We have learned that, salary cap or not, the top of the free-agent market hasn't changed from the previous year all that much. In the opening weekend of free agency, teams spent more than $150 million in guaranteed money on high-profile players such as Julius Peppers, Antrel Rolle, Aaron Kampman, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Chester Taylor.
But it's the middle and lower rungs of the market that should see the biggest dip. Most of the top-rung players have gotten the majority of the money, and the unrestricted market is expected to slow down considerably.
In addition, some teams are taking advantage of the new financial landscape. The Chiefs, for instance, have a payroll in the $45 million range right now, taking advantage of there being no set salary minimum with an uncapped season. The Panthers let Peppers walk and released several older veterans, including QB Jake Delhomme and his more than $12 million in remaining guaranteed salary, and the Redskins — notorious early spenders — mostly have been free-agent wallflowers.
With this in mind, let's take a look at the teams that have spent the most wisely to this point and which ones overextended themselves in this new market. Sometimes it's the teams that don't spend, especially in this market, that end up with the highest grades.
Ravens: By trading for Anquan Boldin, the team added the front-line receiver it needed, even if speed at the position is still a shortcoming. Boldin will be motivated, playing for a new contract, and he should be the favorite target of QB Joe Flacco. The Ravens got Boldin for a song if he's healthy, trading a third-round pick and swapping their fourth-rounder for a fifth with the Cardinals. This now also frees up the Ravens from having to take a receiver high in the draft and perhaps wait for a rookie to develop. There were seven wideouts drafted in the third round last year, and six of them combined for 22 catches for 243 yards and zero touchdowns. Only Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace (39-756-6 receiving) caught more than 15 passes of the group. That's a classic Ozzie Newsome value trade.
Lions: They paid handsomely for WR Nate Burleson and DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, but their signings are significant. For years, free agents of note avoided the Lions like the plague, and the team's aggressive approach and promise of improvement clearly paid off. Both positions were key needs, and it opens up the team's flexibility in the draft. Burleson, if he's healthy, will be a fast No. 2 option to take some pressure off Calvin Johnson, and Vanden Bosch instantly adds leadership to a team sorely needing it. Also, the trade for DT Corey Williams could end up being a steal if he's as strong in the Lions' aggressive 4-3 front as he was when the Packers franchised him two years ago.
Patriots: Their fans might be upset the team didn't aggressively pursue any outside free agents, but they took care of their most important in-house issues. Re-signing NT Vince Wilfork amicably and bringing back the underrated Tully Banta-Cain and Stephen Neal were solid moves, and they remain in the hunt to retain CB Leigh Bodden, who has received a good amount of attention. Priority No. 1 is to sign QB Tom Brady to a long-term deal, so when the market for Peppers — whom they investigated early — got too high, the Patriots kept their principles in check. They have four of the first 53 draft picks in April and still can make a move for a veteran receiver, tight end or running back if they choose.
Jets: They stayed aggressive by trading for CB Antonio Cromartie, who should be a better fit in the man-coverage scheme. He won't be asked to cover as long as he did in San Diego, and with Darrelle Revis on the other side of the field, Cromartie should get plenty of chances for interceptions. The Jets didn't give up any draft picks this season for him, and they once again should be willing to deal up in April if a player they fancy is within reach. They have used that approach to land Revis, RB Shonn Greene and QB Mark Sanchez in the past and have the ammo to land a top wideout. Another move, trading FS Kerry Rhodes, saves the club about $4 million and removes a player who was a poor fit in the defense because of his lack of hitting ability. The only negative here is cutting the valuable RB Thomas Jones, though there remains a glimmer of hope he could return.
Texans: Losing CB Dunta Robinson forces them to address cornerback, but paying him $25.5 million guaranteed (which the Falcons did) would not have been a smart move based on his play last season. And they have some young corners who could rise up. Their best move was retaining WR Kevin Walter, an underappreciated piece of the offensive puzzle. With the loss of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, the Texans need as much continuity on that side of the ball as they can have. Getting in on Thomas Jones might be their next move, though they haven't shown signs of doing so thus far.
Dolphins: Many believe they really outbid themselves in the Karlos Dansby sweepstakes, with no other teams outside the Cardinals really showing sincere interest to sign him. The Dolphins paid Dansby like a pass rusher with more than $8 million per season and $22 million in guaranteed money, which is a lot for a player who will play inside in the team's 3-4 alignment. Dansby never has been even a Pro Bowl alternate, and he has a reputation for preserving his body a little bit early in the season and coasting through practices at times, which might not sit well with a Bill Parcells-led club when the coaches see it up close. That signing left no money to enter the Rolle bidding, leaving safety as a major need if they don't sign Ryan Clark. The Dolphins made a nice move retaining QB Chad Pennington but were forced to include a trade bonus to get it done.
Cardinals: Trading for FS Kerry Rhodes helped stop the bleeding, and the Cards can live with the fact he's not an enforcer (because Adrian Wilson is). But the rest of the first weekend was tough to watch. Dansby is a good player in their system, not irreplaceable, but they might not have the bodies to fill the vacancy if SLB Chike Okeafor also leaves. Swapping Rolle for Rhodes probably is a net loss. Throw in the retirement of QB Kurt Warner, and the Cardinals might not be the toast of the NFC West anymore.
Eagles: They failed to land Peppers, Kampman, Vanden Bosch, Rolle or Rhodes, the top pass rushers and safeties who were moved over the first few days of free agency. Now the draft looms extremely large with word that the team isn't planning to trade any of its quarterbacks now. Perhaps Andy Reid believed, like many, that the top players were not worth the money they were given. But for a highly profitable team with a rapidly closing window, sometimes overspending can be justified.
Bears: It has been hailed as the biggest free-agency day in team history, with the team landing Peppers, Taylor and TE Brandon Manumaleuna in one shocking, fell swoop. But Peppers is a giant risk given his age, his inconsistency and the fact that he's not a leader. That's a lot of dough for a very talented role player. Taylor should fit well in Mike Martz's system, but he's not a player to build a game plan around. The Bears' excessive spending wreaked of some desperation for a staff that is in playoffs-or-bust mode.
Panthers: Not getting anything in return for Peppers stings badly, and watching Delhomme go with a fat bill attached to his head hurts doubly considering how much the team loved him. The rest of the youth movement was swept under the rug a bit, but several starters — Na'il Diggs, Maake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis, among others — also were cut. The youth movement is in full effect, and that might not sit well with WR Steve Smith. QB Matt Moore has to perform, with few other QB options out there in case next season he fails to match the 4-1 record he posted down the stretch in ’09.
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