2013 NFL Free Agency: Grading the Most Meaningful Free Agent Signings

Baily Deeter@@deetersportsSenior Writer IIIMarch 16, 2013

2013 NFL Free Agency: Grading the Most Meaningful Free Agent Signings

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    To NFL fans, the free agency period is like Christmas, except it lasts for days. And as this exciting time of year has taken off, we NFL fans have seen a lot of notables sign on the dotted line.

    There have been lots of big moves, especially around the top of the NFL, where many contenders have upgraded their team by bringing in a big name. Big names like Wes Welker, Reggie Bush and Mike Wallace have already signed and are ready to make a splash in a new uniform.

    But which of these players are good fits? Which of these players can actually help their new team? Here are grades for the biggest, most meaningful free agent signings.

Atlanta Signs Steven Jackson

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    Steven Jackson didn't get much credit for his performance because he was stuck on the St. Louis Rams, a losing franchise. 

    But now that he is an Atlanta Falcon, Jackson could finally get the credit he deserves.

    Jackson, who has eclipsed 1,000 yards in eight consecutive seasons, signed a three-year, $12 million contract, according to multiple sources. Matt Ryan performed like a top quarterback, and with a guy like Jackson, Atlanta could have punched its ticket to Super Bowl 47.

    In the NFC Championship, the Falcons ran the ball 21 times (not including Ryan's runs) while having Ryan throw 42 times, or two-thirds of the time. The Falcons have a pass-heavy offense, and they won't hand Jackson, who received 257 carries in 2012 (16.1 per game), the ball as often.

    Jackson only averaged 4.1 yards per carry (YPC) in 2012 and his career average is just 4.2 YPC. In seasons in which he has received over 134 carries (eight seasons), he has never exceeded 4.4 yards per carry. Jackson was 15th in rushing yards and 24th in yards per carry (120 carries or more).

    Plus, Jackson is aging. He even thought about retiring, which isn't a good sign for the Falcons. Jackson is going to be 30 years old before the season starts, and that's usually thought of as the age when running backs go downhill. Jackson is a durable back who can handle a lot, but I don't think he will be as productive.

    Atlanta filled a need and got a durable, talented back for just $4 million per year, but it's not going to be as great as it seems. Because the deal was so cheap and because the Falcons still have a young running back in Jacquizz Rodgers, it's not a bad signing.

    The Falcons aren't getting the guy they think they are getting with this signing.

    Grade: B+

Denver Signs Wes Welker

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    The New England Patriots didn't seem to want Wes Welker, but the Denver Broncos are happy to take his services.

    Welker, the leader in catches over the last six seasons, signed with Denver for $12 million dollars over two years, a steal for a receiver like him. Welker is a small receiver (he is 5'9) who isn't afraid to go over the middle, and he will thrive in Denver's system.

    Why? Because while John Fox is known for being a run-heavy coach, the team caters to Peyton Manning's strengths by throwing lots of short passes. Welker isn't afraid to go over the middle, and he can hang on to the ball. He can gain the trust of Manning like he did with Brady, who threw to him a lot on third downs and overall. Welker caught 118 passes and was targeted 174 times, or about 11 times per game. 

    Oh, and he picked up 1,354 receiving yards.

    Manning is known for developing good chemistry with receivers and making guys better, and Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker took vast strides under Manning. According to the Denver Post, executive John Elway got Manning's approval before pursuing Welker, meaning Manning wants Welker on the Broncos.

    Welker is an underrated system receiver who is a perfect fit for the Bronco offense and he has the potential to be great. He gets a lot of heat for dropping passes, but from 2009-2011, his drop rate was under 10 percent. Welker had a good amount of drops in 2012, but his drop rate was just over 10 percent.

    The star receiver can catch a lot of passes and will make some great catches, like this one here in the 2013 NFL Playoffs. He's valuable and is perfect for the Bronco offense, and he came very cheap. To me, it's clear the Broncos got a steal here.

    And if everything turns out the way it's expected to, Welker could help the Broncos take home a ring in the next couple of years.

    Grade: A+

Tampa Bay Signs Dashon Goldson

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    Dashon Goldson fizzled down the stretch for the San Francisco 49ers, so they can't be too mad about losing him to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    Goldson is getting paid $41.25 million dollars over the course of five years, a hefty contract considering how poorly Goldson played in 2012. After intercepting seven passes (including the playoffs) in 2011, Goldson just picked off three passes in 2012 (including the playoffs).

    Also, Goldson only deflected 11 passes in 2012, which was a career high. He gives up a lot of completions and isn't a great tackler, as he was 57th among defensive backs with 69 tackles, or just over four per game.

    In the postseason, Goldson didn't perform well. On this play in the NFC Championship Game, he mistakenly thought he had help behind him and was burned by Atlanta's Julio Jones, resulting in a touchdown for the Falcons. Jones torched Goldson and made some other catches on Goldson, who had an abysmal postseason, in that game.

    While Goldson was fourth on the 49ers in tackles and showed lots of potential in 2011, he didn't perform well in 2012 and made the decision to let go of Goldson easy for the 49ers. Tampa Bay is paying over $8 million per year for Goldson, and if he doesn't perform up to par with expectations, it will be a huge waste of money.

    So, because of the high money and high risk, this signing gets an average grade.

    Grade: C+

Denver Signs Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie

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    Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was expected to help make the Philadelphia Eagles the best team in the NFL when he was traded there in 2011. Instead, he struggled and the Eagles went 12-20 during his two years in Philadelphia.

    Rodgers-Cromartie intercepted three passes and deflected 14 passes in 2012, but he and the Eagles struggled mightily. Rodgers-Cromartie played lazily, and the result was failure. However, he was a Pro Bowler in 2009 and he's only 26 years old.

    The Broncos picked him up for just $5 million on a one-year deal, a huge steal for Denver. If Rodgers-Cromartie doesn't pan out, they can let him walk and avoid a huge dent in the payroll. If he ends up helping the Broncos, they can re-sign him and get lots of production out of him.

    In 2009 and during his tenure in Arizona, Rodgers-Cromartie was an outside corner, and he thrived. But when he was traded to the Eagles, he struggled as a slot corner in different packages with the Eagles, which led to him leaving Philadelphia.

    However, Rodgers-Cromartie is a perfect fit in Denver. He will be opposite Champ Bailey and will be able to match up with taller receivers, because he is 6'2. Chris Harris will move to nickel back, so on 3-3-5 nickel packages, Denver can have two safeties, Bailey and Rodgers-Cromartie at cornerback and Harris at nickel back.

    Being on a winning team should change Rodgers-Cromartie's attitude and motivate him more, which can make him one of the best cornerbacks in the game. He has the raw talent, size and speed, and I expect being on Denver will change his attitude. If that happens, Denver's secondary will be much better and they can lock up Rodgers-Cromartie long-term.

    This move may not seem huge, but it will help the Denver secondary, which let down the Broncos in the playoffs. Denver got a huge steal here at a great price, as this move could be huge down the stretch for the Broncos.

    Grade: A 

Miami Signs Mike Wallace

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    In 2012, Mike Wallace caught eight touchdowns and caught 64 passes for 836 yards. However, the Miami Dolphins overpaid for his services.

    Wallace is a talented wide receiver who thrived in Pittsburgh. In 2010, Wallace averaged a remarkable 21 yards per catch, as he had 1,257 receiving yards. Over his four-year career, Wallace averages 1,011 receiving yards per season, which is very good.

    While Wallace was just 47th with 276 yards after the catch, he averaged 4.3 yards after the catch per reception. He is a deep threat who had five receptions of 37 or more yards, including an 82-yard catch in Week 5. Wallace can aid Ryan Tannehill and help the Dolphin offense in their quest to the playoffs.

    Tannehill has a strong arm, so he can get the ball to Wallace. However, Tannehill is young, and he is entering his fourth year as a quarterback (he started his college career as a wide receiver). Because Tannehill is raw, there will likely be some bumps in the road in the relationship between the two.

    What does that mean? The Dolphins won't succeed instantly because of this signing.

    However, this signing will make the Dolphins better as a team, even if his $60 million dollar contract was way too high. Tannehill can extend plays on the run, and that will help Wallace, who thrived in a similar situation with Ben Roethlisberger.

    Wallace isn't going to be great in his first year with Tannehill as the two develop chemistry, and he won't be great if he isn't motivated to play. Wallace could have just been working for a contract, and if that's the case, his contract will severely hurt the Dolphins.

    This is a high-risk, high-reward move. Wallace is an extremely talented receiver who can be great if he is motivated, which remains to be seen. He has the talent and has a good quarterback, so the signing makes sense. However, there are a lot of factors that contribute to how this signing plays out for the Dolphins, and that's not good.

    Grade: B

Detroit Signs Reggie Bush

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    Despite winning a Super Bowl and putting up some decent numbers, Reggie Bush's career hasn't been what it was supposed to be. He can change that in Detroit with the Lions.

    Calvin Johnson set a record with 1,964 receiving yards in 2012, and he made lots of big plays to follow up a 2011 season in which he caught an incredible 16 touchdowns. However, the Lions running game didn't do enough to complement the passing game, which factored into the Lions going 4-12.

