Power Ranking the 50 Best NFL Free-Agent Signings so Far
One full week into NFL free agency, most of the top free agents have signed with the teams they will play for in 2013.
Teams have employed different free-agent strategies. Some, such as the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals, have focused on finding bargain-rate deals. Others, such as the Miami Dolphins and St. Louis Rams, have spent big to secure top targets.
While some top talents and many potential bargains remain in the free-agent pool, the rapid activity of the first few days has settled into a more sporadic flow of news. That makes the one-week mark a good time to look back on the 50 best signings of the free-agency period thus far.
Talent, fit and financials are the criteria used to determine these rankings. One player ranked ahead of another does not necessarily mean that player is better, but that he offers more value to his new team.
Note: The rankings only include players signed before midnight Wednesday. Only players who hit the open market are included. This includes those who were released by their previous team and signed prior to the start of the free-agency period, but it does not include anyone re-signed by their teams prior to the start of free agency.
All contract data via Spotrac unless otherwise noted.
Some High-Profile Contracts That Missed The Cut
While these players may fill needs and be among the more talented players in the free-agent class, they were overvalued by the teams that signed them.
Jared Cook, TE, St. Louis Rams
Contract: Five years, $35.1 million ($19 million guaranteed)
By signing Cook, the Rams added a big receiving weapon in the middle of the field, which is a good thing for an offense that needs playmakers. That said, the Rams paid Cook like an elite tight end, which he is not. For perspective, Cook's contract makes him the league's third-highest-paid tight end, with a higher average salary and more guaranteed money than Rob Gronkowski.
Gosder Cherilus, RT, Indianapolis Colts
Contract: Five years, $34.5 million ($15.5 million guaranteed)
The Colts desperately needed an upgrade at right tackle, but no NFL team should be desperate enough to pay Cherilus an average salary of nearly $7 million, which makes him among the NFL’s highest-paid right tackles. He is a decent player, but by no means is he one of the best players at his position.
Dannell Ellerbe, LB, Miami Dolphins
Contract: Five years, $34.75 million ($14 million guaranteed)
Ellerbe is a good linebacker, but has never been a full-time starter. He simply has not proven himself to be worth the type of investment the Dolphins made by paying him an average salary of nearly $7 million—a salary that will likely keep the deal from lasting past the fully guaranteed first two years of the contract.
Philip Wheeler’s five-year, $26 million contract from the Dolphins also missed the cut. While Wheeler is a talented young linebacker and an upgrade at the position, he was overvalued by the team.
Ricky Jean Francois, DE/DT, Indianapolis Colts
Contract: Four years, $22 million ($6.5 million guaranteed)
Jean Francois is a talented defensive lineman whose versatility to play all three spots in a 3-4 defensive front made him an attractive option for the Colts, who needed reinforcements at defensive end and nose tackle. At an average salary of $5.5 million, however, he was overpaid for a player who has yet to prove himself in a full-time starting role.
50. Sam Baker, LT, Atlanta Falcons
Contract: Six years, $40.85 million ($14.25 million guaranteed, $4 million 2014 option bonus)
For a mid-tier left tackle who some thought the Falcons should replace, Baker was paid generously.
He makes the list because of how important it is for a contender to keep its left tackle in the fold. The Falcons also gave themselves a relative out in the contract, although it is not financially friendly should they decide to make a change within the next two to four seasons.
While the first two years of Baker’s contract are fully guaranteed, the Falcons would only owe the remaining proration of his $10 million signing bonus and $4 million option bonus if they were to release him at any point following the 2014 season.
Nonetheless, the Falcons would still face a $9.2 million dead money hit if they released Baker before the 2015 season. So they better hope he performs at the level worthy of being the team’s long-term left tackle.
49. Jermon Bushrod, LT, Chicago Bears
Contract: Five years, $35.965 million ($16.715 million guaranteed)
Signing Bushrod does serve a good purpose for the Chicago Bears, as it fills their desperate need for a left tackle and allows them to move J’Marcus Webb to right tackle or guard, where he may have more success and fill another need. However, the Bears paid Bushrod more than he is worth.
Bushrod is a decent left tackle, but still not among the league’s better players at the position. In the $5 million to $6 million per year range, he would have been a good signing. But with an average salary above $7 million and with a large guaranteed portion of the contract, he is overvalued.
In this case, Bushrod makes the list simply because of the Bears’ desperate need to improve their offensive line. Adding him should improve that, even if he is overpaid.
48. Jerraud Powers, CB, Arizona Cardinals
Contract: Three years, $10.5 million ($3 million guaranteed)
With the departure of unrestricted free agent Greg Toler and the release of William Gay, bringing in multiple cornerbacks to supplement Patrick Peterson was a must for the Cardinals secondary. One of those was Jerraud Powers, who should have a chance to compete for the No. 2 spot or be slotted as the nickel cornerback in 2013.
