Free Agency  

 

NFL free agency: Raiders' woes continue; Broncos, Patriots all-in

Let's start with a disclaimer: Remember Philadelphia's dream team. Vince Young's catchy nickname for the 2011 Eagles caught on in a way that the team's haul of free agents that year certainly never did. It still stands as a cautionary tale for those who invest too much hope in the giddy first-days-in-love promises that free agency inspires every year.

So while we won't label anybody a Super Bowl favorite after just three days of free agency -- with weeks more of signings and trades to come, followed by the draft, followed by camps, followed by the inevitable injuries -- it is not too early to identify those who did the best in the first wave and those who bungled it. These are the winners and losers who might look back at these very first offseason moves and recognize them as the beginning of something special -- or the beginning of the end.

THE BUNGLERS

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Oakland Raiders

Even by the generations-stretching standard of wackiness set by this franchise, Wednesday afternoon's developments were confounding. The Raiders first mystified the league by lavishing an outsized contract on Rodger Saffold with $21 million guaranteed. Then the team announced that Saffold, who played 12 games last year and passed the Rams' exit physical, had failed his physical with Oakland, voiding the deal. Was this a case of buyer's remorse? The Raiders have yet to address the matter, but the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Jim Thomas has an account, from the perspective of Saffold's agents, that includes this nugget: Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie "apologized profusely" to Saffold's agents after the offensive tackle was failed. No matter. It wasn't long before Saffold was striking a deal with his old team, the Rams -- who presumably knew more about his health than anybody else.

Whatever happened during that examination has left egg on the face of McKenzie and his free agency plan in shambles, especially since he let left tackle Jared Veldheer, who might have been the Raiders' best player, sign with the Arizona Cardinals. The amount that the Raiders have to overpay to lure free agents just went up.

High-priced veterans

The NFL is no place for old men, and a painful series of cuts underscored the fact that even legends get no protection. Champ Bailey, DeMarcus Ware, Julius Peppers and Steve Smith were all sent packing by their teams, who could no longer afford their big contracts as they inched toward their final years. Free agent Jared Allen, another veteran whose old team was no longer interested in him -- and who was high on the Broncos' wish list until he hesitated and Ware came loose -- even floated the idea that he could walk away from the game if the price he wants is not met.

Running backs and wide receivers

The market for these players was excruciatingly slow to develop as the money flowed to offensive tackles and the secondary. A clear signal was sent: Running backs simply are not valued and wear down too quickly, while only the best receivers will set off a frenzy. This will not be a one-year aberration; it's a trend. The top receiver available in a shallow group was Eric Decker, and he had to wait until very late on Day 2 to get a deal with the New York Jets. Hakeem Nicks, among others, remains on the market. How expendable are running backs? Darren McFadden (Raiders) and Ahmad Bradshaw (Colts) signed one-year contracts. And Toby Gerhart is set to make less over his three-year contract ($10.5 million) with the Jaguars than the 31-year-old Ware will make this season alone.

THE BEST

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Lovers of rivalries

Even if you're no fan of the Broncos or Patriots, you have to appreciate the arms race they are engaging in right now. With two aging quarterbacks and slowly closing championship windows, the Broncos and Patriots went about vacuuming up high-priced talent designed to get them the edge in the AFC. John Elway loaded up on defense in Denver, signing hard-hitting safety T.J. Ward, snagging Ware and swiping Aqib Talib from New England. How did the Patriots react? By getting a better (albeit only marginally so) cornerback for less money in Darrelle Revis. Yes, Revis might only be a one-year rental, and because he is a mercenary (something for which he should not apologize for at all), there is no guarantee he'll be with the Pats any longer than that. But for now, Bill Belichick has made his defense better even after losing one of its best players. The next round of this ongoing bit of hand-to-hand combat could center on receivers. Both teams need them, the Patriots much more so than the Broncos. Stay tuned.

Safeties

Follow the money and you'll see that safeties got a lot of it this week, the surest sign yet of the soaring importance of the position. Ward, Donte Whitner, Antoine Bethea, Mike Mitchell and Malcolm Jenkins all scored, but the stunner was Jairus Byrd getting $28 million guaranteed from the cap-strapped Saints. I wouldn't want to be the front office person who has to make New Orleans' cap numbers work. Still, you can't fault their personnel thinking. Pairing Byrd with Kenny Vaccaro gives the Saints a safety tandem nearly as fearsome as Seattle's, and we saw what Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor did to receivers who tried to go over the middle against the Seahawks last season. As teams play more man-to-man defense with one deep safety, that free safety is more important than ever. The Saints had to gut their roster in many spots, but it's going to be awfully hard to complete passes against them.

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Offensive tackles

Even when you discount the Saffold fiasco, his fellow linemen did well. This was another bow to the reality of how the game is played. If you can't protect the quarterback, you're not going anywhere. Which is why Branden Albert got the biggest contract of the bunch to be the new cornerstone of a Dolphins line that allowed Ryan Tannehill to be sacked a league-high 58 times last season -- and which was further decimated by the Martin-Incognito bullying scandal. Speaking of ...

Jonathan Martin

Martin was a big winner, being traded by the Dolphins to the San Francisco 49ers, where he'll be reunited with his college coach, Jim Harbaugh. It was difficult to envision many teams that would have been open to taking Martin, given what the Ted Wells investigation revealed about his own personal struggles and his relationships with teammates. San Francisco was one of the places that might've worked, and the Dolphins did right by Martin to send him there. Can he play? We'll find out, because he will compete for backup jobs at both tackle spots. The Dolphins did well here, too. There was no way Martin could return. Trading him closes at least one chapter in an incident that rocked the franchise, costing people jobs and reputations. It's going to take a lot longer for the Dolphins to recover, but this was a start.

Chip Kelly

The Eagles coach gets a new toy in Darren Sproles. And while that toy might not be very shiny anymore -- Sproles' production has begun to decline -- it's still a powerful one in terms of Sproles' ability as a receiver, running back and returner. Kelly, who might be close to matching Sean Payton's reputation as an offensive designer, could deploy Sproles in a limited role as running back LeSean McCoy's best buddy on an offense that also includes DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper and Brent Celek. Did you like the pinball offense on cleats that Kelly ran at Oregon? He might be getting closer to unleashing it with the dual-threat Sproles in the fold. This is not good news for the rest of the NFC East, which was already struggling to contain Philadelphia. And here is the best part: The fifth-round pick the Eagles used to acquire Sproles from New Orleans came to them last October when they shipped defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga to the Patriots -- where he proved to be such a poor fit that he was inactive over New England's final four games (including playoffs).

Which brings us full circle. The organization that gave us the dreaded "Dream Team" just made a move that could give it an offense that is, well, dreamy.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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