A review of the first week of free agency

As the first week of free agency comes to an end, we saw quite a few surprises. Players who we all thought would be gone, ended up staying with their respective teams, while others decided to part ways with their teams, despite being integral components both on and off the field.

We all love free agency because of the real-time action it encompasses. Signings are reported and confirmed within minutes and there is virtually no downtime from the time 4pm hits for the next week.

What we must not get carried away with is the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of free agency. It often takes a year or even more to see the impact that a free agent acquisition had on a team. It’s one issue we as fans and in general, in our society, have now. We want instant gratification on an acquisition and when analyzing it, we will only accept two extremes – the good extreme in which we know the player will perform more than admirably for his new team, or the bad extreme where fans criticize the move as soon as it happens, disregarding any transactions that may come afterwards.

Free agency is the first phase of a long off-season where teams try to improve themselves. Winning free ageny does not equate to being a sure-fire playoff or Super Bowl contender, but if cards are played right, it lays the foundation for future success. I singled out a few teams whose moves, or lack of moves, I wanted to discuss over the last week of free agency.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Love the Alteraunn Verner signing with the release of Darrelle Revis. I originally thought Revis would not be cut when the rumors first circulated. At worst, they get one more year out of Revis, you assume he plays better than he did last year with a better coach in Lovie Smith (although in a scheme that doesn’t fit him) and he’s on a $16 million deal where no money is guaranteed, therefore they could release him whenever they want. Well, they didn’t want to take that chance and went with Verner, a cornerback that had the third lowest quarterback rating in passes intended to his opposing receiver, behind guys like Richard Sherman. Verner signed a nice four-year deal worth $26.5 million with $14 million guaranteed, and at 25 years old with no injury history or recurrent issues with his contract, Verner will pay immediate dividends for Tampa Bay

I also think the Michael Johnson signing is a good value move for the Bucs. A deal of roughly $8 million per season is on the low-end for a relatively good pass rusher who can play the run as well. Johnson along with Da’Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn will form a nice defensive end rotation in Smith’s one gap defensive line system. The move should free up Gerald McCoy from being constantly double teamed. Speaking of defensive ends, don’t sleep on the Clinton McDonald move either. He should free up a lot of room for Gerald McCoy. He was often the big mauler up the middle for the Seahawks along with Brandon Mebane and Tony McDaniel.

Finally, I really like the signing of Josh McCown who has some familiarity with Lovie Smith. McCown will have the advent of a great stable of running backs, led by Doug Martin, who has good pass-catching prowess, similar to what McCown had in Chicago with Matt Forte. His receivers in Tampa Bay are more than formidable as well with Vincent Jackson as a five-time 1,000 yard receiver and Mike Williams, an emerging number. Tiquan Underwood and Timothy Wright are solid options as well. For everything critics said about McCown and how he was a system guy that benefited from great talent around him, he falls into a situation with a good quarterback and offensive guru in Jeff Tedford along with talent on offense. McCown will be a nice stopgap until they find their true franchise guy – clearly the Bucs do not believe in Mike Glennon enough.

The Bucs have also added center Evan Dietrich-Smith to the fold. I saw at least eight Packers games last season and Dietrich-Smith was one of the more imposing centers in the league. His acquisition by the Buccaneers will make their running game that much better.

Cleveland Browns: Karlos Dansby was one of the best linebackers last season. His 16 pass deflections were better than any linebacker including guys like Luke Kuechly and Lavonte David. The Browns will play a 3-4 defense under new head coach Mike Pettine, so Dansby will have a chance to flourish in a similar system that he ran last season with Ray Horton in 2012 and Todd Bowles in 2013.

The Donte Whitner signing I am not entirely sure of. You let go of a younger safety in T.J. Ward, who is more versatile. Ward is adept as a box safety, but he can still play decent in coverage when required. Whitner, however, has been a relative sieve in pass coverage, especially last season as he was routinely beat via long passes. You have to like Whitner’s impose vicious hits to opposing running backs and receivers coming across the middle but he also brings experience and a winning attitude to a team that has severely lacked it. Still, Ward is the younger and better player and went to the Broncos with a cheaper price tag.

Ben Tate, who I profiled in my free agency primer for running backs, was the best at the position in this class. It took him some time, but there was never a doubt that the Browns were his number one target. Considering Willis McGahee averaged 2.7 yards per carry behind a solid offensive line, Tate should easily supplant that mark and rush for over 1,000 yards, as long as he stays healthy. Kyle Shanahan has coached in Houston and Washington and he’s always had team that were in the top-five in rushing yards. Look for the Browns to deploy a zone-blocking scheme and for Tate, who’s benefited from such a system in the past to flourish.