Powers is only 26 years old, and his career has gotten off to a solid start in Indianapolis. The Cardinals paid a decent price for a mid-level cornerback by giving him an average salary of $3.5 million, but he is a solid and much-needed addition to the team’s secondary.
47. Jason Jones, DE/DT, Detroit Lions
Contract: Three years, $9.5 million ($3.5 million guaranteed)
By signing Jones, the Lions added a versatile defensive lineman at a decent price.
Jones’ lone season with the Seattle Seahawks was unspectacular, but he is a solid player who can play both outside and inside. He is not particularly explosive, but is a solid inside rusher and is good at setting the edge.
That makes him a good run-stopper at defensive end, but also a good fit to line up inside on passing downs.
46. Geno Hayes, OLB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Contract: Two years, $1.95 million ($125,000 bonus)
The Jaguars haven’t yet added the playmaker they need at linebacker, but they did add a solid potential starting outside linebacker at a low cost in Hayes.
He was a reserve for most of last season with the Bears, but he is a decent all-around player with experience at strongside and weakside linebacker. At the very least, Hayes should compete for a starting spot and add depth. He is good value with an average salary of less than $1 million.
45. Reggie Bush, RB, Detroit Lions
Contract: Four years, $16 million ($5 million guaranteed)
Jahvid Best has not played since October 2011 due to concussions, and it seems his career may be over. As a result, the Lions needed to add a back who can replace him as an explosive, change-of-pace back. They did by signing Reggie Bush.
Bush is coming off of a solid, 986-yard season with the Miami Dolphins and should be a good fit as a complement to Mikel Leshoure, who is a bigger, powerful, between-the-tackles runner.
Four years at a $4 million average salary is a significant commitment for a running back who will likely be No. 2 on the depth chart. Nonetheless, he is a solid addition to the Lions offense.
44. Mike Wallace, WR, Miami Dolphins
Contract: Five years, $60 million ($27 million guaranteed)
Few players in the 2013 free-agent class are likely to have more of an impact next season than Wallace. He is one of the NFL’s most dynamic downfield playmakers at wide receiver and provides a much-needed deep threat for quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Unfortunately for the Dolphins, Wallace is also likely to have a negative impact on the team’s financial situation starting in 2014. A questionably designed contract leaves the Dolphins with cap hits of $12 million or more for Wallace each year from 2014 through 2017, including a whopping $15 million fully guaranteed base salary in 2014.
Had the Dolphins signed Wallace to a more balanced and manageable contract, he would be much higher on this list, considering his playmaking ability and the need he fills for the Dolphins. But with a whopping contract that makes him the NFL’s third-highest-paid wide receiver behind only Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald, he will truly have to perform at his best over the next five seasons to justify that deal.
43. Kaluka Maiava, OLB, Oakland Raiders
Contract: Three years, $6 million ($2.035 million bonus)
The Raiders have signed three linebackers who all could be starters next season. The best value signing among them was Maiava, a solid all-around player with the versatility to play all three linebacker spots.
Maiava is not a big playmaker, but he could help bring stability to a very shaky defense in Oakland. With an average salary of only $2 million, the expectations for Maiava will not be high, so he can easily be worth his money if he proves to be a solid starter.
42. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB, Denver Broncos
Contract: Two years, $10 million ($5 million guaranteed, 2014 voidable)
Rodgers-Cromartie is among the unfortunate players whose career has taken a negative trajectory as a result of the nightmare that was the “Dream Team” Philadelphia Eagles for the past two seasons. But with that said, Rodgers-Cromartie remains a talented and physically gifted cornerback who could bounce back in a big way with the Broncos next season.
The big plays allowed by the Broncos secondary in their postseason loss to the Baltimore Ravens exposed the need to reinforce the defensive backfield, and DRC could help them do that by providing depth behind Champ Bailey and Chris Harris.
The Broncos, however, may have overpaid for Rodgers-Cromartie by giving him the market value average. Rodgers-Cromartie’s $5 million salary for the 2013 season is the same that Derek Cox, Chris Houston and Aqib Talib—all cornerbacks who have performed better over the past two seasons—earned in their free-agent deals.
41. Connor Barwin, OLB, Philadelphia Eagles
Contract: Six years, $36 million ($8 million guaranteed)
At first glance, Barwin’s contract is an ugly one. Six years with a $6 million average salary for a solid 3-4 outside linebacker who is not an explosive pass-rusher is a little steep. When broken down further, however, the Eagles actually drew up a solid contract for a player who can help at outside linebacker as they convert to a 3-4 defense.
The $8 million of guaranteed money is all in the first two years of Barwin’s contract, according to NFL.com, and Barwin is only set to make $13.5 million total in the first three years of his contract. The back-loaded contract, therefore, means that although Barwin was signed to a six-year deal, he will likely only play out three years of the contract.
Barwin is not a great pass-rusher and will likely be a situational player since his strength is against the run. At what is essentially a $4.5 million average salary over the next three years, Barwin could be a solid addition to what projects to be a deep rotation of outside linebackers.
