Sunday, March 2, 2008

NFL Free Agency - The Race to Guarantee as Much Money to as Mediocre/Unproven of Players as Possible

NFL free agency started last Friday, and in just a few short days we find that there have been a plethora of moves, some good, some decent, and some downright incomprehensible. So, without further delay, here I go, team by team, in alphabetical order. Keep in mind that grades are for the moves the teams have made SO FAR. Also, I'm not going to get to all 30 teams, so if I skip the team you care about... sorry, I guess.

Arizona: Put Franchise Tag on LB Karlos Dansby, other random rumblings.

Granted, Arizona hasn't done much to anything in free agency, but since I'm a Cards fan and have access to the local media's discussion about the inner workings of the team, instead of just hearing about when big moves happen, I'm sort of obligated to, and can, write something about them. First up is the one actual move the Cards have made, putting the Franchise Tag on Karlos Dansby. Dansby is simply a freak of nature at the linebacker slot, and that kind of athletic ability in a player doesn't come around every day. The Franchise Tag, however, is only a short-term fix. What needs to happen is Dansby getting a long-term deal, as he's earned it, and the Cards need to have his abilities in the long-run. However, for some reason I can't comprehend, the Cards seem to be dragging their feet on negotiating a long-term deal with this guy. I'd hate to see a great player like Dansby get run out of town because we can't open up the pocketbook to keep him around, but given the Cards' history, don't be shocked if that's exactly what happens. The other big news in Arizona relates to a guy the Cardinals still have under contract for another two seasons - Larry Fitzgerald. That actually is exactly the problem - Fitzgerald has performed so well during the first few seasons of his rookie deal, that certain ridiculous escalator clauses have been activated within the deal, and thus Fitzgerald's salaries over the next two seasons have risen to $14.6 million and $17.4 million, respectively. That kind of cap hit can crush a franchise, and while the Cardinals frantically try to renegotiate with Fitzgerald to bring that number down, it's hard to imagine that happening without extending his deal another four or five years, and giving him another $40 million or so (I'm no GM, but I can't imagine Fitz consenting to this without cashing out huge in the process). In case you're keeping track, that's six years and about $70 million, with what are likely to be unheard of guarantees. Fitzgerald has Arizona by the balls right now, and the GM work of the Cardinals has clearly laid a few eggs in how this has played out. As a result, we now have rumblings of Fitz being traded, possibly to Philadelphia, in order to get rid of his insane cap number. Make no mistake - trading Fitzgerald would kill the hopes of the Arizona Cardinals. The only strength we've had the past few years, and the only reason why our offense has managed to produce, is the fact that we have one of the best 1-2 receiver combos in the league and can create mismatches every down. Our running game has so far amounted to nothing, and despite Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt's hopes, I doubt it's going to get much better as long as Edgerrin James is our featured back. It's obvious that GM Rod Graves has done next to nothing right in handling this team. From getting nothing out of Kurt Warner and leaving a young and developing Matt Leinart to platoon at QB, which can do nothing but destroy his confidence, to mismanaging the cap and having signed no free agents thus far, despite the fact that Calvin Pace is on the verge of going to Miami and Bryant Johnson looks to possibly move to somewhere like Buffalo or Chicago, there is much to be desired out of Cards management. Hey, at least we get to back to the comfort of having a top-10 pick next year!

Grade: C-

Atlanta: Signs Michael Turner for six years, $34.5 million, including $15 million in guarantees. Re-signs Chris Redman to two-year deal

To begin, let me say that Michael Turner was VASTLY overpaid by the Falcons. He is unproven as a guy who can take a majority of the carries for a team, is already 26 years old, and was just given a contract that will pay him until he is 32. However, let me say that I don't mind the fact that Atlanta overpaid him in the least. At this point, Atlanta is in clear turmoil as a franchise. They were not going to get a quality player to sign with them unless they drastically overpaid him. Every new article about the franchise still has a reference to the Michael Vick fiasco (there was mine), they had their coach quit on them in the middle of the season last year, and have nobody at any of the key positions that appears to be a long-term solution. Well, until now, that is. Turner gives them a guy at running back who has proven that he can toast a defense if put in the right situation, and, believe it or not, Atlanta is the right situation for him. Their new head coach, Mike Smith, came from Jacksonville, who was pretty darn good at giving a similar back in Maurice Jones-Drew the opportunity to succeed in a split backfield. With Jerious Norwood already in the fold, Turner doesn't have to toil through 25 carries per game. Smith will maximize Turner's efficiency, and perhaps save his legs to the point where he can still be productive near the final years of this deal. As for Redmond, he played very well last season when he was given some time, but given his limited run, the Falcons played it safe and gave him a two-year deal so they can get a look to see if he's their guy. If not, they can draft a QB this summer, and plug him in in a year or so.

