So I know baseball is kicking off soon and both basketball and hockey are at the season’s peak but last week also marked a significant event in my favorite sport, the opening of NFL free agency. And what a week it was! It was definitely the most active FA opening I can remember especially in terms of big-name players. Running backs were shuffled, the Eagles changed their entire team, and our hometown Pats have many questioning their plan of action (not me, though, In Bill We Trust). Now that some of the dust has settled, let’s take a look at the NFL Free Agent Frenzy.
Running Back Shuffle
The biggest impact in the free agent market was made as several of the league’s running backs found new homes. Seattle extended the services of one Beast Mode Lynch for two years to the tune of $12M/yr but he was one of the few that opted for a return to his 2014 team. LeSean McCoy, last season’s biggest RB bust, found himself not in control of his own fate as he was jettisoned to northern New York in exchange for recently ACL-less middle linebacker Kiko Alonso. That trade would prove to be the first step in Chip Kelly’s Eagle Overhaul, signing Demarco Murray and Ryan Mathews to fill/outgrow/completely eviscerate Shady’s shoes. The Cowboys missed out on bringing back Murray by offering a paultry sum, the refusal of which seemed to leave them genuinely surprised. Did the Cowboys pull a stupid by letting the league’s leading rusher just walk out the door after offering him $6M/yr with bad guarantees? I think so and to me this is the single biggest personnel loss of the offseason thus far, one that will dramatically alter Dallas’s future. Murray was clearly the heart of the Cowboys offense in 2014, (13 td’s, 1800+ yds) and with a feeble Tony Romo only growing feebler, 2015 is not looking promising for America’s Team. In the wake of McCoy becoming a Buffalo Bill, 6th-year player CJ Spiller found himself the odd man out. His best days may yet be before him, though, as a move from far north to deep south pairs him an elite quarterback for the first time in his career in Drew Brees.
Frank Gore, a career 49er, initially looked to be joining Kelly’s new squad before being diverted by the chance to play with Andrew Luck in Indianapolis, recently rid of their Trent Richardson clusterfuck. The Colts also added also-aging Andre Johnson, making a few new interesting weapons for the Luck Dragon to join with one of the league’s best young receivers in T.Y. Hilton (82 receptions, 1000+ yards in each of the last two seasons). To fill Gore’s place, San Fran will be leaning heavily on 2014 2nd-rd draft pick Carlos Hyde, as well as tacking on journeyman Reggie Bush to a one-year deal.
Justin Forsett re-signed with the Ravens while Bernard Pierce was cut following a DUI arrest and immediately claimed by Jacksonville. Deangelo Williams moves from Carolina to Pittsburgh while Redskins’ #2 Roy Helu goes to Oakland along with Trent Richardson. The Cowboys elect to throw good money after bad by bringing in McFadden after wiffing on Murray. The Giants saw something in Shane Vereen they liked for $4M/yr. It’s just a shame the damn fool doesn’t know the career decline he just took… Oh yeah, and MGD finally retired. Got all that? A host of other lower tier running backs still await a 2015 home including but not limited to DuJuan Harris, Knowshon Moreno, Pierre Thomas, Stevan Ridley and Ben Tate. And as for the best running back that didn’t play in 2014, Adrian Peterson’s future (was slightly more solidified) yesterday as the Vikings announced they would not be releasing the star tailback whose child discipline case last year is said to have soured his relationship with the only team he has known for his 8 NFL seasons. Trade speculation is high, especially as it concerns Cardinals’ receiver Larry Fitzgerald but the Vikings organization has maintained a hard line of wanting Peterson back.
Other big players
Tight Ends seemed to be a big commodity early on with Julius Thomas taking a nosedive into Jacksonville and Owen Daniels moving from Baltimore to Denver to take his place. Jordan Cameron’s 2yr/$15M Miami deal represents a renewed commitment to their offense and caused a ripple among AFC East TE’s with Scott Chandler coming to the Pats and former Dolphin Charles Clay headed to Buffalo. The Bills are the immediate loser in this trio with Chandler’s “Pats killer” history now co-opted while Miami swaps in an elite talent at the position for an inconsistent one in Clay.
Among wideouts Jeremy Maclin heading to Kansas City was the biggest early news, but I suspect that the move will deflate the career momentum the receiver gained last season. The once great Dwayne Bowe traded one flawed offensive system for another as he signed a 2-yr deal with Cleveland, while Cecil Shorts headed to Houston and former Falcon Harry Douglas became arguably the #1 in Tennessee. Torrey Smith made the decision to follow former teammate Anquan Boldin from the Ravens to the 49ers leaving many to wonder what will happen with Michael Crabtree. Just before the free agency period began Chicago made a head-scratcher of a trade, sending Brandon Marshall to the Jets in exchange for a draft upgrade from 7th to 5th round. In the wake of that trade, boom-or-bust receiver Percy Harvin became expendable and was immediately picked up by former Jets coach Rex Ryan in Buffalo.
The most active participant in the free agency frenzy, obviously, was the Philadelphia Eagles, with personnel newly under Chip Kelly’s control. So what exactly is Kelly’s plan? When all the chips have fallen, does he come out with a better, stronger team, regardless of his system perhaps, than he did a year ago? Is it stronger for the long term? If the answer to any or all of these question is yes then that alone makes his shake-up worthwhile. If it makes them more successful immediately – which I believe it will given that I think Sam Bradford has a lot to show the world that somehow by a miracle of modern football Kelly is about to unlock in him – then it makes him a football genius.
