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The First Read: Kirk Cousins among winners as free agency frenzy kicks off; Justin Fields' fate a mystery

We know it's not the first official day of unrestricted free agency in the NFL, but that doesn't really matter anymore. The start of the league's free-agent negotiating period -- when teams can begin negotiating with potential free agents -- is where the action is at these days, and this year remained true to form. News of blockbuster agreements began to come down as soon as the clock struck noon ET on Monday. Let's not forget the ample amount of activity over the weekend, when a number of franchises consummated deals to keep star players from testing their value on the open market.

This free agency edition of The First Read is always the most enjoyable precisely because of that flurry of activity. The action is usually relentless in these first few days, and the moves can often be jaw-dropping. It's true that some of these transactions don't end up being as monumental as we predict -- most general managers will echo the same sentiment, that Super Bowls aren't won in free agency -- but it sure is fun to talk about this stuff.

Here's what this writer took away from the first meaningful day in the free agency process, as we saw plenty of winners and losers ...


1) Kirk Cousins, QB: It's hard to find another quarterback in recent history who's been better at generating cash for himself without any serious postseason success. The Atlanta Falcons obviously were winners here, because they finally found a viable option to fill the void left by Matt Ryan's departure from this franchise in the 2022 offseason. Cousins, however, is the bigger winner, because he once again is getting paid by a team desperately needing a trustworthy option under center. To be clear, the Vikings wanted to hold on to Cousins, who missed the final nine games of 2023 with a torn Achilles. They apparently just didn't want to go where Atlanta ultimately went, as the Falcons are giving the 35-year-old a four-year, $180 million deal with $100 million in total guaranteed money.

Cousins will join a team that has been languishing offensively but doesn't lack for talent. Atlanta has invested heavily in skill positions in the first round of the draft over the last few years, taking tight end Kyle Pitts, wide receiver Drake London and running back Bijan Robinson -- and it also helps that offensive coordinator Zac Robinson runs the same system as Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell. Cousins won't mind playing in the weak NFC South, either. No team in that group has won more than 10 games a season in either of the past two years, and he'll easily be the best quarterback in the division. There is even a family connection: Cousins' wife, Julie, grew up in Atlanta. As much as Cousins likely would've been courted by other quarterback-needy teams, this was the spot that always made sense for him if he left Minnesota.

2) Chris Jones, DT: The Chiefs' All-Pro defensive tackle landed everything he wanted over the weekend. He received the money he coveted last year, when he spent the entire offseason holding out and even missed Kansas City's season opener. He gets to stay in the city where he's spent his entire career and help the Chiefs pursue a third straight Super Bowl win (and a fourth in six seasons). Jones also can flex on the fact that he's the highest-paid defensive tackle in NFL history -- with a five-year deal that guarantees him $101 million -- and forced Kansas City to alter its typical way of doing business. Before this contract, the Chiefs had not paid substantial money to a player 30 years or older since Brett Veach became general manager in 2018. The two stars they have rewarded with extensions -- quarterback Patrick Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce -- have acknowledged the need to help the team with roster building when thinking of their own compensation. Jones, who turns 30 in July, wasn't giving any hometown discounts. If the Chiefs wanted to keep him from bolting in free agency, they had to deal with the fact that he held all the leverage. They got their man, and Jones got his dream ending.

3) Jason Licht, Bucs general manager: Licht has been on quite a run over the last four years, as Tampa Bay has won a Super Bowl and three NFC South titles during that time. The Bucs are back in position to compete for another division crown because of all the heavy lifting Licht has done over the last two weeks. The first thing he did was work out a two-year, $52 million deal that kept star wide receiver Mike Evans from leaving in free agency. Licht then put the franchise tag on All-Pro safety Antoine Winfield Jr. to create time to negotiate a long-term extension for one of the best defensive backs in the league. Finally, there's the three-year, $100 million deal Licht just worked out with quarterback Baker Mayfield over the weekend. Mayfield was heading to his fourth team in less than a year when he signed with Tampa Bay last March. He wound up enjoying a career year and playing in his first Pro Bowl. This offseason could've been rough for Licht -- who also agreed to acquire a third-round pick in this year's draft in a trade that will send cornerback Carlton Davis III to Detroit along with a couple sixth-round picks -- if Evans and Mayfield walked. Instead, the Bucs have a great shot at returning to the playoffs for a fifth straight season.

