A franchise quarterback with bona fides.
You have one or you don't.
If you're in possession of such a treasure, free agency simply becomes an exercise in building around his prized arm. Teams stuck mining for one on the open market travel a far darker road.
We've experienced a tangible shift over the past few seasons: Fans are too savvy to be pitched a roster revolving around Tyrod Taylor or Teddy Bridgewater. They'll win you a few games when plopped into the perfect situation, but the final destination will disappoint.
Even middle-tier quarterbacks who pull you to the playoffs (read: Mayfield, Baker) -- nay, the Super Bowl (read: Goff, Jared)! -- get zero slack in today's rough-and-tumble milieu. The modern-day front office with a B+ signal-caller will eternally search for an upgrade, hurt feelings be damned.
The opening wave of free agency saw bad teams overspend, playoff teams tinker and all eyes zeroed in on the most important position in sports.
Let's take a gander at what went down during a mind-bending flurry of activity.
NOTE: This piece was posted on Thursday before we learned where Deshaun Watson will be headed next. Though this (along with the ripple effects elsewhere in the NFL) will obviously count as one of the biggest moves of the offseason, the situation was too fluid at the time of this writing to allow for meaningful analysis.
BIGGEST MOVES SO FAR
Tom Brady's 'More Time With Family' act gives way to reality: The minute I saw the beach photo, I knew it was over. Just a hunch, but the look on Brady's face -- walking hand-in-hand with Gisele -- exuded a certain energy: I'M BORED. Who would have guessed? One of earth's most ferocious competitors somehow wasn't fulfilled leaving it all behind to pack school lunches, rearrange the attic and tag along on driftless voyages to Target. Plenty of dudes in 2022 are suspiciously thrilled by domestic life. Brady was a sure-fire lock to go nuts in a fortnight, wandering around the hallways of his mansion knowing within: I CAN STILL PLAY.
From where I sit, his return to the Bucs is the least surprising development of the offseason. I suspect his retirement was more about testing the waters on a possible move to join his childhood team in San Francisco. Bucs coach Bruce Arians made it crystal clear, though, that Brady would never be traded. Back in Tampa, TB12 wields as much power as any player league-wide, with his return helping to pull center Ryan Jensen back into the mix, before the Bucs fortified their line with former Patriots guard and Brady pal Shaq Mason. Corner Carlton Davis said Brady's return "definitely" influenced his decision to stay in Tampa. Wideout Russell Gage made up his mind to join the team after Tommy called him up. Expect Gronk back next, with bit players such as Leonard Fournette sure to circle around again if Brady so desires.
It's fair to wonder where the 44-year-old quarterback sits with Arians after whispers of a "souring" relationship. The coach ripped that line of chatter, but it's clear who stirs the drink in Tampa. This is Brady's show. Without him, the Bucs were rendered an abyss-bound ghost ship theoretically led by Blaine Gabbert. With him, they're right back atop the heap of NFC teams housing legitimate dreams of Super Bowl gold.
Russell Wilson becomes a Bronco: The Broncos didn't let Russell Wilson get away. Not this time.
Denver's brass, led by John Elway, invited Wilson into their building before the 2012 NFL Draft, where the soon-to-be Seahawk happened upon none other than Peyton Manning.
"I met Russell Wilson ... I believe it was after I signed with the Broncos, so let's call it March or April [of 2012]," Manning told ESPN before his doomed encounter with Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII. "They were having players come in for visits before the draft. I was actually in the film room watching some tape, and someone brought Russell in. He was in town for a visit. I had a chance to shake his hand. It was an exciting time in his life, getting ready for the draft. So, I wished him luck and told him I enjoyed watching his college career."
A decade later, Wilson is back on Colorado turf, hoping to do what a late-period Manning did: lift a Lombardi in Broncos orange. The landing spot comes packed with a rich cast of targets (Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, Tim Patrick, K.J. Hamler and Albert Okwuegbunam), a juicy runner in Javonte Williams and the offensive-minded head coach Wilson has long sought in Nathaniel Hackett.
The offensive line is a concern, along with the division Russ air-dropped into. The AFC West doubles as a thorny dogfight, with Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert and Derek Carr on Denver's dance card a combined six times in 2022. Wilson must also return to battle against the NFC West, with that portion of the slate including a showdown with his former team in Seattle.
Those Seahawks, by the way, look an awful lot like last year's Broncos: a talented roster missing one key ingredient -- a quarterback you can believe in.
Cleveland's messy handling of Baker Mayfield: I fell in love with the Browns as a middle school kid living on the East Coast in 1986. Thirty-six years later, the relationship feels over. Cleveland's attempted pursuit of Deshaun Watson, who is facing 22 civil lawsuits accusing him of sexual assault and harassment, doubles as a hard stop for my fandom. And while I opened this hand-typed flight of fancy with a diatribe about relentlessly upgrading under center, I'm nonplussed by how the team has treated Mayfield.
I understand if a pocket of Browns fans disagree on both fronts.
It remains to be seen if Mayfield stays put. I'd understand if he wants out. Baker's Tuesday night letter to fans might be viewed as a little extra by some ("Did Jimmy Garoppolo pen missives to the Bay Area," one might ask, "when the Niners chased after Trey Lance?"), but Mayfield's Cleveland run requires context. He never shied away from helming a Browns team that went 1-31 in the two seasons before he was taken first overall in 2018. He never complained about having four coaches in as many seasons, instead embracing a challenge that peaked with Mayfield becoming the first Cleveland quarterback in history to beat Pittsburgh in the playoffs.
For Browns fans of a certain ilk, that stuff matters.
Yes, Baker has shown himself to be a few tiers below the superstar club, and he seemed to lose chunks of the locker room after Odell Beckham's embarrassingly public exodus. I understand the desire to upgrade. I don't understand including Watson in Cleveland's pool of candidates. Or how the team can turn around and tell Mayfield he's still their guy. If he sticks around, Baker's been reduced to a one-year patch. Either way, Mayfield should be remembered as an all-in player who brought fire to a team -- and city -- that desperately needed it after eons of listless, wanting quarterback play.
It's alright to appreciate that ... and wonder how the Browns let this grow so distasteful.
Steelers cozy up to Mitch: "He's a marry-your-daughter type of guy."
That's how Bills general manager Brandon Beane described the character of Mitchell Trubisky during this month's NFL Scouting Combine. Such heightened praise served as the cherry on top of a mountain of hype surrounding the failed Bears starter and one-time Buffalo backup. Pittsburgh thought highly enough of Trubisky to hand him a two-year deal worth $14.25 million. The money's just right, but how about the player?
Barring Pittsburgh adding an early-round passer in the 2022 NFL Draft, Trubisky is positioned as Ben Roethlisberger's successor ahead of backup Mason Rudolph. The rosiest view on Mitch -- which plenty of league execs apparently share -- is that he was done dirty in Chicago and secretly boasts genuine starter ability. You'd have to bury reels of tape to buy that entirely. Propped up by an often outstanding Bears defense, Trubisky was a frustrating starter who cost the team due to faulty decision-making and an inability to see the field. Except for his plus mobility (which is something Steelers coach Mike Tomlin desires in a QB), there's little evidence Pittsburgh landed anything beyond a reclamation project.
Vikings kiss Cousins: Dreaming up Kirk Cousins trade scenarios doubled as an amusing parlor game in the weeks leading up to the open-market bum-rush. In reality, the Vikings -- armed with a first-year coach in Kevin O'Connell -- felt more comfortable paying their mostly solid signal caller to stay put. Lacing Cousins with a one-year, $35 million extension through 2023 makes him something truly unique in OUR LEAGUE: a signal-caller netting $231,669,486 over his career to go 59-59-2, with one playoff win.
That said, new general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, who previously hailed from Cleveland's front office, gave zero consideration to flipping him for Mayfield or moving Cousins anywhere, saying: "Kirk was one of the first players I called when I joined the Vikings, and it was immediately clear how much he cares about this organization and about winning."
Glowing quotes aside, Adofo-Mensah -- bucking the trend -- apparently took one look at this year's cast of milquetoast available veterans and decided his average-but-expensive quarterback was a better bet than Door No. 2. Sinking a first-year coach into QB purgatory was too high a risk.
Jacksonville's drunken spending spree: Nobody expected the Jaguars to operate as frugal consumers. Armed with a prairie land of cap space, Jacksonville entered the offseason with one crystal-clear to-do: improve the environment around second-year franchise passer Trevor Lawrence.
General manager Trent Baalke didn't hold back, throwing $72 million over four years at B+ wideout Christian Kirk, a player minus a 1,000-yard campaign in his four NFL seasons to date. For their next trick, the Jaguars furnished Zay Jones, who's never crossed 652 yards in a single season since entering the league in 2017, with a baffling three-year, $24 million pact. I don't mind taking a one-year, $9 million shot on high-potential, durability-challenged tight end Evan Engram, but it's risky business to assume new coach Doug Pederson can drastically alter the planet with said fresh faces.
The defensive adds -- linebacker Foye Oluokun (three years, $45 million), lineman Foley Fatukasi (three years, $30 million) and cover man Darious Williams (three years, $30 million) -- look fine to me, but the Jaguars took another risky swing with Brandon Scherff ($49.5 million over three years), a rugged, oft-injured guard who's missed 22 starts since 2018.
Analyst Warren Sharp points out that Jacksonville, since 2012, has dropped a league-leading $1.64 billion in free agency while leading the NFL in losses in that span. If you believe in Lawrence's ceiling, though, this time will be different. Right?
Bengals hire big uglies to bolster Burrow: No team in the league dove into free agency with a more overt need. After watching their Super Bowl dreams wrecked by Aaron Donald, the Bengals poured resources into rebuilding an offensive line that allowed Joe Burrow to take an NFL-worst 51 sacks in the regular season before absorbing another 19 takedowns during the playoffs.
Adding ex-Bucs guard Alex Cappa gives Cincy a white-knuckle bruiser who serves as a massive upgrade over Hakeem Adeniji, who doubled as Public Enemy No. 1 down the stretch. Fellow signee Ted Karras from New England finished 2020 as the NFL's seventh-best pass-protecting guard, per Pro Football Focus. The once notoriously frugal Bengals, who are dropping $35 million over four years on Cappa and $18 million over three on Karras, seem to be running their business entirely differently now that Burrow's on board.
Reliable Ravens snag a real prize: I'll echo my thoughts from Tuesday's Around the NFL Podcast: The signing of safety Marcus Williams (for five years at $70 million) will go down as the league's top free-agency add. The Ravens are among the game's best at importing productive veterans who mesh into the system and become key figures in a hurry. Williams was a heady contributor inside a stellar Saints defense and now joins a loaded secondary headlined by Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters and Chuck Clark.
BIGGEST NON-MOVES SO FAR
Kyler Murray drama goes into hibernation -- for now: On a pre-free agency pod, I asked whether the Cardinals might be willing to shop Murray after a rough few weeks highlighted by social media hijinks; one of the more bizarre statements we've seen by an agent outlining the quarterback's wishes for more moolah; and power-shifting dual extensions handed out to coach Kliff Kingsbury and general manager Steve Keim.
Kingsbury insists he and Murray rest in a good place. Healthy enough to avoid trading the QB out of town -- at least, so far -- but expect more tension down the road. While Kyler has teased MVP-level play, his demands for a massive new deal are an ill match for how Arizona's season ended: with the offense collapsing down the stretch and Murray no-showing in an awful playoff loss to the Rams.
I can't help but wonder if Murray surveys his potential baseball career as a preferable option over getting slammed to the turf by frothing behemoths. Either way, his contract push has been a failure to date -- rendering him the latest diva under center -- but that presumably won't stop Kyler from ditching every Arizona workout until he has the club's attention.
Rams fail to bring them all back: That goal was going to be easier said than done. Los Angeles doesn't win a Super Bowl without the play of Von Miller down the stretch. The logical assumption was that general manager Les Snead, as he always does, would find a way to retain the pass-rusher despite interest from the Cowboys, Broncos and beyond. Instead, Buffalo emerged from the wilderness on Wednesday to fill a major need by handing Miller to a titanic six-year pact worth $120 million. It's a reminder not to lean on lofty promises uttered during a drunken Super Bowl parade.