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Free Agent Frenzy

When pro football ended its lockout, the chase for free agents began. We pick the winners and losers.
Danny Sheridan
From the Print Edition:
Havana—The Insider's Guide, November/December 2011

When NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and players’ head DeMaurice Smith announced on July 25 that the owners and players of pro football had reached agreement on a 10-year collective bargaining agreement that would keep the $9.3 billion golden goose fat and growing fatter, they might as well have fired a starter’s pistol into the air and shouted: “Gentlemen, start your checkbooks.”

The NFL lockout ended barely in time for the start of training camp. That gave all 32 front offices the green light to engage in an unprecedented Wild West gold rush on 433 unrestricted free agents, a Last Chance Saloon for adrenaline-fueled general managers with pressing needs. For some, free agency was an afterthought, a resource to fill in pieces of the roster. For others, it was the Super Bowl, a win-at-all costs philosophy with one goal in mind—a Lambeau Leap to the Lombardi Trophy. Cigar Aficionado is here to keep score, and we present an in-depth analysis of the 20 teams that did the best and worst jobs in free agency. Because when the smoke clears, there are always winners and losers.
While most of the NFL was sleeping (Bill Belichick never sleeps) Jeffrey Lurie’s bold Eagles swooped down on free agents with even more urgency than Rex and Rob Ryan at an all-you-can-eat buffet. The beginnings of this blitzkrieg were plotted years earlier when eagle-eyed GM Howie Roseman and club president Joe Banner anticipated the possibility of a torrent of unrestricted free agents coming to market, which happened as the NFL dropped the minimum service requirement for free agency to four years, instead of the six required in 2010. Once the collective bargaining agreement made labor peace, the free agent flood began to wash over the NFL landscape, and the Eagles were ready.

Banner and Roseman restructured contracts and maneuvered the Eagles $24 million under the salary cap and then wasted no time dropping bags of Lurie’s millions onto the laps the club’s elite braintrust had targeted: defensive linemen Jason Babin (five years, $28 million) and Cullen Jenkins (five years, $25 million); cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a second-round draft choice arrived via trade with the Cardinals for quarterback Kevin Kolb; running back Ronnie Brown, an experienced backup for LeSean McCoy; and the biggest prize of all, cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.

The smart money had the Jets or Cowboys as finalists in the Nnamdi Sweepstakes. (One is typically more likely to see raging Steelers linebacker James Harrison sing Kumbaya with Goodell than to witness Jerry Jones and Tannenbaum fail to close a deal and get their man.) At one point, the Eagles thought their chances had faded. But the football world would soon learn that Asomugha’s preference was to play for Philadelphia, and for less money (five years, $60 million, $25 million guaranteed) than he would have gotten from America’s Team, or from the Jets, where he would have teamed with Darrelle Revis to form arguably the greatest cornerback tandem in NFL history.

A Herman Edwards marathon run up the New Jersey Turnpike (with a Joe Pisarcik fumble) away, Giants GM Jerry Reese fiddled while the Eagles burned Giants fans. Reese, with a track record that included a Super Bowl championship as a rookie GM, prefers to build through the draft: he used 2010 second-rounder Linval Joseph to replace free agent nose tackle Barry Cofield (who went to the Redskins)—and seeks to re-sign his own players at what he likes to call a “responsible” price—securing running back Ahmad Bradshaw (four years, $18 million) for example. He makes selective free agent strikes, and his only dip into the free agent waters this season was getting powerful center David Baas. Veteran Deon Grant was signed later to add depth to a secondary that was decimated by one injury after another.

Giants coach Tom Coughlin took a meeting with Plaxico Burress, his old antagonist, who was returning to the NFL after a 21-month prison sentence for carrying an unlicensed gun into a Manhattan nightclub (where he accidentally shot himself in the leg). But when the Jets made a better offer than the Giants, Steelers and 49ers, Burress took the $3 million guarantee for 2011 and ran.

What really stunned Giants quarterback Eli Manning and Big Blue Nation, however, was the legendary Al Davis’ Raiders moving swiftly to replace tight end Zach Miller, who had bolted for Seattle, to make tight end Kevin Boss an offer (four years, $16 million, $8 million guaranteed) he could not refuse. Drafted by the Giants in 2007, Boss had been a security blanket for Manning and a tough-nosed blocker. That one hurt.

So did the next one: Steve Smith, a dependable Pro Bowl receiver for the Giants, was rehabilitating from microfracture knee surgery, and when Smith came in for an examination, the Giants were conservative with their prognosis as well as their offer. Two days later, Smith was an Eagle. Good thing none of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders were unrestricted free agents—Roseman probably would have signed them too.

“Howie came out like a wild man,” says Eagles coach Andy Reid. “He didn’t get much sleep, but he rewarded this team and this city with some great football players.” Michael Vick backup Vince Young, yet another new bird added to the nest (signed for one year, $5.5 million), compared all these free agents taking their talents to Philadelphia as the NFL version of LeBron James and Chris Bosh aligning with Dwyane Wade on the Miami Heat. “Dream Team,” Young declares.

Roseman told The Washington Post: “Most years you go into free agency and say, ‘I need a defensive end’ or ‘I need a linebacker,’ whatever the position may be. For us, we had targeted specific players because of the quality of the players and the character of the person involved…And we were fortunate to get some of the guys.”
Luck, Branch Rickey told us, is the residue of design.

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