When the NFL market opened at 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday, 10 players stood out above the rest in NFL.com's free-agent rankings. Less than 24 hours later, that talent pool had run dry. Here is that initial top 10, with updated contract details:
3) Michael Johnson, defensive end: Reportedly five years, $43.75 million ($24 million guaranteed) with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
6) Jared Veldheer, offensive tackle: Five years, $37.5 million ($17 million guaranteed) with the Arizona Cardinals.
8) Alterraun Verner, cornerback: Four years, $26.5 million ($14 million guaranteed) with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Taking everything into consideration (position, age, salary, team fit), which one of those players will provide the most bang for the buck?
Verner's a fantastic bargain -- and perfect fit -- for Tampa BayThe Alterraun Verner deal is the best value in free agency. He is an ideal fit for the Cover 2 scheme Lovie Smith will implement in Tampa Bay. Although I was intrigued by the prospect of seeing Darrelle Revis play in a system predicated on pressure from the front four, I believe Verner is a good fit and better bargain for the Buccaneers. Still just 25, Verner is young and athletic enough to grow into a top-five player at the position.
Ravens wise to lock up young, talented MonroeAlex Mack is the best player in this group, but $10 million for a center does not equate. I will go with Eugene Monroe, given his age (turns 27 in April), money (average of $7.5 million per season) and position (left tackle). He is healthy and I believe he'll continue to improve for Baltimore, especially in the system of new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak.
Cardinals finally fill gaping hole -- at a reasonable price, to boot!Last year, the Arizona Cardinals narrowly missed the playoffs while getting league-average play out of Carson Palmer. After watching a trio of quarterbacks sail passes over Larry Fitzgerald's head and into the dirt in 2012, Palmer was a savior. There's a similar situation at left tackle now that Jared Veldheer has signed a reasonable five-year, $37.5 million contract.
The Cardinals' blind side has been so dire for so long that Veldheer will be a monstrous upgrade even if he bottoms out at league average. If he reaches his Pro Bowl potential, Bruce Arians' squad is a serious threat to the Seahawks and 49ers.
Talib didn't come cheap, but Denver's all-inI like one of the richer signings, even for value. Having just turned 28, Aqib Talib is young enough that he can play at a high level for years to come. Denver has needed a spry defensive back who competes -- who contests every pass -- for quite some time now. Not to mention, Talib seems to have matured, which is crucial, considering the off-field issues that marred his time in Tampa Bay.
No, Talib obviously would not have reversed the outcome of Super Bowl XLVIII had he been a Bronco, but last season's last season. Let's look forward. The Broncos certainly are, adding Talib, safety T.J. Ward and pass rusher DeMarcus Ware in the first 24 hours of free agency. If the Broncos win it all, who will argue that Talib's $57 million deal was too pricey? Bold stroke by John Elway and company.
Veldheer could be the piece that pushes Arizona into the playoffsIt gives me no pleasure to use an offensive lineman as my answer. I'm not trying to prove I have a deeper understanding of pro football by naming an under-the-radar guy at a decidedly unsexy position. (I freely admit to having zero skill in assessing which 300-pound men lean most effectively on other 300-pound men.)
In spite of those caveats, Hillsdale College alum Jared Veldheer -- late of the Raiders, new to the Cardinals -- just might prove to be the missing piece for Bruce Arians' already upwardly mobile team. Remember, Arizona is the last team to beat the world-champion Seahawks ... and the ONLY team to ever beat Russell Wilson in the C-Link. Also, the Cards have a dynamite defense (in spite of the loss of Karlos Dansby), a nifty young runner in Andre Ellington, Hall of Fame-bound Larry Fitzgerald, emerging WR2 Michael Floyd and a generally improved offensive line (an especially important detail for a team whose QB is as mobile as a cactus).
On a lousy Raiders team, Veldheer was considered a bright spot by experts who possess the aforementioned elusive talent of breaking down quality O-line play on tape. If he can help buy Carson Palmer an extra half-second in the pocket, the Cardinals have a great shot at playing in January.
Byrd/Vaccaro safety tandem will be a force in New OrleansThe best and most impactful move is Jairus Byrd to New Orleans. That was the true "wow" moment of free agency. Nobody, myself included, pegged New Orleans as the landing spot for the player I think was "the best available" at the start of free agency.
Byrd is a star. And the new Byrd/Kenny Vaccaro safety tandem will be incredible, especially in Rob Ryan's defense. It's a game changer for the Saints' defense.