We're into the second week of free agency, which means the big money has gone and so have the big names. Granted, there are still some guys out there you recognize -- will Roy Williams please step forward? -- but, by now, most clubs have moved on to the April draft.
And so will we, but not before reviewing what happened the past 11 days. If you're ready, so am I:
Three teams that passed the test
1. The New York Giants. They went into March with an urgent need at outside linebacker, so they added Atlanta's Michael Boley. Nice move. The guy was the top outside linebacker in free agency, and he's 26 -- meaning his best years are ahead of him. Next, they added defensive tackle Rocky Bernard, followed by defensive end Chris Canty. OK, they overpaid for Canty, but look what they've done: Solidified their defensive ends, shored themselves up inside (where Canty will play on passing downs) and found an outside linebacker to plug a hole. Then, they signed free-agent safety C.C. Brown to offset the expected loss of James Butler.
|Chris Canty should be happy. He got a big contract and joins an elite defense. (AP)|
2. New Orleans. The Saints re-signed linebacker Jonathan Vilma, guard Jon Stinchcomb and wide receiver Devery Henderson, then added free-agent cornerback Jabari Greer and fullback Heath Evans. So why do I like what they did? They sacrificed almost nothing, kept key veterans and added one of the best free-agent cornerbacks on the market. This is how you play the game and make it work.
3. The New York Jets. Rex Ryan said he would instill the Baltimore Ravens' toughness on defense in his Jets, and he's off to a good start. First, the Jets signed linebacker Bart Scott -- albeit to an inflated contract. Nevertheless, they added experience and talent at a key position. Then they re-signed guard Brandon Moore, which is good for the offense, and traded for cornerback Lito Sheppard, which might be good for the defense. I hedge on Sheppard because he has a history of injuries and hasn't done anything in two years. If they acquired the Lito Sheppard of 2006, it's a great move; if they got the underachiever who was dumped as the Eagles' nickel back in 2008, they have a liability. Finally, they picked up safety Jim Leonhard, an invaluable try-hard guy who can help you in a zillion ways. Good for them, bad for the Ravens. Best of all, I like what the Jets didn't do: Add Terrell Owens. He would've been counterproductive to what Ryan is trying to accomplish, which is make these guys tough, resilient and pull in one direction.
Three teams staying after school
1. Denver. They get an "A" for an Aggressive Approach, but more is not necessarily better. Apparently, that memo didn't reach Denver. No one signed more unrestricted free agents. No one signed more marginal unrestricted free agents, either. I know marquee free agents aren't necessarily tickets to overnight success, but they sure helped Atlanta and Philadelphia last year and New Orleans in 2006. The Broncos must figure you crawl before you walk; otherwise, there is no other explanation for their spate of 30-and-older additions: Brian Dawkins. Andra Davis. LaMont Jordan. Renaldo Hill. Correll Buckhalter. Andre Goodman. Someone please tell them Marvin Harrison is available.
|LaMont Jordan, now 30, hasn't been all that durable or productive the past three years. (Getty Images)|
2. Cleveland. Another former New England coach is shaking things up -- and not for the better. It doesn't take a genius to figure out the Browns need playmakers on an offense that produced one touchdown in its last six games. Yet one of Eric Mangini's first acts was to jettison tight end Kellen Winslow, one of the Browns' two most effective playmakers. In return, the Browns picked up free-agent tight end Robert Royal, and that's what you call a balance-of-trade deficit. They also lost Andra Davis, their second-leading tackler, and safety Sean Jones, but they're not my concerns. Winslow is. Yeah, he was a pain in the keister. But there's new management and a new head coach in town. It's time for a new attitude. Sadly, Cleveland, it looks as if you're in for another long, cold winter of discontent.
3. San Francisco. I don't mean to pick on the 49ers, but they have a nasty habit of spending a lot of money on marginal talent. This year's winner is wide receiver Brandon Jones, who picked up a $5.4 million signing bonus. I don't know much about Jones, other than when I watched the Titans, I never had a feeling he was a guy who could beat you. He had one touchdown last year. He had two the year before. And he has a history of injuries: A knee. A concussion. A groin. It's always something. When healthy, Jones is really nothing more than another Bryant Johnson ... and the 49ers recently let him walk. So why spend more money for the same guy?
