At the midpoint of 2014, the NFL's best and worst free-agent signings
Patience often is preached when it comes to evaluating NFL draft picks. Not so with free-agent signings.
When front offices spend big bucks to bring a player in, they expect to reap immediate dividends. Of course, those plans do not always come to fruition.
With more than half of the 2014 NFL season in the books, we take a look back at what now stand out as the best and worst moves of free agency (with a few unsettled cases sprinkled in, too).
• DeMarcus Ware, DE, Denver Broncos: Soooo, yes, Ware still has plenty left in the tank. The 32-year-old pass rusher trudged through a somewhat unceremonious exit from Dallas on the heels of an injury-plagued 2013 season. The Broncos nabbed him as part of a flurry of offseason upgrades on defense -- cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward joined Ware in migrating to Mile High.
Ware already has eight sacks and has provided a consistent presence against the run and pass.
"Much like when you acquire guys like Peyton or Wes [Welker] or DeMarcus, you see firsthand what they mean to your locker room -- the leadership and the type of people you want young NFL players emulating," Broncos head coach John Fox said last week of Ware. "We just had another guy here, Champ Bailey, decide to retire. I've spoken on his account a couple times in the last couple days. It's not every day you get to cross paths with great players like that. [Ware] is definitely in that category."
Another score for the Broncos in free agency: wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. All he has done through eight games is catch 57 passes for 785 yards and four touchdowns.
• Golden Tate, WR, Detroit Lions: Aside from his record-setting 2012, Calvin Johnson has topped 85 receptions just one other time in seven Lions seasons. Halfway through the 2014 schedule, Tate is on pace for 110 catches.
That clip may drop a bit if and when Johnson returns from injury (possibly as soon as this Sunday), but there is no erasing the impact Tate has had on the Detroit offense. The Lions are 3-0 without Johnson in the lineup, and Tate is averaging 13.3 targets in those games.
Finally, this offense has a legitimate second option to complement Johnson ... or to fill his shoes when he's unavailable.
• Larry Foote, LB, Arizona Cardinals: Perhaps the 34-year-old Foote has lost a step or three from his prime. In this aggressive Cardinals defense, though, his ability to attack the A-gap is invaluable. The stats don't necessarily jump off the page -- Foote has one sack, an interception and 44 tackles -- but his impact is more profound.
At times, he acts almost the way that a bulky 3-4 defensive tackle would, merely clogging a lane so more athletic teammates can collapse on the ball. And Foote has chipped in three hurries, too.
Arizona's resilience on defense this season has been shocking given the critical losses (Daryl Washington's suspension, Darnell Dockett's injury, etc.). Foote has been front and center, keeping the system rolling.
• Branden Albert, OT, Miami Dolphins: It took $25 million guaranteed to get Albert to Miami, but so far the investment has been well worth it. The veteran tackle has anchored a much-improved offensive line. Pro Football Focus actually has him rated as the third-best offensive tackle in the league this season, behind only Cleveland's Joe Thomas and Philadelphia's Jason Peters.
• Brandon Flowers, CB, San Diego Chargers: The Chargers need Flowers healthy again soon, because they are not the same defense without him. Working on a one-year "prove it" contract, Flowers did just that in the season's first half, looking far more like a Pro Bowler than he did when he actually earned that honor last season.
• Steve Smith, WR, and Justin Forsett, RB, Baltimore Ravens: Far more headlines were devoted to Smith's move from Carolina than to Forsett's relocation from Jacksonville. Hard to say where the Ravens would be without either of them. Smith's 711 receiving yards lead the team in that category by a whopping 340 yards; Forsett's 609 yards on the ground have earned him the No. 1 running back gig.
• Darrelle Revis, CB, New England Patriots: Whether locking down one side of the field or shadowing a specific receiver, Revis has served his purpose for the Patriots. Even when teams challenge him, as Denver did last Sunday, Revis has been able to limit the damage -- he allowed five completions against the Broncos but just one during the second and third quarters.
• Henry Melton, DT, Dallas Cowboys: "If you watch Henry when he was healthy a couple of years ago in Chicago, he was a really good player -- active in the run game and certainly very effective as a pass rusher," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. "I think we’re seeing some of that."
Dallas' resurgence has lost some steam over the past couple weeks, but the blame hardly falls on Melton. With five sacks, he is just two shy of matching his career-high, even as the Cowboys pick and choose their spots with him (he played 27 snaps in Week 8 and the same number again in Week 9).
• Karlos Dansby, LB and Donte Whitner, S, Cleveland Browns: Two huge additions, both in terms of actual play and attitude. Whitner's reputation as someone whose hitting toed the line of legality preceded him, but he has yet to be flagged this season. Dansby, meanwhile, opened up a spot for Foote in Arizona by bolting. Cleveland has to be thanking its lucky stars that he did.
• Donald Penn, OT, Oakland Raiders: A little credit where it's due for a franchise with plenty of recent misfires. Penn appeared to be no more than a temporary solution when Oakland signed him back in March. He's been far better than expected at left tackle.
• Willie Young, DE, Chicago Bears: One of Young's higher-priced current teammates landed on the "Misses" list, but Young himself has been well worth the $3.95 million guaranteed Chicago shelled out for the ex-Lion. Young already has seven sacks on the season, surpassing the six he accumulated over four seasons with Detroit.
• DeSean Jackson, WR, Washington Redskins: Jackson has not drawn near as much attention as the Redskins' fluctuating quarterback situation, but he continues to put up numbers nonetheless. The former Philadelphia standout is averaging a whopping 21.8 yards on his 36 catches and is on pace for 1,393 yards -- he had a career-high 1,332 last season.
• Antoine Bethea, S, San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers took a calculated gamble in letting Donte Whitner walk and signing Bethea. There should be minimal complaints at this point. Bethea was the league's Defensive Player of the Week after dominating Philadelphia in Week 4, and he has been steady all around.
• Jairus Byrd, S, New Orleans Saints: As obvious a choice as there is in this category, particularly because of the $54 million contract Byrd signed. He missed almost all of camp and the preseason because of a back injury, suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 4 and was downright mediocre in between.
Byrd's May back surgery came at an inopportune time -- sitting out several months while learning a new scheme could explain some of his slow start. Still, he was a shell of his Buffalo self, a development that went hand in hand with the Saints' defensive issues out of the gate.
• Toby Gerhart, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars: Out from underneath Adrian Peterson's shadow, Gerhart was a popular name in fantasy football circles this offseason, the expectation being that he would turn into a workhorse back for the Jaguars.
Not quite. Gerhart has rushed for all of 152 yards this season, 25 yards more than what the Jaguars' actual No. 1 running back, Denard Robinson, picked up in Week 7 alone.
• Josh McCown, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Lovie Smith steadfastly committed to McCown as his starter from the moment the two sides struck a deal. McCown's thumb injury in Week 3 offered Smith an out and he took it, planting Mike Glennon in the lineup. McCown fired four interceptions combined in Weeks 1-4, quadrupling his total from eight Chicago appearances last season.
The Buccaneers' new center, Evan Dietrich-Smith, actually might have done more to earn a "Miss" tag than McCown. Dietrich-Smith, coming off several solid seasons in Green Bay, seemed like a solid signing. Instead, he has been one of many letdowns for Tampa Bay.
• Michael Oher, OT, Tennessee Titans: Baltimore GM Ozzie Newsome might offer up an "I told you so" on this one. The Titans signed Oher to a $20 million deal with $9.5 million guaranteed this past offseason, but he has been more or less the same disappointing blocker he was for the Ravens. Oher has allowed four sacks and 19 hurries this season, both team-highs, and he has been penalized five times.
• Hakeem Nicks, WR, Indianapolis Colts: Minimal harm done here to the Colts, who handed Nicks only a one-year deal and then drafted Donte Moncrief -- the rookie has been pushing for more playing time of late. Anyone waiting on a career resurgence from Nicks, however, might have given up the cause. He sits tied for sixth on the team in receptions (21) and is seventh in receiving yards (212).
• Lamarr Houston, DE, Chicago Bears: The end to Houston's season -- a knee injury suffered as he celebrated a sack with his team down 25 -- certainly qualifies him to be on this list. His performance beforehand cements the spot. The Week 8 sack of Jimmy Garoppolo that led to Houston's unfortunate injury was the first of 2014 for the $35 million pickup.
• LaMarr Woodley, DE, Oakland Raiders: Another player who suffered a season-ending injury, Woodley was providing very little return on Oakland's $12 million investment prior to tearing his biceps. One of several recognizable veterans signed by general manager Reggie McKenzie prior to 2014, Woodley finished his first Raiders season with zero sacks.
Outside of the Penn signing, most of McKenzie's free-agent moves will fall into this category. Running back Maurice Jones-Drew has been a complete waste of resources (54 yards rushing total), defensive end Antonio Smith is also without a sack in 2014 and guard Austin Howard has been brutally ineffective.
JURY'S STILL OUT
• Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, Houston Texans: True to his career form, Fitzpatrick has not really been all that bad nor all that good for the Texans. He is a perfectly average quarterback performing in perfectly average fashion -- 11 touchdowns, eight interceptions and a 87.1 quarterback rating during Houston's 4-5 start. Ex-Patriot Ryan Mallett might bump him from the lineup soon.
• Donald Brown, RB, San Diego Chargers: San Diego seemed overloaded at running back after adding Brown to a backfield that already included Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead. Funny how things work out. All three backs suffered injuries, opening the door for undrafted rookie Branden Oliver to emerge.
Brown, who inked a $10.5 million contract in March, saw sparing action in Week 9. There could be an uptick in his reps moving forward, even with Mathews close to returning.
• T.J. Ward, S, Denver Broncos: Mentioned above that the Broncos had signed Ward along with Ware and Talib in an attempt to become more of a defensive power. The Ware and Talib moves have hit; thus far, Ward has not. He is without an interception so far in 2014, and Pro Football Focus has him rated No. 73 of 83 eligible safeties.
• Brandon LaFell, WR, New England Patriots: Trending in rapid fashion toward a "Hit" here. LaFell has been targeted a total of 24 times over the past two weeks and he leads the Patriots in receiving TDs with five. For the low cost of $3 million guaranteed, 36 catches in nine games is a decent return.
• Julius Peppers, OLB, Green Bay Packers: The arrow is pointed in the right direction for Peppers, as well. Making the move from Chicago to Green Bay -- and from a 4-3 DE spot to a 3-4 OLB role -- led to a slow start. But Peppers has become more comfortable with each outing. He leads the Packers with four sacks and scored a touchdown on an interception return. Will he keep stepping up his game over the second half?