NFL Free Agency 2012: Winning!
I don’t have an objective system to grade free agency like I do the draft, but I take an objective approach to charting what happens during free agency, and that gives me a pretty good concept of who wins and loses these deals. There will be teams listed on this list of winners who made a bad signing or two. What I’m looking for here are teams that either improved their salary cap position for the future without losing a significant amount of talent, added a ton of talent without hurting their cap position, or in the best of cases, did both.
New England Patriots
Very quietly, the Patriots will bring more veteran talent into training camp in 2012 than any team in the NFL. Like the Giants, the AFC Champion Patriots entered free agency as a middle of the pack roster, arguably not in the ten best teams in the NFL. Two weeks later, I have the Patriots as the team with the most talent on it.
Only the Patriots could make those kind of gains, and do it so quietly, that you didn’t even know they were making moves at all. I don’t think all of their moves will work. It’s hard to see a role for TE Daniel Fells but for injury to Rob Gronkowski. I don’t think Brandon Lloyd will consistently earn playing time, even over the marginalized corpse of Chad Ochocinco. And sure, we’re double counting on Robert Gallery and Logan Mankins here. The Patriots will end up cutting plenty of players who could start for other teams.
But that’s the point of free agency. If the Patriots philosophy is to go into camp every year as the favorite in their division going away, then there’s no way to look at this year’s haul except that it was wildly successful.
The Jaguars probably made a catastrophic mistake with the Laurent Robinson contract. It’s unfortunate that Robinson will get paid like a no. 1 reciever, because he won’t be the no. 1 receiver even on a team with Mike Thomas. Robinson, when healthy, improves the Jaguars starting lineup.
But the Jaguars continue to find pieces to build their defense, leaving a pass rusher as the only need remaining on that side of the ball. With the Texans losing Jason Allen and Demeco Ryans, the Jaguars enter 2012 as potentially the strongest defensive unit in the NFL.
The Raiders did not get better in free agency this year. They probably got worse. So why are they here?
Because the Raiders found themselves in a dangerous trap when Reggie McKenzie took over the GM position in Oakland. They had a talent-loaded roster that was already competing for the division, but had come up short on the defensive side in 2011. McKenzie inherited an awful cap situation. And instead of locking himself into a veteran roster (for better or worse) that he did not build, McKenzie made seven veteran cuts (including G Cooper Carlisle, who was re-signed) to free up just a bit of cap room in the immediate, but a ton of cap room that wouldn’t have been there in 2013, a year where the Raiders already have $100 million in salary commitments to just 11 players.
Instead of taking one last run in 2012 with Hue Jackson’s guys (a personal friend of McKenzie), the Raiders will field an average roster that they can build towards bigger things in 2013. That decision was questioned at the time, but looks a heck of a lot better now that Peyton Manning has signed on with the Broncos. With San Diego and now Denver fighting atop the division, and Kansas City able to improve at a greater rate than the Raiders, Oakland couldn’t have done anything to be the favorites in the division.
The Raiders also took smart one year fliers on veterans like CBs Ron Bartell, Shawntae Spencer, and Pat Lee, while managing to re-tool the offensive line on the cheap, paying for a foundation RG in Mike Brisiel (who replaces C Samson Satele in the starting five), and getting bargains on Carlisle and T Khalif Barnes, keeping continuity on an offensive line than improved immensely in 2011.
The Raiders will not be out of cap hell until 2014 at the earliest, but can compete this season on the strength of a strong rookie class (though they will not pick in the 1st or 2nd round), and can compete in the mediocre AFC West with the team they currently have. The fact that most media outlets will pick the Raiders to finish last (which will be justified) shouldn’t deter the process. Competing with the AFC North for the sixth seed in the AFC field (and maybe as a darkhorse in the AFC West) is the upside for the 2012 Raiders.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs make this list in spite of becoming one of the few teams with absolutely no long term solution at quarterback on it’s roster. Brady Quinn is 28. Matt Cassel is 30. Ricky Stanzi is an interesting backup QB prospect, but likely will not be relevant until the Chiefs draft a quarterback in the first or second round and replace Cassel on the roster. With the acquisitions of Tim Tebow by the Jets, David Garrard by the Dolphins, and Chad Henne by the Jaguars, I’m 95% confident that the NFL’s worst QB situation sits somewhere in the state of Missouri.
But outside of that position, the Chiefs are as strong as any team in the NFL. To fix their anemic offense, they turned RT Barry Richardson into Eric Winston. They also will replace Casey Wiegmann at center with Rodney Hudson, and Leonard Pope at TE with Kevin Boss. Jamaal Charles will return from injury to join Peyton Hills. And all of these moves fit new O.C. Brian Daboll’s scheme quite well. Finding a quarterback will be the next step for the Chiefs.
New York Jets
The Jets are going to find themselves in a tough spot a year from now when they realize how much they guaranteed Mark Sanchez, but that’s next year’s issue. This year the Jets rebuilt their secondary around an athlete in LaRon Landry, and will move Antonio Cromartie to free safety. He will be replaced by Kyle Wilson. The Jets were also able to retain Sione Pouha and Bryan Thomas, giving them one of the best defenses in the AFC, which Landry will only help.
