Every NFL Team's Smartest Free-Agency Decision so Far
Free agency has slowed to a trickle after the frenzy that came in the first week, giving us pause to ponder the moves thus far. Plenty of moves have been made, from some teams more so than others.
What was the smartest move each team made, whether it was signing a new player or letting one go? Click through to find out.
All statistics come courtesy of Pro Football Reference. All advanced statistics come courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required) unless otherwise noted. All free agent signings, contract details and cap numbers courtesy of Spotrac.
Smartest Decision: Signing offensive tackle Jared Veldheer
Offensive tackle has been a position of need for the Arizona Cardinals for years now, so it came as no surprise that they finally ponied up to get a good one in Jared Veldheer.
The former Oakland Raider signed a five-year, $35 million contract with the Cardinals to protect quarterback Carson Palmer's blind side.
That is music to Palmer's ears, given he was sacked 41 times last season, eighth-most in the league. Bradley Sowell, Arizona's primary left tackle last season, was the main culprit—he had the worst pass-blocking efficiency in the league at his position last season.
By contrast, Veldheer had the 12th-best pass-blocking efficiency in the league in 2012, when he was Palmer's left tackle in Oakland.
If Veldheer can stay healthy, he will provide a massive upgrade at a key position.
Smartest Decision: Signing offensive guard Jon Asamoah
The Atlanta Falcons have made several moves thus far in free agency, but perhaps their best one was to sign guard Jon Asamoah away from the Kansas City Chiefs on a five-year, $22 million deal.
Asamoah isn't a household name, but he has quietly been one of the better guards in the league since the Chiefs drafted him in 2010. He has been rated in PFF's top 20 at his position every year since 2011.
Both Garrett Reynolds and Justin Blalock rated outside the top 20 in the past two seasons, and Reynolds was released, per The Atlanta-Journal Constitution's D. Orlando Ledbetter. Asamoah should be a nice upgrade in the interior of that line.
Smartest Decision: Signing wide receiver Steve Smith
Hell hath no fury like Steve Smith scorned.
The fiery wide receiver had some choice words during a telephone call to WFNZ, per Bill Voth of Spiracle Media, for the Carolina Panthers after they unceremoniously dumped him last week.
The Baltimore Ravens pounced immediately, signing Smith to a three-year, $11.5 million deal. The wide receiver position was lacking for the Ravens last season, with deep-threat Torrey Smith coming in as the No. 1 option for quarterback Joe Flacco.
Smith may not be in his prime anymore at age 34, but he is still far better than what the Ravens had last season.
Smartest Decision: Signing middle linebacker Brandon Spikes
Despite having rookie-of-the-year candidate Kiko Alonso at linebacker—he won the Pro Football Writers of America's version of the award, but he lost out in the Associated Press—the Buffalo Bills were horrible in the middle against the run.
Buffalo had the fifth-worst run defense in the league last season.
Enter Brandon Spikes, a run-stopping specialist who spent his first four seasons with the New England Patriots. The Bills landed Spikes for a mere $3.25 million in one year.
The move should help the run defense and allow Alonso to move outside, where he might be even better.
Smartest Decision: None
This seems harsh, but the Carolina Panthers have bumbled their way through this offseason thus far.
On the one hand, it was nice they were able to keep stud defensive end Greg Hardy. They were forced to use the franchise tag on him, however, a decision that cost them $13.1 million against the 2014 cap.
That left them with far too little cap room, forcing them to do things like cut Steve Smith and replace him with somewhat younger Jerricho Cotchery. Free agency has just not been pretty in Carolina.
Smartest Decision: Releasing defensive end Julius Peppers
Football is business, which can make it seem like a cold mistress at times.
There were few places where this was more evident than in Chicago this offseason, where the Bears had to part ways with stalwart defensive end Julius Peppers.
The move saved Chicago $10 million against the cap this season, which allowed them to do other things like sign his replacement, Lamarr Houston.
Peppers was still productive last season, but the 34-year-old is getting long in the tooth. Houston is eight years younger, a promising prospect worth the five-year, $35 million deal he got from general manager Phil Emery.
Smartest Decision: None
Sure, we could point to the Jason Campbell signing as Cincinnati's best free-agent decision, but should we put someone in that slot just for the sake of doing it?
The Bengals have done little this offseason other than watch key contributors sign big contracts to play elsewhere next year. Gone are Anthony Collins and Michael Johnson, replaced by air for the time being.
