The first few days of NFL free agency are a jumble of names, rumors, and fan delusion (mostly the fan delusion). No matter how many times we see a team win a Super Bowl on the back of solid drafting and player development, early March always becomes a time when the next big name is going to put that offseason champion over the top. After a week or so, the big prizes are gone, and attention turns to the next set of saviors — that year’s crop of first-round picks.
Moves that go down in May never come with the same fanfare, but especially with the current salary-cap landscape in the NFL (with player salaries outpacing the cap), there are still bargains to be had. There are still more than a handful of players out there who can make a difference for a team, this year and beyond, and to help sift through them, we put together what we hope is a helpful primer.
2012 team: Kansas City Chiefs
Winston was the most notable casualty during the regime change in Kansas City (aside from Matt Cassel, I guess, but c’mon). He signed a four-year, $22 million deal with the Chiefs last offseason after being cut by the Texans, but with John Dorsey and Andy Reid coming to town and two franchise left tackles sitting there with the no. 1 pick, Winston was shown the door. Kansas City seems to have a better plan in place than Houston did a year ago. The right side of the Texans’ offensive line was a shuffling mess last season without their former right tackle, but now that the Branden Albert trade with Miami has fallen through, Kansas City will likely have no. 1 pick Eric Fisher on the left side and the franchised Albert on the right.
The free-agent market is one week old, and the past three days have seen the flood of new contracts slow to a trickle, but there's still plenty of talent available at virtually every position. The players who were on the market when free agency opened last week have been joined by a secondary crop of released veterans, most of whom are yet to sign with a new team. It's such a deep market, in fact, that there are still players of dramatically different archetypes available. There are young guys who deserve a larger role, veterans who can still contribute in rotations or situationally, and buy-low candidates who could be much more than their recent performance seems to suggest. Thanks, stagnant salary cap!
Who's left? I thought you'd never ask. I'll go position-by-position and break down those players who are left in one of several different roles. Keep in mind that I'll be trying to guess which role they'll fit into over the next year or two, as opposed to what they were in the past, so Michael Turner, for instance, might not fit into the category that he would have two or three years ago. (And that category was "Players without gigantic forks sticking out of their backs.")
Lost amid all of yesterday’s free-agent chatter was the news that after 12 seasons, Steve Hutchinson’s NFL career is over. Ray Lewis and Tony Gonzalez were the names oft-mentioned this offseason when discussing all-time greats walking away from the game, but Hutchinson belongs in any conversation about the best players of the past 10 years. A seven-time All-Pro and a member of the NFL’s ’00s All-Decade Team, Hutchinson isn’t just one of the best guards of his era — he’s one of the best guards of all-time.
The timing of the announcement is fitting, mostly because of how Hutchinson fits into the thought process about how teams should be built. From his time in Seattle and Minnesota, Hutchinson represents a way of valuing interior line play that often goes overlooked but is rarely regretted. Likely filling Hutchinson’s role in Tennessee will be free-agent prize Andy Levitre, who owes at least part of his six-year, $46.8 million contract to Hutchinson.
The weekend did not go very well for Miami, with Peyton Manning reportedly removing the organization from his list of possible landing spots before Matt Flynn signed a three-year deal with the Seahawks on Sunday. The Dolphins responded to that news by bringing in 49ers starter Alex Smith for contract talks, just as Smith's former employers were revealed to be a mystery team in the Manning sweepstakes. Oh, and while the Dolphins could theoretically have gone for Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill with the eighth overall pick in this year's draft, Peter King of Sports Illustrated is reporting that there is a good chance that Tannehill won't last to that spot, with the Browns considering a move for him at no. 4.
As it turns out, Buffalo was more than a leverage stop for Mario Williams. We expected Williams to use an offer from the Bills, an organization that hasn't won a playoff game since 1995, to get a similarly sized deal from a more prominent team. Instead, on Thursday morning Buffalo completed the most surprising free agent signing since Reggie White in 1993, locking up Williams with a six-year deal that guarantees him an incredible $50 million. And as free agent signings go, the deal sure feels like it leans closer to masterstroke than disaster.
The $50 million guarantee is the truly incredible thing about this deal. The previous record in guaranteed money for a defensive player in free agency was set by Albert Haynesworth, and depending on what source you see for that contract, the guaranteed figure was between $36 million and $41 million. If the $50 million figure is legitimate, it dwarfs the previous record and creates a new standard for dominant defensive players to approach. Without this deal, the Packers could have gone to Clay Matthews this offseason and creditably offered him $40 million in guaranteed money as part of a new deal; now, no. 52 will probably get $52 million in guarantees on his next contract.
