10 Most Surprising Developments of NFL Free Agency
What a wild week this has been around the NFL. Free agency is usually filled with excitement, but this year's modest free-agent crop—which was weakened by the tags placed on Jimmy Graham, Greg Hardy and Alex Mack—wasn't without its twists and turns along the way.
Heck, it was a nonstop roller-coaster ride few could have seen coming.
We recap the start of the new league year with a drama-laced slideshow on the 10 Most Surprising Developments of NFL Free Agency.
From the misfortune of the woebegone Oakland Raiders to the scrambling of the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots and Cleveland Browns, we outline the 10 strangest turn of events in the past few days. We challenge you to find a place on the world wide web that accurately predicted any of the following things would happen. ...
Oakland Raiders Agree to Deal with Rodger Safford, Only to Nix It After Physical
The Oakland Raiders could qualify as a number of surprises—mostly in what they didn't get in free agency this week. The Rodger Saffold situation takes the cake because it was beyond bizarre.
First, the Raiders allow a more well-regarded left tackle in Jared Veldheer to walk when they could have slapped him with the franchise tag. Veldheer wound up getting a five-year, $35 million deal, according to Spotrac.com.
Then, the Raiders seemingly counter the Veldheer loss by giving Saffold even more money, agreeing to a reported five-year, $42.5 million contract with $21 million guaranteed, as reported by NFL insider Adam Schefter.
Hilarity ensued: How do you pay an older player, who had to move from left tackle to right tackle to guard, more money than the left tackle you already had on your roster, as Steve Cockran of the Contra Costa Times tweeted?
Next, the Raiders found a way out of wasting their league-high cap space that way, nixing the deal over a reported torn labrum, according to the San Francisco Chronicle's Vic Tafur.
Finally, the Rams—having wanted Saffold all along and believing the shoulder is just fine—signed him to a five-year, $31.7-million deal with $19.5 million guaranteed, per Schefter.
What an odd turn of events.
Saffold lost $1.5 million up front and got embarrassed by the Raiders, who continue to be a league-wide laughingstock. We probably shouldn't be so surprised with it all because of the organization we're dealing with here.
"Rodger is happy to be back here considering what went down there—what a crazy experience," Saffold's agent Alan Herman told Jim Corbett or Nate Davis of USA Today on Thursday. "It was painful. Let's put it that way."
New England Patriots Swoop in Quickly, Signing Suddenly Free Darrelle Revis
Seeing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers give up on Darrelle Revis one year into his tenure there was surprising enough, especially with what they had to pay to get him. Having him ultimately wind up with the New England Patriots was even more shocking, particularly with how quickly it all came together.
Aqib Talib signed with the Denver Broncos to a six-year, $57 million megadeal with $26 million guaranteed, according to NFL insider Adam Schefter, leaving the Pats and Bill Belichick without a shutdown corner. The Bucs went younger at corner with Alterraun Verner, signing him to a four-year, $26.5 million deal with $14 million guaranteed, which was originally reported by Schefter.
Suddenly, Revis became available when the Bucs released him after failing to work out a trade.
Desperate times called for desperate measures, as a longtime agent told the Boston Herald's Ron Borges:
They may not admit it, but they finally are conceding life without Tom Brady is approaching. They're playing for the moment. The problem is if they don't win this year, they're in the same situation next year with an older quarterback who will want to renegotiate his deal and no corner.
Eric Decker Leaves Peyton Manning For...Geno Smith?!
No one can say former Denver Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker doesn't have guts. He left arguably the most comfy No. 3 situation in football to take on the challenge of becoming a lonely No. 1 receiver for the New York Jets and Geno Smith—if the second-year man is even the starting quarterback in town next season.
It is not surprising Decker left Denver for greener pastures in New York. It is only greener in New York because of the color of money and the Jets uniforms, though.
Amid so many players like Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward, DeMarcus Ware and Darrelle Revis signing on to already stacked teams, it is actually refreshing for a player to try to make his team a winner without the allure of a loaded supporting cast.
Kudos to Decker for that, even if the money—$36.25 million over five years with $15 million guaranteed, according to Schefter—might have had more to do with his surprising decision to leave the AFC Champion Broncos.
Cap-Strapped New Orleans Saints Find Room for Arguably Market's Best Player
The New Orleans Saints were supposed to be in dire straits. They had some difficult decisions to make to just get down to the salary cap going into free agency, and then they boldly burned their room with a six-year, $54 million deal that included $26.3 million guaranteed for safety Jairus Byrd, according to Spotrac.com.
With the world champion Seattle Seahawks proving what an elite secondary can do, Byrd was arguably the best player available in free agency—at least until guys like Darrelle Revis were released in cost-cutting moves.
The Saints, with limited room, found a way to bring in Byrd for Rob Ryan's press-man defense. Second-year strong safety Kenny Vaccaro teams with Ryan's new chess piece to make the Saints as formidable as anyone on the back end of their secondary.
Couldn't anyone with more cap space and needs in the secondary—Oakland, hello, do you have a pulse?— outbid the Saints here? Wow.
Free agency this year has shown just how the rich get richer in the NFL these days.
Denver Broncos Overhaul Their Defense with Three Big, Expensive Pieces
With wide receiver Eric Decker and breakout running back Knowshon Moreno expected to land sizable contracts elsewhere in free agency this winter, the Denver Broncos were supposed to be weakened by their cap conditions.
Riddle the Broncos stronger than ever with a defense that added a premium pass-rusher in DeMarcus Ware, a shutdown cornerback in Aqib Talib and arguably the best safety in football against the run in T.J. Ward. Peyton Manning can make do with the spare parts on offense...if John Elway doesn't already have the line on luring some sleepers to the most prolific offense in NFL history in the coming weeks.
The salary cap was put in place to encourage parity around the NFL. Elway and the Broncos gave that notion the middle finger.
Elway and the Broncos might have mortgaged their future, but they made a reasonable gamble that they'll be able to figure out the financials in the future just like they did this winter.
One Team's Trash Apparently Is the San Francisco 49ers' Treasure
When cap-onomics led to stars like DeMarcus Ware and Darrelle Revis being let go for nothing more than financial flexibility, it is surprising it takes a draft pick—actually, two—to acquire castoffs like quarterback Blaine Gabbert and offensive tackle Jonathan Martin.
Gabbert and Martin weren't good enough for their struggling franchises to deal with the drama of them being on their roster any longer, but general manager Trent Baalke wasn't deterred from their struggles elsewhere.
Baalke spoke highly of Gabbert in a statement to the San Jose Mercury News:
We thought highly of Blaine as an early entry into the 2011 NFL Draft. He is a high-character individual that will be given every opportunity to develop within our system, and we are looking forward to working with him.
There is low risk there, we suppose.
With regard to Martin, Baalke apparently listened to head coach Jim Harbaugh—amid a public feud, no less.
Harbaugh, who coached Martin at Stanford, told Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle in November: "I know him to be a fine person...a great contributor as a student and an athlete at Stanford. Epitomizes the student-athlete model and then a personal friend. So, I support Jonathan."
Darren Sproles Goes from Being Released to Being Traded to the Eagles
The surprise is, Sproles never made it to free agency.
The Philadelphia Eagles traded their second of two fifth-round picks for him instead, as Jeff McLane of The Philadelphia Inquirer reports.
Chip Kelly made the following statement in the article:
Darren Sproles is an unbelievable offensive weapon. He can do it all, run, catch, plus he's a proven winner. And on top of that, he can bring all of those dynamic skills to the return game as well. There is no question we were all excited once we found out we were going to be able to trade for him.
The Eagles apparently didn't want Sproles to ever hit the open market, giving up a fifth-rounder for a player rumored to be released. The cost of controlling your destiny and Sproles, we suppose.
Seattle Seahawks Were Able to Retain Pass-Rusher Michael Bennett After All
Michael Bennett was supposed to be a one-year rental for the Seattle Seahawks. He was, and he helped win the Super Bowl en route to another trip to free agency.
Bennett wound up being a rent-to-own option.
The best pass-rusher on the market, according to Trey Cunningham of the respected NFL data analysis website Pro Football Focus, was supposed to be a luxury the Seahawks could not afford. Instead, he stands to earn $28.5 million over four years ($10 million guaranteed), as noted on OvertheCap.com. That is an affordable deal.
The supposed top pass-rusher available never left Seattle and winds up with less money than the likes of DeMarcus Ware, Michael Johnson and Everson Griffen. Let's call it a surprising hometown discount.
Chicago Bears Choose to Sign DE Lamarr Houston and Release Julius Peppers
The surprise for the Chicago Bears was not that they signed Lamarr Houston from the Oakland Raiders. Heck, you might not even be shocked by the fact they had to release Julius Peppers.
Here is the underlying irony, as the Chicago Tribune's Brad Biggs wrote:
The Bears set out to overhaul one of the worst defenses in franchise history by replacing an eight-time Pro Bowler who is 17th on the NFL's all-time sack list with a guy coming off a career-high six last season.
The choice the Bears made here was to sacrifice a little bit of the pass rush to improve the league's 32nd-ranked run defense. Houston is well-regarded against the run, earning the sixth-best grade against the run among 4-3 defensive ends, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Usually teams tend to favor the rusher over the run-stuffer. The Bears were so bad against the run last year they had to go the other way, apparently.
Cleveland Browns Pay More for Donte Whitner Than T.J. Ward Gets from Denver
You would have been hard-pressed to find someone that favored the 28-year-old Donte Whitner over the 27-year-old T.J. Ward going into free agency. Pro Football Focus' John Castellane preferred Ward, who earned the best grade against the run at PFF the past two years.
The Cleveland Browns must have a different value on Whitner vs. Ward, though.
The Browns had to give Whitner four years at $28 million with $11 million guaranteed to lure the Ohio native back to the state, while Ward fetched just $22.5 million ($7 million guaranteed) over four years to go to Denver, according to OvertheCap.com.
So much for a hometown discount with Whitner.
Perhaps it was Ward's expressed desire to leave Cleveland that forced the Browns to overpay for a seemingly lesser talent. Regardless, it doesn't make it any less surprising in what has been a wild and crazy week in free agency...one of the most frenetic in history.
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.