Free Agency, A Primer
Cornerbacks are about to get paid, skill players are not and everything else you need to know with NFL free agency about to begin. Plus, thoughts on Rashard Mendenhall's early retirement, Geno Smith's arm and an NFL owner's passing
Ten things you should know about the NFL’s 22nd annual free market, which kicks off Tuesday at 4 p.m. (but which is already in full swing because of legal and illegal tampering):
1. Cornerbacks are this year’s quarterbacks. When a pedestrian corner like Sam Shields of Green Bay gets four years and $39 million ($9.75 million a year for Sam Shields!), significantly better players at a vital position had their bargaining postures strengthened mightily. Specifically, Alterraun Verner, Vontae Davis, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Aqib Talib will be in the $8-million-plus neighborhood annually. Then there’s Tarell Brown of the 49ers on the next level, and Peanut Tillman and Captain Munnerlyn on the next (Tillman because of age). That’s seven quality starters, some better, on the hook. Davis is close to re-signing with Indy, according to Jason LaCanfora, and Rodgers-Cromartie is likely to return to Denver. The others? The Giants are pursuing Verner, but I can’t see them paying $10 million a year. Washington and New England want Talib; Washington might be more desperate to make a free-agent strike, and the Patriots won’t overpay. I like Brown a lot, and I think he’d be money well spent for a team tighter on the cap that doesn’t want to go crazy for a corner.
2. Tackles will be paid. Ryan Tannehill, meet Brandon Albert. The Dolphins’ new left tackle is expected to be the laid-back Albert. Miami’s expected to blow the opposition out of the water again (remember Mike Wallace and his $13 million average that shocked the NFL last year?) with a deal averaging around $10-11 million. That likely leaves Jared Veldheer to jump from Oakland to Arizona, and the Raiders to scramble on the rebound and do a deal with Rodger Saffold, who has missed 17 games due to injury in his four seasons with the Rams. There’s a good chance Oakland GM Reggie McKenzie, with his $65 million in cap money, is going to say come November: I should have gone the extra mile and paid Veldheer.
3. Baltimore could get very lucky. The biggest beneficiary of the high-stakes left-tackle poker: the Ravens. They could get the player they’ve wanted to keep all along, Eugene Monroe, whom they acquired for two fourth-round picks in a mid-year trade with Jacksonville. Monroe is the consensus fourth man on the list for the other teams desperate for a left tackle. Tampa Bay, or a latecomer to the party, could settle for the unknown tackle with promise, Anthony Collins of the Bengals. All he did last year, according to Pro Football Focus, was allow zero sacks and zero quarterback hits in 592 snaps played on the Bengals line.
4. Karlos Dansby and Daryl Smith should send D’Qwell Jackson thank-you notes. Dansby is one of the best inside ’backers in football, and Smith solidified a shaky position group in the absence of Ray Lewis last year in Baltimore. But neither was going to strike it rich in free agency until Jackson signed for $5.5 million a year with Indianapolis last week. Cleveland should jump all over Dansby, who is a good leader and a pass-rusher on par with the best interior linebackers in the league. I think Smith should stay in Baltimore; he’s perfect for the team as a leader and a player.
5. Jairus Byrd’s landing spot? A secret. He wants $9 million a year, and I can’t figure out who will pay a safety that much.
6. Michael Vick should be in more demand than he is. I keep saying this, and few believe me: Vick’s a very good locker room guy now, a leader, and he’d be a good team guy whether or not he wins the starting job. I think if Vick had been more accurate in his past two years in Philly (.581, .546), offensive coordinator Norv Turner could have been sold on him with the Vikings; I know Vick was very interested in Minnesota. The team that makes the most sense is the Jets, because they have no idea if Geno Smith is their quarterback of the future. Oakland makes sense because the Raiders have no idea what they have either. I’ll give you a dark horse here: San Francisco. Let’s say Vick gets only lukewarm interest to start, or to compete for a starting job. If so, and if the Niners want more than a third-string insurance policy for Colin Kaepernick, Vick might be willing to go to try to win a Super Bowl ring. He turns 34 in June.
