NFL winners and losers: Heading into free agency, Kyler Murray and the Cardinals have already won

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Most of the focus of Monday’s jaw-dropping NFL trade fell on Bill O’Brien. The Houston Texans coach and general manager deserves every bit of criticism he’ll get.

On the other side, the Arizona Cardinals got a gift that could reshape their entire franchise.

DeAndre Hopkins will be the best player in the NFL to switch teams this offseason. And the Cardinals barely paid anything for him. In fact, they ended up dumping one of the NFL’s worst contracts and getting perhaps the most talented receiver in the NFL.

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We might remember the Hopkins trade as a monumental moment for the Cardinals, and a turning point in the careers of Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray. It was that big of a deal. You won’t find many more one-sided trades in any sport.

The impact of Hopkins is obvious. He averaged 105 catches, 1,372 yards and 11 touchdowns over the last three years. If you wanted to make an argument that Hopkins is one of the 10 best non-quarterbacks in the NFL, it’s reasonable. He might even be in the top five. He’s that good, and just 27 years old. Hopkins has $39.9 million left over the last three years of his contract, which is very cheap for an All-Pro receiver. Maybe he wants to rework his deal. That’s fine; Hopkins is worth every dollar.

And somehow, the Cardinals pulled off that heist while dumping a contract that was a big problem. Running back David Johnson had a monster 2016 season and hasn’t been the same since. In the three seasons since, he has 2,191 total yards. Johnson had cap hits of $11.9 million this year and $9 million next year. He simply wasn’t worth that anymore. Then O’Brien took the Cardinals off the hook and threw in a potential Hall of Fame receiver. Oh, and the Cardinals still have the No. 8 overall pick of the 2020 NFL draft.

Already some have pointed out that Patrick Mahomes, a first-round pick, won an MVP in his second season, then first-round pick Lamar Jackson won an MVP in his second season and now Murray is entering his second season. Murray is certainly set up for a big year. Last season’s NFL offensive rookie of the year now has a supporting cast that includes Hopkins, Larry Fitzgerald, Christian Kirk (who can be a productive receiver when healthy) and running back Kenyan Drake, who will likely be retained after getting the transition tag. That’s more than enough to work with. If the Cardinals add to the offensive line in a deep draft at tackle, even better. Murray could put up monster numbers.

Kingsbury also will benefit. He basically gets Hopkins for free (yes, Arizona sent a second-round pick to Houston, too ... they won’t miss it when Hopkins is making acrobatic touchdown grabs). Kingsbury’s offense looked pretty good in his first season and any coach can take advantage of Hopkins’ skills. Any scheme looks better with blue-chip players, and Kingsbury’s scheme is about to look really good with Hopkins as his No. 1 receiver.

And let’s not forget Hopkins. He goes to a team that runs an up-tempo, spread offense that has many weapons. The Cardinals allowed Murray to attempt 542 passes as a rookie, which was ninth in the NFL. They might pass even more with Hopkins on board and Murray having a year of experience. Hopkins, who averaged more than 100 catches per season the last three years, could end up setting career highs. And that’s saying something.

No matter which angle you take, Monday was a huge day for the Cardinals.

Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins should make a huge impact with the Arizona Cardinals. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)
Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins should make a huge impact with the Arizona Cardinals. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

After one of the wildest days in NFL free agency — which doesn’t even officially start until Wednesday — let’s take a look at the early winners and losers heading into the new league year, keeping in mind that none of the trades and signings that have been reported can become official until then.


David Johnson

For all of the justifiable angst about the Texans’ end of the Hopkins trade, Johnson has to be happy.

Johnson had a monster season in 2016, leading the NFL with 2,118 yards from scrimmage and 20 total touchdowns. It has been a nightmare since. He lost almost the entire 2017 season due to a wrist injury. Terrible coaching was partially to blame for a bad 2018. Then in 2019, he fell out of favor. Drake took over as the featured back. Johnson played more than 15 snaps in a game only twice after Oct. 20. His contract was such an anchor, Cardinals GM Steve Keim openly stated the team couldn’t realistically cut Johnson. They were stuck until the Texans bailed them out.

