Once again, the beginning of a new league year triggered a flurry of activity. The opening of the free agency market at 4 p.m. ET Tuesday was swiftly followed by a series of noteworthy signings (including the Miami Dolphins inking Branden Albert and the Chicago Bears locking up Lamarr Houston) and re-signings (Baltimore Ravens retaining Eugene Monroe; Indianapolis Colts hanging on to Vontae Davis).
What stood out to you in the afternoon's early wave of free agency deals?
Mad dash for offensive tackles shouldn't surprise anyoneWe saw a quick run on offensive tackles, but given some of the teams involved, this was predictable. The Ravens re-signed Eugene Monroe, the Dolphins landed Branden Albert and the Cardinals snagged Jared Veldheer. What do these three teams have in common? They all hold picks in the bottom half of May's draft -- Baltimore at 17, Miami at 19 and Arizona at 20 -- so they won't have a chance at one of the top three tackle prospects. Thus, all three addressed the need in free agency.
Another notable development: Atlanta got decidedly better along the defensive line, adding a pair of big, physical specimens in Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai. This significantly improves a run defense that ranked 31st last season. Also, the Falcons re-signed DT Jonathan Babineaux, an underrated pass rusher who provides great disruption from the inside.
Browns open free agency with some questionable spendingDonte Whitner's contract with the Cleveland Browns stood out. Per season, they're giving Whitner more money ($7 million) than T.J. Ward reportedly will receive from the Broncos ($5.75 million per year). Whitner's strengths (big hitting) and shortcomings (coverage) mirror the skill set of Ward, whom the Browns allowed to walk. It's not a great sign that the Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers both let Whitner depart in free agency.
The Browns also got older at inside linebacker with Karlos Dansby, paying a 32-year-old too much money after a career season.
This is how you lose at free agency.
Niners do well in replacing Whitner with BetheaIt might not have received the initial attention that some of the other signings demanded, but the San Francisco 49ers' addition of Antoine Bethea was a solid solution to the hole left by Donte Whitner's departure. Bethea is cheaper than Whitner -- albeit just slightly -- but he still brings a similar level of intensity and physicality to the 49ers' back half.
Bethea wasn't particularly sharp in pass coverage last season, but he is a solid starter who allows San Francisco to move on from Whitner without skipping a beat.
Bears make a splash, but was it the right move?Lamarr Houston signing with the Chicago Bears is an interesting development to say the least. Chicago made quite the splash back in 2010 by signing Julius Peppers. But with Peppers' game slowing down, bringing on a guy like Houston seemed to make sense -- so the Bears subtracted the former and added the latter. But I have two questions about this signing:
1) Why were the Raiders, who have the most cap room in the league, so willing to let Houston walk?
2) Where is Houston going to play in the Bears' 4-3? On the end? Well, at 300 pounds, his build is more interior defensive lineman than edge rusher.
OK, so he might be versatile enough to play inside and outside. Either way, the Bears got all of 31 sacks last season (last in the NFL). Houston set a career high with six -- that's not exactly a huge number. Fifteen million dollars guaranteed is some good coin for a guy who doesn't seem to be a 10-sack threat.
Thomas Dimitroff's approach in Atlanta merits praiseWe're adrift in transactions, but I'm impressed right away with the early handiwork of Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff. After re-signing Jonathan Babineaux, Atlanta added two solid pieces in nose tackle Paul Soliai and pass rusher Tyson Jackson. I especially like Soliai, a scheme-versatile interior lineman and a proven run-plugger.
On offense, the Falcons wisely struck a deal with Jon Asamoah, our top-ranked free-agent guard.
Both Falcons lines were a comprehensive train wreck least season. Dimitroff's commitment to rebuilding this team from the trenches on out tells me Atlanta has its priorities in order.
Is anyone in the market for wide receivers?The most striking thing about the opening wave of free agency might have been the complete lack of a market for notable receivers. This is a shallow pool anyway, headlined by Hakeem Nicks, coming off injuries and a strange season with the New York Giants, and Eric Decker, a No. 2 receiver who might command No. 1 money. But when free agency opened, there were no deals in place for either one of them -- a further indication of how depressed the wide receiver market is. Right now, the big-money contracts are being thrown around to cornerbacks and linemen.
One thing that doesn't help these receivers: The college draft class is exceptionally deep at wideout this year, so teams in need could choose to forego the expensive free agent to mine a cheap, young player.
Falcons wisely toughen up in the trenchesOne thing stood out: The Atlanta Falcons' commitment to fortifying their offensive and defensive lines. The Dirty Birds were regarded as a "soft" team in 2013 due to their inability to win in the trenches on either side of the ball. Thomas Dimitroff has set out to change that perception by adding big bodies on both lines. With Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson joining a re-signed Jonathan Babineaux, the Falcons have the essential ingredients to play coordinator Mike Nolan's preferred version of defense (3-4). On offense, Jon Asamoah gives the Falcons the girth needed to establish a dominant running game in the NFC South.
Given the success of heavyweight defenses and powerful running games in the NFC, the Falcons' decision to remake their team in blue-collar fashion gives them a chance to compete for a spot in the postseason.
Reggie McKenzie's game plan in Oakland remains confoundingOakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie continues to leave me scratching my head. With precious few talented, young building blocks on his roster, he allowed Jared Veldheer and Lamarr Houston to hit the open market. After low-balling Veldheer, he overpaid for Rodger Saffold -- a passable, injury-prone tackle viewed by his former team as best-suited to guard.
Faced with a mandate to start winning and stop making excuses, McKenzie is sticking to his guns -- which have consistently misfired since he left Green Bay in January of 2012.