NFL Free Agency: Musical Chairs

AP Photo/David Duprey

On the sports calendar – for football junkies in particular – this is among the most enjoyable times of the year: spring is in the air, which means the NCAA Tournament is just underway; the NBA season is in the homestretch; Major League Baseball and The Masters are just around the corner; and the NFL Draft is imminent, preceded by its dashing twin – FREE AGENCY. An institution now as closely identified with the NFL as helmets and shoulder pads, the beginning of the free agent signing period is a critical window wherein the rich typically get richer, the desperate spend lavishly, and the shrewd stand to benefit greatly. There has been plenty of all three since Tuesday afternoon’s shotgun start to the proceedings, covered of course in painstaking detail by every sports media outlet under the sun. But it’s all talk until the pads start popping, so in that spirit – and until the first OTAs of the offseason – let’s do some armchair quarterbacking of selected free agent signings:

Mario Williams/DE
Signed with: Buffalo Bills
Terms: 6 years, $100 million
Verdict: Next to Peyton Manning’s impending signing, this is The Granddaddy of ‘Em All. Second-guessed by pundits after being selected first overall by the Houston Texans in the 2006 draft, Williams has quieted the pro-Reggie Bush chorus with his relentless play and outstanding production (53 sacks in 82 games). Following consecutive Pro Bowls, Williams submitted a pedestrian 2010 season (by his lofty standards). In 2011 he moved to outside linebacker in Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme, but still registered 5 sacks in as many games before going down with a torn pectoral muscle – prematurely ending his season. Despite being an integral part of their defensive alignment, re-signing Williams wasn’t financially feasible for the Texans.

Enter the Buffalo Bills: following 12 years of playoff futility, and saddled with an unfortunate inability to attract high-profile free agents, the Bills have quietly made solid moves in the past year to shore up their roster in a packed AFC East. After drafting future franchise cornerstone Marcell Dareus 3rd overall in the 2011 draft, Buffalo has signed QB Ryan Fitzpatrick and WR Stevie Johnson to lucrative contract extensions, and plans to do the same with RB Fred Jackson. Adding Mario Williams to an already-formidable defensive front that includes Dareus and Kyle Williams is a home run that could, barring injury, become a grand slam and propel the Bills into the 2012 playoffs.

Lurking in the shadows is Buffalo’s run of horrendous luck: the Bills started last season 4-1 before losing 9 of 11 to close. Similarly, they started 2008 5-1 before finishing 7-9, sealing then-coach Dick Jauron’s fate the following season. Other teams interested in Mario’s services – reported to be the Bears, Falcons and Seahawks – missed out on signing or even courting Williams, however if he turns out to be a bust in Buffalo, they will no doubt be thankful for the financial flexibility they maintained.

Vincent Jackson/WR
Signed with: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Terms: 5 years, $55 million
Verdict: Why couldn’t the Bucs make a move like this when Raheem Morris was still their coach? After Jon Gruden’s surprising ouster following the 2008 season, the Bucs underwent a complete shift in organizational philosophy, transitioning from a veteran team (that won Super Bowl XXXVII) to one riddled with young, unproven players. They fired GM Bruce Allen and promoted Mark Dominik to the position, and Dominik in turned elevated Morris to head coach from his recent appointment as defensive coordinator. However, the suddenly thrifty Glazer family didn’t spend to provide Morris with a roster capable of winning. The Bucs produced a miracle 10-6 season in 2010 behind the strong arm and clutch play of QB Josh Freeman, but their only noteworthy roster move that offseason was signing punter Michael Koenen away from the Falcons. A dismal 4-12 season followed, after which Morris was summarily dismissed.

The arrival of new head coach Greg Schiano has apparently signaled a return to generous spending by the Glazers, as they’ve broken the bank to sign Jackson, Carl Nicks (a mauler of an offensive guard), and cornerback Eric Wright. Jackson’s signing holds the key to the Bucs’ fortunes in 2012: they were non-competitive in too many games last season, and a big reason was the regression of WR Mike Williams. The Bucs’ defense also suffered from injury and inconsistency to the point they could not stop many teams, which, coupled with their offensive struggles, made winning all but impossible. For Tampa Bay to establish a solid running game behind LeGarrette Blount (or his replacement), opposing teams must respect the Bucs’ aerial attack, and a proven commodity such as Jackson will go a long way in that regard. Again, barring injury, the Chargers’ loss should be Freeman and the Bucs’ significant gain.

Cortland Finnegan/CB
Signed with: St. Louis Rams
Terms: 5 years, $50 million
Verdict: For a team as starved for a cover cornerback as the Rams, this signing was manna from heaven – though one can only wonder if they paid too high a price to secure Finnegan’s services. St. Louis actually began the 2011 season with a fair amount of promise, based primarily on a rapidly-gelling defense and the significant potential of QB Sam Bradford. The Rams brought in ex-Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels as offensive coordinator to tutor Bradford, but a rash of injuries quickly sank St. Louis’ season, resulting in coach Steve Spagnuolo’s firing. The Rams’ long list of  the walking wounded included four of their top five cornerbacks, making the Finnegan acquisition a natural.

That being said, Finnegan’s career stats call into question the amount of his hefty contract. Known as a hard-nosed (some would say “dirty”) player, Finnegan has been extremely durable, missing only three games in the last five seasons (over which time he was a full-time starter in Tennessee). However, he’s registered only 14 career interceptions and 1 Pro Bowl appearance (in 2008), and has been in the headlines as much for his skirmishes with opposing players as for actual plays he’s made to help his team. The fact of the matter is St. Louis needs far more roster upgrades than just adding Finnegan to return to competitiveness, though their mega-trade with Washington that netted three first-round picks and a second-rounder should put the Rams on the fast track.

QUICK HITS

Reggie Wayne/WR
Signed with: Indianapolis Colts
Terms: 3 years, $17.5 million
Verdict: Bit of a shocker that Wayne would re-sign with Indy, given the Colts’ drastic new direction and the ongoing assumption that he would join Peyton Manning wherever the QB lands. This was obviously a good move for Wayne financially, and for the Colts competitively considering the loss of WR Pierre Garçon to the Redskins.

Steve Hutchinson/G
Signed with: Tennessee Titans
Terms: 3 years
Verdict: Picking up a 7-time Pro Bowler is almost always a good thing – especially if it helps the Titans sign Manning. Either way, if Hutchinson has anything at all left in the tank, he should bolster an already-solid offensive line and help blow open some holes for RB Chris Johnson.

Curtis Lofton/LB
Signed with: TBD
Verdict: I mention Lofton to highlight an unfortunate conundrum of free agency, namely how a team such as the Falcons can practically usher a dynamic young cornerstone of its franchise – one who’s been the starting middle linebacker on 3 playoff teams and amassed almost 500 tackles in 4 NFL seasons – out the door, possibly to a division rival. It was announced this afternoon that the Falcons have agreed to terms with DE John Abraham on a new contract, so let’s hope they have the same luck keeping Lofton in the fold.

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