The first unofficial day of the NFL’s free-agent period was chaos. On Tuesday, teams were simultaneously signing undrafted free agents, cutting dead weight to clear cap room, re-signing the veterans they wanted to keep, and putting out offers to the free agents they most desperately coveted. And there will be no rest for the weary, as front offices around the league will spend the next week churning through tasks that normally get completed in about three months.
Since this is a fluid market moving at an unprecedented pace, it calls for special coverage. At Grantland, we’ll be publishing an update every morning that breaks down what happened in the free-agent market during the previous day while identifying the new opportunities being created by all the transaction wire fodder. Consider this your daily morning white paper on NFL free agency, starting now.
The big winners
Quarterbacks. Teams around the league with quarterback vacancies operated with a simple rule in mind: Take care of the quarterback situation first and worry about everything else later.
The only notable trade of the day saw the Redskins tentatively agree to deal Donovan McNabb to the Vikings in exchange for a pair of late-round draft picks. The deal was an example of everything the Redskins franchise does wrong under Daniel Snyder. They bought high on McNabb, expecting him to perform like an elite player at his position. To help him fulfill this promise, they saddled him with journeymen like Anthony Armstrong and washed-up veterans like Joey Galloway.
When McNabb didn’t meet the Redskins’ expectations, they buried him in the media, benched him to prove some sort of point about how smart and proactive they are. Ultimately, they let him go with little to show for it. In actuality, McNabb had a decent season that saw him hamstrung by drops and poorly run routes.
His raw statistics ended up looking pretty similar to Rex Grossman’s — they both completed about 57 percent of their passes, threw an interception about three percent of the time, and took a sack about once every seven dropbacks. But the advanced metrics suggest otherwise. McNabb produced a 0.2 percent DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average: The Football Outsiders statistic that adjusts performance by comparing it to the league average after adjusting for the down, distance, game situation, and quality of the opposition faced for each play by a team or skill position player), good for 29th in the league, while Grossman produced a -19.1 percent DVOA on his 142 dropbacks, which was 40th. The big difference came because Grossman played very weak defenses during his short run as the starter and accrued most of his stats in garbage time. He put up 322 yards and four touchdowns against the Cowboys in Week 15, but most of it came after the Cowboys went up 27-7 in the third quarter.
McNabb’s still something close to a league-average starter, and while the Vikings still have to negotiate a new contract with McNabb before they can consummate their trade, they’ll be getting the best quarterback on the market if they pick him up.
The 49ers signed Alex Smith to a one-year deal for $5 million to return to the Bay Area for another year. Smith has had to suffer under the weight of great expectations after being the first overall pick in the 2005 draft, but at 27, Smith should be hitting his peak, not waiting to show signs of development.
Within the friendly confines of the NFC West, Smith has shown reasons for hope. Over his career, in what amounts to a full season of play, he’s completed 57.5 percent of his passes while averaging 6.5 yards per attempt and throwing 16 touchdowns against just 11 interceptions.
Outside of the division, Smith’s completion percentage doesn’t fall too far, as he still hits on 56.8 percent of his throws, but he averages just 6.0 yards per attempt while throwing fewer touchdowns (35) than interceptions (42). His three best games last season by Adjusted Yards per Attempt came against, shockingly, the Seahawks, Cardinals, and Rams. It’s high time for giving up.
Those Seahawks elected to finally turn the page on Matt Hasselbeck’s tenure in Seattle by signing Tarvaris Jackson to a two-year deal worth $8 million. Hasselbeck’s tenure as the Seahawks starter has come with the same sort of easy schedule that Smith enjoyed in San Francisco, but it’s hard to see how Jackson really upgrades the Seahawks. For all his arm strength and potential as a mobile quarterback, Jackson really hasn’t developed the accuracy needed to make plays in a West Coast offense. To hit 58.7 of your passes in an offense designed for quick completions is a dangerous sign, and it’s not like Jackson has been improving; he hit on 58.6 percent of his 58 passes last year. Jackson also takes too many sacks, having posted a 7.6 percent sack rate during his time with the Vikings, and he’s struggled to stay healthy when the team has given him playing time.
