2012 NFL Free Agents: 3 Signings That Turned Pretenders into Contenders

Marcelo VillaFeatured Columnist IIIMarch 23, 2012

ENGLEWOOD, CO - MARCH 20:  Quarterback Peyton Manning (C) poses with majority owner, president, and CEO Pat Bowlen (L) and executive vice president of football operations John Elway (R) during a news conference announcing Manning's contract with the Denver Broncos in the team meeting room at the Paul D. Bowlen Memorial Broncos Centre on March 20, 2012 in Englewood, Colorado. Manning, entering his 15th NFL season, was released by the Indianapolis Colts on March 7, 2012, where he had played his whole career. It has been reported that Manning will sign a five-year, $96 million offer.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

NFL free agency 2012 has been one of the busiest in recent memory, and mammoth signings have some teams going from pretender to contender already.

A lot of big money was tossed around by desperate teams looking for an answer to their personnel problems, and it certainly seemed like money spoke loudly to big name free agents this year. Three particular free agents cashed in with their new teams for a combined total of more than $250 million.

What's even more intriguing about these specific signings was the impact they immediately had on their respective teams. No one player is responsible for a team's wins and losses in a season, but these players make their teams that much better in 2012. In fact, you could say these players make their team go from pretender to contender next season.

Mario Williams Signs 6-year $100 million deal with Buffalo Bills

The Buffalo Bills got off to a hot start last season with a 4-2 record before they entered their bye week, but soon after it was all downhill. The Bills dropped eight of their 10 games and finished the season 6-10 toward the bottom of the AFC East. 2011 may not have turned out the way Buffalo wanted but it wasn't a total lost considering the strides made after multiple losing seasons.

Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick blossomed under center in what could have been a Pro Bowl year, and the defense made improvements but was still lacking a true leader. Enter two-time Pro Bowler Mario Williams. The former Houston Texans star gives the Bills a pass rusher they so desperately needed and a fixture on their defense who can take over a game.

Six years and $100 million may seem risky to invest into a player who has spent two consecutive seasons on injured reserve but, the Bills could not pass up what Williams brings to the table when healthy.

With Fitzpatrick finally finding his groove on offense and Williams set to lead the defense, the Bills will be turning heads in the AFC East and give the New York Jets and New England Patriots a run for their money in 2012.

Courtesy of tbo.com and Cliff McBride/Staff
Courtesy of tbo.com and Cliff McBride/Staff

Vincent Jackson signs 5-year $55.55 million deal with Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman must have been jumping for joy when he heard the news that he would playing with Vincent Jackson next season. The former San Diego Chargers receiver had been a staple in the Bolts offense for quite some time and a favorite target of quarterback Philip Rivers, but contract disputes eventually pushed the two-time Pro Bowler to part ways with his former team.

The Bucs struggled all of last season to stay consistent and for the most part they were blown out of every single game after the bye week. Freeman already has weapons in LeGarrette Blount, Kellen Winslow and Mike Williams but the signing of Jackson helps them contend with the other dangerous offenses in the NFC south.

Jackson was primarily a deep threat asset last season with the Chargers taking lob passes away from defenders like he was taking candy from a baby. At 6'5", Jackson is a beast of a receiver and provides Freeman with a big target at his disposal. No doubt Jackson will make Freeman a better quarterback in 2012 and give the Bucs that extra edge on offense.

Peyton Manning signs 5-year $96 million deal with Denver Broncos

Watching quarterback Peyton Manning play 2012 without the iconic horseshoe on his helmet will be a bizarre sight, but times change and now Manning will be sporting a bronco on his lid. Arguably one of the biggest free-agent signings in history, Manning to the Denver Broncos signifies the end of an era for the Indianapolis Colts and new beginnings in the AFC West.

Once believed to be one of the least competitive conferences in the NFL, the AFC West will get even crazier after the drama that occurred last season. The San Diego Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders all have a shot at the title next season, but Manning's arrival to Denver is probably making them sick to their stomach right now.

We don't know for sure if Manning will fully recover from the injury that kept him out of the entire 2011 season, but if he plays anything like he did before his injury then the AFC West better step it up in 2012. If Tim Tebow was able to take the Broncos to the playoffs then Manning should be capable of taking them to a Super Bowl. The big question will be if Manning's neck injury has taken anything off his performance and to what extent it will affect his play this upcoming season.