2014 Free Agency Analysis and Grades: AFC East
As the Bills, Dolphins and Jets look to decrease the gap between them and the Patriots in the balance of power in the AFC East, the 2014 free agency was extremely important for all four franchises.
While the Patriots made multiple moves to keep pace with the Denver Broncos for AFC supremacy, the rest of the division didn't make much noise.
Here's an analysis of each move made by the four organizations.
Additions: G Chris Williams, ILB Brandon Spikes, CB Corey Graham, OLB Keith Rivers, RB Anthony Dixon
Key Losses: FS Jairus Byrd (Saints)
The Buffalo Bills went into the 2014 free-agency period with holes on the offensive line, wide receiver, tight end and linebacker position.
Buffalo has been moderately quiet in the first few days, making just five signings.
In addition, they also re-signed kicker Dan Carpenter, tight ends Scott Chandler and Mike Caussin, punter Brian Moorman and defensive tackle Alan Branch.
They lost free safety Jairus Byrd, arguably their best defensive player, to the Saints after failing to agree on a contract extension last season.
The biggest addition the Bills made was signing former Patriots inside linebacker Brandon Spikes to a one-year, $3.25 million contract.
Spikes has struggled in the past in coverage, but there is no denying that he is one of the best run-stopping linebackers in the league.
With the move of Kiko Alonso, who finished second in the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year voting, to the Will linebacker, Spikes will have an opportunity to see playing time early.
Spikes might be best suited to play a majority of his snaps on first and second down, but he will solidify the NFL’s fourth-ranked run defense.
Buffalo also inked former Rams guard Chris Williams to a four-year, $13.5 million contract with $5.5 million guaranteed.
The signing of Williams likely means that the Bills are trying to replace left guard Doug Legursky, who posted a -1.1 rating in pass protection and -14.9 in run-blocking, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Legursky replaced Andy Levitre, who signed with the Tennessee Titans before the start of last season.
Williams graded higher in run blocking (-5.7) than Legursky, but he was one of the worst starting guards in pass protection while in St. Louis, grading out at -15.4 in 2013.
Corey Graham is likely going to be a situational cornerback who sees most of his playing time on third downs.
Graham started 17 games for the Ravens during the past two seasons, including the final 12 contests during the Super Bowl run.
The addition of Keith Rivers from the Giants is a move to add depth at the position. He will be splitting time with Sam linebacker Manny Lawson, who is a pass rush specialist.
Anthony Dixon could see looks at fullback and running back in short yardage situations, which is something that the Bills struggled with last year.
Additions: LT Branden Albert, FS Louis Delmas, DT Earl Mitchell, OG Shelley Smith, CB Cortland Finnegan
Key Losses: NT Paul Soliai (Falcons), FS Chris Clemons, CB Nolan Carroll (Eagles), LT Jonathan Martin (49ers)
The Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin situation did more than bring a media circus to Miami. It also left a gaping hole on the left side of the offensive line.
The Dolphins front office addressed the issue, signing former Chiefs left tackle Branden Albert and Rams guard Shelley Smith.
The move for Albert not only addressed the void left by Martin’s departure, but it also will provide an upgrade. According to Pro Football Focus, Albert’s ratings in pass protection and run-blocking are both better than Martin’s, and the level of production is not even close.
Former Rams guard Shelley Smith played just 371 snaps last season, 152 of which were at left guard.
In his limited time on the left side, Smith faired moderately well, posting a -0.5 rating in pass protection and 4.9 in run-blocking.
Even if Smith struggles at the left side, which is where he is projected to start at the moment, he can make a move to the right guard position to replace Nate Gardner.
The Dolphins also signed former Lions free safety Louis Delmas to a one-year contract.
Delmas will be 27 in April, and he has a history with nagging injuries. He played in 1,058 snaps last year, which was close to the amount of total snaps he participated on during the 2011 and 2012 seasons, which was 1,218.
He was solid in pass coverage last season, posting the 11th highest coverage rating of all safeties, both free and strong, in the league, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Oddly enough, one of the few safeties who was more productive is pass coverage was Chris Clemons, whom the Dolphins let go of in favor of Delmas.
Delmas is a solid player, but he will need to stay healthy all season and produce similarly to how he did in Detroit last year.
Former Texans nose tackle Earl Mitchell was also brought in within the first couple days of free agency.
Mitchell will likely have a role as a rotational player with Jared Odrick and recently re-signed veteran Randy Starks.
Last season, Mitchell was a bit inconsistent, but that can be attributed to the Texans defensive scheme and his role as a nose tackle, despite being undersized a 6'2", 296 pounds.
