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Free-Agent Frenzy

Let’s try to make sense of Day 1 of the NFL’s shopping season after about $1 billion was handed out

Once Adam Schefter had reported that the Raiders were finalizing a move for Jets tackle Austin Howard early Wednesday morning, the NFL had reached a staggering new high: Its teams had handed out, by my count, more than $1 billion worth of contracts in roughly 72 hours. About $350 million of that is guaranteed. Much of those dizzying totals came in a seven-hour stretch on Tuesday afternoon, when the league opened up the floodgates of free agency and its 32 teams plugged their holes with cash. Seemingly rich markets disappeared in minutes. Teams made clear statements of intent about their future and there were almost no bargains. I’ve said in the past that the first day of free agency is the dumbest day of the NFL year. That might very well be true, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an exciting one. And the most exciting day belonged to a team that rarely lacks for entertainment value …

Rocky Mountain High

It seems unfair that the Denver Broncos could somehow have the league’s reigning MVP and enough cap space to throw money at just about whoever they want, but with more than $30 million to work with heading into Tuesday, that was exactly the case. After spending most of Peyton Manning’s first two seasons in Denver with Champ Bailey and a bunch of flotsam in the secondary, the Broncos took their Super Bowl roasting to heart and invested in a pair of key upgrades for their defense.

First, they brought in a key run defender by signing Browns thumper T.J. Ward to a four-year, $23 million deal that seemed reasonable at the time and only looked better once the other defensive back contracts filtered through. Late in the evening, they announced a truly stunning deal for cornerback Aqib Talib. In raiding the Patriots of their most prominent free agent for a second consecutive season, the Broncos gave Talib a six-year, $57 million deal that guarantees the 28-year-old $26 million. That’s the largest guarantee for a cornerback in league history.

In a vacuum, the Talib deal is terrible. It’s an unprecedented sum of money for a player who has failed to make it through a single pro season without missing time, struggled to keep himself out of trouble off the field,1 and only shown flashes of brilliance as a top cornerback when he’s been on the field. While it was a different market one year ago, Talib couldn’t find a serious long-term contract from a worthwhile suitor, instead choosing to return to the Patriots on a one-year deal.

Football isn’t played inside a vacuum, though, as much as that might have made the XFL more exciting. And the Broncos need Talib more than your typical team. The Broncos have a historically great offense built around a quarterback with a surgically repaired neck who turns 38 on March 24. Unless you are a member of the Osweiler family, you’re probably thinking the same thing that Denver is thinking: The Broncos have the next two or three years to try to win as many Super Bowls as possible before rebuilding. And under that logic, you can certainly understand why Denver would be willing to overpay now to lock up as many defensive pieces as possible to maximize the value of this window. I think you can take issue with how it spent the money; Talib is far from a sure thing, and I wonder if the Broncos might have been better off trading a late-round pick to the Buccaneers and convincing Darrelle Revis2 to renegotiate his deal.

Talib and Ward would have been a big enough offseason for the Broncos, but with Denver also in need of a pass-rusher, it was linked on Tuesday night to arguably the best player left on the market …

Philadelphia Eagles v Dallas Cowboys

Beware of DMW

For all of their endless salary-cap restructuring, it was inevitable that the Dallas Cowboys would end up losing a number of key contributors to the insipid largesse of Jerry Jones. While the Cowboys furiously tried to fight that off for another year with a series of moves this past month, their broken cap plan finally came back to bite them on Tuesday. The Cowboys let valuable defensive tackle Jason Hatcher hit the market and will reportedly release Miles Austin, but they just couldn’t clear out enough space to retain star pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware, whom the Cowboys waived Tuesday. Rumors later suggested the Broncos were the favorites to land Ware, who would play defensive end and rush the passer across from Von Miller in a terrifying one-two punch for Denver.

In a way, Dallas’s inability to keep Ware reminds me how destructive a lot of the contracts we saw on Tuesday can be in terms of a team’s planning. You never want to cut a player as talented and productive as Ware; it’s a blessing when you draft and develop a player of his caliber, and while there’s always eventually going to be a time when you move on from a player, it shouldn’t be when he is 31. The problem, of course, is that Jones can’t help himself from locking up mid-tier player after mid-tier player, creating deals that ruined Dallas’s salary cap and forced it to sacrifice Ware in order to field a 53-man team next year. The Cowboys didn’t cut Ware because they thought they could spend their money better elsewhere. They cut Ware because they already misjudged Roy Williams, Gerald Sensabaugh, Jay Ratliff, and Ken Hamlin, and the dead money from those deals created cap emergencies that forced the Cowboys to pay for their mistakes at some point in the future. This is the beginning of the future. And while we don’t know who will fail in their new digs yet, a number of teams in this league will have to move on from true superstars in the future because of the mistakes they made in overpaying players today.

