While you were living life this weekend, NFL general managers kept busy throwing money at their problems. So consider this the Monday morning catchup version of the free agency digest, and let’s dive into the main questions arising from the weekend that was.
Which Hakeem Nicks are the Colts getting?
The impact of this question was significantly softened when Hakeem Nicks signed with the Indianapolis on a deal worth the NFL equivalent of several pennies: one year at $3.5 million. It’s the proverbial “prove it” deal, one usually given to a player coming off a major injury. For example, Jeremy Maclin actually insisted on a short-term contract with the Eagles, betting on himself after an ACL tear so he can hit the open market a year from now after showing his knee is just fine thanks. A year ago Brent Grimes placed the same bet before having a Pro Bowl season and being rewarded with a $35 million contract.
Nicks doesn’t have to prove his body is up to the task. He has to prove he cares.
He slogged through injuries of his own, notably knee and foot problems that zapped his speed and separation, leading to a career low 692 receiving yards in 2012. He only turned up on the injury report 13 times that season, leading to shrugs when trying to assess what the hell went wrong. The answer was simple and he’d be able to rebound just fine, or so we thought.
Nope. Nicks completed his bottoming out with zero touchdown catches this past season after having 11 during his sophomore season back in 2010, and he did that while compiling fines for being late to team meetings and skipping treatment sessions. His ability to care seemed to vanish, which is why his hiring price was expectedly low.
But even though it feels like he’s been in our lives for much, much longer, Nicks is still only 26. That means he remains four years shy of a time when we usually start talking about wide receivers reaching their plateau. What Colts general manager Ryan Grigson has in Nicks then is either the bargain of this free agency period if he gets 2010 or 2011 Nicks (the guy who had a combined 2,244 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns over two years) to split outside opposite Reggie Wayne with T.Y. Hilton in the slot, or a no-cost flop, and an experiment he can rip the cord from in a year.
Julius Peppers = John Abraham?
When DeMarcus Ware first became available for hire, I made the comparison to John Abraham last year. Abraham was a little older (34) when he was cut by the Falcons, but like Ware he was coming off a highly combustable season when he suffered an ankle injury and wasn’t at all himself afterwards. In the first year of a two-year deal, at the low, low price of only $4.6 million, Abraham recorded 11.5 sacks with controlled snaps in a situational pass rusher role. Abuse to his aging body was minimized, while his remaining speed — of which there’s still plenty — was maximized.
But since the market was still sizzling enough for the soon-to-be 32-year-old Ware and he was given $20 million guaranteed by the Broncos, the Abraham comparison may be far more appropriate for Julius Peppers.
Peppers just signed a three-year deal worth $30 million with the Packers, the hated rival of his now former employer. I feel filthy for even telling you those overall terms, though, because they’re a lie. In reality it’s a one-year deal with $7.5 million, with essentially two option years, if you will. That’s how much guaranteed money Peppers was given, and if the Packers are still satisfied after one year and think a then 35-year-old pass rusher can still contribute, he’ll stay on the roster. But cutting him will cost little.
Peppers no longer has the great edge burst which led to 14.5 sacks in his younger days. He is but another soldier fighting time, a battle we all lose eventually. Used in a situational pass rushing role to preserve whatever snap quickness remains, Peppers could easily go all Abraham while adding another scary and large element to a front seven that brought an opposing quarterback down 44 times in 2013.
Can we live in a world where Ben Tate isn’t broken?
The devaluing of running backs has long reached the point where scraps can be had in free agency, and they can be another man’s precious gold. But this year that was taken to a new level when when the top running back available was still unsigned until Day 5.
As was expected the moment it became clear Ben Tate wouldn’t be retained by the Texans, he landed in Cleveland on a meager two-year deal worth $7 million. Although the commitment was longer, the yearly average is nearly identical to the contract given to Reggie Bush a year ago (four years, $16 million).
That reflects poorly on Bush and the Lions now, because although his injury history is concerning (he missed eight games over three seasons) Tate has faced far less pummeling. Still ripe at 25 years old after being preserved in largely a backup role behind Arian Foster, Tate has only 479 career touches to Bush’s 1,616. Most impressively, despite playing only about half the snaps of the top running backs this past season, Tate forced 41 missed tackles according to Mike Clay, which tied him with Jamaal Charles. Put his bulk and downhill speed in a Kyle Shanahan offense (the man who gave us Alfred Morris), and great things could be coming.
This is a potential steal for the Browns for that reason. They’ve purchased two of Tate’s prime years, and they did it for less than the cost of a then 28-year-old running back a year ago. Of course, health is the massive looming buzzkill here for a running back who could be the last piece needed on a youthful offense about to bring in a rookie quarterback. Tate finished 2013 on the injured reserved with a rib problem, and he was severely limited in 2012 with hamstring and foot ailments.
That’s the risk. But just as the Packers did with Peppers and his age-induced decay, it’s one minimized by a dollar figured, and the additional backfield support Cleveland will surely seek with their 10 draft picks, five of which are in the first three rounds.
Will Emmanuel Sanders be a younger, faster Welker?
After a kerfuffle over a verbal agreement with the Chiefs that was apparently, well, just a verbal agreement, Emmanuel Sanders agreed to a three-year contract with the Denver Broncos worth $15 million. Only $6 million is guaranteed, making this another shrewd deal by John Elway, who this time purchased prime years with little damage.
What’s appealing about Sanders is his versatility, especially for a Denver offense that will eventually need to replace Wes Welker. Sanders will be the Eric Decker replacement, a role he fills for $9 million less in guaranteed money. At worst he’s Decker’s equal, as Sanders’ lack of height by comparison is compensated for with far more speed. On 20 fewer receptions in 2013 Sanders had 12 catches for 20 yards or more to Decker’s 19.
That speed will likely be utilized out wide, but Sanders can shift inside to play the slot too, which is where he spent about 15 percent of his snaps in Pittsburgh last season. When lined up in the slot Sanders accumulated 155 of his 740 total receiving yards, and caught two of his six touchdowns. He can be Decker or Welker, and Demaryius Thomas can keep being Demaryius Thomas.
Between this signing and the Patriots both re-upping Julian Edelman (not surprising in the least) while adding even more receiving depth with Brandon LaFell, the fierce AFC money-chucking battle between Denver and New England continues.