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Free agency Four Verts: Kirk Cousins is Falcons' floor-raiser, while Rams will knock you the hell off the ball

Free agency Four Verts! There’s been a ton of movement in the opening portion of the legal tampering period, but those who have followed this column for a while know exactly where it has to start off. Rise up, the Dirty Birds are BACK.

Kirk Cousins is the floor raiser the Falcons needed

The Falcons made what was likely the most sensible play for them and agreed to terms with former Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins on a four-year deal to make him their starter for at least the next two seasons, with the potential for more if he plays well — and is healthy from an Achilles tear that ended his season last October. Four years, $180 million is a ton of money that puts Cousins in the first-ballot Finesser Hall of Fame consideration, but at the end of the day it’s not that scary of a deal for the Falcons and raises their floor in a way where they can make the playoffs.

Health is the biggest deciding factor to see if Cousins will be what the Falcons need. They've become the prime example for what it can look like in the NFL when you don’t have a quarterback. Bijan Robinson, Drake London, Kyle Pitts and Chris Lindstrom are some of the most talented young offensive players in the NFL any team would love to build around. Unfortunately it hasn’t led to many points and wins on the field, even though they have verifiably good players on their team. Cousins could start unlocking this offense and turning potential into actual production.

With the Vikings, Cousins generally produced like a good starter. According to RBSDM.com, Cousins finished the season fifth in expected points added per play (0.145) and 11th in success rate (48.2%). That's a good deal higher than the mess that Desmond Ridder and Taylor Heinecke put together in Atlanta. Cousins has developed into a reliably good quarterback over the past few years, even if the Vikings never had the playoff success to back it up.

Playoff success is one thing the Falcons need, but they should start with baby steps and just build a playoff-caliber team. They’ve been close over the past couple years (partially aided by the dismal NFC South), but they haven’t gotten there yet.

Most people would not call Cousins a top-five quarterback or even the best quarterback the Falcons have had in recent team history, but he’s more than good enough for where they currently are as a franchise.

Real expectations are back with the Falcons. If they can get healthy football out of Cousins and their trio of young stars can take advantage of the situation, there’s no reason why this team can’t compete for the NFC South crown in the first year of Cousins and Raheem Morris. That’s a big step from where this organization has been, and they have a realistic opportunity to end a six-year playoff drought.

Dolphins are set up to play with razor-thin margins

The Dolphins are in an uncomfortable spot as some core pieces of their playoff team have started to chip away due to their salary-cap situation. They lost Christian Wilkins, Andrew van Ginkel, Robert Hunt and others while having to get creative on how they affordably replace them. They were some of the heaviest contributors to their wild-card berth and near AFC East title last season, and they won’t really have the assets to make a big-time splash for the rest of the offseason, creating razor-thin margins to work with for the upcoming months.

According to Over The Cap, the Dolphins have a hair over $1 million available in cap space, which they’ll still need to clear just to sign their incoming rookie class. They were able to make some quality signings in center Aaron Brewer from the Titans and former Seahawks linebacker Jordyn Brooks, but that’s not quite the same level of talent that just walked out the door.

The pressure is mounting as well. Tyreek Hill’s contract is getting hefty on the cap space, Tua Tagovailoa is about to be paid and veteran players like Jalen Ramsey and Bradley Chubb are still on the roster.

The Dolphins still have a good team, but their margin for error has shrunk big-time. (Photo by Brandon Sloter/Image Of Sport/Getty Images)
The Dolphins still have a good team, but their margin for error has shrunk big-time. (Photo by Brandon Sloter/Image Of Sport/Getty Images) (Brandon Sloter via Getty Images)

It’s go time for the Dolphins — and it was last season, too. They’ve taken a step back in overall talent, but still have the top-end players to make something shake for the upcoming season. The offense should still be tough to stop, and the defense has playmakers if guys get healthy. The world isn’t necessarily falling apart.

What the Dolphins do need is for a lot of things to go right for them the rest of the way. They need to knock the draft out of the park. They need Brewer and Brooks to live up to their contracts. They need guys to stay healthy. Basically, they need things that are very hard to come by throughout the course of an NFL season. Hard isn’t impossible, but the Dolphins aren’t in position for personnel missteps.

