I’m taking an in-depth look at what teams can specifically accomplish in free agency, starting with the highly active Miami Dolphins.
Miami Dolphins Offseason Additions:
The Dolphins are probably not done after frontloading the majority of their multi-year contracts. Wallace, Ellerbe, and Wheeler all got five year deals while Brandon Gibson signed for three years. Chris Clemons re-signed with Miami for two years. Keller has the second-highest cap value for 2013 after Mike Wallace, because he’s a one year stopgap. The Dolphins also re-signed QB Matt Moore for two years, although he’s not likely to see the second year of that contract with a cap value of almost $6 million in 2014 unless he’s the starter.
The Dolphins spent a lot of money, and most of the contracts are highly leveraged, meaning that the player has a lot more job security after year one than with the average free agent contract. None of the players signed by the Dolphins will be 30 before the end of the 2013-14 NFL playoffs, so the downside risk of these deals isn’t really relevant to a discussion of the 2013 Miami Dolphins. From 2014 on, the Dolphins will likely struggle to manage the cap. Whether or not GM Jeff Ireland will be responsible for the cap problems he is creating this week depends on how well the 2013 Dolphins play.
Miami Dolphins Offseason Losses + Unsigned Players:
Most of Miami’s expiring contracts represent nothing more than roster fodder, as you see so many negative numbers (representing below average value) in that right-most column. But the Dolphins made the decisions to release veterans Dansby and Burnett to create room for Ellerbe and Wheeler this season. That’s not guaranteed to work out in the Dolphins favor. They’re getting younger, but Dansby is still very much an impact player in this league, and while the Dolphins are likely skeptical about his health going forward, it’s easy to see the roster taking a step back at the linebacker position next season.
When analyzing the Dolphins moves, the fact that two of their signings necessitated cuts of quality veterans at the same position means that we’ve stripped down about half of the “activity” of the Dolphins to merely re-arraigning their own deck chairs. The moves of substance have occurred at the wide receiver position, where they’ve added Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson. As of the time of this blog, the Dolphins are still in the mix to retain their star left tackle, Jake Long. But they’ve already lost their top running back, Reggie Bush, their top corner for a second straight offseason Sean Smith (following Vontae Davis), and lost TE Anthony Fasano, which prompted them to be involved for Dustin Keller at a higher cap number.
While the Dolphins set out to improve the depth and quality of their receivers, they might actually be less dangerous on offense without Bush and Fasano. Mike Wallace gives them the type of receiver talent you cannot just replace (if you are the Steelers, that is), but he’s also not the kind of number one receiver that Vincent Jackson was last year. He’s more of a wealthy man’s DeSean Jackson. In past seasons, the Dolphins offense was inconsistent with the more versatile Bush and Fasano. Wallace is not going to do anything to help the consistency. That’s on the shoulders of Ryan Tannehill.
Overall, the receivers are unquestionably improved for the Dolphins, who suffered no losses of note at the position, managing to maintain their top two receivers from last year, Brian Hartline and Davone Bess. Adding Brandon Gibson creates some additional upside at the position in three receiver sets. But the money the Dolphins have tied up in their receivers is only sustainable over the next three seasons, while Ryan Tannehill is relatively affordable. And despite the salary structure, it’s Tannehill who will be chiefly responsible for ensuring offensive efficiency and consistency in 2013, not Hartline or Wallace.
The bigger issue in my eyes (outside of Jake Long) is the glaring weakness the Dolphins have created for themselves on the edges of their defense. As strong as the front seven has been in recent years, you can’t be so weak on the edges in the modern NFL. It’s just too easy to isolate those players, and so the Dolphins brought in Falcons CB Brent Grimes for a visit. Grimes is still a quality player in the NFL, but he isn’t Sean Smith at this point. And while the Dolphins have two second rounders after trading Vontae Davis to the Colts last year, it’s going to mean at least one of them will be spent that the CB position — the first rounder may as well. The other pick might need to be used in order to replace Bush (or Long) because the Dolphins are opening holes as quickly as they are plugging them.
The good news is that the story is far from finished in regards to this offseason, as an all in Dolphins team will be very dangerous in the AFC this year. The problem is that the story so far is that the Dolphins have created a looming cap issue in the future without making their team more dangerous in the present to date. The Dolphins can get a lot better really quickly now if they use the trade market, additional free agent moves, and the draft to grab value for the rest of the offseason. But if the Dolphins cut off their activity at this point, all they’ve really done is shake up the roster, throw a ton of cash around, and not really improve.
