Aquib Talib, whose 2013 season ended at the hands of the Denver Broncos will suit up in orange and blue in 2014.
The NFL free agency period always results in a flurry of activity, especially during the first few days. Teams are often desperate to make a quick splash and land the biggest names in free agency before someone else does. Sometimes, this pays off, transforming a team overnight, other times desperation results in overpaying for stars who will under perform, and under deliver. Who are the big winners, and losers of free agency so far? Join us after the jump, as we take a look
Good Move: Denver Broncos Shore up Defense.
The Denver Broncos had the hottest offense in football in 2013, and rode this to the Super Bowl. But their defensive frailties were exposed to great effect by the Seattle Seahawks in one of the most lop-sided championship games in recent memory.
Fortunately for the team, they were not willing to sit back and let history repeat itself, adding three of the hottest defensive free agents to their team in the first four days of free agency. The team added T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware to their roster, significantly bolstering their secondary and pass rush.
Yes, the team look set to lose Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, after he reportedly turned down a six-year $54 million deal, and some would therefore argue that Talib is only a mild upgrade at corner.
But the real win here is that the Broncos signaled their intent to compete in 2014, and demonstrated a willingness to spend money to do so. How the Broncos have the cap space to do this, while carrying players like Peyton Manning, and Wes Welker is anyone’s guess, clearly their cap gurus are earning their keep, but with this strong commitment to improvement on an already stellar 2013 season, the team look set for another deep run.
Bad Move: Eric Decker Made Saviour Of New York Jets.
Whenever you are relying on a single player to turn around your franchise, fans beware. When that player is a mid-tier wide receiver, you know you’re heading for real trouble.
Eric Decker was a key part of the Denver Broncos AFC Championship offense in 2013. He posted 1,288 yards, and 11 touchdowns, and parlayed that into the contract he felt he deserved, and knew that he would not get in Denver. The problem is, Decker was being thrown to by one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, Peyton Manning, and wasn’t even the top receiver on the team, Demaryius Thomas topped him in yards, and both him and Julius Thomas posted more touchdowns.
Decker is, in no way a bad receiver, he is a good one, but he is nonetheless one whose stats were padded by those around him. In Denver he was one of many targets for the best passer in the league. He was rarely matched up against the best cornerback on the opposing team, and was almost never double covered. His catches were easier because of this. He is a number two WR, who benefited greatly from his circumstance.
In New York, he becomes the number one receiver on the team by a long distance. He is the only true receiving target Geno Smith, a far from proven passer, will have. He will be blanketed by teams top corners, and will often be double covered. Though his salary has skyrocketed, and he will undoubtedly see his number of targets improve, the rest of his stats will likely suffer, and his chances of a Super Bowl ring reduce to practically zero unless the Jets make some big strides forward over the coming weeks.
Good Moves: Arizona Cardinals Quietly Make Themselves Contenders.
The Arizona Cardinals are a good team who find themselves in a tough situation. The 2013 Cardinals finished the season at 10-6, a record which would have been enough to win several divisions in the NFC, and would have guaranteed a playoff berth were they in the AFC. Unfortunately, as they played in the NFC West, undoubtedly the toughest division in football today, even a winning record was far from guaranteed.
However, incrementally, the Arizona Cardinals are building a playoff caliber team, and making their intentions known.
By far the biggest signing for the team was bringing in Jared Veldheer to bolster their offensive line. The Cardinals left tackle spot has been the subject of much well deserved criticism in recent years. It has been a revolving door of busts and also-rans, but the former third round pick by the Raiders, Veldheer, finally brings some much-needed stability to the position.
Many Cardinals were disappointed that the team were not in play for Brandon Albert, whom the team had named a target in the off-season.
For sure, Albert is a great left tackle, and arguably the better talent of the two, but not by much. What’s more Veldheer is younger, already has a rapport with quarterback Carson Palmer, and more importantly, was much cheaper. By all accounts, the Cardinals actually ranked out Veldheer a little higher, on balance than Albert, but assumed that the Raiders would franchise tag the 26 year old. When they did not, the Cardinals had to move.
Knowing that 2013 first round pick Jonathan Cooper would be returning from injury in 2014, the team were right to add the younger Veldheer to the lineup, building around a young core of offensive linemen. The Cardinals pass protection should improve greatly in 2014, and only continue to do so over the coming years.
In signing Veldheer to a five-year, $35 million contract, versus Albert’s $46 million deal, the Cardinals leave themselves room to make extra splashes in the free agency market, while still having space to hammer out a long-term deal with star cornerback Patrick Peterson.
They wasted no time addressing their second biggest need, a speedy receiver, compounded by the loss of Andre Roberts, with the addition of receiver and kick returner Ted Ginn Jr. Ginn could prove to be a steal at only $9.75 million over three seasons, of which only a little more than $5 million is guaranteed.
Ginn joins the already potent tandem of Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, to round out one of the most dangerous—on paper at least—receiving groups in the league.
And with Antonio Cromartie reportedly in play to join Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu in the Cardinals secondary, the team seem set to have a real shot at a playoff berth in 2014.
Bad Move: Karlos Dansby Leaving Arizona For Cleveland.
While the Cardinals were right not to break the bank bringing back, it’s hard to argue that losing the player is not somewhat of a blow to the team. Sure, the team have the young Kevin Minter primed and ready to take over from the aging Dansby, and indeed, were prepared to run with him in 2013, had Dansby not fallen into their laps, it’s hard to argue that, at least in the short-term, it’s not something of a downgrade.
However, the Cardinals aren’t the losers here. After all, the same thing happened when he left the team for Miami earlier in his career, and the result was the breakout of Daryl Washington.