4) Russell Wilson, QB, and the Steelers: This pending marriage makes sense in so many ways. Pittsburgh had a lousy offense for nearly the entire 2023 season, and there's still no certainty that Kenny Pickett, heading into his third pro season, will blossom into a franchise quarterback. Wilson needed a fresh start after a brief, brutal stint in Denver, one that started with him producing the worst season of his career in Year 1 and then turning into a human piñata for head coach Sean Payton in Year 2. There are never any guarantees in life, but one thing is certain here: There isn't a whole lot of risk involved for either side. The Steelers have a chance to benefit from a veteran quarterback who could push Pickett and help an assortment of young, talented skill players develop. Wilson also comes crazy inexpensive, as the Steelers will only be paying him $1.2 million, while his former team, the Broncos, will be giving him $39 million of the money they still owed him. Wilson has plenty of incentive to play well on this one year-deal, since it gives him another chance to resurrect his career. And if he can't improve the Steelers' offense, then they will be out a nominal cost.

5) Running backs: It's been a good start to the offseason for a position that has been consistently devalued over the past few years, with plenty of GMs appearing eager to invest in the position. The Chicago Bears agreed to terms with D'Andre Swift on a three-year, $24 million deal. The Tennessee Titans are giving Tony Pollard a similar contract to move over from Dallas. The Green Bay Packers delivered a surprise by grabbing Josh Jacobs, who led the league in rushing while playing in Las Vegas in 2022, then released Aaron Jones (EDITOR'S UPDATE: Jones has agreed to terms on a one-year, $7 million deal with the Minnesota Vikings.). And Saquon Barkley agreed to a three-year, $37.75 million package to join the Philadelphia Eagles, with the Giants moving on to Devin Singletary. The early indication going into free agency was that this might be a tough offseason for free agent backs, given the high-profile names out there (which includes Tennessee's Derrick Henry (EDITOR'S UPDATE: Henry is signing a two-year, $16 million deal with Baltimore.) and the Los Angeles Chargers' Austin Ekeler, who has agreed to a two-year, $11 million deal with the Commanders). So far, the league has shown that there's still solid interest in the position if the price is right.


1) Justin Fields, QB: If Fields was hoping for a quick resolution to his situation, then it feels like he's up for some disappointment. The presence of other veteran quarterbacks on the market hasn't helped matters. Kirk Cousins is going to Atlanta, taking up one of the openings that seemed like a match for Fields. The Steelers' decision to sign Wilson also took another option off the table. Between the diminishing destinations and other teams' knowledge that the Bears have to do something with Fields (given that Chicago holds the top pick in this year's draft and is presumably preparing to select USC quarterback Caleb Williams), any potential suitors would not be motivated to overwhelm the Bears with an offer. Finally, Fields faces the same questions that have dogged him through his first three seasons. He's blessed with obvious athletic gifts, but he also hasn't unlocked them fully. That's a scary proposition for a player who's reaching the stage of his career where teams must weigh investing significant money in him, with one year remaining on his rookie contract. Bears GM Ryan Poles was hoping to decide something on Fields "quickly." It looks like that wait will be substantially longer now.

