Monday, August 1, 2011
Asomug-whaaaa?: The NFL's Madcap Free-Agent Frenzy Continues
By Bill Barnwell
The news of Nnamdi Asomugha's future traveled at the speed of social media. Through Adam Schefter's timeline, you could see the news travel from team to jilted team (and then to Schefter). The Jets were out. A few minutes later, Dallas hit the bricks. And shortly thereafter, the big news came out: Nnamdi Asomugha was a Philadelphia Eagle.
As you might suspect, the Eagles won the weekend, but there are still questions to be asked. Is Philly really the best team in football? And how can it maximize what it'll get out of signing Nnamdi Asomugha?
The Big Winners
How the Eagles Got Their Man
Let's make one thing clear: Even at five years and $60 million, Asomugha is a bargain. Ignore the spin from jealous teams about his age or injury history. The Eagles paid just $25 million in guaranteed money to get one of the five best defensive players in football for the next five years. Even if he lasts only three years and the Eagles cut him, it's still a good deal. Compare that contract to the deals being handed out by the Panthers to their own players — Asomugha got just $4 million more in guaranteed money than DeAngelo Williams, a player coming off of an injury-riddled season at a position that ages fast and ages badly. He got less money per year and $7 million less in guaranteed cash than Charles Johnson did. The Eagles got an elite player for what it normally costs to sign a very good player. That's a victory by itself.
Of course, there are extenuating circumstances for why the Eagles were able to get Asomugha so cheap. While the Panthers had to pay a premium to convince Johnson to avoid the free-agent market, the Eagles were able to extract a discount from Asomugha, who undoubtedly could have received more money from teams like the Cowboys or Texans. Why? Part of it is that the Eagles are competitive every season, but I suspect that there's another factor in play here: Players just want to be on Michael Vick's team, even if it's on defense. They're in awe of him. You see it on Twitter, but there's evidence of it from last season, when Cowboys running back Tashard Choice asked for Vick's autograph live on national television. The Eagles been able to sign elite free agents such as Jevon Kearse and Asante Samuel in the past by paying top dollar, but they've never been able to make moves like the signings they pulled off this weekend for 75 cents on the dollar. Vick has to be part of the reason why.
The question for the Eagles now revolves around Samuel, who makes $5.9 million this year and hasn't yet reported to training camp. Could he really serve as the Eagles' third cornerback, behind Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on the depth chart? Or will Philadelphia trade Samuel to a team in need of a cornerback and avoid the drama of having to move one of its big three to the bench?
Over the past two seasons, Samuel has put up statistics that place him with Asomugha and Revis as one of the best cornerbacks in football. By the measures at Football Outsiders, Samuel allowed just 3.2 yards per pass attempt in his direction last season, the best figure in the league for a cornerback with 30 targets or more. Even with a healthy dose of skepticism towards individual defensive metrics, there certainly have not been any indications that the Eagles are unhappy with Samuel's level of play since signing him in free agency three years ago. At 30, he should still have a year or two left at a very high level of play before slowing down.
Back in 2008, the Raiders traded two picks to the Falcons for cornerback DeAngelo Hall and signed him to a seven-year, $70 million deal with $24.5 million guaranteed. Oakland naturally expected quarterbacks to struggle to throw the ball against a combination of Hall and Asomugha, but teams simply avoided Asomugha and lit up the overmatched Hall. The Raiders cut Hall after eight games. The scary thing for the Eagles is that Rodgers-Cromartie is more like Hall than any other player in the NFL, both stylistically and in terms of production up to this point of his career. In 2010, Rodgers-Cromartie allowed 7.4 yards per pass on 108 targets last year, which was just the 24th-best average among the 36 corners who were targeted 80 or more times. If the Eagles roll Rodgers-Cromartie out in the starting lineup, teams will likely go to town on him.