Smartest Decision: Signing running back Ben Tate
Forget that the Cleveland Browns overpaid safety Donte Whitner—to whom they gave a $28 million contract—only to watch their own standout, T.J. Ward, sign an economical contract with the Denver Broncos. This is about each team's smartest decision, after all.
Hence, running back Ben Tate is pictured above, torching the Browns for 115 yards and a touchdown on just 12 carries back in 2011. Perhaps that's why Cleveland was pegged to sign Tate for so long.
This was a particularly nice coup for the new regime, given the last one was able to jettison Trent Richardson for a first-round pick. Tate was signed for a meager two years and $6.2 million, quite the bargain for free agency's best available running back.
Smartest Decision: Signing defensive tackle Henry Melton
The Dallas Cowboys didn't have much cap space to work with heading into this offseason, which is why they had to cut wide receiver Miles Austin and longtime pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware and let defensive tackle Jason Hatcher go.
Free agency was looking grim until the Cowboys were able to nab defensive tackle Henry Melton to replace the departed Hatcher. They were even able to do it on the cheap, getting him on a one-year, $3.5 million deal.
Melton only came so cheaply because he is recovering from a torn ACL suffered last season and, perhaps, because he is being sued for biting someone in the kidney, per NBC Sports' Darin Gantt. If fully recovered this fall, Melton should more than fill Hatcher's shoes, particularly as a pass-rusher on the interior of that offensive line.
Smartest Decision: Signing safety T.J. Ward
The smartest move this offseason might have been to re-sign John Elway and add "general manager" to his title, per The Denver Post's Mike Klis. He has done a marvelous job for the Broncos thus far. It was difficult to pick just one good move.
Signing cornerback Aqib Talib to such a big contract—five years and $57 million that includes $26 million guaranteed—was the least of those moves, but grabbing a quality cornerback in free agency is hardly a problem.
On the other side of the smart spectrum, the Broncos were able to get the steal of free agency when they signed safety T.J. Ward for a relatively meager four years and $23 million.
Ward has been one of the best safeties in the league over the past few seasons, as evidenced by his lofty PFF ratings that include sixth and third overall at his position in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Ward shores up a position of need in a bad way with good use of money for Elway's team.
Smartest Decision: Signing wide receiver Golden Tate
Getting receiver Calvin Johnson a running mate has seemed like a priority for years in Detroit. They finally got their man, on paper at any rate.
The Lions paid a pretty penny to lure Golden Tate over from the Seattle Seahawks—he signed a five-year, $31 million contract—but they finally shored up the No. 2 receiver position. Tate caught 64 passes for 898 yards and five touchdowns last season in a run-heavy offense.
It would have been the most intelligent signing in Detroit even if this wasn't the default choice here because the Lions haven't done much else in free agency.
Green Bay Packers
Smartest Decision: Signing defensive end Julius Peppers
The Packers almost got a goose egg like the Panthers and Bengals did, despite signing defensive end Julius Peppers away from their hated rivals.
General manager Ted Thompson is famous for eschewing free agency for the most part, but he couldn't resist twisting the knife for Bears fans when Chicago was all but forced to release the aging pass-rusher.
Well, perhaps the fact the Packers needed to shore up the pass rush had something to do with it, too, but is giving a 34-year-old a three-year, $26 million deal wise? Green Bay had plenty of cap space and need to do that deal, but it falls close to the line between genius and insanity.
Smartest Decision: Letting defensive lineman Earl Mitchell walk
There hasn't been much activity in Houston for the Texans this offseason. Perhaps that has been for the better, for now.
Defensive tackle Earl Mitchell flew the coop, signing a four-year, $16 million deal to play for the Miami Dolphins. Mitchell was playing out of position at nose tackle in Houston—he is really a 3-technique defensive tackle.
Outside that, there really isn't much to see in Houston so far.
Smartest Decision: Signing wide receiver Hakeem Nicks
There was plenty of cash to spend in Indianapolis this offseason, and boy did the Colts spend money. Whether it was spent wisely is another matter.
Cornerback Vontae Davis was their best cornerback last season. Coincidentally, he had the best season of his career in a contract year. The Colts rewarded him with a big five-year, $36 million contract. They also signed defensive end Arthur Jones away from the Baltimore Ravens on a five-year, $33 million contract.
Perhaps the best deal they made, however, was a gamble on receiver Hakeem Nicks.
The former New York Giant signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal to prove he is worth a bigger deal next offseason. The Colts got a starting-caliber receiver—assuming he can stay healthy and live up to his potential—at a minimal cost.
Smartest Decision: Signing defensive end Chris Clemons
The Jacksonville Jaguars are in year two of their latest rebuild under general manager David Caldwell, and it looks like they went into free agency aiming to strengthen their front seven.
They retained defensive end Jason Babin and signed Evander Hood, but their best was an import from the Super Bowl Champions.
Chris Clemons was crowded out of the defensive front in Seattle, and the Seahawks cut him to save $7 million in cap space at the beginning of free agency, per Sports Illustrated's Doug Farrar.
Clemons might be getting on in age at 32 years old, but he brings a quality, veteran presence to the Jaguars on a four-year, $17.5 million contract.
Kansas City Chiefs
Smartest Decision: Letting offensive tackle Branden Albert walk
Free agency has been rather quiet in Kansas City this offseason. The Chiefs didn't have much cap space, which has forced them to watch several key contributors walk.
Perhaps the most predictable exit was offensive tackle Branden Albert, whose days in Kansas City were numbered when the Chiefs drafted Eric Fisher last year. They coexisted in Albert's final contract year, but Fisher was drafted to be the left tackle of the future.
Letting Albert walk was preordained, and the Chiefs haven't done much else in free agency to merit the "smart" label
Smartest Decision: Re-signing defensive tackle Randy Starks
One team's loss is another team's gain, even if it had to overpay.
The Miami Dolphins desperately needed to shore up their offensive line this offseason, and they had a nice start in free agency by signing new offensive tackle Branden Albert. While that was a good move, it wasn't exactly economical.
Miami gave Albert the richest contract an offensive lineman got this offseason, a five-year, $45 million deal to protect quarterback Ryan Tannehill's blind side. While that certainly was important, given Tannehill was sacked a team-record 58 times.
The best left tackle in Miami last year was 34-year-old Bryant McKinnie, who had the ninth-worst pass-blocking efficiency in the league, per Pro Football Focus. Albert was fourth-best.
Smartest Decision: Signing cornerback Captain Munnerlyn
The Minnesota Vikings had a big need in the middle of the defensive line this offseason, so signing Linval Joseph was a big addition. But cornerback was also a big need, and the Vikings got a nice deal when they signed Captain Munnerlyn.
The former Carolina Panther signed a three-year, $11.25 million contract to move up to Minnesota, a relative bargain when looking at how much other cornerbacks have gotten paid this offseason. Here is what NFL.com's Marc Sessler had to say about the signing:
The Vikings made their evaluation clear after Munnerlyn finished 2013 as the 11th-ranked corner in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus. With four career pick sixes, he's returned a greater percentage (71.4) of interceptions for touchdowns than any player in NFL history.
For a Vikings squad that allowed an outrageous 4,598 yards through the air last season, second worst in the NFL, Munnerlyn projects as an immediate starter in the slot for this rebuilt, Mike Zimmer-led defense.
Munnerlyn isn't exactly Darrelle Revis, but he should be a solid presence in that defensive backfield.
New England Patriots
Smartest Decision: Signing cornerback Darrelle Revis
New England has matched Denver blow for blow in free agency, but the Patriots might have landed the biggest punch.
That would come in the form of cornerback Darrelle Revis, who was inexplicably cut by the Buccaneers. Well, the explanation was because it saved them $16 million on the cap. Their loss was head coach Bill Belichick's gain.
The Patriots had to pony up $12 million to sign Revis for one year, meaning Revis will retain his title as the highest-paid cornerback in the league. But he is a rare talent that is worth overpaying for, and Belichick's team is going to reap huge rewards.
Despite coming off a torn ACL and playing in a zone scheme for which he was ill-suited, Revis was the top-rated cornerback in the league over at Pro Football Focus. Belichick must be sleeping with a smile these days.
New Orleans Saints
Smartest Decision: Signing safety Jairus Byrd
Outside perhaps hitting tight end Jimmy Graham with the franchise tag, no other move has been better for the New Orleans Saints than signing safety Jairus Byrd to a six-year, $54 million deal. It was a bit of an unexpected deal, as The National Football Post's Joel Corry puts it:
The Saints were an unexpected bidder for Byrd’s services. When the free agent signing period opened on Tuesday afternoon, New Orleans had slightly less than $2.5 million of salary cap space.
Byrd’s contract contains $26.3 million in guarantees, which is a record for a veteran safety deal. It eclipses the $22 million guaranteed in the five-year, $41.25 million contract Dashon Goldson signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year. ...
