Looking Back at the 10 Biggest Steals of the 2014 Offseason

Nick Kostos@@thekostosContributor IJune 26, 2014

Looking Back at the 10 Biggest Steals of the 2014 Offseason

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    With OTAs in the rearview mirror and training camps set to open in about a month, the NFL's business season has just about drawn to a close, meaning that we can now evaluate which moves rank among the biggest steals of the offseason.

    First, let's define what a steal is. The Houston Texans didn't get a steal when they drafted defensive end Jadeveon Clowney with the No. 1 overall pick; the selection was a no-brainer and offered appropriate value. In order for a move to rank as a steal, a team had to receive bang for its buck, either in the form of an underrated coaching hire, a free-agent signing or draft selection.

    Two coaches made this list, and both were fantastic hires. Next offseason, there's a strong chance we'll look back on both of them as major steals.

    This list also features three draft selections that were severely undervalued and went later than they should have, much to the pleasure of the teams that selected them.

    Four free-agent signings qualified as well, and because of the quality those players bring to the field and the money they received, they represent steals.

    And one team got an absolute steal by extending a key player, even though most (incorrectly) assume the player in question received too much money.

    Here are the 10 biggest steals of the 2014 offseason.

San Francisco 49ers Extend Contract of QB Colin Kaepernick

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    If you think the San Francisco 49ers overpaid quarterback Colin Kaepernick when they signed him to a six-year, $126 million extension (with $61 million in potential guarantees), you aren't paying attention.

    When you take a closer look at the deal, it represents a major win for both team and player.

    Kaepernick received only $13 million in guaranteed money up front, and his salaries from 2015-2017 are only fully guaranteed in the event of injury. That is a major boon for the team.

    But Kaepernick has bet on himself in a major way, and if he continues his ascent into the rarefied air occupied by quarterbacking royalty like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, he'll be in great shape to earn every cent of that $61 million.

    In the NFL, this is the price of doing business. Teams pay their franchise quarterbacks. It is what it is. And Kaepernick is most certainly a franchise quarterback.

    Lest we forget: Kaepernick is entering only his second full season as the starter in San Francisco, and he possesses a regular season record of 17-6. He's thrown 31 touchdown passes against only 11 interceptions and is an electrifying option in the run game, gliding past opposing defenders with the grace of a gazelle.

    Plus, he has proved to be a money player in the postseason, as an argument can easily be constructed that the 49ers could (and should) have won each of the last two Super Bowls. We're talking about a signal-caller who almost led his team to a Super Bowl championship in each of his first two seasons as the starter. That cannot be discounted.

    Don't let the amount of guaranteed money fool you. Don't get sucked into the train of thought that Kaepernick isn't worth it.

    The 49ers knocked this one out of the park. As long as Kaepernick is their quarterback, they will contend for Lombardi Trophies each and every season.

    And it looks like Kaepernick will be under center in San Francisco for a long time.

Cleveland Browns Hire Mike Pettine as Head Coach

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Fact: After firing Rob Chudzinski, the Cleveland Browns underwent a long, drawn-out and embarrassing search for their next head coach.

    Fact: As part of the aforementioned long, drawn-out and embarrassing search, the Browns interviewed everyone under the sun except for you and me.

    Fact: Former Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine wasn't the team's first, second, third or 58th choice to be head coach. Okay, maybe the last part was a little exaggerated, but you get my drift.

    But the most important fact? The Browns made a fantastic hire when they named Pettine as their new head coach.

    Don't listen to the critics, who will point to Pettine's lack of experience as a head coach at any level except high school. The man knows how to get the most out of his players and has been a terrific defensive coordinator for a number of seasons.

    As a defensive coordinator, Pettine never had one of his defenses finish outside the top 10, and that includes last season in Buffalo, where he breathed life into a moribund unit and coaxed 57 sacks out of it.

    The Browns have a very talented defense that includes the likes of pass-rushers Jabaal Sheard, Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo, linebacker Karlos Dansby, cornerbacks Joe Haden and rookie Justin Gilbert and safety Donte Whitner. Pettine will have a lot of talent at his disposal.

    Plus, Pettine seems to be the right man to handle the Johnny Manziel hoopla, after the team selected the quarterback known as "Johnny Football" in last month's draft.

    Pettine might not have been the team's top candidate, but he will prove to be the best man for the job.

    And that's a fact.

Buffalo Bills Hire Jim Schwartz as Defensive Coordinator

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    Bill Wippert/Associated Press

    As stated in the last slide, the Buffalo Bills finished second in the NFL with 57 sacks last season. With continued defensive continuity and improvement from quarterback EJ Manuel, it would have been easy to project the Bills as a playoff contender in 2014.

