Early winners and losers from NFL free agency

By Vincent Frank

We won’t necessarily have a good understanding of who won free agency this March until well after the 2016 season has started.

What we do know is that a lot of cash has been thrown around to NFL players in the first three days of free agency.

In the past, this has been a dangerous aspect of team building. That is to say, organizations have overspent on other teams’ slightly above-average players in hopes that they will become elite-level performers moving forward.

This scribe calls that paying for projection, not production.

From the New York Giants exhausting a ridiculous amount of cash on two pretty good players to the Houston Texans giving a career backup $37 million guaranteed, there were some teams that we can confidently call “losers” through the early stages of free agency.

Meanwhile, previously downtrodden franchises such as the Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders made some solid signings over the past few days.

Here are your early winners and losers from the NFL free agency period thus far.

Winner: Oakland Raiders

Courtesy of Kirby Lee, USA Today Sports

It’s been a while since the Raiders were considered winners in anything football related. Boy, how the times have changed.

In taking a long-term vision of roster building, general manager Reggie McKenzie has gone about creating a contender the right way.

It started with the team solely looking at building its roster through the draft. In the two offseasons prior to this one, that was the ultimate goal. While Oakland did go out there and sign contributors in free agency, a vast majority of the contracts were front loaded and didn’t put the franchise under the eight-ball over the long term.

The goal here was obvious. Find players like Derek Carr, Khalil Mack, Amari Cooper and Gabe Jackson in the draft. Supplement them with aging veterans who could provide some leadership on the team.

The next goal was to actually get back to respectability on the field. This was a way to show that Oakland could be an attractive destination for free agents, rather than a franchise that simply overpaid for average players from other teams.

McKenzie’s plan was met with criticism from fans and writers alike in its infancy. They had a ton of cash, so why not spend it?

Well, the patience surely has paid off. Coming off a surprising seven-win 2015 campaign that saw Carr cement his status as the team’s franchise quarterback, Oakland entered free agency with $70-plus million to spend.

In this, the Raiders decided to take that leap. The idea was now to add top-end free agents that can join a young core.

That’s exactly what the team has done this week by signing guard Kelechi Osemele away from the Baltimore Ravens and linebacker Bruce Irvin away from the Seattle Seahawks.

Osemele is considered one of the top interior linemen in the entire NFL. He adds a certain amount of nasty to go with the physical freak that is Gabe Jackson at guard. Talk about an imposing guard duo to help Oakland in it’s down-hill running game.

Meanwhile, Irvin brings a ton of previous success from his four years with Seattle to Northern California. Not simply a pass-rush option by trade, Irvin can drop back into coverage from the MIKE position, enabling Mack to play more of the pass-rush role. This was an issue for many observers of the silver and black last season.

That is to say, Mack was asked to drop back into coverage way too often, disabling his true elite-level pass-rush capabilities at times.

Some will point to the money Oakland gave to Osemele as a reason why the signing wasn’t good. Well, that’s just foolish. Flush with a ton of cap, the Raiders did well to add a top-end guard, no matter what the cost might have been.

Loser: Houston Texans

Courtesy of Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

The quarterback market in today’s NFL is absolutely absurd. This was brought to an entirely new level when the Texans handed Brock Osweiler a four-year, $72 million contract on Wednesday. The deal calls for $37 million in guaranteed cash.

Osweiler has thrown 11 touchdowns in four NFL seasons and was benched in favor of an ineffective Peyton Manning late last year.

Houston then decided to hand out a four-year, $26 million deal to Lamar Miller, who will be replacing Arian Foster in the backfield.

Miller, 24, has put up a grand total of one 1,000-yard rushing season since being selected in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL draft by the Miami Dolphins.

That’s a whole lot of cash to dole out to a starting backfield that hasn’t necessarily proved much in eight combined NFL seasons.

In commenting on the Osweiler signing, Texans owner Bob McNair had this to say:

 “If we had waited for the draft (for a quarterback), we would have had to give up picks to move up to get a guy we wanted,” McNair said, via the Houston Chronicle. “We probably would have had to give up at least three picks, and that’s three quality players.”

There’s a major logical fallacy in this argument. If the Texans were sold on one of the top-tier quarterback prospects, they would have been better off actually ponying up the draft picks rather than spending this amount of cash on another unproven player.

This is one of the primary reasons that rookie contracts changed following the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement. The idea was for teams to avoid having to hand out large sums of cash to unproven players, hence the current rookie wage scale.

To be clear, Osweiler has to be considered an upgrade over Brian Hoyer under center. With what looks to be a dominating defense, that could very well help Houston win the AFC South in 2016.

More than this, Miller has proven himself to be more durable than the aforementioned Foster over the past few seasons. He’s also quite a bit younger.

It’s still a whole heck of a lot of cash to spend on two players that haven’t really proven themselves to be worth the money. In this, Houston is banking on projection and not previous production. That’s a major risk in free agency.

Winner: Jacksonville Jaguars

We already know that winning in free agency doesn’t necessarily equate to winning on the field the following fall. This has been a story we’ve seen repeated over and over again, most recently from last year’s Philadelphia Eagles.

What most of us also know is that Jacksonville hasn’t really put itself out there in free agency in recent years, instead relying on the draft to fill major holes on both sides of the ball.

Much like the Raiders above, Jacksonville’s long-term strategy may now be coming to fruition.

Following what was a surprisingly good 2015 campaign with a talented young offense leading the way, the Jaguars have made the decision to push for top-end free agents.

In this, general manager David Caldwell and head coach Gus Bradley may have hit lightning in a bottle.

Adding Chris Ivory at an annual cost of $6.4 million might seem like overkill with the presence of 2015 second-round pick T.J. Yeldon already on the roster. That’s until we realize these two running backs can complement one another a great deal on an offense that relied on the pass way too much last season.

After all, we are talking about two players that both combined over 1,000 total yards a season ago. They also put up a combined 83 receptions, which is going to be absolutely huge for up-and-coming quarterback Blake Bortles.

With two 1,000-yard receivers already on the roster and a solid receiving tight end in Julius Thomas set to return, the Jaguars boast an elite-level passing game.

Add in what could be a darn good rushing attack, and this offense might be among the top-five performers in the entire NFL next season.

The biggest key for Jacksonville, however, was getting two solid young defenders to help rebuild a unit that’s been among the worst in the NFL over the past several seasons.

In defensive end Malik Jackson, the Jaguars acquired a player with plus-level ability against both the run and the pass. Jackson’s 5.5 sack output a season ago not withstanding, he’s proven himself to be more than capable in that area of his game.

Equally as important, Jackson is a perfect fit as a LEO in Bradley’s Legion of Boom-like defense. Not only will he be able to stop the run and get to the quarterback, his physicality will open up outside pass-rushing lanes for second-year player Dante Fowler Jr, who missed his entire rookie season with a torn ACL.

If pass-rush is the most important ingredient to success in today’s NFL, having a center fielder at safety comes in a close second.

That’s why the Jaguars handing out $35 million over five seasons to free safety Tashaun Gipson is a darn good move. Gipson, 25, was a Pro Bowl performer for the Cleveland Browns in 2014 before injuries derailed his 2015 campaign. He’s considered one of the top-five cover safeties in the NFL.

Not only will this make Jacksonville’s coverage ability from the middle of the field better, it will also help out at cornerback. In reality, Gipson will play a role similar to what we see from Earl Thomas in Seattle.

Loser: Denver Broncos

John Elway NFL Free Agency

Not ponying up $72 million over four seasons for Brock Osweiler will likely end up being a blessing in disguise for the Broncos.

In fact, general manager John Elway didn’t seem too bent out of shape over losing the team’s former second-round pick:

“We’ve stayed true to our philosophy of building a team with players who want to be Denver Broncos and want to be here,” Elway said, via the team’s official site. “That’s been a successful approach for us.”

That comment was indirectly in response to reports that Osweiler himself cut off communication with both the Broncos and their players two weeks ago.

This still puts Denver in an unenviable position at quarterback. Now that Peyton Manning has called it a career and other dominoes have fallen at this position in free agency, there really aren’t many options out there.

If Denver didn’t want to dole out $18 million per to Osweiler, it is going to be in for a rude awakening when it comes to the top remaining free-agent quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick. His value has to be set at somewhere near that number, based on the deals that have been signed already.

More than this, Denver now finds itself in the position of potentially having to choose from another group of quarterbacks that includes Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick. Yeah, that’s not an ideal scenario for the defending champs.

On the defensive side of the ball, Denver lost two of its key starters from a season ago in defensive end Malik Jackson and linebacker Danny Trevathan.

While those two deals were whoppers on the open market and the Broncos might have been smart not to get into a bidding war, there has to be some concern over the depth in the defensive front seven right now.

Add in a quality free-agent period from both Oakland and Kansas City, and it’s clear the gap has narrowed significantly in the AFC West over the past 72-plus hours. That should be of some concern to John Elway and Co.

Winner: New York Jets

Two words: Matt Forte.

Flying under the radar with all the other big news taking place on Wednesday, the Jets committed a coup d’etat by adding this future Hall of Fame running back — a player that has been among the best at his position since he entered the NFL back in 2008.

