On March 11, the 2014 League Year — and the start of free agency — officially begins. But before we turn our attention to Michael Vick and Eric Decker and Greg Hardy and the free agent class of 2014, I thought it would useful to look back at last year’s free agency class.
If there’s one rule of free agency, it’s don’t get too excited: of the many men who signed with new teams a year ago, just three of them made the Pro Bowl in 2013. Just one of them was named a first-team All-Pro by the Associated Press. March optimism may be enticing, but it is usually misplaced. For example, I reviewed the top 20 free agents identified by Pro Football Talk at the start of free agency last year; thirteen of those players wound up switching teams in free agency, but few were impact players.
At wide receiver, Mike Wallace, Greg Jennings, and Danny Amendola all fell far short of expectations, and even Wes Welker produced a below-average stat line for by his standards. The Rams spent big money to acquire Jake Long and Jared Cook; while neither player was bad, the Rams offense was just as uninspiring in 2013 as it was before either of them arrived in St. Louis. Outside linebackers Paul Kruger and Connor Barwin were brought to Cleveland and Philadelphia to bring the heat, but the duo combined for just 9.5 sacks despite playing in 32 games. The big move in the secondary was Tampa Bay’s signing of Dashon Goldson; and while he provided an upgrade for the Bucs, it was not one commensurate with his contract.
On the positive side, cornerbacks Sean Smith and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie played well enough in Kansas City and Denver. Meanwhile, the two best signings may have Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett helped bring a championship to Seattle. But in general, big free agent contracts don’t tend to live up to expectations, and last year was no exception.
So who were the best free agent acquisitions (ignoring players like Alex Smith, Darrelle Revis, and Anquan Boldin, who were acquired via trade)? I’ve identified the ten best signings from 2013, focusing only on free agents who switched teams. Any free agent I have not identified is because I am biased against that player and the team that player is on, and not because I forgot about him. And while it would make more sense to consider the size of the contract given to each player, that would involve significantly more work, so I’m only going to focus on his 2013 production.
Honorable mentions: Terrance Knighton (Denver), Paul Fanaika (Arizona), Paul Kruger (Cleveland), George Selvie (Dallas), Glenn Dorsey (San Francisco), Eric Winston (Arizona), Matt Slauson (Chicago), Keenan Lewis (New Orleans), Shaun Phillips (Denver), Cliff Avril (Seattle), and Michael Bennett (Seattle).
#10) Jermon Bushrod, left tackle, Chicago
Many experts believed that Bushrod’s success in New Orleans was the byproduct of playing with a great quarterback like Drew Brees. And even in Chicago, many were underwhelmed, and sites like Pro Football Focus rated Bushrod as a below average player in 2013. But I take a more holistic view of offensive line play: in Chicago, Bushrod provided the steadying presence at left tackle that allowed the Bears offense to reach its fullest potential. Chicago ranked in the top 5 in passing touchdowns, passing yards, and net yards per attempt, seventh in yards per carry, and 2nd in points.
He’s not a star left tackle worthy of a huge salary, but he played the toughest position on the line and allowed Marc Trestman’s offense to shine. Bushrod allowed just four sacks and was responsible for helping the rest of the line adjust to Aaron Kromer’s blocking scheme. He may not have good grades, but I suspect the coaching staff was happy with what they got out of him in 2013.
#9) Danny Woodhead, running back, San Diego
Okay, you have to play a little “my dad can beat up your sister” here, but consider: Woodhead and Jamaal Charles were the only players in 2013 with 400+ rushing yards, 600+ receiving yards, and 8+ touchdowns. In fact, the list of players to do that over the last decade is almost entirely populated with star running backs. Woodhead was a key centerpiece of the Chargers revived offense for much of the season, although Ryan Mathews wound up stealing snaps towards the end of the year. No matter: on arguably the 2nd best offense in football, Woodhead was one of the most important players, and not too far behind Philip Rivers, Mathews, and Keenan Allen.
