Winners and Losers of the Early NFL Free-Agency Signing Period

Ryan Alfieri@Ryan_AlfieriCorrespondent IIIMarch 19, 2013

Winners and Losers of the Early NFL Free-Agency Signing Period

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    Now a full week into the 2013 league year, we have seen a ton of player movement in the NFL that's going to change the league landscape for next season. 

    As usual, there were a few big contracts doled out to the top free agents, but teams were a bit more responsible with their money this time around. Decorated players like Wes Welker were victims of a crowded market and a flat-out salary cap. 

    Of course, winning free agency rarely translates into Super Bowl wins. The best buys are usually done later in the process when the dollar amount and risk associated with each deal is much lower. 

    Here are the biggest winners and losers from the 2013 free-agency period. 

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Winner: Miami Dolphins

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    Did they overspend? Perhaps, but there is no getting around the fact that the Dolphins are a lot better than they were a week ago. 

    They nabbed arguably the best player in the free-agent class in Mike Wallace. Despite coming off a somewhat disappointing 2012 season, he is still an elite talent who will give them a much-needed vertical threat for Ryan Tannehill. They were able to extend Brian Hartline and replace Anthony Fasano with Dustin Keller at tight end.

    Defensively, they made an upgrade at linebacker with the additions of Dannell Ellerbe (replacing Karlos Dansby) and Philip Wheeler.

    They did lose their top cornerback from last season (Sean Smith) and former starting running back and team leader (Reggie Bush), but their additions far outweigh their losses. 

    Still, this is an all-in move by general manager Jeff Ireland, especially when you consider the way Mike Wallace's contract is structured. If these signings work out, he has built a championship-caliber team that should compete in the long term.

    Otherwise, the Dolphins may be in the market for a new general manager next winter. 

Loser: Baltimore Ravens

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    It is a virtual certainty that other teams are going to pick apart championship rosters, but the Ravens have been gutted to the point where they are almost in rebuilding mode just a month removed from hoisting a Super Bowl trophy. 

    While trading Anquan Boldin to the 49ers grabbed most of the headlines, most of the biggest losses were on the defensive side. The defense will now be without Dannell Ellerbe, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed (likely), Paul Kruger and Cary Williams—five defensive starters. 

    The good news is that they were at least able to get Joe Flacco's contract out of the way before it became a distraction. 

    The Ravens may not be as talented as they were last year, but there were simply not many options for Ozzie Newsome to prevent his roster from being depleted.

Winner: Cleveland Browns

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    Cleveland has generally been patient in rebuilding its team, but a new regime was ready to make dramatic improvements to its roster to get the Browns back into contention sooner than later. 

    As they make a transition to a 3-4 defense, they added the top free-agent outside linebacker in Paul Kruger. They also added Quentin Groves and Desmond Bryant, the latter being well-known throughout the Internet for his hilarious mug shot.

    With Phil Taylor moving to the nose tackle position, the Browns suddenly have the makings of a top defense that should be the best in the division with Ray Horton calling the plays. 

    While their quarterback situation is still in flux, the Browns can go into the draft with no glaring needs. That could allow them to take a swing on an early-round quarterback if they want. 

Loser: Wes Welker

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    Arguably the best slot receiver in NFL history, Wes Welker signed a contract worth $12 million over two years. That's chump change for a player as decorated as Welker. 

    What gives?

    Welker was the victim of a crowded free-agent market and flat salary cap that limited teams' abilities to engage in a bidding war for players. The fact that he is almost 32 and plays one of the most physically demanding positions in the NFL only hurt his value. 

    In true Bill Belichick fashion, Welker was low-balled by the Patriots, creating an element of tension and anger that neither side was able to overcome. 

    Still, Welker was willing to give the Patriots a chance to match the Broncos' offer. Not only was Welker denied, but Belichick added salt to the wound by giving Welker's replacement, Danny Amendola, a measly $100,000 (per season) more than Welker. 

    Coincidence? Of course not. 