This is a self produced list of all available free agents in anticipation of the start of the league year in a couple of hours. The players are ranked by Approximate value above replacement, which takes Approximate value (available at pro-football-reference.com) as a three year moving average, and adjusts/penalizes for the age of the player.
The goal of scaling to a replacement level is to provide a very visual (and extremely age-dependent) picture of players who are likely to receive offers (above replacement = positive AVAR) and those who are unlikely to receive offers (below replacement = negative AVAR).
The system is 100% objective with no manual adjustments, so it has spit out some quirky results (such as Rey Maualuga being the highest rated Bengal over Andre Smith), but it’s designed to overall capture the way NFL prospects are valued by NFL teams, not to be a personal rankings list for myself. Players are separated by team, but sorted by AVAR.
Enjoy! I will try to keep this list updated as results roll in.
<last update: Wednesday, March 27, 1:20 PM EDT> (Most recent transaction update: Saints sign OLB Victor Butler)
|All NFL Free Agents 2013|
|Pos.||Last Name||Age||Current Team||AV Rate||AVAR||AVAA||Signed w/Team|
|DT||Jolly||30||Green Bay||0||-2.3||-8.3||Green Bay|
|LB||Francois||28||Green Bay||4||3.0||-3.0||Green Bay|
|OLB||Jones||27||Green Bay||9||8.6||2.7||Green Bay|
|DE||Jones||29||Kansas City||3||0.9||-5.0||Kansas City|
|DT||Devito||29||NY Jets||22||15.1||9.2||Kansas City|
|OLB||Jones||29||Kansas City||3||0.9||-5.0||Kansas City|
|QB||Daniel||27||New Orleans||0||0.8||-5.1||Kansas City|
|CB||Arrington||27||New England||16||14.6||8.7||New England|
|CB||Talib||27||New England||14||12.9||7.0||New England|
|CB||Cole||30||New England||4||0.5||-5.5||New England|
|LB||Koutouvides||32||New England||3||-2.7||-8.6||New England|
|T||Vollmer||29||New England||28||19.6||13.7||New England|
|WR||Amendola||28||St. Louis||11||8.6||2.6||New England|
|LB||Humber||26||New Orleans||3||4.7||-1.3||New Orleans|
|LB||Herring||30||New Orleans||3||0.2||-5.8||New Orleans|
|G||Boothe||30||NY Giants||14||7.3||1.3||NY Giants|
|LB||Rivers||27||NY Giants||9||8.6||2.7||NY Giants|
|QB||Carr||34||NY Giants||1||-6.0||-11.9||NY Giants|
|RB||Torain||27||NY Giants||5||5.1||-0.8||NY Giants|
|LB||Mauga||26||NY Jets||3||4.7||-1.3||NY Jets|
|NT||Garay||34||San Diego||14||0.0||-6.0||NY Jets|
|OLB||Barnes||29||San Diego||6||3.2||-2.7||NY Jets|
|RB||Hilliard||29||NY Jets||1||-0.6||-6.5||NY Jets|
|RB||Woodhead||28||New England||22||17.5||11.5||San Diego|
|RB||Brown||32||San Diego||9||0.8||-5.1||San Diego|
|DT||Dorsey||28||Kansas City||17||13.5||7.5||San Francisco|
|S||Dahl||28||St. Louis||15||11.9||5.9||San Francisco|
|S||McBath||28||San Francisco||2||1.4||-4.6||San Francisco|
|DE||Hayes||28||St. Louis||7||5.4||-0.6||St. Louis|
|LB||Casillas||26||New Orleans||5||6.5||0.5||Tampa Bay|
|S||Goldson||29||San Francisco||28||19.6||13.7||Tampa Bay|
|TE||Crabtree||28||Green Bay||9||7.0||1.0||Tampa Bay|
|DE||Ah You||31||St. Louis||3||-1.4||-7.4|
It wasn’t that long ago that quarterback talent in the NFL wasn’t in great demand. We’re not talking about the 1970’s here. A decade makes a pretty big difference.
Over the last five years or so, quarterback demand has exploded driven by two main factors: schematic and rule alterations in the NFL that have made passing games more valuable than ever before, and the mass retirement or attrition of a generation of good quarterbacks.
While the Brady/Manning era has very much been a thrill to follow, the NFL never had a true quarterback dichotomy at the top before. Joe Montana’s career overlapped with Dan Marino’s career which overlapped with with Warren Moon’s career which overlapped with Steve Young’s career which overlapped with Brett Favre’s career. Never was the debate of “whos the best?” any more clear than it was over the last decade when Peyton Manning put up astronomical numbers on a year to year basis, until Tom Brady (and later Aaron Rodgers) began doing the same. That clarity is in the past now with the latest influx of college talent, but first, lets take a step back to the early days of Manning-Brady and look at the quarterback landscape in 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2002.
From 1999-2002, there wasn’t a standard of excellence that would have separated the “haves” from the “have nots” based on quarterback acquisition. The best two quarterbacks over this timeframe were Kurt Warner of the Rams and Rich Gannon of the Raiders. The Rams appeared in two super bowls over this timeframe, and the Raiders progressively reached each level of the playoff field under Gannon. It’s not that Warner and Gannon werent the most valuable players in the league, but during these years, perhaps the NFL’s best player was Marshall Faulk, a running back. By approximate value, there were three quarterbacks among the fifteen most valuable players.
From 2009-2012, during the quarterback demand explosion, that number doubles and quarterbacks occupy the top three spots.
What makes the quarterback demand situation 10-15 years ago so different is that Gannon and Warner were both freely available for any team back then, and though they eventually married wide open passing systems, only Peyton Manning was drafted to lead a franchise. He (along with Ryan Leaf) was considered one of a kind at the time. But in the 1999 draft, teams started to address the value of the passing game when they drafted six quarterbacks in the first round that year, headlined in the first three picks by Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, and Akili Smith.
Or did it? The mindset of NFL teams at the time arguably hadn’t changed at all. Back then, the quarterback bust rate was solidly 50% for first rounders. It was a big deal when six quarterbacks got drafted in the first round for the first time since 1983, but a generational shift in the league’s quarterback talent this was not. At least, teams didn’t treat it as such.
Let’s take a look at two prospects, one picked in the 1999 draft, the other picked in 2005. Quarterback A posted a completion percentage about four percentage points above the league average in his first five seasons. Quarterback B would eventually have a season where he completed more than 104% of the league’s completion percentage, but it took him until his eighth season to do so. If you ended each QB’s career at the point where their team’s gave up on them, you’d assume they had pretty much the same career. Which is why I’m comparing the two first overall picks in those drafts, Tim Couch (A) and Alex Smith (B).
What happened here was the talent in the league shifted dramatically over the course of Smith’s career. During Couch’s career, QB talent was largely stagnant: a passing yard in 1999 was worth pretty much the same as it was in 2003. By 2011, a passing yard was worth so much less than it was in 2006. Demand for quarterbacks spiked in the late aughts, and so Alex Smith’s “development” doesn’t look any different from Tim Couch’s from a environment-adjusted perspective. This isn’t Smith’s fault, and he seems to have made it out alright, but who knows what would have happened to Couch’s career given the two additional offseasons Smith received to develop?
Why did QB demand spike? Well, one of the major factors that happened was that many of the quarterbacks who dominated the statistical categories ten+ years ago weren’t drafted and developed and cultivated. Rather, they developed in a survival of the fittest league, and were then signed to winning teams. The QB draft class of 1999 largely flopped, and the two best picks in the class Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper, benefited from weak competition. Trent Green thrived on his third team. Brad Johnson was pretty darn good for two different teams. Kerry Collins made it. Teams, by and large, couldn’t develop young quarterbacks — which was most stark in the case of the Atlanta Falcons failing to get a consistent player out of Michael Vick, a generational talent.
Quarterback demand spiked because of rule changes and copycat effect, but also because of the failures of developmental prospects. Teams who were going to win by throwing needed a higher grade of prospect, a more polished type of talent. This, I believe, is why so many teams in that era won with veteran talent. The problem was teams that won with veterans like the Rams (who got about five good seasons from Marc Bulger following Kurt Warner’s MVP years), Raiders, Redskins, Steelers (pre-Roethlisberger), Chiefs, Titans (post-McNair), Panthers, and 49ers all fell off the map at some point or another and ended up at the top of the draft. Meanwhile, the Colts and Patriots and Eagles and Giants won year after year.
The veteran quarterback market died (and is now incredibly undervalued — the league has swung too far the other way). Young, skilled quarterbacks roughly doubled in total value, measured by trade compensation. In 2004, the Chargers were able to get two firsts and a third for Eli Manning (one of the firsts became Philip Rivers). By 2012, the Rams got three first rounders for Robert Griffin III. Twenty years ago, 37 year old veteran Joe Montana commanded a first round pick. Now? Position players return basically nothing in terms of draft picks. Young quarterbacks return a treasure trove of picks.
Now the question becomes: is this demand going to flatten anytime soon?
