My initial reaction to the moves the Falcons made this week weren’t overly positive. I thought the team overpaid Sam Baker and wasn’t a huge believer that running back Steven Jackson would help that much. After a few more days to mull it over, I’m singing a different tune about Jackson but still don’t love the Baker signing.
I believed re-signing Baker was the smart move for the Falcons. Baker is coming off his best season, and his solid performance in the NFC Championship Game proved that he was worth investing into. I just wish the Falcons had invested a little less. While Baker signed a six-year deal worth slightly more than $41 million with $18.25 million guaranteed, the deal really translates to be a three-year, $22.75 million contract. That is because after the third year, the contract is structured to a level where the team could potentially cut Baker. It’s not something I root for, but it’s hard to justify paying an offensive linemen $8.05 million (Baker’s 2016 cap hit) unless he’s a Pro Bowl player. Baker probably won’t be that due to his physical limitations: lack of strength and short arms. What we saw from him in 2012 is probably the best we can hope for and that wasn’t a Pro Bowl-caliber performance.
Baker got market value for his deal, as his three-year payout is comparable to those of Jermon Bushrod ($22.5 million) and William Beatty ($24 million). I didn’t think the Falcons made the right call when they gave Justin Blalock a six-year, $38 million deal following the lockout. Similarly, that was a market value at the time. I just wish the Falcons had only made a more modest two-year commitment to Baker. Blalock’s contract is structured similarly, and come 2015 he is set to count roughly $7.9 million against the Falcons cap. It will be hard to justify bringing a competent guard like Blalock back at that level unless he plays better in 2013 and 2014. It would have been a bit more congruous in my mind if both Baker and Blalock could have potentially been pushed out the door in the same year. I’ve never really thought the left side of the Falcons offensive line was a strength of theirs, and thus committing that sort of money to it doesn’t make great sense.
While I’m not sure Jackson is really going to be an impact runner as a lead back, I do think he will help the Falcons out as a situational back. The Falcons were terrible last year in short-yardage and goalline situations, and Jackson should be an upgrade there. He hits the hole a lot quicker and harder than Michael Turner did. The downside of Jackson is that he’s probably not going to be that valuable outside those situations. He can better help keep the Falcons offense on schedule by giving them far less 2nd & 8 situations that seemed to be the staple with Turner as the lead back. But he doesn’t quite have the skillset to make defenses pay for focusing too much of their attention on the Falcons receivers. He won’t generate big runs on the second level, which I believe could be extremely valuable for the Falcons offense as they continue to try and become more explosive. But if Jackson can be more effective at wearing down defenses between the tackles, that could open up greater opportunities for Jacquizz Rodgers as a change of pace runner. Quizz doesn’t possess great speed to run away from defenders, but his exceptional quickness can be dangerous when he gets outside. Jackson certainly will bring needed toughness to the Falcons offense.
Neither re-signing Baker nor adding Jackson were bad moves by any means, they just weren’t perfect.
I think I’m going to recap my thoughts on what the first week of free agency brought for each of the other 31 teams. I will just stick with the 15 other NFC squads for this week. Next week, I’ll shine a light on the AFC teams.
Arizona ousted Ray Horton as defensive coordinator and then dumped older safeties in Kerry Rhodes and Adrian Wilson. New DC Todd Bowles plans to keep the 3-4, but brought in two 4-3 players in DE Matt Shaughnessy and MLB Jasper Brinkley to supplement the group. Also added Yeremiah Bell to replace Wilson, and Rashad Johnson was re-signed to replace Rhodes. I like the move to Johnson, although not at the expense of Rhodes, who has been a rock-solid safety over the years in Arizona, but the other moves leave me scratching my head. I’m expecting a severe decline for the Cardinals defense in 2013 with these moves, and their 2012 defense was the only reason why they were competitive enough to win 5 games last year. Unless new head coach Bruce Arians can jumpstart an offense and make this team into a group that can score 20+ points (they were 5-0 when they did, 0-11 when they didn’t last year), then Cardinal fans are in for a long season. If reports are true and it’s Drew Stanton’s job to lose, that doesn’t bode well for any offensive resurgency. I think the Cardinals will take a QB with their top pick, and I think they’ll target Geno Smith despite what Merrill Hoge might think. Nassib and Matt Barkley aren’t strong-armed enough for Arians’ vertical attack. Mike Glennon might be a good option in Round 2, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cardinals try to move up and swap picks with Jacksonville to get ahead of Oakland (who I also feel might be in the Geno Sweepstakes). Maybe it’s part of Steve Keim and Arian’s big scheme to get into position to take the top quarterback in 2014. April is still a long way away, so we will see…
- Carolina’s only real move has been to replace release cornerback Chris Gamble with Drayton Florence. This is part of their efforts to cut spending after shelling out a bunch of ridiculous post-lockout contracts by former GM Marty Hurney. I think the Panthers’ biggest issue isn’t necessarily personnel, but coaching. I just don’t think Ron Rivera is a good enough to coach a team that can be a consistent winner. New GM Dave Gettleman will likely clean house next year, dumping Rivera, and as many of those bad contracts as possible.