#8) Daryl Smith, inside linebacker, Baltimore
Replacing Ray Lewis is no easy task. The Ravens drafted Arthur Brown as the potential Lewis replacement, but Smith wound up winning the job. The veteran linebacker was the only member of the front 7 to clear 1,000 defensive snaps: that a pretty impressive accomplishment considering the talent the Ravens have up front. Brown provided an immediate upgrade over Lewis in pass coverage, and did it for a portion of the salary and the hype.
#7) Gosder Cherilus, right tackle, Indianapolis
Cherilus and left tackle Anthony Castonzo were the strengths of an improved Indianapolis line in 2013. Protecting Andrew Luck is priority number one for the Colts, and Cherilus did a fine job of that last season. He did not miss a game and was an above-average run blocker; that doesn’t make him very exciting, but it means he’s doing his job at right tackle.
#6) Reggie Bush, running back, Detroit
In the fourth quarter of the meaningless week 17 game against the Vikings, Bush became the first Lion since Kevin Jones in 2004 to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. Despite missing two games, Bush also picked up 500+ receiving yards, and even edged out Calvin Johnson for the team lead in yards from scrimmage.
#5) John Abraham, outside linebacker, Arizona
Despite recording 32.5 sacks and forced 11 fumbles from 2010 to 2012, the main number teams focused on with Abraham was 35, the age he turned in March. The Cardinals signed him expecting him to be a part-time player and pass rushing specialist, but got a whole lot more. Sure, Abraham had 11.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, and a safety, but he also wound up being an every-down player by the end of the season. As a result, he was justly rewarded with a trip to Hawaii in January.
#4) Carson Palmer, quarterback, Arizona
In about twenty years, a young, aspiring football writer will look at Palmer’s career statistics and be utterly perplexed. His 2013 season was just another layer of that onion. Joined by Geno Smith and Joe Flacco, Palmer became the first player since 2007 to throw 20+ interceptions and take 40+ sacks in the same year. But Palmer also was a steadying influence to an offense that desperately needed adequate quarterback play, and he threw for 4,274 yards and 24 touchdowns, while leading three 4th quarter comebacks and four game-winning drives. Palmer posted above-average completion percentage, yards per attempt, and net yards per attempt numbers, helped revive Larry Fitzgerald’s career, and turned Michael Floyd into a star.
[Update: On twitter it was pointed out to me that Palmer was actually a trade, not a free agent signing.]
#3) Brent Grimes, cornerback, Miami
Considered undersized, aging, and injury prone, the Dolphins decision to sign Grimes looks much better with the benefit of hindsight. Even Miami only gave him a one-year deal, as Grimes missed part of 2011 with knee issues and then nearly all of 2012 with a torn Achilles. It’s hard to use statistics to summarize a cornerback’s play, but Grimes was universally lauded for his strong production in 2013, and was rewarded with a trip to the Pro Bowl.
#2) Karlos Dansby, inside linebacker, Arizona Cardinals
Dansby and Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David were the only players in 2013 with 100 tackles, 4+ sacks, and 4+ interceptions. There are many reasons not to put much stock in any of those defensive metrics, but the numbers back up the play: Dansby is one of the few inside linebackers who is above-average against the run, can rush the passer, and is excellent in pass coverage.
#1) Louis Vasquez, right guard, Denver Broncos
Of all the players on the AP 2013 All-Pro team (yes, I’m excluding the second-teamers), Vasquez was the only player who switched teams in the 2013 offseason. It’s reason to be hesitant to give Vasquez much credit for the Peyton Manning-led, scorched-earth attack that was the Broncos offense, but Vasquez was the only Broncos offensive lineman to receive any postseason recognition. Denver’s line was a potential problem after losing Ryan Clady, J.D. Walton, and Dan Koppen, but Vasquez had a dominant season and helped steady the rest of the line.