NFL Free Agency, Day 2: An Island Unto Himself

After Tuesday’s year-opening spending spree indiscriminately heaped barrels of cash on large, athletic men, Day 2 of free agency saw the league’s franchises begin to target the best remaining players available and pick off the last star-caliber player at a number of positions. And while the day started with the much-anticipated signing of DeMarcus Ware by the Denver Broncos, it finished with a number of surprises, culminating in the Patriots’ move for star cornerback Darrelle Revis. New England might not be able to compete with the volume of weaponry its rival in Denver has acquired this offseason, but in Revis, it might have picked up the best free agent of them all.

Revis Eyes New England

Maybe we should have seen this coming. When the Buccaneers announced they were going to move on from Revis earlier this week, my initial thought was that he would end up with the Jets, who made sense for a number of reasons: They needed a no. 1 cornerback, had a ton of cap room, and employed a coach (Rex Ryan) who had molded Revis into the game’s best corner for a time before Revis’s torn ACL in 2012. Once the Revis trade trail seemed to go cold and the Broncos signed Aqib Talib, smoke started to form around the Patriots, a team that rarely invests heavily in free agency. It’s not unprecedented for Bill Belichick to go out and sign a defensive player at a top-dollar rate — he did so with Rosevelt Colvin in 2003 and again with Adalius Thomas in 2007 — but once the rumors started to circle around Revis heading to New England, his eventual arrival in Foxborough felt more and more inevitable.

The Patriots struck with an interesting deal. Revis will get a one-year contract for $12 million, with no word yet on how the contract will be guaranteed or what sort of incentives or options are in play. Revis surely could have gotten more on a long-term deal, given the contracts handed out to Vontae Davis ($20 million guaranteed) and Talib ($26 million guaranteed), neither of whom have the track record of the former All-Pro corner. Instead, Revis is betting on himself after an uneven season in Tampa Bay, where he showed flashes of his typical brilliance, but struggled with consistency while recovering from a torn ACL and playing more zone coverage than he would have liked. He wasn’t the top cornerback in the league, but it’s certainly fair to say he was somewhere around the 10th-best corner in the NFL last year, and he should be better in 2014. Revis clearly expects to have a big season on a competitive team before hitting the market again next year; the Patriots could franchise him, as his contract does not contain language preventing them from doing so, but they would owe him $14.4 million, and Revis has a history of getting disgruntled when the money’s not right.

It’s also a low-risk, high-reward move for the Patriots. For all Belichick’s schematic brilliance, the Patriots simply couldn’t afford to go into 2014 with Alfonzo Dennard and Logan Ryan as their starting cornerbacks. Revis represented a rare chance to acquire a true superstar in the prime of his career without having to deal away an asset, an opportunity that only happens once every few years. Any team in the league would sign Revis on a one-year, $12 million deal if it could. I don’t know if the Patriots will necessarily keep Revis over the long haul, as Belichick has happily let the likes of Ty Law and Asante Samuel leave in the past when their salary demands were too high, but if the worst case is one year of an excellent cornerback, the Patriots will happily take it.

The Revis contract also puts the problems with the Broncos’ Talib deal into further focus. As I wrote yesterday, that the Broncos are pushing all in to try to win a title over the next three years doesn’t in itself make the Talib contract a bright idea. By giving Talib an enormous deal, you run into the opportunity cost of making an alternative deal/set of deals that would give your team an even better chance of winning a title in the near future. The Broncos might not have had the opportunity to sign Revis to this same contract even had they passed on Talib, but if they had, they could have brought Revis in on a much friendlier deal than Talib’s and used the long-term money they saved to target another impact defender. Teams can’t always be sure a given player will become available, but it’s usually the case that somebody unexpected ends up hitting the market, and the team whose cap is best prepared to absorb such an opportunity ends up getting a good deal. That’s how the Ravens brought in Elvis Dumervil last season.

In all, it’s a spectacular victory for the Patriots, a modest loss for the Buccaneers (who save $16 million on their salary cap but lose a great player after one year for nothing), a disastrous moment for the Jets, and a disappointing riposte for the Broncos, who had appeared to lap the AFC after they made their big move for a pass-rusher early Wednesday afternoon.