I don’t forsee a rule change swinging things back towards the running game and defense, and away from the passing game. Instead, we see instances of teams looking to add athleticism to quarterbacking as a job requirement. Of course, the same trend appeared the tame ten years ago with McNabb, Culpepper, and Vick, coaches just never took advantage of the athleticism offered to them ten years ago, and dual-skill sets quickly died off.
However, while demand for QB talent doesn’t show any sign of letting up, supply of young, talented passers have never been greater. You see the effects of this by the fact that Colin Kaepernick and Andy Dalton made it out of the first 32 picks in 2011. Then Russell Wilson made it into the 3rd round in 2012. This year’s class isn’t quite as deep, but the overall supply of quarterback ability is putting roughly 5 starter quality prospects into the talent pool on a yearly basis. It wasn’t anything ten years ago to expect to get one per year.
One of two things is going to happen to the quarterback market with increased supply: either quarterback cost (in terms of draft picks) will begin to drop, or quarterback skill sets are going to get so highly specialized that it will become much harder to separate quarterback from coach (because those teams that don’t marry systems to players will not be able to compete with those who do). We saw a bit of that from the Redskins and 49ers this past season, but as of right now, we can’t know for sure if it’s a long term trend. It’s possible that a quarterback in 2015 will simply be cheaper to acquire than one in 2012, and that teams will start to pay to keep proven commodities (i.e. the Flacco trade) instead of paying to acquire new talent (i.e. every first round of every draft for the previous six years).
In the short term, it is clear that demand is going to continue to rise as opposed to flatten. Teams like the Jets, Bills, Cardinals, Browns, and Chiefs cannot compete with the perennial contenders at all, not to mention the ones having great years. Quarterback performance is reaching the critical point where having one simply isn’t enough to compete, because there aren’t enough wins to steal from teams that don’t have quarterbacks. The Patriots can continue to steal wins from the Dolphins, Bills, and Jets, but as Ryan Tannehill develops and the Jets and Bills can address their QB situations, those divisional wins will be tougher to get, and as Tom Brady ages, they might not come at all. End dynasty.
Teams that don’t have quarterbacks are going to have to get talent efficiently, while teams that do are going to have to build at a faster rate than other “haves.” If the current crop of coaches cannot win with the available talent supply, expect an influx of coaching talent from the college ranks to force out the current coaches. QB supply and demand remains an endless struggle. Now it’s just a struggle over-flushed with talent.
The Cincinnati Bengals pretty clearly emerged as the free agency winner of the second week of this NFL league year. One week ago today, we all freaked out collectively when the Bengals — awash in cap space — did not make a competitive move early in free agency.
It appeared that the Bengals were opting to be cheap and not spend money in anticipation of the NFL’s cash spend minimum going into effect in 2012. But after free agency’s second week, we’ve seen that the Bengals actually were looking to spend money. They were just planning to avoid overspending.
In fact, the Bengals have shown a rare competency to supplement their roster with free agent acquisitions while allowing their own free agents to go be overpaid elsewhere. Last year the Bengals lost CB Johnathan Joseph to the Texans. Unfortunately, Joseph played like an All-Pro in Houston, and the Bengals may have lost their gamble when the lost to the Texans twice in 2011. But they have stayed the course, opting to let defensive ends Frostee Rucker (Cleveland), Andre Caldwell (Denver) and Jonathan Fanene (New England) take their talents elsewhere, while opting not to offer a deal to Cedric Benson. What the Bengals have done differently this year is that they’ve been willing to spend on undervalued players to replace what they lost, and have been willing to spend more on coaching and on scouting then in the past to ensure the long-term success of the organization.
They’ll pay BenJarvus Green-Ellis just $3 million per year to play running back for them, but that’s more than he could have gotten from New England to stick as a backup. Green-Ellis is probably worth a lot more than that to a team with a hole at RB, but the Bengals named their price and got him locked up for less than FA target Michael Bush signed for with Chicago. They replaced Fanene and Rucker by signing former 1st round bust Jamaal Anderson, who was taken high because he flashed pass rushing skills, but at age 26, can really handle an edge rushing attack. Because teams in the AFC North prefer to use a stretch running game, Anderson is a good pickup. They also signed another former bust Derrick Harvey, who was most recently a Bronco, to replace what physical ability they lost in Rucker. With the cash savings, they were able to make a competitive offer for — and lock up — their own no. 2 DT Pat Sims, who wasn’t a priority re-signing, but when the cash came available, the Bengals spent it.
The Bengals also managed to upgrade at left guard, turning Nate Livings — who signed with Dallas for 5 years/$19 million — into veteran Travelle Wharton, who they got at 3 years, just under $10 million.
