Free Agency  

 

Michael Turner, Peyton Manning among recent free agency hits

Associated Press
Brett Favre, Michael Turner and Peyton Manning (from left to right) were big-time free agency prizes in years past.

Let the feeding frenzy begin.

Free agency starts Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET, and you can be sure that the ensuing 48 hours of NFL news will be all about new faces in new places.

Need an overpriced left tackle who might (or might not) be as good as publicized? He's out there. How about an athletic linebacker who has pass-rushing ability but no skins on the wall (i.e., he's got a handful of starts to his name)? Yep, he's in the marketplace, as well. A running back who has already seen his best NFL carry? You bet he's available. As a matter of fact, the guy we're thinking of also resides on the list of the best free-agent acquisitions of recent vintage.

The league's version of the open market has been around for two decades; we delved into its legacy last week. But what about the past five years?

My esteemed editor says history doesn't play well on our site because of all of our younger readers. OK, OK. Well, you'll find a recent history lesson here -- the top free-agent acquisitions of the past half-decade. Call it a list you can get behind, whether you just bombed the SAT or are listening to Coldplay's Live from Budapest in your dorm room.

The following are the 10 (actually, 11) best and smartest free-agent pickups since 2008, listed with the year in which the signing took place. These are the signees who were productive, provided bang for the buck and, most importantly, made a difference. Feel free to share your thoughts at the usual dropbox @Harrison_NFL.

We start with the most recent offseason...

T-10) Vincent Jackson, WR, 2012

A.J. Smith didn't want him. In fact, the former San Diego Chargers general manager seemed pretty chillaxed about letting Jackson walk last spring. Smart move -- except not at all. While Eddie Royal gave the Chargers nothing and Robert Meachem reprised his role as someone who could be productive in spurts (of which there were painfully few in San Diego), Jackson flourished with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. V-Jax made his $55 million contract a bargain with 72 catches for 1,384 yards and eight touchdowns.

Here's the main reason Jackson makes the grade: How many free-agent wideouts falter miserably? Javon Walker, Jerry Porter, Laurent Robinson and David Boston come to mind.

T-10) Johnathan Joseph, CB, 2011

Joseph very quietly has put together back-to-back quality seasons with the Houston Texans since signing a free-agent deal in 2011. Named to the past two Pro Bowls, the former Cincinnati Bengals cornerback played a principal role in the revival of the Texans' pass defense, which went from dead last in 2010 to third overall the following season -- Joseph's first in Houston.

9) Cedric Benson, RB, 2008

It's funny, most fans don't think of Benson as a premium running back. Yet, the former Chicago Bears bust became one of the linchpins of a Cincinnati Bengals team that made the playoffs in two of his four seasons there. After joining the team four weeks deep in the 2008 campaign, Benson rushed for a respectable 747 yards, then went on to gain more than 1,000 yards in each of the next three years. The former Texas standout put up 4,176 rushing yards from 2008 to 2011, fourth-most in the AFC over that time.

He's been better than you think, and represented a fantastic deal for a relatively modest initial investment of $520,000 five years ago. Even his second contract was worth just $7 million for two years.

8) Asante Samuel, CB, 2008

Samuel is another player who, like Benson, inspires varying opinions among fans and league observers. So, what's the verdict? In four seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, Samuel picked off 23 passes and was named to three Pro Bowl teams. Love him or don't, those results are tough to argue against. Yes, he gets caught peeking in the backfield at times and isn't a force against the run, but he gave the Eagles a lot in the way of quality play.

He did, of course, cost the Eagles approximately $9 million per year, but considering the dearth of playmaking corners in the league -- and considering that Samuel's 23 picks were tied for the second-most in the NFL from 2008 to 2011 -- the overall body of work makes him worthy of inclusion on this list.

7) Matt Birk, C, 2009

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Surprised to see a center on these rankings? Don't be. In four years with the Baltimore Ravens, Birk maintained a relatively high level of play while making all the line calls. Moreover (there's an SAT word, for those interested readers), Birk's famous work ethic and attitude made their mark, as well. "His leadership on and off the field was outstanding," Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome said after Birk announced his retirement earlier this year. "We could go to young players and say, 'Do what Matt does, and you'll succeed. Watch him and follow him.' "

Not bad for an initial three-year, $12 million investment (Birk re-upped for one season before bowing out this offseason).

6) Brett Favre, QB, 2009

The impetus to place Favre higher in the pantheon of free-agent signings was strong, but the reality is that his poor 2010 campaign knocked him down a notch. Nonetheless, the Minnesota Vikings' acquisition of Favre in 2009 was more than worth the $12 million price tag. Favre threw 33 touchdown passes and just seven interceptions while taking the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game. Minnesota had been a playoff team in 2008, but the Favre-led outfit was capable of beating anyone in the league in '09. Ultimately, the Vikings fell to the eventual Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints in that NFC title matchup.

