NFL Nation: 2013 free agency

As Chicago eyes free agency next month, we’ll take a look back at the top players from the 2013 class of free agents, how they performed in their first year with the Bears and their prospects for 2014. Here we look at offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod:

Bushrod
Money: Signed a five-year contract worth a little more than $35.965 million that included $17.715 million in guarantees.

Stats: None, but as one of four new starters on the offensive line, Bushrod helped the Bears set a franchise record in yards (6,109) as the club finished with a 4.9 sack percentage on 609 drop backs, which ranked as the club’s sixth-lowest sack percentage since 1982, when sacks became an official statistic.

2013 role: Of all the free-agent offensive linemen available, Bushrod had allowed the most combined sacks, hits and hurries, but he still represented an upgrade over the inconsistent J’Marcus Webb. Bushrod became an immediate starter on the offensive line, and protected the blindside of quarterback Jay Cutler in addition to helping his position group adjust to the new blocking schemes brought to the club by coach Marc Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer, who the tackle had previously worked with in New Orleans. A Pro Bowler in 2012, Bushrod started all 16 games at left tackle for the Bears.

The good: Chicago surrendered just 30 sacks, which ranks as the club’s fewest since 2008 and the second fewest for the Bears in seven seasons, and Bushrod played a major role in that. On the season, Bushrod was responsible for four sacks, and that number perhaps could have been greater when taking into account the Bears now utilize an offense designed to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quicker. Perhaps one of Bushrod’s greatest accomplishments in 2013 came in helping the rest of the offensive line learn the team’s new blocking schemes because of his experience working with Kromer in New Orleans. Bushrod was slightly better than average in pass protection. But when Chicago ran the ball behind Bushrod over left tackle, it averaged 5.03 yards per attempt, which ranked as 12th in the NFL.

The bad: In addition to the four sacks Bushrod surrendered, he also allowed nine hits and 42 quarterback pressures. By comparison, in 2012 Webb gave up seven sacks, five hits and 30 hurries. But Webb’s salary wasn’t near what the Bears paid to land Bushrod. So he’s got to perform at a level commensurate to what the Bears are paying. In addition, Bushrod tied with tight end Martellus Bennett for the team lead in penalties (seven). Luckily for the Bears those penalties resulted in only one stalled drive. Five of the flags were called for holding (three) or false start (two). Bushrod’s 2013 season was an improvement over what he did in 2012, but not by much. In 2012, Bushrod gave up four sacks, eight hits and 45 hurries.

2014 outlook: Bushrod is set to count $7.3 million against Chicago’s salary cap in 2014. So while he didn’t play horribly in 2013, he needs to play at the level he’s being paid: as an elite pass-protector. Bushrod knows that, and should improve in Year 2 with the Bears as the offensive line continues to develop chemistry. Down the stretch of 2013, Bushrod displayed signs of improvement. Over the last five games of the season, he surrendered a sack, two hits and six pressures after giving up a sack, three hits and 20 pressures in the five games previous. So perhaps Bushrod can carry that momentum into 2014 because he’ll certainly need to for the Bears to improve upon a strong 2013 campaign in the first year of Trestman’s offense.
Almost all of the offseason talk about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has focused on a defense that ranked No. 31 in the NFL last season. But there’s one huge need on the other side of the ball that hasn’t drawn a lot of talk.

The Bucs need a pass-catching tight end. All the other teams in the NFC South have one (Tony Gonzalez in Atlanta and Greg Olsen in Carolina) or two (Jimmy Graham and Benjamin Watson in New Orleans).

But the Bucs, who like to say one of their priorities is to surround quarterback Josh Freeman with talent, have a gaping hole at tight end.

They have not re-signed free agent Dallas Clark. They did add Tom Crabtree, but he never has caught more than eight passes in a season. Crabtree can compete with Luke Stocker, Nate Byham, Drake Dunsmore and Zach Miller for the role as the complementary tight end. But the Bucs need a pass catcher.

The problem is, there aren’t a lot of pass-catching tight ends left in free agency. Take a look at our Free-Agent Tracker. Clark is tied for the highest grade among the unsigned unrestricted free agents. And the guy he’s tied with is Kellen Winslow, who I highly doubt will be returning to Tampa Bay anytime soon.

The Bucs may have to bring back the aging Clark, who was decent last season, but not nearly as prolific as he was in his prime in Indianapolis. Unless some veteran gets released, there aren’t many other proven pass catchers on the market.

The draft features two premier tight ends in Tyler Eifert and Zach Ertz. But it’s hard to imagine the Bucs using the 13th overall pick on a tight end when they have such big needs on defense.

