The opening of this year’s free agency market gave a rush of excitement to NFL fans and media members alike. With 64 signings for a total of just over $1 billion, it’s clear this was the most crazy offseason day since the advent of free agency 22 years ago.
But after a proverbial game of musical chairs between the NFL’s biggest names and their new-found homes (and paychecks), some clear-cut winners and losers emerged after the conclusion of day one. Let’s take a look at them.
Winner: Indianapolis Colts
The Colts got off to a fast start, shoring up their 2014 roster even before Tuesday by pulling D’Qwell Jackson away from other suitors which included the Broncos, Dolphins and Titans.
They also protected their own. Once they found out other teams were interested in CB Vontae Davis’ services, they re-signed him with an offer for a large amount of money, four years and $39 million to be exact.
Additionally, they bolstered their special teams unit by re-signing Adam Vinatieri and kickoff specialist and punter Pat McAfee, meaning Jackson won’t be the only hard-hitter in Indy next season.
Remember when he delivered this bone-crunching hit on Sunday Night Football?
The Colts continued to make moves when the free agency period began Tuesday, signing former Ravens defensive end Arthur Jones in addition to holding on to more of their own free agents, signing Fili Moala and Vontae Davis, among others.
With one of the youngest and most talented rosters in the AFC, “Luck” will remain in the Colts’ vocabulary for some time, but “suck” won’t.
Winner: Denver Broncos
The Broncos have been quite active in free agency in recent years. It was Peyton Manning in 2012 and Wes Welker last year. Now, the newest acquisitions are T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib.
Ever since John Elway signed on to call the shots in the Broncos’ front office, he has made a splash move in free agency. The Broncos not only signed Ward, the scooped him up for a relative bargain, at 4 years for $23 million, according to Denver Post’s Mike Klis.
In addition to Ward’s contract, the Broncos saved money by letting left guard Zane Beadles walk. Beadles signed a five-year, $30 million deal with Jacksonville on Tuesday.
And Elway wasn’t done shoring up Denver’s secondary after signing Ward. He went out and inked the former Patriots big, physical shutdown CB, Aqib Talib. The deal is worth $57 million over six years, with a ridiculous $26 million guaranteed (more than any CB in NFL history has ever received).
These moves may be just the beginning of the Broncos’ splash signings on defense. Denver is rumored to have its eyes on signing a big-name pass rusher. USA Today’s Lindsay Jones reported DeMarcus Ware would likely be visiting.
Winner: Cleveland Browns
While the Browns released D’Qwell Jackson, and lost starting safety and Pro Bowler T.J. Ward to the Broncos, the team added two other elite defensive starters with the additions of S Donte Whitner and LB Karlos Dansby.
I may be in the minority but I think the Browns D is better w/ Whitner & Dansby than w/ Ward & Jackson. Both signings better in coverage.
— Joe Lull (@LullOnSports) March 12, 2014
At first glance, it looks as though a little “spring cleaning” has paid off for the Browns, as it’s out with the old and in with the new at both the inside linebacker and safety positions.
Both Whitner and Dansby are hard-hitters, and vocal leaders on and off the field. Maybe they can provide some leadership for a young, rebuilding Browns franchise.
The Browns also sent an offer to WR Andrew Hawkins, who may sign and would be an excellent complement to WR Josh Gordon. The underrated receiver is quick and can rack up yards after catch in a hurry. However, the Bengals are reportedly willing to match the offer, so we’ll see what happens.
NFC South co-winners: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Atlanta Falcons
The Bucs are returning to a franchise tradition of solid defense under new head coach Lovie Smith. Tampa agreed to terms with former Titans CB Alterraun Verner and solidified the defensive line with the signings of Michael Johnson (Cincinnati) and Clinton McDonald (Seattle). They’ve also been linked to CB Charles Tillman, whom Smith coached in Chicago..
The team is expected to dump the heavy contract of Darrelle Revis, who is due $16 million this year.
If Verner plays out his 4-year deal, Tampa will pay him nearly $40M less than they were scheduled to pay Revis over the next four years.
— Football Perspective (@fbgchase) March 12, 2014
The Falcons not only held on to pass rusher Jonathan Babineaux, they added depth on both sides of the trenches. With the additions of two former Kansas City Chiefs, DE Tyson Jackson and guard Jon Asamoah, they upgraded their line play.
Both the Buccaneers and Falcons scored a small victory when the Saints signed Jairus Byrd to an exorbitant six-year, $54 million dollar deal. While Byrd was regarded as the top safety in this year’s free agent pool, the salary was nearly double that of T.J. Ward, and will cripple the Saints’ ability to bring in other big-name free agents.
All of the aforementioned winners were able to improve by bringing in better players while maximizing the salary cap room, in addition to holding on to their own free agents. Unfortunately for the following free agency losers, those same strategies were either ignored completely, or executed poorly.
Loser: Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs emerged as losers during the advent of free agency, losing key contributors on both sides of the ball while not adding any significant pieces in replacement.
Polar opposite of the Colts, the Chiefs did little, if anything, to hold on to their own free agents. By the end of Tuesday, the Chiefs lost five starters without adding any major pieces.
Wide receiver and return specialist Dexter McCluster left for Tennessee, on a 3-year deal, up to $12 million.
While not a top-tier receiver, McCluster averaged over 20 yards per kick return the past two seasons with three touchdowns in four seasons with the Chiefs in the punt return game.
Things got worse when offensive tackle Branden Albert left for the Miami Dolphins:
Congrats @B_Albert76 I will miss you bro and blocking for me. I guess I will see u on the other side.
— Jamaal Charles (@jcharles25) March 11, 2014
Albert wasn’t the only KC “hog” to jump town. Guard Geoff Schwartz left to block for Eli Manning in New York and fellow guard Jon Asamoah left for Atlanta.
The Chiefs also lost footing on the defensive line when Tyson Jackson decided to join Asamoah in Atlanta.
Luckily for Chiefs fans, Charles is still in KC. But a re-run of “Charles in Charge” without supporting cast members to block upfront for him will be hard to watch in 2014.
Loser: Oakland Raiders
It’s the same story for the Raiders as they continue to ride a proverbial red horse into mediocrity.
Despite having over $60 million in cap room entering free agency, the Raiders quickly squandered it on offensive linemen with a little fuzzy math mixed in.
First, the black and silver showed franchise left tackle Jared Veldheer the door, despite having an opportunity to use a franchise tag to keep him. Veldheer eventually signed a five-year $37.5 million deal in Arizona.
Veldheer’s replacement is former second-round pick Roger Saffold, who many believe is better suited at guard. Here’s the kicker: Saffold will make more money than Veldheer at $42.5 million over five years with $21 million guaranteed.
The Raiders also let versatile defensive end Lamarr Houston walk to sign a five-year $35 million deal with the Bears.
Oakland used the money they saved to go after more offensive linemen. They signed former Jets OT Austin Howard to a five-year, $30 million deal, including $15 million guaranteed.
At least the Raiders have a commitment to spending.
Loser: Dallas Cowboys
While the Colts were winners before Tuesday, the Cowboys were, at the same time, losers.
With the least amount of cap wiggle room to start free agency, odds were stacked against Dallas, as they were only $1.1 million under the salary cap.
The Cowboys’ financial problems began with Tony Romo’s $108 million dollar contract signed last season, which should continue to burden the organization for years to come, even after restructuring.
For Jerry Jones, the solution was simple: After one of the worst defensive showings in franchise history in 2013, the Cowboys would go on to release arguably their best defensive player, 7-time Pro Bowler, DeMarcus Ware. And the team also released oft-injured WR Miles Austin.
DeMarcus Ware is versatile. Since the start of 2008, he leads all players with 57.5 sacks as a stand-up linebacker, but also has 26 as a DE.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 11, 2014
DeMarcus Ware released by #Cowboys. That should fix those back-breaking 4th quarter INTs Dallas is so infamous for.
— CaptainTouchback(@CaptTouchback) March 12, 2014
But like every year in the NFL, it will ultimately be the games that will decide the true winners and losers, not only in the standings, but in the front office. After all, summer hasn’t even arrived yet.