Another March, another Brock Osweiler stunner.
The new league year opened Thursday with a torrent of team-switching. Free-agent dollars flowed into hitherto underfunded corners of the NFL landscape. The normally thrifty Super Bowl champs uncharacteristically dished out one of the biggest deals of the day. And the wreck of a franchise that plays in our nation's capital went way against the grain and opened the league year by firing its general manager.
But the biggest shock of the day -- including even that last bit, which had grown sadly inevitable over the past week -- was the NBA-style deal the Cleveland Browns made with the Houston Texans, for a way-too-expensive quarterback neither team in the deal wanted.
It is there that we begin our review of the biggest surprises from Thursday's opening of the NFL league year.
1. Brock Osweiler to the Browns -- for now
In announcing the deal, Browns general manager Sashi Brown made it absolutely clear that the motivation was not Osweiler but rather the second-round pick that comes with him. The deal is a great one for the Texans, who rid themselves of last year's four-year, $72 million mistake with only a $10 million cap hit left over. That doesn't make it a bad one for the Browns, who have both cash and cap to burn, and can therefore absorb the Osweiler deal and just cut him if no one wants to offer them something else in a trade for the quarterback.
Could Cleveland hold on to Osweiler? Sure. It's not as if he'd have to beat out Johnny Unitas to win their starting quarterback job. But that's not their plan at this point. Osweiler and his $16 million guaranteed salary are simply a means to an end. The Browns love picks. They want all the picks. They love having extra second-rounders in case it helps them deal for the quarterback they really want or in case they need to burn one on an unmatched offer sheet for a restricted free-agent with a second-round tender. It's about currency for the rebuilding Browns, and they want as much of it as they can get.
The deal looks weird to the football establishment, but that's the point of the Browns right now. The people running the franchise are not of the football establishment. They're trying to find a new way to do things, since the ways the Browns have done things for years haven't worked. They have baseball people, analytics people, all kinds of different voices in there, and they're trying to figure out a way to build the league's worst franchise into something sustainably good. At the moment, the plan involves overspending. But they have the money, so why not? If the pick that came with Osweiler chained to it ends up producing a Pro Bowler, who'll care what it cost in March of 2017? It's a long way back from 1-15 and probably requires trying out a new side street or two along the way.
2. It's good to be a guard
We figured Kevin Zeitler would set the top of the guard market, and he did, scoring a five-year, $60 million contract to play for the Browns. (Side note: Zeitler's agent, Tom Condon, had a monster day, also securing the four-year, $60 million deal for Calais Campbell in Jacksonville and the five-year, $55.5 million deal for Matt Kalil in Carolina.)
But incumbent Browns guard Joel Bitonio also cashed in big, with a contract extension that added $10 million in cash to his 2017 income and could be worth more than $50 million in total if he were to play it out. Add in the deal Larry Warford got from the New Orleans Saints, the four-year, $35 million deal Ron Leary got from the Denver Broncos, and even the one-year, $8 million deal Luke Joeckel got from the Seattle Seahawks, and it's clear guards have managed to crack into the elite tier of free-agent paydays. They'll never make quarterback money, but they're getting closer at least to cornerback money.
3. The Patriots made a big splash
Always on the hunt for value in the middle or at the bottom of the market, the Patriots waded into the free-agent pool with a five-year, $65 million contract for former Buffalo Bills corner Stephon Gilmore. With Logan Ryan on the way out and restricted free agent Malcolm Butler's future in New England suddenly the subject of doubt, the Pats needed help in the secondary. Still, it felt weird to see them paying new-car prices on the first day.
4. Andrew Whitworth really left the Bengals
Hey, however bad your day was Thursday, it wasn't as bad as Andy Dalton's. The Cincinnati Bengals' quarterback lost two starting offensive lineman -- Zeitler and franchise cornerstone Whitworth. In the weeks leading up to free agency, it had become clear that Cincinnati wouldn't retain Zeitler, who was on the hunt for a big payday. But it always felt as if they'd do the right thing and bring back Whitworth, who was such a critical part of the franchise on so many levels. Instead, confident enough in their replacement plans that they didn't want to guarantee him anything beyond one year, they let Whitworth leave for the Los Angeles Rams. Now, a team that made the playoffs five years in a row before its 2016 flameout finds itself rebuilding in a critical area while its window to win ostensibly stands open. Not a lot of left-tackle solutions in this year's draft, either.
5. Tony Romo wasn't cut at 4 p.m. ET
At this writing, Romo is still with the Dallas Cowboys, mainly because it appears they convinced themselves during the day they might be able to get something for him in a trade. The Osweiler move makes it feel as if Houston was opening a spot for Romo, but that's apparently not a done deal yet, and you wonder what kind of leverage Jerry Jones might have that would justify the cap hit he'd take by trading Romo instead of designating him as a post-June 1 cut.