The NFL free-agent signing period is now a week old. As usual, there was an initial rush of new contracts inked during the first few days before things began to calm down.
A steady stream of deals should continue for a few more weeks before the focus shifts to the draft.
One of the toughest things to accomplish during the first week of free agency is finding good value. Teams are normally forced to overpay for big names if they want to fill a particular hole. It's not always a bad thing—especially for contenders—but team-friendly deals are harder to complete.
With that in mind, let's examine a trio of early signings that should end up providing plenty of value for the teams involved. The players might not have been the most notable names on the market, but they should all make a major impact in 2014.
Ben Tate, RB, Cleveland Browns
The Browns' backfield situation last season was a complete mess. No player rushed for more than 400 yards. The leader, Willis McGahee, was a veteran who averaged fewer than three yards per carry en route to just 377 yards. The team as a whole had just four rushing touchdowns.
Something needed to change.
In the grand scheme of things, I really wanted to be here. At the end of the day, I thought this was going to be the best opportunity for me. I felt the pieces that were already here, offensive-line wise, and their plans in free agency and the draft, so I felt it was just going to be the best opportunity for me to help turn this thing around and take it to another level.
Tate averaged nearly five yards per carry in 40 games with the Houston Texans. Given increased opportunities, he also showed that he can be utilized in the passing game, with 34 catches last season.
He immediately becomes the most talented back on the roster and should receive a heavy workload.
The fact that Cleveland was able to lock him down to a short-term deal with a reasonable salary also opens the team up to target other positions with its two first-round picks. Adding a quarterback and wide receiver to Tate and Josh Gordon would lead to a lot of renewed hope for the Browns.
Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Denver Broncos
Most of the focus during the first week of free agency for the Broncos was on defense. However, Sanders could very well emerge as the player who provides the most bang for the buck in Denver.
Playing alongside Peyton Manning helps, of course.
The Broncos offense is coming off a record-breaking season and lost Eric Decker. The question was whether the team would simply promote from within to fill that role or make a signing, and it seemed like the former became likelier when Denver went on a defensive signing binge.
Denver then proceeded to fly under the radar and land Sanders for $15 million over three years. One thing that makes him a great fit with the uptempo Broncos offense is his versatility, as noted by Pro Football Focus:
Emmanuel Sanders Route Chart pic.twitter.com/NrU0p18Wuk— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) March 16, 2014
Signing Sanders instead of relying on Andre Caldwell or somebody else to step up should ensure that Manning has no shortage of weapons at his disposal.
The deal isn't as costly as it would have been to re-sign Decker and the drop-off should be minimal—if there's one at all.
Brandon Spikes, LB, Buffalo Bills
The Bills ranked 28th in the league last season in rush defense. They gave up nearly 130 yards per game on the ground, making the progress made in terms of defending the pass a moot point.
Given the amount of talent up front, it shouldn't have been that big of an issue.
Taking into account contract and impact, which FA signing will provide the most value?
Despite a front seven that included Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Kiko Alonso and Mario Williams, the Bills just couldn't stop getting gashed by the run. What they lacked was somebody in the middle capable of being the reliable run-stopper—something Alonso struggled to do consistently.
That's why signing Spikes on a one-year deal for $3.25 million made a ton of sense. He will play the role of tackling machine in the middle, allowing Alonso to shift outside into more of a playmaking spot.
The Bills still have question marks, mostly surrounding E.J. Manuel and the passing game.
But with a strong rushing attack and what should be a stabler defense with the addition of Spikes, they should be much tougher to play against in 2014.