Maybe the Bucs will draft a tight end after the first round. Or maybe they’ll find one somewhere else in free agency.

But the Bucs have to find a pass-catching tight end for Freeman somewhere.

 
Football is a game of yards, but the Atlanta Falcons are making it all about miles this offseason.

Umenyiora
With the addition of defensive end Osi Umenyiora, the Falcons continued their trend of trading in high-mile luxury editions for similar models with less mileage.

That’s essentially what the Falcons did with Umenyiora. He will take the place of John Abraham, who was released just before the start of free agency. At the same time the Falcons released Abraham, they also let go of Michael Turner. They quickly replaced Turner with Steven Jackson, a running back who is a little younger and, presumably, has more left in the tank.

That’s the same concept the Falcons followed in bringing in Umenyiora. The former New York Giant is 31. Abraham will turn 35 in May.

Although Abraham still was productive (10 sacks) last season, the Falcons would have been pressing their luck by bringing him back for another season. Pass-rushers are supposed to drop off somewhere around the time they turn 32, and Abraham already was running on borrowed time.

Umenyiora had only six sacks for the Giants last season, but I don’t view that as a sign of him slowing down. In the two seasons prior to that, Umenyiora had a combined 20.5 sacks. He’s had as many as 14.5 sacks in a season (2005) and knows what it takes to win Super Bowls.

Umenyiora still has physical skills and should be energized by coming to the Falcons. He’s joining a team that appears to be on the cusp of a Super Bowl, and he has kept an offseason home in Atlanta.

But the Falcons are hoping the energy flows both ways. If Umenyiora can play like a slightly younger version of Abraham, the Falcons will have upgraded their pass rush and their chances of winning a Super Bowl.
While all indications are that the New Orleans Saints still are pursuing free-agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, they apparently have a backup plan.

AFC West colleague Bill Williamson reports that the Saints also have expressed interest in Tracy Porter.

That name should sound familiar. Porter spent the first four years of his NFL career with the Saints and intercepted four passes in their Super Bowl season.

Porter signed with Denver last season, but the Broncos don’t appear interested in bringing him back. The Oakland Raiders also reportedly have expressed interest in Porter.
The New Orleans Saints apparently view tight end Benjamin Watson as something more than just a backup.

The proof is in his pay.

Graham
Watson
In a twist of fate, Watson will make more than $700,000 more than what starter Jimmy Graham does in total cash this year. According to numbers obtained by ESPN.com, Watson will earn $2.15 million this season, while Graham will make $1.323 million in 2013.

Anyone else out there thinking about a possible holdout by Graham if he doesn’t get an extension (and a big raise) of a rookie contract he clearly has outplayed?

For the record, Watson’s three-year deal is worth $4.95 million. He got a $1.2 million signing bonus and a $950,000 first-year base salary. Watson’s 2014 salary jumps to $1 million and he has a $250,000 roster bonus and a $50,000 workout bonus.

In 2015, Watson’s salary will be $1.2 million and he also will have a $250,000 roster bonus and a $50,000 workout bonus.

I’ve also obtained the numbers on some other contracts recently signed by New Orleans players. Receiver/special teams player Courtney Roby got a one-year deal worth $905,000. But the Saints designated Roby as a veteran minimum benefit player, meaning his cap figure for this year is just $555,000.

The Saints did a similar maneuver with linebacker Ramon Humber. His one-year deal is worth $740,000. But the veteran minimum benefit puts his cap number at $550,000.

According to my calculations, the Saints are roughly $3.3 million under the cap.
There’s been a lot of talk, but very little action, about cornerback Brent Grimes either staying with the Atlanta Falcons or joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Grimes
Grimes
But it now sounds like neither of those is the leading scenario for Grimes. The Cleveland Browns reportedly have an offer for a multiyear deal on the table and that may make them the favorite to land Grimes.

The Falcons and Bucs may be hesitant to offer a long-term deal. That’s understandable because Grimes is coming off an Achilles tendon injury.

But the Falcons might want to offer Grimes some more security if they want to keep him. If Grimes goes elsewhere, the Falcons are going to have to go out and get another cornerback to go with Asante Samuel and Robert McClain.

The Bucs also might want to consider making a strong offer. While a trade for Darrelle Revis remains a possibility, there’s no guarantee that deal will happen. Grimes might be the best cornerback left in free agency. The Bucs may be able to land him if they come up with an offer similar to Cleveland’s.
As he spoke to the media at the NFL owners meeting Wednesday morning, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said there are two things that are keeping him awake at night.

He said he’s losing sleep over who will rush the passer and who will play left tackle.

