Friday, March 14, 2014

Winners and Losers from NFL Free Agency… So Far

DeMarcus Ware is one of the greatest players in Cowboys history, but he's also old. Like, old enough to be in a picture hitting Donovan McNabb.
By Joe Parello  @HerewegoJoe

Free agency has certainly been eventful thus far.

With the salary cap jumping nearly $10 million to $133 million total, teams had money to spend, and spend they did. Plenty of franchises went "all in," splurging on veterans that can help them win now, while other teams added long-term projects, hoping to lay the foundation for a championship run years down the road.

Either way, here are a few winners and losers, along with a few teams that could go either way, from the first work-week of NFL free agency. I know, we should all be paying attention to the NBA/NHL home stretches and college basketball conference tournaments, but this is America... You know you want to hear more about football, even when training camps don't open for over four months.


Denver Broncos

The Broncos lost a solid possession receiver in Eric Decker, but did everything in their power to turn a porous defense into one of the league's most talented. The release of Champ Bailey freed up enough cap room for Denver to do some serious shopping, and John Elway was able to lute Aqib Talib away from rival New England.

Then, with the signing of safety T.J. Ward, the Broncos added enough talent on the back end to turn a perceived weakness (pass defense) into a strength. The final big addition of the week, future Hall of Fame pass rusher DeMarcus Ware, was simply the icing on the cake. If he and Von Miller can stay on the field all year, things could get scary.

Make no mistake, Denver had to overpay and over commit to these players in terms of contract length, but it will be all worth it if a reloaded Broncos squad takes home the Lombardi Trophy next February.

New England Patriots

Once the Broncos made their splashes, New England needed to do SOMETHING to appease its rarely satisfied fans. Well, Bill Belichick and company may have outdone themselves, signing All Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis to a one-year, $12 million deal.

The signing is cap friendly, provides an upgrade over the now departed Aqib Talib, and puts Revis in "show me" mode so that he can get his next big pay day.

Still, excitement should be tempered in Foxboro, as the AFC Champion Broncos made enough moves to remain conference favorites, plus star defensive tackle Vince Wilfork has reportedly asked to be released after the Patriots asked him to take a pay cut.

That being said, the addition of Revis and return to health of several key defensive players should greatly improve the Patriots D. They'll be there at the end of the season, just like they always are.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers front office clearly believes they are closer to the team that finished 2013 6-2 than the one that began the year 2-6. With that in mind, Pittsburgh extended Troy Polamalu to make his deal more cap friendly, did the same with Ike Taylor, and re-signed Will Allen at a discount.

Then, in an effort to get younger, cheaper and faster across the defense, Pittsburgh let Ryan Clark walk, cut Lamarr Woodley, brought in former Panthers safety Mike Mitchell and transition tagged up-and-coming OLB Jason Worilds.

They didn't make the splashes other teams did, but with the rumored addition of Buffalo defensive lineman Alex Carrington, and Cincinnati losing some pieces, don't sleep on the Steelers to turn things around in the AFC North.


Cleveland Browns

The Browns continue to puzzle their fans with moves that seem to keep the team stuck in neutral, at best. With star safety T.J. Ward and captain linebacker D'Qwell Jackson hitting the free agent market, Cleveland decided to bring back neither. Rather, they decided to pay more for older players at both positions.

The Browns added safety Donte Whitner from the 49ers for four years and $28M and linebacker Karlos Dansby from Arizona for four years, $24M. In Whitner, they are getting a good safety, but one that is a year older than Ward, and comes for an extra $5M over the length of the contract.

Dansby is also a year older than Jackson, and cost Cleveland an extra $2M. Maybe these moves will pay off, but the Browns essentially took two strengths and traded them in for older, more expensive replacements, while not spending money to address any of their many holes.

To make matters worse, Cleveland released quarterbacks Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell, and Matt Schaub is supposedly at the top of their short list of replacements. If that falls through, Rex Grossman is next in line.

Dear God.

New York Jets

The Jets shelled out some serious cash for Eric Decker (5-years, $36.25M), but still lack any player on offense that truly strikes fear into opposing defenses. Decker is a great possession receiver that seems to have sitck'em on his hands, but he isn't the game changer you can build an offense around.

New York made no other moves to improve the offense around young quarterback Geno Smith, and the plans to bring back Darrelle Revis and return the defense to playoff form never materialized. Like the Browns, this looks like a team stuck in neutral.

San Diego Chargers

San Diego's signing of Donald Brown for three years and over $10 million ($4M guaranteed) is the biggest head scratcher of free agency for me. Brown was always a "gym rat" and emotional player, but he never lived up to his first round potential in Indianapolis,

Perhaps former Colts executive Tom Telesco, now San Diego's GM, knows something we don't about Brown, but he looks like a below-average addition to a backfield that already included Ryan Matthews and "gym rat" Danny Woodhead. The former is a far better pure runner than Brown, while the latter is light years ahead of him catching the ball.

Both will be making less money than the former Colt.

San Diego did do one thing right, however, in re-signing star linebacker Donald Butler to a 7-year $52 million deal. Butler is only 25, and the team can opt out of the deal after three years, so even though it's a long one, it could end up saving them money either way. If Butler remains a force, they have him locked down until he's 32, but if he falls off a cliff, they can cut him at no cost in 2016.