Denver Broncos: All In. Those are the first two words  I think of when I look at the moves the Broncos made. Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware and the aforementioned T.J. Ward. The Broncos got gashed on defense at certain points last season and they finished 27th in the league in opposing passing yards with over 257 per game. Ware gets added to the fold with a returning Von Miller, which could prove to be one of the scariest pass rushing duos in the league. Talib graded very highly and averaged a 58 percent completion percentage against, a mark that bested Darrelle Revis’ 58 percent. Concerning Ward, the Broncos are getting a true “box-safety” similar to the likes of Steve Atwater, John Lynch and Brian Dawkins, former Broncos safeties that have laid the hammer to opposing wide receivers in the past.  The dollar figures are okay in my books, with Ware and Talib getting $30 million and $57 million deals on three and six-year terms respectively.  The guaranteed figures are $20 million for Ware and $26 for Talib and although the Ware deal carries some risk with his age heading south of 30, you have to believe that a player with over 120 sacks in his career, still has some ammunition left in his arsenal. Talib’s deal is fair as long as he can stay healthy and avoid issues off the field. Ward’s deal, at 4 years, $23 million, is a relative bargain for his age. He’s been a tackling machine every season and his game has improved considerably. The Broncos were porous against tight ends in 2013, which is an area where Ward can factor into.  ‘All in’ seems to be the motto for John Elway and the Broncos realizing that Peyton Manning will not be playing forever. Finally, signing Emmanuel Sanders is a low-risk move that could pay dividends. I’m not impressed with his production though, as he averaged only 30 receiving yards per game in the last eight games of the season. Still, his speed and quickness will be added dimensions to the Broncos offense.

Indianapolis Colts: Ryan Grigson has to be included in a short line of general managers that do not mind rolling the dice. He’s done it with the acquisition of Vontae Davis and Trent Richardson and he virtually started off free agency with the signing of Arthur Brown. Brown, a former Raven will fit in perfectly in the Colts’ 3-4 scheme as a defensive end. Grigson wasn’t done there as he quickly pounced on D’Qwell Jackson, one of the more respected players in the league who was released by the Browns. He also, fits well in Chuck Pagano’s 3-4 as an inside linebacker who can plug holes and stop the run.

The Hakeem Nicks move is a solid one, although expectations will need to be tempered. Nicks had a fine 2010 and 2011 seasons averaging just under 80 catches, 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns. Those numbers dropped to 53 catches and 850 yards over the next two seasons with only three combined touchdowns in that period. He struggled with injuries in 2011 and 2012 and had questions about his work ethic. There were reports that Nicks didn’t want to undergo his treatments and was often late for practice. The former Tar Heel has the talent to be better than what his numbers indicate, but one has to believe that if he couldn’t produce in a great environment with good veteran leadership and in a strong organization, what motivation does he have to do well with the Colts. At leas the one-year “prove it” deal with incentives gives him some motivation to get back to his 2010-2011 form. For the Colts, it’s a low-risk (base salary at $3.5 million with up to $2 million in incentives) high-reward when pairing Nicks with Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen. The Colts could have one of the best aerial attacks in the league.

Oakland Raiders: I’m not entirely sure where the Raiders are going here. Last season, it looked like they were rebuilding trying to get younger. This off-season, they appear to be confused as to what they want to do. As a Giants fan, my admiration for Justin Tuck will never waver. The guy was a great leader and a very solid player against the run and pass, but he along with the acquisition of Antonio Smith, Lamar Woodley and Tarrell Brown suggest that there really is no vision for this Raiders franchise. Many of these players are already past their prime, probably with the exception of Smith who still had a strong season as a 3-4 defensive end opposite the side of J.J. Watt. Woodley has been brutal with a combined 9 sacks in the last two season and Brown, who 49ers fans will give you many testimonials, is a guy who gets beaten in coverage a fair amount of the time. The Raiders would have been better served keeping players like Lamaar Houston and Jared Velderheer.

Speaking of which, the debacle with Roger Saffold is the type of gaffe that could cause a general manager his job. To completely whiff on Saffold’s physical, lose your own left tackle, one that is on the cusp of being a premier player, and be left with nothing in the process, is the stuff of amateurs. The worst part of it all is that Saffold is a player with no real position: not nimble enough to be a left tackle and struggles against speed rushers on the right side. He’s also quite injury prone having deal with knee issues for most of his career. The Raiders, who had offered a 5-year $42 million deal, ended up voiding the contract after the failed physical, which propelled Safford to sign back with the Rams for $11 million less. An utter embarrassment of a situation for Reggie McKenzie and the Raiders wound up blowing up in their faces.

Miami Dolphins: The ‘Phins came into the off-season with a clear need at offensive line. Ryan Tannehill was sacked 58 times, which was the highest total in the league. The lack of protection has been a thorn on his side, stunting his growth towards being an upper-echelon quarterback from the studded 2012 quarterback-heavy draft. The Dolphins acted fast signing former Chiefs tackle Brandon Albert to a 5-year $47 million deal with $25 million guaranteed. Albert was a candidate to be traded to Miami last off-season before finally being franchised by the Chiefs. As a pass-protector, he’s one of the better tackles in the league, although he struggles as a run-blocker. Nevertheless, he was among the best left tackles available on the open market and the Dolphins filled a massive need. They also signed Rams guard Shelley Smith to bolster up the line.

New general manager Dennis Hickey has made it a point to improve the secondary. They already re-signed Brent Grimes, who graded as a top-five corner last season and they picked up solid veterans in Cortland Finnegan and Louis Delmas. Randy Starks, who anchors their run defense, was retained. Starks will miss having Paul Soliai, as both have been studs up the middle of the defensive line, but his return is imperative for the Dolphins to continue to be a physical force against the run.

New England Patriots: We had to figure that the Patriots would be up to something as soon as Aqib Talib signed with the Broncos. Word was quickly spread that Darrelle Revis would be an option in Foxboro and after some quick negotiation, the five-time Pro Bowler signed on for a one-year deal worth $12 million. As good as Talib is, he is no Darrelle Revis, who’s arguably been the best corner in the league in four of the past six seasons. The Patriots have always had that one lockdown corner that they can trot out there, from Ty Law, to Asante Samuel, Talib and now Revis. Forget the fact that their numbers are the same, Law and Revis have skill sets that are very indistinguishable, as they both possess the size, physicality and smarts that have made them top corners. I look for Revis to challenge Richard Sherman as the best corner in the league playing for Bill Belichick’s scheme.

The Patriots also added the imposing Brandon Browner. The former Seahawk will miss the first four games of the season as he was suspended for another violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. Browner is the perfect number two corner who can jam receivers at the line of scrimmage and disrupt routes. Along with Alfonzo Dennard, the Patriots have, potentially, the best secondary in the league.

Carolina Panthers: The off-season started off on the wrong foot with the retiring of long-time player Jordan Gross. Gross has been a three-time Pro Bowler and has gotten better as his career has progressed. There were then reports of Steve Smith being a locker room distraction. Apparently, he was lauding his work ethic too blatantly to other players, and they became tired of the same speech every year. Whatever the issue, Smith (now signed with Baltimore) was released after a 12-year career in Carolina, which he appeared in five Pro Bowls. The Panthers opted to not retain the services of their other three receivers, as Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon signed respectively with the Patriots, Cardinals and Bears, respectively. While I can see them needing a new receiving corps, it is quite baffling that they have let go of all their starters and have no made any significant moves to bolster that part of their offense. Cam Newton is still a developing quarterback and while he has made strides, analysts and fans alike have all witnessed a player who is doing a lot with a lesser core of receivers.

The move that I hated was the Panthers letting go of Mike Mitchell. I thought Mitchell was one of the most underrated safeties last season. He was great against the pass and solid versus the run, recording 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and four interceptions, helping the Panthers become one of the best defenses in the league. The decision to not retain him is a move general manager Dave Gettleman will soon regret. Mitchell (who signed with the Steelers) was a complete safety, often coming down into the box and supplying more than adequate run support. The Panthers opted to go after a player, six years Mitchell’s senior in Roman Harper. Injuries and poor play have relegated Harper to a mediocre safety that cannot cover anyone in the deep third of the field. Harper can still lay ball-jarring hits with the best of them, but he’s too slow-footed to make any real impact in coverage.

Other free agent moves

I love what the Giants did in bolstering their secondary with the signing of Quentin Demps, Walter Thurmond and possibly Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie…Speaking of New York; the Jets got a bargain for Decker. Regardless whether his numbers were aided by having Peyton Manning as a quarterback, Decker, who had production that mirrored many number one receivers, was signed for five years and $35 million, with $15 million guaranteed. In an era where receivers are getting $56 million and nearly $30 million guaranteed, for paltry results, the Jets got a great deal for Decker…Not too sure about the Jason Hatcher deal. The dollars are fine, at 4 years $27 million, with $10 million guaranteed, but I am weary of his lone great season coming in a contract year. He’s always been solid, but he suddenly became a Pro Bowler out of nowhere, at age 31. I’m also curious to see where he will play. He produced his best season as a 4-3 three-technique and in Washington; he’ll be a 3-4 defensive end. His 11.5 sacks does lay credence to the possibility that he can fight through double teams and continue to get pressure in a 3-4, but I would temper expectations if I was a Redskins fan…Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro? Good luck to the NFC South teams. Byrd has 21 interceptions in three seasons and Vaccaro had a strong rookie campaign. Rob Ryan is jonesing for the season to start…Although not a free agent signing, Darren Sproles’ trade to Philadelphia should make for some amazing offensive shenanigans from Chip Kelly. LeSean McCoy and Sproles are two of the best juke artists in the league and they are tremendous as pass catchers (52 and 71 catches a piece) . This is a big-time move by the Eagles…Julius Peppers to the Packers is a great fit. Look, he’s not the 6’6, 280 pound 4.4 40-yard dash running monster from his early years, but he can still rush the passer or help support the run. He’ll play defensive end in a 3-4, but it’ll be very interesting to see him as a standup linebacker opposite of Clay Matthew. Havoc will be raised with Peppers being let go by his former team and new division rival, the Chicago Bears…Speaking of Peppers, his exit meant the signing of Lamaar Houston, who could be everything Peppers was as a towering defensive end. His sack totals are low, but he is a complete player who can stuff the run, provide pressure to the quarterback.

This was one of the most interesting years in free agency because every position had depth. There are still a bevy of players available on offense, but it was clear that defense was the primary focus for many teams in the first week of free agency. Tune into the Pick Six Live Podcast with Rob Grosso, Rick Dieudonné and myself as we look at all the free agent moves of the week.

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