2014 Free Agency Winners and Losers

| March 20, 2014

2014 FA Winners-Losers2The dust has settled, the money being thrown around has slowed down, and the ink is dry on the first wave of free agency contracts so now it’s time to do a little stock taking.

Everybody wants to build through the draft, but how well you do at that dictates how much you need to dip into free agency to augment the roster. Adding talent is no bad thing no matter how it’s done, and losing talent can be crippling. So who are the winners and losers in free agency thus far?

Three Winners

Tampa Bay

I know they cut Darrelle Revis loose just a year after trading for him, but that doesn’t make the decision a wrong one. There’s a new regime in Tampa Bay and Revis just doesn’t fit the scheme of Lovie Smith. That’s not to say that he couldn’t do a good job within it, but rather that the difference between that job and the one Alterraun Verner can do isn’t worth $10 million a year, and that was the choice the team had. Verner is a perfect fit for their new defense and comes at less than half the price of Revis.

In addition to Verner the team added arguably the top defensive end on the market in Michael Johnson, and also made key moves on the offensive line. The team made a similar swap deal at left tackle – showing Donald Penn the door and signing Anthony Collins – added Evan Dietrich-Smith and Clinton McDonald in the trenches, and even bought themselves another option at quarterback in Josh McCown who Smith has already named the starter. The Bucs already had a lot of talent on the roster, but they have filled a lot of holes before the draft rolls around with some impressive moves.

Cleveland

The Browns came into free agency as something of a laughing stock. After coming from Pittsburgh where continuity is celebrated above all else, owner Jimmy Haslem canned his head coach, GM and CEO after just one season leaving the Browns rudderless staring down a crucial period. The new regime though has quietly made a series of fine moves in free agency. They upgraded at linebacker by allowing D’Qwell Jackson to walk and replacing him with Karlos Dansby. The loss of T.J. Ward was significant, but in today’s pass-happy league his run-stuffing capabilities aren’t as important to many teams as his coverage deficiencies will be. If the Browns get the same Donte Whitner from 2013 they have a notable upgrade in that area.

Lastly they made a run at restricted free agent wide receiver Andrew Hawkins from division rival Cincinnati. The Browns signed Hawkins to an offer sheet designed to hurt the Bengals if they matched or if they didn’t. When the team ultimately declined to match the Browns secured themselves the slot receiver they hoped they were getting when they signed Davone Bess. Hawkins is a quick, dangerous receiving weapon that can move the chains, and is a fine special teamer to boot.

Denver

No team can be more conscious of their closing window than the Denver Broncos. While many teams with quarterbacks north of 30 will be mindful that they don’t have an endless window, with Peyton Manning a few days short of his 38th birthday the Broncos know they can’t count on him forever. If this team wants a championship, they have to shoot what they have now.

No clearer message could have been sent than the one they trumpeted over the first couple of days of free agency, spending big and bringing in some marquee names. The team secured T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware before replacing the loss of Eric Decker with Emmanuel Sanders and bringing back Andre Caldwell. They did all this while still retaining something in the region of $7 million in cap space with the opportunity to create a bit more if necessary giving them options in the next few weeks. The Broncos were one perfect storm away from a ring last year, and they’re intent on not going away quietly.

Three Losers

Carolina

The Panthers are suddenly faced with some major holes in need of filling and not a whole lot of opportunity remaining for them to do so. Steve Smith left town as did Ted Ginn leaving the remaining wide outs under contract with just 5 receptions in their NFL careers. That’s a problem. To make matters worse Jordan Gross called it a career and left them with a gaping hole on an offensive line already beginning to show cracks. Travelle Wharton and Geoff Hangartner are both still currently free agents leaving the Panthers with at least three of five spots on the line in need of patching.

As if that wasn’t enough the team allowed Captain Munnerlyn to be signed away and have yet to bring Drayton Florence back, making their secondary look pretty threadbare as well. Oh, and while it’s not free agent related it happened at the same time, Cam Newton is to undergo surgery to repair an ankle injury suffered back in the playoffs, casting his preseason in doubt. Ouch.

Tennessee

Unlike the Panthers who are being paralyzed by the moves they aren’t making, the Titans have made signings, but they are being hampered by the players they are bringing in. Michael Oher may have been a Hollywood All-Pro, but as an NFL offensive tackle he has been poor for some time now. They will expect him to replace David Stewart on the right side but his grade there last year for Baltimore was -12.6 as he allowed eight sacks. Wesley Woodyard is a capable coverage linebacker but struggles against the run given his size, and Dexter McCluster though talented seems between NFL positions.

Adding Charlie Whitehurst at quarterback is a massive downgrade even from Ryan Fitzpatrick, which would be less of an issue if Jake Locker had ever stayed healthy for more than 11 games in his NFL career. The team has added some players on defense up front but it feels a lot like seeing what sticks and less about having any clear vision.

Pittsburgh

The Steelers used to be held up as a shining beacon of a well run franchise along with the New England Patriots. While the Patriots have had some struggles themselves, they haven’t allowed the talent on their roster to be eroded to the same degree the Steelers have in recent years. Building through the draft is only the right plan as long as you manage that process well and are willing to learn from mistakes. The Steelers have both missed on too many picks and been slow to admit their mistakes when they have done so. As a result they have consigned players like Cameron Heyward to the bench while Ziggy Hood toils away for yet another few hundred snaps of ugly play.

The team entered free agency tight against the salary cap so they were never going to be big players. Still, they desperately needed to be able to patch some of the holes on the roster. Instead, LaMarr Woodley, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery, Jonathan Dwyer, Ryan Clark and Brett Keisel have walked out the door, along with others. The team was forced to commit big money to Jason Worilds (who didn’t have two consecutive games graded in the green for 2013) to prevent him doing the same. After they gave a not insubstantial deal to Mike Mitchell to replace Clark they have been forced to pick and choose some second tier free agents and once more sit tight until the draft. The Steelers don’t want to have to be big players in free agency, but their draft failings in recent year’s means that they needed to be.

 

Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam 

  • Payton Manning… Come on Sam!

    • PFFSamMonson

      I honestly think that’s the first time I’ve ever done that! Fixed.

  • Ryan

    Wait so Cleveland is losing too much with Ward but then Denver is gaining something significant by getting him? Makes no sense.

    • Ryan

      Isn’t** losing too much.

    • Ryan B

      Ward is better than what Denver had and Whitner is better than Ward.

      • guest

        whitner isn’t better than ward..

      • Kevin

        Did you word that wrong? Whitner isn’t even close to Ward…

        Whitner may have graded out well in Cov last year but IMO that is more a product of the front he was playing behind than anything else. His past grades tend to back that up too.

        I see him more as a hard hitter which gets him on the SC top 10 and makes him a more popular name but is really just a slightly above average starter IMO.

        In the 7 years PFF has been grading, he has graded positive over a season twice. Both were with a great 49ers defense. I really believe we will see a steep decline in production and absolutely in his coverage.

    • Derek Long

      If a millionaire gives a homeless guy $100 to clean his windshield, the homeless guy is ecstatic, and the rich guy can see better. The dollar amount is irrelevant, but their needs are different. Relatively speaking, they both win. Both got what they needed, regardless of value to the other. Whitner replaces Ward in Cleveland, with a potential upgrade in pass coverage, while Denver gets a massive upgrade from the same player that was easily replaceable to a Cleveland team that already had him.

  • Bruinman86

    I’m not sold that Talib and Ware are going to upgrade Denver that much. For starters, Ware looked like a shell of his former self last season, and now he’s older. Many reports had him not being able to beat Lineman and Guards of average skill last year. Perhaps some of it was recovering from injury, but that is yet to be seen. Secondly, Talib has had issues just about every season staying on the field. As a NE fan, I witnessed it all last season and the one before. If he can stay healthy, he is a force to be reckoned with. He will be an upgrade over Champ Bailey who is basically done. Although as a Pats fan I will miss his interviews. The guy is a riot.

    • steve phillips

      agreed B-town man. you guys got rid of Talib, a head case who cant stay on field and gained Revis island and Browner. you have best secondary in 10 yrs. donkeys did good with Ward but as you say, these bank busters will be good for the 4-5 games they play together all season. and that they will be healthy come playoff time is a pipe dream.
      Elway’s ego got to him. his team was utterly humiliated and the sting was still so severe he mortgaged the next 3-4 years for Mannings last, and I do mean last, hurrah. they lose him and the *entire* receiving corps in 2015.
      and while we’re at it, lets all have honest discussion about whether Manning is basically not much more Jim Kelly. lotsa reg season wins and crap in playoffs. at least Elway had the talent to take what is arguably two of the worst teams in SB history there on his talent alone. something Manning could NEVER do.

      • Bruinman86

        That all said, I still think that Denver is the team to beat – assuming they stay healthy – the big unknown for any team each year. I See NE as the #2 in the AFC so far. But, as we all know, things could change in a hurry. I still want the Patriots to upgrade the pass rush, get a second TE, draft some DL help and get some safety help.

      • Jackson3793

        Wow, you’re just a big ol’ Broncos / Elway / Manning hater, here, aren’t you, steve phillips? One can find more useful and constructive criticism coming out of a bag of farts than what you just laid out there.

        That being said, in response to Bruinman86: Ware was dealing with an injury all of last season and wasn’t working with a very good defensive line in Dallas (Hatcher was the only other Cowboy that garnered any attention), and he still got six sacks. Now healthy, I fully expect Ware to still have a season or two left in the tank, and working on a defensive line that includes guys like Von Miller and Terrance Knighton, offenses are going to struggle deciding who to double up.

        Talib IS a bit of a concern. Like you said, he hasn’t been able to stay healthy his entire career. I honestly think Elway wanted DRC back, but when DRC wavered over the contract offered, Elway went to Talib, who took the deal. Talib is an upgrade over DRC in a few ways–better press-man coverage, more physical–but he’s also not as durable. Then again, with Miller and Ware coming off the edges, Talib won’t have to cover for too long …

        It should be an interesting year. I still think the AFC boils down to the Broncos and the Patriots–the additions of Revis and Browner (even if it is only for 12 games) definitely improved a weakness in New England, but they need pass rushers, pass catchers, and a safety. Denver doesn’t have any really glaring holes right now by comparison. It will sure be interesting to watch it unfold, though. Football season can’t start soon enough!

  • Nick

    No mention of Tate to Cleveland?

  • Dustin Salvani

    I’d def take Ward over Whitner, Thought that was stupid on browns part. Ward will be a top 5 safety

    • tcirish53@gmail.com

      Nice picture, Dustin!
      Yeah, I was surprised that PFF liked the Browns moves. Both Whitner and Dansby are older than those they replaced, and marginally better if at all (I think Dansby is better than Jackson, but Ward to me is better than Whitner) plus they spent $9million of their cap space executing these moves. Yawn.
      I would give them a C+ at best for their moves thus far.

      • Nick

        Whitner is much better in coverage and that’s what the GM wanted. They are equal in tackles. The price for both of these players was less than what Jackson and Ward would have wanted to stay. Now you are informed.

  • Don’tseeithappening

    Lol Cleveland is a winner because they signed a aging line backer who had one great year UNDER a new defensive structure. Don’t forget ray Horton went to Tennessee. Highly doubt Dansby has the same impressive season with the Browns as he did with the cards.

