NFL free agency opened with more than 60 contracts and a $1 billion binge on the first day alone, but the eye-popping numbers don’t tell the whole story. Let's pause to assess the winners, the losers and the leaps of faith ... plus, my take on Vince Wilfork’s impending divorce from the Patriots and why Everson Griffen—who?—became a rich man
NFL free agency usually has a few stages. The first day is when teams throw big money at impact players, along with a few targeted signings that perfectly fit team needs. The next couple days involve veterans who are a little pickier about money and the corresponding cap hit. This weekend, we’ll witness the beginning of the next stage: the musical chairs installment, when players and agents start to get a bit more desperate to find a new team before the big money dries up. After that, the value shoppers will start picking over the discount bin.
So, this is the perfect time to hit pause and assess some of the moves that have already gone down. That said, I won’t get into the whole grading thing—“champions” in March have little correlation to the champions in February—but I like to group the key moves in a few different categories. Basically, it breaks down into moves that I really liked, those I’m cautious about, and leaps of faith, which may or may not pay off.
You’ll be happy
DE Willie Young, Bears (3 years, $9 million): An overlooked but very effective member of the Lions’ defensive line who should take the next step in Chicago. He’s an improving pass rusher with a great motor. Bears get bang for their bucks on this one.
OT Jared Veldheer, Cardinals (5 years, $35 million): If he didn’t have the torn triceps last year, he might have been the highest paid tackle on the market. He’s a very good player and Arizona should finally have a left tackle they can count on.
CB Alterraun Verner, Buccaneers (4 years, $25.5 million): Of the top cornerbacks on the market, Verner is the youngest and perhaps the best fit for what coach Love Smith likes to do on defense. Tampa Bay got a great deal because many teams don’t think Verner is a shutdown corner; those teams might be sorry they felt that way.
SS T.J. Ward, Broncos (4 years, $22.5 million): While many of these contracts are configured so the team can get out after one season, Ward should see the end of this deal, which is fair to both the player and team. He’s 27 and has more upside than other safeties on the market, such as Donte Whitner and Antoine Bethea. Denver will be happy.
CB Darrelle Revis, Patriots (Real deal: one year, $12 million): It’s a two-year contract, which allows the Patriots to spread the cap hit out. Revis will likely be there for one season, and then we’ll see happens. Regardless, the Patriots get a lockdown cornerback who is an upgrade over Aqib Talib in every way, especially durability.
OT Eugene Monroe, Ravens (5 years, $37.5 million): He’s been very good the past two seasons, and he’s only getting better. Smart move by both sides to keep a relatively young player (Monroe turns 27 in April) in the fold so he can continue to grow.
DT Linval Joseph, Vikings (5 years, $31.25 million): This is really a two-year deal for $13 million. Joseph is just 25, durable and more of a two-way (run and pass) defender than most realize. That’s great value up front for Minnesota.
OT Austin Howard, Raiders (5 years, $30 million): The overall deal is a bit rich for a player like Howard, but there’s beauty in how it’s structured. GM Reggie McKenzie worked hard to get the Raiders’ cap in order and now he’s installing a pay-as-you-go system. As soon as the player doesn’t perform, he’s gone with no cap hit.
DE Michael Bennett, Seahawks (4 years, $28.5 million): Looks like this is really three years and $27 million, and that’s a fair deal for a player who is extremely versatile and knows what it takes to win a Super Bowl.
DT Arthur Jones, Colts (5 years, $33 million): Given his knowledge and comfort in Chuck Pagano’s defense, Jones won’t have the same learning curve as many free agents playing with new clubs. An average of $6.6 million per year (at an important position in the scheme) should be solid value.
DL Red Bryant, Jaguars (4 years, $17 million): There’s only $5.25 million guaranteed in this contract, and Jacksonville got the kind of guy who will be as steady as an oak on that line.
FS Jairus Byrd, Saints (6 years, $54 million): The total value is startling, but that’s a reflection of how important the free safety position has become if you want to play man coverage. His deal is going to need some renegotiation at some point (probably after a second season), but Byrd will be worth it.
OG Jon Asamoah, Falcons (5 years, $22.5 million): Atlanta needed an upgrade on the line and got it with an underrated player who brings a nasty edge to the unit. His best football is ahead.
CB Captain Munnerlyn, Vikings (3 years, $15 million): The NFL’s worst pass defense got a young (26), feisty and versatile player. Instant upgrade.
WR Golden Tate, Lions (5 years, $31 million): Detroit finally gets a viable receiver to pair with Calvin Johnson, and it didn’t break the bank to do it.
CB Nolan Carroll, Eagles (2 years, $5.2 million): An underrated player with the Dolphins, Carroll should be a better fit in Philadelphia where his length is a big asset.
A bit risky
FS Mike Mitchell, Steelers (5 years, $25 million): Mitchell had a very good season for the Panthers and got rewarded. Now we’ll find out if he overachieved with help from Carolina’s front seven, or if he’s really that good.
CB Aqib Talib, Broncos (6 years, $57 million): Judging by the total value of the deal, this seems risky. In reality, it’s a three-year deal for $27 million, but the Broncos have left themselves outs after the first and second seasons. That was smart, because Talib has a history of being one of the most volatile players on and off the field. Even if he’s past his off-field issues, his health is always a concern.
OLB DeMarcus Ware, Broncos (3 years, $30 million): Ware has good football ahead of him—and pairing him with Von Miller could be lethal—but his recent injury history should give pause. It’s a great deal if he’s on the field. If he’s not, the Broncos could be in trouble. Overall, this was risk worth taking.
