You have to admit this has been the most compelling NFL offseason in years.
We've had stunning trades, surprising releases, the annual slew of coaching firings and the first defensive player in NFL history to receive a $100 million contract in free agency (Washington Redskins defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth). Talk about your nonstop news. The stories have been flying so fast and furiously it's been hard to take time to make sense of them.
We'll sort things out now. There have been so many interesting moves this offseason that it's worth sorting out the good and the bad before the draft begins in two weeks. And I'm not talking about no-brainers like the Oakland Raiders' making Pro Bowl cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha the highest-paid defensive back in football, or the Detroit Lions' firing head coach Rod Marinelli after an 0-16 season. I'm more focused on the decisions that entail a lot more risk, mainly because they're the ones we'll likely be talking about in the fall.
So here are the five smartest and dumbest moves up to this point:
1. The New York Giants release Plaxico Burress: It was simply time for this to happen. Burress' legal problems haven't gone away quickly -- he's still trying to negotiate a plea agreement for carrying an unregistered handgun into a New York City nightclub last year -- and the Giants still didn't know how hard NFL commissioner Roger Goodell might hammer the star wide receiver. Granted, it will be hard for them to fill the void Burress' absence created when the wide receiver's off-field problems eventually led to a suspension. But the Giants also found a way to win consistently without him for most of the 2008 season. They can win without him in 2009.
2. The Kansas City Chiefs trade for New England Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel: I'm still not totally sold on Cassel. It will be harder for him to succeed without Randy Moss and Wes Welker running routes and Bill Belichick roaming the sidelines. That said, he's still the best option for a team that was desperate to stabilize the quarterback position. His presence allows the Chiefs to focus on other pressing needs in the draft, and it also lets us know that new general manager Scott Pioli already understands something that escaped the Carl Peterson/Herm Edwards regime: If you're going to rebuild, make sure you've a got a quarterback you believe in.
3. Kurt Warner re-signs with the Arizona Cardinals: It's hard to know how seriously Warner considered leaving the Cardinals when free agency arrived. What we do know is that he didn't need long to realize that Arizona was the best place for him to be. He's coming off a Pro Bowl season that nearly ended with the Cardinals upsetting the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl. For a man who maybe has two good seasons left in him, it was best for him to stay loyal to the franchise that allowed him to revitalize his playing career.
4. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers dump Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen: As shocking as this move seemed at the time -- it appeared to come out of nowhere -- it has made far more sense as more time has passed. The bottom line is that the players were tired of Gruden's cold-hearted personality, and the Bucs' ownership sensed it already had the next head-coaching star on staff (Raheem Morris). Throw in the fact that Allen was essentially useless as Gruden's right-hand man in the front office and you can see why the Bucs had to move so quickly. In the end, Gruden will be best remembered in Tampa as a man who won a Super Bowl with Tony Dungy's team.
5. Ray Lewis stays with the Baltimore Ravens: Sometimes you have to go out in the cold to see how harsh reality really can be. That's what happened to Lewis when his contract expired in February. Instead of finding a bunch of teams eager to pay big money for a soon-to-be 34-year-old middle linebacker coming off his 10th Pro Bowl season, he found a market in which nobody was willing to come close to Baltimore's three-year, $22 million offer. Lewis essentially learned the same lesson most people already knew: Aging middle linebackers are poor investments because their production usually goes downhill in a hurry (see Jeremiah Trotter and Zach Thomas). When that happens to Lewis, it's probably best that he's in a town where fans still can appreciate everything he did for their franchise.
1. The Denver Broncos trade quarterback Jay Cutler to the Chicago Bears: I realize the Bears gave up a ton to get their hands on Cutler. But let's not forget that he led the league's second-ranked offense despite operating with a running game that saw eight different backs land on injured reserve. The last time I checked, NFL teams have a hard time finding Pro Bowl quarterbacks. Even with Kyle Orton and some high draft picks now in the fold, new Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels is about to learn how tough it is to win without a big-time player at that position.
2. The Bucs make Kellen Winslow the highest-paid tight end ever: I like Winslow's talent. What I don't like is his track record. You're talking about a player who has had two productive years in five seasons (he caught 171 passes between 2006 and 2007). A high ankle sprain partly explains why he finished last season with only 428 receiving yards. Oh yeah, he can be a little high-maintenance at times, as well. The point here is that Tampa Bay already gave up a second-round pick in this year's draft and a fifth-rounder in 2010 for a player with two years left on his old deal. It could have at least waited to see if he could stay healthy and play nice with others before giving him $20.1 million in guaranteed cash.
3. The Detroit Lions don't clean house: Sure, they finally got rid of president/general manager Matt Millen after eight comical seasons, and they also dumped Marinelli after three years (replacing him with former Tennessee defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz). But what still defies explanation is why Millen was replaced with Martin Mayhew, who previously served as assistant general manager. Unless Mayhew is the second coming of Ron Wolf, the Lions missed a golden chance to inject some new perspective into an organization sorely in need of that. Note to Lions owner William Clay Ford Sr.: Whenever your team goes a full season without a victory, it's time to ship as many people out the door as possible.
4. The Dallas Cowboys keep Wade Phillips as head coach: There are only two reasons this makes sense to me: (a) Cowboys owner Jerry Jones really has a soft spot for Phillips, or (b) Jones couldn't find a way to find a better coach for his team next season. Regardless, it's a mistake to keep Phillips in charge of this bunch. He's undoubtedly a great guy, but he's also the man who lorded over a team that flamed out at the end of last season when most people had the Cowboys pegged as preseason Super Bowl favorites. Look at it this way: If Jones can swallow a $9 million salary-cap hit to release Terrell Owens, he can find the courage to fire a coach who's not going to lead his team to the promised land.
5. Marvin Harrison asks for his release from the Indianapolis Colts: Hey, it would be hard for most people to take a pay cut when your contract calls for a $9 million salary and you've got 1,102 receptions to your name. But when Harrison balked and told the Colts he wanted out, he quickly found out just how chilly the open market can be for a 36-year-old wide receiver coming off the two worst seasons of his career. Oh, yeah: Let's not forget there are legal issues for Harrison in Philadelphia. In other words, he was better off finding a way to work things out in Indy.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.