NFL Free Agency, Day 3: Breakin’ Up

The third day of free agency was more notable for the players joining the market than the ones leaving the ranks of the unemployed. Two franchise stalwarts made their way toward the exit doors on Thursday, as Panthers wideout Steve Smith was cut after 13 seasons with the team, while 10-year Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork publicly requested to be released after the team reportedly asked him to restructure his contract. These two drastically different-size men have one thing in common: They both felt disrespected at the wrong time.

It admittedly does not take a ton to set off Smith’s sense of slight, which is why it’s relatively unclear how the situation at hand came to pass. There had been some vague-but-relatively-innocuous public comments by Panthers GM Dave Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera about Smith’s role with the team being under “evaluation,” but the situation continued to escalate behind closed doors to the point where Smith’s agent suggested on Wednesday that Mr. R&R was done in Carolina. It just appears like the Panthers had decided that Smith wasn’t worth the hassle.

His release Thursday also doesn’t make much sense for Carolina in the short term. It would have actually cost Carolina cap space to release Smith this year, so it has instead designated him as a post–June 1 release. That saves the Panthers $2 million in cap space this year versus what they were going to pay Smith, but they’ll have a $4 million dead money hit on next year’s cap, which only further extends the cap hell the organization has been struggling with for years. It also pushes Carolina’s offseason into the relatively disastrous ranks; the Panthers were already going to struggle to return the bulk of their roster from a year ago, but they’ve now lost Smith and left tackle Jordan Gross and have just $2.3 million in freed-up cap space to fill both spots.

Smith will instead hit the market in search of a new team. He’s already guaranteed $3 million from his Panthers contract with no offset, so he’ll be enjoying paychecks from two teams this season. Rumors have heavily linked him to Baltimore, which would be a natural landing point for both sides. The Ravens need a wide receiver, are perennial playoff contenders, and — perhaps most crucially — play the Carolina Panthers this year. When asked what might happen if he plays the Panthers as a member of another organization, Smith had a lot to say:

I want to make sure that whatever team I go to, they’re going to get the best, in-shape 35-year-old guy they can get. If that happens to run through Bank of America Stadium, put your goggles on ’cause there’s going to be blood and guts everywhere.

Is it possible for a football franchise to get a restraining order against an ex-player? In any case, Smith will likely have his pick of the Ravens, Patriots, and Broncos over the next few days.

Wilfork, meanwhile, appears to have invoked the “hometown premium” in requesting a move out of Massachusetts. The five-time Pro Bowler missed virtually all of the 2013 season after suffering a torn Achilles in September, which naturally led to concerns that the 32-year-old might come back as a shell of his former self.

It was no surprise, then, that the Patriots approached Wilfork and asked him to take a pay cut from the $7.5 million base salary due to him in 2014, the final year of his five-year deal. Wilfork reportedly blanched at the idea and has now requested to be released. That’s where the hometown premium comes into play. If Wilfork hits the market, he will almost surely fail to receive the $7.5 million he’s due from the Patriots this year, especially with the league having spent much of its cap space over the past 72 hours. In essence, he’ll be taking a pay cut regardless of whether he stays with the Patriots or leaves and signs somewhere else. Pride and principle appear to suggest that he would rather take $5 million (to pick a number) as a new contract from some other team than $5 million as part of a pay cut from the Patriots.

If New England released Wilfork, it would wipe $8 million off its 2014 cap, a meaningful amount given the $12 million recently carved out for Darrelle Revis. It would likely use the cap space to find a replacement for Wilfork — bringing B.J. Raji back to the Boston area could be one such option — and make a better offer to Julian Edelman, who is on his way to San Francisco to meet with the 49ers today. The Patriots hold most of the leverage here; they can choose to ignore Wilfork’s request and keep him for one more year at his current salary before making a long-term decision on his future next offseason. In either case, just one day after being feted for signing Revis, the Patriots’ offseason honeymoon is over.

Quick Hits

Some notes on the biggest signings from Day 3 …

Anthony Collins brought the left tackle market to a close by signing a five-year, $30 million deal to join the Buccaneers, who beat out the Panthers and Collins’s former employers in Cincinnati to give the 28-year-old $15 million in guaranteed money. The move made incumbent Donald Penn obsolete, and the Buccaneers released him later in the day. Collins is still a question mark, having started just 25 games over six seasons in Cincinnati as the team’s swing tackle. He was impressive in a seven-game stint last year, but most of that was spent playing left tackle next to Andrew Whitworth, one of the league’s best left tackles, who moved inside to accommodate Collins. Collins will presumably line up in Tampa next to Carl Nicks, who was once an All-Pro guard before missing most of the past two seasons with injuries. If things coalesce, Collins could look like a steal. More likely, though, Nicks won’t be 100 percent (or perhaps around at all), and Collins will have to sink or swim on his own.

