Happy New Year! The NFL Free Agency Period is Already Frenetic

The fateful moment is finally here. March 14th. 4PM ET. A new league year and the start of free agency. Finally, Adam Schefter and Ian Rapoport can get to work. Finally, the dry news cycle will be over and roster dominoes will commence. As if that’s how this thing works!

From Richard Sherman signing with the enemy to Kirk Cousins’s liking Minnesota to the fact that Alex Smith was announced as his replacement almost TWO months ago, free agency 2018 was mostly the rearview mirror before it officially began. Heck, even two relevant running backs already agreed to deals with the New York clubs – Jonathan Stewart to the Giants and Isaiah Crowell to the Jets, while the 49ers plucked Jerick McKinnon.

The breadth of names having already reached agreement is astounding and also includes: Allen Robinson to Chicago, Sam Bradford to the Cardinals, Case Keenum to Denver, Malcolm Butler to Tennessee, Sammy Watkins to the Chiefs Danny Amendola to the Dolphins and Jimmy Graham to the Packers, among many, many others.

I originally intended this column to be a lens into what’s ahead in free agency but given that there were three more news items (including Tyrann Mathieu’s release in Arizona) since I started typing this sentence, let’s analyze some of the key free agent storylines.

Nate Solder and the LT abyss

In a mega move, the New York Giants have added the best available option at the NFL’s second-most important position – LT Nate Solder. Solder’s 4-year, $62 million deal with $35 mill guaranteed makes him the highest paid tackle in the NFL. Landing Solder was a bit of a coup for the Giants who had arguably the worst offensive line in football last season. The almost 30-year-old likely won’t be the instant game changer that Andrew Whitworth was in Los Angeles last season but Solder’s presence vastly improves what was a weakness for the Giants. The Solder signing also reignites the Giants’ role as periodic thorn in the side of the Pats – a fun NFL subplot that laid dormant the past few years.

It also leaves the Patriots without fortification at the position. While Tom Brady’s ridiculous two-second release time can mitigate any pass blocking issue, Solder added an invaluable boost as one of the league’s elite run blockers.

The other teams who were in pursuit of Solder are left with major question marks.

The Browns are deficient at the position after future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas announced his retirement. Cleveland did sign underrated ex-Steeler Chris Hubbard who could make the shift from RT but the drop off at the position could be significant.

Houston will need to rise out of its dire tackle situation. The Texans shuffled through five starting LTs last year, per the Houston Chronicle’s John McClain, none of which proved to be the future. They don’t pick until the third round, and even if they had higher options, this draft class is void of franchise tackles. Somehow the Texans must find a suitable option to protect franchise quarterback, Deshaun Watson.

The Riches of Sam Bradford

The Cardinals gave Sam Bradford and his degenerative knee (Mike Zimmer’s words) one-year, $20 million with $15 million guaranteed and no, the NFL is going nowhere. In other words…

I have no issue with any player earning what they can – a player friendly deal here and there will never compensate for the NFL’s lack of fully guaranteed contracts. But the Bradford move is strange in that Arizona is deficient in support players in a division that suddenly features two Super Bowl contenders. Losing Mathieu, one of the NFL’s strongest and most versatile defenders because he wouldn’t take a pay cut, is a particularly painful ramification.

Bradford’s agent, Tom Condon, has to bet he frontrunner for offseason MVP.

Jerick jets to SF

Many are perplexed by the huge 4-year, $30 million contract the 49ers are giving new RB Jerick McKinnon, formerly of the Vikings. McKinnon is Kyle Shanahan’s dream, an explosive playmaker that can bump off defenders and serve as a hybrid rusher/receiver. McKinnon was used frequently in the screen game in Minnesota, alongside Latavius Murray, after Dalvin Cook went down, and will get a lot more action in Shanahan’s dynamic scheme. And who says the preseason doesn’t count? This bust-through from last August had to remain embedded in the mind of 49ers’ brass.

McKinnon is another weapon for Jimmy G in what is becoming a fascinating arms race between prodigal NFC West coaches Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay. 49ers: Richard Sherman, McKinnon and counting. Rams: Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib and counting.

Is Kirk Cousins’ contract a sign of things to come?

Major kudos to Cousins’ agent Mike McCartney for negotiating a rare fully guaranteed contract to the tune of 3-years, $84 million. If Cousins is injured, he receives the money. If Cousins underperforms and is cut, he receives the money.

This is a very positive step on the players’ end of a league where contract language has traditionally been more fluff than reality. But I’m not sure this will become the norm. Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan are inching closer to huge contract extensions. The QBs in both of those cases warrant bigger overall deals that extend beyond the three years Cousins is receiving. The chances of both Ryan and Rodgers fulfilling their contracts, gene about 4 or 5 years, is high, though perhaps Cousins’ deal will inspire them to seek more guaranteed money and less length.

Elite players with shorter contracts, generally every position aside from QBs, will be the ones to watch.

Eric Reid Watch

The ex-49ers safety is in the Top 25 on almost every Top 100 Free Agents list out there. Yet we’ve heard crickets. No visits, no nothing interest, no nothing for the 26-year-old who was a Pro Bowler his rookie season and should have a lengthy career ahead.

Reid is more famous for the optics of kneeling next to Colin Kaepernick, a protest he continued in the post-Kaepernick era. Some football pundits worked overtime to create a ridiculous narrative that Kaepernick no longer had the talent worthy of an NFL contract. Trying to craft a similar storyline for Reid would be a flat out lie. Whether or not he has options will be a fascinating subplot of the coming days and provide a lens into the current NFL landscape. Reid, for his part, has already come to grips with the worst-case scenario.

“I’d say I understand that that’s a possibility,” Reid told the Sacramento Bee when asked if he was concerned about protesting affecting his free agent prospects. “And I’m completely fine with that. The things that I’ve done, I stand by. And I’ve done that for my own personal beliefs. Like I said I’m fine with whatever outcome comes because of that.”