And most importantly, the Bengals managed to re-sign two key defensive parts who actually took offers from other teams; S Reggie Nelson, and LB Manny Lawson, who re-signed today.
The Bengals were fortunate to be in the playoffs last year, but they are a better team right now than they were at this time last year, and with Baltimore and Pittsburgh struggling so hard against the cap to simply tread water in the declining AFC North, the Cincinnati Bengals have separated themselves from the Cleveland Browns — an organization whom which they were neck and neck with at the start of last season — and have pushed themselves up into the discussion with the Steelers and Ravens.
When you compare the work of the Bengals to a team that did all it’s damage in the first week of FA, such as the Bucs, before turning it’s attention to the draft, you come away with a better concept of just how well the Bengals’ offseason has gone to date.
Like the Bengals, the Bucs’ cap flexibility was near the top of the league, and they evaded criticism from fans by quickly getting involved in the FA market for three big names: WR Vincent Jackson, G Carl Nicks, and CB Eric Wright. By frontloading the guaranteed money in those free agent contracts, the Bucs were able to leverage their cap position to have the most flexibility in the future. That made those moves very defensible.
But it also caused the Bucs to sit out the part of free agency where the Bengals were finding all the values, such as BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The Bucs weren’t replacing their own free agents by spending cap room, they were bringing in parts to an largely established, but under-producing roster. That means the success or failure of the 2012 and 2013 Tampa Bay Buccaneers is tied directly to the roster that made the 2010 Bucs a 10 win team, and the 2011 Bucs a 12 loss disaster. It minimizes the kind of impact that the Bucs could have from the players like Vincent Jackson who they spent a ton of available cap room to get. Furthermore, the backloaded-ness of the non-guaranteed cap dollars in the Jackson, Wright, and Nicks deals create a situation — perhaps a likely situation — where the Bucs tear down their current roster after the 2013 season with a lame-duck coach and new personnel department.
I feel the Bucs would have been a lot better off taking the Bengals approach to free agency: don’t act in the first week. Eat the PR hit that comes from being perceived as a team who is cheaping out. You can live with that perception of being frugal, trust me. That’s not a perception you changed when you signed a bunch of large FA contracts but refused to guarantee any money beyond the 2013 season. And then with all that cap room in the second week, go make sure your own valuable contributors are paid, that you aren’t shaping your draft plans too much by spending money in free agency, and that you lock up a solid amount of ‘Plan B’ roster options to deals of 2, 3, or 4 years in length. I don’t believe getting Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks — two of the highest rated free agents — does much to save a roster that was already pretty dependent on it’s quarterback, Josh Freeman, and on an underachieving TE acquisition from the 2009 season, Kellen Winslow Jr. The Bucs OL played well at times last year, maybe the best performing unit on the field. You were already overpaying RG Davin Joseph and RT Jeremy Trueblood. Now you have one of the most expensive OLs in the league, and you haven’t done anything to guarantee it’s future performance. The Bengals have done more for the performance of their offense with less money spent, and actually have spent handsomely to give defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer some real talent he can work with in 2012.
The Bengals may not need to win the AFC North to make it back into the postseason again. However, they’ll likely need to do better than the third place finish that earned them the AFCs 6th seed in 2011. But with Baltimore and Pittsburgh in reach (0-4 against those combined opponents in 2011, accounting for exactly half of the Bengals 2011 defeats), the Bengals have propelled themselves into that conversation with an outstanding second week of free agency.
Can a team with no cap committment use the FA market to build a winner? The answer is not clear, but a two-deep depth chart could be created using only players still looking for a job, and in many ways, such a roster would rival a lot of teams sitting around the league average.
Obviously in a real game, this team would have no stars, and it would be easily schemed against by pro coordinators. But the larger concern is whether or not a team can be made out of players without a contract that rivals current NFL teams.
In parenthesis, I have provided the cumulative AV rating of a two deep (46 players total) roster in anticipation of a full draft class.
Quarterback (55) – Vince Young, Donovan McNabb
This team gets two guys at quarterback who have each won plenty of games in this league (both are well above .500 as starting QBs in the NFL). Neither is ideal as a starter at this point, but at the same time, neither deserves to be available at this point in the league year. We’re happy to have them.
Running backs (43) – Cedric Benson, LaDainian Tomlinson
Cedric Benson is a good pickup for this team, although he doesn’t have a ton left in his legs heading into his eighth season. Tomlinson is still a major contributor in the passing game, but a high percentage of the carries on this team would end up going to an undrafted rookie, and not to a RB currently on the FA market.
