Taking stock of NFL's free agent frenzy - NBC Sports

Taking stock of NFL's free agent frenzy
Eagles hardly only team that made waves, but not everyone was smart
August 5, 2011, 3:08 am

Vegas oddsmakers may disagree, but Green Bay and New Orleans look more likely to make the Super Bowl from this laptop. Throw Atlanta into the mix and the NFC appears awfully top-heavy. The rich got richer over the last two weeks.

While the Eagles aren't some super team, they certainly are fascinating. And they didn't have to pay a lot to improve their roster.

Coach Andy Reid picked up a Pro Bowl cornerback (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie) in exchange for a backup quarterback (Kevin Kolb). They replaced Kolb with a more talented backup quarterback (Vince Young.) Top free-agent prize Nnamdi Asomugha came in at a price barely higher per-year than recent deals for vastly inferior players like Stanford Routt and Champ Bailey.

The Eagles improved their defensive line depth with Cullen Jenkins without paying a lot of guaranteed money. They picked up two of the better offensive line bargains in Ryan Harris and Evan Mathis. Even the big deal for Jason Babin could be a short-term affair if he doesn't produce.

It looked like Philly spent like crazy, but they mostly made smart low-cost bets. Lurie, President Joe Banner, and G.M. Howie Roseman didn't mortgage the future to go for it just this year. They are in a position to remain aggressive in the long run.

This isn't the NBA; a couple players don't necessarily put you over the top. The Eagles know better than anyone that their pickups are only a small piece of the complex, ever-surprising puzzle that is an NFL season.

The players that were on the Eagles last year (hello, Mr. Vick) will make a far bigger difference. The Eagles have a shot. A lot of teams have a shot.

If offseason headlines translated to wins, Redskins owner Dan Snyder would be drowning in Lombardi trophies.

Winning the NFC West
The worst division in football is more confusing than ever. Pete Carroll's Seahawks took a step back with Tarvaris Jackson signed to start at quarterback. The Cardinals upgraded at quarterback with Kevin Kolb, but their offensive line and defense are full of holes.

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Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie

Take a look at some of the big names that have changed teams around the NFL.

The Rams are the team with the clearest plan and look like the division favorites. They built around a strong pass rush and young quarterback Sam Bradford last year. This offseason, they filled in positions of need with sensible under the radar signings. Speaking of which ...

5 teams that quietly got better

1. St. Louis: Guard Harvey Dahl from Atlanta will add nastiness to the Rams running attack. Safety Quintin Mikell shores up a shaky secondary, and coach Steve Spagnuolo knows just how to use him from their days together in Philly. Defensive tackle Justin Bannan adds a capable body for the team's interior line. Wide receiver Mike Sims-Walker adds a low-cost burner to a receiver group needing a threat.

This is how you succeed in free agency: Bring in contributors without paying them like stars. G.M. Billy Devaney and Spagnuolo have done well re-making this roster.

2. Atlanta: All offseason, we wondered how the Falcons would replace their three free agent starting linemen. It turns out they were able to keep their two youngest guys - right tackle Tyson Clabo and guard Justin Blalock - at fair prices.

Because of the depressed market, they were able to keep both players and have leftover money for pass rusher Ray Edwards. The ex-Viking is exactly the type of player that usually gets overpaid in free agency. But Atlanta brought in the solid starter for less than half Carolina paid Charles Johnson. Atlanta attacked their two biggest areas of need without breaking the bank.

3. Kansas City: The Chiefs improved their wideout depth and team speed with Steve Breaston. His five-year, $9 million contract was among the best values in free agency. Fullback Le'Ron McClain adds more toughness to an excellent running game. Nose tackle Kelly Gregg adds leadership to an underrated defensive line, and linebacker Brandon Siler has plenty of upside for a low price.

There was value out there in free agency this year, and G.M. Scott Pioli found it.

4. New Orleans: The Saints were in a tough spot with the most free agents (29) of any team. They let a few unnecessary pieces go, and aggressively re-signed key guys like safety Roman Harper, wideout Lance Moore, and tackle Jermon Bushrod.

Replacing Reggie Bush with Darren Sproles at running back was a win on the field that saved money and drama off it. Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin was the best run-stopper available and the Saints got him at a reduced price. Pair him with February pickup Shaun Rogers, along with incumbent Sedrick Ellis, and the Saints defensive line looks scary.

5. Green Bay: It was comical to hear some Packers fans gripe about G.M. Ted Thompson staying quiet in free agency. What did you expect?

Thompson's discipline to rely on drafting and developing works. Bringing back wideout James Jones was a pleasant surprise, and the Packers didn't have room for many more free agents.

That's because Green Bay gets back starters Jermichael Finley, Ryan Grant, Mike Neal, and Brad Jones from injury last year, among others. That's just as strong as any free agent class.

Buyer's market
The free agent market was flooded with talent, and teams didn't have time to sign players and integrate them into their systems. That led to a lot of cheap short-term deals for quality players.

