If there were a particularly bold-yet-rational NFL team out there, it might very well be smart to use the first week of free agency as a mandatory vacation. The first day of free agency often produces a dizzying number of terrible contracts, and with the extra $10 million unexpectedly handed out by the league just before the market opened, this year looks like no exception. There’s still enough money being thrown around for the remainder of the first week to fill up anybody’s fair share of subprime deals; arguably the most-panned deal of free agency that actually stuck (besides the failed Raiders bid for Rodger Saffold) was the four-year, $20 million deal the Titans gave former Ravens tackle Michael Oher, and that didn’t come in until Friday, three days after the new league year began.
If history is any guide, it seems to take about a week for the bargains to start showing up. Players who are desperate to avoid losing the real-life game of roster musical chairs call their agents in a panic, insisting upon taking an offer that might have seemed anathema just a few days earlier. There are built-in advantages to those deals, too; they’re often one-year pacts designed to get the player back out into the free-agency market after a solid season, ensuring a motivated year while limiting the downside risk of dead money that lingers after a poor signing is cut. They’re also usually signed with the league’s smarter teams, organizations that leave themselves just enough money in their budget to add a valuable piece or two once those pieces’ prices have come down. Some of the best free-agent signings of the year come after the first week has come and gone. Think Donte Whitner and Carlos Rogers in San Francisco in 2011, or Karlos Dansby and John Abraham in Arizona last year.
Monday marks the seventh day of free agency, which means we’re about to hit the point where bargains will begin to reveal themselves. Allow me to point out a few. You’ll notice a few trends in here — players who were hurt a year ago, guys who might be past their prime, even some who were benched last season — but at this point in the market, the guys in their prime who played great last year have already been overpaid. The only player like that left in the marketplace is Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and he’s probably going to get snapped up Monday. Let’s run through some of the players left unemployed who could be the success stories of 2014, starting with one high-variance quarterback:
Michael Vick, QB: Even allowing that NFL franchises are the most risk-averse species known to man, I can’t fathom a world in which the likes of Matt Cassel and Charlie Whitehurst are signing two-year contracts ahead of Vick. You don’t need me to tell you about Vick’s strengths and weaknesses, but it certainly seems fair to say he has a much higher upside than those guys, right? If you’re a team like the Titans that has a young quarterback who probably isn’t going to make it, whom would you rather have as your backup? Whitehurst isn’t going to test anybody, and if you’re stuck playing him, you’re just as screwed as you would be picking up any schlub off the street. At least with Vick, there’s the possibility he stays healthy long enough to swing a few games in your favor. A middling team would be much better off giving Vick $6 million on a one-year deal with incentives than it would be signing Cassel to a two-year, $10 million contract. If it doesn’t work out, guess what? Cassel is not going to work out anyway, and you can find 10 more mediocre backup quarterbacks in free agency next year. The Raiders should wise up while they still have the chance.
Maurice Jones-Drew, RB: Three years ago, MJD was the most productive back in the league, leading the NFL in rushing yards. He also led the league in carries, which might very well be related to his six-game season the following year. He was productive on a per-carry basis in both those seasons, though, before posting the worst season of his career by a wide margin — 3.4 yards per carry after never dipping below 4.2 yards per pop — last season. Is he done? Possibly. MJD was also playing behind a terrible line against nine-man fronts on a team with absolutely no interest in competing. He’s still on the right side of 30, and while he’s been around forever, he had only three seasons with the workload of a true no. 1 back. Jones-Drew is also a solid receiver and a willing pass-blocker (ask Shawne Merriman if you’ve forgotten), so he doesn’t necessarily have to be a dominant rusher to justify a deal. On a one-year contract, he would make for a useful second banana alongside Montee Ball in Denver.
Santonio Holmes, WR: Holmes’s numbers have dropped off precipitously since his glory days with the Steelers, as he followed a 1,248-yard breakout season in 2009 by being dismissed and sent to the Jets for a nominal return. Holmes has failed to top 746 yards since, and he suffered a Lisfranc injury that kept him out for most of the 2012 season. He also has, shall we say, an uneven reputation as a teammate. Now, may I remind you who his quarterbacks were during his time with the Jets? That, more than anything, dramatically depressed Holmes’s production. He just turned 30, and the Lisfranc injury should be all but gone after an offseason of rest. I don’t think Holmes would make sense for a team with no leadership in the locker room, but for a veteran team like the Chiefs, I can think of worse ideas than bringing him in on a one-year deal to see if he looks better with a competent quarterback around.
