Free agency in the NFL is a rare and beautiful thing — like a shooting star passing through a sunset shining on the last pair of an endangered species. At least, free agency with big name players, as the power between the players and the NFL is so skewed towards the ownership and front offices that, if they want to keep you, you’re basically going to be kept. That’s why the contracts aren’t guaranteed, why the franchise tags exist, and why so many NFL superstars stay with the same team for the duration of their (usually brief) careers. This season saw a handful of bigger names leave their incumbent squads for the greener fields of other football teams.
Now that the dust has settled on most of the big names — except for you, DeSean Jackson, we didn’t forget about you – let’s take a gander at who went where in this latest NFL offseason, what it means for the teams that are getting the good stuff, and what it means for the teams that are missing members.
Maurice Jones Drew heads to the Oakland Raiders
The prodigal son returns as Oakland native Maurice Jones-Drew, fresh off the teal misery that was the Jacksonville Jaguars, will join up with the silver and black misery of the Oakland Raiders. Jones-Drew, who signed for $7.5 million over 3 years, will be competing with fellow “oft-injured running back” Darren McFadden for minutes inside The Black Hole, also known as the O.co Coliseum. The Raiders lost their previous backup, Rashard Jennings, to the New York Giants. McFadden is signed to a one-year deal, mostly owing to his extensive injury history.
“People tend to look at running backs and say, ‘Oh, you’re 29, you don’t have anything left,’” Jones-Drew told The Press Democrat. “I feel like I have a ton left in the tank and I get an opportunity to show that here in Oakland.” The RB, who was allowed to test free agency because of his injury that slowed production over the last two seasons in Florida, failed to crack 1,000 yards for the second straight year after a strong showing (1,300+ yards) from 2009-2011. Although he played in 15 of 16 possible games last year, Jones-Drew was held to a paltry 803 yards in 2013.
Some of the blame should fall on the abysmal Jacksonville offensive-line, though. That Jacksonville Squad was getting compared to some of the worst teams ever as early as November of last year, and looked like a prime candidate for an 0-16 season before finally securing a Week 10 win over the Tennessee Titans. Jones-Drew, along with fellow free agent Matt Schuab, will help to bolster a Raiders team that finished 4-12 in 2013 (as did the Jags.)
Jairus Byrd signs with the New Orleans Saints
Byrd signed for six years and $56 million. Byrd, the best free safety on the market and a three-time Pro Bowler (more impressive when you consider that he’s only been in the league for 5 years), wasn’t franchised for a second time by his original organization, the Buffalo Bills because, it can be gathered, the team expected him to sign a longer contract with the club. Instead, Byrd wound up going south to Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints when the Louisiana franchise offered Byrd a deal that Buffalo couldn’t compete with.
Paired with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, Byrd — who, after completing the deal, became the most well paid safety in the history of the league — comes to a team that was 4th in the league in terms of points allowed last year (they surrendered only 19 points per game) despite a speedy, high-powered offense that gave the other team plenty of time to try and score back. Paired with 2013 draft pick Kenny Vaccaro, Byrd will try to get that number even lower for 2014. If you’re not convinced one safety can make that much of a difference, check out this highlight reel from his time with the Bills. Byrd is good.
The Patriots sign Darrelle Revis
Revis Island, either the best or the second best cornerback in the game (depending on how you feel about Seattle’s Richard Sherman), signed with New England for his second straight contract after the Pats lost out on their promising corner Aquib Talib. But we’ll get to him in a second.
Revis, the five-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro, tore his ACL in 2012 while a member of the New York Jets. After winding up on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the result of an extraordinarily 2013 strange trade. It was worth $96 million, which made Revis the highest paid corner in the league, but exactly none of they money was guaranteed. So, when the Bucs cut Revis after a year, they weren’t hit with any major cap hits.
Enter the New England Patriots, who have made a bit of a habit after chasing guys who’re floating under their market value. They offered Revis a two-year contract that guaranteed him a $10 million signing bonus and a salary of $1.5M after that. The second year is a team optional year at the cost of $20M, which the Pats are unlikely to exercise, but also prevents them from franchising Revis, a nice wrinkle if he can regain some of his incredible form.
The Jets add Eric Decker
According to the New York Daily News, the Denver Broncos never gave Eric Decker a legitimate offer when it came to retaining his services. Decker, who pulled in 87 catches for 11 touchdowns and 1,288 yards during Denver’s scorching 2013 campaign, signed with the Jets for a reported $36.25 million over 5 years. The Jets, who had a decidedly transitional 2013 that saw the club move on from Mark Sanchez — we’ve got his lowest moment as a Jet coming below — and embrace possible QB of the future Geno Smith.
Except that the club also signed former Eagles QB Michael Vick to a one year deal. Vick, who had played well in Chip Kelly’s offense for the Philadelphia Eagles last year, is expected to provide some starter competition (and health insurance) to Smith, who became the starter in the midst of Sanchez’s fall from grace. Sanchez officially did not play last season (a season that saw the Jets also sign Tim Tebow) because of a shoulder injury to his throwing arm. We know the real reason why, and so do you.
Denver tries to get all the free agents — finishes with Ware, Ward, Talib, and Sanders
NFL teams run in packs — one front office will come up with a successful way of doing something, then the other front offices will try to copy it, and then eventually someone will come up with a successful way of overcoming the first successful way. As the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, so too do NFL teams try to simultaneously copy each other and innovate against that same plagiarism.
So, when the Broncos got whipped by the Seahawks in the Super Bowl — and they got whipped hard — teams around the league took notice, and no team took more notice than Denver, who promptly restocked their defense with the best pass rusher around, DeMarcus Ware, fresh from Dallas; top-tier safety TJ Ward via the Cleveland Browns; and Aquib Talib, who previously played for the New England Patriots. The Broncos saw Seattle’s athletic, hyperactive safeties shut down their receivers and the insane pressure they put on the pass rush and responded accordingly. (They also signed wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders.) The year 2015 can’t get here soon enough.