High end rookies were the sacrificial lambs of this new CBA, but the free agent classes of 2010 and 2011 got a raw deal. They took one for the team.

Trouble spots

1. Miami quarterback: The Dolphins said all offseason they wanted true competition for quarterback Chad Henne. Instead, they got Matt Moore. Miami didn't go all in on Kyle Orton trade talks, betting Henne would be enough.

2. Bears offensive line: The Bears sniffed around the tackle market, but never closed a meaningful deal. They will move untested second year player J'Marcus Webb to the left side and start rookie Gabe Carimi on the right. Meanwhile, franchise mainstay Olin Kreutz left the team after a contract standoff and there is no great option to replace him.

Fear not Bears fans - You guys did win the Roy Williams and Vernon Gholston sweepstakes.

3. Lions cornerback: They wanted to get Johnathan Joseph, but came up short. Detroit has the makings of a contending team, but their secondary looks shaky at best. Signing Eric Wright from Cleveland was a worthwhile gamble.

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Shaky Strategies

1. Jacksonville: The Jaguars gave $37 million guaranteed and $99.5 million overall to pick up three defensive starters: linebacker Paul Poslusnzy, linebacker Clint Session, and safety Dawan Landry.

The Jaguars overpaid because it's "go time" in their three-year rebuilding process. G.M. Gene Smith has drafted well, but paying big signing bonuses to middling starters rarely pays off. The three players above will never make a Pro Bowl and they are all getting paid like stars. That creates salary structure problems now and in the future.

It's telling that the Ravens didn't try to keep Landry. Former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan didn't try to bring him to New York. He's just another safety, and those guys were out there for one-year, $3 million contracts.

2. Washington: There is a misconception that the Redskins didn't spend. They spent plenty, just not well.

Stephen Bowen was a backup in Dallas and got more than $10 million guaranteed. Barry Cofield was a good, not great rotation player in New York. He got paid $12.5 million guaranteed on a big six-year deal.

Oh, and John Beck is still the starting quarterback. This is happening. He has the worst combination of wideouts and running backs in football to support him.

3. Raiders: They kept the wrong guys, for too much. Cornerback Stanford Routt got more-per-year in March than our No. 2 overall free agent Johnathan Joseph got from the Texans. Oakland spent so much to retain Richard Seymour, Michael Huff, and Kamerion Wimbley that they couldn't afford to keep Zach Miller, their most consistent offensive player.

The offensive line oddly got short shrift and looks like a mess. Deals with Jared Gaither and Mario Henderson blew up because of weight problems and failed physicals. I like what coach Hue Jackson is selling, but his front office did him no favors: The Raiders lost their best player (Nnamdi Asomugha), best offensive lineman (Robert Gallery), and offensive leader (Miller).

Are the Colts vulnerable?
The Colts were more active in free agency than usual, taking low-cost gambles on former first-round picks like Tommie Harris and Jamaal Anderson. Still, there is a sense this team is vulnerable with Peyton Manning sidelined following another neck surgery.

The Jaguars believe they are ready to compete. We like Houston's chances of emerging better.

Wade Phillips has provided immediate results everywhere he's hired as a defensive coordinator. The cupboard wasn't bare in Houston; there is enough to talent here to be average right away. Average would be a big improvement for the Texans defense, and it would allow a primed offense to win games.

Slideshow
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie

Take a look at some of the big names that have changed teams around the NFL.

Rolling the dice

1. Patriots acquire Albert Haynesworth: Adding Chad Ochocinco will be good for Patriots writers, but Haynesworth matters more to the Patriots' success. Haynesworth and Vince Wilfork could wreak havoc on opposing offenses if Good Albert shows in New England. Bill Belichick hasn't had enough premier talent to work with in recent years and Haynesworth's talent is without question.

Nothing would surprise here. Haynesworth could be the most valuable player on the entire defense or he could get cut in training camp. In Bill they trust.

2. Seahawks sign Sidney Rice: Tarvaris Jackson isn't really a risk; he's a stop-gap solution at quarterback with a limited ceiling. Rice is something far different.

The fifth-year player has exactly one productive season as a pro. He's struggled with injuries and he's also flashed top-five receiver skills. The Seahawks have repeatedly wasted money on other teams' wideouts. For the money Rice is making, he has to play like a star.

3. 49ers stick with Alex Smith, sign Braylon Edwards: San Francisco is betting an entire season on the belief that Harbaugh can get something from Smith that previous coaches haven't. The 49ers are also betting they can control a player in Edwards that even Rex Ryan didn't want.

4. Jets sign Plaxico Burress: After two years in prison, the Jets signed Plaxico Burress without even seeing him in person. They better hope he doesn't need a year to get his legs back like Michael Vick did.

5. Giants go young on offensive line: Shaun O'Hara and Rich Seubert were leaders for the Giants during their Super Bowl run, and now they are looking for work. The moves make sense, but that doesn't make this transition any easier for Big Blue.

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