For the first time, the NFL moved the opening of free agency to 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday, rather than at midnight. Yeah ... I don't think it's going back to midnight. On the heels of a three-day anti-tampering period that set everything up, we saw a whirlwind of action. Beginning with the Chicago Bears' signing of tight end Martellus Bennett, it was off to the races.
What stood out over the past few days? Here are five things:
1) Has the value of star cornerbacks plummeted?
Before the start of free agency, the thought was that it was a deep class of cornerbacks. Sean Smith, Aqib Talib, Keenan Lewis and on and on. Strangely, when free agency actually opened, what awaited them was mostly silence. Smith waited two days before inking a three-year, $18 million deal with the suddenly active Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday. And he was the top guy. Keenan Lewis, a similarly accomplished player, signed a five-year, $26 million deal with the New Orleans Saints. Solid deals in a tough market with a flat cap, to be sure. But last year, Eric Wright, Cortland Finnegan and Brandon Carr were taking home between $7.6 million and $10 million per year. This year, it was back to the 2004 market for cornerbacks, when teams wanted them to take between $3 million and $5 million.
So, what changed? Perhaps it's the preponderance of spread offenses. How valuable is one star CB now when teams can spread the field with three and four receivers and simply throw away from a shutdown corner? How essential is a shutdown corner when teams like the Patriots, now the St. Louis Rams and others feature tight ends instead? This all undoubtedly leads to a grumpy Darrelle Revis, who is hoping for a new deal.
2) Is there anything more costly than missing on a quarterback?
No team needs to be reminded of this, because the ones that don't have a quarterback are reminded on a daily basis. Like the Arizona Cardinals, who cut Kevin Kolb on Friday. And like the Kansas City Chiefs, who paid a hefty price for Alex Smith, and then paid nearly as hefty a price for a promising backup in Chase Daniel. Any surprise both teams are rebuilding with new coaches? No. Look at the price of backup quarterbacks around the league. The Minnesota Vikings, who hope Christian Ponder is the team's future, signed Matt Cassel at the cost of $3.7 million over one year.
All of this leads me to believe that, once again, quarterbacks will be overdrafted in April. And it also makes me think the Philadelphia Eagles are quite serious about finding out whether West Virginia's Geno Smith is right for them. With the fourth pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, the Eagles should take him if they believe he's good enough. If they're right, they are set for four years, regardless of other quarterbacks on the roster. If they are wrong, the cost is a little more than $4 million per season (average annual salary of the No. 4 pick) -- compared to $3.7 million for Cassel ... as a backup!
3) When will the New England Patriots stop surprising us?
The Patriots not only believe no one player is bigger than the system, they prove it year after year. They set a price for Wes Welker before free agency. And when the slot receiver felt he was worth more, they wiped their hands and moved on to Danny Amendola with conviction. And for some reason, this surprised us. Why? They've done it for years. In the same year that Bill Belichick cut star safety and leader Lawyer Milloy, they won the Super Bowl. In the same year they traded Randy Moss, they went 14-2. They are always in rebuilding mode, which means rarely overvaluing their players and constantly looking to get younger. Sure, Amendola hasn't had the production that Welker had in New England. But before he arrived in New England, Welker hadn't either. He entered the system and became the receiver we see him as today. The hope is that Amendola, another Texas Tech receiver, follows suit.
When Tom Brady signed a team-friendly extension that gave the team salary-cap room, I was told it was correct to link that space with a possible Welker deal. Yet that didn't mean the Pats would cave to demands and abandon their principles for a position they do not value as highly as Welker did. Instead, they'll spend much of it on their own guys -- likely offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer and Talib, while looking to lock up veterans like Dwight Freeney, John Abraham and Adrian Wilson. Same theory with the Baltimore Ravens, who watched several stars exit, but believe in their system.
4) The Oakland Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars are starting anew
While some teams restock by paying big for promise, others are starting over. I'm looking at you, Raiders and Jaguars. Both teams essentially remained silent as some of their big-time players walked. For the Jags, it was cutting receiver Laurent Robinson and allowing corner Derek Cox to hit the market. For the Raiders, it was seeing defensive tackle Desmond Bryant and linebacker Philip Wheeler wave goodbye. Both Bryant and Wheeler are very good players, but the Raiders didn't deem them valuable enough to keep. Why? Both franchises are wiping the slate clean and starting over. They seem fine letting their players go. It's one reason why I won't be surprised if (when?) Oakland cuts Carson Palmer.
Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie and Jaguars GM David Caldwell are taking over similar rebuilding projections with rosters that need youth, talent and value. Why waste money signing a few of your own guys when all it'll do is take you from league doormat to league doormat light? Why scramble for high-priced talent when it's the base of the roster -- the middle class -- that needs work? Probably not what either fan base wants to hear. But both men in charge have a clear understanding of where they are in the remodeling process.
5) The Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins get better, but how much?
With all due respect to the Chiefs, the big splashes in free agency were created by the Browns and the Dolphins. Cleveland locked up one of the most Cleveland-ish players ever in Paul Kruger, along with the active Desmond Bryant. The Dolphins not only signed free-agent jewel Mike Wallace, but also remade their linebacker corps with the surprise grab of Dannell Ellerbe and the addition of Wheeler. And yet ... in my mind, it's not time to cartwheels just yet.
This haul will make the Browns better, but they still have questions at quarterback, receiver and cornerback. Will those be fixed in the draft? Not all of them. Improved coaching will help, but how much? And for the Dolphins, Wallace's effect on that offense will be fun to watch. But at linebacker, all Miami did was change out some older linebackers for some similar, highly priced but younger linebackers. Nice, but not game-changing. The Fins still need some running back help, they'll need to cover and must be able to stop tight ends in that division. I'd even argue that the Indianapolis Colts, who moved smartly and stealthily, might have done as well as both these teams. Let's hold off crowning each just yet.
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