7. Running backs and receivers have fallen to earth with a thud. Used to be backs were sexy pickups in free agency. Now even the prominent ones get no love, mostly because of the way the game is being played and because teams figure they can find adequate ones in the middle or late rounds of the May draft. Knowshon Moreno, Donald Brown and probably Chris Johnson, with young speedster Ben Tate … expect all of them to be disappointed this week. At receiver, Julian Edelman caught 121 passes out of the slot for New England last year, but the Patriots seem content to let the former college quarterback seek his fortune elsewhere; could the Jets, in the latest chapter of the border war between these two lovebird franchises, be “elsewhere?” In my mind, a great fit for Edelman would be Cleveland, which has money to spend and a hole at slot receiver. Cleveland could be in the mix for Eric Decker, who needs suitors. Finally, I think the receiver who will get more action than forecast is Golden Tate.
8. Michael Bennett is about to be very rich. People are forgetting Bennett’s versatility when they talk about the best pass-rushers getting paid in free agency. Bennett, for the first time in his NFL career, played significant snaps (more than 350) inside for the Seahawks, and he helped Seattle win the Super Bowl. “I think I’ll be one of the most valuable players in free agency,’’ he said late in the year, and he was right. Now the Bears, with brother Martellus Bennett providing in-house recruiting, are interested, and Michael Bennett knows this could be his best shot at free-agency dough. I know Seattle can’t afford everything, with so many good young players on the cusp of second contracts. But if I’m John Schneider, I’m fighting like crazy to convince Bennett to stay.
9. Best players to make money whom you don’t know well. DE Arthur Jones (Ravens), who should end up being a better long-term player than his former teammate, Paul Kruger, who was overpaid by the Browns last year … DT Paul Soliai (Dolphins), the best of a bad crop of defensive tackles and best nosetackle in the field … G/T Geoff Schwartz (Chiefs), versatile and underrated … T Anthony Collins (Bengals), whom I wrote about above. … Oh, and I can’t believe more teams, and more people, aren’t talking about wideout James Jones of the Packers. Great hands, and 17 touchdowns over the past two seasons.
10. First dominoes to fall: tackles. Too many deals too close to fruition.
Should be a fun week. We’ll have some good stories at The MMQB this week. We’re following a key free-agent and the trends of the system, so check back through the week for our stories.
Quotes of the Week
“Chris Johnson is at his best when he’s trying to prove everybody wrong. He’ll have that chance when the Titans release him and he’s back at the bottom. Then he’ll regain the selflessness and the work ethic he once showed.”
—Ian Rapoport of NFL Network on Sunday.
After Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk reported the Tennessee running back would be put on the trading block because the Titans did not want to pay him his scheduled $8 million this season and Johnson wouldn’t take a pay cut, Rapoport reported Johnson would be released if he couldn’t be traded.
“Corners and offensive tackles, throw a party. Receivers and running backs, throw a funeral.”
—Anonymous AFC front-office man Sunday, in the midst of feeling out the free-agent market that appears to be on the verge of downsizing salaries to offensive skill players in a big way beginning Tuesday.
“Who knows what’s going to happen with [Adam] Vinatieri? If he gets re-signed, if he wants to get re-signed, however long he wants to play, I just wanted to know whenever that guy is done, whenever that Hall-of-Fame career is over, that I just want a fair shake in kicking as well.”
—Newly re-signed Colts punter Pat McAfee, who wants a chance to do punting/placekicking double-duty in 2014 and beyond, a rarity in today’s game.
“Best defense ever. Ever! Hey, we’ll beat the Greek Gods!”
—Seattle defensive lineman Michael Bennett, as the clock wound down in the Seahawks 43-8 Super Bowl XLVIII rout of Denver, captured by NFL Films for its annual Super Bowl champion video.
