with star receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, who might be two of the best receivers not named Randy Moss that Brady has ever played with, and solid tight ends Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard, the veteran might be more likely to air it out. He might even convince Tampa Bay to sign his one-game Patriots partner Antonio Brown.

The Bucs might not have the league’s best defense, like New England did in 2019, but the unit vastly improved under coordinator Todd Bowles and brought back the league’s leading sack master in Shaq Barrett on the franchise tag and re-signed defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul to go alongside rising star Vita Vea on the interior. And with three draft picks in the top 80 selections, including 14th overall, more talent is on the way.

Considering the other options available in free agency, and with no obvious home-run pick available in the draft, Brady puts the Bucs in playoff contention at the very least, and makes them Super Bowl contenders if things break right. And they didn’t have to part with any draft picks to get him.

For a franchise that hasn’t had much to get excited about in the nearly two decades since Jon Gruden won a Super Bowl in Tampa, this move is a clear victory.

Winner: Bill Belichick

Yes, Belichick had to say goodbye to the player who helped him win six Super Bowl titles. But consider this an exciting new chapter for one of the league’s greatest coaches.

Belichick and Brady are forever linked. Now, with Brady leaving, Belichick has the chance to rebuild the Patriots into a contender and tinker with an offense built around a quarterback of his choosing. Will he target an athletic passer like Justin Herbert or Jalen Hurts in the draft and try to build a run-heavy offense similar to the Ravens’ under MVP Lamar Jackson? Or will he look toward a reclamation project like Cam Newton, Jameis Winston, Andy Dalton or Jacoby Brissett to prove he can still lead the Patriots to a deep playoff run without a legendary signal-caller?

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In all the years with Brady, Belichick had to have been wondering what it would be like to work with a different quarterback, someone who needed more coaching, or could run faster and throw farther. Now, he gets to find out. You don’t think that’s exciting for a 67-year-old coach who has seen it all?

The Bucs and Patriots aren’t set to meet on the field until 2021. Here’s hoping we get to see Belichick and Brady reunite as foes in the Super Bowl.

Loser: Chicago Bears

The music is winding down on the game of musical chairs at quarterback, and the Bears still haven’t found a seat.

Brady, the biggest fish, has already been snapped up, and Philip Rivers, Teddy Bridgewater, Marcus Mariota and Case Keenum have all found new homes. In terms of finding someone who can actually compete with Mitch Trubisky for the starting job, that leaves free agent Jameis Winston, a possible trade for a player with a big salary like Cam Newton or Nick Foles or the draft.

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By reportedly pursuing a quarterback, the Bears have already acknowledged that they’re unsure of what they’ll get from Trubisky this season, despite public comments reassuring their belief in the former No. 2 overall pick. The problem is, they still haven’t found that quarterback, and with their first pick coming at No. 43 overall in April’s draft, it’s unlikely they’ll find a player who’s ready to push Trubisky right away.

Meanwhile, the Bears filled their need for a tight end with 33-year-old Jimmy Graham, who still flashes the rare athleticism that made him a star in New Orleans, but is one of the worst blockers in the league at his position. A two-year, $16 million deal with $9 million guaranteed is top-of-the-line money, and Graham simply hasn’t shown he’s worth that kind of payday at this stage of his career.

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Give props to Chicago for handing a a five-year, $70 million contract ($30 million guaranteed) to edge rusher Robert Quinn, who quietly rated as one of the league’s best pass rushers in 2019, and re-signing linebacker Danny Trevathan to a modest three-year, $24 million ($14 million guaranteed) pact, but the defense needs to show it can return to a top-tier level after taking a dip last season if the Bears want to get the most out of this window of contention. Of course, that all becomes irrelevant if the quarterback can’t perform at an adequate level.

Winner: Baltimore Ravens

After a franchise-record 14-win season, the Ravens showed they could make the leap from good to great under MVP Lamar Jackson. But an upset loss to the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round showed there was still room for improvement.

Enter general manager Eric DeCosta and the Ravens brain trust, which swung a deal to land Jacksonville Jaguars Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell for a fifth-round draft pick and signed Los Angeles Rams run-stopper extraordinaire Michael Brockers, beefing up what was at times a porous defensive line in 2019. They also gave breakout edge rusher Matthew Judon the franchise tag and re-signed defensive linemen Justin Ellis and Jihad Ward, who proved to be capable rotation players after being acquired midseason.

Then, the Ravens sent third-string tight end Hayden Hurst and a fourth-round pick to the Atlanta Falcons for a second- and fifth-rounder, giving the Ravens three of the top 60 picks in the draft.

By trading for proven veterans and amassing draft picks, the Ravens are built to contend now while also stockpiling the roster with young, cheap talent for the future. Massive deals are looming for Jackson, offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley and cornerback Marlon Humphrey, but in the meantime, the Ravens have kept a record-setting team mostly intact while fixing their biggest weakness. If they can land an impact player or two in the draft — say, an athletic off-ball linebacker, a starting-caliber guard and a versatile receiver — it’s fair to expect a deep playoff run this season.


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