5 NFL Teams That Struck Gold in Free Agency
Though it’s widely known that Super Bowls are not won in March, several teams certainly seem to be planting some really promising seeds for the winter harvest.
NFL free agency should be utilized, not as a resource to define your roster, but as a supplement to a roster built through the draft. In the age of limited cap space, no team can afford to build a winner with overpriced veterans. Instead the name of the game is to strike gold with maximum talent at the lowest price possible.
It’s important to note that a player’s cost is relative to their value.
So, if you’re careful and understand the precious timing involved in hauling in high-priced superstars, you may be able to delicately navigate through the treacherous seas of the NFL’s version of March Madness and come out on top.
With several talented individuals still unclaimed, and the NFL Draft just on the horizon, these teams have managed to add or retain more talent than the competition thus far. As a result, they have helped their chances tremendously in 2014.
One of the best aspects to the Cardinals' free-agency maneuvers is they wisely managed to keep their core contributors, along with guys they intend on building around, while having the wherewithal to cut ties with costly commodities.
On the first day of free agency, the Cardinals lured Jared Veldheer away from Oakland with a five-year, $35 million deal, per ESPN's Adam Schefter. NFL.com's Ian Rapoport reported that Veldheer received $17 million in guaranteed money.
But they didn’t stop there. Arizona played the market impressively by not overpaying aging veterans like Karlos Dansby when they have one of the most promising young spark plugs in Kevin Minter, who was their second-round pick from a year earlier. Minter was my highest rated inside linebacker coming out last year and can completely close up shop for any inside running game.
Sometimes the best additions can come through subtraction—especially in the era of hard salary caps.
To help matchup against deadly passing attacks, they decided to pair Patrick Peterson up with Antonio Cromartie on the opposite side. This pairing has the potential to push this defense over the edge and deep into the playoffs.
These two corners now make up perhaps the most physically gifted tandem in the NFL.
Bringing in a physical RB at a bargain-basement price was also a smart move. Former Steeler Jonathan Dwyer should be able to at least provide reliable depth after signing a one-year deal that will barely factor on the salary cap.
Dwyer may lack the speed of now-retired Rashard Mendenhall, but he could end up having a much bigger impact.
Some may fret over receiver Andre Roberts’ departure, but he can be easily replaced for much cheaper in the draft—which happens to be deep with talent at receiver.
If Carson Palmer can keep his head screwed on right, this squad seems poised to make a legitimate run for the NFC West. Yes, you read that right.
A big element to judging success in free agency is by looking at the outflow of talent compared to the influx. In this regard, the Colts were one of the more successful teams in the month of March.
With a roster that could stand to get a major upgrade in talent, Jim Irsay and Co. went to work snagging up highly coveted difference makers at strategic positions while letting their liabilities seek greener pastures.
Some concerns could be justified regarding the prices paid to acquire and retain certain players, but this is a roster that really needed an aggressive approach. There is certainly a high probability that the Colts have somewhat compromised their future cap space in order to get better in 2014. Time will tell how this risk/reward shakes out in the end.
One of my favorite free-agent signings of the NFL offseason was former Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks, who signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal that could reach $5.5 million with incentives, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.
Personally I think this is a guy they should have tried to lock up more long term at an affordable price because if they want to keep him around in 2015 they’re going to have to pay big time.
Despite the lack of a scoring presence during a year when his knees and ankles limited his explosiveness, Nicks still managed to average 16 yards per reception—a figure surpassed by only four wide receivers who had at least as many yards as him, per Pro Football Focus (paid site).
That should provide an indication of the type of playmaking one can expect now that Nicks is completely healthy.
The Colts jumped quickly at the chance to sign inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson only days after his release by the Cleveland Browns.
They may have given him a four-year, $22 million deal at the age of 30, but Jackson has the abilities to really upgrade the interior of that defense and will provide a veteran presence that was severely lacking on that side of the ball.
Resigning cornerback Vontae Davis was a smart move also, considering he is the type of young, physically dominating athlete you can build around. Plus, he has yet to reach the pinnacle of his career.
One of the more underrated free-agent signings of the year so far was the Colts' ability to snag defensive end Arthur Jones away from Baltimore at the height of his career.
Per Spotrac.com, the 6’3” 305-pound lineman signed a five-year $33 million deal at the age of 27. Believe me—he is worth every penny of that contract.
According to PFF, Jones was ranked 12th among 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL. His strength and ability to control the line should pay dividends for the defense for years to come.
Losing RB Donald Brown and safety Antoine Bethea shouldn’t be a big factor in the scheme of things.
The pieces are finally coming together for the Indianapolis Colts who are still rebuilding from the ground up after their 2-14 season back in 2011.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It took me a while to look beyond the fact that the Buccaneers had cut ties with one of the most dominating defensive players in the NFL, Darrelle Revis, for absolutely nothing. But once I let that disappointment in decision-making go, I realized financial reasons, more than anything else, were at the heart of the move.
Lovie Smith’s defensive schemes have never placed a high priority on cornerbacks and Revis was undeniably overpaid, even for such unique talents as the ones he possesses—most of which would have been underutilized moving forward.
