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When Matt Ryan’s pass to Roddy White in the NFC championship fell incomplete, Atlanta’s opportunity slammed shut with it. That was the thought anyway. However, the off-season has been very good to the Falcons, as they’ve re-signed their starting left tackle, talked their all-pro tight end out of retirement, and upgraded their running game with Steven Jackson. On the surface, signing a 30-year-old running back seems risky, but $12 million over three years ($4 million guaranteed) is modest money by today’s NFL standards. It’s a low risk, high reward scenario for general manager Thomas Dimitroff, whose decisions just may have kept Atlanta’s window open for one more season.
Signing guard Louis Vasquez from San Diego was an under-the-radar move that gives Denver a little more nasty on their offensive line. However, signing Wes Welker from New England stole the headlines. Welker joins a receiving core that already consists of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. The trio of receivers will look to duplicate the success of Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and Brandon Stokley from Indianapolis’ 2004 season. That year, Peyton Manning threw for a career-high 49 touchdowns, in large part because he had three 1,000-yard receivers. The parallels are there and it’s definitely put the AFC on notice.
Times are changing in Philadelphia and their approach to free agency is a good example as to just how much change new head coach Chip Kelly has brought. In recent years, Philadelphia has pursued big-named, high-priced free agents. The results have been underwhelming to say the least. This year, the Eagles targeted a ton of mid-tier rated free agents, especially in the defensive backfield. They completely overhauled their secondary by signing Kenny Phillips and Patrick Chung to play safety, and Cary Williams to play cornerback. In a matter of days, Philly added potentially three new starters to their secondary, in addition to upgrading their pass rush with Connor Barwin. The Eagles allowed an NFL-leading 33 touchdown passes last season, and their decision to upgrade their secondary and pass rush is a step in healing that wound.
It’s hard to believe a team can be a trendy Super Bowl pick in March, but that’s exactly where Seattle is right now. They still had two significant weaknesses at wide receiver and pass rush. They addressed both in a week by trading for receiver Percy Harvin and in signing Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett to play defensive end. Trading a first-round draft choice and shelling out $25.5 million guaranteed to Harvin was a steep price. But getting Avril on a two-year $15 million contract and Bennett on a one-year $5 million contract is outstanding value. Neither player will have money tied up long-term. In addition, they combined for 18.5 sacks last season.
No fan base has gone through a more tumultuous off-season than Baltimore’s has. The Ravens have watched linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger leave for AFC counterparts. They were unable to workout a new contract with receiver Anquan Boldin, so they traded him for just a sixth-round draft pick. Cary Williams and Bernard Pollard leave vacancies in the defensive backfield, and legendary linebacker Ray Lewis retired. As of this writing, future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed remains in play, but enough damage is already done. In Baltimore’s defense, some of the contracts (namely Kruger & Ellerbe) were rightfully out of their price range. Nevertheless, reality is becoming harsher for Baltimore, as the Ravens are clearly rebuilding, despite coming off a Super Bowl championship.
Green Bay Packers
General manager Ted Thompson is notorious for his conservative approach to free agency, so it surprised many when Green Bay looked as if they were going to re-sign receiver Greg Jennings, while upgrade their running game with Jackson. Neither will wear green and gold next season. Minnesota‘s $18 million guaranteed to Jennings was too much, but losing the wide receiver to a divisional rival still stings. However, Jackson‘s contract that pays him $4 million per year is chump change by today’s standard, and he could‘ve been apart of a domino effect (along with younger players) in improving Green Bay. There are rumors linking Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw to the Packers, but the fact they were close to bringing back Jennings and signing Jackson -- only to be left at the alter by both -- shows just how cutthroat the business side to the NFL is this time a year.
The Dolphins took an undisciplined approach to free agency, highlighted by overpaying several players. Guaranteeing $30 million to receiver Mike Wallace is a major statement. He averaged 13.1 yards per reception last season and failed to eclipse 1,000 yards in 15 games. Wallace is a good player, and he’ll likely reach 1,000 yards receiving if he’s healthy in 2013, but this contract makes him the third highest paid receiver in football, even though he has a tough argument for even cracking the top 10. Another major addition for Miami came when they signed Ellerbe to a five-year $35 million dollar deal. The long-term deal averages $7 million annually. They also gave Oakland linebacker Philip Wheeler $26.5 million over five years. Both Ellerbe and Wheeler are coming off good seasons, but neither player has displayed sustainable success in the NFL. Free agency’s not always about signing the most players or spending the most money. It’s about getting value (or bang for your buck) for a respective player. A reckless approach to free agency, as seen by Miami this off-season, doesn’t have a strong track record.
New England Patriots
Welker’s defection to Denver is a major subtraction for New England. The 31-year-old fit New England’s system well and $12 million over two years is hardly big-time money. Last year, the Pats gave receiver Brandon Lloyd, who they just released, $12 million over three years. Based on their production, Welker’s annual salary is probably worth $2 million more than Lloyd‘s was. Pride may have gotten in the way of both sides coming together. Bill Belichick’s replacement for Welker is St. Louis receiver Danny Amendola, who signed a five-year deal worth up to $31 million. At 27, Amendola is younger than Welker, but he’s missed 20 games in two seasons, and has a career average of 8.8 yards-per-reception. The Pats may have gotten younger at the position, but they also may have downgraded in the process, while guaranteeing $10 million.