2) Sean Payton, Broncos head coach: Payton knew this was going to be a painful offseason, so his fate on this list was sealed a long time ago. He may be a little happier now that Russell Wilson will no longer be wearing a Denver uniform, but the team's budget will still be stinging from that change at quarterback. The Broncos are on the hook for $39 million of Wilson's salary this year, which will presumably make it pretty damn hard to find somebody else to put under center. Denver can talk a good game about Jarrett Stidham being a possibility, but there are a lot of reasons for this franchise to draft a quarterback in the first round. The financial hit coming from Wilson's departure also meant the Broncos had to start dumping good players. So Payton no longer has one of the best safeties in the game (Justin Simmons), and wide receiver Jerry Jeudy is going to be traded to Cleveland. One can argue that this franchise was bracing for this type of pain when Payton signed last year (on a deal that reportedly pays him $18 million annually over five years).

However, the AFC West is not the place where patience will be rewarded these days. The Kansas City Chiefs have won three of the last five Super Bowls. The Los Angeles Chargers just hired Jim Harbaugh to coach Justin Herbert, who is as gifted as anybody playing quarterback. The Las Vegas Raiders even have an identity -- they're clearly investing in defense, given the four-year, $110 million deal they're handing defensive tackle Christian Wilkins -- cap space and draft capital. The Broncos need to do a lot to compete with all that. It currently feels like Payton can't change the fact that they're falling farther behind.

3) Mac Jones, QB: The New England Patriots didn't do Jones many favors over his last two years with that franchise -- a purgatory that included both bad coaching and an underwhelming supporting cast -- and now he's moving over to Jacksonville in a trade that gives him no shot at competing for playing time. Jones might learn a lot by sitting behind Trevor Lawrence. He'll benefit from better guidance from a head coach like Doug Pederson. What he almost certainly won't do is change the growing perception he's likely spending the rest of his career as a backup. You can argue about whether Jones has enough ability to resurrect his career elsewhere, but there's little question that his road to doing that is much murkier now. Baker Mayfield at least got the opportunity to compete for a starting job when Cleveland traded him to Carolina in 2022. Drew Lock got that same chance when the Broncos dealt him to Seattle as part of the Russell Wilson deal. Yes, I get it -- neither of those players did enough to win the jobs in those situations. The point is that they had opportunities Jones clearly won't find in Jacksonville, where Lawrence is entrenched. It wasn't that long ago that Jones was off to a promising start in the NFL. Now he's left to wonder how different his career might have gone had he never become Tom Brady's successor in New England.

4) Tee Higgins, WR: It's becoming quite apparent that the star wide receiver isn't going to be a happy camper if he remains in Cincinnati on the franchise tag this fall. The Bengals gave Higgins the tag last month, which kept him from being the most coveted receiver on the open market. The team also hasn't entered into any serious talks with Higgins about a long-term extension, according to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport. That isn't surprising, given that Cincinnati will eventually have to give a massive deal to wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, who is eligible for his own extension now that he's finished his third season. Higgins has become so frustrated with his situation that he has asked for a trade, as Rapoport reported. You can't blame him for being miffed, either. He's 25 years old and a legitimate option as a No. 1 wideout, which means he could fetch $27 million to $30 million in free agency. There surely will be teams that call about his availability in a deal -- even though the Bengals have said previously they want to keep him -- but he's stuck on this side of the list until something tangible changes for him.

5) Safeties: There are a lot of big names on the market this week after several teams made budget cuts to create salary cap space. The current list of players who will be available in free agency includes Simmons, C.J. Gardner-Johnson (coming off a one-year deal with Detroit), Jordan Poyer (Buffalo), Rayshawn Jenkins (Jacksonville), Eddie Jackson (Chicago), Vonn Bell (Carolina), Jamal Adams and Quandre Diggs (both from Seattle). Some players have signed quickly -- such as Kevin Byard (to Chicago), Xavier McKinney (Green Bay) and Darnell Savage (Jacksonville) -- but it's a safe bet that free agency won't be such a fun ride for all these guys. With the market this saturated by talented, accomplished players, GMs can be selective about whom they pursue and how much they offer.

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