His worthy replacement, at a fraction of the cost was former Titan and Pro Bowl corner, Alterraun Verner, who is coming off of a career season where he had five picks and allowed a 55.8 passer rating against passes thrown his way—good enough for fourth best in the NFL, according to PFF.
Bringing in defensive end Michael Johnson should help generate pressure from the outside although they did significantly overpay him. Johnson was held to just 3.5 sacks in 2013 but he was still a highly disruptive force. Per PFF, Johnson had the second highest grade against the run of all the 4-3 defensive ends in the league.
What isn’t so great about this move is that the Bucs will be paying Johnson an average of $8.75 million per year over the next five years, per Spotrac.
Perhaps the lesser-known but more beneficial addition of a former Bengal could be offensive tackle Anthony Collins.
Bleacher Report’s Russell S. Baxter had Collins listed as one of his 10 Most Undervalued Players Still Available before being snapped up. In his report he is quoted as saying:
The focus here is on Collins, who started just seven games in 2013, as well as the Wild Card Round loss to the San Diego Chargers. In six seasons in the Queen City, he’s been a valuable part of the team’s offensive front, yet he’s never played in all 16 games in any one year. His seven starts this past season tied a career high set back in 2009. And when he's on the field, he has made an impression...
If Collins was the lesser-known signing, quarterback Josh McCown may become the biggest steal of the 2014 NFL offseason.
Last year, under QB guru Marc Trestman, Josh McCown outplayed starter Jay Cutler and finished the season with the highest Total QBR of any quarterback all season (85.1), according to ESPN. It has already been established that the starting job will be McCown’s to lose.
With Lovie Smith taking over, change seems to be happening at a rapid pace.
It’ll be interesting to see if these drastic moves can turn this wavering franchise around.
New England Patriots
The Patriots made waves in free agency not so much with a high volume of acquisitions but with the addition of quality and the discipline to remain firm to their bottom dollar. This strategy paid off big for them when they allowed the Denver Broncos to overpay for Aqib Talib only to get a great deal on one of the best defensive players in the league, cornerback Darrelle Revis.
But they weren’t done there with additions to the secondary. Don’t think they aren’t fully aware of what they have to contend with in terms of immediate receiving threats.
Signing oversized cornerback Brandon Browner to a cap-friendly three-year deal worth just over $12 million and no guaranteed money was a smart business decision that will pay dividends when matching up to some of the bigger receivers in the league.
More kudos goes out to New England’s front office for allowing Julian Edelman to test the market only to realize that the "Patriot Way" is likely his best option. Having him return at the right price without creating resentment was nothing short of genius by one of the smartest organizations in football.
All we need to do now is see what shakes out with the Vince Wilfork debacle. The latest news in that developing story is that Wilfork has reportedly ripped out his nameplate and cleared out his locker at Gillette Stadium, per Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald (h/t CBS Boston). This seems ominous even though owner Robert Kraft would like to have him back next year.
In an arms race for AFC supremacy, the Patriots have certainly done their part in keeping up with the Denver Broncos.
Speaking of the Denver Broncos and an arms race for the AFC, it’s pretty clear that GM John Elway is loading up heavy with big-name, high-priced talent for Peyton Manning’s last realistic shot at bringing another Super Bowl ring to the Denver Broncos.
Signing Aqib Talib was like a slap in the face to New England and represented just a fraction of their offseason additions.
Last year Talib racked up four picks and was a valuable shutdown corner in New England’s defense. One of his more impressive performances came when the Patriots played the New Orleans Saints, and Talib did the impossible by shutting down the incomparable Jimmy Graham.
At 28 years of age, Talib is still in the prime of his career and should be a valuable asset and significant upgrade from Champ Bailey.
One of the biggest weaknesses on the defense was the safety position. In 2013, only five teams allowed more passing yards per game (254) than the Broncos. That number is admittedly skewed with most teams passing in high volume in order to come from behind.
Nonetheless, defense was an area of high priority this offseason and they decided to approach free agency with a no-holds-barred mentality.
Safety T.J. Ward might be the centerpiece to a star-studded lineup. Ward’s upside and price were the biggest positives in this signing, aside from the fact the safety position was in major need of an upgrade.
Ward signed a fair deal worth just over $22 million over four years, according to Spotrac.
Not overpaying for Eric Decker was a smart move and he left for a big payday in the Big Apple. He was wisely replaced by the versatile and agile Emmanuel Sanders who may add even greater value than Decker brought to the table.
Perhaps the biggest bomb dropped this month came when the Broncos successfully signed former All-Pro DeMarcus Ware from the Cowboys.
Ware had a down year in 2013 but is still young enough to be a dominant player in this league. His addition, paired with Von Miller, can strike fear in the hearts of quarterbacks from around the league.
Losing Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie stings and was not ideal but from the macro-perspective they certainly came out on top in terms of adding talent and star power to the roster.
If there was ever a doubt about this team’s urgency to win, it has officially been obliterated.
For Peyton Manning, John Elway and the Denver Broncos, they have officially gone all in on a Super Bowl ring and anything short of that goal will be a tragedy.
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player and currently writes for Bleacher Report
Follow him on Twitter @Ryan_Riddle