Key Questions for 2014 NFL Free Agency


Every year NFL free agency feels to me like March Madness probably feels to most normal adults: it’s exciting and full of surprises.  Who’s going to be this year’s Mike Wallace?  How many mistakes will the Browns make before sacking their new GM?  Who will be overpaid in Miami?  How can Oakland overpay the wrong players?  Why doesn’t Green Bay pay for players that aren’t a part of their organization?  Granted, these questions aren’t exactly the meaning of life, but to me I’d say they’re a rung or two below it.  Let’s dive in.

Darrelle Revis is leaving Tampa Bay.  Why?  There are many reasons.  First, Tampa Bay will give the New York Jets a draft pick this year for Revis, it will be either a third or fourth round pick depending on when he leaves Tampa and it is a question of when now not if.  Tampa Bay has been trying to trade Revis since the NFL combine.  Revis is scheduled to bring in $3 million in roster guarantees over the next week if he stays on the Bucs roster.  Tampa does not want to pay that money and they do not want to give up a third round pick therefore they are trying to trade him.  The only organization dumb enough to be active in these trade talks is of course the Cleveland Browns.  Who else would pick up a $16 million/year contract?  The question in my mind is why Tampa agreed to this crazy contract last year when Revis was coming off of season-ending ACL surgery.  They were also willing to trade a first round pick, why?  Revis ostensibly has something left in the tank.  This isn’t Nnamdi Asomugha we’re talking about here.  Revis however has seen little interest from teams.  That will change if he hits the market, but keep your eye on two teams: the Browns and the Raiders.  They are the only two organizations that would be willing to take on such a massive cap hit with so little return value.  The rule of last years free agency period was: you don’t overpay for Mike Wallace.  The lesson of this years free agency will be: you don’t overpay for Darrelle Revis.  And who are the Bucs cutting Revis for?  Michael Johnson former DE for the Cincinnati Bengals.  Johnson is a good fit just about anywhere because of his ability to routinely get 12+ sacks per season, but so is Lamarr Houston, who arguably has a higher upside.  The deal for Johnson is expected to be around $12-13 million a year plus roster bonuses, which is coincidentally, the exact same deal they gave Darrelle Revis last year.

The Browns will make a splash.  Cleveland has already signed Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby, overpaying for both.  That’s what happens when you make Day One deals.  You overpay for marginal talent.  Whitner was considered a possibility for Green Bay given that they are going to let restricted free agent M.D. Jennings (the Fail Mary guy) walk.  Morgan Burnett plays much better as a Free Safety, which is why the Packers have not been in talks with top-tier free agent Jairus Byrd.  Don’t expect Green Bay to be in play for Antoine Bethea or any other top tier Safety either.  There are about ten different ways that Ted Thompson can remake his defense now that Sam Shields is re-signed.  Whitner would have made sense for Green Bay because he’s a Strong Safety who can tackle and take away big plays down the field.  That’s really what they’ve been missing from that position since the exit of Nick Collins in 2011.  There are some intriguing prospects out there though and some young ones too.  Kendrick Lewis, whose played three seasons in Kansas City has the talent to be a playmaker in the right system.  If Kansas City lets both Branden Albert and Jon Asamoah walk then their cap story becomes a little more intriguing.  Why they would give up on a guy who was a top pick a couple years ago should raise some eyebrows though.  A lot of scouts like T.J. Ward, who is going to get paid one way or the other.  Don’t expect Green Bay to take a risk on him when they were unwilling to do so in the draft just a few years ago with the same player.

Lets talk offensive tackles!  It’s a deep group this year.  Arguably it’s as deep of a group as cornerback and defensive linemen.  The Raiders refused to pay LT Jared Veldheer and Lamarr Houston, which isn’t surprising since you only need offensive linemen if you have a quarterback worth protecting.  The folks who say Matt McGloin is the future of the franchise don’t seem to realize what a sad statement that is.  Terrelle Pryor is on his way out after failing to develop into a passer.  That’s a key quality to have if you’re going to be playing the quarterback position as the Tim Tebow experiment continually reminds us.  Branden Albert is an interesting story though.  He’s one of those Jason Peters like tackles who’s great if he’s healthy, but not so useful earning big money on the bench.  Of course that could be said of any player at almost any position, but it’s much more important on the offensive line since they play together as a group.  There are a lot of interesting OGs on the board, Jon Asamoah foremost among them.  Given the intricate systems that are used in some of the college style offenses a premium is being placed on good guards who are also known to be good teammates.  Asamoah is young and very talented.  He could fit in well with a system like that operated by the Buffalo Bills or Chicago Bears, however neither one of those teams looks likely to spend any money on this position despite having a glaring need.  Kansas City should be a little concerned about their offensive line since virtually none of their starters are actually signed to the team.  It would be tough to pry away first overall pick Eric Winston, but it is surprisingly doable (third or fourth round pick.)  Geoff Schwartz has also been getting some attention as has Zane Beadles.  The market for tackles and guards will be dictated by what the first wave gets so pay attention to Veldheer and Albert because that will indicate how much teams are willing to spend for second-tier players and chances are that those are the guys your team will wind up with.  Center is a position that could wind up becoming a need for the Green Bay Packers if Evan Dietrich-Smith signs (as will much of their offense) with the New York Giants.

