|Former Patriots corner Aqib Talib will be strutting his stuff for Denver after the Broncos signed him to a six-year deal|
Yesterday signaled the start of the new NFL year, which meant that it was also the date when players who were in the final year of their current contract’s hit the open market. The 22nd edition of the annual free agency bonanza didn’t disappoint in its opening act and according to Sports Illustrated’s Peter King over $1 billion was spent by the 32 NFL franchises on new talent for the upcoming season and beyond. While it’s far too early to predict which teams will make the most noise on the pitch later on in 2014 yesterday’s transactions certainly helped benefited some teams and players more than others, and here’s my pick of the winners and losers from day one of the NFL’s annual ‘musical chairs’ free agency shuffle.
Ware had a disappointing season in 2013, struggling to overcome various injuries as he failed to consistently rush the passer as he had in previous seasons. Yet with his ailments healed Ware remains one of the better outside linebackers in the NFL and should he rediscover his burst then whoever picks him up will have landed a bargain. It’s surprising that the Cowboys have opted to cut ties with the seven time pro bowler, who they selected 11th overall in the 2005 draft, yet with the team up against the salary cap ceiling Dallas clearly felt they couldn’t afford to keep the former Troy standout around any longer. Ware now has his choice of top tier teams, up to seven play-off teams from 2013 are rumoured to have got in touch with Ware since his release, including the Superbowl runner-up Denver Broncos. Whether Ware lands in the Rocky mountains or elsewhere he’s sure to find himself in a good position to compete for a Lombardi trophy, something he has been unable to do in big D during the first nine years of his stellar career. (Update: Ware has in fact signed for Denver)
Broncos general manager John Elway was one of the more aggressive executives around the league on the opening day of free agency, adding former New England cornerback Aqib Talib and Cleveland safety T.J Ward to bolster a secondary that needed upgrading. With Champ Bailey nearing the end of a likely hall of fame career and Domonique Rodgers-Cromartie testing free agency Denver needed to patch up their back four, something which they’ve achieved and then some with the addition of two of the top players available. The hard hitting Ward will add steel to the safety position while Talib is coming off a couple of impressive seasons for the Patriots, and although he comes with character concerns Elway is right to gamble that Talib will behave himself with the window of opportunity to win a Superbowl slowly closing as Peyton Manning nears retirement. Sometimes you have to be bold in an effort to push a good team over the top, something that Philadelphia were nearly able to do in 2004 when they added Jevon Kearse and Terrell Owens to an already talented roster.
New Orleans Saints
While the Saints lost safety Mike Jenkins to Philly they replaced him with arguably the best available player at his position, former Buffalo man Jairus Byrd. Byrd is excellent in coverage and plays centre field better than almost anyone in the league, something which will help a New Orleans secondary that was at times vulnerable to the big play last season. Rob Ryan began to turn the Saints D around from a historically bad showing in 2012 last year and with Byrd on board he should be able to continue that improvement, although the six year deal given to the player will limit the team’s ability to spend elsewhere with both Jimmy Graham and Drew Brees’ contracts counting heavily against the salary cap.
New England Patriots
Bill Belichick’s team lost out in a big way when Talib jumped ship and signed for the rival Broncos, robbing the Patriots of perhaps their second best player after Tom Brady. The New England secondary now looks frighteningly light on talent, which is a major worry after Peyton Manning was able to torch them in the AFC championship game back in January. With most of the top players off the market Belichick will have to do some wheeling and dealing in the coming months if he’s to retool New England in a bid to make another play-off run, something that could begin with the signing of the about to be released Tampa Bay corner Darrell Revis.
Defensive end Lamarr Houston has bolted for Chicago on a five-year deal, while offensive tackle Jared Veldheer is now an Arizona Cardinal. Last years leading rusher Rashad Jennings has also gone and he’ll be wearing New York Giant blue come September, which all in all has made it a fairly miserable start to free agency for the men in black. With over $60 million available in cap space it’s surprising that Oakland haven’t opted to spend in order to keep some of their better players, of which they don’t have many, although they did manage to secure the services of running back Darren McFadden for another year at a team friendly price of $4 million.
It looks extremely unlikely that Decker will be back with Denver next year, meaning that unless he arrives in Seattle (which is even more of a long shot) he’ll have a poorer chance of making it back to the big game than his former team mates. Receivers and running backs appear to be of less value than ever this year with offensive lineman and cornerbacks picking up the big bucks, meaning Decker probably won’t receive a large sum of compensation in addition to reducing his chances of winning a ring in 2015. That’s not to say there isn’t interest in the wide out, just that the dollar amount he’ll receive won’t match the deals that similarly skilled players at his position have gotten in previous years.
Let me know who you think has had a good or bad start to free agency in the comments, or you can tweet me @fredjstanley.