Denver is a logical landing point for Ware, especially when you consider the reports of Jared Allen threatening to retire if Denver doesn’t improve its offer to him. If they’re truly all in, it would behoove the Broncos to sign both Allen and Ware, not just one of them. There are a dozen other teams for which it would make some level of sense to sign Ware and that could financially pull off the move, but there are four that stand out. The Colts, Eagles, Jets, and Packers all play in the 3-4, Ware’s preferred alignment,3 have the cap space and the roster spot open for Ware to step in as a starter,4 and are competitive enough for Ware to justify signing with them. Ware is unlikely to get the four years and $52 million he had left on his Dallas deal before the Cowboys released him, but the 31-year-old is still young enough to justify one more serious payday.

Dallas, meanwhile, can rest easy knowing it has kicker Dan Bailey locked up through 2020. The more things change …

Rodger Saffold

Ghost Market

Going in, we knew that this year’s crop of free agents had its relative points of strength and weakness. It was pretty clear there weren’t many game-changing skill-position players available, and it’s no surprise that a few running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends came off the market on the first day of free agency. If you were looking for an offensive tackle or a defensive back, though, you were in luck. You also probably spent a good chunk of your offseason budget yesterday, because those positions of strength were stripped bare by the end of Day 1.

In fact, it didn’t even take that long. There were four prominent left tackles available as free agency opened at 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday, and by 4:13 p.m., they were all spoken for. While Eugene Monroe stayed in Baltimore, the Raiders swapped out Jared Veldheer for Rams lineman Rodger Saffold, with Veldheer making his way to Arizona. The game of musical chairs ended with the long-discussed move of Branden Albert to Miami, where he will replace incumbent Jonathan Martin, whose long-running saga ended when the Dolphins dealt him to San Francisco for a conditional draft pick. Each of the four signees received a five-year deal worth between $35 million (Veldheer) and $47 million (Albert).

Oakland’s signing of Saffold was the most curious of all. To be clear, by curious, I mean something not very far from mind-boggling and impossible to understand. He played left tackle for the Rams from 2010 to 2012 before the team signed Jake Long, moving a frustrated Saffold to right tackle and then, eventually, to right guard, where he played well during a brief stint to end 2013. It wasn’t clear what position Saffold would play for his new team after free agency, but the amount of money the Raiders gave him would seem to suggest he would suit up at left tackle, widely regarded as the most important position on the line. The only problem? One report suggests that Saffold will play guard for the Raiders in 2014. That seems ludicrous, but Oakland did spend $25 million to lock up the aforementioned Howard from the Jets, who they might consider moving from right tackle to the left side. If that’s true, the Raiders just gave Saffold $21 million guaranteed — the third-largest total for a guard in league history — based on a six-game sample to end the 2013 season. But hey, it’s the Raiders, they probably deserve the benefit of the dou— oh, wait, it hasn’t looked like the Raiders have had any idea what they’re doing and they don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt? Oh well.

The secondary market might have produced the day’s most surprising signing of all. The Saints entered the weekend with the league’s third-least cap space, a figure that improved to about $5 million when they released Lance Moore.5 It seemed like they would be forced to sit out free agency while awaiting the results of Jimmy Graham’s likely franchise tag grievance, so it was a surprise when they announced that Bills safety Jairus Byrd was coming to visit New Orleans. It was even more shocking when New Orleans announced that Byrd wasn’t leaving, thanks to a six-year, $54 million deal that guarantees him an unprecedented $28 million. It’s the third-largest guarantee for any currently signed defensive player in the league.

You can certainly see the echoes of the Super Bowl champs with the move. Seattle’s pairing of Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor is still the best set of safeties in football, but with Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro, the Saints aren’t far behind. The structure of the deal still remains unclear, but reports suggest the Saints gave Byrd an $11 million signing bonus. Assuming there’s a modest base salary in the first year to help keep his cap figure low this season, Byrd surely has a huge guaranteed base salary or some form of option bonus in the second and/or third seasons of his deal to make up the other $17 million in guaranteed cash.

That may tell us what the Saints think of their long-term chances to retain Graham. While Graham is locked up for another season by virtue of the franchise tag, the 20 percent spike that comes when tagging him for a second consecutive season (and the possibility he might win a grievance and be treated as a wide receiver, which would increase his cap hit by about $5 million) makes it difficult to imagine the Saints will pursue a similar tactic next year. If they don’t think they have a shot at signing Graham, signing Byrd now allows them to keep both on the roster for another year before using the money they had carved out for Graham to satisfy Byrd in 2015 and beyond. Like the Broncos, the Saints have a veteran quarterback whose time to win is now. The 2014 season might be their best — and perhaps last — chance at winning a title with Drew Brees and Graham on the same roster.

