The legal bargaining window for NFL free agency opens on Monday, but we’ve already seen a few extensions and major transactions this week.
National NFL reporters Jeremy Fowler, Dan Graziano and Kevin Seifert are grading every big free-agent signing and trade over the next few weeks, and they get started with these pairs of trades and extensions. They’ll grade each move from the team’s perspective, using the contract terms, money numbers, player value and age, and history to assess the deal. Because the specific structure of contracts isn’t always known when a deal is announced, they might delay grading a move until they know more about the guaranteed money.
Matt Miller and Jordan Reid, NFL draft analysts, will analyze each move from a draft viewpoint. What influence does each signing and trade have on a team’s first-round prospects in April, and how do the moves affect where the top prospects are selected? They break down what it all means for clubs’ next offseason event: the draft, based on team needs, positional value on draft boards, and what they’ve heard from across the NFL.
We’re just getting underway here, as teams will begin signing players next week. And all deals become official Wednesday with the start of the new league year. Follow along as our experts evaluate and grade each move, with the most recent grades at the top. This piece will continue to be updated.
Cowboys trade WR Amari Cooper to Browns
Dallas Cowboys get: 2022 fifth-round pick and a 2022 sixth-round pick
Cleveland Browns get: WR Amari Cooper and a 2022 sixth-round pick
Cowboys grade: A-
Browns grade: C
It has been widely known for a while that the Cowboys planned to move on from Cooper rather than pay him $20 million this season. In similar situations, teams usually wind up releasing the player for no compensation. So the Cowboys get a nod here for getting something in return for a receiver who needed to go.
The Cowboys gained $16 million in salary-cap space as a result of the deal, but quarterback Dak Prescott now has an insecure group of pass-catchers. Tight end Blake Jarwin was dismissed due to a hip ailment, and receivers Michael Gallup and Cedrick Wilson are pending free agents. CeeDee Lamb will have to take on the position of No. 1 receiver on his own, with the support of tight end Dalton Schultz, who was given the franchise tag. The Cowboys, on the other hand, did a fantastic job of mitigating the impact of Cooper’s departure.
The Browns‘ calculus was more complicated. It was more than reasonable for them to target an outside receiver after their falling out with Odell Beckham Jr. last season, and Cooper would seem to have several high-end seasons left as he approaches his 28th birthday. But could the Browns have waited for the Cowboys to release him first, holding on to their draft choice and potentially getting him at a lower value? Or were they smart to lock him in at that rate, given the possibility of a bidding war on the open market? Cooper’s $20 million base salary will be fully guaranteed on the fifth day of the league year; his $20 million salaries in 2023 and 2024 are not guaranteed. For what it’s worth, the only NFL receivers at the moment slated to earn more in 2022 are Mike Williams and Davante Adams.
In the end, the Browns‘ need for an offensive playmaker is undeniable. Cooper has never missed more than two games in any of his seven seasons, and has been in the top 10 in the NFL in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdown catches over the last four seasons. Is he expected to keep playing at that level this season? The Browns assumed the most risk in this trade by doing so. He’ll be compensated similarly to a No. 1 receiver. Is he still one of them? Seifert’s
Eagles sign C Jason Kelce
The deal: One year, $14 million
It’s fair to take a close look when a team commits millions of dollars to a player of Kelce’s age and presumed wear and tear. He will turn 35 in November, making him the second-oldest center currently under contract for the 2022 season. But the analysis suggests that it’s more than reasonable to project at least one more high-level season from Kelce.
First, he has started 122 consecutive games and last missed a game during the 2014 season. Second, his play showed no signs of deterioration last season. He ranked No. 4 in ESPN’s run block win rate metric (72.2%) and No. 9 in pass block win rate (95.7%). There will be a time when Kelce isn’t equipped to play at a high level, but it seems reasonable to assume that won’t happen in 2022.
The only quibble here is whether the Eagles needed to go to $14 million to get him signed, assuming that is the actual cash number he will receive in 2022. That average per year is higher than any other center who is under contract for the 2022 season. In other words, Kelce is currently on track to be the NFL‘s second-oldest and highest-paid center. But if that’s what it took to convince Kelce to pass on retirement for another season, then it was a worthwhile investment. — Kevin Seifert
What this means for the 2022 draft: The Eagles could look to still draft Kelce’s successor with one of their three first-rounders, or wait until the later rounds. It’s possible they delay the move until 2023, too. But regardless, cornerback, edge rusher and wide receiver remain as their primary needs heading into the draft. — Jordan Reid
Bears trade OLB Khalil Mack to Chargers
Chicago Bears get: 2022 second-round pick and a 2023 sixth-round pick
Los Angeles Chargers get: OLB Khalil Mack
Bears grade: B-
Chargers grade: A-
This is how you maximize the window with quarterback Justin Herbert still on a rookie contract. The Chargers landed an elite pass-rusher at reasonable terms while the Bears — with a second-round pick this year and a sixth-rounder in 2023 now in hand — can expedite the rebuild. Sure, Los Angeles could have spent big money on a free-agent pass-rusher without giving up draft picks. But coach Brandon Staley loves Mack from their time together in Chicago, and when he’s healthy, Mack is still one of the best.
Fit and pedigree are important here. His contract isn’t outrageous, with $17.75 million due in 2022 and $22.9 million in 2023. A top-of-market edge rusher would have commanded at least that. At 31 years old and coming off injury, Mack’s days in Chicago appeared numbered. This move deepens the intrigue in an already loaded AFC West.
For the Bears, this isn’t the massive haul you’d expect from a deal involving a top-shelf player. But they probably asked for a first-round pick that wasn’t out there. Mack missed most of the 2021 season with a foot injury that required surgery. He never elevated the Bears to playoff stardom and hasn’t recorded more than nine sacks in a season since 2018. Waiting until next week wouldn’t have helped because teams would address pass-rush needs in the first few days of free agency.
Bears backup Trevis Gipson looks poised to make a jump in a full-time role opposite Robert Quinn. Chicago hired GM Ryan Poles to implement new ideas and a fresh voice, and that means no player is off limits. — Fowler
What this means for the 2022 draft: Now that the Bears have unloaded Mack, they add another second-round pick this year — a needed selection after dealing away their first-round pick. With needs at wide receiver and along the offensive line, this gives Poles more assets to build around Justin Fields. Darnell Mooney is the only receiver under contract for next season, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see the franchise double-dip at the position in the draft. — Reid