It’s an interesting year for periphery players.  Guys like Hakeem Nicks would normally be dominating the conversation, but if you’re a club with a slot receiver need you can go out and get yourself a Julian Edelman, Golden Tate or Lance Moore for between $3-4 million.  That’s not bad if you’re say the Detroit Lions.  Edelman makes a lot of sense for a team like Detroit who has had a need at WR for a while now and desperately needs someone to take a corner away from Calvin Johnson.  The question that many teams are trying to get an answer to is: how are the James Jones characters going to fare this time around?  Jones did the smart thing a few years back when there was negligible demand for his services after a lockout shortened free agency and should get a chance to start somewhere, but are you going to give him a lot of guaranteed money?  We’ll see.  If it’s a Mike Wallace year then yes, if not then he might wind up in say Baltimore, New York, or Miami.  Arguably the weakest position in the free agent class is linebacker where Brandon Spikes is the only real standout.  New England doesn’t put as much emphasis on defense so it’s not surprising to see them let him go, but he’s only 25 years old and the guy can play in a versatile system.  What Spikes gets and what the figures of Karlos Dansby’s contract were will likely set the pace at linebacker.  There are a lot of veterans who could get overpaid in this class.

Where Green Bay should spend it’s money: MLB Brandon Spikes, S T.J. Ward, DT Linval Joseph (Giants), DT Terrence Cody(Ravens), DE Tyson Jackson (Chiefs), TE Brandon Pettigrew (Lions), FB Le’Ron McClain.  Why these guys?  You need some big guys up front on your defense.  If B.J. Raji wants to play somewhere else let him.  Joseph is younger and bigger, Cody is experienced and willing to take on the role required within Capers’ defense.  The Packers are going to have to get a safety.  It makes sense to shell out for Ward because he’s young, but also because they don’t have a lot of other options.  The other area of need is going to be at TE.  Green Bay will not pay Jermichael Finley Jimmy Graham money.  They paid him in excess of seven million last season and they clearly overpaid.  Now, Finley will likely get between $5-6 million to play in New York.  Brandon Pettigrew is a guy who was a number one pick a few seasons ago but doesn’t figure to play a role in Jim Caldwell’s offense.  McClain is a journeyman who made a huge difference in San Diego last year just as he did in Baltimore for Ray Rice.  The Packers are one of the few teams that actually utilize a fullback and fan favorite John Kuhn just shouldn’t be making $5 million a year for a couple of carries and special teams work.  That money would be better invested in a guy like Darren Sproles who could take up space in a two-RB package if Mike McCarthy chose to utilize a Sean Payton like scheme.  The Packers will have to get inventive with their offense however because in the past it has been built around Finley and Randall Cobb.  Finley was never healthy, completing just one season and never playing in all sixteen games.  Cobb needs to be healthy for the Packers to utilize guys like Jordy Nelson and Jarrett Boykin effectively.  The Packers hope that guys like Myles White and Charles Johnson (who is a big man) will be able to play bigger roles next season.  We’ll see.  It would make sense for Thompson to draft a receiver this year in the top three rounds something he may have to do in the first round if he decides to target a Tight End.

I would expect the Packers to make one or two acquisitions of note this offseason for the same reason that they always keep enough men in the House of Representatives to form a quorum; they don’t have enough players to form a team.  The big questions are all on defense, but you’ve got to ask yourself how the Packers will adjust on offense without a consistent player like James Jones, who finished second on the team in receptions.  Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb will have to be paid in the next year and the Packers are planning for that.  What this means is that they will have to find some guys who can fit into their system economically.  Cody could be one of those guys.  Expect Thompson to target some ridiculously washed up veteran like Jason Hatcher or maybe Colin Cole.  Alan Branch played in a similar system for many seasons with the Cardinals and Jets.  Tank Johnson would fit the bill as would Kevin Williams.  The Packers also badly need pass rushers.  Clay Matthews can only take on so many double teams, it’s the reverse Calvin Johnson effect.  If there is a guy getting double teamed on one side of the line there should be a place to rush the passer on the other side of the line.  It is a statement about the Packers lack of pass rushers that they haven’t been able to a) keep Matthews healthy enough to exploit this opportunity and b) get someone not named Clay Matthews to rack up a double digit sack total.  Mike Neal is not your guy.  Let him take the big bucks a la Erik Walden and sign in Oakland or Cleveland or wherever and pick up someone like Spikes so that you can finally end the Brad Jones experiment at Middle Linebacker, seriously folks, you can do better.  It wouldn’t be a bad idea to pick up a return man in free agency either.  You can’t afford to exploit Randall Cobb to the kind of injuries he’s sustained the last couple years and Micah Hyde will be expected to do more his sophomore season.  Jacoby Jones is available and he returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the Super Bowl.  Remember the last time you had a guy who could do that? (1997 – Desmond Howard.)  Also, Devon Hester is available.  Josh Cribbs is available.  Davonne Bess is available.  The talent is out there and you shouldn’t have to pay a lot to get it.  You just have to be willing to pay for players that aren’t a part of your organization and that’s been problem number one for the Thompson administration.  He is very willing to pay players that he drafts, but there is a lot of cap space now that is taken up by four players (sixty million for Rodgers, Matthews, Shields and Tramon Williams.) That means that just a little over seventy million dollars is going to the rest of your team.  Thompson will pay money for players, but only if he sees them first.

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