Winner: Seattle Seahawks

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    In what is shaping up to be the biggest arms race since the Cold War, the Seahawks are stockpiling up weapons to put them over the top and get themselves in the Super Bowl. 

    They fixed their pass-rush issues with two of the top defensive ends in this class, Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. They traded for one of the most explosive offensive weapons in the league in Percy Harvin.

    Keep in mind, these are all additions to the same team that was less than a minute away from going to the NFC championship game. 

    With Russell Wilson playing on such a cheap contract relative to his production as a former third-round pick, the Seahawks have a short window to overspend on free agents before they have to extend Wilson—and they are capitalizing. 

    John Schneider has put the finishing touches on a team he has built from the ground up. It's now on the coaches and players to get it done and bring Seattle a championship. 

Loser: Marty Magid and the Future of Fax Machines in American Commerce

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    All three parties, Elvis Dumervil, Marty Magid and the Broncos, likely had a part in the disastrous handling of Dumervil's new contract. Dumervil and his agent took too long to make a decision, and the Broncos and Magid were not able to work presciently enough to submit the paperwork in time, leading to Dumervil's release. 

    Magid has been fired by Dumervil and now carries a reputation as "that guy who could not get a fax machine to work and cost his client a chance to return to his preferred team." In fact, Dumervil was forced to run around Miami to find a fax machine that would work.

    Broncos fans sent him hundreds of angry emails, as his technical blunder will likely cost the Broncos one of their most important defenders.

    Still, Magid may not be out of the water just yet. There is talk around the league that Dumervil may have a case to sure Magid:

    Yup. And yup. RT @jasoncoleyahoo Plenty of people in the agent world encouraging Dumervil to sue his agent. It's ugly out there.

    — Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) March 16, 2013

    In fairness, Magid was not blessed with an abundance of time. He claims to have had 23 minutes to get the job done.

    No matter how Magid tries to spin this bizarre situation, he will carry this reputation for the rest of his career as an agent. It is sure to impact his ability to sign future players. 

    The only remaining question is just how reliant the NFL will continue to be on fax machines after this million-dollar debacle. 

Winner: New England Patriots

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    Patriots fans will have heavy hearts after losing Wes Welker to Peyton Manning's Broncos, but they can take solace in the fact that their team is better in just about every aspect after a slew of smart free-agent signings. 

    While he is not as decorated as Welker, Danny Amendola is more than four years younger than Welker and will be the better option over the long term, provided he can stay healthy.

    In addition to retaining Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington, the addition of Adrian Wilson will be a huge upgrade over Steve Gregory at strong safety, solidifying their secondary. 

    The Patriots are still interested in Elvis Dumervil and Emmanuel Sanders, which will make the Patriots virtually hole-free as they head into the draft. It will allow them to take the best player available without reaching for that final piece of the puzzle.  

Loser: Dustin Keller

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    For a player who has been one of the most productive receiving tight ends in the NFL over the last four seasons, including leading the Jets in receptions in 2011, you would think Dustin Keller was going to get a bit more bites in free agency. 

    The Jets showed little interest in extending him after the season. He would eventually land with the Miami Dolphins, settling for a one-year, $4.25 million deal. Keller actually walked away from the Dolphins' initial offer, but after seeing just how little interest he was garnishing from the open market, he was forced to take whatever Miami was offering. 

    Keller was obviously expecting a long-term deal, as he previously expressed his distaste for the franchise tag. Ironically, getting tagged would have netted him about a million bucks more this season. 

    Keller's value is so low in the open market for three reasons: For one, he missed half of the 2012 season with nagging hamstring and ankle injuries. Plus, at the age of 28, he is not going to get much better in the area of his game most lacking, blocking. 

    Throw in the fact that this draft is littered with solid options for receiving tight ends in the mold of Keller, and the benefit of giving Keller a big-time contract simply is not there. 

Winner: Minnesota Vikings

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    For a while, things were looking pretty sour with some of the head-scratching decisions from general manager Rick Spielman. 