No, the real losers here are Dansby and the Browns. To say that the Browns overpaid for Dansby is a real understatement. Dansby is 32. He’s been given a four-year contract, meaning that the Browns are betting he will still be playing at a top-level aged 36. His $24 million contract, with $14 million in guaranteed is simply too much for a player of his age.
There is simply too much talent out there at linebacker to still be paying a 36-year-old the same money as star 10 years his junior, coming into the best years of his career.
And the reality is, the Browns are a team in rebuilding, with too many other big needs to be spending that sort of money on a player like Dansby, who doesn’t even address a significant need. Dansby represents a small upgrade on D’Qwell Jackson, whom he replaces, but Jackson is both a little younger and a little cheaper.
It’s easy to imagine how Dansby’s decision was made—Not only the yearly figure higher, the Browns deal is for double the length of time, and even if he doesn’t play all four years, the guaranteed money in the Browns deal is worth the same as the total amount the Cardinals offered, even if he met all escalators.
However, it’s a more difficult case to make the argument that it was the right decision for him. With the Cardinals, Dansby was an important, but not integral, part of a team with immediate championship aspirations. In Arizona, he had the support of younger men around him to help keep him active and involved in the game, without being the cornerstone of the team as he ages. The team’s impressive supporting cast will continue to help pad his stats as his skill set decreases.
In Cleveland, Dansby has the pressure of replacing a fan favorite, and locker-room leader in Jackson. He immediately needs to become one of the cornerstones of their defense. Moreover, he will need to continue to be so for the foreseeable future because of his salary. He is already speaking about being one of the catalysts which help turn the team around over the coming years.
Though he does not doubt his own abilities, and believes he is able to do this, the team is still lacking several significant components before they can be considered a championship team. The turn around looks likely to take at least a few more seasons, and whether Dansby will still be as confident in his ability at this point remains to be seen.
Good Moves: Buccaneers Hoping For Quick Turn Around
Lovie Smith has wasted no time stamping his own identity on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This is no bad thing, because identity was one of the things the team sorely lacked in 2013.
The Bucs were one of the worst teams in the NFL in 2013, but in Smith they have an experienced and established head coach to rally around.
Smith has already started to fill out his roster with the sort of players which fit his mentality. Established leaders like Alterraun Verner, on an affordable four-year, $26.5 million contract, and defensive end Michael Johnson were a clear signal of intent for the team. After that, the team have largely focused on solid lesser known players, with high up side, like Clinton McDonald and Anthony Collins, giving the team the tools they need to continue to make strides.
Even the decision to bring in the much maligned Josh McCown at quarterback—a decision which has been criticised by some—has plenty of upside. At 34, McCown has never even played a full season in the NFL, and no-one considers him a long-term solution in Tampa. But he is an experienced and dependable backup, who still has one or two serviceable seasons left in him. McCown is cheap, and provides a good stop-gap while the Buccaneers find and develop their quarterback of the future.
Bad Moves: The Oakland Raiders Off Season So Far
With $66 million in cap room coming into the free agency period, the world was their oyster. With that much cap room, the team could outbid any team, for any player who was willing to meet with them. Though they had one or two key in-house free agent signings to deal with, they would still have had finances available to buy their way into contention in 2014.
Instead, they have sat by and watched their off-season implode.
Coming into the free agency period, everyone agreed that their priorities were keeping left tackle Jared Veldheer and defensive end Lamarr Houston in black and silver. Figuring out a long-term deal for at least one of these seemed inevitable, even if it forced them to franchise tag the other.
Instead, they allowed Veldheer to leave for Arizona on deal they could easily have upped, while allowing Houston to join the Chicago Bears on a five-year, $35 million deal, which frankly beggars belief that they could not match.
Worse still, the players they have signed simply do not make sense. The team have struggled to convince any of the big name free agents to visit with them, but have nonetheless paid those second-tier stars as if they were.
They signed right tackle Austin Howard, a player who would struggle to make the top-50 list of available free agents to an eye-watering 5-year $30 million deal, after having already agreed to a $42.5 million 5-year deal with left tackle Roger Saffold.
Things went from bad to worse for the team when Saffold failed a physical, and the contract was voided, only to return to St. Louis to sign a 5-year deal for $31 million, much closer to his market value. Not only was this an embarrassment for the team, and their fans—Saffold’s parents were reportedly en route to Oakland to witness the signing—but demonstrated just how out of control their valuations were.
Worse still, there simply aren’t any guaranteed starters at left tackle left in the free agency pool, effectively forcing the team to both reach for one in the draft, and probably double dip at left tackle to cover their backs.
After this, the team once again overpaid for the ailing and injury prone Justin Tuck—a player who has started every game in a season just twice in his 10 year career—to a two-year, $11 million deal. Tuck did experience somewhat of a resurgence in 2013, but even by his own admission felt the Raiders overpaid for him. According to the New York Daily News, Tuck didn’t even need the Giants to match the Raiders offer. Tuck admitted that “…at the beginning of free agency I’m going in thinking I’m not looking for a lot… I probably would’ve took somewhere around a two-year deal, $8 million.” The Giants didn’t even value him at that amount, making an offer roughly half of what the Raiders eventually paid.
General manager Reggie McKenzie knew he was coming into this off-season fighting for his job. Thus far, all he has done is prove that the Raiders made a huge mistake not ridding themselves of him sooner. All signs point to the fact that McKenzie may not even be in charge come draft day. But the fact remains, the team are handcuffed to some of McKenzie’s bad decisions, even if not the man himself, for the next half a decade.