The Denver Broncos are about to lose Eric Decker. They’re probably about to lose Knowshon Moreno too, and Zane Beadles has departed for Jacksonville. Those are the blows, and for most teams losing a No. 2 wide receiver, a guard, and a running back would have led to some serious structural damage. For the Broncos, though, the patches on the other side of the ball have more than compensated for any offensive losses, oncoming or otherwise.
Offense wasn’t a problem for the Broncos in 2013 as they merrily smashed records. That included setting new single-season records for passing touchdowns (55) and points (606) while averaging 457.3 total yards per game. Of those numbers the last one shows how much Decker’s departure can be absorbed, as the second best offense in the league was over 40 yards behind.
No, defense was a problem, and specifically the not at all small matter of preventing a ball from traveling great distances in the air. A fine season from Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie as he shut down one half of the field wasn’t nearly enough, and a team that advanced to the Super Bowl asked far too much of its offense and aging quarterback while giving up 254.4 passing yards weekly. That was poor enough to rank 27th, and in the Super Bowl a Denver secondary that gave up 7.1 yards per pass attempt was matched against a Seahawks juggernaut giving up only 5.8.
That changed on Day 1 and in the first hours of free agency. Or at least it did on paper, and we all know that’s where football games are won and lost.
Immediately the Broncos used their roughly $25 million in cap space entering free agency to chuck money at that glaring monstrosity of a secondary by signing Aqib Talib to a six-year contract worth $57 million, with $26 million guaranteed. That came after T.J. Ward — this year’s best free agent safety not named Jairus Byrd — was also given some sweet John Elway cash. In the first hour or free agency Ward was paid $23 million over four years, with $14 million guaranteed.
Financially the two contracts reside on opposite ends of the spectrum, which is wholly expected. After the contracts given to Brent Grimes and Sam Shields inflated the cornerback market, Talib was expected to explode every bank. That sort of happened but not quite, as with an average of $9.5 million annually Talib falls just short of the $9.75 million given to Shields. The slight gap reflects their also slight age difference, though Talib is more established and is coming off a year when he shut down Jimmy Graham, and he allowed an opposing passer rating of just 30.8 over the first six weeks of the season.
The guaranteed money — which is always all that ever matters — is where Talib really cashed in. In a market that’s similar to the post-lockout free agency period of 2011, he received more guaranteed green than Brandon Carr did during that summer of cornerback love. Carr is now a primary reason why the Cowboys’ defense is the absolute worst, but we won’t talk about that.
Meanwhile, Ward received only $5.5 million annually, putting him a bounding leap away from what the Saints gave Jairus Byrd (more forthcoming). For a 27-year-old who’s just now reaching his peak it’s a contract that could quickly be viewed as a rare opening day steal, and with Ward’s hard-hitting, gap filling disregard for his body, it’s a signing that helps in coverage while making an already menacing run defense even less fun to play against.
Elway and general manager Brian Xanders had cap room because of quality drafting, and being able to plug young, inexpensive players in at key positions. With that cash they inserted two crucial missing pieces, and presto change-o, the defending AFC champs are better.
See, team building is simple. As we take a trip around the rest of the league and review an always zany opening day of free agency, the Saints would agree. The Raiders? Not so much.
Byrd is the richest man in the world
That’s possibly a slight exaggeration. But Jairus Byrd definitely the richest safety in the league now in terms of average annual salary after the Saints gave him a six-year contract worth $54 million. Jaws around the league descended further when it was announced that Byrd is getting $28 million in guaranteed money, a whooping $6 million more than what Dashon Goldson was granted last spring.
And just like that the Saints have the best safety tandem in the league between last year’s first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro and Byrd, who has 22 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles over 73 career games. Combine that with a front seven that put a quarterback in the dirt/turf/concrete(?) 49 times this past season, and Rob Ryan will be having a lot of celebratory Hooters beers.
Verner is rich too, just less rich
In the final sign that Darrelle Revis will soon be former Buccaneers cornerback Darrelle Revis, Tampa signed Alterraun Verner to a four-year contract worth $26.5 million with $14 million guaranteed. That averages out to $6.6 million annually, which is substantially lower than the price awarded to Talib and Shields. It’s a surprising steal for a cornerback who won’t even turn 26 until near the end of next season, and he just had a breakout year with five interceptions and 22 passes defensed.
Verner joins fellow new signee and promising youngster Michael Johnson, the now former Bengal who became the fourth highest-paid defensive end when he was given a five-year contract worth $43.75 million. It’s a hefty deal, but $8.75 million annually is very much the going rate for an end who’s entering his prime after turning 27 last month. Johnson will pair with Adrian Clayborn to boost a pass rush that recorded only 35 sacks in 2013.
The Colts love spending that sweet cash
After Grimes, Talib, and Shields were paidddddd Verner was the exception. Then because they’re the Colts and aggressive overpaying is their thing, Indianapolis gave Vontae Davis $20 million in guaranteed bills on a four-year contract that pays $39 million overall. It’s a mountainous number for Davis which presumably comes from the fact that powers high above blessed him with height (he’s pushing 6’0″), and taller cornerbacks are trendy.