While Talib and Byrd stood atop the contract leaderboards at their respective positions, they weren’t the only ones to get paid. Despite rumors to the contrary, Vontae Davis returned to the Colts on a four-year, $39 million deal that echoed the total value given to Sam Shields, just with $20 million in guaranteed money to Shields’s $12.5 million. Is it too early for Shields to ask for a raise? Alterraun Verner finished off the run on the top four cornerbacks by taking a surprisingly modest deal from the Buccaneers, who brought in their putative Revis replacement for four years and $25.5 million, with $14 million guaranteed.

At safety, the other big deal went to former 49er Donte Whitner, who wrangled a four-year, $28 million deal from the Browns despite seemingly being at fault on every big pass play against the 49ers over the past two seasons. Whitner is a solid run defender and will be expected to fill in there, but it’s hard to imagine that the Browns wouldn’t have been better off giving Ward the same deal. The 49ers replaced Whitner by signing Antoine Bethea away from the Colts on a similarly sized deal, which is an upgrade for them. The Eagles continued the game of safety musical chairs by adding the player Byrd replaced in New Orleans, Malcolm Jenkins, on a three-year, $15.5 million deal. As long as he stays in center field, Jenkins should be a comfortable upgrade over the likes of Patrick Chung in Philly. Arguably the worst safety contract of the day, though, kicks off …

Mike Mitchell

The Five Most Questionable Signings of Day 1

5. Pittsburgh gives S Mike Mitchell a five-year, $25 million deal: There’s so much weird in that sentence. The Steelers almost never enter into free agency, and when they do, they don’t often screw up. I still can’t make heads or tails of this signing. A year ago, Mitchell entered the market after four years in Oakland and barely found a contract, getting a one-year deal for $1 million from the Panthers to play special teams and serve as a backup safety. He eventually found his way into the starting lineup and impressed as a run-thumping safety, but it was also behind a dominant front seven, which made his life a lot easier.

Now, after 13 starts, the Steelers suddenly think he’s worth $5 million per year? That would be questionable on its own, but it’s even weirder considering Pittsburgh’s defense. Mitchell’s strength is using his speed to attack the line of scrimmage and fill against the run. His fellow starting safety in Pittsburgh is Troy Polamalu, a rover who has lost several steps in coverage and whose best remaining strength is … using his instincts to attack the line of scrimmage and fill against the run. I’d wonder if Mitchell was a replacement for Polamalu, but the cap-strapped Steelers just gave their long-serving safety a two-year contract extension. This could work — Dick LeBeau happens to know a lot about safeties — but it certainly seems like a risky venture on its face.

4. Cleveland replaces T.J. Ward and D’Qwell Jackson with Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby: The players the Browns signed are certainly bigger names, and they cost more, but they’re also older and have their own question marks. Whitner is something close to a disaster in coverage, and the track record of 49ers defenders after leaving San Francisco leaves much to be desired.6 Dansby barely got any attention after the Dolphins released him last year, and while he played excellent football for Arizona for much of the 2013 season, Cardinals beat writer Kent Somers noted that Dansby’s production coincided with the return of Daryl Washington to Arizona’s lineup.

3. The Chargers give RB Donald Brown a three-year, $10.5 million contract: San Diego is right up against the cap and desperate for contributors on defense. They’re not the deepest team on offense, but the one place they seemed to be set for 2014 is at running back, where they could serve up a cost-effective combination of Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead for $3.75 million in 2015. So why did they make their sole foray into free agency on Tuesday a trip to sign Brown, who was a competent running back for the Colts last year, but is hardly somebody who will represent a significant upgrade over the backs they already have? Brown might very well start for the team in 2015, but the Chargers might very well have waited and gotten Brown — or somebody just as good as Brown — for a fraction of the cost.

2. Rodger Saffold goes to Oakland to possibly play guard: You know, anytime you can lock up a member of the Rams offensive line, you’ve just gotta do it.

1. The Giants do (almost) everything wrong: Sigh. Let me get the good news out of the way: The Giants will reportedly sign Geoff Schwartz away from Kansas City, and he should be a much-needed boost to the interior of their offensive line, either directly by suiting up at guard or by playing tackle and pushing Will Beatty or Justin Pugh inside. Re-signing Trumaine McBride should leave the Giants with a perfectly decent third or fourth cornerback. No problems there.7

Elsewhere, though, the Giants made decisions that really bring their scouting department into question. They signed a number of players they weren’t interested in for free 12 months ago to deals with real money involved. Take pass-rusher O’Brien Schofield. The Cardinals waived Schofield in July, which would have allowed the Giants to acquire him for $900,000. They passed, and the Seahawks claimed Schofield instead. He proceeded to play 144 defensive snaps as a backup end and linebacker, recording one sack and eight tackles amid a stacked front seven. Those snaps were enough, apparently, for the Giants to offer Schofield a two-year, $8 million deal on the opening day of free agency. If Schofield was really worth $4 million per year, why didn’t the Giants grab him for less than a million bucks when they had the opportunity in July? Could they really have been swayed that much by what he did in 144 snaps on the league’s best defense?

