2014 NFL Free Agency: Grades for Latest Signings
What if you had $320 million burning a hole in your pocket?
That's what it's like for today's NFL teams, who got an unexpected $10 million bump to their per-team salary just before the March 11 start to free agency.
With a last-second influx of cap money, players started coming off the market well before the market even opened. Players like the San Diego Chargers' Donald Butler and Washington Redskins' Perry Riley chose to re-up with their original teams just days before the market opened—and that's just the inside linebackers.
With so few top-flight starters left hitting the open market, players like Tennessee Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner have plenty of suitors all to themselves.
The few players that are changing teams will likely command princely sums in the process, and a lot of "Plan B" free agents may command premium money.
Here at Bleacher Report, we'll give you the lowdown on every free-agent signing, how the players fit in, a letter grade, and if the players were worth the money.
Keep coming back to this piece throughout the opening days of free agency, as it'll be constantly updated with info on all the latest moves!
Latest Reported Signings
Haven't seen the latest? Here are all the big free-agent signings so far, with the freshest news on top. Keep reading to see the grades and analysis for each new move and keep checking back as deals keep getting signed!
March 16: Walter Thurmond to New York Giants
One of a flock of Seahawks leaving Seattle, cornerback Walter Thurmond has agreed to a one-year, $3.5 million deal with the Giants, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.
March 16: Emmanuel Sanders to Denver Broncos
After a wild saga that involved at least two other teams and some hurt feelings, receiver Emmanuel Sanders has signed a three-year deal worth up to $18 million with the Denver Broncos, per Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun.
March 15: Julius Peppers to Green Bay Packers
The second Packer or Bear to switch sides in the NFL's oldest rivalry, pass-rusher Julius Peppers joins Green Bay on a three-year deal worth a maximum of $30 million, per ESPN's Josina Anderson.
March 14: Tarell Brown to Oakland Raiders
Reggie McKenzie wasn't allowed to spend all of owner Mark Davis' money in one go, so instead he's collecting good, cheap players. ESPN's Adam Schefter reports it's a one-year deal worth a fully guaranteed $3.5 million.
March 14: Antonio Smith to Oakland Raiders
The Raiders continue to beef up the front seven with the addition of defensive lineman Antonio Smith, per NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, signing him to a two-year, $9 million deal.
March 14: Michael Oher to Tennessee Titans
It was always going to be a choice between Oher and Eugene Monroe for the Ravens this offseason. With Monroe re-signed, Oher leaves on a four-year, $20 million deal according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.
March 14: Brandon Browner to New England Patriots
THe New England Patriots Home for Wayward Football Players just accepted its newest tenant: cornerback Brandon Browner, who must sit out the first four games of his three-year, $17 million deal due to a league suspension. Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald reported the terms.
March 14: Hakeem Nicks to Indianapolis Colts
Two dots many had penciled a line between have finally been linked in ink: The ink on Nicks' one-year deal, per NFL Media's Ian Rapoport.
March 14: Chris Cook to San Francisco 49ers
With cornerback Carlos Rogers headed elsewhere, the 49ers have signed Cook to a one-year deal, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
March 14: Shelley Smith to Miami Dolphins
The gutted Dolphins offensive line is slowly getting put back together. The former Rams guard gets a two-year, $5.5 million deal, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.
March 14: Steve Smith to Baltimore Ravens
In a move that's going to seem so wrong when he takes the field this fall, Panthers icon Steve Smith has agreed to go to the Ravens on a three-year, $11 million deal, per Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun.
March 14: Evan Dietrich-Smith to Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers snag the first center to change teams on a four-year, $14.25 million deal, per NFL Media's Ian Rapoport.
March 14: Cortland Finnegan to Miami Dolphins
Per Omar Kelly of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Finnegan goes to Miami on a two-year deal.
March 14: Cam Thomas to Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers beef up their defensive line, signing the 330-pound Thomas to a two-year deal, per Michael Gehlken of U-T San Diego.
March 14: Wesley Woodyard to Tennessee Titans
According to USA Today's Mike Garafolo, former Broncos LB Wesley Woodyard has agreed to a four-year, $16 million deal with the Tennessee Titans.
March 13: Brandon Pettigrew to Detroit Lions
The last healthy starting tight end is off the market, as the Detroit Free Press's Dave Birkett reports Pettigrew signed a four-year, $16 million deal.
March 13: Jameel McClain to New York Giants
The Giants keep making judicious moves, and Tom Pelissero of USA Today reports they've made another: signing former Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain.
March 13: LaMarr Woodley to Oakland Raiders
After a disappointing start to free agency, the Oakland Raiders turned things around on Thursday by adding another pass-rusher in former Steelers standout LaMarr Woodley, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.
March 13: Jason Hatcher to Washington Redskins
Per NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, the Washington Redskins snagged defensive tackle Jason Hatcher from the NFC East-rival Dallas Cowboys.
March 13: Captain Munnerlyn to Minnesota Vikings
The Minnesota Vikings needed a cornerback, and they went to work finding one early in the free-agency period. They signed former Carolina Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn on Thursday; Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer reports it's a three-year, $14.25 million deal.
March 13: Matt Shaughnessy to Arizona Cardinals
Along with Ginn, the Cardinals also locked up linebacker Matt Shaughnessy, who spent the last four years with the Oakland Raiders, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.
March 13: Ted Ginn, Jr. to Arizona Cardinals
Per ESPN's Adam Schefter, former Carolina Panthers speedster Ted Ginn, Jr. will be playing in Arizona next season.
March 13: Phil Costa to Indianapolis Colts
March 13: Charlie Whitehurst to Tennessee Titans
As reported by The Tennessean's Jim Wyatt, quarterback Charlie Whitehurst will join the Tennessee Titans on a two-year deal worth up to $8 million.
March 13: Kellen Clemens to San Diego Chargers
March 13: Justin Tuck to Oakland Raiders
The Raiders needed a big splash after their failed attempt to land OL Rodger Saffold, and they made just that by signing former New York Giants DE Justin Tuck to a two-year, $11 million deal, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.
March 13: Tracy Porter to Washington
A relatively quiet free-agency period for Daniel Snyder's team got a jolt when the Redskins agreed to terms with former Super Bowl hero Tracy Porter, according to Dianna Russini of NBC 4 in Washington.
March 13: Garrett Graham to Houston Texans
The Texans released Owen Daniels this offseason, but didn't want to let second-year pro Ryan Griffin be the only tight end option available. According to Texans beat man John McClain, Houston has agreed to bring Garrett Graham back on a three-year deal.
March 13: Ziggy Hood to Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jacksonville defensive-line rebuild continues with former Steeler Ziggy Hood. Ryan O'Halloran of The Florida Times-Union had the scoop; Hood's agent, Andy Ross, confirmed the deal is for four years.
March 13: Willie Young to Chicago Bears
The Chicago Bears signed defensive end Willie Young away from the division-rival Detroit Lions. Per Tom Pelissero of USA Today, Young agreed to a three-year, $9 million deal.
March 13: Anthony Collins to Tampa Bay Buccaneers
According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the last major left-tackle signing has been made: Anthony Collins has agreed to join the Bucs. Per NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, it's a five-year deal worth $30 million.
March 13: Vaughn Martin to Detroit Lions
Defensive tackle Vaughn Martin has agreed to terms with the Detroit Lions, according to his agent, Chad Speck. Martin, as Speck points out, hails from nearby London, Ontario, Canada.
March 13: Chris Clemons to Jacksonville Jaguars
Longtime Seattle Seahawks standout Chris Clemons is re-joining his old defensive coordinator, Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley, on a four-year deal, so says NFL Media's Albert Breer.
March 13: Nolan Carroll to Philadelphia Eagles
Former Miami Dolphins cornerback Nolan Carroll has agreed to a two-year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles worth $3.65 million, per NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, as part of a second annual secondary rebuild.
March 12: Eric Decker to New York Jets
It wasn't exactly unexpected, but things are going to get a whole lot more interesting in the AFC East with Eric Decker joining the Jets on a five-year, $36.25 million deal, as reported by ESPN's Adam Schefter.
March 12: Jonathan Dwyer to Arizona Cardinals
Arizona has been a typical landing spot for ex-Steelers in recent years. As reported by ESPN's Adam Schefter, former Pittsburgh running back Jonathan Dwyer continued the trend by signing with the Cardinals.
March 12 UPDATE: Rodger Saffold back to St. Louis Rams
Another late-night stunner: After originally signing with Oakland on a five-year, $42.5 million deal, Saffold failed the Raiders' physical. ESPN's Adam Schefter reports Saffold is immediately returning to St. Louis to sign a five-year, $37.5 million deal.
March 12: Darrelle Revis to New England Patriots
The wildest story [UPDATE: second-wildest] of the 2014 free-agent period concludes with a stunner: The Patriots replace Aqib Talib with the best cornerback in football—and a one-year, $12 million contract to boot, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.
March 12: Keith Rivers to Buffalo Bills
The former first-round pick is moving upstate, from the New York Giants to the Buffalo Bills. Tim Graham of The Buffalo News had the scoop on the two-year, $5 million deal.
March 12: Mike Neal to Green Bay Packers
Versatile defensive players offer great value, and the Packers did not want to see pass-rusher Mike Neal get away. According Neal's personal Twitter account, he's returning to Green Bay on a two-year deal.
March 12: Joe Mays to Kansas City Chiefs
Veteran ILB is moving from Houston to Kansas City. According to ESPN insider Adam Caplan, he's agreed to a two-year, $6 million deal with the Chiefs.
March 12: Corey Graham to Buffalo Bills
Cornerback and special-teams ace Corey Graham is headed north to Buffalo, per ESPN's Adam Caplan, on a four-year, $16 million deal.
March 12: Golden Tate to Detroit Lions
According to ESPN's Josina Anderson, Golden Tate of the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks is leaving the 12th Man in favor of the Detroit Lions on a five-year, $31 million deal with $13.25 million guaranteed.
March 12: Jacoby Jones to Baltimore Ravens
For a brief moment it looked like Jacoby Jones might be out in Baltimore, but in the end he was re-signed for a four-year, $14 million deal, according to Ravens insider Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun.
March 12: Randy Starks to Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins' franchise tag player a year ago, Randy Starks is staying put in Miami after agreeing to a two-year deal, per CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora.
March 12: Josh McCown to Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa's new regime continues its spending by adding veteran signal-caller Josh McCown to a two-year deal, according to his agent Mike McCartney on Twitter.
March 12: DeMarcus Ware to Denver Broncos
The rich get really, really richer as the AFC Champion Broncos strike for a third time, per ESPN's Adam Schefter. The pass-rusher agreed to a three-year, $30 million deal.
March 12: Jon Beason to New York Giants
Big Blue desperately wanted to bring back the MLB they acquired via trade last season, and according to NFL Network reporter Aditi Kinkhabwala, they've done just that. ESPN's Adam Schefter reports it's a three-year deal worth $19 million.
March 12: M.D. Jennings to Chicago Bears
March 12: Chris Williams to Buffalo Bills
ESPN's Adam Schefter reports the Buffalo Bills have signed former Bears and Rams guard Chris Williams to a four-year, $13.5 million deal with $5.5 million guaranteed.
March 12: Austin Howard to Oakland Raiders
The Oakland Raiders lost offensive tackle Jared Veldheer to the Cardinals, but they found his potential replacement in former New York Jets tackle Austin Howard, as reported by ESPN's Adam Schefter.
March 11: Donald Brown to San Diego Chargers
As reported by Ian Rapoport of NFL Media, former Indianapolis Colts running back Donald Brown will sign with the San Diego Chargers.
March 11: Aqib Talib to Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos were quick to replace Champ Bailey, locking up Aqib Talib with a massive six-year, $57 million deal with $26 million in guaranteed money, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.
March 11: Toby Gerhart to Jacksonville Jaguars
As noted by Matt Miller, former Vikings running back Toby Gerhart wants a starting gig, and he might just have that chance in Jacksonville. The two sides reached an agreement Tuesday night, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.
March 11: Alterraun Verner to Tampa Bay Buccaneers
As reported by ESPN's Adam Schefter, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers got a tremendous bargain in signing former Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner to a four-year, $26.5 million deal.
March 11: Jairus Byrd to New Orleans Saints
After creating significant cap space leading up to free agency, the New Orleans Saints pulled off the biggest signing of the day, inking safety Jairus Byrd to a six-year, $54 million deal, as reported by ESPN's Adam Schefter.
March 11: Mike Mitchell to Pittsburgh Steelers
In an effort to replace aging veteran Ryan Clark, the Pittsburgh Steelers have signed 26-year-old former Panthers safety Mike Mitchell, per Chicago Tribune's Brad Biggs.
March 11: Darren McFadden to Oakland Raiders
In one of the more surprising moves, Raiders star Darren McFadden is returning to the Black Hole. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the contract is a one-year, $4 million deal.
March 11: Nick Folk to New York Jets
Previously franchise-tagged by the Jets, placekicker Nick Folk got his wish for a multiyear deal according to ESPN New York's Rich Cimini.
March 11: Ryan Mundy to Chicago Bears
Chicago was poised to look for defensive help this offseason and, per ESPN's Adam Schefter, found some in former Giants safety Ryan Mundy.
March 11: Ahmad Bradshaw to Indianpolis Colts
Ahmad Bradshaw saw a career resurgence in Indianapolis last season before going down with an injury. He'll get a chance to get back at with the Colts on a one-year deal, according to Pro Football Talk.
March 11: Rashad Jennings to New York Giants
Re-signing Peyton Hillis wasn't enough for Giants GM Jerry Reese as he went out and landed former Raiders RB Rashad Jennings as well. According to CSN Bay Area reported Fallon Smith it's a four-year, $14 million deal with $3 million guaranteed.
March 11: Linval Joseph to Minnesota Vikings
Minnesota dealt the Giants a huge blow by stealing star DT Linval Joseph on Tuesday. Fox Sports 1 NFL reporter Alex Marvez had the original scoop, according to Adam Schefter.
March 11: Eugene Monroe to Baltimore Ravens
The Baltimore Ravens took the best left tackle on the market back off the market, according to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, with a five-year, $37.5 million deal.
March 11: Antoine Bethea to San Francisco 49ers
The safety swaps continue, with Antoine Bethea replacing the departed Donte Whitner in San Francisco. Bethea got $28 million over four years, according to Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
March 11: T.J. Ward to Denver Broncos
The rich get richer. The Broncos wanted, and needed, safety help and wound up with one of the best on the market in former Browns defensive back T.J. Ward. The Denver Post reports Ward signed a four-year contract for $23 million.
March 11: Geoff Schwartz to New York Giants
Long-believed to be in the market for Chiefs OL Geoff Schwartz, the Giants were actually able to close the four-year, $16.8 million deal on Tuesday afternoon, per Rand Getlin of Yahoo Sports.
March 11: Malcolm Jenkins to Philadelphia Eagles
Eagles fans were looking a big-name safety and wound up with former Saint Malcolm Jenkins. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Jenkins is joining Philly on a three-year $16.5 million deal.
March 11: Vontae Davis to Indianapolis Colts
The incomparable Colts owner Jim Irsay took to Twitter to announce that his team was able to re-sign cornerback Vontae Davis. The contract is for four years, $39 million with $20 million guaranteed, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.
March 11: Andre Roberts to Washington
According to CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora, Andre Roberts is headed to Washington on a four-year, $16 million deal.
March 11: Art Jones to Indianapolis Colts
Art Jones will be following former defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano to Indianapolis, per ESPN's Adam Schefter, on a five-year deal worth about $30 million.
March 11: Zane Beadles to Jacksonville Jaguars
Guard Zane Beadles, per ESPN's Adam Caplan via ESPN's Adam Schefter, has agreed to a five-year, $30 million deal to move from Denver to Jacksonville.
March 11: Lamarr Houston to Chicago Bears
The Chicago Bears re-stock their defensive front, adding Lamarr Houston on a five-year, $35 million deal, per Ian Rapoport of NFL Media.
March 11: Branden Albert to Miami Dolphins
Branden Albert spins on the left-tackle carousel to Miami, where, per Ian Rapoport of NFL Media, he's signed a five-year deal worth about $45 million.
March 11: Santana Moss to Washington
Santana Moss is staying in burgundy and gold, per Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, for one more year.
March 11: Dexter McCluster to Tennessee Titans
ESPN's Adam Schefter reports the speedy Dexter McCluster is racing to Tennessee, where he'll make up to $12 million over the next three years.
March 11: Jared Veldheer to Arizona Cardinals
The left-tackle wheel of fortune is spinning, and Jared Veldheer hit the jackpot in Arizona: $35 million over five years, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.
March 11: Brandon Myers to Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Brandon Myers signed with Tampa Bay on a two-year, $4.25 million contract, per Tom Pelissero of USA Today.
March 11: O'Brien Schofield to New York Giants
Per Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, former Seattle Seahawks linebacker O'Brien Schofield is headed back to the Big Apple—this time, to sign a two-year, $8 million deal.
March 11: Paul Soliai to Atlanta Falcons
This year, the Falcons really aren't slow-playing the defensive line market. Per Tom Pelissero of USA Today, they gave Paul Soliai $33 million over five seasons.
March 11: Tyson Jackson to Atlanta Falcons
Adding more bulk and talent to their defensive line, the Falcons locked up Tyson Jackson for five years, at a cost of $25 million, per Ian Rapoport of NFL Media.
March 11: Jon Asamoah to Atlanta Falcons
The Atlanta Falcons announced they've signed guard Jon Asamoah, and per USA Today's Tom Pelissero it's a five-year, $22.5 million deal.
March 11: Phil Dawson to San Francisco 49ers
Ageless placekicker Phil Dawson tweeted that he'll be returning to the 49ers for 2014 on his verified account; he did not disclose terms.
March 11: Stevie Brown to New York Giants
Rehabbing safety Stevie Brown tweeted from his verified account he will return to the Giants. He did not announce the terms of the contract.
March 11: Michael Johnson to Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The first big name is off the board, as defensive end Michael Johnson has agreed to a five-year, $43.75 million contract with the Bucs, per ESPN's Josina Anderson.
March 11: Peyton Hillis to New York Giants
Tom Pelissero of USA Today reports power runner Peyton Hillis will return to Big Blue on a two-year, $1.8 million deal.
March 11: Jonathan Babineaux to Atlanta Falcons
According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the Falcons kept defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux off the market with a three-year extension.
March 11: Joique Bell to Detroit Lions
Restricted free agent Joique Bell agreed to a long-term extension in Detroit: three years, $9.3 million, per Tim Twentyman of the team's official site.
March 11: Trumaine McBride to New York Giants
The New York Daily News' Ralph Vacciano reports cornerback Trumaine McBride has re-upped with the Giants for two years, at a total of $3.1 million
March 11: Perry Riley to Washington
Dianna Marie Russini of NBC News4 in Washington reports inside linebacker Perry Riley has agreed to stay in the nation's capital, inking a three-year, $13 million deal.
March 11: Adam Vinatieri to Indianapolis Colts
ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports longtime Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri has agreed to a two-year deal to remain in Indianapolis.
March 11: Louis Delmas to Miami Dolphins
Per Adam H. Beasley of the Miami Herald, Safety Louis Delmas has left snowy Detroit to return to his sunny South Florida home on a one-year deal worth up to $3.5 million.
Denver Broncos Sign WR Emmanuel Sanders
Sometimes, you can have too much of a good thing.
The Broncos are crushing free agency in 2014, making impact signing after impact signing.
Yet it's hard not to think they overdid it when the Broncos signed Emmanuel Sanders, one of the better free-agent receivers in this class. Sure, he Broncos lost Eric Decker. But with receivers Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker, and tight ends Julius Thomas and Joel Dreessen, Peyton Manning still has plenty of quality targets.
Sanders is yet another out-of-nowhere coup, but he fixes a problem that isn't there. What about the loss of Knowshon Moreno? Is Montee Ball really ready to carry the whole load? What about the cornerback spot, with Aqib Talib trying to replace both Dominique Rodger-Cromartie and Champ Bailey? What about the mass exodus from the two-deeps of the interior offensive line?
The Broncos will eventually run out of cap room, and they may come to regret using a chunk of it on an unnecessary signing like Sanders.
Green Bay Packers Sign DE Julius Peppers
Free agency is strange. It seems like there's no way the Bears would have agreed to a straight-up swap of safety M.D. Jennings for defensive end Julius Peppers during the 2013 season—yet in the space of a week that's effectively what's happened.
Currently listed at 6'7", 287 pounds, Peppers is an eight-time Pro Bowler, and three-time first-team All-Pro. He has 119 sacks in his 12-year career, and if you're reading this you probably already know he's one of the most dominant pass-rushers of his generation.
Julius Peppers, at age 34, is not quite the freak of nature he used to be (there's a reason everyone compares monster draft prospect Jadeveon Clowney to Peppers). Pro Football Focus (subscription required) gave him a minus-4.4 grade, ranked 36th out of 52 4-3 defensive ends.
Perhaps the fountain of youth will be moving to play end in the Packers' 3-4? With a three-year deal worth as much as $30 million, the Packers are betting quite a bit that it'll be so.
Then again, they can't go into aother season betting a rookie or two will fix their defense.
Tennessee Titans Sign OT Michael Oher
Michael Oher will forever be connected with the book written about his life (and the movie based on that book), The Blind Side. For just as long, football analysts will be pointing out that ironically, Oher has never been an elite pass protector at the NFL level.
As the Ravens’ right tackle in 2013, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) Oher was graded 68th of 76 qualifying offensive lineman. Despite his 6’4”, 309-pound frame, his minus-17.0 run-block grade was the worst PFF recorded in 2013.
As inspiring as Oher’s story is, he’s never fulfilled his physical potential at the professional level. He’s been a useful player to have as a swing backup tackle, but the Titans signed Oher to a four-year deal worth $20 million, with $9.5 million of it guaranteed.
Nearly all the viable left-tackle options have been snapped up, but the Titans may regret trying to shop from the bargain bin.
New England Patriots Sign CB Brandon Browner
People associate the New England Patriots with excellence, but also with class. Players like Tom Brady set the tone for selfless, flawless, team-first execution—and that's why Bill Belichick can get away with bringing in guys with baggage, like just-departed cornerback Aqib Talib.
This isn't a new thing, though. Belichick didn't just start overlooking character issues in favor of talent when he brought in Chad Ochocinco; players like linebacker Bryan Cox, running back Corey Dillon and safety Rodney Harrison all had very-well-established reputations as guys with character flaws.
Now that the Patriots have replaced Talib with Darrelle Revis on what amounts to a one-year deal, they need to bring multi-year stability to the position. Enter Brandon Browner: 6'4", 221 pounds, coached up by the Seattle Seahawks coaching staff and visiting free-agency landing spots with a four-game substance-abuse suspension hanging over his head.
In three seasons (and just over two seasons' worth of starts, with 36), Browner has snagged 10 interceptions, made 104 tackles, per Pro Football Reference, and 13 assists. Most of that production, though, came in Browner's rookie season—when in his first year after making the jump from the CFL, he made the Pro Bowl.
Browner's ongoing substance-related suspension drama is too long to recount here, but Belichick's batting average with talented reclamation projects is very high (sorry, Ochocinco). There's a bit of risk here with the three-year, $17 million deal, but Browner's upside is worth much, much more than that.
Oakland Raiders Sign CB Tarell Brown
Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie had plenty of egg on his face when he let Lamarr Houston walk and his blockbuster Rodger Saffold deal unravelled.
Ever since then, he's been making prudent, out-of-the-box deals that have fortified the front seven.
The heist of Tarell Brown from the Bay Area rival San Francisco 49ers, though, just might be his best move yet.
Just before free agency started, I named Brown one of the "hidden gems" of this free-agency class, and with good reason. Playing at a very high level on a 49ers defense with plenty of big names hogging all of the attention, Brown was actually Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller's No. 5 overall cornerback in the 2013 B/R 1000 series.
29 years old, but having played just three seasons as a starter, Brown is a great mix of fresh and experienced. He, and the other Raiders picks, will transform a defense that ranked 29th in the NFL in points allowed in 2013.
For a one-year, $3.5 million, fully guaranteed "prove-it" deal? McKenzie and the Raiders did very, very well for themselves.
Indianapolis Colts Sign WR Hakeem Nicks
Sometimes, free agency is impossible to predict. Sometimes, it couldn’t be easier.
Hakeem Nicks is an ideal fit in Indianapolis, for many of the same reasons I was so excited about Darrius Heyward-Bey last season: The Colts need a young veteran receiver with the height and speed to get open against top corners, who can take pressure off of T.Y. Hilton and Reggie Wayne.
At 6’0”, 210 pounds, Nicks has the size and athleticism to do the job; there’s a reason why the New York Giants drafted him with the No. 29 overall pick in 2009.
Nicks has struggled with injuries, though, and in 2013 appeared to be a victim of the general malaise hanging over Eli Manning and the Giants franchise. Even so, he was still Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Michael Schottey’s second-best free agent receiver.
Perhaps a bit of fresh air, and a bit of (Andrew) Luck, will help return Nicks to the form that saw him average 78 catches, 1,122 yards and nine touchdowns over his second and third seasons.
On a one-year “prove-it” deal worth at least $3.5 million but no more than $5 million, the Colts got a very good buy—and quite possibly a steal.
Baltimore Ravens Sign WR Steve Smith
Few players in the NFL are as synonymous with their franchise as longtime Carolina Panthers wideout Steve Smith.
A 2001 third-round pick of the Panthers, the 5’9”, 185-pound Smith has always played (and talked) bigger than his measurable. Over 13 seasons in the NFL, Smith’s caught 836 passes for 12,197 yards and 67 touchdowns. A five-time Pro Bowler and a two-time first team All-Pro, Smith’s legacy and resume are secure.
The Baltimore Ravens didn’t sign 2005 Steve Smith, though; he won’t snag 103 passes for 1,563 yards and 12 touchdowns this fall. Two months away from turning 35, it remains to be seen if Smith can even contribute the same 64 catches for 745 yards and four touchdowns he did in 2013 for the Ravens in 2014.
That all having been said, Smith was still the 10th-best free agent receiver in this class, according to Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Michael Schottey, and the Ravens signed him to a three-year deal worth just $11 million.
Smith should not only make the tough short- and intermediate-route catches that aren’t the calling card of the other Ravens receivers, he fills a toughness and leadership void keenly felt when Anquan Boldin was traded to San Francisco a year ago.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sign OC Evan Dietrich-Smith
Some positions in this free-agency class are quite deep. Center is not one of them.
Only three centers cracked Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Michael Schottey’s top 14 available offensive linemen, and the 14th is former Green Bay Packers center Evan Dietrich-Smith.
Dietrich-Smith is a rare breed, a 27-year-old free agent who seems to be on the upswing of his career, being let go by a team with plenty of money to spend.
Dietrich-Smith was Pro Football Focus’ (subscription required) eighth-ranked center in 2013, and Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller’s fifth-best center. At a four-year deal for just $14.25 million, you have to wonder what the Packers know about Dietrich-Smith that the Bucaneers, and everybody else, doesn’t.
Tennessee Titans Sign Wesley Woodyard
While the Denver Broncos spend crazy money fortifying their defense, they’ve let at least one quality player go: Wesley Woodyard, a five-time co-captain who lost his starting gig to a combination of injury and poor form.
Woodyard has six seasons under his belt, spent bouncing back and forth between inside linebacker and weakside linebacker as the Broncos cycled through systems. However, he’s still just 27 years old and had his best season in 2012. Woodyard had 5.5 sacks and four interceptions that season and earned Pro Football Focus’ 14th-best overall grade (subscription required) out of 43 4-3 outside linebackers.
Woodyard struggled when he moved back inside in 2013. But as Mike Klis of The Denver Post wrote, he continued to serve as a leader and captain even after being demoted to a nickel-package sub. After the season, he was named the team’s 2013 Walter Payton Man of the Year.
The former undrafted free agent comes to Tennessee on a four-year, $16 million contract. Even at Woodyard’s worst, he represents an on- and off-field upgrade at the inside linebacker position for Tennessee as they switch to a 3-4—and all on a very manageable contract.
New York Giants Sign LB Jameel McClain
One year ago, Jameel McClain was in transition. The former undrafted free agent had been the heir apparent to Ray Lewis’ mantle as the leader of the defense—but a spinal contusion had kept him off the field for the Ravens’ run to the Super Bowl XLVII title.
With McClain on the PUP list and his availability in doubt, the Ravens added free agent Daryl Smith and drafted rookie Arthur Brown in the second round. When McClain got back on the field, the 28-year-old didn’t have his best season.
