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Sorting winners, losers in free agency
The dust is starting to settle on the NFL's free-agency frenzy, and the consensus is that the elite players (Nnamdi Asomugha, Peyton Manning, Tamba Hali and David Harris) generally cashed in big — but there also were some head-scratching deals as teams raced to spend the league-wide mandatory $3.8 billion on players, even though some clubs like Tampa Bay will once again fall well short of reaching the $120 million salary cap.
This last week was difficult for the more aggressive teams as they quickly shed some overvalued players in order to find cap room to sign more valuable ones. Don't forget, the 2009 salary cap was $127 million. That's why a lot of agents and general managers were calling this year's spending total a "flat cap."
"The good thing about our new deal is that most of the big spending has been on proven players, the veterans," Vikings union rep Steve Hutchinson told me. "The big change is no one is talking about what outrageous deal some first-rounder got."
On first-round contracts alone last season, teams guaranteed those rookies a total of $528 million.
There have been some wild winners already. Solid players such as Eric Weddle in San Diego and Carolina's Charles Johnson have collected lottery-like contracts, while the restrictive system has kept 2010 rushing champion Arian Foster and Rams leading receiver Danny Amendola (85 receptions) earning a meager $525,000 this season. But that's the system.
Because everything was fast and furious from the beginning, as Green Bay GM Ted Thompson told me, "Before you had all the necessary information on free agents," most teams preferred to sign their own players.
Granted, there were some exceptions, such as Philadelphia and Seattle. But teams like the Jets paid huge money to keep critical stars such as linebacker David Harris and receiver Santonio Holmes. The Eagles made so many moves that new backup quarterback Vince Young, a perfect fit behind Mike Vick, called his new franchise a "Dream Team." We'll see if Young is saying the same thing if he rides the bench the entire season.
"I think you have to be nervous, though, when your top executive [Joe Banner] comes out and says that 'they are all in,'" said one rival general manager.
"I recall that Minnesota sort of said that last season, and look how that turned out."
Still, many personnel people were impressed by Philadelphia's aggressive approach, which definitely will improve the pass rush (Cullen Jenkins and Jason Babin) and secondary. The consensus is that the Eagles have a super trio in Banner, young GM Howie Roseman and coach Andy Reid.
"One thing about Howie is that he loves to be in the middle of the action," one NFC general manager said.
"But he also thrives in it, too. You have to be impressed with all the deals they made in a short period of time. What I really like about them is that they always admit when they make a personnel mistake. They cut their losses and move on to the next great player they can sign to upgrade their roster. They believe in their personnel judgments, and their coach is a driving force behind many of the moves."
Said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones: “Philadelphia got into it right at the end. For a while there, I thought we had him.”
For example, there's no doubt in league circles that with Asomugha and Dominic Rodgers-Cromartie they have found two new starting cornerbacks, understanding now that Asante Samuel, a previous big-money signee in free agency, is simply a great gambler in the secondary and a non-tackler. Although the Eagles say otherwise, many teams expect them to trade Samuel.
Still, the way this system has worked, there are now some bargains in the system. The San Francisco 49ers picked up one with receiver Braylon Edwards signing a one-year deal for basically $1 million, which could be $3.5 million if he hits his incentives. Minnesota got Donovan McNabb for $5 million, a bargain if he can play like he used to as a starter.
Carolina owner Jerry Richardson, who was very instrumental in reaching a settlement with the players, has been crowing this week about not being cheap after signing Johnson to a six-year, $72 million contract, with $30 million guaranteed. He also rewarded running back DeAngelo Williams with a $7 million annual contract.
The Williams' deal hasn't been criticized as much as the Johnson one because the Broncos, where John Fox now coaches, probably would have given Williams a similar contract. There was a respectable market for him, unlike many other running backs who are scrambling for work.
"What I don't understand about the Johnson deal is if Carolina had so much money to spend, why didn't they give it to Julius Peppers last year?" one GM said. "I mean, Johnson's skill set is a patch on Peppers' butt."
Granted, teams were interested in Johnson, but he's coming off only one very good season with 11 1/2 sacks. Does one great season warrant a $12 million annual salary when your team finished 2-14?
To the Panthers' defense on both matters, they should know Williams and Johnson better than any other team. They're in better position to gauge both players' upside.
Seattle's made many deals, including signing ex-Minnesota quarterback Tarvaris Jackson and immediately naming him the starter over holdover Charlie Whitehurst. Most believe their best signing was Oakland tight end Zach Miller, who was the centerpiece to the Raiders offense.
Most also are pointing to Jackson's relationship with new Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. If history remembers correctly, this is the same Bevell who was coaching Jackson in 2008 in Minnesota while he was burning the phone lines talking Brett Favre out of retirement.
There have been some other questionable deals, such as Arizona looking desperate for a quarterback while trading for Kevin Kolb, who lost his job to Michael Vick. Even the young quarterback admits he has a lot to prove on the field, but his new employer still gave him $20 million in guaranteed money, showing how desperate the Cards are to find their next Kurt Warner.
And nothing against Weddle, because the San Diego safety does make a lot of tackles, but there isn't one Pro Bowl appearance on his resume and he has only six career interceptions. Nobody confuses him with Ed Reed or Troy Polamalu, but he's making more than both of the NFL's best safeties, both of whom are potential Hall of Famers. The Steelers are currently figuring out a way to extend Polamalu’s contract while topping Weddle’s deal.
"We looked at him because we needed a safety," said one personnel director. "Now, he's always in the right place, he calls the defense and he makes a lot of tackles. But when you're paying that much money, you want the guy to be a playmaker and create 10 turnovers or more a season."
Manning's deal was expected. He'll make $23 million a year the next three years. That number was easy to predict; I speculated on that exact amount toward the end of last season.
Yes, fans, free agency began and some teams acted like they were playing with monopoly money instead of the real stuff. For months, the owners complained about the dollars they didn't want to share with the players in order to end the lockout — and the next thing you read about is players driving away in a Brinks truck.
League-wide, the owners did agree to spend 99 percent of their salary cap. So far, a bunch of them have already done a great job of making sure they hit the financial target.
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