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.