The 25 Biggest Winners and Losers of Free Agency After Week 2

Adam LazarusSenior Analyst IMarch 29, 2012

The 25 Biggest Winners and Losers of Free Agency After Week 2

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    It's hard to believe that free agency only began two weeks ago, as so much has happened in a short time. 

    Even so, it's not too early to gauge who the early winners and losers are.

    Obviously, the players who received, or did not receive, the huge contracts they wanted are candidates for this list. But so too are the players who were affected by those signings, or lack thereof. 

    Take the game of musical chairs that Peyton Manning's release set off. When the Broncos signed Manning, every team involved in the process had to adjust their quarterback plans. And after Manning landed, Alex Smith, Matt Flynn and, of course, Tim Tebow were all affected. 

    So who came out on top and who on bottom?

Winner: Blaine Gabbert, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Although the signing of Chad Henne complicated matters, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that once Tim Tebow became expendable in Denver (following Peyton Manning's signing) that North Florida would be his landing place.

    To most Jags fans and the national media, it really didn't matter that they spent a 10th-overall choice last year (trading up in the process) to land their perceived franchise quarterback. Tebow is an icon in the region, and the franchise desperately needs star power.

    But as we all know, Tebow eventually wound up in Manhattan, and Gabbert's job is safe...for now. And that's a good thing because had Tebow taken his job, there's a good chance Gabbert would have been viewed as one of the biggest busts in the modern era. 

Loser: Steve Smith, WR, St. Louis Rams

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    When the Eagles signed Smith last year, many people crushed the Giants front office for letting him leave...and to a hated division rival no less. 

    Even though he was coming off a knee injury, he was hailed as the quintessential slot receiver, critical to Eli Manning and that offense's success. Somehow, they managed without him.

    Smith, on the other hand, was unable to return to form, only caught 11 passes and the Eagles didn't show much interest in bringing him back.

    The best gig he could find? A one-year deal with arguably the NFL's worst collection of receivers in St. Louis. 

Winner: Kevin Kolb, QB, Arizona Cardinals

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    For a good period of time, Arizona was the front-runner in the Peyton Manning sweepstakes. Ken Whisenhunt was an ideal coach, and one of the game's best receivers, Larry Fitzgerald, would be at his disposal.

    Ultimately, Manning began leaning towards Denver, and the Cardinals were forced to mend fences just for flirting with Manning.

    Like a boyfriend with a wandering eye, the Cardinals presented Kolb with an "I'm sorry" present: They didn't ask him to restructure his contract and gave him his $7 million roster bonus. 

Loser: Brodrick Bunkley, DT, New Orleans Saints

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    Talk about being brought in under false pretenses.

    Bunkley signed with the Saints the same day that the first wave of bad news regarding "Bountygate" hit the Crescent City—namely the fact that Sean Payton wouldn't be there to coach him his entire first season there.

    Obviously, since Bunkley plays defense, the loss of the offensive genius won't entirely change things up. When he signed, he knew that Steve Spagnuolo would be there running the defense. 

    But if Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Roman Harper, Cameron Jordan and a host of other key pieces miss significant time too, that's another matter.

    Possible silver lining? Two words: Bill Parcells.

Winner: The Kansas City Chiefs

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    Even in the preseason, 2011 was a tough year for the Chiefs. 

    Very early on, they lost three key players: Jamaal Charles, Eric Berry and Tony Moeaki. Then they lost Matt Cassel and were forced to rotate a string of back-up quarterbacks, ultimately leading to the firing of their head coach.

    But things are clearly looking up right now thanks to a handful of good moves during free agency.

    They locked up Dwayne Bowe for at least a year via the franchise tag, they grabbed Peyton Hillis to replace Thomas Jones and complement Charles, pulled Eric Winston away from Houston and signed Kevin Boss and Stanford Routt after their releases from Oakland. 

    And Brady Quinn is a nice second option behind Cassel. 

    Those additions greatly overshadow the departure of Brandon Carr. 

Loser: LaRon Landry, S, New York Jets

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    Even with the Tim Tebow media circus going on, Landry should like playing in New York. 

    Rex Ryan's defense is aggressive, and there is a pair of fine corners in that secondary for Landry to play next to. 