40. James Casey, TE, Philadelphia Eagles
Contract: Three years, $12 million ($4.015 million guaranteed)
New Eagles coach Chip Kelly apparently plans to utilize an H-back in his offense next season. That would appear to be the case after the Eagles signed one of the NFL’s best H-backs, James Casey, to a deal worth an average of $4 million per year.
Casey is not a traditional tight end, but he is a very effective receiver out of the backfield who has very good hands, is a smooth route-runner and is a willing blocker.
Just as they did with fellow former Houston Texan Connor Barwin, the Eagles front-loaded Casey’s guaranteed money. His first year is guaranteed at $4.015 million, but the second year of his contract is not guaranteed until the fifth day of the league year in 2014, and his third year contains no guarantees.
39. Willie Colon, G/OT, New York Jets
Contract: One year, $1.2 million
Both of the Jets’ starting guards from last season remain unsigned as unrestricted free agents, and they have a young right tackle with a lack of depth at offensive tackle on either side of the line.
That makes Colon a very solid signing at only $1.2 million. Colon has had some unfortunate struggles with injuries as a Pittsburgh Steeler. But when healthy, he is a solid starting guard who can also kick out to offensive tackle if necessary.
38. Glenn Dorsey, DL, San Francisco 49ers
Contract: Two years, $6 million ($2.285 million guaranteed)
The 49ers made a solid acquisition for defensive line depth by signing Dorsey.
While he never quite met expectations during his five-year career in Kansas City, he is a solid 5-technique defensive end who can be a rotational player behind starters Justin Smith and Ray McDonald. Dorsey could take over as a starter in 2014 with the 33-year-old Smith entering the final year of the contract.
At an average salary of only $3 million, the 49ers got solid value for a player who will help provide much-needed depth at defensive end.
37. Roy Miller, DT, Jacksonville Jaguars
Contract: Two years, $4.5 million
The Jaguars lost Terrance Knighton to the Denver Broncos, but they ended up making a fairly lateral move at the 1-technique defensive tackle position when they signed Miller to a two-year, $4.5 million contract—the same deal in terms of length and total value that Knighton received in Denver.
Like Knighton, Miller is an unspectacular playmaker, but he is big, strong and a solid run-stopper. Miller adds a little more than Knighton as an athlete, but will not be much of a difference-maker as an interior pass-rusher.
Nonetheless, signing Miller was a solid move to replace Knighton.
36. Dustin Keller, TE, Miami Dolphins
Contract: One year, $4.25 million ($1.25 million bonus)
The Dolphins have made a major effort in free agency to add weapons for Ryan Tannehill. The best value among them may be Keller, a tight end who they were able to sign for a modest, one-year deal.
His progress started to stall over the past couple seasons—in part due to the regressing play of his quarterback, Mark Sanchez—but he is an athletic tight end who can be an asset in the passing game and is a decent blocker.
Keller’s salary and bonus are only slightly higher than the average numbers that the Dolphins’ previous starting tight end, Anthony Fasano, who received from the Kansas City Chiefs (four years, $16 million, $4.5 million bonus). Keller should be a short-term upgrade, and for a team that has made some scary long-term investments contract-wise, a short-term investment in Keller was a smart move.
35. Terrance Knighton, DT, Denver Broncos
Contract: Two years, $4.5 million ($500,000 guaranteed, $1.5 million 2014 roster bonus)
The Broncos, who have been in need of a big, powerful nose tackle to lead the team’s run-stopping effort, may have found a solution by signing Knighton.
He is not a big playmaker, but at 330 pounds, he is a solid run-stuffer who can at least help the run-stopping effort as a rotational player.
Knighton will have to prove his mettle in his first season to stay with the team in 2014 and earn the $1.5 million roster bonus. But with only $500,000 in guaranteed money, he is a low-risk signing who helps address one of the team’s biggest needs.
34. Danny Woodhead, RB, San Diego Chargers
Contract: Two years, unreported (as of midnight Wednesday)
The Chargers needed to add a running back who could provide depth and a change of pace to oft-injured feature back Ryan Mathews. They may have found a perfect fit with Woodhead.
Woodhead is a small back who lacks explosion, but he is a very good receiver out of the backfield and pass-blocker who runs hard and can also contribute on special teams. He provides different qualities than Mathews while also giving the Chargers another reliable ball-carrier.
Woodhead's signing would be higher on this list except that the financial terms of the deal remain unknown. In the $2-2.5 million per year range, signing him to a two-year contract is a great move. But paying him more than $3 million per year would be overvaluing his game.
33. Jason Hunter, DE, Oakland Raiders
Contract: One year, $715,000
With a depleted defense and not a lot of cap room, the Raiders have been forced to rely on lower-level signings to bolster their defense. The best value among them could be Hunter, a pass-rusher.
He has not emerged as much more than a rotational player, but he is an addition that could improve a very weak pass rush. He was in line to start for the Denver Broncos last season before suffering a torn triceps and could turn into a steal of a deal at only $715,000.