Earl Thomas, who is entering the final year of his five year rookie contract, should be the primary beneficiary of Byrd’s new deal. Extending his contract is reportedly an offseason priority for the Seattle Seahawks. Thomas could become the NFL’s first $10 million per year safety.
Outside implications for future free-agent safeties, the move gives the Saints one of the best safety tandems in the league. Kenny Vaccaro was great as a rookie, and having Byrd around will make the secondary in new Orleans a fearsome one.
New York Giants
Smartest Decision: signing offensive guard Geoff Schwartz
The New York Giants have made a host of solid moves this offseason, including signing running back Rashad Jennings to a four-year, $10 million deal and snagging cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie for five years at $35 million.
Fixing the offensive line was a priority this offseason, however, and signing offensive guard Geoff Schwartz might have been general manager Jerry Reese's best move.
The versatile Schwartz has been consistently good in the middle of offensive lines his whole career when healthy. He had some injury issues in Minnesota, but he has seemingly put those behind him.
Kevin Boothe, David Diehl and James Brewer split time at the guard positions last year for the Giants, and they were all negatively rated by Pro Football Focus. Schwartz was rated eighth-best.
New York Jets
Smartest Decision: Signing wide receiver Eric Decker
Wide receiver was a massive need for the New York Jets heading into the offseason. They got their man in Eric Decker.
The former Denver Bronco was the best available receiver in free agency, and general manager John Idzik was able to land him on a five-year, $36.5 million contract. He caught 172 passes for 2,352 yards and 24 touchdowns over the past two seasons, tantalizing numbers for a wide receiver corps that didn't even approach those numbers altogether last season.
It helped that Decker had quarterback Peyton Manning at quarterback, but that shouldn't take away from the fact he is a massive upgrade at the position.
Smartest Decision: Signing cornerback Tarell Brown
The most intelligent thing the Oakland Raiders might have done in free agency was to have their team doctor fail offensive tackle Rodger Saffold's physical after the big lineman signed a massive contract, per Sports Illustrated's Chris Burke. The whole shebang was an exercise in dysfunction, but the Raiders were saved from massively overpaying a guy who is much better at guard.
Quietly, though, the Raiders have made several solid moves. As poorly as free agency started for general manager Reggie McKenzie, he has made up for it by stocking the team with cheap, veteran talent and potential.
Perhaps the best example of this is Tarell Brown, who heads across the San Francisco Bay from the 49ers.
Brown has been a solid cornerback over the years, rating positively over at Pro Football Focus in each of the past four seasons. It is a bit of an indictment that the 49ers weren't willing to pay such a low price to retain him, but the Raiders needed to upgrade the position.
They got one for a mere $3.5 million in 2014.
The Philadelphia Eagles made their best moves before free agency even hit.
They re-signed a number of key contributors to their high-powered offense last season, including offensive tackle Jason Peters and center Jason Kelce. More importantly, they retained one quarterback Nick Foles' favorite targets, Riley Cooper, and Jeremy Maclin to boot.
The latter is recovering from a season-ending injury, which made him a relative bargain at one year and $5.25 million. Cooper wasn't so cheap, but a five-year, $22.5 million deal was pretty good for the team's second-leading receiver from last season.
Smartest Decision: Letting wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery go
There hasn't been much to love in Pittsburgh this offseason. The Steelers have had to part ways or let go of several players, and they signed safety Mike Mitchell to an expensive $35 million contract.
They lost receiver Emmanuel Sanders, too, but it seemed that they were uninterested in bringing Cotchery back.
That was the wise choice, given he got a five-year deal over with the Carolina Panthers. He might have caught 10 touchdowns last season, but that was exactly one-third of the seven-year veteran's career total.
San Diego Chargers
Smartest Decision: None
It's not as if the San Diego Chargers haven't made moves this offseason. But what have they done to improve the team?
Sure, running back Donald Brown brings another threat to that backfield, but is paying top dollar—as far as free agency at the position goes this season, at any rate—for a third wheel in the backfield impactful? It seems more like a waste of resources than a great move.
The Chargers haven't made awful moves or decisions, but nothing has stood out as particularly intelligent. That is not to say they have gotten worse, but signing a bunch of backups isn't terribly newsworthy.
San Francisco 49ers
Smartest Decision: Signing cornerback Chris Cook
The San Francisco 49ers did a wise thing in letting safety Donte Whitner go to the Cleveland Browns on a four-year, $28 million deal. Whitner did a fine job in San Francisco, but he was a head-hunter buoyed by a fantastic front seven.