Ware House

I hope you don’t need me to tell you Ware is going to make the Broncos a better football team. What’s even better for Denver and general manager John Elway — whom I perhaps sold short by describing him as the ad copy of a Viagra commercial come to life on Wednesday’s podcast — is that, unlike the Talib deal, Ware’s contract isn’t particularly onerous. His deal with Denver is a three-year, $30 million agreement that guarantees the 31-year-old $20 million, somehow less than Michael Johnson and as much as Everson Griffen or Paul Kruger. Ware is coming off an injury-scarred season that marked his first time missing action and his first season since 2005 with fewer than 11 sacks. He should be better in 2014, and having spent his time in Dallas lining up across from the likes of Greg Ellis, Anthony Spencer, and George Selvie, a recovering Von Miller should make things far easier for Ware than they have been in recent seasons. In terms of value, Talib can only really live up to his deal, but not surpass it — even if he plays like the best cornerback in football next year, he’s also being paid accordingly. A great season from Ware would be more valuable than the amount he’s paid. That’s usually the sign of a good contract.

What does Denver do next? They could clear out up to $5.5 million by releasing backup tight ends Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen, but are likely done swinging for the fences and will address some needs in the draft. However, they’re still down a middle linebacker, a guard, and a cornerback to chip in across from Talib. This is where the Broncos might very well wait until next week and let the market reveal some veterans who might be willing to take a cheap contract. Would they bring back the likes of Champ Bailey and Shaun Phillips if their markets stay cold?

The Broncos did lose their most valuable free agent for good late Wednesday night when wide receiver Eric Decker agreed to terms on a five-year deal with the Jets. Decker was a pre-free-agency flash point out of concerns that a team would get blown away by his numbers as a secondary weapon in the league’s greatest offense and pay him like he’s a truly elite no. 1 receiver. It might have been such an obvious case, in fact, that the entire league forgot to play along. Decker’s contract ends up actually looking rather reasonable, given New York’s clear desperation for a receiver of any merit and Decker’s status as the best wideout available by a comfortable margin; his five-year pact only guarantees him $15 million, with a maximum value of $36.25 million. That’s about halfway between the contracts of Brian Hartline and Greg Jennings, and Decker is a better option than either of those two. Decker’s numbers will be disappointing next year by the sheer difference of moving from Peyton Manning to Geno Smith, but the Jets got their man at a very reasonable price. It’s a good piece of business for general manager John Idzik, who also added right tackle Breno Giacomini from the Seahawks earlier in the day. He’ll need to move on a cornerback to replace the departed Antonio Cromartie next, but the best corner left on the market is Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Antonio’s cousin. Awkward.

Feel the Lovey

Having cleared out $16 million in cap space with the Revis release, the Buccaneers put some of their savings to use by signing a new quarterback. Former Bears backup Josh McCown got a two-year deal worth $10 million, and Lovie Smith instantly put any talk of a quarterback competition with Mike Glennon to rest by saying McCown was his quarterback shortly thereafter. I can’t say I’m fond of the move. For whatever talk you’ll hear about how McCown is a leader and how he’s finally getting the opportunity he deserved, the league had seen 1,113 pass attempts from Josh McCown from 2002 through 2012 and decided he was a backup quarterback worth no more than the veteran’s minimum. The Buccaneers are only installing him as their starter and paying him like a top-level backup because of McCown’s great 224-pass stretch last year, during which he flukishly managed to throw just one interception. Maybe McCown is a totally different player than the guy everybody thought he was before he connected with Marc Trestman and Alshon Jeffery. More likely, he’s the more recent equivalent of Damon Huard, who had a similarly stunning 244-attempt campaign with one pick in 2006, won the starting job in Kansas City, and then completely went back to his former self the following year. McCown seems likely to follow the same path, and I wonder if the Buccaneers might have been better off considering the likes of Michael Vick or the soon-to-be-released Matt Schaub.

Saffold Match

I didn’t think it was possible for the Raiders to seem less inviting for free agents, but on Wednesday, they managed to surprise me. While their decision to sign offensive lineman Rodger Saffold to a five-year, $42.5 million contract on Tuesday was widely panned, nobody could have expected the Raiders to bail on the deal a day later. When a pre-signing physical showed that Saffold would require shoulder surgery that would keep him out until training camp, owner Mark Davis reportedly decided to rescind the offer to Saffold. Did Davis go above general manager Reggie McKenzie’s head and make the move after hearing his team was overpaying for a marginal talent? It’s impossible to say for sure, but the perception that Davis might have done just that could be enough on its own.

While Saffold was probably going to be a bad signing, the Raiders aren’t really in much better shape after voiding his deal, either. Most of the marquee free agents that Oakland would have chosen to go after with their ample cap space are already off the market, which leaves the Raiders — and especially McKenzie — between a rock and a hard place. If McKenzie spends the $60 million or so available to him now, he’ll end up massively overpaying afterthoughts and players with warts just to get them to consider coming to Oakland. That’s no way to build a successful franchise, and McKenzie knows it. If he doesn’t spend the cap space available to him, though, the Raiders are going to be the worst team in football and get McKenzie fired. The only thing cap space can’t buy an NFL general manager is time.

