First Down/Fourth Down: Highs and lows of free agency's first 10 days
NFL free agency is a sprint and a marathon rolled into one. As usual, a flurry of activity arrived with the beginning of the new league year on March 10, only to be followed by a calmer, more drawn-out process for the free agents who remained available.
There are moves still to be made, plus a little thing known as the NFL draft coming next month. So, yes, the outlook for each team will change before training camps open this summer.
For now, here's a look at the best and worst of free agency's first 10 days:
Washington made itself a laughingstock a few years back by giving Albert Haynesworth a seven-year deal worth approximately the GDP of a small island nation. (Heck, just buying Haynesworth a small island of his own might have been a better deal.) The move was one of many overpriced mistakes by the Daniel Snyder-led front office.
The opposite issue surfaced in New York last offseason. Despite obvious holes on the roster, in particular at cornerback, then-GM John Idzik played it safe.
"Maybe we should have spent more," owner Woody Johnson said at the press conference to announce Idzik's dismissal. "We probably should have."
Both franchises have taken a 180-degree pivot in the past week.
New Washington GM Scot McCloughan may have pushed the upper limits of cornerback Chris Culliver's market at four years and $32 million, but at least it was a gamble on a 26-year-old talent. Elsewhere, his work has been measured thus far: retaining Niles Paul, adding Terrance Knighton and Stephen Paea to the defensive line, letting Brian Orakpo walk. On paper, a smart approach across the board.
Meanwhile, Mike Maccagnan has opened up the Jets' checkbook, finally addressing that beleaguered secondary. After swiping Buster Skrine from Cleveland, Maccagnan followed up with a pair of high-profile scores in Darrelle Revis (with the bonus of getting him out of New England) and Antonio Cromartie—both former Jets.Fourth Down:
The Buccaneers are headed into year two of the Lovie Smith/Jason Licht regime, and it's still difficult to decipher exactly what the game plan is. A year ago, they handed out contracts worth a combined $73.75 million total to tackle Anthony Collins and defensive end Michael Johnson; this month, they released both players, along with quarterback Josh McCown.
Tampa Bay will carry $10 million in dead money on its cap this season due to those cuts, but the on-field setbacks brought on by swinging and missing thrice loom larger. Licht has yet to replace any member of the Collins-Johnson-McCown trio via free agency, so the pressure will be on come the draft.
Not every free-agent running back has found a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow—Knowshon Moreno, Pierre Thomas and Ahmad Bradshaw are among those still lingering on the market—but several have landed lucrative deals, with McCoy and Murray setting the pace.
McCoy's new five-year, $40 million contract ($26.5 million guaranteed) first required a trade to Buffalo. Murray also had to switch teams to land his big deal, moving from Dallas to Philadelphia for a five-year, $42 million offer ($21 million guaranteed). While the per-year numbers still fall shy of the top deals at other positions, teams are showing a commitment to the running game nonetheless, even ahead of a draft full of running back prospects.
Fourth Down: Recycling quarterbacks.
Hoyer is Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick is Hoyer. Finkle is Einhorn. Wait ... ignore that last one.
Somewhere between 15 and two dozen teams feel set at the quarterback position right now, depending on how you'd score starters like Jay Cutler and Robert Griffin III. The remaining franchises appear determined to keep returning to the same dried-up wells, praying for a miracle.
Houston swapped out Ryan Fitzpatrick for Brian Hoyer (despite Fitzpatrick probably being the better quarterback). Fitzpatrick then resurfaced in New York, where he'll either push Geno Smith or mentor Jameis Winston/Marcus Mariota. Josh McCown's getting another shot in Cleveland, and Matt Cassel is on pace to start for Buffalo.
Is there really a fixed number of quality starting quarterbacks in this league, or are teams missing out on more promising options by bringing in these well-traveled vets?
First Down: The AFC East race.
The Patriots have proven quite adept at staying ultra-competitive year to year in spite of any free agent losses. There is little doubt, however, that the past few days have been tough for the defending champs. Gone from that title team are cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, longtime defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and versatile running back Shane Vereen.