- Chicago picked up tight end Martellus Bennett and Bushrod. Two positive steps, although we’ll see if either player is worth it in the long run. The addition of Bushrod likely means J’Marcus Webb flips back to the right side. Gabe Carimi probably then moves inside to right guard, where he showed some promise last year. I think the Bears might want to do a bit more to plug some holes on offense, because I think they might want to devote a significant portion of their draft to finding younger replacements for Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher, Peanut Tillman, and Julius Peppers, all of whom won’t be Bears for too much longer.
- Dallas didn’t have much room to spend this off-season and thus have been decidedly low-key, losing some low level guys to other teams. They’re switching to a 4-3, but unlike most teams that are making a scheme switch, don’t need a ton of personnel changes. Jay Ratliff, Demarcus Ware, Sean Lee, and Bruce Carter, their four best defensive players in their front seven should have no problem making the transition. What they do need (better depth up front and speed at linebacker), they can probably find in the draft. They’ve already reworked several deals to get under the cap, and if they can get Anthony Spencer and Tony Romo to restructure, that’ll free up even more space. The one head scratcher for Dallas was tagging Spencer, who is not an ideal fit in a 4-3. He’s a tweener in Monte Kiffin’s scheme, and Dallas could have saved an additional $10 million in cap space by letting him walk. But that’s a classic Jerry Jones move: dump the coaches or scheme, not the players that he acquired.
- Detroit did a good job with the deals they gave defensive end Jason Jones and safety Glover Quin. I’m not quite sure how effective Jones will be playing end in their Wide-9 scheme, but he should be at least as good as Lawrence Jackson. I don’t really like the Reggie Bush deal. I think Bush is a good role player, but is not worth $16 million over four years. Bush’s value will ultimately be measured in how creative they use him in the passing game. They need more balance to their offense, and Bush won’t bring that on the ground. It’ll still rest on Mikel LeShoure to really push them forward there. When GM Martin Mayhew, the lieutenant of disgraced former GM Matt Millen, was promoted, I questioned the move. Mayhew looked to be doing a solid job in the early going with the improvement the Lions made from 2008 to 2010, but they took a major step back last year. And without a .500 season or above this year, I think he and/or Schwartz could get ousted. I’m not sure they are having the type of off-season one expects for a team looking for at least a 4-game improvement. They really need to dive deep into drafting offensive linemen this April. Whether Schwartz and Mayhew are around to benefit, the future of this organization rests on protecting Matt Stafford.
- Green Bay didn’t really have a ton of major needs this off-season. On offense, their keys were getting better at running the ball and doing a better job protecting Aaron Rodgers. Defensively, they need to improve their depth across the board (as they are always dealing with injuries) and upgrade their pass rush. All of those things could be accomplished via the draft, although I think targeting a veteran pass rusher would be a smart move. The fact that they used a No. 1 pick on Nick Perry last year probably means they don’t overspend this year, but kicking the tires of a James Harrison or Shaun Phillips could be worthwhile on a cheap, one-year deal. They can probably afford to be patient, and let those guys’ asking prices come down a bit more in the next week or so. A younger player who has been effective in limited reps as a pass rusher is Chargers free agent rush linebacker Antwan Barnes. He’s 28, and shouldn’t command premium dollar to be an effective situational guy opposite Clay Matthews.
- Minnesota got a good haul in exchange of Percy Harvin, but unfortunately for Vikings fans whether that trade proves fruitful likely won’t depend on how well they use those acquired picks. It’ll likely come down to whether Greg Jennings and Christian Ponder can get on the same page. If they do, then nobody is going to really miss Harvin. If they don’t, then people will pine for the only semi-reliable playmaker the Vikings had in the passing game the past three seasons. Adding Cassel as an insurance policy is about the best thing Vikings fans can hope for. Cassel isn’t any better than Ponder, but maybe his presence pushing Mr. Samantha Steele to play better. Also, good luck trying to replace Antoine Winfield. Winfield first joined the Vikings in 2004. They’ve spent years trying to find a good complement to line up across the field from him, and in recent years trying to draft his heir apparent. That would appear to be Chris Cook at the moment, who struggled a bit down the stretch when Winfield was out of the lineup. The secondary has been a problem area for the Vikings for years. With their newly acquired second first round pick, they might consider shipping it to New York in exchange for Darrelle Revis.