The jilted Saffold didn’t stay unemployed for long, as the Rams re-signed him to a five-year deal with undisclosed terms, but one which will unquestionably pale in comparison to the deal he signed with Oakland. The left tackle market is now, again, down to just Anthony Collins, who is reportedly mulling offers from the Bengals, Buccaneers, and Panthers. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Raiders try to top those offers in a desperate attempt to find a left tackle.

What to Watch for on Day 3

1. Will Steve Smith’s time with the Panthers come to an end? As Carolina shops for a left tackle to replace the retired Jordan Gross, it might very well need to find a no. 1 receiver at the same time. It appears the Panthers are cutting ties with their longtime star wideout, with Smith’s agent publicly suggesting yesterday that Smith would never play for the Panthers again. Carolina is theoretically looking for a trade partner right now, but nobody is going to be interested in paying a 34-year-old wideout $7 million. The Panthers will eventually cut Smith and almost surely designate him as a post–June 1 release, but even if they do, they’ll only save $1 million on this year’s cap while incurring an additional $4 million on dead money on their cap in 2015. (They would actually lose $2 million in cap space by cutting Smith without such a designation.) That move is expected to happen Thursday.

Three AFC teams stand out as likely landing points for Smith; the Broncos and Patriots can’t sign every veteran who hits the market, but they’re both in the market for a secondary wide receiver. There seems to be more smoke linking Smith to the Ravens, who have a famously high tolerance for crazy and are in desperate need of a playmaker across from Torrey Smith. Carolina, meanwhile, continues to lose key contributors for whom it cannot afford replacements. I still think it ends up going after Hakeem Nicks on a short-term deal, but its long-term replacement for Smith might very well be coming in May’s draft.

2. How does the pass-rushing market shake out now that Ware’s signed? There are still three notable veterans left on the market in Julius Peppers, Justin Tuck, and Jared Allen, who is rumored to be considering retirement if nobody matches his contractual demands. Let’s hope Allen still owns the trademark to the “Wine ’Em, Dine ’Em, 69 ’Em” slogan from the bar he once owned in Kansas City. As it turns out, opening a bar in one town and then demanding a trade out of that town two months later does not bode well for the lifespan of your bar. It might behoove Peppers and Tuck to send Allen tile swatches and recipes for jalapeño poppers, since their market will be brighter if Allen’s not interested in playing in 2014.

3. Does anybody want Michael Vick? You already know Vick’s relative strengths and weaknesses, but he’s both the best quarterback left on the market and the only one with the upside to play at a Pro Bowl–caliber level if everything goes right. At the very least, given that they have no quarterback of note, the Raiders should consider signing Vick to sell jerseys. It might distract Davis long enough for everyone to hold on to their job for another year.

4. Are the Colts and Bengals going to put their cap space to work? Cincinnati and Indy both have more than $30 million in cap space available, but they’ve each had relatively quiet beginnings to the new year. The Bengals let Johnson leave in free agency and cut starting center Kyle Cook, while their highest-profile signing this offseason has been the re-signing of utility lineman Mike Pollak. They might still re-sign Collins, but their shopping list could include one of the centers remaining in free agency; would they consider making a big offer to Browns center Alex Mack, tagged as a transition player? [Editor’s note: Collins was signed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers shortly after this article was published.]

The Colts did re-up Vontae Davis and sign Arthur Jones away from the Ravens, but they’re also in the market for a center (possibly Mack) and a replacement for Antoine Bethea at safety. General manager Ryan Grigson usually likes to target younger players with midlevel deals, but there are not many options like that left on the market. Somebody like 26-year-old Nate Allen or 28-year-old Thomas DeCoud, the latter of whom made the Pro Bowl for the Falcons in 2012, could make some sense.

5. Will Ben Tate settle for less? While the longtime Houston backup was expecting to follow the Michael Turner path and turn his solid performance as a part-time back into a hefty deal in free agency, most of the league seems to have finally realized you don’t need to spend very much on free-agent running backs. Tate is in line for a three-year deal in the $13 million range, but that might not be enough; Tate might very well prefer to go somewhere he can start, like Cleveland, and play at a high level just long enough to earn a bigger deal in free agency next year.

Filed Under: NFL, NFL Free Agency, New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, Darrelle Revis, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Bill Barnwell

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell