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2012 NFL Free Agent Predictions: 10 Signings That History Will Vindicate

Avi Wolfman-ArentCorrespondent IIMarch 19, 2012

2012 NFL Free Agent Predictions: 10 Signings That History Will Vindicate

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    Fortune, they say, favors the bold.

    That would bode well for teams making waves in this year's NFL free-agent market. After all, there is nothing bolder than building through free agency in a league slanted toward the draft and player development.

    If only it were that easy. If only fortune-cookie platitudes told us all we needed to know about complex business dealings worth multiple millions of dollars.

    If they did, the Philadelphia Eagles would be world champions. Of course the Eagles are on the precipice of a coaching change, and spending seems to have, at best, a love-hate relationship with winning.

    All that said, which of this offseason's many dice rolls will come up roses?

    Read on for best guesses, and, from the looks of things, more meandering prose.

     

    A note on salaries:

    Details of all contracts are not yet public. I did my best to find information on total and guaranteed money, but in some cases, we're left to fill in the blanks.

Cortland Finnegan (St. Louis Rams)

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    The Deal: Five years, $50 Million ($24 million guaranteed)

    Cortland Finnegan's agreement with the Rams reminds me of the deal Houston made with Johnathan Joseph last year.

    The numbers are comparable—Joseph signed for five years and $48.75 million with $23.5 million guaranteed—and so are the players. Neither is a shutdown corner in the Darrelle Revis/Champ Bailey/Deion Sanders mold, but both are reliable, above-average players at an important position.

    Finnegan has been healthy and productive for the better part of five years, and at 28, he fits into the Rams' long-term outlook. He's a player they can grow and plan around, using the draft picks Washington gave them for this year's second overall selection to build a cost-effective supporting cast.

    In three to five years, when those future picks hit the open market, Finnegan's deal will enter its non-guaranteed phase. At that point, St. Louis can re-assess its strengths and either continue forward with Finnegan or save that money for the most productive youngsters.

Jared Gaither (San Diego Chargers)

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    The Deal: Four years, $24.5 million*

    It's a small sample size, but Jared Gaither sure looked like a franchise cornerstone in his five games with the San Diego Chargers last year.

    Not only did he not allow a sack, the tape showed a player finally living up to his enormous athletic potential. At times he looked like one of the five best left tackles in football, moving his mammoth 6'9", 350-pound frame with eye-opening ease.

    If he sustains that level, he's worth twice what the Chargers will pay him.

    Even if he regresses a little but remains above average, this is a solid deal for San Diego. As Sandra Bullock reminds us, left tackle is a mighty important position in today's NFL. To get even an average one at the above rate is well worth the investment.

    And there's a lot to be said for fit and comfort. Gaither looked like a player in his element for the Chargers, and the continuity augurs well for his continued development. Remember, Gaither is just 26 years old.

    *Details of the deal have not been confirmed. At least $9 million appear to be guaranteed from what I can deduce, but stay tuned.

Mario Williams (Buffalo Bills)

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    The Deal: Six years, $96 million ($50 million guaranteed)

    The Buffalo Bills just signed a player coming off of season-ending surgery to the largest contract in NFL history for a defender.

    It sounds crazy, I know.

    But looking at the Mario Williams deal through that lens misses the larger picture.

    Consider first that the Bills haven't won a playoff game since 1995. Then consider the ripple effect this signing will have on future free agents as they consider which franchises to short-list and which to use merely as leverage.

    Simply put, Buffalo needed to overpay someone in order to regain relevance.

    And as Grantland's Bill Barnwell points out in a recent column, Williams is the exact type of player a franchise should feel comfortable overpaying—a prime performer at a premium position whose production cannot be approximated by some amalgamation of practice-squad rejects.

    From 2007 to 2010, when Williams was healthiest and most productive, he registered more sacks than all but five players in the NFL.

    But here's the thing worth noting about those other five—all of them are more than two years older than Williams. Considering the typical aging curve for an NFL player, who then would you project to have more sacks than Williams over the next six years?

    Jason Pierre-Paul? Aldon Smith? Clay Matthews?

    It's a short list. Barring injury—a risk for all players, not just Williams—he's a safe bet to be among the top players at an increasingly valuable position over the life of his contract.

    Look at it that way, and it's easy to see why this deal makes sense.

Peyton Hillis (Kansas City Chiefs)

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    The Deal: One year, $2.8 million (With an extra $400,000 in incentives)

    Matt Flynn is off the market, Kyle Orton took a backup gig with Dallas, and Peyton Manning is all but guaranteed to go elsewhere. The Kansas City Chiefs look like they're heading into a fourth consecutive year with Matt Cassel as their starting quarterback.

    That won't excite Chiefs fans, but it's a workable scenario—especially with some help from the ground game.

    In Cassel's most successful year as a Chief (2010), Kansas City led the league in both rushing yards and rushing attempts. Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones formed a powerful rushing tandem, taking the pressure off Cassel and putting him in higher-percentage passing situations.

    If Hillis plays well and Charles can make a full recovery from injury, the Chiefs can re-create that dynamic and do it at very little cost. And if Charles can't recover, Hillis has proven himself a capable feature back in the past.