Stat of the Week
Common wisdom on the weekend that remade the Saints: New Orleans GM Mickey Loomis is making space to account for two bloated numbers—the absurdist $26.4-million cap number of Drew Brees (he takes up 19.8 percent of the Saints’ $133 million cap), and the contract they’re trying to create to keep tight end Jimmy Graham.
What makes the most sense with Graham is to split the difference—a la baseball arbitration—on a long-term contract between the tight end franchise number ($7.04 million) and the wide receiver franchise number ($12.32 million). This way, the Saints could still make Graham the highest-paid tight end ever, and the team wouldn’t have the drag, potentially, of losing a grievance and having Graham take up one 10th of the team’s cap with the wideout franchise number.
By splitting the difference, and making a contract for halfway between the tight end and wide receiver franchise numbers, the Saints could pay Graham $48.4-million over five years. Heck, let’s be nice: five years, $50 million … an average of $10 million a year, exactly $1 million a year higher than the biggest tight end contract ever—Rob Gronkowski’s deal with New England.
Whatever happens, consider the great fortune of Graham. He averaged $824,535 in the first four years of his NFL career for producing this average season:
Touchdown catches: 10.3
Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me
The Raiders will be one of the most interesting teams in free agency. They have a league-record $65 million in cap space available as of Monday morning, and two very significant free agents, both of whom I hear are very interested in testing the market and getting a golden parachute out of Oakland: tackle Jared Veldheer and defensive end Lamarr Houston.
So if you’re looking for a team this week to throw wild money at a couple of players, look for Oakland to lead the parade. Why? The Raiders have to spend. I’ve written about this the past couple of weeks, but the Raiders illustrate the importance of the rule in the 2011 CBA about minimum spending. In the four seasons between 2013 and 2016, every team in the league has to spend at least 89 percent of its cap limit. So the Raiders must think about extending their own players and signing some from the outside so they account for most of that $65 million of space this year. That’s why Oakland, despite having a GM in Reggie McKenzie who’s not a big fan of throwing around millions that aren’t his, could be a big player this week.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
I was in England over the weekend, visiting my brother and his fine family, and meeting my great-nephew Thomas for the first time. Thomas and his mum (my niece Charlotte) and dad live in Lichfield, about two hours northwest of London, where the accompanying photo was snapped on an afternoon stroll.
Four fun things about the vocabulary and such that I experienced on the trip:
A Humped Zebra Crossing is a raised striped crosswalk in the road, designed for pedestrians to cross and slowing motorists to navigate … Going pear-shaped means you’ve started to do some sort of plan, and it goes terribly wrong, and you cannot fix it. As in, “I was coming over to your flat, but the baby fell on its head and now our day has gone all pear-shaped.” … At a small supermarket, I listened to the very polite self-service checkout voice praise the shopper for putting items properly in the bag after scanning them. At the end, the machine told the shopper, in a chipper and high-pitched voice: “Well done!” … I watched the Six Nations rugby game between England and Wales on TV Sunday. England 29, Wales 18. Mostly, I was clueless about it, but I did note that No. 12 for England was Billy Twelvetrees, who made a lovely grubber kick to lead to a critical try for the home team. My brother Ken told me the history of the name “Twelvetrees.” That was his mother’s maiden name. His father was a tree surgeon. When they married, the father decided to use the mother’s name; good for business, he thought. And so when young Billy was born, he took his mother’s last name.
Tweets of the Week
“Wow unbelievable. Shocked and disappointed on everything that’s gone on this offseason.”
—@TheJimmyGraham, the New Orleans (for now) tight end, after news surfaced Friday that the Saints would likely rid themselves of Darren Sproles and Lance Moore to save money on the salary cap.