With his move to a 4-3 defense, Mitchell will benefit from less double teams and he will fit right in as a 3-technique tackle.
The final notable move was the signing of former Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan.
Finnegan, who signed a monster deal with St. Louis two seasons ago, saw a drop in production from his Pro Bowl numbers he had in Tennessee.
Playing across from recently re-signed Brent Grimes, Finnegan will have a chance to resurrect his career, similar to what Grimes did in Miami on a short-term deal last season.
New England Patriots
Additions: CB Darrelle Revis, CB Brandon Browner, WR Brandon LaFell
Key Losses: CB Aqib Talib (Broncos), Brandon Spikes (Bills)
The New England Patriots didn’t just improve their team this offseason, but they have possibly already locked up the AFC East crown (bold prediction, I know).
Darrelle Revis, coming off of missing the 2012 season due to an injury, stood out on a subpar Tampa Bay defense last year. He was the best overall cornerback in football and his coverage grade was fifth in the league, per Pro Football Focus.
The Patriots signed Revis to a fair deal, considering his talent level. After being released by the Buccaneers, New England pounced on Revis quickly, signing him to a two-year deal that includes a $20 million team option for next season.
Losing Aqib Talib to the Broncos initially created a hole in the New England secondary, but, like great front offices usually do, the Patriots filled the void by upgrading from Talib.
According to Pro Football Focus, Talib’s coverage grade was -5.2, which puts him 76th overall at the cornerback position.
The Patriots also signed former Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner, who was suspended for the second half of last season and four games in the 2014 year due to a violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
Browner was signed to a very reasonable three-year, $17 million deal.
Browner is a good fit for the Patriots. He’s tall (6'4"), and has a large wingspan, which could be why he deflected nine passes in eight games played last year.
He struggles at times in man coverage, but he can be an asset in certain zone packages.
The additions of Browner and Revis to a unit that already includes Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan and Alfonzo Dennard is going to make New England a very tough team to pass on.
The defensive side of the ball wasn’t the only thing they improved. New England also re-signed leading receiver Julian Edelman and signed former Panthers receiver Brandon LaFell.
Last season, LaFell brought in 53 receptions for 661 yards and five touchdowns. He also caught 59 percent of the passes that came his way, with eight drops.
As anyone who watched a Patriots game last year knows, there were struggles in the passing game.
Edelman, who caught just 69 passes during his first four seasons in New England, was the team’s only reliable option. He hauled in 105 receptions for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns in 2013.
Adding LaFell into the receiving mix will lighten the load on young players such as Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, and he will be a vertical threat for Tom Brady on the outside.
New York Jets
Additions: WR Eric Decker, RT Breno Giacomini, CB Johnny Patrick
Key Losses: RT Austin Howard (Raiders), CB Antonio Cromartie, WR Santonio Holmes
Despite having a large amount of cap room, the Jets only made one splash in free agency. They released starting cornerback Antonio Cromartie and receiver Santonio Holmes, who has been plagued with injuries and hasn’t been very productive since being acquired via trade from the Steelers before the 2011 season.
Although Eric Decker isn’t a true No. 1 receiver, he is an upgrade over Holmes and the rest of the receiving staff currently on the roster.
Despite being arguably the fourth-best weapon on a Denver offense that includes Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas, Decker was still productive. He hauled in 95 receptions for 1,399 yards (1,288 during the regular season) and 11 touchdowns. His 11 touchdowns were tied for the eighth-most in the league.
He struggled in the playoffs, including amounting just one reception for six yards against the Seahawks in the Super Bowl.
Whoever is at quarterback, whether it be Geno Smith or someone else, will have at least one reliable receiver (Decker caught 62.5 percent of the passes that came his way last season).
With the improvement of secondaries throughout the division (the Patriots), the Jets will likely look to add another receiver in free agency or through the draft before the season begins.
They are currently rumored to have interest in former Seahawks receiver Sidney Rice, who missed most of last season due to an ACL injury.
The addition of Breno Giacomini was more out of necessity due to the departure of former starting right tackle Austin Howard.
From a statistical standpoint, Giacomini had a more efficient season than Howard, although Howard played on 333 more snaps.
Don’t be surprised to see Giacomini struggle next season, assuming he lands the starting position.
The Jets acquisition of Johnny Patrick was a move to add depth, especially after parting ways with Cromartie.
Patrick was horrendous in coverage last year, grading out with a -10.1 rating, according to Pro Football Focus.
Expect to see the speedy fourth-year defensive back make an impact on special teams.