    But the team suffered a major blow when former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was hired as the head coach in Cleveland. Pettine worked miracles last season in Western New York, and the onus was squarely on coach Doug Marrone to make a similarly inspired hire for this season and beyond.

    Marrone did just that by bringing former Lions coach Jim Schwartz in to run the defense.

    While Schwartz was a failure as the head coach in Detroit, he was a terrific defensive coordinator in Tennessee before moving to Motown. He preaches an attacking scheme and getting after the opposing quarterback, and he has a host of talent to work with on the Bills defense, including three players who finished with double-digit sacks in 2013 (defensive end Mario Williams with 13, defensive tackle Kyle Williams with 10.5 and linebacker Jerry Hughes with 10).

    With Schwartz's foibles in Detroit being well-documented, he would have been easy to overlook, so credit the Bills for bringing him into the fold.

    Schwartz was as good a bet as any to further the defensive renaissance experienced last season in Buffalo. If he can work similar magic to Pettine and the offense takes a step forward, the Bills could find themselves in the playoff hunt as the calendar turns to December.

Minnesota Vikings Draft QB Teddy Bridgewater with No. 32 Overall Pick

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Last season, the Minnesota Vikings trotted out the three-headed quarterback monster of Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel and Josh Freeman. It was enough to make women and children run and scream in terror.

    In a related story, the Vikings finished 5-10-1 and in last place in the NFC North, and coach Leslie Frazier was relieved of his duties.

    There was little doubt that the Vikings, with a new head coach (Mike Zimmer) and offensive coordinator (Norv Turner), would seek to add a young signal-caller early in the draft. There was no way the team could allow Ponder to fumble or throw away another opportunity, and if Cassel is the long-term answer, I'd love to know the question.

    Enter former Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, whom the team traded back into the first round to acquire with the 32nd and final selection on Day 1 of last month's draft.

    While an atrocious pro day workout nearly knocked Bridgewater out of the first round, it's important to remember just how fabulous he was on the collegiate level. Bridgewater was the top-rated quarterback in the draft by Bleacher Report's Matt Miller and was the No. 1 overall player on Miller's big board.

    And the early returns on him have been encouraging, with teammates and coaches alike impressed by the greenhorn's work ethic and play.

    It should surprise no one if Bridgewater is the Week 1 starter for the Vikings and he plays well as a neophyte. If and when that happens, the team's decision to trade back into the first round for him will look even more prescient. 

New York Giants Sign Guard Geoff Schwartz

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    Last season, the New York Giants offense was downright abysmal, and the primary reason for that was the dreadful play of the offensive line. The unit couldn't protect quarterback Eli Manning or open up enough holes in the run game, and as a result, Big Blue finished ranked 29th overall in total offense. The Giants missed the postseason with a 7-9 record.

    Giants general manager Jerry Reese needed to amplify the pass protection at the onset of the new league year, and he did just that with the signing of former Kansas City Chiefs guard Geoff Schwartz (to a four-year, $16.8 million contract), who was the finest interior lineman on the market.

    Schwartz was superb last season in Kansas City, ranking as the eighth-best guard in football by Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and he will help solidify both the running game and the passing attack in Gotham.

    While the Giants have added other players along the offensive line (center Weston Richburg in the second round of last month's draft included) since March, the 27-year-old Schwartz is undoubtedly the crown jewel of the proceedings, and the fact that he came at such a bargain makes him one of the biggest steals of the offseason.

    When the Giants offense takes a, well, giant step forward in 2014, look no further than the contributions of Schwartz as a key reason why.

Houston Texans Draft DT Louis Nix

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    By all accounts, the Houston Texans had an outstanding 2014 draft. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (first round), guard Xavier Su'a-Filo (second round) and quarterback Tom Savage (fourth round) were all fantastic selections.

    But the pick that represented the most value was former Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix in the third round (83rd overall).

    Nix was ranked 47th overall on the big board of Bleacher Report's Matt Miller, and he was even projected by one expert, Rotoworld's Evan Silva, to go as high as 11th overall to the Tennessee Titans. It was a major surprise that he lasted as long as he did, and the Houston Texans were smart to gobble him up.

    While Nix missed time in OTAs with a knee injury, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel told Deepi Sidhu of HoustonTexans.com that he expects Nix's skills will "bode well for him" at the nose position.

    Nix is a run-stuffer and will have the opportunity to shine on a Texans defensive line that also includes star J.J. Watt and Clowney, and he'll surely use the surprise of being selected 83rd overall as motivation to succeed. He projects as a potential monster at the nose tackle position in Crennel's defense.