“Rays manager Joe Maddon on Bucs new uniforms: ‘I’m not a big fan of the pewter. I’m anti-pewter. Pewter shouldn’t even be a color.’ ”
—@IKaufmanTBO, Ira Kaufman, pro football scribe for the Tampa Tribune, crossing over to baseball for a few minutes and getting the Spencer Tracy-ish manager of the crosstown Rays to opine on the new (and bizarre) Bucs uniforms.
“Thought with FA coming up: Remember when we used to talk about ‘news coming across the wire?’ Now Twitter is the wire.”
—@FO_ASchatz, Aaron Schatz of vaunted Football Outsiders, speaking the truth.
“For the record this is the real spleen-less Chris Simms.”
—@CSimmsQB, announcing his arrival (a very welcome one, I might add) on Twitter last week. In 2006 Simms, quarterbacking the Bucs, had emergency surgery to remove his ruptured spleen after taking a hit in a game against Carolina.
Retweet of the Week
“I am the greatest; I said that even before I knew I was. –Muhammad Ali.”
—@Sports_Greats. Retweeted by @RSherman_25, Richard Sherman.
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think I’ll leave the automotive legacy to others, but when I think of William Clay Ford the football owner (he died Sunday of pneumonia, at 88), I think of two things: intense privacy (I never had a conversation with the man) and love of Detroit. It made little financial sense for the Ford family to move the Lions back downtown from Pontiac in 2002, but the Fords were determined to put a stake in the ground and try to help re-energize Detroit. I hope when people think of the elder Ford, they think of his efforts to return Detroit to greatness, as Herculean a task as that has turned out to be.
2. I think if a team trades for Ryan Mallett, who’s been a backup to Tom Brady in New England the past three seasons, it has to make a deal knowing he hasn’t played a game of football since 2010. And what makes this such a difficult trade beyond the obvious—can the man play?—is that this is a very good draft, and no team is going to want to trade a significant pick this year for Mallett. So the smart deal would be, say, a fifth-round pick this year and a conditional pick next year, based on whether Mallett plays and how much he plays in 2014. In essence, I don’t see how it makes sense for the Patriots to trade him this year, leaving them devoid of a No. 2 quarterback with knowledge of the system in a season when Tom Brady turns 37. A Mallett deal makes no sense to me, for either side.
3. I think it’s sad, but when I think of the career of Rashard Mendenhall, I think of Ray Lewis breaking his shoulder, not Mendenhall’s two 1,000-yard seasons with the Steelers. Video of that Lewis play will be on the great linebacker’s top-10 career hits video, and it’s a day, from Mendenhall’s rookie year, that the running back will take into early retirement with him.
4. I think, though, I really liked Mendenhall’s explanation on Huffington Post last night. “When they ask me why I want to leave the NFL at the age of 26, I tell them that I’ve greatly enjoyed my time, but I no longer wish to put my body at risk for the sake of entertainment. I think about the rest of my life and I want to live it with much quality. And physically, I am grateful that I can walk away feeling as good as I did when I stepped into it. As for the question of what will I do now, with an entire life in front of me? I say to that, I will LIVE! I plan to live in a way that I never have before, and that is freely, able to fully be me, without the expectation of representing any league, club, shield or city.’’ He says he’ll do a lot of writing. Good luck to him.
5. I think with Jared Allen certain to test the market and leave Minnesota, the Vikings had no choice but to do a deal with their other free-agent pass-rusher, Everson Griffen, who got an average of $8.5 million a year from the Vikings Sunday. That salary is inflated given what Griffen has accomplished in four seasons: 59 games, 17.5 sacks. Griffen is 26 and hasn’t earned that yet. Problem was, someone else would have paid him if the Vikings didn’t do a deal before free agency.
6. I think when Hakeem Nicks tells Josina Anderson of ESPN, “I want to go to a team where I’m the missing link,’’ I wonder if he knows how silly that sounds coming from a man with 109 catches and three touchdowns over the past two years.