Best value for the money
Derrick Ward. The Bucs signed him to a four-year, $17 million contract that includes a $2 million signing bonus and a $1 million roster bonus. That's a steal for a 1,000-yard back. Compare it to what Atlanta paid bench-sitter Michael Turner a year ago -- $16 million in his first year -- and I think you'll agree. Now, if he can only produce like Michael Turner.
|Jim Leonhard turned down bigger money from the Broncos to stay under Rex Ryan's tutelage. (Getty Images)|
Jim Leonhard. I love this guy and what he did for the Ravens, which was almost everything: Start. Sub. Special teams. Force fumbles. Make interceptions. Produce big plays. Return punts. In 50 years, teams will want to clone him 53 times to fill their rosters. Now the best news: The Jets got him on the cheap. They paid a $1 million signing bonus, with a three-year contract that averages just under $2 million. Nice.
Matt Birk. I'll tell you what I like about this move: The Ravens got a smart, experienced center for their young quarterback, and all it cost them was a $3 million signing bonus. Compare Birk's three-year, $12 million deal to what Jason Brown got from St. Louis, and you'll appreciate what the Ravens did. Sure, Birk is not the same guy who was a Pro Bowl mainstay, but he has enough left to help Baltimore and its second-year quarterback.
Bigge$$$$t money for the value
DeAngelo Hall. He has, shall we say, a questionable reputation, yet he was on his best behavior for a half-season in Washington. Still, that qualifies him for $21.5 million in cash? When I looked at this contract, I couldn't believe it. Someone forgot to notify Dan Snyder we're in the middle of a recession. Hall gets $1.5 million in signing bonuses, $5 million in salary this year (consider it guaranteed money because he makes the team) and a $15 million option bonus due in March 2010. Now, here's the catch: Let's say the Redskins don't exercise that option. Then, according to his contract, they must pay him $6.5 million in 2010, $8 million in 2011-12 and $13 million in 2013. Bottom line: They exercise the option.
|Domonique Foxworth (right) has never been a difference maker. For some reason, the Ravens decided to pay him like one. (Getty Images)|
Jason Brown. St. Louis needs help on its offensive line like New York City needs another subway line ... which is to say the Rams dialed 911. So they went out and signed the best offensive lineman on the market. Smart. Brown can play guard or center, and he's young. But look what it cost the Rams: Brown hauls down an $11 million signing bonus, with his first two years of salaries guaranteed. That's $20 million, folks, and it's why Baltimore let him walk. A year ago, Kevin Demoff -- then with Tampa Bay -- made free agent Jeff Faine the highest-paid center. Now that Demoff is the Rams' executive VP of football operations, it's déjà vu all over again.
Chris Canty. He's valuable because he can play inside or out, but the Giants paid $16 million in guaranteed money for a defensive end with 10 sacks in four years. Yeah, I know -- rushing the quarterback wasn't his job in Dallas; playing the run was. But the Giants invested a fortune in someone who played in a 3-4. Now, he's a 4-3 defensive end who sits behind Umenyiora and Justin Tuck and who can go inside on passing downs. Having him is good; having him at a reduced price is better.
Antonio Smith. Houston was looking for a bookend for pass rusher Mario Williams, and the Texans think they found him in Smith. Maybe. But look what they paid: a $12.5 million signing bonus and $3 million salary in 2009. That's basically $1 million per game for someone who had nine sacks the past two seasons. Yeah, he looked good in the playoffs, but $15.5 million? I don't think so.
One deal that should have happened but didn't
Philadelphia re-signing safety Brian Dawkins. He wanted to retire with the Eagles, and it wouldn't have taken gazillions to make it happen. But the Eagles' two-year offer wasn't enough to prevent him from going to Denver, where he signed a deal that, in effect, was a two-year, $9 million proposition. In Denver, Dawkins is another outsider in an unfamiliar locker room; in Philadelphia, he was a team leader, a fan favorite and a welcome voice of reason. The Eagles' policy basically precludes them from re-signing 30-something players, and Dawkins will turn 36 this year. But they should have made an exception here. Not only was Dawkins the glue to the team's defense; he was coming off his seventh Pro Bowl season. He will be missed.
Best under-the-radar move
Dallas' trade for Jon Kitna. First of all, Kitna can do what Brad Johnson could not a year ago, which is to step in for Tony Romo and win. No need to convince Dallas. Kitna lit up the Cowboys for 306 yards, four touchdowns and 39 points in a season-ending upset in 2006. Second, he's the perfect understudy for Romo -- an experienced teacher who will be supportive. Third, and most important, he's great for the locker room. He is positive, positive, positive, and it's about time Big D stood for something other than Dysfunction.
