Free agency frenzy

For proof that the NFL continues to grow in popularity and strength each year, look no further than last night and the opening few hours of the 2013 free agency signing period.

The NFL has clearly become the sporting league that never sleeps as each supposed off-season throws up one massive story after another. Tuesday evening was enthralling as the 32 teams scrambled for free agent talent they hope will lead to on-field success come September.

The moves were being made thick and fast and I, like many others, couldn’t take my eyes off Twitter as one transaction after another was announced by reporters doing sterling work across the United States.

Here are my thoughts on some of the headlines that caught the eye on day one of free agency…

Don’t get too excited…

Miami Dolphins fans were very active on Twitter last night wondering if the high-profile signings of wide receiver Mike Wallace and inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe were going to lead to playoff success come January and February.

There was even talk – from respected journalists in Miami – of a ‘Dream Team’ being built when the Dolphins were still heavily involved in the bidding for Tennessee Titans tight end Jared Cook, who ended up going to the St. Louis Rams. But as it is often said, winners in March are not always winners come playoff time – just ask Daniel Snyder and the Washington Redskins. How often did they ‘win’ the off-season and not actually turn that into on-field success?

And remember when the signing of Nnamdi Asomugha in 2011 had Vince Young dubbing the Philadelphia Eagles as ‘The Dream Team.’ Well, that didn’t work out so well. Andy Reid got fired, Michael Vick is hanging onto his job by his fingernails and Asomugha got released last night.

The highly-paid free agents who inked deals on Tuesday night may prove to be special signings for their respective teams. They could also end up being the high-priced salary cap casualties of 2015 and 2016, especially with clubs tending to back-load their contracts.

If you don’t think that could happen, look at Karlos Dansby as an example of the ruthless nature of NFL teams and the prospective dangers of dabbling in free agency. In 2010, Miami made Dansby the highest-paid inside linebacker in NFL history, signing him to a five-year, $43 million deal. When he refused to take a pay-cut last night, they cut him. The Dolphins gave Dansby more than $20 million in guaranteed money, he played through some bad years but rarely impacted the club in terms of wins and losses and now he’s gone. That doesn’t exactly smack of long-term planning.

Dolphins make a splash

Having told Dolphins fans to temper their excitement, there is no doubt that Miami made a big splash in the opening few hours of free agency and general manager Jeff Ireland reaped the rewards for getting his salary cap house in order over recent years.

Wallace was the most coveted wideout available and Miami are willing to pay him an average of $13 million per season over the course of the next five years (we’ll see about that – see above) with $30 million in guaranteed money.

That’s a lot of cash but Wallace can be a game-changer and is nearly always the fastest man on the field every Sunday. He gives Miami a genuine deep threat but is also going to be a real danger on drag routes across the field in Joe Philbin’s West Coast offense.

Quarterback Ryan Tannehill must be a happy man this morning – his receiving corps of Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline and Davone Bess looks pretty good and the Dolphins are likely to add a play-making tight end at some point during this off-season, either via free agency (Dustin Keller?) or the upcoming Draft.

Ellerbe’s price tag may be a little steep at $7 million per season over the next five years but he is younger than the aforementioned Dansby and I do think he has a bright future. He will slot right in as the replacement for Dansby and Kevin Burnett, who was also axed, will be replaced by Philip Wheeler (five years, $26 million) but we should be realistic about these additions – the signing of a linebacker (especially one who won’t rush the passer in Ellerbe) is rarely considered to be the missing piece in a Super Bowl jigsaw puzzle.

The Dolphins know they can’t keep all of their players (Jake Long) and win every free agency bidding war (Cook) but Jeff Ireland has enjoyed a good few weeks, retaining defensive lineman Randy Starks via the franchise tag, re-signing safety Chris Clemons, getting younger at linebacker and adding some game-breaking speed to a previously moribund receiving corps.

That’s not a bad start to the off-season with the NFL Draft still to come.

Don’t mess with Philbin

Miami have made it clear that head coach Joe Philbin is the boss of their team. During the 2012 preseason, he was approached by veteran players and asked to consider the formation of a Leadership Council. The whole episode was filmed for the world to see via HBO’s Hard Knocks series.

That group of veteran players who formed the council consisted of running back Reggie Bush (they will let him go), offensive tackle Jake Long (about to sign with St. Louis), Dansby (cut) and Burnett (cut). The only leadership council member still on the roster is Bess.

If you didn’t like the idea, coach, you should have just said so in the first place!

The Wizard needs to work his magic

Since they lifted the Vince Lombardi Trophy in the first week of February, the Baltimore Ravens have lost center Matt Birk (to retirement), wide receiver Anquan Boldin (trade to 49ers), outside linebacker Paul Kruger (to the Browns) and inside linebackers Ray Lewis (to retirement) and Dannell Ellerbe (to the Dolphins).

And there is still the very real possibility that future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed finds a new team via free agency and he could be followed out of the door by cornerback Cary Williams.

That’s a talent drain that may be too much to overcome, even for the man dubbed ‘The Wizard’, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome.

I keep hearing that Newsome will have a plan and it should be noted that he built two Super Bowl championship-winning teams in Baltimore with different head coaches and quarterbacks, with the only player to play on both squads being Lewis.

But I worry the Ravens are heading firmly back into the pack. If that is the case, Newsome will simply start building again, knowing he already has his franchise quarterback in place in Joe Flacco.

