The NFL’s signing and trading period’s opening week featured a vast majority of high-profile free agents being taken off the board. And several of those recently-moved players are scheduled to face their former teams come next season.
Few things alter the immediate future in one fell swoop like a big signing at the start of free agency or even an underrated grab a few days after the market opens. Now that the New York Giants have signed Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to remove the last top-tier player from the open market, I’m ranking the top 20 signings of 2014 in terms of impact on both team and overall league landscape.
Re-signed players will be excluded as this list focuses on change. And Darren Sproles—who barely missed the cut—receives an honorable mention for being acquired by the Philadelphia Eagles via a trade and not free agency.
Let’s count ‘em down:
20. DE Julius Peppers, Green Bay Packers
Peppers graded out 36th among 52 qualifying 4-3 defensive ends by Pro Football Focus last year. And now at age 34, he will switch to either 3-4 end or outside linebacker in Dom Capers’ defensive scheme. This doesn’t set the stage for a latter-year revival of a great player quite like Charles Woodson’s move to slot/safety. Still, the way Green Bay has struggled rushing the passer in recent years, Peppers’ play and leadership in the trenches could very well upgrade the position. Sometimes a change in a scenery can prove the trick and it’ll require a huge turnaround in 2014 for him to warrant the $12 million cap charge in 2015—plenty of incentive.
19. DE Chris Clemons/DT Red Bryant, Jacksonville Jaguars
Clemons averaged more than 11 sacks per season from 2010-2012 under then-Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. The 2013 campaign saw Clemons struggle in returning from a torn ACL and meniscus suffered in the previous postseason, though he did improve enough down the stretch to provide optimism going forward. Two forced fumbles, four quarterback hurries, a hit and a sack in the Super Bowl is a nice way to go out. Clemons now rejoins Bradley and line mate Bryant in Jacksonville where they’ll likely reprise Seattle roles: Clemons as LEO edge rusher and Bryant as the run-stopping end.
— Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) March 14, 2014
18. WR Hakeem Nicks, Indianapolis Colts
Indy possesses some intriguing young talent at receiver in LaVon Brazill and Da’Rick Rogers, as evidenced in explosive plays during a late-season game at Cincy and in a win over Kansas City in the playoffs. Yet this offense could benefit from an additional possession receiver with Reggie Wayne still working his way back from a knee injury. If Nicks regains his 2011 form as one of the NFL’s elite wide outs—gaining 1,637 yards and 11 touchdowns in 19 games—that would be a huge boost to the team’s offense and could help QB Andrew Luck tremendously. If Nicks looks more like his 2012-2013 form, then he’s a reliable-if-unspectacular target that won’t torch defensive backs but does provide a reliable outlet in the short-to-intermediate passing game, which the Colts could use.
17. LB Brandon Spikes, Buffalo Bills
The Bills ranked 28th against the run and 24th in yards allowed per rushing attempt last season. The main culprit had been a weak LB corps aside from edge rusher, though rookie Kiko Alonso provided a major upgrade at the position. The next two building blocks come in former first-rounders Manny Lawson and Keith Rivers. And, more importantly, the glue, Brandon Spikes. The ex-Pat brings his brutal downhill style to a defense that desperately needs it inside. Alonso at weakside and likely Lawson or Rivers at strongside will complement Spikes, who finished as PFF’s No. 1-graded inside linebacker against the run in 2013.
16. WR Golden Tate, Detroit Lions
The Lions’ previous failure to find a No. 2 wide out across from Calvin Johnson really was evident in 2013, regardless of how many absurd jump balls Megatron somehow came down with. Burleson injured himself getting a pizza and was more of a possession-receiving, slot guy anyway. Ryan Broyles is always injured, and Kris Durham’s drop and catch rates ranked among the league’s worst last year. Enter Tate, who lacks elite speed or size but forced more missed tackles than any receiver last year, rarely drops a pass and has a great knack for snagging tough catches on vertical routes.
(GIF via Life in Rewind)
15. S Donte Whitner, Cleveland Browns
This move altered the NFL in how dramatically it may have changed the secondaries of three teams. The Niners let Whitner walk to Cleveland as the Browns let TJ Ward travel to Denver. And Antoine Bethea left Indy for San Francisco. This three-team strong safety swap seems to favor Denver more than anyone, snagging the All-Pro while Cleveland tries to replace Ward with an expensive acquisition, and San Fran signs Bethea off a poor year. Ex-49er Whitner commanded a hefty $28 million over four years from Cleveland after jumping from 67th in 2012 to fifth last season in PFF safety coverage grading. This combined with his ability to thump running backs in the box and receivers crossing the middle leaves a void in the Niners’ defense.
14. CB Alterraun Verner, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Verner faced mostly No. 2 and No. 3 receivers in 2013 yet made the most of it as evidenced by his 78 percent coverage success rate in 2013, as detailed by Bleacher Report’s Cian Fahey. Verner will likely get a chance to prove his worth as the No. 1 corner in Tampa as second-year CB Johnthan Banks continues to improve on the other side. Darrelle Revis leaves giant shoes to fill but at least Bucs defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier knows where his players stand, or should stand, this year. Frazier takes the reins on defense after building a great resume coaching the Colts’ defensive backfield during their Super Bowl year along with the Vikings’ defense before taking over as head coach in Minnesota.