    He traded one of the most explosive players in the league in Percy Harvin, released Antoine Winfield and added Matt Cassel to his roster. You don't have to be a well-versed expert in team construction to see the negatives in that exchange. 

    However, the Vikings' offseason made a 180-degree turn when they were able to land Greg Jennings, stealing a weapon away from a division rival in the process. 

    Now, the Vikings have replaced Harvin with Jennings and netted a slew of draft picks in the process (including a first-rounder). 

    Receiver is still one of the biggest needs on this Vikings team, but at least the cupboard is not completely bare. Christian Ponder still has some weapons to work with. 

Loser: Cornerbacks

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    Despite being considered a "premier" position in the NFL, a flooded market of defensive backs has led to a very soft market for corners looking to land a long-term extension.

    Aqib Talib was only able to get a modest one-year deal. Sean Smith was only able to fetch $7.45 million in guarantees from the Chiefs. His average salary of $5.5 million is among the highest of all corners this year. 

    Meanwhile, Brent Grimes, who is recovering from an Achilles injury, is still looking for work. The fact that a star cornerback like Grimes cannot land a big contract with his injury stats in turn hurts Darrelle Revis' value, who is recovering from an ACL injury.

    Just as we saw with Wes Welker, teams are simply no longer willing to dole out huge contracts in a flat-cap era that will handicap their team for several years. 

Winner: Detroit Lions

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    Despite their rather tight cap situation, the Lions have made a handful of additions that attack the biggest weakness on the 2012 roster that led to a 4-12 season. 

    The addition of Glover Quin in the secondary gives them immense versatility with their safeties, which is something they have lacked for quite a while. A former cornerback, Quin excels in man coverage, while being able to play in the deep zone. In today's age of no-huddle spread offenses, having versatile personnel on the back end is more valuable than ever. 

    Adding Reggie Bush gives them a veteran presence at the running back position who leads by example as a former member of the Dolphins' "leadership council." For a team that had issues with DUIs, adding leaders like Bush will go a long way in developing the young players on their roster. 

    Bush cannot hold up as a workhorse back, but in a rotational role, he is very difficult to account for as both a runner and a receiver. He will give the Lions an extra element on their offense that will open things up for players like Calvin Johnson. 

    Jim Schwartz is in a desperate position after such a disappointing 2012 season, but his team has made enough upgrades at positions of need to set him up for success. 

Loser: Indianapolis Colts

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    As the 2012 Executive of the Year, Ryan Grigson appears to be a rising young star in the realm of NFL decision-makers. But it is hard to defend some of the moves he has made over the past week. 

    Signing players like Erik Walden, Gosder Cherilus, Greg Toler, Donald Thomas and LaRon Landry all make sense. 

    Paying what are mostly low-end starters and role players starter money does not. 

    Erik Walden was somehow able to nab $16 million over four years. Gosder Cherilus got $10 million in guaranteed dollars. Greg Toler nabbed $15 million over three seasons. LaRon Landry carried a hefty price tag of $24 million over four years. 

    Of that group, only Landry has made a Pro Bowl, but he carries a lot of injury risk. 

    All of these players could turn out to be quality role players for the Colts next season, but Grigson clearly lost a lot of battles at the negotiating table. 

Winner: Kansas City Chiefs

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    Despite coming off a 2-14 season and holding the top pick in the draft, the Chiefs have managed to put themselves in a position to win now. 

    They were able to get their quarterback in a trade for Alex Smith and extend Dwayne Bowe. They added additional depth at receiver and tight end with additions of Donnie Avery and Anthony Fasano, respectively. 

    With the additions of Sean Smith, Mike DeVito and Dunta Robinson, the Chiefs defense is deeper and loaded with personnel that suits their 3-4 scheme well. 

    What was always perplexing about the Chiefs last year is that their roster was rather strong for a two-win team. However, the team lacked depth, and many of their top players underperformed. The team was never able to overcome terrible quarterback play by Matt Cassel.

    Adding a slew of high-character veteran players will help get the Chiefs back on track quickly.