Cincinnati Bengals

Cincy has been a playoff team the last few years, but the Bengal defense will lose some serious bite with Michael Johnson headed to Tampa and Geno Atkins coming off major surgery. Corner Brandon Ghee, a nice fit in former coordinator Mike Zimmer's scheme, skipped town for San Diego, and it looks like the defense that broke down a bit late in the season is a question mark.

Unless Andy Dalton makes a quantum leap this year, Cincy's offense won't be good enough to make up a "pretty good" defense, so a return to form for Atkins is a must with Johnson out the door. The loss of offensive tackle Anthony Collins could force guard Andrew Whitworth back outside to LT, causing another major reshuffle on the interior of the Bengals' offensive line. The line seemed to wear down at the end of the year, but Collins was an outstanding blind side protector for Dalton. Without him, the explosive, but slow developing,  Cincinnati pass offense could take a step back.

Could Go Either Way

Jacksonville Jaguars

Well, they're making moves, and they're getting tougher. The Jags added a plethora of physical offensive linemen. Some of the "meh" variety, like tackle Sam Young, who has never started a game, but also star guard Zane Beadles from Denver.

Did I say they got tougher? Jacksonville inked the thighs of Palo Alto, signing Toby Gerhart to a contract identical to Donald Brown's. Gerhart was quietly one of the best backup running backs in the league (4.7 YPC), playing understudy to the super human Adrian Peterson in Minnesota. His physical "between-the-tackles" style will inject some attitude into the Jacksonville offense, and he's a better receiver than you think (77 catches in four years of limited action).

On defense, the Jags re-signed Jason Babin, then added both Chris Clemons and Red Bryant from that tough Seattle front. They then added defensive tackle/end Ziggy Hood from Pittsburgh. It remains to be seen if Babin can continue his resurgent play from 2013, plus Clemons hasn't been the same player since an ACL injury in 2012. Bryant looks like a solid signing, but Hood has gone from average to above-average and back to average during his time with the Steelers.

A new defense could be just what the doctor ordered, as Hood often looked lost in Pittsburgh's 3-4, and would likely benefit from moving back inside to tackle, but I'm not entirely sure what to make of all these signings. Even Gerhart, who I love, isn't the prototypical "modern" running back. I like the direction Jacksonville's going, but they're the Jags so I'll temper my enthusiasm.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

At first I had Tampa penciled into the "losers" section, simply for cutting one of the two best corners in football. But, after the Revis release, the Bucs made a splash, landing corner Alterraun Verner, a great player in a his own right, for 4-years, $26.5M. That's a huge reduction from Revis' salary, and Verner is one of the best in the business.

Tampa then used some of their savings on temporary fixes, and a few long-term projects. Josh McCown will come in and should give Mike Glennon, who showed potential as a rookie last season, a run for the starting job. Whoever win the quarterback battle in camp, Tampa will have a better idea whether or not Glennon is their long-term solution, and if he isn't, they've just added a guy that is good enough to start for a playoff team (if the right pieces are around him).

The Bucs also added offensive tackle Anthony Collins and defensive end Michael Johnson from Cincinnati. I love the Johnson signing, as I thought he was tremendously underrated, and stepped his game up in a major way after Geno Atkins went down for the Bengals last year.

The Collins signing I'm not sure about. He hasn't played a lot of tackle, moving from guard earlier in his career, but he was fantastic in pass protection once moved to LT. Conversely, the Cincy ground game slowed as the season wore on, and there are questions about his ability to "make hay" against better run defenders.

If Collins settles in and becomes an elite tackle, while Johnson makes the front seven even scarier, the Bucs have the talent to win, even with average quarterback play. If not, they'll be relying on Josh McCown to recreate his 2013 magic with a lesser supporting cast.

Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles think they're close.

That much is clear, as they re-upped Jeremy Maclin, coming off an ACL injury, for one year and $6 million. It's a "show me" contract for the slot reviver, but the Eagles showed far more commitment to Riley Cooper, whom they re-signed for five years and $22.5M. Man, it was a big offseason for white receivers.

I'm always wary of players coming off ACL surgery, though advancements in medical procedures have made recoveries quicker and easier, and I've never been that big of a Cooper fan.

Another move Philly made to "win now," wasn't a signing, but rather a trade. The Eagles sent a 5th round pick to New Orleans for running back Darren Sproles. This is another one of those, "this should be interesting" moves.

Sproles is one of the best pass catching backs in football, and a great return guy, but he'll be 31 by the time camp opens, and there's a reason the Saints were looking to cut him before Philadelphia showed trade interest. It gives Chip Kelly another versatile weapon to tinker with, but you have to wonder where he'll fit in on an offense featuring Maclin, Cooper, and even more importantly, receiver DeSean Jackson and Pro Bowl running back LeSean McCoy.

McCoy can do pretty much everything Sproles can do at this point, and perhaps Philadelphia would have been better served finding a back that complimented him better (maybe a physical guy, like Gerhart?). Like I said, we'll see how this one plays out, but one thing is for sure: The Eagles will again be must-see TV in 2014.

No comments :