Fullbacks (7) – Mike Sellers
Mike Sellers could captain the special teams unit and can still catch the ball in the flat. It’s odd that the FB market went so much quicker than the RB market. Sellers is unlikely to find a job in this league.
Wide Receivers (58) – Braylon Edwards, Mike Sims-Walker, Roy Williams, Patrick Crayton
There’s no quality number one receiving options on the market, but there are three guys on this team who have very recently been go to targets on NFL teams. Braylon Edwards still has a lot of career left, he’s under the age of 30, as is Sims-Walker. Williams and Crayton are veteran receiving options.
Tight Ends (42) – Dallas Clark, Jeremy Shockey
I’m excited about the tight ends still available. Dallas Clark doesn’t fit of a lot of systems, which is why he is still out there, but he would be an excellent slot receiver H-back combination in this offense. Shockey is more of an in-line tight end. This team would probably end up starting two tight ends.
Offensive Tackles (72) – Marcus McNeill, Kareem McKenzie, Barry Richardson, Demetrius Bell
Plenty of injury concerns at the tackle position for our team. McNeill and Bell both can’t stay healthy. Richardson is a good option off the bench. Kareem McKenzie might be done. But he’s the one guy of this group who has showed up and played consistently each of the last eight years, making him the easy first choice at RT.
Offensive Guards (56) – Kyle Kosier, Vernon Carey, Jake Scott
I’m very excited about having a chance at Kyle Kosier, who has recent experience at both left and right guard. Vernon Carey is a swing player of sorts, who might end up playing tackle if McNeil and Bell can’t stay healthy. If so, I’d have no problem with Jake Scott stepping into my starting lineup.
Centers (38) – Dan Koppen, Andre Gurode
Dan Koppen is a former pro-bowl center from a super bowl team. If healthy, he and Kosier would combine to make an interior two guys that very few other teams could match. Gurode served in a backup role last year for the Ravens, but I would be comfortable with him starting for me.
Nose Tackles/3-techs (70) – Kelly Gregg, Amobi Okoye, Aubrayo Franklin, Luis Castillo
There’s a lot here at the defensive tackle position. Okoye can get after the quarterback and is just now coming into his own. Franklin is scheme versatile, and can replace Gregg in either a 3-4 or 4-3. Castillo has health concerns, but would be an interesting projection as a three technique. This group also gives us the flexibility to play a multiple defense, necessary because of a lack of true pass rushers.
Defensive Ends (78) – Shaun Ellis, Andre Carter, Jason Hunter, Matt Roth,
I have to grab the Ellis/Hunter LE duo to support more pure pass rushers in Carter and Roth. This becomes a weakness of the team, although not nearly the weakness it probably should be considering that Carter, Hunter, and Roth all can get after the passer a little bit still.
Linebackers (117) – E.J. Henderson, David Hawthorne, Geno Hayes, Quentin Groves, Bradie James, Gary Guyton
The strength of the team. Henderson and Hawthorne are an excellent ILB group for sub packages. Geno Hayes is just 25 and is already a quality starter in this league, albeit coming off a poor season. Groves is a great backup who can help in blitz package schemes and isn’t yet thirty. James is over the age of 30, but can get after the passer as well. Guyton has been a nice contributor for the Patriots over the last four years.
Cornerbacks (61) – Terence Newman, Bryant McFadden, Alan Ball, Justin King
This is where we start to get to the point where we can’t build a great defense. That’s an excellent linebacker level we were able to build. But this group of cover guys can only achieve success with the presence of a great pass rush. This team’s best pass rushing duo is Andre Carter and Jason Hunter. That wouldn’t be the worst group in the league, but it also wouldn’t make the top 28. And then it’s on Terence Newman and Bryant McFadden to wear the treadmarks of the opposing defense.
Safeties (81) – Yeremiah Bell, Chris Harris, Jim Leonhard, Abram Elam
For as weak as teams are claiming the secondary market to be, that’s a pretty strong group of available safeties.
Kicker (0) – Neil Rackers
Punter (0) – Daniel Sepulveda
Long Snapper (2) – Ken Amato
Cumulatively, this team would be as deep as any team in the entire NFL. It’s problematic though that this team could not rush the passer, can’t stop the pass, and would ultimately find itself in shootouts with Vince Young or Donovan McNabb at quarterback. One thing this team would be excellent at is stopping the run. There are a ton of linebackers and box safeties out on the market, and the defensive lineman still out there are aging, but are disciplined and can hold at the point of attack.
This would be the oldest team in the league, by far. But it would also be the one least affected by injury to its starters, so that would curb the effects of being an old team a considerable amount.