The Raiders needed to make moves to improve their paltry pass rush, and getting Hunter at a cheap, non-guaranteed deal is a strong, low-risk start.
32. Desmond Bryant, DE, Cleveland Browns
Contract: Five years, $34 million ($12 million guaranteed)
The Browns have made strides in free agency to build up their defensive front seven. One of the big moves was the signing of Desmond Bryant, an explosive athlete for an interior defensive lineman.
Bryant is a good fit to play 5-technique defensive end in the Browns’ new 3-4 scheme. The position was not exactly a need with Ahtyba Rubin, Billy Winn and John Hughes already in the fold. But Bryant should become the standout of the group and give the Browns a strong and deep rotation at the position.
For a player at a position of non-need, a $6.8 million average salary is fairly lofty, which is why Bryant is not higher on this list. That said, his signing should make the Browns defensive line a very strong unit.
31. Antwan Barnes, OLB, New York Jets
Contract: Three years, $4 million ($900,000 bonus)
The Jets came into free agency with a desperate need to find pass-rushing outside linebackers. They haven’t found their star pass-rusher yet and still have a persistent need there. But by signing Barnes, they did make a solid value signing to address the position.
He is a rotational player rather than a three-down player and had a disappointing 2012 season with the San Diego Chargers. But he is a solid pass-rusher who could be an upgrade on the Jets defense in a situational role. Getting him for less than $1 million in guaranteed money is a bargain.
30. Martellus Bennett, TE, Chicago Bears
Contract: Four years, $20.4 million ($5.215 million guaranteed)
With offensive guru Marc Trestman taking over as head coach, one of the most important steps for Bears general manager Phil Emery this offseason was to add a playmaker at tight end. The Bears did that right away, signing Bennett to the first reported deal of the 2013 free-agency period.
He does not have a consistent history of producing, but in his first season as a starting tight end last year with the New York Giants, he had a career year. An athletic receiving threat who also has great size and is a solid in-line blocker, Bennett is the all-around tight end the Bears need.
At an average salary of $5.1 million, the Bears are certainly paying Bennett with the expectation of him being one of the NFL’s better tight ends. That is a risky move, but one that has the potential for definite payoff in the Bears’ new offense.
29. Jake Long, OT, St. Louis Rams
Contract: Four years, $34 million ($16 million guaranteed, $4 million 2014 roster bonus)
Jake Long was the only player drafted ahead of the St. Louis Rams’ No. 2 overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft, Chris Long. The Rams now have both Longs after signing the former Miami Dolphins left tackle to a lucrative four-year contract.
Long is coming off of an injury-riddled 2012 season that was easily the worst of his five-year career. In his first four NFL seasons, however, Long was among the NFL’s best left tackles and will be a great addition to the Rams offensive line if he returns to his previous form.
Signing Long allows the Rams to flip Rodger Saffold to the right side of the offensive line, finally giving them the pair of bookend tackles they have been trying to find for years.
Giving a player $16 million guaranteed and a $8.5 million average salary coming off of the worst season of his career is a daunting financial commitment, but for a team that as struggled to protect quarterback Sam Bradford throughout his three seasons in St. Louis, Long could end up being well worth the investment.
28. Phil Dawson, K, San Francisco 49ers
Contract: One year, $2.25 million
Down the stretch last season, there may have been no situation more disconcerting for 49ers fans than when David Akers, who missed a league-high 13 field goals, took the field for an important kick. The 49ers found the solution to that problem by signing Dawson, arguably the NFL’s most reliable field-goal kicker.
Dawson is 38 years old, but is coming off one of his best seasons. He made 29-of-31 field goals in 2012, including 13-of-13 from 40 or more yards. Dawson has missed fewer field goals in the past three seasons (12) than Akers did last year.
Dawson is a great one-year investment for a team expected to be among the NFL's top championship contenders next season, and he comes at a fair price of $2.25 million according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.
Considering the difference a reliable and clutch placekicker can make in close games, investing in the free-agent market’s top kicker is a smart move.
27. Paul Kruger, OLB, Cleveland Browns
Contract: Five years, $40.485 million ($19.95 million guaranteed)
The new Browns regime of owner Jimmy Haslam, president Joe Banner and general manager Michael Lombardi was expected to make an immediate splash when free agency began. They did that when they signed outside linebacker Paul Kruger, an explosive pass-rusher coming off a breakout season with the Baltimore Ravens, away from their division rivals.
Kruger is a great addition to fill the Browns’ need for a pass-rusher opposite Jabaal Sheard, especially given his experience with Cleveland's new 3-4 defense. Kruger is coming off the best season of his NFL career, highlighted by a fantastic postseason run which was capped by a two-sack performance in the Ravens’ Super Bowl win over the San Francisco 49ers.
The reason Kruger is not higher on this list, however, is that the Browns are taking a big risk with how much they are paying him. While Kruger started to look like a star late last season, he has not consistently produced at a high level.
