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The Billion-Dollar Day
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The Billion-Dollar Day

The craziest—and spendiest—day in the history of free agency is in the books. But the most unbelievable part? Bigger news is still ahead, with DeMarcus Ware, Chris Johnson, Jared Allen and other NFL stars still on the market
Getty Images :: Peter G. Aiken (Ware), Bob Levey (Talib), Jeff Zelevansky (Gabbert), Al Pereira (Byrd)

Tuesday, 1 a.m. ET: The NFL’s first billion-dollar day is over, and it’s officially the craziest day in the 22-year history of free agency. I’ve done the math with the available numbers: 64 player signings for an estimated total outlay of $1,001,500,000.

One billion dollars. In nine hours, NFL teams agreed to contracts totaling $1 billion.

The mayhem is not over. Some of the biggest names in the game are on the street or on the verge of being there, their fate to be determined perhaps by the time you read this. Darrelle Revis will be released or traded, a year after the Bucs traded first-round and fourth-round picks for him. Demarcus Ware, quite possibly the best pass-rusher of his day, is on the street, and could do a deal with Denver today. And Julius Peppers and Jared Allen and LaMarr Woodley and Chris Johnson and Darren Sproles and Cortland Finnegan could find new homes today too.

As Wednesday dawns, the craziest thing I can think to say is this: Today could be loonier than yesterday.

And I haven’t even mentioned the Jonathan Martin trade. You were asleep when that happened? Just before 11 on the East Coast, Miami sent the star of the Ted Wells Report to San Francisco, to be reunited with college coach Jim Harbaugh for conditional 2015 draft compensation in hopes that Martin can resume a fruitful NFL career.

That’s how incredible a day it was: Jonathan Martin, at the center of the Dolphins’ national bullying scandal, one of the most famous (infamous?) players in football in 2013, gets traded, and it’s somewhere in the netherworld of the NFL day, fighting for headlines with Dallas whacking Ware, Chicago firing Peppers, Denver’s shocking rebuilding of its secondary, Atlanta doing six deals before midnight, the cash-strapped Saints looking under the couch cushions for $54 million to sign safety Jairus Byrd. Heck, Martin might not have been the most eye-opening acquisition (Blaine Gabbert?) in his own new city.

Just what the NFL wanted: Eyes glued to the TV and the web for news, any news, about football 25 weeks before the new season begins. 

Jonathan Martin switched coasts Tuesday as Miami traded the troubled guard to San Francisco. (Wilfredo Lee/AP) Jonathan Martin switched coasts Tuesday as Miami traded the troubled offensive lineman to San Francisco for a conditional 2015 draft pick. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

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A quarter-century ago, I remember Giants GM George Young holding court at a league meeting, decrying what veteran unrestricted free agency would do to the game. You can’t exchange guards annually the way baseball teams move second basemen in and out of a lineup, he said; teams need time to build chemistry. Free agency as an institution was going to be a pox on the land of a well-played game.

But in the NFL office, free agency was something else: a way for the league to begin to own the offseason, to take it away from college basketball and the Hot Stove League that baseball had always used in February and March to get fans excited for the coming season. Free agency could be the NFL’s own Hot Stove. And in the 22 opening days since the free market entered the NFL calendar in 1993, never has there been the kind of excitement around the market that there was Tuesday.

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Excepting Martin, five significant events of the day:

Denver showed it’s serious about rebounding from the Super Bowl embarrassment. The Broncos signed cornerback Aqib Talib to a deal close to what Sam Shields got in Green Bay and Vontae Davis got in Indianapolis: $9.5 million a year. That came after signing safety T.J. Ward, and before the serious pursuit of the 31-year-old Ware, who will visit the team today. I’m partial, obviously, working for NBC as well as The MMQB, but is there any question that the best opening game of the season the league could schedule (on NBC Thursday Sept. 4) would be Denver at Seattle in an electric Super Bowl rematch?

Minus Talib, the Patriots are so wasted at cornerback that they might have to join the race to acquire Revis. Under the terms of his contract in Tampa, Revis is owed a $1.5 million signing bonus if still on the roster this week. And the Bucs would have to hand the Jets a third-round pick, not a fourth-rounder, in trade if Revis is still on the roster today at 4 p.m. I realize the new Tampa staff wants to make its own way, but the Bucs have the money to pay Revis. I think it’s crazy for the Bucs to dump one of the best corners in football—and I don’t care what defense they play. Revis can cover in any scheme. Last year, they traded first-round and fourth-round picks to get Revis, and now they’re going to release him or trade him today? Crazy talk. But if it happens, the Patriots, who have a terrible time hanging onto top free agents and lost corner Talib on day one of the market, could try to convince Revis to come over to the dark side in New England after he spent the first six years of his career with the Jets. Revis swears he won’t take a pay cut. We shall see.

But the Bucs had a very good day otherwise. They added edge rusher Michael Johnson from Cincinnati, corner Alterraun Verner—the top corner in free agency on some NFL boards—to replace Revis, and an underrated and undervalued defensive tackle from the Seahawks’ Super Bowl team, Clinton McDonald. Good start for coach Lovie Smith and new GM Jason Licht.

Julius Peppers and Aaron Rodgers could be reacquainted soon, but this time as teammates. (Scott Strazzante/Getty Images) Julius Peppers and Aaron Rodgers could be reacquainted soon, but this time as teammates. (Scott Strazzante/Getty Images)

Ware and Peppers hit the street within two hours of each other late in the day. Defensive coordinators everywhere rejoiced … particularly in Denver and Green Bay, where pass-rush help is a priority. Denver GM John Elway would love to make Ware a bookend for Von Miller in the rush game, while solid run player Peppers would fill a need for the Packers for a year or two as a tough and physical end to complement Clay Matthews. Other teams will be in play for them too—including Super Bowl champion Seattle, if the price is right.

One contract begat another, as always happens—but this time, it cost Indianapolis millions. The Colts were deep in talks with Vontae Davis in the days before free agency when word came down from Green Bay that cornerback Sam Shields signed a huge four-year, $39 million deal. That sent waves around the league, particularly at a time when so many teams were trying to get cornerback deals done. The Colts were in the $7-million-a-year neighborhood when Shields signed. To get the deal done and keep the valuable Davis in the fold, Indianapolis had to push the money up, up, up … until it was right where Shields’ was. Davis agreed just around the time the free-agent period opened.

Lots of adjustments will be made in the NFL over the next few months, as teams figure new rosters and try to do more free-agent deals. San Francisco’s secondary could have four different starters from the Super Bowl 13 months ago. Atlanta shored up its two weakest points—the offensive and defensive lines, by signing six linemen, two and offense and four on defense. Oakland flipped 40 percent of its starting offensive line.

It’s tough to spend a billion dollars in half a day, but the NFL proved it can be done. And the walls in the league office are still standing. The game will survive. And flourish, apparently.

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