The first day of the NFL league year is also the dumbest day of the NFL league year. The NFL officially opened for business for 2013 at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, with the beginning of the new 365-day NFL calendar coinciding with the opening of free agency. And like an army of mothers waiting to pounce outside a Walmart at 4 a.m. on Black Friday, the league’s organizations, agents, and players were ready to conduct a flurry of transactions. There’s one notable difference between the two groups of hungry shoppers, though: There are bargains waiting inside that Walmart that aren’t available on any other day all year. The NFL general managers? They’re fighting to pay more to players than those players would otherwise receive on any other day of the year. The first day of the NFL league year is also the most expensive day of the NFL league year.
There were no truly egregious megacontracts handed out Tuesday, although there were certainly some deals that began to approach that category. Instead, teams dutifully ignored my warnings about the excess of availablility in the marketplace and gave millions of dollars to a bunch of just-another-guys.1 Players who would have gotten a couple million dollars if they had signed next week got three or four times that figure in guaranteed money Tuesday. Good for them and great work by their agents, but that sort of behavior in this marketplace simply beggars belief.
And if you don’t believe my opinion on the market, take it from somebody who’s a lot more experienced than me, legendary Packers beat writer Bob McGinn: “Unreal, maybe unprecedented number of capable vets cut on eve of UFA.”
Those inquiries begin in Indianapolis, where Jim Irsay took to Twitter with 23 exclamation points before revealing that his organization had signed Donald Thomas!!!!!!!!!!!! and Lawrence Sidbury!!!!!!!!!!!! The terms on those two contracts aren’t yet public at the time of writing, but the three deals by the Colts for which financial figures were released were among the most curious contracts of the day. Lions right tackle Gosder Cherilus got $34 million over five years, with a $10 million bonus forming part of his to-be-announced guarantee, and Cardinals cornerback Greg Toler took home $15 million over three years to presumably serve as a starter across from the re-signed Darius Butler. You can understand the logic in signing Cherilus, even if he’s coming off of German knee therapy and was regarded as the best run-blocker on a team that couldn’t run the ball. Protecting Andrew Luck is important. In his four-year career, Toler served as the guy people targeted as the weak spot in the Arizona secondary. He’s a useful guy on a rookie deal, but it seems dangerous to give $5 million per year to a player who has missed almost 40 percent of his pro games.
What was truly shocking was the the four-year, $16 million deal Indianapolis gave to Packers outside linebacker Erik Walden. Last seen befuddled and terrified at the sight of Colin Kaepernick and the Pistol in the NFC divisional round, Walden was a practice-squad journeyman who caught on as an injury replacement during Green Bay’s Super Bowl run. He was below average in 2011, couldn’t find a long-term deal around the league, and was only a starter in 2012 because the guy the Packers drafted to replace him (Nick Perry) got hurt. The guy he traded reps with during that Super Bowl run, Frank Zombo, was not tendered by the Packers on Tuesday and now is available on the market. Zombo is arguably every bit as good as Walden is, if not better, so why is one of those two players going to get a league-minimum offer while the other one gets $4 million per year? Because Erik Walden signed on the opening day of free agency. That’s why.
Kansas City followed a similar path to and through obscurity. The Chiefs’ three conquests — at a combined $37 million over three- and four-year deals — included Saints backup quarterback Chase Daniel, Dolphins tight end Anthony Fasano, and Jets defensive lineman Mike DeVito. It’s true that the Chiefs do need depth; after all, they somehow went 2-14 and ended up with six Pro Bowlers. Again, this is a buyer’s market for average veterans, so why are the Chiefs paying a premium to lock up borderline starters and a backup quarterback? If they waited a week on DeVito and Fasano, the Chiefs could have come back and added a half-dozen guys of similar quality at half the total cost of these contracts. DeVito might be better than somebody like Rocky Bernard or Alan Branch, but he’s not three or four times better than them, and he’s going to earn three or four times what they’ll likely make in 2013.