Jason Hatcher continued Washington’s long-running fascination with defensive linemen from the rest of the NFC East, as it signed the 31-year-old to a four-year, $27.5 million contract. It’s a classic Washington overpay. Hatcher was a competent 3-4 end for most of his career in Dallas, but he broke out last year once Dallas moved to the 4-3 and played him as a penetrating defensive tackle. Under the tutelage of All-World defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, Hatcher had 11 sacks, nearly doubling his career total in the process. The Washington signing naturally takes him away from Marinelli, but it also moves him back into the 3-4, which hardly plays to his strengths. I thought the one-year deal Washington gave cornerback Tracy Porter was a much better move.

Speaking of NFC East defensive linemen, Justin Tuck brought his nine-year career with the Giants to a close on Thursday by signing a two-year, $11 million contract with the Raiders, who then completed their pass rush by adding LaMarr Woodley on a two-year, $12 million pact. Given Reggie McKenzie’s mandate to compete and the large amounts of cap space he has to burn in doing so, I found the two contracts to be reasonable. Tuck quietly had 11 sacks in a bounceback season a year ago, and while Woodley has struggled with injuries, he’s not too far removed from being one of the more impactful pass-rushers in the league. Woodley will move to defensive end in Oakland’s 4-3 in the process, and if the Raiders can find a defensive tackle or two, they’re actually going to have a pretty decent front seven.

If you’re interested in pairs of big-name pass-rushers joining woeful teams, today’s your lucky day; the Jaguars found two candidates for their Leo rush spot by re-signing Jason Babin and adding Chris Clemons from Seattle on a four-year, $17.5 million deal. As with many of the veterans Jacksonville’s been adding this offseason, Clemons’s deal is a tad more generous than you might expect, but it’s also easy to escape from with minimal cap penalties. (I doubt Babin makes it out of camp.) The concern here isn’t the cost of the contracts themselves, but the opportunity cost of signing a pair of players who are unlikely to be a part of Jacksonville’s next playoff team. The Jaguars desperately need to find a young pass-rusher who can become part of their long-term defensive core, and in Gus Bradley’s defense, the best place for that player to develop is the Leo. With Clemons and Babin in the way, that young rusher isn’t going to get the reps he needs to become a valuable contributor. The hidden subtext of the Clemons deal, then, is that the Jaguars don’t expect (or plan) to draft Jadeveon Clowney with their first-round pick.

I liked Minnesota’s move for Captain Munnerlyn, who excelled as Carolina’s top cornerback a year ago. At 25, Munnerlyn has every right to continue to grow as a player, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he outplayed the three-year, $14.3 million contract he just signed with the Vikings. He’ll start on the outside across from 2013 first-rounder Xavier Rhodes and move inside in obvious passing situations, where he excels. The only concern: It’s not going to be fun for Vikings fans when they have to watch the 5-foot-8 Munnerlyn cover one of Chicago’s mammoth wide receivers twice a year.

The most bizarre deal of the day belonged to Tennessee, which signed Charlie Whitehurst to a two-year, $8 million deal to serve as Jake Locker’s backup, cutting Ryan Fitzpatrick in the process. Whitehurst undoubtedly owes his deal to Ken Whisenhunt, who coached him in San Diego last year before taking over the Tennessee job. While Whitehurst will likely need to hit incentives to hit the full $8 million, giving him anything beyond the league minimum seems bizarre. The 31-year-old has thrown all of 155 passes during his eight years in the league, completing 54.2 percent of those throws while averaging just 5.2 yards per attempt. He’s no longer a prospect, but he doesn’t have the experience to play the grizzled backup role, either. (Britney Spears wrote a song about that once.) Even more distressingly, though, the signing evokes images of Whisenhunt’s affection for tall, inaccurate passers with great arm strength in Arizona. Whitehurst would have fit right in with the likes of John Skelton and Derek Anderson. Other teams pay a premium for their backup quarterbacks so they have some peace of mind they won’t have to play a replacement-level passer if their starter gets hurt. The Titans are now paying a premium for that replacement-level passer.