If Kruger truly is entering the prime of his career, the Browns could have the lead pass-rushing outside linebacker they need for the next five years. Had it not been for his strong postseason, however, it is unlikely that he would have come close to earning an average salary above $8 million and nearly $20 million in guaranteed money.
26. Donald Thomas, G, Indianapolis Colts
Contract: Four years, $14 million ($3.5 million guaranteed)
Considering that Thomas has never been a full-time starting guard in his five-year NFL career, the Colts did not get great value, signing him at an average salary of $3.5 million per year. But for a team in need of interior offensive line help, he could pay off in a big way if he can duplicate his performance as a part-time starter for the New England Patriots last season.
Thomas was outstanding in fill-in duty at left and right guard in 2012, and he can play any of the three interior offensive line spots, which are all need positions for the Colts. If Thomas can finally put it all together as a starter, he has the potential to be a terrific guard and a much-needed cog on the Colts’ interior offensive line.
While Thomas’ value is not great on the surface, it could easily pay off in the short term and over the length of his four-year contract.
25. Greg Jennings, WR, Minnesota Vikings
Contract: Five years, $45 million ($17.8 million guaranteed)
The Vikings already had a major need at wide receiver before trading Percy Harvin to the Seattle Seahawks, so they needed to make a serious move to improve their receiving corps. The Vikings certainly made that move, spending big money to pick up Jennings, one of the top wide receivers in the free-agent class.
After a disappointing 2012 season marred by injuries, Jennings’ contract came in with surprisingly high numbers. That said, he is one of the NFL’s best all-around wideouts when healthy, and he can be both a reliable go-to option and a dynamic playmaker for Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder.
Jennings’ contract is a daunting one, with $11 million cap hits in each of the final three years of the deal. On the other hand, however, $11.8 million of the guaranteed money comes in the first two years of the contract. So while the deal is not cap-friendly, it is not a deal that will necessarily last for five full seasons.
24. Kevin Ogletree, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Contract: Two years, $2.6 million
The Buccaneers needed to add another wideout to fill the third receiver slot behind Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, especially after trading Arrelious Benn to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Buccaneers got a solid receiver at a good price in Ogletree.
After showing serious potential with an eight-reception, 114-yard and two-touchdown game in the Dallas Cowboys’ season opener last year versus the New York Giants, Ogletree was inconsistent throughout the rest of the season.
Nonetheless, he is a solid third receiver with good size and quickness. He could prove to be a bargain if he can become more consistently productive.
23. Steven Jackson, RB, Atlanta Falcons
Contract: Three years, $12 million ($4 million guaranteed)
After releasing Michael Turner, the Falcons needed to find a feature back to lead their ground game. The Falcons found that back in Jackson, a well-rounded, hard-running veteran.
He has been the NFL’s most consistent running back over the past eight years, as he is the only player at the position to run for over 1,000 yards in that many consecutive seasons.
At an average salary of $4 million per year, the Falcons didn’t have to break the bank to sign Jackson. The only significant issue with this signing is that Jackson will be 30 in July, an age that often signals decline for NFL running backs.
But even if the Falcons only get two more strong years out of Jackson, signing him will be well worth the investment.
22. Brandon Myers, TE, New York Giants
Contract: Four years, $14.25 million ($2.25 million guaranteed, final three years voidable)
Following their signing of Martellus Bennett last year, the Giants found another short-term option to fill their need for a starting tight end, signing Brandon Myers to a creative four-year, $14.25 million contract with a $1.5 million signing bonus.
The final three years of the contract are voidable, according to Jenny Vrentas of the Newark Star-Ledger. That reduces Myers’ cap hit for the 2013 season to only $1.125 million, even with a fully guaranteed $750,000 salary, and essentially makes it a one-year contract.
Myers was one of the few bright spots on the Oakland Raiders in 2012, emerging as a breakout weapon in their passing offense. Moving into a much more solid offense in New York, Myers should continue to thrive as a weapon in the middle of the field, and the Giants got him at very good value thanks to a well-designed contract.
21. Phil Loadholt, RT, Minnesota Vikings
Contract: Four years, $25 million ($7 million guaranteed)
The Vikings have some issues with their offense, but offensive tackle shouldn’t be one of them in the near future. The Vikings found an immediate standout left tackle in 2012 first-round pick Matt Kalil and made a smart move to sign right tackle Loadholt, the other bookend of their offensive line, for the next four years.
His average salary of $6.25 million is a high number for a right tackle, but the Vikings were smart to recognize his importance to their offense. Loadholt is a strong run-blocker and a decent pass-blocker who is in the prime of his career. Keeping him is certainly key to the rushing success of Adrian Peterson and the Vikings' ability to protect quarterback Christian Ponder.
20. Andy Levitre, G, Tennessee Titans
Contract: Six years, $46.8 million ($10.5 million bonus)
The Titans’ biggest need coming into free agency was to upgrade at guard, especially with the retirement of Steve Hutchinson. They addressed that in a big way, signing Levitre, the top guard in free agency, to a lucrative contract.
