Biggest Steals of 2014 NFL Free Agency
There is more than one way to win in the NFL. You can do it with defense, like the Seattle Seahawks, or with offense, like the Denver Broncos. You can win via the draft, like anyone, or through free agency, where the rich just seemed to get richer this winter.
Players can be stolen from division rivals with some financial commitment, and sometimes it might not even take that much of it. Injury can drop a player's free-agent cost. Baggage like suspensions and having a sketchy, allegedly gang-related entourage can too, apparently.
We take a look at the 10 biggest steals of 2014 NFL free agency, outlining precisely those cause-and-effect circumstances in this slideshow. This is one you won't want to miss. Just hold on to your wallet. You don't want your pocket picked like some of these teams.
CB Darrelle Revis, New England Patriots
The best part of the New England Patriots' move for Darrelle Revis isn't in the contract dollars. They had to pay him market value, giving him the highest average-per-year deal of the winter, according to OverTheCap.com.
The steal assessment comes when you consider what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had to give up to get him the year prior: the 13th overall pick in 2013 and a conditional fourth-rounder for 2014. But as NESN's Doug Kyed points out, the Patriots ostensibly dealt Aqib Talib and $2.5 million for Revis and a third-round pick this year.
That's a trade anyone but Talib's mother might have taken going into the offseason.
The pick was compensation for losing a marquee free agent in Talib. Revis didn't net the Bucs a compensation pick because he was outright released. It was pure Bill Belichick genius. It is almost not even fair.
CB Brandon Browner, New England Patriots
From one New England Patriots cornerback to another: Brandon Browner isn't in Darrelle Revis' class, but he is solid and affordable, even if he carries some baggage with him.
The NFL reduced his indefinite ban for violating the league's substance-abuse policy from last season to a four-game suspension and four game checks, according to The Boston Globe's Ben Volin. That sounds like bad news, but that's what turned a potentially elite cover corner into a relative bargain for a Patriots team that didn't have a ton of salary-cap space to play with.
Super Bowl champion head coach Pete Carroll spoke highly of Browner to Volin and was sad to see him go, even if his suspension nearly threatened to sabotage their 2013 season:
He's a very unique football player. He's got a great sense for the position and he's tough, a really tough dude. I talked to Bill (Belichick) about it yesterday, we were kicking it around a bit. I'm envious he gets to coach that guy. He's a fantastic football player. ...
... They're getting a terrific football player. He is a great competitor, fierce competitor, and when he finally gets back to playing, I know he'll work out really hard to get ready and all of that, and he'll show them why he was part of a really good secondary.
After the first four games of 2014, Browner will be a part of another really good secondary while working opposite of Revis. With the Seahawks, Browner covered one side. In New England, it is conceivable that Revis will go to the opposing team's No. 1, and Browner will merely have to deal with the second option.
That's a mismatch—all to the reasonable tune of a mere $1 million of guaranteed money, according to OverTheCap.com.
CB Walter Thurmond, New York Giants
From one Seattle Seahawks Legion of Boom graduate to another: Walter Thurmond might not be in Brandon Browner's league, because he is just not as big and physical, but he is a capable cover man in his own right.
Like Browner, Thurmond was also discounted because of a substance-abuse policy suspension from a year ago—not to mention a pair of injury-plagued years in 2011-12, where he played just eight of 32 games.
Still, NFL analyst Louis Riddick told NJ.com's Jordan Raanan that the Giants scored a bargain on this 26-year-old corner whose arrow is pointing up:
If he can stay healthy and out of trouble, it's a tremendous value signing. ...
... You could tell during the year that Walter is special. ... He's a dynamite press corner, who is as good with his technique as (Seattle's) Byron Maxwell, as (Seattle's) Richard Sherman. Walter is very good. He can play in the nickel because he's big enough, because he can tackle, because he's a good blitzer. And he can play on the outside. Not only can he press, he can play them all.