Grade: B+

Chicago: Lance Briggs stays for 6 years, $36 million. Rex Grossman stays for 1 year, $3 million. I'm not really sure what to think of this deal. First impressions are very good for the Bears - they get a 27-year old Linebacker in the prime of his career for a reasonable $6 million average salary. Granted, the deal is long, but in all likelihood, by the time he's 33 at the end of this deal, his production will have fallen, the Bears will cut him, and that won't matter. But really, what is going on in Chicago these days? They don't seem to be making active strides to improving their team, despite the fact that that's exactly what they need to be doing. Re-signing Rex Grossman for $3 million for this season? What is the point of doing that - the fact that they're only giving him a 1-year deal makes it obvious the Bears are simply taking a flier on a guy who they don't have any real faith will produce and become a great QB. So why not take this opportunity to get a new franchise QB and start re-building the team? With what the Bears are doing, they aren't going to get better this season. It's no secret that Miami wants to trade out of the #1 overall slot - so why is Dallas the only team you keep hearing about discussing a deal? Is it just me or would Matt Ryan be a really nice fit in Chicago? Not only have they not made any strides to improve, but they lost their two best receivers, Bernard Berrian and Muhsin Muhammad. And that's supposed to set up Grossman to succeed, right? The Briggs deal was good, but the team's overall direction, especially at Quarterback, is confusing to me.

Grade: B-

Cleveland: Re-sign Derek Anderson for three years, $24 million. Acquire Corey Williams from Packers for second-round pick, Shaun Rodgers from Lions for third-round pick and Leigh Bodden. Sign Donte Stallworth for seven years, $35 million.

I'm going to just go ahead and say it - I flat-out love the Anderson deal and the way that GM Phil Savage handled the situation. He knew that he had the upper-hand on Anderson from the beginning due to the fact that Anderson wanted to stay in Cleveland, where he's had his only success after bouncing around the waiver wire, and that Anderson was a Restricted Free Agent, and that he only wanted to secure Anderson for a reasonable two or three year contract. He quickly let Anderson know that the only offer from Cleveland would be a three-year deal, and that any deal that Anderson tried to sign elsewhere would only have gotten matched by Cleveland. Should Anderson have tested Cleveland, he would have been stuck with a long-term deal with a team that would have traded him, or even possibly cut him after three years of that deal. Should Anderson have been cut after three years of such a deal, he would have lost out on the big money of the contract. Anderson knew he had to take the Browns' offer or risk the possibility of losing some huge dollars. And given the fact that Anderson has only performed at a high level for one season, he would have been stupid to take such a risk. After all, he is making eight million dollars per year - that's a pretty nice paycheck. Savage saw all of this, and kept open the possibility of Brady Quinn taking over in a couple of years by not weighing himself down with a huge deal to Anderson. For the two trades for Williams and Rodgers, it's much of the same story. While Savage had to give up two first-day picks and a solid corner, he acquired almost 700 pounds of defensive linemen that will cause havoc along the 3-4 front Cleveland runs. Rodgers will be destructive at the nose, and Williams will produce at the end. Rather than taking rookies who may or may not turn out to be productive, Savage is making sure he's getting value out of his draft picks, sensing that the Browns are so close to the playoffs. Yet, despite scoring a couple of hits in his previous two moves, I don't really understand Savage's reasoning behind the Stallworth deal. Yes, Stallworth is a good receiver, and will be the #2 guy opposite of Braylon Edwards. Yes, the Browns want to give Derek Anderson and eventually Brady Quinn weapons to throw to. But seven years and $10 million guaranteed doesn't make sense to me. He wasn't especially productive with New England last season, getting only 697 yards receiving and three touchdowns. Certainly, Randy Moss and Wes Welker took a lot of Stallworth's potential touches, but Tom Brady threw the ball so much that it's hard to believe a legitimate #2 receiver couldn't have produced more. When the line at the end of an article reporting the signing is "[Player]'s best overall season was in [three seasons ago], when he caught [fewer than 1000 yards and less than 10 touchdowns] as a member of [a team that was really really bad three years ago and for whom he was clearly the #1 option]," and especially if he has a pretty extensive medical dossier, that is not the guy you want to be giving this kind of money. Sorry, Savage has made some great moves, but this isn't one of them.

Grade: A-

Jacksonville: Signs Jerry Porter to six-year, $30 million deal. Signs Cleo Lemon for three years and $9 million. Acquires Troy Williamson from Vikings for sixth-round pick. Acquires third-round and fifth-round picks from Buffalo in exchange for Marcus Stroud.

A lot of action from Jacksonville, but how much of it is really going to make a significant impact? The Porter signing and Williamson trade are designed to give emerging QB David Garrard options to throw to, which he clearly hasn't had the past few seasons. Reggie Williams and Ernest Wilford have not lived up to the expectations Jacksonville had for them, and so the Jags have decided to bring in some new bodies, but my question is whether or not they picked the right bodies to bring in. Everyone knows that Williamson, despite his high-end speed, has been a monumental bust in the NFL. If the Jaguars can find a way to utilize his athletic ability, they might end up with a steal, but in all likelihood Williamson shows just as little production in Jacksonville's run-happy offensive schemes. Porter, on the other hand, is a pretty intriguing signing. The fact that they're signing a 29-year-old receiver to a six-year contract is scary enough. But Porter's production last year was certainly not spectacular (44 receptions, 705 yards, 6 touchdowns), and the year before he found himself buried on the end of Art Shell's bench. Thus, you have to go back three years to find Porter's last above-average season in the NFL, and four years to find Porter's best statistical season. If Porter can re-capture those types of numbers in Jacksonville, this move is fantastic. If he can't, however, they'll end up trying to get rid of him within a year or two. The Cleo Lemon signing is completely insignificant if you ask me, and the amount of publicity it's actually managed to get is shameful. The fact that people are actually worried about the QB competition in Dolphins camp makes no sense to me, as we won't know any of the details for sure until after the draft. Lemon will sit on the pine and collect his checks while Garrard does all the heavy lifting. Moving on, I don't get the Marcus Stroud trade from Jacksonville's perspective. Stroud has been a dominant interior defensive force for years, racking up three Pro-Bowls and teaming up with John Henderson to strike fear into opponents in Jacksonville. So they're trading him for two mid-round picks? What? They sold low on Stroud, unloading him after a year in which he fought with an ankle injury. Jacksonville is trying to win now, but yet they get rid of dominant defensive players in a league where defenses win championships. If someone could explain this one to me, I'd really appreciate it. Really, Jacksonville has made a bunch of moves, but none of them seem to really make any sort of impact on the team. Disappointing for a team that was so good last season.

Grade: C+

Minnesota: Signs Bernard Berrian to six-year deal (financial numbers unknown - above $40 million?). Signs Madieu Williams to six-year deal worth $33 million.

I'll start with Madieu Williams because quite frankly I don't really know much about how Williams plays. What I do know is that he recorded 74 tackles last year with 2 interceptions and a sack - numbers that don't add up to one of the highest-paid safeties in the NFL, which is what Willams just became. This seems to be an example of a guy being overpaid, but Dwight Smith is gone and the Vikings need impact players now, and Williams is believed to be one of the best safeties on the market. Also, in the NFL today, the safety position is quickly becoming more and more important as an impact player, so having an elite player at that position is a key. Whether or not Williams is one is debatable, but the Vikings are definitely trying to get better. The Berrian contract is a move that fills what has been a huge need for this team for a long time (ever since some guy named Moss left). Tarvaris Jackson has spent the past couple of seasons trying to lob passes up to such superstars as Troy Williamson, clearly to no avail. Having a legitimate receiver will allow Jackson to begin the process of developing into the franchise QB that Minnesota thinks he will become. However, again the Vikings are probably overpaying Berrian too, but Minnesota is another one of those teams that wasn't going to lure big-time free agents from other teams without breaking the bank, so that's what they had to do.

