Given the fear, uncertainty and anxiety surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, it would have surprised no one if the NFL had delayed the start of the league year and flurry of offseason activity that goes with it. And it might have been the appropriate move, considering how trivial football free agency is when viewed against the backdrop of the one of the biggest worldwide crises of our lifetime.
There is also something to be said for providing at least some sense of normalcy at such a difficult moment, though. It's a chance to get our minds off the very real problems afflicting so many people.
Adjusting to a world where going out to a restaurant is now potentially hazardous to your health, where washing your hands multiple times per day (per hour, sometimes) is now the norm, where schools are closed indefinitely and so very many jobs are now at stake, is simply overwhelming. We’re all in this together, and none of us knows how, or when, this unsettling time will end. Scary? You’re damn right it’s scary. But the fear must not overpower us at a time that calls for courage and composure.
Yes, this is all so much bigger than which football players will be playing for which teams and for how much money.
But if nothing else, at least there is something else to talk about than whether or not the local store is out of toilet paper or milk. And if that helps get our collective minds off the very real concerns that all of us now have over an invisible and insidious virus that is stalking the world, then so be it.
The NFL might have preferred to press the pause button on the start of free agency, especially after the NFL Players Association had narrowly approved a new collective bargaining agreement and assured labor peace through the 2030 season. But after discussions between the two groups on Sunday, the players wanted to forge ahead with the start of the league year. The NFL then announced on Monday that the draft would indeed take place April 23-25, although there would be no public events in Las Vegas.
The timing of those two announcements might not have been coincidental. After all, one of the reasons the players didn’t want to delay free agency is because of the risk that it might be held after the draft. Had that been the case, veteran players would have risked losing out on millions in salary if teams first had the chance to draft players and thereby fill their needs with much cheaper alternatives. That was the case in 2011, when the draft was held as scheduled despite a lockout, and an abbreviated free agency period didn’t begin until August.
So, here we are, pondering the usual flurry of player transactions in the most unusual of times.
Strange days indeed.
For many teams, Monday was an eventful day that signaled some major developments that will certainly be impactful once the 2020 season does begin. (And yes, it will happen. Just keep the faith.) Highest on the jaw-dropping moves: the trade of Texans All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals in exchange for running back David Johnson and a swap of draft picks.
Texans fans can’t be happy to see the best player in franchise history be shipped off, taking away a major weapon from quarterback Deshaun Watson. Granted, the Texans’ running game needs a jolt, and Johnson is a terrific player when healthy. But in a league that now stresses the pass over the run more than ever, it was a curious move, to say the least, by Texans coach and general manager Bill O’Brien. In fact, it’s one more reminder that, unless your name is Bill Belichick, teams should have a general manager to make sure trades like this don’t happen.
It’s an absolutely terrific move for the Cardinals, whose second-year quarterback, former No. 1 overall pick Kyler Murray, gets a big-time target in Hopkins. Coach Kliff Kingsbury will have a much greater play-calling advantage with such a reliable receiver, and Murray’s development will only accelerate with Hopkins on the roster.
The Colts made a big splash by trading a first-round pick to the 49ers for defensive lineman DeForest Buckner, a former first-round pick who will provide an instant upgrade. The 49ers have a glut of defensive linemen, and their focus turned to re-signing defensive end Arik Armstead, who has developed into one of the league’s best pass rushers. Adding a first-round pick to a Super Bowl team can only help.
Indy might not be done; the Colts are in discussions with former Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who would provide a major lift for an offense that was limited after the sudden retirement of Andrew Luck in 2019.
Plenty of teams used the start of the league year to hold on to their most prized players, with the franchise tag used on several players, including Giants defensive tackle Leonard Williams, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green, Jaguars defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones and Patriots guard Joe Thuney.
There will be plenty more moves in the days ahead, as teams begin the painstaking process of roster retooling in advance of next month’s draft. It’s the biggest and most important period in the NFL off-season, a time when key decisions are made that will impact what happens next season.
But it’s occurring at a time when all of us are consumed with what’s happening in our communities, and how we’ll deal with these difficult days ahead. A little football talk can’t hurt.
In the meantime, prayers up for all our first responders, health care workers and everyone else on the front lines of fighting this scourge.