It would have seemed smarter if San Francisco hadn't signed Antoine Bethea to replace him for just $7 million less overall. Perhaps Bethea will benefit similarly from that great defensive front, but that was a rather large deal for an underwhelming safety who has ranked 69th- and 53rd-overall over at Pro Football Focus in 2012 and 2013, respectively.
As such, the best thing the 49ers have done in free agency to date is sign cornerback Chris Cook to a league-minimum $730,000 deal.
Cook has plenty of baggage coming with him on the flight to SFO, but he is a worthwhile bargain for a team that needed help in the secondary.
Smartest Decision: Retaining defensive end Michael Bennett
The rich get richer. That is the way of today's world, generally speaking.
In this case, the young, champion Seattle Seahawks might be adding to their stacked defensive line if defensive end Jared Allen signs on. ESPN's Ed Werder says that's not a done deal, however, so we must look elsewhere for the smartest offseason decision to date.
Look no further than Seattle's surprising retention of defensive end Michael Bennett, who stuck around on a four-year, $28.5 million deal. Bennett was a huge reason why that defensive line was so dominant last season, and it looked like the Seahawks might lose him to free agency as a result.
Bennett chose to stick around a winning team, instead, as Bennett tweeted.
I m back I m happy super bow champ .The 12th man is the biggest reason I came back the best fan— Michael Bennett (@mosesbread72) March 10, 2014
Seattle's 12th Man strikes again.
St. Louis Rams
Smartest Decision: Releasing cornerback Cortland Finnegan
Re-signing offensive lineman Rodger Saffold might be the smartest decision the St. Louis Rams have made this offseason were it not for the fact the Oakland Raiders signed him first before getting cold feet, as we have covered. In essence, that makes Saffold the luckiest move of the offseason.
Aside from that, not much has gone on in St. Louis. They have re-signed linebacker JoLonn Dumbar as well, but every other free agent has flown the coop thus far.
The Rams did make a sound decision when, per Sports Illustrated's Tim Polzer, they released disappointing cornerback Cortland Finnegan just two years into the big five-year deal he signed. Perhaps head coach Jeff Fisher is starting to realize that his old Titans players might have been a part of his downfall in Tennessee.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Smartest Decision: Signing cornerback Alterraun Verner
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were not smart to cut Darrelle Revis, despite the cost savings. They did do an admirable job of replacing him, however, when they signed Alterraun Verner to a four-year, $26 million contract.
New general manager Jason Licht and head coach Lovie Smith have wasted no time overhauling their roster in free agency this offseason, making splash after splash in free agency. Defensive end Michael Johnson came in a close second here after the Buccaneers inked him to a five-year, $43.75 million deal.
Verner has been the smartest one, however, especially considering the Buccaneers were able to nab him for such a low price. With other cornerbacks signing massive deals elsewhere, Verner was a downright bargain. His total deal was just $10 million more than Revis was set to earn this year.
The 25-year-old comes over from Tennessee having come off a career year. He isn't Revis, but he is a quality cornerback at a fraction of the cost.
Smartest Decision: Re-signing Bernard Pollard
The Titans have nabbed a few free agents on the open market, but none of them are particularly great signings. Their best move thus far has been retaining safety Bernard Pollard's services.
Wide receiver Dexter McCluster comes over as a nice special teams addition and tertiary offensive weapon, but he is not an impact player. Offensive tackle Michael Oher has seen his pass protection decline almost every year in the league, and his price tag was far too much at four years and $20 million.
Pollard, meanwhile, has been a solid starting safety for years now, including last season when he rated 21st in the league over at Pro Football Focus. He was a real bargain, to boot, signing for two years and $6.3 million.
Smartest Decision: Signing wide receiver Andre Roberts
Washington has finally been able to make some moves this offseason after laboring under the burden of salary-cap sanctions.
General manager Bruce Allen was able to re-sign cornerback DeAngelo Hall and linebacker Perry Riley and snatch defensive lineman Jason Hatcher away from the rival Dallas Cowboys, but their best move was signing receiver Andre Roberts away from the Arizona Cardinals.
Hatcher would have made the grade here, but his four-year, $27.5 million contract was a bit too bloated for the 31-year-old. Roberts, on the other hand, finally gives quarterback Robert Griffin III a nice second option to go along with Pierre Garcon at receiver.
All statistics come courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com. All advanced statistics come courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required) unless otherwise noted. All free agent signings, contract details and cap numbers courtesy of Spotrac.
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