Levitre’s $7.8 million average salary is now the fourth-highest among NFL guards, and he belongs among the NFL’s highest paid at his position. He is a well-rounded guard who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ top pass-blocking guard in 2012 (h/t CBS Sports). He could be an immediate upgrade at either guard spot.
The Titans may have been able to get better value at the position, but if there was any position that warranted a big investment on the Titans roster, guard would be it.
19. Danny Amendola, WR, New England Patriots
Contract: Five years, $28.5 million ($10 million guaranteed)
The Patriots did not bring back Wes Welker, their leading receiver for the past five seasons. But if there was a player on the free-agent market who can be characterized as a younger version of Welker, they signed that player in Danny Amendola.
Expecting Amendola to duplicate Welker’s production with the Patriots would be setting the bar too high, as Welker caught 672 passes for 7,459 yards in six seasons. That said, Amendola is a quick, shifty route-runner and slot receiver who should play a very similar role in the Patriots offense and see his performance spike as a result of the system he is playing in.
The biggest concern about Amendola may be his durability. But if he can stay healthy, he should quickly become a valuable weapon in the Patriots offense. The Patriots got him at a slightly lower average salary that Welker’s average of $6 million per year and only have $3.6 million guaranteed in the final three seasons of Amendola's contract.
18. Matt Shaughnessy, DE/OLB, Arizona Cardinals
Contract: One year, $1 million
Signing Shaughnessy was an under-the-radar but very solid low-risk free-agent move by the Cardinals.
His transition to the 3-4 defense may not be seamless, but he has the potential to be a versatile cog in their defense. Shaughnessy is a solid pass-rusher and good athlete who has the size to play 5-technique defensive end, but he also may be able to provide rotational depth at outside linebacker.
At only $1 million for the 2013 season, he is a valuable addition to the Cardinals’ defensive front seven.
17. Adrian Wilson, SS, New England Patriots
Contract: Three years, $5 million ($1 million bonus)
At 33 years old, Adrian Wilson’s career is on its downswing. But at a bargain average salary of only $1.33 million and with a bonus of only $1 million, taking a chance on Wilson is a good move by the Patriots.
He can bring veteran leadership to the secondary and be the enforcer they lacked at strong safety. He isn’t likely to be an every-down player at this stage in his career, but certainly bolsters a strong safety rotation that could also include Tavon Wilson and Steve Gregory competing for playing time next to Devin McCourty.
Even in the latter stages of his career, Wilson is an upgrade over Patrick Chung, who received double the money Wilson did from the Eagles (three years, $10 million, $4 million guaranteed).
16. Aqib Talib, CB, New England Patriots
Contract: One year, $5 million
According to NFL Network’s Albert Breer, the Patriots offered Aqib Talib a five-year contract, but eventually settled on a one-year, $5 million contract. As it turned out, the Patriots may have gotten a better deal.
Talib reportedly had multi-year offers from several teams, but chose a one-year deal to try to increase his market value for 2014, according to Pro Football Talk. For the Patriots, Talib's decision allows them to take less of a financial risk on a cornerback who has battled off-field problems and injuries while also allowing them to fill what otherwise would have been a massive void at cornerback.
Given Talib’s issues through the first five years of this career, a long-term deal with guaranteed money may have ranked much lower on this list. However, as a one-year deal at market value, it was a good move by the Patriots to bring back their best player at a position of need.
15. Keenan Lewis, CB, New Orleans Saints
Contract: Five years, $25.5 million ($6 million guaranteed)
The Saints had a major need to upgrade the cornerback position coming into free agency. They addressed that need early in free agency, adding one of the top cornerbacks on the market in Lewis.
He is a big, physical and aggressive cornerback who makes plays on the ball and can be an upgrade at either cornerback spot for the Saints. Additionally, Lewis comes to the Saints with experience playing in the 3-4 defense and should be a good fit as a leader in the secondary with the Saints’ change of defensive scheme.
Lewis may not have been the best value signing on the cornerback market, with an average salary higher than that of Derek Cox and Chris Houston, who each signed at an average of $5 million per year. That said, the Saints made a very good move to ink a potential No. 1 cornerback to a long-term deal coming off a breakout season.
14. George Wilson, SS, Tennessee Titans
Contract: Two years, $4 million ($600,000 bonus)
It came as a surprise when the Buffalo Bills cut strong safety George Wilson in February, but the safety-needy Titans made a very smart move to pick him up later in the month at a good price.
He is a well-rounded safety who is effective in coverage and a strong tackler in run support. The Titans were in serious need of an upgrade at strong safety. Picking up Wilson at an average of just $2 million per year was a great choice to fill that void.
13. Chris Clemons, SS, Miami Dolphins
Contract: One year, $2.75 million ($1 million guaranteed)
Alongside Reshad Jones, Chris Clemons formed one of the NFL’s best safety duos in 2012. The Dolphins made a very smart move to keep that duo together for the 2013 season, re-signing Clemons at a price of only $2.75 million that is low risk and a very small cap commitment.