I would expect this team to win between 6 and 8 games per season. Currently, between 1/8th and 1/4th of the league would be expected to win less than that. Which means that a team built entirely off of free agent scraps, and whose only limitation is no existing contracts could not only compete in the modern NFL, but could beat about 5 or 6 NFL teams consistently.
Yesterday’s article on free agency winners can be read here. Today, it’s six teams that probably hurt themselves more than they helped, plus two bonus teams who are going to end up on a list of FA losers, but don’t really deserve to.
The Texans were decimated by free agency, losing Mario Williams, Mike Brisiel, Jason Allen, and Joel Dresseen against their wills, and making the conscious decision to move Eric Winston and Demeco Ryans to avoid having to make them salary cap casualties in a year. The Texans have enough depth to weather those losses, but now their depth at all positions has been eliminated by circumstances. Luckily, with the draft still to go, the Texans aren’t looking to fill holes so much (they have to take a receiver early), so they can stay nice and tight to their draft board and try to replicate their cornerstone draft from 2006 (y’know, the one where they got Winston, Ryans, Williams, and Owen Daniels in the first place).
Just a year after going from one of the worst units we’ve ever seen to one of the best in the NFL, the Texans defense was the hardest hit by the losses and may reside somewhere around the middle of the pack in 2012. The Texans could live with that. The bigger problem from where I’m sitting is that Matt Schaub is in a contract year coming off of injury, and the Texans will be starting two different offensive linemen next year, lack depth at TE that was once a hallmark of their roster, and figure to be breaking in a rookie receiver like Kendall Wright or Stephen Hill. The Texans were one of the NFL’s best teams last year. Now they are a longshot to make it back to the playoffs. It will be interesting to see if Gary Kubiak really did get off the hot seat last season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
I was really hesitant to put them on this list at all, because the Bucs spent a lot of money (as the league will mandate starting in 2013), and didn’t really kill their cap positions. But none of their major signings (Vincent Jackson, Eric Wright, and Carl Nicks) really make them all that much better. With Jackson, if the Bucs were going to bring in anyone to mentor a young talented receiving corps, it had to be someone accomplished. But will the Bucs throw the jump balls downfield that Vincent Jackson loves to go and get from his time in San Diego? That’s not so clear.
Eric Wright, meanwhile, had an awful end to his one season in Detroit, following an awful end to his more promising time in Cleveland. And Wright just got a lot of money from the Bucs for once masquerading as a shut down man-to-man corner. Nicks is the safest investment of the group, in that unless he does something silly off the field — or gains a ton of weight — it won’t be obvious to even the trained eye whether he is dominating his competition, or just collecting a paycheck. When you send big money interior offensive lineman to small markets, you’ll never, ever be criticized. Except of course by the poor soul who makes fun of small market teams for having poor attendance.
The Bucs will be in good cap shape come 2014, but Josh Freeman needs to win now, and it’s not clear that the Bucs’ spending brought him much help. Of course, Jackson will only be as good as Freeman makes him, to it’s probably fair to put the ball in #5’s court.
New York Giants
Oh, boy. Here we go. Since Super Bowl 46 concluded, the Patriots and Giants drew up offseason plans that could be described as diametric opposites. The Patriots let the market set then started to amass talent. The Giants locked up Terrell Thomas, then re-signed David Carr, then brought in Martellus Bennett.
The Giants play in a division where they (like the team that’s next on the list) have to do something. The Cowboys didn’t go full out to make changes, they just released an ineffective corner for cap room, then gave big money to a much better corner. The Giants had great success last year watching guys walk in free agency and feeling comfortable about the roster they had, but that’s because the ball was in the Eagles and Cowboys’ court last year to prove they could catch the Giants. And even though the Giants are super bowl champs, they were fortunate to win the division, and likely entered free agency as the second or third best team in the NFC East. What worked for Jerry Reese in 2011 likely cannot work for him in 2012, and now, they are clearly the third best team in their own division.
Except maybe it’s not so clear…I hear the Redskins are getting a quarterback.
The problem is that the Redskins have no clue how to build around that quarterback. It’s not for lack of effort: Mike Shanahan’s whole plan following the Donovan McNabb debacle was to step back, keep continuity on his roster at quarterback, and build around a known weakness. The Redskins had mixed results to start the 2011 season, but by mid-season, mixed results turned to bad results, and Mike Shanahan started to spend time watching college tape instead of his own game film. Well, as someone who has broken down every Redskins game the past four seasons, I can assure him he didn’t miss anything: Shanahan failed to put the talent around Rex Grossman that he tried to.