Assuming that McNabb’s trade to the Vikings eventually goes through, there are three quarterbacks left on the market who get starter grades from most teams: Hasselbeck, Kyle Orton, and Kevin Kolb. And barring some unexpected change in availability, only the Bengals (who were linked to Bruce Gradkowski on Tuesday) and Cardinals are looking for new starting quarterbacks. That means somebody’s going to be left without a seat.
The big loser
The Philadelphia Eagles entered the free-agent period in arguably the best situation of any team in football. As one of the league’s best teams at handling the salary cap, the Eagles are in possession of one of the NFL’s rarest and most enviable situations: A spare starting quarterback. While the jury is still out on Kevin Kolb’s professional viability, it’s clear there are teams who value him as an immediate starter with significant long-term potential. And while the Eagles have a huge hole in their lineup, it’s at cornerback, one of the few positions where this market is strong.
On Tuesday, just about everything that could have gone wrong for the Eagles did.
Let’s start with Kolb, who may not even be a valuable asset by this time tomorrow. By signing Jackson, the Seahawks signaled that they’re not going to be serious players in any sort of Kolb sweepstakes. The Bengals don’t appear to be interested in Kolb, having started negotiations with Gradkowski while suggesting that Carson Palmer isn’t going to be playing anywhere else in 2011. (Palmer didn’t have a great Tuesday, either.) That leaves the Cardinals as the only viable suitor for Kolb. Despite that fact, the Eagles are reportedly asking for a first-round pick and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, a haul that would make sense only if the Eagles had leverage. Instead, the Cardinals could just choose to sign Hasselbeck or deal a midround pick for Orton while holding onto Rodgers-Cromartie, leaving the Eagles without a trading partner.
The other problem for the Eagles is that Rodgers-Cromartie might not be what they’re looking for. While he would be a huge upgrade on Dimitri Patterson, he’s a step below Johnathan Joseph and several below Nnamdi Asomugha, each of whom could be viable targets for Philly in free agency. In an ideal world for the Eagles, they would get a chance to bid on Asomugha and Joseph, and if they strike out, still have the opportunity to get Rodgers-Cromartie as part of a package for Kolb. It’s possible that things could still work out that way, but it’s becoming very clear that the market for Kolb is getting squeezed. That leaves the Eagles in danger of ending up with two quarterbacks and no cornerback.
The Asomugha market ramped up on Tuesday when the Steelers inked Ike Taylor to a four-year deal. The Taylor signing shouldn’t directly affect the Eagles, since they really should have avoided him anyway, but it takes one of the most prominent cornerbacks available off of the market. Teams like the Texans and Lions who might have settled for adding Taylor now have one fewer cornerback to go for, creating more demand for Asomugha among those teams desperate to add a star corner. The Ravens also appear to be considering a move for Asomugha, having cleared out cap space by releasing veterans Willis McGahee, Derrick Mason, and Todd Heap.
Philly also had a curious day with its own free agents. Although it’s possible that the Eagles were comfortable letting safety Quintin Mikell go without any sort of offer, it seems likely they were hoping to let him find a small deal on the market before matching it and keeping him in the fold for the short-term. Mikell signed a four-year deal with the Rams on Tuesday to replace O.J. Atogwe, rejoining him with former Eagles coach Steve Spagnuolo. He’s a declining player who whiffed on a team-high 12 tackles last year, but the Eagles are extremely light in the secondary and relying on rookie Jaiquawn Jarrett and second-year man Nate Allen to recover from a torn patella he suffered at the end of December.
The Eagles have also reportedly decided to pass on re-signing all of their unrestricted free agents, including starting linebacker Stewart Bradley. Bradley was expected to re-sign with the team and move to outside linebacker while creating a spot for wunderkind Jamar Chaney in the middle, but the Eagles appear ready to give up on the oft-injured Bradley. Finally, Philadelphia rescinded the transition tag placed on kicker David Akers, making him an unrestricted free agent and likely ending his tenure in Philadelphia. Akers and Mikell, coincidentally were the last two players left from the 2004 Eagles team that made the Super Bowl.