Clemons has had an up-and-down four-year career with the Dolphins, but he was a steady presence in pass coverage and run support in 2012.
The Dolphins have certainly overpaid for some players early in free agency, but signing Clemons was a great value move.
12. Tony Gonzalez, TE, Atlanta Falcons
Contract: Two years, $14 million ($7 million guaranteed, 2014 voidable)
Although he technically hit the open market, the Falcons never faced any serious competition from other teams for Gonzalez’s service. Keeping Gonzalez out of retirement, however, and back with the Falcons for another Super Bowl run at a reasonable price was a major signing for Atlanta.
Gonzalez wasn’t the only key player the Falcons kept in the fold. They re-signed strong safety William Moore to a five-year, $28.25 million deal prior to the start of free agency and also retained Sam Baker.
That said, Gonzalez is certainly a key player on their explosive offense. With a cap hit of only $5.25 million in 2013 and a voidable year in 2014 should he choose to retire after the 2013 season, the Falcons re-signed a player who remains one of the NFL’s best receiving tight ends to a deal good for both parties.
11. Dashon Goldson, FS, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Contract: Five years, $41.25 million ($18 million guaranteed)
With an average salary of $8.25 million per year that makes him the NFL’s third-highest-paid safety, the Buccaneers are certainly taking on a steep contract with free safety Dashon Goldson. He may be well worth the money.
Goldson adds a hard-hitting playmaker to the back end of the Buccaneers defense who will bring an attitude to their secondary and form a formidable safety duo with 2012 first-round pick Mark Barron at strong safety. Goldson has his lapses in coverage and is prone to personal fouls, but he is a big playmaker who is as big a presence over the middle as any safety in the NFL.
Additionally, while Goldson’s contract numbers are high, they are front-loaded, which eliminates long-term risk for Tampa Bay. While the first two years of the contract are fully guaranteed, the third year is guaranteed for injury only and the last two years contain no guarantees.
10. Chris Houston, CB, Detroit Lions
Contract: Five years, $25 million ($9.5 million guaranteed)
With a major hole at the cornerback position, re-signing Chris Houston was rightfully the Detroit Lions’ top priority this season in free agency.
The Lions got a very good deal, locking up their best young cornerback right at the market value of $5 million per year, with an average guarantee of less than $2 million.
Houston is not a true shutdown cornerback, which should still have the Lions in the market for another cornerback, possibly Alabama’s Dee Milliner at the No. 5 overall pick. At market value, however, the Lions made a good move to keep one of the market’s best cornerbacks in the fold for five more years.
9. Louis Vasquez, G, Denver Broncos
Contract: Four years, $23.5 million ($10 million guaranteed)
The Broncos have made very smart moves in free agency this year. Stealing away Louis Vasquez from division rival San Diego is certainly among them.
In Vasquez, the Broncos filled a need at right guard with one of the market’s top two at the position—at an average salary nearly $2 million less than the market’s other top guard, Andy Levitre.
The addition of Vasquez fills the most significant hole on the Broncos offensive line, takes him away from their divisional competition and should make a great offense even stronger, especially in the ground game.
8. Cliff Avril, DE, Seattle Seahawks
Contract: Two years, $13 million ($6 million guaranteed, $5 million guaranteed in 2014)
With Chris Clemons coming off a torn ACL, it certainly made sense for the Seahawks to add another pass-rusher with the athleticism and rush ability to play the LEO spot on their defensive line. But at the bargain rate with which they signed Avril, picking him up would have worked out regardless.
An explosive edge-rusher, the Seahawks got Avril at very good value, with an average salary of only $6.5 million and $6 million guaranteed over two seasons.
A $5 million guarantee that kicks in one day after next season’s Super Bowl could make Avril a one-year addition to the team, but the Seahawks would face a hit of only $2.25 million in dead money should they release him after one season. If they do not, an already intimidating pass rush will become even more formidable with Avril in two the next two seasons.
7. Antoine Cason, CB, Arizona Cardinals
Contract: One year, $1.5 million
Cason never lived up to expectations as a San Diego Charger after being a first-round pick in 2008, but he remains a viable option as a No. 2 cornerback. The NFL market didn’t value him that way, however, and as a result, the Cardinals got the cornerback market’s biggest bargain.
The Cardinals signed Cason to a one-year, $1.5 million contract with $500,000 in incentives. This is substantially lower than the contract their previous No. 2 cornerback, Greg Toler, received from the Indianapolis Colts (three years, $15 million, $5 million guaranteed), but is not a significant downgrade from Toler.
Cason may not necessarily be a long-term fixture in the Cardinals secondary, but for the 2013 season, he is a very good addition as a No. 2 cornerback at well below the market value.
6. Kenny Phillips, FS, Philadelphia Eagles
Contract: One year, $2 million (non-guaranteed)
For a move with virtually no risk, the Eagles got an absolute steal with their signing of Phillips, a free safety.
