Some NFL teams treated the opening day of free agency like an episode of “24,” where they had 24 hours to solve their world (or local) problems. In this case, money was the weapon of choice.
But before we get to the winners and losers of the first 24 hours of NFL free agency, we revisit that old saying that the winners of free agency in March often aren’t the winners at the end of the season. To wit: A graphic from ESPN pointed out the top six teams for spending on unrestricted free agents in the last 10 years and their winning percentage – Dolphins ($629 million, .419 winning percentage), Jaguars ($614M, .363), Eagles ($607M, .547), Redskins ($534M, .394), Buccaneers ($511M, .363) and Browns ($500M, .319).
As with any investment, past performance is no guarantee of future success.
With those warnings, here are the winners and losers of the big free-agent spend.
The Oakland Raiders helped two important aspects of their defense, one that finished 22nd overall last year, by the way. Bruce Irvin (Seattle) will provide a pass-rushing punch and makes their linebacker corps with Khalil Mack as intimidating as the Raiders of the 1970s. Adding cornerback Sean Smith gives the Raiders some insurance if the pass rush isn’t able to get to opposing quarterbacks – and the in-division quarterbacks got weaker with the Broncos losing their top two – Peyton Manning to retirement and Brock Osweiler to the Texans. By Thursday morning, Irvin was tweeting at Smith: “Let’s eat!”
They’ll have the money to go wherever they want for their feast. Pulling Smith from the Chiefs also weakens (slightly) a division rival. The Raiders also made a big effort to improve their pass protection for Derek Carr by signing the top offensive lineman in free agency, Kelechi Osemele, to a five-year deal that averages $12 million per season. The Raiders spent big but were loaded with cap space prior to the start of free agency to allow it.
If the NFL season were a 12-hour race that started in March, the Jacksonville Jaguars would be considered a favorite. They started with a hefty signing, adding Broncos defensive lineman Malik Jackson with a five-year, $85.5 million deal, the highest amount in free agency this year. They also raided the Browns for safety Tashaun Gipson with a five-year, $35 million deal. The Jaguars were 27th in the NFL in rushing last year and added running back Chris Ivory (Jets) to pair with T.J. Yeldon, spending $32 million over five years for Ivory. And they might not be done yet, with a visit reportedly scheduled with highly regarded Giants free-agent defensive end Robert Ayers.
The Houston Texans are the boom-bust pick of this year’s free agency. They needed a quarterback and went for the one with the biggest upside, Brock Osweiler, but also one that still has to be classified as mostly unproven. The Texans better hope it turns out better than Matt Schaub did after they acquired him in 2007 after a whopping two starts in three years with the Falcons. They’re paying Osweiler like an elite quarterback at $18 million per season over his four-year deal and took a big risk. Osweiler looks the part, but he hasn’t “been” the part for a full season yet. Maybe that’s the risk a team has to take when it doesn’t have a solid starter. The good news? Osweiler joins a team similar to the Broncos, one built with a strong defense (No. 3 last year), gave him a running game with the signing of Lamar Miller (four years, $26 million) and improved the offensive line with the addition of guard Jeff Allen, although they also lost guard Brandon Brooks to Philadelphia and center Ben Jones to Tennessee.
NEW YORK GIANTS
Tom Coughlin has to be rolling over in his retirement community. He saw the New York Giants’ roster slowly deteriorate over the last few years, then was shown the door. Without him, management got aggressive. They were intent on upgrading the league’s dead-last defense last year and spent big bucks to do it. There was defensive tackle Damon Harrison ($46 million) moving across town from the New York Jets, cornerback Janoris Jenkins ($62 million) coming from St. Louis/Los Angeles, Olivier Vernon ($85 million) bolting from Miami and the re-signing of Jason Pierre-Paul ($10 million) to a one-year deal. If big-money and four- and five-star free agents are the goal, the Giants got there. The question is this: Was it all money wisely spent?
The Miami Dolphins let Olivier Vernon go, pulling the transition tag off him and letting him sign with the Giants, and lost another good end, Derrick Shelby, to Atlanta, then signed Mario Williams. What? Why are the Dolphins trying to get older? Williams comes to Miami from Buffalo, where teammates were calling out his lack of effort. Will that change in Miami? They also lost running back Lamar Miller to Houston and receiver Rishard Matthews and cornerback Brice McCain to Tennessee.
There wasn’t much the Denver Broncos could have done to avoid falling in this category. No one had more top-end free agents set to hit the open market, and keeping all of the important ones would have been unequivocally impossible. Still, losing Peyton Manning to retirement and Brock Osweiler to free agency stings. In addition, they lost one of the best defensive linemen in free agency, Malik Jackson, although his contract makes Derek Wolfe’s re-signing before free agency look like a bargain for Denver. In addition, inside linebacker Danny Trevathan bolted for the Chicago Bears and his former head coach, John Fox. They might also lose one or both of their running backs, C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman. No doubt the Broncos will still be competitive relying on a strong defense with Von Miller as its centerpiece, but are they still Super Bowl competitive?
Usually, the Cleveland Browns are the ones trying to add to their roster in free agency as one of the biggest free-agent spenders over the past decade. This year, they saw some of their best talent leaving. Maybe that’s what analytical minds in the front office believed was best. Receiver Travis Benjamin, who appears to be reaching his prime and on the verge of 1,000-yard seasons, signed with San Diego. Center Alex Mack opted out his contract and signed with Atlanta, and offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz left for Kansas City. Those are big losses for an offense that finished 25th last year. Safety Tashaun Gipson also went to big-spending Jacksonville. The Browns had better hope they really do have the smartest minds in the room when it comes plucking the leftovers in free agency and drafting with aplomb.