Now, Johnson gets a new start, with a team that has to prove it wasn’t stupid for shipping off perhaps the best receiver in the NFL. Johnson is just 28 years old. We have all seen his talent. He landed on a team with a fantastic quarterback in Deshaun Watson and a coach in O’Brien who needs to prove the controversial trade was right. He needed a change of scenery, and although he’ll now be known as the player who was acquired in the Hopkins trade, it could end up being the best thing to happen to his career.

Cleveland Browns ... maybe

To be fair, the Browns have won the offseason before. So we’ll see how their shopping spree this season works out.

But the Browns landed the top offensive lineman and the top tight end on the market. And still had enough left over to add a top-end backup for Baker Mayfield.

Former Titans tackle Jack Conklin was an All-Pro as a rookie and will help the Browns line. He got a three-year, $42 million deal. Ex-Falcons tight end Austin Hooper has made two straight Pro Bowls. He agreed to a deal worth $42 million over four years. And Case Keenum got a three-year, $18 million deal, an insurance policy in case Mayfield struggles again.

Eventually, the Browns’ moves should pay off. They have a tremendous amount of talent. But that approach didn’t pay off last season. We’ll see if their latest big-ticket purchases turn that around.

Indianapolis Colts

It might get lost a bit in the flurry of moves, but the Colts might have gotten the second-best player who will switch teams this offseason (probably third-best when Jadeveon Clowney settles on a new team).

DeForest Buckner turns 26 on Tuesday. Among all interior defensive linemen who played 500 snaps last season, Buckner ranked ninth in Pro Football Focus’ grades. He has 19.5 sacks over the last two years. The Colts had to trade a first-round pick to get Buckner, and then gave him a massive extension for $21 million per season, but they’re getting a sure thing. Buckner immediately becomes the Colts’ best defensive player, or No. 2 behind linebacker Darius Leonard. He’s a difference maker.

The Colts still need to address the quarterback position and are reportedly interested in Philip Rivers. They already got left tackle Anthony Castonzo back on a two-year deal. Even with Rivers, they would still have enough salary-cap space to add to a roster that looked like one of the NFL’s best before Andrew Luck’s sudden retirement. But no matter what other moves the Colts make, they have their headline move by grabbing one of the NFL’s best defensive linemen.

Baltimore Ravens

A 14-2 team has made some intriguing moves just before free agency.

Losing guard Marshal Yanda to retirement hurts. But the Ravens retained linebacker Matt Judon with the franchise tag, had to spend only a fifth-round pick to get defensive end Calais Campbell from the Jacksonville Jaguars, signed underrated defensive tackle Michael Brockers and also got a second-round pick from the Atlanta Falcons for tight end Hayden Hurst (the Ravens also sent a fourth-round pick to the Falcons and got a fifth-round pick back). Hurst hadn’t done much with the Ravens since they spent a first-round pick on him. Hurst had been passed by Mark Andrews, so Hurst was expendable.

There’s risk that Judon could hold out because he’s unhappy with the outside linebacker franchise tag designation (he’d have made a few million more under a defensive end tag), Campbell could slow down at age 34 and Hurst could become a productive tight end in Atlanta. But the aggressiveness of the Ravens indicates that they are all in on getting to a Super Bowl next season.


Deshaun Watson

All of those words above about how Murray and the Cardinals will benefit from Hopkins? Just say the opposite when it comes to Watson.

Watson dealt with a terrible offensive line for a couple years. Then the Texans overpaid for left tackle Laremy Tunsil, which helped. But now it’s another step back with Hopkins moving to Arizona.