I get the feeling the Saints aren’t done bringing in outside linebackers. But at least they have some promising options there. Martez Wilson and Junior Galette, who have played defensive end, could prosper as outside linebackers in the 3-4 scheme the Saints are switching to.

The bigger issue is left tackle. The Saints lost Pro Bowler Jermon Bushrod to Chicago as a free agent. Although the Saints had to have known losing Bushrod was likely due to their salary-cap situation, there’s no obvious replacement on the roster.

Bryce Harris and Marcel Jones are young and their ceilings may not be that high. The best option currently on the roster might be Charles Brown, but he’s far from a sure thing and I don’t know that the Saints are ready to let him protect Drew Brees’ blind side.

A second-round pick in 2010, Brown never has lived up to his hype. That largely has been due to a series of injuries. Brown is recovering from a knee injury that brought a premature end to his 2012 season.

I think Brown will at least get a look as a possibility at left tackle, but the Saints would be wise to try to add someone with starting experience in free agency.

Matt Hasselbeck in NFC South?

March, 18, 2013
3/18/13
5:42
PM ET
The Tennessee Titans released Matt Hasselbeck on Monday and the quarterback’s name has already been tied to two NFC South teams.

ESPN’s Chris Mortensen mentioned New Orleans and Tampa Bay as two organizations that are showing interest. Mortensen also listed Arizona, Buffalo, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Indianapolis and the New York Giants.

Hasselbeck is a guy that’s been in the league since 1999 and he’s been both a starter and a backup.

The Saints are looking for a backup for Drew Brees after Chase Daniel left for Kansas City. Hasselbeck would be an ideal backup because he’s a student of the game and could quickly pick up Sean Payton’s complicated offense.

But there might be at least a chance for something bigger in Tampa Bay. Josh Freeman is the Buccaneers’ starter and everyone involved with the team desperately wants him to succeed. But Freeman struggled with consistency during a five-game losing streak at the end of last season. He also is headed into a contract year. The Bucs are going to give Freeman every chance to succeed and Hasselbeck could be a nice mentor.

But what if Freeman starts off badly and the Bucs decide he’s not their guy for the long term? They could hand things off to Hasselbeck, who can still be a competent starter, at least for the short term.
There’s a very common assumption that veteran defensive back Ronde Barber either will return to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or retire.

Barber
Those clearly are the two leading scenarios, but let me throw out one more that is purely hypothetical.

What if Barber wants to continue playing, but doesn’t particularly like the role (and maybe even the money) the Bucs are offering him? Could Barber, who has played his entire career in Tampa Bay, end up playing for another team?

Again, it may be a long shot that Barber, an unrestricted free agent, would consider going elsewhere. But there’s one situation out there that makes a lot of sense. In some ways, it could make more sense than Tampa Bay.

With last week’s signing of safety Dashon Goldson, it became pretty obvious Barber’s not going to be the starting free safety he was last season. And it’s probably safe to assume he’s not going to transition back to being a starting cornerback. With the Bucs, Barber is probably looking at a role as either the third safety or the nickel cornerback.

What if he wants to continue starting?

Remember, Barber is a guy with a lot of pride. And there’s one logical landing spot for him.

The Washington Redskins are desperate for a starting free safety. They have very little salary-cap room, but might be able to coax Barber into playing for the veteran minimum (or close to it) in exchange for a chance to remain a starter. And let’s keep in mind the Redskins were a playoff team last season and look like a contender to be one next season. It’s been a while since Barber’s been on a playoff team, and that could make this scenario tempting.

There are a few other tidbits that could make Washington tempting. Former Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris is Washington’s secondary coach. Washington general manager Bruce Allen held the same role in Tampa Bay during a good chunk of Barber’s career. Oh, and Washington coach Mike Shanahan already took one icon (John Lynch) out of Tampa Bay back when he was coaching Denver.

Again, I still think chances are good Barber will either return to the Bucs or retire. But, with each day there's no word from Barber or the Bucs, the more I think this hypothetical Washington scenario is at least worth pondering.

Breaking down Keenan Lewis' deal

March, 18, 2013
3/18/13
2:24
PM ET
The New Orleans Saints apparently expect recently signed cornerback Keenan Lewis to be an instant starter. They certainly are paying him like one.

Lewis got a five-year, $25.5 million deal, according to numbers obtained by ESPN.com

The Saints gave Lewis a $6 million signing bonus and his base salary will be $1 million this year.

In 2014, Lewis’ base salary will be $3.3 million. His salary jumps to $4.1 million in 2015, when he also can collect a $500,000 roster bonus.

In 2016, Lewis’ base salary is scheduled to be $4.45 million and he also can earn a $500,000 roster bonus. In 2017, his base salary rises to $4.95 million and he can collect a $500,000 roster bonus.

