NFL Free Agency 2014: Analyzing How Top Signings Fit with New Teams

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NFL Free Agency 2014: Analyzing How Top Signings Fit with New Teams
Winslow Townson/Associated Press
Revis to the Pats highlighted a wild start to free agency.

The first two days of the 2014 NFL free agency period have seen a flurry of big-name signings. With an unexpectedly high bump in salary cap space, teams have not been shy about shelling out their dollars this offseason, and players have gladly reaped the benefits.

At the same time, we have seen countless instances of free agency being a fatal siren that creates disappointment and long-term havoc for teams who wade too far into its waters. If the draft is about crafting long-term building blocks, free agency often offers short-term fixes at higher dollars, naturally providing less value.

Still, that certainly does not mean all big-money free agents are anathema to a Super Bowl contender. Every contender needs an immediate fix somewhere, even if such a solution does not provide a great return on value. 

Free agency is still in its honeymoon period, where fans and front office personnel alike are turning a blind eye to the future dollars and dreaming of present-day success. But which teams will actually realize those short-term payoffs, and which ones will be left ruing their impulsive purchases?

Let's delve deeper into some of the biggest names to join new teams thus far and examine how likely they are to produce results commensurate with their fat contracts.

 

 

Darrelle Revis, CB, New England Patriots

Stephan Savoia/Associated Press

The biggest signing of the first two days was also the strangest in terms of philosophical approaches. On Wednesday night, Darrelle Revis and the New England Patriots came to terms on a one-year, $12 million contract, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Revis, who prides himself on savvy negotiating that maximizes his earnings, and the Patriots, who pride themselves on fiscal responsibility, found a middle ground to bring about a hugely important marriage.

One thing is clear: Revis and the Patriots are a perfect on-field marriage. Erstwhile top corner Aqib Talib represented the team's best man-to-man corner since Ty Law; consequently, the Patriots were able to play much more aggressive cover schemes last season with Talib able to shadow top targets like Jimmy Graham:

via NFL Game Rewind

Talib memorably held Graham to zero catches when the Saints played the Patriots last season, and Revis allows New England to keep playing the single-high man coverages they have utilized with Talib. And any notion that Revis is in decline appears greatly exagerrated

Pro Football Focus' 2013 Top-Graded Cornerbacks
Rank Player Team Overall Grade
1 Darrelle Revis TB +18.2
2 Brent Grimes MIA +16.4
T-3 Vontae Davis IND +15.5
T-3 Tyrann Mathieu ARZ +15.5
5 Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie DEN +13.0

via ProFootballFocus.com

Even though a perception existed that 2013 was a down year for Revis, he was only targeted once every 8.8 coverage snaps, and he only gave up a completion once every 16.4 coverage snaps. Both of those numbers were second in the league to Richard Sherman.

Indeed, a year after an ill-fated zone-defense experiment in Tampa Bay, Revis should thrive playing man coverage every snap with the Patriots, just as he did with the New York Jets. The Pats were never afraid to leave Talib without safety help, and they will almost certainly plug in Revis to fulfill the same role.

Of course, a player of Revis' caliber does not come cheaply, and the Patriots were not flush with cap space to begin with. New England had $17.55 million of cap space before Revis' one-year, $12 million deal, which eats up much of that available room.

Consequently, the Patriots will have to perform some tricky cap gymnastics just to carve out a tenable amount of space. There has been speculation about Vince Wilfork's future with the team, and the 32-year-old defensive tackle will almost certainly have to restructure his contract in order to reduce his mammoth $11.6 million cap hit.

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Elsewhere, veteran contributors like Adrian Wilson, Dan Connolly and Tommy Kelly could receive the axe (the Pats would save roughly $6.3 million by shedding all three). Additionally, Devin McCourty and Stephen Gostkowski might receive extensions to reduce their 2014 cap hits. 

New England has plenty of cap work to do—they may lose receiver Julian Edelman as a result, per NESN.com's Doug Kyed, as the slot receiver has received plenty of interest from multiple teams. But with Revis on the books for just a year, the Patriots will not have long-term cap issues, and Revis himself will get another chance to cash in next spring. In exchange, the Pats have received a player who is a wonderful fit for their system, and one who could potentially swing the balance of power in the AFC.

 

 

Jairus Byrd, S, New Orleans Saints

Steven Senne/Associated Press

Each year, the reigning Super Bowl champions often serve as the template for teams trying to unseat them. The New Orleans Saints, who were eliminated by the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks last season, have sought to imitate the Seahawks safety tandem of Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor by inking Jairus Byrd to a six-year, $54 million contract.