Loser: Arizona Cardinals

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    The Cardinals were due for a lot of changes after their dismal 2012 season, but they are making changes to the few aspects of the team that should have been left alone. 

    Their terrific safety tandem is now gone after they released Kerry Rhodes (the fourth-ranked safety, according to PFF) and Adrian Wilson. They also lost corner William Gay. They turned around and used that money to sign Matt Shaughnessy, adding depth to an already-stacked defensive line. 

    Meanwhile, the quarterback situation remains messy at best, and they did not do anything to upgrade the biggest weakness on the interior of the offensive line. 

    They did add Antonie Cason and Rashard Mendenhall, but they are more or less treading water at two positions where they did not have a need.

    Simply put, the Cardinals wasted their time tinkering with the strength of their team while ignoring some of their biggest weaknesses on offense. 

Winner: David Garrard

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    It is not often that a player who has not started an NFL game in two years gets a chance at a starting gig, but David Garrard just landed that opportunity after signing with the Jets. 

    Garrard will have a chance to compete with the struggling Mark Sanchez. It's not a Steve Young vs. Joe Montana battle, but Garrard is an experienced veteran with a strong arm who will command respect from his teammates. That is something Sanchez has not been able to do. 

    Meanwhile, Rex Ryan is in a win-or-out season in the last year of his contract and will want to start whoever is going to give him the best chance to win. The new general manager, John Idzik, has no ties to Sanchez.

    The quarterback battle will be close, but the Jets will not give Sanchez any kind of advantage simply because he has been the starter for the last four years. 

    May the best man win. 

Loser: Houston Texans

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    Between Connor Barwin, Glover Quin, Alan Ball and James Casey, the Texans were not going to be able to retain all of their free agents. But you expected them to at least try to retain one or two of them. 

    Rather than try to extend the younger Quin, the Texans have spent all of their energy trying to lure the aging Ed Reed over to take his place, and they have nothing to show for their efforts:

    Our folks at @nflnetwork tell us Ed Reed left the building in Houston w/o a deal. Nothing expected today.

    — NFL: AroundTheLeague (@NFL_ATL) March 15, 2013

    With Barwin signing with the Eagles, the Texans will need last year's first-round pick Whitney Mercilus to develop quickly. Their release of Kevin Walter exacerbates the need at wide receiver in addition to their new hole at safety. 

    The good news is that this upcoming draft is loaded with receivers, safeties and potential linebackers. But this team is built to win now, and waiting on rookies to develop is only going to put the brakes on the Texans' hopes of a championship run. 

Winner: New York Giants

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    They did (or eventually will) lose longtime starters in Osi Umenyiora and Ahmad Bradshaw, but they countered their losses with the additions of Cullen Jenkins and Brandon Myers. 

    Jenkins has the ability to play as well as any penetrating defensive tackle in the league, and he's a leftover from the Eagles' failed "dream team" experiment. 

    Meanwhile, Myers is an up-and-coming tight end who could be a long-term upgrade over Martellus Bennett. Best of all, his four-year contract is very cap-friendly, as the final three seasons are all voidable. Not only does this protect the team if Myers underperforms, but it keeps Myers motivated as if he was on a contract year each year. 

    Throw in the fact that Victor Cruz has been virtually locked up for one more year with a first-round tender, and the Giants have a younger, more explosive roster than a year ago. 

Loser: Pittsburgh Steelers

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    The Steelers, rather quietly, had one of the worst cap situations in the league entering the new league year. It handcuffed their ability to add young talent to replace their aging roster. 

    They were forced to release former Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison, and Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall won't be back either. Their aging secondary took another hit with the losses of Ryan Mundy and Keenan Lewis. 

    Don't worry, they were able to counter their losses by bringing back cornerback William Gay, and they signed Bruce Gradkowski to back up Ben Roethlisberger

    The Steelers have been able to contend every year because of terrific roster management by Kevin Colbert, but their age and a handful of hefty contracts could lead to another down year for Steelers fans. 

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