Cover Two: Best, worst free agent signings, more early awards
It's always hard to determine just how well or poorly NFL teams did in free agency right after the fact -- after all, as it is with the draft, it takes time to see how players will fit in their new circumstances.
However, there are obvious instances in which teams either beat the value curve or get overwhelmed by it, and there are moves that are obviously either tremendous or calamitous. SI.com's Chris Burke and Doug Farrar give their instant reviews of free agency's big rush and first week.
Free agent on the wrong side of 30 who will have biggest impact with his new team
Chris Burke: Steve Smith, Baltimore Ravens
The days of Smith single-handedly taking over games are gone. In the soon-to-be 35-year-old receiver, though, the Ravens have found exactly what they needed: a reliable target to take pressure off Torrey Smith.
Even better? Smith sounds as if he will be extra motivated to prove the Panthers wrong for cutting him, to prove his doubters wrong for questioning what talent he has left, to prove ... well, you get the point. Smith is a fiery character on the field as it is. Now that Carolina's perceived disrespect has stoked his fire a bit, the Ravens should benefit.
Ware's productivity dipped pretty severely in 2013 as he struggled with injuries, but the main thing in the way was that new Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin switched Ware from outside linebacker, which he'd played since he came into the NFL in 2005, to defensive end. This had Ware dealing with more one-on-one strength matchups with offensive linemen instead of rushing around or inside potential blockers.
Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio put Shaun Phillips in a position to succeed as a pass-rusher last year, and Phillips (who was 31, the same age Ware is now) responded with a 10-sack season, his highest total since 2010. It's always easy to bet on athletically superior players who were stranded in ineffective schemes and now are not, and that seems to be what the Broncos have done with Ware. A return to his 11.5 sack level of performance in 2012 shouldn't be out of the question.
Division that improved most in free agency
CB: NFC South (Carolina excluded)
Can we get a judges' ruling here? Is it fair to ascend the NFC South to the top of these rankings when one team, Carolina, has been so outlandishly quiet that a first-to-worst tumble has become a legitimate option?
I'm still giving the South the nod because of what Atlanta, New Orleans and Tampa Bay have accomplished so far this offseason.
The Buccaneers' transformation has been the most severe, with 10 players signed away from other teams, ranging from potential stars like Alterraun Verner to quality starters like Evan Dietrich-Smith to hand-picked QB Josh McCown.
New Orleans has been far less active but did manage to swoop in out of nowhere for safety Jairus Byrd, transforming a decent position into one of absolute strength.
Atlanta still has ground to cover, but its defensive line is on track to be much improved, and Jon Asamoah will slot right in as a starter on the O-line.
That action bumped the NFC South, in spite of Carolina's confusing silence, ahead of the AFC South (Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Tennessee all have done quality work) and the NFC North (each team there has addressed at least one major need).
DF: NFC East
The Giants, Redskins and Eagles each made some sneaky-good transactions in free agency, and even the cap-strapped Cowboys pulled it out of the fire by signing defensive lineman Henry Melton to a smart one-year deal with options.
But it's hard not to think of the Giants as the winners in this division. They almost totally overhauled their secondary with the additions of cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walter Thurmond and safety Quintin Demps. Adding guard Geoff Schwartz and center J.D. Walton shows general manager Jerry Reese knows how badly his offensive line underperformed in 2013. The Giants also added underrated running back Rashad Jennings.
The Redskins scored big by stealing defensive tackle Jason Hatcher from the Cowboys. Hatcher is getting up there in years, but he's still a dynamite pressure player.
No huge splashes here, but each team did more to help itself than hurt, given the financial circumstances.
Team hurt most by free agent losses
CB: Kansas City
The counter-argument will be that just about everyone who exited can be replaced. Maybe, but asking GM John Dorsey to use the mid-stages of free agency and the draft to cover up four or five starting spots might be unfair. The Chiefs already had areas they needed to improve prior to losing their starting left tackle, starting defensive end, two guards, a receiver/return man and a couple of role players. Kansas City deserves the benefit of the doubt after its quick rise in 2013, but it's dealing with some setbacks right now.
Riddle me this. How is it that you enter the free agency period with over $60 million in salary cap money to spend, and you lose your two best overall players? That's what general manager Reggie McKenzie did when he let left tackle Jared Veldheer walk to the Cardinals and defensive lineman Lamarr Houston leave for Chicago. Plus, the Raiders lost Rashad Jennings to the Giants while hanging on to Darren McFadden, which is simply inexcusable. McKenzie has been getting passes for his personnel acumen because he was cleaning up the messes left by Al Davis, but the newer blunders are on him and him alone.
CB: Jared Veldheer, OT, Cardinals
Arizona's recent efforts to find a franchise left tackle have fallen well short. So the Cardinals jumped all over Veldheer as soon as free agency began while still managing to bring him to town at a very reasonable $7 million per year. Veldheer does his best work in pass protection -- no minor footnote here given that he's jumping into the NFC West, which is brimming with dynamic edge rushers.
The Seahawks didn't do much in free agency, but they retained the man they most needed. Over the last two years, Bennett has been one of the most disruptive pass-rushers in the NFL, providing a high number of sacks, hits and hurries from the end and tackle positions. His $32 million over four years with $16 million guaranteed comprise the official numbers, but there's an $8 million signing bonus and a $2 million guaranteed base salary for 2014. The $6 million base in 2015 is guaranteed for injury only, and the last two years of the deal are essentially at the team's option. In short, this was a relative steal for a player who was on the radar of several teams.
Least favorite signing
If I look hard enough, I can find the possible reasoning behind this: The Chargers want another semi-competent No. 1 back if Ryan Mathews cannot stay healthy, and both Mathews and Danny Woodhead could bail via free agency after this year. The Brown move still feels like overkill at a position where ample players will be available throughout the draft. It's equally frustrating from Brown's perspective because he did strong work in Indianapolis only to lock himself in as possibly the No. 3 running back here.
DF: Donald Penn, LT, Raiders
Sorry to keep picking on your team, Raiders fans... but unless this is a lowball one-year deal, it's pretty bad. Penn was released by Tampa Bay after the Bucs signed former Bengals pass-blocking stalwart Anthony Collins, and for good reason -- only William Beatty of the Giants gave up more sacks than Penn in 2013 (12). Penn's pass protection liabilities were hidden from plain sight when Josh Freeman ran a heavy roll-right offense and pressure was deflected away from the left tackle position on a high number of plays. But with rookie quarterback Mike Glennon taking the majority of snaps last season, Penn turned out to be what some thought he was. And coming on the heels of Oakland's abortive Rodger Saffold deal, the Penn signing seems like a desperation move and nothing else. FARRAR: Five worst deals in 2014 NFL free agency