Arizona Cardinals Sign LT Jared Veldheer

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Within the first few hours of the new league year on March 11, three left tackles were signed to big-money contracts: Eugene Monroe (Baltimore Ravens), Branden Albert (Miami Dolphins) and Jared Veldheer (Arizona Cardinals).

    There's no question the Cardinals came out of the signing smelling like roses. Their pact with Veldheer (five years, $35 million) made sense on a number of different levels.

    First, the 27-year-old Veldheer is an ascending player with 48 career starts in four seasons. While a triceps tear limited him to only five starts last season, he started a full 16 games in 2012 and finished that season ranked as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) 12th-best tackle.

    Second, the Cardinals acquired Veldheer for less money than the Ravens gave Monroe and the Dolphins doled out to Albert, and Veldheer is a comparable talent to both men.

    Finally, the Cardinals have had issues with pass protection for years, specifically at left tackle, which has recently served as a turnstile to the quarterback. Veldheer will immediately step in and help keep signal-caller Carson Palmer upright, which is a big deal in the rough-and-tumble NFC West.

    When you examine the overall value of this deal, there's no question that the Cardinals made out the best of the three teams that inked left tackles to long-term deals on Day 1 of free agency.

Jacksonville Jaguars Draft LB Telvin Smith in Fifth Round

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    It's rare for a fifth-round selection to move the meter and excite a fanbase, but that's exactly what happened when the Jacksonville Jaguars selected former Florida State linebacker Telvin Smith with the 144th pick of last month's draft.

    Smith possesses electrifying speed and projects as the starter at weak-side linebacker in coach Gus Bradley's defense. While he still needs to put on weight (he's 6'3", 218), he's already received rave reviews for his work at OTAs.

    Speaking to Hayes Carlyon of the Florida Times-Union, Bradley gushed over Smith:

    He’s got a strong personality and a very vibrant personality. You saw more of that today. He felt more confident, and that’s part of the reason we drafted him, that spirit. His speed [stands out]. With Telvin, he moves really well in space. He picks things up. He’s just got to put some weight on.

    Working in an NFL weight room will surely improve Smith's physique and allow him to add muscle. Once that happens, look out. Smith could end up being the biggest steal of the entire draft.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sign CB Alterraun Verner

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a new head coach in Lovie Smith and a new general manager in Jason Licht, and the two undertook a massive roster overhaul at the start of the new league year.

    Perhaps their most stunning move was to release All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, who later signed with the New England Patriots (more on that later). But Smith and Licht rebounded in a major way by inking former Tennessee Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner to a four-year, $26.5 million deal with $14 million guaranteed.

    Compared to other contracts doled out to cornerbacks in free agency, Verner came at a very reasonable price. The 25-year old finished 2013 as Pro Football Focus' 12th-ranked cornerback.

    Verner projects as an excellent fit in Smith's Tampa 2 defense and has excellent ball skills (he intercepted five passes last season in Tennessee).

    While Revis is the better player, the fact that the Buccaneers got Verner at that price makes him one of the offseason's biggest steals.

New England Patriots Sign CB Darrelle Revis

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    There's a chance that you're looking at the above picture and wondering how the hell the New England Patriots signing cornerback Darrelle Revis to a one-year, $12 million contract counts as one of the 10 biggest offseason steals.

    You might think that $12 million was a steep price for the Patriots to pay for a soon-to-be 29-year-old cornerback. But consider these facts: The Indianapolis Colts signed cornerback Vontae Davis to a four-year, $39 million contract with $20 million guaranteed. The Denver Broncos signed cornerback Aqib Talib to a six-year, $57 million contract with at least $11.5 million guaranteed. The Packers signed cornerback Sam Shields to a four-year, $39 million deal with $12.5 million guaranteed.

    Is there any question that Revis is markedly better than Davis, Talib and Shields? 

    No. No, there isn't.

    And if you think the Patriots didn't hit a home run with this signing, you're wrong.

    The fact that the Patriots got Revis for less guaranteed money than Davis and Shields and about the same guaranteed greenbacks as Talib is startling, especially when you consider that Revis is still the best cornerback in the NFL. He finished 2013 ranked as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) top corner.

    Imagine how superb Revis will be in coach Bill Belichick's defense, and then remember all the moves the Broncos, New England's biggest obstacle to the Super Bowl, made to improve their team. Revis represents a worthy gamble by Belichick to remain on the same level as the Broncos in the AFC arms race.

    No matter how you slice it, the bottom line is this: The signing of Revis was a masterstroke and represents one of the best moves of the entire offseason.