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Free Agency’s Winners and Losers

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Before moving forward on this, I need to first establish that being a “winner” in free agency doesn’t precede winning on the gridiron.  There is no shame in not spending money, and in football, spending increases the level of uncertainty about your team.  Teams that are successful in free agency get a little bit better, while teams that fail in free agency can cost their teams anywhere between a few points, and a few wins.

Not spending in free agency can be indicative of a team unwilling to improve itself, but also of a team that needs to veteran influence to improve.  No amount of spending can offset the natural improvement and decline of the rest of the roster, but because of the amount of money in the game of professional football, players who improve teams don’t really qualify as “overpaid”, no matter how much they are getting paid.  The premium teams can justify to players on the open market as to not give up any picks is infinite.

The free agency losers on this list have overspent for players who simply aren’t going to improve their team, and could create situations where they are blocking quality young talent simply because of their contract.  Conversely, there’s no one standard that makes you a free agency winner, but the teams on my list of winners all had first weeks that I would describe as “inspired” in one way or another.

Free Agency Winners

1. Denver Broncos Boston West really did do a better job of playing the trends in the market than any other team, landing a plethora of quality talent to help to slow the downhill momentum created by a team that has lost 8 of it’s last 10 games and missed the postseason following a 6-0 start.  Their front seven was one of the keys to their hot start, but it’s decline led to the overall failure of the unit and the team, as well as the ousting of Mike Nolan.  What the Broncos received in Jamal Williams, Justin Bannan, and Jarvis Green.  Denver has seized the opportunity to release players such as Kenny Peterson and Andra Davis, but with name recognition on the DL, we can say that no one will expect Denver’s defense to play in 2010 at the same poor level that it did in 2008, or with the expectation to struggle that was prevalent in 2009.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers Always the quiet contributor rather than the main spender in free agency, the budget conscious Steelers don’t gain points from me for their quick deal with NT Casey Hampton because they were always going to have the ability to use the franchise tag on him, however, their ability to re-sign S Ryan Clark at a reasonable figure was astounding.  Furthermore, the Steelers were quite comfortable signing players behind him, such as Will Allen, a former starter with the Bucs, while it was very much in doubt that Clark would come back.  Then, the team addressed it’s wide receiver depth by buying low on an old friend in Antwaan Randle El, a poor man’s Hines Ward, and a short term deal on the undervalued Arnaz Battle.  These deals don’t limit the Steelers from chasing a receiver in the draft if the value is right, but if they choose, they’re ready for the season and are not reliant on Limas Sweed to show up.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars Jacksonville, unfortunately, seems like they will be unable to stave off  becoming irrelevant in the NFL playoff field in the near-term future, but their signings over the last week, I think, extend the period of time they can contend.  Adding Aaron Kampman to replace free agent Reggie Hayward is a big time signing, and could be the move that allows Derrick Harvey to reach his potential.  It also helps define their needs heading towards the draft as needing to add receiver help and secondary help, instead of needing to look at defensive lineman.  I also think the signing of WR Kassim Osgood is inspired, because teams always underrate the value of special teamers who aren’t specialists.  Osgood has been to four straight pro bowls as the special teamer in the AFC.  While that isn’t much evidence that he’s actually good at special teams, his reputation around the league is of someone who is very respected at his trade.  In addition, Osgood fancies himself a contributor on offense, and he’ll get a chance to prove this in Jacksonville, but he should be worth his contract even if he can’t catch a football.

4. Cleveland Browns The Browns applied cost effective shopping to a need position at RT in landing Tony Pashos on a three year contract by going just a few dollars over the next best offer (Washington).  Scott Fujita, on the other hand, is very underrated.  He’s good in coverage, good on the pass rush, and makes plays in the run game.  I do have a question about how he fits in to whatever defense the Browns are going to run next year, but leaving that temporarily unanswered, he’s a good pickup.

T5. Washington Redskins The Redskins are not on this list for any signing they’ve made.  They’re a winner because of all of the dead weight they’ve been able to shed as a byproduct of the uncapped year.  Here’s what’s most mind boggling: the Redskins’ current payroll with respect to the 2009 season is in the bottom five in all of football.  Bottom.  Five.  Those huge contracts to DeAngelo Hall and Albert Haynesworth now account for nearly 40% of the payroll of the team in 2010.  A rare case of addition by subtraction.