The biggest surprise
The biggest surprise was the Brinks truck backed up to Charles Johnson’s front door. The Panthers kept their promising young defensive end from hitting free agency by giving him six-year, $72-million deal, including a guaranteed signing bonus of $30 million. Essentially, he got the same deal Aaron Rodgers picked up from the Packers in 2008, but Johnson received $12 million more in guaranteed money. Yowzers. As the AP story put it:
“‘Could you have turned that down?’ Johnson said of the contract with a laugh.”
As a general rule, it’s bad when a player says he couldn’t turn down the money. And then laughs.
The most curious decision
The Chargers made two very questionable minor moves. After years of struggling to upgrade at inside linebacker, San Diego gave veteran linebacker Takeo Spikes a three-year deal to start in their 3-4 defense. Spikes turns 35 during the 2011 season, and while he’s looked good over the past couple of years in San Francisco, he’s been playing alongside All-Pro Patrick Willis and Aubrayo Franklin, who we ranked as the best defensive lineman in the marketplace. In other words, it would have been hard to look all that bad. He will also likely block off second-year linebacker Donald Butler, whom the team had high hopes for as a rookie before he suffered a torn Achilles tendon.
Even more surprising, though, was the decision to lock up right tackle Jeromey Clary with a four-year, $20 million deal. As usual, Google AutoFill doesn’t lie: The first entry that comes up when you type Jeromey Clary’s name in is “Jeromey Clary sacks allowed”. The answer to that question was five sacks last season and 17.5 sacks over the past three, an unacceptable total for a right tackle.
The Jaguars were wise to lock up middle linebacker Paul Posluszny to a six-year deal. He’ll be a great fit in their 4-3 alignment and a huge upgrade on former starter Kirk Morrison. The Cowboys had to guarantee more than half of Doug Free’s contract, but guaranteeing $17 million in a four-year deal for a starting left tackle isn’t a bad deal. The Buccaneers were reportedly in the running, but they would’ve signed Free to play right tackle, where he wouldn’t have been worth quite that commitment. The Giants are finally revamping their once-elite offensive line, releasing guard Rich Seubert and center Shaun O’Hara. O’Hara made the Pro Bowl for the third straight year because Pro Bowl voters, players included, don’t watch tape of offensive linemen. On one hand, the Giants don’t have an obvious replacement for either player (especially after releasing Shaun Andrews), but O’Hara and Seubert both came out of obscurity to emerge as valuable contributors to the Eli Manning-era team. If there’s any spot on an offense where you can find talent at the bottom of the barrel, it’s in the interior line. Their NFC East rivals in Dallas cut running back Marion Barber, guard Leonard Davis, and wide receiver Roy Williams. A failed left tackle who emerged as a sometimes dominant run-blocking guard, Davis was the one good signing of the three. He should catch on somewhere else at a lesser salary and can still be an impact player, probably at right guard, maybe for the Patriots. Barber lost his effectiveness almost immediately after signing his contract extension, averaging 4.5 yards per carry and 9.7 touchdowns per year before the new deal and just 3.9 yards per carry with six touchdowns a year after that. Williams was a Jerry Jones-driven fiasco, a guy whom the Cowboys traded a first-round pick for after one big year in a Mike Martz offense, despite the fact that the native Texan probably would have signed with the Cowboys in free agency after that season, anyway. And in our final NFC East update, the Redskins finished the night by giving defensive tackle Barry Cofield a six-year deal. Cofield’s a decent tackle, but the Redskins already did this dance once with Cornelius Griffin. Imagine if they drafted and developed a starter on their defensive line themselves! On-again, off-again starter Kedric Golston is the first defensive lineman the Redskins have drafted and developed into a player who started 12 games for them in three or more seasons since Charles Mann. And the Redskins drafted him in 1983.
Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland. Follow him on Twitter at @billbarnwell.