The Oakland Raiders have a copious amount of cap space, and they were expected to be more aggressive than they were at the very beginning of the free agency period. They did make some notable signings after the first wave hit and were very active overall, but it was the Denver Broncos who quite clearly stole the show in the AFC West during the free-agent period. John Elway and the Broncos front office proved that not only are they incredibly shrewd drafters, but they are also excellent at making big moves on free agency (though the Peyton Manning deal did show that prowess already).
Denver Broncos A
I do wonder if the Broncos spent too much on Aqib Talib, but I guess they figured his injury concerns weren’t as worrisome as the concerns regarding Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie reverting back to his old habits. While I’m confident that DRC, who signed a big deal with the New York Giants, will continue to play after a high level after experiencing plenty of rewards as a result of his big bounce-back 2013 season, it’s also evident that Talib is the better player. The contract itself looks huge, and I do think they are paying too much for a player who has more flaws (gets burned too easily, inconsistent technique) than some people think. But there are some nice safeguards in the deal, and that’s the going rate for top cornerbacks (Alterraun Verner‘s deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was an anomaly that worked out far too well for Jason Licht).
DeMarcus Ware is also getting a huge amount of money, but his deal is also carefully constructed and makes sense given the Broncos situation. Based on their experience in the Super Bowl, they know that they needed to add more star talent on defense, and now they have Ware, Talib, and T.J. Ward (I’ll get to him in a bit) to add to a defense that already includes Terrance Knighton, Von Miller, Chris Harris Jr., and Rahim Moore. They know that they are in all-in, win-now mode with Manning at the helm, and it’s better for them to be aggressive than to sit around. Elway did a terrific job, even if I wish the salaries for Ware and Talib were a bit lower. It’s clear that the Broncos are excellent at managing the cap, and the decision to release Champ Bailey was a tough but mature one.
Verner was a steal for the Buccaneers, but I have a feeling that Ward might just be the steal of the offseason. Even though strong safeties don’t get premium money since they don’t accrue as much value due to having less of an impact on free safeties in coverage, Ward was still the second-best safety in the class and a top-notch S in his own right. An elite run defender, Ward is arguably the best safety in the game, and he’s very solid in intermediate coverage. He and Rahim Moore form one of the best safety duos in the NFL, and Duke Ihenacho is a nice option as a #3 guy.
The Broncos made perfect moves when it came to deciding which free agent to let go, and I also thought the Emmanuel Sanders deal was solid. This team is clearly high on him, and Sanders is a fast, versatile receiver who will have a career year with Manning throwing it to him. He’ll also benefit greatly from playing alongside some of the NFL’s finest weapons.
Kansas City Chiefs C
It was an average free agency for the Kansas City Chiefs, and this grade comes with a key caveat; the Chiefs were never expected to be major players on the free agent market anyway. Signing Vance Walker was a solid decision, as he played well for the Oakland Raiders last year and can rush the passer and play the run. An ideal replacement for Tyson Jackson, Walker could have the best year of his career playing with some very talented players on the Chiefs front seven. Husain Abdullah was an underrated re-signing, but he was also a no-brainer to keep for John Dorsey and the Chiefs organization. Joe Mays can’t cover but is a ferocious downhill run-stopper. It was disappointing to see the Chiefs lose all three of Geoff Schwartz, Jon Asamoah, and Branden Albert, even though their cap situation showed that Asamoah was the only player they could realistically re-sign. It was an average free-agent period for the Chiefs, but I’m sure they will piece together a very good draft under Dorsey and Andy Reid.
San Diego Chargers C+
Chargers GM Tom Telesco is one of the most savvy execs in the NFL, and we all saw his brilliance last offseason with signings like King Dunlap and Dwight Freeney (he was a wrecking ball before the injury) to make up for his one dud of Derek Cox (and really, how many people saw that one coming?) Credit Telesco for be willing to give up on Cox and not showing the same stubbornness that marked the career of the insufferable A.J. Smith, but I will be honest in saying that I would have shown more mercy toward Cox.
Anyway, the Chargers didn’t make any big moves this offseason, but they made plenty of small moves. Donald Butler was their only big free agent set to hit the market, and they locked him up very quickly. In fact, they did a good job of keeping all of their smaller FAs around, and they upgraded at backup quarterback by replacing Charlie Whitehurst with Kellen Clemens. Kavell Conner could be the next diamond-in-the-rough for Telesco, and Brandon Ghee and David Johnson could be decent role players. The Chargers added some cheap depth this offseason, and the only signing I didn’t like was the Donald Brown one. They already added Danny Woodhead last year, and I think their backfield is too crowded now with Brown joining Ryan Matthews and Woodhead. Then again, Brown is a solid back, and you never know when Mathews could go down with another injury.
Oakland Raiders A-
Ah yes. I remember bashing Reggie McKenzie for letting Jared Veldheer walk and sign an affordable deal with the Arizona Cardinals, while the Raiders handed a massive contract to Rodger Saffold, who is good but did not deserve to be paid significantly more than Veldheer (the superior player). I also bashed the Raiders front office for not being more aggressive despite their vast amount of needs and swath of salary cap available, but the Raiders early hesitancy gave way to some excellent deals that represented better value on; I’ll be the first to admit that I spoke too soon. Mark Davis’s deus ex machina action to void the Saffold deal helped, but the Raiders did make some really nice signing.
First of all, I still can’t believe the Raiders managed to spend just $3.5 million on Tarell Brown, even if it’s just a one-year deal so that he can get the money he deserves next offseason. Brown is getting paid as much as Walter Thurmond, who is also being criminally underpaid, but he’s a better player and can succeed as a CB1 on the outside. For the Raiders, that’s a massive upgrade, so they somehow landed their new best corner at just $3.5 million.
It wasn’t easy to see Rashad Jennings leave, but it’s not like they are going to miss him too much given how much money the Giants gave him. Re-signing Darren McFadden to an incentive-laden deal is exactly the kind of contract a talented but frustratingly inconsistent and injury-prone back deserves. The Raiders are in the market for another RB, but keeping at least one of their two impending free agent backs was important.
LaMarr Woodley and Justin Tuck should form a solid DE duo, provided Woodley actually gives a crap about playing at a competent level. Antonio Smith was another steal for the Raiders, and he was also one of the most underrated free agents on the market. J.J. Watt is the best player in the game if you don’t adjust for positional value, but Smith was also an excellent 3-4 DE and should be a very good 4-3 DT for a Raiders defensive line that is now a strength even after losing touted DE Lamarr Houston.
Donald Penn is pretty good, but he’s on the tail-end of his career. Austin Howard is solid and underrated, but paying him that much is a bit of a risk. I’m still upset that the Raiders weren’t able to keep Veldheer around, but I don’t think anybody can be upset at the tackle duo of Penn and Howard on paper. Trading for Matt Schaub was a very nice move, and I am a believer in a bounce-back year from him.
Add James Jones and Kevin Boothe to the mix, and you actually have a terrific free-agent period for the Raiders despite the early narrative. Swooping in and cashing on Jones was a huge deal for the Raiders, and their passing attack looks much better with him and Schaub on the books to add to deep threats Denarius Moore and Rod Streater.