7. I think when I hear that the Jets want to limit Geno Smith’s throws to something under 20 per game in 2014, I am dubious. Marty “Never Met a Throw He Didn’t Like” Mornhinweg is the offensive coordinator, after all. And throwing the ball, say, 18 times a game would mean a team would have something like a 2-to-1 run-pass ratio, which hasn’t been done in years by any team. I’m not buying it. If you want your quarterback to throw fewer 20 times a game, you don’t like your quarterback and ought to get another one.
8. I think I don’t know what more you’d want Jared Allen to do than what he did for six years in Minnesota. He never missed a start. He averaged 14.3 sacks per year. He wasn’t a distraction. He played as hard as any pass-rusher in football. I will be amazed, with all this cap money available and pass-rushers so hard to find, if he gets shut out of the big-money market. He’s 31. He shows no signs of the end. Allen would be very high on my list.
9. I think Ross Tucker of The Sporting News did a heck of a job, moonlighting for us at The MMQB and writing about the inner world of grading offensive linemen. I learned a lot reading the story. Such as: “Most left guards should grade out higher than right guards. Most teams are ‘right-handed,’ meaning they often put the strength of the offensive formation to the right side rather than the left. As a result, most slide protections—a zone scheme in which three linemen block two defenders—go to the left, which is customarily the quarterback’s blindside. This means the right guard on most teams has a tougher job because he’s tasked with more one-on-one pass blocking assignments than the left guard … The pervading belief [is] that you can only tell how an offensive line is playing based on sacks allowed or rushing yards per carry—flawed metrics that suggest you can have a forest without any trees. Whether an offense moves the ball forward and gets pushed backward, football’s forgotten big men are playing a game in which their personal scoreboards change on every play like a stock market ticker.’’ Good educational stuff, and I thank Tucker for writing it for us.
10. I think these are my non-NFL thoughts of the week:
a. So great to be able to spend time with family I don’t see much, and so lucky to have a great big brother to see in England. Visiting my brother Ken and his wife, Jane, in the English countryside is always a time to feel grounded and fortunate in a world that moves too fast too often.
b. Two big differences in their lives from mine: You can see the sky vividly on a clear night, and the silence at night is just stunning.
c. South By Southwest looks fun. To those who attend: Worthwhile to go one year?
d. Jealous of those NFLers who saw Duke-Carolina at Cameron Indoor on Saturday night. That’s a bucket list event for me—in Durham.
e. I see why NBC spent all that money on English soccer. Being in England, you feel the fever. The season’s a soap opera. I think it’s going to translate and is already.
f. If I haven’t told you already, go see “Gravity.” So many of those Best Oscar movies are so, so good. Other than the fact most movies are 10 to 20 percent too long, this is a great time for movies and to be a movie-goer.
g. My next one: “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Looks terrific.
h. Geno Auriemma is 59. His UConn team is 33-0 and looks bound for a ninth national title under Auriemma, and he shows no signs of wanting to pack it in. He’s not appreciated enough around the country.
i. Coffeenerdness: Good job by Costa Coffee, the big coffee chain, in England, with the espresso. I like the place. When Starbucks is mobbed, the drinks suffer. I just have three visits to a Costa to compare, but the baristas seem to take their time regardless of attendance in-store. It shows.
j. Good story in The Guardian on the dangers of caffeine.
k. Beernerdness: Had a Wells Eagle IPA in a country pub Friday night. One thing I love about the beer in England: less carbonated than ours, by and large. One thing I don’t love: It’s served slightly cooler than tepid, and I’m a cold beer guy. But I’m used to it now. This IPA was cask-pumped and mild.
l. My fantasy baseball draft is Tuesday. March 11! Too early. To say I haven’t studied much would be an understatement. Hope no one laughs when I pick Joe Foy.
The Adieu Haiku
Mr. Detroit, gone.
Bill Ford loved cars, and his town.
City needed him.