- For New Orleans, cornerback Keenan Lewis is probably an upgrade to Patrick Robinson. But I’m not sure he’s going to be that much more adept at covering players like Julio Jones in the coming years. I think the Saints opted to keep linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith out of Sean Payton-induced solidarity from BountyGate rather than because they honestly believe either are going to make them into a better 3-4 defense under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
- I like the fact that the New York Giants were able to replace Martellus Bennett with tight end Brandon Myers on the cheap, and also made good cheap deals for Ryan Mundy and Louis Murphy. Cullen Jenkins will replace Chris Canty as their interior pass rush specialist. But the main concerns if you’re the Giants are whether you are losing something with Ahmad Bradshaw and Osi Umenyiora departing. The Giants have a lot of weaknesses across their roster, including their offensive line, linebacker corps, and in the secondary. They cannot afford for their running game and pass rush to have significant dropoff in 2013. Word that Jason Pierre-Paul is moving to left end gives them some hope. He’ll be an extremely tough matchup for right tackles.
- The signing of Connor Barwin for the Eagles means they have a lot of money invested in their outside linebacker position, given their intended switch to a 3-4 scheme. I’m not sure how Trent Cole fits going forward, but it’s likely they dump him after his this year due to big extension they gave him last year. They definitely are more physical in the secondary with additions like safeties Kenny Phillips and Patrick Chung, alongside corners Brad Fletcher and Cary Williams. Whether they prove to be a good secondary remains to be seen, but all are competent to good starters. Giving an average nose tackle like Isaac Sopoaga $12 million is a questionable decision. All in all the Eagles now have signed six new starters where history shows that teams that try to use free agency to drastically revamp their defense doesn’t always work out. But they didn’t really break their bank for anybody, so it probably won’t bite them on the back-end if history repeats itself.
- St. Louis added tight end Jared Cook, and if they can get him to live up to his immense potential as a seam-stretching pass catcher it could be one of the bigger moves of this off-season. Guaranteeing $19 million to an inconsistent player like Cook however is a significant risk. Replacing Danny Amendola, who was Sam Bradford’s favorite target, will be a key going forward, although Cook could take up some of that slack between the hashes. Re-signing Steve Smith might be a decent stopgap. Back in 2009, Smith was one of the more productive slot receivers in the league, but that year also represented the last time he was healthy. We’ll probably find out who tackle Jake Long decides to sign with this coming week, with the Rams and his former team Dolphins being in that running. Depending on the price tag which will likely be huge, but Long could be another really good get for St. Louis if he can stay healthy. I’ve always thought Rodger Saffold was better suited to playing on the right side than the left in the NFL, but he doesn’t appear to be a fan of that plan.
- Anquan Boldin sounded like he was set to retire a Baltimore Raven, but appears to have changed his mind following his trade to San Francisco. Boldin essentially should fit the same role as departed tight end Delanie Walker in their offense, although he will be more of a slot receiver than an H-back. But he should give Colin Kaepernick a set of reliable hands over the middle, something Walker lacked last year. The 49ers seemingly also managed to save money by replacing safety DaShon Goldson and defensive lineman Ricky Jean-Francois with Craig Dahl and Glenn Dorsey, respectively. But they didn’t get equal or better football players. The 49ers one major need going into this off-season was bolstering their secondary and offensive weapons in the passing game. It’s likely they’ll be using the draft to make bigger strides there.
- Seattle certainly wins the award for signing the more high profile free agents with the acquisition of Harvin and signing defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. Harvin is the real get as he makes Seattle’s offense particularly harder to defend because of the dynamic impact he can have in the middle of the field. Between Avril and Bennett, at least one should be able to be the everydown player that Bruce Irvin wasn’t in the playoffs, and the other should be a competent to good stopgap until Chris Clemons returns from his ACL tear.
- Tampa Bay continues to be considered the front-runners for acquiring cornerback Darrelle Revis via trade. But that move looks like it won’t occur until much closer to draft time, if at all this off-season. Adding Goldson gives them another opportunistic safety to help bolster a very weak secondary. Regardless of what the Bucs do this off-season, the key to their 2013 season will be quarterback Josh Freeman getting his act together and being a much more consistent passer. He already has weapons surrounding him, and getting Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks back from injury should provide all the boost the Bucs offense needs.
- Washington signed tackles Jeremy Trueblood and Tony Pashos to replace Tyler Poumbus at right tackle. Between the two of them they should find an upgrade. For the Redskins, their 2013 outlook really depends on the healthy returns of quarterback Robert Griffin and linebacker Brian Orakpo, their two best players. Washington doesn’t have a ton of cap space, so they’ll have to wait until the draft to seriously address their need to upgrade their secondary. Finally dumping DeAngelo Hall was a good move since he was overpaid, but they need to find a suitable replacement. Brandon Meriweather and Reed Doughty are a pair of serviceable starting safeties, but this team still misses Sean Taylor.