    But it has to sting that Landry—the sixth-overall pick in the draft just five years ago—could only land a one-year deal. 

    It's not like he's a bust; the former Redskins is a two-time Pro Bowler. 

    Leg injuries were certainly a part of teams' unwillingness to give him a long-term deal, but he had to be hoping for a lot more. 

Winner: BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RB, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Green-Ellis certainly has a nice resume.

    He rushed for 1,000 yards in 2010 and has scored 24 touchdowns the past two seasons.

    But if he played in Cleveland or Miami, would he have been able to put up the same numbers? Being in an offense with Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez certainly opened up the running lanes for "The Law Firm."

    And he cashed in on that good fortune with a three-year, $9 million deal to sign with Cincinnati. 

    Not a bad turnaround for a guy undrafted out of college just four years ago that may very well have lost dozens of carries in New England to Stevan Ridley anyway. 

Loser: Mike Wallace, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Wide receivers have been cleaning up this offseason.

    Even if you exclude the monster deal Calvin Johnson received, the fact that Marques Colston, Vincent Jackson, Robert Meachem, DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon and Laurent Robinson each got huge contracts should irritate Wallace. Even Randy Moss got $3 million. 

    He's clearly emerging as one of the game's best receivers, but because he's a restricted free agent, the Steelers aren't compelled to break the bank for him. The other 31 teams don't seem to be falling over themselves to give up a first-round choice and millions. 

    It's hard to be certain, but as more time passes, it's a safe bet that he will be landing less money.

Winner: Brandon Lloyd, WR, New England Patriots

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    This entry is not about dollars (although a three-year, $12 million contract is not too shabby).

    No; instead, I view Lloyd as a free-agent winner for where he wound up.

    Think about it for a moment. Last year, he was in Denver, where the Broncos pass offense was anemic, even before Tim Tebow's ascension. They dealt him to St. Louis where he soon was on a team with an even worse passing attack that soon lost their franchise quarterback, Sam Bradford, for an extended period. 

    Couple those situations with all the mediocre quarterbacks he's played with through the years (Rex Grossman, Kyle Orton, Jason Campbell), and Lloyd's never been consistently with a premier passer or in an offense loaded with aerial talent.

    That changes in New England with Tom Terrific. 

Loser: The Miami Dolphins

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    The Miami Dolphins just can't catch a break.

    Maybe they had to give up Brandon Marshall for next to nothing; he's been a headache since he arrived. Not exactly what the new regime was hoping to deal with.

    But Marshall's not the reason they're on this list. Nor is Jeff Fisher, who they were unable to make their next head coach. 

    For whatever reason, they lost out on Peyton Manning, Matt Flynn and Alex Smith, all players they seemingly had great interest in as their franchise quarterback. 

Winner: Carl Nicks, G, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Paying a blindside tackle a king's ransom is often seen as a smart investment; they are most vital to reducing the kill shots on your $100 million signal-caller.

    But paying a guard nearly $10 million a season for five seasons? That's a huge surprise. 

    Yet that's what Nicks received from Tampa Bay. 

    Side note: It's obvious that Nicks is the happiest guard in the NFL this spring. The second happiest? Probably Ben Grubbs, who New Orleans promptly signed to fill Nicks' vacancy. They gave him Nicks-like money with a $36 million deal. 

Loser: Jonathan Stewart, RB, Carolina Panthers

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    Signing Mike Tolbert makes for one crowded backfield in Carolina.

    Forget for a second that Cam Newton is poised to be one of the NFL's most dangerous and hard-to-tackle runners in the NFL for years to come.

    They already have DeAngelo Williams, who they gave a fortune to last year. Add Tolbert—who is an underrated ball-carrier and will be a tremendous short-yardage threat—and that doesn't leave much room in the offense for Jonathan Stewart, the former first-rounder from Oregon.

    Rumors say that Stewart is on the trading block, especially since he's a free agent after next season. But if the Panthers hang on to him either as insurance or wait until the season to deal him to a club that lost a running back to an injury, Stewart will be well behind the eight-ball. 

Winner: Curtis Lofton, MLB, New Orleans Saints

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    Despite putting up some pretty solid numbers in his young career, Lofton wasn't garnering that much attention in the offseason.