    Matthew Stafford ranked second in the NFL with 4,967 yards passing, and in 2011, he threw for 5,038 yards. While Stafford was intercepted 17 times in 2012, he and Johnson were a dynamic duo that wreaked havoc on defenses.

    Bush is the same type of explosive player, as he is very explosive and can break tackles. Bush averaged 4.7 yards per carry (YPC) during his time in Miami, and can do even better with the threat of Stafford throwing to Johnson. The Lion offense will be very explosive in 2013, and they could bounce back and make the postseason partly because of this signing. While Bush's YPC doesn't put him up there with Adrian Peterson, it shows that he is a good running back. 

    Detroit finished third in total offense in 2012, but they were 23rd in running. Bush could improve that while helping the Lion offense and improving the team. Detroit's point differential was about -4, meaning that they lost a lot of close games. They have the talent to do well, and they definitely are better because of this signing.

    Even if Bush doesn't pan out, the Lions are only committing $16 million over four years. He isn't making a huge dent in the payroll, so even if he doesn't perform well, it won't be the worst thing in the world. There isn't much risk in this signing, but there is a high reward.

    The Lions aren't that far away from contending, and the Bush signing is a step in the right direction. Detroit got a steal and they got him cheap, which is always a successful formula.

    Grade: A

Seattle Signs Cliff Avril

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    Seattle's pass rush took a huge blow when Chris Clemons went down in the postseason, but when Cliff Avril signed with the Seahawks, the impact of the blow was negated.

    Avril, who has accumulated 20.5 sacks over the last two years, signed with the Seahawks on a relatively cheap deal. Seattle committed $15 million over two years to Avril, which isn't much considering how heavily paid some defensive linemen, such as Mario Williams, are being paid.

    The star pass rusher hasn't missed a game since 2010, meaning he can stay on the field. Avril can produce on the field and fill a hole left by Clemons' injury, a hole that cost Seattle its season. In the Divisional Round (against the Falcons), when Clemons was out, Seattle sacked Ryan a grand total of zero times.

    With Avril taking up lineman and getting to the quarterbacks, that number would have definitely been higher.

    Seattle has a great secondary with Richard Sherman, who was tied for second in the NFL with eight interceptions, and Brandon Browner. Sherman defensed 24 passes, which was the most in the NFL, and a lot of that was because of the pass rush. Throws were hurried, and Sherman and the secondary benefited from that. 

    The Seahawks allowed 15.3 points per game (PPG) in 2012, best in the NFL. However, without Clemons, they allowed 30 points, showing how important a good pass rush is. Avril can make the pass rush good just by replacing Clemons effectively.

    Seattle got Avril cheap, although he probably deserved more money. 20.5 sacks in two years deserves a reward, and Avril is in line for one if he keeps performing. A good pass rush helps the whole defense, and that's certainly the case for Seattle. So, Avril will be helping out the whole defense for a relatively minimal amount of money, meaning this is a great signing for Seattle.

    Grade: A 

Minnesota Signs Greg Jennings

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    Greg Jennings has done a lot for the Green Bay Packers, but the Minnesota Vikings may have overvalued his production.

    Jennings was inked to a $47.5 million dollar deal over five years, even though he will be 30 in mid-September and caught just 36 passes in 2012. While he only played in eight games, 36 catches in eight games, or 4.5 catches per game, isn't a lot.

    However, the Vikings were willing to look past Jennings' 2012 struggles and sign the former Packer. Jennings can help make Christian Ponder better by getting open (something he does very well) and becoming one of his favorite targets. Developing chemistry with Ponder would be great, and it could pay dividends for Minnesota.

    Bringing in Jennings makes sense for the Vikings, because if Jennings comes out of the gates strong and develops a good relationship with Ponder, it can make Adrian Peterson, Minnesota's MVP running back who averaged six YPC in 2012, even more effective.

    Ponder isn't an elite quarterback, but having a good receiver can help him take strides. Ponder was 13th in completion percentage and is entering just his third year, so he has potential. Having Jennings should only help, as Ponder should be more effective than ever.

    However, there is also a high risk. First of all, the deal was costly. $47.5 million is a lot to invest in an aging player, and it's safe to assume that the Vikings will regret paying Jennings so much in the future. Jennings averaged just 10.2 yards per catch in 2012, which isn't good for a receiver. Missing 11 of Green Bay's last 19 (regular season) games isn't either, and it brings up concern for an aging receiver.

    Jennings has talent, and if he develops good chemistry with Ponder and doesn't decline, he could be worth his hefty contract. However, the Vikings went overboard with the money and the years here, and while they did a great job filling a need, they could have done it without committing so much money.

    Grade: B