ILB Karlos Dansby, Browns (4 years, $24 million): In reality, there’s $14 million guaranteed in this contract. There’s no question Dansby played great last season, but he turns 33 in November. Will his body hold up to the contract?
DE Lamarr Houston, Bears (5 years, $35 million): This is probably two years at $14.9 million, which is similar to Bennett’s deal with the Seahawks. Bennett is more versatile and a better pass rusher. It all depends on how Chicago uses Houston. He’s such a unique player, but his skills could go to waste.
SS Antoine Bethea, 49ers (4 years, $23 million): I think he is better overall than the player he’s replacing, Donte Whitner. But Bethea is 30, and while he hasn’t missed a game in six years, can that injury luck continue?
LB D’Qwell Jackson, Colts (4 years, $22 million): Nobody questions Jackson’s leadership and work ethic, but he’s been declining, especially when in a 3-4 defense like this one. He might be better in a 4-3. A lot of risk for the Colts in this one.
DE Michael Johnson, Buccaneers (5 years, $43.8 million): This is a bit pricey for a player who has yet to show he can be the type of dominating pass rusher that normally commands this salary. Tampa is taking a leap of faith that he’ll be better in its system. Maybe he will, but there’s definite risk here.
SS Donte Whitner, Browns (4 years, $28 million): Whitner is a good player, but he’s in this category because I don’t understand why Cleveland didn’t retain T.J. Ward for less money, especially because he’s younger and, in my opinion, has more upside.
OG Zane Beadles, Jaguars (5 years, $30 million): He struggled down the stretch and in the Super Bowl. Beadles will need to prove that it was an aberration to live up to this contract, which could turn into two years at $12.5 million.
CB Vontae Davis, Colts (4 years, $39 million): Davis has always looked the part and flashed shut down ability — he just hasn’t done so consistently. He also has a tendency to get dinged up (see last year’s playoffs). Like Jackson, this is another roll of the dice by GM Ryan Grigson, who is also betting on RB Trent Richardson to pay off.
DE Tyson Jackson, Falcons (5 years, $25 million): Jackson’s going to receive at least $16 million out of this deal, which is a little rich for a player who is very good against the run but doesn’t provide much in pass rush.
TE Brandon Pettigrew, Lions (4 years, $16 million): I don’t get this one. Pettigrew has always been an inconsistent player who has teased with his potential. He has shown no signs of being more than just average.
1. We all know football is a tough business, but it’s still sad to see an impending divorce between the Patriots and nose tackle Vince Wilfork. The NFL Network reported that the 10-year veteran has asked to be released. The plan always appeared to be that Wilfork would be fairly extended this offseason, before the final year of his deal, and that he would rightfully finish his career in New England. But Wilfork, who missed just six games in his first nine years, tore his Achilles last season and that changed things. The Patriots probably factored in an injury discount, and Wilfork decided he’d rather take less elsewhere than continue on with the Patriots. That happens when a player feels disrespected. Why would Wilfork feel that way? Just an educated guess: after the Patriots made him honor his rookie contract by playing for six years way below market value, Wilfork probably didn’t take kindly to the team not sticking to the market-value extension both agreed to in 2010. The Patriots were just playing the game in a system that will always be stacked against the player, which is their right. Both the team and fans get upset if a player holds out and doesn’t honor his contract. Then teams, when given the chance, will quickly say, “Take a pay cut or leave.” (Wilfork isn’t a descending and/or injury-prone player like others who are often cut loose). NFL teams get to have it both ways. People love to talk about loyalty, but if the team isn’t going to show it, the player shouldn’t be expected to either.
2. I like the decision by the Bills to move middle linebacker Kiko Alonso to weakside linebacker in their new scheme. As a rookie last season, Alonso was impressive at middle linebacker, but now he’ll have the opportunity to make more plays. He has that kind of potential.
3. According to two front office sources, Vikings free-agent end Jared Allen is looking for a contract that will pay him in the neighborhood of $12 million per season. That would keep him where he was under his contract with the Vikings. Allen is still a very good and durable player with a lot to add as a veteran presence, but it’s hard to see him getting more than DeMarcus Ware ($10 million with Broncos). The list of contenders who are a good scheme fit with that kind of cash isn’t very long. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. The Jaguars would be a good fit, but they don’t have a quarterback.
4. Many fans don’t know much about Vikings end Everson Griffen. After all, he started just one game in his first four seasons. So there was probably some surprise when he received a five-year, $42.5 million contract. But NFL teams viewed Griffen as a diamond in the rough because his lack of playing time resulted from being behind Jared Allen and Brian Robison on the depth chart. When he played, Griffen was very effective and a versatile chess piece. This is a fair deal for a rising player.
5. One thing that will have to be looked at once free agency is over: the amount of contracts in which teams basically hold an option after each season in the form of roster bonuses. Because of this wrinkle, fully guaranteed money (against injury, skill and cap) is becoming less and less. For example, Aqib Talib’s deal with the Broncos has a total value of six years and $57 million. But the Broncos could get out after one year at $12 million. His salaries in ’14 and ’15 are guaranteed for injury only, and don’t kick in until the third day of each league year. With the new draft system guaranteeing more of rookie salaries, most assumed that it would trickle up to veteran contracts. That hasn’t happened. It’s such a recent shift that it’s too early to gauge whether this is good or bad for the players.