The deal also includes a $50,000 workout bonus in each year of the contract. Lewis also can earn escalators of $200,000 each year from 2013 through 2016.
The contract free-agent running back Steven Jackson recently signed is salary-cap friendly for the Atlanta Falcons it its first year.

According to contract details obtained by ESPN.com, Jackson’s first-year cap figure will be only $2.916 million. His three-year deal is worth at least $12 million and included a $3.5 million signing bonus.

Jackson’s base salary in 2013 will be $1.75 million, with $500,000 of that guaranteed.

In 2014, Jackson’s base salary jumps to $3 million and his cap figure rises to $4.166 million. In 2015, Jackson’s base salary increases to $3.75 million and his cap figure is scheduled to be $4.916 million.

The deal also includes unspecified escalator clauses that could increase Jackson’s base salary in 2014 and 2015.
There’s a reason why the Carolina Panthers have been the NFC South’s quietest team so far in free agency -- and I don’t expect them to suddenly change course and start bringing in a bunch of players.

Aside from signing cornerback Drayton Florence and re-signing backup quarterback Derek Anderson to contracts for the veteran minimum benefit (a loophole that allows veteran players to cost less against the salary cap than what they really earn), the Panthers have done nothing in free agency.

That’s because the Panthers are still digging out of a salary-cap mess. As it stands right now, they’re less than $3 million under this year’s salary cap. In theory, the Panthers could sign some players and structure the deals to make them fit under this year’s salary cap.

But this nightmare isn’t just about this year. The Panthers aren’t in a position where they can afford to sign big-name free agents to long-term contacts. That’s because they already are facing a cap mess for next year and potentially for 2015.

Carolina already has $127 million committed toward next year’s salary cap and that obviously doesn’t include the players they draft this year. This year’s draft class will put the Panthers at well over $130 million in cap space next year and the cap isn’t expected to rise much from this year’s $130 million figure.

Then, there’s 2015. The Panthers already have $107 million committed toward the 2015 cap and that’s for only 19 players. The players they draft in 2014 and 2015 are going to take up a good chunk of cap space. Oh, by the way, Carolina’s probably going to sign quarterback Cam Newton to a huge contract extension before the 2015 season.

Long story short: It’s going to be several more years before Carolina has the salary-cap room to be a player in free agency.
I’ve got the details on the contracts of two free agents recently signed by the Bucs.

Receiver Kevin Ogletree got a two-year deal worth $2.6 million. Ogletree will make $750,000 in base salary this season. He also has a $250,000 roster bonus and a $250,000 workout bonus.

In 2014, Ogletree’s base salary rises to $1.35 million. Those numbers pretty much show the Bucs envision Ogletree as a third of fourth receiver and a return man.

The Bucs gave former New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Casillas a one-year deal worth $1.4 million. Casillas has a $1.1 million base salary with $200,000 of that guaranteed. He also has a $100,000 roster bonus, a $50,000 reporting bonus, and a $150,000 workout bonus.

Casillas is expected to have a shot to compete for the starting spot on the strong side after the Bucs released Quincy Black.
In keeping with his tradition, Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik did not give free-agent safety Dashon Goldson a signing bonus.

Goldson
But Dominik did give the two-time Pro Bowler a huge contract. The official numbers are in on the five-year deal, so let’s take a look.

It’s worth $41.5 million. As is Dominik’s custom, the Bucs will absorb a big cap hit early on. They will pay Goldson $4.5 million in guaranteed base salary this year and he’ll also collect a $4.5 million roster bonus. That means his first-year cap figure will be $9 million.

In 2014, Goldson’s base salary will be $6 million and he has a $3 million roster bonus. In 2015, Goldson’s base salary is $7.5 million and the figure stays the same for 2016. Goldson also has a $500,000 workout bonus in each of those years.

In 2017, Goldson’s base salary is scheduled to be $6.75 million.

Breaking down Sam Baker's deal

March, 13, 2013
3/13/13
6:50
PM ET
A lot of Atlanta fans have been asking me what kind of numbers left tackle Sam Baker got in his new contract.

Well, I just got a look at the official numbers. Here’s the breakdown.

It’s a six-year deal worth $41.1 million. Baker got a $10 million signing bonus and his first-year base salary will be $1 million.

Baker’s base salary jumps to $3.25 million in 2014 and the first two years are guaranteed. In 2015, the base salary rises to $4.25 million.

The 2016 base salary is $5.25 million. In 2017, Baker’s salary is $6.5 million and in 2018 it rises to $6.6 million.

The deal also includes a possible $3.9 million in escalators.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider