With an incredible number of deals and more than $1 billion in total contract dollars already given to this year’s crop of free agents, it stands to reason (and the law of averages) that there will be a few real standouts. And here are the five deals we believe could be the best free-agent signings of 2014 ... at least so far.
The Buccaneers have to be considered one of the winners in the 2014 free agency run -- not only because they shored up key positions with estimable talent, but also because they did so with some outstanding bargains. And there may be no better bargain in this free agent class than the deal given to Verner, who became one of the NFL's best cornerbacks in 2013 after three years of development with the Tennessee Titans. According to Pro Football Focus, he was the NFL's best cover corner in the first half of the season, and he finished 2013 with a 55.8 quarterback rating allowed -- third best in the league, behind Seattle's Richard Sherman and New England's Logan Ryan.
Verner will replace Darrelle Revis in Tampa Bay, and he'll do so under the tutelage of new head coach Lovie Smith, whose defensive constructs fit what Verner does best -- trail top receivers from the line, and occasionally in off-coverage. The Bucs have guaranteed $8 million to Verner in 2014, but per OverTheCap.com, they can back out entirely, because he has a $4 million guarantee for injury only. And if he continues to play as he did in 2013, Verner's maximum base salaries will come in 2016 ($6.75 million) and 2017 ($6.5 million). So, even if Verner turns out to be a one-year wonder (which he probably won't be), the Bucs are protected. Given what other cornerbacks have made in this market, this is a relative steal.
New England Patriots: CB Darrelle Revis -- One year, $12 million guaranteed, $20 million option year in 2015
Meanwhile, the Pats replaced Aqib Talib (and his $57 million deal with $26 million guaranteed -- only $11.5 million is fully guaranteed -- with the Denver Broncos) with Revis, who comes to Foxboro with an interesting set of contract constraints. The supposed one-year deal that was first reported is actually a one-year deal with a second-year option that spreads the cap hit over two years. A series of per-game bonuses add up to a $7 million cap hit in 2014, with $5 million of the 2014 number carrying over into 2015 -- and that's where New England is penalized if they don't sign him to a long-term contract. Revis would be due a huge one-year cap haul in 2015 -- a $12 million roster bonus, $7.5 million in base salary and $500,000 in per-game bonuses.
That's the financial nitty-gritty. Revis posted an 81.4 quarterback rating allowed in 2014, as he recovered from the knee injury that robbed him of the majority of the 2012 season with the Jets. Assuming he's healthy -- and he did improve in the second half of the season -- the Patriots struck a masterful deal here, because they get the maximum value up front, lose the dead money in 2015 if it doesn't work out and are set up to reward Revis if he has another one of his great seasons.
In Super Bowl XLVIII, the Broncos were upended by the Seattle Seahawks defense, and safety Kam Chancellor more than anybody else. Playing at lurk depth and in the box most of the time, Chancellor punished every Denver receiver who came anywhere near his area with the ball in their hands. It's clear that executive vice president John Elway and head coach John Fox paid attention, because they went after Ward -- who's developed quite a reputation as a headhunter himself -- with gusto. Current Broncos director of pro personnel Tom Heckert drafted Ward back when he was Cleveland's general manager, so that was a trio of Broncos executives who saw Ward's value. And yet, they didn't overpay -- Ward gets a $5 million signing bonus and his $2 million base salary is guaranteed for 2014, but the bases are guaranteed for injury only from 2015 on. Ward was Pro Football Focus' third-best safety in 2013 and the best overall against the run, and he'll bring an enforcer's mentality to a defense that needs it.
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Considering the deals given to Branden Albert (five years, $46 million, $25 million guaranteed) Zane Beadles (five years, $30 million, $13 million guaranteed), Austin Howard (five years, $30 million, $15 million guaranteed) and the $42.5 million debacle that didn't work out for the Raiders, the Ravens' offer to Monroe was a major bargain. Monroe was PFF's 12th-ranked tackle in 2013, allowing just five sacks all season for the Jaguars and Ravens, and his re-signing assures stability for a position that's been up in the air in Baltimore since Jonathan Ogden retired. The Ravens traded for Monroe in October and watched him become a much-needed pillar on a line that had its share of growing pains.
“We want to continue to be drafting at the end of the draft because it’s not a whole lot of fun to go through those Mondays,” general manager Ozzie Newsome told the Baltimore Sun after the deal was done. “But that was probably the impetus for us to make the trade, that we felt we would be in the playoffs and good tackles don’t make it down that far.”
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: OT Anthony Collins -- Five years, $30 million, $15 million guaranteed Collins is an underrated player, and that the Bucs got him for this price was impressive enough. But few teams so drastically upgraded a position in free agency. The former Cincinnati Bengals' swing tackle will replace veteran Donald Penn, who gave up 11 sacks at left tackle in 2013. Collins started the last six games of the Bengals' season and gave up no sacks in 673 total snaps. He graded out as PFF's top offensive tackle, and the fourth-round pick in 2008 out of Kansas is an ascending star. This is another example of how the Buccaneers extracted maximum value out of their transactions.