Forte will replace Chris Ivory (now of the Jacksonville Jaguars) as New York’s primary ball carrier. And in reality, it’s hard NOT to consider this an upgrade.

Last season saw Forte put up the lowest rushing total of his career (898 yards) as he missed three games to injury and shared carries with rookie Jeremy Langford.

The two-time Pro Bowler was still able to amass nearly 1,300 total yards and seven touchdowns. It represented the eighth consecutive season that Forte has put up 1,250-plus total yards. He’s been in the league eight seasons. That tells us everything we need to know about this veteran.

Adding him to a mix of skill-position players that already includes Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker and 2015 second-round pick Devin Smith is going to be huge for the Jets moving forward. Oh, and Marshall himself seems a bit excited. As we already know, a happy Marshall equals absurd production. So there’s that.

Loser: New York Giants

Courtesy of Kyle Terada, USA Today Sports

Janoris Jenkins had one decent season with the then St. Louis Rams. That season also came with the team putting up some pretty solid pass-rush numbers against quarterbacks. In terms of the tape, it was the first above-average season of Jenkins’ four-year career.

This netted the former second-round pick a five-year, $62.5 million contract with $28.8 million guaranteed. Yes folks, this means Jenkins is now the seventh highest-paid corner in the NFL. He’s this year’s version of Byron Maxwell, who fleeced the Philadelphia Eagles last year in similar fashion.

With 13 forced turnovers and six touchdowns in four seasons, Jenkins has to be considered a ball-hawk. The issue here is that he’s vulnerable to the double move and can be beaten over the top, meaning that there’s a necessity to throw a safety over the top of him.

Does it make sense to pay a player of that ilk $12.5 million? I am not too sure about this.

New York did make a solid signing by adding former Miami Dolphins defensive end Olivier Vernon to a five-year, $85.5 million contract with a whopping $52.5 million guaranteed.

This makes Vernon the second highest-paid defensive end in the NFL in terms of average annual salary ($17 million), just $100,000 behind new Jaguars defensive end Malik Jackson.

We don’t really need to much much further than that previous paragraph to show you just how insane the free-agent market has been in its early stages this year.

While the Jaguars had an abundance of cash to spend and needed to make a splash, the Giants simply overpaid for a good player.

That’s a combined $29.5 million annually for two players that weren’t anywhere near the faces of their previous defenses.

In a market where cash is flowing at a level never before seen, we won’t acquire a full understanding of who overpaid for what. What we do know is the story history tells us. High-priced free agents rarely pan out.

And now, the Giants have two of them — two players that are among the highest-paid at their respective positions.

Winner: Free Agents

As of early evening east-coast time on Wednesday, the top-five spenders in free agency had combined to dole out nearly $400 million in contracts. Instead of repeating that figure, let’s all take a step back to understand just how much money this is.

The biggest winners here are the free agents that have signed in what has to be considered a relatively weak class by the standards we have become accustomed to in recent years.

We are seeing quarterbacks with 11 career touchdown passes get $37 million guaranteed. Heck, we saw a running back (Chris Ivory) with one 1,000-yard season under his belt sign a deal that will earn him $6.4 million annually.

Some will point to the ridiculous pay Major League Baseball players receive as a way to discount this current NFL market. That’s about as simple-minded as it gets. Baseball has no salary cap.

The market is set based on a player’s perceived value, not what a team can afford under a not-so-imaginary spending limit. This is a huge difference.

With the absurd amount of cap room teams had to start free agency, it’s almost as if a cap doesn’t even exist.

This will reset the market every single March until team profits fail to increase at the rapid clips we have seen recently. Based on the NFL’s popularity, that’s a highly unlikely possibility in and of itself.

Loser: Kansas City Chiefs

This has very little to do with what the Chiefs were able to do on the opening day of official free agency. Instead, it’s all about what the team allegedly did during free agency last March.

The NFL stripped Kansas City of two draft picks (third rounder this year and sixth rounder in 2017) for violating the league’s policy on tampering.

Kansas City apparently contacted Jeremy Maclin himself during the legal tampering period last March. That’s a definite violation of league rules, as teams are only able to negotiate with representatives of players prior to the official start of free agency.

With teams finding it a necessity to build through the draft while supplementing in free agency, losing two picks isn’t something the Chiefs can brush off, especially the third rounder this upcoming April.

Kansas City has vowed to fight the league’s ruling, but we all know the deck is stacked against the team in arbitration.

It’s a bitter aspect of an otherwise solid day that saw the Chiefs retain key veteran Derrick Johnson while adding a solid starting tackle in Mitchell Schwartz.