Free Agent Frenzy

When pro football ended its lockout, the chase for free agents began. We pick the winners and losers.
| By Danny Sheridan | From 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.

The Giants’ Reese, on the other hand, found himself in the line of ire—Big Blue fans wondered why they were suddenly trapped inside of a cruel nightmare.

“It seems like people are in a little bit of a panic about where we are,” Reese told the media. “The perception is that we are not doing a lot. We had a game plan and we are sticking to our game plan.” That plan resulted in Steve Weatherford, the Jets’ punter in 2010, beating out Matt Dodge, who was never forgiven by fans for punting to DeSean Jackson at the end of the Meadowlands collapse against the Eagles in 2010, when he was instructed to boot the ball closer to Reid on the sidelines.
Meanwhile, in New England, Belichick and Robert Kraft—the best head coach–owner tandem in the NFL—had a pair of tricks up their sleeves.

They figured that since Randy Moss was able to buy into The Patriot Way and revive his career for a few seasons, it wouldn’t hurt to surrender a fifth-round draft choice to the Redskins to see if the prospect of playing for a legendary coach and classy owner driven to capture their fourth Super Bowl championship could motivate problem child DT
Albert Haynesworth. And with Moss having finally overstayed his welcome, the mutual respect between Belichick and Chad Ochocinco led the receiver (Terrell Owens’ former reality-TV cohost) to gleefully escape SinSinnati for the opportunity to catch passes from Tom Brady. And then, Belichick landed veteran defensive end Shaun Ellis from the Jets, tweaking  the Pat’s division rivals in the process, along with DE Mark Anderson (formerly with Houston) to upgrade the pass rush.

Indefatigable Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum, who no longer needs to read speculative stories regarding his job status, quickly recovered from losing out on Asomugha. His first order of business was re-signing gamebreaker Santonio Holmes to a five-year, $50 million deal that kept him from the clutches of Redskins owner Daniel Snyder. He also re-signed Antonio Cromartie and replaced wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery (who later signed with Pittsburgh) with 37-year-old veteran Derrick Mason.

The Houston Texans went into free agency lacking in the secondary, so they didn’t hesitate when cornerback Johnathan Joseph (from Cincinnati) and safety Danieal Manning (from Chicago) became available on the open market. Houston, we no longer have a problem.

The same cannot be said for San Francisco, Tampa Bay, Buffalo and Miami, however. The 49ers lost center Baas to the Giants, run-stuffer defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin to the Saints, cut cornerback Nate Clements (who was quickly signed by the Bungles), settled for diva wide receiver Braylon Edwards (one year, $3.5 million) to pair with diva wide receiver Michael Crabtree (who was injured in preseason but was playing when this issue went to press), and lost respected middle linebacker Takeo Spikes to the Chargers. And the quarterback who was re-signed and assigned to keep the diva twins happy before No. 2 draft choice Colin Kaepernick takes over behind center? Does the name Alex Smith ring a bell? Think the head coaching job would have been more appealing to Jim Harbaugh if he had inherited Aaron Rodgers, the 24th pick in the 2005 NFL draft, instead of Smith, the first overall pick? (Of course, if Rodgers was the 49er’s quarterback, Mike Singletary might still be dropping his drawers in the halftime locker room).

A whopping $52 million under the salary cap according to some reports, Tampa Bay entered free agency so flush they could have been called the Buckaneers. But apparently they looked at punter Michael Koenen and saw The Second Coming of Ray Guy, lavishing a $19 million contract on him. GM Mark Dominik, who has assembled what head coach Raheem Morris calls a “youngry” team on the rise, is another one who believes in building through the draft and keeping his own (offensive linemen Davin Joseph and Jeremy Trueblood and outside linebacker Quincy Black, for example).

All well and good, and it’s a strategy that has worked for the Steelers and Packers. But after the Falcons moved heaven and earth for Alabama WR Julio Jones so they could pair him with Roddy White, from this vantage point, it would have been prudent for Dominik to make a run at one of the top free agent corners, especially since he has to keep his fingers crossed that Aqib Talib learns how to stay off the police blotter and Ronde Barber doesn’t look the way most 36-year-old cornerbacks generally look, which is nowhere near as good as Jennifer Aniston looked at 36.

Blue-collar middle linebacker Paul Posluszny shuffled out of Buffalo for a big ticket and a chance to play in Jack Del Rio’s 4-3 Jaguars defense. The Bills quickly replaced him with Nick Barnett, who had been released by the Packers, and re-signed cornerback Drayton Florence. But they struck out on their pursuit of offensive tackle Tyson Clabo (who re-signed with the Falcons), as well as offensive tackle Willie Colon (who re-signed with the Steelers then was lost for the season with a triceps injury), and inside linebacker Kevin Burnett, who went instead to the Dolphins.

Linebacker Shawne Merriman was an inexpensive roll of the dice, but giving wideout Brad Smith a four-year, $15 million deal to pry him from the Jets? By the time December rolls around in arctic upstate New York, the Wildcat that Smith is so proficient at running might have to be renamed the Polar Bear.

The Dolphins failed to land quarterback Kyle Orton from the Broncos and ended up with Panthers bust Matt Moore instead. Running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams were replaced by Reggie Bush, a coup that would have been more enticing if his signing meant former girlfriend Kim Kardashian was bringing her talents to South Beach. Bush, named the starter for opener against the Patriots, figured to be a safety valve out of the backfield for quarterback Chad Henne more than the between-the-tackles option he never became in New Orleans. Jason Taylor, following one uneventful year with the enemy Jets, was back Dancing With the Stars in Dan Marino’s old constellation. Burnett, last with San Diego, is an upgrade over Channing Crowder.

The Cowboys—How ‘Bout Them Joneses!—may have missed out on Asomugha, but a youth movement was in full bloom anyway, and new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has always done more with less everywhere he’s been. Jerry Jones weeded out the dead wood (Marion Barber, Roy Williams, Marc Colombo, Andre Gurode), but was able to lock up left tackle Doug Free and defensive end Marcus Spears, and add big-play safety Abe Elam and steady defender Kenyon Coleman, who played for Ryan in Cleveland.

Panthers owner Jerry Richardson (the NFL’s other high-profile Jerry) handed GM Marty Hurney his wallet and was rewarded when emerging defensive end Charles Johnson (six years, $72 million, $30 million guaranteed) and 1,000-yard running back DeAngelo Williams (five years, $43 million, $21 million guaranteed) stayed in Carolina to help rookie franchise quarterback Cam Newton. A trade with the Bears for tight end Greg Olsen provided the young quarterback with a security blanket, and outside linebackers James Anderson and Thomas Davis stayed put.

Kudos to Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome, who pounced on former Cowboy Gurode as quickly as he had engineered a trade with the Bills for WR Lee Evans after missing out on Malcom Floyd and having Mason leave for the Jets. Ricky Williams became Ray Rice’s new backup, replacing Willis McGahee (signed by the Broncos) and Vonta Leach replaced Le’Ron McClain (who went to Kansas City) to become the new bone-crunching fullback clearing holes for Rice. And if cholesterol-challenged left tackle Bryant McKinnie can execute pancakes on the field rather than eating them off it, we’ll be calling the GM The Wizard of Ozzie.

The Saints came marching into free agency with a purpose. In addition to Franklin, Sean Payton further upgraded his run defense by summoning mountainous Shaun Rogers to shield middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma from fire-breathing guards and centers with bad intentions. The move that sent wails of disgust reverberating through the halls of Halas Hall was the signing of nasty center Olin Kreutz, a 13-year mainstay in Ditkaville. Keeping Bush in the backfield was not a priority, so the club turned to Darren Sproles as a cost-effective alternative.

Missouri is the Show Me state, and Rams GM Billy Devaney and head coach Steve Spagnuolo showed it, all right. They imported Harvey Dahl, a rugged guard from Atlanta to make life easier on star running back Steven Jackson (who suffered a quadriceps injury in week one) and brought in experienced target Mike Sims-Walker from Jacksonville for quarterback Sam Bradford. And Cadillac Williams was driven out of the garage in Tampa to step in for Jackson when needed, and safety Quintin Mikell replaced Oshiomogho Atogwe, who went to the Redskins.

The Cardinals may have surrendered Rodgers-Cromartie and a No. 2 draft choice, but in Kevin Kolb (formerly with Philadelphia) they secured a young quarterback who will quiet the anguished cries for Kurt Warner to come out of retirement. Snatching guard Daryn Colledge from the Packers to replace retired Alan Faneca was commendable. RB Tim Hightower leaving for the Redskins was not considered a blow until No. 2 draft pick running back Ryan Wllliams ruptured his patellar tendon in the preseason, entrenching underachiever Beanie Wells as the clear cut starter. The club had its fingers crossed that deep threat WR Steve Breaston (who went to the Chiefs) could be replaced by Chansi Stuckey. Middle linebacker Stewart Bradley was a nice addition, and head coach Ken Whisenhunt will survive without DE Alan Branch, now playing for Seattle.

The Jaguars bolstered their linebacking corps with Posluszny and OLB Clint Sessions, and upgraded their secondary with safety Dawan Landry and nickelback Drew Coleman.

The Lions added linebackers Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant and cornerback Eric Wright and re-signed cornerback Chris Houston, and if 300-pound defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh tells you they were free agent winners, you don’t dare argue.
The best that could be said about the Vikings (who traded for Donovan McNabb) and Titans (who traded for Matt Hasselbeck) is they bought time so they wouldn’t have to throw their rookie franchise quarterbacks (Christian Ponder and Jake Locker, respectively) to the wolves.

The Packers and Steelers? They prefer the draft, and I seem to remember them playing in Super Bowl XLV.

The Eagles won free agency. Now let’s see if they can win their first championship since 1960.

Danny Sheridan is a sports analyst for
USA Today, for which he provides the daily updated odds on all sporting events for its Web site.