Grade: B

San Francisco: Signs Justin Smith to six-year, $45 million contract. Signs Isaac Bruce for two years, $6 million. Exercises clause in Alex Smith's contract to extend his deal through 2010. Sign DeShaun Foster for two years, $1.8 million.

Once again, San Francisco went out this summer and spent a huge amount of money over a long period of time for a defensive player who, despite being the top player at his position, is not a dominating player by any stretch of the imagination. Granted, last year's deal with Nate Clements was much more expensive, but Clements had had a higher degree of success in Buffalo than Smith has had in Cincinnati. Guaranteeing $20 million to Justin Smith really isn't a great idea. The 49ers are quickly becoming the Washington Redskins, feeling that simply spending more and more money on big-name free agents will make them into an elite football team. There was a gaping hole at DE with Bryant Young's retirement, but signing a guy who had 2 sacks last season isn't going to fill that hole. In four years, when the 49ers are still on the hook for huge amounts of money to guys like Smith and Clements, they'll be back in the same sort of financial mess they were in before Mike Nolan came and cleared it all up. They're just backtracking and putting themselves in the same crappy situation they were in before, and it won't end well. The Bruce deal, however, makes a lot more sense. Mike Martz is in as the Offensive Coordinator in San Francisco, and Bruce knows Martz's system from their days with the Greatest Show on Turf in St. Louis. It's a short-term deal without a whole lot of financial commitment - not much you can argue with. As for Alex Smith, this was all the 49ers could do shy of trusting Shaun Hill with the franchise's success, and given how unproven Hill is, and the fact that Hill was recently a third-string QB makes caution a smart choice. However, given the fact that Smith and Nolan have had such a shaky relationship, it's hard to believe that he will end up being the long-term franchise QB of this team. And as much as I'd like to believe the Foster deal is a steal, again I don't get it. This team just gave Michael Robinson a three-year extension to be their third-down back and backup to Frank Gore, who's the starter and is going absolutely nowhere. So why clog up the backfield even more with a guy nearing the 30-year old benchmark (Foster is 28)? Foster has shown he is effective if he's given carries as part of a two-man backfield, but I seriously doubt that idea is going to fly well with Gore. It's not a given that the Niners will be better this year than last year, and with all the money they're giving out, that's a tough pill to swallow.

Grade: C

Tampa Bay: Signed Jeff Faine (contract details unavailable).

Obviously, this is hard to grade and analyze with precision because of the fact that Faine's contract details are unavailable. However, it has been assumed that Faine would attract the type of money that would make him the highest-paid center in NFL history (a trend that we're seeing a lot of at multiple positions), and naturally that would seem to come with a long-term commitment. However, Faine seems to deserve that type of money and contract length. He is only 26 years old, plays a position that people excel at well into their thirties, and is a very skilled lineman. It's no secret that a good offensive line is important in building a great football team, and the Bucs seemed to make a step to keep building a good offensive line.

Grade: B+

Tennessee: Placed Franchise Tag on Albert Haynesworth. Signed Alge Crumpler to two-year contract (financial terms unavailable).

The Haynesworth move was expected - the guy tore it up last season, but has been a battle off the field with character issues, and even had one memorable on-field character issue when he stomped on Andre Gurode's face with his cleats. He was pretty well behaved last season, and if he can continue to keep up such behavior this year, I could see the Titans giving the guy a long-term deal, unless of course they give him one this summer. As for Crumpler's signing, I do think it will help Vince Young by giving him a safety net, but I don't think that the deal is a blockbuster that will make Young infinitely better and drastically improve the offense. Crumpler caught only 42 passes for 444 yards last season, poor numbers for a player of his reputation, even taking into account the quarterbacks throwing to him (Joey Harrington, Byron Leftwich, and Chris Redmond). He's a 30-year-old tight end whose star has certainly begun to fade. After all, if he was still a big-time playmaker, the pitiful Falcons wouldn't have released him. The best part about this deal might perhaps be the length of the contract - for all the teams ponying up six-year deals to players who don't deserve them, the Titans managed to give a solid player a reasonable two-year deal, preventing them from overpaying for a guy far past his prime.

Grade: B-

That's about it for now - there will be more updates and posts for later happenings, but this is all I can force myself to do for now. Oh, and Randy Moss should go to Green Bay - He'd do for Favre what he did for Brady, except win the Super Bowl. Just in case you were wondering...

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