NFL free agency winners and losers: Bears had Russell Wilson dreams and an Andy Dalton reality

Frank Schwab
·10-min read

You hear the lament often among NFL fans. They need to get rid of their middle-of-the-road quarterback.

That's easy to say since all those armchair critics think the next quarterback is going to be a superstar.

The Chicago Bears didn't necessarily do the wrong thing. They, and Bears fans, had seen enough of Mitchell Trubisky to know it was time to move on. But the next step isn't always a leap forward. 

While Bears fans dreamed of Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson, there's a reason those guys haven't been traded yet. The Bears reportedly tried to get Wilson, as they should have, and radio host Dan Patrick said the Bears offered three first-round draft picks, a third-round selection and two starters for Wilson. The Bears were told no. If that's not enough for Wilson, imagine how much Watson (who suddenly finds himself in headlines with some serious allegations) would get in a trade.

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The Bears needed someone and landed on Andy Dalton for a one-year, $10 million deal. Don't laugh. Dalton has more Pro Bowls (three) than Bears quarterbacks combined since 1963 (two; Jim McMahon in 1985 and Trubisky in 2018). It has been a long 60 years for the Bears.

Still, the air was let out of the balloon. Imagine what it was like for general manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy, who have to win in 2021 to keep their jobs, and now that rests on Dalton's shoulders.

This is going on in plenty of NFL markets. San Francisco 49ers fans can't wait to upgrade from Jimmy Garoppolo. Denver Broncos fans can't go five minutes without talking about Watson, ignoring that their team doesn't have nearly enough capital to make a reasonable trade offer. Las Vegas Raiders fans want better than Derek Carr. Carolina Panthers fans want Teddy Bridgewater out. At least the New York Jets have the second overall draft pick to take a quarterback (but still seem intent on defending Sam Darnold anyway).

The Detroit Lions and Los Angeles Rams wanted a quarterback change (in the Lions' case, it was kind of forced upon them by Matthew Stafford's trade request), but both teams needed replacements to get a deal done. They knew the reality: It's fine to move on from a middle-of-the-road quarterback, but it's rough to be looking for a quarterback in March.

The Bears aren't resigned to being bad. They were a wild-card team last season and Dalton is an upgrade. He's just unlikely to be.enough of an upgrade to get the Bears past the Green Bay Packers or onto a long playoff run. It's not impossible. It's just difficult without an above-average quarterback.

The Bears will keep searching. They have been for decades so that's nothing new. Fans will get their hopes up. Maybe they'll finally land their franchise guy (Mac Jones?) in the draft, or somehow wrestle a great quarterback away in a trade. It would be wise for Bears fans to keep expectations realistic, even though that won't happen.

Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Andy Dalton (14) signed with the Bears. (AP Photo/Roger Steinman)
Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Andy Dalton signed with the Bears. (AP Photo/Roger Steinman)

Here are the winners and losers from the first couple busy days of NFL free agency:

WINNERS

Tom Brady: This one is two-fold.

The first is obvious. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers said they'd keep their championship team together, and so far they've somehow mostly done that. Once Shaq Barrett was retained, the Buccaneers ensured they'd have most of their key pieces back. Chris Godwin returns on the franchise tag, Rob Gronkowski returned on a one-year deal and Lavonte David got a nice extension too. The Buccaneers have a shot to repeat.

Meanwhile, Brady's Super Bowl win might have broken Bill Belichick. The Patriots spent like they'd just gotten their tax return and there was a big sale on Amazon. It's incorrect to say the Patriots have never been big spenders, but not like this. Don't buy any notion that this was the plan all along, to have a losing season (because the greatest coach ever is going to want to not make the playoffs in his late 60s?) and spend like crazy in 2021. The Patriots just finally had a bad season, and it coincided with their longtime quarterback finding a championship elsewhere. New England needed a lot of talent and got it in free agency. The Patriots would have wanted to improve whether they went 7-9 with Brady or anyone else at quarterback. But it's reasonable to believe at least part of the spending spree was a reaction to seeing Brady have ultimate success in his first year away from New England

As always, Tom Brady wins.

Trent Williams and the San Francisco 49ers: Williams' path shows how messed up the Washington Football Team has been, at least before Ron Rivera got to town.

Washington alienated Williams to the point he sat out the whole 2019 season. There were issues with the medical staff, but Washington never seemed to want to pay its best player. The 49ers had no problem doing it.

The 49ers turned a low-cost trade with Washington into a long-term relationship with a future Hall-of-Fame tackle. Williams signed a six-year, $138 million deal that looks more like a quarterback deal and makes Williams the highest-paid offensive lineman ever. Yes, that's the same player Washington ran out of town. Williams is 32 and there's some risk in his play falling off, but it's still worth the gamble for the 49ers. San Francisco should rebound in 2021 after a tough-luck season, and the key piece of the offseason might not have been dumping Jimmy Garoppolo, but signing one of the better left tackles in recent history. The 49ers got it done.

Jameis Winston: The quarterback free agency market can be difficult for players too, at least the flawed ones. For those who find themselves out of a starting job, it can be hard to find a perfect landing spot.

Winston played the game as well as he could.

A year ago, when it was clear Winston wouldn't find a starting spot worth chasing despite leading the NFL in passing yards the year before, he took a surprisingly small one-year, $1.1 million deal with the New Orleans Saints. He presumably could have made more elsewhere. He might have found a bad team that would have let him compete for a starting job. But he knew what he was doing.

This offseason Winston saw Drew Brees retire, as expected, and re-signed a one-year $5.5 million deal with the expectation that he will be the frontrunner to start for the Saints in 2021. He could get beat out by Taysom Hill — Sean Payton's adoration of Hill knows few bounds — but Winston will have a chance to enter camp as the presumed favorite to win the starting job in a great offense run by one of the best coaches in the NFL. Then he'll be a free agent again.

You have to admit, it was a brilliant plan.

LOSERS

Green Bay Packers: There's this notion that receivers will drop everything in free agency to come play with a great quarterback. It's not true, but you hear it a lot. And still, the Packers can't (or don't want to) sign a great receiver to play with Aaron Rodgers.

There are some big-ticket WRs out there and none are connected to the Packers. Either of the big-name tight ends (Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry) that went to New England would have been nice. Even a cornerback to help the defense would have been good, but the Packers (who don't have a ton of cap space) sat out.

There's still a long way to go in the offseason and maybe the Packers will make some key additions. You'd just like to see them be more aggressive. It's not the first time that has been said.

The one big move the Packers made was to bring Aaron Jones back on a four-year, $48 million deal. Jones is a very good back, but even good backs don't often work out on big second contracts. The Packers drafted A.J. Dillon in he second round last year and he showed promise, but now will spend at least another year or two in a minor role in the backfield. Dillon and quarterback Jordan Love, Green Bay's oft-debated 2020 first-rounder, seem destined to be wasteful picks. Not ideal in a championship window.

The Packers aren't having a disastrous offseason but after coming up one game short of an NFC title the past two years, you'd like to see them get a little wild in free agency. For a change.

Los Angeles Rams: The Rams don't seem to lose anything when they see good players leave in free agency. Still, already this offseason the Rams saw safety John Johnson III sign a big deal with the Cleveland Browns, and then defensive lineman Michael Brockers was traded to the Detroit Lions for a seventh-round draft pick. Moves like that happen when you're searching for cap flexibility, which was needed to re-sign pass rusher Leonard Floyd (a solid signing). 

L.A. also lost defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, who took the head coaching job with the Los Angeles Chargers. The Rams had a fantastic defense last season and still might this year, but it won't be easy to maintain. The offense took a hit, too, when tight end Gerald Everett signed with the division rival Seattle Seahawks.

The Rams were touted as a potential Super Bowl winner after landing Matthew Stafford in a trade. They still are in a tier of preseason contenders. But L.A.'s spending — in terms of picks traded and contracts given out — has a bill attached at the end and it cost them good players. For a team with championship hopes, the first week of free agency wasn't ideal.

Indianapolis Colts, to this point: Maybe it's the idea that a good team with cap room should be spending money to push itself over the hump. But the Colts never do, and it can be frustrating.

Indianapolis has done a good job building a strong roster and, admittedly, part of that is not overspending on free agents. The Colts might look wise in a week or two for skipping the first wave of free agency and finding mid-tier players on short deals after that. They've done that before.

But once the Colts traded for Carson Wentz, they didn't need to worry about quarterback and had the ability to add to a potential AFC South championship roster. They're sticking (stubbornly?) with their philosophy. That's fine, but maybe there will be some regret if they fall just short with a good young roster and are sitting on a mound of unspent cap space. Indianapolis had the second-most cap space in the NFL as of Friday and hadn't signed anyone of note.

We'll reserve final judgment, and it's understandable that the Colts have a philosophy and want to stick with it, but it would be a lot more interesting if they made an aggressive run one of these offseasons.

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