Getting back to the playoffs will be tough for this team. Unless Aaron Rodgers is running for vice president in a few months, the Jets will be a tougher out. Josh Allen is still a destroyer of a quarterback. The Patriots are rebuilding, but even then there are upsets in the NFL every year. Nothing is guaranteed for the Dolphins, but with a string of good luck and ace personnel decisions, they can still make something of the 2024 season before they drop a bag for Tagovailoa.

Brian Burns trade is reminder how far away Panthers are

The Panthers made a rebuilding move this week when they sent star edge rusher Brian Burns to the Giants for a second- and a fifth-round draft pick. Burns and the Panthers were split on what a long-term deal would look like, so Carolina shipped him off to the Giants with a chance to get something in return for a talented player who didn’t want to be there. Burns’ removal from the roster is a harsh reminder of how little top-end talent this team actually has, and how far away the Panthers are from competing.

Close your eyes before you look at the Panthers' defensive depth chart. Right now, it’s Derrick Brown, Jaycee Horn, Shaq Thompson and a bunch of guys who would most likely be backups on other teams. Not only did Burns leave the Panthers, but pass rusher Yetur Gross-Matos, cornerback Donte Jackson and safety Jeremy Chinn have moved on to new teams as well prior to the start of the new league year. It’s a skeleton crew roster that will likely be one of the worst defenses in the NFL this year and certainly is one of the worst defenses on paper.

That also pairs with the Panthers still likely having one of the worst offenses in the league, although they have added some juice with the additions of guards Robert Hunt and Damien Lewis, and wide receiver Diontae Johnson. Based on where the Panthers were last season, those are all massive upgrades in their quest to start looking like a real, big-boy professional offense again. There’s still a long way to go before this offense can be called "average" in talent, but they were three players the Panthers basically had to acquire to kick this thing off and get moving in the right direction.

Of course, the rebuild hinges on the development of second-year quarterback Bryce Young, who had a dismal rookie season amid tough circumstances, but possibly faces an easier Year 2 with a friendlier situation now that head coach Dave Canales is in town and running the show.

It’s tough to swallow the idea that 2024 could be just as bad as 2023 for the Panthers, but they’re going to need a couple more offseasons before this team is ready to compete. They took a couple nice steps though, and have some rejuvenated capital to make something pop in the upcoming draft.

Jonah Jackson is just what the Rams needed

This is just an ode to a style of team-building that I really, really enjoy: get the biggest, meanest, nastiest MFers on the planet and let them move defensive linemen off the ball.

To that, I have to tip my hat to general manager Les Snead and the Los Angeles Rams. They re-signed guard Kevin Dotson, signed guard Jonah Jackson and will presumably be moving second-year offensive lineman Steve Avila to center. That’s a lot of beef and it shows that even one of the smartest, flashiest offensive minds knows that at its core football is a game that’s about moving someone to a spot where they don’t want to be.

That interior trio should pull that off. Jackson is the “smallest” player in the group at a listed 311 pounds, while Dotson and Avila are both over 320 pounds — in fact, Avila playing center at 333 pounds would make him the heaviest center in the league. McVay has rediscovered himself as a play-caller, moving toward gap and power running schemes and focusing a bit less on the zone system that he became known for when he first arrived in Los Angeles.

It’s not just that these guys are big players, they are also good players. Jackson spent a chunk of last year dealing with injuries with the Lions, but is a very talented player when he can make his way onto the field. Getting past this trio will be tough for defensive lines and will open everything up for the Rams’ offense. Kyren Williams is going to benefit in the running game and Matthew Stafford will benefit in the passing game — making Puka Nacua and Cooper Kupp even more dangerous in 2024.

This is the essence of the sport. Your big guys being able to move big guys on the other team is the most important part of this game. Offenses and defenses fall apart when line play is bad and the Rams have now spent money and picks to make sure they can do whatever they want on offense in a physical, painful manner for their opponents.

Thank Sean McVay, thank you Les Snead, thank you Los Angeles Rams. It’s time to get back to basics and blow people the hell off the ball.