He won’t panic. He knows Dannell Ellerbe is not the difference between a Super Bowl-winning team or an also-ran. Sure, he likes the player, but he won’t be held to ransom and pay the kind of money the Dolphins were throwing around. And if he has to bid farewell to Ed Reed, Newsome will do so knowing the safety is not playing anywhere near his best football and likely never will again.

General managers in the NFL have to make tough decisions and Newsome won’t shy away from making difficult moves for the long-term good of the team. While they may feel a tad worried right now, Ravens fans should rest assured their franchise is in good hands with Newsome building the roster and John Harbaugh coaching them up on the field.

Kruger shows the value of pass-rushers

I’ve said this many times before and I will say it again – the NFL is more of a passing league than ever and if you can affect the aerial game in some form, you have a shot at making big money.

Paul Kruger is far from a complete outside linebacker. In fact, he didn’t play all that much in the Super Bowl because the Ravens preferred Courtney Upshaw’s skills as a run defender more than they did Kruger’s.

But he knows how to get in the backfield and sack the quarterback, and he did so 4 ½ times during a post-season run that ended in Super Bowl glory. That production in the opposing team’s backfield got Kruger noticed on a national scale and he parlayed that into a five-year, $40 million deal with the Cleveland Browns.

The Browns were crying out for a pass-rusher and we knew somebody was going to pay Kruger big money because of the value of the position. While Kruger has not exactly broken Cleveland’s bank, he has done very nicely for a man with just seven career starts to his name over the past four seasons.

Chiefs trust in Alex… sort of!

Lost in the free agency signing frenzy was the confirmation of Alex Smith’s trade from the San Francisco 49ers to the Kansas City Chiefs. So it was confirmed that the Chiefs are putting their trust in Smith… well, sort of!

Within hours of confirming their trade for Smith, the Chiefs signed free agent quarterback Chase Daniel away from the New Orleans Saints. Now, I know this certainly strengthens the Chiefs as their one-two punch last year was Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn.

But with Daniel getting a lot of attention from other clubs and being hailed as a future starter in the NFL, is anyone else worried that Alex Smith might be set up for another fall down the road?

Mixed bag from the Colts

The Indianapolis Colts made some very shrewd moves last season, particularly in the Draft, earning Ryan Grigson the league’s General Manager of the Year award. And they made a strong start to free agency on Tuesday, adding young talent in the form of tackle Gosder Cherilus, cornerback Greg Toler and guard Donald Thomas.

Given how much Andrew Luck was running for his life in 2012, it was vital for the Colts to upgrade their line. And I liked the move for Toler, who has bags of potential coming over from the Arizona Cardinals.

But $16 million (over four years) for Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Erik Walden? That seems steep to me.

The Colts expect this guy to step in and start in place of the departed Dwight Freeney, yet he has just 9 sacks over the past three seasons. And I don’t see a football player packed with intelligence – go back and watch Colin Kaepernick’s long touchdown run against the Packers in the playoffs.

You’ll remember there was lots of talk about that play and how the defender on the outside got completely out of position and was not disciplined enough to stay in his lanes. That defender? Erik Walden!

Bills in a mess

The Buffalo Bills appear to be in quite a state – and I’m not just talking about the loss of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who got cut on Tuesday. That was expected, to me, but it still leaves the Bills with a number one passer of Tarvaris Jackson and very few alternatives via free agency.

I said it a while back and I will repeat it now – I cannot see West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith falling out of the top 10 in April’s Draft. The Bills (and possibly the Arizona Cardinals) are too desperate at quarterback for that to happen.

But a bigger loss for the Bills might be guard Andy Levitre, who inked a new deal with the Tennessee Titans. Levitre has been playing at a Pro Bowl level in Buffalo for the past two seasons and immediately upgrades the Titans offensive line. He was an ever-present on Buffalo’s line and will be missed.

As for the Bills, they have slipped further away from the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins in the AFC East. And they won’t start heading in the other direction until they figure out their quarterback position.

Rams on the rise

I felt that the St. Louis Rams would be a team on the rise in 2012 and – with the exception of their Wembley no-show – they were. Now, they have to figure out who plays wide receiver for them in 2013, but I like the signings of tight end Jared Cook and offensive tackle Jake Long.

Sure, Long has some injury concerns and is taking a physical in St. Louis today. But the offensive line is an absolute priority for the Rams. If he is healthy, Long still has the tools to be dominant and clearly answers a pressing need.

But with wide receivers Brandon Gibson and Danny Amendola testing the market as free agents, there is still work to be done for the Rams over the coming days. But they’re off to a good start as well.

Who’d be a running back?

First of all, running backs take a pounding on every single snap. Then they continually hear how it is a young man’s position and they are normally shown the door before the candles are blown out on their 30th birthday cake. And finally, they don’t get any love in free agency!

Day one of free agency passed without a single running back being signed.

Steven Jackson is confident he will become a Green Bay Packer and Reggie Bush is visiting the Detroit Lions while Rashard Mendenhall heads to Arizona today, but the lack of rush to sign running backs shows their value in league circles continues to go into decline.

Buccaneers planning the dream secondary?

The Bucs might be about to unveil a secondary to top all secondaries. They are hosting 49ers hard-hitting safety Dashon Goldson and could team him with exciting and equally punishing second-year player Mark Barron.

And now there is talk of the Bucs being serious players in the Darrelle Revis trade talks. This is far from a done deal but it must have Buccaneers fans excited. That secondary would be almost impossible to pass on and would surely make Tampa Bay playoff contenders in 2013.

So those are the headlines from day one of free agency. You can be sure that Wednesday is going to bring just as many big stories. It should be fun. Stay tuned!

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