Wade Smith, G: Nobody in Houston looks particularly appetizing after last year’s 2-14 campaign, but the 32-year-old Smith held down left guard on one of the league’s best lines for several years and was a Pro Bowler in 2012. He was athletic and versatile enough to play tackle earlier in his career, and while Smith might not be an every-down option there anymore, there’s still enough here to justify bringing him in as a utility lineman, especially for a zone-blocking team like the Seahawks.
Anthony Spencer, DE/LB: The last time we saw Spencer was in 2012, when he produced 11 sacks for the Cowboys and made it to Hawaii for the first time. Well, on a trip paid for by the NFL. He might have gone on his own before. The Cowboys franchised him for the second consecutive season, only for Spencer to undergo an offseason knee scope that didn’t take, leading to season-ending microfracture surgery after one game. Now, seven months later, Spencer is yet to sniff an offer. I used to argue that Spencer was overvalued by the Cowboys because he played across from DeMarcus Ware, but this is a totally different price point. Some team is going to give him a one-year deal with incentives and a small amount of guaranteed money, and it might very well get eight or nine sacks out of it. An organization like the Colts would have little to lose on such an offer.
Will Smith, DE: Likewise, Smith tore his ACL in August while being stretched into a new role as a 3-4 outside linebacker, one which hardly played to his strengths as a pass-rusher. The Saints were always going to cut him this offseason given his $11.5 million cap hit, but it’s hard to imagine the 32-year-old won’t be able to help somebody as a situational end this year.
Henry Melton, DT: Arguably the highest-upside player left on the market, Melton is another one who tore his ACL in 2013 after a Pro Bowl season the year before. He really found a role in Chicago as a penetrating defensive tackle in its 4-3 alignment, which is why the idea of suiting him up in Seattle has been so tantalizing. There doesn’t appear to be a financial fit there, but with rumors currently linking Melton to the Cowboys to play Jason Hatcher’s old role, it’s hard to imagine the Seahawks wouldn’t be able to outbid the cap-strapped Cowboys if they so desired. If Melton is willing to take a one-year deal to reestablish himself, they would be wise to do so.
Thomas DeCoud, S: DeCoud struggled notably at times during 2013 and was released by the Falcons to clear up much-needed cap space. He was also, for one, playing free safety behind two rookie cornerbacks for virtually the entire season. All the way back in 2012, the Falcons liked DeCoud enough to give him a five-year, $17.5 million extension, and he responded to the new deal by picking off six passes and making his first Pro Bowl. DeCoud turns 29 on Wednesday, but there is still enough here for a safety-poor team like the Bills, Chiefs, or Lions to try to buy low.
In one of the weirder sentences regarding free agency I’ll write this offseason, the busiest team in the market this weekend was the Patriots, and the team that brought in the biggest name at the highest price was the Packers. Those are two pretty smart football teams, but I’m not sure what they did will live up to the expectations.
The moves made by the Patriots after the Darrelle Revis signing were seen as a response to Denver’s aggressive free-agency period, in what’s amounted to an arms race between the teams. I don’t think it quite reads that way. What the Patriots are doing is in response to the Broncos, all right, but it’s not to emulate them; it’s to emulate the Seahawks. Seattle stopped Denver with big, talented cornerbacks who were able to disrupt its wideouts and force things underneath, and Seattle took advantage of Denver’s lack of depth by employing a passing game that went four-deep at receiver. The Patriots made efforts to improve in both spots this weekend.
Having already signed Revis, New England supplemented its new star cornerback by adding another. Former Seahawks starter Brandon Browner signed a three-year, $17 million deal to join up with Bill Belichick’s group, presumably to start across from Revis. It’s a curious move. For one, Browner is suspended for the first four games of the 2014 season, which already limits his availability in what would likely be the most productive season of his deal. Browner looked great during his two years as a regular starter in Seattle, but that was while playing alongside a dominant secondary that got better once it replaced him with Walter Thurmond (and then better still with Byron Maxwell). That was also while playing for noted defensive back whisperer Pete Carroll, who isn’t part of the bargain in New England. If he’s the player he looked like in 2012, Browner will be a steal, even at this price, but it was surprising to see a deal so big for a player with so many question marks.