Second best under-the-radar move
Minnesota's trade for Sage Rosenfels. This time last year, the Vikings were willing to trade a second-rounder for him, and the deal never happened. So they waited a year and offered a fourth. Yahtzee! If Rosenfels becomes the starting quarterback -- and I think he does -- the Vikings look like Einsteins.
Buffalo taking on Terrell Owens. I understand why the Bills want a playmaker, but Terrell Owens? Sorry, I don't get it. I know they need a second receiver. I know Dick Jauron needs to win. I know they need to sell tickets. I know it's only a one-year deal. But this is not the guy to solve their problems.
|By season's end, how embarrassed will the Bills be about signing T.O.? (Getty Images)|
I think you get the idea. I feel for Jauron, but he not only signed off on this acquisition, he initiated the inquiry into Owens' availability. Be careful what you wish for, Dick. Owens' acquisition means a lot more of Buffalo at the top of ESPN's SportsCenter, but that is not necessarily a good thing. Ask the coaches he played for. All those guys can't be wrong.
First guy waiting to go through this all over again
Miami safety Yeremiah Bell. Not because the Dolphins don't want him. They do. In fact, they gave him a $6 million bonus to re-sign. But look at the fine print of his contract: There's a $14 million roster bonus due in 2010. Can you say, "renegotiation"?
Former All-Pro wondering where the money went
Wide receiver Marvin Harrison. Indianapolis cut him when Harrison wouldn't take a pay cut. So he became a free agent, available to the highest bidder. Only there are no bidders ... not yet ... and there's a good reason why: Harrison has almost nothing left. Not only will he turn 37 this season, he hasn't been the same since missing 11 games in 2007 with a knee injury. He's old. He can't separate from defensive backs. And his hands aren't what they used to be. All that's missing is the gold watch.
All-Pro who wised up
Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis. He thought he would strike it rich on the open market, but he was wrong. And his first clue should have been the Jets' signing of Scott. Scott is 28, Lewis is 33 and was injured three of the past four seasons. Rex Ryan was going to pursue one of them, and it wasn't Lewis. Dallas wasn't interested, either, though the Cowboys went after a 33-year-old middle linebacker. That would be Keith Brooking, and that was the signal to Lewis to appreciate what he had ... and what he had was a standing and generous offer from the Ravens. So he did what he should've done all along: re-sign with the one club that appreciated him. Let's hear it for common sense.
Guy who can't get a sniff
Quarterback Byron Leftwich. For the life of me, I don't know why his phone isn't ringing. "He can't move," one quarterbacks coach told me. Yeah, so what? Kerry Collins can't, either, and he starts. Leftwich doesn't have to start. He just wants a job, and nobody seems interested. He played with a winner. He has been to the playoffs. And he's a decent guy. What's wrong with this picture?
Move that looks worse with each day
Washington's release of defensive end Jason Taylor. A year ago, the Redskins thought so much of the former All-Pro they gave up two draft picks -- a second and sixth -- to acquire him. Now they release him because ... well, because he wouldn't sign up for offseason workouts. Wow. I can see if this was someone like, say, Javon Walker or Jeremy Shockey. But Taylor? One thing I know about Jason Taylor is that nobody needs to baby-sit him or pay him to show up for offseason workouts. He will show up on time, and he will show up in shape. When Taylor declined to sign, the Redskins cut him ... and blew off two draft picks, including the 44th overall this year. That is not what I would call good business.
Most intriguing move
New England's trade of Mike Vrabel and Matt Cassel for a second-round draft pick. Some people suggested Patriots coach Bill Belichick was doing former New England GM Scott Pioli a favor, but apparently they don't know this business. Nobody in the NFL does favors for the competition. You take the best offer you can get, and this might have been the best offer New England had. Remember, before last season, Cassel hadn't started since high school, so what you have is a résumé built on 15 games. Granted, he played well, but you're taking a flyer here ... and does the name Scott Mitchell ring a bell? Plus, Cassel signed the Patriots' franchise tender, which guarantees him $14.65 million. Kansas City might have found itself a starter, which is great, but I'll wait on the verdict. All I know is that if I'm New England, and I'm confident Tom Brady is OK, I'm not paying his two backups anything near 14-and-a-half mill. So I deal him. The Patriots did, and now they have four of the top 58 picks in the upcoming draft.