Did the Bills overpay? Yes and no. In a way, they had to overpay, because they probably wouldn't have been able to lure Williams to Buffalo on a market-value deal. Maybe they whispered "$50 million" into Williams's agent's ear at the Combine and got his first visit as a result. Maybe they whispered "$40 million" instead, got him to show up, and upped their offer to $50 million when Williams left their facility on Tuesday night. It's hard to imagine that Williams would have chosen the Bills over most other teams in the NFL with money being equal, and it's also simultaneously hard to imagine anyone else in the league shelling out $50 million in guaranteed money for Williams. Heck, while we suggested that the Bills should make Williams a Godfather offer before free agency, even we didn't think they'd go to $50 million.
When teams overpay to acquire marginal talent in free agency and the decision takes some criticism, that team's fans usually respond with a fair-but-flawed argument: "We sucked at that position last year and we desperately need to improve there, so if we overpaid, that's life." It's what plenty of Redskins fans said Tuesday afternoon about Pierre Garcon, and it's what plenty of Jaguars fans said Wednesday about Laurent Robinson. So let's explain why that mode of thinking is troublesome, and how teams can use that desperation to their advantage as opposed to forcing themselves into bad decisions.
On Tuesday morning, word around the NFL was that the Bears were basically formalities away from locking up Vincent Jackson and Mario Williams. By 5 p.m., the Bears had acquired Brandon Marshall, but the Bills were now going to host Robert Meachem and Mario Williams and sign them both before their fans woke up the following morning. As the clock struck midnight on the East Coast, Meachem was on the Chargers, Williams was a free man, and we vowed to stop listening to the rumor mill. And then on Wednesday at 12:05 am on the East Coast, we started refreshing Twitter every five seconds while jonesing for our fix. We're only human.
By the end of a busy first day of free agency, the league had raided the wide receiver and cornerback aisles and left them barren, with 10 notable signings between the two positions alone. About half of those moves made a lick of sense, as logic took a backseat to getting (or spending) cash now. It is our duty to cover both the insightful and the incoherent, and so we start our look at Day 1 of free agency in Washington, where the Redskins defied the odds to pull off their best Redskins impersonation.
It's finally here! With free agency just 24 hours away, we finish up our free agent preview today with a look at the teams who we think should spend exorbitant sums of money to improve themselves over the next couple of weeks. And while last year's free agency period was overshadowed by the lockout and the mass confusion that emanated from said work stoppage, it's good to see that this year's shopping spree will not be overshadowed by any pressing NFL business that could have been resolved months ago.
Well, shit. Just when we thought Bountygate was going to occupy us for the next few weeks, the league decided to add a spending scandal to the mix and dramatically change the financial outlook for the Cowboys and Redskins. Toss in Peyton Manning's nationwide tour and the holding period that a fifth of the league seems to be in while waiting for his decision, and it seems like the crop of veteran free agents we expected to be the lead story are basically irrelevant right about now.
The Robert Griffin III trade on Friday night produced more than a marked uptick in celebrations on U Street; it set into motion a series of events that should have a profound impact on the NFL as it heads into free agency this week. We don't know how the trade between the Redskins and Rams will play out over the next five years, but we do know that there are nearly a dozen teams who felt the reverberations of the RG3 deal and its resulting events. Teams handing out makeup contracts! Cap space being carved out! Peyton Manning sleeping overnight in desperately desirous cities! We have to take the temperature of the rest of the league right now to see how this RG3 deal has, well, heated things up. (Get it?) (You get it, right?) (It's a fev OK, sorry.)
Our preview of free agency continues today with those teams who should go into free agency and hold steady, even if that's not what they actually end up doing. Of the four groups of teams that make up this free agent preview, this is the closest one to a "Leftovers" set, but there's no shame in that; you can't hit the free agent market hard every year, and some of these teams enjoy annual success without pounding the pavement in March.
Of course, there are exceptions for every team. Some of these franchises are likely to lay low unless there's a superstar that might fit the bill. Others will need to spend more time focusing on retaining their own free agents, and then a few need to just stay out of free agency for their own good. In all, this group should spend less money on new veteran free agents than the rest of the league, but we've tried to lay out scenarios where they could delve into the market to fill a hole or two. On Monday, we start with the spenders.
Although it might not seem like it right now, there actually will be more to free agency than Peyton Manning. While the talent pool isn't quite as deep as the group that hit the market last year, in Mario Williams, it has a franchise player that might be more valuable than last year's star, Nnamdi Asomugha. And while there are some thin spots at quarterback and offensive tackle, the list of available players goes pretty deep at key positions like wide receiver and cornerback. You could put together a pretty solid starting 22 without even having to touch restricted free agents or franchised players. No, really, look:
The markets have been wild these days. The Dow has snapped violently back and forth. The share prices of first European banks, then U.S. banks, then just about everything else lurched around — so much for traders' summer vacations. CNBC's programming has at times resembled ESPN's, with talking heads crowding the screen. Replace the words "Ochocinco’s catches this season" with "the price of gold" and the analysis and speculation sounded pretty much exactly the same.
So it's really no surprise that in an environment in which it's getting harder to distinguish between stocks and sports, New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese is starting to sound like an embattled hedge fund manager.