Make one move like that and it’s a scouting quirk. Make a handful and it’s a problem. The Giants also signed running back Rashad Jennings away from the Raiders on Tuesday. Terms aren’t yet disclosed, but Jennings noted that the Giants outbid the Raiders, who signed Jennings for $630,000 in the middle of April last year. Jennings was quietly impressive last year, but that came after four middling seasons with the Jaguars. Peyton Hillis was re-signed on a two-year deal for $1.8 million, because God knows you can’t find another running back who can average 3.4 yards per carry in the market for the league minimum or win a Super Bowl without Hillis’s presence in the locker room.

Part of being a smart organization is recognizing where your talent comes from and how those talent sources build your roster. Given that the Giants didn’t think most of these guys were worth signing when they were available for a fraction of what they just paid, what does it say about New York’s talent evaluation skills when it’s suddenly interested in them now? Well-run teams realize there’s probably another Rashad Jennings or O’Brien Schofield waiting in the market for the minimum and go after them as opposed to chasing a career year or a few good snaps on tape. It’s entirely possible these moves could all work out, but the process that’s going into them reveals a huge lapse in logic for Jerry Reese and his scouting department.

Cardinals Jaguars Football

The Weirdest Move of Day 1

Blaine Gabbert got traded to the 49ers! Even weirder, the Jaguars got a draft pick for Blaine Gabbert! It’s a sixth-rounder from one of the league’s best teams, so it’s basically worthless, but it’s still something nice to show your fan base when they know just how big of a steal a sixth-round pick is for Gabbert. Let’s just hope the Jaguars don’t use the pick on another punter to challenge Bryan Anger. In all seriousness, it’s good to see Jacksonville moving on from Gabbert.

Why would the 49ers be interested in Gabbert, though? Well, certainly not for what he’s done as a pro. You have to go back to the 2011 NFL draft. When I covered how the NFC West went from laughingstock to juggernaut, I noted that four of the most prominent mock drafts in the country — those of Mel Kiper, Todd McShay, Rick Gosselin, and Mike Mayock — all predicted that the 49ers would take Gabbert with their first-round pick in that year’s draft. Jim Harbaugh referred to Gabbert’s pro day performance as “dazzling” and was wowed by his athletic instincts, which Harbaugh said was the most important criterion for a quarterback.

Well, Gabbert is still a great athlete, but he hasn’t developed into a quarterback. And if anybody can develop quarterbacks, it’s Jim Harbaugh; he turned Alex Smith from an afterthought into a divisional winner, molded Colin Kaepernick into a conference champion, and was part of Andrew Luck’s developmental process at Stanford. It might very well be too late for Gabbert; he’s already in his fourth year in the league, is in the final year of his contract, and isn’t going to get many meaningful reps unless Kaepernick gets injured. But the athletic ability that Harbaugh was wowed by in college is still there. And unlike the Ryan Mallett rumors, where Houston was supposedly going to give up a second-rounder for a backup, a sixth-rounder is a relative pittance for the 49ers. I’ll just say this much: If Harbaugh can turn Gabbert into a viable NFL starter, they both might be worth more than $15 million per year.

What to Watch for on Day 2

1. Where is Eric Decker going? The consensus best wideout on the market was rumored to be signed and sealed with Indy, but the typically aggressive Colts had a relatively quiet day beyond re-signing Davis and adding Baltimore defensive lineman Arthur Jones on a five-year, $33 million deal. The Jets sat out Day 1, still have more than $50 million in cap room to spend, and have no one of note at wide receiver.

2. How will the pass-rushing market unfold? While the likes of Lamarr Houston and Michael Johnson signed big deals to play defensive end for the Bears and Buccaneers, respectively, there are still four veteran pass-rushers of significant pedigree available on the market: DeMarcus Ware, Jared Allen, Justin Tuck, and Julius Peppers, who was released by the Bears last night. They’re all going to go to competitive teams. The one who signs first will likely get the most money and the best situation (Denver).

3. Will Darrelle Revis still be a Buccaneers player by the end of the night? Tampa has reportedly set a 4 p.m. deadline for either trading or releasing Revis, but they’re not beholden to that time frame. If they’ve come to terms on a possible trade with another team, they would likely allow that team 24 hours or so to come up with the terms of a contract restructuring with Revis and time to give him a physical, since this is a real no-backsies situation. If he’s released, given that teams have been talking with the Bucs and Revis’s agent for the last 24 hours, he could sign somewhere else by the end of the evening.

Filed Under: NFL, NFL Free Agency, Aqib Talib, demarcus ware, Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders, New York Giants, Blaine Gabbert, Darrelle Revis, Bill Barnwell

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell