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Two Minute Warning: Free agency leads to changes for franchises

Free agency
Nov 3, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky (10) on the field against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Think of the start of a new season, much like the start of a college school year. Consider the team’s dorms that students will spend their first days as they look to better their education. The NFL free agency world is similar in that sense, with every team gaining a new roster for the coming year.

Players will get paid top dollar to contribute while others fizzle out and will be back on the free agency market a year later. But through all the signings, the competition will be at the helm for a franchise to expand from good to outstanding.

And this season, that will be the case once more for several players who were once considered franchise cornerstones that will now be playing for their spot entering 2020.

The Las Vegas Raiders have made it clear that the leash around Derek Carr will be tighter than ever as they enter a new market to begin the decade. Once considered an MVP-like player, the three-time Pro Bowler hasn’t regained that 2016 resurgence that had his season end on the IR.

Rumors were that the Raiders were interested in pairing the Wizard of Plays John Gruden with the G.O.A.T. Tom Brady. In the end, Brady went to join the “Quarterback Whisper” Bruce Arians down in Tampa Bay. According to The Athletic’s Vic Tafur, only Brady would allow Gruden the justification to trade Carr away.

“But my understanding is that it was more about fit than money for Brady,” Tafur said. “And the Raiders never got that nod from Brady that they were a serious finalist. If they had, they would have started shopping [Derek] Carr, who even his critics should agree is a top-16 quarterback with a very friendly pay-as-you-go contract for the next three years.”

But just because the Raiders won’t have the six-time Super Bowl winner under center doesn’t mean Gruden won’t change the path with Carr. The team added former Tennessee Titans starter Marcus Mariota on a deal to make him the backup. Much like the team he’s coming from, the former No.2 overall pick was slotted as the starter in Tennessee, well, before the renaissance revival of Ryan Tannehill.

Tannehill will have to live up to his new $118 million deal, but could the same be said for Mariota? The 26-year-old has flashed glimpses of being a special player but struggled to maintain a beat in the Music City. And sure, the Raiders front office has stated they are content with Carr, but for how long?

“Derek Carr played at a high level. I’m very happy with Derek Carr,” Raiders general manager Mike Mayock said, via Scott Bair of NBC Sports Bay Area. “What I’ve told everybody I’ve been in touch with since the day I took this job, we’re going to evaluate every position, every year. And if we can get better, we will.”

The same could be said in the Windy City with Mitchell Trubisky. Another No.2 pick, the training wheels have come off for the quarterback entering his fourth season. Either he’ll learn to pedal his offense to victory or be swept away into a Lake Michigan size free agent market come 2021.

The Bears elected to trade for Jacksonville’s Nick Foles only one year into his $88 million deal. That was the message to their man in command that should he struggle; he’s out. Bringing in a quarterback on that kind of deal doesn’t live up to justification to ride the bench all season long.

But Ryan Pace will undoubtedly do his best to keep Trubisky in the spotlight. After all, the man who drafted him is fighting for his job as well.

“We believe in Mitch,” Pace said. “Mitch knows he needs to be better. We need to be better around him. That’s our goal.”

At $21 million and knowledge of Matt Nagy’s offense, Foles isn’t there to teach. He’s there to compete and, ultimately, have a chance to lead a playoff-caliber Bears roster deep into the postseason.

But the quarterback isn’t the only position that will have players fighting to stay alive this season. The Philadelphia Eagles secondary struggled on the outside while sluggishly fighting their way into the playoffs as the NFC East representative. The addition of Darius Slay should correct the issue temporarily and put Sidney Jones on blast. The fourth-year corner will now need to fight with Jalen Mills to remain on the outside in a contract year after injuries have cost the sure-fire prospect a promising start.

Down south, it will be a “prove it” season for Takkarist McKinley. Despite pass rushers being a vital point to a team’s success, the Falcons expected more from the former first-round selection. In three years, the former UCLA star has tallied 16.5 sacks, with a career-low 3.5 last season. The addition of Dante Fowler Jr. will fill the void that Vic Beasley never could re-gain after 2016. Who’s to say Atlanta won’t double down and draft another edge defender come April?

Other names such as Haason Reddick, Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, and Will Fuller all come to mind as first-rounders who will need big years. Reddick will be competing against newcomers Devon Kennard and De’Vondre Campbell for starting reps to pair with Jordan Hicks while Gurley will return home to Atlanta to prove his knee issues won’t be a problem. Gordon bet on himself last season, and the Chargers called his bluff. Now in a backfield with Phillip Lindsay, who posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, can he still be considered a lead runner?

Fuller could be under the most scrutiny as he will take over DeAndre Hopkin’s role as the leading target. Injuries have limited the former Notre Dame speedster to 42 games in four seasons. The Texans will use one of their second rounds picks to find Hopkins replacement while Kenny Stills will be playing for a contract extension. Can Deshaun Watson trust his top downfield weapon will be able to remain healthy for the foreseeable future?

First contracts are like first-year students in a new environment. You hope for the best, but ultimately, it’s a shot in the dark if they’ll survive. More often than not, it ends with a player once considered part of the long-time plan, just a footnote in the team’s short story.

It’s a new decade in the NFL, and players best be ready for it. After the first wave of free agency, a majority of franchises are set for the season.

But for some players, it could be the end of their story in a city they called home. Consider 2020 the final exam.

Time starts now. Are the ready to pass, or will they end up falling flat?

– – –

Alright, so this week, like many of yours, hasn’t been the best for me. There’s nothing I regret, but in the end, I have to move on with life. Still, I have a platform that I live up to and will continue to hold myself to a standard.

The 2020 free agency kicked off in stellar fashion. Players were on the move, and rosters are looking better or worse for the better of it. There’s more going on around the league than just news of COVID-19, so let’s get you Two Minute Warning Fans caught up with what’s been happening.

Surprise sendoff in Dallas

There aren’t many players who wait for free agency to call time on their careers. That could be why the city of Dallas was stunned to hear the news late Monday afternoon when Cowboys’ center Travis Fredrick announced he would be retiring before the start of the season.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones would make a statement later Monday evening.

“Travis Frederick, by the nature of his center position, was the core piece of what I believe to be one of the most talented and skilled NFL offensive lines that has been assembled,” Jones said of Frederick.

Drafted through the team’s first-round pick in 2013, the 29-year-old garnered five Pro Bowl selections during his career. Frederick also played 100 percent of snaps in all six of his healthy seasons, per Pro Football Reference, and was voted by Pro Football Focus at the most valuable center in the NFL.

But problems had ensured throughout recent years that set Fredrick back. In 2018, he would miss the entire season due to Guillain-Barre syndrome, an autoimmune disease that affects the nervous system. A year after returning to full strength, the former Wisconsin star knew it was time to say goodbye to the game.

“I made my return to the field, played well overall, and was selected to the Pro Bowl, but it was a difficult year for me. Each day I faced a struggle: I could no longer perform at my highest level,” Fredrick stated. “Playing ‘well’ is not what I expect of myself, and it is not what my teammates deserve. Because of this, I know that my days as a football player are done. I am proud of what I have accomplished in my career, and I walk away with my head held high.”

The Cowboys will now need to address another position heading into April. The center position was far from stable during free agency, while April’s draft could have only a handful of quality players. Look for Dallas to perhaps grab LSU’s Lloyd Cushenberry in the second round, or Wisconsin’s Tyler Biadasz in the third.

As for Fredrick, the decision is his own, and while his time was short, it was memorable in the league. Now, his absence could hurt the Cowboys if they cannot find an immediate replacement soon.

Draft Day Downfall

The NFL Draft will be the coup de grace for fans during the struggles of COVID-19. With the league going ahead with plans as follows, the draft will still be held in Las Vegas on time, letting fans see the next wave of stars make their mark at the next level.

Or so we all thought.

According to Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times, the NFL is reportedly looking to hold its 2020 draft in a studio setting in response to the ongoing pandemic surrounding the coronavirus. The draft will still be held on April 23-25, but now, there’s a legitimate chance all moves will be made inside a studio rather than in “Sin City”.

“The NFL is not commenting publicly about what’s in the works, but according to two individuals with knowledge of the discussions, the current plans call for some type of studio setting with cut-ins from the headquarters of the teams making the selection at a given time,” Farmer said in his recent article.

Not only will this take away from the ambiance of the draft culture, but it also takes away some of the best moments that lead into the summer. The league already stated they had planned on holding the event without fans for the first time since being televised.

COVID-19 has already taken the fun out of everything, and football was the one sport that kept our minds somehow sane. The draft could have been that outlet as we watched players leave their money rooms and head on that boat to the podium, making us all wait and comment on their outfits. Now, back to square one.

Slay’s standout decision

Darius Slay will have a chance to show the league why many consider him the top cornerback in football come this season in Philadelphia. The Eagles traded a third and fifth-round pick to the Detroit Lions before signing the three-time Pro Bowler to a $50 million extension through 2023.

His old number might match his next free agency date, but his new number will honor a great who departed earlier this season. Slay said on Saturday that he plans to switch to No. 24 with his new team to honor the late Kobe Bryant.

“My number I’m rocking? I’m going with that two-four, man. I’m rockin’ with two four this year,” Slay said during in an Instagram Live video session. “Kobe mode. Black mamba, baby. Rest in peace to the GOAT, man. Rest in peace to one of my favorite players. … I think I’m gonna look good in 24.”

Bryant, a Philadelphia native and all-time NBA great, was a noted Eagles fan. The Lakers legend died along with his daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash in Los Angeles in January.

A living legend in his own way, Slay will have a ton to live up to that number as the man in command of the secondary. That shouldn’t be a problem as the 29-year-old has tallied the most interceptions at his position since 2016 with 15. Only Tennessee’s Kevin Byard has counted more in the league with 17.

Slay is a premier cornerback who can change a game in a split second. Much like Kobe, he’s a baller that shines for a roster, making this move an honorable one.

XFL MVP finds a new home

There were players in the XFL, and then there was PJ Walker. The Houston Roughnecks starting quarterback was on his way to an undefeated season and MVP year before league operations were forced to shut down due to the spread of COVID-19.

While the league is expected to return in 2021, Walker could be gone for good and back in the NFL.

According to ESPN’s Dianna Russini, the Carolina Panthers will sign Walker after his impressive run under center in June Jones’ offense. The former Colts quarterback tallied a league-high 1,338 passing yards, 15 touchdowns, and four interceptions in five games of play. Walker also added 99 yards and a score on the ground as a dual-threat option.

Familiarity will be essential for any new coach. Matt Rhule, who signed a seven-year deal to become the next head coach, will certainly remember Walker as his college coach at Temple from 2013-16. Walker led the Owls to bowl games and 10-win seasons in his last two years, throwing for 3,295 yards and 22 touchdowns during the 2016 campaign.

Walker, who perhaps never should have been in the XFL, to begin with, will receive another shot. Behind the likes of Teddy Bridgewater, the first-year MVP will certainly compete for the backup role against Will Grier. If there is one great thing to come from spring football, Walker would be it.

From one Houstonian to another, congrats PJ – best of luck in the Queen City.

Parting Shots

This week, let’s break down my top 10 biggest winners entering the second week of free agency.

10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs nabbed Tom Brady, kept Shaquil Barrett, and barely lost anyone outside Jameis Winston during free agency. For those two alone, they make the list.

9. Philadelphia Eagles: Philadelphia has two needs this offseason — wide receiver and cornerback. Darius Slay will continue to be a top cornerback in Philly while the team will address the receiver’s needs in April. Throw in Javon Hargrave, and Philly improved on defense for 2020.

8. Baltimore Ravens: Eric DeCosta traded away a pair of fifth-round picks for Marcus Peters, a cornerback in his prime, and Calais Campbell, a 34-year-old defensive lineman who still is producing top 10 numbers. Add in the franchise tag of Matt Judon, and Baltimore is now a wide receiver and linebacker away from perhaps becoming the most complete roster in football.

7. New Orleans Saints: New Orleans will have competition in the NFC South, but they still should be considered a front-runner. The team will upgrade in the secondary by replacing Von Bell with the return of Malcolm Jenkins. Emmanuel Sanders still has the speed and will be an instant starter in the slot.

6. Los Angeles Chargers: Slowly, Los Angeles has corrected their needs in multiple positions in free agency. Offensively, Bryan Bulaga is a standout right tackle while defensively, the additions of Linval Joseph and Chris Harris Jr. will add pressure to offensive lines and create a terrifying secondary.

5. Cleveland Browns: Should they be higher? Perhaps, but I got burned last year, calling Cleveland a contender and won’t fall for it again. The additions of Jack Conklin and Austin Hooper should help the offense contend with more talented pieces to help Baker Mayfield advance in year 3. Still, are the Browns ready to actually take that step from mediocrity to success?

4. Buffalo Bills: The Bills went for the proven veteran over a potential bust with their first-round pick. Acquiring Stefon Diggs from the Vikings will give Josh Allen an exact No.1 target to pair with a quality offense. The price was high, but the reward could have Buffalo looking like the new face of the AFC East.

3. Miami Dolphins: Miami will be banking on their recent free-agency class to make them contenders down the line. Kyle Van Noy and Shaq Lawson should be quality pass rushers while Byron Jones and Xaiven Howard will deplore the secondary like a hunter stalking his prey. Throw in three first-round picks, and Miami should be a middle-tier team with plenty of potential.

2. Arizona Cardinals: The NFC West is going to be a juggernaut. All the free agency moves Steve Keim made are ones I like. The additions of Devon Kennard, De’Vondre Campbell, and Jordan Philips will fix the defense. But, c’mon, you fleece Houston into taking David Johnson’s contract and a second for the top wideout in the game? Yeah, the Kyler Murray MVP race is in full effect.

1. Las Vegas Raiders: This team doesn’t get the respect it deserves for their offseason. Addressing the linebacker need (finally), Las Vegas grabbed two team-friendly deals with Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski. Maliek Collins will join his former defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli while Carl Nassib added an extra level to the pass rush. Even Marcus Mariota could be a surprise should Derek Carr struggle.

John Gruden said to give him time before you start believing. It’s year three, and I am a massive believer in the NFL’s newest team.

Cole Thompson is a lead NFL writer for PFN. You can follow him on Twitter @MrColeThompson  and follow PFN @PFN365


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