The 10 Smartest Contracts of 2013 NFL Free Agency

Nick Kostora@@nickkostoraContributor IIIMarch 20, 2013

The 10 Smartest Contracts of 2013 NFL Free Agency

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    Every move in free agency has an impact, but only a select few can be classified as the smartest of the entire 2013 offseason.

    While it is often the biggest names on the open market that generate buzz, the lesser-known players can ink the most savvy deals. Cost-effectiveness, length and guaranteed money can all play a role in determining the best signings.

    Who saw Wes Welker switching allegiances from the New England Patriots to the Denver Broncos? How about the Atlanta Falcons finding a way to keep Tony Gonzalez out of retirement?

    These were just a few of the smartest moves in free agency so far. Let's examine the top 10.

10. New England Patriots: Aqib Talib

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    Contract: One year, $5 million

    The New England Patriots had one glaring weakness last season, and that was in the secondary. The team allowed 271 passing yards per game, ranking 29th in the league. 

    While Talib was a member of that secondary for some of the season, he is undoubtedly part of the solution and not the problem. New England could not afford to lose one of the lone bright spots in its defensive backfield. Talib has had issues in the past, but that's what makes this deal all the more appealing.

    The Patriots get one of the best cornerbacks on the open market at a discount price, and we'll see if he stays out of trouble for an entire season. If Talib plays at a high level and doesn't cause any problems, a bigger, longer contract is undoubtedly in store for him in the future.

9. New York Giants: Cullen Jenkins

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    Contract: Three years, $8 million ($3 million guaranteed)

    Cullen Jenkins is not one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL, but he is most certainly serviceable. Jenkins can fit in nicely into a 4-3 defense and will always be in position to make plays.

    With Chris Canty moving to the Baltimore Ravens, the addition of Jenkins is crucial to the Giants sporting a decent defensive front in 2013. His price tag is extremely low, and New York is taking on almost no risk by signing him.

    Jenkins is definitely best remembered for his most productive years with the Green Bay Packers, but still had reasonable success with an underperforming Philadelphia Eagles team over the last two seasons. Jenkins had 9.5 sacks with Philadelphia and 38.5 for his career.

    Whether Jenkins will be an improvement over Canty remains to be seen, but something needed to be done, as the Giants allowed 129 rushing yards per game last season.

8. New York Jets: Antwan Barnes

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    Contract: Three years, $4 million

    The New York Jets showed last season that they desperately needed a pass rush. The team rarely generated pressure and had only 30 sacks all year.

    Cutting Calvin Pace only made this need even greater, but the Jets had to find a cap-friendly solution to their troubles.

    Enter Antwan Barnes. At 28 years old, Barnes is still in the prime years of his football life and is an intriguing addition.

    He spent most of last year injured, but had 11 sacks in 2011 and can be a tremendous pass-rusher if he is healthy. Yes, that is a big "if," but this contract is cheap enough that there is virtually no risk.

    Barnes fills a gaping hole at a discounted price. He probably won't be an every-down kind of guy, but he will have an important role.

7. Miami Dolphins: Dustin Keller

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    Contract: One year, $4.25 million

    Dustin Keller is a skilled tight end that has been shrouded behind the terrible play of quarterback Mark Sanchez. Now he is out from behind that invisible wall and can flourish in Miami.

    Keller was the safest tight end option on the market, ahead of Fred Davis and Jared Cook, which makes this signing all the more impressive for the Dolphins. Miami tossed tons of money around to guys like Mike Wallace and Dannell Ellerbe, but picked up Keller at a reasonable price.

    Quarterback Ryan Tannehill needs a reliable set of hands to target as he develops into an NFL quarterback. Wallace will stretch the field vertically, opening up the middle of the field for Keller.

    With Anthony Fasano out of the picture, Keller is instantly the top tight end for Miami and will be counted on to produce in 2013. After being stuck with Sanchez for four seasons, Keller has to be chomping at the bit to play with another quarterback.

6. Atlanta Falcons: Steven Jackson

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    Contract: Three years, $12 million ($4 million guaranteed)

    Some will scoff at the notion of the Atlanta Falcons dumping an aging running back for another aging running back. But make no mistake about it, Steven Jackson is a much better back than Michael Turner.

    He has rushed for at least 1,000 yards in each of the last eight seasons and has not shown any of the fatigue that running backs his age traditionally do. Knowing he is still playing at an elite level makes his contract signing all the more impressive.