He has had trouble staying on the field due to injuries, but is one of the game’s best free safeties when he is healthy.
Fortunately for the Eagles, the contract is completely safeguarded in case Phillips does not return to form after dealing with knee injuries last season. Phillips’ contract contains no guarantees—even if he earns a $150,000 offseason workout bonus, the Eagles could still release him without paying any more of his $2 million contract.
The contract is a smart move for Phillips, as it allows him to rebuild his value if he can stay healthy and play at his best in 2013. It also could provide the Eagles with a potentially huge upgrade at safety at a low price.
5. Derek Cox, CB, San Diego Chargers
Contract: Four years, $20 million ($10.25 million guaranteed)
With both of their starting cornerbacks free agents, the Chargers were among the teams in line for an upgrade this offseason. They were able to get one by signing Cox, one of the best young free-agent cornerbacks, to a deal that falls right in line with this year’s cornerback market value.
With a $5 million average salary and $2.5625 million guaranteed per year, Cox received a fair deal. In return, the Chargers received great value, adding one of the game’s better cornerbacks at a cheaper price than Keenan Lewis and at the same price as Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Greg Toler, among others.
The Chargers still need to sign or draft at least one more cornerback, but they should have one starting spot locked down for the next four years with Cox, who is only 26 years old.
4. Sean Smith, CB, Kansas City Chiefs
Contract: Three years, $16.5 million ($7.465 million guaranteed, 2014 base guaranteed on 2/7/14)
The Chiefs stayed true to positional market value in signing Smith, the best young cornerback in this year’s free-agent market.
At an average salary of $5.5 million, the Chiefs gave Smith $500,000 more per year than Derek Cox and Chris Houston, but paid him less up-front guaranteed money. In Smith, the Chiefs acquired a very talented cornerback who is a very good fit to play as the No. 2 cornerback opposite Brandon Flowers in the Chiefs secondary.
With Flowers signed through the 2017 season, the Chiefs appear to be set at their starting cornerback positions for at least the next three seasons. As an added bonus, they signed Smith at a much more favorable rate than their previous No. 2 cornerback, Brandon Carr, received as a top cornerback in last year’s market (five years, $50.1 million).
3. Cullen Jenkins, DT, New York Giants
Contract: Three years, $8 million ($3 million guaranteed)
Jenkins’ two seasons in Philadelphia were a disappointment, just as they were for every other member of the “Dream Team” signing class. That said, Jenkins is still a very solid interior penetrator as a defensive tackle and is a bargain signing for the Giants at less than $3 million per year.
The Giants were in need of a penetrator and interior pass-rusher, especially after releasing Chris Canty. In Jenkins, who was signed prior to the start of the free-agency period after being cut by the Philadelphia Eagles, they got a bargain answer to fill their need.
Signing Jenkins is a very low-risk move for the Giants, with only $1.27 million guaranteed in the final two years of his contract.
2. Michael Bennett, DE, Seattle Seahawks
Contract: One year, $4.8 million ($1.5 million guaranteed)
The Seahawks pass rush for next season was already looking formidable with the addition of Cliff Avril. The cherry on top came when the team signed Bennett at a bargain rate of only $4.8 million.
Bennett—who initially signed with the Seahawks as an undrafted free agent in 2009—has steadily improved in each of his four NFL seasons. But he had his breakout year in 2012, recording nine sacks.
He is a great fit for the Seahawks, as he is a very good inside rusher who can play the 3-technique/5-technique position on passing downs while also providing depth at defensive end.
Bennett is an upgrade over Jason Jones and should play a larger role on the Seahawks defensive line, even though Jones had $4.5 million guaranteed in his contract, compared to only $1.5 million for Bennett.
1. Wes Welker, WR, Denver Broncos
Contract: Two years, $12 million ($6 million guaranteed)
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft said Monday at the NFL’s annual owners meetings in Arizona that Wes Welker’s agents misrepresented his market value, per a transcript from ESPN Boston. It’s not hard to understand why Welker’s agent, David Dunn, had a higher expectation for Welker’s value.
In comparison to the lofty contracts Mike Wallace and Greg Jennings received, it's clear slot receivers were not as highly valued as outside receivers in this year's free-agent class. That said, getting the NFL’s best slot receiver and one of the most productive players in recent years at only $6 million per year was a real bargain for the Broncos..
If there is any system other than the Patriots in which Welker should thrive, it is as the slot receiver in the Broncos’ pass-happy offense led by Peyton Manning.
The Broncos should get an outstanding slot receiver for the next two years, but if he doesn’t pan out, the move has no risk beyond the 2013 season. While Welker’s salary for the 2013 season is fully guaranteed, his 2014 salary is not guaranteed until March 2014, which would allow the Broncos to release Welker without penalty if his first season in Denver does not meet expectations.
The Broncos made an outstanding move to add Welker to their offense. It is a move that should make one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses even better.
Dan Hope is an NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.