The solution that makes the most sense is to hold onto all three. Fans tend to think of the third cornerback spot as a bench role because teams usually don't start the game in their Nickel (five-defensive back) package, but the Eagles would require a third cornerback a fair amount of the time. According to the Football Outsiders Game Charting project, opposing offenses used three or four wide receivers on 48.2 percent of all offensive plays against the Eagles last season. When they passed the ball, they had three or more wideouts on the field at a rate in excess of 60 percent.
If the Eagles keep all three, either Samuel or Rodgers-Cromartie will need to move into the slot for the first time in years. It makes more sense for Philadelphia to move the faster and more athletic Rodgers-Cromartie into the slot while keeping Samuel on the left side. It also gives them additional depth in case one of the players gets hurt — remember that the Asomugha upgrade comes after the team started journeyman special teamer Dimitri Patterson for part of 2010. Replacing Patterson with Asomugha is just about the single biggest upgrade a team could make over the course of one offseason; if the Eagles trade Samuel, the effects of that upgrade will be muted. By keeping Samuel, the Eagles ensure that they will have the best shot at getting what they paid for this offseason: the league's best secondary.
Will There Be a Second Season of Eagles Image Rehab?
The Eagles made two other low-risk signings with some upside, completing deals for defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins and quarterback Vince Young. The Jenkins deal is puzzling — everyone expected him to end up in the middle of a bidding war between teams looking for a 3-4 lineman, but the expected interest from teams like the Redskins never came through. Even Eagles general manager Howie Roseman noted that he didn't expect to have a shot at signing Jenkins. Instead, a guy who was a one-man wrecking ball in the NFC championship game ends up in Philadelphia on a five-year, $25 million deal. Even better, the Eagles have an opt-out after the first season, which limits their exposure to risk (the deal would pay just more than $4 million for that season) while allowing them to retain Jenkins as an undervalued asset if he plays well. Jenkins played defensive end in the Packers' 3-4 alignment, but with the Eagles favoring faster, undersized defensive ends in their 4-3 scheme, Jenkins will move inside to defensive tackle, focusing on passing downs.
Adding Young as the replacement for Kevin Kolb is a great way for the Eagles to take advantage of their cap space without making a deleterious long-term commitment. Young's only in town on a one-year contract, and if there were any off-field issues, the team could cut him without losing very much of its investment.
Young's time in Tennessee ended under ugly circumstances last year, but he was playing very well before suffering a "season-ending" thumb injury. Before he left, Young averaged an impressive 8.0 yards per pass attempt, threw 10 touchdowns against just three interceptions, and had a passer rating of 98.6. That was the fifth-best rating in the league among quarterbacks who threw 150 pass attempts or more.
Young came to the Eagles in the hopes of revitalizing his career like Vick did, but he'll have to depend upon a Vick injury to get playing time. Even then, remember that Vick really didn't look very good during his first season with the team; even before the 2010 season, there was no talk whatsoever during training camp or the preseason that the Eagles were about to move Vick into the starting lineup ahead of Kolb. If Young takes a full year to grow comfortable in the Eagles' system, the same way Vick did, it may be too late.
The Big Losers
Middle linebackers, who have been squeezed out of a market that places an increasing amount of value on defensive ends and defensive backs. Paul Posluszny was smart enough to sign a long-term deal with Jacksonville before demand collapsed, leaving Barrett Ruud and Stephen Tulloch with little negotiating leverage. The Buccaneers didn't even bother to negotiate with Ruud, who took a one-year deal to move into the starting lineup of the Tennessee Titans.
Ruud's move to Tennessee took away Tulloch's starting gig. Early in the free-agent period, he had reportedly been offered a multiyear contract with a $10 million signing bonus to join former Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz in Detroit. He turned it down. After Ruud's signing, Tulloch returned to the Lions, hat in hand, and got a one-year deal worth $3.25 million.
