Early Winners and Losers from NFL Free Agency
How does one win free agency?
Perhaps a better question would be, does winning free agency even matter? The Philadelphia Eagles made huge free-agency signings multiple years in a row and created tons of buzz in March and April. Then, when the season began, they fell flat.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (after years of underspending) dropped a ton of money in 2012 signing Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks, Eric Wright and others. Then they only won seven games.
The reason each year's "free-agency winners" don't always do well in the actual games is because there are multiple ways to "do" free agency. Some teams spend all sorts of money just because they have it. Others believe they're one great player from greatness. Still others spend money to help pad the back end of their roster to provide depth in a new scheme or for a new coach.
All of those ways can be successful (perhaps the final two have a higher success rate), so it still comes down to scouting and money management. If a team spends most of its cap space on talented players that fit together, it'll win a bunch of football games. If it spends on overpriced boondoggles or swings and misses on that "last great player," the offseason hype becomes in-season laughter pretty quickly.
Winner: Cleveland Browns
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Of those free-agency strategies I talked about on the intro slide, the Browns are wholeheartedly entrenched in the third kind. With Ray Horton's hybrid defense coming to town, the Browns have a lot of square pegs and a bunch of round holes.
Paul Kruger is the biggest round peg of this offseason. He left the Baltimore Ravens coming off a Super Bowl championship with experience in both a 3-4 and a 4-3. He'll be a multidimensional player for the Browns even if he's a tad overpaid because of said Super Bowl.
Desmond Bryant and Quentin Groves are also great fits for the Browns' new scheme and came as relative values.
The best part of this kind of free-agency strategy is that it doesn't change what the Browns can do in the draft. Love a pass-rusher? Still take him! Have a lineman as your best player available? Draft him!
This is short-term needs-filling and doesn't preclude long-term team-building. That's a win.
Loser: Minnesota Vikings
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Lose Percy Harvin and bring in Matt Cassel...yeah, things aren't going so well at the moment.
Let me be clear: This isn't an offseason winners and losers article, and I love that the Vikings have the flexibility moving forward to do a lot with their young and talented team before the season starts. If they sacrifice that extra first-round pick to sign restricted free agent Victor Cruz or have a fantastic draft, that would be a net gain.
This is just about free agency, though, and right now Vikings fans have a ton of questions and not a lot of answers. This team has not improved this offseason yet. Until Rick Spielman's plan unfolds, the Vikings can't get a passing grade.
Winner: Indianapolis Colts
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The Colts, to some degree, have followed a similar free-agency plan to what I outlined with the Browns. However, the Colts spent a little more freely and probably overpaid some talent that may not work out for them.
Gosder Cherilus is a talented pass-blocking right tackle (aka Andrew Luck's new best friend), but he's inconsistent, and the Lions weren't exactly begging to have him back in their shade of blue. The Colts will gamble that he will be more consistent in their scheme.
The same goes with Erik Walden, who has upside as a pass-rusher in the Colts' scheme but underperformed for the Packers last season. His one great game? Against the Colts, of course!
They're winners, but if more than one of their gambles doesn't pan out, the Colts have spent a lot of money on potentially little impact.
Loser: Defensive Ends
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Cliff Avril: two years, $15 million. Michael Bennett: one year, $5 million. Jason Jones: three years, $9.5 million...
Remember when defensive ends signed huge deals that broke the bank as if they were the defensive equivalents of quarterbacks?
Avril, especially, had a rough week after turning down a larger offer from the Lions last offseason and playing 2012 on the franchise tag. He bet on himself and lost. That's the market.
The market for defensive ends didn't exactly turn out that way this season, and guys like Dwight Freeney, John Abraham and others who haven't signed will likely find that their salary demands won't be met as positively as they might like.
Winner: Kansas City Chiefs
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The Chiefs were terrible in 2012, but that's not because they lacked talent. With five Pro Bowlers (note: five legit Pro Bowlers), the Chiefs clearly have pieces to build on. With Alex Smith in the fold via trade and Chase Daniel coming over in free agency, the Chiefs finally have some quality quarterback play to build upon.
Sean Smith and Dunta Robinson aren't "sexy" pickups, but Smith had legitimate talent, and it will be interesting to see if he's the lockdown guy he's been in the past or the guy who got beat last year. Robinson might end up playing safety. Either way, the Chiefs secondary is a lot more talented than last season.
Loser: St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals
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The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers are in a bit of an arms race in the NFC West, and the Rams and Cardinals will pay the price.
While the Rams have had a good offseason and still may land Jake Long, they don't have the line depth to block all of the pass-rushers Seattle will bring to town next season. Arizona is even worse off.
The Rams and Cardinals can "win" the rest of the offseason, but the Seahawks and 49ers clearly made strides to set themselves up as the "haves" of the division.
Winner: Seattle Seahawks
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Speaking of the Seahawks....
Getting Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett is huge. Getting them for the prices they did is even better.
Percy Harvin's addition doesn't really count as "free agency," but it's relevant because the 'Hawks are a young team that didn't need to get any younger on offense or defense. Bringing in veterans was the right move for this squad, and it had the money to do it and the wherewithal to get them at value.
Loser: Pittsburgh Steelers
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While many have focused on the Baltimore Ravens' hemorrhaging of defensive talent, the Pittsburgh Steelers have quietly laid a big old goose egg.
Their biggest moves—bringing back William Gay to the secondary and adding Bruce Gradkowski as a backup quarterback.
Meanwhile, they've lost Keenan Lewis and Ryan Mundy from that same secondary and will put their offense on the field without Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall. Overall, nothing too terrible, but so far it's been a net loss.
Winner: Joe Flacco
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The Ravens spent big money on Joe Flacco to keep him away from the Cleveland Browns and made him the "highest-paid QB in football."
Whether or not Flacco will ever see most of that money is doubtful, and he actually doesn't have a huge cap hit this season, but he's set to be a Raven for a very long time (if not the rest of his career).
Moreover, the Ravens defense is falling apart—on purpose. Letting guys like Ed Reed and Paul Kruger walk and cutting low-cap-hit guys like Bernard Pollard are signs of a clear strategy. With a franchise QB in the fold, there's no reason to overpay to try to keep that defense together. The Ravens will get Flacco more offensive help, and frankly, that probably means as much to him as the paycheck.
Loser: Miami Dolphins
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Remember those types of free-agency spending we started with?
The Dolphins spent money because they have it. Better: They burned money because they have it. Jeff Ireland has made a bunch of mistakes in recent years, both in free agency and the draft. He's been on the hot seat a couple of times and is doing his best to try to stock this team with enough talent to keep his seat from burning out from under him.
It's not working.
Mike Wallace got way too much money ($60 million) to "maybe" work in the Dolphins' system. Dannell Ellerbe ($35 million) and Philip Wheeler ($26 million) got way too much money to be younger, (though not necessarily) better versions of Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett. All three signings got five-year deals.
Building through free agency this offseason, the Dolphins will almost certainly pay the price in years to come.