The 2014 NFL free-agency period began with a flurry on Tuesday, as teams rushed to ink the top names on the market to bolster their rosters heading into the new season. As expected, a great amount of money was thrown around. Some of these signings will drastically improve franchises, although others may regret their decisions in due time.
Let's take a look at which teams hit home runs early in free agency by landing top-notch players who will be great fits in their respective schemes, as well as looking at other franchises that made a splash on Tuesday but could have put themselves behind the eight ball with poor decisions.
Michael Johnson to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
This came as no surprise after the Buccaneers brought in Lovie Smith to take the reins as the team's new head coach. The defensive-minded Smith made a great decision to add Michael Johnson, the elite edge-rusher formerly of the Cincinnati Bengals.
NFL.com's Ian Rapoport tweeted that Johnson was heading to Tampa Bay for a physical on Tuesday night:
Michael Johnson is planning to head to Tampa tonight to take a physical tomorrow morn. Would be shocked if a deal with #Bucs didn’t happen— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 11, 2014
According to ESPN.com, the deal that Johnson is expected to sign is for five years and $43.75 million, including $24 million in guaranteed money.
Johnson is worth every penny.
In 2013, Johnson was ranked as Pro Football Focus' (subscribers link) fourth-ranked defensive end with a plus-25.9 overall rating. Solid against the run and the pass, Johnson racked up 56 tackles, 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and one interception last season.
His sack numbers were down from his 11.5-sack performance in 2012; however, the absence of defensive tackle Geno Atkins for the final seven games due to a torn ACL played a part in the Bengals' struggles to apply pressure to opposing quarterbacks.
The Buccaneers shouldn't be concerned about Johnson's decline in productivity without Atkins by his side, as he will have the pleasure of lining up next to Gerald McCoy.
Lamarr Houston to the Chicago Bears
The Chicago Bears announced the signing of former Raiders defensive end Lamarr Houston to a five-year deal on Tuesday:
LM: #Bears have agreed to terms with free-agent defensive end Lamarr Houston on 5-year contract.— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) March 11, 2014
Marc Sessler of NFL.com reported that the deal is worth $35 million with $15 million in guaranteed money. Bringing in Houston at this reasonable price foreshadows the release of veteran defensive end Julius Peppers from the Bears, as NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal reported.
Peppers was set to make a whopping $18.1 million in total money in 2014, according to Spotrac.com. This is a cap hit that the Bears are looking to avoid.
Houston had his most productive season on the professional level in 2013, recording 69 tackles, six sacks and two forced fumbles with the Raiders. His productivity awarded him a plus-11.4 rating from Pro Football Focus (subscribers link), good enough for 11th in the league.
A well-rounded defensive end, Houston was also given a plus-14.9 rating against the run by PFF, an area in which the Bears struggled mightily last season. His addition to the team at such a good value makes this one of the best moves on Tuesday.
T.J. Ward to the Denver Broncos
The Broncos looked to toughen up their secondary by signing former Browns safety T.J. Ward. Ian Rapoport was the first to announce the signing on Tuesday:
The #Broncos are signing S TJ Ward, per source. This was a top target for them. Tom Heckert drafted him in Cleveland— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 11, 2014
John Elway later confirmed that Ward was officially a Bronco:
Excited to announce we've agreed to terms with strong safety T.J. Ward. He'll bring energy and toughness to our secondary.— John Elway (@johnelway) March 11, 2014
Mike Klis of The Denver Post tweeted the details of the contract:
T.J. Ward gets 4 years, $23 million; $14 million guaranteed— Mike Klis (@MikeKlis) March 11, 2014
The contract terms are the best part of this deal. This is a very reasonable price tag for a starting-caliber strong safety in today's NFL. However, it is Ward's style of play that makes this signing questionable.
Ward is known to be a safety that flourishes up in the box. He is extremely physical and stout when in run support. He also had great command over short crossing routes, punishing any wide receiver that crosses his path.
However, Ward's weakness lies in deep coverage. The Broncos struggled in the secondary last season, allowing an average of 254.4 yards per game through the air and ranking just 27th in the league.
To make matters worse, the Broncos' cornerback situation became extremely thin with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie testing the waters of free agency and longtime veteran Champ Bailey being released.
Ward does not offer much in coverage to combat those losses. The Broncos look to be putting all of their eggs in one basket, as Rahim Moore remains the only player in Denver's secondary who can play center field.
It's tough to imagine what the Broncos were thinking here.
Tyson Jackson to the Atlanta Falcons
Like Ward to the Broncos, the Falcons signed a position of need; however, the player's skill set doesn't seem to match what the team would want in terms of production. Tyson Jackson has been solid against the run over his five-year career; however, he isn't the edge-rusher that the team desperately needs.
If the Falcons would have signed Jackson to a small deal as a rotational piece, it would have made plenty of sense. However, after Ian Rapoport of NFL.com tweeted the contract terms, it became apparent that the team expects him to start:
Tyson Jackson’s deal with the #Falcons is for $25M over five years. Wow.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 11, 2014
Jackson did have a career-best season in 2013 with the Chiefs, recording 34 tackles and four sacks. However, a career high of four sacks by a former third overall draft selection makes his ability in the NFL questionable at best.
The contract that Jackson was awarded with the Falcons is not typical of a run-stuffing defensive end. The team paid him edge-rusher-type numbers, which is something that Jackson is not.
Overpaying a defensive end who doesn't fit the needs of this team's defensive scheme makes this one of the worst early signings in the 2014 free-agency period.