More than 470 players hit the open market on Tuesday, marking the beginning of the new league year. But the year got off to an early start, with some teams beating the buzzer to lock up players before they hit free agency (like the Lions and RB Joique Bell) and others cutting loose high-priced veterans before their salaries counted against the 2014 salary cap (such as the Bears with DE Julius Peppers and Cowboys with LB Demarcus Ware).
Seeing the former Pro Bowlers let go wasn’t a surprise, but was jarring nonetheless, with the moves making shockwaves league-wide.
And more moves remain, as it appears a certainty now that former All-Pro CB Darrelle Revis will be out of Tampa Bay, one way or the other, come this time Wednesday; the Panthers continue to shop franchise WR Steve Smith and his $7 million salary; and Saints do-everything back Darren Sproles learned he may want to start packing his bags — via Twitter.
It’s just a reminder that as fruitful as NFL free agency can be, it’s just as humbling as the bottom-line business it is.
But when the clock struck 4 p.m. Tuesday, it was all about the free agents. And it didn’t take long for the cash to start flying. With a whirlwind day in the books, let’s look at who made it clear they mean business this season . . . and who made it clear that, well, things still aren’t all that clear for them.
Just wait, baby!
Oakland began the day with a whopping $60 million-plus in salary cap space. But instead of exciting the fan base by signing a splashy free agent — or holding on to the few front-line players they do have — the Raiders allowed three of their coveted veterans to walk. By allowing offensive tackle Jared Veldheer (Arizona), defensive end Lamarr Houston (Chicago) and running back Rashad Jennings (New York Giants) to leave, the Raiders have more questions than answers entering Day 2. They did make a few moves, though they likely drew more head scratches and yawns than fist pumps, signing oft-injured lineman Rodger Saffold for a whopping five-year, $42.5 million (reportedly $5 million more than what the Cardinals gave Veldheer), tackle Austin Howard to a guaranteed $15 million and re-signing injury-plagued running back Darren McFadden to a one-year, incentive-laden deal.
Watch for Oakland to spread the wealth on its roster and even possibly add a big-name veteran like Revis or Antonio Cromartie.
Bucs steal the show
The Bucs didn’t waste any time as they reportedly had their first prized asset locked up before it could even become official. In taking advantage of the early negotiation period with agents and signing defensive end Michael Johnson to a five-year, $43.75 million deal, Tampa Bay solidified its pass rush. With Gerald McCoy and Adrian Clayborn in the middle, Johnson should be able to pin his ears back and rush the quarterback. Despite a dip in production in 2013 (3.5 sacks), Johnson is a strong addition to a loaded front seven.
But the Bucs’ biggest splash came later in the day, signing Alterraun Verner to a four-year, $25.5 million deal with $14 million guaranteed. In one signing, new Bucs head coach Lovie Smith gets his Pro Bowl CB and the franchise has the man to replace Revis, who is due $16 million this coming season and thus looks like a goner in Tampa as cutting Revis will not count even one cent against the cap.
Tampa Bay is also hosting cornerback Charles Tillman and former Bengals offensive tackle Anthony Collins.
Offensive tackles continue to be a hot commodity
Every franchise quarterback needs someone to watch his blindside. Never was the importance of that adage more evident than early Tuesday afternoon, when teams raced to sign the pass blockers.
Veldheer agreed to a five-year deal worth $35 million with Arizona after Oakland continued to low-ball him. The Ravens, who acquired Eugene Monroe in a midseason trade last season, kept him around by agreeing to a five-year, $37.5 million deal.
The Dolphins, who were missing offensive linemen for a myriad of reasons last season, gave Pro Bowl offensive tackle Branden Albert a very lucrative deal, which averages out to $10 million a season.
Even Zane Beadles struck it rich in Jacksonville, inking a five-year, $30 million deal.
And speaking of those other missing offensive linemen in Miami, the Dolphins late Tuesday traded Jonathan Martin, whose exit from the team in October of last season set off the infamous bullying scandal with Richie Incognito. Martin was dealt to San Francisco for an undisclosed draft pick. 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh coached Martin at Stanford.
Philly institutes revolving-door policy at safety
Eagles general manager Howie Roseman made one of the stealthiest moves by signing safety Malcolm Jenkins to a three-year deal. Jenkins, who was a defensive captain the last two seasons in New Orleans, gives the Eagles some much-needed support on the back end.
“Malcolm is someone we’ve had our eye on for quite a while,” Roseman said in a statement. “He has been a productive player his entire football career, both in New Orleans and at Ohio State. Everything you hear about Malcolm as a person is true.”
In a correlating move, the Eagles released Patrick Chung, who was signed just last season to a three-year deal. Chung will count towards $1 million of the Eagles’ 2014 salary cap.
Denver looks to clean up
While wide receiver Eric Decker and running back Knowshon Moreno are likely to play in new cities next season, the Broncos are aiming to lure some big-name free agents to town. Defensive end Jared Allen is set to visit with Broncos’ brass on Wednesday and Ware has been reportedly linked to the Mile High City. If general manager John Elway is able to pull off one of those moves, it would be a major coup.
And we haven’t talked about the guys the Broncos did sign on Tuesday. Cornerback Aqib Talib, who the Broncos last saw leaving the field early as a member of New England in last season’s playoffs, and safety T.J. Ward, who is one of the most punishing players at his position, both agreed to terms with Denver. Ward will immediately give the Broncos some toughness, especially against the run.
Where are the skill players?
The quarterbacks: Josh McCown, Mike Vick and Josh Freeman headline a less-than-appetizing class, but it’s still noteworthy. McCown reportedly visited with the Bucs on Tuesday and will also meet with the Texans and Jets. Vick, who doesn’t have any visits scheduled, could also be a fit with the Jets as he has worked with offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg in his time with Philly.
The running backs: Ben Tate, Maurice Jones-Drew and LeGarrette Blount should each receive respectable deals. Tate has been pegged as a good fit in Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s one-cut system, while Jones-Drew and Blount would likely take the best offer. One back did find a home, as Donald Brown left Indianapolis for the sun-filled skies of San Diego, agreeing on a three-year contract Tuesday night.
The wide receivers: Decker, Hakeem Nicks and Emmanuel Sanders can each improve a team’s passing game when they’re healthy. Decker might not command No. 1 wide receiver money, but should earn the richest deal of the three.
The new league year opened with some big-money deals, but teams must flesh out their rosters from top to bottom to be competitive next season. As we’ve learned from the past, if a team just looks good on paper in March, it will likely head towards the shredder in September.