Over the past few seasons the free agency period has become a big date on the NFL calendar. Every year there seems to be multiple $50 million plus contracts that have the potential to change the hierarchy of the NFL. While these big money deals are sexy and fans love them, the real value happens after the initial dust settles.
Instead of overpaying for premier players, the good GMs wait and pick up solid players at a cap friendly price. Ten days after the start of the 2014 free agency period, three smart value based deals stand out to me.
Hakeem Nicks to the Colts. 1 year, $3.975 Million.
In mid October the Colts seemed to be one of the few true Super Bowl contenders based upon their impressive wins over the 49ers, Seahawks and Broncos. Yet during that win over the eventual AFC Champion Broncos, Indianapolis’ Super Bowl hopes were all squashed when Reggie Wayne tore his right ACL.
Without their team leader and Andrew Luck’s favorite target, the Colts were forced to rely on a receiver corps of T.Y Hilton, Lavon Brazill, Da’Rick Rodgers and some dude named Griff Whalen. They simply didn’t have enough firepower outside of Hilton to compete with the elite teams in the AFC.
When the free agency period opened many pundits were suggesting the Colts pursue Eric Decker as he was the best free agent wide receiver. But GM Ryan Grigson was patient and passed on Decker knowing his stats were inflated by the Broncos’ record setting offense. Instead he waited a full week to make his move and was able to land Hakeem Nicks on a reasonable 1 year “prove it” contract.
Nicks brings something the Colts desperately need at the receiver position: an outside threat with some size. While he is only listed at 6’1 and 208 pounds, Nicks plays significantly bigger than his frame. Let’s look at how he used his size and strength to make an impressive physical play against the Broncos last year.
On this play the Giants do a great job of scheming Nicks open by lining him up in between two receivers that are running a double hitch combo. This opens up the Broncos Cover 3 defenses and creates a space down the middle for Nicks to break into. Once the ball arrives Nicks shows us where he truly excels.
First, he maintains control of the ball despite being hit cleanly by a linebacker. Then Nicks rights himself following the first hit and turns up field looking to create. With a full head of steam, Nicks’ ability to cause defenses problems in the open field is obvious as he steps out of another tackle to pick up an additional 15 yards.
While this might not be the most impressive play by a wide receiver, it show Nicks has what the Colts were lacking last year, someone who can use their size downfield. Originally, Indianapolis thought Coby Fleener could be a Joker tight end and fill that role, but he has shown little signs of becoming a consistent receiver leaving the Colts in need of a true threat with size.
Indianapolis already has an elite deep threat in T.Y Hilton, a heady veteran chain mover in Reggie Wayne and solid tight ends in Fleener and a healthy Dwayne Allen. With Nicks added to that mix Andrew Luck will finally have the weapons he needs to take the next step and challenge for a Super Bowl.
Steve Smith to the Ravens. 3 years, $11 Million.
After the Ravens Super Bowl run two seasons ago, the team was faced with a salary cap dilemma. They had to pay Joe Flacco, who was a free agent, and they had very little cap flexibility with the rest of their roster. Because of this, veteran wide out and playoff hero Anquan Boldin was traded to the 49ers for a 5th round pick to clear cap space.
Without their dependable wide receiver the Ravens were much like the Colts after the Wanye injury: unable to provide their quarterback with enough weapons. Relying on Torrey Smith and a host of rookies out wide, Baltimore was unable to replicate their late surge of 2012 and missed the playoffs for the first time in the John Harbaugh era.
With their cap situation still burdened by Flacco’s monster contract, General Manager Ozzie Smith had to rely on the 2nd wave of free agents to fill his needs. Luckily, the perfect player fell into his lap when the Panthers released Steve Smith.
A 12 year veteran, Steve Smith is known for his fiery nature and unmatched competitiveness …. sounds like a perfect fit for the Baltimore Ravens to me.
Better yet, Smith fills the Ravens need for a dependable wide receiver capable of winning at the line of scrimmage on quick to intermediate routes. Let’s look at how Smith schooled young Janoris Jenkins on an inside slant proving he still has the ability to gain separation at the line of scrimmage.
It is one thing to beat a defender on a slant route who is playing straight up coverage and it is another thing to beat a corner on a slant route who is playing inside technique to prevent that exact route. That’s exactly what Smith did to Jenkins on this play with a quick outside move and rip across. Once he had inside separation, Smith showed his relentlessness and strength by stepping through a tackle and getting to the 1st yard line.
That is exactly the type of play Baltimore needed last year. They had Torrey Smith to take the top of a defense but lacked anyone who could operate underneath on short to intermediate routes. Smith will bring that and provide some veteran leadership for a team that looked to be feeling the effects of Ray Lewis’ departure last year.
Darren Sproles to the Eagles. 3 years, $10.5 Million
When Darren Sproles signed with the Saints in 2011 it was a match made in heaven. The league’s ultimate mismatch joining forces with the leagues most creative offense. Fast forward three years and it is exactly the same story except the league’s most creative offense isn’t Sean Payton’s Saints it’s Chip Kelly’s Eagles.
Big Balls Chip’s hyper tempo offense is perfect match for Sproles because it focuses on putting players in space, which is exactly where Sproles thrives. Kelly’s offense will be able to maximize Sproles’ natural ability to make defenders miss by utilizing him in a variety of ways including screens and zone reads.
To think that another dynamic playmaker joined an already lethal Eagles’ offense is bordering on unfair. The thought of trying to contain a lineup of McCoy, Jackson, Maclin and Sproles must be a current nightmare for defensive coordinators around the NFL.
Before I get ahead of myself let’s look at an example of how Sproles uses his speed and agility to make the most out of opportunities in the open field.
Now this play isn’t special by Sproles’ standards but it shows that given some daylight he can still make defenses pay. The most impressive thing on this play is how he sets up his blockers— cutting outside before ‘S’ curving through the defense—then bursts through the crease for a first down.
While screens like this will be a crucial part of what Sproles brings to the Eagles, his real value is his versatility. He can easily line up in the backfield, out wide or in the slot and with Kelly’s no huddle he will provide multiple looks out of the same personnel.
In the end these three signings might not have the same impact that Eric Decker and his $56 million contract did, or even Golden Tate’s $31 million dollar deal, but they provide value.
This value comes in handy as every team must be able to decide where to invest their limited resources. Instead of paying Decker, the Colts were able to add a comparable Nicks as well as two big defensive players in Arthur Jones and D’Qwell Jackson.
The same is true for Baltimore and Philadelphia as well. The Ravens were able to add Steve Smith despite having resigned Dennis Pitta. The Eagles were able to take a flier, Darren Sproles, and still resign Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin.
That is more or less what these deals represent: low risk high reward. Yes these players come with their limitations. Steve Smith and Darren Sporles are smaller speed reliant players on the wrong side of 30 and Hakeem Nicks has never stayed healthy enough to play a full 16 games in a season. But these teams invested relatively little in what could be impact players that take them to the next level, which is great business in the hyper competitive NFL.