  • tcirish53@gmail.com

    All the bolded names leaving the Steelers looks scary and impressive, until you look at the details.
    Lamarr Woodley has never been close to his former All Pro self for the past 3 seasons; once he got his big pay day he would typically miss a MINIMUM of 6 games a year with nagging injuries that were largely avoidable had he kept himself in shape. Steelers fans nickname for him? StaPuft. Enough said.
    Emmanuel Sanders was never more than solid for the Steelers. He had his best year last year, but his production was short of what one would want from a #2 WR. No great loss.
    Jerricho Cotchery, while popular amongst fans, was a #4 receiver. Picking up Lance Moore to replace him gives the Steelers a slightly younger #4 veteran with better hands and production.
    Dwyer was a power back that can easily be replaced on the FA market or after the 5th round of the draft, no big deal.
    Clark and Keisel are popular SB-era players who are something like 35 and 36 respectively. Great in their prime (and we could actually utilize Keisel still in spot duty, to his credit) but again, no huge loss. Mitchell is a faster, younger, version of Clark who was signed on a contract that has minimal cap impact until year 3 of his contract (the Steelers will know what they have by then), and automatically upgrades over Clark.
    Your point about Worilds is a good one – although it’s always a bit of a risk signing a young player coming out of his rookie contract (see Woodley, above).
    Worilds is going to explode in pass rush this year – he got his 8 sacks in 2/3 of the season, so if he stays healthy we’re good to go.
    We NEVER do big splashy FA signings, I would think that is well known by now.
    Surely some hapless team like the Raiders (the Saffold incident, and signing Schaub to a large contract given his train wreck 2013 season!) would be better to appear as a bigger loser, and that’s just the first that comes to mind….

  • shaun

    Wtf are you guys removing comments

  • rico

    Only the Browns and the Yankees get older in free agency so how exactly are the Browns winners?

  • Gary Barndollar

    I wouldn’t subscribe to this site if they paid me. Some of the crap they spew’s just boggles the mind. Good for instance they graded Steeler OT Mike Adams favorably for his performance in the second Raven game last year. Never mind that on virtually every play the Steelers designated someone to help him, be it a back, a tight end, or a guard. Basically I could have stood there and did what he did most of the game. Also they have rated Heath Miller an inferior blocking tight end over the years. Never mind that Miller unlike most tight end’s isn’t blocking safeties or chipping linebackers on most assignments. No he’s blocking DE’s, and primary rush end OLB’s straight up 1 on 1 on multiple plays every game. Very few tight end’s are even asked to try to do what he does routinely, yet these self proclaimed geniuses have him rated sub par as a blocker. I could go on, but let me end on this. If you don’t know the play call, and don’t know the player’s assignment, then how the hell can you accurately rate the players performance on any given play? You can’t and if you’re smart you don’t try.

  • PedophileStateNittanyLiarz

    “No team can be more conscious of their closing window than the Denver Broncos.”
    What utter nonsense! Elway drafted Manning’s replacement and this team is fairly young outside of Manning. If Manning retires today, they are still the best team in the AFC West. All this talk of “they are all in” and “they are going to be screwed” vis-a-via the salary cap shows incredible ignorance of what Elway has done. Get a clue.

    • Robin

      Manning’s “replacement” hasn’t shown anything relevant in the NFL and good as he may (or may not be) he is unlikely to be Manning, so the window *is* certainly closing. That said I agree that the general assumption that the Broncos have mortgaged the future this year is a bit overblown when you look at the actual guaranteed money involved in each deal (and assuming Manning’s chunk comes off the books in 1-2 years).

    • Scott@Seattle

      Manning’s replacement?? You mean Brock Osweiler? Yes he’s very tall, too bad he cant play football.

  • Jake

    I think for the most part the guys at PFF do a pretty good job, but I can’t help but feel they allow bias to enter their minds when grading some players.

    They essentially treat Romo as if he’s an average-at-best QB. The Cowboys had the 3rd worst defense in NFL history last year and still went 8-8, but Romo’s average? Not to mention statistically he’s a top 5 all time QB?

    Yet Eli Manning can win 2 Super Bowls while riding his defense’s coat tails, and then can throw 50 interceptions in 2 years and still be considered elite? If they’re strictly grading on a play-by-play basis and not factoring in wins (which is a team accomplishment, not a player accomplishment) then they wouldn’t have Eli graded so high and Romo so low.

  • corners

    “They did all this while still retaining something in the region of $7 million in cap space”

    Why make it sound like they were frugal? This is a future cap time bomb and we all know it. Both talib and ware were severely overpaid.