T5. Detroit Lions I don’t have the same vigor about the Vanden Bosch signing that others in my local media market seem to, but I think Nate Burleson is the missing piece in the Detroit offense, which is also a locally unpopular opinion.  People around the team have complained that the team struggled on offense last year in part because of no contribution by the second receiver, but now it falls to Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson to make Detroit into an elite offense.  They are in position to land a true impact player in the draft, either at defensive tackle or offensive tackle, and if it’s Okung, the offense in Detroit could explode this season.

Honorable Mention: Houston Texans They haven’t gone out and added much talent, but I like the Wade Smith signing, and keeping Kevin Walter was mega-important.  Matt Turk returns as well for another season of watching a middle aged dude punt.

Free Agency Losers

1.  Kansas City Chiefs Forgive me, Royals brethren.  The offseason is still young, but the Chiefs have not moved in the right direction.  Signing Thomas Jones offers a poor complement to Jamaal Charles, and increases the pressure on the third year back to continue his late season breakout, and to carry the load when Thomas Jones inevitably becomes a 3.5 YPC guy…the kind of guy they just released in Larry Johnson.  I also don’t like the re-signing of Mike Vrabel, as I’m not sure what his role is on a rebuilding team.  They have enough coaches on the field, in my opinion.  Then they’ve overreacted to a decent half season from Chris Chambers, and offered him a multi-year contract, the same mistake made by Miami and later San Diego, and a similar error to what Washington did with DeAngelo Hall this year.  The Chiefs must involve Dwayne Bowe and Charles in the offense, and not Jones and Chambers.

2. Arizona Cardinals The Cardinals were not very aggressive in trying to retain the available parts of their 2008 NFC champion team in the wake of Kurt Warner’s retirement, which is defensible in it’s own right.  But I don’t know if I would let a bunch of key parts of my team on both sides of the ball walk while trying to replace them with recently released fodder that your coaches are well networked with (like Larry Foote).  All of Arizona’s losses (Boldin, Gandy, Dansby, Okeafor, Rolle) can be justified in terms of cost effectiveness, but I would have been much more aggressive in trying to replace some of the talent in the system than the Cards have been.  We will see if they can land Joey Porter to fill one of those needs.

3. Minnesota Vikings With Brett Favre doing, well, what everyone should have known would happen, the Vikings are in a very precarious position in free agency, and their response has been less than ideal, in my opinion.  The Vikings can be pretty confident that Favre will return, but honestly, it’s that kind of thinking that will get us all into trouble.  Here’s a team that needs to bolster the interior of it’s great defensive line, given Pat Williams’ health and age, needs to look at it’s MLB position with E.J. Henderson suffering season-ending injuries in consecutive years, and had a weak secondary last year.  On the other hand, the offensive line is the biggest weakness of the entire roster.  And so far, the Vikings have responded by resigning marginal CB Bennie Sapp and resigning WR Greg Lewis, and wining and dining with LaDainian Tomlinson.  It’s admirable if the Vikings are picking now to start developing their own talent, but with Favre’s status very much up the the air, it was almost predetermined that the Vikings would be free agency losers, and they’ve done nothing to change that.

4. Buffalo Bills Terrible, terrible signing of Cornell Green to replace the retired Brad Butler.  The Bills have added seven years to the position, a whole bunch of dollars, and lose a lot of talent.  Furthermore, at a position where the replacement level player is particularly valueless, Green might not even be at that level.  He’ll make three million a year through 2012.  The Bills don’t rank higher because the re-signing of Bryan Scott is a nice move.

T5. Tampa Bay Bucs/St. Louis Rams When you’re down around here in terms of talent, free agency is just one means of improving the quality of your roster.  But there’s a big difference between what Tampa and St. Louis are doing, and what Detroit, Chicago, and Cleveland are doing.  It’s hard to improve an above average team with the scraps of other teams, but those are the parts that can help accelerate the rebuilding of teams like the Bucs and Rams.  On the other hand, you could be doing what the Chiefs are, and investing in all the wrong targets.

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