New England has picked up a few pieces of its own, including underrated defensive end Jabaal Sheard. The rest of the division remains in catch-up mode, but the timeline may be shortening. The Bills, Dolphins and Jets all have taken their shots this offseason, bringing McCoy, Ndamukong Suh and Revis, respectively, on as marquee acquistions.
As a result, the AFC East could be right up there with the NFC West as the toughest division top to bottom in 2015.
Fourth Down: Carolina.
History is on the verge of repeating itself in Carolina, where for the second consecutive offseason the front office has been unable to secure meaningful help on offense through free agency. The first-round selection of wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin restored the fanbase's sanity in the 2014 draft, but Cam Newton needs plenty more help. The Panthers' two signings on offense, to date: receiver Ted Ginn and tackle Michael Oher. Ginn is more of a special-teams threat than a go-to receiver, while the declining Oher may be on his last chance at prolonging his NFL career.
Carolina has won the NFC South in back-to-back seasons (though it took a mere 7-8-1 record to do so last year). The franchise's momentum might be fading.
First Down: Indianapolis.
Time will tell if the Colts have done enough to reach the Super Bowl summit. It won't be for lack of trying should they fall short.
Andrew Luck's team has finished 11-5 each of the past three seasons, last year taking a trip to the AFC title game against New England. Five proven veterans have joined the ranks in free agency this March: Trent Cole, Frank Gore, Todd Herremans, Andre Johnson (replacing Reggie Wayne) and Kendall Langford. All should see ample playing time in 2015—Herremans, Johnson and Gore elevating what was already a top-five offense; Langford and Cole providing a little assistance against the run and in the pass rush, two areas of weakness for Indianapolis last season.
Fourth Down: The Giants.
A delayed push netted the Giants DT Kenrick Ellis and DE George Selvie, two rotational guys who should help on the D-line. And the Shane Vereen addition gives Eli Manning a strong receiving option for the quick passing game. It has been a pretty quiet couple weeks overall, though, for a team that has fallen well short of expectations since winning the Super Bowl in 2011.
The offensive line will have to be addressed during the draft—there's little of value left there on the free-agent market.
The Packers' proficiency in developing and retaining their own talent is almost legendary by now. The benefits of such a system were on display again last week, as two coveted impending free agents took the oft-mythical "hometown discount" to remain in Green Bay.
Cobb passed on free agency first, signing a four-year, $40 million deal days before free agency opened. Bulaga was next, opting to stick with the Packers at five years and $33.75 million. Both players likely could have landed more cash elsewhere.
"They buy into this culture of a draft and develop team that is always going to be good," The MMQB's Andrew Brandt said on ESPN's Football Today podcast. "Randall Cobb is a prime example. I know for a fact ... he left a lot of money on the table. And I knew it was going to be hard to pry him away from Green Bay."
Fourth Down: Oakland's attempts to land a superstar.
Let's start with the positives: The Raiders' 2014 draft produced what looks to be a solid foundation for their rebuild, led by outside linebacker Khalil Mack and quarterback Derek Carr. GM Reggie McKenzie also has moved this team beyond the salary cap-strapped days of yore, when cumbersome contracts bogged down the entire roster.
Those facts will offer Raider Nation some solace, but at some point Oakland would love to see a potential game-changer head its way in free agency.
Leading up to this year's festivities, the Raiders were linked by reports to Cobb, Murray, Suh, Revis, Julius Thomas and a handful of other players. All five opted either to stay put or sign elsewhere, forcing McKenzie to shift his focus midstream.
McKenzie did recover rather nicely by nabbing a handful of solid contributors: Curtis Lofton, Roy Helu, Nate Allen, Rodney Hudson, Dan Williams, etc. The new acquisitions are steps forward, to be sure, maybe even enough to propel the Raiders close to .500 this season if they can deliver a second consecutive strong draft class.
Winning some games would help Oakland overcome any stigma it may hold in the eyes of elite free agents who consider signing there. The 2015 free-agency developments served another reminder that the Raiders, while improving, are not quite there yet.