Perhaps the best part of Thurmond's signing was the timing. He signed a one-year, $3 million deal to showcase himself as a starter with the New York Giants. Then, the Giants signed Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to a deal to presumably start opposite holdover Prince Amukamara.
Thurmond has proved he can thrive in the nickel role, and the Giants don't have to take the risk his substance abuse or injuries will catch up to him and leave them without a starter. It worked out well in an offseason that has been very good to the Giants.
CB Alterraun Verner, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
All right, this is the last cornerback in this slideshow; we promise. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers think so highly of Alterraun Verner that they were willing to accept the embarrassment of releasing Darrelle Revis for nothing. That says something in itself.
Verner was coming off a career year and is just 25 years old. He still has room to grow.
He's already elite. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) rates his 2013 opposing quarterback rating as 55.8, which is second only to the incomparable Richard Sherman among cornerbacks who played at least 60 percent of his team's snaps.
The Bucs got arguably an elite cornerback smack dab in his prime for a mere $6.375 million per year over four years, according to OverTheCap.com. That is considerably less than Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Vontae Davis, Aqib Talib and Darrelle Revis netted this winter.
Again, Verner's opposing quarterback rating was better than all of those guys. He is an ideal fit for a defensive guru in Bucs head coach Lovie Smith.
WR Hakeem Nicks, Indianapolis Colts
Bleacher Report took a look at the five best contracts in NFL free-agency action earlier this week here, and Hakeem Nicks' one-year, $4 million deal with the Indianapolis Colts took top honors. That seems like an awfully affordable contract for a wide receiver who is capable of being a 1,300-yard, 12-touchdown beast with an emerging superstar quarterback in Andrew Luck.
Nicks might have been questioned for his "motivation" in his 2013 contract year—as ESPN.com's Dan Graziano did here—but he sure picked a very good spot for a redo. Luck is a 5,000-yard passer in the making, and Nicks' size and hands can make him the go-to target in Indy.
"Maybe this is something that had to take place for Hakeem," Giants coach Tom Coughlin told reporters at the league meetings last week, as The MMQB's Greg A. Bedard writes. "Maybe he will deal with exactly where he is and once again return to the quality of player that he is."
Chuck Pagano sees nothing but upside with Nicks. The coach told reporters, according to Bedard:
What is there not to like about the guy? He's a big guy. Very, very athletic. Experienced guy. Played at a high level. Won championships. He brings that with him. Big, big hands. Can make huge plays. Physical guy. Everybody is going to get up in your face and play bump and run and make it hard for you to get off the line of scrimmage. He gives you a big, physical presence. He'll do a great job against press coverage and teams we'll have to face. All of them are built to stop the big wideouts. He brings a lot to the table.
Money talks. What Nicks does this season and makes next winter will say just how much of a steal this "show-me" deal was.
DT Henry Melton, Dallas Cowboys
This has been a rough offseason for the Dallas Cowboys, as they have done little but try to get out of salary-cap hell. The under-the-radar signing of defensive tackle Henry Melton stands to be a silver lining amid it all.
Melton, a Texas alumnus, took a hometown discount to come back to the state to play for the Cowboys. It doesn't sound like four years and more than $27.5 million is a bargain for a player who is coming off a major knee reconstruction, but only $1 million of that deal is fully guaranteed according to OverTheCap.com.
His deal is loaded on the back end, as OverTheCap.com outlines here, so the Cowboys will only have to commit $1,734,625 to him for this coming season. If he proves healthy and productive again, he will earn $9 million in 2015 and $7.5 million in '16 and '17.
Melton told ESPN Dallas' Todd Archer:
I didn't have to be talked into [the contract] at all. I knew what was out there. The ACL scares a lot of teams and a lot of people. You can come back great from it. That's something that I believe I can do. Just have to buckle down and get physically and mentally ready, and train my butt off just to be ready to go.
Melton's injury a year ago certainly ruined the Chicago Bears' run defense. The Bears dropped to dead last against the run...and by a wide margin.
As free-agent deals go, this one is as low-risk and potentially high-reward as they can get.
RB Knowshon Moreno, Miami Dolphins
Like the aforementioned Hakeem Nicks, Knowshon Moreno's one-year "prove-it" deal with the Miami Dolphins rated highly among Bleacher Report's five best contracts of early NFL free-agency action.
One year and $3 million just doesn't seem like much to pay for a 26-year-old feature back who is coming off a career year of 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns.
As the South Florida Sun-Sentinel's Omar Kelly reports:
If he's cut at before the season opener he'll only be paid $1.25 million by the Dolphins.
If Moreno, who rushed for 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Broncos last season, and also had 60 receptions for 548 yards and three touchdowns, replicates that type of season for the Dolphins, he's a steal.
If Moreno suffers an injury, or isn't as good as one of the backs on Miami's roster, or someone they select in the draft, it will be no big deal to cut him.
Being a 26-year-old back coming off a career year sure doesn't buy you much job security anymore. Moreno has to be motivated to prove this contract is a joke for someone of his ilk.
LB Brandon Spikes, Buffalo Bills
Linebacker Brandon Spikes was ostracized down the stretch last season by Bill Belichick, but he is welcomed with open arms in Buffalo. Belichick might know a lot about football—no argument here—but he is arrogant to cast off talents like Wes Welker and Spikes.
The steal with Spikes is a relative robbing from the rich and giving to the poor in the AFC East, even if Belichick turned his pockets inside out to be picked by a division rival.
Spikes suffered through an injury-plagued year, which is part of what turned Belichick off, and the linebacker mustered a mere one-year, $3 million deal, of which only $900,000 is guaranteed, according to OverTheCap.com.
A healthy Spikes can man the middle on the run downs for the Buffalo Bills and allow Pro Football Writers Association 2013 defensive rookie of the year Kiko Alonso to move to the outside. This move strengthens the Bills at an under-market cost and weakens the Patriots, no matter your position on Belichick vs. Spikes.
SS T.J. Ward, Denver Broncos
The Cleveland Browns were among the teams with the most salary-cap dollars to spend. The Denver Broncos were a bit more strapped coming into the offseason.
Somehow the AFC champion Broncos still stole arguably the best run-stuffing safety in football. Consider this to be an "it's good to be the king" perk of this NFL salary-cap era. The rich get richer, and the others are left to deal with scraps.
Pro Football Focus rated T.J. Ward's 2013 play third-best among all safeties in the NFL. He was also No. 1 against the run with an 8.1 grade, making him arguably the best strong safety in football at the ripe age of 27.
The Broncos gave him an under-market deal at four years and $22.5 million with just $7 million guaranteed, according to OverTheCap.com, because they offered a place he can go to potentially win a Super Bowl. Cleveland has the money and cap space to give more, but it couldn't promise the latter.
Instead, the Browns had to give the older Donte Whitner more money despite being a lesser strong safety in PFF's ratings system and turning 29 in July. He is from the state of Ohio and played college ball at The Ohio State University. Still, at four years, $28 million with $11 million guaranteed, per OverTheCap.com, Whitner didn't sign for any hometown discount.
Score another steal for the reigning kings of the AFC—and kick the Browns while they're down one more time.
WR DeSean Jackson, Washington Redskins
He is a steal because of his perfect fit with the Washington Redskins and because his departure weakens the defending NFC East champions. That is killing two birds with one salvo (at least one bird in the Philadelphia Eagles).
On Wednesday, I wrote extensively on what his addition means to the Redskins. But you don't need to be an NFL guru to see how great it is to take 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns from your chief division competition and add it to your own receiving corps.
You can make a case that Jackson is the biggest game-changer to switch teams this winter, and he did it in his own division with the Redskins only having to assume some financial risk. Blame it on Jackson's alleged baggage.
Sometimes those things can be opportunities and blessings in disguise for teams looking to score offseason steals.
Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, was the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report this past season. He is now an NFL featured writer here. Follow him on Twitter, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game.