The big spenders of the day, obviously, were the Miami Dolphins. They finally landed their big fish in free agency, locking up Steelers wideout Mike Wallace with a five-year, $60 million deal that guarantees him a whopping $30 million. Is Wallace worth that much? I’m honestly not sure. I was higher on him last year (when I wrote that glowing free-agent book on his behalf) than I am after a disappointing 2012 campaign in which his yards per catch and yards per game figures notably fell off, producing a 64-836-8 season. Some of that obviously had to do with that three-games-and-change stretch without a healthy Ben Roethlisberger, since his numbers with Roethlisberger in for the entire season prorate out to a 74-1,084-10 line. I believe in the hands and the talent, so I think Wallace is capable of living up to this contract, but I also have a lot of faith in Pittsburgh’s ability to self-scout and judge their own personnel. It says a lot that the Steelers gave Antonio Brown an extension and didn’t bother to re-sign Wallace. It doesn’t invalidate Wallace’s ability, but if he fails in Miami, we’re all going to look back and point out that he went from the most stable, professional organization in the league to one of the least stable, least professional ones and act like we all knew that the move wasn’t going to work. My opinion’s sitting that one out.
Those same Fins also went and rearranged their crew of linebackers, dumping Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett to create starting jobs for two new arrivals. Philip Wheeler left the decaying husk of the Oakland Raiders for a five-year, $26 million deal with $13 million guaranteed, but the more surprising signing was Miami’s move to take Dannell Ellerbe away from the Ravens on a five-year, $35 million contract. Ellerbe was all but booked to re-sign with the Ravens after they traded Anquan Boldin and cleared out cap space, but the Dolphins threw money at Ellerbe until he simply couldn’t refuse. Ellerbe has promise, but the Dolphins just committed $35 million to a guy with 14 pro starts over four seasons who has spent his entire career in a 3-4. Miami’s signings were high-risk and high-reward; I think that’s better than the medium-risk, minuscule-reward moves that the Colts and Chiefs made, but I don’t know that I want to put my eggs in Jeff Ireland’s basket.
The teams making moves mostly have one thing in common: They’re not paying their quarterback(s) a lot of money. The Colts have one of the best contracts in football under center, with Andrew Luck getting about $4.5 million per year for the next three seasons. Ryan Tannehill isn’t a finished product, but his average cap hit over the next three years is less than $3.5 million. And the Seahawks are the quintessential example of being able to leverage your savings at quarterback elsewhere; Russell Wilson’s contract maxes out with a cap hit of just $950,000 in the fourth and final year of his deal, and that’s not due until 2015. That’s going to allow the Seahawks to spend liberally elsewhere, which is exactly what they did in trading for Percy Harvin and locking him up to a five-year, $67 million deal with $25.5 million guaranteed. This will continue to be a big story in the coming years: When a team hits the jackpot on a rookie quarterback, it’s going to be much easier to build around that passer than it was in recent years, when a quarterback drafted in the top 10 would be tying up significant cap holds from day one.
The Ravens also lost outside linebacker Paul Kruger on Tuesday, as the division-rival Browns ponied up $40 million over five years with $20 million guaranteed to try to finally bring a pass rusher to Cleveland. Since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999, they’ve averaged 1.96 sacks per game, which places them dead last in the league. They’ve had only two instances of a player reaching double digits in sacks, so you can understand their interest in Kruger, who had 12 sacks over Baltimore’s final 12 games (including the playoffs) last season. To justify his price tag, Kruger will need to produce as an every-down linebacker in Cleveland; remember that the Ravens used Kruger on only 22 defensive snaps in the Super Bowl because they preferred other players who were better run-stoppers in their base defense. Cleveland also added underrated defensive tackle Desmond Bryant from Oakland, giving him a five-year, $34 million deal ($15 million guaranteed) that will ensure “Desmond Bryant” and “underrated” will never appear in the same sentence again. As with Miami, these were high-risk, high-reward moves.
So, are the Ravens totally lost in the wilderness having traded Boldin for cap space that they didn’t use? Of course not. They have Ozzie Newsome. He’s good at this stuff. Chill. Baltimore made one very Ravens-esque signing on Tuesday, bringing in versatile Giants lineman Chris Canty on a three-year deal for just $8 million, with a mere $2.8 million guaranteed. Canty is versatile and experienced with both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes, and he still has enough athleticism to play end or tackle in either scenario. He can be the new Trevor Pryce for the Ravens.
As for the linebacker issue? There are still linebackers out there, and if the Ravens didn’t think Ellerbe was worth paying like a franchise inside linebacker, they would know best. The Ravens could opt to go after the versatile Dansby as a short-term solution. One other fascinating option that probably won’t happen: What if the Ravens outbid the Bears for Brian Urlacher, who has quietly come to an impasse with his only professional organization? It makes a bit of sense for both sides, although probably not enough for a deal to actually happen.
Speaking of those Bears, they were also busy on the opening day of free agency. If protecting Jay Cutler was general manager Phil Emery’s biggest concern heading into this offseason, he made two positive moves in that direction Tuesday. Team flashpoints J’Marcus Webb and Kellen Davis were both usurped, with Jermon Bushrod and Martellus Bennett arriving from the Saints and Giants, respectively. Bushrod is unquestionably an upgrade on Webb at left tackle, but he might not be an enormous improvement; Webb’s play was better than his reputation last year, especially during the second half of the season, and some of Bushrod’s weaknesses at left tackle were well hidden by the quick release and excellent footwork of Drew Brees. Bennett should be an upgrade on the drop-happy Davis, but Bennett also has a history of drops going back to his days in Dallas, so some early struggles could get the fans on him. If all goes well, he’ll be a weapon for Cutler up the seam and an above-average blocker in pass protection.
Bennett was part of a first-day game of tight end musical chairs, one that created some interesting fits around the league. The big prize was the über-athletic Titans project Jared Cook, who got a five-year deal from the Rams to give Sam Bradford a weapon in the middle of the field. Cook avoided the franchise tag by pointing out to the Titans that they used him more frequently as a wide receiver than as a tight end last year; wideout is probably a better fit for Cook’s speed, both in terms of running in a straight line and spinning around to apologize to his quarterback as a turnstile blocker. His upside is something like Marques Colston, but the Titans weren’t willing to use him in the right role or give him steady reps at one spot. Instead, they went out and spent $17.5 million over four years (with $8.6 million guaranteed) on 49ers second tight end Delanie Walker. Walker’s versatility and credibility lining up anywhere in the formation allowed the 49ers to pull off a lot of fascinating schematic shifts, and he’s a great athlete, but he can’t catch. So the Titans replaced a tight end who can run and catch but can’t block with one who can run and block but can’t catch. Is that better? Hard to tell. They also gave former Bills guard Andy Levitre a six-year, $46.8 million contract, which I put Levitre on my Pro Bowl team this year, and I don’t know that I’d give him nearly $8 million per year.
The Bills also had the most notable cut of the day, releasing starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick less than two years after signing him to a healthy contract extension. Here’s how badly they wanted to get rid of Fitzpatrick and move on: They could have paid him $10.5 million to play for them or eaten a $10 million cap hit to cut him and they chose to cut him. Ouch.2 Surprisingly, the Vikings released Antoine Winfield, who is still capable of being a very good slot corner for a veteran team and should see plenty of attention in the coming weeks. Oakland dumped more players from the last days of the Al Davis era, releasing former top-10 picks Darrius Heyward-Bey and Michael Huff.
The Bills chose to split the cap hit for the release across two years, so they’ll eat $3.3 million on their cap this season and $6.7 million in 2014, at which point Ryan Fitzpatrick might very well be out of football.
Let’s finish with the Eagles, who started a quietly busy day by releasing Nnamdi Asomugha, the most notable vestige of the failed “Dream Team” era and a signifier for how badly free-agent spending can go wrong when the pieces don’t fit the team. The Eagles signed five players Tuesday, but none of them received particularly large deals. The biggest contract went to Texans jack-of-all-trades James Casey, who could become a matchup nightmare as a runner and receiver in Chip Kelly’s offense at the cost of $14.5 million over three years. Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga came over from San Francisco to play that same role in Philly’s new 3-4 defense, and after investing in big names throughout their secondary for years, the Eagles began their new era softly by acquiring some buy-low candidates for the back end. They added Bradley Fletcher from the Rams and Patrick Chung from the Patriots on relatively small deals, signing players who were out of favor in their old organizations but exhibited some signs of above-average play in the recent past. The sort of logic that went into those moves — buying low on a low-risk, medium-reward player — seemed absurdly out of place on the dumbest day of the NFL year. Some of the teams that made headlines Tuesday by following a now-infamous Eagles plan that didn’t work might have done well to follow the new Philadelphia brain trust’s lead.