13. WR Eric Decker, New York Jets
The Decker signing at $36.25 million over five years ($15 million guaranteed) seems fair for a second-tier receiver that provides a drastic improvement from what is currently on roster. I won’t scoff and say the Jets had no professional receivers as Jeremy Kerley gave Geno Smith a decent outlet when healthy, but the Jets just had no reliably dangerous deep threat. Decker could provide just that, having snagged 15 of his 25 targeted passes that traveled 20 or more yards in air.
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12. LT Branden Albert, Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins seemed desperate to acquire Albert during last year’s draft weekend before it all fell apart. The rest of their O-line acrimony is history. On the bright side, Miami now secures Albert without surrendering an early-round pick and might just give third-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill a chance to breathe in the pocket. Tannehilll took the sixth-most dropbacks under pressure last season and saw his passer rating drop from 94 to 46 in those instances. The Martin-Incognito saga blew up the left side of his line so adding one of the league’s best blindside protectors became absolutely critical. Albert has finished top-four in fewest QB pressures allowed each of the past four seasons, which were two 16 and two 12-game seasons.
11. LB Karlos Dansby, Cleveland Browns
Much has been made of the Browns letting inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson walk and spending $2 million more on an LB who’s two years and one month older. However, Dansby appears to be hitting his 11th season at the top of his game and as an ideal fit for the Browns’ 3-4 defense. Dansby suffered a bit of a down year at middle linebacker in Miami’s 4-3 in 2012, before the organization cut Dansby and he landed in Arizona’s 3-4 on a prove-it deal in 2013. Prove it he did, earning PFF’s third-highest coverage grade among inside linebackers. Dansby should bolster a Browns LB unit that got woeful coverage from inside backers Jackson and Craig Robertson.
10. WR Steve Smith, Baltimore Ravens
There is little doubt in my mind that Smith will post a huge day when the Ravens face Carolina this season. Smith may have lost another step or two since his 34th birthday but remains one of the NFL’s cagiest receivers. Like Anquan Boldin two years ago, Smith has not lost his ability to attack the football in the air, reel in catches through tight coverage and evade the first tackler after a reception. Smith’s 15 missed tackles ranked him fourth among receivers last season. None too shabby for an old guy (22-year-old Marlon Brown led the Ravens with eight.).
Smith’s ability to complement Torrey Smith by moving the chains for Joe Flacco is exactly what this Ravens offense missed most last season. A healthy Dennis Pitta also helps that cause while providing another option to free up Smith, after he was opposing secondaries’ focal point in Carolina for years.
9. DT Jason Hatcher, Washington Redskins
Hatcher follows up a career year in Dallas—in which he earned a spot on Spotrac’s 2013 NFC All-Value Team—by upgrading his paycheck and massively improving the Redskins’ front-seven. Teaming up with Barry Cofield to increase Washington’s interior penetration should benefit OLBs Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan coming off the edge. This follows the Giants’ model of masking major secondary holes with threats to the passer across the line of scrimmage.
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Hatcher notched eight quarterback hurries and seven stops in two games against Philly’s solid offensive line. He added another seven QB hurries and three stops last season against the Giants; the other team he’ll continue to see twice a year, while Dallas loses its best defensive performer of 2013. The question is whether switching from 4-3 under-tackle back to playing 3-4 interior line will revert Hatcher to prior form.
8. DE Michael Johnson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
High-profile draft picks Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers have yet to thrive at defensive end so the new regime instantly took to bolstering this spot by helping Johnson cash in. Acquiring someone to help frustrate former teammate Andy Dalton when Cincy visits Tampa will be crucial in this matchup, but perhaps more key is the all-around game Johnson brings to Tampa.
The Bucs possess a very nicely blended front-seven for the first time since Rod Marinelli and Monte Kiffin roamed the sidelines in pewter. DT Gerald McCoy and OLB Lavonte David each topped their respective position in PFF’s pass-rush productivity metric last season while free agents Johnson and DT Clinton McDonald finished in the top 10 in run-stop percentage. Johnson also showed he can also get after the passer with an 11.5-sack year in 2012.
7. DE Lamarr Houston/DE Willie Young, Chicago Bears
It was somewhat sickening to see the Chicago Bears—the erstwhile “Monsters of the Midway”—trot out the most toothless front-seven in football last season. Julius Peppers declined dramatically, Henry Melton and Lance Briggs went down early and Shea McClellin provided no signs of being an edge-rush threat or warranting the 2012 first-round tag. The Bears were comically bad against the run and the return of a healthy Briggs won’t totally fix matters on its own. GM Phil Emery took notice.
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Not only did Chicago poach the most productive edge-rusher from division rival Detroit but bookended Young with talented 26-year-old Houston. The latter escapes Oakland where he excelled against the run and finished in the top 10 in quarterback pressures last season.
6. S TJ Ward/CB Aqib Talib, Denver Broncos
Between free safety Rahim Moore and slot corner Chris Harris returning from injury, Denver’s ability to defend the pass should improve greatly upon its performance down the stretch in 2014. That unit which looked so suspect on third-and-long downs against Russell Wilson in the Super Bowl just disappeared in the rearview mirror, while Ward at strong safety provides a major weapon for an already stout, instinctive run defense under John Fox and Jack Del Rio.
Talib is the wild-card here. The ex-Buc and former Patriot showed the ability to shut down the game’s best weapons (see Jimmy Graham in 2013), but also the tendency to drop off when nagging injuries hit him midseason. If this happens again in 2014 then Talib could easily prove a major downgrade to departed No. 1 corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
5. LT Jared Veldheer, Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals have featured a starting LT ranked in the bottom two of PFF tackle grading in each of the past two seasons, with undrafted second-year tackle Bradley Sowell (below) taking his beatings at the spot in 2013. This did not show a ton of care for the well-being of their traditional pocket passer, Carson Palmer.
(GIF via FanSided)
Palmer finished second to Matt Ryan in dropbacks under pressure last season. Giving $35 million over five years, including $17 million guaranteed, to one of the top young left tackles in the game shows a commitment to allowing Palmer to stay aggressive on downfield throws, where head coach Bruce Arians’ tendency toward longer-developing pass plays can truly flourish.
4. CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, New York Giants
The addition of DRC on Monday gives Big Blue its best secondary on paper since….probably ever! New York’s defensive line had long masked considerable holes in the defensive backfield. As key cogs Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, Barry Cofield and Linval Joseph departed in recent years, this model stopped working for the personnel at hand.
It looks like GM Jerry Reese is now flipping his game plan to address the DB position first and foremost.
Re-signing pleasant surprises Stevie Brown and Trumaine McBride, taking a chance on stud young safety Will Hill and acquiring Seattle slot corner Walter Thurmond III were the first key steps. Now if Prince Amukamara can continue to grow while Rodgers-Cromartie reprises his 2013 form—when DRC’s yards allowed per coverage snap bettered Amukamara, Patrick Peterson and Alterraun Verner—New York’s secondary could shoot from mediocre to elite rather quickly.
3. DE DeMarcus Ware, Denver Broncos
Ware’s transition from a long career as a 3-4 OLB to a 4-3 DE in 2013 did not pan out well, though only if analyzed relatively. Ware still managed a No. 8 finish in PFF’s pass-rush productivity metric, even if that did translate into a career-low six sacks. One can also point to the loss of Anthony Spencer on the side opposite Ware in Dallas, which certainly couldn’t have helped.
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Likewise, Von Miller’s pass-rush productivity dropped last season—18th among 4-3 OLBs taking a minimum 25 percent of snaps—but Miller still remained a dominant force on Denver’s defense until injury cut his year short. Place Ware across from Miller and a man of Ware’s Hall of Fame talents will make a massive impact regardless of how often his hand plants in the ground. It didn’t help Miller to lose Elvis Dumervil across from him prior to 2013, so joining Ware at Mile High should help both harass the passer at a much higher frequency.
2. S Jairus Byrd, New Orleans Saints
I’m going to wonder in awe about what Bill Belichick can do with Darrelle Revis, and the same goes with Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan adding Jairus Byrd to his arsenal. This could not be a more perfect pairing. Ryan’s tendency toward aggressively testing opposing quarterbacks benefits most from a rangy combination at the back line of defense: In Byrd at free safety and Kenny Vaccaro at strong, the Saints have done just that.
Byrd’s draft stock sunk to mid-second round, likely in part due to a 4.68 40-yard dash time out of Oregon, yet his quickness and anticipation truly equate to a 4.5 guy at free safety. Byrd’s metrics show a slightly down season in 2013 that we could attribute to holdout and missing early-season games recovering from injury. In 2012 he ranked fifth among safeties in yards allowed per coverage snap. His five picks in coverage were the highest mark among the top 30 players in that category.
1. CB Darrelle Revis, New England Patriots
Nearly two years ago, the Jets were coerced by the salary cap into unloading arguably the most valuable defensive player in football. Naturally, they shipped him to another conference where Gang Green would only have to deal with him once every four years.
But it backfired, as now that duration has been upgraded to 2-3 times a year, being that Revis has signed with the Patriots.
While New York has used its draft picks and cap space wisely in the trade’s aftermath, this one still has to sting. And you could argue that this move has backfired on the entire AFC moreso than the Jets.
Letting New England acquire the NFL’s preeminent shutdown corner is akin to letting Bill Belichick get his hands on nuclear weapons. We’ve seen what his scheme can do when he has an ace at cornerback like Ty Law or Aqib Talib. We’ve also seen how his secondary shriveled when Talib went down midway through the conference championship, or picked up a nagging injury midseason. Now the Pats possess a better, less injury-prone version of those stellar players—a three-time All-Pro who is right in his prime.
The Pats now field arguably the best cover corner in the league. And he’s pretty damn good in run support, too.