Pro Football Focus hit McClain with a minus-9.6 overall grade on just 376 snaps, ranking him 33rd out of 55 inside linebackers in 2013.
McClain is not a thumping run-stuffer; he played the coverage yin to Smith (and before him, Lewis)’s yang. In fact, McClain’s plus-1.5 coverage grade was 16th-best in the NFL last year.
McClain’s always been a fighter; there’s no question he’ll do what he needs to do to contribute in New York. With a full offseason to recover and regain strength, McClain could be a vital part of the Giants’ rebuild, possibly replacing Keith Rivers on the strong side.
McClain hasn’t played in an NFL 4-3, but he’s overcome far bigger obstacles than that.
That said, one of the obstacles he’s overcome is his lack of dominant tools. McClain might be a very solid value pickup at $4.1 million over two seasons, but he won’t be anything more.
Oakland Raiders Sign OLB LaMarr Woodley
LaMarr Woodley used to exemplify the Pittsburgh Steelers method of doing business.
A linebacker selected high in the draft, the year before linebacker became a crying need in Pittsburgh, Woodley had time to develop and grow into a quarterback-eating monster. His rookie season, with no starts and 13 appearances, Woodley racked up four sacks.
As a full-time starter in each of his next three seasons, Woodley racked up double-digit sacks. The 6’2”, 266-pound pass-rusher was a force on the outside, and no slouch against the run. He had nine sacks in an injury-shortened 2011 season—and he’s struggled with health, weight and productivity ever since.
Woodley had five sacks in just 11 starts in 2013, but Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded his play at plus-10.8, 10th-best among 3-4 outside linebackers.
Naysayers might believe that signing Woodley typifies the Raiders way of doing business: overemphasizing size and speed, and gauging a player's market poorly.
Yet, at two years, $12 million, this is actually a decent-value, high-upside signing at a position of need. Woodley may never play well for the Raiders, but he could just as easily be a force.
Washington Signs DL Jason Hatcher
Back in the 1990s, the phrase “cap casualty” didn’t mean an unrestricted free agent whose team just didn’t feel like re-signing him. Instead, it referred to a player that a team dearly wanted to retain, but simply couldn’t afford.
Since then, general managers around the league have figured out all of the salary-cap tricks and nuances. Teams don’t let key players walk unless they think they aren’t worth the money.
There’s no question that Jason Hatcher is worth an awful lot of money. After five seasons of rotational and situational duty, the 6’7”, 285-pound defensive end worked his way into the starting lineup—where he compiled 19.5 sacks, 81 tackles and 39 assists over three seasons’ worth of starting duty.
That includes 2013, when Hatcher moved from 3-4 defensive end to three-technique 4-3 tackle. Asked to attack one gap, run or pass, Hatcher became a wrecking ball, tallying 11 sacks. That’s why Bleacher Report NFL lead writer Michael Schottey named Hatcher his second-best available defensive tackle, even though he’ll likely play end in Washington.
The Redskins gave 31-year-old Hatcher a four-year, $27.5 million deal. If he plays half as well as he did last season, that’ll be a flat-out steal—and address a longstanding need in the Washington front seven.
Minnesota Vikings Sign CB Captain Munnerlyn
When grading free-agent signings, it’s a tricky mix of judging the current value of the player, his fit with the team and scheme, and projecting his short- and long-term impact.
In the case of Captain Munnerlyn signing with the Minnesota Vikings, nothing comes off as overly impressive.
He’s Bleacher Report NFL lead writer Michael Schottey’s ninth-best free-agent cornerback. He’s a 5’9”, 182-pound corner with seven career interceptions over four seasons as a contributor. He makes sense in new head coach Mike Zimmer’s defense, but he’s no Leon Hall. He immediately solidifies a young, leaderless secondary that keenly missed the presence of Antoine Winfield in 2013, but Munnerlyn’s no Winfield.
Even so, everything about this deal just feels right—not least of which is the affordable three-year, $14.25 million contract.
This is an extremely savvy signing by general manager Rick Spielman. Were I projecting the best bargains of 2014 free agency, this signing would be on the shortlist.
Arizona Cardinals Sign WR/KR Ted Ginn, Jr.
It’s been seven years since Cam Cameron stood up in front of an angry mob of Dolphins fans and explained why he’d just spent the No. 9 overall pick in the 2007 draft on a man they’d be “thrilled” to watch return punts.
Since then, Ted Ginn, Jr. has spent seven years returning punts, returning kicks and catching passes, all to varying degrees.
He’s only been a primary starter in two of those seven seasons, and his 56-catch, 790-yard sophomore season was by far his best. Yet, he’s always retained some of that explosive magic. His lone season in Carolina, Ginn caught 36 passes for 556 yards and five touchdowns, with a yards-per-reception average of 15.4, per Pro Football Reference.
Ginn is nearly the opposite of the receiver the Cardinals let walk, Andre Roberts. Ginn has the deep speed Roberts lacks, and little else—that’s okay for the Cardinals, though, because Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd can do the grunt work of moving the chains. Ginn can just concentrate on being occasionally thrilling.
It’s hard to see Ginn ever being more than what he was in 2013, but that’s all the Cardinals really need him to be.
Indianapolis Colts Sign C Phil Costa
Few teams over the past two years have moved to make clear upgrades to obvious problem spots as quickly as the Indianapolis Colts.
During the 2013 season, the play of center Samson Satele became a clear problem; Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded Satele 31st out of 35 qualifying centers in 2013.
After dumping Satele in the days leading up to free agency, picking up a starting center became a priority. Enter Phil Costa, made expendable in Dallas by 2013 first-round pick Travis Frederick. Though Costa spent most of the 2012 season out with injuries, and didn't excel in 2011, the 6'3", 307-pound four-year veteran had a healthy market for his services.
At just 26 years old, the former undrafted free agent out of Maryland is still developing as a player, and this market is razor-thin at center. By signing Costa to a two-year deal with a $2.7 million base value, even if the Colts neither sign Alex Mack nor draft a starting-caliber rookie, at least Costa will be able to hold down the fort—plus, the contract is small enough that it won't weigh the Colts down if they do land an upgrade.
That said, Colts fans had better hope they land an upgrade.
Jacksonville Jaguars Sign DL Ziggy Hood
When Evander “Ziggy” Hood came out of Missouri, he seemed a bit of a tweener. At 6’3”, 300 pounds, he was built like a pass-rushing tackle, but, per NFL.com, “elite explosiveness or strength usually associated with highly rated defensive tackles.”
The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted him to play end in their 3-4, and in theory, a 300-pound man with good technique and a high motor should have been the right fit for that transition. In practice, it didn’t work.
After five seasons, 80 games and 46 starts per Pro Football Reference, Hood has only 11.5 career sacks—and never more than three in a season).
The Jaguars will presumably move him inside to pass-rushing defensive tackle in their 4-3 front. Perhaps that's where he should have played all along, but the doubts raised by NFL.com scouts five years ago haven’t been dispelled.
Signing Hood to a four-year, $16 million contract in Day 3 of free agency is a head-scratcher.
Chicago Bears Sign DE Willie Young
There are free-agency makeovers and then there are free-agency makeovers. When the Chicago Bears didn’t re-sign Corey Wootton then released Julius Peppers, they released their presumptive starters for 2014.
With the addition of Lamarr Houston and Willie Young, and the transition of Shea McClellin to linebacker, the Bears have completely transformed a position group that’s been a key of their defense for years.
Houston, used to playing defensive end in a 3-4, could play several roles along the Bears’ four-man front.
Willie Young is also unusually built for a 4-3 defensive end at 6’5”, 251 pounds. Very long-limbed and thin through the body, Young nevertheless has great run-stopping instincts and flows to the ball well. Young has quietly earned a positive Pro Football Focus run-stopping grade (subscription required) for each of his three seasons as a regular contributor in Detroit.
In fact, Young was Detroit’s best-graded defensive end last season, and ranked 16th out or 52 overall. However, despite just four seasons in the NFL, Young will turn 29 shortly after the season starts and has just one season playing starter’s snaps.
If he gives the Bears three seasons like his 2013 season, the $9 million they’ve agreed to pay him will be a bargain—but he won’t be a difference-maker. The Bears might need to make another move here.
Tennessee Titans Sign QB Charlie Whitehurst
In baseball, there’s an old saying: “You’ve got to be a really good pitcher to lose 20 games.” Meaning, if a pitcher were truly terrible, the team wouldn’t keep putting him out there—he must just be pitching in front of an awful team.
A football corollary might be, “You’ve got to be a really good quarterback to stay on the bench.”
Nobody would accuse Charlie Whitehurst of being a really good NFL quarterback; he’s got a career NFL passer efficiency rating of 64.6 over 13 appearances and four starts in eight years.
Nevertheless, the 31-year-old is still in the NFL, signing with the Titans on a two-year deal worth as much $8 million.
With new Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt having worked with Whitehurst last season, he’s clearly comfortable enough with what Whitehurst showed in meetings and on the practice field to justify bringing him in on a relatively hefty deal.
Maybe, just maybe, Whisenhunt, Pete Carroll and all the other coaches who’ve brought Whitehurst in know something about him that’s never shown up on the football field. Then again, if he never shows it on the field, it doesn’t matter.
If Whitehurst is being signed to start, this grade is an F-minus. As it is, it’s hard to imagine he—or a player very much like him—couldn’t have been signed for much, much less. For that matter, it’s hard to imagine they couldn’t have gotten a much better player for the same money.
San Diego Chargers Sign QB Kellen Clemens
Unlike cornerback, safety and left tackle, the quarterback carousel is spinning from the bottom up…or something.