    Jackson is set to make $4 million a year for the next three years. By comparison, Rashard Mendenhall, who played in just six games last season, received $2.5 million for one year with the Arizona Cardinals.

    In other words, the Falcons got an absolute bargain on one of the best all-around running backs in the NFL. And the contract is short enough that Atlanta has not dug itself a hole if Jackson's production does finally take a hit.

5. Detroit Lions: Reggie Bush

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    Contract: Four years, $16 million

    The Detroit Lions had plenty of needs heading into free agency. The secondary was void of talent, the offensive line had holes and both starting defensive ends had made their exit. However, they still needed an explosive weapon out of the backfield. 

    Jahvid Best was supposed to fill that role, but concussions have rendered him ineffective. Now, Reggie Bush enters the fold and will have an opportunity to fill a similar role while potentially expanding on it.

    There was a chance Bush could be a guy that found huge money on the open market, as his skill set is one that was in high demand. However, Detroit brings him in for a reasonable price and also finds a player that can make a big difference for the offense.

    Bush wants to prove that he can be one of the best running backs in football, and the Lions need a dynamic back to offset the downhill running style of Mikel LeShoure. This deal almost made too much sense for both sides.

4. Seattle Seahawks: Cliff Avril

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    Contract: Two years, $13 million ($6 million guaranteed)

    How do you not love what the Seattle Seahawks have done this offseason? Virtually every move the team has made has been great, with Cliff Avril being a shining example.

    Avril is a bit of a one trick pass-rushing pony, as his abilities on rushing downs leave much to be desired. However, his one trick is pretty good. He has 29 sacks in the last three seasons and nine forced fumbles in that time.

    He had a slightly down year in 2012, but still managed 9.5 sacks with the Detroit Lions. What Seattle gets is a player that will have a clearly defined role and the ability to excel within it. Avril was one of the best defensive ends on the open market, and the Seahawks reeled him in at a great price.

    Couple this signing with Seattle's addition of fellow defensive end Michael Bennett, and the team will have no trouble getting to the quarterback in 2013 and beyond.

3. Minnesota Vikings: Jerome Felton

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    Contract: Three years, $7.5 million

    Yes, Adrian Peterson earned every one of the 2,097 yards he rushed for last season, but many of those yards wound not have been available if Jerome Felton hadn't been clearing the lanes in front of him.

    Felton is one of the best players at a position that is quickly going out of style in the NFL, yet his abilities as a blocker are helping to keep fullbacks relevant.

    Signing Felton for a mere $7.5 million over three years shows an amazing amount of skill on the side of the Vikings front office, but also proves how little demand there is for fullbacks on the open market.

    Felton is worth double what he just earned from Minnesota, and that will only become more evident as he continues to clear holes for the best running back in football.

2. Atlanta Falcons: Tony Gonzalez

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    Contract: Two years, $14 million ($7 million guaranteed)

    This is kind of a unique inclusion on this list because there was never any risk of Tony Gonzalez leaving the Atlanta Falcons for another team in free agency. Sure, he was technically a free agent, but it was either return or retirement for the future Hall of Famer.

    Keeping Gonzalez in the fold was obviously a key piece of the puzzle for the Falcons organization. Atlanta is right on the cusp of a Super Bowl berth, and even at 37 years old, Gonzalez is still one of the best tight ends in the game.

    He caught for 930 yards and eight touchdowns last season, consistently hauling in important passes from quarterback Matt Ryan and keeping the chains moving for first downs.

    Could Atlanta succeed without Gonzalez?

    Probably, but this is a much stronger team with him in the fold.

1. Denver Broncos: Wes Welker

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    Contract: Two years, $12 million

    Kudos, John Elway. Finding a way to rip Wes Welker away from one of the Denver Broncos' biggest rivals in the AFC was a strategic move and showcased just how smart Elway can be as a front-office tactician.

    Now, Welker will be catching passes from Peyton Manning instead of Tom Brady. Not exactly a drop in talent there, and Welker will be a focal point of the Broncos' offensive gameplan. While Denver has talent on the outside with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, slot man Brandon Stokley is not the weapon he once was.

    Welker comes in at a reasonable $6 million a year and could be the final player the Broncos offense needs to make a push for the Super Bowl. The move also forced New England to overpay for an often-injured receiver in Danny Amendola.

    Helping yourself while hurting an AFC rival? Sounds like a pretty smart deal.