Houston’s moves are baffling the NFL world. O’Brien has made some questionable transactions (and coaching decisions), but the Texans keep increasing his power. Watson is still on his rookie deal, and one has to wonder if he is happy with the direction of the franchise. Trading Hopkins — whether because Houston was worried about Hopkins holding out for a new contract or some rift with O’Brien — sets Watson back, and it won’t make signing him to an extension any easier.

Mitchell Trubisky and Ryan Pace

First, there was a rumor that the Bears were hot and heavy after Teddy Bridgewater. Then there were reports the Bears were inquiring about trading for Jacksonville’s Nick Foles.

Either way, it seems the Bears are hoping for someone to replace Trubisky just three years into his rookie deal.

It is surprising Pace would be the GM to be looking into a new quarterback. He blew the 2017 draft. He moved up to take Trubisky, letting Mahomes and Watson pass by. It was a career-defining gamble. It didn’t work. Now, he might have to spend a lot of the Bears’ money to make it right.

If the Bears land someone like Bridgewater or Foles, it would likely send Trubisky to the bench. Even if the Bears don’t land a new quarterback, Trubisky knows where he stands now. He needs a significant rebound in 2020 to save his Bears career. The same could be said for Pace.

Jameis Winston

Hitting free agency should be a great thing for any quarterback in his prime. Yet, Winston’s best option was to return to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Bucs seem ready to move on, reportedly trying to woo Tom Brady.

Winston had great weapons in Tampa Bay. Bruce Arians is a fantastic offensive coach. The Buccaneers had invested the No. 1 pick and then five years into Winston. Now what?

Maybe Winston ultimately comes back to the Buccaneers when all the other dust settles. But it also seems that Winston could end up losing this game of musical chairs. Which team makes sense for Winston, coming off a baffling 30-interception season? There’s not a clear market for him, even though he had 5,000 yards last season and is a former first overall pick.

Perhaps a team is willing to pay Winston starting quarterback money, and we haven’t heard about it yet. But there is a lot of uncertainty for Winston after the Buccaneers decided against locking him up before free agency begins.

Miami Dolphins ... maybe

The Dolphins seemed to be on a patient, smart rebuild.

But the Dolphins can’t help themselves from spending in free agency. Cornerback Byron Jones got a five-year, $82.5 million contract with $57 million guaranteed. Guard Ereck Flowers, famously a New York Giants draft bust who rebounded at guard with Washington last year, got $30 million over three years. Shaq Lawson, who had only 16.5 sacks over four seasons after the Buffalo Bills used a first-round pick on him, also got $30 million over three years. Then to end the night, the Dolphins agreed to terms with former Patriots linebacker on a four-year, $51 million deal.

All of those moves might work out. And the Dolphins had the most cap space in the NFL, so they could afford some huge deals. But it’s a lot to pay in one day, especially for a team that might be a couple years away from being competitive. The Dolphins have paid a lot in free agency before and it didn’t work out well. Maybe this time will be different.

Anyone who needs an offensive lineman and didn’t sign one

When Flowers got a three-year, $30 million deal from the Dolphins, you knew there weren’t many options on the market.

The exceptionally thin offensive line market was picked through before the end of the day on Monday. Flowers got a nice deal. So did center/guard Graham Glasgow, who got $44 million over four years with the Denver Broncos, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who started four games over the past two seasons for the Philadelphia Eagles, got a $50 million deal over five years with the Detroit Lions, according to NFL reporter Adam Caplan. Then Dennis Kelly got $21 million over three years from the Titans, according to ESPN’s Field Yates. Kelly has started 21 games over the past six seasons and is 30 years old. Rick Wagner, cut by the Lions last week, got $11 million over two years with the Packers, according to the Houston Chronicle’s Aaron Wilson, and that seems like a steal given the other deals.

That’s a lot of money for some players who aren’t exactly elite options.

And the elite options were gone, too: Conklin to the Browns; Brandon Scherff and Joe Thuney getting the franchise tag; and the Colts locked up Castonzo to an extension. If you didn’t land an offensive lineman on Monday, better luck in the draft.

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