Coupled with impressive 2013 rookie Kenny Vaccaro, the Saints pairing is not far behind the impressive Seattle duo. As with Thomas and Chancellor, Byrd and Vaccaro complement each other extremely well. 

Byrd has been one of the league's best roaming centerfielders for years now, using tremendous ball instincts to compensate for a lack of top-end speed. Last season, Byrd allowed completions at the rate of once every 32.6 coverage snaps, the ninth-best mark in the league among safeties.

Take this play as an example. Here, new teammate Drew Brees tried to look off Byrd and hit Marques Colston, who had single coverage, up the seam for a touchdown. However, notice how Byrd had already moved back toward Colston before Brees even looks back toward his intended target:

via NFL Game Rewind

Vaccaro can occupy a similar role, but unlike Byrd, his versatility allows him to play closer to the line. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Vaccaro's rookie season was the multitude of roles he filled, as he played in the box, in the slot, at both safety positions and covered tight ends:

via NFL Game Rewind

Even with Vaccaro missing the end of the season with a fractured ankle, the Saints featured one of the best pass defenses in the league. Opponents passed for an average of 6.1 yards per attempt, which was the seventh-lowest mark in the league. 

Moreover, per ProFootballReference.com, the Saints only conceded 76 passing plays of 15 or more yards, which tied for the fourth-fewest in the league. Now, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has even more skill and versatility to work with on the back end.

The only small caveat is Byrd's deal, which includes $28 million in guaranteed money. Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk has speculated that the deal could be backloaded given the Saints' tight cap situation. If that is the case, Byrd could stand in the way of the Saints giving big extensions to current stars like Jimmy Graham and Cameron Jordan next season.

But for now, Byrd's addition could give New Orleans one of the league's premier pass defenses. After being one of the most improved defenses in 2013, look for the unit to take another step forward in 2014.

 

 

Michael Johnson, DE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Even with the Darrelle Revis saga resulting in the star cornerback's departure, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could possess one of the league's best defenses in 2014. The signing of Michael Johnson to a five-year, $43.75 million pact appears to address Tampa's biggest need, the lack of an explosive edge-rusher, as evidenced by this table of the team's leading sack artists last season:

2013 Sack Production of TB Defensive Ends
Player Games Sacks
Adrian Clayborn 16 6.5
William Gholston 12 2.0
Da'Quan Bowers 13 1.0
Daniel Te'o-Nesheim 16 1.0
Trevor Scott 4 0.0

via Pro-Football-Reference.com

Last year, Tampa Bay ranked 22nd in sack percentage, bringing down opposing quarterbacks on just six percent of dropbacks, per TeamRankings.com. The pass-rush would have been even worse without the exemplary work of defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who accounted for nine of the team's 35 sacks. Too often, the All-Pro defensive tackle created tremendous initial interior pressure, only to have no one around to clean up the havoc he created:

via NFL Game Rewind
via NFL Game Rewind

Now, the Bucs will ask Johnson to fulfill that role. Observers might be queasy about Tampa committing big dollars to someone who had 11.5 sacks in 2012 but has not compiled more than six sacks in any of his other four seasons. However, as SI.com's Chris Burke illustrates, a change in role could boost Johnson's numbers back to those flashy levels of two seasons ago:

He was among the top pass-rushers in the league in 2012, when he recorded 11.5 sacks for Cincinnati, but his production tumbled to 3.5 sacks last season. Some of the explanation for that lies in the system of Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who did not ask Johnson to pin his ears back as much as Lovie Smith will. Johnson also maintained a spot as a terrific run defender.

It's worth noting that even with just 3.5 sacks in 2013, Johnson was not exactly a poor pass-rusher. His 61 total pressures were 14th-most among 4-3 defensive ends last season, and only Robert Quinn, Jared Allen and Greg Hardy had more quarterback hits at the position than Johnson's 14.

Not having as many containment responsibilities should theoretically allow Johnson to pin his ears back on a more consistent basis going forward. Of course, even if his 2012 performance suggests he is capable of bringing excellent pass-rushing production, we have yet to see Johnson perform in such a singularly directed role.

At 27 years old, Johnson should survive the length of his deal and perform at a reasonable level. However, the Bucs have signed him for a singular purpose, one he has not proven he can capably fulfill over multiple seasons. Johnson is an important signing, one Tampa Bay was right to pursue, but he comes with a fair amount of risk.

 

 

Other Notable Free Agents

The players addressed above were far from the only important faces to change teams. The early free-agent period has seen the increased spending reward particular positions more than others, however. Despite the laws of supply-and-demand, positions with the largest number of top-end performers have been rewarded the fastest and most handsomely.

Here's a few quick hits on the most important players at those positions who have changed addresses.

 

Defensive Backs

The Broncos made the biggest splash on the first day of free agency, bolstering the back end of their defense with safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib

Of the two, Ward looks like the safer bet in terms of schematic fit and price tag. His four-year, $22.5 million pact is a reasonable deal for one of the league's best in-the-box safeties. Ward should provide an upgrade over 2013 starting strong safety Duke Ihenacho, who was a middle-of-the-pack tackler and run-stuffer.

Talib comes with much more risk, though he might also be the more necessary signing. As offenses increasingly tilt toward the pass, teams are placing a higher value on outside corners who can hold up in press man coverage. Talib gives them a capable replacement for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

Of course, Talib's durability is a significant question, as he has never played a full 16-game season. His six-year, $57 million contract, with $27 million guaranteed, will almost certainly be an albatross at some point. But for a Broncos team that is all-in for 2014, Talib is a piece that could push their defense over the top.

Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

In stark contrast, Alterraun Verner was arguably the best value of the first day, as he was one of the few top-tier players to ostensibly take a discount. As one sports agent noted, Verner's four-year, $26.5 million contract with the Bucs pales in comparison to what the other top defensive backs hauled in:

At the very least, Verner chose well in terms of schematic fit. Lovie Smith is famous for his Tampa 2 coverages, and Verner thrived in zone-based schemes in Tennessee. Smith has suggested that he will incorporate more man coverage concepts into his defense for 2014, according to Roy Cummings of the Tampa Tribune. Still, it would behoove the Bucs if Verner were allowed to play to his strengths as a bail-technique ball-hawking corner.

 

Offensive Linemen

Peter Aiken/Getty Images

The duo of Branden Albert and Jared Veldheer found new homes within the first hour of free agency. Both were compensated nicely—the former with a five-year, $47 million pact from Miami, and the latter with a five-year, $35 million deal from Arizona—as their new employers clearly sought to avoid engaging in prolonged bidding wars.

Albert to the Miami Dolphins was an open-and-shut case. Albert has been established as one of the league's better pass-blocking tackles, and the Dolphins desperately needed to bolster Ryan Tannehill's protection. The second-year signal-caller was one of the 10 worst quarterbacks under pressure last year, completing just 44.2 percent of his throws and throwing five touchdowns against 10 interceptions in such situations.

The situation was nearly as bad in Arizona, where, in terms of total pressures allowed, nominal starting tackles Bradley Sowell and Eric Winston were two of the six worst tackles in the league last season. Veldheer ranked as the ninth-best pass-blocking offensive tackle during his last healthy season in 2012, and he addresses Arizona's most important need at left tackle.

Rodger Saffold also would have made this list, but per Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports, a failed physical voided his original pact with the Raiders. Saffold is a notch below Albert and Veldheer, and his new contract with the Rams, as reported by Adam Schefter, will presumably be a significant discount from the original five-year, $42 million contract Oakland handed him.

 

Defensive Ends

DeMarcus Ware's three-year, $30 million deal was the final domino to fall in the Broncos' defensive spending spree. Ware will presumably replace Shaun Phillips and team up with Von Miller to provide a fearsome edge-rushing duo.

If there's a concern with Ware, it stems from a career-worst 2013 season, in which he accrued just six sacks and missed three gamesthe first time he did not play 16 games in his nine-year career. However, barring a recurrence of those health issues, Ware should be an excellent fit in Denver. As Pro Football Focus illustrates, the notion that the former 3-4 outside linebacker is an incongruous fit in the Broncos' 4-3 system is largely unfounded:

The Chicago Bears are another team trying to resuscitate their defense, which fell on hard times last year. Chicago had myriad issues, the biggest of which was their putrid run defense last season. Opponents gashed the Bears for 5.3 yards per attempt last year, the worst mark in the league by a full half-yard.

Lamarr Houston will help in that department. The 26-year-old ex-Raider was credited with the highest run-stop percentage in the league last season among 4-3 defensive ends. Houston accrued 40 "stops," defined as plays that constitute a loss for the offense, over 390 run snaps, which translates to a 10.3 percent rate.

Houston alone does not solve the Bears' woes, but he is a capable and versatile three-down player who infuses Chicago's defense with sorely needed youth.

 

 

*All stats courtesy Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and all salary/contract data via Spotrac.com.
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