The 10 Best Free Agents Left

In no particular order, the best players left on the market, and where they might go:

Donald Penn is probably somewhere around the 20th-best left tackle in the league, which is a pretty valuable asset, especially if you’re not committed to him for typical left tackle money. He’s currently traveling to Oakland, where the Raiders both have a lot of cap space and are still in need of a left tackle; their only competition would be the Panthers, who have no money. If McKenzie can distract Mark Davis with a “Great Bowl Cuts of the 20th Century” VHS tape long enough for Penn to finish his physical, this deal should be wrapped up relatively quickly.

Julius Peppers and Jared Allen have both attracted little attention since hitting free agency. That doesn’t necessarily indicate a lack of interest, but instead a huge gap between the amount of money Allen (31 years old) and Peppers (34) want to come back for another season and the amount that teams are willing to pay them. Allen has publicly threatened to retire if nobody meets his demands, but I strongly doubt he’s going to pass up one last payday. It’s entirely possible these two could sit out in the marketplace for a long time — perhaps all the way to the middle of training camp — but I still think they’ll end up playing somewhere in 2014. With DeMarcus Ware taking the primo veteran pass-rusher spot in Denver, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Allen or Peppers end up as his replacement in Dallas.

Henry Melton was probably hoping for a long-term deal after making the Pro Bowl in 2012, but a torn ACL last September dashed those chances. He’ll likely settle for a one-year deal and hope to return to the free-agent market after a productive, healthy 2014. He visited the Vikings, but it’s hard to see how a move there would make sense, given that they already have 2013 first-rounder Sharrif Floyd and new signee Linval Joseph manning the two tackle spots there. Melton is also visiting Seattle and would make the most sense for the Cowboys, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Raiders outbid Dallas for his services. He could also return to Chicago.

B.J. Raji is currently regretting his decision to turn down a long-term contract extension from the Packers in 2012, which would have paid him $20 million in guaranteed cash. Raji’s stock has continued to fall precipitously since that point, and he hasn’t even gone on a visit during the first 72 hours of free agency. It seems likely he’ll return to the Packers at this point, probably on a one-year deal for less than the $4 million Green Bay offered him two months ago.

Shaun Phillips was one of those guys who took a one-year deal to play for a Super Bowl contender last year in the hopes of putting up an impressive season and hitting the free-agent market the following campaign. Well, he finished with 10 sacks, stayed healthy all season, made it to the Super Bowl, and … nobody’s snapped him up. That’s odd. Phillips isn’t a star, but plenty of teams could use an above-average pass-rusher for a couple million bucks. If his price tag comes down, I wonder if he might make his way back to either of his old stomping grounds, as both the Broncos and Chargers could use him.

Daryl Smith was another player on a one-year deal a year ago who impressed; his ability in coverage and as a natural team leader has a lot of teams interested, but his price tag has to come down from the $6 million range. He’d actually be a great fit for the Broncos, given their desperate need for a middle linebacker and his experience playing for Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville.

Ben Tate has more upside than any other running back available in free agency, but the market for halfbacks is again soft, which has to be disappointing, given that Tate’s been waiting to get out from Arian Foster’s shadow for years now. Weather issues prevented him from making a visit to Cleveland before now, and that’s a very logical destination for him, given that there’s just not many starting halfback jobs available. Miami could make sense if Cleveland doesn’t work out.

Chris Clemons (the safety) remains available, having lost the leaguewide game of safety musical chairs that went down on Wednesday. As with halfbacks, though, there just aren’t very many free safety gigs left around the league. The Bills and Jets could both use upgrades and would allow Clemons to stay in the division; if he leaves the AFC East and is willing to take a one-year deal, the Chiefs might pounce.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is the best free agent left on the market, which is why his story might be the saddest. On Thursday, reports suggested that DRC turned down a six-year, $54 million deal from Denver before the team signed Aqib Talib. Now, just two days later, he’ll struggle to sniff that $9 million per year figure. I wonder if he’s the guy the Raiders target with all their cap space; they could certainly use a cornerback across from D.J. Hayden. He’d also be a good option for the Jets, but given that they just cut DRC’s cousin Antonio, taking Gang Green’s money would make for some awkward family reunions. You make your own Antonio Cromartie family reunion joke.

Filed Under: NFL, NFL Free Agency, Bill Barnwell

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

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