The Patriots followed the Browner signing with a pair of moves at receiver. The team clinched the crucial re-signing of slot receiver Julian Edelman after the known Brady binky visited San Francisco. Terms of the deal are undisclosed, but my guess is that all sides realized Edelman is worth more to the Patriots than he is anywhere else and acted accordingly. More surprising was the three-year, $11 million deal handed to former Panthers wideout Brandon LaFell, who has posted precious few signs of breaking out during his four-year career. With the Panthers desperate for the 6-foot-2 LaFell to keep teams honest across from Steve Smith, all LaFell has managed is three consecutive seasons with between 613 and 677 receiving yards.
LaFell has the athleticism to be a red zone threat and a matchup problem, but it’s hard not to see him and think about the last time Belichick went after a tall Panthers receiver. Then, it was 2002, and Belichick filled out his wideout corps by adding Donald Hayes from Carolina after his rookie contract expired. Hayes had upside and was expected to start, but he struggled in camp and made it through only one season before being released by the Pats and never playing another NFL down. In case I’m not being clear, even if you think Revis and Talib cancel out, I think Denver signing T.J. Ward and DeMarcus Ware is a lot more meaningful than New England adding Browner and LaFell and re-signing Edelman.
Denver’s most recent foray into the market brought it wideout Emmanuel Sanders, but not without some controversy. Sanders had apparently already agreed to the outline of a deal with Kansas City, only for his agent to renege on the agreement and shop it around to other teams before eventually coming to terms with the Broncos. Teams really don’t like it when agents do that, and the Chiefs were furious at the move. Sanders’s agent is Steve Weinberg, who has only three clients and might be about to lose two of them. In the end, while you might eventually have to die on a hill, chances are you want that hill to be more meaningful than Sanders. He has some upside as a wideout in the Denver offense, obviously, but I still wonder whether the Broncos might take a wide receiver early in this year’s draft.
Out of Pep?
The largest signing of the weekend in terms of total money, meanwhile, might also have been its most surprising. After his market had seemed relatively quiet for days, Julius Peppers suddenly came to terms on a three-year deal with, of all teams, the Green Bay Packers. The three-year, $30 million deal guarantees Peppers only $7.5 million, but even that’s a lot to pay for a player who attracted criticism during a disappointing 2013 season.
I’m a big fan of Peppers and think he’ll bounce back this year, but it’s hard to really figure out where he fits with the Packers. He’s obviously still a freak athlete, even in his mid-thirties, but Peppers is listed at 6-foot-7 and 287 pounds. Nominally, 4-3 defensive ends tend to move to outside linebacker when they switch to the 3-4, as Peppers is doing here, but he would be the biggest starting outside linebacker in football at that weight by about 15 pounds. He could line up with his hand in the dirt on third downs, but the Packers aren’t signing him to be a pass-rush specialist on third downs. They’re paying him like he’s an every-snap player.
It seems unlikely Peppers would suddenly become a two-gap defensive end in the 3-4 at this point in his career, but I wonder if the Packers are seeing what Justin Smith has done for the 49ers and thinking Peppers could be a similar sort of player for them. Smith is undersize for a 3-4 end, and he’s a few pounds lighter than Peppers, but he’s an incredible athlete and manages to both stay off blocks in the running game while occupying blockers long enough for Aldon Smith to make plays behind and around him as a pass defender. If you line up Peppers with Clay Matthews on one side, well, there’s a lot of athleticism there for opposing offenses to deal with.
It’s also a rare big-money investment for Ted Thompson. The longtime Packers general manager mostly eschews free agency, but he’s dipped into the market in the past and come away with legendary corner Charles Woodson and useful defensive lineman Ryan Pickett. Peppers might turn out to be an experiment who gets dumped after a single year, but Hall of Fame–caliber talents have a way of molding themselves into key contributors regardless of scheme, and Peppers could very well be that guy. At least it’s not Charles Tillman, Bears fans.