Most Curious Move
The jilted Jets got on with life-after-Nnamdi by signing
Plaxico Burress. If you mourned the closing of El Bulli by going to your local Chili's, you can probably relate to what the Jets did. The only difference is that the Jets spent more than $3 million in guaranteed money to eat those fajitas.
It's unclear what the Jets see in him. After battling through a series of injuries during the 2007 playoffs, Burress was in the middle of a mediocre season with the Giants before his infamous accidental shooting. The Giants offense actually played better that season without him in the lineup, and Eli Manning promptly had his best season a year later while the player often referred to as his "security blanket" was lined up in jail.
As a lanky receiver with great leaping ability and body control who drops a lot of passes, Burress profiles as a pretty straightforward replacement for Braylon Edwards at a cheaper price, but he will be 34 in two weeks and has a history of injuries and insubordination. It might be worth bringing him into camp on an unguaranteed contract, but unless he somehow got younger in prison, Burress should never see guaranteed money in a contract again.
The Most Surprising Move
The Patriots released a slew of veterans on Friday night, with the most notable name being defensive end Ty Warren. Warren missed the 2010 season with a torn labrum in his hip and failed a conditioning test early in camp, but it's surprising that the team didn't wait to see if Warren's condition improved as camp went along. Even after the team acquired Albert Haynesworth, the Patriots were considered to be pretty thin up front on defense. Warren was on a salary of only just more than $3 million for the 2011 season. New England has admittedly exhibited great timing when it comes to releasing veterans in the past, but it's hard to imagine that Warren is washed-up or still suffering from an injury that took place a full year ago.
Another middle linebacker hit the market when the Seahawks released Lofa Tatupu, who made the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons before falling off radar. Truthfully, Tatupu's never hit the peaks of his first season in Seattle, when he stepped straight into the starting lineup of a Super Bowl contender. More recently, he's struggled with injuries. In a market where superior players like Ruud and Tulloch were only able to get one-year deals, Tatupu is unlikely to see much more.
Atlanta missed out on Charles Johnson, but they were able to sign former Vikings defensive end Ray Edwards to a five-year deal worth $30 million, with $11 million in guarantees. Although I called Edwards overrated in our free-agency preview, his new contract represents a fair price for a 26-year-old end coming off of back-to-back eight-sack seasons.
The Redskins locked up tackle Jammal Brown to a five-year deal, which should guarantee a modicum of pass protection for their cabal of dreadful quarterbacks. Brown will likely remain at right tackle while Trent Williams sticks on the left side, but it's a surprise that nobody offered him a big contract to play left tackle for them.
James Jones re-signed with the Packers on a three-year contract. Congrats, general managers: You successfully avoided signing a secondary or tertiary wide receiver who put up his numbers in a great passing offense! It's hard to see where Jones fits in the Green Bay offense, as he's being squeezed by Jordy Nelson and seems unlikely to take away the starting job from Donald Driver unless Driver suddenly gets a lot worse or chooses to retire.
Baltimore made former Houston fullback Vonta Leach the highest-paid fullback in the NFL with a three-year, $11 million deal. Leach was part of a running game that turned Arian Foster into the best short-yardage back in football. On the other hand, fullback signings in the modern NFL don't tend to go very well, as today's emerging star (Moran Norris, Madison Hedgecock) often becomes tomorrow's trash very quickly.
The Bears decided to cut bait when long-term center Olin Kreutz refused to lower his demands by $500,000, signing former Seahawks lineman Chris Spencer to replace him. Kreutz is now rumored to be considering retirement. Kreutz's teammates took to Twitter to express their concerns about the team leader not returning to Chicago, which seems odd considering that Kreutz has broken a teammate's jaw not once, but twice, during his football career.
Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.
Previously from Bill Barnwell:
The Kevin Kolb Gamble: Day 3 of NFL Free Agency
The Revis-Asomugha Archipelago: Day 2 of NFL Free Agency
Wait, What, Alex !@#$-ing Smith Again?: Day 1 of NFL Free Agency
NFL Free Agency Preview
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