With an uncapped year resulting in over 200 restricted free agents, most of whom would be unrestricted and testing open waters any other year, the few prize names available are being snatched up quickly.
Several of the most notable names have already been claimed. Antrel Rolle signed with the New York Giants for five years and $37 million. Karlos Dansby and the Miami Dolphins came to a five-year, $43 million accord. Dunta Robinson landed a six-year, $57 million contract.
Julius Peppers, the purported gem of this year’s free agent class, eclipsed them all by far, however.
Desperate for both a pass rush and some reason for hope, the Chicago Bears inked Peppers to a mammoth six-year, $84 million deal (with another $7.5 million in incentives). More impressive is that half of the deal is in guaranteed money.
With almost one quarter of a billion dollars wrapped up in just four free agents the question then has to come—who overpaid and who netted a great value?
At 7-9 and lacking any first or second round choices, the Chicago Bears were desperate to make a splash in free agency. They did so not only with Peppers, but also with running back Chester Taylor and a third-offensive tackle of a tight end in Brandon Manumaleuna.
The two minor deals are both tremendous boons to the Chicago Bears and should help improve a tepid running attack and give beleaguered quarterback Jay Cutler a nice outlet back.
The centerpiece deal, however, is much more questionable. Peppers is no doubt a great talent, capable of putting up sack totals in the teens. He is also a streaky player fully capable of turning it on or off depending on when the mood strikes him.
In the last nine games of 2009, he only managed 3.5 sacks despite the team showing itself showing market improvement in the second half. He finished the year tenth in the league with 10.5 sacks (with another four players just half a sack behind him).
Chicago also has to be concerned with age. When his contract ends, Peppers will be 36 years old, with enough guaranteed money to make cutting him after three or four years a very difficult proposition.
Given the quality player that Peppers is, weighed against the risk factors, the Chicago Bears could grow to regret the move unless he can consistently deliver 12+ sacks a year over the bulk of his contract. Already 11th in the league in sacks last year, working the numbers to land a target for Jay Cutler (Anquan Boldin anyone?) might have been a better priority for the team.
Ultimately, it was a great pickup at a bad price. Because that kind of money can greatly impact the team’s ability to sign other players in the coming years, anything short of elite will make this move seem like a bust.
What makes the move more appealing than the Peppers deal, however, is that Atlanta is close to where they want to be. They finished 9-7 last year despite injuries to both Michael Turner and Matt Ryan. The offense is already in place with a host of weapons.
On defense they sorely needed a No. 1 corner and likely found it in Robinson. If they can land a solid front seven guy in the first round, then Atlanta should be in a great position to not only make the playoffs, but possibly do something once they get there.
Ultimately, the deal goes down as a great benefit for Atlanta not because Robinson is necessarily a $57 million player, but because the Falcons were a couple defensive players (and some health in the backfield) away from really looking like a threat.
When you are that close, it's better to swing for the seats then sit on the fence. Atlanta did that and came away in great shape for 2010.
Coming in third in the price list is Karlos Dansby. He is an interesting addition as a 3-4 middle linebacker because the position is not known for massive contracts. With this contract the team is hoping his experience can blend with the team’s youth in the secondary to improve the 18th and 24th ranked rush and pass defenses, respectively.
With the nose tackle position a big question mark in 2010, it could be invaluable to have a pro-bowl caliber player lining up behind the nose. He also gives the team a veteran presence in the front seven to replace departing dissident Joey Porter.
The move may signal a shift in thinking around the AFC East, giving respect to the fact that the road out of the division may just lead through New York and not New England in 2010.
The $47 million price tag is a lot for a 3-4 middle linebacker, but Miami feels that another year of development for Chad Henne and the corners as well as a healthy Ronnie Brown puts the team in a great position to return to 2008 form.
Netting a top run-stuffer is also of increased importance to a team that plays the ground-pounding New York Jets twice a year. It may not be the “put them over the top” move that Dunta Robinson to Atlanta could be, but has a much safer risk-reward value than Peppers to Chicago.
Even though he was the least expensive of the four players, safety Antrel Rolle’s $37 million contract still represents the largest contract for a safety in the NFL. That may just make fans of Pittsburgh and Baltimore cringe.
The Giants were hamstrung by poor safety play in 2009, and should see a great improvement as strong safety Kenny Phillips returns from injury to pair with Rolle. Unfortunately, the team still has several other holes that will make it difficult to escape third in the division.
The supposed strength of the team, a fearsome front seven, now becomes a big worry for 2010. If they can get two of their three supposed elite defensive ends to play to 2007 form and land a starting weakside linebacker or defensive tackle via the draft they should be dominant again.
Ultimately they overpaid some given that Rolle is more of a good than great safety, but did fill a glaring need.
So what is the final verdict?
For the time being I would rank Atlanta as the winner in the first weekend of free agency with Miami coming in second, Atlanta in third, and Chicago in fourth because of the knee-jerk-sized contract, not because of the player they gave it to. If factoring in signees beyond the big-ticket names, then Chicago leapfrogs New York while running neck and neck with Miami.