    If all that hasn't convinced you, consider that new Chiefs offensive coordinator Brian Daboll was the OC in Cleveland during Hillis' breakout 2010.

Ben Grubbs (New Orleans)

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    The Deal: Five years, $36 million ($16 million guaranteed)

    Given the money they'd already committed to Jahri Evans, New Orleans had little choice but to let Carl Nicks walk in free agency. It would have been imprudent to tie up so much salary at a low-leverage position.

    By signing former Raven Ben Grubbs, the second-best guard on the market, New Orleans saves about $2.5 million in salary per year. That's money they can use toward signing Drew Brees long term or filling holes in the defensive front seven (Brodrick Bunkley, anyone?).

    Nicks wasn't essential to New Orleans' success, and the extra cash will go a long way.

Kyle Orton (Dallas Cowboys)

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    The Deal: Three years, $10.5 million

    Based on his career numbers, Kyle Orton is a good enough quarterback to start in the NFL. He completes just over 58 percent of his passes, throws for about 200 yards a game and tosses 1.4 touchdowns for every interception.

    He's an average starting quarterback, but a starting-caliber player nonetheless.

    That Dallas convinced him to back up Tony Romo constitutes something of a minor coup. At 29 and entering what should be his prime, Orton is the best insurance policy in football and his past experience as a backup in Chicago is an added bonus. 

    I imagine this seems like small beans at the moment, and if Romo stays healthy these next three years, the money will have been simply for peace of mind. But the odds are against any NFL player going three years without injury.

    If/when Romo goes down, Orton gives this team a chance to run its normal offense and win football games.

Brandon Lloyd (New England Patriots)

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    The Deal: Three years, $15.5 million*

    From free agency's outset, Brandon Lloyd to the New England Patriots was one of those deals that made too much sense not to happen.

    Lloyd had the best years of his career under New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels when the latter was head coach in Denver two years ago and OC in St. Louis last year. Lloyd is a crisp route-runner and a quick study—both essential traits for a wide receiver in New England's offense.

    Plus, he expressed open admiration for quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots organization, indicators that he will be a quick buy-in once camp starts.

    He fits the offense, likes the team and will cost the Patriots just about what the Redskins are paying Santana Moss. What's not to like?

    *The details of the deal aren't certain yet, and some have placed the total value at $12 million. No word yet on guarantees. No matter; I like the fit and the approximate price range.

Reggie Wayne (Indianapolis Colts)

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    The Deal: Three years, $17.5 million ($7.5 million guaranteed)

    This isn't the kind of deal you measure in wins and losses.

    With Peyton Manning gone and Andrew Luck his likely successor, the Colts are going to do a lot more losing over the life of this deal than winning.

    That doesn't mean, however, it is an unwise investment.

    Unwise would be surrounding a rookie quarterback with the likes of Quan Cosby, Austin Collie and Jarred Fayson and expecting progress. Unwise would be creating a leadership vacuum and expecting a first-year player to fill it.

    Even at 33, Reggie Wayne is the best receiver on the Colts roster. A player with his skills and know-how can be a great asset to a young quarterback. Think back to the wonders a 34-year-old Derrick Mason did for Joe Flacco in the latter's rookie year.

    Perhaps more important, Wayne can act as a bridge to the winningest era in Colts history. If Indy wants its new core to replicate the success of the best decade, the Colts best retain someone who experienced said success.

    After wholesale changes in coaching and personnel, Wayne is that final remaining link. It is his last and most important role in Colt blue. And it is well worth the $17.5 million.

Brandon Carr (Dallas Cowboys)

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    The Deal: Five years, $50.1 million ($26.5 million)

    I like this deal for the same reasons I like Cortland Finnegan's deal with St. Louis. Dallas needed secondary help, and it paid right about market value for a proven, younger player. To find one of those qualities in a free agent is an imperative. To find both is a blessing.

    Brandon Carr is a bit less proven than Finnegan—Finnegan has already made a Pro Bowl and gets higher praise from the advanced stats—but he's also two years younger and has more growth potential.

    Considering Dallas nearly paid more to get an older Nnamdi Asomugha last year, the Carr deal looks particularly appealing. Carr is durable (no missed starts), skilled and on the upshot—all things to like in a prime investment.

Marques Colston (New Orleans Saints)

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    The Deal: Five years, $35-40 million ($18-19 million guaranteed)*

    This is a case in which team and player needed one another.

    From the moment he entered the league as a seventh-round pick, Marques Colston's big body and soft hands have been the perfect fit for Drews Brees' intermediate passing game.

    Once Colston hit the market, questions circulated about his ability to work in other offenses, particularly when it comes to creating separation on the outside. Perhaps that stigma resulted from a low draft pick, but it more likely came from six seasons of film and observation.

    From the reported terms of this deal, it appears Colston and his agent understood those perceived limitations and chose the comforts of home over what would have been a thin market. Assuming Brees remains with the team long term, it's hard to imagine Colston having better success anywhere else.

    Expect a few more 1,000-yard seasons out of Colston before this deal expires.

    *I could not find exact figures. These estimates are via nola.com.

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