    Being called a "two-down player" likely hurt his value on the market. So too did the fact that fewer and fewer teams are running true 4-3 defenses these days. 

    But Lofton caught a huge break with the uncertainty facing New Orleans.

    Since Jonathan Vilma was literally the poster child (i.e. he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated for it) of Bountygate, there seems to be a consensus that he'll be the most heavily punished of the Saints defenders. 

    New Orleans felt compelled to sign a replacement, and they chose Lofton, giving him a five-year deal.

    As a bonus, Lofton gets to play his old team twice a year. 

Loser: Jim Harbaugh, Head Coach, San Francisco 49ers

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    Mario Manningham is a nice addition.

    Re-signing Carlos Rogers was a smart move.

    And although Randy Moss certainly has the potential to become a) another Braylon Edwards or b) a locker-room distraction, it's worth the minimal risk.

    But flirting with Peyton Manning seemed to have hurt the relationship with Alex Smith. Once Manning signed with the Broncos, they scrambled to try and bring the scorned Alex Smith back into the fold.

    They eventually did, as he re-signed. But if Smith struggles even one iota next fall, the issue of Harbaugh and damaged confidence will quickly be pointed to. 

Winner: John Elway, President, Denver Broncos

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    John Elway got everything he wanted this offseason by signing free agent Peyton Manning. 

    Not only did he land a true quarterback who everyone seems to think will improve the Broncos (only time will tell on that), but the move made him justified in dealing away Tim Tebow, who he pretended to want as his present and future.

    Getting two draft picks and Tebow's multi-million dollar contract off the books was the icing on the cake. 

Loser: Aaron Ross, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Injuries are such a huge part of free-agency contracts. If the Dolphins didn't balk at signing Drew Brees because of his shoulder back in 2006, maybe NFL history would be completely different. 

    That's why I'm relatively surprised that the Giants opted to sign Terrell Thomas instead of Aaron Ross.

    Thomas missed all of last season because of an ACL injury, while Ross won a Super Bowl at corner, yet the Giants gave Thomas the big contract, leaving Ross as the odd man out.

    Even though Ross is going to make $15.3 million over the next three years, he's still leaving a perennial Super Bowl contender and model NFL franchise for one of the league's bottom-feeders and a team that struggles to fill its stadium every Sunday. 

Winner: Laurent Robinson, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Although I listed Aaron Ross going to the Jags under the "loser" tag, I can't do the same for Laurent Robinson.

    And the huge disparity in contracts isn't the only reason.

    A year ago at this time, Robinson was a virtual no-name in the NFL, having played on three different teams in four seasons with no more than 37 catches per season.

    But the injury to Miles Austin put him in the spotlight last year, and he had a fantastic season. And very wisely, he cashed in this offseason.  

    Even Jerry Jones wouldn't (or couldn't) pay him as much as Jacksonville did. 

Loser: The Cleveland Browns

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    I hate to beat a dead horse, but the Browns don't seem capable of making decisions that please anyone outside of the team's facilities in Berea.

    Not only did they miss out on the RG3 trade sweepstakes, but they let a very popular player (Peyton Hillis) leave town, didn't put much interest or effort into getting Matt Flynn and were basically forced to cut Eric Steinbach. Worse yet, they spent relatively big money on Frostee Rucker and Juqua Parker—not exactly two of the hottest commodities on the market.

    Those two pickups are the most curious, since Jabaal Sheard really proved to be a great steal in last year's draft.  

    The only saving grace was retaining D'Qwell Jackson, but at $42.5 million over five seasons, even that might not be a win in the long-term. 

Winner: David Garrard, QB, Miami Dolphins

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    Although collectively, the Dolphins are certainly losers this offseason, you'd have to think that this former Jaguars quarterback benefited from their misfortune/incompetency.

    Garrard couldn't land a job at any point last season, even if injury was a concern.

    But because the Dolphins had to do something and sign someone after it became clear they wouldn't get Peyton Manning or Matt Flynn, and probably not Alex Smith either, Garrard benefited.

    It wasn't a long-term, high-dollars deal, but he's back on a team that has all kinds of problems. Translation: He might see significant action once again. 