Obviously, Tim Tebow will be a very significant part of the offense this year, though I doubt the Jets are going to figure out how to use him before Mark Sanchez plays himself out of the starting job, an event that would end the Tebow “problem.” The Jets still have work to do on offense, but were able to fix their WR situation on the cheap, adding Chaz Schilens to replace the ineffective Plaxico Burress. Up next: finding a running back who can lead the rushing attack. Cedric Benson would be a good fit.
The Bears didn’t get everything they could have wanted in free agency, but they kicked off the period trading for WR Brandon Marshall, quickly added two backup quarterbacks (Jason Campbell and Josh McCown), depth at running back (Michael Bush), receiver (Eric Weeks), and linebacker (Blake Costanzo). They haven’t fixed tight end and apparently don’t see a possible solution for their OL on the free agent market.
But with the draft upcoming, the Bears are noticeably better on offense in terms of depth to the point where last year’s injury-related collapse doesn’t even have a chance to occur again. Unlike in 2011, the Bears are set for the long-haul.
The Seahawks were able to name their price on Matt Flynn, and ended up upgrading their quarterback situation without even trying. It will be interesting to see if the Seahawks remain in the hunt for a quarterback in the first round of the draft. The Seahawks have weapons out the wazoo to run Darrell Bevell’s version of the spread offense, and a handpicked OL that simply missed too many games to injury in 2011.
The Seahawks had a fantastic defense last year, and only added to it (although David Hawthorne as an outstanding UFA is still a big deal) with a one year contract for Jason Jones. But the offensive firepower they added was a big deal. The day after the super bowl, RB Marshawn Lynch wasn’t under contract and the only offensive back who was under contract was Tarvaris Jackson. With Flynn and Lynch locked up, the Seahawks could be a surprise contender in the NFC West.
The Falcons really get a ton of credit for the last two years of free agency. Since July of 2011, they had to deal with the expiration of 1) all five of their starting offensive linemen, 2) every receiver on the roster but Roddy White and Eric Meier (and obviously Julio Jones), 3) backup RB Jason Snelling, twice, 4) Every defensive end on the roster except Lawrence Sidbury, 5) the potential cap-related loss of MLB Curtis Lofton (26 years old), 6) a secondary that needed to be entirely overhauled.
And all GM Thomas Dimitroff lost was 1) WR Michael Jenkins, who would have been replaced anyway by Jones, 2) FS Erik Coleman, who was released and signed by the Lions, 3) Jamaal Anderson, who he released, 4) Harvey Dahl, who the Rams vastly overpaid for, and 5) potentially Lofton and starting C Todd McClure.
Amazingly, that’s it. The Falcons seemed to play the market perfectly right in every case. While I have legitimate criticisms about some player they’ve overdrafted, Dimitroff has fixed the contract issue he inherited with his veterans and now has set the Falcons up to be a perennial super bowl contender under Matt Ryan whose window of opportunity has just opened.
Buffalo Bills – The Bills ponied up big time for Mario Williams, and in all reality, this won’t hurt their cap that much since the Bills never really spent to the cap anyway and there will be CBA-mandated spending minimums starting in 2013. But it also will not help them as much as it seems. The Bills spent the third overall pick last year on a good player in Marcel Dareus, but if he’s getting bumped inside in Dave Wannestedt’s 4-3, then even as a pro bowler (should he reach that level), the Bills can’t really get value on that pick. Mark Anderson raises the overall quality of the Bills DL as well, but they overpaid for him.
The Bills spent as much as any team this season, but at least five, maybe six teams improved by a greater amount this offseason, including at least one in their own division.
Denver Broncos – One of those five or six teams that that improved more than the Bills was the Denver Broncos, who, uh, signed Peyton Manning? That will do the trick.
Still, the Broncos decision to rid themselves of the Tim Tebow “problem” is a God-send in disguise for the Raiders, Chiefs, and Chargers. Manning will give those teams fits this year and probably next year, but it’s not going to be long until Manning is a 38 year old quarterback guaranteed $19 million on the cap in 2014. That’s a team in an awful situation, supposing that Manning isn’t still still the best player on the team at that point. He just might be, because defensive standout Champ Bailey will be 36 and still under contract.
Tebow isn’t Manning (and he’ll never be Peyton Manning), but he was just 24, and was developing a special relationship with the city of Denver. If he improved by as much as he was capable of improving on a year to year basis, AFC West opponents would have had all sorts of problems competing with that kind of player. Heck, they had problems competing with him in 2011, when he completed 46% of his throws.
The Broncos saved the other teams in the AFC West that headache by sending Tebow to the Jets. Manning really, truly does improve the Broncos a lot in the short term, but that more or less makes the Broncos this year’s 2011 Philadelphia Eagles. A weak roster got a LOT better using free agency as it’s primary vehicle. What you probably didn’t realize about the 2011 Eagles is that most of their FA signings worked out really well. But they didn’t all work out, and it was tough to overcome the prior deficiencies on the roster with a stars-and-scrubs approach.
So here are the Denver Broncos who have cashed in their chips to try and get a winning season now, on the back of a 36 year old quarterback, a year after they overcame the odds with a 24 year old quarterback. If stripping the names “Peyton Manning” and “Tim Tebow” makes that seem like a bad decision, well, then yeah, I’d say it does make it sound like a bad decision.
Denver is definitely not a FA loser, but there’s no objective way to make last year’s Dream Team Eagles seem like a FA loser (outside of the Asomugha contract, which could improve significantly in year two). But as Andy Reid can tell you, 8-8 is 8-8, no matter whether you get there with homegrown youth, or with free agents.