5) Peyton Manning, QB, 2012

With apologies to Jackson, Cortland Finnegan and Brandon Carr, Peyton Manning was THE free agent last offseason. His story is well-documented. What might not be as known is the insane level of prep work he put in to come back, including simulating the 2009 AFC Championship Game -- along with all the audibles -- at Duke's indoor practice facility. Considering Manning's dedication, it shouldn't be a surprise that the four-time MVP had one of his best campaigns ever in leading the Denver Broncos to a 13-3 record last season.

Perhaps the most impressive stat of 2012 was Manning's ability to burn the blitz, posting a passer rating of better than 100 in those situations despite not taking a single snap in the 2011 campaign. The man is a machine, and considering the doctoral-level education he's giving young players like Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, he'll be worth every penny of his five-year, $96 million dollar deal.

Unfortunately -- and ironically -- Mannings' magical campaign ended the same way Favre's '09 season did: with a postseason interception.

4) Julius Peppers, DE, 2010

It was a big deal when Julius Peppers, Chester Taylor and Brandon Manumaleuna all signed with the Chicago Bears in 2010. That's because of Peppers. The other two signees flamed out, but Peppers absolutely dominated, becoming the most important component of a team that went on to the NFC Championship Game.

The athletic defensive end has amassed 30.5 sacks, 50.5 knockdowns and 48 hurries in three seasons with the Bears. Simply put, the Bears are a different defense with him involved. The year before Peppers arrived, Chicago was tied for 21st in points allowed. The Bears have finished in the top five in that category twice since.

3) Justin Smith, DT, 2008

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Smith over Favre and Manning? Yes -- on this list, at least. Smith has given the San Francisco 49ers five seasons of outstanding play, being named to the past four Pro Bowls. He signed a six-year, $45 million deal in 2008 and, thus far, has more than held up his end of the bargain. Smith's ability to be disruptive and command multiple blockers consistently allows his teammates to wreak havoc. Case in point? Aldon Smith finished last season with 19.5 sacks -- but he didn't record a single one after Justin Smith hurt his triceps in Week 15.

2) Darren Sharper, S, 2009

It would be difficult to find a better example of a team getting value out of its available cap room than what the New Orleans Saints did with Darren Sharper in 2009. The veteran safety signed a one-year, $1.2 million deal ... then went out and played like a man worth $10 million. Sharper was a certifiable ballhawk, picking off nine passes and returning three for touchdowns. He set an NFL record with 376 yards on interception returns in the process -- that's almost 43 yards per run-back! Better yet, he was the final ingredient -- the playmaker -- coach Sean Payton needed on defense to capitalize on the fact that opponents consistently had to play catch-up against New Orleans' high-powered offense.

1) Michael Turner, RB, 2008

Mull over the names above. Think about some of the guys who didn't make the cut. Then look at Turner's numbers and tell me he doesn't represent the smartest use of free agency money since 2008. That was the year Turner signed a six-year, $34.5 million deal with the Atlanta Falcons, and boy, did he deliver. While quarterback Matt Ryan and coach Mike Smith received the bulk of the credit for the Falcons' evolution from doormat to 11-5 contenders in one year, the numbers tell a different story.

In that 2008 season, Atlanta was 0-5 in games when Ryan attempted more than 30 throws. That alone tells you the immense importance of the run game (and Turner's 1,699 rushing yards). Turner didn't stop there. In five seasons, he rushed for 6,081 yards and 60 touchdowns, despite missing eight starts. Three times, he logged more than 300 carries, taking the load off Ryan's shoulders while sometimes carrying the offense by himself.

Turner finally slowed down last season at age 30 and, ironically enough, finds himself on the free-agent market once again. Will a club take a chance on him?

Just missed the cut: Vonta Leach, RB; Antonio Cromartie, CB; Darren Sproles, RB; Donte Whitner, S; Jason Babin, DE; Cortland Finnegan, CB; Brandon Carr, CB; Calvin Pace, LB; Reggie Nelson, S; Stephen Tulloch, LB; Antrel Rolle, S; Matt Hasselbeck, QB; Randy Starks, DT; Rob Ninkovich, DE.

Using free agency wisely is about filling glaring (or soon-to-be-glaring) holes without overextending fiscal reserves or handicapping other positions. It's a challenge for general managers, matching dollars to players, players to systems, investments to concrete results. Guys like Turner, Sharper and Smith are Exhibits A, B and C if you're looking for examples of what can happen when GMs manage all those factors well. Let's hope some of the signings that come out of this year's gold rush produce similar results.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL.

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