Loser: John Abraham, DE, Atlanta Falcons

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    This is a purely dollars and cents loser entry.

    John Abraham wanted to be paid like a top-tier pass-rusher.

    That would have been fine if this were 2002, or maybe even last season. But not in 2012, when he'll soon be 34 years old and can't play every down any longer.

    Don't get me wrong, he was still given a ton of money—$16 million over three years—to stay with a contender that he's familiar with.

    But he's not making much more than Kroy Biermann and is making less than Ray Edwards. 

    Clearly, the market dictated what he's worth after 12 years in the NFL. 

Winner: Robert Meachem, WR, San Diego Chargers

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    Although he's had some good numbers since coming out of Tennessee, Meachem has never been considered a top-tier receiver. He's never grabbed more than 45 passes or racked up more than 722 yards receiving.

    Playing in an offense featuring Drew Brees—who spreads the ball around brilliantly—that was bound to happen, especially since Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston are his top targets.

    But those facts didn't prevent Meachem from getting a big pay day from San Diego, who needed to find a replacement quickly once Vincent Jackson left for Tampa Bay.

    He's not making nearly as much as Vincent Jackson or DeSean Jackson and is light years behind what Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson are making, but four years and $25.9 million is a huge bonus.

    Plus, there won't be too much drop-off going from Brees to Phillip Rivers. 

Loser: Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears

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    By publicly stating that he wasn't pleased that Chicago signed Michael Bush, Forte basically admitted that he deserves a mention in the loser category of this list—even if it's not his fault.

    While bringing Bush in wasn't necessarily a move to replace Forte (who was a restricted free agent and given the franchise tag), they also didn't bring him in to sit on the bench or be just a short-yardage back.

    Ultimately, these two sides will probably come to an agreement, but the bad press didn't necessarily help either side, especially Forte.

    Sure he's a talented and promising back, but he's not exactly Adrian Peterson or Arian Foster. Has he achieved enough to warrant being angry that another back was brought in to complement him? I don't think so. 

Winner: Matt Flynn, QB, Seattle Seahawks

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    2012 was Matt Flynn's turn to join the (infamous?) ranks of short-term backup quarterbacks who earned huge free-agent contracts with a new franchise; some juxtaposition of "right time, right place" and the free market. Recall the tales of Scott Mitchell, Rob Johnson and Kevin Kolb.

    Only time will tell how things turn out in Seattle for Flynn. Maybe he'll be as successful as Matt Schaub or Matt Cassell. 

    But even if he's not, he still gets a reasonably big contract and a chance to be a franchise's centerpiece—something he never would have received in Green Bay. 

Loser: Mark Sanchez, QB, New York Jets

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    Although Tim Tebow arrived in New York via trade, free agency obviously had a lot to do with it—Peyton Manning pushed him out of town. 

    It's not that Sanchez is necessarily "threatened" by Tebow. Say what you will about Sanchez and his drawbacks, but he's achieved more than Tebow and is generally considered a better quarterback than him.

    But the moment the Jets slip up—the moment Sanchez throws multiple interceptions or doesn't hit the open man in a big spot—the talk will start: Should Tebow be under center?

    And even if that doesn't happen because the Jets have already acknowledged that they will run some sort of Tebow/Wildcat package (remember new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano "invented" the Wildcat in Miami), Sanchez is already taking a back seat to the toast of New York City. 

Winner: Mario Williams, DE, Buffalo Bills

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    It's strange to think how quickly the Texans were willing to part with their former No. 1 overall pick. Sure he missed most of last season, a year in which the team defense made an instant 180 into one of the league's best, but he's been a Pro Bowler twice and recorded double-digit sacks twice. More importantly, he's only 27.

    The Texans did, however, move on. And so did Williams, who was given a monstrous contract to improve a pretty woeful Bills pass-rush. Moving back to the 4-3 should be an added bonus to his six-year, $96 million deal.

    The Bills are a team on the rise. Maybe they won't become a Super Bowl contender next year, the year after that or anytime in the next decade. But any level of success they have over the next six seasons will almost certainly be attributed to the "momentous" signing of Williams. It's already being hailed as perhaps the biggest free-agent addition in team history.