Instead of the best available quarterbacks like Mike Vick and Shaun Hill getting swooped up first, setting the market with the lesser guys following suit, teams are nibbling at the fringes of the quarterback market.
With Charlie Whitehurst gone to Tennessee, the Chargers need a quarterback who can keep things rolling in case of injury to Philip Rivers.
Rather than try to draft Rivers’ eventual successor and risk trusting a playoff season to a rookie, the Chargers signed well-traveled Kellen Clemens. Like Whitehurst, Clemens is a former second-day pick (in the current three-day draft format) who’s now on the wrong side of 30 without ever playing particularly well.
Clemens’ career NFL passer efficiency rating of 68.6, per Pro Football Reference, tells you much of what you need to know about Clemens’ game—as does starting just 21 games over eight seasons.
Can he back up Rivers as well as Whitehurst did? Yup. Did he come cheap? Yup, $3 million over two years.
Okay, sure. Why not?
Oakland Raiders Sign DE Justin Tuck
With defensive end Lamarr Houston gone to Chicago, the Raiders needed to make a move to shore up the defensive end spot.
With the news that they signed longtime New York Giants pass-rusher Justin Tuck to a two-year, $11 million deal, that item’s been checked off the to-do list.
Tuck is one of the biggest names available in this free-agent market, but he was only Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Michael Schottey’s sixth-best available defensive end.
He’s coming off of a bizarre renaissance. After registering double-digit sacks in 2007, 2008 and 2010, he had only 15 sacks total in 2009, 2011 and 2012 combined. Then, at age 30 (he turns 31 on March 19), he led the Giants with 11 sacks.
Tuck flashed long-dormant speed and playmaking ability, like this incredible pick-six.
The question Raiders executives must ask themselves is: Did Tuck find the fountain of youth, or was he just turning it on to earn one more contract?
I'm grading this signing while thinking about the loss of Houston, though I certainly wouldn't trade Houston on the contract Chicago gave him for Tuck on this contract.
Philadelphia Eagles Sign CB Nolan Carroll
Last season, Eagles head coach Chip Kelly executed a full rebuild of his new team's secondary, bringing in two new starters at safety and cornerback.
This year, the Eagles have made smaller, but similar waves in the free-agent market, locking up safety Malcolm Jenkins and now cornerback Nolan Carroll.
While Jenkins was a recent first-round draft pick with great physical tools, Carroll was a 2010 fifth-round pick of the Miami Dolphins, and spent two years waiting for his turn to contribute.
In the past two years, Carroll has graded in the middle of the pack, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He ranked 67th of 113 in 2012, and of 52nd of 110 in 2013.
At 6’1’, 202 pounds, Carroll has some of the natural size that incumbent No. 2 corner Cary Williams lacks, and Carroll is a more reliable run-stopper. With a two-year deal worth $3.65 million, he’s a low-risk addition to a secondary that could use more depth, versatility and competition.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sign LT Anthony Collins
The crazy game of left tackle "musical chairs" may have finally come to an end.
Anthony Collins, who performed excellently for the Cincinnati Bengals when pressed into emergency left tackle duty in 2013, has been signed to a five-year, $30 million deal by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The 6’6”, 308-pound veteran had been a swing tackle throughout his six seasons in the NFL, but did so well during his 2013 relief stint that the starter, Andrew Whitworth, was moved inside to guard when he returned.
Collins was Pro Football Focus’ 13th best left tackle in 2013 (subscription required); his plus-13.0 overall grade was noticeably better than incumbent Bucs left tackle Donald Penn’s plus-8.6.
Penn, who turns 31 in April, has only played one fewer season than Collins—and he’s been a full-time starter almost the entire time. If Collins truly represents an upgrade over Penn, Collins’ track record is almost non-existent.
Though his contract is on the low end of the free-agent left tackles, it’s barely any less than what Eugene Monroe, Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Michael Schottey’s best-available offensive lineman, received. Collins was fifth on that list, but this is still a deal that involves an awful lot of projection.
Oh, and what of Penn? There’s one chair left empty, and it’s painted silver and black.
Jacksonville Jaguars Sign DE Chris Clemons
It looks like all the hype connecting free-agent Seahawks defenders with the Jacksonville Jaguars wasn’t just hype.
Not long ago, when Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley was the Seahawks defensive coordinator, Chris Clemons was one of the main reasons Seattle’s defense was considered an up-and-coming unit.
In three straight seasons under Bradley (2010, 2011 and 2012), Clemons led the Seahawks with at least 11 sacks, per Pro Football Reference. With the additions of Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in 2013, though, Clemons’ role was reduced, and his effectiveness dropped with it.
The 32-year-old Clemons finished fifth on the Seahawks in sacks last season, with 4.5, and ranked 18th out of 37 4-3 defensive ends in Pro Football Focus’ Pass Rush Productivity (subscription required).
There’s no doubt that Clemons still has the ability to get after the quarterback in a situational way—and maybe he and Bradley will recapture some magic.
A four-year deal with a base value of $18 million is pretty rich for a 32-year-old on the decline. Still, he's got what the Jaguars need right now, Bradley knows him as well as anyone, and the Jaguars weren't able to do much better in a very thin defensive-end market.
New York Jets Sign WR Eric Decker
No. 2 be, or not No. 2 be?
That is the question that’s haunted brand-new New York Jets receiver Eric Decker all offseason long.
He’s 6’3”, 206 pounds and has averaged 86 catches, 1,766 yards and 12 touchdowns over the past two seasons. Had he played on any other team than the Denver Broncos with those numbers, he’d not only be an unquestioned No. 1 receiver, he’d be a two-time Pro Bowler.
However, Decker did play both of those seasons in Denver. With Peyton Manning throwing him the ball, receivers Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker alongside him, tight end Julius Thomas in the mix and an effective three-headed running attack, Decker was a cog in the most prolific offense the NFL has ever seen.
Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Michael Schottey ranked Decker his best-available receiver, but was clear about Decker’s limits: "A great No. 2 receiver who is still developing as a player," Schottey said, "Decker is likely going to get massively overpaid this season to be a No. 1 on someone's depth chart."
Is a five-year, $35 million deal "massively overpaid?" It seems to be the going rate for quality starters in this free-agent market. There’s no question Decker represents a significant upgrade over the likes of Stephen Hill, but Decker and Jeremy Kerley are still going to struggle to get open against quality defenses if they’re the top two weapons on the field.
The Jets had to get weapons, and this was likely the best they could do. Decker can live up to this contract, but not if this is the only major move the Jets make on offense.
St. Louis Rams Sign OL Rodger Saffold
March 12 UPDATE: After originally signing with Oakland on a five-year, $42.5 million deal, Saffold failed the Raiders' physical. ESPN's Adam Schefter reports Saffold is immediately returning to St. Louis to sign a five-year deal. According to Schefter, the Raiders had concerns about Saffold's shoulder that the Rams did not share.
Original Text: One of the several players on the 2014 left-tackle carousel, Rodger Saffold comes to the Raiders with the ability to play tackle or guard on either side of the line—giving the Raiders the flexibility to continue to beef up the line with free agents or draft picks as they see fit and move Saffold to accommodate.
That said, they inked the 6’4”, 312-pound 25-year-old to a five-year, $42.5 million deal.
That’s a massive, massive contract fit only for a left tackle. The deal defeats the point of signing a player with that kind of flexibility; to get proper value, they have to stick him at tackle.
Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Michael Schottey had Saffold as his sixth-best offensive tackle; Jared Veldheer, who the Raiders let walk, was fourth on his list—but the Raiders paid Saffold more. This is a head-scratcher.
New England Patriots Sign CB Darrelle Revis
In just a little more than a day, Darrelle Revis went from “cornerstone of new Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith’s rebuilding project” to “possible trade bait” to “put out on the street.”
The Bucs couldn’t find a trade partner who could meet the Bucs’ compensation demands and pay the last five years of Revis’ six-year, $96 million deal; by ditching Revis now, they saved a $1.5 million roster bonus. The Bucs used some of their newfound cap room to sign Revis’ replacement, Alterraun Verner.
With New England’s No. 1 corner from 2013, Aqib Talib, defecting to Denver, Revis was the only true shutdown corner left on the market.
The Patriots signed Revis to the ultimate “prove-it” deal: a one-year, $12 million contract that approaches the whopping $16 million he was set to make this year with the Buccaneers, but presents the Patriots with zero long-term, dead-money risk.
From the outside, this is a shotgun wedding. The Broncos handled the Patriots in the 2013 AFC Championship Game, and have added three impact defenders, and the Patriots lost one; they had to go big for Revis or admit defeat.
That being said, the Patriots handled it brilliantly. Talib is good, but he’s no Revis—and Revis has to give the Patriots everything he’s got if he wants another monster, multi-year deal.
Revis is nothing less than the best cornerback in the game. He was Pro Football Focus’ No. 1 cornerback in 2013; as PFF’s twitter account pointed out, he’ll be fully healthy and on a defense better suited to his abilities in 2014.
Buffalo Bills Sign LB Keith Rivers
A former first-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals, Keith Rivers has been a solid rotational presence in the New York Giants front seven—when he’s been healthy.
Rivers suffered major injuries in 2008 and 2011, which was a major factor why he wasn’t part of the Bengals’ plans going forward. Traded to New York in 2012, Rivers started just 15 games in the subsequent two seasons, per Pro Football Reference.
Pro Football Focus graded Rivers (subscription required) 18th of 35 4-3 outside linebackers in 2013, with a strong plus-3.7 run-stopping grade (11th-best at the position). This coincides with what we know of him: He’s an average overall player, and better-than-average at stopping the run.
Signed to a two-year, $5 million deal, Rivers will have the chance to beat out Manny Lawson for a starting gig. Even if Rivers remains a rotational/situational player in Buffalo, he’s still a very solid backup and represents good value.
Buffalo Bills Sign CB Corey Graham
Though the Bills have a fine No. 1 cornerback in Leodis McKelvin, and slot corner Nickell Robey played very well in 2013, the Bills struggled to find a strong outside corner to pair with McKelvin.
Now, the Bills have Corey Graham—not only Pro Football Focus’ No. 34-ranked cornerback of 2013, but a former Pro Bowl special teamer who can impact two phases of the game.
Graham was signed to a four-year, $16 million deal. That’s less than half the money Sam Shields got for the same period, and Shields finished below Graham in the 2013 PFF rankings.
Certainly, Graham isn’t the kind of impact player Alterraun Verner or Aqib Talib can be, and he's not as proven a performer as Shields is. Still, the Bills got a great, well-respected team player who’ll help shore up a secondary that’s lost a key starter to free agency two years running—and they got good value to boot.
Detroit Lions Sign WR Golden Tate
In the last 10 draft classes, the Detroit Lions have drafted a wide receiver in the first or second round six times. Of those, only Calvin Johnson developed into a long-term difference-maker, and the Lions have struggled to pair him with a complementary threat.
Tate, coming off of a Super Bowl championship with the Seattle Seahawks, was Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Michael Schottey's fourth-best available receiver and No. 36 overall free agent.
The 5'11", 195-pound Tate doesn't have Megatron's height or speed, but then again, nobody does. Tate is plenty fast, and he can take the top off a defense.
As Mlive.com's Kyle Meineke pointed out, Pro Football Focus tracks Tate as having caught 144 of his past 149 catchable targets since 2011, best in the NFL over that stretch. This would be a marked improvement over current No. 2 Kris Durham, who dropped 10 of his 82 targets in 2013, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Tate's five-year, $31 million deal is quite big for a No. 2 receiver, and he sets the market for 2014. The Lions had better be awfully confident he can help unlock the potential in the disappointing Lions offense—especially if they can't re-sign No. 1 tight end Brandon Pettigrew.
This is a great fit for a glaring need, but the money and years are concerning for a team with more work to do and little cap left with which to do it. Then again, if Eric Decker signs for an average of $8-9 million per year, Tate's deal will look like a steal.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sign QB Josh McCown
A former third-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals, Josh McCown played outstanding football during five relief starts for the Chicago Bears in 2013. Keeping them in contention while missing starter Jay Cutler, McCown compiled a 109.0 quarterback rating—and, arguably, outplayed an out-of-form Cutler.
These are the kind of outstanding relief performances that earn backup quarterbacks long-term starting contracts. Here’s the rub: McCown was a third-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals in 2002. He’s 34 years old.
The Bucs will owe McCown at least $10 million, and as much as $15 million, over two years—not the contract of a guaranteed starter, but not the contract of an intended backup. He’ll have every chance to supplant sophomore Mike Glennon, who showed surprisingly well when given the starter’s job during the 2013 season.
McCown, of course, has familiarity with Bears head coach Lovie Smith, but not offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford. McCown also won’t have Bears targets like Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery or Martellus Bennett. McCown was Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Michael Schottey’s third-best free-agent quarterback, behind Mike Vick and Matt Cassell.
Whether or not McCown ends up starting in Tampa Bay, Smith had to have a veteran backup who could at least push Glennon. McCown is a safe, familiar choice at a reasonable price—and, if something really did click for McCown, a la late-career Rich Gannon, the Bucs got a steal.
Denver Broncos Sign OLB DeMarcus Ware
The Broncos’ third major free-agent signing of the first two days, DeMarcus Ware brings seven Pro Bowl nominations and four first-team All-Pro nods with him from Dallas.
The 6’4”, 247-pound pass-rusher quickly made himself at home in Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s 4-3 scheme in 2013, racking up four sacks in the first three games and finishing as Pro Football Focus’ eighth-best 4-3 defensive end (subscription required). However, he’s a 3-4 outside linebacker by trade, and should have no problem adjusting to the Broncos scheme.
The 31-year-old has averaged a walloping 13 sacks per season over his nine-year career; the three games he missed due to injury in 2013 were the first games he’d ever missed.
Sure, he may not be quite as terrifying as was during his 20-sack 2008 season. Yeah, a three-year, $30 million contract is awfully big for a player who’s already declining.
However, the Broncos are going all-out to win a title in 2014, and Ware will combine with Von Miller to form an all-but-unstoppable pass-rushing combo.
Denver Broncos sign CB Aqib Talib
Not long after the dawn of free agency in the NFL, it became obvious that dynasties like the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers had a major advantage on the market: Players would take less money to sign with a team where a Super Bowl championship wasn’t just a stated goal, but an expectation.
The Denver Broncos seem to have recaptured that magic.
Aqib Talib, Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Michael Schottey’s third-ranked cornerback and No. 12 overall free agent, didn’t come cheap. Far from it.
The 28-year-old six-year veteran signed a six-year, $57 million deal, $26 million of it guaranteed. That said, Talib joins safety T.J. Ward and, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter, potentially DeMarcus Ware in a dramatic free-agency makeover of the Broncos defense.
How is John Elway recruiting these players? Where is he finding the money under the cap? What will he do in two years, when he has to pay the piper? He'll polish the Broncos' third Lombardi Trophy, if all goes according to plan.
Individually, this contract is way too big for a player of this age and career inconsistency coming off of his only Pro Bowl appearance. Before coming to New England, his off-field problems made him radioactive. Given his talent, the Broncos' need at cornerback and the obvious title-or-bust nature of this Broncos offseason, though, this signing is still a coup.
Buffalo Bills Sign OG Chris Williams
The Bills’ four-year deal worth just $13.5 million with guard Chris Williams isn’t a blockbuster—that’s peanuts compared to the hauls of guards like Jon Asamoah. Then again, Williams didn’t have nearly as strong of a 2013 season as Asamoah, graded by Pro Football Focus as the 74th-best guard out of 81 qualifiers. In fact, PFF has never graded Williams any higher than 56th at his position in any of his six seasons in the NFL.
The 6’6”, 320-pound lineman was a former first-round pick of the Chicago Bears, going at No. 14 overall in 2008. He was supposed to be a franchise left tackle, but in the middle of his second season they switched him to right tackle. Then came a three-year experiment at guard, ending when Chicago released him in the middle of the 2012 season.
Williams signed with the St. Louis Rams off the street, and started every game at left guard for them in 2013.
Again, he didn’t play well, but he started.
It’s hard to see how this deal makes any sense for the Bills. It’s a relatively small dollar amount for a four-year deal, but Williams hasn’t ever shown the ability to play well consistently—a four-year makes little sense.
Worse, this is on the second day of free agency—the Bills should have let the market come to them.
San Diego Chargers Sign RB Donald Brown
Donald Brown has seen a lot of highs and lows in his time in Indianapolis. A 2009 first-round pick, Brown struggled to work his way up a crowed Colts depth chart, partly due to inconsistencies in his running and partly due to his famously ditzy pass-blocking.
In 2011, he was one of the few bright spots for the hapless Colts, averaging 4.8 yards per carry and scoring five rushing touchdowns. However, that was the only season in his first four in which he averaged more than four yards per carry.
In 2013, after the Colts made a high-profile midseason trade for power back Trent Richardson, Brown persevered and ended up leading the Colts in rushing. He averaged a career-best 5.3 yards per carry, scoring six rushing touchdowns and catching a career-high 27 passes for 214 more yards and two more scores.
Now, he’ll work in a committee with oft-injured Ryan Mathews and scat back Danny Woodhead; if he keeps producing like he did in 2013 he’ll quickly be chairing that committee.
His three-year, $10.5 million deal is almost exactly what Toby Gerhart got in Jacksonville—perfectly in line with the rest of the market. Not an earth-shaking move, but addressing a need with a good value signing.
Jacksonville Jaguars Sign RB Toby Gerhart
In what looks to be a bittersweet farewell to stalwart tailback Maurice Jones-Drew, the Jacksonville Jaguars picked up a new starting power back. Toby Gerhart, who’s played well in rare opportunities to play in relief of stud back Adrian Peterson in Minnesota, will be that back.
Signed to a three-year, $10.5 million deal, the 27-year-old Gerhart will get a chance to be the clock-controlling power back Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley’s defense complements so well.
Though he finished second in Heisman voting in 2009, the questions with Gerhart were always surrounding his speed. The 6’0”, 235-pound bruiser has partially answered those questions by averaging 4.7 yards per carry over 1,305 career attempts, per Pro Football Reference—but with 283 carries in 2013, his longest run was still only 13 yards.
He’s simply not the game-breaker Jones-Drew was, but few are. Gerhart is a good fit, a good value and a high-floor, low-ceiling guy. I’d still like to see the Jaguars pursue a fast, multifaceted third-down back in the draft, but this is a good signing.
New Orleans Saints Sign S Jairus Byrd
The chorus instantly went up on Twitter: “How?”
Bleacher Report NFC South lead writer Knox Bardeen was one of legions who wondered how on earth the cap-strapped New Orleans Saints could pony up a six-year, $54 million contract (with $28 million guaranteed) for Jairus Byrd.
Byrd, the consensus top safety on the market and Bleacher Report NFL lead writer Michael Schottey’s No. 1 overall free agent, is certainly worth a lot of money.
Is he worth that much?
The Saints have been searching for an impact coverage safety for a while, drafting both Kenny Vaccaro and the just-departed Malcolm Jenkins in the first round within last five seasons. Vaccaro and Byrd could be an incredible pair in defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s system, but Super Bowl incredible? They’d have to be, to justify this move.
Until I see what other moves the Saints will make to accommodate this contract (or won’t be able to make because of it), I can’t be overjoyed.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sign CB Alterraun Verner
After the sudden, stunning news that the Buccaneers were ready to part ways with superstar cornerback Darrelle Revis after just one season, the NFL-watching world might have known this sudden, stunning signing was coming.
Alterraun Verner was everyone’s best-available corner, and Bleacher Report NFL lead writer Michael Schottey’s No. 7 overall free agent.
After signing a four-year deal worth $26.5 million, the 25-year-old Verner doesn’t have to worry about money for a while. The same can’t be said of the Bucs, who signed Revis to a six-year, $96 million contract in 2013 after trading a first-round pick and a conditional fourth-round pick to the New York Jets for his rights.
Unless Revis is privately demanding a trade, none of this makes sense.
However, Verner’s deal is surprisingly modest given what much-less-coveted players are going for in this market.
Knowing Revis is gone soon either way, this is a great fit, and a great value.
New York Giants Sign RB Rashad Jennings
Excellent in relief of Darren McFadden in Oakland, it was widely presumed Jennings would stay in the Bay Area and McFadden would be sent packing. Instead, the Raiders re-signed McFadden to a heavily incentivized one-year deal, and Jennings was left to seek his fortune.
The New York Giants needed a sturdier tailback than injured speedster David Wilson, but a more dynamic one than re-signed power back Peyton Hillis.
Enter Jennings, a 6’1”, 234-pound back who chipped away at the Jacksonville Jaguars’ depth chart for four years before breaking through in Oakland. The ink on his four-year, $14 million contract will barely be dry before he turns 29 on March 26. However, he only has 378 career carries spread over 53 games played and 17 starts; there are plenty of miles left on his tires.
Jennings won’t be the game-breaker Wilson is when healthy, but he’s a solid option at a position of need—and his contract is right in line with the rest of the market for borderline starters (Toby Gerhart, Donald Brown).
Minnesota Vikings Sign DT Linval Joseph
Offensively, the Vikings seem to be taking it easy in free agency. On the other side of the ball, new defensive-minded head coach Mike Zimmer is going all out.
After keeping defensive end Everson Griffen from hitting the market by signing him to a sizable deal, the Vikings have added versatile defensive lineman Linval Joseph.
Joseph is a 6’4”, 328-pound lineman with the athleticism to play either tackle spot in the Vikings’ 4-3. The 25-year-old has nine career sacks, 109 tackles and 69 assists, per Pro Football Reference, in just three seasons as a starter.
Joseph got $31 million from the Vikings over five seasons, roughly the same deal Paul Soliai got from the Atlanta Falcons. The two players have similar builds and games, and finished 21st and 20th, respectively, in Pro Football Focus’ overall defensive tackle grades (subscription required). However, Soliai is already 30 years old and has three more seasons under his belt.
The Vikings got Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Michael Schottey’s seventh-best-available defensive lineman at what, in this market, passes for very good value.
Denver Broncos Sign S T.J. Ward
This move was widely tipped, but perhaps not widely believed: The Denver Broncos, richer in talent than cap space, would make a play for the NFL’s best run-stopping safety (and a fine, young two-way player).
A presumably rich market for T.J. Ward either didn’t materialize, or Ward gladly accepted the Broncos’ four-year, $23 million bid in order to walk onto one of the NFL’s winningest teams.
Ward was Bleacher Report NFL lead writer Michael Schottey’s second-best available safety, behind three-time Pro Bowler Jairus Byrd—who received much more. Even better, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has graded the 27-year-old as the best run-stopping safety for two consecutive seasons.
There’s nothing not to love about this move.
New York Giants Sign OG Geoff Schwartz
Geoff Schwartz is a perfect example of chance favoring the prepared mind (and body).
The 27-year-old guard was drafted in the seventh round of the 2008 draft by the Carolina Panthers, and bounced through the Minnesota Vikings before becoming a rotational guy on the Kansas City Chiefs for 2013.
When starting right guard Jon Asamoah went down with an injury, the 6’6”, 332-pound Schwartz stepped up. He was Pro Football Focus’ (subscription required) eighth-ranked guard in 2013, and its best-available free-agent guard.
Compared to the deal that guard/tackle Rodger Saffold and guard Zane Beadles got, Schwartz’s four-year deal worth $16.8 million is a flat-out steal. The Giants got a big, productive, hard-working player at a position of need for a contract well below market value.
San Francisco 49ers Sign S Antoine Bethea
Though the 2014 free-agency period has felt like a giant left tackle swap meet, the league’s safeties have been no less traded around.
T.J. Ward left Cleveland for Denver, Donte Whitner left San Francisco for Cleveland, and now the San Francisco 49ers have imported Antoine Bethea from Indianapolis.
All of these safeties are run-stoppers first and coverage guys second, but Ward to Whitner to Bethea represents two steps down in two-way (and overall) ability.
Bethea was Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Michael Schottey’s sixth-best available safety. Pro Football Focus graded him (subscription required) as the 53rd-best safety of 2013, with a plus-1.9 grade against the run but negative coverage and overall grades.
The 29-year-old is a former two-time Pro Bowler, though he hasn’t been since 2009. His four-year deal is reportedly worth $28 million—less per-year than Whitner got in Indianapolis but still quite a bit for a player with three interceptions, per Pro Football Reference, in his last 64 starts.
Then again, Bethea hasn't missed a start in six years and committed no penalties in 2013—now that's a reliable backstop. There was a big falloff from Bethea to the next available player—the 49ers did well not to let Whitner walk without replacing him.
Baltimore Ravens Sign LT Eugene Monroe
The fanciest horse on the left-tackle carousel, Eugene Monroe is the only one who didn’t end up spinning off to some other team.
Monroe was Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Michael Schottey’s best available offensive lineman, and No. 3 overall free agent.
Stolen from the Jacksonville Jaguars for just a fourth- and fifth-round pick during the 2013 season, the Baltimore Ravens forked over $37 million on a five-year deal to keep him in house.
Pro Football Focus awarded Monroe the 10th-highest overall left tackle grade for 2013 (subscription required), even though Monroe only started 11 games. Monroe outplayed Branden Albert in 2013, and has consistently been much better than Rodger Saffold—yet Monroe re-upped with the Ravens for significantly less money than either one of those two.
Fantastic work by Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and his staff.
Philadelphia Eagles Sign S Malcolm Jenkins
In 2013, the Philadelphia Eagles owned the offseason—they were aggressive to hire a famously aggressive coach, aggressive in free agency and the draft, aggressive in training camp and the media.
This season, the Eagles just might be the least-talked-about team in the NFL. With many key pieces in place on offense, the Eagles are quietly going about improving their opportunistic defense.
Malcolm Jenkins, a 2009 first-round pick, has the athletic tools to be one of the best two-way safeties in the NFL. He’s never lived up to that potential, though.
Pro Football Focus has never ranked him higher than 33rd among all safeties, though, and was dead last (88th of 88, subscription required) in 2012. Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Michael Schottey still ranked Jenkins as the third-best available safety, though, and Jenkins’ athleticism makes him a clear upgrade over Patrick Chung.
At three years and $16.25 million, the Eagles didn’t break the bank. In this market, that in itself is an accomplishment.
Indianapolis Colts Sign CB Vontae Davis
In one of the biggest will-they-or-won’t-they stories of the free-agency period, Vontae Davis and the cap-rich circled each other for what seemed like forever; Davis willing to test what was sure to be a rich market, and the Colts willing to spend big cash on a top-level replacement.
Per Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, the Colts made a last-minute push to keep Davis in house, signing him to a four-year, $39 million deal.
Davis was Bleacher Report NFL lead writer Michael Schottey’s fifth-ranked free-agent cornerback, in a market fraught with quality starters; Davis got slightly more than fourth-ranked cornerback Sam Shields.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded Davis out as the third-best overall cornerback in 2013; it's hard to see even a contract this rich as anything less than a win-win.
Atlanta Falcons Sign DT Paul Soliai
Part of a stunning three-lineman package the Atlanta Falcons put together on the first day of free agency, the 6’4”, 340-pound monster defensive lineman will bring stability and power to a defensive front that Football Ousiders ranked 27th against the run and dead last against the pass in 2013.
Paul Soliai was Pro Football Focus’ 20th-ranked (subscription required) overall defensive tackle in 2013, and Bleacher Report NFL lead writer Michael Schottey’s eighth-best free-agent defensive tackle.
Five years is a lot for a 30-year-old man with such a massive frame, and $33 million is a lot of dollars for anyone.
That said, the Falcons knew what they’d have to pay to get the player they so desperately need—and head coach Mike Smith knows it’s now or never. He’ll gladly eat the back half of this contract if it means a deep playoff run in 2014.
Arizona Cardinals Sign OT Jared Veldheer
There’s an ancient joke in sportswriting about contract negotiations: “Whenever they say it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.”
For Jared Veldheer and the Oakland Raiders, it really doesn’t seem to be about the money. Veldheer was Bleacher Report NFL lead writer Michael Schottey’s fourth-best available offensive lineman and No. 11 overall free agent.
Veldheer expressed public frustration with the money-laden Raiders’ slowness to offer him a contract, per Scott Bair of CSNBayArea.com. Whether it was that perceived disrespect or something else behind the scenes, Veldheer and the Raiders couldn't patch up their relationship.
In the end, the Raiders paid more money than Veldheer wanted to Rodger Saffold, a lower-regarded player, and Veldheer solved a longstanding protection problem for the Cardinals.
Miami Dolphins Sign OT Branden Albert
In the works for almost a full calendar year, Miami resident Branden Albert is significantly shortening his commute after signing with the Dolphins.
With a five year, $46 million deal, Albert’s set the top of the market for left tackles. As the third-best offensive lineman (and No. 6 free agent overall), according to Bleacher Report NFL lead writer Michael Schottey's big board, Albert represents a big step up in pass protection—even if incumbent left tackle Jonathan Martin were likely to return.
Though the Dolphins finally got their man without giving up a high draft pick, NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling reported in April 2013 that Albert’s contract demands of $8-9 million per year held up the deal.
If the Dolphins had offered Albert in 2013 the contract they signed him to in 2014, the NFL world would have been a lot different.
Chicago Bears Sign DL Lamarr Houston
Lamarr Houston has been a favorite of football hipsters for a while now; the disruptive Raiders interior lineman hasn't received the headlines he deserves while playing 3-4 end on a nationally irrelevant squad.
Now, Houston is getting paid $35 million over five years to add size and power wherever the Bears need him. With 16.5 sacks, 171 tackles and 56 assists over just four seasons, the 6’3”, 302-pound defensive lineman is an ideal replacement for outbound free agent Henry Melton.
Shifting to an attacking 4-3, where he'll presumably flex inside and outside, the sky could be the limit for Houston.
Jacksonville Jaguars Sign OG Zane Beadles
One of the annual rites of spring is the ransacking of Super Bowl teams. Coaches from the QC assistants on up to the head man are in demand, and players all over the depth chart get enticing offers.
Zane Beadles, coming off a trip to the Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos, is just 27 years old, and the ninth-best offensive lineman on Bleacher Report NFL lead writer Michael Schottey’s big board.
He got five years, $30 million from the Jaguars, and $13 million of it was guaranteed.
That’s a lot of scratch to pay the weak link on a very good offensive line, especially when you’re counting on him to be one of the stronger links in yours. Beadles’ locker-room leadership must be something head coach Gus Bradley craves.
Indianapolis Colts Sign DL Art Jones
The No. 6 defensive tackle on Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Michael Schottey’s big board and his No. 26 free agent overall, Art Jones reunites with his old defensive coordinator, Colts head coach Chuck Pagano.
A 6’3”, 301-pound natural athlete with the versatility to rotate along the Colts’ 3-4 defensive front, he plays with a high motor and should make a big impact at an area of need in Indy.
Just 27 years old, with only four years experience (one as a starter), Jones’ best football seems to be ahead of him—and with 8.5 sacks, 66 tackles and 52 assists in 39 games, that’s great news for Indianapolis.
That said, the Colts paid a pretty penny: $33 million over five years, with $16 million of it guaranteed. Pagano had better be right about Jones’ potential and fit.
Washington Signs WR Andre Roberts
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the value of slot receiver Andre Roberts varies widely depending on whom you ask. Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Michael Schottey ranked Roberts as his ninth-best free agent receiver and 62nd-best free agent overall.
“One of my favorite unheralded slot receivers in the league,” Schottey wrote, “Roberts has the ability to play No. 2 but the lateral quickness to dominate inside. He's also as tough as they come. He has the potential to be a huge asset to Robert Griffin III for years to come.”
Meanwhile, the Pro Football Focus folks (subscription required) don’t think nearly so highly of Roberts, ranking him 82nd out of 111 qualified receivers in 2013.
Washington seems to have brought in a sneaky-good complementary receiver when what they need is a dynamic game-breaker.
Until general manager Bruce Allen signs or drafts a true impact weapon, I can’t rate a four-year, $16 million contract for the 5’11”, 192-pound Roberts as anything better than a high C.
Cleveland Browns Sign ILB Karlos Dansby
Karlos Dansby made for one of the best (and most under-told) stories of 2013. The prodigal linebacker returned to the Arizona desert after three seasons with the Miami Dolphins, and at age 32 had arguably the best year of his life.
Dansby—an inside linebacker in the Cardinals’ 3-4 defense—racked up 6.5 sacks, picked off four passes and returned two of them for touchdowns. He also, per Pro Football Reference, had a career-high 113 tackles.
It seemed as though the fit was right for Dansby to stay in Arizona for the rest of his career—instead, Dansby is headed for Cleveland, where D’Qwell Jackson’s contract-related release left a huge hole in the middle of the defense.
At four years and $24 million, Dansby’s contract seems oddly long for a player so long in the tooth. But Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic reported $10 million of that money is paid in the first season.
If Dansby’s found the fountain of youth, the Browns just made a fantastic deal. Dansby’s been playing much better than Jackson and is coming to Cleveland for about what Jackson signed for in Indianapolis.
Better yet, if Dansby doesn’t pan out, the Browns will have much less money tied up in him than the Colts will in Jackson after 2014. The Browns should seek a long-term solution at inside linebacker in the draft, but for now? Well done.
Cleveland Browns Sign S Donte Whitner
Unable to re-sign safety T.J. Ward, the Cleveland Browns were aggressive in getting one of the best fallback options on the board: former San Francisco 49ers safety Donte Whitner.
Whitner was the No. 4 safety on Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Michael Schottey’s big board, and like Ward has a well-earned reputation for being an aggressive run-stuffer.
However, Whitner was only Schottey’s No. 43 overall free agent (Ward is No. 9). Despite his self-applied "Hitner” nickname, Whitner isn't as good against the run as Ward. Pro Football Focus graded Ward (subscription required) as the best run-stuffing safety in football for 2013, for the second year running, with a plus-8.1 rating. Whitner was ranked eighth at plus-3.9.
However, Whitner had a career year in coverage, ranking fifth among safeties with a plus-10.7 mark. Ward was 12th, with a plus-4.8 grade.
Whitner’s an eight-year veteran, and Ward’s got only four years under his belt, so it's tempting to think of Ward as being much younger. However, Whitner (age 28) is only one year older.
It’s plausible to see Whitner making a positive impact throughout the life of his four-year, $28 million deal—more expensive than Ward, who signed a deal with the Denver Broncos worth $5.5 million per year, according to Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer.
If Whitner maintains his 2013 form, he'll be a comparable player to Ward for the next season or two, at least. Still, given that Ward has far fewer hits on the odometer and signed for fewer dollars per year, it's hard to see this as a free-agency win.
Atlanta Falcons Sign DL Tyson Jackson
Tyson Jackson is one of two former Kansas City Chiefs to re-join former Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli in Atlanta, where Pioli now serves as assistant general manager.
Jackson was Pioli’s first draft pick—the 2009 No. 3 overall—and Pioli’s first failure.
At 6’4”, 296 pounds, Jackson looks like a monster two-way 3-4 defensive end in the Justin Smith mold. However, Jackson has just nine career sacks across the five seasons he’s bounced in and out of the starting lineup.
It wasn’t until 2013 that Jackson came into his own under new defensive coordinator Bob Sutton. In just nine starts, Jackson compiled 24 solo tackles and five assists—not to mention, he nearly doubled his then-career total of sacks, with four. Jackson finished as Pro Football Focus’ (subscription required) 14th-best 3-4 defensive end, and 10th-best run-stuffer. Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Michael Schottey slotted Jackson as the 10th-best defensive tackle available.
Jackson projects as a tackle when Atlanta lines up in a 4-3, and as an end when Atlanta switches to a three-man front.
Together with fellow signee Paul Soliai, Jackson should greatly improve Atlanta’s run defense. However, at five years and $25 million, Jackson’s getting almost as much as the Minnesota Vikings are paying Linval Joseph—who’s younger and has played better.
Atlanta’s in win-now mode, but even so, this is a “reach for need,” as the draftniks say.
Atlanta Falcons Sign OG Jon Asamoah
Recently, I named Jon Asamoah one of the “hidden gems” of the 2014 free-agent market.
It should tell you how thin the market is that this “hidden” gem—an offensive guard who lost his starting job in the middle of the 2013 season—was snapped up in the first hours of free agency and signed to a five-year, (reported) $22.5 million deal.
Asamoah, though, showed plenty of promise last season, before an injury let Geoff Schwartz step in and outperform him. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) had graded him as the tenth-best right guard (excepting Rodger Saffold, a swing guard/tackle), and the second-best free-agent guard.
Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Michael Schottey had Asamoah as his seventh-best free-agent offensive lineman; compared to the deal sixth-ranked Saffold got, Asamoah was a steal.
This is a good signing of a good player at a position of crying need.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sign DE Michael Johnson
With the first major player move of the 2014 free agency period, defensive end Michael Johnson is on his way to Tampa Bay.
On Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Michael Schottey’s big board, Johnson was the best-available defensive end and No. 4 overall free agent.
New Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith knows the value of a big, strong, fast defensive end; in 2010 his former team, the Chicago Bears, made a huge free-agency splash for defensive end Julius Peppers.
At 6’7”, 270 pounds, Johnson is slightly taller and a little lighter than Peppers. As I recently wrote, his rare combination of size and speed make him one-of-a-kind player in this market.
However, Johnson is not the terrifying pass-rusher Peppers has been.
Johnson had just 3.5 sacks in 2013—though Pro Football Focus (subscription required) calculated his Pass-Rush Productivity rate to be very similar to what it was in 2012, when he registered a career-high 11.5 sacks.
Johnson just turned 27 in February. Despite entering his fifth season, he’s only recently grown comfortable with his outsized frame; with only two years as a full-time starter, his best years may be ahead of him.
In Smith’s aggressive defense, Johnson should be turned loose to attack the quarterback more often. Given that the Bucs are only into Johnson for five years and $43.75 million, Johnson’s production should be a relative bargain compared to Peppers’ six-year, $91 million deal.
It’s a little scary that Johnson’s value still involves a lot of projection. Snagging the only top-tier pass-rusher available on the free-agent market to a hefty-but-manageable contract is a big win for the Bucs—and watching him next to monster defensive tackle Gerald McCoy should be a delight for years to come.