He received $4 million more in guaranteed money than Grimes, $6 million more than Verner, and $7.5 million more than Shields. Talib’s guaranteed money is absurd too, but far more easily justifiable given his youth and 2013 play. The language of money here communicates desperation. The Colts were understandably terrified of losing Davis and having no fallback option in what’s becoming a quickly barren cornerback market. So Jim Irsay thew money at his problem and Davis gladly accepted.
The Colts also re-signed Ahmad Bradshaw to show the world that the first-round pick to land Trent Richardson was so worth it, and Arthur Jones was brought in to add some youth to a pass rush that had 42 sacks last year. The Chuck Pagano pipeline from Baltimore to Indy is alive and well.
Meanwhile, in Cleveland
The Browns entered yesterday with the third most salary cap space, and they quickly signed Karlos Dansby and Donte Whinter to replace T.J. Ward and D’Qwell Jackson. They’re both upgrades, and despite his age (32) Dansby is still solid against the run with at least 120 tackles over each of the past two seasons, and 6.5 sacks in 2013. Predictably, though, they were willing to overpay for Dansby with a contract that gives him $14 million guaranteed, and of the $24 million overall he signed on for over the next four years, $10 million arrives in his pocket in Year 1. Remember those numbers when you read about Dansby getting cut two years from now.
Whitner was given $2 million less annually than Byrd ($24 million over four years). Soon the Browns could have a secondary with Whitner, Joe Haden, and Darrelle Revis, so they might allow about eight completions all year.
Those crazy Browns also offer sheeted Andrew Hawkins, a fine young receiver who’s shown flashes of brilliance in the past and has a lot of Wes Welker after-the-catch ability in his game. But alas, the Bengals matched a four-year offer worth $12.2 million.
Let’s embrace the factory of sadness just once more, because this may be the very last time we can do that.
In San Francisco Antonie Bethea was signed to replace Whitner. Although he’s a downgrade and doesn’t have nearly the snot-rocking capability, he’ll pair nicely with Eric Reid.
What the hell are the Raiders doing?
Despite having the most cap space in the league with over $60 million they didn’t keep Jared Veldheer (gone to Houston for five years at $35 million) or LaMarr Houston (who replaced the old and cut Julius Peppers in Chicago, also for five years at $35 million). At 26 years old they’re two young and soon-to-be premier talents at their positions, and Oakland also allowed Rashad Jennings to walk and sign with the Giants after he sizzled last year.
Jennings was especially steaming during a four-game stretch between weeks 9 and 12 when he accounted for 553 total yards. With only 484 career touches at the age of 28, Jennings doesn’t at all meet your classic definition of the artifact running back. Instead he could fall more in line with the LaMont Jordan, Michael Turner, or Fred Jackson late career boom model.
Rashad Jennings averaged 2.8 Yards After Contact Per Attempt last season, 6th best of any RB (min. 100 rushes).
— Pete Damilatis (@PFF_Pete) March 11, 2014
Rashad Jennings had 53 yards on halfback screens last season. The entire Giants offense had 42.
— Pete Damilatis (@PFF_Pete) March 11, 2014
Yet the Raides kept Darren McFadden and overpaid drastically for tackle Rodger Saffold, who for reasons only Reggie McKenzie understands was worth $42.5 million and $21 million guaranteed. To compare, Eugene Monroe was the top left tackle available, and he was re-signed by the Ravens to a contract with $19 million guaranteed, and significantly less overall at $37.5 million. Then there’s the $17 million guaranteed given to Veldheer.
In fairness, though, they did bring McFadden back for the proverbial bag of bruised footballs, with a contract that’s technically worth $4 million but will really pay $1.75.
Ryan Tannehill will hurt less now, but for a massive price
No worries, Raiders, because the Dolphins are here to share your shame. They signed Branden Albert to a ridiculous contract with $25 million guaranteed ($46 million overall throughout five years). That’s a big gulp for a tackle who’s somewhere between very good and great, though not tremendous by any stretch, and he’s missed seven games over the past two years with a toe injury.
It was surely viewed as a necessary overpay after Ryan Tannehill was planted 58 times last year, and especially after the rotting decay that is the Miami locker room resulted in the exit of Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. The latter is now in San Francisco where he’ll be greeted by the warm and comforting hands of his former Stanford kin.
The Falcons weren’t screwing around
Atlanta’s 2013 season was mostly decimated by injuries to Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Steven Jackson. But even if those three had been healthy few good things would have come from play on both sides of the trenches that was severely lacking. The Falcons sacked a quarterback only 32 times while allowing 44. Not good.
Right away GM Thomas Dimitroff went pew pew pew pew, signing Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson for some much needed defensive line beef, and guard Asamoah. A safety was considered to replace Thomas DeCoud after he was cut, but like most of the league Dimitroff balked at the prices tags attached to Byrd and Whitner.
Redskins get more speed at wide receiver
And they also kept going with the lack of size thing.
While other highly-coveted positions like tackle and cornerback were quickly picked dry, Andre Roberts was the only notable wide receiver to sign on Day 1. Landing in Washington on a four-year deal worth a very affordable $16 million, Roberts now complements Pierre Garcon and provides another speed option that can create after the catch for Robert Griffin III.