Because they’ve struggled for so long, the Redskins are a better fit for a guy like Robert Griffin than the Colts are for a guy like Robert Griffin; there’s just more talent on the Redskins roster than there is on the Colts and Browns. Unfortunately for Redskins fans, add the Rams to that list and that about concludes the “list of teams the Redskins have more talent than.” Two of those teams are in about as clear of a rebuilding situation as you can possibly be in. The other also has a former coach atop it’s personnel department. So it’s fair to put that one on Mike Shanahan (and Mike Holmgren).
Now, the Redskins’ problem is that they hardly have any former first round picks on their roster. They ran LaRon Landry out of town one year after running Carlos Rogers out of town one year after running Jason Campbell out of town. They have Brian Orakpo, Trent Williams, and Ryan Kerrigan. They have Fred Davis and DL Jarvis Jenkins representing the second round. They’ll have Robert Griffin III. And that’s it. They won’t pick again in the first round until 2015. And by then, Shanahan will have run Orakpo and Davis out of town. So Griffin is pretty much doing this by himself.
Which is why the Redskins needed to bring in a lot of talent from other teams to make up for what they don’t have in draft picks. So they spent more than $11 million in cap on Pierre Garcon, Josh Morgan, and resigning backup DL Adam Carriker (a former first round pick!) on the first day. Exciting. Well, I suppose we’ll all know how good Robert Griffin III truly is in short time.
Cleveland Browns/Arizona Cardinals
The Browns and Cardinals owe it to their quarterback situations to create the best possible situations for them to succeed in, and for the Browns, that apparently meant to skip free agency entirely, while for the Cardinals, it meant “try to build the worst offensive line that money can buy.”
The Browns at least have an excuse that they will be doing the draft hardcore now that they weren’t able to get Robert Griffin, and so they don’t want to add mediocre veterans to that mix and block potential rookies who need the playing time to develop. But it’s hard to say exactly for sure what kind of timetable the Browns are on. Furthermore, when you have the fourth overall pick, and you know who the top three picks are going to be, you should be able to incorporate that selection into your free agency plans. The Browns did not, assuming they even bothered to make a free agency plan.
What the Cardinals did was worse though. They signed Adam Snyder to play RG, resigned Levi Brown with the intent of moving him back to RT, and let Brandon Keith walk (he remains unsigned). The Cardinals have an awful offensive line, and they signed D’Anthony Batiste, an awful backup, to be a backup. It’s going to be Kevin Kolb’s responsibility to get the ball out quick for this group, and when that plan A inevitably fails, then it will be John Skelton’s turn.
New Orleans Saints – The Saints are being mentioned in league circles as a loser in free agency because of one fact: the sanctions from the NFL on their franchise happened at a time where they were trying and failing to get franchise player Drew Brees under contract. That’s some bad PR.
Thing is, while wearing the exclusive franchise tag, Brees is effectively under contract. He doesn’t have to report to camp if he doesn’t sign his tender, sure, but he’s Drew Brees, quarterback of the Saints. You do not have to worry about him.
The Saints have done just fine in free agency with limited cap room. Their biggest challenge lies ahead with the loss of Sean Payton for the season and possible suspensions for their defensive players, the Saints could be very thin on that side of the ball in 2012. However, the Saints could be a big player in free agency late, because in the NFL, suspensions without pay (or with forfeiture of pay) free up team salary.
Miami Dolphins – Allow me to defend the Dolphins here for a moment: the only reason we perceive the Dolphins’ offseason as a catastrophic failure while we look at the Chiefs offseason as a rousing success is because the Dolphins’ owner is a little bit green and happens to put his franchise is a tough spot with his words too often. One of the two teams improved immensely at the quarterback position in free agency. It wasn’t the Chiefs.
The addition of David Garrard was a pretty smart move by Jeff Ireland, who needs to start stringing together smart moves in order to win games and keep his job. Ignoring the fact that one of the best FA QBs was on Ireland’s roster (Chad Henne), no team except the Broncos improved by as much at the QB position as the Dolphins did going from Matt Moore to Garrard. Garrard is also enough of a veteran to get out of the way next year for Ryan Tannehill (or whoever) to play quarterback.
The Dolphins really do have a good team, and made the correct decision to trade Brandon Marshall while only 31 teams know he’s not good enough to justify the headache he gives his quarterback, instead of 32 (sorry, Chicago). They aren’t a good organization, or one that seems to have any idea how to win in the long term. But for 2012, they’ve given themselves a fighting chance.
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.