Last year’s leading rusher in Demarco Murray coupled with fragile a Ryan Mathews can’t possibly be a bigger disappointment than 2014 McCoy but what about the 2013 version that averaged over a 100 yards/game? And what role will Sproles play? These questions will only be answered in earnest once the season is underway and while I believe Murray will see less action than Philly tried to force on McCoy, I think the combined efforts of him and Mathews leading to numbers in the 2000 yds, 18 td’s range is quote possible. Obviously the biggest concern with both the Eagles’ presumptive starting QB and their #2 RB will be health, each having seen only one 16-game season out of the last three. The Eagles also re-signed ButtFumble to a 2yr/$9M deal which has some cuious as to Kelly’s plan for his Opening Day starter. $4.5M/yr for a backup QB seems a bit steep…
I personally think Kelly’s trade of Nick Foles ad a 2nd-rd pick for Sam Bradford and a 4th could have him looking like a genius by year’s end. For all the talent that Bradford has laying latent, STL has been able to do nothing to a) give him weapons, any at all and b) keep him from getting killed. I’m no diehard fan but the kid’s got a cannon and has had little to no opportunity to grow in one of the league’s worst offenses. If it turns out he sucks I won’t be shocked and appalled, I just know he’s unexplored talent that is getting to/past him prime years.
On the defensive side of the ball, Philly made one of the biggest grabs with CB Byron Maxwell signing a 6yr/$63M deal along with bringing in CB Walter Thurmond III and ILB’s Brad Jones and Kiko Alonso via the McCoy trade. Though they did lose three defensive starters in Nate Allen, Bradley Fletcher and Trent Cole, inside the Philadelphia camp excitement is high and there seems little doubt that the new, shiny 2015 model will be an improvement.
Ahh, Darrelle Revis is a Jet again!
What is the Patriots’ plan? While defensive players seem to be quickly vacating last year’s top-10 defense, many New England fans are left wondering what Bill and co. have in mind as we approach 2015. Their defensive answer is really one of brilliance if it works out correctly, so let me lay it out the way I see it. Belichick is always watching the market, like a pigskin stock broker. He sees the relative shallowness presenting itself at the CB position this offseason and probably next, at least in terms of cost. Does he forfeit the future of the team by overpaying for arguably the best 1-2 punch at the position last year? Left with Butler, Dennard and … ugh… Arrington, it might not seem crazy to have thrown a big contract at Revis, or Browner, or even Byron Maxwell. But you know what? Fuck that noise, that’s not how we do things here in the land of the Super Motherfucking Bowl Champion New England Patriots. Instead, Belichick has opted to pivot the strength of the defense to the front seven, intending to rush the passer more than in years past and hardening our defense against the run (ahem, LeSean McCoy now in the division…). Jabaal Sheard’s 2yr/$11M deal in an indicator of their intentions, an excellent addition to Chandler and Ninkovich on the outside. More importantly, Coach is understanding the market and finding value where it exists, rather than reaching for it where it does not. Is Revis’ Jets contract so high that we shouldn’t have offered something similar? No, not necessarily, but if you can rework that same money into several someones who can have equal or greater impact on the defense have you not made the wiser decision, especially given Darrelle’s age and affinity for playing in New York? For the record, I begrudge Darrelle Revis absolutely nothing, I understand his decision completely, and I thank him for him part in bringing home the Patriots’ 4th Championship. Were he a Patriots player that had gone adrift and come back home (perhaps not to the Jets but whatever…) we would support his decision as noble and though it will be a pain in the ass to play against for the two years he has left (quote it), Revis is a standup guy and probably the best at his position today. That said, the Jets are still going to be terrible and I don’t care that he got the Robin to his Batman back, it ain’t enough. But I digress…
I’ve recently been discussing my theories on the Patriots plan with a friend as we watch them let these great players who were a big part of last year’s success seemingly just walk out the door. But that’s not exactly what’s happening. This is free agency, an institution that is good for both the game and the players and the Patriots understand it better than many. They will not overpay for players not because of some arrogance or staunch discipline but because it means you are underspending on value somewhere else. When a certain part of the game becomes potentially shallow another rises, it is the great thing about football and its evolution. Some people bemoan the rise of the quarterback and the pass in the modern game but I think it is just part of the ebb and flow of the growth of the game. Football is a sport, more than any other, of advantage, of finding a weakness and exploiting it, often in tandem with a strong attack of one’s own. By pivoting the strength of our defense to the front seven, it relieves the pressure on the backfield and makes second-tier players able to find the space to do their jobs. And it means you can stick to your principle of never forfeiting the future for the present, because eventually you’re always going to have to pay that bill. Stay ahead of the curve, see the value and exploit it and you, too, can be like Bill.
Perhaps the biggest looming question if this is, in fact, the Patriots’ plan is how to replace the impact of Vince Wilfork, now a member of the Houston Texans. You can only effectively rush the edge if you jam the middle and that is where Vinnie’s loss will be felt strongest. The team re-signed 9th-year DL Alan Branch but they can hardly expect him to fill Wilfork’s shoes alone. BJ Raji remains a free agent as of this writing, though speculation is high that he will return to Green Bay. To me this remains the biggest question mark of the Pats’ offseason. I’m confident they’ll be able to add pass rushers through FA and even the draft, and they’ve added CB’s Bradey Fletcher and Robert McClain to the backfield mix but a talented, healthy nose tackle is hard to come by. Will their plan for the 2015 defense be effective and will it be enough to keep opposing offenses on their toes despite the host of new faces? I can only answer with the motto of a true Pats fan: In Bill I Trust.