INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts opened up free agency this offseason with some major splashes when they acquired a couple of stars in defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and quarterback Philip Rivers.
Rivers was connected to the Colts on the rumor mill for weeks prior to his signing by several experts who believed Colts head coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni — both of whom, along with tight ends coach Jason Michael, crossed paths with Rivers with the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers — would bring a familiar face in to help upgrade their passing game.
The acquisition of Buckner, however, was a stunner. The All-Pro wasn't even a free agent, but after allocating a lot of money to the rest of their defensive line, the San Francisco 49ers decided to trade Buckner to the Colts in exchange for the Colts' first-round (13th-overall) pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Both moves were met with plenty of praise as the team fortified an already-dangerous, up-and-coming defense as well as upgraded a passing game that needed it; in fact, the acquisition of Buckner and Rivers are considered by many media members as among the best in the league this offseason.
Here, NFL.com columnist Adam Schein ranks his top nine acquisitions of free agency that will have the biggest effect on the 2020 NFL season. Coming in at No. 8 was the Colts' trade for Buckner, who they made sure to lock up to a long-term extension upon acquiring. Schein notes that pairing Buckner with a young, tenacious Colts defense featuring fellow All-Pro Darius Leonard will take the unit to new heights.
"How he was acquired: Traded from San Francisco to Indianapolis in exchange for a 2020 first-round pick (No. 13 overall). Received a four-year, $84 million contract extension.
Colts general manager Chris Ballard didn't hesitate to trade a first-round pick and reward Buckner with a megabucks deal. No wonder: This cat is an absolute star. Buckner gets to the quarterback, breaks up passes and commands the kind of attention that makes life easier for everyone around him.
During each of the past two Super Bowl weeks, Colts linebacker Darius Leonard has come on my SiriusXM Radio show. Both times, he has stressed how intense Indianapolis' practices are, and how this makes game day seem easy for the defense under the watchful eye of DC Matt Eberflus. I've been thinking about this since news of the trade first broke. Buckner will not only fit right in, but he will carry this defense to new heights."
There were several trades around the beginning of free agency, so Around The NFL writer Marc Sessler doles out his grades of each of them here. Was the Colts' trade for Buckner expensive? Yes. They swapped a high-end draft pick and a large draft pick, but they're also getting a proven game-wrecker in return. It's a win-win for both sides.
"49ers trade defensive lineman DeForest Buckner to the Colts
Niners receive: Indy's first-round pick (No. 13 overall)
Colts' grade: B
Niners' grade: B+
It's tough to see Buckner pulled away from a Niners defense he thrived in, but the club poured its resources into fellow lineman Arik Armstead with a five-year pact laced with $48.5 million in guarantees. Buckner was sensational in San Francisco and gives the Colts a ferocious, tall-as-a-tree pocket-exploder inside a frisky front seven boasting Justin Houston, Denico Autry and Darius Leonard.
Indianapolis added a premier talent, but it didn't come cheap, with the Colts handing Buckner an extension worth $21 million per season. They also parted with the No. 13 overall pick, which the Niners seem destined to use at the wideout position after losing Emmanuel Sanders to the Saints. Both sides can argue their case in a deal that can't really be judged until we see (a) Buckner's level of chaos-spinning in Horseshoe Land and (b) what San Francisco pulls off with that first-round selection."
Throughout the offseason, a panel of ESPN NFL experts have been assigning their superlatives for different topics, dissecting some of the best and the worst moves that teams have made. A couple of those experts noted the Colts' signing of Rivers as the best NFL addition of the offseason, particularly when considering Rivers will now be behind one of the best offensive lines he's ever played behind.
"What has been the best offseason addition?
(Jeremy) Fowler: 'The Colts signing Philip Rivers. Everything makes sense about this pairing, from the familiarity between Rivers and coach Frank Reich to the modest money (one year, $25 million) to a team taking a chance because it knows it's close. The Colts are smart to think Rivers might return to 2018 form behind one of the game's best offensive lines.'
(Aaron) Schatz: 'The Colts signing Rivers. I think the upgrade from Jacoby Brissett to Rivers might be bigger than the upgrade from Jameis Winston to Brady. The Colts' offensive line will give Rivers time to stay upright and work down the field -- protection that's particularly important for an older and less mobile quarterback.'"
Free agency is all about spreading the wealth around the league and making teams better. Among all of the moves that have been made this offseason, Bleacher Report writer Gary Davenport gives his biggest upgrades around the league "based on the resume of the player(s) acquired and the impact those acquisitions had on their respective teams."
Although this is a big move, Davenport approaches with caution, questioning if Rivers will be who he has throughout most of his career, or the most recent version we've seen, who was under duress quite often with the Chargers.
"Jacoby Brissett got off to a solid start last year for the Indianapolis Colts after Andrew Luck's stunning retirement. While it wasn't entirely his fault that the Colts came apart over the second half of last season, he struggled in a big way.
Bringing in an eight-time Pro Bowler in Philip Rivers looks like a huge leap forward for the Colts.
The problem is that the Colts don't know which Rivers they will get.
If Rivers can come anywhere close to recapturing his top form in 2020, the Colts will be the team to beat in the AFC South. He might not have the one-two punch at wide receiver he had in Los Angeles, but a healthy T.Y. Hilton isn't cat food. The Colts have a solid ground game, a significantly improved defense with the addition of DeForest Buckner, and one of the best offensive lines in the AFC—if not all of the NFL.
But the Rivers we saw in 2019 looked like a quarterback careening toward the end of the line. He threw 20 interceptions for the third time in his career and posted his second-lowest passer rating since 2007.
In other words, he's an upgrade in theory, but not necessarily in reality."